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Help wanted: All options being explored on punt returns

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Being ranked 101st in the nation is never a good thing. But that’s what the Irish got out of their punt return unit, the weakest special teams grouping under Mike Elston’s watch. Notre Dame failed to create anything in the return game, with Armando Allen’s 38-yard return in the season opener against Purdue the only big play on the season.

While most squared the blame on John Goodman’s shoulders, the truth of the matter was that the return game struggled for a variety of reasons. An early injury to Armando Allen took the Irish’s most dangerous return man out of the mix. A lack of depth and experience made it difficult for the Irish to get solid blocking for the returner, specifically finding guys that could stop opposing gunners. Finally, Elston and head coach Brian Kelly didn’t feel all that good taking risks in the return game with the personnel they had available.

That won’t be the case in 2011.

“We think we’ve got the kind of personnel that will allow us to be a lot more aggressive in special teams,” Kelly said before kicking off the season.

After Saturday’s practice, Kelly opened up a bit more on a few of the options that are in play.

“We’ve got four or five guys in mind,” Kelly said. “We were an up and down special teams unit. Poor sometimes, excellent in others. We have to be much better and our return men have to be part of that.”

When pressed for some options, Kelly threw out some names you’d expect while also bouncing around a few wildcards.

“Theo Riddick has got to be back there, no question,” Kelly continued. “Goodman can catch the ball back there, Harrison can catch the ball back there, Robby Toma. Those are the sure-hand guys. Now the guys who have a chance to make something happen. I’ll put Theo Riddick out there for one. I’m going to take a look and see if there’s another wide receiver. Maybe Michael Floyd can do something back there. A lot of different options when it comes to Cam McDaniel. He was a punt returner in high school and was very dynamic. We’re going to look at George Atkinson, we’re going to look at Everett Golson. We’re going to look at young guys that can be exciting with the football in their hands and see how that pans out.”

Here’s a quick breakdown of the Irish options at punt returner, and my hunch on whether or not it’ll happen.

John Goodman: For better or worse, Irish fans and Brian Kelly already know what they’ll get out of Goodman, and it likely entails a lot of fair catches and retaining possession. He’s far from the daring choice, but he’s safe — and likely a better returner than his numbers (1.3 yards per return on 13 punts) showed.

Theo Riddick: The logical choice and a prototypical punt returner. Whether it was already having a full plate with the move to wide receiver, or a lack of familiarity returning punts, Riddick probably was the next best option after Armando Allen last season.

Robby Toma: Consider him the compromise option, and he’ll at least be able to remind Irish fans of Joey Getherall, another diminutive and speedy wideout turned return man. Getting Toma some return touches might be a good way to give the team’s leading yards-per-catch wideout more opportunities.

Cam McDaniel: We’ll likely know pretty quickly if McDaniel is ready for the speed and intensity of college football. He played amongst the best high school football competition in the country and he was an elite return man then. If BK and Elston decide to go young, he’s my guess.

George Atkinson: Another frosh, Atkinson also has elite speed, something that sets him apart from the rest of this group. (Atkinson ran a 10.6 100m in high school.) He’s a versatile athlete that played a ton of different positions in high school, and his speed might make him a dangerous return option.

Michael Floyd: At best, Kelly could have Floyd channeling his inner-Tim Brown. At worst, it’s a dangerous decision to put the lifeblood of the offense in the return game, where crazy things have been known to happen. Floyd doesn’t fit the mold for a WR/punt returner type, but I certainly won’t be the one doubting his abilities.

Harrison Smith: There’s no questioning Smith’s athleticism, but the decision to put the defense’s centerfielder on the field in the return game is a risky choice.

Everett Golson: A complete wildcard. The freshman quarterback struggled to hold onto the football in the spring game. Putting him out there as a punt returner is an even bigger risk, though it speaks to Kelly’s belief in Golson’s athleticism that he’s even lobbing his name out there.

KA’s odds for opening day returner:

Theo Riddick — 5:2
John Goodman — 4:1
Robby Toma — 6:1
Cam McDaniel — 8:1
George Atkinson — 10:1
Michael Floyd — 15:1
Harrison Smith — 25:1
Everett Golson — 30:1
Stephon Tuitt — 100:1

 

Notre Dame gets 10 invites to NFL Scouting Combine

2013 NFL Combine
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Notre Dame will send ten former players to the NFL Scouting Combine. The annual event in Indianapolis serves as the unofficial apex of draft season, a meat-market where the best professional prospects are poked, prodded, questioned and tested in a variety of on- and off-field drills.

Heading to the festivities from Notre Dame are:

Chris Brown, WR
Sheldon Day, DT
Will Fuller, WR
Nick Martin, C
Romeo Okwara, DE
C.J. Prosise, RB
KeiVarae Russell, CB
Elijah Shumate, S
Jaylon Smith, OLB
Ronnie Stanley, OT

For a prospect like Smith, it’ll be teams first opportunity to talk to the elite prospect and check his progress medically as he returns from a Fiesta Bowl knee injury. Russell will also be a non-participant in physical drills, waiting until Notre Dame’s Pro Day to go through testing.

Invites to Chris Brown, Romeo Okwara and Elijah Shumate are crucial in finding their way into the draft, as the three former Irish starters participated in the Shrine Bowl, where scouts had an early look at them. Likewise, Nick Martin and Sheldon Day continue their ascent, both coming off strong Senior Bowl weeks.

For Irish fans, it’ll be fun to watch early-enrollees Fuller and Prosise test. Both are expected to be some of the fastest players at their position. Brown may also have the ability to surprise teams, with his track background and leaping ability capable of earning him an extended look. Offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley will look to impress as well, hoping to check out as one of the draft’s most impressive athletes at offensive tackle.

Ohio State led all schools with 14 invites. National Champion Alabama had nine former players invited.

 

WR Corey Robinson named Notre Dame student body president

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On Wednesday, wide receiver Corey Robinson added another impressive title to his resume as a student-athlete at Notre Dame: Student Body President.

The junior, paired with classmate Becca Blais as his vice presidential running mate, won a majority of the votes cast by his fellow students, a runaway winner with 59.4% of the votes, nearly triple the next highest vote getter.

Robinson posted the following on Twitter, thankful for the opportunity to serve his fellow students:

Robinson’s time at Notre Dame has been filled with accomplishments both on and off the field. He was named an Academic All-American as a sophomore. He’s a six-time Dean’s List member in the prestigious Program of Liberal Studies and is also pursuing a sustainability minor. He’s won the team’s Rockne Student-Athlete Award as well.

That’s quite a bit on the plate of Notre Dame’s lone senior wide receiver. But as you might expect, Robinson is well prepared for the next challenge ahead.

“I’ve planned ahead, gotten all of my hard work out of the way this semester, and I’m finishing up my senior thesis,” Robinson told The Observer. “I’m doing all the hard stuff now so in the fall and the spring, I just have to take two classes pretty much.”

Robinson’s other contributions as a student-athlete at Notre Dame include One Shirt one Body, an opportunity for college athletes to donate their athletic apparel to local communities. Robinson has presented the plan to the ACC as well as the NCAA, earning immediate support from both organizations.

 

Mailbag: Now Open (scheduling input requested)

UNIVERSAL CITY, CA - JUNE 01:  Actors Mike Myers (L) and Dana Carvey as Wayne and Garth from "Wayne's World" onstage during the 17th annual MTV Movie Awards held at the Gibson Amphitheatre on June 1, 2008 in Universal City, California.  (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
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Okay folks, we’ve had enough semi-positive encouragement to keep the video mailbag going for another week. With that said, I’ll need some reader participation to keep this thing rolling on.

As always, submit your questions below or on Twitter @KeithArnold. You can also ask your questions live via Facebook. You’ll need to LIKE THIS PAGE first, and then at the appropriate time, head on over to watch and participate.

To that point, let’s pick a time that works for everyone. Right now, here are the options that work at Inside the Irish HQ.  Weigh in and the best time wins. (How’s that for a democracy?)

***

 

Restocking the roster: Offensive Line

Notre Dame offensive line
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When Notre Dame takes the field this spring, there’ll be two very large holes in the offensive line that need filling. All-American left tackle Ronnie Stanley is gone. As is captain Nick Martin at center. Both three-year starters leave Harry Hiestand with some big decisions to make in the coming months as the Irish look to fill those key positions and still field a unit with the ability to dominate in the trenches.

The Irish have had incredible stability at left tackle, with Stanley sliding in seamlessly after four seasons of Zack Martin. Perhaps the best six-year run in the program’s storied history at the position, Stanley will likely join Martin as a first-rounder, back-to-back starters at a key spot that often dictates the play of one of the most important units on the field.

Replacing Nick Martin could prove equally tricky. Rising junior Sam Mustipher served as Martin’s backup in 2015, filing in capably for Martin after an ankle sprain took him off the field briefly against UMass. But Mustipher will face a challenge this spring from rising sophomore Tristen Hoge, the first true center recruited by Hiestand and Brian Kelly since they arrived in South Bend.

Kelly talked about 2017 being a big cycle on the recruiting trail for restocking the offensive line. You can see why when you look at the depth, particularly at tackle. Let’s look at the work that’s been done the previous two classes as Notre Dame continues to be one of the premier programs recruiting in the trenches.

 

DEPARTURES
Ronnie Stanley
, Sr. (39 starts)
Nick Martin, Grad Student (37 starts)

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Tristen Hoge
, C
Trevor Ruhland
, G
Jerry Tillery
, T
Parker Boudreaux
, G
Tommy Kraemer
, T
Liam Eichenberg
, T

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Hunter Bivin, T
Quenton Nelson, LG
Sam Mustipher, C
Steve Elmer, RG
Mike McGlinchey, RT

Alex Bars*, T
Colin McGovern*, G/T
Mark Harrell*, C/G
Tristen Hoge*, C
John Montelus*, G
Jimmy Byrne*, G
Trevor Ruhland*, G

*Has an additional year of eligibility remaining. 

ANALYSIS:
It’ll be a fascinating spring up front for the offensive line. We’ll get our first look at potential replacements and see if the Irish staff values a veteran presence (as it has done in the past) or puts former blue-chip recruits in position to become multi-year starters.

For now, I’m putting last season’s backups in line to ascend to starting spots. That’s not to say I think that’s what’ll happen. Hunter Bivin may have been Stanley’s backup last season, but as long as Alex Bars is fully recovered from his broken ankle, I think he’s the best bet to step into that job. Sharing reps at guard—not a natural spot for Bars to begin with—was more about getting him some experience, with the aim to move him into the lineup in 2016. That allows Bivin to be a key swing reserve, capable of playing on either the right or left side.

At center, the decision is less clear cut—especially since we’ve yet to see Tristen Hoge play a snap of football. Size and strength is a genuine concern at the point of attack for Hoge, not necessarily the biggest guy hitting campus. But it sounds like he’s had a nice first season from a developmental standpoint, and if he’s a true technician at the position, he could be a rare four-year starter at center if he’s able to pull ahead of Mustipher this spring.

On paper, the other three starting jobs don’t seem to be in question. Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey are ready to step to the forefront. Concerns about Steve Elmer’s buy-in will certainly be answered by spring, there’s little chance he’ll be on the field in March if he’s not going to be around in August. I’m of the mind that Elmer’s too good of a character guy to leave the program, even if his life doesn’t revolve around football 24/7. Now it’s time for him to clean up some of the flaws in his game, the only starter from last season who held back the Irish from being a truly elite group.

Depth isn’t necessarily a concern, but there isn’t a ton of it at tackle. That happens when you move a guy like Jerry Tillery to defensive line and lose a player like Stanley with a year of eligibility remaining. That could force the Irish to cross-train someone like Colin McGovern, a veteran who can swing inside or out if needed. McGovern seems to be a guy who would start in a lot of other programs, but has struggled to crack a two-deep that’s now filled with former blue-chip recruits, all of them essentially handpicked by Hiestand and Kelly.