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BK talks: QB Derby, Theo, Te’o, Hercules and more

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After a Saturday morning practice, the Irish boarded buses and headed to the lake, the second year Brian Kelly and his staff have taken the team for a little R&R and water activities.

But before he did, Kelly spoke with the assembled media, with the biggest news being that second-string tackle Tate Nichols was doubtful for the opener after dislocating his knee cap.With Nichols down, freshman Nick Martin moved up to the second-team offensive line, playing right tackle with Christian Lombard lining up on the left side.

Here’s more from BK:

On the quarterback derby:

“Too close to call at this point, which is kind of what we thought, we’d need that second week. They both have done very good things. Right now I’d say they’re neck and neck. Today, Tommy got a lot of the first team reps. Dayne’s been getting most of the first team reps. We wanted to be able to give a balanced evaluation. Where your second unit is around Tommy more than Dayne, it could obviously impact your decision. So, Tommy got a lot of those today. it’s still a battle between those two, not that Everett and Andrew haven’t made progress, they just haven’t got as much work.”

You’ve got to start getting the feeling that this quarterback competition is going exactly how Kelly wants it to go, and I’d be very surprised if anybody but Dayne Crist is under center when the Irish take the field against South Florida. Still, it’s a credit to Kelly that he understands that the process needs to be fair, and giving Rees the lion’s share of first-team reps when Crist has been getting more in the first week is only smart.

On the many hats of Theo Riddick:

“He’s an extraordinary athlete. I think we know what he can do. He was feeling his way through it last year, he was learning a totally new position. You just see his comfort level. It’s confidence for Theo Riddick. We’ll have the ability within our system to put him in the backfield if we see that as a need. We’ve worked on it. It’s available to us. Whether we need to do it or whether we feel it has to happen is another thing. But we’ll always be prepared if we ever get short handed that Theo can line up at the running back position and get reps for us.”

While he might not be quite as dynamic, Theo Riddick could be the Percy Harvin of the Irish offense this season, with Urban Meyer’s visit to Notre Dame this spring giving Kelly the chance to pick the brain of Harvin’s college coach for tips on how to use him.

It’s tough to really know how high Riddick’s ceiling is because his best work came in a down stretch for the Irish, and he injured his ankle just as his season was about to take off. From Kelly’s first comments at Notre Dame, he’s thought of Riddick as a dynamic player. If he can be that this season, the Irish offense could take a quantum leap.

On handling Manti Te’o as he enters his third season:

“I think we handle Manti a little bit different as a coaching staff. I think we know what he’s capable of doing. I think we’ve spent more time with him fundamentally more than, ‘Hey, get in there, show us what you can do.’ so I think his role is a little bit different. He still has the same leadership qualities that he brings to the table. I think we focus more on we want to see what he does in individual work and fundamental work than what he really needs to do in team time.”

While Te’o was likely 100 percent healed from a minor knee injury he suffered during the bowl victory against Miami, Kelly and the defensive coaching staff  knew there was no reason to temp fate with their star linebacker during spring drills, and will continue to keep him out of the physical fray during preseason camp. Te’o is as physically gifted of a linebacker as there is in the country, now it’ll be up to him to cut down on mistakes and missed tackles during his third year as a starter.

Freshman Troy Niklas is one to watch:

“He’s a guy that can play both the “cat” and the “dog.” His ability to play in space is extraordinary. Whatever adjective that you would use, you would throw one on that kid. His nickname is Hercules. He’s a pretty special kid.”

If there was one guy in the recruiting class that I thought was a sleeper, it was Niklas, the Los Angeles Times’ lineman of the year. It’s clear that the athleticism that had Cal, Stanford, USC and Florida interested in the freakishly sized athlete is something that could get Niklas on the field immediately. After a year or two in Paul Longo’s strength and conditioning program, Niklas could be doing some scary things on the football field.

A few quick bullet points:

* Good for Ben Turk, who Kelly credited as the specialist making the most progress.

“I would say of all the kickers, probably the guy that stands out is Ben Turk. He has been of all the specialists, the guy that has made the most progress and we needed him to. We needed to be more versatile. We weren’t able to rugby him at all last year and move him last year. It was not something we could do. Now we can do that. His camp has probably been of all the kickers, the one that I’d underline.”

I’ve been pretty tough on Turk, who has been a pretty mediocre punter in his two seasons as the Irish punter.

* Kelly detailed former wide receiver David Grimes‘ return to Notre Dame, giving us some information on what Grimes’ job in the program will entail.

“We wanted somebody that could really identify with what Notre Dame is about. David as a football player here, as a student, he can compare a lot of his experiences here with our players. In the role that he has, which is really student welfare, he can identify with a lot of the problems, transition and other wise, of a Notre Dame student athlete. He’s the perfect fit for that.”

 

 

 

 

 

Restocking the roster: Wide Receivers

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Some believe that the best way to look at recruiting is in two-year increments. As programs rebuild and rosters turn over, covering the needs of a football team over two recruiting cycles  allows a coaching staff to balance its roster.

That balance is critical to the health of a program. And it’s not just the work of a rebuilding coach. As we saw in Brian Kelly’s sixth season, injuries, attrition and scheme change impacted the defense, especially in the secondary.

Another position set to deal with major change is wide receiver. Gone is All-American Will Fuller, departing South Bend after three years, scoring 29 touchdowns over the past two seasons. He’ll look to run his way into the first round of the NFL Draft. Also gone are veterans Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle, putting the Irish in an unenviable position, needing to replace the team’s three leading receivers.

Reinforcements aren’t just on the way, they’re already on campus. While there’s not a ton of production to see, the recruiting stockpile has created a chance to reload for Mike Denbrock’s troop. So let’s take a look at the additions and subtractions on the roster, analyzing the two-year recruiting run as we restock the receiving corps.

DEPARTURES
Will Fuller
, Jr. (62 catches, 1,258 yards, 14 TDs)
Chris Brown, Sr. (48 catches, 597 yards, 4 TDs)
Amir Carlisle, GS (32 catches, 355 yards, 1 TD)
Jalen Guyton, Fr. (transfer)

 

ADDITIONS
Equanimeous St. Brown

Miles Boykin*
CJ Sanders
Jalen Guyton
Chase Claypool*
Javon McKinley*
Kevin Stepherson*

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Corey Robinson, Sr.
Torii Hunter, Sr.*
Justin Brent, Jr.*
Corey Holmes, Jr.*
CJ Sanders, Soph.
Miles Boykin, Soph.*
Equanimeous St. Brown, Soph.
Kevin Stepherson, Fr.*

 

ANALYSIS
Brian Kelly expects St. Brown to step into Will Fuller’s shoes. If the Irish are able to pluck another sophomore from obscurity to the national spotlight, it’ll say quite a bit about the depth and productivity the Irish staff has built at the position. At 6-foot-5, St. Brown has a more tantalizing skill-set than Fuller—and he was a national recruit out of a Southern California powerhouse. But until we see St. Brown burn past defenders and make big plays, assuming the Irish won’t miss Fuller is a big leap of faith.

The next objective of the spring is getting Corey Robinson back on track. The rising senior had a forgettable junior season, ruined by injuries and some bruised confidence. A player who has shown flashes of brilliance during his three seasons in South Bend, the time is now for Robinson, not just as a performer but as an on-field leader.

Torii Hunter Jr. is also poised for a big season. After finding reps at slot receiver and possessing the versatility to see the field from multiple spots, Hunter needs to prove in 2016 that he’s not just a utility man but an everyday starter. His hands, smooth athleticism and speed should have him primed for a breakout. But Hunter might not want to stay in the slot if CJ Sanders is ready to take over. After a big freshman season on special teams, Sanders looks ready to make his move into the lineup, perhaps the purest slot receiver Brian Kelly has had since he arrived in South Bend.

The rest of the spring depth chart should have modest goals, though all face rather critical offseasons. Justin Brent is three years into his college career and the biggest headlines he’s made have been off the field. Whether he sticks at receiver or continues to work as a reserve running back remains to be seen. Corey Holmes is another upperclassman who we still can’t figure out. Will he ascend into the rotation with the top three veterans gone, or will he give way to some talented youngsters?

Miles Boykin earned praise last August, but it didn’t get him time on the field. He’ll enter spring with four years of eligibility, same as early-enrollee Kevin Stepherson. The Irish staff thinks Stepherson has the type of deep speed that they covet, capable of running past cornerbacks and stretching a defense. Boykin has size and physicality that could present intriguing options for an offense that’ll be less reliant on one man now that Fuller is gone.

Live Video Mailbag: 40-year decision, more BVG, freshmen and more

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We’ve done plenty of mailbags, but this is our first shot at a Live Video Mailbag. This should be a better way to answer more questions and hopefully interact with a few of you as we try to work off some of yesterday’s Super Bowl snacks.

Topics on the list: The 40-year decision, more Brian VanGorder talk, the incoming (and redshirt) freshmen and a whole lot more.

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Kelly and Swarbrick turn attention to science of injury prevention

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Amidst the chaos of their live Signing Day show, UND.com ran had a far-reaching interview with head coach Brian Kelly. It was conducted by his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick, and his former team captain, Joe Schmidt.

So while there was a little bit of talk about the 23 recruits who signed their national letters-of-intent, there was also a very illuminating exchange on an issue that’s really plagued the Irish the past few seasons: Injuries.

Football is a dangerous game. And for as long as people play it, there’ll be impactful injuries that take players off the field. But as Notre Dame settles into what looks like their longest run of stability since the Holtz era, the focus of Kelly and Swarbrick has moved past modernizing the team’s medical services, strength program and nutrition and onto the science of injury prevention.

Here’s what Kelly said about the efforts currently taking shape:

“I think the science piece is very important, because no longer is it just about strength and conditioning,  it’s about durability. It’s the ability to continue to play at an optimal level but also with the rigors of a college schedule, and particularly here at Notre Dame, how do we maximize the time but maximizing getting the most out of our student-athletes and not lose them?

“As you know, we’ve had a couple years here in a rough stretch of injuries. And how do we have an injury prevention protocol that brings in the very best science? You’ve done a great job of reaching out in getting us those kind of resources. so I think tapping into that is probably the next piece. As well as providing the resources for our student-athletes. Continuing to look at facilities. Continuing to give our student-athletes maybe that little edge. Because everybody’s got 85 scholarships.”

It’s clear that the issue is one that’s on the radar for not just Kelly, but the athletic administration. So it’ll be interesting to see some of the steps taken as the program begins investing time and additional resources to an issue that’s really hit the Irish hard the past few seasons.

There’s plenty of other good stuff in the 13-minute interview, so give it a watch.