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Irish Blogger Gathering: Game week is finally here

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Buckle up, everybody. For those of you that have taken the last nine months off, welcome back. For those of you that have been here daily with me throughout our annual football drought, expect the pace of play to kick up considerably this week. (Refresh and reload the page a lot, we’re going to be pounding out quite a bit of content getting ready for game one as I head to South Bend late Thursday.)

Brian Kelly is set to speak with the media tomorrow at noon, so we’ll have some fresh quotes to parse through and some interesting details that will surely follow. We’ll kick off this Monday with our (hopefully) weekly participation in the Irish Blogger Gathering, captained by the esteemed Subway Domer, and this week the questions are supplied by Frank over at UHND.com.

I’ll do my best to answer some season preview questions that should get some of the seasonal fans up to speed as Notre Dame prepares to kickoff a season with very high expectations.

The big news of last week was Dayne Crist winning the starting QB spot.  Are you happy with the outcome and how comfortable are you with Crist as the starting quarterback for the 2011 season?

I’ve been saying for months that Dayne Crist will be the starting quarterback and I’m incredibly comfortable with the decision for a number of reasons. I’ll give you three.

1. Crist will be a lot better this season. Sure, his accuracy will give you a few head-scratching moments and he’s not a perfect fit for the quick trigger passing game, but I expect Crist’s production to take a huge step forward this year. Last year, to protect an offense that was very much learning the ropes, Kelly relied on a horizontal passing game. This year, expect the offense to move vertically a lot better. That plays well to Crist’s strengths, and this year the quarterback will actually know what he’s doing instead of learning on the fly.

2. Crist is a lot better fit for this offense than you might expect. Pay no attention to the two major knee surgeries, Dayne is actually a pretty mobile and athletic guy. It may feel like decades ago, but Crist was a pretty active runner in high school and last season the offense actually started to open up when Crist was able to keep the ball and run. With depth behind him no longer an issue, don’t expect Kelly or offensive coordinator Charley Molnar to avoid keeping the ball in Dayne’s hands, which will add another dimension to a running game expecting to take a leap forward.

3. Crist winning the job helps program stability. The last time the Irish had four scholarship quarterbacks battling for a starting job, Demetrius Jones and Zach Frazer were both gone by week two of the 2007 season, the product of handing the job to freshman Jimmy Clausen and a head coach learning how to handle a depth chart filled with high-profile recruits for the first time.

Watching Kelly handle his four-headed quarterback competition was a perfect example of a seasoned coach understanding the college game. Everybody got a fair shot, everybody was complimented, and everybody stayed. Crist won the job in the end, and if it really was as close of a competition as BK and company made it out to be, then it was a no-brainer to choose the veteran, if only because it doesn’t tip the apple cart.

I still think it’s doubtful that we end up seeing Andrew Hendrix, Tommy Rees, Crist and Everett Golson all end their career playing for Notre Dame, but the fact that nobody transferred away yet is a victory for coaching diplomacy and important for building a strong program.

A lot of people say you see the biggest improvement between year 1 and 2 after a coaching change.  What area do you hope to see the biggest improvement in 2011?

Total offense. The Irish finished squarely in the middle of the pack last year at 61st, the worst year Kelly has had on that side of the ball since his early days at Central Michigan. I think the staff is quietly optimistic that this team is going to be able to play maybe not at Oregon’s pace, but at least at the speed of Kelly’s Cincinnati squad that ran the regular season table. With experience back, a good offensive line and solidified quarterback play, expect a big jump in year two.

I know you didn’t ask for two areas, but I also expect the Irish to do much better at getting after the quarterback. In Brian Kelly’s three seasons at Cincinnati, the Bearcats were in the top ten nationally in sacks each year, a pretty astounding stat considering the Irish came in at 55th last season. Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco stockpiled some dangerous weaponry on defense and having situational guys like Aaron Lynch, Steve Filer, and Ishaq Williams, along with Darius Fleming and Prince Shembo coming off the edge means the Irish should take a giant leap forward in sacks.

I think we’ve all covered this year’s highly touted freshman class quite a bit this off-season already so instead, who do you see as this year’s Corey Mays?  Mays played primarly special teams for 3 seasons before a breakout season as a 5th year senior in 2005.  Who on the Irish roster can pull off a similar performance this season?

Is this the annual Steve Filer breakout watch question? Because if it is, Filer fits the profile down to the hometown. Last week, Bob Diaco had an interesting quote when discussing defensive starters. He was talking about 50/50 players like Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox, but he also let it slip that he considers Steve Filer a defensive starter, too. At what position? I think we’ll get our first hint this week, as Kelly also made it clear that it was going to be the coaching staff’s job to find a way to get Filer and his athleticism onto the field for more than just special teams.

Looking at things realistically, where Filer plays will be the hardest thing to figure out. You’re not going to take Fleming off the field on passing downs. It doesn’t make sense to take out Shembo, either. If the Irish slide to a four man front, they’ll likely do it to get Aaron Lynch on the field with a hand in the dirt, and move Ethan Johnson inside to rush. Does that mean Filer lines up next to Manti Te’o on the inside, wreaking havoc on the interior of an offensive line? Who knows, but it’ll be interesting to see what Diaco cooks up, especially seeing that he works all practice with Filer and the linebackers and knows what he can do.

Theo Riddick is a player I’ve been touting all off-season and think the is ready to become a big name in college football.  What player on Notre Dame’s roster who hasn’t yet broken out are you expecting to put up big numbers in 2011?

Good call on Riddick. Just because I don’t want to say the same thing, I’ll flip to the defensive side of the ball and say Ethan Johnson. He’s done a lot at Notre Dame, but hasn’t truly broken out, and just listening to him this preseason you hear a different player and see a guy that’s physically ready to play the part of a 300-pound athletic college defensive end.

Notre Dame plays a legit opponent in South Florida unlike a lot of teams around the country.  How do you see this game playing out and does it help or hurt Notre Dame that they play a BCS conference opponent this weekend while Michigan plays Western Michigan?

I’ll get to this in way more detail this week, but South Florida is a good football team with a coach that’s very good at motivating his football team. If the Irish can keep B.J. Daniels under wraps and force him to turn the ball over a few times, Notre Dame should be able to win this football game easily. But the Bulls have some serious speed and athleticism on defense, and I expect to see Cierre Wood, Riddick and possibly George Atkinson touching the ball on the ground in some very interesting misdirection/counter elements, with the coaching staff hoping to use the Bulls speed against them.

As for starting with a non-cupcake? Don’t expect that to change, and Kelly has already talked about changing the way he prepares his team for a season that needs to be full go from day one. Would you rather open up with Western Michigan? Probably. But it’s not going to happen and there’s no reason to get worked up about it.

Stealing this one from my IBG pre-season questions from last year – who is the Notre Dame player the Irish can least afford to lose this season?  For the sake of getting some different response, you can’t use Michael Floyd or Manti Te’o here.

That’s got to be Harrison Smith. He’s the captain of both the team and the defense and with him, the Irish have an anchor in their secondary that’s among the best athletes in the country. Without him, the Irish will be playing Jamoris Slaughter and Zeke Motta, two guys that were learning on the fly and will force Chuck Martin and Diaco to play a far more conservative scheme.

Even if you included Floyd and Te’o, I’d argue Smith is just as important as those two.

Obligatory pre-season prediction question:

  • Notre Dame’s final record: If the Irish get through September, they’ll win 10 games… maybe more.
  • Notre Dame’s bowl game and opponent: I’ll repeat last year’s pipe dream: ND vs. Wisconsin at the Rose Bowl
  • Final ranking for Notre Dame: Top Ten would be a great success. (Yes, I’m avoiding this question, too.)
  • Best opposing offensive and defensive player ND will face in ’11: Andrew Luck and Jerel Worthy
  • Best opposing coach ND will face: Troy Calhoun.
  • Notre Dame game you won’t miss for anything: Tie — Michigan & USC.
  • Notre Dame game you could watch on DVR: That’d be tough for the live blog.
  • National Champion: No Clue.
  • Heisman Trophy Winner: Andrew Luck.

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.

Five things we learned: Signing Day 2016

FILE - In this Jan. 1, 2016, file photo, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly makes a call during the first half of the Fiesta Bowl NCAA College football game against Ohio State in Glendale, Ariz. Kelly has agreed to a six-year contract to stay on as coach at Notre Dame through 2021, the school announced Friday, Jan. 29,2 016.  (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)
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There were no last minute defections. No roller coaster recruits or down-to-the-wire decisions. Heck, there were no fax machines—with Notre Dame ditching the office dinosaur for a wireless, smart phone option.

Brian Kelly inked another Top 10 recruiting class on Wednesday. And he did so in decidedly uneventful fashion.

“It’s awesome. I think that everybody should try it once in their career,” Kelly said.

So while Kelly and the Irish staff hold out hope that 5-star talents Caleb Kelly and Demetris Robertson still decide to spend their college careers in South Bend, the 23-man class announced Wednesday was another Top 10 effort and a step in the right direction for a program on very stable ground.

Let’s find out what we learned.

 

Notre Dame’s staff continued to focus on rebuilding the secondary and rushing the passer. 

Yes, Brian Kelly saw what you saw—a group that struggled getting to the passer or to field a nickel or dime personnel grouping. So they countered that in the best way they knew how: By continuing to stockpile talent.

Notre Dame added seven defensive backs and four edge defenders in the cycle. They include safeties Jalen Elliott, D.J. Morgan, Spencer Perry and Devin Studstill and cornerbacks Julian Love, Troy Pride and Donte Vaughn. Perhaps just as important is the impression some of these defenders made in their time on campus, with Kelly pointing to Elliott and Studstill’s work during summer camp really making them must-have recruits.

“Jalen Elliott competed like no player that I have seen since I’ve been coaching in a camp setting,” Kelly said. “Same thing with Devin Studstill. His skill level was of corner-like ability but had the size of the safety, and so our guys went right to them early on, and that was a focal point because we got a chance to see them up close and personal.”

At defensive end, the Irish welcome 5-star recruit Daelin Hayes, getting him on campus as he recovers from shoulder surgery. He’s joined by former Alabama commit Khalid Kareem, the strongside counterpart that is an early candidate to see the field, especially as the staff looks for someone to spell Isaac Rochell for a few snaps. Longer-term prospects include a few speed rushers—Julian Okwara (younger brother of Romeo) and Ade Ogundeji, a long-limbed, below-the-radar edge rusher.

“We’re pretty excited about the potential for some guys in this class that can answer some four-man pass rush needs that we do have,” Kelly said.

 

It may not be the biggest group, but Brian Kelly is excited about his offensive line—especially the guys he pulled from Ohio State’s backyard. 

Three recruits in the offensive line class point to a big 2017 at the position. But the three the Irish did sign—guard Parker Boudreaux and tackles Liam Eichenberg and Tommy Kraemer—have Kelly very happy.

“Parker Boudreaux has that physical presence inside like, and I’m not comparing him, but he’s a Quinton Nelson in terms of size and physicality,” Kelly said. “And then two edge guys with Liam and Tommy on the outside. Those two kids are as good as you’re going to find in the country, and couldn’t be more excited to have two kids from the state of Ohio, from two great Catholic schools in St. Ignatius and Cincinnati Elder from the state of Ohio.”

Both Eichenberg and Kraemer were priority targets for Urban Meyer and company, with neither wavering after committing to Notre Dame. Kraemer was Ohio’s Gatorade Player of the Year and an Army All-American. He’ll be able to step into the two-deep immediately, capable of playing up front if the Irish need him. Eichenberg more than held his own at the Under Armour All-American game and has a high ceiling, especially as he learns the game under Hiestand.

It doesn’t take away the sting of the Fiesta Bowl. But it’s a nice consolation prize.

 

Irish legacies Jamir Jones and Julian Okwara may have big brothers who played for Brian Kelly, but they earned scholarships on their own. 

Classmates Jarron Jones and Romeo Okwara will turn over the reins to their younger brothers, linebacker Jamir Jones and defensive end Julian Okwara. The younger duo’s commitments felt all but inevitable throughout this recruiting cycle—even if that wasn’t always the case.

Jones had to come to camp to earn a scholarship. Having played quarterback and tight end as a high school standout in Rochester, the defensive staff had to see how he moved before they could find a position for him to play.

Similarly, Okwara’s journey to Notre Dame shouldn’t be taken for granted. While his older brother leaves Notre Dame the team’s leading quarterback sacker, Julian has a better natural pass rush skill-set than the 2015 team-leader.

“Julian can separate himself in a way because he has an elite initial movement and speed that Romeo has had to try and develop,” Mike Elston said in Okwara’s Signing Day video. “Romeo has the size and the power and the aggressiveness, but Julian can really add value for us right away.”

Kelly talked about how important it was to not just land this duo, but to have them already understand what the journey is that lies ahead.

“We didn’t recruit them because their brothers were here. We recruited them because we thought they were players that fit here at Notre Dame that would be very successful,” Kelly said. “Obviously it helps when their brothers have a great experience here and really enjoy their Notre Dame experience as a student and as an athlete, so that helps you in the recruiting… those kids really fit and can stand on their own two feet.”

 

Even without Demetris Robertson in the fold, Notre Dame’s receiving class is a group to watch. 

You want productivity? Throw on a highlight tape of Javon McKinley. You want an intriguing set of physical tools? Look no further than Chase Claypool. You want a sleeper prospect who out-performed every elite prospect who came to the Irish Invasion camp? Then your man is Kevin Stepherson.

Most of the attention on Signing Day was the fate of 5-star receiver Demetris Robertson. But the trio of athletes that’ll reload the receiving corps is a group that deserves recognition even without an additional infusion.

McKinley provided the day’s only scare when his smart phone struggled to send his signature via electronic fax. Claypool sent his national letter of intent in the day after scoring 51 points on the basketball court. And Stepherson is already taking part in team workouts in Paul Longo’s strength facilities, getting a jump start with the spring semester and 15 practices as the Irish try to figure out what life looks like after Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle.

After Fuller left campus early on the back of two record-setting two seasons, Kelly said his staff has become more and more comfortable with the fact that his skill players need to develop quickly—especially with the allure of the NFL just ahead.

“If you’re really that good, you may not be here very long, and we hope that you’re here for four years and you stay, but you’ve got to be ready to compete,” Kelly said. “So our expectation in the recruiting process is for the wide receiver group to come in and compete to get on the field and be a player for us immediately.”

That’ll happen whether or not Robertson is a part of this group.

 

Amidst significant transition on both the coaching staff and recruiting office, Notre Dame managed a Top 10 class. Expect things to only get better from here. 

Let’s go back to Signing Day 2015. Within 24 hours of Brian Kelly’s press conference, he was dealing with two major changes—recruiting coordinator Tony Alford was out the door to Ohio State and Kerry Cooks was headed to Oklahoma. Two aces on the staff were gone, forcing the Irish to not just replace long-time staffers, but to find new area recruiters for the state of Texas and Alford’s stronghold in Florida.

Kelly brought in first-year college assistant Todd Lyght to work with defensive backs. He tapped the school’s rushing leader Autry Denson to handle the backs and duke it out in Florida. Mike Sanford shook up the offense as Bob Elliott moved into an off-field position. But perhaps just as important as those moves, Kelly turned over the administrative reins to Mike Elston, who moved into a recruiting coordinator position he had filled for his boss back at Cincinnati.

Elston had to reorganize a staff that saw relationships walk out the door and reboot a recruiting effort that saw significant changes behind the scenes. And in short order things got back on track and have progressed to the point that the Irish are ahead of the game, setting junior days and summer camp dates earlier than ever.

For those paying attention, they’ve noticed the improvements. Notre Dame has paid more attention to messaging—staffers more active on Twitter. There have been improvements on Instagram, Facebook and Vine—platforms that might sound like gobbledygook to grownups, but are critical pieces to a year-long recruiting effort. That should help this staff press ahead in 2017, a recruiting class that already has five members.

“With that team that we’ve put together, we’re not going to look back. It’s only going to get better,” Kelly said.

It was Elston that engineered the equipment truck visit to Savannah, a late-game recruiting move that drew a lot of attention to Notre Dame. It was recruiters like Denson who went to Alabama and got a visit out of Ben Davis, a Crimson Tide legacy who gave the Irish a much longer look than anybody could have expected. And it’s no surprise that a former Pro Bowler and first-round draft pick like Lyght was able to reel in a large group of defensive backs eager to learn from a guy who was a clear success story.

“I think each and every year, you hope that this group is the best group you’ve ever recruited,” Kelly said. “I’m hoping for that again.”

 

Faxes in: Liam Eichenberg

Liam Eichenberg
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LIAM EICHENBERG
Cleveland, Ohio

Measurables: 6’6″, 280 lbs.

Accolades: 4-Star, Under Armour All-American, 2015 MaxPreps first-team All-American, 2015 American Family Insurance All-USA Ohio, AP All-Ohio Division I first-team.

Impressive Offers: Florida State, Miami, Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Tennessee

Projected Position: Offensive tackle.

Quick Take: Another offensive tackle with sky-high potential, Notre Dame snatched Eichenberg out from under Urban Meyer’s nose, bringing in yet another blue-chipper for Harry Hiestand to mold. More of a developmental project than Kraemer, Eichenberg’s upside could be just as lofty, especially after some time in a weight room and on the practice field.

What he means to the Irish: With numbers at tackle on the light side, Eichenberg won’t be asked to get on the field, but he might start his career in the two deep behind Mike McGlinchey. That could take away a redshirt if things go wrong, but the view from behind McGlinchey is a good spot for him, learning behind another talented athlete who came to campus as a developmental prospect but will enter his senior season (McGlinchey has two years of eligibility remaining) as a legit NFL prospect.

Eichenberg has the same kind of ceiling. He’ll just need to keep improving—something that he’s shown after a strong Under Armour All-American week in Orlando.

Obligatory YouTube clip: