Notre Dame in 2011: What makes this year different?

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It was almost odd seeing it. Six years ago, a roster filled with the same guys that were trampled by USC and Purdue (Purdue!), edged by BYU, Boston College and Pittsburgh, and looked rudderless at the Insight Bowl after head coach Tyrone Willingham was dismissed, came out of the locker room eight months later transformed.

In an opening day grudge match between Charlie Weis and Dave Wannstedt, both fresh from the AFC East, the Irish ran the former Dolphins head coach out of his own stadium, as both coaches led their alma maters in decidedly different directions. Brady Quinn, a junior that looked the part his first two seasons but hadn’t delivered, transformed into a leading man. On the ground, an offensive line that was soft turned into a steamroller up front, leading an Irish cavalcade — five guys averaged more than five-yards a carry. Little used wide receiver Jeff Samardzija snatched a tricky touchdown pass in the end zone with six minutes left in the first half. As the Irish went to halftime, they had scored 35 first half points. It might as well have been raining manna from heaven.

The entire 2005 season still feels like a blur. Even when the Irish lost, it was memorable; storming back from a twenty-one point second-half deficit, the Irish lost a stunner in overtime to Michigan State 44-41. Then, an electric Saturday with the underdog Irish in green jerseys on a crisp October afternoon. When the numbness of USC’s improbable comeback wore off, Irish fans would never admit it, but the loss didn’t really matter: Notre Dame was back.

For a school that made a habit of waking up the echoes, the upcoming 2006 season felt different. It wasn’t just Irish fans that thought it could be the year. Sports Illustrated had bought in. So did ESPN. So did the entire AP Poll. That was Notre Dame sitting at No. 2 in the preseason, narrowly behind Ohio State and garnering 10 first place votes.

With 17 starters and 36 monogram winners returning, the banner Weis hung in the weight room that claimed “9-3 isn’t good enough,” didn’t feel like over-confidence from one of college football’s brashest coaches. The offensive backfield returned. Rhema McKnight replaced Maurice Stovall as All-American Jeff Samardzija’s partner-in-crime, protected by an offensive line with three returning starters. Even better, the defense returned nine starters and eight of the top ten tacklers. All four starters returned on the defensive line. The secondary was completely intact. Weis even inserted tailback Travis Thomas in at weakside linebacker (a move right out of Belicheck’s playbook), and an immediate athletic upgrade to a defense that looked a step slow against USC.

As Brian Kelly looked to build off the first winning season Central Michigan had completed in nearly a decade, Charlie Weis was set to return Notre Dame to college football’s promise land.

***

EXT. OPEN FIELD – DAY

Leaves scatter on a football field on a glorious autumn afternoon. CHARLIE BROWN stands with his faithful companion SNOOPY. His friend LUCY approaches carrying a football.

LUCY
Say Charlie Brown. I’ve got a football.
How about practicing a few place kicks?
I’ll hold the ball and you come running
and kick it.

CHARLIE
Oh, brother. I don’t mind the dishonesty
half as much as I mind your opinion of me.
You must think I’m stupid.

LUCY
Oh, come on, Charlie Brown. I’ll hold it steady.

Charlie is immediately distrustful of his friend in the blue dress.

CHARLIE
You just want me to come running up to kick that ball
so you can pull it away and see me land flat on my
back and kill myself.

LUCY
This time you can trust me.

Charlie seems skeptical until Lucy produces a DOCUMENT out of thin air.

LUCY
Here’s a signed document. Testifying that I promise not to pull it away.

Lucy hands him the document. Charlie marvels at the development as he peruses the contract.

CHARLIE
It is signed… It’s a signed document! I guess if you have a signed
document in your possession, you can’t go wrong. This year,
I’m really going to kick that football.

Filled with belief, Charlie looks down at the document. He’s convinced. With a running start, he charges toward Lucy, who holds the ball for his kick. Charlie SWINGS HIS LEG, ready for the triumphant strike when… THE BALL DISAPPEARS.

Lucy has done it again, pulling the ball out from under an unsuspecting Charlie Brown. Charlie SCREAMS in agony as he LANDS FLAT ON HIS BACK.

The signed document floats into Lucy’s hands.

LUCY
Peculiar thing about this document. It was never notarized.

FADE TO BLACK.

***

Charles Schulz got it wrong when he chose yellow and black for Charlie’s shirt colors. Our favorite optimistic lad might have felt far more comfortable wearing blue and gold, surrounded by the thousands of alumni and subway domers gearing up to once again take the leap after five seasons of frustration.

While two BCS appearances since 2005 is hardly grounds for a eulogy, it’s been a winding road filled with plenty of detours that’s led Notre Dame back to this not-quite familiar place. The rug was pulled out from beneath the program in 2007. A year later, a 5-2 start was erased by a humbling conclusion. While Weis seemed to have the Irish building for the future after a much-needed bowl victory, 2009 was a different version of the same song. After a four game swoon ended the regular season in dramatic fashion, an expensive plug was pulled on a Charlie Weis era that started with a bang but went out like a whisper.

Brian Kelly didn’t come out of the gates swinging. He won his debut in unimpressive fashion, but the Irish limped out of the gate, starting 1-3. Steadfast in his 20 years of experience as a head coach, Kelly didn’t panic.

“There’s going to be a lot of 1-3 football teams across the country,” Kelly said after the Irish were beaten soundly by Stanford 37-14. “Some are going to finish 1-11, some are going to be 8- or 9-3. It’s what you decide to do from here on out. There’s going to be success down the road for them if they stay with it, and I’m certain that they will.”

It got worse before it got better, with the Irish losing in humiliating and shocking fashion to Navy and Tulsa respectively. But with a bye week to regroup, a funny thing happened. Notre Dame started playing good football. November had been particularly unkind to Weis’ Irish squads (1-8 record the past two seasons), but last season’s Irish vanquished demons of seasons past, ending the year on a four-game winning streak that included wins over Utah, Army, USC and a convincing defeat of Miami in the Sun Bowl.

An 8-5 finish doesn’t get you on the cover of Sports Illustrated, but there are plenty of people that see big things in store for the 2011 campaign. While it may be hard for some to dust themselves off and get ready to kick off another season, here are four reasons why this season will be different.*

1. The Irish have the size in their defensive front seven.

There aren’t many football teams that have the sheer size of the Irish in their front seven. When LSU pushed Notre Dame all over the football field in the Sugar Bowl ending the 2006 season, it was obvious the Irish were undermanned physically.

Let’s take a quick look at the front seven of both the 2006 defense and the 2011 Irish, and you’ll quickly get the picture.

2006 Opening Day Front Seven

DE: Victor Abiamiri: 6-4, 270 – Sr.
DT: Trevor Laws, 6-1, 283 – Sr.
DT: Derek Landri, 6-3, 277 – Sr.
DE: Ronald Talley, 6-4, 262 – Jr.
OLB: Travis Thomas, 6-0, 215 – Sr.
MLB: Maurice Crum, 6-0, 220 – Jr.
OLB: Mitchell Thomas, 6-3, 232 – Sr.
Key Reserves:
DL: Chris Frome, 6-5, 262 – Sr.
DL: Dwight Stephenson, 6-2, 248

2011 Opening Day Front Seven

DE: Kapron Lewis-Moore: 6-4, 300 – Sr.
DT: Sean Cwynar: 6-4, 285 – Sr.
DE: Ethan Johnson: 6-4, 300 – Sr.
OLB: Darius Fleming: 6-2, 255 – Sr.
ILB: Manti Te’o: 6-2, 255 – Jr.
ILB: Dan Fox: 6-3, 240 – Jr.
OLB: Prince Shembo: 6-2, 250 – So.
Key Reserves:
NT: Louis Nix: 6-3, 326 – So.
LB: Carlo Calabrese: 6-1, 245 – Jr.
DE: Aaron Lynch: 6-6, 265 – Fr.
DE: Stephon Tuitt: 6-6.5, 295 – Fr.

If you’re looking for mathematical proof that the Irish are stronger up front than they have been in a long time, take a look at the difference in sheer size between the 2006 front seven and the unit from this year. Even with Sean Cwynar playing as an undersized defensive tackle, he’d still be the largest guy on the 2006 roster.

With proper weight training and physical conditioning, this isn’t a team you’re likely to see on rollerskates at the end of the season, like you did with Irish team’s of the past. Size may not be the only determining factor, but for the first time in a very long while, the Irish can control — and dominate — the point of attack at the line of scrimmage.

2. The Irish will be better balanced and more productive on offense.

It’s hard to believe it, but even with the Irish breaking in an entirely new system, losing their starting quarterback, All-American tight end, two different starting wide receivers and a starting right tackle, the Irish offense wasn’t all that bad.

In fact, it was essentially a mirror image of the 2006 unit.

Looking back at the stat-line for both squads, it’s shocking to see how similar the offensive outputs were between the ’06 squad many saw as one of the most high-octane in college football, and Kelly’s ’10 team that was learning the ropes with Dayne Crist and Tommy Rees.

Here’s a breakdown of the run/pass ratio for both teams, along with their scoring average.

2006 per game output

36 passing attempts, 7.3 yards per pass. (11.8 per catch)
32 rushing attempts, 3.9 yards per carry.
Points per game: 31.0

2010 per game output

37 passing attempts, 6.8 per attempt (11.5 per catch)
32 rushing attempts, 4.0 yards per rush
Points per game: 26.3

If you’re looking for the major difference between the two teams, look at the red zone efficiency. Weis’ 2006 squad cashed in 90 percent of their chances, scoring touchdowns on 76 percent. Kelly’s first squad only scored in 82 percent, with touchdowns coming at only a 58 percent clip.

With another year in the system for Crist (and Tommy Rees), a running game that’s got four returning starters along the offensive line, and a team that showed an offensive identity in the final month of last season, if the Irish can build in their second year under Kelly and stay reasonable healthy, the offense will be in great shape.

3. Consistency in coaching a system and fundamentals fuels player development.

If there was a knock on Charlie Weis, it was his strident belief that he could out-scheme anybody. That “decided schematic advantage” became a punch-line to detractors when Weis was under fire, but also went a long way towards explaining why player development stalled out, as Weis consistently tweaked his coaching staff, schemes, and base knowledge for players in hopes of gaining an edge.

“I’ve had three different defensive coordinators, three different position coaches,” Ethan Johnson said. “This is the first time I’ve gone into a system for two consecutive years and known what to expect. In that respect, we’re going to have a much more productive year because we’re not dealing with a new coaching staff and a new system.”

Many questioned Kelly’s approach to hiring a staff when he brought with him a handful of coaches from Cincinnati and a group that was low on Q-rating but high on familiarity with Kelly’s system.

The “one-voice” approach was a stark contrast to Weis’ hiring philosophy. When the Irish defense struggled, Weis replaced coordinator Rick Minter‘s 4-3 defense with Corwin Brown‘s 3-4 system, only to bring in Jon Tenuta and go back to a four-man front. A roster already assembled for a system it was no longer running was forced to add another level of complexity to it, and the results on the defensive side of the ball were self-explanatory.

Kelly’s name hasn’t been too far away from the “genius” moniker, but the brilliance in his system is also in its simplicity. It’s that simplicity, both on offense and defense, that allows players to develop quickly on his rosters, fueling growth and improvement throughout the season.

4. Momentum.

For the first time since this football team enrolled in school, the Irish had an offseason where they were able to build off of an impressive finish and continue developing. Where as Weis’ last two rosters collapsed at the first sign of adversity, Kelly’s 2010 team picked itself off the mat twice, ending the season on a high note.

With a healthy spring practice session, an incredible recruiting haul on the defensive side of the ball, and the return of Michael Floyd from disciplinary purgatory, the Irish are poised to build on a season that had every player and coach on the roster doing an awful lot of self-examination.

***

There will always be questions on a roster. Can Dayne Crist carry the offense? Will Cierre Wood be able to last the season? Can the Irish secondary stay healthy? We’ll find all that out over the next three months.

But as the days get shorter, summer turns to fall, and Saturdays become a communal exercise in hope, there’s plenty of reason to think this year might be better than the last. And while all of this could be shot to hell by the time the calendar hits October, Notre Dame is once again poised to make a run in college football.

Now come on, Charlie Brown. I’ve got a football. Let’s practice a few kicks.

* These reasons were not notarized.

Brian Kelly & Jack Swarbrick on Notre Dame’s changes moving forward

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Whether 2016’s disappointing 4-8 finish was the impetus to program-wide alterations at Notre Dame this offseason, it certainly underscored the need. For the last few months, Irish coach Brian Kelly has focused those changes on himself and self-assessment, and he reiterated that approach when talking with PFT Live’s Mike Florio early Monday morning.

“This is my 27th year of being a head coach, and prior to last year I had one losing season,” Kelly said. “You have a way of doing things, you have a system in place, you follow that year after year. Certainly you make tweaks along the way, but this is the first time where I’ve really taken a step back and made substantial changes in terms of how I’m doing things on a day-to-day basis…

“From my perspective, after being at it as long as I have, you have to take it on yourself that you’re the one that needs to make the corrections. It’s not the players.”

None of this is new. Kelly has been consistent in his springtime messaging, but others have looked past the effects of the 4-8 record and insist the changes were coming regardless of the win-loss totals. Senior captain Drue Tranquill, for example, acknowledged the severity of the losing record Friday but argued adjustments were needed no matter what the final scores were.

“If you have an average season like 8-4, some things might carry over to the next season,” Tranquill said the day before the spring practice finale. “Whereas when you go 4-8, something has to change.

“But I think even at Notre Dame, 8-4 is never really acceptable or tolerated. Those things that were taking place, just within our culture, would have been noticed whether we were 10-3, 4-8. The criticism gave it a lot more hype and juice. We could kind of feel as guys in the program throughout the past three years that certain things needed to change.

“Those things were finally brought to light and it happened to be during a 4-8 season. I don’t necessarily know that 4-8 was the reason all this change happened.”

New Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko expressed a similar sentiment Friday morning, discussing the pressure moving forward.

“If we were coming off a 12-0 season in which we were competing for the national championship, there would be pressure on us at Notre Dame to be successful this year,” Elko said. “That’s Notre Dame.”

Elko has been a quick study, as his comments were echoed the next day by Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick during NBC Sports Network’s broadcast of the Blue-Gold Game.

“We expect to compete for national championships and 4-8 is not acceptable,” Swarbrick said. “On the other hand, when you’re in that situation, you have to decide how you’re going to move forward. We decided to move forward by making a major investment in retooling our program with Brian as the leader of it. That’s not a one-year investment for us. We brought in some talented assistant coaches. We rebuilt elements of the program

“We view it as a multi-year investment going forward.”

KELLY ON RECRUITING PITCH
Using this week’s NFL Draft as a peg, Florio also asked Kelly about balancing players’ NFL aspirations with team success both in the recruiting process and during the actual season.

“We have to talk more in terms of process over production,” Kelly responded. “We talk in terms of you’re coming to Notre Dame for a reason. You’re going to get a degree, which will set you up for the rest of your life, and you’re going to play on the grandest stage at Notre Dame, so everybody will see you.

“As long as there’s the balance there—and there has to be that balance in terms of getting your education and playing for championships—then we’re okay. It’s when that balance is out of whack, we’ll have an issue. We vet that out in the recruiting process and make sure we don’t take any kids that are coming to Notre Dame just because they’re waiting for that [junior] year to complete so they can go to the draft.”

A reminder: The NFL Draft begins with its first round Thursday night. Kelly will be joining former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer at the draft in Philadelphia to await Kizer’s destination and future employer.

MISSED THE BLUE-GOLD GAME?
It is available for streaming: here.

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?

What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

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Time spent on a traditional game wrap of a spring intrasquad exhibition seems misspent. Gold won Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game 27-14 led by rising sophomore quarterback Ian Book. The first-string defense (Gold) held the first-string offense to an average of 5.4 yards per play. For context’s sake: Last season Notre Dame gained an average of 6.1 yards per play and held opponents to 5.4.

With that abbreviated recap out of the way, what did Saturday’s pseudo-game environment show about the Irish? If the 20,147 in attendance paid attention, they had the chance to learn a few things:

Daelin Hayes will be ready to hit a quarterback in September
Notre Dame’s quarterbacks were off limits all spring. Bulls might charge when they see red, but the Irish defensive line has had to remember to ease up when they come across a quarterback’s red jersey. If sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes had forgotten that Saturday, Notre Dame might not have any quarterbacks left to play in the fall.

“At the end of the day, we’re on the same team,” Hayes said, dismissing any bitterness about the quarterbacks’ protections. “We have to keep our guys healthy. I wasn’t frustrated, but come September 2, you know.”

Officially, Hayes was credited with three sacks and another tackle for loss among his seven tackles. Admittedly, gauging sacks is tricky when the quarterback does not actually go to the ground. How many of Hayes’ three sacks and the defense’s 11 total would have been evaded if the defender needed to do more than touch the passer? That answer is highly subjective, but discounting Hayes’ numbers would miss the bigger picture.

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

Senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) notched two sacks and sophomore end Ade Ogundeji came the closest to tackling a red jersey when he stripped junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush from behind. The defensive line has been expected to be a weak point for the Irish moving forward, but the spring performance indicates it has a chance at holding its own. These accomplishments bear further merit considering Notre Dame’s offensive line is widely-considered one of its few spots of expected quality.

RELATED READING: Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

“I think it’s pretty clear Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I’d have to watch the film, but it seemed like [sophomore end] Julian Okwara was a hard guy to block coming off the edge, as well.”

Ian Book provides some peace of mind
Book was not spectacular, but he was also far from incompetent or intimidated. In his first action on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, Book completed 18-of-25 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by a 58-yard connection with sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. Meanwhile, junior Brandon Wimbush completed 22-of-32 passes for 303 yards.

Bluntly, one has not needed to follow Notre Dame for very long to fit that “long enough” qualification. Last season’s backup, Malik Zaire, saw competitive action against both Texas and Stanford. In 2015, DeShone Kizer came off the bench to start 11 games after Zaire suffered a season-ending ankle injury. (more…)

What Notre Dame players should you actually watch? Plus, catch up on reading

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If technology does its part, this will post as its typist meanders toward finding his credential for the Blue-Gold Game to conclude Notre Dame’s spring practice. If technology doesn’t do its part, well, then this will be lost to the cobwebs of the internet. Such as it goes.

This space has spent much of the past week discussing what to look for in the 12:30 p.m. ET exhibition. Worry about the big picture, not the individuals. Fret about the macro, not the micro.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the indivdual players
Blue-Gold Game primer with help from Notre Dame’s coordinators
Four defensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game
Four offensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game

But, if insistent on focusing on singular players, look to the inexperienced, the names you are unfamiliar with. The 15th and final practice of spring may be no more than a practice in reality, but it is in front of nearly 30,000 fans in Notre Dame Stadium. Some players do not have so much as that minimal experience.

“The Blue-Gold Game, specifically, is a time for us to emulate a game-like situation,” senior safety/linebacker/rover Drue Tranquill said. “Especially for guys like freshmen, second-semester guys coming in, it’s a great opportunity for them to get that game feeling, but also continue to take steps in the process to get better.”

The question on the tip of your tongue is a fair one. If you are unfamiliar with the names, how are you supposed to focus on those players? How are you to know who fits the appropriate tunnel vision version of perspective?

Let’s turn to Irish coach Brian Kelly’s mentions from Wednesday–primarily, sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara, sophomore long snapper John Shannon, senior kicker Sam Kohler, sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem and sophomore safety Jalen Elliott.

Obviously, that is just a sampling. Less obviously, this post’s purpose may or may not be to link to previous reading material and remind you of the vague but pertinent purposes to today’s endeavor. It is neither be-all nor end-all. It is simply another opportunity to gauge what may come down the line.

But hey, how about a prediction? Per Kelly, the first-team offense and second-team defense will be in blue, against the first-team defense and second-team offense in white.

PREDICTION: Blue 37, White 21

HOW TO WATCH
As a recurring reminder, the Blue-Gold Game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network, as well as streamed online at ndstream.nbcsports.com and on the NBC Sports app.