Michael Floyd Purdue

And in that corner… The Purdue Boilermakers

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It’s that time of year. The Purdue game. An annual tradition that’s not entirely appreciated by one-side of the in-state “rivalry,” a term that alone makes some Notre Dame fans bristle. (Memo to those fans: Be careful about getting too uppity about rivalries. Just look at what’s happened with Navy lately.)

Anyway, if Michigan and USC constitute big calendar days like Memorial Day and Labor Day, slot Purdue in as a good solid floating holiday, ranking somewhere between Arbor Day or Columbus Day. Notre Dame fans may not get as excited about it, but it’s a annual rite nonetheless, and that in and of itself is pretty respectable. (Be wary, Irish fans. Should enough disrespect to a holiday like Columbus Day and pretty soon your bosses will stop giving you the day off. Then we all lose.)

Moving beyond mediocre analogies, there’s a football game this Saturday with Purdue. And while it hasn’t been exactly the glory days of this match-up like it was in the Joe Tiller/Drew Brees era, the Irish and Purdue have played some intriguing games lately, with the 2009 comeback victory by the Irish still eating at Purdue fans upset with head coach Danny Hope spotting Notre Dame a timeout before Jimmy Clausen hit Kyle Rudolph in the endzone for the game winning touchdown.

Purdue has been a tough team to track this season. A game with Middle Tennessee, a disheartening loss to Rice, and a cupcake against Southeast Missouri State haven’t given the Boilermakers much of a body of work. Thankfully, we’re joined by Travis Miller of the blog Hammer & Rails, who has been all over the Purdue scene for years.

I asked the questions and he answered them. Here goes:

Inside the Irish: This is our third time doing this. (2009. 2010.) Can you assess for me the direction this program is going under Danny Hope?

Hammer & Rails: A lot of people are not happy with the MTSU result and the Rice loss. Middle Tennessee State has not looked good sense the opener, but Logan Kilgore and the Blue Raiders really outplayed us in week one. Even after we took a late lead, the familiar prevent defense allowed them to get in field goal range very quickly before a block saved us. Most people are very upset about the way Hope handled the final minutes of the Rice game. He blew our last timeout (sound familiar?) then went away from what was working (three Bolden runs for 30+ yards to get us close) in order to settle for a field goal.

These are the types of decisions that have added up and have people going against Hope. The kids are playing hard, but there have been several decisions, like the infamous timeout against Notre Dame two years ago, that have left us questioning what the heck he is thinking at times. The loss at Rice was really a turning point. The offense generated little to nothing in the second half and the blocked field goal at the end was a special teams blocking breakdown. With normal blocking Wiggs makes the field goal and we’re 3-0.

ITI: Let’s talk about this team. Here’s what I’ve seen on paper. (Admittedly, I’ve seen little of the Boilers this year, thanks to sparse TV coverage.) A frantic comeback against Middle Tennessee that needed special teams heroics. An ugly loss to Rice, a team that was thought to be one of the worst in D-I. Then a curb-stomping against Southeast Missouri State, a sub-division team that lost 14 starters from last year’s squad. Give me a 1/4 of the way letter grade?

H&R: I would give it a C-, only because against SEMO we finally did what we were supposed to do. I have been very pleased with the play of Caleb TerBush in his first three starts. He hasn’t set the world on fire, but he has been consistent and has not turned the ball over. Mostly I have been concerned about playcalling and our defense on 3rd and long. If Notre Dame wants success they should get to 3rd and 15 or more, then throw to Tyler Eifert over the middle. This has been a gaping hole for at least six years, but we still refuse to fix it. Do not be surprised if Eifert has 15 catches for 122 yards and two scores because he will be open over the middle on every 34rd down. The sad thing is that everyone sees this except the coaching staff.

I have long said this team’s strength is running the ball on offense and it gives us the best chance of winning. We need to have success against Notre Dame in this area for two reasons. One, we have multiple backs who give different looks. Two, it keeps the ND offense off the field. We ran the ball extremely well against SEMO, but didn’t even try to exert our will with the ground game against Rice and MTSU. When we ran against them, we had success, so I don’t understand why we went away from it.

ITI: Robert Marve could be a character in a Greek tragedy he’s been through so much. As a guy that watched him at Miami, flipped his opinion on him a few times, and now sees him back and potentially healthy, is he the right guy to lead Purdue?

H&R: I think he is this year. He looked good against SEMO, and I think he gives us the best chance to win through the air. TerBush has been solid, but Marve is simply a better player. I think TerBush is a guy that can build on his experience this year to have a solid senior season next year. Marve doesn’t have the mobility he had at Miami, but he has a good arm and he reads the field better. He doesn’t overthrow guys like TerBush has at times either. If we’re going to win four more games and get to a bowl, I think Marve is the guy to do it.

ITI: This will be the toughest run defense Purdue has faced this year. You think highly of the Boilermakers talent at tailback. Can they run against an Irish team that hasn’t given up a 100 yard tailback in a full calendar year?

H&R: I think we can mostly because we saw some new options at tailback against SEMO. Akeem Shavers has been a big play guy this year, while Ralph Bolden is our steady ballcarrier that he was two years ago. Reggie Pegram has shown he can get some tough yards if needed. Two true freshmen, Akeem Hunt and Brandon Cottom, saw their first action against SEMO and combined for over 140 yards and two scores. Hunt is a small, shifty runner, while Cottom is a big, bruising back that could see some time at fullback. Cottom is 6’4” and 255 pounds of beef coming up the middle. He reminds me a little of Mike Alstott.

ITI: Give me one player on offense and one on defense that Irish fans don’t know now, but will after Saturday night?

H&R: Antavian Edison has been our best big-play receiver so far in the slot. He caught the winning TD pass against MTSU and is averaging almost 23 yards per catch. He also lines up in the backfield on occasion and had a rushing touchdown vs. SEMO.

On defense, meet Ricardo Allen. The true sophomore has four career interceptions in 15 games and has returned two for touchdowns. The few times we have stopped teams on third and long have seen him line up as a nickel back covering the slot receiver. He will likely draw the assignment on Floyd, and that will be fascinating. SEMO decided to challenge him deep on the game’s first play and he physically ripped the ball away from a much bigger receiver for an interception. Obviously Floyd is a much better player, but if there is one guy on our team that can single cover him, it is Allen.

ITI: The line is 14 points. It should be a pretty electric atmosphere (even if you guys can’t sell it out), and the Irish didn’t exactly set the world in their first two road games. How does Purdue pull the upset? What kind of odds would you need to put your money on it?

H&R: I think Purdue has a chance if Notre Dame continues to turn the ball over. We need the Irish to keep making the mistakes they have made in the first four games. We also need to keep taking care of the ball. Turnovers absolutely killed us in the 1-5 start two years ago, as they cost us at least three games (Oregon, Northwestern, and Northern Illinois) So far we have only turned it over three times this year. If we can run the ball with some success, keep the Notre Dame offense off the field, and take advantage of some Tommy Rees mistakes we have a chance. If Rees takes care of the ball the Irish should be fine.

Also, we had better not call timeout with the clock running on third down when the Irish are trying to score in the last 20 seconds again. It may cause me to have a stroke and I am way too young for that.

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Special thanks to Travis for taking the time with my extensive questioning. Check out the Hammer & Rails blog later today for my mediocre answers to his much better questions. You can also follow him on Twitter @HammerAndRails.

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)
Mark Harrell, Sr* (No Starts, fifth-year available)

*Harrell’s departure is not confirmed, though expected.  

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
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.

Restocking the roster: Wide Receivers

Notre Dame v Florida State
Getty
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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)

 

2015-16 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

BVG
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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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