George Atkinson MSU

IBG: Pushing towards Purdue

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In case people forgot, the Irish are playing a football game this Saturday night. Yep, they’ll be hopping on the bus and heading down to West Lafayette, enjoying that glorious drive down US 31 into Boilermaker country, where a hostile crowd will be looking to enact revenge from 2009, where Purdue nearly pulled the upset on Jimmy Clausen and the Fighting Irish.

I’m a few hours late on the Irish Blogger Gathering, which I’ll blame on last night’s baseball and this afternoon’s schedule. (Neither are good excuses, I realize that.) Supplying the excellent fodder this week was the Irish Round Table, giving us quite a few interesting questions that I spent far too much time answering.

Enjoy.

1) Excluding Aaron Lynch, who is your top newcomer of the year thus far (freshman or player that hadn’t seen much playing time in prior seasons)?

There is no other answer that I can think of than Louis Nix, even if you include No. 19. But here’s a quick run through of the worthy candidates:

George Atkinson: Tough to not be impressed when the kid has already taken a kickoff to the house.
Kyle Brindza: Remember when Irish kickers never got touchbacks? Brindza certainly solved that problem.
Aaron Lynch: I’m only expecting more from him in the weeks to come. Think he’ll lead the Irish in sacks.
Stephon Tuitt: Could be athletic enough to help in a four-man front against Air Force or Navy.
Ishaq Williams: He’s getting playing time in the base defense behind Darius Fleming. That’s impressive.
Troy Niklas: My true freshman Newcomer of the Year (Non-Lynch division). This guy is a really impressive athlete. Watching him the next four years will be very fun.

2) We asked our Twitter followers for questions to use in this week’s IBG. Here’s a sampling of what we got. Choose ONE and answer:

Let’s get crazy and try to answer them all.

@TheSubwayDomer: If the #NDFB quarterbacks were female super models, who would they be? What would they endorse? #IBG —

Man, my knowledge of supermodels has slipped since college. Can I change this to actresses from our favorite TV shows? (Answer by me: Yes.)

Tommy Rees is Pam Beesly.

Now known as Pam Beesley Halpert. We all loved Tommy from the start, he was the quarterback next door: Decent arm, calm under pressure, great personality, and we all really wanted to see him succeed. Well, Pam got married to Jim. We all loved it. Then she got promoted from receptionist, tried getting into sales and kind of sucked at it. That’s not the Pam we like! Now she’s a little too snarky, not quite as good as we thought she’d be, and probably mistakenly gives Cece the wrong flavor of Gerber, or drops the baby bottle too much. Aren’t we better off liking Erin?

Dayne Crist is Christina Applegate.

It feels like we’ve known Christina forever. (At least I do. I practically grew up with her.) Ever since we’ve seen her, we knew she had star qualities. (Who could forget Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead!) But while she’s shown those flashes of brilliance, she’s never quite become the movie star she should have.To be fair, she’s also had to overcame huge personal setbacks. And it’s a credit to her that she did.

There are people that will go to the mattresses supporting Applegate — She was magic as Veronica Coringstone! But she’s also failed on TV, forcing America to watch Samantha Who? Now she’s back with Up All Night, a show almost reverse engineered to make us like it, teaming her with Will Arnett and Maya Rudolph. A good cast doesn’t hide the show’s flaws, but it might be the perfect place for her to show what she can do… even if that isn’t under the Golden Dome.

Andrew Hendrix is Minka Kelly:

Okay, I’m rapidly running out of steam here, but follow. Everybody loves Minka Kelly. Looks like the complete package. Hell, she was the apple of Derek Jeter’s eye, and that guy has some pretty good taste. Yet we have absolutely no clue if she can get it done. Kelly wasn’t the reason Friday Night Lights was good, even if she was good to look at. Now she’s in charge of making Charlie’s Angels TV show watchable, no easy task for anybody.

Hendrix might very well still be the quarterback of the future for the Irish. Brian Kelly is on the record as saying he’s got as much talent as anybody. Everybody looks at the guy and just sees a starting quarterback. But he hasn’t done it yet, and he might not ever.

Everett Golson is Zoey Deschanel.

Everybody loves the New Girl! Zoey’s a perfect fit for TV. Movie star skills. Funny, talented, cool dresser, awesome glasses. World class musician. (Crazy that she likely came to TV because she was sick of seeing how much money her sister was making on Bones, while she got like $150k for 500 Days of Summer.)

Well, everybody loves Everett Golson. He’s a prototype for Brian Kelly’s offense. Point guard quickness. Rocket arm. World class musician. Not sure if he wears awesome glasses, but it’s a pretty good fit. And he’s the new guy. What’s not to like?

@PerrasW01: Why has the #NDFB program gone to hell since Holtz left?

Mostly, College football got a lot better. I’m not old enough to understand why Holtz truly left, so I’d only be spewing someone else’s rhetoric when I blame administrators, athletic directors, or board members for maybe or maybe not pushing Holtz out before he could pass Knute Rockne.

But the bottom line is college football got a lot better and Notre Dame was really slow to come around to the changing landscape in college football, and the game blew by the Irish. In retrospect, the decision to hire Bob Davie is just shocking. You’ve got a program still at or near the top of college football and Notre Dame decides to promote its defensive coordinator, a guy with no real ties to Notre Dame. No offense to the Eagles, but that’s a move Boston College makes, and only with a guy that’s been on staff for a decade. Notre Dame got caught at the absolute worst time: A brewing arms race in college football that Notre Dame thought it was better than, mixed with the hiring of a guy that was absolutely overmatched for the job. Institutional arrogance at its best, and just in time for this young schmuck to start paying tuition.

@rpleary: You know that sign that says “Play Like a Champion Today”? What does our offense have against the sign?

Not sure. I think they’re “Playing Like People With Champion-like Ability.” Obviously that doesn’t get it done, but I actually like the strides they’re taking, even if last week was a step back for Rees and the unit.

@chadros: Based on our offense’s performance to date, is the current play calling mix (run vs. pass) the right one? Should we be running the ball more?

I’ve got no problem with the run/pass mix. One thing the Irish need to do is run the ball more effectively in the fourth quarter. I’d also like to see some more creativity out of the running game, giving the ball to Theo Riddick on a jet sweet, getting Cierre Wood in space more, and just seeing how slow Tommy looks on a QB keeper.

Last week’s offense was ugly, but it was impressive to see the Irish get every 3rd or 4th and short that they needed. That’s running to win.

@yetiisready: Will this be the week we see the “change-up package” AKA “the Leprecat?”

I will never call it the Leprecat. Man, that’s horrible. I’m kind of hoping we don’t see Everett Golson this year, only because saving a year of eligibility would be great, and seeing what Andrew Hendrix can do this year would be interesting as well.

That said — I think we’ll see some kind of “change-up package,” I just don’t think there’s any reason to show it against Purdue or Air Force. After bye week, I’m expecting a few interesting wrinkles for the men of Troy when they come to chilly South Bend.

(Not to mention a wrinkle in uniforms…)

3) If you could have 1 play back this season, what play would you want a do-over? How would that have changed a game’s outcome? Are you sure your do-over would work in ND’s favor?

I’m hoping everybody says Jonas Gray‘s fumble. That was like getting floored by a big right uppercut in the first round of a twelve-rounder. Sure you get up, but you’re starting out in a 10-8 hole after the first round and still finding your legs. If the Irish get in the endzone that first drive, I’m pretty sure this entire season looks different. A lot different.

4) In 140 characters or less “tweet” a summary of the season so far. Bonus points for hashtags or mentions.

Everybody please calm down RT @AngryNDFans Don’t you understand the other QB is better! Stop turning the ball over! Man 2-2 is frustrating!

5) Lou Holtz asked 3 basic questions of every player and coach, “Can I trust you? Are you committed? Do you care about me?” In your opinion, which player would every other player give a resounding “Yes” to each of these questions and why?

On offense: Michael Floyd. Take away last spring’s off field incident, and Floyd is the perfect football player. He’s the Irish’s best player. He makes a difference even when the ball isn’t being thrown to him. And he’s the guy everybody on the other team is watching. It will be sad watching the Irish without him.

On defense: Manti Te’o. If it’s possible, people are under-appreciating Te’o. He’s an every down linebacker, he’s a force in the run and playing better in the pass game, and he’s brought a swagger to the Irish defense that hasn’t been seen since Shane Walton was terrorizing quarterbacks, only Te’o has a first round skillset to go along with first round confidence.

6) Jumbotron. Good idea or terrible idea. What would you do to make it a great idea?

It’s not a polarizing thing for me, but I think it’s coming sooner than later. If you went to the Yankee Stadium game, it was really cool seeing Notre Dame use the video board as an extension of the university brand and a great way to remind people of the traditions and history of Notre Dame. If it helps keep fans engaged, informed and loud, even better. Just don’t have it block Touchdown Jesus.

(That said, give me FieldTurf or a semi-artificial surface first.)

7) Every week we try to fire up the masses with a “Fire It Up” video. Sometimes these videos are inspirational ballads of kick-ass Notre Dame football. Sometimes they are of a Japanese game show with dudes getting hit in the junk. Submit a video to Fire Up the Irish faithful for the Purdue game.

With a game like Purdue, I’ll let coach Eric Taylor get the boys fired up:

 

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: