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Five things we learned: Notre Dame 45, Maryland 21

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In case you didn’t know, Notre Dame’s trip to the nation’s capital had nothing to do about football. Just ask athletic director Jack Swarbrick.

“In many ways the motivation for all this has virtually nothing to do with football,” Swarbrick said. “What we want to do is expose more people to Notre Dame. With two days worth of events here, this is about having a major Notre Dame presence here in the Washington, D.C., area – about serving the larger University mission.”

But for those of you who haven’t figured out this part yet either, here’s another newsflash: Brian Kelly and his football team don’t care about being brand ambassadors. They don’t care what you think about their disco-globe helmets, their green jerseys, or those gaudy leprechaun covered undershirts. They just want to play football. Play winning football.

The Irish accomplished their mission on Saturday night, absolutely dominating Maryland 45-21 in a game that the Terrapins were never really in. Mixing a smash-mouth running game by Jonas Gray and Cierre Wood and efficient passing from Tommy Rees, the Irish won their seventh game in their last eight attempts.

“We got off to a fast start,” Kelly said afterwards. “I thought it was important for us to come here and really make a statement early on and I thought we did that.”

Kelly’s team did more than that, piling up over 500 yards of offense in a game that was out of reach for most of the second half. The win pushed the Irish to 7-3 on the season, their seventh win in the last eight games.

Let’s find out what else we learned:

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With a running game the best Notre Dame’s seen since Lou Holtz, the Irish dominated this game on the ground.

Everybody in the stadium probably knew Notre Dame was going to try and do it, but the Irish ran the ball straight through the Terrapins defense, with Gray leading the way. It took the senior back until the final three games of his senior season to do it, but Jonas finally had his first 100 yard day, running for 136 yards and two touchdowns — his seventh game in a row with a rushing score after entering the season without one.

True, the Terrapins have been terrible against the run, but the Irish helped them play up to their reputation, with Gray and Wood combining for 153 yards and two touchdowns in the first half alone, a seven-yard clip that dictated the tone of the game.

“The guys in front did a great job. The receivers did a great job blocking up field,” Gray said. “We knew we would be able to run the ball. It was starting with a physical mentality and continuing that throughout the game.”

For the second Saturday in a row, it was Gray starting in the backfield after following Wood into the game for the season’s first eight games. But Gray’s physical presence has been too much to keep off the field, and the senior’s breakthrough season was something the coaching staff had always hoped to see.

“I thought he was capable of it,” Kelly said. “We told him that his reps would be based upon his ability to play physical and you could see he doesn’t want to get off the field.”

It didn’t seem likely, but Gray’s late career renaissance will likely keep him on the field on Sundays, too.

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After a season marked by unevenness, the Irish played a complete game in all three phases tonight.

In a season that’ll likely be remembered by back-breaking mistakes and the team’s inability to play consistently, the Irish’s domination of Maryland was satisfying in that they finally got a complete performance by all three facets of the football team.

“It was a total team effort today,” Kelly said. “If you look at it, our special teams — David Ruffer had a 52-yard field goal, Ben Turk punted the ball very, very well. Defensively we scored. Offensively we were able to play fast at times, which is a sign of a growing offense. So when we look at it, a very good victory for our football team.”

It was a breakthrough performance for the Irish specialists, with Ruffer breaking out of a season-long funk with a career long 52-yard field goal, a beautiful draw that hooked perfectly between the uprights. Turk ripped his season long punt — a 58-yard moon ball — and pinned the Terrapins inside their ten yard line twice.

Kelly was happy with his team’s performance and very happy that a solid week of preparation resulted in a victory.

“Our players truly understand how to win football games now, and it starts with our preparation during the week,” Kelly said. “They know that they have to be able to bring all three phases. We look to repeat that next week, and that’s the challenge to our football team.”

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Robby Toma is playing his way into the slot receiver role.

The Irish were without slot receiver Theo Riddick, who missed Saturday night’s game with a pulled hamstring. But with Riddick missing, the Irish might have found their starting slot receiver: A pineapple-sized Hawaiian named Robby Toma.

Starting in Riddick’s place, Toma had seven catches for 74 yards, making highlight reel catches and infusing a true third receiving weapon to team with wide receiver Michael Floyd and tight end Tyler Eifert.

“He really adds a dimension to our offense,” Kelly said of Toma. “You saw that tonight, especially in the quick game stuff. He’s very good with the ball in his hands, run after catch, just a smart receiver. He’s a really good football player.”

Not many people expected to get a really good football player when Toma received and accepted a scholarship offer as the high school best friend of all-world recruit Manti Te’o. But Toma brings a feel to the slot that Riddick — a converted running back — just doesn’t possess yet.

If there’s a controversy, Kelly certainly isn’t acknowledging it. It’s just another step towards building a championship-level team.

“He’s been waiting for his chance, his opportunity,” Kelly said of Toma. “He’s a classic case of our next man in.”

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The evolution of Tommy Rees continues.

The Irish’s sophomore quarterback is seemingly the favorite topic of just about every Irish fan, and Tommy Rees‘ evening is a case study in just how polarizing a sophomore quarterback only 13 starts into a career can be. For the first time this season, Kelly and Rees pushed the tempo of the Irish offense, and with the sophomore at the helm, the offense moved efficiently while not turning the ball over.

“Any way that we could establish a quicker tempo, allows us an opportunity to either put the ball out on the perimeter to our skill guys or run the ball inside,” Kelly explained. “Tommy did a really nice job tonight of feel. We went fast and he had to have a feel, do I give the ball out or do I put it on the perimeter and throw it. He had a nice feel for it.”

Of course, just watching Rees it’s easy to focus on what the sophomore quarterback can’t do, rather than what he did do, and it’s become a passion for some Irish fans convinced that the team’s least talented quarterback is tasked with running the offense. On Saturday night, Rees was sacked three times, going down for the first time since the Pitt game in September. It could have been a product of a hurry-up system with Mike Golic in place for injured Braxston Cave at center, but Rees also held onto the ball too long on one or two of those.

Just as obvious are Tommy’s limitations outside the pocket. The sophomore looked like he was running in quicksand when trying to scramble for yardage, a reminder that Kelly and his spread offense don’t have a quarterback that can give the running game a true zone-read option. (Not that it mattered on Saturday.)

Just the same, people complaining about Rees’ day tend to skip where he does his best work: the stat sheet. Even though he missed a few open deep throws, Rees still piled up some impressive numbers, completing 30 of 37 throws for 296 yards and two touchdowns. Consider those numbers include two drops by Michael Floyd and another by TJ Jones and Rees put together a mighty fine evening.

Will it ever be enough to stop people from complaining about him? Doubtful, because the siren song of a talented but unused quarterback is something desperate Irish fans will never be able to turn down. But with 11 wins in 13 starts, Rees’ .846 winning percentage would slot him between Tom Clements and Joe Theismann amongst the winningest quarterbacks in school history.

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With the defense swarming, the special teams solid and the offense efficient, for one Saturday, the Irish attained a complete victory.

Ss complimentary as Kelly was after Saturday night’s victory, any thought that this victory meant anything more than one good Saturday was quickly squashed by the head coach.

“It was just today,” Kelly said of his team’s win. “You know, it’s Saturday, November the 12th. We played the way we need to play in all three phases. We’ll see what happens on the 19th of November.”

And that, is the thing with the 2011 Fighting Irish. On any given Saturday, this football team can look like one of the country’s best, making it easy to wonder what might have been had the Irish not given the game away against USF or imploded defensively against Michigan. But that’s the exact reason why Kelly won’t let this team take a big picture view at this season, especially with crucial games against Boston College and Stanford left to be played.

“I think for us the process is what we do during the week because we’re not at that point where it’s habit, that we do it the right way all the time,” Kelly said. “We’re making good progress there. We really can’t fly at 35,000 feet, so to speak. We have to really focus on the day-to-day.”

Still, the Irish got plenty of what they wanted out of Saturday night’s victory. With Manti Te’o protecting a tender ankle, linebackers Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese got plenty of snaps, and Kendall Moore gave us a promising look at what life will look like after-Te’o. With the team comfortably ahead, Austin Collinsworth, Bennett Jackson and Lo Wood got to take significant snaps, with Wood gifted a pick-six interception that’ll do nothing but build confidence.

More importantly, Kelly’s Irish have won five straight in November, almost entirely erasing the six-game skid that ended the Charlie Weis era. While this team might not yet be able to savor the experience, the win reminds me of something Bob Diaco said just as the team’s training camp was getting started.

“It was 1922 Gandhi to young India, where he talked about satisfaction being in the effort,” Diaco said back in August. “That it’s not in the attainment, but true victory is full effort… There needs to be refocusing daily on the things that need to get done today to create winning. Today. And tomorrow is tomorrow.”

For just one night, the Irish won convincingly. The rest of it — extending the brand of Notre Dame, Inc. by playing neutral site home games, wondering about what might have been with this football team, looking ahead to the polls, bowl slotting and Stanford — that can all wait.

 

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
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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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