Andrew Hendrix Stanford

Hendrix is ready to run the entire offense

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The evolution of Andrew Hendrix hasn’t been a gradual process. It started that way, with the sophomore quarterback getting his first snaps in situational packages, running the option and throwing the occasional high-percentage pass as he worked into the game plan as a complementary part to quarterback Tommy Rees.

Then the Stanford game happened.

It was there Hendrix was all but thrown into the fire, caution left behind with Dayne Crist all but out the door and Rees battered and ineffective in the first half against a Cardinal defense that harassed and confused the Irish starting quarterback.

A funny thing happened when Hendrix stopped running his small handful of plays and worked his way through a bigger chunk of Kelly’s playbook. The Irish offense looked better, especially with a running threat from the quarterback keeping the Cardinal defense honest.

Make no mistake, 11 of 24 with a touchdown and interception isn’t a great day behind center. But for a maiden voyage, Hendrix looked the part as captain of the Irish ship, and the month since then has changed the way both the head coach and the No. 2 quarterback look at things.

“There’s a different approach to it,” Brian Kelly said of Hendrix’s preparation. “He didn’t do much first unit work when we were using him as a situational player. So building a relationship with the first group and the offensive line, I think obviously that changed with his approach. He knows he’s not going in there with a package, he’s going in there to run the offense. There’s a focus and demeanor that’s different than earlier in the year.”

If there’s a major personnel storyline to follow in the Champs Sports Bowl, it’s the open audition Hendrix will have for the starting job in 2012. Make no mistake, the Irish aren’t playing for next year against the Seminoles — beating Florida State and getting to nine wins is incredibly important for Kelly and the Irish football program. But acknowledging that Hendrix will have full access to the playbook — including the running game that will never be a part of Rees’ repertoire — and you begin to understand just how big of an opportunity this is for Hendrix, and an Irish offense that’ll likely look much difference next year.

The race for the starting quarterback in 2012 can wait. Especially when facing a defense as explosive as the Seminoles, who have done a very good job shutting down running games and pressuring the quarterback, something Kelly expects Florida State to do.

“The first time Andrew goes in there, they’re going to blitz him,” Kelly said. “At least I would because he didn’t do as well picking up the blitz against Stanford when he went in there late. As long as he does that, he can play the entire game if it works that way.”

Kelly’s stayed mum on how the snaps will break down, stating only that both Rees and Hendrix will play. Whether it’s gamesmanship or just a truthful acknowledgement that there’s a lot of uncertainty behind center, we’ll find out on Thursday.

“I don’t know what to tell you,” Kelly said when pressed on the issue. “I want one of them to have the hot hand. If both of them have it, obviously we’re going to have to make it work. We’re going to play them both and see how it goes.”

After nearly an entire season of taking it slow, giving Hendrix the chance to “see how it goes” should give us an early idea if he’s ready to take over the offense.

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)

 

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

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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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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.