New Year’s resolutions for 2012 Irish

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It doesn’t take a CSI investigator to know that Irish fans are still smarting from the 18-14 loss to Florida State. Minutes away from a nine win season, the firm grasp the Irish defense had around the throat of the Seminoles loosened, and an offense that moved the ball prolifically earlier this season ground to a halt as both Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix struggled to do much of anything to help win a football game.

Instead of heading to the offseason winning an ugly, defense first football game and making incremental progress with a nine-win season, Kelly’s squad seems stuck in neutral thanks to a quarterbacking conundrum that will make spring practice 15 of the most important sessions this team will ever have.

With the calendar starting anew today, there’s no better time to lay out some New Year’s resolutions for the Fighting Irish as they take some time off before getting back to the grind of getting better and preparing for 2012.

For the secondary… May they learn and develop quickly. For Jamoris Slaughter, may he springboard forward after his coming-out party against the Seminoles, and become the dual-threat player he’s always been capable of as he takes over for Harrison Smith as the heart of the secondary. For Zeke Motta, may he continue to improve in coverage and get better tackling in the open field. After two years of special teams consistency, may Austin Collinsworth take that playmaking knack to a secondary in need of big plays. May Eilar Hardy come back healthy after a knee injury and Chris Badger be a quick study after his two-year mission. At cornerback, may Lo Wood and Bennett Jackson be ready to be thrown into the fire. The same goes for Josh Atkinson, who saw the field this season and will likely see it a lot more next year. With the redshirt off Jalen Brown, the athletic and tall cornerback could also emerge as a contender for playing time, where the defense will likely hinge on the young secondary’s ability to make plays.

For the linebackers… May Manti Te’o stay healthy for his senior season, a year where he’ll likely earn his reputation as one of college football’s best defenders. After going from the bottom of the outside linebacker depth chart to the starting will linebacker, may Dan Fox continue to show the athleticism that had the previous Irish coaching staff see a better prospect than Luke Kuechly. Carlo Calabrese, who lost playing time to Fox, can use 2012 to improve in space, building on the strides he took this year in coverage. Te’o’s return pushed back the emergence of Kendall Moore, but the talented youngster will find a way to make a difference for this defense next year. The same can be said for Justin Utupo and Jarrett Grace, two young and talented inside linebackers that will be contributors sooner than later. May Anthony Rabasa‘s shoulder heal quickly, allowing the freshman to participate in spring drills as he continues his transition to the interior of the defense.

With the outside of the linebacking crew, may the Irish find stability as they try to replace Darius Fleming. For Prince Shembo, may he find stability if he shifts to Fleming’s old position, where he’ll have the opportunity to rush the passer and feel more at home. May the freshman season of Ishaq Williams help the youngster develop after absorbing the transition for New York high schools to major college football. For Troy Niklas, may the talented freshman take his unique size and skill set and apply that at the dog linebacker. For Danny Spond, may he get through a season healthy, and finally be able to utilize the talent that had Kelly and the staff so high on him. For Ben Councell, may his redshirt season be fruitful for a young linebacker that could become a top-line 3-4 drop linebacker.

For the defensive line… May Kapron Lewis-Moore come back healthy after knee surgery. May Sean Cwynar return to help anchor the interior of the defensive line while also continuing his first-class education. May Tyler Stockton work his way into the interior line rotation during his final season. After a promising first season, may Louis Nix continue to improve, turning himself into an All-American. While Kona Schwenke spent a year of eligibility during fill-in duty, may he work his way into the defensive end rotation, taking some of the snaps Ethan Johnson left behind. May Chase Hounshell build on a surprising freshman campaign that found him working his way out of a redshirt and onto the field. With time in the weight room, he could add yet another promising pass rush option to a front line that could be among the best in recent Irish history. After spending 2011 on the sidelines, may Tony Springmann surprise everyone with his athleticism and size, adding another player with the versatility to play inside and out. May Stephon Tuitt and Aaron Lynch continue to evolve into bookends the Irish haven’t seen in years. For Tuitt, may the playing time he lost due to illness be paid back next season, when the already massive freshman has a chance for another 12 months in under Paul Longo. For Lynch, may the talented pass rusher work on the space between his ear pads, cutting down on the mental mistakes and personal fouls that pockmarked a freshman season that showed everyone just how talented he’ll be. (Lynch could also work on drawing the flags he earned for holding.)

For the offensive line… May Braxston Cave return healthy for 2012, anchoring the line from the center position while continuing to add finesse to a game certainly not lacking power. If Mike Golic returns, may he do it stronger at the point of attack and more versatile, giving the Irish another super-sub candidate a la Andrew Nuss. May Chris Watt build on an impressive 2011 season, where the left guard was one of the Irish’s most punishing run blockers. May Zack Martin continue being the technically sound left tackle he’s been for two straight seasons, and continue on his All-American trajectory. May Christian Lombard be ready to take over for Taylor Dever at right tackle, after spending 2011 waiting in the wings. May Tate Nichols come back healthy and ready to challenge for playing time at tackle as well, battling Lombard for the job and showing unnatural athleticism for a player of his size. May 2012 be the year Bruce Heggie isn’t a punch line. For Conor Hanratty, Nick Martin, and Matt Hegarty, may 2012 be the year they battle for Trevor Robinson’s vacant job. For Brad Carrico, may he be ready to see the field. For Jordan Prestwood, may the year used in the weight room translate to the playing field.

For the receivers and tight ends… May Tyler Eifert decide what’s best for him and his family. If it’s Notre Dame, may he stay healthy and continue to build his body physically. For Alex Welch and Ben Koyack, may they be ready for a larger role in the offense, whether or not Eifert decides to return for 2012. For Jake Golic, may back surgery fix whatever ailed the tight end running out of opportunities to make a difference. At wide receiver, if John Goodman comes back, may he dedicated himself to becoming the wide receiver people thought he’d be coming out of high school. For Theo Riddick, if he stays at wide receiver, may 2012 be the year that the lightbulb finally goes on. For Robby Toma, may he find a more permanent spot in the offense. For TJ Jones, may he use the personal tragedy of 2011 as motivation to become the type of receiver the Irish need, while also realizing that he’s halfway done with his career. For Daniel Smith, may he finally find his way onto the field, stay healthy, and give the Irish a big body that’s ready to fill the void left by Michael Floyd. For Davaris Daniels and Matthias Farley, may they learn from the redshirt season and be ready to come out swinging in 2012.

For the running backs… May Cierre Wood pledge to put together one of the best single season’s in Notre Dame rushing history, and give himself a difficult decision on whether or not he should stay in school or head to the NFL. May Cam Roberson finally get healthy after a devastating knee injury suffered last spring. May 2012 be a better year than the last for him. For George Atkinson, may he build on the game breaking skills he showed in the return game, while finding ways to improve as a position player. For Cam McDaniel, may the youngster build on a year where his eligibility was lost, but not all that much experience was gained.

For the quarterbacks… May they find some stability. For Tommy Rees, may he prove the growing mountain of skeptics wrong. Like all quarterbacks, they’re never as good as the good times nor as bad as the bad ones. May this offseason help restore confidence, build more knowledge in the passing game, and take a step forward in his decision making. Rees will never be able to run the ball, but he can move the offense, even if the Irish sputtered down the stretch. For Andrew Hendrix, may he continue learning the offense, giving Kelly and the coaching staff a true look at what he can do come spring practice. With a skill-set that’s never been questioned, he’ll need to cut back on decisions like the throw he made against the Seminoles while also proving to be more than just a battering ram in the running game. The Irish can be the offense Kelly wants with Hendrix behind center, and a quarterback that can run will take some pressure off a receiving corp short potentially two All-Americans. For Everett Golson, may 2012 be a year where he rises to the occasion. There might be no player with great expectations heaped onto him, and if there’s a player that can rescue an offense still stuck in transition, it’s Golson.

For the coaches… May Brian Kelly stick to his guns. Two years in South Bend didn’t erase 20 years of experience, even if the fish bowl is a whole lot bigger. Sometimes seasons like the past year build humility, and for Kelly may he learn from the bizarre circumstances that came to define the 2011 season. For Bob Diaco, may he learn to live dangerously. With a youthful secondary and one of the best front sevens the Irish have ever had, maybe he keep the gas pedal down and his foot on opponents’ throats, as opposed to playing from a base defense. May Mike Elston solve the punt return game, where Michael Floyd bailed the Irish out with his 41-yard return in the bowl game after the worst season in school history. May Tim Hinton be thankful he turned down Urban Meyer and Ohio State to stay with Notre Dame. May Ed Warinner reload the right side of the offensive line and a ground game that slowed down in the season’s final month. May the offensive coordinator, whoever he may be, be ready to put his stamp on the offense. May Tony Alford earn his keep both in recruiting and in preparing this wide receiving corp for life without No. 3.

Friday at 4: 40-yard dashes and absurdity

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Of all the absurd things the football world often obsesses over, the 40-yard dash may be the most useless of them. Yes, it even beats out assigning star rankings to 16- and 17-year-olds, though not by much.

For now, let’s look past the rest of the inane Draft intricacies, such as former Irish defensive lineman Jarron Jones feeling pressured to increase his vertical jump by four inches. (He did, jumping to 24.5 inches in Notre Dame’s Pro Day on Thursday.) This scribe does not have an excess of time to spend discussing Jones’s outlandish wingspan if this piece is to post by its intended, though unnecessary, 4 p.m. ET deadline.

The 40-yard dash … No football play begins from a sprinter’s stance, yet it may be the factor most crucial to a low 40 time. Former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer posted a time of 4.83 seconds in the NFL Combine earlier this month. For context’s sake, Kizer ran .07 seconds slower than Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did as a draft prospect in the 2004 combine.

Roethlisberger has had himself an excellent career, and his ability to shrug off 300-pound defensive linemen is a testament to his athleticism. Put Kizer and Roethlisberger in the open field together, though, and Kizer would presumably have outrun Roethlisberger at any point of the two-time Super Bowl champion’s career. In Indianapolis, however, Roethlisberger did a better job of getting his hips through his first couple strides of the heralded 40-yard dash.

Here, watch Kizer train for the 40, the most-hyped measurement of his combine.

“The ultimate goal is to have yourself in the best position to have your body weight back in those legs so you can create enough torque to get out as quickly as possible,” Kizer said. “A guy who is as long as I am, with long limbs that I have, I’ve got to make sure that my weight distribution is in the best position for me to get out and catch up to some of those quicker guys who are a little lower to the ground.”

What part of that sounds applicable to football? The 40 turns Kizer’s size (6-foot-4, 237 pounds) into a negative. He worries about the angle of his knees. After his throwing session at the Thursday Pro Day, Kizer summed up the draft evaluation process even more succinctly.

“This process is very different in the sense that the way you look productive in the combine and in a pro day is very different from what productivity actually looks like out on the field.”

Well put.

More pertinent to the actual game of football, Kizer’s completion percentage in the staged workout could have been higher.

Then again, he was throwing to the likes of former Irish receivers Corey Robinson and Amir Carlisle and former running back Jonas Gray. Reportedly, the only contact Gray and Kizer had before the session was Kizer emailing the former New England Patriot the planned series of routes.

The NFL Draft, where Gmail becomes a necessity.

Let’s do away with the 40. If we insist on keeping it, let’s do it twice, once from a standing start and once from a running start. Those would simulate actual football movements: A receiver getting off the line, and a ballcarrier breaking away and trying to outrun the defense.

Asking DeShone Kizer to mimic Usain Bolt is an exercise in futility, idiocy, absurdity.

Cue end of rant.

Why cite the Roethlisberger time? Many, including Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke, have readily compared Kizer to Roethlisberger this spring.

The most notable line of that scouting report (scroll down to No. 32) may be its final one, echoing Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s sentiments from earlier this week.

“The mystery is whether he can regain his assertiveness,” Burke writes. “If so, he could turn out to be the 2017 class’s best QB. The team that drafts him will be taking a leap of faith.”

A leap. Not a dash.

For more Notre Dame Pro Day results, click here.

And with that, this just may make the 4 p.m. posting. You know what to do.

 

Tranquill continues work with safeties … for now

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Drue Tranquill will see time at the oft-spoken of rover position, just not yet. For now, Notre Dame needs the senior at safety to provide leadership and communication while the rest of his position group gets up to speed.

“We really have to figure out what the coordination is going to be at the safety position,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “How much does Drue play down at rover? How much does he play back [at safety]?”

Only sophomore Devin Studstill returns any starts to the safety position aside from Tranquill’s career total of 18. Studstill started nine games last season.

That void has kept Tranquill working mostly with the defensive backs in the spring’s first few practices, rather than joining the likes of junior Asmar Bilal in the rover grouping.

“We didn’t want to pull our most veteran player out of the back end of our defense with Drue,” Kelly said. “I think it was more about the hesitancy of losing a great communicator in the back end than about the teaching.”

The time will come, however, for Tranquill to move up. Juniors Nick Coleman and Ashton White have moved to safety from the corner position. With more reps, they will not need to rely on Tranquill’s guidance as much. The same goes for, at least in theory, sophomore Jalen Elliott.

“It’s not really a heavy load of teaching for those guys,” Kelly said. “They’re picking it up quite well. We really want to get a chance to see a lot of guys back there.”

Kelly seemed particularly bullish on Coleman’s prospects at the position, provided he embrace the needed physicality. At 6-foot, 187 pounds, Coleman’s build may have been more suited on the outside, but Notre Dame’s plethora of promising cornerbacks provided an impetus to test Coleman at safety.

“The big thing will be Nick’s continuous development in tackling,” Kelly said. “You have to tackle back there. His ball skills are really good. We’ve seen that he’s able to play the ball. He has athleticism.

“We just want to continue to build on his tackling skills. If we go through the spring and say, ‘Well, he’s tackling really well,’ we’ll feel pretty good about the move.”

At that point, Tranquill will likely join Bilal at the hybrid position, which is something of a trademark to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Tranquill will be able to do what he does best: Pursue the ball.

“We all know what his strengths are,” Kelly said. “He’s a solid tackler. I don’t think there’s any safety in college football that wants to get matched up one-on-one with a skilled slot receiver. This would minimize that, when you play him close to the ball as a rover.

“And I think he’s pretty quick off the edge. I think we put him in a really good position in maximizing his skill set.”

Until then, Bilal will continue to be the frontrunner at rover, especially with the first four Irish opponents of 2017 presenting run-heavy offenses.

KELLY ON NICK WATKINS
Kelly was also asked about senior cornerback Nick Watkins, his fit into Elko’s defense and his return from injury.

“He’s very coachable, wants to learn, he’s pretty long,” Kelly said. “What I think Mike [Elko] does really well—and this is what I liked about my interactions with him—is, we all have strengths and weaknesses. He has a great eye of saying let’s take Nick’s strengths and let’s put him in a position where we can really utilize his strengths and put him in a position where maybe we’re not a right and left corner team, maybe we’re a short field/wide field team. Let’s apply him in that fashion.

“Nick’s long. He’s a little bit of a physical player. Let’s go to those strengths. He’s shown some of those attributes early on.”

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Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover position, others likely to follow
2 Days Until Spring Practice: A look at the defensive backfield

Kraemer, Eichenberg compete for RT spot, moving Bars inside, and Bivin to…

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Forty percent of the offensive line is essentially set in stone: fifth-year senior Mike McGlinchey at left tackle and senior Quenton Nelson at right guard.

The center position seems to be senior Sam Mustipher’s to lose.

That leaves the two starting spots on the right side of the line for a number of players—both young and experienced—to fight over.

Sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg have emerged as the frontrunners for the right tackle spot, moving senior Alex Bars inside to right guard. Bars started all 12 games last season at right tackle.

“Those two [Kraemer and Eichenberg] are the guys we have mapped out at right tackle, and they’re going to battle,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “Today Kraemer was there. Last two practices Eichenberg got a lot of the work. Eichenberg will go back there on Friday. They’re going to keep battling and splitting the action out there.”

Part of the reasoning in giving the two sophomores extended looks this spring is Notre Dame knows what it has in Bars when at right tackle.

“We would prefer to get him in at the guard position, but we know he can play the [tackle] position,” Kelly said.

A starting five of McGlinchey, the three seniors and either sophomore may seem to leave fifth-year lineman Hunter Bivin out in the cold. Not often is a player asked to return for a fifth year only to spend it on the bench. That is even more rare when considering the current Irish scholarship crunch.

Kelly compared Bivin’s role to that of Mark Harrell’s last year. Harrell appeared in all 12 games, starting two, and provided much needed depth and flexibility along the offensive line. Rather than have five backup offensive linemen, position coach Harry Hiestand relied on Harrell to provide support at multiple spots.

“It’s reasonable to assume that Hunter Bivin’s going to be involved in this as well,” Kelly said. “We’ve just asked Hunter to take a seat right now. He’s done that for the team.

“We think Hunter is going to be a Mark Harrell for us. A guy that’s extremely valuable, can play a number of positions. We trust him, but we want to see these two young players [Kraemer and Eichenberg]. Hunter is a guy that can play right or left tackle for us. He’s going to be a valuable player for us as a swing guy.”

On that note, this space will refer to Bivin as a fifth-year lineman, as was done above, rather than as a guard or as a tackle, until further notice. In his case, the broader description may be the most accurate.

Spring break out west is fine, but Wimbush better be ready to run

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It will undoubtedly become a habit, at least for the next five-plus months. If Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush sneezes in front of a camera, it just might lead to an uptick in webmd.com traffic. His every football move will certainly be analyzed, nitpicked and discussed at length. Thus, Irish coach Brian Kelly being asked about Wimbush’s spring break should surprise no one.

Rather than find a Florida beach, Wimbush spent his spring break working with private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield in San Diego alongside a handful of other college passers. Kelly said there is value to such a spring break but stopped short of setting any lofty expectations of the effects.

“I have no problem with [Wimbush] working out with George Whitfield,” Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice, the first following spring break and the third of 14 leading into the Blue-Gold Game on April 22. “George doesn’t work on the specifics to the offense. George is really working on the quarterback and throwing the football, moving in the pocket. George is really good at keeping those quarterbacks active and moving.”

Whitfield is best-known around Notre Dame and among Irish fans for working with former Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson during Golson’s academic suspension in 2013. Whitfield and Golson spent 10 weeks together, thus granting time for extensive off-field activities such as film study. Far shorter, Wimbush’s time out west appears to have been spent primarily doing drills.

“In those situations, it’s a bullpen session,” Kelly said. “They’re keeping their arms loose, they’re keeping their feet loose. He’s just keeping them active.”

It is hard to construe that activity as a negative, but it obviously lacks certain aspects crucial to Wimbush’s 2017 season. With only five career pass attempts and seven career rushes, Wimbush’s inexperience looms large. Developing the necessary intangibles to account for that may be just as, if not more, important as fitting his throws into tight windows.

“When it comes to the playbook, to his teammates, to his coaches here, Brandon understands that when the rubber hits the road, those are the guys that matter the most,” Kelly said. “He knows when it’s time for Notre Dame football, where the focus is.”

Included in that playbook will be an expectation for Wimbush to carry the ball. To date, Wimbush’s biggest play and possibly only imprint on most Notre Dame fans’ memories is a 58-yard touchdown scamper against Massachusetts in 2015.

Link to 17-second YouTube video which has unfortunately disabled embedding

Note, the play is not exclusively-designed for Wimbush to run. Now a rising junior, then a fellow freshman, running back Josh Adams comes across Wimbush’s front for a possible handoff. Instead, Wimbush makes the correct read and keeps the ball. Why state so clearly it was the proper read? Adams has to evade a Texas defender even though he never had the ball.

Future option plays should present Wimbush with the possibility of throwing the ball, too.

“He’ll be a runner in the offense,” Kelly said. “Do we want him to carry the ball 20 times? No.”

“I don’t think you’ll have a situation where we’re calling quarterback power or singular runs. He’s going to have options: hand it off, throw the ball out on the perimeter. You’ll see more of that than you will prescribed quarterback runs. We had a little bit more of that last year with Kizer, but I think you’ll see that he has an option to get the ball out of his hands more so than just prescribed runs.”

Those option plays, in particular, will require Wimbush to have a thorough familiarity both with the Notre Dame playbook and with his teammates’ tendencies.

RITA LEE OR 52-53?
Staying consistent with his comments over the last two months, Kelly once again reiterated the biggest changes new offensive coordinator Chip Long will bring to the Irish playbook will be in its wording. Perhaps going to an extreme example to illustrate his thinking, Kelly pointed to the future.

“We’re going to win next year and Chip is going to be the greatest offensive coordinator in the country and he’s going to get a head job, right?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “Then I’m not going to introduce the Chip Long offense to the next offensive coordinator.”

“It has to have my culture in it … The culture of the offense is still the base offense that I have always run because I have to be able to carry that with me from year to year.”

Within that ellipsis, Kelly gave two examples of possible verbiage changes. Without knowing much more behind them, they do not mean too much out here in the cobwebs of the internet, but they do provide a quick glimpse at what Kelly has been referring to when discussing lexicon since hiring Long.

“If he wants to change Ringo Lucky protection to Ram and Lion protection, go right ahead. If he wants to change certain calls, for example, 52-53 protection is now Rita Lee.”

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