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Faced with adversity, Kelly turns offense over to Martin

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For the first two years of Brian Kelly’s tenure at Notre Dame, Charley Molnar was the offensive coordinator. That much, just about everybody knows. What we don’t know, is what kind of say Molnar had in actually, well — coordinating the offense.

As it tends to happen, many are speculating about Molnar’s departure from Notre Dame for the head coaching position at UMass. Logic dictates that just about any lifetime assistant coach would jump for the opportunity to run his own program, and after a career traversing the college football world, Molnar certainly fits the mold of a guy ready for his shot. Of course, rumblings coming from around the dome also could have you believe that Molnar was out of South Bend whether it was with a new job or not, something Tim Prister of IrishIllustrated.com wrote earlier this week.

As Lou Somogyi of Blue & Gold Illustrated notes, second year shake-ups are nothing new for Irish coaching staffs. Charlie Weis dropped Rick Minter for Corwin Brown. Bob Davie dropped Jim Colletto for Kevin Rogers. And Lou Holtz had the biggest turnover of any recent Irish coach, with outside linebackers coach Barry Alvarez taking over coordinator duties for Foge Fazio, Chuck Heater brought in to run the secondary, and Joe Yonto moved out at offensive line to bring in Joe Moore. So before Irish fans believe that the sky is falling, consider that Kelly knows what he has on his staff better than anyone, and promoting from within is one of the reasons there’s a statue of Barry Alvarez in Madison, and the path to the Rose Bowl know goes through Camp Randall.

That’s not to assume that Chuck Martin is the second coming of Alvarez, but the fact that Kelly turned to Martin after pledging to fix the offense after a disheartening loss to Florida State carries some weight. If you spend any time around the coaching staff, it won’t take you long to notice Martin, who carries himself like a second head coach and has the chops to prove it. When Martin joined the staff after leaving Grand Valley, those who knew him were surprised that he came without being tagged a coordinator, instead coaching the secondary and coordinating the team’s recruiting efforts. Two seasons later, Martin is getting that chance, moving to the offensive side of the ball and advancing his coaching resume at the same time.

Of course, what Martin’s tenure as offensive coordinator means still remains to be seen. As Molnar also did, Martin will coach quarterbacks, working day to day with a new position group after working with the secondary for his first two seasons. Almost immediately, we’ve seen Martin’s fingerprints on recruiting, with the Irish chasing quarterback Devin Fuller, an elite five-star athlete that’s been promised a chance to work at quarterback after previously being offered as a defensive back. (How good of an athlete is Fuller? Consider this Irish Sports Daily report that has him already working with the first unit wide receivers at the Army All-American bowl, after playing wideout for the first time in his life upon arriving in San Antonio.) Martin has also been instrumental in reaffirming the commitments of recruits Will Mahone and Taylor Decker, after both Tim Hinton and Ed Warinner, two coaches instrumental in their respective recruitment, joined Urban Meyer’s Ohio State staff.

Looking back at Martin’s recent Grand Valley team’s, you get an idea of how he likes to power an offense. Continuing with the system Kelly put in place, Martin evolved his spread attack into one that moved mostly by ground, with his last four teams running the ball at least sixty percent of the time.

2006: 538 runs, 355 passes (60.2%/39.8%)
2007: 541 runs, 329 passes (62.2%/37.8%)
2008: 464 runs, 280 passes (62.4%/37.6%)
2009: 599 runs, 397 passes (60%/40%)

To put that into context, here’s the run/pass splits for the Irish over the past two seasons.

2010: 414 runs, 481 passes (46.3%/53.7%)
2011: 433 runs, 473 passes (47.8%/52.2%)

Of course, the first question every Irish fan should be asking is what quarterback will be taking snaps next year, and what role  the quarterback will play in the running game. Recruiting a guy like Fuller gives you an idea that Martin likes to run the quarterback as well, and a deeper look at the numbers confirms that. Here’s a breakdown of quarterback carries from the four-year span at Grand Valley we just looked at.

2006: 538 carries: 139 from QBs (25.8%)
2007: 541 carries: 117 from QBs (21.6%)
2008: 464 carries: 50 from QBs (10.7%)
2009: 599 carries: 66 from QBs (11.0%)

Adding more context to those numbers, Martin’s offense evolved as his quarterback changed. In 2006, Cullen Finnerty was the starter, throwing for 41 touchdown passes while also running 132 times for 8 touchdowns, averaging 4.4 yards a carry as the team’s second leading ball carrier for a team that averaged 35.5 points a game. In 2007, Brad Iciek took over the quarterbacking position, and while he did run the ball, he was spelled by Central Florida transfer Marquel Neasman, who worked in primarily as a running quarterback. The quarterbacks still ran the ball over 20 percent of the time for an offense that averaged 7.1 yards a play and put up 38.2 points a game.

Digging deeper, a quick look at Brian Kelly’s last two teams at Cincinnati shows similarities to Martin when he’s playing a mobile quarterback. Obviously, Kelly wasn’t responsible for the depth chart he inherited, and didn’t have a running quarterback until Andrew Hendrix emerged late this season. Here’s a look at the percentage of quarterback rushes as a percentage of overall carries, including the leading QB ball carrier (minimum 10 carries).

2008: 347 rushing, 100 from QBs (28.8%) – Collaros 6.0 ypc
2009: 444 rushing, 111 from QBs (25.0%) – Collaros 4.8 ypc
2010: 414 rushes, 73 rushes (17.6%) – Crist 1.4 ypc
2011: 433 rushes, 61 rushes (14.1%) – Hendrix 6.5 ypc

Kelly and Martin have two quarterbacks on campus, Hendrix and rising sophomore Everett Golson, that’ll immediately solve the quarterback running game problem. Of course, one of those two will need to win the starting job before we can see if the Irish will break out a rushing attack, though you’d have to expect it with no clear No. 1 wide receiver behind tight end Tyler Eifert, and Tommy Rees seeming to stagnate down the stretch.

Maybe more important than just about any schematic change to the offense is having Martin’s confidence and moxie on the offensive side of the ball. Martin’s edge, quick humor, and style are polar opposites of defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. With both coaches on the defensive side of the ball, you had two very different styles of teaching the same thing, while Diaco’s heightened intensity and earnestness the opposite side of the dial from where Martin lives. Perhaps Martin’s fearlessness, his ability to motivate and coach hard (without turning purple and upping the decibels) will be good for an offense that needs a little swagger after getting mighty vanilla as the season played out. Martin’s confidence — both in his abilities and his players — will be a godsend for a unit that didn’t hold up its end of the bargain down the stretch.

Two summers ago, I spent time with Kelly’s coaching staff, and got an up-close look at how the staff interacted. Still in the infancy of their time together, it was clear there was a corp group of guys that formed a quick bond. It’s amazing that the three coaches that seemed the most detached, are the first three coaches out the door. Charley Molnar had worked for Kelly since 2006, but you got the feeling he didn’t fit completely with the rest of the group. The same can be said for Tim Hinton, who Kelly inherited from Mark Dantonio at Cincinnati, and Ed Warinner, who was a stranger to everyone, coming over from Kansas after pursuing a job on Kelly’s staff. It didn’t take long to identify Martin as a leader among the assistant coaches, even if his title didn’t say it after ascending to the D-I level.

Of course, none of that matters until we see what the offense looks like this coming spring, and learn more about how much input Martin will have in a system where the head coach will likely continue to call the plays. But facing his first bit of macro-level adversity, Kelly turned to Martin to help right the ship. How it works out, only time will tell. But the decision means quite a bit.

 

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: