Brian Kelly 9

Vowing to fix offense, Kelly announces staff shake-up

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After spending the days following Notre Dame’s bowl loss in a sprint to the recruiting finish line, Brian Kelly spent Friday morning announcing the staff changes that have taken shape since wrapping up the 2011 season. With offensive coordinator Charley Molnar taking over the football program at UMass, and Ed Warinner and Tim Hinton joining Urban Meyer’s Ohio State staff, the opportunity allowed Kelly to drastically reorganize the offensive coaching staff, something that likely would’ve been on the docket after a disappointing 8-5 finish.

“When you don’t reach the goals that you’ve set for yourself, it’s important that the appropriate measures are taken in terms of evaluating all facets of your program,” Kelly said.

The biggest move made was an internal one, with Chuck Martin making a rare shift from coaching a position group on defense to coordinating the offense. It’s a move that illustrates how strongly Kelly trusts Martin, who will be tasked with running an offense with a vision shared not only by the head coach, but by the personnel and position groups that’ll be tasked with orchestrating it.

“At the end of the day, he’s the leader of the group,” Kelly said of Martin. “I’m looking for someone that can communicate the message clearly across the board without any inconsistencies from group to group. Chuck is a great communicator and that is the strength that he brings to the staff.”

Other major changes on the offensive staff include the move of Mike Denbrock from tight ends to outside wide receivers. Denbrock will also coordinate the passing game, a nice title bump for one of Kelly’s oldest coaching connections. Denbrock once coordinated Kelly’s offense at Grand Valley, so while Denbrock’s long been seen as an offensive line guru, he’ll work with Martin in developing a passing attack that needs to make more big plays.

“We need to make more big plays,” Martin told the Chicago Tribune. “However it is, we need to make more big plays. In the pass game, we had two completions over 40 yards last year. You talk about inconsistency – it’s hard to consistently go on 15-play drive. Part of how you become consistent – you have a couple three-play scores and all of a sudden your consistency level is higher.”

Denbrock’s move pushes first-year assistant Scott Booker to tight ends coach, where he’ll work with arguably the most talented position grouping on the offensive side of the ball. Tasked with coaching All-American Tyler Eifert and developing elite prospects like rising sophomore Ben Koyack and rising junior Alex Welch (who saved a year of eligibility during his freshman season), Booker spent two years interning with the Irish coaching staff after spending five years as a position coach in the MAC conference.

Filling out the rest of the offensive staff is Harry Hiestand, who left Tennessee to coach the offensive line and coordinate the Irish running attack. With a blue-ribbon pedigree that includes a mentor in former Irish offensive line coach Joe Moore, Hiestand will make some subtle adjustments to the Irish line play that’ll help evolve the offense.

“Last year, we were a big gap and pull team,” Kelly explained about the Irish running attack. “You’ll see a little bit more of a zone influence with this offensive group. But more than anything else, it’s Harry’s great experience as an offensive line coach. Having done it and having succeeded, and really wanting somebody that was so focused on technique and development of the offensive line.”

Defensively, the Irish adding veteran coach Bobby Elliott to the staff, giving former Hawkeyes Bob Diaco and Kerry Cooks a coach they’re familiar with both as a colleague and a mentor. On paper, bringing in Elliott seems like a no-brainer, as the former coordinator for Bill Snyder’s best Kansas State teams would be enough to fill the position. Adding his relationship with the leaders of the defense and a sterling reputation only make the fit that much better.

“I want people, first of all, that I enjoy being around,” Kelly said. “Any time you’re hiring you want guys that you enjoy being around, that are passionate for what they do, and have a commonality with everybody in the staff philosophically. That’s what Bobby brings. And certainly his prior relationship with Kerry and Bob Diaco make that an easy fit.”

Perhaps the biggest news of the day was the mention that Scott Booker would take over coordinating special teams for the Irish, replacing Mike Elston who had the job for Kelly’s first two seasons while also coaching the defensive line. Kelly was adamant to stress this wasn’t meant a reflection on Elston’s job running the Irish special teams, but after subpar results — especially in the punt return game — the move was made to Booker, who will receive help from the entire staff.

“His focus is on that defensive line,” Kelly said. “We pulled him in a lot of different directions last year with special teams and it takes a lot of time out of you. Now he can focus strictly on the defensive line. It’s going to make us a better football team… It’s going to be exciting from a defensive standpoint in that room that we can have Mike focused on the defensive line and game planning.”

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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