The way too early 2012 starting lineup: Offense

68 Comments

We’ve had our fifteen-window look heading at the 2012 Fighting Irish, culminating in Saturday’s spring football game. While the roster will see the infusion of 14 freshman this summer, let’s take a look at the way too early 2012 offensive depth chart, updating it with what we learned this spring.

OFFENSIVE LINE

With Braxston Cave spending most of spring recovering from a late season foot injury, the Irish trotted Mike Golic out as the center. Whether Golic stays in the starting lineup after Cave returns is likely up to guys like Tate Nichols, Christian Lombard, and Nick Martin.

The left side of the offensive line is rock solid with Zack Martin returning for his third tour of duty protecting the quarterback’s blind side and Chris Watt looking to build on an impressive season. With Cave the third member of this line that’s expected to play at a championship level, the two jobs that still need to shake out are the replacements for Trevor Robinson and Taylor Dever.

One thing we’ve learned this spring is that Christian Lombard has seized one of the jobs. Lombard, who the staff thought highly enough of last year to let Matt Romine walk with a fifth-year of eligibility remaining, is going to start the season in the starting lineup. Whether that’s at guard or tackle is likely up to Tate Nichols. Brian Kelly and Harry Hiestand have already decided that Lombard is one of the four best linemen on the team. If Nichols shows himself to be the fifth, and can handle the edge of the offensive line, the Irish should be set.

Early Projection for opening day:

Zack Martin, LT
Chris Watt, LG
Braxston Cave, C
Christian Lombard, RG
Tate Nichols, RT

Thoughts: This might be what I’m hoping for as opposed to what’s been decided because the first-string offensive line was featuring Lombard at tackle, with Golic and Nick Martin leading the battle at guard. That said, regardless of the physical improvements Golic has made, he’s still not the type of mauler that Nichols can be, and while Lombard will handle right tackle if needed, a road-grader like Nichols is a much better fifth starter than the physically limited Golic. In an ideal world, Golic turns into this season’s Andrew Nuss, a super-sub type that backs up the three interior positions. (That said, don’t be surprised if Nick Martin is the guy to beat at guard, with Lombard shifting outside.)

TIGHT END

A quick viewing of the Blue-Gold game gives you the feeling that Tyler Eifert will likely be a tight end by name only. Split wide, he’s the Irish’s top receiving threat. Paired with an inline blocker, it’s a mismatch waiting to happen. (Take a look at the deep post Eifert ran, it was a two-man route with Ben Koyack running the under route.) Even with Troy Niklas missing the spring’s final week with the flu and then concussion-like symptoms, he’s got to be the leader in the clubhouse to be the Irish’s top attached blocker.

Alex Welch, who had been passed by Ben Koyack last season, had a nice spring, fighting his way back into the mix and showing just how good the depth chart looks behind Eifert. Koyack is expected to do big things next season and into the future. Jake Golic, who along with Eifert is the elder-statesman of the group, reportedly has come down with mono, but he’ll likely only contribute on special teams.

Early Projection for opening day:

Tyler Eifert (never coming off the field)
Troy Niklas
Ben Koyack
Alex Welch
Jake Golic

Thoughts: Expect Eifert to play as many snaps as he can handle. I fully expect Niklas to become a weapon by the end of the season, and the Irish have taken a look at every snap of the New England Patriots’ tape to see how to use Eifert with Niklas, or whoever else can step up and make an impact. With plenty of two-tight sets, expect the top four on this depth chart to see plenty of playing time, and Golic do his best to get in the rotation.

OUTSIDE WIDE RECEIVER

If tight end is an embarrassment of riches, the outside receiver is quite the opposite. While John Goodman was voted most improved by the coaching staff this spring on the offensive side of the ball, believing that the fifth-year senior is ready to tap into all of his bottled promise is a leap I’m not yet willing to make. Same goes for Daniel Smith, who made it through spring practice healthy, and passes the eyeball test, but doesn’t look to be an explosive option. Davaris Daniels is the guy the Irish staff likely wants on the field, and might hope is flying under the radar. TJ Jones doesn’t look to have the physicality needed to be a top-flight outside wide receiver at this level (or at least he hasn’t shown it yet), but he’s taken a lot of snaps and needs to be a leader. Chris Brown and Justin Ferguson, not on campus until this summer, are true wildcards, with the staff believing Brown has the speed and athleticism to get on the field quickly. The loss of Luke Massa to a knee injury, after he looked good during spring drills, can’t help from a sheer numbers perspective either.

This is still a spread offense, regardless of how good the tight end depth chart is. The Irish are going to need two or three of these guys to be ready to go from day one, and the loss of Floyd, not to mention the late defection of Deontay Greenberry, will have Irish fans quickly wondering what could’ve been. That said, Mike Denbrock has done nothing but good things since he stepped back on campus, and he and Chuck Martin taking the reins of the passing game should open things up.

Early Projection for opening day:

Davaris Daniels
TJ Jones
John Goodman
Chris Brown
Daniel Smith
Justin Ferguson
Luke Massa (injured)
Andre Smith (walk-on)

Thoughts: This group doesn’t give you much confidence, but there is some talent here. Past numbers certainly won’t show that, but Goodman has a chance to be this season’s Jonas Gray, and Jones has shown flashes of being a starting-caliber player. While we’ll talk about the quarterback being a game manager, the Irish coaching staff will need to call the right game and play the best scheme to bring the most out of this group, as it’s not going to wow you with its athleticism.

SLOT RECEIVER

This is where we see the versatility of the Irish offense. On paper, there looks to be only Robby Toma currently on campus that plays the position. Davonte Neal, who was among the top recruited skill players in the country, could immediately make his mark, but he’ll need to learn the concepts and the playbook first. The same goes for KeiVarae Russell, who might be the forgotten man in this recruiting class, but someone people think could be a game-breaking talent. The versatility of the roster, where Tony Alford coaches both slot receivers and running backs, and Martin’s redesign of an offense that got way too vanilla last year, make this position a true mystery.

George Atkinson, Cierre Wood, and Theo Riddick all looked very good this spring, with the Irish running attack truly three-deep during the spring game. All three can play some version of slot receiver, with Riddick leading the team in catches during the scrimmage and Atkinson making some explosive plays in the passing game as well. We’ve only seen him with crutches, but the Irish believe they have another elite talent with Amir Carlisle, who dominated during the All-Star game circuit as a blue-chip recruit at wideout and was USC’s most versatile running back before transferring to South Bend.

It may be difficult to classify these guys correctly, but from this point going forward, who cares. The staff knows they are going to need to get the ball in their best players hands. How and where they do it will be fun to track.

Early Projection for opening day:

Robby Toma (could be a breakout player)
Amir Carlisle
Davonte Neal
George Atkinson
KeiVarae Russell

Thoughts: This group is going to be the most fun to watch. I could make a good argument that every guy listed here is going to have a huge season. The upside potential on all of these guys is tremendous and Chuck Martin is committed to finding interesting ways to get these guys touches. That’s all you can ask for.

RUNNING BACK

When Jonas Gray went down last season, the Irish’s biggest depth-chart deficiency on offense was revealed. With only freshmen Cam McDaniel and George Atkinson available as back-ups, Brian Kelly returned Theo Riddick to the backfield, where he’s stayed after looking natural at the position against Stanford and Florida State.

The addition of Amir Carlisle, the recruitment of Will Mahone and KeiVarae Russell, and the ascension of Atkinson this spring has turned this into one of the strongest positions on the Irish roster, and led to McDaniel getting reps with the depleted cornerbacks. Top-lined by returning starter Cierre Wood, the Irish can easily trot out four starting caliber running backs, before ever knowing what Mahone or Russell bring to the table.

With the balance of power in the offense tilted to running back and depth at tight end, expect all these guys — whoever is starting — to get carries.

Early Projection for opening day:

Cierre Wood
Theo Riddick
Amir Carlisle
George Atkinson
KeiVarae Russell
Will Mahone

Thoughts: The running game is going to power this offense. Call me crazy, but each of the top four guys listed could put up thousand yard seasons when you tally up rushing and receiving yards. That’s a scary proposition, especially when you know that Tyler Eifert is going to get his fair share of touches, too. For as much as people complain about the Irish’s weapons, this position grouping is definitely BCS caliber, and should remind Irish fans of the running game Lou Holtz used to trot out on the field.

QUARTERBACKS

Of course, it all is going to come down to the man behind center. The Blue-Gold game showed that the position battle, likely a three-man race between incumbent Tommy Rees and challengers Everett Golson and Andrew Hendrix, is far from over. It might be so unresolved that it gives Gunner Kiel a chance to fight his way into it, too.

The spring game was a microcosm of all three starting candidates problems. Rees forced a ball into coverage and threw a bad interception. Hendrix locked on a receiver, never even noticing a dropping linebacker that was there to pounce, too. Both are mistakes that upperclassmen can’t make. Golson, who looked the best of the three, struggled to get the team in alignment quick enough, burning two timeouts in more than comfortable circumstances.

This battle could go any way before the Irish board the plane to Dublin. But as of now, here’s my gut on where things will end up.

Early Projection for opening day:

Everett Golson
Tommy Rees
Andrew Hendrix
Gunner Kiel

Thoughts: Chuck Martin will earn his salary, and likely his first major head coaching opportunity, if he can get this group to play up to its potential. Admittedly, this depth chart is based around what we saw during the spring game, and the coaching staff had 14 other opportunities to evaluate the position. During his postgame press conference, Kelly made it clear that Golson, while he looked good, needed to put in the time during voluntary workouts to win the job. Never one to shy away from playing multiple guys behind center, there’s a high likelihood that we’ll see three (and maybe even four) of these guys.

Turnovers tip toward Notre Dame in a 38-18 victory at Michigan State

Getty Images
2 Comments

Statistically, Notre Dame did not outplay Michigan State in the 38-18 Irish victory Saturday night. After all, the Spartans outgained Notre Dame by 142 yards. Even if ignoring the fourth quarter when the Irish had the game in hand, Michigan State matched Notre Dame.

One thing made the difference.

Rather, three things, as in two fumble recoveries and an interception.

“The story here is defensively we were taking the football away,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “… Rushing yards don’t really matter much, passing yards don’t matter much when you can take the football away and capitalize on it in the red zone.”

Indeed.

Notre Dame averaged 4.79 yards per carry on 39 rushes (sacks adjusted). The Irish converted eight of 14 third downs, a season-high rate of 57.1 percent. They reached the red zone four times and scored four touchdowns on those drives.

But the game hinged entirely on those three turnovers.

“Obviously, with those turnovers, being minus three [in turnover margin] in the first half createda b ig 14-point swing, number one,” Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio said. “… Ultimately, the turnovers are what crushes you.”

Notre Dame’s Shaun Crawford recovers a fumble in the end zone for a touchback after stripping the ball from Michigan State’s LJ Scott (3), preventing a Spartans touchdown in Saturday’s second quarter. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
Notre Dame led only 21-7 with Michigan State driving. This was still a genuine contest as Spartans junior running back L.J. Scott headed toward the end zone with 6:23 remaining in the second quarter.

Instead, Irish junior cornerback Shaun Crawford caught Scott at the end of his 15-yard rumble for the goal line. Inches before he crossed it, Crawford punched the ball loose, a move he later directly attributed to studying film of former Chicago Bears defensive back Charles “Peanut” Tillman. Crawford tracked down the ball in the end zone, turning a touchdown into a touchback.

He quite literally prevented a touchdown. Notre Dame got the ball back. Five plays later Irish junior running back Dexter Williams scored from 14 yards out, opening up the margin to 28-7. Michigan State would not get within two possessions the rest of the night.

PLAY OF THE GAME
Obviously, the play of the game is Crawford’s forced and recovered fumble. Rarely is one single play worth six points. Other moments lead up to it or a subsequent success could have replicated the effect. In this instance, however, Crawford’s savvy was worth exactly six points all on its own. Not to mention, it then led to an Irish scoring drive.

Honorable mention should certainly go to sophomore cornerback Julian Love’s 59-yard interception return for a touchdown. Love jumped Spartans quarterback Brian Lewerke’s throw so cleanly there was never any doubt about his arrival in the end zone once he secured the ball. Thanks to the defensive highlight, Notre Dame led 14-0 before even five minutes of the game had passed.

To be sure to mention the third turnover of the evening, pictured above, senior linebacker Greer Martini chased Lewerke to the sideline, popping the ball loose as he tackled the quarterback. Irish sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes landed on the fumble at Michigan State’s 24-yard line. It took all of six plays for Notre Dame to gain the 24 yards, culminating with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush finding Williams in the end zone from eight yards out, bringing the score to the aforementioned 21-7.

Crawford’s stellar defensive play came on the ensuing Spartans drive.

OVERLOOKED POINT OF THE GAME
Michigan State received the kickoff to start the second half. Trailing 28-7, a definitive touchdown drive would have returned some intrigue to the evening. The Spartans alternated three Scott rushes for a methodical 17 yards with Lewerke darts downfield, completing an 18-yarder to junior tight end Matt Sokol and a 20-yard pass to sophomore receiver Trishton Jackson, Michigan State did not need much time to reach the red zone.

On a third-and-six from the 20-yard line, Lewerke had some time to find a receiver. Irish sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara made sure it was not too much time, notching a two-yard sack.

The yardage of the loss was not important. Ending the drive shy of the end zone was. The Spartans opted for a 40-yard field goal, but cutting the Notre Dame lead to 18 did not have much of an effect on anyone’s urgency.

Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s sole passing touchdown Saturday night came when he found junior running back Dexter Williams along the sideline after Wimbush evaded pressure. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

PLAYER OF THE GAME
A week ago, this space would not give this nod to junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush despite his rushing for 207 yards and four touchdowns. To be fair, that was primarily a credit to junior running back Josh Adams’ work against Boston College.

Today, Wimbush gets it. He rushed for only 57 yards and one touchdown on seven carries, but out of the gates he attacked the Spartans with his arm. Finishing 14-of-20 for 173 yards and one touchdown through the air may not sound like much, but it was enough of a threat to keep Michigan State’s defense on its heels.

“We can probably move on about he can’t throw it,” Kelly said. “He’s just got the ability to do a lot at that position.”

The first play from scrimmage was a 10-yard completion to sophomore receiver Chase Claypool. Every play of the 78-yard drive was a pass attempt until the final two plays, both Wimbush carries, the latter a 16-yard touchdown run on a designed draw.

A week ago Wimbush managed only 96 passing yards. On the opening drive at Michigan State, he threw for 62. Any plans the Spartans had of forcing him to beat them with his arm went out the window. Wimbush clearly was up to the task.

STAT OF THE GAME
More accurately, it is a stat of the season.

Through four games, Notre Dame is allowing 18.25 points per game. No matter who the opponents have been, that is a promising number for 2017 through four games.

Last season that mark was 27.83. To provide more context, consider some of last year’s “better” performances. For outlying purposes and weather acknowledgements, discard the six points the Irish allowed Army and the 10 scored by North Carolina State in a literal hurricane. Notre Dame’s next best four defensive performances by points allowed were against Nevada (10 points), Stanford (10), Miami (27) and Navy (28). Those average to 20.5 points per game.

UNEXPECTED FACT OF THE NIGHT
Sophomore running back Deon McIntosh led Notre Dame in carries with 12, gaining 35 yards and scoring a touchdown. His increase in workload was a result of the Irish enjoying a comfortable lead and sophomore running back Tony Jones spending the evening in street clothes due to a sprained ankle.

Adams took nine rushes for 56 yards. Williams needed eight carries to gain 40 yards and a score. By no means did either struggle, but neither will complain at a night light on bumps and bruises yet complete with a victory.

“[Adams] is our bell cow, if you will, and we’re going to continue to utilize his physicality at the position,” Kelly said. “We think Dexter Williams is a great complementary back in terms of what he can do, and you saw what Deon was capable of. He runs hard. He’s a tough kid with a burst. [Jones] wasn’t able to go but we’ll get him back most likely next week.

“We think we’re very fortunate that we’ve got some depth at that position.”

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
“Statistics can lie to you.” — Dantonio.

He is not wrong.

SCORING SUMMARY

First Quarter
13:05 — Notre Dame touchdown. Brandon Wimbush 16-yard rush. Justin Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Michigan State 0. (7 plays, 78 yards, 1:55)
10:33 — Notre Dame touchdown. Julian Love 59-yard interception return. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 14, Michigan State 0.
6:33 — Michigan State touchdown. Darrell Stewart four-yard reception from Brian Lewerke. Matt Coghlin PAT good.  Notre Dame 14, Michigan State 7. (7 plays, 75 yards, 4:00)

Second Quarter
9:32 —Notre Dame touchdown. Dexter Williams eight-yard reception from Wimbush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 21, Michigan State 7. (6 plays, 24 yards, 2:23)
4:47 — Notre Dame touchdown. Williams 14-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 28, Michigan State 7. (5 plays, 80 yards, 1:34)

Third Quarter
11:13 — Michigan State field goal. Coghlin from 40 yards. Notre Dame 28, Michigan State 10. (9 plays, 53 yards, 3:38)
7:46 — Notre Dame touchdown. Deon McIntosh nine-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 35, Michigan State 10. (8 plays, 62 yards, 3:19)

Fourth Quarter
4:51 — Notre Dame field goal. Yoon from 46 yards. Notre Dame 38, Michigan State 10. (10 plays, 66 yards, 5:01)
3:09 — Michigan State touchdown. Gerald Holmes 25-yard reception from Lewerke. Two-point conversion good, Cody White reception from Lewerke. Notre Dame 38, Michigan State 18. (7 plays, 71 yards, 1:35)

Notre Dame at Michigan State: Who, what, when, where, why and by how much

Getty Images
45 Comments

WHO? Notre Dame at Michigan State. Many years, this matchup would warrant anticipatory headlines. In this rendition, two teams coming off historically-disappointing seasons are looking to prove they are on the path back to top-flight competitiveness.

WHAT? As may become a theme this season, this will come down to how the Irish offensive line fares against the Spartans’ defensive front seven.

WHEN? 8:00 p.m. ET. Kickoff is scheduled for 8:12, though if the preceding game runs long, a five-minute contingency should be expected. At that point, though, the game will begin one way or another.

WHERE? Spartans Stadium, East Lansing, Mich. Years ago, a venture to this site is where I first learned a traveler’s rule of thumb: Never make a trip where the roundtrip travel is longer than the time spent at the destination. I have since violated the rule a total of once, when the New York Yankees visited the Detroit Tigers in the 2011 divisional round. The wrong team won. Speaking of baseball and apropos of nothing else aside from being reminded of it this week, Cy Young threw 749 complete games, a full 110 more than the next-most in history, Pud Galvin’s 639.

Fox has the broadcast this week. Aside from that meaning Gus Johnson will be providing the exhilarating play-by-play, not sure what else to share about that fact.

WHY? This will be the last game — unless a bowl situation were to arise — between Notre Dame and Michigan State until 2026. Whoever wins will get to display the vaunted megaphone trophy for nearly a decade without worry. If that doesn’t get everyone’s competitive juices flowing, well, then that is not much of an indicator of anything because it is actually a pretty absurd keepsake.

(Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

BY HOW MUCH? This line moved as high as Notre Dame by five, never to this eye falling below three, and that is where it settled in as of this Friday evening typing. With a combined points total over/under of 54, the theoretical projected score would be an Irish 28-25 victory.

That might be a bit high-scoring, especially considering the performance of Notre Dame’s defense to date. If Georgia could not surpass 20 points, there is no reason to think the Spartans can.

Notre Dame 23, Michigan State 17. (2-1 record on the season.)

THIS WEEK’S INSIDE THE IRSH READING:
Monday Morning Leftovers: Notre Dame should punt less, a Georgia ticket arrest & Bob Diaco’s fate
Questions for the Week: Ankles, Claypool and Notre Dame’s history at Spartan Stadium
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Ready for a tough week for the dozen foes, but that could mean some promising upsets
MSU’s man-to-man pass D may allow Notre Dame & Wimbush to rush more; Kelly on resting Adams
Who among Notre Dame’s receivers might emerge?
And In That Corner … The Michigan State Spartans and a recovery from a 3-9 season
Things To Learn: On Notre Dame’s defensive line, offensive line and Wimbush’s road readiness
Kelly on C.J. Sanders, Kevin Stepherson and punt returns; injury update
Friday at 4: Four things you do not see

INSIDE THE IRISH COVERAGE FROM THE BOSTON COLLEGE GAME
Notre Dame rushes past Boston College and record books
Notre Dame offense may trend toward run, partly thanks to Wimbush
Things We Learned: Notre Dame lacks an aerial attack and a punt return, has a defensive future
Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Canteen out for the season, Javon McKinley probably sitting also; Kelly on blocking strategy

THIS WEEK’S OUTSIDE READING:
Georgia ticket broker arrested for overselling Notre Dame vs. Bulldogs tickets
The NFL’s Crisis on Offense … may reflect a collegiate trend
At USC, Sundays and Mondays matter just as much as Saturdays
Remembering Michigan State’s epic “Little Giants” fake field goal against Notre Dame
Joe Thomas on measuring a running attack’s success
Nebraska fired athletic director Shawn Eichorst, putting the future employment of head coach Mike Riley, and by extension his defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, in doubt
A long look at Bob Davie’s checkered past as controversy swirls in New Mexico
The Unforgettable, Inspirational CFB Gameday Inside Iowa’s Children’s Hospital
A five-by-five Pac-12 After Dark bingo card for anyone staying up late to watch UCLA at Stanford
10 years after Mike Gundy’s “I’m a man! I’m 40!” rant, the columnist it was aimed at reflects

Friday at 4: Four things you do not see

Getty Images
20 Comments

For all the enjoyment football brings so many, it is a game predicated on one sense above all others: sight.

Sure, the atmosphere in Spartans Stadium this weekend will include the sounds of yelling fans, the smells of propane grills and the taste of cheap, domestic buds. Even the weather will trigger the feeling of sweat.

The game itself, however, needs only working eyes. There is a reason film is usually watched on mute, after all.

There are some things related to the game not seen, or not seen often, though.

Let’s start with an educational session from the NFL’s Cal Ripken — Cleveland Browns left tackle Joe Thomas

Yes, that is the same Thomas as the one drafted in the same year, in the same round, by the same team as former Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn. Quinn has not seen NFL action since getting eight starts for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2012, throwing two touchdowns compared to eight interceptions.

Thomas, meanwhile, now blocks for his second former Irish passer while on his way to a likely 11th consecutive Pro Bowl. Note: This is Thomas’ 11th year in the NFL. Not only has he started all 162 games of his career, he has now played in more than 10,000 consecutive offensive snaps.

That’s, uhhh, a lot.

Thursday morning Thomas met with reporters and offered some insights to how he gauges a successful day at the office. (Fair warning: The following embedded video does include one four-letter word. Thomas’ point is quoted and summarized below, so the video may not be necessary to view.)

“You always hear a lot about 4.0 yards per carry, which is sort of everyone’s standard,” Thomas said. “… If you look at rushing in the NFL, you go alright, we went for 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 60. And then you go, we’re rushing really well, we have a seven-yard average. But really how are you going to get the offensive coordinator to call a run again if he’s getting one and two yards and facing a third-and-seven all the time?”

Well, you’re not.

Thomas prefers “rushing efficiency,” valuing runs of more than four yards, runs gaining first downs and runs finding the end zone. If those make up at least 60 percent of rush attempts, Thomas deems it a success.

“That’s what’s going to allow you to get 20, 25, 30 carries in a game,” he said. “Then you walk out of the game feeling good about getting your 100 yards at the end of the game versus saying you didn’t have four yards a carry, but you were really efficient so you did stay ahead of the sticks, and you were able to keep the offense on the field and be in manageable third downs.”

This space has previously argued the easiest way to learn if a rushing attack is potent or not is to simply note how many running attempts it has. This parallels Thomas’ argument: If the run game is not doing what it needs to do, the coaches will stop calling running plays. The run efficiency percentage is simply a more exact metric, albeit one you cannot see in a glimpse of a box score.

How has Notre Dame fared thus far this season?

Using Thomas’ standards, the Irish had a 61.90 percent rush efficiency in the season opener (42 rushes), a 32.35 percent rating in their one loss (34) and a 66.67 percent tally in last week’s record-setting rushing performance (51). (more…)

Kelly on C.J. Sanders, Kevin Stepherson and punt returns; injury update

Getty Images
63 Comments

In his last media availability before Notre Dame heads to face Michigan State this weekend (8 p.m. ET on Saturday, Fox), Irish coach Brian Kelly did not discuss his receiver corps at all.

Just kidding.

Of the eight topics Kelly was questioned about, five of them dealt with wideouts in some respect, perhaps spending the most time on C.J. Sanders. The junior has yet to be seen contributing on offense this season.

“It’s not that he’s really done anything from last year to this year wrong,” Kelly said. “He’s actually stronger. I think he’s a better football player. You’re going to see him on the field. … As the season progresses, he’s going to play.”

Kelly cited the blocking provided by fifth-year Arizona State transfer Cam Smith as the biggest impediment between Sanders and an immediate increase in playing time, describing Smith’s blocking as “just physically” better. With sophomore Chase Claypool also seeing time on the boundary, Sanders faces stiffer competition for playing time.

“Do you move him back into the slot?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “We’re pretty comfortable moving guys around at this point at that position because of our need to put bigger-bodied guys in the offense with the tight end at that position.”

In other words, Kelly and Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long have moved receivers such as Sanders, and even Claypool, out to the boundary because they so often remove the slot receiver from the field in favor of an additional tight end.

Injury update

Speaking of Sanders, Kelly declared him “fine” in his recovery from a sprained ankle. For that matter, sophomore running back Tony Jones will be a “game-day decision” as to his availability due to a sprained ankle suffered against Boston College.

Kevin Stepherson update

There is no indication the sophomore receiver will join Notre Dame’s offense this week. Considering Stepherson did not even travel to face the Eagles, it is quite likely he watches this weekend on a television, as well. Yet, Kelly did speak positively of Stepherson’s return from something of an absence thus far this season.

“He’s had a good month,” Kelly said. “His last month has been pretty good. He’s been pretty consistent working to do the right things in the classroom and has exhibited the things that I’ve been looking for. He’s been working out with [the team] for the last week or so.”

But, to add some emphasis here again, Kelly did not imply Stepherson will play this weekend. In fact, the exact opposite.

“He’s still got a ways to go, but he’s making progress.”

On punt returns and Chris Finke

To complete this week’s second (third? fourth?!) receiver recap, Kelly defended junior receiver Chris Finke’s work as a punt returner this season. Irish opponents have punted 22 times in three games. Finke has attempted to return eight of them. He has netted a total of two yards.

“We’re pleased with him,” Kelly said. “There won’t be a change there.”

Kelly did include a caveat for praising Finke’s return game.

“We’ve been in a number of fourth down situations where we’ve asked for a fair catch and he hasn’t fair caught it,” Kelly said. “We have to be better there. He has to fair catch those balls.”

On the moments when Finke returned a punt to absolutely no avail, Kelly cited missed blocks as the culprit, not Finke’s decision to make a move with the ball.

“One of our gunners has to do better on hold-up,” he said. “We think we’ve had an opportunity for a couple of good returns. … If there’s a change, it will be with one of the gunners.”