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Russell and Neal will get looks at cornerback

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There’s no question that Notre Dame lacks quality depth at cornerback heading into the season. Needing to replace both Robert Blanton and Gary Gray, the Irish will look to first year starter Bennett Jackson on the short-side of the field as Lo Wood and Josh Atkinson will take their competition for the field cornerback position into training camp.

With converted running back Cam McDaniel added to the mix this spring, and Jalen Brown looking the part but still learning, the Irish essentially have five cornerbacks with zero experience that’ll need to hold passing games in check if Notre Dame has BCS aspirations. That sound you hear? It could be quarterbacks Landry Jones and Matt Barkley, two Heisman Trophy candidates, getting ready for a signature game opportunity.

With Tee Shepard never making it into a Notre Dame uniform, Ronald Darby defecting after a long standing commitment to the Irish and Yuri Wright and Anthony Standifer kept out for non-football considerations, Kerry Cooks’ cornerbacks will need to hold down the fort until reinforcements come in 2013.

Unless of course those reinforcements are already on campus.

Head coach Brian Kelly revealed that talented two-way freshmen Davonte Neal and Keivarae Russell will both get a look on the defensive side of the ball, potentially adding some dynamic depth (albeit youthful) to the rotation, while the running back and slot positions are filled with proven talent.

“I think we’ve got to have all of the options open when we go into camp,” Kelly told the South Bend Tribune. “With those two kids in particular we’ve had conversations with them to be flexible.

“We’re going to do what’s best for our team. I think everybody knows where we need to continue to build some depth in certain areas. We’re going to keep open-minded and give them an opportunity to compete.”

It’s a common sense move, especially considering the depth chart Neal and Russell find themselves walking into on the offensive side of the ball. Neal was recruited by some colleges as a two-way player and many see the 5-foot-10, 175-pounder to be a potential lockdown cornerback.

Russell, who showed tremendous versatility during his high school career, is also said to be coming into South Bend with an open mind.

“He didn’t go in there thinking he wanted to be one spot,” Mariner High head coach Dave Odrizack told Scout.com. “He didn’t go in thinking, ‘I want to be a corner,’ or ‘I want to be a running back.’ He just went in to be a football player.”

At 6-foot, 180-pounds, Russell has the size coveted by Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. He’s also showed good speed, running in the state finals of the 100m dash and having a vertical leap of 37-inches. He saw time all over the field and on both sides of the ball as a running back, receiver, cornerback and safety, making any transition a little bit easier.

Of course, after having no depth at safety the past two seasons, the Irish will now have a whopping 12 scholarship safeties this season. Even with Austin Collinsworth lost for the season, you’ve got to think the coaching staff will be looking for candidates to play on the edge of the defense as well. That might mean talented rising sophomore Eilar Hardy could get a look. It could also mean that Jamoris Slaughter still dabbles at cornerback, entrusting the alignment duties to fellow senior Zeke Motta.

Even with two returning starters, the cornerbacks disappointed in 2011, with Gray regressing in his final season at Notre Dame. There’s no room for regression with this group, as each candidate will go in essentially a blank slate.

We’ll find out in a few months if that’s a good thing.

Restocking the roster: Wide Receivers

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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

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We’ve done plenty of mailbags, but this is our first shot at a Live Video Mailbag. This should be a better way to answer more questions and hopefully interact with a few of you as we try to work off some of yesterday’s Super Bowl snacks.

Topics on the list: The 40-year decision, more Brian VanGorder talk, the incoming (and redshirt) freshmen and a whole lot more.

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Kelly and Swarbrick turn attention to science of injury prevention

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Amidst the chaos of their live Signing Day show, UND.com ran had a far-reaching interview with head coach Brian Kelly. It was conducted by his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick, and his former team captain, Joe Schmidt.

So while there was a little bit of talk about the 23 recruits who signed their national letters-of-intent, there was also a very illuminating exchange on an issue that’s really plagued the Irish the past few seasons: Injuries.

Football is a dangerous game. And for as long as people play it, there’ll be impactful injuries that take players off the field. But as Notre Dame settles into what looks like their longest run of stability since the Holtz era, the focus of Kelly and Swarbrick has moved past modernizing the team’s medical services, strength program and nutrition and onto the science of injury prevention.

Here’s what Kelly said about the efforts currently taking shape:

“I think the science piece is very important, because no longer is it just about strength and conditioning,  it’s about durability. It’s the ability to continue to play at an optimal level but also with the rigors of a college schedule, and particularly here at Notre Dame, how do we maximize the time but maximizing getting the most out of our student-athletes and not lose them?

“As you know, we’ve had a couple years here in a rough stretch of injuries. And how do we have an injury prevention protocol that brings in the very best science? You’ve done a great job of reaching out in getting us those kind of resources. so I think tapping into that is probably the next piece. As well as providing the resources for our student-athletes. Continuing to look at facilities. Continuing to give our student-athletes maybe that little edge. Because everybody’s got 85 scholarships.”

It’s clear that the issue is one that’s on the radar for not just Kelly, but the athletic administration. So it’ll be interesting to see some of the steps taken as the program begins investing time and additional resources to an issue that’s really hit the Irish hard the past few seasons.

There’s plenty of other good stuff in the 13-minute interview, so give it a watch.