Everett Golson

What we’ve learned: Offense

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We’re roughly one week into fall camp, with the Irish finished with their first two-a-day practice on Friday. There’s been a little bit of everything so far: Injuries, departures, surprises, and position battles as camp gets under way.

Let’s take a quick swing through the offensive position groupings and get everyone up to speed.

QUARTERBACK:

The biggest story of camp will also be the defining position battle of the season. With Tommy Rees suspended for the season opener against Navy, the door is wide open for either the Everett Golson or Andrew Hendrix eras to begin. Early returns have been mostly neutral, though I’d be hard pressed to see a way that Everett Golson doesn’t end up the starter when the Irish take the field in Dublin. He’s just too intriguing of an athlete, with too diverse of a skillset not to give the first shot.

Still, contrary to what some fans suspect, it won’t be just lollipops and rainbows after the Irish offense rids itself of Rees. While the junior quarterback has taken mostly mental reps while head coach Brian Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin get Golson and Hendrix up to speed, Friday’s practice featured an openly fired up Kelly, who openly challenged someone to step up and take charge.

“You don’t have Tommy to bail you guys out,” Kelly said, according to a source. “One of you need to step up! We are going over there to win!”

While there’s no plan to use Gunner Kiel this season, the talented freshman has taken great strides since spring in his ability to grasp the offense. With better than expected speed and a big arm, Kiel still is on track to be the quarterback of the future.

RUNNING BACK:

It appears that the only thing that’s going to hold back senior running back Cierre Wood is some medical paperwork. After two days of red tape held up the Irish’s returning rusher, Wood is back and ready to lead a talented group.

The biggest news out of the running back depth chart has been the decision of Cam Roberson to retire from football after a debilitating knee injury made playing up to speed next to impossible. This outcome wasn’t entirely unexpected to Roberson or the coaching staff, but it’s always difficult to see an injury cut a career short.

Theo Riddick has impressed during his move back to running back, which interestingly might help him play the hybrid position better than he did when he was a wide receiver. George Atkinson presents another intriguing option, the biggest back in the depth chart while also possessing some of the most impressive speed in college football.

USC transfer Amir Carlisle is working back from a broken ankle suffered before spring practice. He’s an incredibly talented runner with blazing speed, and it’ll be interesting to see how the Irish plan on using the sophomore who earned immediate eligibility after filing for a hardship waiver.

It’s tough to imagine a scenario where Will Mahone works his way onto the field this season. With the depth in front of him, it makes sense to preserve a year of eligibility.

WIDE RECEIVERS

While Kelly has sounded confident that veterans John Goodman, TJ Jones and Robby Toma will anchor the position grouping, he’s made a point of throwing his talent trio of freshmen receivers into the rotation immediately.

Slot receiver Davonte Neal is almost a sure bet to contribute early and often, with the college-ready talent owning a solid grasp of football and an elite set of skills. Chris Brown might also find his way into the role of deep threat wide receiver, with the Carolina speedster being everything advertised after Kelly talked his ability up at Signing Day. Justin Ferguson also has great size, checking in at 6-foot-2, 195-pounds, and might work his way onto the field as well.

Davaris Daniels, after not playing during his freshman season, is the X Factor of the unit. He’ll likely get every chance to win a starting job, but even if he doesn’t he’ll be counted on to make plays and help a passing game that could be in a state of transition with a new quarterback likely leading the way this season.  Getting something out of Daniel Smith would be a bonus for this staff, as the local South Bend product has struggled to stay healthy for most of his career, but possesses some red zone size that’s much needed at the position.

TIGHT END

Senior All-American Tyler Eifert will undoubtedly be the leading man in the Irish aerial attack. But his supporting cast has taken a bump with the loss of junior Alex Welch. Counted on to be a part of key depth that’ll allow the Irish offense to be more versatile, Welch’s knee injury will in all likelihood cost him the season.

Troy Niklas and Ben Koyack are two intriguing sophomore prospects. Niklas’ size and athleticism are pretty unique. At 6-foot-7, 260-pounds, Niklas is a few hamburgers away from being an elite left tackle, but with good speed, solid hands, and an ability to run in the open field, the Irish might have another star tight end on the roster after moving Niklas from the defensive side of the ball.

That’s not to say that Koyack is a slouch. At 6-foot-5, 253-pounds, the sophomore is another massive athlete, and after a promising freshman season, expect Koyack to make a bigger dent in the stat sheet this season.

Jake Golic will slide into the rotation after Welch’s injury. It wasn’t too long ago that his brother Mike was considered nothing more than emergency depth, so there’s a chance that during his senior season, Jake will end up answering the bell if his number is called.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Braxston Cave looks to be on his way back from a difficult foot injury. The fifth-year center is one of the team’s emotional leaders, and has the potential to put together a very good season anchoring the offensive line. He has every chance to be the Irish’s best center since All-American Jeff Faine.

The left side of the offensive line looks strong with Chris Watt and Zack Martin anchoring the guard and tackle positions for the second straight season. With the departure of Jordan Prestwood, depth may be of some concern, where talented freshman Ronnie Stanley looks good, but not quite ready for primetime.

On the right side of the line, it’s looking like Christian Lombard has cemented the right tackle job with Mike Golic running with the first team at right guard. Sophomore Nick Martin will battle Golic for the job at guard, while Tate Nichols is the next man in at tackle. If there’s an injury among the starters expect Nichols to work in at right tackle, and the younger Martin to show some flexibility in his ability to kick inside or out.

The next generation of Irish offensive linemen still need to make strides during this season before Kelly or offensive line coach Harry Hiestand will feel comfortable inserting them into the rotation. Matt Hegarty, Bruce Heggie and Connor Hanratty all can provide depth on the inside of the line, while Mark Harrell has done a nice job in his first week, holding his own in one-on-one drills.

Irish A-to-Z: Quenton Nelson

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 17: Quenton Nelson #56 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates after a 10-yard touchdown reception by Corey Robinson against the USC Trojans in the fourth quarter of the game at Notre Dame Stadium on October 17, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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It didn’t take long for Quenton Nelson to establish himself as one of the nation’s premier guards. From day one in the starting lineup, Nelson helped the Irish become one of the country’s dominant offensive lines, a bruising run blocker who showed incredible toughness as he battled through an ankle injury and returned quickly to the lineup after Alex Bars went down.

This spring, Nelson got enough more monstrous. Brian Kelly quipped that Nelson had grown to 346 pounds, though Harry Hiestand tried his best to downplay that size, pegging the number closer to 330.

But you’ll see a slimmer, quicker Nelson this season, his spring and summer spent putting in the work. That should lead to an even better season as the junior is joined by Mike McGlinchey on the left side of Sam Mustipher, perhaps the best guard-tackle combo in America.

 

QUENTON NELSON
6’5″, 325 lbs.
Junior, No. 56, LG

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

An elite, national recruit, Nelson was a five-star prospect and Top 30 player. Earned an invite to the U.S. Army All-American game. Chose Notre Dame early in the process, picking the Irish over Alabama, Ohio State, Michigan, Stanford and just about everybody else.

Made waves on the web as he pulled off 26 reps of 225-pounds on the bench press as a high school senior, more than most offensive line prospects at the NFL Scouting Combine.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Did not see action, preserving a year of eligibility.

Sophomore Season (2015): Played in 12 games, starting 11 after suffering an ankle injury against Clemson. Finished as Notre Dame’s third-ranked offensive lineman per PFF College’s grading system, behind only Mike McGlinchey and Nick Martin with a +17.7 ranking.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

He might have outperformed my expectations.

For as good as Nelson can be, he’s still just a redshirt freshman. To that point, I expect a good season, within reason. That means that he’ll likely struggle against elite defenders, with veteran players capable of using Nelson’s aggression against him, and potentially getting the young guard and his body out of position.

Of course, there’s also a good chance that Nelson is as good as advertised. Because he did spend the spring beating out a talented depth chart, and his natural strength and power are absolutely keys to being a great guard in Hiestand’s blocking scheme.

Some guys are born to be offensive linemen. Nelson looks like one of those guys. The chance to be a four-year starter is a rare one. But Nelson seems to be on that trajectory.

No pressure, kid.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

From five-star prospect to first-round draft pick. That’s the trajectory Nelson is on, even if he will be doing it as a guard not as a tackle, as most expected when he was recruited.

For as good as Nelson is expected to be, he’s still just a second-year player. And he’ll be lining up next to another future first-rounder who has just one season under his belt and is already expected to be among the best in the country.

Nelson is big, nasty, and in exceptional shape entering the season. He’s another sky-is-the-limit prospect, an elite talent who matches that with exceptional mental makeup.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Notre Dame could have two All-Americans lined up next to each other. That’s my bold prediction heading into the season, with both Nelson and McGlinchey earning those honors. In season’s past, we saw the Irish become left-handed in the running game, with Chris Watt and Zack Martin the trusted preference of Brian Kelly in critical running situations. It’s hard to think that won’t be the case in 2016.

Nelson’s strength has turned him into an elite run blocker. Expect to see his game round out this season, with his improved fitness helping bring the physical traits of a tackle into play as well. A special season is possible.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston
Mark Harrell
Daelin Hayes
Jay Hayes
Tristen Hoge
Corey Holmes
Torii Hunter Jr.
Alizé Jones
Jamir Jones
Jarron Jones
Jonathan Jones
Tony Jones Jr.
Khalid Kareem
DeShone Kizer
Julian Love
Tyler Luatua
Cole Luke
Greer Martini
Jacob Matuska
Mike McGlinchey
Colin McGovern
Deon McIntosh
Javon McKinley
Pete Mokwuqh
John Montelus
D.J. Morgan
Nyles Morgan
Sam Mustipher

Kelly expects to play two quarterbacks in 2016

Duke Ejiofor, DeShone Kizer
AP
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With Notre Dame opening up camp next week, Brian Kelly seems to be opening up to the idea of playing two quarterbacks.

As DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire get set to begin their battle, Notre Dame’s head coach talked about that high-profile job with Jim Rome, giving us an interesting look at his mindset on the eve of the season, while also adding a new tweak to the old adage of having two quarterbacks.

Namely, you need two.

“I think you need two,” Kelly told Rome. “You’re going to need two quarterbacks in college football. You need two and we’ve got two very good ones. My expectation is that we need both of them to play.”

That attitude makes sense when you look back at Kelly’s time in South Bend. From the moment Dayne Crist’s bell was rung against Michigan in Kelly’s first season, Notre Dame’s offense has seemingly been pushed into Plan B each and every season—giving way to Nate Montana, Tommy Rees, Andrew Hendrix and eventually Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer.

The Irish certainly wouldn’t have won 10 games in 2015 if Kizer wasn’t capable of thriving when he replaced Zaire against Virginia. And Kelly knows that experience has turned the tables on the depth chart as they enter 2016.

“Both of them are capable of winning, we know that. Malik showed that in the way he played against Texas and he’s been in the program for four years,” Kelly said. “But Kizer obviously has got more experience because of the number of games that he played and big games last year.”

While the plan to continue the competition into fall camp hasn’t changed, Kelly seems to have softened on his stance that only one quarterback will be happy. And while you certainly can’t take this as a declaration that a platoon is coming, Kelly acknowledged the need to have both guys ready and involved. And the best way to do that is by getting them on the field.

“It would be great that whoever took the job over played so well that he’s going to be a Heisman contender,” Kelly said. “If that doesn’t happen, I can see both of them eventually playing.”

The balancing act is nothing new for Kelly. He’s managed it in South Bend, as well as in Cincinnati and his two previous stops. While he’s noted the challenges Ohio State had last season trying to make their offense work while utilizing both Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett, t’s worth pointing out that the Irish coaching staff also spent significant time this offseason huddled with the Buckeyes coaching staff, likely a helpful introduction to the quarterback challenges that even Urban Meyer struggled with.

Kelly knows it won’t be easy finding snaps for both quarterbacks. But he also knows it’s likely better to find your balance when you’re the one dictating terms—not a season-ending injury.

“I think it’s so important to have two quarterbacks, be engaged, keep them involved and as much as they can try to get them in the game if you can,” Kelly said. “It’s a lot more difficult if you can do that. But thats the way it is in college football, with the quarterback being so actively involved in the running game.”

Zaire made it only 19 carries last year when his season ended with a broken ankle. Quarterback runs have ended seasons for Dayne Crist and forced Everett Golson to miss multiple games. But Notre Dame’s offense requires a quarterback who can run the football. And Kelly would rather take his chances playing to that identity than recalibrating how they attack opponents.

“You can’t change your identity week to week, you’ve got to be who you are,” Kelly said. “These two quarterbacks are proven winners. The team knows that.

“I’m not going to have a quarterback controversy. I think we can move forward knowing that both of them are going to play in some fashion.”

***

Listen to Kelly’s full interview with Jim Rome from July 29 below. 

Irish A-to-Z: Sam Mustipher

Sam Mustipher 247
Irish247
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Sam Mustipher established himself as the team’s starting center entering spring practice, the lack of competition probably more striking than the junior winning the job. But Mustipher’s work as Nick Martin’s understudy in 2015 likely allowed him to earn Harry Hiestand’s trust, erasing a position battle many expected to be an open audition.

Another top-line recruit and development project, Mustipher’s a third-year player who’ll help form a nucleus for an offensive line that’s expected to be one of the finest in the nation. But that won’t be possible without a big season from the Maryland native.

 

SAM MUSTIPHER
6’2.5″, 305 lbs.
Junior, No. 53, C

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Mustipher was an Under Armour All-American who picked Notre Dame over a field of elite offers. Alabama, Florida, Florida State, Michigan, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Stanford all wanted him. Hiestand had him locked up by April.

Notre Dame projected him as an interior player from the start, though his transition to center didn’t begin immediately.

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Did not see action.

Sophomore Season (2015): Made appearances in nine games, earning mop-up snaps against Texas and UMass at center.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

He never had to play any high-leverage snaps, but he certainly proved himself Monday through Friday.

Mustipher might be the most unproven part of Notre Dame’s two-deep, a good sign for the work the Irish have done stocking the depth chart. But if something happens to Martin, we’ll see how ready he is to play, a first-year contributor in the middle of an offensive line that’ll already be starting a first-year player at left guard.

Martin has already battled health issues, a major difference between him and his ironman brother. But Mustipher is likely ready to contribute if he’s the guy tapped to serve as a backup. If not? Expect to see some other bodies shuffle through this fall camp, with candidates including Colin McGovern, Hunter Bivin and John Montelus.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Mustipher’s physical attributes won’t bowl you over, but he very quickly earned respect from Brian Kelly last spring, being treated like an established veteran, not a first-year player being asked to replace a high NFL draft pick. Again, that confidence must come from what the staff sees, not what we’ve seen on the playing field.

What they likely see is a student-athlete making it work at Notre Dame as an engineering major, a testament to his smarts. They also see a center cut from the traditional mold, capable of utilizing leverage, moving his feet and aggressively attacking opponents across from him.

Former Bears Pro Bowler Olin Kreutz has spent some time around the Irish, thanks to his relationship with Hiestand. It’s hard not to note the physical similarities, something that I’m sure has helped ease the transition into the starting lineup.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I don’t think Mustipher will be as solid as Martin was last season (a deep-dig into game tape had Martin surging up draft boards before the Texans took him), but expect a strong season. Perhaps the best version of Mustipher is the one you don’t notice. First-year centers who spend a lot of time in the shotgun need to make sure that every play gets started correctly, and from there he can make sure the Irish win the battle at the point of attack. (It sounds remedial, but let’s not take the snap for granted.)

Mustipher’s strength let him win more than his fair share of battles last spring with Daniel Cage, a physical force on the interior. If Mustipher can anchor, play with solid technique and get to the second level, Notre Dame’s running game should continue to surge.

When Tristen Hoge signed with Notre Dame, most thought the high school center had the inside track to multiple seasons starting. That still could happen, but Mustipher might end up the one with three seasons at center, while Hoge battles to be one of the two linemen playing next to him.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston
Mark Harrell
Daelin Hayes
Jay Hayes
Tristen Hoge
Corey Holmes
Torii Hunter Jr.
Alizé Jones
Jamir Jones
Jarron Jones
Jonathan Jones
Tony Jones Jr.
Khalid Kareem
DeShone Kizer
Julian Love
Tyler Luatua
Cole Luke
Greer Martini
Jacob Matuska
Mike McGlinchey
Colin McGovern
Deon McIntosh
Javon McKinley
Pete Mokwuqh
John Montelus
D.J. Morgan
Nyles Morgan

 

Mailbag Open: Questions before camp

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Football is almost here. Before the Irish arrive at Culver Academies next week, drop your questions below or on Twitter @KeithArnold.