Robert Blanton

Opponent preview: Michigan State

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This is the third of twelve opponent updates as we sprint towards next Saturday’s opening game in Dublin. For more, check out the preview of Navy and Purdue.

The Overview:

It might not give Irish fans much solace, but Notre Dame finally got to be the spoiler in its annual matchup with Michigan State. The Irish rolled to a relatively easy 31-13 victory in South Bend, one of only two regular season losses for Sparty. With back-to-back eleven-win seasons, Mark Dantonio’s troops have their eye on a Big Ten championship, but will need to find some offense after saying goodbye to some key offensive weapons, none bigger than three-time captain Kirk Cousins.

Last time against the Irish:

With the 2011 season spinning out of control, Notre Dame dug itself out of an 0-2 hole, toppling No. 15 Michigan State fairly easily in South Bend. Overcoming three turnovers, Robert Blanton led the Irish, making a key interception of Cousins to seal the game, while also filling the stat sheet with six tackles, three TFLs, and a sack.

“You talk about guys leading by example,” Brian Kelly said when asked about about his senior cornerback. “When you need a big play, he seems to be around the ball quite a bit.”

The Irish run defense held up against a Spartan rushing attack that gauged the Irish in 2010. Freshman George Atkinson returned a kickoff for a touchdown while Cierre Wood chipped in two on the ground.

Degree of Difficulty:

Of the 12 games the Irish play this season, I rank Michigan State as the third toughest game on the schedule.

12.
11.
10. Navy
9.
8. Purdue
7.
6.
5.
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3. Michigan State

The Match-up:

With a primetime start in Spartan Stadium, we’ll likely get our first look at what this Notre Dame team is made of. Facing what is likely to be the best defense in the Big Ten, Everett Golson (if he’s still starting) will face the first difficult setting of his college career. Eight starters return for Pat Narduzzi’s defense, and none more impressive than defensive end William Gholston, who leads a loaded defensive front even without the departed Jerel Worthy. Three linebackers and three defensive backs also return to the starting lineup, with Denicos Allen a linebacker to watch and All-Big Ten cornerback Johnny Adams also returning.

If the Spartans defense is a proven commodity, the offense is the exact opposite. Junior Andrew Maxwell will try and fill Cousins shoes, and he’s seen mostly mop-up work in his first two seasons. Who Maxwell with throw to is also in question, with the Spartan’s three leading receivers gone, and only eight combined receptions among key returnees. After building an offensive line on the fly last year, the Spartans return a solid group up front and Le’Veon Bell is primed for a big season after splitting carries last season with Edwin Baker.

How the Irish will win:

If the Irish offense can make enough plays and avoid making mistakes, they’ll likely escape East Lansing with a win. With the Spartans offense still coming into form, the Irish’s run defense can shut down Bell, and force Maxwell to try and beat the Irish through the air. Notre Dame’s inexperienced secondary will need to win out against their equally green counterparts, and if they’re playing with a lead, it’ll give Prince Shembo and Ishaq Williams a chance to get after the quarterback. Expect Notre Dame’s ground game to try and make a statement against the Spartans, with Harry Hiestand challenging his unit to lead the offense.

How the Irish will lose:

This will be a mighty big stage for Everett Golson, and his first visit to enemy territory could get ugly if the Irish are forced to get one dimensional. With an unproven receiving corps and a vanilla offensive system designed to limit mistakes, Notre Dame could get bottled up and struggle to move the ball. Maxwell might not have thrown a meaningful pass in his career yet, but the junior has seen the bright lights. Against a depleted Irish secondary that’s learning on the fly, talented transfer DeAnthony Arnett could wreak some havoc against the green Irish secondary.

Gut Feeling:

If there’s a September loss, this one leads the probability watch. A tough location against a team that’s always played the Irish tough, the Spartans have to feel like this one carries a grudge (something you often see when Dantonio takes on Kelly. That said, I think the lack of an offensive identity for the Spartans, and Notre Dame’s ability to win the battle up front, helps them get a key road win.

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

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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.