Five things we’ll learn: The 2012 Fighting Irish


There’s no better time of year to be a football fan. Everybody is undefeated. The team looks confident and ready for battle. Your coaching staff is confident they’ve filled the holes in the roster and players are ready to step up and have a breakthrough season. In other words, it’s still August.

For Notre Dame fans, hope still springs eternal. It may have been difficult to pick yourself up off the mat again — especially after last season’s demoralizing results — but after nine months of poking and prodding, over-analyzing and critiquing, there’s light at the end of the tunnel: It may be crazy, but (once again) this year could be the year.

Of course, that conclusion could be shot to hell in the next 72 hours. With a football team breaking in a new quarterback that’s yet to play a game, a schedule that feels like your rolling a boulder up a hill, and a roster thin enough at certain positions that there’s little margin for error, the 2012 season could very easily get ugly in a hurry. But that’s what you worry about next week. Until then, it’s all about enjoying the potential. Because it can never last long enough.

As the Fighting Irish make their way across the Atlantic Ocean for its opening game against Navy, here are five things we’ll learn in the 2012 season.

With the weight of ND Nation on his shoulders, Everett Golson will learn quickly whether he’s ready for primetime.

It doesn’t happen often, but the Irish fanbase has gotten their way. After sitting out a redshirt season and getting up to speed on the rigors of college football, sophomore quarterback Everett Golson is now the man in charge of the Notre Dame offense. The talented South Carolina product certainly has the pedigree: Record-setting prep career, athleticism that netted him a basketball scholarship from North Carolina, and prodigious skills on the piano that have him looking like a wunderkind. There may be no better player on paper to throw your belief behind.

But Brian Kelly understands the proposition and believes he can get enough out of his young quarterback to make it worth the effort.

“He’s going to make some mistakes and we know that we’re going to have to overcome those,” Kelly said of Golson this week. “But if he’s not out of character on Saturday, I will safely say, he will do a very good job of taking care of the football. But that’s why they play the game.”

Well said, coach.

After losing three starters, the secondary will decide whether or not Bob Diaco’s defense takes the next step.

For those fretting about the Irish’s rebooted secondary, its worth taking a trip down memory lane. Heading into the 2010 season, things weren’t exactly rainbows and lollipops on the back-end of the Irish defense. Some bum named Harrison Smith was going to get relegated to outside linebacker after two up-and-down seasons. Kelly’s inexperienced defensive staff needed to get Gary Gray and Darrin Walls to play up to their potential. There were a staggering amount of big plays being made by the guys in the wrong jerseys, never a good proposition for a position grouping where mistakes usually mean points for the bad guys.

After a veteran unit had a disappointing 2011 season, Kelly shuffled the deck and brought in veteran defensive coach Bob Elliott to work with Diaco and cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks. He also reloaded the position grouping, adding an influx of young talent to the depth chart. There are plenty of variables, but the staff believes they can play good enough to win games. That’ll mean getting seniors Zeke Motta and Jamoris Slaughter to anchor the group. It’ll mean getting Bennett Jackson to play up to his star-in-the-making ability. And more importantly, getting freshman starter KeiVarae Russell to play like someone that hasn’t spent a month at cornerback.

In today’s era of college football, even the most elite teams have holes in their roster where unproven talent needs to step up. For the 2012 season to be a good one, the Irish need to make sure their holes don’t get exposed.

The Irish have the strength up front to have a great offensive line… as long as nobody gets hurt.

Irish fans have bemoaned the preseason losses of tight end Alex Welch and cornerback Lo Wood. But there’s no position where there’s a thinner margin for error than offensive line. New line coach Harry Hiestand‘s unit has the makings of an elite unit, with Braxston Cave, Chris Watt, and Zack Martin all capable of playing like All-Americans. Joined by first-year starters Mike Golic and Christian Lombard, this unit could be one of the best Irish lines since the glory days under Joe Moore and Lou Holtz. Unless somebody gets hurt.

Knock on wood, but there’s no position grouping that falls off a cliff like the line. Trading in a player like Martin for a freshman like Ronnie Stanley would be akin to turning over the keys to the Ferrari for your babysitter’s old Civic. (That’s no knock on Stanley, who will be a good one before his career is over.) With five offensive linemen coming in next year’s recruiting class, reinforcements are on the way. But the Irish need to get through this season unscathed up front. If they do, expect big things from an unproven offense. If they don’t… well, it’s be baptism by fire for some untested players.

With the offense in his hands, we’ll find out if Chuck Martin is Kelly’s ace in the hole.

When a college football coach gets a chance to bring in a new offensive coordinator, promoting from within is fairly common. But when that promotion goes to a defensive position coach, it usually deserves an eyebrow raise. Yet Kelly’s promotion of trusted aide Chuck Martin to offensive coordinator was met with nearly universal approval after Charley Molnar took the head coaching job at UMass. The former Grand Valley State head coach will now be Kelly’s eyes in the coaching box, in charge of fixing an offense that’s been far from extraordinary in the first two years of the Brian Kelly era.

Martin has wowed everyone surrounding the program in his two years on the staff. He’s smart, personable, and acts like the spotlight of Notre Dame is no different than life in Division II. But he’s now tasked with building something great out of a unit breaking in a first-year quarterback. He’ll have tools — All-American Tyler Eifert, game-breaking depth at running back, and a strong line. If he’s able to get the job done, expect Martin to get his own football program sooner than later. It’ll be a promotion well deserved.

After an identity crisis, we’ll find out if Brian Kelly doubling down on himself worked.

Give Kelly credit for this: After a disappointing 2011 season, the head coach did a ton of self-evaluation. After acting like a CEO of a major corporation, Kelly got back to doing what got him to South Bend: Coaching Football. That meant building relationships with players he inherited, and getting his hands dirty as he implemented the Xs and Os that had many believing the Irish hired an innovator when they brought Kelly in to replace Charlie Weis.

Instead of hitting the banquet tour and building the Irish brand, Kelly spent the offseason and summer in South Bend. He implemented a new accountability system with his players that worked as a two-way street, forcing the king of the castle to get to know the players that’ll have the coach’s fate in his hands.

Early reports have been nothing but good. Yet with a meat-grinder of a schedule in front of the team, any cracks in the armor will show quickly. Kelly made tough decisions by suspending quarterback Tommy Rees and Carlo Calabrese. He did the same with starting running back Cierre Wood and defensive end Justin Utupo. You can’t do that without a solid group of team leaders, something Kelly reaffirmed by naming four captains to the team — all recruits from the previous regime.

It’s been said a thousand times, but year three is the defining year for Notre Dame head coaches. Nobody in their right mind expects Kelly to win a national championship like those before him did in their third autumn in South Bend. But for all the good Kelly’s done implementing a system that’s conducive for success, it’s time for the him to get it done on the field. That means putting together a season that surprises in a good way, even winning a game or two that nobody expects him to win.

Now all he’s got to do is play the games.

Notre Dame’s Pro Day showcases Nelson, Adams and Smythe, among others

In just 4.48 seconds, former Notre Dame running back Josh Adams took a step or 40 closer to hearing his name called during the NFL draft in late April. Adams’ 40-yard dash time would have been the fifth-best among running backs at the NFL combine in Indianapolis last month.

Then again, a foot injury that may require surgery could stymie Adams’ draft hopes. Both Irish Illustrated and ND Insider reported Adams vaguely confirmed the injury during Notre Dame’s Pro Day on Thursday, but he would not offer much in the way of specifics.

“Overall, I felt like everything went well,” Adams told Irish Illustrated. “I wanted to run low 4.4s, but to me it was all about how I felt. It was strong. I know the numbers may be all over the place, but I felt strong and to me, that’s good. I know it was fast. It wasn’t slow.”

One of nine former Notre Dame players to take part to varying extents in front of representatives from all 32 NFL teams, Adams’ numbers best compared to the results from his positional competition at the combine. His 60-yard shuttle time would have been No. 2 among running backs, his three-cone time would have been the best and his broad jump would have slotted fifth. Those may not be the end-all, be-all metrics when it comes to evaluating running backs, but they certainly helped Adams’ cause.

Only four others partook in the 40-yard dash: Linebackers Greer Martini and Nyles Morgan each ran a 4.78; defensive end Andrew Trumbetti ran a 4.83, and quarterback Malik Zaire ran a 4.93.

A surgery will also hamper Morgan before he commences his NFL career. Morgan silently fought through a shoulder injury much of his senior season and underwent labrum surgery soon after the Irish victory over LSU in the Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day.

“I still can’t bench press, and I was only cleared to run two or three weeks ago,” Morgan told ND Insider. “I think I showed them I’m an explosive player. I hope I showed them I can fit in any system. I’m going to keep working hard every day to prove it.”

While he did not showcase himself in any of the timed exercises, instead relying on his performance at the combine, tight end Durham Smythe continued his push onto draft boards this offseason. Considering his final and arguably his best season consisted of only 15 catches for 244 yards and one touchdown, Smythe began these draft preparations a bit of an unheralded possibility. By now, though, he is in many a draft conversation.

Pro Day: Nelson impresses, Smythe surprises

On the exact opposite end of that spectrum, left guard Quenton Nelson was a distinct reason for many of the 58 NFL front office personnel attending at all. The Indianapolis Colts, for example, hold the No. 6 pick in the draft. Nelson may fall to the Colts, at which point they will want to be sure of such a decision.

“You can see his natural power,” Colts general manager Chris Ballard told The Indianapolis Star. “He’s a big, strong man. He’s got quick feet, good agility and balance, so you see about everything you wanted to see. You saw it on tape, too. So it’s just reconfirming it.”

Receiver Equanimeous St. Brown and left tackle Mike McGlinchey also partook in the pro day.

Full results here

A few current Notre Dame players hung around, as well, with one standing out due to his water boy duties. Of course, given the protection offered by Nelson and McGlinchey last season, offering them water for an afternoon was the least Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush could do.

Love’s press coverage hinges on Notre Dame’s safeties

Associated Press

It will likely be a dichotomy all year. At least, that is the expectation. Every praise of Notre Dame’s secondary will be followed by a clarification that the applause applies specifically to the Irish cornerbacks. At times that will be an implied criticism of Notre Dame’s safeties, but even more often it will probably be an acknowledgement of an Irish strength. Of the choices ahead for defensive coordinator Clark Lea, settling on a rotation among cornerbacks is the only one created by a plethora of proven contributors.

With a trio of rising juniors in Julian Love, Troy Pride and Donte Vaughn along with rising senior Shaun Crawford and fifth-year Nick Watkins, Lea has five viable options for two starting roles. That excess will allow Notre Dame to rely on its nickel package at length this fall, and never hesitate about slipping a fourth cornerback onto the field in dime situations.

For now, the springtime emphasis is as much on improving the group as it is about settling on a pecking order.

“We’re really working on the competition end of things,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. “Add [early-enrolled freshman] Houston Griffith to that mix and we have what we feel is really good depth and competition. We want to take our game to a new level, and that new level is we have to be much more efficient on driving on some of the more intermediate and short routes and getting off the field on third down.”

In the past, the Irish focused on keeping everything in front of the secondary, often at the expense of giving up short-to-medium gains while limiting big-play mistakes.

“We’re probably a little bit over the top in terms of staying on our (backpedal) on some quick game things that didn’t allow us to close,” Kelly said. “The emphasis for our corners is to tighten up on some of the quick game.”

An optimistic reading between the lines could see that change in approach as evidence of a step forward from Notre Dame’s safeties. The risk of limiting the quick passing game is it would allow a receiver to get past the coverage with a simple double-move. If a safety can be relied on to provide over-the-top relief, that concern is mitigated.

Such a role may befit rising junior Alohi Gilman well. Gilman is best-known for his 76 tackles as a freshman at Navy, compared to five pass breakups and no interceptions. A dozen of those tackles came against the Irish, furthering his reputation as a physical force ready to provide run support. Kelly has seen a different side of Gilman this spring.

“He’s on the ball and somebody that can play the ball in the air,” Kelly said. “I don’t know if we had an interception from a safety last year. [Gilman is] a guy that will get his hands on the ball.”

Note: Notre Dame’s safeties recorded zero interceptions and a combined total of five pass breakups in 2017.

Julian Love came five yards away from returning a third interception for a touchdown in 2017 when he could not quite elude Wake Forest quarterback John Wolford. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Whoever ends up as the starting safeties, they will rely on the standard set by the cornerbacks to make their lives easier. In particular, third-year starter Love will have more opportunities with a shift toward a pressing defense. He has already shown a knack for jumping routes with great results, after all. Three times in 2017 Love correctly read quick routes and stepped in for an interception, returning two interceptions for touchdowns and coming yards away from a third.

“We’re going to be doing some things that are going to accentuate his ability to play press coverage,” Kelly said. “We want to play some press. It’s something we haven’t done much here, but it’s something he brings to our football team, and when you can press some guys and have the physicality that he has, it elevates his game.”

Imagining Love playing better than he did in 2017 — a season that saw him earn second-team All-American honors from — will strike fear into opposing quarterbacks, but if the Irish safeties are not up for the task of providing back-end support, a pressing defense could also gift those passers big-play opportunities.

Kelly on Notre Dame’s break in spring practices & linebacker options

Associated Press

Notre Dame restarted spring practice Tuesday, not much worse for the wear from spring break, per Irish head coach Brian Kelly and the conditioning tests tied to the return to campus.

“I’m sure they got a chance to be college students on break, but they also understood how important it was to come back in good physical condition,” Kelly said.

Much like it has frequently in the past, Notre Dame intentionally scheduled a few practices before taking more than a week off for the mid-semester break. In doing so, the Irish do not gain additional practice time, but they do stretch the time spent engaged in football activities during the spring, nonetheless. The NCAA allows only 15 spring practices, all to be held within 28 days, but when school is not in session, that clock pauses.

Thus, Kelly and his coaching staff spent the two practices preceding break focusing on scheme implementation. Worst-case scenario, Notre Dame gets its 15 practices with a slight bit less fatigue. Best-case scenario, the conversations before break mill around in players’ heads a bit for an additional week. It also helps allay some of the mid-semester academic burdens.

Whether as a result of that strategy or simply due to spending a second season within the same scheme, Kelly saw a more consistent performance from the Irish defense in Tuesday’s practice, the spring’s third and first in pads.

“You don’t see a lot of the miscues that maybe we had at other times, relative to the number of guys that have experience,” he said. “I don’t think you see it in a transformational sense as much as you see it in small areas that look to be really clean.”

That defense may go as far as its linebackers carry it this fall. The defensive line looks to be a strength both in terms of talent and depth. An array of skilled cornerbacks will hold up a secondary likely still plagued by average safety play. The linebackers, however, are not as clear an image yet. Fifth-year rover-turned-linebacker Drue Tranquill and rising senior Te’von Coney will lead the way, leaving a question mark at rover.

Kelly spoke well of rising senior Asmar Bilal at the position, but only against more physical opponents. Against a spread offense, a different option may be needed at the safety/linebacker hybrid position.

“We have some other options there,” Kelly said. “I don’t think it needs to come to, ‘Alright, this has to happen in the spring.’

“I think the nickel position will help us decide the rover positon. We know what we have in Asmar against the tight end there, and then we just keep working some young guys.”

One particular “young guy” in the mix is rising sophomore Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah, who has shown all the physical gifts necessary, but has yet to experience collegiate competition.

“It is strictly about his ability not to [make mistakes], and that’s just going to take time,” Kelly said. “He has traits, there’s no question about that from a physical standpoint. He has to get the traits from the other side of it, understanding the game and what we’re doing.”

In addition to rover, Notre Dame needs to find a backup linebacker to give Tranquill and Coney some rest when needed. At least at rover, situational packages can offer a breather to anyone who takes the majority of reps there.

While rising junior Jonathan Jones is the front-runner for that responsibility, three early-enrolled freshmen are in the mix, as well, although only to various degrees. Kelly indicated Bo Bauer may be the most game-ready of him, Jack Lamb and Ovie Oghoufo.

“[Bauer’s] physicality is really good,” Kelly said. “He’s capable of probably playing right away. Smart and physical.

“Of the three guys, he’s a little bit ahead of them, but each one of them has some interesting and unique traits that are going to allow them to be very successful for us.”

Kelly praised Oghoufo’s athleticism and football intellect, while hoping he will see gains in strength and conditioning this offseason. Lamb, meanwhile, is possibly athletically ready to see action, but may not yet be prepared for the wear-and-tear of playing as an interior linebacker.

The greatest play of Miles Boykin’s career to date may have come on a pass from Ian Book, but his chemistry with quarterback Brandon Wimbush has drawn attention already this spring. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

On Brandon Wimbush and Miles Boykin
Recapping every step forward or backward of every position this spring would become a repetitive and aimless exercise. One day rising sophomore receiver Michael Young will look like a rapidly-developing weapon, and a week later rising junior Javon McKinley may have replaced him as the flavor of the day.

But the competition at quarterback will be the topic paid most attention to, so when a pertinent bit is offered, it should be included. With that in mind, the only mention of either rising senior Brandon Wimbush or rising junior Ian Book on Tuesday was Kelly’s highlighting of the chemistry between Wimbush and classmate Miles Boykin.

“Wimbush and Miles have a great relationship out there,” Kelly said. “You can see that they’re going to connect on some big plays for us.”

Furthering the conversation on Boykin: “He’s playing with a lot of confidence, now with [former Irish receiver Equanimeous St. Brown] moving on, [Boykin] has that opportunity to really shine and he’s had three really good practices. I think that’s a guy now that ascends.”

Monday’s Leftovers: A worst-case scenario for Notre Dame’s spring, with links to read

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Notre Dame will return from spring break today and get back to practice tomorrow, presumably breaking out pads for the first time this spring. Obviously, Irish nightmares of spring practice focus on injuries. Aside from those, though, …

Continuing quarterback confusion throughout the spring would not please anybody, especially if the issue becomes even cloudier than it already is. Of course, there is a not-so-bad version of this: Both rising senior Brandon Wimbush and rising junior Ian Book perform well, making Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long’s decision heading into the fall a difficult one because he actually has multiple worthwhile options.

Then, there is the worst-case scenario: Both Wimbush and Book flail away this spring, culminating with them turning over the ball multiple times apiece in the Blue-Gold Game on April 21. Such disappointments could lead to incoming freshman Phil Jurkovec arriving this summer an immediate and genuine piece of the starting quarterback competition. That would speak worse of Wimbush’s and Book’s next month than it would inherently speak well of Jurkovec’s 2018 potential.

If rising junior Ian Book does not perform ably this spring, Notre Dame would be one step closer to a summer spent discussing a lack of options at quarterback. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

No receivers emerge, either.
After the Irish receivers appeared to be a strength last spring, the season brought only inconsistency and little production. If that trend continues this spring, it may not matter who is throwing the ball in the fall.

This might not keep Long or Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly up at night, though, with three more incoming freshmen arriving this summer to shore up the receiving corps, a bandage not available to fix if …

No fourth linebacker provides peace of mind.
With both early-enrolled freshmen Jack Lamb and Bo Bauer already practicing, an absence of a strong backup linebacker would have no likely solution this fall. If those two were not around, and both rising junior Jonathan Jones and rising senior Asmar Bilal — not to mention rising sophomores David White and Drew Adams — failed to impress this spring, then the hope could be Lamb or Bauer would arrive in the summer and be an immediate fix.

With them on-campus, a lack of a worthwhile linebacker exiting this spring would foreshadow a lack of rest and injury relief for fifth-year Drue Tranquill and rising senior Te’von Coney.

Lastly, and with the broadest view, 89 stays 89.
When the spring ends, the conversation will return to how the Irish roster will get down to the NCAA maximum-allowed 85 scholarships, four fewer than currently anticipated this fall. This would be extremely unlikely, although within a discussion of a worst-case scenario, but if summer begins and no outgoing transfers surface, then that scholarship crunch could quickly create unnecessary drama and suspense.

Right now, four spots of attrition is entirely reasonable and even usual. If that is still the number to be lost in late May, those adjectives may shift to avoidable and stressful.

— Last week’s “Leftovers” asked who should be Notre Dame’s fourth captain, a position to be filled by player vote at the end of spring practice.  The results tilted heavily toward the defense.

Coney: 37.27 percent
Rising junior cornerback Julian Love: 24.62 percent
Rising senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery: 15.34 percent

From there, Wimbush, fifth-year right guard Alex Bars and fifth-year tight end Nic Weishar all fell between 5 and 9 percent.

— With spring break over, a quick piece of scheduling housekeeping: Notre Dame will fit in 12 more practices before the spring sessions conclude with the Blue-Gold Game. That will entail practices on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, with a brief break for Easter.

— The biggest free agent of the NFL offseason signed with the Minnesota Vikings over the weekend. Kirk Cousins may elicit poor memories for Irish fans, being the former Michigan State quarterback who authored much of the Spartans’ 34-31 victory in 2010, a game more commonly referred to simply as “Little Giants.”

After just reaching his second Pro Bowl, former Notre Dame tight end Kyle Rudolph should be primed for an even better 2018 thanks to the Vikings’ signing of quarterback Kirk Cousins. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

But Cousins’ payday should bode well for someone else from that game. Tight end Kyle Rudolph reached the Pro Bowl this past season thanks to 57 catches for 532 yards and eight touchdowns. With Cousins throwing passes, Washington’s tight ends have put up stat lines dwarfing that the last few seasons. In looking at those stats, the last two years need to include two tight ends, since Jordan Reed has yet to stay healthy through an entire season.

2017: Reed and Vernon Davis combined for 70 catches for 859 yards and five touchdowns.
2016: Reed and Davis combined for 130 catches for 1,219 yards and eight touchdowns.
2015: Reed’s breakout campaign consisted of 87 catches for 952 yards and 11 touchdowns in only 14 games.

Rudolph could, even should, enjoy a career year catching passes from his former nemesis next season.

— Only one program can claim both a Sweet Sixteen entrant in the men’s basketball tournament and a top-25 football team. Who is it? (Answer at the bottom.)

Who should Notre Dame’s fourth captain be? And DeShone Kizer heads to the Green Bay Packers
Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s spring questions focus on four non-QB positions
A best-case scenario for Notre Dame’s spring

Bengals re-sign Tyler Eifert
Bob Diaco reportedly heads to Oklahoma as a defensive analyst
Michigan unlikely to have answer on Shea Patterson before practice begins

ANSWER TO THE ABOVE TRIVIA: Clemson, though even if the Tigers had lost Sunday, one program would still have been able to make that claim, considering Clemson beat another Tiger in Auburn.