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Five things we’ll learn: The 2012 Fighting Irish

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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.

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)

 

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.