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.

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?

What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

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Time spent on a traditional game wrap of a spring intrasquad exhibition seems misspent. Gold won Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game 27-14 led by rising sophomore quarterback Ian Book. The first-string defense (Gold) held the first-string offense to an average of 5.4 yards per play. For context’s sake: Last season Notre Dame gained an average of 6.1 yards per play and held opponents to 5.4.

With that abbreviated recap out of the way, what did Saturday’s pseudo-game environment show about the Irish? If the 20,147 in attendance paid attention, they had the chance to learn a few things:

Daelin Hayes will be ready to hit a quarterback in September
Notre Dame’s quarterbacks were off limits all spring. Bulls might charge when they see red, but the Irish defensive line has had to remember to ease up when they come across a quarterback’s red jersey. If sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes had forgotten that Saturday, Notre Dame might not have any quarterbacks left to play in the fall.

“At the end of the day, we’re on the same team,” Hayes said, dismissing any bitterness about the quarterbacks’ protections. “We have to keep our guys healthy. I wasn’t frustrated, but come September 2, you know.”

Officially, Hayes was credited with three sacks and another tackle for loss among his seven tackles. Admittedly, gauging sacks is tricky when the quarterback does not actually go to the ground. How many of Hayes’ three sacks and the defense’s 11 total would have been evaded if the defender needed to do more than touch the passer? That answer is highly subjective, but discounting Hayes’ numbers would miss the bigger picture.

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

Senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) notched two sacks and sophomore end Ade Ogundeji came the closest to tackling a red jersey when he stripped junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush from behind. The defensive line has been expected to be a weak point for the Irish moving forward, but the spring performance indicates it has a chance at holding its own. These accomplishments bear further merit considering Notre Dame’s offensive line is widely-considered one of its few spots of expected quality.

RELATED READING: Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

“I think it’s pretty clear Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I’d have to watch the film, but it seemed like [sophomore end] Julian Okwara was a hard guy to block coming off the edge, as well.”

Ian Book provides some peace of mind
Book was not spectacular, but he was also far from incompetent or intimidated. In his first action on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, Book completed 18-of-25 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by a 58-yard connection with sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. Meanwhile, junior Brandon Wimbush completed 22-of-32 passes for 303 yards.

Bluntly, one has not needed to follow Notre Dame for very long to fit that “long enough” qualification. Last season’s backup, Malik Zaire, saw competitive action against both Texas and Stanford. In 2015, DeShone Kizer came off the bench to start 11 games after Zaire suffered a season-ending ankle injury. (more…)

What Notre Dame players should you actually watch? Plus, catch up on reading

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If technology does its part, this will post as its typist meanders toward finding his credential for the Blue-Gold Game to conclude Notre Dame’s spring practice. If technology doesn’t do its part, well, then this will be lost to the cobwebs of the internet. Such as it goes.

This space has spent much of the past week discussing what to look for in the 12:30 p.m. ET exhibition. Worry about the big picture, not the individuals. Fret about the macro, not the micro.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the indivdual players
Blue-Gold Game primer with help from Notre Dame’s coordinators
Four defensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game
Four offensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game

But, if insistent on focusing on singular players, look to the inexperienced, the names you are unfamiliar with. The 15th and final practice of spring may be no more than a practice in reality, but it is in front of nearly 30,000 fans in Notre Dame Stadium. Some players do not have so much as that minimal experience.

“The Blue-Gold Game, specifically, is a time for us to emulate a game-like situation,” senior safety/linebacker/rover Drue Tranquill said. “Especially for guys like freshmen, second-semester guys coming in, it’s a great opportunity for them to get that game feeling, but also continue to take steps in the process to get better.”

The question on the tip of your tongue is a fair one. If you are unfamiliar with the names, how are you supposed to focus on those players? How are you to know who fits the appropriate tunnel vision version of perspective?

Let’s turn to Irish coach Brian Kelly’s mentions from Wednesday–primarily, sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara, sophomore long snapper John Shannon, senior kicker Sam Kohler, sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem and sophomore safety Jalen Elliott.

Obviously, that is just a sampling. Less obviously, this post’s purpose may or may not be to link to previous reading material and remind you of the vague but pertinent purposes to today’s endeavor. It is neither be-all nor end-all. It is simply another opportunity to gauge what may come down the line.

But hey, how about a prediction? Per Kelly, the first-team offense and second-team defense will be in blue, against the first-team defense and second-team offense in white.

PREDICTION: Blue 37, White 21

HOW TO WATCH
As a recurring reminder, the Blue-Gold Game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network, as well as streamed online at ndstream.nbcsports.com and on the NBC Sports app.

Friday at 4: Four offensive positions to watch in Notre Dame’s spring game

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There are two common ways of looking at the annual spring game.
It is the last action involving Notre Dame football readily available for public consumption until Sept. 2, 133 days away.
Or it is an exercise rife with contradiction exacerbated by hype, yielding little-to-no reliable intelligence.
Like much of life, the most accurate assessment falls somewhere between those two views.

If junior running back Dexter Williams breaks off two 50-yard-plus touchdown runs, does that mean he will have multiple big plays in 2017? Not at all. It does mean he will likely have more opportunities for them, though. Just like in spring’s previous 14 practices, the Irish coaches will take what they see and apply it moving forward.

The past—and as of Saturday evening, the Blue-Gold Game will qualify as the past—does not dictate the future, but it can influence one’s approach to it.

Aside from Williams (see the second item below for more on him and the running backs), what other players/positions could influence their future roles the most with their performance to close spring?

BIG PASSING TARGETS: Alizé Jones and Co.
In this instance, big is meant literally. Notre Dame has an embarrassment of riches of tall, long, physical tight ends and receivers. Junior Alizé Jones earns specific mention here due to his inaction last season. Irish fans and coaches alike have a better idea of sophomore receiver Chase Claypool and junior receiver Miles Boykin. They have 2016 film to look at.

Jones, however, sat out the season due to academic issues. His on-field performance largely remains a question mark, but if he combines this spring’s praise with his 6-foot-4 ½ frame holding 245 listed pounds, that could turn into an exclamation point.

“He’s a perfect fit,” new Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long said Friday. “That’s why I recruited him like crazy when I was at Arizona State. He’s a prototypical [tight end], a guy who can run, who can catch.

“The biggest thing about Alizé is he’s taking great pride in his blocking ability right now, his presence of being an end-line guy, his protection and his overall physicality. When you think like that, you’re going to become a better receiver.” (more…)