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.

Friday at 4: 40-yard dashes and absurdity

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Of all the absurd things the football world often obsesses over, the 40-yard dash may be the most useless of them. Yes, it even beats out assigning star rankings to 16- and 17-year-olds, though not by much.

For now, let’s look past the rest of the inane Draft intricacies, such as former Irish defensive lineman Jarron Jones feeling pressured to increase his vertical jump by four inches. (He did, jumping to 24.5 inches in Notre Dame’s Pro Day on Thursday.) This scribe does not have an excess of time to spend discussing Jones’s outlandish wingspan if this piece is to post by its intended, though unnecessary, 4 p.m. ET deadline.

The 40-yard dash … No football play begins from a sprinter’s stance, yet it may be the factor most crucial to a low 40 time. Former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer posted a time of 4.83 seconds in the NFL Combine earlier this month. For context’s sake, Kizer ran .07 seconds slower than Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did as a draft prospect in the 2004 combine.

Roethlisberger has had himself an excellent career, and his ability to shrug off 300-pound defensive linemen is a testament to his athleticism. Put Kizer and Roethlisberger in the open field together, though, and Kizer would presumably have outrun Roethlisberger at any point of the two-time Super Bowl champion’s career. In Indianapolis, however, Roethlisberger did a better job of getting his hips through his first couple strides of the heralded 40-yard dash.

Here, watch Kizer train for the 40, the most-hyped measurement of his combine.

“The ultimate goal is to have yourself in the best position to have your body weight back in those legs so you can create enough torque to get out as quickly as possible,” Kizer said. “A guy who is as long as I am, with long limbs that I have, I’ve got to make sure that my weight distribution is in the best position for me to get out and catch up to some of those quicker guys who are a little lower to the ground.”

What part of that sounds applicable to football? The 40 turns Kizer’s size (6-foot-4, 237 pounds) into a negative. He worries about the angle of his knees. After his throwing session at the Thursday Pro Day, Kizer summed up the draft evaluation process even more succinctly.

“This process is very different in the sense that the way you look productive in the combine and in a pro day is very different from what productivity actually looks like out on the field.”

Well put.

More pertinent to the actual game of football, Kizer’s completion percentage in the staged workout could have been higher.

Then again, he was throwing to the likes of former Irish receivers Corey Robinson and Amir Carlisle and former running back Jonas Gray. Reportedly, the only contact Gray and Kizer had before the session was Kizer emailing the former New England Patriot the planned series of routes.

The NFL Draft, where Gmail becomes a necessity.

Let’s do away with the 40. If we insist on keeping it, let’s do it twice, once from a standing start and once from a running start. Those would simulate actual football movements: A receiver getting off the line, and a ballcarrier breaking away and trying to outrun the defense.

Asking DeShone Kizer to mimic Usain Bolt is an exercise in futility, idiocy, absurdity.

Cue end of rant.

Why cite the Roethlisberger time? Many, including Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke, have readily compared Kizer to Roethlisberger this spring.

The most notable line of that scouting report (scroll down to No. 32) may be its final one, echoing Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s sentiments from earlier this week.

“The mystery is whether he can regain his assertiveness,” Burke writes. “If so, he could turn out to be the 2017 class’s best QB. The team that drafts him will be taking a leap of faith.”

A leap. Not a dash.

For more Notre Dame Pro Day results, click here.

And with that, this just may make the 4 p.m. posting. You know what to do.

 

Tranquill continues work with safeties … for now

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Drue Tranquill will see time at the oft-spoken of rover position, just not yet. For now, Notre Dame needs the senior at safety to provide leadership and communication while the rest of his position group gets up to speed.

“We really have to figure out what the coordination is going to be at the safety position,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “How much does Drue play down at rover? How much does he play back [at safety]?”

Only sophomore Devin Studstill returns any starts to the safety position aside from Tranquill’s career total of 18. Studstill started nine games last season.

That void has kept Tranquill working mostly with the defensive backs in the spring’s first few practices, rather than joining the likes of junior Asmar Bilal in the rover grouping.

“We didn’t want to pull our most veteran player out of the back end of our defense with Drue,” Kelly said. “I think it was more about the hesitancy of losing a great communicator in the back end than about the teaching.”

The time will come, however, for Tranquill to move up. Juniors Nick Coleman and Ashton White have moved to safety from the corner position. With more reps, they will not need to rely on Tranquill’s guidance as much. The same goes for, at least in theory, sophomore Jalen Elliott.

“It’s not really a heavy load of teaching for those guys,” Kelly said. “They’re picking it up quite well. We really want to get a chance to see a lot of guys back there.”

Kelly seemed particularly bullish on Coleman’s prospects at the position, provided he embrace the needed physicality. At 6-foot, 187 pounds, Coleman’s build may have been more suited on the outside, but Notre Dame’s plethora of promising cornerbacks provided an impetus to test Coleman at safety.

“The big thing will be Nick’s continuous development in tackling,” Kelly said. “You have to tackle back there. His ball skills are really good. We’ve seen that he’s able to play the ball. He has athleticism.

“We just want to continue to build on his tackling skills. If we go through the spring and say, ‘Well, he’s tackling really well,’ we’ll feel pretty good about the move.”

At that point, Tranquill will likely join Bilal at the hybrid position, which is something of a trademark to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Tranquill will be able to do what he does best: Pursue the ball.

“We all know what his strengths are,” Kelly said. “He’s a solid tackler. I don’t think there’s any safety in college football that wants to get matched up one-on-one with a skilled slot receiver. This would minimize that, when you play him close to the ball as a rover.

“And I think he’s pretty quick off the edge. I think we put him in a really good position in maximizing his skill set.”

Until then, Bilal will continue to be the frontrunner at rover, especially with the first four Irish opponents of 2017 presenting run-heavy offenses.

KELLY ON NICK WATKINS
Kelly was also asked about senior cornerback Nick Watkins, his fit into Elko’s defense and his return from injury.

“He’s very coachable, wants to learn, he’s pretty long,” Kelly said. “What I think Mike [Elko] does really well—and this is what I liked about my interactions with him—is, we all have strengths and weaknesses. He has a great eye of saying let’s take Nick’s strengths and let’s put him in a position where we can really utilize his strengths and put him in a position where maybe we’re not a right and left corner team, maybe we’re a short field/wide field team. Let’s apply him in that fashion.

“Nick’s long. He’s a little bit of a physical player. Let’s go to those strengths. He’s shown some of those attributes early on.”

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Kraemer, Eichenberg compete for RT spot, moving Bars inside, and Bivin to…

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Forty percent of the offensive line is essentially set in stone: fifth-year senior Mike McGlinchey at left tackle and senior Quenton Nelson at right guard.

The center position seems to be senior Sam Mustipher’s to lose.

That leaves the two starting spots on the right side of the line for a number of players—both young and experienced—to fight over.

Sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg have emerged as the frontrunners for the right tackle spot, moving senior Alex Bars inside to right guard. Bars started all 12 games last season at right tackle.

“Those two [Kraemer and Eichenberg] are the guys we have mapped out at right tackle, and they’re going to battle,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “Today Kraemer was there. Last two practices Eichenberg got a lot of the work. Eichenberg will go back there on Friday. They’re going to keep battling and splitting the action out there.”

Part of the reasoning in giving the two sophomores extended looks this spring is Notre Dame knows what it has in Bars when at right tackle.

“We would prefer to get him in at the guard position, but we know he can play the [tackle] position,” Kelly said.

A starting five of McGlinchey, the three seniors and either sophomore may seem to leave fifth-year lineman Hunter Bivin out in the cold. Not often is a player asked to return for a fifth year only to spend it on the bench. That is even more rare when considering the current Irish scholarship crunch.

Kelly compared Bivin’s role to that of Mark Harrell’s last year. Harrell appeared in all 12 games, starting two, and provided much needed depth and flexibility along the offensive line. Rather than have five backup offensive linemen, position coach Harry Hiestand relied on Harrell to provide support at multiple spots.

“It’s reasonable to assume that Hunter Bivin’s going to be involved in this as well,” Kelly said. “We’ve just asked Hunter to take a seat right now. He’s done that for the team.

“We think Hunter is going to be a Mark Harrell for us. A guy that’s extremely valuable, can play a number of positions. We trust him, but we want to see these two young players [Kraemer and Eichenberg]. Hunter is a guy that can play right or left tackle for us. He’s going to be a valuable player for us as a swing guy.”

On that note, this space will refer to Bivin as a fifth-year lineman, as was done above, rather than as a guard or as a tackle, until further notice. In his case, the broader description may be the most accurate.

Spring break out west is fine, but Wimbush better be ready to run

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It will undoubtedly become a habit, at least for the next five-plus months. If Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush sneezes in front of a camera, it just might lead to an uptick in webmd.com traffic. His every football move will certainly be analyzed, nitpicked and discussed at length. Thus, Irish coach Brian Kelly being asked about Wimbush’s spring break should surprise no one.

Rather than find a Florida beach, Wimbush spent his spring break working with private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield in San Diego alongside a handful of other college passers. Kelly said there is value to such a spring break but stopped short of setting any lofty expectations of the effects.

“I have no problem with [Wimbush] working out with George Whitfield,” Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice, the first following spring break and the third of 14 leading into the Blue-Gold Game on April 22. “George doesn’t work on the specifics to the offense. George is really working on the quarterback and throwing the football, moving in the pocket. George is really good at keeping those quarterbacks active and moving.”

Whitfield is best-known around Notre Dame and among Irish fans for working with former Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson during Golson’s academic suspension in 2013. Whitfield and Golson spent 10 weeks together, thus granting time for extensive off-field activities such as film study. Far shorter, Wimbush’s time out west appears to have been spent primarily doing drills.

“In those situations, it’s a bullpen session,” Kelly said. “They’re keeping their arms loose, they’re keeping their feet loose. He’s just keeping them active.”

It is hard to construe that activity as a negative, but it obviously lacks certain aspects crucial to Wimbush’s 2017 season. With only five career pass attempts and seven career rushes, Wimbush’s inexperience looms large. Developing the necessary intangibles to account for that may be just as, if not more, important as fitting his throws into tight windows.

“When it comes to the playbook, to his teammates, to his coaches here, Brandon understands that when the rubber hits the road, those are the guys that matter the most,” Kelly said. “He knows when it’s time for Notre Dame football, where the focus is.”

Included in that playbook will be an expectation for Wimbush to carry the ball. To date, Wimbush’s biggest play and possibly only imprint on most Notre Dame fans’ memories is a 58-yard touchdown scamper against Massachusetts in 2015.

Link to 17-second YouTube video which has unfortunately disabled embedding

Note, the play is not exclusively-designed for Wimbush to run. Now a rising junior, then a fellow freshman, running back Josh Adams comes across Wimbush’s front for a possible handoff. Instead, Wimbush makes the correct read and keeps the ball. Why state so clearly it was the proper read? Adams has to evade a Texas defender even though he never had the ball.

Future option plays should present Wimbush with the possibility of throwing the ball, too.

“He’ll be a runner in the offense,” Kelly said. “Do we want him to carry the ball 20 times? No.”

“I don’t think you’ll have a situation where we’re calling quarterback power or singular runs. He’s going to have options: hand it off, throw the ball out on the perimeter. You’ll see more of that than you will prescribed quarterback runs. We had a little bit more of that last year with Kizer, but I think you’ll see that he has an option to get the ball out of his hands more so than just prescribed runs.”

Those option plays, in particular, will require Wimbush to have a thorough familiarity both with the Notre Dame playbook and with his teammates’ tendencies.

RITA LEE OR 52-53?
Staying consistent with his comments over the last two months, Kelly once again reiterated the biggest changes new offensive coordinator Chip Long will bring to the Irish playbook will be in its wording. Perhaps going to an extreme example to illustrate his thinking, Kelly pointed to the future.

“We’re going to win next year and Chip is going to be the greatest offensive coordinator in the country and he’s going to get a head job, right?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “Then I’m not going to introduce the Chip Long offense to the next offensive coordinator.”

“It has to have my culture in it … The culture of the offense is still the base offense that I have always run because I have to be able to carry that with me from year to year.”

Within that ellipsis, Kelly gave two examples of possible verbiage changes. Without knowing much more behind them, they do not mean too much out here in the cobwebs of the internet, but they do provide a quick glimpse at what Kelly has been referring to when discussing lexicon since hiring Long.

“If he wants to change Ringo Lucky protection to Ram and Lion protection, go right ahead. If he wants to change certain calls, for example, 52-53 protection is now Rita Lee.”

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