Offensive Line

Game day: No. 11 Notre Dame vs. No. 18 Michigan

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It’s a big day for the Fighting Irish.

We’ll be with you every step of the way tonight, hosting the live blog with some special guests from The Observer (Notre Dame’s school newspaper) sports team. Until then, let’s go over some final questions I’ve been thinking about as the No. 11 Irish go through final preparations before taking on No. 18 Michigan tonight at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBC (and NBCSports.com).

Will the field hold up?

There’s been rain in South Bend already today and it’s cold and windy. Will the much debated natural turf inside Notre Dame Stadium hold up under these conditions? A quick look at the Stadium Cam doesn’t show you much, but the field looks in good enough shape from the top of the press box. Whether we see divots flying while the Irish defenders chase Denard Robinson remains to be seen.

Can Notre Dame play well in back-to-back big games against premiere opponents?

Forgetting the first seven seconds, the Irish handled their business and played solid football against Michigan State last week. It was a stern test and the Irish passed it with all eyes on them. Can Notre Dame do it again? It’s been a full calendar year since the Irish played well at home (against a good team). With a hyped up crowd will the Irish play up to the hype of the game?

Will Notre Dame limit Michigan’s big play capability?

The Wolverines rely on the big play to power their offense. Last year was a perfect example, with the Wolverines rallying back in the fourth quarter thanks to defensive breakdowns and big plays down the field. Of course, the Irish can’t give up 31 yards a reception again. But can they limit what the Wolverines want to do down field with Devin Gardner and Devin Funchess? Can they contain Denard Robinson and keep him from ripping off 20+ yard runs?

If the Irish defense can do that, Notre Dame will walk out of the stadium 4-0.

Will the Irish offensive line dominate the line of scrimmage?

It’s been a slow start for the right side of the Notre Dame offensive line, with new starters Mike Golic and Christian Lombard playing some uneven football. But against the undermanned front four of Michigan, the offensive line needs to dominate the line of scrimmage. There’s no need to put this game on quarterback Everett Golson. It should be won on the backs of Cierre Wood, Theo Riddick and George Atkinson. After putting together a clutch drive at the end of the game to ice it, the Irish need to build on that momentum and seize control of the game early up front.

Can Greg Mattison force Everett Golson to turn the football over?

Notre Dame fans have seen plenty of Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison. And while his defense has been slow to start, don’t expect the Wolverines to sit back and play reactive defense. It’s not a matter of if Mattison will blitz Golson, but how much. Can the veteran coach trick the Irish’s young quarterback into making some bad decisions with the football and forcing some throws into coverage?

So far, Golson has been strong with his decision making. Tonight, if he can stay clean in the passing game, the Irish should be just fine.

Can the Irish front seven collapse the pocket and suffocate Denard Robinson?

It’ll be hard for Denard Robinson to beat Notre Dame if he can’t find anywhere to run. Can Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix, and Kapron Lewis-Moore collapse the pocket and make it hard on Robinson to find daylight? With Prince Shembo and Ishaq Williams fly off the edge and wreak havoc? Will Manti Te’o, Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese finish tackles like last week?

It’s going to take relentless pursuit to bring down Robinson and the Irish will have their chances. If Notre Dame can blow up the line of scrimmage and beat Michigan up front, it could be a long day for Robinson.

 

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)

 

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.