North Carolina State v Miami

And in that corner… The Miami Hurricanes

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In the short history of the Shamrock Series, Notre Dame has had the chance to play in some great venues in some terrific cities. Starting the neutral site renaissance with an odd match against Washington State in San Antonio, the Irish exponentially improved the concept when they played the first football game in new Yankee Stadium against Army in 2010, and went to the nation’s capital for a game against Maryland in FedEx Field. This Saturday, the Shamrock Series marries the the best package of opponent and venue thus far, with the Miami Hurricanes joining Notre Dame in Chicago for a night game in Soldier Field.

This may not be the spirited rivalry it was back when Jimmy Johnson and Lou Holtz squared off, but it’s certainly a game that both teams have circled on their schedules for some time. With the ‘Canes entering the game at a surprising 4-1, it’s also a game that’ll garner some of the national spotlight, with the Irish looking to knock off another impressive opponent and Miami hoping to vault into the top 25.

Looking for a little bit more insight into the game, I tracked down Michael Casagrande of the South Florida Sun Sentinel. Fresh to the Hurricanes beat after covering Alabama from 2009-2012, Michael was generous enough to find some time for me while spitting out columns left and right before the big game.

I asked, he answered. Hopefully, you’ll enjoy.

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1. The ‘Canes seem to have been on the high-wire this season, winning shootouts with Boston College, Georgia Tech, and most recently North Carolina State. That Al Golden’s young squad is 4-1 (3-0 in ACC play) says something about his team. How confident is this Miami team heading into Chicago?

They’re in a much better place than they were three weeks ago. The ‘Canes faced a turning point after the 52-13 pounding at Kansas State. There was no guarantee of anything at that point, but things started to click at Georgia Tech and they’ve played like a different team since. Well, at least on offense. Defense is another issue.

2. The last time most Notre Dame fans saw Stephen Morris, it was in mop-up time against the Irish in El Paso at the Sun Bowl. Morris was the bright spot of a pretty mediocre performance by a ‘Canes team playing without a head coach. Now a junior, he seems to have put the pieces together. What type of challenge will he present to Notre Dame’s defense?

Morris has a cannon for an arm. Coaches even had to ask him to dial it back a bit sometimes and throw with a little more touch. He’s thrown with both recently when fitting deep balls in tight windows. Morris can also move around in the pocket and take off on occasion. A few planned QB runs have been effective this season. He’s also spread the ball around to several different receivers and running backs. So far, the tight ends have been a disappointment in the passing game.

3. On the other side of the ball, the Hurricanes have some pretty ugly numbers defensively. As someone that’s watched every snap this year, how bad is it? What’s been the biggest problem for Mark D’Onofrio’s unit?

It’s pretty bad at times. This is a young group with serious deficiencies in certain places. The defensive tackles aren’t very deep and will likely be without starter Olsen Pierre on Saturday. The most talented players are also the youngest. Sophomores and freshmen play many key roles, but also make the biggest mistakes. It’s a work in progress that might not be complete for another year. Forcing turnover (six of them) was huge last week when allowing 644 yards to NC State.

4. There’s a lot of good young offensive talent at Miami. I imagine we’ll hear plenty from Duke Johnson and Phillip Dorsett this weekend. Who else should Irish fans be worried about?

Receiver Allen Hurns was having a big season early on, but went down with a head injury (assumed to be a concussion) early at Kansas State. He has the size, speed, and hands to make a difference out there. Running back Mike James has also had a few big games here and there. Having the balance between run and pass will be huge in Miami’s shot at the upset.

5. Two recruits Notre Dame chased hard were Hurricanes Seantrel Henderson and Anthony Chickillo. Now that the recruiting spotlight is off of them, how have they played?

Both should play big roles. Henderson has been all over the map this year. He got in trouble when arriving late for summer classes, then there was a preseason concussion suffered in a car wreck. He missed all of August with that and attending two family funerals. Henderson even played on the scout team in the first week before moving back into the rotation. He’s been at both left and right tackle, but figures to start on the right side Saturday night. Chickillo is battling through almost constant double teams. As the bright spot on the line, he’s drawing much more attention. The Hurricanes need him to get pressure on the quarterback.

6. Vegas has this game with Notre Dame a double-digit favorite. How do you see it? What does Miami need to do to win the game on Saturday?

I have no clue. Seriously. This Miami team is all over the place. My gut says Notre Dame by 10, but my gut has been so wrong so often this year, it’s not worth asking anymore.

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For more of Michael’s coverage leading up to the game, you can follow him on Twitter @ByCasagrande and check out the Sun Sentinel’s Miami Hurricanes Blog.

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)

 

2015-16 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.