Cierre Wood, George Atkinson III

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Miami

72 Comments

It’s a good day to be Irish. With Notre Dame creeping its way up the national polls and the defense among the best units in the country, there’s reason to believe in South Bend. With Stanford’s defense looking a little bit less dominant after giving up 617 yards and 48 points to Arizona, the Irish open as seven point favorites against the Cardinal.

Let’s close the book on Notre Dame’s impressive 41-3 victory over Miami, and run through the good, the bad, and the ugly.

THE GOOD

The offensive line play. It was a coming out party for Harry Hiestand’s guys. Against a defense that has struggled to stop anybody on the ground, Notre Dame absolutely broke the Hurricanes backs by running the ball at will in the second half.

Critics of Brian Kelly had to be smiling ear to ear when they saw the Irish game plan in the second half. After throwing the ball twice on Notre Dame’s six play, 81-yard scoring drive to open the half, the Irish didn’t attempt a forward pass for the rest of the game. (A quick pitch from Tommy Rees to George Atkinson counted as a pass that went for 21 yards.)

Notre Dame ran 19 times for 197 yards in the third quarter. They ran it 12 times for 73 more yards in the fourth and final quarter. With an extra week to prepare, the offensive line came to play and dominated the line of scrimmage as most fans hoped.

Cierre Wood. I’ve been wondering when Wood would take control of the running game and it looks like Saturday night might have been the start. The senior runner started the season off on the wrong foot, suspended two games for a violation of team rules, then struggled to get into a rhythm as he fought for reps with Theo Riddick and George Atkinson.

Wood seized control of the ground game on Saturday night, running 18 times of 118 yards and two touchdowns. With Theo Riddick held relatively in check and sitting out after a minor elbow injury, the ground game excelled with the team’s leading returning rusher.

George Atkinson. There’s nothing you can really say about Atkinson’s 55-yard touchdown burst other than WOW. That’s elite speed burning past a Miami secondary that you’d expect to have pretty good speed themselves.

It’s taken some time to figure out how to use Atkinson properly, but getting him to the edge of the defense is a good start. As Everett Golson gets more comfortable running the football and keeping the backside of opposing defenses honest, it can only help the Irish speedster as the season progresses. Next evolutionary step? Get him the ball on some wheel routes against a linebacker in coverage.

Cam McDaniel. I’m all for finding a way to get this kid more touches. Running behind the reserve offensive line, McDaniel looked smooth, explosive, and had great natural instincts. He’s Notre Dame’s version of Danny Woodhead.

Everett Golson. After watching the first three plays of the game after being late for a meeting, Golson steeped on the field and took charge of the Irish offense. He put up nice numbers passing and added an element to the offense when he kept the ball on the zone read. Golson’s 55 yards rushing helped open up the offense and will help against Stanford.

Kelly praised the work Golson did against the Hurricanes, particularly his ability to see pressure coming.

“He did some things in the second half that he had not done all year,” Kelly said. “He recognized pressure, did not run out of the pocket, stayed in there, delivered some balls on time.  If that continues to show itself, he’s going to be very, very difficult to defend because he’s got that confidence level and a strong arm that he can deliver the ball.”

Golson only threw two balls in the second half, dropping one off to Cierre Wood and then making a great read on a vertical throw to Davaris Daniels. But he also finally found and targeted Tyler Eifert in one-on-one coverage and made good decisions with the football, mandatory job requirements for a quarterback that’s playing with the Irish defense.

The Irish defense. There were no particularly dominating performances by Bob Diaco’s unit. But as we’re beginning to realize, this defense is greater than the sum of its parts. Even with Stephon Tuitt kept in check and Prince Shembo kept away from Stephen Morris, led by Manti Te’o’s ten tackles, the defense played wonderfully.

The 7.8 points a game they are giving up is now second only to Alabama. In five games, Notre Dame has only allowed three touchdowns, a remarkable number, especially considering the youth in the secondary.

Brian Kelly. It’s time to give the head coach his due. He’s created a football team that’s playing precisely how he wants it to play. The defense is remarkably stingy. The offense is playing to win the football game, doing it by ground or air. After turning the ball over far too much in 2011, Kelly has refocused his offense on doing the little things right and the result is a 5-0 start, doing so against one of the toughest schedules in the country.

THE BAD

Early deep ball struggles. If you’re looking for the formula against Notre Dame’s defense, Miami supplied it. Moving at a quick pace, Miami nearly caught the Irish flat-footed from the start, challenging the Irish vertically and nearly succeeding if Phillip Dorsett held onto the football. 

A week after Josh Nunes threw for 360 yards against Arizona, expect Stanford to challenge Notre Dame down the football field. You’ll likely see the same thing done at Oklahoma and especially with USC, who finally threw the ball down field against Utah, after working mostly horizontal for some befuddling reason to start the season.

THE UGLY

Other than the helmets? Not much to complain about. The Irish put a once-in-a-generation beating on Miami. They did their best to quiet any controversy at quarterback. They held an explosive offense to no touchdowns. And they’re the No. 7 team in the country.

Not too shabby.

Restocking the roster: Offensive Line

Notre Dame offensive line
4 Comments

When Notre Dame takes the field this spring, there’ll be two very large holes in the offensive line that need filling. All-American left tackle Ronnie Stanley is gone. As is captain Nick Martin at center. Both three-year starters leave Harry Hiestand with some big decisions to make in the coming months as the Irish look to fill those key positions and still field a unit with the ability to dominate in the trenches.

The Irish have had incredible stability at left tackle, with Stanley sliding in seamlessly after four seasons of Zack Martin. Perhaps the best six-year run in the program’s storied history at the position, Stanley will likely join Martin as a first-rounder, back-to-back starters at a key spot that often dictates the play of one of the most important units on the field.

Replacing Nick Martin could prove equally tricky. Rising junior Sam Mustipher served as Martin’s backup in 2015, filing in capably for Martin after an ankle sprain took him off the field briefly against UMass. But Mustipher will face a challenge this spring from rising sophomore Tristen Hoge, the first true center recruited by Hiestand and Brian Kelly since they arrived in South Bend.

Kelly talked about 2017 being a big cycle on the recruiting trail for restocking the offensive line. You can see why when you look at the depth, particularly at tackle. Let’s look at the work that’s been done the previous two classes as Notre Dame continues to be one of the premier programs recruiting in the trenches.

 

DEPARTURES
Ronnie Stanley
, Sr. (39 starts)
Nick Martin, Grad Student (37 starts)
Mark Harrell, Sr* (No Starts, fifth-year available)

*Harrell’s departure is not confirmed, though expected.  

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Tristen Hoge
, C
Trevor Ruhland
, G
Jerry Tillery
, T
Parker Boudreaux
, G
Tommy Kraemer
, T
Liam Eichenberg
, T

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Hunter Bivin, T
Quenton Nelson, LG
Sam Mustipher, C
Steve Elmer, RG
Mike McGlinchey, RT

Alex Bars, T
Colin McGovern,* G/T
Tristen Hoge*, C
John Montelus*, G
Jimmy Byrne*, G
Trevor Ruhland*, G

*Has an additional year of eligibility remaining. 

ANALYSIS:
It’ll be a fascinating spring up front for the offensive line. We’ll get our first look at potential replacements and see if the Irish staff values a veteran presence (as it has done in the past) or puts former blue-chip recruits in position to become multi-year starters.

For now, I’m putting last season’s backups in line to ascend to starting spots. That’s not to say I think that’s what’ll happen. Hunter Bivin may have been Stanley’s backup last season, but as long as Alex Bars is fully recovered from his broken ankle, I think he’s the best bet to step into that job. Sharing reps at guard—not a natural spot for Bars to begin with—was more about getting him some experience, with the aim to move him into the lineup in 2016. That allows Bivin to be a key swing reserve, capable of playing on either the right or left side.

At center, the decision is less clear cut—especially since we’ve yet to see Tristen Hoge play a snap of football. Size and strength is a genuine concern at the point of attack for Hoge, not necessarily the biggest guy hitting campus. But it sounds like he’s had a nice first season from a developmental standpoint, and if he’s a true technician at the position, he could be a rare four-year starter at center if he’s able to pull ahead of Mustipher this spring.

On paper, the other three starting jobs don’t seem to be in question. Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey are ready to step to the forefront. Concerns about Steve Elmer’s buy-in will certainly be answered by spring, there’s little chance he’ll be on the field in March if he’s not going to be around in August. I’m of the mind that Elmer’s too good of a character guy to leave the program, even if his life doesn’t revolve around football 24/7. Now it’s time for him to clean up some of the flaws in his game, the only starter from last season who held back the Irish from being a truly elite group.

Depth isn’t necessarily a concern, but there isn’t a ton of it at tackle. That happens when you move a guy like Jerry Tillery to defensive line and lose a player like Stanley with a year of eligibility remaining. That could force the Irish to cross-train someone like Colin McGovern, a veteran who can swing inside or out if needed. McGovern seems to be a guy who would start in a lot of other programs, but has struggled to crack a two-deep that’s now filled with former blue-chip recruits, all of them essentially handpicked by Hiestand and Kelly.

Restocking the roster: Wide Receivers

Notre Dame v Florida State
Getty
12 Comments

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

BVG
28 Comments

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.

***