Riley Nelson

And in that corner… The BYU Cougars

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There is no preordained headline for Notre Dame’s battle this Saturday against BYU. It won’t be in a historic location or against a natural rivalry. ESPN won’t be staked out in front of the library. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a critical Saturday for the Irish.

With BYU heading to South Bend, two independent teams with a ton of football tradition collide. For the Cougars, a win will get their season back on track after uncharacteristic mistakes have led to three losses. For the Irish, it’ll mean getting win number seven before heading to Norman, Oklahoma for the next biggest game of the year.

To get everybody up to speed on the Cougars, Jeff Call of the Deseret News was kind enough to answer some questions for me. Jeff has been covering Cougar sports since 1993, so needless to say he’s seen his fair share of football teams roll through Provo.

I asked, Jeff answered. Let’s all learn a little bit.

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1. From afar, it feels like an up-and-down season for BYU. I’d probably make the argument that the Cougars have to feel like they should be 5-1. Is that the feeling inside the program?

With 29 seniors on the roster, BYU entered the season with very high expectations. Losing by a combined four points at Utah and Boise State in back-to-back weeks was a disappointment. Riley Nelson suffered a back injury in the win against Weber State, rendering him ineffective against the Utes and Broncos. The Cougars felt they had a great shot to knock off No. 10 Oregon State last week, and they were tied with the Beavers heading into the fourth quarter before some mistakes cost them the game. BYU is still a confident team, knowing it is just a few plays away from being 5-1, and the Cougars are looking at this week’s game at Notre Dame as another great opportunity to prove how good they are.

2. Obviously, the strength of this team is the defense. They’ve put up some impressive numbers and kept BYU in just about every football game. They don’t look like the biggest unit, so how are they playing as well as they are?

We knew going into the season that BYU would be strong defensively. The Cougars had a lot of veteran players returning. But they have been better than advertised. They did give up 332 passing yards last week against Oregon State, but other than that, they’ve been very impressive this season. These guys have great chemistry, they love playing together, and they pride themselves in being in the right spot and executing. Linebackers Kyle Van Noy is a big play-maker, while Brandon Ogletree is the emotional leader. USC transfer Uona Kaveinga and Spencer Hadley have been solid this year. On the defensive line, Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah, a native of Ghana who only started playing football a couple of years ago, has also made an impact and is drawing considerable attention from NFL scouts.

3. Taysom Hill seemed like an intriguing dual-threat player until he went down with an injury. That puts the offense back in Riley Nelson’s hands, who looks to have really regressed this season. Can it all be blamed on a back injury? What’s the current state of the quarterbacking position?

Riley Nelson’s back injury has really hampered him this season, obviously. But what we’re seeing from him this year is what we’ve always seen from him. He’s a risk-taker. Sometimes that results in big plays, sometimes that results in turnovers. There are times when he will scramble around and force a throw into triple coverage rather than throw it away. BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall is adamant that Nelson continues as the starter because he loves his grit and leadership. With Hill out for the season with a knee injury, James Lark, a senior, is Nelson’s backup. Because Nelson is injury-prone, it wouldn’t surprise anyone around here if Lark ends up seeing significant playing time at some point this season.

4. Give me one player on offense and one player on defense that Notre Dame fans should be worried about.

Offense: Wide receiver Cody Hoffman. He has caught at least one pass in 26 consecutive games and is BYU’s leading receiver (41 catches for 534 yards and two touchdowns). Hoffman is Nelson’s favorite target and he can be dangerous.

Defense: Linebacker Kyle Van Noy. Despite being double-teamed often this season, Van Noy has 11.5 tackles-for-loss, 7.5 sacks, five pass breakups, eight quarterback hurries and three forced fumbles.

5. As someone that follows BYU football, can you give me your perspective on what football independence means for BYU? Do you feel like Notre Dame has been an ally in that process?

BYU officials love independence so far because it provides the school, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a tremendous amount of exposure thanks to the broadcast partnership with ESPN. There are BYU fans throughout the country and throughout the world, and ESPN has given those fans the opportunity to follow the Cougars. Independence also gives BYU flexibility in scheduling, and the series with Notre Dame is something that everyone associated with BYU is excited about. The fact that Notre Dame was willing to schedule BYU shows that Notre Dame has been an ally. However, nobody seems to know how Notre Dame’s decision to partner with the ACC will affect the six-game series. While BYU knows it is not Notre Dame, I think the Cougars are watching Notre Dame very carefully as it navigates independence waters.

6. The Irish opened up as two-touchdown favorites. What’s the recipe for a BYU upset victory?

With the way BYU’s defense has been playing for most of the season, I think the key for an upset rests in the hands of the offense. The Cougars can’t afford to turn the ball over. In their three losses, they have had 10 turnovers — including a pair of pick-sixes and a fumble return for a touchdown. Nelson needs to avoid mistakes like that if BYU has any hope of an upset. The Cougars will need to generate some semblance of a run game, and that could be tough against Notre Dame’s defense, and BYU’s starting running back is a 17-year-old true freshman, Jamaal Williams. The Cougars have had trouble at times getting into the end zone this season, and I know Notre Dame hasn’t given up a touchdown in weeks. But if BYU can keep it close going into the fourth quarter, it has a shot.

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Read Jeff’s work at the Deseret News here. You can also follow him on Twitter @ajeffreycall.

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.

Five things we learned: Signing Day 2016

FILE - In this Jan. 1, 2016, file photo, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly makes a call during the first half of the Fiesta Bowl NCAA College football game against Ohio State in Glendale, Ariz. Kelly has agreed to a six-year contract to stay on as coach at Notre Dame through 2021, the school announced Friday, Jan. 29,2 016.  (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)
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There were no last minute defections. No roller coaster recruits or down-to-the-wire decisions. Heck, there were no fax machines—with Notre Dame ditching the office dinosaur for a wireless, smart phone option.

Brian Kelly inked another Top 10 recruiting class on Wednesday. And he did so in decidedly uneventful fashion.

“It’s awesome. I think that everybody should try it once in their career,” Kelly said.

So while Kelly and the Irish staff hold out hope that 5-star talents Caleb Kelly and Demetris Robertson still decide to spend their college careers in South Bend, the 23-man class announced Wednesday was another Top 10 effort and a step in the right direction for a program on very stable ground.

Let’s find out what we learned.

 

Notre Dame’s staff continued to focus on rebuilding the secondary and rushing the passer. 

Yes, Brian Kelly saw what you saw—a group that struggled getting to the passer or to field a nickel or dime personnel grouping. So they countered that in the best way they knew how: By continuing to stockpile talent.

Notre Dame added seven defensive backs and four edge defenders in the cycle. They include safeties Jalen Elliott, D.J. Morgan, Spencer Perry and Devin Studstill and cornerbacks Julian Love, Troy Pride and Donte Vaughn. Perhaps just as important is the impression some of these defenders made in their time on campus, with Kelly pointing to Elliott and Studstill’s work during summer camp really making them must-have recruits.

“Jalen Elliott competed like no player that I have seen since I’ve been coaching in a camp setting,” Kelly said. “Same thing with Devin Studstill. His skill level was of corner-like ability but had the size of the safety, and so our guys went right to them early on, and that was a focal point because we got a chance to see them up close and personal.”

At defensive end, the Irish welcome 5-star recruit Daelin Hayes, getting him on campus as he recovers from shoulder surgery. He’s joined by former Alabama commit Khalid Kareem, the strongside counterpart that is an early candidate to see the field, especially as the staff looks for someone to spell Isaac Rochell for a few snaps. Longer-term prospects include a few speed rushers—Julian Okwara (younger brother of Romeo) and Ade Ogundeji, a long-limbed, below-the-radar edge rusher.

“We’re pretty excited about the potential for some guys in this class that can answer some four-man pass rush needs that we do have,” Kelly said.

 

It may not be the biggest group, but Brian Kelly is excited about his offensive line—especially the guys he pulled from Ohio State’s backyard. 

Three recruits in the offensive line class point to a big 2017 at the position. But the three the Irish did sign—guard Parker Boudreaux and tackles Liam Eichenberg and Tommy Kraemer—have Kelly very happy.

“Parker Boudreaux has that physical presence inside like, and I’m not comparing him, but he’s a Quinton Nelson in terms of size and physicality,” Kelly said. “And then two edge guys with Liam and Tommy on the outside. Those two kids are as good as you’re going to find in the country, and couldn’t be more excited to have two kids from the state of Ohio, from two great Catholic schools in St. Ignatius and Cincinnati Elder from the state of Ohio.”

Both Eichenberg and Kraemer were priority targets for Urban Meyer and company, with neither wavering after committing to Notre Dame. Kraemer was Ohio’s Gatorade Player of the Year and an Army All-American. He’ll be able to step into the two-deep immediately, capable of playing up front if the Irish need him. Eichenberg more than held his own at the Under Armour All-American game and has a high ceiling, especially as he learns the game under Hiestand.

It doesn’t take away the sting of the Fiesta Bowl. But it’s a nice consolation prize.

 

Irish legacies Jamir Jones and Julian Okwara may have big brothers who played for Brian Kelly, but they earned scholarships on their own. 

Classmates Jarron Jones and Romeo Okwara will turn over the reins to their younger brothers, linebacker Jamir Jones and defensive end Julian Okwara. The younger duo’s commitments felt all but inevitable throughout this recruiting cycle—even if that wasn’t always the case.

Jones had to come to camp to earn a scholarship. Having played quarterback and tight end as a high school standout in Rochester, the defensive staff had to see how he moved before they could find a position for him to play.

Similarly, Okwara’s journey to Notre Dame shouldn’t be taken for granted. While his older brother leaves Notre Dame the team’s leading quarterback sacker, Julian has a better natural pass rush skill-set than the 2015 team-leader.

“Julian can separate himself in a way because he has an elite initial movement and speed that Romeo has had to try and develop,” Mike Elston said in Okwara’s Signing Day video. “Romeo has the size and the power and the aggressiveness, but Julian can really add value for us right away.”

Kelly talked about how important it was to not just land this duo, but to have them already understand what the journey is that lies ahead.

“We didn’t recruit them because their brothers were here. We recruited them because we thought they were players that fit here at Notre Dame that would be very successful,” Kelly said. “Obviously it helps when their brothers have a great experience here and really enjoy their Notre Dame experience as a student and as an athlete, so that helps you in the recruiting… those kids really fit and can stand on their own two feet.”

 

Even without Demetris Robertson in the fold, Notre Dame’s receiving class is a group to watch. 

You want productivity? Throw on a highlight tape of Javon McKinley. You want an intriguing set of physical tools? Look no further than Chase Claypool. You want a sleeper prospect who out-performed every elite prospect who came to the Irish Invasion camp? Then your man is Kevin Stepherson.

Most of the attention on Signing Day was the fate of 5-star receiver Demetris Robertson. But the trio of athletes that’ll reload the receiving corps is a group that deserves recognition even without an additional infusion.

McKinley provided the day’s only scare when his smart phone struggled to send his signature via electronic fax. Claypool sent his national letter of intent in the day after scoring 51 points on the basketball court. And Stepherson is already taking part in team workouts in Paul Longo’s strength facilities, getting a jump start with the spring semester and 15 practices as the Irish try to figure out what life looks like after Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle.

After Fuller left campus early on the back of two record-setting two seasons, Kelly said his staff has become more and more comfortable with the fact that his skill players need to develop quickly—especially with the allure of the NFL just ahead.

“If you’re really that good, you may not be here very long, and we hope that you’re here for four years and you stay, but you’ve got to be ready to compete,” Kelly said. “So our expectation in the recruiting process is for the wide receiver group to come in and compete to get on the field and be a player for us immediately.”

That’ll happen whether or not Robertson is a part of this group.

 

Amidst significant transition on both the coaching staff and recruiting office, Notre Dame managed a Top 10 class. Expect things to only get better from here. 

Let’s go back to Signing Day 2015. Within 24 hours of Brian Kelly’s press conference, he was dealing with two major changes—recruiting coordinator Tony Alford was out the door to Ohio State and Kerry Cooks was headed to Oklahoma. Two aces on the staff were gone, forcing the Irish to not just replace long-time staffers, but to find new area recruiters for the state of Texas and Alford’s stronghold in Florida.

Kelly brought in first-year college assistant Todd Lyght to work with defensive backs. He tapped the school’s rushing leader Autry Denson to handle the backs and duke it out in Florida. Mike Sanford shook up the offense as Bob Elliott moved into an off-field position. But perhaps just as important as those moves, Kelly turned over the administrative reins to Mike Elston, who moved into a recruiting coordinator position he had filled for his boss back at Cincinnati.

Elston had to reorganize a staff that saw relationships walk out the door and reboot a recruiting effort that saw significant changes behind the scenes. And in short order things got back on track and have progressed to the point that the Irish are ahead of the game, setting junior days and summer camp dates earlier than ever.

For those paying attention, they’ve noticed the improvements. Notre Dame has paid more attention to messaging—staffers more active on Twitter. There have been improvements on Instagram, Facebook and Vine—platforms that might sound like gobbledygook to grownups, but are critical pieces to a year-long recruiting effort. That should help this staff press ahead in 2017, a recruiting class that already has five members.

“With that team that we’ve put together, we’re not going to look back. It’s only going to get better,” Kelly said.

It was Elston that engineered the equipment truck visit to Savannah, a late-game recruiting move that drew a lot of attention to Notre Dame. It was recruiters like Denson who went to Alabama and got a visit out of Ben Davis, a Crimson Tide legacy who gave the Irish a much longer look than anybody could have expected. And it’s no surprise that a former Pro Bowler and first-round draft pick like Lyght was able to reel in a large group of defensive backs eager to learn from a guy who was a clear success story.

“I think each and every year, you hope that this group is the best group you’ve ever recruited,” Kelly said. “I’m hoping for that again.”