Atkinson 3

Depth chart adds to special teams challenges

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I’m still processing the thirty-plus minutes Brian Kelly dedicated to the big game this Saturday during his weekly press conference, but I’m glad that the Irish special teams came up. As mentioned in the past few days, the Irish special teams have been a big disappointment this year.

With blue-chip freshman Davonte Neal handling punt returns, the Irish have an electric player that can make plays in space if given the chance. With George Atkinson returning kickoffs, Notre Dame has a proven commodity — and a home-run threat — touching the ball multiple times a game as well. Yet there has been absolutely nothing to speak of that’s been close to a positive.

Here’s another quick look at where the Irish stand statistically in the return/coverage units.

Opponent Kickoff Return: 94th.
Kickoff Return: 97th.
Opponent Punt Return: 31st.
Punt Return: 114th.

Outside of punt coverage, this is down-right miserable. So bad, that Brian Kelly interrupted the question and preemptively gave the unit a sarcastic A+ grade.

But after making a joke, Kelly delved a little bit deeper into why the unit is such a mess right now. I’ll include his entire evaluation of the units before going back over some interesting parts.

“Obviously, we missed some field goals, and we’re not pleased with that, but we’ve been pretty good kicking the football.  We haven’t been the best in the country.  But it’s not taking away from winning.

“As it relates to punt return, we’re fielding the ball much better than we did last year.  We need to go north and south.  We’re not pleased with our kickoff return game.  We think we’ve got some players in there that have to step their play up.  And we’re really thin on punt return. When we lost (Lo) Wood and we lost Jamoris Slaughter and had to pencil in players full‑time on the defensive side of the ball, we lost some really good cover guys.  We’re really thin there.  And we’re not going to be able to answer it until we get some reinforcement.  This recruiting class should help us next year where we have depth in personnel.

“We’re still one click behind in special teams with the depth of the personnel that we need.  And that’s just the fact.  We’re playing some young guys there that have to get better.  But I like where we’re going to go.  I think our punt return is going to be really good.  I think we’re going to have some guys that we’ll be able to get on that team.

“But we are who we are right now.  We’re clearly disappointed we have to do a better job.  We have to give George Atkinson more room.  We’ve gotta do a better job.  And we can.  We just have to be better at that area right now.”

Even while missing two of three field goals against BYU, Kyle Brindza is 11 of 15 on the season, and perfect on his extra point attempts. Brindza missed an attempt from inside 30 yards against the Cougars, and another from 40 yards on the first series of the game. His misses for the season are sort of a mixed bag. His miss against Miami before the half was also an easy kick that just sailed wide. While he hasn’t been asked to try a kick from 50 yards or more, that seems more a product of situation, not a fear of letting Brindza let it loose.

The punt return game, an improvement over last year while still being ranked 114th in the country tells you all you need to know about this unit. But Kelly’s explanation, particularly about the loss of Lo Wood and Jamoris Slaughter makes some sense as well. Blocking in space is one of the harder jobs in college football, and the use of the spread punt has forced one-on-one match-ups for blockers in the punt return game.

When you look at the youth on this team in the secondary, where Bob Elliott and Kerry Cooks are coaching a troop of young, inexperienced freshmen, you start to understand that the Irish are very limited with veteran depth. They have either starters — guys like Zeke Motta and Bennett Jackson — or unproven, untested guys like Nicky Baratti, who are learning on the fly. You’ve got to think the loss of Austin Collinsworth was also a killer.

It’s interesting that Kelly was able to use scheme and extremely talented guys like Manti Te’o and Stephon Tuitt to shore up the defense. But in special teams, a unit where journeymen like Chris Salvi and Steve Filer are your aces, that lack of functional veteran depth just doesn’t exist on this roster.

Lastly, Kelly seemingly acknowledges that the Irish need to do a better job giving Atkinson return opportunities. Whether he’s been stifled because of the change in kickoffs, or the blocking just hasn’t been there, you’ve got to think it’s only a matter of time before Atkinson sees a crease and makes an explosive play.

 

 

Restocking the roster: Offensive Line

Notre Dame offensive line
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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
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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

BVG
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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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