Brian Kelly

Pregame six pack: The 8-0 edition

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It may not have the glamor and intrigue of last weekend’s match-up in Norman, but Saturday’s game against 4-4 Pittsburgh counts the same.  With No. 4 Notre Dame undefeated after two-thirds of the season, any loss will knock a dream Irish season off the tracks.

Not that Brian Kelly is letting the Irish turn their focus to anything other than playing football. The head coach, who has navigated situations like this, most recently in his final season at Cincinnati, has repeatedly said that he’ll keep his team focused on the task at hand and let everybody else talk about the postseason implications.

“I think we’ve talked about that each and every week,” Kelly said. “You win two games, you win three, you win four games in a row, you start to we are about how are you going to handle success.  So this is not a first‑time conversation with our football team.  They have handled success early in the season, and they have shown that they understand that if they don’t prepare the right way, that they’ll lose.  We’re not good enough to not prepare properly, and I think they know that.”

As Notre Dame prepares for Pittsburgh, here are six tidbits, fun facts, leftovers and miscellaneous musings before the Irish take on the Panthers Saturday afternoon at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC.

***

If history is any indication, the Panthers won’t be intimidated by Notre Dame or a top-ranked opponent.

You probably didn’t expect the Panthers to be in awe of Notre Dame Stadium or an Irish squad in the thick of the national title hunt. And Pitt certainly won’t be. The Panthers have more than held their own in South Bend, winning two of the last three games under the Golden Dome.

In 2010, the Irish held on to win 23-17 after Dayne Crist and the Irish offense stalled out and David Ruffer‘s three field goals were enough. But in 2008, the Panthers rallied from a 14-point deficit and shocked the Irish in four overtimes, winning 36-33. Both Michael Floyd and Golden Tate went over 100 yards in the air and Jimmy Clausen threw for 271 yards, but the Irish gave up a 17-3 halftime lead and couldn’t get into the end zone in any of their three overtime possessions. The loss was the third of the season for an Irish squad that started 4-1, but ended the regular season 6-6.

In 2004, The Panthers outlasted Ty Willingham‘s squad, winning 41-38 in South Bend. Darius Walker ran for 112 yards and two touchdowns and Brady Quinn threw for three more, but Pitt quarterback Tyler Palko threw for 334 yards and five touchdowns for Walt Harris, and was very bleeping proud of his team afterwards.

As briefly mentioned by Sam Werner, the last time Pitt had a chance to take on a top-three team in the country, the Panthers pulled an even more improbable upset. At 4-7, Dave Wannstedt‘s squad walked into Morgantown and beat Rich Rodriguez‘s 10-1 West Virginia squad 13-9, ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the two major polls.

***

Maybe it didn’t take a win against Oklahoma for the Irish to truly “arrive.”

It may move the dial and start a healthy debate, but for a team that’s been considered irrelevant, Notre Dame has quietly played pretty good football lately. Since mid-September 2011, only seven teams in college football have won more games that the Irish, with Notre Dame going 16-3 in their last 19 games.

Take a look at the not too shabby list of teams that have put together a better run than the Irish:

Oregon: 19-1
Alabama: 18-1
Boise State: 17-2
Northern Illinois: 18-3
Georgia: 17-3
Kansas State: 17-3

Considering the Irish lead the nation in victories over Top 25 teams this season, beating No. 10 Michigan State, No. 18 Michigan, No. 17 Stanford, and No. 8 Oklahoma, Brian Kelly has shown himself to be a coach that does a very good job in the W/L column, a pretty good area to show expertise.

If the Irish can win on Saturday, Kelly will have played .850 football over his last 20 games, a winning percentage that would fall between Chris Petersen (.920) and Urban Meyer (.831), the two most efficient winners currently coaching in college football. As it stands now, Kelly’s winning percentage in his 22 seasons as a head coach is .742, good for seventh.

***

Notre Dame’s defense: The place where high-scoring offenses go to die.

Last night on ESPN, Mark May cited Pittsburgh’s 42-point offensive outburst against Temple as reason for belief that the Panthers offense could put up some points against Notre Dame’s defense. That logic doesn’t look too solid when you consider that six of Notre Dame’s eight opponents scored 40 or more points in the game they played before facing the Irish.

Here’s a quick look at the offenses that stalled out at Notre Dame:

Purdue
Before: 48-6 win over Eastern Kentucky
Notre Dame: 20-17 loss
After: 54-16 win over Eastern Michigan

Michigan State
Before: 41-7 win over Central Michigan
Notre Dame: 20-3 loss
After: 23-7 win over Eastern Michigan

Michigan
Before: 63-13 win over UMass
Notre Dame: 13-6 loss
After: 44-13 win over Purdue

Miami
Before: 44-37 win over North Carolina State
Notre Dame: 41-3 loss
After: 18-14 loss to North Carolina

Stanford
Before: 54-48 win over Arizona
Notre Dame: 20-13 loss
After: 21-3 win over Cal

BYU
Before: 42-24 loss to Oregon State
Notre Dame: 17-14 loss
After: 41-17 win over Georgia Tech

Oklahoma
Before: 52-7 win over Kansas
Notre Dame: 30-13 loss

The opponents that came in scoring 40 or more points have scored a total of 55 points against the Irish, and none scored more than 17.

***

Notre Dame has turned November into its best month. And they’ve got Paul Longo to thank for it.

After losing eight of its last nine November football games, Brian Kelly has turned November into his team’s strongest month. The Irish are 6-1 in the month, with their lone loss coming to Andrew Luck and Stanford last year. With this being the most important November in over a decade, Kelly was asked about the process that goes into winning late in the season. Not surprisingly, strength and conditioning coordinator Paul Longo has something to do with it.

“Our strength and conditioning, our nutrition, the way we take care of ourselves, our schedule has really kind of taken shape and form over the last couple years that our guys feel fresh. We’re hitting peaks in the weight room right now,” Kelly said Tuesday. “We’re peaking out in November. So we’re stronger as a football team right now.”

That Irish football players are able to peak in the weight room in the middle of the season shows you just how far this team has come since Kelly took it over. When athletic director Jack Swarbrick discussed some of the factors that went into improving the overall health of the football program, he noted the loss of size and strength as the football season wore on.

“The weight loss on defense was 13 pounds per player during the season,” Swarbrick said back in December of 2009. “Our weight loss on the defensive side of the ball was a little shocking.”

Numbers like that were a big reason why training table was implemented, and a big reason why Kelly was a tough-talker early in his tenure, cracking that, “Eating at Burger King at three in the morning is not going to make you the best for your eight o’clock workouts.”  With nutrition now handled in a completely different manner and Longo’s weight lifting structure allowing guys like Stephon Tuitt to put up a personal-best on the bench press in late October, Kelly gave a little bit more insight into the training program that has turned this team around.

“It’s a year-round process. It’s not top heavy as it relates to the off-season. We’re not killing them in January and February. We have different stages of our weight training. January, February, you’re building a lot of that mental toughness in those two months. We’re getting after you pretty good. But we’re not trying to put too much weight on your back.

“I think the other thing that Coach Longo does a great job of is understanding having a team ready to play football and a team that needs to add a coat of armor. There’s a lot of levels to it. Paul does a great job of managing things out through strength and conditioning so we play our very best in November, December and January.”

Don’t expect Kelly to get too much more explanatory than that.

“It’s all based for us to peak in November,” center Braxston Cave told CSNChicago’s JJ Stankevitz. “I don’t think he would tell anybody his secret, his formula, how he does it. But since I’ve been here, it’s worked every year.”

***

Entering the game, assault charges again three players add more uncertainty to the Pitt depth chart.

Never mind the season-ending injuries that have decimated Pitt’s defense. Word broke last night that Paul Chryst’s team might have bigger issues, with assault charges being filed against three Pitt players, including standout running back Ray Graham and wide receiver Devin Street.

This from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

Three University of Pittsburgh football players were charged with assault and conspiracy Thursday night after police said they surrounded a man in Oakland last month and one of them punched him in the head.

Running back Ray Graham, 22, of Elizabeth, N.J., wide receiver Devin Street, 21, of Bethlehem, Pa., and defensive back Lafayette Pitts, 20, of East Pittsburgh, were not arrested but will receive summonses by mail telling them to report to court Jan. 9 for a preliminary hearing.

Pittsburgh police wrote in a criminal complaint that they were working an overtime detail early on Oct. 21 when they tried to disperse a crowd from the intersection of Oakland Avenue and Bates Street and three people remained in the roadway.

One those people, Karl Olsheski, told police he had just been assaulted. He refused medical treatment and said he did not want to file a report, he just wanted officers to stop the man who had punched him, according to the criminal complaint.

In an interview with police, Mr. Olsheski said he was walking in Oakland with two women when Mr. Graham stopped him, said, “What’s up?” and uttered a racial slur. Mr. Olsheski said that he replied “nothing” and tried to leave but Mr. Graham, Mr. Street and Mr. Pitts surrounded him and then Mr. Street slugged him on the left side of the head, according to the criminal complaint.

A Pitt spokesman could not immediately be reached late Thursday night to comment on the football players’ status with the team.

It goes without saying that the legal system needs to play itself out, but Pitt hasn’t said anything about the charges. But if the Panthers are without Graham and Street, that’s going to be a huge hit to the team offensively.

***

If the Irish are going to be national title contenders, the offense needs to show it’s up to the task.

At this stage in the season, it’s clear that Notre Dame’s defense is ready, willing and able. But if the Irish have championship aspirations, they need to show that last week’s offensive output wasn’t a fluke.

Incomplete efforts like the Irish victories over BYU or Michigan are no longer going to cut it. (They certainly won’t against a team like USC.) For Notre Dame to win out, and impress the pollsters as they do it, they’ll need to show some consistency. And putting together a good performance against an under-manned Pitt defense is the first place to start.

After playing his best football game in front of the biggest television audience to watch a football game this season, Kelly talked about raising the bar for quarterback Everett Golson.

“I think we demand more.  Our expectations are high,” Kelly said about post-Oklahoma Golson. “You did this on the road against very good competition.  Now, what we expect on Tuesday is for you to be fully engaged, to take over the practice.  So we’re going to move that bar up a little bit on him and demand more from him today.”

Golson will have a running game that welcomes back George Atkinson, healthy after a bout with the flu. He’ll have an offensive line that’s playing its best football. If he can remember that Tyler Eifert is on his team, he should have all the weapons he needs at his disposal on Saturday.

Jurkovec’s commitment as solid as it can get

Phil Jurkovec 247
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In a sport like college football, not much is certain. Coaching changes, recruiting battles, it is a week to week sport in nearly every sense of the word.

So when coveted 2018 quarterback Phil Jurkovec chose Notre Dame last week, many kept their enthusiasm tempered. Especially with memories of prospects like Blake Barnett fresh in their minds.

But Jurkovec seems to have his priorities aligned. And a recent comment to Matt Freeman of IrishSportsDaily.com should have Irish fans feeling very good about their young QB-in-waiting.

For as long as Notre Dame has recruited, teams have recruited against Notre Dame. And in recent years, the sales pitch has changed—not from worries of a head coach or assistants being fired, but rather the chance that they may leave for greener pastures.

In this case, you have to feel good that Jurkovec seems to understand the realities of the situation. Because even if Brian Kelly is in the NFL or Mike Sanford is running his own program, the Golden Dome will still be standing.

Of course, it doesn’t do anything to guarantee Jurkovec will be in South Bend come 2018, but it certainly points to a kid and family having done their due diligence before making such an important decision.

Irish A-to-Z: Hunter Bivin

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One of many heralded offensive line recruits to follow Harry Hiestand to South Bend, Hunter Bivin has bounced inside and out on Notre Dame’s offensive line, looking for a home. After serving as a back-up to talents like Zack Martin, Ronnie Stanley and Mike McGlinchey at tackle, Bivin might have the inside track to earn his first starting experience at right guard.

After three years of hard work—and Steve Elmer deciding to cut short his college career after three seasons—Bivin looks like a true contender for a starting role. Now he needs to continue the work he put in this spring over the summer months, holding off a group of young talent to finalize the fifth starting job on a rebuilt offensive line.

 

HUNTER BIVIN
6’5.5″, 308 lbs.
Senior, No. 70, OL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Bivin was an elite prospect. 247 ranked him as one of the top offensive linemen—and overall prospects—in the country. He was an All-State performer in Kentucky, an Under Armour All-American, and played for the USA Team.

Bivin chose Notre Dame over offers from Florida, LSU, Oklahoma, Ohio State and Michigan. He was a starter on a Kentucky state championship basketball team and also the state’s best shot putter.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2013): Did not see action.

Sophomore Season (2014): Made his Irish debut in the second half of a lopsided victory over Rice. Played in five games, including on special teams against Florida State.

Junior Season (2015): Played in five games, serving as a backup at left tackle for Ronnie Stanley. Notched a season-high 25 snaps against UMass. Played 14 snaps in a convincing season-opening win over Texas.

 

WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR

The crystal ball appeared to be working last year when it came to Bivin’s playing time.

Bivin’s got everything you’d want—on paper—when it comes to an offensive line recruit. That said, it’s time for those qualities to translate to the field, something we haven’t seen yet.

It’s not necessarily fair to call Bivin an underachiever, especially when you want to have the type of depth Notre Dame has developed up front. It’s also worth noting that the two positions the Irish have worked Bivin have required some difficult playing time battles: Matt Hegarty just moved to Oregon and was inserted as the team’s starting center after he couldn’t beat out Nick Martin. And Ronnie Stanley will follow Zack Martin into the first round of the NFL Draft.

So let’s hold our breath a little bit longer.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

It’s clear that Bivin has some ability, with the staff entrusting a second-string tackle job to the Kentucky native the past two seasons. But it’s also clear that he’s not the caliber of tackle prospect that Alex Bars is, with Bivin making the slide inside, hopefully solidifying the starting lineup with the team’s five best offensive linemen.

Right now—especially after Colin McGovern struggled through injuries this spring—Bivin has a grasp on that job. But after another summer competing with Tristen Hoge and incoming freshman Tommy Kraemer, that might not be as clear.

Hiestand and Brian Kelly both prefer playing veterans—especially along the offensive line. We’ve seen guys like Mike Golic, Christian Lombard and Matt Hegarty keep talented young players on the sideline as trusted veterans. Bivin likely can do the same as a senior with a fifth-year available, though he’ll need to be the best player for the job.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I have Bivin penciled in at right guard for the start against Texas. Whether he stays in the lineup will likely be dictated by how quickly this offensive line gels. Remember, it wasn’t too long ago that Kelly and Hiestand reshuffled their starting lineup, 2014’s offensive line swapped out mid-season after a disappointing start to the year. That’s a real scenario that could take place if this line doesn’t come together.

Being the fifth-best starter on an offensive line that features guys like Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson is no shame, especially when we’ve seen and heard such good things about first-time projected starters like Bars and Sam Mustipher. Bivin is a big body—he’s got prototype tackle size—and that’ll make the transition inside easier.

But I’m still waiting to see how he does as a mauler. There’s not much room for finesse at right guard, especially with the Irish wanting to establish a ground game early and often in 2016.

If Bivin brings that type of aggressiveness to the job and takes to guard over the summer, he’s a potential two-year starter. If not, he goes back to being a sixth man, capable of backing up essentially every spot on the offensive line.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal

Irish A-to-Z: Asmar Bilal

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It is freshman year all over again for linebacker Asmar Bilal. The rising sophomore, who wore a redshirt in 2015, likely spent more time working with Brian VanGorder’s defense in 15 spring practices than he did all of last season.

That’s what happens when Jaylon Smith departs for the NFL and Te’von Coney and Greer Martini spend the offseason recovering from injuries. Those circumstances cleared the way for Bilal to take center stage at Will linebacker this spring, a position that’ll look quite different than it did the past two seasons when America’s most talented linebacker roamed the field.

No slouch himself, Bilal has more than just long dreads in common with Smith. With a body that also looks chiseled from granite and the speed of a safety, there are great expectations for the Indianapolis native.

 

ASMAR BILAL
6’2″, 230 lbs.
Sophomore, No. 27, LB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A four-star recruit, Bilal picked Notre Dame over Michigan after a competitive recruitment. He had offers from Michigan State, Missouri, Nebraska, Tennessee and a dozen other programs, too.

Bilal was an Army All-American, second-team on the MaxPreps All-American team and was Indiana’s defensive player of the year on the American Family Insurance All-USA team. He was a four-star prospect and a 247 composite Top 200 player.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2015): Did not see action.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

The year of eligibility was saved, keeping Bilal off of special teams. But all else held true:

At the very least, I see Bilal wreaking some havoc on special teams. But if there’s an opening on the field with this defense, it’s at safety. Perhaps Bilal could serve as a situational defensive back, the type of in-the-box plugger that Drue Tranquill excelled at in 2014.

The reality of the situation is a year of learning and gaining weight for Bilal. With Joe Schmidt and Jarrett Grace departing after this season, and Jaylon Smith having quite a choice on his hands as well, the depth chart could turn over after this season—turning next spring into maybe an even more critical time than this fall in Bilal’s development.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Bilal’s primary competition at Will linebacker is classmate Te’von Coney, who had worked his way into the two-deep behind Jaylon Smith, playing briefly in the Fiesta Bowl before suffering his own major injury. While Coney had to watch spring ball as his shoulder healed, Bilal took reps for the two of them.

While it’s far from decided, Coney looks like the first choice in the starting lineup for VanGorder and Mike Elston. That’s not to say that the rotation will be as limited as it was last season—this group of linebackers might very well be patched together by scheme and circumstance.

None of that changes Bilal’s potential. A football player who came to Notre Dame needing to add mass to his frame and learn the intricacies of playing linebacker, Bilal’s high school exploits included a lot of time at safety, a tackling machine that looked more search-and-destroy than fully understanding the nuances of gap control and positional responsibilities.

Bilal put on the weight, up to 230 pounds this spring, looking like a linebacker not a DB. Now the mental aspect of the game will likely dictate how quickly Bilal’s able to deploy his physical skills and use them for good. We’ll get a nice progress report on where the coaches think he is come Texas.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Bilal looks like a four-unit coverage contributor on special teams from game one. He also has the type of speed and skill that he could find a role in a sub-package (remember those?) for VanGorder, if the defense is able to keep enough guys healthy to play multiple schemes.

The redshirt was the best thing to happen to Bilal in that he’s essentially starting his college career now. We’ve seen too often the difficulties that come with using talented young defenders in bit roles, robbing years of eligibility from guys like Kona Schwenke and Romeo Okwara, removing a fifth-year opportunity that could have really helped all parties involved.

Positional depth helped save Bilal in 2015. Now he’s going to need to be part of the solution in 2016, when a new cast of characters needs to step forward and lead with captains Joe Schmidt and Smith long gone.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars

Irish A-to-Z: Alex Bars

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Even as he recovered from a broken ankle suffered late in the 2015 season, Alex Bars made the move everybody expected from him this spring. The rising junior rose to the top of the depth chart at right tackle, filling the hole Mike McGlinchey left behind and potentially solidifying the rebuilt core of Notre Dame’s front five.

It was a move that felt preordained, especially if you’d been paying attention to the coaching staff’s belief in Bars. A high-level recruit, an impressive redshirt and capable in spot duty in 2015, assuming all goes according to plan, the move to the starting lineup gives Bars the chance to spend three seasons in the starting lineup of one of the country’s most competitive position groups.

Now he’s got to perform.

 

ALEX BARS
6’6″, 320 lbs.
Junior, No. 71, RT

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A top-100 recruit who chose Notre Dame over Florida State, Michigan, Ohio State, Stanford—and a host of other schools. Bars was an Under Armour All-American, a USA Today All-American, and the Rotary Lombardi Chip Off the Old Block Award winner, given to the South’s best lineman.

His father Joe played linebacker for Notre Dame in the early-80s, while two of his brothers played major college football. Bars is a blue-chipper by every measure.

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Saved a year of eligibility and did not participate.

Sophomore Season (2015): Played in six games, starting against Navy and USC at guard before breaking his ankle. Served as primary backup at both tackle positions and guard until his injury.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Spot on here, both about the time-share being difficult and injuries. Unfortunately, Bars was the lineman who suffered—not finding as much time behind Nelson and then ending his year with a broken ankle.

Sharing time isn’t easy, especially on the offensive line. But Kelly was adamant this spring that he’ll need to find snaps for Bars to make sure his development continues, and sharing time with Quenton Nelson makes the most sense.

Of course, injuries also happen. And right now, it looks like Bars is the No. 1 replacement at every spot but center. So while a clean bill of health will likely be best for the best Irish offensive line of the Kelly era, an injury will likely just mean more time for the talented second-year player to make his mark, a nice benefit of the impressive depth chart the Irish have assembled.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Bars looks like another potential NFL offensive lineman, something Harry Hiestand is churning out at an impressive rate. While we won’t know just how good he is until we see him on the edge against Texas, Bars is the type of lineman who’d have started too early in his career at left tackle in previous eras, forced to learn on the fly like Ryan Harris or Sam Young.

The staff was careful with Bars this spring, not rushing the 320-pounder back until his surgically repaired ankle could handle it. And while they explored the idea of keeping him inside at the vacant right guard position, it’s only to obvious that Bars’ skill-set—not to mention the remaining personnel—needed him to play on the edge.

With three years left there’s plenty of time to grow at the position, while also building from a position of strength. That’s the sign of great positional depth.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I assume a healthy, strong season from Bars. I think the time working inside could help him in the running game, while his athleticism should make pass blocking feel natural, especially with great length and feet.

Of course, he’s still a first-year starter. Expecting a year like Quenton Nelson or Mike McGlinchey had might be too much, but there’s no reason not to set a similar bar. From the moment Bars stepped foot on campus, Kelly knew he had a special player.

Hunter Bivin can play tackle in a pinch. Freshman Tommy Kraemer might be able to as well. But for the Irish to have their best offensive line, they need Bars to anchor the right side. I expect him to do so in 2016.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas