Manti Te'o, Dan Fox, Bennett Jackson

Five things we learned: No. 4 Notre Dame 21, Boston College 6

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As it happens every year, college football becomes a true circus in November. With undefeated teams jockeying for postseason position, pundits screaming about bowl projections and odd-men-out, and elite teams crumbling under late-season pressure, this is the time of year that college football fans relish, if only for the certainty of absolute uncertainty.

Days like today are so unpredictably predictable. Louisville, a “top ten” team traveling to 4-5 Syracuse, got steamrolled, an upset everywhere but Las Vegas. Alabama, a team being fitted for their busts in the college football hall of fame, fell to a two-loss Texas A&M team, breaking open the top of the college football world. Even Oregon, a team that put up points by the bushel against USC, is in the midst of a close battle against 3-7 Cal.

And then there’s Notre Dame. The No. 4 team in the country comfortably beat Boston College 21-6, in a game that was never in doubt. Yet the Irish, who coasted out to a 21-3 lead and then seemingly (and somewhat maddeningly) put on the cruise control, avoided any of the pitfalls of November as they easily dispatched the over-matched Eagles. It was the type of victory Irish fans have begged for the past 20 years, as simple tasks often turned into season-ending mistakes. Yet with Irish fans begging to see the Irish make a move with a primetime audience watching, Irish head coach Brian Kelly channeled his inner-P.T. Barnum, leaving fans wanting more as the Irish coasted to victory.

As Brent Musberger and Kirk Herbstreit muttered the words “style points” a few dozen times, the Irish were conservative as they earned their victory, taking care of Boston College and moving on to the next one.

“We are going to work on winning against Wake Forest and take care of what we can take care,” Kelly said after the game. “When it’s all said and done, we’ll see where we are.”

So far, so good for Kelly and his Fighting Irish, who improved to 10-0. Let’s find out what else we learned in Notre Dame’s 21-6 victory.

1. Brian Kelly doesn’t care about style points.

Just days after American watched political strategists spend millions on Super PACS and mind-numbing advertising, Kelly, a former political aid, put his head down and coached to win the football game on Saturday night, turning down multiple opportunities to rack up points or to sway voters now looking to find a true No. 1 team. In a game that never seemed out of control, Saturday night’s victory was mostly frustrating for both the Irish defense, who struggled to make big plays against Boston College quarterback Chase Rettig, and the Irish offense, who just couldn’t get out of their own way as they tried to get their dominant running game unleashed against a mediocre Eagles run defense.

Kelly has spent the past few weeks touting the company line, declaring that winning games was good enough for an Irish football team that was still finding its offensive identity. And while two fumbles by Irish running backs certainly played into it, Kelly put his money where his mouth was, forgoing most of his passing game in the second half to simply win the game.

With the college football world recalibrating what reality is, Kelly simply coached to win the football game, more focused on getting to 10-0 than worrying about working its way into the No. 2 spot in the BCS.

“We really can’t waste any of our energy. We see how hard it is to win in college football,” Kelly said. “We can’t worry about those things. We have to focus on what we can do and that’s winning on the field. If people don’t like us winning, I don’t know what else to tell you.”

It may drive Irish fans nuts and keep pundits thinking that the Irish aren’t deserving of a spot at the top of the college football mountain, but it’s a sign that the Irish head coach not just talks the talk, but walks the walk.

2. Bennett Jackson is playing with a great deal of confidence.

Jackson might have dropped a sure pick-six interception when Rettig’s pass slid through his fingers. But Jackson didn’t miss much else on Saturday night, leading the Irish in tackles with eight, making one behind the line of scrimmage, and breaking up two total passes. Tasked with manning the short side of the field for the Irish defense, Jackson embodies everything Bob Diaco and the Irish defense look for in a boundary cornerback, high praise for the first-year starter.

The Irish coaching staff never worried about Jackson’s ability to step in for veteran Gary Gray and lock down a starting job. Even throughout spring drills, when the Irish secondary was all but a guessing game, Jackson was penciled in as not just a starter, but a guy the staff knew they could win with. Jackson has paid that confidence back in spades, playing terrific football on his way to four interceptions, rock-solid tackling, and confidence on the edge of the defense.

There are a lot of reasons why Brian Kelly will put the 2012 season at the top of his resume. But the development of Jackson, a converted wide receiver who made waves on special teams as a gunner early in his career, should be near the top of the page. In a system that demands accountability and builds players from the ground up, Jackson is the prototype for the Irish program, and somebody every recruit should want to emulate.

Over the next two weeks, Jackson will face some stiff tests. First, underrated Wake Forest wide receiver Michael Campanaro, and then the fearsome USC duo of Marqise Lee and Robert Woods. Expect Jackson to be up to the task.

3. Everett Golson and Tyler Eifert are starting to develop some chemistry.

Don’t look know, but Tyler Eifert is starting to find his place in the Irish offense. For the second consecutive Saturday, Everett Golson has looked to Eifert early and often, turning the 6-foot-6, 260-pound All-American into the focal point of the passing attack.

After failing to make more than four catches in any game this season, Eifert has now caught six balls in each of the past two weeks, chipping in 67 more yards Saturday night after 62 yards last weekend. No, the numbers aren’t gaudy, but they’re an important piece of an Irish offense that’s going to need to continue developing, if only for their late November showdown against USC, when Notre Dame is going to have to score some points to win.

The tight end position continues to evolve, with Troy Niklas scoring his first touchdown on a seven yard pass from Golson. Any offense the Irish can get from Niklas, especially as he works mostly attached to the formation as a valuable blocker in the run game, will only help make Eifert more dangerous, allowing the senior from Fort Wayne the opportunity to line up all over the football field.

Saturday night, Kelly called an offense that did just enough to win the football game comfortably, converting their first 10 third downs as Golson threw for 200 yards and two touchdowns, in command of the offense from start to finish, even with a run game was short of impressive, led by Theo Riddick’s 104 yards. Now all that’s left is to get Eifert involved down the field, taking advantage of the lanky tight end on the seam routes he racked up so much yardage on last season.

4. Once again the Irish defense held an opponent out of the end zone. But Notre Dame needs to get off the field and force more turnovers.

Yes, Notre Dame forced two late turnovers, including a sixth interception for linebacker Manti Te’o and a fumble recovery on a last-minute strip-sack by Stephon Tuitt. But up until the game’s final minutes, the Irish were unable to take the ball away from the Eagles, more than content to play bend-but-don’t-break defense against a B.C. offense that seemed happy to check the ball down and dump it off for first downs.

Against a high-powered attack like Oklahoma, that strategy makes all the sense in the world. But against offenses that you’d expect an elite defense to dominate — teams like the Eagles and Pitt — it makes you wonder if the Irish’s impressive stats are a product of elite front-seven talent or a great scheme.

At a school that once mightily embraced a decided schematic advantage, nobody should begrudge the Irish from finding creative ways to put together the nation’s best scoring defense. What the Irish do is very effective. According to Brian Fremeau of Football Outsiders, Bob Diaco’s defense has faced 93 opponent drives that have started at or inside their own 40-yard line. Only one of those has reached the end zone. Still, watching the team, you sometimes forget you’re watching the best Irish defense of the past 20 years.

After 10 games, both the Irish and the Crimson Tide have given up 111 points. That the Irish let Rettig pass for 247 yards and complete uncontested throws underneath should hardly matter.

Yet as the Irish prepare to take on a flawed but immensely talented USC team, armed with Matt Barkley, a quarterback that buys time in the pocket, and All-American receivers including Marqise Lee, the country’s most dangerous playmaker, it’s hard not to worry if we aren’t seeing the Irish’s Achilles heel exposed, even if it hasn’t been successful attacked yet.

5. It’s time to start monitoring the Irish injury situation.

Wide receiver DaVaris Daniels was seen wearing a sling after the game, the product of a shoulder-injury we’ll likely hear more about tomorrow. And freshman cornerback KeiVarae Russell, who played another rock-solid game, missed much of the fourth quarter, sitting with a head injury that you expect is a concussion. On Twitter, Daniels’ father Phillip, tweeted that DaVaris will be healthy by the Irish’s bowl game, almost assuming that the injury is serious enough to end Daniels’ regular season. For Russell, his status will be evaluated later this week, with it still too premature to know whether the Irish will be without their starting cornerback.

Injuries to Daniels and Russell are hardly back-breaking problems. But both are starters and key cogs in their respective units, with Daniels supplying the big play potential for the offense while Russell has been the team’s most pleasant surprise in the secondary.

At this time of year, no team is healthy, and John Goodman’s touchdown lets you know that perhaps the Irish have a veteran ready to step in and make plays on offense. But in a patchwork secondary already short Jamoris Slaughter, Russell’s health is of the utmost importance.

For the first time in a few weeks, the Irish injury report will be one to monitor.

 

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
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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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