Chuck Martin, Everett Golson

Martin’s evolution key to Irish success

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — In need of an offensive identity, Brian Kelly turned to his safeties coach.

Read that again. Nevermind the coach of the entire secondary, just the safeties. It was a move that should have raised more eyebrows. Could you imagine Mack Brown turning to his DB coach after his most recent offensive crisis? Would an SEC team — now throwing around seven-figure contracts to top coordinators — take a foot soldier from the defensive side of the ball and put him in charge of the entire offense?

Yet that’s what Kelly did. And the fact that the fans and the media didn’t raise more eyebrows says an awful lot about Chuck Martin, the man tasked with straightening an offense that graduated the school’s all-time leading receiver and was dead set on hitting the reset button on the offense and starting anew with redshirt freshman Everett Golson.

Entering his third season in South Bend, this was a move that could have backfired easily. With ten losses in two seasons, Kelly wasn’t on a trajectory that built statues, but rather one that found coaches selling homes. But in a season filled with gutsy moves, the choice to move Martin to offensive coordinator ended up being a key decision that helped crown Kelly the consensus national coach of the year.

For Martin, it was just another turn in a coaching career that’s seen him wear a lot of hats, and win a lot of football games. And like most things, it was a challenge Martin felt confident about.

“The confidence comes from doing it before earlier in my career when I spent 12 years on defense and moved to offense, when I didn’t know anything about it really,” Martin said.

Martin’s last transition was also courtesy of Brian Kelly. When the Grand Valley State head coaching job opened up when Kelly moved to Central Michigan, it was Martin who jumped from being a defensive coordinator to the head coach, where he — just like his predecessor — called the offensive plays and coached the quarterbacks. It was a job he found challenging. And one he learned as he went.

“When you’re the head coach you can pretend you know something about anything,” Martin quipped.

If he was learning on the fly, it was a pretty successful run. Under Martin’s watch, Grand Valley went 74-7 and won two national championships. After taking over Kelly’s offensive system, the Lakers offense continued to churn out prolific numbers, producing All-American quarterbacks and a thousand yard rusher in each of Martin’s six seasons.

With an offense in disarray and offensive coordinator Charley Molnar departing to take over the UMass football program, Kelly tapped Martin to take on his most important task, and implement a system both knew inside and out.

“Chuck is a very talented coach that will make our offense better in the future due to his knowledge of our offensive system as well as how defenses like to attack it,” Kelly said in January after announcing the change. “I wanted someone that knew the system I’m familiar with and our experience coaching together will make for an easy transition. Chuck did a great job directing the Grand Valley State offense after I left and led the program to unprecedented heights. I look forward to witnessing the impact he’ll have on our offense.”

Statistically, the switch hasn’t transformed the Irish’s production. This year’s offense ranks a modest 48th in the country, gaining around ten yards more per game that last season’s outfit. The biggest uptick has been in the running game, where Martin has juggled the champagne problem of trying to find enough touches for a talented trio of runners in Theo Riddick, Cierre Wood and George Atkinson. And while the passing game has fallen to 74th in the country, Martin has done his best work finding a way to limit mistakes, taking the Irish from 11oth in the country in turnovers to an astounding 11th.

Working together to fix the offense, Martin and Kelly led a rookie quarterback to an offensive turnaround that continued to evolve all season. In the beginning, that meant Kelly leading the charge with Golson and the quarterbacks. But as the season progressed, the head coach let his offensive leader take the reins, allowing Kelly to focus on big picture issues.

“I just think it’s been an interesting process this year,” Martin said. “It’s kind of morphed from a time where in the spring he was very hands on to where now he kind of likes the way things look out there.

“I think he was bound and determined to get some things corrected on offense, i.e. turnovers, and was really bound and determined to do that.  I think once everybody settled in, I think he’s a little bit more back to just running the whole outfit, which he’s pretty good at.”

It’s also becoming pretty apparent that Martin is pretty good at running an offense as well. And while the lights might not have been as bright at the D-II level, the goals remain the same at Notre Dame.

“I know it’s a bigger stage. There’s more people in the press room. There’s more fans running around. But it’s the same deal,” Martin said. “It’s a football game and it’s a National Championship game, and fortunately for me it’s seven times in 12 years we’ve gotten to go try to win it all.”

 

 

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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