Kelly Swarbrick Jenkins

Getting used to it

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Brian Kelly made more than a few Notre Dame fans bristle when he eschewed a 36-yard field goal and took to the air against Tulsa in his first season as Irish head coach, letting freshman quarterback Tommy Rees target All-American Michael Floyd on a jump ball in the end zone. The result of the pass was an interception and a back-breaking loss, the low point of an era that’s seen plenty of ups and downs. When asked about the decision in the post game press conference after the game, Kelly confidently told the reporters there that we all better “get used to it.”

It was a perfect snapshot of the head coach, a man no worried about sounding tone deaf or apologetic to the masses. Kelly was a man that had run a program before, and wasn’t about to doubt the convictions that led him to one of college football’s most high profile positions when he stepped foot in the pressure cooker.

“We’ll make that play. We didn’t make it today,” Kelly said back in October of 2010. “But in time, we’ll make that play.”

Unflinching in his belief in himself and his rebuilt coaching staff, Kelly showed that same resolve this season when he took a redshirt freshman and rode him through growing pains all the way to the NCAA championship game. Winning with defense, Kelly showed tremendous versatility for a guy hired for his offensive innovator status. He turned his offense from a throw-first, spread team to a power-running group of chain movers.

Building a team through unprecedented recruiting success, excellent player development, and with a singular vision for the program for the first time since Lou Holtz, it was only a matter of time before the NFL began kicking the tires on the first Notre Dame coach to over-perform with his talent since 1988.

The whispers of NFL interest came in the days leading up to the game, though they were summarily dismissed by Irish fans too concerned about a national title run. And while certain fans are now cherry-picking quotes from the non-stop media access both team’s granted, Kelly was remarkably candid about the NFL, never issuing a zero interest statement.

So get used to it, Irish fans. Maybe even embrace it.

You’ve finally got a football program people want a piece of. Finally have a coach that runs a unified outfit filled with loyal coaches all with a singular, process-oriented mind. If you thought that a 20-plus year veteran of the head coaching ranks wouldn’t be part of the vetting process for one of seven NFL teams looking for a new leader, you were only fooling yourself.

While I don’t think Kelly is going to the NFL, I do think he owes it to himself to listen to any team that wants to have a discussion. That doesn’t make him any different than Chip Kelly, Bill O’Brien, Doug Marrone, Greg Shiano, or Will Muschamp, the head coach that pulled in Alex Anzalone after the oft-waffling recruit decided to head to Gainsville instead of South Bend.

Just as important, he also owes it to himself to capitalize on his value now. Not just for the head coach, but the assistants working under him. A group that’s being vetted by athletic directors all across the country, and being paid at a price point befitting of a mid-range Big Ten school, not one of college football’s most profitable programs — now one of its best. If solidifying the financial futures of his staff, and the head coach, cost Kelly just one top prospect to Florida, call it the trade of the century. (Are Irish fans still weeping over Justin Trattou?)

Don’t get me wrong, Kelly is playing a delicate game, a high-wire act that could come back to bite him. But Jack Swarbrick isn’t stupid. And ask Boston College how giving a successful head coach an ultimatum about the NFL worked. They’re still digging themselves out of a hole. While the intel has only come through back channels, multiple reports have Notre Dame brass hard at work ironing out contract extensions and pay bumps for Kelly and his assistants. And if that’s the case, a 48-hours in limbo was well worth it.

Will it cost Kelly a few approval points among fans of the program? Any coach that openly lobbies for field turf and a Jumbotron at Notre Dame isn’t too worried about his constituents’ feelings.

So while it’s been a topsy-turvy time for Irish fans still smarting from the trouncing Alabama put on their favorite team, it’s a nice reminder that the Irish finally have a coach worth sweating over.

Now it’s up to the University to keep him.

 

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)

 

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

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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.