Five things we’ll learn: Spring football kicks off

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When Brian Kelly steps in front of the podium at the Guglielmino Athletic Complex Tuesday afternoon, he’ll be a man facing a drastically different set of expectations. Gone are the question marks about the coach from a sheer survival perspective. Last season’s 12-1 record, and the still-in-progress long term contract extension mean Jack Swarbrick has found his man. But with success comes a new set of goals. Yet before we get there, it’s worth taking a look back at where the football team was this time last year.

After a disappointing close to recruiting, Kelly made radical changes to his staff. Part out of necessity, but mostly to acknowledge the need to get better on offense. Some changes were jump-started by Ed Warinner and Tim Hinton’s move to Ohio State, where they joined Urban Meyer’s coaching staff. Charley Molnar took over UMass’ football program, in what seemed to some a coaching golden parachute, allowing Kelly to move his longtime confidant Chuck Martin to the offensive side of the ball.

Reconfiguring the staff wasn’t the only hurdle for a head coach that put together back-to-back 8-5 seasons. A four-quarterback competition needed to conclude with a signal-caller, however raw, that would stop turning the football over. Talk about counter-intuitive.

The blue-print that was laid in the long winter months of conditioning obviously was executed to incredible success last year, with an improbable run to the BCS Championship game. Before Kelly kicks off the 2013 season in earnest, let’s take a look at five things we’re likely to learn this spring.

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Everett Golson will become the offensive identity of this football team.

In his first three seasons, Brian Kelly leaned on his top playmakers to power the offense. For two years, that meant pushing the football to wide receiver Michael Floyd. Last year, that meant leaning on Theo Riddick and All-American Tyler Eifert. But for the first time since taking over the Irish program, Kelly’s top offensive weapon is his quarterback. And that mean’s junior Everett Golson needs to step forward into the spotlight.

Golson’s debut season was impressive. Learning on the fly, Golson — along with some help from Tommy Rees — piloted the Irish through some rocky waters on the way to an undefeated regular season. For a young starter who many assumed was prone to turnovers, he did an impressive job holding onto the football. He also showed the type of athleticism that you can’t teach, improvising with his legs while creating plays downfield. He also showed a flair for the dramatic, with his late game heroics beating Pitt to continue the Irish’s dream season.

In 2013, Golson needs to elevate his game. The offense needs to move because of him, not in spite of him. Kelly finally has a quarterback of his molding steering the ship. Without a singular talent to push the offense through, it’s up to his quarterback to steer this team forward.

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On the field, we’ll see what the defense looks like in life after Manti Te’o.

If there’s a gigantic hole in the Irish defense, it’s the loss of Manti Te’o. For the past four seasons, Te’o was the one constant at the epicenter of a unit that improved every season. This spring, we’ll get a look at Kelly and Bob Diaco’s plan for what the Irish defense looks like without the All-American, and what the Irish will do at both inside linebacker positions.

For the past two seasons, Diaco has used Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox as complimentary pieces next to Te’o. They’ll now be given the opportunity to play next to each other. Also added to the equation is Jarrett Grace, a promising young linebacker that’s waited his turn. Kendall Moore will also likely take this spring to force himself back onto the radar, a veteran that’s flashed big play potential but never had the chance to see consistent minutes.

Before Te’o’s breakout 2012 season, Diaco’s inside linebackers were often susceptible to the playaction pass game, caught playing downhill while quarterbacks took advantage of the soft zone behind them. Replacing a 100-tackle linebacker, who also was one of the nation’s leaders in takeaways, is no easy task. While that certainly won’t take place in fifteen practices, we’ll get a look at the staff’s early plans to move on with life after Te’o.

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In the locker room, we’ll see what the leadership of this team looks like in life after Manti Te’o.

As important as Te’o was to the team on the field, he provided more off of it. Before we ever heard the name Lennay Kekua or Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, Te’o helped completely transform the culture of the Irish football program. The veteran linebacker provided transcendent leadership, bridging the gap between coaching staffs, while helping a roster filled with Charlie Weis players buy into Brian Kelly’s tough-love approach.

If there was a benefit to Te’o’s public humiliation, it’s that this football team sees that Te’o isn’t a deity. While his embarrassment may temporarily knock Te’o of the Irish’s Mount Rushmore, it will also allow others to feel worthy of stepping into his shoes. These past few months helped remind everyone that Manti Te’o was just a kid playing football. He’s already given teammates like Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix and Bennett Jackson a perfect person to emulate. But his story has also pushed him enough off the pedestal for his former teammates to realize Te’o was also human as well.

Can George Atkinson develop the complete skillset to compliment his home run potential?

With two seasons under his belt and a depth chart that’s wide open in front of him, George Atkinson will be given every opportunity to be the big play leader of this offense. But he’ll have to show that he’s mature enough to take on the responsibility.

As we saw last season, Brian Kelly is more interested in having a running back he can trust than one that shows glimpses of greatness. That meant Theo Riddick getting the lion’s share of carries, even if Cierre Wood was the better home run threat. That also meant limiting Atkinson to single-digit touches, even though he had the world-class speed needed to be a big-play threat every time he touched the ball.

Not many players in college football are bigger home run threats than Atkinson. Yet the growing pains Atkinson has battled through the past two seasons, which included learning the position on the fly, need to be conquered heading into his third year.

He’s got the size, speed and strength needed to be the most complete back of the Kelly era. Now he’s got to take control of the job.

***

Finding the right combination on the interior of the offensive line is one of spring’s main objectives.

Returning three starting offensive linemen is a good start. But finding a replacement for two key interior spots will be one of spring’s main objectives. Gone are Braxston Cave and Mike Golic, the former a key three year starter while the latter played productive minutes the past two seasons. In their place will be youthful replacements — and could likely trigger a few dominoes as Kelly and Harry Hiestand determine the best starting five.

After battling back from a scary heart procedure, Matt Hegarty is a capable option at center. So are Mark Harrell and Nick Martin, who both have the ability to play guard as well. With Conor Hanratty and Bruce Heggie also competing, there are a variety of scenarios that could cause a ripple effect up front for the Irish.

While Zack Martin, Chris Watt and Christian Lombard all return, where they return might be the question. Consider Martin locked in at left tackle. But Lombard has been pegged by many to be a better guard than tackle and Watt has spent time cross-training as a center. If the Irish want to spread out some of their youth, there’s a version of the offensive line that moves Watt to the middle and Lombard to guard, allowing promising youngster Ronnie Stanley (or early enrollee Steve Elmer) the opportunity to take over at right tackle.

All of this is a long way from being decided, and Hiestand will likely work with a shortened deck, with line numbers still thin until reinforcements come this summer. But finding a center that can athletically fit the system will be the next step in the offensive line’s evolution, and will be one of the keys to improving the run game.

Notre Dame at Michigan State: Who, what, when, where, why and by how much

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WHO? Notre Dame at Michigan State. Many years, this matchup would warrant anticipatory headlines. In this rendition, two teams coming off historically-disappointing seasons are looking to prove they are on the path back to top-flight competitiveness.

WHAT? As may become a theme this season, this will come down to how the Irish offensive line fares against the Spartans’ defensive front seven.

WHEN? 8:00 p.m. ET. Kickoff is scheduled for 8:12, though if the preceding game runs long, a five-minute contingency should be expected. At that point, though, the game will begin one way or another.

WHERE? Spartans Stadium, East Lansing, Mich. Years ago, a venture to this site is where I first learned a traveler’s rule of thumb: Never make a trip where the roundtrip travel is longer than the time spent at the destination. I have since violated the rule a total of once, when the New York Yankees visited the Detroit Tigers in the 2011 divisional round. The wrong team won. Speaking of baseball and apropos of nothing else aside from being reminded of it this week, Cy Young threw 749 complete games, a full 110 more than the next-most in history, Pud Galvin’s 639.

Fox has the broadcast this week. Aside from that meaning Gus Johnson will be providing the exhilarating play-by-play, not sure what else to share about that fact.

WHY? This will be the last game — unless a bowl situation were to arise — between Notre Dame and Michigan State until 2026. Whoever wins will get to display the vaunted megaphone trophy for nearly a decade without worry. If that doesn’t get everyone’s competitive juices flowing, well, then that is not much of an indicator of anything because it is actually a pretty absurd keepsake.

(Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

BY HOW MUCH? This line moved as high as Notre Dame by five, never to this eye falling below three, and that is where it settled in as of this Friday evening typing. With a combined points total over/under of 54, the theoretical projected score would be an Irish 28-25 victory.

That might be a bit high-scoring, especially considering the performance of Notre Dame’s defense to date. If Georgia could not surpass 20 points, there is no reason to think the Spartans can.

Notre Dame 23, Michigan State 17. (2-1 record on the season.)

THIS WEEK’S INSIDE THE IRSH READING:
Monday Morning Leftovers: Notre Dame should punt less, a Georgia ticket arrest & Bob Diaco’s fate
Questions for the Week: Ankles, Claypool and Notre Dame’s history at Spartan Stadium
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Ready for a tough week for the dozen foes, but that could mean some promising upsets
MSU’s man-to-man pass D may allow Notre Dame & Wimbush to rush more; Kelly on resting Adams
Who among Notre Dame’s receivers might emerge?
And In That Corner … The Michigan State Spartans and a recovery from a 3-9 season
Things To Learn: On Notre Dame’s defensive line, offensive line and Wimbush’s road readiness
Kelly on C.J. Sanders, Kevin Stepherson and punt returns; injury update
Friday at 4: Four things you do not see

INSIDE THE IRISH COVERAGE FROM THE BOSTON COLLEGE GAME
Notre Dame rushes past Boston College and record books
Notre Dame offense may trend toward run, partly thanks to Wimbush
Things We Learned: Notre Dame lacks an aerial attack and a punt return, has a defensive future
Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Canteen out for the season, Javon McKinley probably sitting also; Kelly on blocking strategy

THIS WEEK’S OUTSIDE READING:
Georgia ticket broker arrested for overselling Notre Dame vs. Bulldogs tickets
The NFL’s Crisis on Offense … may reflect a collegiate trend
At USC, Sundays and Mondays matter just as much as Saturdays
Remembering Michigan State’s epic “Little Giants” fake field goal against Notre Dame
Joe Thomas on measuring a running attack’s success
Nebraska fired athletic director Shawn Eichorst, putting the future employment of head coach Mike Riley, and by extension his defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, in doubt
A long look at Bob Davie’s checkered past as controversy swirls in New Mexico
The Unforgettable, Inspirational CFB Gameday Inside Iowa’s Children’s Hospital
A five-by-five Pac-12 After Dark bingo card for anyone staying up late to watch UCLA at Stanford
10 years after Mike Gundy’s “I’m a man! I’m 40!” rant, the columnist it was aimed at reflects

Friday at 4: Four things you do not see

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For all the enjoyment football brings so many, it is a game predicated on one sense above all others: sight.

Sure, the atmosphere in Spartans Stadium this weekend will include the sounds of yelling fans, the smells of propane grills and the taste of cheap, domestic buds. Even the weather will trigger the feeling of sweat.

The game itself, however, needs only working eyes. There is a reason film is usually watched on mute, after all.

There are some things related to the game not seen, or not seen often, though.

Let’s start with an educational session from the NFL’s Cal Ripken — Cleveland Browns left tackle Joe Thomas

Yes, that is the same Thomas as the one drafted in the same year, in the same round, by the same team as former Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn. Quinn has not seen NFL action since getting eight starts for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2012, throwing two touchdowns compared to eight interceptions.

Thomas, meanwhile, now blocks for his second former Irish passer while on his way to a likely 11th consecutive Pro Bowl. Note: This is Thomas’ 11th year in the NFL. Not only has he started all 162 games of his career, he has now played in more than 10,000 consecutive offensive snaps.

That’s, uhhh, a lot.

Thursday morning Thomas met with reporters and offered some insights to how he gauges a successful day at the office. (Fair warning: The following embedded video does include one four-letter word. Thomas’ point is quoted and summarized below, so the video may not be necessary to view.)

“You always hear a lot about 4.0 yards per carry, which is sort of everyone’s standard,” Thomas said. “… If you look at rushing in the NFL, you go alright, we went for 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 60. And then you go, we’re rushing really well, we have a seven-yard average. But really how are you going to get the offensive coordinator to call a run again if he’s getting one and two yards and facing a third-and-seven all the time?”

Well, you’re not.

Thomas prefers “rushing efficiency,” valuing runs of more than four yards, runs gaining first downs and runs finding the end zone. If those make up at least 60 percent of rush attempts, Thomas deems it a success.

“That’s what’s going to allow you to get 20, 25, 30 carries in a game,” he said. “Then you walk out of the game feeling good about getting your 100 yards at the end of the game versus saying you didn’t have four yards a carry, but you were really efficient so you did stay ahead of the sticks, and you were able to keep the offense on the field and be in manageable third downs.”

This space has previously argued the easiest way to learn if a rushing attack is potent or not is to simply note how many running attempts it has. This parallels Thomas’ argument: If the run game is not doing what it needs to do, the coaches will stop calling running plays. The run efficiency percentage is simply a more exact metric, albeit one you cannot see in a glimpse of a box score.

How has Notre Dame fared thus far this season?

Using Thomas’ standards, the Irish had a 61.90 percent rush efficiency in the season opener (42 rushes), a 32.35 percent rating in their one loss (34) and a 66.67 percent tally in last week’s record-setting rushing performance (51). (more…)

Kelly on C.J. Sanders, Kevin Stepherson and punt returns; injury update

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In his last media availability before Notre Dame heads to face Michigan State this weekend (8 p.m. ET on Saturday, Fox), Irish coach Brian Kelly did not discuss his receiver corps at all.

Just kidding.

Of the eight topics Kelly was questioned about, five of them dealt with wideouts in some respect, perhaps spending the most time on C.J. Sanders. The junior has yet to be seen contributing on offense this season.

“It’s not that he’s really done anything from last year to this year wrong,” Kelly said. “He’s actually stronger. I think he’s a better football player. You’re going to see him on the field. … As the season progresses, he’s going to play.”

Kelly cited the blocking provided by fifth-year Arizona State transfer Cam Smith as the biggest impediment between Sanders and an immediate increase in playing time, describing Smith’s blocking as “just physically” better. With sophomore Chase Claypool also seeing time on the boundary, Sanders faces stiffer competition for playing time.

“Do you move him back into the slot?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “We’re pretty comfortable moving guys around at this point at that position because of our need to put bigger-bodied guys in the offense with the tight end at that position.”

In other words, Kelly and Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long have moved receivers such as Sanders, and even Claypool, out to the boundary because they so often remove the slot receiver from the field in favor of an additional tight end.

Injury update

Speaking of Sanders, Kelly declared him “fine” in his recovery from a sprained ankle. For that matter, sophomore running back Tony Jones will be a “game-day decision” as to his availability due to a sprained ankle suffered against Boston College.

Kevin Stepherson update

There is no indication the sophomore receiver will join Notre Dame’s offense this week. Considering Stepherson did not even travel to face the Eagles, it is quite likely he watches this weekend on a television, as well. Yet, Kelly did speak positively of Stepherson’s return from something of an absence thus far this season.

“He’s had a good month,” Kelly said. “His last month has been pretty good. He’s been pretty consistent working to do the right things in the classroom and has exhibited the things that I’ve been looking for. He’s been working out with [the team] for the last week or so.”

But, to add some emphasis here again, Kelly did not imply Stepherson will play this weekend. In fact, the exact opposite.

“He’s still got a ways to go, but he’s making progress.”

On punt returns and Chris Finke

To complete this week’s second (third? fourth?!) receiver recap, Kelly defended junior receiver Chris Finke’s work as a punt returner this season. Irish opponents have punted 22 times in three games. Finke has attempted to return eight of them. He has netted a total of two yards.

“We’re pleased with him,” Kelly said. “There won’t be a change there.”

Kelly did include a caveat for praising Finke’s return game.

“We’ve been in a number of fourth down situations where we’ve asked for a fair catch and he hasn’t fair caught it,” Kelly said. “We have to be better there. He has to fair catch those balls.”

On the moments when Finke returned a punt to absolutely no avail, Kelly cited missed blocks as the culprit, not Finke’s decision to make a move with the ball.

“One of our gunners has to do better on hold-up,” he said. “We think we’ve had an opportunity for a couple of good returns. … If there’s a change, it will be with one of the gunners.”

Things To Learn: On Notre Dame’s defensive line, offensive line and Wimbush’s road readiness

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It is a curious, frustrating time in the college football season. We think we know everything. We actually know nothing.

Notre Dame beat up on Boston College and Temple, but fell a play short against Georgia. If the Bulldogs are what they appear to be, then the Irish may be a very competitive team this year. If they aren’t, then that one-play-short speaks much louder. This weekend should do wonders in providing that context when Georgia hosts Mississippi State. On a more micro scale …

Who does Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko task with spying Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke?

Spartans quarterback Brian Lewerke cruised to a 61-yard touchdown run two weeks ago against Western Michigan. Preventing such a jaunt willb ea high priority for the Notre Dame defense. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)

The junior quarterback has already taken 15 carries for 171 yards (sacks adjusted) through two games this season. Notre Dame’s defensive success will not hinge entirely on limiting Lewerke’s ability to break from the pocket, but that will be a crucial part of it.

“He’s more than just a manager of the offense, he can throw it,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. “Highly accurate. He has more than just escapability. He’s fast, he can run.”

To limit that running, Elko will possibly assign a linebacker to keeping his eyes on Lewerke at most, if not all, times. There are two obvious candidates for this duty: seniors Nyles Morgan and Drue Tranquill.

Which one gets the gig more often will play a part in further understanding of Elko’s preferred defensive wrinkle, the rover, manned by Tranquill. To date, Tranquill’s role has been to crash the line on any obvious running play while providing coverage of tight ends otherwise. This has fit his skill set quite well. Rather than worry about the speed of a receiver challenging a safety deep, Tranquill is facing more physical-based assignments. The one thing the captain has never needed to worry about on the football field is his physicality.

With that job description in mind, Morgan may seem the more obvious choice to have an eye on Lewerke, but that may limit Morgan’s naturally tendencies of always finding his way to the ballcarrier. Such is the dilemma presented by a dual-threat quarterback.

Notre Dame’s ability to contain Lewerke will portend how Wake Forest and, to a much lesser extent, North Carolina may fare against the Irish defense. Deacons quarterback John Wolford has rushed for 226 yards on 29 carries (sacks adjusted, as usual) this season, though 108 of those yards came against Boston College, a defense very clearly vulnerable to quarterback rushes. Tar Heels quarterback Chazz Surratt has already notched three rushing touchdowns this season, though that is not the same inherent quandary of a truly mobile quarterback.

Part of the Irish defense’s discipline this weekend will come down to the young defensive line. Can those linemen mind their assignments?

“If you fall asleep in zone option, [Lewerke is] going to pull it and is capable of running out,” Kelly said.

In other words, if sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes crashes too hard on a running back headed up the middle, Notre Dame could quickly be exposed to Lewerke racing up the sideline. It seems appropriate here to mention the two freshmen defensive tackles Kelly praised Tuesday, Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish.

“We trust that they’re going to execute the techniques that we’ve asked them to,” Kelly said. “They’re not jumping out of their fits. There might be times where physically or technically there might be some mistakes, but they’re extremely coachable. … If we ask them to do something, they’re going to do it.”

If those two continue to successfully complement senior Jonathan Bonner and junior Jerry Tillery in the middle, that should offer Hayes the peace of mind to not over pursue a running back dive and instead man the outside lane. If he does not feel the need to make a play because he knows Hinish is capable of holding his own, that should help limit Lewerke’s chances, as well.

How will the Irish offensive line fare against a good, but not great, defensive front seven?
This plays into the introductory concept. Notre Dame’s offensive line protected junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush well against both Temple and Boston College, allowing a total of two sacks. As it pertains to the rushing attack, the offensive line opened hole after wide hole in those two contests. (more…)