Brian Kelly BCS

Physical development key to Irish offseason


It may be the ultimate coaching rhetoric, but you can’t help but think Brian Kelly was genuine in his praise for the offseason work done by his roster. As Kelly kicked off his press conference Tuesday, he spent more time ticking off weight training work than just about anything else — the product of two good months of work by his troops after losing in the national championship game.

“Some of the things that are exciting for me would be just some of the weight gains that we’ve had, strength gains at really key positions,” Kelly said. “Just to highlight a couple of them, and this does not mean they’ll be first-team All‑Americans, this just means that we have addressed some of the areas that we think were very, very important.”

As it often happens during the spring, we tend to over-amplify the meaning of gains in the weight room. In many ways it’s college football’s “best shape of my life,” the spring training baseball meme that has that wonderful feeling of hope springing eternal.

That said, if we aren’t able to take wonderful leaps of faith now, when can we? And it’s difficult not to see some type of trend when you see the impressive gains from such a large sector of the roster, especially when you back it up with the snippets Kelly provided.

I’m certainly not the only person breaking down the weight gains/losses on the roster, but here are a few shifts that caught my eye.

Justin Utupo — 281 pounds (+23) Added bulk gives Utupo the opportunity to get in the mix as an undersized defensive lineman.
Louis Nix — 347 pounds (+21) While it looks like a big gain, I’ve got a feeling that Nix has been playing at this weight for quite some time.
Stephon Tuitt — 322 (+19) That’s a might scary man. Playing at 322 will allow Tuitt to slide inside when needed as well.
Romeo Okwara — 250 (+19) Your leading candidate for “Scariest 17-year-old linebacker on the planet.”
Chris Brown — 191 (+19) That’s quite a jump for Brown, who looked almost frail early last season. Adding some weight to his frame will help turn Brown into a more versatile weapon.
Mark Harrell — 305 (+18) Harrell’s gain showcases one of the true benefits of offensive line depth. Giving freshman the chance to redshirt allows leaps like this.
Tony Springmann — 284 (-16) It appears that Springmann has shed some baby weight. At 284, that’s still plenty big for the almost 6-foot-6 lineman.
Elijah Shumate — 213 (+15) You get the idea that Shumate has quickly become one of the physical freaks on the roster. Playing at 213 likely solidifies his position as a safety.
Ronnie Stanley — 304 (+14) A nice job in the offseason, especially considering Stanley’s elbow surgery. You’ve got to wonder if Stanley has the ability to win the right tackle job.
Christian Lombard — 322 (+13) Consider this needed weight for Lombard, who still is on the smaller side for a right tackle. (But may be a good fit for right guard.)
CJ Prosise — 220 (+12) At just over 6-foot, that’s plenty of size for a guy moonlighting at wideout.
George Atkinson — 217 (+7) With the size of a power back and the speed of a world-class sprinter, Atkinson seems to be putting the work in to be an elite running back.

It’s also worth noting the changes that the early-enrollee freshmen made. Malik Zaire gained 12 pounds, Corey Robinson is up seven to 197, James Onwualu looks to already be physically imposing at 215 pounds (up seven), and Mike Heuerman is reportedly up almost 15 pounds already (though he’s still listed at 218).

With the NFL Combine still fresh in many of our brains, it’s also worth mentioning some bench press numbers Kelly rattled off. Chase Hounshell, back from surgery, looks to be a workout warrior, with 21 reps of 225, while weighing in at 271 pounds. Ben Councell knocked out a reported 19 reps, and he now weighs 248. Jarrett Grace saw his bench press jump from nine reps to 22, a pretty staggering jump for the guy that might replace Manti Te’o in the middle. And add Atkinson to this list as well, repping 19 times during testing after only five before.

Again, gains like this aren’t necessarily worth shouting about. But when you consider last season’s success, it bears mentioning that Kelly credited much of the work done in January and February as the building blocks for the upcoming season.

As Kelly and the program move into their fourth season — something the head coach hasn’t done in almost 20 years — the maturation of the program is something that has many feeling as if the plan is moving forward according to plan.

“When you have the protocols and the process in place on a day‑to‑day basis, the expectations have already been set, it allows you to really work on the development of your football team,” Kelly explained.

“You’ve got guys that are really building themselves, developing physically.  You have your entire room knowing what it looks like, how to get there.  They’ve already done it in the regular season.  All those things are in place now as we move into spring ball.”



Evaluating VanGorder’s scheme against the option

ANNAPOLIS, MD - SEPTEMBER 19:  Keenan Reynolds #19 of the Navy Midshipmen rushes for his fifth touchdown in the fourth quarter against the East Carolina Pirates during their 45-21 win on September 19, 2015 in Annapolis, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Notre Dame’s ability to slow down Georgia Tech’s vaunted option attack served as one of the high points to the Irish’s early season success. After spending a considerable amount of offseason energy towards attacking the option and learning more, watching the Irish hold the Yellow Jackets in check was a huge victory for Brian VanGorder, Bob Elliott and the rest of Notre Dame’s staff.

But it was only half the battle.

This weekend, Keenan Reynolds and Navy’s veteran offense come to town looking to wreak some havoc on a defense that’s struggled to slow it down. And after getting a look at some of the new tricks the Irish had in store for Paul Johnson, Ken Niumatalolo and his offensive coaches have likely started plotting their counterpunches days in advance.

How did Notre Dame’s defense slow down Georgia Tech? Brian Kelly credited an aggressive game plan and continually changing looks. So while some were quick to wonder whether Notre Dame’s scheme changes were the biggest piece of the puzzle, it’s interesting to see how the Irish’s strategic decisions looked from the perspective of an option expert.

Over at “The Birddog” blog, Michael James utilizes his spread option expertise and takes a look at how the Irish defended Georgia Tech. His conclusion:

Did the Irish finally figure out the magic formula that will kill this gimmick high school offense for good?

Not exactly.

The Irish played a fairly standard 4-3 for a large chunk of the game. James thought Notre Dame’s move to a 3-5-3 was unique, though certainly not the first time anybody’s used that alignment.

But what stood out wasn’t necessarily the Xs and Os, but rather how much better Notre Dame’s personnel reacted to what they were facing.

Again, from the Birddog Blog:

The real story here, and what stood out to me when watching Notre Dame play Georgia Tech, was how much faster the Irish played compared to past years. I don’t mean that they are more athletic, although this is considered to be the best Notre Dame team in years. I mean that they reacted far more quickly to what they saw compared to what they’ve done in the past.

Usually, when a team plays a spread option offense, one of the biggest challenges that defensive coordinators talk about is replicating the offense’s speed and precision. It’s common to hear them say that it takes a series or two to adjust. That was most certainly not the case here.

James referenced our Media Day observations and seemed impressed by the decision to bring in walk-on Rob Regan to captain what’s now known as the SWAG team. And while VanGorder’s reputation as a mad scientist had many Irish fans wondering if the veteran coordinator cooked something up that hadn’t been seen, it was more a trait usually associated with Kelly that seems to have made the biggest difference.

“It wasn’t that the game plan was so amazing (although it was admittedly more complex and aggressive than we’ve seen out of other Notre Dame teams),” James wrote. “It was plain ol’ coachin’ ’em up.

“Notre Dame’s players were individually more prepared for what they’d see. Notre Dame is already extremely talented, but talented and prepared? You can’t adjust for that. That’s more challenging for Navy than any game plan.”

Irish prepared to take on the best Navy team in years


Brian Kelly opens every Tuesday press conference with compliments for an opponent. But this week, it was easy to see that his kind words for Navy were hardly lip service.

Ken Niumatalolo will bring his most veteran—and probably his most talented—group of Midshipmen into Notre Dame Stadium, looking to hand the Irish their first loss in the series since Kelly’s debut season in South Bend.

“Ken Niumatalolo has done an incredible job in developing his program and currently carrying an eight-game winning streak,” Kelly said. “I voted for them in USA Today Top 25 as a top-25 team. I think they’ve earned that. But their defense as well has developed. It’s played the kind of defense that I think a top 25 team plays.”

With nine months of option preparation, Notre Dame needs to feel confident about their efforts against Georgia Tech. Then again, the Midshipmen saw that game plan and likely have a few tricks in store.

As much as the Irish have focused their efforts on stopping Keenan Reynolds and the triple-option, Navy’s much-improved defense is still looking for a way to slow down a team that’s averaged a shade over 48 points a game against them the last four seasons.

Niumatalolo talked about that when asked about slowing down Will Fuller and Notre Dame’s skill players, an offense that’s averaged over 48 points a game during this four-game win streak.

“We’ve got to try our best to keep [Fuller] in front of us, that’s easier said than done,” Niumatalolo said. “We’ve got to play as close as we can without their guys running past us. I’ve been here a long time and we’re still trying to figure out how to do that.”


Navy heads to South Bend unbeaten, defeating former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco‘s team just two Saturdays ago. And while Diaco raised a few eyebrows when he said Navy would be the team’s toughest test of the year (they already played a ranked Missouri team), the head of the UConn program couldn’t have been more effusive in his praise.

“I have been competing against Navy for some time and this is the best Navy team I have seen for, let’s say the last half-dozen years,” UConn coach Bob Diaco told the New Haven Register. “I could click on footage from three years ago and see a lion’s share of players who are playing right now in the game as freshmen and sophomores. They have a veteran group, a strong group, a talented group and they look like the stiffest competition among our first four opponents.”

As usual, there will be those who look at this game as the breather between Clemson and USC. That won’t be anybody inside The Gug. So as the Irish try to get back to their winning ways in front of a home crowd, a complete team effort is needed.

“I’ll take a win by one,” Kelly said Tuesday. “That would be fine with me.”