NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Michigan State

Kelly puts the focus on special teams this spring

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If Notre Dame’s under-performing special teams units make a vast improvement in 2013, Irish fans have an odd person to thank: Alabama coach Nick Saban. After all, it was Saban who laid the blue print for Kelly’s spring overhaul of his special teams, which has underwhelmed the past few seasons, especially in the return games.

“Here’s what I know. Standing on the sideline for the national championship game, we’re ready to kick off and Alabama has eleven starters on kickoff return,” Kelly said. “Kickoff return. Nobody wants to be on kickoff return.

“So the emphasis for us in this spring is to really embrace their roles. I want starters to be part of our special teams units. The spring really is for us to integrate front-line guys in ST. And that kind of decision has to come from me. So I ‘ve made that, and we’re going about it in the spring to really put our best players on ST.”

After swapping out assistant coach Mike Elston with Scott Booker, it seems Kelly has hit on something he believes to be at the core of the issue: personnel. And after developing a roster that he feels is deeper than any he’s coached, Saban’s willingness to put starters on coverage and return units, even if there is added risk of injury, has clearly influenced the way the Irish will look at their all important third unit.

“Every single position is going to have the best players that we can get out there. We’re going to make them compete for those positions,” Kelly said. “Now that we’ve been able to build some depth on both sides of the ball, I believe we can move more toward getting our front line guys out there.”

If you’re looking for fairly radical changes in season four, this is it. After basically settled for net neutral in the punt return game with John Goodman basically fair catching everything in 2011 and getting next to nothing out of freshman Davonte Neal last season, Kelly’s going to utilize the very best players he has on the roster.

That likely means George Atkinson continues as a kickoff returner. And we’ll likely see a guy like Amir Carlisle compete for a spot in the punt return game, pushing Neal, who is likely the front-runner at the slot receiver position.

Would Kelly have made this choice if Michael Floyd was on his 2013 roster? Who knows. But the fact that the Irish are making a concerted effort to have their roster’s top players onto the four different units means that the head coach is convinced there’s value to be added in special teams, something that wasn’t all that apparent the past few seasons.

“We’re not afraid to put a number of different guys out there if they need a blow on defense or they need a blow on offense,” Kelly continued. “As I told them, they’re not going to take a blow on special teams. If you want to sit out a series or a few plays on defense, that’s up to you. But we’re going to get our personnel on the field as well in special teams.”

Drue Tranquill named first-team Academic All-American

Drue Tranquill
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Drue Tranquill was named a first-team Academic All-American. The junior safety, who returned from his second major knee injury during his three-year career, earned the honors after posting a 3.74 GPA in mechanical engineering.

Tranquill is Notre Dame’s first academic All-American since Corey Robinson earned the honor after the 2014 season. He finished second on the team in tackles with 79 and lead the team in solo stops with 52. He also had two TFLs and an interception.

Tranquill is Notre Dame’s 60th Academic All-American, the third-most of any school behind Nebraska and Penn State. He’s active in the university community, serving as a mentor for the Core Leadership Team for Lifeworks Ministry, and is a member of Notre Dame Christian Athletes. He is a also member of the Student-Athlete Advisory Council (SAAC) and Rosenthal Leadership Academy.

 

Postseason Mailbag: Now Open

SAN ANTONIO, TX - NOVEMBER 12: Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly leads his team onto the field before the start of their game against Army in a NCAA college football game at the Alamodome on November 12, 2016 in San Antonio, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)
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It’s been too long. Let’s talk about the season, the decisions ahead and where Notre Dame stands after its nightmare of a 2016 season.

Drop your questions on Twitter @KeithArnold or in the comments below.

 

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If you’re interested in hearing my recap on the USC game and where Notre Dame’s goes now that the season is over, give a listen to the latest episode of Blown Coverage, with Newsweek’s John Walters. 

 

Report: Zaire set to depart with graduate transfer

Malik Zaire
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The wheels are in motion for Malik Zaire‘s exit from Notre Dame. What felt like an inevitability after Zaire lost out to DeShone Kizer after the Texas game is now a reality, as the Ohio native is expected to receive his release tomorrow, according to a report from Pete Sampson at Irish Illustrated.

Sampson identified four programs as potential landing spots for Zaire: Florida, Pitt, Michigan State and Wisconsin, Power Five programs that all had better seasons (minus the Spartans) than Notre Dame. All have uncertainty atop their quarterback depth chart, though none look like guaranteed jobs.

With Notre Dame out of a bowl, Zaire can get a jump start on looking around, capable of taking visits and finding a home after the semester. That would let him join a program in time for spring drills, where he’d compete and be able to play out his final year of eligibility.

When Zaire leaves he’ll join a line of recent quarterbacks to finish their eligibility elsewhere. Dayne Crist, Andrew Hendrix, Gunner Kiel and Everett Golson all either played or were recruited by Brian Kelly and finished their careers elsewhere. That could leave a scenario—one many predict—where the top-two on Notre Dame’s depth chart depart, Kizer to the NFL and Zaire elsewhere, turning the keys over to Brandon Wimbush who redshirted this season.

Tillery apologizes for actions during USC game

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Sophomore Jerry Tillery issued an apology for two controversial incidents against USC. Notre Dame’s defensive tackle was flagged for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after a referee caught him stepping on Zach Banner‘s ankle. Cameras also spotted him intentionally hitting Aca’Cedric Ware‘s head after the Trojan running back was injured after a collision with Nicco Fertitta.

Tillery wrote on Twitter:

“I want to take full responsibility for my actions on Saturday. I am truly sorry. I acted in a way that was out of character for me. What I displayed in those two instances were completely unbecoming and not indicative of the kind of player or person I am. My actions in those two instances do not represent what my family or Notre Dame has molded me to be. I want to especially apologize to Aca’Cedric, Zach, their families and anyone else affected by what I did. I assure you I will learn and grow from this moment and become a better man because of it.”

While the backlash on social media has been harsh, USC head coach Clay Helton downplayed it.

“It was a poor decision by a young person. I know it’s not Notre Dame football and I know that’s not Brian Kelly,” Helton said. “He’s been a class act the whole way and I know he’ll address it with his player and handle it in a way that he sees fit. I have always found Brian to be a man of class and integrity.”

Ware himself responded via Twitter, doing his best to put the incident to rest.

Kelly stated after the game that he’d review the incidents, both plays Kelly didn’t see happen live. With the season over, Tillery’s discipline will be handled internally.