Louis Nix, Steve Elmer

Five things we learned: Defense 54, Offense 43

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What a difference a year makes.

Just think: Twelve months ago, the Irish were in the middle of a four-man open race for the starting quarterback job. The coaching staff was rebuilt and reshuffled, all with the hopes of fixing an offense that needed to replace its best player. Coming off two 8-5 seasons, the sky felt like it just might actually be falling, with star freshman Aaron Lynch’s departure in the middle of spring feeling like an early sign that the Brian Kelly era was doomed to end just like those of Davie, Willingham and Weis.

Nothing an undefeated regular season and a date in the BCS National Championship game couldn’t fix.

On a frigid Saturday afternoon in South Bend, it really didn’t matter that the defense defeated the offense 54-43. It was just another day at the office for the Irish, with the glorified scrimmage a celebration of the hard work that’s gone into creating the foundation for the 2013 squad.

Let’s take a look at the five things we learned during the Blue’s 54-43 victory over the White.

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1. They are who we thought they were.

For the most part, the Blue-Gold game was absent of any real subplot. The Irish know who their quarterback is. They’ve got an idea of their depth chart at running back, wide receiver, tight end, and on the offensive line.

On the defensive side of the ball, this game provided another look at the growing depth in the front seven. It showed the work that still needs to be done in the secondary. But to credit Denny Green, the Irish are who we thought they were.

That might be a very good team, though it’s a squad with some work to be done.

The Irish offensive line struggled to get a push against the starting defense, no doubt hampered by the absence of Chris Watt, who was held out of action for precautionary reasons after a minor neck injury flared up during pregame. Everett Golson wasn’t as sharp as many hoped, with the red jersey almost an open invite to revert back to the sandlot quarterback Brian Kelly and Chuck Martin have been eliminating.

But nothing done today — and likely on purpose — showed opponents anything the Irish coaching staff didn’t want to show. And just as important, it didn’t give anybody any reason to think this upcoming season will be one with anything but sky-high expectations.

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2. While he might not have shown it today, Everett Golson took a great step forward this spring.

Everett Golson’s fairly average numbers didn’t tell the story of the rising junior’s spring. A year after surviving during a surprising 12-1 season, Golson spent the winter and spring moving into a leadership position, a role we saw him play not just today, but throughout the spring’s fourteen other official practices.

While Golson put up only modest numbers, 6 of 13 for 98 yards with an interception in the red zone, he talked after the game with NBC’s Alex Flanagan about something far more important — his improved confidence.

“It’s different,” Golson admitted to Flanagan on the field after the game. “But along with that comes responsibility. One of the things I’m trying to do this year is lead this team.”

That’s a quarterback that’s come a long way from last season. Golson was a young kid that openly admitted to being embarrassed after getting yanked against Michigan after a horrendous start. He’s also far from the kid who got benched for the first series against Miami for showing up late for a pregame meeting in Chicago.

After graduating stars like Michael Floyd and Tyler Eifert, the best player on the offense is now its starting quarterback. This spring showed that Golson understands the responsibility on his shoulders.

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3. If there’s an area of concern heading into the fall, it’s that the special teams are still very much a work-in-progress.

Brian Kelly said a large emphasis was put on improving the special teams this spring. It didn’t show on Saturday afternoon. While none of the coverage units were live during the scrimmage, a few of the major questions Irish fans had about the special teams were only magnified after watching the Blue-Gold game.

Kyle Brindza struggled as the team’s starting punter. (Walk-on Jude Rhodes was even worse.) Fifth-year senior Nick Tausch missed his first field goal attempt, before making three chip shots. And the open audition for punt returner looked more like a game of Hot Potato, with a slew of other candidates not looking like they wanted anything to do with catching the ball.

“I’d like to leave the spring feeling a little bit better about it, but we’ve got a lot of work to do,” Kelly admitted after the game.

Taking too much from the performance of the special teams units in 39 degree weather during non-contact situations isn’t wise. But Brindza’s inability to average more than 30 yards a punt is worrisome.

Kelly has pledged to use his best players on special teams come the fall, after seeing how Alabama dominated the third segment of the game with starters on all units. We’ll see if that happens come fall camp, when the Irish will have a full allotment of players on hand.

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4. We certainly didn’t learn this today, but Louis Nix is wonderful.

In a game that lacked any true breakthrough performances, Louis Nix provided the highlight of the afternoon, with a quarterback draw executed to perfection for a two-point conversion.

Nix, who looks every bit the 347-pounds he’s listed at, calmly looked both left and right before tucking the football and charging for the end zone. You could hardly blame Kendall Moore for stepping out of the big fella’s way, even though Nix was looking for a collision.

“My intentions were just to truck somebody,” Nix said after the game. “I didn’t care about the touchdown too much. I just wanted to run somebody over.”

That Kelly would give Nix the opportunity to take a snap at quarterback shows you how beloved the All-American nose guard is to his teammates. But perhaps a better illustration of that was shown during the Strong and True documentary, where Nix’s teammates rallied around him as he struggled to finish a particularly hellish conditioning session in the middle of Camp Kelly, a rugged winter workout that featured pushing a wood board along the snow-covered artificial surface.

That kind of thing isn’t easy for anybody, let alone a 350-pound nose guard. But then again neither is playing quarterback, as Nix admitted after the game.

“We haven’t actually conditioned me to read defenses yet,” Nix joked. “So I just ran it.”

***

5. Brian Kelly is a different man.

The red-faced screamer of yesteryear would not recognize this head coach. Kelly, who didn’t see a ton of good from his offense, seemed to let it all roll off his shoulders, as much of a sign as you’d ever want from a head coach evaluating his football team.

It’s startling to see how different Kelly is heading into his fourth season at Notre Dame. While we heard that the head coach would evolve as his team learned what he expected from him, we’re now actually seeing it before our eyes.

When George Atkinson got creamed for running with his pads too high, Kelly joked about it with him, before reinforcing his coaching point. When his starting quarterback scrambled too much and threw a bad interception, Kelly called it valuable tape for a long offseason. The only time Kelly got really animated on the sideline was when new long-snapper Scott Daly jumped on a muffed punt — nearly taking out wide receiver TJ Jones’ legs.

It’s crazy to think that Kelly’s fourth season at Notre Dame is the first time he’s had a fourth season since Grand Valley way back in 1994, when half this roster wasn’t born. But Kelly’s stress-free attitude is a sign that all is well for the flagship athletic program under the Golden Dome.

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.

Five things we learned: Signing Day 2016

FILE - In this Jan. 1, 2016, file photo, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly makes a call during the first half of the Fiesta Bowl NCAA College football game against Ohio State in Glendale, Ariz. Kelly has agreed to a six-year contract to stay on as coach at Notre Dame through 2021, the school announced Friday, Jan. 29,2 016.  (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)
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There were no last minute defections. No roller coaster recruits or down-to-the-wire decisions. Heck, there were no fax machines—with Notre Dame ditching the office dinosaur for a wireless, smart phone option.

Brian Kelly inked another Top 10 recruiting class on Wednesday. And he did so in decidedly uneventful fashion.

“It’s awesome. I think that everybody should try it once in their career,” Kelly said.

So while Kelly and the Irish staff hold out hope that 5-star talents Caleb Kelly and Demetris Robertson still decide to spend their college careers in South Bend, the 23-man class announced Wednesday was another Top 10 effort and a step in the right direction for a program on very stable ground.

Let’s find out what we learned.

 

Notre Dame’s staff continued to focus on rebuilding the secondary and rushing the passer. 

Yes, Brian Kelly saw what you saw—a group that struggled getting to the passer or to field a nickel or dime personnel grouping. So they countered that in the best way they knew how: By continuing to stockpile talent.

Notre Dame added seven defensive backs and four edge defenders in the cycle. They include safeties Jalen Elliott, D.J. Morgan, Spencer Perry and Devin Studstill and cornerbacks Julian Love, Troy Pride and Donte Vaughn. Perhaps just as important is the impression some of these defenders made in their time on campus, with Kelly pointing to Elliott and Studstill’s work during summer camp really making them must-have recruits.

“Jalen Elliott competed like no player that I have seen since I’ve been coaching in a camp setting,” Kelly said. “Same thing with Devin Studstill. His skill level was of corner-like ability but had the size of the safety, and so our guys went right to them early on, and that was a focal point because we got a chance to see them up close and personal.”

At defensive end, the Irish welcome 5-star recruit Daelin Hayes, getting him on campus as he recovers from shoulder surgery. He’s joined by former Alabama commit Khalid Kareem, the strongside counterpart that is an early candidate to see the field, especially as the staff looks for someone to spell Isaac Rochell for a few snaps. Longer-term prospects include a few speed rushers—Julian Okwara (younger brother of Romeo) and Ade Ogundeji, a long-limbed, below-the-radar edge rusher.

“We’re pretty excited about the potential for some guys in this class that can answer some four-man pass rush needs that we do have,” Kelly said.

 

It may not be the biggest group, but Brian Kelly is excited about his offensive line—especially the guys he pulled from Ohio State’s backyard. 

Three recruits in the offensive line class point to a big 2017 at the position. But the three the Irish did sign—guard Parker Boudreaux and tackles Liam Eichenberg and Tommy Kraemer—have Kelly very happy.

“Parker Boudreaux has that physical presence inside like, and I’m not comparing him, but he’s a Quinton Nelson in terms of size and physicality,” Kelly said. “And then two edge guys with Liam and Tommy on the outside. Those two kids are as good as you’re going to find in the country, and couldn’t be more excited to have two kids from the state of Ohio, from two great Catholic schools in St. Ignatius and Cincinnati Elder from the state of Ohio.”

Both Eichenberg and Kraemer were priority targets for Urban Meyer and company, with neither wavering after committing to Notre Dame. Kraemer was Ohio’s Gatorade Player of the Year and an Army All-American. He’ll be able to step into the two-deep immediately, capable of playing up front if the Irish need him. Eichenberg more than held his own at the Under Armour All-American game and has a high ceiling, especially as he learns the game under Hiestand.

It doesn’t take away the sting of the Fiesta Bowl. But it’s a nice consolation prize.

 

Irish legacies Jamir Jones and Julian Okwara may have big brothers who played for Brian Kelly, but they earned scholarships on their own. 

Classmates Jarron Jones and Romeo Okwara will turn over the reins to their younger brothers, linebacker Jamir Jones and defensive end Julian Okwara. The younger duo’s commitments felt all but inevitable throughout this recruiting cycle—even if that wasn’t always the case.

Jones had to come to camp to earn a scholarship. Having played quarterback and tight end as a high school standout in Rochester, the defensive staff had to see how he moved before they could find a position for him to play.

Similarly, Okwara’s journey to Notre Dame shouldn’t be taken for granted. While his older brother leaves Notre Dame the team’s leading quarterback sacker, Julian has a better natural pass rush skill-set than the 2015 team-leader.

“Julian can separate himself in a way because he has an elite initial movement and speed that Romeo has had to try and develop,” Mike Elston said in Okwara’s Signing Day video. “Romeo has the size and the power and the aggressiveness, but Julian can really add value for us right away.”

Kelly talked about how important it was to not just land this duo, but to have them already understand what the journey is that lies ahead.

“We didn’t recruit them because their brothers were here. We recruited them because we thought they were players that fit here at Notre Dame that would be very successful,” Kelly said. “Obviously it helps when their brothers have a great experience here and really enjoy their Notre Dame experience as a student and as an athlete, so that helps you in the recruiting… those kids really fit and can stand on their own two feet.”

 

Even without Demetris Robertson in the fold, Notre Dame’s receiving class is a group to watch. 

You want productivity? Throw on a highlight tape of Javon McKinley. You want an intriguing set of physical tools? Look no further than Chase Claypool. You want a sleeper prospect who out-performed every elite prospect who came to the Irish Invasion camp? Then your man is Kevin Stepherson.

Most of the attention on Signing Day was the fate of 5-star receiver Demetris Robertson. But the trio of athletes that’ll reload the receiving corps is a group that deserves recognition even without an additional infusion.

McKinley provided the day’s only scare when his smart phone struggled to send his signature via electronic fax. Claypool sent his national letter of intent in the day after scoring 51 points on the basketball court. And Stepherson is already taking part in team workouts in Paul Longo’s strength facilities, getting a jump start with the spring semester and 15 practices as the Irish try to figure out what life looks like after Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle.

After Fuller left campus early on the back of two record-setting two seasons, Kelly said his staff has become more and more comfortable with the fact that his skill players need to develop quickly—especially with the allure of the NFL just ahead.

“If you’re really that good, you may not be here very long, and we hope that you’re here for four years and you stay, but you’ve got to be ready to compete,” Kelly said. “So our expectation in the recruiting process is for the wide receiver group to come in and compete to get on the field and be a player for us immediately.”

That’ll happen whether or not Robertson is a part of this group.

 

Amidst significant transition on both the coaching staff and recruiting office, Notre Dame managed a Top 10 class. Expect things to only get better from here. 

Let’s go back to Signing Day 2015. Within 24 hours of Brian Kelly’s press conference, he was dealing with two major changes—recruiting coordinator Tony Alford was out the door to Ohio State and Kerry Cooks was headed to Oklahoma. Two aces on the staff were gone, forcing the Irish to not just replace long-time staffers, but to find new area recruiters for the state of Texas and Alford’s stronghold in Florida.

Kelly brought in first-year college assistant Todd Lyght to work with defensive backs. He tapped the school’s rushing leader Autry Denson to handle the backs and duke it out in Florida. Mike Sanford shook up the offense as Bob Elliott moved into an off-field position. But perhaps just as important as those moves, Kelly turned over the administrative reins to Mike Elston, who moved into a recruiting coordinator position he had filled for his boss back at Cincinnati.

Elston had to reorganize a staff that saw relationships walk out the door and reboot a recruiting effort that saw significant changes behind the scenes. And in short order things got back on track and have progressed to the point that the Irish are ahead of the game, setting junior days and summer camp dates earlier than ever.

For those paying attention, they’ve noticed the improvements. Notre Dame has paid more attention to messaging—staffers more active on Twitter. There have been improvements on Instagram, Facebook and Vine—platforms that might sound like gobbledygook to grownups, but are critical pieces to a year-long recruiting effort. That should help this staff press ahead in 2017, a recruiting class that already has five members.

“With that team that we’ve put together, we’re not going to look back. It’s only going to get better,” Kelly said.

It was Elston that engineered the equipment truck visit to Savannah, a late-game recruiting move that drew a lot of attention to Notre Dame. It was recruiters like Denson who went to Alabama and got a visit out of Ben Davis, a Crimson Tide legacy who gave the Irish a much longer look than anybody could have expected. And it’s no surprise that a former Pro Bowler and first-round draft pick like Lyght was able to reel in a large group of defensive backs eager to learn from a guy who was a clear success story.

“I think each and every year, you hope that this group is the best group you’ve ever recruited,” Kelly said. “I’m hoping for that again.”

 

Faxes in: Liam Eichenberg

Liam Eichenberg
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LIAM EICHENBERG
Cleveland, Ohio

Measurables: 6’6″, 280 lbs.

Accolades: 4-Star, Under Armour All-American, 2015 MaxPreps first-team All-American, 2015 American Family Insurance All-USA Ohio, AP All-Ohio Division I first-team.

Impressive Offers: Florida State, Miami, Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Tennessee

Projected Position: Offensive tackle.

Quick Take: Another offensive tackle with sky-high potential, Notre Dame snatched Eichenberg out from under Urban Meyer’s nose, bringing in yet another blue-chipper for Harry Hiestand to mold. More of a developmental project than Kraemer, Eichenberg’s upside could be just as lofty, especially after some time in a weight room and on the practice field.

What he means to the Irish: With numbers at tackle on the light side, Eichenberg won’t be asked to get on the field, but he might start his career in the two deep behind Mike McGlinchey. That could take away a redshirt if things go wrong, but the view from behind McGlinchey is a good spot for him, learning behind another talented athlete who came to campus as a developmental prospect but will enter his senior season (McGlinchey has two years of eligibility remaining) as a legit NFL prospect.

Eichenberg has the same kind of ceiling. He’ll just need to keep improving—something that he’s shown after a strong Under Armour All-American week in Orlando.

Obligatory YouTube clip: