Carlo Calabrese, KeiVarae Russell, Bennett Jackson

Kelly expects leaders to emerge over summer

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As the school year draws to a close, the Irish are in the unofficial portion of the calendar. Yet that’s the time — through the guidance of strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo, that leadership usually emerges.

Watching Brian Kelly’s teams evolve, you get the idea that when Kelly says his team develops at its own pace, he isn’t kidding. Kelly’s first team didn’t have a locked in set of leaders, instead they named game captains, sharing the leadership responsibilities. In Kelly’s second season, he named Michael Floyd and Harrison Smith to be the team’s leaders, only before Floyd was stripped of his captaincy after a spring DUI arrest got him suspended indefinitely.

Last year’s team benefited from a strong leadership group — veterans Manti Te’o and Kapron Lewis-Moore led the defense, while Zack Martin and Tyler Eifert led the offense. Four team captains were the most in the Kelly era, and add in the strong group of veterans that surrounded these four and you begin to understand one of the factors in how this team played better than expected.

Kelly talked a little bit about leadership during his Town Hall meeting with Tim Brown. The hour question and answer session sponsored by SiriusXM radio, Kelly didn’t touch on anything all that new, but he did discuss the ongoing development of the 2013 team.

While he may not be named a captain, it wouldn’t be all that surprising to see quarterback Everett Golson emerge as one of the team’s leaders. He’s the unquestioned pilot of the offense, and while Zack Martin returns as a captain, Golson has certainly taken huge strides forward after a redshirt freshman season saw him struggle at times to survive.

“I’ve seen a maturity level. He benefits from smelling the air on Notre Dame’s campus,” Kelly told Brown. “Just growing up, seeing that maturation take place. We know he has talent. It’s never been an issue of that. But it’s how he deals with the game and all of the demands.”

On the defensive side of the ball, finding replacements as team captain will be interesting. The Irish lost the leader of every unit they had — with Jamoris Slaughter and Zeke Motta exiting the secondary, Manti Te’o gone from the linebackers, and Lewis-Moore now with the Baltimore Ravens.

It’s a process that Kelly is happy to let play out throughout the summer.

“Leadership is the area that we’ve been working on from a defensive standpoint,” Kelly said. “I think it’s letting that leadership develop and guys stepping up.”

Not that the defense is without leaders. One name that’ll likely get some attention is cornerback Bennett Jackson. The senior has played the last two seasons with his shoulder in a harness, gutting out an impressive first year starting and looking primed for a breakout year in 2013. You should also add Louis Nix to that list. Sure, the senior is a guy that’s a total wild card, but his teammates love him and he’s one of the dominant players in college football. While the staff has marveled at Te’o replacement Jarrett Grace, a guy like Dan Fox has played a lot of games and has the ear of his teammates.

As we approach the long abyss before we start focusing on next year, there’s developmental work being done. It may not be things we see, but it’s a huge factor in determining the fate of the 2013 squad.

Restocking the roster: Wide Receivers

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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)

 

2015-16 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.