Discover BCS National Championship - Notre Dame v Alabama

Irish offense will fly under the radar

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When you think back to this time last year, there were so many unanswered questions about the Notre Dame offense. We were quoting Nelly and analyzing pie charts, hoping to get to the bottom of what was wrong with an offense that couldn’t stop shooting itself in the foot and struggled getting any efficiency. Everett Golson‘s impressive performance in the Blue-Gold game only magnified the uncertainty after Tommy Rees and Carlo Calabrese‘s run-in with the South Bend police.

Of course, those questions were answered emphatically by the 2012 team. With an offensive attack that barely resembled the previous season’s, the Irish turned to a power run game, while swapping it’s starting quarterback and running back out. With Golson learning on the fly and Rees playing a small but important supporting role, Theo Riddick transformed from a inconsistent slot receiver to a workhorse chain-moving tailback.

Not too many people saw that coming.

It’s hard to actually understand just how stark the difference is between calendar years. Sure, the Irish need to find a way to make up for the loss of Tyler Eifert, the best tight end in the country. They’ll also need to replace the production from Riddick and Cierre Wood at tailback. But Brian Kelly feels fairly confident that his offense is in a great position to take a step forward, and do it with some under-the-radar players.

Lost in the embarrassing first half against Alabama was a pair of sneaky-good performances by two returning wide receivers facing a defense filled with NFL personnel. It might shock people who watched the game, but TJ Jones and Davaris Daniels had the best performance against the Alabama secondary of any receiving duo that faced the Crimson Tide.

Daniels’ six catches for 115 yards was the second best individual effort against the Tide last season. TJ Jones’ seven catches for 90 yards was a really impressive outing for a rising senior that earned many of those yards the hard way.

It’s also part of why Brian Kelly feels pretty optimistic about the future of the offense. Here’s what Kelly said about Jones, who is poised to have a really impressive senior season and is likely emerging as one of the team’s true leaders.

“TJ Jones. Here’s a young man that has continuously gotten better year in and year out,” Kelly told Tim Brown a few weeks ago during the SiriusXM Town Hall meeting. “I just think he’s going to have a great year. I think he’s an elite player.”

(Emphasis added.)

Kelly’s also waiting for the light to switch on for Daniels, who had an up and down season while he battled injuries and inconsistency. But there’s no question the talent is there. With a good summer and some urgency behind Daniels’ game, there’s a chance the Irish can line up two wide receivers that challenge a defense in ways we haven’t necessarily seen under Kelly.

“I don’t think it’s going to be a matter of, they don’t have enough skill,” Kelly said. “We’re a little inexperienced, and those guys are going to have to find themselves as they go through the season.

But I feel like we’re going to be able to put some guys on the field that present some match up problems.”

As we saw last season, Kelly wasn’t lying when he said he’d adjust his offense to his personnel. That meant an early season attack that was about as vanilla as it gets, protecting Golson from himself and using a conservative, no-mistakes game plan that produced some ugly victories.

But with an offensive line that might be better than the unit that produced 2,000 yards of rushing last season, and a quarterback that’ll be light years ahead of where he in his debut season, there’s a chance that we’re finally ready to see the offense we thought Kelly was bringing with him from Cincinnati.

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)

 

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.