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Five things we’ll learn: The season is finally upon us

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Within ten minutes of reaching the top of the college football mountain, Notre Dame fans had to feel like Sisyphus. After watching their beloved Irish vanquish a boulder carrying the burdens of tradition, unfulfilled expectations, and the final shouts of irrelevancy at the BCS National Championship game, the honeymoon lasted just minutes before the Crimson Tide knocked a dream season back down to earth.

The greek tragedy didn’t stop after the embarrassing 42-14 pummeling. Brian Kelly nearly knocked the oxygen out of ND Nation when the Philadelphia Eagles interviewed him, going radio silent for three days before eventually returning to the fold. That was nothing compared to Manti Te’o’s ordeal, with America learning all about Catfishing and a fictional girlfriend named Lennay Kekua.

Spring practice led to the departure of five-star freshman Gunner Kiel. That was trumped by the academic exile of starting quarterback Everett Golson. Throw in the loss of prized recruits Alex Anzalone and Eddie Vanderdoes, and just making it to training camp was enough of an accomplishment.

A long summer of workouts and four days in a sleepy farm town of Marion, Indiana hopefully put all of that in the past. And just 236 eventful days after last taking the field, the Irish will kickoff the ’13 season against Temple.

Before we focus on that game, let’s take a look at five things we’ll learn during the 2013 season.

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1. The final chapter in Tommy Rees’ career will determine his legacy. 

As NBC continues to try and regain the midas touch it once had developing television dramas, it could do worse than looking to its Saturday afternoon autumn time slot for inspiration. That’s where Tommy Rees has entranced Irish fans — with three seasons of football that have been anything but boring.

Defining Rees’ run in South Bend is complicated. It’s also something we’ve tried to do from almost the beginning, when the scrawny freshman that looked like he should’ve been played interhall was thrown into action against Tulsa and lost in spectacularly dramatic fashion. Rees may have lost that game — and a few others — but he’s certainly won his share as well.

After boos from the home crowd welcomed Rees during a late-game relief appearance against Purdue, Rees spent the ’12 season earning back the respect of just about every Notre Dame fan on the planet, proving to be the ultimate teammate while playing a critical role during the team’s undefeated regular season.

With the keys to the offense in Rees’ hands for one final season, even Kelly understands that this year will go a long way towards defining Tommy Rees and his legacy.

“I don’t think the story’s written,” Kelly said. “I think you write the story after he completes his journey here at Notre Dame. You know what, it could be a really interesting story.”

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2. Can Brian Kelly’s most talented backfield find a way to turn into his most productive?

Gone are the Irish’s three most prolific rushers from last season, with Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood both battling to make NFL rosters while Everett Golson spends his forced sabbatical in San Diego training. Yet even with just 74 returning carries in the Irish backfield, Kelly feels extraordinarily upbeat about the prospects of his running attack — whoever ends up leading the way.

“We’re just really blessed to have such great talent at the running back position,” Kelly said. “I don’t know that I’ve ever had as much depth at the running back position in all my years of coaching. All of them can contribute to our success.”

If finding carries for three backs was difficult last season, thinking Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin can find touches for George Atkinson, Cam McDaniel, Amir Carlisle, Will Mahone, Greg Bryant, and Tarean Folston is all but impossible. While preseason camp went a long way towards getting positive sound bites out of the coaching staff about all the good work that was getting done, it brought us no closer to knowing who’s actually going to carry the load once the games start to count.

George Atkinson may be the best blend of size and speed in the country. Amir Carlisle might be the most dangerous playmaker on the team. Greg Bryant could be a freshman All-American while Cam McDaniel could be the best pure running back on the team. But can this coaching staff find the proper platoon to take advantage of everyone’s skill-sets?

There’s every reason to believe that the offensive line should be even better run blockers than they were last season. Who they’ll be blocking for is the big question.

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3. Can the inside linebackers still play productive football without Manti Te’o?

For four seasons, Manti Te’o roamed the middle of the Irish defense, providing the heartbeat for a unit that improved every season. Anchoring the defense and calling the shots from his inside linebacker position, the unit took on his personality, as it became one of the school’s stingiest defenses in the modern era.

After splitting snaps playing next to Te’o, fifth-year seniors Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese will get the first chance to take over the inside, with junior Jarrett Grace working into the rotation as well. When asked about replacing an iconic player like Te’o, all three linebackers were smart enough to know that’s next to impossible.

“We have a bunch of leaders on our defense and instead of looking to one person we can look to several people,” Calabrese said. “It’s more of a team defense. We don’t have just one guy standing out this year. We have a bunch of guys that can play and can lead, which is going to make us successful.”

While replicating Te’o’s interception total might be impossible, his tackle productivity shouldn’t be as difficult. Splitting snaps next to Te’o, Fox and Calabrese combined for 112 tackles. Te’o’s award-winning campaign finished with 113.

Much of what Te’o brought to the defense wasn’t measured on a stat sheet. But with two of the team’s most experienced players anchoring the interior of the defense, Te’o’s legacy might be the pride that he instilled in the unit.

“I think our mentality would carry over more than anything,” Fox said. “The mentality that we don’t want anybody to score on us is something that we take pride in. We hold it close to us.”

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4. Can Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix form the most dominant 1-2 punch on the defensive front in the country?

Spend your time worrying about the NFL Draft come December. Otherwise you’ll miss the most talented defensive front Notre Dame has had in a very long time. Anchored by nose tackle Louis Nix and defensive end Stephon Tuitt, the Irish have two All-American caliber defensive linemen that could also be first round NFL draft picks.

Less than five years after the Irish defensive line couldn’t stop a powder puff team, Brian Kelly has turned the Irish front into a must-see group for pro scouts, according to NFL.com’s Bucky Brooks.

Studying Nix’s game tape, I was surprised by his savvy and skills as a pass rusher. Unlike most nose tackles of his stature, Nix is more than a pocket pusher. He effectively uses a “snatch and shed” maneuver to work past interior blockers on pressure attempts. Although his sack numbers are minimal, he reminds me of Vince Wilfork as an interior pass rusher.

Tuitt, who stands 6-foot-6, 322 pounds, is an ultra-talented five technique (defensive lineman who plays on the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle) with a tremendous combination of size, speed and athleticism. He flashes extraordinary snap-count anticipation and first-step quickness, which makes him difficult to block on the interior on single blocks. Tuitt complements his superior movement skills with terrific hand skills and upper-body strength. His ability to play with strength, power and leverage not only makes him an effective run defender, but it also makes him a problematic pass rusher as a defensive end in a three- or four-man front.

Paired with Sheldon Day, a sophomore defensive end who Kelly raved about earlier in camp, the Irish’s base three-man front should be one of the most stout in the country. They’ll likely improve when they go to four-down as well, dropping All-American candidate Prince Shembo down to the line of scrimmage or hybrid player Ishaq Williams.

Question marks can be solved quickly with a dominant defensive front. And no duo looks to be more dominant than Nix and Tuitt.

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5. Can Notre Dame adjust from being the hunter to the hunted?

Ask USC how it felt to start the season with a bullseye on their chest? The Trojans, who started last season as a favorite to win the national championship, ended the year losing five of six and embarrassing themselves in the Sun Bowl to a sub-.500 Georgia Tech squad.

One of the big reasons Brian Kelly shook up training camp was to forge a new identity for this football team. And he made it clear that “you don’t just begin this climb at the top of the mountain.” With fuel easy to find after a one-sided BCS Championship loss and the doubt that comes with losing your starting quarterback, the mission put to the team in January was clear.

“If we do it like we did last year, we’re going to be an 8-5 team because everybody has taken their motivation off what we did last year and have worked harder,” Kelly said. “We supplied motivation for the entire college football world that, if Notre Dame can do it, we can do it.

“So if you do it like you did last year, you’re an 8-5 football team.”

While we won’t know until the games starting counting for real if this team is up for the challenge of getting back to the top, but it appears clear that the group understands that last season’s success is in the rearview mirror.

“We left last year in the past. We are focusing on this year and focusing on today,” Calabrese said.  “We are focusing on this year and this team.”

Kelly gives positive updates on injuries and academics

C.J. Sanders CJ Sanders
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One of the major offseason hurdles that have tripped up Irish football teams in recent years seems to be in the rearview mirror: Academics.

Brian Kelly caught up with the South Bend Tribune on Tuesday, and the major revelation coming out of the Irish head coach was that his team didn’t suffer any off-field casualties in the class room.

Speaking at a Kelly Cares charity event in South Bend, the seventh-year head coach said he expects everybody to return to South Bend when camp opens August 6, the type of “all-clear” that we haven’t always seen during the last lull of the offseason.

“Our grades came in. We’re all good,” Kelly told the Tribune. “We feel good about everybody coming back, and now it’s just a matter of getting guys in the right position and going and playing.”

That likely means reserve defensive end Grant Blankenship has worked his way out of the doghouse. It also means that the Irish staff doesn’t expect any surprises from incoming freshmen or outgoing veterans, as we’ve seen in the past with preseason losses like Bo Wallace, Kolin Hill or Jhonny Williams.

The injury front also seems to provide some optimism. Key piece of the puzzle CJ Sanders is ahead of schedule as he recovers from hip surgery, opening up the Irish offense with the sophomore ready to ascend into the slot receiver position. Kelly also gave a positive report on freshman Parker Boudreaux, who had a scary battle with viral meningitis during summer school.

The Irish players are home this week between summer school and fall camp, with Kelly quite okay with his team taking a week to relax before reporting to training camp.

“I told our trainer before they left, ‘Just reiterate: let’s not water ski and pull a hamstring or do something crazy.’ I’d be fine if they laid on the couch for a week and then we’ll get ‘em re-engaged when we get back,” Kelly said.

“They’ve been without any kind of coaching in a sense for the last five, six weeks. We’d like to get back to work. It’s getting to that point.”

 

Irish A-to-Z: John Montelus

John Montelus IICashore
Matt Cashore / Irish Illustrated
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Looking for a way to impact the roster, John Montelus transitioned from the offensive line to the defensive front this spring. It’s a move that will hopefully breath some life into the senior’s time on the Irish roster, stuck behind promising talent in Harry Hiestand’s front and hoping to find his niche on a defense looking for answers.

Thinking that Montelus might be able to provide answers isn’t necessarily fair to the Everett, Massachusetts native. But as the Irish try to maximize every scholarship on their 85-man roster, Montelus—another bruising 300-plus pound interior player—certainly has something to offer.

 

JOHN MONTELUS
6’4″, 310 lbs.
Senior, No. 60, DL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A Top 100 prospect, Montelus was a consensus 4-star recruit who picked Notre Dame over some elite offers, places like Florida, LSU, Nebraska, Michigan, Ohio State and more. A U.S. Army All-American, Montelus injured his shoulder at the All-Star game, setting back his development in South Bend.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2013): Did not see action.

Sophomore Season (2014): Played in one game, seeing time against Michigan. Served as a guard on Notre Dame’s offensive scout team.

Junior Season (2015): Saw action in three games, taking snaps against Texas, UMass and Pitt as a reserve guard.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

The major weight loss didn’t result in playing time. But it certainly was a major step in the right direction.

The number I find most impressive with Montelus is 310. (Pounds.) That’s down 30 from when Montelus was an out-of-shape freshman, showing his commitment to fitness and reshaping his body after recovering from shoulder surgery.

Going from what we’ve heard is always dangerous, but Montelus has a reputation of being one of the team’s more physical interior offensive linemen. That should serve him well, especially as the Irish try to eliminate the finesse from their game plan. And he’s gotten the attention of his head coach, who talked about the additional reps he was taking this spring and how it’s only helped him improve and show the coaches what he’s capable of doing.

Ultimately, I think Montelus makes his move—but only onto the offensive line on special teams. Unless an injury hits on the interior, I expect regular action for him on the kick units, all while making sure he holds onto his place in the two-deep at guard.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Being dropped into a defensive line rotation as a player entering your fourth season in the program certainly doesn’t allow for any margin for error. So the ambitions for Montelus’ success at the position should be in line with honest expectations—filling a specific role might be the ceiling.

That was Brian Kelly’s hope this spring when he talked briefly about his plans for Montelus. As one of the strongest bodies the Irish have in the trenches, you can see where that could work out.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

While I’m struggling to see where Montelus gets more than a handful of snaps, I’m also thinking about Kelly’s track record with position switches. Montelus could’ve just as easily been a reserve guard and moved on after graduating, playing a fifth year somewhere else if that’s what he wanted to do.

But the fact that the Irish staff wants him along the defensive line has to say something, and Montelus will be competing with guys like Pete Mokwuah for snaps, hopefully a piece of the puzzle as the Irish try to get tougher against the run. He’s big, strong and rugged, something that hasn’t necessarily been a part of Notre Dame’s defensive DNA since they said goodbye to Bob Diaco, Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt.

Is Montelus the next Nix? No. But if he can help shore up some short yardage deficiencies, we can call this another position switch success story.

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Need more? Give our latest podcast a listen. 

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2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston
Mark Harrell
Daelin Hayes
Jay Hayes
Tristen Hoge
Corey Holmes
Torii Hunter Jr.
Alizé Jones
Jamir Jones
Jarron Jones
Jonathan Jones
Tony Jones Jr.
Khalid Kareem
DeShone Kizer
Julian Love
Tyler Luatua
Cole Luke
Greer Martini
Jacob Matuska
Mike McGlinchey
Colin McGovern
Deon McIntosh
Javon McKinley
Pete Mokwuah

Irish A-to-Z: Pete Mokwuah

Pete Mokwuah247
Tom Loy / Irish247
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It didn’t take long for defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder to identify, recruit and land defensive tackle Pete Mokwuah in his first days on staff at Notre Dame. But it has taken longer for Mokwuah to see the field.

The rising junior—an almost immediate offer and commitment once VanGorder took over the defense—has been mostly a background player for the Irish, spending a season as a redshirt before only appearing briefly in 2015.

But with uncertainty in the trenches with Sheldon Day gone and the work volume of Jarron Jones a question mark, perhaps 2016 is the year for Mokwuah to begin his move into a rotation that’s sure to grow as more defenders share jobs up front.

 

PETE MOKWUAH
6’3″, 317 lbs.
Junior, No. 96, DT

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Committed to Rutgers until Notre Dame swooped in late, the three-star prospect had mostly regional offers (UConn, Pitt, Temple) before committing to the Irish in late January, before ever stepping foot on campus.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Did not see action, preserving year of eligibility.

Sophomore Season (2015): Saw action in two games (Texas, UMass) in a reserve role at defensive tackle. Did not make a tackle in limited action.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Jones couldn’t play and Mokwuah still didn’t see the field.

As I look at the depth chart, Mokwuah’s participation likely hinges on the health of Jarron Jones. The senior defensive lineman might be a step slow coming off of foot surgery, and that would force the entire tackle position to shift down a rung.

That bad news for Notre Dame would be good news for Mokwuah’s playing time, though. But even then, he’ll be fighting a capable group of young defensive linemen for playing time, with guys like Daniel Cage and Tillery likely having a head start.

Late attention on the recruiting trail isn’t much of an indicator in ability to contribute. We saw that with Cage, who quickly moved into the rotation at nose guard. So while Mokwuah’s road to the field looks backed up, he’s got four years of eligibility remaining. And even if his contributions are limited to special teams and garbage time, getting on the field this season should be the realistic goal.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Unless there’s a breakthrough this season, Mokwuah projects mostly to be a back-up or situational player. That’s not to say he’s doomed to the bench—especially considering the lack of depth the Irish put on the field last season up front. But this season will be telling.

Mokwuah’s main asset is size and strength. At 6-foot-3 and nearly 320 pounds, he’s a load in the trenches. With Jarron Jones in his final season in the program and Daniel Cage already well established, the snaps won’t be seeking out Mokwuah, rather he’ll have to prove himself worthy to even get into the rotation.

Physically, you can see how that happens, especially if Mokwuah enters camp in great shape and ready to compete. But there’s work to be done.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Finding a niche in 2016 would be a great step forward for Mokwuah. Ultimately, that could be five or ten snaps a game, allowing Jones and Cage to stay fresh. But it could be just being ready to be the “Next Man In,” knowing that the Irish defense desperately needs to establish some type of productive rotation to allow their young talent a chance to flourish at the point of attack.

Three seasons into his time in South Bend, Mokwuah should be ready to compete physically. It’s also his second year working with Keith Gilmore. But nose guard is a difficult depth chart to crack, and Mokwuah’s chances of seeing the field might hinge on the rotation established to take the load off of Jerry Tillery at three-technique.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston
Mark Harrell
Daelin Hayes
Jay Hayes
Tristen Hoge
Corey Holmes
Torii Hunter Jr.
Alizé Jones
Jamir Jones
Jarron Jones
Jonathan Jones
Tony Jones Jr.
Khalid Kareem
DeShone Kizer
Julian Love
Tyler Luatua
Cole Luke
Greer Martini
Jacob Matuska
Mike McGlinchey
Colin McGovern
Deon McIntosh
Javon McKinley

Irish A-to-Z: Javon McKinley

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Rivals / Yahoo Sports
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If it’s possible to fly under the radar as an elite incoming recruit, Javon McKinley is doing it. One of California’s most prolific receivers in history—putting up monster numbers in one of the state’s most competitive conferences—McKinley now steps onto campus at Notre Dame with a depth chart filled with uncertainty.

McKinley’s big, strong and polished. That’s usually a good thing for a young skill player. While freshmen have come along slowly under Brian Kelly at receiver, the head coach has a trio of freshman newcomers who will test that theory immediately.

 

JAVON MCKINLEY
6’3″, 205 lbs.
Freshman, WR

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A consensus 4-star recruit, McKinley was a U.S. Army All-American, a multi-season selection on the LA Times’ All-Area first-team, the 2014 All-Area Back of the Year, and 2014 Southern Section 5 Player of the Year.

He had offers from USC, UCLA, Oregon, Stanford, Arizona State, and Ohio State before picking Notre Dame.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Until we see him, let’s just call McKinley’s potential incredibly intriguing. I made the physical comparison around Signing Day to Michael Floyd, and that might be setting McKinley up for failure. (Especially with people knowing how I feel about MMF as a player.) But as a ready-made physical specimen, McKinley can do just about everything, and we’ve already seen him do it against high end high school competition.

That said, dominating at the high school level with his size is different than understanding how to do that in the college game. And we’ll need to see just how good McKinley’s speed is—Floyd ended up being Notre Dame’s most prolific receiver in history because of his physicality and because he had sneaky-good speed that allowed him to run behind defensive backs.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I think McKinley’s too good to keep off the field. But I also think his freshman ceiling will be in line with the better of Brian Kelly’s young receivers, so I’m still going to put a cap on his season totals around 15-20 catches. (True freshman TJ Jones had 23 grabs, when Notre Dame’s receiving depth chart was essentially empty.)

What does that mean for the future? Nothing. We saw Will Fuller go from zero-to-sixty when he went from freshman to sophomore season. We saw Kelly feed the football to Michael Floyd when his offense needed it. Kelly will do what the offense needs to score points.

If McKinley were the early enrollee, I think all of us would’ve been buzzing about him instead of Stepherson. And those 15 practices might be enough to give Stepherson the nod over McKinley, though the latter is far more game-ready from a physicality standpoint.

Regardless, Notre Dame’s young receivers—Stepherson, McKinley and Chase Claypool—might be the most exciting incoming class at a position that I’ve seen in my time covering the Irish. so while it’s still too early to say it, McKinley could be the best of the bunch.

 

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston
Mark Harrell
Daelin Hayes
Jay Hayes
Tristen Hoge
Corey Holmes
Torii Hunter Jr.
Alizé Jones
Jamir Jones
Jarron Jones
Jonathan Jones
Tony Jones Jr.
Khalid Kareem
DeShone Kizer
Julian Love
Tyler Luatua
Cole Luke
Greer Martini
Jacob Matuska
Mike McGlinchey
Colin McGovern
Deon McIntosh