Rees Kelly

Mailbag: Season kickoff edition

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Welcome to the Mailbag.

Consider this a new weekly forum where I try to get to the questions you all inevitably ask me (or each other) in the comments or on Twitter, but have a hard time getting to in the weekly flow of things.

With the season set to kickoff, you could also consider this a column to hold over my head in the future, as I’ll inevitably show how very terrible I am at making predictions, guessing breakout stars, etc.

All caveats aside, I think this will end up being a place where we can have some good interaction and maybe (hopefully?) clean up the comments a bit and turn it into a community resource.

Ready, set go!

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@JMset3: Why am I getting up at 3 am worried about Temple, but totally relaxed that my wife is a very 9 months pregnant?

It just means you’re a Notre Dame fan. Two nights ago I woke up from a dream that had TJ Jones fumbling the very first punt return of the season, a mirror image of the USF game from ’11 that set back Notre Dame special teams for two seasons.

So you’re definitely not alone.

@IrishPhog: Will Rees’ arm be able to take advantage of Brown’s speed

That’s definitely a good question. Listening to Chuck Martin talk about Rees, he was really candid about opposing defenses challenging Rees to beat them over the top, which is either Chuck telling the truth or being very smart about daring team’s to put eight in the box.

What’s different with this team than the ’11 team that Rees piloted is the personnel at wide receiver is a lot better. Sure, there isn’t a Michael Floyd, but the entire two-deep at wide receiver is probably better than anything Notre Dame was running out there minus Mr. Floyd.

Being a good downfield thrower and having a rocket arm aren’t the same thing. Rees definitely needs to improve his downfield accuracy, but getting one-on-one matchups with talented speedsters like Chris Brown or human mismatches like Corey Robinson will make the QB look a lot better.

Old Miami QB Ken Dorsey had a noodle arm and it didn’t stop him from throwing down the field.

@ndfanwabashman: At what point does Hendrix see the field this season? How short is the Rees leash?

This is Tommy’s job. I think the leash is fairly long, though he’s not going to be able to have those ugly three interception games that would turn the stomachs of ND Nation. That said, what leads Irish fans to believe that Hendrix will be any safer with the football?

For better or worse, this offense goes the way Rees goes, when it comes to turnovers. The only difference is that there’s a talented group of runners and receivers there to support him that have big play potential.

@irishfanjames: Which FR has bigger impact this year Robinson or Bryant? Which has better overall career?

I think we’re probably over-valuing Corey Robinson at this point of his career, or at least the hardcore ND fans are. Sure, he could become a true weapon at wide receiver, but to think he’s going to be better than Greg Bryant — a five-star running back that could start making an impact from day one — is a little bit of a reach.

I’ve written about it a few times, but Bryant’s recruiting cohorts are scary. Guys like him come in and make an early impact. Even elite WRs, take Dorial Green-Beckham, take a while to get started. Irish fans have every right to be excited about Robinson. But let’s not put too much on his back so early. It’s unhealthy.

@jpeter14nd: Will tarean folston redshirt? You talked earlier about using him on special teams, but will they use a year for that?

My Magic Eight-Ball seems to be cloudy right now. Kelly said all five running backs are going to contribute, but it’s hard to tell if he was talking about Will Mahone, who is out with a high ankle sprain, or Folston.

Saving a year of eligibility wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, but if Folston is able to contribute on kick or punt returns (he isn’t listed in the two deep at either spot as of now), then he’s worth using this season.

@kevroe67: Which underclassman will step up this year to be a big contributor going forward unexpectedly?

Good question. Can I tell you in week six? The obvious suspects are Bryant and Jaylon Smith, with Smith being my pick. Though that’s hardly unexpected. Perhaps the biggest surprise could be Steve Elmer already taking rotational reps at right tackle.

@cboudin: How on Earth was Tommy Rees not named a captain? Senior QB with multiple years of starting experience… what gives?

Sometimes a C isn’t needed to be a team leader, but I get where you’re coming from. Let’s just say that Zack Martin was a given at captain. Then TJ Jones makes a ton of sense, especially with the adversity he’s overcome. Do you name three offensive players captains to one defender? Why not Louis Nix then?

Having great leadership doesn’t necessarily mean you need every guy to have a title. Rees is the leader of the offense almost by default. It’s his group and the team and staff know that.

Justin Farrell asks: As an ND grad student, and committed irish believer, I want to ask you if you’ve placed your trust in Reesus as the savior to lead us into eternal BCS championship life?

I’m paid to be a little bit more objective than that. But I’m all for people making funny Reesus logos and t-shirts, and as a guy that’s been a long time Rees supporter (while being picked on here), I’d love to look right and have him put together a really impressive senior campaign.

baldyscotsman: Are you buying the Devin Gardner Hype? 

If you’re looking for an X factor on the Irish schedule, Devin Gardner is it. Part of his skillset should scare the crap out of a Notre Dame fan, especially in the house of horrors that The Big house has become.

I’ve heard nothing but good things about Gardner, but then again — what are we supposed to hear? We’ll find out next Saturday, but if there’s a reason to DVR the Michigan game against a cupcake like Central Michigan, this is it.

andy44teg: What the heck happened with Elijah Hood?? He seemed like such an RKG….

Good question. But I’m guessing a lot of it is family pressure, hometown pressure, and the general challenges Notre Dame faces when they go into opponents’ back yards and try and pull away their prized recruits.

Trusting reports like this always come with a grain of salt, but I thought this was a particularly telling quote from a Rivals.com report last week when Hood decommitted:

“Sources have informed THI this week that Hood and his family were especially concerned about the distance from Charlotte to South Bend, along with the likelihood that his path to the field and early playing time would be significantly longer at Notre Dame compared to UNC.”

If Notre Dame’s depth chart played a role in Hood stepping away from his Notre Dame commitment, then the program has hit a next level, inching closer to the Pete Carroll/USC, “always compete” model than the “we need you to get to the next level” phase that the Irish seem to have been in for the past two decades.

Hood made this comment about his commitment that I think rang particularly crafted by someone much older and mature than a 18-year-old five-star prospect that once flushed a recruiting letter from Alabama down the toilet.

“This decision will allow not only my family but also my community to continue to be a part of me as I grow not only academically and physically but in faith and maturity as well,” Hood said. “This is entirely my decision based on what I view life and football to be about.”

You win some, you lose some. We’ll find out in a couple years if it’s a big loss or not.

italianirish: What’s the level of panic if Tommy Rees tears an ACL during the first series of the Temple game? Would an injury to him have the biggest negative impact to our final record of anyone on the team?

I think it would. Crazy to think that, but outside of a Zack Martin injury, Rees is probably the most irreplaceable player on the offensive depth chart right now.

shaunodame: Whats your gut feeling on this ‘BK to the NFL’ talk? Is he content here, do you think he seeks another, higher level, challenge? Do you REALLY read all the comments here on your articles?

Nudeman: Keith, can you please give us the straight scoop on BK and his contract?

It has been “imminent” for 5 months now. The season is 3 days away.

If I told you 5 months ago that we’d be 3 days away from kickoff and no new contract, there’d be a collective “WTF?”

Personally I’m starting to believe they are unable to come to terms and he’ll be gone sooner rather than later.

I’m still willing to take BK at his word, especially since he was so unequivocal in his preseason comments that the deal is finished, but the lawyering is not. But you’ve got to think things like Camp Shiloh and new assistant coach contracts are all proof that things are moving along.

There’s been quite a bit of behind the scenes change in the athletic department over the past year so Brian Kelly’s contract is far from the only thing that’s dragging along. But yeah — Notre Dame fans will feel a lot better when the press release hits UND.com.

All that being said, it’s another new era for Notre Dame. As Kelly said, don’t expect the NFL rumors to stop if the Irish keep winning.

NotreDan: Under what circumstances would we see MZ @ QB? Details please. I guess the other side of the question is… exactly HOW committed is the staff to preserving his redshirt?

They are as committed as they need to be. But an injury to Rees or Hendrix obviously ends that plan.

Hakuna Budi: What happened to CJ Prosise after his spring and why is Chris Brown listed as the starter on the depth chart after Kelly spoke of his lack of consistency in his presser?

Because Chris Brown has sprinter speed and the ability to outrun just about everyone in college football. I was a little bit surprised to see Prosise drop off the two-deep, but remember that Kelly uses spring practice for position switches, experimentation and motivation. It wasn’t too long ago that Kona Schwenke “out-played” Louis Nix in spring ball.

There are reps to go around for everyone, and I think we’ll see Prosise. But as a converted safety learning wide receiver on the fly, he’s a raw prospect. And with the freshman group of James Onwualu and Corey Robinson, perhaps Prosise just got caught in the shuffle.

ngoldandblue: Do you think we’ll get a Luke Massa sighting on Saturday (and I’m not talking about a camera shot of the red army)?

Massa is the team’s starting holder. I get the feeling you’ll probably see him seven times on Saturday.

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: