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Pregame Six Pack: War with the Wolverines

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An all important snapshot will be taken of Brian Kelly’s football program on Saturday night. Tasked with their first big challenge of the season, we’ll see how quickly the Irish have turned the page from their historic ’12 season, building on the sizable momentum the program has quietly established over the past two-plus years.

Nobody has beaten Brady Hoke in the Big House. Brian Kelly and his team had that chance, only to squander a 24-7 fourth-quarter lead that’ll surely be mentioned a few dozen times this weekend.

But the Irish program is on solid footing, perhaps more so than most recognize. In the Irish’s last 25 games, Notre Dame has won 21 of them, good for a .840 winning percentage, bettered only by Oregon and Alabama among BCS schools. With a five-year extension for Kelly and a long range plan for the program coming into focus, it appears the Irish have finally found their place among college football’s elite programs, after struggling through four head coaches trying to find it.

Yet that assumption will need to be affirmed on Saturday night, with Kelly’s Irish team needing an impressive performance against the Wolverines to erase some of the skepticism that’s carried over from the BCS National Championship game.

This Irish team believes they’ve turned the page, leaving last season behind and forging a new trail. But a victory will go a long way towards helping everybody else understand that, likely pushing the Notre Dame into the top ten of the major polls, and getting by one of the major hurdles in a difficult schedule that stands between the Irish and another BCS appearance.

With Notre Dame and Michigan set to play in primetime on Saturday night, let’s dig into the pregame six pack. As usual, here are six tidbits, leftovers, fun facts, and miscellaneous musings before the Irish and Wolverines go to battle.

***

Not Rocket Science: When the Irish play turnover free, they’re unbeaten under Brian Kelly. 

After watching a promising ’11 season derailed after turnovers decimated the team’s offensive productivity, Brian Kelly and new offensive coordinator Chuck Martin set out to correct the fatal flaws that sunk a talented and explosive offense.

We saw the fruits of those labors last season, when the Irish chopped their turnovers impressively, even while breaking in a new quarterback and restructuring an offense that had relied on wide receiver Michael Floyd to power the engine.

For all the complaints and supposed limitations in Tommy Rees’ game, the Irish offense hasn’t lacked punch with Rees in charge. But the key to escaping Ann Arbor with a win is playing a clean game in the turnovers column.

No stat crystalizes the Irish’s fortunes more than this one. Notre Dame is undefeated under Brian Kelly when they don’t turn the football over. So while we can talk about special teams worries or containing Devin Gardner, the Irish have won their last eleven games when they put a goose egg up in the turnover column.

The last game Notre Dame lost without a turnover was a 34-27 loss to Southern Cal in 2009.

***

After being damned by September failures, Notre Dame has turned it around under Brian Kelly’s watch. 

For much of the past decade, Notre Dame’s BCS aspirations were dead before the season’s first month finished. Dating back to 2002, the Irish had not gotten out of September clean since Ty Willingham’s first season in South Bend. Even at Charlie Weis’ best, the Irish loss a September game in both ’05 and ’06.

That trend continued with Brian Kelly. Kelly’s teams stumbled early out of the gates, losing five of their first six games in September. But since that fateful evening in the Big House in ’11, Notre Dame has won every September game on their calendar, winning seven straight, including last week’s 28-6 victory over Temple.

In the past five September games, the Irish have dominated the turnover battle, winning the margin 13-3. (The Irish pulled off victories against Michigan State and Pitt in ’11 even while losing the turnover battle in both games).

A season after making it to the final game of the college football season, the goals have not changed for Brian Kelly’s squad. But to have a realistic shot at forging another BCS run, they’ll need to get out of September alive, no easy task considering dates with Purdue, Michigan State and Oklahoma still await the Irish after Michigan.

***

With an offensive trying to get back to its roots, can Michigan actually run the ball against Notre Dame’s defensive front? 

Denard Robinson is gone. It’s worth a sigh of relief for Irish fans, but also an encouraging sign for the Michigan faithful that has been waiting patiently for the Wolverines to get back to their blue-collar roots of running the ball and playing power football.

That will certainly be an emphasis for the Wolverines on Saturday night, but the big question is will the rebuilt offensive line be able to win the battle up front against a stout Irish front. Bookend tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield return, with Lewan turning down a first-round NFL grade to come back for a fifth year in Ann Arbor. But the interior of the Michigan line is still a big question mark, with coordinator Al Borges admitting the depth chart is still very much in pencil.

In Michigan’s first game explosion, the Wolverines ran for 242 yards on the ground en route to putting up 59 points against Central Michigan, averaging a healthy 5.1 yards-per-carry. But parsing those numbers a bit, the productivity is a bit misleading. Take away a 38-yard gain by Dennis Norfleet on a reverse, and Devin Gardner’s highlight reel scramble for a touchdown, and Michigan averaged an ordinary 3.9 yards a carry against a rush defense that finished 91st in the country last season.

Fifth-year senior Fitzgerald Toussaint is still the starting running back, but freshman Derrick Green has ascended to No. 2 thanks to some attrition at the position. Green came into camp with about 20 pounds on him that the coaching staff wasn’t happy about, but at 240-plus pounds, he’ll be a physical load to take on.

After being bottled up and held to just 161 yards on 41 carries last year, Lewan acknowledged how important the play up front with be for Michigan.

“We didn’t play well,” Lewan said earlier this week, when thinking back to last year’s 13-6 loss. “None of us did. So that’s unfortunate.”

***

In the pre-snap chess match, can Greg Mattison beat Tommy Rees and the Notre Dame offense? 

Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is known for his impressive scheme, with the ability to confuse a quarterback with multiple looks and apply pressure by any means necessary. Never will that be more important than on Saturday night, when the Wolverines will need to pressure and confuse quarterback Tommy Rees to limit the Irish offense and force some much needed mistakes. The senior quarterback feels prepared for the unexpected, and knows much of his job will take place presnap.

“They do that all the time, where they’re showing one thing and play something else,” Rees said Thursday. “For us, we’ve just got to be prepared and focus in on what they’re trying to do to us.”

How the Wolverines plan on getting after Rees remains the big question. While Michigan picked up four sacks last Saturday against CMU, they only had 22 sacks all of last season (77th in the country), and lost their best playmaker behind the line of scrimmage when Jake Ryan went down with a knee injury last spring.

Overall, Michigan’s two-deep front seven accounted for just 9.5 sacks last season, with Jibreel Black (3) and Frank Clark (2) the only players to register multiple sacks. Mattison rotated an incredible 14 linemen through the Wolverine front against CMU, getting just about everybody on the roster some reps before the Irish head to town. While it’s easy to keep everybody fresh up front when you’re winning by a quarter-century, how Michigan distributes reps up front — and manages to get to Rees — will be a key in this game.

Whoever’s on the field for Michigan, Brian Kelly feels confident that Rees is ready to to respond accordingly.

“You’re going to see somebody who is so much more proactive in the game,” Kelly said of Rees. “He’s going to see it before it happens. He did a very good job in that game. He’ll do a better job taking care of the football.

“I think you’ll see that on Saturday. I hope you see it. I expect to see it.”

***

After last season’s disappointing performance up front, Notre Dame needs to control the line of scrimmage with improved offensive line play. 

While most look at Notre Dame’s success limiting Denard Robinson and Michigan’s offense, there was a whole lot of ugly coming out of the Irish offense last year as well. Michigan’s defense shut down the Irish running game during the Irish’s 13-6 win, holding Notre Dame to under 100 yards of rushing on 3.1 yards-per-carry.

The interior of Michigan’s defensive line is stout, with Jibreel Black and Quinton Washington anchoring the front four. But the Irish need to impose their will against a front seven that’s replacing a lot of experience.

The challenge will be playing their best in one of college football’s least friendly environments, with the Big House expected to be rocking for another game under the lights. Harry Hiestand’s crew is ready for the challenge, as Zack Martin talked a bit about the prep that goes into a big night game.

“We rep all week of practice with loud music. We’re lucky that we’ve played together for all of camp, all of spring,” Martin said Thursday. “Me and Chris have played for the past few years together, so we just get used to how we play.”

One element that also needs to be ironed out is finding a running back that’s going to carry the load for the Irish. It’s easy to get all five backs reps when you’re playing Temple. But Kelly and the Notre Dame offense will need to find someone on Saturday night to turn to that can move the chains, make big plays, and convert yards to points.

***

While the last visit to Ann Arbor still spooks Irish fans, there’s nothing haunting Brian Kelly and the Irish. 

Just about every Notre Dame fan that I’ve spoken with isn’t heading to Ann Arbor. It just hasn’t been a friendly place to Notre Dame, with each loss seemingly more cruel than the next. That’s especially true if you made it to Ann Arbor in ’11, experiencing first hand one of the more shocking and gut-wrenching finishes in the history of the ND-UM rivalry. But if you expect that game to resonate in this team’s minds, you’re discounting the mental toughness Kelly’s squad has developed over the past two seasons.

The game isn’t something that the team is likely to forget, but it’s also something that won’t hang over the heads of the guys playing Saturday night.

“Anybody who was there will certainly remember it, but it doesn’t do anything to affect the outcome of the game,” Kelly said. “I mean, the game will be affected by how you prepare this week and how you play on Saturday, so if that’s motivation for them to prepare better, that’s great.  If that’s going to help them play better, that’s great.”

Even more interestingly, Kelly’s walking into this weekend’s game with an underdog mentality. And it appears Las Vegas agrees with him, giving the Wolverines a four-point advantage Saturday night in a game where 20 of the past 24 underdogs have covered the spread.

“I mean, the pressure’s on Michigan. They’re at home. They’ve got to win at home,” Kelly said. “For us, we’re going to go up there swinging. Go on the road, we’re going to have to play well. It’s a very good football team. We can’t go up there and turn the ball over like we did a couple years ago. We understand that.

“Nobody’s been able to do that now under Brady Hoke, at Michigan, you better go up there with an attitude to be aggressive and go play the game. You can’t sit back and wait and hope, because if you do, you’re not going to win the game.”

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: