Jackson Russell

Mailbag: Purdue (and Michigan aftermath)

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Back-to-back undefeated regular seasons is dead. What’s there left to dream about?

Oh, a BCS appearance? Another run back into the Top Ten? Wins over a schedule that’ll still be one of the toughest in the country? So there’s that.

Let’s get onto the questions, which were a bit more prickly.

@Okerland: Now that Reesus fell for the first time, will he follow the stations and fall two more times?

I really like what you’re doing here. Gold star for Okerland. As for Reesus, falling two more times is pretty possible, especially considering the schedule he faces.

But I do think this team is really talented and we’re probably all a little bit too down on the boys in blue and gold, though a disheartening loss to Michigan will do that for you.

Irishlee10: Why is Kelly so hesitant to put in Greg Bryant? GAIII isn’t getting it done. We need all-around backs that can catch passes. Kelly needs to give GB some opportunities before he takes his talents back to South Beach

@dlkall01: Who do you expect to see play this weekend that we didn’t see at Michigan?

I’m going to now embark on the Greg Bryant (or other underused running backs) section of questioning. Maybe 20 percent of the questions received had some variation of “Why isn’t Greg Bryant playing?” “Won’t he get mad and transfer?” “Why won’t Brian Kelly play freshman?”

I do think Greg Bryant gets a few series this weekend, especially if the Irish offense gets on a roll. But everybody needs to pump the brakes on the uproar/worries about a freshman five-star player not seeing the field much in the first eight quarters of the season, especially on a team with a pretty talented backfield that includes a guy with a career rushing average around 7-yards a pop and a USC transfer.

For every Todd Gurley and Duke Johnson, there are plenty more guys like Lache Seastrunk, who take a few years to figure it out and still turn into the all-world talents they appear to be. Let’s not heap a bunch of focus on Bryant and his rumored (and I have heard ZERO rumors on this front) unhappiness, or you’ll just be contributing to a scenario that could turn into a self-fulfilling prophesy.

@CristIsRisen: Do you think we’ll see Wulfeck punting soon? Brindza’s a champ but handling all kicking duties has to be a killer.

I don’t think we’ll see anybody but Brindza until he proves he can’t handle the work. Brindza’s performance at Michigan was mighty impressive, and it’s not like we’re asking this guy to do heart surgery, fix a torn ACL and do Lasik surgery.

Irishaggie: Besides the x’s and o’s I noticed that the players don’t look very loose out there, especially the defense. Do you think they get caught up thinking about the “process” too much that they forget to just go out and play football?

No offense Irishaggie, but I’m having a hard time with your assumption here? Feels a lot like those Octobers watching baseball when broadcasters would fawn all over Derek Jeter, talking about how much he loved baseball and how clutch he was.

If you’ve found a coach that has done a better job of getting more out of his players over the past 5-6 years than Brian Kelly, I’d like to meet him. Prior to last Saturday, only Oregon and Alabama had done better in their last 25 games. That’s not a team that I think is too weighed down with process.

bb90grad: Could lack of results from Nix and Tuitt (besides ST’s weight gain) be from neither being named captain? I know no one tanks it on purpose, but if one were a projected All American and high draft pick and then not named, I would think one would be less inclined to assume leadership when needed, especially when someone else was anointed.

That theory feels like it’d work on an episode of Gossip Girl, but I don’t think it applies here. We tend to forget that Tuitt and Nix’s performances aren’t always seen on the stat sheet, so before we start killing these two for their performances or insinuate someone is tanking because they didn’t get a C on their jersey, you have to remember that sacks can come in bunches and the game tape has affirmed what many people know: Both these guys are really, really good.

@EnderWillSave: With the bad news coming out today about Alabama putting a blemish on the SEC, while Mack Brown and Lane Kiffin are melting down week by week, do you see ND possibly gaining more ground and influence in recruiting battles against all these schools?

I don’t see ND going head to head with Alabama and Texas all that often in recruiting, though guys like Cole Luke come to mind. As for USC, if things don’t straighten up in a hurry, it could be open season on Southern California, though Jim Mora has proven to be a guy that can pull his fair share of talent.

Bad news lasts only as long as the media cycle keeps it alive, and you could tell this week that Nick Saban wasn’t about to let that happen. Color me skeptical that the NCAA will be able to do much to take down a Crimson Tide program that’s a multi-million dollar industry.

@DBrammeier34: Will BK ever make the guys go hard for 4 quarters even against a weaker team? Regardless of score?

Did you forget about the 41-3 beat down the Irish put on Miami last season when the No. 2 offense marched down and got a late touchdown? I think Saturday night will be a good time to get some of the frustration out, if they’re at all able to do it.

@Irishfootball11: Who would win in a 3 way Hell in a cell match between @TheSubwayDomer vs @OneFootDown vs @herloyalsons? #blogwar

Wow. That’s a lot to analyze there. It feels a little unfair for Subway, who feels a lot like a one man army, though he’s certainly got a little crazy to him. Whiskey over at OFD is a guy that you could mistake for Captain America and I’ve spent some time with the crew from HLS, too.

My guess is that you’d put them in a cell and they’d just start telling jokes about Lane Kiffin.

@BobbyReed25: Seemed like our QB pressure has been a step late thus far. Speed or a timing issue? More stunts by DL?

Two words: Devin Gardner.

@Dascenzo: Hendrix time yet?

No.

Steincj36: A Tale of Two Kellys…. Chip brings his high power, fast paced Oregon O to the Eagles, and they pick it up and thrive with it in week 1. Brian’s fast paced spread offense never made it to South Bend, even though he’s been talking about it for 4 years.Where’s this offense we’ve been promised?

You’re really still waiting? I don’t think Brian Kelly ever promised that. Blame us, the writers and media guys that tried to guess what ND would look like after watching three Cincinnati games.

Kelly has been pretty consistent in what he’d do: Play with the personnel he has. Chip sure looked exciting on Monday night, but Michael Vick appeared to be gasping for air and limping like an old man. (As a Vick owner, I’m a bit worried…)

For everybody that loves the up-tempo offense, look what Doug Marrone did last weekend with his Buffalo Bills. Refused to run any time off the clock and gave Tom Brady one more chance to win the game, which he did.

idratherbeinsouthbend: Is there any buzz in inner circles that Tuitt’s weight gain has been a negative?

You mean other than on every Notre Dame message board everywhere?

Scottatnd: Why does BK go through all the trouble to recruit these great running backs when he has proven that he is a “spread out and throw it” coach?

Did you want last season? That looked like a running back friendly offense.

blackirish23: During our painfully long off-season, you mention Robinson as a potential red zone threat. What are the chances we start to see a bit more of him in those situations against Purdue?

Well, they need a few more chances in the red zone, first. But I’d guess maybe this weekend? (Not ready to make another call, but I’d like to see a short-side fade route to Robinson while Ricardo Allen mans up on the other side of the field with TJ Jones or DaVaris Daniels.

blackirish23: Also, what are your thoughts about using Hendrix similar to how Florida used Tim Tebow during the Chris Leak era, i.e. Bring him in as a run only QB at goal line situations in the pistol formation? Just a thought.

I am not one to trust Hendrix’s decision making skills down at the goal line. His one zone read attempt in the red zone ended with him handing the ball to Tarean Folston when the keeper was wide open.

ndcanuck: Given how he was picked on last week – is the “C” on Bennett Jackson’s jersey a distraction for him? Clearly some on the field leadership is called for on that side of the ball, but is Bennett the right guy to fill that role when maybe he should be working on his game?

I thought they picked on KeiVarae Russell more than Jackson, but I don’t think giving up some passes is a product of the C, but rather playing a pretty tough position. And there really isn’t that much more heaped on Jackson’s plate other than helping to decide heads or tails at away games.

Jackson is going to have a nice career playing on Sundays. Last Saturday probably wasn’t one of his best games, but he’ll help out more often than not.

It’s a long season.

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: