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Pregame Six Pack: Boiler up

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It may lack the wattage of last Saturday night’s primetime affair, but this weekend’s date with Purdue counts the same as the other eleven regular season games. With the Irish coming off a damaging defeat at the hands of Michigan that felt like a game that slipped away, Notre Dame will have a chance to rebound against Darrell Hazell’s Boilermakers that still seem to be finding their footing.

Hazell has already talked about the importance of this weekend’s game, and took to the school’s newspaper to implore the students “to get to Ross-Ade Stadium early, be loud and help us turn up the heat on the Fighting Irish.”

With No. 21 Notre Dame and Purdue 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 Boilermakers go to battle.

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Brian Kelly has heard your plea to put Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston in the game. But finding carries is the hard part. 

If there was a question that overwhelmed the inbox this week, it was how Kelly and his offensive game plan could feature more of Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston. After looking mighty impressive in fall camp, Irish fans have waited to see what the freshman — especially Bryant — could do when he got his chance. Eight quarters later, this group is demanding an impact from one of the nation’s top freshman running backs.

When asked about his young backs today, Kelly explained that it wasn’t a learning curve Bryant and Folston were battling, but rather finding the snaps for a unit that’s already pushed Will Mahone into the slot rotation.

“They’re not being held back. The game itself and the way the game is played will determine how many running backs you can get in the game,” Kelly said. “I’m not just going to shuffle four or five guys in there if we’re in a game where I want to do a specific thing offensively. It really depends on how the game unfolds. I have confidence in all those guys.

“It’s not easy. I have no problem playing my freshmen running backs. We just have to find the right opportunities and when they need to be in the game.”

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Let’s see if the Irish can get their red zone offense back on track. 

Whoever is carrying the ball for Notre Dame this weekend will likely get a few totes inside the Purdue 20-yard-line, especially after passing the ball on 12 of 13 snaps in the red zone against Michigan. That kind of balance could be a product of some unfriendly run looks, but also is something that the Irish need to challenge regardless.

Through two games, the Irish have scored touchdowns on just 42 percent of their red zone appearances, good for 102nd in the nation through eight quarters. And while Tommy Rees will need to be more accurate throwing the football, Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison made some interesting comments this week when talking about the Wolverines decided to defend the Irish offense last week.

“Our game plan was not to sell the farm a lot,” Mattison said. “We didn’t want to put our secondary in a position where a big play could get us. That secondary, I thought, did exactly what we hoped they would do as far as the game plan of keeping the ball inside and in front.

“We just have to hold them to no big plays and then when the field shrinks, now you have to hope that they do what they’re taught to do and how they’ve been practicing, and that’s what they did.”

With a shrunken field, let’s see if Kelly calls on his offensive line to make some room for the offense, doing so even against a sturdy Purdue defensive front.

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Getting the defense back on track might be helped by playing a Purdue offense that’s really struggling. 

It’s still a surprise that Michigan’s offense was able to put up 41 points against Bob Diaco’s defense. But there may be no better slumpbuster for a unit feeling down than Purdue’s offense, which currently sits at 118th in the country. (Want to see something crazy? Take a look at Alabama’s offense, which enters week three at 123rd. Meanwhile, USC’s is 115th.)

Purdue offensive coordinator John Schoop talked about the challenges his offensive line faces this week playing against Louis Nix, Sheldon Day and Stephon Tuitt.

“We have to be as physical as we’ve ever been on the offensive line this week”, Shoop said. “We’re going against some guys that are just flat big, and we have to be as physical as we can in terms of protection and running the ball. I think we were a little more physical from week one to two, but we have to take it up exponentially this week against these guys.”

Also working against the Boilermakers is an injury to tight end Gabe Holmes, one of Purdue’s better offensive weapons. Hazell categorized Holmes’ injury as “pretty serious,” and all reports have him out for Saturday night and potentially the season. Holmes was the team’s leading receiver through two games.

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After a tough loss, Kelly and the coaching staff did their best to pick up the slack. 

It’s been quite some time since the Irish had to rebound from a defeat. The team’s last three losses gave the team quite a bit of time to regroup, with defeats coming in two bowl games and a regular season finale.

But with a short week to get their confidence rebuilt and the team ready for another game, Kelly and his staff controlled things more this week than in the past, forcing the players to follow the beat of its leaders.

“Sometimes when you’re winning, you kind of let the players keep moving in the right direction,” Kelly said. “You’re still winning. You kind of let things go. You chalk it up to that’s the personality of this team.

“The coaches took over this week. We made sure that we did the things that we need to do. I’m sure that the players understand that that’s the way that practice has to go and they embraced that.”

It’s interesting that we’ve had all sorts of discussions about this team’s leadership and that after the loss Kelly made sure he and the coaches were providing the direction, not just the team’s three captains. Especially with a group without a transcendent leader like Manti Te’o, listening to the voices of the coaching staff should be one of the quickest ways to get mentally back on track.

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When Purdue and Notre Dame play, there are always lots of connections on both sidelines. That’s certainly the case this weekend. 

Two in-state teams that have faced off every year since 1946 are bound to have things in common. Let’s check out a couple interesting layers to the Purdue-Notre Dame rivalry.

First let’s get to the obvious one. Running back Amir Carlisle is facing off with his father Duane, Purdue’s strength and conditioning coach. I had a chance to chat briefly with Carlisle after the Michigan game, and one of the few things that brought a smile to his face was thinking about playing against his dad. Duane, who is in his second year as Director of Sports Performance for the school as well as head strength and conditioning coach, talked about facing off with his son this weekend.

“You can think about how you’re going to feel, but I don’t know that I can actually plan for something like this,” the elder Carlisle told the Lafayette Journal Courier. “It’s a situation where Amir is playing for Notre Dame and I get an opportunity to see him.

“I’m just so thankful he’s on the field, because he’s battled through some adversity. It’s an opportunity for us to get a win as a team. I want us to win, but of course I want to see my son play well.”

Coaching against Notre Dame is one-time Irish linebacker Greg Hudson. Now the defensive coordinator under Hazell, Hudson returns to Indiana after coaching linebackers at Florida State.

“It never gets out of your system,” Hudson said of playing against his alma mater. “The (emotions) are probably a little higher, just because you’re directly in charge of that defense, and it’s also back here in Indiana. It feels like home. It’s a home game. And it has the bright lights and the big crew is coming in.”

Hudson was well known in recruiting circles probably for one of his biggest one-on-one battles against the Irish, when FSU went head-to-head for Aaron Lynch. Hudson ended up losing that battle (one that Notre Dame eventually lost just a few months later, when Lynch quit on the team.)

Lastly, key recruit Drue Tranquill will be in West Lafayette watching both teams intently. A soft commitment to Purdue, many believe it’s only a matter of time before Tranquill flips his commitment to the Irish, who see the high school safety following the path of Dan Fox and sliding down into the middle linebacker position. Tranquill will be on campus in South Bend next weekend to watch the Irish play Michigan State.

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After turning over all three kicking jobs to Kyle Brindza, the Irish have another field position battle on their hands. 

It took exactly one week and a snap-hooked field goal attempt for Kyle Brindza to retake the field goal kicking job and become the Irish’s lone kicking specialist. While there’s time for Nick Tausch to fight his way back into the rotation and punter Alex Wulfeck has the ability to spell Brindza if needed, it’s the junior job.

Brindza talked about the increased workload and even acknowledged the need to put himself on a personal kick count, for fear he could leave his best stuff on the practice field.

“Even though my body might feel good, I’m still going to have a number count or else I might push it too much and wake up the next day and say ‘oh man, I feel horrible,’ ” Brindza told JJ Stankewitz of CSN Chicago.

If there’s one match-up you probably haven’t heard much about, it’s the battle at punter this weekend. Purdue’s Cody Webster is one of the nation’s top punters, and the Ray Guy Watch Lister carries an average of 49.9 yards a boot this year, besting everybody else in the country by more than a yard. With the Purdue offense still struggling to get the hang of their new offensive system, Webster will be a true weapon in the field position battle, a game that Brindza is still getting the hang of with his struggles directionally kicking.

Perhaps there’s one outlier that might actually flip this Purdue advantage in Notre Dame’s favor. While they haven’t been all that good in the red zone, Tommy Rees and the Irish offense have started four drives inside their own 20-yard line. They’ve scored touchdowns on three of them.

 

 

 

 

Restocking the roster: Offensive Line

Notre Dame offensive line
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When Notre Dame takes the field this spring, there’ll be two very large holes in the offensive line that need filling. All-American left tackle Ronnie Stanley is gone. As is captain Nick Martin at center. Both three-year starters leave Harry Hiestand with some big decisions to make in the coming months as the Irish look to fill those key positions and still field a unit with the ability to dominate in the trenches.

The Irish have had incredible stability at left tackle, with Stanley sliding in seamlessly after four seasons of Zack Martin. Perhaps the best six-year run in the program’s storied history at the position, Stanley will likely join Martin as a first-rounder, back-to-back starters at a key spot that often dictates the play of one of the most important units on the field.

Replacing Nick Martin could prove equally tricky. Rising junior Sam Mustipher served as Martin’s backup in 2015, filing in capably for Martin after an ankle sprain took him off the field briefly against UMass. But Mustipher will face a challenge this spring from rising sophomore Tristen Hoge, the first true center recruited by Hiestand and Brian Kelly since they arrived in South Bend.

Kelly talked about 2017 being a big cycle on the recruiting trail for restocking the offensive line. You can see why when you look at the depth, particularly at tackle. Let’s look at the work that’s been done the previous two classes as Notre Dame continues to be one of the premier programs recruiting in the trenches.

 

DEPARTURES
Ronnie Stanley
, Sr. (39 starts)
Nick Martin, Grad Student (37 starts)
Mark Harrell, Sr* (No Starts, fifth-year available)

*Harrell’s departure is not confirmed, though expected.  

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Tristen Hoge
, C
Trevor Ruhland
, G
Jerry Tillery
, T
Parker Boudreaux
, G
Tommy Kraemer
, T
Liam Eichenberg
, T

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Hunter Bivin, T
Quenton Nelson, LG
Sam Mustipher, C
Steve Elmer, RG
Mike McGlinchey, RT

Alex Bars, T
Colin McGovern,* G/T
Tristen Hoge*, C
John Montelus*, G
Jimmy Byrne*, G
Trevor Ruhland*, G

*Has an additional year of eligibility remaining. 

ANALYSIS:
It’ll be a fascinating spring up front for the offensive line. We’ll get our first look at potential replacements and see if the Irish staff values a veteran presence (as it has done in the past) or puts former blue-chip recruits in position to become multi-year starters.

For now, I’m putting last season’s backups in line to ascend to starting spots. That’s not to say I think that’s what’ll happen. Hunter Bivin may have been Stanley’s backup last season, but as long as Alex Bars is fully recovered from his broken ankle, I think he’s the best bet to step into that job. Sharing reps at guard—not a natural spot for Bars to begin with—was more about getting him some experience, with the aim to move him into the lineup in 2016. That allows Bivin to be a key swing reserve, capable of playing on either the right or left side.

At center, the decision is less clear cut—especially since we’ve yet to see Tristen Hoge play a snap of football. Size and strength is a genuine concern at the point of attack for Hoge, not necessarily the biggest guy hitting campus. But it sounds like he’s had a nice first season from a developmental standpoint, and if he’s a true technician at the position, he could be a rare four-year starter at center if he’s able to pull ahead of Mustipher this spring.

On paper, the other three starting jobs don’t seem to be in question. Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey are ready to step to the forefront. Concerns about Steve Elmer’s buy-in will certainly be answered by spring, there’s little chance he’ll be on the field in March if he’s not going to be around in August. I’m of the mind that Elmer’s too good of a character guy to leave the program, even if his life doesn’t revolve around football 24/7. Now it’s time for him to clean up some of the flaws in his game, the only starter from last season who held back the Irish from being a truly elite group.

Depth isn’t necessarily a concern, but there isn’t a ton of it at tackle. That happens when you move a guy like Jerry Tillery to defensive line and lose a player like Stanley with a year of eligibility remaining. That could force the Irish to cross-train someone like Colin McGovern, a veteran who can swing inside or out if needed. McGovern seems to be a guy who would start in a lot of other programs, but has struggled to crack a two-deep that’s now filled with former blue-chip recruits, all of them essentially handpicked by Hiestand and Kelly.

Restocking the roster: Wide Receivers

Notre Dame v Florida State
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Some believe that the best way to look at recruiting is in two-year increments. As programs rebuild and rosters turn over, covering the needs of a football team over two recruiting cycles  allows a coaching staff to balance its roster.

That balance is critical to the health of a program. And it’s not just the work of a rebuilding coach. As we saw in Brian Kelly’s sixth season, injuries, attrition and scheme change impacted the defense, especially in the secondary.

Another position set to deal with major change is wide receiver. Gone is All-American Will Fuller, departing South Bend after three years, scoring 29 touchdowns over the past two seasons. He’ll look to run his way into the first round of the NFL Draft. Also gone are veterans Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle, putting the Irish in an unenviable position, needing to replace the team’s three leading receivers.

Reinforcements aren’t just on the way, they’re already on campus. While there’s not a ton of production to see, the recruiting stockpile has created a chance to reload for Mike Denbrock’s troop. So let’s take a look at the additions and subtractions on the roster, analyzing the two-year recruiting run as we restock the receiving corps.

DEPARTURES
Will Fuller
, Jr. (62 catches, 1,258 yards, 14 TDs)
Chris Brown, Sr. (48 catches, 597 yards, 4 TDs)
Amir Carlisle, GS (32 catches, 355 yards, 1 TD)
Jalen Guyton, Fr. (transfer)

 

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Equanimeous St. Brown

Miles Boykin*
CJ Sanders
Jalen Guyton
Chase Claypool*
Javon McKinley*
Kevin Stepherson*

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Corey Robinson, Sr.
Torii Hunter, Sr.*
Justin Brent, Jr.*
Corey Holmes, Jr.*
CJ Sanders, Soph.
Miles Boykin, Soph.*
Equanimeous St. Brown, Soph.
Kevin Stepherson, Fr.*

 

ANALYSIS
Brian Kelly expects St. Brown to step into Will Fuller’s shoes. If the Irish are able to pluck another sophomore from obscurity to the national spotlight, it’ll say quite a bit about the depth and productivity the Irish staff has built at the position. At 6-foot-5, St. Brown has a more tantalizing skill-set than Fuller—and he was a national recruit out of a Southern California powerhouse. But until we see St. Brown burn past defenders and make big plays, assuming the Irish won’t miss Fuller is a big leap of faith.

The next objective of the spring is getting Corey Robinson back on track. The rising senior had a forgettable junior season, ruined by injuries and some bruised confidence. A player who has shown flashes of brilliance during his three seasons in South Bend, the time is now for Robinson, not just as a performer but as an on-field leader.

Torii Hunter Jr. is also poised for a big season. After finding reps at slot receiver and possessing the versatility to see the field from multiple spots, Hunter needs to prove in 2016 that he’s not just a utility man but an everyday starter. His hands, smooth athleticism and speed should have him primed for a breakout. But Hunter might not want to stay in the slot if CJ Sanders is ready to take over. After a big freshman season on special teams, Sanders looks ready to make his move into the lineup, perhaps the purest slot receiver Brian Kelly has had since he arrived in South Bend.

The rest of the spring depth chart should have modest goals, though all face rather critical offseasons. Justin Brent is three years into his college career and the biggest headlines he’s made have been off the field. Whether he sticks at receiver or continues to work as a reserve running back remains to be seen. Corey Holmes is another upperclassman who we still can’t figure out. Will he ascend into the rotation with the top three veterans gone, or will he give way to some talented youngsters?

Miles Boykin earned praise last August, but it didn’t get him time on the field. He’ll enter spring with four years of eligibility, same as early-enrollee Kevin Stepherson. The Irish staff thinks Stepherson has the type of deep speed that they covet, capable of running past cornerbacks and stretching a defense. Boykin has size and physicality that could present intriguing options for an offense that’ll be less reliant on one man now that Fuller is gone.

Live Video Mailbag: 40-year decision, more BVG, freshmen and more

BVG
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We’ve done plenty of mailbags, but this is our first shot at a Live Video Mailbag. This should be a better way to answer more questions and hopefully interact with a few of you as we try to work off some of yesterday’s Super Bowl snacks.

Topics on the list: The 40-year decision, more Brian VanGorder talk, the incoming (and redshirt) freshmen and a whole lot more.

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