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And in that corner… The Michigan State Spartans

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Forever tied together because of their consecutive tenures at Cincinnati, Brian Kelly and Mark Dantonio are nonetheless polar opposites on the coaching spectrum. Dantonio’s teams embody the Big Ten archetype, built around a power offense and an aggressive defense. Kelly made his name at Cincinnati putting up points by the minute, spreading defenses out and turning Saturday afternoons into track meets.

As we’ve spent much of September debating the merits of Notre Dame rivalries, another comes this Saturday as the battle for the Megaphone Trophy comes to South Bend. After losing in gut-wrenching fashion in the first battle of Cincinnati coaches past, Dantonio gutted the Irish will a fake field goal in overtime, with “Little Giants” putting the game in the record books and Dantonio in the hospital with a mild heart attack after the victory. Kelly has had the better of the Spartans in the two years sense then, winning fairly easily in ’10, and then going to East Lansing and shutting down the then ranked No. 10 team in the country in a defensive showdown.

Watching it all has been Chris Vannini, who spends his time writing about Spartan football at The Only Colors and as the lead writer at CoachingSearch.com. Chris was kind enough to answer my numerous questions and pump out some really good stuff that’ll get everybody ready for a game that has plenty of subplots.

Enjoy.

Not all 3-0 records are created equal. It hasn’t exactly been easy sledding for the Spartans these first three games, especially offensively. Last Saturday against Youngstown State, things seemed to click. What’s been the problem for the offense? Was last week part of the solution or simply playing Youngstown State?

Problems? Where to start. Just about everything was a problem other than the running backs in the first two weeks. The line couldn’t block, the receivers couldn’t get open nor catch, the quarterbacks couldn’t find guys and the play-calling was odd. Then, against Youngstown State, everything clicked. Sure, part of it was playing Youngstown State, but when the offense couldn’t move the ball against two of the worst teams in FBS, it was a reason to celebrate a little bit.

Of course, this doesn’t mean the offense is fixed or anything, but it was the first time in more than a calendar year that MSU collectively put together a performance to feel good about. Now we know that this offense can actually do something. The ability to perform against better teams is still yet to be seen, though.

Replacing Dan Roushar has been the combo platter of Jim Bollman and Dave Warner. Assess their work so far? If you were Mark Dantonio and needed to find someone to run the offense, who would you go out and hire?

The Bollman hire was a bit odd, but it he had coached with Dantonio at a few others stops, and familiarity is everything with Dantonio. After last year’s offensive struggles, the new coaches promised changes, so there was reason for optimism. Two games into 2013, everything was the same. Last week saw better execution more than anything, and that obviously makes play-calling easier. The hope is that things are figured out. Bollman is a consultant between series, while Warner calls the plays. As for finding someone to run the offense, it’s all about familiarity, as I said. Dantonio loves to promote guys who would have been waiting their turn, as Roushar and then Warner were. If the rest of the season plays out like last year, perhaps a change could be made, but it’s not a guarantee. If Dantonio were to make an outside hire for a coordinator position, I have no idea what he would go for, but it would have to be someone who runs an offense with a mobile QB, as MSU has been recruiting for.

Let’s talk about the quarterback position. Is this Connor Cook’s team now?

It’s his team now, with an asterisk. He’s getting all the first-team reps and is the No. 1 quarterback. But if he struggles beyond belief or is injured at Notre Dame, I believe Andrew Maxwell would take over. MSU knows what it has with him, so first-team reps aren’t as important in practice. It’s not “Cook or die,” but he’s the No. 1 QB about as much as one can be after a quarterback battle.

On the flip side of the ball, the defense has been tremendous and sits at the statistical top of the heap after three game? Is there a regression coming? Or is this just another really, really good Pat Narduzzi defense?

A regression is coming simply because of the opponents, but this will still be a really good Narduzzi defense. It’s a senior-laden group that has been making the negative plays (sacks, TFLs, INTs) that were there in 2011 but were missing a year ago. The front four has been able to wreak havoc on its own, which is important for every team. The young players that have replaced last year’s starters haven’t missed a beat: defensive end Shilique Calhoun, linebacker Taiwan Jones and cornerback Trae Waynes.

The Notre Dame offense has run hot and cold this season. How do you see Narduzzi attacking it on Saturday?

This, to me, is the most interesting storyline. Based on what I’ve seen in the past two weeks, opponents have sat back in coverage and forced Notre Dame to dink and dunk down the field, waiting for the Irish to make a mistake. That’s not MSU’s style. This is a heavy blitzing team that leaves its corners on islands, expecting the pressure to force a bad throw. As a result, the defense can be susceptible for some big plays. You’re not going to dink and dunk down the field against this defense, but a big play or two can lead to scores. Narduzzi is all about not allowing an inch, but the past few weeks have shown that it’s OK to allow inches, just not big yards to ND. I can’t see MSU sitting back and only rushing four, even if those four can get some pressure. It’s just not what they do.

Name one player on offense and one player on defense that should give Irish fans nightmares this week.

On offense, I’m going to go with Cook because of his dual-threat ability. Devin Gardner was able to break contain and make plays against Notre Dame, while Purdue’s Rob Henry was able to move enough to keep plays alive. Cook is a big guy that brings the mobility that Maxwell doesn’t have. Given MSU’s poor offensive line performances against the Irish in recent years, he may be on the move a lot.

On defense, it should be Calhoun. He’s actually a better pass-rusher than Will Gholston, who left early for the NFL. He has two sacks, three TFLs, eight QB hurries, an interception and three fumble recoveries. Through two games, he was almost outscoring MSU’s offense, with two of the fumbles and the one interception returned for a touchdown. He’s a fast guy that gets the edge quickly.

Brian Kelly and Mark Dantonio have an “interesting” relationship. After Little Giants, Kelly has gotten the better of Dantonio the past two season, winning by large margins both in South Bend and East Lansing. Is this a game that brings out the best in Dantonio, his staff and the Spartans?

If not for that fake field goal, Dantonio could very well be 0-3 against Kelly. I think you’re going to see MSU throw the kitchen sink at the Irish. How effective that will be is hard to say. As we talked about, MSU only has one good performance out of three games against lowly opponents. But it’s good that it was the most-recent one. There’s some positive vibes around that haven’t been there for quite some time. Whatever the plan is, this game is going to come down to whether or not MSU’s offensive line can hold up. The Irish defensive line has destroyed the Spartans for the past two years. MSU has a full offensive line — it hasn’t in the past two years — but some guys are a little nicked up. If MSU can’t block, it’s over, and there’s not much of a way to gameplan against that. If they can block, then things can open up.

***

Read more from Chris and the team over at The Only Colors, or follow on Twitter @TheOnlyColors or @ChrisVannini.

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: