Jarron Jones, Stephon Tuitt

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Arizona State

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What a difference a win makes.

With the Irish back in South Bend with a week off before needing to prepare for Southern Cal, Notre Dame can look to the second half of the season, where the schedule could stack up nicely for a late season showdown against Stanford, who survived a scare from Washington late last night.

In a game that swung back and forth quite a few times, the Irish made the plays they needed to make to get the win, all while reminding us that this team is still a work in progress. Let’s run through the good, the bad, and the ugly of Notre Dame’s wild 37-34 victory.

THE GOOD

Jaylon Smith. The freshman linebacker led the Irish in tackles, making nine stops, including 1.5 behind the line of scrimmage. Playing his best game in a Notre Dame uniform, Smith’s growing before our eyes, something that Brian Kelly talked about Sunday in his weekly conference call.

“That position is being constantly probed and attacked on a game‑to‑game basis,” Kelly said. “I think the biggest improvement is that he’s learning football and how he’s being attacked at his position week‑in and week‑out.”

Matched up with a set of very quick receivers and a mobile quarterback, Smith was up to the task, while still learning on the job. Crack back blocks, containment on the edge, and different pass coverage responsibilities are all part of what he’ll need to master. But Smith’s got the opportunity to do a lot of great things, many that we noticed Saturday night.

Prince Shembo. He was a man on a mission, playing primarily with his hand on the ground. Shembo reminded Irish fans — and opposing coaching staffs — why the quick passing game might be mandatory, as he was relentless in his pressure of quarterback Taylor Kelly.

Stephon Tuitt. Another really impressive football game for Tuitt, who is playing a ridiculous amount of snaps and doing a really nice job. Tuitt had a key strip sack and was a step away from a couple others, forcing Kelly to run for his life on a a few occasions.

Kelly talked about Tuitt’s recovery from offseason surgery, and his plans for Tuitt’s week off, a break desperately needed for the 6-6 defensive end.

“He needs rest,” Kelly said. “The surgery that he had has affected his back, it’s affected his hip flexors… Some people dismiss it and say, well, you know, you just had minor surgery.  Well, it’s affected a lot of things.  This is a big man, and you know, he’s really struggled all week with back tightness.”

Tuitt answered the bell, playing a key role for the Irish and playing at a high level for much of the evening.

TJ Jones. In my final thoughts before kickoff, I had Jones tabbed as the team’s most important offensive player. He did more than that, contributing a big return on special teams as well as he led the offense with a rock solid performance.

Against a defense that played basically man to man all evening, Jones and Tommy Rees being in lock-step was essential.

“I think really Tommy feels comfortable knowing where he’s going to be getting in and out of his breaks,” Kelly said. “You know, some of the younger guys, at times, there’s not that certainty of where they are going to be sometimes in press coverage, and obviously one thing TJ does is he gets people off him, because they respect his ability to get over the top easily.”

Dan Fox. After losing his starting job, Fox came back in and played a ton of good football after Jarrett Grace went down. Fox made seven tackles, recovered a fumble and returned an interception for a touchdown.

A great job by a veteran that’s going to be counted on down the stretch.

Cam McDaniel. Heckuva job by the Texan who ran for the tough yards down the stretch. After suffering what looked like a stinger on a violent head-to-head collision, McDaniel came right back in and continued carrying the load.

Ben Koyack. He’s been a punching bag more than a few times in his three seasons in South Bend, but Koyack came through in the clutch with a big touchdown and some solid blocking, playing the role of a fullback more than a few times.

The Pass Protection. Facing a relentless blitzing defense, Harry Hiestand’s crew did their jobs immaculately, not giving up a sack of Tommy Rees. On the year, the pass blocking as been rock solid, giving up just four sacks on over 200 throws.

THE BAD

Tough injuries to Jarrett Grace and Daniel Smith. Nobody wants to lose a guy for the season, and on Saturday night the Irish lost two. Grace spent the night in Dallas, getting a rod inserted in his fibula. Smith has a fracture in his ankle that’ll end his career playing for Notre Dame.

Kelly talked about the loss of both, with Grace being the biggest blow on the field and Smith being a tough one to stomach in the locker room.

“Jarrett had surgery this morning in Dallas, in which they put a rod in his leg for the fibula fracture,” Kelly explained. “He’ll spend the next couple of nights there.  Just talked to him, got off the phone.  His spirits are good.  You know, that’s a process that could take four to six months.  But obviously a big loss for us.”

Kelly also talked about the loss of Smith, whose injury became an emotional moment during halftime.

“I usually don’t use a win‑one‑for‑the‑Gipper talk, and I don’t want to equate it in those terms, but generally speaking, we talked about losing Danny and in particular that he probably wasn’t going to play again,” Kelly said. “There was a lot of emotion in the locker room, because they love Danny Smith and what he’s done for our program as a dedicated player for Notre Dame.  He loves Notre Dame, and we’ve seen him grow as a person and as a player and he’s going to be sorely missed.”

Giving up big third and fourth down conversions. For as well as the Irish defense played, they gave up two critical conversions on third and fourth down. The Sun Devils converted a clutch fourth down beating Austin Collinsworth in man coverage, and then found a hole in Notre Dame’s zone defense on third and 20, especially back-breaking considering that the Irish called a timeout to get on the same page before the play, and ASU tied the game later on that drive.

Add in some uneven play by both Collinsworth and Matthias Farley and there’s still plenty of work to be done by the back end of the defense. As many wondered, Kelly was asked about the progress of Max Redfield, wondering what could be taking so long for the young freshman.

“He’s getting closer and closer,” Kelly said of Redfield. “There’s so many calls, so many things going on out there. It’s a quarterback position when you’re out there at that safety position.  It’s not just dropping into cover two.”

Nick Martin’s struggles. With multiple snap infraction calls and some confusion on another false start call, it appears that his match-up with Will Sutton kept Martin’s attention divided.

It wasn’t all bad for Martin. Sutton made just three tackles on the night, with one coming on TJ Jones’ punt return.

THE UGLY

Other than Kyle Brindza’s snap-hook mulligan on his first field goal attempt, that he more than made up for with his clutch kicking the rest of the game, the ugly category is going to stay deservedly empty.

Restocking the roster: Wide Receivers

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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

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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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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.