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IBG: Questions before Pitt

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Another week, another IBG. But this week we’re shaking it up a bit. Tip of the cap to Tex, who thought things were getting a bit stale after the loss of the Subway Domer, and this is a pretty cool way to do thing.

In the spirit of collaboration, everybody submitted one question to the group. We all answer everybody’s questions below, and be sure to check out our partners at:

Her Loyal Sons
ND Nation
UHND
Strong and True

Play along in the comments, as I think a few of these questions might spur some (clean) debate:

From NDTex at HerLoyalSons.com: Tommy Rees has very quietly put up some rather impressive passing numbers. His 22 TDs and 8 INTs are surprisingly not far off from Heisman candidate QBs such as Jameis Winston (24 TD, 6 INT), Johnny Manziel (26 TD, 8 INT), and Marcus Mariota (20 TD, 0 INT). While “Rees for Heisman” is an obvious stretch, especially since he isn’t a dual threat like the previously mentioned QBs, I’d wager tied 8th in the nation for TD passes is a lot more than most Notre Dame fans were expecting. Should we all be making a much bigger deal about this or should we wait and see how he ends the season?

I know people hammer on me all the time for this, but these are the types of numbers I expected from Rees. Tex kind of answers his own question when he mentions the whole dual-threat thing, as Mariota, Manziel or Winston wouldn’t be the weapon they are if they didn’t have big time wheels as well.

The best benchmark for Rees in my mind is Tony Pike. Brian Kelly’s veteran quarterback at Cincinnati put up big numbers in his final season, leading the Bearcats to an undefeated regular season. One look at his stats and you see a line that’s more similar to Rees than many would expect.

While Pike’s completion percentage is better at 62-percent, Rees is throwing for more yards an attempt and is just a few points behind in QBR. Adjust that for the schedule Rees has faced? You’re seeing a similar season (maybe even superior), something Irish fans didn’t think possible when looking at things on paper.

From Frank Vitovitch, UHND.com: Tarean Folston broke out in a big way against Navy last week with 140 yards.  How big of a role do you think the freshman back will play in the final three games and what level of production are you expecting from him down the stretch after his break through performance last weekend?

 The game against Pitt will be a nice barometer. I don’t think this turns into just the Folston show, but he’s going to certainly get the first chance to be the leading man, with George Atkinson and Cam McDaniel likely fitting play calls that better work to their skill-sets.

It won’t be easy sledding for the Irish ground game. We should keep an eye on Chris Watt and his injured PCL. Add to that that all three teams have a better statistical rush defense than Notre Dame (Pitt is 64th, BYU is 42nd and Stanford 11th) and if Folston does break out, the Irish have a great back on their hands.

From Mike Coffey, NDNation: Lots of comments after the game concerned the poor condition of the turf in Notre Dame Stadium and what can/should be done about it.  One of our number has contended the BYU game on November 23rd will be the last with the current grass in the Stadium.  What kind of a playing surface do you believe the Stadium should have and why?

I think Mike’s talking about me here. I just don’t think grass is the answer in Notre Dame Stadium, though the stadium renovation could be the key to making a hybrid surface like the one in Green Bay work.

As Brian Kelly mentioned, it isn’t just rolling out sod and tamping it down. Laying down multiple surfaces a season is expensive stuff, and so are the consultants and grass gurus that Notre Dame has brought in to help.

Part of playing in the house that Rockne built is dealing with the original plot of land and the drainage that was build all those years ago. Here’s an interesting article on the work that went into making the hybrid grass surface work at Lambeau. Not quite as simple as it seems.

The biggest reason I think getting rid of natural grass is important is that Notre Dame finally personnel that has the edge from a quickness and athletic perspective. This isn’t a team that’s going to grow the grass long when a visitor comes to town. The Irish practice both inside and out on FieldTurf. They’re playing a very large portion of their road games on the same surface.

I’m all for tradition, but when that tradition continues to include watching Irish ball carriers slip and fall in the backfield or linebackers fail to get traction as they cut back after an option quarterback, it’s time for a change.

 Aaron Horvath, Strong and True (UND.com) Due to the immense amount of injuries during the past few weeks to the Irish defense, do you think that playing both option teams on our schedule in back to back weeks was a good idea? And… Due to the thin defensive depth chart, what player who saw little playing time in the first nine games will breakout in the final three?

I’m going to steal Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo’s answer, when he said that playing back-to-back option games benefitted both teams. It was clear that Navy had a very good idea of what Notre Dame wanted to do. And it was also clear that the Irish made some changes after Air Force, like keeping Stephon Tuitt and the defensive line in a two-point stance.

There were reports that Notre Dame is likely getting out of the potential 2015 game with Air Force. If that’s the case, I don’t expect to see them on the schedule any time soon, especially with ACC games still trying to be crammed into a schedule that’s bursting at the seams.

For your bonus question, I think asking any defender to “standout” in these last three games is probably a little bit much. But I’m driving the bandwagon for Justin Utupo, a guy that’s going to play a lot of minutes down the stretch with the injuries up front.

Utupo was the LA Times lineman of the year, the same award that went to Troy Niklas. He had elite offers. He just doesn’t quite “fit” in this Irish defense, a bit of a tweener that’s bounced from defensive end to linebacker back to defensive line. But he’s been productive against Air Force and Navy and is the next man in for Bob Diaco.

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Here’s the question I posed to the rest of the IBG and to you all:

From Keith Arnold, Inside the Irish – NBCSports.com: With the defense so beaten up, is winning out still possible? Would you prefer a lopsided match-up in a BCS bowl or a potential bowl win and possible 11-win season? Would the offseason narrative be better if ND won a second-tier bowl or lost a BCS bowl?

 

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.

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.”