Tommy Rees, Aaron Donald, Darryl Render

Bye week brings opportunity to answer legitimate questions

123 Comments

With Notre Dame’s team plane not arriving back in South Bend until the wee morning hours, Brian Kelly didn’t have his usual Sunday teleconference. If he did, he would’ve likely needed to answer some tough questions about a game plan that was just as erratic as the players executing it.

Twenty-four hours have passed since Notre Dame’s ugly 28-21 loss to Pitt. That means players and coaches have likely turned the page after one of the more distressing losses of the Kelly era. But with a bye week allowing for further introspection, it might be okay to let this lost linger for a bit inside the Gug, as some tough lessons might turn into a good reminder for the future.

For as long as there is football, there will be football players making mistakes. But perhaps most distressing about this loss was that it showed a potential crack in the foundation of Kelly’s core philosophies, something the head coach addressed in his postgame comments.

“I think what I’m most concerned about is the inability to put together a consistent effort tonight in November,” Kelly said. “We’re 10 games into the season. There’s really, for me, no reason why, and I take full responsibility for this as the head coach, that there’s no reason why we don’t execute at the level that we should in November, and that didn’t happen tonight.”

In the past, the coaching staff has used the off-week as an internal audit. With two regular season games to go and recruiting in full swing, resources will likely be allocated differently. But if there are game-plan deficiencies that need to be reassessed, on Saturday night Kelly certainly provided what essentially amounted to the greatest hits for his detractors.

ABANDONING THE RUNNING GAME

You’d have thought Pitt had stuffed the run game when you look at the six carries the Irish had in the second half, for an equally poor 10 total yards. But the ground game started out strong with 128 yards on 18 first half carries, with both George Atkinson and TJ Jones hitting big gainers.

Probably the most frustrating part of the lack of ground success was the fact that the previous week it was the running game that cemented the victory. But the toxic combination of abandoning the run without protecting a beat-up defense, ended up as one of the true head-scratchers of the evening.

PUTTING THE GAME ON TOMMY REES’ SHOULDERS

I’ll continue to make the argument that Tommy Rees gives the Irish their best chance to win. But that doesn’t mean the game needs to be thrown on the senior quarterback’s shoulders. Developing consistency at running back isn’t easy when you are trying to get four backs touches. But it’s especially difficult when you force the quarterback to be the cog of the offense and hope a back can get into a rhythm in five carries or less.

But back to the quarterback play. In Eric Hansen’s terrific analysis in the South Bend Tribune, he notes that Rees is 11-0 as a starter when he commits zero turnovers. That number plummets to 10-7 when he commits one or more. Last year, the Irish adopted a conservative, limit-turnovers-at-all-costs approach that played out nearly perfectly. This year they’ve gone back to traditional spread concepts and in all three of Notre Dame’s losses, Rees has thrown multiple interceptions.

Kelly is still looking for some type of consistency in the red zone, with Rees’ end zone interception the sixth that he’s thrown beyond the goal line in his career. That stat alone leads you to believe that changes need to be made schematically if the Irish are going to get more efficient in the seasons to come.

NOT ALL GAME PLANS ARE CREATED EQUAL

Throwing 40 times in early September isn’t the same thing as throwing 40 times in November. Kelly talked about the challenges of playing at night in Pittsburgh, a notoriously weather-effected stadium that has the rocket-armed Ben Roethlisberger cutting spirals through the river-fueled winds.

But Kelly’s offensive game plan heaped a ton of pressure onto the shoulders of Rees, and it was clear from the start that the quarterback was struggling with accuracy on an evening where temperatures were in the 40s and wind was swirling.

Making things more confusing was the decision to continue throwing the football, especially with the need to protect a beleaguered defense, gutted of its best player when Stephon Tuitt was ejected early in the second quarter.

One loss in November certainly isn’t an indictment of a coach who’s had more success in the season’s final month than just about every coaching titans in the college game. But after letting the dust settle, the blame for Saturday’s loss — just as Kelly acknowledged — falls on players and coaches equally.

Restocking the roster: Offensive Line

Notre Dame offensive line
4 Comments

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
Getty
12 Comments

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
29 Comments

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.

***