IBG: Taking stock

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With bowl scenarios still shaking out, and a coaching search potentially under way, it’s a good time to take a look at some relatively big picture questions in this week’s IBG. As usual, the crew has supplied some topical questions.

Participate down below, where there’s been some “lively” discussion the past few days. And head over to the other blogs and check out some of their answers.

Her Loyal Sons
ND Nation
UHND
Strong and True

With that, I’ll hang up and listen:

Bayou Irish, Her Loyal Sons: Does this 8-4 feel any different to you than Brian Kelly’s previous 8-4′s under the Dome? What I mean by this question is this: did this team under-, or over-, perform in your eyes, or did you get what you expected from the 2013 Fighting Irish? Does the loss of Coach Martin change your outlook on 2014? Does the “gain” of Golson?

Not all 8-4 seasons are created equally. During the 2011 season, many Irish fans were thinking that perhaps nobody could fix this program. Between the ridiculous opening game against USF, the gutting against Michigan, laying an egg against USC and Stanford and the ugly stinker against Florida State in the bowl game, a lot felt left on the table. (Especially when you look at what the team did statistically… it was essentially a 10-win team.)

By the end of this season, it just felt like the roster was decimated. I think it’s safe to say that the Irish underperformed, but you can understand why they did. It also helps that Notre Dame is coming off an appearance in the National Championship game.

Martin’s move doesn’t change my big picture outlook on the season, though I do think he’ll be missed. But the gain of Golson is big. How big? Brian Kelly called Golson his best five-star recruit Tuesday on the media circuit.

Aaron Horvath, Strong & True: Now that the 12-game regular season is done, give me the player who surprised you the most this season and the player you are most excited about for next season?

I’ll give you one on each side of the ball. Defensively, it’s Kona Schwenke. I sincerely think Schwenke can end up having a nice career in the NFL, something that seemed fairly improbable when Brian Kelly targeted Schwenke late in the recruiting cycle. While he was hurt at the end of the season (who wasn’t?), Schwenke is a big bodied, active, combination defensive lineman.

Offensively, Tarean Folston has to get your vote. (Although maybe Ben Koyack secures runner-up.) Just about every Irish fan was dying to get a look at Greg Bryant, but Folston ended up looking like the running back of the future for the Irish.

(It’s worth mentioning that back around Signing Day, I hinted that the staff believed that Folston was the top back on the Irish board, and they believed he was a home run threat. Maybe he doesn’t have the long speed, but he certainly did have the explosiveness.)

As for next year, I can’t decide yet. Perhaps it’s DaVaris Daniels, reunited with Golson. (Heck, maybe it’s Golson.) If Stephon Tuitt is back, then that’s easy. Or getting a look at a healthy Greg Bryant.

Frank Vitovitch, UHND.com: What position where Notre Dame will be replacing starters in 2014 concerns you the most heading into the off-season.  Additionally, what position where Notre Dame returns starters in 2014 needs to see the most improvement for the Irish to get into the playoff conversation next year?

My biggest concern/question is inside linebacker. People liked to pick on Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese, but both guys have played a lot of football. And it’s not as if we saw tremendous things out of Jarrett Grace, though he did show some good improvement as the season went on before going down against Arizona State. While Joe Schmidt did a nice job taking advantage of his opportunities and Kendall Moore played himself back for a fifth year, it’ll be good to see what Michael Deeb can do.

As for returners needing to take the next step, let’s just look at every safety on the roster. It was a disappointing season almost across the board, with the Irish really missing the big game presence of Zeke Motta and Jamoris Slaughter. While Eilar Hardy took a step forward, Matthias Farley took a step back. Austin Collinsworth seems to be closing out the season strong, but Elijah Shumate all but lost a year due to injuries.

The depth chart battle next year should be fun to watch, with Nicky Baratti healthy, Max Redfield up to speed, and a few big names still on the recruiting board.

Mike Coffey, NDNation.com: As Brian Kelly searches for a new offensive coordinator, what direction do you hope he’ll go?  Should he promote from within, or should he look outside?  Either way, what name is on top of your list?

 Hope? Well, I think most hope he goes and hires a guy that makes everybody happy. A name you’ve heard of, that scores points on the national stage, who runs the ball efficiently and effectively, but also throws the ball down the field and scores points in a hurry. Basically the offensive coordinator version of the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy rolled into one. (Or Jon Tenuta.)

Who do I think will get the job? Mike Denbrock. He’s been with Kelly a long time, knows just about every job on the offensive staff, and is a sneaky good Xs and Os coach that can run the room and quality control as needed.

While others have pointed to Tony Alford as the guy on staff to move up, I just don’t see it happening. Alford’s a great locker room guy, an excellent recruiter and a wonderful man, but putting him in that position isn’t necessarily the best thing for his skill-set.

We can all throw darts at the board and guess if Kelly will snipe an offensive coach from another program, but that doesn’t seem his style. Also, he’s already hired Ernest Jones in a non-coaching position, so it might be pretty easy to slide Jones in at running backs coach, a job he’s done under Kelly both at Cincinnati and Central Michigan, and then slide everybody back up the ladder.

***

And finally, my question to all of you:

With the Irish not playing in a top-tier bowl, how do you treat the practice and run-up to the game? Is it best served getting young players practice and game reps? Is winning the game most important? If you’re Brian Kelly, what are your priorities?

Rochell drafted in 7th round; three other former Notre Dame players sign

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All the unnecessary draft conversation may have centered on DeShone Kizer, but the quarterback was not the only former Notre Dame player watching this weekend’s NFL Draft with rapt attention. Aside from Kizer, only Isaac Rochell heard his name called. The San Diego Chargers picked the defensive lineman in the seventh round Saturday with the 225th overall pick.

Rochell finished his Irish career with appearance in 49 of 51 possible games and 167 tackles, including 22 for loss and 4.5 sacks. In 2016, he recorded 55 tackles, good for sixth on the team, with seven for loss.

By the end of the evening, three more former Notre Dame starters had signed on with NFL teams as undrafted free agents. It should be noted, many argue the route available for undrafted free agents is preferable to that of late-round picks. An undrafted free agent can choose which of a handful of situations is preferable to him for whatever reason. A late-round pick does not have that luxury, but still makes a comparable salary.

Linebacker James Onwualu opted to join Rochell with the Chargers. Defensive lineman Jarron Jones signed with the New York Giants. Cornerback Cole Luke latched on with the Carolina Panthers.

Onwualu began his Irish career as a receiver before moving to linebacker before his sophomore season. He finished his career with 143 tackles, including 75 in 2016 with 11.5 for loss and three sacks. His 75 tackles finished behind only now-rising senior linebackers Nyles Morgan’s 94 and Drue Tranquill’s 79.

Battling injuries throughout his Notre Dame career, Jones made 105 tackles with 45 in 2016. His 11 tackles for loss were outdone only by the aforementioned Onwualu total.

Luke made 152 tackles in his Irish career, including 48 last season, and eight interceptions.

Three more players from past years’ Irish rosters could yet find an NFL home—long snapper Scott Daly, defensive lineman-turned-tight end Chase Hounshell and running back Tarean Folston. If any or all do not sign, they can still join teams for rookie mini-camps in hopes of making a positive impression.

RELATED READING: Browns pick former Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer 20th in second round

Browns pick former Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer 20th in second round

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After months of pointless chatter and a night spent waiting, DeShone Kizer’s NFL Draft experience ended Friday night when the Cleveland Browns drafted the former Notre Dame quarterback with the 20th pick in the second round, the No. 52 overall selection.

Originally from Toledo, Ohio, Kizer will have the opportunity to earn the starting job for the franchise less than two hours from his hometown. The Browns trotted out five different quarterbacks in 2016, only two of which remain with the team. Rookie Cody Kessler played in nine games, throwing for 1,380 yards and six touchdowns with only one interception while fellow rookie Kevin Hogan threw for 104 yards and two interceptions in four games.

The Browns have since added Brock Osweiler in a trade with the Houston Texans, though that trade was largely-viewed as a cash-for-picks swap, with the Browns “paying” for picks by taking on Osweiler’s contract in which he is owed $47 million over the next three seasons, including $16 million this season.

A year ago, the No. 52 pick (linebacker Deion Jones to the Atlanta Falcons) received a four-year, $4.546 million contract with a $1.506 million signing bonus.

Hall of fame running back and Browns legend Jim Brown announced the selection of Kizer at the draft festivities.

Speculation a year ago pegged Kizer as an early first-round pick. As the draft approached, projections of his slot varied widely, many including a second-round status. Despite first-round theatrics leading to three quarterbacks going in the first 12 picks Thursday night, Kizer had to wait another day before learning where he will start his NFL career. (more…)

Friday at 4: ‘Attention to detail’ includes Notre Dame Stadium

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Brian Kelly proselytized multiple abstract concepts this spring. By the end of the 15 practices and subsequent media sessions, even the Irish coach knew some of his references to “grit” would be met by muted eye rolls from the press. If a questioner included the word in their query, Kelly reacted with tongue-in-cheek approval, “You’ve been listening.”

In his press conference the day before spring practices commenced, Kelly used the phrase “attention to detail” six separate times. While he was referring to his players on the football field, Kelly could have also been discussing the ongoing—but supposedly close to finished—construction at Notre Dame Stadium known as Campus Crossroads.

The three buildings around the exterior of the Stadium, the added suites and the video board above the south end zone have garnered the headlines. On a macro level, those are the changes of note. On a micro level, however, other details have trickled into the public stream of knowledge as the work nears its conclusion.

Over the weekend—and now reignited by a column from the South Bend Tribune’s Mike Vorel—the image of the newly-added visitors’ tunnel delighted Irish fans. Vorel likens the narrow entry to “the spot they’d stash the gladiators before feeding them to starving tigers in The Coliseum.” Assuredly, Vorel is going for dramatic effect, and it must work considering its citation here, but even a realistic view of the tunnel’s effects bodes well.

If nothing else, Notre Dame players should enjoy something of a psychological boost when racing out of their adult-sized tunnel and seeing their opponent trickle out of a tunnel seemingly-sized for ants. (Yes, the north end zone tunnel is at least three times bigger than the visitors’ tunnel.)

That pale, slanted staircase holds none of the luxuries of the home team’s entrance, something Kelly went out of his way to praise after using it in Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. (more…)

Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers

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You want complete honesty? The linebacker version of this series includes no revelations, no unexpected developments, no surprising spring performances. There is an allusion to a position switch, sure, but this piece became much simpler with the rover being discussed separately Thursday.

The idea was to capitalize on the NFL Draft for the morning and let the linebackers slip by in the afternoon, noticed only by those twiddling their thumbs through the last hours of the work week. Alas, former Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer was not drafted in the first round and a brief recap of his draft destination will need to await at least another day. Programming note: The NFL Draft reconvenes tonight (Friday) at 7 p.m. ET. The Green Bay Packers are on the clock. They will not draft a quarterback.

But back to the linebackers. This piece may have been intended to slip by with little fanfare, but that is not indicative of the Irish linebackers. Where Notre Dame was is so similar to where Notre Dame is simply because two experienced senior captains lead the way at linebacker.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
Aside from questions about defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s rover position, only one question stood out about this linebacker group: Who would start alongside senior Nyles Morgan: senior Greer Martini or junior Te’von Coney?

A year ago Coney recorded the fourth-most tackles on the team with 62. Martini finished fifth with 55, and his seven tackles for loss, including three sacks, dwarfed Coney’s 1.5. Yet Coney technically started nine games compared to Martini’s four.

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

With the rover often lining up essentially as a linebacker, there would only be space for one of Martini or Coney in most formations.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
In his first season with the Irish, Elko will have quite a luxury in referring to Coney as a backup linebacker. In some respects, that designation was inevitable as soon as Martini was named a captain. Nonetheless, Coney will see plenty of playing time.

The two captains—along with fellow captain, senior Drue Tranquill at rover—will be counted on throughout the summer and fall camp to continue the defense’s growth in Elko’s system. Elko said he installed “close to 50 percent” of his entire defense throughout spring practice. The linebackers must deal with the most difficult aspects of that learning.

“There’s been a noticeable improvement in terms of this starting to look like the defense we want this to look like as spring has gone on,” Elko said a week ago. “… Linebacker probably more than any other position, linebacker and safety, where the scheme takes some time to get used to, how you see it, how you fit it, how you feel it. Those guys have gotten better with that which has then allowed them to play faster as the spring has moved on.”

Sophomore Jonathan Jones will likely provide any further depth that may be needed in 2017, unless either of the incoming freshmen, David Adams and Drew White, excel from the outset. Irish coach Brian Kelly indicated sophomore Jamir Jones (no relation to Jonathan, but is former Notre Dame defensive lineman Jarron Jones’ brother) may be destined for time on the defensive line, in large part to Jones’s continued growth. Junior Josh Barajas let the spring come and go without mandating he be involved in these conversations, which may as well count as removing himself from the conversation in most regards.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame Was, Is & Could Be: Rover