Malik Zaire

Priorities clear for Irish in bowl game

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Brian Kelly and Jack Swarbrick will be in wintery New York today, for a press conference with Rutgers head coach Kyle Flood and his athletic director Julie Hermann. It’ll be another opportunity for us to hear from the Irish head coach, who has a busy week with recruiting, visiting Everett Golson, and preparing his football team for their final game of the 2013 season.

While some Irish fans batted around the idea of staying home this bowl season, the reality of winning at least six games means your coaching staff has unlocked an additional month of work with your football team. And while it’s likely too late to do too much to developmental improve the team that’ll play just a few weeks later, it can serve as a jump-start to spring practice, and a first look at players you expect to contribute in the season ahead.

On Sunday, Kelly talked about the delicate balance he and his staff will take in the ten scheduled practices the Irish will have before the Pinstripe Bowl.

“Well, we want to win the football game first,” Kelly said. “I want to send out our football team and build momentum into 2014 with a win. In particular, our seniors going out with a win, I think that’s very important.  They’ve meant so much to the program.  I think that’s first and foremost, getting a win for our seniors, and the momentum it builds going into 2014.”

The Irish walked into a bowl game with a similar 8-4 record after losing their season finale against Stanford in 2011. Matched up against Florida State in the (then) Champs Sports Bowl, the Irish gave away a lead to the Seminoles, dropping their fifth game of the season, and pushing the Irish into their offseason with a foul taste in their mouths.

Winning a ninth football game isn’t the same as playing in the BCS National Championship game, but the difference between an 8-5 and 9-4 record is sizable.

“It’s not a catapult into an undefeated season by any means,” Kelly conceded. “I don’t want to overstate that.  But it does leave a good feeling going into the offseason when you win that football game.”

Of course, winning the game is important. But with some really intriguing battles set to play out next Spring, Kelly also talked about the opportunities to work with young players that’ll likely step into big roles next season, including freshman quarterback Malik Zaire.

“I was able to work I think in the 11‑on‑11 today, which is our ones and twos working. I was able to get 20 reps of really good work with Malik today,” Kelly said. “The young guys get a lot of work.  Torii Hunter and Malik working together today.  Max Redfield played virtually all of seven‑on‑seven.  Those kind of guys getting out there today.”

With logistics not working out for Everett Golson to join the team this month to practice, the spotlight at quarterback is (temporarily) on Zaire. Andrew Hendrix’s return is far from certain, and Kelly hinted at four scholarship quarterbacks being too many to carry, a painful lesson learned with the departure of Gunner Kiel leaving the Irish shorthanded this year.

For a redshirt season, Zaire certainly made some headlines. He was put on a Twitter ban earlier in the season when he leaked out some information about his bout with mono. That ban likely returned with his commentary following Chuck Martin’s departure, where he voiced his frustrations after the news broke that Martin was heading to Miami.

Yet Zaire was a constant in press conferences, with the young quarterback mentioned almost weekly as a potential player to spark the offense. Kelly finally admitted late in the season that the plan was to redshirt the Ohio native, pushing his eligibility clock into a fifth season.

But these next few weeks are crucial for the Irish future, as both Zaire and Golson can run the football and Kelly’s spread offense, adding some continuity to a positional depth chart that after four seasons will finally have it. That will only be helpful if Zaire can take advantage of this month of work, a bonus one-on-one session with his head coach that wouldn’t have been as possible without Martin’s departure.

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)

 

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.