Tuitt Nix

Even with Tuitt gone, Notre Dame defense can evolve and improve

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Stephon Tuitt is gone. With the siren song of the NFL, and the ability to provide for his family and play football at the game’s highest level, too alluring to turn away. Tuitt will go early in the NFL Draft. How early? That likely depends on the work Tuitt does between now and the NFL Scouting Combine, where the 6-foot-6, 322-pound physical specimen will have the opportunity to show off his natural talents for all 32 teams to see.

Notre Dame is likely to produce two first round defensive linemen, something unheard of in South Bend. The only tragedy in all of it is the lack of production the Irish got out of Tuitt and Louis Nix in 2013, with Tuitt hampered throughout the beginning of the season and Nix lost for most of the end.

It’ll be a fresh start on defense. The architect of the past four units is gone, with Bob Diaco now leading the UConn football program. And while Brian VanGorder‘s job isn’t yet official, perhaps his time in South Bend comes at the perfect moment, as this is a group that’s going to need a fresh start.

Notre Dame headed to Camp Shiloh to open 2013 looking for a fresh start. Heading into spring practice, they’ll certainly have one. Of the team’s starting front seven, only defensive end Sheldon Day remains. Yet things are hardly as dire as that statement might seem.

The Irish have recruited well along the defensive front, in preparation for the departure of Nix and Tuitt. While they haven’t found a true nose guard (the closest thing they had wanted to stay closer to his grandma), they’ve added a multitude of bodies that can get the job done.

As difficult as it might be to replace Tuitt and Nix’s talent, it might not be as hard to replace their production. After putting up 12 sacks as a sophomore, Tuitt dropped to 7.5 this season, with 1.5 coming against Rutgers in the Pinstripe Bowl. Nix’s numbers were fairly pedestrian as well, with the nose guard’s eight game totals checking in at a shade over three tackles a game. 

In addition to personnel changes, there are likely schematic tweaks in store. We shouldn’t expect to see Brian Kelly do a 180 in his core defensive philosophies, but bringing in VanGorder signals a different direction after Diaco’s emphasis on core competency and conservative play. With an offense that’ll likely be more explosive next season, expect a defense that’s willing to be more aggressive. How that plays into personnel on the field will be one of the fun reveals of spring practice.

Here’s what we (think we) know:

The cupboard isn’t completely bare at nose guard. We saw Jarron Jones step to the forefront during the season’s final month. Lost at defensive end, the jumbo sized Jones found comfort over the nose, his job simplified as he lined up over the football. 

Joining him there should be Tony Springmann. An ACL tear and infection during the healing process slowed down his timeline, but Springmann should be a more than competent player. Let’s set the floor at a more productive Kona Schwenke.

If the Irish shift to a four-man front, sliding Day inside could be a legitimate option. At 6-foot-2, 290, Day has the type of size Trevor Laws or Ian Williams had, and earns rave reviews for his block destruction talents. In VanGorder’s attacking defensive front, Day could be the type of guy that wreaks havoc on the interior, playing more of an Aaron Donald role than the two-gapping block-eater that Nix mastered.

Of course, Day’s shift inside would open up another defensive end job. Does that mean Ishaq Williams slides down and plays there? Or does the staff believe Isaac Rochell can do the job? While he looked like a numbers crunch, perhaps VanGorder can get something out of Justin Utupo, a man without a position in Diaco’s system. Chase Hounshell has an open path to the starting lineup if his balky shoulders let him stay healthy.

At linebacker, things look promising. Jarrett Grace needs to keep rehabbing after breaking his leg against Arizona State, to anchor the inside linebackers. His progress won’t truly be known until August. But Jaylon Smith is a star in the making, with the outside linebacker perhaps one of the biggest beneficiaries of a system change. Guys like Kendall Moore and Joe Schmidt will battle Michael Deeb for reps, while outside backers like Williams, Romeo Okwara and Anthony Rabasa have the first shot at the Cat linebacker job before the freshmen enroll.

If there’s a wild card in all of this it’s the incoming freshman. The Irish will welcome 10 players into the front seven, with an interesting mix of hybrid players, high upside developmental projects and athletes that should immediately infuse speed into the defense.

Up front, any one of Jay Hayes, Andrew Trumbetti, Jonathan Bonner or Matt Dickerson could see the field. Likewise, we won’t know where guys like Grant Blankenship or Jhonathon Williams play until they get to campus. Nyles Morgan and Richard Yeargin certainly looked the part at the Army All-American Bowl. But there’s also a reason why Greer Martini was one of the Irish coaching staff’s first inside linebacker targets. Add in intriguing athletes like Kolin Hill and Nile Sykes and the possibilities are endless.

Perhaps that’s what makes the next few months so exciting. After feeling like the deck was stacked against Notre Dame for much of 2013, there’s reason for guarded optimism. Brian Kelly will need to replace key contributors on both sides of the ball, but has a depth chart stacked with hand picked recruits to fill their shoes.

Saying goodbye isn’t always easy. Especially to defensive linemen like Nix and Tuitt. But as the Irish coaching staff moves forward replacing two coordinators, the team on the field will replace leaders and contributors. There was a time when Louis Nix was an unknown quantity, just working his way into shape so he could see the field. Before Stephon Tuitt was being compared to Bain, he was just another freshman doing his best to get on the field.

The pieces, while certainly unproven, appear to be there. Now it’s time for the defense to evolve, pushing a new fleet of contributors to the forefront.

The time for rebuilding is over. After four seasons, we’ll see if the Irish defense can reload.

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.