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Spring Solutions: Defensive line

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No unit in the country is looking at bigger shoes to fill than Notre Dame’s defensive front. Gone are Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt, two once-in-a-decade talents who left South Bend after injury plagued and underachieving seasons.

With injuries marring the development of linemen young and old, there’s no question that the defensive line is the biggest wildcard on the roster.

Talented personnel exist (Sheldon Day is a moment away from being an elite player), but how the group bonds together under the direction of Mike Elston and new coordinator Brian VanGorder this spring will be one of the determining factors of the season.

Let’s take a look at the spring depth chart and the group tasked with rebuilding the defensive front this spring.

DEFENSIVE LINE DEPTH CHART

Justin Utupo, DE — GS
Chase Hounshell, DE — Sr.*
Tony Springmann, DE — Sr.*
Sheldon Day, DE — Jr.
Jarron Jones, DT — Jr.*
Jacob Matuska, DE — Soph.*
Isaac Rochelle, DE — Soph.
Andrew Trumbetti, DE — Fr.

*Fifth year of eligibility available.

SPRING OBJECTIVES

Justin Utupo: After playing very little football his first four seasons, Utupo took advantage of his opportunities when injuries forced him into action. A tweener that’s bounced between linebacker and defensive line positions, a shift to a one-gap philosophy could really help utilize Utupo’s talents.

It will be interesting to see where Utupo weighs in on the spring roster. He was listed at 290 pounds last year, plenty big to play as a defensive tackle. Even though he’s just a shade over six-feet, he’s a disruptive guy. He’ll have his chances to make his mark this spring with a relatively shallow depth chart.

Chase Hounshell: Eventually, good luck needs to come Hounshell’s way. Multiple shoulder injuries have derailed Hounshell’s career at Notre Dame, to the point where we really don’t know what he can bring to the Irish defense.

If there’s an objective for the spring, it’s staying healthy. Beyond that, it’s providing some quality depth at a position that’s pretty thin. Hounshell was a well regarded prospect who turned down Florida to come to Notre Dame. Getting something out of the 6-foot-4.5, 271-pound defensive lineman would be huge.

Tony Springmann: Another crucially important veteran. Springmann was poised to breakout last season before an ugly knee injury ended his season. There were true worries about the severity of things, especially when an infection in the surgically repaired knee had some wondering if his career was over.

Springmann will be one to watch this spring as Kelly wasn’t sure how much work he’ll do during these 15 practices. An early start definitely doesn’t help, but there’s a belief inside the Gug that Springmann is a really good football player. He’ll be needed in the fall, making health and recovery the main objective.

Sheldon Day: The future is now for Day. (And I’m on record saying the future is very bright, as well.) The rising junior’s 2013 season was derailed after a high ankle sprain nagged him for much of the season. But a new system and a healthy Day could be a breakout performer next season.

There’s an argument to be made that Day’s one of the two most talented defenders on the field for the Irish. (Rising sophomore Jaylon Smith being the other.) Always a bit undersized at defensive end in Bob Diaco’s 3-4 system, watching Day this spring move find a spot in VanGorder’s system will be revealing.

Jarron Jones: After spending most of his first two seasons anonymously on the bench, Jones answered the bell against BYU with a breakout game at nose guard. Irish fans exhaled deep relief that life might just be okay after Louis Nix.

Jones is far from a finished product, but it’s clear something clicked at nose guard for him. He’s a big, strong player at the point of attack who will need to hone his craft this spring. He understands now what it takes to play and be great. This spring will be about achieving that.

Jacob Matuska: With his redshirt off, Matuska enters a depth chart with room to move. A relatively unknown commodity, it’ll be interesting to see how Matuska attacks the depth chart, with playing time certainly available.

Listed at 6-foot-4.5 and 275 pounds as a true freshman, there’s no question that Matuska’s a big boy. Now we’ll get a chance to see how a season under Paul Longo’s watch went.

Isaac Rochell: Good enough to see the field as a freshman, Rochell learned on the job last year. Now he’ll need to elevate his play if he’s hoping to grab a starting job. Rochell chipped in 10 tackles while playing in 11 games last season. There isn’t a lot on tape to suggest that he’s ready to start, but he just might be the best option available.

We’ll likely hear from Brian Kelly about Rochell’s progress, as the defensive line will certainly be a discussion point on Friday. Rochell almost embodies this unit: Promising, but unproven.

Andrew Trumbetti: The early enrollee freshman will have plenty of opportunities to state his case for immediate playing time. Whether he’s athletic enough and a good enough pass rusher to take that role remains to be seen.

A very real issue for this group is rushing the passer. Where are the sacks going to come from? Trumbetti might have the best skill-set among the personnel to be that guy. It’s just a matter of determining whether or not he’s got the speed and skill to make the immediate leap forward.

Quenton Nelson will return for his senior season

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 17: Quenton Nelson #56 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates after a 10-yard touchdown reception by Corey Robinson against the USC Trojans in the fourth quarter of the game at Notre Dame Stadium on October 17, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Getty
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Brian Kelly’s talked about the rare 6-star recruit: Harrison Smith, Manti Te’o, Michael Floyd, Zack Martin. Well, add Quenton Nelson to the list. Notre Dame’s starting left guard has made it official that he’ll return for his senior season.

The New Jersey native adds another key building block to the Irish offensive line, returning with Mike McGlinchey to anchor Harry Hiestand’s unit. Like McGlinchey, Nelson had an option to be selected high in next year’s NFL Draft, staying in school even after receiving a second-round grade from the NFL’s Advisory Board, per Irish Illustrated.

Nelson took to social media to make the news public, with the NFL’s declaration deadline set for January 16.

“Excited for this team to grow every day this offseason by putting in nothing but hard work and grinding together. When we reach our full potential, look out. I’m right behind you Coach.”

Nelson was named a team captain for 2017 at the year-end Echoes Awards Show. He earned second-team All-American honors from Sports Illustrated and was rated by ESPN’s Mel Kiper as the No. 1 offensive guard in the 2017 draft class, a grade he’ll likely carry into next season.

Clark Lea formally named Linebackers Coach

clark-lea
UND.com
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Notre Dame formally introduced new linebackers coach Clark Lea on Thursday. The press release for the 35-year-old  included the following quote from the new assistant who has worked at Bowling Green, UCLA and Wake Forest, and rejoins Mike Elko in South Bend.

“I’m humbled to be a part of the Notre Dame football program,” Lea said in a statement. “It’s an honor to represent such a prestigious academic institution, and to be a part of this program’s rich tradition of athletic excellence. I’d like to thank Jack Swarbrick and coach Kelly for this tremendous opportunity. I’m excited to get to work building relationships with our players, and do my part in helping coach Kelly execute his vision for the program.”

That work has already begun, with Lea on the prowl as the recruiting dead period ended and the rebuilt Irish staff hit the road. Yesterday, Lea was with defensive coordinator Mike Elko visiting commit David Adams, a key piece of the Irish puzzle on the defensive side of the ball. That starts a mad rush that’ll keep Lea’s belongs in boxes until after the first Wednesday in February, as Elko and his reshuffled defensive staff open their recruiting board, finding replacements for a handful of de-commitments and pieces that’ll fit Elko’s scheme.

If there’s any reason for optimism after a tough few weeks in recruiting, it’s the young staff that Kelly has assembled. The youth movement includes not just Lea, but the 39-year-old Elko. New offensive coordinator Chip Long is just 33, moving to Notre Dame after one season at Memphis. Running backs coach Autry Denson just turned 40 while special teams coordinator Brian Polian is practically long in the tooth at 42. (All that comes before the expected announcement of 25-year-old Tommy Rees.)

Lea’s pedigree is rock solid, earning kudos in 2012 for his work as Linebackers coach at Bowling Green, Football Scoop’s Linebackers Coach of the Year.

“Clark is a wonderful addition to our staff,” Kelly said in the release. “Obviously, he brings a substantial amount of knowledge about coach Elko’s defensive system — having worked with Mike at both Bowling Green and Wake Forest. Clark has demonstrated throughout his career an ability to not only identify unique talent in the recruiting process, but also develop that talent into high-production linebackers. As a former student-athlete, he will relate exceptionally well with our kids and provide tremendous mentorship throughout their careers at Notre Dame.”

 

 

 

Reports: Lea, Alexander added to Irish coaching staff

delvaughn
ASU Sports Information
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Brian Kelly is adding to his rebuilt coaching staff, reportedly finalizing deals with Wake Forest linebackers coach Clark Lea and Arizona State assistant DelVaughn Alexander. Lea will reunite with Mike Elko and coach linebackers and Alexander will coach wide receivers. While both hires are still going through formal university vetting, the Lea hire has long been rumored before being reported by SI’s Pete Thamel. FootballScoop.com broke the news on Alexander, before multiple outlets confirmed the report.

In Lea, Elko brings a piece of his coaching staff with him to South Bend. The 35-year-old spent last season working in Winston-Salem and spent three seasons at Syracuse before that. He worked with Elko and Demon Deacons head coach Dave Clawson at Bowling Green and has spent time as an assistant at UCLA as well. He earned three letters at Vanderbilt, a 2004 graduate.

Alexander is a veteran presence to help replace Mike Denbrock and fill his void coaching receivers. He’s also a coach with first-hand knowledge of new coordinator Chip Long, having worked alongside him in Tempe under Mike Norvell. The move also comes in time for the reopen of the recruiting season’s home stretch, bringing a capable West Coast recruiter to the staff at a time when Notre Dame’s 2017 class is leaking a bit of oil.

Alexander played wide receiver at USC, playing for Larry Smith and John Robinson, before breaking into the coaching ranks there as a graduate assistant. He’s also had stops at UNLV, coached for Jim Harbaugh at San Diego, and spent significant time at Wisconsin and Arizona State where he coached multiple positions, taking over tight ends after Long left for Memphis.

Chip Long in as Offensive Coordinator… and play-caller

chip-long
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Notre Dame’s formal press release introducing Chip Long as the new offensive coordinator did more than confirm news that we’ve known for a few weeks. It let us in on Brian Kelly’s initial plans for his offense heading into a pivotal offseason.

After some struggles in 2016 with DeShone Kizer and an inexperienced wide receiving corps, most expected Kelly to rip back control of the offense after Mike Denbrock called the plays and Mike Sanford coordinated the offense. But Kelly is going to let Long call the plays next season, adding some intrigue to a press release that usually is vanilla.

“Chip will be given the full responsibility to call plays in 2017,” Kelly said in the release. “His offense at Memphis displayed a unique blend of physicality, athleticism, versatility and explosiveness. Chip’s play-calling created mismatches all over the field and did it in a number of different ways. He likes to use players who can fill numerous roles in an array of formations, whether that be two and three tight ends or multiple running backs.

“Chip has experience coaching at almost every position on the offensive side of the ball. He’s worked for and learned from some of the most respected offensive minds in college football — Bobby Petrino, Mike Norvell and Jeff Brohm — to name a few.”

That Kelly is handing over play-calling to Long, who called plays last year for Mike Norvell at Memphis, is a surprise on the surface. But if you listen to Kelly over the past few seasons, he’s always downplayed that responsibility. Most thought he was simply playing coy, though Kelly seems to value game plan and installation as something at least as important as calling the plays.

But after splitting the baby between Denbrock and Sanford these past two seasons (the three-man collaboration worked much better in 2015 than 2016–possibly explained by the personnel) perhaps Kelly sees a singular voice as a key to improving an Irish offense that’ll have to replace Kizer, but should welcome back the majority of offensive playmakers, as well as Alizé Jones. Giving that assignment to Long will also let Kelly dig in as a head coach, working with first-year starter Brandon Wimbush and staying connected to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko and his installation.

Long’s work on campus will likely take flight as soon as the recruiting dead period is over. Known for his tenacity on the trail, Notre Dame is in desperate need of getting back into living rooms, trying to get back some momentum as a few defections have spoiled the 2017 class, and a handful of spots are available in this upcoming signing class.

Long will also likely work with tight ends, a position he played as a D-II All-American and that he coached at Memphis last season. Scott Booker coached tight ends since 2012.

“It’s an honor and privilege to have the opportunity to serve as the offensive coordinator at the University of Notre Dame,” Long said in the statement. “The challenge to lead at a University with such high standards is incredibly motivating. I’m very grateful to Brian Kelly and Jack Swarbrick for extending this opportunity.

“It’s Notre Dame: the values, the culture, and the leadership. My wife, Kari, and I are excited to move to South Bend and to join the Notre Dame family.”