Predicting the twists and turns of spring

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Around this time of year, most Irish fans thought the worst was behind them. The sting of a lopsided defeat in the national title game had almost worn off. The shock of the Manti Te’o catfishing story had faded, and the Irish had just inked one of the top recruiting classes in the country. While Gunner Kiel had decided to transfer, it was because he saw a roadblock in front of him, with Everett Golson on track to be a four year starter.

You wouldn’t have been crazy to think that things were going to be relatively boring. Coming off a 12 win season, Brian Kelly and the Irish had as solid of a foundation that this program had seen since Lou Holtz.

Of course, plenty of things happened between now and then. But as we take this week off from spring practice as Notre Dame completes spring break, it’s worth pointing out that crazy things happen. Especially if you’re following this football team.

Nobody could predict a starting quarterback will be expelled for a semester. Or that a plug-and-play defensive lineman would sign his letter-of-intent and only then decide to stay closer to home.

But while the big bombs are as unpredictable now as ever, there were a few on field surprises that also qualified. As we get ready to restart spring, let’s take a trip down memory lane and find another few that would qualify:

  • Cam McDaniel would end up leading the team in rushing.
  • Greg Bryant wouldn’t be the impact freshman running back. Tarean Folston would.
  • The offensive line would be ravaged by injury… and no one would really notice.
  • Neither Stephon Tuitt nor Louis Nix would be All-American.
  • Even returning 8 starters, Bob Diaco‘s defense would take a huge step backwards.
  • After being given a starting job during spring, Matthias Farley would be out of one by bowl season.
  • Tommy Rees would be Top 30 in TD passes and yards per pass, but 96th in completion percentage.
  • Troy Niklas and George Atkinson would leave for the NFL early.

With new coordinators on both sides of the football, a different system on defense and a return to the spread on offense, there are so many variables still up for grabs. So while we’ve only seen a few brief snippets of spring work, there’s no better time for surprises than now.

Let’s walk through four surprises that wouldn’t shock me.

Greg Bryant ends up leading the team in touchdowns. 

It’s too early to tell if Bryant is as good as Irish fans hope, but he certainly has a unique skillset that might be very valuable in this offense. Passing to running backs hasn’t been a priority for Kelly’s offense in his first four seasons in South Bend. But Bryant’s got the hands to make plays out of the backfield, and a spread attack could give him some favorable match-ups.

He’s also got the necessary heft to take over the goal line carries, something that Cam McDaniel didn’t quite capitalize on last season. Add in Bryant likely taking over in the punt return game for TJ Jones and his chance to take as many carries as he can earn, and Bryant’s slow start to his career could be forgotten quickly.

DaVaris Daniels will go over 1,000 yards receiving. Somebody else will, too. 

It’s been almost a decade since Notre Dame had two 1,000 yard receivers. But in 2014, don’t be shocked if Brian Kelly’s offense finally produces two of them. After getting close with Michael Floyd and Tyler Eifert (who came up short with 802 yards in 2011), you need to go back to the duo of Jeff Samardzija and Maurice Stovall in 2005, Charlie Weis’ first season in South Bend.

While we won’t see him this spring, expect DaVaris Daniels to come back a new man, a semester away putting his priorities in order. Daniels has the talent to play in the NFL and if things go according to his plan, next season will be his last in South Bend.

Behind Daniels, it’ll be an interesting race to see who can get the touches to push for 1,000 yards. My early hunch? Rising sophomore Will Fuller, who has the downfield speed and diversity in his game to become a weapon in this offense. You don’t put up 26.7 yards per catch as a freshman if you don’t have some explosive ability, and more targets will mean yards in a hurry for Fuller.

Even without Stephon Tuitt and Prince Shembo, Notre Dame will match their 2012 sack total. 

If there was a disappointment last season, it’s that the Irish pass rush disappeared, dropping from 33 sacks in 2012 to a woeful 21 in 2013. Whether it was a lack of creativity, struggles from key personnel or offenses preparing for the Irish after a big 2012, expect things to be different.

Our first look at the Irish defense featured Ishaq Williams and Romeo Okwara playing on the edges while Jarron Jones and Sheldon Day lined up on the inside. Also expect Jaylon Smith to get a chance to come after the quarterback, the Irish’s best athlete given a chance to wreak havoc.

Kelly has talked about some exotic sub-packages that are being installed this spring. He’s also talked about not worrying about where the pass rush is coming from. This might be the ultimate compliment to VanGorder, who spent last season with Rex Ryan, one of the greats at disguising blitzes.

On defense, an unheralded veteran and a unproven newcomer will burst onto the scene. 

Okay, this one might be a little lame. But expect one of the veterans on this team to take the coaching change and run with it. The early candidates:

Chase Hounshell: It’s only a matter of time before Hounshell gets a good break. He’s a big, strong, athletic defensive lineman who just needs to stay healthy after shoulder injuries have ruined his past two seasons.

Tony Springmann: On the verge of breaking out, a major knee injury put Springmann’s career in jeopardy, though it looks like he’ll come back this fall. Big enough to play either inside or outside, Springmann could wreak havoc as a one-gap player.

Anthony Rabasa: The most likely candidate for the Junior Jabbie spring superstar award, Rabasa has a chance to be a contributor next season. He’s a good football player that now actually has a position in this defense.

Justin Utupo: Another undersized player who took advantage of his opportunities last year. Utupo has a chance to do big things, mostly because a depth chart that had a ton of depth in front of him has thinned out. Add that to a scheme change and Utupo is a fun wildcard to follow.

James Onwualu: The staff didn’t move Onwualu because they wanted to bury him on the depth chart. With everyone starting with a blank slate, expect the max effort, high speed Onwualu to make fans quickly this spring, giving the Irish a safety who can run with receivers and bang in the box.

Andrew Trumbetti: The door is open for Trumbetti to bring some pass rush skills to South Bend. He’ll have spring to prove he belongs, the summer to physically prepare, and fall camp to make his move into the lineup.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line

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Heading into spring practice, a quick look was taken at each position group in order of “expected level of interest or question marks,” from least interesting to most, as dictated by an “Inside the Irish” reader. That series concluded with the defensive line.

Exiting spring practice, let’s reprise that premise and reverse the order. If the defensive line triggered the most questions, then answering them first seems to make some version of sense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
“Will enough defensive linemen prove themselves deserving of playing time to create a viable threat up front?” this space asked. “If so, who will those linemen be?”

RELATED READING: One day until spring practice: A look at the defensive line

Aside from senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26 tackles last season, 0.5 for loss), senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss amid a season lost largely to concussion) and junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37, 3), the Irish defensive line had little track record to cite or rely upon for confidence. Leading the unknowns and unprovens were sophomore ends Daelin Hayes, who recorded 11 tackles in 2016, and Julian Okwara (4).

The lack of depth and experience was apparent heading into the 15 spring practices.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
Look past the 11 sacks in the Blue-Gold Game. Intrasquad scrimmages featuring red-jerseyed quarterbacks make for inexact and context-less statistics. There is some value, however, in noting the defensive line got within reach of the quarterback at least eight times in an abbreviated game. (Three “sacks” came from the linebacker corps.)

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, just buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

RELATED READING: What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

Hayes led the way with three sacks, and he will be expected to continue that in the fall, starting at the weakside/rush defensive end spot. Exiting spring, though, only he and Tillery solidified themselves as starters. Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Mike Elko claimed a successful spring for the front.

“I’m happy with our defensive line progress,” Elko said Friday. “Obviously there was a lot written about that group. I’m happy about the progress they’ve made this spring. I think [defensive line coach] Mike [Elston] has done a good job developing them. I think they are buying into the way we want to play defense. There’s probably four to five guys on the inside that are starting to get into a position where we feel comfortable that they can step in and help us.” (more…)

Brian Kelly & Jack Swarbrick on Notre Dame’s changes moving forward

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Whether 2016’s disappointing 4-8 finish was the impetus to program-wide alterations at Notre Dame this offseason, it certainly underscored the need. For the last few months, Irish coach Brian Kelly has focused those changes on himself and self-assessment, and he reiterated that approach when talking with PFT Live’s Mike Florio early Monday morning.

“This is my 27th year of being a head coach, and prior to last year I had one losing season,” Kelly said. “You have a way of doing things, you have a system in place, you follow that year after year. Certainly you make tweaks along the way, but this is the first time where I’ve really taken a step back and made substantial changes in terms of how I’m doing things on a day-to-day basis…

“From my perspective, after being at it as long as I have, you have to take it on yourself that you’re the one that needs to make the corrections. It’s not the players.”

None of this is new. Kelly has been consistent in his springtime messaging, but others have looked past the effects of the 4-8 record and insist the changes were coming regardless of the win-loss totals. Senior captain Drue Tranquill, for example, acknowledged the severity of the losing record Friday but argued adjustments were needed no matter what the final scores were.

“If you have an average season like 8-4, some things might carry over to the next season,” Tranquill said the day before the spring practice finale. “Whereas when you go 4-8, something has to change.

“But I think even at Notre Dame, 8-4 is never really acceptable or tolerated. Those things that were taking place, just within our culture, would have been noticed whether we were 10-3, 4-8. The criticism gave it a lot more hype and juice. We could kind of feel as guys in the program throughout the past three years that certain things needed to change.

“Those things were finally brought to light and it happened to be during a 4-8 season. I don’t necessarily know that 4-8 was the reason all this change happened.”

New Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko expressed a similar sentiment Friday morning, discussing the pressure moving forward.

“If we were coming off a 12-0 season in which we were competing for the national championship, there would be pressure on us at Notre Dame to be successful this year,” Elko said. “That’s Notre Dame.”

Elko has been a quick study, as his comments were echoed the next day by Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick during NBC Sports Network’s broadcast of the Blue-Gold Game.

“We expect to compete for national championships and 4-8 is not acceptable,” Swarbrick said. “On the other hand, when you’re in that situation, you have to decide how you’re going to move forward. We decided to move forward by making a major investment in retooling our program with Brian as the leader of it. That’s not a one-year investment for us. We brought in some talented assistant coaches. We rebuilt elements of the program

“We view it as a multi-year investment going forward.”

KELLY ON RECRUITING PITCH
Using this week’s NFL Draft as a peg, Florio also asked Kelly about balancing players’ NFL aspirations with team success both in the recruiting process and during the actual season.

“We have to talk more in terms of process over production,” Kelly responded. “We talk in terms of you’re coming to Notre Dame for a reason. You’re going to get a degree, which will set you up for the rest of your life, and you’re going to play on the grandest stage at Notre Dame, so everybody will see you.

“As long as there’s the balance there—and there has to be that balance in terms of getting your education and playing for championships—then we’re okay. It’s when that balance is out of whack, we’ll have an issue. We vet that out in the recruiting process and make sure we don’t take any kids that are coming to Notre Dame just because they’re waiting for that [junior] year to complete so they can go to the draft.”

A reminder: The NFL Draft begins with its first round Thursday night. Kelly will be joining former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer at the draft in Philadelphia to await Kizer’s destination and future employer.

MISSED THE BLUE-GOLD GAME?
It is available for streaming: here.

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?

What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

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Time spent on a traditional game wrap of a spring intrasquad exhibition seems misspent. Gold won Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game 27-14 led by rising sophomore quarterback Ian Book. The first-string defense (Gold) held the first-string offense to an average of 5.4 yards per play. For context’s sake: Last season Notre Dame gained an average of 6.1 yards per play and held opponents to 5.4.

With that abbreviated recap out of the way, what did Saturday’s pseudo-game environment show about the Irish? If the 20,147 in attendance paid attention, they had the chance to learn a few things:

Daelin Hayes will be ready to hit a quarterback in September
Notre Dame’s quarterbacks were off limits all spring. Bulls might charge when they see red, but the Irish defensive line has had to remember to ease up when they come across a quarterback’s red jersey. If sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes had forgotten that Saturday, Notre Dame might not have any quarterbacks left to play in the fall.

“At the end of the day, we’re on the same team,” Hayes said, dismissing any bitterness about the quarterbacks’ protections. “We have to keep our guys healthy. I wasn’t frustrated, but come September 2, you know.”

Officially, Hayes was credited with three sacks and another tackle for loss among his seven tackles. Admittedly, gauging sacks is tricky when the quarterback does not actually go to the ground. How many of Hayes’ three sacks and the defense’s 11 total would have been evaded if the defender needed to do more than touch the passer? That answer is highly subjective, but discounting Hayes’ numbers would miss the bigger picture.

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

Senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) notched two sacks and sophomore end Ade Ogundeji came the closest to tackling a red jersey when he stripped junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush from behind. The defensive line has been expected to be a weak point for the Irish moving forward, but the spring performance indicates it has a chance at holding its own. These accomplishments bear further merit considering Notre Dame’s offensive line is widely-considered one of its few spots of expected quality.

RELATED READING: Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

“I think it’s pretty clear Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I’d have to watch the film, but it seemed like [sophomore end] Julian Okwara was a hard guy to block coming off the edge, as well.”

Ian Book provides some peace of mind
Book was not spectacular, but he was also far from incompetent or intimidated. In his first action on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, Book completed 18-of-25 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by a 58-yard connection with sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. Meanwhile, junior Brandon Wimbush completed 22-of-32 passes for 303 yards.

Bluntly, one has not needed to follow Notre Dame for very long to fit that “long enough” qualification. Last season’s backup, Malik Zaire, saw competitive action against both Texas and Stanford. In 2015, DeShone Kizer came off the bench to start 11 games after Zaire suffered a season-ending ankle injury. (more…)