Notre Dame at USC

Open Practice update: Saturday’s Six Pack of observations

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Saturday morning, Notre Dame’s practice was open to visiting coaches and local media. That means a slew of reports coming in and one guy (me) to read everything and give you some interesting observations.

While I wasn’t in South Bend for a two hour window into spring installation, consider this a trip around the horn as we piece together interesting insights and observations from the Irish’s fifth spring practice.

Here’s your bonus Saturday six pack after an open spring practice.

1. John Turner is no longer a forgotten man. 

I’m resisting the urge to turn him into a spring star, if only because we’ve had breakout spring sensations turn into pumpkins before. (Remember when Kona Schwenke had overtaken Louis Nix for the starting nose guard job?)

But Turner has clearly found a niche in Brian VanGorder’s defense, and the rising junior seems to be taking advantage of his opportunities.

“He’s been given a great opportunity here. We all knew about his physical ability. Now he’s been given a chance that is an incredible opportunity,” Brian Kelly said after practice Saturday. “We knew he had the ability to do it. Now he’s been given the chance to do it. I don’t know if he really had the chance last year, to be quite honest with you.”

After struggling to build a personnel package that allowed the Irish to match up well in nickel and dime sets early in his time in South Bend, just about every viewing window into practice has shown the Irish playing from various sub-packages. With a lot of talented players in the back end of the defense, Turner looks like he’s filling a role as a nickel linebacker with coverage skills and the ability to tackle.

Converted wide receiver James Onwualu spent quite a bit of practice there as well.

2. Amir Carlisle has recaptured his mojo. 

One look at the latest UND.com practice report gives you an idea of Amir Carlisle’s resurgence after a tough 2013 season. Spending his time exclusively at the slot receiver position, Carlisle was a reliable target, making multiple tough catches in traffic and being utilized in the passing game.

Kelly talked about the step forward Carlisle’s taken now that he’s plugged in at the slot.

“He’s just kind of going through the process of finding a home in a sense,” Kelly said. “Last year he didn’t really get into a rhythm offensively at running back, and then he’s playing a little bit of slash slot.

“Now he’s playing full-time at the receiver position. I think he’s getting into a consistent role. I think that’s very, very important for him. It’s helping a lot.”

Carlisle broke his collarbone early last spring, shortening his developmental process in the Irish offense. Getting all 15 practices this spring will really help him focus on the nuances of the position while building a rapport with his quarterbacks.

We’re still a long way from the last day of August. But Carlisle is a really talented football player who might now be playing the right position for him.

3. Everett Golson still has a little rust on him. 

It’s hard for some Irish fans to remember, but in the last three years Everett Golson has only played in 12 football games. Twelve? Twelve. (And three of those, he failed to break the 50 percent marker in passing accuracy.)

So while everybody expected Golson to immediately be the tonic that solved the Irish’s offensive struggles, it’s going to take more than five practices for Golson to get on the same page with a rebuilt offense.

“I don’t think he’s feeling comfortable yet. I think he’s still trying to find that,” Kelly said. “He doesn’t have any of the guys. He doesn’t have TJ. Daniels isn’t here. All the guys that he had a little bit of that timing with, he’s working with all new guys. He doesn’t have any of that. It’s really like he’s working with a whole new cast of characters in that sense.”

The early reviews from Saturday’s open practice called Golson more steady than spectacular. But any sense that the rebuilding defense would be overwhelmed by a high-powered offense this spring hasn’t happened yet, as the timing has been off and the offense is far from hitting on all cylinders.

4. Even though Golson will win the starting job, Malik Zaire could have an important role in this offense.

One of the biggest surprises of spring camp seems to be the athleticism of Malik Zaire. Put candidly, he’s a far more dynamic athlete in the open field than Golson. That shocks a lot of people, and could give Kelly and offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock another fancy car in the garage as they start to game plan for next season.

After all the grumbling about patching together the offense with multiple quarterbacks, Tim Prister of Irish Illustrated asked Kelly after practice Saturday if he’d be comfortable doing it again in 2014. The answer shouldn’t surprise you.

“I’ll do anything to win. If I felt like when we got to August, that is where we were, I’m all in,” Kelly said. “I can handle that. I think the ideal situation is one, but (Zaire) definitely has shown in himself to be ready to compete in some of those areas that you mentioned. I want to see him compete in all those areas. That’s a really good thing.”

5. Don’t expect Christian Lombard’s injury to cost him a starting job. 

After some speculation across the interwebs had Christian Lombard’s wrist injury a potential Wally Pipp situation, Kelly threw some cold water on that Saturday afternoon, all but assuring his return to the starting lineup at right guard.

“I would think he’d be really hard to beat out. He’s such a veteran, a senior,” Kelly said. “It just puts Harry (Hiestand) back to nine guys again, which he’s used to, unfortunately. Just makes us thinner at offensive line. You’d be hard-pressed to get a guy to unseat Lombard in there, he’s such a tough guy.”

While Conor Hanratty will do a solid job filling in to finish spring practice for Lombard and Matt Hegarty is doing the same at center for Nick Martin, it appears that the offensive line is coming together.

Ronnie Stanley, LT
Steve Elmer, LG
Nick Martin, C
Christian Lombard, RG
Mike McGlinchey, RT

6. KeiVarae Russell expects the team to play a whole bunch of man coverage. 

Notre Dame’s best cornerback was available to the media after practice and opened up about the difference in responsibilities for cornerbacks under Brian VanGorder. Put simply? There’s going to be a lot more man coverage.

BlueandGold.com’s Lou Somogyi caught up with the fast-talking cornerback, who sounded more than excited about the opportunity to play aggressively in VanGorder’s defense after mostly playing zone coverage under Bob Diaco.

“Coach D, he wanted to keep everything in front because big plays really cause losing,” Russell told Blue & Gold. “In 2012 we played a lot of zone as well, but we didn’t give up any big plays. Last year, the games we lost … it’s always big plays that cost us.

“Coach D’s philosophy was great but we never could really cause many turnovers just because we weren’t really aggressive. This one, there will be a lot of turnovers caused … (VanGorder) wants you to cover every single route. Two-yard curl, he wants you on it. That’s his mind-set: Don’t give them anything.

“Coach Diaco, it was more, ‘Give them this, give them that, give them the five-yard out, because it won’t beat us.’ Coach Diaco believes that big plays cause losing, and Coach VanGorder is, ‘Whatever happens, happens. But we want you on it and go from there.'”

Most that have seen Cody Riggs play expect him to walk in and play immediately at corner or nickel back. Cole Luke has the ability to be a very good cover corner. While Devin Butler recovers from shoulder surgery, the Irish staff got great things out of him during his freshman season. Sprinkle in contributors like Matthias Farley and this is the deepest cornerback group I can remember in South Bend.

 

 

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.

Five things we learned: Signing Day 2016

FILE - In this Jan. 1, 2016, file photo, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly makes a call during the first half of the Fiesta Bowl NCAA College football game against Ohio State in Glendale, Ariz. Kelly has agreed to a six-year contract to stay on as coach at Notre Dame through 2021, the school announced Friday, Jan. 29,2 016.  (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)
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There were no last minute defections. No roller coaster recruits or down-to-the-wire decisions. Heck, there were no fax machines—with Notre Dame ditching the office dinosaur for a wireless, smart phone option.

Brian Kelly inked another Top 10 recruiting class on Wednesday. And he did so in decidedly uneventful fashion.

“It’s awesome. I think that everybody should try it once in their career,” Kelly said.

So while Kelly and the Irish staff hold out hope that 5-star talents Caleb Kelly and Demetris Robertson still decide to spend their college careers in South Bend, the 23-man class announced Wednesday was another Top 10 effort and a step in the right direction for a program on very stable ground.

Let’s find out what we learned.

 

Notre Dame’s staff continued to focus on rebuilding the secondary and rushing the passer. 

Yes, Brian Kelly saw what you saw—a group that struggled getting to the passer or to field a nickel or dime personnel grouping. So they countered that in the best way they knew how: By continuing to stockpile talent.

Notre Dame added seven defensive backs and four edge defenders in the cycle. They include safeties Jalen Elliott, D.J. Morgan, Spencer Perry and Devin Studstill and cornerbacks Julian Love, Troy Pride and Donte Vaughn. Perhaps just as important is the impression some of these defenders made in their time on campus, with Kelly pointing to Elliott and Studstill’s work during summer camp really making them must-have recruits.

“Jalen Elliott competed like no player that I have seen since I’ve been coaching in a camp setting,” Kelly said. “Same thing with Devin Studstill. His skill level was of corner-like ability but had the size of the safety, and so our guys went right to them early on, and that was a focal point because we got a chance to see them up close and personal.”

At defensive end, the Irish welcome 5-star recruit Daelin Hayes, getting him on campus as he recovers from shoulder surgery. He’s joined by former Alabama commit Khalid Kareem, the strongside counterpart that is an early candidate to see the field, especially as the staff looks for someone to spell Isaac Rochell for a few snaps. Longer-term prospects include a few speed rushers—Julian Okwara (younger brother of Romeo) and Ade Ogundeji, a long-limbed, below-the-radar edge rusher.

“We’re pretty excited about the potential for some guys in this class that can answer some four-man pass rush needs that we do have,” Kelly said.

 

It may not be the biggest group, but Brian Kelly is excited about his offensive line—especially the guys he pulled from Ohio State’s backyard. 

Three recruits in the offensive line class point to a big 2017 at the position. But the three the Irish did sign—guard Parker Boudreaux and tackles Liam Eichenberg and Tommy Kraemer—have Kelly very happy.

“Parker Boudreaux has that physical presence inside like, and I’m not comparing him, but he’s a Quinton Nelson in terms of size and physicality,” Kelly said. “And then two edge guys with Liam and Tommy on the outside. Those two kids are as good as you’re going to find in the country, and couldn’t be more excited to have two kids from the state of Ohio, from two great Catholic schools in St. Ignatius and Cincinnati Elder from the state of Ohio.”

Both Eichenberg and Kraemer were priority targets for Urban Meyer and company, with neither wavering after committing to Notre Dame. Kraemer was Ohio’s Gatorade Player of the Year and an Army All-American. He’ll be able to step into the two-deep immediately, capable of playing up front if the Irish need him. Eichenberg more than held his own at the Under Armour All-American game and has a high ceiling, especially as he learns the game under Hiestand.

It doesn’t take away the sting of the Fiesta Bowl. But it’s a nice consolation prize.

 

Irish legacies Jamir Jones and Julian Okwara may have big brothers who played for Brian Kelly, but they earned scholarships on their own. 

Classmates Jarron Jones and Romeo Okwara will turn over the reins to their younger brothers, linebacker Jamir Jones and defensive end Julian Okwara. The younger duo’s commitments felt all but inevitable throughout this recruiting cycle—even if that wasn’t always the case.

Jones had to come to camp to earn a scholarship. Having played quarterback and tight end as a high school standout in Rochester, the defensive staff had to see how he moved before they could find a position for him to play.

Similarly, Okwara’s journey to Notre Dame shouldn’t be taken for granted. While his older brother leaves Notre Dame the team’s leading quarterback sacker, Julian has a better natural pass rush skill-set than the 2015 team-leader.

“Julian can separate himself in a way because he has an elite initial movement and speed that Romeo has had to try and develop,” Mike Elston said in Okwara’s Signing Day video. “Romeo has the size and the power and the aggressiveness, but Julian can really add value for us right away.”

Kelly talked about how important it was to not just land this duo, but to have them already understand what the journey is that lies ahead.

“We didn’t recruit them because their brothers were here. We recruited them because we thought they were players that fit here at Notre Dame that would be very successful,” Kelly said. “Obviously it helps when their brothers have a great experience here and really enjoy their Notre Dame experience as a student and as an athlete, so that helps you in the recruiting… those kids really fit and can stand on their own two feet.”

 

Even without Demetris Robertson in the fold, Notre Dame’s receiving class is a group to watch. 

You want productivity? Throw on a highlight tape of Javon McKinley. You want an intriguing set of physical tools? Look no further than Chase Claypool. You want a sleeper prospect who out-performed every elite prospect who came to the Irish Invasion camp? Then your man is Kevin Stepherson.

Most of the attention on Signing Day was the fate of 5-star receiver Demetris Robertson. But the trio of athletes that’ll reload the receiving corps is a group that deserves recognition even without an additional infusion.

McKinley provided the day’s only scare when his smart phone struggled to send his signature via electronic fax. Claypool sent his national letter of intent in the day after scoring 51 points on the basketball court. And Stepherson is already taking part in team workouts in Paul Longo’s strength facilities, getting a jump start with the spring semester and 15 practices as the Irish try to figure out what life looks like after Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle.

After Fuller left campus early on the back of two record-setting two seasons, Kelly said his staff has become more and more comfortable with the fact that his skill players need to develop quickly—especially with the allure of the NFL just ahead.

“If you’re really that good, you may not be here very long, and we hope that you’re here for four years and you stay, but you’ve got to be ready to compete,” Kelly said. “So our expectation in the recruiting process is for the wide receiver group to come in and compete to get on the field and be a player for us immediately.”

That’ll happen whether or not Robertson is a part of this group.

 

Amidst significant transition on both the coaching staff and recruiting office, Notre Dame managed a Top 10 class. Expect things to only get better from here. 

Let’s go back to Signing Day 2015. Within 24 hours of Brian Kelly’s press conference, he was dealing with two major changes—recruiting coordinator Tony Alford was out the door to Ohio State and Kerry Cooks was headed to Oklahoma. Two aces on the staff were gone, forcing the Irish to not just replace long-time staffers, but to find new area recruiters for the state of Texas and Alford’s stronghold in Florida.

Kelly brought in first-year college assistant Todd Lyght to work with defensive backs. He tapped the school’s rushing leader Autry Denson to handle the backs and duke it out in Florida. Mike Sanford shook up the offense as Bob Elliott moved into an off-field position. But perhaps just as important as those moves, Kelly turned over the administrative reins to Mike Elston, who moved into a recruiting coordinator position he had filled for his boss back at Cincinnati.

Elston had to reorganize a staff that saw relationships walk out the door and reboot a recruiting effort that saw significant changes behind the scenes. And in short order things got back on track and have progressed to the point that the Irish are ahead of the game, setting junior days and summer camp dates earlier than ever.

For those paying attention, they’ve noticed the improvements. Notre Dame has paid more attention to messaging—staffers more active on Twitter. There have been improvements on Instagram, Facebook and Vine—platforms that might sound like gobbledygook to grownups, but are critical pieces to a year-long recruiting effort. That should help this staff press ahead in 2017, a recruiting class that already has five members.

“With that team that we’ve put together, we’re not going to look back. It’s only going to get better,” Kelly said.

It was Elston that engineered the equipment truck visit to Savannah, a late-game recruiting move that drew a lot of attention to Notre Dame. It was recruiters like Denson who went to Alabama and got a visit out of Ben Davis, a Crimson Tide legacy who gave the Irish a much longer look than anybody could have expected. And it’s no surprise that a former Pro Bowler and first-round draft pick like Lyght was able to reel in a large group of defensive backs eager to learn from a guy who was a clear success story.

“I think each and every year, you hope that this group is the best group you’ve ever recruited,” Kelly said. “I’m hoping for that again.”