Mailbag: Welcome to the offseason edition

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Okay folks. We’ve got a few months to go before we see some actual football. That doesn’t mean it’s time to hibernate. So we’re going to keep the train rolling here, and a weekly mailbag is a good start.

Let’s get to the fun stuff:

don74: Tommy Rees has been the lightening rod for fan’s comments for four years. Who takes his place as the guy who most incites the fans?

This is a great question. It was looking like a runaway opportunity for George Atkinson, but with the inconsistent running back off to the NFL this makes a tough choice.

I’ll give you two answers: On defense, I think it’s got to be Ishaq Williams. He’s been in the program for too long and still hasn’t made an impact. On offense, I think it’s — dare I say it — Everett Golson. He’s Notre Dame’s quarterback. He’s no longer the new kid in town. And as long as there’s a QB people like behind him, watch out.

In reality, I don’t think there’s anybody on this roster that’ll be anywhere near the lightning rod that Rees was. But somebody will take over as the scapegoat, and it’s hard to look much farther than quarterback.

jerseyshorendfan1: When do you think we see Zaire’s first meaningful minutes? Does he play against Rice in mop up if we’re way out in front? Seeing what you’ve seen, when would you start to bring him along in the process?

Also, I think it is huge but what is your assessment of how important the Michigan game is to our season; how important to BK’s future?

I think you see Zaire against Rice. Get him experience as soon as you can. I think you’ll see him before halftime, just to get a series in and get a few snaps before it’s a situation you can’t script.

As for Michigan, I think it’s an important game, but I’m not sure if it’s going to dictate Brian Kelly’s future. (Don’t get me wrong. It’s a GIGANTIC game for Notre Dame, especially with Michigan going off the schedule.) But it’s Brady Hoke on the hot seat after underachieving. While the early season game has gone the Wolverines way lately, if Hoke keeps melting down against Big Ten competition, AD Dave Brandon might be starting another coaching search.

@Okerland: how many incompletions until I can request that Zaire be in the game?

After the first three and out it’s fair game.

irishinmich: The receiver and TE corps seem crowded and convoluted at first glance. Assuming Daniels leads the team in receiving this fall, who is the second leading receiver, and why?

I’ve gone on record that I think Will Fuller is going to be the guy. But if not him, I think it’s Corey Robinson. The case for Fuller is fairly simple. With TJ Jones’ 70 catches gone, somebody is going to be the beneficiary. Averaging 26.7 yards per catch means you should touch the ball more.

It could be Robinson. An all-around impressive kid and athlete, Golson is an accurate enough thrower that can start using Robinson as a post-up option, and the 6-foot-5 receiver will simply go up and get the football.

kmic000: Why wasn’t Romeo redshirted his freshman year? And, what’s the latest on Grace? Is he going to be able to help us much this year?

Okwara wasn’t redshirted because the roster had zero depth at outside linebacker. Obviously having three seasons left as opposed to just two would be key for Romeo as he transitions to defensive end, plus he is still really young for a college football player. But just like Kona Schwenke, the depth Kelly inherited played a large role in his decision-making, and it’s tough to save a player’s eligibility when you’re down to three outside linebackers.

As for Grace, we haven’t heard anything other than Kelly’s optimistic update after his additional surgery. But I think getting anything out of Grace next season would be a win, and you’ve got to think the Irish are expecting to spend the first half of the season without their inside linebacker.

irishdodger: While I’m not dismissing a break out year for Ishaq Williams, is it fair to say that a 5-star from NY (or the entire Northeast…save maybe Jersey) isn’t equivalent to a 5-star from Florida, Texas, Cali or Louisiana? Personally, I’d welcome a 3-star from FL, TX or Louisiana vs a 4-star from New York

I see where you are going with this, but not sure I can agree. Look at Notre Dame’s luck in Minnesota. Michael Floyd turned out to be a pretty good player, and it’s not as if people are confusing Minnesota high school football for Texas. Then look at Dayne Crist. Five-star QB from a top California program. Complete whiff.

Where I will agree with you is when it comes to evaluating elite talent. Williams was a five-star prospect based on projections, as playing football in Brooklyn isn’t the best measuring stick.

bernhtp: In an alternate universe where Tuitt and Nix stayed for their final year of eligibility, would BVG still have made the same change in base defense, or is the change mostly a capitulation to the (dis)abilities of this team?

Some fancy wordplay here, Bern. I’ll do my best to follow. If Nix and Tuitt stayed, ND would still probably tweak their system, as Brian VanGorder wouldn’t have taken over and not installed his own system. But a three-man front of Nix, Tuitt and Day would’ve stayed on the field a lot more, even if BVG likes to play with a four-man front.

coachtemp: Keith, what has been done to improve the absolutely anemic punt return game as well as the punt coverage team?

What Kelly and his staff did: Ask for help. Kelly took his special teams tape and showed it to coaches in both the NFL and college football. It’s also worth pointing out that at Notre Dame’s coaching clinic, three of the guest speakers were special teams experts.

The punt return game wasn’t really the problem last year. The cover units were. But I’ll be watching carefully if Greg Bryant or Amir Carlisle can upgrade the return teams.

dickasman: Hey Keith, I saw a guy that looked like you stuffing his gym bag full of chlorine stained white towels stealing them at Equinox in Hawthorne. Who dat?? Dat you???

I haven’t taken a towel from that Equinox in months! I gave up my membership there a few years back… and keep the workouts more local (Shoutout to Level 10 Fitness, where I shared a session with former USC quarterback Matt Leinart last week).

But are you allowed to be monitoring locker rooms, Dick? I thought that was against the court order.

idratherbeinsouthbend: Given the SEC’s new schedule format, will Swarbrick get a few phone calls?

In my opinion, it was a bit of a gutless move by the SEC. But yes, it’ll technically open up a potential game for Notre Dame. But I expect an SEC game to be announced sooner than later against Georgia, as Jeremy Fowler of CBS Sports reported a few weeks back.

steincj36: Keith, has the Northwestern unionization talk been heard anywhere around South Bend?

It’s been heard, it’s been followed, and it’ll likely never take root.

I’m conflicted about the unionization plans. As a former scrub college athlete, we had countless conversations about the one-way street that college athletics sometimes felt like. But it’s hard for me to feel like a group of athletes getting a free education at one of the best schools in the country is getting taken advantage of, especially at a school like Northwestern, where the football team doesn’t sell out and they’re routinely one of the least popular teams in their own conference.

Leave it to the kids getting a free education at Northwestern to be the ones feeling like they’re being taken advantage of. Meanwhile there are Dean’s List students walking out of Evanston with $250,000 in student loans.

1notredamefan: What are your thoughts about this new playoff system? Are the best 4 teams going to make It? and what have you heard through the grape vine about our chances are of qualifying?

What’s not to like? Nobody’s been hosed yet, there haven’t been any problems, and we don’t have to listen to BCS projections ever again. I think it’s a great step forward, but one that’ll be monitored and tweaked. And the pressure to expand will be immense.

Notre Dame’s chances of qualifying? They can’t lose more than one game. But with their schedule, if they can win them all, they’ll be in for sure. If they lose one, it’ll take some style points and politicking.

jonnybrooklyn: I have an utterly random trivia question for you Keith, this one goes back to somewhere between 1998-2002 (when I was an ND undergrad, and I think you were too?). There used to be a player on special teams, maybe a walk-on, who during the kickoff would literally throw his body sideways into as many opposing players as possible and just take them out like bowling pins. He never really got any mentions on TV or from the live announcer because he didn’t often tackle whoever had the ball, he was just mostly a destroyer who mowed people over indiscriminately. I remember watching him during live games and I’d pick him out because just before kickoff he would take this huge stretching jump into the air, maybe to pump himself up or something. I always got a kick out of it (no pun intended) and I was always amazed that he walked off the field in full health. Any idea what his name is and what his story is?

I actually think I know who you are talking about. It might be former walk-on safety Matt Sarb, who made 13 tackles in his two seasons as a special teams gunner. Sarb was the “tip of the spear” on coverage units and provided a few gigantic collisions as he ran himself into harms way on kickoffs.

He also won a Bengal Bouts title as a senior, shredding down to 180 pounds and brawling his way to a belt.

Kraemer, Eichenberg compete for RT spot, moving Bars inside, and Bivin to…

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Forty percent of the offensive line is essentially set in stone: fifth-year senior Mike McGlinchey at left tackle and senior Quenton Nelson at right guard.

The center position seems to be senior Sam Mustipher’s to lose.

That leaves the two starting spots on the right side of the line for a number of players—both young and experienced—to fight over.

Sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg have emerged as the frontrunners for the right tackle spot, moving senior Alex Bars inside to right guard. Bars started all 12 games last season at right tackle.

“Those two [Kraemer and Eichenberg] are the guys we have mapped out at right tackle, and they’re going to battle,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “Today Kraemer was there. Last two practices Eichenberg got a lot of the work. Eichenberg will go back there on Friday. They’re going to keep battling and splitting the action out there.”

Part of the reasoning in giving the two sophomores extended looks this spring is Notre Dame knows what it has in Bars when at right tackle.

“We would prefer to get him in at the guard position, but we know he can play the [tackle] position,” Kelly said.

A starting five of McGlinchey, the three seniors and either sophomore may seem to leave fifth-year lineman Hunter Bivin out in the cold. Not often is a player asked to return for a fifth year only to spend it on the bench. That is even more rare when considering the current Irish scholarship crunch.

Kelly compared Bivin’s role to that of Mark Harrell’s last year. Harrell appeared in all 12 games, starting two, and provided much needed depth and flexibility along the offensive line. Rather than have five backup offensive linemen, position coach Harry Hiestand relied on Harrell to provide support at multiple spots.

“It’s reasonable to assume that Hunter Bivin’s going to be involved in this as well,” Kelly said. “We’ve just asked Hunter to take a seat right now. He’s done that for the team.

“We think Hunter is going to be a Mark Harrell for us. A guy that’s extremely valuable, can play a number of positions. We trust him, but we want to see these two young players [Kraemer and Eichenberg]. Hunter is a guy that can play right or left tackle for us. He’s going to be a valuable player for us as a swing guy.”

On that note, this space will refer to Bivin as a fifth-year lineman, as was done above, rather than as a guard or as a tackle, until further notice. In his case, the broader description may be the most accurate.

Spring break out west is fine, but Wimbush better be ready to run

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It will undoubtedly become a habit, at least for the next five-plus months. If Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush sneezes in front of a camera, it just might lead to an uptick in webmd.com traffic. His every football move will certainly be analyzed, nitpicked and discussed at length. Thus, Irish coach Brian Kelly being asked about Wimbush’s spring break should surprise no one.

Rather than find a Florida beach, Wimbush spent his spring break working with private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield in San Diego alongside a handful of other college passers. Kelly said there is value to such a spring break but stopped short of setting any lofty expectations of the effects.

“I have no problem with [Wimbush] working out with George Whitfield,” Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice, the first following spring break and the third of 14 leading into the Blue-Gold Game on April 22. “George doesn’t work on the specifics to the offense. George is really working on the quarterback and throwing the football, moving in the pocket. George is really good at keeping those quarterbacks active and moving.”

Whitfield is best-known around Notre Dame and among Irish fans for working with former Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson during Golson’s academic suspension in 2013. Whitfield and Golson spent 10 weeks together, thus granting time for extensive off-field activities such as film study. Far shorter, Wimbush’s time out west appears to have been spent primarily doing drills.

“In those situations, it’s a bullpen session,” Kelly said. “They’re keeping their arms loose, they’re keeping their feet loose. He’s just keeping them active.”

It is hard to construe that activity as a negative, but it obviously lacks certain aspects crucial to Wimbush’s 2017 season. With only five career pass attempts and seven career rushes, Wimbush’s inexperience looms large. Developing the necessary intangibles to account for that may be just as, if not more, important as fitting his throws into tight windows.

“When it comes to the playbook, to his teammates, to his coaches here, Brandon understands that when the rubber hits the road, those are the guys that matter the most,” Kelly said. “He knows when it’s time for Notre Dame football, where the focus is.”

Included in that playbook will be an expectation for Wimbush to carry the ball. To date, Wimbush’s biggest play and possibly only imprint on most Notre Dame fans’ memories is a 58-yard touchdown scamper against Massachusetts in 2015.

Link to 17-second YouTube video which has unfortunately disabled embedding

Note, the play is not exclusively-designed for Wimbush to run. Now a rising junior, then a fellow freshman, running back Josh Adams comes across Wimbush’s front for a possible handoff. Instead, Wimbush makes the correct read and keeps the ball. Why state so clearly it was the proper read? Adams has to evade a Texas defender even though he never had the ball.

Future option plays should present Wimbush with the possibility of throwing the ball, too.

“He’ll be a runner in the offense,” Kelly said. “Do we want him to carry the ball 20 times? No.”

“I don’t think you’ll have a situation where we’re calling quarterback power or singular runs. He’s going to have options: hand it off, throw the ball out on the perimeter. You’ll see more of that than you will prescribed quarterback runs. We had a little bit more of that last year with Kizer, but I think you’ll see that he has an option to get the ball out of his hands more so than just prescribed runs.”

Those option plays, in particular, will require Wimbush to have a thorough familiarity both with the Notre Dame playbook and with his teammates’ tendencies.

RITA LEE OR 52-53?
Staying consistent with his comments over the last two months, Kelly once again reiterated the biggest changes new offensive coordinator Chip Long will bring to the Irish playbook will be in its wording. Perhaps going to an extreme example to illustrate his thinking, Kelly pointed to the future.

“We’re going to win next year and Chip is going to be the greatest offensive coordinator in the country and he’s going to get a head job, right?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “Then I’m not going to introduce the Chip Long offense to the next offensive coordinator.”

“It has to have my culture in it … The culture of the offense is still the base offense that I have always run because I have to be able to carry that with me from year to year.”

Within that ellipsis, Kelly gave two examples of possible verbiage changes. Without knowing much more behind them, they do not mean too much out here in the cobwebs of the internet, but they do provide a quick glimpse at what Kelly has been referring to when discussing lexicon since hiring Long.

“If he wants to change Ringo Lucky protection to Ram and Lion protection, go right ahead. If he wants to change certain calls, for example, 52-53 protection is now Rita Lee.”

RELATED READING:
4 Days Until Spring Practice: A Look at QBs (Brandon Wimbush)
Pace of Play: More Snaps Equal More Scoring Chances, Right?

Back from break, Irish commence hitting; DT Elijah Taylor out with LisFranc injury

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Notre Dame last wore pads in its 45-27 defeat at USC back on Nov. 26, a full 117 days ago. Suffice it to say, the Irish enjoyed the chance to don their shoulder pads and hit each other in Wednesday’s third spring practice, the first one since returning from spring break.

“What I liked about it more than anything else is there wasn’t a big drop off today,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “Usually you go two days and then you take a week off, and then you come back and put your pads on—it took us only a couple of periods to get back up to form. That was nice to see.”

Contrary to previous years in spring practice, and perhaps practice in general, Kelly emphasized tackling, especially tackling in the open-field, in Wednesday’s drills.

“[I] felt like we needed to make up for a little lost ground,” he said. “We got in tackling today for the first time. That’ll be an emphasis. We’ll tackle a lot this spring to make up for lost ground.”

The early and often physical nature of practice didn’t bother any of the players, per Kelly, but also per presumed common sense. While Notre Dame’s coaching staff changes and public questioning played out in broad view, the players spent 117 days in private waiting to unleash some of the frustrations of 2016’s disappointing season.

“Everybody to a man has been looking forward to this day,” Kelly said. “It was a pretty difficult offseason for them. They were looking forward to putting the pads on and getting out there. I think they exhibited that today.”

TAYLOR OUT FOR SPRING, AT LEAST
Junior defensive tackle Elijah Taylor was not in pads Wednesday. In the final practice before spring break, another player stepped on Taylor’s foot, Kelly said. The resulting LisFranc fracture will keep Taylor out of the remaining dozen spring practices and limit him until at least July. Taylor saw action in four games last season, finishing with three tackles, including one for a loss.

Notre Dame team surgeon Dr. Brian Ratigan already performed Taylor’s surgery.

“Typical LisFranc fractures, we’ve had good success with their repairs,” Kelly said. “…We’ll be able to train around the injury. Full range of motion moving around and doing things in June, probably full clearance sometime in July.”

Without Taylor, the interior of Notre Dame’s defensive line becomes even shallower, though that may have been hard to previously comprehend. Junior Jerry Tillery looks to be ready to start, and senior Jonathan Bonner has moved to the inside, rather than at end as he has been for most of his career. Behind them, the Irish present only question marks.

Kelly said he will look to junior Micah Dew-Treadway to step forward in Taylor’s absence.

“Micah Dew-Treadway has had a really good offseason for us,” Kelly said. “Changed his body, has been doing a really good job in all facets, in the class room and weight room. He’s somebody that had been ascending anyway prior to the injury.

Kelly indicated junior Brandon Tiassum also could be expected to see more work with Taylor sidelined.

Seniors Daniel Cage and Pete Mokwuah are in the mix, as well. Cage struggled with concussion issues last season after a promising 2015.

Notre Dame will need to wait until the freshmen arrive—perhaps also joined by Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano, reportedly still taking official visits as he ponders his 2017 destination—for further reinforcements. Consensus four-star recruit Darnell Ewell would be the most likely candidate of the three expected arrivals to move up the depth chart right away.

In layman’s terms, a Lisfranc fracture occurs when a mid-foot bone connecting to a toe separates from the cluster of bones toward the heel. Note: This is stated here only to provide some context, nothing more. This particular scribe avoided most biology classes.

CLAYPOOL A RECEIVER AND THAT HE WILL STAY
Asked if he considered moving sophomore receiver Chase Claypool to defense, Kelly answered succinctly.

“We feel like we need his play on offense,” Kelly said. “He’ll continue to contribute on the special teams end of things, but we need his play on offense.”

KELLY ON KIZER’S NFL POTENTIAL
“I’ve had a number of conversations with GMs and coaches about [former Notre Dame quarterback] DeShone [Kizer], and my personal feeling is he has the biggest upside of all the quarterbacks. I don’t know that he’s prepared to come in and win a Super Bowl for you [this year]. Some may feel as though maybe one of the other quarterbacks are. I don’t know that firsthand. But I think, in time, he has the biggest upside of all the quarterbacks.

“I get it. It’s the NFL. Everybody’s under the same pressure of performing and needing somebody to come in right away, but I think he’s a guy that just needs some time. If he gets in the right situation, I think he’d be the guy to take.”

Kizer and eight other former Irish players will take part in a pro day tomorrow (Thursday) in front of some of those GMs and coaches.

Te’o to New Orleans; Booker to Nebraska

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Former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o has signed a two-year contract with the New Orleans Saints, per reports.

Once recovered from a torn Achilles, Te’o will join a crowded Saints linebacker corps. The Saints signed A.J. Klein—formerly of the Carolina Panthers—to a three-year, $15 million contract earlier in March and return Craig Robertson, who finished 2016 with 115 tackles.

All three have experience at the middle linebacker position in a 4-3 defense, though Klein and Robertson are both capable of playing at the strong side position, as well.

Before his week three injury, Te’o had started 34 of 38 games for the San Diego Chargers and notched 221 career tackles. With the Saints, he rejoins linebackers coach Mike Nolan, who held the same position with the Chargers in 2015 when Te’o finished with a career-high 83 tackles.

BOOKER REJOINS DIACO
It appears former Notre Dame tight ends coach and special teams coordinator Scott Booker will join the Nebraska coaching staff. Two former Irish coaches—defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and safeties coach Bob Elliott—already have seats in the Lincoln coaching room, which is quickly becoming something of a Notre Dame West.

Booker will reportedly join the Cornhuskers staff as a special teams analyst. He served as Notre Dame’s special teams coordinator from 2012 to 2016 before this past offseason’s extensive staff changes.

PRO DAY THURSDAY
A reminder: Notre Dame will hold its Pro Day this Thursday. Nine players will partake, obviously highlighted by quarterback DeShone Kizer.

The others: long snapper Scott Daly, running back Tarean Folson, tight end Chase Hounshell, defensive linemen Jarron Jones and Isaac Rochell, cornerback Cole Luke, safety Avery Sebastian and linebacker James Onwualu.

Kizer hopes to prove himself worthy of a first-round draft pick, while Jones and Rochell may be in the mix for a second-day pick, meaning in the second or third rounds.

As it is draft season, this discussion of why mock drafts exist even though most prognosticators cannot stand them is worth the few minutes needed to read.

MARCH MADNESS UPDATE
The majority of the “Inside the Irish” bracket pool’s leaders escaped the weekend’s chaos, though frontrunner andy44teg will not hold onto that top spot for long after his titlist pick, Duke, exited late the tournament late Sunday.

That will leave some character named Dennis and his North Carolina prediction as the presumptive favorite to win, well, to win absolutely nothing.

Five of the top 10 expect North Carolina to win the championship.