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Mailbag: Welcome to the offseason edition

May 1, 2014, 1:50 AM EDT


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.

  1. onward2victory - May 1, 2014 at 3:26 AM

    Good stuff Keith, glad this will be a frequent thing.

    I have to admit that I’m surprised that you expect to see Zaire in the 1st half against rice! You are usually the voice of reason and caution. I’ll be interested to see what happens, but for the record I don’t foresee Kelly doing this.

    • danirish - May 1, 2014 at 10:16 AM

      I’ve said that Zaire will see the field early. If it is a blow out either way. But like Keith said – He will get meaningful “scripted” reps not just washup.

      Perhaps by the UM game we will have a full blown QB controversy?

      GO IRISH!

      • onward2victory - May 1, 2014 at 4:25 PM

        I sincerely hope you’re wrong.

    • dickasman - May 4, 2014 at 1:33 AM

      I was surprised myself to hear Keith say that. I think he’s turned over a new leaf. No mo mr nice guy!!!

  2. irishlee10 - May 1, 2014 at 3:56 AM

    as much as I’d like to see Zaire in the first half Keith, I don’t think it’s gonna happen, mop up duty guaranteed, but I don’t think meaningful minutes will happen until Golson makes a slip-up, which most likely won’t happen against rice.

  3. yaketyyacc - May 1, 2014 at 6:50 AM

    yes, great move Keith. innovation, progressive approach, always looking to improve.
    ever think about coaching?

  4. scott24105 - May 1, 2014 at 7:56 AM

    I can see reasons both ways for Zaire to get early time. On one hand you would like him to get quality experience ASAP but on the other hand Golson hasn’t played in a year and he will need as many live snaps as possible to get ready for the tougher games ahead. It will be interesting to see how Kelly handles this

  5. mediocrebob - May 1, 2014 at 8:43 AM

    If Zaire plays in the first half I’ll be shocked and disappointed. I don’t want EG to feel the pressure of “if I make one mistake, I’m out”. I don’t think this so-called QB controversy is what some of you seem to want it to be. And I’m also not quite sure why you all want it so bad. This team doesn’t need to be wondering every week or every series who their QB is going to be.

    If EG comes out and lays an egg, I get it. But I also think that a lot of you are forgetting the type of player EG is. IMO the 2
    QB system is bad news and rarely works out in the long run. I’m a MZ fan, but not quite sure I’m ready to drink the spring game kool aid that a lot of you are sippin.

    Go Irish. Beat everyone.

    • onward2victory - May 1, 2014 at 9:56 AM

      Well said bobby.

    • danirish - May 1, 2014 at 10:20 AM

      I have a feeling that you will see EG take the Irish from the 20 to the 20, then MZ will come in and take the Irish from the 20 to the TD (We hope) During Spring we heard several times about MZ ability in the red zone, the zone that ND has stunk in for a few years.

      Just a feeling. I think MZ plays early and often. I’ll issue a mea culpa if I’m wrong if y’all remind me!

      GO IRISH!

      • onward2victory - May 1, 2014 at 4:34 PM

        Dude there’s no way in hell that Kelly would take a more experienced QB out if the game and sub in a freshman once they got in the RZ. That would just be asking for RZ turnovers. Golson would have to seriously suck and throw multiple INTs before this proposed plan would be seen. Sorry bud, I don’t have to wait for the season to start to tell you that this isn’t gonna happen.

      • ndfenian - May 1, 2014 at 7:05 PM

        Onward, I would like to see Golson stay in there as well, but you have to ask yourself where this idea came from. Tim Prister of Irish Illustrated was talking about it, for sure. Maybe it’s just something commentators like him are making up, but more likely it is something they have been hearing or seeing in practice.

      • onward2victory - May 2, 2014 at 3:13 AM

        Yah I guess if ND writers that I really respect like Keith and the guys at Irish illustrated think it’s a possibility, then there may be some validity. But I would still be shocked to see Coach Kelly actual use this strategy.

    • dbldmr - May 1, 2014 at 11:27 AM

      I think getting Zaire game experience is useful. I don’t think it portends a quarterback controversy or a two quarterback system. Having some game experience in the event circumstance requires your playing is only prudent. A series when it is still anyone’s game would be a great test and maybe an eye-opener for the #2 guy. If he has to play at some later date it wouldn’t be the first time playing in a competitive (not mop up) situation.

      • mediocrebob - May 1, 2014 at 12:25 PM

        I understand your thinking but if that’s the case, why don’t we see other backups playing in close games? I want the best option out there just like everyone else. I just don’t think it makes sense to take a guy like EG out just to get someone else experience. Maybe if they’re up a few scores but even then MZ is a pick six from making it a game again.

        My point being, MZ can get his experience in mop up duty. You don’t experiment in a close game. All you’re doing is taking confidence away from the starter. And throwing any type of rhythm with the offense out the door. BK will select one or the other. I hope he sticks with whoever he chooses. Having said that, if there’s a package that Charlie Fiessinger provides an advantage, so be it. Just win baby!

        Go Irish! Beat everyone.

    • ndfenian - May 1, 2014 at 2:47 PM

      I agree Bob. I have been surprised by not only the QB controversy talk here, but also the takes by guys like Keith and Tim Prister on this issue. Keith clearly has much more of an inside track into the program than we do, and that’s what makes me a little nervous about this. I am ok with Kelly keeping the pressure on Golson, competition brings out the best, etc. I also understand there is some realpolitik to this, not wanting Zaire to transfer, but IMO, Golson IS the man. He’s the QB that led us (with some help) to the national title game. He’s the experienced player with a lot of upside. I don’t like the idea of the Rice game being an extended Spring game. Make it clear to the team at some point in August that Golson is the starter, but Zaire may have some packages, fine. Zaire still has four years of eligibility in front of him.

      • Keith Arnold - May 2, 2014 at 12:44 PM

        Guys — On the Zaire playing in the first half… I don’t think there’s a quarterback controversy. I think there’s a back-up QB at Notre Dame who has never taken the field, and BK wants to get that out of the way as soon as possible, in a situation that he can control, not because Golson’s head got knocked off, like it did a few times in 2012.

        There is no third option. There is no harm in getting Zaire’s feet wet. So if he’s able to run a handful of plays well, then I expect it to happen… sooner than later.

  6. martyhealy - May 1, 2014 at 8:55 AM

    Great Questions! Great Answers! I lean with you on the use of Zaire 1st half. I still prefer Golson but to maybe just quiet the fans, give Zaire some experience. If he proves great in relation to Golson, give him more and more reps. I sure hope we have TWO guys.

    I tend to disagree a bit on your 50/50 stance of making the playoff with one loss. An 11-1 ND will likely look better than lets say an 11-2 Stanford. ND will then have already beaten Fl State or Stanford. They will have beaten Michigan, USC, Az State, N Carolina, Syracuse, I think the odds are more like 80/20 in ND’s favor at 11-1. Wild guess Alabama at 11-2 will make it.

    • c4evr - May 1, 2014 at 10:42 AM

      I thought that surely, with a playoff system in place, politicking and ‘style points’ were a thing of the past. Let’s hope BK finally gets his high octane offense going since we all know O style points trump D style points.

      • mtflsmitty - May 1, 2014 at 12:15 PM

        Last year, I believe SI (may have been someone else) did a lengthy story about a mock 4 team playoff selection. It was fascinating, and a great read if you can find it. Some of the key takeaways were:
        – in most cases 6-7 teams will have a strong case to be selected
        – a myriad of valid, but opposing, selection factors were raised by the mock selection committee
        – qualified members of the selection committee will have connections to team or conferences
        – as a result of the points above, the politicking will intensify

    • domerboyirish - May 1, 2014 at 2:32 PM

      An 11-1 Irish team makes the playoffs. I don’t care who you actually lose to in that scenario. You play that schedule with only one loss? You’re in!

      I also agree that two loses won’t get ND into the playoffs. There will be too many 1 loss teams with easier schedules that will still get placed ahead of our beloved Irish. If we lost two games to either Stanford, MSU or FSU, they’ll keep us out of the playoffs stating that we already couldn’t beat the best teams on our schedule. It’s BS but I doubt a selection committee is capable of overcoming he pressure from the national bias against us.

  7. 4horsemenrideagain - May 1, 2014 at 9:29 AM

    great jab at dick on the locker room monitoring. as far as dick checking out other dudes in the locker room goes, well that just gives me another reason to stay away from exercise.

    since it’s may and rice seems oh so far away, let’s play a game called “what if ishaq has 3 sacks against rice?” will he get any love at that point, or will it be attributed to an o-line breakdown, slippery field and/or dumb luck? what if he has three more against Michigan? will it officially be considered his break-out moment, or will the commentariot’s skepticism continue?

    • ibleedirish - May 1, 2014 at 12:46 PM

      I cant answer for anyone else, but I’ve been as hard on him as anyone. I’d be elated if he tripled his three year production in one game. I’d cheer harder than anyone if he kept it up against quality competition.

      Your comment seems to imply we are being critical of Ishaqs play just because we need someone to pick on. That isn’t the case. I’m critical, because to date, he’s played horribly. No, really. Very very poorly. Not good. Atrocious. Try watching him.

      • 4horsemenrideagain - May 1, 2014 at 1:24 PM

        thanks for the hint. i’ll try to remember to watch for him this year…

        I didn’t imply anything in my off-handed comment, much less that ishaq’s critics just need a target.

        the prospect that I posed, quite directly, was given the volume of disappointment expressed about this kid, whether it was likely that even a significant improvement in his play (whatever form that may take) would fail to satisfy some of his critics.

        my point was that even if ishaq finally “gets it”/hits his stride/feels his oats, I suspect there are some that would still be pissed about his under-performing in past years, somehow feeling that they were duped by his five stars, by his metrics or by all of the discussion of what potential he had.

        in any case, i’d love for him to go out and perform so that this discussion and debate could continue, and so that we could haggle about whether he deserves to finally be allowed out of the doghouse.

    • dickasman - May 4, 2014 at 1:41 AM

      Hey it must be the democrat in me. I should start proposing to the ones that hang the lowest. If you show it, well hell sure I’ll take a gander, why not? You only live once.

      Speaking of Ishaq, I’d like to see him in a mens locker room. I bet he doesn’t quite lives up to the hype n disappoints there as well.

  8. irishwilliamsport - May 1, 2014 at 11:23 AM

    What a great problem to have at QB compared to the last four years, Christ, Nate Montana, Rees, Hendrix, wow did we whiff in recruiting. If Golson wins the job I doubt Zaire will sit for 2 more years and will teeter on transferring, if Zaire wins the job and struggles Golson could win it back. Blake Barnett comes in next year and is a stud but as we already know the offense is so complex he won’t be able to grasp it for at least two years. injuries could play a part, who knows. Maybe Deshone Kiser will surprise us.

    It just blows my mind sometimes when I hear the coaches say “they’re learning” especially with Golson, 3 years into the program and still hasn’t learned the full offense, same thing on defense.

  9. martyhealy - May 1, 2014 at 1:07 PM

    If you have not read the article on Jameis Winston being suspended at FL State yesterday on ESPN
    for shoplifting $32 worth of crab legs and crawfish.

    The comments at the end are a riot such as one guy posted “I, for one, am sick of this shellfish behaviour.” LOL

  10. gbsk - May 1, 2014 at 2:28 PM

    Wow. I did not know that about Matt Sarb. He is my second cousin. I found this video of him.

    • onward2victory - May 1, 2014 at 4:48 PM

      That’s a pretty awesome story with the connection to Rudy.

      Also, are you sure that Matt Sarb and Aaron Rodgers weren’t separated at birth??

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