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.

Friday at 4: Bowl games are fun, but little else, even for Notre Dame vs. LSU

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Bowl games are [insert positive adjective here]. Make no mistake about that. They provide players and fans an excuse to head south in December, even if that destination is El Paso, Texas, or Birmingham, Ala. Warmer temperatures are always preferable. That’s science.

For those not making a trek to Shreveport, La., or Orlando, Fla., the 39 games sprinkled throughout 17 days provide a break from primetime reruns or, in the best of times, from mid-day office minutiae. Football is preferable to “Young Sheldon” or remembering to include the new cover sheet on the TPS report. Again, empirical evidence establishes this as a fact.

And for the grinding gambler, bowl games represent one last chance to exit the college football season with a net gain, furthering the dreams of continuing similar growth annually for two decades in order to secure retirement based off a hobby. On a smaller scale, bowl pools establish a chance for bragging rights, and little is better than holiday season bragging rights. That’s a bit shy of sound logic, but it is a reality, nonetheless.

All that acknowledged, bowl games should still not be factored much into long-term views, forward-looking or retrospective. They are the most uncertain of sporting events, having little attachment to either the season prior or the season eight months away.

When else does a team not play for a month on either side of a competition? There is a reason an answer is lacking. It’s an absurd practice. (Albeit, again, a delightful one. There are five games Saturday and only one of those 10 teams is from a Power Five conference, yet this scribe intends to watch each and every one of the five.) (Is that the first sign of a problem? Maybe, maybe not.)

Notre Dame finished 2017 with a 9-3 record and two losses in its final three games. Beating No. 17 LSU in the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1 in the aforementioned Disney-based metropolis should not change the taste of that November letdown. At most, it can support an argument of the Irish simply being worn down by season’s end, but that would not change the fact of them indeed being worn down when it mattered.

When Notre Dame beat LSU in the 2014 Music City Bowl, it did not change the tenor of the season, and it did not lead to 2015’s success. Rather, the following year’s breakthroughs came from surprises shown only after injuries. (Getty Images)

Losing to the Tigers is not a greater sign of a program stuck spinning its wheels in the winter’s snow. It is not an indication of failing to win a game when it matters. Notre Dame already went 2-3 in those big games this year. In retrospect, perhaps the victory at Michigan State should raise that record to 3-3, but a big game feels like one as it occurs, and that Saturday evening in September did not hold such weight.

A big game does not come five weeks following the last consequential contest. A big game has some tangible effect on games to come. Outside of the College Football Playoff, no bowl game claims either factor. They are simply enjoyable exhibitions.

Hence, the common practice for coaches with new jobs is to move on, apparently abandoning their team before the season is technically over. It is becomingly increasingly-normal for NFL Draft prospects to sit out bowl games, be it out of precaution or preemptive recovery. They have nothing to gain, no ring, no record, yet much to lose in an injury a la former Irish linebacker Jaylon Smith in the 2015 Fiesta Bowl.

To pull from a comment shortly after Notre Dame fell to Miami, dashing any Playoff hopes, “I truly don’t get how you think wins over Navy and a pedestrian Stanford team carry more weight than a win over an Ohio St or TCU or Clemson in a major bowl game. Agree to disagree, I guess.”

A win at Stanford would have sent the Irish to a bowl game of greater note (likely the Fiesta Bowl, in the end), but that would not have been the reason it held consequence. Winning in-season, week-after-week, day-after-day becomes ingrained. A win Saturday creates momentum for a good practice on Tuesday, begetting a consistent showing Wednesday, which leads to attention to detail on Thursday. Before you know it, another weekend victory is in hand.

Concluding the season by knocking off the Cardinal would have set a standard of the revamped Irish being better than their most-similar foes.

Beating LSU will do little except provide fodder for both sides of the “Brian Kelly must go/stay” argument, an inane debate which will undoubtedly proceed unabated for an entire offseason when it should be recognized as utterly pointless absolutely no later than Jan. 9.

This memory should stick with the Irish throughout 2018’s first eight months, not whatever happens in Orlando. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Losing to LSU will not “fester over the winter,” to use another commenter’s worry. Losing to Stanford should. Getting embarrassed at Miami will.

If (when) Central Florida falls for the first time this year, how vocal will the sideways glances toward Scott Frost be, as the head coach splits his time between his new gig at Nebraska and his loyal charges in Orlando? They won’t be vocal at all. Frost delivered a 13-0 season. That is what will be remembered.

When Oregon blows past Boise State this weekend, will the Ducks take solace in thinking they could have challenged Stanford for the Pac-12 North Division if only their quarterback had stayed healthy? No, they will still look at the 7-5 season as the disappointment it was, not to mention they’ll be led by their newest head coach with Willie Taggart gone already in less than one calendar year.

When Arizona and Purdue combine for more than 65 points, will that be a sign their defenses need vast improvements in the offseason? No, the Wildcats giving up 34.1 yards per game already makes that pretty clear. The Boilermakers, contrarily, shouldn’t panic no matter the Foster Farms Bowl result. Head coach Jeff Brohm clearly has them trending in the right direction on both sides of the ball. In addition to a dynamic offense, Purdue gave up only 19.3 points per game this season.

Notre Dame very well may beat LSU. It certainly wants to. But that result will not reflect the 2017 season, and it will not be a catalyst into 2018. Let’s skip the argument of bowl victories set a foundation for success the following season. The data overwhelmingly says there is no distinct correlation to such thinking.

Rather, the Citrus Bowl will simply be a physical and entertaining game. On a day inevitably spent on the couch, likely horizontally, what more can genuinely be asked for?

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Backs

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Notre Dame’s secondary presents one position of such strength it is continually pondered if raiding that depth could salvage the near-vacuum in the other half of the Irish defensive backfield. That was true before the season, and it remains the case now.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
A bounty of cornerbacks, led by sophomore Julian Love, provided some sense of comfort in the Irish defense’s back line. A finally-healthy junior Shaun Crawford could finally contribute as a nickelback, and senior Nick Watkins, largely thanks to his length, established himself as a starter during spring practice.

That marked three bona fide starters before even acknowledging the depth provided by sophomores Donte Vaughn and Troy Pride.

Then there were the safeties. Such confidence in the depth chart did not exist in the spring or at any point of the preseason. Junior Nick Coleman secured one safety spot in the spring, while sophomores Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill failed to separate from each other in the competition to line up alongside Coleman. To be clear, that was not a credit to both showing such great abilities.

When the NCAA denied sophomore Alohi Gilman’s waiver for immediate eligibility following his transfer from Navy, Elliott became the de facto starter.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
On paper, Love’s season was essentially unparalleled. He returned two interceptions for touchdowns and nearly managed a third. Rare can a coaching staff genuinely and reasonably discuss moving a position’s best player, but Love very well may be the best Irish safety, as well. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has admitted as much as a distinct possibility.

Junior cornerback Shaun Crawford did quite a bit of everything for Notre Dame in his first healthy season. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

For now, though, Love remains at cornerback. Crawford complemented him excellently in a playmaking sense, forcing his impact upon the game even more than could have been anticipated, though it is logical to think finally seeing a season’s worth of action tired his legs by the end.

Watkins, meanwhile, put together a strong season until knee tendonitis limited him — and created an opportunity for Pride to prematurely insert himself into 2018’s conversations — in November. In the moment, Watkins seemed a weakness against Miami (OH) when RedHawks junior receiver James Gardner caught two touchdowns over Watkins. With time diminishing overreactions, Gardner’s success seems a credit to him (and his 6-foot-4 frame) more than a knock on Watkins.

For that matter, it may not have been a knock on Watkins at all. Let’s pull from the respective “Things We Learned”As much as one may want to see Watkins break each of those passes up, it could also be wondered why there was not a safety helping on the occasion. That latter position remains the biggest Irish concern, offensive or defensive.

That concern remains pressing. Coleman played alright, but did not necessarily excel. Any continuing debate between Elliott and Studstill persists yet out of lack of a strong impression. The rest of the Irish defense’s surge limited the dramatic effect of the positional need, but it cannot be denied, nonetheless.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING
Opponents passed more often against Notre Dame this season than they did a year ago. It makes sense; the Irish led more often and for much of the year, led by large margins. Thus, the averages offer a better comparison between the autumns as a rough estimate of passing efficiency.

2016: 2,357 yards allowed on 193-of-313 passing; 61.66 percent completion rate; 7.53 yards per attempt; 12.21 yards per completion.
2017: 2,562 yards allowed on 233-of-412 passing; 56.55 percent completion rate; 6.22 yards per attempt; 11.00 yards per completion.

So. Julian Love — 62 tackles; three interceptions; 17 pass breakups.
Jr. Nick Coleman — 42 tackles; three pass breakups.
So. Jalen Elliott — 38 tackles; one pass breakup.
Jr. Shaun Crawford — 32 tackles; two interceptions, five pass breakups; two fumbles recovered; one fumble forced.
Sr. Nick Watkins — 27 tackles; one interception; eight pass breakups.
So. Troy Pride — 22 tackles; one interception; two pass breakups.
So. Devin Studstill — 16 tackles.
Fr. Isaiah Robertson — Eight tackles.
So. Donte Vaughn — Six tackles.

COMING QUESTIONS
Earning a nod as defensive scout team player of the year should speak to Gilman’s potential impact in 2018. By all indications, he was the best safety on the roster in 2017 with the arguable exception of Love. Will Gilman live up to this billing?

As it pertains to Love, the coaching staff should move him to safety only if the gap between him and the otherwise starter there is greater than the gap between Love and the next man up at cornerback, presumably Pride. (In this respect, compare it to senior Alex Bars lining up at right guard this season rather than right tackle, his previous position. He was the best option at right tackle, but the drop from Bars to sophomore Tommy Kraemer and freshman Robert Hainsey was minimal. The talent discrepancy between Bars and any other right guard option would have been much more drastic.) Is it in defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s best interests to keep Love at cornerback or move the excellent defender to safety?

If it is not Love who provides a minimum of depth at safety, it could be a recruit. Consensus four-star Houston Griffith comes to mind not only due to his commitment this week, but also because he fits right into Notre Dame’s needs.

A similar thought applies to current freshman Isaiah Robertson. He saw special teams action this season. A full year readying in a college system could have him poised to contribute, be it in support of Coleman or in place of him.

OUTSIDE READING
ND Insider’s Eric Hansen put together a worthwhile read on Gilman following last week’s program awards: Full speed ahead? There’s no happy medium for Notre Dame safety Alohi Gilman

INSIDE THE IRISH READING
Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends
Where Notre Dame was & is: Running Backs

Notre Dame beats Michigan for three-star TE Tommy Tremble

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One of Notre Dame’s deepest positions got even stronger with the Thursday morning commitment of rivals.com three-star tight end Tommy Tremble (Wesleyan High School; Norcross, Ga.). The No. 18 tight end in the class, per rivals.com, Tremble’s decision essentially came down to the Irish or Michigan.

A Wednesday night visit from Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, offensive coordinator Chip Long and running backs coach Autry Denson may have played a part in tipping the scales, though Tremble told Blue & Gold Illustrated he had been leaning toward the Irish since his official visit in October.

“There’s not many tight ends in the country that can do the kind of things that I can do,” Tremble said, then referencing Long’s view of the position in his system. “[Long] said with that in this type of offensive scheme it could be explosive.

“I’m going to be the hardest working at the entire college at anything. At everything too, not just football. I’m just going to make it work.”

In his first season at Notre Dame, Long showed his predilection for using multiple tight ends at a time, often pairing fifth-year senior Durham Smythe with junior Alizé Mack. Smythe would act as an additional offensive lineman who could slip out for a route while Mack’s duties were more akin to a receiver’s as often as not. Smythe finished his best collegiate season with 13 catches for 234 yards and a touchdown while Mack added 19 catches for 166 yards and a score. Current senior and returning fifth-year Nic Weishar chipped in seven catches for 39 yards and two touchdowns.

With two tight ends in this class now — Tremble joins consensus four-star George Takacs (Gulf Coast H.S.; Naples, Fla.) — Long should be able to continue with such as often as he wants. In 2017 he showed no caution in deploying freshmen Brock Wright and Cole Kmet occasionally. Presumably, Tremble and Takacs could see similar workloads from the outset.

The No. 52 overall player in Georgia, Tremble also held offers from Georgia, Auburn and UCLA, among others. He is the 20th commitment in the class with the early signing period commencing Wednesday.

Last week, Weishar declared his intention to return for a fifth year.

Notre Dame lands four-star former FSU commit, Houston Griffith, at safety

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If its defensive backfield was a concern this recruiting cycle, Notre Dame is putting together a strong finish to the class of 2018 to eradicate those worries. Consensus four-star Houston Griffith (IMG Academy; Bradenton, Fla.) became the second defensive back to commit to the Irish this week with his Tuesday evening declaration and the fifth of Notre Dame’s 19 (and counting) expected signees.

Griffith immediately becomes the most highly-rated commit in the Irish class. Rivals.com considers him the No. 3 safety in the class, the No. 9 player in Florida and the No. 35 overall prospect in the country. He had long been a Notre Dame target but initially committed to Florida State, partly due to the Irish struggles a year ago.

After Notre Dame showed much improvement this season — more specifically, its defensive shift — Griffith reopened his recruitment in late November.

“The changes that [Irish coach Brian Kelly] made really helped,” Griffith told Blue & Gold Illustrated. “The guys I know up there tell me it’s a different program, it’s a different team up there. Last season was a learning year and this year shows that they are starting to get all the pieces.”

Griffith has certainly bought in on the direction trending from 2016 to 2017.

“I feel like the next few years all the pieces are there to compete for a national championship.”

In addition to the Seminoles, Griffith held scholarship offers from the vast majority of college football’s powers, including Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State and USC.

He presents as a safety and seems to have been targeted as one, but he could also see early time at cornerback. In theory, a freshman may have a better chance of grasping that latter position. Then again, Notre Dame has a few established playmakers at cornerback; it very much does not have that luxury at safety.

At either position, Griffith and his fellow defensive back commits should shore up a position grouping that the Irish essentially whiffed on in 2017, when only two safeties were signed (Isaiah Robertson and Jordan Genmark-Heath) with no cornerbacks in the mix. Griffith is the third safety in the class of 2018, joining consensus four-star Derrik Allen (Lassiter H.S.; Marietta, Ga.) and consensus three-star Paul Moala (Penn; Mishawaka, Ind.).

All three, as well as the two cornerback commits and the other 14 prospects, are intended to sign with Notre Dame during this year’s early signing period, Dec. 20-22.