Mailbag: Welcome to the offseason edition

29 Comments

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.

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

42 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

Getty Images
16 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getty Images
30 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Notre Dame players should you actually watch? Plus, catch up on reading

Getty Images
7 Comments

If technology does its part, this will post as its typist meanders toward finding his credential for the Blue-Gold Game to conclude Notre Dame’s spring practice. If technology doesn’t do its part, well, then this will be lost to the cobwebs of the internet. Such as it goes.

This space has spent much of the past week discussing what to look for in the 12:30 p.m. ET exhibition. Worry about the big picture, not the individuals. Fret about the macro, not the micro.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the indivdual players
Blue-Gold Game primer with help from Notre Dame’s coordinators
Four defensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game
Four offensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game

But, if insistent on focusing on singular players, look to the inexperienced, the names you are unfamiliar with. The 15th and final practice of spring may be no more than a practice in reality, but it is in front of nearly 30,000 fans in Notre Dame Stadium. Some players do not have so much as that minimal experience.

“The Blue-Gold Game, specifically, is a time for us to emulate a game-like situation,” senior safety/linebacker/rover Drue Tranquill said. “Especially for guys like freshmen, second-semester guys coming in, it’s a great opportunity for them to get that game feeling, but also continue to take steps in the process to get better.”

The question on the tip of your tongue is a fair one. If you are unfamiliar with the names, how are you supposed to focus on those players? How are you to know who fits the appropriate tunnel vision version of perspective?

Let’s turn to Irish coach Brian Kelly’s mentions from Wednesday–primarily, sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara, sophomore long snapper John Shannon, senior kicker Sam Kohler, sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem and sophomore safety Jalen Elliott.

Obviously, that is just a sampling. Less obviously, this post’s purpose may or may not be to link to previous reading material and remind you of the vague but pertinent purposes to today’s endeavor. It is neither be-all nor end-all. It is simply another opportunity to gauge what may come down the line.

But hey, how about a prediction? Per Kelly, the first-team offense and second-team defense will be in blue, against the first-team defense and second-team offense in white.

PREDICTION: Blue 37, White 21

HOW TO WATCH
As a recurring reminder, the Blue-Gold Game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network, as well as streamed online at ndstream.nbcsports.com and on the NBC Sports app.