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Spring preview: Purdue

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While much ado has been made about the ending of the Michigan-Notre Dame “rivalry,” the long-running intrastate rivalry between the Irish and Purdue Boilermakers will take a break after this season, after scheduling struggles for both programs forced a break to a series that’s been played annually since 1946.

Last year was the first for Darrell Hazell, and it was an ugly one. Outside of playing Notre Dame tough, the Boilermakers trudged through an ugly season, finishing 1-11 with their lone victory over Indiana State.

To give us a spring progress report on the state of Purdue football, I tracked down our old friend Travis Miller, the editor of Hammer and Rails, home to all things Purdue sports.

Miller gave us an in-depth look at the program as it exits a very important spring.

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Can you give us an honest appraisal of the state of Purdue football right now? How painful was last year’s 1-11 campaign? Is there light at the end of the tunnel?

Last year was brutal. Not only was Purdue 1-11, it wasn’t even a competitive 1-11. There were occasionally some sign of competence such as the Notre Dame and Michigan State games, but for the most part Purdue got drilled week-in, week-out. It certainly wasn’t fun.

Purdue is not going to get much better until its offensive line improves. Last year it could not protect the quarterback and could not block for the run. After seeing the spring game I am not exactly inspired. There are a few JuCo guys coming in the fall including 4-star tackle David Hedelin, but he may not be available. He played a few games for a club team in his native Sweden and is facing a possible NCAA suspension.

The good news is that it will be hard to get much worse. The schedule should be much easier with Western and Central Michigan instead of Cincinnati and a really good Northern Illinois team. If there is even a little progress Purdue should at least win its three non-conference games other than Notre Dame.

 

John Shoop’s offense returns 10 starters. Is that a good news/bad news sentence? Spring games aren’t necessarily a great indicator of future success, but it seemed like things are still out of sorts.

I am a big fan of the skill players, but again, the line has been awful, especially at the tackle spots. Hedelin and Corey Clements, another JuCo tackle, will likely come in and start from day 1. Robert Kuglar is pretty solid at the center position and the guards are at least coming along, but Hedelin and Clements need to be an answer at tackle. In the spring game none of the returning tackles looked all that good and Ryan Russell had more sacks than he did all of last season.

 

To that point, how has Danny Etling looked this spring? The decision to go with Etling last year pointed to a “the future is now” type of situation, but is the young quarterback ready to lead this team?

I think so. He just needs time to throw and I think he can do some pretty special things. The quarterback that impressed me most in the spring game, however, was true freshman David Blough. He reminds a lot of Purdue fans of another quarterback we recruited from Texas that was undersized, but was a diligent worker and ready to prove a point. Blough is a long way from being the next Drew Brees, but he has talked the talk so far and after graduating high school early to go through spring practice he showed enough to me that he can at least compete for the job.

For now, however, the job still belongs to Etling, and he will only show improvement as long as he is protected.

 

Greg Hudson’s defense had a tough season. But again, 8 starters return (though the loss of Bruce Gaston and Ricardo Allen has to hurt). How do you expect the defense to rebound?

I think the defense will be much better if it has an offense that can stay on the field for more than three plays. There were several games last season where the defense would be sound for a half, only to wilt in the second half because it was on the field far too much. Cincinnati, Iowa, Illinois, and Michigan State come to mind as games where Purdue looked great for a half but the offense did nothing to help out.

Help is on the way in linebackers Ja’Whaun Bentley and Gelen Robinson. Purdue desperately need linebackers that can make a difference. We haven’t had anything close to an all-Big Ten linebacker in over 10 years, but Bentley and Robinson have a lot of excitement around them. Robinson is the son of former basketball player Glenn Robinson and younger brother of the guy playing at Michigan. He is a two-time undefeated state wrestling champion and also a champion in the shot put, so he is an athlete with a mean streak that is expected to play from day 1. We desperately need that.

 

 What’s a realistic bar for the 2014 Purdue Boilermakers? How do fans feel about Darrell Hazell after one really ugly season?

I think we need at least four wins. Beating Western Michigan, Central Michigan, and Southern Illinois should happen. I also think we should beat someone like Illinois because the Illini have one Big Ten win in its last 22 games and that barely came over Purdue last season. I don’t think it is a stretch that Purdue can win that game.

Outside of that, I think we just want to see a competitive football team again. Purdue’s most complete game last year came against Notre Dame and for two years in a row it has competed against a much better Irish team. The Irish are the first “real” opponent of 2014, so another competitive game would be a big step forward.

 

The Purdue/Notre Dame series is taking a break until 2020 after this season. How do Purdue fans feel about this? A product of realignment, and the B1G’s nine-game conference schedule and ND’s ACC commitment? Or the end of the world and just another data-point that money is ruining college football? (I suppose it could be something in between, too…)

Personally, I think it is ridiculous that the series is ending. All the factors you mentioned are bringing an end to a series that last almost 70 years without a conference affiliation. It could have been saved too. From Purdue’s standpoint all we needed to do was shift the home date from odd-numbered years to even-numbered years would have kept us with seven home game per season. With Notre Dame already losing Michigan and Michigan State there was room to work there too, at least from what I see.

I am going to miss Notre Dame because it is a showcase game for our program every season. When it is at Purdue it is almost always a night game so ABC/ESPN can put the Irish in prime time. When it is at Notre Dame it is a nationally televised game. Now Purdue coaches can’t go in and say to a recruit they have a guaranteed national game every season, something that is a nice guarantee for as bad as we are right now.

I feel like both sides are at fault here and it easily could have been saved.

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For more from Miller, check out Hammer & Rails and follow him on Twitter @HammerandRails.

Kelly and Swarbrick turn attention to science of injury prevention

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Amidst the chaos of their live Signing Day show, UND.com ran had a far-reaching interview with head coach Brian Kelly. It was conducted by his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick, and his former team captain, Joe Schmidt.

So while there was a little bit of talk about the 23 recruits who signed their national letters-of-intent, there was also a very illuminating exchange on an issue that’s really plagued the Irish the past few seasons: Injuries.

Football is a dangerous game. And for as long as people play it, there’ll be impactful injuries that take players off the field. But as Notre Dame settles into what looks like their longest run of stability since the Holtz era, the focus of Kelly and Swarbrick has moved past modernizing the team’s medical services, strength program and nutrition and onto the science of injury prevention.

Here’s what Kelly said about the efforts currently taking shape:

“I think the science piece is very important, because no longer is it just about strength and conditioning,  it’s about durability. It’s the ability to continue to play at an optimal level but also with the rigors of a college schedule, and particularly here at Notre Dame, how do we maximize the time but maximizing getting the most out of our student-athletes and not lose them?

“As you know, we’ve had a couple years here in a rough stretch of injuries. And how do we have an injury prevention protocol that brings in the very best science? You’ve done a great job of reaching out in getting us those kind of resources. so I think tapping into that is probably the next piece. As well as providing the resources for our student-athletes. Continuing to look at facilities. Continuing to give our student-athletes maybe that little edge. Because everybody’s got 85 scholarships.”

It’s clear that the issue is one that’s on the radar for not just Kelly, but the athletic administration. So it’ll be interesting to see some of the steps taken as the program begins investing time and additional resources to an issue that’s really hit the Irish hard the past few seasons.

There’s plenty of other good stuff in the 13-minute interview, so give it a watch.

Five things we learned: Signing Day 2016

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

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

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

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

Let’s find out what we learned.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Faxes in: Liam Eichenberg

Liam Eichenberg
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LIAM EICHENBERG
Cleveland, Ohio

Measurables: 6’6″, 280 lbs.

Accolades: 4-Star, Under Armour All-American, 2015 MaxPreps first-team All-American, 2015 American Family Insurance All-USA Ohio, AP All-Ohio Division I first-team.

Impressive Offers: Florida State, Miami, Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Tennessee

Projected Position: Offensive tackle.

Quick Take: Another offensive tackle with sky-high potential, Notre Dame snatched Eichenberg out from under Urban Meyer’s nose, bringing in yet another blue-chipper for Harry Hiestand to mold. More of a developmental project than Kraemer, Eichenberg’s upside could be just as lofty, especially after some time in a weight room and on the practice field.

What he means to the Irish: With numbers at tackle on the light side, Eichenberg won’t be asked to get on the field, but he might start his career in the two deep behind Mike McGlinchey. That could take away a redshirt if things go wrong, but the view from behind McGlinchey is a good spot for him, learning behind another talented athlete who came to campus as a developmental prospect but will enter his senior season (McGlinchey has two years of eligibility remaining) as a legit NFL prospect.

Eichenberg has the same kind of ceiling. He’ll just need to keep improving—something that he’s shown after a strong Under Armour All-American week in Orlando.

Obligatory YouTube clip: