Mailbag: Transfers, death of the 3-4, and more

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Let’s get down to the Friday Mailbag. (That’s what the kids are calling it, anyway.) The questions are much appreciated.

sfnd: Ty Isaac?

First, kudos for the brevity. It’s a skill (believe me, one I’m still working on, too).

If we’re to take BK’s comments from yesterday at face value, you’ve got to think this was basically saying, “Yes, we want Ty Isaac. We wish you signed with us to begin with.”

Here’s what he had to say while talking to the media assembled at the Irish Legends golf fundraiser.

“For a traditional transfer, my preference is they have three years of eligibility and they’re the right academic fit and of course positionally, it makes sense,” Kelly told JJ Stankevitz of CSN Chicago. “There’s not a backlog of players at that particular position.”

Let’s check the boxes:

* Three years left of eligibility for Isaac, who played as a true freshman for the Trojans.
* Notre Dame finished bridesmaids for Isaac in his original recruitment.
* With Cam McDaniel departing and running back a need in this recruiting class, here’s no backlog — especially for a big back.

It wasn’t certain that Isaac would consider Notre Dame, or that USC would allow him to transfer to their rivals. But this Tweet seems to make both things a possibility.

The decision will come quickly, with Isaac needing to be in summer school and conditioning at whatever program he chooses.

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@HayesBean: How many recruits will we take this cycle? Thought it was fewer this year, if so it seems like were settling, other than top 3.

I’d guess the Irish take a class in the high-teens. But it’ll also depend on who comes back for a fifth year. Here’s a quick breakdown of who is eligible to return:

Everett Golson
Amir Carlisle
DaVaris Daniels
Nick Martin
Conor Hanratty
Matt Hegarty
Chase Hounshell
Tony Springmann
Ben Councell
Anthony Rabasa
Jarrett Grace
Joe Schmidt
Jalen Brown
Eilar Hardy
Matthias Farley

Who stays? Who goes? At this point, who knows — though I think it’s a really important year for the heralded recruiting class of 2011.

But I’m not sure I’d agree with you on the Irish “settling,” especially with Kelly’s track record on early identification of prospects. Barnett is a national QB target that just about every program wants. Tillery and Hoge look like they’ll be top linemen at their respective positions. Fertitta is a bit off profile, but ND has kicked the tires on him more than once, and the other skill players are guys who I trust the staff’s evaluation tools better than any website.

The short answer: My guess is 18. But how they get there will be interesting.

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irishdog80: Which of the ND player that were drafted, other than Zack Martin, will have the longest and most productive career in the NFL?

Which undrafted FA from ND this year will have the longest and most productive career…if any?

Good questions. I’d aim at one of the offensive guys, just because I think playing along the defensive line makes for a pretty short shelf life.

Troy Niklas is a guy that — if he stays healthy — has the body and skillset to last forever in the NFL. I also could see TJ Jones carving out a niche as a slot guy, someone who is that No. 3 receiver with punt return skills who sticks around a decade in the league.

As for undrafted free agents, I’m going to go with Dan Fox. I think his ability to run as an inside linebacker will make him valuable to a team as the league because more of a passing, spread-it-out game.

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mediocrebob: Any word on Springmann and Grace recoveries?

Expect Springmann to be good to go for summer workouts. Grace isn’t quite figured out, but I don’t know how it’s going to be possible for him to be ready for the start of the season, if at all.

Kelly gave a mini-update on Grace yesterday, which was essentially no update. He said that he and head trainer Rob Hunt were going to get together to discuss Grace’s healing sometime next week, in advance of summer school and workouts beginning in June.

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shaunodame: Your best guess at a LB Depth Chart (both 4-3 and 3-4) w/ Mike Sam and Will or Cat Dog Mike and Will, and a Wide Receiver Depth Chart w/ X, Z and Slot.

I’m honestly going to punt on this question, at least from the linebackers perspective. Right now, I think Jaylon Smith is going to play every snap at Will. Joe Schmidt will be the team’s primary Mike, though there’s hope that Grace could be ready and obviously Nyles Morgan is coming in this summer.

But then how this staff decides to use guys like Ben Councell, John Turner, Michael Deeb, Kendall Moore or any of the other freshmen is just too hard to figure out.

If the Irish are playing a 3-4, I think you’ll be seeing heft in the lineup, with a guy like Moore or Councell in there to go toe-to-toe with an opponent, but again — I don’t know how realistic that is, or how often that will be.

At receiver, I think the breakdown is already starting to happen:

Outside receivers: DaVaris Daniels, Corey Robinson, Will Fuller, Chris Brown
Slot: Amir Carlisle, CJ Prosise
Guys in the mix: Torii Hunter, maybe freshman Justin Brent or Corey Holmes.

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steincj36: Does the fact that BK will be calling plays scare anyone else besides me? Am I just apprehensive to this because of the Weis era?

I think Kelly has proven himself to be a true head coach. Charlie Weis was a long-time coordinator thrust into his first head job when he was at ND.

But outside of 2007, what year did you have a problem with the offense? Sure, the running game wasn’t very explosive, but Weis’ offense didn’t struggle to put up points, it was his defense that let him down, especially in his last two seasons.

Kelly had the tag of being an offensive innovator, but that was never one that he gave himself. But he’s got the personnel he wants to run his system this year and knows that style of offense better than anyone else on staff. I think the arrangement will work quite well.

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ndlv: Based on what Coach Kelly has accomplished at ND, where does he rank relative to earlier coaches at ND? Where do you think he ranks relative to other coaches currently in college football? Is he in the top 10?

He’s automatically behind anybody that’s won a national title. And he’s the best coach the Irish have had since Lou Holtz. Outside of that evaluation, I’m not a good enough historian of ND football to place him anywhere else.

As for his place in college football’s elite, I think he’s squarely in the top 10. He’s probably hovering right around the top 5, falling behind guys like Nick Saban, Urban Meyer and maybe Bob Stoops and Steve Spurrier?

(The Sporting News has been doing this exercise for quite some time and has Kelly ranked fifth.)

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kmic000: When ND is in the 3-4 this year, who do you think the DLine and linebackers will be?

I’ve already punted on the linebackers, but here’s how I’d expect a 3-4 look to play out.

Sheldon Day
Jarron Jones
Ishaq Williams/Tony Springmann

Romeo Okwara
Joe Schmidt
Jaylon Smith
Ben Councell (big) / John Turner (little)

Again, I don’t think this is going to turn out to be correct — nor do I think you’ll see Notre Dame with a legit three-man front too often. But I think it’ll be dependent on guys like Springmann and Hounshell to recover from their injuries and give legitimate reps.

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

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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?

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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

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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

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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.