Memorial Weekend notes: Martin, recruiting, scheduling and more

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Here’s hoping everybody has great plans for Memorial Day weekend. Consider this a guess (or hope) that it’ll be a less dramatic weekend than last year, when the Irish’s 2013 season was thrown into permanent disarray.

With the Irish assistant coaching staff out recruiting, and the unofficial start of summer kicking off on this long weekend, let’s share a few stories that I found interesting.

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For those looking for a stadium update, check this out:

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Over at Irish Illustrated, Tim Prister sat down for a long chat with former Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chuck Martin, now the head coach at Miami (Ohio). One of the more honest, candid and entertaining guys in college football, Martin didn’t disappoint.

Prister posted chunks of his interview in three parts, and while they’re protected by a paywall, they’re worth every bit of the $9.99 a month to read.

Here’s just a few snippets to give you a feel:

On Andrew Hendrix, now the unquestioned starting quarterback at Miami:

“The biggest thing with Andrew was he was close to being the guy at Notre Dame but never the guy. The confidence that comes with getting over the hump and becoming the guy…Not that he wasn’t confident, but he never got the confidence of really, truly being the guy at Notre Dame.

“Here, his game has really elevated. He’s having tons of success and he’s clearly the guy. There’s something to be said of when you have that comfort of being the guy, then you play better. When you’re always battling to get to the top of the depth chart, it’s hard with the stress of always falling a bit short. He is an unbelievable kid.”

And on Martin’s unequivocal love for Notre Dame:

“Brian Kelly could have gotten the Texas job and I wasn’t going to Texas. Brian Kelly could have gotten the Alabama job and I wasn’t going to Alabama. I wasn’t going to be an assistant coach, but any chance to coach at Notre Dame, I wasn’t going to pass it up.

“It’s Notre Dame. I’m Irish-Catholic from the south side of Chicago. It’s my school. It’s a place I believe in more than any place in the world. How they do their business. The quintessential student-athlete. To me, it wasn’t even a decision.

“When Brian asked, it was not a long conversation. We didn’t talk salary. I didn’t even know what position I was coaching. He said, ‘I’m bringing my coordinators from Cincinnati,’ and I said, ‘Okay, gotcha.'”

And on his desire to take over at Notre Dame when Kelly is finished:

“That would probably be the only goal I have in coaching. Other than that, I’ve never really chased jobs. I’m happy where I am today and during my previous stops in coaching. I always like where I’m at. I’ve never really had a bad job. I love where I’m at now. I don’t concern myself with jobs other than the one I have.

“But if you ask me if there’s one job I’d like to have, it would be Notre Dame.”

As someone who got to know Martin fairly well over the past four years, I can’t give a bigger recommendation to this interview. Part one, part two and part three all deliver the goods. There’s much better stuff from Martin in the articles, so head over and pony up.

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As college coaching staffs spend parts of May evaluating prospects, the heart of “recruiting season” begins to take off in June. Colleges will hold their camps, with Notre Dame’s “Irish Invasion” trying to establish itself on the prospect map, hoping to get on par with top-flight camps at schools like Florida and Ohio State.

In advance of other industry events like the Rivals Five-Star Challenge and Nike’s The Opening, Rivals updated their recruiting rankings, and quarterback Blake Barnett has moved up the most. Barnett’s now the No. 55 player in the country, and classified as a “dual-threat” quarterback, with the 6-foot-4, 193-pounder having the quicks to be a wide receiver if he wasn’t such a promising signal caller.

Joining Barnett in the Rivals250 are offensive linemen Jerry Tillery (#132) and Tristen Hoge (#159), and safety Prentice McKinney (#250), who came out of nowhere to make the list.

Right now Rivals has the Irish recruiting class ranked No. 15 in the country, though it’s the second-highest school with less than 10 commitments, trailing just USC.

Notre Dame is also after some of the top prospects on this list, still chasing blue-chippers DT Kahlil McKenzie, WR George Campbell, RB Soso Jamabo, LB Justin Hilliard, DE Jashon Cornell, WR Miles Boykin, WR Cordell Broadus, WR Equanimeous St. Brown, RB Malik Lovette, WR K.J. Hill and plenty more.

(Quick reminder: These rankings are as subjective as they come right now, especially before any of these players have a chance to get out to camps this summer. Deep breaths. Lot of time left.)

For another look at Irish recruiting, check out the conversation I had with Steve Wiltfong, 247’s director of recruiting about the evolution of Notre Dame’s recruiting efforts.

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Interestingly enough, the podcast Brian Kelly did with Bruce Feldman is picking up traction. While we pointed out some other segments that were interesting to us, Kelly’s talk of the difficulties getting traditional opponents like Michigan and Michigan State back on the schedule has some college football pundits accusing Kelly of complaining.

Here’s the section that’s got so many people up in arms:

“All I can do is voice my … you know, as a football coach, especially one that’s been in the Midwest, I love the ability to play Michigan and Michigan State and the tradition of it. But the reality of it is, you know, for our athletic department to enter into the agreement with the ACC, we have to give up a little bit from a football perspective relative to scheduling. To make our athletic department whole relative to soccer and lacrosse and basketball, that ACC agreement was absolutely crucial for our athletic teams.

“Football had to give up a little bit relative to flexibility and scheduling by taking on a commitment with the ACC. Therefore it’s put us in a very difficult situation scheduling and unfortunately, it’s taken some of those schools like a Michigan or Michigan State off our schedule. Because we’re gonna keep Navy. We’re gonna keep Stanford, and we’re gonna keep USC. Those three schools are not coming off and those are etched in stone. So now, add your ACC schools with those three schools and you’re really limited to where you can go.”

Talk about a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation for Kelly. If he downplays the rivalry with Michigan, he takes a week of crap for not calling the game with the Wolverines a rivalry. If he says that the team isn’t trying to get Michigan back on the schedule, he’s ducking Michigan, especially with Wolverines AD Dave Brandon still milking the cancellation letter he received from Jack Swarbrick.

From the perspective of Notre Dame’s football coach, Kelly has a point, but as the USA Today’s Dan Wolken points out, he also has an advantage.

But from the perspective of Notre Dame athletics as a whole, the move to the ACC is such an unqualified upgrade from the conference that used to be the Big East that Swarbrick’s decisive move is looking better and better each day.

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Lastly, because so many people have sent me this article, I thought it was important to comment on it. The Big Ten Network’s Tom Dienhart thinks the Big Ten should stop scheduling football games with Notre Dame.

Yep. That’s what he actually thinks.

It doesn’t take much googling to figure out Dienhart’s opinion of Notre Dame football, but for a conference that openly brags about its revenue stream while the quality of play — and attendance at football games — continues to decay, removing an opponent that actually fills seats isn’t the wisest move in the world.

Dienhart suggests the Big Ten play a 10-game conference schedule and remove Notre Dame from every schedule. The move to nine games was painful enough for schools that routinely feast on non-conference opponents from the MAC or I-AA, but 10 games? (How would Northwestern get to eight wins every year?)

What next, adding a team from New Jersey because they’ll get cable TV subscriptions in New York City? 

Anyway, read the article and judge it for yourself. I grew up a Big Ten fan and still enjoy watching the conference, but this feels more than a little off base.

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Hope everyone has a great weekend with friends and family. (And that no big news breaks out of South Bend, I’ll be without my computer.)

 

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.