Florida State Seminoles quarterback Jameis Winston throws a pass against the Auburn Tigers in the fourth quarter during the NCAA BCS Championship football game in Pasadena

(Post) Spring update: Florida State

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After a bit of a break, we’re back with another update on Notre Dame’s opponents. And this one might be the stiffest of them all.

The Irish will play their first true away game in one of the most formidable venues in college football, visiting Tallahassee and Doak Campbell Stadium to take on the national champs, Florida State. Jimbo Fisher’s team returns the Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston and a slew of talented players expecting to take another run at a national title.

In the most optimistic of scenarios, the game against Florida State will have national implications. Even if doesn’t, it’ll be the highlight of an Irish slate that has a handful of premiere matchups.

To get us up to speed, Warchant.com’s Ben Jones took some time and answered some (I hope) good questions from me.

Let’s get to it:

On first glance, it’s striking to see the talent that’s returning to this roster. Per FSU’s spring prospectus, seven starters return on both sides of the ball. But there were a lot of key departures as well. Help put into context how this team looks on paper compared to last season’s national champs.

You’re right; there are some big pieces coming back and also some key roles that need to be filled. Offensively, FSU returns a Heisman winner at quarterback, four of five linemen, and a senior who has led the team in receiving in each of the last three years. They lose a Rimington winner at center and their first 1,000-yard rusher since Warrick Dunn, but the roster is well constructed and those shouldn’t be major issues. Replacing Kelvin Benjamin, a 6-foot-6 wide receiver with 15 touchdown receptions last year, is a big deal, but there are enough other receiving options to believe it won’t be too big of an obstacle to overcome.

On defense, FSU has to replace vocal leaders in linebacker Telvin Smith and defensive back Lamarcus Joyner. Safety Terrence Brooks was an impact player also, but again, strong recruiting for several years has restocked the roster and there should be players to pick up their production. Like many teams in June, this team has some questions. But it also has plenty of potential answers.

 

The Seminoles scored more than 50 points a game last year. Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston returns behind a very experienced offensive line. Is there anything that can hold this unit back?

Losing Benjamin, a first round draft pick, is a big deal. He had 10 touchdowns in the final six games, including the game winner in Pasadena, and was nearly impossible to cover. FSU also lost slot receiver Kenny Shaw, who had over 900 yards and was quietly productive as an outlet for underneath passes. With them gone, expect tight end Nick O’Leary (557 yards, 7 TDs in 2013) to take an even bigger role in the red zone and on short routes across the middle.

Having Jameis Winston eliminates a lot of problems, but there’s no veteran behind the redshirt sophomore. Clint Trickett transferred to West Virginia and Jacob Coker left for Alabama, meaning sophomore Sean Maguire (21 career pass attempts) is the only player with any experience behind him. He might be able to keep FSU afloat, but he’s an unknown for now.

 

Seems like a similar song for the defense. The nation’s top unit needs to replace (at least one) key starter at every level, but seems primed for a reload. What concerns do you have for Charles Kelly’s defense?

The biggest concern for the defense is replacing defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan. It’s not often a nose tackle is disruptive enough to finish third on the team in tackles (63) and lead the team in TFLs, but that’s what Jernigan did as a junior before leaving for the NFL. There’s no defensive tackle behind him who’s as explosive, and that’s a concern.

FSU will have to find someone on the defensive line to draw double teams and give the linebackers a chance to make plays. The best candidate might be junior Mario Edwards, a five-star recruit who’s always had incredible physical ability but hasn’t tapped his full potential. If he develops into a star, the defense should be strong at every level again.

 

For the past few seasons it felt like Jimbo Fisher had one of the nation’s top rosters and a schedule that set up perfectly for a championship game run. Yet the Seminoles always seemed to trip themselves up. Does last year’s championship win — against an SEC team no less — feel like it could open the flood gates?

It absolutely felt like a breakthrough for a program that had fallen into a lull in the last decade toward the end of the Bobby Bowden era. As you observed, beating an SEC team for the title was a significant achievement for a team that considers Florida its biggest rival and regularly competes with Georgia, Alabama and Auburn for recruits. Considering how the roster has been built, FSU fans are hopeful they can follow up with another strong season. The Seminoles open the season with a game against Oklahoma State in Dallas, and their goal is to finish the season in Dallas for the national championship.

 

Can you give Irish fans an idea of how Jimbo Fisher is viewed? While it looks like the coach-in-waiting tab was obviously successful now that the Seminoles have won a title, there had to be some impatience there for a while? Do Seminoles fans view Fisher as an elite head coach or a guy that is merely running one of college football’s flagship programs built by Bobby Bowden?

There were some questions earlier in Fisher’s tenure as the Seminoles had head-scratching losses against teams like N.C. State and Wake Forest. Finishing an undefeated season and winning a national championship quiets a lot of questions though, and his success in the draft (18 players chosen in the last two years) has shown that he can identify and develop talent.

Bowden will always be considered the architect of the program, but this is Fisher’s team now. FSU went 24-16 in Bowden’s last three years, while Fisher has gone 45-10 in four seasons. The decision to remove Bowden was difficult and awkward, but you’d be hard pressed to find anyone now who doesn’t think Fisher is the right man to lead the program.

 

It’s hard to write about Jameis Winston without getting into some of the off the field controversy. The embarrassing shoplifting situation, the other minor police blotter material, and the very serious rape charges. None garnering more than a slap on the wrist.

As someone much closer to the situation, what do you make of it? Are we past the youthful indiscretions? The New York Times had a rather unflattering portrayal of the entire situation that the school disputed, but have you noticed any changes in Winston or the program since the allegations late last season?

Frankly, this is difficult to answer. It seems that we never know the athletes we cover as well as we think we do, and that’s true with Jameis as well. There were some media restrictions placed on him this spring during baseball season and football practice. He spoke before spring football started and after the spring game, but not between those two for a full month, if memory serves.

Winston told reporters in New York at the Heisman ceremony he knew he’d have a different life going forward and wouldn’t be able to do some things he could normally do, but the crab legs incident does make you question his judgment. FSU has tried to keep someone around him when he’s in public — for example, he had a campus police officer with him at all baseball road games. But you can’t have someone with him 24/7. It wouldn’t surprise me if this summer and fall passes quietly off the field with no new incidents for him, but it also wouldn’t surprise me if there’s another indiscretion.

Either way, there will continue to be noise around the rape allegations. There may be a civil suit coming (against Winston, FSU, or the Tallahassee police), and the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is investigating the university for Title IX violations connected to the incident.

 

Turning the subject back to football, getting Notre Dame and Florida State together is always a big deal. Is this the highlight game of the schedule for Noles fans, too?

It’s absolutely one of the highlights. The home schedule this year is very strong, with Clemson and Florida also visiting Tallahassee. The end-of-season game with the rival Gators is probably bigger, but Notre Dame might make more FSU fans more nervous. As of now, it’s my upset pick for this season.

I’m curious to see what Everett Golson in his return to Notre Dame. There are questions for the Irish to answer, but you also saw FSU slow down a bit towards the end of last year. Duke gave FSU some trouble early in the ACC Championship, and Auburn was just a play or two away from winning. If teams can look at those games and see what was successful, they might be able to create a game plan that will really do some damage.

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Special thanks to Ben for going above and beyond. For more from him, you can find his writing work at Warchant, and follow him on Twitter @WarchantBen

Live Video Mailbag: 40-year decision, more BVG, freshmen and more

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We’ve done plenty of mailbags, but this is our first shot at a Live Video Mailbag. This should be a better way to answer more questions and hopefully interact with a few of you as we try to work off some of yesterday’s Super Bowl snacks.

Topics on the list: The 40-year decision, more Brian VanGorder talk, the incoming (and redshirt) freshmen and a whole lot more.

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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.”