Bobby Petrino

Post-Spring Update: Louisville

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Goodbye, Charlie Strong and Teddy Bridgewater. Welcome back, Bobby Petrino.

As we continue our tour through Notre Dame’s 2014 schedule, one of the more intriguing games on the slate is Louisville. Now a member of the ACC, the Irish will welcome the Cardinals to South Bend in a game that’ll likely pit two Top 25 teams against each other.

For as much as things are changing for the Cardinals, the constant of good football should remain. And in Petrino, athletic director Tom Jurich brought back the man that essentially put the program on the map in the early-2000s before flying too close to the sun and crashing back down to earth.

While the turmoil of walking away from an NFL franchise midseason and being kicked to the curb at Arkansas after a motorcycle crash revealed some marital (and professional) improprieties, Petrino never forgot how to coach. So after a year of image rehabilitation at Western Kentucky, Petrino jumped at the chance to come home again, returning to Louisville for a second tour of duty.

Helping us get caught up on the state of the Cardinals is Mark Ennis. Mark writes for SB Nation, their Louisville affiliate Card Chronicle, and co-hosts The 2 Man Game on ESPN 680 in Louisville.

Some good stuff here. Hope you enjoy.

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It’s hard to get past the opening question without asking one about Bobby Petrino. After quite a bizarre career detour, on that smashed his reputation to smithereens, Petrino is back at the place that gave him his first head coaching opportunity.

Are there conflicting feelings about this? Has enough water gone under the bridge? Was he the only candidate that could truly replace Charlie Strong?

Among the entire Louisville fan base there is definitely a spectrum of responses to the hiring of Bobby Petrino. On one end, there are the complete diehards that have what amounts to implicit faith in anything athletic director Tom Jurich does and vividly remember the Bobby Petrino years from before. Those people are banking on basically a repeat of his performance from 2003-2006 and don’t give his exit from Louisville, his exit from Atlanta, and his demise at Arkansas, a second thought.

On the other end, there are people who believe that the four years of Charlie Strong where they won at least a share of the Big East twice, won a Sugar Bowl, and wound up in the ACC, elevated the program to a level where they didn’t need to make a risky hire (from a public relations perspective). Those people hoped that the job opening would provide an opportunity to hire an unquestionable candidate to show that the job has legitimacy.

Most people are somewhere in the middle.

I don’t think Petrino was the only guy that could replace Charlie Strong, but I do believe he was one of the better choices if the concern was a coach being able to walk into a locker room with football credibility. There’s no doubting that Charlie Strong was a father figure to many of the players on this team and he was a very big presence in the locker room. I think Jurich’s thinking was there was simply no way to bring in another person to replace that. So, instead, he opted for someone that could walk into a room full of guys and tell them that whatever they think about him as a man, his track record shows they’re going to be exciting and win big. Jurich seems to have gotten the calculation right because there’s been little personnel turnover and the player reception of Petrino has overall been quite positive.

 

Teddy Bridgewater was one of the elite quarterbacks in college football. Will Gardner threw eight passes last year, but lit up the spring game. What do you expect from Bridgewater’s successor?

I expect Gardner to have a great year. He’s tall, mobile enough, has a very strong arm, and has taken on the leadership responsibilities that go with being a starting quarterback quite well. Petrino has noted several times this summer how encouraged he is by Gardner’s offseason work and the example being set. A good deal of the Gardner optimism is a reflection on Petrino’s track record as well. If he could get Casey Dick to throw for 2,500 yards in the SEC, he’ll do fine with Gardner.

 

A lot of the offensive success should be predicated on the impressive personnel that’s returning, including four starters up front. Can you walk Notre Dame fans through the stocked skill players that Petrino will have at his disposal?

The other reason to be optimistic about Gardner is that, like you mentioned in the questioned, he’s inheriting a load of offensive weapons. Three offensive line starters have started virtually every game for three straight years. They never settled on the right side of the offensive line last year and that problem persisted into spring. If they find answers there in fall camp, the offense should be quite productive.

In the backfield, Louisville returns Dominique Brown (1,417, 12 touchdowns in his career) and Michael Dyer. Coming out of spring ball, Petrino raved about Brown and said he would likely get the lion’s share of the carries in fall, but people who watched the spring game couldn’t help but notice that Michael Dyer looked quicker and healthier than he did at any time last season. Early enrollee L.J. Scott also got first team reps in the spring game and word is Petrino thinks he could be special down the road. If you look at Petrino’s history at both Louisville and Arkansas, he has always platooned his running backs and I think you’ll see all three get plenty of carries.

Wide receiver is easily the strength of this team and by year’s end I think you’ll see people talk about Louisville as having one of the best receiving groups in the country. It’s certainly one of the best Petrino’s had to work with in his time in college football. DeVante Parker could play his way into being a first round draft pick after catching 12 touchdowns in 12 games last year. Sophomore James Quick only caught six passes as a true-freshman, but the former blue-chip recruit showed in the spring that he’s taking to Petrino’s offense quite well (and he’ll probably benefit a great deal from defenses having to focus on Parker so much). Also emerging in spring was senior tight end Gerald Christian. Not a tremendous run blocker, Christian is a very good receiver and has excellent speed for a tight end. Overall, Louisville returns seven of its leading nine receivers from 2012.

 

If this team has taken a hit, it’s the depth on the defensive side of the ball. Petrino spent a reported $1 million a year to get Todd Grantham. But with just four starters returning, what do they have to work with?

There’s a lot of potential but some very big questions that didn’t appear to have obvious answers as spring ball ended. Louisville will consistently be a three man defensive line team under Todd Grantham, so that will mitigate some of the losses up front. There are a number of really talented, young linebackers in Keith Brown, James Burgess, Stacy Thomas, Lorenzo Mauldin (moving from a rush defensive position to strictly being an outside linebacker in a 3-4), Keith Kelsey, and James Hearns. Up front, the staff is very excited about defensive end Sheldon Rankins.

In the secondary, Louisville has a really solid pair of starting cornerbacks in Charles Gaines and Terell Floyd. It has virtually no answers at safety where multi-year starters Clavin Pryor and Hakeem Smith are gone. The coaching staff was so concerned about the safety position, they added three additional junior college signees after signing day in hopes of at least having some depth at both safety spots.

 

It feels like Charlie Strong raised the bar at Louisville to place that it just hasn’t been. What are the expectations awaiting Petrino, and do you see the move to the ACC helping or hurting to achieve those goals?

The move to the ACC is a two-edged sword, really. It’s great for the exposure, and in little things. You don’t always realize all the ways being in the AAC made Louisville invisible last year. From the outright dismissal of good performances to things like your games just not being mentioned on ESPN’s College Gameday or on SportsCenter. You’d like to think that with the move to the ACC, Louisville will at least be more visible and if somewhat successful, will benefit from that visibility.

On the other hand, Louisville has never been in a conference, much less a division, with teams like Florida State and Clemson. Those are traditional powers that recruit at completely different levels than anyone Louisville has played on a regular basis. So it will really be a challenge for Louisville to be able to get over those humps and compete for conference titles going forward. Louisville has rarely been in a position, in the past 15 to 20 years, where a conference title would probably be out of the question going into the season no matter how good the team might be.

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Thanks to Mark for taking the time to get us up to speed. Give him a follow on Twitter @MarkEnnis.

Spring positions to watch for revelations: DL & WR

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 05: Jerry Tillery #99 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish tackles Jerrod Heard #13 of the Texas Longhorns for a loss of yards during the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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If quarterback, rover and the early enrollees could be Notre Dame fans’ springtime Christmas thrills, what positions present as potential spots of coal?

Three former Irish players were invited to next week’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis: quarterback DeShone Kizer, defensive tackle Jarron Jones and defensive end Isaac Rochell. Losing two consistent defensive linemen leaves this year’s unit with some questions. Jones and Rochell combined for 100 tackles, 18 for loss and three sacks last season. Notre Dame’s returning defensive linemen combined to total 111 tackles and only 5.5 tackles for loss. To be clear, sacks are not included in that latter list because no returning defensive linemen recorded one. Among the returnees, junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37 tackles, three for loss) and senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26, 0.5) contributed solidly alongside the two NFL prospects.

This dearth of known and reliable linemen is a large part of why the potential transfer of Clemson graduate defensive tackle Scott Pagano is so intriguing. Pagano would immediately be a favorite to start, and if not that, at least rotate in heavily.

For now, though, Pagano remains a theoretical

By the end of spring practice, who already on campus will emerge alongside Tillery and Trumbetti in the Irish front? Senior ends Jay Hayes (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) and Jonathon Bonner (nine tackles) seem the most-likely candidates … aside from former four-star recruit and now rising sophomore Daelin Hayes. In his debut season, D. Hayes finished with 11 tackles.

Look for senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) to establish himself as Tillery’s immediate backup this spring, but that spot in the rotation will be up for competition all over again once four-star tackle Darnell Ewell (Lake Taylor High School; Norfolk, Va.) arrives on campus in the fall. His size and quickness should play right into new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s system.

Equanimeous and Who?
Not only did Notre Dame bring in a graduate transfer at receiver in former Michigan wideout Freddy Canteen, but it has also already received the commitments of two four-star receivers in the 2018 recruiting class. The continued emphasis on the position reflects the lack of bona fide game-breakers currently on the roster.

Junior Equanimeous St. Brown established himself as the top Irish threat in 2016, and he should shine only further with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush targeting him. Classmates often amplify each other’s success, simply due to the added shared reps innate to joining practice at the same time. With Torii Hunter, Jr., now pursuing a professional baseball career, who will prevent the secondary from focusing all its energies on St. Brown?

Canteen will not be with Notre Dame in the spring, as he does not graduate from Michigan until April. That will give a clear shot for the likes of juniors Chris Finke, C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin, and sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool to establish themselves. Did that say “clear” shot? It should probably read, “a chance to separate from the crowd.”

If a genuine threat does not line up opposite St. Brown, his explosiveness will likely be greatly reduced by focused defensive scheming. Wimbush will need another target before 2018.

Of course, here is where one should acknowledge the millennia-tested fact: Coal under pressure becomes diamonds.

2016 Notre Dame’s win expectancy was 7.2
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Johnson named the Irish as his team most likely to dramatically improve its record in 2017. Johnson’s thinking is based, at least in part, on Notre Dame’s second-order win total having been 7.2 in 2016, compared to the four wins the Irish actually walked away with. That discrepancy was the largest in the country.

Second-order win totals reflect how many points a team should have scored and allowed based on offensive and defensive stats. In theory, this shines a light on how luck and chance factored into results. Naturally, losing seven games by one possession will often be reflected by a higher second-order win total.

“Notre Dame’s win-loss record belied a solid, if imperfect, squad that just couldn’t pull out close games…” Johnson writes. “The Irish may not get back into College Football Playoff contention in 2017, but they’re bound to post a few more Ws because of reversion to the mean.”

Admittedly, the small sample size of a football season reduces the applicability of metrics such as second- and third-order wins when compared to baseball and basketball.

Jones becomes Mack
A quick piece of housekeeping: Apparently junior tight end Alizé Jones has changed his name to Alizé Mack.

While Notre Dame’s roster may not reflect that change yet, it is reasonable to expect it will after its next update. The football program has consistently respected the intricacies of players’ name preferences. Tai-ler Jones becoming TJ Jones jumps to mind, for example.

Anyways, hopefully noting Mack’s name change here might reduce some confusion down the line. Probably not. How many readers possibly read to the actual bottom of an article? But hey, in good faith.

WR Lenzy makes 11th commitment, brings speed to Irish

lenzy
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At what point does an impressive recruiting roll become something more? When does it become a harbinger of things to come, even if not for a few seasons? How many notable commitments in a row establishes a class as special?

If the answer to any of the above is 11 commitments by the end of February, including five within two weeks, then Notre Dame is there following consensus four-star athlete Braden Lenzy’s announcement Thursday evening.

The Tigard High School (Portland, Ore) receiver/cornerback chose the Irish over offers from USC, Oregon and Michigan State, among a litany of others. In all, nine Pac-12 schools chased Lenzy—and a 10th, Washington, had shown interest—per rivals.com.

Lenzy will fit the leading 2018 need voiced by Irish coach Brian Kelly three weeks ago on National Signing Day 2017.

“Elite speed on offense will be a primary goal for us,” Kelly said Feb. 1. “Guys that can change the game on one possession. I think we’ll see that… We want a couple of home run hitters. We don’t care if they’re Darren Sproles’s size. We’re going to come off the board in terms of profile. We want some guys that can change the game on offense with elite speed.”

At 6-foot, 175 pounds, Lenzy is taller than Sproles’s 5-foot-6, but it is still his speed that drew Notre Dame’s interest.

“They made it clear they want me to do kickoff return and use me as a deep threat across the field,” he told Irish Illustrated. “Just being kind of an athlete, similar to what I’ve been doing already in high school, just on a bigger scale with a quarterback that can throw it a lot farther.”

Presuming Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush is that arm in 2018, throwing great distances should not be an issue. Between Lenzy and fellow 2018 commit Micah Jones, covering those distances should be a reasonable request, as well.

Lenzy brings Notre Dame’s class of 2018 to 11, including eight four-stars according to Rivals’ rating system. Current scholarship projections indicate the class will not be a large one, meaning the Irish coaching staff has already garnered the commitments of more than half the class. Once again, though, Kelly’s sentiment regarding recruiting timing should be remembered.

“We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

SWARBRICK’S TAKE ON RECRUITING
Kelly credited Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick with much assistance in securing the country’s No. 13 recruiting class in 2017. A refresher on those comments:

“In a lot of instances, [Swarbrick] had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it’s going,” Kelly said. “There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future.”

Swarbrick did not dispute the factual nature of any of that in an interview with the Indianapolis Star, but he did contest the need for praising what he saw as part of his job, one of the preferred parts of his job, at that.

“I can’t say anything about this year felt all that different,” Swarbrick told Star reporter Laken Litman. “Some asked questions about the future of the program and can we compete for a national championship. And I would talk about the elements of the program we were focused on improving.”

Swarbrick and Litman discussed a number of items in the second-half of the interview released by the Star, including Notre Dame’s facilities, a possible early signing period in football and if the Oct. 8, 2016, game against North Carolina State should have been played. Spoiler: No. Then why was it? Go check it out.

Swarbrick also told Litman he likes to write in his free time.

“I tend to think strategically with a pen in my hand.” Swarbrick added he is currently scribbling away on where he thinks college athletics are headed.

This scribe, for one, would be most interested in skimming those legal pads.

Will Wimbush, Elko and the early enrollees surprise in spring practice?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Exactly 59 days from today, the Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Sure, they will be playing against themselves, but nonetheless, it will be somewhat-competitive football played in gold helmets.

For timing context, exactly 59 days ago, you looked beneath the Christmas tree to learn if Santa Claus left you season tickets, socks or coal. I got socks. They had some of that extra cushioning, so I considered them a suitable treat.

Whether you care about my argyles or not (you don’t), for many the Blue-Gold Game and Christmas morning hold similar excitement. That fact is apparently why Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick does not concern himself when groups of alumni publicly lament his decisions, or lack thereof.

“I never worry about that,” Swarbirck told the Indianapolis Star in an exclusive interview you really should read. Go on, click the link, it will open in a new tab. You can come right back here when you are done.

“The hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion in your program. If that sort of stuff bothers you, you can’t be the athletic director, head coach or the quarterback at Notre Dame.”

That very passion will undoubtedly lead to frame-by-frame discussions of video snippets from spring practice, parsing of each and every word Irish coach Brian Kelly says in quick interviews after those practices, and extreme pessimism and optimism about the 2017 season.

In the Christmas spirit, what toys could bring the must excitement during the spring unwrapping? Personally, the gift I was unsure of always brought the most joy. I would rather open an unexpected book than know about a charcoal-gray suit. In other words, at least for today, let’s look past the offensive line, the running backs and the inside linebackers. Instead, let’s look forward to learning about… (more…)

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Karlos Williams #9 of the Florida State Seminoles scores the touchdown that would win the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their game at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.

With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.

The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.

Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.

Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.

If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.

Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order: (more…)