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.

Kelly and Swarbrick turn attention to science of injury prevention

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five things we learned: Signing Day 2016

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

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

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

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

Let’s find out what we learned.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Faxes in: Liam Eichenberg

Liam Eichenberg
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LIAM EICHENBERG
Cleveland, Ohio

Measurables: 6’6″, 280 lbs.

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

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

Projected Position: Offensive tackle.

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

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

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

Obligatory YouTube clip: