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.

Work in weight & film rooms has Hayes ready to meet five-star potential

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Common thinking might give four- and five-star recruits too much credit. They do not all arrive ready to play at the collegiate level on day one. It takes time, conditioning, learning. Perhaps it was that awareness that kept Daelin Hayes from letting his five-star ranking on rivals.com change his expectations. He knew he would have much work ahead of him when he arrived at Notre Dame as the only five-star prospect in the class of 2016.

Now finishing his freshman year, the defensive end notices the effects of his work as he puts in more.

“I remember my first time watching film, I was like, woah,” Hayes said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “I look quicker, like more twitch than I did. I was definitely—it’s hard to put into words—but to actually be able to go back and look at it and see how it affected the game was huge. [Director of football performance Matt] Balis has worked wonders for us.”

Hayes’ improved quickness showed in his three “sacks” in the intrasquad scrimmage. Going against future NFL prospect Mike McGlinchey at left tackle, Hayes faced a stiff challenge throughout spring’s 15 practices, not that he shied away from that task.

“I don’t think it was ever a point where it was overwhelming,” Hayes said. “I’ve always been a competitor. … But you guys know Mike, he’s huge, obviously a first-round talent and whatnot. I’m just grateful to be able to go against somebody like that each and every day. He makes me better. …

“I love competing with the guy. You go and do that with a guy in practice every day, then the game scenario comes, it’s like second nature. You can do this in practice, you can definitely do this against anybody.”

McGlinchey does not seem to mind the matchup, either.

“Daelin is a man who is blessed with a lot of size and athletic ability,” McGlinchey said Friday. “That presents a lot of problems for people in the game of football. He’s so young, and he has so much still to work on, it’s pretty cool to see what he’s capable of and then what he is going to do down the road.”

When Hayes arrived at Notre Dame, still recovering from a high school shoulder injury, he weighed 250 pounds with 18 percent body fat. Now, he said, he still weighs 250—the Irish roster lists him at 255—but is down to 10 percent body fat. It is that kind of change which has created more twitch and makes McGlinchey envision Hayes after more time spent improving in the weight room and the film room.

“I’m not the same athlete that I was when I first came in, not by any means,” Hayes said. “… Buying into that offseason program is going to be huge for our team.”

Per the Blue-Gold Game’s statistics, Hayes ended the scrimmage with seven tackles. Whether skeptical of the recordkeeping within a practice or not, seven tackles in one abbreviated afternoon compares favorably to Hayes’ total of 11 in 12 games last season. Some of that uptick is playing time, some of it is scheme, some of it is realization of the potential highlighted by a five-star ranking. For now, though, Hayes insists he intends to simply learn from last year’s 4-8 disappointment and embrace the changes brought by new Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko.

“With last year being the year that we had, there definitely was a yearning for change,” Hayes said. “When you have basically a reboot of the program, the guys are hungry and they don’t want to have to experience the same season as last year.

“Just continue to trust in that process. We’re hungry for something to cling on and buy into. When coach Elko, coach Balis, everybody came in as part of that reboot, I think we welcomed with open arms. [We’ll] continue to buy into the system and become more comfortable within the system.”

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line

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Heading into spring practice, a quick look was taken at each position group in order of “expected level of interest or question marks,” from least interesting to most, as dictated by an “Inside the Irish” reader. That series concluded with the defensive line.

Exiting spring practice, let’s reprise that premise and reverse the order. If the defensive line triggered the most questions, then answering them first seems to make some version of sense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
“Will enough defensive linemen prove themselves deserving of playing time to create a viable threat up front?” this space asked. “If so, who will those linemen be?”

RELATED READING: One day until spring practice: A look at the defensive line

Aside from senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26 tackles last season, 0.5 for loss), senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss amid a season lost largely to concussion) and junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37, 3), the Irish defensive line had little track record to cite or rely upon for confidence. Leading the unknowns and unprovens were sophomore ends Daelin Hayes, who recorded 11 tackles in 2016, and Julian Okwara (4).

The lack of depth and experience was apparent heading into the 15 spring practices.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
Look past the 11 sacks in the Blue-Gold Game. Intrasquad scrimmages featuring red-jerseyed quarterbacks make for inexact and context-less statistics. There is some value, however, in noting the defensive line got within reach of the quarterback at least eight times in an abbreviated game. (Three “sacks” came from the linebacker corps.)

“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, just buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

RELATED READING: What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

Hayes led the way with three sacks, and he will be expected to continue that in the fall, starting at the weakside/rush defensive end spot. Exiting spring, though, only he and Tillery solidified themselves as starters. Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Mike Elko claimed a successful spring for the front.

“I’m happy with our defensive line progress,” Elko said Friday. “Obviously there was a lot written about that group. I’m happy about the progress they’ve made this spring. I think [defensive line coach] Mike [Elston] has done a good job developing them. I think they are buying into the way we want to play defense. There’s probably four to five guys on the inside that are starting to get into a position where we feel comfortable that they can step in and help us.” (more…)

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?