Weekend Notes: Camp at Culver, Freshman numbers and the Chuck Martin circuit

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We are running out of days without football to talk about. Preseason camp is right around the corner. For student-athletes, they get one last chance to spend time with family and friends before returning to campus and kicking off camp.

Notre Dame announced officially that they’ll begin camp at the Culver Military Academy on Monday, August 4. It’s a great opportunity to get away from campus as they did last year, and Culver’s facilities — not to mention a long tradition with Notre Dame — make for a perfect fit.

“Culver Military Academy will provide a unique and rewarding opportunity for our football program as we embark on the 2014 season,” said fifth-year head coach Brian Kelly. “Culver holds a special place in my heart as my family has participated in camps on the grounds for years. We were able to initiate a successful program last year at Shiloh Park Retreat and Conference Center. Culver will significantly help improve the experience for our team this fall.”

The Irish will spend the first week of camp at Culver, opening on August 4th before returning to campus and the LaBar Football Practice Fields on Saturday, August 9. The official release calls the first week their “acclimatization portion of training camp.”

Culver is about 45 minutes from campus, and the historic military academy has a long history with the Irish football program. That, along with some top-notch football facilities, made for a great opportunity.

“We are happy to welcome Notre Dame back to Culver,” Head of Schools John Buxton said. “Culver and the Irish have enjoyed a great relationship through years dating back to Knute Rockne and Bob Peck. Lou Holtz brought his teams here in 1995 and 1996. Our teams have played at ND on several occasions and Notre Dame teams have used our facilities over the years. This exchange gives our coaches and student-athletes the opportunity to see in action the ideals we aspire to with our programs.”

***

While Andrew Trumbetti and Justin Brent enrolled at Notre Dame early and took part in spring practice, we’ll get our first official look at the rest of the freshman class come training camp. But for those wondering about the jersey numbers that the freshmen will take to the field, Notre Dame’s sports information department confirmed Irish Illustrated’s scoop on who will be wearing what next year.

Florida transfer Cody Riggs is taking over Bennett Jackson’s No. 2 jersey for his lone season in South Bend. The rest of the scholarship newcomers will wear the following:

No. 2: Cody Riggs
No. 5: Nyles Morgan
No. 11: Justin Brent
No. 13: Tyler Luatua
No. 14: DeShone Kizer
No. 15: Corey Holmes
No. 19: Nick Watkins
No. 23: Drue Tranquill
No. 33: Jhonny Williams
No. 43: Kolin Hill
No. 48: Greer Martini
No. 53: Sam Mustipher
No. 55: Jonathan Bonner
No. 56: Quenton Nelson
No. 67: Jimmy Byrne
No. 71: Alex Bars
No. 75: Daniel Cage
No. 82: Nic Weishar
No. 85: Tyler Newsome
No. 92: Grant Blankenship
No. 93: Jay Hayes
No. 96: Pete Mokwuah
No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti

Some additional info to add to my profiles as I keep rolling through the Irish A-to-Z.

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It was a big week for new Miami (Ohio) head coach Chuck Martin. The former Irish offensive coordinator made a few headlines this week, as he was profiled by the always excellent Dan Wetzel of Yahoo Sports and appeared on the Jim Rome Show on Friday afternoon.

As you’d expect, Martin came off great in both profiles, with this section of Wetzel’s article particularly interesting:

[Martin] was the perfect combination of experience and acumen; a proven tactician and motivator. He could both develop talent and recruit it, both at the elite level of Notre Dame and finding diamonds in the rough in D-II.

He was on the radar of any number of higher paying programs where even if they were struggling he’d take over teams with players who scored more than two touchdowns in an entire season. Basically he wouldn’t risk the trajectory of his career on a winless bunch in the MAC.

“When he took the job, six ADs from other schools called and said, ‘how’d you get him?'” Miami athletic director David Sayler said.

Yeah, how?

“I’m just a little bit off,” Martin noted.

Then he laughed again.

Wetzel also talked about Martin’s skills on the recruiting trail, highlighting a recruiting battle Martin had late in the cycle against Rutgers for the services of receiver Sam Martin. When Martin talked about wanting to go to the Big Ten, Martin didn’t struggle to set him straight.

“He said, ‘Coach, I want to play at the highest level,'” Martin told Wetzel. “I said, ‘The highest level is the NFL. If you think they can get you to the NFL more than me, then go play there.’

“He signed with me.”

On Jim Rome’s program today, Martin talked a little bit about the decision to take a roughly $200,000 pay cut and take over a program that wasn’t even competitive last season, losing all 12 games.

“Most people that know MAC football think I’ve got the best job in the league,” Martin told Rome. “I know it says 0-12 and I know they struggled the last few years, but the combination of football and academics, and then the campus life and even the town of Oxford, it’s a pretty powerful combination to beat. And then to take over a program that has a history of being successful but is down is a pretty powerful combination as a coach.”

Martin also talked about the perfect fit he found at Miami, able to sell the marriage of academics and athletics that worked for him at Notre Dame. As you’d expect, he didn’t mince words.

“The national graduation rate is hard for me to stomach. The amount of money we make in Division I athletics in football and basketball, graduation rates should be in the 80s to 90s. We have all these resources with all these schools with tutors, and all these specialists that help Division I athletes, but we’re making hundreds of millions of dollars and coaches are making millions of dollars off these kids, and we’re graduating kids at a much lower percentage than we should.

The sad thing is that they go on and when they’re 30, they’re having a hard time functioning in the world, and we’re still making millions of dollars. To me, I’m an old Division III, non-scholarship athlete that went to school to get a degree and I played football because I wanted to do something with my free time, nobody paid me to play college football. To me, we’re committed and I’m committed to finding the schools that graduate kids and are committed to graduating kids, just like they are committed to making their hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Martin talked openly with Wetzel about recruiting players to Oxford by telling them up front that he planned on kicking their a**. He didn’t soften his sentiment at all, continuing to be the blunt and up front guy Notre Dame fans never really got a chance to know.

“If you want it easy, don’t come and play football for us,” Martin said of his recruiting pitch. “If you want it easy every day for the rest of your four-year career, I’ll do that, but that’s not going to help you get to where you want to go. I want, on the field for you to help us win championships, and I want to develop you into an NFL player.”

 

Brian Kelly & Jack Swarbrick on Notre Dame’s changes moving forward

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Whether 2016’s disappointing 4-8 finish was the impetus to program-wide alterations at Notre Dame this offseason, it certainly underscored the need. For the last few months, Irish coach Brian Kelly has focused those changes on himself and self-assessment, and he reiterated that approach when talking with PFT Live’s Mike Florio early Monday morning.

“This is my 27th year of being a head coach, and prior to last year I had one losing season,” Kelly said. “You have a way of doing things, you have a system in place, you follow that year after year. Certainly you make tweaks along the way, but this is the first time where I’ve really taken a step back and made substantial changes in terms of how I’m doing things on a day-to-day basis…

“From my perspective, after being at it as long as I have, you have to take it on yourself that you’re the one that needs to make the corrections. It’s not the players.”

None of this is new. Kelly has been consistent in his springtime messaging, but others have looked past the effects of the 4-8 record and insist the changes were coming regardless of the win-loss totals. Senior captain Drue Tranquill, for example, acknowledged the severity of the losing record Friday but argued adjustments were needed no matter what the final scores were.

“If you have an average season like 8-4, some things might carry over to the next season,” Tranquill said the day before the spring practice finale. “Whereas when you go 4-8, something has to change.

“But I think even at Notre Dame, 8-4 is never really acceptable or tolerated. Those things that were taking place, just within our culture, would have been noticed whether we were 10-3, 4-8. The criticism gave it a lot more hype and juice. We could kind of feel as guys in the program throughout the past three years that certain things needed to change.

“Those things were finally brought to light and it happened to be during a 4-8 season. I don’t necessarily know that 4-8 was the reason all this change happened.”

New Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko expressed a similar sentiment Friday morning, discussing the pressure moving forward.

“If we were coming off a 12-0 season in which we were competing for the national championship, there would be pressure on us at Notre Dame to be successful this year,” Elko said. “That’s Notre Dame.”

Elko has been a quick study, as his comments were echoed the next day by Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick during NBC Sports Network’s broadcast of the Blue-Gold Game.

“We expect to compete for national championships and 4-8 is not acceptable,” Swarbrick said. “On the other hand, when you’re in that situation, you have to decide how you’re going to move forward. We decided to move forward by making a major investment in retooling our program with Brian as the leader of it. That’s not a one-year investment for us. We brought in some talented assistant coaches. We rebuilt elements of the program

“We view it as a multi-year investment going forward.”

KELLY ON RECRUITING PITCH
Using this week’s NFL Draft as a peg, Florio also asked Kelly about balancing players’ NFL aspirations with team success both in the recruiting process and during the actual season.

“We have to talk more in terms of process over production,” Kelly responded. “We talk in terms of you’re coming to Notre Dame for a reason. You’re going to get a degree, which will set you up for the rest of your life, and you’re going to play on the grandest stage at Notre Dame, so everybody will see you.

“As long as there’s the balance there—and there has to be that balance in terms of getting your education and playing for championships—then we’re okay. It’s when that balance is out of whack, we’ll have an issue. We vet that out in the recruiting process and make sure we don’t take any kids that are coming to Notre Dame just because they’re waiting for that [junior] year to complete so they can go to the draft.”

A reminder: The NFL Draft begins with its first round Thursday night. Kelly will be joining former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer at the draft in Philadelphia to await Kizer’s destination and future employer.

MISSED THE BLUE-GOLD GAME?
It is available for streaming: here.

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?

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

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Time spent on a traditional game wrap of a spring intrasquad exhibition seems misspent. Gold won Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game 27-14 led by rising sophomore quarterback Ian Book. The first-string defense (Gold) held the first-string offense to an average of 5.4 yards per play. For context’s sake: Last season Notre Dame gained an average of 6.1 yards per play and held opponents to 5.4.

With that abbreviated recap out of the way, what did Saturday’s pseudo-game environment show about the Irish? If the 20,147 in attendance paid attention, they had the chance to learn a few things:

Daelin Hayes will be ready to hit a quarterback in September
Notre Dame’s quarterbacks were off limits all spring. Bulls might charge when they see red, but the Irish defensive line has had to remember to ease up when they come across a quarterback’s red jersey. If sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes had forgotten that Saturday, Notre Dame might not have any quarterbacks left to play in the fall.

“At the end of the day, we’re on the same team,” Hayes said, dismissing any bitterness about the quarterbacks’ protections. “We have to keep our guys healthy. I wasn’t frustrated, but come September 2, you know.”

Officially, Hayes was credited with three sacks and another tackle for loss among his seven tackles. Admittedly, gauging sacks is tricky when the quarterback does not actually go to the ground. How many of Hayes’ three sacks and the defense’s 11 total would have been evaded if the defender needed to do more than touch the passer? That answer is highly subjective, but discounting Hayes’ numbers would miss the bigger picture.

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

Senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) notched two sacks and sophomore end Ade Ogundeji came the closest to tackling a red jersey when he stripped junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush from behind. The defensive line has been expected to be a weak point for the Irish moving forward, but the spring performance indicates it has a chance at holding its own. These accomplishments bear further merit considering Notre Dame’s offensive line is widely-considered one of its few spots of expected quality.

RELATED READING: Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

“I think it’s pretty clear Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I’d have to watch the film, but it seemed like [sophomore end] Julian Okwara was a hard guy to block coming off the edge, as well.”

Ian Book provides some peace of mind
Book was not spectacular, but he was also far from incompetent or intimidated. In his first action on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, Book completed 18-of-25 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by a 58-yard connection with sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. Meanwhile, junior Brandon Wimbush completed 22-of-32 passes for 303 yards.

Bluntly, one has not needed to follow Notre Dame for very long to fit that “long enough” qualification. Last season’s backup, Malik Zaire, saw competitive action against both Texas and Stanford. In 2015, DeShone Kizer came off the bench to start 11 games after Zaire suffered a season-ending ankle injury. (more…)

What Notre Dame players should you actually watch? Plus, catch up on reading

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If technology does its part, this will post as its typist meanders toward finding his credential for the Blue-Gold Game to conclude Notre Dame’s spring practice. If technology doesn’t do its part, well, then this will be lost to the cobwebs of the internet. Such as it goes.

This space has spent much of the past week discussing what to look for in the 12:30 p.m. ET exhibition. Worry about the big picture, not the individuals. Fret about the macro, not the micro.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the indivdual players
Blue-Gold Game primer with help from Notre Dame’s coordinators
Four defensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game
Four offensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game

But, if insistent on focusing on singular players, look to the inexperienced, the names you are unfamiliar with. The 15th and final practice of spring may be no more than a practice in reality, but it is in front of nearly 30,000 fans in Notre Dame Stadium. Some players do not have so much as that minimal experience.

“The Blue-Gold Game, specifically, is a time for us to emulate a game-like situation,” senior safety/linebacker/rover Drue Tranquill said. “Especially for guys like freshmen, second-semester guys coming in, it’s a great opportunity for them to get that game feeling, but also continue to take steps in the process to get better.”

The question on the tip of your tongue is a fair one. If you are unfamiliar with the names, how are you supposed to focus on those players? How are you to know who fits the appropriate tunnel vision version of perspective?

Let’s turn to Irish coach Brian Kelly’s mentions from Wednesday–primarily, sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara, sophomore long snapper John Shannon, senior kicker Sam Kohler, sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem and sophomore safety Jalen Elliott.

Obviously, that is just a sampling. Less obviously, this post’s purpose may or may not be to link to previous reading material and remind you of the vague but pertinent purposes to today’s endeavor. It is neither be-all nor end-all. It is simply another opportunity to gauge what may come down the line.

But hey, how about a prediction? Per Kelly, the first-team offense and second-team defense will be in blue, against the first-team defense and second-team offense in white.

PREDICTION: Blue 37, White 21

HOW TO WATCH
As a recurring reminder, the Blue-Gold Game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network, as well as streamed online at ndstream.nbcsports.com and on the NBC Sports app.