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Five things we learned: Brian Kelly kicks off the 2014 season

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The wait is over. Brian Kelly kicked off the 2014 season with an hour-long press conference, putting an end to the offseason abyss as Notre Dame begins training camp on Monday. Coming off a 9-4 season and welcoming back quarterback Everett Golson, expectations are once again sky-high under the dome, where the Irish welcome back a young but talented football team.

But the road to the first College Football Playoff won’t be easy. With a daunting schedule and some question marks on both sides of the ball, Kelly spent Friday getting us up to speed on the state of his football program.

Let’s take a look at the five things we learned:

 

Tony Springmann’s career-ending injury puts even more focus on the defensive line. 

Kelly dropped some big news when he announced that senior Tony Springmann was retiring from football, forced to take a medical hardship after a back injury ended his career this summer. The Fort Wayne native looked like a promising piece of the Irish defense when he contributed in a supporting role in 2012, but had last season erased by a knee injury and then missed spring football after an infection slowed down his recovery.

Springmann’s knee finally healed, but an undisclosed back injury will force his football career to end prematurely, a tough blow not just to Springmann, but to the depth of the defensive front. Just like Danny Spond, Springmann will continue to have a role with the team.

“Tony will no longer be playing football. He’ll still stay involved in the program,” Kelly announced. “Tony has done a great job of mentoring a lot of our younger players in the program. He’s shown great leadership, great resolve in coming back from his knee injury, and he’ll stay connected with our program and still be part of our season as we go down to the Culver Academies.”

The loss of Springmann puts more on the shoulders of veteran Chase Hounshell, who has yet to stay healthy through a season in South Bend. But Kelly expects the youth on the roster to fill the gap, with redshirt freshman Jacob Matuska listed at 289 pounds on the fall roster and freshmen Daniel Cage and Pete Mokwuah both over 300 pounds.

All three first-year participants should be able to support Jarron Jones at nose guard, with Cage and Mokwuah’s physical abilities better than expected.

“With Cage and Mokwuah, their volume is ahead of any of the freshmen that we’ve had at that position since we’ve come here,” Kelly said. “Their ability to come in and immediately take reps, both of them are immediately able to compete right away.”

 

Brian Kelly wants to see more from Everett Golson (and Malik Zaire) before naming a starting quarterback. 

The surprise competition at quarterback will continue into fall camp. Kelly wants to see more from both senior Everett Golson and sophomore Malik Zaire before naming a starter. He also outlined where he expects to see improvement from both quarterbacks, who have continued to push each other from spring, through summer workouts and right into fall camp.

“I think in an ideal world, every coach wants one quarterback who has clearly demonstrated consistency, great leadership and the ability to take you to a championship,” Kelly said. “If that guy shows himself, i’m ready to name him the quarterback that day. I’m not playing a game where we’re trying to create artificial competition.”

For Golson, that means continuing to hone the craft of the position.

“”I think it’s an ongoing process of really not knowing the playbook, but understanding the move before the move is made,” Kelly said of Golson’s knowledge base. “Understanding me and what I’m thinking, before that play or call is made. That’s what we’re trying to really get to. He knows everything in the playbook… Now why are we running it? It’s the why of the playbook? Why are we doing it?”

After a redshirt season, Kelly feels confident that Zaire can come in and help the Irish win as well.

“I think Malik has the ability to play winning football for us,” Kelly said. “I want him to play championship football for us. There’s a level he has to get to.”

While the distinction between “winning” and “championship” may not sound like a big one, it’s a huge one inside Kelly’s program, part of the overall metric the staff uses to evaluate players. And while Golson did literally quarterback the Irish into the BCS title game, Kelly jokingly quipped that it wasn’t exactly his redshirt freshman quarterback carrying the load or establishing himself as a championship player.

“I’d argue that Everett rode the bus to the championship,” Kelly said.

 

Heading into the season, four offensive line jobs sound locked in with only one up for grabs. 

Kelly applauded senior Nick Martin’s recovery from knee surgery, with the veteran taking a leadership role both on and off the field. And with fifth-year senior Christian Lombard healthy after recovering from back and wrist surgeries, the state of the offensive line is beginning to take shape.

“With Lombard being healthy, a starter returns,” Kelly said. “Nick Martin, a starter returns. Elmer, a starter returns. Stanley, a starter returns. We’re really talking about four starters. Now we’ve got to figure out who that fifth player is.”

In the spring, it was Mike McGlinchey, who manned the right tackle position. From Kelly’s comments, it certainly didn’t sound like McGlinchey did anything to hurt his cause, with the Irish head coach calling McGlinchey, “physically as gifted as any player that we have.”

But Kelly also went out of his way to compliment the work done by Matt Hegarty and Conor Hanratty. Both seniors give Harry Hiestand options on the interior of the offensive line, allowing Steve Elmer the ability to flex outside to right tackle and put Hegarty or Hanratty at the other open guard spot.

Of course, Quenton Nelson came in this summer physically ready to contribute. At 6-foot-4.5 and 325 pounds, he’s no ordinary freshman. So while saying goodbye to Zack Martin and Chris Watt won’t be easy, once again the offensive line is expected to be the team’s strongest unit.

“We really think that group as a whole sets the standard in our program,” Kelly said.

 

After serious injuries, both Jarrett Grace and Ben Councell are expected to play big roles in the Irish defense. 

If you’re looking for good news, Kelly gave a very optimistic update on the status of senior linebacker Jarrett Grace. After a career-threatening fibula injury suffered last Halloween against Arizona State, Grace should be ready to practice when the Irish open camp on Monday.

“We think that he’s in a great position now where he’s going to be close now to being ready when the season starts,” Kelly said. “We think he’s in a position now where he’s running and it’s going to be for us a wait‑and‑see process, but he is so much closer than we are thought he could be as we go into the month of August.”

While not quite as serious, Ben Councell is only nine months removed from suffering a serious knee injury. And while some wondered where Councell would fit in Brian VanGorder’s new defensive system, Councell will be a featured piece of the defense at the Sam linebacker position.

“Ben has a unique quality in that he played in space,” Kelly explained. “He can play outside, and he’s 250 pounds, and he’s strong and he’s got very violent hands. When he gets his hands on you, he can really control the line of scrimmage.

“He can play over a tight end, he can play in some space. Him and getting Jarrett Grace healthy, those are two really big pieces for us, because we can get really big and get really physical at the linebacker position with those guys on the field. And then we can match up with some smaller guys, as well, that are more safety types that can play down.

“Ben Councell, we can’t underestimate how important he is to the overall picture of our defense.”

 

For the Irish to win big this season, freshmen will play a significant role. 

After listening to Kelly on Friday, it’s pretty clear that freshmen will play a significant role on the field this season. Defensively, a highly-touted recruiting class will have the chance to become key role players.

Kelly said good things about freshman cornerback Nick Watkins, and he expects the long and smooth freshman coverman to supply some more depth at a position that’s a strength already. The emergence of Cage and Mokwuah should help up front. And if there’s an under-the-radar freshman that could do big things its Jonathan Bonner.

Kelly raved about the unique athlete — who checked in on the fall roster at an eyebrow-raising 6-foot-3, 269 pounds… as a linebacker.

“It’s going to be fun to watch him, because his numbers, his physical prowess really stood out in our testing and he’s had a really good summer,” Kelly said. “Big kid, athletic, strong. We are going to find out in the first week where that kind of shakes out.”

On the offensive side of the ball, hernia surgery to tight end Mike Heuerman has allowed freshman Tyler Luatua to stand out. On Signing Day, Luatua was listed at 241 pounds. He’s 6-foot-2.5 and 260 pounds on the fall roster (Kelly said he’s up to 268 pounds), making him an ideal candidate to play as an attached tight end.

“Tyler Luatua had a great summer for us,” Kelly said. “Really excited about how he’s settled in here. Again, coming from the West Coast, you’re always worried about that transition and we really feel good about what he’s been able to do in a very short time.”

With NCAA rule changes allowing the Irish staff to stage “OTAs” during June, Kelly and his coaches had a chance to work with their freshmen for the first time, getting a jumpstart on fall training camp. Combine that with some very impressive work done in Paul Longo’s strength program, and it’s allowed high-profile recruits like Nyles Morgan and Quenton Nelson a chance to walk in and compete for a job that in the past might not have been possible.

Needing all the help they can get with a daunting schedule ahead, expect Kelly to challenge a large group of freshmen in camp to see if they’re ready to contribute.

 

 

 

 

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…)

Four-star WR Micah Jones chooses Irish; Rees may need to wait; Other late-week reading

jones
rivals.com
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A day may come when Notre Dame suffers a recruiting disappointment in the 2018 cycle, when a high school star spurns the Irish coaching staff for a foe, but it is not this day.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township High School; Gurnee, Ill.) committed to Notre Dame on Friday, joining a class of now 10 recruits, including four who committed just this week.

Jones chose the Irish over offers from the likes of Iowa, Michigan State and Ole Miss, among others.

He is the first receiver among the 10 commitments and the seventh considered a four-star prospect. At 6-foot-5, 196 pounds, Jones should present a large target for whomever the Notre Dame quarterback is in the fall of 2018, most likely then-senior Brandon Wimbush.

Tom, Tommy or Thomas; Assistant Coach or Graduate Assistant?
Thomas Rees may need to wait a season before officially being a coach at Notre Dame. The legislation to approve a 10th assistant coach was expected to be voted on, passed and effective in April. A newly-added amendment may push the effective date to following the 2017 season. The amendment will be voted on immediately before the legislation itself is.

The delay makes sense. Most coaching hirings and firings occur in December and January. In theory, creating a one-timing hiring frenzy following spring football could leave many programs in the lurch. In practice, however, this is not anticipated.

“The majority of the FBS guys that I’ve talked with currently believe that 10th coach is going to come from within their own organization,” Todd Berry told the Associated Press. Berry is the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association and former coach at Army and Louisiana-Monroe. “Quality control, graduate assistants, analysts, or they’re planning on hiring somebody that’s out of work.”

A majority is not a unanimity, though, and that carousel will innately work to the disadvantage of the Group of 5 schools.

As for Rees, a graduate assistant can still work extensively with players. The most-pertinent difference between a graduate assistant and an assistant coach is the former cannot recruit. Given Notre Dame’s recent success on the recruiting trail—and the early commitment of class of 2018 consensus four-star quarterback Phil Jurkovec (Pine-Richland H.S.; Gibsonia, Pa.)—Rees may not be an absolute necessity in that regard this cycle.

A Kizer Appraisal
Former NFL scout Greg Gabriel took a look at former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer this week, largely paying the draft prospect compliments.

In calling Kizer “the most talented quarterback in this draft class,” Gabriel set a high ceiling for Kizer’s spring. Part of Gabriel’s positive assessment comes from acknowledging Kizer’s responsibilities as the Irish signal-caller.

“The spread offense that Kizer played in at Notre Dame is more sophisticated than many of the spread offenses we see elsewhere at the collegiate level. The Notre Dame offense is a whole-field read scheme in which the quarterback has to go through a progression that encompasses both sides of the field. He also can change the play and/or protections at the line of scrimmage. Given all that, Kizer was asked to do more than many spread quarterbacks are asked to do.”

Gabriel also reflected on the dynamic differences for Kizer in 2015 and 2016 and what may have elicited some of his seeming stagnation.

“There was the unnecessary quarterback controversy at Notre Dame, and the offensive line wasn’t as experienced or as talented and the receivers were mostly first-year starters.”

As much as Gabriel raves about Kizer, he would be the first to tell you anything beyond individual player evaluation is a waste of air this early in the draft process. Mock drafts may be fun, but they are not much beyond that.

Take the fates of Tony Romo and Jimmy Garoppolo, for example. Few, if any, in the NFL expect them to dress for the Cowboys and Patriots, respectively, again. Where they end up could directly impact Kizer’s draft placement.

Jaylon Smith May Be Back to Form
Former Notre Dame and current Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith posted yet another encouraging video to Twitter. This one shows Smith really might be game-ready right now and, if not, almost certainly will be by the fall. Should there be any difficulty with the embedded video below, here is a link straight to it.

OL Mabry makes third commitment this week; WR Jones may follow Friday

mabry
rivals.com
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Two weeks ago, Irish coach Brian Kelly gave a non-answer of an answer to a question about a likely early signing period this coming December. Avoiding specifics, he indicated he thinks the effects of such a change will be seen on a case-by-case basis entirely dependent on the recruits.

“Some will, some won’t,” Kelly said. “…Each kid is going to have to react to it based upon also how their school is going to be dealing with it. Some will come off the board at the time.

“We’re expecting some to sign early, but I think our mindset is we’re going into it business as usual. We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

After this week, Notre Dame is going to have more year-long fights than anticipated. Consensus three-star offensive lineman recruit Cole Mabry (Brentwood High School; Brentwood, Tenn.) became the third prospect to offer a verbal commitment to the Irish coaching staff in less than 36 hours with his Wednesday decision. Mabry received the offer over the weekend, but waited a few days before making his decision public, lest emotions be dictating his thought process.

At 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds, Mabry will have time to add muscle to his frame, with four or five offensive tackles greeting him on the Notre Dame roster in the summer of 2018. That ability to mold his style and growth may have played a part in the Irish interest.

“They love my height and athleticism and how I play,” Mabry told rivals.com. “We got to break down film and go through things that they do that pair up with how I play now. They think I’ll be a great fit in their offense.”

Mabry is the ninth Notre Dame commitment in the class of 2018, though the first offensive lineman.

Judging by new Notre Dame director of football performance Matt Balis’s agenda for the Irish roster’s Valentine’s Day morning, Mabry will have much to look forward to in terms of strength and conditioning.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township H.S.; Gurnee, Ill.) is scheduled to announce his verbal commitment this Friday at 4 p.m. ET. Along with Notre Dame, Jones is considering Iowa, Michigan State, Nebraska, Ole Miss, Illinois and Northwestern. He would be the first receiver in Notre Dame’s 2018 class. Naturally, whomever Jones commits to, the recruiting fight will last until at least December, and perhaps all the way to February.

Notre Dame adds two top defensive back commits; Elliott officially a ‘Husker

allen
rivals.com
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It’s early. It’s really, really early. Not in the day, though this post is scheduled for an a.m. hour. No, it is early in the 2018 recruiting cycle. Any piece of news, each commitment, everything should be taken with two grains of salt.

Nonetheless, Notre Dame—and more specifically, new Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko and defensive backs coach Todd Lyght—enjoyed Tuesday’s recruiting news when two consensus four-star coverage men committed to the Irish.

Safety Derrik Allen (Lassiter High School; Marietta, Ga.) and cornerback Kalon Gervin (Cass Tech; Detroit, Mich.) joined a class of now eight commitments, six of which play on the defensive side of the ball.

Gervin, the No. 11 cornerback in the class according to rivals.com, waited mere days after attending Notre Dame’s Junior Day over the weekend. Irish coach Brian Kelly and staff’s failure to land a recruit at Gervin’s position in the 2017 haul actually helped reel in the recruit with offers from Florida, LSU, Michigan and dozens others.

“The opportunity to play right away, they didn’t sign a cornerback this last class,” Gervin told Blue & Gold Illustrated helped sway him. “Also, the education is second-to-none. It speaks for itself.”

Allen, pictured at top, has leaned toward Notre Dame for months. The No. 3 safety in the country per Rivals, he chose the Irish over the likes of Alabama, Clemson and Florida State.

Elliott officially to Nebraska

The two highly-touted defensive backs will not have the chance to learn under the tutelage of Bob Elliott. Nebraska officially announced the hiring of the former Notre Dame safeties (2012-13) and linebackers (2014) coach. Elliott spent the last two seasons serving as a special assistant to Kelly, focusing largely on defending the triple-option attacks of Army, Navy and Georgia Tech.

Elliott rejoins former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco in Lincoln. Diaco was hired as the Cornhuskers’ defensive coordinator in January.

The Lincoln Journal Star’s Brian Cristopherson reports Elliott will make a nice wage in eastern Nebraska.