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.

 

 

 

 

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

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This space has mentioned a few times the dearth of returning sacks among Notre Dame’s defensive line. It is a pertinent fact—no returning Irish defensive lineman recorded a sack in the 2016 season—but it fails to mention the flipside of that.

Most of Notre Dame’s defensive linemen had few, if any, opportunities to rush the passer in 2016. Perhaps at the top of the list of those who should bring down the opposing passer a few times this fall, sophomore Daelin Hayes has laid claim to a starting rush spot through five spring practices.

“The athleticism is what obviously stands out,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “He’s extremely athletic, he’s fit physically, 250 pounds and very strong.”

These facts are, after all, the reasons Hayes was a highly sought-after five-star recruit according to rivals.com.

“It’s the football knowledge, learning the techniques at the position in which he plays is really the piece,” Kelly continued. “It’s just learning right now for him. This is the time to do it, in spring ball.

“Squeezing down on a tight end when the back is away. Wrong-arming the puller. These are all football terms and schemes that are a bit new to him. We have to be patient with him. He’s an explosive athlete. There’s going to be some mistakes along the way, and I’m okay with that as long as he’s learning.”

Without much depth pushing for playing time behind him, Hayes will have the opportunity to make, and subsequently understand, those mistakes. Seniors Jay Hayes (no relation) and Andrew Trumbetti are mired in competition for the other end spot, while sophomores Julian Okwara, Adetokunbo Ogundeji and Khalid Kareem may have even more development ahead of them than Daelin Hayes does.

Incoming freshmen Kofi Wardlow and Jonathon MacCollister will join the fray in the summer, but for now, the younger Hayes has his chance to impress with his natural gifts while absorbing the intricacies of new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s defense.

Hayes is not a complete unknown. While Okwara made four tackles last season in 11 games and Kareem appeared in four games, Hayes saw action in every contest, finishing the season with 11 tackles, one pass breakup and one forced fumble.

“He’s an athlete,” defensive line coach Mike Elston said last week. “He’s on the edge in a two-point stance. He’s not a trained, put-your-hand-on-the-ground defensive end. He played running back in high school. He can see things better in a two-point and can diagnose quicker. He’s able to be more productive.”

It may be accurate to mention no returning Notre Dame defensive linemen tackled a quarterback for a loss last season, but it is more precise to also include the Irish have possibilities of changing that trend.

SPEAKING OF THE DEFENSIVE LINE
Notre Dame is nearly as thin at defensive tackle as it is at end. Junior Jerry Tillery leads the way with senior end-converted-to-tackle Jonathan Bonner lining up next to him thus far. Their reserves: Oft-concussed senior Daniel Cage, senior Pete Mokwuah and junior Micah Dew-Treadway with junior Elijah Taylor out for the spring with a foot injury.

Theoretically, junior Brandon Tiassum is also in the mix, and three freshmen (Kurt Hinish, Myron Tagovailo-Amosa and four-star Darnell Ewell) will join the group in the summer.

And maybe, just maybe, perhaps, possibly … Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano could walk onto campus alongside those freshmen. Pagano visited Notre Dame the first week of March, and was due to look at Oklahoma and Arkansas the next two weekends, respectively. Instead, Pagano reportedly cancelled both of those visits Monday.

Pagano does still have a visit to Oregon scheduled for April 21. Until indicated otherwise, it may be prudent to presume Pagano hopes to land as close to his Hawaiian home as possible.

RELATED READING: 1 Day Until Spring Practice: A look at the defensive line

Recruiting success continues with OL Dirksen, class’s 12th commit

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Even in the doldrums of spring practice, Notre Dame’s recent recruiting success continues. Rivals.com three-star/scout.com four-star offensive lineman John Dirksen offered a verbal commitment to the Irish on Saturday, bringing the 2018 class to 12 commitments.

The 6-foot-5, 290-pounds Dirksen (Marion High School; Maria Stein, Ohio) joins consensus three-star prospect Cole Mabry (Brentwood H.S.; Brentwood, Tenn.) as the offensive linemen thus far among the 12. In three of the last four years, Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has pulled in four recruits, with 2015’s two (Trevor Ruhland, Tristen Hoge) as the exception. This recruiting cycle could again bring a limited offensive line haul, given the likely limits on the class’s size.

While any and all current class of 2018 team rankings should be taken with many grains of salt—there are 318 days between today and National Signing Day, after all—Dirksen’s commitment solidifies the Irish hold on the No. 3 class, per rivals.com. Other recruiting services place Notre Dame even higher.

Dirksen chose Hiestand and the Irish over offers from Michigan State, Iowa State and Boston College, among others.

 

Holmes out for spring; Jones & Jones shining

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Notre Dame’s spring continued over the weekend, and is all too often the case with football, that led to an injury. Early enrollee running back C.J. Holmes will probably miss the rest of spring practice due to a separated shoulder, Irish coach Brian Kelly announced following Saturday’s practice.

“We’ll get an MRI and know a little bit further on Monday once that calms down a little bit,” Kelly said. “We’ll get a picture of that and see. He had an open repair on that same shoulder his sophomore year in high school.”

Behind three backs, including two with experience, Holmes was unlikely to see playing time in the backfield in 2017.

Of those three backs, sophomore Tony Jones, Jr., is the unknown after preserving a year of eligibility last season. In limited practice viewing, however, Jones has only impressed. He has caught Kelly’s eye, as well.

“He’s 225 pounds, can catch the ball coming out of the backfield, [is] assignment correct, and can run elusively and can get into the second level,” Kelly said. “What does that equal? He’s a pretty good back.

“Obviously he was noticeable today in his play and he got some work with the first group as well. He wasn’t just getting second-team reps.”

Jones may be getting some first-unit exposure, but expect him to remain behind junior Josh Adams in the depth chart. Considering Jones’ style is somewhat comparable to Adams’, whereas junior Dexter Williams presents something of a change of pace, Williams should see more action than the sophomore, as well.

MORE PRAISE FOR ALIZE JONES
Junior tight end Alizé Jones—rather, Alizé Mack, per his Twitter account—has taken the lead in spring’s race of who reaps the most sound bite accolades. In complimenting Jones, who missed last season due to an academic suspension, Kelly also managed to laud new offensive coordinator Chip Long.

“I think Chip is doing a terrific job with [Jones],” Kelly said. “He’s got a good relationship. He knows how to rise him up when he needs to and scold him when he needs to. Alizé needs a little bit of that.

“He’s virtually un-coverable in certain areas of the field. I don’t care at any level. You can’t cover him. He just has that kind of talent. The one that I think stands out to me in the few days is he’s committed himself to being a blocker and playing physical. If he continues to do that, we’re going to find ourselves with a lot of tight ends on the field.”

Presumably, Jones would join graduate student tight end Durham Smythe in two tight end sets. It should be remembered, Long has historically shown a preference for such formations, and with Notre Dame’s plethora of options at the position, Long’s tendencies have no need to change. For that matter, Long had some praise for Jones this weekend, as well.

“Alizé can be as good as he wants to be,” Long said Friday. “…He’s growing up each and every day. Great joy to coach, and that whole group is. He doesn’t want to let that group down. There’s no question he can be as good as he wants to be.”

Friday at 4: 40-yard dashes and absurdity

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Of all the absurd things the football world often obsesses over, the 40-yard dash may be the most useless of them. Yes, it even beats out assigning star rankings to 16- and 17-year-olds, though not by much.

For now, let’s look past the rest of the inane Draft intricacies, such as former Irish defensive lineman Jarron Jones feeling pressured to increase his vertical jump by four inches. (He did, jumping to 24.5 inches in Notre Dame’s Pro Day on Thursday.) This scribe does not have an excess of time to spend discussing Jones’s outlandish wingspan if this piece is to post by its intended, though unnecessary, 4 p.m. ET deadline.

The 40-yard dash … No football play begins from a sprinter’s stance, yet it may be the factor most crucial to a low 40 time. Former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer posted a time of 4.83 seconds in the NFL Combine earlier this month. For context’s sake, Kizer ran .07 seconds slower than Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did as a draft prospect in the 2004 combine.

Roethlisberger has had himself an excellent career, and his ability to shrug off 300-pound defensive linemen is a testament to his athleticism. Put Kizer and Roethlisberger in the open field together, though, and Kizer would presumably have outrun Roethlisberger at any point of the two-time Super Bowl champion’s career. In Indianapolis, however, Roethlisberger did a better job of getting his hips through his first couple strides of the heralded 40-yard dash.

Here, watch Kizer train for the 40, the most-hyped measurement of his combine.

“The ultimate goal is to have yourself in the best position to have your body weight back in those legs so you can create enough torque to get out as quickly as possible,” Kizer said. “A guy who is as long as I am, with long limbs that I have, I’ve got to make sure that my weight distribution is in the best position for me to get out and catch up to some of those quicker guys who are a little lower to the ground.”

What part of that sounds applicable to football? The 40 turns Kizer’s size (6-foot-4, 237 pounds) into a negative. He worries about the angle of his knees. After his throwing session at the Thursday Pro Day, Kizer summed up the draft evaluation process even more succinctly.

“This process is very different in the sense that the way you look productive in the combine and in a pro day is very different from what productivity actually looks like out on the field.”

Well put.

More pertinent to the actual game of football, Kizer’s completion percentage in the staged workout could have been higher.

Then again, he was throwing to the likes of former Irish receivers Corey Robinson and Amir Carlisle and former running back Jonas Gray. Reportedly, the only contact Gray and Kizer had before the session was Kizer emailing the former New England Patriot the planned series of routes.

The NFL Draft, where Gmail becomes a necessity.

Let’s do away with the 40. If we insist on keeping it, let’s do it twice, once from a standing start and once from a running start. Those would simulate actual football movements: A receiver getting off the line, and a ballcarrier breaking away and trying to outrun the defense.

Asking DeShone Kizer to mimic Usain Bolt is an exercise in futility, idiocy, absurdity.

Cue end of rant.

Why cite the Roethlisberger time? Many, including Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke, have readily compared Kizer to Roethlisberger this spring.

The most notable line of that scouting report (scroll down to No. 32) may be its final one, echoing Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s sentiments from earlier this week.

“The mystery is whether he can regain his assertiveness,” Burke writes. “If so, he could turn out to be the 2017 class’s best QB. The team that drafts him will be taking a leap of faith.”

A leap. Not a dash.

For more Notre Dame Pro Day results, click here.

And with that, this just may make the 4 p.m. posting. You know what to do.