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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.

 

 

 

 

Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller taken in first round of NFL Draft

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 28:  Ronnie Stanley of Notre Dame holds up a jersey with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after being picked #6 overall by the Baltimore Ravens during the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University on April 28, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller were taken in the NFL Draft’s first round. Both came off the board on night one, with Stanley the first offensive tackle taken and Fuller the second receiver selected.

Stanley joins the Baltimore Ravens, a key addition to a franchise needed help along the offensive line. He’s Notre Dame’s first Top 10 pick since 1994, ending a draught that’s spanned since Bryant Young was taken by San Francisco.

Fuller will join a Houston Texans offense that just spent major money on quarterback Brock Osweiler and running back Lamar Miller. To back up that investment, the Texans added college football’s most dangerous deep threat, trading up to spot No. 21 to pair Fuller with DeAndre Hopkins on the outside.

Linebacker Jaylon Smith was not selected in the first round. Both he and Myles Jack, widely considered to be Top 10 talents, slid down the board because of knee injuries. (Both also have loss-of-value insurance policies, cushioning that blow.)

The draft continues tomorrow with rounds two and three. Smith should be selected then, along with Sheldon Day, Nick Martin, and potentially C.J. Prosise.

Demetris Robertson set for Sunday decision (finally!)

Demetris Robertson
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Five-star recruit Demetris Robertson is ready to make a college decision. Finally.

Months after National Signing Day, the last recruit on the board for Notre Dame is ready to pick the place he plans to go to college. And after setting an announcement date for Monday, Robertson is even pushing things forward, with a Sunday decision now in the books.

For Irish fans still paying attention to the twists and turns of this recruitment, Robertson will announce his decision from the College Football Hall of Fame in downtown Atlanta. (An homage to Jimmy Clausen, anyone?)

Here’s Rivals.com with the news after talking with Robertson’s brother and guardian.

“We were going to have it on Monday, but things got mixed up so we moved it up a day,” Carlos Robertson said. “It will be at 1 p.m., right there in that 1-2 time frame, somewhere in there.”

But it’s happening.

“His mind’s made up,” Carlos Robertson said. “Everything’s locked, but he wanted to have it, have a little public deal, but I think he knows where he wants to be.”

Robertson also cleared up why the decision is being held in Atlanta.

“We’re not from Savannah, we’re actually from right below the Atlanta area, so it will give everybody, the aunts, the uncles, everybody a chance to come,” he said. “It only made sense.”

While this recruitment has felt like a soap opera, it’s worth pointing out that there’s absolutely no reason to fault Robertson for making this decision on a timeline that he decides. National Signing Day may feel like a holiday to college football fans, but it’s really just the earliest date a letter-of-intent can be signed.

With hopes of gaining admittance into Stanford, Robertson reportedly retook his ACT multiple times, trying to make a better score. Usually that’s cause for applause, not derision. He’s also spent time further evaluating his other options, some closer to home—Georgia, Alabama—others with a significant academic profile—Cal and Notre Dame among them.

The Irish’s pursuit of Robertson has been well documented, including a visit from the team semi-truck. It’s also a recruitment where most are still in the dark. While Notre Dame is certainly still in the running, there’s no gut feeling on this one way or the other, even among those inside the program.

After averaging 15 points a game as a guard for the Savannah Christian basketball team, Robertson is preparing to compete in the state track meet, running multiple sprint events and the long jump. That type of athleticism is what has the Irish coaching staff sold on Robertson as a wide receiver, a potential replacement for Will Fuller (and two other starters) as Notre Dame restocks a depth chart that’ll also feature spring star Kevin Stepherson and incoming freshmen Chase Claypool and Javon McKinley.

With some feeling home state Georgia has moved ahead in the race, Robertson’s brother Carlos says his younger brother did what was best for him, taking his time and making a decision for himself.

“It was totally his decision, lock himself in the room, however he had to do it. This was something he had to decide on his own,” the elder Robertson told Rivals.com.

 

 

For Irish, best work will be behind closed doors

BUFFALO, NY - SEPTEMBER 12:  Head Coach Jeff Quinn of the Buffalo Bulls looks on during the game against the Baylor Bears at UB Stadium on September 12, 2014 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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With spring practice finished and the end of the school year in sight, Brian Kelly’s team enters the all-important offseason—a time when the best work goes unseen by the coaching staff. On a squad where the lion’s share of leaders and starters need to be replaced, Kelly’s talked about the identity of this team forming when he and his assistants get out of the mix.

“We need to get the heck out of the way, in a sense, and allow those guys to step up and be leaders within their units,” Kelly said after the spring game. “And that naturally happens when the coaches get out of the way. Especially in May. They go home, they recharge, they kind of assess where they are and they hear it from us and they come back in June and they are focused on physical development and then the leadership element and they go to work on it.”

One of the storylines that’s gone mostly ignored are the changes to the group in charge of the team while the staff is getting out of the way. While Director of strength and conditioning Paul Longo has long held a premier role atop the ever-evolving org chart under Brian Kelly, the players beneath him have changed. That creates an interesting dynamic this offseason—and possibly one that could actually benefit the Irish in the months to come.

Entering his seventh season at Notre Dame along side Kelly, Longo has worked hand in hand with Kelly since his time at Central Michigan. That relationship is likely why Longo’s been more out front than any strength coach at Notre Dame in the modern era.

 

Treated as a coordinator—and actually listed above Mike Denbrock, Brian VanGorder and Mike Sanford on the team’s online roster—we’re heard plenty in seven years of Longo, riding the greatest hits through the “Coat of Armor” era all the way into today’s injury prevention mode.

But Longo’s work this offseason will be aided by an evolving group of assistants in the strength department. Aaron Wellman is gone, the former Michigan strength coach now running the New York Giants’ program. That led to an unorthodox hire by Kelly to fill his shoes, though a telling decision as a young team prepares to ascend into new jobs.

New assistant strength coach Jeff Quinn was an unlikely hire, especially considering his 30 years of coaching experience at the college level. After spending last season as an offensive analyst, Quinn transitions to the strength staff seems like a bizarre new role for a man many viewed as Kelly’s most important assistant in his pre-Notre Dame days.

Quinn last roamed the sidelines at Buffalo, a head coaching position he took over in 2010, a move he made instead of joining Kelly at Notre Dame after serving as Cincinnati’s offensive coordinator. Even though he signed a five-year extension at the close of the 2012 season, Quinn was fired early in the 2014 season after a disappointing start to the year. (An open-records request revealed that Buffalo is still paying Quinn, likely supplementing his decreased earnings as an off-field staffer in South Bend.)

Kelly provided a soft landing for Quinn last year, even if he didn’t fill one of the on-staff openings that reshuffled after Tony Alford, Kerry Cooks and Bob Elliott left the ranks. And while many expected that keeping Quinn in a supporting role wasn’t as likely through another hiring cycle, the move of the trusted lieutenant to the strength staff keeps another asset under Kelly’s control, even if it begs questions about long-term sustainability.

But adding Quinn to a football-specific strength staff makes sense. It’s a role that already has David Grimes, a former Irish captain and wide receiver and continues to  feature assistant director of strength Jake Flint, who played under Kelly at Central Michigan, earning a scholarship after walking on. That’s a lot of practical football knowledge under one roof, certainly helpful as the offseason focus becomes less and less about leg press and bench press, but more and more about enhancing the knowledge base and athletic skill-set for a young team with plenty of ambition.

So as the Irish coaching staff finally finds time to step away from the 24/7 grind, they’ll be turning over their young team to Longo and his department. And as we’ve seen as Kelly and Jack Swarbrick continue to outfit the Irish program to compete in today’s landscape, these under-the-radar moves should likely pay dividends.

 

 

Draft Day is near: Final projections for talented Irish class

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - FEBRUARY 27: Wide receiver Will Fuller of Notre Dame participates in a drill during the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium on February 27, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Draft week is finally (almost) here. A football holiday that both college and NFL fans can love equally, it also marks the end of nearly four months of talking heads and manufactured debate, the end of the virtual rise and fall of player stocks with the evaluation and prognosticating industry turning everybody into an expert capable of evaluating their favorite team’s haul.

With Notre Dame poised to send their largest class to the NFL since the heyday of Lou Holtz, it’ll be a busy weekend for Irish fans. Let’s kick off draft week with a look at some of the potential homes for this group of talented former Irish athletes.

 

First Rounders:

Both Cris Collinsworth and Peter King expect Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller to go in the first round. Stanley is a consensus first-rounder, with King seeing the Cleveland Browns pulling the trigger on Stanley at No. 8 and Collinsworth having Stanley staying close to school with the Bears at No. 11. While some speculate that the Chargers could be willing to jump at Stanley at No. 3 (picking him before top-of-the-board tackle Laremy Tunsil), most see Stanley off the board somewhere between eight and 16. Not shabby—back-to-back first round left tackles with Mike McGlinchey trending in the right direction as well.

But the inclusion of Fuller on both these lists is interesting, though maybe not for Collinsworth, who has seen three seasons of Fuller (and heard from his sons quite a bit as well). Collinsworth has Fuller going to the Cincinnati Bengals, a team he knows plenty about. King has the Houston Texans taking a swing at Fuller, pairing him with standout DeAndre Hopkins. It’d certainly be a nice addition for Bill O’Brien and new zillion-dollar quarterback Brock Osweiler.

While quite a few thing Fuller will slide into round two or three, it’s interesting that NFL.com’s experts Daniel Jeremiah, Charley Casserly, Charles Davis and Lance Zierlein all have Fuller picked in the first round.

(Can’t teach 4.32 or 29 touchdowns.)

 

Top 100 prospects

Perhaps the most impressive thing out there involving Notre Dame’s talent is Mike Mayock’s Top 100. No stranger to Brian Kelly’s program, Mayock has six players in his top 100:

4. Ronnie Stanley
34. Will Fuller
38. Nick Martin
61. Sheldon Day
81. KeiVarae Russell
97. Jaylon Smith

If Smith is around that close to No. 100 he’ll be $5 million richer (thanks to his insurance policy) and he’ll also have many a teams ready to gamble on a talent who was among the five best players in college football but is currently just 3.5 months into a grueling recovery process.

Sheldon Day has found his way into first rounds in some mock drafts, mostly thanks to his incredibly productive senior season. That Russell is at 81 speaks to the talent some think he has, though last year’s game tape doesn’t necessarily match. Mostly I just can’t get over Smith at 97. What devastatingly terrible timing for the Irish All-American—who I’m convinced will have a Pro Bowl career at the next level.

 

Can Notre Dame get to 10 players drafted? 

A look back at Notre Dame’s history in the NFL Draft tells you one thing for certain: Lou Holtz developed a ton of NFL talent. But Brian Kelly has a chance to put a really impressive class on the board with the 2016 draft, and if the Irish are lucky they could match the double-digits Holtz hit in 1994.

How does that happen? It likely comes down to not just the six listed above, but rather the depth that seems to be the strength of this group.

While Mayock didn’t have C.J. Prosise in his Top 100, there are plenty of evaluators who see something special in Prosise’s game. While returns on him vary, I think it’s safe to say he’ll be drafted—likely by the middle rounds.

From there, getting Chris Brown drafted will be key. His physical traits are another positive, even if his production on the field only blossomed as a senior as the No. 2 option. Then it’s sack-leader Romeo Okwara. The combo defensive end-outside linebacker has a lot going for him in the eyes of talent evaluators—youth (he’s still not 21), not to mention a wide range of skills. He doesn’t flash as an edge rusher, but those years stuck playing as a Dog linebacker for Bob Diaco will do him well now.

Ultimately, to get to ten something good needs to happen near the bottom of the draft. Will a team find safety Elijah Shumate worthy of a draft pick? Perhaps Matthias Farley, fresh off a very impressive Pro Day. Perhaps there’s a team that fell in love with Ishaq Williams, hoping to get a jump on free agency by spending a late round pick on a physical freak who hasn’t played football in two seasons. Jarrett Grace and Amir Carlisle will certainly get their chance to sign with a team before training camp comes around, but it’s a long shot either hears their name called.

It looks like the Irish will probably fall just short of 10 draftees. Unless someone takes a run at quarterback Everett Golson, opening up an asterisk situation if there ever was one.

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John Walters and I discussed Notre Dame’s draft prospects—and a lot, lot more—in our Blown Coverage podcast. Feel free to enjoy.