Counting down the Irish: 15-11

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When Brian Kelly was hired to take over Notre Dame’s football program, he developed a reputation not just as an offensive mastermind or spread offense guru, but rather that of a “program builder.” For all the traits Jack Swarbrick was looking for, an architect to tear down and rebuild the university’s most prized asset was a critical find.

Over the past few years, we’ve heard bits and pieces of the methodology Kelly has used. We’ve run through Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and developing unconscious competence. We’ve seen Kelly’s recruiting philosophy, trending away from positions, but moving to types: Skill, Power, Big Skill. And we’ve heard him talking about the difference between playing winning football and championship football.

At this point in our rankings, every player on the list needs to be capable of playing Championship Football. (Caps for intent.) And as we roll into Year Five of the Kelly era, the players ranked 15-11 on the list seem to fit that criteria.

Let’s continue our run down the rankings.

2014 IRISH TOP 25 RANKINGS

25. Will Fuller (WR, Soph.)
24. Joe Schmidt (LB, Sr.)
23. Chris Brown (WR, Jr.)
22. Jarrett Grace (LB, Sr.)
21. Malik Zaire (QB, Soph.)
20. Ishaq Williams (DE, Sr.)
19. Cole Luke (CB, Soph.)
18. Cam McDaniel (RB, Sr.)
17. Jarron Jones (DT, Jr.)
16. Corey Robinson (WR, Soph.)

15. Christian Lombard (OL, GS): A big reason why Lombard sits at No. 15 was one panelist giving the fifth-year senior an eye-opening vote as the team’s second-best player. While I’ll let him explain that logic, you can make the argument that Lombard — if healthy — is one of the team’s best players.source:

Entering his third season as a starter, Lombard’s versatility allowed Ronnie Stanley into the lineup in 2013, when Lombard shifted from right tackle to guard to make room for the talented youngster. And if Lombard’s healthy enough to hold down a starting job on the inside, he’s the type of player that provides a talented, veteran safety net who is capable of playing multiple positions.

After making it back from a back injury that ended his season early in 2013 for spring drills, only to suffer a fluke wrist dislocation suffered in March, Lombard needs to shake the injury bug and put together a dominant final season in South Bend.

He’s capable: A big, strong, veteran guy with the talent to play just about anywhere on the line. And while Nick Martin seems to have assumed the leadership role up front, Lombard’s got a lot of experience to pass along, and a future playing on Sundays if this year goes according to plan.

Highest Ranking: 2nd. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (Three ballots).

 

14. Cody Riggs (DB, GS): For all the banter that’s turned “SEC” into an adjective, Riggs gives Notre Dame a football player that’s started 26 games over his three years playing in Gainesville. But beyond the affirmation of being a multi-year starter in the best conference in all the land, Riggs has come into South Bend and meshed incredibly well on a Notre Dame team that’ll only have his services for a few months.

Notre Dame missed out on Riggs as a top-shelf high school prospect. But he’ll have 13 games to play for the Irish, filling a key role in the Irish secondary as a versatile defender that can play as a cover corner or a safety in the box.

source:
Cody Riggs

Riggs’ ceiling remains to be seen. While challenging himself academically was a big reason he came to Notre Dame, so was an opportunity to prove himself at cornerback, with former five-star talents Vernon Hargreaves and Jalen Tabor projected as starters in Gainesville.

Right now, it looks like Cole Luke is the “starter” at corner. But in Brian VanGorder’s system, Riggs will get all the opportunities he could hope for, earning a graduate degree off the field and utilizing the year in South Bend to prove to NFL talent evaluators he has the ability to play cornerback at the next level.

Highest Ranking: 5th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (Two ballots).

 

13. Kyle Brindza (K/P, Sr.): If ever there was a specialist who deserved an elite grade, Kyle Brindza’s the man. Serving as the team’s kickoff man, punter and place-kicker, Brindza has moved well past the role of specialist into being one of the team’s more respected football players. source: AP

That comes with his propensity to nail clutch field goals. And his ability to boom long, hanging punts. But entering his final year of eligibility, Brindza needs to refine his skills, upping the consistency to a level where he’s in consideration for postseason awards.

The beauty of Brindza’s value to Brian Kelly and the Notre Dame football program is his singular ability to get the scholarship count back under control. Brian Kelly entered the Gug with a handful of scholarships committed to kickers and punters — and that was before walk-on David Ruffer won the placekicking job and a scholarship of his own. Brindza took over an entire position room, helped stabilize the roster, and leaves Notre Dame in a better place than he found it.

A big senior season will further solidify Brindza’s spot in the Irish record books.

Highest Ranking: 8th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (One ballot).

source: AP

12. Max Redfield (S, Soph.): That Redfield finds himself at No. 12 means a whole lot of panelists are believing the hype when it comes to the former five-star recruit.

And while his freshman season was essentially washed away on special teams as he tried his best to learn Bob Diaco’s system (and more importantly, earn his trust), Kelly pushed his chips behind Redfield before the Pinstripe Bowl, giving him a starting job and a ton of reps in December’s bowl preparations.

That confidence seemed to have paid off this spring, when Redfield earned the ultimate respect by being one of the earliest defenders pulled from the field in the Blue-Gold game. While we’ve only seen bits and pieces of Redfield in our three days of practice footage, he looks every bit the back line centerfielder (with an ability to play enforcer as well) that’s essential in VanGorder’s man scheme.

After missing the play of Harrison Smith and Zeke Motta to solidify the safety position, it looks like Redfield is the next very good one (at least) anchoring the back end of the defense.

Highest Ranking: 7th. Lowest Ranking: 20th.

 

11. Steve Elmer (OL, Soph.): Elmer played his way into the starting lineup last season as a true freshman, capitalizing on early enrollment and Lombard’s injury. While he was recruited as a player who could be Zack Martin’s heir apparent at left tackle, Elmer spent spring playing left guard, a jumbo-sized Chris Watt next to Ronnie Stanley, a jumbo version of Martin at left tackle.

But Elmer opened up fall camp at right tackle, with Matt Hegarty getting the first opportunity at left guard and Mike McGlinchey the odd man out, for now. That type of versatility, especially in a second-year offensive lineman, is rare, and speaks to the high IQ and top-shelf physical ability that Elmer possesses. source: AP

At his best, Elmer projects to be a high draft pick and a versatile lineman with the size and ability to play at either guard or tackle. Right now, he’s a no-brainer starter for Kelly, giving he and Harry Hiestand the ability to mix and match assets around Elmer, Stanley, Nick Martin and Lombard, four really impressive starting pieces.

Highest Ranking: 6th. Lowest Ranking: 17th.

***

The selection committee for the 2014 ND Top 25:

Pete Sampson, Irish Illustrated (@NDatRivals)
Tyler James, South Bend Tribune (@TJamesNDI)
Chris Hine, Chicago Tribune (@ChristopherHine)
Team OFD, One Foot Down (@OneFootDown)
Ryan Ritter, Her Loyal Sons (@HLS_NDTex)
JJ Stankevitz, CSN Chicago (@JJStankevitz)
John Walters, Medium Happy (@JDubs88)
John Vannie, ND Nation
Keith Arnold, NBC Sports (@KeithArnold)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

McGlinchey does not seem to mind the matchup, either.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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