Fighting Irish quarterback Golson brings the first team offense together during a practice session in Davie, Florida

Setting the bar: Expectations for the 2014 Irish

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When Brian Kelly leads Notre Dame out of the tunnel to open the 2014 season on Saturday afternoon, he’ll be leading his youngest and most inexperienced team into battle on the new artificial surface of Notre Dame Stadium. He’ll also be short three key starters, still left in limbo as an academic investigation and Honor Code ruling continues.

While the academic probe has throw the past few weeks out of sorts, the only constant at Notre Dame seems to be distractions. In addition to the unknowns that surround DaVaris Daniels, KeiVarae Russell, Ishaq Williams and Kendall Moore, the Irish coaching staff also had to work through the cancer diagnosis of offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock and graduate assistant Kyle McCarthy. Weighty issues that play both on and off the field.

But even with a defense that’s filled with question marks and youth, the Irish are expected to be one of the better teams in college football. Facing a schedule that Kelly called the toughest in the country last week, entering his fifth season with the Irish, Kelly didn’t hesitate to talk up the lofty expectations that he and his team hold.

“Expectations haven’t changed. They can’t change,” Kelly said. “We don’t have a conference championship to play for, so we only have one goal in mind, and that is to get in the playoffs. That’s our only focus, to be one of those four teams to get in the playoffs.”

As the Irish continue final preparations for Rice (not to mention a must-win game against Michigan on the horizon), let’s take a look at where we should set the bar for the 2014 season.

 

OFFENSE

For Everett Golson, the suspension of four teammates has somehow taken the spotlight off the returning quarterback, finally back on the football field after his own highly publicized academic indiscretion cost him the 2013 season. But Golson did all that was asked of him, returned to campus in the winter and reclaimed the starting quarterback job.

Golson will be piloting an offense that’s far more complex than the one he capably steered in 2012. Likely asked to move quickly and to score points by the bushel, even without Daniels as his No. 1 receiver, the Irish have weapons, though they won’t be optimized without Golson leading the charge.

 

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The maturity Golson talks about in his interview with Doug Flutie has been echoed by Kelly, Denbrock and new quarterback coach Matt LaFleur. And his role as a leader on this offense will be accentuated as he leads a young group of talented skill players into action.

Junior Chris Brown is the closest thing the receiving corps has to a veteran. Senior tight end Ben Koyack is a starter because Troy Niklas decided to head to the NFL. Sophomores Corey Robinson and Will Fuller will be asked to step up. Senior running back Cam McDaniel will lead a position group that’s likely going to be powered by sophomores Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant.

Up front, the offensive line has come into focus, with Harry Hiestand and Kelly deciding on veteran Matt Hegarty to move into the starting lineup in front of sophomore and first-year contributor Mike McGlinchey. Hegarty taking over at left guard solidifies the tackles, with Ronnie Stanley and Steve Elmer starting. A veteran interior with senior Nick Martin surrounded by Hegarty and fifth-year grad student Christian Lombard should help power the ground game.

The offense Notre Dame fans expected to see once they brought in Kelly has not existed. The Irish have had a Top 50 offense only once in Kelly’s four seasons, ranking No. 49 in scoring offense in 2011, a year where turnovers decimated their productivity. Scoring 30 points a game needs to be the baseline goal — a number Kelly’s offense hasn’t reached yet in South Bend.

They can do that by being more productive in the red zone. They can do that by moving quicker and running more plays. With Golson behind center and talents like Bryant, Folston, Fuller and Brown, the Irish have home run hitters. But they need to see those results on the scoreboard for the Irish to reach even their most modest goals.

 

DEFENSE

With nobody knowing quite what to expect from Brian VanGorder’s defense, Notre Dame will have mystery in their corner. But taking a closer look at the personnel the Irish need to utilize and that mystery cuts both ways. The Irish can be a productive defense, but they’ll need to do it in a way completely different than Bob Diaco did.

Bending won’t be an option, with the Irish completely lacking the personnel — or philosophy — to slug it out. Dictating terms may be the only way to survive, especially with speed and athleticism one of the true assets on this side of the ball.

The Irish staff believe they have two stars on their defense: Jaylon Smith and Sheldon Day. Add a third if KeiVarae Russell is allowed to return.

Behind that trio, a dependable core needs to emerge. At safety, Max Redfield needs to grow up quickly while Austin Collinsworth needs to play error-free football. Middle linebacker Joe Schmidt might be an unlikely starter, but he’s capable of being productive and needs to anchor the defense, keeping a young group from making costly mental mistakes.

Up front, the biggest challenge falls to defensive line coach Mike Elston. After working with sure-fire NFL prospects Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt, Elston now needs to find productive snaps from a defensive end position that’s filled with youth. On one side, true freshman Andrew Trumbetti gets an opportunity to start while sharing snaps with first-time defensive end Romeo Okwara. On the other, it’s Isaac Rochell sliding into Ishaq Williams’ spot, backed up by true freshman Grant Blankenship.

During his Tuesday press conference, Kelly acknowledged that this may be his most inexperienced defense ever. That’s saying quite a bit. But it’s also one of his most athletic, so while we might see some growing pains, finding a way to be productive under the current constraints is key, and VanGorder’s skills as a schemer and game manager will be put on display almost immediately.

 

THE SCHEDULE

In the first year of the College Football Playoff, playing a difficult schedule will be a key factor in the selection committee’s process. Notre Dame certainly fulfills that part of the criteria just fine, with a daunting slate that forces a week to week approach that demands the Irish play good football every Saturday.

First goal? Get out of September alive. That means beating Michigan, a team that’s seemed to own the Irish even if Brady Hoke is barely holding onto his job. The Irish won’t need to get on a plane until the end of September, when a date against Syracuse at the Meadowlands brings Notre Dame back to the New York metropolitan area, all but a home game even against the Orange.

From there, October gives Notre Dame perhaps the toughest three-week stretch of the Kelly era, with Stanford and North Carolina visiting South Bend before the Irish head to Tallahassee to take on the defending champions Florida State. The Irish will get a much deserved week off before starting November, a five game month that starts with Navy and ends with a visit to USC.

The Irish could conceivably lose all five games — Navy, a visit to Tempe to play Arizona State, visits from Northwestern and Louisville before playing the Trojans, the fifth game in as many weeks. That’s a pessimists view, but a possibility, especially when taking a closer look at Notre Dame’s opponents.

With a defense in desperate need to stay healthy,  the Irish can’t afford to have anything happen to key players Jaylon Smith and Sheldon Day. Even with all hands on deck, November looks like a month that that’ll define this team.

 

FINDING THE WINNING FORMULA

In 2012, Kelly devised a formula that depended on the Irish defense and allowed the offense to complement the game plan. In 2014, those roles will be reversed, with the offense serving as the team’s engine and the defense likely devised to fill a role as well.

What will the formula look like?

First, let’s look at special teams. The Irish have taken a lot of flack for their lack of excellence in the third phase of the game. They spent the offseason digging deeper into their problems, and the results are a mix of personnel changes, new schemes and superior depth helping out.

While some will still claim that special teams are a third of the game, the reality isn’t quite that simple. The smart guys over at Football Outsiders basically concluded that the DNA of a quality NFL team is four parts offense, three parts defense and one part special teams. So while that helps quantify how serious (or unserious) the Irish’s struggles have been, Kelly is still determined to get more from this unit, especially in a season where big plays will be needed.

Putting Greg Bryant or Cody Riggs back as punt return shows that emphasis. Both guys are critical position players, especially Riggs with KeiVarae Russell sidelined. With Amir Carlisle returning kicks, another starter is being given an opportunity to make plays. One look at the starting kickoff team and you see former four-star recruits just about everywhere. Apologies to the Walk-on Players Union, but those playing opportunities likely evaporated for good.

With Kyle Brindza capable of kicking plenty of touchbacks, while holding down both the field goal and punt duties, solidifying Scott Booker’s unit looks under control. But getting a few game-breaking opportunities in the return game shows a willingness to push the envelope.

Of course, if you’re looking for envelope pushing, Brian VanGorder is your man. This won’t resemble Bob Diaco’s defense. VanGorder is closer to a mad scientist, with sub groupings and personnel packages that could make the Irish look like a hockey team changing on the fly.

The key to all of this is not losing control of the core basics. Forgetting Jon Tenuta took four long seasons. But the Irish’s reliance on youth could put some of VanGorder’s schemes in Tenuta territory, especially if the young guys are struggling to mentally process what’s happening.

But as a head coach, Kelly has learned that scheme doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Just as he did in 2012, fitting his offensive and defensive game plans together is crucial.

VanGorder coaches defense the way Kelly wants to play it. That’s a fairly amazing statement considering the Irish just got done playing four years under Diaco. Expect Kelly and the Irish staff to add an aggressiveness to game planning this year. It’ll give the Irish a chance to fight their way to victories, even if it’s in a style that looks much different than in years past.

 

HOW TO MEASURE SUCCESS

The fact that Notre Dame’s nine-win season in 2013 was mostly viewed as coming up short of expectations is a sign of the progress that’s being made in South Bend. But 2014 could be anyone’s guess. With so many variables still being defined, this is an algebra equation that isn’t capable of being solved quite yet.

The Irish charging their way into the first ever College Football Playoff with one loss isn’t crazier than what happened in 2012. But the combination of a young team, new systems, distracting suspensions and a really difficult schedule also turns 2014 into the type of year that could be a huge setback.

The volatility that comes with this team is a big reason why coaches go grey early. And even with Golson back at the helm, the defense needs to build quickly, taking advantage of every trick shoved up VanGorder’s sleeve possible.

Just about anybody that looks at this team sees a bright future and a playoff run that looks primed for 2015. But you don’t throw away football seasons and play for next year at Notre Dame.

So with the first chapter of the 2014 season ready to be written this Saturday, an unknown journey will begin to reveal itself.

Let the games begin.

Where to watch: Notre Dame vs. Duke

Josh Adams Nevada
AP
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It’s another Saturday of football at Notre Dame. And if you’re unable to tune in on NBC at 3:30 p.m., or you want more than our afternoon broadcast with Mike Tirico, Doug Flutie and Kathryn Tappen, we’ve got you covered.

 

For the PREGAME SHOW AT 3:00PM ON NBCSN, CLICK HERE.

For the BROADCAST FEED OF NOTRE DAME VS. DUKE, CLICK HERE.

For the BANDS AT HALFTIME, CLICK HERE.

And your POSTGAME COACHES PRESS CONFERENCES, CLICK HERE.

Here’s to a great Saturday, the first one of autumn.

 

Pregame Six Pack: Back to the grind

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 17: Members of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish sing the alma mater following a loss to the Michigan State Spartans at Notre Dame Stadium on September 17, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Michigan State defeated Notre Dame 36-28. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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Enough has been made about the fate of Brian Kelly’s football team. Now it’s time to play. Because for the young team that takes the field each week, Saturday is an opportunity to improve, a chance to win a football game, and one of 12 Saturdays that serve as a reward for the hard work that goes in all year round.

At 1-2, nothing is served by looking at the big picture. Conversely, it’s Kelly’s job to drill down, making sure his players and coaches understand that the details are what will be critical on this third-straight home weekend.

With the team focusing on the little things, let’s do the same in the Pregame Six Pack. With the Irish and the Blue Devils meeting for the first time since 2007 on Saturday afternoon, let’s focus on six key position groups that will ensure the Irish leave the game at a level 2-2.

 

The defensive backs. Players young and old need to take a step forward. That means Cole Luke needs to rebound from his worst week wearing an Irish uniform and Devin Studstill needs to keep improving. That means the Irish need to hold up not just in pass coverage, but in run fits as well—the focus as much on youngsters as it is on Drue Tranquill and Avery Sebastian.

Without Max Redfield, Shaun Crawford, Devin Butler and Nick Watkins, this group has no reinforcements other than the youth on the roster. And Kelly sounded fairly clear that with the Irish out of the picture for a big postseason spot, he may be inclined to save Watkins’ year of eligibility and let him forearm heal with time.

“We’re at a point right now where we have to make a decision whether we want to get him in,” Kelly said.  “I would say standing here in front of you right now, based upon my conversation with Dr. Ratigan, he thinks it’s still two more weeks, and if that’s the case, I would lean toward not playing him this year. Not to use up a half-year on him.”

That means Nick Coleman’s going to keep playing. Donte Vaughn will get his chances, too. And it’s up to everybody to step their games up—because this is the group that needs to get the job done.

 

The Offensive Line. The Irish front didn’t have a strong Saturday last weekend. And so you can guess that Harry Hiestand let his unit know this week that those results wouldn’t be good enough.

Expect to see a new attitude this week. That means a commitment to sustaining blocks. It means a diligence in spotting pressures. And it means getting the ground game—and the line of scrimmage—moving.

“It comes down to what we do and that’s the way football is, especially on the offensive side of the ball, it’s executing what you need to do and what your job is,” Mike McGlinchey said this week. “Doing that against a look that is in front of you, that’s the great thing about playing offense, especially offensive line, is a lot of it is in your control. You just have to be able to see what’s happening in front of you and trust the guys next to you to get the job done and that’s what’s going to happen.”

Expects Duke’s defense to challenge Notre Dame’s front with varied looks and a multitude of different pressures. But after struggling against the Spartans, expect a very motivated Irish offensive line to set the tone on Saturday.

 

 

The Pass Rush. Brian Kelly called Duke quarterback Daniel Jones “as good as anyone in the country as far as running their offense.” That’s high praise for a young player just getting started, but it’s likely a credit to a smart quarterback and a very good offensive coaching staff. So as the Irish defense tries to find its footing, expect the Blue Devils staff to see some opportunities after watching three games of tape from Notre Dame’s defense.

But a developing set of receivers and a struggling offensive line should give Notre Dame’s woeful pass rush some opportunities to establish themselves. It should also help protect a secondary that found itself in position to make plays last week, but just didn’t get the job done.

The Blue Devils short passing game has had success. But if Duke tries to extend those throws down the field, the Irish defense better be ready. You can only do so much in the secondary. Against a Duke offensive line that hasn’t been at its best, the Irish front should be able to pin its ears back and get after the quarterback, with veterans like Isaac Rochell or a rookie like Daelin Hayes. The door is open to get a sack or two from a position group that’s been missing in action through the season’s first quarter.

 

Special Teams. Scott Booker’s unit has to want to get that bad taste from their mouth. Jalen Elliott’s penalty took a score off the board. Miles Boykin’s mistake gave the football to the Spartans. And Nicco Fertitta took a stupid penalty, getting himself noticed for all the wrong reasons.

CJ Sanders is due for a bounce back. And Duke’s specialists have been struggling, too. If the Irish want to win this game convincingly, they can dominate the third phase of the football game, helping the defense with field position and setting up the offense with a short field or two.

 

Wide Receivers. I noticed Chase Claypool attacking the football. Notre Dame’s coaching staff did, too. Now it’s time to add the talented freshman to the mix, another downfield weapon who can exploit mismatches and bring a physicality to a unit that already features Equanimeous St. Brown.

Duke’s defense isn’t bad. But they’ll be asked to do a lot, committing bodies to stop the running game and hold up the Blue Devils if the offense can’t get rolling. But for as good as DeShone Kizer has been this season, he’s due a few big plays from the guys catching passes. A season after Will Fuller served as a home run hitter, it’s time for an Irish pass catcher to take a long ball to the house.

 

The Head Coach. Yes, I know this is cheating. The head coach isn’t a position group.

But this is Brian Kelly’s team. That means that he’s ultimately in charge of Brian VanGorder’s besieged defense, the special teams that struggled last week and the offense that went missing for two quarters.

Kelly’s been under the bright lights before. And after seven seasons, a little external heat isn’t anything that’s going to come as a surprise—no matter how successful he’s been turning this program around.

 

“It comes with the territory. I know what the expectations are for the football program at Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “When you build expectations you’re going to be criticized. I have no problem with that. I get that. As I said, I’m a 1-2 football coach. If you’re not criticizing a 1-2 football coach, your fan base is pretty soft.”

So it’s up to Kelly to have his team avoid the noise. It’s up to the coaches and players inside the Gug to find the motivation. And it’s up to the team to play with an internal motivation that doesn’t take into account the team’s postseason destination.

The message has been sent, at least if you listen to one of the team’s captains.

“It’s got to be self and team pride,” McGlinchey said this week. “It’s the constant battle to become the best person and player you can be each and every day. And along with that, become the best team we can be every day. That’s the motivation, just become better and do better and continue to work for that, and everything that we do is about.”

The message is clear. Now delivering on it is essential.

Behind the Irish: Gameday traditions

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With Notre Dame ready to welcome Duke to South Bend for a third-straight home weekend, our Behind the Irish feature takes a look at some of the unique home traditions of football Saturdays at Notre Dame.

Brian Kelly and players Nyles Morgan, Josh Adams, Torii Hunter, DeShone Kizer, Isaac Rochell and Mike McGlinchey give us a look at their favorite gameday traditions.

Talking Irish: Moving on after Michigan State

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 17: Chase Claypool #83 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish catches a pass over Vayante Copeland #13 of the Michigan State Spartans during a game at Notre Dame Stadium on September 17, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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As we have the past few weeks, JJ Stankevitz and I break things down after a tough week for Notre Dame football.

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KA: First off — congrats on the pick. What made you think that was going to happen? (A Spartans’ win)

JJ: It was mostly a distrust of the Brian VanGorder defense. It didn’t come through last year against Stanford and it didn’t come through against Texas. And until further notice, you never bet against a streak, right? Though I guess I didn’t get MSU enough credit. (I went with 27-26 MSU)

But the loss wasn’t all on the defense. How would you evaluate the offense going forward?

KA: I’m pretty down on the offensive line play. I thought the front five has been underwhelming, I think we got WAY too excited about McGlinchey and Nelson as some type of wrecking crew, and I think, in general, these guys look a lot like a group with four new starters (at least positionally) working together for the first time.

JJ: Bingo. It’s certainly not for a lack of talent, but sometimes O-lines need time to come together. We’re seeing that now. I mean, last year, ND was 4th in opportunity rate. This year, they’re 79th. There are problems on O, no doubt.

KA:  But I think we owe it to the people with pitchforks and torches to circle back to the D.
So let me ask you this: Give me your odds (%wise) on Brian VanGorder being the team’s defensive coordinator come spring practice?

(too hot?)😎

JJ: I guess I don’t want to speculate about a guy losing his job, but I’ll say this, that just because Brian Kelly is defending him now doesn’t mean his job is safe.

KA: That’s fair. I just think it’s amazing that we’ve all essentially called the guy GONE, when BK is saying the exact opposite thing.

JJ: Giving up on a coach after three games and publicly putting him on the hot seat probably is counter-productive for a season that still has 10 weeks left in it.

KA: Couldn’t agree more. And I thought one of the big things BK had to say last week that struck me was his commentary on the personnel and the players that they recruited.

If I have a big revelation — I’m just kind of coming to the conclusion that it’s just as much about the Jimmys and the Joes as it is about the Xs and the Os. Which scares me a bit, but also explains things from a coaching POV.

JJ: Right, but it’s not an excuse.

KA: But why isn’t it an excuse? This team lost: The Butkus Award winner, their leading sacker, their leading TFL DT, a captain at MLB, a 3rd round CB, their starting free safety and starting SS. Why are we surprised they’re worse?

JJ: Because the players ultimately were recruited by the coaching staff. If the personnel isn’t there, it first and foremost falls on the guys who brought them in, which is sort of what Kelly was getting at.

I guess we shouldn’t be surprised, based on that. But this is college football, where every roster cycles through players on a four-year cycle. You have to be able to replace them.
Indeed.

JJ: At other schools, a down year is fine. But the expectations at Notre Dame don’t allow for that.

KA: It’s kind of maddening. The Tenuta era was a long time ago—and I don’t think this is THAT bad — but it’s now in a similar conversation.

(Palette cleanser)

So is Duke just a perfect slump buster? Or is there something about this game that scares you, too?

JJ: Duke’s efficient passing offense is a bit troublesome. But they only scored 27 combined points against Wake Forest and Northwestern, which, meh. And Notre Dame hasn’t scored fewer than 28 points at home since Oct. 4, 2014 vs. Stanford.

Are you worried about anything for this one?

KA: I’m now in “worried about everything” mode. So yes, to be candid. And mostly because I’ve done a 180 on just about every defender NOT named James Onwualu, Isaac Rochell and Nyles Morgan. I’d bet Duke and take the 17 points, and then it’d be the first time ever I lost money on ND and they ended up winning convincingly.

(Strictly from a hypothetical gambling POV, of course…)

JJ: At this juncture, style points don’t matter. Notre Dame isn’t making the playoff, but just winning games is the most important thing. So even if it’s a sloppy win…hey, it’s a win, and ND will take it.

KA: That’s a really important point. And one that I really struggled to get across in my writing post-Michigan State loss. We spent a solid DECADE as ND people watching the Irish get out of September with multiple losses. Never once did it feel like the season was “lost,” at least not with nine games to go.

JJ: And it’s certainly not lost for the 80+ players inside the Gug. Torii Hunter said this week that getting to 10 wins still would be a good accomplishment, and James Onwualu basically said that playing for personal pride should count for a lot.

KA: 10 wins would be an incredible season — no matter the year. It doesn’t happen all that often around here.

I’ll have you do the same thought-exercise I did this week: How much have you changed your expectations for the remaining schedule after seeing how straight-up bad this D is?

JJ: So I predicted 10 wins before the season, either through a 9-3 regular season + bowl win of 10-2 regular season + bowl loss. I think now, the 2013 team is about my expectation, probably 9-4.

KA: So a loss to Stanford and Miami and a win against USC?

JJ: And if Notre Dame is competitive with Stanford and beats Miami, I’ll be more willing to go back to my preseason prediction.

KA: At least Irish fans can enjoy the schadenfreude with USC.

JJ:  Miami is weird. Maybe that win that game and lose to NC State or Navy or Army or something.

KA: It’s nuts. Army looks downright terrifying. I actually think Syracuse’s up-tempo attack looks pretty scary, too.

JJ: Yeah, that’s a topic for next week. Fear the Babers.

KA:  Okay – let’s get positive here! Give me 3 things areas or players who’ll take a big step forward this weekend?

JJ: The O-line, the D-Line and DeShone Kizer. I think this O-line coalesces at some point — you have to trust the talent and Hiestand. The D-line has individually played well but not consistently as a unit. But I like what I’ve seen in spurts from Cage/Jones, Tillery and Rochell. And DeShone Kizer is very good and will only continue to grow on being very good.

KA:  I’ll give you mine: Big day on Special Teams (gonna get crazy and call for a block or 40+ yard return), the TRUE freshmen, and the pass rush. (First sack coming!)

JJ: It has to, right?

I’ll give you my projection: Notre Dame 42, Duke 27

KA: I’ll give you, ND 37, Duke 21.No cover. ND win.

Looks like a summer day this weekend in South Bend — don’t get too crazy drinking Tim O’Malley’s free Cherry Coke.