Brian Kelly

Pregame Six Pack: At long last, the season begins

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That took long enough, didn’t it? After far too long, football is back.

With a preseason camp that the Irish survived mostly healthy, the biggest hits came off the field. As an academic investigation claimed its fifth player Thursday, Notre Dame heads into their season opener against Rice short wide receiver DaVaris Daniels, safety Eilar Hardy, linebacker Kendall Moore, cornerback KeiVarae Russell and defensive end Ishaq Williams.

The Irish will finally show their restructured defense helmed by Brian VanGorder, with Saturday afternoon our first look at the young and inexperienced defense that’ll be the X-factor of the season. Breaking in the new FieldTurf inside Notre Dame Stadium, the Irish will attempt to kickoff the season in style.

Before we get there, let’s crack open our pregame six pack. As usual, here are six tidbits, fun facts, leftovers or miscellaneous musings before the Irish take on the Owls at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC.

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1. We’ll find out pretty quickly if Brian VanGorder’s defense can hold up against a running offense. 

Last year, Rice’s offense moved impressively on the ground. The Owls rushing attack finished 17th in the nation with 227 yards a game, making a pledge to controlling the ball via the run. That commitment was a big reason why the Owls ranked 12th in the country in time of possession.

Charles Ross, who led Rice in rushing last season with 1,280 yards, is gone. But quarterback Driphus Jackson is a run threat, and backs like Jawon Davis and Darik Dillard are going to get their opportunities. So if you were wondering if Brian VanGorder’s young defense can hold up in the trenches, it won’t take long to find out.

A closer look to Rice’s commitment to running is pretty impressive. In the regular season, their lowest total rushing attempts were 42 carries, when the Owls ran for 192 yards in a 23-14 win over Kansas. In their loss to Texas A&M, Rice ran for 306 yards on 51 attempts. The Owls 31-26 loss to Houston? Still ran 45 times for 174 yards and two touchdowns.

Only in Rice’s blowout 44-7 loss to Mississippi State in the Liberty Bowl did the Owls not hit the 40-carry mark. Even then, they still managed to tote the ball 32 times, in a game the Owls trailed by five touchdowns by midway through the third quarter.

 

2. Even against a team that feels like a run first (and maybe second, too) offense, converted wide receiver James Onwualu gets the first opportunity at Sam linebacker. 

One of the stories of fall camp was the ascent of James Onwualu, who finished last season with four starts at wide receiver and begins this year in the starting lineup at outside linebacker. Joining Joe Schmidt and Jaylon Smith as starters, nobody’s going to get this trio mixed up with the big bodies that anchored Bob Diaco’s 3-4, but this trio sets a new bar for athleticism.

When asked about Ben Councell’s availability for Saturday, Kelly showed no hesitations playing Councell for fear that his surgically repaired ACL wasn’t properly healed. But rather, Kelly explained that even if Rice is going to run the ball 40 times, formationally it makes sense for the 220-pound Onwualu to play in the game.

“In terms of the way we’re playing the defense, it’s definitely been more towards handling spread teams,” Kelly explained. “That’s why we feel like we’d be better-suited with some more athleticism… (Because Rice) is in open sets.”

We’ve heard nothing but superlatives about Onwualu, and his ability to prepare. Consider Saturday afternoon a progress report on the sophomore.

 

3. Let the Greg Bryant era begin. (Again.)

Sure Bryant had a few carries early last season, not making much out of those opportunities. But a nagging knee injury allowed the blue-chip recruit to take a medical redshirt and Saturday’s game serves as a mulligan for the redshirt freshman.

The depth chart at running back lists captain Cam McDaniel atop a three-man first-string, though you’ve got to expect to see Bryant quite a bit on Saturday, if only to get the butterflies out before taking on Michigan.

With the Irish expecting to move with pace, the running game will dictate the tempo. Even with standout defensive lineman Christian Covington anchoring the interior of the defensive line, the rest of the unit is still finding its role. But Bryant will get his chances to break a big one. He’ll just need to show some patience.

Even if it isn’t Bryant, Saturday serves as the first test for the Irish coaching staff. How they split touches between Tarean Folston, McDaniel and Bryant will likely dictate how productive the Irish offense can be.  After getting less than the sum of the team’s parts at running back last year, it’s a big season to reestablish Notre Dame’s ground game.

 

4. First time back? Let’s run through the new kids on defense. 

Basically, the only guys you’ll really recognize are defensive lineman Sheldon Day, linebacker Jaylon Smith and safety Austin Collinsworth. Day and Collinsworth were awarded captaincy by Kelly earlier this week, and Smith probably should have.

But outside of that trio, nobody will blame you for pulling out a roster. Up front, we’ll see debut starts for sophomore Isaac Rochell and freshman Andrew Trumbetti. If it’s not Trumbetti at defensive end, junior Romeo Okwara will be in line to make his second career start.

Defensive tackle Jarron Jones feels like a veteran, but in reality he’s only started one game in his career. But he’ll pair with Day on the interior of the defensive line, taking as many reps as possible before the juniors gives way to grad student Justin Utupo and true freshman Daniel Cage.

Backing up the linebacking trio is a group of youngsters. Freshmen Nyles Morgan backs up Schmidt. Fellow freshman Greer Martini is in the two-deep behind Smith. And junior John Turner is the next man in behind Onwualu.

Without KeiVarae Russell’s 26 starts at cornerback, the Irish secondary is pretty green. as well Cody Riggs will make his first start in South Bend after playing 40 games for Florida. Cole Luke starts his first game at cornerback. Max Redfield starts his second, after Kelly forced him into the lineup against Rutgers. Add to that some veteran experience in Collinsworth, and you’ve got a secondary that desperately needs to communicate well.

(And maybe wear names on the backs of their jerseys, just for the fans’ sake.)

 

5. After all the talk of spread offense and hurry-up, tempo attacks, this is our first look at the “new look” Irish offense. 

Everett Golson has traveled the long road back. Now he’ll take off the red jersey and be a live target for the first time since Alabama took dead aim at him. That’s over 600 days since Golson last suited up when it counts, so don’t necessarily expect everything to go perfectly from the start.

But that being said, it’s time for the Irish to push the pace of the game and utilize the zone-read, spread principles Kelly’s been waiting to unleash since Golson arrived.

The running game is there. The offensive line’s advantage is distinct. Now it’s time to see what the Irish offense looks like under Mike Denbrock’s supervision and the play-calling of Kelly.

The Irish are short their No. 1 receiver as Daniels continues to be wrapped up in the academic investigation. But that shouldn’t stop Notre Dame from running and gunning all afternoon. But one player to keep an eye on: sophomore receiver Corey Robinson. He had a pin inserted into his thumb and had it casted late last week. He was somehow miraculously back at practice Tuesday, good to go, per Kelly.

 

6. Opening Day hasn’t been all that kind to Kelly’s Irish squad. After a distracting last few weeks, can the Irish set things aside and play a dominant game?

The Irish are 21-point favorites over Rice, a school that’s 0-4 against Notre Dame, with a collective one touchdown in those games. Can the Irish put the Owls away early and build momentum into next week’s matchup with Michigan?

First things first, Kelly’s Irish may be 3-1 on opening days, but only Notre Dame’s win over Navy in Dublin could be considered a rousing success. Last year, after jumping on Temple, the offense struggled and the defense showed some of the inadequacies that plagued them all season. In Kelly’s first season, the Irish won ugly over Danny Hope’s Purdue team.

Of course, 2011’s opener against South Florida is going to be difficult to forget. Watching the Irish short-circuit with five turnovers in a lightning-delayed game at Notre Dame Stadium could go down among the most miserable losses of the last 20 years.

The weather forecast for Saturday shows a good chance of rain. But regardless of what the weather brings, Saturday is an opportunity for the Irish to make a statement and set the tone for the 2014 season.

Make no mistake, this Rice team isn’t coming to South Bend to take one on the chin. David Bailiff’s team has won 15 of their last 19 games, a record you don’t get by accident. But with or without five suspended players, the Irish have a large personnel advantage.

Now they need to take care of business and get ready for a battle with Michigan that could go down for the ages.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Even with talent drain, Irish can be CFB Playoff contender

LANDOVER, MD - NOVEMBER 01: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on from the sidelines during the first half against the Navy Midshipmen at FedExField on November 1, 2014 in Landover, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly’s next football team might have less talent than the group that produced seven of the first 103 picks in the NFL Draft. But it might have a better chance to make it to the College Football Playoff.

It’s a trendy thought lately. The kind of thing you do when it’s May and we’re still a long way away from any football this fall.

But there’s good reason to be bullish on the Irish. And SBNation’s Bill Connelly providing the thinking man’s rationale for the optimism last week when he unveiled his preview of the 2016 Fighting Irish.

The entire preview is very much worth your time, but here’s the synopsis:

  • Brian Kelly is an excellent coach. (Sorry complainers.)
  • Whoever wins the quarterback job is going to be really good.
  • An offensive line that’ll reload.
  • Tons of skill talent.
  • A defense trending in the right direction.
  • A good close game team.
  • A schedule that’s more conducive to winning.

Again, go read the article. (You’ll be smarter for it.) But after crunching many of the variables, here’s Connelly’s mighty optimistic conclusion:

There isn’t a sure loss on the schedule. In fact, there’s only one game in which Notre Dame has a worse than 59 percent chance of winning. But operating in close games will be critical. That means finding go-to receivers for the quarterback in times of need, continued quality from Yoon, and a defense that improves up front despite turnover and holds steady in the back despite freshmen on the two-deep.

All of the “ifs” are realistic, and while the defense still has plenty to prove, I’m not going to doubt Kelly after last year. If I had a poll vote — and thank goodness I don’t — I would seriously consider Notre Dame in the preseason top five.

With Notre Dame’s two regular-season losses coming in the final moments of road games to top-five teams, this isn’t the type of “Here Come the Irish” headline that invaded our psyche and ruined the enjoyment of seasons under Bob Davie, Ty Willingham or Charlie Weis, the later still finding his way into the schlock headlines thanks to Notre Dame’s latest tax return release.

But Brian Kelly’s consistency has turned proclamations like Connelly’s into a decidedly uninteresting one. And at the same time that we go inch-by-inch through the roster, it’s helpful to see what the Irish look like from a 30,000-foot view—a better vantage point to evaluate progress than the perch most of us inhabit.

So while all previews in May expire by the time the calendar hits August, let’s go through the bullet points (as appropriated by me, not Connelly) just to add to the discussion.

 

Brian Kelly: elite coach. (No question mark) 

Right now, that’s a fairly undeniable assertion. And for those of you who’ll haggle about the definition of elite or harken back to a two-point conversion chart or the selection of the team’s defensive coordinator, this might be the best question to ask yourself: “After Nick Saban and Urban Meyer, who else do you want running your program?”

 

The quarterback battle.

If there’s something that I find reassuring, it’s the fact that Connelly hasn’t lost the plot on this. Whoever wins the quarterback battle will play at a very high level. Or they won’t play at all.

As Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford showed last season, the Irish will coach up a quarterback and get very productive play out of them. (Unlike what happened at Ohio State last year.) And with Brandon Wimbush putting the redshirt on, Notre Dame has one of the country’s most dangerous weapons waiting in the wings.

 

The offensive line should be good again.

Remember all those data-driven pieces about minutes-played correlating to excellent offensive line play? I still believe them. But I also think the Irish will produce a very, very productive offensive line even with three new starters, thanks to two starting NFL linemen on the left side of their center and Alex Bars likely on his way, too.

 

Those skill players? They’ll be good.  

I’m bullish on the ground game. I’m high on the young talent in the secondary. And I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to a receiving corps that I think is still a little more unsorted than I’d guess this staff wants.

Torii Hunter should lead the unit. After that, I’m not sure what to expect.

The move of Alizé Jones to the “W” (boundary side) receiver gives you an idea that this staff is preparing to go forward if Corey Robinson steps away from the game because of concussions. It also might point to an offensive direction that’s more similar to 2012, a physical approach that could put more tight ends on the field and would allow the Irish to lean on a very strong running game and a quarterback who’ll be able to take deep shots down the field.

 

The Defense?

How you improve after losing headliners like Sheldon Day, Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt, Elijah Shumate and KeiVarae Russell is hard to comprehend. But I think this unit will have more versatility, as injuries and certain personnel limitations really hamstrung a unit that was maddeningly inconsistent at times.

Can they improve against the run? I think the answer starts with Jarron Jones and Jerry Tillery, two stout guys who’ll hold up in the trenches in front of Nyles Morgan. That’ll serve as the critical building block to the scheme, with pieces added and subtracted to make sure the Irish can be multiple and match-up with opponents on a weekly basis.

I’m punting on this topic (for now), while acknowledging that improvement on this side of the football is critical to success and the biggest unknown heading into the season.

 

Good play in tight games

Remember those heart-stopping finishes in the Weis era? Or that dreadful feeling you got every time a game got close and an opponent mounted a comeback?

For some, it’ll never go away. But under Brian Kelly, the Irish have been a very good close game team—even considering the two tight losses last year.

I appreciate the comparison Connelly made in his piece to a baseball team with a good bullpen. When the Irish have been at their best, they’ve been able to control the game late with solid quarterback play, a dependable running game and a defense that held up.

Justin Yoon and Tyler Newsome play an important part in this process, too. The specialist duo will help control field position and make critical kicks, with Yoon putting together a really respectable freshman season and Newsome showcasing a booming leg.

 

The Schedule

I haven’t fully dug into the intricacies of the schedule, but just at face value it’s a much less daunting climb that years past. The Irish get Michigan State and Stanford at home (and under the lights) and replace Clemson with North Carolina State. Army comes back onto the schedule and Navy loses the majority of its team, including star Keenan Reynolds.

There is no shortage of coaching pedigree that Brian Kelly will face. Mark Richt, David Cutcliffe, and some young rising talent like Justin Fuente and Clay Helton in a regular season finale in Los Angeles.

But you can only win the games you play, and you can only play the teams on your schedule. (Thanks, Yogi.) As Connelly mentioned, there’s no “sure loss” on this slate, and I think Notre Dame will be favored every time they take the field next year.

 

Jurkovec’s commitment as solid as it can get

Phil Jurkovec 247
247 Sports
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In a sport like college football, not much is certain. Coaching changes, recruiting battles, it is a week to week sport in nearly every sense of the word.

So when coveted 2018 quarterback Phil Jurkovec chose Notre Dame last week, many kept their enthusiasm tempered. Especially with memories of prospects like Blake Barnett fresh in their minds.

But Jurkovec seems to have his priorities aligned. And a recent comment to Matt Freeman of IrishSportsDaily.com should have Irish fans feeling very good about their young QB-in-waiting.

For as long as Notre Dame has recruited, teams have recruited against Notre Dame. And in recent years, the sales pitch has changed—not from worries of a head coach or assistants being fired, but rather the chance that they may leave for greener pastures.

In this case, you have to feel good that Jurkovec seems to understand the realities of the situation. Because even if Brian Kelly is in the NFL or Mike Sanford is running his own program, the Golden Dome will still be standing.

Of course, it doesn’t do anything to guarantee Jurkovec will be in South Bend come 2018, but it certainly points to a kid and family having done their due diligence before making such an important decision.

Irish A-to-Z: Hunter Bivin

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One of many heralded offensive line recruits to follow Harry Hiestand to South Bend, Hunter Bivin has bounced inside and out on Notre Dame’s offensive line, looking for a home. After serving as a back-up to talents like Zack Martin, Ronnie Stanley and Mike McGlinchey at tackle, Bivin might have the inside track to earn his first starting experience at right guard.

After three years of hard work—and Steve Elmer deciding to cut short his college career after three seasons—Bivin looks like a true contender for a starting role. Now he needs to continue the work he put in this spring over the summer months, holding off a group of young talent to finalize the fifth starting job on a rebuilt offensive line.

 

HUNTER BIVIN
6’5.5″, 308 lbs.
Senior, No. 70, OL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Bivin was an elite prospect. 247 ranked him as one of the top offensive linemen—and overall prospects—in the country. He was an All-State performer in Kentucky, an Under Armour All-American, and played for the USA Team.

Bivin chose Notre Dame over offers from Florida, LSU, Oklahoma, Ohio State and Michigan. He was a starter on a Kentucky state championship basketball team and also the state’s best shot putter.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2013): Did not see action.

Sophomore Season (2014): Made his Irish debut in the second half of a lopsided victory over Rice. Played in five games, including on special teams against Florida State.

Junior Season (2015): Played in five games, serving as a backup at left tackle for Ronnie Stanley. Notched a season-high 25 snaps against UMass. Played 14 snaps in a convincing season-opening win over Texas.

 

WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR

The crystal ball appeared to be working last year when it came to Bivin’s playing time.

Bivin’s got everything you’d want—on paper—when it comes to an offensive line recruit. That said, it’s time for those qualities to translate to the field, something we haven’t seen yet.

It’s not necessarily fair to call Bivin an underachiever, especially when you want to have the type of depth Notre Dame has developed up front. It’s also worth noting that the two positions the Irish have worked Bivin have required some difficult playing time battles: Matt Hegarty just moved to Oregon and was inserted as the team’s starting center after he couldn’t beat out Nick Martin. And Ronnie Stanley will follow Zack Martin into the first round of the NFL Draft.

So let’s hold our breath a little bit longer.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

It’s clear that Bivin has some ability, with the staff entrusting a second-string tackle job to the Kentucky native the past two seasons. But it’s also clear that he’s not the caliber of tackle prospect that Alex Bars is, with Bivin making the slide inside, hopefully solidifying the starting lineup with the team’s five best offensive linemen.

Right now—especially after Colin McGovern struggled through injuries this spring—Bivin has a grasp on that job. But after another summer competing with Tristen Hoge and incoming freshman Tommy Kraemer, that might not be as clear.

Hiestand and Brian Kelly both prefer playing veterans—especially along the offensive line. We’ve seen guys like Mike Golic, Christian Lombard and Matt Hegarty keep talented young players on the sideline as trusted veterans. Bivin likely can do the same as a senior with a fifth-year available, though he’ll need to be the best player for the job.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I have Bivin penciled in at right guard for the start against Texas. Whether he stays in the lineup will likely be dictated by how quickly this offensive line gels. Remember, it wasn’t too long ago that Kelly and Hiestand reshuffled their starting lineup, 2014’s offensive line swapped out mid-season after a disappointing start to the year. That’s a real scenario that could take place if this line doesn’t come together.

Being the fifth-best starter on an offensive line that features guys like Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson is no shame, especially when we’ve seen and heard such good things about first-time projected starters like Bars and Sam Mustipher. Bivin is a big body—he’s got prototype tackle size—and that’ll make the transition inside easier.

But I’m still waiting to see how he does as a mauler. There’s not much room for finesse at right guard, especially with the Irish wanting to establish a ground game early and often in 2016.

If Bivin brings that type of aggressiveness to the job and takes to guard over the summer, he’s a potential two-year starter. If not, he goes back to being a sixth man, capable of backing up essentially every spot on the offensive line.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal

Irish A-to-Z: Asmar Bilal

Asmar Bilal 247
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It is freshman year all over again for linebacker Asmar Bilal. The rising sophomore, who wore a redshirt in 2015, likely spent more time working with Brian VanGorder’s defense in 15 spring practices than he did all of last season.

That’s what happens when Jaylon Smith departs for the NFL and Te’von Coney and Greer Martini spend the offseason recovering from injuries. Those circumstances cleared the way for Bilal to take center stage at Will linebacker this spring, a position that’ll look quite different than it did the past two seasons when America’s most talented linebacker roamed the field.

No slouch himself, Bilal has more than just long dreads in common with Smith. With a body that also looks chiseled from granite and the speed of a safety, there are great expectations for the Indianapolis native.

 

ASMAR BILAL
6’2″, 230 lbs.
Sophomore, No. 27, LB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A four-star recruit, Bilal picked Notre Dame over Michigan after a competitive recruitment. He had offers from Michigan State, Missouri, Nebraska, Tennessee and a dozen other programs, too.

Bilal was an Army All-American, second-team on the MaxPreps All-American team and was Indiana’s defensive player of the year on the American Family Insurance All-USA team. He was a four-star prospect and a 247 composite Top 200 player.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2015): Did not see action.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

The year of eligibility was saved, keeping Bilal off of special teams. But all else held true:

At the very least, I see Bilal wreaking some havoc on special teams. But if there’s an opening on the field with this defense, it’s at safety. Perhaps Bilal could serve as a situational defensive back, the type of in-the-box plugger that Drue Tranquill excelled at in 2014.

The reality of the situation is a year of learning and gaining weight for Bilal. With Joe Schmidt and Jarrett Grace departing after this season, and Jaylon Smith having quite a choice on his hands as well, the depth chart could turn over after this season—turning next spring into maybe an even more critical time than this fall in Bilal’s development.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Bilal’s primary competition at Will linebacker is classmate Te’von Coney, who had worked his way into the two-deep behind Jaylon Smith, playing briefly in the Fiesta Bowl before suffering his own major injury. While Coney had to watch spring ball as his shoulder healed, Bilal took reps for the two of them.

While it’s far from decided, Coney looks like the first choice in the starting lineup for VanGorder and Mike Elston. That’s not to say that the rotation will be as limited as it was last season—this group of linebackers might very well be patched together by scheme and circumstance.

None of that changes Bilal’s potential. A football player who came to Notre Dame needing to add mass to his frame and learn the intricacies of playing linebacker, Bilal’s high school exploits included a lot of time at safety, a tackling machine that looked more search-and-destroy than fully understanding the nuances of gap control and positional responsibilities.

Bilal put on the weight, up to 230 pounds this spring, looking like a linebacker not a DB. Now the mental aspect of the game will likely dictate how quickly Bilal’s able to deploy his physical skills and use them for good. We’ll get a nice progress report on where the coaches think he is come Texas.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Bilal looks like a four-unit coverage contributor on special teams from game one. He also has the type of speed and skill that he could find a role in a sub-package (remember those?) for VanGorder, if the defense is able to keep enough guys healthy to play multiple schemes.

The redshirt was the best thing to happen to Bilal in that he’s essentially starting his college career now. We’ve seen too often the difficulties that come with using talented young defenders in bit roles, robbing years of eligibility from guys like Kona Schwenke and Romeo Okwara, removing a fifth-year opportunity that could have really helped all parties involved.

Positional depth helped save Bilal in 2015. Now he’s going to need to be part of the solution in 2016, when a new cast of characters needs to step forward and lead with captains Joe Schmidt and Smith long gone.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars