Postseason Mailbag: The ‘Moving Forward’ edition

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We’ll find out over the weekend where Notre Dame will go bowling. Until then, let’s dig into the mailbag.

 

NotreDan:

Here are ND’s rivals recruiting class rankings:

2014: #11
2013: #3
2012: #20
2011: #10

Here are TCU’s

2014: #50
2013: #30
2012: #37
2011: #26

Please explain the obvious question.

You mean, “How did TCU go 4-8 last year, with wins against just SE Louisiana, SMU, Iowa State and Kansas?”

Or, “How do men who watch primarily YouTube clips of high school football stars formulate objective rankings?”

Just kidding. How about the, “How come Notre Dame does so well in recruiting rankings but not necessarily on the field?”

I get your point. I really do. But you’re also likely part of the faction that complains when Notre Dame signs low-three star prospects like Will Fuller and Corey Robinson, but loves it when they turn into elite players.

The 2011 class won’t be what we thought it was, mostly because of injuries and attrition. But give up on the other classes at your own risk. I tend to think that 2013 group is going to lead this program to great heights, even if this year still stings.

 

schuey73: If Redfield is out of the bowl game, who is going to play Safety with Shumate? Hardy? Farley? Riggs?

Good question. Depending on Redfield’s injury, it’s likely going to be Shumate and Hardy, with perhaps… Matthias Farley filling in? (Even though he’s the team’s best nickel back.)

I don’t expect Cody Riggs to play another game for the Irish. I just think it’s too risky, considering that the next important rep he takes as a football player will be either at his Pro Day or the NFL Scouting Combine.

This position is in a bad, bad place from an injuries perspective. They’ll need to figure something out, maybe even support from John Turner, but getting Shumate up to speed should be first priority.

 

@LaFontaine12: Is there a chance Alford may go to CSU?

There’s a chance. And it sure would be great to see him get a shot.

For as important as Alford is to Notre Dame and their recruiting efforts, he’s a coach that deserves an opportunity to run a program and is the rare non-coordinator who has the people skills and leadership to be a great head coach.

And I’m not the only guy who thinks so.

 

cajunirish: Who starts in the bowl game, EG or MZ. I for one would like to see what MZ can do with a whole game. 

Where have we gone wrong with player development? Seems that we realize surprisingly little of the potential that we talk about in our recruits.

I have a feeling just about every fanbase feels that way about the recruits they sign. Mostly because we spend months and months in the offseason talking about these guys.

If you have joined the camp of “Brian Kelly doesn’t develop his players,” you’ve jumped off a cliff after a decade-plus of data suggesting he’s one of the best in the country at doing so.

There’s no doubt that Everett Golson regressed down the stretch, with his passive play against USC the worst football he exhibited all season.

I’d want to take the bowl game and play both of them — because evaluating Zaire when he was playing a USC defense with a 35-point lead isn’t exactly an apples to apples comparison. (When the Trojans decided to bring heat, they stopped Zaire, too.)

There’s no better way to go into spring than with both Golson and Zaire feeling like they have a chance to win a job. I think it’s great for the competitive situation.

Kidding with NotreDan aside, recruiting rankings are sometimes really unfair to players, especially guys like Greg Bryant and Max Redfield, two players tabbed with the “five-star” label, but kids that need time to develop. Now they’ll enter Year 3 at a time when they should be making their move to stardom, not feeling like they’ve already failed.

When you play freshmen, you get freshmen results. We saw that down the stretch, in all its ugliness. Even if Nyles Morgan was making 10 tackles a game he was still in the wrong place and missed a dozen more.

That’s player development. And I’m guessing that’ll be more of an emphasis this spring than in years past. But the struggles this season will help next year.

sfnd: 

Keith, Please imagine yourself in another’s shoes. What are the 3 most important concerns / questions regarding the ND football program if you are :

A. Jack Swarbrick

B. Brian Kelly

C. A top high school recruit

For Swarbrick:
1. Are we still making progress?
2. Is the backslide because of on-field woes or foundational issues?
3. Make sure I’ve got an updated list of replacements for every head coaching job on campus, football included.

For Brian Kelly:
Just read this again.

For recruits:
1. Can I make the NFL?
2. Will I get my degree?
3. What kind of gear am I wearing?

 

fwirish: do you think it will really be an open competition for the position next year?

Sure do. Because Kelly had a lot of people believing last year’s competition was real, and I never for one minute thought Zaire even had a chance.

To answer a sub-question, I think it’s a two-man race, with Kizer having to fight his way into the conversation and Wimbush likely trying to drink from the firehose.

In many ways, Golson’s struggles paired with Zaire’s comfort in the spotlight will mean that Kelly will hopefully be able to elevate the play of both players and also challenge them to compete harder, if only because there’s no fear if one goes down that the other can’t keep up.

The position is healthy. Unfortunately, we had to watch Golson continue to stub his toe to get to this point.

 

irish1958: Keith, Everybody knows Saban is a great coach. How do you think he would do if he lost 17 players from his two deep defense and one of his leading offensive weapons?

Jokes aside, there may be no program better situated to handle a rash of injuries than Alabama’s. And that comes from years of oversigning “roster management.” In that regard, it’s probably Alabama…and then everybody else.

 

coachtemp: Do you believe that BK and staff read the articles/comments posted here on Inside the Irish?

I cut the rest of this question out because I certainly hope that the staff doesn’t read this stuff!

Not that I don’t think that my opinion matters, but these guys are working 100 hour weeks trying to grind through a season. You want them to troll the comments or my columns for run game suggestions?

Too often writers/readers/websites take credit for suggesting something and then seeing it happen. Chances are, a smart/competent football staff will come to the same realization themselves.

I believe this group will figure it out. I haven’t changed my expectations for next season at all. In many ways, I think the struggles will provide even better fuel for next season.

 

steincj36: Is it just me, or did BK seem a little “disconnected” from the team in the 2nd half of the season? Like laying 100% blame on Everett after ASU and saying “they got their butt kicked” after USC? It just seems as if he personally refused to take the burden of the losses and rather put it on the players.

I ask this because I think Everett lost all his confidence when Kelly verbally undressed him after ASU.

I thought I already wrote this, but it’s worth posting again. I was standing in the room and asking questions when BK spoke postgame after ASU.

And I don’t think a single person in that room read it as “laying 100% blame on Everett.” I’ve been surprised and disappointed that people are spinning a narrative (that I’ve seen growing) that Kelly only blames his players for mistakes.

More to this point, right after the ASU game I watched Golson come into the media room and basically say the same thing. He doesn’t have a live feed into the head coach’s comments. So it’s not like he and BK had a chance to get their stories straight.

Golson lost his confidence because he COULDN’T STOP TURNING THE FOOTBALL OVER! That caused him to play tight — and just like a pitcher that starts steering the ball towards home plate, it never goes well.

Golson isn’t broken. And he’s hardly a guy with a weak will or strength of mind. Did we all forget that this was a kid who was kicked out of school and instead of transferring somewhere else and playing immediately he came back to Notre Dame?

These guys aren’t checked out. Nobody is disconnected. There’s just a ton of frustration that comes along with losing — both players (suspensions and injuries) and football games.

Lastly point (and sorry if this comes off as a rant against you, steiny) but Kelly seems in a bad spot. You want the standard coachspeak or a guy who is willing to be candid? I’ll take the version we’ve got all night long.

 

ndrocks2: Keith – what have you heard about the junior college prospect from Fresno City College, running back Jeremy Smith? When was the last time we recruited a JuCo player that you can remember?

I can’t remember a junior college player transferring in football. (Though I do know some athletes that transferred in after getting credits at the community college level.) But I did some digging on Smith, and ND’s interest in him is legit. Also, while he spent this season playing at the JuCo level, he was a full qualifier out of high school who didn’t like his offers and went out to do better for himself.

And after watching his film, it looks like he did that.

From what I hear, ND is working through some of the transfer issues, especially from a school like Fresno City College. But if things work out, Smith will come in as a sophomore with three years of eligibility remaining.  He’ll add some much needed depth and power to the running backs group, and a safety net if the Irish come up empty down the stretch chasing a second running back.

 

flandersst1: Given Brian Kelly’s history with multiple QB’s (i.e. he used 5 QB’s at Cinci in 2008 and won the Big East), would it be a bad thing if he platooned EG and MZ next year until game action indicated who was clearly better?

I wrote before the Rice game that I thought Zaire would get a series in the first half. So I’ve never hade an issue with playing both guys. But I think for every successful multi-quarterback system, there’s been about a hundred that didn’t work.

So I just prefer the leash gets shorter and both guys are held accountable. A platoon suggests both guys are ready. And that’s still the big question, because we certainly didn’t see enough from Zaire to prove he is.

But it’ll sure make for more interesting debate this offseason.

 

prodigolson: What should I be filling up my glass with when the Irish take the field for the bowl game?

Tears. It’s the last real football game we’ll be watching for nine months.

 

 

Tranquill continues work with safeties … for now

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Drue Tranquill will see time at the oft-spoken of rover position, just not yet. For now, Notre Dame needs the senior at safety to provide leadership and communication while the rest of his position group gets up to speed.

“We really have to figure out what the coordination is going to be at the safety position,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “How much does Drue play down at rover? How much does he play back [at safety]?”

Only sophomore Devin Studstill returns any starts to the safety position aside from Tranquill’s career total of 18. Studstill started nine games last season.

That void has kept Tranquill working mostly with the defensive backs in the spring’s first few practices, rather than joining the likes of junior Asmar Bilal in the rover grouping.

“We didn’t want to pull our most veteran player out of the back end of our defense with Drue,” Kelly said. “I think it was more about the hesitancy of losing a great communicator in the back end than about the teaching.”

The time will come, however, for Tranquill to move up. Juniors Nick Coleman and Ashton White have moved to safety from the corner position. With more reps, they will not need to rely on Tranquill’s guidance as much. The same goes for, at least in theory, sophomore Jalen Elliott.

“It’s not really a heavy load of teaching for those guys,” Kelly said. “They’re picking it up quite well. We really want to get a chance to see a lot of guys back there.”

Kelly seemed particularly bullish on Coleman’s prospects at the position, provided he embrace the needed physicality. At 6-foot, 187 pounds, Coleman’s build may have been more suited on the outside, but Notre Dame’s plethora of promising cornerbacks provided an impetus to test Coleman at safety.

“The big thing will be Nick’s continuous development in tackling,” Kelly said. “You have to tackle back there. His ball skills are really good. We’ve seen that he’s able to play the ball. He has athleticism.

“We just want to continue to build on his tackling skills. If we go through the spring and say, ‘Well, he’s tackling really well,’ we’ll feel pretty good about the move.”

At that point, Tranquill will likely join Bilal at the hybrid position, which is something of a trademark to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Tranquill will be able to do what he does best: Pursue the ball.

“We all know what his strengths are,” Kelly said. “He’s a solid tackler. I don’t think there’s any safety in college football that wants to get matched up one-on-one with a skilled slot receiver. This would minimize that, when you play him close to the ball as a rover.

“And I think he’s pretty quick off the edge. I think we put him in a really good position in maximizing his skill set.”

Until then, Bilal will continue to be the frontrunner at rover, especially with the first four Irish opponents of 2017 presenting run-heavy offenses.

KELLY ON NICK WATKINS
Kelly was also asked about senior cornerback Nick Watkins, his fit into Elko’s defense and his return from injury.

“He’s very coachable, wants to learn, he’s pretty long,” Kelly said. “What I think Mike [Elko] does really well—and this is what I liked about my interactions with him—is, we all have strengths and weaknesses. He has a great eye of saying let’s take Nick’s strengths and let’s put him in a position where we can really utilize his strengths and put him in a position where maybe we’re not a right and left corner team, maybe we’re a short field/wide field team. Let’s apply him in that fashion.

“Nick’s long. He’s a little bit of a physical player. Let’s go to those strengths. He’s shown some of those attributes early on.”

RELATED READING:
Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover position, others likely to follow
2 Days Until Spring Practice: A look at the defensive backfield

Kraemer, Eichenberg compete for RT spot, moving Bars inside, and Bivin to…

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Forty percent of the offensive line is essentially set in stone: fifth-year senior Mike McGlinchey at left tackle and senior Quenton Nelson at right guard.

The center position seems to be senior Sam Mustipher’s to lose.

That leaves the two starting spots on the right side of the line for a number of players—both young and experienced—to fight over.

Sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg have emerged as the frontrunners for the right tackle spot, moving senior Alex Bars inside to right guard. Bars started all 12 games last season at right tackle.

“Those two [Kraemer and Eichenberg] are the guys we have mapped out at right tackle, and they’re going to battle,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “Today Kraemer was there. Last two practices Eichenberg got a lot of the work. Eichenberg will go back there on Friday. They’re going to keep battling and splitting the action out there.”

Part of the reasoning in giving the two sophomores extended looks this spring is Notre Dame knows what it has in Bars when at right tackle.

“We would prefer to get him in at the guard position, but we know he can play the [tackle] position,” Kelly said.

A starting five of McGlinchey, the three seniors and either sophomore may seem to leave fifth-year lineman Hunter Bivin out in the cold. Not often is a player asked to return for a fifth year only to spend it on the bench. That is even more rare when considering the current Irish scholarship crunch.

Kelly compared Bivin’s role to that of Mark Harrell’s last year. Harrell appeared in all 12 games, starting two, and provided much needed depth and flexibility along the offensive line. Rather than have five backup offensive linemen, position coach Harry Hiestand relied on Harrell to provide support at multiple spots.

“It’s reasonable to assume that Hunter Bivin’s going to be involved in this as well,” Kelly said. “We’ve just asked Hunter to take a seat right now. He’s done that for the team.

“We think Hunter is going to be a Mark Harrell for us. A guy that’s extremely valuable, can play a number of positions. We trust him, but we want to see these two young players [Kraemer and Eichenberg]. Hunter is a guy that can play right or left tackle for us. He’s going to be a valuable player for us as a swing guy.”

On that note, this space will refer to Bivin as a fifth-year lineman, as was done above, rather than as a guard or as a tackle, until further notice. In his case, the broader description may be the most accurate.

Spring break out west is fine, but Wimbush better be ready to run

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It will undoubtedly become a habit, at least for the next five-plus months. If Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush sneezes in front of a camera, it just might lead to an uptick in webmd.com traffic. His every football move will certainly be analyzed, nitpicked and discussed at length. Thus, Irish coach Brian Kelly being asked about Wimbush’s spring break should surprise no one.

Rather than find a Florida beach, Wimbush spent his spring break working with private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield in San Diego alongside a handful of other college passers. Kelly said there is value to such a spring break but stopped short of setting any lofty expectations of the effects.

“I have no problem with [Wimbush] working out with George Whitfield,” Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice, the first following spring break and the third of 14 leading into the Blue-Gold Game on April 22. “George doesn’t work on the specifics to the offense. George is really working on the quarterback and throwing the football, moving in the pocket. George is really good at keeping those quarterbacks active and moving.”

Whitfield is best-known around Notre Dame and among Irish fans for working with former Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson during Golson’s academic suspension in 2013. Whitfield and Golson spent 10 weeks together, thus granting time for extensive off-field activities such as film study. Far shorter, Wimbush’s time out west appears to have been spent primarily doing drills.

“In those situations, it’s a bullpen session,” Kelly said. “They’re keeping their arms loose, they’re keeping their feet loose. He’s just keeping them active.”

It is hard to construe that activity as a negative, but it obviously lacks certain aspects crucial to Wimbush’s 2017 season. With only five career pass attempts and seven career rushes, Wimbush’s inexperience looms large. Developing the necessary intangibles to account for that may be just as, if not more, important as fitting his throws into tight windows.

“When it comes to the playbook, to his teammates, to his coaches here, Brandon understands that when the rubber hits the road, those are the guys that matter the most,” Kelly said. “He knows when it’s time for Notre Dame football, where the focus is.”

Included in that playbook will be an expectation for Wimbush to carry the ball. To date, Wimbush’s biggest play and possibly only imprint on most Notre Dame fans’ memories is a 58-yard touchdown scamper against Massachusetts in 2015.

Link to 17-second YouTube video which has unfortunately disabled embedding

Note, the play is not exclusively-designed for Wimbush to run. Now a rising junior, then a fellow freshman, running back Josh Adams comes across Wimbush’s front for a possible handoff. Instead, Wimbush makes the correct read and keeps the ball. Why state so clearly it was the proper read? Adams has to evade a Texas defender even though he never had the ball.

Future option plays should present Wimbush with the possibility of throwing the ball, too.

“He’ll be a runner in the offense,” Kelly said. “Do we want him to carry the ball 20 times? No.”

“I don’t think you’ll have a situation where we’re calling quarterback power or singular runs. He’s going to have options: hand it off, throw the ball out on the perimeter. You’ll see more of that than you will prescribed quarterback runs. We had a little bit more of that last year with Kizer, but I think you’ll see that he has an option to get the ball out of his hands more so than just prescribed runs.”

Those option plays, in particular, will require Wimbush to have a thorough familiarity both with the Notre Dame playbook and with his teammates’ tendencies.

RITA LEE OR 52-53?
Staying consistent with his comments over the last two months, Kelly once again reiterated the biggest changes new offensive coordinator Chip Long will bring to the Irish playbook will be in its wording. Perhaps going to an extreme example to illustrate his thinking, Kelly pointed to the future.

“We’re going to win next year and Chip is going to be the greatest offensive coordinator in the country and he’s going to get a head job, right?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “Then I’m not going to introduce the Chip Long offense to the next offensive coordinator.”

“It has to have my culture in it … The culture of the offense is still the base offense that I have always run because I have to be able to carry that with me from year to year.”

Within that ellipsis, Kelly gave two examples of possible verbiage changes. Without knowing much more behind them, they do not mean too much out here in the cobwebs of the internet, but they do provide a quick glimpse at what Kelly has been referring to when discussing lexicon since hiring Long.

“If he wants to change Ringo Lucky protection to Ram and Lion protection, go right ahead. If he wants to change certain calls, for example, 52-53 protection is now Rita Lee.”

RELATED READING:
4 Days Until Spring Practice: A Look at QBs (Brandon Wimbush)
Pace of Play: More Snaps Equal More Scoring Chances, Right?

Back from break, Irish commence hitting; DT Elijah Taylor out with LisFranc injury

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Notre Dame last wore pads in its 45-27 defeat at USC back on Nov. 26, a full 117 days ago. Suffice it to say, the Irish enjoyed the chance to don their shoulder pads and hit each other in Wednesday’s third spring practice, the first one since returning from spring break.

“What I liked about it more than anything else is there wasn’t a big drop off today,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “Usually you go two days and then you take a week off, and then you come back and put your pads on—it took us only a couple of periods to get back up to form. That was nice to see.”

Contrary to previous years in spring practice, and perhaps practice in general, Kelly emphasized tackling, especially tackling in the open-field, in Wednesday’s drills.

“[I] felt like we needed to make up for a little lost ground,” he said. “We got in tackling today for the first time. That’ll be an emphasis. We’ll tackle a lot this spring to make up for lost ground.”

The early and often physical nature of practice didn’t bother any of the players, per Kelly, but also per presumed common sense. While Notre Dame’s coaching staff changes and public questioning played out in broad view, the players spent 117 days in private waiting to unleash some of the frustrations of 2016’s disappointing season.

“Everybody to a man has been looking forward to this day,” Kelly said. “It was a pretty difficult offseason for them. They were looking forward to putting the pads on and getting out there. I think they exhibited that today.”

TAYLOR OUT FOR SPRING, AT LEAST
Junior defensive tackle Elijah Taylor was not in pads Wednesday. In the final practice before spring break, another player stepped on Taylor’s foot, Kelly said. The resulting LisFranc fracture will keep Taylor out of the remaining dozen spring practices and limit him until at least July. Taylor saw action in four games last season, finishing with three tackles, including one for a loss.

Notre Dame team surgeon Dr. Brian Ratigan already performed Taylor’s surgery.

“Typical LisFranc fractures, we’ve had good success with their repairs,” Kelly said. “…We’ll be able to train around the injury. Full range of motion moving around and doing things in June, probably full clearance sometime in July.”

Without Taylor, the interior of Notre Dame’s defensive line becomes even shallower, though that may have been hard to previously comprehend. Junior Jerry Tillery looks to be ready to start, and senior Jonathan Bonner has moved to the inside, rather than at end as he has been for most of his career. Behind them, the Irish present only question marks.

Kelly said he will look to junior Micah Dew-Treadway to step forward in Taylor’s absence.

“Micah Dew-Treadway has had a really good offseason for us,” Kelly said. “Changed his body, has been doing a really good job in all facets, in the class room and weight room. He’s somebody that had been ascending anyway prior to the injury.

Kelly indicated junior Brandon Tiassum also could be expected to see more work with Taylor sidelined.

Seniors Daniel Cage and Pete Mokwuah are in the mix, as well. Cage struggled with concussion issues last season after a promising 2015.

Notre Dame will need to wait until the freshmen arrive—perhaps also joined by Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano, reportedly still taking official visits as he ponders his 2017 destination—for further reinforcements. Consensus four-star recruit Darnell Ewell would be the most likely candidate of the three expected arrivals to move up the depth chart right away.

In layman’s terms, a Lisfranc fracture occurs when a mid-foot bone connecting to a toe separates from the cluster of bones toward the heel. Note: This is stated here only to provide some context, nothing more. This particular scribe avoided most biology classes.

CLAYPOOL A RECEIVER AND THAT HE WILL STAY
Asked if he considered moving sophomore receiver Chase Claypool to defense, Kelly answered succinctly.

“We feel like we need his play on offense,” Kelly said. “He’ll continue to contribute on the special teams end of things, but we need his play on offense.”

KELLY ON KIZER’S NFL POTENTIAL
“I’ve had a number of conversations with GMs and coaches about [former Notre Dame quarterback] DeShone [Kizer], and my personal feeling is he has the biggest upside of all the quarterbacks. I don’t know that he’s prepared to come in and win a Super Bowl for you [this year]. Some may feel as though maybe one of the other quarterbacks are. I don’t know that firsthand. But I think, in time, he has the biggest upside of all the quarterbacks.

“I get it. It’s the NFL. Everybody’s under the same pressure of performing and needing somebody to come in right away, but I think he’s a guy that just needs some time. If he gets in the right situation, I think he’d be the guy to take.”

Kizer and eight other former Irish players will take part in a pro day tomorrow (Thursday) in front of some of those GMs and coaches.