Greg Bryant

Counting down the Irish: Final grades, 20-16

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As we continue our final rankings of the 2014 season, it’s an interesting look at the youth of the Irish roster. Remove fifth-year senior Christian Lombard from the group and our first five players had a collective zero starts heading into the season.

That helps explain some of the issues that came along with this team. As complementary parts, Malik Zaire, Romeo Okwara, Drue Tranquill and Nyles Morgan have the talent to be key contributors. But as starters asked to carry the load? That’s when we saw some of the ugly parts of this season.

That theme continues with our next five players. Outside of a key veteran, this group also had a steep learning curve. At times, that meant some difficulties — and those struggles weighed into a 7-5 season.

That’s not to say this group isn’t talented. You’d be hard pressed to find five better recruits. Two from this group were five-star prospects. Per Rivals’ evaluations, all five were Top 10 players at their position and all within the Top 120 players in the country.

The best part? All four return, with key roles on the 2015 roster pretty much assured.

Let’s get on to the rankings.

 

2014 IRISH TOP 25 FINAL GRADES

25. Christian Lombard (RT, GS)
24. Malik Zaire (QB, Soph.)
23. Romeo Okwara (DE, Jr.)
22. Drue Tranquill (S, Fr.)
21. Nyles Morgan (LB, Fr.)

 

Michigan at Notre Dame
Michigan at Notre DameChicago Tribune/MCT via Getty Images

 

20. Max Redfield (S, Soph.): After sitting out most of his freshman season, Max Redfield was pushed into the starting lineup for the Pinstripe Bowl by head coach Brian Kelly. He stayed there after spring and fall camp, a key cog in the starting lineup for 2014.

But Redfield’s season seemed to go as the Irish’s went. When things were going well, Redfield was a featured part. When they weren’t, Redfield was in the spotlight. Success has a funny way of hiding weaknesses.

Redfield’s season had some unquestionable bright spots. A key interception during the shutout of Michigan. He also contributed 54 tackles, good enough for fourth on the team. But Redfield lost his starting job after a disappointing game against Arizona State, with color commentator Chris Spielman blasting Redfield for missing a key tackle on the sideline.

The Irish coaching staff made a change after the game in Tempe, bad timing for Redfield as the two unrelated moves seemed interconnected. And while he wasn’t overly explanatory about the move, Brian Kelly cited a lack of production from Redfield.

The demotion hurt the Irish, with Kelly and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder suffering through some mediocre safety play with Austin Collinsworth and Drue Tranquill in the starting lineup before injuries forced Redfield and Shumate back onto the field. Redfield then suffered a rib injury early against the Trojans, momentarily putting the position down to Shumate and recently returned Eilar Hardy.

At his best, Redfield has all the tools it takes to be an elite safety. But after being forced to learn two systems in two seasons, it still feels like Redfield is a beat slow diagnosing what he sees, neutralizing the physical gifts that he has.

After two years, Irish fans would’ve gladly returned Harrison Smith for an open scholarship. So it’s far too early to call Redfield a disappointment. But it’s an important offseason for Redfield, who needs to take a big step forward before his junior year.

Preseason: 12th. Final: 20th. 

 

Michigan v Notre Dame
Michigan v Notre DameJonathan Daniel/Getty Images

 

 

19. Steve Elmer (RG, Soph.): The question wasn’t whether Steve Elmer would start. It was where. But after spending spring at guard, Kelly and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand’s gamble to move Elmer to right tackle backfired, necessitating a four-position shuffle after three games that ended with Nick Martin at guard, Matt Hegarty at center and Christian Lombard outside at right tackle.

Pinning all of that on Elmer is unfair. The reality of the situation always had Elmer among the best five offensive linemen on the roster, with Matt Hegarty chosen to start over a first-timer in Mike McGlinchey. But while Elmer looks the part of a college tackle, he struggled moving outside to the edge before finding a rhythm at guard as the season wore on.

A few bad snaps likely color fans opinion of Elmer’s season. And after finding his footing, Elmer showed the physical skills that still make him a very impressive prospect as he enters the final two seasons of his college career.

The offseason allows Elmer the opportunity to settle into a position and develop there. With his time at tackle likely over, Elmer can work on becoming a steady and physical force on the inside.

Preseason: 11th. Final: 19th. 

 

Stanford v Notre Dame
Stanford v Notre DameJonathan Daniel/Getty Images

 

18. Ben Koyack (TE, Sr.): Koyack played more snaps than any skill player on the offensive depth chart. And after being thrust into an every-down role after Troy Niklas bolted for the NFL, Koyack performed admirably in his only season as a starter.

His 4th-and-long touchdown catch against Stanford was the play of the year. His 29 catches were fourth most on the team. But Koyack’s inconsistency was a microcosm of the offense’s play, and his struggles as a blocker hurt the Irish multiple times. On a depth chart with zero experience behind him, Koyack picked up the slack in 2014, with Durham Smythe, Mike Heuerman and Tyler Luatua brought on slowly.

But after enjoying an impressive run of tight ends with Kyle Rudolph, Tyler Eifert and Troy Niklas, Koyack’s senior season checks in a notch below — hardly an indictment for a senior who should have a chance to play on Sundays as well.

Preseason: 10th. Final: 18th.

 

Purdue v Notre Dame
Purdue v Notre DameMichael Hickey/Getty Images

 

17. Elijah Shumate (S, Jr.): After injuries plagued Shumate during his sophomore season, a transition to a new defensive system took longer to take hold than many expected. Athletically superior to senior captain Austin Collinsworth, Shumate was the fan’s choice for a strong safety, even if he wasn’t the coaching staff’s. But injuries forced Shumate into the lineup from the opening game. And some struggles showcased why Collinsworth got the initial nod.

Again, Shumate’s season wasn’t all bad. He finished third on the team with 64 tackles, and his interception to end the Michigan game was one of the season’s best highlights. But Shumate found his way into the staff’s doghouse, missing a key snap against Northwestern that cost the Irish big time, a mistake that just can’t happen to a player that’s got more experience than just about anybody else on the field with him.

Entering his senior season, Shumate’s review could basically mirror the one written for Redfield. His physical talent can’t take off until his mental aptitude catches up. Another offseason learning VanGorder’s defense can only help.

Preseason: Unranked (27th). Final: 17th.

 

Greg Bryant, Taylor Richards
Greg Bryant, Taylor RichardsAP Photo/Michael Conroy, File

 

16. Greg Bryant (RB, Soph.): No, Bryant wasn’t the breakout star many expected. But upon final inspection, his numbers weren’t too shabby either. The sophomore (who took a medical redshirt last season) led the Irish in yards per carry at 5.5. He also provided a spark in the return game.

That’s about what people expected, though they didn’t see the midseason lull that plagued Bryant’s overall productivity. Yet that feels almost predictable looking back at things, with Bryant pressing to do too much, the propensity to chase the big play when making the ordinary one would’ve been just fine.

That’s a byproduct of sharing carries with Tarean Folston and Cam McDaniel. It’s also comes from the weight of great expectations, with Bryant’s high school ranking still framing early playing career. But against USC Bryant created the big plays that had long been expected of him by playing within the framework of the offense, merely letting his talent do the work.

With little depth behind him, Bryant will team with Tarean Folston in 2015 to create a two-deep that’s the envy of just about every program in college football. It may have taken a little bit longer than some expected, but Bryant is on track to be a prolific offensive player.

Preseason: 9th. Final: 16th.

Quenton Nelson will return for his senior season

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 17: Quenton Nelson #56 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates after a 10-yard touchdown reception by Corey Robinson against the USC Trojans in the fourth quarter of the game at Notre Dame Stadium on October 17, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Getty
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Brian Kelly’s talked about the rare 6-star recruit: Harrison Smith, Manti Te’o, Michael Floyd, Zack Martin. Well, add Quenton Nelson to the list. Notre Dame’s starting left guard has made it official that he’ll return for his senior season.

The New Jersey native adds another key building block to the Irish offensive line, returning with Mike McGlinchey to anchor Harry Hiestand’s unit. Like McGlinchey, Nelson had an option to be selected high in next year’s NFL Draft, staying in school even after receiving a second-round grade from the NFL’s Advisory Board, per Irish Illustrated.

Nelson took to social media to make the news public, with the NFL’s declaration deadline set for January 16.

“Excited for this team to grow every day this offseason by putting in nothing but hard work and grinding together. When we reach our full potential, look out. I’m right behind you Coach.”

Nelson was named a team captain for 2017 at the year-end Echoes Awards Show. He earned second-team All-American honors from Sports Illustrated and was rated by ESPN’s Mel Kiper as the No. 1 offensive guard in the 2017 draft class, a grade he’ll likely carry into next season.

Clark Lea formally named Linebackers Coach

clark-lea
UND.com
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Notre Dame formally introduced new linebackers coach Clark Lea on Thursday. The press release for the 35-year-old  included the following quote from the new assistant who has worked at Bowling Green, UCLA and Wake Forest, and rejoins Mike Elko in South Bend.

“I’m humbled to be a part of the Notre Dame football program,” Lea said in a statement. “It’s an honor to represent such a prestigious academic institution, and to be a part of this program’s rich tradition of athletic excellence. I’d like to thank Jack Swarbrick and coach Kelly for this tremendous opportunity. I’m excited to get to work building relationships with our players, and do my part in helping coach Kelly execute his vision for the program.”

That work has already begun, with Lea on the prowl as the recruiting dead period ended and the rebuilt Irish staff hit the road. Yesterday, Lea was with defensive coordinator Mike Elko visiting commit David Adams, a key piece of the Irish puzzle on the defensive side of the ball. That starts a mad rush that’ll keep Lea’s belongs in boxes until after the first Wednesday in February, as Elko and his reshuffled defensive staff open their recruiting board, finding replacements for a handful of de-commitments and pieces that’ll fit Elko’s scheme.

If there’s any reason for optimism after a tough few weeks in recruiting, it’s the young staff that Kelly has assembled. The youth movement includes not just Lea, but the 39-year-old Elko. New offensive coordinator Chip Long is just 33, moving to Notre Dame after one season at Memphis. Running backs coach Autry Denson just turned 40 while special teams coordinator Brian Polian is practically long in the tooth at 42. (All that comes before the expected announcement of 25-year-old Tommy Rees.)

Lea’s pedigree is rock solid, earning kudos in 2012 for his work as Linebackers coach at Bowling Green, Football Scoop’s Linebackers Coach of the Year.

“Clark is a wonderful addition to our staff,” Kelly said in the release. “Obviously, he brings a substantial amount of knowledge about coach Elko’s defensive system — having worked with Mike at both Bowling Green and Wake Forest. Clark has demonstrated throughout his career an ability to not only identify unique talent in the recruiting process, but also develop that talent into high-production linebackers. As a former student-athlete, he will relate exceptionally well with our kids and provide tremendous mentorship throughout their careers at Notre Dame.”

 

 

 

Reports: Lea, Alexander added to Irish coaching staff

delvaughn
ASU Sports Information
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Brian Kelly is adding to his rebuilt coaching staff, reportedly finalizing deals with Wake Forest linebackers coach Clark Lea and Arizona State assistant DelVaughn Alexander. Lea will reunite with Mike Elko and coach linebackers and Alexander will coach wide receivers. While both hires are still going through formal university vetting, the Lea hire has long been rumored before being reported by SI’s Pete Thamel. FootballScoop.com broke the news on Alexander, before multiple outlets confirmed the report.

In Lea, Elko brings a piece of his coaching staff with him to South Bend. The 35-year-old spent last season working in Winston-Salem and spent three seasons at Syracuse before that. He worked with Elko and Demon Deacons head coach Dave Clawson at Bowling Green and has spent time as an assistant at UCLA as well. He earned three letters at Vanderbilt, a 2004 graduate.

Alexander is a veteran presence to help replace Mike Denbrock and fill his void coaching receivers. He’s also a coach with first-hand knowledge of new coordinator Chip Long, having worked alongside him in Tempe under Mike Norvell. The move also comes in time for the reopen of the recruiting season’s home stretch, bringing a capable West Coast recruiter to the staff at a time when Notre Dame’s 2017 class is leaking a bit of oil.

Alexander played wide receiver at USC, playing for Larry Smith and John Robinson, before breaking into the coaching ranks there as a graduate assistant. He’s also had stops at UNLV, coached for Jim Harbaugh at San Diego, and spent significant time at Wisconsin and Arizona State where he coached multiple positions, taking over tight ends after Long left for Memphis.

Chip Long in as Offensive Coordinator… and play-caller

chip-long
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Notre Dame’s formal press release introducing Chip Long as the new offensive coordinator did more than confirm news that we’ve known for a few weeks. It let us in on Brian Kelly’s initial plans for his offense heading into a pivotal offseason.

After some struggles in 2016 with DeShone Kizer and an inexperienced wide receiving corps, most expected Kelly to rip back control of the offense after Mike Denbrock called the plays and Mike Sanford coordinated the offense. But Kelly is going to let Long call the plays next season, adding some intrigue to a press release that usually is vanilla.

“Chip will be given the full responsibility to call plays in 2017,” Kelly said in the release. “His offense at Memphis displayed a unique blend of physicality, athleticism, versatility and explosiveness. Chip’s play-calling created mismatches all over the field and did it in a number of different ways. He likes to use players who can fill numerous roles in an array of formations, whether that be two and three tight ends or multiple running backs.

“Chip has experience coaching at almost every position on the offensive side of the ball. He’s worked for and learned from some of the most respected offensive minds in college football — Bobby Petrino, Mike Norvell and Jeff Brohm — to name a few.”

That Kelly is handing over play-calling to Long, who called plays last year for Mike Norvell at Memphis, is a surprise on the surface. But if you listen to Kelly over the past few seasons, he’s always downplayed that responsibility. Most thought he was simply playing coy, though Kelly seems to value game plan and installation as something at least as important as calling the plays.

But after splitting the baby between Denbrock and Sanford these past two seasons (the three-man collaboration worked much better in 2015 than 2016–possibly explained by the personnel) perhaps Kelly sees a singular voice as a key to improving an Irish offense that’ll have to replace Kizer, but should welcome back the majority of offensive playmakers, as well as Alizé Jones. Giving that assignment to Long will also let Kelly dig in as a head coach, working with first-year starter Brandon Wimbush and staying connected to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko and his installation.

Long’s work on campus will likely take flight as soon as the recruiting dead period is over. Known for his tenacity on the trail, Notre Dame is in desperate need of getting back into living rooms, trying to get back some momentum as a few defections have spoiled the 2017 class, and a handful of spots are available in this upcoming signing class.

Long will also likely work with tight ends, a position he played as a D-II All-American and that he coached at Memphis last season. Scott Booker coached tight ends since 2012.

“It’s an honor and privilege to have the opportunity to serve as the offensive coordinator at the University of Notre Dame,” Long said in the statement. “The challenge to lead at a University with such high standards is incredibly motivating. I’m very grateful to Brian Kelly and Jack Swarbrick for extending this opportunity.

“It’s Notre Dame: the values, the culture, and the leadership. My wife, Kari, and I are excited to move to South Bend and to join the Notre Dame family.”