Mailbag: So many questions, so little time

60 Comments

I’ve got to hand it to you guys for this batch of questions. Some really good ones. I don’t think I got to all of them, though this took me a few hours to blow through. (Feel free to ask again next time if I missed it.)

Happy weekend.

 

mtflsmitty: What’s your assessment of the parity (or lack thereof) among the Power 5 conferences heading into 2015?

There’s nothing that’s a bigger offseason story than the great reshuffling. Ohio State’s victory, paired with some high-profile struggles by SEC West teams — not to mention the Big Ten’s bowl season — really turns the tables of perception.

I wrote about it a bit already, but there’s no more assumption of greatness for the SEC. All that talk of two teams in the playoff? It’s tough to give anybody  the benefit of the doubt now, especially after seeing the eggs laid by teams we thought elite — like Ole Miss and Mississippi State.

That all bodes very well for Notre Dame. Because with the schedule the Irish are playing, there’s little doubt that if they win, they’ll get respect for those victories.

 

indyirish91: Any talk about BK’s coaching staff? Are we gaining or losing anyone? I still would like to see Jeff Quinn added to the staff.

I find it hard to think there’s going to be any changes, especially with all the assistants out recruiting and working hard. And while many have focused on Jeff Quinn and his connection with Kelly, do you get rid of Harry Hiestand or Mike Denbrock for him? That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

In many ways the bowl victory was just as important for the continuity of the coaching staff as it was for the team’s momentum into the offseason. Those guys badly needed a win — and doing so against a top SEC program certainly helped everybody sleep a little better at night.

Would I be shocked if something happened after Signing Day? No. But anything I’d write here would be unsubstantiated speculation, and that doesn’t do anybody any good.

 

andy44teg: Is ND in the mix for any 5th Year Seniors looking to transfer like a Cody Riggs??

Tom Loy over at Irish 247 said the staff was kicking the tires on a fifth-year transfer, but he didn’t speculate as to who it was. Some smoke began circling Cal’s Brennan Scarlett, but the defensive end has struggled with injuries after being a promising recruit.

With roster numbers being what they are, I think Kelly and his staff will make moves after they see who they finish the recruiting class with and how they handle their own fifth-years.

 

bernhtp: Notre Dame appears to be on a trajectory to have well over 85 scholarships this spring allocated to returning players, LOI/EE recruits, and fifth-year invites. If the numbers don’t come down to 85 by fall camp via normal attrition (transfers, medical hardships, academic fallout), Notre Dame would need to essentially cut players (likely from the fifth-year pool, e.g., Jarrett Grace if doesn’t progress sufficiently). While not SEC-type oversigning, it is still not traditional ND. What is your perspective?

This seems to be a topic we just start to discuss… and then massive attrition hits. As Bern alludes to, there’s a numbers crunch and some difficult decisions yet to be made. Last year, we saw those solved by mass exodus to the NFL Draft. This year, it looks like the Irish got lucky, with everybody coming back.

That said, I don’t think there’s any reason to be concerned about going over the 85-man limit, because there are so many things that still need to play out. Medical hardships are a big one — guys like Nicky Baratti, Jarrett Grace, Conor Hanratty (the last two also count as fifth-year questions).

Nobody is getting their scholarship ripped out of their hands and put out to pasture. But would I be surprised if there are a few transfers that take place between now and next summer? Not at all. Until then, let’s hold off on the alarm bells. This type of problem is one that comes with building proper depth on your roster.

 

c4evr: If safety is one of the thinnest positions on the roster, as I look at incoming recruits, why is it so hard to bring in studs at that position? There are currently 3 kids all ranked as 3 star players for the safety position – that seems a little out if balance and underwhelming. Why is that?

I’m pretty slow to classify these guys as underwhelming, if only because I don’t put a lot of stock in the star-rankings. Drue Tranquill was a guy nobody wanted. He played more snaps than anybody. I tend to think we’ll start liking Nicco Fertitta and Mykelti Williams, and a sleeper like Ashton While. And while some wonder about Prentice McKinney making it to campus, he’s a guy the staff really likes, and has for a long time.

Take a look at Urban Meyer’s Ohio State defense. While a few of those guys are high-profile recruits, more than a few were three-star recruits, too. The Irish staff knows they need to recruit the position and add some depth there. New offers are going out, relationships are being built. At this time last year we didn’t know who Daniel Cage or Pete Mokwuah were.

It’s definitely a position of need. But it doesn’t matter how long you’ve had them committed as long as they send in the fax that first Wednesday in February.

 

Ted Wheeler: Any word or guesses on possible position changes? Devin Butler to FS? James Onwualu back to blocking WR? There always seem to be a few.

It’s something I’m definitely keeping an eye on. But I don’t see Onwualu moving back to offense. Especially after the progress he made at linebacker — not to mention the depth chart backlog at receiver.

Butler to free safety? Will that stop him from getting beat over the top? People have ID’d guys like Justin Brent as an option to move, just because of his physicality and size. I’m not buying the move of a guy like C.J. Prosise to running back, just because he was such a weapon in the slot.

If Brian Kelly deserves the benefit of the doubt anywhere, it’s on position switches. He’s been pretty impressive when it comes to that, and I’m sure there’ll be a few rabbits up his sleeve soon, with safety and running back looking like two areas where things are pretty thin.

 

finishthefight1986: The Irish always seem to have an eventful offseason. What are you looking forward to the most for 2015? Any untoward events facing our Irish you hope to avoid 2015?

All of them? I could go for a scandal-free offseason if that’s okay with everybody else.

 

joewyoming: Has the stance of the Irish athletic department been swayed by watching what happened to the Big 12 with regard to the playoff? Would a one-loss Irish team ever have a chance for inclusion in the playoff in the absence of a conference championship game?

Both Kelly and Jack Swarbrick have mentioned this, and it’s a really good question. For the record, I don’t think an 11-1 Notre Dame team would’ve been held out of the playoff. (Not that it matters, or that we could prove it.)

Here’s what Swarbrick told Chris Goff of the Journal Gazette:

“The bottom line for Notre Dame is that while tiebreaker criteria can be expected to work against us in some years, that is not a given,” Swarbrick said. “We have the opportunity to avoid the application of those criteria, and one or more upsets in championship games may create opportunities for other teams, including Notre Dame, who might not have otherwise been selected.”

 

subalum: Keith, northern football programs seem to be dominant in every division except FBS. Examples being: Wisconsin whitewater, North Dakota State, Montana , Patriots, Packers etc. Why do northern teams only win FBS championships once every 12 or so years (OSU)? Is the answer as simple as a lack of a true playoff that takes southern teams to northern climates creating more of a level playing field? Or is it more complex than that? What are your thoughts?

Throw out the NFL teams and I think you might be onto something, especially at the FCS and lower levels. But the biggest part of that in my opinion? A lack of D-I programs in Northern States.

There is no D-I football in North or South Dakota. There’s only the Gophers in Minnesota and the Badgers in Wisconsin. There are a lot of good football players in those states, and that’s what fills the rosters of the teams that continue to make noise at the lower levels.

While I think Montana has the Western states to pull from, they all have the ability to offer and target some kids that get missed, as opposed to the recruits that tend to get seen in more talent-rich states.

Outside of geographical hubs like California, Texas and Florida, I can’t say I’m a big believer in blanket statements that claim football players are better in State X, Y or Z because of the weather. How do you explain that the Big Ten is now a premier basketball conference?

Again, I’m no Malcolm Gladwell, I’m just a guy who watches too much Notre Dame football and too many movies and TV shows. But that’s my take.

 

nateprez4irish: Who are your early leaders for captains next year?

Great question. I’m going with Joe Schmidt, Sheldon Day, Ronnie Stanley and Everett Golson. But there is a lot of leadership on this team and obviously if Golson leaves that changes everything.

 

bowser75: I worry about the chemistry of the team. Guys coming back from suspension, qb’s competing for no. 1, players picking sides on the qb debate, player x thinking he should get more reps than player z, etc., etc… These are the things that keep me awake at night. Well, that and black holes, nuclear war, and circus clowns.

Can’t help you with the black holes and circus clowns, but the football stuff should subside. Welcome to life inside a competitive football program. As we learned in the victory over LSU, there’s the perception we (I’ll include media in this) as fans have and the thought process inside the building.

To me, all those worries are what makes this program healthy. And a big reason why I’m super excited about 2015.

 

cbhoov144: Not sure if it’s been discussed here already, but if you haven’t seen it yet, ESPN has a nice 30 for 30 short about Reggie Ho.

This was pretty awesome. Very nicely done:

***

***

Tranquill continues work with safeties … for now

Getty Images
5 Comments

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…

Getty Images
15 Comments

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

Getty Images
29 Comments

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

Getty Images
10 Comments

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.