Mailbag: Sanford, running game, the option and getting to 85

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Before Brian Kelly introduces us to his new coaching staff tomorrow, let’s finish the mailbag.

I appreciate the people who actually asked questions… even if they were hard to dig out.

 

NotreDan: 

1) Do you see Sanford being able to “get through” to EG better than BK (apparently) did? I say apparently only because of the week-in week-out display by EG on the sidelines that seemed to convey an un-willingness to be coached, but alas, I’m not down there so don’t know…

1b) Assuming he CAN get through (if it was even an issue) do you think he will be able to foster an environment where BOTH EG and MZ feel utilized/satisfied with playing time and intangibles (playing hard for the good of the team no matter what)?

2) Has Sanford worked in a multiple QB situation successfully?

I’m letting NotreDan cheat with this question, if only because I think at the heart of this is a really important issue.

The fact that Brian Kelly hired Mike Sanford is huge. It’s also a fairly large development and a huge turn from the past five seasons. In the past Kelly has had Charley Molnar, Chuck Martin and Mike Denbrock coordinate his offense.

Literally. It was his.

With Sanford, I’m assuming there’s going to be an influx of ideas and schemes, and there’s little chance Sanford is in South Bend without a feeling of ownership (at least partial) in how this offense will run and work.

We’ll all likely get caught up in who is calling plays and what this all means for Mike Denbrock, but there’s zero chance this move happens without significant discussion, and that’s a big step forward. So the reality of the move is a big one, and one that shows Kelly is far from having the hardline stance that many attribute to the coach.

Now on to the business of, “getting through,” to Everett Golson. I’d argue Kelly and Denbrock got through to Golson just fine, but the quarterback went through the same phase that got Jimmy Clausen, Tommy Rees and even Jameis Winston in their second full season of playing football.

A little unbridled confidence can go a long way towards turning the football over.

I tend to dismiss immediately any notion that Golson checked out or was unwilling to listen to Kelly. It’s just so far from the reality of what we saw and what I know from talking to people inside the program.

But if Sanford has one duty this spring, it’s to make sure both Golson and Malik Zaire feel an ownership of this offense and that they both believe they’ll be key pieces to helping the Irish win next season. Because I tend to think that’s what sets this football team up to succeed.

 

goirishgo: Can BK truly commit to the run?

This is an awesome question. It feels a little bit like the dress that took over the internet. What color is it?!?

Someone is going to have to explain to me what “truly committing to the run” really means. Because after seeing Pete Carroll get tarred and feathered for throwing the ball at the 1-yard-line and having lived through the Davie era at Notre Dame and listening to people bellyache about not having a modern offense that could successfully throw the football, I feel a little bit like we’re talking about the different looks of Derek Zoolander.

Kelly and the Irish offense committed to the run against LSU. That was with Malik Zaire at quarterback. With Golson under center, the Irish did the same thing at times, though mostly in 2012, when the Irish rode Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood to the BCS title game.

(Remember that undefeated regular season, guys? I know we all have short memories, but it was literally two years ago.)

That being said, I get what you’re getting at. But nobody would accuse Bill Belichick of committing to the run, yet he has had a Top 5 “Run Success Rate” in each of the last nine seasons, according to this interesting read by Pete Sampson.

Maybe Kelly hasn’t been a huge run the ball guy because he hasn’t had a team that’s been that efficient doing so?

And maybe that’s why Mike Sanford is now in South Bend, especially after he turned down overtures from Vandy and Ohio State.

The power of this team will likely be the offensive line. The receiving corps are going to be close to elite and Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant aren’t too shabby either.

But it’s no longer the era of three yards and a cloud of dust.

 

southeastirish: Are there any other defensive strategies that ND could employ that might limit the injuries we seem to sustain each year in the Navy game?

I dug this question out of quite a declaration… which included a few suggestions for stopping Notre Dame’s annual thorn in the side. But I don’t know if there is an easy answer, nor do I think that Navy has been that responsible for injuries.

But as long as the Midshipmen (and next year, add Georgia Tech to the slate) are cut blocking, the defensive line needs to keep the opponent off their legs and their bodies off the ground.

ND tried that with  four-point stances up front. They also tried it with two-point stances as well. Ultimately, I think stacking the box and keeping guys moving in and out is the answer, while also forcing an option attack to beat you outside in.

(Easier said than done.)

It’s a violent game. Especially when doing battle within close quarters.

But I expect VanGorder to do better next year against the option, just as every Notre Dame defensive coordinator has done in their second shot at the Midshipmen. But in Keenan Reynolds and Justin Thomas, the Irish have to stop two of the most dangerous playmakers in college football, so that’ll be a handful to say the least.

 

ndlv: Keith, now that recruiting is over and ND got a graduate transfer, what is the team’s current status in terms of scholarship numbers? That is, how many freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors? There is still time for attrition (e.g., transfers, medical, etc.), but how many 5th years will likely be back? Who might not make the cut?

Expect Brian Kelly to field a few questions about this tomorrow, though he’ll want to keep the focus on the new coaches. He also said he’s going to need as much time as possible to get down to 85, so I’m not sure when we’ll be hearing a true update from him.

Right now, Notre Dame is in the low-90s with scholarships. The fifth-year candidates will come into focus sooner than later, though it could actually go through spring football to straighten itself out.

We know Conor Hanratty is walking away from football after concussion problems. Eilar Hardy will be playing elsewhere. Josh Atkinson and Jalen Brown are gone. And I also think some very frank conversations will be had with guys who either haven’t figured it out yet, or don’t fully buy into the Kelly program.

(After the comments on Signing Day, Ishaq Williams’ return sure doesn’t feel as certain as it did before hand.)

Still, we seem to be really worried about this every year around this time only to have all sorts of things happen that solve this problem before a freak out is warranted. But I will say, this year does feel different… so it’s definitely worth keeping an eye on.

Friday at 4: 40-yard dashes and absurdity

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Of all the absurd things the football world often obsesses over, the 40-yard dash may be the most useless of them. Yes, it even beats out assigning star rankings to 16- and 17-year-olds, though not by much.

For now, let’s look past the rest of the inane Draft intricacies, such as former Irish defensive lineman Jarron Jones feeling pressured to increase his vertical jump by four inches. (He did, jumping to 24.5 inches in Notre Dame’s Pro Day on Thursday.) This scribe does not have an excess of time to spend discussing Jones’s outlandish wingspan if this piece is to post by its intended, though unnecessary, 4 p.m. ET deadline.

The 40-yard dash … No football play begins from a sprinter’s stance, yet it may be the factor most crucial to a low 40 time. Former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer posted a time of 4.83 seconds in the NFL Combine earlier this month. For context’s sake, Kizer ran .07 seconds slower than Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did as a draft prospect in the 2004 combine.

Roethlisberger has had himself an excellent career, and his ability to shrug off 300-pound defensive linemen is a testament to his athleticism. Put Kizer and Roethlisberger in the open field together, though, and Kizer would presumably have outrun Roethlisberger at any point of the two-time Super Bowl champion’s career. In Indianapolis, however, Roethlisberger did a better job of getting his hips through his first couple strides of the heralded 40-yard dash.

Here, watch Kizer train for the 40, the most-hyped measurement of his combine.

“The ultimate goal is to have yourself in the best position to have your body weight back in those legs so you can create enough torque to get out as quickly as possible,” Kizer said. “A guy who is as long as I am, with long limbs that I have, I’ve got to make sure that my weight distribution is in the best position for me to get out and catch up to some of those quicker guys who are a little lower to the ground.”

What part of that sounds applicable to football? The 40 turns Kizer’s size (6-foot-4, 237 pounds) into a negative. He worries about the angle of his knees. After his throwing session at the Thursday Pro Day, Kizer summed up the draft evaluation process even more succinctly.

“This process is very different in the sense that the way you look productive in the combine and in a pro day is very different from what productivity actually looks like out on the field.”

Well put.

More pertinent to the actual game of football, Kizer’s completion percentage in the staged workout could have been higher.

Then again, he was throwing to the likes of former Irish receivers Corey Robinson and Amir Carlisle and former running back Jonas Gray. Reportedly, the only contact Gray and Kizer had before the session was Kizer emailing the former New England Patriot the planned series of routes.

The NFL Draft, where Gmail becomes a necessity.

Let’s do away with the 40. If we insist on keeping it, let’s do it twice, once from a standing start and once from a running start. Those would simulate actual football movements: A receiver getting off the line, and a ballcarrier breaking away and trying to outrun the defense.

Asking DeShone Kizer to mimic Usain Bolt is an exercise in futility, idiocy, absurdity.

Cue end of rant.

Why cite the Roethlisberger time? Many, including Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke, have readily compared Kizer to Roethlisberger this spring.

The most notable line of that scouting report (scroll down to No. 32) may be its final one, echoing Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s sentiments from earlier this week.

“The mystery is whether he can regain his assertiveness,” Burke writes. “If so, he could turn out to be the 2017 class’s best QB. The team that drafts him will be taking a leap of faith.”

A leap. Not a dash.

For more Notre Dame Pro Day results, click here.

And with that, this just may make the 4 p.m. posting. You know what to do.

 

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.”

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