Offseason Q&A: Clemson

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When you look at Notre Dame’s 2015 schedule, it’s hard to skip past the Irish’s trip to Clemson. Returning to Death Valley for the first time since Joe Montana led a comeback victory in 1977, Brian Kelly’s squad will take on Dabo Swinney’s impressive team, the makings of a football game with College Football Playoff implications.

There’s a rising star at quarterback, but a new offensive brain trust. A year after putting together the finest statistical defense in the country, there’s a renovation taking place there as well.

To get us up to speed on the offseason comings and goings of the Tigers is Shakin the Southland‘s Brian Lewis.

Hope you enjoy.

 

 

Perhaps one best parts of the move into the ACC was the chance to play a program like Clemson. This will only be the third time the two programs have played, with Joe Montana pulling out a comeback victory in Death Valley during their 1977 national title season and the Tigers winning in South Bend two years later.

What should Notre Dame expect from the home crowd in early October? Is this game a special one on the schedule for Clemson fans as well?

While it isn’t an ACC game, this is easily one of the biggest games on Clemson’s schedule this year. Though there isn’t a lot of history between both schools, Clemson fans always enjoy playing the bigger names in college football, and this will be an excellent opportunity for a statement win. As for the crowd, Clemson fans will definitely be up for this one. Even if the Tigers are not undefeated they will be excited to get a victory against what could be a top 10 team by that point. If things fall right this will hopefully be a night game adding a special intensity to it like the Clemson – UGA game in 2013.

 

On paper, there seem to be two gigantic departures from the Clemson program. Offensive coordinator Chad Morris and… basically the majority of the nation’s top statistical defense.

Let’s start with Morris. Will the Clemson offense look any different? And how will a two-headed co-coordinator approach work in replacing a guy many think is one of the top minds in college football?

The assumption right now is the Clemson offense is going to be pretty similar under Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott. Both continued Morris’ HUNH offense in our Russell Athletic Bowl victory over Oklahoma, and spring practice indicates they will keep that HUNH approach as well. The one area I’m going to be interested in seeing is playcalling.

While we all love Morris and what he did here, his playcalling could be a little suspect at times. There were several games where Clemson got behind by 7-10 points and Morris stopped running the ball. This led to Tajh Boyd, in previous seasons, to press throws and feel like he had to make plays. Unsurprisingly this led to turnovers and the game falling further out of reach. Despite a lackluster OL I home both coordinators will stick with the running game to keep defenses honest.

 

Not watching a ton of Clemson last year, the stat that sticks out to me about the defense was the fact that six guys from the unit were invited to the NFL Combine. That’s a lot of talent. Brent Venables was pretty candid with SI.com when talking about rebuilding his defense, saying, “It wasn’t odd, it was depressing.”

How big of a step back do you expect this unit to take? And is it more of a reload than a rebuild?

Early on this is definitely going to be a rebuilding year for the defense. Clemson had the #1 ranked defense in the country last year and we lost too much talent. I’m not even sure an Alabama or LSU would be able to reload after what we lost. That said, there is definitely some potential. We have one of the top cornerbacks in college returning in Mackenzie Alexander, and enough pieces in spots to have a solid starting XI.

The problem is going to be depth. Last year on the DL we had 8 guys that would start at most schools, now we are down to a starting 4 that has potential but not a lot of experience. I think the defense gets better as the year goes on, but it might be frustrating for Clemson fans. The 2 early season cupcake games are going to be crucial here to build confidence and ability.

 

Let’s talk about Dabo Swinney. He didn’t get out to the quickest start after taking over the program, but Clemson has won at least 10 games in four straight seasons. He seems like a guy that players love and he certainly has recruited well.

Help Notre Dame fans understand who Swinney is as a coach, and why he’s had the success he’s had at Clemson.

I liken Dabo to the loveable but slightly nuts uncle every family has. He’s a lot of fun to be around despite some of the odd things he does. Dabo has done pretty well at Clemson because he is first and foremost a recruiter. Kids want to come play at Clemson and Dabo has done a tremendous job of selling Clemson as well as the family atmosphere around the team.

Coach Swinney is never going to be a big X’s and O’s nut like other coaches, but he’s done a good job of learning from his mistakes and bringing in talented coordinators. Clemson is experiencing its most successful stretch of results since the 1980’s and it is hard to argue with what Dabo’s done. But there are questions about if he can take the next step and deliver a national title to Clemson. If he does that he will easily be considered one of the two best coaches in Clemson history alongside Danny Ford.

 

Deshaun Watson sure seems like a star in the making. A tremendous freshman season seems to have been derailed by injuries, the most serious an ACL tear late in the year.

How is his recovery coming along? And with the supporting cast surrounding him, just how good do you expect him to be in 2015?

Everything points to Deshaun Watson being ready for the start of the season and hopefully the start of Fall Camp. It is not an exaggeration to say that Clemson’s season lives and dies based on the health of Watson. Behind Watson we have Nick Schuessler, originally a walk on, and two freshman in Tucker Israel and Kelly Bryant. Needless to say I’m not exactly excited about what happens if Watson gets hurt.

Around Watson there is a lot of talent at the skill positions. We have a nice group of RBs that while lacking a breakout star should provide some relief in the running game. At wide receiver Clemson is loaded once again with Mike Williams and Artavis Scott. Really almost all of Clemson’s top 6 receivers can play and do some damage to opposing defenses. The real problem comes on the OL. The unit can pass block to a decent level, but the run blocking is atrocious. If our OL can approach competent then this could be a special year for Clemson

As for Watson’s season, if he stays healthy I think he becomes a darkhorse Heisman candidate. He has excellent poise in the pocket and has shown an ability to make some beautiful throws. He is also a threat when he’s running the ball. There will definitely be some times he’ll struggle during the season, but I think he’s going to be fine and emerge as one of the top QBs in the nation. Of course all of this comes with the qualifier of staying healthy. He’s had 3 significant injuries in the past 12 months and durability is definitely a question.

 

News broke last week that Clemson’s starting left tackle Isaiah Battle would be leaving the program and going into the Supplemental Draft. What does that departure do to the offensive line? 

It definitely doesn’t help Clemson. While Battle has never reached the first round potential he showed his freshman year, he was an experienced OL that was at least average in the passing game. With his departure Clemson is likely to start freshman Mitch Hyatt at LT.

Thankfully Hyatt enrolled early and had an excellent spring, but it is always a big ask when you need a freshman to play a critical role on the OL, especially with the injury woes Deshaun Watson has. At this point any injury, suspension, or dismissal along the OL is going to be critical to Clemson.

 

What’s the best case / worst case scenario for Clemson in 2015? Is this a game that you expect the Tigers to win?

I think this year’s Clemson team is not as talented as last year’s team, but could have a better record. Clemson finished last year 9-3 and with how our schedule sets up the team could easily be 10-2. Games against Florida State, South Carolina, and Notre Dame are the big three and we should win at least 1 of those three if not 2. Helping us is the fact that we have Notre Dame and FSU at home this year, same with Georgia Tech who always gives us trouble.

A Thursday night visit to Louisville is also a concern, but Clemson should win that one and FSU-Clemson in Novemeber will likely determine the ACC Atlantic Division Champion once again. Of course if Deshaun Watson gets hurt I’m going to just sit in the corner and cry.

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
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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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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.