Five things we learned: Notre Dame’s Media Day

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It was the standard Media Day dog-and-pony show in South Bend on Tuesday, with national reporters descending on Notre Dame to pay proper respects to the Irish football program, all while likely wondering if this is indeed “the year.” And perhaps it’s because Brian Kelly already delivered a lengthy state of the union address to open camp—or more likely—because he’s already sick of talking about the enhanced expectations for his sixth team, Tuesday afternoon felt like a redundancy that coaches and players alike wanted to put in the rearview mirror.

That’s not to say there was any visible frustrations as coaches and players answered a similar question asked a few dozen different ways. Rather, it’s just beyond plainly clear that this football team is starving for a game.

The win against LSU has long been forgotten. Facing off against your own guys has become stale. This team needs to see an opponent, and to a man appear to be counting the days until Texas, their first opportunity to play as well as they think they can.

To that point, it’s clear that certain messages have taken hold inside the program. You can’t spend sixty seconds talking to a player or coach without a leadership discussion, all but an acknowledging that last seasons failures may have happened because of injuries but were allowed to mount not just because of the body count, but because of a deficiency in culture.

That’s not something that Brian Kelly will allow to happen again. Nor will his assistant coaches, or the players who have emerged as potential captains. It’s a more crowded field of candidates than the Republican party is trotting out there.

With that in mind, let’s do our best to cut through the Crash Davis cliches and coachspeak we heard on Tuesday. Here are five things we learned after a two-hour open practice and interviews with assistant coaches and players.

 

Brian Kelly believes this team is more talented than the one he took to the BCS Championship game. 

Since camp opened, you need to credit Kelly for repeatedly acknowledging that talented components don’t necessarily lead to winning teams. But as we try to get a grasp on what he thinks the ceiling is for this roster, Kelly all but summed it up when Fox Sports’ Bruce Feldman asked him to compare this team to the 12-1 team that played for the national title.

“It’s a faster team. It’s a more athletic team. We were deeper at virtually all positions across the board, both on the offensive line and the defensive line,” Kelly said.

That’s certainly not pulling your punches.

Kelly went on to talk about the singularity of a star like Manti Te’o and the unique traits that turned that 2012 team into a group that’s be remembered in school history. But if you’re looking for a main idea from Tuesday, it’s that Kelly is openly acknowledging this team is faster, more athletic and deeper than the one he ran the (regular season) table with, and he’s not afraid to acknowledge it.

 

The competition on this roster is fierce. 

Showtime is scheduled to air their first episode looking inside Notre Dame’s program on September 8th. And if I were a betting man, a large focus of that pilot will be the constant competition that takes place in every facet of a Notre Dame football practice.

I am not a regular on the practice scene. So it took me a while to get adjusted to the number of players running in and out, skill players and front-seven defenders that came and went at the blink of an eye, intermixing between the first and second team.

So while I was doing my best to keep up, here are a few battles worth watching as we move closer to Texas.

*  Don’t assume that Elijah Shumate has been handed the starting strong safety job opposite Max Redfield. (And according to Brian VanGorder, you can’t assume Redfield has won his job, either—even if I don’t believe him.) Cal transfer Avery Sebastian took the majority of first-team reps with the defense, and from talking to people today, this isn’t a motivational ploy. While they’re both going to play, Kelly acknowledged late last week that Sebastian has impressed him. And while it’s hard to say the strong safety play jumped out today, Sebastian is going to take a lot more snaps than many expected.

*  Freshman Josh Adams is taking No. 2 reps at running back with C.J. Prosise on the mend, and he doesn’t look like he’ll be redshirting at this point. Adams’ is a taller back, but runs with much more fluidity than Justin Brent, who looks really stiff and rigid as a runner. Dexter Williams may very well be a better long-term player, but he doesn’t seem to have a great grasp of things just yet, completely fair for a freshman.

*  The 1-on-1s between receivers and defensive backs was a joy to watch. And the best rep I saw wasn’t between KeiVarae Russell and Will Fuller (who did do battle), but between freshmen CJ Sanders and Shaun Crawford. Sanders won, pulling down a really well thrown pass in the corner of the end zone, and it put Crawford in a rotten mood. (And even if he’s only 180 pounds, you don’t want to see him play football in a rotten mood.)

There was great competition taking place around the goal line as the receivers and defensive backs went to war, and it was really fun to hear both Mike Denbrock and Todd Lyght coach up their position groups. For as talented as the receiving corps is, they didn’t dominate the secondary.

 

I don’t care what the recruiting rankings say, this freshman class is an elite group. 

It’s very clear that Notre Dame’s freshman class is a loaded group. While we’ve talked about a transcendent talent like Jerry Tillery, it’s also clear that top-to-bottom this group is going to find a way to help this football team win.

Receiver Equanimeous St. Brown has opened eyes thus far in camp. Listening to Mike Sanford, you’d think he found a new sports car in his garage. He’s got straight-line, vertical speed that’ll show itself this year, especially if defenses are going to focus on some of the Irish’s other weapons. In single coverage going vertical, that’s a 50-50 ball I want my quarterback’s throwing. Fellow freshmen receivers Miles Boykin and Jalen Guyton also looked really smooth, and Sanders might play more than all of them.

Defensively, Nick Coleman was a steal. That the Irish saw a great potential cornerback in a high school running back shows some great scouting. Crawford drew a compliment from Sanford, an offensive coordinator marveling at how a freshman defensive back manages to always find his way to the football. (That’s a good sign.) Ashton White isn’t likely to play, nor is Mykelti Williams ready to fully absorb VanGorder’s defense, but both have nice skill sets. And while Josh Barajas has been limited almost from jump street, Te’von Coney is a guy that this staff thinks the world of. There isn’t a recruit in this group that looks every bit as good as advertised.

And right now, I’m buying the Justin Yoon hype. He kicked a rocket from 46-yards that would’ve been good from the mid-50s, and his accuracy was all that was advertised.

(Lastly, you want to sound smart around your die-hard friends? Get ready for the legend of Chris Finke. The freshman walk-on (and Coleman’s high school teammate) drew some praise from Kelly last week, mostly for his sure hands as a punt-safe return man. But Finke can do a heckuva lot more than that, a lightning bug receiver and a pretty dynamic return man. His high school highlight tape tells you the story, and with a 31 ACT and a 1360 SAT, Finke could be tearing up the Ivy League right now. Instead he’s opening eyes on the LaBar Practice Fields.

 

No, players and coaches weren’t interested in talking about defending the option or hurry-up offenses. But rest assured that this coaching staff has spent a lot of time working on both deficiencies. 

I spent a lot of my day on Tuesday trying to get a feel for how the Irish planned to slow down their two triple option opponents. I might as well have been asking where Jimmy Hoffa was buried. Talking triple option clearly wasn’t a part of the approved talking points on Tuesday, and while I wasn’t asking for any trade secrets, you can’t blame VanGorder or his players from wanting to get to the next question as quickly as possible.

There’s no doubt that this group understands the challenge ahead of them, especially with elite-level triggermen in Georgia Tech’s Justin Thomas and Navy’s Keenan Reynolds. And while the details on the recon work Bob Elliott did this summer were left out, Kelly did drop an interesting nugget to Jack Nolan on the UND.com broadcast.

You won’t likely hear Rob Regan‘s name called on a broadcast or see him take the field anytime soon. But Regan will play a critical role for the Irish this season, recruited by Kelly to be the scout team quarterback who’ll pilot the option attack. Regan was a two-year starter for Hinsdale South, an All-Area performer and the quarterback who led his team to their first Illinois state quarterfinal appearance in a decade. So while that’s not necessarily an option quarterback that’s as elite as Thomas or Reynolds, he’s certainly a much better proxy than a fourth-string running back or a converted wideout for the week.

As for up-tempo solutions, there wasn’t much disclosure when asking for an explanation, either. But in one practice period, the Irish offense moved at hyper-speed, and the defense countered. It looked nothing like the fire drill that took place when North Carolina moved up and down the field, nor did it necessitate defensive linemen sprinting to the sidelines to get a subpackage in. So while we’ll need to see that practice pay off come Saturdays this fall, it looks as if this group has done its share of self-scouting.

 

This team will not be looking backwards. 

If you thought last year’s swoon served as motivational material during grueling summer workouts, I didn’t get that vibe. VanGorder essentially shook off the question, and Mike Elston was particularly interesting when asked if he thought his young linebackers—Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini—were better for being thrown into the fire last season. Elston wasn’t sure.

That’s not to say that the experience won’t take away some of the growing pains when it’s time for Morgan and Martini to step onto the field. But any Freshman All-American kudos or talk of Morgan being a returning starter or potential impact player isn’t how either of the young, ascending players are viewed—either by their teammates, their coaches or by themselves.

Believe it or not, this team likely sees last season for purely what it was: a young defense forced by injuries to play guys who weren’t ready; and an offense that lost its ability to win games when its quarterback lost his self-confidence and control of the football.

In many ways, this team felt like the one Kelly was asked to compare it to—eerily similar to the 2012 team that entered that season will a large chip on its shoulder. After giving away a bowl game to Florida State and facing a schedule that most thought was unwinnable, this group rallied around stellar leadership and self-belief.

This team has done the same thing, with Kelly rebuilding the psyche of this group brick by brick, not coincidentally focusing on leadership principles derived by the military. That’s why you see a guy like Marcus Lattrell in training camp or you find out that the final two days of summer workouts were military training exercises designed to form cohesive bonds.

So while Notre Dame fans might be quick to flinch the moment things go wrong, don’t expect the team to do the same. That’s not to say a roster that’s essentially unchanged from last year forgot what happened. But they’ve long let it go.

 

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.”

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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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