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.

 

Report: Justin Brent to transfer

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Justin Brent has not seen the playing field since Notre Dame faced LSU in the Music City Bowl back in December of 2014. That now looks like it will be the last time Irish fans see him in a Notre Dame uniform, as well. Reports indicate the rising senior running back will transfer.

Irish 247’s Tom Loy broke the news, soon confirmed by Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson.

A consensus top-100 pick out of Indianapolis (Ind.) Speedway High School, Brent arrived in South Bend with high expectations, but will depart without an official statistic aside from snaps in nine games his freshman season. He recorded no catches, carries or tackles.

 

Thanks Keith, Now Dear Readers…

SOUTH BEND, IN - NOVEMBER 19: Josh Adams #33 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish takes a hand off from DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on November 19, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Virginia Tech defeated Notre Dame 34-31.(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Dear “Inside the Irish” fans, “Inside the Irish” foes and, of course, my parents –
Dear curious purveyors, my stand-alone predecessor and Tim Raines –
Mostly, dear Notre Dame fans, Notre Dame spectators and college students enjoying any and all hallowed traditions –

Yes, unfortunately for you and fortunately for me, Keith tossed me the keys to this 1971 Volkswagen Beetle known as NBC Sports’ “Inside the Irish” blog. Don’t worry, I know how to drive stick shift.

If I were feeling corny, I would tell you I first reported on Notre Dame football in the fall of 1996, shouting out the garage window to my father as Allen Rossum returned Purdue’s opening kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown. If we are ignoring sentimental childhood stories, however, then it would be more accurate to call 2009’s home-opener against Colin Kaepernick’s Nevada my beginning on the beat.

Over the last few days I reached out to a few of you readers whom I know, asking why you enjoyed Keith Arnold’s coverage. So as to keep them honest, I neglected to tell them I would be stepping into this spotlight today.

Repeatedly, I heard buzz words such as readable, reasonable and realistic. Those will be my goals, as well. My predecessor at The Observer no longer dabbles in journalism, but I still trust his view on most things. His response strikes me as an admirable objective.

“We are smart, informed sports fans with an irrational passion for ND football, and appreciate writers who share those traits but are professional enough to step back from the irrationality and put things in perspective… We like a realistic take, not a knee-jerk reaction.”

On that note, you will not see me give a recruiting update with my every breath. You will also not see me dispense as much cinema advice as Keith did. I am simply not the film-nik he is, though I am listening to the “La La Land” soundtrack as I write this. You will find jazz increases your words per minute rate.

I will often speak of gambling terms, but not to encourage the vice. Rather, I find those odds to be a thought-provoking and informing means of evaluating things. Today, various books strongly expected President Trump’s inauguration speech to last longer than 15 minutes. Thus, I figured it would last longer than 15, but not by all that much since such was the over/under mark set. I could step away from the computer and watch it without losing too much of my day. It lasted 16:18.

I will try to be conversational, especially in these Friday letters/news-dumps/updates/recaps, should they become a recurring piece.

I intend to keep many, but not all, of Keith’s recurring features, as daunting as many of them seem. If I am to make this place my own, some will have to change. It’s okay, we’ll get through that together.

So ask questions, state your wonderings and pitch story ideas. This very format was a seed watered by one of you early this morning. Admittedly, prior to suggesting this he referred to me in terms I refuse to post publicly, but old drinking buddies have earned that right.

It’s late Friday afternoon. Grab a drink, and don’t you dare leave it unfinished.

– Douglas.

And in that corner… Introducing Douglas Farmer

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 17: Members of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish sing the alma mater following a loss to the Michigan State Spartans at Notre Dame Stadium on September 17, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Michigan State defeated Notre Dame 36-28. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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It’s time to turn over the keys. On a day where our great nation makes a peaceful transition, so does our humble blog.

I’d love to say I was smart enough to time my departure for the same day as inauguration, but as they say, it’s better to be lucky than good. And I was lucky to get the gig, and happy to turn it over to someone who I believe is a better-than-good writer: Douglas Farmer.

Douglas was Editor-in-Chief of The Observer when he was a student at Notre Dame. He’s worked for old media—earning a byline at the Los Angeles Times and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He’s worked the ND beat, not just at the school paper, but at Blue & Gold. And now, I’m very happy to say, he’s taking over Inside the Irish, a transition that I think will go wonderfully.

To give you an idea of who Douglas is, I milked one last column gave him the And in this Corner treatment.

Hope you enjoy. And, one last request—Be Nice.

 

Douglas, you graduated from Notre Dame in 2012, and last covered the Irish on a day-to-day basis in the 2014 season. What has you excited to come back to the beat?

Douglas Farmer: Given Notre Dame’s past season, I would say I am most excited to take an in-depth look at how the Irish respond — and perhaps rebound — in 2017. It has been awhile (nearly a decade, more accurately) since Notre Dame has needed to do that, so it is one area of football there is not much institutional knowledge to rely upon.

Aside from that, the general engagement with a fan base so devotedly-interested in its topic is always something to look forward to. Even during a 4-8 season, that fan base does not waver in its curiosity and thirst for information.

 

A nice perk is also getting paid for the addiction that is Notre Dame Football, no?

DF: I prefer to subscribe to Hurricane Carter’s opinion on addictions: Do not be addicted to anything “they” can take away from you.

 

Well put. As I thought about the decision to move on, I came to the conclusion that there’s no perfect time to ever do so. That said, other than the head coach, this is as close to a reboot as you can ask for. Do these next few months get you excited, especially as an almost entirely new staff take charge?

DF: Just had to slip in a reference to removing the head coach, didn’t you?

Bouncing back from a rough season is the most appealing story line in sports, in anything really. Take a look at any movie you have ever watched (or, in your case, perhaps even been involved in). The hero experiences conflict just before redemption. Now, I am not saying Notre Dame is the hero. I am saying watching the team, the program, try to rebound has me very interested.

The staff turnover is an added wrinkle, and will only increase the work ahead for the program. Before the players can learn the plays, they have to learn the staff. Before that, the staff has to learn about each other.

 

So what’s the plan with the blog? You plan on getting to know the characters below the fold in the comments? Keep the A-to-Z series rolling? Do a better job proof-reading?

DF: I do not intend to outright abandon any institution or established series you have devoted years to. Thus, I would expect A-to-Z to continue in some form. But we will see. That is an easy thing to say when I have not yet reached the misery that must be “Q, R, S, …”

I would like to engage with the readers, but only so far as logic and rational conversation will allow. I have no interest in devolving to who knows what depths. Proof-reading, well, I want to say I will excel at that, but that just sets me up to eat a lot of crow when I miss a letter in April.

 

Smart. Will tell you about the A-to-Z… This roster is a front-loaded one, alphabetically, at least.

DF: All of high school I had a locker next to a Favre. (Not really related.) I understand the luxuries the alphabet can provide.

 

Let’s go rapid fire for a second: Favorite game you saw in person at Notre Dame?

DF: Either the 2012 Stanford game or the 2011 South Florida game. I realize how absurd that latter answer sounds, but that is part of why it stands the test of time. It was such a unique experience. Plus, being allowed to go back to the dorm for an hour at halftime made the whole day more entertaining.

 

Best road game experience?

DF: 2010 Army in Yankee Stadium jumps to the top of the heap, though I suppose technically not a road game. Go ahead and score against me for this, but I am a lifelong Yankees fan. That was a big one for me.

(KA note: The Observer must not have had the $$ to send the editor to Dublin…)

(DF note to KA’s note: I graduated in May 2012. The Observer did manage to send four staffers to Dublin the following September. Sometimes I wonder if I would not have been better off if I had taken two years to get through fifth grade.)

 

Favorite player to watch during your time as a student?

DF: Golden Tate could have walked around the football field as Maximus, for all I’m concerned, given how entertaining he often was. Though Lou Nix also holds a lofty place in my regard.
I lived a door down from Lou for two years, part of the reasoning there.

 

Favorite villain of the Irish from your time watching/following Notre Dame football?

DF: Pete Carroll runs away with the award. His candidacy is enhanced by my Wisconsin-bred Packer fandom.I do not like disliking Pete Carroll. I very much wish I could be indifferent toward him. The Falcons granted me that luxury for nine months.

 

Part of what has me excited about this transition is that I actually thought you’d be a good person to turn the keys over to, as I enjoyed reading your stuff when you were at The Observer and covering the Irish in your post-graduation years. What’s the most exciting part for you about taking over the blog? And what do you look forward to doing with it?

DF: I am most excited for the chance to write, and the chance to write about something on which I consider myself relatively knowledgeable. I look forward to seeing where the blog environment takes me. The open-ended aspect of it presents all sorts of possibilities.

Theoretically, I can be more freewheeling than elsewhere, get in-and-out quicker of some pieces, spend more time on others. I know Notre Dame fans of all varieties — the obsessed, the apathetic, pessimistic, optimistic, etc. — including some who have yet to decide how they feel about Tommy Rees. (Feel positively about him. It’s that simple.)

My sample size is certainly representative of the fan base as a whole. That wide swath is what makes covering Notre Dame enjoyable, and very well may provide the blog some direction and material on its own.

Oh, and I appreciate those kind words, Keith. I’ll Venmo you $20 later tonight.

 

Sliding a final question into my lightning round. What’s your handle on NDNation? (Kidding!)

DF: I will take my right to not incriminate myself, otherwise known as the Fifth.

Notre Dame makes Alexander and Balis hires official

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Notre Dame confirmed the news that Del Alexander and Matt Balis are joining Brian Kelly’s staff. As expected, Alexander will coach wide receivers while Balis was named director of football performance.

The program announced both hires on Thursday.

“I was looking for an experienced teacher, mentor, recruiter and developer of student-athletes,” head coach Brian Kelly said in a statement. “Del not only met the criteria, but he exceeded it. He also understands, respects and values the type of young men we want to bring to this University and football program.”

Alexander, who’ll lean on his West Coast roots and familiarity with new offensive coordinator Chip Long, said the following:

“I’m excited to officially get on board, hit the road recruiting, and to find and develop the best student-athletes in the country. Notre Dame is a special place, and I’ve been able to the see the power of its brand on the recruiting trails across the country for the last 15-20 years. I’m honored and humbled to serve this University, this program and these remarkable young men.”

Balis comes to Notre Dame from UConn, with an impressive pedigree that counts jobs at Mississippi State, Florida, Virginia and Utah. He takes over for Paul Longo, who is taking a leave of absence from the football program, per the official release.

“Matt comes to Notre Dame with impeccable credentials and incredibly high praise from the likes of Urban Meyer, Mickey Marotti, Dan Mullen, Bob Diaco and Al Groh,” Kelly said. “He’s already instituted a strength program built with a foundation that focuses on hard work, discipline and top-notch competition. Matt will demand the best from our players, not only in the weight room, but in many other areas within our program. I couldn’t be more excited to have him in place moving forward.”