Mailbag: 2016 schedule, Rebuild/reload, Robinson (and more)

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Part two of the mailbag. Thanks again for your questions.

 

irishsoccerfirst: Give us your take on the Irish schedule this coming season. Does it appear weaker than usual at this point? I mean Nevada and Army? Isn’t that two cupcakes? NC State and Syracuse are two weak ACC programs most years. VA Tech has been struggling of late, etc. Your thoughts at this early date would be appreciated, but it looks like any loss could be fatal.

I think Notre Dame’s schedule sets up pretty well for the Irish. I agree with you that Nevada and Army aren’t going to wow anybody, but sandwiching Nevada between Texas and Michigan State, and following up Army with Virginia Tech and USC is more than solid and not too many people will notice with that finish.

The ACC slate is going to be tough some seasons and lighter in others. Getting NC State as they continue to try and climb out is nice, and Syracuse is rebooting itself once again, this time with Dino Babers.

Like most schedules, you can argue anything you want. For those who want to talk up the difficulties, look at the murders row of head coaches facing off with BK and his staff: Charlie Strong, Mark Dantonio, David Cutcliffe, David Shaw and Mark Richt all feel like they have a home among the elite names in college football. Justin Fuente is a rising star, some say the same about Nevada’s Brian Polian, too.

If you’re looking for a reason to be bullish about the Irish, one factor is the schedule. I think it stacks up pretty well for Notre Dame.

To your point about one loss being fatal, that certainly hasn’t been the case so far in the two seasons the CFB Playoff has existed. If the Irish were a one-loss team in 2015, I think there’s a very good chance that Oklahoma was staying home last year and the Irish were the four-seed. (Stanford solved that for all of us.) But it is fair to say that this schedule won’t likely earn as much recognition as maybe other seasons have.

 

4horsemenrideagain:  Who is the one guy on defense that everyone else hates to get tackled by? Who is the one guy on offense that everyone else hates to have to tackle?

Both candidates for this award are off of last year’s roster, as the team usually agreed that a hit from Elijah Shumate was the worst part of practice and trying to stop C.J. Prosise was one of the hardest jobs they’d face.

If I were assigning these for the 2016 team, I’ll say Nyles Morgan on defense and Josh Adams on offense. Neither seem like guys I want to tackle.

 

dudeacow: What do you think of the possibility of Nyles Morgan being the sack leader for the defense? BVG rushed Schmidt a whole lot, but was ineffective due to his physical traits. Morgan is fast, big, and strong.

I’m not sure if he’ll be the sack leader. But I do think he’ll get home more often than Joe did, who hit the quarterback plenty but couldn’t quite seal the deal with a sack. That’s not necessarily an indictment on Joe’s physical traits (though playing with a bum shoulder all year didn’t help), but Nyles has shown an uncanny knack for wreaking havoc in his limited playing opportunities—so I do expect a few sacks from him.

Replacing Schmidt, All-American Jaylon Smith and Jarrett Grace won’t be easy. But I’m excited to see what Notre Dame’s linebacking corps looks like in 2016. A starting lineup of Morgan, James Onwualu and either Te’von Coney or Greer Martini is a pretty good looking group, especially from an athletic standpoint.

 

jerseyshorendfan: Keith, would you call the 2016 campaign more of a rebuilding year or are we “reloading” to the point that we may be in the hunt for the Final four? What, in your opinion, is going to be the Achilles heel of both the offensive and defensive units this year?

I’m 100 percent on the reload train. I don’t think there’s a rebuild left in this program, especially with the solid groundwork laid at quarterback and the strength in the trenches. Is it perfect? No. I think this staff is understanding that when Notre Dame has great players, they’re susceptible to leaving for the NFL just like other programs. Expect the staff to adjust how they recruit (and manage their roster) after losing guys like Will Fuller, Ronnie Stanley and Jaylon Smith without finishing their eligibility.

I have a hard time finding an achilles heel on the offense. This group is going to be loaded. If there was an undoing, I’d say it could be the right side of the offensive line. I’m also interested to see how this receiving corps plays without an established No. 1 receiver. Irish fans got pretty spoiled watching major production from Michael Floyd, TJ Jones and then Will Fuller. Is Torii Hunter that guy? Spring gives us hints. But we certainly haven’t seen it. The last factor on offense to consider is the quarterback position. The personnel won’t be the problem, but rather the balancing act of keeping everybody happy and united is one that will have a low margin for error.

Defensively, I’m watching the secondary. Getting a better performance from the back end is key. Funny enough, I could make an equally compelling argument that we should be worried about the defensive line— or the linebackers. So maybe it’s best to say that the relative youth of the unit is the achilles’ heel, especially considering all the concern about Brian VanGorder’s scheme.

 

bostonjan: Keith…..any word about ND doing a Showtime like series for this season? That show was very enjoyable, and I hope a similar series is planned. I realize that there is the weekly “Inside the Irish” program, but I would like more.

I’m sure Showtime would like to return to South Bend, but it’s not happening. That was a one-year experiment for the football program and I think both parties got exactly what they wanted out of it.

The series is likely continue with another program—and it’ll be a show I watch whether it’s Notre Dame or not. I found the inside look fascinating and I think it served the purpose Brian Kelly and Jack Swarbrick hoped it would, offering total transparency and a clear look at a program that’s taken plenty of shots in the past—not all of them fair.

The non-stop nature of that series and the fact that a small army of cameras and producers were following that team for the better part of five months is really, really taxing. That took some significant getting used to and not all players (or coaches) liked it.

And Jan, an “Inside the Irish” program? Did you just book me a weekly TV show? If so, let me know where the commission check should go—I’ll have my people get in touch with your people.

 

jerseyirish10: Keith, with news that Corey Robinson was out again for a concussion and is being evaluated Tuesday, how surprised would you be to see him announce he is giving up football? He clearly has a lot of outside interests, is a bright kid, and maybe just sees the writing on the wall that football isn’t his path anymore.

I wouldn’t be surprised at all. Brain injuries are scary. Especially for guys who like to use their brain.

Robinson certainly has lofty goals for life outside of football and everybody on campus—coaches, professors and administrators—want to see that he makes the best decision for him. That said, I think what Kelly said last week about Robinson wanting to return to the team is true. But he needs to get his concussion cleared up before doing anything else, and spring practice isn’t all that important for a guy with a lot of reps in the program.

(Worth reading: Former Stanford linebacker A.J. Tarpley wrote about retiring from the NFL after suffering a fourth concussion. You’ve got to think these stories will get more and more common.)

 

 

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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4 Days Until Spring Practice: A Look at QBs (Brandon Wimbush)
Pace of Play: More Snaps Equal More Scoring Chances, Right?

Back from break, Irish commence hitting; DT Elijah Taylor out with LisFranc injury

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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.