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Five things we’ll learn: The 2016 Notre Dame season preview

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Entering his seventh season in South Bend, Brian Kelly is on the most stable footing of his career. In lockstep with his bosses Jack Swarbrick and Rev. John Jenkins, Kelly has spent the better part of his time at Notre Dame building a program to his specifications, granted unprecedented control and resources as the coach and administration continue to evolve a football program that serves as the university’s outward identity.

That’s what makes the 2016 season so fascinating.

Because for as comfortable as Kelly has become in a job that hasn’t seen anything close to comfort since Lou Holtz roamed the sidelines, he’s got his hands full this season. His roster is turning over more high-end talent than any team since Holtz and Vinny Cerrato were stocking the pond, and he’s also attempting to upend conventional football wisdom as he juggles two quarterbacks.

Add to that a rebuilt defense and untested talent at several key positions, this type of high wire act is what gets coaches a bronze statue or a For Sale sign in their front lawn.

Having already faced an off-field mogul that cost him his starting free safety, Kelly and his coaching staff will spend the week going through final preparations before stress-testing his young team in front of 100,000 fans.

With the goal still a berth in the College Football Playoff, here are five things we’ll learn this season.

 

No coach is better qualified to juggle multiple quarterbacks. But that doesn’t mean it’ll work. 

In DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire, Brian Kelly has two quarterbacks he handpicked. They’ve both showed flashes of brilliance on the field, character and resolve off of it, and the type of competitive nature that the head coach finds so vitally important at every spot on his roster.

Now he’s asking both quarterbacks to trust him as he tries to bring out the best of both players.

“They understand that my decisions are based upon what’s best for Notre Dame football, and not necessarily what’s in their best interest,” Kelly said after announcing that both would play.

“There’s always going to be that struggle with the individual versus the team. They clearly understand that team is most important and winning and beating Texas is more important than how they feel about the current situation.”

Those feelings struggled to stay beneath the surface on Media Day, when both quarterbacks answered question after question—often times the same one—from reporters roaming the room and looking for a quote.

But more important than anything Kizer or Zaire say is how they manage to play when the lights go on. And while we saw Kelly and Mike Denbrock navigate a far more toxic situation with Zaire and Everett Golson when they put together a remarkable game plan to beat LSU in the Music City Bowl, a month of bowl preparation is one thing, a 12-game regular season is another.

Most have forgotten that Kelly’s commitment to a two-quarterback situation was mostly framed through the lens of beating Texas. From there, what they decide to do remains to be seen—especially if one of the quarterbacks separates themselves on the field.

Thumbing his nose at tradition and trying to win with both is a calculated risk. Kelly is capable of pulling it off, but it’s one of the biggest gambles of his time at Notre Dame.

 

Three seasons in, there’s hope that the defense now fully comprehends Brian VanGorder’s scheme. But can it improve after replacing so much talent?

There is no shortage of postmortems on Brian VanGorder’s 2015 defense. Even with plentiful talent, big plays and maddening inconsistency ruined the Irish season.

Now without Jaylon Smith, Sheldon Day, KeiVarae Russell, Joe Schmidt and Romeo Okwara, Brian VanGorder is hoping that a younger, less experienced unit can skip past the rookie mistakes—finding a way to absorb and implement a scheme that mentally stressed even the most experienced starters.

Putting all the struggles on VanGorder’s system isn’t fair. Legacy issues and mismatched personnel doomed the group.  So did injuries, taking away some of the variables that allow a tactically-brilliant strategist to go from grease-board to gridiron.

Outside of the considerable weight hoisted onto several new shoulders, making sure all eleven defenders are on the same page remains the key to success. So is finding a pass rush.

As Kelly talked early on about making sure this team does the ordinary things extraordinarily well, that message may as well have been aimed solely at his defense, a group that needs to get back to the basic principles of winning football—even if it forces a few weapons to stay holstered.

 

Can a rebuilt offensive line serve as the identity of Notre Dame’s offense? 

Whoever ends up piloting the Irish attack, they’ll do so behind an offensive line that should serve as the identity of the team. Because Harry Hiestand’s rugged group has size, strength and a nasty disposition that should help the team win now—especially as the passing game finds its footing.

With Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson perhaps the strongest 1-2 punch in college football, dictating terms will be a necessity. So will breaking in three new starters, with Sam Mustipher, Colin McGovern and Alex Bars getting no warmup before they operate in a very hostile environment.

Coming off a breakthrough season running the football, there’s talent in the backfield and two quarterbacks capable of executing the zone-read attack. But without Will Fuller keeping safeties honest and receiving depth to keep secondaries occupied, it will be much rougher sledding in the trenches.

That’s where McGlinchey and Nelson come into play. Because even if everybody in the stadium knows where the Irish are going on 3rd-and-2, it’ll be up to this offensive line to pave the way, excelling in predictable downs and distances and pushing opponents around even when the numbers make things difficult.

Dominance can come in many forms. Last year’s offense found that ability with the highest yard-per-play total in the school’s modern history. That’s not likely in the cards this season, making it even more important that the Irish control the game in the trenches.

 

Can freshman Devin Studstill be Notre Dame’s last line of defense? 

Max Redfield’s dismissal was the final disappointing chapter in a collegiate career that will long be remembered for all the wrong reasons. Asked to be Notre Dame’s last line of defense—to serve as the nerve-center of the secondary—Redfield instead served as the ringleader to the most maddening, inexplicable preseason decision in recent memory, bringing guns and drugs and Notre Dame football into the same sentence, all too good of a reason for Kelly to pull the chute on a tenure that seemed like hard work on even the best days.

In his place, freshman Devin Studstill makes his first start. Matched up against a Texas offense that’ll need big plays (and maybe even a little broken coverage) to find its footing, Kelly puts a key job on the shoulders of an early-enrollee freshman, a safety who actually took a final look at playing for the Longhorns before heading to South Bend.

So for all the optimism that’s followed Studstill from the recruiting process, through spring drills and into fall camp, Kelly’s not unaware of the circumstances his young free safety will face.

“We’ll have a true freshman, on the road, playing against a talented team,” Kelly said through gritted teeth. “Devin is a kid that has a lot of talent. He’s a very confident player. But we’ll all be looking at it like you will be.

“He’s a pretty talented player. He’s confident. He had a pretty good spring game. He’s got some experience now after the spring. But we’ll have to play a few guys, I don’t think he’s going to go out there and play every snap.”

Behind him is where things get murky. There’s sixth-year safety Avery Sebastian, long on experience but built like a strong safety. Freshman Jalen Elliott has earned praise as well, but will be playing in his first college game as well. Sophomore Nicco Fertitta earned mention, but isn’t the athletic matchup you want with Texas’ receiving corps.

So that leaves Studstill to learn on the job. And at a position that’s seemed difficult to fill since Harrison Smith roamed the secondary, that’s a lot of pressure on a freshman.

 

With leadership still a work in progress, can this team grow—and win—while finding its identity?

Naming four captains after an embarrassing weekend found six players posing for mug shots, Brian Kelly’s concerns about player leadership found their way to the forefront before his young team even played a game. But there’s a silver lining in that embarrassing dust-up. Namely, the Irish stubbed their toe before it could cost them anything more than a starting safety and a week of headlines.

Kelly knows that this team will be a work in progress. That makes the key to this season winning while still figuring things out. If you’re wondering why he was so willing to play both quarterbacks, it ultimately comes down to the fact that he can’t take anything off the table as he looks for the right recipe for success.

Winning the weekend is the only goal that matters. Survive Texas and get home.

Because the cliche that each week is a season in college football holds true for this football team. Winning the week and going onto the next should allow this team to find its footing, doing so against a schedule that only features three true road games and opponents that all deal with major turnover either in the coaching ranks or in key personnel.

One Saturday at a time. (And this weekend, one Sunday, too.) Because even after six seasons, if Kelly takes a step back to look at the road ahead of him, he might understand just how much he’s trying to achieve.

 

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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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.