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Will Polian’s return reinvigorate Irish special teams?

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Much has rightfully been made of Notre Dame’s new coordinators Chip Long and Mike Elko, on the offensive and defensive sides, respectively. For that matter, Irish coach Brian Kelly spent a good portion of his press conference previewing spring practice instead raving about new director of strength and conditioning Matt Balis.

Nonetheless, one should not—and Kelly has not—overlook new special teams coordinator Brian Polian. Or should that be former-and-new special teams coordinator? Past-and-present special teams coordinator? No matter the phrasing, it is indeed the same Brian Polian who lead the Irish special teams under Charlie Weis from 2005 to 2009.

“In terms of special teams, that was a position that I thought was important to immediately address and upgrade,” Kelly said when introducing his new hires at the end of January. “We were able to hit a home run here with Brian Polian…

“He’ll be charged with developing our entire special teams, and we think that we’re going to be able to provide an incredible opportunity for all those that are going to be playing under his guidance.”

When it comes to special teams coaches, nearly the entire roster usually falls under their guidance. With the possible exception of the starting quarterback, there is a possible role for every player somewhere in the mix of kickoff coverage, punt coverage, field goal block, etc. This is the very reason special teams coaches are often named interim head coaches when necessary, rather than the seemingly more obvious choices of offensive or defensive coordinators. Exhibit A: The Denver Broncos and Joe DeCamillis in week six of this past season.

How important was the hiring of Polian in Kelly’s eyes? As much as Notre Dame may be relying on junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush to lead a young offense this fall, Kelly said he would have chosen to hire a special teams coach rather than Tommy Rees as quarterbacks coach. This hypothetical warranted asking as Rees’s hiring only came about due to the NCAA’s presumed approval of a 10th assistant coach, be it for the 2017 or 2018 season.

“It was the first decision that I made coming out of the gates, if you will,” Kelly said. “I wanted to get Brian on, and I wanted special teams to be addressed immediately.”

Taking a look at Polian’s most-recent stint as Nevada’s head coach from 2013 to 2016, Notre Dame could very well expect to see special teams improvement in the coming season(s). Compared to the Irish averages over the same four-year stretch, Polian’s Wolfpack gained 1.6 yards more per punt return and stopped opposing returns 2.12 yards shorter on kickoff returns and 0.75 yards shorter on punt returns.

Notre Dame gained 1.39 more yards per kickoff return, aided by junior C.J. Sanders’ three touchdowns, including two in 2016. Nevada returned one kickoff for a score in the four-year stretch.

Before listing off all those individual statistics for whatever little more they may illustrate, a couple notes on why only those four years and figures are considered:

— Before the 2012 season, the NCAA moved kickoffs up to the 35-yard line, from the 30, and kickoff touchbacks to the 25-yard line, from the 20. Thus, looking at statistics from Polian’s original Notre Dame stretch would be distorted.
— Actual returns theoretically depict coverage on the defensive side and aggressiveness on the offensive side. Kickoff or punt distance may not only be influenced by one particular player, but also by field position itself. Was the punter trying to pin the opposition inside the five-yard line, even though booting from only the near 40? Was the kicker trying to keep the ball away from a dangerous returner and thus drilling line drives out of the end zone?

2016 Nevada: 28 kickoff returns for 571 yards for an average of 20.39 yards per return; 33 kickoffs covered for 627 yards for an average of 19.0 yards allowed per return; nine punt returns for 101 yards and an average of 11.2 yards per return; 13 punts covered for 127 yards and 9.77 yards allowed per return.
2015 Nevada: 31 kickoff returns for 752 yards and a touchdown for an average of 24.26 yards per return; 36 kickoffs covered for 903 yards for an average of 25.08 yards allowed per return; 12 punt returns for 152 yards and an average of 12.67 yards per return; 16 punts covered for 199 yards and 12.44 yards allowed per return.
2014 Nevada: 18 kickoff returns for 389 yards for an average of 21.61 yards per return; 46 kickoffs covered for 918 yards for an average of 19.96 yards allowed per return; 18 punt returns for 163 yards and an average of 9.06 yards per return; 25 punts covered for 195 yards and 7.80 yards allowed per return.
2013 Nevada: 37 kickoff returns for 662 yards for an average of 17.89 yards per return; 43 kickoffs covered for 886 yards for an average of 20.60 yards allowed per return; 16 punt returns for 124 yards and an average of 7.75 yards per return; 24 punts covered for 233 yards and 9.71 yards allowed per return.
Four-year averages: 20.82 yards per kickoff return; 21.10 yards per kickoff covered; 9.82 yards per punt return; 9.67 yards per punt covered.

2016 Notre Dame: 38 kickoff returns for 877 yards and two touchdowns for an average of 23.08 yards per return; 42 kickoffs covered for 935 yards and two touchdowns for an average of 22.26 yards allowed per return; 21 punt returns for 191 yards and an average of 9.10 yards per return; 21 punts covered for 316 yards and two touchdowns and 15.05 yards allowed per return.
2015 Notre Dame: 38 kickoff returns for 825 yards and a touchdown for an average of 21.71 yards per return; 58 kickoffs covered for 1,283 yards for an average of 22.12 yards allowed per return; 27 punt returns for 215 yards and two touchdowns and an average of 7.96 yards per return; 22 punts covered for 194 yards and 8.82 yards allowed per return. (Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story included an inaccurate calculation for the average yards allowed per return. 8.82 is the correct figure.
2014 Notre Dame: 45 kickoff returns for 921 yards for an average of 20.47 yards per return; 26 kickoffs covered for 609 yards and a touchdown for an average of 23.42 yards allowed per return; 23 punt returns for 195 yards and an average of 8.48 yards per return; nine punts covered for 48 yards and 5.33 yards allowed per return.
2013 Notre Dame: 42 kickoff returns for 998 yards for an average of 23.76 yards per return; 40 kickoffs covered for 1,027 yards for an average of 25.68 yards allowed per return; 15 punts returned for 106 yards and an average of 7.07 yards per return; 17 punts covered for 161 yards and 9.47 yards per return.
Four-year averages: 22.21 yards per kickoff return; 23.22 yards per kickoff covered; 8.22 yards per punt return; 10.42 yards per punt covered.

“Inside the Irish” March Madness Pool
Brackets lock when games tip Thursday at 12:15 ET with Notre Dame taking on Princeton. Enter your picks prior to that if you feel like challenging for bragging rights. Until then, allow blissful ignorance to convince you to have faith in the nearly impossible. For these three-plus days, each of us can believe we—or at least our brackets—are special.

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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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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