C.J. Sanders

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Counting Down the Irish: The Top Five

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This top-five should show where Notre Dame’s strength will be this season: the running game. More specifically, the running game to the left side of the line.

It probably did not take this polling to reveal as much considering the Irish offensive line features two sure-fire first-round NFL Draft picks on the left side, but it is worth noting how the two will be viewed this year. They finished a point apart at the top of these rankings. Brace yourselves for a few months’ worth of wondering if fifth-year senior Mike McGlinchey legally changed his name to “McGlinchey and Nelson.”

Unlike Nos. 6-10, these five have proven themselves on the field. Also unlike Thursday’s five, all five of these players could be gone come 2018. Three will have eligibility remaining, but it is nearly certain the top vote-getter heads to the NFL with a season of collegiate time left on the table while either or both of the skill position players could showcase themselves this year to the point it would be foolish not to head to the pros.

All in all, Notre Dame has a consensus top-five this year. To that end, this annual ranking served its purpose of highlighting the roster’s top-end. Consider this one last nod of appreciation to the dozen panelists for taking the time to partake.

25: Donte Vaughn, sophomore cornerback, 30 points
24: Justin Yoon, junior kicker, 34
23: Te’von Coney, junior linebacker, 50
22: Durham Smythe, fifth-year senior tight end, 50
21: C.J. Sanders, junior receiver and returner, 52
20: Jay Hayes, senior defensive end, 58
19: Kevin Stepherson, sophomore receiver, 78
18: Chase Claypool, sophomore receiver, 91
17: Alex Bars, senior right guard, 92
16: Nick Watkins, senior cornerback, 106
15: Dexter Williams, junior running back, 109
14: Sam Mustipher, senior center, 116
13: Greer Martini, senior linebacker, 129
12: Julian Love, sophomore cornerback, 159
11: Jerry Tillery, junior defensive tackle, 162
10: Shaun Crawford, junior cornerback, 165
9: Daelin Hayes, sophomore defensive end, 191
8: Alizé Mack, junior tight end, 194
7: Drue Tranquill, senior rover, 200
6: Brandon Wimbush, junior quarterback, 231

5: Equanimeous St. Brown, junior receiver, 257 points

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High ranking: No. 1
Low ranking: No. 9
Twelve votes total; unanimous.

To give an idea how stark St. Brown’s breakout sophomore season was, realize a year ago he finished No. 25 in this ranking. This year, even when one ballot mistakenly left him off entirely (later corrected), St. Brown still finished No. 5.

Some Irish fans may read the above reference to St. Brown playing himself into position to enter the NFL Draft and panic. That would be a mistake. It should be read as a positive sign. For St. Brown to genuinely consider that leap this spring, he will need to excel in the fall.

With junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush now the starter, St. Brown will have plenty of opportunities to star even further. It is not that St. Brown did not mesh with DeShone Kizer. Rather, it is that St. Brown has worked with Wimbush for three years, including their freshman season when neither was seeing much action.

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4: Josh Adams, junior running back, 259
High ranking: No. 1
Low ranking: No. 7
Twelve votes total; unanimous.

Unlike St. Brown, Adams’ rise in this ranking is only from No. 8 a year ago. His ceiling may be capped by the talent in Notre Dame’s running back stable. The flipside of that luxury is Adams should still be fresh come November this year. That could be an intimidating concept for opponents considering Adams averaged 7.42 yards per carry last November, closing the season with back-to-back 100-yard games, including 180 yards on only 17 carries against USC.

Adams at his peak may be the Irish at their best this season. But he cannot do it on his own, as illustrated by the top-two finishers yet to come. His impact is easily measured in yards, yards per carry and touchdowns. Nonetheless, their contributions will lead to his production.

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3: Nyles Morgan, senior linebacker, 269
High ranking: No. 2, by two separate voters
Low ranking: No. 6
Twelve votes total; unanimous.

Of the top six, only Morgan did not receive a No. 1 vote. Those all went to offensive players. Maybe that is a symptom of college football as a whole. More likely, that is a symptom of the Notre Dame defense struggling so immensely a year ago.

If the defense reverses that trend this year, it will be under the Irish captain’s direction. Frankly, Morgan may not match last year’s 94 tackles, not with senior rover Drue Tranquill in position to build on his 79 and senior linebacker Greer Martini expected to see more time this season alongside Morgan. He also may not match his four sacks, not with an added emphasis on defensive ends chasing down the passer, led by senior Jay Hayes and sophomore Daelin Hayes (no relation), not to mention Tranquill again.

Thus, view Morgan’s impact on a macro scale. Limiting opponents to three touchdowns per game would be an undeniable triumph, and it would have everything to do with Morgan, no matter how many tackles he tallies and where they are on the field. (Why three touchdowns per game? The low mark of Brian Kelly’s tenure at Notre Dame is obviously 2012’s 12.8 points per game. Since then, the Irish defense’s highpoint came in 2013, holding opponents to 22.4 points per game. That is, three touchdowns and a field goal some weekends, a missed field goal other weekends.)

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2: Mike McGlinchey, fifth-year senior left tackle, 284
High ranking: No. 1, by three separate voters
Low ranking: No. 5
Twelve votes total; unanimous.

Partly out of laziness, partly out of a desire to break in the habit mentioned up top, there is a distinct desire to lump McGlinchey’s entry in with the next one. They are separated by one point, about the equivalent of how much space will be between them on the field.

Fans may flinch at this ranking, citing McGlinchey’s penchant for pre-snap penalties a year ago. They have a point, but that is also the peril of judging any offensive lineman off the times his name is mentioned by an announcer. The other thing to keep in mind is how much praise has been heaped on McGlinchey this offseason. Rarely does a likely first-round draft pick return to college and receive credit for drastic improvements. That has been the case with McGlinchey to date, though obviously seeing it against Temple on Sept. 2 will mean more.

As has been the case with each of the captains, McGlinchey’s impact will extend beyond his thankless duties as a left tackle. Media members, including some of these panelists, noted McGlinchey addressing the Irish following the opening session of preseason practice. For a player who has typically led by example, the outspoken moment was notably out of character.

What has not been out of character is another Notre Dame left tackle excelling. Simply as a thought experiment, it is curious to wonder where the starting left tackle, whomever that may be, will finish in this polling in 2018.

1: Quenton Nelson, senior left guard, 285
High ranking: No. 1, by six separate voters
Low ranking: No. 7
Twelve votes total; unanimous.

What else needs to be said? The left guard plays physical and sound football. He has shown expertise in both passing and running situations. Not only did six panelists place Nelson atop their ballots, but three more slotted him second.

On the inside of the line, Nelson will also assist Wimbush and senior center Sam Mustipher in diagnosing certain defensive looks. As another captain, he will stand next to McGlinchey — figuratively or literally — whenever the team needs to be addressed.

This top slot should not be a surprise. Gauging a left guard’s contribution may be more subjective than looking at a linebacker’s tackle totals or a running back’s average yards per carry, but it is every bit as vital, if not more so. Not every play will reach the defense’s second-level and not every offensive alignment will include a running back on the field. Meanwhile, every offensive snap will give a defender a chance to blow past Nelson and reach the quarterback.

Don’t expect that defender to succeed much in 2017.

The 2017 Counting Down the Irish panelists
Michael Bryan, 18 Stripes
Bryan Driskell, Blue & Gold Illustrated
Matt Freeman, Irish Sports Daily
Tyler James, South Bend Tribune
Mike Monaco, Notre Dame Broadcaster/Reporter
Ben Padanilam, The Observer
LaMond Pope, Chicago Tribune
Ryan Ritter, Her Loyal Sons
Pete Sampson, Irish Illustrated
Evan Sharpley, Irish 247
John Vannie, ND Nation
Joshua Vowles, One Foot Down

Counting Down the Irish: 20 to 16

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The next set of five Notre Dame players a media panel predicted as 2017’s most impactful contributors does not yet include a unanimous vote-getter. Oddly enough, the lowest-ranked of Nos. 16-20 actually received the most votes of the grouping, but is apparently not seen to have as high of a ceiling.

The highest ceiling is seen at No. 19, but that comes along with the fewest votes of this range, foreshadowing a much-speculated low floor, as well. Yes, that would belong to junior receiver Kevin Stepherson.

As always, a thank you to the 12 panelists (listed at the end) …

25: Donte Vaughn, sophomore cornerback, 30 points
24: Justin Yoon, junior kicker, 34
23: Te’von Coney, junior linebacker, 50
22: Durham Smythe, fifth-year senior tight end, 50
21: C.J. Sanders, junior receiver and returner, 52

20: Jay Hayes, senior defensive end, 58 points.
High ranking: No. 15
Low ranking: No. 25
Eleven votes total.

With senior defensive end Andrew Trumbetti seeing some time on the opposite side of the line, ranking Hayes high enough to be one of three defensive linemen in the top-25 makes sense. (It should not take much thought to predict the higher duo.) The Irish will certainly need the 6-foot-3½, 290-pounder to play up to that size, lacking many other options along the defensive line.

It may have been that size which prompted some of those higher rankings, if not Hayes’ overall inclusion. Some ballots came in before preseason practice commenced and some came in after, but all were submitted at a point where Hayes moving to defensive tackle, leaving Trumbetti on the strongside edge, seemed logical, if not likely. The odds of that may have diminished in the subsequent week, but given the youth and inexperience filling the Notre Dame depth chart at tackle, Hayes moving inward remains a viable possibility.

In that instance, Hayes’ impact would certainly be of note, possibly meriting even a bump up these rankings come season’s end.

19: Kevin Stepherson, sophomore receiver, 78.
High ranking: No. 8
Low ranking: No. 19
Seven votes total.

One thing seems to be clear: Stepherson is not doing everything right as far as the Irish coaching staff is concerned.

Another thing can be quickly deduced: If Stepherson can right his personal ship, his talent was obvious enough last season to create expectations this year despite his intangible difficulties to date.

That dichotomy explains Stepherson finishing here in this polling despite receiving an average ranking closer to No. 15. Not much more thought needs to be put into it: If the speedster is not on the field, his impact will certainly be minimal.

(Editor’s Note: One panelist noticed a mistake in his submitted ballot, moving Stepherson from his No. 7 to his No. 19, altering the points total from when this was first published, though, as it happens, not changing where Stepherson lands in the pecking order.)

18: Chase Claypool, sophomore receiver, 91.
High ranking: No. 9
Low ranking: No. 24
Nine votes total.

Contrary to Stepherson, Claypool’s chances at consistent playing time have remained steady since he appeared in the slot, or the Z, during spring’s practices. As long as he projects as a starting receiver, Claypool should be one of junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s preferred targets.

There could be some surprise here, though, in Claypool finishing as high as No. 18 while junior receiver Miles Boykin — the likely headliner at the boundary receiver position — finished the equivalent of No. 36. Claypool may have broken out more drastically a year ago, but he is also the current starter at a position which could be minimized by offensive coordinator Chip Long’s preference for two tight ends. If and when both fifth-year senior Durham Smythe and junior Alizé Mack are on the field, the slot receiver will often not be.

It seems Claypool may do more with his chances than Boykin will while also getting more chances than Stepherson.

RELATED READING: Others Receiving Votes

Of course, this is all an interpretation of the wisdom of a dozen within the crowd. Sept. 2 will be more revealing.

17: Alex Bars, senior right guard, 92.
High ranking: No. 8
Low ranking: No. 20
Eight votes total.

If Bars were lined up at right tackle again this season, he may finish higher. If he was lined up next to a future early first-round NFL Draft pick, that could also rise the magnitude and bluntness of his impact. But no, Bars is intended for the right guard this season alongside a first-time starting sophomore.

With those disclaimers diminishing some of Bars’ hype, it is impressive Notre Dame’s fourth offensive lineman finishes not far from the top-15. The offensive line will be a strength for the Irish this season — and that is not based solely on these rankings. This polling only confirms that expectation.

16: Nick Watkins, senior cornerback, 106.
High ranking: No. 8
Low ranking: No. 24
Ten votes total.

If healthy, Watkins has shown an ability to handle man coverage, something Notre Dame needed last season. His 2017 ceiling, in fact, matches the upper-level of possibilities of the two cornerbacks yet to come in this countdown.

The 2017 Counting Down the Irish panelists
Michael Bryan, 18 Stripes
Bryan Driskell, Blue & Gold Illustrated
Matt Freeman, Irish Sports Daily
Tyler James, South Bend Tribune
Mike Monaco, Notre Dame Broadcaster/Reporter
Ben Padanilam, The Observer
LaMond Pope, Chicago Tribune
Ryan Ritter, Her Loyal Sons
Pete Sampson, Irish Illustrated
Evan Sharpley, Irish 247
John Vannie, ND Nation
Joshua Vowles, One Foot Down

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 81 Miles Boykin, receiver

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-4, 225 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Junior with three seasons of eligibility remaining including the 2017 season
Depth chart: Following spring practice, Boykin appears to lead the charge for the starting position at the W, or boundary, receiver position. Sophomore Javon McKinley provides motivation for Boykin to stay on top of his game on the outside, with incoming freshman Jafar Armstrong likely to take practice reps there, as well.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star recruit, Boykin chose Notre Dame over a number of prestigious offers, including Ohio State, Michigan and Oregon.

CAREER TO DATE
Boykin preserved a year of eligibility in 2015 before catching six passes last season for 81 yards and a touchdown. He saw action in all 12 games, with the score coming against Virginia Tech.

QUOTE(S)
Boykin’s springtime emergence may have caught the Irish coaches a bit by surprise. If nothing else, his steady development in the weight room and on the practice field gives Notre Dame the option of moving junior Equanimeous St. Brown to the X, or field, position, giving the dynamic breakout star from a year ago even more space to work with.

“[Boykin is] tracking the ball very well and catching it consistently,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said in March. “Last year it was about consistency for him. He’s starting to show the consistency that will allow him — he’s very sneaky. He eats up a lot of ground with those long strides. Before you know it, he’s running past people.”

A week later, Kelly trotted out that buzzword of consistency a few more times in relation to Boykin, praising the receiver’s fit into new offensive coordinator Chip Long’s offense and particular preferred routes.

“Miles is starting to build some ‘bank,’ if you will, as it relates to consistency,” Kelly said. “I’m using the word ‘bank,’ he’s putting a lot in the bank of trust. That we can trust he’s going to give us the kind of performance that’s going to lend itself toward playing time.

“He’s been very consistent as a ball-catcher. He’s been very consistent in terms of assignments. His traits have been very evident in terms of attention to detail. His focus has been great. His attitude, he’s been gritty.

“He gets a lot of those back-shoulder throws where he has to go up and get it, and he lands, physically, he gets beat up a little bit. I see him in there getting treatment and he comes back out and makes good decisions.”

WHAT KEITH ARNOLD PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
I’ve got Boykin pegged for the 10 to 15 catch range, with outliers on either side being possible. The optimist in me sees the depth chart and his physical traits. The pessimist in me sees the other guys who have been given shots in front of him and the challenge of leaping someone like [now-junior tight end Alizé Mack] or [former Irish receiver Corey] Robinson if he’s healthy and playing.

“Ultimately, someone is going to step in and be a surprise at the position next year. We’ve assumed Torii Hunter, Jr., will be the leading man. Kevin Stepherson was the freshman spring sensation. And [Mack] feels like the answer if Robinson isn’t going to be able to play after a series of concussions.

“It’s easy to be a fan of Boykin if you watched him as a high schooler and saw his recruiting profile. Now it’ll be up to him to fight for a role at a position that’s one of the most unsettled on the roster.”

2017 OUTLOOK
Boykin’s rise to the top of the depth chart this spring was always a possibility, if not necessarily a likely one following the 2016 season. As Keith pointed out, Boykin’s pedigree kept this result in play despite his minimal role. The question now is, will he maintain this consistency and thus create more opportunities for himself?

If he does, 20-plus catches and a couple touchdowns seems entirely reasonable. If St. Brown and Mack are the top-two targets in the 2017 offense, Boykin will likely be competing with sophomore slot receiver Chase Claypool to be the third. The difference between third and fourth is not all that much. A year ago Stepherson pulled in 25 catches for 462 yards and five scores while now-junior C.J. Sanders caught 24 passes for 293 yards and two touchdowns. The two drew similar attention in the system — Stepherson was simply more of a down-field threat.

If Boykin returns to the ways of his past, McKinley certainly has all the tools to take his spot in the lineup, or St. Brown could move back to the boundary position, presenting more of an opportunity in the field for Stepherson.

Such back-and-forth among the receivers needs to be remembered. In Long’s up-tempo system, Boykin is expected to know the duties at all three positions so as to minimize the time spent racing back-and-forth across the field to reach proper alignment. For that matter, St. Brown is expected to, as well. If Boykin stumbles, there will be options to fill in for him.

DOWN THE ROAD
Boykin’s size alone makes him a piece of intrigue in Long’s offense. Whether 2017 is the season that leads to production or not, Boykin will have chances each offseason to make it happen. His ceiling may not be as high as St. Brown’s after last season’s outburst, but Boykin should fit well as a complement to his classmate.

It is not inconceivable St. Brown could excel again this year and then head to the NFL. If that were to occur, it would probably be partly due to Boykin preventing teams from focusing all their coverage energies on St. Brown. In this scenario, Boykin would have a chance to headline in 2018.

If St. Brown is still around in 2018, that should simply lead to a strong one-two punch among the receiving corps, even if it reduces Boykins’ claim to top-dog status.


2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
No. 95 (theoretically): Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle
No. 94 (theoretically): Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92 (theoretically): Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 90 (theoretically): Cole Kmet, tight end
No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end
No. 88: Javon McKinley, receiver
No. 87 (theoretically): Jafar Armstrong, receiver
No. 86: Alizé Mack, tight end
No. 85: Tyler Newsome, punter
No. 84 (theoretically): Michael Young, receiver
No. 83: Chase Claypool, receiver
No. 82: Nic Weishar, tight end

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.

Kelly encouraged by first practice’s pace; Kraemer gets chance on OL at right tackle

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If there is ever a day to not jump to conclusions, it is the first day of spring practices. Irish coach Brian Kelly underscored that sentiment after Notre Dame’s spring debut. Frankly, tat sentiment should prevail over the next six-plus weeks. Nonetheless, Kelly praised his players, new defensive coordinator Mike Elko and new offensive coordinator Chip Long. Fitting, considering Kelly spent much of Tuesday’s preview press conference lauding new director of strength and conditioning Matt Balis.

“To point out anything in particular after day one would be a little bit foolish on my part, but I thought overall, generally speaking, I really liked the management of our defense and how it’s being taught in all aspects,” Kelly said. “I really love the tempo we were able to run at offensively today. You didn’t have the typical sloppiness of the ball on the ground and guys not executing at a high level, so I’m pleased with that from a first day.”

True to his stated intentions, Kelly left the offense primarily in Long’s hands and instead checked in on all aspects of the first practice in helmets and shorts (no pads).

“Normally my priority is making sure the offense is running the installation effectively, that we’re doing the things necessary that makes the offense run as it is supposed to,” he said. “That’s not my priority right now. My priority is making sure our coaches are emphasizing the things that we want. Today was about evaluating the personnel and where they are.”

Evaluating that personnel does not include setting the depth chart just yet. Though sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson largely worked with the third unit Wednesday, Kelly indicated that does not necessarily signal Stepherson’s current standing.
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