C.J. Sanders

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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.

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.
(more…)

6 Days Until Spring Practice: A Look at TEs & WRs

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This space briefly discussed Notre Dame’s receivers only a week ago, thus this piece on those catching passes will spend more proportional time on the tight ends. In fact, let’s lead with them.

Why? Because there are more of them on the Irish roster than some seem to realize. The reader who suggested this week’s operating order of positional group analysis is a knowledgeable fan, but the bounty had evaded him, for one.

“I wondered why tight end didn’t get its own spot in that list,” he said after reading the end of Wednesday’s look at offensive linemen. “I just assumed you would pair them with wide receivers…

“I figured there’s also fewer bodies at tight end than anywhere else, really.”

False.

Notre Dame’s roster currently includes three quarterbacks (with freshman Avery Davis arriving in the fall) and four running backs. There are five tight ends, not to mention the No. 3 tight end in the class of 2017 arriving alongside Davis in August.

According to Irish coach Brian Kelly, new offensive coordinator Chip Long will need those reserves.

“[Long] utilizes two tight ends, which was going to be a mode that we have to move toward with the great depth that we have at that position,” Kelly said when introducing his new assistants. “…I wanted the offense to look a specific way. Chip gives me, clearly, something that I saw that will resemble what I see through his offense. It’s going to be the inclusion of the backs and the tight ends in the passing game.”

Notre Dame’s current set of tight ends are not used to being included much in the passing game. The returning quartet of graduate student Durham Smythe, seniors Nic Weishar and Tyler Luatua, and junior Alizé Mack have combined for a career total of 32 catches for 403 yards and six touchdowns. For comparison’s sake, Long’s two tight ends at Memphis totaled 36 catches for 423 yards and five touchdowns last season alone. (Joey Magnifico provided nine of those catches for 85 yards and two touchdowns. This is worth mentioning only because his last name is Magnifico.)

As the primary source of those Irish stats, Smythe presumably has the edge in the chase for a starting position. Last season the 6-foot-4.5, 245-pounder caught nine passes for 112 yards and four touchdowns, while Weishar added three catches for 47 yards.

Mack—née Jones—sat out 2016 amid eligibility issues after catching 13 passes for 190 yards in 2015. If in coaches’ good graces, he should immediately establish himself as a possible complement to Smythe, if not even supplant his elder. Notre Dame lists Mack at 6-4.5, 240 pounds, so both he and Smythe present notable targets for junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush.

Early enrollee Brock Wright—rivals.com’s No. 1 tight end in the class—joins Luatua in rounding out this plethora of goods for Long to incorporate. Having both the spring and the summer to learn Long’s system and embrace a college weight room may give Wright a chance to contribute in 2017.

His classmate, Cole Kmet, however will most likely find himself on the sidelines all of 2017. That is no dismissal of Kmet’s talent. Rather, it is one of the luxuries of having five tight ends to work with all spring.


Though Michigan transfer receiver Freddy Canteen officially committed to Notre Dame on Wednesday, he will not arrive on campus until June. In the meantime, the only sure thing about the Irish receiving corps is junior Equanimeous St. Brown will lead the way.

Junior C.J. Sanders may present the most-obvious partner to tandem with St. Brown, but in last season’s final seven games, Sanders totaled seven catches for 39 yards, compared to opening 2016 with 17 receptions for 254 yards and two touchdowns in its first five games. That drop-off creates an opening for the likes of junior Chris Finke or sophomore Chase Claypool to crack the starting lineup, perhaps alongside sophomore Kevin Stepherson (25 catches, 462 yards, five touchdowns).

The uncertainty also begets opportunities to junior Miles Boykin and sophomores Javon McKinley and Deon McIntosh.

Come fall, Canteen will join the fray alongside freshmen Michael Young and Jalen Armstrong.


With only six days remaining before spring practice commences, the offensive line was featured Wednesday, and the remaining five position groups will follow in the below order.

Wednesday: Offensive Linemen
Today: Tight Ends & Receivers
Friday: Running Backs
Saturday: Quarterbacks
Sunday: Defensive Backs
Monday: Linebackers
Tuesday: Defensive Linemen
Wednesday, March 8: Spring practice begins

Notre Dame returns 15 starters in 2017; How many do its opponents?

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In six months—180 days, to be even more precise—college football will return. Sure, spring practice might be only eight days away in South Bend, but those sessions will have no tangible effect on the national championship chase.

On Aug. 25, Stanford will face Rice in Sydney. According to AP Style, one does not need to notate Australia there, but some thoroughness can’t hurt, right? For that matter, South Florida will take on San Jose State, and Hawai’i will travel all the way to Foxboro, Mass. to take on Massachusetts.

Six months ago—well, again, 180 days to be exact—No. 19 Louisville introduced America to quarterback Lamar Jackson in a 70-14 rout of Charlotte, kicking off the 2016 season with an eight-touchdown performance from the eventual Heisman winner. No. 9 Tennessee topped Appalachian State 20-13 in overtime, setting the stage for a Volunteers season full of dramatics.

A week after the Cardinal go down under to face the Owls, Notre Dame will open its season against Temple with 15 returning starters, eight on offense and seven on defense, pending any spring or summer departures or injuries. According to Phil Steele, 24 teams return more experience.

Offense: Offensive linemen Mike McGlinchey (12 starts in 2016), Quenton Nelson (12), Sam Mustipher (12) and Alex Bars (12); tight end Durham Smythe (12); receiver Equanimeous St. Brown (12); running back Josh Adams (nine) and C.J. Sanders (seven)
Defense: Safeties Drue Tranquill (12) and Devin Studstill (nine); cornerback Julian Love (eight); linebackers Nyles Morgan (12) and Te’von Coney (nine); and defensive linemen Jerry Tillery (11) and Andrew Trumbetti (seven)

How does this Irish listing compare to Notre Dame’s opponents? Right about middle of the pack. (If a quarterback is not specifically mentioned, the team does not return a starter at that position.)

Sept. 2 — v. Temple, returns 10 starters; six on offense and four on defense
Sept. 9 — v. Georgia, returns 17 starters; seven on offense, including quarterback Jacob Eason, and 10 on defense
Sept. 16 — at Boston College, returns 15 starters; eight on offense and seven on defense
Sept. 23 — at Michigan State, returns nine starters; four on offense and five on defense
Sept. 30 — v. Miami (Ohio), returns 16 starters; eight on offense, including quarterback Gus Ragland, and eight on defense
Oct. 7 — at North Carolina, returns 12 starters; five on offense and seven on defense
Oct. 21 — v. USC, returns 12 starters; five on offense, including quarterback and Heisman-threat Sam Darnold, and seven on defense
Oct. 28 — v. North Carolina State, returns 17 starters; nine on offense, including quarterback Ryan Finley, and eight on defense
Nov. 4 — v. Wake Forest, returns 15 starters; nine on offense, including quarterback John Wolford, and six on defense
Nov. 11 — at Miami (Fla.), returns 15 starters; seven on offense and eight on defense
Nov. 18 — v. Navy, returns 13 starters; five on offense and eight on defense
Nov. 25 — at Stanford, returns 16 starters; eight on offense, including quarterback Ryan Burns, and eight on defense

Naturally, the number of returning starters is cyclical, and some might argue teams with lackluster records one season should not want to return many starters the next. Then again, those players started over others for a presumed reason in the first place

Acknowledging that cycle, it seems innate to take a look at how many starters Notre Dame might return in 2018. By no means is the intent here to look past 2017. Rather, consider this something of a scholarship chart cliff notes. As always, this does not factor in the inevitable injuries, transfers and departures otherwise inherent to the coming six months.

Of the above eight offensive returnees, McGlinchey and Smythe will both be out of eligibility following 2017, and Nelson will nearly-certainly depart for the first round of the NFL Draft. The other five, though, could all be back in blue-and-gold. One would think quarterback Brandon Wimbush—2017’s assumed starter—will return, as would whoever the third receiver is in 2017, considering there is no senior at the position aside from graduate transfer Freddy Canteen who has two years of eligibility remaining anyways. If a tight end such as freshman early enrollee Brock Wright or junior Alizé Mack were to usurp Smythe, then the Irish may have eight returning offensive starters again in 2018.

Of the above seven defensive returnees, only Morgan and Trumbetti will finish their eligibility this season. If Tranquill does indeed end up manning the rover position in new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme, that will open a starting spot for another safety. Whoever that is, he will have eligibility remaining, as will whatever cornerback lines up opposite Love. The defensive line remains a quandary, but it is distinctly possible Notre Dame returns eight defensive starters, as well, in 2018.

Fortunately, spring practice begins March 8, and some light can begin to shine on those questions regarding the defensive line and the overall defensive alignment. In addition to garnering excitement for 2017, they can also shed some insights into the seasons to come.

Oh, and in case you are curious, Stanford will fly 7,434 miles to get to Sydney while Hawai’i will travel a mere 5,083 to get to Gillette Stadium.

Spring positions to watch for revelations: DL & WR

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If quarterback, rover and the early enrollees could be Notre Dame fans’ springtime Christmas thrills, what positions present as potential spots of coal?

Three former Irish players were invited to next week’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis: quarterback DeShone Kizer, defensive tackle Jarron Jones and defensive end Isaac Rochell. Losing two consistent defensive linemen leaves this year’s unit with some questions. Jones and Rochell combined for 100 tackles, 18 for loss and three sacks last season. Notre Dame’s returning defensive linemen combined to total 111 tackles and only 5.5 tackles for loss. To be clear, sacks are not included in that latter list because no returning defensive linemen recorded one. Among the returnees, junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37 tackles, three for loss) and senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26, 0.5) contributed solidly alongside the two NFL prospects.

This dearth of known and reliable linemen is a large part of why the potential transfer of Clemson graduate defensive tackle Scott Pagano is so intriguing. Pagano would immediately be a favorite to start, and if not that, at least rotate in heavily.

For now, though, Pagano remains a theoretical

By the end of spring practice, who already on campus will emerge alongside Tillery and Trumbetti in the Irish front? Senior ends Jay Hayes (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) and Jonathon Bonner (nine tackles) seem the most-likely candidates … aside from former four-star recruit and now rising sophomore Daelin Hayes. In his debut season, D. Hayes finished with 11 tackles.

Look for senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) to establish himself as Tillery’s immediate backup this spring, but that spot in the rotation will be up for competition all over again once four-star tackle Darnell Ewell (Lake Taylor High School; Norfolk, Va.) arrives on campus in the fall. His size and quickness should play right into new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s system.

Equanimeous and Who?
Not only did Notre Dame bring in a graduate transfer at receiver in former Michigan wideout Freddy Canteen, but it has also already received the commitments of two four-star receivers in the 2018 recruiting class. The continued emphasis on the position reflects the lack of bona fide game-breakers currently on the roster.

Junior Equanimeous St. Brown established himself as the top Irish threat in 2016, and he should shine only further with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush targeting him. Classmates often amplify each other’s success, simply due to the added shared reps innate to joining practice at the same time. With Torii Hunter, Jr., now pursuing a professional baseball career, who will prevent the secondary from focusing all its energies on St. Brown?

Canteen will not be with Notre Dame in the spring, as he does not graduate from Michigan until April. That will give a clear shot for the likes of juniors Chris Finke, C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin, and sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool to establish themselves. Did that say “clear” shot? It should probably read, “a chance to separate from the crowd.”

If a genuine threat does not line up opposite St. Brown, his explosiveness will likely be greatly reduced by focused defensive scheming. Wimbush will need another target before 2018.

Of course, here is where one should acknowledge the millennia-tested fact: Coal under pressure becomes diamonds.

2016 Notre Dame’s win expectancy was 7.2
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Johnson named the Irish as his team most likely to dramatically improve its record in 2017. Johnson’s thinking is based, at least in part, on Notre Dame’s second-order win total having been 7.2 in 2016, compared to the four wins the Irish actually walked away with. That discrepancy was the largest in the country.

Second-order win totals reflect how many points a team should have scored and allowed based on offensive and defensive stats. In theory, this shines a light on how luck and chance factored into results. Naturally, losing seven games by one possession will often be reflected by a higher second-order win total.

“Notre Dame’s win-loss record belied a solid, if imperfect, squad that just couldn’t pull out close games…” Johnson writes. “The Irish may not get back into College Football Playoff contention in 2017, but they’re bound to post a few more Ws because of reversion to the mean.”

Admittedly, the small sample size of a football season reduces the applicability of metrics such as second- and third-order wins when compared to baseball and basketball.

Jones becomes Mack
A quick piece of housekeeping: Apparently junior tight end Alizé Jones has changed his name to Alizé Mack.

While Notre Dame’s roster may not reflect that change yet, it is reasonable to expect it will after its next update. The football program has consistently respected the intricacies of players’ name preferences. Tai-ler Jones becoming TJ Jones jumps to mind, for example.

Anyways, hopefully noting Mack’s name change here might reduce some confusion down the line. Probably not. How many readers possibly read to the actual bottom of an article? But hey, in good faith.