Javon McKinley

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Kelly discusses “grit,” injury updates and OL options

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The new offensive and defensive coordinators received more of this winter’s headlines than Notre Dame’s new director of strength and conditioning, but Matt Balis received the brunt of Irish coach Brian Kelly’s praise Tuesday.

“Anytime that you go into the offseason and you make a number of changes, what influences your team the most is your strength and conditioning,” Kelly said in his spring practice preview press conference. “We have a whole new staff of five in there that are influencing our guys over the last eight weeks. I think they’ve done a great job.”

In years past, Kelly may have issued similar compliments regarding Balis’s predecessor, Paul Longo, but Kelly would have been basing the sentiments off Longo’s past and second-hand reports. This year, Kelly began attending the early a.m. workouts in person after exit interviews with individual players after last season indicated his presence would be preferred.

“It allows me to clearly spend and develop a deeper relationship with all of the players, not just offensive players, but all players,” Kelly said. “Secondly, a better understanding of who needs certain time with me at certain times of the day. I’m able to touch so many more players in the program by being accessible to them in that fashion.

Kelly intends to employ similar tactics in this spring’s 15 practices. New offensive coordinator Chip Long will have control of the offense, while Kelly instead works with each and every position group. Rather than become consumed by the intricacies of the offensive game-planning or the fundraising for the Campus Crossroads project, Kelly will focus on the intangible aspects needed for a successful 2017 rebound.

“I was not focused on the traits that I needed to build in this football team,” he said. “I’m not worried about that anymore. I’m going to let other people take care of that.”

The spring practices will focus on those traits, such as attention to detail, laser focus and grit, per Kelly.

“To answer a million questions about depth chart, competition is very important,” he said, preempting about half a dozen primed questions. “There is a winner and there is a loser in everything that we do. We clearly understand that, but I’m less interested in those things and more interested in continuing the process and developing those traits within our football team.”

Quarterback Distribution
Junior Brandon Wimbush will get the majority of practice reps, and Kelly expects those will help grow Wimbush’s confidence.

“If he goes out and throws an interception, he doesn’t have to hang his head,” Kelly said. “He does so many good things that he can have confidence that he’s going to be successful, because what we’re looking for is not perfection from these guys. It’s excellence.”

Sophomore Ian Book will receive about 40 percent of the spring practice reps, Kelly said.

Offensive Line Candidates
Though Kelly stuck true to his opening comments and did not delve into any position’s depth chart, he did acknowledge the uncertainty on the right side of the offensive line, a “competitive situation.” Specifically, Kelly cast a wide net by mentioning five names in the mix for those starting positions: graduate student Hunter Bivin, senior Jimmy Byrne, junior Tristen Hoge and sophomores Liam Eichenberg and Tommy Kraemer.

“I think it will kind of take care of itself,” Kelly said. “We know who the guys are on the left side, and I think [senior center] Sam [Mustipher] has had a really good eight weeks, as well. There are four or five guys that get an opportunity now to get in there and compete right away.”

The known “guys on the left side” would be graduate student tackle Mike McGlinchey and senior guard Quenton Nelson.

Injury Report
Kelly addressed three injuries lingering from last season, all with much optimism. Junior Shaun Crawford’s recovery from a September Achilles tear has gone much quicker than would have been expected.

“He’s jumping, has change of direction. You’re going to see him extremely active in the spring,” Kelly said. “I don’t see him in a contact position at this time, but he won’t be cheated this spring. He’s really going to use spring as an opportunity for him to continue to grow as a football player.”

Notre Dame has depth, though unproven, at cornerback, and it will be only bolstered by Crawford’s progress. Senior Nick Watkins and sophomores Julian Love, Troy Pride and Donte Vaughn all will compete for playing time on the edge. The spring roster released Tuesday indicates juniors Ashton White and Nick Coleman have indeed both moved to safety.

Sophomore receiver Javon McKinley is also ahead of the expected rehab schedule after breaking his leg in a late-October practice. Kelly indicated he would also partake in a limited capacity during spring practice.

Senior defensive lineman Daniel Cage has been cleared to practice following concussion issues hampered him in 2016.

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

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.

Michigan WR Canteen announces transfer to Notre Dame

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When Notre Dame and Michigan meet to kick off the 2018 season, receiver Freddy Canteen will be lined up opposite a uniform he used to wear. The former Wolverine receiver announced a graduate transfer commitment to Notre Dame on Saturday evening. Canteen will have two years of eligibility remaining once he graduates from Michigan this spring.

A former rivals.com four-star recruit, Canteen enrolled early at Michigan in the spring of 2014, furthering his ability to now graduate early. He caught five receptions over six games his freshman year before a shoulder injury early his sophomore season ended his Michigan career. Canteen told Irish Illustrated he could have returned to the field for the Wolverines in 2016, but opted to instead preserve a year of playing eligibility.

“Really, I’m just looking for a program where I can display my talents best,” Canteen said. “I’m graduating from Michigan in three years. Why not pursue a master’s at a school as prestigious as Notre Dame?”

Canteen will bolster depth at a position headlined by juniors Equanimeous St. Brown and C.J. Sanders. Though Canteen would not likely project in St. Brown’s place, he could possibly challenge Sanders in the slot or sophomores Kevin Stepherson and Javon McKinley out wide.

He could also, theoretically, flip to defense where Notre Dame needs help at defensive back. At 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds, Canteen’s skill set could translate to the position without much lapse.

“Ask anybody about me, I bring speed to the game,” he said.

In his 2014 recruitment, Canteen chose Michigan over offers from Maryland and Tennessee, among others.

After losing rising senior receiver Justin Brent to a transfer in January, Notre Dame added two receiver recruits on National Signing Day, Michael Young and Jafar Armstrong. Later that day, Irish coach Brian Kelly said Notre Dame set aside a scholarship with hopes of bringing in a graduate transfer. Presumably, Kelly was referring to Canteen and Notre Dame now has a full roster of 85 scholarship players.

With two years of eligibility remaining—rather than the typical one of a graduate transfer—Canteen will alter the approach to next year’s recruiting. Notre Dame’s class of 2018 was already likely to be a smaller group than usual.

Brent’s transfer makes sense for both sides

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Justin Brent’s pending transfer makes sense on the surface if for no other reason than his complete lack of game action in the last two seasons. A slightly-deeper look, however, explains the move even further.

The rising senior running back had no logical path to playing time at Notre Dame given the performances of some of his peers. Both in the backfield and at receiver, younger players shined this past season while Brent rode the bench.

RUNNING BACKS

– It may have taken four games for rising junior Josh Adams to find the end zone, but he finished the season with 933 yards on 158 rushing attempts, carrying the ball at least eight times in all 12 games. Most notably, Adams finished the season with 350 yards and three rushing touchdowns over the last three weeks. That strong close shows Adams was not worn down in his second season of consistent use (2015: 13 games, 117 carries, 869 rushing yards, six touchdowns) and can be expected to provide the same bellwether output next season.

– Adams’s classmate, Dexter Williams, has not had the same success, but he did provide some relief throughout the season – most notably against Nevada (eight carries for 59 yards) and Syracuse (eight for 80 and a score) – on his way to 212 yards and three touchdowns on 39 carries.

Between Adams and Williams, combined with NFL-bound Tarean Folston’s steady output and quarterback DeShone Kizer’s mobility in the past and the possibility of Brandon Wimbush’s in the future, there were not carries for Brent to showcase his potential. This is before even factoring in rising sophomores Deon McIntosh and Tony Jones, both of whom preserved a year of eligibility in 2016, or any incoming recruits.

WIDE RECEIVERS

– Rising junior Equanimeous St. Brown proved worthy of learning to spell his first name in 2016, catching 58 passes for 961 yards and nine scores, but St. Brown looks to be far from alone in the receiving corps moving forward. Classmates C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin each found the end zone this past season, despite competing with senior Torii Hunter, Jr., for both snaps and targets. Sanders finished with 24 receptions for 293 yards and two touchdowns while Boykin caught six passes for 81 yards and a score.

– Rising sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Chris Finke and Chase Claypool add to the depth at the position. Stepherson scored on an even 20 percent of his 25 receptions for 462 yards. On a personal note, he did not actually reach the end zone on his 53-yard catch-and-dash against Miami, but I will still never forget that particular play because the accompanying roar convinced my nine-year-old niece it was well past time to leave Notre Dame Stadium to watch the game on a television where the noise would not be so surprising.

Finke chipped in 10 catches for 122 yards and two scores, and Claypool caught five passes for 81 yards.

– Again, this listing does not account for players such as rising sophomore Javon McKinley who saw action in seven games but has not yet contributed to the passing game or any incoming recruits. (We’ll get to the recruits later in the week, and even more so next week when, you know, they have signed.)

It should also be noted: Brent enrolled early at Notre Dame, and thus, he has already completed six academic semesters, not to mention time spent in class each summer as is typical of most, if not all, of the football roster. If he does indeed graduate from the University this spring, he will be eligible to play elsewhere immediately thanks to the NCAA’s stance on graduate student transfers. More than that, though, he will have two years of eligibility remaining.

Admittedly, such a confluence is rare and certainly adds reasoning to Brent’s maneuver, whether it result in him playing at UCLA, Miami, Arizona State, Indiana, Purdue or Ohio State, as he indicated to the South Bend Tribune were his top choices. Notre Dame does face Miami on Nov. 11.

Lament Brent’s decision if you must, but it was a logical decision by him, and Notre Dame’s shortcomings last season were rarely where Brent would have aided. Nor will the Irish appear to be wanting in those spots in 2017.