Keith Arnold

William Fuller, Julian Whigham, Durell Eskridge

Mailbag: Special teams, depth, dark clouds and more

41 Comments

Let’s get the rest of the mailbag finished off so we can concentrate on game week. (Feels really good to type that sentence.) Thanks again for some great questions.

 

jommy995: Punt returns. Fixed for good?

Not sure, but you’ve gotta like Notre Dame’s chances if Will Fuller is back there.

It’s worth pointing out that the Irish had their best punt returning season since Golden Tate’s 2009 year, and the Irish led the FBS in blocked kicks. So all that hammering on the Notre Dame special teams isn’t necessarily an updated opinion.

(Also, just a PSA, even though I’m not sure this group needs it. Everybody realizes the rules in college are different than the rules in the NFL on punts, right? It’s much harder to break returns in the CFB than the NFL because of coverage rules. Back to the program…)

With Fuller, Notre Dame has a really dynamic option. And if they choose to go in another direction—even walk-on Chris Finke, as Kelly mentioned earlier in camp—it’ll be a long way from the days of John Goodman giving the one-armed salute before fair catching another one.

 

@jekyllandhyde12: Our recruiting class is not as highly ranked (lots of three stars) this year. Is Alford’s move the main reason for the slip?

Notre Dame’s recruiting efforts needed a reboot when the Irish needed to replace not just Tony Alford, but also quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur (who was recruiting California) and Bob Elliott, who was essentially replaced by Keith Gilmore. Add to that the turnover behind the scenes, with the Irish losing some key help in the recruiting office, and there was definitely some time lost to get situated.

Mike Elston, Notre Dame’s new recruiting coordinator, is doing his best to make up for lost time. And the good news? The Irish are, with offers—especially in the 2017 class—coming fast and furious, and on-campus visits and interest to match.

But I want to challenge your “lots of three stars” comment there, Doc. Because Notre Dame has made an absolute killing recruiting under-the-radar guys under Brian Kelly and this staff believes in its ability to recruit players and stick with their convictions, not worry about a star-rating next to their name.

This year’s class is going to be on the smaller side. It’s also one that’ll be position specific, looking to fill holes at certain spots. But looking at last year’s class, a group that Irish fans thought was just okay, this group looks much, much better than that.

And of course, one last important statement: There’s a lot of time between now and February.

 

ncdomer: With a full roster, why are we still perilously thin and inexperienced at key positions like QB, RB, and S?

c4evr: why, after 5 years, are the Irish still one injury away from disaster at a number of positions?

Ah, I love you guys.

While I don’t feel like we need to go through every transfer or injury to get everybody up to speed, needless to say the quarterback issues have been well covered and Greg Bryant’s transfer has earned more headlines than anything he’s done on the field thus far.

But this football team is one of the deepest in college football and certainly the deepest of the last 15-20 years in South Bend. So if that’s “perilously thin” or “one injury away from disaster,” well that’s just college football.

Nobody follows every team like the one they like the most, but have you checked out what’s going on at Alabama with their quarterbacks? Or how about Stanford, often applauded as one of the elite defensive stockpiles on the West Coast? It might as well be a line change in hockey.

In an era of 85 scholarships, free fifth-year transfers and at a school where the academics ain’t exactly a walk in the park, there’s going to be attrition. But Notre Dame has approximately 83 planned scholarships out there, and however you want to split those up, sometimes it’s going to get a little thin.

 

@mejanaf: What is your biggest concern on this team that could derail the Irish from reaching their goal?

Injuries.

Secondarily, I’d have to say special teams (kicker and punter are first-time performers) and then (very far behind that) Malik Zaire and his inexperience.

 

irishdodger: Based on all the comments by BK & media on current team, is there any excuses for this team to not at least win ten regular season games?

I’ll give you four really good excuses:

Georgia Tech
at Clemson
USC
at Stanford.

So if the baseline is 10 regular season wins, that’s a pretty steep baseline. That said, in an earlier question someone asked what the O/U for wins this year should be. I’d say 10.5.

I just don’t like the “excuse” word, I think that’s too disrespectful to the schedule. But I have high expectations for this team.

 

alsatiannd: KA: Rooting for or against Golson this year? Or, if he’s not Irish, who cares?

Oddly apathetic. For Everett’s sake, I hope the kid at least wins the starting job, otherwise the decision is a complete miscalculation and will really hurt his professional propsects. I also hope his offensive line is better than the nine total returning starts that’s currently projected, because that could be an absolute nightmare, too.

 

whodabigdog: I was lucky enough to get tickets for Fenway and was wondering if you are going? It would be fun to get together for a Samuel Adams or 12. I’m sure we can find a dive like the Boat Club.

I’m still TBD for the second-half of the season, but that Fenway game should be awesome (as long as the weather moderately cooperates). As for a Sam Adams? Twist my arm.

And yes, The Boat Club? If there’s an establishment that’s as disgusting as that place in Boston, I can’t help but think I should at least check it out. Do they serve all-you-can drink light beer for six dollars?

 

@maximumham: odds ND ends undefeated?

Every year, I spend all of August thinking about how Notre Dame can pull that off. So far, my conclusions have been correct just once.

I have no idea what the odds are. But I do think you’ve got to approach it in an incremental process. So let’s see them beat Texas. And then Virginia. And win a dog-fight with Georgia Tech, the scariest game on the schedule in my opinion.

I used to say, “Talk to me in October.” But I certainly think this team has the best shot of any that I’ve covered/watched.

 

Mailbag: Kizer’s chances, the D’s experience and play-calling

Purdue v Notre Dame
22 Comments

There are a ton of good questions to get to so this will roll out in multiple parts. Many thanks for the thoughtful work. (And some nice examples of brevity.)

First, let’s take a look at everybody’s favorite player on a football team: The backup quarterback.

 

finishthefight1986: Do you think it will be worthwhile to provide Kizer with intermittent opportunities this year considering, as you have mentioned in another write-up, Zaire has issues with the intermediate routes?

bettis646: Will Kizer get meaningful reps in blowouts? By meaningful I don’t mean hand the dang ball to a running back until the clock expires.

This is a good question, and I wonder how Kelly will look at it. Yes, I think it’s important to get Kizer experience. Though not because Zaire sometimes struggles with intermediate routes. Establishing your backup quarterback on your terms is always better than on somebody else’s.

But last year, we talked about the same thing, and it’s pretty clear that Brian Kelly thought the game reps were better served in Golson’s hands, especially after a year away from the team. I’ve got to think he’ll view his time with Zaire the same way.

If Notre Dame is legitimately blowing someone out in the first six or seven weeks of the season, that’s a very good thing. So if that means a handful of snaps for Kizer, great. I’m all for it, and was on the record saying I thought Zaire should’ve gotten a series in the first half against Rice.

Worth noting — I actually think it’s helpful that Kizer is the holder this year. He gets a chance to get on the field and handle the football in pressure situations. No, it’s not quarterbacking. But it’s better than nothing.

 

liv4nd: All those injuries to the defense last year cost us 4 out of the 5 losses. Could 2014 be a blessing in disguise? Now we are set up with upperclassmen that are healthy and sophomores behind them with REAL experience. Thoughts?

This is certainly the way an optimist would view things, and I think it’s probably better to have played football than to have not played. But it’s interesting, someone posed a question like this to Mike Elston on Media Day, and he didn’t necessarily think that the guys who were out there got a ton out of being out there and getting handled.

I received a Twitter question from @01Dhish asking about Greer Martini and Nyles Morgan that essentially was the same thing, and those are the two players that Elston referenced when discussing the “is all experience good experience?” question. And both of those guys look at the film from last year like they’re looking at some embarrassing home video.

(For the record, I think —as does Elston—that both of those guys will be key players for the Irish in the future. In 2015? More likely to be complementary parts.)

I think the fact that Notre Dame has depth at multiple levels of the defense is a good thing. I also think that when someone goes down that the person behind them at least has a concept of what the Irish are trying to do on defense is a good thing, too. That hasn’t always been the case and the experience gained in November can’t hurt.

 

4horsemenrideagain: Why is BK being cagey about who will be calling the plays? Sre we to believe that BK still doesn’t know the answer to this question, and if BK really doesn’t know, isn’t this sort of scary at this late date?

I don’t think he’s really being all that cagey. I think he’s calling the plays, and he’s open to changing that decision down the line if he thinks it’ll help.

Kelly revealed that Mike Sanford will be upstairs, and I actually think that makes a ton of sense. Kelly has and will continue to be the QB coach on game day. So it’s not realistic to think that Sanford is going to be chatting it up with Zaire when the head coach has been doing that from day one.

I also think it’s really helpful from a schematic perspective to have Sanford upstairs. He’s is a great offensive thinker and he’ll have a direct line to Kelly about what he sees and what things look like from up top.

Lastly, I think most of us put too much emphasis on who calls the play. I think the process of scripting a game plan is far more important than who calls the play on Saturday. When the game plan is developed, all three guys will have a strong say in “setting the menu,” essentially putting calls onto the playsheet that they think will work best against that opponent.

Yesterday, Montana’s Bob Stitt got his first true close-up when the general college football world saw his Montana team beat four-time defending FCS national champ North Dakota State. For all the talk of “genius,” Stitt went for it—and failed—three times on 4th down, including one last in the first half that put points on the board for NDSU. He also ran a few jet sweeps in short yardage situations (among some other crazy play calls) that would’ve had Notre Dame fans losing their minds.

#Still happened. And weirdly enough, it looks a lot like how Brian Kelly calls a game.

Last looks: Tight ends

South Bend Tribune
32 Comments

After a long line of starters with plenty of experience, Notre Dame’s tight ends all but start over in 2015. Scott Booker’s position group comes in with all sorts of intriguing traits. Unfortunately, none of those are experience.

The closest to filling that role is junior Durham Smythe. Serving as the No. 2 tight end in an offense that didn’t often use one, Smythe made just one catch last season while Ben Koyack led the offense in snaps played.

But a lack of experience isn’t to say the position group isn’t talented. Whether it’s freshman phenom Alizé Jones, Nic Weishar off his redshirt, bowling ball Tyler Luatua or fifth-year converted defensive lineman Chase Hounshell, the ability to mix and match is certainly there if nobody takes hold of the job.

Let’s take our last looks at an intriguing piece of the offense.

 

TIGHT ENDS
Position Coach: Scott Booker

 

DEPTH CHART

TE1: Durham Smythe, Jr.*
TE2: Tyler Luatua, Soph.
TE3: Alizé Jones, Fr.
TE4: Nic Weishar, Soph.*
TE5: Chase Hounshell, Grad Student*

*Denotes additional year of eligibility

 

LEADING MAN

Alizé Jones. Yes, I realize I have him listed as third on the depth chart. But when you look at this position group, there are a lot of intriguing supporting pieces and only one guy who feels like a star in the making. So while Jones is going to have to learn how to block, get a better feel for the system and become a complete tight end before he can truly ascend to this spot, he’s the guy who will eventually be the next great Notre Dame tight end.

 

NEED A BIG SEASON

Durham Smythe Tyler Luatua. I list both of these guys because I think they both have a chance to do very important things for this offense. In Smythe, the Irish have probably the closest thing to a two-way tight end as there is on the roster. He’s the veteran of the group and should have the best knowledge of the system. But after thinking he was ready to make an impact in 2014, Smythe caught just one pass. After being banged up a bit during camp, Smythe didn’t get off to the quickest start, but hopefully he’ll be ready come Texas.

In Luatua, the Irish have a blocker who could be a physical force. He’s also capable of rumbling for some yardage if he’s out in the flat as Malik Zaire’s safety valve. At 255 pounds, he’s a physical presence who can attach to the offensive line or play—gasp!—fullback.

 

THREE BIGGEST FACTORS…

Can anybody establish a rhythm? Brian Kelly mentioned a mix-and-match approach to the position, a logical choice with this type of personnel. But often times the Irish offense gets predictable when they utilize certain players in certain formations, and that feels like almost an inevitability for the tight ends. (Not that I expect to see Jones next to the left tackle on 3rd and 1, but still.)

But beyond giving the defense a tell, it might also hinder someone from breaking out. If that’s Smythe, great. If it’s Jones, wonderful. It could also be Nic Weishar, who has had an excellent camp. When the offense tried to juggle four running backs, you couldn’t help but feel like they lost something. That’s the big worry at a position this deep, too.

 

Can this offense utilize two tight end sets? As a power running team, putting two tight ends on the field could be a formation that really helps power the offense. But as we worry about finding some experience in this group, is it too much to ask to find two guys who can play?

Grad student Chase Hounshell is miraculously still a part of the football program, and might be Notre Dame’s best attached blocker. After using two tight ends against LSU, can this position group develop two fast enough?

 

Who can Brian Kelly trust? There might be all the skill in the world in true freshman Alizé Jones, but if Kelly can’t trust him to do his job, it’ll be hard for him to play. Same with any of the young players in this position group. Last year, Koyack took all the snaps, even if he was limited in space and not the best blocker. But he knew what he was doing and Kelly relied on that experience in the offense. Developing that trust will be key for whoever steps forward.

 

RANDOM THOUGHTS

Can Nic Weishar look as good on the field as he does in practice? When Jones and Smythe were out Weishar put on a show, a difficult receiver to cover, especially in the red zone. Will that translate to the playing field and can the Chicagoland native get into the mix and be a dangerous part of the passing attack?

 

Will Chase Hounshell really find his home at tight end? When you looked at fifth-year senior candidates, heading into spring Hounshell was at the bottom of the list. But give credit to the hard-luck Ohio native who willed his way back onto the team and reinvented himself as a block-first tight end. It’d be quite a miraculous finish to his Notre Dame career if he was able to contribute this season—and that’s without considering he’ll likely be eligible for a sixth year.

 

Are there enough footballs for the tight ends? Everybody expects the running game to play a bigger role this season. Notre Dame’s receiving corps is as deep and talented as it’s ever been. Assuming guys like Smythe, Weishar and Jones have the skills to get involved in the passing game, how exactly are they going to find footballs for them?

 

Brian Kelly on Dan Patrick Show

TheDanPatrickShow
19 Comments

Brian Kelly was on the Dan Patrick Show this morning and the Irish head coach got his last weekend without a game started by chatting it up with the popular radio host. While Kelly didn’t make any headlines in the interview, he did conduct it from his desk with a Showtime crew hanging a boom mic over his head, part of life with a documentary film crew following him around.

Here’s the segment of Kelly, where he and DP discuss Deflategate, the evergreen question of joining a conference and quarterback Malik Zaire.

Last looks: Offensive line

Purdue v Notre Dame
6 Comments

Just about everybody expects Harry Hiestand’s offensive line to be a dominant unit. But after months of preseason hype, they now need to prove they can do it.

On paper, the Irish look to have their strongest and deepest offensive line since Lou Holtz stacked the deck. With a first-round left tackle in Ronnie Stanley, one of the country’s best centers in captain Nick Martin, the mix of experience and elite recruiting should help power the Irish offense to new heights, even with a first-year starter at quarterback.

Before we turn our attention to Texas, let’s take a last look at what we can expect from the offensive line.

 

OFFENSIVE LINE
Position Coach: Harry Hiestand

 

PROJECTED DEPTH CHART

LT: Ronnie Stanley, Sr.*
LG: Quenton Nelson, Soph.*
C: Nick Martin, GS
RG: Steve Elmer, Jr.
RT: Mike McGlinchey, Jr.*

LT: Hunter Bivin, Jr.*
LG: Alex Bars, Soph*
C: Sam Mustipher, Soph.*
RG: John Montelus, Jr.*
RT: Mark Harrell, Sr.*

Additional Depth:

Colin McGovern, Jr.*
Jimmy Byrne, Soph.*
Tristen Hoge, Fr.
Trevor Ruhland, Fr.

*Denotes additional year of eligibility available. 

 

LEADING MEN

Ronnie Stanley Nick Martin. Stanley has a chance to be Notre Dame’s first top ten pick in over 20 years. So while some are wondering if the captain snub is still stinging, there are bigger prizes out there for Notre Dame’s left tackle. Stanley needs to dominate from Day One, soon to find out that your draft stock looks much better when you come from off the radar than when you start a season with a bullseye on your back.

As for Martin, we’re still waiting to see what he looks like completely healthy. And if Martin is indeed beyond the knee and thumb issues that plagued him last season, he can anchor the point of attack, making the interior of the offensive line a great asset for the Irish.

 

NEED A BIG SEASON

Steve Elmer & Mike McGlinchey. There hasn’t been a better looking right side of the Irish offensive line in a long, long time. Both Elmer and McGlinchey are prototype NFL players, each possessing sky high upsides and the ability to both maul and out-athletic defensive linemen.

Now they’ve got to do it. Both have a tendency to get their bodies out of position, with Elmer taking some ugly snaps last year and McGlinchey learning on the fly what the right tackle position is all about. But after a few seasons of the Irish running most of their ground game behind Zack Martin and Chris Watt, if Elmer and McGlinchey can hold their own, balance will return (and maybe even shift) with a strong right side.

 

THREE BIGGEST FACTORS…

Can this group dominate in the ground game? We saw a nice performance against the SEC’s best statistical defense in the bowl game. But too often over the years has Notre Dame’s rushing attack been plain pedestrian. Blame some of that on Brian Kelly. But blame some of it on an offensive line too comfortable kicking back into their pass blocking stances.

There’s no room for a slow start, with things only kicking into gear in November. Nor the schizophrenic performances, where the ground game will be just shut down some Saturdays. This unit has known its positions and depth chart since spring. Now they need to start September fast and go out and dictate terms.

 

Can they deal with blitz pressure and pick up the slack for Malik Zaire? Notre Dame’s offensive line took a big step backwards in pass protection last year, with the number of sacks allowed ballooning after Everett Golson returned and Tommy Rees graduated. That’s not because Rees is a better scrambler than Golson (obviously), but rather because Rees helped get the line into the right calls when pressure was set to come.

Zaire is seeing things for the first time in 2015, and while he’s a better runner and scrambler than Golson, he’s not going to be able to run through blown blitz assignments, nor make the right call every time, especially when he’s seeing things for the first time. So if opponents stack the box and try to confuse a young quarterback (not a bad strategy), it’s up to a veteran offensive line to ID the situation, make sure they’re on the same page with Zaire, and get the offense in a position to succeed.

If opponents bring pressure and this line can pick it up, the passing game is primed to make some very big plays down field. But they’ve got to be on the same page with the quarterback.

 

Who is the next tackle in? Notre Dame’s depth on the interior of the offensive line looks stout. But I’m less bullish on the tackles behind Stanley and McGlinchey. While he’ll likely be listed as a co-starter with Quenton Nelson at left guard when the official depth chart is released next Tuesday, Alex Bars is probably the next man in at both tackle spots and potentially both guard spots as well.

Getting improvement out of Hunter Bivin and Mark Harrell this fall camp was critical, but in reality, that depth chart you see up top? Throw it out. Hiestand needs to develop someone else capable of playing on the edge, comfortable enough to block in space and take on edge rushers. Who that’ll be after Bars remains to be seen.

 

THREE RANDOM THOUGHTS

How will Quenton Nelson do? The Irish’s first-year starter is sandwiched between elite players, but he’s playing a very important guard position on this offensive line. Your offensive line is only as good as your weakest link, so it’s up to Nelson to prove it won’t be him. (It certainly won’t be him from a strength perspective.)

 

Does it matter that Zaire’s a lefty and his blind side is protected by McGlinchey, not Stanley? I’m not sure that it does, nor am I sure that it’s necessary for Stanley and McGlinchey to switch sides so the more traditional pass protector is watching Zaire’s back.

But, if you were to ask me to guess a potential shift, this is the one I’m leaning towards, especially since Stanley started his career at right tackle and McGlinchey is still learning how to use that gigantic body of his for good not evil (in OL terms, not superhero terms).

 

Will the aggressive attitude continue? In the Music City Bowl, this offensive line looked like a transformed unit, finally playing like the aggressor. Can that continue, especially with Zaire the new face of the offense?

Too often this offense got soft in critical situations—short yardage, red zone, punch-it-in-and-go-for-it opportunities. That’s not Zaire’s M.O. It’s also not what we expect from this starting five. It’s still too early to figure out who the dominant defenses are that Notre Dame will face. But we’ll get a nice litmus test against Charlie Strong’s Texas D next weekend.