Keith Arnold

Notre Dame v Syracuse

Greg Bryant suspension tests offensive depth chart

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News broke Monday morning that running back Greg Bryant will be suspended for the first four games of the season. As first-reported by Irish 247, Bryant will miss a quarter of the regular season based on the dreaded-and-ambiguous “violation of team rules,” thinning a running back depth chart that was already down to just Bryant, returning starter Tarean Folston and converted wide receiver C.J. Prosise.

Incoming freshmen Dexter Williams and Josh Adams will have a chance to pick up the slack. Playing true freshman running backs isn’t necessarily a Plan A, but far from a crisis situation. Adams is over a year recovered from an ACL injury and Williams comes to South Bend with high expectations, so they’ll have an additional hop in their step during summer workouts with a job opening up for grabs.

Bryant’s absence also puts the spotlight on the slot receiver position. Earlier this summer, head coach Brian Kelly dropped the nugget that Prosise was nearing 230 pounds, not exactly the size you expect from a slot receiver. That kind of bulk points at more than just moonlighting at running back, meaning fifth-year senior Amir Carlisle will be taking the reins as the starting Z receiver.

But behind him remains a mystery. Torii Hunter Jr. has yet to emerge, though the coaching staff speaks highly of his talent and playmaking abilities. The door could also open for some talented freshmen, with C.J. Sanders as close to the slot receiver prototype as you could ask for. There’s also rising sophomore Corey Holmes, who flashed some nice ball skills during spring ball after making only two appearances early in the 2014 season.

(Crazy thought: But pairing Sanders with flex-tight end Alizé Jones could give the Irish a similar look to when they utilized both Troy Niklas and Tyler Eifert as slot receivers — going jumbo with an offense that already plans on running the ball downhill.)

Of course, the suspension plays most heavily on the shoulders of Bryant. The former five-star recruit faces another bump in the road—this one self-imposed—after seemingly turning himself into a model student-athlete and leader on the team.

Transferring is not an option. Per Irish Illustrated‘s Pete Sampson, Bryant will be going nowhere, with Greg Bryant Sr. telling Sampson that his son remains involved in summer school and team workouts.

“That’s not even in the equation,” Bryant Sr. told Irish Illustrated. “We’ve been through that already when he was a freshman. That wouldn’t be in his thoughts and if it was, it would have to go through me.”

While the headline likely shook Irish fans this morning, the reality of the situation is far from dire. There are certainly high expectations for Bryant (both from the staff and the coaching staff), but take away the five-star pedigree that Bryant arrived with, and this is a back who’s struggling to stay in the two-deep, hardly cause for a four-alarm fire drill in the dog days of summer.

There’s been no official statement from Notre Dame on the suspension, but multiple outlets are reporting the suspension. If the suspension stands, Bryant will miss games against Texas, Virginia, UMass and Georgia Tech, returning to face Clemson.

Irish A-to-Z: Jimmy Byrne

via Twitter
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Like the rest of his classmates along the offensive line, Jimmy Byrne spent 2014 learning the ropes and hitting the weight room. The Ohio native who chose the Irish over Urban Meyer’s Buckeyes begins 2015 in a similar spot to where he was last season, behind a depth chart of talented players.

But with his eligibility clock just beginning and some veteran depth about to graduate, Byrne’s time could be coming. But it’ll be up to him to make a move, especially with Harry Hiestand among the best recruiters in the country.

Let’s take a closer look at rising sophomore Jimmy Byrne.

 

JIMMY BYRNE
6’4″, 295 lbs.
Sophomore, No. 67, OL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Byrne shut it down early, committing to the Irish during the 2012 season though he didn’t sign until 2014. But he had already weighed an offer from hometown Ohio State, and had other options like Illinois and Michigan State.

Byrne’s a St. Ignatius product, a school that’s sent players to both South Bend and Columbus. As he has since he got here, Harry Hiestand took another good player from Meyer and offensive line coach Ed Warinner, bringing an interior player to Notre Dame.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Did not see action, preserved year of eligibility.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

I mentioned the idea of Byrne as a center last year and I’m going to do the same again this year. Because with Quenton Nelson looking like a guard in the future and Steve Elmer back on the inside, it’s still a crowded position.

It’s really going to be interesting see how the battle for Christian Lombard’s right guard job plays out after this season. Does the job go to a veteran like Conor Hanratty? Or a young riser like John Montelus? After not hearing a world from Colin McGovern, he impressed mightily during spring practice.

Take into consideration that Steve Elmer is a born tackle playing guard out of necessity and the shake out should be fascinating. There’s every reason to believe Byrne could play center if needed, and if he grows he could lengthen into being a tackle. With the depth Hiestand is building, getting on the field is a battle, and making your way into the starting lineup before becoming an upperclassman might not be easy.

Evaluating linemen on high school film isn’t a winning proposition, especially for a guy sitting at a laptop. But the data-points suggest Byrne has the ingredients to be a good one.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

That Nelson and Alex Bars will likely be splitting reps at left guard doesn’t really say much about Byrne’s talent—rather it says more abut how good that duo is. Kelly’s raved about both, and Bars just seems like too good of an offensive line prospect not to get onto the field, even if he’s a natural tackle.

But Byrne now enters that murky area where he’ll need to improve on the practice field to prove to Hiestand and Kelly that he’s ready to take reps when they matter—because the game day rotation is full. That alone could limit his upside, as he was running with the third string this spring, behind veterans who may or may not be in the program for five seasons.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Ultimately, makeup plays a big role in how an offensive lineman turns out. For every early contributor like Zack Martin or Steve Elmer, there’s a guy who finds his way into the lineup later in his career and thrives, a la Mike Golic. That’s the path Byrne is on—and frankly, that’s the more likely path for everybody on this offensive line, especially if Hiestand keeps cherrypicking elite talent.

Again, if I’m an offensive lineman at Notre Dame, I’m teaching myself to snap. Because after Nick Martin departs, it’ll be a wide open competition, with Sam Mustipher a converted center and Tristen Hoge the first true center the Irish have recruited under Kelly.

Byrne’s essentially the same guy that we were guessing on last year. He’s 10 pounds heavier, likely in a lot better shape, and still doing battle in one of the best depth charts we’ve seen along the offensive line in years.

 

THE 2015 IRISH A-to-Z
Josh Adams, RB
Josh Barajas, OLB
Nicky Baratti, S
Alex Bars, OL
Asmar Bilal, OLB
Hunter Bivin, OL
Grant Blankenship, DE
Jonathan Bonner, DE
Miles Boykin, WR
Justin Brent, WR
Greg Bryant, RB
Devin Butler, CB

Irish land top 2017 TE Brock Wright

Rivals.com
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Texas tight end Brock Wright has committed to Notre Dame, adding another elite recruit to the Irish tight end pipeline. Wright is a 2017 prospect who camped in South Bend last week for Irish Invasion.

The 6-foot-5, 245-pounder took to Twitter to make his commitment official, becoming the second member of the 2017 class, still 20 months from sending their letters-of-intent.

Wright is the top tight end prospect in the 2017 class, as close to an elite talent as there is for someone whose just completed their sophomore season in high school. He already had offers from Alabama, Michigan and several other big programs, with the Wolverines making him an early priority.

But Wright’s mind was made up from the moment he left campus last week, and he pulled the trigger on Friday afternoon.

“I kind of slept on it all week, thought about it and I don’t really want to wait any more,” Wright told Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson. “It’s where I want to be.”

Wright was one of a handful of elite 2017 prospects on campus last week. And if this tweet is any indication, he’s already zeroed in on a quarterback he hopes will join him in South Bend, Indiana blue-chipper Hunter Johnson.

***

 

Irish A-to-Z: Devin Butler

Purdue v Notre Dame
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With KeiVarae Russell suspended and Cody Riggs hurt, Devin Butler got his chance to be a starting cornerback. It wasn’t necessarily a positive experience.

Butler’s move to the starting lineup coincided with the implosion of an injury-riddled defense. And while it’s unfair to peg any of the major struggles on the sophomore cornerback doing his best, it also was hard to overlook opposing wide receivers getting behind Butler for big gains—especially in the Coliseum.

Battling with rising sophomore Nick Watkins this spring, Butler ended up behind the young cornerback on a depth chart that’ll feature KeiVarae Russell come August. So as Butler begins his third season in South Bend, the lanky defensive back needs to retool his game to stay in the mix.

Let’s take a closer look at the Washington, D.C. native.

 

DEVIN BUTLER
6’0.5″, 195 lbs.
Junior, No. 12, CB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Butler looked like a perfect fit in Bob Diaco’s Cover 2 scheme. And while his speed was in question—Rivals reported a 4.6 forty—his length and athleticism had a lot of good programs chasing after him.

Butler chose Notre Dame over Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska, Penn State and Wisconsin, joining an Irish secondary that needed to add bodies.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2013): Played in 12 games, missing only Purdue. Made five tackles and broke up a pass against Pitt. Also appeared on special teams.

Sophomore Season (2014): Played in all 13 games, starting against Arizona State and USC. He made 23 tackles—seven against USC alone—forced a fumbled in the season opener and made an interception a week later against Purdue.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Pretty spot on. And even KeiVarae Russell’s absence didn’t move him in front of Cole Luke or Cody Riggs.

It’s hard to see Butler moving into the starting lineup until KeiVarae Russell is gone. That could be after 2014, if we’re to believe that Russell is ready to be the elite defender some think he already is. (I tend to think the truth is somewhere in the middle with Russell, who is coming off a great game against Rutgers but still has game tape where Jeremy Gallon’s cleat marks are up and down his back.)

How good is Butler? We will see as the youth and talent continues to accumulate on this roster. Right now, he’s behind Cole Luke and Cody Riggs. But there’s a place for him now in sub-packages and you can never have enough healthy corners, and Butler’s going to use this summer to make up for lost time this spring.

With Butler’s length, he gives Brian VanGorder a traditional cornerback prospect. That never goes out of style and for that reason alone he’s the type of athletic, long cover man that all football teams covet.

Butler’s length didn’t necessarily help him in the man-coverage heavy schemes the Irish were playing. They weren’t necessarily easy matchups (the big plays he gave up were mostly against NFL talent), but the secondary struggled against Arizona State and USC, and Butler was among the victims.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

At this point, I think Butler is a situational player. He’s likely got some positional flexibility between safety and cornerback, but it’ll take injuries to get him on the field and a wave of young talent is looking to pass him on the depth chart.

I liked Butler’s knack for making plays early on—he was a productive guy in niche roles and actually made a ton of tackles when the depleted Irish defense needed it. But a Cover 2 corner who gives up the underneath balls can’t get beat over the top. And as a sophomore Butler did too much of that down the stretch.

He’ll get a fresh start learning under Todd Lyght. But with young guys like Nick Coleman and Shaun Crawford already on campus, Butler needs to elevate his game or he’ll be a full-time special teamer.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I see a lot of special teams in Butler’s future. He is a good tackler and has the type of stretch speed that’s needed on cover teams. It’s also not fair to write him off as a cornerback, plenty of young backups get beaten deep by talented players.

But Butler needs to take a step forward mentally, especially if he’s unable to run stride for stride with top-end wide receivers. You can’t teach his length and the Irish could use a long cornerback, especially after Russell leaves for the NFL after 2015.

There’s been talk of mixing Butler into the safety mix. And while the secondary doesn’t have many free safety types, I’d have to see more from Butler to project him being able to make it into the mix, though there seem to be a lot of strong safety types, and that’s not Butler’s game.

As we look at the evolution of Notre Dame’s secondary, seniors like Jalen Brown and Josh Atkinson became forgotten men, playing out their eligibility mostly as practice players. I think Butler’s going to be much more productive than that, though he’ll need to continue refining his game to keep up with top-flight starters in Russell and Cole Luke and the young kids recruited by VanGorder.

 

THE 2015 IRISH A-to-Z
Josh Adams, RB
Josh Barajas, OLB
Nicky Baratti, S
Alex Bars, OL
Asmar Bilal, OLB
Hunter Bivin, OL
Grant Blankenship, DE
Jonathan Bonner, DE
Miles Boykin, WR
Justin Brent, WR
Greg Bryant, RB

Offseason Q&A: UMass

Massachusetts v Vanderbilt
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After a difficult three-game stretch to start Notre Dame’s season, the Irish will welcome UMass to South Bend, a game that was originally intended to match up former Irish offensive coordinator Charley Molnar with his previous employer.

But Molnar was replaced after two rocky years—the programs’ first after moving up to the FBS level—bringing Mark Whipple back into the fold. And while the improvement was certainly incremental, their three wins were one more than Molnar managed over two seasons.

Sandwiched in the middle of seven difficult games on consecutive weeks, UMass looks like the easiest matchup of the season. But with a veteran quarterback who may be the MAC’s best, the Minutemen are improving, adding at least a bit of intrigue into a game that lacks it on paper.

To get us up to speed on the UMass program, we bring in Matt Vautour, who covers UMass Sports for the Daily Hampshire Gazette. Matt was nice enough to answer some questions on the state of the UMass program, what went wrong with Molnar, and what we can expect when the Minutemen roll in from Amherst.

Here we go.

 

The UMass-ND game was originally set to have the Irish play against their former offensive coordinator, Charley Molnar. That won’t happen, with Molnar replaced after two seasons and as many victories. You covered Molnar’s time atop the UMass program. Can you give us an idea of what exactly went so wrong?

At the beginning, Molnar’s combination of enthusiasm and extreme confidence made him instantly popular with UMass fans, who wanted to believe his lofty promises. But once the games started things went downhill fast. On the field his spread scheme seemed ill-matched with his personnel. His play-calling and clock management were questionable.

Off the field Molnar alienated alumni, fans and eventually his own players, who resented Molnar’s unwillingness to take any of the blame for the team’s struggles. A video that went public of coach-organized boxing and wrestling matches between team members drew scorn from the school’s upper administration as well. Because UMass was in its first years as Bowl Subdivision team, he might have survived a combined 2-22 record. But by the end Molnar didn’t really have anyone in his camp.

 

The Minutemen made a modest, but impressive jump in 2014 under the leadership of veteran coach Mark Whipple, who had a very good first tour of duty as the UMass head coach at the FCS level from 1998-2003. How did Whipple steady the ship? And what should Irish fans expect from his team?

A: Whipple’s previous success combined with the fact that he wasn’t Molnar made him instantly popular again. His pro style offense seemed to better fit his roster and the entire organization of the program certainly seemed more in order. Mostly his players embraced him and played hard for him. Molnar recruited some good players and Whipple did a good job of getting better play from them. With most of the roster back, there’s optimism at UMass that this should be the best team since the FBS upgrade.

 

It looks like the UMass offense is powered by the passing game. How capable of a signal caller is Blake Frohnapfel? He’s a first-team All-MAC selection by Phil Steele, giving us a clue that he’s legit. In his second season utilizing the graduate transfer rule, what’s the ceiling for the UMass QB? Does he have a pro future?

UMass has to thank the football gods every day that Frohnapfel was available because he greatly accelerated the Minutemen’s improvement. He was a leader from his first day and is the face of the program.

He’s a smart quarterback and pretty accurate. His value was especially apparent in the last two games of the season. With Frohnapfel out with a broken leg, the UMass offense sputtered in two lopsided losses. Playing in a pro style offense for a former NFL quarterback coach will help Frohnapfel’s chances, but he’s far from a lock. He’ll need a big year and to be more accurate on longer throws.

 

Every college football fan loves some good, old-fashioned offensive MACtion. With Frohnapfel, wide receiver Tajae Sharpe and TE Rodney Mills all on Steele’s preseason first team, and a veteran returning offensive line, is it safe to say that the Minutemen’s offense is going to challenge the Irish?

For UMass to have a chance, it will have to finish drives and score enough to hang in. It will need better production from an inconsistent running game to help take the pressure of Frohnapfel and the passing attack. Notre Dame figures to be the best team the Minutemen have faced under Whipple.

 

Jovan Santos-Knox looks like a tackling machine. But it also looks like UMass could struggle to stop people, especially in the air. Notre Dame’s offense doesn’t lack for talented personnel. Is this the mismatch to watch?

To have any chance in South Bend, UMass needs its defense to play better than it did last year. The Minutemen need Santos-Knox to make fewer tackles because they’ve gotten off the field quicker.

 

Notre Dame rarely plays a MAC opponent, and most Irish fans are categorizing this game in the cupcake / purchased victory mold. Is that a dangerous stance? A few big victories (Colorado, Vandy) slipped through the Minutemen’s fingers last season. Still in their infancy, what’s the best-case scenario not just for a September Saturday in Notre Dame Stadium, but for the UMass season?

After two years of not being competitive at all, UMass’ downfall in 2014 was an inability to finish. The Minutemen could have beaten Colorado and should have beaten Vanderbilt. UMass had fourth quarter leads against Bowling Green, Miami (Ohio) and were tied with Toledo with under six minutes left.

Most of the roster is back on both sides of the ball. If they can close out games, they’ll have a very realistic shot at one of the MAC’s five bowl spots. Hanging with Notre Dame is another story however. UMass was overmatched against both Boston College and Penn State last year and the Irish figure to be better than both of them. The Minutemen will be hoping a lot of breaks go their way and Notre Dame comes out sluggish and overconfident.