Temple v Notre Dame

Spring Mailbag: Getting physical, Jarrett Grace, and the Defense


This isn’t a Notre Dame basketball blog, so I watched Saturday night as a fan only. Man was that a fun basketball game.  (And that’s coming from someone who has sat through maybe one or two complete basketball games in his entire life.)

If you follow me on Twitter, I was all over the place, comparing John Calapari to the arrogant head coach of the Russian’s 1980 Olympic hockey team and the Wildcats to Ivan Drago himself. Turns out they were Apollo Creed and this was Rocky, not Rocky IV. Bummer.

(I would’ve liked to hear Pat Connaughton’s speech to help end the Cold War.)

That was probably the closest thing to the 2005 USC-ND game I can remember. And in defeat, I think Notre Dame won over more basketball fans than they’ve had in a long, long time. What a fun final month for the men’s basketball team and Mike Brey.

Let’s hope all the people that jumped on the bandwagon stick around for seasons to come.

With that, on to the late edition of the mailbag.


corknd: Long time reader, first time poster. From the press conferences, it seems Kelly has placed a renewed emphasis on being physical along the lines. Kelly also seems pleased with the development of some of his young o-linemen. Do you feel this will lead to some short yardage and goal line jumbo sets a la Stanford, or is this annual rite of spring coachspeak we’re hearing?

Thanks for joining the party, Cork. Pay no mind to some of the village idiots.

Outside of inviting Olivia Newton-John to practice, I’m not sure what else BK can do. In just about every media session he’s had, he’s talked about banging and hitting—and that’s probably the most telling sign as to where Kelly thinks his depth chart sits.

For really the first time since Kelly has been in South Bend, he’s got a depth chart that’s pretty much stocked for spring practice. And he’s acknowledged how much that helps.

While he’s been able to protect key contributors like Sheldon Day, he’s used the added depth to make sure the young nucleus of this team is ready to hold up, especially at the point of attack.

How that manifests itself, I’m not sure. While Irish fans love to reference Stanford’s style of offense, I don’t think that you’re going to all of a sudden see a jumbo, bunch-it-up, short yardage attitude that resembles David Shaw’s. (Also, it’s worth noting: Spend some time listening to Stanford fans talk about Shaw’s 3rd or 4th-and-short playcalling. Not too many of them are fans.)

In Boise, Mike Sanford rode one running back to the tune of 1,800 yards and 32 touchdowns and let his quarterback run the ball double-digit times in eight different games. That’s the same amount as Tarean Folston.

So let’s see what his imprint is on the offense. After seeing Malik Zaire charge into the line against LSU, I fully expect the red zone offense to change for the better.


irishfan4life: Now that we’ve seen a few practices and heard from the coaches, what impact do you think Grace will have on the defense?

That’s a great question. And I think it’s fully dependent on Joe Schmidt’s return to health, as well as how lucky the Irish linebackers are when it comes to staying healthy next season.

Right now, I think the Irish will use Grace in a similar fashion to how they used Cam McDaniel last year. Not a full-time contributor, but a significant (even if it’s limited) role in certain packages.

In the trenches, Grace has the size and length that Schmidt doesn’t. So depending on the opponent, he might be the kind of guy you want in a load-up-the-box scheme.

And of course, it’s all going to depend on Grace’s health—the fact that he’s practicing and going full tilt (when he isn’t sidelined by a concussion, as he was this weekend), doesn’t mean he’s back to 100 percent. Reading between the lines and talking to a few people, it sounds like his recovery is on track but not complete.

Some assumptions I’m making: 1) Jaylon Smith isn’t coming off the field. 2) Neither is Joe Schmidt, if he’s healthy.

But from there, Grace will fill a role, even if it’s a little too soon to know exactly what it is. But with Grace and Nyles Morgan capable of playing the Mike linebacker spot, that’s a good problem to have.


migshields: Keith, this is a very broad and complex question, but which defense will we see in 2015: Rice through FSU or the unit that ended the season? Let’s presume that players like Schmidt, Jones, and Russell all come back at 100 percent.

I think somewhere in the middle, though much closer to the first half than the free fall that we saw when ND was running kids out at nearly every position.

Top 1-11, this defense is going to be very, very good. And I think having a second year in the system—though one that won’t be a complete mystery to opposing playcallers—will be very beneficial to the guys in charge of running it.

That said, the depth is still relatively young and unproven. And it’ll be the next level guys, specifically on the defensive line, who’ll determine how good this defense can be.

Schematically, the biggest keys to success will be finding a base defense that allows the Irish to play well against an up-tempo attack and slowing down the option. It sounds like Bob Elliott is making that the focus of his analyst/special assistant work, and that’s a worthy place to start. But Navy and Georgia Tech sounds like a major handful, with Ken Niumatalolo and Paul Johnson no friends of the Irish.

But if the guys you listed are back and fully healthy? That’s a really good start.


jerseyshorrendfan1: Keith, when is this winter going to end? If it doesn’t end soon, can you put me up in SoCal for a few weeks? I hear your weather has been great. I am a pretty good cook and have a few good stories to tell, but I am told that I snore (although I’ve never heard it). What do you say?

Do you clean up after just-turned one-year olds? Do diapers? And are you willing to sleep on the roof? Maybe send a few sample menus and I’ll run it by the boss.

There are days when living in California is a total drag. But certainly not this winter. Hope spring is here sooner than later for everybody else, because it’s felt like summer here since, well, last summer.


Video Roundup from Spring Practice

Brian Kelly, Malik Zaire

With Brian Kelly hosting his annual coaches clinic, Notre Dame’s practice field is filled with high school coaches (and some intriguing recruits) taking a look under the hood of the Irish program.

After a slow start to the video rollout, the sixth practice of spring gave us an extended look at some of the work being done on the field. So here are a few videos released by our friends at UND.com, including some words from quarterback Malik Zaire.

First, get to know new assistants Todd Lyght and Mike Sanford as they wear microphones along with Kelly during practice.

One key takeaway: While we see these 15 practices as competition for a starting spot, at this point, there’s a reason to believe Kelly when he talks about skill development. So while we’re all focused on depth charts and QB battles, getting better is the key to spring.




Next Jac Collinsworth and the FIDM team give us another look at practice. After hearing Kelly rave about freshman Jerry Tillery, we get to see the big man in action. Considering Tillery should be thinking about prom not spring practice, this is a massive kid who looks more like a guy who should be playing on Sunday than someone going through their senior slide.

We also get a look at sophomore cornerback Nick Watkins. I was a little surprised at how little we saw of Watkins last season, especially as injuries began to pile up. But the transition into college football is harder for some than others, and there’s room for Watkins to step in and play if he’s willing to take it—and that’s likely dictating how Lyght pushes him this spring.




Lastly, here’s Zaire. For a young guy who is still learning the ABCs of playing quarterback, he’s got the perfect attitude to be a leader in this program.

(Even if he forgot to mention Will Fuller and C.J. Prosise.)

There’s no question that this team identifies Zaire as a clearcut team leader. While he’s not as advanced throwing the football as Golson, Zaire’s ability to lead the football team—at this point, mostly as a battering ram—shouldn’t be questioned, though his work with Sanford will likely determine his ability to run the entire offense.

It’s worth mentioning: Zaire’s only a sophomore eligibility wise. So whether or not the starting job comes this fall, his best football is still to come.




In another segment of his sit-down, Zaire was more candid. Specifically when he was asked about a time-share at quarterback in 2015.

“It’s not the ideal situation,” Zaire acknowledged. “At the end of the day, there’s only one Captain Jack Sparrow of the offense. Coach Kelly makes decisions on the team, I don’t get paid to make decisions—I wish I did. I do what I’m supposed to do and however it plays out, it plays out. So I have to make the most of my opportunities and go from there.”


Spring Mailbag: Tillery, Optimism, and practice updates


Let’s get to part one of the mailbag. Some very good questions here, so check back over the weekend as there’ll be more to come.

Notre Dame’s annual coaching clinic is in town as well, not to mention some key visitors on the Irish staff’s recruiting board.

Between the Mike Brey’s boys doing their best Rocky impression and the upcoming date with Ivan Drago, it’s a big spring weekend in South Bend.


@ReadRoger: Does the emergence of Tillery suggest a continuing issue of a lack of playmakers on the D line?

I don’t see it that way. I see it as a “Holy Bleep, Jerry Tillery is going to be really, really good.”

Again, it’s time to immediately tamp expectations. Kelly did his best to do that after raving about Tillery, but it’s worth doing it again here.

Any true freshman—especially one along the defensive line—is only capable of making a marginal impact. (Look at what Aaron Lynch did.) But as you look at the depth chart up front, Tillery has a chance to immediately insert himself into a young second wave, behind a talented tackle duo of Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones.

Talented isn’t necessarily code for playmakers. And if Day is going to play to the expectations the staff has for him, he’s going to need to make some plays in the backfield. He returned for his senior season to prove that he can do that.

Jones also has a high ceiling, maybe even higher than Day’s. But he’s in the middle of a rehab process that’s considerable, and will need to work his way into shape before fall camp.

But after watching Isaac Rochell come into his own as a true sophomore, I’m expecting a breakout season from him, a key at the strong-side. And finding a good platoon between Andrew Trumbetti and senior Romeo Okwara, and there’s no shortage of capable players.

Where Tillery plays will be interesting. There aren’t too many 6’6.5″ rush ends, and Kelly talking about Tillery’s hand skill and athleticism makes me think he’s a guy who will spell Jones or Day on the inside.

But as we still look for someone to generate a pass rush, Tillery’s quick ascent, something I’m not surprised about in the least, is a great spring story.


aisforara: Why do so many of us feel optimistic about the Irish in 2015, when the team is 2-5 in its last seven games?

Because it was fairly easy to see why the Irish went 2-5, and I don’t think it was a shortage of talent.

Beating LSU was a key to the 2015 revival. And so was the emergence of Malik Zaire, proving that he could win football games if Everett Golson continues to put the ball at risk.

Young teams take lumps. They lose games—sometimes in the most maddening ways imaginable. But look at this offense. I’ve never seen a deeper group in my time following this team. Maybe some of Holtz’s rosters had better skill players, but I’m not sure if that’s true, either.

Ultimately, the defense needs to step up. And the offense needs to get out of its own way. Bringing in Mike Sanford was a game-changing move for Brian Kelly. But continuing to bet on Brian VanGorder was a gamble as well.

This will easily be the most talented football team of the Brian Kelly era. What that means? We won’t know until September.


luckoirish23: I have watched und.com spring practice report videos for several years; however this spring there has only been one video that was actually long enough for one of your breakdowns. Any idea why we are getting such short videos? Why Jac Collinsworth and no Jack Nolan? Do you think BK is trying to protect his QBs from a media frenzy of interpretations and message board drama? I miss those spring weather reports, position spotlights, and 3 minute practice cut ups….

Remember those videos? Those were fun. I was beginning to think I was the only one missing them. How else would we know Corey Robinson can make catches like Spiderman or Joe Schmidt might actually be a good inside linebacker?

But here’s the thing. That run the men’s basketball team is making? It’s killing our highlight packages. (But this one on Thursday night’s victory over Wichita State is pretty great.) Fighting Irish Digital Media may sound like a gigantic corporation, but they’re actually a pretty compact outfit.

Jack Nolan is the radio voice of the Irish. So while he’s screaming “Gotttttt ittttt!” We’re getting shorted on practice videos and the young Jac Collinsworth is filling in (very capably I might add).


Your suspicions are ones that I’ve considered as well. And frankly, it’d be the smartest thing Brian Kelly could do, though he really hasn’t had to thanks to Mike Brey’s boys.

But instead of complaining about it, I tried to help solve the problem. So check out me and Jac breaking down spring practice, and if you don’t blink you might see a few snippets from practice.