Keith Gilmore

All signs (still) point to Keith Gilmore as defensive line coach

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None of Notre Dame’s coaching changes are official yet. But more arrows point to North Carolina defensive line coach Keith Gilmore joining the Irish staff in the same role.

Gilmore’s hiring—or at least his connection to the Irish job—popped up last week, the same day many concluded that Autry Denson was officially joining Brian Kelly’s staff for the 2015 season. But then Gilmore’s inclusion in an offseason workout video released by UNC’s digital team had people scratching their heads.

No longer.

Yesterday, Tar Heels’ beat reporter Andrew Carter of the News & Observer tweeted this update, as confirmed by North Carolina’s sports information department.

Then, Tar Heels’ defensive end Dajuan Drennon posted the following as well.

So while Notre Dame’s H.R. department continues their comprehensive O’Leary-proofed vetting process, it appears that the news that Gilmore is taking over the defensive line and Mike Elston is shifting to linebackers is indeed going to happen.

Even if it takes a few more days to become official.

Spring solutions: Offensive Line

Notre Dame v Syracuse
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There might not be a deeper unit on the roster than the offensive line. After a lack of depth made it nearly impossible to practice at full speed heading into the 2012 BCS title game, Notre Dame enters the 2015 season with a two-deep most teams would pay for.

You name it, the Irish have it. Experience, with every projected starter from the Music City Bowl returning. Elite talent, with left tackle Ronnie Stanley turning down an opportunity to be a first rounder and returning to South Bend.

After watching Brian Kelly and Harry Hiestand collect talented recruiting classes over the past four cycles, we’ll get our chance to see what is likely the top offensive line of the Kelly era next season. But before we get there, let’s take a look at the depth chart and what needs to be accomplished this spring.

 

OFFENSIVE LINE DEPTH CHART

LT: Ronnie Stanley, Sr.*
LG: Nick Martin, Grad Student
C: Matt Hegarty, Grad Student
RG: Steve Elmer, Jr.
RT: Mike McGlinchey, Jr.*

LT: Alex Bars, Soph.*
LG: Quenton Nelson, Soph.*
or Jimmy Byrne, Soph*
C: Mark Harrell, Sr.*
or Tristen Hoge, Fr.
RG: Colin McGovern, Jr.*
or John Montelus, Jr.*
RT: Huter Bivin, Jr.*

*Denotes fifth-year of eligibility available.

While the depth at tackle is still probably a little bit below optimal, Kelly’s willingness to allow blue-chipper Jerry Tillery start as a defensive lineman instead of on offense gives you an idea as to his comfort level.

With over a dozen scholarship players to look at, let’s take a rapid fire look at the depth chart.

 

SPRING OBJECTIVES

Ronnie Stanley: Learn how to be a dominant player and a position-group leader. While Nick Martin wore the ‘C’ on his jersey last season, it’s going to be Stanley who’ll morph into the leader of the offensive line if things go according to plan.

Kelly has talked openly about his belief that it’s critical for a team to have its best players be its best leaders. We saw the last two seasons when that wasn’t the case.

If Stanley turns himself into a captain candidate–and we heard hints of that happening before the Music City Bowl–then the rest will take care of itself.

(I’m assuming a full offseason in the weight room and another year of work will turn Stanley into one of the premier performers in the country and likely an All-American.)

Nick Martin: After a somewhat trying and disappointing season by Martin, the grad student needs to turn himself into a top-level interior offensive lineman. Whether that’s at center or guard remains to be seen.

Martin had a hand injury that hampered his ability to snap last year, playing most of the year at less than 100 percent. Combine that with the ascent of young talent like Quenton Nelson and Martin may shift inside. Either way, he’ll be a starter in 2015, and another good leader on a roster filled with them.

Matt Hegarty: If you’re looking for hints as to how Kelly and Hiestand plan to go next year, you’d think that Hegarty’s role on the offensive line will lead you in that direction. Then again, maybe not.

Last year, Hegarty played center during spring, serving as a fill-in as Martin recovered from knee surgery. But after committing late to a starting five (or at least their positions), it’ll be interesting to see if Kelly and Hiestand prefer Hegarty over young talent.

It wasn’t all great last season for Hegarty, but he’s a very solid player who will only be better in 2015.

Steve Elmer: He’s a guard.

That’s probably the biggest takeaway from last year, when Elmer’s struggles getting comfortable on the edge required Christian Lombard to move back outside and Elmer to return to the interior spot he played more than capably as a freshman.

Elmer has the size of a tackle and if all things were equal most probably preferred him making it as a bookend. But as we’ve seen recently in the NFL draft (hello, Zack Martin), a good lineman is coveted wherever he plays, inside or out.

Mike McGlinchey: You have to feel optimistic about McGlinchey’s play considering he was thrown into the fire against USC’s All-World Leonard Williams and then took on LSU in his first start. And McGlinchey thrived under the circumstances.

He’s big, he’s strong, and he’s long been one of Kelly’s favorite prospects. Entering his third season in the program and his first as a projected full-time starter, it’s time for McGlinchey to prove his coach right, as Alex Bars will be breathing down his neck.

Alex Bars: In a perfect world, Bars is Stanley’s understudy, watching a technician at the position and taking mental reps before earning his spot in the starting lineup. But football is rarely perfect, so Bars will need to be ready at both tackle spots, sooner than later.

Many raised an eyebrow when Kelly said in December that Bars was among the best young linemen he’s seen in his 25 years. There’s no reason to think that he won’t come gunning for a job, whether it be McGlinchey’s or anybody else on the offensive line.

Quenton Nelson: When Kelly pointed to Nelson working on the interior, it put a bullseye on the guard position that Martin and Hegarty shared last year. Depending on how the coaching staff viewed the production of that duo, Nelson will get a shot to jump the line and earn some playing time.

Big, strong and (presumably) nasty, Nelson is still a very young football player. But after many wondered if he’d even be redshirted in 2014, you should expect the New Jersey native to try to make up for lost time this spring.

Jimmy Bryne: When you talk about promising young offensive linemen, Bryne’s name often gets lost in the shuffle. But while it’s natural to make assumptions about players we don’t know, until we see Bryne given a chance to earn his keep, we have no idea if he’ll be capable of making a move.

That move this spring might just be into the second-string, with Bryne playing some tackle during bowl prep. And if there are health issues with Hunter Bivin, Bryne could see plenty of time with the second unit this spring.

Mark Harrell: We saw during the spring game some of Harrell’s struggles shotgun snapping. The senior hasn’t ascended into the starting line as some expected when he signed, but he’ll likely be practicing for an opportunity to stick around for a fifth year.

It’s hard to say anything negative about Harrell’s play, consider we’ve seen very little of it. But with freshman Tristen Hoge a natural center and participating this spring, Harrell might need to showcase some flexibility if he’s going to earn any playing time.

Tristen Hoge: Welcome to college football, kid. He won’t be starting his career against Louis Nix or Stephon Tuitt, but Sheldon Day and Isaac Rochell will teach Hoge a few things.

Earning time on this offensive line won’t be easy, but Hoge is getting an extra semester in a race for the starting center job in 2016. Bulking up and learning behind Nick Martin and Matt Hegarty will be a good learning experience.

Colin McGovern: If you’re looking for a really good football player who is flying under the radar, McGovern is my candidate. While he’s been challenged by some injuries and a depth chart that doesn’t seem to have an opening, McGovern could have some flexibility, playing inside or out.

The time might not come in 2015, but McGovern needs to get into the mix for playing time as the Irish will likely be replacing three starters after this season.

John Montelus: After starting his college career as a very large body, Montelus has worked his way into shape. Now he needs to find the playing field.

We’ll get a status report as to how close Montelus is come March 18. He’s another intriguing piece that Harry Hiestand has collected.

Hunter Bivin: Sitting out some bowl prep for LSU, what to expect from Hunter Bivin is anyone’s guess. Is he a center? A tackle? Is he healthy?

Bivin’s been in the program, so he’s no longer just another blue-chip recruit. But until we know that he’s healthy and what position he’ll be playing, it’s hard to understand how he’ll fit into the plans.

 

 

 

 

Notre Dame moves back start of spring practice

C.J. Prosise
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Whether it’s the Siberian Express rolling through most of the country (sorry, guys) or the grand reshuffling taking place on Brian Kelly‘s coaching staff, Notre Dame announced a delay in the kickoff of spring practice.

Scheduled to start the first week of March, the Irish will now begin practice after spring break, beginning the spring season on March 18. They’ll conclude practice a month later, effectively spacing out their work in the all-important spring season.

Other dates of note include the annual coaching clinic, taking place on March 26-28. Scheduled to be in South Bend are NFL head coaches Bill O’Brien (who will likely chat with Kelly about defensive tackle Louis Nix), and Ron Rivera. Also joining is former Texas head coach Mack Brown and Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli.

Notre Dame’s Pro Day will take place on March 31st. DaVaris Daniels made some news this week in Indianapolis when he told Fox Sports’ Bruce Feldman that he’ll be back on campus working out with his former teammates in front of NFL scouts. It’ll also be the first chance for Cody Riggs to show that he’s healthy.

Also of note is the listed date for “Practice 15.” Usually that’s the Blue-Gold game, but with the status of Notre Dame Stadium in flux as construction on the Campus Crossroads project continues, what ends up happening still seems to be up in the air.

Reports of the annual spring game being relocated to Soldier Field or Lucas Oil Stadium have already come and gone, with it looking more and more like neither will be the ultimate destination. That leaves the annual flagship weekend (for both fans and recruits) undecided for now, with Kelly expressing his desire to keep the game on campus if at all possible.

 

 

Spring solutions: Tight ends

Notre Dame v Arizona State
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After an incredibly impressive run at the position, Notre Dame enters spring practice with nothing but question marks at tight end. After Brian Kelly watched Kyle Rudolph, Tyler Eifert, Troy Niklas and now Ben Koyack churn through his program, he’ll spend spring trying to figure out what exactly he has at the position.

Returning at tight end is exactly one catch, from rising junior Durham Smythe. And before touted freshman Alizé Jones steps foot on campus, Scott Booker (or whoever is officially coaching tight ends after the reshuffle) has some work to do.

 

TIGHT END DEPTH CHART

1. Durham Smythe, Jr.*
2. Tyler Luatua, Soph.
3. Mike Heuerman, Jr.*
4. Nic Weishar, Soph.*

*Signifies fifth-year of eligibility available. 

It’s worth giving this position group–and the coaching staff’s recruiting efforts–the benefit of the doubt. There’s likely plenty of talent at the position. But before Jones comes in as a bonafide receiving weapon, this foursome needs to prove it can help in both the run and the pass game.

 

SPRING OBJECTIVES

Durham Smythe: Many expected a mini-breakout season last year from Smythe, with the No. 2 tight end in years past capable of chipping in 10 catches or so. But Smythe’s only catch came in a turnover plagued loss to Arizona State, and with receiving weapons plentiful, there wasn’t a lot of usage for Smythe, who served as the primary backup to Koyack.

If the Texas native (and one-time Longhorn commitment) wants that to change before Notre Dame kicks off the season against Texas, he needs to set the tone early this spring. There’s no reason Smythe doesn’t establish himself as the “starter” this spring, though how that’s defined remains to be seen.

While he’s got work to do in the weight room before he can hold his own at the point of attack, Smythe’s drawn nothing but solid reviews from his coaches and looks like the most well-rounded player at the position.

 

Tyler Luatua: You may have noticed the freshman in the starting lineup against LSU in the Music City Bowl. Luatua was the team’s most capable run blocker as a true freshman, more of a compliment to the 260-pounder than an indictment on Koyack.

Without knowing how Kelly and new offensive coordinator Mike Sanford want to run this offense, it’s hard to predict how much Luatua will be used. But he’s more than just a big body, and his ability to serve as an H-back, fullback or downfield option will make him a handful. And it’ll be very interesting to see how a full offseason in the system will transform Luatua’s body. He could very easily be a 280-pounder sooner than later.

Last season, Boise State ran the ball 57 percent of the time. (The Irish ran it 51 percent.) If Sanford brings that attitude to South Bend, Luatua is going to be on the field a lot.

 

Mike Heuerman: After two seasons in the program, we’re still not exactly sure what Notre Dame has in Mike Heuerman. A highly-touted recruit who had his choice of elite programs to play for before he came to South Bend, Heuerman seems like the bizarro Luatua, a wiry 225-pounder who feels like a tweener at the position.

Getting healthy is the first step for Heuerman. A variety of maladies have kept him off the field, including a sports hernia surgery that put him off schedule in training camp. But spring is the ultimate opportunity for Heuerman to make his move on the depth chart, especially with Nic Weishar possessing a similar skill-set and Jones coming this summer.

It’s a complete hunch, but it’s worth pointing out that Heuerman was a first-team All-Area defensive end during his senior season in high school. And if the Irish are looking for a guy who can rush the passer, it might be worth kicking the tires on Heuerman. Especially if he’s buried on the depth chart.

 

Nic Weishar: We get our first look at one of the most prolific receivers in Chicagoland high school football this spring as Weishar will get his opportunity to battle for playing time. After looking like he needed some time with Paul Longo, Weishar will have his chance to provide a matchup problem on the outside while also needing to prove he can battle in the trenches.

If you’re looking for an early leader in the clubhouse to warm up the phrase “catch radius,” Weishar might be your dark horse candidate after Corey Robinson. He’s a natural in space and a shiny new toy for the passing game.

If there’s a Tyler Eifert-lite in this position group, it could be Weishar. That’s a lofty comparison to a football player who hasn’t done done anything yet, but we have to remember that before Eifert was a Mackey Award winner and first-round draft pick, he was a 3-star beanpole with a bad back who was nearly a forgotten piece of the roster.

No pressure, Nic.

 

With smoke circling Gilmore and Denson, coaching staff coming into focus

Autry Denson
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On Tuesday, a flurry of reports had Brian Kelly focusing in on the final pieces of his reshuffled coaching staff. They include two likely additions, one transition, and a position shift.

BlueandGold.com reported that North Carolina defensive line coach Keith Gilmore will be reuniting with Kelly and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, coaching the same position for the Irish.

Gilmore coached the defensive line for Kelly at Central Michigan for a season before spending two years with him in Cincinnati, also serving as assistant head coach. Gilmore also worked with VanGorder at Wayne State, and shares the Grand Valley DNA that both also possess.

SI.com’s Thayer Evans reported the same news. With corresponding reports shifting Mike Elston to linebackers for Gilmore’s arrival, Tar Heels defensive lineman Tim Jackson seemed to confirm the news via Twitter, with a compliment for his outgoing coach.

While Notre Dame has yet to make any change to the staff official, another former player looks to be close to joining the Irish staff. Record-setting running back Autry Denson is said to have accepted the job as running backs coach. Once again, SI.com’s Thayer Evans confirmed previous reports.

In Denson, Kelly lands another former Notre Dame and NFL player on his staff, joining former All-American and Pro Bowler Todd Lyght, who is already on the recruiting trail for the Irish as the defensive backs coach. Kelly also adds a Florida native, who has experience coaching at the high school level as well as collegiately (Denson was an assistant at Bethune-Cookman.)

Denson had just joined Willie Taggert’s USF staff after leaving Miami (Ohio) where he was will Chuck Martin last season. Other names had surfaced for the position, but multiple reports — including Irish 247, Blue and Gold and Irish Illustrated — have Denson’s deal all but official.

To make room among the nine assistants, veteran assistant Bob Elliott will reportedly be shifting into an off-field role. Elliott was brought in by former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, who was coached by Elliott along with former secondary coach Kerry Cooks at Iowa.

Elliott battled through a kidney transfer and the corresponding health challenges, staying on the recruiting trail through this cycle as the Irish inked 24 recruits. He’s said to have taken a position inside the program, though that’s still to be determined. That appears to be the fate for former Kelly aide Jeff Quinn, who had been reportedly in line for the quarterbacks coach job before Kelly added former Boise State offensive coordinator Mike Sanford.

With Notre Dame’s HR process still in motion, no moves have been announced. But when they are, expect former Irish captain Maurice Crum to be announced as a Graduate Assistant, replacing Kyle McCarthy who is pursuing a career in sports management after a season on the Irish staff.