Autry Denson

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

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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.

 

 

 

Notre Dame announces graduate transfer of Avery Sebastian

Mike Jensen, Avery Sebastian
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A few days after safety Avery Sebastian announced his intentions, Notre Dame made the commitment and graduate transfer of the former Cal safety official. Sebastian will enroll in graduate school and join the team in June.

“Avery Sebastian is an experienced and versatile player,” head coach Brian Kelly said in a statement. “He played safety and contributed on every special teams unit over his career at California. Avery gives us some additional depth in the secondary and also brings a work ethic and excitement to compete that will build throughout the team.”

Sebastian played in 33 games over four years at Cal. While injuries shortened his time on the field, they’ve allowed him to save a season of eligibility–he was injured during the season opener in 2013 and missed the rest of the season–continuing his career in South Bend.

A graduate of Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy in Georgia, the same school that produced defensive lineman Isaac Rochell, Sebastian was a U.S. Army All-American and a highly touted defensive back prospect when he chose Cal out of high school.

Sebastian had his share of options at several prominent programs before deciding to spend next season with the Irish.

“I’m very thankful to head coach Brian Kelly and the rest of the coaching staff and administration for giving me the opportunity to come play at the University of Notre Dame,” Sebastian said in the statement. “I think academically, spiritually and athletically will make Notre Dame a perfect fit. I’ve got one year to make an impact and I plan on making the most of this opportunity. I look forward to joining the Notre Dame family.

“I’m eager to meet my teammates. Like the coaching staff and players alike, our objective is to field a better product than the year before. My hope is that we field one of college football’s best teams this upcoming year. I’ve got veteran experience in the secondary, and familiarity with multiple defenses and opposing offenses.”

For the second season in a row, Notre Dame has taken a graduate transfer to help with depth in the secondary. While Sebastian doesn’t have the playing experience of Cody Riggs, he’s entering the Irish program at one of the least established positions on the depth chart, capable of competing for playing time immediately.

The Irish coaching staff also thinks they’re infusing a good leader and character player in their locker room, especially important at a position group that’s welcoming two freshmen to the fold this summer.

“Avery will help our football team right away, but more important, he is the type of young man that we want in this program,” Kelly said. “Avery carries himself in a first-class manner, on and off the field. He’s also committed to his academics, graduating from both high school and college in three and a half years, respectively.”

Sebastian joins a safety depth chart that’ll start with Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate. Drue Tranquill (ACL) and Nicky Baratti (shoulder) will be recovering from injury this spring. Matthias Farley has experience at the position as well, but played in the slot last season and freshmen Nicco Fertitta and Mykelti Williams will begin classes this summer.

 

 

Spring solutions: Running backs

Tarean Folston, Daniel Gonzales, Obi Uzoma
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After missing out on a running back in the 2014 recruiting cycle, a once crowded depth chart now only features Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant. Two backs that once worried about having to find snaps will now have all the work they could ever want, with the majority of spring spent doing everything they can to stay healthy.

After two seasons in the program, Folston and Bryant find themselves in different places. Yet both have their plates full.

In Folston, the Irish have a do-everything back that could’ve played a much larger role in the offense if he was given the opportunity to do so. Coming off a breakthrough sophomore campaign, Folston should expect to emerge on a national level in 2015.

In Bryant, the Irish have a thoroughbred who is only now being broken. After a lost freshman season due to injury and a second-season learning the ropes, Bryant may seem like he’s been around the block, but could easily live up to his lofty recruiting expectations very quickly if all goes according to plan.

With Josh Adams and Dexter Williams not on campus until June, the numbers are mighty precarious for spring’s 15 practices. But that doesn’t take away from a position group that’s expected to do very big things.

Let’s take a closer look at a running back duo that needs to take a huge step forward this spring.

 

RUNNING BACK DEPTH CHART

1. Tarean Folston, Jr.
2. Greg Bryant, Jr.*

*Signifies a fifth-year of eligibility available.

 

SPRING OBJECTIVES

Tarean Folston: Stay healthy. That’s pretty much the first, and you could almost say, only objective to Folston’s spring season. Stay healthy, get better, and be ready for a breakout season come fall.

Of course, Folston has work to do. While he showed flashes of brilliance during the middle of the 2014 season, working with a still-to-be determined running back coach and playing under new offensive coordinator Mike Sanford will test the running back.

After knowing only Tony Alford’s coaching and Brian Kelly’s commitment to the ground game, expect the change of scenery only to help Folston.

 

Greg Bryant: Long gone is the five-star reputation. Now Bryant finds himself with a much-needed blank slate, and a new relationship developing with his offensive coordinator as well as his running backs coach as he enters his second season of eligibility.

Bryant’s maturity has allowed him to deal with the burden of great expectations thus far in his career. And after showing glimpses of good play during the 2014 season, now we need to see maturity in his game.

That means taking what the defense gives. It means not trying to create a YouTube highlight on every carry. And it means running in the framework of the offense, something that Bryant didn’t always do.

After playing almost too fast last season, Bryant can take this spring to build comfort behind an offensive line that should be elite and a running game that most certainly will be emphasized. While showing a chemistry with Malik Zaire certainly helped late in the season, Bryant’s breakout looks right around the corner… even if it’s taken longer than most expected.

Spring solutions: Quarterbacks

Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl
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One of the most impressive statistical seasons in school history was flushed down the toilet when Everett Golson could not stop turning the football over. With fumbles, poor decision-making and some plain bad luck plaguing Golson’s otherwise exceptional season, Brian Kelly chose Malik Zaire to be his starter for the Music City Bowl.

Zaire’s performance against LSU essentially rebooted a quarterback battle that at one point seemed near impossible for Golson to lose. But entering spring camp, it’s a two-man race to see who’ll get a chance to run a Notre Dame offense that should be the best of the last decade.

Heading into spring practice, let’s take a deep dive into the quarterback depth chart, headed by one of the best position battles in college football.

 

 

QUARTERBACK DEPTH CHART

1. Everett Golson, Grad Student
or Malik Zaire, Jr.*
3. DeShone Kizer, Soph.*
4. Montgomery VanGorder, Soph.*

*Signifies fifth-year of eligibility available.

With new quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford getting his first look at the three quarterbacks on the roster, don’t expect this battle to start during practice one. But before Brandon Wimbush gets to campus, all three quarterbacks have to be sharp from the open of practice, as the head coach won’t ever be too far away from the action.

 

SPRING OBJECTIVES

Everett Golson: While getting reacclimated to campus life and working his way through the media circus was Golson’s challenge last spring, the microscope will be just as fixated on the veteran quarterback during these 15 practices.

Last year, many wondered if Golson’s return would deliver the Irish offense its savior. Now, many are wondering if Golson even wants to fight for his job back or does he plan to transfer after he graduates in May to another program.

Golson knows Kelly’s offense better than any quarterback on the roster. He’s also the most talented passer. But making the extraordinary play doesn’t mean much if you can’t do the ordinary correctly, and a commitment to the little things this spring is crucial.

One last piece to keep your eye on: Golson’s leadership. Far from a natural born leader, Golson’s ownership of the offense could transfer to Zaire this spring if he’s not fully engaged.

 

Malik Zaire: For this spring to be a success, Zaire needs to prove to Kelly and the Irish coaching staff that he’s just as good of a practice player as he is a gamer. We’ve seen Zaire shine brightly on the big stage — playing well in his first two Blue-Gold games and making his minutes count against USC before breaking loose against LSU.

But to be the face of an offense like this you need to be more than just a game day standout, you need to be the best practice player on the roster as well. Zaire just didn’t do that the last two seasons — with Kelly speaking openly about that struggle multiple times.

Zaire is ready to lead this team — he’s got charisma and confidence that most quarterbacks would kill for. But working with a new offensive coordinator and an offensive staff that’ll demand the quarterback owns the entire playbook means Zaire can’t afford to be the guy who can turn it on when he wants to. Not if he’s going to win the starting job.

 

DeShone Kizer: He may be the forgotten man in this quarterback battle, but Kizer’s got an important spring in front of him as well. Most importantly, it’s getting a foot forward in the battle for the No. 3 job — before Wimbush gets to campus.

Kizer is an intriguing quarterback and going through the phase of his career where he’s forgotten (a redshirt year and a blue-chipper in the recruiting class will do that to you), with Wimbush the newest and shiniest at the position. But at 6’5″ and with good speed and a solid arm, there’s plenty to like about Kizer, and he’ll need to show that he’s making progress this spring.

 

Montgomery VanGorder: Earning a scholarship last season as he served as the emergency third-stringer, VanGorder isn’t likely to take many snaps this spring, with reps going to Golson and Zaire with Kizer getting a sprinkling as well.

But that’s life for a walk-on, and VanGorder will have his chance to earn his keep by learning Sanford’s way of running the offense. That could mean this spring is about learning new hand signals. Or new techniques. Whatever it is, a fourth-stringer’s job is about doing the little (sometimes off field) things right, and this spring will be a chance to do that.

Mailbag: What to expect from the defense?

Brian Van Gorder
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Finishing up a holiday weekend with part three of the mailbag.

 

uptheera44: What’s your overall prediction for the defense for next year? I think we have a relatively good idea of the offense’s potential based on the highs of this season (the question there really seems to be about consistency) — but the defense is much more of a wildcard — potential aside, how good do you think this defense will actually be come the Texas opener?

That’s the million dollar question.

To me, Brian VanGorder needs to find two very key solutions this offseason. First, slowing down a team that moves up-tempo. And second, doing a better job stopping the option.

Last season, up-tempo attacks killed the Irish. Sure, it was after some injuries started piling up, but every coach has now seen a season of VanGorder’s scheme. And they’ll now force him to do things his group showed it wasn’t capable of doing last year, mostly moving with tempo and keeping the Irish’s impressive third-down packages off the field.

With Georgia Tech joining Navy on the schedule, that brings two very talented option trigger men up against the Irish defense, with Paul Johnson and Ken Niumatalolo both getting chances to knock off the Irish with talented quarterbacks Justin Thomas and Keenan Reynolds.

Both quarterbacks ran for over 1,000 yards last season. Reynolds scored an insane 23 rushing touchdowns. Johnson threw 18 touchdowns against just six interceptions. And both coaches would love nothing more than to beat Notre Dame.

Ultimately, the Irish defense still needs a few breaks when it comes to health. I think the experience some of the young guys got will pay great dividends in 2015. But to be a dominant group, the Irish’s frontline players need to stay on the field and VanGorder needs to find a solution for hurry-up teams and the option.

 

irish46327: I know it’s still a few months away yet, but any inklings as to what’s going on with the Blue and Gold game? Hoping like others it’ll still be on campus but I’ve heard Soldier Field as a potential host due to construction.

Anna Hickey of Irish Illustrated reported that the Blue-Gold game was going to be played in Indianapolis at Lucas Oil Stadium. It’s not the on-campus solution that Brian Kelly wanted, but I’m not sure what other option there is — unless you’re getting really, really creative.

It doesn’t sound like Soldier Field is going to be the answer, especially with the natural surface and lack of roof on the stadium. It’d be a much more fun location, but logistically it sounds pretty difficult to pull off.

Is game day on the LaBar Practice field optimal? No. But if you bring in enough temporary seating maybe that’s the solution if you are dead set on holding it on campus.

Otherwise is it Arlotta Field, the lacrosse stadium with a max capacity of 4,500 people? This could be tricky.

 

grammarnazi69: Does Ishaq Williams finally live up to his potential on the field? Do we finally get to see him play at a 5 star level?

I don’t think a 5-star level is happening. But I think Williams can play well enough to get himself drafted and be an impact player in this defense.

Listening to Kelly on Signing Day, it sounded like Ishaq has some work to do to make it back to campus still. But if he gets it done, he’ll be very useful along the defensive line, especially if he’s able to play both defensive end positions and potential shift inside as well.

That means finally displaying some pass rush ability. It also means being disruptive at the point of attack. There’s certainly some urgency now. And the time away from the game likely lit a fuse that serves as an all-important reminder that the clock is ticking.

 

danirish: Cam McDaniel – does he get a shot at the NFL?

Only if he can manage to run something in the high 4.5s at Pro Day. I’ve been all over the place on how I view Cam as a football player. But while the comparisons come by the bushel, he’s not Danny Woodhead, who ran a 4.33 at the combine.

But McDaniel is a useful football player who played out of type (he’s not a goal line runner) at Notre Dame. If he wants it, he’ll likely get a camp invite and sign with a team. Whether he makes that roster depends on if he can play on every special team.

 

ndlv: What players do you expect to show the biggest improvement from 2014 to 2015? For example, last year you predicted a big jump in production for Fuller – are you confident in making any early predictions for next year?

Man, I don’t have a guy that I feel as good about as I did Will Fuller. (Knocked that one out of the park, if I do say so myself.)

Usually I need spring practice to get a feel for this, so I might defer until after the Blue-Gold game. But a few candidates I’ll be watching:

Max Redfield
Isaac Rochell (or Andrew Trumbetti)
Durham Smythe
Mike McGlinchey
Jhonny Williams
Greg Bryant

Ask me about this in May and I’ll have a better idea. But with so few players graduating, it’s going to be tough sledding to surprise me — or it’s going to be a guy many expected big things from last year and they delivered a season late. (That always seems to happen to me in fantasy football.)

 

jude1128: 

Keith,
I know Notre Dame and film are two great interests of yours.

The Sundance Film Festival has called “The Hunting Ground” an “exposé of rape culture on campuses.” The father of Lizzy Seeberg, the St. Mary’s student who committed suicide after being allegedly assaulted by a ND football player, is reportedly one of the voices in the film.

Since the film is being released both theatrically and then airing on CNN, what effect do you think the film may have on the viewers’ perception of Notre Dame, its administration and its football program?

I haven’t seen the documentary, though I have done some reading on it. And knowing the filmmakers’ previous work, I suspect this will be an excellent film and also an important one.

The Lizzy Seeberg case was a tragedy and one that is still incredibly polarizing. While some have written more prolifically about the situation, I haven’t. People come here for Notre Dame football coverage, not my commentary on important political or societal issues.

That being said, it’s worth pointing out that Seeberg wasn’t raped, nor did she accuse anyone of rape. So from a far, while the name Notre Dame and the Seeberg tragedy is likely mentioned, without knowing the context I have no clue as to if it’ll have an effect on viewers perception of the university.

(The above paragraph isn’t to say that Notre Dame, or the university’s security and police department, handled the situation correctly.)

Sadly, there is no shortage of material for a documentary on sexual assaults on college campuses. It’s a frightening epidemic and one that isn’t new. So while this might be a difficult watch for football fans of any number of schools, I think it should be required viewing.

After it’s on CNN I’ll likely have a more formed opinion, but it won’t be one that you’ll be reading about here.