Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl

Opportunities await Notre Dame’s running backs

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Autry Denson‘s running back room has to feel lonely sometimes. With just Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant as scholarship backs, C.J. Prosise‘s cross-training this spring at least brought another voice into the room.

And while a crew of walk-on runners have filled some chairs—and will likely fill the stat sheet in the upcoming Blue-Gold game—the room should never feel empty. Because the shadow of one of college football’s premier backs should be felt on a daily basis.

Boise State’s Jay Ajayi ran for 1,823 yards in 2014. He had 347 carries, a shade under 25 a game. He caught 50 passes for 535 yards. He scored 32 total touchdowns.

Those aren’t numbers. Those are monster numbers.

As a runner, Ajayi wasn’t just more productive than Notre Dame’s entire 2014 backfield, he was essentially the Irish’s entire 2012 ground game, too—but double the rushing touchdowns.

As a receiver, Ajayi would’ve finished behind only Will Fuller in catches. He put up essentially Corey Robinson’s receiving numbers, and that’s after carrying the Broncos offense on his back as a runner.

Put simply, opportunities await.

So while the collective focus this spring is on the quarterback battle between Everett Golson and Malik Zaire, Denson’s running backs should feel like the big winners of the coaching shakeup.

Notre Dame’s ground game has been better-than-average just once in Brian Kelly’s five seasons in South Bend. So give Kelly credit for bringing in Sanford to do more than just coach quarterbacks and (potentially) call plays. He brought him in to help renovate a running game that’s been operating at well below efficiency.

Boise State ran the football 57 percent of the time in 2014. That number should be in big, bold font as a reminder to the running backs that if they’re dominant, they’ll be getting the football.

So while the room might feel empty this spring, the opportunities are everywhere. Especially after seeing the Irish offense succeed when they committed to a ground game in their victory over LSU in the Music City Bowl.

 

Sanford trying to quantify quarterback competition

Brian Kelly
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With all eyes on the quarterback battle between Everett Golson and Malik Zaire, new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford has a lot on his plate this spring. Still a newcomer to South Bend, Sanford’s not only got to get to know the quarterbacks in his meeting room, but also help decide who will be in charge of piloting the Irish offense.

Joining Brian Kelly and Mike Denbrock in a still-evolving org chart atop the offense, Sanford is tasked with coaching up the quarterbacks this spring, all while evaluating their performances.

And just months after the 2014 season and offensive efficiency nosedived as Golson’s turnovers sky-rocketed, the Irish coaching staff is going to great efforts to quantify every rep taking this spring, all part of an objective evaluation of the most important position on the roster.

Asked about that process on Wednesday, Sanford shed a little light on not just how the spring competition has gone, but how it was being evaluated.

“What we’re doing is quantifying it as much as we can,” Sanford said about the quarterback battle. “Statically, we’re getting graded on every rep and we want those guys to feel like there’s accountability for every rep that they take.

“They’ve done a good job of understanding that and I think we’ve laid out a very clear picture of what we’re trying to get done at the quarterback position but also giving them some feedback about what they’re doing and how they stack up in terms of their quantifiable data that we can give back to them.”

Put simply, every snap matters. And the film is always watching.

Whether it’s seven-on-seven or ones-versus-ones, every rep taken by a quarterback is counted. Not just interceptions and touchdowns, but catches, drops, missed reads, graded, tabulated and evaluated by the coaching staff.

Even situational IQ is scored—with Sanford and the Irish coaches trying to engrain into a position that was doomed by turnovers that every single decision and snap is critically important.

“We’re breaking down all of our concepts and how each quarterback is operating within each concept,” Sanford explained. “And then beyond that, I’m basically quantifying, ‘Did you do your job on this play, yes or no?’ ‘Did you get the job done?’ And if they are, it’s a plus. If they don’t, it’s a minus. And then we give them notes about exactly what corrections could be made.”

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Sanford’s utilized this process before, both last season at Boise State and before that at Stanford. It helped add some objectivity to a four-headed running back battle with the Cardinal, and put an added value on practice reps, which led to carries on Saturdays.

As Kelly stated before offseason workouts commenced, the theme of spring practice would be competition. The quarterback battle—while largely staying out of the media this spring—will be one that defines the season.

It’ll also be one of the first position battles that Sanford has presided over. Between Andrew Luck and Kevin Hogan at Stanford and fifth-year quarterback Grant Hedrick at Boise State, Sanford thinks the competition has energized the quarterback position group.

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“I’ve always been of the accord that I absolutely love when there’s competition. I think competition always is going to breed the betterment of each individual player in that position room,” Sanford said.

While talking up the progress of redshirt freshman DeShone Kizer, Sanford mostly praised his two top contenders. For those wondering if Golson has one foot out the door, Sanford praised the fifth-year senior’s “buy in.” He also raved about Zaire’s athleticism, good enough to play multiple positions.

But after watching the Irish offense fall apart as Golson struggled to keep mistakes from compounding, the analytical approach this spring will take away any mystery. That should go a long way towards clarifying the situation for both players, and ultimately a team and offensive unit that’s looking to the quarterback position to lead the team.

“I think [the evaluation process] helps them in their progression but it also helps them understand that we’re not going to make an arbitrary decision about who’s the starter,” Sanford said. “We’re going to work through the process of deciding that.”

 

(All quotes courtesy of JJ Stankevitz at CSN Chicago.) 

 

Irish draft hopefuls audition at ND Pro Day

BYU v Notre Dame
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Former Irish football players had their chance to audition for future employers today in South Bend at the Notre Dame Pro Day. It was a reunion of sorts as players from all over worked out inside the Gug under the watchful eyes of NFL scouts.

With Notre Dame only losing starters Ben Koyack, Cody Riggs and Kyle Brindza to the NFL, it’s not expected to be a big year for the Irish in the draft. But also returning to campus to audution were former captain Cam McDaniel, DaVaris Daniels, Jake Golic, Andrew Hendrix, Ethan Johnson, Kendall Moore, Justin Utupo and Alex Welch.

Daniels and Moore are back on campus even after last season’s suspension. They’re joined by Miami RedHawks Hendrix and Welch, who played out their eligibility under former offensive coordinator Chuck Martin.

Golic returned to campus after playing at Cincinnati. Johnson is looking to return to the NFL after being a part of the concussion class action lawsuit and a cup of coffee with the Kansas City Chiefs.

Let’s take to social media to get you some results:

Here’s an update on Cody Riggs, who was a surprise to be not among the invites to the combine in Indianapolis, but certainly helped his draft stock by running as fast as you’d have expected.

It appears that Riggs tweaked a hamstring later in the workout, but not before taking a slo-mo leap in the broad jump:

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Ben Koyack, who was invited to Indianapolis, but didn’t run the 40-yard dash there, did so in South Bend. Per SID Michael Bertsch, Koyack ran right around a 4.7, with the fastest time listed at 4.68.

Koyack was at the Senior Bowl and Combine and is likely to be the first former Irish player off the draft board, though maybe not as early as previous Notre Dame tight ends.

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Also back on campus is McDaniel, who is days away from becoming a father. A fringe candidate to make a roster, McDaniel showed some versatility—needed if he’s going to be a special teams performer on Sundays.

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Kyle Brindza did a nice job updating us on his Pro Day. Here’s the former Irish kicker on his afternoon, where he showed off epic strongman skills in addition to a big leg on kickoffs.

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In a parallel universe, DaVaris Daniels was catching passes from Andrew Hendrix. The Elkhart Truth’s Rachel Terlep even has proof.

Daniels spoke with media at the event, doing his best to put his suspension and inability to return to South Bend into context.

“It’s a difficult situation,” Daniels acknowledged to The Observer‘s Mike Monaco. “I don’t hold any grudges. I just don’t really like thinking about the situation… it is what it is. At this point, I’m ready for the NFL. That’s my focus.”

Daniels estimates he’s got a little over two semesters left of work to complete before earning his Notre Dame degree. He said all the right things about moving forward and hopefully finishing up his course work, while also taking the high road about the frustrating time where all five suspended athletes waited to hear their fate.

Most importantly for Daniels, at least when it comes to his immediate employment future, is getting his speed and explosiveness back. Various reports had Daniels breaking into the 4.5-range on his 40, a critical threshold for him.

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If you’re looking for good news out of South Bend, defensive end Ishaq Williams—currently in football and academic purgatory—was on hand watching the festivities. Williams didn’t speak to any media but sat with his teammates for the festivities, though what to make of that isn’t clear.

While scholarship numbers are tight, Williams could be a great addition to a defensive front that’s looking for more bulk, and it’d allow him to finish his Notre Dame degree after a two semester exile.

NBCSN to televise 86th annual Blue-Gold game

Everett Golson
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Just because Notre Dame Stadium isn’t open for business doesn’t mean the Blue-Gold game will be interrupted. After considering off-campus venues like Soldier Field and Lucas Oil Stadium, Brian Kelly will hold his final practice of the spring, the 86th annual Blue-Gold Game, on the LaBar Practice Fields. And it’ll be televised by NBC Sports Network.

Kickoff is set for 12:30 p.m on NBCSN. With limited seating options available due to the sheer logistical challenges of housing a spring game on practice fields no equipped with bleachers, Notre Dame won’t be selling tickets to the general public.

Monday afternoon NBC Sports announced that they’d still broadcast the annual scrimmage, giving fans the ability to see the progress made this spring by a promising Fighting Irish squad. It’ll be their first extended look inside the gates of the Irish practice facility.

The game will not only air on NBCSN, but it’ll also stream on the NBC Sports Live Extra App. Brian Kelly will be wired for sound, in addition to several players, along with interviews of current and former players.

After the logistics of this game were up in the air with Notre Dame Stadium undergoing significant construction as part of the Campus Crossroads renovations, finding a way to host this game on campus and still bring it to broadcast is a great final result, not to mention a nice consolation prize for fans used to making the annual trek to the spring game.

Notre Dame will also likely utilize the weekend for another recruiting event.

Redfield and Shumate rising to the occasion

Notre Dame v Arizona State
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There’s no contingency plan at safety this fall. While Cal transfer Avery Sebastian will add some much needed depth, the starting jobs as Notre Dame’s last lines of defense belong to Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate.

The duo held the same jobs for most of the 2014 season as well, until their inconsistent play banished both of them to the doghouse. Yet injuries and depth issues forced both back onto the field. And after a much needed step back during bowl prep, while they weren’t perfect against LSU, each ended the season playing one of their best games.

If the Irish defense is going to excel in 2015, they’ll need to get more from Redfield and Shumate. And is sounds like the veteran duo has responded to the challenge.

“Their development is clearly evident and so much different than where we were at this time last year or anytime during the season,” head coach Brian Kelly said. “We don’t see the missed assignments. We see clearly two guys that have grasped a hold of what we’re doing out there, so they’ve kind of settled into two very solid football players back there for us.”

That’s a necessity for the Irish if they intend to reach their lofty 2015 goals. And it’s also time for both former highly-touted recruits to play up to the potential they brought with them to South Bend.

As we saw with players like Harrison Smith, Zeke Motta and Kyle McCarthy, the lightbulb doesn’t always turn on immediately. And last year’s scheme change clearly took some getting used to, robbing two very good athletes of the first-step quickness that disappears when you’re thinking too much.

But second-year coordinator Brian VanGorder has kept a close eye on the safety position this spring. And at perhaps the most veteran position on the roster, the progress is coming.

“They’ve been real solid, both of them. Way more comfortable, more knowledgable. Not getting a lot of panic snaps from them. Just playing way more confident,” VanGorder said earlier this spring.

“Both of them have very good physical traits… The consistency of the position and the comfort of the position will bring out more of those physical traits that they have and make them both more productive. They’ve just got to keep working.”

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