Purdue v Notre Dame

Bowl prep helps both present and future along offensive line

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While most eyes are focused on the battle at quarterback between Everett Golson and Malik Zaire, the preparations for LSU will also be critical along the offensive line. The extra practices will give Brian Kelly and Harry Hiestand time to evaluate their starting five, with changes that could have both short and long-term impacts.

At right tackle, Christian Lombard will be playing in his final collegiate game. But only if he can beat out sophomore Mike McGlinchey, who replaced Lombard during the second quarter against USC.

“That’s a competitive situation,” Kelly said of the battle at tackle. “Mike is getting a lot of reps at that position. We like the things that he did against USC.”

But that battle at tackle is just the beginning of an evaluation that could bring a radical reboot to the offensive line come spring. The play along the front five was erratic in 2014, struggling at times to protect Golson and necessitating a shuffle of four starters in midseason.

While the Irish stuck with the same starting five until Kelly finally pulled Lombard against the Trojans, it sounds like things will be opened up during these extra bowl practices, with aims at entering spring with a better feel for the personnel.

“It’s a little bit different in terms of years past,” Kelly said. “We’ve evaluated a ton of defensive personnel. This is more about utilizing some offensive personnel, evaluating a lot of offensive linemen.

Notre Dame has recruited extremely well along the offensive line the past few cycles, replenishing a depth chart that got way too thin towards the tail end of 2012. But as some former blue-chip recruits transition deeper into their collegiate careers, it’s time to kick the tires on what they can actually do.

So bowl practice has been a concentrated look at the future, with the second-string given a rare chance to take center stage.

That means a look at Alex Bars at left tackle, a position that could be thrown into flux if Ronnie Stanley decides to head to the NFL. Bars is the type of athlete that this staff believes can handle the job, though presumably much better after a 2015 season with Stanley earning his way into a Top 10 draft pick. Also spending the majority of his time at tackle is Hunter Bivin, who has bounced inside and out before looking to have found his home at tackle.

After making some noise during fall camp, Quenton Nelson has moved inside to guard. At a position that’ll likely welcome back both starters, Nelson will make for some interesting competition, as it’s tough to believe that Kelly or Hiestand believe they got the best out of the interior of this offensive line.

Colin McGovern is another option at guard, while John Montelus is spending bowl season practicing at center, another position that demands a closer look. Whether that means Nick Martin moves back inside or Matt Hegarty holds onto the job will likely be determined this spring.

The fifth-year decisions will be an interesting look at how the Irish staff decides to move forward. Does a program player like Conor Hanratty return for a final season as a back-up on the interior, or does that job go to someone like McGovern? At tackle, things seem locked in with McGlinchey and Stanley, but that could be blown apart if the NFL becomes too tantalizing for Stanley.

The Irish scrapped their spring plans heading into fall camp this season, and seemed to be playing catch up almost from the start. Credit Kelly — who was undefeated at the time of the move — for bumping Elmer back inside after he started the season at right tackle, the move that demoted McGlinchey to sixth man.

Losing Zack Martin and Chris Watt (both NFL starters) wasn’t expected to be easy. But while 2014 felt stuck in transition, the Irish have one more big test to fortify the position against a very good LSU defense.

It’ll also serve as the bridge to 2015, a jumpstart to one of the most competitive position groups on the roster.

 

 

‘Blind Faith’ gives first time fan the Notre Dame experience

Stanford v Notre Dame
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Monday UND.com premiered the short film “Blind Faith.” Directed by Notre Dame graduate Greg Kohs, the documentary follows a blind eighth grade boy making his first visit to Notre Dame Stadium.

A student at the Indiana School for the Blind and Impaired, Mitchell and his family have bonded over Notre Dame football since he was a small child. Kohs and his crew captured Mitchell’s first game at Notre Dame Stadium, where he took in the Stanford game with his mother and father.

This first digital short in a three-part “First Time Fan” series, this is worth your time.

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Golson and Zaire will share time against LSU

Rice v Notre Dame
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Brian Kelly will play two quarterbacks against LSU, with both senior Everett Golson and sophomore Malik Zaire getting an opportunity to take on the LSU in the Music City Bowl. After a regular season where Golson served as the starter all 12 games with Zaire only seeing significant action against USC in the finale, both will be utilized in the Irish’s offensive game plan.

“I think both of them can help us win,” Kelly said Monday evening. “I want to play them both because I think both of them have different traits and we need to find a way to win the game. I think both of them can help us win.”

How they do that remains to be seen. After juggling multiple quarterbacks during his three seasons in Cincinnati, Kelly has mostly been a one-quarterback coach. But with a month between the one-sided loss to USC and a battle with the SEC’s top defense, Kelly and the offensive staff laid out a plan that should allow each quarterback to play to their strengths.

“We’ve got a plan in place in practice that I feel very comfortable with and we’ll continue to evaluate that as we go through our practices,” Kelly said. “I think as we get into the game there are skillsets that each one of them has that are a little bit different that we’ll utilize in the game. They both have strengths and we will call upon those strengths during the game. I’m confident that I can manage both of them during the game.”

Kelly identified those skills. For Zaire, the ability to run zone-read could help against a Tigers defense that’s stingy against the pass. For Golson, it’s the ability to create and make every throw on the football field, especially against a defense that’ll mostly utilize man coverage.

“I think you try to get a feel for it,” Kelly said, when asked about the balancing act. “But there are some things that we clearly know one quarterback does a little bit better and we’ll go to those strengths regardless of the situation.”

The platoon strategy came about in an interesting way. While some assume Kelly is only begrudgingly playing Zaire after putting up with so many mistakes from Golson throughout the season, it was only because of Golson’s buy-in these past few weeks that he’s sharing reps at all.

“There wouldn’t have been a competition,” Kelly said, hinting that he nearly turned the offense over to Zaire for LSU.

How well this quarterback shuffle works or how long it’ll go on remains to be seen. While the defensive collapse has been the main culprit for the Irish’s four-game slide, Kelly still pins a lot of the team’s woes on the offense not being able to carry the weight.

So he’s not closing the door on this competition dragging into next season.

“I’m open really to anything at this point,” Kelly said. “We want to put the best football team, the best offense that we can on the field. Ideally, you’d like to have one, but if we’ve got two, then that’s what we’ll do.”

 

 

 

 

Stanley still undecided on NFL future

Notre Dame v Syracuse
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Notre Dame junior offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley walked off the stage Friday night with the team’s Lineman of the Year Award. He’s still uncertain if it’s the last time he’ll take part in the season-ending festivities in South Bend.

Stanley has requested an evaluation from the NFL’s college advisory committee, joined by Sheldon Day, Everett Golson and Nick Martin. It’s the same process that’s led players like Stephon Tuitt, Troy Niklas and Kyle Rudolph to leave early while Zack Martin, Michael Floyd and Manti Te’o decided to return to school.

So while most of the talk over these next few months will be surrounding the stay-or-go decision in front of Stanley, the junior told Tim Prister at Irish Illustrated that he’s not ready to make any decision.

“Right now, I’m just focusing on finals and our next game,” Stanley told Prister. “I’m not even thinking about making a decision any time soon.”

While Stanley continues to show up as a top-rated offensive line prospect as college football’s silly season begins, it’s not all universal praise for the first-year left tackle. In a story at BlueandGold.com, ESPN’s Mel Kiper thought Stanley could be a Top 10 pick… if he waits to come out after next season.

“He needs another year,” Kiper said, according to Lou Somogyi. “I didn’t see the consistency week to week. Some games he had some struggles in pass protection, there were other games where he played really, really well. Flashing it and being consistent is different.

“In another year he could be a top 10 pick. Would he be that this year? No. I think he would probably be a late first or second round pick …[maybe] mid-second round. He’s got to go back.”

That opinion was echoed by former NFL personnel man Greg Gabriel. When talking to Prister, Gabriel was fairly emphatic that Stanley would do himself well by returning for another season.

“I think he’s a mid-round pick on talent. He’s athletic, but I don’t think he’s strong enough, I don’t think his technique is good enough and there’s lackadaisical play. There’s not a consistent, aggressive approach.”

Gabriel cited the benefits Zack Martin derived from not only returning for his senior season, but a fifth year as well.

“Let’s put it this way: (Stanley) ain’t no (Zack) Martin,” Gabriel said. “There’s not that down after down effort and tenacity. He doesn’t finish, and Martin is a perfect example of that. He was a fifth-year guy and got better all the time.

“Somebody could take (Stanley) high for what he could be, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to succeed and that doesn’t mean it’s right to leave. Guys get fired by making picks for what a guy could be.”

After making the move to left tackle this spring and starting every game there while the other four linemen up front mixed and matched, Stanley’s got more than a few fans at the next level. That’s understandable when you consider Stanley’s athleticism, not to mention the length and reach that has so many tantalized by his natural ability.

But after watching Tuitt, Niklas and Louis Nix all decide to leave South Bend without completing their eligibility and slide outside the Top 50 picks, it’s a datapoint that should give Stanley pause when seeing his player evaluation.

An even bigger one? The lack of impact that trio has made on Sundays.

Only Tuitt has started a game, with just 11 tackles on the year, and those starts came after injuries hit the Pittsburgh defensive front. Niklas made just three catches before going on the season-ending I.R., the same place where Nix has spent the entire season.

Stanley has a decision to make before January 15, the deadline for underclassmen to declare for the NFL Draft. And it doesn’t sound like one that’s going to be made in a hurry. Stanley told Prister he’ll wait until after the bowl game — a good test against a talented LSU front four.

Stanley is a key piece to Notre Dame’s plans in 2015. So while the Irish coaching staff is out trying to solidify a strong recruiting class, they’ll likely turn their focus to their own left tackle, trying to hold on to a lineman who has shown that the sky is truly the limit.