Rice v Notre Dame

Quarterback battle will take center stage

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Throughout spring practice, summer workouts and fall camp, Brian Kelly did everything he could to make us believe a quarterback battle was taking place between Everett Golson and Malik Zaire.

Twelve games and 22 turnovers later, the Irish finally have one.

Fueled by Golson’s struggles to protect the football over the season’s final nine games and Zaire’s competent play in his 2.5 quarters of lopsided action against USC, the most important job in the program will be open for competition.

That means for the first time since Golson returned to campus last spring, he and Zaire will take snaps on equal footing, with both quarterbacks taking dead aim at a starting job.

“We have to go into that practice with a mindset of giving Everett and Malik both an opportunity to show what they’re made of and how they’re going to compete,” Kelly said on Sunday. “But at the same time, see what competition looks like from that standpoint—true competition.

“Because, obviously, this was not a competitive situation during the year. Malik was the backup, and I think I made that pretty clear. We’re going to let them compete, and we’ll see where that puts us come game time.”

Game time means the opportunity to go against LSU’s defense. A young, talented and deep group that’s played excellent football since giving up 41 points to Auburn in early October, the Tigers will give a very blunt assessment as to where the Irish quarterback is, especially with over three weeks to prepare for Notre Dame.

But regardless of where the chips fall heading into the Music City Bowl, it’s clear that Kelly has taken not just the November slide, but Golson’s play on whole as an opportunity to reevaluate how he views the quarterback position. And it could mean a harsh reboot of a position that’s the key to driving the Irish offense.

“There’s some things that have to change at that position,” Kelly said. “So we’re going to have to see how quickly they are, if we’re on the right track, if we’re making progress there. That could be an extension into the spring. I really think it’s just a matter of we’re going to have to take it really step by step.

“We know there’s competition at the position. Now let’s let them go and compete.”

After hearing from Kelly, it’s clear that the next three weeks aren’t necessarily about the best quarterback for the Irish to beat LSU, but rather the best quarterback to lead the program. And that should leave both candidates feeling recharged.

For Zaire, it’s an open competition at a position that looked spoken for through January 2016. For Golson, it’s the chance to clear the slate and get back to the basics. And for Kelly, it’s a chance to reiterate the ground rules and reboot a competition that desperately needs someone to take hold of the job.

“Let’s be clear. The best I can give you is there’s a way I want that position to operate, and it’s going to operate the way I want it to operate,” Kelly said. “If you operate it the way I want it done, you’ll be the starting quarterback at Notre Dame.”

With 2014’s fate largely settled, there’s no urgency. Meaning we’ll have the opportunity to see Golson and Zaire battle until the coaching staff is settled on an offensive leader.

“It may be eight practices. It may be a year. But I’m going to have to see what I need to see from both of them,” Kelly said.

Irish wanted challenge? They’ll get one from LSU

Les Miles
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Notre Dame got what it wanted.

And if you thought Brian Kelly was looking for an easy matchup to become the first Irish head coach to win eight games or more in each of his first five seasons, think again.

“We wanted to be challenged again,” Kelly said, when discussing the formidable draw of LSU for the Music City Bowl on December 30. “There’s no sense going into this bowl game situation and feeling like you’re not going to be challenged.

“I feel like there are matchups there that don’t give you the same kind of challenge. This is one that we wanted.”

You get the feeling Kelly wasn’t speaking for Irish fans. Forget about the Sugar Bowl trouncing after the 2006 season, a game that showed the ocean between Charlie Weis’ best team and the SEC elite. After watching Notre Dame get creamed against USC in Los Angeles over Thanksgiving weekend, a segment of Irish fans were saying to skip a bowl game all together.

But that’s not how you build a football program. So even if the difference between a seven-win season and an eight-game campaign is largely insignificant, Kelly expects to accomplish a lot in the next three weeks.

With the Irish coaching staff on the road recruiting until later this week, Notre Dame will meet for their first practice this Friday. It’ll be the first of eight scheduled in South Bend, before getting another handful of practices in down in Nashville. All with the aim of not just notching what would be their most impressive victory on the season, but building the foundation for 2015.

“The tone is pretty clear about what the expectations are. There’s competition,” Kelly said. “There’s competition at all positions. So we’ll be looking forward to that kind of spirited practice opportunity.”

It appears that some of the injuries that plagued the Irish against USC could be on the mend. Kelly’s optimistic that safety Max Redfield can return from a rib injury. He also expects Greer Martini to be back. Same for cornerback Cody Riggs, taking on a familiar foe in his final collegiate game. There’s hope for Sheldon Day as well.

With a commitment to physical play during bowl prep, Kelly will do whatever it takes — even flipping some reserve offensive linemen to the opposite side of the ball so the Irish can go full tilt.

That type of work during bowl season will be key as the roster has little turnover from 2014 to 2015, but desperately needs to identify what it takes to go from the inconsistent team that crumbled down the stretch to a group with lofty postseason aspirations.

“This is really about improving our football team more than anything else and improving the play,” Kelly said. “As I told our football team, I really haven’t had much problem with this group in terms of their preparation and the way that they work. They put in the time. We’re just a sloppy team on Saturday.

“So we have to find out what’s that component? Why is that occurring? What are those things that are happening? So we’ve got to clean up what Saturday is about. Some of that is communication, trust. Some of that is confidence in your ability to go out and do your job. So this will allow us to really reinforce some of those things over the next three weeks.”

There is work to be done. And then there is a very difficult football game to win.

Les Miles’ Tigers feature the fourth top-ten defense the Irish will face this season. They took Nick Saban’s Alabama team to overtime this November. They knocked Ole Miss from the playoff hunt.

Long odds against a group that lost to Northwestern this November? To say the least.

But there might not be a better way to let a young football team know what it takes to win than stack them up against one of the SEC’s elite programs. Even if on paper it looks like a suicide mission.

“We think we’re going to be a really good football team. We’ve got some things that we have to clear up and address on Saturday,” Kelly said. “We’re, obviously, a few plays here and there from having a really good football season and talking about different situations.

“But we are who we are, and we think that this game in particular allows us to continue to not paint a false picture of who we are, but where we need to get better as we look towards 2015.”

Notre Dame to face LSU in Music City Bowl

Tarean Folston, Daniel Gonzales, Obi Uzoma
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Notre Dame will be spending the holidays in Nashville. Sunday afternoon the Irish accepted their first ever bid to the Music City Bowl, where they’ll take on LSU. Les Miles’ football team finished the season 8-4.

The Irish had access to the bowl in their first year affiliated with the ACC, taking one of the Tier I spots as part of the school’s scheduling agreement.

 “We’re thrilled with the opportunity to face LSU — one of the preeminent programs in all of college football,” said Kelly. “When we worked with the ACC to fashion our agreement, part of the attraction for Notre Dame was the ability to provide our program with this type of matchup. In that vein we’re excited to come to Nashville, to play in a bowl in which the University never before has participated and to play in a top-notch NFL venue.”

 

The Tigers lost four conference games this season, falling in September to Orange Bowl participant Mississippi State. They were blown out 41-7 by Auburn.

LSU lost back-to-back games in November, falling in overtime to Alabama before being shutout by Arkansas 17-0. The Tigers rebounded with a victory over Texas A&M to close out the regular season with an eighth victory. Their eight wins also included a 10-7 victory over then No. 3 Ole Miss.

“We are very excited to bring our football program and the great LSU fan base to Nashville to play Notre Dame in the Music City Bowl,” LSU coach said in a statement. “Notre Dame is a traditional football power and we are looking forward to renewing what has been a tremendous rivalry between the two programs through the years.”

More to come after Brian Kelly’s press conference.

 

 

Postseason Mailbag: The ‘Moving Forward’ edition

Malik Zaire, J.R. Tavai
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We’ll find out over the weekend where Notre Dame will go bowling. Until then, let’s dig into the mailbag.

 

NotreDan:

Here are ND’s rivals recruiting class rankings:

2014: #11
2013: #3
2012: #20
2011: #10

Here are TCU’s

2014: #50
2013: #30
2012: #37
2011: #26

Please explain the obvious question.

You mean, “How did TCU go 4-8 last year, with wins against just SE Louisiana, SMU, Iowa State and Kansas?”

Or, “How do men who watch primarily YouTube clips of high school football stars formulate objective rankings?”

Just kidding. How about the, “How come Notre Dame does so well in recruiting rankings but not necessarily on the field?”

I get your point. I really do. But you’re also likely part of the faction that complains when Notre Dame signs low-three star prospects like Will Fuller and Corey Robinson, but loves it when they turn into elite players.

The 2011 class won’t be what we thought it was, mostly because of injuries and attrition. But give up on the other classes at your own risk. I tend to think that 2013 group is going to lead this program to great heights, even if this year still stings.

 

schuey73: If Redfield is out of the bowl game, who is going to play Safety with Shumate? Hardy? Farley? Riggs?

Good question. Depending on Redfield’s injury, it’s likely going to be Shumate and Hardy, with perhaps… Matthias Farley filling in? (Even though he’s the team’s best nickel back.)

I don’t expect Cody Riggs to play another game for the Irish. I just think it’s too risky, considering that the next important rep he takes as a football player will be either at his Pro Day or the NFL Scouting Combine.

This position is in a bad, bad place from an injuries perspective. They’ll need to figure something out, maybe even support from John Turner, but getting Shumate up to speed should be first priority.

 

@LaFontaine12: Is there a chance Alford may go to CSU?

There’s a chance. And it sure would be great to see him get a shot.

For as important as Alford is to Notre Dame and their recruiting efforts, he’s a coach that deserves an opportunity to run a program and is the rare non-coordinator who has the people skills and leadership to be a great head coach.

And I’m not the only guy who thinks so.

 

cajunirish: Who starts in the bowl game, EG or MZ. I for one would like to see what MZ can do with a whole game. 

Where have we gone wrong with player development? Seems that we realize surprisingly little of the potential that we talk about in our recruits.

I have a feeling just about every fanbase feels that way about the recruits they sign. Mostly because we spend months and months in the offseason talking about these guys.

If you have joined the camp of “Brian Kelly doesn’t develop his players,” you’ve jumped off a cliff after a decade-plus of data suggesting he’s one of the best in the country at doing so.

There’s no doubt that Everett Golson regressed down the stretch, with his passive play against USC the worst football he exhibited all season.

I’d want to take the bowl game and play both of them — because evaluating Zaire when he was playing a USC defense with a 35-point lead isn’t exactly an apples to apples comparison. (When the Trojans decided to bring heat, they stopped Zaire, too.)

There’s no better way to go into spring than with both Golson and Zaire feeling like they have a chance to win a job. I think it’s great for the competitive situation.

Kidding with NotreDan aside, recruiting rankings are sometimes really unfair to players, especially guys like Greg Bryant and Max Redfield, two players tabbed with the “five-star” label, but kids that need time to develop. Now they’ll enter Year 3 at a time when they should be making their move to stardom, not feeling like they’ve already failed.

When you play freshmen, you get freshmen results. We saw that down the stretch, in all its ugliness. Even if Nyles Morgan was making 10 tackles a game he was still in the wrong place and missed a dozen more.

That’s player development. And I’m guessing that’ll be more of an emphasis this spring than in years past. But the struggles this season will help next year.

sfnd: 

Keith, Please imagine yourself in another’s shoes. What are the 3 most important concerns / questions regarding the ND football program if you are :

A. Jack Swarbrick

B. Brian Kelly

C. A top high school recruit

For Swarbrick:
1. Are we still making progress?
2. Is the backslide because of on-field woes or foundational issues?
3. Make sure I’ve got an updated list of replacements for every head coaching job on campus, football included.

For Brian Kelly:
Just read this again.

For recruits:
1. Can I make the NFL?
2. Will I get my degree?
3. What kind of gear am I wearing?

 

fwirish: do you think it will really be an open competition for the position next year?

Sure do. Because Kelly had a lot of people believing last year’s competition was real, and I never for one minute thought Zaire even had a chance.

To answer a sub-question, I think it’s a two-man race, with Kizer having to fight his way into the conversation and Wimbush likely trying to drink from the firehose.

In many ways, Golson’s struggles paired with Zaire’s comfort in the spotlight will mean that Kelly will hopefully be able to elevate the play of both players and also challenge them to compete harder, if only because there’s no fear if one goes down that the other can’t keep up.

The position is healthy. Unfortunately, we had to watch Golson continue to stub his toe to get to this point.

 

irish1958: Keith, Everybody knows Saban is a great coach. How do you think he would do if he lost 17 players from his two deep defense and one of his leading offensive weapons?

Jokes aside, there may be no program better situated to handle a rash of injuries than Alabama’s. And that comes from years of oversigning “roster management.” In that regard, it’s probably Alabama…and then everybody else.

 

coachtemp: Do you believe that BK and staff read the articles/comments posted here on Inside the Irish?

I cut the rest of this question out because I certainly hope that the staff doesn’t read this stuff!

Not that I don’t think that my opinion matters, but these guys are working 100 hour weeks trying to grind through a season. You want them to troll the comments or my columns for run game suggestions?

Too often writers/readers/websites take credit for suggesting something and then seeing it happen. Chances are, a smart/competent football staff will come to the same realization themselves.

I believe this group will figure it out. I haven’t changed my expectations for next season at all. In many ways, I think the struggles will provide even better fuel for next season.

 

steincj36: Is it just me, or did BK seem a little “disconnected” from the team in the 2nd half of the season? Like laying 100% blame on Everett after ASU and saying “they got their butt kicked” after USC? It just seems as if he personally refused to take the burden of the losses and rather put it on the players.

I ask this because I think Everett lost all his confidence when Kelly verbally undressed him after ASU.

I thought I already wrote this, but it’s worth posting again. I was standing in the room and asking questions when BK spoke postgame after ASU.

And I don’t think a single person in that room read it as “laying 100% blame on Everett.” I’ve been surprised and disappointed that people are spinning a narrative (that I’ve seen growing) that Kelly only blames his players for mistakes.

More to this point, right after the ASU game I watched Golson come into the media room and basically say the same thing. He doesn’t have a live feed into the head coach’s comments. So it’s not like he and BK had a chance to get their stories straight.

Golson lost his confidence because he COULDN’T STOP TURNING THE FOOTBALL OVER! That caused him to play tight — and just like a pitcher that starts steering the ball towards home plate, it never goes well.

Golson isn’t broken. And he’s hardly a guy with a weak will or strength of mind. Did we all forget that this was a kid who was kicked out of school and instead of transferring somewhere else and playing immediately he came back to Notre Dame?

These guys aren’t checked out. Nobody is disconnected. There’s just a ton of frustration that comes along with losing — both players (suspensions and injuries) and football games.

Lastly point (and sorry if this comes off as a rant against you, steiny) but Kelly seems in a bad spot. You want the standard coachspeak or a guy who is willing to be candid? I’ll take the version we’ve got all night long.

 

ndrocks2: Keith – what have you heard about the junior college prospect from Fresno City College, running back Jeremy Smith? When was the last time we recruited a JuCo player that you can remember?

I can’t remember a junior college player transferring in football. (Though I do know some athletes that transferred in after getting credits at the community college level.) But I did some digging on Smith, and ND’s interest in him is legit. Also, while he spent this season playing at the JuCo level, he was a full qualifier out of high school who didn’t like his offers and went out to do better for himself.

And after watching his film, it looks like he did that.

From what I hear, ND is working through some of the transfer issues, especially from a school like Fresno City College. But if things work out, Smith will come in as a sophomore with three years of eligibility remaining.  He’ll add some much needed depth and power to the running backs group, and a safety net if the Irish come up empty down the stretch chasing a second running back.

 

flandersst1: Given Brian Kelly’s history with multiple QB’s (i.e. he used 5 QB’s at Cinci in 2008 and won the Big East), would it be a bad thing if he platooned EG and MZ next year until game action indicated who was clearly better?

I wrote before the Rice game that I thought Zaire would get a series in the first half. So I’ve never hade an issue with playing both guys. But I think for every successful multi-quarterback system, there’s been about a hundred that didn’t work.

So I just prefer the leash gets shorter and both guys are held accountable. A platoon suggests both guys are ready. And that’s still the big question, because we certainly didn’t see enough from Zaire to prove he is.

But it’ll sure make for more interesting debate this offseason.

 

prodigolson: What should I be filling up my glass with when the Irish take the field for the bowl game?

Tears. It’s the last real football game we’ll be watching for nine months.

 

 

Corey Robinson named first-team Academic All-American

Notre Dame v Florida State
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Notre Dame sophomore wide receiver Corey Robinson was named a first-team Academic All-American on Thursday. He is only the second Irish sophomore ever to be named first-team Academic All-American and the first sophomore since 2008 to be given the honor in the entire country.

The San Antonio native was second on the Irish with 40 catches, 539 receiving yards and five touchdowns. He also has a 3.83 grade point average as a liberal studies major, one of the most challenging curriculums on campus.

Robinson’s season was a struggle from the start, a broken thumb suffered in preseason camp making it difficult for the receiver. But Robinson had some big moments in his second year of competition, playing big against Florida State in Tallahassee as well as against Syracuse. Robinson had eight catches in each game, scoring three of his five touchdowns.

In UND.com’s official release, the school points to some key reasons why Robinson deserves such a prestigious honor. He serves on the team’s unity council. He’s also a member of the university’s student government executive cabinet.

Robinson also participates in the athletic department’s Christian Athletes Advisory Council and with the Rosenthal Leadership Academy. He also is the chair of the Student-Athlete Advisory Council’s IrishOn3 initiative.

Notre Dame’s football program also won the 2014 American Football Coaches Association Academic Achievement Award. The Irish shared the award with Duke, Northwestern and Stanford.