Massachusetts v Vanderbilt

Offseason Q&A: UMass

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After a difficult three-game stretch to start Notre Dame’s season, the Irish will welcome UMass to South Bend, a game that was originally intended to match up former Irish offensive coordinator Charley Molnar with his previous employer.

But Molnar was replaced after two rocky years—the programs’ first after moving up to the FBS level—bringing Mark Whipple back into the fold. And while the improvement was certainly incremental, their three wins were one more than Molnar managed over two seasons.

Sandwiched in the middle of seven difficult games on consecutive weeks, UMass looks like the easiest matchup of the season. But with a veteran quarterback who may be the MAC’s best, the Minutemen are improving, adding at least a bit of intrigue into a game that lacks it on paper.

To get us up to speed on the UMass program, we bring in Matt Vautour, who covers UMass Sports for the Daily Hampshire Gazette. Matt was nice enough to answer some questions on the state of the UMass program, what went wrong with Molnar, and what we can expect when the Minutemen roll in from Amherst.

Here we go.

 

The UMass-ND game was originally set to have the Irish play against their former offensive coordinator, Charley Molnar. That won’t happen, with Molnar replaced after two seasons and as many victories. You covered Molnar’s time atop the UMass program. Can you give us an idea of what exactly went so wrong?

At the beginning, Molnar’s combination of enthusiasm and extreme confidence made him instantly popular with UMass fans, who wanted to believe his lofty promises. But once the games started things went downhill fast. On the field his spread scheme seemed ill-matched with his personnel. His play-calling and clock management were questionable.

Off the field Molnar alienated alumni, fans and eventually his own players, who resented Molnar’s unwillingness to take any of the blame for the team’s struggles. A video that went public of coach-organized boxing and wrestling matches between team members drew scorn from the school’s upper administration as well. Because UMass was in its first years as Bowl Subdivision team, he might have survived a combined 2-22 record. But by the end Molnar didn’t really have anyone in his camp.

 

The Minutemen made a modest, but impressive jump in 2014 under the leadership of veteran coach Mark Whipple, who had a very good first tour of duty as the UMass head coach at the FCS level from 1998-2003. How did Whipple steady the ship? And what should Irish fans expect from his team?

A: Whipple’s previous success combined with the fact that he wasn’t Molnar made him instantly popular again. His pro style offense seemed to better fit his roster and the entire organization of the program certainly seemed more in order. Mostly his players embraced him and played hard for him. Molnar recruited some good players and Whipple did a good job of getting better play from them. With most of the roster back, there’s optimism at UMass that this should be the best team since the FBS upgrade.

 

It looks like the UMass offense is powered by the passing game. How capable of a signal caller is Blake Frohnapfel? He’s a first-team All-MAC selection by Phil Steele, giving us a clue that he’s legit. In his second season utilizing the graduate transfer rule, what’s the ceiling for the UMass QB? Does he have a pro future?

UMass has to thank the football gods every day that Frohnapfel was available because he greatly accelerated the Minutemen’s improvement. He was a leader from his first day and is the face of the program.

He’s a smart quarterback and pretty accurate. His value was especially apparent in the last two games of the season. With Frohnapfel out with a broken leg, the UMass offense sputtered in two lopsided losses. Playing in a pro style offense for a former NFL quarterback coach will help Frohnapfel’s chances, but he’s far from a lock. He’ll need a big year and to be more accurate on longer throws.

 

Every college football fan loves some good, old-fashioned offensive MACtion. With Frohnapfel, wide receiver Tajae Sharpe and TE Rodney Mills all on Steele’s preseason first team, and a veteran returning offensive line, is it safe to say that the Minutemen’s offense is going to challenge the Irish?

For UMass to have a chance, it will have to finish drives and score enough to hang in. It will need better production from an inconsistent running game to help take the pressure of Frohnapfel and the passing attack. Notre Dame figures to be the best team the Minutemen have faced under Whipple.

 

Jovan Santos-Knox looks like a tackling machine. But it also looks like UMass could struggle to stop people, especially in the air. Notre Dame’s offense doesn’t lack for talented personnel. Is this the mismatch to watch?

To have any chance in South Bend, UMass needs its defense to play better than it did last year. The Minutemen need Santos-Knox to make fewer tackles because they’ve gotten off the field quicker.

 

Notre Dame rarely plays a MAC opponent, and most Irish fans are categorizing this game in the cupcake / purchased victory mold. Is that a dangerous stance? A few big victories (Colorado, Vandy) slipped through the Minutemen’s fingers last season. Still in their infancy, what’s the best-case scenario not just for a September Saturday in Notre Dame Stadium, but for the UMass season?

After two years of not being competitive at all, UMass’ downfall in 2014 was an inability to finish. The Minutemen could have beaten Colorado and should have beaten Vanderbilt. UMass had fourth quarter leads against Bowling Green, Miami (Ohio) and were tied with Toledo with under six minutes left.

Most of the roster is back on both sides of the ball. If they can close out games, they’ll have a very realistic shot at one of the MAC’s five bowl spots. Hanging with Notre Dame is another story however. UMass was overmatched against both Boston College and Penn State last year and the Irish figure to be better than both of them. The Minutemen will be hoping a lot of breaks go their way and Notre Dame comes out sluggish and overconfident.

Report: Irish might be adding OL Jurkovic

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Notre Dame’s 2015 recruiting class took a hit when defensive end Bo Wallace didn’t arrive in South Bend. And it looks like Brian Kelly and company could be evaluating a late addition to make up for it—and one with a hometown (and home team) connection.

Irish Illustrated reports that South Bend native Mirko Jurkovic Jr. could join Notre Dame’s freshman class after not enrolling at Ohio State this summer. Jurkovic was a four-star prospect who played the majority of his high school football at St. Joseph’s in South Bend before finishing his career at the IMG Academy in Florida.

This from Pete Sampson’s report:

According to multiple sources, Notre Dame is evaluating the Irish legacy and one-time Ohio State signee, who did not enroll in Columbus this summer due to a reported academic issue. Notre Dame’s interest in Jurkovic is advanced enough that he’s attempted to improve his test scores for admission.

How this all works out remains to be seen. As Sampson points out, admissions—which looked to be the issue in Columbus—doesn’t seem to be figured out yet in South Bend.

Likewise, scholarship numbers, with the Irish still needing to compress to get to 85, might make Jurkovic a candidate for something other than a traditional 2016 scholarship counter if he’s allowed in this fall.

While Notre Dame didn’t offer Jurkovic during the recruiting period, they were in communication with him, especially late in the cycle after Jerry Tillery became a defensive line target. But it never seemed like a great fit, even as an Irish legacy. But if the Irish roster is able to add the 6-foot-5, 285-pounder, who had offers from Florida, Tennessee, and had once been a Nebraska commit, then it might be a great way to fill out the position group.

Jurkovic’s father was the late Mirko Jurkovic Sr., the former All-American offensive lineman who passed away two years ago after a battle with cancer. He was a member of Notre Dame’s 1988 national championship team.

Irish A-to-Z: Greg Bryant

North Carolina v Notre Dame
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Greg Bryant has yet to play up to the 5-star status he entered South Bend possessing. Now for the good news: He’s got three more seasons to try.

The blue-chip prospect has needed more time than many expected, suffering through bumps and bruises and a learning curve that turned his freshman season into a redshirt year. And while he ended up leading the team in yards per carry and served as the Irish’s lead back in September,  Bryant settled into a backup role behind classmate Tarean Folston as his carries trailed off near the end of the year.

But with little depth at the position, the future is now for Bryant. While C.J. Prosise’s emergence in spring ball could once again create a challenge for the Floridian to get the touches he may need, he’s also getting a fresh start, working with Autry Denson and Mike Sanford to find new ways to remind opponents—and fans—about his talent.

Let’s take a closer look at Greg Bryant.

 

GREG BRYANT
5’10”, 205 lbs.
Junior, No. 1, RB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Bryant was a Top 20 player according to Rivals, a five-star talent who was among the top players in the country. While he had options to go just about everywhere, Bryant flipped his commitment to Notre Dame in the middle of an undefeated regular season, leaving Oklahoma—and several other programs—in the dust.

He wasn’t necessarily seen as a burner or a big back, but an all-around runner who was carved from granite. We’ve seen that lack of one-great-skill play into his struggles a bit, though he also had some highlight reel play last season to remind us of the upside recruitniks saw.

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2013): Appeared in three games before missing the rest of the season with an injury.

Sophomore Season (2014): Led the Irish with a 5.4 yards per carry average. Played in 12 games, finishing second on the team in carries and yards. Scored three touchdowns, broke a 27 yard run against USC for a career best. Had a 61-yard punt return against Louisville.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

For as much as most of us were ready for Bryant to play like a returning veteran, he played a lot like a guy doing things for the first time. Which, essentially, he was. And as we suspected, touches were a problem.

Finding touches will be the most interesting part of 2014. With Brian Kelly back calling the plays, we’ll see exactly how often the head coach wants to get Bryant involved. McDaniel has earned his minutes playing for Kelly, and we’ve seen the Irish head coach feed footballs to the running back he trusts most.

If Bryant can earn his way to that status, then he’s poised to have a monster year, as he’s the best power-running short-yardage back on the roster. But a modest goal of 10 touches a game should be where the bar is set, assuming that Folston deserves just as many.

One place for Bryant to help the Irish is in the short passing game and on special teams. He’s been given the first shot at the punt return job, a spot where for years the Irish were happy just fair catching the football. Bryant should also have a chance to replace George Atkinson as kick returner, though his top-end speed isn’t where Atkinson’s was.

As a pass catcher, Bryant could be an electric option. Kelly was quick to kill comparisons to Theo Riddick, who Kelly believes to be a better receiver, but Bryant is a bigger, stronger and faster version of Riddick.

Ultimately, Bryant is a player with a ton to prove. Can a year in the program shed the burden of great expectations? If the Irish offense is going to be as explosive as many expect, the answer needs to be yes.

Bryant didn’t get to 10 touches a game, he capped out right around five. Let’s see what happens in an offense that’ll utilize Malik Zaire in the run game, too.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

At this point, there’s no reason to believe Bryant won’t turn into a very good running back. He may not be the star that we expected, but he’s still got a lot of traits that look like they’ll play quite well in South Bend… and on Sundays.

Nobody expected five years in South Bend for Bryant. But that might end up being a very good thing for him, especially if he’s capable of learning from Autry Denson, a new voice that’ll help repurpose some of the information coming in.

Tarean Folston is the team’s best running back. C.J. Prosise stole the spring headlines—and potentially the goal line carries if he’s up to 230 pounds. But Bryant did some electric things last season, and showed a very good mesh with Malik Zaire against USC, hopefully a sign of things to come.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

A freshman averaging 5.4 yards per carry? That should get you excited, right? Well, that’s what Bryant did, and it’s only viewing him through the 5-star prism that gets people feeling like he’s underperforming.

If there’s something that has me most excited about Bryant it’s the news that he’s become a guy who recruits visit with. In a recent Irish 247 podcast, Florida running back Dexter Williams pointed to Bryant as a guy that made him choose Notre Dame. It was Bryant’s maturity about why he picked Notre Dame and why he’s never wavered about his commitment to the Irish even after a slow start to his career that had Williams believing he could succeed in South Bend, too.

The talent is there. The maturity seems to be, too. If he can create the opportunities behind a very powerful offensive line, there’s no reason Bryant can’t be very prolific, even if it’s in a less-than-starring role.

 

THE 2015 IRISH A-to-Z
Josh Adams, RB
Josh Barajas, OLB
Nicky Baratti, S
Alex Bars, OL
Asmar Bilal, OLB
Hunter Bivin, OL
Grant Blankenship, DE
Jonathan Bonner, DE
Miles Boykin, WR
Justin Brent, WR
Chris Brown, WR

Irish A-to-Z: Chris Brown

Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl
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Chris Brown enters his senior season in South Bend, still looking to build on a magical start. When the lanky South Carolina native arrived on campus, he was a designated deep threat — used to perfection against Oklahoma on one of the season’s defining plays.

His career hasn’t lived up to that moment, and last year’s promising campaign had a few bad ones as well (let’s just say Brown isn’t going to be handling any more jet sweep carries at the goal line). But 39 catches and 548 yards are a season to build on, and word out of spring practice showcased a different type of player, one likely with a sense of urgency.

An elite track and field athlete—Brown would’ve won the Big East’s Triple Jump title as a high school junior—there’s a lot to like about the South Carolina native. So let’s take a look at what to expect from the veteran leader of the wide receiving corps.

 

CHRIS BROWN
6’1.5″ 195 lbs.
Senior, No. 2, WR

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

His senior season was shortened by injuries, but Brown’s athleticism was displayed on the track, a national record setter in the triple jump and a 10.8 100-meter dash. He was viewed as a three-star prospect, but Notre Dame beat out home state South Carolina and Steve Spurrier for Brown’s signature and he took an official visit to Alabama, and Kelly wasn’t shy about his belief in Brown on Signing Day.

“If we were talking from an NFL standpoint and I was the general manager after draft day, we would consider this young man a steal of the draft,” Kelly said on Signing Day 2012. “We believe he has a skill set that we do not have currently on this football team.”

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2012): Saw action in all 12 games. Started two. First catch of his career was a 50-yarder against Oklahoma. Also made a six-yard grab against Wake Forest.

Sophomore Season (2013): Started four games while appearing in all 13. Season-long catch of 40-yards against Purdue. Caught his first touchdown against Air Force. Totaled 15 catches for 209 yards and one touchdown.

Junior Season (2014): Started 11 of 13 games last season, putting up career high in catches and yards. Had nine catches of 20 yards or longer. Had career best 82 yards on two catches against Navy.
WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR

I was skeptical that Brown was ready to take the leap last season and I turned out to be mostly right, especially considering DaVaris Daniels’ absence opened things up for Brown.

This prediction is completely dependent on a few key variables: First, the explosiveness that we’re hoping to see from the Irish offense in 2014, namely quarterback Everett Golson’s ability to hit big plays down the field. If that’s the case, then expect Brown to be one of the main beneficiaries.

Secondly, it’s dependent on Brown cleaning up his game. In a stable of sure-handed pass catchers, Brown stood out for a few careless drops. There was also the end zone interception against Pitt where Brown wasn’t competitive on the route. Those types of things are fatal in a Brian Kelly offense, and will get you taken off the field.

Perhaps we were expecting too much from Brown early, the product of remembering one singular play in a season where he only made two catches. Brown played his best in the Pinstripe Bowl, rebounding from the disappointment against Pitt and capitalizing on the opportunity after a month of practice.

I’m not entirely convinced that Brown is any better than the fourth receiver in this offense, and that doesn’t take into consideration slot players C.J. Prosise and Amir Carlisle. But if this offense runs optimally, there should be catches and touchdowns to go around, for Daniels, Fuller, Robinson and Brown.

We’ll know if the resurgent spring was coachspeak and the bowl game simply a data point come this fall. But Brown is the type of player that the Irish are counting on to help them score points, so his ascent could be crucial in 2014.

I think Brown turned his game around in 2014 after some early season struggles, becoming a key piece of the outside receiving game, pretty much pairing with Corey Robinson opposite Will Fuller. He made a big catch against LSU and played pretty well against USC in blowout circumstances.

 

UPSIDE POTENTIAL

Call me crazy, but there’s still plenty of upside for Brown. This is a big, strong, fast kid, who only just now has started to play big, strong and fast. And while I’ll be a fool to fall for it, talking with Jac Collinsworth—pretty much the only media member who had a look at every spring practice—he couldn’t stop raving about the performances he saw from Brown in practice.

I still think Chris Brown has NFL potential as a receiver, especially when he runs a 4.4 and jumps out of the gym at pro day. But if he can’t shake the inconsistency that’s defined his game so far in his senior season, than it’s never going to happen.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

We’ve watched veterans step forward under Brian Kelly and play very good football. And I actually believe this is going to happen with Brown. Will Fuller has nowhere to hide next season, as defenses are going to be hyperaware of his spot on the field before every snap. So that should automatically lead to some preferred matchups for Brown, situations he needs to win.

We’ve watched Brown fail to make the big play—a critical fumbled last year at the goal line, getting beat out for a ball in the end zone during Notre Dame’s loss to Pitt in 2013. But we also saw him climb the ladder to convert a big 3rd down against LSU, and break off big chunks of yardage when given the opportunity.

TJ Jones went from a 649 yard junior season to a ridiculous 1,108, nine-touchdown senior year. I’m not predicting that type of output for Jones—I just don’t think he’s going to get the touches. But at the same time, I think a eight touchdown, 800-yard season is in the cards, with a 15-plus-yard-per-catch average happening.

 

THE 2015 IRISH A-to-Z
Josh Adams, RB
Josh Barajas, OLB
Nicky Baratti, S
Alex Bars, OL
Asmar Bilal, OLB
Hunter Bivin, OL
Grant Blankenship, DE
Jonathan Bonner, DE
Miles Boykin, WR
Justin Brent, WR

 

Irish A-to-Z: Justin Brent

Justin Brent, Devin Butler
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There are good debut seasons. And then there are debut seasons like the one Justin Brent just had.

The Indianapolis native enrolled early in South Bend, exciting fans with his physicality and size that made him look like a potential fit in a receiving corps lacking a college-ready body like the one Brent already possesses. But Brent’s season was a roadmap of what not to do at Notre Dame, making headlines for all the wrong reasons as a mostly anonymous special teams performer.

(It’s not worth going over again, so just move on from here if you don’t know what happened…)

While he worked his way out of Brian Kelly’s doghouse before the bowl game, Brent enters his second season in a similar spot—looking for reps in a competitive wide receiving depth chart, and now having some negative headlines to overcome.

There were signs of a turnaround this spring, including a nice touchdown in the Blue-Gold game. But entering his second season, let’s take a look at the crossroads where Brent finds himself.

 

JUSTIN BRENT
6’1.5″, 205 lbs.
Sophomore, No. 11, WR

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Brent committed to Notre Dame waaaaay early, a full summer ahead of most early commits. But his recruiting profile rose steadily, especially when he lit up The Opening and the Rivals Five-Star Challenge in Chicago.

Brent didn’t have overwhelming offers, but that comes with pledging to the Irish after your sophomore season and playing running back out of need as a senior. He was a high four-star prospect according to Rivals regardless, and he looked it from the moment he stepped on campus.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Played in nine games, mostly on special teams. Did not make a catch at wide receiver.

 

WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR

So the Irish coaching staff didn’t redshirt Brent, but you could’ve made the argument that it made more sense to do so, especially considering he played only on special teams.

The Crystal Ball looked pretty sharp, especially with depth chart issues and the craft of playing wide receiver likely contributing to the logjam in front of Brent.

It may have been a foolish prediction around Signing Day, but I get the feeling that Brent might spend the year redshirting. It’s a decision that Kelly pulled off with DaVaris Daniels, another receiver with NFL potential who was stuck behind Michael Floyd so this isn’t a referendum on his talent. But there just might not be enough footballs to make it worth using a year of eligibility.

Where Brent might slide into the mix is after Daniels heads to the NFL, which may be after the 2014 season. That would leave Will Fuller, Corey Robinson and Chris Brown as outside receivers, along with the unknown quantities that are Torii Hunter Jr. and Corey Holmes (and an incoming freshman class). If Brent projects inside, he’ll likely have both Prosise and Carlisle still in the mix, though the staff believes he’s an outside receiver in the current system.

Snippets of UND.com practice videos aren’t necessarily the best evaluation tool, but Brent has some work to do sharpening his routes and getting more comfortable playing as a true wideout. But physically and athletically he looks the part of a dominant offensive weapon, and that’s a great place to start.

Brent starts fall camp in a pretty similar place, and that’s without considering the talent coming in as true freshmen to compete.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

There’s still a ton to like about Brent as a football player, though I worry a bit about his smoothness in space and his hands, two things you don’t want to worry about for a receiver. So while he’s made some dazzling plays in practice, he’s also shown some struggles getting in and out of routes and catching the football, two traits that turn wideouts into safeties.

That’s not looking like the career path for Brent, but a detour could be in the making—especially if his maturity and decision making doesn’t take a very big step forward. Notre Dame’s in a tight spot with scholarships, and malcontents aren’t going to stick around anymore.

Brent’s best gift is an NFL body that he’s clearly spent hours crafting. But the development between the ears is what’ll be most important, and was certainly what Kelly challenged during spring drills every time he mentioned the Indianapolis native.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

While I’ve been pretty hard on Brent, I actually think the thing that struck me the most was the celebratory hug he shared with his head coach after the Music City Bowl victory. That didn’t look like an embrace you got from an exiled freshman with one foot out the door, but rather the look of a kid who seemed ready, willing and engaged.

One thing that might actually help Brent is starting quarterback Malik Zaire. It’s unlikely that Brent caught too many passes from Everett Golson in practices last season. But Zaire? The duo’s chemistry was on display in the Blue-Gold game, and could also help Brent’s confidence come training camp.

While I mentioned physical play as a way for Miles Boykin to get on the field, Brent’s the perfect body type to mangle defensive backs as a blocker on the edge. That’s a thankless job that requires pinpoint technique and buy-in, something we’ll see if Brent possesses.

This career could go two ways—a transfer or a four-year career that puts in the rearview a bumpy debut season. Next season will go a long way towards determining that path.

 

THE 2015 IRISH A-to-Z
Josh Adams, RB
Josh Barajas, OLB
Nicky Baratti, S
Alex Bars, OL
Asmar Bilal, OLB
Hunter Bivin, OL
Grant Blankenship, DE
Jonathan Bonner, DE
Miles Boykin, WR