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Better balance alongside St. Brown needed at WR


Compare junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown’s stats from last season with the combined totals of Notre Dame’s five other returning receivers, and the numbers are startlingly similar. St. Brown caught 58 passes for 961 yards and nine touchdowns. Those five other receivers—juniors Chris Finke, C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin and sophomores Kevin Stepherson and Chase Claypool—combined for 70 catches for 1,039 yards and 10 scores.

St. Brown’s stat line, on its own, makes for a good season. Spreading the other set of numbers across five receivers makes for an unsustainably lopsided distribution. Irish coach Brian Kelly expects that to shift in 2017.

“I see better balance,” Kelly said Friday. “We have some guys that will come up to the level [St. Brown] was at least year to give the quarterback and the offense a little more balance than we had last year.”

That is not to say St. Brown will not be at an even higher level than he was in his breakout campaign.

“EQ will be a better player,” Kelly said. “He’s working on some of the weaknesses that he has, which limits him in certain areas, and he’s diligently working on those.”

Even with an improved No. 1 receiver, other feared options will be necessary to keep opposing secondaries honest, allowing the Notre Dame offense to possibly achieve Kelly’s desire of consistency.

“You’re going to see a better supporting cast across the board, which will give us much more balance,” Kelly said. “More importantly, it’s going to give us much more consistency from an offensive standpoint.”

The supporting cast that will provide that balance is in flux through the first half of spring practices, per Kelly. Following the seventh of the 15 practices (with April 22’s Blue-Gold Game being No. 15), Kelly quickly included the receivers among other heated position competitions.

“The wide receiver position is really a very competitive situation,” Kelly said. “Including Miles Boykin, who’s having a really good spring. He’s tracking the ball very well and catching it consistently.”

Boykin made six catches for 81 yards, including an 18-yard touchdown against Virginia Tech, in 2016. Currently listed at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, he provides the option of significant size when aligned with St. Brown (6-foot-5, 204) and Claypool (6-foot-4.5, 224). In his freshman season, Claypool’s length served him well, but Kelly indicated more should be expected from him moving forward.

“It’s been a learning experience for [Claypool],” Kelly said. “We threw him right into the fire last year, and he was swimming … Clearly, [Claypool] has definitely benefited from being here over the year and is more consistent.”

On the other end of the size spectrum from Boykin and Claypool, Sanders (5-foot-8, 185) and Finke (5-foot-9.5, 177) offer the Irish speedier, shiftier options similar to the mold of Torii Hunter, Jr., who finished last season with 38 catches for 521 yards and three touchdowns. Admittedly, Hunter is bigger than both current options, listed at 6-feet and 195 pounds.

“[Sanders] and Finke would be certainly the exception to the rule of the receivers we have,” Kelly said. “But they have a place in our offense and they’ll be used accordingly. The offensive structure is such that we can use those guys. They have a place, they can be effective players.”

Kelly also mentioned the Notre Dame tight ends, led by graduate student Durham Smythe’s returning nine receptions for 112 yards and four scores.

“Durham Smythe is in the best condition physically that he’s ever been, mentally and physically,” Kelly said. “With him, [junior] Alizé Jones and [senior] Nic Weishar you’ve got a great combination.”

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Kelly: Fundamentals, consistency and position battles

Kelly on Kizer: ‘He’s got all the tools … He needs more football’

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  • Fact No. 1: Former Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer entered the NFL Draft with two years of college eligibility remaining.
    Fact No. 2: Nearly two weeks ago, Irish coach Brian Kelly said he does not think Kizer is ready to win a Super Bowl right now.
    Fact No. 3: A full 13 days ago, Kelly also said he thinks Kizer has the most-promising future of all the quarterbacks in this draft.
    Fourth and final fact: Kelly reiterated those opinions yesterday during an interview with Bruce Murray and Brady Quinn on SiriusXM radio, adding he told Kizer the best place to grow as a player next year would be in college.

Oh, wait, another fact: It is 2017 and only 140 characters fit into a tweet, so a single Twitter post could easily leave out some of those first four facts.

Fortunately, this space faces no such restrictions.

Quinn, someone uniquely familiar with all that comes with being Notre Dame’s starting quarterback, asked Kelly about Kizer’s pro day. In answering, Kelly referenced Kizer’s “strong arm,” including, He’s got all those tools that you’re looking for at the quarterback position.” Kelly then proceeded to praise Kizer’s performance as the unexpected 2015 starter, leading the Irish to a 10-3 finish and an appearance in the Fiesta Bowl.

“Look at what he did as a redshirt freshman when he was sufficiently supported around him with a Will Fuller and a C.J. Prosise and the balance that he had,” Kelly said. “He had a young football team around him and it was difficult for him at times. So I think he’s got all the tools.

“He needs time. Brady, you know more than anybody else, two years of college football is not enough to go in there and lead a pro franchise to the Super Bowl. For those that have the opportunity to draft him and give him an opportunity to grow and learn, I think he’s got the best skillset of the quarterbacks coming out.”

That latter paragraph very much echoes Kelly’s comments from a March 22 press conference.

When Murray asked if Kizer still has room to improve, Kelly said yes. He also indicated Kizer does not have room to be much better in some of the most important areas, because he is already so strong in them.

“Well, he still should be in college, but the circumstances are such that you have to make business decisions, and he felt like it was in his best interest and I’m going to support him and his decision,” Kelly said. “The reality of it is he needs more football. He needs more time to grow in so many areas, not just on the field but off the field.

“He’s a great kid. He’s got great character. You don’t change character much, and he’s got great character so you’re not going to have an issue there with that young man. He’s going to continue to learn and he’ll learn with great coaches around him, a great mentor around him, so there’s a huge amount of growth that will happen every single day with DeShone Kizer.” (more…)

Kelly: Fundamentals, consistency and position battles

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In only 23 minutes, Irish coach Brian Kelly used the f-word 17 times Friday. No, no, no, not that f-word. This is a G-rated space.

When discussing Notre Dame’s defense, Kelly said fundamentals or fundamentally over and over again. It has been a theme throughout the first half of spring practices, and Kelly emphasized it more than ever following the seventh of 15 sessions. Considering the Irish will not see an opponent for another five months, it makes sense to focus on the building blocks of new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme.

“If you were to watch us practice, you would not walk away with anything else but, ‘Man, [Elko] just teaches the fundamentals,’ and then when we come together 11-on-11 [or] 7-on-7, you want to see those fundamentals come to fruition,” Kelly said. “It’s been about teaching the fundamentals. It’s been about learning. We’re not going to play a game on Saturday, so a lot of teaching.”

When it comes to the offense, Kelly stressed consistency from both the players and the coaches.

“I would like to underline on the offensive side of the ball, it’s really more about consistency in performance,” Kelly said. “We were up-and-down. You could see that by the way we’d put up a bunch of points one week and then we struggled to put up points the next week.

“This is really about a consistency in performance from individuals across the board to collectively offensive structure, playcalling, all of those things. Everybody’s involved in it.”

The scoring rollercoaster Kelly referred to may be best-exemplified by Notre Dame’s October. The Irish opened the month by hanging 50 points on Syracuse at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., before managing only three points at North Carolina State and 10 versus Stanford. Kelly’s offense closed the month with a 30-27 victory over Miami. Even if discounting the anemic performance against the Wolfpack—it was played in a literal hurricane, after all—the month was anything but consistent.

“Offensively, looking for consistency in performance,” Kelly said in summary. “Then defensively, the fundamentals.”

Aside from fundamentals and consistency, spring practice is about establishing a rough depth chart for the fall. In that vein, Kelly pointed out a number of particularly close position competitions. In a few of these—most notably right tackle, defensive tackle and safety—the Irish coaches are giving such equal opportunity as to alternate first-team reps among the participants by each practice. Senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner on Wednesday and junior Micah Dew-Treadway on Friday, for example.

“Inside, the defensive tackle position is a very fluid position right now, especially at the three-technique,” Kelly said. “That’s very competitive. We’re seeing a lot of in-and-out with Bonner, Micah Dew-Treadway.

“You’re seeing at the defensive position, [senior end] Jay Hayes, [sophomore Julian] Okwara. I’ve seen a lot of competition between [junior linebacker Te’von] Coney and [senior Greer] Martini.”

Presumably, Kelly meant to also include senior defensive end Andrew Trumbetti in the mix with Hayes and Okwara. It seems sophomore Daelin Hayes has a firm grip on the spot on the other end of the line.

Kelly also mentioned sophomores Devin Studstill and Jalen Elliott working to earn a starting safety spot.

“That’s a few positions right there, very competitive, a lot of guys in-and-out of the rotation.”

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Kraemer, Eichenberg compete for RT spot, moving Bars inside, and Bivin to…

In addition to Dew-Treadway, Okwara and Hayes, Elko has been working [sophomore end] Khalid Kareem and [sophomore linebacker/end] Jamir Jones into the rotation, per Kelly.

“What we’re getting right now is the younger players starting to show themselves…” Kelly said. “We’re cross-training Jamir Jones inside and on the edge of third down. We’re seeing some young, athletic players that are adding to our defense.”

Though they may be young and certainly inexperienced, Kelly said Elko is putting those players in positions to succeed.

“What I like about Mike is he’s putting guys in a position where they’re needed,” Kelly said. “It might be specific to a particular down-and-distance and front and not having to train them in everything you do.”

Kelly said senior cornerback Nick Watkins is largely an afterthought by now when discussing injury rehabilitations. Comparatively, junior cornerback Shaun Crawford is still tracked rather closely.

“We don’t wait until they’re 100 percent before they can take every rep and bring them back in,” Kelly said. “We use a little bit of science.

“Nick Watkins, for example, we don’t even think about his injury now. He’s going to go. With Shaun, as we’re moving through the process, he’s on a GPS and he has a target number … I’ll monitor it during practice. I’ll let Mike Elko or [defensive backs coach] Todd Lyght (know) and will say, ‘His number today is 375 and right now he’s at 200, so if you want him to get more reps, you’ve got to monitor him. If you want him to get reps during team time, you’ve got to be careful with him to get to 375.’”

In a way, Crawford’s repeated injury past—he tore his ACL in 2015 and his Achilles in 2016—aids his recovery schedule.

“Shaun obviously has been through it and he’s going to know his body,” Kelly said. “We’re going to listen to him a lot more, and when he feels really good and he feels he can drive, we’re going to let him go.”

Friday at 4: Four Defensive Questions

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When you finish a three-hour, 25-round fantasy baseball draft, your next move involves pouring a combination of liquids over ice and talking about anything but baseball. Thus I found myself last night with a Dark and Stormy in hand fielding questions from an old friend. We’ll call him Corey, due to him grabbing Corey Kluber in the second round before I had a chance to do so myself.

Corey knows me quite well, and thus knows I generally prefer to avoid Notre Dame football conversations when shooting the breeze. He also knew it could be broached last night—I would have gone so far as to discuss politics if it meant I didn’t have to think about the surplus of stolen bases available this year.

As good of a friend as he may be, he doesn’t read this space. I know as much. He knows I know as much.

That gives me the luxury of parroting our conversation here without him realizing our Notre Dame football chatter can actually serve a purpose for me. His questions may be your questions.

“In layman’s terms, what about [new Irish defensive coordinator Mike] Elko’s defense will be different?”

A spring perspective: Wimbush and his offensive line

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Many like to belittle spring practice as just spring practice. Similarly, others will gladly snub their noses at any positive reviews, insisting it is only warmer temperatures and sunshine eliciting optimism.

Another group sees every position change and depth chart shift as a definite indicator the program is on the right track.

The best assessment of these 15 practices falls somewhere between those two extremes, as most things in this world do.

Take the offensive line, for example. Why is it important to garner an idea of the starting five before fall? Once that is established, not only can the offensive line develop chemistry within itself, but it can also establish chemistry with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush. That is, in fact, what Wimbush cited as the item he needs to most improve in a WatchND interview with Jack Nolan over the weekend.

“I need to get better at making it easier for the offensive line and understanding my pocket awareness, where my escape lanes are and where I need to step up,” Wimbush said. “Those guys are working their butts off and I’m at 10 yards, [graduate student left tackle Mike] McGlinchey is getting pushed back and pushed right into me. I have to understand where my pocket is.”

That understanding will develop at an even quicker pace once Wimbush knows exactly whom he is working with on each snap. Spring’s greatest benefit is taking steps toward answering those questions.

As for his greatest strengths on the field, Wimbush pointed toward his athleticism.

“Being able to make plays, get outside the pocket, and I feel like breaking down the defense is some of my assets,” he said.