Even with talent drain, Irish can be CFB Playoff contender

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Brian Kelly’s next football team might have less talent than the group that produced seven of the first 103 picks in the NFL Draft. But it might have a better chance to make it to the College Football Playoff.

It’s a trendy thought lately. The kind of thing you do when it’s May and we’re still a long way away from any football this fall.

But there’s good reason to be bullish on the Irish. And SBNation’s Bill Connelly providing the thinking man’s rationale for the optimism last week when he unveiled his preview of the 2016 Fighting Irish.

The entire preview is very much worth your time, but here’s the synopsis:

  • Brian Kelly is an excellent coach. (Sorry complainers.)
  • Whoever wins the quarterback job is going to be really good.
  • An offensive line that’ll reload.
  • Tons of skill talent.
  • A defense trending in the right direction.
  • A good close game team.
  • A schedule that’s more conducive to winning.

Again, go read the article. (You’ll be smarter for it.) But after crunching many of the variables, here’s Connelly’s mighty optimistic conclusion:

There isn’t a sure loss on the schedule. In fact, there’s only one game in which Notre Dame has a worse than 59 percent chance of winning. But operating in close games will be critical. That means finding go-to receivers for the quarterback in times of need, continued quality from Yoon, and a defense that improves up front despite turnover and holds steady in the back despite freshmen on the two-deep.

All of the “ifs” are realistic, and while the defense still has plenty to prove, I’m not going to doubt Kelly after last year. If I had a poll vote — and thank goodness I don’t — I would seriously consider Notre Dame in the preseason top five.

With Notre Dame’s two regular-season losses coming in the final moments of road games to top-five teams, this isn’t the type of “Here Come the Irish” headline that invaded our psyche and ruined the enjoyment of seasons under Bob Davie, Ty Willingham or Charlie Weis, the later still finding his way into the schlock headlines thanks to Notre Dame’s latest tax return release.

But Brian Kelly’s consistency has turned proclamations like Connelly’s into a decidedly uninteresting one. And at the same time that we go inch-by-inch through the roster, it’s helpful to see what the Irish look like from a 30,000-foot view—a better vantage point to evaluate progress than the perch most of us inhabit.

So while all previews in May expire by the time the calendar hits August, let’s go through the bullet points (as appropriated by me, not Connelly) just to add to the discussion.

 

Brian Kelly: elite coach. (No question mark) 

Right now, that’s a fairly undeniable assertion. And for those of you who’ll haggle about the definition of elite or harken back to a two-point conversion chart or the selection of the team’s defensive coordinator, this might be the best question to ask yourself: “After Nick Saban and Urban Meyer, who else do you want running your program?”

 

The quarterback battle.

If there’s something that I find reassuring, it’s the fact that Connelly hasn’t lost the plot on this. Whoever wins the quarterback battle will play at a very high level. Or they won’t play at all.

As Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford showed last season, the Irish will coach up a quarterback and get very productive play out of them. (Unlike what happened at Ohio State last year.) And with Brandon Wimbush putting the redshirt on, Notre Dame has one of the country’s most dangerous weapons waiting in the wings.

 

The offensive line should be good again.

Remember all those data-driven pieces about minutes-played correlating to excellent offensive line play? I still believe them. But I also think the Irish will produce a very, very productive offensive line even with three new starters, thanks to two starting NFL linemen on the left side of their center and Alex Bars likely on his way, too.

 

Those skill players? They’ll be good.  

I’m bullish on the ground game. I’m high on the young talent in the secondary. And I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to a receiving corps that I think is still a little more unsorted than I’d guess this staff wants.

Torii Hunter should lead the unit. After that, I’m not sure what to expect.

The move of Alizé Jones to the “W” (boundary side) receiver gives you an idea that this staff is preparing to go forward if Corey Robinson steps away from the game because of concussions. It also might point to an offensive direction that’s more similar to 2012, a physical approach that could put more tight ends on the field and would allow the Irish to lean on a very strong running game and a quarterback who’ll be able to take deep shots down the field.

 

The Defense?

How you improve after losing headliners like Sheldon Day, Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt, Elijah Shumate and KeiVarae Russell is hard to comprehend. But I think this unit will have more versatility, as injuries and certain personnel limitations really hamstrung a unit that was maddeningly inconsistent at times.

Can they improve against the run? I think the answer starts with Jarron Jones and Jerry Tillery, two stout guys who’ll hold up in the trenches in front of Nyles Morgan. That’ll serve as the critical building block to the scheme, with pieces added and subtracted to make sure the Irish can be multiple and match-up with opponents on a weekly basis.

I’m punting on this topic (for now), while acknowledging that improvement on this side of the football is critical to success and the biggest unknown heading into the season.

 

Good play in tight games

Remember those heart-stopping finishes in the Weis era? Or that dreadful feeling you got every time a game got close and an opponent mounted a comeback?

For some, it’ll never go away. But under Brian Kelly, the Irish have been a very good close game team—even considering the two tight losses last year.

I appreciate the comparison Connelly made in his piece to a baseball team with a good bullpen. When the Irish have been at their best, they’ve been able to control the game late with solid quarterback play, a dependable running game and a defense that held up.

Justin Yoon and Tyler Newsome play an important part in this process, too. The specialist duo will help control field position and make critical kicks, with Yoon putting together a really respectable freshman season and Newsome showcasing a booming leg.

 

The Schedule

I haven’t fully dug into the intricacies of the schedule, but just at face value it’s a much less daunting climb that years past. The Irish get Michigan State and Stanford at home (and under the lights) and replace Clemson with North Carolina State. Army comes back onto the schedule and Navy loses the majority of its team, including star Keenan Reynolds.

There is no shortage of coaching pedigree that Brian Kelly will face. Mark Richt, David Cutcliffe, and some young rising talent like Justin Fuente and Clay Helton in a regular season finale in Los Angeles.

But you can only win the games you play, and you can only play the teams on your schedule. (Thanks, Yogi.) As Connelly mentioned, there’s no “sure loss” on this slate, and I think Notre Dame will be favored every time they take the field next year.

 

Jurkovec’s commitment as solid as it can get

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In a sport like college football, not much is certain. Coaching changes, recruiting battles, it is a week to week sport in nearly every sense of the word.

So when coveted 2018 quarterback Phil Jurkovec chose Notre Dame last week, many kept their enthusiasm tempered. Especially with memories of prospects like Blake Barnett fresh in their minds.

But Jurkovec seems to have his priorities aligned. And a recent comment to Matt Freeman of IrishSportsDaily.com should have Irish fans feeling very good about their young QB-in-waiting.

For as long as Notre Dame has recruited, teams have recruited against Notre Dame. And in recent years, the sales pitch has changed—not from worries of a head coach or assistants being fired, but rather the chance that they may leave for greener pastures.

In this case, you have to feel good that Jurkovec seems to understand the realities of the situation. Because even if Brian Kelly is in the NFL or Mike Sanford is running his own program, the Golden Dome will still be standing.

Of course, it doesn’t do anything to guarantee Jurkovec will be in South Bend come 2018, but it certainly points to a kid and family having done their due diligence before making such an important decision.

Irish A-to-Z: Hunter Bivin

Matt Cashore / Irish Illustrated

One of many heralded offensive line recruits to follow Harry Hiestand to South Bend, Hunter Bivin has bounced inside and out on Notre Dame’s offensive line, looking for a home. After serving as a back-up to talents like Zack Martin, Ronnie Stanley and Mike McGlinchey at tackle, Bivin might have the inside track to earn his first starting experience at right guard.

After three years of hard work—and Steve Elmer deciding to cut short his college career after three seasons—Bivin looks like a true contender for a starting role. Now he needs to continue the work he put in this spring over the summer months, holding off a group of young talent to finalize the fifth starting job on a rebuilt offensive line.

 

HUNTER BIVIN
6’5.5″, 308 lbs.
Senior, No. 70, OL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Bivin was an elite prospect. 247 ranked him as one of the top offensive linemen—and overall prospects—in the country. He was an All-State performer in Kentucky, an Under Armour All-American, and played for the USA Team.

Bivin chose Notre Dame over offers from Florida, LSU, Oklahoma, Ohio State and Michigan. He was a starter on a Kentucky state championship basketball team and also the state’s best shot putter.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2013): Did not see action.

Sophomore Season (2014): Made his Irish debut in the second half of a lopsided victory over Rice. Played in five games, including on special teams against Florida State.

Junior Season (2015): Played in five games, serving as a backup at left tackle for Ronnie Stanley. Notched a season-high 25 snaps against UMass. Played 14 snaps in a convincing season-opening win over Texas.

 

WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR

The crystal ball appeared to be working last year when it came to Bivin’s playing time.

Bivin’s got everything you’d want—on paper—when it comes to an offensive line recruit. That said, it’s time for those qualities to translate to the field, something we haven’t seen yet.

It’s not necessarily fair to call Bivin an underachiever, especially when you want to have the type of depth Notre Dame has developed up front. It’s also worth noting that the two positions the Irish have worked Bivin have required some difficult playing time battles: Matt Hegarty just moved to Oregon and was inserted as the team’s starting center after he couldn’t beat out Nick Martin. And Ronnie Stanley will follow Zack Martin into the first round of the NFL Draft.

So let’s hold our breath a little bit longer.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

It’s clear that Bivin has some ability, with the staff entrusting a second-string tackle job to the Kentucky native the past two seasons. But it’s also clear that he’s not the caliber of tackle prospect that Alex Bars is, with Bivin making the slide inside, hopefully solidifying the starting lineup with the team’s five best offensive linemen.

Right now—especially after Colin McGovern struggled through injuries this spring—Bivin has a grasp on that job. But after another summer competing with Tristen Hoge and incoming freshman Tommy Kraemer, that might not be as clear.

Hiestand and Brian Kelly both prefer playing veterans—especially along the offensive line. We’ve seen guys like Mike Golic, Christian Lombard and Matt Hegarty keep talented young players on the sideline as trusted veterans. Bivin likely can do the same as a senior with a fifth-year available, though he’ll need to be the best player for the job.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I have Bivin penciled in at right guard for the start against Texas. Whether he stays in the lineup will likely be dictated by how quickly this offensive line gels. Remember, it wasn’t too long ago that Kelly and Hiestand reshuffled their starting lineup, 2014’s offensive line swapped out mid-season after a disappointing start to the year. That’s a real scenario that could take place if this line doesn’t come together.

Being the fifth-best starter on an offensive line that features guys like Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson is no shame, especially when we’ve seen and heard such good things about first-time projected starters like Bars and Sam Mustipher. Bivin is a big body—he’s got prototype tackle size—and that’ll make the transition inside easier.

But I’m still waiting to see how he does as a mauler. There’s not much room for finesse at right guard, especially with the Irish wanting to establish a ground game early and often in 2016.

If Bivin brings that type of aggressiveness to the job and takes to guard over the summer, he’s a potential two-year starter. If not, he goes back to being a sixth man, capable of backing up essentially every spot on the offensive line.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal

Irish A-to-Z: Asmar Bilal

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It is freshman year all over again for linebacker Asmar Bilal. The rising sophomore, who wore a redshirt in 2015, likely spent more time working with Brian VanGorder’s defense in 15 spring practices than he did all of last season.

That’s what happens when Jaylon Smith departs for the NFL and Te’von Coney and Greer Martini spend the offseason recovering from injuries. Those circumstances cleared the way for Bilal to take center stage at Will linebacker this spring, a position that’ll look quite different than it did the past two seasons when America’s most talented linebacker roamed the field.

No slouch himself, Bilal has more than just long dreads in common with Smith. With a body that also looks chiseled from granite and the speed of a safety, there are great expectations for the Indianapolis native.

 

ASMAR BILAL
6’2″, 230 lbs.
Sophomore, No. 27, LB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A four-star recruit, Bilal picked Notre Dame over Michigan after a competitive recruitment. He had offers from Michigan State, Missouri, Nebraska, Tennessee and a dozen other programs, too.

Bilal was an Army All-American, second-team on the MaxPreps All-American team and was Indiana’s defensive player of the year on the American Family Insurance All-USA team. He was a four-star prospect and a 247 composite Top 200 player.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2015): Did not see action.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

The year of eligibility was saved, keeping Bilal off of special teams. But all else held true:

At the very least, I see Bilal wreaking some havoc on special teams. But if there’s an opening on the field with this defense, it’s at safety. Perhaps Bilal could serve as a situational defensive back, the type of in-the-box plugger that Drue Tranquill excelled at in 2014.

The reality of the situation is a year of learning and gaining weight for Bilal. With Joe Schmidt and Jarrett Grace departing after this season, and Jaylon Smith having quite a choice on his hands as well, the depth chart could turn over after this season—turning next spring into maybe an even more critical time than this fall in Bilal’s development.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Bilal’s primary competition at Will linebacker is classmate Te’von Coney, who had worked his way into the two-deep behind Jaylon Smith, playing briefly in the Fiesta Bowl before suffering his own major injury. While Coney had to watch spring ball as his shoulder healed, Bilal took reps for the two of them.

While it’s far from decided, Coney looks like the first choice in the starting lineup for VanGorder and Mike Elston. That’s not to say that the rotation will be as limited as it was last season—this group of linebackers might very well be patched together by scheme and circumstance.

None of that changes Bilal’s potential. A football player who came to Notre Dame needing to add mass to his frame and learn the intricacies of playing linebacker, Bilal’s high school exploits included a lot of time at safety, a tackling machine that looked more search-and-destroy than fully understanding the nuances of gap control and positional responsibilities.

Bilal put on the weight, up to 230 pounds this spring, looking like a linebacker not a DB. Now the mental aspect of the game will likely dictate how quickly Bilal’s able to deploy his physical skills and use them for good. We’ll get a nice progress report on where the coaches think he is come Texas.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Bilal looks like a four-unit coverage contributor on special teams from game one. He also has the type of speed and skill that he could find a role in a sub-package (remember those?) for VanGorder, if the defense is able to keep enough guys healthy to play multiple schemes.

The redshirt was the best thing to happen to Bilal in that he’s essentially starting his college career now. We’ve seen too often the difficulties that come with using talented young defenders in bit roles, robbing years of eligibility from guys like Kona Schwenke and Romeo Okwara, removing a fifth-year opportunity that could have really helped all parties involved.

Positional depth helped save Bilal in 2015. Now he’s going to need to be part of the solution in 2016, when a new cast of characters needs to step forward and lead with captains Joe Schmidt and Smith long gone.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars

Irish A-to-Z: Alex Bars

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Even as he recovered from a broken ankle suffered late in the 2015 season, Alex Bars made the move everybody expected from him this spring. The rising junior rose to the top of the depth chart at right tackle, filling the hole Mike McGlinchey left behind and potentially solidifying the rebuilt core of Notre Dame’s front five.

It was a move that felt preordained, especially if you’d been paying attention to the coaching staff’s belief in Bars. A high-level recruit, an impressive redshirt and capable in spot duty in 2015, assuming all goes according to plan, the move to the starting lineup gives Bars the chance to spend three seasons in the starting lineup of one of the country’s most competitive position groups.

Now he’s got to perform.

 

ALEX BARS
6’6″, 320 lbs.
Junior, No. 71, RT

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A top-100 recruit who chose Notre Dame over Florida State, Michigan, Ohio State, Stanford—and a host of other schools. Bars was an Under Armour All-American, a USA Today All-American, and the Rotary Lombardi Chip Off the Old Block Award winner, given to the South’s best lineman.

His father Joe played linebacker for Notre Dame in the early-80s, while two of his brothers played major college football. Bars is a blue-chipper by every measure.

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Saved a year of eligibility and did not participate.

Sophomore Season (2015): Played in six games, starting against Navy and USC at guard before breaking his ankle. Served as primary backup at both tackle positions and guard until his injury.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Spot on here, both about the time-share being difficult and injuries. Unfortunately, Bars was the lineman who suffered—not finding as much time behind Nelson and then ending his year with a broken ankle.

Sharing time isn’t easy, especially on the offensive line. But Kelly was adamant this spring that he’ll need to find snaps for Bars to make sure his development continues, and sharing time with Quenton Nelson makes the most sense.

Of course, injuries also happen. And right now, it looks like Bars is the No. 1 replacement at every spot but center. So while a clean bill of health will likely be best for the best Irish offensive line of the Kelly era, an injury will likely just mean more time for the talented second-year player to make his mark, a nice benefit of the impressive depth chart the Irish have assembled.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Bars looks like another potential NFL offensive lineman, something Harry Hiestand is churning out at an impressive rate. While we won’t know just how good he is until we see him on the edge against Texas, Bars is the type of lineman who’d have started too early in his career at left tackle in previous eras, forced to learn on the fly like Ryan Harris or Sam Young.

The staff was careful with Bars this spring, not rushing the 320-pounder back until his surgically repaired ankle could handle it. And while they explored the idea of keeping him inside at the vacant right guard position, it’s only to obvious that Bars’ skill-set—not to mention the remaining personnel—needed him to play on the edge.

With three years left there’s plenty of time to grow at the position, while also building from a position of strength. That’s the sign of great positional depth.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I assume a healthy, strong season from Bars. I think the time working inside could help him in the running game, while his athleticism should make pass blocking feel natural, especially with great length and feet.

Of course, he’s still a first-year starter. Expecting a year like Quenton Nelson or Mike McGlinchey had might be too much, but there’s no reason not to set a similar bar. From the moment Bars stepped foot on campus, Kelly knew he had a special player.

Hunter Bivin can play tackle in a pinch. Freshman Tommy Kraemer might be able to as well. But for the Irish to have their best offensive line, they need Bars to anchor the right side. I expect him to do so in 2016.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas