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McKinley, Boykin show depth in Irish WR corps


If there is any advantage to starting an inexperienced quarterback such as Notre Dame junior Brandon Wimbush, it is the chemistry he theoretically developed with the younger receivers while taking third team and scout team practice reps the past couple seasons. Irish coach Brian Kelly eluded to as much following the first spring practice.

“There is a relationship already built with these guys,” Kelly said March 8. “Brandon has been with them for the last couple of years, so we’re not starting from scratch, but there are nuances of the position that they’re going to have to work out.

“I thought in particular there is already a pretty good sense of relationship if you will between the receivers and Brandon. I think we saw that today. At least, I did.”

The eldest members of the current receiving corps are, in fact, Wimbush’s classmates. He may have thrown more passes to Equanimeous St. Brown in practice than any other target. This spring’s 15 practices, concluding with the April 22 Blue-Gold Game, have presented and should present Wimbush with ample opportunity to improve his rapport with the other options, especially with a mild hamstring injury limiting St. Brown at the end of last week.

Sophomore Javon McKinley, for example, received more chances Friday in St. Brown’s place. Returning from a late-October broken leg, Kelly said McKinley remains somewhat limited and will wear a red jersey in the Blue-Gold Game, designating him as a non-contact participant.

“We want to get him competing,” Kelly said. “We played him as a true freshman, so we have a high opinion of him. He’s rusty … It was a great opportunity for Javon in there and we think we can get him some more work as we progress.”

Kelly echoed his comments from a week earlier praising Miles Boykin. Apparently the junior’s springtime consistency has not gone unnoticed.

“Miles is starting to build some ‘bank,’ if you will, as it relates to consistency. I’m using the word bank, he’s putting a lot in the bank of trust, that we can trust he’s going to give us the kind of performance that’s going to lend itself toward playing time,” Kelly said.

“He’s been very consistent as a ball-catcher. He’s been very consistent in terms of assignments. His traits have been very evident in terms of attention to detail. … He gets a lot of those back-shoulder throws where he has to go up and get it and he lands, physically, he gets beat up a little bit. I see him in there getting treatment and he comes back out and makes good decisions.”

As it pertains to back-shoulder throws, Boykin’s 6-foot-4, 225-pound frame undoubtedly helps his cause. As it pertains to the assignments, Boykin and most of the other receivers need to learn more, Kelly said, thanks to new offensive coordinator Chip Long’s emphasis on tempo.

In years past, receivers have largely broken down into three sub-groups: field (otherwise known as X), boundary (W) and slot (Z). Just like with defensive backs, the field and boundary designations pertain to the much wider hashmarks in college football. When the ball is placed on the right hashmark, the right side of the field becomes the boundary and is much narrower than the left, the field.

But if looking to snap the ball quickly, waiting for two receivers to swap sides of the field can be counterproductive. Thus, the Irish offense will be less specific in those assignments, per Kelly.

“It is blurred,” he said. “You have to play all three positions. There is a little bit of specialty to the short-side receiver, the boundary receiver. You won’t see as much of a Z receiver into the short field because that’s where you get a lot of your individual matchups.”

Sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson has been limited by a hamstring injury this spring, Kelly said.

“It’s been a lingering hamstring [injury] that has not responded quite well,” Kelly said. “It was pulled again. We’re treating it pretty aggressively with anti-inflammatories. He has not needed [platelet-rich plasma treatment], but he just hasn’t been right. He hasn’t been 100 percent.”

For context’s sake, and to tie to the earlier positional explanation, Stepherson excelled in his freshman season at the field, or X, receiver position, where he had more room to utilize his speed and did not always have a safety monitoring him, as he would be more likely to on the boundary.

The business decision of ‘the best quarterback in the draft’

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The headline in these parts was—Kelly on Kizer: ‘He’s got all the tools … He needs more football’

Irish coach Brian Kelly would rather it have read something along the lines of, “Coach Kelly sees Kizer as the best quarterback in the draft” or “Kelly sees Kizer as having great character.” Neither would have been an inaccurate description of Kelly’s comments regarding former Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer from a Monday afternoon interview on SiriusXM radio.

“Whatever was interpreted, I have a great deal of positive feelings for DeShone,” Kelly said Friday. “I think he’s the best quarterback coming out. I think that everybody that comes to Notre Dame would benefit from another year when they don’t have their degree and could use college football to season themselves. DeShone’s not in that category by himself.

“I think he has great character. I named him a captain. So for that to be seen any other way but positive … but it wasn’t and there’s nothing I can do about it. I think the world of DeShone and I think he’s going to be a great quarterback in the NFL.”

With that straightforward follow-up to the comments from earlier in the week, let’s take another look at some phrases from those remarks. Monday and Tuesday were spent focusing on what Kelly actually did say and mean with context. With that settled, taking a look at periphery points seems the logical next step. Call it a day-two story delayed.

Immediately following the phrase that turned Twitter into a sniping forum, Kelly explained Kizer’s decision to turn professional with two years of college eligibility remaining.

“The circumstances are such that you have to make business decisions,” Kelly said. “He felt like it was in his best and interest, and I’m going to support him and his decision.”

At any other position, Kizer’s decision may have made poor business sense, but a quick look around the NFL explains the logic for a quarterback. In the span of one drink, 21 starting quarterbacks can be identified as some form of stalwarts (Rodgers, Brady), entrenched veterans (Manning, Flacco) or intriguing prospects (Wentz, Mariota). That leaves 11 teams pondering their future passers.

Again, in the span of a drink, seven more teams can be written off as featuring just-paid question marks (see Mike Glennon; Chicago Bears), balancing injury dilemmas (Teddy Bridgewater/Sam Bradford; Minnesota Vikings), or tolerating serviceable solutions (Ryan Tannehill; Miami Dolphins). Admittedly, some of these designations were given generously, but that was by intention to support the argument.

Finally, and this may necessitate internet access more than a third drink, looking around at the NFL’s backups, perhaps six more worthwhile options present themselves.

With great reach, that makes 35 quarterbacks in the NFL worthy of taking snaps. Note: This less than three dozen includes the likes of Derek Anderson, Drew Stanton and Trevor Siemian. It does not include Brock Osweiler. That is what happens when you are the centerpiece of a history-making deal based on cash considerations.

If Kizer—or any of the other quarterbacks in this draft—can outperform the next 29 quarterbacks, he will set himself up as a backup. That is not a bad gig. If he can outperform four of the current backups (the aforementioned three, plus Jimmy Garoppolo, Paxton Lynch and Nick Foles), Kizer would positon himself to be a starter-worthy NFL quarterback.

That is not an opportunity to pass up. That is an opportunity to chase the moment it is presented. There are simply not enough quarterbacks to provide quality play at the position in the NFL. Teams will back up the armored truck to find someone who can fill that void. Again, look at the Bears.

This is not meant to start a conversation on Kizer’s viability as an NFL starter now or in the future. That has already been debated plenty this week. The only resolution on that debate will come no earlier than five months from now, possibly not until five years from now.

This is meant to illustrate why the business decision may have been a smart one.

Kelly acknowledged other former Irish players who turned pro with eligibility remaining, not just Kizer. For that matter, not just Kizer and show host Brady Quinn.

Quinn began the interview by asking Kelly about Kizer and his pro day. In his response, Kelly brought up the question asked most often of Kizer during this buildup to the draft.

“He’s got to answer the questions that everybody’s asked about being a 4-8 quarterback and certainly, can he lead a football team?” Kelly said. “My response to all that is, ‘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, of course, was referring to Notre Dame’s 2015 season and the large number of departures following its 10-3 finish. Kizer made a similar point when he was interviewed at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis in early March.

Here is a public kudos to Dennis, apparently otherwise known as rocket1988 in these parts, for winning the March Madness pool. His entry of “Brey Brey’s Kids” had only one Final Four team correct—the accurately-picked eventual champion North Carolina. Not exactly the strongest performance by anyone involved.

Your host finished back in 40th position. Not so terribly as to fall onto the third page of rankings, but disappointing, nonetheless. To my eye, fortunately enough, I knew no one in the top three.

There is an innate flaw to naming a seemingly-recurring piece after a particular time on a specific day. A week will come when instead of writing the majority of that bit the night before, one instead opts to head to a local establishment to watch a hockey game. Then, a Brian Kelly press conference delays catching up on the needed work Friday morning. Suddenly it is 4 p.m. CT. Posting when most on the East Coast and many in the Midwest are leaving their offices for the weekend runs counter to any acknowledgements to corporate desires regarding page views.

Thus, alas, this will post Saturday morning. I do not aim to make excuses. I am, after all, the one who named the seemingly-recurring piece after a particular time on a specific day. But given the Saturday posting, understand the deviation from a usual “Friday at 4” headline.

If you needed this post Friday afternoon to know what to do Friday at 4 p.m., well, then I profusely apologize. Blame Thursday night’s debate regarding what grouping of quarterbacks should include Ryan Fitzpatrick of the New York Jets. That did require a third drink.

Kelly on situational safeties and Spencer Perry’s transfer

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If anyone hoped the move of Notre Dame senior Drue Tranquill from safety to rover would lessen the questions at the former position, they hoped in vain. The defensive backfield’s elder statesman is spending more and more time working at the hybrid position specific to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme, yet the competition at the last line of defense has continued among those remaining.

Come fall, that competition may not yield two primary players, but could rather result in a number of specialized options, Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Friday’s practice.

“I think you’ll see that we’re going to be situationally playing guys that make sense at the time of the game,” Kelly said. “First, second and third down. We’re going to put guys in position to succeed. It’s not going to be one guy and that’s it in all situations.”

Junior cornerback-turned-safety Nick Coleman continues to impress Kelly as he learns the new position. In some ways, the change in schemes may aid Coleman’s learning curve.

“We’re playing the safety position quite differently than we did before,” Kelly said. “Nick Coleman has been the guy that has done some really good things for us. He’s extremely athletic. We’re in the process of continuously developing his understanding of the defense.”

With junior Nicco Feritta reportedly nursing a left wrist injury, sophomores Devin Studstill and Jalen Elliott are the primary remaining challengers in the position group. Sophomore D.J. Morgan may be among the rovers.

“Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill are still in that programming mode in terms of doing the little things right for us,” Kelly said. “Fundamentally, they’re getting better. I know Mike Elko really likes those two kids, likes their toughness and their want-to to play the game. They’re going to be there for us.”

There could conceivably include both of them on the field at the same time, not merely complementing Coleman, per Kelly. He indicated both Studstill and Elliott will be expected to know both the field safety position as well as the boundary safety position.

Early enrollee freshman Isaiah Robertson may not be neck-and-neck with his elders, but he remains in the mix thanks to his rapid improvement.

“[Robertson] started at a level of really not knowing much and he’s grown considerably over the last few weeks,” Kelly said. “He’s done a nice job of picking things up. We’re making progress there. We’re going to need more time, but I’m pleased”

With more time will come freshman Jordan Genmark-Heath and possibly classmate Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah, though the latter is more likely to join the group at rover. At 6-foot-2, 205-pounds, Genmark-Heath is not far from the ideal safety Kelly described Friday when discussing the lack of desirable depth at the position.

“I don’t know that anybody is going to walk in the door that’s 6’2”, 215 pounds and can a 4.5 (40-yard dash) anytime soon,” Kelly said. “We know who our guys are. We think there’s some more flexibility coming, and with the players that we have that we’ll be able to come up with a really good solution by the time we kick it off against Temple.”

RELATED READING: Tranquill continues work with safeties … for now
Friday at 4: Four Defensive Questions

Kelly confirmed what rising sophomore safety Spencer Perry announced via Twitter on Thursday: He is transferring. Due to his good standing in the football program and at the University, Kelly said he will not restrict where Perry transfers.

“He’s done everything we’ve asked him to do,” Kelly said. “He expressed to me that he felt like athletically he needed to find a place that would better suit him.

“I guess if you read between the lines, maybe he wasn’t seeing the position in which he was playing, nor the area of reps suitable for where he is right now in the program. You’d have to ask him to get a clear understanding of that.”

Like Tranquill, Perry had moved from safety to rover, but Tranquill and junior Asmar Bilal have separated themselves from other possibilities at the position, leaving little theoretical playing time for Perry.

To Notre Dame’s young options at defensive line, add sophomore Jamir Jones, formerly a linebacker. Jones will most likely contribute among the ends.

“We’re even going to get Jamir Jones activated a little more,” Kelly said. “He’s up to 242 pounds. I don’t know that we’ll ever be able to hold him back from being a bigger guy.”

Jones joins four other sophomores in competition with seniors Andrew Trumbetti and Jay Hayes for playing time on the end. Hayes has two years of eligibility remaining.

“I really believe that those young players and Andrew are going to continue to develop and give us the kind of edge presence that we need,” Kelly said.

RELATED READING: Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

The Irish will scrimmage in private this Sunday, only 13 days before the final spring practice, better known as the Blue-Gold Game. Kelly indicated the April 22 exhibition will split Notre Dame into two teams, rather than rely on an arcane offense vs. defense method of scoring. The coaching staff will begin dividing up those teams Monday following the 60-play scrimmage in the 11th spring practice.

Rising sophomore Spencer Perry announces transfer

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Rising sophomore safety Spencer Perry will not be with the Irish in 2017, announcing his intention to transfer via Twitter on Thursday afternoon.

The 6-foot-2, 209-pound Perry appeared in six games in 2016 and will have three years of eligibility remaining wherever he lands.

“Thanks to The University of Notre Dame for the opportunity to pursue my education and play football. All the best to my advisors, professors, rector, teammates, coaches and the Fighting Irish fans. At this time, I am electing to transfer and continue my educational goals and football career elsewhere,” Perry posted on his Twitter account.

The former consensus three-star recruit has not gained much traction in rising up the Irish depth chart this spring. At safety, junior Nick Coleman appears to have the lead for a starting position at field safety, and sophomores Devin Studstill and Jalen Elliott are competing for the other spot.

With a body and frame seemingly well-suited for the rover position in new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme, Perry has remained behind the likes of senior Drue Tranquill and junior Asmar Bilal.

A transfer or two typically arises in the weeks after spring practice concludes. Perry has simply moved that timetable up a few weeks.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly is scheduled to speak with the media following Friday morning’s practice. Presumably, he will confirm Perry’s departure then.

Assistants: Rees on Long’s influence in offensive scheme and Hiestand on RT competition

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Thomas Rees’s playing career gives him unique perspective in evaluating Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush. Unsurprisingly, Rees concurs with every other evaluation of Wimbush this spring: The presumptive starter looks and acts the part.

Rees’s playing career also gives him unique perspective in discussing the change and degree of change to the Notre Dame offense with new offensive coordinator Chip Long leading the charge. Rees knew only rish coach Brian Kelly’s offense, and it served the quarterback well. He sits third in the Notre Dame record books in career passing yards with 7,670 and second in career touchdown passes with 61.

“When I was here, we went through a lot of different phases of what we were doing,” Rees said Wednesday. “A lot of it was personnel based. Obviously I wasn’t running zone-reads and all that.”

Setting aside the differences in Rees’s skillset and Wimbush’s, the 2017 offensive scheme is similar to what Rees knew. Nonetheless, Long’s influence—particularly as it pertains to everyone’s favorite abstract concept, tempo—is noticed, according to Rees.

“The offense conceptually is still coach Kelly,” he said. “You still see a lot of the aspects there, but coach Long has brought a lot of his stuff to what we’re doing.

“We want to play fast. There are some details here and there that coach Long has done a great job of coaching up. It’s been a great blend to work with.”

While Wimbush’s inexperience may be his greatest hurdle and currently his most-noticeable inadequacy, Rees indicated the Kelly-Long offensive hybrid will give the quarterback plenty of chance to quickly prove himself.

“To me, it’s a very fun offense to play in. It puts a lot on the quarterback and understanding what we’re trying to do. I would have loved to play in it.”

While not getting to play in it, Rees does see the value of coaching in it. Only three years removed from his days in action, learning another offensive approach can only aid his young coaching career.

“You still see the same structure of the offense, and now coach Long comes in and adds his mix into it. It’s been a great job of learning from him and seeing what he’s really applied, the finer details that he’s coached up.”

Thanks to having four-fifths of his starters settled and working together, Irish offensive line coach Harry Hiestand is not too concerned with settling the competition at right tackle yet this spring. Through nine practices, sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg have split chances alongside senior right guard Alex Bars.

With only two options at the one spot as a variable, the offensive line is able to develop strong chemistry with each of Kraemer and Eichenberg, Hiestand said.

“They’re both getting pretty equal reps,” Hiestand said. “Everybody’s kind of used to them now. Maybe a little harder when we first started, but now [Bars] is used to both guys, it’s becoming less of an issue. We’re not going to force it.”

The right tackle question may be Hiestand’s primary concern this spring—undoubtedly the one he and Kelly will be asked about the most—but he also needs to sort out the Irish backups. For example, if graduate student left tackle Mike McGlinchey were to suffer an injury, would one of the aforementioned sophomores flip sides of the line in McGlinchey’s stead?

No, per Hiestand. Fifth-year offensive lineman Hunter Bivin would be the first to step into McGlinchey’s place.

“Then we’d have to see how serious it was before we flipped sides for those young guys.”

Unnecessarily looking ahead a year, such a switch could certainly occur following the 2017 season.

In a longer look at the Notre Dame offensive line, the South Bend Tribune’s Eric Hansen touched on a Hiestand anecdote this scribe did not know. Hiestand spent one season as the offensive coordinator at Cincinnati in 1993. On the surface, his time calling plays was an overwhelming success. Hiestand, however, could not stand it.

“I was excited to do it,” he said. “And then suddenly, I’m in the press box, and I didn’t feel like I was part of the game. I’m not even at the game.”

Hiestand quickly moved back to coaching the offensive line, where he has stayed ever since.

Solely for the sake of thoroughness, Brady Quinn holds the Notre Dame records in both career passing yards (11,762, followed by Jimmy Clausen’s 8,148) and career touchdowns (95).