Brian Kelly

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Spring Mailbag: Tillery, Optimism, and practice updates

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Let’s get to part one of the mailbag. Some very good questions here, so check back over the weekend as there’ll be more to come.

Notre Dame’s annual coaching clinic is in town as well, not to mention some key visitors on the Irish staff’s recruiting board.

Between the Mike Brey’s boys doing their best Rocky impression and the upcoming date with Ivan Drago, it’s a big spring weekend in South Bend.

 

@ReadRoger: Does the emergence of Tillery suggest a continuing issue of a lack of playmakers on the D line?

I don’t see it that way. I see it as a “Holy Bleep, Jerry Tillery is going to be really, really good.”

Again, it’s time to immediately tamp expectations. Kelly did his best to do that after raving about Tillery, but it’s worth doing it again here.

Any true freshman—especially one along the defensive line—is only capable of making a marginal impact. (Look at what Aaron Lynch did.) But as you look at the depth chart up front, Tillery has a chance to immediately insert himself into a young second wave, behind a talented tackle duo of Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones.

Talented isn’t necessarily code for playmakers. And if Day is going to play to the expectations the staff has for him, he’s going to need to make some plays in the backfield. He returned for his senior season to prove that he can do that.

Jones also has a high ceiling, maybe even higher than Day’s. But he’s in the middle of a rehab process that’s considerable, and will need to work his way into shape before fall camp.

But after watching Isaac Rochell come into his own as a true sophomore, I’m expecting a breakout season from him, a key at the strong-side. And finding a good platoon between Andrew Trumbetti and senior Romeo Okwara, and there’s no shortage of capable players.

Where Tillery plays will be interesting. There aren’t too many 6’6.5″ rush ends, and Kelly talking about Tillery’s hand skill and athleticism makes me think he’s a guy who will spell Jones or Day on the inside.

But as we still look for someone to generate a pass rush, Tillery’s quick ascent, something I’m not surprised about in the least, is a great spring story.

 

aisforara: Why do so many of us feel optimistic about the Irish in 2015, when the team is 2-5 in its last seven games?

Because it was fairly easy to see why the Irish went 2-5, and I don’t think it was a shortage of talent.

Beating LSU was a key to the 2015 revival. And so was the emergence of Malik Zaire, proving that he could win football games if Everett Golson continues to put the ball at risk.

Young teams take lumps. They lose games—sometimes in the most maddening ways imaginable. But look at this offense. I’ve never seen a deeper group in my time following this team. Maybe some of Holtz’s rosters had better skill players, but I’m not sure if that’s true, either.

Ultimately, the defense needs to step up. And the offense needs to get out of its own way. Bringing in Mike Sanford was a game-changing move for Brian Kelly. But continuing to bet on Brian VanGorder was a gamble as well.

This will easily be the most talented football team of the Brian Kelly era. What that means? We won’t know until September.

 

luckoirish23: I have watched und.com spring practice report videos for several years; however this spring there has only been one video that was actually long enough for one of your breakdowns. Any idea why we are getting such short videos? Why Jac Collinsworth and no Jack Nolan? Do you think BK is trying to protect his QBs from a media frenzy of interpretations and message board drama? I miss those spring weather reports, position spotlights, and 3 minute practice cut ups….

Remember those videos? Those were fun. I was beginning to think I was the only one missing them. How else would we know Corey Robinson can make catches like Spiderman or Joe Schmidt might actually be a good inside linebacker?

But here’s the thing. That run the men’s basketball team is making? It’s killing our highlight packages. (But this one on Thursday night’s victory over Wichita State is pretty great.) Fighting Irish Digital Media may sound like a gigantic corporation, but they’re actually a pretty compact outfit.

Jack Nolan is the radio voice of the Irish. So while he’s screaming “Gotttttt ittttt!” We’re getting shorted on practice videos and the young Jac Collinsworth is filling in (very capably I might add).

 

Your suspicions are ones that I’ve considered as well. And frankly, it’d be the smartest thing Brian Kelly could do, though he really hasn’t had to thanks to Mike Brey’s boys.

But instead of complaining about it, I tried to help solve the problem. So check out me and Jac breaking down spring practice, and if you don’t blink you might see a few snippets from practice.

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Irish open spring: Five quick updates from BK

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With Irish eyes already smiling thanks to St. Patrick’s Day, Notre Dame fans got a free double-down with Brian Kelly’s opening press conference before spring practice starts tomorrow.

Kelly, donning a green sweater over a green golf shirt, spoke with the assembled local media over the lunch hour, giving us 50 minutes of long-awaited updates as the spring roster was revealed.

Here are five quick things I found very interesting:

 

Ben Councell is retiring. 

I hinted at this last week, but outside linebacker Ben Councell is not going to pursue a fifth-year. As we looked at the roster-crunch to get to 85 scholarships, Councell was one name that I had heard wasn’t a lock to come back.

Kelly confirmed that on Tuesday.

“He chose not to continue to play. We respected that decision,” Kelly said. “He was offered an opportunity to continue to play. He’s not going to play football anymore. He’s just going to get his degree and move on to the next chapter for him. Ben’s a great young man and we wish him the best.”

Kelly also confirmed Jalen Brown was not returning, while also clarifying that the little used cornerback wasn’t invited back.

 

It’s Alex Bars and Quenton Nelson battling for the open left guard job. 

We’ll get a look at the two redshirt freshmen for the first time. And if Kelly’s comments are any indications, the young players are all that’s been advertised.

After explaining that Nick Martin was returning to center and Matt Hegarty didn’t want to compete for the left guard job, Kelly pointed to the two first-year participants as the top candidates for the vacancy along the offensive line.

“Quenton Nelson, Alex Bars,” Kelly said. “We’ll let those guys battle at the left guard position. That’s going to be fun to watch those two guys battling out at the left guard position.”

While some other players are going to cross-train and add some depth at tackle and center, don’t expect it to be Bars or Nelson. After seeing how difficult that was for Steve Elmer, consider it a lesson learned for Kelly and Harry Hiestand.

 

C.J. Prosise is cross-training as a running back. 

Even though Amir Carlisle was Notre Dame’s starting running back to open the 2013 season, it’s fellow slot receiver C.J. Prosise that’s taking reps at running back.

Kelly confirmed the position tweak for Prosise with Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant the only scholarship backs on the roster until Josh Adams and Dexter Williams arrive this summer.

“He’s been in the running back meetings. He’ll get a lot of work at running back,” Kelly confirmed of Prosise. “Amir will not cross train. He’ll stay at the slot receiver. C.J. will get quite a bit of work at running back.”

After leading the team in yards per catch and showing a ton of explosiveness at 220 pounds, this looks like a smart way to get Prosise more touches while also protecting the depth chart. Expect new offensive coordinator Mike Sanford to enjoy seeing what Prosise can do in a hybrid role.

We’ve talked constantly about finding a Percy Harvin (the game-breaking elite talent not the guy who can’t stick on an NFL roster) for this offense. Prosise might be that guy.

 

Fifth-year candidate Chase Hounshell is attempting to reboot his career as a blocking tight end. 

Long assumed gone after struggling with injuries and the defensive line depth chart, get ready to see a new number—and a new attitude—associated with veteran Chase Hounshell.

He’ll be wearing No. 18 and at 255 pounds will compete to be a blocking tight end. And he’s getting that opportunity because he did everything he could to convince Kelly to give him the chance.

“Chase knocked down my door, wouldn’t leave me alone, just kept coming back and saying, ‘Coach, I want to be part of this team. I have something to offer,'” Kelly explained.

“We don’t really have a role for you on the defensive line, but we could use a big, physical, blocking tight end. Would you be interested in that role? He said, ‘Coach, I’ll do whatever you ask me to do.'”

With just Durham Smythe’s one catch returning to the position and rising sophomore Tyler Luatua the only big-body that looks the part of a run blocker, experimenting with Hounshell at the position is a win-win for both parties.

If a roster crunch comes, Hounshell will have spent the spring staying in shape and could supply some good tape to a program looking for a veteran player, who could also have sixth-year options considering his multiple shoulder injuries.

Jake Golic finished his career at Cincinnati. Perhaps Hounshell will have the same type of opportunity if it doesn’t work out in South Bend. But credit the veteran for wanting to finish things the right way.

 

Any assumptions about the quarterback position should be thrown out. 

After an offseason where many of us (I’m partially guilty, too) have advanced the storyline at quarterback when we’ve heard nothing out of the parties actually involved, Kelly did a nice job resetting the expectation at the position.

While talking about both Everett Golson and Malik Zaire, he laid out his expectations for spring practice, with each player having clear objectives.

But for all the talk about the offense being turned over to Zaire or a ride-share program already being implemented, these comments from Kelly about Golson and his future as the team’s starting quarterback struck me.

“First of all, if I’m Everett, I don’t think that he has to accept that he has to share time with anybody,” Kelly said. “I don’t think that notion has ever been floated to him. I’ve never floated that.

“The only thing that I’ve ever said to Everett is that you have to come in here and compete for the starting quarterback position. I never once said to him, You have to come here and share playing time with anybody. You need to come in here and be committed to competing for the quarterback position. That’s all I’ve ever asked him to do.”

Kelly hits the recruiting trail to bring back Stanley and Day

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Say this for Brian Kelly. He learns from his mistakes.

And after losing Stephon Tuitt and Troy Niklas after just three seasons in South Bend, Notre Dame’s head coach made sure he had a final say before Ronnie Stanley and Sheldon Day made their stay-or-go decision.

Kelly hit the road over winter break to make sure his best two seniors understood how badly the Irish coaching staff wanted them to return next season, and — just as important — how it would be in their best interest to do so.

Fox Sports’ Bruce Feldman has more, including quotes from Kelly on the recruiting trips the Irish head coach — and a caravan including assistant coaches and athletic director Jack Swarbrick — took to both Stanley and Day’s homes.

“I’ve had great success keeping Michael Floyd here, keeping Tyler Eifert here, keeping Manti Te’o here and then last year I was disappointed about one of our players not staying,” Kelly told Fox Sports. “I was not going to leave it up to fate anymore that somebody would understand from my perspective that you should stay for these reasons. I was gonna get on the road and make sure we did this.”

For Stanley, that meant bringing Harry Hiestand to Las Vegas and connecting the junior offensive tackle with Dallas Cowboys All-Pro rookie Zack Martin. It also meant bringing an academic advisor along to help better understand the timing of things like OTAs and an academic plan that’ll have him ready for graduation after next season.

For Day, it meant a visit from Mike Elston and Paul Longo. It also meant an apples to apples comparison with former Pitt star Aaron Donald, who Irish fans have already deemed the optimal prototype for the undersized defensive tackle.

“Our strength coach was with us on that one because we wanted to look at some numbers from the Combine that we wanted to make him aware of,” said Kelly. “We felt like we wanted to get him into (former Pitt All-American) Aaron Donald’s numbers. It was, ‘Right now let’s say four teams really like you. If you start hitting these physical numbers, we think 20 teams are gonna really like you, and that’s the net benefit for you.'”

More important than any sales pitch was another option Notre Dame was offering. An insurance policy the university would pay for that would cover any loss of value, a commitment that Swarbrick himself gave to both players.

At a school that’s promoting a 40-year decision, adding success stories like Stanley and Day is crucial to the recruiting message to other elite prospects hoping to have the chance to play at the next level. Adding an All-American like Stanley to the “Notre Dame graduate” list continues to separate the Irish from other programs that look more like football factories.

On the field, bringing back this duo is just as critical. After seeing holes in the depth chart after early departures ripped some key building blocks off the 2014 roster, hitting the road and protecting his own roster is just as key to building the 2015 team as finishing the recruiting class strong.

Do yourself a favor and read Feldman’s complete story here.

Kelly’s clear: “Unfinished business” at Notre Dame

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Brian Kelly is all in. For as many times as you’ll hear his name mentioned for an NFL coaching position, the Irish head coach isn’t going anywhere.

“I’ve made it pretty clear what my choices are. I want to be in college football. And I want to take Notre Dame back into being a consistent player,” Kelly told SVP & Russillo. “We’re not there yet, but I think we’re getting closer to it. We’ve got unfinished business. And I’ve got unfinished business at the college ranks. And I want to finish that business off with a national championship. That’s my focus. That’s where I want to be.”

It doesn’t get much more clear-cut. And it doesn’t get any more logical. As we just saw with Jim Harbaugh, it is possible for a head coach (even one as oddly wired as Harbaugh) to experience life coaching on Sundays and make the decision to come back to college.

Kelly has made comments like this before. He’s talked about his preference to act as general manager and head coach, essentially what he does at Notre Dame. And as you look at some of the openings that come around every offseason, the foundation Kelly has built in South Bend looks better and better compared to some of the vacancies in the NFL.

That should make it easy to turn the focus to 2015. With Kelly already doing the calculus on the balancing act that’ll happen next season at quarterback, the offensive future looks bright, especially if Ronnie Stanley returns. (Even without him, things should be just fine.)

On defense, a miserable second half can be erased by building depth, and all those snaps taken by freshmen — not to mention the return of Joe Schmidt — can solve those struggles. Throw in KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams (and maybe even a healthy Jarrett Grace) and a few more impact players certainly won’t hurt Brian VanGorder’s second unit.

So while Kelly’s media rounds on ESPN this week are less preferable than having the Irish still in the conversation, a committed head coach means confidence hasn’t wavered even after one of the most difficult Novembers in recent memory.

So if Kelly wants to leave South Bend and test his luck in the NFL after winning a title, it’s likely Notre Dame will wish him well and get to work on adding another statue outside the stadium. Until then, there’s work to do.

Golson and Zaire will share time against LSU

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Brian Kelly will play two quarterbacks against LSU, with both senior Everett Golson and sophomore Malik Zaire getting an opportunity to take on the LSU in the Music City Bowl. After a regular season where Golson served as the starter all 12 games with Zaire only seeing significant action against USC in the finale, both will be utilized in the Irish’s offensive game plan.

“I think both of them can help us win,” Kelly said Monday evening. “I want to play them both because I think both of them have different traits and we need to find a way to win the game. I think both of them can help us win.”

How they do that remains to be seen. After juggling multiple quarterbacks during his three seasons in Cincinnati, Kelly has mostly been a one-quarterback coach. But with a month between the one-sided loss to USC and a battle with the SEC’s top defense, Kelly and the offensive staff laid out a plan that should allow each quarterback to play to their strengths.

“We’ve got a plan in place in practice that I feel very comfortable with and we’ll continue to evaluate that as we go through our practices,” Kelly said. “I think as we get into the game there are skillsets that each one of them has that are a little bit different that we’ll utilize in the game. They both have strengths and we will call upon those strengths during the game. I’m confident that I can manage both of them during the game.”

Kelly identified those skills. For Zaire, the ability to run zone-read could help against a Tigers defense that’s stingy against the pass. For Golson, it’s the ability to create and make every throw on the football field, especially against a defense that’ll mostly utilize man coverage.

“I think you try to get a feel for it,” Kelly said, when asked about the balancing act. “But there are some things that we clearly know one quarterback does a little bit better and we’ll go to those strengths regardless of the situation.”

The platoon strategy came about in an interesting way. While some assume Kelly is only begrudgingly playing Zaire after putting up with so many mistakes from Golson throughout the season, it was only because of Golson’s buy-in these past few weeks that he’s sharing reps at all.

“There wouldn’t have been a competition,” Kelly said, hinting that he nearly turned the offense over to Zaire for LSU.

How well this quarterback shuffle works or how long it’ll go on remains to be seen. While the defensive collapse has been the main culprit for the Irish’s four-game slide, Kelly still pins a lot of the team’s woes on the offense not being able to carry the weight.

So he’s not closing the door on this competition dragging into next season.

“I’m open really to anything at this point,” Kelly said. “We want to put the best football team, the best offense that we can on the field. Ideally, you’d like to have one, but if we’ve got two, then that’s what we’ll do.”