Tag: Tommy Rees

Brady Hoke, Greg Mattison

Mattison holds keys to Wolverine defense


If there’s a benefit of Notre Dame and Michigan taking a break after next season, it’s that Greg Mattison doesn’t have to answer the same questions year after year. The Michigan defensive coordinator, who held the same position at Notre Dame for a portion of his eight-year run in South Bend, clearly understands what this rivalry is all about.

“I probably know this game better than most people, having been on both sides of it. This is a rivalry game. This is a big game. We’re looking forward to it,” Mattison said in his opening comments during his weekly press conference.

“There are some big games, and Michigan-Notre Dame in my eyes has always been a big rivalry game.”

Mattison’s comments aside, the defensive coordinator has his hands full on Saturday night, getting a young front seven up to speed to play against the Irish’s veteran front. Last year, Mattison called an excellent game, holding the Irish to just 13 points and a paltry 239 yards, clearly confusing young quarterback Everett Golson, who was pulled early after throwing two bad interceptions.

(How bad was Golson? Consider that his QB Rating (1.6)  was almost 30 points lower than Denard Robinson’s, who went 13 of 24 with four interceptions.)

With Golson out, Tommy Rees safely piloted the Irish to the victory, scoring a late touchdown on a two yard run while completing an efficient 8 of 11 passes for 115 yards, including a game-clinching connection with Tyler Eifert on third down to ice the game.

While many Michigan fans feel more confident heading into Saturday with Golson exiled for academic reasons, Mattison has a healthy respect for Rees.

“Tommy Rees, we respect him. He’s a very very good quarterback, as you know what you did last year to us at the end of the game,” Mattison said.

That respect for Rees is likely a product of the two games he’s played against the Wolverines. While most only remember the last second touchdown heave by Denard Robinson to Roy Roundtree, it was Rees that marched the Irish down the field to what could have been a game winning touchdown drive with thirty seconds left. It’s lost in the shuffle now, but Rees’ sophomore stat line was an impressive 27 of 39 for 315 yards, with three touchdowns and two interceptions. Nobody is forgetting about the redzone fumble and the turnovers that helped Michigan get back into the football game, but the narrative that Mattison has Notre Dame’s number as a coordinator hasn’t been necessarily true when Rees was behind center.

The Wolverines held Central Michigan to just 210 yards last weekend, feasting on the Chippewas after starting quarterback Cody Kater and starting running back Zurlon Tipton both were injured in the first half. But Mattison knows he’s in for a tougher opponent Saturday night.

“Notre Dame has a lot of talent. They’re a very good football team. Now it’s the next step,” Mattison said. “In the second game, did you correct the mistakes? Do you play harder or do you improve? Every time you’re a young team, you must improve every game. If you don’t, then you’re taking a step back. We’re looking forward to improving.”

Pregame Six Pack: Bring on the Owls


Thirty-three weeks. Two hundred thirty-six days. Five thousand, six hundred sixty-four hours. Three hundred thirty-nine thousand eight hundred forty minutes. Twenty million, three hundred ninety thousand, four hundred seconds. No, those aren’t alternative lyrics to the Rent soundtrack, but rather how long the Irish have had to have the awful taste of defeat in their mouths.

After twelve glorious Saturdays of singing the Fight Song and celebrating sixty minutes (and sometimes more) of victorious football, the Irish laid an egg on the sport’s biggest stage, the clock striking midnight on a season cut from a fairy tale. The proceeding weeks acted as nothing more than piling on, with just about every conceivable headline working as another rimshot for Notre Dame haters sick and tired of another Irish return to glory, with this one carrying Notre Dame all the way to the BCS Championship game.

Weird as it may seem, the Notre Dame team and its coaching staff may have had better luck putting last season in the rearview mirror than the media and football-loving public. As we run out of things to talk about during the offseason abyss, a sort of revisionist history has set in — a recreation of last season that subtly shifted the Irish’s ugly but time-honored formula of ferocious defense and protecting the football into a revolving door of Hail Marys and Divine Intervention.

Twelve victories has started to turn into seven wins, five squeakers, and a public reckoning. Never mind that Notre Dame out-rushed, out-passed, out-first downed, and fumbled the ball away three times (including once in the end zone) against a Stanford team and still beat a team many expect to see play Alabama for the title this year. That victory has become the product of a referee’s overtime blunder. Forget that Ohio State scraped by a Cal team that got its coach fired, one of Mark Dantonio’s worst Spartan squads, a four-win Indiana team that lost to Ball State, needed a furious comeback (and overtime) to beat Purdue, and had close victories over Wisconsin and Michigan. Urban Meyer’s team is a consensus top two team in the country.

But all of that is water under the bridge now, with college football’s silly season all but forgotten with kickoffs happening all across the country on this final weekend of summer. So Irish fans put down your clubs. The battle is over and the games finally count. Now Brian Kelly’s squad gets to forge a new identity as it looks to take out some long festering frustrations against a Temple team that looks overmatched on paper.

With kickoff set for 3:30 p.m. ET in South Bend, and the game broadcast (and livestream) on NBC, let’s dive into the season’s first pregame six pack.

As usual, here are six tidbits, leftovers, fun facts, and miscellaneous musings before the No. 14 Fighting Irish take on the Temple Owls.


How much will the Irish showcase during their season opener? 

Notre Dame enters Saturday’s game better than a four touchdown favorite. And with a visit to Ann Arbor on the books for next weekend, there’s a very real possibility that the Irish show a very vanilla look on both sides of the ball, holding out their best stuff for the Wolverines.

Still, for Notre Dame fans looking to see just what this edition of the Irish have in store for us, even the most basic game plan will supply some long overdue answers.

Consider this a short checklist of things to keep an eye on:

* How does Kelly distribute carries?
* How often does Tommy Rees throw the football?
* Who’s the next man in on the defensive line?
* What’s the rotation like at safety and linebacker?
* How does the right side of the offensive line look?

We’ve already talked about the team approach to special teams, with graduate student Nick Tausch given the first shot at the placekicking job after losing the job to both David Ruffer and Kyle Brindza. But consider Saturday a chance to face live bullets while getting a feel for the game, especially in the above areas.


George Atkinson may be the team’s starting running back, but Amir Carlisle is the X (or Z) factor. 

It’s been a long time since Amir Carlisle has been spotted on a football field when it matters. After starting his Notre Dame career a calendar year later than he hoped, Carlisle will finally don the Blue and Gold this Saturday.

So much has changed since Carlisle was last a difference-maker on a football field. Back in 2011, Carlisle, then a gifted freshman running back for USC, turned a Matt Barkley screen pass into a touchdown, helping the Trojan quarterback set another school record on the afternoon.

After a transfer to Notre Dame and working his way back from a broken ankle and collarbone, Carlisle could be the key towards unlocking the Irish offense, the rare player with the ability to play running back or the slot (Z receiver), something Kelly has looked for since coming to South Bend.

While it appears that George Atkinson has held onto the starting role through a spirited training camp that featured pushes from all six scholarship running backs, Carlisle’s ability to do it all will be counted on by the head coach.

“Versatility is great if you can handle it. You can say, ‘I want you to be versatile and play all these positions,’ but if you can’t handle it, then you can’t be versatile,” Kelly explained. “What makes him the player that he is is that he can handle those dual roles, and you start with the fact that he’s a very smart kid.”

There will continue to be concerns about Carlisle’s durability until he proves its not an issue, but after a long wait, it’ll be fun to see what the Irish’s new #3 can do.


Not that the Irish wanted to use him, but the quarterback depth chart will be without Malik Zaire. 

My how fortunes have changed for a position that was once the envy of college football. Set to enter spring practice with five scholarship quarterbacks, the Irish are down to Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix this Saturday, with freshman Malik Zaire being held out because of a bout with mono.

That’s forced Kelly to turn to Luke Massa as the team’s emergency No. 3 quarterback, with the Ohio native returning to his signal-caller roots after ditching the red jersey for the wide receiver position group early in his Irish career. Kelly’s also turned to fourth-string walk-on Will Cronin, a little known senior who came out of nowhere to help this week.

“This morning our last blood workup for Malik was that he is not going to be able to play on Saturday,” Kelly said Thursday after practice. “Luke Massa took reps this week as our third quarterback. Will Cronin, a walk-on that we brought in as part of our 105 was scout team quarterback along with Rashad Kinlaw. Both of those young men were the scout team quarterbacks this week. But Luke got a lot of reps as our No. 3 this week.”

Massa was part of a three-quarterback class that included Rees and Hendrix and was perhaps best knows as the high school teammate of blue-chip offensive lineman Matt James at St. Xavier, who tragically passed away during a Spring Break accident during his senior year of high school. While Massa has made his way into the Irish’s Saturday plans as the team’s holder this season, seeing him at quarterback would be a sight.

But perhaps an even bigger one would be Cronin working his way onto the field. The 5-foot-11 inch, 180-pound senior walk-on wasn’t on the official roster the last three seasons for the Irish, already one-upping Rudy in the “would you believe it?” category. The 2008 2A Illinois state champion quarterback was an honorable mention Academic All-State competitor at Immaculate Conception high school in Elmurst, Illinois, putting up a career day in September of 2009 when he threw for 422 yards and five touchdowns in a tough 46-38 shootout loss to the St. Edwards Green Wave.

Part of me thinks Cronin having a chance to even contribute this week as a scout team player may turn this Saturday’s game into a new career-best moment.

(Now all he has to do is find his way onto the field in garbage time…)


With all the offseason offensive wrinkles, will Notre Dame finally reveal The Pistol?

Brian Kelly brought former Nevada coach Chris Ault to campus this offseason, inviting the offensive innovator to Notre Dame’s coaching clinic, where Ault talked about the Pistol offense. A formation and offensive package that Ault’s largely credited with inventing, it’s a shotgun formation that features a running back lined up directly behind the quarterback.

Early in fall camp, Kelly did his best to downplay the use of the Pistol. But even in the media’s limited viewing window, it’s been clear that the formation has been a big part of the team’s practice efforts. And with George Atkinson a running back that can do some damage if he gets started running downhill, the Pistol is a great way for a spread team to infuse a few power principles to its offensive attack.

“He ran downhill very well in high school, and we felt like the pistol could fit him very well,” Kelly said of Atkinson. “Not just him, but we felt like it was something that could benefit us moving forward.”

Still, Kelly was quick to downplay any widespread change to the offense, particularly when the best quarterbacks in the formation generally have some dual-threat capabilities.

“It’s just another piece to our offense that gives us the versatility that we’re looking for,” Kelly said earlier this week. “I think week to week you may see it a little bit more than others, and some you may not see it at all.  I just think it’s another piece that helps us complement the players we have.”


It’s finally time to see this freshman class in action.

Last year against Navy, the Irish played 47 different players in the first quarter alone, on the way to getting 17 players their first collegiate action. With a hot and humid day on tap for South Bend on Saturday, expect to see plenty of guys seeing the field.

That includes the freshman class. A group that Brian Kelly has already singled out as one of his most competitive ever, the “IrishMob” that was such a cohesive unit as a recruiting class will now get to strut their stuff on the field for the first time.

Let’s go quickly through the class and give you a quick rundown of what to expect from each player this Saturday:

Hunter Bivin — He’s made the two-deep, but expect him to stay on the sideline this year.
Greg Bryant — One of camp’s big surprises should be revealed this weekend.
Devin Butler — With depth at corner, Butler will likely spend Saturday watching.
Michael Deeb — Expect this mauler to make an impact on special teams immediately.
Steve Elmer — You’ll see him rotate in at right tackle.
Tarean Folston — It’s up in the air if he’ll work his way into the crowded RB rotation.
William Fuller — Just outside the two-deep, he’s a talented young deep threat.
Mike Heuerman — With three veterans in front of him, it might be special teams or bust.
Torii Hunter Jr. — While there’s been progress in his leg’s recovery, a redshirt is likely.
Rashad Kinlaw — Helped out at scout team QB, his athleticism could get him on the field.
Cole Luke — Already one of the team’s best corners. Will wear #36 because of special teams.
Jacob Matuska — One of the team’s best positions isn’t its deepest. But a likely redshirt.
Mike McGlinchey — One of camp’s biggest surprises. Closer to the field than many expected.
Colin McGovern — A high school injury and depth at guard makes a redshirt an easy choice.
John Montelus — Shoulder injury and 340-pounds of bulk means a saved year of eligibility.
James Onwualu — Kelly called him one of camp’s best surprises. Will see the field.
Doug Randolph — Surgery ended his season before it began.
Max Redfield — Just outside the two-deep (for now), he’s too talented to keep off special teams.
Corey Robinson — Get ready to see this red zone match-up wreak havoc.
Isaac Rochelle — Injuries or not, Rochelle is too talented to keep off the field.
Jaylon Smith — His star turns begins Saturday.
Durham Smythe — Silky smooth tight end is a long shot to play this year.
Malik Ziare — Mono or not, he’s better off saving a year of eligibility.


Most Notre Dame coaches find success. But for Brian Kelly, now comes the hard part.

While they didn’t go undefeated, Bob Davie, Ty Willingham and Charlie Weis all at one point looked like they’d be the next great Notre Dame head coach. So with Brian Kelly coming off a twelve-win regular season, now comes the hard part: Doing it again.

NBC Sports’ Joe Posnanski headed to South Bend last week to investigate what makes Brian Kelly different. After talking with Dan Fox, Zack Martin, assistant coach Bob Elliott and others, Posnanski believes it’s Kelly’s innate ability to understand and connect to his team.

Take this interesting snippet from Posnanski’s excellent piece:

All of last season, while coaching at Notre Dame, Bob Elliott would administer daily self-dialysis. His kidneys were failing. He said it was more of a pain that painful. This past February, after the season, he had a kidney transplant, with his sister Betsy as the donor. He says he’s doing well.

And he says that going through that last year while coaching a great Notre Dame team taught him a lot about what makes Brian Kelly win. Elliott has been around some of the greatest coaches in college football history. His father, Bump Elliott, was coach at Michigan for 10 years and athletic director at Iowa for more than two decades. Bob himself has coached for 34 years and has worked under Bill Snyder at Kansas State, under Hayden Fry at Iowa, under Dick Crum at North Carolina. He has some connection to just about everybody in college football.

And he says that what amazes him about Kelly is how well he understands the people around him. He said that Kelly seemed to know when to check in and when to butt out. Kelly seemed to know how to revitalize Elliott in low moments without making a big deal out of it. Kelly just understood. This is what everybody keeps coming back to when they talk about Kelly — Elliott says it’s the most remarkable talent of a remarkable coach.

“Oh, he’s a great technical coach too,” Elliott says. “He’s been successful for a long time and he knows the game as well as anybody. But what makes him unique, I think, is that guys like to play for Brian. Coaches like to coach for Brian. He’s one of my favorites. He lets coaches do our jobs without micromanaging unless there is something that needs to be micromanaged. And then he does it in a respectful way. And he is very much in charge — he sets the tone for everything.

“It’s hard to build a family environment. That’s what coaches are always going for, right? You want players who play for each other and push each other and make each other better. That’s a hard thing to accomplish. Brian Kelly is as good as anybody Ive ever seen at building that environment.”

It’s worth noting that in Brian Kelly’s first 39 games at Notre Dame, he’s won 28 of them. In Lou Holtz’s first 39 games, he won 29. Extracting just one more similarity from the two: Both Kelly and Holtz averaged five losses a season in their first two years on the Irish sideline. They each won twelve games their third season.

For the record, Holtz followed up his 1988 National Championship season with a 12-1 campaign only spoiled by a late November loss to Miami. We’ll see what Kelly has in store for an encore.

Tuesdays with BK: Temple edition

Kona Schwenke

Brian Kelly started his weekly game press conferences today with 45 minutes of discussing Temple, the week one depth chart, and the state of the Irish heading into Saturday afternoon.

You can catch the entire press conference below, but let’s pull out the highlighter and cover some of the interesting stuff:


It seems as if Kona Schwenke looking good on UND.com practice report videos wasn’t just clever editing. The senior defensive lineman should turn into a versatile, important piece of the defensive front, especially with the injury to Tony Springmann.

From the sounds of it, Schwenke will be more than just Louis Nix’s back-up at nose guard.

“I think right now Kona has some flexibility where he could play some four and five technique for us,” Kelly said.  “So I think you’ve got some flexibility.  We think Tyler Stockton can come in and get some plays for us.  You could obviously put that math together and figure that third rotation could be Tyler Stockton with Kona playing a little bit, as well.”

More to that point, Kelly singled out Schwenke’s work over the summer as some of the most impressive on the team. It comes at a good time as well, with Schwenke able to spell Nix in the middle but quick enough to play out on the edge of the front.

“I think defensively Kona Schwenke has been a different player in the spring than he is right now,” Kelly said.  “He’s going to play a lot of football.  He could play for a lot of teams and make an impact.”

It might feel like crying over spilt milk right now, but Irish fans can think back to the Purdue game two seasons ago when Schwenke was forced into the game to take limited reps because of the lack of depth up front when Stephon Tuitt was suspended. If it were up to Kelly, Schwenke would’ve sat out that season, saving a year of eligibility, which would look pretty good with Nix all but guaranteed to leave school after he graduates and head into the NFL Draft.

Still, this should be a big year for Schwenke, who still looks like a great developmental find for this staff, who plucked a 230-pound Hawaiian out of obscurity and turned him into a defensive tackle that would’ve started on just about every team but the last few.


The opening game each season comes with some surprises, especially when opponents are transitioning coaching staffs. That’s certainly the case for Temple, where head coach Matt Rhule came from the NFL and defensive coordinator Phil Snow came from Eastern Michigan.

Kelly talked about that challenge and how his team prepped for the unexpected.

“I think I know more about Eastern Michigan’s defense than I do anybody else,” Kelly said. “Coach Snow, who’s their defensive coordinator, was at Eastern Michigan last year, and I found myself talking in terms of what Eastern Michigan was doing, and clearly obviously that’s not their talent pool.  They’ve got Temple players.

“So there’s that unknown… Obviously with a new quarterback, a new offensive coordinator who comes from Tennessee Chattanooga, there’s so many different variables that go into the opener first of all.  Now add a new staff, a new head coach.  So we have to be on guard, and from our standpoint we’ve got to take care of what we do.”

In his latest post at the Philadelphia Inquirer, John Mitchell mentioned that the Temple offense should look an awful lot like the New York Giants attack if things are working properly. They’re shy of Eli Manning, Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks, but it’s just another part of the difficulty that comes with scouting an opponent with transition in the coaching ranks.


More than a few people wonder about the status of the relationship between head coach and starting quarterback. It hasn’t always been duckies and bunnies between Kelly and Tommy Rees, but it sure sounds like the head coach is in the quarterback’s corner when it comes to unequivocally stating that the offense is going to be more productive this year than last.

“You know, I mean, I’ve been doing it a long time,” Kelly said. “I mean, I don’t throw bouquets out unless I’ve got a pretty good idea of what I know.  Tommy Rees is going to help us score more points than we did last year, and our offensive line and our running backs and our balance at the wide receiver position is going to allow us.  He’s making good decisions.  He’s showing some escapability.”

While most people seem to subscribe to the mantra of “As Tommy Rees goes, so goes the Irish offense,” Kelly doesn’t quite feel that way. Mostly because of improved personnel that might not be as star-heavy as seasons past, but certainly is the most complete since Kelly arrived in South Bend.

“It’s not just going to be him,” Kelly said. “We can threaten you over the top.  We can push the ball over your head.  If you want to drop down on us, we’ve got some weapons that can beat you one‑on‑one, and we’ve got a quarterback that can see that and throw the ball to you.  We struggled with doing that at times last year.  We won’t struggle doing that this year.”


Five things we’ll learn: The season is finally upon us

Notre Dame team

Within ten minutes of reaching the top of the college football mountain, Notre Dame fans had to feel like Sisyphus. After watching their beloved Irish vanquish a boulder carrying the burdens of tradition, unfulfilled expectations, and the final shouts of irrelevancy at the BCS National Championship game, the honeymoon lasted just minutes before the Crimson Tide knocked a dream season back down to earth.

The greek tragedy didn’t stop after the embarrassing 42-14 pummeling. Brian Kelly nearly knocked the oxygen out of ND Nation when the Philadelphia Eagles interviewed him, going radio silent for three days before eventually returning to the fold. That was nothing compared to Manti Te’o’s ordeal, with America learning all about Catfishing and a fictional girlfriend named Lennay Kekua.

Spring practice led to the departure of five-star freshman Gunner Kiel. That was trumped by the academic exile of starting quarterback Everett Golson. Throw in the loss of prized recruits Alex Anzalone and Eddie Vanderdoes, and just making it to training camp was enough of an accomplishment.

A long summer of workouts and four days in a sleepy farm town of Marion, Indiana hopefully put all of that in the past. And just 236 eventful days after last taking the field, the Irish will kickoff the ’13 season against Temple.

Before we focus on that game, let’s take a look at five things we’ll learn during the 2013 season.


1. The final chapter in Tommy Rees’ career will determine his legacy. 

As NBC continues to try and regain the midas touch it once had developing television dramas, it could do worse than looking to its Saturday afternoon autumn time slot for inspiration. That’s where Tommy Rees has entranced Irish fans — with three seasons of football that have been anything but boring.

Defining Rees’ run in South Bend is complicated. It’s also something we’ve tried to do from almost the beginning, when the scrawny freshman that looked like he should’ve been played interhall was thrown into action against Tulsa and lost in spectacularly dramatic fashion. Rees may have lost that game — and a few others — but he’s certainly won his share as well.

After boos from the home crowd welcomed Rees during a late-game relief appearance against Purdue, Rees spent the ’12 season earning back the respect of just about every Notre Dame fan on the planet, proving to be the ultimate teammate while playing a critical role during the team’s undefeated regular season.

With the keys to the offense in Rees’ hands for one final season, even Kelly understands that this year will go a long way towards defining Tommy Rees and his legacy.

“I don’t think the story’s written,” Kelly said. “I think you write the story after he completes his journey here at Notre Dame. You know what, it could be a really interesting story.”


2. Can Brian Kelly’s most talented backfield find a way to turn into his most productive?

Gone are the Irish’s three most prolific rushers from last season, with Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood both battling to make NFL rosters while Everett Golson spends his forced sabbatical in San Diego training. Yet even with just 74 returning carries in the Irish backfield, Kelly feels extraordinarily upbeat about the prospects of his running attack — whoever ends up leading the way.

“We’re just really blessed to have such great talent at the running back position,” Kelly said. “I don’t know that I’ve ever had as much depth at the running back position in all my years of coaching. All of them can contribute to our success.”

If finding carries for three backs was difficult last season, thinking Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin can find touches for George Atkinson, Cam McDaniel, Amir Carlisle, Will Mahone, Greg Bryant, and Tarean Folston is all but impossible. While preseason camp went a long way towards getting positive sound bites out of the coaching staff about all the good work that was getting done, it brought us no closer to knowing who’s actually going to carry the load once the games start to count.

George Atkinson may be the best blend of size and speed in the country. Amir Carlisle might be the most dangerous playmaker on the team. Greg Bryant could be a freshman All-American while Cam McDaniel could be the best pure running back on the team. But can this coaching staff find the proper platoon to take advantage of everyone’s skill-sets?

There’s every reason to believe that the offensive line should be even better run blockers than they were last season. Who they’ll be blocking for is the big question.


3. Can the inside linebackers still play productive football without Manti Te’o?

For four seasons, Manti Te’o roamed the middle of the Irish defense, providing the heartbeat for a unit that improved every season. Anchoring the defense and calling the shots from his inside linebacker position, the unit took on his personality, as it became one of the school’s stingiest defenses in the modern era.

After splitting snaps playing next to Te’o, fifth-year seniors Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese will get the first chance to take over the inside, with junior Jarrett Grace working into the rotation as well. When asked about replacing an iconic player like Te’o, all three linebackers were smart enough to know that’s next to impossible.

“We have a bunch of leaders on our defense and instead of looking to one person we can look to several people,” Calabrese said. “It’s more of a team defense. We don’t have just one guy standing out this year. We have a bunch of guys that can play and can lead, which is going to make us successful.”

While replicating Te’o’s interception total might be impossible, his tackle productivity shouldn’t be as difficult. Splitting snaps next to Te’o, Fox and Calabrese combined for 112 tackles. Te’o’s award-winning campaign finished with 113.

Much of what Te’o brought to the defense wasn’t measured on a stat sheet. But with two of the team’s most experienced players anchoring the interior of the defense, Te’o’s legacy might be the pride that he instilled in the unit.

“I think our mentality would carry over more than anything,” Fox said. “The mentality that we don’t want anybody to score on us is something that we take pride in. We hold it close to us.”


4. Can Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix form the most dominant 1-2 punch on the defensive front in the country?

Spend your time worrying about the NFL Draft come December. Otherwise you’ll miss the most talented defensive front Notre Dame has had in a very long time. Anchored by nose tackle Louis Nix and defensive end Stephon Tuitt, the Irish have two All-American caliber defensive linemen that could also be first round NFL draft picks.

Less than five years after the Irish defensive line couldn’t stop a powder puff team, Brian Kelly has turned the Irish front into a must-see group for pro scouts, according to NFL.com’s Bucky Brooks.

Studying Nix’s game tape, I was surprised by his savvy and skills as a pass rusher. Unlike most nose tackles of his stature, Nix is more than a pocket pusher. He effectively uses a “snatch and shed” maneuver to work past interior blockers on pressure attempts. Although his sack numbers are minimal, he reminds me of Vince Wilfork as an interior pass rusher.

Tuitt, who stands 6-foot-6, 322 pounds, is an ultra-talented five technique (defensive lineman who plays on the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle) with a tremendous combination of size, speed and athleticism. He flashes extraordinary snap-count anticipation and first-step quickness, which makes him difficult to block on the interior on single blocks. Tuitt complements his superior movement skills with terrific hand skills and upper-body strength. His ability to play with strength, power and leverage not only makes him an effective run defender, but it also makes him a problematic pass rusher as a defensive end in a three- or four-man front.

Paired with Sheldon Day, a sophomore defensive end who Kelly raved about earlier in camp, the Irish’s base three-man front should be one of the most stout in the country. They’ll likely improve when they go to four-down as well, dropping All-American candidate Prince Shembo down to the line of scrimmage or hybrid player Ishaq Williams.

Question marks can be solved quickly with a dominant defensive front. And no duo looks to be more dominant than Nix and Tuitt.


5. Can Notre Dame adjust from being the hunter to the hunted?

Ask USC how it felt to start the season with a bullseye on their chest? The Trojans, who started last season as a favorite to win the national championship, ended the year losing five of six and embarrassing themselves in the Sun Bowl to a sub-.500 Georgia Tech squad.

One of the big reasons Brian Kelly shook up training camp was to forge a new identity for this football team. And he made it clear that “you don’t just begin this climb at the top of the mountain.” With fuel easy to find after a one-sided BCS Championship loss and the doubt that comes with losing your starting quarterback, the mission put to the team in January was clear.

“If we do it like we did last year, we’re going to be an 8-5 team because everybody has taken their motivation off what we did last year and have worked harder,” Kelly said. “We supplied motivation for the entire college football world that, if Notre Dame can do it, we can do it.

“So if you do it like you did last year, you’re an 8-5 football team.”

While we won’t know until the games starting counting for real if this team is up for the challenge of getting back to the top, but it appears clear that the group understands that last season’s success is in the rearview mirror.

“We left last year in the past. We are focusing on this year and focusing on today,” Calabrese said.  “We are focusing on this year and this team.”

Offseason cheat sheet: Quarterbacks

Rees Kelly

From the looks of it, more than a few Notre Dame fans have come out of hibernation. After last year’s dream season came to a crashing halt, it’s more than understandable that some Irish fans decided to take a few months off before returning to the fray.

But that hasn’t stopped us. So with just over two weeks to go before the Irish kick things off against Temple, we present you a Du Lac approved crib sheet that should get you up to speed for the upcoming season.

(We’ll even spare you the Everett Golson jokes.)


Heading into spring practice, the quarterback depth chart hadn’t looked better in at least a decade. With Everett Golson, the Irish had a returning starter that looked like he had star qualities. In Tommy Rees, Notre Dame had one of the most experienced back-ups in the country. Gunner Kiel was a five-star prospect who had just taken the redshirt off and Andrew Hendrix was a guy that could help the Irish in some situational packages. Add in a promising true freshman in Malik Zaire, and trying to find reps to keep everybody happy seemed like the biggest challenge for Brian Kelly.

That certainly isn’t the case entering the season. Gone is Kiel, transferred to Cincinnati where he’ll sit out the season but have the inside track for a starting job that may have never come in South Bend. But the biggest surprise was the loss of Golson, who is not enrolled for the fall semester after some academic improprieties, costing him the ’13 season.

What looked like a five man scholarship depth chart is now down to three, forcing Tommy Rees back into the starting lineup. It’s a familiar spot for Rees, though he’s never had the comfort of knowing the job was his heading into a season.

Let’s take a look at the depth chart and do some projecting.


1. Tommy Rees, Sr. #11
2. Andrew Hendrix, Sr. #12
3. Malik Zaire, Fr. #8
4. Charlie Fiessinger, Jr. #17


It’s scary to think it, but Rees might be the most irreplaceable skill player on the Irish roster right now. There’s a major drop in offensive acumen from Rees to Hendrix, and any injury to Rees would necessitate taking off Zaire’s redshirt, something this coaching staff doesn’t want to do unless necessary.

Rees is far from a perfect player, as evidenced by his first two years playing. While accurate, he’s short an arm that can make all the throws and was loose with the football, a major reason the ’11 team didn’t reach their potential. All that being said, there’s a belief inside the program that the Irish offense won’t miss a step with Rees back behind center. While he’s got to clean up some of the mistakes that plagued him as a sophomore, he’s four years into Kelly’s system and is comfortable with what he can and can’t do. While it’s easy to think about what could have been with Golson behind center, it’s downright scary to think about what life would be like without Rees.

Looking even farther into the crystal ball, it’ll be interesting to see what happens this spring. While the intention is to have Golson back, counting on him before seeing him in South Bend isn’t a certainty. But with only DeShone Kizer in the recruiting class at quarterback, what happens with Hendrix seems to be the big question. With a degree in hand, Hendrix will have multiple opportunities both on and off the field. Will he stick around to play a final season and compete for time? Will he go to another college where a job is there for the taking? Or will he hang it up and go to med school?

Those questions can be answered later. But after starting with a meeting room short on chairs, the Irish offense needs to have a bit of good luck to reach its potential this year.