Tuesdays with BK: Prepping for Pitt

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With Superstorm Sandy battering the East Coast and many of our readers under water and in bad shape, let me be one of the many voices from somewhere safe to wish you all well and hope that you’ve stayed out of harm’s way.

Not to take the devastation that has hit our country’s Eastern Seaboard and try to make a misguided sports analogy, but there’s probably one to be had with Notre Dame right now. With the Irish safely through the Oklahoma game, Notre Dame has weathered the most difficult part of their schedule. Yet those expecting things to lighten up are all too ready to fall into a trap that caught the Irish napping in 2002, broke the hearts of many in 1993, and annually trip up undefeated football teams all across the country throughout the month of November.

With the 4-4 Pitt Panthers set to visit South Bend this weekend, Notre Dame is far from out of the woods. But at 8-0 and big-time favorites on Saturday night, Brian Kelly has to remain vigilant as he prepares his team for an opponent with enough talent to beat him.

See below for the entirety of Kelly’s Tuesday press conference. As usual, I’ll give you some interesting snippets.

***

Kelly was asked about letdowns, and specifically Notre Dame’s history of following up a historically important win with a befuddling and devastating loss. His answer was a great one.

“History will have no effect on how this team plays,” Kelly said. “What will affect how this team plays is how they prepare during the week and that is what I can control and that’s what our players can control.  So our focus is on what we can control.  If we don’t prepare well and have a good week, that’s going to spill into how we play Saturday.”

As a fan, you’ve got to be happy with that answer. Outside of Mike Denbrock, that loss in 2002 might not even be a distant memory on the radar. And the ’93 defeat, a portion of this football team wasn’t alive for it.

Kelly talked about what his focus is as the Irish move farther along in this uncharted territory.

“More than anything else is that you can prepare well, but if you’re not going to play a tough brand of football mentally and physically, then you can lose every week that you play,” Kelly said. “So I go back to the two things:  One, let’s take care of what we can control; and two, let’s exhibit the habits that we’ve used all week and all year to be the guide for what happens on Saturday.”

***

If you’re looking for things that got Irish fans’ goat this offseason, it was a comment attributed to Kelly at a fundraiser dinner that got twisted into Kelly setting his season goals at eight wins. The head coach did his best to clarify that statement, making it clear that a mediocre eight-win season wasn’t his goal, but the fact that the Irish’s inability to win eight games in three straight seasons pointed to the program’s stability issues, something all but lost in the angst from some fans.

Fast forward to today and Kelly has indeed won eight games in three straight years. And we can all chuckle about this little flap. But Kelly was asked about the different paths to eight wins and how big the challenge was this year.

“It’s a climb,” Kelly said, a smile almost climbing to his face as the question emerged. “You’re developing a football program on a consistency that you want your team to have. I think it’s pretty clear that we’re developing that consistency.  But the challenges each year are different because of the different players that you have. But it’s still the same.  It’s still, you know, habits on a day‑to‑day basis.  It’s still preparation.  It’s still performing.  That hasn’t changed.  But now you have a group of players that know what you expect from them going into where we are right now. ”

***

After playing his most impressive game at Notre Dame, Kelly was asked what’s next for Everett Golson.

“The passing game still needs to improve,” Kelly said. “We had what we consider four, maybe five opportunities that we left out there in terms of throwing the ball.  So we want to see a higher passing efficiency in that respect.  And then I think you’re correct in assuming that what we need now is to put together a string of games back to back.  I think those are the two things that we’re going to ask from Everett in terms of his progress.”

He’ll have a great opportunity to display that this weekend, with another defense that might struggle to stop the Irish run game, leaving opportunities down field for Notre Dame to hit some big passes.

***

With a different offensive philosophy, Kelly has changed his tune on time of possession, acknowledging that tweak this afternoon. The Irish are now 14th in the country in the statistic where in previous years Kelly finished dead last at Cincinnati during his undefeated season.

Kelly explained the thought process and how they measure their efficiency.

“We want our time of possession to equal certain amount of plays, and we’re falling a little bit behind that matrix, if you will,” Kelly said. “So we really need to continue to possess the football, but we’ve gotta run some more plays, and that means we have to plate a little bit quicker and be able to get the amount of plays that we want.

“We’re running a lot more play personnel groupings into the game whereas last year we were set pretty much in our rotations.  So some of it’s coaching, and the other part of it is we’ve gotta run some plays that you don’t check, that you call them and haul them.  So there’s a little bit of that element, and then we’ve gotta get our quarterback not walking around out there.  He’s gotta get out there and he’s gotta move a little bit quicker.  So all those three elements coming together.”

It’s an interesting explanation from Kelly, who spends a fair amount of time signaling the play in with the Red Army (the back-up quarterbacks hand-signaling in the plays), which isn’t the fastest process. But the idea of running more plays while continuing to control the ball likely means that this staff wants to keep limiting opponents’ offensive opportunities, while also understanding that they need more production out of their offense, something that’ll come with more experience at quarterback.

***

Freddy Canteen announces another transfer, leaving Notre Dame at 86 scholarships

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The hook when receiver Freddy Canteen transferred to Notre Dame was he would get a chance to face his former school to open the 2018 season with Michigan visiting Sept. 1. That storyline will go unfulfilled after Canteen announced another transfer Friday afternoon.

Canteen graduated from Michigan in only three years, leaving him two seasons of eligibility when he joined the Irish. A torn labrum ended his 2017 season after only three games, meaning he could have hopes for a medical hardship waiver from the NCAA and retain that year of eligibility wherever he lands. He finishes his time at Notre Dame with one catch for seven yards.

A shoulder injury also truncated Canteen’s 2015 season and eliminated his 2016 while with the Wolverines. The former consensus four-star prospect hoped to be healthy enough with the Irish to showcase his speed, the primary allure he immediately brought to the roster.

His most-recent injury allowed the likes of Chase Claypool and Michael Young to move well past Canteen on the depth chart, while senior Chris Finke’s reliability served as a direct foil to Canteen’s injury history. Without this newest transfer, it is unlikely Canteen would have seen much competitive action in 2018.

Notre Dame now has 86 projected scholarships for the fall, one above the NCAA maximum allowed.

Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson first reported Canteen’s pending transfer.

FREDDY CANTEEN 99-TO-2
No. 11
Listed Measurements:
6-foot, 192 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Fifth-year graduate with two possible seasons of eligibility remaining, including 2018, depending on the NCAA’s view of his injury history.
Depth chart: Currently a second-stringer behind sophomore Michael Young, Canteen could have fallen further down the depth chart quickly this summer with the arrival of four highly-touted freshmen receivers.
Recruiting: Canteen first chose Michigan over offers from Maryland and Tennessee, among others, back in 2014, as the No. 47 receiver in the class, per rivals.com.

CAREER TO DATE
2014: 10 games, two starts; five receptions for 22 yards and one touchdown.
2015: Five games, one start before an injury ended his season; one reception for no gain.
2016: No action.
2017: Three games, one start; one catch for seven yards. Again, injury-shortened.

QUOTE(S)
Canteen’s if-healthy speed and experience made him an easy player to praise for receivers coach Del Alexander this spring.

“Freddy is playing fast,” Alexander said in late March. “He’s coming off an injury, but at the same time, he knows what to do. Freddy is also the guy that had limited mistakes when you count them over the last couple practices. He knows what to do, it’s just a matter of where he is and how he uses his strength and the strength to keep separation. … We’ve got to do something to use our hands and our arms to create separation because there is some hesitation there because he is still recovering.”

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“He should fit right into Kelly’s long-standing preference to have a deep threat available to take the top off the secondary. (Think of former Irish receiver Chris Brown’s role, even if he wasn’t frequently targeted.) [Former Notre Dame receivers Kevin] Stepherson or [Cam] Smith could also offer that top-end speed, but Canteen’s acceleration in the first 10 yards should set him apart.

“That particular skill will also likely be seen on special teams. Special teams coordinator Brian Polian has hoped for more options on his coverage and return units. Canteen was not around the team in the spring to aid in that regard — he only graduated from Michigan in April, despite the February transfer announcement — but this fall could earn some notice by shining on Polian’s coverage units.”

2018 OUTLOOK
Canteen’s future depends more on his health than on where he opts to transfer. No matter where that is, the last line of his announcement rings loudly. “My primary focus will be to prepare for a career that expands beyond football.” Perhaps Canteen realizes there will not be much waiting for him at the next level of the sport.

NOTRE DAME 99-to-2:
No. 99 Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle, senior
No. 97 Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle, senior
No. 95 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 94 Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 93 (theoretically) Ja’Mion Franklin, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 91 Ade Ogundeji, defensive end, junior
No. 90 (theoretically) Tommy Tremble, tight end, incoming freshman
No. 89 Brock Wright, tight end, sophomore
No. 88 Javon McKinley, receiver, junior
No. 87 Michael Young, receiver, sophomore
No. 86 Alizé Mack, tight end, senior
No. 85 George Takacs, tight end, early-enrolled freshman
No. 85: Tyler Newsome, punter and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 84: Cole Kmet, tight end, sophomore
No. 83: Chase Claypool, receiver, junior
No. 82: Nic Weishar, tight end, fifth-year senior
No. 81: Miles Boykin, receiver, senior
No. 80: Micah Jones, receiver, early-enrolled freshman

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 80 Micah Jones, receiver, early-enrolled freshman

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-4 ½, 208 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Early-enrolled freshman with four years of eligibility remaining, including the 2018 season.
Depth chart: It would be quite a reach for Jones to crack the receiver rotation this season. It is not necessarily a deep position group, but there are four somewhat-established options in seniors Miles Boykin and Chris Finke, junior Chase Claypool and sophomore Michael Young. Rather than give Jones spot minutes behind them along with junior Javon McKinley and sophomore Jafar Armstrong, it is more likely the Notre Dame coaches opt to preserve a year of Jones’ eligibility.
Recruiting: A rivals.com four-star recruit and No. 36 receiver in the country, Jones committed to the Irish in February of 2017, a full year before he expected to be able to sign. That choice included looking past offers from half the Big Ten and both participants in the Egg Bowl.

QUOTE(S)
Enrolling early gives any player a head start, but that does not mean adjusting to the demands of college football is inherently easy, especially considering the somewhat isolating nature of being one of only seven freshmen rather than one of 27 and the sole receiver instead of one of four.

“When you come in as a freshman and you have the numbers in your favor as far as a group, we’re probably going 100 miles an hour,” Notre Dame receivers coach Del Alexander said in late March. “Right now it’s going at 1,000 miles an hour for Micah. His advantage won’t show up until we get to [preseason] camp.

“So for him, we’re not going to slow down, because we have a veteran group. He’s chasing his tail and trying to chase everybody out in front of him.”

WHAT WAS SAID WHEN JONES’ NATIONAL LETTER OF INTENT ARRIVED
“Jones’ size and strong hands made him a priority for Notre Dame. In today’s version of football, no team can have enough receivers, but Jones is more than simply a fill-in.

“… One of [Jones or fellow-signee Kevin Austin] is likely to spend 2018 preserving a year of eligibility, just given Irish coach Brian Kelly’s track record. Looking at Boykin and Claypool as comparable to Jones, at least in size, it seems likely he spends the year on the sideline.”

2018 OUTLOOK
The best chance for Jones to find playing time this fall is to earn it on special teams. He is not much of a speed threat yet, but he is far from slow and has the size to serve a role on the kickoff coverage unit.

If Jones does see competitive time at receiver, that will almost assuredly be the result of injuries further up the depth chart. Otherwise, if he is partaking in special teams, he may as well also get some work in mop-up duties and perhaps notch a handful of catches for a few dozen yards.

DOWN THE ROAD
Jones arrives as part of a stellar receiver class, one of four who cover every angle of the position from size to speed. While Boykin, Finke and Claypool each will have only one more year of eligibility after this fall, a bit of an eligibility and experience gap exists between them and this freshman class. Only McKinley, Young and hybrid-running back Armstrong fill out that interim, a byproduct of former Irish receiver Kevin Stepherson’s exit.

Thus, Jones will be competing with Austin and, to some extent, Lenzy to become the next sideline and red-zone threat. Even in 2019, one of the trio should emerge as the primary back-up to Boykin and/or Claypool, if both in fact return to Notre Dame for their final years of eligibility.

NOTRE DAME 99-to-2:
No. 99 Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle, senior
No. 97 Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle, senior
No. 95 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 94 Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 93 (theoretically) Ja’Mion Franklin, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 91 Ade Ogundeji, defensive end, junior
No. 90 (theoretically) Tommy Tremble, tight end, incoming freshman
No. 89 Brock Wright, tight end, sophomore
No. 88 Javon McKinley, receiver, junior
No. 87 Michael Young, receiver, sophomore
No. 86 Alizé Mack, tight end, senior
No. 85 George Takacs, tight end, early-enrolled freshman
No. 85: Tyler Newsome, punter and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 84: Cole Kmet, tight end, sophomore
No. 83: Chase Claypool, receiver, junior
No. 82: Nic Weishar, tight end, fifth-year senior
No. 81: Miles Boykin, receiver, senior

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 81 Miles Boykin, receiver

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-4, 227 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Senior with two seasons of eligibility remaining, including 2018.
Depth chart: The combination of a memorable Citrus Bowl showing and a strong spring set up Boykin as Notre Dame’s top receiver, presumably starting isolated on the boundary.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star recruit from the greater Chicago area, Boykin chose the Irish over a number of prestigious offers, including Ohio State, Michigan and Oregon.

CAREER TO DATE
Boykin’s career stats do not precipitate an undisputed top receiver. Nonetheless, his New Year’s Day showing clearly illustrated why Boykin will probably start 2018 in that role. Quarterbacks Brandon Wimbush and Ian Book targeted him six times with both Kevin Stepherson (suspension) and Chase Claypool (shoulder) sidelined. Boykin caught three of those passes, all first downs, for 102 yards and a 55-yard game-winning touchdown in which he displayed jumping abilities, strong hands and quick acceleration.

2015: Preserved a year of eligibility.
2016: 12 games; six catches for 81 yards and a touchdown.
2017: 12 games; 12 catches for 253 yards and two scores. Named Citrus Bowl MVP.

QUOTE(S)
March and April were filled with praise of Boykin from both Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly and receivers coach Del Alexander. Even when discussing the Irish secondary, Kelly’s focus turned toward the troubles Boykin gave those defensive backs.

“I want to defend Miles Boykin better,” Kelly said following the Blue-Gold Game on April 21, a day in which Boykin caught three passes for 132 yards and one touchdown. “He was obviously an issue. … If we were playing against a Miles Boykin, we would play a little differently, and he would get a lot more help.”

Throughout the spring, Kelly insisted Boykin was on a different level than the rest of the receivers, even on days when Claypool was at his best.

“They’re not in the same category,” Kelly said in late March. “[Boykin] is a guy who can defeat one-on-one coverage and get you out of a loaded box by just throwing a fade to him. Those guys don’t have that and we’re not asking them. We didn’t recruit them for that purpose. We recruited Miles for that and he’s giving that to us.

“If you drop an eighth hat [in the box] and you’re going to leave him one-on-one into the boundary, you’re going to have to deal with him going up and getting the football. We think he can take it away from anybody.”

In Alexander’s mind, Boykin’s progress started in the offseason immediately following the highs of the Citrus Bowl.

“He’s using his quickness, he’s using his size and length, he’s using his explosiveness,” Alexander said. “That comes from his conditioning and his experience in the offense.”

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“Boykin’s [2017 spring] rise to the top of the depth chart was always a possibility, if not necessarily a likely one following the 2016 season. … Boykin’s pedigree kept this result in play despite his minimal role. The question now is, will he maintain this consistency and thus create more opportunities for himself?

“If he does, 20-plus catches and a couple touchdowns seems entirely reasonable.”

2018 OUTLOOK
One catch does not a career make, no matter how dramatic and well-timed it was. Before Boykin’s winning play, he had largely disappointed in 2017, to such a degree it cannot be traced entirely to Notre Dame’s inconsistent quarterback play. If 20-plus catches and a couple touchdowns was the expectation, then Boykin only came near it due to others’ absences in the bowl game. Otherwise, his season likely would have finished with only nine grabs for 151 yards and one score.

Finding the balance between those lackluster numbers and another touted spring is a difficult line to toe. The top Irish receiver should end up with an absolute minimum of 35 catches, 500 yards and half a dozen touchdowns, and that would be within a very balanced offense. Kelly made it quite clear this spring, he expects Boykin to be his top receiver. Thus, those should be the projected minimums for his senior year.

If sophomore Michael Young or Claypool excels in the fall, combined with Boykin again underwhelming, then those numbers will be but a pipe dream. As much as Boykin’s third career touchdown should be remembered for a long time, it does not guarantee great things will quickly follow. Nor does springtime excellence. Only fall Saturdays determine such.

DOWN THE ROAD
It is within the realm of possibility Boykin’s improved bench press maximums and quicker burst lead to a distinguished 2018. At his height and with that speed, he could opt to test the NFL waters. More likely, Boykin will return for a fifth year, which the coaching staff will certainly be grateful for.

Even with the likes of junior Javon McKinley, Claypool, early-enrolled freshman Micah Jones and incoming-freshman Braden Lenzy threatening to become the preferred big target of whomever is throwing passes for Notre Dame, having a veteran who has dealt with NFL-quality cornerbacks is a luxury not to be passed up, and Boykin already fits that description thanks to LSU’s secondary. That aspect of Boykin’s résumé will be further bolstered from the outset of 2017, considering the overall strength of Michigan’s defense.

NOTRE DAME 99-to-2:
No. 99 Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle, senior
No. 97 Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle, senior
No. 95 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 94 Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 93 (theoretically) Ja’Mion Franklin, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 91 Ade Ogundeji, defensive end, junior
No. 90 (theoretically) Tommy Tremble, tight end, incoming freshman
No. 89 Brock Wright, tight end, sophomore
No. 88 Javon McKinley, receiver, junior
No. 87 Michael Young, receiver, sophomore
No. 86 Alizé Mack, tight end, senior
No. 85 George Takacs, tight end, early-enrolled freshman
No. 85: Tyler Newsome, punter and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 84: Cole Kmet, tight end, sophomore
No. 83: Chase Claypool, receiver, junior
No. 82: Nic Weishar, tight end, fifth-year senior

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 82 Nic Weishar, tight end

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-4 ¾, 245 pounds.
2018-19 year, eligibility: Fifth-year tight end with only eligibility in 2018 remaining.
Depth chart: The springtime emergence of sophomore Cole Kmet bumped Weishar down to third on the depth chart among Notre Dame’s tight ends, but in Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long’s system with a dependence on multiple tight end sets, Weishar should still be considered part of the two-deep.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star recruit and U.S. Army All-American, rivals.com rated Weishar as the No. 7 tight end in his class. He chose Notre Dame over offers from Michigan, Ohio State and Oklahoma, among others.

CAREER TO DATE
Weishar’s career has been spent backing up future NFL tight ends, including fourth-round pick Durham Smythe. That has limited his statistical impact to date, highlighted by his nine catches for 52 yards and two touchdowns last season, including an impressive display of strong hands in the end zone in the season opener against Temple.

2014: Preserved a year of eligibility.
2015: 12 games; three catches for 19 yards.
2016: 12 games; three catches for 47 yards.
2017: 13 games; nine catches for 52 yards and two touchdowns.

QUOTE(S)
Known commodities are not discussed much in the spring. Tracing back to September, Irish head coach Brian Kelly frequently praised Weishar’s hands and tenacity.

“He can catch the damn football,” Kelly said following the victory over Temple. “Doesn’t matter where you throw it. … He created that on his own, and he’s just had so much confidence in the way he’s been playing and it’s carried over.”

Weishar’s skillset extends beyond his hands and to his willingness to engage as a blocker. In some respects, that combination makes him the ideal red-zone tight end.

“He will stick his nose in there,” Kelly said in late September. “… He’s got some grit and toughness to him. We all know he can catch the football, but it’s hard to take him off the field because he’ll throw his body in there and he’ll do whatever is necessary to get the job done.”

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“[Equanimeous] St. Brown’s breakout campaign last year, [Miles] Boykin’s strong spring showing, sophomore receiver Chase Claypool’s intriguing potential and [Alizé] Mack’s return all diminish Weishar’s role in the Irish offense.

“If Mack were to flash the inconsistency or immaturity that cost him the 2016 season, suddenly Weishar would be back in the conversation. Offensive coordinator Chip Long has a history of using two tight ends. That makes the third spot on the tight end depth chart less the figurative imprisonment sentence it usually would be. Provided Smythe and Mack both stay healthy and in good graces, though, Weishar’s path to significant playing time in 2017 may have closed.”

2018 OUTLOOK
Notre Dame may hope Weishar hardly impacts the season. That would mean both Mack and Kmet play well enough to be featured throughout three months. Considering the former’s track record of inconsistency and immaturity and the latter’s résumé consisting solely of a solid spring, the odds of both Mack and Kmet playing to their potentials are slim.

It is more likely Weishar’s experience and veteran savvy is needed by midseason, if not sooner. His red-zone presence alone should lead to him equaling last year’s meager stats.

If the former situation unfolds, Weishar will assuredly deserve some of the credit even as his role is reduced. His mentorship may be what anchors the tight end meetings and development as a whole.

DOWN THE ROAD
Weishar will not start against Michigan, so if he does not get drafted he will not jeopardize the lengthy streak of starting Irish tight ends hearing their name called by an NFL front office. That is not to say Weishar has no chance at getting drafted. After all, former Irish tight end Ben Koyack was drafted in the seventh round, and at this point in his career, he had totaled only 14 catches for 215 yards and three touchdowns, not all that much more than Weishar’s 15 receptions for 118 yards and two scores to date.

NOTRE DAME 99-to-2:
No. 99 Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle, senior
No. 97 Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle, senior
No. 95 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 94 Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 93 (theoretically) Ja’Mion Franklin, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 91 Ade Ogundeji, defensive end, junior
No. 90 (theoretically) Tommy Tremble, tight end, incoming freshman
No. 89 Brock Wright, tight end, sophomore
No. 88 Javon McKinley, receiver, junior
No. 87 Michael Young, receiver, sophomore
No. 86 Alizé Mack, tight end, senior
No. 85 George Takacs, tight end, early-enrolled freshman
No. 85: Tyler Newsome, punter and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 84: Cole Kmet, tight end, sophomore
No. 83: Chase Claypool, receiver, junior