IBG: Taking stock

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With bowl scenarios still shaking out, and a coaching search potentially under way, it’s a good time to take a look at some relatively big picture questions in this week’s IBG. As usual, the crew has supplied some topical questions.

Participate down below, where there’s been some “lively” discussion the past few days. And head over to the other blogs and check out some of their answers.

Her Loyal Sons
ND Nation
UHND
Strong and True

With that, I’ll hang up and listen:

Bayou Irish, Her Loyal Sons: Does this 8-4 feel any different to you than Brian Kelly’s previous 8-4′s under the Dome? What I mean by this question is this: did this team under-, or over-, perform in your eyes, or did you get what you expected from the 2013 Fighting Irish? Does the loss of Coach Martin change your outlook on 2014? Does the “gain” of Golson?

Not all 8-4 seasons are created equally. During the 2011 season, many Irish fans were thinking that perhaps nobody could fix this program. Between the ridiculous opening game against USF, the gutting against Michigan, laying an egg against USC and Stanford and the ugly stinker against Florida State in the bowl game, a lot felt left on the table. (Especially when you look at what the team did statistically… it was essentially a 10-win team.)

By the end of this season, it just felt like the roster was decimated. I think it’s safe to say that the Irish underperformed, but you can understand why they did. It also helps that Notre Dame is coming off an appearance in the National Championship game.

Martin’s move doesn’t change my big picture outlook on the season, though I do think he’ll be missed. But the gain of Golson is big. How big? Brian Kelly called Golson his best five-star recruit Tuesday on the media circuit.

Aaron Horvath, Strong & True: Now that the 12-game regular season is done, give me the player who surprised you the most this season and the player you are most excited about for next season?

I’ll give you one on each side of the ball. Defensively, it’s Kona Schwenke. I sincerely think Schwenke can end up having a nice career in the NFL, something that seemed fairly improbable when Brian Kelly targeted Schwenke late in the recruiting cycle. While he was hurt at the end of the season (who wasn’t?), Schwenke is a big bodied, active, combination defensive lineman.

Offensively, Tarean Folston has to get your vote. (Although maybe Ben Koyack secures runner-up.) Just about every Irish fan was dying to get a look at Greg Bryant, but Folston ended up looking like the running back of the future for the Irish.

(It’s worth mentioning that back around Signing Day, I hinted that the staff believed that Folston was the top back on the Irish board, and they believed he was a home run threat. Maybe he doesn’t have the long speed, but he certainly did have the explosiveness.)

As for next year, I can’t decide yet. Perhaps it’s DaVaris Daniels, reunited with Golson. (Heck, maybe it’s Golson.) If Stephon Tuitt is back, then that’s easy. Or getting a look at a healthy Greg Bryant.

Frank Vitovitch, UHND.com: What position where Notre Dame will be replacing starters in 2014 concerns you the most heading into the off-season.  Additionally, what position where Notre Dame returns starters in 2014 needs to see the most improvement for the Irish to get into the playoff conversation next year?

My biggest concern/question is inside linebacker. People liked to pick on Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese, but both guys have played a lot of football. And it’s not as if we saw tremendous things out of Jarrett Grace, though he did show some good improvement as the season went on before going down against Arizona State. While Joe Schmidt did a nice job taking advantage of his opportunities and Kendall Moore played himself back for a fifth year, it’ll be good to see what Michael Deeb can do.

As for returners needing to take the next step, let’s just look at every safety on the roster. It was a disappointing season almost across the board, with the Irish really missing the big game presence of Zeke Motta and Jamoris Slaughter. While Eilar Hardy took a step forward, Matthias Farley took a step back. Austin Collinsworth seems to be closing out the season strong, but Elijah Shumate all but lost a year due to injuries.

The depth chart battle next year should be fun to watch, with Nicky Baratti healthy, Max Redfield up to speed, and a few big names still on the recruiting board.

Mike Coffey, NDNation.com: As Brian Kelly searches for a new offensive coordinator, what direction do you hope he’ll go?  Should he promote from within, or should he look outside?  Either way, what name is on top of your list?

 Hope? Well, I think most hope he goes and hires a guy that makes everybody happy. A name you’ve heard of, that scores points on the national stage, who runs the ball efficiently and effectively, but also throws the ball down the field and scores points in a hurry. Basically the offensive coordinator version of the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy rolled into one. (Or Jon Tenuta.)

Who do I think will get the job? Mike Denbrock. He’s been with Kelly a long time, knows just about every job on the offensive staff, and is a sneaky good Xs and Os coach that can run the room and quality control as needed.

While others have pointed to Tony Alford as the guy on staff to move up, I just don’t see it happening. Alford’s a great locker room guy, an excellent recruiter and a wonderful man, but putting him in that position isn’t necessarily the best thing for his skill-set.

We can all throw darts at the board and guess if Kelly will snipe an offensive coach from another program, but that doesn’t seem his style. Also, he’s already hired Ernest Jones in a non-coaching position, so it might be pretty easy to slide Jones in at running backs coach, a job he’s done under Kelly both at Cincinnati and Central Michigan, and then slide everybody back up the ladder.

***

And finally, my question to all of you:

With the Irish not playing in a top-tier bowl, how do you treat the practice and run-up to the game? Is it best served getting young players practice and game reps? Is winning the game most important? If you’re Brian Kelly, what are your priorities?