Notre Dame mailbag: Consistency, the D and a fair QB competition

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With a big scrimmage on Saturday to get to and a Sunday at Augusta around the corner, let’s get to some mailbag questions.

Thanks again to everybody who submitted. There might be another round sooner than later, as we hit game week leading up to the Blue-Gold game.

 

@TerryDeLargy: Does ND Football find the consistency they’ve been searching for this year?

That’s a good question, Terry. And likely one that every program in American hopes to find as well. It’s really a next to impossible question to answer, but still—I think this is certainly Kelly’s best team and best candidate to do so.

Let’s go through a checklist of sorts as we try and look for places where you might see “consistency” develop:

A) Stability at quarterback.*

With a third-year starter Everett Golson and Malik Zaire showing himself capable, this is the strongest quarterback situation Kelly and the Irish have had since he came to South Bend.

*Of course this all goes away if Golson decides to transfer after he graduates. 

B) Veteran Offensive Line

With Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin up front, the Irish have two veterans who will play at the next level. Steve Elmer will have started games in three different seasons and Mike McGlinchey enters his third year in the program, after playing a solid game against LSU. Redshirt freshmen Alex Bars and Quenton Nelson look like standouts in the making.

C) Front Seven Experience

Notre Dame’s linebacking corps is the best we’ve seen in a very long time. And the defensive line has depth up the middle with veterans Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones and experience thanks to last season’s injury plague.

D) Talent at Skill Positions

Good players make good plays. And there are a ton of talented players to bail the Irish out with a great individual effort.

E) Leadership

Last year, it was tough to guess who’d be named captain of the team.

This year? It’s tough to say who won’t be named a captain. On defense, you’ve got returning captain Sheldon Day, but Joe Schmidt returns as the leader of the group and will likely put a ‘C’ on his chest.

But Jaylon Smith is a leader, Jarrett Grace and Matthias Farley as well, and expect KeiVarae Russell to walk in and lead the back end of the defense.

On offense, Nick Martin returns as captain, but Ronnie Stanley is stepping up as a leader. Everett Golson is a fifth-year quarterback and Malik Zaire is a natural born leader. Corey Robinson, Tarean Folston, Chris Brown, you could go on and on.

This is hardly a scientific breakdown, but these are all pretty solid ingredients towards stability and consistency. So I tend to think the lapses that have plagued this team will be far fewer than in seasons past.

 

sblxdoc: is there a marked difference in how a defense plays after 1 year of being in a new system? And what part of the defense should we see the biggest change?

 irishkevy: Do you think VanGorder needs to simplify the defense? I think part of the problem was its so complex and this isn’t the NFL where you have unlimited practice hours a week. It appeared sometimes the Irish D was more confused than they caused the opposing O. Will they play more basic and use their superior talent to win than disguises!

I lumped these two questions together because they pretty much are getting at the same thing. The “NFL system” that Brian VanGorder brought to Notre Dame.

The first question wonders if knowledge base and retention will be better in year two. I say yes, rather emphatically. (Do I have data to back this up? Not really. But if you look at the leap the Irish took in Year Two under Bob Diaco, then you’ll see what I’m talking about.)

The second question wonders if VanGorder’s system was too complicated. And in November, it certainly looked to be too difficult to understand for the young guys playing. I’m somewhere in the middle on the second part of this—and think it’s an important question.

While I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to pin the implosion on VanGorder’s system, I thought a fair criticism of the defense (at least post North Carolina) was that it didn’t have a base set to hang its hat on. If you keep relying on sub-packages and exotic blitzes, what do you do when a team forces you to go with a head-up approach? Last year after the injuries? The answer was give up points by the dozen.

Under Bob Diaco, the Irish defense didn’t do much to try and surprise opponents. And that allowed the defense to play fast, instinctive and mistake free. With VanGorder, we saw dominant stretches of play. But as the base of the defense became less and less experienced, that dominance turned into a disappointment.

Would Diaco have been able to do that with the young players Notre Dame was forced to play last season? I don’t think so. It’s easier to run Diaco’s system when you’ve got defensive linemen like Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix on the front line. After Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones went down, it was just a bunch of puppies.

Opponents will have a much better idea of what VanGorder wants to do in 2015. But the good news? So will the players. And if the secondary can cut down on the “panic snaps” as VanGorder called them earlier in the spring, and the unit can stay a little bit healthier this season, this will be a very, very good defense.

 

c4evr: Do you believe Kelly not naming his starter at QB until Fall is fair to either of the kids?

As I saw in the comments, more than a few people wondered about the use of “fair” in your question. I actually think this is the most fair way you could ask a staff to handle this competition—while also putting the team first.

What’s fair to the other 100 guys playing for Notre Dame is having a depth chart with two established players pushing themselves. What’s fair to the guys in the depth chart is to use spring football to get better, to chart and grade each snap quantitatively and objectively, while  also allowing players to compete for the right to play quarterback for Notre Dame.

With a new quarterback coach and offensive coordinator, thinking that Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford would be able to pick a quarterback by now isn’t all that realistic. From a strategic point of view, it’s not all that smart, either.

I wouldn’t expect to hear anything from Kelly in early August, either. Because I’d absolutely want Texas to be preparing for two very different quarterbacks, and only having game film from LSU to prep for Zaire will be a huge advantage for the Irish.

You didn’t ask me, but I’ll tell you how I think this will end up. Golson plays probably 70 percent of the snaps and Zaire is the closer on drives in certain red zone packages and hits defenses as a runner before going over the top as a passer.

Both guys will be happy leading Notre Dame to their most successful offensive season in the past decade.