Mailbag: Hard Knocks, Navy hangover and OSU envy

27 Comments

 

Thanks for a nice batch of mailbag questions. Other than the usual trolling (new usernames and IP addresses, clever!), it’s fun to see what’s on everybody’s mind in the final weeks before camp gets started.

(I am not ready for that. Are you guys?)

Anyway, we’ll split these up with a few answers coming over the weekend.

 

@qsvdoan: If there was a “Hard Knocks: Notre Dame”, what player/coach is the breakout star?

I love this question. And I’d love to see a Hard Knocks: ND, because I’ve seen enough team-building rope swing exercises from Culver Academy to last me a lifetime.

I can’t go with just one person, so here’s how I’d be producing Hard Knocks, and these are the three breakout stars that I’d focus my attention on.

MALIK ZAIRE: This is a no-brainer. There’s charisma and then there’s Zaire’s charisma. This kid just oozes confidence and just about any Hard Knocks deserves to have an episode or two focused on the quarterback that’s ascending to the top of the depth chart. (Wasn’t this like two entire seasons of Friday Night Lights and the entire plot of Varsity Blues and The Program?)

Can’t you just picture the episode where the camera crew goes in tight on Zaire, with new QB coach Mike Sanford watching closely, hands on his knees, behind him, as Zaire rips off a perfect spiral — sweat flying off his forehead in slo-mo — as the ball splashes into the catching net?

JERRY TILLERY: This kid had me when he talked about starting Yoga and Yogurt in his dorm. Talk about moxie from an early-enrollee freshman, who likely was surrounded by co-eds wearing Lululemon while his buddies were all scoffing at the idea, only to be secretly jealous and unfortunately unable to touch their toes. (If I had a Delorean, you can bet that Stanford Hall circa 1999 would have Yoga and Yogurt…not just Keystone Light and Nintendo games.)

And as interesting as Tillery is off the field, his place on the field is even more intriguing. I fully expect him to be the biggest impact freshman on the team, crazy when you consider he’ll be playing behind Jarron Jones and Sheldon Day.

AUTRY DENSON: I toyed with picking Todd Lyght, but Denson was “my running back” while I was a student at Notre Dame, and I always appreciated the work he put in off the field and the style of runner that he was on it.

Denson might not be the operator on the recruiting trail that Tony Alford is, but for as vital as Alford was on the Irish coaching staff, I think there’s an argument to be made that the new blood with be helpful to the running back depth chart.

With Greg Bryant’s reported suspension, two new young running backs, C.J. Prosise transitioning between two positions and Tarean Folston ready to launch, keeping the focus on Denson and his work with the backs would be fascinating.

 

@drewbrennan: 2007-2014, ND’s record week after NAVY is 2-6. This yr we play USC. Why do we do this to ourselves? Will this yr be different?

I get it. And I actually think there’s something to the “Navy Hangover effect,” a phenomenon I believe coined by buddy Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports. Sure, the game is physically taxing and the cut-blocks tend to probably do more damage to your defensive line than a standard blocking scheme. But I think the mental energy that comes with facing off against the Midshipmen is just as big of an issue — and the let down comes after the toughest mental challenge of the season.

That said, you really can’t complain much about Notre Dame’s scheduling for 2016. Consider that they had to take a stick of dynamite to plans that had been laid for close to a decade and figure a way out of some seriously sticky situations when Jack Swarbrick and Father Jenkins decided to join the ACC in all sports but football. (It was easily the best move for the university and Notre Dame sports, all while preserving independence in football.)

The first seven weeks of the season are tough ones, and they’ll likely power training camp and summer workouts, as getting out of the gate quickly will be vital. But stopping the option game this season will be the difference between a great year and a good one, considering Navy, Georgia Tech and Boston College all have power running attacks.

 

goirish0112: Can you give further insight/analysis to your comment in the last mailbag that ND’s offense has been too QB reliant in the recent past, perhaps in comparison to the Ohio State offense which you mentioned is not so much.

I’m not sure this will give you exactly what you want, but my point was a fairly simple one. Ohio State managed to win a national title playing their third quarterback. They did so relying on a very strong running game and a defense that held firm against some of the country’s top competition in the CFB Playoffs.

There’s been a lot of Ohio State envy among Notre Dame fans these past two seasons. That comes with the still-lingering lust for Urban Meyer from a certain part of the Irish fanbase, but also from the results—Meyer gets more out of less than any coach in college football.

That’s not to say that Brian Kelly is an underachiever. This is a head coach who won at a very good clip at every stop he’s been. And he’s slowly rebuilt Notre Dame’s program depth to match-up with other elite programs, not the easiest after following the trio of Davie-Willingham-Weis.

But there’s a frustration after watching the Irish last year. Notre Dame’s offense was feast or famine, reliant on the performance of Everett Golson. Of course, the offense was fully leveraged after the defense lost some key contributors from a unit with zero margin for error. And once the defense failed to stop anybody for the final six games of the season after injuries took hold, it only put more pressure on Golson to perform. And he couldn’t do it.

In 2012, Notre Dame pulled off a near perfect mix/match of offense and defense, utilizing a stout defense and a conservative ground game to make sure that the Irish won football games, in any manner necessary. In 2014, the calculus of an offense that was Kelly’s most explosive–but also one of its most mistake-prone—and a defense that started strong and aggressive but failed to hold its own in either the red zone (or any zone after injuries took hold), made the formula to winning games very quarterback reliant. And as the turnovers on offense took hold and the floodgates opened on defense, Golson just couldn’t shake the mistakes.

Brian Kelly and his staff aren’t idiots. They ham-and-egged their way to a national title appearance just two seasons ago with a first-year starter at quarterback. So with the addition of Mike Sanford and new blood on Brian VanGorder’s defensive staff, expect a different recipe for victory in 2015. And it’ll likely be less about putting the game on Malik Zaire’s throwing arm and more about utilizing the best parts of the offense, some very strong playmaking personnel and a veteran and powerful offensive line.