Tall tales or telltale signs?

Considering the offensive improvements in 2014 and the defensive collapse, most of the encouraging signs are on the side of the football where Everett Golson and Malik Zaire could form a dynamic one-two punch.

Perhaps it’s not a “death and taxes” scenario. Nothing is quite that certain. But with the recent completion of the 2015 spring drills, we now have what should be a clearer picture of what to expect this fall when Brian Kelly’s Irish take on a front-loaded schedule that also includes four trips away from home over the final five games.

It’s never as easy as it appears in the pre-season.

Most of the encouraging signs last season came on the offensive side of the football, although turnovers often offset the positives and there certainly appears to be more position flexibility and depth on defense after allowing 319 points over the final eight games.

So what’s real/legit and what is mere wishful thinking? We call this “Tall tales or telltale signs?”

• Notre Dame’s starting safeties “get it” and will play like the talented veterans they have become – Safeties Elijah Shumate and Max Redfield certainly talked the talk when practices were open to the media this spring, from trash-talking with the offense the week before the Blue-Gold Game to Redfield’s taunt of Malik Zaire following his “planned” interception of Everett Golson’s flea flicker pass. More importantly, their ability to communicate with one another and with the rest of the defense is the most significant talking that went on this spring.

“We can run this defense,” said Shumate as spring drills concluded.

They couldn’t a year ago. Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s voice could be heard – this according to Kelly – echoing from the defensive backs room when the Irish were trying to stem the tide amidst the avalanche that was the final eight games of the season.

Shumate and Redfield were in superb physical condition this spring and played a decisive, forceful game from the back end. Shumate remains, pound-for-pound, the top hitter on the defense, and a nimble-footed Redfield looked primed to begin a sharp ascent heading into the second half of his collegiate eligibility.

That doesn’t mean there won’t be breakdowns or that they won’t get beaten deep. Just about everybody does. But these two guys look like two of the better players on the defense this spring.

Telltale signs…unless injuries strike.

• Without a dominant pass rusher, the Irish will generate a consistent “team pass rush” – Notre Dame managed just 26 sacks a year ago, and half of those came in the first five games. Defensive end Romeo Okwara led the way with just four sacks while two players from the back seven – Jaylon Smith and Matthias Farley – each had 3.5.

All but one of the 26 sacks came from a player who returns this fall. With the addition of proven defensive line coach Keith Gilmore, Notre Dame should be able to take the next step and generate a pass rush. The best candidates along the defensive line are Okwara and Andrew Trumbetti.

With the experience returning up front and through the natural evolution of player development, the pass rushers should show an improved penchant for rushing the quarterback. And yet teams that tend to rely on “team sacks” generally still lack the ability to turn loose a player who can make a great individual move and get to the quarterback on a regular basis.

Guys like Sheldon Day, Jarron Jones and Isaac Rochell should – through experience and savvy alone – be better at it with a host of young players vying for a shot at the quarterback. Still, there’s much to prove when it comes to rushing the quarterback in VanGorder’s defense.

Tall tale, although the addition of Gilmore could be a significant factor in turning this into a positive. Plus, there is no shortage of bodies upon which to build.

• Notre Dame’s receiving corps is on the verge of solid consistency – The top six wideouts (W, X or Z) return with a combined 214 catches for 3,071 yards and 27 touchdowns from 2014 alone.

With his 76 receptions for 1,094 yards and 15 touchdowns, Will Fuller accounted for 35.5 percent of the catches, 35.6 percent of the yards and 55.5 percent of the touchdowns among the wideouts.

Will the Irish have a legitimate go-to receiver beyond Fuller? Will a player or two emerge as consistent, reliable receivers beyond Fuller? Is that really important when an offense is able to spread the football around like this one can?

After an eight-catch, 99-yard, two-touchdown performance in the seventh game of the ’14 season (Florida State), Corey Robinson caught just 13 passes over the final six games. C.J. Prosise gave the Irish a different weapon from the slot at 220 pounds, although he didn’t catch more than three passes in a game over the final six and did not exceed 45 yards in the last four.

After making nine catches in the first two games, a knee injury slowed Amir Carlisle, who made just 14 more grabs over the final 11 games. The most consistent of the group beyond Fuller was Chris Brown, who had at least one catch in every game and at least four in four of the last seven games, although he scored just one touchdown all season.

Telltale signs. If the individuals who have already established themselves as viable standouts can just show a bit more consistency, this has the makings of a quality unit from top to bottom with some fresh(man) reinforcements arriving.

• Notre Dame finally has three legitimate standout running backs – The anti-Cam McDaniel faction can rest easy. The undersized, hard-nosed back has moved on. McDaniel carried just 77 times in 2014 for just 3.6 yards per carry. Many were frustrated more by the high percentage of totes he had in 2013 (39.6 percent) among the running backs that included George Atkinson, Tarean Folston, Amir Carlisle and Greg Bryant.

With McDaniel gone, the Irish had just two true running backs entering spring – Folston and Bryant – it looked like they’d be in a position to form a real dynamic one-two punch.

Then along came C.J. Prosise, whom the coaching staff wanted to see after he showed a propensity for running the football well on vertical handoffs. As he did as a Z receiver, Prosise emerged at running back, and he put his vision between the tackles and his burst to the outside on display in the Blue-Gold Game.

Meanwhile, Bryant seemed to give up on runs in which defensive pressure arrived shortly after the handoff (until late in the Blue-Gold Game), and then he failed to make the effort to stretch out for a deep ball thrown on his fingertips.

Bryant is a brilliant physical talent. It’s no wonder he was considered to have five-star potential coming out of high school. His ability to extricate himself in traffic is outstanding, particularly as a punt returner.

But now he has additional competition for carries, and Prosise has the size and physicality to give the Irish the component that’s been missing from the ground game (although McDaniel frequently added some punch as a short-yardage back).

Tall tale until Bryant proves it with some degree of consistency in game competition.

• The offensive line will reach its full potential and be the backbone of the team – Quite frankly, we’ve heard this before. Just go back to the 2013 season and you’ll see a starting front of two first-round draft choices (Zack Martin in ‘14, Ronnie Stanley in ‘16), a third-rounder (Chris Watt), a potentially high selection (Steve Elmer) and another player who also should play in the league (Nick Martin).

With all that offensive line talent, the Irish rushed for less than 2,000 yards, a mere 151.0 yards per game and a good but not great 4.5 yards per carry with a pedestrian 12 rushing touchdowns in ‘13. The unit allowed just eight sacks, and that was with the quick-delivering, slow-of-foot Tommy Rees at quarterback. The Irish went three straight games against Michigan, Purdue and Michigan State without reaching 100 yards on the ground and rushed for 145 yards or less eight out of 13 games.

Last year’s team averaged 159.5 yards rushing per game and 4.3 yards per carry.

No doubt, this line looks a little different with healthy a Nick Martin, a steadily-improved Elmer, a star-in-the-making in Stanley, a huge, athletic right tackle in Mike McGlinchey, and a legit five-star prospect in left guard Quenton Nelson.

The key, of course, is how much emphasis Brian Kelly, associate head coach Mike Denbrock and offensive coordinator Mike Sanford place on the ground game. It was the focal point of a 31-28 Music City Bowl victory over LSU, the talk of the spring, and the emphasis in the Blue-Gold Game.

It’s a big, strong, agile, hard-working unit that has fully bought into the gospel according to Harry Hiestand. It’s primed to be the area the Irish turn to when the game is on the line.

Telltale signs. While there remains doubt until it’s fully proven, simply from failing to emphasize it in the past, if this isn’t the rock upon which the Irish offense is built, the schedule will prove to be too difficult for Notre Dame to achieve its goal of a playoff birth, particularly if the defense can’t make significant improvement.

• Notre Dame will be vastly improved along the front seven – The depth is as good as it’s been since Lou Holtz’s peak from 1988-93. While there isn’t one dominant pass rusher, the return of a healthy Jarron Jones, an improving presence/talent in Sheldon Day and a physically imposing Isaac Rochell gives the Irish a chance to improve a rush defense that allowed 171.2 yards per game and 4.2 yards per carry (although two option-based offenses – Georgia Tech and Navy – will skew the numbers).

The linebacker corps looks legit with a healthy Jarrett Grace waiting for Joe Schmidt to return to full health. Gifted Jaylon Smith adds position flexibility, Nyles Morgan provides a high level of athleticism as well, and James Onwualu continues to evolve outside.

It’s hard to believe that the defense that held Stanford to 47 yards rushing on 32 carries allowed North Carolina (190), Navy (336), Arizona State (188), Northwestern (263), Louisville (229) and USC (205) to destroy them on the ground. Injuries had something to do with that, particularly the devastating one suffered by Schmidt, but that’s not enough to justify such ugly numbers.

Tall tale. There’s reason for optimism, but that’s a lot of ground to make up considering how badly the defense was gashed down the stretch. On paper, it should be improved, but until further notice…

• The Irish have two quarterbacks that can lead them to victory – Everett Golson’s critics focus on the shortcomings, of which many were revealed amidst a 22-turnover season. By the same token, he was quarterbacking teams that allowed 43 points to North Carolina, 39 to Navy, 55 to Arizona State, 43 to Northwestern and 49 to USC. It’s not easy being the quarterback going into every game thinking you need to score 45 to win. The scoreboard didn’t show it, but he led Notre Dame to a victory at Florida State.

Malik Zaire came through brilliantly in the Music City Bowl when he protected the football, showed good judgment and explosiveness, and helped commandeer the offense – with Golson’s help – to a surprise 31-28 victory over LSU.

What Golson lacks in ball protection, Zaire lacks in front/coverage recognition. What Golson possesses as a passing quarterback, he lacks in ball protection. What Zaire brings to the rushing attack, he lacks in consistent accuracy throwing the football. There is no slam-dunk decision here.

If one plays the vast majority of the time, the assets of the other lay dormant. If both play, Brian Kelly and his staff have to work overtime to devise an all-encompassing game plan to accentuate both. It worked great against LSU with a month to prepare. Can the Irish do that on a weekly basis?

Telltale sign, although balancing the two at a position where Kelly has always preferred playing one is a challenging, tricky proposition. Mike Sanford’s work with the quarterbacks and Mike Denbrock’s role as the facilitator for the play callers is more important than ever.


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