1 – A Little Faith: It’s unlikely we’ll fully understand or appreciate what went wrong with Notre Dame’s strength & conditioning program, initial defensive brain trust, and head coach’s ability to oversee and guide the program in the calendar year of 2016. To gain definitive answers to such questions would entail players both current and former, coaches both current and former, and others inside the program’s walls to not only throw some of their own under the bus, but to back that bus back-and-forth repeatedly over the scattered remains thereafter.
So if you’re angered that Notre Dame’s football program was in a need of a “180-degree change” from last season, as noted by captain Mike McGlinchey, you’re not alone. But that stark reality doesn’t mitigate the apparent gains made by Notre Dame’s players under new director of football performance Matt Balis’ strength and conditioning program.
Admittedly, this purported progress can’t be validated until the final tick of the clock next November 25 in Palo Alto, but it’s nevertheless clear that eradicating the 2016 squad’s collective lack of toughness (as a former Notre Dame assistant told me, “There’s no such thing as mental toughness or physical toughness. It’s just toughness) was Brian Kelly’s chief charge this off-season. It seems he’s succeeded.
Kelly’s Irish have won off the field this spring. They’ll likely carry that through the head coach’s most important off-season. That’s all you can ask before the likes of Georgia and USC hit South Bend and the travel-challenged Irish leave town for five taxing true road games next fall.
2 – Position of Need: If this is senior Daniel Cage’s best spring as offered by his head coach last week, I can’t imagine his previous pair were all that impressive.
I’ve championed Cage in this space since last August as an undervalued middleman along Notre Dame’s defensive front. When healthy, he gets a push and provides enough ballast inside to allow Notre Dame’s defense to function around him, especially if he has a suitable cohort to provide a tag-team effort on the nose.
But Cage’s physical conditioning remains the crucial under-the-radar storyline heading into the summer. Let’s hope the requisite, “he’s in the best shape of his life” is affixed to any Cage-related talk in August.
3 – Broken Record: You heard it here first: Barring season-ending/altering injury to starting quarterback Brandon Wimbush, Notre Dame will break the program record of 37.6 points per game set in 1968. (Both Lou Holtz’s 1996 and Charlie Weis’ 2005 squads came close. Kelly’s best was the 10-3 2015 crew that wracked up 34.2 per contest.)
4 – Safety in Numbers? “I think you’ll see that we’re going to be situationally playing guys that make sense at the time of the game. First, second, and third down. And we’re going to put guys in position to succeed. It’s not going to be one guy and that’s it, in all situations.” — Brian Kelly (April 7)
For sophomore safety Devin Studstill, those situations should be what modern coaches refer to as “obvious running situations,” because the aggressive youngster needs work in coverage. Studstill flashed as a tackler in such “obvious running” situations against North Carolina State last season (I guess they weren’t obvious to everyone) but he had repeated issues tracking the ball in coverage drills last week, drawing the ire of cornerbacks coach Todd Lyght.
Assuming senior captain Drue Tranquill works primarily as the team’s rover, Studstill, converted corner Nick Coleman, converted prep quarterback Jalen Elliott, and early enrollee Isaiah Robertson represent Notre Dame’s present-day best at the safety position. (Add junior special teams maven Nicco Fertitta to the mix — he’s born to defend a short space from the 15-yard line to the goal line.)
Mixing and matching will be the order of the day for Elko each football Saturday. Conveniently, he doubles as the program’s safeties coach.
As an aside, I’m a fan of the rotation/situational approach at safety for the upcoming season — but ideally it shouldn’t be necessary in ’18 and beyond.
5 – The Five Best Things I Make: Our podcast today closed with a question about “grilling season.” On that note…
- Coffee/Coriander Rubbed Rib eye (Grilled). Between medium-rare and medium.
- Pork Tenderloin with Mango/Habanero salsa and cilantro-mint sauce (Grilled. Remember: 7-6-5-5 timing technique). Full disclosure: I’ve only made this twice (it’s my wife’s favorite) and it has been years as it’s remarkably labor intensive. Thankfully my wife doesn’t read the Musings so we won’t be having it Tuesday, either…
- Salmon with freshly chopped dill and Old Bay (Grilled)
- Popcorn (On the stove. In a metal pot. Real butter. We roll old school at the O’Malley’s.)
- Poached Eggs on Toast – my mom’s technique has yet to fail.
6 – Hit Rates: We’ve previously examined the “hit rate” of Notre Dame’s recruiting efforts over a decade span at QB, OL, RB, WR, and Safety. After a few weeks away, it’s time for another iteration. The Cornerbacks…
2006: Darrin Walls (Hit) Raeshon McNeil (Relative hit)
2007: Gary Gray (Relative hit)
2008: Robert Blanton (Hit. Perhaps the best CB of the Kelly Era to date) and Jamoris Slaughter (Hit after converting to safety)
2009: E.J. Banks (Miss, transfer)
2010: Spencer Boyd (Miss, transfer), Lo Wood (Injury miss)
2011: Josh Atkinson (Miss), Jalen Brown (Miss), Matthias Farley (Hit after moving to safety), and *Bennett Jackson (Hit after moving from WR)
2012: KeiVarae Russell (Hit), Tee Shepard (Miss, transfer)
2013: Cole Luke (Hit), Devin Butler (Miss, transfer), Rashad Kinlaw (Miss, transfer)
2014: Nick Watkins (Pending…feels like a hit with two seasons remaining)
2015: Ashton White (Moved to safety), Nick Coleman (Moved to safety), Shaun Crawford (Injuries) — all pending
2016: Julian Love (apparent hit), Troy Pride and Donte Vaughn (Should hit)
7 – They Come And Go: Notre Dame has had a post-season transfer each year dating back to at least 1979 (after which I did not have a 1978 media guide to fact-check a likely transfer) so the departure of safety-turned-rover Spencer Perry since we last spoke should barely elicit a blip on the spring news fodder.
Dating back to the outset of Scout.com and its recruiting database in 2002, Notre Dame has yet to field a recruiting class without transfer — and it’s doubtful any Power Five Conference program differs in that regard.
As my first co-worker at Scout.com, recruiting analyst Jeff Baumhower, was fond of saying: “Transfers…they’re the lifeblood of a healthy program.”
While the vast majority of undergraduate players transfer because they’re simply not good enough to play, there are exceptions. Among the best at each position to transfer out of Notre Dame in my viewing lifetime:
QB: Kent Graham (to Ohio State). Tony Rice (and the triple-option scheme) stood in his way, but Graham was good enough to play in the NFL for 11 years…
RB: Dorsey Levens (to Georgia Tech). The most talent-rich backfield in the nation stood in his way…
WR: Shaq Evans (to UCLA). The change from Charlie Weis to Kelly and a practice field incident (we witnessed) helped elicit a move west…
TE: Greg Olsen (to Miami). Damn…
OL: Jeff Pearson (to Michigan State). Didn’t blend well with Lou Holtz’s regime. Ended up facing off against Chris Zorich two seasons later inside Notre Dame Stadium (it did not go well for Mr. Pearson).
DL: Aaron Lynch (to South Florida). Notre Dame was not an ideal fit for outstanding natural pass rusher…
LB: Arnold Ale (to UCLA). Homesickness sent the three-game starter (as a true freshman) from the 1988 champions back west…
S: Can anyone help with one of relevance? (Remember, transfers due to disciplinary issues/suspension do not count).
CB: Tee Shepard (to various, including Ole Miss). Officially, at least per his high school coach, an issue with a standardized admissions test score negated his eligibility at the university.
K: Nate Whitaker (to Stanford). The Irish walk-on had the Cardinal as his first choice all along…
8 – Contender’s Again: Just received word via release that junior forward Bonzie Colson will return to the men’s basketball team for his senior season rather than enter the NBA Draft.
That’s good, because I’ve seen enough NIT games in my lifetime.
9 – Odd Pairing: Michigan graduate-transfer Freddie Canteen will join the Irish roster in the summer. With two seasons of eligibility remaining, the former Wolverines wide receiver will attempt to breech what appears to be the deepest, most talent-rich position on the football team…and none from the group graduates after 2017.
Can he tackle?
Until next week, Irish fans…