WHEN THE 8TH SOUNDS LIKE THE 1ST
It’s the typical talk of every first-year head coach at a new school.
“It’s really trying to build that consistency in approach.”
“Those are the traits of attention to detail.”
“We’re moving in a phase defensively where everything is about our fundamentals – tackling, run support, stripping the football…That takes a layering of consistency.”
With change in coaching staffs comes the need to alter the entire thought process -- how things are viewed and what new concepts need to be revamped.
“The (defensive) scheme in itself is the fundamentals of football.”
“We can be a football team that takes the football away and is a better team because we’re just fundamentally in a really good position each and every snap.”
With change comes a renewed attitude, largely established by the head coach putting his imprint on the program.
“My evaluation process is effectively making sure that the teaching and the programming is staying consistent. I want positive teaching with everything followed up with good communication.”
Brian Kelly is not the first-year head coach at Notre Dame, but if you didn’t know better and didn’t know to whom to attach those quotes, you might think it was Tom Herman at Texas, Matt Rhule at Baylor or Willie Taggart at Oregon.
It’s a little shocking – and disconcerting – that in the eighth spring of Kelly’s rule at Notre Dame, the basic principles of football are at the forefront of the to-do list.
Shocking, disconcerting, necessary.
In a reoccurring theme that just won’t go away – partly because the media continues focusing on it, but largely because the players and coaches continue to bring it up – the eighth year of a college football regime should never resemble what it looks and sounds like at Notre Dame this spring.
A sudden rush to fundamentals shouldn’t be necessary. A revamping of the team’s attitude shouldn’t need overhauling. Before and after pictures of players making stunning physical gains in two months happens when regimes turn over.
It’s particularly eyebrow-raising when the head coach is fifth on Notre Dame’s all-time list of games coached (90) behind Lou Holtz (132), Knute Rockne (122), Ara Parseghian (116) and Frank Leahy (107).
But such is the state of the Notre Dame football program following a 4-8 season, and the departure of five assistant coaches and a strength and conditioning coordinator demanded significant change.
Kelly has been depicted in the past as one who is slow to change, particularly with his offensive philosophy and his coaching staff. But change wasn’t just needed; it was mandatory.
So however slow Kelly was to adjusting his frame of mind and the way his program functioned, all he could do was embrace change in the present, which is what he has done.
“I just want to commend Coach Kelly because as the overseer of that huge organization, he’s done nothing but work his tale off since the end of last season,” said Irish captain Drue Tranquill.
“Some people might say, ‘Well yeah, his job is in (jeopardy).’ But he genuinely cares for each one of us and he’s done an incredible job of putting an incredible staff in place.”
LOCKED AND LOADED
Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com
So much of our time in the spring is devoted to the players vying for a starting job that we tend to overlook the players who clearly have established themselves as starters.
That doesn’t guarantee that those who are simply focused on improvement as opposed to in-house competition will be high-level performers in the fall.
But it is good to know that with all the change occurring on the spring practice field, 14 of 22 starting spots on Notre Dame’s offense and defense appear to be locked up, in most instances, because of their experience and past achievements.
Eight offensive players are, barring injury of course, sure starters this fall: QB-Brandon Wimbush, RB-Josh Adams, LT-Mike McGlinchey, LG-Quenton Nelson, C-Sam Mustipher, RG-Alex Bars, TE-Durham Smythe and WR-Equanimeous St. Brown.
Not surprisingly, there are less on a defense in total transition, yet there appear to be six: LE-Jay Hayes, DT-Jerry Tillery, RE-Daelin Hayes, Rover-Drue Tranquill, LB-Nyles Morgan, and LB-Greer Martini.
Wimbush is the quarterback of choice because he’s the top prospect by a large margin. He’s also one of the most promising, exciting young players on the team. Adams is a proven stallion when healthy.
The four starting offensive linemen need to show considerable improvement in 2017, but they now have a combined 75 career starts among them as opposed to the 27 heading into the 2016 season.
Smythe is a veteran and St. Brown established himself as a star on the rise in ’16.
Clearly, the sure-things starters on defense are, as a whole, less established than those on offense. Morgan, Martini, Tillery and Tranquill are upperclassmen with ample playing time under their belts, although Tillery has yet to prove himself as a consistently effective player and Tranquill is learning a new position.
One could argue that Julian Love, who started the last eight games of 2016, and Nick Watkins belong in the same category, although a healthy Shaun Crawford could apply pressure to one or both.
That leaves RT-Tommy Kraemer/Liam Eichenberg, WR-Chase Claypool/Kevin Stepherson and a third wideout (Alizé Jones, Miles Boykin, C.J. Sanders, Chris Finke) battling it out for three spots on offense.
Defensively, it will come down to Jonathan Bonner/Elijah Taylor at tackle, Watkins/Crawford/Love battling for two spots at cornerback, and a trio of safeties (Nick Coleman, Jalen Elliott, Devin Studstill) vying for the two safety positions.
Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com
In today’s college athletics environment in which many highly-touted prospects enroll at a university with one foot out the door, it was refreshing to hear Bonzie Colson’s decision/reasoning behind his return for a fourth and final year of eligibility in Mike Brey’s 2017-18 basketball program.
Colson, a first-team all-ACC selection and a dominant force as a scorer (17.8) and rebounder (10.1) during his junior campaign, wants to be a professional basketball player. But he’s not willing to skip steps and pin his hopes on a professional basketball career started prematurely.
“I knew I wanted to come back,” Colson told Irish Illustrated. “I was a four-year guy. That was my goal here. That’s what we talked about at the beginning of my recruitment. I’m happy I’m here. It’s a place that I love. Getting a degree is one of the most important things for me and my family.”
Granted, Colson likely would not be a first-round draft choice this summer, and frankly, he might not be a first-rounder even after a quality senior season. His “tweener” status size-wise often is a stumbling block for even the most successful on the collegiate level.
But there never really was much doubt that Colson would return to Notre Dame for his senior season, due largely to his commitment to the cause with the Irish.
“I’m not focused on (the NBA),” Colson said. “I’m worried about now and what we can do to be better as a team. Hearing a couple things and what my family discussed, it was important for me to stay here, get the degree, come back and lead the team to victory.”
While many bright professional prospects jump the gun, blind to the shortcomings in their games, Colson displayed maturity and a high-degree of self-awareness, which is a positive trait often overlooked by the lure of a paycheck, whether it be in the NBA or elsewhere in the world.
“I realize who I am and I realize the work I have to put in,” Colson said. “Me knowing that, understanding the game, I wanted to come back. That’s all I’m focused on.”
It’s all music to the ears of Brey and the Fighting Irish basketball program, which is now poised for its eighth trip to the NCAA tournament in nine seasons.