Duranko’s Digest: 6 Focus Areas for Notre Dame Spring Practice

Notre Dame Football - Spring 2014
Can Sheldon Day and Ishaq Williams help revitalized the Notre Dame pass rush in 2014? (Photo: Robin Alam/Icon SMI)

Spring practice comes early this year, starting the first week in March. There are significant coaching changes on both sides of the ball. Mike Denbrock was named offensive coordinator. His span of control and effective decision making will resemble that of Corrado “Junior” Soprano. Kelly will be running the offense, with Denbrock in training to be an offensive coordinator. Matt LaFleur will have his hands full, helping Kelly with Golson, being Malik Zaire’s primary position coach, observing Deshone Kizer when he arrives in June then coaching him starting in August, and then adding Blake Barnett when he arrives in January, 2015.

The more significant coaching change is on the defense. Diaco coordinated Kelly’s final defense at Cincinnati and was helmsman of the defense here from the beginning of the Kelly era. Brian Van Gorder will have full control of the defense, and expect some changes, including opportunities for new players to get playing time. Brian may see positional responsibilities-and player abilities-differently.

The coaches will want to work on “everything” but there are six special focus areas, five of which were deficiencies, of differential glare, in 2013, and one area of ordnance on offense that was mothballed, from necessity, in 2013.


Establish a terrifying pass rush. Not maintain, or enhance, but establish! The irish sack total was woeful in 2013, with a total of 20 sacks for 146 yards and a national ranking of #96 clustered right behind Temple, Louisiana Lafayette, UNLV, Washington State and other “menacing” defenses. Brian Van Gorder, welcome to St. Joe County!

Granted, the mere 23 snaps that Tuitt, Nix and Day played together was a factor, but excuses are for losers. There are several ways to generate sacks:

(a) recruit great pass rushers (don’t overrate a guy who’s a prince, but not a GREAT pass rusher)

(b) player development (remember, while Van Gorder is a stop-the-run-first-guy, he undoubtedly learned some things about pressure from Rex Ryan while Van Gorder was with the Jets.)

(c) scheme, stunts, traps, games

(d) blitz (which was abandoned after the first few games) Don’t have Tenuta flashbacks about blitzing.

There’s nothing in the rule book that requires you to blitz every down, or predictably. 2013 sack production was unacceptable.

It’s a brave new defensive world, and playing against Jameis Winston, Taylor Kelly, Kain Colter, Marquise Williams, Kevin Hogan, Danny Etling, and Cody Kessler, we cannot merely let them remain in a rocking chair, no matter how strong our cornerbacks are.


The Irish must, truly MUST, have improved safety play. To restate the obvious there was generally inadequate safety play, and four plays, oft-rehashed here, were potentially fatal in losses (the fourth did not lead to a loss, but could have)

(1) Gallon of Michigan-Gallon caught the ball on the Notre Dame 45 and then went through a Keystone Cops head-banging five ND player collision at the ND 35-40 to romp into the end zone. This put the Irish down an early 10-0 on the road. Farley and Shumate were the safeties, and it is too close to call which was more incompetent on the play.  This kind of play, at least for the regular season, just did not happen in 2012.

(2) Sterling Shepard of Oklahoma-perhaps the unkindest cut of all. The Irish had spotted the visiting Sooners a quick 14 points, but battled, fiercely, back to close the gap to 27-21 early in the fourth quarter. Blake Bell, yeah him, the recent convert to tight end “rifled” the ball five yards downfield to Shepard, who was in the process of eluding Grace, but both safeties, in this case Matthias Farley, and Chris Collinsworth, were out of position and unable to close and make the tackle. Shepard had a free run of 49 more yards to the end zone. They converted the two to make the score OU 35-ND 21 and the game was basically over at that point. Again, this kind of play was not made in 2012’s regular season.

(3) Devin Street’s 63 yard touchdown for Pitt. With the Irish leading 21-14, even after Tuitt’s weird departure, the Irish were in control. Tom Savage dropped back, and hit Devin Street at the ND 42 right in front of Matthias Farley. Farley completely, entirely, unequivocally missed the tackle and Street romped the remaining 38 yards for the 21-21 tie. Again, a play that never occurred in the unbeaten ’12 regular season.

(4) With ND leading in the fourth quarter, but not yet clinched, 23-13 over BYU, the Cougars had the ball on their 48. Paul Lasike, no Eddie Lacy, broke through for 46 yards to the Irish 6. The BYU drive stalled and Jarron Jones had his big field goal block. But the game ought have been clinched, other than the safety misplay.

Why are Alabama and LSU good every year? Watch their safety play: consistent excellence. We are not without talent and athleticism. Certainly Collinsworth and Farley have experience. But Redfield, Shumate and Baratti are outstanding, not good, OUTSTANDING, athletes. Each is at least 6 feet, at least 200 pounds, and each has at least good speed for a safety. Hardy played well (his late tackle against Navy may have been a game-saver). That’s six, even without considering Turner, Tranquill or possibly Riggs. That’s enough raw material to say grace over. Van Gorder needs to get his secondary assistants to fix this area. Horrific big play yielding safety play was the most fatal error in 2013-yet the most easily fixable.


Kickoff defense will become even more important in 2014. as the offense will need to protect the defense, mostly by scoring more frequently

and scoring more touchdowns rather than field goals. The numbers do not lie. In 2013 the Irish kicked off 75 times and punted 52 times. That 7:5 ratio will change in 2014 and tilt more in favor of kickoffs. For example, in 2013, Oregon kicked off 101 times and punted 43 times a 13:5 ratio. Texas A&M kicked off 97 times and punted only 45 times, an 11:5 ratio.

Frosh Newsome is projected as the punter, so Brindza’a touchback ratio ought improve with his heightened focus on kickoffs and placements. Kyle produced 35 touchbacks out of 75 total kickoffs. We must tighten up the kickoff return defense to make opposing offenses muster long marches against our youngish defense. We allowed 40 kickoff for 1027 yards, or 25.7, but there were nine kickoff returns of more than 30 yards, four of more than 40 yards and three of more than 50 yards. In the losses to OU, Pitt and Stanford we gave up a kickoff return of 40 yards or more, when field position was most precious. We must improve in 2014.


Here are the numbers. We rushed only one time in the red zone in early season games against Michigan, Michigan State and Oklahoma. The carriers were as follows:

  • Carlisle 1 carry, six yards (Michigan game)
  • Atkinson 4 carries, 10 yards (last red zone carry in Navy game) TD against Temple
  • Hendrix 3 carries, but two were victory formation other for 4 four yards and a TD against Air Force
  • Jones 3 carries 12 yards, TDs against Pitt and Rutgers
  • Folston 15 carries, 52 yards, one for loss, TDs against Navy, BYU and Rutgers
  • McDaniel 28 carries for 83 yards, but 25% of the carries or seven, were for lost yardage. Three TDS, against Purdue, MSU and Navy

That is 52 carries (we’re ignoring Hendrix’ victory formation carries) for 167 yards and 10 touchdowns, but 8 lost yardage plays. Looking back, there are several things noteworthy. Eight of the red zone rushing attempts, seven by McDaniel and one by Folston were for lost yardage out of 52 total carries. This is horrific. No gain or a short gain is acceptable. Getting pushed back is not tolerable in the red zone where real estate is so precious.

Looking back, we observe that the coaching staff, or the departed Martin, were not comfortable with the red zone rushing attack early in the year, but grew more comfortable as the year, and the OL, and Folston, matured. Clearly, in 2013 life was complicated by the lack of a credible running threat from the quarterback either from a sneak, dive, a rollout, an option play, or a broken play.

In 2014 the Irish line, even without the great Martin, will be bigger, particularly if McGlinchey plays and this is now Heistand’s third year. Having Golson will force enemy defenses to account for him in the red zone. But an early season leading indicator of the progress of the irish offense will be the frequency and success of red zone rushing. 2013’s numbers will be a portent of doom. With the tougher schedule this area will have to improve or Irish fans will drool the drool of red zone regret!


Bama had 41 receptions by backs out of 244, roughly 17%.

Oregon had 83 receptions by backs out of 256, roughly 31%.

Georgia had 70 receptions by backs out of 293. roughly 24%.

Notre Dame had 20 receptions by backs out of 226, less than 10%

With extended plays and Golson’s strong arm, there will be plenty of opportunity underneath for flares, wheels and screens. Part of the 2013 problem was personnel, part scheme and part of it that receiving remained as much of a mystery as in-meal texting rules to the departed George Atkinson. An added factor is that redshirt Greg Bryant received special praise from his high school coach as being a sophisticated, polished receiver. We should zoom right past that 10% mark in 2014.


There is more need for retooling here than meets the eye. It is non-quantifiable, but all 10 players, beyond just the quarterback, are involved when plays get extended. One of our lucid commentators, when discussing our sterling 2013 offensive sacks allowed ranking, mentioned that the pass protection was not complex, that the OL merely had to hold the pocket for Rees for a few seconds.

That changes in 2014, as the OL need to swivel more and be able to hunt down and destroy pass rushers in space, all without crossing the scrimmage line so that they are not ineligible receivers downfield. But we have been quietly upgrading the athleticism and foot quickness of our offensive linemen, and despite their size, plodders need no longer apply!

The receivers need to break from their initial patterns but do so in a way that’s intelligible by the quarterback. It is a function of both effort and chemistry.

The most subtle role of all is the TES and RBS. They often block on the initial play call but then often have the freedom to release downfield when APPROPRIATE. There are subtleties and nuances to being truly effective with extended plays and it will take all of Spring and pre-Fall to adjust to maximize offensive efficiency. Golson has shown that this is his highest ranking skill, to adjust when the pocket breaks down, and then move, evade the rush, keep his eyes downfield and complete the pass. He was good at this, very good, as a redshirt frosh. In September he is a senior. The Notre Dame offense will make its bones on extended plays (and that is much more apt of a description than “broken” plays). These plays are the fulcrum which the offense can use to move from good to great.

This area has explosive potential for the Irish. The idea of Brown, Fuller and Hunter running deep downfield, Folston or Bryant or Koyack or Smythe breaking late underneath in the open space created by the DBS retreating to cover our WRS, with Golson, cool as a cucumber, as the triggerman, all combine to terrorize opposing defenses. We will eat clock by extending plays rather than between plays. The defense will get tired chasing and we will then hurry even more, pushing the defense down an ever more slippery slope. (Despite Nick Saban’s craven, disgusting efforts to have a rule change!)

Done right, this should be the biggest area of offensive improvement over 2013.

New coaches, the return of Golson, and much, much more make this a very intriguing Spring. The practices will establish tone and priorities for offseason workouts by the players and establish the baseline for August practice. Don’t get caught watching the paint dry, lads!!

Go Irish!.

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  1. 3/4 big plays given up by safeties included Farley. Excited not to see #41 it’s last line of defense anymore. Motta hid him in ’12. Kid just doesn’t like contact. Not a good quality in defensive football players.

  2. The Onwualu move may be the most significant. He was a great tackler and hitter on special teams. With Onwualu, Redfield, Baratti, Shumate and Hardy back there, possibly joined by Tranquill, we will have some guys who can bring some lumber.

    It sounds as if Carlisle is getting reps at slot but has not been disqualified from playing running back.

    Farley at cornerback? That may be his swan song and he may not be brought back for 2015.

  3. Kelly has an excuse for failure in so many departments. Punt returns and kickoff returns have been a staple of greatness, schoen-my old roommate, the rocket, Tim brown, why can’t he make it happen in that area?

  4. I did not include punt returns because of two reasons.

    First, Kelly has shifted his punt return fuclrum so that it’s low risk/low reward. He is determined to suppress opponents’ successful fake punts. The price of this is fewer punt returns. A corollary, which bolsters
    Kelly’s point is that the modern punters and the blocking rules make it difficult to sucessfully execute punt returns for long yardage without a flag. Kickoff returns are easier because players have no contain responsibilities and don’t have to peel back and pivot as much.

    Second, and the citation of Rossum above and dreams of Ismail both suggest that great punt returners are born and not made. It was not idly that this staff walked the extra mile in recruiting Isaiah McKenzie. HE, Isaiah, was our RETURN game. it’s not a foolish strategy.

    Third, and this combines both, some of the top team names on punt returns
    are not particularly impressive and the few with good averages had a returner (born? made?) who broke a couple.

    Kelly is going to rely, and spend practice time accordingly, on his offense for yardage and points.

    So my surmise here is that people who complain about lack of a punt return game will have plenty of material for years to come until we land an Isaiah McKenzie type.

  5. Yes, I agree, there is definitely a better alternative than Field turf when it comes to spring practice.

    By the way, your horses and unicorns seem restless, perhaps they need feeding? You better go check, we would want any of them to fly off.

    1. bj,

      The site you chose is the same thing they have in Green Bay and it was horrible this year. Denver’s field also look horrible in the playoff game they lost to Baltimore. I would love to say I agree that it’s a better alernative but it’s not. Field turf is the only surface that will be able to withstand the pounding it will take.

  6. Great article….I would like to add two improvements.
    The first would be to please, Notre Dame administration, update the field turf before this season starts! If we lose to Michigan early in the year because Golson or Folston slips before making an endzone cut, I am going to curse and scream and get another beer and just take it because I have no choice! But we can control this and we should!

    The second is to tackle! Tackle! and yes tackle! If you are going to play for a team nicknamed the Fighting Irish, you are going to need to be physical and tackle!

    Go Irish! It is August 30th yet?

  7. Great article, Duranko. It’s got me pumped for our season opener against Navy. Anyone else making the trip out to Dublin for that one?

  8. Back to KO, punts, INT, and other TD’s. I believe Lou have 35+ scores in 11 seasons and blk punts. ??? Allen Rossum (sp) still holds NCAA record of 9 TD’s from a non offensive position KO,punts, and int returns.

  9. Duranko noted: “That is 52 carries (in red zone) . . . for 167 yards and 10 touchdowns, but 8 lost yardage plays.” TR in the pistol in the red zone, not being a threat to run, told 11 defenders that any rushing attempt would be from the RB, usually Cam, starting from five yards behind the LOS- 11 emerging on one, giving them a five yard running start at our RB- was the criminally most stupid scheme of the year bar NONE. It was horrendous in our first drive against $C; in fact, when we were backed up at our own five, same game, late, we went into a two back set and Atkinson gained 10 to the fifteen for a critical (and one of our few) second half FDs of the game. Point being it was a scheme flaw more than any failure on the part of the OL.

    Re: PASS RUSH Right on the mark, though disguised blitzes might be necessary unless out of nowhere we discover game-changing pass rushers among our current DLs, which is unlikely. #1- Can’t let quality QBs play catch with WRs (ask Manning if pressure affected him in SB)? And #2 we must limit yards after the catch (ref: SB champs Seattle) No pass rush will become 38-35 shootouts and last drive drama all season. And when it comes down to the last series, it’s anyone’s game.

    The other areas of improvement needed and featured in this post ( KR coverage, and RB receptions, (remember the screen pass from days of yore?)were also discussed accurately and well-reasoned, especially re: SAFETIES Big plays happen, but developing and using the outstanding athletes Reddick, Shumate and Baratti (and Hardy) more is key to limiting their occurrence. Plus Shumate against the run hits like a LB.

    Having an occasional big kick return/punt return from our guys would be a welcome albeit seldom luxury indeed.

    Great post, duranko, and excellent replies as well.

    1. * Redfiled (above) not Reddick, oops!
      A bit sad that such a talent’s name wouldn’t have been so often used that I couldn’t have not known it readily by now!

    2. Your diatribe about the pistol does not make sense. First, regardless of formation with TR on the field any run was going to come from a RB or WR. Doesn’t matter if they are in the red, blue or green zone. Second, the pistol was designed by Chris Ault in order to be able to run downhill in a quasi shotgun formation versus running sideways in the spread.

      The Patriots and Broncos both utilized the pistol on occasion during the season. Are Brady and Manning a threat to run? Absolutely not, it’s about executing upfront. It doesn’t matter what you line up in if you don’t execute. Now obviously you have to respect Brady and Mannings ability to throw which helps.

      There is not a formation invented yet to help when you have TR (back up at best for top BCS schools) and Cam (nice gritty player, but let’s face it not starting for many championship caliber teams) as your primary top offensive weapons.

      I disagree with your statement that the pistol is a stupid scheme.

      1. TR not the right guy but the best option we had. Kelly failed early in his tenure to land the right guys to play QB.

      2. And Golson failed and now you dont have the right guy to run BKs Offense. Finally five years into it he has depth at QB position with the same skill set.

      3. Golson was there during BK’s 2nd year. I think that qualifies as early in his tenure. Nobody has any idea if we have depth until you see Zaire or Kizer play. Hendrix was there but was unable to play. Just because it says dual threat 4 star QB it doesn’t = depth. But to say Kelly didn’t have a guy early in his tenure is not factual. Golson has lost one game as a starter and played relatively well against Bama (meaning he didn’t look like the moment was too big for him).

      4. I dont need to be right. Just my opinion. we will see what happens this year. Will it be Golson or Zaire. Or both.

      5. Let’s agree to disagree. First, I never said the pistol wasn’t ever worth running, just that as a red-zone scheme without the threat of a running QB, it allows defenses to concentrate on one threat instead of two. The SC game first drive goal-line failing I referred to occurred because there were too many defenders to block, not poor execution and, yes, Chris Ault devised it, but with running QBs like Kapernek, not QBs like TR. So my point was the scheme with a TR in the red zone was a poor choice, and I didn’t see anything in your reply or from what I saw last year in the red zone with TR that has convinced me otherwise.

      6. What difference does it make what formation they are in? With TR on the field he is never a threat to run. He can be under center, in shotgun, in the pistol or in any other formation you can dream of anywhere on the field and he was never; is never a threat to run.

        We’re both probably trying to say the same thing or as you say let’s agree to disagree. I just think lamenting over formations or play calling is laughable. It’s easy to say after the fact what works and doesn’t work.

  10. the progress is coming on the offensive line. The difference between now and 2010-2011 is astounding. I think that former starter Mike Golic would have difficulty holding a position on the second string O line heading into Fall practice.

    Last year was the first significant play for Stanley, the first play of any kind for Elmer. McGlinchey and Montelus are chomping at the bit, and each plays with the requisite darkness in his heart (though yet to be determined skill level and technique).

    Quenton Nelson arrives in June.

    Hanratty and Hegarty (recovered from the medical problem) made their bones and were no gimmees against Stanford.

    For the first time in a long, long time, we have options on the OL. And a fine decider in Hiestand.

  11. Great points by all. With this really tough schedule a one loss ND should
    be in the playoffs. However, I never saw a top team as bad as this one on
    special teams.

  12. Great article as usual sir. One quick question. Has anyone returned a punt for a TD in Kelly’s time at ND?? If not a second question. What is the longest punt return in Kelly’s time at ND. Just curious. Cheers

    1. NO!! I think the longest punt return was Armando Allen against Purdue (which was Kelly’s first game) or maybe Micheal Floyd in the bowl game. ND has not had a solid punter returner since Zibby.

      1. Thanks guys confirms my memory that we did not have a TD in BK’s tenure. Surely this has been the one “recurring” problem for ND in last 5 yrs. Cheers

  13. My points:

    1) consistent pressure by defense on QB’s is essential against FSU, USC, Mich & Stanford – w/o it we lose.
    2) Red zone running game is imperative for the Off. + the willingness of
    Kelly to call running plays and not being pass happy!

  14. Solid article special teams kickoff coverage was horrible and the non existent punt return blocking has been a head scratcher for some time now I just don’t get it was such a weapon and priority from Holtz through the Willinghman era imagine ND had even shorter fields with this up tempo spread offence be potentionally lethal one thing since Kelly has arrived we have def moved it well between the 20s no doubt if they can get the redzone Offence improved look out also this schedule is daunting name one team that has a tougher road then this squad? A lot of players are gonna have to step up this year it’s gonna be daunting but fun to watch a lot of talent on this roster I don’t care what anyone says

  15. With Golson back, we will be much more effective in red zone. TR killed us in that regard.

    I’m looking for a good year for Irish in 2014. We’ve got to be a lot better!!!

    I’m pretty sure BVG will figure out the Navy option better than Diaco. I literally could not watch a Diaco “d” get dominated again by Navy. That was sickening.


    1. Woody,

      ND needs to be able to push people around in the redzone. If you can’t push people around Golson running around will not get you anywhere. Control the line of scrimmage, ND hasn’t done that since the days of Davie on the offensive line.

  16. Wow, I never thought I’d read you being so critical. I agree with everything above. Next year Kelly will have everything he’s wanted on offense and enough athletes to hold the fort in the other aspects of the game. We’ll have to wait to see how the final record shakes out. I fear the majority of what is noted above can be copied and pasted next year at this time.

  17. Sorry, dudeacow, I personally abhor bad stats and apologize. I clearly misheard it when it was said.

    For my own part I am highly uncomfortable, in this era, if you do not have nine DLS in your rotation.

  18. Great article, but please stop misusing the “the starting d-line only played 23 snaps together” stat. It’s simply not true. I know where you got it from, but you forgot that the stat was over the last ten games they only played 23 snaps together. Tuitt, Nix, and Day played all of Temple and Michigan. Day got injured against Purdue and Nix got injured at the end of the USC game.

  19. Articles like this are why i continue to regard this as a one of (if not the top) active Notre Dame blog. Good combination of analysis with supporting statistics, producing analysis at a level that national sites generally cannot. Nice work!

    I’d like the take on how likely it is that ND achieves success in each of these areas this fall. My cut at most likely to improve, in order, would be:
    1. Red zone rushing: RB stable + Golson threat + OL give too many excuses not to succeed here.
    2. Extended Plays: Golson + deepest WR group we’ve had in years. If OL can shift mentality to extended protection, I like our chances
    3. Safeties: We have the talent and depth – time to step up.
    4. Running back receptions: should increase with overall shift in offense with Golson, though I’m not sure RB receptions are directly correlated with Ws.
    5. Pass Rush: It will be interesting to see if the DL is collectively better than it was with a hurt Nix/Tuitt based on developments of Jones/Day. Similarly, LBs look serviceable on paper, but besides Smith, not a lot of proven production. Van Gorder has his work cut out for him.
    6. Defending Kickoff Returns. The optimist argument is that Kelly’s roster management should now provide adequate depth for quality special teams. However, special teams coverage has consistently been an issue with Kelly and until I see that trend reversed, I remain skeptical.

    1. I would like to change your order a bit:

      1. Kick off and punt returns are horrendous and need be fixed. Most of the scoring drives in games lost were off of good kickoff returns.
      2. Redzone rushing and efficiency. Need to score TD’s after long drives. Enough with the fade crap in the endzone.
      3. Pass Rush needs to limit time of QB looking for receivers to 3 seconds.
      4. Running Backs. Need to find a #1.
      5. Safties need to tackle and hit someone
      6. Running back receiptions. Last year Atkinson couldn’t catch a cold, should improve this year.

      1. I completely agree that the return game is another item I’d like to see on the list. My ordering, however, was based on what I feel is most likely we’ll achieve improved success in, not what I would most like to see addressed.
        If I had to put kickoff/punt returns on the list, it may be dead last at 7th due to the complete ineptitude the last few years and the fact that losing TJ Jones takes away a sure handed and intelligent senior who generally was at least good about deciding when to fair catch.
        Here’s to hoping the staff figures out how to utilize blockers on punt returns and that the newbies (Greg Bryant?) provide some explosiveness.

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