In the first four years of the Kelly hegemony, the Fighting Irish offense averaged 27.1 points per game. The Irish averaged 161 yards rushing and 246 yards per game passing for a total offense of 407 yards per game.
In 2014, Kelly installed Mike Denbrock as de jure Offensive Coordinator, but made himself the play caller. Points per game , through the 11th game of the regular season (USC had little predictive value) was 34.8 ppg, up by a touchdown or 25%, rushing yards per game down a smidgen to 154 yards per game and passing yards up 10% to 269 yards per game, with a total offense of 423 yards per game, a 4% increase.
Nine of the eleven full time starters (all but Koyack and Lombard) return.
The elephant in the room is that the Kelly regime, which had prided itself on controlling and limiting turnovers, fell apart in that area, with 13 interceptions and 11 LOST fumbles.
The big question going into 2015 is whether or not the Fighting Irish offense can slash turnovers in half and thus regain a positive turnover margin in 2015. Simply, we will not know until the end of September.
Position Unit Review
“The stone that the builder rejected has become the cornerstone”
Entering 2014, the two top receivers of 2013, T.J. Jones and Davaris Daniels, were unavailable. The third leading receiver, TE Troy Niklas, had left for the NFL. The top returning receivers were Chris Brown with 15 and Ben Koyack with 10. But this is a new era at Notre Dame. The depth chart is solid in nearly all areas, and player development is not a “project” but the way the program breathes. Seven 2014 receivers had double digit catches with 6 garnering 300 or more yards (Folston had 190). Only our old friend Koyack departs.
In 2014 Notre Dame had 30 wide receiving touchdowns. Players who accounted for 28 of those receptions return. Amir Carlisle is a fifth year player, Chris Brown and C.J. Prosise will be in their fourth year, with Corey Robinson, Will Fuller, Tarean Folston and Torii Hunter Jr in their third year on campus (Hunter of course had the injury redshirt). Suddenly this group is credentialed, deep and mature, and working with the same coach, Mike Denbrock, who recruited them.
Will Fuller emerged as the star, with 15 touchdowns, and diversified his portfolio beyond being a one trick (fly or post) pony. Chris Brown progressed, but did not explode. He may be able to elevate a level in 2015. Corey Robinson showed maturity, sharp running skills after the catch but was bothered all year by his broken thumb. His glue hands were mortal, even in the Music City bowl. C.J. Prosise averaged 17.8 yards per catch on his 29 receptions, and if you doubt his abililty to run the fly sweep, visit Baton Rouge and talk to Les Miles. Hunter showed glimpses, but frankly, and shockingly for Notre Dame fans, got caught in a talent glut at wide receiver! Carlisle was serviceable, not more, in the slot.
Now Justin “the Lothario” Brent has a full year under his belt. Corey Holmes, thought to be a “clone” (a misleading, deceptive and heartbreaking term) of T.J. Jones doffs his redshirt. C.J.Sanders may be an explosive kick returner and force his way onto the field. But it would appear that the four man class of Equanimeous Tristan Imhotep St. Brown, Miles Boykin, Jalen Guyton and Sanders could redshirt. All four of the frosh played receiver in high school, so there will not be the retooling from another position.
While, for now, only Fuller causes nightmares for defensive coordinators, this group made its bones in 2014 and should be ready for more porductivity in 2015. The single biggest noticeable improvement was the ability of the receivers to generate Yards after Catch (YACS) and this area may improve even more in 2015, Look for Robinson to shake off the thumb injury and become the elite receiver he previewed against Florida State. Hunter is now healthy and he is highly explosive. Robinson and Hunter are our two best current guesses to improve the most in 2015.
The receiving corps also went through a rite of passage in 2014 in Nashville. In the Sugar Bowl after the 2006 season, the Irish receivers could not get separation against the LSU defensive backs. It’s different now. They were able to get separation against the LSU defensive backfield in the Music City Bowl. This is not an insignificant development.
There is also a lot of speed. If Denbrock calls for his four fastest receivers to sprint against each other, Brown, Fuller, Prosise and Sanders will line up. Amir Carlise will not be in that top four. Don’t take the speed of this group for granted. It took a long time to get to this level.
There are great receiving corps at USC, Texas A&M, Ohio State and other places, so this bunch would probably rate a top ten ranking, but in the bottom half. Nevertheless it looks promising for 2015 and for years to come.
HIESTAND HAS COMPLETED BUILDING HIS TRENCH
Spring 2014 was a challenging time, and Hiestand and Kelly may not have handled it correctly. Zack Martin and Watt had departed, while Hegarty, Martin and Lombard were struggling with a variety of health issues. They were not full go in the spring and available development time went unused. McGlinchey had the pole positon at RT, but could not secure the job, or, was not allowed to by Hiestand and Kelly.
In pre-Fall the experiment with Elmer as a tackle and the inability of Martin to function at center and Hegarty to provide power at guard were puzzling. It might have been a case of excessive deference to the upperclassmen, and the coaches assuming (a deadly word) that they could come back at full strength from their respective medical hardships.
So the initial starting lineup of Stanley LT, Hegarty LG, Martin C, Lombard RG and Elmer RT was completely reshuffled. In October it became Stanley LT, Martin LG, Hegarty C, Elmer RG and Lombard RT. While this was the right change, the staff ought have been anticipating the weakness through Spring and pre-Fall. Then for USC, McGlinchey was given the starting job.
The October revised line had some moments. Notre Dame outrushed physical Stanford 129 to 47. Notre Dame outrushed quick Florida State 157 to 50. And Notre Dame, spotting LSU a Leonard Fournette, amassed 263 rushing yards the hard way.
The inside sharps say that Nelson has the pole position for left guard based on his performance in practice. He could follow Stanley and Elmer to start as a redshirt frosh. If Martin’s hand is healed and he moves back to Center, then the most probable offensive line is Stanley LT, Nelson LG, Martin C, Elmer RG and McGlinchey RT. There are some very aggressive, rough players on this line. McGlinchey was no wallflower against LSU and his mouth was as imposing as his frame. That is an asset, not a liability.
What’s astounding is comparing this 2015 PROJECTED OL to the 2012 OL that took the Irish to the championship game.
That 2012 OL averaged 6’3.6” 303 lbs. The 2015 line averages 6’5.5” 313 pounds. That’s two inches taller (or longer if you like) and ten pounds heavier. Elmer and McGlinchey are not fat and look as if they can add more weight. Given last season’s switches you have to ask if the staff will establish a first string OL early in Spring and stick to it. That will be vital for a fast start against a challenging early season schedule. Note that three of these guys, Nelson, McGlinchey and Elmer are handpicked recruits of Hiestand.
This line has depth. Hegarty, if he returns, has lots of playing-and starting experience. Harrell has played some. Collin McGovern, Hunter Bivin and John Montelus will be juniors in the Fall. Alex Bars, shockingly, received fulsome praise from Kelly who said he’s the best prospect he’s seen in 25 years of coaching. Sam Mustipher got some mention for his work learning the center position. Jimmy Byrne, a tough kid from Cleveland, will be a redshirt frosh, and Tristen Hoge is already on campus. Plus, for practice purposes, there are several preferred walk-ons.
This line has come some distance since 2012. These are two very athletic tackles, two bruising, bulky guys at guard, and a fifth year player and captain in Martin.
The dark side of the moon was the dreadful performance against Arizona State when the OL allowed 10 tackles for loss and seven sacks. That is horrific. Hopefully it was a one time occurrence, is out of the system, and the performance against LSU is indicative of things to come.
It would appear that Notre Dame, by the END of 2015, will have one of the top ten offensive lines in America. It could be near the top of that list. With Tommy Kraemer already committed for 2016, it appears that a “pipeline,” reminiscent of the great Milt Tenopir’s OL pipeline at Nebraska, is in place.
Ronnie Stanley stayed for his fourth year. This time next year, he will be on his way to evaluation at the combine as a probable first round draft choice. In years past such a loss would have been devastating to the Notre Dame offense. But in 2016, 6’6” 305 lbs (he’ll be bigger by then) wunderkind Alex Bars will slide in at left tackle. Nick Martin will be gone, but in Spring 2016 Mark Harrell (if he is deigned worthy of fifth year) Sam Mustipher, and the eager Tristen Hoge will be battling for the center job. It is obvious that Hoge will be motivated to be the best Irish player from the land of “Famous Potatoes” since Ernie Hughes, last seen shattering an Outland Trophy myth named Brad Shearer.
There is good news and bad news….
The good news is the return of Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant. Tarean Folston finally took hold of the role of lead back and finished with a tidy 911 yards rushing. Folston has good vision, is patient reading his blocks and is shifty in space. His longest run was 26 yards so he is not a breakaway threat. He improved his blocking as the year went on, coming to grips with his inadequacies as exposed in Tempe.
Greg Bryant began to emerge a bit with 300 yards rushing, and a 5.4 yard per carry average compared to Tarean Folston’s 5.1. Bryant is still working on patience and in following his blocks, but he has burst and it is probably that he will have a few more long runs than Folston will garner.
With two years of eligibility left for Folston and three for Bryant, the depth chart is solid at the top.
One of the pleasant, albeit underdiscussed developments of 2014 was the emergence of the passing game to the running backs. In 2013 the running backs caught 18 passes for 120 yards, a low number for a college team. In 2014 the running backs caught 32 passes for 316 yards, moving from 6 yards per catch to 9.4 yards per catch. This will be expected to progress again in 2015.
The bad news is that there are, for the Spring, no scholarship players behind Folston and Bryant. Running back is an area more susceptible to injury than most. Georgia last fall lost Todd Gurley, Keith Marshall and Sony Michel for some periods of time. So this is risky business.
Josh Adams and the more highly rated Dexter Williams will arrive in June. Most expect that Williams would be more ready to contribute than Adams, but in 2013 most expected that Bryant would make a greater contribution than Folston.
In any event this is a solid top twosome, albeit not spectacular. It is not a top ten unit by any stretch. It is expected that running back recruiting will be a continued point of emphasis for the 2016 recruiting class.
NOTRE DAME’S NEW PARADIGM
The 2015 Notre Dame offense is unusual in that only Ben Koyack departs as the entrenched full time starter (McGlinchey was passing Lombard late in the season.) It is unlikely that the Irish will be losing only one starter on a unit in any foreseeable year.
But this is a different Notre Dame program, with depth at most positions, and a rational, well-spaced balance to bringing players in.
Notre Dame will have four on-campus candidates for tight end playing time when Spring Practice begins. Durham Smythe will be in his third year on campus in 2015, as will the oft-injured Mike Heuerman. Tyler Luatua will be a sophomore and pass catching whiz Nic Weishar a redshirt frosh. Alize Jones will arrive in June. Every player on the depth chart has at LEAST three years of eligibility remaining.
So far, Kelly and his staff have replaced, effectively, Kyle Rudolph, Tyler Eifert and Troy Niklas. While there are no assurances, it is probable that they can replace, effectively, Ben Koyack. This is the new Notre Dame paradigm. A NFL caliber player departs and there are a handful of players available, some with at least two years of lifting and player development.
This area in terms of unproven achievement, resembles the wider receiver corps as 2014 began. Smythe was regarded as a downfield threat when he was recruited. Kelly complimented his work to bulk up, toughen up and Kelly pronounced him, over the Summer, competent to function as an in-line blocking tight end.
The burly Luatua often functioned as a sixth lineman in short yardage and goal line situations. Heuerman has been injury plagued, but Weishar was as celebrated a pass catcher as Smythe was as a high school player.
It is not inconceivable that the following two seemingly paradoxical statements will be accurate regarding Notre Dame’s tight ends:
- Notre Dame does not have a tight end returning who is on the list of the top 100 most accomplished, credentialed, proven and experienced tight ends in America.
- Notre Dame’s 2015 roster will contain three Tight Ends who will earn regular paychecks in the NFL
The battle will rage in the Spring. It will escalate when Alize arrives from Las Vegas in June. But one wonders: If Tight End, as one would think, is our “weak spot” than just how good can this 2015 offense be?
Rites of Spring in South Bend (past and present)
- An Tostal
- Bookstore Basketball
- Michigan Dunes
- Quarterback controversy
And we are right on schedule.
Much will be said speculated, projected, “guaranteed,” conjectured, shouted, whispered and hotly debated about Notre Dame’s starting quarterback. The “more heat than light” syndrome will be evocative of The Comet Kohoutek, Y2K, Avian Flu, The Mayan Calendar foretelling doom and the Ebola non-crisis.
But first, for something completely different, let’s try “perspective.” When Kelly and his droogs arrived, their first quarterback meeting had to be ADA compliant as Dayne Crist hobbled in on crutches. But when the Spring semester began, Crist was joined by that wunderkind, the heir to the hype of Hornung, Koegel, Mirer and Powlus: Tommy Rees.
It’s different this time. Everett Golson will be entering his fifth collegiate year (somewhere). Malik Zaire, with one wonderful purple and gold notch on his belt from the LSU win, will be entering his third year. Rangy Deshone Kizer, he of the bazooka arm, will be a redshirt frosh, and chomping at the bit, and prep phenom Brandon Wimbush will arrive in June.
This is not 2010’s qb depth chart.
Dr. Jekyll Golson.
Golson had been the designated starting quarterback for Notre Dame teams with an 18-1 record, with the sole loss to Alabama. It was October 18th in Leon County, Florida, and with 17 seconds left in the game, Golson completed a pass to Corey Robinson in the end zone of the defending national champion Florida State Seminoles, putatively bringing Dr. Jekyll Golson to 19-1. But a Zebra, of a most vile and odious stripe, intervened.
Mr. Hyde Golson.
November was the cruelest month, breeding turnovers and defeat out of the cold, wet ground. Mr. Hyde Golson was only 1-4 in November, threw 8 interceptions during the month, and before halftime of the USC game, was a shattered shell of the Dr. Jekyll Golson.
It is one of the more unusual implosions of a football player, in recent Notre Dame history. Golson was, however, highly effective against LSU.
No one, not Kelly, not Golson, not Denbrock, not LaFleur knows beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt how Golson will respond during the Spring and the Fall. We must wait, and then, later, much later, we will see.
Zaire was passable against USC, solid as a rock against LSU. It is worth noting that against LSU Zaire was the best passer in the starting lineup for either team. In 2015, that will not always, or perhaps often, in key games, be the case. And there is the rub.
Kizer will be no shrinking violet. It should be an entertaining Spring, and the battle may rage through June and well into Pre-Fall.
Kelly is the head coach at Notre Dame for a reason. If he can restore the confidence of Golson he will give Golson the chance to demonstrate that he is worthy of the starting role. Stopping the turnovers will be key. Notre Dame plays Texas on September 5th in Notre Dame Stadium. We’ll know the starting quarterback that afternoon. And that is the only certainty.
This offense was vastly improved in 2014, in spite of the turnover epidemic and the issues with Golson.
If tight end is the weak spot, then this is a very strong offensive roster. It is highly experienced. We now have studs along the offensive line and playmakers at wide receiver and running back. Resolving the quarterback issue is clearly the fulcrum. But stick around, it just may be interesting in the Fall. You never know, it might be fun.