Notre Dame Football Spring ’17: Not All Sunshine And Rainbows

I think we all have that friend who likes to call himself the “realist” who loves to boast of his ability to “tell it like it is.” He’s always there with a bucket of cold water to splash it on anyone who gets a little too excited about a situation that in reality could go either way. After all, there are always two sides: the upside and the downside. Generally speaking, spring football is a time for the upside. There are no games, and everyone looks in much better shape than at any time last fall. When the offense performs poorly that means the defense is performing well and vice versa. They can’t lose.

But there is always that guy, lurking and waiting to throw salt on all of it. Well, today I’m going to be that guy. I’m an optimistic person by nature, and I’ve shown that in a lot of my writing this offseason, but there are some nagging things about the narrative surrounding the 2017 football team that I think needs to be addressed. So lets get this out of the way before I make my 14-0 prediction following the spring game.

Strength And Conditioning Is Driving A Lot Of Optimism

We’ve heard nothing but good things coming out of winter lifting and conditioning, which is true of 100% of all winter conditioning reports, but there is reason to take these reports seriously. It’s a new regime, players are showing physical changes, and the players seem genuinely sincere in their praise. The thing that concerns me about this is people are then prescribing a wins and losses component to the fact that the team is now taking working out seriously.

Weight training is something that if it is not taken seriously will lead to failure in a program close to 100% of the time. In the football hierarchy of needs, lifting weights and conditioning is at the bottom, or at the base. Without that need being taken care of you can’t move up the chart because you haven’t met the most basic need on a football team. But, that doesn’t necessarily mean all the other things a team needs to be successful will follow, just that they’ve given themselves a chance. It’s like your friend who failed psychology 101 and vows to take the class seriously the next semester by purchasing the book this time around. Sure he’s given himself a chance to succeed, instead of ensuring failure, but everyone who buys the book doesn’t get an A.

Maybe Notre Dame is doing all the other things that lead to success, and we have seen some signs, like focusing more on fundamentals in practice, taking things slow with installing the offense and the defense, and increasing the amount of tackling to build toughness. But, none of this is a guarantee, it’s just something that good programs do. And I fear the presence of a competent weight training program is one of those basic things being used to fuel optimism when we really need to see more.

Notre Dame Is Two Injuries Away From Being In A Bad Place

There is a lot to like about this Notre Dame roster, with possibly the exception of the defensive line (we’ll get to that in a second), but if anything happens to Brandon Wimbush and/or Nyles Morgan it’s hard to see Notre Dame achieving the kind of success they will need to appease those who want Kelly gone. When discussing these two it’s important to remember what success is for Kelly this year. He can’t just go 8-4. Shoot, 9-3 might not even be good enough (although I suspect it would be, given how recruiting is going). But losing Wimbush or Morgan would likely lead to an at best 8-4 or 7-5 which is likely a death knell for Kelly.

As I noted in an earlier article, from a recruiting rankings stand point, Brandon Wimbush is vastly superior to Everett Golson, Malik Zaire, and DeShone Kizer. It’s not even close. His back up, Ian Book, carries essentially the same rating as Tommy Rees, Stwhich is fine, Tommy Rees won games at Notre Dame. The problem is the Rees era occurred at the outset of the Kelly regime, when big success was not necessarily mandatory, and following a 12-1 season when Kelly certainly was not on the hot seat. In other words, 8-5 in the second year of a program and 9-4 following a 12-1 season doesn’t carry the same type of pressure as when 8-4 can get the coach fired.

Notre Dame can be a good offense with Ian Book at quarterback. It’s likely in his first season of real action they cannot be an elite offense. They can be elite under Wimbush, which is what Kelly might need to stay around.

The same is true of Morgan at middle linebacker. It’s the most important position in the Elko defense because it is the premier playmaking position. No one else currently possesses Morgan’s combination of size, athleticism, and experience and unlike with Wimbush and the offense, the defense might need Morgan to simply be a good unit. Without him, there is a real chance they are below average. What can this team be with a below average defense? And what can this team be with a below average defense and Ian Book at quarterback? Actually lets just stop talking about it.

The Defensive Line Looks To Be The Weakest Unit On The Team

If I went down the roster and looked at every player, I could make a case for why that player can make a leap in 2017 and bolster the defensive line unit. Andrew Trumbetti is a senior bump candidate, now that the team is lifting weights Jerry Tillery could flash, Daelin Hayes and Julian Okwara are major candidates for big improvements. It could happen and if it does the ceiling for the entire team raises considerably. But, if someone asked me to bet a substantial amount of money on that? I couldn’t do it.

To be fair to the entire group, it is possible they were all wasted in whatever Brian VanGorder was trying to do. I mean, the guy couldn’t use Jaylon Smith to his full capacity and we’re supposed to expect him to get something meaningful out of Jonathan Bonner and Micah Dew-Treadway? That being said, the group seems to be one more concussion from Daniel Cage away from being without a true one technique and putting Jerry Tillery in a spot he has yet to flourish in. There is the possibility true freshman Darnell Ewell comes in and provides a spark to this group, but counting on freshman to save you on the defensive line is always an iffy proposition.

And let’s be honest, the defensive line is not a good position on any team to feel iffy about. If this group is in fact the weakest on the team, how good can they really be? A good defensive line makes everyone on defense better; less blockers occupying the linebackers giving them room to roam, more pressure allows the secondary not to have to cover as long as well as be more aggressive with quarterbacks rushed into throws. Of course, the opposite is also true, a poor defensive line makes everyone a little bit worse.

Brian Kelly said today following practice he thinks the defensive line has more than people think. He badly needs that to be true.

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25 Comments

  1. Duranko,
    You are correct. The defense gave up less than 38 points (I remember the Leroy Keyes play). Sorry about that.

    Bruce G. Curme ’77 ’82

  2. What’s all this about “two guys have to be elite”? They all have to be elite – every damn one of them – all 22 of them + some backups. Get it? The 1966 defense only gave up 38 points all year! Now that is elite, gentlemen. I know the game has changed a lot since then – but the goals of our players should be the same. Someone mentioned 12 shut outs. Why not 14?

    Bruce G. Curme ’77 ’82

    1. what Curme said. And then some. McGlinchey, Nelson, St. Brown, Alize, Claypool (yeah, Claypool) and Adams are a quick six for elite play. Our punter, Newsome, and Yoon, the kicker, are already elite.

      But, Bruce, for shame! You have lied, LIED about our ’66 defense. And check the archives on this, 14 of the points were not given up by the defense.

      Leroy “Nursey” Keyes scored a touchdown on a fumble that popped in the air as the Irish were marching in, and he took it 90 plus, making the Purdue game closer than it really was.

      And Navy scored on a blocked punt.

      so the defense, including the scrubs who allowed one against Northwestern, surrendered 24 points.

  3. CEASE AND DESIST

    please with the “inexperience” of Wimbush. Right now, he has MORE experience than Jalen Hurts did when he took the
    field against USC, more experience than when Jameis Winston played his first game in A NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON, more experience than when Johnny Manziel took the field in a Heisman winning campaign, and more experience
    than his coach, Tommy Rees did when he first took the field as a QB at Notre Dame. Know your football facts, people.

    Read the hstory pages. See what happened when Bertelli left for the military and Leahy put some scrub in.
    Read the history pages. See what happened when Hanratty went out from a Bubba Smith hit against MSU in ’66.
    Read the history pages. See what happened when Forystek’s leg was broken in ’77.

    And remember this is Notre Dame. How much experience did Terry Hanratty have when Ara unleashed him against
    Purdue in the ’66 opener?

    Second, with all the gnashing of teeth about the defense, this is one of the most experienced defenses around. 15 of the
    top 20 tacklers return (go ahead, look it up!). Last year, only Studstill of the frsoh seven was expected to play. But Elliott, Pride, Love and Vaughn joined him in playing significant minutes. That blood of inexperience and being rushed into battle watered this year’s tree of experience.

    Temple, Georgia, BC and Michigan State. Those, all four, are winnable games. Georgia seems like a huge challenge, and Smart (who may not be eponymous) is in the all important second year. They are talented, but were 8-5 only 4-4 in the
    SEC playing in the weaker East division.

    “Notre Dame is two injuries away from being in a bad place” Breaking news?

    Yeah, and the White House is two injuries and a Putin assassination away from having America in a good place.

  4. Agree Damian. If D cuts in half ppg allowed under BVG regime — it’s big step in right direction. If D can improve on stepping up in forced error category—ranked near bottom each year among DI schools—it’s moving in right direction. Who knows what can result—hopefully 10 , 11 wins. D just needs to be maybe not elite — but adequate enough. Which is a lot better than what the mess was previously.

      1. George , I’m with you on 12 shut outs. Wait a minute , you sly dog , you pull’in a fast one on me ain’t ya. Got’s to keep up wit you. You , you , you’re good you. Takes a really sharp mind (hee , hee) to communicate with you (hee , hee , hee) on UHND web site. Ah , ha , ha , ha –so-so-so sorry —can’t even get words out in my laughing fit. I apologize , you are a riot–keep up the good work.

    1. Yeah, If the defense just eliminates stupid mistakes, bad fouls and executes tackling that would be marked improvement, you know, just execute basic fundamentals. I don’t think they need to be elite necessarily, just take care of business. The offense should be good enough to score points, the players are there for that as long as they are used correctly. The defense just has to be able to make stops when called upon. Do that successfully, then they can take the next step and work on things like forcing turnovers and blitzing schemes.

      1. I have the feeling that they can put it all together by the fall. I suspect that tackling in today’s practice will be better. We’ll see.

  5. Swarbrick has already said that Kelly’s tenure isn’t tied to next year’s record, specifically mentioning injuries as one factor that would be evaluated. So I don’t buy that part of your argument. I certainly agree that if we don’t have Wimbush and Morgan, things will definitely be tougher. But if the new coaching staff is the improvement that it appears to be, other players will have less difficulty stepping up than they did before. As for “appeasing those who want Kelly gone,” I’m not sure who you’re talking about exactly. There are plenty of people who would still want Kelly gone even if ND wins it all this year.

  6. Let’s review.
    Tackling drills suggest ND is improving.
    Elite D’ prospects can’t tackle? Really?

    Two key injuries away from mediocrity.
    So much for past recruiting providing quality
    elite depth. The players are now taking
    strength and conditioning seriously.
    I’d expect all that from the JV team becoming
    varsity starters at my local high school.
    As for ND, that’s a very low bar. I
    also disagree about BK’s future job security.
    If ND wins eight, BK is back. A new staff and
    “Rebuilding” will justify his return. That in year seven those excuses would be acceptable
    speak volumes for a program that claims it
    strives to join the elite.

    The remnants from the mess after year sevenwill be excused and dismissed by Swarbick et. al. in position to pull the plug on BK.

    Expectations regarding ND as an elite program is what fans, not the ND Administration,
    entertain. As long as ticket demand and NBC $continue, it is what it is. Get used to it. I have.

    I hope I and this article are being way too
    pessimistic. Stay tuned.

    1. I was as dismayed by our bad tackling last year as you appear to be. If we’re turning that around, that’s one of the things that has to happen. However, treating the lack of attention to fundamentals that characterized our team on BVG’s watch as an indictment of where the team is going this year is indeed way too pessimistic. A team that underperforms has problems. To stop underperforming, you fix the problems. I’m glad that they’re paying serious attention to this particular problem. That’s the first step to fixing it.

    2. Another thing, about the old “ticket demand and NBC$” bromide: I submit that when Swarbrick said that ND would stop giving out scholarships if they had to pay scholarship players, that’s precisely what they would do. Kind of flies in the face of the idea that ND puts money first. An athletic program whose revenues represent 2% of their endowment isn’t going to be allowed to become too much of a headache.

  7. Having the defense be the weakest link is not what the Irish faithful want to hear! Poor “D’ puts a lot more pressure on the offense.
    Wimbush will get the job done but his lack of experience could slightly hinder him. I’ve seen him play in both high school and for the Irish and he can play make no mistake about it.
    Unfortunately, his playing time has been very limited. I have faith that he will be ready and do a great job.
    Hopefully they will not have to score 30 plus points to offset the lack of defense. Go ND!

  8. One minute this team has so much talent and depth that it’s considered an embarrassment of riches, and the next minute ND is just two injuries away from being in a bad place. Very confusing.

    1. Not really. It really depends on how they do if they get in a bad place, doesn’t it? Kizer wasn’t rated that much higher than Book, and he stepped up just fine. I don’t think ND took Book just because he was the only QB available. If they didn’t like him, they would have passed on a QB that year. As for Morgan, if Elko is what he appears to be, someone else will be ready to step in and hold the fort if Morgan goes down.

      1. I never said I agreed with the article. I was simply pointing out the contradictions I regularly read on this site. However your statement about Kizer and Book having similar ratings is unfounded. Kizer held offers from Alabama, LSU, Tenn, UNC, MSU and others. Book’s offer list was nothing close. It is not even debatable. Book simply followed now departed Mike Sanford to ND. But sure, maybe Book will get his shot and do great. No reason not to be optimistic after a 4 win season with a coach on the hot seat.

      2. George, by “rated” I’m referring to their 247 recruiting rating. Of course Kizer’s offer list was more impressive, and I suppose that means something too. Book’s rating was 86 something and so was Rees’s. Kizer’s was 90 something, still not that high when you look at Wimbush’s 97 something.

      3. Also, there are reasons to be optimistic and reasons not to be. Glass half full and glass half empty and all that. My personal cup runneth over, even if I don’t always notice it. :)

  9. I have to agree. There are changes that were made this offseason that I like, but it’s a lot like too little too late. BK’s seat is very warm and I have to imagine that like Greg mentioned, 8-4 or worse is likely to get BK fired. 9-3 is iffy for BK. I’d have to say that would depend on the substance of the games. If they dominate in those wins and take it down to the wire in their 3 losses against good opponents, he’d likely get another year. 10-2 probably would bring him back, if recruiting continues to be good for next years class. That’s not necessarily how I feel about it, but that’s probably the reality.

    But BK’s survival rides a lot on 2 things. Wimbush being the QB we all think he could be, and how the defense plays. Wimbush basically has to be elite. The defense, I think, just needs to be average as a whole this year, enough to make sure we score more points than our opponents. That would be an improvement over the BVG regime, a step in the right direction. I’m not saying they should perpetually be average, but under Elko I would expect that there be steady improvement.

    And Greg is right, strength and conditioning is extremely important. But it is only the first step. It’s frankly a travesty that the coaching staff had let that slip. You won’t necessarily have an elite team with proper S&C’s but it’s pretty much impossible to have an elite team without it.

    1. I disagree that Wimbush needs to be elite. I think he needs to be efficient, but if he is relied upon to win too many games, I do not see this being a successful season. The offensive line is too good, coupled with a deep and talented tight end group, this team should be a run first team. The receiving talent is also there, with St Brown, Claypool and Jones (assuming he splits out frequently) have a large catch radius, which will allow Wimbush to complete imperfect throws.

      The athleticism of the tight ends on the roster should allow them to set up with 4 wide including two tight ends split out. Not many LBs in the country are going to cover Jones. Force the defense into a nickel/dime package, run no huddle, bring those tight ends in and create large mismatches in the run game.

      There is too much talent and potential mismatches on offense to have to rely on Wimbush to be much more than efficient. Hopefully the new offensive scheme will prioritize exploiting these mismatches. Past couple years I think Kelly just hoped trying to stretch the field in the passing game would open up the run. I hope Long uses ND’s stengths and runs the ball often to open the door for easy passes for Wimbush.

      1. I think we’re going to see a lot more to like on defense this year than we have seen since the Diaco days. Good coaching can turn a talented team around very quickly (I’m old enough to remember what Ara did in his first year), and it looks like Kelly may very well have managed to get the right people on the bus this year.

      2. Under normal circumstances I’d agree that Wimbush doesn’t necessarily need to be elite. But the traditional honeymoon period for a new QB is not going to happen next year because of ND going 4-8 last year. It’s not Wimbush’s fault, it’s BK’s. He needs Wimbush to play at a high level now. I do disagree with Michael above, I don’t think 8-4 will be enough. The ND backers will get restless if they don’t see marked improvement. Swarbick is not going to go down for BK. I still believe a lot of the changes BK has made were made because of pressure by Swarbick. BK didn’t uproot his staff by accident, or even because of the record. I believe he did it because Swarbick put a line in the sand as to what he expects for next year. I had hoped for a new HC this year, but I do believe part of the reason for not making a move now is there were slim pickings on HC’s. Despite some delusional fans statements, guys like Nick Saban are not going to come to ND when they can have anything they want right where they are at.

      3. Again on whether 8-4 or any other number is going to be enough: Swarbrick has said when asked that the win-loss record isn’t the only factor in making that decision, and I don’t think it should be. I’m sure it’s important, but I don’t even think it’s the most important factor even if it is to most of the fans out there. An 8-4 season where, say, Wimbush got hurt early and Book couldn’t make the grade, while the defense got to the top 25 in points allowed, is one thing, while the defense continuing to tackle the way they got away with in high school, the OL not being able to get any running game going, and Wimbush posting a 52% completion percentage is quite another.
        If the top players play as badly as they did last year, or even if they keep randomly misfiring they way they have for the last five years, then yeah, it’s time to think about a new head coach. If I see real steps towards overcoming the institutionalized mediocrity that has been the ND way for the last 30 years, I don’t care what the record looks like. I’m still on Kelly’s side then. I know he has been a part of that institutionalized mediocrity, but I really think he and Swarbrick are men enough to see the parts that they have played in that, and creative enough to overcome it. If not, well, a couple or three more years and back to the drawing board.

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