Chicago Colleges: Notre Dame Fighting Irish

New spring, new spots for some on Irish D

April, 18, 2014
Apr 18
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — This week marked the first unofficial "off" week for John Turner. The redshirt sophomore's workload essentially doubled this spring, with the former safety learning a new position as a linebacker, a chore that would have been complicated enough had Notre Dame's defense not been undergoing a massive face-lift under new coordinator Brian VanGorder.

"After practice I usually go watch film with [outside linebackers] coach [Bob] Elliott, so I really haven't had any time off this spring," Turner said. "Just been putting in work, trying to get better."

Turner is hardly alone, as he is one of three notable players switching positions on the defensive side of the ball, an area that has become somewhat of a haven for fresh starts and surprises for the Irish during Brian Kelly's tenure as head coach. James Onwualu went from safety to linebacker this spring after playing wide receiver as a freshman last season. And Matthias Farley moved from safety to cornerback; he arrived at Notre Dame three years ago as a receiver.

Turner, who played cornerback while at Indianapolis Cathedral High, said the move from the secondary to linebacker this time around has been a far more difficult one, though the spring served as a nice transition period.

[+] EnlargeJohn Turner
Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesJohn Turner is one of several underclassmen making a position switch for the Notre Dame defense.
"It was like a learning process the first, I'd say, eight, nine practices. Just getting used to like just being at the line of scrimmage, just being asked to do all the different jobs that they asked me to do," Turner said, adding that, toward the end of spring, "it's been starting to click a lot. Just knowing the defense and just being able to pretty much line up and do everything I need to for the most part."

Turner, who mostly played on special teams, is one of several underclassmen competing for potential starting roles on a retooled unit. Turner is getting practice time mostly in the Sam linebacker role in VanGorder's base defense. The circumstances are a bit different for Onwualu, if only because he earned meaningful action as a rookie last year, catching two passes for 34 yards.

Still, the 215-pound Onwualu's blend of size and athleticism made him an enticing prospect on the other side of the ball, with the sophomore starting this spring listed as a safety before being brought down into the box. He's mostly playing at the Sam position as well.

"Obviously the linemen are a little bit bigger, so you've got to learn how to beat them in different ways, and I'm trying to learn that every day with my technique and everything," said Onwualu, who played corner and safety at Cretin-Derham Hall (Minn.) High. "But I think that's really the only thing. My strength is up there with a lot of people, so I believe I can play in the box."

The moves are hardly unique to the Irish, as the position switches have become as much of a staple under Kelly as anything else. Four players who started in the secondary last year, for instance, had arrived to Notre Dame as receivers: Farley, Austin Collinsworth, Bennett Jackson and KeiVarae Russell.

VanGorder initiated this spring's moves shortly after his arrival, with the former New York Jets linebackers coach evaluating film and engaging in a series of conversations with both Kelly and the players.

"That evaluation started with film first, and then some training with them, watching them move around and all," VanGorder said. "But until you put the football down and put your cleats in the grass, there's a lot of ways to complete the evaluation. Now we're seeing them play the game of football, so there's some things we didn't have now that we've got to continue to evaluate. And then, in the end of this picture and the spring, we pretty much can define and profile a player in terms of who he is."

The returns from spring have been positive as the Irish search for unconventional ways to find playmakers among a relatively green group.

"I love him, I really do. I think he's a great guy. I think he's very honest and upfront about everything," Farley said of VanGorder. "You can talk to him about anything. He's personable, and that clicked from the start and I think everyone really feels that, and it's going to be really good for everyone moving forward."

Starting O-line on ND camp agenda

April, 17, 2014
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Few would blame Matt Hegarty had he hung his head entering this spring. The redshirt junior has had a roller-coaster ride at Notre Dame, from seeing the perfect regular season of 2012 cut short due to a series of mini-strokes to being thrust into role of starting center for the Fighting Irish's final two games last season.

That the former guard was a more than capable fill-in in the middle is a testament to his versatility. That he stayed there with the first team for most of this spring is a testament to his attitude.

Nick Martin started at center in 2013 and will again in 2014 despite spending this spring recovering from an MCL tear suffered in his left knee during a Nov. 23 win over BYU. This might have indirectly hampered Hegarty, seasoned and talented enough to possibly start elsewhere on the line but relegated to mostly snapping duties.

Still, his performance in March and April are enough to warrant a chance to compete in fall camp for the top left guard spot, which was a revolving door of sorts among Steve Elmer, Conor Hanratty and, when necessary, Hegarty.

"It was good being able to have a little bit of momentum kind of coming in playing there a little bit at the end of the year," Hegarty said of starting last season, "and then it's always great to get a lot of reps in the spring like this. I couldn't ask for anything more there, but it's been great as far as trying to develop my blocking."

Redshirt freshman Mike McGlinchey saw plenty of time with the first team at right tackle this spring, and Hanratty -- owner of three career starts -- filled in at right guard after Christian Lombard went down in March with a dislocated right wrist that kept him out of the rest of spring drills. Elmer, who started four games last season as a freshman, saw plenty of time at left guard, though he might project better as a tackle.

It may essentially come down to whether coach Brian Kelly thinks both his offensive line and the precocious McGlinchey could benefit more with the 6-foot-7.5 behemoth as an immediate starter, as it seems Elmer is flexible enough to be a player where needed, having seen action in 2013 at every spot but left tackle and center.

"(Hegarty's) had a really good spring. We want to give him a chance to compete at left guard," Kelly said. "So if that's the case, are we better with him at left guard and Elmer at right tackle, or better with McGlinchey at right tackle and Elmer at guard? So if you want to boil it down, it's who's the left guard with Elmer at right tackle, or Elmer at left guard and McGlinchey at right tackle? So that's going to kind of sort itself out in preseason camp."

Zaire's emergence a good step for ND

April, 12, 2014
Apr 12
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video
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Brian Kelly moved swiftly up to the post-game podium, joking with the assembled media members that everyone better hurry up so they could get back to watching the Masters. Kelly played the famed course at Augusta National last month as part of a foursome with Tom Brady, Josh McDaniels and Notre Dame alumnus Jimmy Dunne, who put the group together.

Saturday's Blue-Gold spring game -- otherwise known as "Natural Grass: The Finale" -- could not have been farther away from the Peach State. But it probably served a somewhat therapeutic purpose for the Fighting Irish head coach for the first time since he arrived here in 2010.

[+] EnlargeMalik Zaire
AP Photo/Joe RaymondMalik Zaire showed poise and big-play ability in Saturday's spring game, showing that there's more than one capable Notre Dame quarterback.
Yes, there were questions about the quarterback play, because there always are at Notre Dame. No, Kelly said he has no plans on naming a starter sometime before camp. And while anyone but Everett Golson being named the main man would qualify among the biggest shocks of Kelly's tenure, Kelly can rest easy knowing that he likely has a capable and confident second arm to turn to in the event he needs one. And, let's face it, he has almost always needed one.

Golson looked uneven at times but is slowly easing his way back into the offense. Malik Zaire, meanwhile, backed up all of his bold spring talk and made all of the big plays in the "Blue" team's (offense) 63-58 win over the "Gold" team (defense).

The redshirt freshman completed 18 of 27 passes for 292 yards and two scores. Golson completed 13 of 23 passes for 160 yards. Both players seem more than capable of running the offense Kelly would like, which explains why he made it clear afterward that he prefers just one man atop the depth chart.

"We should be as coaches and myself, personally, I should be able to figure this thing out, and we should be able to get our players in a position where we can have a starting quarterback," Kelly said.

"So I've been doing it long enough that I would hope that I can figure it out come time to play Rice."

Kelly had said earlier in the week that he threw everything at the quarterbacks this spring -- in part to see what they could handle, in part to accelerate the growth of a young defense under a new coordinator.

The learning curve, though, will be quicker for the offense this season, with the low-scoring games of recent years likely becoming as ancient as the natural grass his stadium is leaving behind. And that's a byproduct of more dynamic play under center.

"We have to be more proficient offensively," Kelly said. "We have to put points on the board that we have not been able to consistently do against the best teams in the country. So that's certainly been the focus, and it will have to be this fall again playing the kind of schedule we do. We can't go down to Florida State and hope to win 10 to 7. We're going to have to put some points on board."

Much of that will depend on Golson's acclimation with a new supporting cast. He is 15 pounds heavier, more mature after returning from suspension and, presumably, a smarter signal caller after spending the fall with George Whitfield Jr.

Having someone with the talent and attitude of Zaire behind him should only make him better -- which, indirectly, is exactly what the lefty wants to hear.

"My mindset doesn't change at all: Whether I'm declared the starter or whether I'm the backup or whatever the situation is," Zaire said. "Because in my mind, I'm always looking just to get better every day and whatever it takes for this team to win a lot of games, I'm willing to do that. So I'm always working as if nobody's giving me a chance. I think that's what's really my backing in it.

"I feel like not enough people are giving me that chance and that opportunity, that's my personal belief. So as long as I keep believing that and working my butt off and try to be the best I can be for this team, then that's all I can ask for."

That might be all the Irish can ask for after 15 spring practices, as they are better off at the game's most important position moving forward.

"It's competition," Golson said. "There's no animosity toward him, but there's definitely competition, and I'm open to it and ready for it."

Notre Dame mailblog

April, 11, 2014
Apr 11
6:30
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One more time before the spring game ...

Derrick from Warsaw, Ill., writes: Matt, first off, thanks for doing such a great job covering the Irish! I always look forward to reading everything you write! My question is, with all the great options the Irish have at running back heading into the season, how do you see everything going at the running back position? Will one guy get the lion's share of the carries? Do they go with the hot hand? Or will each guy get a fairly equal share of touches? Thanks! And keep up the great work!

Matt Fortuna: Thanks for the kind words, Derrick. I think everyone will get a fair share early. Cam McDaniel is obviously the veteran of the group and will probably "start" the season with the first unit, but I don't see it being a traditional 1-2-3 pecking order. I said it last year (and was wrong) and will say it again now: I do think the bulk of the workload will go to Greg Bryant if he's playing near the top of his game. After all of his talk this spring about being "hungry and humbled," I think the light will click on for him in 2014.


Brian Henighan from Medina, Ohio, writes: During the practices leading up to the Pinstripe Bowl, we heard a lot about how Torii Hunter was looking very good. There was some good hype around this kid before and after his injury. Spring practices are now nearly over and I haven't heard his name mentioned one time. How is he doing/progressing? It's just strange for his name to completely disappear lately.

Matt Fortuna: Brian, I was actually wondering the same thing recently, as he rebounded from his leg injury last year to win offensive scout team player of the year: Here's what offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock said when I asked him Monday: "He is absolutely physically very gifted, and right in the mix with all those young guys as far as what we feel like he can do potentially down the road. Like a lot of young guys, the more he sees things, the more he does things, the better he's going to be. He's not where we need him to be yet, but you can see so many positive things that are going to happen there moving forward. We're just trying to speed up the process as fast as we can."


[+] EnlargeTommy Rees
Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY SportsTommy Rees' legacy at Notre Dame will likely grow with time.
Jeremy from Bethlehem, Ga., writes: Hey Matt, great job on the blog! I was curious on your take of Tommy Rees' legacy. He has been on the losing side of some games that they should have won, like Stanford. But he has won some big games in his career, such as against No. 14 Utah in 2010, being the closer in 2012 to go on to the BCS championship game, and against Michigan State this past year.

Matt Fortuna: Jeremy, like most things, I think it will only grow with time. Sure, a lot of the turnovers are what stick out in most fans' minds right now, but you have to look at the bigger picture. Notre Dame had flat-out awful quarterback luck in three of Rees' four seasons there. And yet, the Irish were lucky beyond relief to have a guy like Rees who not only knew, but embraced his role, stepping in unfazed every step of the way. And in the one year they had good quarterback luck, in 2012? That 12-0 regular season doesn't happen without Rees being the great teammate he was, relieving the guy who took his job and leading the Irish to some crucial wins. Speaking of which, that locker room absolutely loved him, which speaks louder to anything the rest of us could say.


Thomas Witty from Northbrook, Ill., writes: Hey Matt! I've been looking at the offensive line for this year and it seems like there is a lot of talent overall. I've seen on various sites that they have Ronnie Stanley and Mike McGlinchey playing tackle, but do you think Steve Elmer could get a chance, too? Also, I was excited last year when they got Hunter Bivin because he seemed like a great player. How do you see him factoring into the mix in the coming years/this year? Lastly, it seems that the talent of the offensive line has increased a lot. Do you think the offensive line could change from good to great in the coming years or even this year? As always, I love reading your blog!

Matt Fortuna: Thanks for the kind words, Thomas. Brian Kelly actually addressed this topic Wednesday, saying that the left guard spot could very well be affected by the right tackle spot, which would be between Elmer and McGlinchey. That could provide an opening at left guard for Matt Hegarty, who has plenty of experience across the line and has filled in at center for Nick Martin this spring. As for the depth question, we'e seen Notre Dame sign nine offensive linemen across the 2013 and 2014 recruiting classes. So while the numbers are down this spring -- especially on days such as Wednesday, when Elmer had a stomach ailment and the Irish were down to eight healthy offensive linemen -- the addition of four more come fall camp should be a big boost to this group's daily progress.

All hands on deck, again, for punt returns

April, 11, 2014
Apr 11
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Yes, Brian Kelly knows you've all been frustrated with Notre Dame's punt return game. Trust him, he's been every bit as frustrated as you have, and a Fighting Irish spring that opened on a minus-1-degree day back on March 3 has not given him ample opportunity to properly evaluate the unit.

Getting outside for five recent practices has presented some clarity, but the fair-catch-only rule for Saturday's Blue-Gold game won't offer many surprises to the public.

"I’m sure we’ll drop three of them and the Internet will blow up on the punt returns," Kelly quipped.

Kelly isn't sure who the main guy will be, saying Greg Bryant, Torii Hunter Jr., Amir Carlisle and even sports information director Michael Bertsch will get a chance Saturday. (He was kidding about the last name ... we think.)

By recent standards, TJ Jones performed the duty remarkably last season, leading the charge on an Irish return unit that averaged 7.1 yards per punt return, good for 80th nationally. Of course, given the averages in Kelly's first three years at Notre Dame -- 2.2 (120th nationally in 2012), 3.7 (112th in 2011) and 5.4 (100th in 2010) -- there was plenty of room for growth.

Some lessons from Jones' time, however, could carry over, as Bryant received plenty of reps among the crowd during his first preseason camp last August.

"We have some previous experience watching him and spending time with him," Kelly said. "We’re relying on some of that, quite frankly, as to why we have some confidence. I can’t say for certain we’ve got that thing figured out."

Bryant admitted to having some difficulty last season adjusting to the hang time of punter Kyle Brindza. His mindset, meanwhile, is already up to speed.

"You've just got to be fearless," the redshirt freshman said. "Football is football. It's what we've been doing since we were little, so it's like one man won't bring me down."

Irish lunch links

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
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Bravo, Dickie V.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- A series with Georgia would only be natural for Brian Kelly as he has seen Notre Dame win several important recruiting battles in the Peach State and knows the exposure in the region would only benefit his program.

[+] EnlargeBrian Kelly
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesNotre Dame coach Brian Kelly thinks a series with Georgia would be good for recruiting.
"Well I know that there's been some talk. I’ve heard some rumblings about it," the Notre Dame coach said Wednesday of a potential home-and-home with the Bulldogs, which was reported on Tuesday. "All I know is that my talks with [athletic director] Jack [Swarbrick] is we’re looking for matchups down the road that geographically make sense to us. That Atlanta area, that SEC area in Atlanta is a big area. We’ve hit Dallas, obviously. We know that that’s a great area for us. We’re going to keep looking for geographical areas that make sense. We've got to look at geographical areas that we’re recruiting.

"Atlanta is one of those areas that we've got to keep getting in. We're going to play Georgia Tech. So by process of elimination, if we’re talking SEC and we’re talking Atlanta, the next team that would pop up, it would seem to be Georgia. But we haven’t talked any specifics about a contract, or years or anything like that. So I think everything that’s out there is really speculative right now. Nobody’s come to me and said, ‘Hey we’ve got a team, we’ve got a date.’ "

Notre Dame associate athletic director John Heisler said Tuesday that the school was exploring a series with Georgia, but that the dates were to be determined, this after CBSSports.com's Jeremy Fowler reported that both schools were working to finalize a home-and-home for 2018 and 2019.

Former Irish standouts Stephon Tuitt and TJ Jones are among the more recent recruiting successes Notre Dame has had in the state of Georgia, which also produced current sophomore end Isaac Rochell.

Notre Dame will host Georgia Tech in 2015 and will likely head to Atlanta to face the Yellow Jackets sometime between 2017-19, based on the five-ACC-opponents-per-season deal that the Irish struck with the league for 2014 and beyond. They currently have a full schedule through 2016.

Notes: Steve Elmer missed Wednesday's practice with a stomach ailment, forcing Mark Harrell to first-team center, which forced Matt Hegarty to left guard. Kelly expects Elmer to play in Saturday's Blue-Gold Game. ... The spring game will feature two 12-minute quarters with normal stoppage time, then two 15-minute quarters on a running clock. Halftime will be 15 minutes. There will be no play clock, no overtime and no kickoffs. Quarterbacks will not be live, each possession will begin at the offense's 35-yard line and all punts will be fair caught, which prompted Kelly to quip: "I’m sure we’ll drop three of them, and the internet will blow up on the punt returns." The scoring system, meanwhile, will pit the offense vs. the defense. The offense can earn points via field goal (3), touchdown (6), extra point (1), two-point conversion (2), 20-plus-yard completions (2), 15-plus-yard runs (2) and two consecutive first downs (2). The defense earns points for stops before the 50 (4), stops after the 50 (2), turnovers forced before the 50 (7), turnovers forced after the 50 (3), forcing a field goal (1, make or miss) and three-and-outs (2).

Denbrock in contact with WR Daniels

April, 7, 2014
Apr 7
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Notre Dame offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock coached outside receivers the past two seasons, so he dealt with DaVaris Daniels more than most. With Daniels exiled for a semester because of academic reasons, Denbrock remains in touch with the receiver on a near daily basis, and he hopes the redshirt junior sports a new and improved mindset if and when he returns to school this summer.

"I'd rather not DaVaris make too many decisions on his own," Denbrock said. "I've been very close to that situation. We're in touch at least three or four times a week, if not every day, just to make sure he knows we're thinking about him and we're keeping an eye on him and what our expectations while he's away from here are, including what our expectations for him are going to be when he comes back."

[+] EnlargeDaVaris Daniels
AP Photo/Michael ConroyDaVaris Daniels caught 31 passes from Everett Golson in 2012.
Denbrock wouldn't get into specifics about expectations for Daniels upon his return, but Daniels' role in the offense should be fairly clear.

The Vernon Hills, Ill., native would be the Irish's leading returning receiver, having made 49 catches last season for 745 yards and seven touchdowns. The 6-foot-2, 203-pound Daniels would also be the only pass-catcher holding any semblance of chemistry with returning quarterback Everett Golson, as Daniels caught 31 passes for 490 yards during both players' redshirt freshman campaigns in 2012.

Like Golson, Daniels was suspended from school for a semester because of academic reasons, though Daniels had told CBSSports.com that his gaffe was simply failing to keep his grades up. (Golson had referred to his own violation as an integrity issue.)

Daniels is expected to return to school and to the team this summer. He has been training at EFT Sports Performance in Highland Park, Ill.

"I would hope it would be," Denbrock said of the light now clicking on for Daniels. "I guess I won't know the answer to that exactly until he's really back here in the middle of it and it's the fourth double session and he's still going as hard as he was the first time he set foot back on the field after -- good Lord willing -- being reinstated. I think time will tell. Right now, I think his mind's in the right place, I think he's excited about getting back with his teammates whenever that's possible to do and get this thing going."

Video: KeiVarae Russell on Irish's new D

April, 7, 2014
Apr 7
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video

Chris Low talks with Fighting Irish CB KeiVarae Russell about a new style of defense and the expectations for Notre Dame this season.

Notre Dame mailblog

April, 4, 2014
Apr 4
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Thanks for chiming in. As always, feel free to tweet any more questions you have here or drop 'em in the mailbag.

Away we go ...

Brendan Shaw from Raleigh, N.C. writes: Hi Matt, doing a great job as usual! This is a long shot, but is there any chance Kelly puts in a two-QB package to mess with the opposing defense? If you think about it, having two dual-threat QBs on the field simultaneously gives you a minimum of a quadruple threat in the backfield. Opposing d-coordinators may just quit football after trying to figure that out for a quarter or two. Regards, Brendan.

Matt Fortuna: Thanks for the kind words, Brendan. Having both quarterbacks on the field at the same time? That would be news to me, especially since I haven't seen either of these guys try their hands at something other than quarterback. That being said, I'd be surprised if Malik Zaire didn't see some meaningful action during the season, as I am sure Brian Kelly and the staff will do everything they can to keep him engaged. He seems to have another gear as a runner, and he could certainly be useful in some red-zone packages as well, as the Fighting Irish have struggled to punch it in down there so much in recent years. I wonder if throwing a lefty in in the middle of a game could prove to be a nice little wrinkle, too.

Mike S. from Chicago writes: Hi Matt, great work as always. Question: how is the schedule for ACC games determined each year? We know it's a rotation with up to five games, but how are the opponents determined each season and how are home-and-aways done?

Matt Fortuna: Thanks, Mike. It is, by all accounts, a collaborative effort. And the ACC has shown some flexibility so far to accommodate the Irish, allowing them to play four conference games in 2014 and six in 2015 because of previous schedule arrangements. Both parties plan on keeping things that way, hoping to blend a balance so that a) Notre Dame isn't facing a death row of Florida State/Clemson/Miami in a given season (just using those teams as an example) b) the Irish can fill their 6-5-1 scheduling arrangement (six at home, five on road, one Shamrock Series) and c) so that they play all 14 ACC teams over a three-year span. As you can see, it takes a lot of legwork from all sides, which explains why we didn't know the Irish's 2014 schedule until December of this year (and why the school released three years of schedules at once).

Michael Fry writes: Hi Matt, I have 3 questions for you: 1. Since he arrived on campus last year, und.com has made a point of showing spectacular catches from No. 88. Having seen some live practice, can you comment on how he is doing overall in terms of route-running and consistency in catching the ball? Right now, he is presented as a catch-everything kind of guy 2. Footage of Zaire looks great but, coming back to the theme of No. 1, what kind of a QB competition would this be if Brian Kelly had not called it already in Golson's favor? Would it be close or are we talking different stratospheres? 3. Defense -- just looking for some thoughts on who was off the radar last year but who fits well into the new DC's system well. Thanks for the great blog -- keeps the off-season interesting.

Matt Fortuna: Thanks, Michael. Corey Robinson seems to dominate every time us media folks are at practice, too. He has natural size and athletic ability, giving the quarterback a wider margin of error when matching up with smaller corners. Part of that, of course, is also because Notre Dame's corners are relatively green outside of KeiVarae Russell. That said, Robinson needs to put on more strength so he can win some battles along the line of scrimmage and gain some more separation downfield. But last spring's transfers, and this spring's absence of DaVaris Daniels, has given Robinson more opportunities to make an impression. Kelly has stated that he absolutely loves coaching him because of his willingness to accept coaching and not make the same mistake twice. As for the quarterback question, I'm not sure it's still close, but that shouldn't negate from the progress that Zaire has made this spring.

I don't think anyone seriously expects someone other than Everett Golson to be starting come Week 1, but I do think Zaire will see meaningful snaps this season, and the fact there are only two scholarship quarterbacks this spring will prove to be beneficial for the lefty in the long run. Kelly was right to publicly open things up.

Lastly, everyone has been raving about Sheldon Day, who is not exactly off the radar but who was limited last season because of an ankle injury. I'd expect to see a breakout campaign from him along the line, and I wouldn't be surprised if Jarron Jones took his game up another level as well, as the redshirt sophomore has said to us how much more fun he is having in the new system.

Thomas Witty from Northbrook, Ill. writes: Hey Matt! Thanks for answering all of these questions. I know I enjoy reading your answers. My question today is focused on the linebackers. It seems like they are set at outside, but who's going to play middle? Will Nyles Morgan come in and make an impact right away? Could they move Jaylon Smith? Thanks!

Matt Fortuna: Thanks, Thomas. I'd say the only sure things at linebacker across the board right now are Joe Schmidt and Smith. Brian VanGorder absolutely raved about Schmidt when asked last week, and we all know what kind of potential Smith flashed during his strong rookie campaign in 2013. Smith has described his position as sort of a hybrid between the Mike and Sam. I'm curious to see the fallout of Jarrett Grace's second operation. He seemed to come along better than anyone over the first half of last season before breaking his leg, and Kelly said the Irish won't know his exact prognosis now until about six weeks after the operation, which took place March 28. If he can come back to camp in full-force, I think that will be huge. If not, I think Morgan could certainly make an impact upon his arrival this summer, probably not unlike the one we saw last year from Smith before he started every game in the fall.

Irish in no rush to name starting QB

April, 3, 2014
Apr 3
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Just because the relationship between Notre Dame's top quarterbacks is different this time around doesn't necessarily mean Everett Golson and Malik Zaire are stealing each other's playbooks.

"They are competitive, but they do help each other, believe it or not," quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur said Wednesday. "Just the other day at practice Malik made a mistake and Everett was trying to explain to him why he made that mistake. Yeah, there is a competitiveness but those guys also help each other at game time."

Golson-Tommy Rees, this is not, as coach Brian Kelly made pretty clear earlier this spring. And the frontrunner to be the Irish's starter will likely have to wait four-plus months to be officially declared the No. 1 guy.

LaFleur, the first-year Irish assistant, said he has been more focused this spring on getting everyone on the same page before drawing any comparisons between the two signal callers, be it through stats or other tangible measurements.

"Honestly, I don't think it makes a difference right now," LaFleur said of knowing a starter this early. "I think each guy, whether you're an offensive lineman, receiver, running back -- you're kind of focused on your job. And No. 1, I tell the quarterbacks, do your job. You've got to do your job before you can even worry about anyone else or any other situation. I think from an offensive standpoint, I think everybody's just focused on improving their own skills and improving each day."

Both quarterbacks have heeded that advice, stressing that their concerns have lied inward, not on what the other was doing.

"It's definitely put me in another level of capability in terms of just being comfortable within the offense," Zaire said. "I think this year and this spring specifically it's gotten better for me because I'm in there a lot more than last year."

Notes: LaFleur, a Mt. Pleasant, Mich., native, said he will recruit Michigan locally while having responsibilities on the West Coast, from the Los Angeles area up through Washington. He has Hawaii, as well. … Notre Dame was finally able to practice outside Monday and Wednesday, making conditions more ideal for the always-intriguing punt return unit. Running backs coach Tony Alford mentioned Greg Bryant, Tarean Folston, Cam McDaniel, Amir Carlisle, Torii Hunter Jr. and Josh Atkinson as players who have gotten looks in the return game.

ND coaches address status of injuries

April, 2, 2014
Apr 2
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Spring football can be used as a time for players to fully recover from injuries or to ease their way back into shape following surgery. Several Notre Dame assistants spoke with reporters Wednesday for the first time in a long time, and they addressed the condition of several recovering players.

[+] EnlargeDevin Butler
AP Photo/Chris BernacchiNotre Dame cornerback Devin Butler is cleared for everything but contact this spring after offseason shoulder surgery.
Defensive backs coach Kerry Cooks, on cornerback Devin Butler (offseason shoulder surgery):
"Going into the fall, we thought that (Butler and Cole Luke) would definitely be competing right now in the spring. It's obviously a setback for him, anytime you're missing a new system, and he's missing new techniques and he's actually missing that full-speed opportunity to see it vs. the offense. But I've been grabbing him after practice and working him for 10-15 minutes. He's doing all of our individual work, so he's cleared for basically everything other than contact right now. ... We want to make sure that shoulder's healed up before we put him in that. So he's coming along well, he's staying into it mentally, he's locked into our meetings, he's asking a lot of questions. So he's doing everything that you can ask a kid who's injured to do."

Cooks on safety Nicky Baratti (shoulder injury that kept him out all of 2013 season):
"A little bit different for Nicky, because he missed basically all of training camp and all of the season. So he's almost back to, just from a mental standpoint, again, new system to that freshman year. So, 'OK, how do I do this? How do I get from Point A to Point B? What is he talking about?' And again, going through that reaction phase, his comfort level's got to come when he's actually engaging wide receivers, taking on blocks, making tackles to build confidence that that shoulder's OK."

And here's defensive line coach Mike Elston on Chase Hounshell, who has missed each of the last two seasons with shoulder injuries:
"Well, it's taken Chase a little bit to feel comfortable with using his shoulder and being aggressive. I think today I finally saw a different side of him that used to be Chase, so we'll see as the rest of the spring progresses. But your third one, you're a little apprehensive at times. I think now he's starting to get a little more comfortable with it and feel better about it."

Irish lunch links

April, 2, 2014
Apr 2
12:00
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Tough, tough news for Natalie Achonwa and the Irish.

Kelly sees all sides of potential union

April, 2, 2014
Apr 2
9:00
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Visiting Northwestern on Tuesday to hear the reaction to the decision by the Chicago office of the National Labor Relations Board that the Wildcat players qualified as employees was certainly eye-opening, if only because of all the differing public opinions.

Coach Pat Fitzgerald offered little beyond what he has already publicly stated and some players were more open to the idea than others.

One private-school figure who has been fairly receptive is Notre Dame's Brian Kelly, who addressed the issue on Saturday. Of course, this is a long way from becoming his problem, and he and his players will not be peppered with questions about this endlessly the way the Wildcats certainly will for the foreseeable future.

Here was Kelly's reaction when asked this past weekend:

"I think we would respect anything that our players would want to do relative to their creativity, their ability to want to talk about things of that nature. I think that’s one of the great things about being in the university setting. You’re never going to squash or hold students back from that kind of dialogue. But as it relates to me personally, I’m a teacher, I’m an educator. I’m more interested in relationships based on player-coach than employee. As much as we want to be in an atmosphere where we create a learning environment, I also want to be individually in a place where I’m an educator and a teacher. Wherever that meets is where I stand on it and I think there’s a long way before we have to get to that point where a decision needs to be made. I’m not at a point where I’m going to meet with our football team to discuss the pluses and minuses of putting a union together, I can say that."

Asked if a players' union would be good or bad for college football, Kelly said: "I think I looked at more of a bigger picture thought process and I haven’t really thought about it in its real terms as whether it would be positive for college football or detrimental. I think I’ve looked at it more as a microcosm. Like, do they tax your scholarship? I’ve looked at it that way and I haven’t looked at it in a big picture sense."

It's certainly a hot topic around college football, and one that likely isn't going away anytime soon. It also hits a little closer to home for Notre Dame, as the school, like Northwestern, is private.

Ivan Maisel and Matthew Barrie had West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck and me on the ESPNU College Football Podcast on Tuesday to discuss the topic. You can listen here.

Redfield again adapting to transition

April, 1, 2014
Apr 1
8:00
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Max Redfield may be exhibit A when it comes to tempered expectations. The former four-star prospect has shown enough promise through his first spring at Notre Dame to warrant plenty of praise from the staff, though never without a caveat or two.

Take this, Wednesday from new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder:

"He's getting better and better. He's going to make mistakes. I've seen him before, I've dealt with him before, so you've got some patience, but at the same time still keep the high standards and expectations to him."

Or this, four days earlier from head coach Brian Kelly:

"I don't think there's any questioning his athletic ability. There's still a learning curve there for him in terms of what we're doing defensively. But he's such a gifted athlete that it's so hard to look past his athletic ability, even though he's chasing the No. 2 in the flat when he's got the deep middle. We're still in the learning curve with Max but he's so gifted, that's why you coach.

"You've got to get Max Redfield ready. We're going to get him ready."

A freshman season that ended with his first career start was a sign of slow but steady progress for Redfield, who couldn't even get on the field in the regular-season finale a month earlier despite the Irish entering Stanford down two safeties due to suspension.

Still, there was that New Era Pinstripe Bowl against Rutgers, a milestone Redfield referred to as his "a-ha moment," as he now knows he is good enough to eventually get things right during another transition period, this one coming with VanGorder's more aggressive scheme.

"You can't really imitate the speed of the game until you're really in it, which is cool for me to get that start under my belt in the Pinstripe Bowl," Redfield said. "I feel like knowing what the speed is like somewhat -- obviously Rutgers isn't going to be the same as Florida State, and I understand that and I know I need to make tons of improvements from there until we get into the next season. But it was great to get that start under my belt. I was really thankful for that and I feel I've been growing ever since."

The Mission Viejo, Calif., native was always forthcoming about his underwhelming rookie campaign (12 tackles in 12 games), admitting to struggling with communicating and adapting to the college game. But the confidence is certainly there from his coaches, which means it is certainly there for him, which means these next five months give the 6-foot-1, 194-pounder plenty of time to bridge the gap and adapt to another challenge.

"I wouldn't say frustrating, because it is what it is," Redfield said of the new defense. "Everybody has to do the same thing, it's not like I'm being singled out or any other defensive player is being singled out. We all have to learn the system, whatever system we're in. Obviously it was a big change but it's going well and I can't complain."

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