NCF Nation: Ian Williams

What we learned from Notre Dame's 33-17 win over Miami in the Hyundai Sun Bowl:

1. The turnaround was for real: I suppose one could dismiss Notre Dame's November winning streak as overrated. The wins came against a vastly inflated Utah team that got kicked around in its bowl, Army and a probation-riddled USC. And, granted, Miami was playing under an interim coach after a disappointing finish. But wherever the Hurricanes' minds were, they still were as physically talented as any team Notre Dame saw all season, and the Irish blew them out. The Domers aren't championship material yet by any means, but they became a much different, much better team at the end of the season. And Brian Kelly looks like the right man to lead the program forward.

2. The defense took another step: Truth was, Notre Dame won those four games with its defense. Yes, its defense. And that defense was stout again against Miami, nearly pitching a first-half shutout before giving up a pair of scores in the second half. Still, the Hurricanes -- like the three previous opponents -- found it hard to run against the Irish. Stopping the run is the key to being a great defense and to being a great team. Notre Dame loses key defensive lineman Ian Williams for next season but was playing very well up front without him down the stretch. If this defense plays like this next season, great things are possible in 2011.

3. Notre Dame deserves a preseason ranking: Don't go wild and put the Irish in the Top 15. They're not deserving of that kind of hype. But with at least 15 starters back off a team that surged down the stretch, this is a team that deserves to be in the lower part of the Top 25 to start the year. This might finally be a team that outplays its preseason praise.

Hyundai Sun Bowl: 3 keys Notre Dame

December, 30, 2010
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Here are three keys for Notre Dame in Friday's Hyundai Sun Bowl game against Miami:

1. Protect Tommy Rees: Notre Dame simply must give Tommy Rees time against Allen Bailey and the talented Miami defensive front. The Hurricanes are good enough to get pressure with just their front four, but the Irish offensive line has to hold them off. This is also a big spot for running backs Cierre Wood and Robert Hughes, not just to stay in and block but to run the ball effectively enough to slow down the pass rush. Hughes' big frame was effective against USC's athletic defense and he could be a big key in this one as well.

2. Don't let Jacory Harris feel comfortable: Harris, the Miami quarterback, is an interception machine. But when he has time to sit in the pocket, he can be pretty effective. The Irish defense was outstanding down the stretch in the regular season but could have trouble getting to the quarterback around guys like mammoth tackle Seantrel Henderson. They don't need to bring the mobile Harris down, but they've got to at least get him on the move so he can help out with his erratic throws. The return of nose guard Ian Williams could provide a big boost in that regard.

3. Start fast: Miami is coming into this bowl having lost its final two regular-season games in disappointing fashion and its head coach. So if the Irish can get the jump on the Hurricanes, you'd have to question their desire to really fight back into it. Part of starting fast means not letting Miami's outstanding return game create an early score or highly-favorable field position, or allowing the 'Canes defense to get on the board with a turnover. Notre Dame played its best football in November, but its margin for error against a team this talented remains razor thin.

Notre Dame regular season recap

December, 7, 2010
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Notre Dame football always seems to lend itself to the what-if game.

What if Dayne Crist doesn't get hurt in the first half against Michigan? What if "Little Giants," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio's bold fake field goal play in overtime, doesn't succeed? What if Brian Kelly simply played for the field goal at the end against Tulsa?

This Irish team could have won 10 games instead of seven had those things gone the other way. But this season also lends itself to the how-about game.

How about that November, when Notre Dame smoked Utah and Army before gaining a long-awaited win at USC in the finale? How about that defense, which gave up just two touchdowns in the final four games and shockingly developed into a force? How about Tommy Rees going 3-0 at quarterback as a true freshman, or the other many fill-ins who played above expectations after a rash of injuries?

Ten wins? Heck, this team could also have four wins. Few predicted a fantastic finish after the Navy and Tulsa losses and the emotional drain of the Declan Sullivan tragedy. The season looked to be spiraling away.

But all Kelly's talk about returning to the spirit of the Fighting Irish proved not to be just bluster. This team really did show a fight and a toughness when things were at their lowest point. Instead of wondering what could have been, marvel at what was and what might be in the future.

Offensive MVP: Michael Floyd

In a year where injuries struck at quarterback, running back, tight end and slot receiver, Floyd was a relative constant while missing only one game. He had 73 catches for 916 yards and 10 touchdowns and was the team's most reliable big-play threat.

Defensive MVP: Manti Te'o

Nose tackle Ian Williams was having an MVP-type year before he got hurt. Te'o just tackled everything in sight, finishing with a whopping 127 tackles and getting better as the season wore on. Stardom has arrived for the sophomore.

Turning point: November. Back-to-back losses to Navy and Tulsa were demoralizing, the roster was ravaged by injury and Kelly was under fire for Sullivan's death. But as the calendar flipped, so did the Irish. They beat Utah 28-3, Army 27-3 and USC 20-16 in a fantastic final flourish.

What's next: One of the most anticipated bowl duels between 7-5 teams ever as the Irish take on Miami in the Hyundai Sun Bowl. Getting to a bowl game was important so Kelly could get the extra month of practice to install his system further. He'll try to replenish the roster in the trenches through recruiting after some high-profile decommitments this fall. Floyd and tight end Kyle Rudolph face decisions on whether to enter the NFL draft. There could be an interesting quarterback duel between Rees and Crist next year. Kelly's teams have traditionally taken off in his second year.

What to watch: Notre Dame, Week 9

October, 28, 2010
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What to watch from Notre Dame in its home game against Tulsa on Saturday:

1. Shootout in South Bend: Tulsa is averaging more than 38 points per game and has scored at least 41 points four times already this season. The Golden Hurricane's zone-read spread will try to outduel Notre Dame's spread attack, which got shut down by Navy last week. But Tulsa has also allowed more than 50 points to each of the two best teams on its schedule, East Carolina and Oklahoma State. Expect a lot of fireworks.

2. On the nose: Notre Dame begins life without Ian Williams this week, as Williams may miss the rest of the regular season with an MCL sprain. Sean Cwynar and Hafis Williams will split reps at nose tackle, which is an integral part of the 3-4 defense. Tulsa's preference for playing in space may lessen the importance of the nose tackle position this week, but the Irish certainly need Williams' replacements to play at a high level the rest of the season.

3. Floyd's return: Star receiver Michael Floyd says he will return this week from his injured hamstring, which will definitely provide a boost to the offense. How effective he will be remains to be seen. Notre Dame needs as many weapons as possible if it's going to try to keep up with Tulsa's offense.

4. Dealing with tragedy: Notre Dame student manager Declan Sullivan was killed when a tower used to video tape practice collapsed Wednesday. The tragedy must have shaken the team and the coaches. They'll have heavy hearts going into Saturday's game.
Forget about Notre Dame turning down invitations to lesser bowls this season if it finishes with a 6-6 record for the second straight season. First-year coach Brian Kelly says reaching a bowl game, any bowl game, is of utmost importance.

The reason? The 15 extra practices that bowl teams are allowed could prove invaluable as Kelly continues to implement his system and way of doing things. The Irish turned down bowl opportunities last year, but the school had already fired Charlie Weis by that point.

"We need those 15 practices," Kelly said. "It's very important to the development of our program and moving forward. I need more time with our guys. Our coaches need more time with our players."

That's one reason why Kelly is planning to play true freshman defensive end Kona Schwenke for the first time Saturday against Tulsa in the ninth game for the 4-4 Irish. With star nose tackle Ian Williams out with a medial collateral injury in his knee, Hafis Williams will move from end to backup nose guard, splitting time with Sean Cwynar. Schwenke will be a primary backup at one of the end spots.

"He's got to help us win games," Kelly said. "We're in that mode where we've got to win more games, obviously. This isn't one of those ride-out-the-streak situations. We've got to win games."

Losing Williams, whom Kelly said will be out 4-to-6 weeks, is a huge setback. Williams was arguably the defense's most valuable player and a much-improved performer who served as the main run-stuffer on the point of the 3-4 scheme.

Cwynar has played well this season, though, and bulk up front may not be needed as much this week against Tulsa, which runs a spread offense.

"The production has to be there at the nose guard position," Kelly said. "But I wouldn't say we can't execute our defense against this offense if our nose guard isn't an All-American."

The defense can't play as poorly as it did in last week's 35-17 loss to Navy. Kelly called that dismal day "an isolated incident" that happened because of the Midshipmen's triple-option attack. He said he didn't expect it to have any influence on this week's game and liked his defense's "overall body of work." He's more concerned about facing an option team again when the Irish play Army on Nov. 20.

If Notre Dame can beat Tulsa this week, it could be playing for bowl positioning by the time that Army game rolls around. A minor bowl, for sure, but one that is now the major goal for the Irish.

Notre Dame midseason review

October, 12, 2010
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Brian Kelly insists this is not a transition year for Notre Dame.

Kelly is installing a new system on both sides of the ball and hopefully a new mindset during his first year in South Bend. But he knows impatient Irish fans want him to win games, not talk about rebuilding.

Notre Dame has a record resembling that of a reclamation effort: 3-3. Yet there are positive signs if you look close enough.

The Irish are one crazy fake field goal play in overtime and one defensive stop away from possibly being 5-1. Of course, people are sick about hearing how close this program is from being better. What has improved is an overall mental toughness; Notre Dame isn't physically stout enough to hang with an imposing team like Stanford, but the Irish have dealt with adversity while making big plays on the road at Michigan State and holding Pittsburgh down defensively while clinging to a lead.

What still needs to come is an ability to step on an opponent's throat when the momentum is on their side. Dayne Crist needs to understand the complexities of the spread offense better so Kelly can let him and the offense loose to play at a higher tempo. Mistakes like careless turnovers in the red zone and drive-killing penalties have to end.

The good news for the Irish is they can work on these things while playing Western Michigan, Navy and Tulsa in the next three games. After that stretch, the record should look less like that of a team in transition.

Offensive MVP: Armando Allen, RB

While Crist has been inconsistent, Michael Floyd has had costly fumbles and Kyle Rudolph has played through an injured hamstring, Allen has been about as reliable a player as the Irish have. Notre Dame may never have a high-powered run game, but Allen runs hard every time and is on pace to approach a 900-yard season. Defenses can't just load up against the pass when Allen is in the game.

Defensive MVP: Manti Te'o, LB

Nose tackle Ian Williams and cornerback Darrin Walls have had strong seasons, but there's no doubt who the star is on the Irish defense. Te'o has taken well to the inside linebacker spot in Bob Diaco's 3-4 as just a true sophomore, leading the team with 69 tackles. He still makes the occasional mistake, but it's almost always out of aggression, and Te'o is the one guy who can totally blow up an opposing offense's best-laid plans.

Notre Dame mailbag

October, 8, 2010
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Welcome back to the Notre Dame mailbag. Keep those questions and comments coming. You can use the link on the right side of this page or simply click here.

Matthew G. from Tampa writes: Do you feel after the ND victory over BC, that ND will start turning the corner and become a Top-25 team?

Brian Bennett: Let's not get too carried away. The Boston College win was nice, but the Eagles don't look like a very good team. The Notre Dame résumé is light, and the schedule coming up doesn't present many opportunities for statement wins. If the Irish can win their next four games and then beat a potential Top-10 Utah at home, they'd be 7-3 and at that point could get back into the rankings.

Mike from Dayton writes: While ND's schedule does lighten up a bit, how do you see them faring against teams such as Navy, Utah, and USC?

Brian Bennett: Navy is always difficult to play, but the Midshipmen are having trouble scoring points this year. I don't think the Irish will lose to them a second year in a row. With USC, who knows what the probation-saddled Trojans state of mind will be at the end of the year. It's a road game, so it will be tough, but USC is very beatable. Utah now looks like the hardest game remaining. That will be a very interesting contest, as both teams run similar styles. But the game is at home and Notre Dame should come into it with some momentum. All three look winnable right now, though a 2-1 record might be more realistic.

Jon M. from Orlando writes: NT Ian Williams is having a good year for the Irish. He has good mobility, strength, and quickness for his size which should pose well for him in the NFL. So, what qualities do you see in him; how does he compare to other NT's entering the draft; and what round do you project he will be selected? Thanks.

Brian Bennett: I mostly leave the draft stuff to the guys who follow that for a living. I can tell you that Mel Kiper currently doesn't have Williams on his list of top-five defensive tackles. But Williams is definitely rising and is having a terrific year. A lot of it is due to conditioning; he's in much better shape this year and can stay on the field longer while performing at a high level. And he's a much better fit as the nose tackle in a 3-4 than he was in last year's scheme. Williams is one of the most improved players on the team, for sure.

Marc from Dallas writes: Even though I probably already know the answer I have to ask! What are the chances Kyle Rudolph and Michael Floyd stick around for next year? I think it is going to take Dayne Crist this entire season to get his feet wet and get used to Coach Kelly's system. Next year could be a great one if they come back.

Brian Bennett: Both guys will have to weigh the potential impact of a possible NFL lockout and changes to the rookie salary scale. I think Floyd could use another year, honestly, to polish off his route running skills, and I could envision him having a monster senior campaign. Rudolph seems to me to be more NFL ready of the two. But I would think both would be high picks, and it will be awfully hard for them to turn that opportunity down.

Sam from Cape Coral, Fla., writes: I believe that Brian Kelly will get us back to winning consistently, but can he get us back to National Championship contenders and what would it take for us to achieve this goal?

Brian Bennett: I personally don't think we'll ever return to the days where Notre Dame is an annual national title contender. What I think the Irish should shoot for is being in the mix for at-large BCS bids just about every year, and then every few years when the stars align contend for the whole thing. The schedule is always going to present obstacles, and the Irish just about have to go undefeated to have a chance at it. What it's going to take is great recruiting, especially in the trenches, a team of veteran stars used to Kelly's system and a little bit of luck.
Two of college football's storied programs meet Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium, but the only thing historic about these teams are their helmets. Two spread offenses and two coaches known for their offensive creativity match wits. Both Michigan and Notre Dame recorded critical wins in their season openers, and bloggers Brian Bennett and Adam Rittenberg take a closer look at this week's matchup.

[+] Enlarge
Matt Cashore/US PresswireArmando Allen gained 93 yards on 18 carries and scored a TD against Purdue.
Adam Rittenberg: So, Bennett, we meet again. Good starts for both the Irish and the Wolverines on Saturday, and it should be a great one in South Bend. Let's talk offense. What do you think Knute Rockne and Fielding Yost would say about these two systems matching up?

Brian Bennett: I think both coaches would have spit in a leather helmet in disgust. What's the over/under on total number of snaps under center on Saturday? Five?

Yet, for all the talk of the spread offense, Notre Dame stuck to an old staple to beat Purdue: the running game. Running backs Armando Allen and Cierre Wood together averaged better than six yards per carry, and the Irish were happy to hand off and stick to the short passing game as the Boilermakers defense played Cover 2 and protected against the deep ball. I don't think Michigan will attack Notre Dame the same way, and the bubble wrap will have to come off quarterback Dayne Crist in Week 2.

As for the Wolverines, Denard Robinson was incredible. But I didn't see a whole lot out of the backs and receivers, and now it looks like Roy Roundtree won't play. Is Michigan a one-man offense, and can it win on Saturday that way?

AR: Good point about the Irish run game, and I think the matchup between Michigan's defensive line and Notre Dame's offensive front could decide the game. Despite the loss of Brandon Graham, Michigan boasts good experience and talent up front with Mike Martin, Greg Banks, Ryan Van Bergan and dynamic sophomore Craig Roh. They'll try to take advantage of a young Notre Dame line that, despite all the talk about weight room progress, remains unproven in my eyes.

[+] EnlargeDenard Robinson
John Korduner/Icon SMIDenard Robinson was nearly flawless against Connecticut, going 19-for-22 passing and adding 197 yards rushing.
Robinson was ridiculous against Connecticut, and you can't expect him to duplicate the performance in South Bend. Then again, the guy only needs about a foot of daylight to break through the line, and then, good luck trying to bring him down. Vincent Smith and Michael Shaw both scored touchdowns in the opener, but they'll need to be more effective out of the backfield against the Irish. Roundtree would be a big loss, but wideouts Darryl Stonum and Kelvin Grady, and tight end Kevin Koger all are good targets for Robinson, who also hooked up with Terrence Robinson for a 43-yard gain.

In many ways, Michigan won the UConn game at the line of scrimmage. How do you see the two groups matching up on Saturday?

BB: The Irish played well in the trenches against Purdue, but Michigan presents a tougher challenge. With the way Brian Kelly runs the spread, the ball is out of the quarterback's hand quickly, so that neutralizes the pass rush to some degree. The key in my mind is whether the Notre Dame line can open running lanes when the Wolverines drop men into coverage.

Defensively, the front three for Notre Dame proved stout against Purdue, and surprisingly the backups gave them a solid rotation. Ian Williams looks like a perfect fit as nose tackle in a 3-4, and Kapron Lewis-Moore and Ethan Johnson can make plays off the edge. I think the pressure is on the Irish linebackers to make plays in this game. Manti Te'o should be a stud and the perfect antidote to Robinson, but he missed a lot of tackles in Week 1. Darius Fleming is their hybrid guy, and he was stuck on the sidelines with cramps for most of the Purdue game. Once Robinson gets through the first line of defense, can the Irish contain him in the open field?

How about the Michigan pass defense? Connecticut missed some opportunities there, but the Huskies don't have guys like Michael Floyd and Kyle Rudolph at their disposal.

AR: Totally agree about Connecticut missing some major opportunities to attack downfield, especially in the first two and a half quarters. Michigan is extremely young in the secondary and likely will be down another starter, as linebacker-safety Carvin Johnson sprained his knee in the opener. Michael Floyd absolutely shredded this defense a year ago, so you can bet Notre Dame will try to get him the ball a lot on Saturday. We'll likely see a lot of Floyd vs. Floyd, as Michigan's J.T. Floyd as emerged as the team's top cornerback and forced a big fumble against UConn. Cue the Pink Floyd music.

I'm interested to see how Michigan approaches Rudolph, a matchup problem for pretty much any team he faces. Linebackers Jonas Mouton and Obi Ezeh played well in the opener, but they'll certainly be tested by No. 9. Roh brought a ton of heat against UConn, but he might have to drop back more in this game.

OK, Bennett, you're on the spot. Your Michigan-UConn pick didn't work out so great, and some of my new friends in Ann Arbor were calling you nasty names Friday night. Who wins Saturday and what's the biggest key to the game?

BB: Well, I'm happy to play the villain in Ann Arbor as long as they still let me in the bars there. I have little doubt this will be a close game, possibly as exciting as last year's shootout. Notre Dame will have its hands full with Robinson, but I think the Irish have a more well-rounded offensive attack. And they will take advantage of that young secondary while making just enough plays of their own defensively. A special-teams play might be the difference. Brian Kelly gets his first big win as the Irish squeak by.

Now tell me why I'm wrong.

AR: You're always welcome in Ann Arbor. Just tell them you know me.

It'll definitely be a close game, and like last year, we should have a dramatic finish. Michigan's young secondary concerns me, and Crist will make plays downfield to both Floyd and Rudolph. But I also have my doubts about Notre Dame's line play and the overall toughness of that team. Robinson is certainly the X-factor here, and while Michigan can't run him 29 times again, he'll make some big plays. If special teams makes the difference, Michigan could be in trouble. Notre Dame jumps ahead, but D-Rob leads the Wolverines back in the fourth quarter for a narrow win and continues to grow his legend in Ann Arbor.

What we learned from Notre Dame

September, 5, 2010
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What we learned about Notre Dame in its 23-12 win over Purdue:

1. Runs, too, shall pass: So much attention was put on new coach Brian Kelly's pass-based offense. But the opener proved that the Irish can run the ball too. In fact, they ran it 10 more times than they passed it, with Armando Allen and Cierre Wood combining for 151 yards on 25 attempts (six yards per carry). Notre Dame will need to continue to run the ball effectively to beat the physical teams on its schedule.

2. The defense does have depth: One of Notre Dame's biggest concerns, and the coaches acknowledged it, was a lack of depth on defense. It didn't seem to be too much of a problem versus Purdue. Starting safety Jamoris Slaughter went out early with an injury, while linebacker Darius Fleming was sidelined often by cramping. But the defense simply filled in, and nose tackle Ian Williams said a solid rotation on the line kept him fresh. This is still a defense that can't afford too many injuries, but it may have more depth than originally thought.

3. Coaching matters: The Irish had only two penalties and one turnover. They were very solid on special teams and were well-conditioned when the fourth quarter hit. In other words, they looked like a solid all-around team for the first time in a long time. There is still much room for improvement, but the team appears on the right track under Brian Kelly.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Purdue had just driven the length of the field before throwing an interception. One play later, Notre Dame's Armando Allen was tackled for a safety, giving the ball right back to the Boilermakers against a gassed Irish defense.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame defense celebrates
AP Photo/Darron CummingsDarrin Walls' interception was one of two Purdue turnovers.
On the sideline, Brian Kelly told the defense that he was putting the game on its shoulders. Clearly, Kelly showed his inexperience in his first game at Notre Dame.

Didn't he know that the Irish haven't been able to stop anybody in a couple of years, and that defense is the team's weak link?

Purdue would score again to slice the lead to 20-12 with 11:55 left. From there on, though, the defense did something that hasn't been seen around here in a while: it closed out the game.

"It's a new year," nose tackle Ian Williams said. "It's 2010."

It does seem like science fiction to say that Notre Dame won its opener on defense. But Purdue scored only one touchdown, and on its final two possessions with the game on the line, managed a total of eight yards.

Some other things rarely spotted during the Charlie Weis era also occurred. Irish defenders made sure tackles. Cornerbacks competed for the ball and prevented the big pass play (the Boilermakers averaged just 7.1 yards per completion). The defense got sacks and turnovers. And it overcame adversity.

"We just went out there played our hearts out for four quarters," said cornerback Gary Gray, who had nine tackles. "We've improved a lot, in all facets."

Purdue coach Danny Hope noticed the difference. He said last year's Irish defense under Jon Tenuta blitzed nearly every play and left huge seams for big plays. On Saturday, Notre Dame mostly contained quarterback Robert Marve even when he rolled out of the pocket looking downfield.

The defense got pressure on Marve from the guys up front and registered four sacks, or 20 percent of last year's total. Gray and Darrin Walls, heavily maligned in 2009, each helped create a turnover; Walls grabbed a pick, while Gray batted a pass near the goal line twice that Williams scooped out of the air.

They locked down the Boilermakers despite an early injury to starting safety Jamoris Slaughter and cramps that kept key outside linebacker Darius Fleming on the sideline most of the day. Star middle linebacker Manti Te'o even uncharacteristically whiffed on several tackle attempts.

"That never happens," fellow linebacker Carlo Calabrese said. "But the safeties were right there when he missed."

Kelly made a point to mention how many people had called the defense "slow" this offseason. He told them to go out and play fast and aggressive.

Clearly, Kelly has a lot to learn still about Notre Dame. Or maybe this really is an improved defense.

"I think we made a statement today," Williams said.

Video: Notre Dame's Ian Williams

September, 4, 2010
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Brian Bennett talks with Notre Dame nose tackle Ian Williams following a 23-12 win over Purdue.

Kerry Neal moves up at Notre Dame

August, 19, 2010
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Middle linebacker was supposed to be the area of heavy competition this fall camp for Notre Dame, but the most intriguing battle might be shaping up at the outside "dog" linebacker spot.

Irish coach Brian Kelly said after Thursday's practice that senior Kerry Neal had moved ahead as the starter there. Senior Brian Smith had entered camp as the starter, but was passed up by Steve Filer in the past week. Kelly stressed that the competition was ongoing.

Several players missed practice with minor injuries. The biggest name was tight end Kyle Rudolph, who continues to nurse a sore hamstring. Kelly said Rudolph would be shut down through the weekend. But he and others like Ian Williams (toe) and Anthony McDonald (hyperextended leg) should be healthy in time for the opener against Purdue, Kelly said.

Before practice, legendary former Irish coach Ara Parseghian spoke to the team.

"It was really cool to be on the field and have him come out and really take control of the huddle," Kelly said. "This isn't a guy who doesn't have an aura about him. He really took control of the huddle. He talked about mental toughness and physical toughness and what it takes to win."

Notre Dame opens practice

August, 7, 2010
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Notre Dame hit the practice field at 3 p.m. Saturday for its first official fall workout under new coach Brian Kelly.

The media was allowed to watch the first 30 minutes of practice, and I'd be lying if I said it was an illuminating time (we saw mostly stretching and some positional work, and of course the players are just in shorts and jerseys at this point). But here are a few minor observations from the first Irish practice of the 2010 season:
  • Much of the spring was about the players getting used to Kelly's fast-paced drills. They look better equipped to handle that today. The first drill after stretching for the offense is called "Tempo," where the quarterback, running back, receivers and linemen sprint through a series of plays down half the field. The pace is dizzying, and a few players were breathing heavily after the first couple of minutes. But they got through it.
  • Well, maybe they're not totally accustomed to the pace. During a drill where teammates try to strip the ball from each other, wide receivers coach Tony Alford screamed, "Is that as fast as you can run? Because if not, you're screwing the drill!"
  • Quarterback Dayne Crist wore a brace on his surgically-repaired right knee, but he ran full speed and looked sharp. Health is no longer a concern for him.
  • Kelly spent most of his time in the open part of practice with the quarterbacks, which isn't surprising since that position needs a lot of attention. Freshmen Luke Massa and Andrew Hendrix got their first indoctrination into a Kelly practice, and their arrival gave the team six quarterbacks to work with. Massa is tall -- listed at 6-foot-4 -- and very lanky at 215 pounds.
  • There weren't any depth chart surprises. Freshman TJ Jones lined up with the first-stringers at receiver instead of senior Duval Kamara, who was listed at No. 1. The starting offensive linemen, as expected, were Zack Martin at left tackle, Chris Stewart and Trevor Robinson at guard, Dan Wenger at center and Taylor Dever at right tackle. Kelly said Friday that the offensive line is the one position where there could be a lot of moving and shaking, though Stewart and Robinson sure seem like locks.
  • Freshman defensive tackle Louis Nix is listed at 350 pounds and if it's possible, looked even bigger. He appeared to be struggling in some of the basic conditioning drills to start practice. It's too early to say he won't contribute this year, but Nix has a long way to go at a position that lacks depth.
  • Not much to glean from the defense on a day when it isn't in pads or hitting anybody or even covering an offense during the open period. I did notice that nose guard Ian Williams -- whom Kelly singled out on Friday as one of the biggest weight room gainers -- appeared noticeably bigger than a year ago and certainly passes the look test for a run-stuffer.
  • Only four weeks until the 2010 opener against Purdue.

Notre Dame's Top 5 players

July, 6, 2010
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As you may have noticed, here at ESPN.com we've been counting down the Top 25 players in each conference over the last month or so. Well, what about the most famous team that's not in a conference?

It's time for Notre Dame to get its due. Here are my choices for the top five Irish players heading into the 2010 season, using the same criteria as the conference lists: past production and potential for this season. This is a list of the best players, not necessarily the most important ones for this year.

Away we go:

No. 5

Dayne Crist, QB, Soph.

2009 numbers: Threw for 130 yards on 10-of-20 passing with one touchdown and one interception in four games.

Making the case for Crist: There's nothing in last year's numbers to merit this ranking for Crist. But quarterbacks shine in coach Brian Kelly's system, and with no serious competition behind him, Crist will have every opportunity to post huge numbers.

No. 4

Darius Fleming, OLB, Jr.

2009 numbers: Made 29 tackles, 12 for loss and three sacks with one forced fumble.

Making the case for Fleming: This is another pick based largely on potential, as Fleming moves to the outside linebacker spot in the 3-4 alignment after showing his ability to get into the backfield last year. Kelly's defenses usually create high sack totals for rush specialists, and that's what Fleming should be this year.

No. 3

Kyle Rudolph, TE, Jr.

2009 numbers: Caught 36 balls for 364 yards and three touchdowns in 10 games.

Making the case for Rudolph: There's no reason why Rudolph shouldn't be regarded as the nation's best pass-catching tight end this season. The 6-foot-6, 265-pounder has all the physical attributes, along with a great pair of hands and tremendous athleticism. Look for him to be used a lot in the spread offense.

No. 2

Manti Te'o, LB, Soph.

2009 numbers: Had 63 tackles, 5.5 for loss and one sack.

Making the case for Te'o: As a true freshman, Te'o emerged as one of the top playmakers on the defense even though by his own estimation he was lost most of the year. The former super recruit has all the tools to be a superstar, and his move to inside linebacker and defensive signal caller should allow him to be in the middle of all the action in 2010.

No. 1

Michael Floyd, WR, Jr.

2009 numbers: Had 44 catches for 795 yards and nine touchdowns in seven games.

Making the case for Floyd: The only thing standing between Floyd and absolute superstardom is health. When he's 100 percent and in the lineup, he's nearly unstoppable and clearly one of the best receivers in the game. He hasn't been able to avoid the injury bug his first two seasons, however. If he can stay on the field in 2010, the 6-foot-3, 220-pound Floyd is capable of putting up truly monstrous statistics in Kelly's explosive offense and challenging for the Biletnikoff Award.

Next five: Armando Allen, RB; Ian Williams, DT; Kapron Lewis-Moore, DE; Ethan Johnson, DE; Chris Stewart, OL.

Notre Dame spring wrap

May, 4, 2010
5/04/10
6:06
AM ET
Notre Dame

2009 overall record: 6-6

Returning starters: Offense: 6. Defense: 8. Punter/kicker: 2

Top returners: WR Michael Floyd, RB Armando Allen, TE Kyle Rudolph, OL Chris Stewart, OL Trevor Robinson, LB Brian Smith, LB Manti Te'o, DE Ethan Johnson, DE Kapron Lewis-Moore, S Harrison Smith, LB Darius Fleming

Key losses: QB Jimmy Clausen, WR Golden Tate, C Eric Olsen, OT Sam Young, OT Paul Duncan, S Kyle McCarthy

2009 statistical leaders (* returners)

Rushing: Armando Allen* (697 yards)

Passing: Jimmy Clausen (3,722 yards)

Receiving: Golden Tate (1,496 yards)

Tackles: Kyle McCarthy (101)

Sacks: Ethan Johnson* (4)

Interceptions: McCarthy (5)

Spring answers

1. Picking up the pace: When spring practice began, first-year Irish coach Brian Kelly lambasted his team's inability to work at the break-neck speed his system requires. It was a culture shock for players groomed in the more NFL-style practices of Charlie Weis. By late spring, though, both Kelly and his team seemed comfortable in the new tempo, which should help both sides of the ball be in shape this fall.

2. There is a backup quarterback on campus: Dayne Crist entered the spring after ACL surgery, and there was precious little depth behind him at quarterback. Nate Montana stepped forward in the spring game, though, completing 18-of-30 passes for 223 yards and three touchdowns. You shouldn't read too much into a spring game performance -- Montana himself said it was his best practice of the year -- and Joe Montana's son could easily get usurped by one of three freshmen this fall. But at least the cupboard isn't completely bare behind Crist.

3. Defensive fits: The Notre Dame defense will remain a concern until it actually stops people on a consistent basis. Still, Kelly sounded pleased with where the defense was at the end of spring. Guys like Ian Williams, Ethan Johnson, Darius Fleming and Manti Te'o just look like they fit in their spots in a 3-4 defense more than they did in last year's 4-3. That and added experience could make the Irish a little stronger on that side of the ball in 2010.

Fall questions

1. The offensive line: Kelly mixed and matched players on the O-line this spring, trying Trevor Robinson at tackle at one point. There's no depth chart, so it's hard to say what mix the Irish are looking at right now. But tackle and center appear to be question marks, which is no surprise following the graduations of Sam Young, Paul Duncan and Eric Olsen.

2. For Crist's sake: The public didn't get a chance to see Crist in many competitive situations this spring, and let's remember that he was limited in his mobility because of that ACL surgery six months earlier. Still, he threw two interceptions in the spring game without a defensive pass rush to worry about, and Kelly is notoriously hard on his quarterbacks. The Irish offense should be loaded in 2010, but Crist will have to continue to develop and improve this summer.

3. Inside linebacker depth: Te'o has a chance to emerge as a superstar at middle linebacker, but the true sophomore might be the most experienced player at his position right now. Carlo Calabrese, Anthony McDonald, David Posluszny and Steve Paskorz -- who moved over from fullback -- have to establish themselves in the middle to make the 3-4 defense really work.

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