NCF Nation: Mike Denbrock
Oh, and a pair of horses looked on at the new artificial turf fields here at Culver Military Academy, where the Irish will practice the rest of the week before returning to campus Saturday.
Kelly said that his time with the receivers has not affected his ability to evaluate the quarterbacks, as the fifth-year Irish head coach subs in for offensive coordinator/outside receivers coach Mike Denbrock, who is out for the first several weeks of camp following an undisclosed operation.
Kelly said the program is happy to accommodate Denbrock however it can, as the staff is relaying video to him on an iPad. The date of Denbrock's return remains up in the air.
As for what else went down on Day 1 at Culver:
- First things first: The Under Armour effect reared its head from the get-go, with players donning new practice jerseys. The blue (offense) jersey features a white stripe down each side of the torso, while both the blue and white (defense) jersey has ditched the three adidas stripes on each shoulder.
- The first-team offensive line, from left to right, consisted of Ronnie Stanley, Matt Hegarty, Nick Martin, Christian Lombard and Steve Elmer. Stanley was carted off about midway through practice, but Kelly said that Stanley was simply dehydrated. The second-team line went, from left to right, Mike McGlinchey, Conor Hanratty, Mark Harrell, Colin McGovern and Quenton Nelson. The third-team line, again from left to right, was Jimmy Byrne, John Montelus, Hunter Bivin, Sam Mustipher and Alex Bars.
- Jarrett Grace (leg) was mostly inactive, though he followed the linebackers from drill to drill. Mike Heuerman (hernia) spent most of the day riding a stationary bike.
- Kyle Brindza had a noticeably stronger leg on punts than Tyler Newsome and John Chereson, with Greg Bryant, Tarean Folston and Florida transfer Cody Riggs in the role of punt returners. Riggs, by the way, ran with the second-team defense at corner, where he certainly passed the eye test, at least physically speaking.
- Looking for a Heisman moment? OK, so it's practice. And Day 1 at that. But during a 7-on-7 play Golson had the ball slip out of his hands before recovering mid-air and taking off for a solid run. Everett Football? Yeah, probably too soon, though it's worth repeating that Golson ran with the 1s and looked sharper than Malik Zaire, at least on this day.
- One more house-keeping item: Kelly said that former running back/slot receiver Will Mahone is "going to look at other options" as it relates to returning to school, this after the fallout from Mahone's June 14 arrest near his hometown of Youngstown, Ohio.
Who to watch: TJ Jones is playing in his final college game. Notre Dame's team MVP from this season has caught 65 balls for 1,042 yards with nine touchdowns, becoming Tommy Rees' most reliable target. And he is facing a Rutgers defense that has been susceptible to the big play, as the Scarlet Knights have allowed an FBS-high 153 pass plays of 10 or more yards, an average of 13 per game. Look for Rees and Jones to connect early and often.
What to watch: This could also be Stephon Tuitt's final game. The 6-foot-6, 312-pound end is a nightmare for offensive linemen, tallying 18 sacks over the past two seasons. Seeing how much he -- along with a now-healthy Sheldon Day opposite him and what is likely to be a revolving door in the middle at nose guard -- can pressure Rutgers quarterback Chas Dodd into mistakes will probably dictate the flow of this game. The Scarlet Knights are tied for 98th nationally in sacks allowed, surrendering 2.58 per game, and Saturday could provide a nice opportunity for Tuitt to leave a final impression on NFL scouts, as the draft advisory board gave the junior a second-round grade, according to Brian Kelly.
Why to watch: This is the finale for a group of Notre Dame seniors who have, in large part, turned the program around. Many committed to the Charlie Weis regime -- or, in some cases, to no coach at all before Kelly was hired. They have gotten the Irish to a point where Pinstripe Bowl berths and eight- or nine-win seasons are disappointments, and they are a big reason why Kelly, the fourth-year coach, gave them such a strong say in where they would go bowling once a BCS bid was off the table. This could, in theory, be an audition for the Irish's two interim coordinators as well, as Mike Denbrock (offense) and Kerry Cooks (defense) will run their units after Chuck Martin and Bob Diaco left for head-coaching jobs at Miami (Ohio) and UConn, respectively.
Prediction: Notre Dame 38, Rutgers 14. The Irish offense will have its way with an uncharacteristically bad Scarlet Knight defense (one that is also with an interim coordinator, in Joe Rossi).
He is what Brian Kelly calls a gentleman off the field and a tough guy on it, distinctions that will hardly be unique when the sophomore takes the field Saturday night for No. 25 Notre Dame in its regular-season finale at No. 8 Stanford.
The Cardinal are among the three teams the Irish have chosen to keep on their schedule annually moving forward. In a season that has seen Kelly discredit the tension with Michigan, the nation's winningest program, it was more than a little noteworthy to hear the coach call the game with Stanford a "great rivalry" Tuesday.
"Both teams want to be the smartest, toughest football teams in the country," Kelly said.
Last year's meeting was the first between schools ranked in the top 20 of both the football polls and the U.S. News & World Report's best colleges list.
This year Kelly is tasked with taking his operation almost 2,000 miles away on Black Friday, a considerably lighter chore given that the schools had once eyed a destination for this contest some 7,000 miles away: China.
The terrain this weekend in Stanford Stadium will nonetheless be familiar for many visitors, Jack Swarbrick among them. The Irish athletic director has trouble hiding his enthusiasm when talking about this matchup, as he received his Bachelor's in economics from Notre Dame before moving on to Stanford Law.
"There are obvious similarities," Swarbrick said. "Private [schools], among the smallest undergraduate populations in the FBS, excellent academic reputations, a broad commitment to collegiate sports model as reflected in number of sports and levels of success, passionate alumni scattered around the globe and very strong brands.
"Relative to football, the clear commonality is an insistence that the members of our teams be fully integrated into the university in the same manner other students are. They are truly student athletes. This is reflected in both graduation rates and the success of our student-athletes after football is over."
Swarbrick has company on both sides. College Football Playoff selection committee member Condoleezza Rice earned her master's from Notre Dame and is a professor at Stanford. Cardinal coach David Shaw has enlisted the assistance of the former Secretary of State in hosting recruits -- one of whom, TJ Jones, initially committed to Stanford but is now an Irish captain. (Rice has been no stranger at Notre Dame Stadium herself.)
Muir's new employer attracted headlines this summer when the Cardinal sold out of season tickets for the first time, underscoring the cat-and-mouse relationship between these two programs.
Notre Dame has sold out all but one home game since 1966, but it is Stanford that will make its fourth-straight BCS bowl with a win in next week's Pac-12 title game.
The Cardinal are quarterbacked by Kevin Hogan, who estimates he has 10-20 cousins and another five or six aunts and uncles who went to Notre Dame. Protecting Hogan is right guard Kevin Danser, whose uncle, John Gallagher, played hoops for the Irish and roomed with Joe Theismann. Reserve center Conor McFadden, whose photographic memory has become the source of attention that seemingly only the Cardinal or Irish could attract, has a grandfather and several uncles who went to Notre Dame as well.
"It's a fun game because you have the connections, family connections, and we all want to win it," Hogan said.
On Tuesday, Kelly fielded a question here about playing "Notre Dame football," sparking a response about how he does not want personalities like Russell's to be marginalized as just football players.
A few hours later in Silicon Valley, Shaw began his press conference by announcing that Stanford had won another off-the-field honor, this time its second straight AFCA Academic Achievement Award. The Cardinal coach then spent the next few minutes talking about how this would help in recruiting.
It only happened to be Notre Dame week.
"We understand how to manage your time so that you do well in school and you do well in football and you have a social life and you enjoy yourself here, that it is possible for all three of those," Shaw said. "When we graduate our guys and we play really good in football and they come to visit, our guys love it here. That helps a lot."
The Notre Dame outside receivers coach has found himself with a smaller pool of talent to work with this spring following the transfers of sophomores Davonte Neal and Justin Ferguson, forcing him to mix and match faces all over the place in hopes of finding the best solution for the Irish passing game.
"We're kind of trying to find a way to incorporate everybody that we've got available to us right now kind of in the mix, and kind of put them in some different places and give some other guys some opportunities," Denbrock said. "Anytime that you're a little bit short numbers-wise, you've got to find them somewhere. So we're not going to practice any shorter, we're not going to take any fewer reps, so we've got to find bodies to do it."
Eight scholarship receivers remain on the roster, with two more, Torii Hunter Jr. and William Fuller, on the way this summer.
Denbrock likes the two freshmen he has right now, saying that Onwualu and Corey Robinson have impressed in their short time on campus.
"Corey Robinson, everything he does that comes near him -- his catch radius reminds me a lot of Tyler Eifert in that even if the ball's somewhere on the perimeter, he's going to find a way," Denbrock said. "Great ball skills, good knowledge of the game of football, surprisingly, even though he's from a small school in Texas and is basketball-oriented maybe family-wise, but has done a really nice job.
"James Onwualu is a tough guy, physical, loves the game, plays with tremendous passion. Good skill-set. Those guys are a pleasant surprise. And when you sit down and you think -- and we talk about this sometimes when we're watching practice film -- and you go, 'This guy's supposed to be getting dressed for the prom, and here he is out here competing,' and those guys are doing a great job."
The Irish lose four of their top-six pass-catchers from a year ago, but even the returnees could see themselves spread to different spots of the field.
Senior TJ Jones, whose 50 grabs last year tied for the team lead, is a candidate to play in the slot after the loss of Neal and the graduation of Robby Toma. So, too, is converted safety C.J. Prosise.
"I'd say the jobs open for anybody, all comers," Denbrock said. "Anybody who proves they've got the ability to go in there and do something positive for our offense is going play in there. We don't obviously have as much depth as we'd like to have, so that's a great opportunity for a lot of guys to do a lot of different things and not pigeonhole themselves into one specific position, but get out there and perform and earn your reps."
"It's absolutely crucial," the third-year Notre Dame coach said. "And the specifics of that would be, they manifest themselves in the sense that when you get out on the field, that everybody is on the same page. Every coach is talking the same language. Every player is hearing the same thing. And that's absolutely crucial to a shared philosophy and vision as to how we do things on a day-to-day basis.
Among the most noticeable offseason shifts is former safeties coach Chuck Martin taking over as offensive coordinator, a position he held during his six-year head-coaching stint at Grand Valley State from 2004-09.
The only returning full-time offensive staff members from last season are Mike Denbrock and Tony Alford. Denbrock moves from tight ends coach to coaching outside wide receivers and coordinating the passing game.
Alford, who has coached running backs and later receivers while with the Irish, will return to running backs coach while also working with slot receivers and coordinating the team's recruiting, a position formerly held by Martin.
Martin will try to shore up a streaky offense that has failed to live up to the defense's standard for much of Kelly's first two seasons with the Irish. Notre Dame turned the ball over 29 times last season, tied for 10th-most in the nation.
"The biggest thing is just the execution," Martin said. "Coach talked about lacking consistency, which we did. But we've done a ton of great things on offense. We can put together an offensive highlight tape of the last two years that we look like world-beaters, but he hit a lot at his talk today about being inconsistent [and] trying to get us to play at the highest level all the time, and that's my job."
Cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks is now the co-defensive coordinator with Bob Diaco, who assumes assistant head-coaching duties in addition to his previous roles of defensive coordinator and linebackers coach.
Diaco, who worked under Kelly at Central Michigan and Cincinnati, will become the face of the program when Kelly cannot handle outside assignments, joking he could man the "Batphone."
"Coach is incredible," Diaco said. "And if you guys looked at his mileage and air miles and time spent away from his family, it's sad, and it's pretty incredible what he's done. And he's pulled like that, and that's one choice he makes in a day and he's gotta say no to 10. So when time allows, if he could not be torn with going here or there, or go there and send me ... somewhere else, that's really pretty exciting."
"The beauty of it is through three institutions we can do that, because he's been such a fantastic boss," he later added. "He mentioned a shared vision, but also a shared heart. There's a shared heart. We're in lockstep with matters of all things professional and matters of the heart and with young people."
Former Iowa State secondary coach Bob Elliott was hired to replace Martin, and former Tennessee offensive line coach Harry Hiestand was hired for the same position with the Irish, in addition to becoming running game coordinator.
Scott Booker was promoted from offensive intern to tight ends coach, and he will coordinate the special teams as well. The latter duty previously belonged to defensive line coach Mike Elston, though Kelly said special teams are a shared approach by the staff. The Irish's punt return unit ranked 112th in the nation in 2011.
With three new faces and just four assistants coaching the same units they did last season, Kelly acknowledged the changes could make for a tricky balancing act. But he is counting on the shared vision he so often discussed Friday -- the same language, formations and structure among the staff -- to ease the turnover.
"We talk about this all the time: Our guys go to class and get probably the most dynamic professors in front of them on a day-to-day basis, teaching them," Kelly said. "So when they come here, you better meet or exceed that level, or you're gonna lose your players. So all I think it means is that we're gonna be more dynamic in the way we communicate to our players on a day-to-day basis, but it's gonna be the same pieces that they've already heard."
Former wide receivers coach Tony Alford will now coach running backs and slot receivers in addition to becoming the team's recruiting coordinator. Former tight ends coach Mike Denbrock will coach outside wide receivers and be the team's passing game coordinator.
The announced moves complement the offseason hires of former Tennnessee offensive line coach Harry Hiestand (offensive line/running game coordinator) and former Iowa State secondary coach Bob Elliott (safeties).
The Irish's staff dealt with offseason defections from Charley Molnar (offensive coordinator), Tim Hinton (running backs) and Ed Warinner (offensive line/running game coordinator). Molnar took over head-coaching duties at Massachusetts, and Hinton and Warinner left for Ohio State, where they will coach the tight ends/fullbacks and offensive line, respectively.
Notre Dame announced in early January that former safeties coach Chuck Martin would become the offensive coordinator, that defensive coordinator and linebacker coach Bob Diaco would add the title of assistant head coach, and that cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks would receive co-defensive coordinator duties.
Defensive line coach Mike Elston will no longer be the special teams coordinator, though head coach Brian Kelly said the unit as a whole will be a team effort among his staff.
Josh Reardon (defensive) and Pat Welsh (offensive) were also hired as graduate assistants, the school announced Friday. Bill Brechin (offensive) and David Grimes (defensive) will be the staff's interns this spring and become GAs in August, when the NCAA legislation will change and allow schools to have four.
The son of a Purdue basketball player will be starring at tight end for Notre Dame, covered by a Purdue linebacker whose parents and grandfather graduated from Notre Dame.
Yet nostalgia will go out the door for Eifert when he takes the field of Ross-Ade Stadium, a place he grew up watching games in.
Still, some memories stick out more than others, particularly the Boilermakers' upset over Ohio State 11 years ago, a comeback keyed by Super Bowl XLIV MVP Drew Brees.
And, of course, there were a handful of the previous 83 meetings between the Fighting Irish and the Boilermakers that Eifert had a great view of.
"Notre Dame usually won," he recalled, "and that was annoying."
Eifert, whose father Greg played basketball at Purdue two decades ago, is hoping to annoy Purdue fans in similar fashion. Coming off game-highs of eight catches and 75 yards Saturday at Pitt, the junior from Fort Wayne finds himself second in the nation in catches (20) and receiving yards (244) among tight ends.
Eifert was thrust into the spotlight a year early, starting Notre Dame's final seven games last season after current Minnesota Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph's year ended because of a right hamstring injury.
Tight ends coach Mike Denbrock called the situation a "baptism by fire."
"Compared to where he was a year ago at this time, he's light years ahead," Denbrock said. "We're not afraid to match him up physically, one-on-one with a defensive end, a linebacker or whatever. He does a nice job with that. It's kind of just the consistency that we're looking for where it's every single play you can lean on him if you need to. And he's getting the job done"
Eifert is already closing in on last year's totals of 27 catches and 352 yards, and he has turned into one of Tommy Rees' favorite targets. Only Michael Floyd has more receptions and receiving yards for the Irish.
Rees found Eifert four times during the Irish's go-ahead drive in the fourth quarter Saturday, including for a 6-yard touchdown pass and ensuing two-point conversion.
Two years ago, Rudolph made a game-winning touchdown catch in West Lafayette, propelling the Irish to a 24-21 win in primetime.
Eifert didn't play in that contest as a freshman, but he was there, happy for once to see Notre Dame walk out of Purdue with a victory.
"I remember I got to travel down to the last one my freshman year," he recalled, "and it was pretty rowdy, the night game. So that'll be a fun atmosphere and it'll be a good game."
As expected, Chuck Martin resigned as head coach at Division II Grand Valley State -- where Kelly led the Lakers to two national titles -- to coach Irish defensive backs. Mike Elston rejoins Kelly from Cincinnati to coach defensive line, which he oversaw with the Bearcats. And Mike Denbrock, who spent last season at Indiana State and worked with Kelly at Grand Valley, will coach tight ends.
"Because these guys have worked with me in the past, all three guys understand the importance of player development and we share the same philosophies for making our team better," Kelly said in a statement.
Notre Dame had already announced that running backs coach Tony Alford would be the lone holdover from Charlie Weis' staff. The rest of the assistants will be named once they are vetted through the school's human resources department.
Kelly is expected to bring three more Cincinnati assistants with him: defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, passing game coordinator Charley Molnar and Tim Hinton, who coached Bearcats running backs and served as recruiting coordinator. It's also been reported that Kelly has tapped former Kansas assistant Ed Warriner as offensive line coach, and Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg reports that Wisconsin assistant Kerry Cooks will head to South Bend to coach linebackers.
Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller
There's two things you can say about offensive lines: 1) Every good team has a good one; 2) People tend to notice offensive lines more when they are bad.
There aren't any "Oh my gosh, those guys are terrifying" crews this season. Only UCLA and, to a lesser extent, Arizona State, have significant issues up front.
A couple of the lines also need qualifiers: If Washington center Juan Garcia wasn't going to start the season on the injured list, the Huskies would rank No. 2. And Oregon State would rank higher if guard Jeremy Perry's health wasn't an issue, not to mention that tackle Tavita Thompson isn't expected back from suspension until Nov. 1.
USC only welcomes back one official "starter," but three of the new faces topping the depth chart started at least two games last season. Plus, with four incoming prep All-Americans at the position, and highly respected line coach Pat Ruel calling the shots, it's hard to believe the Trojans line will be a milquetoast.
|Tom Hauck/Getty Images|
|Alex Mack earned All-American honors a year ago.|
So here are the hogs... (returning starters)
- Oregon (3): Center Max Unger and tackle Fenuki Tupou were All-Pac-10 for the best conference's best rushing team in 2007. The two new starters are experienced seniors.
- California (3): All-American center Alex Mack leads three returning starters from a group that surrendered only 11 sacks last season.
- Washington (3): Even without center Juan Garcia for a few games, Mike Denbrock's well-coached unit led the conference's second-best rushing attack and was above average in pass protection.
- USC (1): The Trojans, with only guard Jeff Byers back, get the benefit of the doubt that the 2007 backups would start for most teams.
- Washington State (4): Four starters back from a unit that only gave up 22 sacks.
- Arizona (4): Among the four returning starters is tackle Eben Britton, who will play on Sundays. Run blocking shaky.
- Oregon State (3): With mauling guard Jeremy Perry, this is a top-flight unit, but without Perry it's easy to remember 36 sacks in 2007.
- Stanford (3): Alex Fletcher, who has converted from guard to center, is outstanding, but the unit still ranked ninth in rushing and gave up 48 sacks (ninth also).
- Arizona State (2): The Sun Devils' season may hang on how much the line improves. Just two starters are back from a unit that gave up a stunning 55 sacks in 2007.
- UCLA (2): Injuries, attrition and lack of talent are the problems. Just two starters and little depth return from group that gave up 36 sacks and was mediocre at run blocking.