NCF Nation: Sean Cwynar

Notre Dame's most improved players

January, 20, 2012
As the wrapping-up of the 2011 season continues, we take a look at those who improved the most for Notre Dame from 2010 to 2011.

Here they are, in alphabetical order:

Jonas Gray, running back. Coach Brian Kelly said he had never seen a skill-position player make the kind of leap his senior year the way Gray had this season. Sadly, Gray's season came to an end several days after those comments, as he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee against Boston College on Nov. 19. Still, Gray left Notre Dame in style, rushing for 791 yards and 12 touchdowns, averaging 6.9 yards per carry. He had 309 career yards and zero touchdowns before 2011.

Louis Nix, nose guard. A bit of a wild card here, considering he did not play his freshman season. Still, he made a tremendous leap from 2010 to 2011, starting 11 games and seeing plenty of time in the middle when Sean Cwynar broke his right hand. Nix finished with 45 tackles, 0.5 sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss, and, perhaps more importantly, he obliterated his coaches' spring prediction of seeing less than 20 snaps per game.

Jamoris Slaughter, safety. Plagued by an ankle injury much of 2010, Slaughter starred when healthy this season, splitting time at safety with Zeke Motta and contributing in a hybrid-like role as linebacker in nickel coverage as well. He finished with 45 tackles, four tackles for loss, a forced fumble, a pick and two sacks. No announcement has been made about his future, but it would be shocking if the senior was not back for a fifth year in 2012.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Aaron Lynch and Louis Nix will end their first seasons of playing college football in Florida — just not the way each once thought he would.

The Sunshine State natives both committed to schools in Florida before switching their allegiances to Notre Dame. Lynch, from Cape Coral, was a Florida State commit; Nix, a Jacksonville native, had committed to Miami.

As the Irish prepare to face the Seminoles in Dec. 29's Champs Sports Bowl in Orlando, Fla., Brian Kelly has noticed the extra pep in the step of the pair of first-year players, along with the eight other Florida natives on Notre Dame's roster.

"They're so excited about the game, especially the Florida kids," Kelly said. "Listen, just wait until [Dec. 29], and wait for the game to speak. Don't go outside the realm here. So that's been really the only conversation that I've had."

Lynch and Nix, who were not available to the media in the lead-up to the bowl game, have burst onto the scene this season. Lynch, a true freshman, has started five games at end, recording 4 sacks, 5.5 tackles for loss and 13 quarterback hurries, by far the most on the team.

[+] EnlargeLouis Nix
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesDefensive tackle Louis Nix is one of 10 Florida natives on Notre Dame's roster.
Nix is in his first season playing after sitting out his freshman season in 2010, losing more than 40 pounds along the way. Ten starts, 42 tackles and 4 tackles for loss have marked his sophomore campaign, which was much more eventful than anticipated as fellow nose guard Sean Cwynar battled a broken right hand in the first half of the season.

"I would say that all of them have stepped into a role that increasingly grew as the season went on based on injuries and based on the need for them to play," defensive line coach Mike Elston said. "I think that they've managed it very well and I think that they've handled the expectations that people have put on them — not necessarily the coaches, but that people have put on them. They've handled themselves really well and I think they're going to be very good players. They're not there yet, they have a lot of work to do. They know that and I'm excited about the progress right now."

Senior end Ethan Johnson, back at full strength following a right-ankle sprain that limited him for much of the season, can understand why the season finale might mean a little more for the younger linemen.

Throw in fellow freshman end Stephon Tuitt, a Monroe, Ga., native who has impressed this season, and the defensive line is in for quite the homecoming next week.

"Of course it's exciting for them to go home," said Johnson, a native of Portland, Ore. "If I was going to Oregon I'd be really excited. But I don't think it will affect the game at all. I'm sure they're gonna play just like they would if it was any other game, which is well. They're gonna play well.

"And they're gonna get after it and you always wanna leave the field, especially the last game, feeling like it was your best game, and I feel like that they're gonna do that — they're gonna have their best game of the year. There's no reason why they shouldn't in front of all their family, and it'll be a great experience for them."

Looking at 2011's best freshmen

December, 13, 2011
Notre Dame received key contributions from several newcomers this season. Here, we honor those who made their mark early while turning an eye toward the future.

Offensive: George Atkinson III
We found a loophole in this one. But simply said, Atkinson was clearly the best Irish freshman with the ball in his hands. He returned two kickoffs for scores this season, giving Notre Dame some breathing room against Michigan State and bringing them right back into it against USC after falling behind 17-0 early. His future is in the backfield, where he received just nine carries on the season for 27 yards, but he certainly injected some life into a special teams unit that needed every jolt it could get in 2011. Atkinson finished the season 15th in the nation in kickoff returns, averaging 27.4 yards per return.

Defensive: Aaron Lynch
The defensive end exploded onto the scene early, registering a sack, a forced fumble and six quarterback hurries Week 3 against Michigan State. No Notre Dame player recorded that many hurries throughout all of 2010. Lynch has four sacks, 5.5 tackles for loss and 13 hurries on the season. Injuries forced Lynch into five starts and more action than anyone could have expected before the season, but he did not disappoint with his performance. A little more discipline after the whistle, and he will have big things ahead of him in a Notre Dame uniform.

Redshirt: Louis Nix
Remember last spring, when Nix was told he would get 12-15 snaps per game? Sure seems like a long time ago. In his first season, the sophomore ended up starting 10 games, finishing with 42 tackles, 0.5 sacks and four tackles for loss. He dropped more than 40 pounds from a year ago and, with fellow nose guard Sean Cwynar limited through much of the first half of the season with a broken right hand, took full advantage of his extended playing time.

One to watch for 2012: Everett Golson
The offensive scout team player of the year and highly-touted quarterback recruit will compete with Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix for next season's starting job. Golson remains much of a mystery as he has redshirted this season and reporters have not been allowed to view practice since the season began. But he is one more man in what is shaping up to be a crowded position battle for 2012, and his skill set could translate nicely in Brian Kelly's offense.
This is the test we have all been waiting to see: how Notre Dame measures up with a truly elite team.

The Irish have faced three ranked teams so far this season, beating current No. 14 Michigan State while losing to No. 15 Michigan and USC, which is ranked 10th by the Associated Press but is ineligible for the BCS standings.

Stanford, currently sixth in the BCS standings, is truly an elite team, a notch above anything the Irish have seen all season. The Cardinal won a triple-overtime thriller at USC — the best team Notre Dame has faced this season. They are coming off a 12-1, Orange Bowl-winning season and are currently 10-1, in position to notch another BCS-bowl berth.

They boast the likely top NFL draft pick in quarterback Andrew Luck, who is a strong contender for the Heisman Trophy as well. But, perhaps even more imposing, they boast an even better rushing attack, powered by a pair of likely first-round draft picks in left tackle Jonathan Martin and right guard David DeCastro.

Here is where the Irish will really be tested, particularly if they are without versatile defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt, whose status is up in the air after missing last week with an illness. Stanford has the nation's No. 22 rushing attack and the No. 24 passing attack, which equals the 10th-ranked total offense and fourth-ranked scoring offense, averaging 45 points per game.

During its current four-game winning streak, Notre Dame has held three of its opponents below 20 points, with Maryland scoring a late touchdown to finish with 21. The Irish have surrendered just more than 20 points per game this season. The defense has been stout for most of the season, ranking in the top 30 in both total and scoring defense and putting the team on its back in victories over Pitt, Wake Forest and Boston College — when the offense was average, at best.

Most of all, it knows what it is getting against Stanford, a no-nonsense, smash-mouth team that prides itself on punching you in the face early and often. The Cardinal offensive line averages just 1 more pound collectively (305) than the starting line the Irish defense faces every day in practice (304).

In his two seasons at Notre Dame, Brian Kelly has spoken about building toughness and winning in the trenches. This, of course, is coming from a coach who is 6-0 in November games at Notre Dame and has won 16 such games in a row dating back to 2007 (including December regular-season contests).

But the Irish are young on the defensive line, even if Lynch doesn't play. With senior Kapron Lewis-Moore sidelined for the season, senior Ethan Johnson and junior Sean Cwynar are the only veterans who see meaningful snaps. Starting nose guard Louis Nix is a sophomore in his first year playing, starting end Aaron Lynch is a freshman and another freshman, Chase Hounshell, has slowly worked his way into the rotation as well.

The line has matured at a quicker-than-expected rate through 11 games this season, but nothing can prepare it for the test it is about to face Saturday, one that will ultimately decide this game.

Prediction: Stanford 31, Notre Dame 20

Halloween at Notre Dame

October, 31, 2011
Everyone hates Mondays -- except for Halloween. Here, we spice things up with a spooky look at Notre Dame's season and what remains of it as the calendar turns toward November.

Haunted House: We've been calling it the Big House of Horrors here for quite some time, so it has to be Michigan, right? Notre Dame has lost its past three games in Ann Arbor, including a 38-0 defeat in 2007. That may actually be better than losing on last-second touchdowns, the way the Irish have in their previous two trips to Michigan Stadium.

Scary movie: The Irish's opener was straight out of a horror flick. The lights came on, the sun went down and nearly three hours of thunderstorms rained on Notre Dame fans' parade, culminating in a five-hour, 59-minute contest that everyone in South Bend would like to forget. Five turnovers and a quarterback change plagued the Irish in a 23-20 Week 1 loss to South Florida.

Boo: Notre Dame has been relatively lucky injury-wise, except on the defensive line. There, senior end Ethan Johnson (sprained right ankle) hasn't played since the first snap Oct. 1 at Purdue and fellow senior Kapron Lewis-Moore (knee) is gone for the year. The third season-opening starter, nose guard Sean Cwynar, missed two games and has been limited much of the season because of a broken right hand, though he is now at full-strength and no longer has to play with a club on it.

Witchcraft: These were Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo's words following his team's 56-14 loss Saturday: "We tried to mis-direction him, tried to get him lost, tried to do some different things with eyes and that kid was dialed in. Like I said, we tried a lot of different blocking schemes and we couldn't get him blocked." He was talking about Manti Te'o, who has continued to puzzle offenses all season long. His 82 tackles, 11 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks all lead the Irish.

Monster Mash: The Irish's Nov. 26 game at Stanford will be, if nothing else, a great chance to see where this team stacks up with the nation's elite. Stanford could be playing for a spot in the BCS title game then. And who knows, given all of the upsets that have happened the past two weeks -- maybe there's a shot, albeit a very slim one, that an 8-3 Notre Dame team is playing for a potential BCS bowl bid as well.

Irish D-line weathers injuries

October, 25, 2011
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Ethan Johnson doesn't talk about practice.

He doesn't talk about odds, either, though he admitted Tuesday that his sprained right ankle was improving.

"I'm not into doing probabilities, but I'm definitely better than I was yesterday and the day before yesterday," Johnson said after practice Tuesday. "So I'm just improving every day and just taking it a day at a time."

Brian Kelly said during his noon news conference Tuesday that Johnson would practice that afternoon for the first time since he injured his ankle in an Oct. 1 win at Purdue.

Johnson would not divulge practice details but his return, which remains up in the air, is now all the more important given the season-ending knee injury to fellow senior starting end Kapron Lewis-Moore.

"The young guys are playing roles they really shouldn't have to be playing right now," defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said. "They're really not ready to play the amount of reps that they're having to play each week. So getting them ready for this type of offense definitely doesn't suit that -- assignment football, play after play, the discipline and the mental focus necessary to play four quarters against a team like this and be assignment correct on every play. So it becomes a challenge."

Lewis-Moore marks the third of three injuries to Notre Dame's season-opening starting defensive linemen, as he will miss the final five games and a potential bowl game.

Nose guard Sean Cwynar, who is now at full strenghth, missed Week 2 at Michigan with a broken hand. He was also held out against Air Force in Week 6 because of a broken right hand, which caused him to play with a club for a hand.

Johnson missed the majority of the past three games after being hurt on the first play at Purdue three weeks ago, and he tried to help freshmen ends Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt along the way while he was sidelined.

"You have to," Johnson said. "If I'm not out there, [if] I see someone do something that they shouldn't be doing, I'm gonna let them know; I'll let them know in a reasonable way. I mean, it's game day. You can't be trying to coach up everything; you got to let them play and not worry about too many other things because it's just game day. You're out there having fun."

Johnson's injury -- along with that of Cwynar's -- made Lynch and Tuitt have to grow up fast.

With Lewis-Moore now out for the season., the spotlight will be on the freshmen even more.

"Both of them are playing more than we really want them to play, and more than they're ready to play," defensive line coach Mike Elston said. "So sometimes that can hurt their growth, it can stunt their growth. So that's kind of the process we're going through with Aaron and making sure you don't put too much on his plate right now but more than he's ready for."

Kelly seeing value of freshmen

September, 22, 2011
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Previously in his coaching career, until around his early days at Cincinnati, Brian Kelly would see multiple freshmen take the field at once on Saturdays and almost cringe.

This past Saturday, he saw seven different first-year players take the field at times for Notre Dame, and what they did reminded him how college football has changed in just a short period of time.

"I don't know that you ever want to play as many freshman that we're playing, but times are changing," Kelly said. "College football is such that these kids are coming in physically so much more mature that they can come in and physically handle the rigors of playing major college football."

Freshman George Atkinson III stood out by returning a first-quarter kickoff 89 yards for a touchdown. That came one Michigan State possession after rookie Aaron Lynch forced a fumble by sacking Kirk Cousins.

[+] EnlargeAaron Lynch
Chris Williams/Icon SMINotre Dame's Aaron Lynch proved that he can put pressure on opposing quarterbacks during his freshman season.
"As soon as I hit him, just like a surge of energy went through my body," Lynch said of the sack. "Just set the tone for the rest of the game."

Lynch finished the game with six quarterback hurries, one week after not even seeing the field against Denard Robinson and Michigan.

The 6-foot-6, 265-pound Lynch acknowledged how much different it was going against Big Ten offensive linemen Saturday, especially since his high school opponents were at times 100 pounds lighter.

Not being able to simply bull rush someone at this level was a rude awakening.

"He gets better with playing more with his technique and then building confidence," defensive line coach Mike Elston said. "Buying into what we're coaching hasn't been easy because it hasn't worked for him in practice, because he's not doing it right. So he's back and forth on using the proper technique and not using it. And then in a game he used it and it worked out well and he built confidence on it."

The give and take was fairly simple.

"They told me I wasn't gonna play if I didn't do it right," Lynch said.

As one of five Fighting Irish freshmen who enrolled in the spring, Lynch had a longer time to earn the trust of his coaches.

Kelly credited the strength and conditioning director, Paul Longo, for getting the freshmen physically ready to shorten the learning curve.

"You're looking at Aaron Lynch going against four- and five-year players, and you worry about their physical ability to get in there and mix it up," Kelly said. "But the last four or five years, these guys are weight training all year, nutrition is important to 'em, they're taking care of their bodies, and they're coming in. And Coach Longo said this -- I didn't -- he said this was physically the most impressive group relative to their conditioning level when they came here.

"Usually they come in a few weeks after the veterans are here. They come in and they're lost. They're so far behind. This group was not. They were physically ready to compete right away."

Even then, however, there is an adjustment period.

Lynch could only go roughly six plays at a time on Saturday, something he acknowledged was difficult, but a feat that also showed how far he had come with one offseason.

"I know before the season started I wouldn't have been able to go six straight plays," he said. "It's kind of hard to do six straight plays now, just going into my first game and actually having to put that pressure on my back. But I feel like just work hard during practice and go to the ball every time you see it, you'll be straight. You won't be really tired, because you got the energy going and adrenaline rushing and stuff like that, so you'll be straight."

Sophomore noseguard Louis Nix, who didn't play last season, had to drop more than 40 pounds before he could take the field for the first time this season.

This past spring, Kelly told him to expect 12-15 snaps per game, and Nix said that wouldn't be good enough. With fellow noseguard Sean Cwynar dealing with a broken right hand, Nix has lived up to his word, playing 30-40 snaps per game and starting twice so far, surprising even himself with his stamina.

"Last year or the year before, I probably could have did two snaps," the now-326-pounder said with a laugh.

Such contrast between the early development of Lynch and Nix helps explain why defensive coordinator Bob Diaco has a blanket philosophy on playing freshmen.

"I don't think at this point in time that there's any timetable," Diaco said. "Just, when you're ready, we're ready. When you're ready, we're ready. That's it. And when you're ready to do the jobs, whatever they are, you don't have to do be able to do all the jobs, if you can do some of the jobs. You're ready, we're ready.

"When you're ready to go in and you're better than everybody else at that spot, when you're ready to go in and whip your individual matchup, when you're ready, we're ready."

Brian Kelly: 'I'm excited'

September, 13, 2011
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The world isn't coming to an end with Notre Dame off to an 0-2 start. In fact, Brian Kelly has been encouraged by his team's performance through two games.

"I think you can sense that I'm not, 'Oh my God, we're 0-2, what did I get myself into?'" Kelly said at his weekly news conference. "I like our players. I like where we're going. I know you've got to win, I get that. But we're where I believe we should be -- we should've obviously taken care of the football better, made a couple plays here and there, coached a little bit better. We're all disappointed, it's not acceptable to lose, especially at Notre Dame, but we're on the journey that I'm excited about."

Kelly corrected a reporter who began his question suggesting he said he had a good football team, but the second-year head coach added that he doesn't think his team has been beaten through two weeks.

Kelly compared last year's loss to Michigan to this year's in showing the difference between the capabilities of the two teams.

"I said we have a chance to be a good team; we're 0-2 right now," Kelly said. "It's been what I've expected it to be. And they're not pleased with their performance, they're not happy where they're at, coaches are not pleased with our performance. We're all in this together. It's not, 'Hey, they did this, we're smart, they're not.' We're all in this together. I'm 0-2. But I did tell them this: I said I really believe that you haven't won a game yet but you haven't been beaten.

"Last year we were beaten. We got beat by Michigan last year, as much as I don't like to say it. They beat us last year. We've really had a hand in beating ourselves and that's the big difference. If we do not beat ourselves, we've got a chance to be the kind of football team that we all believe that we can be. I can see it. I've coached almost 250 football games. I can feel and see a football team coming together. They've got to take care of the football. They've got to execute better and they will. I know it's just a matter of time for them."

Notes: Kelly also said reserve tight end Mike Ragone will undergo season-ending surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament. ... Alex Welch (foot) and Jake Golic (broken arm) have been cleared to practice. ... Danny Spond (hamstring) is questionable. ... Sean Cwynar (broken bone in hand) is regaining strength and doing better.

Irish newcomers prep for first test

September, 2, 2011
In 1992, quarterback Kordell Stewart was planting the seeds for what went on to become one of the most decorated careers in Colorado history, lifting the Buffaloes to a No. 10 ranking as they readied for Iowa in Week 4.

But a sprained foot rendered Stewart ineffective against the Hawkeyes, allowing freshman signal caller Koy Detmer to step in during the second half and turn a one-point halftime lead into a 28-12 win.

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, then a freshman linebacker at Iowa, has come to appreciate what Detmer did to his Hawkeyes. Diaco is preparing at least five players to possibly play their first snaps of college football on Saturday.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame's Louis Nix
: Matt Cashore/US PRESSWIRENose guard Louis Nix is one of several Notre Dame players planning to take the field for the first time in college.
"He was a freshman and we thought, 'OK, this is exactly what we wanted,' " Diaco recalled. "And he came in and he was lights out, ripped us and we ended up losing the game. So it works both ways."

Detmer completed 7 of 11 passes for 155 yards against Iowa. Despite working with his freshmen "every minute the NCAA will allow it," Diaco doesn't expect any flashbacks on either side of the ball this Saturday against South Florida.

"With that said, they're gonna go in the game and do dumb stuff," Diaco said of preparing newcomers for the big stage. "It's just the nature of the beast, and it's not unique to Notre Dame -- it's every single team in the country, including the NFL. It's inexplicable why some guys do the things they do on particular plays, and most of them are new players."

Take nose guard Louis Nix. Expected to split time with senior Sean Cwynar, Nix will be playing in a football game for the first time in two years after shedding more than 40 pounds since arriving on campus as an overweight freshman.

Though he has been on campus for a year now, Nix said his head is still in space thinking about his debut.

"It's a lot of responsibility," Nix said. "I can mess up one thing and it can cause an 80-yard run, stuff like that. I'm an important part, everybody has their individual parts that are relative to having the team come together."

Head coach Brian Kelly told Nix during spring practice that he planned to use the sophomore 12-15 plays per game, which was actually a disappointment in Nix's eyes.

Nix is hoping that number can climb toward the 25-30 range after a strong preseason, but a welcome-to-college-football-moment is seemingly inevitable.

"They're gonna see on game day what our coaches have been telling them that they can't do, they really can't do," senior end Ethan Johnson said. "Because it's gonna hurt on game day if the younger guys do some things that they like to do that they did in high school, it's not really gonna work against college teams."

Manti Te'o was hesitant to trot onto the field in his first college game, the 2009 opener against Nevada. But a blitz and a scramble by Wolf Pack quarterback Colin Kaepernick resulted in Te'o being in the right place at the right time, giving the linebacker his first career tackle.

"All I remember is just being all tense and running as fast as I could, and fortunately I made a tackle," Te'o said. "So quickly it became reality that I was playing college ball."

The initiation was less obvious for players like Harrison Smith, who cannot recall his first play with the Fighting Irish.

Four years later, the safety is telling the younger players to take in the thrill of it all.

"I think even I'm going to have that excitement. This is my fifth year doing it," Smith said. "I think, if you ask Ray Lewis how he feels before games, he would say he gets that feeling. You can't really describe it. I think that's something that you want to embrace, but at the same time, you know, be who you are.

"Be the player that you are, have the confidence that you're here for a reason and you're playing for a reason. Just go be who you are and play the game you've always played."

And if they can recall their first plays, all the better.

"If I don't remember my first play, I hope it's something good," Nix said. "And if I do remember my first play, I hope it's a touchdown.

"A fumble recovery for a touchdown."
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- News, notes and quotes from Notre Dame's first practice of preseason camp on Saturday. The first 30 minutes were open for media viewing:

It was a humid day in South Bend, and rain showers began a few minutes into practice, drenching a bunch of unprepared sportswriters. So it wasn't a great day on which to throw the ball. Yet, all eyes were on the quarterbacks to start off the drills.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame's Dayne Crist
Matt Cashore/US PRESSWIRENotre Dame quarterback Dayne Crist took the first snaps with the first-team offense on Saturday.
To no one's surprise, Dayne Crist took the first snaps with the first-team offense in the tempo drills that immediately follow stretching. Tommy Rees got the next reps with the ones, and then Andrew Hendrix was first in to lead the second-stringers. Everett Golson was fourth in line.

Crist -- who's still wearing a brace on his left knee for precautionary purposes -- has earned the right to take the first snaps because he's the veteran who lost his job last year to injury. Brian Kelly said he was happy with the way Crist practiced.

"After having two knee surgeries, sometimes you get a little protective of your lower body ... and you're feeling your way through that," Kelly said. "I didn't sense that at all. I felt he was really aggressive with his throwing. He was spinning the ball very tight. That wasn't what I saw in the spring -- I thought he was tentative in the spring."

Crist said he felt much better on Saturday than he did in the spring and that his footwork has greatly improved. Still, don't count out Rees, who has put on a few pounds since playing as a beanpole freshman last season. He said he was up to 215 this summer and is now at 212. I believe Hendrix and Golson are competing for the change-up, special package role, and if one falls behind the other, we could see a transfer.

The two happiest guys on the field were probably Michael Floyd, who finally got back to practice and didn't have to worry about his offseason troubles, and defensive line coach Mike Elston. He's got a deep and impressive-looking group to work with as freshmen Stephon Tuitt and Chase Hounshell join the ranks. Tuitt is an incredible-looking athlete listed at 6-foot-6 1/2 and 295 pounds, and showed good explosion in a pass-rushing drill.

The first-string defensive line on Saturday was Kapron Lewis-Moore, Ethan Johnson and Sean Cwynar at nose guard. Rookie phenom Aaron Lynch was with the second unit, along with the slimmed down Louis Nix. Now listed at 326, Nix is still humongous but no longer needs his own zip code.

Elston was clearly pleased with how the group looked (and keep in mind that on a first day of practice with no pads, you're judging linemen mostly by looks).

"You guys have been on your game, I know that," Elston said at one point.

In recent years, Notre Dame didn't always look like an elite program on defense. With specimens like Tuitt, Nix, Lynch and Ishaq Williams, that is changing fast. But they're still pups.

"We're a lot longer," Kelly said. "We wanted to be bigger. We needed size, we needed length, we needed some speed. Clearly, we have that now and we just need to refine that.

"I got a better sense during the morning when we were doing conditioning work. In the afternoon [at practice], those guys were swimming a little bit. So they don't play quite as fast. But there's no mistaking their size and athleticism; it will just take a little time to get them to where they can rely more on their athleticism."

It was just the first day of practice, the first step in a long journey of a season. Kelly summed it up:

"I'm just comparing it to where we were on the first day last year," he said. "I think I probably wouldn't have made the press conference if I didn't think we'd made significant progress. I would have been up in my office. But I'm here, so our guys have made significant progress from last year to this year. Our guys know what to do. We were a lot more efficient out there today."

Changes afoot for Irish spring

March, 22, 2011
The absence of Michael Floyd isn't the only noticeable difference for Notre Dame as it prepares to begin spring practice on Wednesday. Here are some other changes and tidbits that head coach Brian Kelly outlined on Tuesday:
  • Austin Collinsworth has moved from receiver to safety. Kelly said the coaching staff loved Collinsworth's tackling and instincts on kickoff coverage last year.
  • Early enrollee Brad Carrico, listed as a defensive lineman when recruited, will move to offensive line. "He showed us in a short period of time in conditioning that he has quick feet and moves well," Kelly said. "He's a guy who we'll be able to get out in space, and he gives us some size and athleticism on the offensive line."
  • As previously reported, quarterback Luke Massa is headed to wide receiver, while Bennett Jackson goes from receiver to cornerback.
  • Assistant coach Kerry Cooks will move from outside linebackers coach to working strictly with the cornerbacks. Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco will handle the outside linebackers. Chuck Martin now will oversee the safeties. Ed Warriner becomes the running game coordinator, allowing offensive coordinator Charley Molnar a little more time for overall planning.
  • Defensive lineman Sean Cwynar is in a boot after surgery on a foot fracture and will not participate in the spring. Cwynar also had back surgery in the offseason and recovered well from that, Kelly said.
  • Star linebacker Manti Te'o had a scope done on his knee, and the Irish will be cautious with him this spring. "I think it's pretty safe to say right now we know a lot about what Manti Te'o can do," Kelly said.
  • As for the quarterbacks, Kelly said Dayne Crist (knee surgery) will be limited but should follow the same plan as he did last spring when he was recovering from an ACL surgery. That means he'll go through most drills but be held out of live contact. Andrew Hendrix and Everett Golson, who are more mobile quarterbacks, will get tackled some this spring to get a true evaluation of what they can do while running. Kelly said Crist's availability should make for a true competition this spring and that hopefully a pecking order would be established by the end of spring. But he said he had no idea of how the competition will go.
  • Though Theo Riddick will stay at slot receiver, there will be some packages where he and running back Cierre Wood are moved all over the field.
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly met with the media on Friday to look back on 2010 and give some early thoughts on 2011. If Kelly seemed rather chipper in his comments, it was easy to understand why.

The Irish, after all, won their final four games in impressive fashion and bring the majority of that 8-5 team back, including superstar receiver Michael Floyd. So as happy as Kelly was with the 2010 finish, he's even more excited about the 2011 possibilities.

[+] EnlargeBrian Kelly
Matt Cashore/US PresswireNotre Dame coach Brian Kelly said that his second year on the job will be "more about the players."
"Eight wins was not enough in the first year, but we accomplished a lot of the real foundation principles of a championship program," Kelly said

Kelly said the three best things about 2010 were that the team played its best at the end of the season, the defense became a force and that the program "put the fight back in the Fighting Irish." He called all of that "the first coat of paint" for his plan to revive Notre Dame into a powerhouse.

"Year 2 will be more about the players," he said. "It will be about fitting what we do in all three phases into the players that we have."

And the Irish will have a lot of good players to work with. Of course, the biggest question this offseason will be at quarterback, where Tommy Rees won every start in that four-game winning streak, while Dayne Crist is recovering from another ACL injury. Kelly said he thought Crist would be able to go through spring practice like he did last year, when he was protected from contact but took most of the needed reps.

As for Rees, Kelly said he is "more than a warmup band."

"Here's what we learned about Tommy Rees: he's accurate and he's tough," Kelly said. "Those are two great qualities to have. If you had to map them out and put them on the board, I'd take those two."

But Kelly added that Crist and Andrew Hendrix have those qualities, too. There's also Nate Montana, Luke Massa, incoming recruit Everett Golson in the mix. Kelly said he can't work with six quarterbacks and would limit the reps to the top four.

"There will be some paring down," he said. "There will be some guys who understand that if they're not in that top four, they will not be able to get reps at the position."

Kelly said he has a good idea of how to use the quarterbacks and their differing styles, but he didn't want to share that publicly until he has talked to the quarterbacks individually.

The coach also announced that kicker David Ruffer has been awarded a scholarship for next year as a fifth-year senior. All of the other seniors who have a year of eligibility left have applied for an extra year, and Kelly will meet with them on Monday to determine who will come back.

Kelly also hinted at some position changes and said that receiver Theo Riddick -- who converted from running back last year -- could be moved to the backfield once again to help with depth there.

Last offseason, players had to adjust to Kelly's new style and system, and the team was hampered by injuries. Kelly said he talked to strength coach Paul Longo on Friday morning and "it was the first time I've seen him smile in a year. We had 15 surgeries this time last year, and this year we have three." The only player expected to miss extended time is defensive lineman Sean Cwynar, who had surgery on both his back and foot and could be out 6-to-8 weeks.

Other than that, Kelly said, the players are already hitting the weight room, knowing what to do and hitting the ground running.

"It's night and day [from last year]," he said.

No wonder he was in such high spirits.
In non-military matters, Notre Dame has quietly put together a solid season defensively.

In nine games against civilians, the Irish are allowing a little more than 131 yards rushing per game. In five of the past six games, the defense has given up a total of only six touchdowns, including just one in the past two outings. Against Utah last week, Notre Dame held a team averaging more than 40 points a game to one lonely field goal.

Those stats start to look good when you omit the Navy game. And clearly the Irish and their fans would love to omit that game from their memory. The Midshipmen rolled up 367 rushing yards in a 35-17 win last month, turning the Notre Dame defense into a helpless, hapless lot against the triple option.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame Defense
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesNotre Dame hopes to build off its strong defensive performance against Utah.
This week's game brings another service academy with a similar, option-based attack. Will the Irish fare any better against Army, or will they strike out at Yankee Stadium?

"We've sort of got a chip on our shoulders," defensive lineman Sean Cwynar said. "We're not happy with the outcome against Navy, and we're ready to get after Army."

The Black Knights, who are bowl eligible for the first time in 14 years, resemble Navy statistically. They're averaging 31 points and 272.8 yards rushing per game (Navy is at 30.6 points and 302.7 yards rushing). They've scored at least 20 points in every game this year. Army will mix in some conventional looks with its option scheme and some passing. But mostly, as Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly says, it's about defending the triple option.

Kelly won't divulge what specifically he has changed in preparation for this game, and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco is off limits to the media this week. But Kelly said his staff viewed lots of film on defending the option, particularly looking for teams that stopped it with a three-man front similar to Notre Dame's.

The Irish zeroed in on Air Force, which plays a three-down alignment and beat Army 42-22 two weeks ago. The Black Knights still had 244 yards rushing, but at least it was under their average. Kelly is confident his defense is playing well enough now to do the same, especially given a second chance against the triple option.

"If you go back and look at the games leading up, the Navy game has been an aberration from my standpoint," Kelly said. "We're going to correct that against Army. We have battled pretty good defensively all year."

Diaco said after the Navy loss that the Irish were surprised by some of the Midshipmen's tactics and could not adjust to them during the game. Kelly promised that won't happen this week.

"We've done all the drawing up," Kelly said. "We'll have answers."

They had better. Or else this military campaign will end with another crippling defeat.

What we learned: Notre Dame, Week 9

October, 31, 2010
What we learned from Notre Dame in the Irish's 28-27 home loss to Tulsa on Saturday:

1. Rees' pieces: This is, for better or worse, Tommy Rees' team now. The true freshman will have to take over at quarterback for Dayne Crist, who's apparently out for the year with a knee injury. Rees had good moments against Tulsa, throwing for four touchdowns in a tough spot. But he also had three interceptions and should never have thrown the final pick in the end zone in the final minute with Notre Dame already in field-goal position. Notre Dame will have to coach up Rees as much as possible during the bye week and hope for the best in the final three games.

2. Bye bye bowl?: Now at 4-5, the Irish have games left against Army, Utah and at USC, a place they haven't won since 2000. Dropping games to Navy and Tulsa erased all margin for error, and it's looking increasingly likely that the Irish will stay home for the holidays in Brian Kelly's first year. Any way you slice it, that's vastly disappointing.

3. Youth steps forward: All of a sudden, Notre Dame is a very young team. There's Rees at quarterback, of course. Armando Allen's career might be done at running back, leaving that job in the hands of Cierre Wood. True frosh T.J. Jones is the second-leading receiver, and Tyler Eifert has taken over for the injured Kyle Rudolph. Sophomore Sean Cwynar is starting for Ian Williams at nose tackle, with freshman Kona Schwenke seeing reps at defensive end. All this youth shows how little experienced depth the Irish had and makes a strong finishing kick even more unlikely. If there's any good news, it's that these guys are gaining valuable seasoning for 2011.

What to watch: Notre Dame, Week 9

October, 28, 2010
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.