Notre Dame Football: Austin Collinsworth

The four-loss football power dressed just 48 scholarship players for a showdown with a rival -- attrition that bubbled to the surface in an embarrassing blowout defeat.

Then USC came back a week later and beat its other rival 49-14 Saturday in a game that even head coach Brian Kelly would admit was not nearly as close as the score indicated.

Notre Dame is hurt, especially on defense. We get it. The Fighting Irish are not exactly alone, though, as we can see from USC. And they are not all that hurt when compared to last season.

[+] EnlargeEverett Golson
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY Sports
The defense entered last year's New Era Pinstripe Bowl with nine regular contributors having missed a combined 44 games due to injury.

They will enter a similarly-underwhelming postseason destination this winter with 11 regular contributors having missed a combined 44 games due to injury.

No, that does not include the lost seasons, and lost half-season, of four defensive starters implicated in the school's summer internal academic probe. And that does not include the casualties of this weekend's nightmare in Hollywood: Max Redfield (broken rib), Austin Collinsworth (separated shoulder), Greer Martini (quad), Jay Hayes (high ankle sprain) and Jacob Matuska (shoulder).

But it is unlikely that any of those wounded at the Coliseum would have made much of a difference against a Trojans team that actually showed mercy on the battered Irish after racing to a 35-0 start in the first 25 minutes.

The 2013 edition of Notre Dame entered last fall as somewhat of a deflated group, having endured an offseason of questions following the Alabama beatdown, Kelly's NFL flirtations, the Lennay Kekua saga and the season-long dismissal of starting quarterback Everett Golson.

It made do with what it had. It handed eventual Rose Bowl champ Michigan State its only loss, it withstood a never-ending run of defensive depletion and it finished the regular season 8-4, a game better than this year's 7-5 team.

Asked 13 months ago if he ever coached a unit so decimated by injuries, Kelly said at the time: "I think this is probably close to the pinnacle."

He added then: "They don't give you any points for complaining about it. If they did, I'd complain every minute. So we just take care of it internally and get the next guy ready."

Problem this season is there were not all that many next guys ready. The 2013 unit returned eight starters from a 2012 unit that finished second nationally in scoring average. The 2014 unit returned three starters and was breaking in a new scheme under new coordinator Brian VanGorder.

Everything changed when the quarterback of that group, linebacker Joe Schmidt, had a season-ending ankle injury in a Nov. 1 win at Navy. Anyone around the program will tell you how he was the MVP of that unit, how he got those green guys ready, how he helped simplify things for his overloaded teammates.

Save for the Northwestern game, it is no surprise that Notre Dame is now 0-4 without Schmidt, a former walk-on. That Schmidt finished the regular season as the Irish's second-leading tackler (65) despite missing so much time speaks to just how little there was to work with after losing plenty of pro talent from last year, and especially after losing two preseason starters to academic matters.

None of this is breaking news. Notre Dame raced to a 6-0 start this season and was a play away from knocking off Florida State because that defense had played above its head, because it had some great injury luck, because, frankly, the competition it had played was nothing special.

Everything for these Irish hinged on Golson's arm to begin with, and his unraveling has been too much for that now-banged up defense -- and a special teams unit that remains M.I.A. -- to overcome against better competition. A Kelly offense hinges on quarterback play, and how that position shakes out with Golson and Malik Zaire will dictate everything about a 2015 Notre Dame outfit that will be more experienced than this year's, and even more seasoned than anyone had initially anticipated.

The same can be said of the rivals out west who just left these Irish beaten in a manner foreign to this regime.

"They got punched in the nose today," Kelly said Saturday. "You want to see a response too, right? They're young, but I want to see some bite, too. I want to see some bite. The bowl preparation, we're going to have to see a response. All jobs are available and we're going to have to see something from this group."

Example A may just come from, of all places, the Trojans who left them like this.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Notre Dame's offense was supposed to protect its young defense this season. Coach Brian Kelly had said as much as far back as the spring, knowing that his Fighting Irish team would be unable to escape locales such as Tallahassee, Florida, without putting points up on the board.

Now? Ten games into the season, and Notre Dame is trying to just get everyone on the same page, eradicate turnovers and get young guys up to speed as the defense gets tasked with doing more and more each week.

[+] EnlargeEverett Golson
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesEverett Golson has 19 turnovers in his past seven games, during which Notre Dame is 4-3.
Throw in the special-teams mistakes of recent weeks and you have all the ingredients for a letdown, exactly what happened in Saturday's 43-40 overtime loss to a Northwestern team that entered hanging for dear life onto the possibility of bowl eligibility.

"I expected us to be in a couple of shootouts this year where we would have to overcome offensively," Kelly said. "I just didn't expect to have nine turnovers in the last two weeks because I thought our offense would be able to bail out our defense, and that hasn't been the case. It's pretty clear what our issues are. All our guys know it. Our coaches know what they are. We've just got to go back to work and make sure we clean them up on Saturdays."

That was the case early on. Quarterback Everett Golson, despite his penchant for running with the ball exposed, did not commit a turnover through three games. Through five, Notre Dame's offense scored better than 31 points per contest while giving up just 12.

All of that nearly came unglued in a 50-43 victory over North Carolina, but that still propelled the Irish to 6-0 and into the heart of the College Football Playoff discussion entering the Florida State game.

In retrospect, that tilt with the Seminoles might have been the Irish's best showing. Or maybe that came the week before against the then-struggling Tar Heels? It has become increasingly tough to tell at this point, although UNC's 5-5 record through 10 games has it in the discussion with 5-5 Michigan, 5-5 Stanford and 5-5 Navy as Notre Dame's best win. (Apologies in advance to 6-4 Rice, the only team above .500 the Irish have beaten this season.)

Injuries to upperclassmen such as linebacker Joe Schmidt and safety Austin Collinsworth -- who returned to action Saturday for the first time since the UNC game -- have certainly hurt, forcing too much onto the plates of young players such as Nyles Morgan and Max Redfield, the latter of whom was benched Saturday in favor of Drue Tranquill.

"I feel like it's not an excuse," linebacker Jaylon Smith said of the injuries. "We all are given objectives, assignments during the week. ... It's not like we're slacking in practice. We had a great week of practice, it's just all about executing and putting it all together. Youth definitely plays a huge point, but it's not an excuse."

Turnovers are another matter, with Golson himself giving it away 19 times in his past seven games, during which Notre Dame is just 4-3. Add in the liability of the kicking game now -- Kelly said senior Kyle Brindza's confidence is shaky, a result of the Irish's inability to fix their holding situation recently -- and everyone feels the need to overcompensate.

Around and around it goes, the result as ugly as you can imagine: Per Blue and Gold Illustrated's Lou Somogyi, the unofficial team historian, Notre Dame has given up 211 points during its past five outings, a school record for a five-game stretch, well above the 166 points it gave up in five games to start the 2007 campaign.

"We have to have a great week of practice, and a great week preparing, to make sure the young guys and old guys alike are on the same page so we can get out there and get a stop," Collinsworth said ahead of Saturday's visit from Louisville. "We can't give up 40 points. I don't care what the offense does. We can't give up 40 points."
INDIANAPOLIS -- Remarkably, Purdue gave Notre Dame a good game. Again. This one was in doubt until the fourth quarter before the No. 11 Fighting Irish pulled away with a 30-14 win to improve to 3-0 and remain undefeated in Shamrock Series games. They now enter a bye week before facing Syracuse on Sept. 27 in East Rutherford, N.J.

Here are the biggest takeaways from Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium:

[+] EnlargeEverett Golson, Jalani Phillips
Michael Hickey/Getty ImagesDespite being sacked four times, Everett Golson was able to make big plays with his arm and his legs against Purdue.
1) The Irish handle "adversity" well. Yes, that was the buzzword following a 16-point win, appropriate or not. In the context of the number of injuries Notre Dame's secondary suffered, that will work, as starting cornerback Cole Luke left the game with what coach Brian Kelly said was a neck injury and safety Nicky Baratti left with yet another shoulder injury. The unit was already down safety and captain Austin Collinsworth because of a Grade 2 MCL sprain. The Irish also lost receiver Amir Carlisle early in the game with an MCL sprain, were without defensive end Andrew Trumbetti, who was still banged up from the Michigan game, and did not use starting right guard Christian Lombard, still nursing a high-ankle sprain. That doesn't include the five players suspended due to the academic probe.

But seven penalties did not help matters, especially with starting safety Max Redfield getting ejected in the second quarter for targeting, further depleting a thin secondary. Hats off to true freshman Drue Tranquill, a former Purdue commit who was thrust into plenty of meaningful action and performed well.

"He did great," Kelly said. "He doesn't know what he's doing, but he's awesome. He's running around there. I say that kiddingly because he does know what he's doing. But we're trying to really keep it simple for him out there. He was such a locked-in kid. We're able to do some things with him, and he's only been here, what, eight, 10 weeks? Where would we be without that young man? It's really pretty incredible."

2) Everett Golson's still got it going. At times, Notre Dame's offense looked like it went with the gameplan of "let Golson dance around and make something happen." More often than not, he did just that, hitting running back Greg Bryant for his first career catches -- a pair of 17-yarders off broken plays -- and finishing 25 of 40 for 259 yards with two touchdowns and, most importantly, no turnovers. Golson also was the Irish's leading rusher, notching 56 yards on the ground and another touchdown despite being sacked four times being hurried six times by the Boilermakers. His leaps will continue to be a big storyline all season long, and he now boasts a 13-1 record as a Notre Dame starting quarterback (.929), second to only Johnny Lujack (20-1-1, .932).

He has said and done all the right things off the field as well.

"I also missed a wide-open pass, I don't know if y'all watched the film," Golson said, critiquing his 15-yard touchdown run. "I definitely missed a pass. Yeah, it was good for us, we got a touchdown, but as far as me, I want to be more of a pocket-passer. I missed the pass. I just have to execute better."

3) Paging the offensive line. Far too early to hit the panic button here, but the play up front could use some improvements before Stanford comes to town Oct. 4. To be fair, the unit was missing its fifth-year senior in Lombard (Matt Hegarty replaced him), and though only one of the Irish's five offensive penalties came from a lineman (a Steve Elmer false start), Golson was sacked four times by Purdue. That number probably could have been higher if not for Golson's mobility. Notre Dame averaged just 3.7 yards per rush after averaging just 1.7 yards per rush in last week's rout of Michigan. Take away the quarterback on Saturday and that average against the Boilermakers drops to 3.46 yards per rush. Again, it is very early, but if there's one unit that needs to pick up its play as Notre Dame readies for the meat of their schedule, it is the offensive line.

"We're not sustaining," Kelly said. "I mean, we're in position. We're falling off a block here. We miss a fit here. And maybe it's just the continuity took us a little bit longer. It's nothing big, but it's everything.

"It's going to get better. They will get better. It's just we're not where we need to be. We're going to keep working, keep grinding. We'll get there. We're just not there yet. We're on the 3-yard line, we're running a double-team into the B-gap, we slip and fall. Somebody fires through the B-gap. Little things like that. They got to get cleaned up before we get to where we want to be offensively."
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- All of that drama surrounding the Notre Dame Fighting Irish the entire month was seemingly reduced to a pair of plays Saturday that yielded different results.

There was the first Everett Golson bomb to C.J. Prosise, which Prosise dropped. And there was the second Golson bomb to Prosise, which Prosise caught.

The 55-yarder was Golson making something out of nothing before launching a rocket that went right through the unguarded receiver's hands. The 53-yarder, two plays after a turnover and just five seconds before halftime, was Golson again making something out of nothing -- avoiding a sack, barely setting his feet and absorbing a hit as he threw the ball roughly 62 yards through the air and into the hands of Prosise for his first career touchdown.

[+] EnlargeEverett Golson
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesNotre Dame will need Everett Golson's big arm and big plays when Michigan visits on Saturday.
"He has a cannon, as you can see," Prosise said of Golson. "He winds up and that thing flies. It's really nice to have that."

That Golson shook off the small bit of in-game adversity to deliver Prosise his first career touchdown is one thing. That the Irish's quarterback made a pair of otherworldly throws look so routine is quite another.

Notre Dame was entering its 48-17 season-opening win against Rice under the cloud of four players being suspended as part of an internal academic probe. The Irish learned Thursday that a fifth would be held out. The same day, they lost another safety, this one a captain in Austin Collinsworth, who will also miss at least Saturday's game against Michigan with a Grade 2 MCL sprain.

They turned in about as complete of an opening-game performance as coach Brian Kelly could have hoped for, with Golson looking every bit like the key piece that can finally make this offense roll. They enter Michigan week, their last Michigan week for the forseeable future, uncertain about their five suspended players, three of whom would almost certainly be factors in a game as big as this one. The game is, seemingly, the biggest obstacle before October. It's part of a slate Kelly himself described last week as "manageable" before the heavy-hitters line up, and a game the Irish absolutely need to have if they are to go on to a successful season.

There is the anticipation of the last meeting for a while against the Wolverines, whom Kelly knows best as a team that has beaten him three times in four years. There is the Notre Dame Stadium night-game atmosphere, which has not exactly been kind to the home team since it returned in 2011 -- first with an embarrassing loss to USC, then with two strenuous wins against Michigan and USC by a combined 27-16 margin.

But the Irish should have little trouble avoiding the noise, as Kelly likes to say. They graded out spectacularly in that area in Week 1, and they had much more on their plates going into Rice than they do going into Michigan.

Kelly's answer Sunday when asked about avoiding this week's outside influences was telling:

"Similar to what I've done in past years," he said. "We really keep our focus on what our technique and our own individual work needs to get better at. For example, (Elijah) Shumate and Max Redfield, they can't be thinking about Michigan because they have to learn how to communicate better, really focus on that. Chris Brown has to do a better job of getting in and out of his breaks. We're really, really focusing on the individual and what they have to get better at this week.

"If we really focus on those things and really drill hard on those, it keeps their mind at what they need to get better at instead of thinking about big-picture items. That's kind of how we go about it. It keeps the guys so much on what will help them win."

So he mentioned Michigan, once. He mentioned little else as it relates to peripheral opponents. On the same day-after-opener teleconference last season, he had more or less fueled week-long hate talk by suggesting the Wolverines weren't a rival. Last season's Irish team, fresh off a title-game appearance, probably needed the fire lit under it more than this season's team does.

Kelly saw what this group did Saturday with bigger distractions when facing an inferior opponent. Now comes a truer test that will likely dictate what kind of season this could be.

Fighting Irish morning links

August, 29, 2014
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Well that was fun last night ...

Irish morning links

August, 27, 2014
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Congrats to Austin Collinsworth, Sheldon Day, Nick Martin and Cam McDaniel on being named captains.
» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

Previewing the 2014 season for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish:

Key returners: QB Everett Golson, RB Tarean Folston, RB Cam McDaniel, RB Greg Bryant, TE Ben Koyack, LT Ronnie Stanley, C Nick Martin, RG Christian Lombard, DT Sheldon Day, LB Jaylon Smith, LB Joe Schmidt, S Matthias Farley, S Max Redfield, S Austin Collinsworth

Key losses: QB Tommy Rees, RB George Atkinson III, WR TJ Jones, TE Troy Niklas, LT Zack Martin, LG Chris Watt, DE Stephon Tuitt, DT Louis Nix, LB Dan Fox, LB Carlo Calabrese, CB Bennett Jackson

Most important 2014 games: Sept. 6 vs. Michigan, Oct. 4 vs. Stanford, Oct. 18 at Florida State, Nov. 8 at Arizona State, Nov. 29 at USC

[+] EnlargeEverett Golson
AP Photo/Joe RaymondEverett Golson returns as the starting quarterback at Notre Dame after missing all of the past season due to issues related to academics.
Projected win percentage (from Stats & Info): 0.538 (pre-suspensions)

Over/under Vegas odds: 7.5 (pre-suspensions)

Instant impact newcomer: Redshirt senior cornerback Cody Riggs did enough this summer and in fall camp to earn a starting job after transferring from Florida. But Riggs' role has become even more important after KeiVarae Russell (and three others) were suspended amid an academic probe. Riggs is a physical, versatile corner who brings along plenty of SEC experience and has proven to be a stabilizing force in light of Russell's suspension. He will likely prove to be one of the bigger fifth-year pickups in college football this season.

High point from 2013: It certainly didn't look like it at the time, but a 17-13 victory over Michigan State on Sept. 21 proved to be a huge win for the Irish and one that might have ended up changing the landscape of the national title race. The game was ugly, with poor offensive play all afternoon. Little did anyone know the Spartans would win the rest of their games, finish 13-1 and win the Rose Bowl. How much MSU learned from that defeat is anyone's guess, but it's not a stretch to think a 13-0 Spartans squad could have been No. 2 at the end of the regular season and facing Florida State in the BCS title game. Instead, one-loss SEC champion Auburn earned the shot.

Low point from 2013: A Nov. 9 loss at Pitt was a huge letdown, as the Irish entered the game with just two defeats and BCS bowl hopes still alive. Turnovers and mental mistakes in the Steel City did them in, though -- characteristics unbecoming of a Brian Kelly team in November. When Kelly said after the season that 2013 was a good year that could've been great, it is safe to assume the Panthers game was the one at the top of his mind. A Week 2 loss at Michigan also hurt -- because a loss to Michigan always hurts. But the ramifications of the Pitt defeat were bigger.

Best-case scenario for 2014: The optimistic view sees a young Notre Dame team that does not play a true road game until Oct. 18 at Florida State. Until then, Golson and the Irish take care of business early and race to a 4-0 start before stumbling into Stanford. A back-loaded schedule makes even a confident team trip into a few road blocks, but Notre Dame manages to finish 9-3 and heads to one of the better ACC bowl games. All in all, it's a very strong season for a team facing so much uncertainty on the defensive side of the ball, especially given the camp suspensions. (We could see 10-2 and an access bowl as a best-case scenario with all of the currently suspended players on board.)

Worst-case scenario for 2014: This is a tough one to project, given the uncertainty surrounding the currently suspended Russell, DaVaris Daniels, Ishaq Williams and Kendall Moore, but the weight of those players' losses might actually be more than the sum of their parts. Yes, three are starters, and Notre Dame will struggle to replace them, but if the academic probe lingers far into the season, it creates one more obstacle for a young team that faces a very difficult schedule. Notre Dame is favored in most of its games, but it has zero cakewalks. A worst-case scenario has the Irish scrapping for bowl eligibility.

They said it: "You never want to lose any of your players, so that's always difficult. To lose any of your players, especially given the circumstances, that's always difficult. But I'm responsible for not just four players [but] 105-plus [and] over 30 support staff [members]. I've got to get going. I've got to move immediately to getting better as a program and as a football team. I don't spend much time on the past [and] don't mortgage the future. I try to stay in the present." — Kelly, on moving forward as four players serve an indefinite suspension amid Notre Dame's academic probe
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Max Redfield has finally been running with the 1s in practice, the same way he started in his most recent Notre Dame game, the same way everyone envisioned he would from Day 1, and everything seems so simple now.

Redfield has a new coordinator, a new scheme and a new opportunity. And after repeatedly feeling as if he could do no right last year, the safety has his feet under him, ready to attack a sophomore year that oozes with potential after he experienced some rookie blues.

[+] EnlargeMax Redfield
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsSafety Max Redfield, who had a total of 12 tackles, says his freshman season was a challenging one.
"I was devastated," Redfield said. "I would be the first one to tell you. It was hard to stay motivated throughout the year. I felt like I was trying to do everything I could to get on the field, but continued to make some mistakes because the defense was so detailed and so in-depth. It was very frustrating. But it kind of just humbled me that whole year, just stick to my roots and keep going."

Redfield entered Notre Dame last summer as a four-star recruit, ESPN's No. 2 athlete in the nation. He struggled to see the field, though, failing to enter the Irish's Week 2 loss at Michigan and finishing with just 12 tackles on the year.

Even when he recorded more than half of those stops over a four-game stretch entering the regular-season finale at Stanford, and even as the staff told him more time would come, and even as two safeties got suspended for that Cardinal game -- well, Redfield still barely played that night, sinking into further self-evaluation.

"Coaches obviously had a reason for everything. I'm not going to second-guess what the coaches have to say. If they feel like I shouldn't be on the field, I guess I shouldn't," Redfield said. "I obviously wanted to and tried to do everything I could to change that. But I felt like I almost wasn't good enough, which is obviously a tough feeling to have."

A start against Rutgers in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl re-kindled that fire, assuring Redfield he had at least been heading the right direction. A new defensive coordinator, Brian VanGorder, has offered Redfield a bit of a fresh start, allowing him to run and react more in the secondary.

Notre Dame loses no one from last season's safety contingent, and here the California kid is this summer with a clear head and a starting job there for the taking.

"He's made a good jump," head coach Brian Kelly said. "Max is a very gifted player. We've just got to continue on the learning curve. We have days where you miss an assignment here and you can't miss an assignment back there. We have to be vigilant in making sure that we're clean back there."

Kelly said the directing of the defense from the back end will be left primarily to fellow safety Austin Collinsworth, though Redfield has been eager to build on his enhanced role. Swimming above water is a start for now for the 6-foot-1, 198-pounder, and how far he can go from there is the intriguing part.

"I feel like I elevated my communication as well as confidence on the field," Redfield said. "Obviously being a starter and being a backup, your confidence just changes naturally. And I feel like it has to change. Being on the field, you have to have 100 percent confidence in your calls and having 100 percent knowledge of the defense to make those calls."
College football guru Phil Steele last week released his combined 2014 experience chart, which uses a formula that breaks down returning two-deep players in order to rank teams by their returning experience.

In what is probably a surprising number to many, Notre Dame comes in at No. 120 out of 128.

Now, we all know that the Irish have a lot to replace on the defensive side of the ball, where, depending on your formula, they are breaking in roughly six new starters. Offensively, too, there will be new faces in the receiving corps and, technically, under center, as Everett Golson returns after a one-season absence.

It is important to take a closer look at this formula in order to understand Notre Dame's ranking. Steele takes into account seniors who are starters and in the two-deep. The Irish do not have many of those. (And the ones that they do have are mostly redshirt juniors with another year of eligibility remaining in 2015.)

As starters, there's Golson, Cam McDaniel, DaVaris Daniels, Ben Koyack, Nick Martin and Christian Lombard on offense. And there's Ishaq Williams, Joe Schmidt and Austin Collinsworth on defense.

Four of those aforementioned players -- Golson, Daniels, Martin and Schmidt -- have eligibility remaining beyond this season. The other five don't, and Steele goes with that number in listing five senior starters for the Irish.

Other factors that Steele weighs include percentage of lettermen returning, percentage of returning offensive yards, percentage of tackles returning and returning starts on the offensive line. He goes further in-depth with these categories in his magazine.

For comparison's sake, Notre Dame ranked 65th going into the 2013 season, 65th going into 2012, 27th going into 2011, 105th going into 2010 and 17th going into 2009, which was the first year Steele used this formula.

Of course, experience does not always tell the story. Looking for promise down the list in recent years?
  • Stanford entered 2012 at 109th and won the Rose Bowl, while Northern Illinois entered at 113th and made the Orange Bowl.
  • USC entered 2011 at 102nd and went 10-2. (The Trojans were serving a bowl ban.)
  • Georgia Tech entered 2009 at 112th and made the Orange Bowl, while Boise State entered at 119th (out of 120) and ran the table, winning the Fiesta Bowl.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notre Dame mailblog

March, 28, 2014
3/28/14
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As always, submissions are welcome here or on Twitter.

Will Salvi from Chicago writes: Matt, you're the man. Chris and I are big fans. Coach [Brian] Kelly has been known to use multiple quarterbacks in the past, how likely do you think that situation is given the potential of Malik Zaire and the return of Everett Golson? Their styles seem similar, but they also have a lot of different qualities. Thoughts? Also, the safety situation is delicate, but also exciting. We have multiple safeties with plenty of experience, who do you see coming out with the most playing time. Special teams standout for next year? (I say Connor Cavalaris).Thanks, Matt. --Will

[+] EnlargeMalik Zaire
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsEven if he doesn't win the starting QB job, expect to see Malik Zaire on the field this fall.
Matt Fortuna: Is this our first mailbag submission from a former player? I believe so! Good to hear from you, Will, and thanks for the kind words. While I expect Everett Golson to be the starter come Week 1, I'd be surprised if the staff didn't find an in-game use for Zaire in some capacity; he's too talented to stand on the sideline for a second straight year. He actually has displayed a level of shiftiness that we haven't exactly seen out of Golson. And given the Irish's red zone issues in recent years, it would not surprise me at all if Zaire received some meaningful action down there in some specific packages inside the 20. As for safeties, I'd be surprised if we saw any two play significantly more than others, if only for the fact that there are so many bodies back there right now and it seems like all are going to get package-specific chances to see meaningful action. (Though I'd expect Austin Collinsworth to be the leader of that unit.) As for Connor Cavalaris, I'll be keeping a close eye on him this season and hold you to that prediction.


Kevin from Tallahassee, Fla., writes: Besides the QB battle, what is the biggest position battle to watch during spring and summer practice?

Matt Fortuna: Hey Kevin, I'd keep an eye defensively on linebacker and the secondary. Notre Dame has moved plenty of players around the field so far this spring, and we have seen much more of a 4-3 front so far. The Irish are very thin inside at linebacker but will get some re-enforcements from a healthy Jarrett Grace and the freshmen who arrive this summer. Speaking of re-enforcements, Cody Riggs will arrive from Florida this summer as well, adding further depth to a secondary that is not lacking for bodies. I don't think the eventual Week 1 depth chart will really tell the story with the Irish's defensive backs, as they have been mixing and matching their safeties (Austin Collinsworth, Elijah Shumate, Max Redfield, Nicky Baratti, to name a few) and corners (KeiVarae Russell, Cole Luke, Matthias Farley), all of whom are expected to see significant time this fall.


Kenny Moore from Bluefield, W. Va., writes: As fans we have heard Coach Kelly talk about improving special team play especially on punt returns. Please tell me this is the year it gets fixed?

Matt Fortuna: OK: This is the year it gets fixed.

As for what Kelly has had to say about it recently, here are his comments from March 19, after he said they had practiced it every day this spring: "To me, where some of our shortcomings have been is the allocation of personnel in specific roles. We're spending time in breaking out specific players in specific roles right away. We're working on those fundamentals so they can carry those fundamentals into the summer and work on those fundamentals, so when we get here in August it's not the first time that they're working on specific fundamentals. We're allocating specific players to those fundamentals."


Matt Bortuna from Philadelphia writes: Hey Matt, first off, this is my real name. Difference is Bortuna is pronounced "BORT-eh-NA", a little different than Fortuna. I have a few questions regarding the depth chart. Should us Irish fans expect Cam McDaniel to eventually ride the pine by midseason or sooner if Bryant and Folston live up to the hype? Also, who are the favorites to return kickoffs and punts? Thanks for everything, Matt. Go Irish!

Matt Fortuna: This is incredible. Too bad I don't have any relatives in Philly. Anyway, to get to your question, I don't think we'll see McDaniel riding the pine this season. While I expect Greg Bryant to make a leap and Tarean Folston to continue to build off his strong finish to last season, it would be asking an awful lot of them to become so good that they completely cast aside the team's leading returning rusher last season, especially one who's a senior. As for kickoffs and punts, I'd imagine the two second-year running backs, C.J. Prosise and a couple of other receivers will get chances in the return game, but it's important to remember that the Irish didn't announce their punt returner for last season until late August.

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- It would probably be easier to list the players Brian VanGorder wasn't asked about Wednesday during his first spring meeting with the media. And though few of the guys he discussed outside of Joe Schmidt drew heavy praise of note, it is clear that Notre Dame's new defensive coordinator is a fan of all he has in front of him.

He just knows not everything is going to click overnight.

[+] EnlargeBrian Kelly, Brian VanGorder
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsNew Fighting Irish coordinator Brian VanGorder (center) will coach a talented but young defense.
"There's a lot of mistakes out there right now, which is not unexpected," VanGorder said. "We get a lot of looks from our offense, and we're in the middle of installs, some players are getting a lot of looks being thrown at them right now. We're moving some guys around, trying to evaluate — it's an evaluation period for us, too. We're trying to find a comfort zone with respects to our players' ability and where he's going to fit best for us as we build our scheme. So a long ways to go, but I really like the players. Hard-working, they come ready each and every day. They're just a good group of players and mentally, they're fun to deal with. Good culture."

Being a veteran of 11 other college and pro stops has helped VanGorder fine-tune the installation blueprint, and he joked that he didn't know what the word "resistance" meant when asked if there had been any from his players in the early going.

But combating the coach's experience is the more versatile offense that his unit is facing every day, along with the overall greenness of a group that features just five total scholarship players entering their final seasons of eligibility (Josh Atkinson, Austin Collinsworth, Kendall Moore, Justin Utupo and Ishaq Williams).

"It's a little bit typical of some places that I've gone into," VanGorder said of the installation process, "but I guess the thing that probably stands out here is our youth, we're so young. Really young in the front seven especially. Young players. Again, so we've got to speed the process up and bring them along. That's the objective."

The 4-3 vs. 3-4 debate, meanwhile, will have to die another day, as VanGorder said he wants to be multiple and that the 4-3 base the Irish have often used through six spring practices is more a product of early installation. And he said there's no getting around the fact that it will be an uphill battle for some of the injured regulars (Jarrett Grace and Tony Springmann, among them) to become acclimated with the new system upon their expected full returns in August camp.

Still, the defensive differences from last year to this year have been enough for offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock to notice, beyond the predictably stout play from names such as Jaylon Smith and KeiVarae Russell.

"I think our defensive line as a whole has gotten more aggressive with what they’re doing," Denbrock said. "They’re playing more into the gaps and playing more up the field. Those guys kind of flash on me. I think secondary wise, there’s probably five or six or seven guys I could say, ‘Wow, I like seeing that. I like what this guy is doing. This guy is challenging the heck out of my guys and making them work.’ From Max Redfield to Matthias Farley. You guys have had the chance to see a couple practices, but even the practices you guys haven’t seen, a lot of the characters remain the same. A lot of the guys that are kind of flashing at you in the practices you’ve gotten a chance to see are doing that day in and day out and that’s obviously a tremendous thing for our football team."

Notes: VanGorder joked that his son, prep quarterback Montgomery VanGorder, joining the Irish as a preferred walk-on this summer is "great for Notre Dame." Asked if he wishes he could coach him, VanGorder said: "I learned a long time ago with my five kids, don’t coach them. They’re all athletes. It didn’t work well so I kind of backed off. Gave them things here and there but kind of let their coaches coach them and let me be dad." ... Asked for his philosophy of man coverage and pressing at the line of scrimmage, VanGorder said: "I’d love to do that. I think my mindset is to, especially in today’s game, is to take more and more control on defense by being aggressive and it starts out there. That’s where you start your decisions as a coach."
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Spring football is under way at Notre Dame. And if the snowbanks at every turn of campus weren't an indication, the sight of a No. 5 throwing footballs in a red jersey again sure was.

Yes, all eyes were on Everett Golson during his first Irish practice in nearly a year, with Avicii's "Levels" blasting once stretching was done and the tempo drill was under way. The media was able to view the first 30 minutes of practice from a balcony in the Loftus Sports Complex, with Golson and the offense running tempo on the far end of the field and the defense getting into gear right below us.

Golson is set to meet the media after practice for the first time since his return to school so we will have more on him later on Monday. As for what could be gathered about his weapons with the 2014 season still far away …
We'll have more later on Monday, as Golson will be joined by seven other players, plus coach Brian Kelly, following the completion of spring practice No. 1.
Brian Kelly spent the first 37 minutes of his national signing day press conference talking about the 23 players who signed with Notre Dame. Whether that will be it for the Irish remains to be seen.

"We're open to going beyond the 23," Kelly said Wednesday.

The answer will likely come at 4 ET, when ESPN four-star athlete John "JuJu" Smith (Long Beach, Calif./Long Beach Poly) announces his college decision live on ESPNU.

Notre Dame currently stands at 84 scholarships, as it welcomed back 56 players from last season's team, 23 recruits from the 2014 class and, as Kelly said, five fifth-year players: Austin Collinsworth, Christian Lombard, Kendall Moore, Justin Utupo and Luke Massa, whose return had not been previously reported.

Kelly stressed the education process at Notre Dame more than usual, as he was dealing with three underclassmen who declared for the NFL draft early after the 2013 season.

He said he would have a serious problem recruiting a kid who said that his intentions were to stay for just three years.

"If they want to come here just to hang their hat to play football and go to the NFL, we passed on some pretty good players," he said.

Kelly, who gave an honest assessment of not casting a wide enough net on the defensive line, also made a pretty definitive statement that four-star offensive guard recruit Sam Mustipher (Olney, Md./Our Lady of Good Counsel) would be staying on the offensive line.

Where ND players stood as recruits

February, 4, 2014
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We are one day away from national signing day, an occasion packed with promise. As we noticed last week when looking at the Ultimate 300, some prospects meet their potential better than others.

Recruiting is an inexact science, as projects such as the Ultimate 300 reveal, and as many rosters filled with blue-chip prospects show, too.

[+] EnlargeJaylon Smith
AP Photo/Scott BoehmJaylon Smith was the only five-star recruit among Notre Dame's starters last season.
Look no further than Notre Dame, which currently has Recruiting Nation's No. 11 overall haul for the Class of 2014, down from No. 4 last season. The Irish were No. 9 in 2012, No. 9 in 2011, No. 21 in 2010 and No. 14 in 2009.

The 2009-13 classes made up the 2013 Notre Dame roster. So, using Recruiting Nation's rankings, we will take a look back at this past season's (general) starters to see where they stood as recruits.

The numbers? Notre Dame had one five-star recruit, six four-star recruits, 11 three-star recruits and one two-star recruit.

(Note: ESPN did not use the star system until 2010.)

Offense

  • QB Tommy Rees, Lake Forest (Ill.) High: Three stars, No. 19 QB, Class of 2010. Scout grade: 79
  • RB: George Atkinson III, Granada (Calif.) High: Three stars, No. 40 ATH, Class of 2011. Scout grade: 79
  • WR: TJ Jones, Gainesville (Ga.) High: Four stars, No. 68 overall prospect, Class of 2010. Scout grade: 81
  • WR: DaVaris Daniels, Vernon Hills (Ill.) High: Four stars, No. 65 overall prospect, Class of 2011. Scout grade: 81
  • WR: Chris Brown, Hanahan (S.C.) High: Three stars, No. 66 WR, Class of 2012. Scout grade: 78
  • TE: Troy Niklas, Servite (Calif.) High: Three stars, No. 19 TE, Class of 2011. Scout grade: 79
  • T: Zack Martin, Indianapolis Bishop Chatard High: No. 109 overall prospect, Class of 2009. Scout grade: 81
  • T: Ronnie Stanley, Las Vegas Bishop Gorman High: Four stars, No. 34 OT, Class of 2012. Scout grade: 79
  • G: Chris Watt, Glenbard West (Ill.) High: No. 68 overall prospect, Class of 2009. Scout grade: 82
  • G: Christian Lombard, Williams Fremd (Ill.) High: Three stars, No. 20 OT, Class of 2010. Scout grade: 79
  • C: Nick Martin, Bishop Chatard (Ind.) High: Three stars, No. 39 OT, Class of 2011. Scout grade: 78
Defense

  • DE: Stephon Tuitt, Monroe (Ga.) High: Four stars, No. 90 overall prospect, Class of 2011. Scout grade: 81
  • DE: Sheldon Day, Indianapolis Warren Central High: Four stars, No. 143 overall prospect, Class of 2012. Scout grade: 80
  • NG: Louis Nix, Jacksonville (Fla.) Raines High: Four stars, No. 64 overall prospect, Class of 2010. Scout grade: 81
  • LB: Prince Shembo, Charlotte (N.C.) Ardrey Kell High: Three stars, No. 47 DE, Class of 2010, Scout grade: 78
  • LB: Dan Fox, Cleveland St. Ignatius High: No. 76 OLB, Class of 2009. Scout grade: 76
  • LB: Carlo Calabrese, Verona (N.J.) High: No. 12 ILB, Class of 2009. Scout grade: 78
  • LB: Jaylon Smith, Fort Wayne (Ind.) Bishop Luers High: Five stars, No. 7 overall prospect, Class of 2013. Scout grade: 90
  • CB: Bennett Jackson, Hazlet (N.J.) Raritan High: Three stars, No. 97 WR, Class of 2010. Scout grade: 77
  • CB: KeiVarae Russell, Everett (Wash.) Mariner High: Three stars, No. 28 RB, Class of 2012. Scout grade: 79
  • S: Matthias Farley, Charlotte Christian (N.C.) High: Three stars, No. 92 ATH, Class of 2011. Scout grade: 77
  • S: Austin Collinsworth, Highlands (Ky.) High: Two stars, No. 121 S, Class of 2010. Scout grade: 74
Special Teams

  • K/P: Kyle Brindza, Plymouth (Mich.) High: Three stars, No. 6 K, Class of 2011. Scout grade: 79

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