Notre Dame Football: Christian Lombard

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."
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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

Irish kick camp off at Culver

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CULVER, Ind. -- Brian Kelly spending the day with the wide receivers was probably the biggest oddity emerging from Day 1 of Notre Dame fall camp. Everett Golson returned to run the first-team offense Monday, the defense's "D-Boys" chant went on without coordinator Bob Diaco and the punt returners could probably do a better job of fielding undefended kicks, first day of practice or not.

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.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame's Everett Golson
AP Photo/Joe RaymondEverett Golson was running the first-team offense on Monday.
"It was good, it was fun for me," Kelly said after the two-hour padless session, the entirety of which was open to reporters. "Obviously you're in this business because you want to teach and being able to get in here and just give them a good base and foundation and some of the fundamentals, I think we've got really top notch athletes at that position. Just really spending a little more time with fundamentals on releases, transition, some of the things I think can really help them develop a solid foundation, they've got a great skill set."

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:
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — If Everett Golson thought his whirlwind experience from his lone season of playing at Notre Dame was enough to earn back his starting job, he was sadly mistaken.

"I would argue that Everett rode the bus to the championship," a smiling Brian Kelly said of Golson and the Irish's 12-1 campaign in 2012, serving caution to the idea that this is a quarterback competition in name only.

Kelly, who unofficially kicked off the 2014 preseason Friday for the Irish with his pre-camp news conference, addressed several pressing topics, though none as frequent as the battle between Golson and Malik Zaire to start under center Aug. 30 against Rice.

[+] EnlargeEverett Golson
Joel Auerbach/Getty ImagesEverett Golson still has a fight on his hands to return as the starting quarterback at Notre Dame.
"I think in an ideal world, I think every coach would want one quarterback that has clearly demonstrated a consistency, great leadership, and the ability to take you to a championship," Kelly said. "And so if that guy shows himself, I'm ready to name him the quarterback on that day. So I'm not playing a game where we are trying to create artificial competition within the ranks. I think we still have competition for that particular role to show itself.

"I think it can show itself and when it does, we'll be ready to make that declaration. It just has not shown itself yet, but I'm confident that it will, and when it does, we'll be ready to make that call."

The last time Kelly entered camp with a quarterback conundrum, two years ago, he ultimately chose Golson over three others nine days before the season opener. The fifth-year Notre Dame coach said he would likely name a starter by that time period once again this year, adding that having two quarterbacks with similar skill sets has made life much easier for all offensively.

"This is the first time that we don't have to have two scripts for two quarterbacks," Kelly said. "They are running the same plays and that is a huge advantage in terms of building that consistency throughout the ranks for everybody, from the offensive line, for the receivers, to the quarterback."

Notre Dame's run to the national title game in the 2012 season was led, of course, by its defense, with Golson, then a redshirt freshman, managing the offense. But his return to the program this spring following an academic-related suspension last fall has been met by a stiff challenge from Zaire, a left-handed redshirt freshman who has said and done all of the right things up to this point.

With fall camp commencing Monday at Culver Military Academy — where Notre Dame will hold its first week of practices — the race between the two will resume.

Not that Kelly minds the competition.

"I'm not in here complaining about our quarterback position," Kelly said. "I'm actually pretty excited that I have two guys that are moving in a very good direction."

Injury items: Defensive lineman Tony Springmann's football career is over because of a back issue. The redshirt junior had been rehabbing from an ACL tear and an ensuing infection initially suffered during last year's preseason camp, and he will go on a medical scholarship. … In better news, linebacker Jarrett Grace is "close" to being ready for the season after a pair of right leg surgeries following the breaking of his tibia and fibula in an Oct. 5 victory over Arizona State. … Tight end Mike Heuerman (hernia) is out for a month. … Kelly was pleased with the recoveries of Nick Martin (MCL), Christian Lombard (wrist) and Ben Councell (ACL) following season-ending injuries last season, as each appear to be fine. Kelly said that Martin, like his brother Zack before him, is now the clear leader of the offensive line. … Tight end Ben Koyack underwent offseason shoulder surgery, but Kelly said he is fine.

Other notes: Kelly said freshman linebacker Nile Sykes, who transferred to Indiana shortly after enrolling at Notre Dame, "wasn't the right fit," though he did nothing wrong with the Irish and was given a recommendation upon his departure. … Kelly praised DaVaris Daniels' physical and mental maturity following the receiver's spring exile for academic reasons, adding: "I think we saw some really good signs and we want to be able to see that every day." … Florida cornerback transfer Cody Riggs has rounded into better shape physically since he arrived this summer, with Kelly praising his approach: "He's a Notre Dame man." … Kelly also praised Johnny Lujack, who is recovering from spinal surgery, saying he has been struck by the former Heisman winner's humor in all situations.
Brian Kelly will unofficially kick off the 2014 Notre Dame season at noon Friday when he meets with the media. The Irish will start fall practice Monday at Culver Military Academy in Culver, Indiana, with 10 players speaking afterward. The team will return to South Bend for practice next Saturday.

Here are three pressing questions as camp gets underway:

1) What is the timetable for naming a starting QB? Kelly has been adamant all along that this is a real competition between Everett Golson and Malik Zaire, and both players have echoed that. Zaire certainly isn't going away quietly, but it is hard to discount the experience Golson has. Two years ago, when the Irish entered camp with four signal callers jockeying for position, Kelly anointed Golson the No. 1 guy nine days before the opener. Don't be surprised if this race drags on a little bit longer. (And let's not forget DeShone Kizer will be taking snaps, too, though he obviously has plenty of ground to make up.)

2) What is the status of Jarrett Grace? The last we heard, Notre Dame planned to be aggressive with Grace in his recovery from a second knee surgery, when he had a rod inserted into his right knee on March 28. Kelly sounded as though the options were getting him healthy for the opener or getting him ready to compete for a starting spot. Grace, who had broken the tibia and fibula during an Oct. 5 win at Arizona State, would provide a huge boost to a thin inside linebacker corps should he be at full-strength during camp.

3) What's next for the offensive line? Despite the losses of left-side bedrocks and NFL draft picks in Zack Martin and Chris Watt, Notre Dame enters camp with more quality depth up front than it has in recent years. The sure things appear to be the returning starters: Ronnie Stanley at left tackle, Nick Martin at center and Christian Lombard at right guard. After that, well, Steve Elmer will probably start off at left guard, but might be better-suited for right tackle, where 6-foot-7 redshirt freshman Mike McGlinchey impressed this spring. And if Elmer ends up at right tackle, that leaves the door open for Matt Hegarty or Conor Hanratty to start at left guard. Both players saw extensive action last season, and Hegarty actually played center in place of the injured Martin both down the stretch last season and throughout the spring.

What else are you itching to hear from Kelly about from with football right around the corner?
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Few would blame Matt Hegarty had he hung his head entering this spring. The redshirt junior has had a roller-coaster ride at Notre Dame, from seeing the perfect regular season of 2012 cut short due to a series of mini-strokes to being thrust into role of starting center for the Fighting Irish's final two games last season.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"(Hegarty's) had a really good spring. We want to give him a chance to compete at left guard," Kelly said. "So if that's the case, are we better with him at left guard and Elmer at right tackle, or better with McGlinchey at right tackle and Elmer at guard? So if you want to boil it down, it's who's the left guard with Elmer at right tackle, or Elmer at left guard and McGlinchey at right tackle? So that's going to kind of sort itself out in preseason camp."
Before Notre Dame opened spring practice earlier this month, Brian Kelly spoke of trying to find leaders on a young team with plenty of moving parts. Two weeks and just three practices later, that theme might be pushed to the back burner as the Irish search for identity within their personnel first.

[+] EnlargeBrian Kelly
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsHead coach Brian Kelly said Notre Dame players will focus on their positions this spring and on leadership over the summer.
"I normally would tell you in our first kind of get-together, it was really working on that leadership piece with our team, but our guys are so focused on their own deal right now, getting their own position work down, their own house in order," the fifth-year Irish coach said Wednesday. "They've got a lot of things going on, so that I think really what is most important is we get our handle on our personnel and really develop those guys at their positions right now. We'll spend some time in June, now that we have some time with our guys, we'll spend June really as that opportunity to develop that leadership with our guys.

"This spring is really going to be individually about gaining some consistency at those positions and who those guys are. I think that's how the spring needs to go for us."

Position changes have been common under Kelly, who noted that receiver-turned-safety James Onwualu could see time on both sides of the ball. Other players, such as safety-turned-linebacker John Turner and safety-turned-corner Matthias Farley, could carve out niches within Notre Dame's defensive packages.

Kelly was happy to see his players return from spring break in one piece and locked in on practice. The schedule laid out was less than ideal this spring, with Easter not until April 20 and with the school's break this past week, forcing the Irish to start practices earlier than normal (March 3 and 5) before going their separate ways for two weeks.

"I think they got away, they recharged their batteries, they enjoyed themselves, but they were mature enough to know that when they came back, they had some work to do," Kelly said. "I didn't feel like we took a step back in any fashion."

Notes: Right guard Christian Lombard left practice early after spraining his wrist. Conor Hanratty replaced him. ... Notre Dame has not abandoned its search for reliable special-teams play. Kelly said he has broken out players into specific roles to ease the transition once fall camp arrives. "I don't know if you watched us, but we haven't been very good at special teams," he said.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The opening question to Christian Lombard, per protocol, was about which position he preferred playing, guard or tackle. The response, also per protocol, was that the redshirt senior is fine wherever his coaches choose to line him up.

But the biggest questions surrounding Notre Dame's fluid offensive line situation don't revolve around whether Lombard will be in the starting lineup. He will start, that much appears certain. And, if the first 30 minutes of the Fighting Irish's first spring practice are any indication, it might very well be at right guard for the second straight season.

A more pressing question comes on the left side, where Notre Dame replaces a pair of bedrocks in Zack Martin and Chris Watt, NFL-bound linemen who started 52 and 37 games, respectively. Ronnie Stanley and Steve Elmer took the first reps at left tackle and left guard, respectively, but filling the leadership void of the departed seniors is a task that will ultimately fall on Lombard.

"He was an example guy," Lombard said of Martin, a two-time captain. "He definitely talked, too, but he was the same guy in and out every single day. Consistency was his big deal. Guys would try and emulate what he would do, coming in with that professional attitude, like he's going to be at the next level. He was just a professional all the way around."

The soft-spoken Lombard sees a similar approach in himself, and it's one he'll have no choice but to take on given his seniority over Stanley (redshirt sophomore), Elmer (sophomore) and right tackle Mike McGlinchey (redshirt freshman).

Stanley occupied the spot next to Lombard last season before the latter missed the final six games after undergoing back surgery. Elmer was essentially all over the place in 2013, playing everything but center over the course of the season.

Meanwhile, the 6-foot-7», 300-pound McGlinchey has impressed behind the scenes after redshirting during his first season on campus, with Lombard quipping that the tackle's stamina is so impressive that "he could practice for 48 hours straight."

"He's a tough, physical kid," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said of McGlinchey. "Toughness, mental toughness, physical toughness. Long, athletic. He's got all the tools. He just needs experience and time, and he's fighting to get on the field. It's a very competitive situation. He's got all the tools necessary for him to be a starter for us.

"It's going to be time and place: When is that time, and when does he get that opportunity?"

Redshirt junior Matt Hegarty was the starting center Tuesday, filling in for injured classmate Nick Martin.
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.

Position battles to watch: No. 3

February, 19, 2014
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Our series looking at the top position battles this spring shifts to a position that has been recruited like few others by the Irish in recent years.

Left side of the offensive line

[+] EnlargeMatt Hegarty
AP Photo/Scott BoehmMatt Hegarty stepped in at center to close 2013, and he could work his way into the startling lineup in 2014.
There are few quantifiable ways to measure the impact Zack Martin and Chris Watt brought to Notre Dame during their times manning the left tackle and left guard spots, respectively. Martin won the team's best offensive lineman award four years running, breaking the school record for most starts (52) along the way. He will likely be a first-round draft pick. Watt was every bit as consistent, starting 37 games and playing in 50.

It will be strange, at the very least, to see Notre Dame trot out an offensive line with neither. And while it is probably asking two newcomers a bit much to come in and immediately replace the production of those two bedrocks, the Irish do have viable options with starting experience.

Steve Elmer got plenty of action last season as a true freshman, starting four games at right guard in place of Christian Lombard (back). So, too, did Conor Hanratty as a redshirt sophomore, as he started two games at left guard in place of Watt and two more at right guard. These two are likely the frontrunners to man the left side, considering Elmer also has plenty of experience at tackle as well.

One person to keep an eye on: Matt Hegarty, who filled in for Nick Martin at center, starting the season's final two games. Hegarty will probably be the guy again this spring as Martin recovers from an MCL tear, and perhaps could play his way into another starting spot when Martin returns in the fall.

As for the right side? Lombard is back for a fifth year and on his way to full health after starting at right guard in 2013 and right tackle in 2012. Ronnie Stanley is back for his redshirt sophomore year as well after starting all 13 games at right tackle last season, so there is much more certainty and stability on that side for the Irish moving ahead to 2014.
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.
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
Brian Kelly reiterated Friday that he will again call plays next season. New quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur will have full autonomy over his signal callers in the meeting room. And new offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock will put it all together and oversee the entire offense.

That was the blueprint laid out during a joint news conference to announce Notre Dame's finalized staff for the 2014 season, with LaFleur coming over from the Washington Redskins and Denbrock adding more to his plate after coaching the Irish's outside receivers for the past two seasons (and tight ends in the two seasons before that).

[+] EnlargeBrian Kelly
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesHead coach Brian Kelly will call the plays this fall for Notre Dame.
"We're transitioning back to an offense that I feel is best suited for the personnel that we have, and I think it's important to really get that philosophy and influence back into the offense, and I know it the best," Kelly said. "And then, once we're able to lay that in there, I think it will give everyone a great visual look of what that offense will look like, and I think it starts with me. I think it's important that if I want that offense to have the look, it's important that I have the influence in some fashion, and this is the best way to do it."

Kelly also shed some light on personnel matters, saying that linebacker Doug Randolph (shoulder), end Chase Hounshell (shoulder) and offensive lineman John Montelus (shoulder) were all expected to be ready for spring ball come March 3. Safety Nicky Baratti, who, like the other three players, missed all of 2013 with a shoulder injury, will be cleared for contact this spring but might be held until the fall as a precautionary measure.

Defensive lineman Tony Springman (ACL, infection) is progressing but has not been cleared for spring ball just yet after missing all of 2013, nor has linebacker Jarrett Grace (broken leg), with Kelly saying that Grace's recovery is taking a bit more time because he broke a bone in four different places when he left the field Oct. 5 against Arizona State.

Kelly did add that linebacker Ben Councell (ACL) and center Nick Martin (MCL) are both exceeding expectations, though neither is expected to be available this spring after suffering their injuries late in the season.

Notes: Kelly said that Notre Dame will still operate out of a 3-4 base under new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, though it will again be about a 50-50 split based on personnel. … Fifth-year players will not be announced until after national signing day, following usual protocol, though Kelly said those players know where they stand. ESPN.com and other outlets have reported that Austin Collinsworth, Christian Lombard, Kendall Moore and Justin Utupo are the four fifth-year players who will be back for 2014. … Kelly said he still needs to fill out one more graduate assistant position. Former Irish and NFL safety Kyle McCarthy tweeted earlier Friday that he will be a GA this season.

Notre Dame mailblog

January, 24, 2014
Jan 24
9:00
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It has been a while. What's on your minds?

Scott from St. Joseph, Mich., writes: Matt, disagree about Michigan State easily being the highlight of the season. The game was marred with questionable penalties and calling by MSU's staff. To me the highlight of the season was the second-half defense against USC. Being able to beat your biggest rival basically without a functional QB and on the hands of a defensive performance remnant of '12 was the highlight of the year for me.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame Celebration
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesPulling out a victory over Rose Bowl champion Michigan State was the biggest achievement for Notre Dame in 2013.
Matt Fortuna: I think both performances, to be fair, were far from aesthetically pleasing. And yes, we have to give Notre Dame's defense plenty of credit for its play in both games. But the circumstances are too big to ignore here. By beating Michigan State, Notre Dame helped reshape the national title picture. It was the only team to beat a very good Spartans squad, one that ended up winning the Rose Bowl. While it's always big to beat your archrival, let's also remember that USC was without Marqise Lee for the second half, committed 11 penalties and missed two field goals (from 40 and 46 yards), too. And I just can't erase the memory of the Fighting Irish offense coming to a standstill once Tommy Rees went down. No points from either team in the final 30 minutes of a primetime game? No thank you.

Matt from Pittsburgh writes: Matt, O-line starting 5 from LT-RT: Elmer, Hanratty, Martin, Lombard, Stanley? Also how do you see the D-line and linebackers forming out?

Matt Fortuna: That would probably be my early guess, though I'll keep a close eye on that group this spring since Martin will still be out. Matt Hegarty started at center in his place but provides plenty of flexibility, too, so it will be interesting to see where he fits into the picture next fall. My guess for defensive line would be Sheldon Day, Jarron Jones and Isaac Rochell, only because I don't know how ready Tony Springmann (ACL, infection) is. If he's 100 percent, it's easy to see him starting. And I'm anxious to watch Chase Hounshell, who saw the field as a true freshman in 2011 but has missed the last two seasons with shoulder injuries. Same with Jarrett Grace at the mike linebacker position (probably not this spring), with possibly Kendall Moore starting next to him. Jaylon Smith (dog) and Ishaq Williams (cat) will be expected to start if and when Brian VanGorder employs a 3-4 scheme, though he said last week he had not delved into schematics yet. Could we see Williams and/or Romeo Okwara play on the line some more? And where will Ben Councell fit into the picture once he's back from his ACL tear?

Jim from Chicago writes: Matt, What role do you see Torii Hunter Jr. having next year? Seemed to be the most athletic freshman WR before the injury. Can he work his way into the rotation with Daniels out in spring ball?

Matt Fortuna: He's the guy on offense, outside of Everett Golson, whom I most want to see this spring. The opportunities will be there for the taking with Daniels gone until the fall, and Hunter was able to battle back from that nasty leg injury to win offensive scout team player of the year. I'm also curious to see what kind of improvements Corey Robinson can make, given his size and potential. In limited practice viewings he seemed to be always making plays, but in games this season there were times where he looked like he could've used a couple of extra pounds.

Chris Kosiak (@C_K_42) writes: Justin Brent going to push for playing time next year? Or does he RS?

Matt Fortuna: It's probably too early to say, though, like Hunter, he'll have a great opportunity to showcase himself this spring with Daniels out. Last year Robinson and James Onwualu enrolled early and ended up taking advantage of the spring transfers of Davonte Neal and Justin Ferguson, resulting in playing time during the 2013 season. Notre Dame's receiving corps was young then and is young again now, so playing time will likely be there for the taking.

Michael Hughes (@designwithmike) writes: More important to ND success in '14: Red-zone execution or finding good to great defensive leadership?

Matt Fortuna: Good question. I'll go with red-zone execution, since I expect this Notre Dame team to rely much more on its offense than it has so far in the Brian Kelly era. And that means the Irish will have to capitalize on more red-zone opportunities and score more points. With Golson back at the helm after a semester spent training with quarterback guru George Whitfield Jr. and an improving backfield, I think you'll see the Irish take more chances offensively. None of this is to minimize the importance of defensive leadership, but that's just such an unknown factor at this point, especially since we have yet to see these players get coached by and respond to VanGorder, who seems nothing like Bob Diaco from a personality standpoint.
Notre Dame will return four players for their fifth seasons in 2014, as Austin Collinsworth, Christian Lombard, Kendall Moore and Justin Utupo will all be back with the team, sources confirmed to ESPN.com.

IrishIllustrated.com first reported the news.

Collinsworth and Lombard had been widely expected to return given their career production with the Fighting Irish, as Collinsworth started 11 games at safety in 2013 and led the team with three interceptions. Lombard started all 13 games at right tackle during Notre Dame's 12-1 season in 2012 before moving to right guard this past fall, when he started the first seven games of the season before being shut down following back surgery to repair a herniated disc.

Moore and Utupo, meanwhile, saw their value increase down the stretch during 2013, as injuries mounted on defense.

Moore, an inside linebacker, tallied 17 total tackles in 2013, including one for loss, to go with an interception and a pass defended. He has 43 total tackles for his career, including three for loss.

Utupo, a defensive end, notched seven total tackles, including one for loss, this past fall.

Collinsworth, the son of NFL commentator Cris Collinsworth, will be Notre Dame's fourth-leading returning tackler from last season, having tallied 43 total stops in 2013, including 0.5 for loss. He added three passes defended and three quarterback hurries -- one of which, on Michigan's Devin Gardner, led to a pass that Stephon Tuitt picked off in the end zone for a pick-six back in Week 2.

Collinsworth earned the Irish's special teams player of the year honors in 2011 and played in all 26 games in 2010 and 2011 before missing 2012 because of shoulder and back surgeries. He has 68 total tackles for his career, plus a forced fumble.

The return of these four players, plus the 22 committed recruits from the Class of 2014, ups Notre Dame's scholarship number to 82 players, as the Irish were set to return 56 scholarship players in 2014. Two of those recruits, ESPN 300 receiver Justin Brent (Speedway, Ind./Speedway) and ESPN 300 defensive end Andrew Trumbetti (Demarest, N.J./Demarest), enrolled at Notre Dame early and started spring classes Tuesday.

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