Notre Dame Football: Steve Elmer

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."

Irish kick camp off at Culver

August, 4, 2014
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:

Three pre-camp questions for ND

July, 31, 2014
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?
Our five-man panel used a formula earlier this week to determine that Notre Dame is the No. 9 college football program set up for the next three years. Brian Fremeau and his Football Outsiders team tried something similar, using their own formula.

Using their weighted five-year program ratings — relying on program trajectory as a better indicator than previous-year data — the group lists its top 10 future programs, along with the next five.

The differences are pretty eye-opening. And Notre Dame does not make the list.

That's hardly the biggest difference between the two lists, with other teams appearing on one and not the other, while others see their positions roughly 10 places apart in the separate rankings.

As always, it's interesting to see who excels in different categories, and how each program is set up for the future, as Fremeau and his team project future win percentage and playoff likelihood for the next three years as well.

As for the rest of the links to get you into your weekend ...

Starting O-line on ND camp agenda

April, 17, 2014
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."

Notre Dame mailblog

April, 11, 2014
One more time before the spring game ...

Derrick from Warsaw, Ill., writes: Matt, first off, thanks for doing such a great job covering the Irish! I always look forward to reading everything you write! My question is, with all the great options the Irish have at running back heading into the season, how do you see everything going at the running back position? Will one guy get the lion's share of the carries? Do they go with the hot hand? Or will each guy get a fairly equal share of touches? Thanks! And keep up the great work!

Matt Fortuna: Thanks for the kind words, Derrick. I think everyone will get a fair share early. Cam McDaniel is obviously the veteran of the group and will probably "start" the season with the first unit, but I don't see it being a traditional 1-2-3 pecking order. I said it last year (and was wrong) and will say it again now: I do think the bulk of the workload will go to Greg Bryant if he's playing near the top of his game. After all of his talk this spring about being "hungry and humbled," I think the light will click on for him in 2014.

Brian Henighan from Medina, Ohio, writes: During the practices leading up to the Pinstripe Bowl, we heard a lot about how Torii Hunter was looking very good. There was some good hype around this kid before and after his injury. Spring practices are now nearly over and I haven't heard his name mentioned one time. How is he doing/progressing? It's just strange for his name to completely disappear lately.

Matt Fortuna: Brian, I was actually wondering the same thing recently, as he rebounded from his leg injury last year to win offensive scout team player of the year: Here's what offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock said when I asked him Monday: "He is absolutely physically very gifted, and right in the mix with all those young guys as far as what we feel like he can do potentially down the road. Like a lot of young guys, the more he sees things, the more he does things, the better he's going to be. He's not where we need him to be yet, but you can see so many positive things that are going to happen there moving forward. We're just trying to speed up the process as fast as we can."

[+] EnlargeTommy Rees
Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY SportsTommy Rees' legacy at Notre Dame will likely grow with time.
Jeremy from Bethlehem, Ga., writes: Hey Matt, great job on the blog! I was curious on your take of Tommy Rees' legacy. He has been on the losing side of some games that they should have won, like Stanford. But he has won some big games in his career, such as against No. 14 Utah in 2010, being the closer in 2012 to go on to the BCS championship game, and against Michigan State this past year.

Matt Fortuna: Jeremy, like most things, I think it will only grow with time. Sure, a lot of the turnovers are what stick out in most fans' minds right now, but you have to look at the bigger picture. Notre Dame had flat-out awful quarterback luck in three of Rees' four seasons there. And yet, the Irish were lucky beyond relief to have a guy like Rees who not only knew, but embraced his role, stepping in unfazed every step of the way. And in the one year they had good quarterback luck, in 2012? That 12-0 regular season doesn't happen without Rees being the great teammate he was, relieving the guy who took his job and leading the Irish to some crucial wins. Speaking of which, that locker room absolutely loved him, which speaks louder to anything the rest of us could say.

Thomas Witty from Northbrook, Ill., writes: Hey Matt! I've been looking at the offensive line for this year and it seems like there is a lot of talent overall. I've seen on various sites that they have Ronnie Stanley and Mike McGlinchey playing tackle, but do you think Steve Elmer could get a chance, too? Also, I was excited last year when they got Hunter Bivin because he seemed like a great player. How do you see him factoring into the mix in the coming years/this year? Lastly, it seems that the talent of the offensive line has increased a lot. Do you think the offensive line could change from good to great in the coming years or even this year? As always, I love reading your blog!

Matt Fortuna: Thanks for the kind words, Thomas. Brian Kelly actually addressed this topic Wednesday, saying that the left guard spot could very well be affected by the right tackle spot, which would be between Elmer and McGlinchey. That could provide an opening at left guard for Matt Hegarty, who has plenty of experience across the line and has filled in at center for Nick Martin this spring. As for the depth question, we'e seen Notre Dame sign nine offensive linemen across the 2013 and 2014 recruiting classes. So while the numbers are down this spring -- especially on days such as Wednesday, when Elmer had a stomach ailment and the Irish were down to eight healthy offensive linemen -- the addition of four more come fall camp should be a big boost to this group's daily progress.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- A series with Georgia would only be natural for Brian Kelly as he has seen Notre Dame win several important recruiting battles in the Peach State and knows the exposure in the region would only benefit his program.

[+] EnlargeBrian Kelly
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesNotre Dame coach Brian Kelly thinks a series with Georgia would be good for recruiting.
"Well I know that there's been some talk. I’ve heard some rumblings about it," the Notre Dame coach said Wednesday of a potential home-and-home with the Bulldogs, which was reported on Tuesday. "All I know is that my talks with [athletic director] Jack [Swarbrick] is we’re looking for matchups down the road that geographically make sense to us. That Atlanta area, that SEC area in Atlanta is a big area. We’ve hit Dallas, obviously. We know that that’s a great area for us. We’re going to keep looking for geographical areas that make sense. We've got to look at geographical areas that we’re recruiting.

"Atlanta is one of those areas that we've got to keep getting in. We're going to play Georgia Tech. So by process of elimination, if we’re talking SEC and we’re talking Atlanta, the next team that would pop up, it would seem to be Georgia. But we haven’t talked any specifics about a contract, or years or anything like that. So I think everything that’s out there is really speculative right now. Nobody’s come to me and said, ‘Hey we’ve got a team, we’ve got a date.’ "

Notre Dame associate athletic director John Heisler said Tuesday that the school was exploring a series with Georgia, but that the dates were to be determined, this after's Jeremy Fowler reported that both schools were working to finalize a home-and-home for 2018 and 2019.

Former Irish standouts Stephon Tuitt and TJ Jones are among the more recent recruiting successes Notre Dame has had in the state of Georgia, which also produced current sophomore end Isaac Rochell.

Notre Dame will host Georgia Tech in 2015 and will likely head to Atlanta to face the Yellow Jackets sometime between 2017-19, based on the five-ACC-opponents-per-season deal that the Irish struck with the league for 2014 and beyond. They currently have a full schedule through 2016.

Notes: Steve Elmer missed Wednesday's practice with a stomach ailment, forcing Mark Harrell to first-team center, which forced Matt Hegarty to left guard. Kelly expects Elmer to play in Saturday's Blue-Gold Game. ... The spring game will feature two 12-minute quarters with normal stoppage time, then two 15-minute quarters on a running clock. Halftime will be 15 minutes. There will be no play clock, no overtime and no kickoffs. Quarterbacks will not be live, each possession will begin at the offense's 35-yard line and all punts will be fair caught, which prompted Kelly to quip: "I’m sure we’ll drop three of them, and the internet will blow up on the punt returns." The scoring system, meanwhile, will pit the offense vs. the defense. The offense can earn points via field goal (3), touchdown (6), extra point (1), two-point conversion (2), 20-plus-yard completions (2), 15-plus-yard runs (2) and two consecutive first downs (2). The defense earns points for stops before the 50 (4), stops after the 50 (2), turnovers forced before the 50 (7), turnovers forced after the 50 (3), forcing a field goal (1, make or miss) and three-and-outs (2).

Irish lunch links

April, 2, 2014
Tough, tough news for Natalie Achonwa and the Irish.
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
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.

Notre Dame mailblog

January, 24, 2014
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.

Irish lunch links

November, 14, 2013
Yes, please.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- A normally reserved pass-rushing menace, Stephon Tuitt had trouble containing a smile when asked if he was eager to see what Notre Dame's defense could do with his two right-hand men next to him at full-strength.

"When that time comes," the 6-foot-6, 312-pound defensive end said, "it comes."

A four-year starter at left tackle, Zack Martin gave less ground when asked about being the lone veteran along the Irish's first-team offensive line last week.

"I never really thought about it during the game," the two-time captain said, "because we've got guys getting reps in practice and coaches throwing different guys in there and getting different groups in there just to be ready."

[+] EnlargeLouis Nix III
Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesWith Louis Nix III expected back Saturday, the Irish will have their full complement along the D-line.
In any event, Tuitt and Martin are expected to get reinforcements Saturday at Pitt. Sheldon Day and Louis Nix III should join Tuitt up front defensively in some capacity, while Chris Watt practiced this week at left guard.

For the meat of Notre Dame's roster, the Irish's biggest strengths entering this season, the relative health of several starters will provide a welcome reprieve for units that have experienced more than their fair share of attrition so far in 2013.

"We put together some good football against some very good offensive football teams, and never getting those three guys on the field at one time says a lot to the group coming together," coach Brian Kelly said of the defensive line.

That side of the ball has dealt with more hits recently, and it is, in some sense, ironic to see Tuitt as the most healthy defensive lineman since the Irish's last bye week, nearly a month ago.

Tuitt was slow to adjust this season after surgery for a sports hernia, and he dealt with a back issue in the first month, as well. Around the time Tuitt was just starting to shape back into form, Day suffered a high ankle sprain Sept. 14 at Purdue that kept him out for all but the next three games.

Then came the Oct. 19 game against rival USC, with Tuitt earning the game ball after a two-sack night, a night in which Nix suffered a minor shoulder injury.

Then came Nix's knee tendinitis, with a small meniscus tear working its way into the diagnosis earlier this week, with Kelly saying that the tendinitis is the bigger issue. PRP treatment already has taken place, and a minor operation to clear up the knee will follow, likely after the season.

Day also happened to return to full-strength against the Trojans, only to re-aggravate his ankle this past Saturday against Navy.

"We go out every week, and we play and we practice" Tuitt said. "Stuff happens. It's football. Other than that, we just do the best we can do."

The offensive line's depth has not taken quite the same hit, despite losing right guard Christian Lombard for the season because of back surgery after the USC game. Watt's PCL tear at Air Force kept him out of the Navy game, leaving Conor Hanratty to make his first career start, at left guard. Martin was the lone elder statesman this past Saturday among a group that had Steve Elmer making his second career start at right guard, with first-year starers Nick Martin and Ronnie Stanley manning their regular spots at center and right tackle, respectively.

Martin likely will get his tag-team partner Watt back against the Panthers, though he was impressed with what the newcomers brought to the table in their first taste of extended action.

"Those guys, it's all about preparations," Martin said. "They did it the right way, and they do it the right way. That's the biggest thing we talk about as a team and as an offensive line group, is if you prepare the right way, when your number is called, not only are we confident in you, but you should be confident in yourself."

Irish depth showing at right time

October, 28, 2013
The calendar turns to November in four days, and Notre Dame will play another football game in five days, and everything Brian Kelly has built in his four years with the Fighting Irish will begin to come to fruition.

It already had, in a sense, in this past Saturday's win at Air Force, a game that saw a true freshman (Steve Elmer) make his first career start at right guard in place of an injured starter (Christian Lombard), before sliding over to right tackle to replace another injured starter (Ronnie Stanley), with a new face popping up to his left (Matt Hegarty) and another at the opposite guard spot (Conor Hanratty) when a different starter went down (Chris Watt).

[+] EnlargeMatt Hegarty
AP Photo/Scott BoehmThe development of young offensive linemen such as Matt Hegarty showcases the depth that Brian Kelly has worked hard to build.
Whatever confusion might ensue from that re-shuffling should be by tempered by what Kelly has developed in South Bend, Ind. -- often conveyed to the outside world through cliches like "next-man-in" or "count-on-me." A better measurement might be this: Brian Kelly is 28-7 in November and December regular-season games as an FBS head coach.

It is a testament to the foundation that Kelly has laid at every stop, one made possible with the help of consigliere Paul Longo, the strength and conditioning coach who has been with him since his days at Central Michigan.

"You can't have a great November without a great plan as it relates to your conditioning," Kelly said Sunday. "That goes back to January. That goes back to what you do in June. If you're trying to win the battle in June and July and August, you're probably going to come up short in November. We want to make sure that the tank is full in November.

"We've done a pretty good job of it. You've got to be lucky, too. You have to stay away from the injury situation, make sure that your players are developed, count on guys like we're going to have to count on some guys to step up and play big roles for us in November."

Kelly is 10-1 in November games as Notre Dame's head coach. The lone blemish came at Stanford two years ago, and the Cardinal again look like the biggest threat to that mark and to the Irish's BCS hopes when the two teams gather in Palo Alto, Calif., on Nov. 30.

Of course, Notre Dame has three games until then, starting with Saturday's against Navy. Whether the Midshipmen defensive front sees anything unfamiliar on the other side of the ball remains unclear.

Lombard had already been lost for the season with a back injury, Stanley should be fine and Watt, in Kelly's words, is "probable" with a minor knee issue -- not that the coach sounds overly-concerned about possible repercussions regardless.

"Chris Watt is a senior, he's a tough kid," Kelly said Sunday. "We think he's going to be able to answer the bell. If we can do that, we feel like we've really kept a lot of continuity there because Elmer has played a lot of football off and on, he's been with that unit a lot. If we can dodge a bullet here with Watt, we should be OK.

"If not, Conor Hanratty has been here. The guys know him. Got a good relationship with him. Those guys spend a lot of time together. We feel like we can overcome that."


Irish Flips Top TE Jones, Back In Top 10
National recruiting coordinator Craig Haubert discusses the impact No. 1 tight end Alize Jones, a former UCLA commit, will have at Notre Dame.