Notre Dame Football: Tony Springmann

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.

Grace status still uncertain

June, 10, 2014
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame is taking an aggressive approach with Jarrett Grace's comeback from multiple knee surgeries. As for whether that means Grace will compete for a starting linebacker spot, or even be ready for the Fighting Irish's Aug. 30 opener against Rice, clarity might not come until the end of the month.

"We’re going full-go for him to be ready for Rice," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. "He wants to do it that way. He’s very encouraged. I think it’s the best I’ve seen him mentally. He was in a tough spot there for a little bit before the surgery. It was good to see him in very good spirits today. We’re going to be very aggressive with him, let him go and I think if we really went slow with him, it would probably put him in jeopardy for being ready for the first three, four weeks. That’s not what he wants. We’re going to go at it and go for the best."

[+] EnlargeJarrett Grace
Zach Bolinger/Icon SMIJarrett Grace is on track to return by the opener, but there are still hurdles to clear for the Notre Dame linebacker.
Speaking before Football 101, a charity event put on by Kelly Cares, the fifth-year Notre Dame coach said that Grace rode a bike during Tuesday's summer workouts, the Irish's first of the season. All other ailing players from the spring were able to participate in conditioning drills, Kelly said, with center Nick Martin (MCL) and linebacker Ben Councell (ACL) fully cleared.

Receiver Will Mahone (ankle) did some running, while tackle Ronnie Stanley was limited following a minor knee procedure to clear up "some loose impediments." Kelly added that defensive lineman Tony Springmann (ACL, infection) was good to go.

It will take some more time before the Irish know if the same can be said of Grace, who had a rod inserted into his right knee on March 28, more than five months after he had surgery to repair a broken tibia and fibula suffered during an Oct. 5 victory over Arizona State.

Grace, a Cincinnati native, had a team-high 41 tackles last season before suffering the injury.

"Right now we would take it, as we want him healthy to compete against Rice, and then whatever happens from there," Kelly said. "We were at a point where we didn't know where he was and whether he could play, and we're seeing some positive things. So I think we'll take it as, 'Let's get him back against Rice, and then if we hear better news over the next two, three weeks' -- I think by the end of June, we're going to know really whether we can answer that question as, 'Let's get him on the field against Rice,' or, 'Let's get him competing for a starting position.'"
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."

Notre Dame mailblog

March, 7, 2014
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What's happening?

@NJNDBlogger writes: Who do you project to start at D-line?

[+] EnlargeSheldon Day
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesSheldon Day occupied one of the defensive tackle spots when Notre Dame showed it's 4-3 alignment in practice this week.
Matt Fortuna: When we got to see the first 30 minutes of the Irish's first spring practice on Monday, the first-team defense used a four-man front, with Romeo Okwara and Ishaq Williams on the edge and Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones inside. Brian Kelly has said that a 3-4 base will remain with new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, but the defense will still split between four-man and three-man fronts on about a 50-50 basis. In 3-4 situations, I would not be surprised to see Jones in the middle, with Day and Isaac Rochell on the edge. Keep in mind, too, that Tony Springmann remains out this spring as he recovers from a torn ACL and ensuing infection that cost him the 2013 season. He played signifcantly in 2012 and likely will again in 2014 if he makes a full recovery.


Kiel O'Connor writes: Matt, two years ago Kelly made Everett have to earn his visor. Will he make him do it again?

Matt Fortuna: Haven't seen the name Kiel in this space in quite some time. And of course your question centers around a quarterback. But I believe Everett Golson was wearing a visor when we saw him in the early part of practice on Monday. I'm not sure if he had to do anything extra to get that on his helmet for Day 1 of spring.


Jordan from Okinawa, Japan, writes: Matt, to say that ND's special-teams play (outside of the amazing Kyle Brindza) has been abysmal under the Kelly era in South Bend would be putting it nicely. What, if anything, is BK doing to address having one of the worst KO coverages, KO returns and punt returns in the nation? We, as fans, sarcastically cheer because the KO coverage actually tackles someone before they hit the 30, or a punt returner does the unthinkable ... gains 10 whole yards on a return. Any news on the staff addressing this issue, or is mediocrity going to continue to be the standard? Great work as always, Matt!

Matt Fortuna: Thanks, Jordan. And a reader from Japan? Wow. The different locations of Notre Dame fans I hear from never ceases to amaze me. As for your question, there's no doubt that special teams has been a failure so far in the Brian Kelly era. Here was his exact answer last Friday when asked: "Well, we went out and 'cliniced.' I won't tell you where we went, but we went with some NFL and some college programs and we took our film, with our hat in our hand and said, 'What are we doing here, what are we missing?' And primarily, it was, you know, it wasn't scheme as much as it was some coaching points and moving some personnel around, some speed players vs. some power players. And you know, I think we've got a better feel for the positioning of the players in the right positions.

"So we're going to make some adjustments to some of the looks that we have in our punt return. We think we've answered some questions in our coverage teams, and like I said, you know, it's unacceptable to be where we are. We went out with that sense of being very open to all things as it relates to special teams, because we've got to get better there. And I think we picked up some things that I think can really help us."


Thomas Witty from Northbrook, Ill., writes: Hey, Matt! I was just wondering with our running backs situation, how many carries do you think that Cam McDaniel, Tarean Folston, and Greg Bryant are going to get each? I really like all three of them, although I haven't seen Greg Bryant play all that much. Who do you think will emerge as the top back next year?

Matt Fortuna: Thomas, it's tough to handicap the carries at this point, but I do think you'll see more maturity from Folston and Bryant, who took some hits early in their rookie campaigns but certainly are talented enough to make an impact in the Irish backfield. Folston was running with the first-team during tempo drills on Monday, and his emergence down the stretch last season makes me believe he could take the next step this season.

New faces must step up as spring opens

February, 28, 2014
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Brian Kelly got into his car on Friday morning and saw that the outside temperature was minus-8 degrees -- as if there was any doubt Notre Dame would be indoors on Monday when the Irish commence Kelly's fifth spring here.

What he will see, though, are more new faces in new places than he probably has during his Irish tenure. And he's anxious to see who rises up from a team that said early goodbyes to three juniors after the 2013 season and welcomes two new staff members.

[+] EnlargeBrian Kelly
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsBrian Kelly is looking for some new faces to step forward in the spring.
"In an ideal world you'd want your best players to be your best leaders," Kelly said. "Sometimes that's not the case, so you observe daily and find out who those guys are and you try to cultivate those individuals. I think with this group in '14 our best players can be our best leaders and they may not all be seniors. I think we've got some great seniors, I think all of our seniors are committed, but we may have some great underclassmen who are great leaders, too."

The additions of assistants Matt LaFleur (quarterbacks) and Brian Van Gorder (defensive coordinator) have given the staff more flexibility as well, as Kelly said Friday that Kerry Cooks will now coach the entire secondary, not just the cornerbacks, while Bob Elliott will move from safeties coach to outside linebackers coach. Kelly also added graduate assistants in former NFL fullback Ryan Mahaffey (offense), former Irish safety Kyle McCarthy (defense) and Mike Hiestand (defense), son of current Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand.

As for switches on the field: Matthias Farley has moved from safety to corner, John Turner has gone from safety to outside linebacker, James Onwualu has moved from receiver to safety, Will Mahone has moved from running back to receiver, and Amir Carlisle is now a runner and a receiver. Everett Golson, meanwhile, has returned at a listed 200 pounds, 15 pounds heavier from his listed playing weight from 2012.

Personnel notes: Tony Springmann (ACL, infection) and Devin Butler (shoulder) are out for spring. … Nick Martin (MCL) and Ben Councell (ACL) will be limited to non-contact. … Nicky Baratti, Chase Hounshell and Doug Randolph (all shoulders) are good to go. … Receiver Luke Massa will not return for a fifth season after initially planning to come back. Kelly said Massa had received a job offer that was too good to pass up.

Kelly on Shembo: Kelly addressed Prince Shembo's comments during last weekend's NFL combine, when the former Irish linebacker said the coach told him not to talk in school about the the Lizzy Seeberg investigation.

"That was a collaborative decision," Kelly said Friday. "I don't make any decisions independent when it comes to major decisions at this university. The head football coach works in concert with our administration, so we made a decision based upon the information that we had that we felt it was in Prince's best interest that this was not a matter that needed to be discussed, but that was certainly something that he could've decided to discuss. We didn't threaten him with, he couldn't play or we were going to put him on the bench or throw him out of school. It was still his decision. But talking to his parents and talking to Prince we felt because of the information that we had in front of us that it was a matter that be left alone at the time."
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
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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.
For three years, Brian Kelly had success like few others in recruiting players back to school. Sure, Kyle Rudolph left after Year 1 of the Kelly era, but since then the Notre Dame coach had successfully gotten Michael Floyd, Manti Te'o, Tyler Eifert, Louis Nix and Zack Martin to come back to the Irish for their fourth (and, in Martin's case, fifth) seasons of college ball.

That changed drastically this season. With several highly projected underclassmen on their roster, the Irish figured to say goodbye to one or two underclassmen early. And even when Kelly said in late December that he had submitted paperwork to the NFL advisory board for Stephon Tuitt, Troy Niklas and George Atkinson III, few expected all three to leave school early.

Then January came along, and within one week's span, all three players declared for the draft, choosing to avoid the recent trend and skip their final seasons. Each had his reasons, so here's a look at the trio and a look at who on the Irish roster will be tasked with filling the big shoes in 2014.

(Worth noting: Nix, who had a fifth season of eligibility available to him in 2014, is not included in this group, because he graduated in December.)

Leaving: Stephon Tuitt
Replacement: Isaac Rochell
The outlook: It is worth noting that Justin Utupo will return for a fifth year and that veterans Tony Springmann (ACL, infection) and Chase Hounshell (shoulder) are expected to be back at full health next fall after both missed the 2013 season. Together, all will be counted on to replace the production of Tuitt, who was one of the best pass-rushers in school history. Still, if the Irish are looking for a youngster to step up, they will turn to Rochell, who ended up seeing much more playing time as a true freshman than initially expected this past fall, given the injury bug that affected the Irish in the trenches. ESPN's No. 139 overall player from the class of 2013 played in 11 games, recording 10 total tackles. The 6-foot-3.5, 280-pounder is a far cry from the 6-foot-6.5, 312-pound Tuitt physically, but most typically are. The bottom line is Tuitt will be the hardest of Notre Dame's early departures to replace, but Rochell will probably see his role increase the most in his sophomore season. Junior Sheldon Day, entering his second year as a starter, will be counted on even more this coming fall as well.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame Celebration
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesCam McDaniel (33) led the Irish with 705 rushing yards in 2013.
Leaving: George Atkinson III
Replacement: Cam McDaniel, Tarean Folston, Greg Bryant
The outlook: Atkinson should be the easiest of the early departures to replace, as his playing time and production took a big dip late during this past season. He was ultimately suspended for the New Era Pinstripe Bowl for what Kelly called a violation of team rules, a violation that Atkinson later tweeted (and then deleted) consisted of him texting during a team meal. Still, the Irish have the always-reliable McDaniel back for another year, and the Coppell, Texas, native actually had more carries (152-93) and rushing yards (742-583) than Atkinson in 2013 while helping with kick-return duties as well. The most important developments to keep an eye on, though, are those of Folston and Bryant, both of whom came to Notre Dame as highly touted four-star backs expected to deliver immediate boosts. Bryant had trouble gaining playing time early and ultimately suffered a knee injury that forced him to take a medical redshirt, but Folston came on strong late in the season, finishing with 88 carries for 470 yards and three touchdowns. Things will be tougher next season with a rebuilt offensive line, and all of these backs need to improve as pass-catchers, but there remains plenty of promise in the fold. Let's not rule out redshirt junior Amir Carlisle, either.

Leaving: Troy Niklas
Replacement: Ben Koyack
The outlook: Niklas, who began his career at linebacker, played tight end at Notre Dame for just two years, coming on this past fall after the departure of Eifert, as he hauled in 32 passes for 498 yards and five touchdowns. He was improving as a blocker and was on track to become one of the best tight ends in the country next season. Now Koyack will be tasked with a bigger workload in his senior season. He, too, came on strong late last season, finishing with 10 catches for 171 yards and three touchdowns, though he often played in two-tight-end sets with Niklas and gave the Irish plenty of offensive flexibility.
What had been expected throughout the past month finally became official on Sunday when Stephon Tuitt declared for the NFL draft.

The move, while not surprising, is a major blow to Notre Dame's defensive line, which also loses nose guard Louis Nix to the pros, where he, like Tuitt, figures to be taken in the first round.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame
AP Photo/Frank Franklin IIStephon Tuitt led Notre Dame in sacks (7.5) and tackles for loss (9) in 2013.
Throw in the early entry of USF junior end Aaron Lynch, and the early parts of the draft could see three different former Irish defensive linemen hear their names called.


Tuitt became just the second player during Brian Kelly's four-year tenure to leave for the NFL before graduating, joining Minnesota Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph. Before, Kelly's program had successfully re-recruited the likes of Nix, Zack Martin, Manti Te'o, Tyler Eifert and Michael Floyd.

Kelly had said that Tuitt received a second-round grade from the NFL advisory committee, though ESPN's Scouts Inc. rates Tuitt as the No. 11 overall player for the 2014 draft.

Tuitt had told the Notre Dame student newspaper, The Observer, back in October that he planned to return for his senior season, though he later said that he misspoke. He recently said that he was about a year away from graduating, and his mother had spoken strongly about the importance of his degree. But a rising stock and the departure of defensive coordinator Bob Diaco to UConn were likely too much to overcome in the end.

"I'm ready to take my game to the next level and do what what I love to do -- play football, compete and have fun," Tuitt told ESPN's Joe Schad.

Tight end Troy Niklas and running back George Atkinson III were the other two underclassmen whose paperwork Kelly had sent to the NFL advisory committee. Niklas received between a second- and a fourth-round grade, his father, Don Niklas, told ESPN.com. But Don said that the plan is for Troy to return to Notre Dame for his senior year and receive his degree.

The future of Atkinson remains less clear after he was suspended from the New Era Pinstripe Bowl for what Kelly said was a violation of team rules. Atkinson tweeted, and quickly deleted, that he was suspended for texting during a team meal. Kelly said after the game that he had not decided what effect the discipline would have on Atkinson's future with the program.

As for Tuitt, the leap to the NFL leaves the Irish thin up front, as they lose a mammoth pass-rusher who started all 13 games in a season that saw the line decimated by injuries. Tuitt battled through those himself, recovering from offseason sports hernia surgery and the added weight that came from that — in addition to an early-season back issue — to lead the team in sacks (7.5) and tackles for loss (9). He added his second career touchdown, too — picking off Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner in the end zone — after returning a fumble 77 yards for a score in the 2012 opener against Navy.

The 6-foot-6, 312-pounder notched 12 sacks in 2012, 1.5 off Justin Tuck's school single-season record, and he leaves Notre Dame with 21.5 career sacks, just three off Tuck's school record.

Underclassmen reserves Isaac Rochell and Jarron Jones saw extended playing time this season because of injuries in front of them, and they gained experience that will serve even more beneficial moving forward -- when they will be asked to do much more in 2014.

Tony Springmann (ACL, infection) and Chase Hounshell (shoulder) meanwhile, are both currently on track to return this fall, adding depth to a unit that sorely needs it. Starting end Sheldon Day returns for his junior year as well and will enter the season as the marquee man up front, this after entering 2013 as the seemingly unknown commodity next to future draft picks Tuitt and Nix.

Niklas expects to return for senior year

December, 23, 2013
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Tight end Troy Niklas doesn't know what he doesn't know, which for now means that he is expecting to return to Notre Dame for his senior season, unless something unforeseen changes before the Jan. 15 deadline for early entry into the draft.

"I mean, there's always the possibility," Niklas said, giving himself some room. "I can't really say — I'm pretty sure I'm coming back."

[+] EnlargeTroy Niklas
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)Troy Niklas is expecting to return for his senior season.
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly submitted pro evaluations for three underclassmen: Niklas, Stephon Tuitt and George Atkinson III. Niklas figures to be the only of the trio with a serious decision to make about his future, given the likelihood that Tuitt gets picked in the first round.

The 6-foot-7, 270-pound Niklas was one of eight semifinalists for the John Mackey Award this season, as he caught 28 passes for 422 yards with five touchdowns as the former linebacker continued to evolve into a complete tight end.

"He does so much for us," Kelly said. "Eight sacks this year, and he's a big reason why. If you're looking at all the jobs he does for us during the game, if he's not catching the ball, he's extremely effective for us in other areas."

Niklas hopes the process of hearing back from the NFL can point him in the right direction on what he needs to work on for next season, though he's admittedly unfamiliar with the process.

"I have no idea. I'll be learning a lot," Niklas said. "We'll probably go over it after the bowl game, most likely, and then I'll be able to tell you what goes on and stuff like that. For now, I don't really know anything."

Notes: Kelly, a Boston native, was thrilled about the Irish playing Boston College at Fenway Park in 2015, a game that was announced Friday. "You guys were all kind of talking about my contract last year — the reason that wasn't signed was the Fenway game. It was being negotiated. They're hard negotiators in Boston. We were finally able to get my family Green Monster seats, so then I signed the contract." … There are no new injuries to report since bowl practices began. As for the already injured, Chase Hounshell (shoulder) is practicing with the scout team, Nicky Baratti (shoulder) will be held out of contact until the spring and Tony Springmann (ACL, then infection) might not return until next fall. … Kelly half-kiddingly said the first and second-team offensive lines are essentially working as one, with Conor Hanratty ready to move to center if necessary, and with Mark Harrell behind him at guard. Walk-on Kevin Carr is available as well.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- As Brian Kelly was finishing up his postgame press conference Saturday, an unexpected visitor made an appearance during the penultimate question.

"Jaylon, we'll be done in a second," Kelly said to Jaylon Smith, who had entered prematurely. "I know it's your press conference, but I'll be done in a second, and we'll let you get going. Is that all right?"

"Sorry," Smith said to the room of reporters. "I'm new to everything."

Within 24 hours, it turned out the freshman linebacker would be a seasoned veteran by Notre Dame's defense's standards. The Irish are hurting on that side of the ball -- just trying to get by, in a sense, with this weekend's game at Pitt preceding a much-needed bye before a two-game stretch against BYU and at Stanford.

[+] EnlargeEilar Hardy
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesSafety Eliar Hardy (left) is one of several Notre Dame reserves that were pressed into action due to injuries.
BCS dreams have essentially taken a backseat to figuring out just who is going to play and where, and how the remaining available guy will get ready for when their time comes.

"I think this is probably close to the pinnacle," Kelly said during Sunday's teleconference when asked if this defense has been hit as hard as any he's had in 23 years as a head coach. He added: "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."

Ben Councell, the man behind Smith most of the season at the dog linebacker spot, was ruled out for the season Sunday after suffering a significant knee injury in the 38-34 win over Navy. Smith and Councell, of course, waged a preseason battle for a starting spot only after senior Danny Spond, last season's starter, was forced to retire because of hemiplegic migraines. And the linebacking corp is less than a month removed from its other big hit, when Jarrett Grace broke his leg in the Oct. 5 Arizona State game, costing the Mike linebacker the rest of his redshirt sophomore season.

It only gets worse up front, where Kona Schwenke is lost for at least this Saturday's game at Pitt because of a high-ankle sprain suffered on the Midshipmen's final drive. And Schwenke was only starting these last two games in place of nose guard Louis Nix III, who at first was ruled to have a shoulder injury suffered in the USC game, and then knee tendinitis, and now tendinitis and a small meniscus tear, though the school says he will practice this week after undergoing an MRI Sunday. Before that, Schwenke filled in for end Sheldon Day, who missed most of a three-game stretch after leaving a Sept. 14 game against Purdue with a high ankle sprain, and then re-aggravated said ankle sprain against Navy.

And no, it is not a coincidence that most of these injuries have come during this two-game stretch against Air Force and Navy, teams that often cut-block.

"It's unfortunate," Kelly said. "It's the style of offense that the academies play. It is what it is."

Kelly said it will make sense to possibly avoid scheduling multiple option teams in a single season, but that is a bridge he will cross when he gets to it. For now, his next-man-in philosophy is being tested by, well, a lack of next-men-in.

He said he guards against that by putting those who saw 15 or fewer plays in a game through extra conditioning that following Monday, while reserves get roughly half the work of the starters during 11-on-11 and scout team work in a given week.

"I think that we're so close that you don't really think about it in terms of, Oh, I've never seen you out here," redshirt senior linebacker Dan Fox said. "We get a lot of guys in at practice, there's a lot of reps to go around, so next man in and next man in."

Underclassmen such as Jarron Jones, Isaac Rochell and Romeo Okwara have been thrust into more meaningful time than most could have reasonably expected entering the season, while names unfamiliar to all but the closest of program observers -- Tyler Stockton, Justin Utupo and Eilar Hardy, to name a few -- saw extended action.

The last of those names, Hardy, helped set Smith up for the game-clinching tackle on Navy's Shawn Lynch during the visitors' final fourth-and-4 try. And he was only there because Austin Collinsworth suffered a neck strain that will require an MRI Monday.

Fellow safety Elijah Shumate, meanwhile, is expected to play against the Panthers after being sidelined the last three games with a hamstring injury, though Kelly had said the sophomore would play going into the Navy game, too.

There are also the knee injuries to left guard Chris Watt (PCL) and cat linebacker Ishaq Williams (ACL), both of whom left the Air Force game a week ago but only one of whom, Watt, could possibly return this week, depending on how quickly the redshirt senior can acclimate to the knee, which will not require surgery. Williams was in an immobilizer this week and could possibly return for the Nov. 23 BYU game.

The return of Watt would give Notre Dame four of its five starters back on the offensive line, as it lost right guard Christian Lombard for the season because of back surgery after the USC game. Still, the bruises have taken their biggest tolls on the other line, which during the spring and summer lost reserves Chase Hounshell (shoulder) and Tony Springmann (knee) for the season, in addition to seeing freshman signee Eddie Vanderdoes leave for UCLA.

All of it leaves the Irish, winners of four in a row, crawling to the finish line, every last piece of Kelly's three straight top-10 recruiting classes fitting into the plan for his push toward a second straight BCS-bowl berth.

"We are running out of next men. We're at that point where from a defensive standpoint, and particularly the defensive line, we're left with very few options," Kelly said, adding, "We'll figure something out. We'll get 11 guys out there. It's just not going to be one of those things where we're going to have the same group of guys out there all the time. As you know, we're going to have to find a way to stop a big, physical offensive line at Pittsburgh, and that is the thing that concerns you the most."

Day to play against USC, other notes

October, 16, 2013
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Sheldon Day is scheduled to speak with reporters Wednesday, as sure a sign as any that he will actually play Saturday after missing the majority of Notre Dame's last three games because of an ankle sprain.

[+] EnlargeSheldon Day
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesNotre Dame is expecting sophomore defensive end Sheldon Day back after he missed the better part of the last three games due to injury.
Brian Kelly said that Day practiced Monday and is expected to play against USC this weekend, though the head coach had sounded pretty confident publicly about Day's condition going into each of the last three games. Day missed the Michigan State and Oklahoma games and was very limited in the Arizona State contest two weeks ago.

Versatile lineman Kona Schwenke had started opposite Stephon Tuitt in Day's absence.

"He doesn't stay blocked," Kelly said of Day. "One of the things that makes a defensive lineman a great player is he gets off blocks. Sheldon gets off blocks and is a great pass rusher. He's a guy that early in the season was a great pass rusher and wasn't staying blocked. He'll figure into our game plan on Saturday."

Kelly also said that, among players already ruled out for the season, Chase Hounshell (shoulder surgery) is the closest to returning to full strength, with the end possibly getting to put pads on within the next 10-14 days.

Doug Randolph and Nicky Baratti (both shoulder) are in a light rehab process, while Tony Springmann (ACL tear) suffered an infection after surgery but is recovering well.

Kelly said that Torii Hunter Jr. probably would have been playing this year had he not suffered a broken left femur in during U.S. Army All-American bowl workouts, while Daniel Smith (ankle) and Jarrett Grace (leg) had successful surgeries following their injuries two weeks ago in Arlington, Texas.

Among those contributing this season, Kelly said that Tarean Folston has recovered from a hamstring injury suffered on his career-long 36-yard run in the Sept. 28 loss to Oklahoma.

"He looked better when we got a chance to run him out, and we expect him to be part of the mix for us," Kelly said. "That was the Oklahoma game moving forward. He just didn't feel like he could cut it loose. We had a play -- I think it was a series or two later -- where he was coming out of the backfield, and Tommy (Rees) overthrew him. He really couldn't cut it loose on a mesh route, and that's when we pulled him out of the game. He's a lot better. I think he's 100 percent. He feels a lot better, and he looked really good in practice yesterday."

Bye week evaluations: Defense

October, 9, 2013
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Our series continues today with the defense, which brought back seven starters from a unit that finished second nationally in scoring defense in 2012.

DEFENSE

Grade: C

Summary: Notre Dame's defense has been the team's biggest disappointment this season, as it has allowed 34 or more points in three of six contests so far. Of course, some of that is on the offense, too, particularly in the Oklahoma game. But this was a unit that was expected to continue the dominant tone set last season, when the Irish never gave up more than 26 points in a regular-season game. (And Pitt even needed three overtimes to reach that total).

The pass rush was virtually non-existent for five games, until Prince Shembo and company turned it up a notch against Arizona State and tallied six sacks (three by Shembo). The defensive line has been negated for much of the early going, with offenses doing everything they can to get away from Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt.

Depth among the front seven has taken a hit, too: First with the Eddie Vanderdoes transfer to UCLA this summer, then with the retirement of Danny Spond and season-ending knee injury suffered by Tony Springmann in camp. Sheldon Day's ankle sprain has essentially kept him out of the past three games, while Jarrett Grace's season-ending knee injury against ASU is another big blow, especially to a thin inside linebacker corps.

Tackling, though, especially in the secondary, was less than great at Michigan and at Purdue, a sign of some of the ordinary things that Brian Kelly said his team needed to do better after the Oklahoma loss. Perhaps the defense turned a corner against the Sun Devils — Kelly said he's not doing jumping jacks just yet — but the overall body of work through six games has been mediocre, not particularly great or bad.

Notre Dame is 50th nationally in total defense (374.5 yards per game) and is 58th in scoring defense (25.5 ppg). And the Irish are tied for 86th in turnovers forced, with just seven takeaways on the season. They will be tested by skilled (USC) and complex offenses (Air Force and Navy) in the next three weeks so they need to become more reliable as the season progresses. That includes limiting big plays or forcing more turnovers to put the offense in a better position to succeed.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame's defensive line has taken another hit heading into 2013, as the Irish have lost Tony Springmann for the season because of a left knee dislocation with severe ligament damage, coach Brian Kelly said during Thursday's media day.

Springmann, who will undergo surgery, was not dressed and had his left knee wrapped during the previous two media viewings of practice, with Kelly initially ruling the redshirt sophomore out for the Aug. 31 season-opener against Temple.

The 6-foot-5, 296-pound Springmann played in every game last season, notching 11 total tackles, two tackles for loss, one sack and three quarterback hurries.

Notre Dame's depth up front took a blow earlier this summer when five-star defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes opted out of his National Letter of Intent and went to UCLA, where he was later granted immediate eligibility.

Kelly said that he is not concerned about another Irish end, Stephon Tuitt, after the junior went down Thursday in practice after twisting his knee. Tuitt walked off the field on his own power.

As for special teams, George Atkinson III will return kickoffs again and T.J. Jones will return punts. Kelly also said that Nick Tausch, Kyle Brindza and Alex Wulfeck will all play against Temple, with Brindza getting the first shot at punter while remaining in charge of kickoffs.

Notes: Kelly said that Everett Golson (academic suspension) is working out in Chicago and plans on heading to San Diego for two months to work with quarterback guru George Whitfield. Golson does not need to enroll in any classes. ... Zack Martin, TJ Jones and Bennett Jackson are Notre Dame's 2013 captains. Martin was a captain last year as well, making him the 18th two-time captain in school history. … Jaylon Smith (dog) and Austin Collinsworth (safety) both worked with the first-team defense during the media's viewing of practice. … Tackle Ronnie Stanley (concussion), guard Mark Harrell and running back William Mahone were not in pads. Steve Elmer received first-team reps at right tackle with Stanley out, with Christian Lombard again at right guard. Kelly said he hasn't nailed down a staring five on the offensive line but said that Stanley and Elmer will both play this year. Stanley should be back Monday if all goes well. … Guards Chris Watt and Conor Hanratty and running backs Cam McDaniel and Tarean Folston were all back from practice as well.

Notre Dame mailblog

July, 26, 2013
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You guys are all about the backfield lately.

Joey from Washington, D.C., writes: Hey Matt -- Thanks for your insights and hard work on covering the Irish! Can you give us an update on the running back situation? I'm high on Carlisle, but his early shoulder injury has stymied an outbreak season. How is he recovering? And is it possible we can see one of these backfield weapons including Carlisle line up in the slot?

Matt Fortuna: Thanks, Joey. Carlisle suffered a broke ankle before the spring of 2012 that ended up forcing the staff to redshirt him during the season, which was all the more disappointing considering he had received a waiver from the NCAA to play immediately following his transfer from USC. He received strong reviews this spring before suffering a broken collarbone. All of that being said, if healthy, he will likely have a big role on this team in the fall. George Atkinson III will probably get the first opportunity to start and even escape the backfield to catch some passes, but there is plenty of untested talent in there, and Carlisle has the potential to make some big plays. This is a guy who averaged 6.2 yards per carry as a true freshman on a 2011 USC team that finished 10-2. Carlisle also caught seven balls for 41 yards that season.


Jake Fait from Baltzley Valley, Ohio, writes: Good day, Mr. Fortuna. If I may, I would like to ask you a question that has been befuddling me for months. How will the running back carries be split? Everyone has been saying George Atkinson will start but he's more of a speed back and I don't think he can carry a huge load play after play. Amir Carlisle is talented, but he's injury prone. So even though he's a freshman, I think Greg Bryant should start from day one. Am I crazy for thinking that? And what is your opinion of this episode?

Matt Fortuna: Jake, I wouldn't say crazy, as I am very intrigued by what Bryant can bring to the table immediately and have written as much, going so far as to even rank him on my top 25 player countdown for this season despite him not so much as practicing with the team yet. The backfield is crowded but unproven, and Atkinson has shown only big-play ability so far. I can see a scenario in which the carries get split up a lot early in the season, giving Bryant, a bigger, between-the-tackles back, the chance to emerge as the true lead rusher that every team ultimately seeks. That being said, all of this may be asking a lot for a true freshman who is entering a very competitive situation at running back.


Tim from Comox, British Columbia, writes: Matt who will take Nix's place in '14 and will Tuitt stick around for his senior year?

Matt Fortuna: Tim, good question on Louis Nix, especially in light of the Eddie Vanderdoes situation. Tony Springmann will likely be around in 2014 and has shown the ability to play both inside and outside and is probably the safe bet for now, though a lot can change. It would not shock me to see the staff get creative here, which brings me to your second question: Logic would indicate that, with another strong season, Tuitt would be inclined to leave, considering most 2014 mock drafts have him going as a high first-rounder. But he and his mother have given little indication that Tuitt is interested in leaving school before obtaining his degree. And Tuitt did, after all, play in the middle just a little bit early in his freshman year. That, however, remains highly unlikely, if he even does come back.


Duane Mountain from Anderson, Ind., writes: Are the practices in Marion open to the public? I live in Anderson and go see the Colts , just wondering if I could see the best team in IN.

Matt Fortuna: Best team in Indiana, huh? Andrew Luck may have something to say about that. (Or, much as the New Yorker in me hates to say it after this past spring … Roy Hibbert, too. But we'll keep it to the gridiron for now.) As for your question: Nope. No media access or fan viewing will happen while Notre Dame is at Camp Shiloh.

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