March 26, 2010
NOTRE DAME, Ind. – New University of Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly made it quite clear at his opening press conference that he already understands the hopes and dreams when it comes to Irish football.
“We don’t get a five-year plan. This is a five-minute plan. We’re working on it immediately — and we expect our football players to play at a high level immediately,” he said.
With that, the expectations of Kelly and his coaching staff for their 2010 Fighting Irish football team quickly and clearly defined themselves. There may be new systems and new coaches and new philosophies, but Notre Dame’s new coach expects his players to hit the ground running.
Kelly, who has spent his entire coaching career in the collegiate ranks, will benefit from 19 seasons as a head coach as he looks to return Notre Dame to the upper echelon of college football. He’s already been the architect behind noteworthy building projects at three programs. At Grand Valley State (1991-2003) he won two NCAA Division II national titles. At Central Michigan he won a Mid-American Conference title in his third season in 2006. At Cincinnati he took the Bearcats to consecutive BIG EAST Conference titles and two straight Bowl Championship Series appearances.
At Notre Dame, Kelly (the 2009 Home Depot National Coach of the Year) takes on the challenge of elevating the performance of a tradition-rich program that is seeking a higher level of consistent success. The Irish played in three BCS games in the last decade (only eight programs played in more), yet they are coming off three seasons that produced a combined 16-21 record. Notre Dame has finished with a final Associated Press poll ranking seven times dating back to 1995 – yet the Irish only once since 1993 have ended up in the final AP top 10.
Kelly quickly implemented a new weight training and conditioning regimen, at the same time promising practices will be conducted at a higher and faster tempo. The Irish began a training table for football and moved their evening study sessions – with both events now slated for the Guglielmino Athletics Complex – to consolidate the daily football agenda. And, yet, Kelly understands the bottom line.
“We expect to compete for championships. We want to win. I didn’t come to Notre Dame to try to be 8-4. When they talk abut the elite programs in college football, we need to have Notre Dame in that discussion,” said Kelly.
On the football field, the Irish return 42 monogram winners from last year’s 6-6 team — including 17 combined starters from offense, defense and special teams. Six members of one of the highest-powered offenses in school history (451.8 yards per game in ’09) are back, including talented skill-position players at tailback, wide receiver and tight end. The defense features eight returning starters and 10 players who started at least seven contests in 2009. Notre Dame’s special teams started freshmen at long snapper, punter and placekicker last year, and all three of those individuals return seasoned and ready for their first spring practices.
The 2010 schedule is the second-straight season that features seven Irish home games, four road games and one “off-site” home game. On the heels of last year’s game against Washington State in San Antonio’s Alamodome, Notre Dame will revisit its roots with a 21st-century flair as the Irish meet Army in the first football game played at new Yankee Stadium. The Kelly era will begin with five of the first seven contests played at Notre Dame Stadium in 2010 — and seven teams on this year’s slate appeared in postseason bowls in 2009 (Michigan State, Stanford, Boston College, Pittsburgh, Navy, Utah and USC).
Kelly assembled a coaching staff with a combined 197 years of experience. Four members from his staff at Cincinnati followed him to Notre Dame — defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, offensive coordinator Charley Molnar, defensive line coach Mike Elston and running backs coach Tim Hinton. One Notre Dame coach from 2009 remains in wide receivers coach Tony Alford (he coached running backs in `09). Defensive backs coach Kerry Cooks came from Wisconsin, tight ends coach Mike Denbrock (he coached at Notre Dame from 2002-04) from Indiana State, defensive backs coach Chuck Martin from the head coaching slot at Grand Valley State and offensive line coach Ed Warinner from Kansas (where he was the Jayhawk offensive coordinator).
Here is a more detailed position-by-position breakdown of Irish personnel for 2010:
Half of Notre Dame’s 42 returning monogram winners are on the offensive side of the ball — including several skill-position players that should help Brian Kelly’s pass-oriented spread offense. While the Irish return six starters on offense from last season, 13 players on the roster have started at least one game at Notre Dame, including eight players who have started at least seven games in their Irish careers.
Kelly’s spread offense features three wide receivers, one tight end and one tailback in its base formation. A second tight end also can be utilized, as can a fullback or H-back. The abundance of experienced players at wide receiver, tight end and running back potentially could benefit the offense this season — at the same time a new quarterback will be broken in.
The Irish return 94.5 percent of their rushing yards from 2009, 55.5 percent of their receiving yards and 68.4 percent of all-purpose yards. Notre Dame will have to replace both starting tackles (Sam Young and Paul Duncan) and the center (Eric Olsen) on the offensive line — as well as a record-setting quarterback (Jimmy Clausen, who completed 289 of 425 passes in ’09 for 3722 yards, 28 TDs, 4 ints.) and a star wide receiver (Biletnikoff Award winner and unanimous All-American Golden Tate, who caught 93 passes for 1,496 yards, 15 TDs), both of whom passed up their final year of eligibility to declare for the 2010 NFL Draft.
The player on offense with both loads of potential and the biggest shoes to fill is also the one who has the most to learn about Kelly’s system. Junior Dayne Crist (10 of 20 passing for 130 yards, 1 TD, 1 int. in ’09) takes over for childhood friend Jimmy Clausen and must follow one of the best seasons by a quarterback in Notre Dame history. Clausen averaged 310.2 passing yards per game, completed 68 percent of his passes and leaves Notre Dame as one of the two most prolific quarterbacks in Irish history (joining Brady Quinn) in terms of statistics and records.
Crist steps into the spotlight during his third season with the Irish, with his only experience comprising the four ’09 games in which he played. Making his spring even more challenging is the fact he is recovering from knee surgery required after he tore his anterior cruciate ligament on Halloween against Washington State. At 6-4 and 235 pounds, Crist is surprisingly mobile and ran a similar style offense in high school. He will be able to participate in non-contact drills in the spring but will be held out of the Blue-Gold final spring game.
The only other scholarship quarterback on the ’09 spring roster is early-enrollee freshman Tommy Rees, who will be thrown immediately into the mix since the current Irish numbers at quarterback are small.
Returning to the roster this spring is junior walk-on Nate Montana (son of Irish legend Joe Montana). Nate served as the Irish emergency quarterback in 2008 and also played as a scout-team signal-caller. He’s back after playing last fall at Pasadena (Calif.) City College.
The 2009 campaign saw improved production at the Irish running back position, as current seniors Armando Allen (team-high 142 carries for team-high 697 yards, 3 TDs in `09; 28 receptions for 216 yards) and Robert Hughes (88 for 416, 5 TDs; 19 rec. for 193), sophomore Theo Riddick (29 for 160; 6 rec. for 43) and junior Jonas Gray (34 for 119; 4 rec. for 54) combined to average 4.8 yards on 293 rushing carries, almost a full yard better than the 3.9-yards-per-carry average in 2008.
Allen averaged 4.9 yards per carry as a junior, the best mark by a leading Notre Dame rusher since Darius Walker (5.0 yards per carry in 2006). He returns for his senior year after averaging 87.1 rushing yards per game, an average that last year would have ranked him ahead of such decorated running backs as Clemson’s C.J. Spiller and USC’s Joe McKnight had Allen participated in one more game to qualify for the statistical category.
Allen’s classmate Hughes paced the Irish ground game with five rushing TDs and averaged 4.7 yards per carry in `09. He also played some fullback when James Aldridge was injured, and Hughes could revisit that role this season in Kelly’s spread offense.
Meanwhile, Gray provides a sturdy, physical presence among the Irish backfield options (he also played in seven games and rushed for 90 yards as a rookie in ’08). Sophomore Cierre Wood did not play in his rookie season, but he enters 2010 with renewed optimism and appears to be a good fit for the new offensive system.
Possibly the deepest position in terms of pure talent is the Notre Dame wide receiver roster – and that’s good for the Irish considering at least three receivers will be on the field in Kelly’s offense.
Junior standout Michael Floyd (44 receptions for 795 yards, 9 TDs) has scored 16 receiving TDs in 18 career games played and his career average of 84.1 receiving yards per game is best among all returning players in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision. He is tied for third in he Notre Dame record book with nine career games of at least 100 yards receiving and is coming off a career season in ’09 despite missing five games due to injury. In Kelly’s offense, Floyd will be the lone receiver on the backside of the formation, and he’s already displayed his all-star ability.
Senior Duval Kamara (23 for 218, 1 TD) is the veteran member of the receiving corps, having started 19 of his 36 career games played. His 781 career receiving yards rank second on the team — and his 75 career receptions are third most on the Irish. He’ll compete for playing time at either the Z or X receiver position on the opposite side of the field from Floyd.
Veteran Barry Gallup Jr. returns for his fifth season and looks to make a niche for himself as a slot receiver after developing nicely last season as one of the two Irish kickoff returners (9 KO returns for 18.1 avg.).
John Goodman (6 for 104, 1 TD) and Deion Walker enter their junior seasons looking to replace Golden Tate in the offensive mix. Goodman played in nine games in 2009, demonstrated the ability to run crisp routes and possesses solid hands. Walker is a tall and speedy receiver who played in five games last year and could be a good threat on the outside where he could better utilize his long strides.
A trio of sophomores is eager to make its mark on the field in `09. Shaquelle Evans (7 for 61), Theo Riddick and Roby Toma (3 for 21) all featured their unique talents during their freshman seasons and will attempt to build on those debuts. Evans probably has the best straight-line speed at the receiver position and saw game action in six contests last year. Riddick moves to wide receiver from running back and could be the favorite to win the slot position. He is possibly the quickest player on the Irish roster and hopes to follow in Tate’s footsteps as a player who started his career as a running back but had greater success as a receiver. Toma was one of the toughest receivers to defend in practice last season, earning time in the middle of the ’09 season to catch passes from Clausen in games. The smallest player on the team, he is one of the shiftiest players and also appears to be a great fit for the slot position.
Tai-ler Jones (his father Andre was a defensive end on the `88 national championship team at Notre Dame) enrolled early and could become a factor this spring.
Kyle Rudolph (33 for 364, 3 TDs) enters his junior season not only as the top tight end at Notre Dame but arguably the best at his position in college football. Of the eight players named semifinalists for last year’s John Mackey Award (as college football’s top tight end), only Rudolph returns in 2010. He set career bests statistically as a sophomore and no player on offense has started more games.
Complementing Rudolph is veteran Mike Ragone (6 for 60), who started seven games in his junior season last year. Ragone started as the primary tight end in the final three contests when Rudolph was out with an injury and started four more games in 2009 as a second tight end. His combination of good speed and hands should help make him a viable receiving option this season.
Despite being a walk-on, Bobby Burger (2 for 10) emerged as a valuable contributor for the Irish in 2009. Now a junior, Burger was used primarily as an H-back and could see the same role in Kelly’s offense.
Sophomores Tyler Eifert and Jake Golic enter their first sets of spring drills looking to crack the tight end depth chart. Eifert appeared in the first game last year but missed the rest of the season with a back injury — while Golic was a solid contributor on the Irish scout team.
Notre Dame’s offensive line saw the most attrition of any position grouping on the roster — as three players who combined to start 105 games in their Notre Dame careers graduated and are pursuing professional careers. Both tackle positions are vacant following the departures of Sam Young and Paul Duncan, and Eric Olsen left a void at center.
Veteran Dan Wenger returns for a fifth year and appears to be the favorite to replace Olsen at center. Wenger started the final two games of 2007 at center and opened all 13 contests in 2008 at that position. Only three offensive players boast more than Wenger’s 19 career games started, as he’s pegged to anchor an experienced interior offensive line in front of a first-time quarterback starter.
Senior Chris Stewart and junior Trevor Robinson return as starters at the guard positions, as Stewart was granted a fifth year while Robinson enters his third campaign. Stewart is tied with Rudolph for most starts by an offensive player, having opened 22 contests in his Irish career. Stewart is the only returning player anywhere on the roster who started every game last year. Robinson started 11 games at right guard in 2009 and became one of the rare freshmen to start on Notre Dame’s offensive line when he opened in three contests in 2008.
Contenders for the starting tackle positions are sophomore Alex Bullard, senior Taylor Dever, sophomore Zack Martin and senior Matt Romine. Dever and Romine both have served the previous three seasons as backup tackles. Dever has appeared in 18 games during his career; Romine has played in 15. Both players have worked primarily on special teams — with some time as reserve offensive linemen.
Neither Bullard nor Martin played last year in their freshman seasons, and both enter their first sets of spring workouts looking to win the offensive tackle competition. Bullard entered Notre Dame as an offensive guard and moves to tackle with hopes to get on the field quicker at that position. Martin was one of the top offensive linemen in the Midwest as a senior in high school.
Players hoping to challenge Stewart, Robinson and Wenger on the interior of the offensive line include juniors Braxston Cave and Mike Golic Jr., senior Andrew Nuss and sophomore Chris Watt. Nuss made great strides during his junior year in 2009 and adds terrific depth to the position. Cave, with the flexibility to play multiple positions, entered Notre Dame as a center but was able to slide over and practice at guard last year. When Cave slid to a backup guard slot, Golic was inserted as the backup center and played in three games as a sophomore in `09. Watt was the most decorated prep offensive lineman in his class — and he showed great potential while contributing as a member of the scout team in his first season.
Brian Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco have 18 returning monogram winners to work with in their first season and, of those 18, 13 players have starting experience for the Irish. Ten returning players started at least seven games in 2009 — and nine players have started at least 10 games in their Notre Dame careers.
Lost are safeties Kyle McCarthy (the leading Irish tackler in ’09 with 101 – he also led the squad with five interceptions) and Sergio Brown (50 tackles), plus defensive end John Ryan (20 tackles, 2 sacks) — a trio that combined to start 29 games in 2009 and 65 games over their careers. The returning defensive players in 2010 started 100 games combined last season and have opened 170 career contests at Notre Dame.
The Irish return 68.5 percent of tackles made in 2009 (including three of their top four tacklers from ’09), 78.8 percent of tackles for loss, 77.5 percent of sacks — plus 65.4 percent of passes broken up and 58.3 percent of interceptions recorded. An inexperienced defensive line in 2009 has matured into a still young, but now more experienced and talented group in the trenches. All the Irish linebackers return in 2010 except for ’09 special teams captain Scott Smith (21 tackles), and three cornerbacks who combined to start 23 games last season also are back.
The Irish switch back to a 3-4 defense, featuring three down linemen, in 2010. That means players who made the transition to a 4-3 last year will resort back to the defensive front used in 2007 and 2008. Notre Dame will start a nose guard sandwiched between two defensive ends, but it won’t be uncommon to see at least one outside linebacker walk up to the line of scrimmage, giving the Irish four or five players along the line.
Potential-laden junior Ethan Johnson (32 tackles in ’09) started 11 games last year at defensive tackle and could be the ideal body type for a defensive end in Notre Dame’s new defense. At 6-4, 280 pounds, he’ll look to build off his 2009 campaign when he recorded four sacks and six and a half tackles for loss from an interior line position.
Junior Kapron Lewis-Moore (46 tackles) proved to be a revelation for the Irish last year, as the first-time starter led the defensive line in stops in his sophomore season. Lewis-Moore, who has tacked on more than 50 pounds since arriving on campus in 2008, added seven tackles for loss and two and a half sacks last fall. He’ll most likely open spring workouts opposite Johnson at defensive end.
Anchoring the defensive line at nose guard is senior Ian Williams (39 tackles, 6 TFL), a consistent contributor in his previous three seasons. Williams has started 18 games in his career and has made 124 tackles with eight and a half career tackles for loss.
Competing to back up Williams at nose guard are classmates Brandon Newman and Hafis Williams — as well as Tyler Stockton. Newman and Williams enter their junior seasons looking to make more of an impact on the Irish defense (Newman has appeared in one game and Williams in six games for the Irish). Stockton did not play last year in his freshman season.
At defensive end, junior Sean Cwynar (3 tackles) could prove to be a valuable commodity, as he is the only backup at that position to have earned critical playing time on defense in `09. Cwynar played in 11 games as a sophomore last fall and started the home finale against Connecticut. Emeka Nwankwo and Lane Clelland could also be options at defensive end. Nwankwo enters his senior year having played sparingly for the Irish, while Clelland, a junior, switches to defense after competing for playing time on the offensive line in his first two seasons at Notre Dame.
An area of great depth and talent for Notre Dame in 2010 is the linebacking corps. Four players with starting experience return in that group, and two of the top three returning tackle leaders from ’09 play linebacker. With the switch to a 3-4 defense, the Irish now make room for another member of that talented position group to take the field, with fierce competition expected at both outside and inside linebacker this spring.
The most veteran returning player for 2010 in terms of career starts is Brian Smith. Now a senior, Smith started his Irish career as an outside linebacker in 2007 and he enters his final season back at his initial position. After playing inside linebacker in 2008 and 2009, Smith slides back to outside linebacker for spring drills. Smith (71 tackles, 5Â½ tackles for loss, 1 1/2 sacks, 2 interceptions) qualifies as Notre Dame’s leading returning tackler from `09.
A potential option opposite Smith is junior Darius Fleming (29 tackles). Notre Dame’s leader with 12 tackles for loss last year (also 3 sacks and team-leading 7 quarterback hurries) has been at his best as an edge rusher and could thrive in Diaco’s attacking defense.
Senior Kerry Neal (25 tackles, 3 1/2 TFL) is one of two players from his class (Ian Williams is the other) to have played in every game of his Notre Dame career. Neal has started 21 games and will challenge for a starting spot at outside linebacker this year.
Junior Steve Filer (18 tackles) received his first playing time on special teams but soon became a talented edge rusher for the Irish in 2009. His quickness helped him lead the team in special teams tackles, and he adds tremendous depth to the position. Dan Fox has recovered from an injury last year and looks to get on the field for the first time as a sophomore in 2010.
At inside linebacker, the lone returning starter is speedy and aggressive sophomore Manti Te’o. Te’o started 10 games in his freshman season a year ago and recorded the third-most tackles ever by an Irish freshman. His 63 tackles in ’09 ranked fourth on the team and he added five and a half tackles for loss.
A great competition to watch in the spring will be to see who emerges to line up next to Te’o at inside linebacker. Sophomore Carlo Calabrese, junior Anthony McDonald, senior Steve Paskorz and junior David Posluszny all enter spring practices in the mix.
Classmates McDonald (10 tackles) and Posluszny (3 tackles) have had parallel careers in terms of playing experience. Neither played as a freshman in 2008. and both saw the field last year on special teams and as reserve linebackers. Calabrese entered with the reputation for being a big hitter and enters his first set of spring drills ready to climb the depth chart. Paskorz begins his senior year back where he started his Irish career, at linebacker. He opened on defense before moving to fullback in 2008, but the new coaching staff has shifted him back to defense.
Notre Dame features an experienced group of cornerbacks and safeties ready to compete for starting opportunities. Fifth-year veteran Darrin Walls (27 tackles, 6 pass breakups, 1 int.), junior Robert Blanton (38 tackles, 2 ints.) and senior Gary Gray (28 tackles, 1 int.) all started at least seven games at cornerback last year, and Walls has started 21 combined games in his three previous seasons with the Irish. Those three expect to compete for the two starting cornerback positions, while sophomore E.J. Banks looks to get on the field for the first time in his second season and early enrollee freshmen Spencer Boyd and Lo Wood join the team this spring.
McCarthy and Brown have to be replaced at safety and senior Harrison Smith will have one of the first opportunities to do so. Smith (69 tackles, 6 1/2 TFL, 4 pass breakups) started the first six games last year at safety before moving down to outside linebacker and ranked third on the team in total tackles.
Other players that figure to be in the mix at safety include junior Jamoris Slaughter, junior Dan McCarthy and sophomore Zeke Motta. Slaughter (14 tackles) appeared in every game last year and started one game at safety. He began the year as a cornerback but made the transition to safety midway through the season. Dan McCarthy is Kyle’s younger brother and was utilized primarily on special teams last season. Motta (12 tackles) was one of three freshmen to play in every game in 2010, playing both safety and outside linebacker in his first season. Freshman Chris Badger enrolled early and also will compete for time this spring.
Special Teams Preview
Notre Dame was one of the only teams in the country last year to use freshmen in the punting, placekicking and long snapping roles – plus, the top kickoff returner also was in his first season. Then-freshman Theo Riddick averaged 22.9 yards on 37 kickoff returns — while the kickoff return unit averaged 21.7 yards per kickoff return, the best by an Irish squad since 2002. Golden Tate was the primary punt returner (14.2 yards on 12 returns, including a 87-yard return for a TD at Pittsburgh) in ’09, so he must be replaced. Junior John Goodman also returned five punts for 56 yards (11.2 average).
Only eight of 45 punts were returned against the Irish last fall, a credit to the coverage teams last season, and 21 punts were fair caught. Thirteen Notre Dame punts landed inside the 20-yard line and only three touchbacks were recorded.
Sophomore Ben Turk will look to maintain the form he displayed in the final two games last season when he averaged 45.5 yards on eight punts and had three punts of at least 50 yards in that span. Turk punted in six games during his rookie year and averaged 38.2 yards on 26 punts, while landing three inside the 20-yard line. He enters spring as the only punter on the Irish roster following the graduation loss of Eric Maust (19 punts for 35.8 average in ’09).
Two Notre Dame placekickers combined to convert 19 of 22 field-goal attempts last year, including 12 of 13 field goals longer than 30 yards. Sophomore Nick Tausch (14 of 17 FGs, 27 of 30 PATs) set the school record in ’09 by making 14 consecutive field goals and ranked second on the team with 69 points. After missing the first kick of his career, he made the next 14 before missing two against Navy. He missed the remainder of the season with an injury.
Junior David Ruffer (5 of 5 FGs, 9 of 10 PATs) took over for Tausch and promptly converted all five of his field-goal attempts, including both from beyond 40 yards. The walk-on, who had never played organized football prior to arriving at Notre Dame, also served as kickoff specialist for half the season and averaged 62.1 yards per kickoff with two touchbacks.