April 22, 2010

Blue Gold Game Preview: Thoughts on Theo Riddick, Bob Diaco, the 3-4 defense, Dayne Crist, and why more ND fans should be fired up about Brian Kelly.

Time to gear up for the Notre Dame spring game, so I figured I'd throw down some thoughts as we come to the conclusion of spring practice. Hope the weather holds up on Saturday. What a great weekend for football. NFL draft starts up tonight, more NFL action on Friday and Saturday, and then the ND spring game on Saturday. You really can't beat football talk in April. I was not crazy about the NFL Draft moving to Thursday, but I'll admit I'm excited. Darn you Roger Goodell. Guess you knew that the hardcore fans would come around and buy in.

Anyway, these are the big questions on my mind heading into the Blue Gold game.

1) What grade would you give Brian Kelly for the offseason so far??

I'd probably give him an A, but he hasn't coached a game yet and I probably should cool my heels until he does so. But I like everything I've seen and heard out of Brian Kelly so far on multiple fronts:

1) Recruiting -- People seem to be jumping down Kelly's throat about his recruiting, but I'm not seeing the cause for concern at all. I said the day that he was hired that Kelly would turn out to be a better and more effective recruiter than Charlie Weis, and that is exactly how things are playing out so far. We are really poised to make some noise in the next month or so.

The thing that I like about Kelly is that he's not just adding positions or addressing needs, which I think is how Weis approached the recruiting game. Weis was a grab-bagger when it came to recruiting. Shocking I know. One year, he'd be into 3-4 bodies, the next year he'd be into 4-3 guys, then he'd be into tall corners and then short corners and then big running backs and then smaller guys. There was no method to the Weis madness mainly because he had no understanding for personnel and no real feel for how he wanted to construct his roster. How can you have guys competing for jobs when you don't even know what skill set you're looking for??

Meanwhile, Kelly is all about specific body types and skill sets. He's offered like 50 of these 6'5", 250 raptor types to play OLB in his 3-4 defense. Give him an athlete, and he will find a position for you.

Seems like Kelly's entire recruiting apparatus is built around getting playmakers. He wants duel threat QBs who are athletic and can run and throw and make plays. He wants receivers who can be explosive in space. He wants linemen who can move and be quick on their feet. And he wants linebackers who are going to wreak havoc on the perimeter and get to the quarterback.

Kinda like how the NFL teams build their rosters. How many times have we heard Kiper and others say that the NFL places a premium on quarterbacks, wide receivers, pass rushers, athletic offensive tackles, and corners?? Kelly's mindset seems to mirror that.

2) Player Development -- Really like some of the personnel moves we've made. Seems like a lot of guys are back in positions where they can make plays. Neal and Smith could be great at OLB, Ethan Johnson is a much better fit at defensive end, love the Theo Riddick move (more on that in a bit), and I like some of the position changes on the offensive line. That unit with Robinson and Martin at tackle suddenly looks a lot more athletic and agile.

How many times has Kelly talked about player development as his #1 priority in coaching?? It's not a coincidence that all these dudes from Cincinnati and Central Michigan are about to get drafted. Would Tony Pike even be sniffing the NFL Draft if it wasn't for Brian Kelly?? No way.

I don't know what the secret is to player development, but Kelly has the credentials.

3) Coaching staff -- Are you kidding me?? I'm loving this assistant coaching staff. Tons of energy and passion and fire. A complete contrast from Weis' cronies.

How great is Bob Diaco?? YOUNG GUNS! How many years have we been talking on this site about guys like Will Muschamp and Major Applewhite and all these young gun assistants on the other big time staffs?? It's about time we finally have our own high-energy young gun defensive coordinator who is going nuts on the sideline and rumored for a bunch of high-profile jobs down the road. Kelly saw something in this guy a couple years ago, and you can already see what he liked about Diaco. Would not be shocked at all if he's running a program of his own in 3-4 years.

Same with Tony Alford. He is all over the place working "The Trail." If he can pull in Aaron Lynch in the next couple weeks, it's time to start talking about him in the same breath as Brian Polian in terms of recruiting.

Even Elston and Martin are out there working it. Just seems like all these guys are 100% dialed in and totally committed to the Kelly system. Give me a cohesive staff of hungry guys, and I'm excited.

On paper, this offseason couldn't have gone any better, but it seems like people are still really cautious about Brian Kelly. I completely understand where ND fans are coming from, but it's like we used up all our "In Coach We Trust" energy on Willingham and Weis and now everyone is beaten down. I get it, but it bums me out to read the constant "win games and then I'll get excited" refrain on the message boards.

This is the one guy out of the last three hires that we actually should be excited about. He actually has a system, he has a track record, he's won everywhere he's coached, he's recruiting well, he seems to understand motivation and personnel, and he's saying things that we really haven't heard since Holtz. He's the first coach we've hired who doesn't buy into all the hype. If you're not performing, he's going to call you out on it.

I think his honeymoon has gone really well. Even the skeptics are slowly warming up to Kelly.

2) Do you have any concerns about Kelly??

Well, truthfully, I'm not crazy about his offense. It's probably not a fair criticism since it's more of a personal preference thing, but the pass spread doesn't feel like football to me. I know Oklahoma and Texas and pretty much everybody is running the pass spread these days and doing just fine with it, but I like to see my team imposing its will on the other squad. There's just something about playing a power style where you move the line of scrimmage and grind out games and hit big play action when they are selling out for the run that gets the blood flowing for me. Watching Alabama just DESTROY Florida with the power game last year or USC when they had it rolling is what I'd secretly love to see ND doing on offense.

I've watched a LOT of Cincinnati football in the last three years, and I will say that there's a little bit of a gimmicky element to what they do. It's effective, but it almost feels a little flukish. It's the kind of offense where they were in 3rd and 8 a lot after two incompletions and then just came through with some great bubble screen call that goes for 25 yards. Is it great execution?? Yes, but it's not the same "we're kicking the crap out of you and there's nothing you can do to stop it" feeling that you get when you really have it rolling.

Having said that, it really doesn't matter what you run in college football. The key is that you execute well. Heck, Lou Holtz ran the same five plays at ND, and no one could stop it because we ran those plays so well. Kelly's entire offense is built around getting his playmakers in space with the ball, playing up tempo, and executing big plays. He doesn't care if he starts off with two incompletions because the third one could go for 25 yards. And they PRACTICE this stuff ad nauseum. Catching the ball in traffic, making good decisions, getting his linemen to block well in space, conditioning to keep the tempo up, etc. You win with execution. That is what Kelly will bring to the table.

And I wouldn't be shocked if his offense is a lot more diverse at ND now that he has superior talent. He might be able to run the ball more effectively, and we will definitely get the tight end involved a lot (that was the case at UC as well).

Our offense is going to be fine. Probably great in fact. Wouldn't be surprised if the offense is better under Kelly than it was under Weis. But it's not my favorite offense in the world.

3) What position change are you most excited about??

Theo Riddick! Color me pumped about this move! If there's one guy who I could see blowing up as a superduperstar this year, it's Theo Riddick.

There's a reason why Kelly moved him to wide receiver. Wide receiver is the glamour position in this offense. Riddick said as much in his interview. Kelly wants to get his best athletes at wide receiver, and Riddick might be the best athlete on the team. I thought he looked spectacular last year at running back. Explosive, big time moves, great balance. Couldn't he be a star in the Mardy Gilyard role in this offense the next couple years??

Kelly is all about these "big chunk" plays. Reverses, bubble screens, slants, middle screens. He wants to get the ball to Riddick in space, break a tackle, and........FOOTRACE! Just call it The Musberger Special.

I'm going on record that Theo Riddick has like 50 catches this year and 7-8 touchdowns. If I'm wrong, well...this is a spring preview. Bear with me.

As for the rest of the wide receiver position, I'd be pretty happy to see Duval Kamara have a bounceback year, and I think Goodman will be a great 3rd-4th option as a possession guy. Not sure what to expect of Shaq Evans. I was really excited to see him last year, but was pretty underwhelmed by his athleticism. Just not as explosive as I thought he'd be. Honestly, I didn't see a huge difference between Evans and Toma.

Might also keep an eye on Tai-Ler Jones. Sounds like he has really looked good in spring camp. Could be a star someday.

4. What are your feelings on the 3-4 defense?

Kind of a mixed bag. Biggest concern for me on defense is depth and the front seven. You win on defense in your front seven. You can have athletes and all kinds of things going on at other positions, but you have to have the horses up front up front to win. Get pressure and stop the run. How many times have we seen that year after year?? Need to put defenses in 2nd and 3rd and long and find ways to get stops. GET STOPS. Get off the field. Last year, even when our defense came to play (which was rare), we'd wilt in the 4th quarter. That UConn game was the saddest thing I've ever seen. FREAKING UCONN literally was ramming it down our throat play after play after play, and we couldn't stop it. Read that again. The UConn Huskies. Ugh.

I'm not a huge fan of the 3-4 college defense, especially since I don't think we have dominant personnel up front. It's so important to be able to win the line of scrimmage in college football, and I don't think these linemen really understand their assignments when it comes to running a 3-4. I'm just having nightmares of running backs ripping 4-5 yards through the line before they even get touched because our d-line is overwhelmed. I like it for an NFL defense, but NFL teams all have 300 pound stud d-linemen who have all the time in the world to know their roles in that defense. And they also have 260 pound ILB who can blow up the middle on running plays.

In terms of our personnel though, I don't mind the switch to the 3-4 for this particular team. Ultimately, that's all that matters for me. Just play the best defense that we are capable of this year. Ethan Johnson and KLM are good 3-4 DEs, and I think we can get away with Ian Williams at defensive tackle. Cincy had a 250 pound NT last year. Maybe he's not Terrence Cody, but if we get a guy in there who plays with leverage and toughness and knows his assignments, I'm fine with that.

And our linebackers should be really good in the 3-4. I can't believe I'm saying it, but we actually have depth at a position for the first time in about ten years. We can legitimately go 2 deep with quality guys at OLB with Filer, Fleming, Neal, and Smith. When was the last time where our backups were actually really good at any position?? We are usually paper thin defensively.

Plus, Manti Te'o is going to be a STUD this year. Every time I click on a highlight, he's laying the wood to somebody. Probably the only guy on our defense who consistently makes "WOW" plays. We need more guys like that.

Cincy's defense was really not very good last year. Part of it was personnel, but they just couldn't stop anyone. Maybe they wore down or something. I don't know what the story was there, but I really hope our defense isn't a complete sieve this year. Kelly seems to think that our defense is going to be a surprise. That's good enough for me at this point.

5. Who are your sleepers for this team?

Kerry Neal - Can I call him a sleeper?? More of a "Comeback Player of the Year" candidate. I think he's a guy who has been in the wrong position for his entire career, or the last two years at least, and now he's finally back in a spot where he can be in that OLB raptor spot and just rush the passer like a madman. Brian Smith could be the same way. Remember how good those guys were as freshman?? It feels like that was ten years ago. That was what was so frustrating about the Weis era. So many guys were just being developed improperly or playing in the wrong position. Even a fan like me who knows nothing about football could tell that. I must have said ten times before the year that I didn't like Ethan Johnson at defensive tackle, and then he did nothing all year. Really frustrating. I don't know why you would put your guys in positions where they aren't going to succeed.

RJ Blanton -- Maybe Walls too. This season almost reminds me of one of those fantasy baseball seasons where there are a bunch of guys who were all hyped up and didn't pan out and then everyone forgets about them and they break out a year or two later. We could just call it the Cameron Maybin All Stars. That's kind of how I feel about this team. Seems like last year was a complete waste of a year in terms of player devleopment. Put these guys with new coaches and a new attitude and a fresh start, and maybe they break out this year. I mean, Walls and Blanton started as freshmen. We all thought they were going to be great and they just never got any better.

The talent is there with Blanton and Walls. Time for them to step up and have great years.

Jamoris Slaughter -- What I would do for an athletic, playmaking safety at Notre Dame. We should just call it the curse of Glenn Earl. I could see Slaughter being that guy. I thought he looked good in limited action last year. Really would like to see him win one of the safety jobs. I can't stomach the idea of two white safeties for the Irish.

ND special teams -- The whole unit! Why not?? Special teams, special teams, special teams. We can win games next year with special teams alone. Great kicking game, great punting, good return units. You put all that together, and it really adds up, especially in the field position game. We lost the Pitt game last year singlehandedly because of special teams. Instead of pinning them deep in the punting game, they were starting every drive at midfield. It's just a recipe to give up cheap scores.

Just infuriating. No defense, bad special teams, no discipline. The Charlie Weis era!

6. What are your thoughts on Dayne Crist??

I watched some of the practices online, and I gotta say I'm not blown away by Dayne Crist at this stage. He looks like a guy who is coming off an ACL operation. It is what it is. He's a first year starter, new coach, etc. There are going to be growing pains and some rough patches ahead. If he gets off to a slow start and costs us a game somewhere early in the year, I hope people stay patient with him. I'm not expecting Kelly to win a national championship in his first year, so I hope people aren't jumping all over Kelly and Crist if we drop a game or two early in the year.

I'm not worried about Dayne long term though. Kelly has a great repuation for qbs, and every guy who has ever played for Kelly has thrived. I don't see why that would be any different with Crist. Once he gets a little further along in his development and gets more comfortable, I think he'll be great. He's got the talent, the size, and the ability to make things happen on the run.

I don't see why he can't be Tony Pike but even better. I think Crist will have a great career at ND, but it might not all come together by opening day against Purdue.

7. What are your expectations for the spring game??

I'm excited to see the spring game. People say the spring game is meaningless, but I don't agree with that at all. I've been to just about every spring game for the last ten years, and I've always learned something about our team in every one of them.

There are things that can be misleading coming out of the spring game of course (color me embarrassed that I was so excited about our DBs last year), but there is a lot you can tell out of your team and how they look physically. Thats the big thing for me. I just want to see if guys look fast and athletic and like playmakers. Even though I thought we looked pretty good in the spring game last year, I still had this lingering feeling that we looked small and slow and sort of plodding. Weis never produced teams that passed the eyeball test from a physical standpoint.

To be honest, I still get that vibe out of this team while watching the practice videos online. We still look a little too small and slow for my taste. i thought we were going to look a little more physical and explosive and "athletic" on both sides of the ball after Camp Kelly. Guess we need to cycle in some more of these "big skill" recruits the next couple years.

Ultimately, that's the biggest concern for me about the future of ND football. Kelly has done a ton of great stuff to reshape the attitude of the players and to bring in the training table and some other amenities to modernize the ND football program, but do we have the horses to be an elite program again?? Can you win in college football today with true student-athletes who take real classes and have to study at night when every other big time football factory has guys who are spending their entire time on campus hitting the weights and the film room?? Even if Kelly is truly an elite coach, can he beat the Alabamas and Floridas of the world in a BCS bowl game, or is he going to plateau with the 9-10 win seasons and blowout losses to the elite teams in the bowl games?? I don't know the answers to those questions. I would like to think that ND can compete again for championships, but I fear that the heavyweights have put us in the rearview mirror from a program commitment standpoint.

Stay tuned. Either way, I think ND will be a winning football program under Brian Kelly. Much like what Bo Pelini has done at Nebraska. Maybe Nebraska doesn't have the horses to win a national title, but at least they are getting the absolute most out of their roster that they possibly can right now. You can tell from watching them that they are impeccably coached, and I think Pelini was the perfect hire at Nebraska. I hope Brian Kelly has me saying the same things in a couple years.


Anonymous said...

1. Kelly has to get a high grade so far. Smooth transition, training table, using that new technology for recruiting and learning the playbook, better conditioning, etc. I mean it's gone just about as good as it possibly could right? I don't know what to think about the recruiting so far...it will take more time. I love the new coaches though.

2. I wouldn't say I don't like the offense, it's just something that will take getting used to. I fully expect this offense to be very, very good. Really, if the running game improves and we're still putting points on the board, I'm fine with it. And I'm pretty sure that will happen. Visually it isn't pretty I guess...I hate that stupip clapping motion the QB does, but I'll get over it. We probably should have run a no huddle last year anyway but we weren't trained to do it, now we are. It will be a HUGE advantage. It will also be weird to see the Wilson 1003 ball that Kelly has switched to...lighter shade of brown with black laces!!

3. I'm tempering my expectations for Riddick. On paper...great move by Kelly. But it seems like it's going to take Riddick a while to learn how to play receiver. I think it's a bit much to expect 50 catches. I think he'll be used as an occassional weapon, especially early on. I'd guess Kelly will try to get him the ball 5 times a game at least...and some of those may be on reverses or coming back into the backfield. I think Tai-ler Jones is the guy this year. Absolute perfect fit for Kelly's offense, insane route runner with tremendous hands. I think he'll be the main slot receiver, even as a freshman. Kelly's been testing him with the 1st team for a while now and he's holding up pretty well.

4. I like the 3-4 and actually like our front 7...for now. Who knows what a guy like Stockton could do? Nwankwo as well? I think there's pretty decent depth up front and the linebackers should be solid.

5. I like Slaughter as a sleeper and its looking like he may start at safety. My sleeper is Gary Gray...he will be the best corner on the team.

6. You gotta be happy with Crist right now. Remember three months ago when everyone was pulling their hair out because he wouldn't be ready? And he's been running the offense without any problems now...I'd say that's cause for celebration. The only thing I'm worried about is his accuracy and decesion making. He's going to put up big numbers right away, but we can't have a 15+ Int season out of him. I bet by year's end he has at least 3,000 yards and 20 TD's through the air.

Anonymous said...

"I can't stomach the thought of two white safeties . . ." Other than that stupid comment, good article and well thought out.