You really can't beat football in late April. Spring practice just gets the blood flowing for college football season. Unfortunately, now we have four long months of waiting until the regular season begins. Time to saddle up to the Triple Crown, the PGA Tour, the tennis majors, some MLB action, and NBA and NHL playoffs for a sports fix until football starts back up in July and August.
For you PGA Tour fans out there, figured I'd direct your attention to a great new golf blog called Village Green Golf. Highly-entertaining stuff, and written by the two most knowledgeable PGA Tour fans I know (or will ever know for that matter).
Anyway, some general thoughts on Brian Kelly followed by some awards.
Two things really jumped out at me from over the weekend about Brian Kelly that make me think we might have finally found the right (kinda) guy at Notre Dame.
1) Presence -- I don't know what it is, but Kelly really seems to have the head man persona down pat. With the great coaches, they just have this presence that creates an identity for their teams. Guys like Izzo and Coach K and Saban and Tressel and others. They always seem to look like they are in control and know exactly what they are doing. There's an "In ____ I trust" element to following those teams. In the end, you just know those guys are going to find a way.
Kelly has a little bit of that. I remember hearing him speak in the early days at Cincinnati, and I was struck by how confident he was that he was going to come in and win right away. I had just graduated from law school at UC at the time and didn't know much about the guy, but it felt like a foregone conclusion that he was going to win big at UC. I mean, this is UC. The home of 12,000 people in the stands and 96th ranked recruiting classes.
But suddenly they just started winning games and it never stopped the whole time Kelly was there. Just when you thought he couldn't possibly take UC higher, he'd pull off a win that UC had no business winning. I remember sitting in stunned amazement watching UC go out to Rutgers in the opener this year (people forget that everyone thought 2009 was going to be a rebuilding year for UC and that the over/under on wins for them was 6.5 in Vegas before the year) and just lay the wood to them. 47-15. That might have been one of the five most impressive wins of the entire college football season.
He's been the same way at ND. It's a complete contrast from the previous three coaches.
Davie had charisma to some degree (he was always great in the pep rallies and still is great on tv as an analyst), but he always put out a "this job is bigger than me" vibe at ND. And he didn't really try to hide it. Davie couldn't wait to tell you how hard the ND job was or how overhwelmed he was by the pressure. You knew he knew football, but I don't think his teams ever took him too seriously as the leader of their team.
With Ty, he took the opposite approach. He didn't know anything, but he played coy and acted stoic hoping that no one would figure out that he didn't know anything. People bought into it the first year, but there's only so many times you can speak in cliche and generalities before people wonder what's going on. Tressel is like this in public, but it's all an act. With Ty, that was basically it. He was stoic because there really was no substance behind what he was saying or doing.
Weis put out a thinly-veiled "this job is bigger than me" vibe too, but he tried to hide it with a bunch of nonsense and false bravado. Weis was like a giant Ponzi scheme. He was able to sell quite a bit of hype, but there was nothing behind it. Weis embraced high expectations, but unfortunately, he didn't have enough experience to meet them.
With Kelly, you don't see any of those massive flaws. He's not compaining about high standards. He embraces them. He's great in the community and seems to really understand the political aspect of being a head coach. He's got a staff that practically worships him and is completely on message. He's very candid with the media, but in a good way. When I listen to Kelly, I'm always learning something about football or recruiting or why he does the things he does. With Weis, I don't think he had any type of overriding philosophy for how to run a program. Kelly is VERY specific when he talks about what he is trying to accomplish in all aspects of the program.
It's just night and day. Kelly acts like a guy who really knows what he's doing, and he actually has the substance to back it up when you listen to him talk about football.
2) Personal conduct policy -- Maybe this isn't a big deal, but I think it's telling that there's a lot less trash talk and other B.S. with the team this year. In fact, I think I read that it has been prohibited under a new personal conduct policy. I think that's awesome, and exactly what this team needed.
Seems like our team was so caught up in its own hype the last few years. No offense to Jimmy Clausen and Brian Smith and others, but scoring a touchdown against freaking Hawaii is not cause to celebrate like you just won the BCS championship. That should be the bare minimum. Act like you've been there before. Brian Smith was woofing every time he made a tackle even if the guy was already five yards dwon the field. Instead of spending so much time running his mouth, how about making some plays?? How about winning some games before you act like you're the big man on campus??
I would like to see more winning and less jawing. WIN GAMES. Let's go 11-1 and then get excited about it. Beating Nevada or Hawaii is not cause to act like you've arrived.
It all started at the top though with Weis. Weis would practically hang a "Mission Accomplished" banner on our sideline if we so much as played a decent half. He'd start puffing his chest out to Alex Flanagan during the halftime interview like we had the game in the bag. I'm sure that rubbed off in the locker room. Weis had a litle of the Marvin Lewis complex of telling his guys how great they were at the half, making no adjustments, and suddenly we let the game slip away in the 2nd half. You gotta stay on top of it.
Discipline, discipline, discipline. It's so important in college football. Kelly gets that. He doesn't buy into all the hype, and he's going to stay on these guys for 60 minutes. Attention to detail is so critical.
Maybe I shouldn't be buying into the hype just yet, but I think ND has finally stumbled into a high-quality proven head coach. Hope he can start turning this program around on September 4, 2010.
General observations on the Brian Kelly offense from the spring game:
1) The tight end shovel pass -- Absolutely love that play. I think Gary Danielson would literally pump his fist every time Florida did it with Aaron Hernandez last year. It's almost unstoppable because no one ever seems to see it coming. The tight end just slides down the line and.....BOOM. He's got the ball with a wall of blockers up the middle. It's such a cool play. Like the triple option but on the interior.
Great to see that we are running that now. Could be a great red zone option for us. As good as our offense was under Weis, it was never all that efficient in the red zone. We were either running it up the middle, trying a play action (which teams started sniffing out), or throwing a fade to the corner. It just got old and predictable after awhile, and the only reason it was relatively successful is because of great individual efforts by Tate and Floyd. By the end of the year, we always seemed to be running on fumes offensively.
With Kelly's playbook, we're a lot less predictable down there with plays like the tight end shovel pass and stuff like that. I expect to see a lot of reverses and middle screens when you least expect it. No matter where we are on the field, one principle overrides everything for Kelly: GET THE BALL TO YOUR PLAYMAKERS IN SPACE.
2) The Pace - WHOA. Basketball on grass. Up-tempo, high-energy. Fun to watch. Is Tom Hammond going to be able to keep up with this??
Whether you like it or not, I get the strategy behind it. Kelly wants to put pressure on the other team to keep up. It just seems to create a sense of urgency with your team, and also a little rhythm. I still think back to the first half of that Michigan State game when we came out no huddle and looked like we were going to blow them out of the building. Then we sort of took our foot off the peddle and let them back in the game. Kelly wants to create urgency to play like that offensively for 60 minutes.
And even though it sells out the defense a little bit, I do think there's a psychological benefit to scoring quickly and putting pressure on the other offense to keep up. Every time Purdue gets the ball in the opener, I want them to feel like they have to score. That leads to risky moves and turnovers.
3) The "clap snap" -- Heard this term for our new snapping method. The quarterback slaps his hands together violently to signal for the snap. It just looks goofy, but whatever. I'll get used to it. Nothing will ever top the Brady Quinn squat in terms of goofy QB mannerisms, but this "clap snap" thing will be oft-imitated by 7 year old ND fans playing backyard football with their buddies.
The hurry-up, no-huddle offenses do feel a little micromanaged with the quarterback always looking to the sideline for the play and all that, but it does seem to work. If everyone else is doing it, we might as well keep up with the trend.
4) Rollouts and quick hitters -- I also like the shotgun and the rollouts and all the quick hitters. The rollout is such an underrated play in football.
Maybe this offense isn't your classic NFL style offense, but I don't care about that stuff anymore. Win games, and players will get a look in the NFL. See Tebow, Tim. Same with Colt McCoy for that matter (who basically played in the Brian Kelly offense the last four years).
5) Running game -- Tough to tell if the running game really was good or just a product of the vanilla defenses, but I'd really like to see ND run the ball more effectively this year. Once you get into the games against the elite teams, it's hard to win when you are completely one-dimensional. Even with Cincy, they really did not play well against Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl a couple years ago, and a big reason for it (besides VT just having better personnel overall) is that they had no balance on offense. Every person in the building knew Pike was throwing it every down, and he had his worst game as a result.
For the most part, Cincy ran it about 30 or so times a game under Kelly, but their running game was really not that great other than the games where Collaros ran with it. There may be some mitigating circumstances since Cincy did not have much up front or a big time stable of running backs, but I'd like to see Kelly create a more effective running game at ND.
I'm fine with a pass-oriented offense, but if we want to win BCS bowl games, we have to be able to run it to some degree. ND has plenty of 4 star types that we have recruited along the o-line, so there's really no excuse not to be able to run it.
The other reason why I really want to be able to run it this year is that it takes some of the pressure off Dayne Crist. Crist should not have to throw it 40 times a game this year. If we can pound the ball with Allen and Hughes and Gray and Wood, we should do it as much as possible. In fact, we should go into the Purdue game looking to shove it down their throat.
The running game looked good on Saturday. Hope we can keep that rolling into the year.
6) Overall, I expect this offense to eventually be very effective at ND. People are going to complain at times (me included), but that's the nature of the beast. No coach has ever gone an entire career at a school without being criticized for something. But I like what I've seen. This is much more of a college offense than the Weis offense, but I like that. If Lou Holtz can build dominant teams at ND running the triple option, it goes to show that the scheme doesn't matter. The only thing that matters is execution.
Time for some awards:
The Junior Jabbie Award for "spring game all stars that have the fanbase a little bit too excited": Jonas Gray, Nate Montana
I just went back and looked at last year's preview and saw that last year's winners of the "Junior Jabbie Award" were Jonas Gray and Nate Montana! I literally could just repost what I wrote about both those guys last year because I think it's applicable to some degree again this year.
Jonas Gray -- I like how he runs, but I need to see it consistently before I believe it. This is the 2nd year in a row where Gray looked like the best running back on the team at the spring game, but we gotta remember that he's doing this again 2nd and 3rd teamers in a practice setting against vanilla defenses. In other words, he's running through guys who don't belong out there, and it's not a high-pressure environment.
One thing I've noticed about spring games in general (and no one hypes up spring game performances more than me...I was ready to look into flights to Glendale by mid-2nd quarter on Saturday) is that offenses always look good in the spring game. And the running game always seems to look like a juggernaut. I don't have the football acumen to know why that is, but running backs don't just rip off 20 yard runs play after play like that.
Gray has had a few flashes in his career where I started to believe that he was going to break out and be a legitimate player in this offense. But he hasn't done it under the bright lights.
I hope this is the year, but I've read a few too many "Jonas Gray should be the feature back this year" posts in the last couple days. If he's bulldozing Purdue and Michigan, sign me up. Until then, there's a reason why he's a 2nd stringer right now.
Nate Montana -- Ok, I'll admit, Nate Dogg looked good out there. I mean, he was throwing some really nice passes into tight spots, especially to the tight ends. And I will admit that hearing the words "Montana checking into the game" out of Mike Collins ALWAYS puts a little charge into me. But he's still very much a work in progress, and it's impossible to get a full read on him based on the spring game. Last year, he might have been the offensive MVP of the game, and yet he was off the team like a month later.
I do think he looks better than he did last year, and I think the Kelly offense is a better fit for his skills. If he has to come into a game this year, maybe he can hold his own if we give him some rollouts and things like that. But personally, I'd rather not find out.
The Brent Musberger "FOOTRACE!" Award: Cierre Wood
Smoeone had to inherit the "Footrace" nickname from Joe McKnight. Might as well be Cierre Wood.
I thought he was the most impressive running back of the day. Very explosive, great balance, nose for the end zone, rips through tackles, stays on his feet. One missed tackle, and he could be gone. He's the heir apparent to Golden Tate for guys who could go the distance at any time.
Cierre Wood also wins the Grant Irons Award for players who just look great in their pads. If you looked at every guy on our team and had to pick out our best player/athlete purely on how they looked in their uniform, I'd go with Cierre Wood. He just looks like he should be good.
I don't know how this running back depth chart is going to shape up, but Cierre Wood has to be on the field. I like Armando Allen as a steady hand, but he's just not explosive enough for my liking. I'd like to see a running back emerge who plays like Golden Tate. A guy who you cannot bring down with arm tackles and fights for every single yard before a herd of 3-4 guys has to bring him down.
Anyway, I'm really excited about the Cierre Wood era. He needs a nickname. Cierre Mist?? The Cierre Club?? Cierre Nevada?? We have an inbox to the right. Someone chime in with some suggestions.
The Derek Curry award for "underrated players who could have a sneaky good year": Gary Gray
The tackling was pretty terrible, but one guy who really seemed to stick his nose in there all day was Gary Gray. I think he might be our best corner this year. He's coming off a little bit of a comeback year, and now he looks like he might be ready to make the leap and be a leader on the defense.
As for the other corners, Blanton looked like he has his mojo back a little bit, but Walls didn't do it for me.
Then again, I thought Blanton looked like our best corner last year at the spring game, and he was awful last year. Stay tuned.
The Anthony Weaver award for "freshman who doesn't play like a freshman": Tai-Ler Jones
Wow, very impressive debut for TJ Jones (really glad we can officially call him TJ since "Tai-Ler" is sort of a pain to type). He's like a very rich man's Deion Walker. Pretty thin and lanky, but very smooooooooth, fluid, catches everything, just seems to do everything with ease. Seems like he runs perfect routes and always finds a way to get open. He's not as physically imposing as a guy like Michael Floyd, but makes up for it by being really polished.
Also seems like a perfect fit in the slot position for Kelly's offense. Big time future ahead for #7. I can see why he was at the top of the depth chart.
Should be interesting to see how the receiver position stacks up. We have a ton of options out there with Kamara, Floyd, Evans, Goodman on the outside and Jones and Riddick in the slot.
The Justin Tuck Awards for "breakout stars who everyone knew would be breakout stars someday": Manti Te'o
I don't have much to say about the defense mainly because (a) the defense didn't look very good and (b) the format is never really favorable to the defense, but I can't do a Blue Gold game recap without at least mentioning Manti Te'o. WOW. What a stud! Te'o is in line for a slew of 18 tackle type days. Really going to have a great career at ND, and he's the only guy on our defense who looks like an elite player. If he's not a high NFL draft pick in three years, I'll be stunned.
The Nick Setta Award for "special teams player of the game": Ben Turk
Thought Turk looked good. Placekicking did not, but it's early. Maybe I've listened to too many Jim Tressel quotes, but good punting is important. At the very least, hit it solid and get it down the field. Changing the field position is an underrated game within the game.
The Julius Jones Award for "comeback player of the year": Steve Filer and Brandon Newman
A little disappointing last year for both these guys, but I thought they both looked good Saturday. I think the "Filer is a USC-type linebacker" type stuff is a little overstated, but he looks like he could be a playmaker at OLB. Same with Newman on the interior.
Sort of interesting that we went with the 4-3 defense so often on Saturday. Is that going to be more of a regular occurrence than we expected??
The Ron Powlus "unreasonably high expectations" award: Dayne Crist
This is a tough spot. I thought he played fine on Saturday, but it's clear that Dayne is very much a work in progress. For every great throw he made, you could point out a tipped ball or a pass that just wasn't on target. I will admit that I have been spoiled by Jimmy Clausen a little bit. Clausen literally did not miss throws. With Dayne, it feels like we're going back to Brady Quinn a little bit. He gives you some new dimensions in terms of playmaking, but you have to live with some bad balls.
Three good things though:
1) Arm strength - One thing that is nice is that Dayne has a rocket arm. That throw to TJ Jones in the corner for the touchdown was a bullet.
The potential is there. Even though he might not be as accurate as Jimmy Clausen, Crist can make some throws that Jimmy didn't necessarily attempt in college. Brian Kelly runs a lot of deep crossing routes, and that looks like a throw that Crist will have no problem making.
2) Mobility -- Even coming off ACL surgery, Crist is substantially more mobile than Jimmy C. He's going to take off and make some plays this year with his legs, and we might see some designed runs for him.
I really like rollout passes in college football. Moving the pocket and giving a QB a run/pass option always seems like a good thing to me. And it creates some great opportunities for misdirection stuff and throwbacks and things like that.
3 Brian Kelly -- As Jimmy alluded to in his post last week, Kelly has a system for quarterbacks. If there's one guy who is going to be able to get production out of Dayne Crist in his first year, it's Brian Kelly.
The fact that Zach Collaros (3 star nobody out of Steubenville High School) emerged as a superstar in Brian Kelly's offense at Cincinnati is all I need to know about the Brian Kelly system. They literally threw this guy in there, and he proceeded to play out of his mind for a month when Pike went down. I don't know what Kelly does to prepare these guys, but it works.
Ultimately, I think Crist will have a good year. By the end of the year, I think we'll be really excited about him going into 2011 (like Heisman talk excited). But I think it's clear that there will be growing pains along the way.
The Dr. Kevin White Award for "off the field issue that bugs me": The condition of the turf
Not much the groundscrew could do about it with the rain, but just seeing that sloppy field reminded me of all the lousy turfs we've played on the last 4-5 years. ND Stadium becomes a complete mudpit by about mid-October. It's not fair to our players to have to play on that sloppy track. It turns the game into a crapshoot, and I think it takes away from our home field advantage. We have these teams built around the passing game, and yet we're running around on this dogtrack with sloppy footing.
I don't have a solution for this issue, but it's poor form. We can and should have a better field. I don't really want to switch to field turf, but there might not be a choice. Somehow Lambeau Field seems to stay in pristine condition year round. Maybe we could consult their groundskeepers on how to manage a grass field in cold weather conditions.
Last thing I want to see is another sloppy game against some schmuck team like UConn and losing to them because our guys are slipping all over the place.
The feeling that I got from watching the game was that we're an 8-4ish kinda team but with a hunger to do better. Still working out the kinks offensively, probably not great defensively, new quarterback who is not quite there yet, and maybe some of the usual up and downs associated with a new head coach. But there's talent everywhere, and the guys are going to be chomping at the bit to redeem themselves.
The schedule is interesting. It's probably the lightest schedule I've ever seen for an ND team (I feel like I say that every year these days), but the front end doesn't provide much breathing room and there are a lot of "desperate" teams on this schedule. On paper, BC and Michigan State are 7-5/8-4 type teams, but we're going to get everything they can throw at us at night on the road. USC is going to be a bear of course, and we have a slew of hungry, veteran teams like Michigan, Stanford, Pitt, and even Utah at home.
I think ND has the talent to do something great this year. We have the talent to beat anyone on the schedule other than maybe SC (who is going through their own transition period). But it also wouldn't shock me to see us drop two or three road games and trip up against 1-2 teams at home. I think it's reasonable to talk about a BCS type year, but also realistic to point to 8-4/9-3 with a Gator Bowl bid as a solid first year for the Kelly regime.
Should be interesting. Can't wait for September 4 to roll around.