The Times' Golden Homer Daniel Riordan chatted recently with Goshen News sports editor Stephen Brooks who covers Notre Dame football. The two previously worked together in Goshen, 30 miles east of South Bend.
DR: Obviously everyone wants to talk about quarterback Brandon Wimbush. But a lot of other people will determine his success or failure.
The left side of the offensive line is solid but there are questions elsewhere. How's it coming together so far in camp?
SB: Alex Bars has moved inside to right guard and been a good fit there and Sam Mustipher is noticeably improved at center. Mustipher looks to be one of many who really benefited from this first offseason with new strength coach Matt Balis. So really four out of five spots are set; the last unknown is right tackle where Tommy Kraemer, Liam Eichenberg and Robert Hainsey are competing for the job. Kraemer has taken virtually all of the first-team reps in practice periods open to the media, but Brian Kelly denied Kraemer has a comfortable lead there when I asked him directly Tuesday. I think Kraemer ultimately wins the job, he has looked the best in my opinion.
DR: The defense last year was in a word ... bad. Any hope for improvement this year?
SB: I think there has to be hope. You know I love Star Wars so let me quote Jyn Erso briefly: "Rebellions are built on hope." But is hope warranted? That's really the question. New defensive coordinator Mike Elko has obviously done more with less throughout his career with highly-productive units at Bowling Green and Wake Forest, so that's obviously reason for optimism. Notre Dame has more talent than he's accustomed to working with, but the Irish aren't up to par in a few key areas: safety and defensive tackle. The safety play was bad last year and we haven't seen a lot through spring or fall camp that should make Irish fans comfortable there. At defensive tackle, it's Jerry Tillery and everyone else. The hope is that Tillery can be outstanding and everyone else can just be serviceable, force a few stalemates.
If you want to look on the bright side, Shaun Crawford has looked very good since returning from his Achilles injury, which bolsters a young but talented group of corners. And then Drue Tranquill's move to rover (a hybrid linebacker/safety spot) is an absolutely perfect fit. It allows him to do what he does best and minimizes his weaknesses. He should be in for a great statistical year
DR: Going with the "Star Wars" reference early. On the offensive end, there's a new coordinator there as well with Chip Long. And it sounds like he's added some interesting wrinkles. What can ND fans expect to see new on offense this year?
SB: The biggest thing Notre Dame fans are going to be happy to hear is a renewed emphasis on the tight end position. It seemed like there was a 10-year stretch where 6-foot-6 first-round monsters just rolled seamlessly into that spot for Notre Dame, but the past three seasons the tight end production has really dropped off. Long has a background coaching the position and he inherits a tremendously deep group in South Bend in Durham Smythe, Alize Mack, Nic Weishar, Brock Wright and Cole Kmet. So two-tight end formations are one of the most noticeable changes. Next in line would be the desire to play at tempo, and anyone who watched the 2016 season-opener against Texas should know how that rapid pace of play can affect a defense. Long and the players have mentioned tempo a lot, but to be honest, it's not something we've seen a ton of in practice sessions. I think it's legitimate to wonder if there's a true commitment to playing fast from the first snap to the last.
DR: So far in Brian Kelly’s tenure based on the amount of times I've yelled about delay of game and near delay of game call I have my doubts.
So let's get to Brandon Wimbush. He's getting a lot of ink. Is he the savior or just a guy? Kelly's history with QBs is complicated.
SB: I mean obviously you don't need to snap it every 15 seconds if you're up 21 in the fourth quarter. But a lot of teams say they want to go fast and that dies off by the latter stages of the second quarter.
I think Wimbush is going to be very, very fun to watch for fans and media alike. It has been reported that folks inside ND's program have viewed him as the most talented quarterback on the roster for quite a while. He's been in a red, non-contact jersey in spring practice, the spring game and every practice this fall, yet he's still able to escape pursuers with such elusiveness that makes you wish it was a live game. I think he's going to be extremely effective as a runner, the only question there being how often Long wants to feed him carries on designed runs. When the pocket breaks down, his combination of speed and wiggle is going to be really dangerous. As a passer, he's got a beautiful deep ball, but it's the short and intermediate stuff that gives him a bit of trouble. In a few 11-on-11 periods this fall, he's made some poor reads and decisions, but those are few and far between. I think he's super talented and boasts a lot of potential individually. When you add in a veteran offensive line, what seems like 10 receivers 6-3 or taller, and three good running backs, it's hard to imagine a scenario where ND's offense isn't capable of scoring on nearly anybody.
DR: It seems silly to predict wins and loses but let's do it anyway. What is Notre Dame's record this year?
SB: I'll go with 8-4. I think Georgia, USC and Stanford are losses and the fourth comes against either North Carolina State or Miami. It's a reversal from last year, and probably enough for Kelly to return in 2018, but nothing that's going to inspire the fan base.
But I wouldn't be totally shocked if they went 9-3, won a bowl game to get to 10 wins and the narrative looks totally different going into spring ball 2018.
DR: Who are the breakout players on offense and defense this year?
SB: On offense I'll go with sophomore WR Chase Claypool. At 6-4 he's another big target in the mold of Equanimeous St. Brown, but unlike St. Brown, Claypool just catches everything. I also think Claypool is a better athlete, but not by much.
DR: And Canadian! (Claypool is from Abbotsford, British Columbia.) So he'll politely outjump DBs for balls.
SB: Defensively, anyone rooting for Notre Dame should hope it's sophomore DE Daelin Hayes. He's the only true pass-rush threat on the defense. After a season in which ND was the last FBS team in the country to record a sack, that's obviously an area of need. If a linebacker leads the team in sacks again, that's a problem. This defense simply needs to be able to apply pressure from the line, and Hayes is their best option. Put me down for DE Jay Hayes, the strong-side end, as a runner-up. He's not a pass-rush specialist, but I think he could have a real solid year.
DR: Best freshmen?
SB: The first guy to watch is safety Isaiah Robertson. He enrolled early and has gotten a lot of second-team work so far. I definitely like the career he's got ahead of him, but the future could be now if the safeties ahead of him continue to fail to solidify themselves. After that, it's defensive tackles Kurt Hinish and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa for reasons I discussed earlier — there's not a lot of proven talent on the interior of the D-line. Those two are being groomed to play as true freshmen, which is rare, and a bit surprising considering classmate Darnell Ewell was the most celebrated recruit of the bunch.
DR: From lavender to violet how purple does Brian Kelly get at his angriest this year?
SB: At some point, he'll reach eggplant purple. That's a safe bet. As much as he's tried to reinvent himself this offseason — and truly has in many ways — I don't think that part of him can ever be flushed. As he likes to mention, he's been a head coach for 20-plus years. He is who he is at this point. There's bound to be a time where, say, Bars misses a blitz, the running back goes the wrong way and Wimbush tosses a bone-headed interception into triple coverage. I think handing over play-calling duties to Long also has potential to feed into a patented meltdown.
DR: Rapid fire time: Best interview on team
SB: Mike McGlinchey
DR: Most upside
SB: I gotta go with Claypool again. I just think he's got such a unique set of skills. It's easy to picture him playing 10 years at a very high level in the NFL down the line.
If you want a new name, Julian Love. I really like what he brings at corner. He's great in coverage and, most importantly, he'll hit you. There aren't many corners with that mix.
DR: Who has the longest pro career?
SB: Quenton Nelson, assuming he stays healthy. He just likes hitting people in the mouth and he's darn good at it.
DR: Notre Dame goes 6-6 this year. Is Kelly back as head coach in 2018?
SB: Yes. Obviously it depends on who those losses are against, and the margin of defeat. But unless they go sub-.500, I'm going to lean toward him returning. The school just got done paying Charlie Weis, and Kelly signed an extension after the 2015 season, so I don't think the administration wants to go through that again. Plus he just signed on six new on-field assistants in the offseason. I think that investment is a sign of faith from the powers that be.
DR: Ok. Thanks Stephen. I appreciate the time and you can read Stephen's work in the Goshen News in print and online.
SB: Or one of CNHI's other 12 newspapers/websites nearest you! Thanks man, this was fun.