Despite blowout loss, Notre Dame here to stay

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Despite blowout loss, Notre Dame here to stay

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- Braxston Cave had a simple declaration to make as Notre Dame players came to grips with a 42-14 drubbing at the hands of Alabama.

"Notre Dame's back," Cave said. "Not how we wanted to (play) tonight, but we're back."

Being back doesn't mean being on Alabama's level, though. Plenty of Irish coaches and players talked about the gap between themselves and Alabama, which won its third championship in four seasons Monday night.

Auburn was the only team to break Alabama's stranglehold on the Coaches' Trophy since 2009. But two years after coaching Auburn to a BCS Championship win over Oregon, Gene Chizik was fired. After a meteoric rise, his program came crashing back to earth without its transcendent quarterback in Cam Newton.

That's one way to build a program, one which succeeds on the back of a star player. That's not how Brian Kelly has built Notre Dame. This is a program built to last, to succeed well into the future.

"We would certainly like to think we're not going to take a step backwards," offensive coordinator Chuck Martin said. "That doesn't mean we're going to play in the National Championship game every year, obviously that's very difficult. But the fact we can show up in the fall and that can be a realistic goal, we want to be in the BCS every year and hopefully get back to this game, and hopefully get back to this game where we play a lot better when we get here."

Manti Te'o is done at Notre Dame, as is the case for Cave, Tyler Eifert, Kapron Lewis-Moore and potentially Cierre Wood, who will decided whether to return for his senior season in a few days.

But Notre Dame has the nation's top-ranked recruiting class entering the program this year, a group stocked with the kind of "big skill" guys coach Brian Kelly and his coaching staff have targeted. Plus, Notre Dame will return plenty of talent, led by guys like offensive lineman Zack Martin, defensive end Stephon Tuitt and defensive tackle Louis Nix.

"We would certainly like to think we're not going to take a step backwards," Martin said. "That doesn't mean we're going to play in the National Championship game every year, obviously that's very difficult. But the fact we can show up in the fall and that can be a realistic goal, we want to be in the BCS every year and hopefully get back to this game, and hopefully get back to this game where we play a lot better when we get here. That's the goal, no doubt, at Notre Dame."

And, if you're looking for a positive from the BCS Championship, Everett Golson held serve, completing 21 of 36 passes for 270 yards and a touchdown against a defense that completely took away the threat of Notre Dame's running game.

"We got a lot of guys returning, a lot of guys who didn't play this year who can play," wide receiver DaVaris Daniels, who caught six passes for 115 yards against Alabama, said. "The future looks bright for us."

The clock is now ticking on the current BCS format, which will go away after next year's championship game. It'll be replaced by a four-team playoff, while Notre Dame has a tie-in with the Orange Bowl and a partnership with the ACC that'll assure the program won't be left behind. For all the consternation over Notre Dame's relevancy half a year ago, there's no questioning it now.

"When you start winning around here, you start to see what it does to the community, what it does to the fans and how it rejuvenates college football, and you realize that this program, this university means so much more," offensive lineman Chris Watt said. "And when Notre Dame's on top, college football's better."

For now, though, Notre Dame will go back to the drawing board. They now have a first-hand look at what the best college football program in the nation looks like -- and even before Monday's game, Kelly talked about getting Notre Dame to Alabama's level.

"Your program is defined in consistency, and Alabama is that model," Kelly said. "I concede to that. It's where we want to be."

No other team is there, though. Alabama is alone atop college football in terms of success as a program. Oregon is closer than anyone else, but Notre Dame is getting there.

Notre Dame couldn't make the giant leap to Alabama's level in South Florida. It'll take plenty of small steps, but this program is confident they'll get to that point.

"Obviously we didn't finish the way we wanted," Cave said, "but these guys coming back are going to be here to take the next step and finish the right way next year."

How walk-on Rob Regan became a secret weapon for Notre Dame

How walk-on Rob Regan became a secret weapon for Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — How does a walk-on safety have a Notre Dame game ball despite never actually appearing in a game?

On the surface, that sophomore Rob Regan received that family heirloom last October after Notre Dame’s win over Navy may seem weird given he didn’t play a snap that day. But to everybody who sees the work Regan puts in at the LaBar Practice Complex, especially during weeks in which Notre Dame prepares to face an opponent that runs the triple option, it’s anything but strange. 

“There’s no question about it,” defensive end Isaac Rochell said. “He deserved it.”

“I personally don’t know who we would’ve given it to besides him,” cornerback Cole Luke added. “If we didn’t have Robby, we definitely wouldn’t have been as prepared as we were.”

For Rochell, Luke and the rest of the Irish defense, Regan’s work as Notre Dame’s scout team — er, “Swag Team” — quarterback during triple option preparation was an important key to solving the antiquated-yet-confounding offense. It’s an attack Notre Dame faces more than most other Power Five schools with Navy on the schedule every year, but heading into last season, coach Brian Kelly & Co. had to double down on their efforts to stop it.

Notre Dame’s defense didn’t put up much resistance against Navy in 2013 (34 points, 5.3 yards per play) and 2014 (39 points, 5.9 yards per play), and with Georgia Tech joining the Mids on the schedule last year, fixing those triple option defensive issues was a paramount concern. Army is on the schedule in 2016, too, so for the second consecutive year Notre Dame will face two triple option offenses.

Former defensive coach Bob Elliott moved off the field into a special assistant role, with one of his chief tasks being to figure out a way to better defend the triple option. But the decision of Regan, who successfully ran a triple option offense at Hinsdale South High School in the Chicago area, to walk on to the team turned out to be a huge boost to those efforts.

In the past, Notre Dame’s scout team quarterback for triple option weeks wasn’t a natural at running it and had to read each play off a card. That lack of fluidity not only meant fewer reps for the Irish defense, but the quality of them was way off what they’d face from Keenan Reynolds or whoever the opposing quarterback on Saturday would be.

Defensive line coach Keith Gilmore said those sub-optimal triple option looks in practice are relatively common across college football, which makes sense — it’s not an offense used much at the college level. So having someone on your roster who ran in in high school can be a boon to preparing to face it.

Regan doesn’t have to read off a card because he knows the offense so well. And that means more plays and a look closer to what Notre Dame sees in games.

“It changes everything,” Kelly said.

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Of course, the scout team work can’t completely replicate game action — Notre Dame doesn’t do nearly as much cut blocking in practice as it’ll see in games from option offenses, given the injury risk involved. And guys like Navy’s Reynolds and Tago Smith, Georgia Tech’s Justin Thomas and Army’s Ahmad Bradshaw run the option faster than Regan can in practice, too.

But Regan still gives Notre Dame as good an option look as it could ask for on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.

“You can sit and practice against Navy out here and your scout team can do a good job, but it can’t touch what that look like at game time,” defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder said. “They’re exceptional at it, it’s happening so fast. But the faster we can get it, the closer we can move it to it, the better.”

Regan doesn’t shy away from absorbing hard hits too, which helps Notre Dame’s defense play faster in practice. Former Irish linebacker Jarrett Grace marveled at how Regan was able to take so much physical punishment during practice — “I don’t know if it’s extra ice, if it’s shaking up the Space Jam water to get jacked up out there,” he said — while junior linebacker Nyles Morgan said earlier this month Regan’s role is “one of the toughest jobs I’ve ever seen."

“I like giving hits and taking hits,” Regan said. “I’m a physical guy — when I’m running the ball, I’d rather run him over than juking him out.

“I enjoyed it. It definitely took a toll on my body, but I was glad to be able to contribute to those wins.”

Regan initially played wide receiver for Hinsdale South, but was moved to quarterback two games into his junior year. Hinsdale South went 5-4 his junior year, then went 9-3 and reached IHSA 6A quarterfinals in Regan’s senior year. Regan rushed for 18 touchdowns and averaged 5.6 yards per carry in 2014.

“He’s a football kid,” Hinsdale South coach Mike Barry said. “(He) grew up playing football, has football smarts. We refer to guys as instinctual at times — he’s one of those type of players where he just has a feel for the game."

Regan was thinking about attending high-caliber academic institutions like Penn, Princeton, Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Chicago before Notre Dame came along. Kelly was in the Chicago suburbs to scout four-star Hinsdale South defensive end Joshua King — who went on to commit to Michigan State — and was pitched on Regan by Barry.

Once Notre Dame came into the picture (Regan, as you’d guess from that above list of colleges he was considering, had the grades to get in) it was an easy choice for him to head to South Bend. The combination of academics, football, location and faith made Notre Dame “the best fit for me,” Regan, who’s studying chemical engineering, said.

“(He’s) somebody that recognizes that, first of all, what a degree from Notre Dame is going to do for him, and somebody that’s got a lot of pride in playing team sports,” Kelly said. “He loves to play team sports. He knows that he’s got value.”

Regan’s ultimate goal is to get into a game before his time at Notre Dame is up — he’s hoping to get on a special teams unit, make a difference there and hope to get in a game at safety.

But he’s already been recognized by coaches with an honor only a handful of others received in 2015. Notre Dame held Georgia Tech to 22 points — 15 of which came in garbage time — and Navy to 24 points, totals that represent the kind of improvements made by the Irish in defending the option.

And Regan, the 6-foot-2, 200 pound walk-on, played a major part in those improvements. Even if he didn’t play.

“It was awesome,” Regan said of receiving the Navy game ball. “I never expected that I would be recognized like that. It wasn’t just me, it was the whole Swag Team, but I guess I was kind of the leader of that team. It meant a lot that coach Kelly took the time to recognize our hard work.”

And as for the game ball, which is in a case back home in Darien, Ill.?

“It might be a hand-me down for a couple generations,” Regan said with a smile.

Notre Dame sees a role for high-impact freshman Daelin Hayes

Notre Dame sees a role for high-impact freshman Daelin Hayes

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Brian VanGorder doesn’t want to give away the game plan, but it’s clear the third-year Irish defensive coordinator is going to find a way to get freshman defensive end Daelin Hayes on the field this fall. 

Hayes, a 6-foot-3, 250 pound former five-star recruit from Belleville, Mich., showed during August camp an impressive burst toward the quarterback — something Notre Dame’s defense has lacked since VanGorder took over in 2014. For example: During a full-contact 11-on-11 portion of one of Notre Dame’s practices open to the media earlier this month, Hayes rocketed into the backfield and sacked DeShone Kizer. 

“If you just looked at traits,” VanGorder said, “he’s got the trait.”

VanGorder was quick to point out Hayes still has plenty to learn as an all-around football player. But with Notre Dame able to do more with sub packages this year — they can thank Shawn Crawford’s health for that — Hayes is in a position to rush the quarterback as part of a third-down blitz. 

Defensive line coach Keith Gilmore said the plan for Hayes is to get him in on those passing down blitz packages, and then slowly see if he can handle a higher workload on first or second down (for now, Hayes is behind hand-in-the-ground weakside defensive ends Jay Hayes and Andrew Trumbetti on the depth chart). 

“I think just his ability to change direction and his explosiveness gives him a little bit of an edge that way,” Gilmore said. “We’ve got a few guys that can do it but he’s a special talent that way.”

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Gilmore admitted Hayes is still “a little bit behind strength-wise” after undergoing shoulder surgery in December. That procedure knocked out Hayes, who enrolled early, for spring practice and conditioning earlier this year, but Gilmore added that he’s “naturally strong” and doesn’t expect strength to be a problem as the season goes on. 

Gilmore, too, said Hayes has gone about his introduction to college life in a mature way that’ll help him see the field immediately. 

“I think he approached it differently than most freshmen,” Gilmore said. “I think he’s on track and going to play for us. He’s a freshman that’s got a great skillset, he’s a special kid that way and how fast that he can learn the defense and take it at a high speed once the bullets start flying, if he can do it will be the real issue. But athletically, he’s ready to play.”

Cementing coaches’ feelings about Hayes being ready to play: Brian Kelly said earlier this month that while Hayes has worked with the No. 1 Irish defense — which means going against left tackle stalwart Mike McGlinchey — he’s “faring quite well.” That may be the most promising soundbite about Hayes given how good Notre Dame’s redshirt junior left tackle and captain is. 

In typical football coach paranoia, VanGorder bristled a bit when asked if Hayes was going to begin as a sub-package pass rusher and eased into more standard down plays: “Is this for someone’s scouting report?” he asked. 

But no matter how coy VanGorder wants to be, it's clear Hayes is in a position to contribute to a defense in need of playmakers this fall. 

“I think we’ll find something for him to do,” VanGorder said. 

Podcast: How will Notre Dame's leadership look in 2016?

Podcast: How will Notre Dame's leadership look in 2016?

Leadership is one of those nebulous, unquantifiable things that can be overrated, but does have an impact on a college football team. To wit: Notre Dame survived last year's deluge of injuries not only because it could plug in talented players for Malik Zaire, Tarean Folston, Jarron Jones, etc., but also because it had strong leadership from captains Sheldon Day, Nick Martin, Joe Schmidt, Jaylon Smith and Matthias Farley, as well as a number of other veterans. 

Notre Dame doesn't have that same depth of leadership in 2016 with so many upperclassmen gone from last year's roster. But beyond captains Torii Hunter Jr., Mike McGlinchey, Isaac Rochell and James Onwualu, what kind of leadership does Brian Kelly & Co. have at their disposal?

Mike Monaco and I discussed that question on the Still Independent Podcast, plus offered our takes on Notre Dame's advanced stat projections and former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's penchant for cake analogies: