Notre Dame Football Mailbag: Tackling the odd odds for the Irish clash with Michigan

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Welcome to the latest Notre Dame Football Not-So-Live Chat/Mailbag. The Irish are a third of the way through spring practice, with session No. 6 of 15 scheduled for Saturday.

Thanks for all the questions. We’ll continue to do this every Friday through at least the end of spring practice. If you want to catch up on past mailbags, go to If you want to hear about my NCAA Tournament Bracket, you really need to get a life.

Off we go.

RC from Albany, N.Y.: Hi Eric. I like the new format — always good to mix things up a bit. Thanks for continuing the chats/Q&A while the live chat platform is under review.

Here's my question: I saw that Notre Dame was an 8.5-point underdog at Michigan. I recognize that this is an early line, but I was still surprised. The game is at Michigan, but I think that ND has a bye week prior.

I also see some strong parallels between the two teams. ND won a close game in South Bend in '18, and both teams lost a lot of defensive talent to graduation and the draft. What is your take on the projection? What is the rationale (outside of home field for UM) for giving Michigan such a strong advantage. Thanks,

Eric Hansen: I can see the confusion in that most of the uber-early 2019 top 25s have those teams very close, with almost every one of them favoring ND.

ESPN has ND 6th and Michigan 9th; has ND 5th and Michigan 7th; Athlon has ND 11th and Michigan 8th; Sporting News has ND 8th and Michigan 10th; The Athletic has ND 11th and Michigan 12th. Phil Steele, who attempts to predict the preseason AP poll, has ND 8th and Michigan 9th.

In that light, 8.5 points doesn’t seem to align.

Then again, point spreads aren’t meant to be predictive, though they can be. They’re meant to generate equal money on both sides to make money for the bookmakers. If the money isn’t even, the line moves. Sometimes an overzealous fan base can impact this.

But there are some interesting trends. Notre Dame has won four of the last five and seven of the last nine games played in South Bend. Michigan has won four of the last five and seven of the last nine games played in Ann Arbor.

You are right, the game follows a bye week for the Irish, and a road game at Penn State for Michigan. ND coach Brian Kelly is 21-2 in his career and 10-1 at ND in games immediately following a bye week, so there’s that.

Tom from Charlotte Hall, Md.: Hi Eric. First, thanks for your great reporting on Notre Dame Football. You are by far, the best at what you do.

My question concerns the salaries of Notre Dame’s football coaches, but specifically Brian Kelly.

Over the past few years I’ve seen articles showing NCAA football coaches’ salaries, and Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly is pretty far down the list. Ken Niumatalolo, Dino Babers, Pat Fitzgerald, and Scott Frost to name a few are listed as being paid more than coach Kelly.

Coach Kelly’s salary is listed at $2,129,638 in the 2018 coaches’ salaries published in USA Today. I think he’s easily one of the top 10 coaches in the country, probably in the top five. Hoping you can shed some light on what the reality is when it comes to these published salaries. Thanks again Eric for your keen ND football insight, and unbiased reporting. Semper Fi.

Eric Hansen: Tom, thanks for the flattering words and for not bringing up how few zeros and commas there are in my salary.

The disclaimer on Kelly’s salary, in this and other reports like it, is present but difficult to locate. In my opinion those should be front and center.

Because Notre Dame is a private institution, it doesn’t have to report the entirety of Kelly’s income, much of which comes from outside sources. To depend solely on IRS documents is incomplete and misleading.

I do not know the exact figure for Kelly’s salary, but I do know this isn’t anywhere close to the actual number. My sense is doubling it would get you much more in the ballpark.

Kevin from Pittsburgh: A few quick hitters:

Miles Boykin’s combine results (4.42 seconds in the 40-yard dash and 43.5-inch vertical) surpassed the athleticism we saw from him on the field. Is that on Brian Kelly and the way he used him?

Ian Book is good but limited with a low ceiling. Is Phil Jurkovec taking over at QB inevitable (like Trevor Lawrence at Clemson) if ND wants to win in the College Football Playoff?

ND seems to be strong at defensive end and thin at defensive tackle. Reminds me of the 2007 Giants, who had great DEs (Tuck, Osi and Strahan) but mediocre DTs. The Giants would often use all three DEs with Tuck moving to a DT spot, especially in passing downs. Any insights on whether ND would use a similar defensive package?

Eric Hansen: Regarding Boykin, the best explanation regarding the gap from those outstanding numbers to actual production is that Boykin’s best football is likely ahead of him. As a first-year starter in 2018, he made significant strides in his game but still has a lot of work to do in terms of route-running, in particular. Another factor is Book’s accuracy on deep throws in 2018 was lacking. The latter is an emphasis this spring.

But remember, some prospects become good NFL players despite pedestrian testing numbers. And some become pedestrian NFL players, despite elite testing numbers.

To your second question, the coaching staff doesn’t share your view of a low ceiling for Book. Their belief is they can build on his strengths and address his shortcomings this spring. There is not a sense that there is an open competition at all. There’s also a long list for Jurkovec to work on this spring to make him a capable backup.

To question/point No. 3, ND has used those kind of packages in the past, even when defensive tackle depth was good, especially on obvious passing downs. Daelin Hayes often kicked inside last season.

GB from Wasilla, Alaska: Eric, We are having a warm winter. I hope things are well with you. After the 2016 season, Kelly "debriefed" all the players and changed many things. As I understood it, he did it last year also. Did he do the debriefing this year, and if so, do you know of the result and/or changes he will make this year?

Eric Hansen: Global warming doesn’t apply to South Bend, nor apparently does the groundhog’s shadow, but we are gradually moving in the right direction with the weather. Kelly’s plan was to have Saturday’s practice, No. 6 of the spring, outside (for the first time).

One of the most important changes to come out of the 2016 debriefing was Kelly being much more available, in touch and communicative with his players on a daily basis. A byproduct of that change was that there wouldn’t be a need for such exhaustive and thorough debriefings in December and that change and feedback would occur more naturally and gradually.

There still are end-of-the-season communications, but they’re more geared to setting the roster and the agenda for winter workouts, spring football and the ensuing season rather than generating seismic shifts in philosophy and personnel.

Tom from Kennesaw, Ga.: Hi Eric. I thought that I would take some time away from filling out my brackets to get a question off to you. By the way, do you do both a men's and a women's bracket?

Over the past three recruiting years many of ND's top-rated players have been defensive backs, with one linebacker (Shayne Simon) thrown in. However, it seems many of them have bounced around between positions and have not seen Saturdays like we might have expected.

The players that I am referring to are Isaiah Robertson, Houston Griffith, Derrick Allen, Shayne Simon, Noah Boykin along with incoming players Litchfield Ajavon, Kyle Hamilton and Isaiah Rutherford.

Finally, my question: What are the skill sets that separate cornerback from free safety or strong safety from rover? It seems that these positions, plus nickel back, have the most movement. Do you think that these players will have found a position by the time spring ball is completed? Thanks a lot and keep up the great job!!

Eric Hansen: Tom, thank you. And yes, I fill out both brackets to torture myself twice as much.

To your question, the oversimplified version — and I emphasize oversimplified — of separating corners from free safeties is that cornerbacks are generally faster and have to be able to cover wide receivers one on one. Safeties usually are a little big bigger, more physical. The oversimplified version of the difference between the two safety positions (strong and free) is the free safety generally has better coverage skills. The strong safety is good in run support. Alohi Gilman, for instance, fits both profiles. The rovers play closer to the line of scrimmage than the strong safeties, occasionally rush the passer and have to be able to shed blockers larger than themselves.

I get questions like this a lot with other positions. I feel like a mailbag is a tough format in which to do this justice. If there’s a specific player to discuss, it’s easier to look at the skill sets through that lens. For instance, which position would suit Houston Griffith the best?

As far as the list of players you gave me (excluding the freshmen who aren’t yet here): I think Houston Griffith will be the starting boundary cornerback at the end of spring and in September. I think Simon is trending to be the starting rover. I think Boykin will be a third-team cornerback, with upside to be a contributor down the road. Allen is a mystery. Good athlete, just not sure he translates as a safety, but I need to see more of him. I watched him a lot on Thursday. Mixed results. Robertson is trying to gain some traction at receiver, but I don't see him as a rotation player.

Adam from West Babylon, N.Y. Is that wide receiver from Virginia Tech still in the transfer portal? If so, does ND have a good shot at him? Thank you, sir.

Eric Hansen: Adam, Eric Kumah is still in the portal and still taking visits. From what I heard, he enjoyed his visit to ND, but I think Kumah wants to have the chance to be the No. 1 receiver on his new team. I don’t think that would be the case at ND, nor does he add an elite speed element, even though he’s very talented. I wouldn’t be shocked if he chose the Irish, but I think it’s more likely that he ends up elsewhere.

Erik from Granger: Hi Eric, thank you for doing this. I actually enjoy the new format due to the more in-depth analysis you provide, even though you can’t answer as many questions.

What impact (if any) do you anticipate the AAF will have on the undrafted free agent market? For example, could a guy like Tarean Folston, who is proving himself at another level, get picked up over a guy like Dexter Williams whose combine/pro-day numbers didn’t overly impress. Also, are the AAF players eligible for the draft? Thank you!

Eric Hansen: Erik, thanks. I do appreciate the feedback on the new format. I’ll start with the part of your line of questioning regarding AAF players and the draft. They are not eligible for the draft. They would be free agents. And the AAF calendar and contracts are set up to foster easy movement of players to the NFL.

Sure there are teams that might prefer an experienced player over an undrafted rookie. In the scenario you presented, I think Dexter Williams would be much more coveted than Tarean Folston by teams.

Beyond the 40 (which was much faster than Folston’s at his own Pro Day), Williams had the top broad jump at the combine among running backs and did very well in the vertical leap, three-cone drill and 20-yard shuttle. I think Williams will get drafted, by the way.

Brad from Goshen: Eric, I have a question regarding recruiting. Regarding yearly goals, does Kelly like to recruit QBs every year? If so, don’t we run the risk of losing a quality recruit who doesn’t see an opportunity to get on the field sooner rather than later? More to the point, do we risk losing a Phil Jurkovec to transfer if he might not see the field next year, assuming Ian Book returns for his fifth year of eligibility?

Eric Hansen: Brad, there are two very different issues here. The first answer is yes. Kelly (and most other coaches as well) likes to have a quarterback in each class.

The second issue is quarterbacks transferring. It happens everywhere. And with the evolving rules regarding the transfer portal and hardship waivers, it’s easy for QBs everywhere to relocate without the deterrent of having to sit out a year.

With the Book/Jurkovec dynamic specifically, my sense is that if Book has a good year in 2019, he’ll jump into the draft pool. If he regresses (which I don’t think is likely), then Jurkovec could beat him out in 2020. But if you have a quarterback who is afraid to compete and you as a coach are afraid to recruit, then Notre Dame is not the place for either of you.

Ben from Alcoa, Tenn.: I have two worries about this season. Worry 1, I’m worried that the successes of the last two seasons won’t be repeated this season.

Lots of talent went to the NFL, and I didn’t see the depth of the second-stringers in mop-up time last season. Please tell me guys got leaner, bigger and faster on the defensive side of the ball in the last six months.

Worry 2, is with QB. When you have a small guy, they need to be two of three things to be national championship elite. FAST, and a threat to score every time they pull it; super accurate in the Long AND short throws; and intelligent pre-snap. I see Book as only having the third. Tell me that Book worked on the deep ball this offseason.

Eric Hansen: I can’t control what you worry about. And I can’t control what you read.

Roster turnover is a part of college football, at the good programs and the lousy ones. Notre Dame is addressing the turnover, and I’m writing about those developments almost every day. It’s difficult to catch you up in a mailbag format on where all that is headed, but there has been significant progress in some areas and there’s significant work to do in others.

As to Book and what he’s working on, I wrote about that too recently. Here’s an excerpt:

The most serious nudge coming at incumbent starting quarterback Ian Book this spring isn’t emanating from sophomore backup Phil Jurkovec, but rather Book himself and the brazen approach Long has challenged the new school record-holder for completion percentage to take this offseason.

“Make throws that you probably wouldn’t have made, because I would have been mad about your putting the ball in jeopardy,” Long cited as an example.

“We had to do what we had to do to win games last year. Obviously, he’s not being careless with the ball. We don’t want to do that. But I don’t want to see a checkdown.

“I want him to try to throw the whole shot, and keep working the 50-50 balls. Give our guys a chance to make plays. He’s doing a nice job of that.”

In other words, playing it safe and conservative isn’t going to get Book to the next level. So there will be more work in the deep passing game, more throws over the middle in tighter windows, more pressure exerted to help him find the ways to counter it.

Mike from Goshen: What is the possibility of using Cole Kmet as a fullback on three yards to the goal-line opportunities? He has good hands and is very big.

Eric Hansen: Tight ends function similarly in short yardage to what fullbacks used to, but I think you’re wondering about lining up as an I-formation fullback. Tight end Brock Wright has been doing that each of the past two seasons and with pretty good success. Usually Kmet is also lined up in the formation as well as part of a two- or three-tight end look.

If you see a difference this year in how Kmet is used, you may see him lined up detached — away from the offensive line — at times to try to create a mismatch that way. I expect him to have a big year wherever he lines up.

Bob from Chicago: Hi Eric. Seems like every year, starting when Kelly took over, guys have left years of eligibility on the table (to enter the NFL Draft). Not just (early) picks; guys that aren’t even (late-round) picks and end up being picked up as undrafted free agents.

It seems like at other schools you hear about guys that are coming back to win it all, despite being sure-thing (early) picks.

In your opinion, is this a Kelly thing? Or just a mark of the times? It sure seems to happen more at ND than other schools when people leave early, even being graded out as a late-round pick or free-agent pickup.

Eric Hansen: Bob, it’s not an ND thing. It’s a college football thing. A record 135 players gave up their final year of eligibility in this draft cycle. Last cycle, it was 119. In 2013, it was 73.

Not all early entries are created equal. There are players who have a financial hardship, players who are in academic hot water, players who fear injury, players who get bad advice, players who make an astute business decision.

Remember, the money has gotten bigger and bigger as well.

With Notre Dame, Kelly has actually won a lot of those taffy pulls to which you referred: Manti Te’o, Ronnie Stanley, Zack Martin, Nick Martin, Quenton Nelson, Drue Tranquill, Jerry Tillery, and Te’von Coney to name a few. And he has to.

Programs like Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State are more equipped to deal with the mass early entries.

In this cycle, getting Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem to stay was huge. Replacing Miles’ Boykins’ production will be easier than doing so with the edge defenders.

It looks like the efforts to replace Julian Love are moving in a positive direction, but obviously his return would have been welcomed.

Yes, the Clemson defensive line did return to school to win a title, and they did. But they are an exception, not the rule.

Notre Dame’s Daelin Hayes, left, and Jerry Tillery, right, work together to bring down Michigan QB Dylan McCaffrey during the 2018 season opener.