Chat Transcript: Talking out-of-context Kelly quote, sizing up Madden, lingering questions

There is no coach-in-waiting for Notre Dame football

Eric Hansen
ND Insider
Irish defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman during Notre Dame football practice Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021, at the Irish Athletica Complex.

Eric Hansen: Welcome to Notre Dame Football Live Chat, on a sweltering Thursday afternoon in late August. Because of that you can ignore the "No Bare Feet" rule.

We'll shift the chat back to Wednesdays next week for the balance of the season. Without further blather, let's get started.

KJ near the Channel Isles: Hey Eric, just heard linebacker Marist Liufau has suffered a significant lower-body injury that will make him miss a chunk of the season. Have you heard anything? Also, a recent interview of coach Brian Kelly included his comment that Marcus Freeman would be the next head coach. Seems unusual for Kelly to get into this topic. Any thoughts? Keep up the good work!

Eric Hansen: OK, KJ, help me with geography here. If you are near the Channel Isles (and I assume California), are you actually in the water right now? Is that what that means? ... To your question ... yes, while I've been in the chat, Tyler James has confirmed the injury for us. Our next chat with Brian Kelly is Monday, so we'll get the exact details then, but it is believed to be something that would sideline him for a significant amount of time. ... As far as the coach-in-waiting thing, from the report I saw, Kelly did not say Marcus Freeman would be the next head coach at Notre Dame. He just said he'd be the next head coach -- somewhere, I assume. This was said, I believe, in a panel discussion about black coaches getting opportunities. I would have made sure to follow up to make sure of the context before publishing something of that magnitude.

Len from the Jersey Shore: Hi Eric. Thanks for having the chats. I have not sent a question in a while, but I have been reading them and all ND Insider articles. I just wanted to reach out and wish you and your family the best. Go Irish!

Eric Hansen: Len, thank you. And same to you and your family.

Rob from Manassas, Va.: I hear great things about Marcus Freeman and the job he's already doing as defensive coordinator — but so far it's only on paper. Don't you think we should wait to see the production on the field for a couple years before anointing him the head coaching position? There's a big difference between being a coordinator at Cincinnati and head coach at Notre Dame. We jumped the gun several years ago, and it didn't work out too well. That name was Gerry Faust. At the time of his hiring many thought ND would never lose again based on his thin record.

Eric Hansen: Rob, I think Marcus Freeman would agree your premise is very fair. And remember, at this time last year, a lot of people wanted to anoint Clark Lea (which may turn out to be a very good notion -- in time). I very much disagree with the comparison to Gerry Faust, though. Other than they both lived in Cincinnati at some point, I don't see that parallel. Faust would never have been ready for the Notre Dame opportunity.

Glenn from Santa Monica, Calif.: Any credence to an answer Brian Kelly made to a media member in the last 24 hours that Marcus Freeman will be the next Notre Dame head coach?

Eric Hansen: He didn't make the remark to a media member. It was in a panel discussion on race in America. And I just made a phone call ... and the quote was taken COMPLETELY out of context. The context was this: Kelly was talking about hiring practices and that his is to always hire the best person as opposed to using the good ol' boy network. When he said Marcus Freeman would be the next head coach, he was implying that of the 10 assistant coaches on his staff, Marcus Freeman would be the next one to land a head coaching opportunity. NOT AT Notre Dame, but a head coaching opportunity somewhere. There is no "coach in waiting" model in place. Could Marcus Freeman end up as Notre Dame's head coach someday? Sure, but nothing is in the works NOW to make that happen.

Breaking:Notre Dame starting linebacker Marist Liufau suffers injury in Wednesday's practice

Related:Projecting the Notre Dame depth chart for the start of the 2021 college football season

Hansen:Analysis: Kelly's culture reboot after 2016 still paying off for Notre Dame in 2021

ND Harvey from South Philly: E, hope all is well. The Gang from Grays Ferry and I will be in town for the home opener, but first, Focu$ on F$U. Who do you think will return punts and kickoffs? Thank you. Go Irish.

Eric Hansen: Hi Harvey. The five players who were rotating through at the last full practice we saw were incumbent Matt Salerno, the guy he had the job at the start of 2020 — Lawrence Keys III, along with Kevin Austin Jr., Kyren Williams and Lorenzo Styles Jr. When we spoke with special teams coordinator Brian Polian the other night, he said there would likely be more than one of those used during the course of the season. So look for the sure-handed Salerno to handle it, for instance, in the season opener on the road.

As for as kickoff return, Chris Tyree will be back. Polian says he's more dynamic. He'll likely be paired with Salerno, C'Bo Flemister or walk-on Chris Velotta .

Megat Muzaffar from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Hi Eric, any thoughts on high school Butkus Award winner Prince Kollie at this stage of his career compared to Jaylon Smith?  Go Irish! Go win in Tallahassee!

Eric Hansen: Hi Megat. Jaylon Smith is a tough comparison for anyone. His skill set and mindset were incredibly advanced at that age. The freshman version of him would start on this 2021 team. Kollie has loads of potential, but there's much more development that needs to take place. He played against competition in high school that didn't challenge him. His motor and physical skills will help him ascend next season.

Patrick from South Bend: Eric, I realize there are some higher-profile players targeted for return duty on kickoffs and punts, but two years ago Chase Ketterer was one of the most exciting runners that Indiana — and Michiana, in particular — has seen in quite some time. Any chance special teams coach Brian Polian might shock the world and let a walk-on return punts? I think he'd be electrifying! He was a highlight reel then. My guess is he's only gotten bigger, faster, stronger. C'mon give it a chance.

Eric Hansen: Well Matt Salerno is a walk-on, so Polian has and continues to consider doing that. I'm sure if Chase Ketterer develops in the manner you have projected, he would get a chance, too. Right now, that's not reality.

Joseph from So Cal: Hi Eric. With Blake Fisher presumably starting at left tackle, who was the last true freshman to start on the offense of line for the Irish?

Eric Hansen: This is the 50th season that freshman eligibility has been restored, and Notre Dame has had seven such players, but only one started a season opener previously. That was Sam Young (right tackle) in 2006. The last freshman offensive lineman to start a game period was right tackle Robert Hainsey in 2017. The others to start at least one game as a freshman were Steve Elmer, Trevor Robinson, Ryan Harris, Brad Williams and the first — Mike Rosenthal, in 1995.

Jim from Edina, Minn.: Eric, after three preseasons at ND, I thought Quinn Carroll would be an Irish offensive line stalwart by now — 6-6, 310+, great high school career. Bbut he seems to never get mentioned as a candidate to be one of the “Top Five Best” guys. Can you report some reasons why?

Eric Hansen: Quinn Carroll was the No. 68 player nationally regardless of position and the No. 7 offensive tackle in 2019 per Rivals.com. His offer list included Alabama, Ohio State, Georgia, LSU, Oregon, Oklahoma and Miami. Then he suffered a serious knee injury in fall camp of his freshman year and has been playing catchup ever since. He's a guard now and No. 3 on the depth chart behind Marshall transfer Cain Madden and senior John Dirksen at right guard. You can see our complete depth chart projections here. I wouldn't give up on him, but he's in a very talented position group with lots of competition.

Michael Hetherman from Rhode Island: How is Jason Onye coming along? Not too often a Rhode Islander gets to play for The Irish.

Eric Hansen: Defensive tackle Jason Onye is a freshman the coaching staff can kind of slow cook because of the incredible quality of depth at those interior defensive line positions. I would expect him to redshirt this year.

Stan from Rockford, Ill.: Hoping this finds you and your loved ones healthy and happy. Earlier this spring I read about the progress Ramon Henderson had made as a cornerback. Recently, I haven't seen or read a word about him. What's the latest re: his chances to contribute on more than special teams?

Eric Hansen: Thank you, Stan. Tyler James just wrote a notebook Wednesday night, with the lead item cornerback depth. Here's Brian Kelly's quote on Henderson from Wednesday night's presser: "I like him. He's in a really good position. He has just continued to grow and learn the position. If we had to play him, there'd be confidence in his ability to go out there and compete.”

Coach from Reading, Pa.: How long will ND have Mike Mayer? Thanks. Hope all is well.

Eric Hansen: Thank you. It is better than well in my world at the moment. He's an interesting guy who would contemplate a fourth year on the roster. But I think he's a first-round draft pick after his junior season. So ND has him this year and 2022. Here's my recent story on Michael Mayer.

Denny from Beaverton. Ore.: Special teams in the Brian Kelly Era, to my thinking, have mostly been OK but not great. I may be wrong, but I don't know how our special teams compare to many other programs. Coach (Brian) Polian has been leading this unit for several years now. If you agree, what would be your expectations this year that would denote an upgrade in special teams play? I look forward to your chats!

Eric Hansen: Hi Denny, and thanks. Well, let's look at it from a statistical point of view from 2020. We'll look at field goal kicking separately. But in the other five categories (kickoff return, punt return, kickoff coverage, punt coverage, and net punting), the Irish were top 50 in all five and top 25 in three. None of the other playoff teams (Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State) could claim either of those stats. ND was the best of the four playoff teams in net punting (18th nationally) and punt coverage (22nd). The Irish weren't last in anything. Jonathan Doerer's accuracy on field goals down the stretch last season was a problem. Polian says Doerer got worn down physically and mentally. He's been very sharp in camp so far this month.

I think people long for the days of Rocket Ismail, and so do I. But the special teams rules and dynamics have changed. If ND can block a few punts and rush others into shorter boots, as Polian thinks they can, I'm willing to live with more fair catches when the Irish aren't able to get to the punter. The best thing Polian has done is to get front-line players to buy into the importance of special teams. That's why you'll see ND's best player (safety Kyle Hamilton). among other standouts, playing special teams this season.

Jim from Virginia.: Eric I know everyone has said thanks for everything you do for the fans here. I don’t want that to be taken for granted. Now on to a question. In the three years that Mr. Book was here, in my opinion he resisted to go downfield. With Mr. Coan, I don’t think that is going to be the case. Your thoughts? A second, if I may. With the three conferences joining in thoughts together, what are your thoughts? I think it’s twofold. One to stop the SEC running the college football scene, since the NCAA looks useless. And two, the most important, to make the playoff format open for bid, and not locked up with ESPN. A place to make more money for the playoffs. Thanks again.

Eric Hansen: Jim, thank you and, believe me, I don't take it for granted. ... To your first question, I do think Jack Coan is more willing to push the ball downfield, at least in practice. He also has receivers that play to that desire. We'll soon see if he has an offensive line that's up to that task. ... As far as the alliance, I haven't taken the proverbial deep dive yet, because it doesn't threaten Notre Dame's independent status in football. Eventually, I'll make time for it. My cursory impression is yes, there seems to be some pushback involving the SEC. Solid question ... but beyond that, there are too many layers and too many missing details for me to make broad, sweeping declarations now. I'll be happy to share my thoughts when I get to that point.

Josh Lugg, left, and Cain Madden run a drill during Notre Dame football practice Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021, at the Irish Athletics Center.

Ed from Sayville, N.Y: The accounts online and in print with the biggest Jekyll-and-Hyde feel involve Cain Madden. Reports have had him struggling in scrimmages, to making preseason All-America teams. Is he expected to start, and how do you see things shaking out for him Eric? Thank you.

Eric Hansen: Ed, let me start with the bottom line and work backwards from that. Cain Madden will be Notre Dame's starting right guard Sept. 5 at Florida State and beyond. In talking to Brian Kelly, offensive coordinator Tommy Rees and teammates on both sides of the ball, there has been nothing but praise for Madden. Pro Football Focus deemed him the No. 2 returning interior offensive lineman in all of college football. The preseason All-America love is largely based upon what he did at Marshall last season (second-team All-American) and the assumption being at Notre Dame will make him a better player.

So why the discrepancy? I don't know who you read and listen to (and don't want to know), but here are some things to consider. It's very easy to overreact to one-on-one drills in practice on a given day, particularly in preseason. Notre Dame's defensive line is very very good. That's why I hold back a little on sharing anecdotal scenarios, because I don't think they always constitute reality. If they shed significant light, I do and will. Kelly said Madden's strength is combination blocks, which is significant for an interior lineman. That he works well with Josh Lugg and Jarrett Patterson is very encouraging. The competition Madden sees in practice will make him a better pro prospect. That's why he's here. He's not a finished product, and he works hard like he's still a walk-on with a zero-star rating coming out of high school. I'm eager to see how he progresses, but I think he's earned his starting role and some high expectations.

Bill from St Joe, Mich.: I certainly do not want to encourage a QB controversy, so let me ask you what you have seen the past couple weeks which should make me comfortable that Jack Coen has looked a lot better than what we saw in the spring game? I look back to his stats from two seasons ago to make me feel more comfortable, but is that what you have seen in the limited opportunities to see him in the preseason?

Eric Hansen: I'll borrow from Brian Kelly here — consistency and confidence is what I've seen. Is he Trevor Lawrence without the potential for NIL shampoo deals? No. Is he a good quarterback with the potential to improve as the season progresses? I believe he is. To what degree, that's the biggest unknown about this team in my mind. Does Tyler Buchner have a higher ceiling? I absolutely believe that. Is Tyler Buchner the best option in August of 2021? No. Coan is.

George from El Segundo, Calif.: Hi Eric, and thank you for keeping all of us informed and entertained with all things Fighting Irish. I’ve been watching college football in general, and ND football in particular, for a long time. I can’t recall seeing another coach who appeared as calm and as optimistic as Brian Kelly does this year. I don’t know whether to be concerned or elated by this. Am I misreading him, or should I simply go with the flow and share his unprecedented good vibes?

Eric Hansen: George, thank you for being part of the chats. I do try to get a read on Brian Kelly at times, but I haven't dissected his mood this month until just now when you asked me to. I think there's a legit optimism that the culture is so strong at ND right now, things that would have been major challenges five years ago are worked out easier, faster and more completely now. I wrote about that very thing Wednesday night. A lot of the questions that lingered after spring practice have found answers. But I also think his mood too is buoyed by the return to some normalcy in practice and team settings. Heck, it's trickled down to the media.

Being able to do in-person interviews, sit next to other people (everyone is vaccinated) safely is "very 2019," and it's incredibly uplifting. That doesn't necessarily exist outside the Notre Dame bubble. Does all this mean ND's going to go 12-0 and make the playoff? No, it doesn't mean that, but I think Kelly believes this team can extend its ceiling if they can avoid serious injuries and a few other things fall into place. So go with the flow.

Tom '69 from Kennesaw, Ga.: Eric, good afternoon! I really enjoyed your article on Sunday regarding the QB development and status with the possibility of Tyler Buchner starting the season with the scout team. As Brendon Clark and Ron Powlus III return from their injuries, will that allow Brian Kelly to move Buchner up to take some reps with the second team?  How have BK and Tommy Rees split QB reps between No. 1 and  No. 2 in the past?  Also, it seems that early in Kelly's time as coach, the team leadership was hit or miss. But since the 2016 renaissance, we have really developed consistent leadership. Do the coaches use this history of developing leaders in their recruiting pitches to parents? Seems like something I would certainly be impressed with as a parent of a student-athlete. Thanks. Go Irish!!!!

Eric Hansen: Thanks, Tom. I think the ratio line for reps moves a little bit as far as the 1-2 split depending on how inexperienced No.1 is. In general, Kelly likes to go 60/40. That's higher than a lot of coaches (for the 2, that is) and WAY higher than Charlie Weis did at ND (about 95/5). Buchner's potential No. 2 reps probably hinge on two things — whether he has a niche role and how close the gap becomes between him and Drew Pyne. I think your question about selling leadership is an interesting one. And I believe it is part of the package ND sells — especially how that leadership opportunity in the locker room can extend outside of those confines to real-world situations.

Tom '69 from Kennesaw, Ga.: Eric, you are truly an international star with fans from Malaysia, UK, Australia, Ireland and comments from Irish fans around the world. That is a testament to the great job that you do. Thank you. Haven't heard from Manny in awhile. Hope he is okay. Go Irish!!!

Eric Hansen: Thanks again, Tom. For those who are unfamiliar with Manny, (from San Pedro, Calif.) he's one of the most enthusiastic people I have come across. Typically, his question begins with my name followed by 87 exclamation points. I haven't heard from him in a while. I too hope he's OK.

Tom from Grand Rapids., Mich.: Eric, with the perceived inexperience of the O-line, will the offense need to either (use) formation to create running opportunities, use the pass to open up the run (a la the Chuckles Weis era) or even with the lack of starts, compared to last year, will they try to drop the hammer and pound? Especially in games where the talent gap isn’t extreme (Cincy, UNC, USC, Wisconsin)?

Eric Hansen: Tom, I think offensive coordinator Tommy Rees will call what he wants to call with the expectation that the offensive line will be able to handle it and will get better every week. Notre Dame's other offensive personnel gives him a lot of variety to work with. Becoming one-dimensional because of a lack of experience on the offensive line would play right into opposing defensive coordinators' hands.

Dave from Jersey City, N.J.: How confident are you in Amorion Walker’s commitment?

Eric Hansen: Amorion Walker is a wide receiver from Ponchatoula, La., who has verbally committed to Notre Dame for the 2022 class. Look, this is recruiting. Nothing is 100 percent. We're dealing with 17-year-olds. I've had two of those. They are unpredictable creatures. Having said that, I believe he'll sign with the Irish in December.

Alan from Whiteland, Ind.: Eric, I was very surprised to see Cain Madden listed as a preseason All-American. Most people who follow the Irish, myself included, do not even view Madden as one of the five best offensive linemen on the team. My gut instinct is Rocco Spindler will start at guard by midseason. Eric, what say you? Thank you for answering my question.

Eric Hansen: Alan, we discussed Madden in depth a little earlier, so I'll focus more on the Rocco Spindler aspect of your question. He'll start this season if there's an injury at left guard. He'll start most likely in 2022 and be really, really good.

Marie from Atlanta: Hi Eric, I hope you are having a great week. How is new assistant O-line coach Trevor Mendelson working out? At the end of spring there were concerns about O-line technique, and worries since Chris Watt would be leaving. Have you seen any improvement in the technique this fall camp? Are you hearing good things about coach Mendelson? As always, thanks for the great insight and inside information.

Eric Hansen: Great week? I'm having a great month. Thanks for asking, Marie. Sometimes your questions are so insightful, they're a little ahead of my research and agenda. This is one of those times. I think Trevor Mendelson was a good hire as a grad assistant. He's more experienced than most grad assistants, and having him as a right-hand man to Jeff Quinn helps the unit develop. I'm waiting to talk to Mike Golic Jr. to get an assessment specifically regarding the technique aspect. He's been at practice, and I trust his knowledge of the nuances of those positions over my own.  Big picture, though, I'm encouraged. I don't know who gets credit for Blake Fisher, but he's not a default starter at left tackle by any means.

Jeremy from Goshen, Ind.: Hi Eric. Thank you for doing these chats. Heading into the Florida State game, what are your biggest questions about this team that still need answered?

Eric Hansen: 1) Who's going to replace Marist Liufau? Maybe JD Bertrand, who's had a really good camp.

2) Can the surging senior wide receivers stay healthy and productive during the season?

3) Can the cornerbacks hold up in press/man-to-man mode against Graham Mertz, Desmond Ridder, Kedon Slovic and Sam Howell during a demanding five-game midseason stretch?

Erik from Granger, Ind.: Thanks for being here! If our receivers stay healthy, do you anticipate this team will break the modern points-per-game record? Will the schedule allow for that?

Eric Hansen: The record is 37.6 and has stood for 53 years. The 2019 team came close (36.8). Last year's team, playing ball control, put up 33.4. I don't think this team will break the record. Give me Brady Quinn at quarterback, though, and I would take that bet.

Dave from Cincinnati, Ohio: Sorry Gannett took over your paper. Hope you can continue your fine work under this organization.

Eric Hansen: Of course.

Andrew from South Bend: Is this really the year that we see consistent playmaking ability from our wide receivers? I know (tight end) Michael Mayer will be the focal point, but doesn’t that mean our outside guys will get a lot of one-on-ones?

Eric Hansen: If Kevin Austin stays healthy, yes, yes and more yes.

Ken from Pensacola, Fla.: Eric, you are still the best! What has been the biggest surprise on this football team so far for you? Mucho thanks & GO IRISH!!!

Eric Hansen: Thanks, Ken. Big picture, the strides the O-line, cornerbacks and wide receivers have made since spring. Individually, two reserves — offensive tackle Michael Carmody and vyper end Kahanu Kia.

Pat Harrison from Springfield Ill.: At this point, what is biggest concern? The area of least concern?

Eric Hansen: MOST CONCERNING: How much progress ND's offensive line, QB Jack Coan and the cornerbacks will continue to make between now and the midseason gauntlet of games. LEAST CONCERNING: The defensive line.

Eric Hansen: That's going to have to do it for this week. Thanks for all the great questions. Remember, we'll be back to Wednesdays starting next week and throughout the season.

Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @ehansenNDI