And in that corner… the Nevada Wolf Pack

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(“And in that corner” will be a weekly feature where we find an expert on Notre Dame’s opponent to give a look from the other side. Because opposing viewpoints are good, right?)

While Vegas sportsbooks have the Irish hovering a bit above a two-touchdown favorite, there is a solid minority that truly believe that Nevada can come to Notre Dame stadium and shock the college football world. One member of that minority is Juan Lopez, the sports editor of the Nevada Sagebrush, the university’s independent newspaper. 

Juan was kind enough to chat on the phone with me a few times, trade more than a few emails, and let me into the mind of the Wolf Pack. He and about 3,000 other Nevada football fans will be making their first trip to Notre Dame this weekend, and needless to say, they are a bit excited.

Inside the Irish: Let’s start straight, Juan. How nervous should ND fans be this weekend?

Juan Lopez: Very. Nevada’s offense was one of the most prolific in the nation last year. It ranked fifth in the country with 508.5 ypg and scored 41 or more points in 7 games last season. The team speed is much improved this season. Our two stud defensive ends are back (Dontay Moch and Kevin Basped). They combined for 21.5 sacks last season. Colin Kaepernick is one of the premiere dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation. Rush defense ranked 6th last year.

ITI: (Having Minter-like flashbacks…) Both ND and Nevada went 7-6, although ND ended with a resounding win in the bowl game while the Wolf Pack were thumped. What do you expect from the Wolf Pack this season? Over/Under on wins?

JL: I wouldn’t say the Wolf Pack was thumped. The score was 42-35 against a previously ranked ACC team. I, realistically, expect, at worst, a two-loss season for Nevada this season. 10-2 would be the worst the Wolf Pack could finish. Looking at the schedule, the only two losable games are Notre Dame on Sept. 5 and Nov. 27 at Boise State (haven’t beaten BSU since 1998) The over/under on wins is 9.5.

ITI: Chris Ault has been with Nevada football for a long time. He’s had three different terms as head coach. Can you tell us a little bit more about Ault?

JL: Ault is a very blatant guy — with his players and with the media. If you ask a stupid question, he’s going to tell you it’s a stupid question and then give you a stupid answer. But his knowledge of football is vast. He created the pistol offense in 2004, which has been imitated across the country by other schools and he thinks the pistol has been responsible for putting us in prime time games. (LSU, Hawaii, Syracuse, Oregon, Florida State, Ohio State, Virginia Tech — these are some of the guys who have used a version of the pistol.) I can see how players are drawn to play for him. Yes, he yells at you, but it’s insightful, it fires you up and leaves you a better player. Not many people can get to say they practice in front of a Hall of Fame coach every day.

ITI: The offense has really been the story of Nevada’s success. Most of the people that really follow ND football have heard about Colin Kaepernick, but there are quite a few offensive weapons in Chris Ault’s offense. Can you pump these guys’ tires for a bit?

JL: The running back group should be one of the top groups in the nation. Vai Taua began as a 4th stringer last season, and because of some injuries, he moved up to starter and led the WAC in rushing (1,521) and was eighth in the nation. He’s a big guy at 220 pounds, but he had 17 runs of 20 yards or more last season.

ITI: (Gulp, as I think of Armando Allen…)

JL: Luke Lippincott, he led the WAC in rushing the year before with 1,420 yards and is a standout receiver. Offensive lineman Alonzo Durham is one of the top tackles on the West Coast. He was named first-team All-WAC by a ton of publications, and has started 37 games so far. The other tackle is Mike Gallet, he was picked All-WAC first teams too, and he’s only a junior. 

Receivers are a question. Brandon Wimberly is a projected starter at one of the spots. He has the potential to be big-time. Last season on the scout team, he would torch our first-team corners. Tight end Virgil Green is set for a breakout season. He is about as uber-athletic as they come. Body type reminds me of Vernon Davis. Very fast, pure muscle, runs great routes and has solid hands. He should be a factor in the passing game.

ITI: Can you talk a little about what makes Chris Ault’s pistol so special? Was it his design or was it something that offensive coordinator Chris Klenakis brought in?

JL: It was mostly an Ault creation. The basics of it are this: the QB lines up 3 yards behind the center (a semi-shotgun) with the running back about 2 yards behind him. There are three WRs. What makes this pistol special is Kaepernick. He is a threat to run any time he touches the ball. The zone read uses Kaep’s abilities perfectly. The play gives him the option to hand off the ball to a running back or keep it and take it around the edge.

ITI: Now let’s get to the ugly part. Nevada ranked #6 in the country in run defense, but ranked as the 119th best passing defense in college football, which was dead last. Was your secondary that bad? (Or your run game that good?) What can we expect from the defense?

JL: Very ugly part. The rankings don’t tell the entire truth. There’s a mixture of both that go into the rankings. If teams were to pass and run evenly on Nevada, the run defense would probably rank in the 30s while the pass defense would be somewhere in the 50s. But there’s a reason team’s passed 57 percent of the time versus Nevada.

The defensive backs coach was in his first year, our defensive coordinator was in his first year, and three of the five DBs who played the most were in their first year. Basically, they were young and inexperienced.

To completely answer your question: The run defense was stellar, but not as good as the No. 6 ranking. The pass D was bad. Very, very bad. But not as bad as the 119th indicated.

ITI: If the game unfolded perfectly for Nevada, how would it go? Can you give me a recipe for an upset victory for the Wolf Pack?

JL: The recipe would start with rushing the football. IF Nevada can rush the ball, keep Clausen and the rest of the offensive weapons on the sideline, the Wolf Pack should be fine. 300-plus yards on the ground is not a stretch.

The next step would be limiting and creating turnovers. This goes pretty much for any game, but especially this one. If Nevada wants to go into this hostile environment and win, it cannot turn the ball over more than twice. Its defense must also cause at least two turnovers while pressuring Clausen all game. It might not be possible to slow down ND’s receivers, but it’s very likely Clausen will eat dirt a few times.

Last is special teams. Nevada’s return games were terrible last year. No spark came from that until This year, though, the punt returner is Vai Taua and kickoff returner is freshman RB Mike Ball who has more talent than anyone else I’ve ever seen in person. Special teams will play a role in field position.

If Nevada does these things well, a win by 10-plus points shouldn’t be a surprise.

ITI: (Beginning first Rosary of the week…) What scares you the most about this Notre Dame team?

JL: The scariest thing about Notre Dame is the scariest thing about any team facing Nevada — it’s passing game. Golden Tate and Michael Floyd look very impressive from some videos I’ve seen of them and Clausen has good pocket presence and great arm strength. I don’t think Notre Dame will be able to run the ball successfully so its passing game will be on full display Saturday.

ITL: You’re around the team quite a bit, can you get a feel on the team’s attitude traveling for the first time to a place like Notre Dame? Is it just another game? Or do they understand that this is a historic matchup?

JL: The entire team, from head coach to ball boy, knows this is the biggest game in Nevada’s history in terms of national exposure. It is not just another game for anybody involved with Nevada. I’ve had guys tell me they’re losing sleep and that the Notre Dame game was used as a recruiting tool to bring them here to Nevada. This is easily the biggest game some of these guys will ever play in. And they’re very excited to see the sights of South Bend. The team is going to visit the College Football Hall of Fame.  

ITI: Most Vegas books have the Irish as two touchdown favorites. If gambling were legal and we promoted that sort of thing here (it is legal where Juan is), what’s your pocketbook say?

JL: What I’m about to say will extract a lot of “homer” calls, but I truthfully believe Nevada will win. Everyone keeps talking about last season and how the Wolf Pack lost to Hawaii and New Mexico State (very poor teams), but everyone is quick to forget how many near upsets Notre Dame escaped. Last season was last season. I’m sure ND is much improved as well and is ready for the game, but the Wolf Pack is a better team. My money would definitely be on Nevada.

If you’d like more of Juan Lopez and the Nevada Sagebrush’s coverage on the historic Notre Dame matcup, please check it out at http://www.nevadasagebrush.com/notre_dame

Spring positions to watch for revelations: DL & WR

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 05: Jerry Tillery #99 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish tackles Jerrod Heard #13 of the Texas Longhorns for a loss of yards during the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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If quarterback, rover and the early enrollees could be Notre Dame fans’ springtime Christmas thrills, what positions present as potential spots of coal?

Three former Irish players were invited to next week’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis: quarterback DeShone Kizer, defensive tackle Jarron Jones and defensive end Isaac Rochell. Losing two consistent defensive linemen leaves this year’s unit with some questions. Jones and Rochell combined for 100 tackles, 18 for loss and three sacks last season. Notre Dame’s returning defensive linemen combined to total 111 tackles and only 5.5 tackles for loss. To be clear, sacks are not included in that latter list because no returning defensive linemen recorded one. Among the returnees, junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37 tackles, three for loss) and senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26, 0.5) contributed solidly alongside the two NFL prospects.

This dearth of known and reliable linemen is a large part of why the potential transfer of Clemson graduate defensive tackle Scott Pagano is so intriguing. Pagano would immediately be a favorite to start, and if not that, at least rotate in heavily.

For now, though, Pagano remains a theoretical

By the end of spring practice, who already on campus will emerge alongside Tillery and Trumbetti in the Irish front? Senior ends Jay Hayes (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) and Jonathon Bonner (nine tackles) seem the most-likely candidates … aside from former four-star recruit and now rising sophomore Daelin Hayes. In his debut season, D. Hayes finished with 11 tackles.

Look for senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) to establish himself as Tillery’s immediate backup this spring, but that spot in the rotation will be up for competition all over again once four-star tackle Darnell Ewell (Lake Taylor High School; Norfolk, Va.) arrives on campus in the fall. His size and quickness should play right into new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s system.

Equanimeous and Who?
Not only did Notre Dame bring in a graduate transfer at receiver in former Michigan wideout Freddy Canteen, but it has also already received the commitments of two four-star receivers in the 2018 recruiting class. The continued emphasis on the position reflects the lack of bona fide game-breakers currently on the roster.

Junior Equanimeous St. Brown established himself as the top Irish threat in 2016, and he should shine only further with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush targeting him. Classmates often amplify each other’s success, simply due to the added shared reps innate to joining practice at the same time. With Torii Hunter, Jr., now pursuing a professional baseball career, who will prevent the secondary from focusing all its energies on St. Brown?

Canteen will not be with Notre Dame in the spring, as he does not graduate from Michigan until April. That will give a clear shot for the likes of juniors Chris Finke, C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin, and sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool to establish themselves. Did that say “clear” shot? It should probably read, “a chance to separate from the crowd.”

If a genuine threat does not line up opposite St. Brown, his explosiveness will likely be greatly reduced by focused defensive scheming. Wimbush will need another target before 2018.

Of course, here is where one should acknowledge the millennia-tested fact: Coal under pressure becomes diamonds.

2016 Notre Dame’s win expectancy was 7.2
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Johnson named the Irish as his team most likely to dramatically improve its record in 2017. Johnson’s thinking is based, at least in part, on Notre Dame’s second-order win total having been 7.2 in 2016, compared to the four wins the Irish actually walked away with. That discrepancy was the largest in the country.

Second-order win totals reflect how many points a team should have scored and allowed based on offensive and defensive stats. In theory, this shines a light on how luck and chance factored into results. Naturally, losing seven games by one possession will often be reflected by a higher second-order win total.

“Notre Dame’s win-loss record belied a solid, if imperfect, squad that just couldn’t pull out close games…” Johnson writes. “The Irish may not get back into College Football Playoff contention in 2017, but they’re bound to post a few more Ws because of reversion to the mean.”

Admittedly, the small sample size of a football season reduces the applicability of metrics such as second- and third-order wins when compared to baseball and basketball.

Jones becomes Mack
A quick piece of housekeeping: Apparently junior tight end Alizé Jones has changed his name to Alizé Mack.

While Notre Dame’s roster may not reflect that change yet, it is reasonable to expect it will after its next update. The football program has consistently respected the intricacies of players’ name preferences. Tai-ler Jones becoming TJ Jones jumps to mind, for example.

Anyways, hopefully noting Mack’s name change here might reduce some confusion down the line. Probably not. How many readers possibly read to the actual bottom of an article? But hey, in good faith.

WR Lenzy makes 11th commitment, brings speed to Irish

lenzy
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At what point does an impressive recruiting roll become something more? When does it become a harbinger of things to come, even if not for a few seasons? How many notable commitments in a row establishes a class as special?

If the answer to any of the above is 11 commitments by the end of February, including five within two weeks, then Notre Dame is there following consensus four-star athlete Braden Lenzy’s announcement Thursday evening.

The Tigard High School (Portland, Ore) receiver/cornerback chose the Irish over offers from USC, Oregon and Michigan State, among a litany of others. In all, nine Pac-12 schools chased Lenzy—and a 10th, Washington, had shown interest—per rivals.com.

Lenzy will fit the leading 2018 need voiced by Irish coach Brian Kelly three weeks ago on National Signing Day 2017.

“Elite speed on offense will be a primary goal for us,” Kelly said Feb. 1. “Guys that can change the game on one possession. I think we’ll see that… We want a couple of home run hitters. We don’t care if they’re Darren Sproles’s size. We’re going to come off the board in terms of profile. We want some guys that can change the game on offense with elite speed.”

At 6-foot, 175 pounds, Lenzy is taller than Sproles’s 5-foot-6, but it is still his speed that drew Notre Dame’s interest.

“They made it clear they want me to do kickoff return and use me as a deep threat across the field,” he told Irish Illustrated. “Just being kind of an athlete, similar to what I’ve been doing already in high school, just on a bigger scale with a quarterback that can throw it a lot farther.”

Presuming Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush is that arm in 2018, throwing great distances should not be an issue. Between Lenzy and fellow 2018 commit Micah Jones, covering those distances should be a reasonable request, as well.

Lenzy brings Notre Dame’s class of 2018 to 11, including eight four-stars according to Rivals’ rating system. Current scholarship projections indicate the class will not be a large one, meaning the Irish coaching staff has already garnered the commitments of more than half the class. Once again, though, Kelly’s sentiment regarding recruiting timing should be remembered.

“We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

SWARBRICK’S TAKE ON RECRUITING
Kelly credited Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick with much assistance in securing the country’s No. 13 recruiting class in 2017. A refresher on those comments:

“In a lot of instances, [Swarbrick] had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it’s going,” Kelly said. “There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future.”

Swarbrick did not dispute the factual nature of any of that in an interview with the Indianapolis Star, but he did contest the need for praising what he saw as part of his job, one of the preferred parts of his job, at that.

“I can’t say anything about this year felt all that different,” Swarbrick told Star reporter Laken Litman. “Some asked questions about the future of the program and can we compete for a national championship. And I would talk about the elements of the program we were focused on improving.”

Swarbrick and Litman discussed a number of items in the second-half of the interview released by the Star, including Notre Dame’s facilities, a possible early signing period in football and if the Oct. 8, 2016, game against North Carolina State should have been played. Spoiler: No. Then why was it? Go check it out.

Swarbrick also told Litman he likes to write in his free time.

“I tend to think strategically with a pen in my hand.” Swarbrick added he is currently scribbling away on where he thinks college athletics are headed.

This scribe, for one, would be most interested in skimming those legal pads.

Will Wimbush, Elko and the early enrollees surprise in spring practice?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Exactly 59 days from today, the Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Sure, they will be playing against themselves, but nonetheless, it will be somewhat-competitive football played in gold helmets.

For timing context, exactly 59 days ago, you looked beneath the Christmas tree to learn if Santa Claus left you season tickets, socks or coal. I got socks. They had some of that extra cushioning, so I considered them a suitable treat.

Whether you care about my argyles or not (you don’t), for many the Blue-Gold Game and Christmas morning hold similar excitement. That fact is apparently why Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick does not concern himself when groups of alumni publicly lament his decisions, or lack thereof.

“I never worry about that,” Swarbirck told the Indianapolis Star in an exclusive interview you really should read. Go on, click the link, it will open in a new tab. You can come right back here when you are done.

“The hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion in your program. If that sort of stuff bothers you, you can’t be the athletic director, head coach or the quarterback at Notre Dame.”

That very passion will undoubtedly lead to frame-by-frame discussions of video snippets from spring practice, parsing of each and every word Irish coach Brian Kelly says in quick interviews after those practices, and extreme pessimism and optimism about the 2017 season.

In the Christmas spirit, what toys could bring the must excitement during the spring unwrapping? Personally, the gift I was unsure of always brought the most joy. I would rather open an unexpected book than know about a charcoal-gray suit. In other words, at least for today, let’s look past the offensive line, the running backs and the inside linebackers. Instead, let’s look forward to learning about… (more…)

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Karlos Williams #9 of the Florida State Seminoles scores the touchdown that would win the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their game at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.

With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.

The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.

Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.

Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.

If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.

Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order: (more…)