And in that corner… the Michigan Wolverines

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There’s really nothing to be said about the Michigan-Notre Dame rivalry that hasn’t already been said. It is not just another game. As a wide-eyed freshman, I remember the football season as follows: The Michigan game… and everything else.

Five days ago, both Notre Dame and Michigan were at low water marks. Michigan coming off an embarrassingly historic 3-9 season, and Notre Dame’s wallowing during a 7-6 season that nearly sunk Charlie Weis’ career. Adding fuel to the Michigan fire was the report that Rich Rodriguez and his staff may have committed numerous NCAA violations with regards to practice time and coaching presence since his arrival in Ann Arbor.

Yet Saturday afternoon brought a collective sigh of relief amongst both Notre Dame and Michigan fans. Both teams made marked strides from last season in their debut, easily overmatching their respective opponents.

There’s nobody will as unique of a perspective on the upcoming game as Michael Rothstein. Rothstein covered the Irish beat for almost four years and wrote the popular ND blog “Irish Insights” for the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette. Mike left the Journal Gazette for an opportunity to write for the newly relaunched AnnArbor.com, where he’s covering both the Michigan Wolverines basketball beat, and a certain football team in Ann Arbor.

We’ve been friendly with Mike since back when he was covering the Domer beat, and he was willing to make some room in his busy dance card this week to spend some time chatting with us.

Hope you enjoy…

Inside the Irish: Was there a collective sigh of relief at halftime for the Michigan faithful?

Mike Rothstein: Ha. Probably say the end of the first quarter almost. Michigan was dominant Saturday against Western Michigan in all phases. Offense was crisp in the first half. Defense shut down Tim Hiller. Zoltan Mesko continued to punt like an All-American and Michigan even saw first-time kicker (and fifth-year senior) Jason Olesnavage make a field goal. That’s a pretty good half.

ITI: What was this week like as a journalist? Was there anything like this during your tenure covering the Notre Dame beat?

MR: It was really, really busy. I woke up Wednesday morning thinking it was Friday. Consider that in the span of 72 hours, Michigan had been accused of NCAA violations. Then the revelation that Rich Rodriguez was being sued for defaulting on a loan. And that his business partner was a twice-banned booster from Clemson. And that press conference Monday was surreal. Rough 72 hours for Rich Rodriguez. It also happened to be the first week I started writing regular columns. It’s great because there was a ton of material to work with. None of it, though, was football related until Thursday. Tough to compare to any single week on the Notre Dame beat.

The closest I’d say was the Notre Dame 2008 stretch from after the Pittsburgh loss to the football banquet. That was insane. You didn’t know what was going to happen from week-to-week and each game meant so much to the future of Weis’ career. I remember covering a Notre Dame basketball game the night it broke that Charlie Weis would be returning. It was a long, long night. Got it confirmed just ahead of the official announcement, but I was getting up from my press row seat so much during the game that one of the basketball coaches asked me after the game what was going on. It was that noticeable. Granted, the Irish were well in control of that game.

Remember, too, that Michael Haywood was interviewing at Washington, which opened up the ability for Weis to take back playcalling (although everyone knew it was coming after the shutout at Boston College). And the week everything got crazy before Navy, I was in Washington, D.C. getting stuff for a few Navy stories, a story on Fort Wayne native Jason Fabini (then an offensive lineman with the Redskins) and keeping tabs on everything going on in South Bend. That said, this past week was one that’ll stand out to me for a long, long time.

ITI: Do you think there’s a way that this whole controversy almost engendered Rodriguez to Michigan supporters?

MR: There were a bunch of “In Rod We Trust” signs this week. By the end of the first half, the students were chanting Rich Rodriguez’ name. With the fans, a lot of times, winning cures all. It doesn’t mean the allegations or the lawsuit are going away, it just means Rodriguez and Michigan won a football game. It’ll be interesting to see what happens Saturday if Notre Dame wins, although I think Rodriguez won himself some fans with the way he handled last week and the way his team played.

ITI: You obviously followed Notre Dame closer than most of us the past few years. Is the Michigan-Notre Dame game “just another game” for either of these programs?

MR: I don’t think Notre Dame-Michigan is just another game for anyone within these two programs. If they say that, it’s bunk. This game has been such a tone-setter, too, for the rest of both teams’ seasons in the past that they have to take it seriously. Remember in 2005, much of Weis’ first-year hype came after beating then-No. 3 Michigan. The next year, Michigan used a win over then-No. 2 Notre Dame to springboard a run of 11 straight wins until the Wolverines played Ohio State. And getting back to an earlier question, I’d bet that weekend was equally insane to this past week. Prepping for a No. 1 vs. No. 2 game is tough on reporters. Remember that Bo Schembechler died the day before that game, too, sending reporters
scrambling again.

Anyway… I don’t believe it is. Most of the players in this game were recruited by both schools and it’s pretty historic. As an example, Michigan offensive lineman Stephen Schilling grew up just outside of Seattle. He knew about Michigan-Notre Dame along with the Apple Cup. How many people in the Midwest, besides your diehards, know about the Apple Cup?

(I do! I do!!)

ITI: What did you see from Forcier and Robinson that impressed you?

MR: I’ve said it the past few days and I’ll echo it again: Denard Robinson is the fastest player I’ve seen in person in college football. When he gets to top speed, it’s going to be a touchdown if it’s a footrace. In four years covering Notre Dame, I saw one player I think could catch him: David Bruton. And that’s just because of his really long strides. Put it this way, for Notre Dame folk, I’d take Robinson over Golden Tate in a footrace. Easy.

Forcier impressed me with his poise. Some of the throws he made, specifically his second touchdown pass to Junior Hemingway, looked like something a junior or senior would do, not a guy playing less than a half of college football. Same goes for his first scoring drive. He was directing Hemingway to a spot and then hit him perfectly. Don’t see that from freshmen too often. Didn’t see it from Jimmy Clausen as a freshman, although they are vastly different quarterbacks. Now that I’ve said that, both will have bad days this season. They are freshmen. It’s bound to happen. But there is a lot of raw talent and leadership there.

ITI: It’s very clear that Robinson’s speed is legit. Who should the Irish be more worried about?

MR: Forcier will play more, so Forcier. But if Robinson’s on the field, he can turn a botched snap into an electrifying touchdown run (he did it against Western Michigan). Robinson is more dangerous from a quick-strike perspective but Forcier is going to be the guy who takes the majority of snaps, I’d think, as long as he’s playing pretty well. Plus, Forcier has a bit more balance. With him, you have to be concerned about the pass. Not as much with Robinson. So, a long answer to your question is Forcier.

ITI: Brandon Graham didn’t show up in th
e boxscore, but he did suppl
y some pressure off the corner. Is he who the Irish needs to worry about most?

MR: Absolutely. He’ll likely be the best defensive lineman Notre Dame plays this year. He was in the Western Michigan backfield from the first play on. Graham may have only been credited for an assisted tackle, but he seemed to be everywhere. The rest of the line is still unproven, although freshman Craig Roh and sophomore Mike Martin looked pretty good. But if I’m Notre Dame, I’m doubling Graham because he’s the guy who could get into the backfield and into Clausen.

ITI: A Michigan skeptic would say the offensive performance wasn’t all that impressive. The offense still attacks horizontally, and the running game (save Robinson) didn’t do much of anything. Other than actually being competent in running the spread offense, why should ND fans be worried about the new and improved Wolverines attack?

MR: Well, starting running back Brandon Minor didn’t play. He’s been nagged by injuries in camp, but here’s betting he’ll play Saturday. He changes things a little bit. Also, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more of speedy freshman running back Vincent Smith, who is another gamebreaker with his speed like Robinson. And I wouldn’t say Michigan did nothing on the ground. The Wolverines gained 242 yards. And Rodriguez let up a bit in the fourth quarter. From watching Notre Dame, I was unimpressed with its defensive line. Nevada was able to gash through the front pretty easily when I watched the game. If Michigan is given those types of holes, that gives guys like Robinson some space to make big plays. And Forcier can run a little bit, too, he’s just not as fast as Robinson.

ITI: Your thoughts on the ND performance Saturday?

MR: Offensively, impressive. Everything seemed to work. Floyd is better than last year. That jump ball that turned into a touchdown elicited an audible ‘Wow’ from me and I was watching it over 24 hours later. I like Kyle Rudolph’s game a lot, too. He could be the difference for Notre Dame on Saturday. The Irish ran better than I saw the past two years, but Michigan’s front seven is going to be bigger and more talented than the Wolf Pack. On defense, Manti Te’o is as advertised. He’s going to have a great career if he’s healthy. Notre Dame’s linebackers seemed to be everywhere. I got into the defensive line earlier, still think that’s the weakest part of the team. I didn’t get a good read on the secondary, but that’s because Nevada didn’t pass all that much. But I thought coming out of the spring that it was the deepest position group Notre Dame had. I really like the game of Harrison Smith and Sergio Brown might be the team’s most athletic defender and technically he’s not a starter unless the Irish open in nickel.

ITI: Do you think their psyche is fully prepared from the disappointment and downward spiral that last season’s regular season ended on?

MR: For who? Can’t really answer that yet for Notre Dame. I haven’t been around them since late April. At Michigan, yeah, I think the 3-9 season is behind them – for now. Notre Dame fans saw what happened when a team coming off that type of year faced adversity a year ago.

ITI: What do you see happening on Saturday?

MR: Good question. Not sure yet. I think both teams won’t look as good as they did in the opener. Forcier and Robinson will struggle a little bit. Clausen’s going to get hit some, too. I see Notre Dame’s defensive line getting gashed a bunch again, but that’ll be countered by the weaknesses in the Michigan secondary, especially if cornerback Boubacar Cissoko is limited in any way. I won’t give a score yet except to say I think it’s going to be close, a one-score game. I’m leaning toward picking Notre Dame because of Floyd and Golden Tate and that passing game. But I’m not sold yet.

Be sure to check out some of Mike’s work at AnnArbor.com, or read some selected works of his that I enjoyed, (some on the Notre Dame-Michigan battle, some not)  here, here, and here.

Four-star WR Micah Jones chooses Irish; Rees may need to wait; Other late-week reading

jones
rivals.com
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A day may come when Notre Dame suffers a recruiting disappointment in the 2018 cycle, when a high school star spurns the Irish coaching staff for a foe, but it is not this day.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township High School; Gurnee, Ill.) committed to Notre Dame on Friday, joining a class of now 10 recruits, including four who committed just this week.

Jones chose the Irish over offers from the likes of Iowa, Michigan State and Ole Miss, among others.

He is the first receiver among the 10 commitments and the seventh considered a four-star prospect. At 6-foot-5, 196 pounds, Jones should present a large target for whomever the Notre Dame quarterback is in the fall of 2018, most likely then-senior Brandon Wimbush.

Tom, Tommy or Thomas; Assistant Coach or Graduate Assistant?
Thomas Rees may need to wait a season before officially being a coach at Notre Dame. The legislation to approve a 10th assistant coach was expected to be voted on, passed and effective in April. A newly-added amendment may push the effective date to following the 2017 season. The amendment will be voted on immediately before the legislation itself is.

The delay makes sense. Most coaching hirings and firings occur in December and January. In theory, creating a one-timing hiring frenzy following spring football could leave many programs in the lurch. In practice, however, this is not anticipated.

“The majority of the FBS guys that I’ve talked with currently believe that 10th coach is going to come from within their own organization,” Todd Berry told the Associated Press. Berry is the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association and former coach at Army and Louisiana-Monroe. “Quality control, graduate assistants, analysts, or they’re planning on hiring somebody that’s out of work.”

A majority is not a unanimity, though, and that carousel will innately work to the disadvantage of the Group of 5 schools.

As for Rees, a graduate assistant can still work extensively with players. The most-pertinent difference between a graduate assistant and an assistant coach is the former cannot recruit. Given Notre Dame’s recent success on the recruiting trail—and the early commitment of class of 2018 consensus four-star quarterback Phil Jurkovec (Pine-Richland H.S.; Gibsonia, Pa.)—Rees may not be an absolute necessity in that regard this cycle.

A Kizer Appraisal
Former NFL scout Greg Gabriel took a look at former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer this week, largely paying the draft prospect compliments.

In calling Kizer “the most talented quarterback in this draft class,” Gabriel set a high ceiling for Kizer’s spring. Part of Gabriel’s positive assessment comes from acknowledging Kizer’s responsibilities as the Irish signal-caller.

“The spread offense that Kizer played in at Notre Dame is more sophisticated than many of the spread offenses we see elsewhere at the collegiate level. The Notre Dame offense is a whole-field read scheme in which the quarterback has to go through a progression that encompasses both sides of the field. He also can change the play and/or protections at the line of scrimmage. Given all that, Kizer was asked to do more than many spread quarterbacks are asked to do.”

Gabriel also reflected on the dynamic differences for Kizer in 2015 and 2016 and what may have elicited some of his seeming stagnation.

“There was the unnecessary quarterback controversy at Notre Dame, and the offensive line wasn’t as experienced or as talented and the receivers were mostly first-year starters.”

As much as Gabriel raves about Kizer, he would be the first to tell you anything beyond individual player evaluation is a waste of air this early in the draft process. Mock drafts may be fun, but they are not much beyond that.

Take the fates of Tony Romo and Jimmy Garoppolo, for example. Few, if any, in the NFL expect them to dress for the Cowboys and Patriots, respectively, again. Where they end up could directly impact Kizer’s draft placement.

Jaylon Smith May Be Back to Form
Former Notre Dame and current Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith posted yet another encouraging video to Twitter. This one shows Smith really might be game-ready right now and, if not, almost certainly will be by the fall. Should there be any difficulty with the embedded video below, here is a link straight to it.

OL Mabry makes third commitment this week; WR Jones may follow Friday

mabry
rivals.com
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Two weeks ago, Irish coach Brian Kelly gave a non-answer of an answer to a question about a likely early signing period this coming December. Avoiding specifics, he indicated he thinks the effects of such a change will be seen on a case-by-case basis entirely dependent on the recruits.

“Some will, some won’t,” Kelly said. “…Each kid is going to have to react to it based upon also how their school is going to be dealing with it. Some will come off the board at the time.

“We’re expecting some to sign early, but I think our mindset is we’re going into it business as usual. We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

After this week, Notre Dame is going to have more year-long fights than anticipated. Consensus three-star offensive lineman recruit Cole Mabry (Brentwood High School; Brentwood, Tenn.) became the third prospect to offer a verbal commitment to the Irish coaching staff in less than 36 hours with his Wednesday decision. Mabry received the offer over the weekend, but waited a few days before making his decision public, lest emotions be dictating his thought process.

At 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds, Mabry will have time to add muscle to his frame, with four or five offensive tackles greeting him on the Notre Dame roster in the summer of 2018. That ability to mold his style and growth may have played a part in the Irish interest.

“They love my height and athleticism and how I play,” Mabry told rivals.com. “We got to break down film and go through things that they do that pair up with how I play now. They think I’ll be a great fit in their offense.”

Mabry is the ninth Notre Dame commitment in the class of 2018, though the first offensive lineman.

Judging by new Notre Dame director of football performance Matt Balis’s agenda for the Irish roster’s Valentine’s Day morning, Mabry will have much to look forward to in terms of strength and conditioning.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township H.S.; Gurnee, Ill.) is scheduled to announce his verbal commitment this Friday at 4 p.m. ET. Along with Notre Dame, Jones is considering Iowa, Michigan State, Nebraska, Ole Miss, Illinois and Northwestern. He would be the first receiver in Notre Dame’s 2018 class. Naturally, whomever Jones commits to, the recruiting fight will last until at least December, and perhaps all the way to February.

Notre Dame adds two top defensive back commits; Elliott officially a ‘Husker

allen
rivals.com
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It’s early. It’s really, really early. Not in the day, though this post is scheduled for an a.m. hour. No, it is early in the 2018 recruiting cycle. Any piece of news, each commitment, everything should be taken with two grains of salt.

Nonetheless, Notre Dame—and more specifically, new Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko and defensive backs coach Todd Lyght—enjoyed Tuesday’s recruiting news when two consensus four-star coverage men committed to the Irish.

Safety Derrik Allen (Lassiter High School; Marietta, Ga.) and cornerback Kalon Gervin (Cass Tech; Detroit, Mich.) joined a class of now eight commitments, six of which play on the defensive side of the ball.

Gervin, the No. 11 cornerback in the class according to rivals.com, waited mere days after attending Notre Dame’s Junior Day over the weekend. Irish coach Brian Kelly and staff’s failure to land a recruit at Gervin’s position in the 2017 haul actually helped reel in the recruit with offers from Florida, LSU, Michigan and dozens others.

“The opportunity to play right away, they didn’t sign a cornerback this last class,” Gervin told Blue & Gold Illustrated helped sway him. “Also, the education is second-to-none. It speaks for itself.”

Allen, pictured at top, has leaned toward Notre Dame for months. The No. 3 safety in the country per Rivals, he chose the Irish over the likes of Alabama, Clemson and Florida State.

Elliott officially to Nebraska

The two highly-touted defensive backs will not have the chance to learn under the tutelage of Bob Elliott. Nebraska officially announced the hiring of the former Notre Dame safeties (2012-13) and linebackers (2014) coach. Elliott spent the last two seasons serving as a special assistant to Kelly, focusing largely on defending the triple-option attacks of Army, Navy and Georgia Tech.

Elliott rejoins former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco in Lincoln. Diaco was hired as the Cornhuskers’ defensive coordinator in January.

The Lincoln Journal Star’s Brian Cristopherson reports Elliott will make a nice wage in eastern Nebraska.

Could Kelly move a receiver to cornerback?

PALO ALTO, CA - NOVEMBER 30:  Bennett Jackson #2 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish intercepts this pass intended for Michael Rector #3 of the Stanford Cardinal during the fourth quarter at Stanford Stadium on November 30, 2013 in Palo Alto, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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Before the weekend, Notre Dame already had 10 receivers on its depth chart, all with at least two seasons of eligibility remaining. Cornerback, meanwhile, is a position where the roster seems to be lacking, with only seven currently on scholarship. The only fact staving off panic is that all seven also have two years of eligibility in hand. Nonetheless, an additional body in the defensive backfield at practice would seem to be a reasonable want, if not quite a necessity.

Thus, the addition of graduate transfer receiver Freddy Canteen—himself having two seasons of potential college football to go—brought the return of wonderings: Should one of the plethora of Irish receivers switch to breaking up passes?

Aside from balancing the roster and easing some concerns should an injury strike, such a move could also present the player a chance at increased playing time. By no means would the maneuver need to be a selfless one.

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has had success with such positional flipping. Specifically, Kelly and his coaching staff have overseen the successful switches of receiver-turned-cornerback Bennett Jackson and receiver-turned-safety-and-then-linebacker James Onwualu. Furthermore, defensive backs Matthias Farley and KeiVarae Russell both arrived at Notre Dame expecting to be on the offensive side of the ball before changes early in their careers.

BENNETT JACKSON
A three-star receiver recruit, Jackson stuck with Notre Dame during the transition from Charlie Weis to Brian Kelly, signing with the Irish only weeks after Kelly took the lead of the program. In his freshman season, Jackson carried the ball plenty, as the kick returner. Aside from fielding kickoffs, he had only one carry for 20 yards. That was it for his offensive playmaking.

On special teams, however, he excelled without the ball, too. Jackson finished with 10 tackles, including four against Purdue to start the season. That nose for the ballcarrier prompted the coaching staff to switch Jackson’s positional group. In the following three seasons, he amassed 147 tackles, 11 pass break-ups and two interceptions.

Before Notre Dame faced Alabama in the 2012 BCS National Championship Game, Jackson looked back on his career change.

“I liked receiver. Obviously, I wanted to be a guy with the ball in my hands,” he said. “At first, I wasn’t mad about it, but I wasn’t fond of it.

“As time went on, I actually liked the position a lot more. I had a lot more fun and I got to compete a lot more.”

JAMES ONWUALU
A four-star recruit with the ambiguous “athlete” designation in 2013, Onwualu—like Jackson—spent his freshman season as a receiver. Unlike Jackson, he actually caught some passes. Two, to be exact, for a total of 34 yards. Continuing on a parallel to Jackson, Onwualu totaled six tackles on special teams.

Years later, it is easy to see the receiving depth in Notre Dame’s class of 2013. Onwualu aside, the Irish brought in Corey Robinson, Torii Hunter, Jr., and Will Fuller. It was going to be a tough road to featured playing time for Onwualu. Realizing this, he set to finding a different path.

“I honestly wasn’t sure receiver was the spot for me anyway, so I walked right up to coach Kelly’s office and we had a talk about where I wanted to go and what my thoughts were for my career,” Onwualu told und.com early in his senior season. “We ended up agreeing that the defensive side, we might as well give it a shot, and it worked out.”

Initially, that conversation landed Onwualu at safety. At 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, he found himself at linebacker pretty quickly thereafter.

“That was a tough one for me because he’s so valuable offensively in a number of ways,” Kelly said before 2014 spring practice. “He’s such a consistent player and he loves to compete. But he’s got great contact skills.”

Onwualu ended his Notre Dame career with 143 total tackles, including those pivotal six his freshman season, along with six sacks.

MATTHIAS FARLEY & KEIVARAE RUSSELL
Both Farley and Russell entered Notre Dame as “athletes”, the former a three-star recruit and the latter a four-star prospect. While Farley was expected to line up at receiver and Russell at running back, each switched to safety and cornerback, respectively, before ever joining the Irish offense. Safe to say it worked out rather well for each.

WHO NOW?
Far be it for the internet to speculate, but that seems to be one of its three primary purposes in the 21st century.

None of the current 11 receivers entered college deemed “athletes” by recruitniks. One does mirror Jackson and Onwualu in that he excelled on special teams last year. Rising sophomore Chase Claypool recorded 11 tackles in his debut season to go along with his five catches for 81 yards. Claypool notched multiple tackles against Nevada, Syracuse and Virginia Tech.

Kelly and new defensive coordinator Mike Elko very well may choose to test fate in 2017 and rely on only seven cornerbacks. After all, how often would the Irish ever have more than four on the field, anyways?

But if Kelly and Elko err on the side of caution, whoever makes the positional switch should not cringe in doing so. It has worked out pretty well both for his predecessors and for Notre Dame.