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.

Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

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This space has mentioned a few times the dearth of returning sacks among Notre Dame’s defensive line. It is a pertinent fact—no returning Irish defensive lineman recorded a sack in the 2016 season—but it fails to mention the flipside of that.

Most of Notre Dame’s defensive linemen had few, if any, opportunities to rush the passer in 2016. Perhaps at the top of the list of those who should bring down the opposing passer a few times this fall, sophomore Daelin Hayes has laid claim to a starting rush spot through five spring practices.

“The athleticism is what obviously stands out,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “He’s extremely athletic, he’s fit physically, 250 pounds and very strong.”

These facts are, after all, the reasons Hayes was a highly sought-after five-star recruit according to rivals.com.

“It’s the football knowledge, learning the techniques at the position in which he plays is really the piece,” Kelly continued. “It’s just learning right now for him. This is the time to do it, in spring ball.

“Squeezing down on a tight end when the back is away. Wrong-arming the puller. These are all football terms and schemes that are a bit new to him. We have to be patient with him. He’s an explosive athlete. There’s going to be some mistakes along the way, and I’m okay with that as long as he’s learning.”

Without much depth pushing for playing time behind him, Hayes will have the opportunity to make, and subsequently understand, those mistakes. Seniors Jay Hayes (no relation) and Andrew Trumbetti are mired in competition for the other end spot, while sophomores Julian Okwara, Adetokunbo Ogundeji and Khalid Kareem may have even more development ahead of them than Daelin Hayes does.

Incoming freshmen Kofi Wardlow and Jonathon MacCollister will join the fray in the summer, but for now, the younger Hayes has his chance to impress with his natural gifts while absorbing the intricacies of new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s defense.

Hayes is not a complete unknown. While Okwara made four tackles last season in 11 games and Kareem appeared in four games, Hayes saw action in every contest, finishing the season with 11 tackles, one pass breakup and one forced fumble.

“He’s an athlete,” defensive line coach Mike Elston said last week. “He’s on the edge in a two-point stance. He’s not a trained, put-your-hand-on-the-ground defensive end. He played running back in high school. He can see things better in a two-point and can diagnose quicker. He’s able to be more productive.”

It may be accurate to mention no returning Notre Dame defensive linemen tackled a quarterback for a loss last season, but it is more precise to also include the Irish have possibilities of changing that trend.

SPEAKING OF THE DEFENSIVE LINE
Notre Dame is nearly as thin at defensive tackle as it is at end. Junior Jerry Tillery leads the way with senior end-converted-to-tackle Jonathan Bonner lining up next to him thus far. Their reserves: Oft-concussed senior Daniel Cage, senior Pete Mokwuah and junior Micah Dew-Treadway with junior Elijah Taylor out for the spring with a foot injury.

Theoretically, junior Brandon Tiassum is also in the mix, and three freshmen (Kurt Hinish, Myron Tagovailo-Amosa and four-star Darnell Ewell) will join the group in the summer.

And maybe, just maybe, perhaps, possibly … Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano could walk onto campus alongside those freshmen. Pagano visited Notre Dame the first week of March, and was due to look at Oklahoma and Arkansas the next two weekends, respectively. Instead, Pagano reportedly cancelled both of those visits Monday.

Pagano does still have a visit to Oregon scheduled for April 21. Until indicated otherwise, it may be prudent to presume Pagano hopes to land as close to his Hawaiian home as possible.

RELATED READING: 1 Day Until Spring Practice: A look at the defensive line

Recruiting success continues with OL Dirksen, class’s 12th commit

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Even in the doldrums of spring practice, Notre Dame’s recent recruiting success continues. Rivals.com three-star/scout.com four-star offensive lineman John Dirksen offered a verbal commitment to the Irish on Saturday, bringing the 2018 class to 12 commitments.

The 6-foot-5, 290-pounds Dirksen (Marion High School; Maria Stein, Ohio) joins consensus three-star prospect Cole Mabry (Brentwood H.S.; Brentwood, Tenn.) as the offensive linemen thus far among the 12. In three of the last four years, Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has pulled in four recruits, with 2015’s two (Trevor Ruhland, Tristen Hoge) as the exception. This recruiting cycle could again bring a limited offensive line haul, given the likely limits on the class’s size.

While any and all current class of 2018 team rankings should be taken with many grains of salt—there are 318 days between today and National Signing Day, after all—Dirksen’s commitment solidifies the Irish hold on the No. 3 class, per rivals.com. Other recruiting services place Notre Dame even higher.

Dirksen chose Hiestand and the Irish over offers from Michigan State, Iowa State and Boston College, among others.

 

Holmes out for spring; Jones & Jones shining

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Notre Dame’s spring continued over the weekend, and is all too often the case with football, that led to an injury. Early enrollee running back C.J. Holmes will probably miss the rest of spring practice due to a separated shoulder, Irish coach Brian Kelly announced following Saturday’s practice.

“We’ll get an MRI and know a little bit further on Monday once that calms down a little bit,” Kelly said. “We’ll get a picture of that and see. He had an open repair on that same shoulder his sophomore year in high school.”

Behind three backs, including two with experience, Holmes was unlikely to see playing time in the backfield in 2017.

Of those three backs, sophomore Tony Jones, Jr., is the unknown after preserving a year of eligibility last season. In limited practice viewing, however, Jones has only impressed. He has caught Kelly’s eye, as well.

“He’s 225 pounds, can catch the ball coming out of the backfield, [is] assignment correct, and can run elusively and can get into the second level,” Kelly said. “What does that equal? He’s a pretty good back.

“Obviously he was noticeable today in his play and he got some work with the first group as well. He wasn’t just getting second-team reps.”

Jones may be getting some first-unit exposure, but expect him to remain behind junior Josh Adams in the depth chart. Considering Jones’ style is somewhat comparable to Adams’, whereas junior Dexter Williams presents something of a change of pace, Williams should see more action than the sophomore, as well.

MORE PRAISE FOR ALIZE JONES
Junior tight end Alizé Jones—rather, Alizé Mack, per his Twitter account—has taken the lead in spring’s race of who reaps the most sound bite accolades. In complimenting Jones, who missed last season due to an academic suspension, Kelly also managed to laud new offensive coordinator Chip Long.

“I think Chip is doing a terrific job with [Jones],” Kelly said. “He’s got a good relationship. He knows how to rise him up when he needs to and scold him when he needs to. Alizé needs a little bit of that.

“He’s virtually un-coverable in certain areas of the field. I don’t care at any level. You can’t cover him. He just has that kind of talent. The one that I think stands out to me in the few days is he’s committed himself to being a blocker and playing physical. If he continues to do that, we’re going to find ourselves with a lot of tight ends on the field.”

Presumably, Jones would join graduate student tight end Durham Smythe in two tight end sets. It should be remembered, Long has historically shown a preference for such formations, and with Notre Dame’s plethora of options at the position, Long’s tendencies have no need to change. For that matter, Long had some praise for Jones this weekend, as well.

“Alizé can be as good as he wants to be,” Long said Friday. “…He’s growing up each and every day. Great joy to coach, and that whole group is. He doesn’t want to let that group down. There’s no question he can be as good as he wants to be.”

Friday at 4: 40-yard dashes and absurdity

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Of all the absurd things the football world often obsesses over, the 40-yard dash may be the most useless of them. Yes, it even beats out assigning star rankings to 16- and 17-year-olds, though not by much.

For now, let’s look past the rest of the inane Draft intricacies, such as former Irish defensive lineman Jarron Jones feeling pressured to increase his vertical jump by four inches. (He did, jumping to 24.5 inches in Notre Dame’s Pro Day on Thursday.) This scribe does not have an excess of time to spend discussing Jones’s outlandish wingspan if this piece is to post by its intended, though unnecessary, 4 p.m. ET deadline.

The 40-yard dash … No football play begins from a sprinter’s stance, yet it may be the factor most crucial to a low 40 time. Former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer posted a time of 4.83 seconds in the NFL Combine earlier this month. For context’s sake, Kizer ran .07 seconds slower than Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did as a draft prospect in the 2004 combine.

Roethlisberger has had himself an excellent career, and his ability to shrug off 300-pound defensive linemen is a testament to his athleticism. Put Kizer and Roethlisberger in the open field together, though, and Kizer would presumably have outrun Roethlisberger at any point of the two-time Super Bowl champion’s career. In Indianapolis, however, Roethlisberger did a better job of getting his hips through his first couple strides of the heralded 40-yard dash.

Here, watch Kizer train for the 40, the most-hyped measurement of his combine.

“The ultimate goal is to have yourself in the best position to have your body weight back in those legs so you can create enough torque to get out as quickly as possible,” Kizer said. “A guy who is as long as I am, with long limbs that I have, I’ve got to make sure that my weight distribution is in the best position for me to get out and catch up to some of those quicker guys who are a little lower to the ground.”

What part of that sounds applicable to football? The 40 turns Kizer’s size (6-foot-4, 237 pounds) into a negative. He worries about the angle of his knees. After his throwing session at the Thursday Pro Day, Kizer summed up the draft evaluation process even more succinctly.

“This process is very different in the sense that the way you look productive in the combine and in a pro day is very different from what productivity actually looks like out on the field.”

Well put.

More pertinent to the actual game of football, Kizer’s completion percentage in the staged workout could have been higher.

Then again, he was throwing to the likes of former Irish receivers Corey Robinson and Amir Carlisle and former running back Jonas Gray. Reportedly, the only contact Gray and Kizer had before the session was Kizer emailing the former New England Patriot the planned series of routes.

The NFL Draft, where Gmail becomes a necessity.

Let’s do away with the 40. If we insist on keeping it, let’s do it twice, once from a standing start and once from a running start. Those would simulate actual football movements: A receiver getting off the line, and a ballcarrier breaking away and trying to outrun the defense.

Asking DeShone Kizer to mimic Usain Bolt is an exercise in futility, idiocy, absurdity.

Cue end of rant.

Why cite the Roethlisberger time? Many, including Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke, have readily compared Kizer to Roethlisberger this spring.

The most notable line of that scouting report (scroll down to No. 32) may be its final one, echoing Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s sentiments from earlier this week.

“The mystery is whether he can regain his assertiveness,” Burke writes. “If so, he could turn out to be the 2017 class’s best QB. The team that drafts him will be taking a leap of faith.”

A leap. Not a dash.

For more Notre Dame Pro Day results, click here.

And with that, this just may make the 4 p.m. posting. You know what to do.