Bye weeks have been kind to Irish

12 Comments

With Notre Dame coming off of a bye week, I decided to do some digging into the Irish’s history of playing after a week off. There is good news: the Irish have had great success after a week off — a 61-14-2 record since 1900.

The extra week of practice and preparation should help the Irish against Southern Cal. The Irish will have had time to familiarize themselves with the pared-down Trojan attack, and after five seasons of facing Pete Carroll’s squad, there is little schematically that Carroll can do that will surprise the Irish coaching staff.

Outside of the X’s and O’s, the Irish will need to make great strides psychologically if they want to win on Saturday. The last outings against the Trojans have been disastrous. 38-3, 38-0, and 44-24 blow-outs have been monumental throttlings that make it seem like the divide between the Trojans’ talent level and the Irish’s have never been larger.

Thanks to a tip from our friends at Blue-Gray Sky, we stumbled upon a great article of theirs written by a former player who discussed the strategic moves former Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz made during the bye week of the 1993 season as the Irish team prepared to play the vaunted Seminoles of Florida State.

Here are some highlights:

The beginning of the bye week was different than most weeks during the
season, in that the game plan was not yet finalized. As such, we did
not practice on Mondays. Rather, we spent the afternoon in film
sessions, getting treatment and working on conditioning. In total, it
was a rather light day – this set the tone for the rest of the week.
Although we returned to a normal practice schedule on Tuesday,
Wednesday and Thursday, we were working more on fundamentals of the
game, footwork, balance, positioning, and accurate reads, rather than
focusing on our upcoming opponent. If it wasn’t for the media (and a
few of our teammates) there would have been no mention of Florida State.

In
hindsight, this was one of the most powerful tactics that Coach Holtz,
and the rest of the coaching staff, employed to prepare us for the game
– it was a matter of pacing ourselves for the emotion that would
undoubtedly build in week two. In week one, there was no hype – it was
back to basics, Football 101.

However, as the bye week came to a close his strategy began to unfold.
Coach Holtz normally played to the media, giving them the sob story of
how every team has a legitimate chance at beating us each week; in
internal discussions, however, he was always adamantly clear that we
would win without a shadow of a doubt. Strangely, as the game with
Florida State approached, the message to the media and the team was
fairly similar – Florida State was faster and more athletic than we
were. We wondered why he felt the need to remind us of this fact so
frequently. But as we continued through our daily practice schedule it
slowly became clear that it was Florida State’s speed and athleticism
that would eventually be their downfall. The new offensive schemes for
FSU were based on misdirection and cutbacks – “let their whole team
swarm to the ball and over pursue, then we’ll go the other way.” Our
offensive linemen had dark visors added to their helmets to give them
an advantage on eyeing angles and gaps without being noticed – even the
slightest advantage would equate to a magnitude of success. Slowly we
began to see the total picture of the plan – and we now believed we
could win.

Coach Holtz often repeated the phrase “games are won on Monday through
Friday, not on Saturday.” He was an avid believer that “you practice
like you play.” He demanded focus and perfection every day, on every
play. Unfortunately, the Wednesday before the Florida State game was a
practice that, if translated into game execution, would have resulted
in an embarrassing loss to the Seminoles. For some reason our timing
was off – the execution of the new strategy was simply not there.
Coaches were frustrated and the confidence that we were beginning to
build was turning into doubt.

Suddenly, the legendary offensive
line coach, Joe Moore — as old-school and rugged a football coach as
there ever was — lost his cool. He had had enough of misdirection and
cutbacks – he was tired of the thought of playing Florida State
football in order to beat Florida State. Yes, there would be the time
and place to employ this strategy in order to keep them off-balance,
but he believed that the best way to beat Florida State football was to
play Notre Dame football. In the middle of practice Coach Moore huddled
with Coach Holtz…and then exploded. “Get
me the managers! Get these f*cking visors off these f*cking helmets! We
don’t need this bullsh*t! We’re going to look them right in the eye,
tell them where we’re running the ball, and kick their f*cking asses
all over the f*cking field!”

** snip **

The team went through the usual post-rally schedule: returning to the
Loftus Center for a team meeting and then into our relaxation routine.
Our team meetings on Friday night were more administrative than
anything, covering logistics for the weekend and so forth.
Additionally, we would always watch a short film comprised of
highlights from the previous week’s game and highlights from the
previous year’s game vs. the upcoming opponent. However, with no game
over the bye week and having not played Florida State in several years,
there really wasn’t anything to show. At least that’s what we thought.

Instead
of a game film, Coach Holtz had arranged to show highlights of the 1988
Miami game. As music pumped through the speakers and highlights of
Zorich, Stonebreaker, Rice and Rocket filled the screen, we began
cheering for the players whose performance influenced us to join ND in
the first place. We started to think about the magnitude of the event
at hand. We began to realize that we were about to write another
chapter in the history books. Then, the music stopped, the screen went
blank, and a picture of the 1988 National Championship Ring went up…
and the team went crazy! The sounds of the pep rally were silent
compared to the uproar that filled the meeting room at Loftus – it was
literally an out-of-body experience.


Weis and his coaching staff already told us a stress on fundamentals was at the forefront of practice last week. You’ve also got to believe that Weis has had his team thinking about the Trojans since the moment the Irish squeaked their way past Washington two weeks ago, and probably spent parts of the past few weeks game-planning and preparing for this mid-October date with their rivals.

It was the truth 16 years ago, as it is truth today: This Saturday’s football game will be predicated on many of the same things that resulted in the Irish winning the game of the century.

As was designed, the game would be about execution, Holtz said. Florida State could not win
if we executed the game plan. It was simple: hit them in the mouth and
get them on their heels, then we’ll work misdirection, and they will be lost.
Holtz then talked about what the media believes, what the critics
believe — and how none of that matters. Inside these walls and inside
your hearts was a belief that victory was imminent. Then he said: “Let
there be no doubt… this sucker doesn’t have to be close!” And with
that, we stormed out of the locker room.

Well, we all know what happened on that unseasonably warm November
Saturday. It was a great game against two pretty evenly-matched, albeit
very different teams. This “Game of the Century” definitely delivered
on the hype. The game, though, was not won simply on Saturday. The
foundation had been laid by Coach Holtz over the previous two weeks: a
skillful balance of gameplanning and emotional management that made us
believe we could beat the #1 team in the country. Notre Dame catapulted
to the top of the college football world on that Saturday, but the game
had been won long before kickoff.

The Irish don’t have nearly as daunting of a challenge ahead of them as the 1993 squad did. But the mindset will need to be the same if the Irish walk out of Notre Dame Stadium next Saturday victorious.

(Special thanks to the guys at BGS for the great source material…) 

Reports: Notre Dame taps North Carolina’s Terry Joseph as safeties coach

Getty Images
5 Comments

Notre Dame will hire North Carolina defensive backs coach Terry Joseph to lead the Irish safeties, per reports. Irish Illustrated’s Tom Loy first reported the staff addition. Sports Illustrated‘s Bruce Feldman confirmed the report.

Joseph has been with the Tar Heels for just one season, spending the three prior in the same role at Texas A&M. He will take over the positional duties once held by former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko who, coincidentally enough, took the same position at Texas A&M. Irish linebackers coach Clark Lea was promoted to the defensive coordinator slot.

Joseph’s résumé includes stops at Nebraska, Tennessee and Louisiana Tech, with the latter two stints including recruiting coordinator duties. Joseph’s rise up the collegiate coaching ranks began 12 years ago as a defensive graduate assistant at LSU. Before that, he worked as a high school assistant in the New Orleans area for seven years.

Any passing defense certainly includes contributions from many aspects aside from the defensive backs — pass rush, intended defensive scheme, a rash of injuries etc. That said, North Carolina finished with the country’s No. 80 pass efficiency defense this season. Notre Dame, though, did not much test that unit in its 33-10 victory this past October. With sophomore quarterback Ian Book starting in place of an injured junior Brandon Wimbush, the Irish gained only 146 yards on 17-of-31 passing. The Tar Heels picked off Book twice, both via the playmaking of sophomore safety Myles Dorn.

Dorn finished the 2017 season with 71 tackles, the third-most on North Carolina’s defense, including 2.5 for loss. He added five pass breakups. Dorn’s freshman season, without Joseph’s tutelage, featured 32 tackles, one for loss and one pass breakup.

Dorn’s positional partner, sophomore Myles Wolfolk, made 32 tackles with 4.5 for loss and another five quarterback hurries.

Continuing with a micro look at players from his past, Joseph played a role in the development of three eventual NFL players while at Texas A&M. In two seasons, safety Justin Evans went from a junior college transfer to a second-round draft pick, making 165 tackles in the span with six for loss, five interceptions and 11 pass breakups.

Cornerback Brandon Williams spent one season in the defensive backfield at A&M, previously spending his time in the offensive backfield as a running back. That one season saw him make 37 tackles, including one for loss, and break up seven passes. The Arizona Cardinals then drafted him in the third round in 2015.

Cornerback De’Vante Harris, a four-year contributor for the Aggies, became an undrafted free agent signed by the New Orleans Saints in 2015 after playing two seasons under Joseph. In those two seasons, Joseph broke up 13 passes.

Developing players such as Dorn, Evans and Williams undoubtedly elevated Joseph’s profile during Notre Dame’s search, more than high-profile experience, recruiting bona fides or personality. The Irish safeties need to make great leaps forward to complete what could be, perhaps should be, a promising 2018 defense.

Friday at 4: What a defensive difference two weeks makes

Getty Images
31 Comments

The college football offseason is approximately 33 weeks long, from the national championship game to Labor Day Weekend. Obviously, for 127 teams each year, that stretch is at least one week longer.

It is vital to remember how interminably it lasts when overreacting to each and every personnel development. Consider just two weeks ago, the sky seemed to be falling in on Notre Dame’s defense. Coordinator Mike Elko had left for the same position at Texas A&M. The odds were, at least, 50/50 he would take linebackers coach Clark Lea with him. Junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery had not yet declared for the NFL draft, but the coaching change made both departures appear more likely.

The news cycle moved so quickly, this weekly spot published 12 hours early so as not to risk a development usurping the intended premise.

Now, that defense returns 10 starters and stability in coaching. Its reserves show such promise, those 10 will not all start against Michigan on Sept. 1. The only position group with depth concerns is also the one bringing in four highly-touted linebackers as freshmen.

What a difference two weeks makes.

That “Friday at 4 a.m.” included quick mention of the concern regarding Coney and Tillery.

“Like Tillery, [Coney] is considering heading to the NFL. If he does so specifically because of Elko’s exit, that may be the costliest result of this coaching carousel for the Irish.”

Just a week ago, it was possible, even likely, only defensive end Jay Hayes (93) would return from this trio, but defensive tackles Jonathan Bonner (left) and Jerry Tillery (99) burgeoned the Irish interior depth by returning for one more season at Notre Dame. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

It is unlikely Coney and Tillery both returned only because head coach Brian Kelly promoted Lea to defensive coordinator and retained Mike Elston as defensive line coach. What matters is they did. It is also unlikely any of those factors were the deciding aspect for senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner opting to reverse course and enjoy a fifth year at Notre Dame. What matters is Bonner did.

With those luxuries, Lea will have eight players who started all 13 games this season to steer his way as a first-time coordinator. He will also have current senior cornerback Nick Watkins and sophomore Troy Pride, who combined for 13 starts as Pride filled in for an injured Watkins in the final month, and Coney, who technically started only seven games, though he split time with graduating senior Greer Martini all season.

That makes 10 veritable returning starters. If nothing else, sophomore safety Alohi Gilman will force his way into that mix now that he’s eligible following his transfer from Navy.

Compare those 10 to the recent past. Heading into 2017, the Irish returned two 12-game starters, Nyles Morgan and Drue Tranquill. Seven total returning defenders had started at least seven games in the dismal 2016 season.

Speaking of that 4-8 debacle, Notre Dame started that year with even less experience. Cornerback Cole Luke had started 13 games in the Fiesta Bowl-concluding 2015 campaign; defensive end Isaac Rochell claimed 12. After them, linebacker James Onwualu had started nine games and defensive tackle Daniel Cage had notched seven. That was it for playing time worth acknowledging.

Starts are somewhat arbitrary, though, as perhaps best illustrated by Coney technically having only seven to his name despite finishing as the defense’s leading tackler this season.

How vital were his, Tillery’s and Bonner’s return to Lea’s future? With the three of them, 10 of the leading 12 tacklers will be back in 2018. Looking backward once more, the Irish returned four of their eight leading tacklers entering the season opener against Temple. Want the quickest summary of the 2016 failure? Realize Notre Dame had only one of its top-five tacklers from the College Football Playoff contender the year before, and two of the top 10. NFL dreams, suspensions and injuries left that defense with neither experience nor production.

To anyone wondering if these statistics diminish a secondary’s impact — considering most defensive backs do not rack up tackle totals — the trends all apply there, as well. The Irish return six defensive backs who saw genuine playing time this season, plus Gilman. The safety play was inarguably disappointing, but that position will presumably not get worse. For thoroughness’ sake: Only two defensive backs had seen notable playing time heading into 2017, and only Cole Luke could claim such entering 2016.

Barring a rash of injuries or suspensions, this defense will be better in 2018. It returns too many pieces to propose otherwise, and experience this broad benefits all involved.

The easily-tracked indicators for coming success hardly even factor in the likes of freshman defensive tackle Kurt Hinish and his development. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

That can be said before even expecting increased contributions from current freshmen defensive tackles Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish, without pinning hopes to the quartet of incoming linebackers, including three who enrolled early, and without projecting further development from sophomore defensive ends Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara.

Two weeks ago, this defense faced the prospect of learning a new scheme with only two of its top-six tacklers returning. It may have needed to claim the secondary as its most-experienced position group, the only position group ever lampooned in 2017. Resetting despite a strong defensive season highlighted by back-to-back weeks of stymying top-flight offenses in mid-October was a disappointing prospect, to put it mildly.

Now, this defense has a chance to enjoy growth in consistency and excel at every level. Performances like those seen against USC and North Carolina State could conceivably become the norm.

Notre Dame’s Opponents: USC and Stanford lost the most in early departures to NFL

Getty Images
31 Comments

Notre Dame’s roster fared better than was anticipated when it came to players entering the NFL draft with remaining collegiate eligibility. Left guard Quenton Nelson was always expected to take the leap, as any possible top-five pick should. Running back Josh Adams may have considered returning to the Irish, but logic sent him to the pros, as well. Receiver Equanimeous St. Brown long seemed to be leaning that way.

Those were not surprises.

Getting both linebacker Te’von Coney and Jerry Tillery to return was a bit of a shock, and a welcome one for head coach Brian Kelly and his staff.

Of Notre Dame’s 2018 opponents, a few saw top-flight talent depart. Their coaches had assuredly hoped, with varying degrees of reasonability, such players would stay. These losses lower a team’s ceiling, but it does not necessarily spell trouble. USC will not altogether mind quarterback Sam Darnold hearing his name called early in the first round if incoming freshman — and reclassified recruit, at that, having actually been only a junior in high school this fall — J.T. Daniels proves to be the better coming of Matt Barkley.

Speaking of the Trojans, they lead a listing ordered by obvious impact lost:

USC: Not much more really needs to be said about Darnold. His 2017 was filled with stellar comebacks necessitated by poor decisions.
— Receiver Deontay Burnett: With 86 catches for 1,114 yards and nine touchdowns in 2017, it made sense for Burnett to test the next level. Eight of those catches went for 113 yards and a touchdown against the Irish. He had 56 catches for 622 yards and seven touchdowns a year ago.

Ronald Jones (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

— Running back Ronald Jones: Finishing his career with back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons and 39 career rushing touchdowns, Jones proved plenty at the college level. Notre Dame bottled him up this October, but he gashed the defense for 134 yards and a score on only 16 carries in 2016.
— Defensive end Rasheem Green: His final season with the Trojans featured 12.5 tackles for loss, including 10 sacks, amid 43 tackles.

Stanford: The Cardinal lost the core of its defense, but the early departure cost could have been much worse. Junior running back Bryce Love returned for another season, waiting until after the declaration deadline to make his decision public.

— Defensive tackle Harrison Phillips: Rarely does a defensive tackle lead his team in tackles, and rarely does a defensive tackle total more than 100 tackles. Phillips led the Cardinal with 103 tackles including 17 tackles for loss with 7.5 sacks. Stanford genuinely loses a force with his exit.
— Safety Justin Reid: Only Phillips made more tackles for the Cardinal than Reid’s 99. He added five interceptions and six more pass breakups. Against the Irish in November, Reid managed nine tackles, one sack and one pass breakup.
— Cornerback Quenton Meeks: Stanford lost its fifth-leading tackler, as well, with Meeks taking his 65 tackles away, along with two interceptions and eight pass breakups.
— Tight end Dalton Schultz: He could be a physical presence in the NFL, although he also displayed strong hands throughout his career, finishing 2017 with 22 catches for 212 yards and three touchdowns.

Florida State: The Seminoles may have had a disappointing season, but there was still plenty of talent on the roster. The defense, especially, held up its end of the bargain. Some of that left, but keep the talent pool in mind when Florida State is undoubtedly hyped in August.
— Safety Derwin James: The Seminoles’ No. 2 tackler with 84, including 5.5 for loss, James also tallied two interceptions with 11 pass breakups.
— Defensive end Josh Sweat: Trailing James, Sweat made 56 tackles, highlighted by 12.5 for loss with 5.5 sacks, adding 3 pass breakups to the slate.

Auden Tate. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

— Defensive end Jalen Wilkerson: Only 19 tackles may not jump off the page, but six of them were for loss.
— Cornerback Tarvarus McFadden: Providing strong coverage no matter whom Florida State faced, McFadden complemented 30 tackles with 10 pass breakups.
— Receiver Auden Tate: At 6-foot-5, Tate turned a quarter of his 40 catches into touchdowns. His 548 receiving yards were second on the team.
— Tight end Ryan Izzo: His 20 catches were not necessarily that many, but Izzo’s 317 receiving yards and three touchdowns were each third on the team.

Virginia Tech: If noticing an imbalance tilted toward defensive players heading to the NFL throughout this list, that reflects football as a whole. The League is willing to invest in defenders. Most offensive playmakers are seen as a bit more replaceable. On the college level, the best defenses carry teams to the College Football Playoff (see: Clemson), thus getting those individual stars more attention and raising their draft prospects.
— Linebacker Tremaine Edmunds: The Hokies’ leading tackler with 109, Edmunds also managed 14 for loss while notching 5.5 sacks.
— Safety Terrell Edmunds: Virginia Tech’s No. 5 tackler with 59, Edmunds added two interceptions and four pass breakups.
— Defensive tackle Tim Settle: 36 tackles with 12.5 for loss and four sacks this year.

Pittsburgh: The Panthers have made a habit of tripping up a top-ranked team each fall. Losing three contributors will not help that cause, but head coach Pat Narduzzi will certainly have Pittsburgh ready to go Oct. 13.
— Offensive tackle Brian O’Neill: After starting 13 games at right tackle a year ago, O’Neill moved to left tackle with little trouble in making 12 starts this season.
— Safety Jordan Whitehead: The Panthers’ No. 3 tackler, Whitehead added four pass breakups and an interception to his 60 tackles.
— Receiver Quadree Henderson: Only 17 catches for 186 yards is hardly something to speak of, but Henderson did return two punts for touchdowns this season and averaged 20.96 yards per kick return.

Jessie Bates (Photo by Mike Comer/Getty Images)

Wake Forest: Wherever safety Jessie Bates goes in the draft, Irish fans should take note. His development under former Demon Deacons and then Notre Dame and now Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mike Elko was exceptional. Elko may be gone, but his scheme remains. Any version of such development at safety could be the final piece to the Irish defense in the fall.

Healthy throughout 2016, Bates made 100 tackles with seven for loss and picked off five passes. Injuries slowed him toward the end of 2017.

Michigan: None of the other 2018 opponents had players head to the NFL before they had to, but it warrants mentioning the Wolverines didn’t in part because they had 11 drafted in 2017.

A quick breakdown of Notre Dame’s defensive roster

Associated Press
60 Comments

Following a week of moves to and from Notre Dame’s roster, most notably — certainly most positively — on the defensive side, a quick look at the numbers at each position can shine a light on the months to come. Just like last week’s brief glance at the offense, the order of this listing is not intended to stake a stance on positional competitions. (In other words, it doesn’t try to figure out the mess at safety.)

For the time being, the years listed remain those currently. There is no clean date to transition forward a grade in this space. Thus, when senior linebacker Drue Tranquill’s name shows up, it is because he will be around yet in 2018. This is intended to aid conversations and debates in-person and online as they pertain to the coming season. Looks further ahead with thoughts on eligibility concerns will be more focused at some point in the coming offseason.

One last note: In looking at the linebackers, do not be surprised if the experience gap is filled by Tranquill and rover becomes even more of a matchup-based concept. Spring practice should shed some light on that possibility.

As of this morning, the Irish roster has 84 names on it, expecting at least three more commitments by Feb. 7, if not a graduate transfer or two. As always, the NCAA allows a maximum of 85 come fall.

Defensive end (7):
So. Daelin Hayes
Sr. Jay Hayes
So. Khalid Kareem
So. Julian Okwara
So. Ade Ogundeji
Fr. Kofi Wardlow
Inc. fr. Justin Ademilola

Defensive tackle (8):
Jr. Jerry Tillery
Sr. Jonathan Bonner
Fr. Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa
Fr. Kurt Hinish
Fr. Darnell Ewell
Jr. Micah Dew-Treadway
Inc. fr. Ja’Mion Franklin
Inc. fr. Jayson Ademilola

Linebacker (8):
Jr. Te’von Coney
So. Jonathan Jones
So. Jamir Jones
Early-enrolled fr. Jack Lamb
Early-enrolled fr. Bo Bauer
Fr. Drew White
Fr. David Adams
Early-enrolled fr. Ovie Oghoufo

Rover (4):
Sr. Drue Tranquill
Jr. Asmar Bilal
Fr. Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah
Inc. fr. Shayne Simon

Cornerback (7):
So. Julian Love
Jr. Shaun Crawford
Sr. Nick Watkins
So. Troy Pride
So. Donte Vaughn
Inc. fr. Tariq Bracy
Inc. fr. Joe Wilkins, Jr.

Safety (11):
So. Alohi Gilman
Jr. Nick Coleman
Inc. fr. Derrik Allen
Early-enrolled fr. Houston Griffith
So. Jalen Elliott
So. Devin Studstill
Fr. Jordan Genmark-Heath
Fr. Isaiah Robertson
Jr. Nicco Fertitta
So. D.J. Morgan
Inc. fr. Paul Moala