Breaking down the Eagles

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My apologies for not getting to a opponent preview this week. I could give you a dozen different excuses, but I’m going with “my dog ate it.” It was a really great one, too. Instead, I offer you two different previews — one from the guys at Rakes of Mallows and the other from the guys at Blue-Gray Sky. I was actually about to email Bill from Eagle in Atlanta, because I’ve been reading his site in my RSS for a few months, but just as I was about to do it, I noticed he had already done a better Q&A with BGS and it’s much easier to link to an article about Boston College than to actually force myself to think about BC.

Ah… BC. The thorn in the side of Irish fans everywhere, even if it weren’t for the 6 straight wins against the Irish. What to make of this team, that is now coached by Magnum PI Frank Spaziani? Going into this season, it was pretty much assumed that the Eagles would be mediocre, having lost their top two defensive tackles, their All-American middle linebacker to cancer, and having no quarterback to speak of. Yet here’s BC, chugging along at 5-2 after trouncing former coach Tom O’Brien’s NC State Wolfpack and all of a sudden looking like a team that could give Notre Dame all it can handle.

What can the Irish expect? Well, let’s take a look at what BC has done this season, and maybe that’ll help us draw some conclusions.

Week One and Two: Cupcakes for everyone!

The Eagles opened up the season with a cakewalk against Northeastern. Putting Northeastern on the schedule makes Western Michigan look like the ’85 Bears. After the 54-0 blanking by BC, Northeastern has gone on to get beaten by at least double digits to Maine, Youngstown State, Villanova (by 49 points!), Holy Cross, and William & Mary. BC would’ve been better served playing their scout team, and the victory did nothing to settle the QB race between Justin Tuggle and former minor-league farmhand Dave Shinskie. Week two brought the Kent State Golden Flashes, which sounds like a bad pharmaceutical commercial joke. The Eagles scored 24 points in the first half, sprinted out to a 34 point lead after three quarters and both Shinskie and Tuggle continued to split time, neither taking the reins on the job.

Week Three: Reality served cold.

It doesn’t get much uglier for the BC offense. They managed only 4 first downs and 54 total yards for the entire game. The Eagles managed one first down the first 43 minutes of the game — and that was by penalty. Tuggle played his way out of a job going 4 for 20 with 3 interceptions, and Boston College looked like a team that ran went for a leisure jog for the first two weeks of the season instead of playing football games. Going on the road into a hostile environment proved fatal.

Week Four and Five: Building confidence

And now we begin to see the pesky nature of the Eagles. After putting nothing together offensively against Clemson, Spaziani goes to the bullpen (I had to) and starts Shinskie. The 25-year-old freshman responds with a great performance, going 18 of 29 for 228 yards and 3 TD passes, and the Eagles hold on for dear life to win an overtime thriller against Wake Forest. 

Shinskie continued his solid play with another nice day against the Florida State Seminoles, and Montel Harris had his coming out party this season with 25 carries for 179 yards including a long touchdown run in the 4th quarter after the Seminoles had charged back to tie the game. It’s tough to say anything negative about a win against Florida State, but for the 2nd week in a row the Eagles let an opponent get back into a game that was in hand (sound familiar, Irish fans?) before pulling it out.

Week Six: Falling off the horse

It’s tough to find any positives about BC’s performance in Blacksburg. The Hokies were up 34-0 at halftime, and once again the Eagle offense looked punchless, managing only two first downs and 28 yards through 3 quarters. Shinkie went 1 for 12 throwing the ball before being pulled for freshman quarterback Mike Marscovetra, and Bud Foster’s V-Tech defense strangled both the running and passing attack of Boston College, only giving up yardage once the game was well in hand in the 4th.

Week Seven: Getting back up

The Jekyll and Hyde nature of the Eagles offense brought good things last week for Boston College as Montel Harris ran for over 100 yards in the first half and a record-breaking 264 for the day. Shinksie played an efficient game, and the passing game got a few big plays as well, racking up 480 total yards of offense and forcing three turnovers.

So where does that get us?

Boston College has played three good/decent teams, and they’ve been dominated by two of them. (I’m calling Wake Forest good, just for the sake of doing it.) Their victory over NC State could look impressive, but taking a closer look at the Wolfpack, you’ll see that they’ve managed to beat Pitt and… well, that’s about it.

Yet here’s what we know about the Irish. They have an ability to play to their opponents level pretty regularly and have managed to make every quarterback they’ve played (with the exception of Colin Kaepernick) look like an All-American. Quite literally. The past five passers Notre Dame has faced put up a QB efficiency rating of 146.30, nearly 10 full points better than Colt McCoy. The 8.5 yards per attempt these QBs are putting up against the woeful Irish passing defense would be good for 13th in the country, meaning we’re much more likely to see the Shinskie that rates 150.49 at home than the Shinskie that has a negative -11 QB rating on the road, even if Notre Dame stadium is 890 miles away from the friendly confines of Chestnut Hill.

What should we expect this week? A relatively easy victory by a Notre Dame football team that’s in a different class than the undermanned Boston College Eagles. Yet we could say that nearly every year, and Notre Dame fans know where that’s gotten them over the past twenty or so years. Still, Jon Tenuta has a great knowledge of both head coach Frank Spaziani and offensive coordinator Gary Tranquill, so you’d hope that the defensive troops would be well-informed on what their opponents are going to do. Still, it’s hard not to think that the Irish will be coming out flat, and if you look at the discussion this week around the net, there’s still a visible hangover from the deflating loss to the Trojans last weekend.

But if the Irish can’t get up for a game against Boston College, who can they get up for? And while we’ve got no idea what kind of team the Eagles have, any time you’ve got a running back that’s putting up numbers like Montel Harris, and a quarterback with full use of his throwing arm, you’ll have to hold your breath and see what happens come Saturday. 

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line

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Heading into spring practice, a quick look was taken at each position group in order of “expected level of interest or question marks,” from least interesting to most, as dictated by an “Inside the Irish” reader. That series concluded with the defensive line.

Exiting spring practice, let’s reprise that premise and reverse the order. If the defensive line triggered the most questions, then answering them first seems to make some version of sense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
“Will enough defensive linemen prove themselves deserving of playing time to create a viable threat up front?” this space asked. “If so, who will those linemen be?”

RELATED READING: One day until spring practice: A look at the defensive line

Aside from senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26 tackles last season, 0.5 for loss), senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss amid a season lost largely to concussion) and junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37, 3), the Irish defensive line had little track record to cite or rely upon for confidence. Leading the unknowns and unprovens were sophomore ends Daelin Hayes, who recorded 11 tackles in 2016, and Julian Okwara (4).

The lack of depth and experience was apparent heading into the 15 spring practices.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
Look past the 11 sacks in the Blue-Gold Game. Intrasquad scrimmages featuring red-jerseyed quarterbacks make for inexact and context-less statistics. There is some value, however, in noting the defensive line got within reach of the quarterback at least eight times in an abbreviated game. (Three “sacks” came from the linebacker corps.)

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, just buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

RELATED READING: What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

Hayes led the way with three sacks, and he will be expected to continue that in the fall, starting at the weakside/rush defensive end spot. Exiting spring, though, only he and Tillery solidified themselves as starters. Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Mike Elko claimed a successful spring for the front.

“I’m happy with our defensive line progress,” Elko said Friday. “Obviously there was a lot written about that group. I’m happy about the progress they’ve made this spring. I think [defensive line coach] Mike [Elston] has done a good job developing them. I think they are buying into the way we want to play defense. There’s probably four to five guys on the inside that are starting to get into a position where we feel comfortable that they can step in and help us.” (more…)

Brian Kelly & Jack Swarbrick on Notre Dame’s changes moving forward

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Whether 2016’s disappointing 4-8 finish was the impetus to program-wide alterations at Notre Dame this offseason, it certainly underscored the need. For the last few months, Irish coach Brian Kelly has focused those changes on himself and self-assessment, and he reiterated that approach when talking with PFT Live’s Mike Florio early Monday morning.

“This is my 27th year of being a head coach, and prior to last year I had one losing season,” Kelly said. “You have a way of doing things, you have a system in place, you follow that year after year. Certainly you make tweaks along the way, but this is the first time where I’ve really taken a step back and made substantial changes in terms of how I’m doing things on a day-to-day basis…

“From my perspective, after being at it as long as I have, you have to take it on yourself that you’re the one that needs to make the corrections. It’s not the players.”

None of this is new. Kelly has been consistent in his springtime messaging, but others have looked past the effects of the 4-8 record and insist the changes were coming regardless of the win-loss totals. Senior captain Drue Tranquill, for example, acknowledged the severity of the losing record Friday but argued adjustments were needed no matter what the final scores were.

“If you have an average season like 8-4, some things might carry over to the next season,” Tranquill said the day before the spring practice finale. “Whereas when you go 4-8, something has to change.

“But I think even at Notre Dame, 8-4 is never really acceptable or tolerated. Those things that were taking place, just within our culture, would have been noticed whether we were 10-3, 4-8. The criticism gave it a lot more hype and juice. We could kind of feel as guys in the program throughout the past three years that certain things needed to change.

“Those things were finally brought to light and it happened to be during a 4-8 season. I don’t necessarily know that 4-8 was the reason all this change happened.”

New Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko expressed a similar sentiment Friday morning, discussing the pressure moving forward.

“If we were coming off a 12-0 season in which we were competing for the national championship, there would be pressure on us at Notre Dame to be successful this year,” Elko said. “That’s Notre Dame.”

Elko has been a quick study, as his comments were echoed the next day by Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick during NBC Sports Network’s broadcast of the Blue-Gold Game.

“We expect to compete for national championships and 4-8 is not acceptable,” Swarbrick said. “On the other hand, when you’re in that situation, you have to decide how you’re going to move forward. We decided to move forward by making a major investment in retooling our program with Brian as the leader of it. That’s not a one-year investment for us. We brought in some talented assistant coaches. We rebuilt elements of the program

“We view it as a multi-year investment going forward.”

KELLY ON RECRUITING PITCH
Using this week’s NFL Draft as a peg, Florio also asked Kelly about balancing players’ NFL aspirations with team success both in the recruiting process and during the actual season.

“We have to talk more in terms of process over production,” Kelly responded. “We talk in terms of you’re coming to Notre Dame for a reason. You’re going to get a degree, which will set you up for the rest of your life, and you’re going to play on the grandest stage at Notre Dame, so everybody will see you.

“As long as there’s the balance there—and there has to be that balance in terms of getting your education and playing for championships—then we’re okay. It’s when that balance is out of whack, we’ll have an issue. We vet that out in the recruiting process and make sure we don’t take any kids that are coming to Notre Dame just because they’re waiting for that [junior] year to complete so they can go to the draft.”

A reminder: The NFL Draft begins with its first round Thursday night. Kelly will be joining former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer at the draft in Philadelphia to await Kizer’s destination and future employer.

MISSED THE BLUE-GOLD GAME?
It is available for streaming: here.

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?

What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

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Time spent on a traditional game wrap of a spring intrasquad exhibition seems misspent. Gold won Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game 27-14 led by rising sophomore quarterback Ian Book. The first-string defense (Gold) held the first-string offense to an average of 5.4 yards per play. For context’s sake: Last season Notre Dame gained an average of 6.1 yards per play and held opponents to 5.4.

With that abbreviated recap out of the way, what did Saturday’s pseudo-game environment show about the Irish? If the 20,147 in attendance paid attention, they had the chance to learn a few things:

Daelin Hayes will be ready to hit a quarterback in September
Notre Dame’s quarterbacks were off limits all spring. Bulls might charge when they see red, but the Irish defensive line has had to remember to ease up when they come across a quarterback’s red jersey. If sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes had forgotten that Saturday, Notre Dame might not have any quarterbacks left to play in the fall.

“At the end of the day, we’re on the same team,” Hayes said, dismissing any bitterness about the quarterbacks’ protections. “We have to keep our guys healthy. I wasn’t frustrated, but come September 2, you know.”

Officially, Hayes was credited with three sacks and another tackle for loss among his seven tackles. Admittedly, gauging sacks is tricky when the quarterback does not actually go to the ground. How many of Hayes’ three sacks and the defense’s 11 total would have been evaded if the defender needed to do more than touch the passer? That answer is highly subjective, but discounting Hayes’ numbers would miss the bigger picture.

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

Senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) notched two sacks and sophomore end Ade Ogundeji came the closest to tackling a red jersey when he stripped junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush from behind. The defensive line has been expected to be a weak point for the Irish moving forward, but the spring performance indicates it has a chance at holding its own. These accomplishments bear further merit considering Notre Dame’s offensive line is widely-considered one of its few spots of expected quality.

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

“I think it’s pretty clear Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I’d have to watch the film, but it seemed like [sophomore end] Julian Okwara was a hard guy to block coming off the edge, as well.”

Ian Book provides some peace of mind
Book was not spectacular, but he was also far from incompetent or intimidated. In his first action on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, Book completed 18-of-25 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by a 58-yard connection with sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. Meanwhile, junior Brandon Wimbush completed 22-of-32 passes for 303 yards.

Bluntly, one has not needed to follow Notre Dame for very long to fit that “long enough” qualification. Last season’s backup, Malik Zaire, saw competitive action against both Texas and Stanford. In 2015, DeShone Kizer came off the bench to start 11 games after Zaire suffered a season-ending ankle injury. (more…)