Thoughts on the Presser

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Charlie Weis met with the media Sunday to wrap up the Boston College game and was pretty candid with his thoughts. Here are the greatest hits.

* Weis was asked to talk about the evolution of Armando Allen, who has quietly built himself into a very solid all-purpose running back, in many ways similar to his predecessor, Darius Walker.

He’s kind of a lot of elements of Darius. He’s a little faster than
Darius, but Darius, he had one skill that was underrated; he was very
good at pre-snap reads of fronts, therefore he knew where to run with
the football. I think that Armando is a little bit different in that
he’s a stronger runner for his size, but there are a lot of elements
there.

When Armando Allen first came to Notre Dame, many thought the Irish were getting a back that had the chance to break a long one every time he touched it. That certainly hasn’t been the case with Allen, but he has become a dependable running back that’s be one of the Irish’s toughest interior runners. I still haven’t given up on the big play with Armando, only because he’s made such great developmental strides this season, and I expect to see even more during his senior season.

* Weis was asked about the divergent directions the Notre Dame defense is moving with regards to run stopping and pass coverage, and was later asked to expound on the problems of the secondary. I’ll just do a little cutting together, and give you all the relevant comments made in regards to stopping the pass.

When you stop the run, you leave yourself vulnerable
in the pass. But you have to find a happy medium because what we can’t
do, as much as our run defense has improved for the last four and a
half games let’s say, where it’s just gotten better in good production,
we have to get some things fixed in coverage because they’re not just
getting yards, they’re getting too many easy yards.

I really believe our best play on defense is yet to come. I think at
the beginning of the year we had a whole bunch of problems. I think
that we had problems stopping the run, we had problems giving up
chunks, we were giving up a lot of points. We had a whole bunch of
problems.
 
Slowly but surely we’re starting to solve some of these
problems to the point now — remember, defense gives up two touchdowns
in that game… The defense gives up 14 points in that game. You’d have
to say most games you play, you give up 14, you’re going to win. It
doesn’t make a difference who you’re playing against. Most times you’d
have to assume that the defense holds them to 14, you’re going to come
out on top.

At least now what I understand the problems are, if I thought the
problems for the most part were just no good, it would be a bigger
problem with — we’d have to fix it. And I would think that with the
exception of about one ball that clearly was a jump-ball situation
where anyone could have — either guy could have made the play or could
have knocked it down, all the other plays were just a high-low, getting
beat inside, more technique things than anything else.

And I
think that because I know now what the coverage are and the answers to
the test, I think there are some things that — like I said, we’ve
previously already addressed today. There’s some things that we can do
to try to get that number down.

There’s a lot here, and there’s even more that we’ll get to later in the week when the video team can get us some visual aids to help better understand what the problem(s) is (are). I think some of the adjustments the Irish made to shore up the run defense might have hurt the passing D, so hearing Weis speak about a “happy medium” is encouraging. Also encouraging is Weis saying he understands the problems.

To me, they’re pretty obvious. This is a team playing a lot of Cover 2. Unfortunately, they play a shoddy Cover 2. Going back to Weis’ “hang your hat,” comment, if you’re hanging your hat on a coverage scheme that you’re mediocre at playing, well — that’s why you’re giving up explosive plays by the dozen.

The coverage was better Saturday, even if it didn’t feel like it. And as the defensive backs get better at knowing their roles, they’ll get better at making plays on the football. It may feel like baby steps, but the Irish have two weeks against mediocre passing defenses to get things figured out.

* Mr. Floyd is close. Very close.

We’re waiting for that CAT scan a week from Monday or Tuesday and we’ll
see how that goes. Look, Michael and I — my guess is that the CAT scan
is going to come back and say, okay, he’s healthy enough to go.
Now, every week longer you wait is better. Every week longer after
you’ve been cleared to go is better. But then I think it’ll come a
point where the doctors say to Michael and myself, okay, it’s your
decision, realizing the longer you wait, the better it is. Knowing me,
I’ll leave it on Michael, and knowing Michael, he’ll want to get out
there as quick as he possibly can. We’ll just have to wait and see how it goes. We don’t want to be stupid
here. But we’ll just have to wait and see what the CAT scan says first
before we jump to any conclusions.

As a fan, I can’t tell you how excited I am to see the Notre Dame offense back at full throttle. With Floyd back across from Tate, I expect the offense to be in a different stratosphere. All the complaints about Rudolph disappearing and the red zone struggles, I expect those to be silenced.

* After Ben Turk’s performance, the punting competition has reopened.

I had that discussion with Brian this morning, and I think after what
we saw in the game, yes, I think we have to at least let Eric have a
shot in practice and see how it goes.

I’ve mentioned before how important field position has been, but our friends over at Blue-Gray Sky had a nice nugget illustrating just how badly ND’s specialist play has hurt.

The Irish continued to lose field position on the exchange of
possessions due to inferior special teams play. BC averaged 42.0 yards
per punt to the Irish’s 32.7 average. BC had two punts of 50+ yards; ND
had none. BC had three punts downed inside the 20; ND had one.
Additionally, Boston College’s second touchdown drive started at the 44
following poor coverage on the opening kickoff of the second half. I
would probably peg the cumulative field position advantage BC obtained
through superior special teams play as comparable to a turnover or two.

ND needs to figure out a way to get this problem figured out. Whether it’s scouring the soccer team for a kickoff man or just getting the cobwebs between the ears of the punter cleaned out, the Irish have to get a better performance out of their kickoff man and punter.

* I probably got 100 comments asking where Shaq Evans was on Saturday. Rumors swirled that he was in the doghouse, but it turns out he just wasn’t in the offensive game plan.

There’s not a disciplinary issue. There was a sickness issue where he
came back from — came back and had spent some time in the infirmary
and stuff, and then Thursday before the USC game was the first time he
had been back to practice. So he really wasn’t ready to play in the
game plan for that game.
 
In this game plan he was ready to play
in the game plan as an outside receiver, but it was for Duval, and
Duval actually had one of his better games, so I wasn’t looking to get
Duval off the field the way Duval had a lot of production for us in
that game yesterday for us.

People had high hopes for Evans, but it’s been clear that he isn’t quite ready to step onto the field for the Irish yet. I’ve got to say that I was surprised — shocked, actually — that Robby Toma was playing before Evans, but it makes sense if we take Weis at his word that Toma’s a slot guy and Shaq’s an outside guy.  

Spring positions to watch for revelations: DL & WR

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

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

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

For now, though, Pagano remains a theoretical

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WR Lenzy makes 11th commitment, brings speed to Irish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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