And in that corner… the Washington State Cougars

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It’s got to be tough right now for Washington State Cougar fans. Outside of an overtime victory against SMU, things have been pretty bleak this season for the Cougs. If you take a look at the national stats, it’s not too hard to figure out why Wazzou has been struggling. They’ve got a spot in the bottom ten teams in just about every statistical category across the board, minus punting, where Reid Forrest is averaging almost 44 yards per punt.

Sean Hawkins has been covering Washington State football since 2004. He’s seen plenty of dark skies, and hopefully he’s channeling his inner-Harvey Dent right now. (Not with the Two-Face thing, but with the “the night is always darkest just before the dawn,” attitude.) He’s written at FanHouse covering Pac-10 football, and headlines the staff over at the aptly named WSU Football Blog, so if anyone has a pulse for this football team, it’d be him.

We exchanged a few questions and answers (some fairly long questions and answers) and here’s what this Saturday’s game looks like from his corner.

Inside the Irish: So it’s been a tough season. What’s morale like for Cougars fans?

Sean Hawkins: It has been a tough season-and-a-half if you want to know
the truth. It started in ’08 with some epic losses (69-0 vs. USC, 66-3 vs Cal,
63-14 vs. Oregon). There has been some improvement in ’09, but with unbelievable
injury issues, and an alarming drop in depth and game-ready talent has all
played a part in a 3-17 stretch since the beginning of 2008. Overall, there has
been some wavering optimism, not all that surprising given the struggles. But
the hardcore fans have hung in there. They know and understand the situation
when Paul Wulff took over the program, and it has become painfully clear on a
weekly basis that there is a long way to go!

ITI: Where did it all go
wrong? Do you go back to Mike Price leaving?

SH: Price’s departure was a huge
blow to a program that finally looked like it was turning the corner. In 2002,
WSU won the Pac-10 (the last Pac-10 team other than USC to represent the
conference in the Rose Bowl), but that season was the first time in Price’s
tenure that the program had consecutive winning seasons. We all know what
happened next – Price bolted for a date with Destiny in ‘Bama, and is still
unbeaten as the head coach of the Crimson Tide…..but the problem was leaving
the program in the hands of Bill Doba.

At the time it all went down,
Doba looked like the right move. Many key players were coming back in 2003, and
Doba was widely respected in the coaching ranks. Doba is a fantastic human
being, classy and gracious all throughout his tenure. But he wasn’t exactly the
head coach to keep things going long-term. Some of this were terrible personal
issues as his wife Judy lost a long, draining battle with cancer. But Doba had
been an assistant coach for decades, and suddenly was thrust into being the man
to keep the program on the upswing. Long term, it just didn’t work out, and started to
really fall apart at the end. Not only did they miss on some big recruiting
targets, but academics suffered, and WSU paid dearly with a BCS-high 8
scholarships lost due to the NCAA APR rule. Even worse, there were a reported 25
arrestable offenses by players during Doba’s final 18 months as head coach. So
back to your question? It really did start with Price’s departure, but you have to combine his departure with the fact that the program wasn’t left
in the best hands for long-term success.

ITI: Is Paul Wulff the man for the job?

SH: The verdict is still out on this one. First, one must appreciate
the backstory of Paul Wulff.
He is one of our own, a former center on the team in the late
80’s.  He played under Jim Walden, Dennis Erickson and Mike Price, and
was a good, tough player who got by on smarts and grit instead of raw
talent.  He has been through the Pullman experience as a player, and many
believe he knows what it takes to build a winner at WSU.  H
e
has had a lot of personal tragedy of his own, losing his mother at an early age
to murder, a murder in which his own father was the prime suspect until the day
he died. They never did find her body, and the crime went unsolved. Later in his
life, Wulff lost his first wife to cancer. So he has dealt with a considerable
amount of tragedy that no man should have to experience in his life, and all at
a fairly young age.


Wulff is regarded as a man of high character,
and he has gone to great lengths to 
install  a tough, structured, disciplined
program that is beginning to take shape. Several first-and-second year players
are moving up the depth chart, as coach Wulff has put together some very good
recruiting classes. The hardcore fan believes in the long-term approach of
building the program up with years of strong recruiting classes, where they can
put together layers and layers of depth and, ultimately, compete for postseason
play on a yearly basis.


That said, there is a contingent that believes
this may not work out. The naysayers will point out that while Wulff was
successful in the Big Sky conference prior to coming to WSU, winning a few
  conference titles as well as coach of the
year honors on multiple occasions, well, he hasn’t yet shown he can do it on the
BCS level. And the way they have lost some games, where they have been
absolutely buried early and often, has turned off some of the fan base.


Some describe the situation as a little uneasy, as Wulff has intimated
on more than one occasion that the former coaching staff should
shoulder much of
the blame for the team’s current struggles. Meanwhile, WSU is in the final
stages of a fundraising campaign that would complete a phase III renovation of
Martin Stadium, giving WSU much-needed revenue streams with premium seating to
help them maintain their standing in the Pac-10. 
Go to
Martinstadium.org for more!  Operators are standing by.  🙂 
But they aren’t there yet. While it looks promising, some of the
losses on the field
combined
with a brutal economy 
haven’t exactly helped the fundraising
cause off the field.


The true measure of Wulff will be what the team
does in 2011. By then, his first two
 recruiting classes will be
upperclassmen, and then it will be fair to judge his abilities as a BCS coach.
But we just aren’t there yet.

ITI: The Irish have done a very nice job
making freshman quarterbacks look good. Do you expect Jeff Tuel to do the same?
What WRs will be putting up monster numbers this week for the Cougs?

SH: Jeff
Tuel was a fantastic find by the WSU coaching staff. Tuel didn’t even start at
QB until his senior year in high school, but he burst onto the scene with
an impressive combo of mobility and a
strong, accurate arm. The true frosh turned a lot of heads during fall camp, and
combined with the struggles of the QB’s ahead of him, Tuel was the starter by
the end of September.


As to what he will do this Saturday? It is still
hard to tell. Tuel’s experience has been 1) some success in garbage time vs.
USC, 2) a di
sasterous start at Oregon where he didn’t even make
it out of the first quarter, 3) a run-for-your-life performance vs. ASU, and
finally, 4) a breakthrough performance vs. Cal where he threw for 354 yards with
two Td’s and zero turnovers.


A huge issue early in Tuel’s play were some
major injury problems on the offensive line. The Cougs’ lost three starters up
front, replaced by young, not-ready-for-prime-time players. However, vs. Cal
last week, a couple of capable offensive linemen in Zack Williams and Steven
Ayers returned to action. Their presence helped keep young Tuel upright and able
to not only makes some good reads, but stand tall in the pocket and deliver the
ball to the right players at the right time.


As to his weapons, well,
they are young, young, young! Jared Karstetter is one starter, a tall, strong
sophomore we
hope will turn
into
Jeff Smardzjilla, minus the mullet of course. True frosh Gino
Simone was the top recruit in the state of Washington last year, and is emerging
as
one  of
Tuel’s favorite targets. Newcomer Johnny Forzani, a junior transfer from Canada
who never even played high school football, has become the primary deep target.
He set a Pac-10 record with a 99-yard TD vs. ASU, and hauled in a gorgeous
68-yard score last week vs. Cal. It is a good, productive, young base of
wideouts that has the fans excited for what is to come.


ITI:
Is this game a
big deal for Wazzou? Does going to San Antonio and playing Notre Dame move the
needle for fans and players or is this just another game?

SH: Absolutely
moves the needle! They will be sky-high for this one, playing on national TV
against the most storied program in college football. This will be the closest
to a bowl game that these kids will experience for some time, so they will
definitely be JACKED for this one!

ITI: If you were playing the probability
game, what are the chances WSU walks out a winner?

SH: Slim to none. Sure,
it’s possible, I mean who thought Syracuse could win @ Notre Dame last year
(sorry)? But see, Vegas has this thing at Notre Dame giving 30. Those guys tend
to know what they are doing. It is their mortgage riding on being right more
times than not! I can’t imagine 30-point dogs come out a winner too
often?

ITI: What’s the recipe for an upset?

SH: Turnovers and a fast start
would be probably the only way an upset could go down. WSU has improved in the
takeaway department from last year, now ranking among the Pac-10 leaders in
interceptions and fumble recoveries. But the slow starts are a huge problem, one
they haven’t come close to figuring out. WSU hasn’t scored a TD in the first
quarter of any game this year, and you have to go back to almost a year ago to
when they actualy hit paydirt in the first 15 minutes (vs Arizona
, 11/8/08).

I
think it would take something shocking, like a lightning-quick score or two
early, combined with some Irish mistakes
  giving WSU some confidence. And Notre
Dame is going to have to come out flat. But you just never know what 18-22 year
olds are going to do on a weekly basis. 
It’s probably easy to
assume
Notre Dame won’t be taking WSU seriously, so, who
knows.

If you’ve made it this far, be sure to check out our Q&A over at the WSU Football blog where we discuss hard-hitting topics like JC’s future with the Irish, the state of the Irish passing defense, Armando, Rudy, Te’o, and Kyle, as well as the Charlie Weis hot-seat debate… I even break tradition and give a prediction for the first time this season.

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.

 

Tranquill continues work with safeties … for now

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Drue Tranquill will see time at the oft-spoken of rover position, just not yet. For now, Notre Dame needs the senior at safety to provide leadership and communication while the rest of his position group gets up to speed.

“We really have to figure out what the coordination is going to be at the safety position,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “How much does Drue play down at rover? How much does he play back [at safety]?”

Only sophomore Devin Studstill returns any starts to the safety position aside from Tranquill’s career total of 18. Studstill started nine games last season.

That void has kept Tranquill working mostly with the defensive backs in the spring’s first few practices, rather than joining the likes of junior Asmar Bilal in the rover grouping.

“We didn’t want to pull our most veteran player out of the back end of our defense with Drue,” Kelly said. “I think it was more about the hesitancy of losing a great communicator in the back end than about the teaching.”

The time will come, however, for Tranquill to move up. Juniors Nick Coleman and Ashton White have moved to safety from the corner position. With more reps, they will not need to rely on Tranquill’s guidance as much. The same goes for, at least in theory, sophomore Jalen Elliott.

“It’s not really a heavy load of teaching for those guys,” Kelly said. “They’re picking it up quite well. We really want to get a chance to see a lot of guys back there.”

Kelly seemed particularly bullish on Coleman’s prospects at the position, provided he embrace the needed physicality. At 6-foot, 187 pounds, Coleman’s build may have been more suited on the outside, but Notre Dame’s plethora of promising cornerbacks provided an impetus to test Coleman at safety.

“The big thing will be Nick’s continuous development in tackling,” Kelly said. “You have to tackle back there. His ball skills are really good. We’ve seen that he’s able to play the ball. He has athleticism.

“We just want to continue to build on his tackling skills. If we go through the spring and say, ‘Well, he’s tackling really well,’ we’ll feel pretty good about the move.”

At that point, Tranquill will likely join Bilal at the hybrid position, which is something of a trademark to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Tranquill will be able to do what he does best: Pursue the ball.

“We all know what his strengths are,” Kelly said. “He’s a solid tackler. I don’t think there’s any safety in college football that wants to get matched up one-on-one with a skilled slot receiver. This would minimize that, when you play him close to the ball as a rover.

“And I think he’s pretty quick off the edge. I think we put him in a really good position in maximizing his skill set.”

Until then, Bilal will continue to be the frontrunner at rover, especially with the first four Irish opponents of 2017 presenting run-heavy offenses.

KELLY ON NICK WATKINS
Kelly was also asked about senior cornerback Nick Watkins, his fit into Elko’s defense and his return from injury.

“He’s very coachable, wants to learn, he’s pretty long,” Kelly said. “What I think Mike [Elko] does really well—and this is what I liked about my interactions with him—is, we all have strengths and weaknesses. He has a great eye of saying let’s take Nick’s strengths and let’s put him in a position where we can really utilize his strengths and put him in a position where maybe we’re not a right and left corner team, maybe we’re a short field/wide field team. Let’s apply him in that fashion.

“Nick’s long. He’s a little bit of a physical player. Let’s go to those strengths. He’s shown some of those attributes early on.”

RELATED READING:
Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover position, others likely to follow
2 Days Until Spring Practice: A look at the defensive backfield

Kraemer, Eichenberg compete for RT spot, moving Bars inside, and Bivin to…

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Forty percent of the offensive line is essentially set in stone: fifth-year senior Mike McGlinchey at left tackle and senior Quenton Nelson at right guard.

The center position seems to be senior Sam Mustipher’s to lose.

That leaves the two starting spots on the right side of the line for a number of players—both young and experienced—to fight over.

Sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg have emerged as the frontrunners for the right tackle spot, moving senior Alex Bars inside to right guard. Bars started all 12 games last season at right tackle.

“Those two [Kraemer and Eichenberg] are the guys we have mapped out at right tackle, and they’re going to battle,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “Today Kraemer was there. Last two practices Eichenberg got a lot of the work. Eichenberg will go back there on Friday. They’re going to keep battling and splitting the action out there.”

Part of the reasoning in giving the two sophomores extended looks this spring is Notre Dame knows what it has in Bars when at right tackle.

“We would prefer to get him in at the guard position, but we know he can play the [tackle] position,” Kelly said.

A starting five of McGlinchey, the three seniors and either sophomore may seem to leave fifth-year lineman Hunter Bivin out in the cold. Not often is a player asked to return for a fifth year only to spend it on the bench. That is even more rare when considering the current Irish scholarship crunch.

Kelly compared Bivin’s role to that of Mark Harrell’s last year. Harrell appeared in all 12 games, starting two, and provided much needed depth and flexibility along the offensive line. Rather than have five backup offensive linemen, position coach Harry Hiestand relied on Harrell to provide support at multiple spots.

“It’s reasonable to assume that Hunter Bivin’s going to be involved in this as well,” Kelly said. “We’ve just asked Hunter to take a seat right now. He’s done that for the team.

“We think Hunter is going to be a Mark Harrell for us. A guy that’s extremely valuable, can play a number of positions. We trust him, but we want to see these two young players [Kraemer and Eichenberg]. Hunter is a guy that can play right or left tackle for us. He’s going to be a valuable player for us as a swing guy.”

On that note, this space will refer to Bivin as a fifth-year lineman, as was done above, rather than as a guard or as a tackle, until further notice. In his case, the broader description may be the most accurate.

Spring break out west is fine, but Wimbush better be ready to run

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It will undoubtedly become a habit, at least for the next five-plus months. If Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush sneezes in front of a camera, it just might lead to an uptick in webmd.com traffic. His every football move will certainly be analyzed, nitpicked and discussed at length. Thus, Irish coach Brian Kelly being asked about Wimbush’s spring break should surprise no one.

Rather than find a Florida beach, Wimbush spent his spring break working with private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield in San Diego alongside a handful of other college passers. Kelly said there is value to such a spring break but stopped short of setting any lofty expectations of the effects.

“I have no problem with [Wimbush] working out with George Whitfield,” Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice, the first following spring break and the third of 14 leading into the Blue-Gold Game on April 22. “George doesn’t work on the specifics to the offense. George is really working on the quarterback and throwing the football, moving in the pocket. George is really good at keeping those quarterbacks active and moving.”

Whitfield is best-known around Notre Dame and among Irish fans for working with former Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson during Golson’s academic suspension in 2013. Whitfield and Golson spent 10 weeks together, thus granting time for extensive off-field activities such as film study. Far shorter, Wimbush’s time out west appears to have been spent primarily doing drills.

“In those situations, it’s a bullpen session,” Kelly said. “They’re keeping their arms loose, they’re keeping their feet loose. He’s just keeping them active.”

It is hard to construe that activity as a negative, but it obviously lacks certain aspects crucial to Wimbush’s 2017 season. With only five career pass attempts and seven career rushes, Wimbush’s inexperience looms large. Developing the necessary intangibles to account for that may be just as, if not more, important as fitting his throws into tight windows.

“When it comes to the playbook, to his teammates, to his coaches here, Brandon understands that when the rubber hits the road, those are the guys that matter the most,” Kelly said. “He knows when it’s time for Notre Dame football, where the focus is.”

Included in that playbook will be an expectation for Wimbush to carry the ball. To date, Wimbush’s biggest play and possibly only imprint on most Notre Dame fans’ memories is a 58-yard touchdown scamper against Massachusetts in 2015.

Link to 17-second YouTube video which has unfortunately disabled embedding

Note, the play is not exclusively-designed for Wimbush to run. Now a rising junior, then a fellow freshman, running back Josh Adams comes across Wimbush’s front for a possible handoff. Instead, Wimbush makes the correct read and keeps the ball. Why state so clearly it was the proper read? Adams has to evade a Texas defender even though he never had the ball.

Future option plays should present Wimbush with the possibility of throwing the ball, too.

“He’ll be a runner in the offense,” Kelly said. “Do we want him to carry the ball 20 times? No.”

“I don’t think you’ll have a situation where we’re calling quarterback power or singular runs. He’s going to have options: hand it off, throw the ball out on the perimeter. You’ll see more of that than you will prescribed quarterback runs. We had a little bit more of that last year with Kizer, but I think you’ll see that he has an option to get the ball out of his hands more so than just prescribed runs.”

Those option plays, in particular, will require Wimbush to have a thorough familiarity both with the Notre Dame playbook and with his teammates’ tendencies.

RITA LEE OR 52-53?
Staying consistent with his comments over the last two months, Kelly once again reiterated the biggest changes new offensive coordinator Chip Long will bring to the Irish playbook will be in its wording. Perhaps going to an extreme example to illustrate his thinking, Kelly pointed to the future.

“We’re going to win next year and Chip is going to be the greatest offensive coordinator in the country and he’s going to get a head job, right?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “Then I’m not going to introduce the Chip Long offense to the next offensive coordinator.”

“It has to have my culture in it … The culture of the offense is still the base offense that I have always run because I have to be able to carry that with me from year to year.”

Within that ellipsis, Kelly gave two examples of possible verbiage changes. Without knowing much more behind them, they do not mean too much out here in the cobwebs of the internet, but they do provide a quick glimpse at what Kelly has been referring to when discussing lexicon since hiring Long.

“If he wants to change Ringo Lucky protection to Ram and Lion protection, go right ahead. If he wants to change certain calls, for example, 52-53 protection is now Rita Lee.”

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4 Days Until Spring Practice: A Look at QBs (Brandon Wimbush)
Pace of Play: More Snaps Equal More Scoring Chances, Right?