And in that corner… the UConn Huskies

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It’s tough not to cheer for UConn. After what the school has gone through in the month since Jasper Howard was murdered, the football team has seen games slip from their grasp in every conceivable way possible.

While I’ve tried to watch as much of the Huskies as possible to get ready for this Saturday’s tilt, nobody has seen more UConn football than Russell Blair, a football writer for the school’s Daily Campus. He’s chronicled the football season first-hand and covered the Jasper Howard tragedy as well. I had a chance to exchange emails with Russell the past few days and asked him a few questions that will give us a better clue of what to expect this weekend when the Huskies play their first ever football game at Notre Dame Stadium.

Hope you enjoy…

Inside the Irish: Talking strictly football, how heartbreaking has this season been?
Losing by 2, 2, 3, 4 and 4 points? You’re sitting at 4-5 and you could
just as easily be in the discussion for the Big East title. What is
morale like?

Russell Blair: I don’t think that the fans have given up on the team yet but a loss on
Saturday could cause many fans to lose faith in the season.  A lot of
the local writers picked us to finish 7-5 or 8-4 and that 7-5 mark is a
possibility but we need to get wins over the Irish and USF, two tough
games, to make that happen.  Furthermore, if we fall to 6-6 and Notre
Dame takes the Big East berth in the Gator Bowl we may be fighting for
an at-large bid that might not come.  The hardest thing to deal with is
that it sometimes seems we find ways to lose games that we should be
winning.  The safety in the end zone against UNC, the 81-yard touchdown
with under 40 seconds to go against Rutgers, these are the kind of
inexcusable plays that have cost us games we had a good chance of
winning.  Most people expected UConn to make a bowl this year and if we
don’t make a bowl I think that would be one of the toughest things for
fans and those in the program itself to swallow.

ITI: Let’s talk about the tragedy of Jasper Howard. What has it been like to
be a student at UConn through all of this? We’ve seen how the football
team has tried to battle through this, but how has the student body
reacted?

RB: As terrible a tragedy as the murder of Jasper Howard was I think if
anything, it has brought the student body that much closer together.
 From the candlelight vigils to the way that the students acted at the
first home game following his death against Rutgers I think the
students have bonded together over this common tragedy and have done a
great job reminding the national media that Jasper wasn’t just a
football player but a fellow student as well.  It’s been a month since
the incident and I think most students are well on their way moving on
with their lives but it’s something that nobody here at UConn is ever
going to forget as long as they live.

ITI: Talk a little bit about the quarterback situation. Zach Frazer was the
first quarterback recruit of Charlie Weis. He was a promising get by
head coach Randy Edsall, but hasn’t really lit it up since he got his
chance. What’s the future of the QB position for UConn?

RB: I think Frazer has shown flashes of excellence but he hasn’t really
panned out in the end.  He’s got a cannon for an arm but he often
doesn’t make the best choices as shown by his 7 interceptions to just 4
passing touchdowns.  The QB situation for UConn has been shaky all
season long, Frazer was the starter coming into the season before his
injury and Cody Endres did a fairly good job replacing him and actually
earned the starting job for himself.  Even when Frazer was deemed 100
percent healthy, Endres remained the starter.  Now the shoe is on the
other foot and Endres is out for the year so Frazer got his job back
but maybe not the way he wanted.  I think if Zach has a good
performance over these last three games and leads UConn to a bowl
victory it will be hard to take away the job from him next season.
 However, if his performance continues to be mediocre look for a
three-way competition in the spring between Frazer, Endres and redshirt
freshman Mike Box.

ITI: It looks like the running attack has gotten going and the
Notre Dame defense has done it’s best to make everyone look good. Who
can we expect to torment the Irish will big plays, either on the ground
or in the air?

RB: The Notre Dame rush defense is giving up over 150 yards per game and
UConn has a strong tandem of backs in Andre Dixon and Jordan Todman.
 Todman actually earned back the top spot on the depth chart this week,
partially due to Dixon getting banged up but Todman has also shown
promise and a newfound ability to run hard between the tackles and not
just around the outside.  Look for Todman to try to exploit the Notre
Dame front seven and with UConn’s sturdy offensive line I wouldn’t be
surprised to see him break off another 100-yard rushing game with maybe
a 20-plus yard run somewhere in there.  As for the passing game, the
Huskies’ 10 touchdowns  this season is already double their total from
last year but give credit to Marcus Easley for that.  Easley has 5 TDs
and has shown the ability to make big plays so he will probably be the
guy the Irish have to look for in the passing game.  He has a touchdown
in each of his last five games and has racked up 80 yards at least in
those five contests and I expect him to find gaps in the Notre Dame
secondary.

ITI: Notre Dame’s season has swooned, and Charlie Weis is now squarely on
the hot seat. Does that take away from the historic nature of this
game? We’ve heard that it’s just another football game, but does coming
to Notre Dame for the first time mean something?

RB: While Notre Dame is nowhere near the powerhouse they were in the late
1980s and early 1990s, this game still does have some sense of
historical implication given that it may be the only time the Huskies
ever travel to South Bend.  Though a series was in the works, albeit
not a true home and home as UConn’s “home” games were at Giants Stadium
and Gillete, those plans have been scrapped and it looks like it’ll be
just a one time deal.  But this won’t be the only big time game for
UConn, signing home and home series with Tennessee and Michigan has
given the Huskies a handful of big time games and while Notre Dame has
a large national following this game will likely not be what it might
have appeared to be when it was initially planned several years ago.
 As for Charlie Weis, the fact that he is fighting for his job and
UConn is fighting for their first win since the loss of Howard only
adds to the emotion of the day.  I expect both teams to leave it all
out on the field and it should be a pretty entertaining football game.

ITI: The Huskies staged a furious rally and nearly caught Cincy. Any
thoughts on the Bearcats and the apple of many Irish fan’s eye, Brian
Kelly?

RB: UConn kept Cincinnati much closer than many people expected, especially
at their own place in Nippert Stadium.  I think that Cincinnati is the
real deal and if they run the table they should have a shot at the BCS
National Championship.  Say what you will about Big East football but I
think that Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and even West Virginia to an extent,
have proven that there are always going to be a few good sides that
come out of what many consider to be the weakest of the BCS
conferences.  The fact that there were no Big East teams in the AP Top
25 to begin the season may have made some of the coaches and players
play with a little chip on their shoulder but the conference has
cemented itself as having teams as good, if not better, than those in
the Big 10, Big 12 or SEC.  I think Brian Kelly is a great coach and
the excitement he brings to his team is unparalleled.  Cincinnati is
trying to keep him around and I know he’s not the first choice for the
Irish but if Notre Dame comes calling I think he’ll have a hard time
saying no.  Losing Brian Kelly would be a big blow for the Big East.
 Take West Virginia for example, losing Rich Rodriguez has hurt them
over the past few seasons.

ITI: Prognosis for Saturday’s game?

RB: This is a tough one, earlier this season when both teams had
higher expectations for the season I would have said Notre Dame would
win big.  I still think Notre Dame is going to win, but I think it’ll
be a closer game.  Losing Jasper Howard is going to hurt us in the
secondary, especially against the likes of Michael Floyd and Golden
Tate.  Blidi Wreh-Wilson is a great kid but he’s a redshirt freshman
and he’s got a lot of work to do to get his game to the level that
Howard was playing at.  Not to mention that Clausen has proven himself
to be one of the top quarterbacks in the country.  UConn’s defense,
which has been their anchor the last few seasons, gave up 47 points to
Cincinnati and I think Notre Dame shouldn’t have trouble finding the
endzone.  I really hope the Huskies win, it would be a big time win for
the program, but I just don’t see it happening.

My prediction:  Notre Dame 35, UConn 24 

Special thanks to Russell for the in-depth analysis, and sparing all of us from my attempt at learning the A to Zs of UConn in a week. For more of Russell’s writing, check out his column at the Daily Campus.

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.”

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

Back from break, Irish commence hitting; DT Elijah Taylor out with LisFranc injury

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Notre Dame last wore pads in its 45-27 defeat at USC back on Nov. 26, a full 117 days ago. Suffice it to say, the Irish enjoyed the chance to don their shoulder pads and hit each other in Wednesday’s third spring practice, the first one since returning from spring break.

“What I liked about it more than anything else is there wasn’t a big drop off today,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “Usually you go two days and then you take a week off, and then you come back and put your pads on—it took us only a couple of periods to get back up to form. That was nice to see.”

Contrary to previous years in spring practice, and perhaps practice in general, Kelly emphasized tackling, especially tackling in the open-field, in Wednesday’s drills.

“[I] felt like we needed to make up for a little lost ground,” he said. “We got in tackling today for the first time. That’ll be an emphasis. We’ll tackle a lot this spring to make up for lost ground.”

The early and often physical nature of practice didn’t bother any of the players, per Kelly, but also per presumed common sense. While Notre Dame’s coaching staff changes and public questioning played out in broad view, the players spent 117 days in private waiting to unleash some of the frustrations of 2016’s disappointing season.

“Everybody to a man has been looking forward to this day,” Kelly said. “It was a pretty difficult offseason for them. They were looking forward to putting the pads on and getting out there. I think they exhibited that today.”

TAYLOR OUT FOR SPRING, AT LEAST
Junior defensive tackle Elijah Taylor was not in pads Wednesday. In the final practice before spring break, another player stepped on Taylor’s foot, Kelly said. The resulting LisFranc fracture will keep Taylor out of the remaining dozen spring practices and limit him until at least July. Taylor saw action in four games last season, finishing with three tackles, including one for a loss.

Notre Dame team surgeon Dr. Brian Ratigan already performed Taylor’s surgery.

“Typical LisFranc fractures, we’ve had good success with their repairs,” Kelly said. “…We’ll be able to train around the injury. Full range of motion moving around and doing things in June, probably full clearance sometime in July.”

Without Taylor, the interior of Notre Dame’s defensive line becomes even shallower, though that may have been hard to previously comprehend. Junior Jerry Tillery looks to be ready to start, and senior Jonathan Bonner has moved to the inside, rather than at end as he has been for most of his career. Behind them, the Irish present only question marks.

Kelly said he will look to junior Micah Dew-Treadway to step forward in Taylor’s absence.

“Micah Dew-Treadway has had a really good offseason for us,” Kelly said. “Changed his body, has been doing a really good job in all facets, in the class room and weight room. He’s somebody that had been ascending anyway prior to the injury.

Kelly indicated junior Brandon Tiassum also could be expected to see more work with Taylor sidelined.

Seniors Daniel Cage and Pete Mokwuah are in the mix, as well. Cage struggled with concussion issues last season after a promising 2015.

Notre Dame will need to wait until the freshmen arrive—perhaps also joined by Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano, reportedly still taking official visits as he ponders his 2017 destination—for further reinforcements. Consensus four-star recruit Darnell Ewell would be the most likely candidate of the three expected arrivals to move up the depth chart right away.

In layman’s terms, a Lisfranc fracture occurs when a mid-foot bone connecting to a toe separates from the cluster of bones toward the heel. Note: This is stated here only to provide some context, nothing more. This particular scribe avoided most biology classes.

CLAYPOOL A RECEIVER AND THAT HE WILL STAY
Asked if he considered moving sophomore receiver Chase Claypool to defense, Kelly answered succinctly.

“We feel like we need his play on offense,” Kelly said. “He’ll continue to contribute on the special teams end of things, but we need his play on offense.”

KELLY ON KIZER’S NFL POTENTIAL
“I’ve had a number of conversations with GMs and coaches about [former Notre Dame quarterback] DeShone [Kizer], and my personal feeling is he has the biggest upside of all the quarterbacks. I don’t know that he’s prepared to come in and win a Super Bowl for you [this year]. Some may feel as though maybe one of the other quarterbacks are. I don’t know that firsthand. But I think, in time, he has the biggest upside of all the quarterbacks.

“I get it. It’s the NFL. Everybody’s under the same pressure of performing and needing somebody to come in right away, but I think he’s a guy that just needs some time. If he gets in the right situation, I think he’d be the guy to take.”

Kizer and eight other former Irish players will take part in a pro day tomorrow (Thursday) in front of some of those GMs and coaches.

Te’o to New Orleans; Booker to Nebraska

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Former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o has signed a two-year contract with the New Orleans Saints, per reports.

Once recovered from a torn Achilles, Te’o will join a crowded Saints linebacker corps. The Saints signed A.J. Klein—formerly of the Carolina Panthers—to a three-year, $15 million contract earlier in March and return Craig Robertson, who finished 2016 with 115 tackles.

All three have experience at the middle linebacker position in a 4-3 defense, though Klein and Robertson are both capable of playing at the strong side position, as well.

Before his week three injury, Te’o had started 34 of 38 games for the San Diego Chargers and notched 221 career tackles. With the Saints, he rejoins linebackers coach Mike Nolan, who held the same position with the Chargers in 2015 when Te’o finished with a career-high 83 tackles.

BOOKER REJOINS DIACO
It appears former Notre Dame tight ends coach and special teams coordinator Scott Booker will join the Nebraska coaching staff. Two former Irish coaches—defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and safeties coach Bob Elliott—already have seats in the Lincoln coaching room, which is quickly becoming something of a Notre Dame West.

Booker will reportedly join the Cornhuskers staff as a special teams analyst. He served as Notre Dame’s special teams coordinator from 2012 to 2016 before this past offseason’s extensive staff changes.

PRO DAY THURSDAY
A reminder: Notre Dame will hold its Pro Day this Thursday. Nine players will partake, obviously highlighted by quarterback DeShone Kizer.

The others: long snapper Scott Daly, running back Tarean Folson, tight end Chase Hounshell, defensive linemen Jarron Jones and Isaac Rochell, cornerback Cole Luke, safety Avery Sebastian and linebacker James Onwualu.

Kizer hopes to prove himself worthy of a first-round draft pick, while Jones and Rochell may be in the mix for a second-day pick, meaning in the second or third rounds.

As it is draft season, this discussion of why mock drafts exist even though most prognosticators cannot stand them is worth the few minutes needed to read.

MARCH MADNESS UPDATE
The majority of the “Inside the Irish” bracket pool’s leaders escaped the weekend’s chaos, though frontrunner andy44teg will not hold onto that top spot for long after his titlist pick, Duke, exited late the tournament late Sunday.

That will leave some character named Dennis and his North Carolina prediction as the presumptive favorite to win, well, to win absolutely nothing.

Five of the top 10 expect North Carolina to win the championship.