Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. Stanford

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The end is here.

Even with the usual heroics from Golden Tate, Jimmy Clausen, and Michael Floyd, a punishing performance by Robert Hughes, and 448 yards of offense, the Irish lose to Stanford. Like many teams before them, the Irish failed to contain Toby Gerhart, who ran for 205 yards on 29 carries for three touchdowns, even adding a touchdown pass of his own.

Even when Jack Swarbrick did his best to refute speculation this evening, reports are coming fast and furious that a decision has already been made on Charlie Weis’ future. ProFootballTalk’s Mike Florio reports that Weis has already cleaned out his office and the next few days will be full or rumors, speculation and hearsay, as reporters race to confirm the official ouster of Charlie Weis.

Here’s what we learned tonight:

1) Notre Dame’s defense cost the Irish this season.

When Robert Hughes was stuffed on a 3rd and short, you could feel the game slipping away from the Irish. The second half started to feel like a tennis match between two power servers, and when the Cardinal broke the Irish offense’s serve, it was a foregone conclusion that Stanford was going to score.

You don’t need stats to back up an argument that Notre Dame’s defense was terrible this season. They struggled in every segment of the game, a toxic mix of an inability to get pressure with down linemen and linebackers unable to stuff the run. Notre Dame’s secondary missed David Bruton’s ball-hawking presence, and for all the credit Kyle McCarthy deserved got this season, he’s a poor Cover 2 safety.

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, Weis’ demise was his inability to recruit front seven players early. The heralded recruiting class of 2006 had zero impact players, and Notre Dame seemed to stockpile tweener defensive ends in hopes that they’d become Justin Tuck. Morrice Richardson, Kerry Neal and Kallen Wade never developed, and players like John Ryan never became more than marginal reserves.

Weis’ inability to find a suitable defensive coordinator will be the number one reason why he loses his job, and his gamble to bring in Jon Tenuta, a well-respected defensive coach was the one that likely cost him the most. It would’ve been interesting to see what this Notre Dame defense would’ve looked like in a 3-4 base, utilizing the plethora of edge-type players that Notre Dame seems to have, and also giving the defense a better chance to hide their blitzes, something the Irish never did very well this season.

2) Golden Tate is a transcendent player.

Tate went for 205 yards tonight, pushing his receiving yards to an even 1,500 for the season on 93 catches. He’s scored 14 touchdowns in the final 8 games. Those are MONSTER numbers. People that fancy themselves technicians are eager to pick on Tate for some inexact routes and a few head scratching decisions, but why can’t we all just appreciate the incredible season that #23 has had? I understand that the Heisman has now become college football’s version of the MVP, but what does a .500 record have to do with a player’s greatness?

Tonight, ESPN’s announcing team was hellbent on recognizing Toby Gerhart as a legitimate Heisman contender, yet never seemed to mention the wide receiver that matched Gerhart’s numbers on the opposite sideline, doing it in a fraction of the touches from a position that’s much harder to make an impact. In a season where no single player stood alone, I’ve got no idea why Golden Tate isn’t getting more respect from the national media, even if it’s for a .500 team. If Notre Dame pulled that game out tonight, what’s the difference between a five loss Stanford squad and a five loss Notre Dame team?

3) Jack Swarbrick will certainly earn his salary this week.

A friend of mine with very good sources heard from two people in positions to know that both Bob Stoops and Brian Kelly were done deals. That two people with connections deep inside Notre Dame’s athletic department had such conflicting news goes to show you that Swarbrick is truly the man pulling the strings in the athletic department.

We can only take Swarbrick at his word that no decision has been made and no coach has been contacted, but I’d be shocked if a new coach isn’t announced within the week if Weis is out as head coach. The differences between Swarbrick and his predecessor Kevin White are startling, and Notre Dame fans should feel good about the man in charge of the university’s athletics.

4) The Irish football program is at a tipping point.

The decisions that will be made in the coming weeks will determine the fate of the Notre Dame football program. If Charlie Weis is fired, Jimmy Clausen is as good as gone. If Clausen goes, Golden Tate likely follows. Even with weapons like Michael Floyd, Kyle Rudolph, and Armando Allen, the Notre Dame program could look vastly different with a new coach roaming the sidelines. Add to that equation that the new coach will be running spring practice without Dayne Crist and no true backup quarterback, and spring installation will likely be limited as well.

Nobody knows for sure the thought process of Clausen or Tate, but they’re two players that are fiercely loyal to Charlie Weis. No player is bigger than a football program, especially one as storied as Notre Dame, but the decisions made off the field in the coming weeks, could greatly determine what happens for the next few seasons.

5) Charlie Weis is a great ambassador for Notre Dame.

Whether he’s the coach of Notre Dame’s football program for another season or another week, Charlie Weis was a true ambassador to the school. As Jack Swarbrick mentioned during his interview with the New York Times, the difference between perception and reality for Weis is stark. No coach has taken a larger beating these past few seasons than Weis, and it’s a puzzling dichotomy that has turned Weis into such a polarizing figure.

Watching ESPN’s GameDay this morning, I was touched by the story of Pete Carroll and young Jake Olson. It’s an uplifting story that shows us how important college football is to many of us, and how important Carroll and the Trojans are to a boy fighting insurmountable odds.

After watching that story, I was immediately reminded of a conversation I had in the press box during the USC game. I chatted with a national reporter that had covered college football for years. Her image of Charlie Weis and Pete Carroll, two coaches that both do incredible work in the community outside of football, was so divergent.

I can’t help but think that Notre Dame needs to do a better job letting people see the true head coach. With a school that so obviously understands branding and tradition, they failed Weis for five seasons, allowing him to be a punching bag in both the mainstream media and blogosphere, and rarely letting people get a glimpse of the great humanitarian that has run the football program the right way.

Just looking at the media relations team that USC has put together around Pete Carroll — whether it’s his official website, the cutting edge Heisman campaigns for Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush, or the incredibly visible work Carroll does with “A Better LA” and his other charitable work, USC has created an image that promotes its coach and his beliefs.

While Notre Dame has made great strides in the past few years and the Sports Information department is filled with true professionals, they’ve struggled to fight a very real battle with negativity that’s b
eing waged in the media, on
the recruiting path, and in the collective psyches’ of college football fans. Whether you want to believe it or not, that negativity is a large reason why the football program is on shaky ground.
 
If Charlie Weis loses his job this week, he surely has these last three seasons of mediocre football to blame. But if Notre Dame ever wants to truly win again, it’ll need to be as proactive protecting and managing its head coach as it is with its heralded tradition. 

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…)

Four-star WR Micah Jones chooses Irish; Rees may need to wait; Other late-week reading

jones
rivals.com
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A day may come when Notre Dame suffers a recruiting disappointment in the 2018 cycle, when a high school star spurns the Irish coaching staff for a foe, but it is not this day.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township High School; Gurnee, Ill.) committed to Notre Dame on Friday, joining a class of now 10 recruits, including four who committed just this week.

Jones chose the Irish over offers from the likes of Iowa, Michigan State and Ole Miss, among others.

He is the first receiver among the 10 commitments and the seventh considered a four-star prospect. At 6-foot-5, 196 pounds, Jones should present a large target for whomever the Notre Dame quarterback is in the fall of 2018, most likely then-senior Brandon Wimbush.

Tom, Tommy or Thomas; Assistant Coach or Graduate Assistant?
Thomas Rees may need to wait a season before officially being a coach at Notre Dame. The legislation to approve a 10th assistant coach was expected to be voted on, passed and effective in April. A newly-added amendment may push the effective date to following the 2017 season. The amendment will be voted on immediately before the legislation itself is.

The delay makes sense. Most coaching hirings and firings occur in December and January. In theory, creating a one-timing hiring frenzy following spring football could leave many programs in the lurch. In practice, however, this is not anticipated.

“The majority of the FBS guys that I’ve talked with currently believe that 10th coach is going to come from within their own organization,” Todd Berry told the Associated Press. Berry is the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association and former coach at Army and Louisiana-Monroe. “Quality control, graduate assistants, analysts, or they’re planning on hiring somebody that’s out of work.”

A majority is not a unanimity, though, and that carousel will innately work to the disadvantage of the Group of 5 schools.

As for Rees, a graduate assistant can still work extensively with players. The most-pertinent difference between a graduate assistant and an assistant coach is the former cannot recruit. Given Notre Dame’s recent success on the recruiting trail—and the early commitment of class of 2018 consensus four-star quarterback Phil Jurkovec (Pine-Richland H.S.; Gibsonia, Pa.)—Rees may not be an absolute necessity in that regard this cycle.

A Kizer Appraisal
Former NFL scout Greg Gabriel took a look at former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer this week, largely paying the draft prospect compliments.

In calling Kizer “the most talented quarterback in this draft class,” Gabriel set a high ceiling for Kizer’s spring. Part of Gabriel’s positive assessment comes from acknowledging Kizer’s responsibilities as the Irish signal-caller.

“The spread offense that Kizer played in at Notre Dame is more sophisticated than many of the spread offenses we see elsewhere at the collegiate level. The Notre Dame offense is a whole-field read scheme in which the quarterback has to go through a progression that encompasses both sides of the field. He also can change the play and/or protections at the line of scrimmage. Given all that, Kizer was asked to do more than many spread quarterbacks are asked to do.”

Gabriel also reflected on the dynamic differences for Kizer in 2015 and 2016 and what may have elicited some of his seeming stagnation.

“There was the unnecessary quarterback controversy at Notre Dame, and the offensive line wasn’t as experienced or as talented and the receivers were mostly first-year starters.”

As much as Gabriel raves about Kizer, he would be the first to tell you anything beyond individual player evaluation is a waste of air this early in the draft process. Mock drafts may be fun, but they are not much beyond that.

Take the fates of Tony Romo and Jimmy Garoppolo, for example. Few, if any, in the NFL expect them to dress for the Cowboys and Patriots, respectively, again. Where they end up could directly impact Kizer’s draft placement.

Jaylon Smith May Be Back to Form
Former Notre Dame and current Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith posted yet another encouraging video to Twitter. This one shows Smith really might be game-ready right now and, if not, almost certainly will be by the fall. Should there be any difficulty with the embedded video below, here is a link straight to it.

OL Mabry makes third commitment this week; WR Jones may follow Friday

mabry
rivals.com
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Two weeks ago, Irish coach Brian Kelly gave a non-answer of an answer to a question about a likely early signing period this coming December. Avoiding specifics, he indicated he thinks the effects of such a change will be seen on a case-by-case basis entirely dependent on the recruits.

“Some will, some won’t,” Kelly said. “…Each kid is going to have to react to it based upon also how their school is going to be dealing with it. Some will come off the board at the time.

“We’re expecting some to sign early, but I think our mindset is we’re going into it business as usual. We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

After this week, Notre Dame is going to have more year-long fights than anticipated. Consensus three-star offensive lineman recruit Cole Mabry (Brentwood High School; Brentwood, Tenn.) became the third prospect to offer a verbal commitment to the Irish coaching staff in less than 36 hours with his Wednesday decision. Mabry received the offer over the weekend, but waited a few days before making his decision public, lest emotions be dictating his thought process.

At 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds, Mabry will have time to add muscle to his frame, with four or five offensive tackles greeting him on the Notre Dame roster in the summer of 2018. That ability to mold his style and growth may have played a part in the Irish interest.

“They love my height and athleticism and how I play,” Mabry told rivals.com. “We got to break down film and go through things that they do that pair up with how I play now. They think I’ll be a great fit in their offense.”

Mabry is the ninth Notre Dame commitment in the class of 2018, though the first offensive lineman.

Judging by new Notre Dame director of football performance Matt Balis’s agenda for the Irish roster’s Valentine’s Day morning, Mabry will have much to look forward to in terms of strength and conditioning.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township H.S.; Gurnee, Ill.) is scheduled to announce his verbal commitment this Friday at 4 p.m. ET. Along with Notre Dame, Jones is considering Iowa, Michigan State, Nebraska, Ole Miss, Illinois and Northwestern. He would be the first receiver in Notre Dame’s 2018 class. Naturally, whomever Jones commits to, the recruiting fight will last until at least December, and perhaps all the way to February.