Opponent preview: Michigan State Spartans

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This is the third of many opponent previews, leading us into the opening week of the season. Suggestions and comments are welcome. For more, check out previews for Purdue and Michigan.

The Overview:

It was a season of “what could’ve been” for the Spartans. Mark Dantonio, who Brian Kelly replaced at Cincinnati three seasons ago, enters his fourth year coaching the Spartans. After two promising seasons under Dantonio, the Spartans reverted into the inconsistent squad that existed under former coach John L. Smith, losing five games by single digits including heart-breakers to Central Michigan, Notre Dame (more on this in a second), and Iowa. While Dantonio was brought into East Lansing to instill his trademark defense and toughness, it was the defense that let the Spartans down, giving up over 26 points a game and ranking an abysmal 114th in passing. The result was a mediocre 6-7 season, ending with a 41-31 loss to Texas Tech in the Alamo Bowl.

Last time against the Irish:

For the second week in a row, it looked as if the Irish were going to fall in the final seconds to a rival from Michigan. But Kirk Cousins overthrew Larry Caper who was all alone in the end zone with just over a minute left, and the next play Kyle McCarthy stepped in front of Cousins’ throw on the Irish four yard-line, allowing Notre Dame to escape with a home win against Michigan State for the first time since 1993.

Earlier in the second quarter, the Irish suffered two injuries that would help define their season. When a jailbreak sack came up the middle, Jimmy Clausen tried to protect himself from a big hit, but instead injured his foot. While he remained in the game, the injury hobbled him for the remainder of the season, and eventually necessitated surgery during the winter. Later that quarter, Clausen threw a fade route to the right corner of the end zone where Michael Floyd skied above a Spartan defensive back and looked to come down with his two feet in bounds for a touchdown. The officials disagreed, and worse for the Irish was the loss of their star receiver to a broken clavicle, suffered when he hit the ground. Clausen returned to the game, Floyd did not and the woeful Irish defense again struggled, getting torched for 354 yards passing and giving up 459 total yards. The Irish were also sloppy — broken plays, falling prey to an onside kick, and committing 11 penalties (including back-to-back personal foul calls), but it wasn’t enough to stop the cardiac kids, who somehow held on for the win in dramatic fashion.

Quarterback Kirk Cousins had this to say after the game: “I need to throw the ball away or take a sack, do anything to throw the ball away.”

Degree of Difficulty:

Of the 12 opponents, I rank the Spartans as the fifth most difficult on the schedule. While there are still question marks in the secondary, Michigan State has seemed to have been a thorn in Notre Dame’s side, with the Irish splitting the last eight contests, with all four of their wins being decided by a touchdown or less. Winning a night game in East Lansing is never an easy task.

Bonus Reverse Degree of Difficulty:

Michigan State fansite The Only Colors ranks the Irish the fourth-hardest game on the Spartan’s schedule, with Wisconsin, Iowa, and Penn State seemingly tougher opponents. Here’s the crux of the issue for them:

“Essentially, your opinion on ND’s chances this season must rest on your opinion of Brian Kelly. I think he’s excellent, and ND will be significantly improved.”

The Match-up:

Kirk Cousins returns to pilot an offense that only lost Blair White from an offense that averaged just a touch under 30 points a game. Mark Dell and B.J. Cunningham, who combined for 13 catches, 195 yards and two touchdowns against the Irish last year will once again challenge the Irish secondary. The question on offense is whether or not the Spartans can replace three starting offensive linemen.

On defense, Michigan returns All-American linebacker and Big Ten defensive player of the year Greg Jones, the Spartans leader in just about every defensive category, who was third in the country in tackles. Linebacker Eric Gordon is no slouch either, returning after 92 tackles and a starting streak of 27 games. The defensive line has a steady anchor in sophomore Jerel Worthy, but behind him they are unproven. The secondary needs big years out of underachieving Chris L. Rucker and Johnny Adams, who missed last season for disciplinary personal and medical reasons.

How the Irish will win:

If the Irish want to neutralize Greg Jones and pick on a thin secondary, they’ll have the weapons available to do so. If they can protect the quarterback, Notre Dame can spread teams out, using four and five wide receiver sets, running mostly one and no-back formations to give themselves as good a match-up as possible with the questionable Spartan defense. (Theo Riddick will be huge.) Last year, the Irish ran the ball almost to prove a point, content to eat clock and unsuccessfully protect the defense. We already know Brian Kelly won’t do that. The defense will still need to avoid giving up the big play, as the Spartans threw every trick in the book at the Irish, including a successful onside kick recovery. While it’ll be more than unruly in Spartan Stadium that night, a quick start by the offense could have fans sitting on their hands.

How the Irish will lose:

There might not be a more hostile environment for the Irish this season than this Saturday night, and it’ll be the first trip away from the friendly confines of Notre Dame Stadium for the Irish and starting quarterback Dayne Crist. This game comes down to handling the pressure of an away game, and if Crist and the offense stumble out of the gates it could be tough sledding for the Irish. Look out for big games from Jones, the proven commodity and true freshman William Gholston, the unproven one. On defense, the Irish still need to figure out how to stop a Spartans offense that racked up gigantic yardage throwing the ball while platooning their quarterbacks. With back-up Keith Nichol now playing wide receiver, one trick play may be all the Spartans need to capitalize on the Irish defense, that will surely be tested in the air.

Gut feeling:

If you’re a Notre Dame fan, your gut should never feel good against the Spartans. That said, if this team is as good as many believe they can be, there’s no reason they shouldn’t walk out of East Lansing with an undefeated record. Consider me Missouri: I’m in a “Show Me” state.
 

Friday at 4: ‘Attention to detail’ includes Notre Dame Stadium

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Brian Kelly proselytized multiple abstract concepts this spring. By the end of the 15 practices and subsequent media sessions, even the Irish coach knew some of his references to “grit” would be met by muted eye rolls from the press. If a questioner included the word in their query, Kelly reacted with tongue-in-cheek approval, “You’ve been listening.”

In his press conference the day before spring practices commenced, Kelly used the phrase “attention to detail” six separate times. While he was referring to his players on the football field, Kelly could have also been discussing the ongoing—but supposedly close to finished—construction at Notre Dame Stadium known as Campus Crossroads.

The three buildings around the exterior of the Stadium, the added suites and the video board above the south end zone have garnered the headlines. On a macro level, those are the changes of note. On a micro level, however, other details have trickled into the public stream of knowledge as the work nears its conclusion.

Over the weekend—and now reignited by a column from the South Bend Tribune’s Mike Vorel—the image of the newly-added visitors’ tunnel delighted Irish fans. Vorel likens the narrow entry to “the spot they’d stash the gladiators before feeding them to starving tigers in The Coliseum.” Assuredly, Vorel is going for dramatic effect, and it must work considering its citation here, but even a realistic view of the tunnel’s effects bodes well.

If nothing else, Notre Dame players should enjoy something of a psychological boost when racing out of their adult-sized tunnel and seeing their opponent trickle out of a tunnel seemingly-sized for ants. (Yes, the north end zone tunnel is at least three times bigger than the visitors’ tunnel.)

That pale, slanted staircase holds none of the luxuries of the home team’s entrance, something Kelly went out of his way to praise after using it in Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. (more…)

Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers

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You want complete honesty? The linebacker version of this series includes no revelations, no unexpected developments, no surprising spring performances. There is an allusion to a position switch, sure, but this piece became much simpler with the rover being discussed separately Thursday.

The idea was to capitalize on the NFL Draft for the morning and let the linebackers slip by in the afternoon, noticed only by those twiddling their thumbs through the last hours of the work week. Alas, former Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer was not drafted in the first round and a brief recap of his draft destination will need to await at least another day. Programming note: The NFL Draft reconvenes tonight (Friday) at 7 p.m. ET. The Green Bay Packers are on the clock. They will not draft a quarterback.

But back to the linebackers. This piece may have been intended to slip by with little fanfare, but that is not indicative of the Irish linebackers. Where Notre Dame was is so similar to where Notre Dame is simply because two experienced senior captains lead the way at linebacker.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
Aside from questions about defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s rover position, only one question stood out about this linebacker group: Who would start alongside senior Nyles Morgan: senior Greer Martini or junior Te’von Coney?

A year ago Coney recorded the fourth-most tackles on the team with 62. Martini finished fifth with 55, and his seven tackles for loss, including three sacks, dwarfed Coney’s 1.5. Yet Coney technically started nine games compared to Martini’s four.

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

With the rover often lining up essentially as a linebacker, there would only be space for one of Martini or Coney in most formations.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
In his first season with the Irish, Elko will have quite a luxury in referring to Coney as a backup linebacker. In some respects, that designation was inevitable as soon as Martini was named a captain. Nonetheless, Coney will see plenty of playing time.

The two captains—along with fellow captain, senior Drue Tranquill at rover—will be counted on throughout the summer and fall camp to continue the defense’s growth in Elko’s system. Elko said he installed “close to 50 percent” of his entire defense throughout spring practice. The linebackers must deal with the most difficult aspects of that learning.

“There’s been a noticeable improvement in terms of this starting to look like the defense we want this to look like as spring has gone on,” Elko said a week ago. “… Linebacker probably more than any other position, linebacker and safety, where the scheme takes some time to get used to, how you see it, how you fit it, how you feel it. Those guys have gotten better with that which has then allowed them to play faster as the spring has moved on.”

Sophomore Jonathan Jones will likely provide any further depth that may be needed in 2017, unless either of the incoming freshmen, David Adams and Drew White, excel from the outset. Irish coach Brian Kelly indicated sophomore Jamir Jones (no relation to Jonathan, but is former Notre Dame defensive lineman Jarron Jones’ brother) may be destined for time on the defensive line, in large part to Jones’s continued growth. Junior Josh Barajas let the spring come and go without mandating he be involved in these conversations, which may as well count as removing himself from the conversation in most regards.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame Was, Is & Could Be: Rover

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Rover

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Before spring practice, the rover position was lumped in with the linebackers in positional previews. Nearly two months later, that seems to have been the right placement—the rover will likely spend most of its time at the defense’s second level.

But since curiosity about the rover and its unknown place in Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme ran rampant—especially when compared to the rather solid understanding of the 2017 Irish linebackers—let’s take a look specifically at the rover.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:

“Who will start at [Elko’s] rover position,” this space asked. “What will his role entail?”

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

Senior safety Drue Tranquill was expected to see the most time at rover, perhaps with cameos from junior linebacker Asmar Bilal and sophomore safeties D.J. Morgan and Spencer Perry (since transferred).

More than anything, though, learning how Elko intended to deploy his defensive utility knife would answer the most questions about his defense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:

Tranquill will indeed lead the position, but not without much effort from Bilal.

“We’ve tried quite a few bodies out there,” Elko said Friday. “I think as spring has gone on, we’ve gotten a feel of what each of them can do, what parts of the package we can run with each of them. I think we’ve got a pretty good pulse now on how we want that thing to play out, who will be there doing what.”

Elko is excessively reluctant to discuss individual players, so asking him to expound on who will be at rover in particular situations was largely a fruitless exercise. Earlier this spring, Irish head coach Brian Kelly indicated Bilal would be featured against run-heavy offenses. That may well prove to be the case, but it is far more likely Tranquill sees the majority of the repetitions at the position.

RELATED READING: Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover positon, others likely to follow

“It’s been a good fit all spring [for Tranquill],” Kelly said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “He’s a plus player there for us. He really can impact what’s happening from snap to snap. He’s a physical player and playing low to the ball is really where he can do a lot of really good things for us.”

For his part, Tranquill enjoys the position and the unique number of duties innate to it. In theory, the rover aligns mostly with the linebackers but can be relied on to provide coverage when necessary. At other times, the rover will be asked to rush the passer. That flexibility allows Elko to keep the offense guessing.

“I love the rover position,” Tranquill said. “It’s a versatile position that allows you to come off the edge, allows you to play the run, play the pass, and do a lot of different things.”

Sometimes it allows you to pretend like you’re coming off the edge and then actually embarrass a potential first-round draft pick.

In senior left guard Quenton Nelson’s defense, Tranquill did add Nelson probably won more of their battles in spring practices than the defender did.

WHERE NOTRE DAME COULD BE:

Elko indicated there could be a third primary option in his tool kit. Notre Dame has a plethora of talented cornerbacks. Last week, Kelly indicated he might ask one of them to chip in at safety in obvious passing situations. Similarly, Elko predicted junior Shaun Crawford could play at rover against particular passing attacks, a la Bilal against certain rushing offenses.

“A lot of this is dictated by who that guy is lined up and what we’re trying to do,” Elko said. “We’re going to see a lot of really talented slot receivers. We’re going to have to match up and cover them well. There’s other names other than the big linebacker/safety bodies to put at that position. [Junior safety] Nick Coleman has done that some this spring. [Junior safety] Ashton White has done that some this spring. When Shaun gets healthy, I think he’ll do that some. That is all encompassing in that position.”

The 5-foot-9, 175-pound Crawford has since announced his return to full health, which should allow him plenty of time to readjust to contact before the start of fall practice.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line

Work in weight & film rooms has Hayes ready to meet five-star potential

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Common thinking might give four- and five-star recruits too much credit. They do not all arrive ready to play at the collegiate level on day one. It takes time, conditioning, learning. Perhaps it was that awareness that kept Daelin Hayes from letting his five-star ranking on rivals.com change his expectations. He knew he would have much work ahead of him when he arrived at Notre Dame as the only five-star prospect in the class of 2016.

Now finishing his freshman year, the defensive end notices the effects of his work as he puts in more.

“I remember my first time watching film, I was like, woah,” Hayes said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “I look quicker, like more twitch than I did. I was definitely—it’s hard to put into words—but to actually be able to go back and look at it and see how it affected the game was huge. [Director of football performance Matt] Balis has worked wonders for us.”

Hayes’ improved quickness showed in his three “sacks” in the intrasquad scrimmage. Going against future NFL prospect Mike McGlinchey at left tackle, Hayes faced a stiff challenge throughout spring’s 15 practices, not that he shied away from that task.

“I don’t think it was ever a point where it was overwhelming,” Hayes said. “I’ve always been a competitor. … But you guys know Mike, he’s huge, obviously a first-round talent and whatnot. I’m just grateful to be able to go against somebody like that each and every day. He makes me better. …

“I love competing with the guy. You go and do that with a guy in practice every day, then the game scenario comes, it’s like second nature. You can do this in practice, you can definitely do this against anybody.”

McGlinchey does not seem to mind the matchup, either.

“Daelin is a man who is blessed with a lot of size and athletic ability,” McGlinchey said Friday. “That presents a lot of problems for people in the game of football. He’s so young, and he has so much still to work on, it’s pretty cool to see what he’s capable of and then what he is going to do down the road.”

When Hayes arrived at Notre Dame, still recovering from a high school shoulder injury, he weighed 250 pounds with 18 percent body fat. Now, he said, he still weighs 250—the Irish roster lists him at 255—but is down to 10 percent body fat. It is that kind of change which has created more twitch and makes McGlinchey envision Hayes after more time spent improving in the weight room and the film room.

“I’m not the same athlete that I was when I first came in, not by any means,” Hayes said. “… Buying into that offseason program is going to be huge for our team.”

Per the Blue-Gold Game’s statistics, Hayes ended the scrimmage with seven tackles. Whether skeptical of the recordkeeping within a practice or not, seven tackles in one abbreviated afternoon compares favorably to Hayes’ total of 11 in 12 games last season. Some of that uptick is playing time, some of it is scheme, some of it is realization of the potential highlighted by a five-star ranking. For now, though, Hayes insists he intends to simply learn from last year’s 4-8 disappointment and embrace the changes brought by new Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko.

“With last year being the year that we had, there definitely was a yearning for change,” Hayes said. “When you have basically a reboot of the program, the guys are hungry and they don’t want to have to experience the same season as last year.

“Just continue to trust in that process. We’re hungry for something to cling on and buy into. When coach Elko, coach Balis, everybody came in as part of that reboot, I think we welcomed with open arms. [We’ll] continue to buy into the system and become more comfortable within the system.”