Opponent preview: Boston College Eagles

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The beat goes on as we preview Notre Dame’s 2010 opponents. Suggestions and comments welcome. Check out previews for Purdue, Michigan, Michigan State, and Stanford.

The Overview:

Boston College made headlines for all the wrong reasons last offseason. Head coach Jeff Jagodzinski was fired in January after interviewing for the head coaching position of the New York Jets. Quarterback Dominique Davis was ruled academically ineligible, and more devastating, All-American linebacker Mark Herzlich was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. Still, former defensive coordinator Frank Spaziani took the reins of the program and steadied the ship, guiding a team that was predicted to finish last in the ACC Atlantic to within a game of the conference championship game. While the offense struggled behind 25-year-old freshman Dave Shinskie, the defense was stingy, giving up only 19.8 points a game.

Last time against the Irish:

A week after crawling back into the game with a furious rally against USC, the Irish found themselves in gut-check time once again, the defense leaking oil after turning Shinskie into an All-American as they clung to a four-point lead with the Boston College offense driving down the field. After giving up an inexplicable 4th and 17 the Irish defense finally put the game away, thanks to a Brian Smith interception with 1:43 seconds left on the clock.

Down 16-13 entering the 4th quarter, the Irish were stuffed on a 4th and goal from the one when they decided to run Robert Hughes in the Wildcat. Once again, the offense was bailed out by another heroic effort from Golden Tate, who turned an out pattern into a 36-yard touchdown for the Irish’s final score. On a sloppy field, the Irish looked intent to run the ball, with Armando Allen running for 98 yards on 21 carries. Thanks to five turnovers, the Irish held Boston College to 16 points, stuffing running back Montel Harris to only 38 yards on 22 carries, a season low. Yet Notre Dame’s emphasis on stopping the run left them susceptible against the pass, where Shinskie and wide receiver Rich Grunnell had career days in a losing effort. Warts and all, Notre Dame’s victory took their record to 5-2, and it was the first Irish victory over Boston College since 2000.

Degree of Difficulty:

Of the 12 opponents, I rank Boston College as the third-toughest game on the schedule for the Irish. Here are the rankings so far.

      3. Boston College Eagles
      4. Michigan Wolverines
      5. Michigan State Spartans
      6. Purdue Boilermakers
      7. Stanford Cardinals

While the ACC was weak last year, Boston College’s 8-5 record was pretty impressive, especially considering the turmoil the team was under last season, breaking in a new quarterback, head coach, and losing Mark Herzlich to cancer. When the Irish head to Chestnut Hill, they’ll face a team mostly intact, with a defense that’ll likely be one of the toughest the Irish face.

The Match-up:

Last season, the Irish seemed almost content to play a horizontal passing game, taking minimal shots downfield and relegating Jimmy Clausen to the distributor role. While he didn’t throw any interceptions, it was one of Clausen’s worst on the year, nearly picked twice as the BC coverage flattened and the zone tightened the middle of the field. On a sloppy track, the game seemed to be played in slow motion, something BC took advantage of an the Irish could not. While the Irish offensive system is different, they’ll still need to account for sophomore linebacker Luke Kuechly and the returning Herzlich, who’s return from cancer has been slowed with a stress fracture in his foot. Both the defensive line and the secondary need to replace starters, but the depth is there for the Eagles.

Offensively, Shinskie returns at quarterback but is being pushed by Mike Marscovetra, a dual-threat option. Whoever wins the quarterback battle, the offense will run through Montel Harris, who set BC freshman and sophomore rushing records and returns for his third season. Harris will be supported by the Eagles’ offensive line, one of the best in the ACC and anchored by Anthony Castonzo.. Through the air, BC won’t be able to depend on wide receiver Rich Grunnell who graduated, but will look to get production from Colin Larmond* and tight end Chris Pantale.

How the Irish will win:

The Irish will beat BC if they attack the defense, not tip-toe around it. The Irish were their own worst enemies last year, playing a possession game without taking any shots down the field, allowing the Eagles to shrink the field vertically. This year, the Irish will attempt to blow the top off the zone, hitting on a few deep passes that also open up the middle of the field. Defensively, while the Irish forced five turnovers, the coverage in the secondary was horrendous. (Don’t believe me, check it out here.) While Shinskie will still be turnover prone, the Irish will do a better job of blanketing coverage on a mediocre passing attack, forcing the Eagles to play a game they know they can’t win.

How the Irish will lose:

Chestnut Hill is not friendly to the Fighting Irish, and behind a robust defensive attack, and some strong running by Montel Harris, the Irish will feel the heat of the rivalry get to them. After five straight games against top-level BCS teams, the Irish defensive front will be worn down, and the Eagles strong offensive line will take advantage. Dayne Crist’s could see healthy doses of both Herzlich and Kuechly in the backfield, and that could spell trouble.

Gut Feeling:

Boston College is a lot like Michigan to me. My gut tells me to expect the Irish to win handily, but my head tells me that it’s always a different story with these two programs. BC is coming off a huge game against Virginia Tech the week before and one year of scouting tape on offensive coordinator Gary Tranquill will be enough for the Irish to fix the problems that plagued the defense. On offense, don’t expect Kelly to try and play slug-it-out football the way Weis did last season. Pedal to the metal will let Notre Dame’s athletes run away from Boston College.

* UPDATED — Thanks to former Irish pitching great Drew Duff who checks in from Chicago to point out that Boston College wide receiver Colin Larmond is out for the season with a knee injury.

“Obviously this is a very unfortunate situation, both for Colin and for our team,” BC coach Frank Spaziani said. “Our first priority is to get him on the road to recovery. Now we will need some players to step up and fill his role.”

This is a pretty crushing blow to the Eagle wide receiving corp. Their returning receivers have caught a total of 24 passes in college football collectively. 

 

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.

Notre Dame adds two top defensive back commits; Elliott officially a ‘Husker

allen
rivals.com
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It’s early. It’s really, really early. Not in the day, though this post is scheduled for an a.m. hour. No, it is early in the 2018 recruiting cycle. Any piece of news, each commitment, everything should be taken with two grains of salt.

Nonetheless, Notre Dame—and more specifically, new Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko and defensive backs coach Todd Lyght—enjoyed Tuesday’s recruiting news when two consensus four-star coverage men committed to the Irish.

Safety Derrik Allen (Lassiter High School; Marietta, Ga.) and cornerback Kalon Gervin (Cass Tech; Detroit, Mich.) joined a class of now eight commitments, six of which play on the defensive side of the ball.

Gervin, the No. 11 cornerback in the class according to rivals.com, waited mere days after attending Notre Dame’s Junior Day over the weekend. Irish coach Brian Kelly and staff’s failure to land a recruit at Gervin’s position in the 2017 haul actually helped reel in the recruit with offers from Florida, LSU, Michigan and dozens others.

“The opportunity to play right away, they didn’t sign a cornerback this last class,” Gervin told Blue & Gold Illustrated helped sway him. “Also, the education is second-to-none. It speaks for itself.”

Allen, pictured at top, has leaned toward Notre Dame for months. The No. 3 safety in the country per Rivals, he chose the Irish over the likes of Alabama, Clemson and Florida State.

Elliott officially to Nebraska

The two highly-touted defensive backs will not have the chance to learn under the tutelage of Bob Elliott. Nebraska officially announced the hiring of the former Notre Dame safeties (2012-13) and linebackers (2014) coach. Elliott spent the last two seasons serving as a special assistant to Kelly, focusing largely on defending the triple-option attacks of Army, Navy and Georgia Tech.

Elliott rejoins former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco in Lincoln. Diaco was hired as the Cornhuskers’ defensive coordinator in January.

The Lincoln Journal Star’s Brian Cristopherson reports Elliott will make a nice wage in eastern Nebraska.