And in that corner… the Purdue Boilermakers

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It was a tale of two seasons last year for Purdue. The first half heartbreak and despair, the second half hope for a better day. Maybe that’s overly dramatic, but the Boilermakers went on a nice run in the second half of the season, including an upset victory against Ohio State, finishing the season 4-2 and putting up a respectable 4-4 record during Big Ten play. Even though the season ended 5-7, Purdue fans had to believe that three or four of those games could’ve gone a different direction.

One of those was obviously against the Fighting Irish. Travis Miller was at Ross-Ade stadium that fateful night when Jimmy Clausen scored his “signature win” against the Boilermakers, marching the Irish down the field for a last minute touchdown pass to Kyle Rudolph. Miller runs the very entertaining Purdue website Hammer & Rails, and was kind enough to chat with me earlier this week as the Irish and the Boilermakers prepare to kick off the season.

I also answered some questions for him over at his blog, so check those out when you get a chance. I’m especially proud of his title for the blog: “Inside the Irish: Quality, sane Notre Dame discussion. I like that.” (Might put that on the book jacket…)

Inside the Irish: How bad did the loss last year feel?

H&R: I’ll admit, it stung. I sit in section 128 , so the play
happened right in front of my seats. Just deflating. I felt like we had the game,
but once again our defense failed to get stops on a long drive at the end. That
has been our MO forever. If we take a lead with more than five minutes left and
all we need is one stop we never get it.

ITI: Following up on that, was it the timeout that hurt the most? From Purdue’s
standpoint, did you feel like it was your game to win and you blew it or would
it have been a stolen W?

H&R: I think it was ours to win and I can’t believe we called the
timeout. At the very least you force either a hurried play or a spike to stop
the clock. They then have less time to call the fourth down play. Instead we
gifted the Irish time to script the two plays we wanted. To me, it was an
inexcusable decision, and the worst one Hope made all year.

ITI: You predicted Keith Smith last year. Who’s going to do it this year?

H&R: I am high on three guys: Al-Terek McBurse, O.J. Ross, and
Ricardo Allen. McBurse is the new guy at running back, but a four-star recruit
who has a ton of talent. I think he can have a big game if we commit to the run.
Ross and Allen were high school teammates at Daytona Mainland and the top two
guys in our recruiting class. Allen seems to be taking control of one of the open
cornerback slots immediately and may even be an upgrade over David Pender and
Brandon King. Ross. Is a speedy receiver that will see time in the slot. He is
a lot like Dorien Bryant, only with better hands. He could also be used on
kickoff returns.

ITI: What does an outsider think about the hiring of Brian Kelly? Would you
rather be facing a Charlie Weis team or does BK signify a dangerous precedent:
An above-average coach of the Irish?

H&R:  I’m not sold on him because we have heard the same thing for
a decade in South Bend. A new guy comes in, he’s the greatest coach in the
history of the sport, then loses a few and gets canned. Remember that Ty
Willingham was once fantastic after an 8-0 start. He could do no wrong at that
point, but was fired three years later. Charlie Weis came in, had success immediately,
but then started to struggle. The fans blamed it on “Ty’s players”, which was a
joke of an excuse because Weis was in his third year. He had his own players by
then and went 3-9. In fact, he nearly lost to Washington with “Ty’s Players”
playing for the Huskies last year.

Brian Kelly has won at Division II, Central Michigan, and
Cincinnati. That’s all good and well, but we all know that unless he brings a
national title, and soon, there will be grumbling. Notre Dame fans are far from
patient, and Kelly is the type of coach they need to be patient with. I have no
doubt that he is a good coach and can be successful, but the real question is
can he be successful to Notre Dame’s elevated standards? Weis had success that
would be phenomenal at many schools, but not in South Bend. Shoot, Bob Davie
even took the Irish to a BCS bowl without a quarterback for most of the year,
but was gone after the following season.

ITI: You went on the record saying you didn’t want Robert Marve last year. Are
you drinking the Kool-Aid yet?

H&R: Yes, I have changed my mind. I’ve been most impressed with the
maturity he has shown off the field. I got to meet him at Big Ten media Days
and he was calm, cool, and collected. I think this maturity, as well as the
fact that he is no longer sharing snaps with Jacory Harris, will help him most.
He always needed the maturity to go with his talent. That seems to have come
with the move to West Lafayette.

He also gives us a running element from the quarterback that
we haven’t had since Brandon Kirsch. Part of what made Purdue so good under
Drew Brees was his decision making. He ran for over 800 yards as a senior and
read defenses so well thathe knew exactly when he could take off for 10-15
yards. If Marve can utilize that skill it will make Purdue better fast. 

ITI: How bad do you think ND’s defense will be this year?

H&R: It is hard to say. On paper, there is a ton of talent, but
it hasn’t produced yet. I know you guys are changing schemes yet again, so
there will naturally be a learning curve. Against Purdue I can see them
struggling because we have talent and depth at a lot of skill positions. We can
through six solid receivers out there with Keith Smith, Cortez Smith, Justin
Siller, Ross, Antavian Edison, and Gary Bush. Siller and the Smiths are big
guys, while Bush, Ross, and Edison are speed guys. Siller and Keith smith are
also former QB’s, so we will very likely use trick plays (and have successfully
with Smith). Rob Henry, the backup quarterback, may play in the wildcat. Dan
Dierking, Jared Crank, Reggie Pegram, and Derek Jackson can help McBurse in the
run game. Basically, we have the talent to move the ball in a lot of creative
ways.

ITI: I know you like Michael Floyd. Anybody else on the Irish roster give you
anxiety?

H&R: Kyle Rudolph is a solid tight end that can exploit our
inability to cover the middle of the field. As far as other receivers, it is
hard to say. I am optimistic that we have so many guys emerging as possible
starters in the secondary, but most of them still have yet to play a game at
this level. I think they will be excellent and deep in time, but this is still
game one.

ITI: What’s the recipe for a Purdue victory?

H&R: Hold on to the ball. Turnovers cost us at least three wins
last year. We can’t let that happen again. If we don’t turn the ball over we’re
a very good football team.

ITI: Gut feeling?

H&R: Strangely, I have been feeling like this game could turn out
like 2004 for some reason. I know that is very likely wishful thinking, but it
would be nice all the same. Last year I was in the minority predicting a win at
Oregon. Had we not handed them a pair of defensive touchdowns it would have
happened too. I think we’re going to see a high scoring game where the efficiency
of Notre Dame’s offense is the difference. I think these teams are nearly
equal, but my gut tells me Purdue wins.

*****

If you’d like to stroll back to Memory Lane, here’s what we had to say before the game last year. 

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.