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. 

Browns pick former Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer 20th in second round

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After months of pointless chatter and a night spent waiting, DeShone Kizer’s NFL Draft experience ended Friday night when the Cleveland Browns drafted the former Notre Dame quarterback with the 20th pick in the second round, the No. 52 overall selection.

Originally from Toledo, Ohio, Kizer will have the opportunity to earn the starting job for the franchise less than two hours from his hometown. The Browns trotted out five different quarterbacks in 2016, only two of which remain with the team. Rookie Cody Kessler played in nine games, throwing for 1,380 yards and six touchdowns with only one interception while fellow rookie Kevin Hogan threw for 104 yards and two interceptions in four games.

The Browns have since added Brock Osweiler in a trade with the Houston Texans, though that trade was largely-viewed as a cash-for-picks swap, with the Browns “paying” for picks by taking on Osweiler’s contract in which he is owed $47 million over the next three seasons, including $16 million this season.

A year ago, the No. 52 pick (linebacker Deion Jones to the Atlanta Falcons) received a four-year, $4.546 million contract with a $1.506 million signing bonus.

Hall of fame running back and Browns legend Jim Brown announced the selection of Kizer at the draft festivities.

Speculation a year ago pegged Kizer as an early first-round pick. As the draft approached, projections of his slot varied widely, many including a second-round status. Despite first-round theatrics leading to three quarterbacks going in the first 12 picks Thursday night, Kizer had to wait another day before learning where he will start his NFL career. (more…)

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

@NDFootball
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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