And in that corner… the Michigan Wolverines

4 Comments

While most of us are still processing the opening win against Purdue, there’s no game that’s been circled on Irish calendars more than the rematch against Michigan. Last season’s stunning loss was the coronation of freshman quarterback Tate Forcier, who thanks to some questionable play-calling and mediocre defense by Notre Dame, and some impressive moxie and field presence, led the Wolverines to a last-second touchdown to beat the favored Irish.

Fast forward a year, and so much has changed. Forcier is now third in the depth chart behind Denard Robinson. Charlie Weis is now sitting in the press box for the Kansas City Chiefs. And the two promising seasons that got off to decent starts for both the Irish and Wolverines? They ended with both teams spending the holidays and bowl season at home.

A convincing opening victory against UConn orchestrated by the stunning play of Denard “Shoelace” Robinson has Wolverines fans calling off the dogs that were chasing head coach Rich Rodriguez out of town, and potentially gearing up for a season where they play the role of Big Ten darkhorse. Covering it all is AnnArbor.com’s Michael Rothstein, who has the unique perspective of having walked the Irish beat as well, covering Notre Dame for the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette before making the move to Ann Arbor.

Mike was nice enough to answer a few questions on the state of the Wolverines, their defense, that Shoelace guy, and Michigan fans’ perspective on their former local son, Brian Kelly.

Inside the Irish: Both squads had impressive debuts on Saturday: Michigan with an impressive offensive showing, Notre Dame with a strong defensive game. What was more surprising?

Michael Rothstein: I’d say Notre Dame having a strong defensive showing. The defense, in
many ways, is what really did Charlie Weis in at Notre Dame last year.
He spent more time recruiting offensive talent and then had a stubborn
defensive coordinator so it was tough to really say how much talent was
there. With Michigan, you had a feeling the offense would be dynamic
because there are a lot of playmakers and the promise Denard Robinson
showed in the spring. So I’d say Notre Dame’s defense – although I’m not
sold on either defense just yet.

ITI: Let’s get serious. Can the Michigan defense win the game with the secondary they’re trotting out there?

MR: On paper? No. Michigan will see the best wide receiver it’ll face all
year (Michael Floyd), the best tight end it’ll see (Kyle Rudolph) and
probably one of the top three quarterbacks on the schedule in Dayne
Crist, with Ohio State’s Terrelle Pryor and Iowa’s Ricky Stanzi being
the other two. Notre Dame has a lot of offensive options and Michigan’s
secondary really wasn’t tested last week. Plus, it’s now down two
defensive starters as Troy Woolfolk is out for the season with a
preseason ankle injury and freshman safety Carvin Johnson is “highly
doubtful” according to Rich Rodriguez with a sprained left MCL. If the
Wolverines’ secondary can manage to contain this Notre Dame offense,
I’ll become a believer. But not until I see it do something.

ITI: Did Rich Rodriguez win back some of the Michigan faithful with a strong opening win? Is he still on the hot seat? After last year’s 4-0 start, what does he have to accomplish to stick around for year four?

MR: Winning, unsurprisingly, cures a lot. Make no doubt, Saturday was a big
win for Rodriguez, perhaps even bigger than the season-opener a year ago
because this time it was against a BCS league opponent which had been
touted as a contender in the Big East. And Michigan, for the most part,
was dominant. So I think some fans have probably started to shift back
to Rodriguez if they were on the fence about him. One game, though,
doesn’t cure all. A loss Saturday and Michigan is still 1-1. It’s funny,
actually, on the numbers question. I’m at the point where I refuse to
give any sort of number projection because I just don’t know. I don’t
know if numbers will play into it as much as progress (barring injury)
and that there isn’t some major change in the status when the NCAA comes
back with its findings from the August Committee on Infractions
hearing. I’d say if Michigan were to start 4-0 this year, it’d be more
of an accomplishment because it’ll be two very well-coached teams. Randy
Edsall is a really good coach and Brian Kelly, from a coaching
standpoint, is better than Charlie Weis and Jon Tenuta.

ITI: You reported that Tate Forcier said he was “out” after Saturday’s game. What’s going on at QB and with the Forcier family in general? Is Forcier a locker-room cancer? Is he going to continue the family legacy of transferring schools?

MR: I’d have to say very few people really know when it comes to what is
going on with the Forcier situation. And that’s what I’m calling it now.
He said what he said to me, then his father  told the AP he is “150
percent” not transferring. And then according to the Channel 7 news
guy’s Twitter feed here in Michigan, he started to blame the media
saying they were trying to drive his son out of Michigan. It’s been a
weird set of circumstances. There certainly have been a lot of rumors,
though. Can’t speak to the locker room issue, save for that in the
spring and the preseason, Rodriguez pointed to Forcier as a guy who
needed to improve some of his off-the-field stuff and Woolfolk called
him out on media day. That sort of stuff just doesn’t sit well with
teammates. Reports have been that he’s earned that trust back, but he
was still No. 3 on Saturday against Connecticut. That answer is just a
long way of saying it is certainly a situation to continually pay
attention to as the season progresses.

ITI: Let’s talk Shoelace. He was pretty electric last weekend. Is he a star in the making? What do the Irish have to do to keep him in check? And when is someone going to explain to him that actually tying his shoelaces and using his cleats properly would actually help him?

MR: I think he is. He was flat impressive Saturday. The thing that I
wondered – especially after watching him a year ago – is how he’d handle
pressure and what would happen when he had to pass. I think he answered
all of those questions at least for one week. Notre Dame’s defense, on
tape, looked a lot better than Connecticut in person. As far as the
shoelaces, I’d be hesitant to change anything. Consider it a quirk –
much like Jim Furyk’s golf swing – that you just leave alone. I think
Notre Dame will have to hit him and play good contain defense on the
ends to keep him honest and in the pocket. When he starts to scramble,
that’s when he’s even more dangerous.

ITI: What’s the impression of Brian Kelly as a coach from the UM perspective? Are the Irish more dangerous with Kelly in charge?

MR: I think so, if for no other reason than sometimes change is good for a
program. It was clear toward the end that it just wasn’t working with
Weis and Jimmy Clausen at quarterback. Clausen had so much talent but it
never seemed like the team was fully behind him from the time he
stepped on campus. Crist, though, is an overwhelmingly likable guy,
which makes it easier to rally around him. Kelly, too, seems more down
to earth than Weis. And understand, this opinion is just from talking
with others and from my experience mostly with Weis. But he’s been a
head coach before and has a lot of talent at his disposal. Plus, he’s
already shown he can recruit. I think people up here respect Kelly, for
sure. After all, he had success in the state both at Grand Valley on the
Division II level and then at Central Michigan in the MAC. Rodriguez
has faced him before and they have a mutual close friend in Butch Jones,
so I don’t think he is going to be surprised by anything Kelly tries to
do. But there is certainly mutual respect there.

ITI: What does Michigan have to do to win in South Bend?

MR: Hope the secondary doesn’t get burned too bad and that Robinson is able
to replicate, at least in part, what he did last week. Michigan doesn’t
need the record-setting day it got out of Robinson again this week, but
that’s because he has a couple good running backs in Michael Shaw and
Vincent Smith who can do some of the lifting for him. Michigan’s main
problem will be containing Floyd and Rudolph. If it can get some
pressure on Crist – and the Michigan defensive line is probably the
strongest part of that unit – then I think the Wolverines have a shot.
Either way, it’s a close game.

ITI: Obviously, last year’s game came down to the wire, with a few critical breaks going Michigan’s way. What do you see happening this year?

MR: Not sure. And I say that fairly at this point. Michigan’s secondary is
still such a large question that I have a tough time believing they can
hold it together for a whole game against this type of passing talent.
That said, Notre Dame’s tackling from the linebackers, specifically
Te’o, wasn’t great. If the middle linebacker is missing tackles against
Robinson or Shaw, that could open any play up to turn into a touchdown. I
think, much like last year, it is a very offensive-based game. Not
going to make a prediction just yet because I’ll do that at AnnArbor.com
later in the week. Also, because as of Tuesday afternoon, I just don’t
know what way I’m going to go.

*****

Check out Mike’s coverage as he covers the game this week. Want a trip down Memory Lane? Here’s what we had to say about the game last year. 

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

Getty Images
1 Comment

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.”

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line

Getty Images
5 Comments

Heading into spring practice, a quick look was taken at each position group in order of “expected level of interest or question marks,” from least interesting to most, as dictated by an “Inside the Irish” reader. That series concluded with the defensive line.

Exiting spring practice, let’s reprise that premise and reverse the order. If the defensive line triggered the most questions, then answering them first seems to make some version of sense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
“Will enough defensive linemen prove themselves deserving of playing time to create a viable threat up front?” this space asked. “If so, who will those linemen be?”

RELATED READING: One day until spring practice: A look at the defensive line

Aside from senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26 tackles last season, 0.5 for loss), senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss amid a season lost largely to concussion) and junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37, 3), the Irish defensive line had little track record to cite or rely upon for confidence. Leading the unknowns and unprovens were sophomore ends Daelin Hayes, who recorded 11 tackles in 2016, and Julian Okwara (4).

The lack of depth and experience was apparent heading into the 15 spring practices.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
Look past the 11 sacks in the Blue-Gold Game. Intrasquad scrimmages featuring red-jerseyed quarterbacks make for inexact and context-less statistics. There is some value, however, in noting the defensive line got within reach of the quarterback at least eight times in an abbreviated game. (Three “sacks” came from the linebacker corps.)

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, just buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

RELATED READING: What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

Hayes led the way with three sacks, and he will be expected to continue that in the fall, starting at the weakside/rush defensive end spot. Exiting spring, though, only he and Tillery solidified themselves as starters. Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Mike Elko claimed a successful spring for the front.

“I’m happy with our defensive line progress,” Elko said Friday. “Obviously there was a lot written about that group. I’m happy about the progress they’ve made this spring. I think [defensive line coach] Mike [Elston] has done a good job developing them. I think they are buying into the way we want to play defense. There’s probably four to five guys on the inside that are starting to get into a position where we feel comfortable that they can step in and help us.” (more…)

Brian Kelly & Jack Swarbrick on Notre Dame’s changes moving forward

56 Comments

Whether 2016’s disappointing 4-8 finish was the impetus to program-wide alterations at Notre Dame this offseason, it certainly underscored the need. For the last few months, Irish coach Brian Kelly has focused those changes on himself and self-assessment, and he reiterated that approach when talking with PFT Live’s Mike Florio early Monday morning.

“This is my 27th year of being a head coach, and prior to last year I had one losing season,” Kelly said. “You have a way of doing things, you have a system in place, you follow that year after year. Certainly you make tweaks along the way, but this is the first time where I’ve really taken a step back and made substantial changes in terms of how I’m doing things on a day-to-day basis…

“From my perspective, after being at it as long as I have, you have to take it on yourself that you’re the one that needs to make the corrections. It’s not the players.”

None of this is new. Kelly has been consistent in his springtime messaging, but others have looked past the effects of the 4-8 record and insist the changes were coming regardless of the win-loss totals. Senior captain Drue Tranquill, for example, acknowledged the severity of the losing record Friday but argued adjustments were needed no matter what the final scores were.

“If you have an average season like 8-4, some things might carry over to the next season,” Tranquill said the day before the spring practice finale. “Whereas when you go 4-8, something has to change.

“But I think even at Notre Dame, 8-4 is never really acceptable or tolerated. Those things that were taking place, just within our culture, would have been noticed whether we were 10-3, 4-8. The criticism gave it a lot more hype and juice. We could kind of feel as guys in the program throughout the past three years that certain things needed to change.

“Those things were finally brought to light and it happened to be during a 4-8 season. I don’t necessarily know that 4-8 was the reason all this change happened.”

New Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko expressed a similar sentiment Friday morning, discussing the pressure moving forward.

“If we were coming off a 12-0 season in which we were competing for the national championship, there would be pressure on us at Notre Dame to be successful this year,” Elko said. “That’s Notre Dame.”

Elko has been a quick study, as his comments were echoed the next day by Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick during NBC Sports Network’s broadcast of the Blue-Gold Game.

“We expect to compete for national championships and 4-8 is not acceptable,” Swarbrick said. “On the other hand, when you’re in that situation, you have to decide how you’re going to move forward. We decided to move forward by making a major investment in retooling our program with Brian as the leader of it. That’s not a one-year investment for us. We brought in some talented assistant coaches. We rebuilt elements of the program

“We view it as a multi-year investment going forward.”

KELLY ON RECRUITING PITCH
Using this week’s NFL Draft as a peg, Florio also asked Kelly about balancing players’ NFL aspirations with team success both in the recruiting process and during the actual season.

“We have to talk more in terms of process over production,” Kelly responded. “We talk in terms of you’re coming to Notre Dame for a reason. You’re going to get a degree, which will set you up for the rest of your life, and you’re going to play on the grandest stage at Notre Dame, so everybody will see you.

“As long as there’s the balance there—and there has to be that balance in terms of getting your education and playing for championships—then we’re okay. It’s when that balance is out of whack, we’ll have an issue. We vet that out in the recruiting process and make sure we don’t take any kids that are coming to Notre Dame just because they’re waiting for that [junior] year to complete so they can go to the draft.”

A reminder: The NFL Draft begins with its first round Thursday night. Kelly will be joining former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer at the draft in Philadelphia to await Kizer’s destination and future employer.

MISSED THE BLUE-GOLD GAME?
It is available for streaming: here.

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

Getty Images
16 Comments

By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?