And in that corner… the Michigan Wolverines

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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. 

Spring positions to watch for revelations: DL & WR

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 05: Jerry Tillery #99 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish tackles Jerrod Heard #13 of the Texas Longhorns for a loss of yards during the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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If quarterback, rover and the early enrollees could be Notre Dame fans’ springtime Christmas thrills, what positions present as potential spots of coal?

Three former Irish players were invited to next week’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis: quarterback DeShone Kizer, defensive tackle Jarron Jones and defensive end Isaac Rochell. Losing two consistent defensive linemen leaves this year’s unit with some questions. Jones and Rochell combined for 100 tackles, 18 for loss and three sacks last season. Notre Dame’s returning defensive linemen combined to total 111 tackles and only 5.5 tackles for loss. To be clear, sacks are not included in that latter list because no returning defensive linemen recorded one. Among the returnees, junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37 tackles, three for loss) and senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26, 0.5) contributed solidly alongside the two NFL prospects.

This dearth of known and reliable linemen is a large part of why the potential transfer of Clemson graduate defensive tackle Scott Pagano is so intriguing. Pagano would immediately be a favorite to start, and if not that, at least rotate in heavily.

For now, though, Pagano remains a theoretical

By the end of spring practice, who already on campus will emerge alongside Tillery and Trumbetti in the Irish front? Senior ends Jay Hayes (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) and Jonathon Bonner (nine tackles) seem the most-likely candidates … aside from former four-star recruit and now rising sophomore Daelin Hayes. In his debut season, D. Hayes finished with 11 tackles.

Look for senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) to establish himself as Tillery’s immediate backup this spring, but that spot in the rotation will be up for competition all over again once four-star tackle Darnell Ewell (Lake Taylor High School; Norfolk, Va.) arrives on campus in the fall. His size and quickness should play right into new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s system.

Equanimeous and Who?
Not only did Notre Dame bring in a graduate transfer at receiver in former Michigan wideout Freddy Canteen, but it has also already received the commitments of two four-star receivers in the 2018 recruiting class. The continued emphasis on the position reflects the lack of bona fide game-breakers currently on the roster.

Junior Equanimeous St. Brown established himself as the top Irish threat in 2016, and he should shine only further with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush targeting him. Classmates often amplify each other’s success, simply due to the added shared reps innate to joining practice at the same time. With Torii Hunter, Jr., now pursuing a professional baseball career, who will prevent the secondary from focusing all its energies on St. Brown?

Canteen will not be with Notre Dame in the spring, as he does not graduate from Michigan until April. That will give a clear shot for the likes of juniors Chris Finke, C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin, and sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool to establish themselves. Did that say “clear” shot? It should probably read, “a chance to separate from the crowd.”

If a genuine threat does not line up opposite St. Brown, his explosiveness will likely be greatly reduced by focused defensive scheming. Wimbush will need another target before 2018.

Of course, here is where one should acknowledge the millennia-tested fact: Coal under pressure becomes diamonds.

2016 Notre Dame’s win expectancy was 7.2
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Johnson named the Irish as his team most likely to dramatically improve its record in 2017. Johnson’s thinking is based, at least in part, on Notre Dame’s second-order win total having been 7.2 in 2016, compared to the four wins the Irish actually walked away with. That discrepancy was the largest in the country.

Second-order win totals reflect how many points a team should have scored and allowed based on offensive and defensive stats. In theory, this shines a light on how luck and chance factored into results. Naturally, losing seven games by one possession will often be reflected by a higher second-order win total.

“Notre Dame’s win-loss record belied a solid, if imperfect, squad that just couldn’t pull out close games…” Johnson writes. “The Irish may not get back into College Football Playoff contention in 2017, but they’re bound to post a few more Ws because of reversion to the mean.”

Admittedly, the small sample size of a football season reduces the applicability of metrics such as second- and third-order wins when compared to baseball and basketball.

Jones becomes Mack
A quick piece of housekeeping: Apparently junior tight end Alizé Jones has changed his name to Alizé Mack.

While Notre Dame’s roster may not reflect that change yet, it is reasonable to expect it will after its next update. The football program has consistently respected the intricacies of players’ name preferences. Tai-ler Jones becoming TJ Jones jumps to mind, for example.

Anyways, hopefully noting Mack’s name change here might reduce some confusion down the line. Probably not. How many readers possibly read to the actual bottom of an article? But hey, in good faith.

WR Lenzy makes 11th commitment, brings speed to Irish

lenzy
rivals.com
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At what point does an impressive recruiting roll become something more? When does it become a harbinger of things to come, even if not for a few seasons? How many notable commitments in a row establishes a class as special?

If the answer to any of the above is 11 commitments by the end of February, including five within two weeks, then Notre Dame is there following consensus four-star athlete Braden Lenzy’s announcement Thursday evening.

The Tigard High School (Portland, Ore) receiver/cornerback chose the Irish over offers from USC, Oregon and Michigan State, among a litany of others. In all, nine Pac-12 schools chased Lenzy—and a 10th, Washington, had shown interest—per rivals.com.

Lenzy will fit the leading 2018 need voiced by Irish coach Brian Kelly three weeks ago on National Signing Day 2017.

“Elite speed on offense will be a primary goal for us,” Kelly said Feb. 1. “Guys that can change the game on one possession. I think we’ll see that… We want a couple of home run hitters. We don’t care if they’re Darren Sproles’s size. We’re going to come off the board in terms of profile. We want some guys that can change the game on offense with elite speed.”

At 6-foot, 175 pounds, Lenzy is taller than Sproles’s 5-foot-6, but it is still his speed that drew Notre Dame’s interest.

“They made it clear they want me to do kickoff return and use me as a deep threat across the field,” he told Irish Illustrated. “Just being kind of an athlete, similar to what I’ve been doing already in high school, just on a bigger scale with a quarterback that can throw it a lot farther.”

Presuming Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush is that arm in 2018, throwing great distances should not be an issue. Between Lenzy and fellow 2018 commit Micah Jones, covering those distances should be a reasonable request, as well.

Lenzy brings Notre Dame’s class of 2018 to 11, including eight four-stars according to Rivals’ rating system. Current scholarship projections indicate the class will not be a large one, meaning the Irish coaching staff has already garnered the commitments of more than half the class. Once again, though, Kelly’s sentiment regarding recruiting timing should be remembered.

“We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

SWARBRICK’S TAKE ON RECRUITING
Kelly credited Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick with much assistance in securing the country’s No. 13 recruiting class in 2017. A refresher on those comments:

“In a lot of instances, [Swarbrick] had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it’s going,” Kelly said. “There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future.”

Swarbrick did not dispute the factual nature of any of that in an interview with the Indianapolis Star, but he did contest the need for praising what he saw as part of his job, one of the preferred parts of his job, at that.

“I can’t say anything about this year felt all that different,” Swarbrick told Star reporter Laken Litman. “Some asked questions about the future of the program and can we compete for a national championship. And I would talk about the elements of the program we were focused on improving.”

Swarbrick and Litman discussed a number of items in the second-half of the interview released by the Star, including Notre Dame’s facilities, a possible early signing period in football and if the Oct. 8, 2016, game against North Carolina State should have been played. Spoiler: No. Then why was it? Go check it out.

Swarbrick also told Litman he likes to write in his free time.

“I tend to think strategically with a pen in my hand.” Swarbrick added he is currently scribbling away on where he thinks college athletics are headed.

This scribe, for one, would be most interested in skimming those legal pads.

Will Wimbush, Elko and the early enrollees surprise in spring practice?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Exactly 59 days from today, the Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Sure, they will be playing against themselves, but nonetheless, it will be somewhat-competitive football played in gold helmets.

For timing context, exactly 59 days ago, you looked beneath the Christmas tree to learn if Santa Claus left you season tickets, socks or coal. I got socks. They had some of that extra cushioning, so I considered them a suitable treat.

Whether you care about my argyles or not (you don’t), for many the Blue-Gold Game and Christmas morning hold similar excitement. That fact is apparently why Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick does not concern himself when groups of alumni publicly lament his decisions, or lack thereof.

“I never worry about that,” Swarbirck told the Indianapolis Star in an exclusive interview you really should read. Go on, click the link, it will open in a new tab. You can come right back here when you are done.

“The hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion in your program. If that sort of stuff bothers you, you can’t be the athletic director, head coach or the quarterback at Notre Dame.”

That very passion will undoubtedly lead to frame-by-frame discussions of video snippets from spring practice, parsing of each and every word Irish coach Brian Kelly says in quick interviews after those practices, and extreme pessimism and optimism about the 2017 season.

In the Christmas spirit, what toys could bring the must excitement during the spring unwrapping? Personally, the gift I was unsure of always brought the most joy. I would rather open an unexpected book than know about a charcoal-gray suit. In other words, at least for today, let’s look past the offensive line, the running backs and the inside linebackers. Instead, let’s look forward to learning about… (more…)

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…)