And in that corner… the Michigan State Spartans

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Looking to catch a good football game? Your best bet is to buy a ticket to Notre Dame vs. Michigan State, because this series usually guarantees something dramatic is going to happen, and for some reason the ticket is never as in demand as other Irish rivalries.

Last year’s high-wire escape win for the Irish pretty much encapsulated the last decade of games with the Spartans. Both teams had a chance to win, both nearly gave it away, and this time — the Irish walked away with the victory.

As we did last year, we caught up with LVS of the Spartan blog The Only Colors, who has been paying plenty of attention to Mark Dantonio’s troops in their two opening victories against Western Michigan and Florida Atlantic. He was kind enough to give us all a scouting report, something Irish fans will need as they shake off the hangover from a tough loss last week.

(I also crossed the tracks and answered some questions for him on the Irish, so if you’re interested, give that a read as well.)

Inside the Irish: Assess the Spartans’
season so far. Two wins against underwhelming competition and an offense that
seems to have transitioned to a ground attack. Has anything surprised you after
two weeks?

LVS: The main surprise for me has been the running game.  I expected that MSU would run the ball better
than last season, but the results so far have been above and beyond what even
the most optimistic Spartan fan could have hoped for.  The offensive line is blocking very well, and
Edwin Baker and Le’Veon Bell have looked superb.  A third option at running back, Larry Caper,
will be making his season debut this weekend, and should make a good situation
better.  Caper was MSU’s best running
back for most of last season, and yet, amazingly, it seems that he’ll be
struggling for carries simply because Baker and Bell have been so good.

 Unfortunately, while the rushing attack has emerged, the
passing game–which, as you implied, was the strength of the entire team last
year–has struggled.  In the first game,
those struggles were at least partially a result of drops.  (5, by my count.)  But that wasn’t the case last week, when Kirk
Cousins was relatively inaccurate, and threw a really poor interception from Florida Atlantic’s 1-yard line.  I’m convinced that
the passing game is going to come around; Cousins proved how good he was last
season, and we still have a horde of talented receivers.  Personally, I think Cousins is going to be
motivated by how this game ended last year, and put together a good performance
on Saturday night.

Earlier in the year,
you guys ranked the ND game as the 4th toughest on your schedule, and thought
ND’s chances hinged on Brian Kelly. Still feel the same way?

Having now seen the messiah-like substance that is Denard
Robinson, I might be inclined to put our game in Ann Arbor ahead of Saturday’s
game, in terms of difficulty.  But, yeah,
I’ve seen both of the Irish games so far, and they seem to be roughly what I
thought they’d be: a talented group that occasionally makes mistakes due to
inexperience.  With that in mind, I’m
glad we’re playing early in the season, and happier still that this will be ND’s
first road game.

I think that Brian Kelly was a very good hire and will
probably have a lot of success in South Bend. 
It’s simply a question of how quickly that success will come.  After beating a Purdue team that looks worse
than advertised, and losing to a Michigan team which is probably good but not
great, I think it’s too early to tell if ND’s big jump will come this
season.  I’d guess that it’ll take at
least another year or so, but this weekend could reveal a lot about that.

Last year you called Blair White’s
breakout game. Anyone you see having a dynamic day this Saturday night?

I’ll choose Edwin Baker; while he’s been great the past two
weeks, playing like that in front of a national TV audience would be a truer
breakout.  Anyway, he’s a powerful runner
who nonetheless has the speed to get to the outside.  And if he gets to the outside, given the
problems ND’s had at OLB, he could very well turn those runs into big gains.  MSU’s offensive line has been outstanding so
far, and if they can give Baker some lanes, he’ll take them.

 I’ll also hedge a bit by nominating Keshawn Martin as well.  He’s an incredible punt returner, and, if ND
kicks to him, I think he’ll do a lot of damage. 
You might see him gain big chunks on end-arounds or trap handoffs, too. 

It’s the first road game of the year for
the Irish. How difficult of an atmosphere will it be to play in this year?

Spartan Stadium gets particularly loud and nasty during
night games, and this Saturday won’t be any different.  Our stadium isn’t the biggest one in the
world (although at 75,000+ capacity, it’s certainly not tiny), but the
double-deck design traps sound and makes for a particularly loud
atmosphere.  I’m sure the Irish players
are expecting a hostile atmosphere, and they’ll get it.


Last year’s team seemed to get away from
the traditional Spartan offensive attack, and the first two games seem like MSU
is trying to turn the offense into a physical football team. What can Irish
fans expect from head coach Mark Dantonio and the Spartans on defense?

You can expect a defensive line that’s solid against the run
and middling in pass rush, one of the best linebacking corps in the country,
and a secondary that’s better than it was last year, but is still probably
sub-par.

 Briefly: Colin Neely had an excellent game at defensive end
last week, and Jerel Worthy is a very solid defensive tackle.  You may see a bit of William Gholston at
defensive end.  He was one of the top
defensive recruits in the country last year; he’s 6’7″, strong, very quick, and
has looked excellent in limited playing time so far this year.  I have a feeling that the coaching staff
might take the wraps off him on Saturday.

 Greg Jones leads the linebackers, and is quite simply one of
the best defensive players in college football. 
Eric Gordon and Chris Norman are the outside linebackers and they aren’t
bad, either.  As a group, they’re
excellent against the run and are deadly on the blitz.  They’re weaker in pass coverage, and I fear
that Kyle Rudolph may be able to exploit them.

 The secondary was a trainwreck of unbelievable proportions
last year, and pass defense (or really lack thereof) destroyed MSU’s season.  I think they’re better this year.  Chris L. Rucker is still vulnerable, but
Johnny Adams has looked fairly good at the other corner, and the safeties
(Trenton Robinson and Marcus Hyde) have made some nice pass breakups.  That’s not to say that Notre Dame won’t have
success throwing the ball, but I feel better about the secondary than I did
last year.

 The coaching staff has used a very, very basic 4-3 in the
first two games, with very few blitzes and no exotic stuff.  I suspect that we’ll see more variation
against ND; the talk all through the off-season was about how MSU will play a
lot of 3-4 this year.  We haven’t seen
that yet, but this could very well be the week.

Obviously, Notre Dame won a close one
last year. The past eight years of this game have been filled with tight games,
tough defeats for both squads, and a growing intensity to the rivalry. Where
does this game stand for Michigan State?

Firmly behind the Michigan game in the Spartan
consciousness, but very important nonetheless. 
It’s Notre Dame, so whether the game is home or away, it’s a nationally
televised game and a headline-grabber. 
If the 2006 meltdown had come against almost any other team, people
would have forgotten about it after a few weeks.  But it was against Notre Dame, so everyone
remembers.  (Mike Valenti didn’t help in
that regard.  Thanks a lot, pal.)  Each year there are conference games that
mean more to me than this one; for instance, this year the Iowa and Wisconsin
games will be huge.  But this one is always near the top.  The fact that they’ve been very, very good
games in recent years (and also that we’ve won plenty of them) certainly doesn’t
hurt.

What’s your gut feeling for Saturday
night?

I’m usually pretty manic-depressive about predicting MSU
games, so the fact that I’m reasonably optimistic about this one disturbs me
some.  I love the way we’ve run the ball
so far, I think that Kirk Cousins will be highly motivated to atone for his
interception last season, and while I don’t think our defense is going to
dominate Notre Dame, I certainly don’t think they’ll be steamrolled,
either.  It’s always risky to count on a
quarterback playing well in his first road start, and I think we’ll have some
success blitzing Crist and rattling him. 
There are plenty of ways MSU could lose this game: Michael Floyd could
go off, as could Kyle Rudolph (and the latter is more likely, in my opinion), we
could turn the ball over a ton, we could have horrific defensive breakdowns,
and so on.

 But I think the first two games have been perfect for MSU:
challenging enough to keep the team interested, but not challenging enough to
force the coaches to open up the playbook or for the players to be tired/banged
up heading into this game.  Furthermore, playing
this game in East Lansing will make a difference.  From the beginning of spring practice, there’s
been a terrific vibe surrounding this MSU team; they’re talented and ready, and
I think they’ll pass their first big test of the year.  30-24 MSU, or something like that.

    

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s linebackers, a proven two and then many questions

Associated Press
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Any concerns about Notre Dame’s linebackers were allayed when Te’von Coney spurned the NFL to return for his senior season. That decision, and Drue Tranquill making the same move, means the Irish do not need to replace their two best playmakers at the position from last season.

Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Clark Lea does need to figure out how to fill in for the graduated Nyles Morgan and his 92 tackles, not to mention classmate Greer Martini and his 75, good for second and fourth on the team, respectively.

Spring Roster:
— Two known and welcome playmaking veterans in Coney and fifth-year Tranquill.
— More than a handful of unproven and untested possibilities in rising senior Asmar Bilal, rising juniors Jonathan Jones and Jamir Jones (no relation), and rising sophomores Drew White, David Adams and Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah.
— A trio of early-enrolled freshmen in Jack Lamb, Bo Bauer and Ovie Oghoufo.

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman Shayne Simon, a likely rover candidate.

Entering 2017, Te’von Coney was not even a starting linebacker. By the end of the season he was the leading tackler, and in 2018, he will be counted on as a defensive stalwart. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
Wherever Tranquill ends up — be it at rover or a more traditional linebacker position, with the latter seeming more likely — someone will need to earn the third starting role. Bilal is the front-runner for that duty, at either position, but he will need to show a quicker understanding of the game than he has in the past.

The rising senior has always been ready physically, but he has looked up the depth chart at the likes of Morgan, Martini, Coney and Tranquill. Opportunities were not readily available. Now that one very much is, Bilal will need to either seize it or get ready to be bypassed by the newcomers.

It would be a surprise for Lamb or Bauer to be named that third starter in their freshman season, but both could certainly land in the two-deep, as that entire second unit is up for grabs. Neither Jones showed much last season, and the linebacker recruiting emphasis of 2018 belied the coaching staffs’ opinions of the rising sophomores pretty clearly.

Presuming Bilal steps forward and secures the starting position, and some combination of Jones, Jones, Lamb and Bauer fill two of the backup roles, only Owusu-Koromoah stands out as an obvious rover substitute. In that respect, depth remains a concern at the defense’s second level, albeit less of one than in years past thanks to the influx of four touted freshmen.

Biggest Question:
Where does Tranquill line up against Michigan on Sept. 1? More to the current purpose, where does he line up in the Blue-Gold Game on April 21?

“My responsibility as linebackers coach is to put the best combination of people on the field,” Lea said Feb. 7. “I think everyone can see Drue Tranquill had a skillset, a talent base that can play multiple spots. Through the course of the winter and spring, we’ll take a look at different options.”

The duties at rover can be handled piecemeal, accounting for the tendencies of each opponent. When facing an up-tempo, aerial attack, perhaps even rising senior cornerback Shaun Crawford could be featured there. When facing a physical, ground-bound opponent, Bilal would make more sense.

Shifting around like that at the Buck linebacker spot makes far less sense. While Tranquill never necessarily had the speed to excel at safety, and two knee injuries only further limited him in that respect, he shined at rover in 2017. Concluding his collegiate career at linebacker is logical, both as it pertains to his development thus far and to his professional aspirations.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Rarely can a defense lose two of its top-four tacklers and still return more than 200 tackles from starting linebackers. Thus is the luxury provided by both Coney and Tranquill bypassing the NFL for another year.

Coney: 116 tackles, 13.0 tackles for loss including three sacks, and one forced fumble which he recovered.
Tranquill: 85 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss including 1.5 sacks, one interception, three pass breakups, three fumbles recovered and one fumble forced.
Bilal: 18 tackles with 1.5 for loss.
Jo. Jones: 10 tackles with one for loss and one pass breakup.
Ja. Jones: Four tackles.

A 2018 Statistical Thought:
Presuming linebacker health, the three starters should end up as Notre Dame’s leading tacklers once again in 2018, even with the presumed drop off from Morgan to insert Bilal or Owusu-Koromoah or Lamb or … here.

The Irish defensive line will be much improved in 2018. Once upon a time, that seemed a guarantee just because the expectations for the line entering 2017 were so low, but it instead became a strength. Developing that strength and making it the backbone of Notre Dame’s defense moving forward will serve to burgeon the linebackers’ tackle totals, both at and behind the line of scrimmage.

Notre Dame gets the letter: Jack Lamb
Notre Dame gets the letter: Bo Bauer
Notre Dame gets the letter: Shayne Simon
Notre Dame gets the letter: Ovie Oghoufo

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are

A second four-star defensive lineman, Hunter Spears, joins the Notre Dame class of 2019

rivals.com
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When Notre Dame got five heralded defensive line recruits on campus together in January, it turned heads. When Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston offered public optimism about the possible 2019 commitments, it raised expectations.

Notre Dame has now secured a second of those five with the Tuesday commitment of consensus four-star defensive end Hunter Spears (Sachse High School; Texas). He joins consensus four-star defensive tackle Jacob Lacey (South Warren H.S.; Bowling Green, Ky.) as the early foundation to the recruiting class, now with four prospects pledged.

“Honestly, just talking with the guys today — Jacob Lacey, Mazi Smith, Joseph Anderson, Nana Osafo-Mensah, and myself — if Notre Came can land all of us, that would be the dream d-line class for Notre Dame,” Spears told Irish Illustrated. “I could see another pass-rusher or two, also.”

The other three names Spears mentioned all joined Lacey and him on Jan. 27 at an on-campus Junior Day. All five qualify as consensus four-stars, with Smith (East Kentwood; Kentwood, Mich.) a tackle, Anderson (Siegel; Murfreesboro, Tenn.) an end, and Osafo-Mensah (Nolan Catholic; Fort Worth, Texas) a possible end/linebacker hybrid.

From left to right: Osafo-Mensah, Anderson, Elston, Smith, Lacey and Spears. (Twitter: @JacobLacey6)

Landing all five may be ambitious, but it would also be the envy of most of the country.

Spears already held offers from the likes of Alabama and Michigan State, despite missing his junior season with a knee injury. The Irish extended a scholarship offer to him in June, prompting an unofficial visit to watch a 49-14 Notre Dame victory over USC in October. In a video released by 247Sports.com, Spears cited that experience as one of the three primary reasons he committed, along with the educational opportunity and the “overall tradition and culture.”

Spears shows quickness for a defensive lineman, but not such that he would ever be considered an outside linebacker in any form. His size makes him an ideal candidate to set the edge against the run or possibly move inside when the Irish need a quicker defensive line to handle certain opponents. His agility, though, will make him a three-down threat, both a pass-rusher and an edge-setter.

Notre Dame currently has depth at defensive end, but with only one signed in the class of 2018 (Justin Ademilola) and one remaining from the class of 2017 (Kofi Wardlow), an influx will be a priority this recruiting cycle. Spears will theoretically have one season to adjust to collegiate competition before the quartet of rising juniors Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem, Julian Okwara and Ade Ogundeji run out of eligibility. (The first three have two seasons remaining, while Ogundeji has the possibility of three more years.)

Hence, that Junior Day emphasis and Elston’s confidence on National Signing Day.

“I’ve been at Notre Dame now going on for nine years, and I haven’t had a stronger group of underclassmen that I’m recruiting than I have this year in 2019,” Elston said. “This could be the best defensive line haul we’ve ever had here.”

Expect to read that quote again and again (and possibly again) if any of the remaining three in the above photo follow Spears’ and Lacey’s lead.

RELATED READING: ‘Accelerated’ start creates bright outlook for Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting cycle

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are

Getty Images
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Notre Dame will open spring practice in about two weeks. As always, the proceedings will be filled with positive reviews, optimistic outlooks, and an injury or two.

A quick look at each position group should lend a better understanding to those perspectives and effects, beginning with the group lacking many questions — the running backs. The biggest reason there is relative certainty around the running backs is there are just so few of them following the winter dismissals of rising junior Deon McIntosh and rising sophomore C.J. Holmes.

Spring Roster:
Rising senior Dexter Williams (pictured above)
Rising junior Tony Jones
Early-enrolled freshman Jahmir Smith
Rising junior Mick Assaf

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman C’Bo Flemister

No one received more praise last spring practice than Tony Jones. He had a successful 2017, but compared to that hype, it could have been considered under-performing. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
At some point, either Williams or Jones will be named the Irish starter. It is quite possible that will be a distinction without much difference, as the two could certainly complement each other well in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s system, which already prefers to use multiple running backs.

Human nature, though, dictates is more likely one back receives a majority of the carries.

Biggest Question:
If Williams lines up with the No. 1 offensive unit in the Blue-Gold Game (April 21) to conclude spring practice, that will be the first genuine and tangible evidence he has improved as a pass blocker. Despite his big-play speed and seeming-ease breaking tackles, Williams’ one-dimensional game rendered him as much a liability as an asset in 2017.

Even in the Citrus Bowl victory, Williams followed up back-to-back rushes for a combined 36 yards with a blown pass protection resulting in a 13-yard sack.

“You have to be able to protect the quarterback with all positions,” Long said Feb. 7. “That dictates a whole lot if you’re going to play a lot or just be a situational guy. It’s something you have to embrace, the physicality.

“… That’s really the main thing, other than protecting the ball, that’ll keep a back off the field in our offense.”

The best ability is availability, and both an ankle injury and a balky quad limited Williams in that respect in 2017. Little blame can be cast for the natural bruises of football. Nonetheless, he will need to “embrace the physicality” if he wants to become more than a situational back.

Otherwise, Jones will be the default option. He has already shown a knack for both pass blocking and catching, making him a three-down option. Notre Dame will always prefer that rather than tip its hand to a running play every time Williams enters the game.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Obviously, Josh Adams carried the burden in the running game last season. Behind rising senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush and McIntosh, Williams was only the No. 4 rusher on the roster in yards and touchdowns, while Jones was No. 4 in carries and No. 5 in yards and scores.

Williams: 360 yards on 39 carries, a 9.2 average, with four touchdowns. Two catches for 13 yards and one score.
Jones: 232 yards on 44 carries, a 5.3 average, with three touchdowns. Six catches for 12 yards.
Notre Dame gets the letter: Jahmir Smith
Notre Dame gets the letter: C’Bo Flemister

Monday’s Leftovers: Geography, as much as academics, caps Notre Dame’s recruiting possibilites

Associated Press
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A year ago, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly acknowledged a practical ceiling on Irish recruiting efforts.

“Since I’ve been here, if you look at the average rankings, we’re anywhere from 5 to 15,” Kelly said on 2017’s National Signing Day, a day on which Notre Dame secured the No. 13 class in the country, per rivals.com. “We’re going to fall somewhere in that range because there’s a line there we can’t get over based upon what our distinctions are here. That line is going to keep us between 5 and 15.

“We know where we’re going to fall. We’re going to continue to recruit the right kind of kids here.”

Sure enough, the Irish once again fall into that spectrum in 2018, finishing No. 11 per rivals. Though Notre Dame has risen above that range once (No. 3 in 2013) and fallen below it once (No. 20 in 2012) during Kelly’s tenure, his overall analysis remains accurate.

The instinct has always been to cite University academic standards as the greatest hurdle to rising into the top five consistently, but another aspect should not be overlooked. In a recent mailbag, Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples pondered the factors keeping the Irish from becoming a perennial 10-win team.

“Another major reason is a lack of a local recruiting base,” Staples wrote. “No program has a stronger national reach than Notre Dame, but that still doesn’t make recruiting nationally easy. It’s much easier to have hundreds of quality prospects within driving distances.”

That dynamic is a part of why the Irish are better positioned to reap rewards from high school juniors now being able to take official visits in April, May and June. Those time periods are less hectic for most high schoolers, so a long-distance trip may fit into the calendar with a bit less stress. Obviously, only time will tell the true impact of that new change.

Looking at both this past year’s recruiting rankings and the last nine years of rankings underscores and supports Staples’ point.

Rivals considered 33 prospects to be five-star recruits in 2018. Only seven schools managed to sign multiple such players: Georgia (8), Clemson (6), USC (5), Alabama (3), Ohio State (3), Penn State (2), and Miami (2). To speak more broadly, four schools in the Deep South, two in the Ohio-Pennsylvania corridor and one in California, all talent-rich areas, especially compared to Indiana, Illinois and Michigan.

If combining the total signees of both four- and five-star rankings by rivals, Notre Dame signed 12 such prospects. Only 11 schools signed more, including six of the above seven. (Clemson equaled the Irish haul, though its even split between four- and five-star recruits stands out compared to Notre Dame’s 12 four-stars.) The additional five: Oklahoma, Texas, Florida State, Auburn and Florida. In other words, two schools tapping into Texas, two schools within Florida and one more in the Deep South.

If looking at the last nine years of recruiting, the span of Kelly’s time in South Bend, only eight programs have consistently out-recruited the Irish, all but one mentioned already. LSU finished with the No. 13 recruiting class in 2018, lowering its nine-year average placement to 8.0. The Tigers are one of five SEC teams in that group of eight, joining Florida State, Ohio State and USC.

Sense a theme?

It will always be hard enough for Notre Dame to find high-caliber players likely to succeed at a strong academic institution in the Midwest. That task is even harder knowing how far away those players typically are to start with.

Other programs face a similar challenge, and few handle it as well. Consider the 2018 recruiting classes of Stanford, Michigan and Michigan State, for familiar context.

Stanford finished with 4 four-stars in rivals’ No. 63 class. The Wolverines pulled in 7 four-stars as part of the No. 24 class, while the Spartans signed 5 four-stars in the No. 26 grouping.

The Blue-Chip Ratio
Finishing within Kelly’s range has not stopped Notre Dame from consistently having one of the most-talented rosters in the country. If abiding by rivals rankings for consistency, 45 of the 89 players currently on the Irish roster (including incoming freshmen) were four- or five-star recruits.

A commonly-cited metric of a roster’s talent is the so-called “Blue-Chip Ratio.” Essentially, a national championship caliber team will have at least 50 percent of its roster consisting of former four- or five-star prospects. Entering 2017, Notre Dame was one of only 10 such teams in the country.

As should be expected, the other nine included six programs from the Deep South, Ohio State, USC and, as an ode to Jim Harbaugh’s early recruiting successes, Michigan.

A Presidents Day Reminder
Notre Dame cannot officially claim any POTUS as an alum, but both Josiah Bartlet and James Marshall would like to argue otherwise.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Notre Dame’s pending attrition actually intended to improve the roster
NCAA denies Notre Dame’s appeal, vacating 21 wins, including 12-0 in 2012
Notre Dame is right: The NCAA’s terrible precedent matters, but vacating wins does not
‘Accelerated’ start creates bright outlook for Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting cycle
Notre Dame’s successful early signing period now begets early visit questions

OUTSIDE READING:
NCAA appeals committee upholds vacation of Notre Dame wins
A letter from the President on the NCAA Infractions Case
Irish set high expectations for Jurkovec
Elston ‘recruits’ Tillery, Bonner for one last ride
Giants release defensive end Ishaq Williams with a failed physical designation
Re-ranking the longest FBS coaching tenures from 1-to-230
Hip injury to keep Stanford QB K.J. Costello sidelined for much of spring drills