IBG: Welcome to Spartyville — UPDATED

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I’m new to this Irish Blogger Gathering thing, but I was asked to host this week’s party. My job — DJ the evening, select the questions, and make sure everybody behaves.

(All while people probably crack jokes behind my back and make fun of the corporate blogger, an oxymoron if there ever was one…)

As the Irish prepare to take on Michigan State, I had an incredibly difficult time putting together questions that stayed on point for this week’s game, and also took stock of where the Irish are after the honeymoon officially ended last Saturday.

I’ll be updating this link as the answers from around the blogosphere come rolling in, but feel free to use the comments to chime in as well, what with this being the internet and all.

I’ll update and repost this on Friday with my answers, as well, and pick out some of the best points from the comments section.

THE QUESTIONS: (UPDATED WITH MY ANSWERS)

1. Status check: How deflating was the loss to Michigan I could argue that Crist’s injury makes this loss both easier to swallow and even more maddening for Irish fans?

It’s the hypotheticals that kill me. In a transition year, you’re going to expect a few bumps in the road, but I’d have really liked to see the Irish play a complete game against the Wolverines — with Dayne Crist — and then let the chips fall where they fall. It’s also got to be old for Notre Dame fans to watch another Michigan quarterback coronation after a last second victory.  

2. How critical is this Saturday’s game? Walk away 2-1 and the Irish can feel good about taking on a very able Stanford squad at home next weekend.Walk out of East Lansing with a loss..?

I’m in the uber-critical camp. I’ve seen the way the tide shifts with ND Nation, and all the goodwill in the world will be gone and negativity will invade the masses if the Irish lose this one and start struggling against three pretty solid teams in Stanford, Boston College and Pitt. A loss here could get an ugly boulder rolling, so the Irish need to play a clean football game and seize back the momentum. 

3. Why does the rivalry with Michigan State seem to get so little respect?

Probably a mix between its place in the schedule and the lack of national following for the Spartans. This is one of those games that Notre Dame doesn’t seem to get much out of — a win against Michigan State is met with apathy, but a loss is usually season-crushing. Unfortunately for the Irish, it seems there have been more than a few seasons getting crushed lately at the hands of MSU, though some of the Irish victories had to have felt just as painful for the Sparty faithful.

4. It’s hard to draw too many conclusions from victories over Western Michigan and Florida Atlantic, but what do you expect this Saturday night in Spartan Stadium?

One of those classic boring Michigan State football teams that have guys most people haven’t heard of that just so happen to be bigger, stronger, and faster than the guys wearing Notre Dame uniforms. The potential three-headed monster at running back could cause the Irish problems, but it’s the potential for playaction passing that has me worried after the secondary showed some cracks last weekend. One of the benefits of scheduling cupcakes in your first two weeks is that you’re able to get your team ready to play, and Kirk Cousins has had his chance to work out a few kinks against Western and FAU before taking on a team that stole a victory from him.

5. Best case, worst case, most likely: The Irish’s record after the first six games.

Best case: 5-1
Worst Case: 1-5
Most likely: 4-2 (though a dark part of me is saying 3-3)

6. Let’s leave Michael Floyd out of this for a second. What Irish player needs to step up and play better football?

I’m looking at Darius Fleming. He’s a guy that impressed during spring practice and fall camp, fits the mold of a guy that can play that swing linebacker perfectly in Bob Diaco’s defense, and should be in a position to make a ton of plays behind the line of scrimmage. Well, we’re two games into the season and he’s made zero plays behind the line, missed most of the opener with cramping, and has only made three solo tackles so far. There’s plenty of time for him to become the guy many of us thought he’d be this year, but tonight’s the night for Darius.

THE ANSWERS:
(With my favorite highlighted…)

Her Loyal Sons: What Irish player needs to step up and play better football?

Anyone assigned to a position typically referred to as “Outside
Linebacker.” There have already been far too many moments where an
Irish OLB looks like they just might get some pressure on the QB, and
yet none of the OLB have registered a sack. Brian Smith played an entire game last weekend without registering a single tackle.

Subway Domer: How deflating was the loss to Michigan?

Deflating? It was soul-crushing. Nothing- NOTHING made this loss any
easier on me. Maddening… maddening, you say? After a lifelong pledge
of loyalty to Notre Dame, I have grown used to the maddening nature of
Fighting Irish football. But, I guess that is the nature of college
football in general. Expect the unexpected and bask in the glory when
you are lucky enough to have that sun shine upon your wrinkly old [redacted].

We Never Graduate: How critical is this Saturday’s game?

If the Irish can go to East Lansing and win it’ll be an enormous
confidence boost and set the stage for what should be a slugfest with
Stanford. If Notre Dame sweeps the next two games it will most likely
re-enter the Top 25 and set the stage for serious progress and maybe a
BCS run. If they lose then doubt will creep into the minds of both fans and the
team. Remember, this is a group that has collapsed each of the last two
seasons so you can’t help but think that their confidence is at least
somewhat fragile. While you have to think Kelly can handle the psyche
of the players better than Weis did, you’d much rather maintain the
positive momentum and mojo that’s surrounded the program since BK’s
hiring.

Irish Round Table: Why does the Michigan State rivalry get so little respect?

Pre-Davie the Irish held a .657 winning percentage against Michigan State
Post-Davie the Irish own a .307 winning percentage.

Maybe it is time for Notre Dame fans to show this rivalry a little more respect. Problem is respect is a two way street.*

*Bonus points to the Round Table for an excellent reminder.

One Foot Down: What do you expect this Saturday night in Spartan Stadium?

I’m constantly expecting Michigan State to be good every year. I don’t
know if it’s because I like the color green or that I kind of feel bad
for them because of their lack of success in the past and wanting them
to do well, but I’m always talking up their talent…

The Irish offense has been very conservative and vanilla and I think
this is the game where Brian Kelly starts calling more bubble screens,
reverses and misdirection plays to keep the Spartan linebackers on their
toes.  Notre Dame 35, MSU 24.

Four-star WR Micah Jones chooses Irish; Rees may need to wait; Other late-week reading

jones
rivals.com
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A day may come when Notre Dame suffers a recruiting disappointment in the 2018 cycle, when a high school star spurns the Irish coaching staff for a foe, but it is not this day.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township High School; Gurnee, Ill.) committed to Notre Dame on Friday, joining a class of now 10 recruits, including four who committed just this week.

Jones chose the Irish over offers from the likes of Iowa, Michigan State and Ole Miss, among others.

He is the first receiver among the 10 commitments and the seventh considered a four-star prospect. At 6-foot-5, 196 pounds, Jones should present a large target for whomever the Notre Dame quarterback is in the fall of 2018, most likely then-senior Brandon Wimbush.

Tom, Tommy or Thomas; Assistant Coach or Graduate Assistant?
Thomas Rees may need to wait a season before officially being a coach at Notre Dame. The legislation to approve a 10th assistant coach was expected to be voted on, passed and effective in April. A newly-added amendment may push the effective date to following the 2017 season. The amendment will be voted on immediately before the legislation itself is.

The delay makes sense. Most coaching hirings and firings occur in December and January. In theory, creating a one-timing hiring frenzy following spring football could leave many programs in the lurch. In practice, however, this is not anticipated.

“The majority of the FBS guys that I’ve talked with currently believe that 10th coach is going to come from within their own organization,” Todd Berry told the Associated Press. Berry is the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association and former coach at Army and Louisiana-Monroe. “Quality control, graduate assistants, analysts, or they’re planning on hiring somebody that’s out of work.”

A majority is not a unanimity, though, and that carousel will innately work to the disadvantage of the Group of 5 schools.

As for Rees, a graduate assistant can still work extensively with players. The most-pertinent difference between a graduate assistant and an assistant coach is the former cannot recruit. Given Notre Dame’s recent success on the recruiting trail—and the early commitment of class of 2018 consensus four-star quarterback Phil Jurkovec (Pine-Richland H.S.; Gibsonia, Pa.)—Rees may not be an absolute necessity in that regard this cycle.

A Kizer Appraisal
Former NFL scout Greg Gabriel took a look at former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer this week, largely paying the draft prospect compliments.

In calling Kizer “the most talented quarterback in this draft class,” Gabriel set a high ceiling for Kizer’s spring. Part of Gabriel’s positive assessment comes from acknowledging Kizer’s responsibilities as the Irish signal-caller.

“The spread offense that Kizer played in at Notre Dame is more sophisticated than many of the spread offenses we see elsewhere at the collegiate level. The Notre Dame offense is a whole-field read scheme in which the quarterback has to go through a progression that encompasses both sides of the field. He also can change the play and/or protections at the line of scrimmage. Given all that, Kizer was asked to do more than many spread quarterbacks are asked to do.”

Gabriel also reflected on the dynamic differences for Kizer in 2015 and 2016 and what may have elicited some of his seeming stagnation.

“There was the unnecessary quarterback controversy at Notre Dame, and the offensive line wasn’t as experienced or as talented and the receivers were mostly first-year starters.”

As much as Gabriel raves about Kizer, he would be the first to tell you anything beyond individual player evaluation is a waste of air this early in the draft process. Mock drafts may be fun, but they are not much beyond that.

Take the fates of Tony Romo and Jimmy Garoppolo, for example. Few, if any, in the NFL expect them to dress for the Cowboys and Patriots, respectively, again. Where they end up could directly impact Kizer’s draft placement.

Jaylon Smith May Be Back to Form
Former Notre Dame and current Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith posted yet another encouraging video to Twitter. This one shows Smith really might be game-ready right now and, if not, almost certainly will be by the fall. Should there be any difficulty with the embedded video below, here is a link straight to it.

OL Mabry makes third commitment this week; WR Jones may follow Friday

mabry
rivals.com
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Two weeks ago, Irish coach Brian Kelly gave a non-answer of an answer to a question about a likely early signing period this coming December. Avoiding specifics, he indicated he thinks the effects of such a change will be seen on a case-by-case basis entirely dependent on the recruits.

“Some will, some won’t,” Kelly said. “…Each kid is going to have to react to it based upon also how their school is going to be dealing with it. Some will come off the board at the time.

“We’re expecting some to sign early, but I think our mindset is we’re going into it business as usual. We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

After this week, Notre Dame is going to have more year-long fights than anticipated. Consensus three-star offensive lineman recruit Cole Mabry (Brentwood High School; Brentwood, Tenn.) became the third prospect to offer a verbal commitment to the Irish coaching staff in less than 36 hours with his Wednesday decision. Mabry received the offer over the weekend, but waited a few days before making his decision public, lest emotions be dictating his thought process.

At 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds, Mabry will have time to add muscle to his frame, with four or five offensive tackles greeting him on the Notre Dame roster in the summer of 2018. That ability to mold his style and growth may have played a part in the Irish interest.

“They love my height and athleticism and how I play,” Mabry told rivals.com. “We got to break down film and go through things that they do that pair up with how I play now. They think I’ll be a great fit in their offense.”

Mabry is the ninth Notre Dame commitment in the class of 2018, though the first offensive lineman.

Judging by new Notre Dame director of football performance Matt Balis’s agenda for the Irish roster’s Valentine’s Day morning, Mabry will have much to look forward to in terms of strength and conditioning.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township H.S.; Gurnee, Ill.) is scheduled to announce his verbal commitment this Friday at 4 p.m. ET. Along with Notre Dame, Jones is considering Iowa, Michigan State, Nebraska, Ole Miss, Illinois and Northwestern. He would be the first receiver in Notre Dame’s 2018 class. Naturally, whomever Jones commits to, the recruiting fight will last until at least December, and perhaps all the way to February.

Notre Dame adds two top defensive back commits; Elliott officially a ‘Husker

allen
rivals.com
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It’s early. It’s really, really early. Not in the day, though this post is scheduled for an a.m. hour. No, it is early in the 2018 recruiting cycle. Any piece of news, each commitment, everything should be taken with two grains of salt.

Nonetheless, Notre Dame—and more specifically, new Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko and defensive backs coach Todd Lyght—enjoyed Tuesday’s recruiting news when two consensus four-star coverage men committed to the Irish.

Safety Derrik Allen (Lassiter High School; Marietta, Ga.) and cornerback Kalon Gervin (Cass Tech; Detroit, Mich.) joined a class of now eight commitments, six of which play on the defensive side of the ball.

Gervin, the No. 11 cornerback in the class according to rivals.com, waited mere days after attending Notre Dame’s Junior Day over the weekend. Irish coach Brian Kelly and staff’s failure to land a recruit at Gervin’s position in the 2017 haul actually helped reel in the recruit with offers from Florida, LSU, Michigan and dozens others.

“The opportunity to play right away, they didn’t sign a cornerback this last class,” Gervin told Blue & Gold Illustrated helped sway him. “Also, the education is second-to-none. It speaks for itself.”

Allen, pictured at top, has leaned toward Notre Dame for months. The No. 3 safety in the country per Rivals, he chose the Irish over the likes of Alabama, Clemson and Florida State.

Elliott officially to Nebraska

The two highly-touted defensive backs will not have the chance to learn under the tutelage of Bob Elliott. Nebraska officially announced the hiring of the former Notre Dame safeties (2012-13) and linebackers (2014) coach. Elliott spent the last two seasons serving as a special assistant to Kelly, focusing largely on defending the triple-option attacks of Army, Navy and Georgia Tech.

Elliott rejoins former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco in Lincoln. Diaco was hired as the Cornhuskers’ defensive coordinator in January.

The Lincoln Journal Star’s Brian Cristopherson reports Elliott will make a nice wage in eastern Nebraska.

Could Kelly move a receiver to cornerback?

PALO ALTO, CA - NOVEMBER 30:  Bennett Jackson #2 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish intercepts this pass intended for Michael Rector #3 of the Stanford Cardinal during the fourth quarter at Stanford Stadium on November 30, 2013 in Palo Alto, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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Before the weekend, Notre Dame already had 10 receivers on its depth chart, all with at least two seasons of eligibility remaining. Cornerback, meanwhile, is a position where the roster seems to be lacking, with only seven currently on scholarship. The only fact staving off panic is that all seven also have two years of eligibility in hand. Nonetheless, an additional body in the defensive backfield at practice would seem to be a reasonable want, if not quite a necessity.

Thus, the addition of graduate transfer receiver Freddy Canteen—himself having two seasons of potential college football to go—brought the return of wonderings: Should one of the plethora of Irish receivers switch to breaking up passes?

Aside from balancing the roster and easing some concerns should an injury strike, such a move could also present the player a chance at increased playing time. By no means would the maneuver need to be a selfless one.

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has had success with such positional flipping. Specifically, Kelly and his coaching staff have overseen the successful switches of receiver-turned-cornerback Bennett Jackson and receiver-turned-safety-and-then-linebacker James Onwualu. Furthermore, defensive backs Matthias Farley and KeiVarae Russell both arrived at Notre Dame expecting to be on the offensive side of the ball before changes early in their careers.

BENNETT JACKSON
A three-star receiver recruit, Jackson stuck with Notre Dame during the transition from Charlie Weis to Brian Kelly, signing with the Irish only weeks after Kelly took the lead of the program. In his freshman season, Jackson carried the ball plenty, as the kick returner. Aside from fielding kickoffs, he had only one carry for 20 yards. That was it for his offensive playmaking.

On special teams, however, he excelled without the ball, too. Jackson finished with 10 tackles, including four against Purdue to start the season. That nose for the ballcarrier prompted the coaching staff to switch Jackson’s positional group. In the following three seasons, he amassed 147 tackles, 11 pass break-ups and two interceptions.

Before Notre Dame faced Alabama in the 2012 BCS National Championship Game, Jackson looked back on his career change.

“I liked receiver. Obviously, I wanted to be a guy with the ball in my hands,” he said. “At first, I wasn’t mad about it, but I wasn’t fond of it.

“As time went on, I actually liked the position a lot more. I had a lot more fun and I got to compete a lot more.”

JAMES ONWUALU
A four-star recruit with the ambiguous “athlete” designation in 2013, Onwualu—like Jackson—spent his freshman season as a receiver. Unlike Jackson, he actually caught some passes. Two, to be exact, for a total of 34 yards. Continuing on a parallel to Jackson, Onwualu totaled six tackles on special teams.

Years later, it is easy to see the receiving depth in Notre Dame’s class of 2013. Onwualu aside, the Irish brought in Corey Robinson, Torii Hunter, Jr., and Will Fuller. It was going to be a tough road to featured playing time for Onwualu. Realizing this, he set to finding a different path.

“I honestly wasn’t sure receiver was the spot for me anyway, so I walked right up to coach Kelly’s office and we had a talk about where I wanted to go and what my thoughts were for my career,” Onwualu told und.com early in his senior season. “We ended up agreeing that the defensive side, we might as well give it a shot, and it worked out.”

Initially, that conversation landed Onwualu at safety. At 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, he found himself at linebacker pretty quickly thereafter.

“That was a tough one for me because he’s so valuable offensively in a number of ways,” Kelly said before 2014 spring practice. “He’s such a consistent player and he loves to compete. But he’s got great contact skills.”

Onwualu ended his Notre Dame career with 143 total tackles, including those pivotal six his freshman season, along with six sacks.

MATTHIAS FARLEY & KEIVARAE RUSSELL
Both Farley and Russell entered Notre Dame as “athletes”, the former a three-star recruit and the latter a four-star prospect. While Farley was expected to line up at receiver and Russell at running back, each switched to safety and cornerback, respectively, before ever joining the Irish offense. Safe to say it worked out rather well for each.

WHO NOW?
Far be it for the internet to speculate, but that seems to be one of its three primary purposes in the 21st century.

None of the current 11 receivers entered college deemed “athletes” by recruitniks. One does mirror Jackson and Onwualu in that he excelled on special teams last year. Rising sophomore Chase Claypool recorded 11 tackles in his debut season to go along with his five catches for 81 yards. Claypool notched multiple tackles against Nevada, Syracuse and Virginia Tech.

Kelly and new defensive coordinator Mike Elko very well may choose to test fate in 2017 and rely on only seven cornerbacks. After all, how often would the Irish ever have more than four on the field, anyways?

But if Kelly and Elko err on the side of caution, whoever makes the positional switch should not cringe in doing so. It has worked out pretty well both for his predecessors and for Notre Dame.