Pregame Twelve Pack: Michigan State edition

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Round three of the Pregame Twelve Pack. Twelve fun facts, tidbits,
leftovers, or miscellaneous musings as we head into the Michigan State
game.

1. Charlie Weis may have been a Bon Jovi guy, but Brian Kelly is a Van Halen man.

While the real news should be that defensive line/special teams coach Mike Elston has been released from the hospital, Brian Kelly gave everybody a snap-back to the 80s moment by comparing Elston’s return to the band dynamics of Van Halen.

“Van Halen was just OK with Sammy Hagar,” Kelly said. “David Lee Roth was still what
made Van Halen. So we had Sammy Hagar in this week. Wasn’t too bad. But
David Lee Roth is back. He’s the rock star around here.”

Not sure Kelly would be wise to start playing “Running With the Devil” at the LaBar practice fields, but as one reporter pointed out, it might have been the first Van Halen reference by a football coach in Notre Dame history.

Elston received a standing ovation from the team when he returned to The Gug this afternoon. He’ll be joining the team in East Lansing, but won’t do so in a coaching capacity, with Lorenzo Guess filling in at tight ends coach and Mike Denbrock shifting down to defensive line while also spear-heading the special teams.

2. Dan McCarthy returns as the safety position slowly heals itself.

Last week we took the time machine back to November of 2007 to find out more about walk-on safety Chris Salvi, who was suddenly thrust into the two-deep at safety with injuries to both Dan McCarthy and Jamoris Slaughter. This week it looks like we’ll finally see the younger McCarthy brother roaming the secondary.

“McCarthy moved around pretty good today. He’s a go,” Kelly said. “Slaughter is
probably emergency backup. That’s the way it looked today. He got, for
the first time, McCarthy, real reps in seven-on-seven. And I know our guys were
excited in practice that he’s ready to go.”

Kelly described McCarthy’s injury as a soft-tissue problem that’s befuddled the Irish training staff as they’ve tried to find a solution. It’ll be interesting to finally see Dan McCarthy in the secondary. He clocked only one minute of playing time last year and made 15 special teams appearances, but all reports had McCarthy as an elite high school athlete and a guy who has all the tools to be a playmaking safety. Getting on the field was the first step, and with Slaughter injured and only three scholarship safeties available, this could be the breakout game needed for Dan to make his mark.

3. They will be battling for the Megaphone Trophy.

While many people don’t associate Michigan State as a true rivalry, the Irish and Spartans will be battling for the cherished Megaphone Trophy, a keepsake that has been sponsored jointly by the school’s alumni clubs in Detroit since 1949.

The megaphone is half-blue with a gold ND monogram on it and half white with a green MSC for Michigan State. Every game since 1949’s score is printed on the Megaphone, with the winning team holding onto the trophy for the year.

After 36 consecutive years of playing for the Megaphone, the Irish took a two year break in 1995 and 1996. The next interruption is scheduled for 2014 and 2015.

4. Playing under the lights is a rare occurrence in Spartan Stadium.

There have only been nine night games in the 87-year history of Spartan Stadium, and the Irish have been a part of three of them. Notre Dame holds a 2-1 record at night against Michigan State. Here’s a recap of the three primetime face-offs:

September 9, 1998: MSU 45, No. 10 ND 23 — After springing the upset on the defending national champs in Michigan, the Irish got drilled by Nick Saban’s Spartans, who had a staggering 42-3 lead at half before cruising to a 45-23 victory. “I’m embarrassed, this football team’s embarrassed,” head coach Bob Davie said. “There’s
not going to be a whole lot of talk about it. I think we came in here expecting
to play well and we didn’t. We had no chance because of our execution.”

September 18, 2004: ND 31, MSU 24 — The Fighting Irish defense forced six turnovers and Brady Quinn threw and ran for a touchdown. Tommy Zbikowski’s fumble strip and return for touchdown and Matt Shelton’s 123 yards on three catches helped pace the Irish win. “When we come into the team meeting and look at the film, we’re going to be very ill,” Michigan State coach John L. Smith said.

September 23, 2006: ND 40, MSU 37 — Cornerback Terrail Lambert’s interception return for a touchdown capped off a miraculous rally to help the 12th-ranked Irish escape with a narrow victory. The Irish trailed 37-21 halfway into the fourth quarter when they stormed back in a driving rainstorm. Brady Quinn threw for five touchdowns and Jeff Samardzija had two of them as Notre Dame mounted an epic comeback. “I think at halftime the guys realized the season was starting to fall away for us… It was basically ‘Hey fellas, what’s it gonna be? Are we going to be a bunch of also-rans or are we going to come out here and give it a chance to win the game?” Charlie Weis said after.

5. The new kids are alright.

Asked this afternoon about the first-year starters that were performing well, Kelly pointed out a few players that just two weeks ago were some of the biggest concerns on the team.

“After two weeks, taking both games into account, there’s a couple
players I would point out. Defensively, I’d say Carlo Calabrese – very
little experience coming in, has played consistent for two weeks in a row,” Kelly said.
“Offensively, I’d say Zack Martin – very little experience, but at the
left tackle position has done a really nice job. You could throw TJ
(Jones) in there, I think you could make the case for Taylor Dever. I
think our tackles, as first-time starters, have done a really nice job.”

The fact that we haven’t noticed Zack Martin is one of the best compliments I could give the rookie left tackle. There’s a very good chance that in three years Martin is one of those Irish players that is getting talked about weekly by guys like Mel Kiper and Todd McShay.

6. Want to beat Michigan State? Better stop the running game.

While the wins that the Spartans have put up haven’t been all that impressive, the way the running backs are putting up numbers has been pretty eye-popping. Both Le’Veon Bell and Edwin Baker are averaging over 9 yards per carry, with Baker running for 300 yards and 3 TDs in just two games and Bell pounding his way for 190 yards on only 20 carries. That’s all been done without presumed starter Larry Caper, who is returning from injury this week. Kelly knows it’ll be a test for his defense.

“We’ll know where we are defensively against the run, because we’re going
to get challenged,” Kelly said. “In the 3-4 defense, they’re going to run right at
us. We’ll find out a lot about ourselves after this weekend relative to
the running game.”

Baker is the defending CFPA National Running Back of the Week after dicing the Florida Atlantic defense for 183 yards last week. For the Irish to win, the defense will rely on the front of Ethan Johnson, Ian Williams and Kapron Lewis-Moore to step up their game.

7. It wasn’t all negative for Bob Diaco’s defense last week.

Adding to the legend of Denard Robinson wasn’t in anybody’s plans on the Notre Dame sideline last weekend, but there were plenty of positives to take out of the defensive performance, even if they did give up 502 total yards of offense to the Wolverines’ quarterback.

The Irish defense was able to force 10 punts last weekend against Michigan, the most by an Irish opponent since Rutgers punted 10 times in 2002. Michigan was only 3-for-16 on 3rd down, and the Irish forced five three-and-outs. Final stat that’ll have Irish fans kicking themselves: The Irish held Michigan scoreless for 31:24 from the second quarter until the game’s final drive.

“If we make a stop against Michigan, all that would be talked about was the 32, 33 minutes of shutting out Denard Robinson,” Kelly said.

8. The defense might not have closed, but the coaching staff did on the recruiting trail.

David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross gave us the immortal line, “Coffee is for closers.” Well, there’s no coffee in the defensive team meeting room, but there should be in the coaches lounge. Recruiting coordinator Chuck Martin and personnel man Dave Peloquin certainly did their jobs off the field this weekend with the commitments of Stephon Tuitt, and George and Josh Atkinson. Defensive line coach Mike Elston handles Georgia for the Irish, so Tuitt is likely the fruits of his labor, especially coaching the position that Tuitt plays. As for the Atkinsons, credit needs to go to tight ends coach Mike Denbrock, who pulled the brothers out of California, always a victory when you’re recruiting against coaches like Lane Kiffin, Rick Neuheisel, Chip Kelly, and Steve Sarkisian.

With 19 recruits committed after just the second week of the season, expect the coaching staff to swing for the fences with their final few spots and start targeting some high-profile juniors for next season.

Just to put an issue to rest, it’s pretty certain that Brian Kelly and his coaching staff will be able to recruit just fine at Notre Dame.

9. Irish win the tale of the tape against the Spartans

Here’s an interesting comparison of the two rosters breaking down the heights and weights of the starters by position groupings.

        AVERAGE HEIGHTS & WEIGHTS

                                                                  Michigan State          Notre Dame
       Offensive Line & Tight End                 6-5, 293                    6-5, 300
       Offensive Backs & Wide Receivers    6-1, 214                    6-1, 210
       Defensive Line                                    6-4, 277                    6-3, 291
       Linebackers                                        6-1, 231                    6-2, 244
       Defensive Backs                                 6-0, 191                    6-0, 197

The Irish have a pretty distinct advantage on the front line, as well as against the undersized Michigan State linebacking corp, so it’ll be interesting to see if Notre Dame tries to pound the ball themselves.

10. Armando Allen has a shot at going down in the Notre Dame record books.

The first two games of the season have shown Irish fans a new and improved version of Armando Allen. And it’s that new running back that’ll likely go down in the school’s record books as one of the most versatile backs in Notre Dame history.

Right now, Allen sits at 8th on the all-time list for most career all-purpose yards for Irish running backs. He trails Julius Jones by nearly 1,600 yards so getting to the top of the charts might not be doable for Allen, but making his mark as the top receiving back very well could be. Armando only needs 433 receiving yards to pass Joseph Heap as the yardage leader for running backs, and only needs five catches to pass Darius Walker as the running back with the most catches in Irish history. He’s got a chance to pass Walker on Saturday, and should be able to pass Heap with a great season.

11. Common ground at Cincinnati doesn’t give either coach an upper-hand.

You’d think that Brian Kelly and Mark Dantonio’s paths would have crossed somewhere along the line, especially considering that Kelly succeeded Dantonio at Cincinnati. But according to Dantonio, there’s not much of a connection between the two coaches.

“I don’t really know him that well,” Dantonio said of Kelly. “I really don’t know him. I know of him, I know his reputation, I know he’s a great football coach, but as far as the Cincinnati thing, to me it’s sort of a non-issue. The fact that he went to Cincinnati and was able to win championships there, to me, he helped make the dreams come true for some of the players I recruited.

“When we recruited some of those players, we were just entering the Big
East, we were just getting new facilities. We recruited them with the
idea that they could do something special. The fact that they were able
to recognize that dream, and [Kelly] had a part of doing that, I think
is a huge statement for what he did for that program and what he did for
those young people. So I applaud him for that.”

12. If you’re looking for a showcase position, look no further than middle linebacker.

Most Irish fans are familiar with the exploits and potential of Manti Te’o. But if you’re looking for the class of the football field at middle linebacker, check the opposing defensive huddle. The Irish might not play a finer defensive football player this season than the Spartan’s Greg Jones, the reigning Big Ten defensive player of the year, and a returning first-team All-American. Jones has started 35 games for the Spartans, ranks second among all active players in college football with 379 career tackles, and was named to the preseason watch list of six major national awards.

Last season against the Irish, Jones had nine tackles, a total that’d rank among the top performances for Irish players this year, but a game that ranked as one of his least productive over the last two seasons.

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
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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…)