The Stanford Cardinal come rolling into town this Saturday, primed to play the Fighting Irish after three weeks of astonishing production and lopsided scores. While their treatment of Sacramento State didn’t surprise anyone, Jim Harbaugh’s squad absolutely demolished UCLA and Wake Forest, with scores that certainly raised eyebrows around the country.
Harbaugh enters his fourth season atop the Stanford football program, and has completely transformed the football culture, bringing in a smash-mouth, pro-style system and a brash attitude that’s taking the Pac-10 by storm.
To get a better idea of what the Irish will be facing when the Cardinal come to town this Saturday, I caught up with Kabir Sawhney, the Managing Editor of Sports for the Stanford Daily. He was kind enough to give us all a sneak peak of what we can expect this Saturday.
Inside the Irish: This football team is obviously on a roll, putting up some pretty staggering numbers against one cupcake and two respectable teams. Is this football team for real?
Kabir Sawhney: I’m certainly convinced that this Stanford team is “for real.” On
offense, it all comes down to the play of its fantastic offensive
line, which has done a great job of protecting its quarterback,
Andrew Luck, while also bulldozing paths for the running game. Last
season, the line (or the “Tunnel Workers’ Union” as they’re known)
was a big part of Toby Gerhart’s success; even with the rotation of
backs the Cardinal is employing this season, the running game will
still have a lot of success.
ITI: The new defense has looked good after three games, putting
up some dynamic numbers through three games — especially
against the pass. Is this a product of playing some bad
quarterbacks or has something clicked with the Cardinal
KS: It’s still too early to tell with the defense, since it hasn’t
really faced a top-notch offense yet. In its new 3-4 scheme, the
defense certainly looks strong, significantly upgraded over last
year’s weak unit. The linebacking corps has lived up to
expectations, with Owen Marecic, Shayne Skov and Max Bergen shutting
down the running game up the middle and Chase Thomas and Thomas
Keiser coming off the ends. In the secondary, Michael Thomas has
emerged as the unit’s leader, something it was really lacking last
I don’t think we’ll really know whether the whole defense can really
shut down opponents until the Cardinal’s trip to Oregon on Oct. 5.
ITI: Having watched Andrew Luck play for the past two seasons,
how good is he? The Pac-10 gets plenty of kudos for Jake
Locker and Matt Barkley, but Luck seems to be every bit as
good as those two. Obviously Harbaugh likes him, but is he one
of college football’s best kept secrets?
KS: Andrew Luck has shown a great deal of capability as a leader in the
past couple of seasons, and it’s pretty clear why NFL scouts are
projecting him as a first-round draft pick. Luck has done extremely
well in Stanford’s pro-style offense. However, I think we need to
see him tested against elite competition before rendering a final
judgment. Last year, this was Toby Gerhart’s offense; Luck was
rarely called upon to make big plays, and the few times he was, he
often came up short (Stanford fans still recall the pick he threw at
the end of last year’s Big Game against Cal). This season, he is the
unquestioned leader of the offense, but it is an open debate on
whether he can perform as well under pressure.
ITI: There’s no Toby Gerhart, yet Stanford’s running attack
hasn’t missed a beat. How are they doing it?
KS: See above. The best-kept secret in the Pac-10 isn’t Andrew Luck,
it’s how good Stanford’s O-line is. This year, Stanford’s running
attack isn’t built quite as much on the ground-and-pound; the line
opens up holes for Stepfan Taylor, Tyler Gaffney and Usua Amanam,
all of whom are excellent at bursting through those holes for chunks
ITI: Has Owen Marecic achieved legend status at Stanford yet?
KS: At least among those of us who follow Stanford football, Owen
Marecic has certainly achieved quite a following. He embodies the
old-school style that Jim Harbaugh has brought to Stanford: a
no-nonsense player that can play on both sides of the ball, who will
hit you hard regardless of which side he happens to be playing on.
ITI: The last few games these two teams have played have been
tight. How do you see this one playing out?
KS: I think Stanford will go out and beat Notre Dame this weekend. So
far, the Fighting Irish have not shown me that they’re much improved
over last year’s edition, even under the new spread attack employed
by Brian Kelly. Meanwhile, I think the Cardinal have improved to the
point that it has serious Rose Bowl aspirations. The fact that the
game is in South Bend will keep it close, but I think Stanford goes
out and wins this game, 38-28.
To read more of Kabir as he profiles the Cardinal as they head to South Bend, read him at the Stanford Daily here.
Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s running game and depth lead Blue-Gold Game questions
For every strong performance in tomorrow’s conclusion to Notre Dame’s spring practices, a misstep or mistake will inherently match. If rising-senior running back Dexter Williams breaks loose for a 40-yard touchdown run, a critic might note the lack of speed in the Irish secondary. Should the Notre Dame defensive line wreak havoc in the backfield all afternoon, it may be due to a shoddy offensive line rather than a stellar defensive front. Interceptions will be considered equal parts a quarterback’s failing and a defensive back’s playmaking.
A year ago, defensive end Daelin Hayes recorded multiple “sacks” in the Blue-Gold Game. Whether or not he actually tackled a quarterback, the pressures indicated to the public’s eye that the right side of the Irish offensive line would be a 2017 weakness. Instead, they should have sparked no offensive line worry, only taken as a precursor to Hayes’ three real-world sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss in the fall. The right side of the line, manned by the tag-team of Tommy Kraemer and Robert Hainsey, was actually a strength, part of the country’s best offensive line.
Such are the flaws to over-analyzing an intrasquad scrimmage.
With those disclaimers in mind, the things to learn in the Blue-Gold Game hinge more on scheme, order of appearance and type of usage. Throughout the spring, the Irish offense has focused on the passing game. Yes, the running game drove the Notre Dame offense throughout 2017, but it is now without two All-American offensive linemen and a record-setting running back. At some point, the ground game needs to be proven all over again, and that point is supposedly Saturday.
“As it relates to our offense against our defense, we’ve thrown the ball much more than we’ve run it because of those things that we’ve wanted to grow in,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said over the weekend. “The spring game, we’ll get a better sense because we’ll run the ball a whole lot more and we’ll be who we have been.”
That sense will begin with Williams and rising-junior Tony Jones (pictured at top). Williams appears to have the starting position within his grasp, but picking up a few pass blocks against the likes of Hayes would solidify that pecking order. Aside from that, perhaps the greatest thing to learn regarding Williams and Jones is, can they get through a competitive environment without injury?
Of course, limiting their carries will not only help that cause, but also reveal what kind of running back depth Notre Dame has. After the two injury-plagued upperclassmen, all the Irish can claim is an early-enrolled freshman, a receiver-turned-hybrid and a quarterback-turned-running back/receiver.
The Irish desperately need at least one of, preferably two of, Jahmir Smith, Jafar Armstrong and Avery Davis, respectively, to step forward.
The offensive line has set itself. With four returning starters and a long-touted tackle-of-the-future in rising-junior Liam Eichenberg along the front, the blocking is not the concern in the running game. Williams’ speed and Jones’ versatility offer promising potential when healthy. But this is football, both will not be healthy throughout the fall. Other carries need to be handled ably by at least a portion of that trio.
Though he may be the youngest, Smith may be the best option, simply because Armstrong’s and Davis’ responsibilities vary so greatly as they bounce between running back and receiver and, in Davis’ case, quarterback.
How will offensive coordinator Chip Long deploy Armstrong and Davis? Will they spend more time in the backfield or at slot receiver?
The addition of the two pass-catching backs increases the likelihood of Long using his favorite alignment, one with two running backs, at least one of which is a veritable route-runner and pass-catcher. Williams has never proven himself to fit that description, though Long noted Williams has improved his pass-catching as of last week. When Jones was injured last year, Long could no longer deploy the two-back set that quickly puts opposing defenses in unavoidable binds.
“That was a big part of our offense in spring ball, fall camp, then the backs got knocked out and hobbled,” Long said. “We couldn’t use that part of our offense. It hurt us.”
Should Jones twist an ankle again in September, Armstrong and/or Davis should keep that option available for Long’s play calls.
“Just having the ability with more depth back there, those type of guys, instead of just being Tony, now you have Avery, possibly Jafar,” Long said. “Injuries can’t take us out of that personnel.”
When he was healthy, Jones would often motion out of the backfield in those alignments. Although he finished the year with only six catches for 12 yards, the mere threat of his receiving abilities altered defensive approaches.
At other points, Jones was a bulldozer of a blocker, taking on multiple defenders to help spring either quarterback Brandon Wimbush or now-NFL-bound Josh Adams for a longer gain. Jones is likely to remain the best at this varied skillset, but having depth in the role is a luxury critical to Long’s preferred offensive scheme.
Most starting positions are settled, especially with the offensive line now set. Safety is not. Who will start at safety? Who will be the second-unit?
Even the candidates at safety have ebbed and flowed this spring. Rising-sophomore Jordan Genmark-Heath now appears to be headed toward a future at linebacker and rising-senior Nick Coleman has dabbled at nickelback while early-enrollee Houston Griffith moved from cornerback to safety to become another considered option.
At this point, rising-juniors Jalen Elliott and Alohi Gilman appear to be the likely starters, with Griffith offering a possibility of that changing as he learns the position over the summer. Defensive coordinator Clark Lea has certainly left the door open for just such a development, or even the emergence of incoming-freshman Derrik Allen.
“The depth back there has yet to really take shape and we’re not in a hurry to dictate who is the 1 and who is the 2,” Lea said Tuesday. “… Those guys have a lot on their plate, it takes some time. They need some time to be able to execute those responsibilities at a high level. We’re getting to that point, I don’t think we’re all the way there yet.”
Learning who the starting duo is, and who fills in the second unit — be it still Genmark-Heath or Coleman, or rising-junior Devin Studstill or rising-senior Nicco Fertitta — the concerns of tackling from the position or attacking the ball in the air will be naturally included. Elliott’s physical gifts have long been evident, but he has lacked in both those areas. If he trots out with the starting defense but does not exhibit improvement in both categories, that will be portend another year of poor play along the defense’s back line, no matter what Lea may say publicly.
“I do think we’re not doing as much to adjust for the need for time to let them come along,” he said. “I think we’re allowed to get back into what is the base of the package, which is exciting.”
Notre Dame had a strong defense in 2017. Aside from the precarious positions offensive turnovers put the defense in at Miami and Stanford, it rarely buckled. Realizing the defense played that well while only occasionally getting into its most basic package because the safety play was so dismal is a sobering conclusion. It is also a tantalizing thought of what could come in 2018 with nine returning starters and improved safety play.
Lastly, who be the fourth Irish captain? When Kelly named fifth-year center Sam Mustipher, fifth-year punter Tyler Newsome and fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill captains early in spring practice, he said a fourth would be voted upon by the team as spring came to its close.
At that point, the most-likely candidates, all rising seniors or fifth-year graduates, seemed to be defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, linebacker Te’von Coney, left guard Alex Bars, quarterback Brandon Wimbush, tight end Nic Weishar or cornerback Nick Watkins. Rising-junior cornerback Julian Love’s talent alone made him an outside contender.
As spring practice has progressed, reading between the lines might reduce that pool to three front-runners of Tillery, Coney and Bars. The first two of those three have had disciplinary issues during their time at Notre Dame, oftentimes an exclusionary factor in this conversation. To hear offensive line coach Jeff Quinn on the issue, the fourth captain should be Bars.
“Anytime your big guys run the program, I think you always have a better chance of succeeding,” Quinn said Thursday.
Two more quick-hitters:
— How will Coney fare in pass coverage? Coney may not play that much this weekend. He does not need to prove anything in the 15th spring practice, while his backups need every rep they can get. When Coney is on the field though, watching him in coverage against any of the Irish tight ends could be revelatory. Lea has put the onus on himself for Coney’s past coverage woes.
“Coverage is a product of teaching,” Lea said. “Coverage deficiency can be a product of teaching deficiency. … Some guys do it naturally and some guys don’t, they have other things they have strength with. … As a unit, we’ve put a focus here on the end of spring practice in playing better in coverage and as a result, we’re seeing that play out in skeleton and team periods.”
— Will the receivers flash any speed? When it comes to the positioning and usage of unique talents, the mismatches created by Armstrong and Davis may be the most predictive, but Notre Dame lost much of its outside speed with the departures of Equanimeous St. Brown (to the NFL) and Kevin Stepherson (to repeated disciplinary issues). The defensive headaches caused by those two-back sets are best taken advantage of when a receiver can also take the top off a defense. Rising-sophomore Michael Young and rising-senior Chris Finke are both quick and shifty, but neither has shown truly top-end speed to this point. Despite his 6-foot-4, 227-pound, frame, rising-senior Miles Boykin has apparently improved his burst quite a bit this offseason. Fifth-year Freddy Canteen landed on the Irish roster last offseason largely due to his natural speed, before injury cut short his first season with the Irish.
Can any of them single-handedly alter a defense’s coverage, or will Notre Dame need to turn to incoming freshmen for that threat?
A decade from now, Notre Dame and Alabama will meet in the regular season for the first time since 1987, a 37-6 victory for the Irish. Notre Dame announced a home-and-home series with the Crimson Tide for 2028 and 2029. Both contests will open their respective seasons.
Notre Dame Stadium will host the first leg of the series Sept. 2, 2028. The Irish will then travel to Tuscaloosa for the first time in program history Sept. 1, 2029.
Of course, Notre Dame and Alabama most-recently met in the BCS National Championship Game in Miami to conclude the 2012 season. It remains hard for Irish fans to forget how that game went.
Considering Tide head coach Nick Saban is currently 66 years old and Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly is entering his ninth season with the Irish, neither is likely to be at the helm in 2028.
Instead of acknowledging who will not be holding a clipboard for the two-game tilt, it can be worth pondering who will be, albeit with a tongue planted firmly in one’s cheek.
This series could define the tenures of Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis Jr. and Alabama coach Lane Kiffin. https://t.co/elrNnolXZp
And who will be playing? This scribe’s nephew is in first grade. He will be a freshman in college in 2029, presuming he continues to get the grades to gain admission for a post-secondary education.
On a more serious note, adding Alabama to the schedule continues a deliberate effort by Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick to get more SEC contests on the schedule in years to come. The Irish will face Vanderbilt in 2018, Georgia in 2019, Arkansas in 2020 and 2025, and Texas A&M in 2024 and 2025. Notre Dame also hosted Georgia in 2017.
This plan is a part of Swarbrick’s hopes of having data points against four of the Power Five conferences each year, with the SEC and the Big 12 the conferences needing a bit more foresight and extra effort in order to get on the schedule. The Irish already face five ACC teams per year, two Pac-12 programs in Stanford and USC each season and have Big Ten matchups scheduled through at least 2028 already. No Big 12 games are currently scheduled, though Notre Dame recently concluded home-and-home series with both Oklahoma and Texas.
It looks less and less likely the Irish will rely on a freshman to provide the entirety of depth at linebacker. For that matter, Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea does not expect to need one backup to learn multiple positions a la Te’von Coney at the beginning of last season.
(In the above photo, Coney, No. 4, is featured, as the defense will do this season. In the background, Asmar Bilal, No. 22, can be seen as a factor in the play, a defensive hope in 2018.)
Between Coney, Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini, Lea had three capable linebackers to fill the two interior positions in 2017. By cross-training Coney at both Mike and Buck, the Irish did not need to lean on any other substitute.
“In some ways, that’s unfair at times because the Mike and Buck, though conceptually tied together, they’re different,” Lea said Tuesday. “Different body types, different people. We’d rather not do that. We’d rather not go three-for-two. We’d rather go two-for-two and make it like a hockey line (substitution). That would be the way it would work best. I’m not sure how that’s going to shape up right now.”
Throughout spring, the presumption was rising-senior Asmar Bilal would both start at rover and provide injury-protection depth along the interior, with fifth-year Drue Tranquill starting at Buck and remaining a break-in-case-of-emergency option at rover, his 2017 position. Such a scenario still needed a fourth linebacker to offer some snaps of rest for the starters. Either one of the three early-enrolled freshmen would need to grasp that task or rising-junior Jonathan Jones would claim it.
“They know they’re competing for a chance to play,” Lea said. “Where [Jones] might have fallen into a lull mid-spring, I think here in the last few days he’s come out here and really changed his game.”
Joining Jones this week, rising-sophomore Jordan Genmark-Heath moved up a level from the safeties to try his hand at linebacker. Per Lea, the move mirrors Bilal’s cross-training on the interior — Notre Dame would rather know what it has available long before it is needed.
“We don’t move a guy unless we identify things that he brings to the table that allow him to be successful,” Lea said. “It’s not just throwing paint at the wall. We’ve seen him play in a manner that we know he can handle the Buck position. I would argue he’s looked very natural there.
“… You know what he can do for you at safety, too, so we’re not closing our eyes to that possibility. You have a short window here where you have a chance to get a look at somebody who makes you more athletic at the second level.”
The mixing and matching of the Irish linebacker reserves will continue for at least the rest of this week, and almost certainly into preseason practices. Unlike the beginning of spring practice, however, it does not hinge on only one name, and the early-enrollees are not seen as the saving graces.
Instead Jones may back up Coney, Genmark-Heath support Tranquill and either rising-sophomore Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah or classmate Isaiah Robertson provide depth behind Bilal.
“You always want the ability through the course of the season to have your best three on the field,” Lea said. “You always want to have an idea of what that three look like if injury happens or if a young player comes along and how you can shift and shape the pieces to ensure that you’re at your competitive best.”
Monday’s Leftovers: Wimbush’s accuracy, finally five offensive linemen & Jay Hayes’ destination
If Brandon Wimbush excelled in Notre Dame’s 12th spring practice Saturday — and all reports indicate he did — then it was an anomaly only in that Irish head coach Brian Kelly has not seen such a complete two-hour performance from the rising-senior in the previous 11 sessions. Wimbush’s progress throughout this spring, though, made such a Saturday possible.
“He’s building his consistency,” Kelly said. “His footwork has now put him in a position where now he can accurately put the ball where it needs to be and be so much more consistent with his progression reads.”
Kelly highlighted the seam route as one now within Wimbush’s arsenal whereas it was only nominally considered in 2017. Hitting a seam route — in which a tight end or receiver skirts the linebacker’s or cornerback’s coverage while theoretically remaining just out of reach of the safety; more a situational route than a rehearsed one — requires the quarterback to recognize the exact coverage and then have the touch to put the pass where only the target can reach it. As a first-year starter, Wimbush struggled with both the mental and the physical aspects of that, only finding mild success with it when looking for 6-foot-5 tight end Durham Smythe on an adjusted seam route.
“[Wimbush’s increased] ability to do that is a product of he’s really been much more consistent with his footwork,” Kelly said. “His delivery and throwing motion has allowed him to throw a lot more on the black and throw strikes.”
Consider this another step toward the inevitability of Wimbush starting for Notre Dame against Michigan on Sept. 1 (139 days away, for those counting), despite the seemingly-open competition between Wimbush and rising-junior quarterback Ian Book this spring.
After a disappointing and error-filled November, the question with Wimbush was never his athletic ability, but rather if he would piece the physical aspects together with the mental necessities, a question applicable to the vast majority of first-year starting quarterbacks.
The question was also never if Kelly would praise Wimbush this spring. April practices yield nearly only positive reviews, but when those trend toward specific pass routes, that suggests a genuine nature to the applause.
— Kelly has previously said his hopes for the offensive line this spring was to figure out who could play where, not necessarily what the exact formation would be. Notre Dame seems to have settled on five linemen in fifth-years Sam Mustipher and Alex Bars, rising-juniors Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg, and rising-sophomore Robert Hainsey.
Three of their positions may even be settled by now with Mustipher at center, Eichenberg at left tackle and Hainsey at right tackle, where as a freshman he split time with Kraemer. This differs from the first half of spring practice when Hainsey typically worked at left tackle.
“He’s just a good back-side setter,” Kelly said of Hainsey. “He can do the job we’re looking for at the right tackle.”
As Eichenberg develops the confidence and consistency at left tackle, Kelly and offensive line coach Chip Long have to debate at which guard spots to station Bars and Kraemer. Bars spent the 2017 season at right guard after starting at right tackle in 2016. He moved to left guard Saturday to aid Eichenberg.
“What we really like about Liam is his strength, his size, his physicality,” Kelly said. “He’s learning, so why not move a veteran next to him where he can communicate with him, help him pass off twists, give him cues prior to the snap and settle him in a confident and really consistent basis?
“I like [Eichenberg’s] size, his reach. He can stand up to the different pass rushes we’re going to get out there, the bull rush. He’s long enough to help off the edge.”
This will likely not be the last offensive line configuration seen before the Wolverines’ arrival, although it could be the one deployed that Saturday.
It should also be noted, in moving Bars to aid Eichenberg, Kelly is indirectly praising Hainsey’s aptitude, which has been apparent since he forced his way into the rotation as a freshman at Eichenberg’s expense.
“He’s got great instincts, knows the game. He’s going to be a really good player here,” Kelly said. “… He’s going to play for us in the fall. How that ends up, whether he’s a starter or a backup, [we’ll see]. He will play football for Notre Dame this fall. No doubt.”
— Former Irish defensive end Jay Hayes announced he will transfer to Oklahoma for his final season of eligibility.
Former Notre Dame assistant coach Kerry Cooks still serves as the Sooners assistant defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach. Per both rivals.com and 247sports.com, Cooks was not a vital piece of Hayes’ initial recruitment to the Irish, but undoubtedly having a known point of contact on the field helped Hayes head south this time around.
Furthermore, Hayes’ lead recruiter from Notre Dame, then-defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, has joined the Oklahoma staff this offseason as a defensive analyst, furthering the logical connections.
— The NCAA announced another kickoff rule change. Now any kickoffs fair caught within the 25-yard line will be spotted at the 25-yard line. Kelly does not expect the rule change to effect games very often, considering most Division I kickers can already send the ball out the back of the end zone if they want to minimize a return threat. In that respect, this rule may help to prevent more injuries at the Division II or III level.
Notre Dame will need to have a conversation with its kick returners, whoever ends up winning that role, about where to fair catch from and where to return from, similar to punt returns.
— There is often a debate/discussion about scheduling weddings in the fall. In most of the world, it is a non-issue, but obviously anyone finding this space on a Monday in April understands the inherent conflict.
In that vein, consider this a nod of acknowledgement to the friends who recognize the under-discussed corollary of also not scheduling bachelor parties in the fall. Slotting one for the mid-Atlantic in mid-April may have led to some time in a very cold river and a quiet weekend in this space, but the 14-inning whiffle ball game would have been even more out of place in November.
If anyone is wondering, this scribe went 6-for-9 with four RBIs and three runs while making only two errors at second base in a 20-19 victory.