IBG: Bring on Stanford

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The Irish Blogger Gathering continues with some pertinent questions about the game against  Stanford. Running the show with a Q&A befitting the written exam on the GRE is the crew from One Foot Down, who have certainly put some time and effort into the questions at hand.

I’ll do my best to answer them. (Apologies for no Opponent Preview this morning, you’d be shocked at how hard it is to find someone that actually writes and follows Stanford.)

1. After suffering through back to back heart breaking losses
how have your expectations for this season changed?  Has the rough start
affected your expectations for the Brian Kelly era?

I’m rethinking my Rose Bowl prediction, but I don’t think I’ve changed my expectations. From an end-game perspective, I didn’t have a number of wins in mind that would make me think this season was a success or not, but it’d be great to see this team get better as the year went on, which would be a change from the past few seasons.

The last two coaching staffs did a great job of building early momentum, infusing excitement into the fanbase and recharging everyone. Obviously Kelly’s two last-second losses killed the momentum he was building and some fans understandably reacted. I’d like to think of myself as a level-headed, logical optimist when it comes to Notre Dame, and I’m not going to let two brutal breaks change that.

2. Our defense has given up 28 points in both of our last two
games. But our defense has also forced a few three and outs and has
looked fairly stout out times. So on D, are we Jekyll or Hyde?  Or are
we just a work in progress?

I think work-in-progress is a fair label. I also think that this defense is structurally flawed, thanks to some poor roster management. Kelly was left in a bad spot, particularly with depth at defensive end and in the secondary, and it’s hard to play winning defense without those two positions having good depth. That said, I’m more bullish on the Irish defense than others, probably because I’ve had the chance to sit with Bob Diaco and listen to the staff’s philosophies. Make no mistake: If the Irish don’t play great defense this year, it isn’t because of the coaches. Habits are hard to break, and while there have been improvements, last year’s Irish defense did a lot of things poorly, and we’re seeing some of those habits come out at the worst of times.

3. I’ve heard that Bill Walsh believed that if he saw a player
make one great play, he and his staff could coach that player to
consistently make great plays. The Irish offense clearly made some great
plays against State.  Our Offense also unfortunately disappeared at
critical times. Are we just witnessing the process of Kelly and his
staff teaching the lads to consistently make great plays?

Kelly hinted at the problems on the offense when he discussed ball-control throws yesterday. For the Irish offense to move the chains, Dayne Crist needs to do a better job making the short throws, making the proper two-man reads, and getting the Irish offense to operate at a higher efficiency level. I fully appreciate how difficult the transition must’ve been from a Charlie Weis pro-style, downfield offense to a Brian Kelly no-huddle, spread attack. Crist hasn’t played a lot of football, had to rehab a torn ACL this offseason, and still is playing at a pretty high level.

4. Where would you rank Stanford among the Irish opponents?
Would a defeat of the Cardinal be the biggest win of the last six years?

Before the season, I ranked the Stanford game as the 7th hardest on the schedule, and I absolutely take that back right now. Even if Stanford is a paper lion, I think they’re a more dangerous team than BC, Michigan, and Michigan State, so Notre Dame has to play a clean football game to win.

As for the biggest win of the last six years… Huh? This is still Stanford. Don’t get me wrong it’d be a big win, and looking back at the last six years and the quality wins is a depressing exercise, but I can’t call beating a Stanford team that beat up on Sacramento State, UCLA, and Wake Forest the best win of the last six years. 

5. While many outsiders and a contingent of fans have cited ND’s
academic standards as a hindrance to football success, many Irish
supporters consider Notre Dame’s unique combination of strong academics
and big-time football (and faith) as an advantageous niche in the
college football world.  With stricter admission standards and far-less
football notoriety, Harbaugh’s Cardinal have burst onto the national
recruiting scene to again prove that plenty of really good football
players welcome academic challenges as long as they come with a chance
to compete at the highest level.  Could you foresee sustained excellence
by Stanford Football and would you perceive a perennially strong
Cardinal program as any kind of a threat to Notre Dame’s niche?

Without getting too macro, Stanford is taking advantage of having a prestigious name brand, something Notre Dame knows plenty about. That said, there aren’t too many similarities that Notre Dame and Stanford share after crossing off good academics and private institutions. What’s getting good football players to Palo Alto is Jim Harbaugh. He’s an aggressive recruiter chasing top-talent, and doing it in one of the premiere states for football talent. Do I think Stanford threatens Notre Dame’s niche? No. But if last year was an indicator (Notre Dame and Stanford each poached players from each other), the Irish and Cardinal will see plenty of each other on the recruiting trail, just because they’re forced to look at the same profile of athlete.

6. Let’s talk statistics.  Will they matter this weekend?

a. Coming into the game, Stanford has the #3 ranked Scoring Offense
nationally (51.67 pts/gm) with the 14th ranked Rushing Offense (242.33
yds/gm).  Notre Dame’s Scoring Offense ranks 73rd (26.00 pts) with the
99th ranked Rushing Defense (197 yds/gm). 
Will the Irish be able to contain Stanford’s rushing attack?  

This is the match-up of the afternoon. Stanford’s offense and quarterback Andrew Luck both depend on a strong rushing attack. Stanford pounded the ball 49 times against UCLA and averaged 4.3 yards a carry — not all that spectacular when you consider that UCLA turned the ball over four times. Notre Dame’s defense hasn’t been stout by any means against the run, but they should stack up physically, and need to eliminate the big play.

b. Notre Dame’s Passing Offense is 8th nationally (318
yds/gm) and Stanford’s Passing Efficiency Defense is 3rd nationally (74
yds/gm). Will Stanford be able to contain the Irish passing attack? 

The Irish need to be able to throw the ball against UCLA. I’m not buying the hype on the newly transformed Cardinal defense. I’m throwing out games against Sacramento State, a mediocre team in the Big Sky Conference, and UCLA has some of the most dreadful quarterback play in the country. That said, the 3-4 defense could be exactly what Stanford needs to play better on the defensive side of the ball, but the Irish should get a very good luck from their scout team and defensive coaches this week. As long as Dayne Crist and company can stop turning the ball over, Notre Dame will be able to score some points.

c. Stanford gave up 170 yds rushing to UCLA and 265 yds rushing to Wake Forest.  Notre Dame has averaged 133 yds/gm so far. Do you expect Kelly to utilize the Irish rushing attack more?

Kelly will go with what’s working, but I suspect we’ll see Armando Allen, Cierre Wood, Jonas Gray, and possibly Robert Hughes getting some carries Saturday. There hasn’t been great balance on offense for the Irish, but before we get worried, they’ve only played three games and Armando Allen has looked great this year. The Stanford run defense looks susceptible, and I’m sure Kelly will try and control the game on the ground.

d. Stanford is ranked 4th in Red Zone Defense (50%) while the
Irish have the 65th ranked Red Zone Offense (82%).   Stanford’s Red
Zone Offense is tied for 1st (100%) in conversions and the Irish
Defense’s Red Zone conversions allowed is 36th (75%).  Will the Irish be able to stop Stanford’s RZ conversions and improve theirs?  How would you do that? 

I don’t have any idea if the Irish will stop Stanford in the red zone. Ideally they’d do it before Stanford gets there, or win the field position battle and set up longer fields for the Cardinal. Andrew Luck is a really really good quarterback and his mobility makes Stanford dangerous in the red zone. The Irish need to hold on to the football and make their red zone possessions count. No team is going to keep a 50 percent red zone average like Stanford’s defense has, but the Irish need to hold on to the football down in Stanford’s end of the field and get touchdowns instead of field goals to win the game.

7. 1-2 is pretty tough to deal with for a football team still
trying to find its identity.  Meanwhile, Stanford is looking like a
well-oiled machine thus far.  Do you think this Irish squad can really
bounce back from another heart-breaking loss against the Cardinal?  What
if it’s not all that close?

Slow down, Mr. Negative. On paper, Notre Dame matches up fine with Stanford. It was only last year where Notre Dame moved the ball up and down the field with a team playing for nothing with a dead-man-walking coach, and a defense not much better.  Put frankly, the Irish have just been on the wrong-end of two very heart-breaking losses. But Brian Kelly isn’t going to lose his team after three games, and like it or not, transitions are tough. There are going to be bumps in the road. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the Irish win, and for as lopsided as this may appear, Stanford is only a four-point favorite in Las Vegas. 

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

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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