The good, the bad, the ugly: Stanford

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After a evening of reflection and breaking down game tape, Brian Kelly said something incredibly interesting when discussing preparation for opponents.

“One of the unique things I’m learning at Notre Dame, early in the season, you’re not going to get great film sometimes,” Kelly said. “So you have to prepare for every eventuality. I put a lot of that on my shoulders.”

The Irish’s 37-14 loss to a now No. 9 ranked Stanford team saw the Irish take a large step back offensively, largely because of Dayne Crist’s confusion when Stanford dropped eight men into coverage in a three-deep zone.

“They were dropping a lot of guys. They had eight guys in coverage a whole bunch,” Crist said after the game. “They hadn’t shown it really at all in the film that we had. You don’t want to sit and make excuses, but tip your hat to Stanford.”

Stanford’s never dropped eight men into coverage this year because they haven’t had to yet. With convincing victories over Sacramento State, UCLA, and Wake Forest, Kelly admitted earlier in the week that he wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, and if Crist’s play and Kelly’s analysis are any indication, the Cardinal coaching staff won a key strategic battle yesterday, handling Crist just like defenses handled a young Jimmy Clausen during his sophomore season.

The game inside the game is what has me convinced that this Stanford team is a better version of last year’s squad — finally in possession of a defense that can slow teams down with a 3-4 system that’s highly versatile and capable of disguising schemes. (How long that lasts? We’ll see next weekend when the Cardinal travel to Eugene to take on Oregon.)

Before we turn the page to Boston College, let’s look at the good, bad, and ugly from Notre Dame’s 37-14 loss to Stanford.

THE GOOD

All good things must start with Manti Te’o’s performance yesterday. His 21 tackles against Stanford move him up in the statistical rankings to the top tackler in all of college football, averaging more than 13 tackles per game. He’s also giving his teammates a model of how to play the football game.

“One young man that played with that kind of intensity, if you will, we talked about that nastiness, was Manti Te’o,” Kelly said. “He played differently. I know he had a lot of tackles, but he played the
game differently. He’s a great model for us to have that we can point
to you defensively…Whether he knows it or not, he’s going to be pushed out in front quite a bit because of how he handles himself.”

Another group that should be highlighted were the cornerbacks. Darrin Walls, Gary Gray, and Robert Blanton all played very good games, with Gray becoming a tackling force in addition to displaying great cover skills. The next step for the corners will be turning great positioning into interceptions. While the Irish got the first two interceptions of the year on Andrew Luck, they’re going to have opportunities in Chestnut Hill to pick on a very raw quarterback, as Boston College will be starting either Mike Marscovetra or Chase Rettig at quarterback, after head coach Frank Spaziani decided to bench incumbent Dave Shinskie.

THE BAD

The Irish couldn’t get their ground game on track, and it turned Notre Dame into a one-dimensional offense, something that Stanford capitalized on as the game continued. Kelly acknowledges the need for better balance.

“”I felt after the Michigan State game we established where we wanted to
go offensively,” Kelly said this afternoon. “We took a bit of a step back in this game. We’re in the
process of evaluating where are the things we were missing in this
ballgame. I’d like to have a little more balance. We’re 300-something (passing yards) to 110 (rushing yards), that’s not really where want to
be offensively, in terms of run-pass… We know we can throw the football provided
we’re prepared and put kids in a good position to succeed. We have to
evolve a little further in running the football.”

One of the biggest reasons that the Irish are struggling right now adapting to the new offense is their reluctance to use Dayne Crist as a running quarterback. The zone-read running game necessitates a quarterback that’ll sometimes keep the ball and run, and after the staff saw what was behind Dayne Crist on the depth chart, Kelly conceded that he could be protecting his quarterback too much.

“”You have to say that’s probably true. I don’t think that way, maybe. I
think it’s more towards, let’s make sure we do things that are his
strengths,” Kelly said. “Maybe there’s a little in my mind that we’re protecting Dayne. I don’t know that we can continue to do that.”

At 1-3, it might be time for Notre Dame to take their lumps and develop Crist as a complete quarterback for this system. If that means exposing him to a few more hits, then so be it.

THE UGLY

Notre Dame’s 23-point loss was the first lopsided defeat since the end of the 2008 season, when USC trounced the Irish 38-3 to end the regular season. Since then, the Irish haven’t lost a game by more than one score, splitting the 16 games decided by a touchdown or less.

Obviously, the Irish losing nail-biters is far more gut-wrenching for players and fans, but a blow-out loss points to a larger issue and a team that’s just not close to getting back to the championship level they’d like to be.

While close losses sting, Kelly rightly understands the danger of blowouts on the psyche of a young football team.

“As it relates to our kids, as I told them after the game, if you break it down, it’s 19-6, fourth down and a foot and a half from midfield and we can’t convert,” Kelly said. “Then third-and eight we have a missed assignment where they pick up a first down. Really, a hard-fought game, those are the key plays that turned the game eventually to where it was finished.”

With three straight losses, the Irish will now recalibrate and get back to chasing a victory.

“We’re well past ‘we need a win,” Kelly said. “After the Michigan game, we needed a win. I don’t know that anybody goes around here saying, ‘Don’t worry, it’s okay, be patient.’ We’re at the point now, no question, we need a win. Our players will continue to show up and work. We need a win. There’s no question about it.”

Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

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This space has mentioned a few times the dearth of returning sacks among Notre Dame’s defensive line. It is a pertinent fact—no returning Irish defensive lineman recorded a sack in the 2016 season—but it fails to mention the flipside of that.

Most of Notre Dame’s defensive linemen had few, if any, opportunities to rush the passer in 2016. Perhaps at the top of the list of those who should bring down the opposing passer a few times this fall, sophomore Daelin Hayes has laid claim to a starting rush spot through five spring practices.

“The athleticism is what obviously stands out,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “He’s extremely athletic, he’s fit physically, 250 pounds and very strong.”

These facts are, after all, the reasons Hayes was a highly sought-after five-star recruit according to rivals.com.

“It’s the football knowledge, learning the techniques at the position in which he plays is really the piece,” Kelly continued. “It’s just learning right now for him. This is the time to do it, in spring ball.

“Squeezing down on a tight end when the back is away. Wrong-arming the puller. These are all football terms and schemes that are a bit new to him. We have to be patient with him. He’s an explosive athlete. There’s going to be some mistakes along the way, and I’m okay with that as long as he’s learning.”

Without much depth pushing for playing time behind him, Hayes will have the opportunity to make, and subsequently understand, those mistakes. Seniors Jay Hayes (no relation) and Andrew Trumbetti are mired in competition for the other end spot, while sophomores Julian Okwara, Adetokunbo Ogundeji and Khalid Kareem may have even more development ahead of them than Daelin Hayes does.

Incoming freshmen Kofi Wardlow and Jonathon MacCollister will join the fray in the summer, but for now, the younger Hayes has his chance to impress with his natural gifts while absorbing the intricacies of new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s defense.

Hayes is not a complete unknown. While Okwara made four tackles last season in 11 games and Kareem appeared in four games, Hayes saw action in every contest, finishing the season with 11 tackles, one pass breakup and one forced fumble.

“He’s an athlete,” defensive line coach Mike Elston said last week. “He’s on the edge in a two-point stance. He’s not a trained, put-your-hand-on-the-ground defensive end. He played running back in high school. He can see things better in a two-point and can diagnose quicker. He’s able to be more productive.”

It may be accurate to mention no returning Notre Dame defensive linemen tackled a quarterback for a loss last season, but it is more precise to also include the Irish have possibilities of changing that trend.

SPEAKING OF THE DEFENSIVE LINE
Notre Dame is nearly as thin at defensive tackle as it is at end. Junior Jerry Tillery leads the way with senior end-converted-to-tackle Jonathan Bonner lining up next to him thus far. Their reserves: Oft-concussed senior Daniel Cage, senior Pete Mokwuah and junior Micah Dew-Treadway with junior Elijah Taylor out for the spring with a foot injury.

Theoretically, junior Brandon Tiassum is also in the mix, and three freshmen (Kurt Hinish, Myron Tagovailo-Amosa and four-star Darnell Ewell) will join the group in the summer.

And maybe, just maybe, perhaps, possibly … Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano could walk onto campus alongside those freshmen. Pagano visited Notre Dame the first week of March, and was due to look at Oklahoma and Arkansas the next two weekends, respectively. Instead, Pagano reportedly cancelled both of those visits Monday.

Pagano does still have a visit to Oregon scheduled for April 21. Until indicated otherwise, it may be prudent to presume Pagano hopes to land as close to his Hawaiian home as possible.

RELATED READING: 1 Day Until Spring Practice: A look at the defensive line

Recruiting success continues with OL Dirksen, class’s 12th commit

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Even in the doldrums of spring practice, Notre Dame’s recent recruiting success continues. Rivals.com three-star/scout.com four-star offensive lineman John Dirksen offered a verbal commitment to the Irish on Saturday, bringing the 2018 class to 12 commitments.

The 6-foot-5, 290-pounds Dirksen (Marion High School; Maria Stein, Ohio) joins consensus three-star prospect Cole Mabry (Brentwood H.S.; Brentwood, Tenn.) as the offensive linemen thus far among the 12. In three of the last four years, Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has pulled in four recruits, with 2015’s two (Trevor Ruhland, Tristen Hoge) as the exception. This recruiting cycle could again bring a limited offensive line haul, given the likely limits on the class’s size.

While any and all current class of 2018 team rankings should be taken with many grains of salt—there are 318 days between today and National Signing Day, after all—Dirksen’s commitment solidifies the Irish hold on the No. 3 class, per rivals.com. Other recruiting services place Notre Dame even higher.

Dirksen chose Hiestand and the Irish over offers from Michigan State, Iowa State and Boston College, among others.

 

Holmes out for spring; Jones & Jones shining

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Notre Dame’s spring continued over the weekend, and is all too often the case with football, that led to an injury. Early enrollee running back C.J. Holmes will probably miss the rest of spring practice due to a separated shoulder, Irish coach Brian Kelly announced following Saturday’s practice.

“We’ll get an MRI and know a little bit further on Monday once that calms down a little bit,” Kelly said. “We’ll get a picture of that and see. He had an open repair on that same shoulder his sophomore year in high school.”

Behind three backs, including two with experience, Holmes was unlikely to see playing time in the backfield in 2017.

Of those three backs, sophomore Tony Jones, Jr., is the unknown after preserving a year of eligibility last season. In limited practice viewing, however, Jones has only impressed. He has caught Kelly’s eye, as well.

“He’s 225 pounds, can catch the ball coming out of the backfield, [is] assignment correct, and can run elusively and can get into the second level,” Kelly said. “What does that equal? He’s a pretty good back.

“Obviously he was noticeable today in his play and he got some work with the first group as well. He wasn’t just getting second-team reps.”

Jones may be getting some first-unit exposure, but expect him to remain behind junior Josh Adams in the depth chart. Considering Jones’ style is somewhat comparable to Adams’, whereas junior Dexter Williams presents something of a change of pace, Williams should see more action than the sophomore, as well.

MORE PRAISE FOR ALIZE JONES
Junior tight end Alizé Jones—rather, Alizé Mack, per his Twitter account—has taken the lead in spring’s race of who reaps the most sound bite accolades. In complimenting Jones, who missed last season due to an academic suspension, Kelly also managed to laud new offensive coordinator Chip Long.

“I think Chip is doing a terrific job with [Jones],” Kelly said. “He’s got a good relationship. He knows how to rise him up when he needs to and scold him when he needs to. Alizé needs a little bit of that.

“He’s virtually un-coverable in certain areas of the field. I don’t care at any level. You can’t cover him. He just has that kind of talent. The one that I think stands out to me in the few days is he’s committed himself to being a blocker and playing physical. If he continues to do that, we’re going to find ourselves with a lot of tight ends on the field.”

Presumably, Jones would join graduate student tight end Durham Smythe in two tight end sets. It should be remembered, Long has historically shown a preference for such formations, and with Notre Dame’s plethora of options at the position, Long’s tendencies have no need to change. For that matter, Long had some praise for Jones this weekend, as well.

“Alizé can be as good as he wants to be,” Long said Friday. “…He’s growing up each and every day. Great joy to coach, and that whole group is. He doesn’t want to let that group down. There’s no question he can be as good as he wants to be.”

Friday at 4: 40-yard dashes and absurdity

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Of all the absurd things the football world often obsesses over, the 40-yard dash may be the most useless of them. Yes, it even beats out assigning star rankings to 16- and 17-year-olds, though not by much.

For now, let’s look past the rest of the inane Draft intricacies, such as former Irish defensive lineman Jarron Jones feeling pressured to increase his vertical jump by four inches. (He did, jumping to 24.5 inches in Notre Dame’s Pro Day on Thursday.) This scribe does not have an excess of time to spend discussing Jones’s outlandish wingspan if this piece is to post by its intended, though unnecessary, 4 p.m. ET deadline.

The 40-yard dash … No football play begins from a sprinter’s stance, yet it may be the factor most crucial to a low 40 time. Former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer posted a time of 4.83 seconds in the NFL Combine earlier this month. For context’s sake, Kizer ran .07 seconds slower than Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did as a draft prospect in the 2004 combine.

Roethlisberger has had himself an excellent career, and his ability to shrug off 300-pound defensive linemen is a testament to his athleticism. Put Kizer and Roethlisberger in the open field together, though, and Kizer would presumably have outrun Roethlisberger at any point of the two-time Super Bowl champion’s career. In Indianapolis, however, Roethlisberger did a better job of getting his hips through his first couple strides of the heralded 40-yard dash.

Here, watch Kizer train for the 40, the most-hyped measurement of his combine.

“The ultimate goal is to have yourself in the best position to have your body weight back in those legs so you can create enough torque to get out as quickly as possible,” Kizer said. “A guy who is as long as I am, with long limbs that I have, I’ve got to make sure that my weight distribution is in the best position for me to get out and catch up to some of those quicker guys who are a little lower to the ground.”

What part of that sounds applicable to football? The 40 turns Kizer’s size (6-foot-4, 237 pounds) into a negative. He worries about the angle of his knees. After his throwing session at the Thursday Pro Day, Kizer summed up the draft evaluation process even more succinctly.

“This process is very different in the sense that the way you look productive in the combine and in a pro day is very different from what productivity actually looks like out on the field.”

Well put.

More pertinent to the actual game of football, Kizer’s completion percentage in the staged workout could have been higher.

Then again, he was throwing to the likes of former Irish receivers Corey Robinson and Amir Carlisle and former running back Jonas Gray. Reportedly, the only contact Gray and Kizer had before the session was Kizer emailing the former New England Patriot the planned series of routes.

The NFL Draft, where Gmail becomes a necessity.

Let’s do away with the 40. If we insist on keeping it, let’s do it twice, once from a standing start and once from a running start. Those would simulate actual football movements: A receiver getting off the line, and a ballcarrier breaking away and trying to outrun the defense.

Asking DeShone Kizer to mimic Usain Bolt is an exercise in futility, idiocy, absurdity.

Cue end of rant.

Why cite the Roethlisberger time? Many, including Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke, have readily compared Kizer to Roethlisberger this spring.

The most notable line of that scouting report (scroll down to No. 32) may be its final one, echoing Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s sentiments from earlier this week.

“The mystery is whether he can regain his assertiveness,” Burke writes. “If so, he could turn out to be the 2017 class’s best QB. The team that drafts him will be taking a leap of faith.”

A leap. Not a dash.

For more Notre Dame Pro Day results, click here.

And with that, this just may make the 4 p.m. posting. You know what to do.