Pregame Twelve Pack: Boston College edition

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We’re back for week five of the Pregame Twelve Pack. Twelve fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as we head into the Boston College game.

1. Get ready for a larger dose of Bennett Jackson.

Remember that streak burning down the field during the opening Saturday against Purdue? That was Bennett Jackson, covering kickoffs to the tune of four tackles and immediately making his speed and presence felt.

After the kick return game has gone backwards the past few weeks, Kelly is turning to Jackson on the opposite end of the kick team to hopefully bring some energy to a unit lacking much excitement.

“Right now, I think you’ll see Cierre Wood, you’re going to see probably Bennett Jackson, and that rotation will also be pretty fluid,” Brian Kelly confirmed Thursday afternoon. We think Theo is going to help us back there as well. It’s going to be a three-man rotation. I would say right now probably Cierre is going to be our lead guy again.”

Last week’s kick return game was held in check by the excellent placement and strength behind Nate Whitaker’s kicks, but Wood didn’t do anyone any favors by being indecisive with kicks three yards deep in the end zone. While Cierre’s the primary return man, it’ll be exciting to watch Jackson if he’s as fearless on the return side as he is covering kicks.

2. The Chase Rettig era likely begins this weekend.

It’s been the worst kept secret in Boston this week that true freshman Chase Rettig is exchanging his redshirt for a Crimson one and will likely be starting for the first time in his Boston College career.

Kelly and staff dug up some tape of Rettig in high school so they could get a look at him.

“We watched some high school film on him,” Kelly said earlier in the week. “We dug up some high school film, and he’s like the other quarterbacks. He’s tall, he’s got a big arm, he’s got escape-ability. We feel like we don’t have to prepare for a guy that may take off and run the ball 20 times.”

I also dug up some high school dirt on Rettig, and find some common threads that lead back to some familiar names. While Rettig only had scholarship offers from Boston College and Tennessee, it wasn’t for a lack of tutelage — Rettig worked with QB coach Anton Clarkson, the son of self-marketing whiz and personal quarterback tutor Steve Clarkson, who worked with Jimmy Clausen.

Here’s what the younger Clarkson had to say about Rettig when he committed to playing at BC:

“He’s a very smart kid and a hard worker,” Clarkson said. “He will run
through a wall for you and I think he has the strongest arm in the
country. He can easily make all the throws and he’s one of my favorite
kids to work with. He played in an offense last year where he had to run
the ball a lot and that’s not his strength. He’s a drop-back guy who
can gun the ball and he didn’t get to do that enough. I think that’s one
of the reasons he didn’t have a bunch of early offers. But he’s got the
right fit now in Boston.”

I’m sure Rettig’s arm is strong, but I like that the penchant for hyperbole was transferred from father to son.

3. The difference between Kelly’s Irish offense and his Bearcat offense? Try the second quarter.

An astute member of the media pointed out a pretty interesting stat to BK yesterday afternoon, when he noticed that Kelly’s Cincinnati Bearcat offense scored 172 points in the second quarter last year. Right now at the one-quarter mark of the season, the Irish have only 9 points and zero touchdowns in the second quarter. Does Kelly have a reason for the drastic difference? Not really.

“Those numbers, I don’t spend a ton of time on them. But nine points, regardless of whether we scored 100-something or not, that’s not enough points in the second quarter,” Kelly said. “We’re still a work in progress
offensively. We see some really good signs. I don’t know that it has much to do
with an offense that has been bogged down by a particular player as the overall
understanding of what we’re trying to get done. All 11 guys. It’s not one guy.
This isn’t about the quarterback. This is about 11 guys getting on the same
page from an offensive standpoint.”

4. You want 21 tackles? I’ll show you 21 tackles.

The fine staff over at UND.com took it upon themselves to cut up the video and find all 21 tackles that Manti Te’o made last week against Stanford, not an easy feat when you consider that the coaching staff only had Te’o for 19.

But Al and the team found those two missing tackles, and put together an awesome look at the work Manti did last weekend.

While it’s partially depressing to watch the big-gainers that Stanford put together on the offensive side of the ball, the kill-shot Te’o makes on tackle 13 (get to the 1:50 mark) makes it worth it. That’s the hit of the year so far.

5. Twenty-one tackles? Luke Kuechly sees Te’o’s game and raises him 12.

While Te’o’s 21 tackles is the most in the FBS since 2007, Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly has a pretty impressive stat-run of his own. With 16 tackles against Virginia Tech, Kuechly extended the nation’s longest streak of games with double-digit tackles to 12 games. A Cincinnati native, Brian Kelly tried unsuccessfully to recruit him to the Bearcats.

“Couldn’t even get him to visit Cincinnati,” Kelly said Tuesday. “Couldn’t get a visit out of Luke. He wanted to go, he was looking at Boston College, East Coast schools. Stanford was one of his choices. Great student, great kid. Very, very good football player, which obviously we’ve got to find a way to block him now.”

6. Boston College is playing the disrespect card.

There’s nothing better in a rivalry than when one team starts saying the other team “disrespects” them. Consider that a prerequisite for a true rivalry game. And thanks to tight end Alex Albright, who grew up in the Cincinnati area, we know that the Eagles think the Irish disrespect them.

“The Boston College community feels a little disrespected just because BC is
considered a lesser program. But for me, personally, being from that
area, I’ve been growing up with Notre Dame in my face my entire life,”
the Boston College senior defensive end said Wednesday, three days
before the “Holy War” at Alumni Stadium. “I feel like I know the monster
that’s coming in a lot more ways than people that don’t have experience
with Notre Dame.”

tn1_BC_turf.jpg I think a few Notre Dame fans would probably beg to differ with Albright’s interpretation of what team is disrespectful.

7. Jonas Gray is doubtful, but the rest of the Irish are healthy.

Talking about injury luck is usually the kiss of death, but through four games the Irish have down fairly well at staying healthy, losing only Steve Paskorz with a significant injury and Dan Wenger to concussion problems. Kelly updated the Irish injury status, which looked iffy with running backs Jonas Gray and Armando Allen, tight end Kyle Rudolph, and defensive end Ethan Johnson all going down with injuries against Stanford.

“Jonas is the only guy right now that is questionable for
Saturday,” Kelly said Wednesday. “Everybody else — we’re better this week going into Tuesday
than we were last week after the Michigan State going into Tuesday.”

While a balky hamstring and a stingy Stanford defense held Kyle Rudolph to one catch for one yard, Kelly confirmed Thursday that Rudolph was better.

“He was better today. I
expect him to be better,” Kelly said. “Couldn’t be worse.”

8. Notre Dame is good business for Boston College.

If Boston College wants to tee-up a sellout crowd, all it needs to do is schedule Notre Dame. The Eagle blog BC Interruption tells us that the Irish have helped Boston College sell out every home game since they started playing Notre Dame in the new Alumni Stadium, a streak that started back in 1994.

Boston College has only sold out Alumni Stadium 31 times since they expanded Alumni Stadium to 44,500 seats, and the Irish are the only team that’s sold it out every time they played.

Here’s the top sellouts:

     Notre Dame — 6 sellouts — 1994, 1996, 1998, 2001, 2003, 2008
     Virginia Tech — 4 sellouts — 1994, 1996, 2000, 2006
     Syracuse — 4 sellouts — 1994, 1996, 2000, 2006
     Miami — 4 sellouts — 1995, 2001, 2003, 2007 

The Holy War is a must-see ticket for Eagles fans. Something that’s obviously pretty rare for Boston College football.

9. It was a students-only affair at the going-away pep rally this week.

There’s nothing that’s lost its allure like the famed Notre Dame pep rallies of the Lou Holtz era. Those JACC centers filled to capacity gave way to social gatherings at the Irish Green, and somewhere along the line the event lost the must-attend allure that pep rallies held a generation ago.

But this week a students-only pep rally was held for the Irish, and 2,300 student packed into Stepan Center to wish the Irish good luck before BC:

“I think that last year’s student-only pep rally was universally
considered the best pep rally of the year, and even the last few years,” Barrick Bollman, the chairman of the pep rally organizing committee told the Observer.

“It’s students-only, so we are free to get as absolutely crazy as we
want and it’s a little more uncensored. It will be like those crazy pep
rallies that people’s parents always talk about,” Bollman said.

What’s crazy is thinking that current students need to ask their friends’ parents about the time when pep rallies were actually crazy.

10. Boston College’s offense might be dreadfully bad.

It’s hard to get too confident if you’re an Irish fan after what happened last week, but consider that Boston College might have an absolutely dreadful offense. (We’ll find out Saturday night.)

Consider: Boston College ranks 92nd in total offense after three games. That’s bad, but when you consider they’ve played the the 109th most difficult schedule in their three games, that’s pretty terrible.

Dave Shinskie got the hook as the starting quarterback after three games because the BC offense has been down right offensive to start the year. He put up mediocre numbers against Weber State, completing only 10 of 20 passes for 185 yards and two touchdowns and two interceptions. Boston College only mustered 305 total yards against Kent State, relying on 20 second-half points to beat the Golden Flashes 26-13. Against their first FBS opponent, Boston College could only put up 250 yards of offense, throwing for only 180 yards and running for just 70, while turning the ball over three times.

Obviously, we had questions about how good Stanford was after their first three games. It turned out they were plenty good enough to defeat the Irish. We’ll find out how good the Eagles are on Saturday night.

11. When ND and BC play, they don’t just play for one rivalry trophy, they play for two.

If you want a good indicator on the importance of the Irish/Eagles rivalry, consider that there are two rivalry trophies up for grabs. The first is the Frank Leahy Memorial Bowl, which honors the shared history where Leahy led both the Notre Dame and Boston College football programs.

The second trophy is the Ireland Trophy, which is presented to the winning team by the opposition’s student government. Starting in 1994, the trophy — designed in the shape of the country Ireland — honors the rich Irish history that both countries share.

I don’t think anyone will get these mixed up with the Little Brown Jug or Paul Bunyon’s Axe, but it sounds like both prizes would look good on in the trophy case.

12. The Irish need a win, and Brian Kelly is still confident.

Not that you’d expect anything different from a head coach, but Brian Kelly’s confidence has not been shaken by the slow start to the season.

“I’m very confident we’re going to win the football game,” Kelly said. “I think it’s still about our ability to close out games and play turnover-free. That’s been a thing that’s obviously hurt us. But I’m very confident that our team is prepared to win.”

If Kelly and the Irish are going to win, they’ll need to move the football against a stingy Eagles defense, but also control the field position battle. To do that, they’ll absolutely need to get some better punts out of Ben Turk. Special teams coach Mike Elston has diagnosed Turk’s struggles.

“It’s like a baseball player. He’s in a slump,” Elston said. “Before the first game, Ben Turk was punting the best I’ve ever seen him punt.
He was peaking at the right time. His leg was getting back from the fall
camp.

“Now you hit a couple bad punts, you’re in front of 80,000
people, and he’s got to get his confidence back. He has to focus on two
or three things that are going to make him better, and that’s what he’s
done this week. And actually he’s had a really good week.”

Boston College has really struggled to put together long drives, so if the Irish can keep the Eagles in the long field and avoid turnovers, the Notre Dame defense should feast on an inexperienced quarterback playing in a underwhelming offense.
 

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…)