Tuesdays with BK: Pitt edition

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There has been little familiarity for Brian Kelly in the opening five games of the season, as Kelly battled traditional Irish opponents that rarely showed up on the schedules of Central Michigan or Cincinnati. As the Irish prepare to face Pitt this Saturday afternoon, Kelly will square off with a team he’s battled the past three years at Cincinnati.

“I think we both know that we have a good grasp of — they know what we’re going
to do offensively, and we kind of know what they’re going to do
defensively, so I think that’s a wash,” Kelly said this afternoon. “I still think this comes down to who’s better prepared and who executes
better on Saturday, because we know each other so well. They’re like a
conference opponent more than anything else, going into a conference
game.”

The fine folks on the video team cut together some highlights from the rest of Kelly’s press conference.

 

A few thoughts on the presser as a whole:

The Irish coaching staff unearthed a great left tackle in sophomore Zack Martin, who saved a year of eligibility last season.

“When you look at Zach Martin as a first-time starter, each week he sees
new things and maybe doesn’t handle it like a veteran starter, but those
things that he has encountered already, he’s playing at a high level,” Kelly said.
“He’s grading out as our top lineman at this point.”

Before the season started, even Notre Dame wasn’t sure who they had at tackle, as even the university was misspelling his first name (It’s Zack, not Zach). But Martin has been next to invisible at left tackle (a very good thing for an offensive lineman), bringing the Irish their surest blind-side tackle since Ryan Harris took over during his true freshman season.

*****

While much of the preseason hype — even Heisman discussion — went to running back Dion Lewis, it’s another sophomore running back that’s risen to the forefront of the Pitt rushing attack. Ray Graham has been a monster this year, missing the Utah game to open the season, but then racking up nearly 500 yards in three games, including a staggering 277 yards against Florida International last Saturday.

Kelly discussed how the Irish need to keep both Graham and Lewis, a guy that lit up the Irish last year, in check while also making things tough on first-year starter Tino Sunseri, who has top-flight wide receiver Jonathan Baldwin at his disposal.

“You have to pick your spots. I mean, if they know and you know and
everybody what’s watching the game knows that Baldwin is one-on-one the
whole game, that’s not a good situation,” Kelly said. “We have to make Sunseri not
know whether he’s getting help on his receiver, and that’s really the
game within the game, making sure that the quarterback is not sure when
it is double zone or when that corner is getting help on a particular
play.”

Putting a physical wide receiver like Baldwin on an island isn’t a recipe for success, while causing as much confusion as possible for Sunseri is, so hopefully the Irish find a way to commit enough man-power to stopping the running game without letting Baldwin make the big plays that killed the Irish last season.

*****

Speaking of Baldwin, he’ll likely be matched up again with Pittsburgh product Darrin Walls on the edge. Kelly had this to say about his senior cornerback.

“He’s been outstanding. He’s been our best cover corner consistently.
He’s played through injury. He’s probably been our most professional and
locked-in player, and I say professional from a day-to-day standpoint,” Kelly said.
“He’s very purposeful in what he does. He’s somebody we can point to in
our senior class and say, that’s mental and physical toughness. He’s
displayed that each and every week.”

And if Kelly had watched the film of Baldwin getting the best of Walls last season, he did his best not to show it.

“Clearly we have a great deal of respect for Jonathan Baldwin, and Darrin
Walls is a pretty good football player,” Kelly said. “I think you’ve probably got —
whether it’s Moss versus Revis, I don’t know if they’ve put it in that
degree, but you’ve got two really good players out there that want to
win. Again, I think within our scheme, he’s going to have to defend him
one-on-one sometimes, and we feel good about that match-up, as well.”

*****

Looking over the stats after last Saturday’s game, I was shocked to see Mark Herzlich barely make a dent in the ledger. Kelly attributed that to a schematic decision and the evolution of Theo Riddick playing as the slot “Z” receiver.

“It’s really about how you’re going to play the box for us, how many guys
you’re going to put in the box,” Kelly said. “If you drop that Sam backer and you
want to put him in the box, Theo is out in space with nobody over him,
and that’s probably not a match-up that teams want.

“So now you take a Herzlich out of the game against BC because he’s got
to stay out over Theo Riddick the whole game. I don’t know if he had a
couple of tackles, but he was effectively taken out of the ballgame. If
we can do that, it allows Armando to run and allows some other things to
occur then he’s doing his job, as well.”

That’s an interesting look at the game inside the game, and could be one of the reasons that Boston College coach Frank Spaziani was so effusive with his praise for Kelly and his gameplan after his team was easily defeated by the Irish.

*****

One thing is for sure: Cierre Wood isn’t in Brian Kelly’s doghouse.

“Here’s why I like Cierre Wood. It seems to be a big topic of
conversation, my sideline demeanor,” Kelly said. “When I went to talk to him about
that play, talk to him about the play, he said, ‘Coach, it’s inexcusable
what I did. I can’t tell you why it happened. That’s ridiculous.’ He
immediately took accountability for his actions. I didn’t say another
word to him. I’m a Cierre Wood fan. We’re going to keep developing that
young man and he’s going to be a good football player. He just needs to
continue to develop, gain more confidence. He needs recognition
awareness. When he sees things, he’s got to go, and he’s still thinking
too much. When we can get that out of him, when he can just react, man,
he’s going to be fun to play.

“I’ll tell you what, he had a couple runs, real hard runs early in the
game, made that mistake obviously, you can’t put the ball on the ground
in a competitive situation. But what I loved about the kid is
immediately it wasn’t, well, I didn’t get the call, I didn’t hear it, I
was getting a little tired, we hear a lot of that around here at Notre
Dame, and we hear about it too much, and I didn’t hear it from Cierre
Wood. And that’s why I’m in his camp and we’re going to keep getting him
to move forward and be a really good player for us.”

Quotes like these are the ones that should have Notre Dame fans very excited about having Brian Kelly as the man in charge. While it may have been coincidental, Charlie Weis never trusted Shaq Evans after he failed to catch the crucial third down out-pattern that Jimmy Clausen threw him against Michigan. The coaching staff never said that Evans didn’t play because of it, but it threw Shaq’s confidence in a lurch as the season continued and likely helped Evans make his decision to transferred after the the initial two-deep depth chart was released.

Kelly’s made it known he’s not going to bury a kid that’s made some mistakes, even if he does get all over his case. That’s likely the difference between a college coach and a coach with an NFL background. In the NFL, if you can’t trust a guy, you get rid of him. With an 85 man roster, Weis was able to simply not use Evans. But Kelly seems to understand that guys like Cierre Wood are going to be important football players for Notre Dame, and burying their confidence is only going to hurt the team collectively. Kelly made it clear that laying the ball on the ground is unacceptable, but he also let everybody know that’ll be watching this press conference — players included– that Cierre Wood is a great football player.

That’s the kind of discipline-heavy leader that’s considered a player’s coach.

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.

 

Tranquill continues work with safeties … for now

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Drue Tranquill will see time at the oft-spoken of rover position, just not yet. For now, Notre Dame needs the senior at safety to provide leadership and communication while the rest of his position group gets up to speed.

“We really have to figure out what the coordination is going to be at the safety position,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “How much does Drue play down at rover? How much does he play back [at safety]?”

Only sophomore Devin Studstill returns any starts to the safety position aside from Tranquill’s career total of 18. Studstill started nine games last season.

That void has kept Tranquill working mostly with the defensive backs in the spring’s first few practices, rather than joining the likes of junior Asmar Bilal in the rover grouping.

“We didn’t want to pull our most veteran player out of the back end of our defense with Drue,” Kelly said. “I think it was more about the hesitancy of losing a great communicator in the back end than about the teaching.”

The time will come, however, for Tranquill to move up. Juniors Nick Coleman and Ashton White have moved to safety from the corner position. With more reps, they will not need to rely on Tranquill’s guidance as much. The same goes for, at least in theory, sophomore Jalen Elliott.

“It’s not really a heavy load of teaching for those guys,” Kelly said. “They’re picking it up quite well. We really want to get a chance to see a lot of guys back there.”

Kelly seemed particularly bullish on Coleman’s prospects at the position, provided he embrace the needed physicality. At 6-foot, 187 pounds, Coleman’s build may have been more suited on the outside, but Notre Dame’s plethora of promising cornerbacks provided an impetus to test Coleman at safety.

“The big thing will be Nick’s continuous development in tackling,” Kelly said. “You have to tackle back there. His ball skills are really good. We’ve seen that he’s able to play the ball. He has athleticism.

“We just want to continue to build on his tackling skills. If we go through the spring and say, ‘Well, he’s tackling really well,’ we’ll feel pretty good about the move.”

At that point, Tranquill will likely join Bilal at the hybrid position, which is something of a trademark to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Tranquill will be able to do what he does best: Pursue the ball.

“We all know what his strengths are,” Kelly said. “He’s a solid tackler. I don’t think there’s any safety in college football that wants to get matched up one-on-one with a skilled slot receiver. This would minimize that, when you play him close to the ball as a rover.

“And I think he’s pretty quick off the edge. I think we put him in a really good position in maximizing his skill set.”

Until then, Bilal will continue to be the frontrunner at rover, especially with the first four Irish opponents of 2017 presenting run-heavy offenses.

KELLY ON NICK WATKINS
Kelly was also asked about senior cornerback Nick Watkins, his fit into Elko’s defense and his return from injury.

“He’s very coachable, wants to learn, he’s pretty long,” Kelly said. “What I think Mike [Elko] does really well—and this is what I liked about my interactions with him—is, we all have strengths and weaknesses. He has a great eye of saying let’s take Nick’s strengths and let’s put him in a position where we can really utilize his strengths and put him in a position where maybe we’re not a right and left corner team, maybe we’re a short field/wide field team. Let’s apply him in that fashion.

“Nick’s long. He’s a little bit of a physical player. Let’s go to those strengths. He’s shown some of those attributes early on.”

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