Pregame Twelve Pack: Pitt edition

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We’re back with the Pitt Pregame Twelve Pack. Twelve fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as we head into the Pitt game.

1. Feel good about the Irish this weekend? Feel good about October 9th.

If you’re looking for a reason to feel confident about the Irish this Saturday, just look at the calendar. Notre Dame plays some very good football on October 9th, having never lost a football game on the date in the program’s history.

The Irish have gone 13-0-1 all-time on the date, the lone tie coming back in 1937 when the Irish played a scoreless draw with Illinois.

Here’s a rundown of the Irish on Oct. 9:

     2004 — ND 23, Stanford 15
     1999 — ND 48, Arizona State 17
     1993 — ND 44, Pitt 0
     1982 — ND 16, Miami 14
     1971 — ND 17, Miami 0
     1965 — ND 17, Army 0
     1954 — ND 33, Pitt 0
     1948 — ND 26, Michigan State 7
     1943 — ND 35, Michigan 12
     1937 — ND 0, Illinois 0
     1926 — ND 20, Minnesota 7
     1915 — ND 34, Haskell 0
     1909 — ND 58, Olivet 0

The 1943 game between the Irish in the Wolverines featured the number one and two ranked teams in the country, with No. 1 Notre Dame coming out victorious.

2. Irish have the size advantage up front, Pitt holds the size advantage on the edges.

I was surprised to see Notre Dame have a fairly large advantage in the battle up front. On average, Notre Dame’s offense line out-weights Pitt’s defensive front by nearly 37 pounds, with Irish offensive linemen averaging 306 pounds and Pitt defensive linemen averaging 270. On the flip-side, Pitt’s offensive line only out-weighs the Irish front three of the Irish by a mere 8 pounds, stacking up at 299 pounds on the Panthers offensive front while the Irish d-line averages 291 pounds.

In the secondary, the advantage heavily skews in the favor of Pitt though, with the average Pitt WR/TE checking in at 6-foot-5, and the average Notre Dame DB measuring a shade above six-feet tall. Meanwhile, the average Notre Dame WR/TE stands a quarter-inch under 6-foot-2, while the Panthers secondary averages over 5-foot-11.

Last year, the size advantage of Pitt’s receivers and tight ends played a massive part in the game. We’ll see if the Irish can nullify that advantage with some smart pressure on raw quarterback Tino Sunseri.

3. How good was Ray Graham last week? Historically good.

Pitt tailback Ray Graham set the world on fire last week with a monster game, rushing for 277 yards on 29 carries for three TDs. Graham’s game was the best rushing performance of the season in FBS, out-gaining the day Denard Robinson had against Notre Dame by 19 yards, on just one more carry.

Graham’s game also went down in the Pitt record book as one of the best in school history. His 277 yards was shy only Tony Dorsett’s game in 1975 against Notre Dame where he ran for 303 yards on 23 carries and one touchown, averaging an astonishing 13.2 yards per carry.

Graham had 374 all-purpose yards against Florida International, gaining those yards on 34 plays, an average of 11 yards per touch.

4. Tausch takes Ruffer’s kickoff job, Ruffer could take Tausch’s record.

Brian Kelly announced that sophomore Nick Tausch will be taking over for David Ruffer on kickoffs, but Ruffer would continue to kick field goals.

“Tausch was pretty consistent with his kickoffs in terms of placement,” Kelly said about the switch.
“One of the big things in our kickoff is ball placement. And we weren’t
getting a consistent ball placement. He was kicking it, he was kicking
it hard. But we’d have a squeeze left on and he’d kick it to the right
and really compromise some of our coverages. This is really about ball
placement. Nick’s always been a little bit better at ball placement. He
hasn’t kicked it as deep. But we’re willing to take a little bit off to
ensure some better placement.”

Tausch will get to put his foot to the ball, but Ruffer still will be taking dead aim at the school record Tausch holds for consecutive field goals made with 14. Ruffer sits at 13, making every single kick he’s attempted since he saw the field last year.

5. Brian Kelly 2, Dave Wannstedt 1.

That’s the overall record when these two coaches get together, with Kelly’s Cincinnati Bearcats beating Wannstedt’s Panthers the last two times they’ve played. Last season’s loss might have been the most crushing defeat for Wannstedt’s troops, losing their second straight last-second defeat, after falling in the Backyard Brawl to an unranked West Virginia team on a field goal as time expired. Wannstedt’s loss to Kelly’s Bearcats was had the Panthers blowing a 31-10 first half lead, and losing on a 29-yard touchdown pass from Tony Pike to Armon Binns with 33 seconds remaining in the game, a loss made possible when holder Andrew Janocko mishandled a snap on an extra point with just 1:36 remaining.

In 2008, Kelly’s Bearcats survived a late charge by Pitt led by running back LeSean McCoy and tight end Dorrin Dickerson and held on for a 28-21 victory, the victory for the No. 19 rated Cincinnati squad clinching the Big East championship. In 2007, it was Wannstedt springing the surprise on Kelly, the Panthers winning just their third game of the season and holding a Ben Mauk led offense in check as the Bearcats lost just their second game in eight attempts.

“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 earlier this week. “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.”

6. There’s another ugly home losing streak that the Irish would like to end this Saturday.

While it doesn’t match the streak Boston College had run up over the last decade, Pitt is playing for an unprecedented third straight road victory at Notre Dame Stadium. The Panthers have won their previous two stops in South Bend, including the quadruple overtime win over the Irish in 2008, where Pitt escaped with a 36-33 victory.

In all, Pitt has won three of the last four games against the Irish, including their 27-22 victory over Notre Dame last year. Over the last 31 games, Pitt is 22-9, their winningest stretch since the 2001-03 seasons. In contrast, over the last 31 games, Notre Dame is 11-14.

7. Stopping the run with be the key to Irish victory.

With Ray Graham and Dion Lewis the best one-two punch the Irish will see all season in the backfield, stopping the run will be the key to victory for Notre Dame. The Irish saw a statistical surge after their dominating performance last week at Boston College, having their rush defense go from near the bottom of the heap in FBS up to a much more respectable 68th against the run.

In fact, the Irish run defense was one of the best performances the Irish have had since the Lou Holtz era ended. The Eagles’ five yards of rushing was the best performance the Irish have had since they held Stanford to -11 rushing yards in 2005, and the second-best performance by an Irish defense since 1998. The Eagles two rushing first downs were the fewest allowed since Holtz’s Irish squad held Vanderbilt to just one rushing first down on September 5, 1996.

8. Both Pitt and the Irish have been on the wrong side of some very close losses.

Over the last two seasons, the Irish have lost an incredible amount of close football games. Even including the 23-point victory by Stanford, the Irish average loss over the past two years has been by 6.4 points — a combined 58 points in 9 defeats.

Pitt has also had its share of hard luck, with their five losses over the past two seasons coming by a combined 42 points, an average of 8.4 points per game. A pretty remarkable number when you consider that the Panthers lost by 28 points to Miami two weeks ago, skewing the numbers quite a bit. Throw the Miami game out, and Pitt’s average loss the past two seasons has been by 3.5 points. That’s nearly a mirror image of their three losses in 2009, games Pitt lost by a combined 11 points, with two of those losses coming in the game’s final minute.

9. The Irish need to play a better game of give and take.

Pouring through the weekly stats, one area that Notre Dame needs to improve is their give/take ratio. Notre Dame is -4 on turnovers, taking the ball away from opponents 8 times, but giving it away 12. The Irish have given up 30 points off turnovers, allowing three touchdowns and three field goals to the opposing team. Offensively, the Irish have only managed 10 points off opponent turnovers, with a touchdown against Purdue in the first quarter of the season and a field goal after Zeke Motta recovered a muffed punt against Stanford.

It’s interesting that seven of the eight turnovers the Irish have forced have come via the interception, and the defense has yet to force a fumble. Meanwhile, the Irish turnovers come equal parts fumble and interception, with the Irish already losing five fumbles.

For the Irish to play winning football down the stretch, they’ll need to capitalize on the turnovers they force and do a better job of holding onto the football.

10. Irish try to keep it in the family with the Martin brothers.

With Zack Martin one of the best surprises on the season, Notre Dame looked to make it a family affair by offering Zack’s younger brother Nick a scholarship this week. The younger Martin is a three-star recruit, and currently committed to Kentucky, where both of Martin’s parents went to college.

Martin has offers from Big Ten schools like Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State and Northwestern, and has been committed to Kentucky since August. Former Irish assistant and current Kentucky head coach Joker Phillips also was a teammate of Keith Martin, Zack and Nick’s father, so it might be a tough recruit to pull this late in the game. The Irish offer came in the last few days, so if Notre Dame is going to gain another recruit along the offensive line, they’ll likely have to make up quite a bit of ground.

11. The career starts leader on defense is probably not who you’d expect.

When you think of guys that have been a lynch-pin of the Irish defense for the past few years, you’re not likely to think of Kerry Neal. But it’s Neal that sits atop the career starts list on the Irish defense with 26 games, joined by safety Harrison Smith and cornerback Darrin Walls.

Neal winning the outside linebacker job over Brian Smith and Steve Filer was one of the surprises of fall camp. And while his 17 tackles over five starts this year aren’t going to bowl anyone over with his productivity, Neal is playing better as the season goes on.

You tend to forget that Kerry started five games as a true freshman in 2007, 11 games as a sophomore and five games at defensive end in 2009. Neal’s development as a player was likely stunted by the shifting between a 3-4 system and a 4-3 system, and while he isn’t the prototype of what Kelly and Bob Diaco look for in their defensive system, Neal has become a solid veteran player getting key minutes for the Irish defense.

12. Don’t blame John Goodman for all the fair catches.

I was especially hard on John Goodman last week for his inability to get anything going on punt returns after taking over for Armando Allen as the primary deep man. It seemed like Goodman was content to either fair catch the ball or he continued to let punts land and roll for an extra chunk of yardage, one of my biggest pet peeves for any return man. But Brian Kelly placed the blame on the erratic punts of Ryan Quigley, who kicked 11 times for an average of 40 yards, his worst day of the season.

“They sprayed the ball. They had about 60 yards of roll on the ground,” Kelly said.
“The kid came in as the top punter in the country and didn’t kick it 40
yards. So one of those things where, finally, he did kick a couple, and
it was just a fair catch situation.”

Pitt starts Dan Hutchins at both punter and kicker and he’s one of the best in the Big East, so Goodman is likely to get a chance at returning kicks from a punter that’s far more accurate this week.

 

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.