IBG: Life at the half-way point

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With Western Michigan not exactly the sexiest of opponents and the season exactly half-way finished, the guys at We Never Graduate hosted the Irish Blogger Gathering with a fairly meaty selection of questions.

I’ll do my best to answer the bonus question without getting Jack Donaghy calling downstairs for my head.

The Irish have posted back-to-back victories over teams that have
given us fits the past decade to pull back to .500, but when you head to
the message boards on ND Nation, Rivals, etc. all you see is
unrelenting negativity. Some cry Kelly’s in over his head and doomed to
fail, others bitch and moan about the run-to-pass ratio, and many more
say that even though we’ve won the last two there’s no improvement over
last year’s team. What’s your take on the negativity that’s swirling
around the program on the internet? What message would you like to
convey to ND Nation?

Cynicism and negative are hardly anything new for Notre Dame football, and definitely aren’t relegated to the websites mentioned above. (Just take a look at some of the comments around here.) I’m not old enough to remember the early days of Lou or much of anything before, but I’m guessing since Knute Rockne, the Irish fanbase has been filled with a small — but incredibly vocal — group of blowhard windbags.

Here’s a few comments that I feel work for just about every one of “those guys.”

1) College football coaches know more about football than you do… I promise.
2) The techniques you learned back when you played are most likely wrong… I promise.
3) This isn’t the Rockne or Leahy era. It’s a lot harder to win football games now.
4) Installing a new offensive system with an unproven quarterback, three new offensive linemen and without your All-American wide receiver brings some growing pains.
5) For those worried about the run/pass ratio: If you look at the stats — the Irish run more on non-scoring drives than on scoring drives.

All that being said, I don’t blame Irish fans for taking a wait and see approach. We’ve been burned badly by the last two coaches, and there are far too many intelligent people to fall head-over-heels in love again.

When Western Michigan and Tulsa were announced as 2010 opponents last
fall there was a full-throttle meltdown among ND fans that was surpassed
only by The F-Word Incident
in April in terms of sheer outrage. Well, if the opinions expressed
then are the same now the apocalypse has finally arrived and a MAC squad
is about to forever sully our field by stepping foot on it. Have your
thoughts on the Western Michigan/Tulsa games changed since they were
announced? Would you rather ND Stadium sell out and continue the streak
that extends back almost 40 years or see the streak broken so that the
powers-that-be know just how disrespected you feel by the audacity they
showed in scheduling such inferior opponents?

Jack Swarbrick needed to fill a schedule that was left for him, and Tulsa and Western Michigan did the Irish a favor by signing on the dotted line. That said, if you want to get angry, get angry about how front-loaded the schedule is. Six straight games against tough competition is a recipe for disaster, especially when you’re starting a season without an experienced quarterback.

I’d much rather see a game with Tulsa or Western Michigan in the opening two weeks of the season, when teams start to find their identity and players get readjusted to the game. If Notre Dame’s schedule allows them to get back to BCS Bowls consistently, I don’t think Swarbrick and the ND brass will be apologizing for a non-traditional opponent anytime soon.

Most people painted AD Jack Swarbrick as the villain when the Western
Michigan/Tulsa games were made public. Since then he’s made drastic
moves in locking down opponents on future schedules, went through the
process of firing Weis and hiring Kelly, and navigated ND through the
murky waters of conference realignment. Has your personal opinion on
Swarbrick been altered over the past year?

Maybe I’m the only one, but hiring Jack Swarbrick is the best decision Notre Dame athletics has made since they hired Lou Holtz. I wrote a column a few months ago calling Swarbrick the knight in shining armor that saved college football, and after spending a few weekends back on campus and talking to people that are well-connected at the university, they all seem to agree with my theory.

It’s hard for my personal opinion to change much on Swarbrick, just because I’ve had so much respect for the job he’s done since day one.

We’re at the halfway point so it’s a perfect time to step back real
quick and evaluate what’s happened thus far. What have been your two
biggest surprises at this juncture of the season? Choose one positive
and one negative.

My one positive surprise? Call it a tie between David Ruffer and Ian Williams. When a group of us selected the Top 25 players on the Irish roster, nobody put Ruffer on their list. Right now, he’s probably running second place for offensive MVP behind Armando Allen. Add Ian Williams to the list because he’s been an absolutely force at nose guard. Williams made himself a lot of money with the work he’s done this year, and he’s a perfect example of the maturation process of a defensive lineman — and a good reminder why it pays to redshirt big bodies if you can. (Imagine if Williams was coming back for a fifth year?)

My one negative? It’s got to be the two last-second losses. The Irish still have struggled to become closers, something that I’m expecting to see change in the second half of the season. If you’re a Notre Dame fan, there’s nothing that could feel worse than taking a loss in the last minute to both the Wolverines and the Spartans. 

Which player that hasn’t contributed much to this point in the season do you see emerging as a contributor down the stretch?

I expect to see more out of Darius Fleming, who hasn’t been the player that I expected. The CAT linebacker is a position that should thrive in Bob Diaco’s system and while Fleming played a nice game last Saturday, he still disappears too often and struggled mightily against the roll-out boot pass in coverage as well. (Dishonorable mention should probably go to the entire outside linebacker position, who I’m expecting a gigantic second half from.)

Scholarships are running thin and some tough decisions are going to have
to be made this spring when it comes to offering 5th years to current
seniors. If you’re Coach Kelly who do you offer and who is left out in
the cold to make room for the incoming freshman class?  Here’s a link to the 2011 scholarship chart for a list of potential 5th years.

This is a tough question, and I’m going to hold off going too far into detail, only because I don’t want to offend any of the guys that might not be asked back. Here’s a few names that absolutely need to come back without question:

Harrison Smith
Gary Gray
Michael Floyd
Kyle Rudolph

If the Irish can get both these four back on campus for their senior seasons, they’ll probably feel better making the tough decision on guys like Matt Romine, Emeka Nwankwo, and Steve Paskorz. Depth at places like the secondary and defensive end will likely play a role, as will the depth chart along the offensive line.

BONUS: You’ve been challenged to a Tailgate Olympiad by some chaunce from
Southern Cal and you need to assemble a dream team of your fellow Irish
fans to compete in the following events: Flip Cup (four-man
team), Beer Pong, Hamburger Eating Contest (two-man team),
Cornhole/Bags/Whatever You Call It, Individual Race (Editor’s note: It’s bad for you), and
Thunderdome (Editor’s note: It’s bad for you, too). Your captaincy role on this team is Ryder Cup style so you’ll be
monitoring the proceedings rather than actually partaking. Throw some
internet love out to your fellow tailgate All-Stars that have delivered
through the years and let us know who you’d put in each slot to make
sure Troy fell in the parking lot as well as on the field…and while
you’re at it, tell us what three songs you’d be blasting as you rolled
to victory.

I’ve long retired from competitive tailgating, but have plenty of great memories of some Hall of Fame performances back in the college days. I was never a flip cup guy… didn’t see the point. As for throwing ping-pong balls, I’d call on he thunderous right arm of former Irish great Drew Duff. I’ll steer clear of anything called the Thunderdome that didn’t include the 1987 Minnesota Twins, as well as an individual race — that never ends well. But if it comes to a two-man hamburger eating contest, you could do no better than the dynamic duo of former Irish hockey players Connor Dunlop and Brett Henning. These two would steal candy from a baby, as long as it had enough carbs and saturated fats.

As for the three songs — I’ll defer those choices to good friend and former hockey great John Wroblewski, who would pull the plug on my music and put on his iPod anyway…   

Irish A-to-Z: Nick Watkins

GLENDALE, AZ - JANUARY 01:  Wide receiver Michael Thomas #3 of the Ohio State Buckeyes runs with the ball as Nick Watkins #21 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish attempts to make a tackle during the first quarter of the BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl at the University of Phoenix Stadium on January 1, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona. Buckeyes won 44-28. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
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With the Fiesta Bowl serving as a springboard, junior cornerback Nick Watkins looked primed to make a move into the starting lineup as he entered his third season in the program. But a spring injury that’s been slow to heal has put his season into purgatory, another uncertainty for the Irish secondary.

A talented coverman who took some time to come into his own, Watkins now waits on bone growth in an injured arm, a second surgery initiated to jump start things. But with the regular season bearing down on the Irish and Watkins’ availability unknown, his contributions are a huge unknown for Notre Dame’s secondary.

 

NICK WATKINS
6’0.5″, 200 lbs.
Junior, No. 7, CB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A four-star, Top 150 recruit, Watkins stayed off the summer camp circuit and still wowed recruiting analysts. The Dallas native had one of the most impressive offer sheets of his recruiting cycle, picking Notre Dame over Alabama, Auburn, Florida State, Georgia, LSU, Ohio State, Texas, USC and UCLA.

Brian Kelly compared landing Watkins to “getting a No. 1 draft pick” on Signing Day.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Played in 11 games, making most of his appearances on special teams. Didn’t register any statistics.

Sophomore Season (2015): Played in 12 games, making one start against Ohio State and making eight tackles. Had one pass breakup.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Watkins fell out of the No. 3 job when Devin Butler beat him out for it, though took over before the Fiesta Bowl when Butler injured his foot in preparations.

Right now, Watkins is the third cornerback in a defense with a high-ceiling starting pair. I can’t think of a Notre Dame defense that hasn’t relied on their third cornerback, and think back to when we all worried how the Irish were going to get Darrin Walls, Gary Gray and Robert Blanton onto the field. It’ll work itself out.

So Watkins will get the reps this season. Or at least the first shot at the reps, with Devin Butler and a trio of freshmen all right behind him. And if he’s going to stay on the field, he’ll need to fully embrace the mental side of the game. I expect Watkins to make major progress here, especially after the harsh realization that elite physical tools may make it easy to lock down receivers in high school, but in VanGorder’s system, knowledge is almost more important.

Watkins is still every bit the prospect he was when he signed with the Irish. After a freshman season spent on special teams, he’ll be asked to take on more as a sophomore.

While he’s a key piece of the Irish future, Watkins can help Notre Dame win this year as well.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

There aren’t many questions about Watkins’ physical abilities, other than the fact that he hasn’t found a way to make an impact yet. That’s understandable considering he was stuck behind KeiVarae Russell and Cole Luke, though a breakout season seems on the verge of being stuck in neutral as he tries to recover from a slow-healing broken arm.

With plenty of tools in the toolbox, Watkins feels like the type of player who can ascend quickly once he’s given the chance. But then again that ascent is predicated on earning that opportunity—no small feat when you look at the athletes the Irish have recruited.

Entering his third season of eligibility, the clock is ticking. His ceiling will be determined by how quickly he’s back on the field, or if the Irish staff ultimately decides to save a year of eligibility if that’s what’s needed.

 

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Of all the injuries we tracked this offseason, Watkins’ broken arm seemed the least on the radar, though has a chance to be the most impactful. That Notre Dame’s medical staff is treating it aggressively says something about the player they think they have in Watkins—who Kelly said will be allowed to fight for a starting job once he’s physically able.

I’m no doctor—but that won’t stop me from evaluating Watkins’ progress. And for the most part, I don’t think it’s the best formula for success jumping into the mix with no training camp and limited time to get in shape at the most demanding position on Notre Dame’s roster.

While losing Watkins is a blow—especially with the length of these suspensions unknown—any chance to take a medical redshirt could be huge for Notre Dame’s depth, getting Watkins a chance to redo his junior season, capable of stepping in after Cole Luke departs.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston
Mark Harrell
Daelin Hayes
Jay Hayes
Tristen Hoge
Corey Holmes
Torii Hunter Jr.
Alizé Jones
Jamir Jones
Jarron Jones
Jonathan Jones
Tony Jones Jr.
Khalid Kareem
DeShone Kizer
Julian Love
Tyler Luatua
Cole Luke
Greer Martini
Jacob Matuska
Mike McGlinchey
Colin McGovern
Deon McIntosh
Javon McKinley
Pete Mokwuah
John Montelus
D.J. Morgan
Nyles Morgan
Sam Mustipher
Quenton Nelson
Tyler Newsome
Adetokunbo Ogundeji
Julian Okwara
James Onwualu
Spencer Perry
Troy Pride Jr.
Max Redfield
Isaac Rochell
Trevor Ruhland
CJ Sanders
Avery Sebastian
John Shannon
Durham Smythe
Equanimeous St. Brown
Kevin Stepherson
Devin Studstill
Elijah Taylor
Brandon Tiassum
Jerry Tillery
Drue Tranquill
Andrew Trumbetti
Donte Vaughn

Walk-on WR Chris Finke awarded scholarship

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Amidst the chaos of a weekend where Notre Dame football players made headlines for the wrong reasons, a good story comes from the ashes. Walk-on wide receiver Chris Finke was awarded a scholarship. The diminutive slot receiver, currently running No. 2 behind CJ Sanders and also a potential returner for the Irish, earned the scholarship on Monday.

News came via social media, where a group of teammates—and the Walk-on Players Union—gave their congratulations.

The 5-foot-9.5, 180-pounder from Archbishop Alter in Kettering, Ohio, has quick become a fan favorite. He’s also made himself a Brian Kelly favorite, earning mention last year for his steady hands and moves as a punt returner and this season for his work in the slot.

“He’s Robby Toma with more speed,” Kelly said during fall camp.

(Never mind his inauspicious introduction to BK, as described by the South Bend Tribune’s Mike Vorel.)

Finke took to social media after the news spread on Monday night with the following comment:

“Grateful. Can’t thank the coaches, staff, my teammates, family, friends, and the Good Lord enough!”

Here’s more instant reaction from teammates past and present.

 

Irish A-to-Z: Donte Vaughn

Donte Vaughn 247
Irish247
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It didn’t take long after Donte Vaughn arrived on campus to know that the Irish landed a special prospect in the Memphis native. A long-limbed, athlete with the body of a safety and the cover skills of a cornerback, Vaughn’s freshman season might have pivoted with the dismissal of Max Redfield.

With the Irish short bodies at free safety, it’s reasonable to think the staff will cross-train Vaughn to fill a hole. But even if they don’t, Vaughn is too good to keep off the field as a freshman, a skill-set and attitude that’ll allow Brian VanGorder and Todd Lyght to lean on Vaughn if the situation calls for it.

 

DONTE VAUGHN
6’2″, 200 lbs.
Freshman, No. 35, CB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A four-star recruit, All-USA Tennessee, 6A All-State, Liberty Bowl All-Star game MVP. Offers from Auburn, LSU, Miami, Ole Miss, Tennessee, and Texas A&M. Long, learn and recruited as a corner, Vaughn is a huge get out of a big program in Memphis.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

One look at Notre Dame’s roster and you begin to realize that the Irish don’t have another cornerback that looks like Vaughn. It’s the reason linebacker James Onwualu said this about him:

“He’s gonna be a freak. He’s so long, so smooth,” Onwualu told Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson. “He comes to work every single day and I respect that.”

That type of athleticism and physical profile gives Brian VanGorder a unique weapon and one that’ll likely be utilized far more when Cole Luke is gone and the Irish need someone to play on the wide side of the field in coverage. Until then, Vaughn’s going to be a wild card—with the potential to sub in when the Irish go nickel or dime, and maybe even help replace Redfield as the Irish look to a very young secondary to replace him.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Even without the boneheaded arrests from the weekend, Vaughn was going to play. But with uncertainty surrounding Ashton White and Redfield’s dismissal, this likely moves Vaughn into the plans against Texas—a jump that not many saw coming, even with his impressive skill-set.

Someone is going to come out of the woodwork and step into an important role in the secondary. We’re already counting on that from Devin Studstill. Put Vaughn in that category for me, a player I expect to finish the season as a key building block for 2017.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston
Mark Harrell
Daelin Hayes
Jay Hayes
Tristen Hoge
Corey Holmes
Torii Hunter Jr.
Alizé Jones
Jamir Jones
Jarron Jones
Jonathan Jones
Tony Jones Jr.
Khalid Kareem
DeShone Kizer
Julian Love
Tyler Luatua
Cole Luke
Greer Martini
Jacob Matuska
Mike McGlinchey
Colin McGovern
Deon McIntosh
Javon McKinley
Pete Mokwuah
John Montelus
D.J. Morgan
Nyles Morgan
Sam Mustipher
Quenton Nelson
Tyler Newsome
Adetokunbo Ogundeji
Julian Okwara
James Onwualu
Spencer Perry
Troy Pride Jr.
Max Redfield
Isaac Rochell
Trevor Ruhland
CJ Sanders
Avery Sebastian
John Shannon
Durham Smythe
Equanimeous St. Brown
Kevin Stepherson
Devin Studstill
Elijah Taylor
Brandon Tiassum
Jerry Tillery
Drue Tranquill
Andrew Trumbetti

 

Life after Max: Notre Dame’s options at safety

Studstill 247
Irish 247
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In the days after Notre Dame returned from Culver Academy to kick off training camp, head coach Brian Kelly went out on the ledge and praised Max Redfield.

“He’s been that guy that everybody was hoping for out of high school,” Kelly said.

A little more than a week later, Redfield’s career at Notre Dame is over.

Done in by the same maddening decision-making that kept Redfield from reaching his potential on the field—Friday night’s antics, with Redfield the lone senior with four underclassmen, puts an end not just to his career at Notre Dame, it puts Redfield’s life at a crossroads.

There is no amount of talent that allowed Kelly to keep Redfield on the roster. And as the Irish move on with no proven depth at a safety position that’s relied upon to be the last line of defense, the Irish now look to some unusual spots to find a dependable player that the former five-star recruit could never become.

With Texas just two weeks away, here are a few options worth considering:

 

1. Start Devin Studstill. 

The true freshman pushed his way into the mix during spring practice, far from any type of motivational ploy by the Irish coaching staff. He’s a smooth athlete, a capable tackler and intelligent defender who understands the concepts Brian VanGorder is asking for from his back end defenders.

Studstill has battled a nagging hamstring injury during camp but is back in action. He’s also the only true positional fit that’s close to capable of stepping in for Redfield without some major schematic adjustments.

He’s still a freshman—and that means the Irish will have to live with some of the mistakes that come when you’re seeing and doing things for the first time. But Studstill’s been the free safety of the future since he stepped onto campus. So the timeline is accelerated, but it’s long been the plan.

 

2. Find a way to play Drue Tranquill next to Avery Sebastian. 

Sixth-year senior Avery Sebastian was kept in the program for a reason. And if this isn’t the perfect opportunity to lean on a mature player who could bail the Irish out of problems, I’m not sure what is.

No, he’s not the perfect fit for the position. Nor is Tranquill. But if Notre Dame needs two low-mistake defenders in the secondary along side their talented cornerbacks, they could do a lot worse than playing Tranquill and Sebastian on first and second down before bringing in a nickel or dime package depending on the situation.

Multiple reporters came out of last week’s open practice praising Sebastian’s toughness and capable play at safety. While he’s yet to be able to stay healthy for any of his college career, he’d do the ordinary things well—something this team desperately needs.

Putting Tranquill, a 230-pound safety, next to Sebastian, a 5-foot-10 (on a good day) hammerhead, limits a team that wants to play a lot of man coverage. But if you’re looking to find dependability, you could do worse.

 

3. Give Donte Vaughn a look at safety. 

Notre Dame thinks they have a future cover corner in Vaughn, whose length and athleticism has people thinking big things about the Memphis native. But with the cornerback depth chart well stocked and the safeties raw and thin, there’s no harm in repping Vaughn at free safety.

The only thing harder than throwing a freshman in at free safety is doing it to a freshman who switched positions less than two weeks before the opener. But Vaughn isn’t your ordinary freshman, as senior James Onwualu attested to last week.

“He’s gonna be a freak. He’s so long, so smooth,” Onwualu told Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson. “He comes to work every single day and I respect that.”

That work ethic will serve him well. So will cross-training this week at safety with Studstill.

 

4. Keep cross-training and developing. 

Just because a player isn’t ready week one doesn’t mean they won’t be able to contribute. And the Irish coaching staff recruited a variety of shapes and sizes when they restocked the secondary in the last recruiting class, and we’ll now see how quickly they can find a way into the mix.

Expect Jalen Elliott to get an early look. While the staff thinks he’s a future strong safety, Elliott is talented enough to compete at both safety positions—and the door is open for him to do that. He’ll be one of the first guys taking back-up reps now that Redfield is gone.

D.J. Morgan, another talented safety out of a Southern California powerhouse program, will need to show he can physically hold up as a safety in the open field, but he’s got the length and size to play. That high level experience in high school should certainly make the transition to the college game easier.

Football players might be your best bet, too. While Julian Love has been taking two-deep reps at nickel corner, there’s an opening at safety and Love’s high school tape showed an athlete that could do any job. Nobody will confuse him with a prototype at the position, but if he can think his way through the job, he’ll have a shot.

 

5. Don’t panic. 

Notre Dame’s secondary has taken blows like this with Kelly at the helm. And even if you’d argue that Redfield was the one of the least-replaceable starters on the defense, there’s no reason to be throwing the towel in after one of the worst evenings in recent off-field history at Notre Dame.

But remember this: An August injury to a presumed starter and the dismissal of a blue-chip recruit before he ever took the field, forced a freshman running back to convert to cornerback. Then KeiVarae Russell started all 13 games on a team that played for a national title.

At safety that season a redshirt freshman converted wide receiver started 11 games after spending spring outside of the two-deep, with Matthias Farley stepping in at safety and picking up the slack after Jamoris Slaughter went down.

The Irish have recruited better than most programs in the country and have kept the emphasis on finding defensive backs who can play in this system. Even if the timetable has accelerated, there’s a plan in place.