Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. Western Michigan

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Notre Dame got off to the perfect start on Saturday afternoon, with Dayne Crist hitting a wide open Michael Floyd for an 80-yard touchdown pass on the games first play from scrimmage. The rest of the first half? Not so great.

“I was not happy obviously about the first half and we hadn’t played that way this year,” head coach Brian Kelly said after the game. “At halftime, we had a little chat about that, and I think that chat went pretty good.”

In what was likely a closed-door outburst that would put his sideline antics to shame, Kelly whipped the Irish into shape, and Notre Dame cruised to an easy 44-20 victory against visiting Western Michigan, led by three Floyd touchdown catches.

The victory pushes the Irish to 4-3, their three game winning streak erasing an earlier three-game losing streak and pushing the Irish season back onto track.

“Absolutely progress,” Kelly said about the win. “This team was 1-3. I think when we talked about that at the time, you can go in
one of two directions at 1-3. You
can fall off the cliff and have a disastrous season or you can work towards 9-3. I think this is another step. Our players are learning, learning how
to play football games, regardless of who the competition is.”

Here’s what we learned this Saturday:

1. If you forgot, Michael Floyd is still an All-American wide receiver.

A game time decision with a balky hamstring, Floyd stepped up and was the best player on the football field this Saturday afternoon, running around, over, and through Western Michigan defenders as he caught nine balls for 157 yards and three touchdowns.

On the game’s opening play, Floyd broke wide open on a deep post, slowed to catch an under-thrown ball by quarterback Dayne Crist, hopped over a defensive back and sprinted for the end zone. His second catch was also a great individual effort, picking up a low pass from wide receiver John Goodman and powering his way into the end zone. His third touchdown was a replica of the failed 3rd down play in overtime against Michigan State, with Crist choosing correctly this time by throwing to a wide open Floyd instead of a covered tight end running a quick out.

When asked about the opposing team’s star receiver, Western Michigan coach Bill Cubit didn’t mince words.

“I remember (Texas All-American) Roy Williams, and I didn’t think I’d see another guy like him, but I just saw him,” Cubit said. “He’s a great player. He’s as physical and as good a receiver as I’ve ever seen. He plays the game the way its supposed to be played.

“There’s no show-boating and he’s appreciative of the game. I’m not going to tell you he was fun to watch, but maybe tomorrow it will be.”

After the game, Kelly explained that the coaching staff knew they needed to incorporate Floyd into the game plan even more, breaking down the way the ball’s been distributed thus far.

“We did a breakdown and we threw the ball to Michael Floyd 74 times, Theo Riddick 55 times, and Kyle Rudolph 55 times. We have pretty good balance there. Michael, as we broke down who was getting the football, needed to get the football even more than that. So there was a focus in our game plan to make sure that we were creating opportunites for him, in what happened to be some one-on-one opportunities, he’s going to win most of those times.”

2. The kids are alright.

For the first time, the Irish were able to play a bunch of developmental players, and that experience gave us a chance to see first-hand the work the coaching staff has done with their young team.

Freshmen Austin Collinsworth, Daniel Smith, Bennett Jackson, Prince Shembo, Lo Wood, and Tommy Rees all played this afternoon, and Kelly liked what he saw of the young guys, particularly on special teams.

“Daniel Smith helped us out. Obviously today we wanted more athleticism on our kick teams,” Kelly said. “But I would say that the young guys continue to show. Collinsworth, outstanding in all phases of our kick games. Daniel Smith gives us speed and athleticism in there, and obviously Bennett Jackson.”

Smith’s ascent to the the kickoff team is an interesting one, as he doesn’t show up on any of the two-deep positions at wide receiver. But as large and as physical as Smith is, the fact that he’s becoming a special teams ace speaks very highly for his future as a wide receiver.

3. Brian Kelly really doesn’t care about time of possession, but is glad others do.

In a funny light moment, Kelly called out the media for not mentioning that the Irish finally won the time of possession battle this afternoon.

I’m really surprised and disappointed I didn’t get
this comment made, but for the first time in two and a half years, we won time
of possession,” Kelly joked.For all of you guys
that live and die on time of possession, please note that we won today’s time
of possession.

The Irish did that by riding the back of Robert Hughes late in the second half, and running the ball consistently after a mediocre start to the afternoon. The Irish possessed the ball for 11:39 seconds of the fourth quarter, wearing down an undersized Broncos defense that had no answer for Cierre Wood and Robert Hughes.

When pressed on time of possession, Kelly deferred to a stat that really matters:

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}p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal { margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; text-align: justify; font-size: 10pt; font-family: “Times New Roman”; }div.Section1 { page: Section1Scoring points is the No. 1 thing,” Kelly said.Any time we have an opportunity where
we believe we have got a play that matches what we think we see, we are going
to call those plays to score points. 
When we needed to control the clock in the second half, we did, and
obviously took about five minutes off the clock late in the game when it was
pretty much in our hands.  Again,
we are going to score points first and time of possession comes later down the
road.

4. Tyler Eifert and Mike Ragone did a capable job of filling Kyle Rudolph’s shoes.

While Eifert laid a ball on the ground early in the game, he had four catches for 72 yards, including his first touchdown in an Irish uniform, on a clutch 4th down conversion. He’s a capable receiver, surprisingly nimble, and will look very good running in space in Kelly’s offense. Even more encouraging for Irish fans, Eifert didn’t blink when he made his first mistake of the day.

I wasn’t worried about that as much as, you know,
he clearly was engaged in the game. 
This was not a far and away look in his eye, where, oh, my goodness, the
guy is in the play now and we’ve lost him,” Kelly said.
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I’m usually going to be pretty good in those
situations, I don’t want the ball on the ground, but you can tell looking at a
kid that he’s locked in and knows what he’s doing. I got a good feel from him today.

While Crist’s lone interception came on a pad throw that hit Mike Ragone in the shoulder pads, Ragone did a nice job as the second tight end, making a nice play on Nate Montana’s lone completion, and doing a good job blocking.

Overall, Irish tight ends had five catches for 84 yards and a touchdown, plenty good production for the position. 

5. The battle for first down is crucial for the Irish offense.

As we discussed earlier in the week, Notre Dame’s ability to be productive on first down is the surest sign of whether or not an offensive drive is going to go anywhere. After the game’s opening touchdown pass, the Irish struggled on early downs, and predictably, drives stalled out.

“I wasn’t pleased with out management on
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first and second down,” Kelly said.I thought we made some poor decisions at the quarterback
position. Dayne didn’t play very
well in the first half.  You guys
watched the same game I did, he played much better in the second half, saw some
things and made some plays.

In the first half, the Irish scored two big touchdowns on first down, the 80-yard pass to Floyd and Goodman’s 32-yard completion to Floyd on the reverse. The rest of their production on first down? Non-existent.

Even including Dayne Crist’s nine-yard touchdown run on first down, the Irish total six net yards on 10 first downs in the first half, an absolutely abysmal rate. If the Irish are going to win as the schedule gets tougher, they’ll need to do a better job on first down.
 

Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers

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You want complete honesty? The linebacker version of this series includes no revelations, no unexpected developments, no surprising spring performances. There is an allusion to a position switch, sure, but this piece became much simpler with the rover being discussed separately Thursday.

The idea was to capitalize on the NFL Draft for the morning and let the linebackers slip by in the afternoon, noticed only by those twiddling their thumbs through the last hours of the work week. Alas, former Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer was not drafted in the first round and a brief recap of his draft destination will need to await at least another day. Programming note: The NFL Draft reconvenes tonight (Friday) at 7 p.m. ET. The Green Bay Packers are on the clock. They will not draft a quarterback.

But back to the linebackers. This piece may have been intended to slip by with little fanfare, but that is not indicative of the Irish linebackers. Where Notre Dame was is so similar to where Notre Dame is simply because two experienced senior captains lead the way at linebacker.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
Aside from questions about defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s rover position, only one question stood out about this linebacker group: Who would start alongside senior Nyles Morgan: senior Greer Martini or junior Te’von Coney?

A year ago Coney recorded the fourth-most tackles on the team with 62. Martini finished fifth with 55, and his seven tackles for loss, including three sacks, dwarfed Coney’s 1.5. Yet Coney technically started nine games compared to Martini’s four.

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

With the rover often lining up essentially as a linebacker, there would only be space for one of Martini or Coney in most formations.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
In his first season with the Irish, Elko will have quite a luxury in referring to Coney as a backup linebacker. In some respects, that designation was inevitable as soon as Martini was named a captain. Nonetheless, Coney will see plenty of playing time.

The two captains—along with fellow captain, senior Drue Tranquill at rover—will be counted on throughout the summer and fall camp to continue the defense’s growth in Elko’s system. Elko said he installed “close to 50 percent” of his entire defense throughout spring practice. The linebackers must deal with the most difficult aspects of that learning.

“There’s been a noticeable improvement in terms of this starting to look like the defense we want this to look like as spring has gone on,” Elko said a week ago. “… Linebacker probably more than any other position, linebacker and safety, where the scheme takes some time to get used to, how you see it, how you fit it, how you feel it. Those guys have gotten better with that which has then allowed them to play faster as the spring has moved on.”

Sophomore Jonathan Jones will likely provide any further depth that may be needed in 2017, unless either of the incoming freshmen, David Adams and Drew White, excel from the outset. Irish coach Brian Kelly indicated sophomore Jamir Jones (no relation to Jonathan, but is former Notre Dame defensive lineman Jarron Jones’ brother) may be destined for time on the defensive line, in large part to Jones’s continued growth. Junior Josh Barajas let the spring come and go without mandating he be involved in these conversations, which may as well count as removing himself from the conversation in most regards.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame Was, Is & Could Be: Rover

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Rover

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Before spring practice, the rover position was lumped in with the linebackers in positional previews. Nearly two months later, that seems to have been the right placement—the rover will likely spend most of its time at the defense’s second level.

But since curiosity about the rover and its unknown place in Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme ran rampant—especially when compared to the rather solid understanding of the 2017 Irish linebackers—let’s take a look specifically at the rover.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:

“Who will start at [Elko’s] rover position,” this space asked. “What will his role entail?”

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

Senior safety Drue Tranquill was expected to see the most time at rover, perhaps with cameos from junior linebacker Asmar Bilal and sophomore safeties D.J. Morgan and Spencer Perry (since transferred).

More than anything, though, learning how Elko intended to deploy his defensive utility knife would answer the most questions about his defense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:

Tranquill will indeed lead the position, but not without much effort from Bilal.

“We’ve tried quite a few bodies out there,” Elko said Friday. “I think as spring has gone on, we’ve gotten a feel of what each of them can do, what parts of the package we can run with each of them. I think we’ve got a pretty good pulse now on how we want that thing to play out, who will be there doing what.”

Elko is excessively reluctant to discuss individual players, so asking him to expound on who will be at rover in particular situations was largely a fruitless exercise. Earlier this spring, Irish head coach Brian Kelly indicated Bilal would be featured against run-heavy offenses. That may well prove to be the case, but it is far more likely Tranquill sees the majority of the repetitions at the position.

RELATED READING: Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover positon, others likely to follow

“It’s been a good fit all spring [for Tranquill],” Kelly said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “He’s a plus player there for us. He really can impact what’s happening from snap to snap. He’s a physical player and playing low to the ball is really where he can do a lot of really good things for us.”

For his part, Tranquill enjoys the position and the unique number of duties innate to it. In theory, the rover aligns mostly with the linebackers but can be relied on to provide coverage when necessary. At other times, the rover will be asked to rush the passer. That flexibility allows Elko to keep the offense guessing.

“I love the rover position,” Tranquill said. “It’s a versatile position that allows you to come off the edge, allows you to play the run, play the pass, and do a lot of different things.”

Sometimes it allows you to pretend like you’re coming off the edge and then actually embarrass a potential first-round draft pick.

In senior left guard Quenton Nelson’s defense, Tranquill did add Nelson probably won more of their battles in spring practices than the defender did.

WHERE NOTRE DAME COULD BE:

Elko indicated there could be a third primary option in his tool kit. Notre Dame has a plethora of talented cornerbacks. Last week, Kelly indicated he might ask one of them to chip in at safety in obvious passing situations. Similarly, Elko predicted junior Shaun Crawford could play at rover against particular passing attacks, a la Bilal against certain rushing offenses.

“A lot of this is dictated by who that guy is lined up and what we’re trying to do,” Elko said. “We’re going to see a lot of really talented slot receivers. We’re going to have to match up and cover them well. There’s other names other than the big linebacker/safety bodies to put at that position. [Junior safety] Nick Coleman has done that some this spring. [Junior safety] Ashton White has done that some this spring. When Shaun gets healthy, I think he’ll do that some. That is all encompassing in that position.”

The 5-foot-9, 175-pound Crawford has since announced his return to full health, which should allow him plenty of time to readjust to contact before the start of fall practice.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line

Work in weight & film rooms has Hayes ready to meet five-star potential

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Common thinking might give four- and five-star recruits too much credit. They do not all arrive ready to play at the collegiate level on day one. It takes time, conditioning, learning. Perhaps it was that awareness that kept Daelin Hayes from letting his five-star ranking on rivals.com change his expectations. He knew he would have much work ahead of him when he arrived at Notre Dame as the only five-star prospect in the class of 2016.

Now finishing his freshman year, the defensive end notices the effects of his work as he puts in more.

“I remember my first time watching film, I was like, woah,” Hayes said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “I look quicker, like more twitch than I did. I was definitely—it’s hard to put into words—but to actually be able to go back and look at it and see how it affected the game was huge. [Director of football performance Matt] Balis has worked wonders for us.”

Hayes’ improved quickness showed in his three “sacks” in the intrasquad scrimmage. Going against future NFL prospect Mike McGlinchey at left tackle, Hayes faced a stiff challenge throughout spring’s 15 practices, not that he shied away from that task.

“I don’t think it was ever a point where it was overwhelming,” Hayes said. “I’ve always been a competitor. … But you guys know Mike, he’s huge, obviously a first-round talent and whatnot. I’m just grateful to be able to go against somebody like that each and every day. He makes me better. …

“I love competing with the guy. You go and do that with a guy in practice every day, then the game scenario comes, it’s like second nature. You can do this in practice, you can definitely do this against anybody.”

McGlinchey does not seem to mind the matchup, either.

“Daelin is a man who is blessed with a lot of size and athletic ability,” McGlinchey said Friday. “That presents a lot of problems for people in the game of football. He’s so young, and he has so much still to work on, it’s pretty cool to see what he’s capable of and then what he is going to do down the road.”

When Hayes arrived at Notre Dame, still recovering from a high school shoulder injury, he weighed 250 pounds with 18 percent body fat. Now, he said, he still weighs 250—the Irish roster lists him at 255—but is down to 10 percent body fat. It is that kind of change which has created more twitch and makes McGlinchey envision Hayes after more time spent improving in the weight room and the film room.

“I’m not the same athlete that I was when I first came in, not by any means,” Hayes said. “… Buying into that offseason program is going to be huge for our team.”

Per the Blue-Gold Game’s statistics, Hayes ended the scrimmage with seven tackles. Whether skeptical of the recordkeeping within a practice or not, seven tackles in one abbreviated afternoon compares favorably to Hayes’ total of 11 in 12 games last season. Some of that uptick is playing time, some of it is scheme, some of it is realization of the potential highlighted by a five-star ranking. For now, though, Hayes insists he intends to simply learn from last year’s 4-8 disappointment and embrace the changes brought by new Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko.

“With last year being the year that we had, there definitely was a yearning for change,” Hayes said. “When you have basically a reboot of the program, the guys are hungry and they don’t want to have to experience the same season as last year.

“Just continue to trust in that process. We’re hungry for something to cling on and buy into. When coach Elko, coach Balis, everybody came in as part of that reboot, I think we welcomed with open arms. [We’ll] continue to buy into the system and become more comfortable within the system.”

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line

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Heading into spring practice, a quick look was taken at each position group in order of “expected level of interest or question marks,” from least interesting to most, as dictated by an “Inside the Irish” reader. That series concluded with the defensive line.

Exiting spring practice, let’s reprise that premise and reverse the order. If the defensive line triggered the most questions, then answering them first seems to make some version of sense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
“Will enough defensive linemen prove themselves deserving of playing time to create a viable threat up front?” this space asked. “If so, who will those linemen be?”

RELATED READING: One day until spring practice: A look at the defensive line

Aside from senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26 tackles last season, 0.5 for loss), senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss amid a season lost largely to concussion) and junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37, 3), the Irish defensive line had little track record to cite or rely upon for confidence. Leading the unknowns and unprovens were sophomore ends Daelin Hayes, who recorded 11 tackles in 2016, and Julian Okwara (4).

The lack of depth and experience was apparent heading into the 15 spring practices.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
Look past the 11 sacks in the Blue-Gold Game. Intrasquad scrimmages featuring red-jerseyed quarterbacks make for inexact and context-less statistics. There is some value, however, in noting the defensive line got within reach of the quarterback at least eight times in an abbreviated game. (Three “sacks” came from the linebacker corps.)

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, just buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

RELATED READING: What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

Hayes led the way with three sacks, and he will be expected to continue that in the fall, starting at the weakside/rush defensive end spot. Exiting spring, though, only he and Tillery solidified themselves as starters. Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Mike Elko claimed a successful spring for the front.

“I’m happy with our defensive line progress,” Elko said Friday. “Obviously there was a lot written about that group. I’m happy about the progress they’ve made this spring. I think [defensive line coach] Mike [Elston] has done a good job developing them. I think they are buying into the way we want to play defense. There’s probably four to five guys on the inside that are starting to get into a position where we feel comfortable that they can step in and help us.” (more…)