And in that corner… The Tulsa Golden Hurricane

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With Irish fans still smarting after last week’s loss to Navy, the team and coaches have turned the page to Tulsa, who play Notre Dame for the first time in the program’s history this Saturday. The Golden Hurricane bring in a high-octane offense that’s coming off a bye week and a dominating homecoming performance against Tulane.

With Tulsa knowledge difficult to come by, I turned to the source — the Collegian, the student-run newspaper at Tulsa. Sophomore staff writer John Lepine was kind enough to fill me in on uber-short notice and get us ready for what we can expect out of the Golden Hurricane this weekend.

Inside the Irish: This is Notre Dame’s first meeting with Tulsa, who has secretly put together some scary offensive football teams under head coach Todd Graham. This year’s edition has been putting up points in a hurry. What can we expect Saturday?

John Lepine: If there is one characteristic that has defined TU’s gameplay this past month, it is explosive offense from the first tick of the clock. Tulsa has scored on its first drive in the past four games, and getting that initial momentum and confidence has been making a big difference in the team’s cohesion and success. The players realize what a monumental victory this would be, and they’ll be playing to win. Playmakers like Charles Clay (senior, Halfback) and Damaris Johnson (junior, Wide Receiver) will especially be taking this game seriously, as both of them are close to breaking records. Clay is just two touchdowns from tying the school’s all-purpose TD record, and Johnson needs only 80 more kick return yards to claim the title of most career kick yards in the C-USA.

ITI: The past few years, Notre Dame’s defense has made a habit of giving up career days to opponents. Who is the guy that’s going to potentially haunt the Irish this Saturday?

JL: There are a couple of good candidates for this on Tulsa’s squad. Sophomore Curnelius Arnick and true freshman Marco Nelson both have great stats and will be the twin anchors of the TU line in years to come, but Tanner Antle (senior, Linebacker) has a chance to really make a great game for himself. He’s 6’4”, 228 lbs, and has made 55 tackles already this year. With two sacks, six tackles for loss, and three quarterback hurries so far in the season, he has proven to be one of the key players for putting pressure on the opposing quarterback, which is one area that the defense has to emphasize in this game. If Tulsa is going to win this match, they cannot let Dayne Crist get comfortable, and Tanner Antle has the size and skill to harass him all game long.

ITI: The flip side of that coin is the Golden Hurricane defense. They’re giving up yards by the bushel through the air, but have a tough run defense. Is the passing defense that bad, or are teams shying away from running the ball?

JL: Well, the statistics don’t lie on this one—every opponent the Hurricane has faced this year has averaged more yards per passing attempt than yards per rush.  At the same time, I think it would be easy to underestimate the strength Tulsa’s passing defense on the basis of its two most recent losses. TU gave up 574 passing yards to OSU, but the Weeden/Blackmon duo has overwhelmed better teams than Tulsa this year. And though SMU was a lot more effective in its passing game against Tulsa than in its rushing offense, I think that speaks more to the quality of Kyle Padron as a quarterback than the weakness of TU’s defense. So the Hurricane may have a stronger defense on the ground than in the air, but several of the teams TU has played have specialized in passing instead of running, and that changes the way those statistics should be interpreted.

ITI: A lot of coaches say they circle the Notre Dame game on their schedule, but how important is a game in Notre Dame Stadium for Tulsa?

JL: After this game, the Hurricane hosts three conference opponents and heads south to play Houston. Houston beat SMU last week, but lost to Rice the week before, which lost to SMU in early October. The C-USA West Division title is still very much in play, and Tulsa does not want to lose sight of that in face of this game. On the other hand, playing a team as prestigious and storied as Notre Dame is an exciting opportunity for TU.  “This game is special, there’s no question,” says Coach Todd Graham. Beating the Fighting Irish “would be something that these kids will be telling their grandkids about.”

ITI: What’s the recipe for beating Notre Dame?

JL: What really doomed Tulsa in the OSU game was a lack of early productivity. TU scored 28 points, but three quarters of those were in the last 20 minutes of the game; OSU was too far ahead for Tulsa to catch up. Keeping pace with Notre Dame from the outset, both by pressuring their quarterback and cracking through their defense, is going to be critical in this game. The Tulsa players cannot let the crowd or the big-game nerves get to them.  But if the score at halftime stays more or less balanced, then there’s a chance for G.J. Kinne and that versatile TU offense to get to work.

ITI: What do you see happening this Saturday?

JL: If Tulsa had faced Notre Dame early in the season, the Fighting Irish would likely have gotten the win without too much trouble. But Tulsa is coming off a bye week and a big homecoming blowout, so the energy level is high for this game. The Hurricane has built up a lot of confidence, losing only one of its last five games, and that one by just three points. The four most recent wins were all by more than 25 points. This contest will still be an uphill battle for TU, absolutely, but Notre Dame looks a little vulnerable with a lackluster record of 4-4, and the Tulsa squad has good positioning to try for an upset.  Whether or not the Cinderella story has a happy ending is anyone’s guess.

*****

John Lepine is sophomore Economics major at the University of Tulsa, and a staff writer for the Collegian, the student-run campus newspaper. He writes about politics, music, literature, and much more at http://www.ptbruiser.tumblr.com.

 

 

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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Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover position, others likely to follow
2 Days Until Spring Practice: A look at the defensive backfield