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.

 

 

Rochell drafted in 7th round; three other former Notre Dame players sign

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All the unnecessary draft conversation may have centered on DeShone Kizer, but the quarterback was not the only former Notre Dame player watching this weekend’s NFL Draft with rapt attention. Aside from Kizer, only Isaac Rochell heard his name called. The San Diego Chargers picked the defensive lineman in the seventh round Saturday with the 225th overall pick.

Rochell finished his Irish career with appearance in 49 of 51 possible games and 167 tackles, including 22 for loss and 4.5 sacks. In 2016, he recorded 55 tackles, good for sixth on the team, with seven for loss.

By the end of the evening, three more former Notre Dame starters had signed on with NFL teams as undrafted free agents. It should be noted, many argue the route available for undrafted free agents is preferable to that of late-round picks. An undrafted free agent can choose which of a handful of situations is preferable to him for whatever reason. A late-round pick does not have that luxury, but still makes a comparable salary.

Linebacker James Onwualu opted to join Rochell with the Chargers. Defensive lineman Jarron Jones signed with the New York Giants. Cornerback Cole Luke latched on with the Carolina Panthers.

Onwualu began his Irish career as a receiver before moving to linebacker before his sophomore season. He finished his career with 143 tackles, including 75 in 2016 with 11.5 for loss and three sacks. His 75 tackles finished behind only now-rising senior linebackers Nyles Morgan’s 94 and Drue Tranquill’s 79.

Battling injuries throughout his Notre Dame career, Jones made 105 tackles with 45 in 2016. His 11 tackles for loss were outdone only by the aforementioned Onwualu total.

Luke made 152 tackles in his Irish career, including 48 last season, and eight interceptions.

Three more players from past years’ Irish rosters could yet find an NFL home—long snapper Scott Daly, defensive lineman-turned-tight end Chase Hounshell and running back Tarean Folston. If any or all do not sign, they can still join teams for rookie mini-camps in hopes of making a positive impression.

RELATED READING: Browns pick former Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer 20th in second round

Browns pick former Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer 20th in second round

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After months of pointless chatter and a night spent waiting, DeShone Kizer’s NFL Draft experience ended Friday night when the Cleveland Browns drafted the former Notre Dame quarterback with the 20th pick in the second round, the No. 52 overall selection.

Originally from Toledo, Ohio, Kizer will have the opportunity to earn the starting job for the franchise less than two hours from his hometown. The Browns trotted out five different quarterbacks in 2016, only two of which remain with the team. Rookie Cody Kessler played in nine games, throwing for 1,380 yards and six touchdowns with only one interception while fellow rookie Kevin Hogan threw for 104 yards and two interceptions in four games.

The Browns have since added Brock Osweiler in a trade with the Houston Texans, though that trade was largely-viewed as a cash-for-picks swap, with the Browns “paying” for picks by taking on Osweiler’s contract in which he is owed $47 million over the next three seasons, including $16 million this season.

A year ago, the No. 52 pick (linebacker Deion Jones to the Atlanta Falcons) received a four-year, $4.546 million contract with a $1.506 million signing bonus.

Hall of fame running back and Browns legend Jim Brown announced the selection of Kizer at the draft festivities.

Speculation a year ago pegged Kizer as an early first-round pick. As the draft approached, projections of his slot varied widely, many including a second-round status. Despite first-round theatrics leading to three quarterbacks going in the first 12 picks Thursday night, Kizer had to wait another day before learning where he will start his NFL career. (more…)

Friday at 4: ‘Attention to detail’ includes Notre Dame Stadium

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Brian Kelly proselytized multiple abstract concepts this spring. By the end of the 15 practices and subsequent media sessions, even the Irish coach knew some of his references to “grit” would be met by muted eye rolls from the press. If a questioner included the word in their query, Kelly reacted with tongue-in-cheek approval, “You’ve been listening.”

In his press conference the day before spring practices commenced, Kelly used the phrase “attention to detail” six separate times. While he was referring to his players on the football field, Kelly could have also been discussing the ongoing—but supposedly close to finished—construction at Notre Dame Stadium known as Campus Crossroads.

The three buildings around the exterior of the Stadium, the added suites and the video board above the south end zone have garnered the headlines. On a macro level, those are the changes of note. On a micro level, however, other details have trickled into the public stream of knowledge as the work nears its conclusion.

Over the weekend—and now reignited by a column from the South Bend Tribune’s Mike Vorel—the image of the newly-added visitors’ tunnel delighted Irish fans. Vorel likens the narrow entry to “the spot they’d stash the gladiators before feeding them to starving tigers in The Coliseum.” Assuredly, Vorel is going for dramatic effect, and it must work considering its citation here, but even a realistic view of the tunnel’s effects bodes well.

If nothing else, Notre Dame players should enjoy something of a psychological boost when racing out of their adult-sized tunnel and seeing their opponent trickle out of a tunnel seemingly-sized for ants. (Yes, the north end zone tunnel is at least three times bigger than the visitors’ tunnel.)

That pale, slanted staircase holds none of the luxuries of the home team’s entrance, something Kelly went out of his way to praise after using it in Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. (more…)

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