Five Things We Learned: Notre Dame vs. Tulsa

51 Comments

For those looking to bury Brian Kelly after nine games at Notre Dame, they were given the opportunity late in the fourth quarter. After calling a timeout with 42 seconds left, Kelly decided against putting the game on the leg of his field goal kicker David Ruffer, and instead bet on the arm of freshman quarterback Tommy Rees, who dropped back from the Tulsa 19 yard line and targeted wide receiver Michael Floyd, running down the sideline in one-on-one coverage.

Floyd had a step on the undersized defensive back, but Rees’ back foot throw kited into a strong wind, helping 5-foot-9 cornerback John Flanders come down with an unlikely interception, sealing Tulsa’s 28-27 victory on a somber Saturday afternoon at Notre Dame Stadium.

“We knew we had a one-on-one match up with Mike Floyd, and certainly wanted to give that an opportunity for success and score a touchdown there,” Kelly said after the game. “We took a timeout there to talk about it. But I think we all saw what happened.”

What happened was a heart-wrenching interception that put an ugly ending onto an otherwise great performance by Rees, who became the first Notre Dame freshman to throw four touchdown passes in a game. It also dropped Notre Dame to 4-5 on the season, putting the Irish in the difficult position of needing a win against either Utah or USC to have a chance to play in the postseason.

Let’s take a look at five things we learned during Notre Dame’s 28-27 loss to Tulsa.

1. The new goal for Notre Dame? Win two out of the next three.

Even before the tragic events of this week, Brian Kelly acknowledged that today’s game was one of the most important of his career. Needing two wins to clinch a bowl birth in the final four games, anybody could point to games against Tulsa and Army as must-have wins for the Irish.

But with the Irish losing today, they’ll now need to beat either Utah or USC, as well as an upstart Army team that’s 5-3 for the first time in over a decade.

“The most important thing still is for us to get to six wins,” Kelly said emphatically. “We’ve got to win two out of three now. That’s the number one goal, to win two out of three games minimally to get to six wins.”

The Irish will have a much needed weekend off before playing Utah, undefeated and ranked No. 8 team in the country. The Utes battle an upstart Air Force squad today and No. 4 TCU next Saturday, so they’ll be coming off two physical opponents before facing the Irish.

After that the Irish face another triple-option attack when Army joins Notre Dame for the first ever football game in the new Yankee Stadium, before finishing the season against rival USC, who likely will view the Irish as part one of their two-game postseason, against rivals Notre Dame and UCLA.

It’s an uphill road for the Irish, especially in light of their injury problems, but far from impossible.

2. Bob Diaco’s defense did their job.

After a wobbly first two series, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco slowed down a Tulsa attack that had great speed and a quarterback proficient at running the zone read.

Tulsa averaged just under 7.5 yards per play on their first two offensive possessions, but the Irish defense stood strong after that, holding Tulsa to only 272 total yards on 56 plays, below five yards a touch — impressive work considering Tulsa averaged 491 yards a game and 6.3 yards a play entering the game.

Diaco’s mixed a nice blend of pressure and zone coverage, sacking Tulsa quarterback G.J. Kinne five times, but ultimately the unit came up empty on Tulsa final offensive drive, when the Irish gave up a crucial 3rd and 26 in deep zone coverage.

Diaco and his defense took a lot of heat this week, but playing without starting nose tackle Ian Williams and insider linebacker Carlo Calabrese, the unit deserves a ton of credit for putting together a gritty performance, giving up only 13 of the 28 points the Golden Hurricanes scored.

3. Special Teams and the big play killed the Irish.

On a day where Notre Dame came up with a big fake punt that extended a drive and led to a Notre Dame touchdown, the Irish special teams killed them, with Tulsa’s two points on a critical returned extra-point attempt the swing in their one-point victory. David Ruffer’s only two misses on the season have come on blocked extra points, and the Irish offensive line gave up the block right off the center, with linebacker Curnelius Arnick scooping it up and returning it to for a touchdown.

Electric return man Damaris Johnson also returned a punt for a touchdown, bringing Tulsa back from a nine-point deficit, thanks to a low punt from Ben Turk, the lack of hang-time all that Johnson needed to weave his way through the Irish gunners.

And finally, the Irish were victimized by the big play, courtesy of linebacker Shawn Jackson, who caught a deflected Tommy Rees screen pass and closed the half with a 66-yard interception return for a touchdown, putting Tulsa back in the football game when it looked like the Irish were capable of marching down the field and extending the lead into double-digits. Some terrible luck for the Irish on a high-percentage play call that looked like a big gainer for Notre Dame, only to have the ball pin-ball its way into the arms of a Tulsa defender and pull the Hurricane within two points.

4. Tragedy for Dayne Crist turns into opportunity for Tommy Rees.

After starting the game slowly, Dayne Crist stepped up from Tulsa’s pressure rush and darted for the Notre Dame sideline, picking up the first down and then tight-roping along the sideline for a 29-yard gain. But Crist was hit high and hard, came down awkwardly on his left knee, and possibly ended his season with what’s been reported as a ruptured patellar tendon.

“It seems every medical report I get, it ends with, Done for the season,” Kelly said after the game. “The first report I got was a bruised knee, and then it was some with his patellar tendon. It’s a severe injury, I can tell you that, just seeing Dayne briefly.”

Heartbreaking news for Crist, who worked his way back quickly from a torn ACL suffered one year to the day last season in mop-up time against Washington State.

With Crist gone, Kelly turned to true freshman Tommy Rees, who was the lone bright spot in the Irish loss to Navy last week. And Rees responded right out of the gate, going 15 of his first 18 with three touchdown passes.

When asked to assess Rees’ play, Kelly was emphatic.

“Awesome. Are you kidding me? I couldn’t be more happy for the kid,” Kelly said. “True freshman goes out there, hasn’t played. He just competes.”

Still, Rees’ recording setting day with be remembered for his final throw, the back-breaking interception that sealed the game for Tulsa. Kelly walked through his thought process, putting the game in the hands of his freshman quarterback with the Irish in field goal range.

“Why not try to get Michael Floyd one-on-one against a 5-9 corner? We called a timeout and said, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do. Second down, take a shot here. If we don’t like it, let’s throw the thing away.’ Tommy wanted to do all those things. Tommy is a gamer. He knows the deal. He’s the quarterback.”

Pressed on his thought process, Kelly defending the decision to try and throw for the win instead of relying on kicker David Ruffer to make a field goal in a tricky wind.

“This is how we play. We’re going to play aggressive,” Kelly said. “We’re going to play smart… I would make the call again and I would hope that the process of learning would have a different outcome.”

Rees finished the afternoon 33 for 54 with four touchdowns and three interceptions, cementing his role as the starting quarterback against Utah after the off-week and putting the 2011 quarterback position into murky water, something nobody thought would happen entering the season.

5. Football isn’t always fair.

There’s no way to put today’s loss in true context after what the Notre Dame community suffered through this week. While the loss of Declan Sullivan puts the football game in perspective, walking off the field after losing a game like this rings about as hollow as it possibly can for an Irish team that had so much on their plates this week.

“As a football coach, there’s been more difficult weeks relative to the game itself,” Kelly said. “But in terms of the tragedy that occurred, there’s never been a more difficult time in my life.”

On the football field, life won’t get any easier for the Irish. Brian Kelly revealed that the Irish will likely be without leading running back Armando Allen for the rest of the season.

“It’s not a good situation. He may have played his last down here at Notre Dame because of the injury,” Kelly said about Allen’s injured hip. “He wanted to dress and run through the tunnel in case it was his last time playing at Notre Dame.”

The loss of Allen just adds to the nightmare scenario for Kelly’s offense, and is a terrible way for the team’s most consistent offensive player to end his career. Allen walked onto campus tantalizing Irish fans with breakaway speed, but an ankle injury suffered during his senior year of high school seemed to limit Allen’s ability to break the explosive plays many thought he’d bring to South Bend.

Instead, Allen turned into a renaissance man, an all-around performer that ran for the tough yards between tackles as well as possessing receiving skills while excelling in the return game. When asked to transition to the spread running attack, Allen responded with an 514 yards rushing, just shy of five-yards a carry, and great all-around play. Though his career was marred with various injury setbacks during his junior and senior seasons, Allen will go down as one of the top total-yardage player in Notre Dame history.

Four-star OL John Olmstead chooses Notre Dame over Michigan

rivals.com
2 Comments

With the addition of a consensus four-star offensive lineman, Notre Dame gained its fourth commitment in the class of 2019 on Friday afternoon. John Olmstead (St. Joseph High School; Metuchen, N.J.) becomes the first offensive lineman to join the class.

He cited the tradition of the Irish program as a key factor to his decision.

Considered the No. 10 tackle prospect in the country per rivals.com — also the No. 1 player in New Jersey and No. 63 recruit in the country — Olmstead is the third consensus four-star in the class, all trench factors. He held a lengthy offer sheet, including the likes of LSU, Florida and Oklahoma, but Olmstead had narrowed his final choices to the Irish, Michigan, Mississippi, Minnesota and Rutgers.

When Olmstead arrives at Notre Dame, he will have some time to wait before an opportunity is readily-available at tackle. Rising-sophomore Robert Hainsey and rising-junior Liam Eichenberg are positioned to start at right and left tackle, respectively, this season. Each has three years of eligibility remaining, meaning Olmstead would likely spend at least his first two seasons in strictly a reserve role.

The Irish signed four offensive linemen in the class of 2018, but all were a bit less-heralded than the usual recruit Notre Dame hauls in at the position. New offensive line coach Jeff Quinn played a vital role in gaining the National Signing Day pledge of rivals.com three star tackle Jarrett Patterson, whose pass protection skills mark him as a high-ceiling contributor in years to come.

Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s running game and depth lead Blue-Gold Game questions

Getty Images
1 Comment

For every strong performance in tomorrow’s conclusion to Notre Dame’s spring practices, a misstep or mistake will inherently match. If rising-senior running back Dexter Williams breaks loose for a 40-yard touchdown run, a critic might note the lack of speed in the Irish secondary. Should the Notre Dame defensive line wreak havoc in the backfield all afternoon, it may be due to a shoddy offensive line rather than a stellar defensive front. Interceptions will be considered equal parts a quarterback’s failing and a defensive back’s playmaking.

A year ago, defensive end Daelin Hayes recorded multiple “sacks” in the Blue-Gold Game. Whether or not he actually tackled a quarterback, the pressures indicated to the public’s eye that the right side of the Irish offensive line would be a 2017 weakness. Instead, they should have sparked no offensive line worry, only taken as a precursor to Hayes’ three real-world sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss in the fall. The right side of the line, manned by the tag-team of Tommy Kraemer and Robert Hainsey, was actually a strength, part of the country’s best offensive line.

Such are the flaws to over-analyzing an intrasquad scrimmage.

With those disclaimers in mind, the things to learn in the Blue-Gold Game hinge more on scheme, order of appearance and type of usage. Throughout the spring, the Irish offense has focused on the passing game. Yes, the running game drove the Notre Dame offense throughout 2017, but it is now without two All-American offensive linemen and a record-setting running back. At some point, the ground game needs to be proven all over again, and that point is supposedly Saturday.

“As it relates to our offense against our defense, we’ve thrown the ball much more than we’ve run it because of those things that we’ve wanted to grow in,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said over the weekend. “The spring game, we’ll get a better sense because we’ll run the ball a whole lot more and we’ll be who we have been.”

Rising-senior Dexter Williams is Notre Dame’s presumptive starter at running back, but finally showing an eagerness to engage in pass blocking could cement that status. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

That sense will begin with Williams and rising-junior Tony Jones (pictured at top). Williams appears to have the starting position within his grasp, but picking up a few pass blocks against the likes of Hayes would solidify that pecking order. Aside from that, perhaps the greatest thing to learn regarding Williams and Jones is, can they get through a competitive environment without injury?

Of course, limiting their carries will not only help that cause, but also reveal what kind of running back depth Notre Dame has. After the two injury-plagued upperclassmen, all the Irish can claim is an early-enrolled freshman, a receiver-turned-hybrid and a quarterback-turned-running back/receiver.

The Irish desperately need at least one of, preferably two of, Jahmir Smith, Jafar Armstrong and Avery Davis, respectively, to step forward.

The offensive line has set itself. With four returning starters and a long-touted tackle-of-the-future in rising-junior Liam Eichenberg along the front, the blocking is not the concern in the running game. Williams’ speed and Jones’ versatility offer promising potential when healthy. But this is football, both will not be healthy throughout the fall. Other carries need to be handled ably by at least a portion of that trio.

Though he may be the youngest, Smith may be the best option, simply because Armstrong’s and Davis’ responsibilities vary so greatly as they bounce between running back and receiver and, in Davis’ case, quarterback.

How will offensive coordinator Chip Long deploy Armstrong and Davis? Will they spend more time in the backfield or at slot receiver?

The addition of the two pass-catching backs increases the likelihood of Long using his favorite alignment, one with two running backs, at least one of which is a veritable route-runner and pass-catcher. Williams has never proven himself to fit that description, though Long noted Williams has improved his pass-catching as of last week. When Jones was injured last year, Long could no longer deploy the two-back set that quickly puts opposing defenses in unavoidable binds.

“That was a big part of our offense in spring ball, fall camp, then the backs got knocked out and hobbled,” Long said. “We couldn’t use that part of our offense. It hurt us.”

Should Jones twist an ankle again in September, Armstrong and/or Davis should keep that option available for Long’s play calls.

“Just having the ability with more depth back there, those type of guys, instead of just being Tony, now you have Avery, possibly Jafar,” Long said. “Injuries can’t take us out of that personnel.”

When he was healthy, Jones would often motion out of the backfield in those alignments. Although he finished the year with only six catches for 12 yards, the mere threat of his receiving abilities altered defensive approaches.

At other points, Jones was a bulldozer of a blocker, taking on multiple defenders to help spring either quarterback Brandon Wimbush or now-NFL-bound Josh Adams for a longer gain. Jones is likely to remain the best at this varied skillset, but having depth in the role is a luxury critical to Long’s preferred offensive scheme.

Most starting positions are settled, especially with the offensive line now set. Safety is not. Who will start at safety? Who will be the second-unit?

Rising-junior Jalen Elliott’s tackling miscues of the past have not yet prevented him from sitting atop Notre Dame’s depth chart at safety, though new challengers have joined the mix this spring in Alohi Gilman and Houston Griffith. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Even the candidates at safety have ebbed and flowed this spring. Rising-sophomore Jordan Genmark-Heath now appears to be headed toward a future at linebacker and rising-senior Nick Coleman has dabbled at nickelback while early-enrollee Houston Griffith moved from cornerback to safety to become another considered option.

At this point, rising-juniors Jalen Elliott and Alohi Gilman appear to be the likely starters, with Griffith offering a possibility of that changing as he learns the position over the summer. Defensive coordinator Clark Lea has certainly left the door open for just such a development, or even the emergence of incoming-freshman Derrik Allen.

“The depth back there has yet to really take shape and we’re not in a hurry to dictate who is the 1 and who is the 2,” Lea said Tuesday. “… Those guys have a lot on their plate, it takes some time. They need some time to be able to execute those responsibilities at a high level. We’re getting to that point, I don’t think we’re all the way there yet.”

Learning who the starting duo is, and who fills in the second unit — be it still Genmark-Heath or Coleman, or rising-junior Devin Studstill or rising-senior Nicco Fertitta — the concerns of tackling from the position or attacking the ball in the air will be naturally included. Elliott’s physical gifts have long been evident, but he has lacked in both those areas. If he trots out with the starting defense but does not exhibit improvement in both categories, that will be portend another year of poor play along the defense’s back line, no matter what Lea may say publicly.

“I do think we’re not doing as much to adjust for the need for time to let them come along,” he said. “I think we’re allowed to get back into what is the base of the package, which is exciting.”

Notre Dame had a strong defense in 2017. Aside from the precarious positions offensive turnovers put the defense in at Miami and Stanford, it rarely buckled. Realizing the defense played that well while only occasionally getting into its most basic package because the safety play was so dismal is a sobering conclusion. It is also a tantalizing thought of what could come in 2018 with nine returning starters and improved safety play.

Lastly, who be the fourth Irish captain? When Kelly named fifth-year center Sam Mustipher, fifth-year punter Tyler Newsome and fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill captains early in spring practice, he said a fourth would be voted upon by the team as spring came to its close.

At that point, the most-likely candidates, all rising seniors or fifth-year graduates, seemed to be defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, linebacker Te’von Coney, left guard Alex Bars, quarterback Brandon Wimbush, tight end Nic Weishar or cornerback Nick Watkins. Rising-junior cornerback Julian Love’s talent alone made him an outside contender.

As spring practice has progressed, reading between the lines might reduce that pool to three front-runners of Tillery, Coney and Bars. The first two of those three have had disciplinary issues during their time at Notre Dame, oftentimes an exclusionary factor in this conversation. To hear offensive line coach Jeff Quinn on the issue, the fourth captain should be Bars.

“Anytime your big guys run the program, I think you always have a better chance of succeeding,” Quinn said Thursday.

Two more quick-hitters:
— How will Coney fare in pass coverage?
Coney may not play that much this weekend. He does not need to prove anything in the 15th spring practice, while his backups need every rep they can get. When Coney is on the field though, watching him in coverage against any of the Irish tight ends could be revelatory. Lea has put the onus on himself for Coney’s past coverage woes.

“Coverage is a product of teaching,” Lea said. “Coverage deficiency can be a product of teaching deficiency. … Some guys do it naturally and some guys don’t, they have other things they have strength with. … As a unit, we’ve put a focus here on the end of spring practice in playing better in coverage and as a result, we’re seeing that play out in skeleton and team periods.”

— Will the receivers flash any speed?
When it comes to the positioning and usage of unique talents, the mismatches created by Armstrong and Davis may be the most predictive, but Notre Dame lost much of its outside speed with the departures of Equanimeous St. Brown (to the NFL) and Kevin Stepherson (to repeated disciplinary issues). The defensive headaches caused by those two-back sets are best taken advantage of when a receiver can also take the top off a defense. Rising-sophomore Michael Young and rising-senior Chris Finke are both quick and shifty, but neither has shown truly top-end speed to this point. Despite his 6-foot-4, 227-pound, frame, rising-senior Miles Boykin has apparently improved his burst quite a bit this offseason. Fifth-year Freddy Canteen landed on the Irish roster last offseason largely due to his natural speed, before injury cut short his first season with the Irish.

Can any of them single-handedly alter a defense’s coverage, or will Notre Dame need to turn to incoming freshmen for that threat?

Notre Dame announces two-game series with Alabama

Getty Images
10 Comments

A decade from now, Notre Dame and Alabama will meet in the regular season for the first time since 1987, a 37-6 victory for the Irish. Notre Dame announced a home-and-home series with the Crimson Tide for 2028 and 2029. Both contests will open their respective seasons.

Notre Dame Stadium will host the first leg of the series Sept. 2, 2028. The Irish will then travel to Tuscaloosa for the first time in program history Sept. 1, 2029.

Of course, Notre Dame and Alabama most-recently met in the BCS National Championship Game in Miami to conclude the 2012 season. It remains hard for Irish fans to forget how that game went.

Considering Tide head coach Nick Saban is currently 66 years old and Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly is entering his ninth season with the Irish, neither is likely to be at the helm in 2028.

Instead of acknowledging who will not be holding a clipboard for the two-game tilt, it can be worth pondering who will be, albeit with a tongue planted firmly in one’s cheek.

And who will be playing? This scribe’s nephew is in first grade. He will be a freshman in college in 2029, presuming he continues to get the grades to gain admission for a post-secondary education.

On a more serious note, adding Alabama to the schedule continues a deliberate effort by Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick to get more SEC contests on the schedule in years to come. The Irish will face Vanderbilt in 2018, Georgia in 2019, Arkansas in 2020 and 2025, and Texas A&M in 2024 and 2025. Notre Dame also hosted Georgia in 2017.

This plan is a part of Swarbrick’s hopes of having data points against four of the Power Five conferences each year, with the SEC and the Big 12 the conferences needing a bit more foresight and extra effort in order to get on the schedule. The Irish already face five ACC teams per year, two Pac-12 programs in Stanford and USC each season and have Big Ten matchups scheduled through at least 2028 already. No Big 12 games are currently scheduled, though Notre Dame recently concluded home-and-home series with both Oklahoma and Texas.

As linebacker depth questions persist, Notre Dame turns to a safety

Associated Press
6 Comments

Go back a month in this space and of the biggest questions entering Notre Dame’s spring practices, a defensive reserve merited mentioning. “Another early-enrolled freshman could be the answer to the question of, who will be the fourth linebacker?”

It looks less and less likely the Irish will rely on a freshman to provide the entirety of depth at linebacker. For that matter, Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea does not expect to need one backup to learn multiple positions a la Te’von Coney at the beginning of last season.

(In the above photo, Coney, No. 4, is featured, as the defense will do this season. In the background, Asmar Bilal, No. 22, can be seen as a factor in the play, a defensive hope in 2018.)

Between Coney, Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini, Lea had three capable linebackers to fill the two interior positions in 2017. By cross-training Coney at both Mike and Buck, the Irish did not need to lean on any other substitute.

“In some ways, that’s unfair at times because the Mike and Buck, though conceptually tied together, they’re different,” Lea said Tuesday. “Different body types, different people. We’d rather not do that. We’d rather not go three-for-two. We’d rather go two-for-two and make it like a hockey line (substitution). That would be the way it would work best. I’m not sure how that’s going to shape up right now.”

Throughout spring, the presumption was rising-senior Asmar Bilal would both start at rover and provide injury-protection depth along the interior, with fifth-year Drue Tranquill starting at Buck and remaining a break-in-case-of-emergency option at rover, his 2017 position. Such a scenario still needed a fourth linebacker to offer some snaps of rest for the starters. Either one of the three early-enrolled freshmen would need to grasp that task or rising-junior Jonathan Jones would claim it.

“They know they’re competing for a chance to play,” Lea said. “Where [Jones] might have fallen into a lull mid-spring, I think here in the last few days he’s come out here and really changed his game.”

Joining Jones this week, rising-sophomore Jordan Genmark-Heath moved up a level from the safeties to try his hand at linebacker. Per Lea, the move mirrors Bilal’s cross-training on the interior — Notre Dame would rather know what it has available long before it is needed.

“We don’t move a guy unless we identify things that he brings to the table that allow him to be successful,” Lea said. “It’s not just throwing paint at the wall. We’ve seen him play in a manner that we know he can handle the Buck position. I would argue he’s looked very natural there.

“… You know what he can do for you at safety, too, so we’re not closing our eyes to that possibility. You have a short window here where you have a chance to get a look at somebody who makes you more athletic at the second level.”

The mixing and matching of the Irish linebacker reserves will continue for at least the rest of this week, and almost certainly into preseason practices. Unlike the beginning of spring practice, however, it does not hinge on only one name, and the early-enrollees are not seen as the saving graces.

Instead Jones may back up Coney, Genmark-Heath support Tranquill and either rising-sophomore Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah or classmate Isaiah Robertson provide depth behind Bilal.

“You always want the ability through the course of the season to have your best three on the field,” Lea said. “You always want to have an idea of what that three look like if injury happens or if a young player comes along and how you can shift and shape the pieces to ensure that you’re at your competitive best.”