How we got here: Turnovers

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It was no secret that there were going to be some growing pains in the evolution of the Notre Dame offense. Brian Kelly was taking a drop-back quarterback with a total of 20 mop-up throws under his belt and putting him into an offensive system that relied on quick throws, quicker data processing, and presenting the threat of both running and passing. And oh, yeah… Crist would also be spending 95-percent of his time in the shotgun.

To call the union of junior quarterback Dayne Crist and Brian Kelly an arranged marriage wouldn’t be far from the truth. Both were stuck with each other, with Kelly having little to no depth behind the departing Jimmy Clausen thanks to the attrition of Weis recruits like Zack Frazer and Demetrius Jones and selective recruiting. There was plenty to like in Crist, a highly touted recruit that ran the football effectively during his prep days, but the Irish offense would hinge on how quickly Crist could learn the new offense, and how quickly his surgically repaired ACL would heal.

Crist took every snap in spring practice, absorbing as much of the offense as he could while the Irish also learned a vastly different way to practice. With a playbook in hand and a collection of skill players, Crist also worked diligently with his receiving corp, establishing a rapport in the offseason to help jump-start the season.

With a ruptured patellar tendon ending his first season as a starter, we can look at Crist’s numbers and compare them to the last few Notre Dame quarterbacks in their first complete season behind center. Crist completed just over 59 percent of his throws for 2033 yards, completing 15 touchdown passes and 7 interceptions. Even if we throw out Clausen’s 2007 season, where he ran for his life behind an abysmal offensive line, Crist’s numbers match up well to Jimmy’s 2008 campaign, with Clausen completing nearly 61 percent of his throws for 3172 yards, to go along with 25 touchdown passes and a staggeringly high 17 interceptions. While you’d think Charlie Weis’ vertical offense would show us something different, Clausen’s 7.2 yards per attempt is not that much better than Crist’s 6.9 per throw. Looking further back, even though Brady Quinn played in 11 games as a true freshman, his first sophomore campaign saw him put up numbers remarkable similar to Crist, completing only 54 percent of his throws for 2586 yards with 17 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Quinn averaged 7.3 yards per attempt, surprising when you think back to the offense that Tyrone Willingham was running at the time.

This isn’t an article about Dayne Crist’s performance compared to Clausen or Quinn, but it does put in context Crist’s performance in his first season playing college football, as well as point out how similar quarterbacking performances help determine overall records, with Clausen and Quinn both ending up a game better than .500, and if Crist would’ve only finished the game against Tulsa, he’d have likely finished at the same place.

If there’s an easy stat that reflects how the 4-5 Irish got to where they are, it’s turnover margin. The Irish rank 82nd in the country in the critical stat, turning the ball over three more times than they’ve taken it away, with 19 turnovers to 16 takeaways.

Even worse, in games the Irish have lost, the ratio is even more pronounced. Notre Dame has turned the ball over 14 times in their five losses, a staggering 2.8 times per loss. Making things even worse, they’ve only managed to force six takeaways in those games, clocking the Irish in at a -1.6 turnover margin during those five losses, the equivalent of the nation’s worst football teams during Irish defeats.

Looking even closer at the Irish turnovers, you’ll see just how catastrophic they were. Against Michigan, the Irish were intercepted three times. With the Irish leading 7-0 and Tommy Rees called into duty with Dayne Crist’s vision blurred, Rees threw a brutal interception to Jonas Mouton. The next play, the Wolverines tied the game 7-7 with a 31-yard touchdown pass. With the Irish driving past midfield thanks to two large runs by Armando Allen, Nate Montana threw a drive-killing interception at the Michigan 37, stopping the Irish in their tracks. While Dayne Crist’s lone interception of the afternoon didn’t end up hurting the Irish, it killed a major momentum swing for the Irish, with Crist making a terrible decision on the first play of a Notre Dame drive and turning the ball over deep in ND territory.

Against the Spartans, it was more of the same. Michael Floyd coughed up the ball just outside the Michigan State redzone, costing the Irish at least three points in the second quarter, with the lead already 7-0 Irish. Crist’s interception on the first play of a drive later that quarter killed the Irish again in Spartan territory and turned into a 94 yard touchdown drive for the Spartans. Crist’s fourth quarter fumbled didn’t lose the game for the Irish, but it killed a potential go-ahead drive close to midfield.

Not to belabor the point, but a Dayne Crist fumble turned into seven points against Stanford. A Crist interception gave the Cardinal 14 points straight from the Irish quarterback’s hands to the wrong team. Against Navy, the Irish could’ve walked into the locker room down only four points, but Crist’s late interception added seven more to the Navy score, and a third quarter pick cemented the Midshipmen’s route. As for the Tulsa game? Well, Rees’ pick six was hardly his fault, but to say that turnovers killed the Irish in that game is an epic understatement.

When looked at cumulatively, the turnovers are maddening for Irish fans, and nearly a blow-by-blow account of what went wrong this season, and why the Irish are looking uphill at a bowl game. But when looking at the last two Notre Dame quarterbacks — two of the best to every play the position for the Irish — Crist’s struggles, especially while experiencing meaningful minutes for the first time and doing so in a new system, begins to make a little bit more sense.

When Brian Kelly talks about the razor thin margin for error this team has offensively, it sounds like coachspeak. But when you look at the games the Irish have lost, that observation looks a lot more insightful. Turning the ball over at critical times, that’s how the Irish got to 4-5.

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…)

Brian Kelly & Jack Swarbrick on Notre Dame’s changes moving forward

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Whether 2016’s disappointing 4-8 finish was the impetus to program-wide alterations at Notre Dame this offseason, it certainly underscored the need. For the last few months, Irish coach Brian Kelly has focused those changes on himself and self-assessment, and he reiterated that approach when talking with PFT Live’s Mike Florio early Monday morning.

“This is my 27th year of being a head coach, and prior to last year I had one losing season,” Kelly said. “You have a way of doing things, you have a system in place, you follow that year after year. Certainly you make tweaks along the way, but this is the first time where I’ve really taken a step back and made substantial changes in terms of how I’m doing things on a day-to-day basis…

“From my perspective, after being at it as long as I have, you have to take it on yourself that you’re the one that needs to make the corrections. It’s not the players.”

None of this is new. Kelly has been consistent in his springtime messaging, but others have looked past the effects of the 4-8 record and insist the changes were coming regardless of the win-loss totals. Senior captain Drue Tranquill, for example, acknowledged the severity of the losing record Friday but argued adjustments were needed no matter what the final scores were.

“If you have an average season like 8-4, some things might carry over to the next season,” Tranquill said the day before the spring practice finale. “Whereas when you go 4-8, something has to change.

“But I think even at Notre Dame, 8-4 is never really acceptable or tolerated. Those things that were taking place, just within our culture, would have been noticed whether we were 10-3, 4-8. The criticism gave it a lot more hype and juice. We could kind of feel as guys in the program throughout the past three years that certain things needed to change.

“Those things were finally brought to light and it happened to be during a 4-8 season. I don’t necessarily know that 4-8 was the reason all this change happened.”

New Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko expressed a similar sentiment Friday morning, discussing the pressure moving forward.

“If we were coming off a 12-0 season in which we were competing for the national championship, there would be pressure on us at Notre Dame to be successful this year,” Elko said. “That’s Notre Dame.”

Elko has been a quick study, as his comments were echoed the next day by Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick during NBC Sports Network’s broadcast of the Blue-Gold Game.

“We expect to compete for national championships and 4-8 is not acceptable,” Swarbrick said. “On the other hand, when you’re in that situation, you have to decide how you’re going to move forward. We decided to move forward by making a major investment in retooling our program with Brian as the leader of it. That’s not a one-year investment for us. We brought in some talented assistant coaches. We rebuilt elements of the program

“We view it as a multi-year investment going forward.”

KELLY ON RECRUITING PITCH
Using this week’s NFL Draft as a peg, Florio also asked Kelly about balancing players’ NFL aspirations with team success both in the recruiting process and during the actual season.

“We have to talk more in terms of process over production,” Kelly responded. “We talk in terms of you’re coming to Notre Dame for a reason. You’re going to get a degree, which will set you up for the rest of your life, and you’re going to play on the grandest stage at Notre Dame, so everybody will see you.

“As long as there’s the balance there—and there has to be that balance in terms of getting your education and playing for championships—then we’re okay. It’s when that balance is out of whack, we’ll have an issue. We vet that out in the recruiting process and make sure we don’t take any kids that are coming to Notre Dame just because they’re waiting for that [junior] year to complete so they can go to the draft.”

A reminder: The NFL Draft begins with its first round Thursday night. Kelly will be joining former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer at the draft in Philadelphia to await Kizer’s destination and future employer.

MISSED THE BLUE-GOLD GAME?
It is available for streaming: here.

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?

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

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Time spent on a traditional game wrap of a spring intrasquad exhibition seems misspent. Gold won Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game 27-14 led by rising sophomore quarterback Ian Book. The first-string defense (Gold) held the first-string offense to an average of 5.4 yards per play. For context’s sake: Last season Notre Dame gained an average of 6.1 yards per play and held opponents to 5.4.

With that abbreviated recap out of the way, what did Saturday’s pseudo-game environment show about the Irish? If the 20,147 in attendance paid attention, they had the chance to learn a few things:

Daelin Hayes will be ready to hit a quarterback in September
Notre Dame’s quarterbacks were off limits all spring. Bulls might charge when they see red, but the Irish defensive line has had to remember to ease up when they come across a quarterback’s red jersey. If sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes had forgotten that Saturday, Notre Dame might not have any quarterbacks left to play in the fall.

“At the end of the day, we’re on the same team,” Hayes said, dismissing any bitterness about the quarterbacks’ protections. “We have to keep our guys healthy. I wasn’t frustrated, but come September 2, you know.”

Officially, Hayes was credited with three sacks and another tackle for loss among his seven tackles. Admittedly, gauging sacks is tricky when the quarterback does not actually go to the ground. How many of Hayes’ three sacks and the defense’s 11 total would have been evaded if the defender needed to do more than touch the passer? That answer is highly subjective, but discounting Hayes’ numbers would miss the bigger picture.

“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, buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

Senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) notched two sacks and sophomore end Ade Ogundeji came the closest to tackling a red jersey when he stripped junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush from behind. The defensive line has been expected to be a weak point for the Irish moving forward, but the spring performance indicates it has a chance at holding its own. These accomplishments bear further merit considering Notre Dame’s offensive line is widely-considered one of its few spots of expected quality.

RELATED READING: Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

“I think it’s pretty clear Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I’d have to watch the film, but it seemed like [sophomore end] Julian Okwara was a hard guy to block coming off the edge, as well.”

Ian Book provides some peace of mind
Book was not spectacular, but he was also far from incompetent or intimidated. In his first action on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, Book completed 18-of-25 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by a 58-yard connection with sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. Meanwhile, junior Brandon Wimbush completed 22-of-32 passes for 303 yards.

Bluntly, one has not needed to follow Notre Dame for very long to fit that “long enough” qualification. Last season’s backup, Malik Zaire, saw competitive action against both Texas and Stanford. In 2015, DeShone Kizer came off the bench to start 11 games after Zaire suffered a season-ending ankle injury. (more…)