Pregame Twelve Pack: Utah edition

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After a much needed week off, here comes another Pregame Twelve Pack. Twelve fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as the Irish prepare to play No. 14 Utah.

1. Let’s get it out of the way.  Michael Floyd isn’t talking about the NFL.

Brian Kelly wouldn’t talk about it, and Michael Floyd won’t either, leaving any decision to be made about the NFL until after the season, when Floyd can get some accurate advice on whether or not staying for his senior season is the best thing for him and his family.

When asked about Senior Day and whether or not this would be Floyd’s last game running out of the tunnel, Mike brushed the question off quickly.

“I never think about it. If that comes to a decision that I need to make, then that’s down the road,” Floyd said. “Right now I’m just trying to look for Saturday and get a big W under our shoulders.”

2. How difficult will it be to get that ‘W’ against No. 15 Utah?

Well, for Charlie Weis, a win against a team ranked in the Top 15 was a pretty tough task. Want a good reason why Weis isn’t on the Irish sidelines right now? It’s his record against teams in the AP Top 15: He was 1-11.

A quick recap:

2005: W against #3 Michigan — 17-10
2005: L against #1 USC — 34-31
2005: L against #4 Ohio State — 34-20
2006: L against #11 Michigan — 47-21
2006: L against #3 USC — 44-24
2006: L against #4 LSU — 41-14
2007: L against #14 ranked Penn State — 31-10
2007: L against #4 ranked Boston College — 27-14
2007: L against #13 ranked USC — 38-0
2008: L against #5 ranked USC — 38-3
2009: L against #6 ranked USC — 34-27
2009: L against #8 ranked Pitt – 27-22
Overall: 1-11

The good news for Irish fans? Weis’ lone victory against a top 15 team was in his first attempt. This will be Kelly’s first shot against a Top 15 team.

3. How legit is Utah’s Top 15 ranking?

Back when the Irish were prepping for Stanford, I openly questioned how good Stanford really was. It turns out they were really good, their only loss coming against Oregon, a team they lead at the half but gave up 28 unanswered second half points as the Ducks ran away from the Cardinal.

Anthony Pilcher over at Clashmore Mike did some statistical digging into Utah, and the results seem to tip the scales back towards Notre Dame. Vegas is also keeping the Irish in this game, with the Irish opening as only a four-point underdog, though it now sitting at 5.5 points.

According to Pilcher, Utah has played the 104th best schedule in college football, while Notre Dame’s ranks 4th, part of why the Irish are still predicted to keep this game within a touchdown, even with Tommy Rees making his first start at quarterback.

4. Even in a doomsday situation, don’t expect to see Andrew Hendrix.

While I didn’t write about it, I was a little bit surprised to hear that Andrew Hendrix was going to be inserted into the three-deep QB depth chart with the injury to Dayne Crist. While Hendrix certainly warranted getting some practice reps after Crist went down, I would’ve been shocked if Kelly ever let Hendrix step a foot onto the field with only three games left in the season.

Turns out, if Doomsday presents itself, it won’t be Hendrix captaining the Irish ship, but walk-on quarterback Brian Costello.

“Brian Castello will play this week,” Kelly said before cracking a joke. “Is it Brian Castello? Good. Got that right.”

Castello and Kelly have quite a relationship, with Castello the head of the “Red Army,” the group of back-up quarterbacks responsible for signaling in the plays to the starting quarterback. It was Castello who joked that he was the player on the roster that drew the ire of Kelly more than anybody else, and he’s never even seen the field. (Kelly also approved Castello as the guy on the team you’d most want to do your taxes.)

When will Andrew Hendrix be ready to see the field?

“I would say right now, I can’t see a situation where Andrew would play in the game,” Kelly said. “It would have to be Army, USC.”

By then, I’d be shocked if Kelly didn’t stick with Castello, saving Hendrix the year of eligibility. Still, these weeks in the depth chart will be illuminating for Hendrix, who walked onto campus as the most physically talented, but incredibly raw scholarship quarterback on the roster.

5. Checking in from Ecuador, it’s freshman safety Chris Badger!

The South Bend Tribune‘s Eric Hansen took to his email account to track down Irish freshman Chris Badger, who is roughly 3,000 miles away from South Bend this weekend, working in Ecuador on a 21-month long Mormon Mission.

This Saturday’s game had to be a tough one for Badger to miss, with it being against his home state Utah Utes. But Badger has his life focused on things much larger than a football game.

There’s no TV in the mission; there are no movies. I honestly am leaving the world behind for two years to serve, to do nothing else but to try and make someone else’s life better,” Badger told Hansen. “It’s more rewarding than I can describe.”

While the timing wasn’t perfect, there’s no faulting Badger for taking his mission, though the Irish could’ve used Badger in a secondary that was decimated with injuries this year.

6. Key No. 1 for the Irish this weekend — play better special teams.

Two weeks ago, a punt return touchdown and a blocked extra point returned for two points were the difference between winning and losing against Tulsa. This week, the Irish prepare to face Shaky Smithson, one of the country’s most dangerous returners.

Kelly was asked what the Irish needed to do to limit explosive returns.

“Two things. Number one, they do a great job building a wall for him and allowing him to get to that wall after he makes the first guy miss,” Kelly said. “He makes that first guy miss, they’ve got a very good scheme that allows him to get to that wall. Our guys have to do a great job of corralling him so he doesn’t get to that wall. If that wall gets set, Utah does a very good job. We’ve got to make sure we do a good job of corralling. There are probably going to be some times where we have to decide whether we’re going to kick to him or not. I think we have to consider all those things within the game plan.”

I’ve been harsh on punter Ben Turk, and I put the touchdown return against Tulsa on him, even if there were four Irish defenders in place to make the play. Turk has got to get better with both hang time and direction of his kicks. While he’s improved since the beginning of the season, he’s been far from consistent kicking the football.

7. Brian Smith, we hardly knew thee.

Outside linebacker Brian Smith will be playing his final home game in Notre Dame Stadium. If there’s a guy on the roster that’s polarized fans more than Smith these past four years, I’m not sure who it is.

Smith shot out of the gates during his freshman season, supplying one of the lone bright spots during a terrible 2007 season after being offered a late scholarship by the Weis regime only after the Irish decided to switch to a 3-4 defense. But from there, Smith plateaued, with his work at inside linebacker in the 4-3 during 2009 far from impressive.

But Smith got a fresh start in Kelly and Bob Diaco’s 3-4 system, and from day one was inserted as the starting field-side outside linebacker. But he failed to keep the job, bumped for Kerry Neal during fall training camp. But after being relegated to a reserve role, Smith has played some of his best football, filling in admirably in the middle of the defense when Carlo Calabrese couldn’t play against Tulsa.

Thursday afternoon, Brian Kelly illuminated on the changes and maturity he’s seen Smith exhibit, a far cry from the person he observed at the end of last season.

“Maybe this isn’t right to say, but I wasn’t a big Brian Smith fan early on,” Kelly said candidly. “I thought he looked maybe a little too much at what he could do instead of what the team could do. I told him today, if I had anything to do with making the decision on a fifth year, which I certainly don’t, I’d be the first one in line advocating for Brian Smith to come back for another year. I would not have said that early in the year.”

Thanks to early playing time in 2007, Kelly won’t have that option, but Smith has three more games — and hopefully a bowl game as well — to continue that evolution.

8. Dan Wenger could try to return for a sixth year of eligibility.

Forget about a potential fifth year for Brian Smith, injured center Dan Wenger is trying to do something even more rare, successfully receive a sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA, after missing two seasons with injuries.

The process is hardly a streamlined one.

“Here’s the specifics on how this moves forward: We cannot even file for a request for a sixth year until the end of the season. So even if that thing is postmarked and all done, we can’t turn it in,” Kelly said.

“First it goes to the Big East, and the Big East has to say no, and then it gets pushed to the NCAA. Essentially, they’re going to turn down a request for a sixth (year) unless there are circumstances that warrant it. And there are only about two or three of them. It has to be something that is extraordinary. This will not meet extraordinary. What it will be, did he lose two seasons of competition due to injury? That’s what it will come down to.”

Got that?

Kelly went through one of the more contentious sixth year battles ever, with former Cincinnati quarterback Ben Mauk losing his plea for a final season with the Bearcats, even though he filed a lawsuit to try and overturn the ruling. Wenger case is much more clear-cut than Mauk’s, with Dan sitting out all of the 2007 season with an injury and missing every game of 2o1o with lingering concussion symptoms. If the doctors clear Wenger to play and he and his family weight the consequences, the Irish would be adding some veteran depth to an offensive line that’ll be graduating only Chris Stewart.

9. It’s brotherly love for Tony and Aaron Alford.

In one of those subplots that’ll surely have Alex Flanagan getting some screen time, Notre Dame wide receivers coach Tony Alford will welcome his brother, Utah running backs coach Aaron Alford, to South Bend this weekend, as their respective teams prepare to do battle.

And Alford’s making his family pick sides, laying down an ultimatum to his mother Gloria.

“My mom flew in. She’s sleeping at the house,” Alford said jokingly. “I told her, ‘Listen, if you don’t pick the right team and cheer for the right team, you can stay somewhere else.’ She can stay in Michigan City. I think that’s where Utah stays. She’s more than welcome to stay there Friday night.”

Joking aside, the relationship that Tony has with his brother Aaron is a strong one, with Tony providing plenty of support for his younger sibling.

“He’s done everything on his own merit. He seems to really enjoy what he’s doing, and I can’t tell you how proud of him I am,” Tony said. “I’m more proud of the young man he’s become, just the type of person he’s become.”

The relationship is an illuminating one, and after listening to Alford talk about his younger sibling, there’s no question why he’s renowned as a recruiter.

10. Key No. 2 for an Irish victory? Tommy Rees controlling the turnovers.

While most people would like to see the Irish establish some kind of running game, if Notre Dame is going to win the football game, they’ll have to do it behind the arm of Tommy Rees. Sure, trusting a true freshman to throw the ball to win the game doesn’t always work (see Tulsa for details), but the difference between this Utah team and some of its predeccesors is its inability to force turnovers.

Utah has only forced 14 turnovers, but when they do, they capitalize on them. For Rees to win the football game, he’ll need to minimize the mistakes, while also taking advantage of a surprisingly susceptible Utes defense against the explosive passing play.

Rees has shown the ability to be accurate on short, precision throws. Utah coach Kyle Whittingham and his defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake, in only his second year, will likely have taken notice of that trend, possibly tempting the Irish to throw the ball down the field. If they do, it’ll be up to guys like TJ Jones and Tyler Eifert to work down the seams, if Utah decides to try and double team Michael Floyd.

11. After spurning them in recruiting, Manti Te’o has a chance to terrorize the Utes in person.

With his Mormon background and Hawaiian heritage, Manti Te’o was an early target of Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham, who has stocked his roster full of similar prospects to Te’o. But after initially considering the Utes, Te’o brushed aside the opportunity to play for Whittingham, narrowing down his choices to Notre Dame and USC, before eventually choosing the Irish in a Signing Day upset for the ages.

That didn’t stop Whittingham from singing Te’o’s praises this week:

“He’s a beast in the middle. He is someone  who is playing at a very high level,” Whittingham said.

“We would have loved the opportunity to have him, but he had his five official visits and we weren’t involved. We certainly knew about him and followed him since his sophomore year. There isn’t any team in the country who wouldn’t love to have him. He is just a talented kid, an exceptionally talented kid.”

Te’o’s inclusion in the Bednarik semifinalists is a sign that Manti’s made the leap from good to great this year. What’s even more amazing to consider is the fact that we’ve all seen Te’o miss quite a few tackles and run himself out of his share of plays, indicating a ceiling that has yet to be reached.

Nobody is looking towards next year yet, but with Te’o at one middle linebacker and Carlo Calabrese at the other, the Irish will have their best set of interior linebackers since the Lou Holtz era.

12. Irish fans should hope November 13th is still a magical day at Notre Dame Stadium.

The last time the Irish played on November 13th? Try 1993, when the No. 2 ranked Irish knocked off the No. 1 rated Florida State Seminoles, winning one of the highest-profile college football games ever played.

Jumping out to a 21-7 halftime lead, the Irish held on to beat Charlie Ward and Bobby Bowden’s Seminoles, with Shawn Wooden knocking down a Ward pass as time ran out to ensure a victory.

With Lou Holtz in town earlier this week, I’d be shocked if this day in Notre Dame history wasn’t mentioned to a squad that’ll run onto their home field for the last time this season, hoping to win on Senior Day for the first time since 2007.

 

 

 

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

@NDFootball
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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

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