Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. Utah

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It was an analogy Brian Kelly didn’t want to use, but football is a lot like the game of life. Ebb and flow. Highs and lows. Good and bad. And after three solid weeks of nothing but negativity, Kelly’s Notre Dame squad went out on Senior Day and summarily dispatched Utah 28-3 on Saturday afternoon.

“Through the last three weeks, we certainly have had a great deal of adversity that we’ve had to overcome together as a group,” Kelly said. “In those times, to steal a quote from Coach Parseghian, adversity elicits traits sometimes that we didn’t think we ever had.”

After counter-punching much of the first quarter and spotting Utah a field goal on a failed fourth down gamble, the Irish got a big special teams play from cornerback Robert Blanton, who blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown. From there, the Irish systematically beat down the No. 15 Utes, giving the Irish their biggest win over a ranked opponent since 2005.

Any hope Utah had of overcoming a 14-3 halftime deficit was eliminated thirteen seconds into the second half, when freshman Austin Collinsworth stripped Shaky Smithson on the opening kickoff and Tommy Rees found senior Duval Kamara in the corner of the endzone to push the score to 21-3. Kamara would add another touchdown catch in the third quarter to seal the deal.

After losing a plethora of starters and last minute games to Michigan, Michigan State and a shocking defeat to Tulsa, the Irish finally came unbridled, finding their stride.

“You saw today a football team that didn’t have on their shoulders the traditions and reputations and all the things that you have to worry about sometimes being a football player at Notre Dame, and they just flat out played,” Kelly said.

And for the first time since the gallows of 2007, the senior class walks away from Notre Dame Stadium with a win, celebrating with a student section that had no intent of leaving the field.

Here’s what we learned in Notre Dame’s commanding 28-3 victory over No. 15 Utah.

1) That’s a cathartic victory for Notre Dame.

As dark as the loss to Tulsa was for Notre Dame collectively, you can’t help but feel great for the players, coaches, students and staff at the university. Just a few weeks after a student mockingly suggested storming the field on Senior Day to celebrate the Class of 2010’s ineptitude after a near-certain loss to mighty Utah, students stormed the field in jubilance, unwilling to let go of the euphoric feeling that comes with winning a big game, “what though the odds be great or small.”

Brian Kelly spent the entire week talking about the foundation that this senior class was building for the football program, and after the game freshman quarterback Tommy Rees talked about how important it was to win a game for them.

“That was our number one goal,” Rees said. “Seniors have done an unbelievable job all year. Whether it be preparing us or keeping us focused, especially in the past two weeks. You know, to send them off with a win is truly special.”

2. That was the most important win for Brian Kelly of his career.

It’s easy to get caught up in hyperbole, but make no mistake — that’s the most important victory Brian Kelly’s ever had as a head coach. With the vultures circling his football program after the death of videographer Declan Sullivan, and his own fanbase openly questioning if Kelly and his staff were too “small-timey” or too hellbent on imposing his offensive system, Kelly and his lieutenants put together a flawless game plan.

“We wanted to get the game into the fourth quarter,” Kelly said. “That was the most important. Our theme this week was get it to the fourth quarter and let’s put this nonsense to bed that you can’t win games in the fourth quarter.”

Thanks to excellence on special teams, an efficient offensive day, and a rabid defense, the only thing decided in the fourth quarter was when to let senior walk-on quarterback Matt Castello take some snaps.

A week after Tommy Rees threw the ball 54 times for 334 yards, the Irish ran it 29 times for 127 yards compared to just 20 throws for 129 yards. Even though the Irish were playing a Utah team that had been stout against the run and the Irish had shown no ability to move the ball with the run, Kelly made it clear that the offensive line was going to determine whether or not the Irish would win the football game.

“We had talked all week about there has to be a time and place where you win the game up front,” Kelly said about his offensive line. “It can’t be finesse football and fast break, and 30, 40 throws. There’s got to be time and place. This was a game where it had to be won up front. I think just putting it on their shoulders from that perspective, and committing to it and staying with it. This game was won up front.”

3. Brian Smith and Duval Kamara, two unsung seniors, led the day for the Irish.

With Carlo Calabrese and TJ Jones unable to answer the bell this afternoon, Brian Kelly turned to two reserve seniors that have drawn the ire of Notre Dame fans in the past, and the duo lead the team to victory. Both Brian Smith and Duval Kamara, playing in their final games in Notre Dame Stadium, played heroic football, large keys to the upset of Utah.

Smith’s 10 tackles playing out of position at inside linebacker led the defense in stops. Kamara’s two catches both resulted in touchdowns, capitalizing for an offense that was working at maximum efficiency. Kamara’s big day was a critical part of the Irish game plan.

“We told Duval for the last ten days, this is your game,” Kelly said. “You’re going to get matched up. You’re 6’4″, you’ve got to help us. You’ve got to be there for us. And he was huge.”

It wasn’t that long ago that Kamara led the Irish offense in receiving as a true freshman in 2007. After getting lost in the shuffle with the ascension of Golden Tate and Michael Floyd, Kamara stuck with it and turned his final game in Notre Dame Stadium into one for the memories.

As for Smith, Kelly was incredibly candid earlier in the week about the linebacker he inherited from the previous regime. But one look at the emotion in the eyes of both Smith and his father as tears flowed during the pregame ceremony, and you know how important Irish football is to him.

4. Bob Diaco’s defense was astounding in every sense of the word.

If a coaches reputation can be made (or ruined) in one Saturday, Bob Diaco tested the theory during the Irish’s loss to Navy. Unable to solve even the most rudimentary elements of the Midshipmen offense, Diaco admitted that the 35-17 loss was his most frustrating as a defensive coordinator.

While Kelly caught some flack for keeping Diaco and offensive coordinator Charley Molnar away from the media this week, the move obviously paid dividends, as Diaco’s defense put together their most complete performance of the season, holding a Utah team that averaged 41 points a game to a single gimme field goal, one that was courtesy of an offense that turned the ball over on downs at midfield.

How dominating was the Irish defense’s performance? Consider that it was only after the score was 28-3 that Utah put together a drive that was over 24 yards. The front seven of the Irish defense completely dominated the line of scrimmage, holding a powerful Utah running game to 2.4 yards a carry and under 100 yards, even without interior stalwarts Ian Williams and Carlo Calabrese. The pass rush pressured Utah quarterback Jordan Wynn endlessly, and the secondary blanketed Utah receivers, with Harrison Smith making the best interception of his career and Gary Gray in the right place at the right time all day.

Diaco deserves all the credit in the world for dialing up a game plan that terrifically suited an Irish defense still incredibly thin due to injury. Even more impressive, the development of the defensive roster is incredibly apparent after 10 football games, with freshman like Prince Shembo and Kona Schwenke making big plays, and guys like Kapron Lewis-Moore and Sean Cwynar rising to the occasion. It’s easy to see how defensive line coach Mike Elston, linebacker coaches Diaco and Kerry Cooks, and secondary coach Chuck Martin have put their fingerprints on this unit. Their performance might get lost in the shuffle, but it certainly shouldn’t tonight.

5. There’s plenty to like about this Notre Dame football team.

Brian Kelly was asked earlier in the year if he’d have been happy playing for bowl eligibility during the home stretch of the season, and it was clear then that he — like most fans — expected more from this football team. But this 5-5 Irish squad is certainly one that Notre Dame fans should be proud of.

Consider the decimation to the Irish roster. We’ve discussed it before, but the Irish beat their first ranked team in over five years without their starting quarterback, running back, tight end, two wide receivers, nose tackle, middle linebacker, outside linebacker and safety. That doesn’t happen with a football coach that doesn’t know what he’s doing.

While Kelly has been pointing at things that have been happening behind closed doors, he opened up a bit after the game about the process of transforming this football team.

“You’re still trying to lay the foundation of how you play this game,” Kelly said. “You play it hard for four quarters. You get it to the fourth quarter and you close. My career has been built on closing games out and building the mentality of that football team. That’s what we had to make sure we got done.”

Even more interesting, Kelly gave us a true look behind the curtain when he was asked if this was “the moment” that the Irish football team had been waiting for.

“You missed the point,” Kelly said. “It’s not a moment. It’s the culmination of what we’ve been working on since December. You don’t just pull these out of a hat. You don’t just wake up and go, ‘Let’s rise up today.’ It’s the consistency of an approach from a day to day basis and how we go to work every day. We’re not a finished product by any means, but we’re starting to develop the mental and physical toughness for the way you need to go and approach this game.”

That process continues next week as the Irish battle for bowl eligibility against an Army team that’s already earned its way to the postseason, the first time the Knights have done so n 14 years. Adding to the intrigue, Army runs the same triple option attack that absolutely flummoxed the Irish defense less than a month ago. This season may not have been the one Irish fans (or players and coaches) envisioned, but next Saturday’s date in Yankee Stadium, not to mention the upcoming clash in the Coliseum, remind us that there’s still plenty to play for this season.

What a difference 24 hours make.

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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Kraemer, Eichenberg compete for RT spot, moving Bars inside, and Bivin to…

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Forty percent of the offensive line is essentially set in stone: fifth-year senior Mike McGlinchey at left tackle and senior Quenton Nelson at right guard.

The center position seems to be senior Sam Mustipher’s to lose.

That leaves the two starting spots on the right side of the line for a number of players—both young and experienced—to fight over.

Sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg have emerged as the frontrunners for the right tackle spot, moving senior Alex Bars inside to right guard. Bars started all 12 games last season at right tackle.

“Those two [Kraemer and Eichenberg] are the guys we have mapped out at right tackle, and they’re going to battle,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “Today Kraemer was there. Last two practices Eichenberg got a lot of the work. Eichenberg will go back there on Friday. They’re going to keep battling and splitting the action out there.”

Part of the reasoning in giving the two sophomores extended looks this spring is Notre Dame knows what it has in Bars when at right tackle.

“We would prefer to get him in at the guard position, but we know he can play the [tackle] position,” Kelly said.

A starting five of McGlinchey, the three seniors and either sophomore may seem to leave fifth-year lineman Hunter Bivin out in the cold. Not often is a player asked to return for a fifth year only to spend it on the bench. That is even more rare when considering the current Irish scholarship crunch.

Kelly compared Bivin’s role to that of Mark Harrell’s last year. Harrell appeared in all 12 games, starting two, and provided much needed depth and flexibility along the offensive line. Rather than have five backup offensive linemen, position coach Harry Hiestand relied on Harrell to provide support at multiple spots.

“It’s reasonable to assume that Hunter Bivin’s going to be involved in this as well,” Kelly said. “We’ve just asked Hunter to take a seat right now. He’s done that for the team.

“We think Hunter is going to be a Mark Harrell for us. A guy that’s extremely valuable, can play a number of positions. We trust him, but we want to see these two young players [Kraemer and Eichenberg]. Hunter is a guy that can play right or left tackle for us. He’s going to be a valuable player for us as a swing guy.”

On that note, this space will refer to Bivin as a fifth-year lineman, as was done above, rather than as a guard or as a tackle, until further notice. In his case, the broader description may be the most accurate.

Spring break out west is fine, but Wimbush better be ready to run

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It will undoubtedly become a habit, at least for the next five-plus months. If Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush sneezes in front of a camera, it just might lead to an uptick in webmd.com traffic. His every football move will certainly be analyzed, nitpicked and discussed at length. Thus, Irish coach Brian Kelly being asked about Wimbush’s spring break should surprise no one.

Rather than find a Florida beach, Wimbush spent his spring break working with private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield in San Diego alongside a handful of other college passers. Kelly said there is value to such a spring break but stopped short of setting any lofty expectations of the effects.

“I have no problem with [Wimbush] working out with George Whitfield,” Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice, the first following spring break and the third of 14 leading into the Blue-Gold Game on April 22. “George doesn’t work on the specifics to the offense. George is really working on the quarterback and throwing the football, moving in the pocket. George is really good at keeping those quarterbacks active and moving.”

Whitfield is best-known around Notre Dame and among Irish fans for working with former Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson during Golson’s academic suspension in 2013. Whitfield and Golson spent 10 weeks together, thus granting time for extensive off-field activities such as film study. Far shorter, Wimbush’s time out west appears to have been spent primarily doing drills.

“In those situations, it’s a bullpen session,” Kelly said. “They’re keeping their arms loose, they’re keeping their feet loose. He’s just keeping them active.”

It is hard to construe that activity as a negative, but it obviously lacks certain aspects crucial to Wimbush’s 2017 season. With only five career pass attempts and seven career rushes, Wimbush’s inexperience looms large. Developing the necessary intangibles to account for that may be just as, if not more, important as fitting his throws into tight windows.

“When it comes to the playbook, to his teammates, to his coaches here, Brandon understands that when the rubber hits the road, those are the guys that matter the most,” Kelly said. “He knows when it’s time for Notre Dame football, where the focus is.”

Included in that playbook will be an expectation for Wimbush to carry the ball. To date, Wimbush’s biggest play and possibly only imprint on most Notre Dame fans’ memories is a 58-yard touchdown scamper against Massachusetts in 2015.

Link to 17-second YouTube video which has unfortunately disabled embedding

Note, the play is not exclusively-designed for Wimbush to run. Now a rising junior, then a fellow freshman, running back Josh Adams comes across Wimbush’s front for a possible handoff. Instead, Wimbush makes the correct read and keeps the ball. Why state so clearly it was the proper read? Adams has to evade a Texas defender even though he never had the ball.

Future option plays should present Wimbush with the possibility of throwing the ball, too.

“He’ll be a runner in the offense,” Kelly said. “Do we want him to carry the ball 20 times? No.”

“I don’t think you’ll have a situation where we’re calling quarterback power or singular runs. He’s going to have options: hand it off, throw the ball out on the perimeter. You’ll see more of that than you will prescribed quarterback runs. We had a little bit more of that last year with Kizer, but I think you’ll see that he has an option to get the ball out of his hands more so than just prescribed runs.”

Those option plays, in particular, will require Wimbush to have a thorough familiarity both with the Notre Dame playbook and with his teammates’ tendencies.

RITA LEE OR 52-53?
Staying consistent with his comments over the last two months, Kelly once again reiterated the biggest changes new offensive coordinator Chip Long will bring to the Irish playbook will be in its wording. Perhaps going to an extreme example to illustrate his thinking, Kelly pointed to the future.

“We’re going to win next year and Chip is going to be the greatest offensive coordinator in the country and he’s going to get a head job, right?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “Then I’m not going to introduce the Chip Long offense to the next offensive coordinator.”

“It has to have my culture in it … The culture of the offense is still the base offense that I have always run because I have to be able to carry that with me from year to year.”

Within that ellipsis, Kelly gave two examples of possible verbiage changes. Without knowing much more behind them, they do not mean too much out here in the cobwebs of the internet, but they do provide a quick glimpse at what Kelly has been referring to when discussing lexicon since hiring Long.

“If he wants to change Ringo Lucky protection to Ram and Lion protection, go right ahead. If he wants to change certain calls, for example, 52-53 protection is now Rita Lee.”

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