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.

Work in weight & film rooms has Hayes ready to meet five-star potential

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Common thinking might give four- and five-star recruits too much credit. They do not all arrive ready to play at the collegiate level on day one. It takes time, conditioning, learning. Perhaps it was that awareness that kept Daelin Hayes from letting his five-star ranking on rivals.com change his expectations. He knew he would have much work ahead of him when he arrived at Notre Dame as the only five-star prospect in the class of 2016.

Now finishing his freshman year, the defensive end notices the effects of his work as he puts in more.

“I remember my first time watching film, I was like, woah,” Hayes said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “I look quicker, like more twitch than I did. I was definitely—it’s hard to put into words—but to actually be able to go back and look at it and see how it affected the game was huge. [Director of football performance Matt] Balis has worked wonders for us.”

Hayes’ improved quickness showed in his three “sacks” in the intrasquad scrimmage. Going against future NFL prospect Mike McGlinchey at left tackle, Hayes faced a stiff challenge throughout spring’s 15 practices, not that he shied away from that task.

“I don’t think it was ever a point where it was overwhelming,” Hayes said. “I’ve always been a competitor. … But you guys know Mike, he’s huge, obviously a first-round talent and whatnot. I’m just grateful to be able to go against somebody like that each and every day. He makes me better. …

“I love competing with the guy. You go and do that with a guy in practice every day, then the game scenario comes, it’s like second nature. You can do this in practice, you can definitely do this against anybody.”

McGlinchey does not seem to mind the matchup, either.

“Daelin is a man who is blessed with a lot of size and athletic ability,” McGlinchey said Friday. “That presents a lot of problems for people in the game of football. He’s so young, and he has so much still to work on, it’s pretty cool to see what he’s capable of and then what he is going to do down the road.”

When Hayes arrived at Notre Dame, still recovering from a high school shoulder injury, he weighed 250 pounds with 18 percent body fat. Now, he said, he still weighs 250—the Irish roster lists him at 255—but is down to 10 percent body fat. It is that kind of change which has created more twitch and makes McGlinchey envision Hayes after more time spent improving in the weight room and the film room.

“I’m not the same athlete that I was when I first came in, not by any means,” Hayes said. “… Buying into that offseason program is going to be huge for our team.”

Per the Blue-Gold Game’s statistics, Hayes ended the scrimmage with seven tackles. Whether skeptical of the recordkeeping within a practice or not, seven tackles in one abbreviated afternoon compares favorably to Hayes’ total of 11 in 12 games last season. Some of that uptick is playing time, some of it is scheme, some of it is realization of the potential highlighted by a five-star ranking. For now, though, Hayes insists he intends to simply learn from last year’s 4-8 disappointment and embrace the changes brought by new Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko.

“With last year being the year that we had, there definitely was a yearning for change,” Hayes said. “When you have basically a reboot of the program, the guys are hungry and they don’t want to have to experience the same season as last year.

“Just continue to trust in that process. We’re hungry for something to cling on and buy into. When coach Elko, coach Balis, everybody came in as part of that reboot, I think we welcomed with open arms. [We’ll] continue to buy into the system and become more comfortable within the system.”

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?