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Pregame Twelve Pack: Big Apple edition

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It’s Friday, so that means another Pregame Twelve Pack, this one a special Yankee Stadium edition. Here’s twelve fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as the Irish prepare to play Army at Yankee Stadium in primetime on NBC.

1. If a picture is worth a thousand words, the New York Times just spotted us eight thousand.

I’m a sucker for history, so if you are too, head over to the New York Times‘ website for a great photo gallery from the historic clashes between Notre Dame and Army in Yankee Stadium.

While we mentioned the 1946 Game of the Century earlier in the week, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the wonderful column that ESPN‘s Ivan Maisel wrote about the Army vs. Notre Dame games of the 1930s and 40s. Maisel writes that the Army/Notre Dame rivalry had become so heated after the 1946 game that the Army had to call off the game to save the military’s reputation.

Here’s a snippet, describing why Army walked away from its biggest rival:

Notre Dame won 14 of those 22 games in Yankee Stadium. Army won five. Three finished in a tie. Through it all, the teams thrust and parried for supremacy on the field and among the fans. Army commanded national respect. After all, it was the United States Military Academy.

“West Point always has regarded its football team as representative of the service, the country, the people,” wrote longtime Army coach Earl “Red” Blaik in “You Have To Pay The Price,” his 1960 autobiography. “We were received that way wherever we played, with one exception: the Notre Dame game in Yankee Stadium.”

Notre Dame had the urban working class, the Catholic sons and daughters of immigrants looking for a beachhead in a sport long dominated by Ivy League schools that excluded people whose name ended in a vowel…

The academy made an announcement late in the year that the 1947 game would be the last. Perhaps to soothe the separation, Army made its first trip to Notre Dame Stadium. The Irish won, 27-7.

“The game was generating a form of psychological hate detrimental to the best interests of the United States Army,” Blaik wrote. “The Army could hardly tolerate a condition that bred such ill will for the service and the Military Academy.”

Imagine the Red Sox announcing that they didn’t want to play the Yankees anymore.

“The decision was wildly unpopular,” Blaik said. “The animosity that descended on us was heavy and it lingered for at least three years. … I am as certain today, as I was then, that the break was a good thing. By coming when it did, it prevented a longer and more serious rift.”

While many people are talking about the (potentially unsafe) transformation of Wrigley Field for Northwestern vs. Illinois this weekend, the 50th meeting of these two proud schools adds an element that not many rivalries can touch.

2. The primetime game will have the attention of some of Notre Dame’s most prized recruits.

A primetime stage in one of sports most revered venues offers Brian Kelly and his coaching staff the opportunity to impress quite a few potential recruits. They’ll do that on Saturday night with three top targets in attendance at Yankee Stadium.

No recruit draws the adoration of Irish fans quite like Brooklyn defensive end Ishaq Williams, a freakish athlete that has the size and speed to be a terror off the edge in Bob Diaco’s 3-4 defense. While rumors have been flying of a potential commitment from Williams to the Irish, they’ve been refuted by those close to the star defender. Still, the Irish are in great shape, hanging in the race for the nation recruit far longer than many thought possible, and Williams will be there watching the Irish battle Army.

Also in attendance is Jersey City’s Savon Huggins, who would be a great addition to the running back depth chart with the loss of Armando Allen and Robert Hughes. Brian Kelly came out and watched Huggins play while the Irish were in town to play Navy and Huggins is returning the favor this weekend in the Bronx.

IrishSportsDaily.com also reports that Miles Shuler will be at the game. Shuler isn’t a name that Irish fans have talked a lot about recently, but he’s got offers from Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, and Stanford, and has the Irish in his top seven schools. Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco recruits New Jersey, where Shuler is from, and I’m guessing Shuler could look really good out on an island in coverage or using his elite speed on the edge of the offense as well.

3. What’s the difference between Army and Navy? Well, their schedules for one thing.

Only one win separates seven win Navy from six win Army. Both have a top ten rushing attack with Navy rushing for just over 300 yards a game and the Black Knights putting up 280 a game. But a closer look at the way Army got to their bowl eligibility shows were the two teams likely separate.

Jeff Sagarin, USA Today’s statistical guru ranks Army’s schedule as the 118th toughest in college football, virtually the bottom of the barrel. The most impressive win on the Army schedule came during week four when they beat Duke 35-21. The Knights hung with Hawaii, Temple, and Rutgers, but lost big to Air Force before recovering to route Sagarin’s 121st ranked team, Kent State.

Take nothing away from Rich Ellerson’s Army team, which is transitioning to the option attack and ahead of schedule on its way back to respectability, but Army hasn’t beaten anyone yet. If Army can win their last two games against Notre Dame and then Navy, Ellerson’s name should be up for every national coaching award (not to mention on a few big college’s short list).

4. Notre Dame vs. Army, it all began on a baseball diamond.

While there isn’t any dirt left on the diamond thanks to a miraculous transformation, the rivalry between the Irish and the Black Knights began on a baseball field back in 1913. I’ll let Jim Lefebvre of Forever Irish take over.

It is ironic, yet fitting, that this great football spectacle was for so long contested in the crown jewel of the nation’s baseball parks, Yankee Stadium. That’s because it was baseball that first brought the two schools together. In January, 1913, Army agreed to host Notre Dame during ND’s spring trip. On May 24 at West Point, Army defeated Notre Dame, 3-0, and a rivalry began.

Also that spring, the leaders of athletics at West Point were scrambling to fill an opening on their football schedule. Army sent numerous letters of inquiry to schools in the East and eventually the Midwest. It initially offered Notre Dame $600 to cover expenses for the trip, and after some haggling, upped the offer to $1,000.

That was barely enough to send 18 players and two coaches via railroad from South Bend to New York. It was said the team brought sandwiches made on the Notre Dame campus, and traveled with just 14 pairs of cleats.

At West Point on the afternoon of Nov. 1, 1913, the 3,000 spectators who had gathered to watch the parade of the Corps of Cadets and then filled the Cullum Field Hall bleachers, were looking forward to a match of power football. Notre Dame had romped through its first three opponent by a combined score of 169-7. Army was also undefeated.

Knute Rockne, the Irish end and captain, is limping late in the first quarter. But on the next play, he streaks downfield, and quarterback Gus Dorais lofts a long pass over the heads of the defenders. Rockne catches it in stride and races to the end zone. Before the afternoon was done, the Irish completed 14 of 17 passes for 243 yards – numbers unheard of at at the time. The final: Notre Dame 35, Army 13.

Witnesses marvel at the display. “I’ve always believed such playing possible under the new rules,” said Bill Roper, the Princeton coach and the game’s umpire. “But never have I seen the forward pass used to such perfection.”

There’s plenty of rich historical tidbits at Lefebvre’s website, and it’s worth reading more at Forever Irish.

5. The Irish running backs are all battling it out.

The Irish are still looking for their first 100-yard rusher of the season, but Jonas Gray is pushing for a chance to be the first one to get there, breaking out for 44 yards on just three carries after battling back from some injuries. Running backs coach Tim Hinton thinks that Gray will see more of the field this weekend.

“I’m sure he’ll get more reps this week,” Hinton said earlier this week. “We’ve wanted to get him in the game all year, but to be honest with you, he just wasn’t back up to speed. Until he got back up to speed, we didn’t want to put him in. It was nice to see him get an explosive run. He actually had two very good runs. Hopefully, we’ll just continue to put him in the lineup and go.”

Battling Gray is senior Robert Hughes who could be a gigantic matchup problem for the undersized Army defense as well the Irish’s #1 running back, sophomore (or redshirt freshman) Cierre Wood, who head coach Brian Kelly has been pleased with as he continues to mature.

“He’s getting so much better. Just his ability to go out there and compete every snap,” Kelly said. “It requires a concentration level he’s never had to have before. He’s been sitting there watching or just taking some reps, now he’s in there and got to be locked in, and that matures somebody.”

Kelly’s aware that the offense hasn’t put up a 100 yard rusher yet, and if the Irish offensive line can build off the game they played last week, that could change on Saturday night.

“I’m pleased with our ability to pick and choose when we need to run the football,” Kelly said. “We’ve got to do it on a more consistent basis.”

6. With big opponents on the horizon, Notre Dame isn’t the only team looking at a trap game.
With tomorrow night’s game giving the Irish a chance to be bowl eligible, it’s unlikely the Irish will overlook a more-than-able Army squad. But still, it’s hard not to think ahead to next weekend’s showdown with USC as a true check of how the Irish have developed under Kelly and his coaching staff in year one.
But surprisingly enough, Irish fans aren’t the only people worried that their squad may be overlooking this weekend’s opponent to begin prepping for their next opponent. Army coach Rich Ellerson was asked whether the Black Knights are potentially looking past the Irish to get prepped for arch-rival Navy.
“No. The guys will be excited to play,” Ellerson said about the Irish. “We’ll have all kinds of challenges on Saturday and that won’t be one of them. I think having that sixth win on the shelf and in place, we’re done patting ourselves on the back. That’s nice to have, we’ve turned a corner but we’re not looking back at the corner we just turned. We’re looking ahead at the next opportunity, the next challenge. Our guys won’t have a hard time with that. They’re looking forward to it.”
I never thought this could be a storyline, but perhaps the Irish will catch Army sleeping on Saturday night.
7. A closer look at bowl game match-ups stresses the importance of winning out.
It’s kind of an obvious point, but winning games is awfully important for the Irish as they push toward the postseason. Winning one game is mandatory, but it doesn’t necessarily open up all that many opportunities for the Irish.
Double-dipping at both the Bleacher Report and his blog We Never Graduate, Matt Mattare took a look at the five most intriguing bowl matchups for Notre Dame this postseason, with one option not so red hot for the Irish:
5. Notre Dame vs. Utah in the Maaco Las Vegas Bowl — Dec. 22, Las Vegas, NV
4. Notre Dame vs. MAC Champ in Little Caesar’s Bowl — Dec. 26, Detroit, MI
3. Notre Dame vs. Nevada in Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl — Jan 9, San Francisco, CA
2. Notre Dame vs. Boise State/TCU (Kraft/Vegas)
1. Notre Dame vs. ACC No. 2 in Champs Sports Bowl — Dec. 28, Orlando, FL
Matt did a good job of breaking down the likelihood of these match-ups, so if you’re one of those football fans that love guessing what bowl game your favorite team might end up in instead of waiting a few weeks, this article will be right up your alley.
8. Robby Toma: From forgotten man to starting wide receiver.
It’s quite amazing to consider that a wide receiver largely considered a throw-in to the Manti Te’o scholarship offer is now starting at Z wide receiver, one of the most important positions in Brian Kelly’s offense. But Robby Toma is hardly your average wide receiver.
Thanks to some injuries and the transfer of Shaq Evans, Toma finds himself in the starting lineup at Yankee Stadium on Saturday night, with TJ Jones still not 100 percent after getting banged up in practice last week.
“TJ practiced again today, but he’s not going with the first unit,” Kelly said. “Robby is still going with the first unit and my expectations are that’s how it would end up on Saturday, that Robby would continue to start at the Z and TJ would back him up.”
I think if you took a poll among diehard Irish fans and asked them who leads Notre Dame in yards per catch, not many would pick the 5-foot-9 (and that’s a gift) Hawaiian that weighs 175-pounds. But there’s Toma and his 13.6 yard average sitting atop the stat-sheet for the Irish. Prediction: Toma scores his first touchdown for the Irish tomorrow.
9. How the Irish handle the option will determine if whether or not Notre Dame wins the game.
With Army’s ability to run the football and Kelly admitting that Notre Dame isn’t able to win a football game with their offense, possessions are going to be at a premium and stops by the defense will be extremely important. The only way the Irish can get a stop is to get a grasp on the triple-option, something they couldn’t do against Navy.
The coaching staff was incredibly quiet on the strategy they’d take to stop the option, but if you listened carefully, Kelly gave the closest thing to intel away with a quick comment:
“They have to defend the arc and they’ve got to be able to play QB-to-pitch for most points, unless you move the point and change things up, which obviously we’re going to do a lot of,” Kelly said of his edge defenders. “When you really break it down, it’s their ability to defend. Take on a block, shed it and ether get to dive, QB or pitch.”
For those of you reading closely, I think this means we won’t see Manti Te’o chasing the quarterback down the line like you saw against Navy. Diaco’s gameplan against the Midshipmen seemed intent on protecting the outside linebackers, a strategy that obviously backfired.
I’m on the record for how I think the Irish will play the option, but if Kelly just gave us a hint, expect to hear from guys like Brian Smith, Kerry Neal, Darius Fleming, Prince Shembo and possibly Steve Filer.
10. The Class of 2007… What could’ve been.
The guys at One Foot Down examined the 2007 recruiting class, a group headlined by Jimmy Clausen that was supposed to be one of the best in the country. Instead, the 2007 class is looking at an ugly distinction, going down as one of the losing-est in Irish football history.
Let’s take a bullet-point look at the class and see how they ended up.
Armando Allen — Multi-year starter. Injuries hampered his ceiling.
Jimmy Clausen — Left after three years. Would’ve walked out ND’s leading passer.
Taylor Dever — Starting tackle, has another year of eligibility remaining.
Gary Gray — Playing his best football. Sat out season for personal reasons, returning for 5th year.
Robert Hughes — Bruising back not a great fit in Kelly offense.
Duval Kamara — Started strong, before losing time to Floyd and Tate.
Kerry Neal — System changes hurt development. Average season as starting OLB.
Aaron Nagel — Transferred to Northwestern. Now a fullback.
Andrew Nuss — Playing behind Chris Stewart at guard.
Emeka Nwankwo — Forgotten man finding time in a thin DE rotation.
Steve Paskorz — Linebacker turned fullback and back again is injured and likely done at ND.
Mike Ragone — Between injuries and self-inflicted mistakes, Ragone hasn’t hit potential.
Matt Romine — Highly touted tackle that didn’t live up to hype.
Brian Smith — A roller coaster career could go out on a high.
Harrison Smith — Jerked between OLB and FS, finally developing at proper position.
Golden Tate — Left early after winning Biletnikoff. One of best players in college football.
Brandon Walker — Kicker who battled injuries and couldn’t get off bench.
Ian Williams — Played for four season on the interior of the defense.
OFD answers the question “What went wrong with this class?” His take:
1) Terrible depth provided by Ty. 2) Terrible development by CW. 3) No veteran leadership.
All in all, good insight. This class would look much different if Weis used redshirts better and a Golden and Jimmy decided to stay.
11) Notre Dame and Army competed for the same recruit. (Kinda…)
You wouldn’t think that Army coach Rich Ellerson and Brian Kelly see each other too often on the recruiting trail. But Ellerson tells the story of a battle between the Black Knights and the Irish were Army came out on top for a player.
“We have a guy in this class, that’s a freshman right now, who we think is going to be a really good player, it was us and Notre Dame,” Ellerson said earlier this week. “The deal was, could he walk-on at Notre Dame? If he could walk-on at Notre Dame, he was going to Notre Dame, but they didn’t have a spot for him in the 105 and we got him, and we think he’s going to be wonderful. That’s still the pecking order in the recruiting world.”
Ellerson has had his fair share of run-ins with the Irish recruiting, and they certainly all didn’t end this way.
“Once upon a time when we were at Arizona, we had a great year in the early ‘90s and we had gone to the Fiesta Bowl and we were a top-five team,” Ellerson said. “We said this was a breakthrough for us, now we can recruit with those guys. There were nine guys that year that we were recruiting that Notre Dame was recruiting – all nine of them went to Notre Dame, nothing had changed. That is the gold standard, that’s brand name, Notre Dame is brand name.”

People will mistakenly interpret this as meaning Notre Dame’s walk-ons should be able to beat Army, but that’s just not the way college football is anymore. Still, it gives you an idea of the type of player that Ellerson and the other service academy coaches look for when they’re out on the recruiting trail.

12. For all those Irish fans that are yearning for a jumbotron, enjoy the evening.
While I’ll forever push to remove the natural grass in Notre Dame Stadium and put in field-turf, I’m still anti-Jumbotron. But tomorrow evening at Yankee Stadium, Irish fans will be treated to instant replay, moving images, and the ability to play a semi-home game with a working video board.

The Jumbotron won’t be the only thing that makes this Saturday a little different from the rest. While Notre Dame has plenty of hallowed monuments around campus, Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park will be open from 4:00 p.m. until 7:15 p.m. Saturday night, from the opening of the stadium until kickoff for those that want to take in a piece of Yankee history while watching some football.

It’s an incredible weekend that gets started with plenty of pageantry in the Big Apple, before the focus turns to football. While the same was true last week, there’s no game more important for the Irish than the one in front of them. What Notre Dame team shows up? We’ll have to find out Saturday night at 7 p.m.

Spring positions to watch for revelations: DL & WR

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 05: Jerry Tillery #99 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish tackles Jerrod Heard #13 of the Texas Longhorns for a loss of yards during the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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If quarterback, rover and the early enrollees could be Notre Dame fans’ springtime Christmas thrills, what positions present as potential spots of coal?

Three former Irish players were invited to next week’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis: quarterback DeShone Kizer, defensive tackle Jarron Jones and defensive end Isaac Rochell. Losing two consistent defensive linemen leaves this year’s unit with some questions. Jones and Rochell combined for 100 tackles, 18 for loss and three sacks last season. Notre Dame’s returning defensive linemen combined to total 111 tackles and only 5.5 tackles for loss. To be clear, sacks are not included in that latter list because no returning defensive linemen recorded one. Among the returnees, junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37 tackles, three for loss) and senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26, 0.5) contributed solidly alongside the two NFL prospects.

This dearth of known and reliable linemen is a large part of why the potential transfer of Clemson graduate defensive tackle Scott Pagano is so intriguing. Pagano would immediately be a favorite to start, and if not that, at least rotate in heavily.

For now, though, Pagano remains a theoretical

By the end of spring practice, who already on campus will emerge alongside Tillery and Trumbetti in the Irish front? Senior ends Jay Hayes (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) and Jonathon Bonner (nine tackles) seem the most-likely candidates … aside from former four-star recruit and now rising sophomore Daelin Hayes. In his debut season, D. Hayes finished with 11 tackles.

Look for senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) to establish himself as Tillery’s immediate backup this spring, but that spot in the rotation will be up for competition all over again once four-star tackle Darnell Ewell (Lake Taylor High School; Norfolk, Va.) arrives on campus in the fall. His size and quickness should play right into new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s system.

Equanimeous and Who?
Not only did Notre Dame bring in a graduate transfer at receiver in former Michigan wideout Freddy Canteen, but it has also already received the commitments of two four-star receivers in the 2018 recruiting class. The continued emphasis on the position reflects the lack of bona fide game-breakers currently on the roster.

Junior Equanimeous St. Brown established himself as the top Irish threat in 2016, and he should shine only further with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush targeting him. Classmates often amplify each other’s success, simply due to the added shared reps innate to joining practice at the same time. With Torii Hunter, Jr., now pursuing a professional baseball career, who will prevent the secondary from focusing all its energies on St. Brown?

Canteen will not be with Notre Dame in the spring, as he does not graduate from Michigan until April. That will give a clear shot for the likes of juniors Chris Finke, C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin, and sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool to establish themselves. Did that say “clear” shot? It should probably read, “a chance to separate from the crowd.”

If a genuine threat does not line up opposite St. Brown, his explosiveness will likely be greatly reduced by focused defensive scheming. Wimbush will need another target before 2018.

Of course, here is where one should acknowledge the millennia-tested fact: Coal under pressure becomes diamonds.

2016 Notre Dame’s win expectancy was 7.2
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Johnson named the Irish as his team most likely to dramatically improve its record in 2017. Johnson’s thinking is based, at least in part, on Notre Dame’s second-order win total having been 7.2 in 2016, compared to the four wins the Irish actually walked away with. That discrepancy was the largest in the country.

Second-order win totals reflect how many points a team should have scored and allowed based on offensive and defensive stats. In theory, this shines a light on how luck and chance factored into results. Naturally, losing seven games by one possession will often be reflected by a higher second-order win total.

“Notre Dame’s win-loss record belied a solid, if imperfect, squad that just couldn’t pull out close games…” Johnson writes. “The Irish may not get back into College Football Playoff contention in 2017, but they’re bound to post a few more Ws because of reversion to the mean.”

Admittedly, the small sample size of a football season reduces the applicability of metrics such as second- and third-order wins when compared to baseball and basketball.

Jones becomes Mack
A quick piece of housekeeping: Apparently junior tight end Alizé Jones has changed his name to Alizé Mack.

While Notre Dame’s roster may not reflect that change yet, it is reasonable to expect it will after its next update. The football program has consistently respected the intricacies of players’ name preferences. Tai-ler Jones becoming TJ Jones jumps to mind, for example.

Anyways, hopefully noting Mack’s name change here might reduce some confusion down the line. Probably not. How many readers possibly read to the actual bottom of an article? But hey, in good faith.

WR Lenzy makes 11th commitment, brings speed to Irish

lenzy
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At what point does an impressive recruiting roll become something more? When does it become a harbinger of things to come, even if not for a few seasons? How many notable commitments in a row establishes a class as special?

If the answer to any of the above is 11 commitments by the end of February, including five within two weeks, then Notre Dame is there following consensus four-star athlete Braden Lenzy’s announcement Thursday evening.

The Tigard High School (Portland, Ore) receiver/cornerback chose the Irish over offers from USC, Oregon and Michigan State, among a litany of others. In all, nine Pac-12 schools chased Lenzy—and a 10th, Washington, had shown interest—per rivals.com.

Lenzy will fit the leading 2018 need voiced by Irish coach Brian Kelly three weeks ago on National Signing Day 2017.

“Elite speed on offense will be a primary goal for us,” Kelly said Feb. 1. “Guys that can change the game on one possession. I think we’ll see that… We want a couple of home run hitters. We don’t care if they’re Darren Sproles’s size. We’re going to come off the board in terms of profile. We want some guys that can change the game on offense with elite speed.”

At 6-foot, 175 pounds, Lenzy is taller than Sproles’s 5-foot-6, but it is still his speed that drew Notre Dame’s interest.

“They made it clear they want me to do kickoff return and use me as a deep threat across the field,” he told Irish Illustrated. “Just being kind of an athlete, similar to what I’ve been doing already in high school, just on a bigger scale with a quarterback that can throw it a lot farther.”

Presuming Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush is that arm in 2018, throwing great distances should not be an issue. Between Lenzy and fellow 2018 commit Micah Jones, covering those distances should be a reasonable request, as well.

Lenzy brings Notre Dame’s class of 2018 to 11, including eight four-stars according to Rivals’ rating system. Current scholarship projections indicate the class will not be a large one, meaning the Irish coaching staff has already garnered the commitments of more than half the class. Once again, though, Kelly’s sentiment regarding recruiting timing should be remembered.

“We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

SWARBRICK’S TAKE ON RECRUITING
Kelly credited Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick with much assistance in securing the country’s No. 13 recruiting class in 2017. A refresher on those comments:

“In a lot of instances, [Swarbrick] had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it’s going,” Kelly said. “There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future.”

Swarbrick did not dispute the factual nature of any of that in an interview with the Indianapolis Star, but he did contest the need for praising what he saw as part of his job, one of the preferred parts of his job, at that.

“I can’t say anything about this year felt all that different,” Swarbrick told Star reporter Laken Litman. “Some asked questions about the future of the program and can we compete for a national championship. And I would talk about the elements of the program we were focused on improving.”

Swarbrick and Litman discussed a number of items in the second-half of the interview released by the Star, including Notre Dame’s facilities, a possible early signing period in football and if the Oct. 8, 2016, game against North Carolina State should have been played. Spoiler: No. Then why was it? Go check it out.

Swarbrick also told Litman he likes to write in his free time.

“I tend to think strategically with a pen in my hand.” Swarbrick added he is currently scribbling away on where he thinks college athletics are headed.

This scribe, for one, would be most interested in skimming those legal pads.

Will Wimbush, Elko and the early enrollees surprise in spring practice?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Exactly 59 days from today, the Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Sure, they will be playing against themselves, but nonetheless, it will be somewhat-competitive football played in gold helmets.

For timing context, exactly 59 days ago, you looked beneath the Christmas tree to learn if Santa Claus left you season tickets, socks or coal. I got socks. They had some of that extra cushioning, so I considered them a suitable treat.

Whether you care about my argyles or not (you don’t), for many the Blue-Gold Game and Christmas morning hold similar excitement. That fact is apparently why Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick does not concern himself when groups of alumni publicly lament his decisions, or lack thereof.

“I never worry about that,” Swarbirck told the Indianapolis Star in an exclusive interview you really should read. Go on, click the link, it will open in a new tab. You can come right back here when you are done.

“The hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion in your program. If that sort of stuff bothers you, you can’t be the athletic director, head coach or the quarterback at Notre Dame.”

That very passion will undoubtedly lead to frame-by-frame discussions of video snippets from spring practice, parsing of each and every word Irish coach Brian Kelly says in quick interviews after those practices, and extreme pessimism and optimism about the 2017 season.

In the Christmas spirit, what toys could bring the must excitement during the spring unwrapping? Personally, the gift I was unsure of always brought the most joy. I would rather open an unexpected book than know about a charcoal-gray suit. In other words, at least for today, let’s look past the offensive line, the running backs and the inside linebackers. Instead, let’s look forward to learning about… (more…)

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Karlos Williams #9 of the Florida State Seminoles scores the touchdown that would win the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their game at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.

With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.

The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.

Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.

Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.

If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.

Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order: (more…)