And in that corner… The Southern California Trojans

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Can you believe this is it for the 2010 Irish football regular season? In many ways it feels like the Charlie Weis era is so far behind us with all that’s transpired, but it feels like Year One of the Brian Kelly era has just begun.

We’ll have one more game after this Saturday to discuss, but there are none more important than the date that’s been circled on the Irish calendar since Jimmy Clausen’s pass hit the grass at Notre Dame Stadium after Duval Kamara slipped on his out cut. With that, the Trojans withstood the Irish’s furious comeback led by Clausen and Golden Tate and Pete Carroll’s Trojans snuck out of South Bend with another win, seemingly on track for another Pac-10 championship.

When you consider all of that’s happened last October, so much has changed for both programs. While we were tempted to get into all that’s changed at Heritage Hall, it’s probably best we stick with the football. For the first time since Frank Leahy and Sam Berry met in 1941, both the Irish and the Trojans will have first year head coaches on their sidelines. While I’ve lived in the heart of Trojan territory for the past six years, I thought it wise to defer to an expert on what’s gone on with the Trojans in their first year under Lane Kiffin.

Enter Dan Weber, who covers the Trojan beat for USCFootball.com. Weber is a native of Northern Kentucky, a graduate of St. Xavier High school in Cincinnati and counts jobs as a sports information director at Northern Kentucky University and Xavier as well as writing gigs at the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Riverside Press-Enterprise as lines on his impressive resume. Dan was kind enough to take some time and answer some questions for me in advance of Saturday night’s game between the Irish and the Trojans.

I asked, he answered. Enjoy.

1. Assess the season so far. Seven wins, four losses, two really bad ones (Washington, Oregon State). Obviously, this season came under rather bizarre circumstances, but what do you make of the Trojans after 11 games of Lane Kiffin?

So far, some good, some not so for this USC team this season. Transition seasons are often difficult for no other reason than they’re transition seasons. The adjustment to a new staff is almost never easy. Whoever came in after Pete Carroll was going to face a challenge which Lane Kiffin has handled extremely well.

Discipline, academics, and morale for much of the season has been improved over last year despite all the hard knocks these kids have had to take that were absolutely no fault of their own. Losing two games on the last play could have knocked this team back for good but it didn’t. But that’s not to say there’s an excuse for the Washington loss. There’s not. That was an awful effort all the way around.

The Stanford loss is another question with USC being cheated by an incorrect clock operation at the end of the game that stole 30-35 seconds and left three seconds on the clock for Stanford to kick a game-winning field goal in a game USC outplayed the Cardinal. The Pac-10 assures us that secret measures have been taken since that game to prevent another similar occurrence.

No way to excuse USC’s third straight loss in Corvallis. After beating a ranked Arizona team on the road, USC wasn’t mentally ready at all for Oregon State and was embarrassed for the third time in two seasons by an opponent able to run the score up on a hapless Trojans team that pretty much didn’t attempt to compete.

What USC has done is not allow the fact that its opportunity to play for a bowl game and a Pac-10 title was taken away. Or the fact that the NCAA allowed upperclassmen to transfer without penalty at any time in an unprecedented ruling. The players have pretty much hung in there with the program and the new coach. It’s been inspiring what the seniors have done even though their careers haven’t turned out the way they thought they would.

2. What has surprised you the most about this year? With the talent returning, did you expect any facet of the team to perform better?

Obviously the defense has been a disappointment, especially the pass defense. Linebackers might have been expected to fall off as heart ailments knocked out two of the second year players and USC lost four players two years ago to starting spots as NFL rookie linebackers. You don’t replace numbers and talent like that.

And all four secondary starters also graduated so USC was starting anew there. And the lack of experience and difficulty in adjusting to Monte Kiffin’s schemes have been obvious as USC is 114th in NCAA pass defense this week allowing 272 yards a game.

The tackling and pursuit angles have suffered because USC hasn’t been able to tackle live in practice all season. Having just 51 or 52 scholarship players available for some games will do that to a team.

3. The Notre Dame/Southern Cal rivalry has been one of extremes, with long winning streaks for both teams dominating the past few decades. With Pete Carroll and Charlie Weis gone, do you expect things to even out?

Whether the rivalry evens out, it would seem, depends on Notre Dame, I’d imagine. Even the unprecedented sanctions, the two-year bowl ban and loss of 30 scholarships over three seasons, a penalty of unprecedented severity and without any historical basis that the NCAA Committee on Infractions including Notre Dame deputy AD Missy Conboy inflicted on USC** probably won’t completely even things out unless the Irish improve.

**Editor’s Note: We expanded on this subject, but Dan thought it better to remove it from our Q&A. I agreed.

4. Are you impressed with the job Brian Kelly’s done, especially considering the injuries (starting QB, TE, 2 WRs, MLB, DT, FS) and off-the-field tragedies he’s had to deal with?

The way Notre Dame has bounced back the last two weeks is impressive. The Irish suffered some tough early losses as well as the off-the-field tragedies and seem like they still want to compete and that has to please fans of this series. No one wants to see either of these teams so far down that the rivalry is diminished. As a Cincinnati native who always paid attention to the program, I was well aware of the job Kelly did there and a strong believer in his ability to put together a winning program at Notre Dame.

5. Back to the game. It looks like Mitch Mustain has a chance to form a pretty compelling two-game legacy for the Trojans. What are the keys to a Trojan victory on Saturday? Can USC bounce back after last week’s demoralizing loss?
Mitch Mustain does have the opportunity to become a USC legend in two games for staying, and winning, the archrival games for USC when he easily could have left. And it could maybe only happen at USC since the Trojans are the only program in the country with two major and almost equal archrivals in Notre Dame and UCLA. No one else has two archrivals like that and gets to play them in back-to-back weeks. And if Mitch can get it together, and USC can, it’s there for him. I think USC can get its act together this week — but then I thought it could last week, as well. Shows how much I know.

6. Gut Feeling?

Gut feeling? I think they’ll bounce back. Notre Dame may not have quite as much talent as Oregon State but it’s close. So USC’s players have to know what could happen if they don’t show up ready to play.

*****

Read more of Dan’s coverage of the big game all week at USCFootball.com

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