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

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.”

RELATED READING:
Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover position, others likely to follow
2 Days Until Spring Practice: A look at the defensive backfield

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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