Pregame Twelve Pack: A Trojan finale

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We’re already here. The regular season finale is upon us as the Irish prepare to face off with their nemesis, the USC Trojans. As always, here are twelve fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as the Irish prepare to play USC at the Coliseum in primetime.

1. After two seasons on the shelf, Michael Floyd makes his debut against the Trojans.

Many Irish fans are worried that junior wide receiver Mike Floyd’s career will end after just three seasons, meaning this could be the only time Floyd hits the field against the rival Trojans. The previous two seasons Floyd missed the game, a knee injury holding him out of the 2008 game and a broken collarbone keeping Mike on the sideline last season.

While Floyd says he hasn’t made any decisions on next season, it’s clear this game means something to him.

“I’m really excited,” Floyd said. “My first time playing SC. This is one of the reasons you go to Notre Dame. It’s kind of like starting a whole new tradition. New coaches and stuff like that. Kind of start our own history. We’re all excited. It’s a big rivalry, SC-Notre Dame and we’re up for it.”

If there’s ever a time for Floyd to make a statement in the biggest rivalry game of the season for the Irish, this is it.

2. This is not the Trojan defense of old.

Maybe the best thing on Lane Kiffin’s coaching resume is his father Monte, who followed Kiffin from Tennessee to USC after spending the majority of his career in the NFL as one of the best defensive minds in all of football.

Both the elder Kiffin and defensive coordinator Ed Orgeron run a defense that’s astounding full of star power, with nearly every player in their two-deep having a four-star rating, and those that don’t are almost as likely to have five stars than three.

But the defense is a shell of the ones put together under former coach Pete Carroll, and the Trojans rank an astoundingly mediocre 92nd in total defense in the country. (92nd. Right between Wyoming and Idaho. The Irish rank 55th.)

There are only six teams in the country doing a worse job stopping the pass than USC, most likely a testament to the two healthy scholarship cornerbacks that the Trojans have at their disposal. The Trojan run defense is middle of the road, so there’s very good reason to believe that Notre Dame should be able to move the ball, even with Tommy Rees playing in hostile territory for the first time in his career.

3. Another plus for the Irish? It’s looking less and less likely that Matt Barkley will play.

On Wednesday, Lane Kiffin went on the Dan Patrick show and reported that starting quarterback Matt Barkley has been held out of practice this week with a high ankle sprain, an injury suffered last week that would make playing on Saturday incredibly unlikely.

“Matt didn’t practice yesterday,” Kiffin said. “Mitch Mustain took all the snaps yesterday. We have great confidence in Mitch.”

The news from Wednesday’s practice was even more predictable, with Kiffin calling Mustain’s work in practice “Phenomenal. the best we’ve seen him since he’s been here.”

Meanwhile Barkley still hasn’t practiced, but no longer is in a walking boot.

“It’s improving every day, which is great,” Barkley said. “It’s still a day-to-day thing. I’m definitely above 50 percent.”

Barkley was one of many quarterbacks to have a career day against the Irish last season, but he’s struggled the past few weeks after getting out of the gate quickly. The Irish may get a break if he’s unable to go on Saturday night.

4. That said, Mitch Mustain is no slouch either.

Before there was hotshot, uber-recruit Matt Barkley, there was hotshot, uber-recruit Mitch Mustain, who signed with Arkansas after then head coach Houston Nutt made the nearly unprecedented move of hiring Mustain’s high school coach Gus Malzahn as his offensive coordinator. While Malzahn has become a star at the collegiate ranks, Mustain has fallen flat.

The consensus high school National Player of the Year took the reins of the Arkansas offense immediately, leading the Hogs to a freshman record eight straight wins before losing playing time before the SEC Championship game.

From there, Mustain’s relationship with Nutt and Arkansas soured in bizarre fashion, including Mustain’s family making an open records request for Nutt’s cell phone records that revealed a personal relationship between the head coach and a local female news reporter. With bridges burned in his home state, Mustain transferred to USC, where he has yet to win the starting job.

Now Mustain’s final two games as a Trojan might be two of the biggest starts of the season. And the senior quarterback is ready.

“There was always a chance it would never happen, but I’ve always looked forward to the chance, however slim it may be,” Mustain said this week. “It’s what I’ve been practicing for, and it’s why I stuck around this year. I’m ready to go.”

Mustain always has Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel to look at for inspiration, who spent his career at USC as a backup to Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart before being plucked out of obscurity by the Patriots and signing a monster contract with Kansas City.

5. Time to rise to the occasion, Tommy Rees.

If Notre Dame wants to end their losing streak against the Trojans, it’ll happen because Tommy Rees doesn’t get swept up in the moment.

A lot has been made about Rees’ entrance into college football — games at Notre Dame Stadium, Yankee Stadium and now the Coliseum. But this will be the first time Rees faces anything resembling a hostile crowd, and the freshman will need to keep his composure early for the Irish to have a chance. Kelly’s comments before the Army game likely still apply to Rees’ first true road start.

“We’ll try to give him some more opportunities within what I believe are is strengths,” Kelly said then. “He distributes very well, his ball placement, it’s all now about what he sees and how he reacts.”

Rees spent some of his youth in California, where his father spent fourteen years working in the football department for UCLA and his brother Danny Rees is a senior holder for the Bruins, making Tommy familiar with the crosstown Trojans. While he won’t face a linebacking corp with guys like Clay Matthews, Brian Cushing, and Rey Maualuga, he will face the fastest, most talented unit he’s seen, so keeping turnovers down will be imperative.

6. Can the Irish defense stop USC’s passing game?

At the beginning of the year, would anyone have thought the Irish would’ve given up just one less passing touchdown than Alabama? The Irish rank 8th in the country in limiting passing touchdowns with only nine conceded, only two behind the national leaders and ahead of teams like TCU and Nebraska.

The improvement the passing defense has shown is a testament to the improvement of the defensive backs under secondary coach Chuck Martin and the ability for the Irish to get after the passer better, ranking 29th in the country with 26 sacks, already a six sack improvement over last year’s unit that finished with just 20.

It’s been 11 consecutive quarters for the Irish defense without giving up a touchdown, the longest streak since 1981, and done against three teams that average about five touchdowns a game. The Irish have to come into Saturday’s game feeling very good about their defensive chances.

7. The star-crossed path of Dillon Baxter brings him back to the gridiron on Saturday.

Highly touted running back Dillon Baxter became a YouTube sensation for some fancy running during spring drills last year. Since then, he’s been mostly a headache for Southern Cal.

“It’s been an up-and-down season with him in general,” Lane Kiffin said diplomatically this week.

Baxter was suspended for the season opening game against Hawaii for what was largely reported as a on-campus incident that involved marijuana. He’s suffered injuries that have hurt his ability to push for playing time, and has gotten over 10 carries in a game just twice, gaining 75 yards on 14 carries against lowly Washington State in his best game as a Trojan. Almost surprisingly, Baxter’s longest play from scrimmage has been 17 yards, with a run against Virginia in his first collegiate game matched by a reception against Minnesota the week after.

Baxter sat out last week’s game after he reportedly received an improper benefit from a NFL certified agent — a golf cart ride from a USC student that’s started his own agency.

“I’m sure a lot of people look at this one as something that could happen to anybody and that he wasn’t necessarily in the wrong,” Kiffin said. “But it doesn’t matter. He’s already put himself in position where there isn’t room for any poor judgment.”

Regardless of the headaches, Baxter is a supremely talented player, and Irish fans hope the freshman’s coming out party is delayed another week.

8. Familiar faces roam both sidelines.

A quick look at both rosters reveals just how often the Trojans and the Irish compete for the same recruiting targets. USC is still smarting that they lost out on linebacker Manti Te’o, who just about everybody had pegged as going to USC. But for every Irish recruiting victory, there are Notre Dame targets dressed in Cardinal and Gold.

Starting running back Marc Tyler seemed a near lock for Notre Dame when his high school best friend Jimmy Clausen committed to the Irish with Tyler in attendance. Star freshman Robert Woods had an offer from the Irish before choosing the Trojans, and he’s become one of USC’s best offensive weapons. Names like Kyle Prater, Blake Ayles, Brice Butler (more on him later), Butch Lewis, Malcolm Smith, Chris Galippo, and Jawanza Starling all were targeted by the former Irish coaching staff.

The Irish pulled guys like Dayne Crist, Cierre Wood, and Ethan Johnson out from under the noses of the USC coaching staff so it isn’t exactly one-sided. Look for guys like Wood to play well, with plenty of motivation to show family and friends the progress they’ve made.

9. Former NBC commentator Pat Haden is now openly rooting against Notre Dame.

There wasn’t a week that went by last season where a reader didn’t openly accuse former NBC commentator and former USC quarterback Pat Haden of rooting against Notre Dame from the broadcast booth. While the accusation was always baseless, for the first time in a long while, Haden can openly root against the Irish this Saturday, when his alma mater takes on the Irish, and Haden is the new face of the Trojan athletic department.

Brought in to create a “culture of compliance” after former athletic director Mike Garrett openly scoffed at NCAA regulations, Haden stepped away from his announcing gig and his successful finance career to become athletic director at Southern Cal.

As the Dillon Baxter story shows, every week is a new challenge for the former Rhodes Scholar and first time university administrator. And while Trojan fans think the new emphasis on compliance is overkill, Haden’s take the drastic measures necessary to turn around an athletic department that had fallen far behind in its organizational structure.

“Where we’re at right now, getting so far ahead of things is good,” Haden said. “Although [recent issues have been] extremely minor, you’re finding them before they become major.”

There’s a large facet of Trojan fans that still have their head buried in the sand about the past regimes indiscretions, but there’s no better man than Haden to restore accountability in the athletic department.

10. Roby Toma is proving most of us wrong.

Of all the receivers you’d think quarterback Tommy Rees would develop a rapport with, you’d hardly expect it to be waterbug Roby Toma. But that was Toma making four big catches for 63 yards against Army, picking up first downs on three of them as he was targeted more often than any other Irish receiver on Saturday.

Messageboard legend Hobbs pointed out last week just how impressive Toma has been, especially when you compare him to one of the Irish’s top recruiting targets of the same class, Trojan Brice Butler, a four-star recruit from Georgia that had his pick of schools.

Butler’s only contributed nine catches this season for 112 yards, with a season high of three catches and 49 yards against Arizona State two weeks ago. After not seeing the field in the first six games, Toma has 12 catches for 172 yards, averaging almost 15 yards a catch.

Theo Riddick and TJ Jones are both likely back on Saturday for the Irish, but expect Toma to continue to play a key role in the Irish offense.

11. David Ruffer is kind of a big deal.

I’ve been out front driving the David Ruffer bandwagon and started the official unofficial David Ruffer for the Groza Award campaign a few weeks ago, but it looks like he won’t need our PR anymore.

Ruffer’s great week continued when just days after being named one of the three finalists for the Groza, Ruffer was named a first-team ESPN Academic All-American, making him the 31st Irish football player to be named an Academic All American.

Ruffer carries a 3.9 GPA in Economics, but more importantly for the football team carries a consecutive streak of 20 field goals into the Coliseum, making two kicks at Yankee Stadium from 47 and 39 yards. Is the streak getting to him?

“It is what it is,” Ruffer said. “As long as it’s on me, people are going to ask questions. I try not to pay attention to it.”

Ruffer’s streak started last year against Pitt when Nick Tausch couldn’t answer the bell after a leg injury. If it lasts through this weekend, it’ll be a very good thing for the Irish.

12. Michael Floyd wanted to be a… Trojan?

It’s hard to imagine it, but Michael Floyd tried his best to get the attention of the USC coaching staff when he was a high school star at Cretin-Derham Hall High School in St. Paul.

“He wrote us a letter that SC was his dream school and this was where he always wanted to play at the time,” Kiffin said. “He was a dominant player then and still is.”

Kiffin may be practicing a little revisionist history this week, as Floyd’s letters and game tape went largely unnoticed by the coaching staff, who wanted Floyd to camp in Southern California to earn a scholarship offer.

Luckily for Irish fans, Floyd never made the trip to south-central Los Angeles and now Floyd has a chance to feast on a Trojan secondary that has talent, but is incredibly thin.

Floyd celebrates his 21st birthday today and no doubt would consider a victory Saturday night as icing on the birthday cake. Happy birthday wishes to MMF.

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

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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