Replacing quarterbacks not always easy

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When Jimmy Clausen announced that he was forgoing his senior season at Notre Dame, any chance that the Irish offense would keep pace with the 2009 edition left South Bend as well. With the ascension of Dayne Crist to the starting role, coming off major knee surgery and into a completely new offensive system, it was hard to know what kind of team the Irish would produce when Notre Dame had the ball.

We’ll have most of the offseason to critique the eight games Crist played, but a much fairer measuring stick for Crist is comparing him to the quarterbacks that stepped in and took over programs where other star quarterbacks departed for the NFL.

Quarterbacks Sam Bradford, Tim Tebow, Jimmy Clausen and Colt McCoy were the only four quarterbacks taken within the first 100 picks of the NFL Draft. Each quarterback left behind a top-30 college offense and a successor with different levels of experience.

At Oklahoma, Bradford’s senior season was one wrecked by injury. After coming off an incredible Heisman winning season, Bradford lasted only 14 throws in a season opening loss to BYU, knocked out with a shoulder injury that would limit him to only three games for the season. In his place, quarterback Landry Jones filled in admirably, beating teams like Idaho State and Tulsa before losing to Miami and giving the starting job back to Bradford. Thrown back into action against Texas, Jones led the offense the rest of the season, throwing for 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in conference play before leading the Sooners to a win over Jim Harbaugh’s Stanford squad in the Sun Bowl.

In Florida, Tim Tebow left the keys to Urban Meyer’s offense with heralded recruit John Brantley, who apprenticed for two seasons under Tebow, throwing for 10 touchdowns and only one interception during mop-up time. Brantley had two years under Meyer and company’s tutelage, and his advanced passing skills were expected to add another dimension to a Florida offense that was young but filled with playmakers.

At Texas, Longhorn fans got an early look at the quarterback of the future during last year’s national championship, when Garrett Gilbert filled in for an injured McCoy after the opening drive of the BCS Championship game. Gilbert only completed 15 of his 40 pass attempts against Alabama, but seemed to improve as the nightmarish game went on, leading many to think he was poised for a breakout after throwing 66 times during 2009.

Meanwhile in South Bend, Crist became the unquestioned starting quarterback after Clausen decided to leave for the draft. He only threw 20 times in 2009, having completed two short throws in the opening win against Nevada, filled in briefly against Michigan State when Clausen injured his foot, and then got the most action of his career against Purdue. Ironically, Crist was at his best when he ran a small package of zone-read plays, driving the Irish to two straight touchdowns in the second quarter against the Boilermakers before sputtering and being relieved by Clausen, who rallied the Irish in the end for a victory. Crist’s next action was his last before his season-ending knee injury, completing just two of six throws in mop-up duty against Washington State, though one was a long touchdown pass to wide receiver John Goodman.

Comparing Crist with the situations Jones, Brantley, and Gilbert walked into helps add some much needed context for what should have been expected out of Dayne as a first time starter. In fact, when you look at the work Crist (and as an extension, Rees) did, there’s reason to be impressed with the coaching staff’s ability to prepare their newbie quarterbacks and have great enthusiasm for the future of Notre Dame’s offense as the depth chart continues to develop.

If we’re comparing apples to apples, it’s better to throw Jones either out completely, or compare his work in 2009 to that of Crist’s. Even then, Jones was captaining the ship for an elite team — the 2009 Sooners were a preseason #3 team, and the 2010 edition was voted top ten in both the AP and Coaches Poll this preseason.

Here are Crist’s 2010 numbers for eight games, matched up with Jones’ ’09 stats:

Crist: 15 touchdowns, 7 interceptions. 59%, 6.9 YPA, 129.34 QB rating.
Jones ’09: 26 touchdowns, 14 interceptions. 58%, 7.1 YPA, 130.83 QB rating.

Jones put up huge chunks of those numbers against a 5-7 Tulsa team and Texas A&M, throwing for 11 TDs and just 3 INTs in those two games. But either way, the numbers are remarkably similar for Jones in 12 games compared to Crist through 8, and it bears mentioning that the ’09 Sooners had four first round draft picks.

Even more interesting is comparing Crist’s season to those had by Brantley and Gilbert, two quarterbacks that also were put in charge of consensus top five teams.

Here’s Crist’s season when compared with those had by the starting quarterbacks at Florida and Texas:

Crist: 15 touchdowns, 7 interceptions. 59%, 6.9 YPA, 129.34 QB rating.
Brantley: 9 touchdowns, 9 interceptions. 61%, 6.4 YPA, 118.79 QB rating.
Gilbert: 10 touchdowns, 17 interceptions. 59% 6.2 YPA, 110.99 QB rating.

Crist’s season, only eight games compared to full seasons for Brantley and Gilbert, is superior to two quarterbacks that were expected to pilot national championship contenders. Crist had far less grooming than either first-time starter, learned a vastly different offense from a new coaching staff while rehabbing a major knee injury, doing it with a team that was unranked at the beginning of the season, approximately 30 or so spots behind the Gators and the Longhorns. When framed this way, there’s plenty of reason to believe that Crist can take a great leap forward next year, with just about his entire offensive line returning and potentially Michael Floyd and Kyle Rudolph.

With Andrew Hendrix and Luke Massa taking off the redshirts, Tommy Rees showing he can win football games, and Everett Golson entering the fray, there will be plenty of time to debate next season’s depth chart at quarterback. But Crist’s performance in his opening season at quarterback shouldn’t be discounted, especially when considering his cohorts.

Rochell drafted in 7th round; three other former Notre Dame players sign

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All the unnecessary draft conversation may have centered on DeShone Kizer, but the quarterback was not the only former Notre Dame player watching this weekend’s NFL Draft with rapt attention. Aside from Kizer, only Isaac Rochell heard his name called. The San Diego Chargers picked the defensive lineman in the seventh round Saturday with the 225th overall pick.

Rochell finished his Irish career with appearance in 49 of 51 possible games and 167 tackles, including 22 for loss and 4.5 sacks. In 2016, he recorded 55 tackles, good for sixth on the team, with seven for loss.

By the end of the evening, three more former Notre Dame starters had signed on with NFL teams as undrafted free agents. It should be noted, many argue the route available for undrafted free agents is preferable to that of late-round picks. An undrafted free agent can choose which of a handful of situations is preferable to him for whatever reason. A late-round pick does not have that luxury, but still makes a comparable salary.

Linebacker James Onwualu opted to join Rochell with the Chargers. Defensive lineman Jarron Jones signed with the New York Giants. Cornerback Cole Luke latched on with the Carolina Panthers.

Onwualu began his Irish career as a receiver before moving to linebacker before his sophomore season. He finished his career with 143 tackles, including 75 in 2016 with 11.5 for loss and three sacks. His 75 tackles finished behind only now-rising senior linebackers Nyles Morgan’s 94 and Drue Tranquill’s 79.

Battling injuries throughout his Notre Dame career, Jones made 105 tackles with 45 in 2016. His 11 tackles for loss were outdone only by the aforementioned Onwualu total.

Luke made 152 tackles in his Irish career, including 48 last season, and eight interceptions.

Three more players from past years’ Irish rosters could yet find an NFL home—long snapper Scott Daly, defensive lineman-turned-tight end Chase Hounshell and running back Tarean Folston. If any or all do not sign, they can still join teams for rookie mini-camps in hopes of making a positive impression.

RELATED READING: Browns pick former Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer 20th in second round

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