Weekend round-up: Offers, Tuitt, Bullard and Stonum

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The Irish are making a play at another Georgia native that likely won’t head north quietly. While Brian Kelly, Chuck Martin and company were successful getting Stephon Tuitt out of the land of peaches (we’ll get to Tuitt more in a bit), they’ll have quite a bit of company as they pursue Tucker High School’s Josh Dawson, a 6-foot-4, 226-pound outside linebacker/defensive end.

Michael Carvell at AJC.com caught up with Dawson to discuss Notre Dame’s entrance on the scene:

Tucker High School’s Josh Dawson was offered an early scholarship by Notre Dame on Sunday night.

The 6-foot-4, 226-pounder has nearly 20 offers, including UGA, Virginia Tech and South Carolina. He is projected to play defensive end or linebacker in college.

“I’m excited because it’s Notre Dame, and they have a pretty big name in football across the country,” Dawson told the AJC. Dawson added that he is not favoring any schools at this moment.

“I thought I had a good chance at getting offered by Notre Dame because one of the assistants came by the school a couple of weeks ago, saw me working out, took some of my film and told my coaches they would get back to me. I didn’t know it would be this soon.”

Dawson said if there’s an offer he expected but hasn’t gotten, it would be Georgia Tech. “I talked to one of the Georgia Tech assistants maybe three weeks ago. They haven’t been out to any of our spring practices [at Tucker]. I don’t know what’s going on. Hopefully they will come by this week and make an offer. I’m interested.”

Dawson mentioned that he’s interested in hearing from big-hitters like Alabama, Florida and Auburn, so expect quite a battle for Dawson, who comes from a pipeline school known for producing plenty of University of Georgia football players.

“We have so many people from Tucker going to UGA,” Dawson told UGASports.com. “It’s a tradition and most people who get that offer go ahead and commit to Georgia. I’m just going to take it slow but it’s a big thing. Three of my coaches actually went to Georgia.”

Don’t expect the Irish staff to be intimidated, but pulling a guy like Dawson out of Tucker would be quite the accomplishment.

***

Speaking of recruiting accomplishments, the AJC also caught up with incoming Irish freshman Stephon Tuitt, who looked back on the high-pressure process of getting recruited.

Stephon Tuitt was one of the state’s top recruiting dramas in 2011. The 5-star defensive end from Monroe Area High School initially pledged to Notre Dame but switched to Georgia Tech in mid-January. It lasted for about 30 hours as Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly quickly hopped on a plane to fly down to Georgia to convince Tuitt to commit again to Notre Dame, which Tuitt did, signing last February.

More than three months later, Tuitt was asked about his second choice. “If I didn’t go to Notre Dame, it would’ve been Georgia Tech. It came down to the point where it was … what my feelings were, talking to my family about them, looking for a brighter future, and that I felt more comfortable at Notre Dame. There’s nothing Georgia Tech could’ve done better. They recruited me very well.”

Tuitt was asked different questions as they looked back on the recruiting process and had a few interesting responses, including the regret of not visiting any West Coast schools during the process and Dabo Sweeney’s sales pitch on letting Tuitt play two-ways as both a tight end and a defensive end.

Still, if there’s a sentence that crystallizes Tuitt’s recruitment, this is it:

“It got crazy toward the end when it was finally time to sign the papers,” Tuitt said. “There’s a lot of pressure on you. People think you ought to sign with other schools than the one you signed with. Other than that, I enjoyed the recruiting precess and look forward to playing at the next level.”

Irish fans certainly looked forward to seeing Tuitt play there, too.

***

Former Irish offensive lineman Alex Bullard has been granted a hardship waiver by the NCAA, allowing the Tennessee native to be eligible immediately for the home-state Volunteers.

Bullard transferred out of Notre Dame after the death of his father. His decision to play for the home-state Vols came after he told Brian Kelly and the Irish coaching staff that he wanted to be closer to his mother and family.

Bullard has immediately drawn the eyes of the Tennessee coaching staff, putting together an impressive spring practice after being thrust into the middle of an open competition after right tackle Ja’Wuan James was sidelined with mononucleosis. Bullard was given the Harvey Robinson Award by coaches for being the biggest surprise on offense this spring.

“He has a lot of pride and he works very hard,” Vols offensive line coach Harry Hiestand said. “He has talent. It’s all brand new to him. He will progress. He’s been a pleasant surprise for us.”

Bullard is cross-training on the offensive line and has shown an ability to slide inside to center as well. You’ve got to wonder where Bullard would stand in the race to replace Chris Stewart at right guard. The coaching staff never got a true look at Bullard after he missed most of last year’s spring practice as he dealt with his father’s illness and only saw the field against Michigan State, Boston College, and Western Michigan.

Bullard took to Twitter to comment on the news that he’d be eligible next season for Tennessee.

“Just officially got the news… I’d like to give a shout out to the NCAA for allowing me to be eligible for this upcoming season.”

***

Meanwhile, it looks like Michigan has an offseason headache that’s threatening to derail any momentum built in Brady Hoke’s first offseason.

Early last Friday morning, standout wide receiver Darryl Stonum was pulled over and arrested for his second drunk driving offense during his time in Ann Arbor. Stonum was booked into jail at 4:30 a.m. by University of Michigan police, and the arrest was confirmed by a U-M spokesperson, where Stonum was stopped around 2:30 a.m. at an intersection near campus.

Head coach Brady Hoke released this statement:

“Darryl made a poor decision that is unacceptable and won’t be tolerated. He will be disciplined for behavior that is unbecoming of a Michigan football player. This is a serious situation, we are disappointed, and any athletic department discipline will be handled internally.

“We will provide the appropriate support and counseling in order for him to learn and grow from this mistake. Darryl has been suspended indefinitely from all team activities. If he fulfills all of his commitments he has to the legal system and our program, we will make a determination regarding his return to the team.”

It isn’t hard to see the similarities between Stonum and Irish wide receiver Michael Floyd, whose recent DUI arrest caused quite a stir in both the Notre Dame and national media.

Obviously, there’s a fairly large difference in the two when you consider this is Stonum’s second drunk-driving arrest, the first came during his freshman season at Michigan, when he served a one-game suspension for the September arrest. Stonum also ran into trouble when he failed to live up to the terms of his probation, missing court dates and failing to submit to the court ordered random alcohol testing. Stonum spent three nights in jail for the violations.

Brady Hoke’s comments left quite a bit of light at the end of the tunnel for both Stonum and Michigan, though you’ve got to wonder if public backlash will pressure the first-year coach into making an example of one of his leading receivers, like new Florida head coach Will Muschamp did when he kicked Janoris Jenkins off the team following his second drug-related arrest.

Stonum had 49 catches for 633 yards last season, so he’s nowhere near as productive as Floyd has been for the Irish, but it’ll be interesting following both the Michigan and national reaction to Stonum’s troubles. (I’m guessing it’ll be a fraction of the reaction that Floyd’s mishap elicited.)

May… One of the few times of year where football coaches just sit on pins and needles hoping their players simply take care of their final exams and stay out of trouble.

Back from break, Irish commence hitting; DT Elijah Taylor out with LisFranc injury

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Notre Dame last wore pads in its 45-27 defeat at USC back on Nov. 26, a full 117 days ago. Suffice it to say, the Irish enjoyed the chance to don their shoulder pads and hit each other in Wednesday’s third spring practice, the first one since returning from spring break.

“What I liked about it more than anything else is there wasn’t a big drop off today,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “Usually you go two days and then you take a week off, and then you come back and put your pads on—it took us only a couple of periods to get back up to form. That was nice to see.”

Contrary to previous years in spring practice, and perhaps practice in general, Kelly emphasized tackling, especially tackling in the open-field, in Wednesday’s drills.

“[I] felt like we needed to make up for a little lost ground,” he said. “We got in tackling today for the first time. That’ll be an emphasis. We’ll tackle a lot this spring to make up for lost ground.”

The early and often physical nature of practice didn’t bother any of the players, per Kelly, but also per presumed common sense. While Notre Dame’s coaching staff changes and public questioning played out in broad view, the players spent 117 days in private waiting to unleash some of the frustrations of 2016’s disappointing season.

“Everybody to a man has been looking forward to this day,” Kelly said. “It was a pretty difficult offseason for them. They were looking forward to putting the pads on and getting out there. I think they exhibited that today.”

TAYLOR OUT FOR SPRING, AT LEAST
Junior defensive tackle Elijah Taylor was not in pads Wednesday. In the final practice before spring break, another player stepped on Taylor’s foot, Kelly said. The resulting LisFranc fracture will keep Taylor out of the remaining dozen spring practices and limit him until at least July. Taylor saw action in four games last season, finishing with three tackles, including one for a loss.

Notre Dame team surgeon Dr. Brian Ratigan already performed Taylor’s surgery.

“Typical LisFranc fractures, we’ve had good success with their repairs,” Kelly said. “…We’ll be able to train around the injury. Full range of motion moving around and doing things in June, probably full clearance sometime in July.”

Without Taylor, the interior of Notre Dame’s defensive line becomes even shallower, though that may have been hard to previously comprehend. Junior Jerry Tillery looks to be ready to start, and senior Jonathan Bonner has moved to the inside, rather than at end as he has been for most of his career. Behind them, the Irish present only question marks.

Kelly said he will look to junior Micah Dew-Treadway to step forward in Taylor’s absence.

“Micah Dew-Treadway has had a really good offseason for us,” Kelly said. “Changed his body, has been doing a really good job in all facets, in the class room and weight room. He’s somebody that had been ascending anyway prior to the injury.

Kelly indicated junior Brandon Tiassum also could be expected to see more work with Taylor sidelined.

Seniors Daniel Cage and Pete Mokwuah are in the mix, as well. Cage struggled with concussion issues last season after a promising 2015.

Notre Dame will need to wait until the freshmen arrive—perhaps also joined by Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano, reportedly still taking official visits as he ponders his 2017 destination—for further reinforcements. Consensus four-star recruit Darnell Ewell would be the most likely candidate of the three expected arrivals to move up the depth chart right away.

In layman’s terms, a Lisfranc fracture occurs when a mid-foot bone connecting to a toe separates from the cluster of bones toward the heel. Note: This is stated here only to provide some context, nothing more. This particular scribe avoided most biology classes.

CLAYPOOL A RECEIVER AND THAT HE WILL STAY
Asked if he considered moving sophomore receiver Chase Claypool to defense, Kelly answered succinctly.

“We feel like we need his play on offense,” Kelly said. “He’ll continue to contribute on the special teams end of things, but we need his play on offense.”

KELLY ON KIZER’S NFL POTENTIAL
“I’ve had a number of conversations with GMs and coaches about [former Notre Dame quarterback] DeShone [Kizer], and my personal feeling is he has the biggest upside of all the quarterbacks. I don’t know that he’s prepared to come in and win a Super Bowl for you [this year]. Some may feel as though maybe one of the other quarterbacks are. I don’t know that firsthand. But I think, in time, he has the biggest upside of all the quarterbacks.

“I get it. It’s the NFL. Everybody’s under the same pressure of performing and needing somebody to come in right away, but I think he’s a guy that just needs some time. If he gets in the right situation, I think he’d be the guy to take.”

Kizer and eight other former Irish players will take part in a pro day tomorrow (Thursday) in front of some of those GMs and coaches.

Te’o to New Orleans; Booker to Nebraska

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Former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o has signed a two-year contract with the New Orleans Saints, per reports.

Once recovered from a torn Achilles, Te’o will join a crowded Saints linebacker corps. The Saints signed A.J. Klein—formerly of the Carolina Panthers—to a three-year, $15 million contract earlier in March and return Craig Robertson, who finished 2016 with 115 tackles.

All three have experience at the middle linebacker position in a 4-3 defense, though Klein and Robertson are both capable of playing at the strong side position, as well.

Before his week three injury, Te’o had started 34 of 38 games for the San Diego Chargers and notched 221 career tackles. With the Saints, he rejoins linebackers coach Mike Nolan, who held the same position with the Chargers in 2015 when Te’o finished with a career-high 83 tackles.

BOOKER REJOINS DIACO
It appears former Notre Dame tight ends coach and special teams coordinator Scott Booker will join the Nebraska coaching staff. Two former Irish coaches—defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and safeties coach Bob Elliott—already have seats in the Lincoln coaching room, which is quickly becoming something of a Notre Dame West.

Booker will reportedly join the Cornhuskers staff as a special teams analyst. He served as Notre Dame’s special teams coordinator from 2012 to 2016 before this past offseason’s extensive staff changes.

PRO DAY THURSDAY
A reminder: Notre Dame will hold its Pro Day this Thursday. Nine players will partake, obviously highlighted by quarterback DeShone Kizer.

The others: long snapper Scott Daly, running back Tarean Folson, tight end Chase Hounshell, defensive linemen Jarron Jones and Isaac Rochell, cornerback Cole Luke, safety Avery Sebastian and linebacker James Onwualu.

Kizer hopes to prove himself worthy of a first-round draft pick, while Jones and Rochell may be in the mix for a second-day pick, meaning in the second or third rounds.

As it is draft season, this discussion of why mock drafts exist even though most prognosticators cannot stand them is worth the few minutes needed to read.

MARCH MADNESS UPDATE
The majority of the “Inside the Irish” bracket pool’s leaders escaped the weekend’s chaos, though frontrunner andy44teg will not hold onto that top spot for long after his titlist pick, Duke, exited late the tournament late Sunday.

That will leave some character named Dennis and his North Carolina prediction as the presumptive favorite to win, well, to win absolutely nothing.

Five of the top 10 expect North Carolina to win the championship.

Pace of play: More snaps equal more scoring chances, right?

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It seems obvious enough: The more plays an offense runs, the more chances it has to score.

Sure, there is more to it than that, but the basic premise really is that simple. Ten more snaps equal 10 more opportunities at the end zone. Increasing Notre Dame’s tempo in that pursuit is not only part of why Irish coach Brian Kelly hired new offensive coordinator Chip Long, but it is also a primary emphasis of spring practice.

When Kelly announced Long’s hiring, he discussed simplifying play calls to increase pacing.

“Within our offensive system, we want to run more plays,” he said. “…There needs to be some retooling within the offensive nomenclature to be able to go to the level we want to.”

The day before spring practice began, Kelly again mentioned the correlation between lexicon and quickness of play.

“If tempo can be introduced in our offense, it has to be introduced at the ground level,” he said. “…I think with some of the things that we’ve been able to do offensively, with verbiage and nomenclature, I believe that we’ll be able to pick up the tempo even more.”

And following that first practice, one of Kelly’s first comments touched on—you guessed it—tempo.

“We were really looking at tempo on our offense,” he said. “I think we achieved that. To go fast and be sloppy is certainly not the end, but to be able to run a little bit more tempo with our offense and be effective in execution was really the most important thing.”

With the Irish returning to the practice field tomorrow (Wednesday) following spring break, the stress on speed will undoubtedly continue. Just how much of an increase can be expected of Long’s offense?

Last season, Notre Dame averaged 68.83 plays per game, in line with an average of 68.9 in Kelly’s seven years leading the Irish and similar to his average of 67.5 in three seasons at Cincinnati.

In his first and only season leading his own offense, Long averaged 74.15 plays per game at Memphis in 2016. Admittedly, one season is a small sample size, especially considering the variables prone to tilting any single college football game.

It does not take a perilous leap of faith to conclude Long picked up a good amount of offensive strategy and thinking during his four seasons as tight ends coach in Todd Graham’s Arizona State offense. More accurately, Long presumably learned from Mike Norvell, the offensive coordinator during that stretch in Tempe who then brought Long with him when Norvell took the job as head coach at Memphis.

During their shared seasons at Arizona State, Norvell and Long coached an offense that averaged 78.47 plays per game. Combine that figure with the aforementioned Memphis figure and the math yields a five-year average of 77.62 plays per game, nearly nine plays per game more than Notre Dame managed over the same stretch.

Will that be seen in 2017? The more-pertinent question may be, will it be seen in 32 days in the Blue-Gold Game? Kelly has said it will be Long’s offense to run, and April 22 will be the first chance to see that in effect.

“When I was at Cincinnati, I was the guy, I was running it by myself,” Kelly said before spring practice commenced. “I think going back to [that] is the most efficient way to do it, and get out of the way and let Chip run it.”


As has quickly become something of a norm in this space below is a listing of the stats condensed above. Before that, though, one quick note: Keep an eye on Memphis’s offense again this season. It returned the vast majority of its firepower, and Norvell will not hesitate to turn up the pressure on opposing defenses. The Tigers should be very entertaining.

(more…)

Friday at 4: 4-0 against West Virginia in history … in football

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Today, the thought of Notre Dame facing West Virginia immediately triggers thoughts of tomorrow (Saturday) and their NCAA Tournament matchup. Typically, though, those two universities facing each other would elicit memories of a particular football game.

The two faced each other plenty on the basketball court when they overlapped in the Big East for 17 seasons, compared to only four times ever on the football field. Of those four, the Irish hold a decisive 4-0 edge.

Is that significant? Not at all. But how productive and efficient do you think I have been this week? It’s the third week of March. The hope here is to reach for relevance, perhaps touch on noteworthiness and maybe even come near entertaining. If nothing else, 4-0 is a good set of memories to recall, especially that one aforementioned particular game.

Of course, that game was the 1989 Fiesta Bowl, a 34-21 national championship-sealing Notre Dame victory. Don’t let time cloud the hype of that game, a contest between the consensus No. 1 Irish and No. 3 Mountaineers.

The other three victories all came under the watch of Bob Davie: 21-14 on Nov. 22, 1997; 42-28 on Oct. 21, 2000 in Morgantown, W. Va.; and 34-24 on Oct. 13, 2001.

If this weekend’s basketball game goes the way Vegas expects—depending where you look, the line is hovering at West Virginia by two for the 12:10 p.m. ET tip—reminisce back to those four Irish football victories. After all, if West Virginia prevails, it is likely because the basketball game becomes quite physical and there may be a few football-esque plays.

Why “St.” Brown?
Junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown’s father, John Brown, joined ESPN’s 710 AM on Thursday. In addition to Equanimeous, Brown has two other football-catching sons: Stanford’s Osiris and five-star 2018 recruit Amon-ra. Thus, 710 and its hosts Keyshawn Johnson, Jorge Sedano and LZ Granderson reached out to John Brown to discuss Lavar Ball, the headline-making father of a trio of young, promising basketball stars including UCLA freshman Lonzo Ball.

“From what little I know about the guy … I think he’s doing, in general, a great job,” said Brown, a former two-time Mr. Universe and three-time Mr. World. “It’s not easy to raise three superstars… I think he’s doing a great job at promoting his boys. He loves his boys, just like every father, and just wants the best for his boys.”

Skipping past the biology lesson Brown then meandered into and its minefield of political correctness faux pas, Brown explained why his sons have such elaborate names compared to his.

“My wife was in the hospital pregnant, true story,” he said. “I told her, sweetheart, we have to talk about the name, because we can’t name the kid Brown. She goes why?

“I say, because it doesn’t look good on the back of a jersey… I say we’re going to put St. Brown because it will look good on the back of a jersey.”

If Brown, the father, was thinking of jerseys before his sons were even born, his preparation for their futures certainly expanded from there, including weightlifting programs beginning on their fifth birthdays, customized protein powder he now sells and emphasis on schoolwork.

“I told my sons when they were little, you cannot go to school on an athletic scholarship,” Brown said. “They were like, what? I said you can’t, it has to be academic, or we will not allow you. Of course, we were just saying that to get them to continue their schoolwork.”

To listen to all of Brown’s interview, head to the show’s podcast page and download the second hour of the March 16 show. Brown’s segment begins around the 21:20 mark and lasts a bit more than 10 minutes. A nod toward everyone’s preferred “Inside the Irish” writer, Keith Arnold, for taking advantage of the sun in Los Angeles to let me know about the Brown interview.

Before leaving this topic entirely, let’s remember Brown did more than add a holy designation to his offspring’s last names. When it comes to Notre Dame’s leading receiver last season, in fact, Brown displayed more creativity than this scribe ever will.

A quick correction
In Wednesday’s look at new Irish special teams coordinator Brian Polian’s last four years working with punt and kick units, glowplugv pointed out a typo in the statistics. The correct version: Notre Dame covered 22 punts in 2015, allowing 194 yards for an average of 8.82.

The four-year average numbers were accurate, as they were calculated from the notes next to the screen, not the mistake in the article.

A genuine thank you to glowplug for taking the time to check those numbers. He also argued the difference between Polian’s units at Nevada and the Irish renditions of the last four years was so negligible statistically it should not be looked at with much favor. If considering the numbers from a theoretical, data-driven standpoint, glowplug has a solid argument.

However, if applying those figures past theory, they could genuinely have an impact. If Notre Dame can gain 2.35 yards in field position with each exchange of punts, that can quickly become nearly 10 yards in a game. A shift of that magnitude can be all the difference in a fourth quarter dominated by two defenses.

March Madness update
The allure of absolutely no prize was enough to entice 69 entrants, none of which made it through a chalk-filled Thursday unscathed. Three picked 15 of the games correctly and earned 12 bonus points via upsets to establish a slight lead: Jackson; Q B; andy44teg.

Of the 69 prognosticators, a bold four predicted the Irish will win the national championship. They take the next step in that direction against West Virginia.

For now, it is not only Friday at 4, but it is also St. Patrick’s Day. Think about Notre Dame’s football record against West Virginia: 4-0. You know what to do.