Counting down the Irish: 25-21

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As we kick off our 2011 Irish Top 25, let’s get some things out of the way quickly. This is just a list, not some objective evaluation process. Some guys I had ranked much higher than others. (It worked the other way as well.) Still, what you’ll find here is a pretty good composite projected ranking for players on the 2011 Irish roster.

Of course, lists like this are subjective by definition. I kept the qualifications light and let our panel of “experts” use their own methodology.

Once again, here is our esteemed group of panelists:

Frank Vitovitch of UHND.com
DomerMQ of HerLoyalSons.com
Eric Murtaugh of OneFootDown.com
Matt Mattare of WeNeverGradute.com
Matt & CW of RakesofMallow.com

RANKINGS

25. Taylor Dever (OT, Sr.): Dever won the right tackle job last year after seeing limited minutes as a junior and sophomore. The fifth-year senior should anchor the position he started ten games at, missing time with a hamstring injury in the heart of the season. You didn’t hear Dever’s name much last season, a good thing for a right tackle.

Highest ranking: 16th. Lowest ranking: Unranked (3 times)

24. Chris Watt (OG, Jr.): Watt is the presumed replacement for Chris Stewart, and is versatile enough to slide in at center if needed. After redshirting his freshman season, Watt played in all 13 games last season for the Irish, providing depth behind Stewart.

Highest ranking: 12th. Lowest ranking: Unranked (4 times)

23. Zeke Motta (S, Jr.): Thrown into action after an early season injury to Jamoris Slaughter, Motta learned on his feet, playing in all 13 games and starting eight opposite Harrison Smith. His improvement was evident as the season went on, and the rising junior will battle Slaughter for the job across from Smith.

Highest ranking: 19th. Lowest ranking: Unranked (2 times)

22. Aaron Lynch (DE, Fr.): One of the most highly anticipated defensive newcomers in years, Lynch lit the Blue-Gold game on fire with a dynamic performance. While he’ll probably only see the field on passing downs, Lynch has all the potential in the world.

Highest ranking: 16th. Lowest ranking: Unranked (2 times)

21. Carlo Calabrese (LB, Jr.): After sitting out his freshman season, Calabrese won the inside linebacker job opposite Manti Te’o, and started eight games before a hamstring injury took him out. He finished fifth on the team in tackles, sixth in TFLs, and fourth in sacks. He’ll compete for a starting job again this fall.

Highest ranking: 17th. Lowest ranking: 24th.

ANALYSIS

After looking at the composite list, here are a few questions I had for the panel. I’ll highlight a few answers that I found interesting.

Who did you have sitting at No. 26? Are you reconsidering after looking at everybody else’s lists?

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons — Crist. had Crist at #26. Or maybe 40th. Or maybe lower. Wherever I had him, he wasn’t 1-25. And I’m actually feeling pretty good about it, having stolen a look at everyone’s 1-25. It went about the way I thought it would.  And I understand the points of view of the other fine members of this council, but, while this team may not be full of 1st-round talent from 1-25, it’s full of a nice bit of depth, and I just couldn’t see clear to move Crist into the top 25 given he was the QB who started in the latest loss to Navy.

Matt @WeNeverGraduate — I was tempted to stick Robby Toma in there somewhere because I think he’s going to be the guy who emerges as the most productive fourth wideout. Sean Cwynar also got some consideration thanks to his rock solid performance filling in for Ian Williams when the senior went down.

Which one of these guys has the highest upside for the season?

Eric @OneFootDown — Out of the guys from the 21-25 range it is most obviously Aaron Lynch, who could jump as many as a dozen spots or more if we were to do this ranking system at the end of the 2011 season. I also think Motta is a good bet to move up a decent amount as well.

Matt @WeNeverGraduate — I’ll tap Zeke Motta for this question. Motta improved by leaps and bounds throughout last season as he logged more and more minutes thanks to Jamoris Slaughter’s injury. He’s a freak athlete and he finally seems to be grasping the position.

Any name you think comes in too low here? Too high?

Frank @UHND — Definitely think Lynch is too low.  I know Kelly tried to downplay Lynch’s Blue-Gold game performance, but it was hard not to be impressed.  With the off-season conditioning and fall camp under his belt, I think Lynch is going to make a big impact from day 1.  No one here really looks too high.  Of the three players here I didn’t have in my rankings – Motta, Watt, and Dever – all of them were right outside of my rankings and I considered all of them right on the cusp so hard to argue with any of them.

CW&MB @RakesofMallow — I cannot shake the images of Zeka Motta’s miserable tackling angles in the 2010 Blue-Gold Game.  Even our walk-on running backs were beating him to the edge because of his lack of basic geometrical knowledge.  He played well enough during the season, but he’s the one guy in this group that I’m not sold on.

What do you think a realistic expectation is for someone that’s judged to be between the 21st and 25th best player on the Irish roster?

Frank @UHND — There are 24 starters on a team (including the kicker and punter) so any player within the top 25 should either be a solid starter or excel at a niche such as kick/punt returning, situational pass rushing, etc.  Of these five players, I expect Jones, Motta, Watt, and Calabrese all to be solid starters and in the case of Jones, Watt, and Motta I think they have the potential to be more than solid.  A guy like Lynch might not start but I fully expect him to be a pass rush specialist that makes several big plays throughout the season.

MY THOUGHTS

I’m really surprised that Sean Cwynar isn’t listed in the Top 25. In fact, I think if there’s anything I’m certain of, Sean Cwynar is one of the best 25 football players on Notre Dame’s roster. It isn’t a coincidence that the defense not only didn’t miss a beat when Ian Williams went down, but it actually improved. I’m not saying Cwynar was the key to the renaissance, but he’s going to be a very good player on the 2011 Irish. I also had Danny Spond at No. 25, and while I can understand why people haven’t started drinking the Kool-Aid yet, I wouldn’t be surprised if Spond turns into a Chad Greenway type of athlete.

Obviously, Aaron Lynch is the guy that could immediately become a top-ten player on this roster or he’ll be a guy that has some growing pains, likely due to the incredible expectations he helped heap on himself. I have a feeling he’ll be slowly eased into the process, but will make his presence felt early and often in pass-rushing downs. But don’t forget Stephon Tuitt, who didn’t enroll early, but is physically ready to play September 3rd.

Lastly, Carlo Calabrese is at an interesting inflection point. His injury derailed expectations after an impressive redshirt freshman campaign. We’ll find out if he’s ready to become an impact linebacker or a guy that makes plays because he’s lined up next to Manti Te’o.

 

 

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?

What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

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Time spent on a traditional game wrap of a spring intrasquad exhibition seems misspent. Gold won Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game 27-14 led by rising sophomore quarterback Ian Book. The first-string defense (Gold) held the first-string offense to an average of 5.4 yards per play. For context’s sake: Last season Notre Dame gained an average of 6.1 yards per play and held opponents to 5.4.

With that abbreviated recap out of the way, what did Saturday’s pseudo-game environment show about the Irish? If the 20,147 in attendance paid attention, they had the chance to learn a few things:

Daelin Hayes will be ready to hit a quarterback in September
Notre Dame’s quarterbacks were off limits all spring. Bulls might charge when they see red, but the Irish defensive line has had to remember to ease up when they come across a quarterback’s red jersey. If sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes had forgotten that Saturday, Notre Dame might not have any quarterbacks left to play in the fall.

“At the end of the day, we’re on the same team,” Hayes said, dismissing any bitterness about the quarterbacks’ protections. “We have to keep our guys healthy. I wasn’t frustrated, but come September 2, you know.”

Officially, Hayes was credited with three sacks and another tackle for loss among his seven tackles. Admittedly, gauging sacks is tricky when the quarterback does not actually go to the ground. How many of Hayes’ three sacks and the defense’s 11 total would have been evaded if the defender needed to do more than touch the passer? That answer is highly subjective, but discounting Hayes’ numbers would miss the bigger picture.

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

Senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) notched two sacks and sophomore end Ade Ogundeji came the closest to tackling a red jersey when he stripped junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush from behind. The defensive line has been expected to be a weak point for the Irish moving forward, but the spring performance indicates it has a chance at holding its own. These accomplishments bear further merit considering Notre Dame’s offensive line is widely-considered one of its few spots of expected quality.

RELATED READING: Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

“I think it’s pretty clear Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I’d have to watch the film, but it seemed like [sophomore end] Julian Okwara was a hard guy to block coming off the edge, as well.”

Ian Book provides some peace of mind
Book was not spectacular, but he was also far from incompetent or intimidated. In his first action on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, Book completed 18-of-25 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by a 58-yard connection with sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. Meanwhile, junior Brandon Wimbush completed 22-of-32 passes for 303 yards.

Bluntly, one has not needed to follow Notre Dame for very long to fit that “long enough” qualification. Last season’s backup, Malik Zaire, saw competitive action against both Texas and Stanford. In 2015, DeShone Kizer came off the bench to start 11 games after Zaire suffered a season-ending ankle injury. (more…)

What Notre Dame players should you actually watch? Plus, catch up on reading

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If technology does its part, this will post as its typist meanders toward finding his credential for the Blue-Gold Game to conclude Notre Dame’s spring practice. If technology doesn’t do its part, well, then this will be lost to the cobwebs of the internet. Such as it goes.

This space has spent much of the past week discussing what to look for in the 12:30 p.m. ET exhibition. Worry about the big picture, not the individuals. Fret about the macro, not the micro.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the indivdual players
Blue-Gold Game primer with help from Notre Dame’s coordinators
Four defensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game
Four offensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game

But, if insistent on focusing on singular players, look to the inexperienced, the names you are unfamiliar with. The 15th and final practice of spring may be no more than a practice in reality, but it is in front of nearly 30,000 fans in Notre Dame Stadium. Some players do not have so much as that minimal experience.

“The Blue-Gold Game, specifically, is a time for us to emulate a game-like situation,” senior safety/linebacker/rover Drue Tranquill said. “Especially for guys like freshmen, second-semester guys coming in, it’s a great opportunity for them to get that game feeling, but also continue to take steps in the process to get better.”

The question on the tip of your tongue is a fair one. If you are unfamiliar with the names, how are you supposed to focus on those players? How are you to know who fits the appropriate tunnel vision version of perspective?

Let’s turn to Irish coach Brian Kelly’s mentions from Wednesday–primarily, sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara, sophomore long snapper John Shannon, senior kicker Sam Kohler, sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem and sophomore safety Jalen Elliott.

Obviously, that is just a sampling. Less obviously, this post’s purpose may or may not be to link to previous reading material and remind you of the vague but pertinent purposes to today’s endeavor. It is neither be-all nor end-all. It is simply another opportunity to gauge what may come down the line.

But hey, how about a prediction? Per Kelly, the first-team offense and second-team defense will be in blue, against the first-team defense and second-team offense in white.

PREDICTION: Blue 37, White 21

HOW TO WATCH
As a recurring reminder, the Blue-Gold Game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network, as well as streamed online at ndstream.nbcsports.com and on the NBC Sports app.

Friday at 4: Four offensive positions to watch in Notre Dame’s spring game

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There are two common ways of looking at the annual spring game.
It is the last action involving Notre Dame football readily available for public consumption until Sept. 2, 133 days away.
Or it is an exercise rife with contradiction exacerbated by hype, yielding little-to-no reliable intelligence.
Like much of life, the most accurate assessment falls somewhere between those two views.

If junior running back Dexter Williams breaks off two 50-yard-plus touchdown runs, does that mean he will have multiple big plays in 2017? Not at all. It does mean he will likely have more opportunities for them, though. Just like in spring’s previous 14 practices, the Irish coaches will take what they see and apply it moving forward.

The past—and as of Saturday evening, the Blue-Gold Game will qualify as the past—does not dictate the future, but it can influence one’s approach to it.

Aside from Williams (see the second item below for more on him and the running backs), what other players/positions could influence their future roles the most with their performance to close spring?

BIG PASSING TARGETS: Alizé Jones and Co.
In this instance, big is meant literally. Notre Dame has an embarrassment of riches of tall, long, physical tight ends and receivers. Junior Alizé Jones earns specific mention here due to his inaction last season. Irish fans and coaches alike have a better idea of sophomore receiver Chase Claypool and junior receiver Miles Boykin. They have 2016 film to look at.

Jones, however, sat out the season due to academic issues. His on-field performance largely remains a question mark, but if he combines this spring’s praise with his 6-foot-4 ½ frame holding 245 listed pounds, that could turn into an exclamation point.

“He’s a perfect fit,” new Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long said Friday. “That’s why I recruited him like crazy when I was at Arizona State. He’s a prototypical [tight end], a guy who can run, who can catch.

“The biggest thing about Alizé is he’s taking great pride in his blocking ability right now, his presence of being an end-line guy, his protection and his overall physicality. When you think like that, you’re going to become a better receiver.” (more…)