Counting down the Irish: 20-16

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This is the second installment of “Counting down the Irish,” our annual ranking of the Top 25 players on Notre Dame’s roster. Click here for our ratings of players 25-21.

If you’re looking for a grouping high on expectations, look no further than numbers 20-16 on our list. Youth is served with four true sophomores checking in, as TJ Jones, Louis Nix, Tommy Rees and Prince Shembo join senior Braxston Cave in the rankings.

Of the first ten players listed, only fifth-year senior Taylor Dever is playing his final year of eligibility. Cave is a senior, but has a fifth-year available to him. After a freshman season spent working his way into playing shape, Louis Nix checks in at No. 19, a lofty spot for a guy that’s largest accomplishment in South Bend has been successfully self-coining the nickname “Irish Chocolate.”

Interestingly enough, players 25-21 had three returning starters and Chris Watt, who likely assumes Chris Stewart’s vacant spot. Players 20-16 only have one guy assured of a starting job come USF. Jones is still battling for a starting spot, Nix will likely split snaps with Sean Cwynar, while Prince Shembo enters fall camp neck-and-neck with fellow sophomore Danny Spond. As for Tommy Rees, an undefeated freshman campaign still has him in a four-man quarterbacking race that’ll be the talk of preseason camp.

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

20. TJ Jones (WR, Soph.): Jones burst onto the scene at Notre Dame, wowing the coaching staff in spring practice after enrolling early and then becoming the first freshman to catch touchdowns in his first two games.  After making five catches against both Navy and Tulsa, Jones was hobbled by injuries for the rest of the season, making only one catch after October 30. He’ll likely start his sophomore season as the leading candidate to start opposite Michael Floyd.

Highest ranking: 13th. Lowest ranking: Unranked (2 times).

19. Louis Nix (NT, Soph.): The gigantic sophomore is a little less gigantic after spending his freshman season working on his conditioning and weight — a number that ballooned upwards of 360 pounds. Notre Dame hasn’t had a defensive tackle built like Nix in recent memory. What that translates to on the field is anyone’s guess.

Highest ranking: 11th. Lowest ranking: Unranked (once).

18. Braxston Cave (C, Sr.): Cave was locked in a tight battle for the starting center job when Dan Wenger suffered a preseason concussion last August, an injury that ended his Notre Dame career, but opened the door for Cave. Learning on the job, the South Bend native got better as the year progressed, and Brian Kelly named Cave one of the team’s best players in spring practice. Cave was named to the Rimington Trophy’s watch list this preseason.

Highest ranking: 12th. Lowest ranking: 23rd.

17. Tommy Rees (QB, Soph.): Tommy Rees came a long way in 2010. After throwing an interception on his first series against Michigan and looking lost at sea, Rees led the Irish to an impressive drive during some mop-up work against Navy, then powered the Irish to a 4-0 finish after Dayne Crist got hurt against Tulsa. The sophomore won’t wow you physically, but his comfort in Kelly’s spread offense is obvious.

Highest ranking: 9th. Lowest ranking: Unranked (2 times).

16. Prince Shembo (OLB, Soph.): As a freshman, Prince Shembo only made nine tackles, but over half of them were behind the line of scrimmage. Working into the linebacker rotation, Shembo finished third on the team with 4.5 sacks, including two against Boston College. After playing mostly as a pass-rush specialist, Shembo and Danny Spond will battle for the drop linebacker job, with Shembo adding a pass-rush element to the position that neither Kerry Neal nor Brian Smith possessed.

Highest ranking: 13th. Lowest ranking: Unranked (once).

ANALYSIS

After looking at players 20-16, here are a few questions that I posed the group. I’ve highlighted a few answers that I found interesting.

 

TJ Jones burst onto the scene early in the year before coming back down to earth. What are realistic expectations for Jones as a sophomore?

Frank @UHND — I think Jones will improve quite a bit in his second season and will greatly benefit from a healthy Theo Riddick taking attention away from him.  As a third receiver, Jones is match up problem for a safety because of his speed.  I expect more consistent performances out of Jones as a sophomore too.

Matt @WeNeverGraduate — Jones got banged up big time last fall which is why he spiraled into oblivion as the season progressed. He’s got the tools to be a very good receiver, he’s just not a big guy so he needs to find a way to overcome the weekly grind of D-I college football. My gut says this isn’t going to be the year he breaks out (that will be next year), so the expectation level should be around 35 catches for 500 yards and a couple touchdowns.

We’ve never seen Louis Nix in a game, but he’s obviously expected to do big things. Who spends more time on the field this season: Nix or Sean Cwynar?

Matt @WeNeverGraduate —  I saw Big Lou on the field in the spring game. You couldn’t miss him–he was the dumptruck planted between the hashes on defense. While Nix is going to play a huge role in the defense, his workload will be curbed to keep him as fresh as possible. Ultimately that will mean Cwynar sees more total snaps.

Eric @OneFootDown — Ultimately I think Nix will spend more time on the field. Stamina aside, I think he will prove to be far too talented to not be playing just a little more snaps than Cwynar (who has his own problems coming off injury). I’m thinking that even a tired Nix at 80% is better than the rest of our options at nose tackle…he may be just that good.

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons — Cwynar. Far be it from me to make any sort of statements about the merit’s of Kelly’s offensive system and the effects experienced as a result by the defense, but ND faced 905 plays last year – nearly 70 snaps/game – as a defense. Nix is a special beast, but if he were a mythical beast, I think the underdog human trying to defeat him would seek to wear him out.

Brian Kelly cited Braxston Cave’s learning curve as one of the reasons why the offense didn’t move at the pace it wanted to last year. Is Cave ready to play at a level befitting the growing expectations?

Frank @UHND — Year two in Kelly’s system and more familiarity with the player he’s snapping too should allow Cave to improve in his final season.  I think Cave might still be a little limited in the offense because he’s more of a power lineman than an athletic one, but I do think he’ll be more comfortable with the pace this season.

Eric @OneFootDown — I believe Cave is ready and all indications are that he’s ready to have a big year. While he didn’t have a great year in 2010, I thought he played a lot better than most people give him credit for. I love his physicality and I believe he has good chemistry with the hopeful starter, Dayne Crist.

Matt @WeNeverGraduate — I thought Cave made a lot of solid progress over the course of the year, but I still want to see him use his absurd strength more effectively. He’s one of the strongest guys on the entire team (if not the strongest), but he just doesn’t maul defenders like he should. Maybe that was because he was hesitant as a first year starter in a new offense? I don’t know.

Over/Under: Tommy Rees will start four games for the Irish. What’s your Over/Under for TD/INT for Rees as a sophomore?

Matt @WeNeverGraduate — Under. It’s a dangerous choice because basically I’m gambling on whether Crist’s knees will hold up, but I’m in an optimistic mood today so I’ll roll with the Great Dayne. Rees is the perfect back-up, I just don’t think his ceiling is nearly as high as any of the other quarterbacks on the roster. I’ll put the over/under for TD’s/INT’s at 8 and 4. Rees will see the field, it just won’t be often.

MB&CW @RakesofMallow — Over. Dayne’s a better athlete, but I’d put money on him getting injured again this season. That said I’d set the over/under for Rees’ TD/INT ratio at 2.5 because he’s a natural fit in this offense.

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons — I’ll put Rees as starting 6 games for the o/u. And we’ll call it 12 TDs and 7 INTs in 6 games. That would actually put him right on pace with his ~6 games of PT last year, but 1 INT better. I think the bigger question to his (and ND’s success), is can he improve on his completion % and yards/attempt? In 2010, he finished at ~61% and just 6.7 YPA. In Kelly’s system, he either needs to bump his completion % significantly, or manage a healthier YPA to keep the job.

How confident are you in Prince Shembo’s move from pass-rushing specialist to drop linebacker?

Frank @UHND — There will be growing pains, but Shembo is an animal on the field so any hiccups from Shembo will be more than made up for with the big plays he’ll make.  I think we’ll see Shembo get caught out of position in coverage from time to time, but I think we’ll see him in opposing backfields much more frequently.

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons — Tough question. He’s obviously explosive, so he’s got an ability to move quickly, but so much of being an effective pass defender is about range – both in lateral motion and wing-span. At 6’2″ and 250lbs, it’s hard to picture him being “rangy.” Still, what he showed he could do on the field last year leaves me feeling comfortable that he’ll at least be serviceable at the position.

MB&CW @RakesofMallow — Shembo and Fleming have very similar pass-rushing abilities. I don’t think Shembo’s a natural fit at drop-linebacker and I could see him and Fleming playing both drop and rush during a game. It may be preferable to have two guys who can play both positions on the field together. If there’s one position group I’m really excited to watch this fall, it’s the linebackers. Te’o, Calabrese, Shembo, Fleming starting; Filer, Ishaq, Fox, Moore, Spond, oh the vapors . . . [passes out].

MY THOUGHTS

I’m one of the people that kept TJ Jones and Tommy Rees out of my top 25 lists. I really like both guys as football players — especially Rees — I’m just not sure they’re going to have the production needed to make this list. Rees’ career at ND is going to be a very interesting one to watch. He could become a great college quarterback and a true “winner,” or he could be the next Matt LoVecchio. My question with Jones is whether he’s physical enough to endure a full season or explosive enough to become a true playmaker. I was impressed by his hands and how smooth he was, but playing on the outside is a tougher job than lining up in the slot.

Prince Shembo’s transition to the drop linebacker position may be one of the most important on the roster. The fact that both Spond and Shembo acquitted themselves so well in the spring that Kelly named them the only two candidates for the Dog linebacker job is quite a gamble, as there are less than a dozen tackles between the sophomores. Both are great athletes, and Shembo gives Bob Diaco his best opportunity to present opposing defenses with a defense that actually looks like a mirror image, with both Shembo and Darius Fleming dangerous pass rushers.

Braxston Cave and Louis Nix are two guys on the “show me” team. While I expect they’ll both have successful seasons, I’m not ready to anoint either as impact players just yet.

 

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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