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.

 

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…)