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Opponent preview: Pittsburgh

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This is the fourth of twelve opponent previews, profiling Notre Dame’s 2011 opponents. you can also read previews of South Florida, Michigan, and Michigan State.

The Overview:

It was an offseason to forget for Pitt fans. After six seasons coaching at his alma mater, Dave Wannstedt was dismissed before the Panthers’ bowl game by athletic director Steve Pederson, even though Wannstedt just completed one of the  program’s most successful three-year stretches in school history. (Pederson also dismissed Frank Solich at Nebraska after a nine-win season.) Pederson tapped Miami (Ohio) head coach Mike Haywood as Wannstedt’s replacement in a controversial hire. Just two short weeks later, Haywood was arrested on domestic charges, an incident that cost him his new job. Given a second shot to make the same hire, Pederson looked to Tulsa head coach Todd Graham, who will bring a completely new style to the Steel City.

With fourteen starters returning, Graham will have more talent at his disposal than he had when he shocked the Irish last October. But without standouts Jaball Sheard and Greg Romeus on defense and Jonathan Baldwin and Dion Lewis on offense, the Panthers success will be determined by how quickly they adapt to a very new way of doing things, with Graham completely changing the culture of a program in need of putting 2010 in the rear-view mirror.

Last time against the Irish:

The Irish jumped out to a 17-3 halftime lead against Wannstedt’s Panthers, but needed kicker David Ruffer and a stingy defense to hold on to win 23-17 against a Pitt squad that shot itself in the foot with special teams blunders.

“As we’ve shown, we’re really good at stubbing our toes,” head coach Brian Kelly said after the game. “But that’s us. I’m trying to get used to it or it’s going to make me look really old, really quick.”

With Kyle Rudolph trying to battle through a nagging hamstring injury and Taylor Dever out at right tackle, the Irish used an up-tempo offense in the first half to limit Pitt’s pass rush, one of the biggest concerns going into the afternoon. Dayne Crist threw for 242 yards (and had almost 100 more taken off the board by penalties) and Theo Riddick and Michael Floyd each had seven catches.

The win took the Irish to 3-3 on the season, leaving people to believe Notre Dame was ready to make a run as they reached the “easy” stretch of their schedule with Western Michigan, Navy and Tulsa coming before a bye week.

Degree of Difficulty:

Of the 12 games the Irish play this season, I rank Pittsburgh as the fifth toughest opponent on the schedule.

7. South Florida
6.
5. Pittsburgh
4. Michigan State
3. Michigan

The Match-up:

It will be a brave new world for Pitt on offense, needing to replace their best player, Jonathan Baldwin, after he left early and went in the first round of the NFL Draft. Tino Sunseri returns at quarterback, and he’ll be tasked with turning the three-yards and a cloud of dust offense Wannstedt employed into the hyper-speed spread attack that Graham is bringing with him. While that’ll surely mean better numbers for the passing game, Graham’s Tulsa squads were also some of the best in the country at running the football, which means good things for Ray Graham, who averaged a gawdy 6.2 yards per carry last season in a supporting role to Dion Lewis. Pitt also brings in Wisconsin transfer Zach Brown to the backfield.

The Panthers have experience on the offensive line, but they’ll need to replace Jason Pinkston. At receiver, there’s Mike Shanahan, Devin Street and Cameron Saddler — three guys who might have their production buoyed immediately if Sunseri is a quick study.

Graham’s defense will shift to a three-man front, a move better timed than most with Sheard and Romeus gone. Pitt has depth up front with guys like Chas Alecxih and Myles Caragein, with Alecxih getting 7.5 sacks last season. The rotation can actually go six deep. But the biggest beneficiary to the change will likely be Brandon Lindsey, one of the best defensive players in the country. Lindsey had 10 sacks and 17.5 tackles-for-loss last season, and will play a hybrid defensive end-outside linebacker role, giving him more opportunities to wreak havoc on offenses.

The secondary needs to replace two starters, but returns a deep roster at cornerback and All-Big East safety Jarred Holley. Sophomore Jason Hendricks will get the first shot at the bandit position, a hybrid safety spot that’ll have Hendricks all over the field. K’Waun Williams is a talented cornerback, and the sophomore could be ready to make a big leap this season.

How the Irish will win:

The Irish won ugly last year, committing six penalties and getting outgained by the Panthers, but dominating on special teams and playing good red zone defense. How many times did the Irish win under Charlie Weis when they were outgained by more than 50 yards? Only three times, and twice, the opposition imploded with turnovers.

With a noon kickoff at Heinz Field, Pitt fans will lack the venom of a prime-time start. While the battle at the line of scrimmage should be hotly contested, the Irish have the edge on both sides of the ball, and Notre Dame can take advantage of Pitt’s lack of depth for the systems they’ve installed.

With the Irish upping the tempo on offense and understanding both the personnel at Pitt and the scheme Graham runs, the Irish shouldn’t have much of a problem winning during a transitional year at Pitt.

How the Irish will lose:

Graham has already shown Irish fans that he knows how to pull a rabbit out his hat, and with his offense installed, the Panthers could have the best rushing offense the Irish face all season, the perfect recipe for keeping Notre Dame’s offense off the field and the tempo dictated.

With Brandon Lindsey and an assortment of Panthers coming off the line of scrimmage, the Panthers will force a few early turnovers, taking advantage of a stellar defensive front and a great centerfield safety in Jarred Holley. A Pitt victory would put Graham’s squad on the national map early, and make ESPN analyst Mark May very happy.

Gut Feeling:

While he wasn’t the Pitt administration’s first choice, Graham looks like the right man for the job. He’s shaken up a program that seemed to plateau under Wannstedt, and infused excitement in a fan base that was getting disinterested. In a Big East that’s a bit wayward, Graham is a good reason for Pitt fans to be excited about the future. Unfortunately, I think the learning curve is too steep this season, and the Irish sprint by the Panthers, a team that’s a work in progress.

Irish A-to-Z: Sam Mustipher

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Sam Mustipher established himself as the team’s starting center entering spring practice, the lack of competition probably more striking than the junior winning the job. But Mustipher’s work as Nick Martin’s understudy in 2015 likely allowed him to earn Harry Hiestand’s trust, erasing a position battle many expected to be an open audition.

Another top-line recruit and development project, Mustipher’s a third-year player who’ll help form a nucleus for an offensive line that’s expected to be one of the finest in the nation. But that won’t be possible without a big season from the Maryland native.

 

SAM MUSTIPHER
6’2.5″, 305 lbs.
Junior, No. 53, C

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Mustipher was an Under Armour All-American who picked Notre Dame over a field of elite offers. Alabama, Florida, Florida State, Michigan, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Stanford all wanted him. Hiestand had him locked up by April.

Notre Dame projected him as an interior player from the start, though his transition to center didn’t begin immediately.

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Did not see action.

Sophomore Season (2015): Made appearances in nine games, earning mop-up snaps against Texas and UMass at center.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

He never had to play any high-leverage snaps, but he certainly proved himself Monday through Friday.

Mustipher might be the most unproven part of Notre Dame’s two-deep, a good sign for the work the Irish have done stocking the depth chart. But if something happens to Martin, we’ll see how ready he is to play, a first-year contributor in the middle of an offensive line that’ll already be starting a first-year player at left guard.

Martin has already battled health issues, a major difference between him and his ironman brother. But Mustipher is likely ready to contribute if he’s the guy tapped to serve as a backup. If not? Expect to see some other bodies shuffle through this fall camp, with candidates including Colin McGovern, Hunter Bivin and John Montelus.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Mustipher’s physical attributes won’t bowl you over, but he very quickly earned respect from Brian Kelly last spring, being treated like an established veteran, not a first-year player being asked to replace a high NFL draft pick. Again, that confidence must come from what the staff sees, not what we’ve seen on the playing field.

What they likely see is a student-athlete making it work at Notre Dame as an engineering major, a testament to his smarts. They also see a center cut from the traditional mold, capable of utilizing leverage, moving his feet and aggressively attacking opponents across from him.

Former Bears Pro Bowler Olin Kreutz has spent some time around the Irish, thanks to his relationship with Hiestand. It’s hard not to note the physical similarities, something that I’m sure has helped ease the transition into the starting lineup.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I don’t think Mustipher will be as solid as Martin was last season (a deep-dig into game tape had Martin surging up draft boards before the Texans took him), but expect a strong season. Perhaps the best version of Mustipher is the one you don’t notice. First-year centers who spend a lot of time in the shotgun need to make sure that every play gets started correctly, and from there he can make sure the Irish win the battle at the point of attack. (It sounds remedial, but let’s not take the snap for granted.)

Mustipher’s strength let him win more than his fair share of battles last spring with Daniel Cage, a physical force on the interior. If Mustipher can anchor, play with solid technique and get to the second level, Notre Dame’s running game should continue to surge.

When Tristen Hoge signed with Notre Dame, most thought the high school center had the inside track to multiple seasons starting. That still could happen, but Mustipher might end up the one with three seasons at center, while Hoge battles to be one of the two linemen playing next to him.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston
Mark Harrell
Daelin Hayes
Jay Hayes
Tristen Hoge
Corey Holmes
Torii Hunter Jr.
Alizé Jones
Jamir Jones
Jarron Jones
Jonathan Jones
Tony Jones Jr.
Khalid Kareem
DeShone Kizer
Julian Love
Tyler Luatua
Cole Luke
Greer Martini
Jacob Matuska
Mike McGlinchey
Colin McGovern
Deon McIntosh
Javon McKinley
Pete Mokwuqh
John Montelus
D.J. Morgan
Nyles Morgan

 

Mailbag Open: Questions before camp

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Football is almost here. Before the Irish arrive at Culver Academies next week, drop your questions below or on Twitter @KeithArnold.

Irish A-to-Z: Nyles Morgan

TEMPE, AZ - NOVEMBER 08:  Quarterback Taylor Kelly #10 of the Arizona State Sun Devils throws a pass under pressure from linebacker Nyles Morgan #5 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the fourth quarter of the college football game at Sun Devil Stadium on November 8, 2014 in Tempe, Arizona. The Sun Devils defeated the Fighting Irish 55-31.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Joe Schmidt is gone. This is Nyles Morgan‘s defense now.

Some have argued it should’ve been Morgan’s defense last year—especially with nagging injuries robbing Schmidt of his productivity. But this isn’t an article aimed at indicting a former team captain or the braintrust atop the defense, but rather a look at the most important assumed starter on Notre Dame’s 2016 defense.

Praised this spring for his ascent into a leadership role, Morgan will need to show that his  free-styling freshman ways are over. If he can, he’ll immediately insert a difference maker into the center of the Irish defense, a tackling machine who has the potential to make big plays and wreak havoc from day one.

 

NYLES MORGAN
6’1″, 245 lbs.
Junior, No. 5, LB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Morgan was an Army All-American and Top 100 recruit who picked Notre Dame after a long battle with many national programs, including Ole Miss. (Now that we know a little bit more about Hugh Freeze and the Rebels staff, that’s certainly saying something.)

Add to that the fact that the Irish won after losing both his area recruiter (Chuck Martin) and defensive coordinator and position coach (Bob Diaco), and it was a huge land for Brian Kelly and Brian VanGorder.

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Freshman All-American. Finished T-8th for tackles by a freshman with 47. Made 11 stops against USC and chipped in a half-sack against LSU. Played in 12 games, starting four after Joe Schmidt was lost for the season.

Sophomore Season (2015): Played in all 13 games, mostly on special teams. Saw back-up snaps against Texas and UMass.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

A swing and a miss.

I’m pegging Morgan for a Top Four tackler on the roster, taking into consideration that finding snaps is going to be the hardest part for him. But Morgan is too athletic to keep off the field, and VanGorder and Kelly are too smart to keep a 240-pound heat-seeking missile off the field, especially when Jaylon Smith could help the Irish off the edge as a pass rusher just as much as a middle of the field linebacker.

No, he won’t be perfect. And if Morgan decides to freelance this season, he’ll do so mostly from the sideline while Grace, Greer Martini or several other linebackers get a chance to play. But all reports have Morgan a student of the game, and after a tough year learning on the fly, expect Morgan to take a huge step forward.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

There’s still nothing but bright days ahead for Morgan, who only has two seasons of eligibility remaining after spending most of last year playing special teams. It’s hard to get too wrapped up in the lost season considering the fact that frontline college players rarely give you four seasons of production—they’re off to the NFL by then.

That said, Morgan’s challenge in 2016 is to go from precocious newcomer to grizzled veteran, all without a transitional season in between. If he’s over last season’s bizarre usage, it doesn’t matter if a certain segment of the fanbase never will be. Morgan’s got more important things to do—like be the most impactful defensive player of the VanGorder era.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Notre Dame’s leading tackler. And it might not even be close. Yes, he’ll need to stay healthy. And yes, he’ll never to cut down on some of the mental mistakes that can turn a three-yard gain into a 30-yarder. But Morgan is the perfect prototype for middle linebacker in VanGorder’s scheme—and that’s what sold him on Notre Dame in the first place.

It won’t be all perfect for Morgan. I wonder if there’s a role for him on third downs, especially in passing situations. But his athleticism, toughness and nose for the football make this a relatively easy forecast.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston
Mark Harrell
Daelin Hayes
Jay Hayes
Tristen Hoge
Corey Holmes
Torii Hunter Jr.
Alizé Jones
Jamir Jones
Jarron Jones
Jonathan Jones
Tony Jones Jr.
Khalid Kareem
DeShone Kizer
Julian Love
Tyler Luatua
Cole Luke
Greer Martini
Jacob Matuska
Mike McGlinchey
Colin McGovern
Deon McIntosh
Javon McKinley
Pete Mokwuqh
John Montelus
D.J. Morgan

 

Irish A-to-Z: D.J. Morgan

DJ Morgan
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Notre Dame looked to add size to the back end of its defense this recruiting cycle. A big piece of that is Southern California freshman D.J. Morgan. A big, tough, versatile defensive back, area recruiter Mike Denbrock said it best when he called Morgan, “the best football player off of the best team in California.”

Thrown into the mix at a safety position that still has some sorting to do, Morgan will be one to watch during fall camp as Todd Lyght and Brian VanGorder look for answers on the back end.

 

D.J. MORGAN
6’2″, 190 lbs.
Freshman, DB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Multi-season starter and team captain of the nationally-ranked St. John Bosco team in Southern California. All-league selection, three-star recruit. Offers from Arizona State, Cal, Colorado and Utah.

Missing some of the elite offers that go to players of this profile, Morgan was an early target and take by the Irish coaching staff after being briefly committed to Arizona State.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Denbrock’s praise for Morgan certainly does more for me than any modest recruiting ranking. But the lack of high-end Pac-12 offers likely hangs on questions about Morgan’s position, specifically if he has the speed to hang in the secondary.

That’s probably not as important for the Irish as it is for others. Morgan sure looks like a prep version of Drue Tranquill, a guy who might not be at home playing half-field safety but looks like a million bucks coming downhill or running the alleys.

Intangibles will also probably factor into his success at the college level. Leading a prep program like Bosco is no small feat, and that type of high-character, high-Football IQ player could find a quick home in the secondary.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

If the Irish need special teamers, Morgan is an immediate plug-and-play option. If they want to spend a year developing him as an understudy, a redshirt makes sense. If Morgan catches on to the position like Devin Studstill did, he can compete for time behind Drue Tranquill. If he doesn’t, saving the year makes sense.

Expecting a major impact by Morgan is setting the bar too high. But if he can be a part of Scott Booker’s special teams core and help provide depth behind Tranquill and sixth-year safety Avery Sebastian, Morgan will join classmates Spencer Perry and Jalen Elliott as first-year lettermen right away.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston
Mark Harrell
Daelin Hayes
Jay Hayes
Tristen Hoge
Corey Holmes
Torii Hunter Jr.
Alizé Jones
Jamir Jones
Jarron Jones
Jonathan Jones
Tony Jones Jr.
Khalid Kareem
DeShone Kizer
Julian Love
Tyler Luatua
Cole Luke
Greer Martini
Jacob Matuska
Mike McGlinchey
Colin McGovern
Deon McIntosh
Javon McKinley
Pete Mokwuqh
John Montelus