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Irish Blogger Gathering: Game week is finally here

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Buckle up, everybody. For those of you that have taken the last nine months off, welcome back. For those of you that have been here daily with me throughout our annual football drought, expect the pace of play to kick up considerably this week. (Refresh and reload the page a lot, we’re going to be pounding out quite a bit of content getting ready for game one as I head to South Bend late Thursday.)

Brian Kelly is set to speak with the media tomorrow at noon, so we’ll have some fresh quotes to parse through and some interesting details that will surely follow. We’ll kick off this Monday with our (hopefully) weekly participation in the Irish Blogger Gathering, captained by the esteemed Subway Domer, and this week the questions are supplied by Frank over at UHND.com.

I’ll do my best to answer some season preview questions that should get some of the seasonal fans up to speed as Notre Dame prepares to kickoff a season with very high expectations.

The big news of last week was Dayne Crist winning the starting QB spot.  Are you happy with the outcome and how comfortable are you with Crist as the starting quarterback for the 2011 season?

I’ve been saying for months that Dayne Crist will be the starting quarterback and I’m incredibly comfortable with the decision for a number of reasons. I’ll give you three.

1. Crist will be a lot better this season. Sure, his accuracy will give you a few head-scratching moments and he’s not a perfect fit for the quick trigger passing game, but I expect Crist’s production to take a huge step forward this year. Last year, to protect an offense that was very much learning the ropes, Kelly relied on a horizontal passing game. This year, expect the offense to move vertically a lot better. That plays well to Crist’s strengths, and this year the quarterback will actually know what he’s doing instead of learning on the fly.

2. Crist is a lot better fit for this offense than you might expect. Pay no attention to the two major knee surgeries, Dayne is actually a pretty mobile and athletic guy. It may feel like decades ago, but Crist was a pretty active runner in high school and last season the offense actually started to open up when Crist was able to keep the ball and run. With depth behind him no longer an issue, don’t expect Kelly or offensive coordinator Charley Molnar to avoid keeping the ball in Dayne’s hands, which will add another dimension to a running game expecting to take a leap forward.

3. Crist winning the job helps program stability. The last time the Irish had four scholarship quarterbacks battling for a starting job, Demetrius Jones and Zach Frazer were both gone by week two of the 2007 season, the product of handing the job to freshman Jimmy Clausen and a head coach learning how to handle a depth chart filled with high-profile recruits for the first time.

Watching Kelly handle his four-headed quarterback competition was a perfect example of a seasoned coach understanding the college game. Everybody got a fair shot, everybody was complimented, and everybody stayed. Crist won the job in the end, and if it really was as close of a competition as BK and company made it out to be, then it was a no-brainer to choose the veteran, if only because it doesn’t tip the apple cart.

I still think it’s doubtful that we end up seeing Andrew Hendrix, Tommy Rees, Crist and Everett Golson all end their career playing for Notre Dame, but the fact that nobody transferred away yet is a victory for coaching diplomacy and important for building a strong program.

A lot of people say you see the biggest improvement between year 1 and 2 after a coaching change.  What area do you hope to see the biggest improvement in 2011?

Total offense. The Irish finished squarely in the middle of the pack last year at 61st, the worst year Kelly has had on that side of the ball since his early days at Central Michigan. I think the staff is quietly optimistic that this team is going to be able to play maybe not at Oregon’s pace, but at least at the speed of Kelly’s Cincinnati squad that ran the regular season table. With experience back, a good offensive line and solidified quarterback play, expect a big jump in year two.

I know you didn’t ask for two areas, but I also expect the Irish to do much better at getting after the quarterback. In Brian Kelly’s three seasons at Cincinnati, the Bearcats were in the top ten nationally in sacks each year, a pretty astounding stat considering the Irish came in at 55th last season. Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco stockpiled some dangerous weaponry on defense and having situational guys like Aaron Lynch, Steve Filer, and Ishaq Williams, along with Darius Fleming and Prince Shembo coming off the edge means the Irish should take a giant leap forward in sacks.

I think we’ve all covered this year’s highly touted freshman class quite a bit this off-season already so instead, who do you see as this year’s Corey Mays?  Mays played primarly special teams for 3 seasons before a breakout season as a 5th year senior in 2005.  Who on the Irish roster can pull off a similar performance this season?

Is this the annual Steve Filer breakout watch question? Because if it is, Filer fits the profile down to the hometown. Last week, Bob Diaco had an interesting quote when discussing defensive starters. He was talking about 50/50 players like Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox, but he also let it slip that he considers Steve Filer a defensive starter, too. At what position? I think we’ll get our first hint this week, as Kelly also made it clear that it was going to be the coaching staff’s job to find a way to get Filer and his athleticism onto the field for more than just special teams.

Looking at things realistically, where Filer plays will be the hardest thing to figure out. You’re not going to take Fleming off the field on passing downs. It doesn’t make sense to take out Shembo, either. If the Irish slide to a four man front, they’ll likely do it to get Aaron Lynch on the field with a hand in the dirt, and move Ethan Johnson inside to rush. Does that mean Filer lines up next to Manti Te’o on the inside, wreaking havoc on the interior of an offensive line? Who knows, but it’ll be interesting to see what Diaco cooks up, especially seeing that he works all practice with Filer and the linebackers and knows what he can do.

Theo Riddick is a player I’ve been touting all off-season and think the is ready to become a big name in college football.  What player on Notre Dame’s roster who hasn’t yet broken out are you expecting to put up big numbers in 2011?

Good call on Riddick. Just because I don’t want to say the same thing, I’ll flip to the defensive side of the ball and say Ethan Johnson. He’s done a lot at Notre Dame, but hasn’t truly broken out, and just listening to him this preseason you hear a different player and see a guy that’s physically ready to play the part of a 300-pound athletic college defensive end.

Notre Dame plays a legit opponent in South Florida unlike a lot of teams around the country.  How do you see this game playing out and does it help or hurt Notre Dame that they play a BCS conference opponent this weekend while Michigan plays Western Michigan?

I’ll get to this in way more detail this week, but South Florida is a good football team with a coach that’s very good at motivating his football team. If the Irish can keep B.J. Daniels under wraps and force him to turn the ball over a few times, Notre Dame should be able to win this football game easily. But the Bulls have some serious speed and athleticism on defense, and I expect to see Cierre Wood, Riddick and possibly George Atkinson touching the ball on the ground in some very interesting misdirection/counter elements, with the coaching staff hoping to use the Bulls speed against them.

As for starting with a non-cupcake? Don’t expect that to change, and Kelly has already talked about changing the way he prepares his team for a season that needs to be full go from day one. Would you rather open up with Western Michigan? Probably. But it’s not going to happen and there’s no reason to get worked up about it.

Stealing this one from my IBG pre-season questions from last year – who is the Notre Dame player the Irish can least afford to lose this season?  For the sake of getting some different response, you can’t use Michael Floyd or Manti Te’o here.

That’s got to be Harrison Smith. He’s the captain of both the team and the defense and with him, the Irish have an anchor in their secondary that’s among the best athletes in the country. Without him, the Irish will be playing Jamoris Slaughter and Zeke Motta, two guys that were learning on the fly and will force Chuck Martin and Diaco to play a far more conservative scheme.

Even if you included Floyd and Te’o, I’d argue Smith is just as important as those two.

Obligatory pre-season prediction question:

  • Notre Dame’s final record: If the Irish get through September, they’ll win 10 games… maybe more.
  • Notre Dame’s bowl game and opponent: I’ll repeat last year’s pipe dream: ND vs. Wisconsin at the Rose Bowl
  • Final ranking for Notre Dame: Top Ten would be a great success. (Yes, I’m avoiding this question, too.)
  • Best opposing offensive and defensive player ND will face in ’11: Andrew Luck and Jerel Worthy
  • Best opposing coach ND will face: Troy Calhoun.
  • Notre Dame game you won’t miss for anything: Tie — Michigan & USC.
  • Notre Dame game you could watch on DVR: That’d be tough for the live blog.
  • National Champion: No Clue.
  • Heisman Trophy Winner: Andrew Luck.

Spring positions to watch for revelations: DL & WR

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 05: Jerry Tillery #99 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish tackles Jerrod Heard #13 of the Texas Longhorns for a loss of yards during the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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If quarterback, rover and the early enrollees could be Notre Dame fans’ springtime Christmas thrills, what positions present as potential spots of coal?

Three former Irish players were invited to next week’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis: quarterback DeShone Kizer, defensive tackle Jarron Jones and defensive end Isaac Rochell. Losing two consistent defensive linemen leaves this year’s unit with some questions. Jones and Rochell combined for 100 tackles, 18 for loss and three sacks last season. Notre Dame’s returning defensive linemen combined to total 111 tackles and only 5.5 tackles for loss. To be clear, sacks are not included in that latter list because no returning defensive linemen recorded one. Among the returnees, junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37 tackles, three for loss) and senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26, 0.5) contributed solidly alongside the two NFL prospects.

This dearth of known and reliable linemen is a large part of why the potential transfer of Clemson graduate defensive tackle Scott Pagano is so intriguing. Pagano would immediately be a favorite to start, and if not that, at least rotate in heavily.

For now, though, Pagano remains a theoretical

By the end of spring practice, who already on campus will emerge alongside Tillery and Trumbetti in the Irish front? Senior ends Jay Hayes (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) and Jonathon Bonner (nine tackles) seem the most-likely candidates … aside from former four-star recruit and now rising sophomore Daelin Hayes. In his debut season, D. Hayes finished with 11 tackles.

Look for senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) to establish himself as Tillery’s immediate backup this spring, but that spot in the rotation will be up for competition all over again once four-star tackle Darnell Ewell (Lake Taylor High School; Norfolk, Va.) arrives on campus in the fall. His size and quickness should play right into new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s system.

Equanimeous and Who?
Not only did Notre Dame bring in a graduate transfer at receiver in former Michigan wideout Freddy Canteen, but it has also already received the commitments of two four-star receivers in the 2018 recruiting class. The continued emphasis on the position reflects the lack of bona fide game-breakers currently on the roster.

Junior Equanimeous St. Brown established himself as the top Irish threat in 2016, and he should shine only further with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush targeting him. Classmates often amplify each other’s success, simply due to the added shared reps innate to joining practice at the same time. With Torii Hunter, Jr., now pursuing a professional baseball career, who will prevent the secondary from focusing all its energies on St. Brown?

Canteen will not be with Notre Dame in the spring, as he does not graduate from Michigan until April. That will give a clear shot for the likes of juniors Chris Finke, C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin, and sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool to establish themselves. Did that say “clear” shot? It should probably read, “a chance to separate from the crowd.”

If a genuine threat does not line up opposite St. Brown, his explosiveness will likely be greatly reduced by focused defensive scheming. Wimbush will need another target before 2018.

Of course, here is where one should acknowledge the millennia-tested fact: Coal under pressure becomes diamonds.

2016 Notre Dame’s win expectancy was 7.2
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Johnson named the Irish as his team most likely to dramatically improve its record in 2017. Johnson’s thinking is based, at least in part, on Notre Dame’s second-order win total having been 7.2 in 2016, compared to the four wins the Irish actually walked away with. That discrepancy was the largest in the country.

Second-order win totals reflect how many points a team should have scored and allowed based on offensive and defensive stats. In theory, this shines a light on how luck and chance factored into results. Naturally, losing seven games by one possession will often be reflected by a higher second-order win total.

“Notre Dame’s win-loss record belied a solid, if imperfect, squad that just couldn’t pull out close games…” Johnson writes. “The Irish may not get back into College Football Playoff contention in 2017, but they’re bound to post a few more Ws because of reversion to the mean.”

Admittedly, the small sample size of a football season reduces the applicability of metrics such as second- and third-order wins when compared to baseball and basketball.

Jones becomes Mack
A quick piece of housekeeping: Apparently junior tight end Alizé Jones has changed his name to Alizé Mack.

While Notre Dame’s roster may not reflect that change yet, it is reasonable to expect it will after its next update. The football program has consistently respected the intricacies of players’ name preferences. Tai-ler Jones becoming TJ Jones jumps to mind, for example.

Anyways, hopefully noting Mack’s name change here might reduce some confusion down the line. Probably not. How many readers possibly read to the actual bottom of an article? But hey, in good faith.

WR Lenzy makes 11th commitment, brings speed to Irish

lenzy
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At what point does an impressive recruiting roll become something more? When does it become a harbinger of things to come, even if not for a few seasons? How many notable commitments in a row establishes a class as special?

If the answer to any of the above is 11 commitments by the end of February, including five within two weeks, then Notre Dame is there following consensus four-star athlete Braden Lenzy’s announcement Thursday evening.

The Tigard High School (Portland, Ore) receiver/cornerback chose the Irish over offers from USC, Oregon and Michigan State, among a litany of others. In all, nine Pac-12 schools chased Lenzy—and a 10th, Washington, had shown interest—per rivals.com.

Lenzy will fit the leading 2018 need voiced by Irish coach Brian Kelly three weeks ago on National Signing Day 2017.

“Elite speed on offense will be a primary goal for us,” Kelly said Feb. 1. “Guys that can change the game on one possession. I think we’ll see that… We want a couple of home run hitters. We don’t care if they’re Darren Sproles’s size. We’re going to come off the board in terms of profile. We want some guys that can change the game on offense with elite speed.”

At 6-foot, 175 pounds, Lenzy is taller than Sproles’s 5-foot-6, but it is still his speed that drew Notre Dame’s interest.

“They made it clear they want me to do kickoff return and use me as a deep threat across the field,” he told Irish Illustrated. “Just being kind of an athlete, similar to what I’ve been doing already in high school, just on a bigger scale with a quarterback that can throw it a lot farther.”

Presuming Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush is that arm in 2018, throwing great distances should not be an issue. Between Lenzy and fellow 2018 commit Micah Jones, covering those distances should be a reasonable request, as well.

Lenzy brings Notre Dame’s class of 2018 to 11, including eight four-stars according to Rivals’ rating system. Current scholarship projections indicate the class will not be a large one, meaning the Irish coaching staff has already garnered the commitments of more than half the class. Once again, though, Kelly’s sentiment regarding recruiting timing should be remembered.

“We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

SWARBRICK’S TAKE ON RECRUITING
Kelly credited Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick with much assistance in securing the country’s No. 13 recruiting class in 2017. A refresher on those comments:

“In a lot of instances, [Swarbrick] had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it’s going,” Kelly said. “There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future.”

Swarbrick did not dispute the factual nature of any of that in an interview with the Indianapolis Star, but he did contest the need for praising what he saw as part of his job, one of the preferred parts of his job, at that.

“I can’t say anything about this year felt all that different,” Swarbrick told Star reporter Laken Litman. “Some asked questions about the future of the program and can we compete for a national championship. And I would talk about the elements of the program we were focused on improving.”

Swarbrick and Litman discussed a number of items in the second-half of the interview released by the Star, including Notre Dame’s facilities, a possible early signing period in football and if the Oct. 8, 2016, game against North Carolina State should have been played. Spoiler: No. Then why was it? Go check it out.

Swarbrick also told Litman he likes to write in his free time.

“I tend to think strategically with a pen in my hand.” Swarbrick added he is currently scribbling away on where he thinks college athletics are headed.

This scribe, for one, would be most interested in skimming those legal pads.

Will Wimbush, Elko and the early enrollees surprise in spring practice?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Exactly 59 days from today, the Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Sure, they will be playing against themselves, but nonetheless, it will be somewhat-competitive football played in gold helmets.

For timing context, exactly 59 days ago, you looked beneath the Christmas tree to learn if Santa Claus left you season tickets, socks or coal. I got socks. They had some of that extra cushioning, so I considered them a suitable treat.

Whether you care about my argyles or not (you don’t), for many the Blue-Gold Game and Christmas morning hold similar excitement. That fact is apparently why Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick does not concern himself when groups of alumni publicly lament his decisions, or lack thereof.

“I never worry about that,” Swarbirck told the Indianapolis Star in an exclusive interview you really should read. Go on, click the link, it will open in a new tab. You can come right back here when you are done.

“The hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion in your program. If that sort of stuff bothers you, you can’t be the athletic director, head coach or the quarterback at Notre Dame.”

That very passion will undoubtedly lead to frame-by-frame discussions of video snippets from spring practice, parsing of each and every word Irish coach Brian Kelly says in quick interviews after those practices, and extreme pessimism and optimism about the 2017 season.

In the Christmas spirit, what toys could bring the must excitement during the spring unwrapping? Personally, the gift I was unsure of always brought the most joy. I would rather open an unexpected book than know about a charcoal-gray suit. In other words, at least for today, let’s look past the offensive line, the running backs and the inside linebackers. Instead, let’s look forward to learning about… (more…)

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Karlos Williams #9 of the Florida State Seminoles scores the touchdown that would win the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their game at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.

With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.

The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.

Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.

Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.

If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.

Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order: (more…)