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.

Recruiting success continues with OL Dirksen, class’s 12th commit

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Even in the doldrums of spring practice, Notre Dame’s recent recruiting success continues. Rivals.com three-star/scout.com four-star offensive lineman John Dirksen offered a verbal commitment to the Irish on Saturday, bringing the 2018 class to 12 commitments.

The 6-foot-5, 290-pounds Dirksen (Marion High School; Maria Stein, Ohio) joins consensus three-star prospect Cole Mabry (Brentwood H.S.; Brentwood, Tenn.) as the offensive linemen thus far among the 12. In three of the last four years, Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has pulled in four recruits, with 2015’s two (Trevor Ruhland, Tristen Hoge) as the exception. This recruiting cycle could again bring a limited offensive line haul, given the likely limits on the class’s size.

While any and all current class of 2018 team rankings should be taken with many grains of salt—there are 318 days between today and National Signing Day, after all—Dirksen’s commitment solidifies the Irish hold on the No. 3 class, per rivals.com. Other recruiting services place Notre Dame even higher.

Dirksen chose Hiestand and the Irish over offers from Michigan State, Iowa State and Boston College, among others.

 

Holmes out for spring; Jones & Jones shining

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Notre Dame’s spring continued over the weekend, and is all too often the case with football, that led to an injury. Early enrollee running back C.J. Holmes will probably miss the rest of spring practice due to a separated shoulder, Irish coach Brian Kelly announced following Saturday’s practice.

“We’ll get an MRI and know a little bit further on Monday once that calms down a little bit,” Kelly said. “We’ll get a picture of that and see. He had an open repair on that same shoulder his sophomore year in high school.”

Behind three backs, including two with experience, Holmes was unlikely to see playing time in the backfield in 2017.

Of those three backs, sophomore Tony Jones, Jr., is the unknown after preserving a year of eligibility last season. In limited practice viewing, however, Jones has only impressed. He has caught Kelly’s eye, as well.

“He’s 225 pounds, can catch the ball coming out of the backfield, [is] assignment correct, and can run elusively and can get into the second level,” Kelly said. “What does that equal? He’s a pretty good back.

“Obviously he was noticeable today in his play and he got some work with the first group as well. He wasn’t just getting second-team reps.”

Jones may be getting some first-unit exposure, but expect him to remain behind junior Josh Adams in the depth chart. Considering Jones’ style is somewhat comparable to Adams’, whereas junior Dexter Williams presents something of a change of pace, Williams should see more action than the sophomore, as well.

MORE PRAISE FOR ALIZE JONES
Junior tight end Alizé Jones—rather, Alizé Mack, per his Twitter account—has taken the lead in spring’s race of who reaps the most sound bite accolades. In complimenting Jones, who missed last season due to an academic suspension, Kelly also managed to laud new offensive coordinator Chip Long.

“I think Chip is doing a terrific job with [Jones],” Kelly said. “He’s got a good relationship. He knows how to rise him up when he needs to and scold him when he needs to. Alizé needs a little bit of that.

“He’s virtually un-coverable in certain areas of the field. I don’t care at any level. You can’t cover him. He just has that kind of talent. The one that I think stands out to me in the few days is he’s committed himself to being a blocker and playing physical. If he continues to do that, we’re going to find ourselves with a lot of tight ends on the field.”

Presumably, Jones would join graduate student tight end Durham Smythe in two tight end sets. It should be remembered, Long has historically shown a preference for such formations, and with Notre Dame’s plethora of options at the position, Long’s tendencies have no need to change. For that matter, Long had some praise for Jones this weekend, as well.

“Alizé can be as good as he wants to be,” Long said Friday. “…He’s growing up each and every day. Great joy to coach, and that whole group is. He doesn’t want to let that group down. There’s no question he can be as good as he wants to be.”

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.”

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Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover position, others likely to follow
2 Days Until Spring Practice: A look at the defensive backfield