Eleven for ’11: Keys for the Fighting Irish

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Everybody knows Michael Floyd, Manti Te’o and Harrison Smith. While those three will likely have a large hand in determining Notre Dame’s fate, the Irish’s three All-American candidates can only do so much for a roster that’s finally at a full allotment of 85 scholarship players.

As the No. 16 Irish get ready to kick off the 2011 season against South Florida at Notre Dame Stadium this Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET on NBC), let’s take a look at the eleven players and coaches that’ll need to exceed expectations if Notre Dame is going to make it to the BCS, a goal Brian Kelly and the Irish haven’t shied away from.

1. Theo Riddick, WR/KR: Kelly raised a lot of eyebrows last season when he called Riddick one of his most explosive playmakers. It took a while for the converted running back to prove Kelly right, and unfortunately an ankle injury against Western Michigan derailed him, just as he was beginning to hit his stride.

It seems like Kelly’s doubling down on his junior wideout, going all in with Riddick as his return specialist, with Theo handling kicks and punts. He might be the spark special teams coach Mike Elston has been missing from his return units, with the Irish’s only explosive return coming when Armando Allen returned a punt 38 yards against Purdue.

Riddick put up respectable stats during his sophomore season, a year he spent learning how to be a receiver on the fly. With defenses keying on Michael Floyd, Riddick needs to take advantage of the open-field mismatches he’ll receive and make defenses pay.

2. Ben Turk, Punter: Don’t laugh. If the Irish are going to play winning football, they’ll need to get a better season out of Turk, who has been maddeningly inconsistent in his two seasons punting for the Irish. Armed with a big leg, Turk’s struggled to take his practice stroke to the field. If those habits continue, expect to see freshman Kyle Brindza doing the punting.

Flipping the field on punts is one of those hidden statistics that make a huge difference in close football games but rarely show up in the box score. After two seasons of averaging just more than 38 yards per kick, Turk has to take his work to the next level, which will help the Irish in close games.

3. Prince Shembo, OLB: The Irish coaching staff has had nothing but good things to say about Shembo this season, and he’s created significant distance between himself and the rest of the ‘Dog’ linebackers. While many expected a platoon with fellow sophomore Danny Spond, it seems Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco think Shembo is too good of a player to take off the field.

Anyone who’s looked at the stat sheet or watched highlights from last season knows Shembo can get after the passer. But for a guy that played defensive end in high school and was a designated pass-rusher as a freshman, the switch to the field-side linebacker is no small transition.

If the Irish defense is going to be as stout as some think it can be, Shembo is going to need to be a much more versatile player. That means being able to rush the passer, cover a slot receiver, and play well in open space. We know Shembo can chase down a quarterback. He’ll need to do a lot more this season.

4. Ed Warinner, Offensive line coach & run-game coordinator: Warinner added another title to his business card, possibly as a thank you for pulling his name from consideration when the Nebraska offensive coordinator position opened up. A year after doing really impressive work with first year starters Zack Martin, Braxston Cave and Taylor Dever, Kelly offloaded the running game to Warinner, letting offensive coordinator Charley Molnar concentrate strictly on quarterbacks and the passing attack.

After losing both Armando Allen and Robert Hughes from the backfield, Warinner will be tasked with keeping the momentum from the season’s final four games, where the Irish committed to running the ball far more often — and effectively — with Tommy Rees at the helm. With four of five starters back, and both Chris Watt and Andrew Nuss already having plenty of experience, it’s Warinner’s duties to get this offensive line to play dominating football. That’s something the Irish haven’t seen since the late Joe Moore was coaching in the trenches.

5. Louis Nix, DT: For a guy that’s yet to play a down of football, Nix sure comes with some oversized expectations. It could be because the jumbo defensive tackle showed up on campus at 368 pounds, more than 40 pounds heavier than he is today. Nix deserves all the credit in the world for getting himself into shape; now he’ll have to earn the praise he’s garnered by fans and coaches alike by taking that hard work to the field.

We know what to expect from senior Sean Cwynar, who was a disruptive presence on the interior of the defensive line when Ian Williams got hurt. But if the Irish want to have a formidable front three, they’ll need Nix, a guy that hasn’t played a snap of football since his senior season in high school, to be the run stuffing monster befitting of the cult status he’s achieved.

6. John Goodman, WR: Brian Kelly has tried to deliver subtle hint countless times to Goodman, but the Fort Wayne native rumored to have some of the best speed in the receiving corps has yet to have the lightbulb go on. Last season, Goodman worked his way into the receiver rotation but was also tasked with returning punts, and whether or not it was his fault, he was a fair catch machine.

At risk of losing his spot in the receiver rotation, Kelly spent last week delivering one more message to the athletic senior, and it sounds like it hit home. Goodman will rotate between outside receiver positions, and if he and quarterback Dayne Crist are able to recapture some of the magic they had way back against Washington State in 2009, the Irish passing game will finally have another big athletic receiver to target.

7. Jamoris Slaughter, Safety: The Irish had a healthy Slaughter for less than a half of football last year. A high ankle sprain lingered for almost the entire season, robbing the Irish of a guy they thought could’ve been their best cover safety going into the season. While Slaughter’s injury allowed Zeke Motta to jump in, having Slaughter healthy and ready from day one gives the Irish secondary more versatility in coverage and another great athlete that’s showed coverage skills and a knack for making big hits.

As the season opens, Slaughter and Motta will be looked upon to play fundamentally sound football. Not getting beat long is good enough with a front-seven like this and a safety like Smith next to them. But as the senior from Georgia builds confidence, there’s every reason to think that Slaughter can play better than good enough. If he does, the Irish might have two ball hawks roaming over the top of cornerbacks Gary Gray and Robert Blanton.

8. Aaron Lynch, DE: Lynch had Irish fans pining for the one that got away when he dominated at the US Army All-American game after his senior season of high school. Then, when the Florida native shocked the recruiting world when he decommitted from Florida State and enrolled early at Notre Dame, he had Irish fans salivating when he dominated the Blue-Gold game this spring.

While there’s been a ton of hyperbole lobbed Lynch’s way by fans, the coaching staff has downplayed the freshman’s ability to contribute immediately. But make no mistake, the coaching staff knows what they have in Lynch, the Irish’s best pass-rusher from the day he stepped on campus. Gifted with the size and physicality needed to play immediately, if Lynch can be put in enough positions to succeed, the sky is the limit.

9. Bob Diaco, Defensive coordinator: For all the great things Diaco did in his first season as the leader of the Irish defense, he’ll need to solve a Navy option game that almost got him run out of town. Armed with a game plan lacking a second option, the Irish looked even worst against Navy’s option attack than it did under Charlie Weis. Diaco will not only face Navy this season (albeit without quarterback Ricky Dobbs), he’ll have to face an Air Force option offense that was the second best rushing attack in college football.

But let’s set aside the mandatory prerequisite of stopping the option. Diaco has a war chest of weapons unlike any Irish defense in recent memory. It’ll be up to him to find the right combination for personnel, and become more effective with blitzes and getting after the quarterback.

10. Darius Fleming, OLB: The time is now for Fleming, long one of Notre Dame’s best athletes on defense, but only barely scraping the surface of what many believe he can become. Last season, the Chicago native managed to lead the team in sacks and tackles-for-loss, all while learning on the job and playing uncomfortably in a system that caused Fleming to think way too much.

With a base knowledge that finally matches his physical skillset, it’s time for Fleming to take the leap from quality college football player to breakout Irish sackmaster. Playing at 6-4, 255 pounds during his final season in South Bend, Justin Tuck exploded for 13.5 sacks before heading to the NFL. Fleming might not be able to grow two inches this season, but Diaco’s system is built to give the ‘Cat’ linebacker chances to get the quarterback and make plays behind the line of scrimmage, and Fleming seems ready to rise to the occasion.

11. Dayne Crist, QB: It’s a cliche, but the Irish will go wherever Crist can lead them. If the senior quarterback can stay healthy and match his on-field exploits with his off-the-field intangibles, get ready for a season to remember. But Crist’s challenges remain the same as they were last year — playing in a system that doesn’t truly fit his abilities, he still struggles with the short and intermediate accuracy that’s needed to drive Kelly’s offense.

Lots of quarterbacks struggle in their first year on the job. Add in a new system complete with different footwork, a major knee injury to recover from, and an offense that was missing a Biletnikoff Award-winning receiver, and Crist’s up-and-down junior season was understandable.

But with a full year absorbing Kelly’s offense, it’ll be up to Crist to shake off another major knee injury and take a huge step forward. Winning the starting job from Tommy Rees was only the first step. The Irish need Crist to be the triggerman to an offense that’s both efficient through the air and on the ground. If he can do that, Irish fans should be very excited.

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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