Dayne Crist

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.

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…)