Pregame Six Pack: Running with the Bulls

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Are you talked out yet? Between Charlie Brown, Eleven for ’11, USF previews, and a nice little sprinkling of recruiting news, it’s been a busy week. As we finally complete our crawl to Friday, the pregame heat has been turned up. Literally. It feels like someone left the oven open in the Midwest, and as thousands descend upon South Bend, they’ll be greeted by 97 degree heat and a humidity that begs you to buy a few extra dry t-shirts at the Bookstore.

With that in mind, we’ve trimmed our pregame sampling to a six pack, if only to keep everyone from getting dehydrated. As always, here are six fun facts, tidbit, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as the No. 16 Fighting Irish prepare to play Skip Holtz’s South Florida Bulls.

1. Bring on the freshman.

Not that it wasn’t inevitable, but the game time forecast means the Irish will need to get more players involved from the get go, meaning everybody should keep their eyes on the roster and watch intently as their favorite freshman hit the field for the first time.

“We’ve got to be really good at substitution,” Brian Kelly said. “Some of these young guys have got to play early. When it’s a lot hotter the Tuitts and the Lynches and Troy Niklases and the Atkinsons and the McDaniels, all those kids, you’re probably going to start seeing them in the first dozen plays. Maybe sooner. When the weather’s like that, those young guys that have to gain experience, you’re not going to wait too long to see them in the game.”

For your viewing pleasure, here’s a short crib-sheet on the newcomers you’ll likely see.

No. 4 – George Atkinson, RB: Expect a package that’ll let Atkinson get the ball in space. He’s undersized, but can fly.
No. 27 – Kyle Brindza, K: Rocket-legged freshman will handle kickoffs.
No. 16 – Davaris Daniels, WR: Raw but athletic, Kelly might be underselling Daniels in hopes he’ll fly under the radar.
No. 5 – Everett Golson, QB: Wouldn’t surprise me if Golson has a series of his own on Saturday running spread option package.
No. 18 – Ben Koyack, TE: The fact that Koyack’s pushed his way into a deep TE rotation shows you how good he could be.
No. 19 – Aaron Lynch, DE: Expect to see No. 19 on the first third down of the year, pining his ears back an getting after B.J. Daniels.
No. 33 – Cam McDaniel, RB: He’ll likely surprise many with his versatile skillset and big play ability.
No. 58 – Troy Niklas, OLB: The prototype from Brian Kelly’s recruiting model. Big, versatile athlete is a freak of nature.
No. 7 – Stephon Tuitt, DE: If you’re wondering who Tuitt is, just look for the biggest guy on the football field.
No. 1 – Ishaq Williams, OLB: Might be the wildcard of the class. Immensely athletic player could be a specialty item.

2. The stars have aligned for Manti Te’o. That might not be a good thing for USF. 

I’ve been derelict in my duties this offseason, and I haven’t filed as many stories on Te’o as I probably should have. That’s not to say that I take the Irish’s preseason All-American for granted.

How long has it been since the Irish have had an All-American linebacker? Anthony Denman garnered second-team AP honors in 2000, Demetrius DuBose received mention in 1991, but not since Michael Stonebreaker in 1990 has a Notre Dame linebacker been a first-team All-American, with Stonebreaker, Chris Zorich and Raghib Ismail all being named consensus All-American’s in 1990. How long ago was that? Ottilia Te’o was pregnant at the time, months away from giving birth to Manti in January of 1991.

Eric Hansen has a long profile of Te’o in today’s South Bend Tribune, an article he wrote for the excellent Irish Sports Report preview magazine. In it, Te’o singles out the tide change in the Irish resurgence at the end of last season.

And that strength — from the church, from Toma, from family — that percolated most of Te’o’s first season and a half at ND became a constant toward the end of last season, when the Irish went on their season-ending 4-0 run.

“In the practices leading up to the Utah game, the players took over,” Te’o explained. “The coaches didn’t have to be the energy. The coaches didn’t have to be the guys getting the team going.

“I told (defensive coordinator Bob) Diaco. ‘Let me try and run this. Let me get us into the right defense. Let me try to motivate these guys.’ And quickly, the team periods become more physical.

“From there, guys were getting into each other. Guys were talking crap to each other. Guys were hitting each other. Then the offense starting getting into it, and it became this huge competition thing. When we walked into the Utah game, we had a whole new swagger. We knew nobody was going to beat us.”

If you’re looking for an interesting match-up, keep an eye on Te’o vs. USF running back Darrell Scott, a 243-pound bowling ball that’s got five-star pedigree. With B.J. Daniels‘ speed and athleticism putting pressure on the edges of the defense, Te’o will likely be tasked with stopping Scott. That’s roughly 500 pounds of force colliding.

3. Both South Florida and Brian Kelly understand what Michael Floyd is capable of doing.

If you’re wondering if South Florida knew about Michael Floyd, it’s pretty clear they’ve watched some tape.

“He’s as good as anyone I’ve seen since Braylon Edwards,” defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said earlier this week. “He may be better than Braylon.”

The assignment of covering Floyd will probably be given to Quenton Washington, a 5-10 redshirt senior cornerback that was just named one of the team’s captains. The Bulls also have some good size in their secondary with safety JaQuez Jenkins, who at 6-2 has the height to go up and get the ball as well. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Snyder bracket Floyd with over-the-top coverage from Jenkins, with hopes of taking the jump ball out of play.

That said, if you’re looking for a storyline that most won’t be following, keep an eye out for how Kelly decides to use his star wide receiver this year. In last year’s opening game, Dayne Crist only targeted Floyd seven times, with Floyd catching five passes for a rather pedestrian 82 yards. Against Michigan, a team he’s torched in the past, Floyd only caught five balls, with two coming in that fleeting final drive. Contrast that with the USC game, when Tommy Rees targeted Floyd 13 times, completing all but two throws. To Floyd, Rees was 11 for 13. When targeting the rest of the team, he was 9 for 19 for 60 yards and three interceptions.

With a big game, Floyd could pass Jeff Samardzija in receptions and Golden Tate in career yardage, putting his name atop two more Notre Dame receiving records. Now that Kelly and offensive coordinator Charley Molnar know what Floyd is capable of, they’ll find more ways to get him the football.

4. Expect the first 100 yard game of the Brian Kelly era to happen on Saturday.

If Brian Kelly knew he’d fail to get a 100 yard rusher in his first season, he’d have likely sent Armando Allen through a hole one more time against Purdue or let Cierre Wood have a few carries in that final drive against Western Michigan. He didn’t, so Wood’s 94 yard day against the Broncos stands as a season high, a number that’ll likely be improved upon Saturday.

The Irish ran the ball for 4.0 yards a carry last season, their best rushing average since 2003. That said, it’s not a number they’re satisfied with. As I mentioned earlier, one big reason that’ll improve is Ed Warinner. The last time Warinner was a run game coordinator he led Illinois to the Big Ten rushing title, finishing 10th in the nation while averaging 188 yards per game.

It’s clear that Cierre Wood is the featured back in the Irish offense. But how carries get distributed between Wood, senior Jonas Gray, and freshman Cam McDaniel and George Atkinson will be interesting. (I also expect to see Theo Riddick get a handoff or two.)

5. It’s finally time to see if the Irish defense is as good as we think it is.

While a late season renaissance has many thinking this Irish defense could be one of the better units in the country, we’ll likely get our first clue tomorrow afternoon. (That said, don’t get too excited with a one-game sample size. The Irish opened up 2009 with a shutout victory against Nevada.) If you’re looking for a reason the Irish should thrive, look no further than the defensive front seven.

After a starting trio of Kapron Lewis-Moore, Sean Cwynar, and Ethan Johnson, expect to see Aaron Lynch, Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt and Kona Schwenke and Hafis Williams rolling through.

At linebacker, Darius Fleming, Manti Te’o, Dan Fox and Prince Shembo will start, but we already know we’ll see plenty of Carlo Calabrese, and it’ll be interesting to see how Bob Diaco works in Steve Filer, Danny Spond, and freshmen Ishaq Williams and Troy Niklas. Expect quite a few exotic personnel packages, most designed to confuse and fluster B.J. Daniels.

On the back line, Robert Blanton and Gary Gray will start at field and boundary cornerbacks. Harrison Smith and Jamoris Slaughter will start at safety, with Zeke Motta rolling in. Blanton’s playmaking ability behind the line of scrimmage necessitates a few different looks for the Irish defense after a season of playing mostly vanilla coverages. It’ll also be interest to see how much time Dan McCarthy and Bennett Jackson get, two talented athletes that haven’t seen much time on the field.

Last year, the Irish were focused on “mastering their musts.” After passing their prerequisites, it’s time to move up to honors level courses.

6. If the Irish can force turnovers from B.J. Daniels, the game should fall Notre Dame’s way.

It isn’t hard to pick out the trend in USF’s 2010 season. When the Bulls lost, it was because B.J. Daniels turned the ball over.

Florida 38, USF 14 — Daniels goes a woeful 5 for 20 with four interceptions
Syracuse 13, USF 9 — Daniels is 9 for 23 with two interceptions
West Virginia 20, USF 6 — Daniels completes 20 of 30, but throws three interceptions
Pitt 17, USF 10 — Daniels is 15 for 29 with no touchdowns and one interception.

In victory, here were Daniels’ stats:

USF 59, Stony Brook 14 — 15 for 22, 2 TDs
USF 24, Western Kentucky 12 — 7 for 11, 0 TDs 1 INT
USF 31, Florida Atlantic 3 — 14 for 19, 1 TD
USF 38, Cincinnati 30 — 13 for 16, 2 TD
USF 28, Rutgers 27 — 10 for 17, 2 TD 1 INT
USF 24, Louisville 21 — 11 for 19, 1 TD
USF 23, Miami 20 — 4 for 12, 0 TD, 0 INT

Only against Western Kentucky did the Bulls win when Daniels threw more interceptions than touchdowns. If the Irish can create pressure in the pocket and confuse Daniels, they should be in good shape to force some turnovers.

In case you’re wondering, Brian Kelly is 30-1 since 2006 when his team wins the turnover battle.

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?

What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

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Time spent on a traditional game wrap of a spring intrasquad exhibition seems misspent. Gold won Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game 27-14 led by rising sophomore quarterback Ian Book. The first-string defense (Gold) held the first-string offense to an average of 5.4 yards per play. For context’s sake: Last season Notre Dame gained an average of 6.1 yards per play and held opponents to 5.4.

With that abbreviated recap out of the way, what did Saturday’s pseudo-game environment show about the Irish? If the 20,147 in attendance paid attention, they had the chance to learn a few things:

Daelin Hayes will be ready to hit a quarterback in September
Notre Dame’s quarterbacks were off limits all spring. Bulls might charge when they see red, but the Irish defensive line has had to remember to ease up when they come across a quarterback’s red jersey. If sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes had forgotten that Saturday, Notre Dame might not have any quarterbacks left to play in the fall.

“At the end of the day, we’re on the same team,” Hayes said, dismissing any bitterness about the quarterbacks’ protections. “We have to keep our guys healthy. I wasn’t frustrated, but come September 2, you know.”

Officially, Hayes was credited with three sacks and another tackle for loss among his seven tackles. Admittedly, gauging sacks is tricky when the quarterback does not actually go to the ground. How many of Hayes’ three sacks and the defense’s 11 total would have been evaded if the defender needed to do more than touch the passer? That answer is highly subjective, but discounting Hayes’ numbers would miss the bigger picture.

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

Senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) notched two sacks and sophomore end Ade Ogundeji came the closest to tackling a red jersey when he stripped junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush from behind. The defensive line has been expected to be a weak point for the Irish moving forward, but the spring performance indicates it has a chance at holding its own. These accomplishments bear further merit considering Notre Dame’s offensive line is widely-considered one of its few spots of expected quality.

RELATED READING: Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

“I think it’s pretty clear Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I’d have to watch the film, but it seemed like [sophomore end] Julian Okwara was a hard guy to block coming off the edge, as well.”

Ian Book provides some peace of mind
Book was not spectacular, but he was also far from incompetent or intimidated. In his first action on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, Book completed 18-of-25 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by a 58-yard connection with sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. Meanwhile, junior Brandon Wimbush completed 22-of-32 passes for 303 yards.

Bluntly, one has not needed to follow Notre Dame for very long to fit that “long enough” qualification. Last season’s backup, Malik Zaire, saw competitive action against both Texas and Stanford. In 2015, DeShone Kizer came off the bench to start 11 games after Zaire suffered a season-ending ankle injury. (more…)

What Notre Dame players should you actually watch? Plus, catch up on reading

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If technology does its part, this will post as its typist meanders toward finding his credential for the Blue-Gold Game to conclude Notre Dame’s spring practice. If technology doesn’t do its part, well, then this will be lost to the cobwebs of the internet. Such as it goes.

This space has spent much of the past week discussing what to look for in the 12:30 p.m. ET exhibition. Worry about the big picture, not the individuals. Fret about the macro, not the micro.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the indivdual players
Blue-Gold Game primer with help from Notre Dame’s coordinators
Four defensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game
Four offensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game

But, if insistent on focusing on singular players, look to the inexperienced, the names you are unfamiliar with. The 15th and final practice of spring may be no more than a practice in reality, but it is in front of nearly 30,000 fans in Notre Dame Stadium. Some players do not have so much as that minimal experience.

“The Blue-Gold Game, specifically, is a time for us to emulate a game-like situation,” senior safety/linebacker/rover Drue Tranquill said. “Especially for guys like freshmen, second-semester guys coming in, it’s a great opportunity for them to get that game feeling, but also continue to take steps in the process to get better.”

The question on the tip of your tongue is a fair one. If you are unfamiliar with the names, how are you supposed to focus on those players? How are you to know who fits the appropriate tunnel vision version of perspective?

Let’s turn to Irish coach Brian Kelly’s mentions from Wednesday–primarily, sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara, sophomore long snapper John Shannon, senior kicker Sam Kohler, sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem and sophomore safety Jalen Elliott.

Obviously, that is just a sampling. Less obviously, this post’s purpose may or may not be to link to previous reading material and remind you of the vague but pertinent purposes to today’s endeavor. It is neither be-all nor end-all. It is simply another opportunity to gauge what may come down the line.

But hey, how about a prediction? Per Kelly, the first-team offense and second-team defense will be in blue, against the first-team defense and second-team offense in white.

PREDICTION: Blue 37, White 21

HOW TO WATCH
As a recurring reminder, the Blue-Gold Game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network, as well as streamed online at ndstream.nbcsports.com and on the NBC Sports app.

Friday at 4: Four offensive positions to watch in Notre Dame’s spring game

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There are two common ways of looking at the annual spring game.
It is the last action involving Notre Dame football readily available for public consumption until Sept. 2, 133 days away.
Or it is an exercise rife with contradiction exacerbated by hype, yielding little-to-no reliable intelligence.
Like much of life, the most accurate assessment falls somewhere between those two views.

If junior running back Dexter Williams breaks off two 50-yard-plus touchdown runs, does that mean he will have multiple big plays in 2017? Not at all. It does mean he will likely have more opportunities for them, though. Just like in spring’s previous 14 practices, the Irish coaches will take what they see and apply it moving forward.

The past—and as of Saturday evening, the Blue-Gold Game will qualify as the past—does not dictate the future, but it can influence one’s approach to it.

Aside from Williams (see the second item below for more on him and the running backs), what other players/positions could influence their future roles the most with their performance to close spring?

BIG PASSING TARGETS: Alizé Jones and Co.
In this instance, big is meant literally. Notre Dame has an embarrassment of riches of tall, long, physical tight ends and receivers. Junior Alizé Jones earns specific mention here due to his inaction last season. Irish fans and coaches alike have a better idea of sophomore receiver Chase Claypool and junior receiver Miles Boykin. They have 2016 film to look at.

Jones, however, sat out the season due to academic issues. His on-field performance largely remains a question mark, but if he combines this spring’s praise with his 6-foot-4 ½ frame holding 245 listed pounds, that could turn into an exclamation point.

“He’s a perfect fit,” new Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long said Friday. “That’s why I recruited him like crazy when I was at Arizona State. He’s a prototypical [tight end], a guy who can run, who can catch.

“The biggest thing about Alizé is he’s taking great pride in his blocking ability right now, his presence of being an end-line guy, his protection and his overall physicality. When you think like that, you’re going to become a better receiver.” (more…)