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Pregame Six Pack: Running with the Bulls

Sep 2, 2011, 1:34 PM EDT

Getty Images - Jonathan Daniel Getty Images

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.

  1. nddomer2 - Sep 2, 2011 at 2:55 PM

    Keith, I believe Atkinson it’s now number 34 so that he could be on the field with Gary Gray during special teams.

  2. danno27 - Sep 2, 2011 at 3:05 PM

    KA, great point re the 45-0 shutout of Nevada. I’ll try to keep that in mind tomorrow (i.e. I will completely forget that tomorrow).

    Also, am I the only one who’s a little disconcerted by the weather? If there is one team on the Irish schedule that’s suited to this kind of hot pea soup, it’s a team from swamp-butt Florida. It’s the opposite of our Sun Bowl advantage. I know, I know, ND has been practicing in hot weather the past four weeks, it’s first game of the year and everyone’s fresh, yada yada yada. still – I worry. It’s weather like this that makes me happy our front 7 is good and deep. I also think it makes the playcalling more interesting – if we can keep their D on the field (and our D fresh) with solid running for most of the first half, they’ll be wiped. Might be one day where BK gives some weight to Time of Possession.

    On a side note today is easily the most unproductive work day I’ve had this year.

    • nddomer2 - Sep 2, 2011 at 3:30 PM

      If BJ Daniels is as inconsistent and last year, I hope it rains. Rainy weather makes line play even more important and taking care of the ball an absolute necessity. Bring on the rain and watch out O and D lines dominate the ball game.

      • danno27 - Sep 2, 2011 at 3:38 PM

        Oh I had no idea rain was a probability – just thought it was going to be hot and humid. I agree though if that’s the case.

      • bernhtp - Sep 2, 2011 at 3:59 PM

        The weather report shows a strong possibility of rain during game hours: http://www.weather.com/outlook/health/airquality/wxdetail/46556?dayNum=1

      • jimbasil - Sep 2, 2011 at 4:14 PM

        Daniels was inconsistent yes, and he took most of the blame for not hitting his receivers last year, but we have to remember he had young receivers and had lost his two best receivers before the season began.

        Underscoring his inconsistency in passing maybe more wishful thinking than reality.

        The ND secondary had better be at their best because this guy is a much better thrower than most point out.

        Yes, against stout Defenses he threw picks, but that was last year. His O line should be better prepared this year. USF has talented athletes.

      • borromini - Sep 2, 2011 at 7:09 PM

        “The weather report shows a strong possibility of rain during game hours: ”

        Actually that same link you provided has a detailed page that lists the chance of precipitation at no higher than 30%-40% during game time.

    • andy44teg - Sep 2, 2011 at 5:15 PM

      You obviously meant to say 35-0 shutout of Nevada. That’s ok..it’s still pre-season.

      • danno27 - Sep 2, 2011 at 5:17 PM

        it felt like 45-0 anyway.

  3. irisheyesinsd - Sep 2, 2011 at 3:50 PM

    Keith–
    Since you are in South Bend, maybe you can record some of the pep rally and post it later tonight?

  4. mattnef - Sep 2, 2011 at 4:18 PM

    Thanks for the numbers cheat sheet. Will come in handy with all the new faces/numbers in the game.

  5. oldestguard - Sep 2, 2011 at 5:04 PM

    Keith, great job keeping us occupied with all things Irish up to opening day. Really appreciate your time and research and also all the entertaining and diverse comments.

    That’s a helluva an article by Eric Hansen on Manti. – really enjoyed it !

    Back to my 2-day tailgate……

  6. 10of14 - Sep 2, 2011 at 8:07 PM

    Irish will win, but struggle to do so. Skip is a very good coach and has as many first team athletes as ND. In addition, ND freshman defensive players will over pursuit and lack the discipline needed at this level. I don’t give at rats butt that they are big, fast and came from quality programs…I personally lived it and got my butt kicked for two years. The vets for ND have to play flawless the first two games for ND to win…not good, but flawless.

  7. smurphdoggy29 - Sep 3, 2011 at 12:57 AM

    Keith I second oldestguard in the Thank you’s, great job.

    10of14 = Lighten up Francis, they need not be flawless just productive, allowing the “kids” to come in and get production in positive situations. Sheesh loosen the grip.

    The Bulls WILL push the Irish, the Coaching staff is prepared for this, and has the team prepared accordingly. They will win as long as they start from GO

    Now let’s Rock and Roll !!

  8. herringbonesports - Sep 3, 2011 at 4:30 AM

    First of all, I’ve seen tape on G. Atkinson III plus he’s officially listed at 6’1” 200 lb..not exactly “undersized”. If anything, like you said, they get him in the “Percy Harvin” type role in space: end-arounds, reverses, etc.
    I struggle with people who look at Daniels stats and shout “dual-threat QB”. He rushed for 2.3 yards/carry on the season. His season TOTAL is one yard more than D. Robinson had in the entire game last season. He’s been a terribly inconsistent passer and his running game is highly overrated. Irish 38-14
    I’m Steve Herring of
    HerringBoneSports.com
    I’ve got a new Irish blog up with a fresher look and take on ND football.
    Check into tomorrow’s live game thread to toss around comments and ideas from 1 hr before kickoff until late into the night

  9. herringbonesports - Sep 3, 2011 at 4:32 AM

    Keep that 35-0 shut out of Nevada in mind when we play Stanford as a sign that 1 year, 3 months makes a ton of difference.

    1 year 3 months after Nevada got pounded by us, they were ending Boise State’s dream season on ESPN

    1 year 3 months after being tossed around like toy dolls by Stanford, Notre Dame head to Palo Alto to return the favor

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