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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.

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…)