Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. South Florida

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — There are statistics. Then there are statistics that matter.

Statistics: 508 yards of total offense. 391 passing yards. Cierre Wood — 21 carries for 104 yards and a touchdown. Michael Floyd — 12 catches for 154 yards and two touchdowns.

Statistics that matter: Turnovers — Notre Dame 5, South Florida 0. Red zone scoring — South Florida 3 for 3, Notre Dame 2 for 6. Notre Dame — four personal fouls.

Skip Holtz triumphantly returned to Notre Dame Stadium, where he both coached and played under his Hall of Fame father. But even Lou Holtz never saw a Saturday quite like this one, with Holtz’s Bulls triumphing 23-20 in a 5 hour, 59 minute game that had two weather delays totaling just under three hours.

The severe thunder and lightning that caused Notre Dame’s first ever weather delay might have been something out of the norm. But the 2011 Fighting Irish just learned a lesson as old as the sport. Regardless of how talented you think your football team is, your biggest opponent is yourself.

“We say this all the time,” head coach Brian Kelly said after the game. “You can’t start winning until you stop losing. The things that we did today out there obviously go to the heart of how you lose football games. You lose football games because you turn the ball over. You lose football games because you miss field goals. You lose football games because you have four personal fouls penalties. The list is long.”

As Notre Dame tries to quickly turn the page after a shocking 23-20 loss, here are five things we learned.

Tommy Rees has to be the Irish’s starting quarterback.

When Brian Kelly named Dayne Crist his starting quarterback eleven days ago, there was so little that separated to two quarterbacks that Kelly and offensive coordinator Charley Molnar had to look past the statistics.

“The deeper we dug on numbers the cloudier it became,” Kelly said just two weeks ago. “I’ve been doing it a long time and sometimes it’s easy to just look at the numbers and they tell you who the No. 1 and No. 2 quarterbacks are. We’re going to get into subjective things now as we move forward because the numbers are so equal.”

For those that watched the Irish run off four straight wins with Tommy Rees at the helm last year, they know that objectivity is not necessarily a friend of Rees.

Statistically speaking, a production comparison of both quarterbacks would be considered a toss-up. But those looking at NFL prototype Crist and the whispy, dorm-guy Rees would be wise to peer past the statistics and simply look at the way the offense moves when Rees is its pilot. After a half of football, Kelly had seen enough after sitting for over two hours with a 16-0 deficit.

“Production,” Kelly said of his rationale to switch to Rees. “We didn’t feel like we produced the way we should have.”

And while Rees’ numbers — 24 for 34, 296 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions — may objectively have some flaws, there’s no doubt that he’s got to be the quarterback that starts when Notre Dame plays Michigan next Saturday at night in Ann Arbor.

“He was 24 for 34 in a situation where they knew we were going to throw the football,” Kelly said. “I don’t want to put him in that situation. I want him to have the luxury of a running game which we established when Dayne was in there.”

What happens with Crist will be a question the coaching staff didn’t want to have to answer going forward. When Rees lay dazed on the ground after a roughing the passer call, it was freshman Everett Golson running for his helmet, not Crist. (Rees got up and threw a touchdown pass to Michael Floyd, avoiding a bigger controversy.)

While Kelly was mum about what he’ll do for next week, the choice is no longer subjective. Tommy Rees needs to lead the team, even if it does throw the roster into upheaval.

2. The Irish need Theo Riddick and Jonas Gray to bounce back after disastrous debuts.

Both Theo Riddick and Jonas Gray learned about the burden of great expectations. Two of Notre Dame’s most important players spit the bit in their first game as mandatory contributor. Gray’s fumble as the Irish were pushing the ball into the end zone at the end of a surgical first drive flipped the game on its head, as USF safety Jerrell Young ripped the ball out and cornerback Kayvon Webster scooped it up and ran it in for a 96-yard touchdown to shock the home crowd.

Likewise, Riddick’s muffed punt late in the second quarter turned the game for the junior wide receiver, the Irish’s best chance for a game-breaking receiver opposite Michael Floyd. Riddick had a game he needs to forget, muffing two punts (and almost a third), and dropping three balls up the seam that erased potentially big receptions.

Riddick has never been a natural returning punts, but after not returning them last year, Brian Kelly isn’t giving himself any other options in the return game.

“He’s got to do it. I told him to get his butt back out there,” Kelly said after the game. “If we’re going to have the kind of playmakers we need at that position, we don’t have a waiver wire, we can’t trade for anybody. We’ve got to get him to that position.”

The Irish saw their weaknesses put to the test in the opening moments of 2011. How Riddick and Gray respond will go a long way towards determining the season.

3. You may not have noticed, but the Irish defense is as good as advertised.

The Irish might have lost the game 23-20, but the Irish defense only gave up 254 yards to USF, a number that would’ve been their best total in all of 2010.

No USF player rushed for 50 yards. The leading receiver for the Bulls, Sterli Griffin, had eight catches for 75 yards, and USF didn’t have a play go for explosive yardage, with their longest play from scrimmage going for a modest 18 yards. (In comparison, the Irish had nine plays go for 18 yards or more.)

While the Irish weren’t able to force any turnovers from B.J. Daniels, a player who had plenty of them in 2010, they showed a few more exotic packages in their first game of the season, with Bob Diaco rotating linebackers Steve Filer, Prince Shembo, Darius Fleming into hand-on-the-ground pass rusher while using freshman Stephon Tuitt and Aaron Lynch liberally.

Major penalties against team leaders Harrison Smith (two facemasks) Gary Gray (a late hit and a pass interference) and Ethan Johnson (late hit) really hurt the Irish. But make no mistake, the Irish defense played well.

4. Like a chip off the old block, Skip Holtz pulled a rabbit from his hat.

If there was a recipe card spelling out how to beat Notre Dame, Holtz had been hiding it up his sleeve for the entire week. It might be difficult to practice getting turnovers, but Holtz had his defense ready with the perfect gameplan.

“Our whole mindset was bend, but don’t break,” Holtz said. “Our motto was, make them snap it again. Just don’t let them in the end zone, make them snap it again. They haven’t scored yet if they don’t cross that end zone.”

It was a mindset that worked against the Irish, who moved the ball at will between the twenty yard lines, but faltered repeatedly once it got into the red zone.

For Holtz, the victory was one that was well earned. Only in the post game press conference was he willing to address the game’s significance to him, and even then it was begrudgingly.

“I’ve got an incredible amount of memories in this stadium, at this university, as a student driving around campus,” Holtz said. “As soon as the buses got here, I took off and walked over to the grotto and lit a candle, just because that’s how I got through college. A lot of emotional moments for me.”

One more recent memory came in handy on Saturday afternoon. During the Bulls’ preseason training camp in Vero Beach, Florida, a severe storm rolled through town, putting a team scrimmage in an indefinite delay.

“That was the first thing I said to them when I walked into the locker room,” Holtz said. “Hey, we’ve been here before.”

They say luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. Never was that more apparent than Saturday for the Bulls.

5. For the Irish, every Saturday is the season.

One loss won’t keep Notre Dame from achieving its goals. And to the credit of the players made available to the media, every one of them was already mentally turning the page and looking forward to a Michigan game that now takes on added importance. It was 2004 when the Irish were shocked in the season opener by Gary Crowton’s BYU team in Provo, only to come back the next Saturday and knock off a Michigan team ranked in the AP top ten 28-20.

After last season, both Kelly and his players know they can pick themselves up off the mat.

“You know, we’ve been down this road before,” Kelly said. “The disappointing thing is that we thought going into a year where we had some experience, we wouldn’t have to go through this. But it looks like we’re going to have to make sure that our players are understanding what it takes to win football games.”

If you’re looking for a silver lining, it’s pretty clear what Notre Dame has to do to win.

You can’t turn the ball over three times inside your opponents five yard line. You can’t have one of your best players lay the football on the ground multiple times. You can’t commit eight penalties, the second most in the Kelly era. You can’t give a game away to a team that you doubled in yardage, like the Irish did 508 to 254.

But that’s what happened on Saturday, for five hours and 59 minutes. In a game that’ll go down as one of the most bizarre in Notre Dame’s history, the Irish lost the football game because of the oldest reasons in the book.

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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Kraemer, Eichenberg compete for RT spot, moving Bars inside, and Bivin to…

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Forty percent of the offensive line is essentially set in stone: fifth-year senior Mike McGlinchey at left tackle and senior Quenton Nelson at right guard.

The center position seems to be senior Sam Mustipher’s to lose.

That leaves the two starting spots on the right side of the line for a number of players—both young and experienced—to fight over.

Sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg have emerged as the frontrunners for the right tackle spot, moving senior Alex Bars inside to right guard. Bars started all 12 games last season at right tackle.

“Those two [Kraemer and Eichenberg] are the guys we have mapped out at right tackle, and they’re going to battle,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “Today Kraemer was there. Last two practices Eichenberg got a lot of the work. Eichenberg will go back there on Friday. They’re going to keep battling and splitting the action out there.”

Part of the reasoning in giving the two sophomores extended looks this spring is Notre Dame knows what it has in Bars when at right tackle.

“We would prefer to get him in at the guard position, but we know he can play the [tackle] position,” Kelly said.

A starting five of McGlinchey, the three seniors and either sophomore may seem to leave fifth-year lineman Hunter Bivin out in the cold. Not often is a player asked to return for a fifth year only to spend it on the bench. That is even more rare when considering the current Irish scholarship crunch.

Kelly compared Bivin’s role to that of Mark Harrell’s last year. Harrell appeared in all 12 games, starting two, and provided much needed depth and flexibility along the offensive line. Rather than have five backup offensive linemen, position coach Harry Hiestand relied on Harrell to provide support at multiple spots.

“It’s reasonable to assume that Hunter Bivin’s going to be involved in this as well,” Kelly said. “We’ve just asked Hunter to take a seat right now. He’s done that for the team.

“We think Hunter is going to be a Mark Harrell for us. A guy that’s extremely valuable, can play a number of positions. We trust him, but we want to see these two young players [Kraemer and Eichenberg]. Hunter is a guy that can play right or left tackle for us. He’s going to be a valuable player for us as a swing guy.”

On that note, this space will refer to Bivin as a fifth-year lineman, as was done above, rather than as a guard or as a tackle, until further notice. In his case, the broader description may be the most accurate.

Spring break out west is fine, but Wimbush better be ready to run

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It will undoubtedly become a habit, at least for the next five-plus months. If Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush sneezes in front of a camera, it just might lead to an uptick in webmd.com traffic. His every football move will certainly be analyzed, nitpicked and discussed at length. Thus, Irish coach Brian Kelly being asked about Wimbush’s spring break should surprise no one.

Rather than find a Florida beach, Wimbush spent his spring break working with private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield in San Diego alongside a handful of other college passers. Kelly said there is value to such a spring break but stopped short of setting any lofty expectations of the effects.

“I have no problem with [Wimbush] working out with George Whitfield,” Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice, the first following spring break and the third of 14 leading into the Blue-Gold Game on April 22. “George doesn’t work on the specifics to the offense. George is really working on the quarterback and throwing the football, moving in the pocket. George is really good at keeping those quarterbacks active and moving.”

Whitfield is best-known around Notre Dame and among Irish fans for working with former Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson during Golson’s academic suspension in 2013. Whitfield and Golson spent 10 weeks together, thus granting time for extensive off-field activities such as film study. Far shorter, Wimbush’s time out west appears to have been spent primarily doing drills.

“In those situations, it’s a bullpen session,” Kelly said. “They’re keeping their arms loose, they’re keeping their feet loose. He’s just keeping them active.”

It is hard to construe that activity as a negative, but it obviously lacks certain aspects crucial to Wimbush’s 2017 season. With only five career pass attempts and seven career rushes, Wimbush’s inexperience looms large. Developing the necessary intangibles to account for that may be just as, if not more, important as fitting his throws into tight windows.

“When it comes to the playbook, to his teammates, to his coaches here, Brandon understands that when the rubber hits the road, those are the guys that matter the most,” Kelly said. “He knows when it’s time for Notre Dame football, where the focus is.”

Included in that playbook will be an expectation for Wimbush to carry the ball. To date, Wimbush’s biggest play and possibly only imprint on most Notre Dame fans’ memories is a 58-yard touchdown scamper against Massachusetts in 2015.

Link to 17-second YouTube video which has unfortunately disabled embedding

Note, the play is not exclusively-designed for Wimbush to run. Now a rising junior, then a fellow freshman, running back Josh Adams comes across Wimbush’s front for a possible handoff. Instead, Wimbush makes the correct read and keeps the ball. Why state so clearly it was the proper read? Adams has to evade a Texas defender even though he never had the ball.

Future option plays should present Wimbush with the possibility of throwing the ball, too.

“He’ll be a runner in the offense,” Kelly said. “Do we want him to carry the ball 20 times? No.”

“I don’t think you’ll have a situation where we’re calling quarterback power or singular runs. He’s going to have options: hand it off, throw the ball out on the perimeter. You’ll see more of that than you will prescribed quarterback runs. We had a little bit more of that last year with Kizer, but I think you’ll see that he has an option to get the ball out of his hands more so than just prescribed runs.”

Those option plays, in particular, will require Wimbush to have a thorough familiarity both with the Notre Dame playbook and with his teammates’ tendencies.

RITA LEE OR 52-53?
Staying consistent with his comments over the last two months, Kelly once again reiterated the biggest changes new offensive coordinator Chip Long will bring to the Irish playbook will be in its wording. Perhaps going to an extreme example to illustrate his thinking, Kelly pointed to the future.

“We’re going to win next year and Chip is going to be the greatest offensive coordinator in the country and he’s going to get a head job, right?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “Then I’m not going to introduce the Chip Long offense to the next offensive coordinator.”

“It has to have my culture in it … The culture of the offense is still the base offense that I have always run because I have to be able to carry that with me from year to year.”

Within that ellipsis, Kelly gave two examples of possible verbiage changes. Without knowing much more behind them, they do not mean too much out here in the cobwebs of the internet, but they do provide a quick glimpse at what Kelly has been referring to when discussing lexicon since hiring Long.

“If he wants to change Ringo Lucky protection to Ram and Lion protection, go right ahead. If he wants to change certain calls, for example, 52-53 protection is now Rita Lee.”

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