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IBG: Turning the page to Michigan

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As an 18-year-old freshman, I had no idea just what my first big-time college football game would be like. Sure, I had sat in a half-empty Metrodome once or twice, watching the hometown Gophers take one on the chin to a team like Houston or Purdue, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the absolute pandemonium that took over that Saturday morning in early September, when the 4th floor of Stanford Hall erupted at 7 a.m. and the day ended celebrating in the Stonehenge fountain across from LaFortune.

That the Irish’s victory over the defending national champion Michigan Wolverines was my first game was almost unfair for a kid that’d never stepped foot in Notre Dame Stadium before. It would never get better than that first day.

There are things I’ve learned in the years since that first time. Most of it having to do with just how contentious the ND-UM rivalry is. Irish fans and Wolverines fans don’t seem to like each other much, and sure take delight in the other program’s misfortunes. As a kid that swapped freely between a Michigan hat and a Notre Dame lid, that kind of polygamy would be shocking to see now.

Neither program is where they want to be, but Saturday night’s game still takes center stage in the college football world. And after seeing the Irish lay an incredibly smelly egg last week, and the Wolverines look anything but dominant against cupcake Western Michigan, there’s a lot to be discovered in prime-time Saturday night. (Discover it together, with the return of an old-fashioned live-blog!)

As we’ll try to do every week, we’re joining the Irish Blogger Gathering and (almost) answering all the questions posed to us. This time, they come from the feisty fellows over at Her Loyal Sons, who do their best to not let their disdain for the Wolverines get too in the way of their questions.

HLS asked, I did my best to answer:

Well that really sucked. Please describe how you feel about the loss using lyrics from a pop diva’s song. Bonus points for video or pictures. (Something good has to come out of last week.)

There’s a lot of things I’m competent at, but quoting current pop diva lyrics isn’t one of them. That said, you’ve got to think that Britney Spears’ “Oops!… I did it again,” fits pretty perfectly for Irish fans.

Tough not to like Brit in that red spacesuit…

While we all want to move on, last week’s game can teach us many things about the ’11 Irish. After seeing what Week One brought us, do you find yourself more confident, less confident or still confused as hell about Notre Dame’s chances against Michigan?

I think you definitely have to feel less confident about what we thought the Irish would be, but I don’t think anybody should jump to conclusions until very late Saturday night, when we see how the Irish come out of Ann Arbor. If Notre Dame walks away with a win, then we can take a look at a two-game sample size and still hope to learn more against Michigan State.

As for this weekend, this match-up usually strikes fear into the heart of Irish fans, and for good reason. On paper, Notre Dame should’ve won the last two games, and still found themselves losing in absolutely painstaking ways both years. Having watched the mini-game the Wolverines played against Western Michigan, regardless of how vanilla they played, there wasn’t anything that impressive about the performance, and it’s clear the defense is still very much a work in progress.

Let’s say Notre Dame only turned the ball over three times last week, and won the football game by ten points. I’d expect the line to be about a touchdown. The fact that it’s 3.5 points, even though the Irish lost last week and Michigan is playing in front of the best homefield advantage they can historically create, that goes to tell you what wiseguys think about these teams.

That said, I have absolutely no clue what’s going to happen. Nothing would surprise me.

Other than quarterback, which position group pleasantly surprised you this past week? Which disappointed? What player absolutely must see more time in Week 2?

You’ve got to be happy with what you saw out of the nose tackle position, with Louis Nix being as good as advertised and Sean Cwynar chipping in four tackles. I’d also add the offensive line, which looked pretty impressive, save a few tough plays for Taylor Dever and Braxston Cave. Disappointing? I guess you’ve got to target the secondary. Both Gary Gray and Harrison Smith had multiple major penalties, and they weren’t able to get an interception from B.J. Daniels, a guy who gave turnovers away last year like lollipops. I want to add Special Teams into the big disappointment column as well. Ruffer misses a chip shot, Turk once again flubs punts after hitting beauties in warmups and some shoddy punt coverage… a really terrible day for Mike Elston’s troops.

As for someone that better see more playing time, I’d love to see what Cierre Wood can do when he’s not taken out of the gameplan after halftime.

Tommy Rees will lead the Irish offense this week. Do you agree with Brian Kelly’s call? Either way, what part of Crist’s game will the Irish O miss the most, if any?

After saying all offseason that Crist was going to win the starting job, it feels a little weird to go back and support Tommy Rees after one mediocre half by Dayne. That said, I’m 100 percent in favor of the switch, even if it’s giving Crist a pretty raw deal. Maybe we thought BK was paying Rees lip-service when he said that the QB race was as close as it was, but Dayne’s microprocessor just doesn’t move as quickly as Tommy’s — and in this offense, that’s what matters. If you weren’t sure of it before last Saturday, you should be now.

That Kelly was able to pull the plug on the Crist era quickly shouldn’t be that surprising. Whether it be injury or preference, Brian Kelly has used a lot of quarterbacks in his day. Will the Irish miss anything Dayne can do? Probably, as his physical skillset is pretty impressive. But Crist has always been a square peg from a round hole in this offense, and the senior leader’s development has been stunted by an unfavorable depth chart and some difficult injuries, all to go along with some accuracy issues, a fatal flaw in a Brian Kelly offense.

What’s the key to beating the Wolverines this week. Just one thing. Not two. One.

Easiest question I’ve heard all year: Containing Denard Robinson.

Make your over-under picks:

O/U on Michael Floyd’s receiving total for this coming weekend: 154 — Over. Rees is going to have the ball going to Floyd early and often.

O/U on Robinson’s rushing total: 100 — Over. But barely.

O/U on ND’s number of turnovers: 2 — Under. I see ball security being something far more important this week, and while Michigan did a nice job of getting a few turnovers last week, I think Rees is going to do a good job against Greg Mattison’s blitzing defense.

O/U on number of times Kelly is caught “purple monstering” (read: yelling) on camera: 2 — Believe it or not, I think BK knows he probably went a little overboard with his hysterics last weekend, and I think it was a confluence of events that led to the geyser he blew on Jones. If you’re looking for a reason for Kelly to remain cool, it’s that he’s on the road. He’ll need to keep everybody under control, and a calm demeanor might be what the doctor ordered. So under.

Michigan: Just another Opponent, Enemy, or Rival? Explain.

I think it’s more enemy than rival. Brady Hoke has two clocks ticking in his lockerroom. One for the big game against Ohio State, the other for the in-state battle against the Spartans. The Irish and the Wolverines are more Hatfields and McCoys than traditional rivals.

It’s one of those bizarre hatreds between two schools that are probably far more similar to each other than they’d like to acknowledge, but still have just enough apart that they’ll never come close to conceding anything.

In other words, just one more reason why college football is great.

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…)

Four-star WR Micah Jones chooses Irish; Rees may need to wait; Other late-week reading

jones
rivals.com
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A day may come when Notre Dame suffers a recruiting disappointment in the 2018 cycle, when a high school star spurns the Irish coaching staff for a foe, but it is not this day.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township High School; Gurnee, Ill.) committed to Notre Dame on Friday, joining a class of now 10 recruits, including four who committed just this week.

Jones chose the Irish over offers from the likes of Iowa, Michigan State and Ole Miss, among others.

He is the first receiver among the 10 commitments and the seventh considered a four-star prospect. At 6-foot-5, 196 pounds, Jones should present a large target for whomever the Notre Dame quarterback is in the fall of 2018, most likely then-senior Brandon Wimbush.

Tom, Tommy or Thomas; Assistant Coach or Graduate Assistant?
Thomas Rees may need to wait a season before officially being a coach at Notre Dame. The legislation to approve a 10th assistant coach was expected to be voted on, passed and effective in April. A newly-added amendment may push the effective date to following the 2017 season. The amendment will be voted on immediately before the legislation itself is.

The delay makes sense. Most coaching hirings and firings occur in December and January. In theory, creating a one-timing hiring frenzy following spring football could leave many programs in the lurch. In practice, however, this is not anticipated.

“The majority of the FBS guys that I’ve talked with currently believe that 10th coach is going to come from within their own organization,” Todd Berry told the Associated Press. Berry is the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association and former coach at Army and Louisiana-Monroe. “Quality control, graduate assistants, analysts, or they’re planning on hiring somebody that’s out of work.”

A majority is not a unanimity, though, and that carousel will innately work to the disadvantage of the Group of 5 schools.

As for Rees, a graduate assistant can still work extensively with players. The most-pertinent difference between a graduate assistant and an assistant coach is the former cannot recruit. Given Notre Dame’s recent success on the recruiting trail—and the early commitment of class of 2018 consensus four-star quarterback Phil Jurkovec (Pine-Richland H.S.; Gibsonia, Pa.)—Rees may not be an absolute necessity in that regard this cycle.

A Kizer Appraisal
Former NFL scout Greg Gabriel took a look at former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer this week, largely paying the draft prospect compliments.

In calling Kizer “the most talented quarterback in this draft class,” Gabriel set a high ceiling for Kizer’s spring. Part of Gabriel’s positive assessment comes from acknowledging Kizer’s responsibilities as the Irish signal-caller.

“The spread offense that Kizer played in at Notre Dame is more sophisticated than many of the spread offenses we see elsewhere at the collegiate level. The Notre Dame offense is a whole-field read scheme in which the quarterback has to go through a progression that encompasses both sides of the field. He also can change the play and/or protections at the line of scrimmage. Given all that, Kizer was asked to do more than many spread quarterbacks are asked to do.”

Gabriel also reflected on the dynamic differences for Kizer in 2015 and 2016 and what may have elicited some of his seeming stagnation.

“There was the unnecessary quarterback controversy at Notre Dame, and the offensive line wasn’t as experienced or as talented and the receivers were mostly first-year starters.”

As much as Gabriel raves about Kizer, he would be the first to tell you anything beyond individual player evaluation is a waste of air this early in the draft process. Mock drafts may be fun, but they are not much beyond that.

Take the fates of Tony Romo and Jimmy Garoppolo, for example. Few, if any, in the NFL expect them to dress for the Cowboys and Patriots, respectively, again. Where they end up could directly impact Kizer’s draft placement.

Jaylon Smith May Be Back to Form
Former Notre Dame and current Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith posted yet another encouraging video to Twitter. This one shows Smith really might be game-ready right now and, if not, almost certainly will be by the fall. Should there be any difficulty with the embedded video below, here is a link straight to it.

OL Mabry makes third commitment this week; WR Jones may follow Friday

mabry
rivals.com
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Two weeks ago, Irish coach Brian Kelly gave a non-answer of an answer to a question about a likely early signing period this coming December. Avoiding specifics, he indicated he thinks the effects of such a change will be seen on a case-by-case basis entirely dependent on the recruits.

“Some will, some won’t,” Kelly said. “…Each kid is going to have to react to it based upon also how their school is going to be dealing with it. Some will come off the board at the time.

“We’re expecting some to sign early, but I think our mindset is we’re going into it business as usual. We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

After this week, Notre Dame is going to have more year-long fights than anticipated. Consensus three-star offensive lineman recruit Cole Mabry (Brentwood High School; Brentwood, Tenn.) became the third prospect to offer a verbal commitment to the Irish coaching staff in less than 36 hours with his Wednesday decision. Mabry received the offer over the weekend, but waited a few days before making his decision public, lest emotions be dictating his thought process.

At 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds, Mabry will have time to add muscle to his frame, with four or five offensive tackles greeting him on the Notre Dame roster in the summer of 2018. That ability to mold his style and growth may have played a part in the Irish interest.

“They love my height and athleticism and how I play,” Mabry told rivals.com. “We got to break down film and go through things that they do that pair up with how I play now. They think I’ll be a great fit in their offense.”

Mabry is the ninth Notre Dame commitment in the class of 2018, though the first offensive lineman.

Judging by new Notre Dame director of football performance Matt Balis’s agenda for the Irish roster’s Valentine’s Day morning, Mabry will have much to look forward to in terms of strength and conditioning.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township H.S.; Gurnee, Ill.) is scheduled to announce his verbal commitment this Friday at 4 p.m. ET. Along with Notre Dame, Jones is considering Iowa, Michigan State, Nebraska, Ole Miss, Illinois and Northwestern. He would be the first receiver in Notre Dame’s 2018 class. Naturally, whomever Jones commits to, the recruiting fight will last until at least December, and perhaps all the way to February.