IBG: Snapping back for the Spartans

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Saturday can’t come soon enough for the Irish, who’ll be looking to get rid of a very bad taste in their mouths after last week’s collapse against Michigan. Brian Kelly had the Irish going full tilt in practice yesterday, getting physical in its preparation for a smash-mouth Spartans team coming to town this Saturday.

Before we get heavy into Michigan State, let’s tackle this week’s questions in the Irish Blogger Gathering, hosted by one of the new ND blogs in town, NDTex.com.

Let’s go ahead and talk about the big pink elephant in the room. After two absolutely horrid, heart-breaking, and downright mind-boggling performances, how do you feel about this team moving forward? Are we simply a bad team or a team that just hasn’t put it together yet? This is your chance to talk Irish fans of the ledge…or push them over.

I’m more than ready to take the approach the Irish are taking, which is “let’s just stop talking about it.” I’ve talked to a ton of Notre Dame fans, and Saturday night was one of the toughest losses they’ve ever had. It certainly was worse than the 2005 USC game, which for my money was rock bottom as a sports fan.

That said, it’s hard to feel terrible about this football team. I mean, Brian Kelly said the same thing, they’re actually pretty good. I hit on this subject earlier in the week and in movie terms, this is hopefully the end of Act Two. For those of you not up on your screenwriting lingo, last week was (hopefully) the part of the movie where our hero almost gets what he wants but is trampled once again, and things feel their most bleak.

Since this is real life, I can’t tell you there’s going to be a happy ending, but there’s still every reason to believe the Irish can win every game they play. They’ll probably be favored in all of them until Stanford. Not to say the Irish are this team, but Pete Carroll’s 2002 Trojans started with two losses before mid-October. They ended up 11-2 and blew out Ty Willingham’s best Notre Dame team and dismantled Iowa in the Orange Bowl. Say what you want about Trojans fans, but they weren’t throwing in the towel after a tough few weeks.

It’s time to put on the headset and step into the shoes of Brian Kelly. In the first quarter, it seemed like your message and plan to recover from the USF disaster worked, and then the rest of the game happened. How do approach this week? What message do you give your players?

The plan Kelly and his staff instituted worked fine well into the fourth quarter, although you wouldn’t know it if you were following along on the internet last weekend. A few thousand of you were around for the live-blog last Saturday night and I was shocked at just how quickly panic set in amongst some of the fans following along. It must be hard to watch a football game if you’re constantly flinching every time something bad happens. I checked in over at MGoBlog last weekend, and they were still in “Keep the Faith” mode well into the 3rd quarter. That’s the difference between the fan bases, and really one of the most disheartening things about the current state of ND Nation.

I’m not trying to beat a dead horse, but here’s a newsflash to you all: this current team isn’t the group that broke your heart these last 20 years. Most of the guys on the roster were barely alive and were more concerned with things like nap time, Power Rangers or what was in their lunch box. They know Lou Holtz not from his time on the Irish sidelines, but from his time in the TV studio. Most of them aren’t even old enough to remember the Bob Davie era, he’s just another TV announcer with really good hair.  And while it’s hard to remember that sometimes, Irish fans have done a great job of creating self-fulfilling prophesies in the past. Here’s hoping they don’t do it again with the Brian Kelly era.

Just like he did last year, Kelly is going to approach this game the same way he does every game. It’s that consistency in approach that led the Irish out of some pretty dark hollows last year and will ultimately serve the team better than any about-face. (That said, if you’re looking for a small tweak, like I mentioned above, BK and company had the teams going live yesterday, getting what’s left of the spread concepts out of their system as they prepare for a downhill physical football team.)

Keep that headset on, you are still playing Kelly. Based upon what you’ve seen these last two games, do you see players that need to start riding the pine or are you still confident in your depth chart?

Kelly said it best earlier in the week. It’s not as if there are any All-Americans on the bench right now. If there’s been anything baffling this year, it’s that a guy like Gary Gray has taken a step backwards. This early in the Kelly regime, there isn’t the depth at positions needed to have twos that are almost as good as ones. In a year or two, maybe Gray gets the hook after the coverage breakdown. But if I’m Kelly, I’m doing exactly what he’s doing with Gray, Ben Turk, and Theo Riddick. They’re the best ND has. They’ve got to be the ones to get it done.

Overall, how do you feel about Rees’ performance against Michigan?

It was good enough to win. Obviously the goal line fumble was one of those things that only seem to happen to Notre Dame and was something I didn’t think Rees had in his arsenal, but he got the Irish out of the gate quickly, then drove them for the win with thirty seconds left. It’s not like he can play in a Cover-4 defense. Do you want those two throws into Michael Floyd back? Sure, especially the second one. But we’ve got to remember Tommy Rees is very early in his football career and he played good enough to win last week.

Let’s talk about something happy: the Irish running game.  After a 198 yard performance by the Irish do you feel that this rushing attack led by Cierre Wood (134 yards) is for real or have we not run into a tough enough defensive test yet?

I think they’re for real, but we’ll find out more Saturday against a Spartans defense that could be really stout. (Don’t forget about The USF defense. They’ll end up a highly ranked unit.) Wood’s performance this year has been great. Jonas Gray has done his job, too. Both guys would like back those fumbles, but all they can do is look forward.

If you’re looking at a key match-up on Saturday, the Irish run game versus the Spartans front-seven could be one of the most important.

Looking ahead to Michigan State, how do you gauge them?  Is this the best team that we’ve faced off against yet or is this just an untested team that beat up on two cupcakes in Youngstown State and Florida Atlantic?

Color me skeptical. It’d be silly to dismiss a Spartans team that’s dominated the series with the Irish over the last decade-and-a-half, but I don’t think we’ll have any idea how good these guys are until they get into their conference schedule. That said, I have them as the fourth toughest game on our schedule behind Stanford, USC, and Michigan.

Is the key to winning simply not turning the ball over or do you see other crucial keys to beating Sparty?

Yep. Don’t turn the ball over. With the runner up being: Don’t give up big plays on defense.

Obviously every week should be a must win, but I think there is definitely more of an urgency this week. How crucial is this game for the rest of our season?

Who knows? I don’t think there’s any more urgency this week than last week, but starting 0-3 sounds awfully scary. I think it’s important for the Irish to go out there and handle every Saturday as its own season. Notre Dame can’t go 10-2 if they don’t go 1-2 first. (Color me a philosopher today, right?)

The Irish are too talented to keep losing. For everyone but Michigan State’s sake, let’s hope that trend stops Saturday.

Brian Kelly & Jack Swarbrick on Notre Dame’s changes moving forward

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Whether 2016’s disappointing 4-8 finish was the impetus to program-wide alterations at Notre Dame this offseason, it certainly underscored the need. For the last few months, Irish coach Brian Kelly has focused those changes on himself and self-assessment, and he reiterated that approach when talking with PFT Live’s Mike Florio early Monday morning.

“This is my 27th year of being a head coach, and prior to last year I had one losing season,” Kelly said. “You have a way of doing things, you have a system in place, you follow that year after year. Certainly you make tweaks along the way, but this is the first time where I’ve really taken a step back and made substantial changes in terms of how I’m doing things on a day-to-day basis…

“From my perspective, after being at it as long as I have, you have to take it on yourself that you’re the one that needs to make the corrections. It’s not the players.”

None of this is new. Kelly has been consistent in his springtime messaging, but others have looked past the effects of the 4-8 record and insist the changes were coming regardless of the win-loss totals. Senior captain Drue Tranquill, for example, acknowledged the severity of the losing record Friday but argued adjustments were needed no matter what the final scores were.

“If you have an average season like 8-4, some things might carry over to the next season,” Tranquill said the day before the spring practice finale. “Whereas when you go 4-8, something has to change.

“But I think even at Notre Dame, 8-4 is never really acceptable or tolerated. Those things that were taking place, just within our culture, would have been noticed whether we were 10-3, 4-8. The criticism gave it a lot more hype and juice. We could kind of feel as guys in the program throughout the past three years that certain things needed to change.

“Those things were finally brought to light and it happened to be during a 4-8 season. I don’t necessarily know that 4-8 was the reason all this change happened.”

New Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko expressed a similar sentiment Friday morning, discussing the pressure moving forward.

“If we were coming off a 12-0 season in which we were competing for the national championship, there would be pressure on us at Notre Dame to be successful this year,” Elko said. “That’s Notre Dame.”

Elko has been a quick study, as his comments were echoed the next day by Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick during NBC Sports Network’s broadcast of the Blue-Gold Game.

“We expect to compete for national championships and 4-8 is not acceptable,” Swarbrick said. “On the other hand, when you’re in that situation, you have to decide how you’re going to move forward. We decided to move forward by making a major investment in retooling our program with Brian as the leader of it. That’s not a one-year investment for us. We brought in some talented assistant coaches. We rebuilt elements of the program

“We view it as a multi-year investment going forward.”

KELLY ON RECRUITING PITCH
Using this week’s NFL Draft as a peg, Florio also asked Kelly about balancing players’ NFL aspirations with team success both in the recruiting process and during the actual season.

“We have to talk more in terms of process over production,” Kelly responded. “We talk in terms of you’re coming to Notre Dame for a reason. You’re going to get a degree, which will set you up for the rest of your life, and you’re going to play on the grandest stage at Notre Dame, so everybody will see you.

“As long as there’s the balance there—and there has to be that balance in terms of getting your education and playing for championships—then we’re okay. It’s when that balance is out of whack, we’ll have an issue. We vet that out in the recruiting process and make sure we don’t take any kids that are coming to Notre Dame just because they’re waiting for that [junior] year to complete so they can go to the draft.”

A reminder: The NFL Draft begins with its first round Thursday night. Kelly will be joining former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer at the draft in Philadelphia to await Kizer’s destination and future employer.

MISSED THE BLUE-GOLD GAME?
It is available for streaming: here.

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.