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.

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.”

RELATED READING:
4 Days Until Spring Practice: A Look at QBs (Brandon Wimbush)
Pace of Play: More Snaps Equal More Scoring Chances, Right?

Back from break, Irish commence hitting; DT Elijah Taylor out with LisFranc injury

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Notre Dame last wore pads in its 45-27 defeat at USC back on Nov. 26, a full 117 days ago. Suffice it to say, the Irish enjoyed the chance to don their shoulder pads and hit each other in Wednesday’s third spring practice, the first one since returning from spring break.

“What I liked about it more than anything else is there wasn’t a big drop off today,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “Usually you go two days and then you take a week off, and then you come back and put your pads on—it took us only a couple of periods to get back up to form. That was nice to see.”

Contrary to previous years in spring practice, and perhaps practice in general, Kelly emphasized tackling, especially tackling in the open-field, in Wednesday’s drills.

“[I] felt like we needed to make up for a little lost ground,” he said. “We got in tackling today for the first time. That’ll be an emphasis. We’ll tackle a lot this spring to make up for lost ground.”

The early and often physical nature of practice didn’t bother any of the players, per Kelly, but also per presumed common sense. While Notre Dame’s coaching staff changes and public questioning played out in broad view, the players spent 117 days in private waiting to unleash some of the frustrations of 2016’s disappointing season.

“Everybody to a man has been looking forward to this day,” Kelly said. “It was a pretty difficult offseason for them. They were looking forward to putting the pads on and getting out there. I think they exhibited that today.”

TAYLOR OUT FOR SPRING, AT LEAST
Junior defensive tackle Elijah Taylor was not in pads Wednesday. In the final practice before spring break, another player stepped on Taylor’s foot, Kelly said. The resulting LisFranc fracture will keep Taylor out of the remaining dozen spring practices and limit him until at least July. Taylor saw action in four games last season, finishing with three tackles, including one for a loss.

Notre Dame team surgeon Dr. Brian Ratigan already performed Taylor’s surgery.

“Typical LisFranc fractures, we’ve had good success with their repairs,” Kelly said. “…We’ll be able to train around the injury. Full range of motion moving around and doing things in June, probably full clearance sometime in July.”

Without Taylor, the interior of Notre Dame’s defensive line becomes even shallower, though that may have been hard to previously comprehend. Junior Jerry Tillery looks to be ready to start, and senior Jonathan Bonner has moved to the inside, rather than at end as he has been for most of his career. Behind them, the Irish present only question marks.

Kelly said he will look to junior Micah Dew-Treadway to step forward in Taylor’s absence.

“Micah Dew-Treadway has had a really good offseason for us,” Kelly said. “Changed his body, has been doing a really good job in all facets, in the class room and weight room. He’s somebody that had been ascending anyway prior to the injury.

Kelly indicated junior Brandon Tiassum also could be expected to see more work with Taylor sidelined.

Seniors Daniel Cage and Pete Mokwuah are in the mix, as well. Cage struggled with concussion issues last season after a promising 2015.

Notre Dame will need to wait until the freshmen arrive—perhaps also joined by Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano, reportedly still taking official visits as he ponders his 2017 destination—for further reinforcements. Consensus four-star recruit Darnell Ewell would be the most likely candidate of the three expected arrivals to move up the depth chart right away.

In layman’s terms, a Lisfranc fracture occurs when a mid-foot bone connecting to a toe separates from the cluster of bones toward the heel. Note: This is stated here only to provide some context, nothing more. This particular scribe avoided most biology classes.

CLAYPOOL A RECEIVER AND THAT HE WILL STAY
Asked if he considered moving sophomore receiver Chase Claypool to defense, Kelly answered succinctly.

“We feel like we need his play on offense,” Kelly said. “He’ll continue to contribute on the special teams end of things, but we need his play on offense.”

KELLY ON KIZER’S NFL POTENTIAL
“I’ve had a number of conversations with GMs and coaches about [former Notre Dame quarterback] DeShone [Kizer], and my personal feeling is he has the biggest upside of all the quarterbacks. I don’t know that he’s prepared to come in and win a Super Bowl for you [this year]. Some may feel as though maybe one of the other quarterbacks are. I don’t know that firsthand. But I think, in time, he has the biggest upside of all the quarterbacks.

“I get it. It’s the NFL. Everybody’s under the same pressure of performing and needing somebody to come in right away, but I think he’s a guy that just needs some time. If he gets in the right situation, I think he’d be the guy to take.”

Kizer and eight other former Irish players will take part in a pro day tomorrow (Thursday) in front of some of those GMs and coaches.

Te’o to New Orleans; Booker to Nebraska

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Former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o has signed a two-year contract with the New Orleans Saints, per reports.

Once recovered from a torn Achilles, Te’o will join a crowded Saints linebacker corps. The Saints signed A.J. Klein—formerly of the Carolina Panthers—to a three-year, $15 million contract earlier in March and return Craig Robertson, who finished 2016 with 115 tackles.

All three have experience at the middle linebacker position in a 4-3 defense, though Klein and Robertson are both capable of playing at the strong side position, as well.

Before his week three injury, Te’o had started 34 of 38 games for the San Diego Chargers and notched 221 career tackles. With the Saints, he rejoins linebackers coach Mike Nolan, who held the same position with the Chargers in 2015 when Te’o finished with a career-high 83 tackles.

BOOKER REJOINS DIACO
It appears former Notre Dame tight ends coach and special teams coordinator Scott Booker will join the Nebraska coaching staff. Two former Irish coaches—defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and safeties coach Bob Elliott—already have seats in the Lincoln coaching room, which is quickly becoming something of a Notre Dame West.

Booker will reportedly join the Cornhuskers staff as a special teams analyst. He served as Notre Dame’s special teams coordinator from 2012 to 2016 before this past offseason’s extensive staff changes.

PRO DAY THURSDAY
A reminder: Notre Dame will hold its Pro Day this Thursday. Nine players will partake, obviously highlighted by quarterback DeShone Kizer.

The others: long snapper Scott Daly, running back Tarean Folson, tight end Chase Hounshell, defensive linemen Jarron Jones and Isaac Rochell, cornerback Cole Luke, safety Avery Sebastian and linebacker James Onwualu.

Kizer hopes to prove himself worthy of a first-round draft pick, while Jones and Rochell may be in the mix for a second-day pick, meaning in the second or third rounds.

As it is draft season, this discussion of why mock drafts exist even though most prognosticators cannot stand them is worth the few minutes needed to read.

MARCH MADNESS UPDATE
The majority of the “Inside the Irish” bracket pool’s leaders escaped the weekend’s chaos, though frontrunner andy44teg will not hold onto that top spot for long after his titlist pick, Duke, exited late the tournament late Sunday.

That will leave some character named Dennis and his North Carolina prediction as the presumptive favorite to win, well, to win absolutely nothing.

Five of the top 10 expect North Carolina to win the championship.