Capital One Bowl - Alabama v Michigan State

Spartan notes: Diaco, Cousins, Narduzzi, and more

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Sometimes you just need to get a column out there, and purge some of the fun facts you’ve been storing up for the week. After spending a lot of time watching and re-watching last Saturday’s debacle, getting up to speed on the Spartans, and reassessing where this team is, you tend to forget that just because the Irish started 0-2 doesn’t mean they have the luxury of packing it in and not paying attention.

Here are a few assorted thoughts:

Last year, Bob Diaco took a ton of heat for the candidness he showed after the Irish’s loss to Navy. With a fourth quarter collapse that have a lot of people grumbling about the defensive coordinator, Diaco took his lumps appropriately, without giving the kind of insight that got him skewered last year after the Navy loss.

“If we talk specifics than we hinder ourselves going forward, but I will say that we’ve identified and addressed the fourth quarter as a team, from Coach Kelly right on down to the assistants and the players,” Diaco said. “Everyone in the organization takes accountability for that time frame and we’re going to move forward.”

The question was asked to Brian Kelly who essentially said the same thing, but Diaco was asked why the Irish didn’t roll to dime coverage in those last 30 seconds.

“At that particular point we’ve repped in practice that particular call and it was poorly executed,” Diaco said. “And at the end of the day, I’m responsible for execution so I take full accountability.”

Diaco has a slight pause after “poorly executed,” and a reporter used that as a window to get in another question. But Diaco was sure to finish his sentence making it clear that any breakdowns by players ultimately fall on him.

That includes senior cornerback Gary Gray. Diaco joined Kelly in defending Gray and picking him up from an obviously disappointing game.

“Gary is one of the best players we have on our defense. We love Gary. I’ve got a massive amount of respect for him,” Diaco said. “Like I said, I take responsibility for that play, I take responsibility for all those plays. No one in this organization is interested in placing blame on any of the players, that’s for sure.”

It’s up to Diaco, Chuck Martin and Kerry Cooks to get Gray ready to answer the bell. If you’re Michigan State, you’re clearly going to take aim at the senior. If Gray has his head in the right place and irons out some of the technical mistakes he’s making, he could have a big day.

***

Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins likely knows how Gray feels. It was Cousins that had the Spartans deep in Irish territory back in 2009 when he threw an ill-advised interception to Kyle McCarthy that sealed a 33-30 victory for Notre Dame.

Cousins comes back to Notre Dame Stadium for the first time since that game and he’s assuming the Irish defense that played well against USF and for three quarters against Michigan will be the one showing up, not the group from the final 15 minutes of last Saturday.

Joe Rexrode of the Lansing State Journal has more:

“I view them as the first three quarters,” Kirk Cousins said. “I don’t pay a lot of attention to the fourth quarter. I think a couple of those balls, if No. 4 turns his back around it’s an interception. So it’s great for Michigan to win the game but I don’t view it a whole lot as their defense is terrible and Michigan’s offense is amazing. I view it as, if that guy turns around, the game’s over long ago. So I expect them to be a very, very tough defense.”

No. 4, by the way, is senior cornerback Gary Gray. He’s getting the Jaren Hayes treatment, circa 2004, in South Bend. Reporters are coming up just short of asking Brian Kelly if he plans to sit Gray in the corner for a two-week timeout. Here’s what Kelly said Tuesday about Gray:

“It’s unfortunate that people look at that one position because it’s not just Gary Gray that we put this loss on,” Kelly said. “There’s a lot of situations. If we don’t turn the ball over, Gary Gray’s name is not even brought up.
“Gary is going to be fine. He’s a senior. He’ll bounce back. He had a great game last year against Michigan State, and he’s been really solid for us. So we need Gary Gray to come up and play good football this weekend against Michigan State.”

Cousins obviously saw the Gray mistakes and is aware of the criticism, but he’s not looking at Gray like a weak link. Really, he isn’t.

“It’s unfortunate for him, I think he’s a very, very good corner,” Cousins said of Gray. “He’s played a lot of football for them. So when you’ve played that long, I feel like he’s gonna be ready. And obviously he had an off night last week, but he’s right in position. It’s not like he’s getting beat deep.

“I mean he’s right there to make the play, so that shows he’s in position and has the athleticism to cover people, and I think it’s probably a little undeserved criticism on his end. And I expect him to come back this week and play at a much higher level. So I don’t think it’s something where we’re saying, ‘Let’s pick on him, we think he’s weak.’ I think that across the board they’re a much better defense than maybe that last quarter showed against Michigan.”

Cousins is an impressive guy, a good quarterback and a much better leader, but you’d be foolish to think the Spartans won’t try and take their shots at Gray, either with B.J. Cunningham, the Spartans’ all-time leading receiver or with other guys that could be match-up problems for the Irish.

***

If you’re looking for a fun personality, check out defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, who likened keeping an eye on Irish receiver Michael Floyd to finding Waldo.

“Obviously, you do something special against him but nothing extravagant,” Narduzzi said yesterday to the assembled Spartan media. “The big thing is to know where he is all the time.”

“You ever read the books, Where’s Waldo? He’s Waldo,” Narduzzi said. “We have to know where he, because he’s everywhere. You can’t find Waldo in the book sometimes, you look forever and the kids can find him but you can’t? Well we have to make sure our kids can find him when we can’t.”

It took a few weeks for the Irish to move Floyd around last year, keeping him mostly on the boundary side of the field opposite Kyle Rudolph. Kelly and Charley Molnar have moved No. 3 around more this year, and with 25 catches in the first two weeks, you can tell the results have been good.

Narduzzi also had a nice assessment of the difference between Tommy Rees and Dayne Crist.

“I think what you see on tape is Rees is a gamer. Maybe doesn’t get rattled,” Narduzzi said. “He just seems like a smooth guy out there, nothing gets him rattled. When he makes checks, he’s smooth. Crist the same but you see Crist get maybe a little more nervous when he’s making checks. Do I have enough time? But I think Crist has got a stronger arm, so he scares you, he’s got a stronger arm I think. And I walked off that field last year going, ‘That Crist will be an NFL quarterback,’ and I think he will be. I think that guy will be a first-round quarterback. So they’ve got two very good quarterbacks that are both dangerous.”

It’s always been clear that Crist has the tools. It’s just a matter of if he can get the toolbox up to speed.

***

Cleaning up some personnel matters:

Danny Spond is out with a hamstring injury. Freshman Troy Niklas now moves into the No. 2 slot at the dog linebacker position, playing behind sophomore Prince Shembo. That’s two freshman in the two-deep at outside linebacker, with Ishaq Williams backing up Darius Fleming.

With Mike Ragone out for the season with a torn ACL, freshman Ben Koyack moves to the No. 2 tight end. Sophomore Alex Welch is on his way back from a foot injury, but is questionable. Jake Golic is back and available.

It looks like John Goodman is back returning punts again this week.

 

 

 

 

Irish A-to-Z: Nick Watkins

GLENDALE, AZ - JANUARY 01:  Wide receiver Michael Thomas #3 of the Ohio State Buckeyes runs with the ball as Nick Watkins #21 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish attempts to make a tackle during the first quarter of the BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl at the University of Phoenix Stadium on January 1, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona. Buckeyes won 44-28. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
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With the Fiesta Bowl serving as a springboard, junior cornerback Nick Watkins looked primed to make a move into the starting lineup as he entered his third season in the program. But a spring injury that’s been slow to heal has put his season into purgatory, another uncertainty for the Irish secondary.

A talented coverman who took some time to come into his own, Watkins now waits on bone growth in an injured arm, a second surgery initiated to jump start things. But with the regular season bearing down on the Irish and Watkins’ availability unknown, his contributions are a huge unknown for Notre Dame’s secondary.

 

NICK WATKINS
6’0.5″, 200 lbs.
Junior, No. 7, CB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A four-star, Top 150 recruit, Watkins stayed off the summer camp circuit and still wowed recruiting analysts. The Dallas native had one of the most impressive offer sheets of his recruiting cycle, picking Notre Dame over Alabama, Auburn, Florida State, Georgia, LSU, Ohio State, Texas, USC and UCLA.

Brian Kelly compared landing Watkins to “getting a No. 1 draft pick” on Signing Day.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Played in 11 games, making most of his appearances on special teams. Didn’t register any statistics.

Sophomore Season (2015): Played in 12 games, making one start against Ohio State and making eight tackles. Had one pass breakup.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Watkins fell out of the No. 3 job when Devin Butler beat him out for it, though took over before the Fiesta Bowl when Butler injured his foot in preparations.

Right now, Watkins is the third cornerback in a defense with a high-ceiling starting pair. I can’t think of a Notre Dame defense that hasn’t relied on their third cornerback, and think back to when we all worried how the Irish were going to get Darrin Walls, Gary Gray and Robert Blanton onto the field. It’ll work itself out.

So Watkins will get the reps this season. Or at least the first shot at the reps, with Devin Butler and a trio of freshmen all right behind him. And if he’s going to stay on the field, he’ll need to fully embrace the mental side of the game. I expect Watkins to make major progress here, especially after the harsh realization that elite physical tools may make it easy to lock down receivers in high school, but in VanGorder’s system, knowledge is almost more important.

Watkins is still every bit the prospect he was when he signed with the Irish. After a freshman season spent on special teams, he’ll be asked to take on more as a sophomore.

While he’s a key piece of the Irish future, Watkins can help Notre Dame win this year as well.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

There aren’t many questions about Watkins’ physical abilities, other than the fact that he hasn’t found a way to make an impact yet. That’s understandable considering he was stuck behind KeiVarae Russell and Cole Luke, though a breakout season seems on the verge of being stuck in neutral as he tries to recover from a slow-healing broken arm.

With plenty of tools in the toolbox, Watkins feels like the type of player who can ascend quickly once he’s given the chance. But then again that ascent is predicated on earning that opportunity—no small feat when you look at the athletes the Irish have recruited.

Entering his third season of eligibility, the clock is ticking. His ceiling will be determined by how quickly he’s back on the field, or if the Irish staff ultimately decides to save a year of eligibility if that’s what’s needed.

 

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Of all the injuries we tracked this offseason, Watkins’ broken arm seemed the least on the radar, though has a chance to be the most impactful. That Notre Dame’s medical staff is treating it aggressively says something about the player they think they have in Watkins—who Kelly said will be allowed to fight for a starting job once he’s physically able.

I’m no doctor—but that won’t stop me from evaluating Watkins’ progress. And for the most part, I don’t think it’s the best formula for success jumping into the mix with no training camp and limited time to get in shape at the most demanding position on Notre Dame’s roster.

While losing Watkins is a blow—especially with the length of these suspensions unknown—any chance to take a medical redshirt could be huge for Notre Dame’s depth, getting Watkins a chance to redo his junior season, capable of stepping in after Cole Luke departs.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston
Mark Harrell
Daelin Hayes
Jay Hayes
Tristen Hoge
Corey Holmes
Torii Hunter Jr.
Alizé Jones
Jamir Jones
Jarron Jones
Jonathan Jones
Tony Jones Jr.
Khalid Kareem
DeShone Kizer
Julian Love
Tyler Luatua
Cole Luke
Greer Martini
Jacob Matuska
Mike McGlinchey
Colin McGovern
Deon McIntosh
Javon McKinley
Pete Mokwuah
John Montelus
D.J. Morgan
Nyles Morgan
Sam Mustipher
Quenton Nelson
Tyler Newsome
Adetokunbo Ogundeji
Julian Okwara
James Onwualu
Spencer Perry
Troy Pride Jr.
Max Redfield
Isaac Rochell
Trevor Ruhland
CJ Sanders
Avery Sebastian
John Shannon
Durham Smythe
Equanimeous St. Brown
Kevin Stepherson
Devin Studstill
Elijah Taylor
Brandon Tiassum
Jerry Tillery
Drue Tranquill
Andrew Trumbetti
Donte Vaughn

Walk-on WR Chris Finke awarded scholarship

Chris Finke247
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Amidst the chaos of a weekend where Notre Dame football players made headlines for the wrong reasons, a good story comes from the ashes. Walk-on wide receiver Chris Finke was awarded a scholarship. The diminutive slot receiver, currently running No. 2 behind CJ Sanders and also a potential returner for the Irish, earned the scholarship on Monday.

News came via social media, where a group of teammates—and the Walk-on Players Union—gave their congratulations.

The 5-foot-9.5, 180-pounder from Archbishop Alter in Kettering, Ohio, has quick become a fan favorite. He’s also made himself a Brian Kelly favorite, earning mention last year for his steady hands and moves as a punt returner and this season for his work in the slot.

“He’s Robby Toma with more speed,” Kelly said during fall camp.

(Never mind his inauspicious introduction to BK, as described by the South Bend Tribune’s Mike Vorel.)

Finke took to social media after the news spread on Monday night with the following comment:

“Grateful. Can’t thank the coaches, staff, my teammates, family, friends, and the Good Lord enough!”

Here’s more instant reaction from teammates past and present.

 

Irish A-to-Z: Donte Vaughn

Donte Vaughn 247
Irish247
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It didn’t take long after Donte Vaughn arrived on campus to know that the Irish landed a special prospect in the Memphis native. A long-limbed, athlete with the body of a safety and the cover skills of a cornerback, Vaughn’s freshman season might have pivoted with the dismissal of Max Redfield.

With the Irish short bodies at free safety, it’s reasonable to think the staff will cross-train Vaughn to fill a hole. But even if they don’t, Vaughn is too good to keep off the field as a freshman, a skill-set and attitude that’ll allow Brian VanGorder and Todd Lyght to lean on Vaughn if the situation calls for it.

 

DONTE VAUGHN
6’2″, 200 lbs.
Freshman, No. 35, CB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A four-star recruit, All-USA Tennessee, 6A All-State, Liberty Bowl All-Star game MVP. Offers from Auburn, LSU, Miami, Ole Miss, Tennessee, and Texas A&M. Long, learn and recruited as a corner, Vaughn is a huge get out of a big program in Memphis.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

One look at Notre Dame’s roster and you begin to realize that the Irish don’t have another cornerback that looks like Vaughn. It’s the reason linebacker James Onwualu said this about him:

“He’s gonna be a freak. He’s so long, so smooth,” Onwualu told Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson. “He comes to work every single day and I respect that.”

That type of athleticism and physical profile gives Brian VanGorder a unique weapon and one that’ll likely be utilized far more when Cole Luke is gone and the Irish need someone to play on the wide side of the field in coverage. Until then, Vaughn’s going to be a wild card—with the potential to sub in when the Irish go nickel or dime, and maybe even help replace Redfield as the Irish look to a very young secondary to replace him.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Even without the boneheaded arrests from the weekend, Vaughn was going to play. But with uncertainty surrounding Ashton White and Redfield’s dismissal, this likely moves Vaughn into the plans against Texas—a jump that not many saw coming, even with his impressive skill-set.

Someone is going to come out of the woodwork and step into an important role in the secondary. We’re already counting on that from Devin Studstill. Put Vaughn in that category for me, a player I expect to finish the season as a key building block for 2017.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston
Mark Harrell
Daelin Hayes
Jay Hayes
Tristen Hoge
Corey Holmes
Torii Hunter Jr.
Alizé Jones
Jamir Jones
Jarron Jones
Jonathan Jones
Tony Jones Jr.
Khalid Kareem
DeShone Kizer
Julian Love
Tyler Luatua
Cole Luke
Greer Martini
Jacob Matuska
Mike McGlinchey
Colin McGovern
Deon McIntosh
Javon McKinley
Pete Mokwuah
John Montelus
D.J. Morgan
Nyles Morgan
Sam Mustipher
Quenton Nelson
Tyler Newsome
Adetokunbo Ogundeji
Julian Okwara
James Onwualu
Spencer Perry
Troy Pride Jr.
Max Redfield
Isaac Rochell
Trevor Ruhland
CJ Sanders
Avery Sebastian
John Shannon
Durham Smythe
Equanimeous St. Brown
Kevin Stepherson
Devin Studstill
Elijah Taylor
Brandon Tiassum
Jerry Tillery
Drue Tranquill
Andrew Trumbetti

 

Life after Max: Notre Dame’s options at safety

Studstill 247
Irish 247
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In the days after Notre Dame returned from Culver Academy to kick off training camp, head coach Brian Kelly went out on the ledge and praised Max Redfield.

“He’s been that guy that everybody was hoping for out of high school,” Kelly said.

A little more than a week later, Redfield’s career at Notre Dame is over.

Done in by the same maddening decision-making that kept Redfield from reaching his potential on the field—Friday night’s antics, with Redfield the lone senior with four underclassmen, puts an end not just to his career at Notre Dame, it puts Redfield’s life at a crossroads.

There is no amount of talent that allowed Kelly to keep Redfield on the roster. And as the Irish move on with no proven depth at a safety position that’s relied upon to be the last line of defense, the Irish now look to some unusual spots to find a dependable player that the former five-star recruit could never become.

With Texas just two weeks away, here are a few options worth considering:

 

1. Start Devin Studstill. 

The true freshman pushed his way into the mix during spring practice, far from any type of motivational ploy by the Irish coaching staff. He’s a smooth athlete, a capable tackler and intelligent defender who understands the concepts Brian VanGorder is asking for from his back end defenders.

Studstill has battled a nagging hamstring injury during camp but is back in action. He’s also the only true positional fit that’s close to capable of stepping in for Redfield without some major schematic adjustments.

He’s still a freshman—and that means the Irish will have to live with some of the mistakes that come when you’re seeing and doing things for the first time. But Studstill’s been the free safety of the future since he stepped onto campus. So the timeline is accelerated, but it’s long been the plan.

 

2. Find a way to play Drue Tranquill next to Avery Sebastian. 

Sixth-year senior Avery Sebastian was kept in the program for a reason. And if this isn’t the perfect opportunity to lean on a mature player who could bail the Irish out of problems, I’m not sure what is.

No, he’s not the perfect fit for the position. Nor is Tranquill. But if Notre Dame needs two low-mistake defenders in the secondary along side their talented cornerbacks, they could do a lot worse than playing Tranquill and Sebastian on first and second down before bringing in a nickel or dime package depending on the situation.

Multiple reporters came out of last week’s open practice praising Sebastian’s toughness and capable play at safety. While he’s yet to be able to stay healthy for any of his college career, he’d do the ordinary things well—something this team desperately needs.

Putting Tranquill, a 230-pound safety, next to Sebastian, a 5-foot-10 (on a good day) hammerhead, limits a team that wants to play a lot of man coverage. But if you’re looking to find dependability, you could do worse.

 

3. Give Donte Vaughn a look at safety. 

Notre Dame thinks they have a future cover corner in Vaughn, whose length and athleticism has people thinking big things about the Memphis native. But with the cornerback depth chart well stocked and the safeties raw and thin, there’s no harm in repping Vaughn at free safety.

The only thing harder than throwing a freshman in at free safety is doing it to a freshman who switched positions less than two weeks before the opener. But Vaughn isn’t your ordinary freshman, as senior James Onwualu attested to last week.

“He’s gonna be a freak. He’s so long, so smooth,” Onwualu told Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson. “He comes to work every single day and I respect that.”

That work ethic will serve him well. So will cross-training this week at safety with Studstill.

 

4. Keep cross-training and developing. 

Just because a player isn’t ready week one doesn’t mean they won’t be able to contribute. And the Irish coaching staff recruited a variety of shapes and sizes when they restocked the secondary in the last recruiting class, and we’ll now see how quickly they can find a way into the mix.

Expect Jalen Elliott to get an early look. While the staff thinks he’s a future strong safety, Elliott is talented enough to compete at both safety positions—and the door is open for him to do that. He’ll be one of the first guys taking back-up reps now that Redfield is gone.

D.J. Morgan, another talented safety out of a Southern California powerhouse program, will need to show he can physically hold up as a safety in the open field, but he’s got the length and size to play. That high level experience in high school should certainly make the transition to the college game easier.

Football players might be your best bet, too. While Julian Love has been taking two-deep reps at nickel corner, there’s an opening at safety and Love’s high school tape showed an athlete that could do any job. Nobody will confuse him with a prototype at the position, but if he can think his way through the job, he’ll have a shot.

 

5. Don’t panic. 

Notre Dame’s secondary has taken blows like this with Kelly at the helm. And even if you’d argue that Redfield was the one of the least-replaceable starters on the defense, there’s no reason to be throwing the towel in after one of the worst evenings in recent off-field history at Notre Dame.

But remember this: An August injury to a presumed starter and the dismissal of a blue-chip recruit before he ever took the field, forced a freshman running back to convert to cornerback. Then KeiVarae Russell started all 13 games on a team that played for a national title.

At safety that season a redshirt freshman converted wide receiver started 11 games after spending spring outside of the two-deep, with Matthias Farley stepping in at safety and picking up the slack after Jamoris Slaughter went down.

The Irish have recruited better than most programs in the country and have kept the emphasis on finding defensive backs who can play in this system. Even if the timetable has accelerated, there’s a plan in place.