And in that corner… The Pitt Panthers

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For the first time in more than half a decade, the Irish will prepare to take on a Pittsburgh team that doesn’t feature Dave Wannstedt on the sidelines. Kicked to the curb after winning 27 games over the last three seasons, the Pitt brass finally tired of the Wannstedt era, known for it’s inability to get over the hump, even while the results were mostly pretty good.

After an offseason most Pitt fans would like to forget (not to mention Mike Haywood, who filed suit against the university this week over his firing), the university named Tulsa coach Todd Graham its new head coach. Graham has brought in a philosophy and style polar opposite of Wannstedt’s, but the stated mission is clear: Take the team past its current plateau.

With Pitt and Syracuse announcing their walking away from the Big East to join the ACC, the traditional rivalry between the Irish and the Panthers might soon be coming to an end. But until then, Graham has shown he understands the importance of Saturday’s game.

“I think there’s Penn State, West Virginia and Notre Dame, when you think of the three games that mean the most to our players and our programs,” Graham said.  “It’s a big deal. We’ve got a great tradition around this game.”

With all the news that’s swirling around the Pitt program, we thought we’d go inside the school’s walls to get our update on the Irish’s weekend opponent. Here to answer our questions is Lauren Kirschman, sports editor of The Pitt News, the university paper.

Inside the Irish: Obviously, Notre Dame had their own fourth quarter implosion, but how disheartening was Pitt’s collapse against Iowa? Win and the Todd Graham era starts off at 3-0 with a huge victory against a Big Ten power in their house. Lose, and it makes you think about the uneven performances against Buffalo and Maine. Do we know who this team is yet?

Lauren Kirschman: The Panthers are exactly what they looks like: a team going through a complete and total transition in philosophy and style. Anyone who watched Dave Wannstedt’s Pitt teams and have seen Todd Graham’s squad this year should be able to tell that. Although the loss to Iowa was extremely disappointing, for the first three quarters of that game Pitt finally looked like it was executing Graham’s system as it should be executed. It seems that Pitt’s major problem right now is putting together a complete game. Still, it’s apparent that the players haven’t completely made an adjustment from Wannstedt’s methodical, pro-style system to Graham’s no-huddle, self-described “high-octane” style of play. Once that starts to click, I think we’ll really get an idea of the identity of this team.

ITI: Pitt has looked good running the ball with Ray Graham. But the offensive line has really struggled to hold up against a pass rush. The Irish front seven had its best game of the year against Michigan State, constantly knocking around Kirk Cousins. Can the Panthers offensive line hold up on Saturday?

LK: In the Iowa game, Tino Sunseri wasn’t hit all that much, at least not compared to the rest of the season. Iowa sacked Sunseri three times, while Maine sacked him seven times. Pitt had real problems picking up blitzes in the Maine game but against Iowa the protection was decent. The real problem against Iowa seemed to be that Sunseri needs to get rid of the ball faster. I think the offensive line will hold it’s own on Saturday, but you might see some more roll outs and Sunseri out of the pocket more. But if Sunseri doesn’t make quicker decisions and get rid of the ball against Notre Dame, I think it’s going to be a long day for Pitt.

ITI: How has the defensive transition gone with Keith Patterson and Tony Gibson. Statistically speaking, Pitt has been solid against the run but has put up some really ugly numbers in the passing game. What’s been the problem? It is talent or is the scheme been tough to pick up?

LK: It’s a little bit of both, but the best players that Pitt has seem to be on the field right now. The primary problem seems to be the linebackers, who, as you mentioned, are solid against the run but continue to struggle defending the passing game. Pitt gave up 399 passing yards against Iowa. Graham said there were 12 errors by the pass defense in the third quarter against the Hawkeyes and a lot of the errors seem to be mental mistakes. Graham cited communication problems, saying that there were a few times when the players had the wrong call. He also said that he might have overestimated how much the defense can handle and he might have to be more patient in teaching the new system. What that says to me is that the scheme is difficult to pick up and many of the blown coverages come from the players not understanding where they are supposed to be. There have been a few plays this season where two players have gotten mixed up on coverages, leading to a big play for the opponent. Unfortunately for Pitt, Notre Dame has the best passing offense that it has seen this season and maybe the best the Panthers will see all year.

ITI: What have the early returns looked like on Todd Graham and his coaching staff? Anything that’s surprised you?

LK: I don’t think anything has really surprised me. A lot of Pitt fans expected Graham and his staff to come in, install this new system and then instantly start scoring 50 points a game. But that’s just not how it works. Installing a new system, especially one that is so different than the one that came before it, takes time. Even though Pitt lost against Iowa, for at least three quarters you could see definite improvement from the Panthers both offensively and defensively from that first game against Buffalo. What I like the most about Graham is his honestly–he knows there are problems with the team and he willingly admits that–and his determination to stick with his system. He admitted after the Maine game that if he would’ve run the ball the entire game, the margin of victory would have been greater, but he wants to install a well-rounded offensive system and that includes the passing attack. There will be positive pay off for that later. When the Panthers are playing well, you can see how Graham’s system is supposed to look. For periods of time against Iowa, the offense attacked and looked smooth and capable of scoring those 50 points a game.

ITI: As both a student and as someone that follows Pitt sports pretty closely, what are your feelings on the announced move to the ACC?

LK: I like the move. I think with the conference climate like it is now, it was important for Pitt to make a move and find a stable conference. If Pitt didn’t, another team would have, and Pitt would’ve been left behind. It is so difficult to strengthen a conference like the Big East because of the combination of football and non-football schools. The move to the ACC improves the football schedule and gives Pitt the chance to compete in a larger conference with a championship game. While I don’t like to see the dismantling of the Big East basketball conference, which I believe is the best conference in the country, I think it was going to end whether Pitt left or not. So overall, this was the best move for Pitt to make in order to ensure that it is in a good position when the conference realignment ends.

ITI: We know about Ray Graham and Brandon Lindsey. Name one player on both sides of the ball that’ll be a key to Pitt winning?

LK: Quarterback Tino Sunseri and outside linebacker EJuan Price.

When Sunseri is playing well, the offense looks like it’s supposed to look. For awhile against Iowa, Sunseri put on a solid performance, making several nice runs and getting rid of the ball quickly. But then, he also made some critical errors in a dropped snap and an interception after Iowa took the lead at the end of the fourth quarter. Pitt needs Sunseri to play well on Saturday and move the Panthers down the field without the turnovers. Sunseri also tends to hold the ball too long, which makes the offensive line’s job more difficult. As a quarterback adjusting to Graham’s system, Sunseri has the most difficult and important job in the offense. If he can improve this week, the offense as a whole will improve as well.

Price, a true freshman, is already a talented pass rusher. He is a player that could really cause Notre Dame problems if he plays well. He had two sacks against Iowa. But Price, like other members of the defense, is struggling a bit with coverages as well. A huge key to Pitt winning is Price, and the rest of the Pitt defense, eliminating errors that could open up big play opportunities for Notre Dame’s offense.

ITI: How do you see Saturday (early) afternoon playing out?

LK: As I mentioned before, Notre Dame is the most talented passing team the Panthers have faced so far. Unfortunately for Pitt, that spells trouble. I don’t see Pitt’s defense improving enough this week to shut down Notre Dame’s offensive attack enough to pull out the victory. On the positive side for Pitt, I see the Panthers improving this week and putting together a more complete game than they did against Iowa. One of the keys to Pitt potentially pulling out a victory is forcing turnovers as that seems to be one of Notre Dame’s weak spots this season. But the Panthers haven’t excelled in that department so far this year.

***

As we lead up to this Saturday’s game, check out more of Laura’s work at the Pitt News here.

Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

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This space has mentioned a few times the dearth of returning sacks among Notre Dame’s defensive line. It is a pertinent fact—no returning Irish defensive lineman recorded a sack in the 2016 season—but it fails to mention the flipside of that.

Most of Notre Dame’s defensive linemen had few, if any, opportunities to rush the passer in 2016. Perhaps at the top of the list of those who should bring down the opposing passer a few times this fall, sophomore Daelin Hayes has laid claim to a starting rush spot through five spring practices.

“The athleticism is what obviously stands out,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “He’s extremely athletic, he’s fit physically, 250 pounds and very strong.”

These facts are, after all, the reasons Hayes was a highly sought-after five-star recruit according to rivals.com.

“It’s the football knowledge, learning the techniques at the position in which he plays is really the piece,” Kelly continued. “It’s just learning right now for him. This is the time to do it, in spring ball.

“Squeezing down on a tight end when the back is away. Wrong-arming the puller. These are all football terms and schemes that are a bit new to him. We have to be patient with him. He’s an explosive athlete. There’s going to be some mistakes along the way, and I’m okay with that as long as he’s learning.”

Without much depth pushing for playing time behind him, Hayes will have the opportunity to make, and subsequently understand, those mistakes. Seniors Jay Hayes (no relation) and Andrew Trumbetti are mired in competition for the other end spot, while sophomores Julian Okwara, Adetokunbo Ogundeji and Khalid Kareem may have even more development ahead of them than Daelin Hayes does.

Incoming freshmen Kofi Wardlow and Jonathon MacCollister will join the fray in the summer, but for now, the younger Hayes has his chance to impress with his natural gifts while absorbing the intricacies of new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s defense.

Hayes is not a complete unknown. While Okwara made four tackles last season in 11 games and Kareem appeared in four games, Hayes saw action in every contest, finishing the season with 11 tackles, one pass breakup and one forced fumble.

“He’s an athlete,” defensive line coach Mike Elston said last week. “He’s on the edge in a two-point stance. He’s not a trained, put-your-hand-on-the-ground defensive end. He played running back in high school. He can see things better in a two-point and can diagnose quicker. He’s able to be more productive.”

It may be accurate to mention no returning Notre Dame defensive linemen tackled a quarterback for a loss last season, but it is more precise to also include the Irish have possibilities of changing that trend.

SPEAKING OF THE DEFENSIVE LINE
Notre Dame is nearly as thin at defensive tackle as it is at end. Junior Jerry Tillery leads the way with senior end-converted-to-tackle Jonathan Bonner lining up next to him thus far. Their reserves: Oft-concussed senior Daniel Cage, senior Pete Mokwuah and junior Micah Dew-Treadway with junior Elijah Taylor out for the spring with a foot injury.

Theoretically, junior Brandon Tiassum is also in the mix, and three freshmen (Kurt Hinish, Myron Tagovailo-Amosa and four-star Darnell Ewell) will join the group in the summer.

And maybe, just maybe, perhaps, possibly … Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano could walk onto campus alongside those freshmen. Pagano visited Notre Dame the first week of March, and was due to look at Oklahoma and Arkansas the next two weekends, respectively. Instead, Pagano reportedly cancelled both of those visits Monday.

Pagano does still have a visit to Oregon scheduled for April 21. Until indicated otherwise, it may be prudent to presume Pagano hopes to land as close to his Hawaiian home as possible.

RELATED READING: 1 Day Until Spring Practice: A look at the defensive line

Recruiting success continues with OL Dirksen, class’s 12th commit

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Even in the doldrums of spring practice, Notre Dame’s recent recruiting success continues. Rivals.com three-star/scout.com four-star offensive lineman John Dirksen offered a verbal commitment to the Irish on Saturday, bringing the 2018 class to 12 commitments.

The 6-foot-5, 290-pounds Dirksen (Marion High School; Maria Stein, Ohio) joins consensus three-star prospect Cole Mabry (Brentwood H.S.; Brentwood, Tenn.) as the offensive linemen thus far among the 12. In three of the last four years, Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has pulled in four recruits, with 2015’s two (Trevor Ruhland, Tristen Hoge) as the exception. This recruiting cycle could again bring a limited offensive line haul, given the likely limits on the class’s size.

While any and all current class of 2018 team rankings should be taken with many grains of salt—there are 318 days between today and National Signing Day, after all—Dirksen’s commitment solidifies the Irish hold on the No. 3 class, per rivals.com. Other recruiting services place Notre Dame even higher.

Dirksen chose Hiestand and the Irish over offers from Michigan State, Iowa State and Boston College, among others.

 

Holmes out for spring; Jones & Jones shining

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Notre Dame’s spring continued over the weekend, and is all too often the case with football, that led to an injury. Early enrollee running back C.J. Holmes will probably miss the rest of spring practice due to a separated shoulder, Irish coach Brian Kelly announced following Saturday’s practice.

“We’ll get an MRI and know a little bit further on Monday once that calms down a little bit,” Kelly said. “We’ll get a picture of that and see. He had an open repair on that same shoulder his sophomore year in high school.”

Behind three backs, including two with experience, Holmes was unlikely to see playing time in the backfield in 2017.

Of those three backs, sophomore Tony Jones, Jr., is the unknown after preserving a year of eligibility last season. In limited practice viewing, however, Jones has only impressed. He has caught Kelly’s eye, as well.

“He’s 225 pounds, can catch the ball coming out of the backfield, [is] assignment correct, and can run elusively and can get into the second level,” Kelly said. “What does that equal? He’s a pretty good back.

“Obviously he was noticeable today in his play and he got some work with the first group as well. He wasn’t just getting second-team reps.”

Jones may be getting some first-unit exposure, but expect him to remain behind junior Josh Adams in the depth chart. Considering Jones’ style is somewhat comparable to Adams’, whereas junior Dexter Williams presents something of a change of pace, Williams should see more action than the sophomore, as well.

MORE PRAISE FOR ALIZE JONES
Junior tight end Alizé Jones—rather, Alizé Mack, per his Twitter account—has taken the lead in spring’s race of who reaps the most sound bite accolades. In complimenting Jones, who missed last season due to an academic suspension, Kelly also managed to laud new offensive coordinator Chip Long.

“I think Chip is doing a terrific job with [Jones],” Kelly said. “He’s got a good relationship. He knows how to rise him up when he needs to and scold him when he needs to. Alizé needs a little bit of that.

“He’s virtually un-coverable in certain areas of the field. I don’t care at any level. You can’t cover him. He just has that kind of talent. The one that I think stands out to me in the few days is he’s committed himself to being a blocker and playing physical. If he continues to do that, we’re going to find ourselves with a lot of tight ends on the field.”

Presumably, Jones would join graduate student tight end Durham Smythe in two tight end sets. It should be remembered, Long has historically shown a preference for such formations, and with Notre Dame’s plethora of options at the position, Long’s tendencies have no need to change. For that matter, Long had some praise for Jones this weekend, as well.

“Alizé can be as good as he wants to be,” Long said Friday. “…He’s growing up each and every day. Great joy to coach, and that whole group is. He doesn’t want to let that group down. There’s no question he can be as good as he wants to be.”

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.