IBG: Life at the quarter-turn

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Slow this season down, please!

After months of analyzing and dissecting all the things related to the 2011 football season, the first three weeks — in all their bizarre and agonizing glory — are already gone. Not a lot of people saw a 1-2 start for the Irish, and nobody saw the way the Irish would get there: statistically dominating in their two losses, then beating Michigan State by 18 points — the largest margin of victory for the Irish over the Spartans since 1993 — all while being out-gained and losing the turnover battle.

You literally can’t make this stuff up.

Hosting this week’s Irish Blogger Gathering are the fine gentlemen at One Foot Down, who have taken over the Notre Dame reins at SBNation. They asked the questions, I did my best to answer them. (And possibly lost my mind at the end.)

Here goes…

For the first time this season, Notre Dame was outgained in yardage by its opponent.  Some have expressed concern that Notre Dame maybe doesn’t beat State without a kick return for a touchdown and an 82-yard interception return.  Still, Notre Dame won for the first time this season.  What does this win say about this team?  Did we see progress on Saturday?

We definitely saw progress, in the one statistic that really matters: Wins. For those concerned about how the Irish won, I’ll take substance over style any day of the week, especially on Saturdays. Like I mentioned above, the Irish won even being outgained and losing the turnover battle.

Outside of a clutch drive, Brian Kelly went back to late 2010’s gameplan in the second half, holding on for the win with stingy defense and conservative offense. It wasn’t pretty but it worked. Outside of John Goodman‘s inexplicable punt muff, the Irish did a better job closing out a football game, with the Irish defense making a big play when it mattered, something that should help Bob Diaco‘s troops come crunch time.

I’ll still tell you that Notre Dame is a good football team. They’ve just got to keep getting better and playing up to their abilities. Against a team that was the defending Big Ten champs and ranked No. 15 in the country, they won by high double-digits. If that’s not considered progress, people need to take up a new hobby.

What three facets of our game do you focus on in practice this week if you’re Brian Kelly? 

I don’t think I do anything different than I’ve done since I took the job in South Bend. Sure, I continue to stress making good decisions with the football and not making big mistakes, but a consistency in approach is the one thing that separates Brian Kelly from Irish coaches of recent past, and the big reason why Notre Dame didn’t collapse last season.

To play along with your question though, it’s pretty clear that the Irish will win this football game if they just don’t beat themselves. That means making sure you don’t give up huge plays on defense and don’t shoot yourself in the foot and turn the ball over on offense.

Grade the coaching staff and position groups through three games.

I’m only grading by what I see on the field. Any coaching grade would be a guess, especially not knowing what’s said behind closed doors.

Defensive line: A-

It’s hard not to be impressed with Mike Elston‘s work developing the defensive line. Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore look great. Stephon Tuitt is making good progress and Aaron Lynch had his breakout game. At nose tackle, Louis Nix and Sean Cwynar are the best duo they’ve had their in a long time.

Linebackers: B

I’ve been disappointed in Darius Fleming and Prince Shembo doesn’t seem like a good fit at the dog position, but it’s a matter of getting the best 11 on the field right now. Against spread QBs, I just don’t think Fleming keeps things inside of him well enough and missed some really big tackles against Michigan, giving me flashbacks to the last two seasons. Manti Te’o has been his usual awesome, and Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese are continuing to improve.

I’d like the linebackers as a whole to get better not over-committing and playing better in play-action. I also expect a few more plays behind the line of scrimmage, something Fleming should get on this Saturday.

Secondary:B-

Take away the fourth quarter against Michigan and this is a different letter grade. Still, I expected Harrison Smith to have a pick or two by now and Gary Gray‘s regression in coverage is the disappointment of the first quarter of the season. That said, Robert Blanton has played great football and the secondary is building some much needed depth. Jamoris Slaughter and Zeke Motta looked good last Saturday, and seeing Austin Collinsworth on the field was good as well.

Quarterbacks: B

For everyone that’s complained about Tommy Rees and his turnovers, take a look at what young quarterbacks do. Jimmy Clausen threw 17 interceptions his sophomore season, and that was after starting all of 2007. Brady Quinn‘s numbers weren’t much to look at either. Rees is still very early in his development and he’s only going to get better. When he’s good, he’s very good. When he’s bad, the ball ends up with the wrong team. That’ll get fixed.

Runningbacks: B+

This would be in the A range if Jonas Gray and Cierre Wood didn’t both lose a fumble. The Irish are averaging better than 4.5 yards a carry this season, up considerably from the 3.98 they averaged last year. Wood has two 100-yard games. Jonas has only gotten better since his first drive. George Atkinson, while he hasn’t made a dent in the offense, made a huge one in special teams.

Tightends: B-

Tyler Eifert has had some big drops. Mike Ragone is lost for the year. Jake Golic broke his arm and Alex Welch was out last week with a foot injury. Still, there’s a lot of talent at this position as pass catchers, they’ll just need to make sure they’re as good in-line blocking as well. It’s impressive than Ben Koyack is playing well three games into his career. In a perfect situation he’d be redshirting.

Wide receivers: B+

Michael Floyd has been a monster, one of the best two or three wide receivers in the country. TJ Jones has been solid, Theo Riddick had one miserable game, then rallied nicely. Floyd is propping this group up right now, but there’s plenty of talent and the ball seems to be getting spread around better.

Offensive line: B+

The Irish have only given up three sacks this year, and the running game has gotten better, as mentioned above. Zack Martin is playing great football. Kelly has been happy with Trevor Robinson and Braxston Cave. I’d like to see more out of Taylor Dever, who has been on the ugly end of a few bad plays. Chris Watt has had his name mentioned a few too many times by referees, too.  More importantly, the Irish need to show they can move the ball in short yardage situations and run with the lead.

Special Teams: C-

This grade would be a lot lower if it weren’t for Atkinson’s touchdown return and the deep kickoffs of Kyle Brindza. I’ve hammered Ben Turk enough, he knows what he needs to do. Ditto for John Goodman and Theo Riddick. The problem for all three of them is in between the ears. David Ruffer wasn’t going to make every kick he attempted this year, but a 30-yard chip shot would’ve been a good one. Overall, Mike Elston’s troops have better football ahead of them and the touchdown return was a great play.

The season is 25% complete.  If you’re Brian Kelly, what is your mantra for the second quarter of the season?

Stay the course. More importantly, get to the bye week on a four-game winning streak. If the Irish are 4-2 when they face USC, this season officially gets interesting.

It sounds cliche, but you can’t beat Purdue until you beat Pitt. You can’t beat Air Force until you beat Purdue. This team has self-destructed twice. It shouldn’t be hard to just stay the course and go to work each day focused on the task at hand.

On Pittsburgh.  Did Iowa wrest control of the game from PItt, as was Iowa’s custom last season.  Or did Pitt just implode?

This isn’t the 2010 Hawkeyes. This was just as much about Pitt’s absolutely mediocre secondary play as the Hawkeyes doing good things. I don’t expect to hear much from either of these teams come November.

Do any of Pitt’s players of matchups concern you?

Pitt has Ray Graham, a very good, NFL caliber, running back. Tino Sunseri can move his feet enough to be scary and looked better last Saturday against the Hawkeyes. Brandon Lindsey could be one of the most explosive defenders the Irish face this season if he’s healthy.

How does ND vs. Pitt play out this weekend?

f the Irish get off to a quick start, I expect them to pull away in the second half, coasting to an easy victory. (Of course, the Irish haven’t mastered coasting yet. They prefer to get up to full speed, realize they’re moving pretty quickly and hammer on the breaks.)

Statistically, Pitt really isn’t a dangerous football team. That said, when you’re playing the Irish, you’ll never be the most dangerous team on the field — that right has already been reserved by ND. Unfortunately, they’re a threat to their opponent and themselves.

With a noon start, it should be a little less hostile. The weather report doesn’t look all that promising, which could make a team with ball security issues even more prone to mistakes. Still, the Irish shouldn’t have a hard time getting up for a Todd Graham football team, the same coach that pulled out a shocking victory over Notre Dame when he led Tulsa to ten-wins last year.

BONUS QUESTION: With three games in the books, this season is one-quarter done. It’s probably no stretch to assume that football writers also enjoy history, and specifically military history. Compare Notre Dame’s one-fourth of a season to a one-fourth complete war. It is World War I — i.e. are we stuck in a war of attrition with many, many losses still to come? Is it Grenadad — have we already seen the worst, with only relatively smooth sailing to come? Don’t feel limited to 20th century warfare. For that matter, no need to limit it to military history — political, legal and philosophical warfare is also acceptable.

Do these One Foot Down guys know how to party or what?

I’m sure my readers are excited for me to mangle a historical war metaphor and show my ignorance, but I’m going outside the box and using my escape clause to compare this to a different epic battle, one that defined my youth and helped turn me into the person that I am.

Consider this The Ode to Little Mac.

You may know Little Mac. Scrappy 17-year-old boxer from the Bronx. Five-foot nothing, 100-and-nothing pounds. Until he met a guy named Doc Lewis. Doc saw something in Mac that made him believe he could be heavyweight champion of the world. From there he took one of the biggest long shots in the world on a title run to end all title runs.

In case you’re not catching on, I’m comparing the Irish season to the epic videogame Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out! Sure, the Irish have taken two lumps on the chin and are one loss away from retiring their BCS hopes, but there’s still plenty of fight left in the tank.

With a front-loaded schedule, the Irish didn’t have a chance to warm up against cupcakes like Glass Joe or Von Kaiser. There’s no shame in losing to Piston Honda (USF). The singular greatness of Don Flamenco‘s (Denard Robinson) upper-cut caught the Irish late in the game when it looked like they had the fight won. Beating down King Hippo (MSU) wasn’t surprising, especially once they diagnosed an offense that relied on a power game, but had some serious fatal flaws.

I’m stretching here when I compare Pitt to the Great Tiger, but as long as the Irish watch his jeweled turban and fancy teleport move they should be okay.

There’s no reason to worry about guys like Bald Bull, Soda Popinski, or Mr. Sandman yet. And we all know there’s that flashy team from Hollywood (Super Macho Man) and a title bout with Kid Dynamite himself, Mike Tyson  (Andrew Luck playing the role of Iron Mike) at the end of the road.

But looking that far ahead will do nothing but get you beat. So take a break between rounds, remember to hit the SELECT button, and take these fights one at a time.

Time for a jog…

 

Work in weight & film rooms has Hayes ready to meet five-star potential

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Common thinking might give four- and five-star recruits too much credit. They do not all arrive ready to play at the collegiate level on day one. It takes time, conditioning, learning. Perhaps it was that awareness that kept Daelin Hayes from letting his five-star ranking on rivals.com change his expectations. He knew he would have much work ahead of him when he arrived at Notre Dame as the only five-star prospect in the class of 2016.

Now finishing his freshman year, the defensive end notices the effects of his work as he puts in more.

“I remember my first time watching film, I was like, woah,” Hayes said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “I look quicker, like more twitch than I did. I was definitely—it’s hard to put into words—but to actually be able to go back and look at it and see how it affected the game was huge. [Director of football performance Matt] Balis has worked wonders for us.”

Hayes’ improved quickness showed in his three “sacks” in the intrasquad scrimmage. Going against future NFL prospect Mike McGlinchey at left tackle, Hayes faced a stiff challenge throughout spring’s 15 practices, not that he shied away from that task.

“I don’t think it was ever a point where it was overwhelming,” Hayes said. “I’ve always been a competitor. … But you guys know Mike, he’s huge, obviously a first-round talent and whatnot. I’m just grateful to be able to go against somebody like that each and every day. He makes me better. …

“I love competing with the guy. You go and do that with a guy in practice every day, then the game scenario comes, it’s like second nature. You can do this in practice, you can definitely do this against anybody.”

McGlinchey does not seem to mind the matchup, either.

“Daelin is a man who is blessed with a lot of size and athletic ability,” McGlinchey said Friday. “That presents a lot of problems for people in the game of football. He’s so young, and he has so much still to work on, it’s pretty cool to see what he’s capable of and then what he is going to do down the road.”

When Hayes arrived at Notre Dame, still recovering from a high school shoulder injury, he weighed 250 pounds with 18 percent body fat. Now, he said, he still weighs 250—the Irish roster lists him at 255—but is down to 10 percent body fat. It is that kind of change which has created more twitch and makes McGlinchey envision Hayes after more time spent improving in the weight room and the film room.

“I’m not the same athlete that I was when I first came in, not by any means,” Hayes said. “… Buying into that offseason program is going to be huge for our team.”

Per the Blue-Gold Game’s statistics, Hayes ended the scrimmage with seven tackles. Whether skeptical of the recordkeeping within a practice or not, seven tackles in one abbreviated afternoon compares favorably to Hayes’ total of 11 in 12 games last season. Some of that uptick is playing time, some of it is scheme, some of it is realization of the potential highlighted by a five-star ranking. For now, though, Hayes insists he intends to simply learn from last year’s 4-8 disappointment and embrace the changes brought by new Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko.

“With last year being the year that we had, there definitely was a yearning for change,” Hayes said. “When you have basically a reboot of the program, the guys are hungry and they don’t want to have to experience the same season as last year.

“Just continue to trust in that process. We’re hungry for something to cling on and buy into. When coach Elko, coach Balis, everybody came in as part of that reboot, I think we welcomed with open arms. [We’ll] continue to buy into the system and become more comfortable within the system.”

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line

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Heading into spring practice, a quick look was taken at each position group in order of “expected level of interest or question marks,” from least interesting to most, as dictated by an “Inside the Irish” reader. That series concluded with the defensive line.

Exiting spring practice, let’s reprise that premise and reverse the order. If the defensive line triggered the most questions, then answering them first seems to make some version of sense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
“Will enough defensive linemen prove themselves deserving of playing time to create a viable threat up front?” this space asked. “If so, who will those linemen be?”

RELATED READING: One day until spring practice: A look at the defensive line

Aside from senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26 tackles last season, 0.5 for loss), senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss amid a season lost largely to concussion) and junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37, 3), the Irish defensive line had little track record to cite or rely upon for confidence. Leading the unknowns and unprovens were sophomore ends Daelin Hayes, who recorded 11 tackles in 2016, and Julian Okwara (4).

The lack of depth and experience was apparent heading into the 15 spring practices.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
Look past the 11 sacks in the Blue-Gold Game. Intrasquad scrimmages featuring red-jerseyed quarterbacks make for inexact and context-less statistics. There is some value, however, in noting the defensive line got within reach of the quarterback at least eight times in an abbreviated game. (Three “sacks” came from the linebacker corps.)

“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, just buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

RELATED READING: What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

Hayes led the way with three sacks, and he will be expected to continue that in the fall, starting at the weakside/rush defensive end spot. Exiting spring, though, only he and Tillery solidified themselves as starters. Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Mike Elko claimed a successful spring for the front.

“I’m happy with our defensive line progress,” Elko said Friday. “Obviously there was a lot written about that group. I’m happy about the progress they’ve made this spring. I think [defensive line coach] Mike [Elston] has done a good job developing them. I think they are buying into the way we want to play defense. There’s probably four to five guys on the inside that are starting to get into a position where we feel comfortable that they can step in and help us.” (more…)

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?