Little Mac

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…

 

Demetris Robertson set for Sunday decision (finally!)

Demetris Robertson
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Five-star recruit Demetris Robertson is ready to make a college decision. Finally.

Months after National Signing Day, the last recruit on the board for Notre Dame is ready to pick the place he plans to go to college. And after setting an announcement date for Monday, Robertson is even pushing things forward, with a Sunday decision now in the books.

For Irish fans still paying attention to the twists and turns of this recruitment, Robertson will announce his decision from the College Football Hall of Fame in downtown Atlanta. (An homage to Jimmy Clausen, anyone?)

Here’s Rivals.com with the news after talking with Robertson’s brother and guardian.

“We were going to have it on Monday, but things got mixed up so we moved it up a day,” Carlos Robertson said. “It will be at 1 p.m., right there in that 1-2 time frame, somewhere in there.”

But it’s happening.

“His mind’s made up,” Carlos Robertson said. “Everything’s locked, but he wanted to have it, have a little public deal, but I think he knows where he wants to be.”

Robertson also cleared up why the decision is being held in Atlanta.

“We’re not from Savannah, we’re actually from right below the Atlanta area, so it will give everybody, the aunts, the uncles, everybody a chance to come,” he said. “It only made sense.”

While this recruitment has felt like a soap opera, it’s worth pointing out that there’s absolutely no reason to fault Robertson for making this decision on a timeline that he decides. National Signing Day may feel like a holiday to college football fans, but it’s really just the earliest date a letter-of-intent can be signed.

With hopes of gaining admittance into Stanford, Robertson reportedly retook his ACT multiple times, trying to make a better score. Usually that’s cause for applause, not derision. He’s also spent time further evaluating his other options, some closer to home—Georgia, Alabama—others with a significant academic profile—Cal and Notre Dame among them.

The Irish’s pursuit of Robertson has been well documented, including a visit from the team semi-truck. It’s also a recruitment where most are still in the dark. While Notre Dame is certainly still in the running, there’s no gut feeling on this one way or the other, even among those inside the program.

After averaging 15 points a game as a guard for the Savannah Christian basketball team, Robertson is preparing to compete in the state track meet, running multiple sprint events and the long jump. That type of athleticism is what has the Irish coaching staff sold on Robertson as a wide receiver, a potential replacement for Will Fuller (and two other starters) as Notre Dame restocks a depth chart that’ll also feature spring star Kevin Stepherson and incoming freshmen Chase Claypool and Javon McKinley.

With some feeling home state Georgia has moved ahead in the race, Robertson’s brother Carlos says his younger brother did what was best for him, taking his time and making a decision for himself.

“It was totally his decision, lock himself in the room, however he had to do it. This was something he had to decide on his own,” the elder Robertson told Rivals.com.

 

 

For Irish, best work will be behind closed doors

BUFFALO, NY - SEPTEMBER 12:  Head Coach Jeff Quinn of the Buffalo Bulls looks on during the game against the Baylor Bears at UB Stadium on September 12, 2014 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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With spring practice finished and the end of the school year in sight, Brian Kelly’s team enters the all-important offseason—a time when the best work goes unseen by the coaching staff. On a squad where the lion’s share of leaders and starters need to be replaced, Kelly’s talked about the identity of this team forming when he and his assistants get out of the mix.

“We need to get the heck out of the way, in a sense, and allow those guys to step up and be leaders within their units,” Kelly said after the spring game. “And that naturally happens when the coaches get out of the way. Especially in May. They go home, they recharge, they kind of assess where they are and they hear it from us and they come back in June and they are focused on physical development and then the leadership element and they go to work on it.”

One of the storylines that’s gone mostly ignored are the changes to the group in charge of the team while the staff is getting out of the way. While Director of strength and conditioning Paul Longo has long held a premier role atop the ever-evolving org chart under Brian Kelly, the players beneath him have changed. That creates an interesting dynamic this offseason—and possibly one that could actually benefit the Irish in the months to come.

Entering his seventh season at Notre Dame along side Kelly, Longo has worked hand in hand with Kelly since his time at Central Michigan. That relationship is likely why Longo’s been more out front than any strength coach at Notre Dame in the modern era.

 

Treated as a coordinator—and actually listed above Mike Denbrock, Brian VanGorder and Mike Sanford on the team’s online roster—we’re heard plenty in seven years of Longo, riding the greatest hits through the “Coat of Armor” era all the way into today’s injury prevention mode.

But Longo’s work this offseason will be aided by an evolving group of assistants in the strength department. Aaron Wellman is gone, the former Michigan strength coach now running the New York Giants’ program. That led to an unorthodox hire by Kelly to fill his shoes, though a telling decision as a young team prepares to ascend into new jobs.

New assistant strength coach Jeff Quinn was an unlikely hire, especially considering his 30 years of coaching experience at the college level. After spending last season as an offensive analyst, Quinn transitions to the strength staff seems like a bizarre new role for a man many viewed as Kelly’s most important assistant in his pre-Notre Dame days.

Quinn last roamed the sidelines at Buffalo, a head coaching position he took over in 2010, a move he made instead of joining Kelly at Notre Dame after serving as Cincinnati’s offensive coordinator. Even though he signed a five-year extension at the close of the 2012 season, Quinn was fired early in the 2014 season after a disappointing start to the year. (An open-records request revealed that Buffalo is still paying Quinn, likely supplementing his decreased earnings as an off-field staffer in South Bend.)

Kelly provided a soft landing for Quinn last year, even if he didn’t fill one of the on-staff openings that reshuffled after Tony Alford, Kerry Cooks and Bob Elliott left the ranks. And while many expected that keeping Quinn in a supporting role wasn’t as likely through another hiring cycle, the move of the trusted lieutenant to the strength staff keeps another asset under Kelly’s control, even if it begs questions about long-term sustainability.

But adding Quinn to a football-specific strength staff makes sense. It’s a role that already has David Grimes, a former Irish captain and wide receiver and continues to  feature assistant director of strength Jake Flint, who played under Kelly at Central Michigan, earning a scholarship after walking on. That’s a lot of practical football knowledge under one roof, certainly helpful as the offseason focus becomes less and less about leg press and bench press, but more and more about enhancing the knowledge base and athletic skill-set for a young team with plenty of ambition.

So as the Irish coaching staff finally finds time to step away from the 24/7 grind, they’ll be turning over their young team to Longo and his department. And as we’ve seen as Kelly and Jack Swarbrick continue to outfit the Irish program to compete in today’s landscape, these under-the-radar moves should likely pay dividends.

 

 

Draft Day is near: Final projections for talented Irish class

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - FEBRUARY 27: Wide receiver Will Fuller of Notre Dame participates in a drill during the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium on February 27, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Draft week is finally (almost) here. A football holiday that both college and NFL fans can love equally, it also marks the end of nearly four months of talking heads and manufactured debate, the end of the virtual rise and fall of player stocks with the evaluation and prognosticating industry turning everybody into an expert capable of evaluating their favorite team’s haul.

With Notre Dame poised to send their largest class to the NFL since the heyday of Lou Holtz, it’ll be a busy weekend for Irish fans. Let’s kick off draft week with a look at some of the potential homes for this group of talented former Irish athletes.

 

First Rounders:

Both Cris Collinsworth and Peter King expect Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller to go in the first round. Stanley is a consensus first-rounder, with King seeing the Cleveland Browns pulling the trigger on Stanley at No. 8 and Collinsworth having Stanley staying close to school with the Bears at No. 11. While some speculate that the Chargers could be willing to jump at Stanley at No. 3 (picking him before top-of-the-board tackle Laremy Tunsil), most see Stanley off the board somewhere between eight and 16. Not shabby—back-to-back first round left tackles with Mike McGlinchey trending in the right direction as well.

But the inclusion of Fuller on both these lists is interesting, though maybe not for Collinsworth, who has seen three seasons of Fuller (and heard from his sons quite a bit as well). Collinsworth has Fuller going to the Cincinnati Bengals, a team he knows plenty about. King has the Houston Texans taking a swing at Fuller, pairing him with standout DeAndre Hopkins. It’d certainly be a nice addition for Bill O’Brien and new zillion-dollar quarterback Brock Osweiler.

While quite a few thing Fuller will slide into round two or three, it’s interesting that NFL.com’s experts Daniel Jeremiah, Charley Casserly, Charles Davis and Lance Zierlein all have Fuller picked in the first round.

(Can’t teach 4.32 or 29 touchdowns.)

 

Top 100 prospects

Perhaps the most impressive thing out there involving Notre Dame’s talent is Mike Mayock’s Top 100. No stranger to Brian Kelly’s program, Mayock has six players in his top 100:

4. Ronnie Stanley
34. Will Fuller
38. Nick Martin
61. Sheldon Day
81. KeiVarae Russell
97. Jaylon Smith

If Smith is around that close to No. 100 he’ll be $5 million richer (thanks to his insurance policy) and he’ll also have many a teams ready to gamble on a talent who was among the five best players in college football but is currently just 3.5 months into a grueling recovery process.

Sheldon Day has found his way into first rounds in some mock drafts, mostly thanks to his incredibly productive senior season. That Russell is at 81 speaks to the talent some think he has, though last year’s game tape doesn’t necessarily match. Mostly I just can’t get over Smith at 97. What devastatingly terrible timing for the Irish All-American—who I’m convinced will have a Pro Bowl career at the next level.

 

Can Notre Dame get to 10 players drafted? 

A look back at Notre Dame’s history in the NFL Draft tells you one thing for certain: Lou Holtz developed a ton of NFL talent. But Brian Kelly has a chance to put a really impressive class on the board with the 2016 draft, and if the Irish are lucky they could match the double-digits Holtz hit in 1994.

How does that happen? It likely comes down to not just the six listed above, but rather the depth that seems to be the strength of this group.

While Mayock didn’t have C.J. Prosise in his Top 100, there are plenty of evaluators who see something special in Prosise’s game. While returns on him vary, I think it’s safe to say he’ll be drafted—likely by the middle rounds.

From there, getting Chris Brown drafted will be key. His physical traits are another positive, even if his production on the field only blossomed as a senior as the No. 2 option. Then it’s sack-leader Romeo Okwara. The combo defensive end-outside linebacker has a lot going for him in the eyes of talent evaluators—youth (he’s still not 21), not to mention a wide range of skills. He doesn’t flash as an edge rusher, but those years stuck playing as a Dog linebacker for Bob Diaco will do him well now.

Ultimately, to get to ten something good needs to happen near the bottom of the draft. Will a team find safety Elijah Shumate worthy of a draft pick? Perhaps Matthias Farley, fresh off a very impressive Pro Day. Perhaps there’s a team that fell in love with Ishaq Williams, hoping to get a jump on free agency by spending a late round pick on a physical freak who hasn’t played football in two seasons. Jarrett Grace and Amir Carlisle will certainly get their chance to sign with a team before training camp comes around, but it’s a long shot either hears their name called.

It looks like the Irish will probably fall just short of 10 draftees. Unless someone takes a run at quarterback Everett Golson, opening up an asterisk situation if there ever was one.

***

John Walters and I discussed Notre Dame’s draft prospects—and a lot, lot more—in our Blown Coverage podcast. Feel free to enjoy. 

 

 

Smith’s surgeon speaks optimistically about nerve issue

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 19: Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish returns a fumble against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the third quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 19, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Georgia Tech 30-22. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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For the first time since suffering the injury against Ohio State, Jaylon Smith pulled back the curtain on one of the most talked about knees (and nerves) in all of football. USAToday’s Tom Pelissero spent a day with Smith—and spoke with his surgeon, Dallas Cowboys’ team doctor Dan Cooper, about the progress Smith has been making, less than four months removed from the life-altering injury.

Cooper, a veteran of 30-plus years and one of the world’s top specialists in the repair of complex knee injuries, sounded optimistic in his assessment of Smith’s injury. He also addressed the dreaded “foot-drop,” with Smith using an ankle-foot orthosis (AFO) to assist moving his left foot as the nerve slowly returns.

This from USA Today:

A checkup by NFL teams last weekend in Indianapolis showed Smith remains unable to raise his left foot or swing it out to the side because of an issue with his peroneal nerve. But the “foot-drop” isn’t a surprise at this stage, said his surgeon, Dr. Dan Cooper, who is “optimistic that his knee itself will be stable and a good knee and he’ll get all his strength back. And I also think he has a very good chance of getting his nerve recovery back.”

That’s because the lateral damage stretched Smith’s nerve “enough to make it go to sleep, but it wasn’t stretched enough to be structurally elongated or visually very damaged” like more severe injuries, Cooper told USA TODAY Sports. There’s normally a one-month lag time before the nerve regrows at all, and once it begins, the rate is only about 1 inch per month.

“He’s had time for his nerve to regrow 2 inches, and the area of where his nerve was injured is 6 inches above the muscle that it innervates,” said Cooper, who’s also the Dallas Cowboys’ head team physician. “I wouldn’t really expect him to get much innervation back into that muscle for two or three more months. Then once it does – I’ve seen kids who are completely paralyzed like him on the lateral side and not able to pick their foot up at all (that) wind up being totally normal.”

Smith expressed optimism to Pelissero—as he has to everyone he’s come in contact with. He’s also continued to work out diligently, back up to 240 pounds and squatting and leg pressing like an All-American linebacker, not a man roughly 3.5 months post surgery. Smith also performed 24 reps on the bench press during Notre Dame’s Pro Day.

Perhaps more promising, Smith also says he’s making progress with the nerve, feeling tingles down his leg and moving closer to the foot.

“I feel different sensations every day,” Smith told Pelissero. “But it’s a thing where it’s patience, so you don’t try to hype yourself up too much.”