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…

 

Notre Dame beats Michigan for three-star TE Tommy Tremble

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One of Notre Dame’s deepest positions got even stronger with the Thursday morning commitment of rivals.com three-star tight end Tommy Tremble (Wesleyan High School; Norcross, Ga.). The No. 18 tight end in the class, per rivals.com, Tremble’s decision essentially came down to the Irish or Michigan.

A Wednesday night visit from Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, offensive coordinator Chip Long and running backs coach Autry Denson may have played a part in tipping the scales, though Tremble told Blue & Gold Illustrated he had been leaning toward the Irish since his official visit in October.

“There’s not many tight ends in the country that can do the kind of things that I can do,” Tremble said, then referencing Long’s view of the position in his system. “[Long] said with that in this type of offensive scheme it could be explosive.

“I’m going to be the hardest working at the entire college at anything. At everything too, not just football. I’m just going to make it work.”

In his first season at Notre Dame, Long showed his predilection for using multiple tight ends at a time, often pairing fifth-year senior Durham Smythe with junior Alizé Mack. Smythe would act as an additional offensive lineman who could slip out for a route while Mack’s duties were more akin to a receiver’s as often as not. Smythe finished his best collegiate season with 13 catches for 234 yards and a touchdown while Mack added 19 catches for 166 yards and a score. Current senior and returning fifth-year Nic Weishar chipped in seven catches for 39 yards and two touchdowns.

With two tight ends in this class now — Tremble joins consensus four-star George Takacs (Gulf Coast H.S.; Naples, Fla.) — Long should be able to continue with such as often as he wants. In 2017 he showed no caution in deploying freshmen Brock Wright and Cole Kmet occasionally. Presumably, Tremble and Takacs could see similar workloads from the outset.

The No. 52 overall player in Georgia, Tremble also held offers from Georgia, Auburn and UCLA, among others. He is the 20th commitment in the class with the early signing period commencing Wednesday.

Last week, Weishar declared his intention to return for a fifth year.

Notre Dame lands four-star former FSU commit, Houston Griffith, at safety

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If its defensive backfield was a concern this recruiting cycle, Notre Dame is putting together a strong finish to the class of 2018 to eradicate those worries. Consensus four-star Houston Griffith (IMG Academy; Bradenton, Fla.) became the second defensive back to commit to the Irish this week with his Tuesday evening declaration and the fifth of Notre Dame’s 19 (and counting) expected signees.

Griffith immediately becomes the most highly-rated commit in the Irish class. Rivals.com considers him the No. 3 safety in the class, the No. 9 player in Florida and the No. 35 overall prospect in the country. He had long been a Notre Dame target but initially committed to Florida State, partly due to the Irish struggles a year ago.

After Notre Dame showed much improvement this season — more specifically, its defensive shift — Griffith reopened his recruitment in late November.

“The changes that [Irish coach Brian Kelly] made really helped,” Griffith told Blue & Gold Illustrated. “The guys I know up there tell me it’s a different program, it’s a different team up there. Last season was a learning year and this year shows that they are starting to get all the pieces.”

Griffith has certainly bought in on the direction trending from 2016 to 2017.

“I feel like the next few years all the pieces are there to compete for a national championship.”

In addition to the Seminoles, Griffith held scholarship offers from the vast majority of college football’s powers, including Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State and USC.

He presents as a safety and seems to have been targeted as one, but he could also see early time at cornerback. In theory, a freshman may have a better chance of grasping that latter position. Then again, Notre Dame has a few established playmakers at cornerback; it very much does not have that luxury at safety.

At either position, Griffith and his fellow defensive back commits should shore up a position grouping that the Irish essentially whiffed on in 2017, when only two safeties were signed (Isaiah Robertson and Jordan Genmark-Heath) with no cornerbacks in the mix. Griffith is the third safety in the class of 2018, joining consensus four-star Derrik Allen (Lassiter H.S.; Marietta, Ga.) and consensus three-star Paul Moala (Penn; Mishawaka, Ind.).

All three, as well as the two cornerback commits and the other 14 prospects, are intended to sign with Notre Dame during this year’s early signing period, Dec. 20-22.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Running Backs

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Notre Dame’s running game stood little chance of exceeding expectations this season, considering how ambitious they were to start. This space’s preseason predictions, intended as a conservative and realistic harbinger of the months then-ahead, projected junior running back Josh Adams to gain 1,174 to 1,274 rushing yards this season. That upper limit would have placed Adams fourth in Irish program history, just ahead of his position coach’s 1,268 yards gained in 1997.

With a game to go, Adams stands only 51 yards of breaking Vagas Ferguson’s single-season record of 1,437 rushing yards, set back in 1979.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
In addition to the anticipation regarding Adams’ third season as a contributor, the Notre Dame backfield had depth entering the season. Junior Dexter Williams could provide a speed threat while sophomore Tony Jones built on springtime buzz as a do-everything option, often described as the best receiver of the group.

Early-enrolled freshman C.J. Holmes’ shoulder injury in spring practice seemingly sidelined him for the season, opening the door for sophomore Deon McIntosh to move from receiver to the backfield as a rest-granting fourth-stringer.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
As good as the season was for the Irish on the ground, it will be marked by “What if” thoughts as much as anything else. What if Adams had not worn down as the season progressed? What if Williams had been healthy for more than a week or two in the season’s first two months?

Even with his figurative crawl to the season’s conclusion, Adams surpassed all preseason projections and expectations. It still must be noted he gained only 195 yards on 54 carries in the final three regular season games, a 3.61 average.

Williams, meanwhile, was limited throughout the year. At the beginning, specifically against Georgia, that appeared to be by coaching decisions, but for most of the season, ankle and quad ailments robbed the speedster of his primary quality.

Absolutely no one expected sophomore Deon McIntosh to be the second-leading rusher among Notre Dame’s running backs in 2017. Credit to McIntosh, though, for making the most of an opportunity granted by others’ injuries.(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Jones, when healthy, provided a schematic shift as much as any statistical production. Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long clearly preferred Jones to be half of any two-back formation, due to Jones’ overall aptness.

McIntosh capitalized on every chance granted him, providing fourth-quarter rest to those limping from sprained ankles whenever the Irish had a worthwhile lead.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING
Some of a statistical influx in rushing production should be credited to junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush, but the ground game as a whole was more successful in 2017 than it was a year ago no matter how the numbers are dissected.

2016: 2,123 yards on 410 carries (sacks adjusted); 176.9 yards per game and 5.18 yards per rush.
2017: 3,462 yards on 501 carries (sacks adjusted); 288.5 yards per game and 6.91 yards per rush.

— Jr. Josh Adams: 1,386 yards on 191 carries; nine touchdowns; 7.3 yards per rush; 10 catches for 82 yards.
— So. Deon McIntosh: 368 yards on 65 carries; five touchdowns; 5.7 yards per rush; three catches for eight yards.
— Jr. Dexter Williams: 324 yards on 37 carries; four touchdowns; 8.8 yards per rush; two catches for 13 yards.
— So. Tony Jones: 232 yards on 43 carries; three touchdowns; 5.4 yards per rush; four catches for 13 yards.
— Fr. C.J. Holmes: 32 yards on eight carries; 4.0 yards per rush.

COMING QUESTIONS
Will Adams stay for his senior year and further his assault on the Notre Dame record books or will he head to the NFL Draft with a year of collegiate eligibility remaining? He very much should take the latter option. Running backs’ careers are not long due to the very nature of the position. For the second year in a row, that wear and tear proved itself on Adams. There is little chance he could put together an even better season in 2018.

Thus, this is his chance to go in the Draft’s first couple rounds. By every reasoning, Adams should take this opportunity.

When utilized, junior running back Dexter Williams has proven to be a viable threat for Notre Dame. He has not always been incorporated into the game plan, though, partly due to classmate Josh Adams’ rampant success. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

At that point, will Long be able to incorporate Williams into the two-back set? Those multiple running back formations were some of the most productive looks for the Irish offense, and they almost entirely came with Jones joining Adams. Between pass-catching and pass-blocking, Williams lagged behind those two significantly. For the threats presented in a two-back alignment to be real, though, he will need to broaden his skillset appropriately.

If Williams doesn’t, could a healthy Holmes plug into the system? As much praise as McIntosh received, and earned, this season, he will never be the answer in the Notre Dame backfield. Holmes may be.

With Wimbush again the presumed starter in 2018, the ground game will be featured for another fall. The offensive line is (almost certainly) losing two first-round Draft picks, but it has enough experience to hold its own moving forward. Which back emerges as the workhorse if Adams turns pro could be the biggest offensive question all spring and summer. Williams may present the most big-play potential, but Jones has already shown greater consistency overall.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends

Monday’s Leftovers: Notre Dame lands second cornerback commitment

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Hardly a week shy of the early signing period, Notre Dame doubled its cornerback haul in the class of 2018 with Tariq Bracy’s commitment Sunday night.

A rivals.com three-star recruit, Bracy (Milpitas High School, Calif.) had long said the Irish led in his recruitment, having visited campus for Notre Dame’s 49-14 victory over USC on Oct. 21. Rivals rates Bracy as the No. 65 overall prospect in California.

“The coaches, they made me feel welcome,” Bracy said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “They really wanted me to go down there. They like my skillset. The players, they were welcoming, too. It’s really the whole atmosphere about Notre Dame, and the academics, too.”

Bracy opted for the Irish over a number of schools on the west coast, including Utah, Cal and Washington State.

Notre Dame now has 18 commitments in the class, including consensus-three star cornerback Joseph Wilkins (North Fort Myers H.S., Fla.). All 18 are expected to sign National Letters of Intent during the inaugural early signing period Dec. 20-22. For that matter, it remains possible an additional commitment or two could join those ranks either before the three-day stretch or in the midst of it.

Irish coach Brian Kelly has said he would evaluate any commitment not signing during the December dates as not being genuinely committed to Notre Dame, still needing further recruitment.

— Bracy’s, and Wilkins’, commitment holds more value for the Irish than many of the other 16 in the class thus far. In the last recruiting cycle, Notre Dame failed to sign so much as one cornerback.

Neither Bracy nor Wilkins may start in 2018. They, in fact, almost certainly will not, but they will provide both depth and a possibility of a future at the position.

— Just as another reminder — it is listed twice on the legal pad providing today’s outline, after all — the early signing period runs from Dec. 20 to Dec. 22. There will still be a nationwide focus on National Signing Day, Feb. 7, as any recruits not yet signed will have even more of a share of the spotlight.

— Bowl games have little long-term evaluatory value. They do, however, provide a delightful stretch of mid-day and/or mid-week December distractions. As an example, consider the game-a-day outlook on the horizon …

Sat., Dec. 16: Middle Tennessee St. v. Arkansas State; 8 p.m. ET; a high-scoring affair, if nothing else.
Tues., Dec. 19: Akron vs. FAU; 7 p.m. ET; Lane Kiffin with a nation’s lonely eyes turned to him.
Wed., Dec. 20: Louisiana Tech vs. Southern Methodist; 8 p.m. ET.
Thurs., Dec. 21: Temple vs. Florida International; 8 p.m. ET; Notre Dame’s season-opening opponent is favored by seven.
Fri., Dec. 22: Central Michigan vs. Wyoming; 4 p.m. ET; Josh Allen’s farewell to college football.
Sat., Dec. 23: Texas Tech vs. South Florida; 12 p.m. ET; This very well may end up being the most-dramatic bowl game.
Sun., Dec. 24: Houston vs. Fresno St.; 8:30 p.m. ET.
Tues., Dec. 26: Kansas State vs. UCLA; 9 p.m. ET.
Wed., Dec. 27: Boston College vs. Iowa; 5:15 p.m. ET; Of the 10 Irish foes in bowl games, six are like the Eagles, underdogs.
Thurs., Dec. 28: Stanford vs. TCU; 9 p.m. ET; A healthy Bryce Love could erase the 2.5-point spread in the Horned Frogs favor.
Fri., Dec. 29: USC vs. Ohio State; 8:30 p.m. ET; As strongly as the Trojans finished the season, they are still touchdown underdogs in the Cotton Bowl.
Sat., Dec. 30: Wisconsin vs. Miami, 8 p.m. ET; Despite playing at home, literally so, the Hurricanes are nearly touchdown underdogs.
Mon., Jan. 1: Georgia vs. Oklahoma; 5 p.m. ET; Frankly, Notre Dame vs. LSU in the Citrus Bowl will be but an appetizer for an evening of outstanding college football.