Pregame Six Pack: Prepping for Pitt

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What a difference a week makes. Irish fans didn’t quite know what to make of last weekend’s game: an annual rivalry, a game the Irish usually don’t fare well in, and Las Vegas somehow favoring Notre Dame by almost a touchdown even though they were the team with an 0-2 record and Michigan State was undefeated and ranked No. 15 in the country.

Well the wise guys in Sin City are once again making a heavy move for the Irish, with the line opening with ND favored by 3.5 point only to double in hours. The Irish are a touchdown favorite against a Pitt team that’s a fourth quarter collapse away from being undefeated. Once again, there are still plenty of Irish fans waiting to jump back on the Notre Dame bandwagon. After years of being the worst bet in town, the Irish are now Vegas’ darling.

As we do every week, here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as the Fighting Irish prepare to take on Pittsburgh at 12:00 p.m. ET. (Join us for our live blog!)

1. For those complaining about Tommy Rees’ turnovers, you’re forgetting how football works.

There’s been a lot of bellyaching over sophomore Tommy Rees‘ rash of turnovers this season. His hometown newspaper, the Lake Forest-Lake Bluff Patch has a nice feature on the new leading man at Notre Dame, and it looks at the “Good Tommy, Bad Tommy” phenomenon.

“He plays a good role. We don’t expect Tommy to be vocal guy,” said Floyd, predicted by many to be a 2012 first-round draft choice. “I put that on my hands to do that job. We just want to make sure Tommy gets the ball and does the right things and eliminates mistakes.”

Rees detractors — and there are many amongst Irish fans – -will reframe the debate around Floyd’s last comment. Consider this — in 10 quarters of play this season, Rees has turned the ball over seven times (five interceptions, two lost fumbles).

This burgeoning demon reared its ugly head in the first quarter against the Spartans when Rees fumbled and threw an interception on back-to-back drives. The “oh, here we go again” chorus inside Notre Dame stadium was as loud as the pre-game one for “God Bless America.”

But that’s life with a young quarterback. When Brian Kelly pulled the quick hook on Dayne Crist‘s season, he did so knowing that Rees would make youthful mistakes, but that the good would out-weigh the bad.

For those ready to get rid of Rees, let’s take a quick look back at Brady Quinn and Jimmy Clausen, two quarterbacks that turned out to be some of the better players in Notre Dame history. We’ll compare all three’s first seven starts, and then their sophomore numbers:

Brady Quinn:

First Seven Starts: 121 of 258 (47%) 5 TD, 11 INT, 86.1 QB Rating. W/L Record: 3-4
Sophomore Season: 191 of 353 (54%) 17 TD, 10 INT, 125.9 QB Rating. W/L Record: 6-6

Jimmy Clausen:

First Seven Starts: 99 of 175 (56%) 4 TD, 5 INT, 93.1 QB Rating. W/L Record: 1-6
Sophomore Season: 268 of 440 (61%) 25 TD, 17 INT, 132.5 QB Rating. W/L Record: 7-6

Tommy Rees*:

First Seven Starts: 139 of 220 (63%) 16 TD, 10 INT, 138.7 QB Rating. W/L Record: 5-2
Sophomore Season: 69 of 99 (70%) 6 TD, 5 INT, 145.1 QB Rating. W/L Record: 1-1

*Stats include the Tulsa game as a start.

It’s pretty easy to see by just about every measure you can think of, Rees is off to a much better pace than the two other guys that have rewritten the Notre Dame passing record books. As you can tell by Tommy’s sophomore season, his efficiency is so impressive in spite of his interceptions, mostly powered by a near 70 percent completion percentage. Nobody wants to see interceptions and fumbles. It’s just what you get when you go with an inexperienced quarterback. What separates Rees is what he does when he’s not turning it over.

2. Paging Darius Fleming, Darius Fleming, the Irish defense requests your help.

With a season at Cat linebacker under his belt, everybody thought senior linebacker Darius Fleming was primed for a big final season at Notre Dame. That included his head coach:

“He’ll be one of the more explosive players in the country this year,” Kelly said. “He’s just comfortable now. Last year it was all robotic. It was ‘get to this spot,’ now he flows to that spot. It’s a big difference.”

That explosion hasn’t showed up yet, with Fleming struggling to produce with dual-threat quarterbacks B.J. Daniels and Denard Robinson neutralizing one of the Irish’s best pass rushing threats.

After two games, Kelly wasn’t ready to praise Fleming’s productivity. But after his best Saturday of the year, Kelly is hopeful his senior linebacker is ready to elevate his game.

“He had his best game of the year,” Kelly said. “Last week I was asked about him. I think my comments were ‘Good, not great.’ We have a high bar for him. He played great. He played his best game of the year. One time is an accident I told him. Twice, you know you’re trending in the right direction. Hopefully we see it again.”

In many ways, Fleming’s poor play hurts both linebacker positions because it’s also keeping Prince Shembo away from the Cat linebacker position, somewhere he’s a better fit for because of his natural pass rush ability. (Now, Shembo spends most snaps standing half-way in the slot of the field side.) Fleming struggled to get out of the gates last year as well but rallied. Let’s see if Darius does so against a Pitt offensive line that’s dreadful against pass rushes.

3. Aaron Lynch might just be getting started.

You’ve got to love Aaron Lynch. The freshman defensive end showed his age when he mistakenly answered a question about Pittsburgh’s suspect pass blocking honestly.

Lou Somogyi of Blue & Gold Illustrated has more:

When Notre Dame freshman defensive end Aaron Lynch met with the media this Wednesday, he was asked about a Pitt offense that ranked 114th in sacks allowed per game (4.0). Most notably, FCS opponent Maine had recorded seven against the Panthers in its 35-29 defeat on Sept. 10.

When asked about those figures, Lynch responded honestly and directly.

“I’m not down on Maine or anything, but I know Notre Dame’s pass rush defense with all the guys we have is more dominant … it makes us happy to know that another team got seven, so that just builds us up to like we’re going to get 10 or 12,” Lynch said. “That’s how I look at it.”

Oops, a classic rookie mistake. Several feet away, Notre Dame’s director of football media operations, Brian Hardin, cringed and shook his head. The proper and politically correct response would have been, “We have great respect for Pitt and we know they have a great offensive line.”

Ten or twelve sacks would be a miracle afternoon for the Irish. But after analyzing Lynch’s effort last Saturday, maybe a historic performance isn’t that far away.

Early in the week, we took a closer look at Lynch’s impressive Saturday, an afternoon where one sack could’ve just as easily been three or four if it weren’t for veteran quarterback Kirk Cousins‘ quick trigger. I mentioned that Lynch’s six quarterback hurries were better than the entire Irish defense in every game but Utah last year. Lynch’s six quarterback hurries would also have been good for a season-high last year, besting Fleming, Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore, who each had five QB hurries to tie for the team lead in all of 2010.

4. With Irish punt returns, expect the unexpected. Especially this Saturday.

Don’t worry, the Irish won’t plan on muffing another punt on Saturday, with Theo Riddick and John Goodman already coughing up the football at really inopportune times. With four guys in the running to return punts — Riddick, Goodman, Robby Toma and Harrison Smith — Kelly’s also taking into consideration some of the tweaks the Panthers run in their standard punt return game.

“They’ll be times when we don’t have a punt returner in punting situations on the field because they leave the quarterback on the field so we’ve got to be prepared for that,” Kelly said. “We’ve had Harrison Smith back there in case we obviously get into a situation where we believe they’re going to punt for sure. It’s rather deceptive in a sense that they take the quarterback and only move him back a couple of yards so you really can’t tell if they’re running an offensive play. So we’ll get our punt team out there but we may not get them out when the quarterback is still on the field.”

For those of you that have been asking for a way to just keep a return man away from the ball, Tulsa’s tricky scheme might just be the answer to your prayers.

5. The battle on Saturday might not just be on the football field. It might make its way up to the pressbox, too.

Along with long-time Big East member Syracuse, Pitt shocked the college sports world with the announcement that the two teams would be leaving the Big East and joining the ACC, setting off another flurry of madness that had the college football world on nuclear alert until Larry Scott and the Pac-12 told the rest of the country to stand down.

Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette noticed that Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick — as he was last year — was right in the middle of things. Only this time, Swarbrick voiced his displeasure over Pitt chancellor Mark Dordenberg and athletic director Steve Pederson‘s decision to abandon the Big East to USA Today.

Here’s what Swarbrick said:

“I don’t understand it. How do you vote as a collegiate president on something that has the potential to provide some benefit for your institution and the conference you’re affiliated with but has a very negative consequence for a host of other members of the academy, as presidents like to call it? I’d like to know how much of these discussions are: What’s right? What is the best thing for the larger enterprise, and how many other schools would be adversely impacted?” Swarbrick went on to criticize Nordenberg for taking a leadership position in fighting to keep the Big East together and “with no notice to anybody, abandoning it. That’s hard to understand in the context of an industry in which collegiality and integrity are supposed to be such key parts.”

Cook doesn’t seem to like Swarbrick’s comments. More from the Pittsburgh columnist:

It’s pretty hard to get too upset with Marinatto. His conference was left for dead as a football league with the Pitt and Syracuse defections. Of course, he’s going to be bitter. Beyond that, blaming someone else is a lot easier than looking in the mirror and seeing a weak leader staring back, a weak leader who showed no signs of being able to keep the Big East together. Michael Tranghese and Dave Gavitt — great Big East commissioners before him — he is not.

But offensive and preposterous don’t even begin to describe Swarbrick’s remarks. How dare he criticize any other university’s leadership for looking after its school’s best interests? He and his Notre Dame bosses aren’t the least bit interested in any “larger enterprise.” They care only about Notre Dame’s bottom line. That doesn’t make them wrong or bad people. Any of us in their position would do the same thing. But it does make Swarbrick a hypocrite. I repeat: How dare he?

The Big East has been good to Notre Dame. It has given it a home for its men’s and women’s basketball teams and its Olympic sports teams while allowing it to keep its independent status in football. That’s enabled Notre Dame to retain all of its television money from its NBC contract instead of dividing it evenly with conference partners. Remember, the Notre Dame leaders are stone cold, bottom-line people. Clearly, they don’t like to share.

If Notre Dame officials cared about the Big East, they could have saved it by joining as a football member. If that had happened, there’s no doubt the Big East would be a heavyweight in the college game. Pitt and Syracuse wouldn’t have left. Other schools — maybe, just maybe, even Penn State — would be fighting to join. That’s the clout that Notre Dame has.

It’s clear that Swarbrick might have kicked a hornet’s nest or two in the Steel City, but both sides of this argument have some validity. Swarbrick and about a million other rational people are wondering if university chancellors and leaders are really as greedy as they seem, willing to tip over decades of tradition and put college sports into upheaval just to chase more money for their school, all while leaving decades-long partners in a lurch. Cook and other Big East supporters have long bristled at the Irish’s arrangement with the Big East, a seemingly one-sided partnership that gives Irish sports a home while still keeping football independent. It’s true that Swarbrick’s likely making his point loud and clear because he’s against the kind of upheaval that’ll force the Irish to give up their football independence and pick a conference for all sports.

That said, Notre Dame — even without football — has done plenty to help the Big East. To say any differently would be ignoring a lot of truths.

6. It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a… No! Not a Jumbotron!

Relax Irish fans, Brian Kelly really doesn’t have a vote. But for all those traditionalists out there, the time is coming sooner than you’d like to believe. And if it were up to the head coach, a Jumbotron will be coming to Notre Dame Stadium.

Brian Hamilton explains:

“I think it enhances obviously the game experience more than anything else,” Kelly said during his weekly radio show Thursday night. “I’m not afraid to say it’s a great addition because it creates a great atmosphere in the stadium.

“As well as (promoting) your brand — I thought one of the nice things Michigan did was that the scoreboard did not have any advertising. It just had their brand on there. So, yeah, count me in favor of that. But as I’ve said many times before, they’re not going to be polling me as to whether we get a Jumbotron or not.”

Genuine or not, Kelly insisted this was merely a commentary on the times and not a hand-tipping.

“I don’t have any inside information on this, but I would be surprised if we didn’t have a Jumbotron at some time in Notre Dame Stadium,” Kelly said. “Everybody is watching TV, you’ve got superconferences and all kinds of things going. If you’re going to stay in this arena, I’m sure things will change. It’s just going to take some time.”

After the Irish’s game in Yankee Stadium last season and seeing the new video boards in Michigan Stadium, there’s a ton of support inside the Notre Dame athletic department for a Jumbotron, something that’d truly enhance the stadium experience and go a long way toward keeping the home fans engaged and enthusiastic.

There will always be those “old school” fans that hate the idea, but nobody is asking to use the video screen like USC does at the Coliseum, screeching out commercials and advertisements at decibel levels nearly inhumane. With the Irish’s digital assets looking better and better as the years go by (take a look at UND.com’s new videos if you don’t know what I’m talking about), it only makes more sense to join the 21st century by installing a tastefully done video screen (and some field turf).

Nobody wants to adorn Touchdown Jesus in Ed Hardy, they just want to make Saturday afternoon a better experience. If that gets fans up from sitting on their hands, even the biggest curmudgeons in ND Nation shouldn’t have a problem with that.

Restocking the roster: Wide Receivers

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Some believe that the best way to look at recruiting is in two-year increments. As programs rebuild and rosters turn over, covering the needs of a football team over two recruiting cycles  allows a coaching staff to balance its roster.

That balance is critical to the health of a program. And it’s not just the work of a rebuilding coach. As we saw in Brian Kelly’s sixth season, injuries, attrition and scheme change impacted the defense, especially in the secondary.

Another position set to deal with major change is wide receiver. Gone is All-American Will Fuller, departing South Bend after three years, scoring 29 touchdowns over the past two seasons. He’ll look to run his way into the first round of the NFL Draft. Also gone are veterans Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle, putting the Irish in an unenviable position, needing to replace the team’s three leading receivers.

Reinforcements aren’t just on the way, they’re already on campus. While there’s not a ton of production to see, the recruiting stockpile has created a chance to reload for Mike Denbrock’s troop. So let’s take a look at the additions and subtractions on the roster, analyzing the two-year recruiting run as we restock the receiving corps.

DEPARTURES
Will Fuller
, Jr. (62 catches, 1,258 yards, 14 TDs)
Chris Brown, Sr. (48 catches, 597 yards, 4 TDs)
Amir Carlisle, GS (32 catches, 355 yards, 1 TD)
Jalen Guyton, Fr. (transfer)

 

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Equanimeous St. Brown

Miles Boykin*
CJ Sanders
Jalen Guyton
Chase Claypool*
Javon McKinley*
Kevin Stepherson*

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Corey Robinson, Sr.
Torii Hunter, Sr.*
Justin Brent, Jr.*
Corey Holmes, Jr.*
CJ Sanders, Soph.
Miles Boykin, Soph.*
Equanimeous St. Brown, Soph.
Kevin Stepherson, Fr.*

 

ANALYSIS
Brian Kelly expects St. Brown to step into Will Fuller’s shoes. If the Irish are able to pluck another sophomore from obscurity to the national spotlight, it’ll say quite a bit about the depth and productivity the Irish staff has built at the position. At 6-foot-5, St. Brown has a more tantalizing skill-set than Fuller—and he was a national recruit out of a Southern California powerhouse. But until we see St. Brown burn past defenders and make big plays, assuming the Irish won’t miss Fuller is a big leap of faith.

The next objective of the spring is getting Corey Robinson back on track. The rising senior had a forgettable junior season, ruined by injuries and some bruised confidence. A player who has shown flashes of brilliance during his three seasons in South Bend, the time is now for Robinson, not just as a performer but as an on-field leader.

Torii Hunter Jr. is also poised for a big season. After finding reps at slot receiver and possessing the versatility to see the field from multiple spots, Hunter needs to prove in 2016 that he’s not just a utility man but an everyday starter. His hands, smooth athleticism and speed should have him primed for a breakout. But Hunter might not want to stay in the slot if CJ Sanders is ready to take over. After a big freshman season on special teams, Sanders looks ready to make his move into the lineup, perhaps the purest slot receiver Brian Kelly has had since he arrived in South Bend.

The rest of the spring depth chart should have modest goals, though all face rather critical offseasons. Justin Brent is three years into his college career and the biggest headlines he’s made have been off the field. Whether he sticks at receiver or continues to work as a reserve running back remains to be seen. Corey Holmes is another upperclassman who we still can’t figure out. Will he ascend into the rotation with the top three veterans gone, or will he give way to some talented youngsters?

Miles Boykin earned praise last August, but it didn’t get him time on the field. He’ll enter spring with four years of eligibility, same as early-enrollee Kevin Stepherson. The Irish staff thinks Stepherson has the type of deep speed that they covet, capable of running past cornerbacks and stretching a defense. Boykin has size and physicality that could present intriguing options for an offense that’ll be less reliant on one man now that Fuller is gone.

Live Video Mailbag: 40-year decision, more BVG, freshmen and more

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We’ve done plenty of mailbags, but this is our first shot at a Live Video Mailbag. This should be a better way to answer more questions and hopefully interact with a few of you as we try to work off some of yesterday’s Super Bowl snacks.

Topics on the list: The 40-year decision, more Brian VanGorder talk, the incoming (and redshirt) freshmen and a whole lot more.

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Kelly and Swarbrick turn attention to science of injury prevention

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Amidst the chaos of their live Signing Day show, UND.com ran had a far-reaching interview with head coach Brian Kelly. It was conducted by his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick, and his former team captain, Joe Schmidt.

So while there was a little bit of talk about the 23 recruits who signed their national letters-of-intent, there was also a very illuminating exchange on an issue that’s really plagued the Irish the past few seasons: Injuries.

Football is a dangerous game. And for as long as people play it, there’ll be impactful injuries that take players off the field. But as Notre Dame settles into what looks like their longest run of stability since the Holtz era, the focus of Kelly and Swarbrick has moved past modernizing the team’s medical services, strength program and nutrition and onto the science of injury prevention.

Here’s what Kelly said about the efforts currently taking shape:

“I think the science piece is very important, because no longer is it just about strength and conditioning,  it’s about durability. It’s the ability to continue to play at an optimal level but also with the rigors of a college schedule, and particularly here at Notre Dame, how do we maximize the time but maximizing getting the most out of our student-athletes and not lose them?

“As you know, we’ve had a couple years here in a rough stretch of injuries. And how do we have an injury prevention protocol that brings in the very best science? You’ve done a great job of reaching out in getting us those kind of resources. so I think tapping into that is probably the next piece. As well as providing the resources for our student-athletes. Continuing to look at facilities. Continuing to give our student-athletes maybe that little edge. Because everybody’s got 85 scholarships.”

It’s clear that the issue is one that’s on the radar for not just Kelly, but the athletic administration. So it’ll be interesting to see some of the steps taken as the program begins investing time and additional resources to an issue that’s really hit the Irish hard the past few seasons.

There’s plenty of other good stuff in the 13-minute interview, so give it a watch.