Gang tackle Pitt

Five things we learned: Notre Dame 15, Pitt 12

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The recipe for disaster was there. Eight penalties for 85 yards. Another lost turnover battle, 2-0. Drive killing mistakes. But Saturday turned out differently, with Notre Dame beating Pittsburgh 15-12 thanks to a great fourth quarter drive by Tommy Rees, who up until that point was held captive by a blitzing Panthers defense.

It was the ugliest win of the Brian Kelly era, and a victory that wasn’t official until Kelly made a gutsy call on 4th and 1 at the Pitt 35, opting to put the proverbial dagger in the Panthers instead of putting Ben Turk on the field to punt. The gamble paid off, Rees got the first down by half a football, and the Irish escaped Pittsburgh with a 2-2 record.

“Any time you’re on the road, you need to find a way to get the win,” Kelly said walking off the field.

It wasn’t pretty, but the Irish escaped disaster and did it with another solid defensive performance, limiting Pitt to under 300 yards on the afternoon and getting a great pass rush from the front seven. With their offensive bravado blown but their postseason hopes still in tact, let’s find out what we learned in the Irish’s ugly 15-12 win over Pitt.

The Irish were one drive away from an ugly quarterback situation.

Even if you watched the game alone, you probably heard the grumbling about Tommy Rees on Saturday afternoon. Rees turned the ball over twice on Saturday, losing a fumble on a sack and throwing late to Tyler Eifert after evading the Pitt rush, turning an open receiver into another interception deep in the opponent’s territory.

At Notre Dame, the back-up quarterback is always among the most popular players on the team, and with Dayne Crist, the sentiment is understandable. Crist only got one half of football as starting quarterback before Kelly pulled him for Rees, and Crist passes every conceivable eyeball test known to man.

Yet Kelly’s patience with Rees says all we need to know. He still believes that the sophomore quarterback with a weaker arm, slower legs and a troubling turnover habit is the guy that gives the Irish the best chance to win. And Rees proved his head coach right once again with a clutch drive to win the game, going eight for eight as he drove the Irish from their own 15 yard line, connecting with Eifert five times, including the go-ahead touchdown and two-point conversion.

You can say it 100 times, but it doesn’t make Irish fans feel any better. Young quarterbacks make mistakes. Brady Quinn did it, Jimmy Clausen did it, and Heisman Trophy winners like Carson Palmer did it. It’s not just happening at Notre Dame. (Check out BYU’s Jake Heaps, the No. 1 recruited quarterback in Rees’ class. He’s thrown five interceptions against just three touchdowns.)

Against a defense that was hellbent on taking away Michael Floyd, Rees struggled to find his rhythm, made a few dangerous throws, and showed why he’s not a perfect fit in Brian Kelly’s offense. But he also marched coolly down the field with the game on the line and pulled out the win.

That’s why he’s the starting quarterback at Notre Dame.

Even with Darius Fleming answering the bell, the Irish are struggling with their linebacker personnel.

Darius Fleming played maybe the best game of his career, answering his critics and coming up with two sacks, three tackles-for-loss and a great play at the goal line to stop Pitt. But Fleming’s production doesn’t hide the personnel imbalance that the Irish are fighing with, specifically at the Dog linebacker position, where Prince Shembo is struggling with the intricacies of playing the field-side linebacker position.

Shembo is on the field because he’s the best option the Irish have, especially with Danny Spond battling a hamstring injury. But the sophomore linebacker, recruited to Notre Dame as a defensive end and used last year as a designated pass rusher, doesn’t look all that comfortable in space, and Pitt consistently picked on Shembo in coverage, gaining easy yardage in front of him when they chose to roll the pocket and throw to the big side of the field. Troy Niklas, a talented but raw freshman, got some time in place of Shembo, but the Irish will need to get Spond healthy to see what he can do if they want to play better pass defense. With Spond available on passing downs, Shembo can do what he did when he played well this afternoon, filling the box score with six tackles and a sack.

Once again, Manti Te’o led the Irish in tackles, making ten total with eight solo stops, also chipping in a sack on Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri. But neither Carlo Calabrese nor Dan Fox have stepped up and seized the position next to him, and both guys had some ugly missed tackles this afternoon.

It’s hard to be too tough on the Irish defense after a nice day at the office, which included hold Pitt to a net of 103 yards on 38 carries. But with four games in the books, opposing offenses are seeing ways to pick on the Irish defense, and Pitt provided more tape this afternoon.

Battling back from adversity, Jonas Gray is making himself a valuable part of the Irish offense.

When Jonas Gray fumbled the ball inside South Florida’s one yard-line, more than a few people wondered if Gray would ever get into the endzone. But the senior running back bounced back from that early season failure, played solid football the past two weeks, and broke loose this afternoon, his 79-yard touchdown run supplying the game’s biggest play, and a highlight reel first touchdown of the senior’s career.

Kelly’s continued faith in Gray has given a huge boost to the offense and adds a second legitimate runner to the Irish backfield, with Cierre Wood going over 90 yards for the fourth straight Saturday. While most reporters will look back at a summer-time conversation Gray had with former Irish running back Jerome Bettis, Kelly’s preseason goals for Gray have actually been what the Irish needed most out of the senior from Michigan: Simply be a faster Robert Hughes.

Gray has done that plus more, utilizing his speed to notch the Irish’s longest run since Terrence Howard‘s 80-yard touchdown against West Virginia back in 2000.  At 6.7 yards-per carry this season, Gray is doing more than just complement Wood, who’s averaging over 99 yards an afternoon at five yards per carry, he’s making an argument to get more touches, something that’ll come in handy as the season wears on.

After a rough opening drive to the season, Gray’s turned around his season.

The Irish played a dominant football game at the line of scrimmage.

The Irish’s defensive line didn’t get the double-digit sack numbers that Aaron Lynch hoped, but they did come up with six sacks, the most in the Kelly era, and their eight tackles-for-loss was the team’s most prolific day behind the line of scrimmage since the Irish’s 2008 bowl victory in Hawaii.

Darius Fleming paced the Irish effort behind the line of scrimmage, getting two sacks of Sunseri and making another play behind the line of scrimmage, continuing a trend of good play Kelly hoped to see from his senior linebacker. More impressively, the Irish’s pass rush took over the game when it was needed, with Lynch and Shembo getting two drive-killing sacks on Sunseri on Pitt’s last possession of the game.

Their play is likely getting lost behind all the turnovers and Irish miscues, but the Notre Dame defense has allowed one offensive touchdown or less in seven of their last nine games. (And the Miami touchdowns came in mop-up time.) More impressively, the Irish defense is a place where runningbacks go to die, and Graham’s 89 yards on 21 carries — largely buoyed by his 42-yard scamper after Rees’ interception — was one of the best days an opposing running back has had against Notre Dame in the Kelly era. You have to go all the way back to last September to find a 100-yard rushing running back, when both Stepfan Taylor of Stanford and Le’Veon Bell had 100 yard days against the the Irish. That’s an impressive run by Bob Diaco’s troops, and part of why the Irish don’t seem too worried when they give up short completions.

Brian Kelly doesn’t lack belief.

If you were looking for another reason to doubt Brian Kelly, he gave you a very large one with less than a minute left in the ballgame, choosing to go for it on fourth and one at the Pitt 35, putting the game on the back of his offensive line instead of on a defense that had played rock solid football.

How difficult was the decision? Consider that Urban Meyer flip-flopped on it, and he was in the press box.

Kelly’s decision to sneak Rees essentially ended the football game, and shows that the head coach has plenty of confidence in his football team, and certainly a lot more than the members of ND Nation have, many of whom were apoplectic when Rees and the offense stayed on the field after the Irish called a timeout, not to mention throughout a football game where not a lot went right for the Irish. But the decision showed Kelly’s belief in his team, and more importantly, gave the Irish a huge positive to take away on an afternoon that wasn’t filled with them.

“I like the way our guys battled,” Kelly said after the game. “I’m really pleased with our resilience and toughness. We’re playing the kind of football I want our teams to play. It’s not going to be an instant classic, but it certainly is from a football standpoint — games that you have to win on the road. You’re going to be presented with some of these kinds of closely fought, last drive, come up with a big stop or a big conversion, and that’s what we saw today.”

By every account, this was an ugly win for Notre Dame. And while the flaws that cost the Irish their first two games of the season still popped up more times than anyone would like. While the team is trending in the right direction, it feels like they’re running uphill in quicksand while they do it.

At 2-2 with Purdue and Air Force on the horizon, the Irish have a chance to be 4-2 going into bye week and a home date with Southern Cal. Kelly’s squad has proven incapable of looking past any opponent, but if the Irish want to put together a good run, they’re well positioned to do so.

It might not have looked good, but it bears repeating that substance outweighs style every day of the week, especially on Saturday. A solid defensive performance and a gutsy drive by Tommy Rees proved it this afternoon.

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.

Five things we learned: Signing Day 2016

FILE - In this Jan. 1, 2016, file photo, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly makes a call during the first half of the Fiesta Bowl NCAA College football game against Ohio State in Glendale, Ariz. Kelly has agreed to a six-year contract to stay on as coach at Notre Dame through 2021, the school announced Friday, Jan. 29,2 016.  (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)
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There were no last minute defections. No roller coaster recruits or down-to-the-wire decisions. Heck, there were no fax machines—with Notre Dame ditching the office dinosaur for a wireless, smart phone option.

Brian Kelly inked another Top 10 recruiting class on Wednesday. And he did so in decidedly uneventful fashion.

“It’s awesome. I think that everybody should try it once in their career,” Kelly said.

So while Kelly and the Irish staff hold out hope that 5-star talents Caleb Kelly and Demetris Robertson still decide to spend their college careers in South Bend, the 23-man class announced Wednesday was another Top 10 effort and a step in the right direction for a program on very stable ground.

Let’s find out what we learned.

 

Notre Dame’s staff continued to focus on rebuilding the secondary and rushing the passer. 

Yes, Brian Kelly saw what you saw—a group that struggled getting to the passer or to field a nickel or dime personnel grouping. So they countered that in the best way they knew how: By continuing to stockpile talent.

Notre Dame added seven defensive backs and four edge defenders in the cycle. They include safeties Jalen Elliott, D.J. Morgan, Spencer Perry and Devin Studstill and cornerbacks Julian Love, Troy Pride and Donte Vaughn. Perhaps just as important is the impression some of these defenders made in their time on campus, with Kelly pointing to Elliott and Studstill’s work during summer camp really making them must-have recruits.

“Jalen Elliott competed like no player that I have seen since I’ve been coaching in a camp setting,” Kelly said. “Same thing with Devin Studstill. His skill level was of corner-like ability but had the size of the safety, and so our guys went right to them early on, and that was a focal point because we got a chance to see them up close and personal.”

At defensive end, the Irish welcome 5-star recruit Daelin Hayes, getting him on campus as he recovers from shoulder surgery. He’s joined by former Alabama commit Khalid Kareem, the strongside counterpart that is an early candidate to see the field, especially as the staff looks for someone to spell Isaac Rochell for a few snaps. Longer-term prospects include a few speed rushers—Julian Okwara (younger brother of Romeo) and Ade Ogundeji, a long-limbed, below-the-radar edge rusher.

“We’re pretty excited about the potential for some guys in this class that can answer some four-man pass rush needs that we do have,” Kelly said.

 

It may not be the biggest group, but Brian Kelly is excited about his offensive line—especially the guys he pulled from Ohio State’s backyard. 

Three recruits in the offensive line class point to a big 2017 at the position. But the three the Irish did sign—guard Parker Boudreaux and tackles Liam Eichenberg and Tommy Kraemer—have Kelly very happy.

“Parker Boudreaux has that physical presence inside like, and I’m not comparing him, but he’s a Quinton Nelson in terms of size and physicality,” Kelly said. “And then two edge guys with Liam and Tommy on the outside. Those two kids are as good as you’re going to find in the country, and couldn’t be more excited to have two kids from the state of Ohio, from two great Catholic schools in St. Ignatius and Cincinnati Elder from the state of Ohio.”

Both Eichenberg and Kraemer were priority targets for Urban Meyer and company, with neither wavering after committing to Notre Dame. Kraemer was Ohio’s Gatorade Player of the Year and an Army All-American. He’ll be able to step into the two-deep immediately, capable of playing up front if the Irish need him. Eichenberg more than held his own at the Under Armour All-American game and has a high ceiling, especially as he learns the game under Hiestand.

It doesn’t take away the sting of the Fiesta Bowl. But it’s a nice consolation prize.

 

Irish legacies Jamir Jones and Julian Okwara may have big brothers who played for Brian Kelly, but they earned scholarships on their own. 

Classmates Jarron Jones and Romeo Okwara will turn over the reins to their younger brothers, linebacker Jamir Jones and defensive end Julian Okwara. The younger duo’s commitments felt all but inevitable throughout this recruiting cycle—even if that wasn’t always the case.

Jones had to come to camp to earn a scholarship. Having played quarterback and tight end as a high school standout in Rochester, the defensive staff had to see how he moved before they could find a position for him to play.

Similarly, Okwara’s journey to Notre Dame shouldn’t be taken for granted. While his older brother leaves Notre Dame the team’s leading quarterback sacker, Julian has a better natural pass rush skill-set than the 2015 team-leader.

“Julian can separate himself in a way because he has an elite initial movement and speed that Romeo has had to try and develop,” Mike Elston said in Okwara’s Signing Day video. “Romeo has the size and the power and the aggressiveness, but Julian can really add value for us right away.”

Kelly talked about how important it was to not just land this duo, but to have them already understand what the journey is that lies ahead.

“We didn’t recruit them because their brothers were here. We recruited them because we thought they were players that fit here at Notre Dame that would be very successful,” Kelly said. “Obviously it helps when their brothers have a great experience here and really enjoy their Notre Dame experience as a student and as an athlete, so that helps you in the recruiting… those kids really fit and can stand on their own two feet.”

 

Even without Demetris Robertson in the fold, Notre Dame’s receiving class is a group to watch. 

You want productivity? Throw on a highlight tape of Javon McKinley. You want an intriguing set of physical tools? Look no further than Chase Claypool. You want a sleeper prospect who out-performed every elite prospect who came to the Irish Invasion camp? Then your man is Kevin Stepherson.

Most of the attention on Signing Day was the fate of 5-star receiver Demetris Robertson. But the trio of athletes that’ll reload the receiving corps is a group that deserves recognition even without an additional infusion.

McKinley provided the day’s only scare when his smart phone struggled to send his signature via electronic fax. Claypool sent his national letter of intent in the day after scoring 51 points on the basketball court. And Stepherson is already taking part in team workouts in Paul Longo’s strength facilities, getting a jump start with the spring semester and 15 practices as the Irish try to figure out what life looks like after Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle.

After Fuller left campus early on the back of two record-setting two seasons, Kelly said his staff has become more and more comfortable with the fact that his skill players need to develop quickly—especially with the allure of the NFL just ahead.

“If you’re really that good, you may not be here very long, and we hope that you’re here for four years and you stay, but you’ve got to be ready to compete,” Kelly said. “So our expectation in the recruiting process is for the wide receiver group to come in and compete to get on the field and be a player for us immediately.”

That’ll happen whether or not Robertson is a part of this group.

 

Amidst significant transition on both the coaching staff and recruiting office, Notre Dame managed a Top 10 class. Expect things to only get better from here. 

Let’s go back to Signing Day 2015. Within 24 hours of Brian Kelly’s press conference, he was dealing with two major changes—recruiting coordinator Tony Alford was out the door to Ohio State and Kerry Cooks was headed to Oklahoma. Two aces on the staff were gone, forcing the Irish to not just replace long-time staffers, but to find new area recruiters for the state of Texas and Alford’s stronghold in Florida.

Kelly brought in first-year college assistant Todd Lyght to work with defensive backs. He tapped the school’s rushing leader Autry Denson to handle the backs and duke it out in Florida. Mike Sanford shook up the offense as Bob Elliott moved into an off-field position. But perhaps just as important as those moves, Kelly turned over the administrative reins to Mike Elston, who moved into a recruiting coordinator position he had filled for his boss back at Cincinnati.

Elston had to reorganize a staff that saw relationships walk out the door and reboot a recruiting effort that saw significant changes behind the scenes. And in short order things got back on track and have progressed to the point that the Irish are ahead of the game, setting junior days and summer camp dates earlier than ever.

For those paying attention, they’ve noticed the improvements. Notre Dame has paid more attention to messaging—staffers more active on Twitter. There have been improvements on Instagram, Facebook and Vine—platforms that might sound like gobbledygook to grownups, but are critical pieces to a year-long recruiting effort. That should help this staff press ahead in 2017, a recruiting class that already has five members.

“With that team that we’ve put together, we’re not going to look back. It’s only going to get better,” Kelly said.

It was Elston that engineered the equipment truck visit to Savannah, a late-game recruiting move that drew a lot of attention to Notre Dame. It was recruiters like Denson who went to Alabama and got a visit out of Ben Davis, a Crimson Tide legacy who gave the Irish a much longer look than anybody could have expected. And it’s no surprise that a former Pro Bowler and first-round draft pick like Lyght was able to reel in a large group of defensive backs eager to learn from a guy who was a clear success story.

“I think each and every year, you hope that this group is the best group you’ve ever recruited,” Kelly said. “I’m hoping for that again.”

 

Faxes in: Liam Eichenberg

Liam Eichenberg
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LIAM EICHENBERG
Cleveland, Ohio

Measurables: 6’6″, 280 lbs.

Accolades: 4-Star, Under Armour All-American, 2015 MaxPreps first-team All-American, 2015 American Family Insurance All-USA Ohio, AP All-Ohio Division I first-team.

Impressive Offers: Florida State, Miami, Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Tennessee

Projected Position: Offensive tackle.

Quick Take: Another offensive tackle with sky-high potential, Notre Dame snatched Eichenberg out from under Urban Meyer’s nose, bringing in yet another blue-chipper for Harry Hiestand to mold. More of a developmental project than Kraemer, Eichenberg’s upside could be just as lofty, especially after some time in a weight room and on the practice field.

What he means to the Irish: With numbers at tackle on the light side, Eichenberg won’t be asked to get on the field, but he might start his career in the two deep behind Mike McGlinchey. That could take away a redshirt if things go wrong, but the view from behind McGlinchey is a good spot for him, learning behind another talented athlete who came to campus as a developmental prospect but will enter his senior season (McGlinchey has two years of eligibility remaining) as a legit NFL prospect.

Eichenberg has the same kind of ceiling. He’ll just need to keep improving—something that he’s shown after a strong Under Armour All-American week in Orlando.

Obligatory YouTube clip: