Tuesdays with BK: Purdue edition

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Okay, people — who’s ready to turn the corner from bickering about a quarterback controversy that only exists in the hearts and minds of Irish fans? (This guy!)

While there will be plenty of time for us to keep picking away at the play behind center, Brian Kelly and the Irish continued to trudge forward, sitting at 2-2 and ready to tackle their third Big Ten opponent of the season, the Purdue Boilermakers.

Here’s a sampling of what Kelly had to say this afternoon. As usual, I’ll give some thoughts below:

 

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If you were looking for the money quote on Tommy Rees, Kelly delivered it late in the press conference:

“You can put together an incredible highlight reel with Tommy Rees this year,” Kelly said about his starting quarterback. “And you could also put together a blooper film. So it’s really being able to gain that consistency of play after play after play. And a lot of that is learning and experience, and that’s where we’re at.

“That’s this year. We better not be talking about this stuff next year or there will be another quarterback playing. But he is learning. He’s got — some of the body of his work is really good and some of it needs great improvement. And he knows that. I know that, and we believe that he’s capable of being more consistent for a longer period of time.”

And there’s the closest thing to Kelly’s response to why he’s rolling with Rees over Crist.

Moving on…

***

There’s been a lot of talk about winning ugly this week. Kelly didn’t use those exact words, but he talked about the importance of winning and closing out close games. It was as close to a inside look at Kelly’s philosophy of building a team as we’ve seen in some time.

“I ask our players all the time and we talk about all the little things that you have to do to win. Now when you build your program, then the two things that I’ve always looked for in winning teams, and I think the best example is you take Auburn last year who won the National Championship. I think they had six games that they played where they won late or in overtime or won by just a couple of points. I know on my Cincinnati team where we went 12 and 0, we had a number of games that were decided on the last possession. And the point I’m making is one of the things that I liked about our football team at Pittsburgh is that we showed poise and confidence down the stretch.

“Poise to me is the ability to raise your level of concentration when it’s most needed. That you can’t talk about. You have to go demonstrate that. Confidence is the trust in your teammates that they’re going to do their job so you don’t have to do theirs. And those are hard to get to, and I was really pleased, of all the wins that we’ve had, that was the first time that we exhibited in 2011 poise and confidence because if you look at the Michigan game, we didn’t trust in what we were doing in the end, and consequently, we didn’t do the job necessary to win that football game.”

It isn’t hard to think about past Irish teams (specifically 2008 and 2009), and how when the season started going sideways, Notre Dame couldn’t do anything to stop it. Kelly proved in his first year that he had to ability to pick his team up off of the mat. Unfortunately, it was after the Irish had already lost five games. After digging itself a two game hole, a win on Saturday would give us another data point to examine, and more importantly push the Irish to 3-2 heading into Air Force and the bye week.

***

There’s been some grumbling about the play of Will linebackers Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese after watching them miss some big one-on-one tackles so far this year. But ask Kelly what he’s thought of their play, and it’s a completely different tune.

“Both of them have really done some great things,” Kelly said of the duo. “You know, we got matched up a couple of times one on one with the backs, so it forced us to go to nickel because we didn’t like that matchup. But by and large our will linebacker has been outstanding in pass coverage. Calabrese has had a couple of really good plays in pass coverage for us. Danny’s done a great job. We’ve got some really good plays, especially on his pass coverage from our will linebacker position.”

Part of me wonders if that answer was a bit calculated, if only because it doesn’t pay to have other teams hear you acknowledge you haven’t been getting great linebacker play. That said, both guys have 15 tackles each, and three combined tackles-for-loss. Those 30 tackles would be good for second place on the team — 11 shy of Manti Te’o and five ahead of Harrison Smith, really just about where you’d want them to be. When you look at it that way, that’s pretty good production from the position, though I think everybody would like to see the missed tackles cleaned up.

***

For those wondering if Kelly had plans on playing any more freshman, he let us behind the curtain Tuesday afternoon, where Cam McDaniel, George Atkinson and Davaris Daniels are loosening up.

“I think maybe running back position, you know, we’re ready to give one of those two young guys some work, McDaniel and Atkinson, both of them, you know, we’re really close there,” Kelly said. “Daniels is getting closer each and every week. So I’d say on the offensive side of the ball those would be the three guys most likely.

“Defensively, you know, I think you see the guys that we’re playing right now. I don’t see anybody else hopping in to the lineup or cracking the two deep.”

For those wondering if Kelly would give a guy like Ben Councell or Josh Atkinson a chance to work their way into the rotation it seems like Kelly’s content standing pat with the defensive unit.

***

Finally, Kelly had a fascinating exchange where he broke down the thought process of going for the punt block on the first series of the second half. He acknowledged the decision backfired, but also gave some interesting thoughts on the parameters for which he calls for a block. Interestingly enough — it’s not when the punted is pinned in his endzone.

“We have a yard line that we will not put one on because you only get two points out of it. You know, I don’t want to block a kick for two points,” Kelly revealed. “I’d rather set our offense up at midfield than try and block a kick for two points because if you block it and it goes out of the back of the end zone, obviously, you know, you get the ball back. But we look in all those terms of when do you go for a block and what time do you do it and then in some instances how your defense is playing.”

Kelly said the call wasn’t an in-game adjustment, but rather one they made before hand, after reviewing tape with Mike Elston. Obviously the outcome wasn’t what the Irish wanted and it was a huge momentum changer, but Kelly made it clear that he has a ton of confidence in Austin Collinsworth, one of his best special teams players.

That’s the first time I’ve ever heard a coach explain his logic, and while at first it seemed a little counter intuitive, it makes a ton of sense.

Browns pick former Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer 20th in second round

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After months of pointless chatter and a night spent waiting, DeShone Kizer’s NFL Draft experience ended Friday night when the Cleveland Browns drafted the former Notre Dame quarterback with the 20th pick in the second round, the No. 52 overall selection.

Originally from Toledo, Ohio, Kizer will have the opportunity to earn the starting job for the franchise less than two hours from his hometown. The Browns trotted out five different quarterbacks in 2016, only two of which remain with the team. Rookie Cody Kessler played in nine games, throwing for 1,380 yards and six touchdowns with only one interception while fellow rookie Kevin Hogan threw for 104 yards and two interceptions in four games.

The Browns have since added Brock Osweiler in a trade with the Houston Texans, though that trade was largely-viewed as a cash-for-picks swap, with the Browns “paying” for picks by taking on Osweiler’s contract in which he is owed $47 million over the next three seasons, including $16 million this season.

A year ago, the No. 52 pick (linebacker Deion Jones to the Atlanta Falcons) received a four-year, $4.546 million contract with a $1.506 million signing bonus.

Hall of fame running back and Browns legend Jim Brown announced the selection of Kizer at the draft festivities.

Speculation a year ago pegged Kizer as an early first-round pick. As the draft approached, projections of his slot varied widely, many including a second-round status. Despite first-round theatrics leading to three quarterbacks going in the first 12 picks Thursday night, Kizer had to wait another day before learning where he will start his NFL career. (more…)

Friday at 4: ‘Attention to detail’ includes Notre Dame Stadium

@NDFootball
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Brian Kelly proselytized multiple abstract concepts this spring. By the end of the 15 practices and subsequent media sessions, even the Irish coach knew some of his references to “grit” would be met by muted eye rolls from the press. If a questioner included the word in their query, Kelly reacted with tongue-in-cheek approval, “You’ve been listening.”

In his press conference the day before spring practices commenced, Kelly used the phrase “attention to detail” six separate times. While he was referring to his players on the football field, Kelly could have also been discussing the ongoing—but supposedly close to finished—construction at Notre Dame Stadium known as Campus Crossroads.

The three buildings around the exterior of the Stadium, the added suites and the video board above the south end zone have garnered the headlines. On a macro level, those are the changes of note. On a micro level, however, other details have trickled into the public stream of knowledge as the work nears its conclusion.

Over the weekend—and now reignited by a column from the South Bend Tribune’s Mike Vorel—the image of the newly-added visitors’ tunnel delighted Irish fans. Vorel likens the narrow entry to “the spot they’d stash the gladiators before feeding them to starving tigers in The Coliseum.” Assuredly, Vorel is going for dramatic effect, and it must work considering its citation here, but even a realistic view of the tunnel’s effects bodes well.

If nothing else, Notre Dame players should enjoy something of a psychological boost when racing out of their adult-sized tunnel and seeing their opponent trickle out of a tunnel seemingly-sized for ants. (Yes, the north end zone tunnel is at least three times bigger than the visitors’ tunnel.)

That pale, slanted staircase holds none of the luxuries of the home team’s entrance, something Kelly went out of his way to praise after using it in Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. (more…)

Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers

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You want complete honesty? The linebacker version of this series includes no revelations, no unexpected developments, no surprising spring performances. There is an allusion to a position switch, sure, but this piece became much simpler with the rover being discussed separately Thursday.

The idea was to capitalize on the NFL Draft for the morning and let the linebackers slip by in the afternoon, noticed only by those twiddling their thumbs through the last hours of the work week. Alas, former Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer was not drafted in the first round and a brief recap of his draft destination will need to await at least another day. Programming note: The NFL Draft reconvenes tonight (Friday) at 7 p.m. ET. The Green Bay Packers are on the clock. They will not draft a quarterback.

But back to the linebackers. This piece may have been intended to slip by with little fanfare, but that is not indicative of the Irish linebackers. Where Notre Dame was is so similar to where Notre Dame is simply because two experienced senior captains lead the way at linebacker.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
Aside from questions about defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s rover position, only one question stood out about this linebacker group: Who would start alongside senior Nyles Morgan: senior Greer Martini or junior Te’von Coney?

A year ago Coney recorded the fourth-most tackles on the team with 62. Martini finished fifth with 55, and his seven tackles for loss, including three sacks, dwarfed Coney’s 1.5. Yet Coney technically started nine games compared to Martini’s four.

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

With the rover often lining up essentially as a linebacker, there would only be space for one of Martini or Coney in most formations.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
In his first season with the Irish, Elko will have quite a luxury in referring to Coney as a backup linebacker. In some respects, that designation was inevitable as soon as Martini was named a captain. Nonetheless, Coney will see plenty of playing time.

The two captains—along with fellow captain, senior Drue Tranquill at rover—will be counted on throughout the summer and fall camp to continue the defense’s growth in Elko’s system. Elko said he installed “close to 50 percent” of his entire defense throughout spring practice. The linebackers must deal with the most difficult aspects of that learning.

“There’s been a noticeable improvement in terms of this starting to look like the defense we want this to look like as spring has gone on,” Elko said a week ago. “… Linebacker probably more than any other position, linebacker and safety, where the scheme takes some time to get used to, how you see it, how you fit it, how you feel it. Those guys have gotten better with that which has then allowed them to play faster as the spring has moved on.”

Sophomore Jonathan Jones will likely provide any further depth that may be needed in 2017, unless either of the incoming freshmen, David Adams and Drew White, excel from the outset. Irish coach Brian Kelly indicated sophomore Jamir Jones (no relation to Jonathan, but is former Notre Dame defensive lineman Jarron Jones’ brother) may be destined for time on the defensive line, in large part to Jones’s continued growth. Junior Josh Barajas let the spring come and go without mandating he be involved in these conversations, which may as well count as removing himself from the conversation in most regards.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame Was, Is & Could Be: Rover

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Rover

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Before spring practice, the rover position was lumped in with the linebackers in positional previews. Nearly two months later, that seems to have been the right placement—the rover will likely spend most of its time at the defense’s second level.

But since curiosity about the rover and its unknown place in Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme ran rampant—especially when compared to the rather solid understanding of the 2017 Irish linebackers—let’s take a look specifically at the rover.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:

“Who will start at [Elko’s] rover position,” this space asked. “What will his role entail?”

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

Senior safety Drue Tranquill was expected to see the most time at rover, perhaps with cameos from junior linebacker Asmar Bilal and sophomore safeties D.J. Morgan and Spencer Perry (since transferred).

More than anything, though, learning how Elko intended to deploy his defensive utility knife would answer the most questions about his defense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:

Tranquill will indeed lead the position, but not without much effort from Bilal.

“We’ve tried quite a few bodies out there,” Elko said Friday. “I think as spring has gone on, we’ve gotten a feel of what each of them can do, what parts of the package we can run with each of them. I think we’ve got a pretty good pulse now on how we want that thing to play out, who will be there doing what.”

Elko is excessively reluctant to discuss individual players, so asking him to expound on who will be at rover in particular situations was largely a fruitless exercise. Earlier this spring, Irish head coach Brian Kelly indicated Bilal would be featured against run-heavy offenses. That may well prove to be the case, but it is far more likely Tranquill sees the majority of the repetitions at the position.

RELATED READING: Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover positon, others likely to follow

“It’s been a good fit all spring [for Tranquill],” Kelly said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “He’s a plus player there for us. He really can impact what’s happening from snap to snap. He’s a physical player and playing low to the ball is really where he can do a lot of really good things for us.”

For his part, Tranquill enjoys the position and the unique number of duties innate to it. In theory, the rover aligns mostly with the linebackers but can be relied on to provide coverage when necessary. At other times, the rover will be asked to rush the passer. That flexibility allows Elko to keep the offense guessing.

“I love the rover position,” Tranquill said. “It’s a versatile position that allows you to come off the edge, allows you to play the run, play the pass, and do a lot of different things.”

Sometimes it allows you to pretend like you’re coming off the edge and then actually embarrass a potential first-round draft pick.

In senior left guard Quenton Nelson’s defense, Tranquill did add Nelson probably won more of their battles in spring practices than the defender did.

WHERE NOTRE DAME COULD BE:

Elko indicated there could be a third primary option in his tool kit. Notre Dame has a plethora of talented cornerbacks. Last week, Kelly indicated he might ask one of them to chip in at safety in obvious passing situations. Similarly, Elko predicted junior Shaun Crawford could play at rover against particular passing attacks, a la Bilal against certain rushing offenses.

“A lot of this is dictated by who that guy is lined up and what we’re trying to do,” Elko said. “We’re going to see a lot of really talented slot receivers. We’re going to have to match up and cover them well. There’s other names other than the big linebacker/safety bodies to put at that position. [Junior safety] Nick Coleman has done that some this spring. [Junior safety] Ashton White has done that some this spring. When Shaun gets healthy, I think he’ll do that some. That is all encompassing in that position.”

The 5-foot-9, 175-pound Crawford has since announced his return to full health, which should allow him plenty of time to readjust to contact before the start of fall practice.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line