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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.

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Karlos Williams #9 of the Florida State Seminoles scores the touchdown that would win the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their game at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.

With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.

The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.

Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.

Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.

If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.

Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order: (more…)

Four-star WR Micah Jones chooses Irish; Rees may need to wait; Other late-week reading

jones
rivals.com
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A day may come when Notre Dame suffers a recruiting disappointment in the 2018 cycle, when a high school star spurns the Irish coaching staff for a foe, but it is not this day.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township High School; Gurnee, Ill.) committed to Notre Dame on Friday, joining a class of now 10 recruits, including four who committed just this week.

Jones chose the Irish over offers from the likes of Iowa, Michigan State and Ole Miss, among others.

He is the first receiver among the 10 commitments and the seventh considered a four-star prospect. At 6-foot-5, 196 pounds, Jones should present a large target for whomever the Notre Dame quarterback is in the fall of 2018, most likely then-senior Brandon Wimbush.

Tom, Tommy or Thomas; Assistant Coach or Graduate Assistant?
Thomas Rees may need to wait a season before officially being a coach at Notre Dame. The legislation to approve a 10th assistant coach was expected to be voted on, passed and effective in April. A newly-added amendment may push the effective date to following the 2017 season. The amendment will be voted on immediately before the legislation itself is.

The delay makes sense. Most coaching hirings and firings occur in December and January. In theory, creating a one-timing hiring frenzy following spring football could leave many programs in the lurch. In practice, however, this is not anticipated.

“The majority of the FBS guys that I’ve talked with currently believe that 10th coach is going to come from within their own organization,” Todd Berry told the Associated Press. Berry is the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association and former coach at Army and Louisiana-Monroe. “Quality control, graduate assistants, analysts, or they’re planning on hiring somebody that’s out of work.”

A majority is not a unanimity, though, and that carousel will innately work to the disadvantage of the Group of 5 schools.

As for Rees, a graduate assistant can still work extensively with players. The most-pertinent difference between a graduate assistant and an assistant coach is the former cannot recruit. Given Notre Dame’s recent success on the recruiting trail—and the early commitment of class of 2018 consensus four-star quarterback Phil Jurkovec (Pine-Richland H.S.; Gibsonia, Pa.)—Rees may not be an absolute necessity in that regard this cycle.

A Kizer Appraisal
Former NFL scout Greg Gabriel took a look at former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer this week, largely paying the draft prospect compliments.

In calling Kizer “the most talented quarterback in this draft class,” Gabriel set a high ceiling for Kizer’s spring. Part of Gabriel’s positive assessment comes from acknowledging Kizer’s responsibilities as the Irish signal-caller.

“The spread offense that Kizer played in at Notre Dame is more sophisticated than many of the spread offenses we see elsewhere at the collegiate level. The Notre Dame offense is a whole-field read scheme in which the quarterback has to go through a progression that encompasses both sides of the field. He also can change the play and/or protections at the line of scrimmage. Given all that, Kizer was asked to do more than many spread quarterbacks are asked to do.”

Gabriel also reflected on the dynamic differences for Kizer in 2015 and 2016 and what may have elicited some of his seeming stagnation.

“There was the unnecessary quarterback controversy at Notre Dame, and the offensive line wasn’t as experienced or as talented and the receivers were mostly first-year starters.”

As much as Gabriel raves about Kizer, he would be the first to tell you anything beyond individual player evaluation is a waste of air this early in the draft process. Mock drafts may be fun, but they are not much beyond that.

Take the fates of Tony Romo and Jimmy Garoppolo, for example. Few, if any, in the NFL expect them to dress for the Cowboys and Patriots, respectively, again. Where they end up could directly impact Kizer’s draft placement.

Jaylon Smith May Be Back to Form
Former Notre Dame and current Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith posted yet another encouraging video to Twitter. This one shows Smith really might be game-ready right now and, if not, almost certainly will be by the fall. Should there be any difficulty with the embedded video below, here is a link straight to it.

OL Mabry makes third commitment this week; WR Jones may follow Friday

mabry
rivals.com
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Two weeks ago, Irish coach Brian Kelly gave a non-answer of an answer to a question about a likely early signing period this coming December. Avoiding specifics, he indicated he thinks the effects of such a change will be seen on a case-by-case basis entirely dependent on the recruits.

“Some will, some won’t,” Kelly said. “…Each kid is going to have to react to it based upon also how their school is going to be dealing with it. Some will come off the board at the time.

“We’re expecting some to sign early, but I think our mindset is we’re going into it business as usual. We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

After this week, Notre Dame is going to have more year-long fights than anticipated. Consensus three-star offensive lineman recruit Cole Mabry (Brentwood High School; Brentwood, Tenn.) became the third prospect to offer a verbal commitment to the Irish coaching staff in less than 36 hours with his Wednesday decision. Mabry received the offer over the weekend, but waited a few days before making his decision public, lest emotions be dictating his thought process.

At 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds, Mabry will have time to add muscle to his frame, with four or five offensive tackles greeting him on the Notre Dame roster in the summer of 2018. That ability to mold his style and growth may have played a part in the Irish interest.

“They love my height and athleticism and how I play,” Mabry told rivals.com. “We got to break down film and go through things that they do that pair up with how I play now. They think I’ll be a great fit in their offense.”

Mabry is the ninth Notre Dame commitment in the class of 2018, though the first offensive lineman.

Judging by new Notre Dame director of football performance Matt Balis’s agenda for the Irish roster’s Valentine’s Day morning, Mabry will have much to look forward to in terms of strength and conditioning.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township H.S.; Gurnee, Ill.) is scheduled to announce his verbal commitment this Friday at 4 p.m. ET. Along with Notre Dame, Jones is considering Iowa, Michigan State, Nebraska, Ole Miss, Illinois and Northwestern. He would be the first receiver in Notre Dame’s 2018 class. Naturally, whomever Jones commits to, the recruiting fight will last until at least December, and perhaps all the way to February.

Notre Dame adds two top defensive back commits; Elliott officially a ‘Husker

allen
rivals.com
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It’s early. It’s really, really early. Not in the day, though this post is scheduled for an a.m. hour. No, it is early in the 2018 recruiting cycle. Any piece of news, each commitment, everything should be taken with two grains of salt.

Nonetheless, Notre Dame—and more specifically, new Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko and defensive backs coach Todd Lyght—enjoyed Tuesday’s recruiting news when two consensus four-star coverage men committed to the Irish.

Safety Derrik Allen (Lassiter High School; Marietta, Ga.) and cornerback Kalon Gervin (Cass Tech; Detroit, Mich.) joined a class of now eight commitments, six of which play on the defensive side of the ball.

Gervin, the No. 11 cornerback in the class according to rivals.com, waited mere days after attending Notre Dame’s Junior Day over the weekend. Irish coach Brian Kelly and staff’s failure to land a recruit at Gervin’s position in the 2017 haul actually helped reel in the recruit with offers from Florida, LSU, Michigan and dozens others.

“The opportunity to play right away, they didn’t sign a cornerback this last class,” Gervin told Blue & Gold Illustrated helped sway him. “Also, the education is second-to-none. It speaks for itself.”

Allen, pictured at top, has leaned toward Notre Dame for months. The No. 3 safety in the country per Rivals, he chose the Irish over the likes of Alabama, Clemson and Florida State.

Elliott officially to Nebraska

The two highly-touted defensive backs will not have the chance to learn under the tutelage of Bob Elliott. Nebraska officially announced the hiring of the former Notre Dame safeties (2012-13) and linebackers (2014) coach. Elliott spent the last two seasons serving as a special assistant to Kelly, focusing largely on defending the triple-option attacks of Army, Navy and Georgia Tech.

Elliott rejoins former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco in Lincoln. Diaco was hired as the Cornhuskers’ defensive coordinator in January.

The Lincoln Journal Star’s Brian Cristopherson reports Elliott will make a nice wage in eastern Nebraska.