IBG: Pushing towards Purdue

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In case people forgot, the Irish are playing a football game this Saturday night. Yep, they’ll be hopping on the bus and heading down to West Lafayette, enjoying that glorious drive down US 31 into Boilermaker country, where a hostile crowd will be looking to enact revenge from 2009, where Purdue nearly pulled the upset on Jimmy Clausen and the Fighting Irish.

I’m a few hours late on the Irish Blogger Gathering, which I’ll blame on last night’s baseball and this afternoon’s schedule. (Neither are good excuses, I realize that.) Supplying the excellent fodder this week was the Irish Round Table, giving us quite a few interesting questions that I spent far too much time answering.

Enjoy.

1) Excluding Aaron Lynch, who is your top newcomer of the year thus far (freshman or player that hadn’t seen much playing time in prior seasons)?

There is no other answer that I can think of than Louis Nix, even if you include No. 19. But here’s a quick run through of the worthy candidates:

George Atkinson: Tough to not be impressed when the kid has already taken a kickoff to the house.
Kyle Brindza: Remember when Irish kickers never got touchbacks? Brindza certainly solved that problem.
Aaron Lynch: I’m only expecting more from him in the weeks to come. Think he’ll lead the Irish in sacks.
Stephon Tuitt: Could be athletic enough to help in a four-man front against Air Force or Navy.
Ishaq Williams: He’s getting playing time in the base defense behind Darius Fleming. That’s impressive.
Troy Niklas: My true freshman Newcomer of the Year (Non-Lynch division). This guy is a really impressive athlete. Watching him the next four years will be very fun.

2) We asked our Twitter followers for questions to use in this week’s IBG. Here’s a sampling of what we got. Choose ONE and answer:

Let’s get crazy and try to answer them all.

@TheSubwayDomer: If the #NDFB quarterbacks were female super models, who would they be? What would they endorse? #IBG —

Man, my knowledge of supermodels has slipped since college. Can I change this to actresses from our favorite TV shows? (Answer by me: Yes.)

Tommy Rees is Pam Beesly.

Now known as Pam Beesley Halpert. We all loved Tommy from the start, he was the quarterback next door: Decent arm, calm under pressure, great personality, and we all really wanted to see him succeed. Well, Pam got married to Jim. We all loved it. Then she got promoted from receptionist, tried getting into sales and kind of sucked at it. That’s not the Pam we like! Now she’s a little too snarky, not quite as good as we thought she’d be, and probably mistakenly gives Cece the wrong flavor of Gerber, or drops the baby bottle too much. Aren’t we better off liking Erin?

Dayne Crist is Christina Applegate.

It feels like we’ve known Christina forever. (At least I do. I practically grew up with her.) Ever since we’ve seen her, we knew she had star qualities. (Who could forget Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead!) But while she’s shown those flashes of brilliance, she’s never quite become the movie star she should have.To be fair, she’s also had to overcame huge personal setbacks. And it’s a credit to her that she did.

There are people that will go to the mattresses supporting Applegate — She was magic as Veronica Coringstone! But she’s also failed on TV, forcing America to watch Samantha Who? Now she’s back with Up All Night, a show almost reverse engineered to make us like it, teaming her with Will Arnett and Maya Rudolph. A good cast doesn’t hide the show’s flaws, but it might be the perfect place for her to show what she can do… even if that isn’t under the Golden Dome.

Andrew Hendrix is Minka Kelly:

Okay, I’m rapidly running out of steam here, but follow. Everybody loves Minka Kelly. Looks like the complete package. Hell, she was the apple of Derek Jeter’s eye, and that guy has some pretty good taste. Yet we have absolutely no clue if she can get it done. Kelly wasn’t the reason Friday Night Lights was good, even if she was good to look at. Now she’s in charge of making Charlie’s Angels TV show watchable, no easy task for anybody.

Hendrix might very well still be the quarterback of the future for the Irish. Brian Kelly is on the record as saying he’s got as much talent as anybody. Everybody looks at the guy and just sees a starting quarterback. But he hasn’t done it yet, and he might not ever.

Everett Golson is Zoey Deschanel.

Everybody loves the New Girl! Zoey’s a perfect fit for TV. Movie star skills. Funny, talented, cool dresser, awesome glasses. World class musician. (Crazy that she likely came to TV because she was sick of seeing how much money her sister was making on Bones, while she got like $150k for 500 Days of Summer.)

Well, everybody loves Everett Golson. He’s a prototype for Brian Kelly’s offense. Point guard quickness. Rocket arm. World class musician. Not sure if he wears awesome glasses, but it’s a pretty good fit. And he’s the new guy. What’s not to like?

@PerrasW01: Why has the #NDFB program gone to hell since Holtz left?

Mostly, College football got a lot better. I’m not old enough to understand why Holtz truly left, so I’d only be spewing someone else’s rhetoric when I blame administrators, athletic directors, or board members for maybe or maybe not pushing Holtz out before he could pass Knute Rockne.

But the bottom line is college football got a lot better and Notre Dame was really slow to come around to the changing landscape in college football, and the game blew by the Irish. In retrospect, the decision to hire Bob Davie is just shocking. You’ve got a program still at or near the top of college football and Notre Dame decides to promote its defensive coordinator, a guy with no real ties to Notre Dame. No offense to the Eagles, but that’s a move Boston College makes, and only with a guy that’s been on staff for a decade. Notre Dame got caught at the absolute worst time: A brewing arms race in college football that Notre Dame thought it was better than, mixed with the hiring of a guy that was absolutely overmatched for the job. Institutional arrogance at its best, and just in time for this young schmuck to start paying tuition.

@rpleary: You know that sign that says “Play Like a Champion Today”? What does our offense have against the sign?

Not sure. I think they’re “Playing Like People With Champion-like Ability.” Obviously that doesn’t get it done, but I actually like the strides they’re taking, even if last week was a step back for Rees and the unit.

@chadros: Based on our offense’s performance to date, is the current play calling mix (run vs. pass) the right one? Should we be running the ball more?

I’ve got no problem with the run/pass mix. One thing the Irish need to do is run the ball more effectively in the fourth quarter. I’d also like to see some more creativity out of the running game, giving the ball to Theo Riddick on a jet sweet, getting Cierre Wood in space more, and just seeing how slow Tommy looks on a QB keeper.

Last week’s offense was ugly, but it was impressive to see the Irish get every 3rd or 4th and short that they needed. That’s running to win.

@yetiisready: Will this be the week we see the “change-up package” AKA “the Leprecat?”

I will never call it the Leprecat. Man, that’s horrible. I’m kind of hoping we don’t see Everett Golson this year, only because saving a year of eligibility would be great, and seeing what Andrew Hendrix can do this year would be interesting as well.

That said — I think we’ll see some kind of “change-up package,” I just don’t think there’s any reason to show it against Purdue or Air Force. After bye week, I’m expecting a few interesting wrinkles for the men of Troy when they come to chilly South Bend.

(Not to mention a wrinkle in uniforms…)

3) If you could have 1 play back this season, what play would you want a do-over? How would that have changed a game’s outcome? Are you sure your do-over would work in ND’s favor?

I’m hoping everybody says Jonas Gray‘s fumble. That was like getting floored by a big right uppercut in the first round of a twelve-rounder. Sure you get up, but you’re starting out in a 10-8 hole after the first round and still finding your legs. If the Irish get in the endzone that first drive, I’m pretty sure this entire season looks different. A lot different.

4) In 140 characters or less “tweet” a summary of the season so far. Bonus points for hashtags or mentions.

Everybody please calm down RT @AngryNDFans Don’t you understand the other QB is better! Stop turning the ball over! Man 2-2 is frustrating!

5) Lou Holtz asked 3 basic questions of every player and coach, “Can I trust you? Are you committed? Do you care about me?” In your opinion, which player would every other player give a resounding “Yes” to each of these questions and why?

On offense: Michael Floyd. Take away last spring’s off field incident, and Floyd is the perfect football player. He’s the Irish’s best player. He makes a difference even when the ball isn’t being thrown to him. And he’s the guy everybody on the other team is watching. It will be sad watching the Irish without him.

On defense: Manti Te’o. If it’s possible, people are under-appreciating Te’o. He’s an every down linebacker, he’s a force in the run and playing better in the pass game, and he’s brought a swagger to the Irish defense that hasn’t been seen since Shane Walton was terrorizing quarterbacks, only Te’o has a first round skillset to go along with first round confidence.

6) Jumbotron. Good idea or terrible idea. What would you do to make it a great idea?

It’s not a polarizing thing for me, but I think it’s coming sooner than later. If you went to the Yankee Stadium game, it was really cool seeing Notre Dame use the video board as an extension of the university brand and a great way to remind people of the traditions and history of Notre Dame. If it helps keep fans engaged, informed and loud, even better. Just don’t have it block Touchdown Jesus.

(That said, give me FieldTurf or a semi-artificial surface first.)

7) Every week we try to fire up the masses with a “Fire It Up” video. Sometimes these videos are inspirational ballads of kick-ass Notre Dame football. Sometimes they are of a Japanese game show with dudes getting hit in the junk. Submit a video to Fire Up the Irish faithful for the Purdue game.

With a game like Purdue, I’ll let coach Eric Taylor get the boys fired up:

 

Brian Kelly & Jack Swarbrick on Notre Dame’s changes moving forward

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Whether 2016’s disappointing 4-8 finish was the impetus to program-wide alterations at Notre Dame this offseason, it certainly underscored the need. For the last few months, Irish coach Brian Kelly has focused those changes on himself and self-assessment, and he reiterated that approach when talking with PFT Live’s Mike Florio early Monday morning.

“This is my 27th year of being a head coach, and prior to last year I had one losing season,” Kelly said. “You have a way of doing things, you have a system in place, you follow that year after year. Certainly you make tweaks along the way, but this is the first time where I’ve really taken a step back and made substantial changes in terms of how I’m doing things on a day-to-day basis…

“From my perspective, after being at it as long as I have, you have to take it on yourself that you’re the one that needs to make the corrections. It’s not the players.”

None of this is new. Kelly has been consistent in his springtime messaging, but others have looked past the effects of the 4-8 record and insist the changes were coming regardless of the win-loss totals. Senior captain Drue Tranquill, for example, acknowledged the severity of the losing record Friday but argued adjustments were needed no matter what the final scores were.

“If you have an average season like 8-4, some things might carry over to the next season,” Tranquill said the day before the spring practice finale. “Whereas when you go 4-8, something has to change.

“But I think even at Notre Dame, 8-4 is never really acceptable or tolerated. Those things that were taking place, just within our culture, would have been noticed whether we were 10-3, 4-8. The criticism gave it a lot more hype and juice. We could kind of feel as guys in the program throughout the past three years that certain things needed to change.

“Those things were finally brought to light and it happened to be during a 4-8 season. I don’t necessarily know that 4-8 was the reason all this change happened.”

New Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko expressed a similar sentiment Friday morning, discussing the pressure moving forward.

“If we were coming off a 12-0 season in which we were competing for the national championship, there would be pressure on us at Notre Dame to be successful this year,” Elko said. “That’s Notre Dame.”

Elko has been a quick study, as his comments were echoed the next day by Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick during NBC Sports Network’s broadcast of the Blue-Gold Game.

“We expect to compete for national championships and 4-8 is not acceptable,” Swarbrick said. “On the other hand, when you’re in that situation, you have to decide how you’re going to move forward. We decided to move forward by making a major investment in retooling our program with Brian as the leader of it. That’s not a one-year investment for us. We brought in some talented assistant coaches. We rebuilt elements of the program

“We view it as a multi-year investment going forward.”

KELLY ON RECRUITING PITCH
Using this week’s NFL Draft as a peg, Florio also asked Kelly about balancing players’ NFL aspirations with team success both in the recruiting process and during the actual season.

“We have to talk more in terms of process over production,” Kelly responded. “We talk in terms of you’re coming to Notre Dame for a reason. You’re going to get a degree, which will set you up for the rest of your life, and you’re going to play on the grandest stage at Notre Dame, so everybody will see you.

“As long as there’s the balance there—and there has to be that balance in terms of getting your education and playing for championships—then we’re okay. It’s when that balance is out of whack, we’ll have an issue. We vet that out in the recruiting process and make sure we don’t take any kids that are coming to Notre Dame just because they’re waiting for that [junior] year to complete so they can go to the draft.”

A reminder: The NFL Draft begins with its first round Thursday night. Kelly will be joining former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer at the draft in Philadelphia to await Kizer’s destination and future employer.

MISSED THE BLUE-GOLD GAME?
It is available for streaming: here.

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?

What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

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Time spent on a traditional game wrap of a spring intrasquad exhibition seems misspent. Gold won Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game 27-14 led by rising sophomore quarterback Ian Book. The first-string defense (Gold) held the first-string offense to an average of 5.4 yards per play. For context’s sake: Last season Notre Dame gained an average of 6.1 yards per play and held opponents to 5.4.

With that abbreviated recap out of the way, what did Saturday’s pseudo-game environment show about the Irish? If the 20,147 in attendance paid attention, they had the chance to learn a few things:

Daelin Hayes will be ready to hit a quarterback in September
Notre Dame’s quarterbacks were off limits all spring. Bulls might charge when they see red, but the Irish defensive line has had to remember to ease up when they come across a quarterback’s red jersey. If sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes had forgotten that Saturday, Notre Dame might not have any quarterbacks left to play in the fall.

“At the end of the day, we’re on the same team,” Hayes said, dismissing any bitterness about the quarterbacks’ protections. “We have to keep our guys healthy. I wasn’t frustrated, but come September 2, you know.”

Officially, Hayes was credited with three sacks and another tackle for loss among his seven tackles. Admittedly, gauging sacks is tricky when the quarterback does not actually go to the ground. How many of Hayes’ three sacks and the defense’s 11 total would have been evaded if the defender needed to do more than touch the passer? That answer is highly subjective, but discounting Hayes’ numbers would miss the bigger picture.

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

Senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) notched two sacks and sophomore end Ade Ogundeji came the closest to tackling a red jersey when he stripped junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush from behind. The defensive line has been expected to be a weak point for the Irish moving forward, but the spring performance indicates it has a chance at holding its own. These accomplishments bear further merit considering Notre Dame’s offensive line is widely-considered one of its few spots of expected quality.

RELATED READING: Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

“I think it’s pretty clear Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I’d have to watch the film, but it seemed like [sophomore end] Julian Okwara was a hard guy to block coming off the edge, as well.”

Ian Book provides some peace of mind
Book was not spectacular, but he was also far from incompetent or intimidated. In his first action on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, Book completed 18-of-25 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by a 58-yard connection with sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. Meanwhile, junior Brandon Wimbush completed 22-of-32 passes for 303 yards.

Bluntly, one has not needed to follow Notre Dame for very long to fit that “long enough” qualification. Last season’s backup, Malik Zaire, saw competitive action against both Texas and Stanford. In 2015, DeShone Kizer came off the bench to start 11 games after Zaire suffered a season-ending ankle injury. (more…)

What Notre Dame players should you actually watch? Plus, catch up on reading

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If technology does its part, this will post as its typist meanders toward finding his credential for the Blue-Gold Game to conclude Notre Dame’s spring practice. If technology doesn’t do its part, well, then this will be lost to the cobwebs of the internet. Such as it goes.

This space has spent much of the past week discussing what to look for in the 12:30 p.m. ET exhibition. Worry about the big picture, not the individuals. Fret about the macro, not the micro.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the indivdual players
Blue-Gold Game primer with help from Notre Dame’s coordinators
Four defensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game
Four offensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game

But, if insistent on focusing on singular players, look to the inexperienced, the names you are unfamiliar with. The 15th and final practice of spring may be no more than a practice in reality, but it is in front of nearly 30,000 fans in Notre Dame Stadium. Some players do not have so much as that minimal experience.

“The Blue-Gold Game, specifically, is a time for us to emulate a game-like situation,” senior safety/linebacker/rover Drue Tranquill said. “Especially for guys like freshmen, second-semester guys coming in, it’s a great opportunity for them to get that game feeling, but also continue to take steps in the process to get better.”

The question on the tip of your tongue is a fair one. If you are unfamiliar with the names, how are you supposed to focus on those players? How are you to know who fits the appropriate tunnel vision version of perspective?

Let’s turn to Irish coach Brian Kelly’s mentions from Wednesday–primarily, sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara, sophomore long snapper John Shannon, senior kicker Sam Kohler, sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem and sophomore safety Jalen Elliott.

Obviously, that is just a sampling. Less obviously, this post’s purpose may or may not be to link to previous reading material and remind you of the vague but pertinent purposes to today’s endeavor. It is neither be-all nor end-all. It is simply another opportunity to gauge what may come down the line.

But hey, how about a prediction? Per Kelly, the first-team offense and second-team defense will be in blue, against the first-team defense and second-team offense in white.

PREDICTION: Blue 37, White 21

HOW TO WATCH
As a recurring reminder, the Blue-Gold Game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network, as well as streamed online at ndstream.nbcsports.com and on the NBC Sports app.