Pregame Six Pack: Air Force

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With the Irish in an early 0-2 hole this season, most Notre Dame fans assumed the Irish would right the ship. But history didn’t necessarily share that rosy outlook.  Seven Irish teams have stumbled out of the gates in their opening two games. Only two of the teams have come back to have winning seasons, with one coming in 1896 when the Irish rallied to a 4-3 record.

Yet Notre Dame’s Saturday date with 3-1 Air Force, set to kickoff at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC, gives the Irish a chance to get back “on schedule” heading into the bye week. Sure, 4-2 wasn’t the start optimistic Irish fans were looking for in the six-game gauntlet the Irish had to face to open the season, but four-straight wins gives the Irish momentum heading into a much needed bye week before a certain team from Southern California comes to visit. But before any attention is turned to that October 22nd showdown, Brian Kelly‘s squad needs to take care of business for the fourth week in a row.

The match-ups looks ugly on paper. Notre Dame dominates the line of scrimmage, with its starting five of Zack Martin, Chris Watt, Braxston Cave, Trevor Robinson and Taylor Dever out-weighing the Air Force defensive front by an average of sixty pounds a man. Almost just as incredibly, the Irish starting defensive line outweighs the Air Force offensive line by 35 pounds.

Of course, Air Force will never be a paper champion and the Irish have shown that being a prohibitive favorite doesn’t mean anything if you’re prone to making big mistakes. And the multiplicity of Air Force’s offense, a unit that stretches the Irish defense more than any other team on the schedule, makes Saturday afternoon’s game a riveting chess match.

But before we get to the game, here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as the Irish prepare to take on Air Force at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC. (Live blogs to follow!)

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1. Air Force’s running game vs. Notre Dame’s rush defense: Something’s got to give.

Pop quiz: Of the top twenty defenses in the country against the run, there’s only one team that’s yet to play a Non-AQ or FCS opponent: Notre Dame.

That’s what makes the Irish rush defense all the more impressive. It’s also what makes the showdown between Air Force’s run game, putting up 364 yards a game and ranked 3rd in the country, so absolutely intriguing.

The catalyst for it all is senior running back Asher Clark. The All-Mountain West running back has averaged 5.7 yards a carry the last two seasons, but has taken his game to the next level this year, averaging 9.3 yards per carry this year on 41 carries.

We’ve already charted it out, but the guys at One Foot Down did some nice work off of my breakdown. Irish opponents are running for just 36.5% of their average rushing yards. If Air Force only runs for 132 yards on Saturday, expect the Irish to win pretty convincingly.

2. “Brothers don’t shake hands. Brothers gotta hug.”

Saturday afternoon will be a special one for Don and Kim Niklas. They’ll watch their son Austin, a junior linebacker for Air Force battle their son Troy, a freshman linebacker for Notre Dame. With the brothers competing against each other for one of the first times in their lives, it’s not surprising that Austin is getting tactical.

“I’ve been trying to call him, but he hasn’t been calling me back,” Troy said.

The two brothers certainly are contrasts in styles. Lightly recruited out of Orange Country powerhouse Servite High, Austin took a late recruiting visit to Air Force and committed just before signing day. Troy was the Los Angeles Times’ defensive lineman of the year, and the 6-foot-6, 250-pound athlete had his choice of schools around the country before pulling the trigger for the Irish.

While Troy certainly traveled the more heralded path to college, it’s pretty clear that he’s continued to look up to his brother, even if that’s physically impossible for a guy now four inches taller.

“Every time I see him, I remember how proud I am to be his little brother,” Niklas said. “I know he busts his butt every day. I’m really proud of him for choosing to go to the Air Force and for choosing to serve our country. Just his work ethic, how he attacks every day – it is the Air Force Academy and it’s not easy to play football and have a large course-load.”

(If you don’t know the quote, shame on you.)

3. Expect to see a change of pace quarterback get into the football game.

Brian Kelly gave a good scoop to his radio show listeners on Thursday night when answering a now weekly question about his still unused quarterbacks sophomore Andrew Hendrix and freshman Everett Golson.

“We’re going to employ a special package with somebody, but I’m not going to tell you who,” Kelly said. “It could be Everett Golson, it could be Andrew Hendrix. We’re going to let you come to the game Saturday and see for yourself.”

If the Irish do finally turn to one of their dual-threat quarterbacks, expect to see a dose of running from either Hendrix or Golson. And after spending spring, summer and fall camp with the two quarterbacks, Kelly has tailored his game plan to finally allow one of them to see the field.

“They have some outstanding skill-sets but they don’t have the whole offense down,” Kelly said. “So what we’ve decided to do is not give them the whole thing. We’ve really tried to segment out some things that they can handle because when you put them in you’ve got to be prepared for everything.”

If you’re taking odds on who the quarterback’s going to be, Kelly may have already given that answer away.

At the radio show, Kelly declined to mention what quarterback was spending time playing Tim Jefferson this week, citing the fact that the quarterback who did that spent all his time with the scout team and didn’t work with the No. 1 offense, making him unlikely to see the field. But earlier in the week, Kelly mentioned that Everett Golson was turning heads playing Jefferson against the number one defense.

Unless Kelly’s really coy, expect to get your first dose of Andrew Hendrix on Saturday.

4. The special teams needle points strongly in Air Force’s direction.

If there’s a facet of the football game where the Irish are dangerously out-matched, it’s in special teams. The Falcons third-segment might be one of the strongest in the nation and should stretch the Irish in an area where they’ve struggled to do just about anything right.

Looking for reasons to worry? Notre Dame has struggled kicking field goals and Air Force has already blocked three kicks this year. Air Force is averaging 12.5 yards per punt return and the Irish are a woeful 117th defending them. Add to that wide receiver Jonathan Warzeka already has two 100-yard kickoff returns to his name, and Kelly needs his whole coaching staff to pick up the slack.

“I think we all know on the other end which players have to play better,” Kelly said. “But we have to coach better too. This is not just on Mike Elston. He can’t run that whole group by himself. He’s got six assistant coaches that are responsible for certain aspects of it and they have to coach better, and we have to get more out of our guys.”

From a personnel standpoint, both Elston and Kelly hinted that changes are coming. The Irish will be looking to add better speed and talent to help spring a punt return and also have been looking for alternatives in their anemic punt return game.

“We’ve got a couple other people lined up along with John Goodman,” Kelly said. “There’s a good chance you’ll see a couple of different guys out there for punt return.”

5. A week after Ricardo Allen took his shot, Anthony Wright is up to challenge Michael Floyd. 

Troy Calhoun’s too smart of a coach to announce it, but expect senior cornerback Anthony Wright to follow Michael Floyd around the field this Saturday. While it didn’t work for Purdue’s Ricardo Allen, Wright feels like he’s game.

“He’s a great player,” Wright told the Colorado Springs Gazette. “But I’m a great player, too.”

At 5-foot-10, 190-pounds, Wright doesn’t profile well in his quest to cover Floyd, who presents another match-up nightmare for Air Force. But it’s hard to find anybody that can physically match-up with the 6-foot-3, 225-pound Floyd, a guy that absolutely had his way in both the passing and running game last Saturday against one of Purdue’s most talented players.

“If I’m matched up against him, I’m going to try to be the best corner in the country on Saturday, against arguably the best receiver in the country,” Wright said.

How Air Force tries to take Floyd away could be the early story of the game. When tasked with getting Floyd involved in the game plan early, Brian Kelly had Tommy Rees look early and often for Floyd, using the senior receiver in different ways and finding him on the second play of the game for a long touchdown reception.

Floyd’s not the only guy capable of catching passes for the Irish, who also have mismatches in guys like Tyler Eifert, Theo Riddick and TJ Jones. It’s just up to them to keep pace with the Irish’s all-time leading receiver.

6. The Irish’s ability to play a two-gap defense is a thing of beauty.

With Louis Nix in the middle, and defensive ends like Kapron Lewis-Moore and Ethan Johnson (who is a game-time decision on Saturday after taking off his walking boot), the Irish are capable of playing a true two-gap defense, something that Troy Calhoun really admired.

“What’s hard to find and see in college football in this day and age are bodies big enough against these offensive lines to stand up and play two-gap defensive football and yet they do it,” Calhoun said of the Irish defense. “I think by and large, when you look at the NFL and you look at college football, there are so few teams that truly try to play at least 30 snaps a game in two-gap defense. I think more people are inclined to line a guy up and say I have this gap, in between the guard and the tackle or the center and the guard,and I’m going to nest in there and I’m going to find a way to generate penetration, I’m not going to get cut off, I’m not going to get reach. It’s amazing what they do with the two gap scheme, not only with their defensive ends but their outside linebackers. It goes back to having talented players, and they’re briefed and they’re prepared.”

Of course, just because the Irish can play a two-gap front doesn’t mean they’ll do it against Air Force. The amount of responsibility that falls on young players like sophomores Nix and Prince Shembo and freshmen Troy Niklas, Ishaq WilliamsStephon Tuitt and Aaron Lynch might make holding the point of attack while reading the offense difficult.

Kelly has already mentioned that Johnson is shifting inside on the defensive line, making you think a guy like Darius Fleming might line up opposite Lewis-Moore in a four man front. If the Irish do, they’ll need to make sure the Irish play sound option principles while keeping their defensive backs ready for the play-action passing game, something Jefferson has been incredibly efficient with.

Don’t think for one minute that the Air Force coaching staff hasn’t seen the tape of Gary Gray struggling to get his head around in single coverage. Expect a deep shot early on Gray, and it’ll be up to the senior corner who has been in good position throughout his struggles, to adapt his technique and look back for the football.

 

Mid-week reading: On Wimbush; NCAA $$$; A look back at Te’o

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A litany of links typically makes for good Friday fodder. A week’s worth of the internet can help any reader through an unproductive end of the week. Unfortunately, spring practice’s rhythms are inconsistent, unlike summer’s constant nothingness and fall’s non-stop charge.

Hey, who said you can’t take a long lunch on a Wednesday, anyways?

MORE WIMBUSH AND WHITFIELD
Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples joined Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush out in San Diego two weeks ago during spring break, watching as Wimbush listened to private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield’s instructions. Staples, per usual, tells a good story, slipping some nuggets of information within it where you may not even notice.

Many around this space have asked who foots the bill when a college quarterback seeks out Whitfield’s tutelage. Per Staples, Wimbush’s mother paid for the week.

Throughout the story, Wimbush emphasizes the importance of a Notre Dame degree, going so far as to point to former Irish quarterbacks Everett Golson and Malik Zaire acquiring their diplomas before departing Notre Dame. None of us know Wimbush’s academic progress—now approaching his second summer school session, Wimbush is likely ahead of the usual second-semester sophomore’s credit pace—but this tidbit may prove pertinent in nine months time. Considering what its pertinence would say about a bigger picture, Irish fans should certainly hope it is of note.

To this memory, the classic image relayed from Golson’s time with Whitfield was Golson throwing over brooms held by staffers, mimicking the long limbs of charging defensive linemen. Those fictional pass rushers have become a bit more realistic in nature, now apparently represented with outstretched tennis rackets.

NCAA GIVING NOTRE DAME NEARLY $1 MILLION
In what has been described as a “one-time supplemental distribution,” the NCAA is dispersing $200 million among its members. The amount each school receives is determined by the total number of full scholarships it gives to student-athletes, with each partial scholarship contributing its appropriate fraction toward that total figure.

Notre Dame will receive $984,724 thanks to giving out 299.20 scholarships in 2013-14. Some context behind that latter number: The football team takes up 85 scholarships. The men’s basketball team is allowed 13, and the women’s basketball team gets 15. The remaining 186.20 are split among the other 20 varsity sports (counting men’s and women’s teams separately in rowing, swimming and diving, and track and field).

Other notable schools:
Ohio State receives the most, more than $1.3 million, thanks to its 403.98 scholarships.
USC’s 279.06 scholarships equates to $918,440.
Michigan’s 353.18 scholarships will yield close to $1.2 million.

All these dollars must be spent it ways aiding the student-athletes. Schools cannot put the funds toward items like stadium construction or coaches’ salaries. Rather, the NCAA indicated the money is for “the direct benefit of the student-athlete and their academic success, life skills, career success, health and safety and student-athlete focused diversity and inclusion initiatives.”

All expenditures must be approved by the NCAA. The money comes from an endowment that had reportedly come to exceed $360 million.

REMEMBER THE TE’O DRAFT HOOPLA?
The below video does not necessarily reveal anything we do not already know about former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o, despite its ponderous title. It does, however, make a good point.

Aside from a sporadic comment deep in the morass of these pages, not much is said about the Lennay Kekua situation anymore. At the time, it was the most talked about item anywhere, let alone in Notre Dame corners. Personally, a former co-worker at the Los Angeles Times called late one night that week four-plus years ago. He and I had not spoken in close to two years, and we haven’t spoken since. But the Te’o/Kekua story prompted him to seek an understanding of what in the world was going on.

In some irish.nbcsports.com history, the day after that story broke—it broke on Jan. 16, 2013, so I am referring to Jan. 17—still holds the record for most views to this particular site.

Good for Te’o to have successfully moved past that saga. These days, every comment former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer makes is scrutinized. He is even criticized for not having excellent timing with Jonas Gray, of all people. Looking back on Te’o, it should be remembered the most dramatic stories, one seemingly crafted perfectly for the internet, fade into the cobwebs of time.

[Here, a link in case the intended embed below fails.]

PHIL STEELE’S PROJECTED AP TOP 10
Enough with the past. Let’s project the future.

Phil Steele, of the revered Phil Steele’s College Football Preview, projected August’s Associated Press Top 10. Steele has accounted for voters’ tendencies rather accurately in years past, so it is not an entirely fruitless exercise. Then again, he is projecting the results of the first of many polls with no actual consequence.

Of Steele’s projected top-10, Notre Dame will face only No. 4 USC.

KENPOM’S TOO EARLY PRESEASON TOP 10
If you think Steele’s top 10 is too early, then skip this.

College basketball analytics master Ken Pomeroy put together his top 10 for next season, though any unexpected draft departures or transfers can certainly alter his calculations. After all, the season is not actually over yet.

Of certain Irish interest: No. 9 North Carolina, No. 8 Louisville and No. 6 Virginia. The last of those has already suffered a transfer which Pomeroy tweeted will “abruptly” end the Cavaliers’ time in his preseason top 10.

SPEAKING OF BASKETBALL, WELL DONE DENNIS, WHOEVER YOU ARE
Math is hard, so take this with a grain of salt, but I believe Dennis’ bracket of “Brey Brey’s Kids” will win the Inside the Irish March Madness pool. Dennis, your $984,724 is in the mail.

Don’t think that means there is no reason to watch the Final Four, though. Your host might be able to rise into the top half of the field, which would be good for his pride, and therefore the quality of writing in these parts.

It shouldn’t be too surprising my bracket flopped. This is a football page. Besides, by my eye, no one I actually know firsthand will finish higher than fourth. That is more of a relief than it should be.

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

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This space has mentioned a few times the dearth of returning sacks among Notre Dame’s defensive line. It is a pertinent fact—no returning Irish defensive lineman recorded a sack in the 2016 season—but it fails to mention the flipside of that.

Most of Notre Dame’s defensive linemen had few, if any, opportunities to rush the passer in 2016. Perhaps at the top of the list of those who should bring down the opposing passer a few times this fall, sophomore Daelin Hayes has laid claim to a starting rush spot through five spring practices.

“The athleticism is what obviously stands out,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “He’s extremely athletic, he’s fit physically, 250 pounds and very strong.”

These facts are, after all, the reasons Hayes was a highly sought-after five-star recruit according to rivals.com.

“It’s the football knowledge, learning the techniques at the position in which he plays is really the piece,” Kelly continued. “It’s just learning right now for him. This is the time to do it, in spring ball.

“Squeezing down on a tight end when the back is away. Wrong-arming the puller. These are all football terms and schemes that are a bit new to him. We have to be patient with him. He’s an explosive athlete. There’s going to be some mistakes along the way, and I’m okay with that as long as he’s learning.”

Without much depth pushing for playing time behind him, Hayes will have the opportunity to make, and subsequently understand, those mistakes. Seniors Jay Hayes (no relation) and Andrew Trumbetti are mired in competition for the other end spot, while sophomores Julian Okwara, Adetokunbo Ogundeji and Khalid Kareem may have even more development ahead of them than Daelin Hayes does.

Incoming freshmen Kofi Wardlow and Jonathon MacCollister will join the fray in the summer, but for now, the younger Hayes has his chance to impress with his natural gifts while absorbing the intricacies of new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s defense.

Hayes is not a complete unknown. While Okwara made four tackles last season in 11 games and Kareem appeared in four games, Hayes saw action in every contest, finishing the season with 11 tackles, one pass breakup and one forced fumble.

“He’s an athlete,” defensive line coach Mike Elston said last week. “He’s on the edge in a two-point stance. He’s not a trained, put-your-hand-on-the-ground defensive end. He played running back in high school. He can see things better in a two-point and can diagnose quicker. He’s able to be more productive.”

It may be accurate to mention no returning Notre Dame defensive linemen tackled a quarterback for a loss last season, but it is more precise to also include the Irish have possibilities of changing that trend.

SPEAKING OF THE DEFENSIVE LINE
Notre Dame is nearly as thin at defensive tackle as it is at end. Junior Jerry Tillery leads the way with senior end-converted-to-tackle Jonathan Bonner lining up next to him thus far. Their reserves: Oft-concussed senior Daniel Cage, senior Pete Mokwuah and junior Micah Dew-Treadway with junior Elijah Taylor out for the spring with a foot injury.

Theoretically, junior Brandon Tiassum is also in the mix, and three freshmen (Kurt Hinish, Myron Tagovailo-Amosa and four-star Darnell Ewell) will join the group in the summer.

And maybe, just maybe, perhaps, possibly … Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano could walk onto campus alongside those freshmen. Pagano visited Notre Dame the first week of March, and was due to look at Oklahoma and Arkansas the next two weekends, respectively. Instead, Pagano reportedly cancelled both of those visits Monday.

Pagano does still have a visit to Oregon scheduled for April 21. Until indicated otherwise, it may be prudent to presume Pagano hopes to land as close to his Hawaiian home as possible.

RELATED READING: 1 Day Until Spring Practice: A look at the defensive line

Recruiting success continues with OL Dirksen, class’s 12th commit

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Even in the doldrums of spring practice, Notre Dame’s recent recruiting success continues. Rivals.com three-star/scout.com four-star offensive lineman John Dirksen offered a verbal commitment to the Irish on Saturday, bringing the 2018 class to 12 commitments.

The 6-foot-5, 290-pounds Dirksen (Marion High School; Maria Stein, Ohio) joins consensus three-star prospect Cole Mabry (Brentwood H.S.; Brentwood, Tenn.) as the offensive linemen thus far among the 12. In three of the last four years, Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has pulled in four recruits, with 2015’s two (Trevor Ruhland, Tristen Hoge) as the exception. This recruiting cycle could again bring a limited offensive line haul, given the likely limits on the class’s size.

While any and all current class of 2018 team rankings should be taken with many grains of salt—there are 318 days between today and National Signing Day, after all—Dirksen’s commitment solidifies the Irish hold on the No. 3 class, per rivals.com. Other recruiting services place Notre Dame even higher.

Dirksen chose Hiestand and the Irish over offers from Michigan State, Iowa State and Boston College, among others.

 

Holmes out for spring; Jones & Jones shining

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Notre Dame’s spring continued over the weekend, and is all too often the case with football, that led to an injury. Early enrollee running back C.J. Holmes will probably miss the rest of spring practice due to a separated shoulder, Irish coach Brian Kelly announced following Saturday’s practice.

“We’ll get an MRI and know a little bit further on Monday once that calms down a little bit,” Kelly said. “We’ll get a picture of that and see. He had an open repair on that same shoulder his sophomore year in high school.”

Behind three backs, including two with experience, Holmes was unlikely to see playing time in the backfield in 2017.

Of those three backs, sophomore Tony Jones, Jr., is the unknown after preserving a year of eligibility last season. In limited practice viewing, however, Jones has only impressed. He has caught Kelly’s eye, as well.

“He’s 225 pounds, can catch the ball coming out of the backfield, [is] assignment correct, and can run elusively and can get into the second level,” Kelly said. “What does that equal? He’s a pretty good back.

“Obviously he was noticeable today in his play and he got some work with the first group as well. He wasn’t just getting second-team reps.”

Jones may be getting some first-unit exposure, but expect him to remain behind junior Josh Adams in the depth chart. Considering Jones’ style is somewhat comparable to Adams’, whereas junior Dexter Williams presents something of a change of pace, Williams should see more action than the sophomore, as well.

MORE PRAISE FOR ALIZE JONES
Junior tight end Alizé Jones—rather, Alizé Mack, per his Twitter account—has taken the lead in spring’s race of who reaps the most sound bite accolades. In complimenting Jones, who missed last season due to an academic suspension, Kelly also managed to laud new offensive coordinator Chip Long.

“I think Chip is doing a terrific job with [Jones],” Kelly said. “He’s got a good relationship. He knows how to rise him up when he needs to and scold him when he needs to. Alizé needs a little bit of that.

“He’s virtually un-coverable in certain areas of the field. I don’t care at any level. You can’t cover him. He just has that kind of talent. The one that I think stands out to me in the few days is he’s committed himself to being a blocker and playing physical. If he continues to do that, we’re going to find ourselves with a lot of tight ends on the field.”

Presumably, Jones would join graduate student tight end Durham Smythe in two tight end sets. It should be remembered, Long has historically shown a preference for such formations, and with Notre Dame’s plethora of options at the position, Long’s tendencies have no need to change. For that matter, Long had some praise for Jones this weekend, as well.

“Alizé can be as good as he wants to be,” Long said Friday. “…He’s growing up each and every day. Great joy to coach, and that whole group is. He doesn’t want to let that group down. There’s no question he can be as good as he wants to be.”