And in that corner… The USC Trojans

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We’re a little over three days from the primetime affair with Lane Kiffin’s USC Trojans in Notre Dame Stadium. With subplots like the health of USC’s Marc Tyler and Notre Dame’s Ethan Johnson, recruiting battles being held on the Irish’s turf, and All-American wide receiver candidates like Michael Floyd and Robert Woods, this game doesn’t lack a compelling cast of characters, even if both teams are currently unranked in the national polls.

While we’ll do all the work getting you up to speed on the Irish heading into Saturday night’s game, we’ve got the Los Angeles Daily News’ Scott Wolf was kind enough to answer a few questions on Lane Kiffin and his Trojans. As someone that lives in the heart of Trojan territory, I can tell you there’s nobody that follows the team closer.

I asked, Scott answered. I might not be his favorite interviewer, but he obliged me anyway:

Inside the Irish: A quick state of the Trojans: This is the first 5-1 USC team that’s ever been unranked. But it isn’t just pollsters lukewarm on the Trojans. The Coliseum hasn’t been full and it’s clear that the buzz isn’t what it used to be. Is it the sanctions? Is it Kiffin? It is just Los Angeles? A year and a half into the Lane Kiffin era, where is the Trojan football program? 

Scott Wolf: USC is dealing with several issues right now. It no longer has Pete Carroll’s charisma to excite the fan base and it no longer has the talent to overwhelm opponents. People remain skeptical of Lane Kiffin. That may seem odd for a team with a 5-1 record but the schedule was not demanding the first half of the season. That said, a team with quarterback Matt Barkley, offensive tackle Matt Kalil and wide receiver Robert Woods (three likely first-round picks whenever they go pro) should be able to score points. And on top of all that, there is probation and no hope of a bowl game.

ITI: We’ve heard plenty about the injuries piling up on both sides of the ball for the Trojans. How limited will USC be on Saturday night? 

SW: Right now things look better than they did last week. Tailback Marc Tyler said he will try to play with a dislocated shoulder and perhaps more realisitically, wide receiver Marqise Lee’s sprained shoulder doesn’t appear as serious as originally feared.

Q: What do you make of the Trojans defensively? They’re 105th in the country against the pass. They’re a Top 20 statistical defense against the run, but haven’t played a team that’s close to ND on the ground. The Trojans did a nice job last year against an Irish offense far less productive than this one. How will USC try to stop Notre Dame’s balanced attack?

SW: USC’s struggled against teams with good quarterbacks and spread offenses the past two years. The defense usually tries to avoid giving up the big play. That is a safe approach but prevents sacks and plays that might change a game’s momentum. It is no accident USC allowed more than 40 points in back-to-back games for the first time in school history.

Q: You’ve seen a lot of both Matt Barkley and Robert Woods. How good are they? Do they match-up with the greats of the Carroll era? Are they top of the first round talent?

SW: It all depends on Barkley. He can make a great pass on one play and then deliver a stinker on the next. Woods is probably as good as any receiver in the Carroll except for perhaps Mike Williams. But he’s still got time to catch Williams. Barkley is not consistent enough to be compared to Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart or Mark Sanchez. He might not have the offensive lines those quarterbacks had but he needs to be more consistent. That said, he can still be a top of the first round pick simply because he is a quarterback. Woods should also be one.

Q: Kiffin called this game Notre Dame’s Super Bowl. That said, the Trojans are sitting out the postseason and still raw from last year’s defeat. Couldn’t you make the argument that this is USC’s Super Bowl? With Stanford, UW, Oregon and UCLA still on the Trojans’ schedule, where does this rivalry rank for the USC players and coaches?

SW: It’s a unique rivalry for the players because they usually know it is important without really understanding the rivalry. It is probably not as big to the players as UCLA because they see their players and fans on a daily basis. Oregon’s become a big rival because the programs joust atop the Pac-10 (now 12) and the Ducks have plenty of local players. But they realize this is at worst the second-biggest rival and one of the games the fans value. It is even bigger for Lane Kiffin because he does know how important this rivalry is and he felt the heat from losing last season, which snapped USC’s eight-game winning streak in the series.

Q: On the subject of Kiffin, he’s a polarizing guy. How do you grade the job he’s done at USC when you consider the hand that he was dealt? In the wake of the NCAA sanctions, what else could he do? Does his work on the sidelines live up to the work he does on the recruiting trail? 

SW: He definitely knows how to recruit with two top 5 classes already. The question is whether he can lead a program and inspire the team instead of just being a glorified offensive coordinator. I’d give him a C- right now. He does have to deal with NCAA sanctions but those penalties have not hurt the school’s recruiting so maybe he doesn’t have it so bad.

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You can find Scott’s work just about anywhere: At the Daily News, on his Inside USC blog, and on Twitter.

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

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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