Wake Forest

And in that corner… The Wake Forest Demon Deacons

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The Irish now enter the ACC portion of their schedule, with a trio of Atlantic Coast opponents on the docket with Wake Forest, Maryland and Boston College up next for the Irish. The first of that trio is Jim Grobe‘s Demon Deacons, who sit at a surprising 5-3, with four wins in conference play, including a upset victory over Florida State.

Here to give us more on the Deacs is the managing editor of Blogger So Dear Martin Rickman, who is in charge of a “Wake Forest Demon Deacon sports blog where Charlie Brown is still trying to kick that football.” Peanuts references aside, you’ve got to like the blog for the title alone, a play on the lyrics of the school’s alma mater:

Dear old Wake Forest, Thine is a noble name;
Thine is a glorious fame, Constant and true.
We give thee of our praise, Adore thine ancient days,
Sing thee our humble lays, Mother, so dear.

Mother so dear, blogger so dear — I feel a mean-spirited sportswriter joke right around the corner.

With Irish fans in severe need of some Demon Deacon knowledge, I asked Rickman some questions on his beloved Deacs, and he gave me some very good answers.

Enjoy.

What does this game mean to Wake Forest and their fans? This will be the first time the two programs have met and while it’s definitely second banana behind LSU-Alabama, the game will be on national TV. Is it a tough ticket? Does Notre Dame resonate in your corner of the country?

It’s a huge game for a number of reasons. Notre Dame doesn’t play true road games often. We’ve been working on this series for awhile, what with the number of connections between ND and Wake: Irish AD Jack Swarbrick’s son is a Demon Deacon and WFU President Nathan Hatch worked at Notre Dame for 30 years.

And even more importantly than the prestige of the Golden Dome is that this game would get Wake bowl eligible after a difficult loss to UNC. It’s definitely one of the biggest non-conference games the Deacs have ever played, and tickets are hard to come by (something that doesn’t happen often).

The Demon Deacons are coming off an ugly loss, but have put together a nice run so far, highlighted by a big upset over Florida State. Is a 5-3 record a surprise at this point, especially seeing how 2010 played out?

This season has been a big surprise. If you looked up and down the schedule at the beginning of the year, it would be hard to find five wins all season. Instead, Wake was a handful of plays away from a win at Syracuse to start the season, held a 10-0 lead early against a good VT team, and pulled out a big win over Florida State.

Obviously BC and State being down a bit has helped, but Tanner Price and the WRs, along with some better-than-expected play from the DL and CB Merrill Noel has fans excited, something that didn’t happen much a year ago.

Offensively, you’ve got to be enthusiastic about this team. How good are the Deacs offensive weapons? Tanner Price, Chris Givens, Josh Harris and Brandon Pendergrass seem to be a talented group.

This offense is one of the finest that Wake has ever had. Price is one of the three best QBs in the ACC. Givens is a Top 10 WR in the country. Harris, when healthy, has incredible playmaking ability. Pendergrass runs hard, picks up tough yards and is a veteran leader. The offensive line has made great strides from a year ago, especially in pass blocking. WRs Michael Campanaro, Terence Davis and Danny Dembry have all made some huge catches this year.

The offense has stalled at times, and a lot of that has had to do with an inconsistent running game, but they can definitely put up points.

Nikita Whitlock is putting up some really impressive numbers, wreaking havoc in opponents’ backfield. How good is he? Who else on this defense will make an impact on Saturday night?

Whitlock is one of the most underrated players in college football. He’s “undersized,” and you hear about it all the time, but he’s unstoppable. It always takes two guys to block him, and when he gets a blocker one-on-one, he gets in the backfield with regularity. He has terrific closing speed, and wraps up his tackles. He and Kyle Wilber have really helped the Deacs get more pressure defensively.

In the secondary, I already mentioned him, but Bud Noel (despite getting manhandled by Dwight Jones on Saturday) is having an unbelievable year for a RS-FR. The Pahokee grad, same school as Alphonso Smith, deflects a ton of passes and has shown good tackling ability, especially on the quick swing passes to WRs. He makes mistakes, but has grown a lot on the field, and potentially has an All-ACC future ahead of him.

Wake Forest has the 106th rated rushing attack in the country. Can the Demon Deacons be effective on Saturday night as a one-dimensional offense?

I’m really not sure. Josh Harris is still hurting, and Pendergrass desperately needs J-Roc in there as a change of pace. There’s a small chance the Deacs burn the redshirt on true freshman Orville Reynolds, and his speed would definitely help, but there’s no denying the fact that Wake is going to need a much better game from Price than they got against the Tar Heels.

Price was rushed into some throws and made some poor decisions, and he will need Givens early and often to take pressure off the running game up front. It’s no secret that Notre Dame’s defense against the run is the strength of that unit, and I expect the Irish to use blitz schemes and a little zone to try and speed up Tanner. The Deacs need to get something out of the running game though, and that’s going to be a big key to watch.

Wake Forest is a two-touchdown underdog. What’s the recipe for success this Saturday night for Jim Grobe’s squad?

Better play defensively, especially in one-on-one coverage. At least 100 yards on the ground from whichever combination of Harris, Pendergrass and others sees the field. Winning the turnover battle. And taking risks offensively. If Wake gets vanilla when they have the ball and are more worried about controlling the ball than going for the jugular, the Fighting Irish’s big plays can take Wake right out of the game.

On film, the Demon Deacons actually match up pretty well against Notre Dame, and I think the 14-point spread is a little much. I’m not convinced Wake will have enough to win it, but stranger things have happened, and the nature of the game—at home, on national TV, at night, against an opponent like this—should add to the Deacs’ focus.

***

Read more of Martin’s work at Blogger So Dear, or follow him on Twitter @MartinRickman.

WR Lenzy makes 11th commitment, brings speed to Irish

lenzy
rivals.com
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At what point does an impressive recruiting roll become something more? When does it become a harbinger of things to come, even if not for a few seasons? How many notable commitments in a row establishes a class as special?

If the answer to any of the above is 11 commitments by the end of February, including five within two weeks, then Notre Dame is there following consensus four-star athlete Braden Lenzy’s announcement Thursday evening.

The Tigard High School (Portland, Ore) receiver/cornerback chose the Irish over offers from USC, Oregon and Michigan State, among a litany of others. In all, nine Pac-12 schools chased Lenzy—and a 10th, Washington, had shown interest—per rivals.com.

Lenzy will fit the leading 2018 need voiced by Irish coach Brian Kelly three weeks ago on National Signing Day 2017.

“Elite speed on offense will be a primary goal for us,” Kelly said Feb. 1. “Guys that can change the game on one possession. I think we’ll see that… We want a couple of home run hitters. We don’t care if they’re Darren Sproles’s size. We’re going to come off the board in terms of profile. We want some guys that can change the game on offense with elite speed.”

At 6-foot, 175 pounds, Lenzy is taller than Sproles’s 5-foot-6, but it is still his speed that drew Notre Dame’s interest.

“They made it clear they want me to do kickoff return and use me as a deep threat across the field,” he told Irish Illustrated. “Just being kind of an athlete, similar to what I’ve been doing already in high school, just on a bigger scale with a quarterback that can throw it a lot farther.”

Presuming Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush is that arm in 2018, throwing great distances should not be an issue. Between Lenzy and fellow 2018 commit Micah Jones, covering those distances should be a reasonable request, as well.

Lenzy brings Notre Dame’s class of 2018 to 11, including eight four-stars according to Rivals’ rating system. Current scholarship projections indicate the class will not be a large one, meaning the Irish coaching staff has already garnered the commitments of more than half the class. Once again, though, Kelly’s sentiment regarding recruiting timing should be remembered.

“We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

SWARBRICK’S TAKE ON RECRUITING
Kelly credited Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick with much assistance in securing the country’s No. 13 recruiting class in 2017. A refresher on those comments:

“In a lot of instances, [Swarbrick] had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it’s going,” Kelly said. “There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future.”

Swarbrick did not dispute the factual nature of any of that in an interview with the Indianapolis Star, but he did contest the need for praising what he saw as part of his job, one of the preferred parts of his job, at that.

“I can’t say anything about this year felt all that different,” Swarbrick told Star reporter Laken Litman. “Some asked questions about the future of the program and can we compete for a national championship. And I would talk about the elements of the program we were focused on improving.”

Swarbrick and Litman discussed a number of items in the second-half of the interview released by the Star, including Notre Dame’s facilities, a possible early signing period in football and if the Oct. 8, 2016, game against North Carolina State should have been played. Spoiler: No. Then why was it? Go check it out.

Swarbrick also told Litman he likes to write in his free time.

“I tend to think strategically with a pen in my hand.” Swarbrick added he is currently scribbling away on where he thinks college athletics are headed.

This scribe, for one, would be most interested in skimming those legal pads.

Will Wimbush, Elko and the early enrollees surprise in spring practice?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Exactly 59 days from today, the Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Sure, they will be playing against themselves, but nonetheless, it will be somewhat-competitive football played in gold helmets.

For timing context, exactly 59 days ago, you looked beneath the Christmas tree to learn if Santa Claus left you season tickets, socks or coal. I got socks. They had some of that extra cushioning, so I considered them a suitable treat.

Whether you care about my argyles or not (you don’t), for many the Blue-Gold Game and Christmas morning hold similar excitement. That fact is apparently why Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick does not concern himself when groups of alumni publicly lament his decisions, or lack thereof.

“I never worry about that,” Swarbirck told the Indianapolis Star in an exclusive interview you really should read. Go on, click the link, it will open in a new tab. You can come right back here when you are done.

“The hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion in your program. If that sort of stuff bothers you, you can’t be the athletic director, head coach or the quarterback at Notre Dame.”

That very passion will undoubtedly lead to frame-by-frame discussions of video snippets from spring practice, parsing of each and every word Irish coach Brian Kelly says in quick interviews after those practices, and extreme pessimism and optimism about the 2017 season.

In the Christmas spirit, what toys could bring the must excitement during the spring unwrapping? Personally, the gift I was unsure of always brought the most joy. I would rather open an unexpected book than know about a charcoal-gray suit. In other words, at least for today, let’s look past the offensive line, the running backs and the inside linebackers. Instead, let’s look forward to learning about… (more…)

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.