aaron lynch Sack

IBG: Getting ready for the Irish Wake

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Okay people, don’t worry — nobody died. But while some of you might be mourning the fact that they decided to stack Notre Dame-Wake Forest at the exact same time as LSU-Alabama, I wouldn’t be insulted if you simply followed me on the live-blog Saturday night while flipping back and forth between the two games. I’m willing to be your eyes and ears, as always.

This week’s Irish Blogger Gathering is hosted by our friend Blog Davie at the GameDay 40 blog. I can’t confirm the spray tan or the propensity to run a QB draw on 3rd and 6, but you should check out he and the GameDay 40 team’s work, if only because they also support Kirk Ferentz and Iowa, which means they must be feeling pretty terrible about themselves these days.

On to the questions…

I don’t know anything about Wake Forest except that Tim Duncan went there.  Who is the Tim Duncan of the Wake Forest footballers, i.e., one guy that the Irish must game plan for on Saturday and why?

You’re looking for another Tim Duncan? The guy was a 6-foot-11 swimmer from the Virgin Islands who walked from college to the NBA and immediately averaged 20 and 10. Not to go all Bill Simmons on you, but there’s nobody on the Wake Forest football team that even belongs in the same pool as Duncan. People tend to forget it now, but Duncan was a total freak in college, and I remember watching those games and listen to hecklers call him Spock, which I thought was spectacularly funny.

That said, if I had to call one guy a freak of nature on this team, it’s definitely Nikita Whitlock. He’s a 5-foot-11 (just one foot shorter than Duncan) nose guard that has 12 tackles-for-loss already this season — which is more than Manti Te’o. He also has the best action hero name I’ve heard in a long time.

(I don’t know how good of a swimmer he is.)

Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray have been a solid running back tandem this year with Gray coming on strong in the last couple of games.  With a finite amount of opportunities for each back, how do you think BK should split the carries in the coming weeks?  Explain.

At this point, they should be splitting the carries pretty evenly, though I’d probably give Cierre more snaps, only because he’s more versatile in the passing game. What Jonas Gray has done this year after a tough opening drive is pretty incredible. That he’s been able to dig himself out from the shallow grave most Irish fans dug for him has been a testament to the kid’s really hard work.

When you opened the season, I don’t think after 8 games many people would’ve thought Gray would be chasing one of George Gipp’s rushing records. That said, after seeing Wood put his head down and run hard against Navy after a few slips in the open field, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him have a breakout game either.

Andrew Hendrix did not play against Navy.  Without speculating as to the reasons why he didn’t play against the Midshipmen, do you think he’s being underutilized?  Why or why not?

I actually think he’s being utilized perfectly. The kid just isn’t ready to start throwing the ball up the seam and running this entire offense, at least not the vertical part of it. While I get that everybody really wants a quarterback that can run the ball and make the offense a true spread running attack, the coaching staff knows what its quarterbacks can do, and if BK and company aren’t ready to let Hendrix throw a complete route tree, then I think everybody should trust them.

There’s no reason to speculate why Kelly didn’t use Hendrix against Navy. He essential said it: He didn’t think he needed him to win. (That, and I think it was more important to get Dayne Crist’s mojo back after the way his playing time against USC ended.)

Most importantly, this is an important lesson for Irish fans wishing for a stable football program. R-E-L-A-X! Andrew Hendrix is basically a freshman! He’s got three full seasons left in this program. If you want stability, stop demanding to see what a redshirt freshman can do on offense and openly worrying that if you don’t see it soon that Hendrix might transfer.

After inheriting a program that had zero healthy scholarship quarterbacks, Kelly has finally built some depth at the position. He’s likely losing Dayne Crist after this season, so there’ll be three quarterbacks left, and potentially one more if Kelly can convince Gunner Kiel to come to South Bend. That’s the way it should be. Remember, Matt Leinart was a third-stringer at this point in his career at USC. That’s what happens when you’ve got good depth.

What do the following series of statements mean—if anything— for Notre Dame versus Wake Forest this weekend?  Wake Forest beat NC State.  NC State beat Virginia. Virginia beat The U. The U beat Ohio State. Ohio State beat Illinois. Illinois beat Arizona State. Arizona State beat USC. USC beat Notre Dame.

I think the transitive property has gone mad.

That said, I’m not sure if you’re hinting at it, but you’ve hit on one of the essential problems that college football has right now — it’s a lack of connectivity. If you scratch your head like I do when the polls come out every week, it’s because the voters have a really hard time comparing teams, other than using a flawed process like the one you used above.

Brian Fremeau of Football Outsiders, hit on the issue on his website BCFToys.com over a year and a half ago when he looked at the 2009 college football schedule as compared to the slate from 1989.

In 1989, there were 106 Division 1A (now called FBS) teams. A total of 582 games were played between those teams, including 18 bowl games. 52 of the total games (8.9 percent, or about 1 in 11) were played between teams ranked in the Associated Press final top-25.

In 2009, 120 FBS teams played a total of 714 games against one another, including 34 bowl games. Only 38 of the total games (5.3 percent, or about 1 in 20) were played between Associated Press final top-25 teams. (EDIT: Actually, 39 games were played in 2009, 5.5 percent, or about 1 in 19. The infographic doesn’t reflect that Clemson and Georgia Tech played twice).

The AP final top-25 was significantly more connected in 1989 than 2009. Only nine ranked teams played at least four games against other ranked teams last season; in 1989, 18 ranked teams did so. Twenty years ago, the AP top-10 either played or shared a common opponent with an average of 17 other ranked teams. In 2009, the AP top-10 either played or shared a common opponent with an average of only 12.6 other ranked teams.

In twenty years, the frequency of games played between top-25 teams has been cut by nearly 40 percent. The primary reason for the decline has been conference expansion. In 1989, 25 teams were independent, including AP final Nos. 1, 2 and 3 and six of the top-25 overall. In 2009, only 3 FBS teams were independent, none of which were ranked. Additionally, there were 94 FBS vs. FCS games played last year, 17 involving AP top-25 teams. Only 50 such games were played in 1989, two by AP top-25 teams.

In simple terms: People just aren’t playing each other that often. I mean — look at the blueprint shown by Nebraska or Penn State. In their non-conference slates, each only played one BCS conference team, for Nebraska it was Washington, for Penn State it was Alabama. In Penn State’s case, they lost, but have then rolled through a mediocre stretch of conference games like Indiana, Iowa, Purdue, Northwestern and Illinois — Forrest Gumping their way to wins while building an 8-1 record. By default they’re ranked No.16, even though if they were to face Notre Dame on a neutral field they’d be almost a touchdown underdog.

Like in everything else — people have learned how to manipulate the system, or at least stack the front-side of their schedule as easy as possible. But Penn State will now face Nebraska, Ohio State and Wisconsin, before playing in a potential Big Ten Championship game. We’ll find out if they’re the real deal or like Michigan State was last year — incredibly exposed by Alabama in a bowl game.

What’s your prediction for Saturday’s game against the Demon Deacons and why?  Bonus points if your answer is a Haiku.

I hate making predictions on games, especially with this Irish team. If good Notre Dame shows up — expect a comfortable win. If bad Notre Dame shows up — expect a nail-biter. I’m inclined to think that the Irish can overwhelm Wake Forest on offense, while unleashing pass-rushers like Aaron Lynch on Tanner Price. But expect the loudest 32,000 people you’ve ever heard on Saturday night and a very fired up Wake Forest team.

Here’s my attempt at a haiku:

Night games on the road
No I won’t change the channel
Just don’t beat yourself

Even with talent drain, Irish can be CFB Playoff contender

LANDOVER, MD - NOVEMBER 01: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on from the sidelines during the first half against the Navy Midshipmen at FedExField on November 1, 2014 in Landover, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly’s next football team might have less talent than the group that produced seven of the first 103 picks in the NFL Draft. But it might have a better chance to make it to the College Football Playoff.

It’s a trendy thought lately. The kind of thing you do when it’s May and we’re still a long way away from any football this fall.

But there’s good reason to be bullish on the Irish. And SBNation’s Bill Connelly providing the thinking man’s rationale for the optimism last week when he unveiled his preview of the 2016 Fighting Irish.

The entire preview is very much worth your time, but here’s the synopsis:

  • Brian Kelly is an excellent coach. (Sorry complainers.)
  • Whoever wins the quarterback job is going to be really good.
  • An offensive line that’ll reload.
  • Tons of skill talent.
  • A defense trending in the right direction.
  • A good close game team.
  • A schedule that’s more conducive to winning.

Again, go read the article. (You’ll be smarter for it.) But after crunching many of the variables, here’s Connelly’s mighty optimistic conclusion:

There isn’t a sure loss on the schedule. In fact, there’s only one game in which Notre Dame has a worse than 59 percent chance of winning. But operating in close games will be critical. That means finding go-to receivers for the quarterback in times of need, continued quality from Yoon, and a defense that improves up front despite turnover and holds steady in the back despite freshmen on the two-deep.

All of the “ifs” are realistic, and while the defense still has plenty to prove, I’m not going to doubt Kelly after last year. If I had a poll vote — and thank goodness I don’t — I would seriously consider Notre Dame in the preseason top five.

With Notre Dame’s two regular-season losses coming in the final moments of road games to top-five teams, this isn’t the type of “Here Come the Irish” headline that invaded our psyche and ruined the enjoyment of seasons under Bob Davie, Ty Willingham or Charlie Weis, the later still finding his way into the schlock headlines thanks to Notre Dame’s latest tax return release.

But Brian Kelly’s consistency has turned proclamations like Connelly’s into a decidedly uninteresting one. And at the same time that we go inch-by-inch through the roster, it’s helpful to see what the Irish look like from a 30,000-foot view—a better vantage point to evaluate progress than the perch most of us inhabit.

So while all previews in May expire by the time the calendar hits August, let’s go through the bullet points (as appropriated by me, not Connelly) just to add to the discussion.

 

Brian Kelly: elite coach. (No question mark) 

Right now, that’s a fairly undeniable assertion. And for those of you who’ll haggle about the definition of elite or harken back to a two-point conversion chart or the selection of the team’s defensive coordinator, this might be the best question to ask yourself: “After Nick Saban and Urban Meyer, who else do you want running your program?”

 

The quarterback battle.

If there’s something that I find reassuring, it’s the fact that Connelly hasn’t lost the plot on this. Whoever wins the quarterback battle will play at a very high level. Or they won’t play at all.

As Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford showed last season, the Irish will coach up a quarterback and get very productive play out of them. (Unlike what happened at Ohio State last year.) And with Brandon Wimbush putting the redshirt on, Notre Dame has one of the country’s most dangerous weapons waiting in the wings.

 

The offensive line should be good again.

Remember all those data-driven pieces about minutes-played correlating to excellent offensive line play? I still believe them. But I also think the Irish will produce a very, very productive offensive line even with three new starters, thanks to two starting NFL linemen on the left side of their center and Alex Bars likely on his way, too.

 

Those skill players? They’ll be good.  

I’m bullish on the ground game. I’m high on the young talent in the secondary. And I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to a receiving corps that I think is still a little more unsorted than I’d guess this staff wants.

Torii Hunter should lead the unit. After that, I’m not sure what to expect.

The move of Alizé Jones to the “W” (boundary side) receiver gives you an idea that this staff is preparing to go forward if Corey Robinson steps away from the game because of concussions. It also might point to an offensive direction that’s more similar to 2012, a physical approach that could put more tight ends on the field and would allow the Irish to lean on a very strong running game and a quarterback who’ll be able to take deep shots down the field.

 

The Defense?

How you improve after losing headliners like Sheldon Day, Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt, Elijah Shumate and KeiVarae Russell is hard to comprehend. But I think this unit will have more versatility, as injuries and certain personnel limitations really hamstrung a unit that was maddeningly inconsistent at times.

Can they improve against the run? I think the answer starts with Jarron Jones and Jerry Tillery, two stout guys who’ll hold up in the trenches in front of Nyles Morgan. That’ll serve as the critical building block to the scheme, with pieces added and subtracted to make sure the Irish can be multiple and match-up with opponents on a weekly basis.

I’m punting on this topic (for now), while acknowledging that improvement on this side of the football is critical to success and the biggest unknown heading into the season.

 

Good play in tight games

Remember those heart-stopping finishes in the Weis era? Or that dreadful feeling you got every time a game got close and an opponent mounted a comeback?

For some, it’ll never go away. But under Brian Kelly, the Irish have been a very good close game team—even considering the two tight losses last year.

I appreciate the comparison Connelly made in his piece to a baseball team with a good bullpen. When the Irish have been at their best, they’ve been able to control the game late with solid quarterback play, a dependable running game and a defense that held up.

Justin Yoon and Tyler Newsome play an important part in this process, too. The specialist duo will help control field position and make critical kicks, with Yoon putting together a really respectable freshman season and Newsome showcasing a booming leg.

 

The Schedule

I haven’t fully dug into the intricacies of the schedule, but just at face value it’s a much less daunting climb that years past. The Irish get Michigan State and Stanford at home (and under the lights) and replace Clemson with North Carolina State. Army comes back onto the schedule and Navy loses the majority of its team, including star Keenan Reynolds.

There is no shortage of coaching pedigree that Brian Kelly will face. Mark Richt, David Cutcliffe, and some young rising talent like Justin Fuente and Clay Helton in a regular season finale in Los Angeles.

But you can only win the games you play, and you can only play the teams on your schedule. (Thanks, Yogi.) As Connelly mentioned, there’s no “sure loss” on this slate, and I think Notre Dame will be favored every time they take the field next year.

 

Jurkovec’s commitment as solid as it can get

Phil Jurkovec 247
247 Sports
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In a sport like college football, not much is certain. Coaching changes, recruiting battles, it is a week to week sport in nearly every sense of the word.

So when coveted 2018 quarterback Phil Jurkovec chose Notre Dame last week, many kept their enthusiasm tempered. Especially with memories of prospects like Blake Barnett fresh in their minds.

But Jurkovec seems to have his priorities aligned. And a recent comment to Matt Freeman of IrishSportsDaily.com should have Irish fans feeling very good about their young QB-in-waiting.

For as long as Notre Dame has recruited, teams have recruited against Notre Dame. And in recent years, the sales pitch has changed—not from worries of a head coach or assistants being fired, but rather the chance that they may leave for greener pastures.

In this case, you have to feel good that Jurkovec seems to understand the realities of the situation. Because even if Brian Kelly is in the NFL or Mike Sanford is running his own program, the Golden Dome will still be standing.

Of course, it doesn’t do anything to guarantee Jurkovec will be in South Bend come 2018, but it certainly points to a kid and family having done their due diligence before making such an important decision.

Irish A-to-Z: Hunter Bivin

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Matt Cashore / Irish Illustrated
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One of many heralded offensive line recruits to follow Harry Hiestand to South Bend, Hunter Bivin has bounced inside and out on Notre Dame’s offensive line, looking for a home. After serving as a back-up to talents like Zack Martin, Ronnie Stanley and Mike McGlinchey at tackle, Bivin might have the inside track to earn his first starting experience at right guard.

After three years of hard work—and Steve Elmer deciding to cut short his college career after three seasons—Bivin looks like a true contender for a starting role. Now he needs to continue the work he put in this spring over the summer months, holding off a group of young talent to finalize the fifth starting job on a rebuilt offensive line.

 

HUNTER BIVIN
6’5.5″, 308 lbs.
Senior, No. 70, OL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Bivin was an elite prospect. 247 ranked him as one of the top offensive linemen—and overall prospects—in the country. He was an All-State performer in Kentucky, an Under Armour All-American, and played for the USA Team.

Bivin chose Notre Dame over offers from Florida, LSU, Oklahoma, Ohio State and Michigan. He was a starter on a Kentucky state championship basketball team and also the state’s best shot putter.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2013): Did not see action.

Sophomore Season (2014): Made his Irish debut in the second half of a lopsided victory over Rice. Played in five games, including on special teams against Florida State.

Junior Season (2015): Played in five games, serving as a backup at left tackle for Ronnie Stanley. Notched a season-high 25 snaps against UMass. Played 14 snaps in a convincing season-opening win over Texas.

 

WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR

The crystal ball appeared to be working last year when it came to Bivin’s playing time.

Bivin’s got everything you’d want—on paper—when it comes to an offensive line recruit. That said, it’s time for those qualities to translate to the field, something we haven’t seen yet.

It’s not necessarily fair to call Bivin an underachiever, especially when you want to have the type of depth Notre Dame has developed up front. It’s also worth noting that the two positions the Irish have worked Bivin have required some difficult playing time battles: Matt Hegarty just moved to Oregon and was inserted as the team’s starting center after he couldn’t beat out Nick Martin. And Ronnie Stanley will follow Zack Martin into the first round of the NFL Draft.

So let’s hold our breath a little bit longer.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

It’s clear that Bivin has some ability, with the staff entrusting a second-string tackle job to the Kentucky native the past two seasons. But it’s also clear that he’s not the caliber of tackle prospect that Alex Bars is, with Bivin making the slide inside, hopefully solidifying the starting lineup with the team’s five best offensive linemen.

Right now—especially after Colin McGovern struggled through injuries this spring—Bivin has a grasp on that job. But after another summer competing with Tristen Hoge and incoming freshman Tommy Kraemer, that might not be as clear.

Hiestand and Brian Kelly both prefer playing veterans—especially along the offensive line. We’ve seen guys like Mike Golic, Christian Lombard and Matt Hegarty keep talented young players on the sideline as trusted veterans. Bivin likely can do the same as a senior with a fifth-year available, though he’ll need to be the best player for the job.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I have Bivin penciled in at right guard for the start against Texas. Whether he stays in the lineup will likely be dictated by how quickly this offensive line gels. Remember, it wasn’t too long ago that Kelly and Hiestand reshuffled their starting lineup, 2014’s offensive line swapped out mid-season after a disappointing start to the year. That’s a real scenario that could take place if this line doesn’t come together.

Being the fifth-best starter on an offensive line that features guys like Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson is no shame, especially when we’ve seen and heard such good things about first-time projected starters like Bars and Sam Mustipher. Bivin is a big body—he’s got prototype tackle size—and that’ll make the transition inside easier.

But I’m still waiting to see how he does as a mauler. There’s not much room for finesse at right guard, especially with the Irish wanting to establish a ground game early and often in 2016.

If Bivin brings that type of aggressiveness to the job and takes to guard over the summer, he’s a potential two-year starter. If not, he goes back to being a sixth man, capable of backing up essentially every spot on the offensive line.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal

Irish A-to-Z: Asmar Bilal

Asmar Bilal 247
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It is freshman year all over again for linebacker Asmar Bilal. The rising sophomore, who wore a redshirt in 2015, likely spent more time working with Brian VanGorder’s defense in 15 spring practices than he did all of last season.

That’s what happens when Jaylon Smith departs for the NFL and Te’von Coney and Greer Martini spend the offseason recovering from injuries. Those circumstances cleared the way for Bilal to take center stage at Will linebacker this spring, a position that’ll look quite different than it did the past two seasons when America’s most talented linebacker roamed the field.

No slouch himself, Bilal has more than just long dreads in common with Smith. With a body that also looks chiseled from granite and the speed of a safety, there are great expectations for the Indianapolis native.

 

ASMAR BILAL
6’2″, 230 lbs.
Sophomore, No. 27, LB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A four-star recruit, Bilal picked Notre Dame over Michigan after a competitive recruitment. He had offers from Michigan State, Missouri, Nebraska, Tennessee and a dozen other programs, too.

Bilal was an Army All-American, second-team on the MaxPreps All-American team and was Indiana’s defensive player of the year on the American Family Insurance All-USA team. He was a four-star prospect and a 247 composite Top 200 player.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2015): Did not see action.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

The year of eligibility was saved, keeping Bilal off of special teams. But all else held true:

At the very least, I see Bilal wreaking some havoc on special teams. But if there’s an opening on the field with this defense, it’s at safety. Perhaps Bilal could serve as a situational defensive back, the type of in-the-box plugger that Drue Tranquill excelled at in 2014.

The reality of the situation is a year of learning and gaining weight for Bilal. With Joe Schmidt and Jarrett Grace departing after this season, and Jaylon Smith having quite a choice on his hands as well, the depth chart could turn over after this season—turning next spring into maybe an even more critical time than this fall in Bilal’s development.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Bilal’s primary competition at Will linebacker is classmate Te’von Coney, who had worked his way into the two-deep behind Jaylon Smith, playing briefly in the Fiesta Bowl before suffering his own major injury. While Coney had to watch spring ball as his shoulder healed, Bilal took reps for the two of them.

While it’s far from decided, Coney looks like the first choice in the starting lineup for VanGorder and Mike Elston. That’s not to say that the rotation will be as limited as it was last season—this group of linebackers might very well be patched together by scheme and circumstance.

None of that changes Bilal’s potential. A football player who came to Notre Dame needing to add mass to his frame and learn the intricacies of playing linebacker, Bilal’s high school exploits included a lot of time at safety, a tackling machine that looked more search-and-destroy than fully understanding the nuances of gap control and positional responsibilities.

Bilal put on the weight, up to 230 pounds this spring, looking like a linebacker not a DB. Now the mental aspect of the game will likely dictate how quickly Bilal’s able to deploy his physical skills and use them for good. We’ll get a nice progress report on where the coaches think he is come Texas.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Bilal looks like a four-unit coverage contributor on special teams from game one. He also has the type of speed and skill that he could find a role in a sub-package (remember those?) for VanGorder, if the defense is able to keep enough guys healthy to play multiple schemes.

The redshirt was the best thing to happen to Bilal in that he’s essentially starting his college career now. We’ve seen too often the difficulties that come with using talented young defenders in bit roles, robbing years of eligibility from guys like Kona Schwenke and Romeo Okwara, removing a fifth-year opportunity that could have really helped all parties involved.

Positional depth helped save Bilal in 2015. Now he’s going to need to be part of the solution in 2016, when a new cast of characters needs to step forward and lead with captains Joe Schmidt and Smith long gone.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars