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

Spring positions to watch for revelations: DL & WR

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 05: Jerry Tillery #99 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish tackles Jerrod Heard #13 of the Texas Longhorns for a loss of yards during the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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If quarterback, rover and the early enrollees could be Notre Dame fans’ springtime Christmas thrills, what positions present as potential spots of coal?

Three former Irish players were invited to next week’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis: quarterback DeShone Kizer, defensive tackle Jarron Jones and defensive end Isaac Rochell. Losing two consistent defensive linemen leaves this year’s unit with some questions. Jones and Rochell combined for 100 tackles, 18 for loss and three sacks last season. Notre Dame’s returning defensive linemen combined to total 111 tackles and only 5.5 tackles for loss. To be clear, sacks are not included in that latter list because no returning defensive linemen recorded one. Among the returnees, junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37 tackles, three for loss) and senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26, 0.5) contributed solidly alongside the two NFL prospects.

This dearth of known and reliable linemen is a large part of why the potential transfer of Clemson graduate defensive tackle Scott Pagano is so intriguing. Pagano would immediately be a favorite to start, and if not that, at least rotate in heavily.

For now, though, Pagano remains a theoretical

By the end of spring practice, who already on campus will emerge alongside Tillery and Trumbetti in the Irish front? Senior ends Jay Hayes (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) and Jonathon Bonner (nine tackles) seem the most-likely candidates … aside from former four-star recruit and now rising sophomore Daelin Hayes. In his debut season, D. Hayes finished with 11 tackles.

Look for senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) to establish himself as Tillery’s immediate backup this spring, but that spot in the rotation will be up for competition all over again once four-star tackle Darnell Ewell (Lake Taylor High School; Norfolk, Va.) arrives on campus in the fall. His size and quickness should play right into new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s system.

Equanimeous and Who?
Not only did Notre Dame bring in a graduate transfer at receiver in former Michigan wideout Freddy Canteen, but it has also already received the commitments of two four-star receivers in the 2018 recruiting class. The continued emphasis on the position reflects the lack of bona fide game-breakers currently on the roster.

Junior Equanimeous St. Brown established himself as the top Irish threat in 2016, and he should shine only further with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush targeting him. Classmates often amplify each other’s success, simply due to the added shared reps innate to joining practice at the same time. With Torii Hunter, Jr., now pursuing a professional baseball career, who will prevent the secondary from focusing all its energies on St. Brown?

Canteen will not be with Notre Dame in the spring, as he does not graduate from Michigan until April. That will give a clear shot for the likes of juniors Chris Finke, C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin, and sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool to establish themselves. Did that say “clear” shot? It should probably read, “a chance to separate from the crowd.”

If a genuine threat does not line up opposite St. Brown, his explosiveness will likely be greatly reduced by focused defensive scheming. Wimbush will need another target before 2018.

Of course, here is where one should acknowledge the millennia-tested fact: Coal under pressure becomes diamonds.

2016 Notre Dame’s win expectancy was 7.2
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Johnson named the Irish as his team most likely to dramatically improve its record in 2017. Johnson’s thinking is based, at least in part, on Notre Dame’s second-order win total having been 7.2 in 2016, compared to the four wins the Irish actually walked away with. That discrepancy was the largest in the country.

Second-order win totals reflect how many points a team should have scored and allowed based on offensive and defensive stats. In theory, this shines a light on how luck and chance factored into results. Naturally, losing seven games by one possession will often be reflected by a higher second-order win total.

“Notre Dame’s win-loss record belied a solid, if imperfect, squad that just couldn’t pull out close games…” Johnson writes. “The Irish may not get back into College Football Playoff contention in 2017, but they’re bound to post a few more Ws because of reversion to the mean.”

Admittedly, the small sample size of a football season reduces the applicability of metrics such as second- and third-order wins when compared to baseball and basketball.

Jones becomes Mack
A quick piece of housekeeping: Apparently junior tight end Alizé Jones has changed his name to Alizé Mack.

While Notre Dame’s roster may not reflect that change yet, it is reasonable to expect it will after its next update. The football program has consistently respected the intricacies of players’ name preferences. Tai-ler Jones becoming TJ Jones jumps to mind, for example.

Anyways, hopefully noting Mack’s name change here might reduce some confusion down the line. Probably not. How many readers possibly read to the actual bottom of an article? But hey, in good faith.

WR Lenzy makes 11th commitment, brings speed to Irish

lenzy
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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…)