And in that corner… The Boston College Eagles

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Some rivalries mean a little bit more. When Notre Dame and Boston College take the field, the game isn’t likely to garner national headlines or bring ESPN to town. But the “Holy War” has been filled with memorable moments, with most of them featuring the Eagles tripping up an Irish squad — sometimes on the brink of something great.

The Irish’s first loss to Boston College — a 41-39 shocker in 1993 — put the rivalry on the map. But Lou Holtz wasn’t the only Irish coach to get tripped up by the Eagles. Bob Davie, Tyrone Willingham, and Charlie Weis all lost to BC, with Willingham’s No. 4 rated Irish nearly doubling the Eagles in yardage but losing 14-7 thanks to five back-breaking turnovers (three fumbles and two Pat Dillingham interceptions in eight throws). Some Irish fans still struggle to acknowledge Boston College as a true rival, but the two-game win streak the Irish are on is their first since 1998, so any air of superiority should have been washed away throughout the Eagles six-game win streak.

This year’s Boston College team is in the midst of an incredibly disappointing season. Head coach Frank Spaziani finds himself squarely on the hot seat, as the third year head coach and long-time Eagles defensive coordinator is sitting at an ugly 3-7, with wins over UMass, Maryland and North Carolina State. His best offensive player, Montel Harris has struggled with injuries all season and his offense has been anemic, scoring more than 20 point only twice.

Through it all has been Bill Maloney, the proprietor of Eagle in Atlanta, one of the longest standing Boston College blogs on the internet. Bill was kind enough to get us up to speed on the Eagles, joining me for the second year in a row. I asked, he answered, you read.

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Most predicted the Eagles to take a step forward this season. That’s obviously not been the case. Can you put your finger on one thing that’s been the problem? Just how disastrous has this season been for Frank Spaziani and Boston College?

There isn’t one thing and that is the big problem. Injuries and inexperience are the excuses you hear from Spaz. And it makes sense that he points to those issues as it absolves him of blame. Both are legitimate issues but not the reason BC is only 3-7. Spaz is now on his third coordinator and the results still stink. BC has trouble executing basic plays and time and seems to have a grab bag of offensive philosophies.

Lack of development along the offensive line has been troubling.

The defense — which is Spaz’s baby — has also struggled. They have been blown out twice this season. Even in lean years BC could usually count on the D to keep games close. Not this season.

Plus there are dozens of in-game strategic mistakes that Spaz makes every week. Some of those cost us close games like Northwestern or Duke.

Just how hot is Frank Spaziani’s seat? Do you see him surviving into next year? What are the pros and cons to firing him?

If fans were voting Spaz would be gone already. I actually think he is fairly safe though. I think the University leadership will give him another year as they are blaming Jeff Jagodzinski for all of this season’s problems.

I am firmly in the “Fire Spaz” camp. The only pro I can see for keeping him is saving a few dollars on salary. There is no other reason to keep him around. Recruiting is mediocre even by the staunchest Spaz supporters. He’s not trending the right way in his wins — considering this is Year 3. His age limits the idea that he is building towards the future or that he is a long-term solution.

Injuries have ravaged the Eagles. What’s been the most crippling blow to the team?

Montel Harris was probably the most costly injury. Although the other RBs have had nice games, no one has Harris’s ability to make something from nothing. If he had been around the whole season, BC’s offense would have been a little more consistent.

The Irish have Manti Te’o, their own All-American candidate at linebacker. But for someone that watches Luke Kuechly every week, just how good is he? What do you think his NFL career will be like? Is there a player you can compare him to?

Kuechly is very good. I haven’t seen many players who can shed blockers like he can. He has a great feel for the game and where the action is going. Plus he’s got underrated closing speed, which helps him cover a lot of ground.

I think he can be very good in the NFL. He might not have ideal size, but his productivity should get him drafted in the first round. I don’t know if there is a great NFL comparison right now. Since he is an undersized MLB.

Irish fans have their own second-year quarterback to be critical of, but how would you describe Chase Rettig’s sophomore season? Could you call this year a step forward? Is he still the long-term answer at the position?

I actually remain a big supporter of Chase Rettig. While he is not perfect and hasn’t made a big leap this year, I don’t know if any QB could shine in this situation. He switched coordinators midseason. His Oline has him running for his life half the time. He doesn’t have great skill position guys and his coach refuses to ever open up the offense.

He’s not as accurate as he needs to be, but he’s still got a good arm. I think with time his accuracy will improve. As for his future, it really depends on what BC decides to do with the offense. If Dave Brock wants more running from his QB next year, that is probably not a great sign for Chase. If they will finally start to focus on the pass, he could be very good.

Regardless of their record, Boston College always seems up for a battle with Notre Dame. If you had to pick a way for the Eagles to spring an upset, give me the roadmap. Do you think it will happen?

I have real doubts about BC’s ability to upset the Irish. Even if they force a lot of turnonvers (step 1 for beating ND), I don’t see BC scoring enough to make a difference. I think BC would need to score at least 24 to even entertain an idea of an upset. Spaz has only scored more than 24 on the road once in three years.

Bonus question: How does it feel watching Tom O’Brien struggle at North Carolina State?

I make many jokes about O’Brien but at this point I really don’t care. If anything I am surprised. I didn’t think he would turn them into a power, but I thought he would have more success.

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Be sure to check out Bill’s site during the run-up to the game this weekend, and give him a follow on Twitter at @bcatleagle.

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.”

Friday at 4: 40-yard dashes and absurdity

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Of all the absurd things the football world often obsesses over, the 40-yard dash may be the most useless of them. Yes, it even beats out assigning star rankings to 16- and 17-year-olds, though not by much.

For now, let’s look past the rest of the inane Draft intricacies, such as former Irish defensive lineman Jarron Jones feeling pressured to increase his vertical jump by four inches. (He did, jumping to 24.5 inches in Notre Dame’s Pro Day on Thursday.) This scribe does not have an excess of time to spend discussing Jones’s outlandish wingspan if this piece is to post by its intended, though unnecessary, 4 p.m. ET deadline.

The 40-yard dash … No football play begins from a sprinter’s stance, yet it may be the factor most crucial to a low 40 time. Former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer posted a time of 4.83 seconds in the NFL Combine earlier this month. For context’s sake, Kizer ran .07 seconds slower than Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did as a draft prospect in the 2004 combine.

Roethlisberger has had himself an excellent career, and his ability to shrug off 300-pound defensive linemen is a testament to his athleticism. Put Kizer and Roethlisberger in the open field together, though, and Kizer would presumably have outrun Roethlisberger at any point of the two-time Super Bowl champion’s career. In Indianapolis, however, Roethlisberger did a better job of getting his hips through his first couple strides of the heralded 40-yard dash.

Here, watch Kizer train for the 40, the most-hyped measurement of his combine.

“The ultimate goal is to have yourself in the best position to have your body weight back in those legs so you can create enough torque to get out as quickly as possible,” Kizer said. “A guy who is as long as I am, with long limbs that I have, I’ve got to make sure that my weight distribution is in the best position for me to get out and catch up to some of those quicker guys who are a little lower to the ground.”

What part of that sounds applicable to football? The 40 turns Kizer’s size (6-foot-4, 237 pounds) into a negative. He worries about the angle of his knees. After his throwing session at the Thursday Pro Day, Kizer summed up the draft evaluation process even more succinctly.

“This process is very different in the sense that the way you look productive in the combine and in a pro day is very different from what productivity actually looks like out on the field.”

Well put.

More pertinent to the actual game of football, Kizer’s completion percentage in the staged workout could have been higher.

Then again, he was throwing to the likes of former Irish receivers Corey Robinson and Amir Carlisle and former running back Jonas Gray. Reportedly, the only contact Gray and Kizer had before the session was Kizer emailing the former New England Patriot the planned series of routes.

The NFL Draft, where Gmail becomes a necessity.

Let’s do away with the 40. If we insist on keeping it, let’s do it twice, once from a standing start and once from a running start. Those would simulate actual football movements: A receiver getting off the line, and a ballcarrier breaking away and trying to outrun the defense.

Asking DeShone Kizer to mimic Usain Bolt is an exercise in futility, idiocy, absurdity.

Cue end of rant.

Why cite the Roethlisberger time? Many, including Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke, have readily compared Kizer to Roethlisberger this spring.

The most notable line of that scouting report (scroll down to No. 32) may be its final one, echoing Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s sentiments from earlier this week.

“The mystery is whether he can regain his assertiveness,” Burke writes. “If so, he could turn out to be the 2017 class’s best QB. The team that drafts him will be taking a leap of faith.”

A leap. Not a dash.

For more Notre Dame Pro Day results, click here.

And with that, this just may make the 4 p.m. posting. You know what to do.

 

Tranquill continues work with safeties … for now

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Drue Tranquill will see time at the oft-spoken of rover position, just not yet. For now, Notre Dame needs the senior at safety to provide leadership and communication while the rest of his position group gets up to speed.

“We really have to figure out what the coordination is going to be at the safety position,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “How much does Drue play down at rover? How much does he play back [at safety]?”

Only sophomore Devin Studstill returns any starts to the safety position aside from Tranquill’s career total of 18. Studstill started nine games last season.

That void has kept Tranquill working mostly with the defensive backs in the spring’s first few practices, rather than joining the likes of junior Asmar Bilal in the rover grouping.

“We didn’t want to pull our most veteran player out of the back end of our defense with Drue,” Kelly said. “I think it was more about the hesitancy of losing a great communicator in the back end than about the teaching.”

The time will come, however, for Tranquill to move up. Juniors Nick Coleman and Ashton White have moved to safety from the corner position. With more reps, they will not need to rely on Tranquill’s guidance as much. The same goes for, at least in theory, sophomore Jalen Elliott.

“It’s not really a heavy load of teaching for those guys,” Kelly said. “They’re picking it up quite well. We really want to get a chance to see a lot of guys back there.”

Kelly seemed particularly bullish on Coleman’s prospects at the position, provided he embrace the needed physicality. At 6-foot, 187 pounds, Coleman’s build may have been more suited on the outside, but Notre Dame’s plethora of promising cornerbacks provided an impetus to test Coleman at safety.

“The big thing will be Nick’s continuous development in tackling,” Kelly said. “You have to tackle back there. His ball skills are really good. We’ve seen that he’s able to play the ball. He has athleticism.

“We just want to continue to build on his tackling skills. If we go through the spring and say, ‘Well, he’s tackling really well,’ we’ll feel pretty good about the move.”

At that point, Tranquill will likely join Bilal at the hybrid position, which is something of a trademark to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Tranquill will be able to do what he does best: Pursue the ball.

“We all know what his strengths are,” Kelly said. “He’s a solid tackler. I don’t think there’s any safety in college football that wants to get matched up one-on-one with a skilled slot receiver. This would minimize that, when you play him close to the ball as a rover.

“And I think he’s pretty quick off the edge. I think we put him in a really good position in maximizing his skill set.”

Until then, Bilal will continue to be the frontrunner at rover, especially with the first four Irish opponents of 2017 presenting run-heavy offenses.

KELLY ON NICK WATKINS
Kelly was also asked about senior cornerback Nick Watkins, his fit into Elko’s defense and his return from injury.

“He’s very coachable, wants to learn, he’s pretty long,” Kelly said. “What I think Mike [Elko] does really well—and this is what I liked about my interactions with him—is, we all have strengths and weaknesses. He has a great eye of saying let’s take Nick’s strengths and let’s put him in a position where we can really utilize his strengths and put him in a position where maybe we’re not a right and left corner team, maybe we’re a short field/wide field team. Let’s apply him in that fashion.

“Nick’s long. He’s a little bit of a physical player. Let’s go to those strengths. He’s shown some of those attributes early on.”

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