Tommy Rees BC

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Boston College

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For all the bellyaching that’s followed the Irish’s imperfect 16-14 victory over Boston College, a chaotic Saturday in the college football world should’ve given people plenty of reminders that no victory should be assumed and simply surviving is sometimes accomplishment enough.

That was No. 8 Virginia Tech surviving a fourth quarter rally by mediocre North Carolina to get the win on Thursday night, while No. 20 Southern Mississippi got beat by a 3-7 UAB team. Friday night brought another surprise as Iowa State — yes, Iowa State — took down mighty Oklahoma State, the No. 2 team in the country with the inside track to the BCS Championship game, in stunning fashion in double overtime.

In case that wasn’t enough for you, three other top ten teams tumbled on Saturday, with Oklahoma losing a shocker to Baylor 45-38, and Clemson getting drilled by 24-points to North Carolina State, a team that just a week ago lost to Frank Spaziani‘s Boston College club. And of course, who could have missed USC’s upset of Oregon in Eugene, where the Trojans withstood the Duck’s furious rally from down 24 points late in the third quarter to miss a 37-yard field goal attempt to force overtime as time expired. For those interested in burying the Irish for not doing the same to the visiting Eagles, the transitive property will put you back in your britches pretty quickly.

Still, there’s no doubt the Irish missed an opportunity to jump up the polls. But rest easy, grumbling Irish fans. The Irish will have all the chances in the world to make a statement this Saturday, when they’ll get their shot at Andrew Luck and the No. 4 Stanford Cardinal (who got all they could handle from the 6-5 Cal Bears last night, holding on for a not-so-impressive 31-28 victory.)

As Thanksgiving approaches and the season’s final regular season game awaits, let’s take a look at the good, bad, and ugly from the Irish’s 16-14 Senior Day win against Boston College.

THE GOOD

* The opening drive. Say what you want about the offensive performance the rest of the afternoon, but the game’s opening drive was a beauty. The Irish mixed the run and pass, with Jonas Gray carrying the load on the ground. The Eagles helped the cause with a personal foul penalty, but the Irish had success on first down, converted both third downs, including a 3rd and 1 for a 26-yard touchdown run by Gray.

* Tyler Eifert‘s one-handed catch. Just a play after Michael Floyd couldn’t come down with a one-hander that would’ve walked him into the end zone most likely untouched, Eifert made a ridiculous grab on a flag route thrown over his shoulder. The reception covered 37 yards and put the Irish in David Ruffer’s field goal range.

* David Ruffer was clutch. The fifth-year former walk-on finished his career at home in style, making three clutch field goals when the Irish needed them, and getting back on track as the season comes to an end.

* Robby Toma. His diving catch was of the one-handed circus variety, and dug the Irish out of a deep hole. He and Rees also connected for a big-time throw and catch on a 27-yard strike into a tight hole in the BC zone that dug the Irish out of their own end as well. (He also caught the cherry hop on BC’s onside kick attempt, all but icing the game.)

Toma’s play in the slot is giving Kelly a chance to explore the idea of Theo Riddick at tailback at Stanford, helping out a depth chart now in serious trouble with George Atkinson and Cam McDaniel the only options behind Cierre Wood.

“I think we’ll look at all of those possibilities,” Kelly said. “We’re into a one-game season, so to speak, when it comes to Stanford. We’ll sit down as a staff and first of all see what Theo is able to do physically and decide whether he can go into a running back position and help us out. We haven’t made that decision but we’ll certainly consider it.”

* Big sticks. Manti Te’o added another huge hit to his highlight reel, drilling a running back out of the backfield and planting him on his back in the first quarter. Jamoris Slaughter also came off the edge twice to deliver a few bone-crunching hits. First, Slaughter broke free on a blitz to stuff a third-and-one in the backfield. His next big hit on quarterback Chase Rettig didn’t count, with the refs whistling a false-start dead but the crowd noise covered the whistle. (Score one for pump-up music.) Even though Slaughter lost a strip-sack, a free shot like that and five free yards is a fair trade every time.

* Louis Nix. The sophomore played a very nice football game, making a lot of noise in the offensive backfield and chipping in five tackles from his nose guard spot. Nix is going to need to be a force against Stanford if the Irish want to contain the Cardinal offense.

* Troy Niklas. You want versatility? The freshman made a tackle on a kickoff, played linebacker, then filled in for Stephon Tuitt as the inside pass rusher down the stretch, laying out Rettig on a 4th down throw that fell incomplete.What a weapon Niklas will be in the years ahead.

* Here come the freshman. At the very least, the Irish look like they’ve found three potential impact defenders in this recruiting class with Aaron Lynch, Stephon Tuitt and Niklas, with guys like Chase Hounshell and Ishaq Williams showing promise as well.

* Good Ben Turk. Give the kid credit — he kicked the Irish out of trouble more than a few times, booming both traditional and rugby punts for an average of 44 yards.

BAD

*Bad Ben Turk. Three touchbacks is just too many, and you can’t land a pooch punt in the end zone.

* Play-action pass defense. If you’ve got a pit in your stomach about this coming Saturday, it should be because of the Irish’s struggles defending the play-action pass. It’d be disingenuous to say that Chase Rettig had a successful day against the Irish, but when he did make throws, he did it with the linebackers heading downhill in pursuit.

The Irish linebackers — Manti Te’o included — need to do a better job in pass coverage, or Luck and the Cardinal will have a big day throwing at the holes in the Irish’s zone coverage.

* Come on, Tommy Rees. You can’t throw that screen pass interception. Credit Max Holloway for a very nice read and play, but the sophomore quarterback blindly threw a middle screen, always a recipe for disaster. While we’re picking out Rees’ shortcomings, here’s hoping Tommy has gotten in deep ball inaccuracy out of his system. If he’s got Michael Floyd streaking open down the sideline against Stanford, he’s got to hit him.

Rees got away with another interception when he rolled right and threw to a heavily covered Tyler Eifert around the goal line. It’s probably time to put the half-field reads away for the year in the red zone, as Rees has made some poor decisions on the move.

* The special out (or jerk pattern). Bobby Swigert just abused the Irish from the slot, beating linebackers, corners and safeties on pretty much the exact same pattern. When you’re playing an offense as remedial as the Eagles, you’ve got to do a better job taking away the things you’d expect them to run, especially with a receiver like Swigert in the slot.

* The punt return game. I give up. I just don’t get it. I can tell you for certain that Mike Elston is an excellent special teams coach. But I can also tell you that the punt return unit is an absolutely joke. Right now this unit is in plain old “don’t screw up” mode, but would it be too much to ask the Irish to block one or two of the gunners running down the field? Would it be too much to ask John Goodman to show just a shred of competency in determining whether or not to call a fair catch? Against Boston College, the return game killed the Irish, an equal collaborator with Eagles punter Ryan Quigley on putting the Irish in terrible starting field position.

This spring should be dedicated to fixing the return game. Sure, spread punts, rugby kicks, and all sorts of other rule tweaks have punt returns down around college football. But at this point, it’s just getting ridiculous.

* Kyle Brindza really struggled on kickoffs. The moment got too big for the freshman who got a sudden case of the snap hooks in the second half. After a solid season of kickoffs, Brindza has lost consistency in the second half of the year, and he inexplicably sent two kickoffs out of bounds — at a crucial point of the game — and had a third that would’ve gone out that would’ve given the Eagles three starts from the 40-yard line.

* The refs got hoodwinked by a fake injury when Eagles running back Rolandan Finch, saved his team a timeout with a well-timed case of a mysterious ailment.

* Gotta look for the ball Zeke Motta. Just because you’re beat in a one-on-one situation doesn’t mean you need to panic when chasing  Swigert near the goalline. The pass interference call set up the Eagles for their late touchdown.

UGLY

* The flu bug absolutely decimated the Irish this week, and it’s still lurking around. Brian Kelly and his staff are taking no chances.

“Our training staff is in the process of cleaning the meeting rooms, the weight room, talking to players about their roommates,” Kelly said. “We’re actually on full alert because we’ve had so many guys affected by it at this point.”

It’s the wrong time of year for the Irish to go into Palo Alto less than full strength, especially with the injuries that are limiting the roster right now.

* It’s just unfair to see Jonas Gray’s career end the way that it did. While Kelly tried to keep his hopes up last night, it’s clear the MRI results are just a formality that’ll tell the coaching staff just how badly Gray’s knee is hurt.

“We don’t have the MRI results, but it’s pretty apparent that he has a significant knee injury,” Kelly said. “The MRI would probably confirm what we know as to be, as I mentioned, a significant knee injury.

The horrible injury came on a swing pass to Gray near the Irish sideline. Rees hit Jonas in stride, but he was met by freshman Manny Asprilla, who put his helmet just below Gray’s knee.

There was no stoppage in play for the hit and Gray actually picked himself off the turf and walked off under his own power, working his way quickly to the bench before the extent of the injury became known. It’s a sad ending to a triumphant season. The knee injury won’t erase all the good that Jonas put on tape this year, but it’s certainly a setback for a senior that turned around his career this season.

Kelly and Swarbrick turn attention to science of injury prevention

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Amidst the chaos of their live Signing Day show, UND.com ran had a far-reaching interview with head coach Brian Kelly. It was conducted by his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick, and his former team captain, Joe Schmidt.

So while there was a little bit of talk about the 23 recruits who signed their national letters-of-intent, there was also a very illuminating exchange on an issue that’s really plagued the Irish the past few seasons: Injuries.

Football is a dangerous game. And for as long as people play it, there’ll be impactful injuries that take players off the field. But as Notre Dame settles into what looks like their longest run of stability since the Holtz era, the focus of Kelly and Swarbrick has moved past modernizing the team’s medical services, strength program and nutrition and onto the science of injury prevention.

Here’s what Kelly said about the efforts currently taking shape:

“I think the science piece is very important, because no longer is it just about strength and conditioning,  it’s about durability. It’s the ability to continue to play at an optimal level but also with the rigors of a college schedule, and particularly here at Notre Dame, how do we maximize the time but maximizing getting the most out of our student-athletes and not lose them?

“As you know, we’ve had a couple years here in a rough stretch of injuries. And how do we have an injury prevention protocol that brings in the very best science? You’ve done a great job of reaching out in getting us those kind of resources. so I think tapping into that is probably the next piece. As well as providing the resources for our student-athletes. Continuing to look at facilities. Continuing to give our student-athletes maybe that little edge. Because everybody’s got 85 scholarships.”

It’s clear that the issue is one that’s on the radar for not just Kelly, but the athletic administration. So it’ll be interesting to see some of the steps taken as the program begins investing time and additional resources to an issue that’s really hit the Irish hard the past few seasons.

There’s plenty of other good stuff in the 13-minute interview, so give it a watch.

Five things we learned: Signing Day 2016

FILE - In this Jan. 1, 2016, file photo, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly makes a call during the first half of the Fiesta Bowl NCAA College football game against Ohio State in Glendale, Ariz. Kelly has agreed to a six-year contract to stay on as coach at Notre Dame through 2021, the school announced Friday, Jan. 29,2 016.  (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)
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There were no last minute defections. No roller coaster recruits or down-to-the-wire decisions. Heck, there were no fax machines—with Notre Dame ditching the office dinosaur for a wireless, smart phone option.

Brian Kelly inked another Top 10 recruiting class on Wednesday. And he did so in decidedly uneventful fashion.

“It’s awesome. I think that everybody should try it once in their career,” Kelly said.

So while Kelly and the Irish staff hold out hope that 5-star talents Caleb Kelly and Demetris Robertson still decide to spend their college careers in South Bend, the 23-man class announced Wednesday was another Top 10 effort and a step in the right direction for a program on very stable ground.

Let’s find out what we learned.

 

Notre Dame’s staff continued to focus on rebuilding the secondary and rushing the passer. 

Yes, Brian Kelly saw what you saw—a group that struggled getting to the passer or to field a nickel or dime personnel grouping. So they countered that in the best way they knew how: By continuing to stockpile talent.

Notre Dame added seven defensive backs and four edge defenders in the cycle. They include safeties Jalen Elliott, D.J. Morgan, Spencer Perry and Devin Studstill and cornerbacks Julian Love, Troy Pride and Donte Vaughn. Perhaps just as important is the impression some of these defenders made in their time on campus, with Kelly pointing to Elliott and Studstill’s work during summer camp really making them must-have recruits.

“Jalen Elliott competed like no player that I have seen since I’ve been coaching in a camp setting,” Kelly said. “Same thing with Devin Studstill. His skill level was of corner-like ability but had the size of the safety, and so our guys went right to them early on, and that was a focal point because we got a chance to see them up close and personal.”

At defensive end, the Irish welcome 5-star recruit Daelin Hayes, getting him on campus as he recovers from shoulder surgery. He’s joined by former Alabama commit Khalid Kareem, the strongside counterpart that is an early candidate to see the field, especially as the staff looks for someone to spell Isaac Rochell for a few snaps. Longer-term prospects include a few speed rushers—Julian Okwara (younger brother of Romeo) and Ade Ogundeji, a long-limbed, below-the-radar edge rusher.

“We’re pretty excited about the potential for some guys in this class that can answer some four-man pass rush needs that we do have,” Kelly said.

 

It may not be the biggest group, but Brian Kelly is excited about his offensive line—especially the guys he pulled from Ohio State’s backyard. 

Three recruits in the offensive line class point to a big 2017 at the position. But the three the Irish did sign—guard Parker Boudreaux and tackles Liam Eichenberg and Tommy Kraemer—have Kelly very happy.

“Parker Boudreaux has that physical presence inside like, and I’m not comparing him, but he’s a Quinton Nelson in terms of size and physicality,” Kelly said. “And then two edge guys with Liam and Tommy on the outside. Those two kids are as good as you’re going to find in the country, and couldn’t be more excited to have two kids from the state of Ohio, from two great Catholic schools in St. Ignatius and Cincinnati Elder from the state of Ohio.”

Both Eichenberg and Kraemer were priority targets for Urban Meyer and company, with neither wavering after committing to Notre Dame. Kraemer was Ohio’s Gatorade Player of the Year and an Army All-American. He’ll be able to step into the two-deep immediately, capable of playing up front if the Irish need him. Eichenberg more than held his own at the Under Armour All-American game and has a high ceiling, especially as he learns the game under Hiestand.

It doesn’t take away the sting of the Fiesta Bowl. But it’s a nice consolation prize.

 

Irish legacies Jamir Jones and Julian Okwara may have big brothers who played for Brian Kelly, but they earned scholarships on their own. 

Classmates Jarron Jones and Romeo Okwara will turn over the reins to their younger brothers, linebacker Jamir Jones and defensive end Julian Okwara. The younger duo’s commitments felt all but inevitable throughout this recruiting cycle—even if that wasn’t always the case.

Jones had to come to camp to earn a scholarship. Having played quarterback and tight end as a high school standout in Rochester, the defensive staff had to see how he moved before they could find a position for him to play.

Similarly, Okwara’s journey to Notre Dame shouldn’t be taken for granted. While his older brother leaves Notre Dame the team’s leading quarterback sacker, Julian has a better natural pass rush skill-set than the 2015 team-leader.

“Julian can separate himself in a way because he has an elite initial movement and speed that Romeo has had to try and develop,” Mike Elston said in Okwara’s Signing Day video. “Romeo has the size and the power and the aggressiveness, but Julian can really add value for us right away.”

Kelly talked about how important it was to not just land this duo, but to have them already understand what the journey is that lies ahead.

“We didn’t recruit them because their brothers were here. We recruited them because we thought they were players that fit here at Notre Dame that would be very successful,” Kelly said. “Obviously it helps when their brothers have a great experience here and really enjoy their Notre Dame experience as a student and as an athlete, so that helps you in the recruiting… those kids really fit and can stand on their own two feet.”

 

Even without Demetris Robertson in the fold, Notre Dame’s receiving class is a group to watch. 

You want productivity? Throw on a highlight tape of Javon McKinley. You want an intriguing set of physical tools? Look no further than Chase Claypool. You want a sleeper prospect who out-performed every elite prospect who came to the Irish Invasion camp? Then your man is Kevin Stepherson.

Most of the attention on Signing Day was the fate of 5-star receiver Demetris Robertson. But the trio of athletes that’ll reload the receiving corps is a group that deserves recognition even without an additional infusion.

McKinley provided the day’s only scare when his smart phone struggled to send his signature via electronic fax. Claypool sent his national letter of intent in the day after scoring 51 points on the basketball court. And Stepherson is already taking part in team workouts in Paul Longo’s strength facilities, getting a jump start with the spring semester and 15 practices as the Irish try to figure out what life looks like after Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle.

After Fuller left campus early on the back of two record-setting two seasons, Kelly said his staff has become more and more comfortable with the fact that his skill players need to develop quickly—especially with the allure of the NFL just ahead.

“If you’re really that good, you may not be here very long, and we hope that you’re here for four years and you stay, but you’ve got to be ready to compete,” Kelly said. “So our expectation in the recruiting process is for the wide receiver group to come in and compete to get on the field and be a player for us immediately.”

That’ll happen whether or not Robertson is a part of this group.

 

Amidst significant transition on both the coaching staff and recruiting office, Notre Dame managed a Top 10 class. Expect things to only get better from here. 

Let’s go back to Signing Day 2015. Within 24 hours of Brian Kelly’s press conference, he was dealing with two major changes—recruiting coordinator Tony Alford was out the door to Ohio State and Kerry Cooks was headed to Oklahoma. Two aces on the staff were gone, forcing the Irish to not just replace long-time staffers, but to find new area recruiters for the state of Texas and Alford’s stronghold in Florida.

Kelly brought in first-year college assistant Todd Lyght to work with defensive backs. He tapped the school’s rushing leader Autry Denson to handle the backs and duke it out in Florida. Mike Sanford shook up the offense as Bob Elliott moved into an off-field position. But perhaps just as important as those moves, Kelly turned over the administrative reins to Mike Elston, who moved into a recruiting coordinator position he had filled for his boss back at Cincinnati.

Elston had to reorganize a staff that saw relationships walk out the door and reboot a recruiting effort that saw significant changes behind the scenes. And in short order things got back on track and have progressed to the point that the Irish are ahead of the game, setting junior days and summer camp dates earlier than ever.

For those paying attention, they’ve noticed the improvements. Notre Dame has paid more attention to messaging—staffers more active on Twitter. There have been improvements on Instagram, Facebook and Vine—platforms that might sound like gobbledygook to grownups, but are critical pieces to a year-long recruiting effort. That should help this staff press ahead in 2017, a recruiting class that already has five members.

“With that team that we’ve put together, we’re not going to look back. It’s only going to get better,” Kelly said.

It was Elston that engineered the equipment truck visit to Savannah, a late-game recruiting move that drew a lot of attention to Notre Dame. It was recruiters like Denson who went to Alabama and got a visit out of Ben Davis, a Crimson Tide legacy who gave the Irish a much longer look than anybody could have expected. And it’s no surprise that a former Pro Bowler and first-round draft pick like Lyght was able to reel in a large group of defensive backs eager to learn from a guy who was a clear success story.

“I think each and every year, you hope that this group is the best group you’ve ever recruited,” Kelly said. “I’m hoping for that again.”

 

Faxes in: Liam Eichenberg

Liam Eichenberg
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LIAM EICHENBERG
Cleveland, Ohio

Measurables: 6’6″, 280 lbs.

Accolades: 4-Star, Under Armour All-American, 2015 MaxPreps first-team All-American, 2015 American Family Insurance All-USA Ohio, AP All-Ohio Division I first-team.

Impressive Offers: Florida State, Miami, Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Tennessee

Projected Position: Offensive tackle.

Quick Take: Another offensive tackle with sky-high potential, Notre Dame snatched Eichenberg out from under Urban Meyer’s nose, bringing in yet another blue-chipper for Harry Hiestand to mold. More of a developmental project than Kraemer, Eichenberg’s upside could be just as lofty, especially after some time in a weight room and on the practice field.

What he means to the Irish: With numbers at tackle on the light side, Eichenberg won’t be asked to get on the field, but he might start his career in the two deep behind Mike McGlinchey. That could take away a redshirt if things go wrong, but the view from behind McGlinchey is a good spot for him, learning behind another talented athlete who came to campus as a developmental prospect but will enter his senior season (McGlinchey has two years of eligibility remaining) as a legit NFL prospect.

Eichenberg has the same kind of ceiling. He’ll just need to keep improving—something that he’s shown after a strong Under Armour All-American week in Orlando.

Obligatory YouTube clip: