Pregame Six Pack: Stanford edition

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With turkey and leftovers stuffed into refrigerators everywhere, the rest of the weekend can be dedicated to what’s important (and no, it’s not Black Friday sales): Football. As the final regular season Saturday of the year approaches, Notre Dame has the chance to prove that they’re a different team than the one that opened the season stubbing their toe twice.

As the Irish journey to Palo Alto, Brian Kelly‘s squad will have the opportunity to measure themselves against the best team they’ve played in Kelly’s two years in South Bend. After getting beaten convincingly by the Cardinal last year, Kelly welcomes another chance at measuring his team against one of the nation’s best.

“They were a physical, good‑looking football team, something that we have worked on considerably,” Kelly said this week. “I think if you go and look at where we are, we have made substantial progress in that period of time.”

We will see tomorrow night. With the regular season closing, here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings before Saturday night’s prime-time affair with No. 4 Stanford.

***

1. Andrew Luck’s next touchdown pass will pull him equal with a legend.

It may already feel like it, but believe it or not, Andrew Luck doesn’t have a bust in Canton, Ohio yet. But the senior quarterback, all but certain to be playing his last game at Stanford Stadium, needs just one touchdown pass to pull even with the gold standard of Stanford football: John Elway.

Luck current has 76 touchdown passes, needing just one more to pull even with Elway at 77, and just one more on the season to pull even with his single-season record of 32, set last year. In the senior quarterback’s three years of starting he’s already put his stamp all over the Cardinal record books, trailing only Elway and school-leader Steve Stenstrom in career passing yards, while likely pulling ahead of Stenstrom as the school leader in total offense on Saturday as well. Luck also holds the school marks for completion percentage and passing efficiency.

More impressively, Stanford is 30-6 with Luck as its starting quarterback. That’s far and away the most wins by any quarterback in school history, well ahead of Stenstrom (24) and some guy named Jim Plunkett (22).

Even though all of America knows it now, the Irish have always realized how dangerous Stanford’s senior quarterback is.

“Before he was really a household name, we could all tell he was that good,” Harrison Smith said. “He’s gotten even better. He’s got it all. He can throw the ball like nobody we’ve seen.”

***

2. The spotlight is back on Cierre Wood… Right where he wants it.

After carrying the load from the backfield at the beginning of the year, Cierre Wood takes back the featured running back role after a knee injury to Jonas Gray cut short his senior season. And the junior from Oxnard, California is ready to do whatever it takes to help the Irish get a big win in Palo Alto.

“If they need me to carry the ball 50 times that’s what I’ll do,” Wood said. “If they need me to carry it 10 times that’s what I’ll do. As long as we get the W that’s what I’m more concerned about.”

The number of carries Wood gets will likely fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, as the Irish will lean heavily on the back that started the season as a clear-cut starter, but since ceded a little more than half of the carries to Gray.

Running backs coach Tim Hinton was impressed with the way Wood handled the situation and is confident he’ll be ready to pick up any slack now that he’s the lead back once again.

“You’ve really got to compliment Cierre for how he handled it because some kids aren’t going to do as well as he did. The bottom line is he continued to come out and produce,” Hinton said.

With freshmen George Atkinson and Cam McDaniel the only depth behind him, Wood knows all eyes will be on him as the Irish prepare to battle the No. 6 rush defense in the country.

“Wherever my teammates need me, that’s where I’ll be.”

***

3. Irish eyes need to be in the right place against an explosive Stanford offense.

Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco might be the only person to compare the offense Andrew Luck pilots to those run by service academies. But the Broyles Award nominated Diaco has a good point, and Stanford’s offense will challenge the discipline of Irish defenders more than any offense the Irish have faced this year.

“It’s a challenge, it’s a discipline challenge,” Diaco said. “It’s a different offense, but not that much different than Navy or Air Force, where they’re running it, running it, running it, but they’re really producing a bunch of chunk yardage plays with passes off their runs.”

The Irish linebackers will be tested more than any time they have been this year, forced to play downhill to help stop a Cardinal running attack that’s among the best in the country. That job is made much harder with Luck’s proficiency in the play-action passing game, one of the biggest challenges linebackers face.

“They are an explosive offense that has a tough, rugged, run-the-ball first mentality,” Diaco said. “Probably the best o-line we’ve faced, with for sure the best group of tight ends we’ve faced, and a pack of running backs that are as good as any group that we’ve had so far. So the proof is in the pudding as it relates to the whole team.”

***

4. George Atkinson has a chance to add to an already impressive freshman season.

George Atkinson has already had an impressive freshman season, making an immediate impact in special teams with two kickoff return touchdowns, tying the school record that’s shared by Irish legends like Rocket Ismail, Tim Brown, and Allen Rossum. But on Saturday night, Atkinson will have a chance to make an impact just a few miles from his hometown, and potentially do so in the backfield as well, as he and fellow freshman Cam McDaniel will be forced into action at running back.

Tim Hinton knows it’s not ideal, but expects both Atkinson and McDaniel to be ready.

“The bottom line is at this point in the year, Cam and George have to produce,” Hinton said. “It’s their time. They’re freshman. You look around the country and there are some freshman that are obviously playing.  The negative is they haven’t had the practice reps that some of those other freshman were getting because we were trying to get our two top dogs running. But now it’s their time. Now we’re expanding those reps and the knowledge has to be there.”

So far, neither Atkinson nor McDaniel has shown the ability help the run game, with the duo combining for just 12 carries and 36 yards, with Atkinson chipping in two short touchdowns. But Cierre Wood knows that it’ll be his job to pay it forward, helping the youngsters get up to speed for Saturday night.

“I’ll just do what the veterans when I was coming up did for me,” Wood said. “Help them learn the basics first, then everything else will take care of itself on the field.”

It’s apparent for anyone that’s watched Atkinson this year that the freshman has game-breaking speed and an explosiveness that would be great in the open field. But he’s raw at running back, a slight player that probably would’ve come into Notre Dame as a wide receiver if the depth chart wasn’t as thin as it is. Yet the Irish could help their cause if they find a way to get the ball to the talented freshman in space, giving him the opportunity to show off his speed and the athleticism that makes him one of the most dangerous players on the field.

Playing in front of plenty of family and friends, not to mention a national television audience, Atkinson has the chance to put his career on a really impressive trajectory if he can come up big against Stanford.

***

5. It’s time to throw the kitchen sink at Stanford.

There’s no use holding onto all those wonderful tricks and gadgets the Irish have likely worked on all year. It’s time to use a few of them against Stanford, hopefully catching the Cardinal off guard with one or two unexpected wrinkles.

Consider this a quick wishlist of things Irish fans hope to see on Saturday night:

Special Teams:

It’s time to see what Kelly and Mike Elston have up their sleeves in terms of a fake punt. Last year the Irish were successful pulling it off, and it’d be great to see if the Irish can steal a possession away from the Cardinal if the timing is right. Even better, keep Michael Floyd back returning punts all evening, even if it’s in punt safe mode. Better yet, try setting up some blocking for him.

Defense:

Just because Brian Kelly doesn’t think he can trick Andrew Luck doesn’t mean he shouldn’t try. After all, Luck has a limited group of receivers right now and injuries to wide receiver Chris Owusu and tight ends Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo means he’ll be working well down the depth chart at some key positions. For as good as Luck is, he’s thrown five interceptions in the last four games, and threw two against the Irish last year.

It’ll be a blow to the Irish defense if Stephon Tuitt can’t play on Saturday, but it’d be surprising if the Irish get much out of the talented freshman that’s been severely ill with an undisclosed illness. Either way, Saturday night is a great opportunity for Aaron Lynch to make some noise, especially against an offensive line that’s one of the best in the nation. (At the very least, Lynch should try and draw some holding flags.)

Offense:

It’s time to bring back Andrew Hendrix in a package or two. When he was used, it was always in the middle of a series as a complement to Tommy Rees and the running game, and that’s the perfect way to use him Saturday night. If Theo Riddick is healthy, the Irish could get him on a jet sweep, or better yet — use that as a way to get Atkinson some carries in space. Even thought the hook-and-lateral didn’t work against Luke Kuchely, putting it on tape the week before Stanford was a purposeful move. If the Irish can get Cierre Wood around the edge, they’d be wise to try using that quick pitch / lateral that has been so successful over the past two years, but hasn’t been used in weeks.

Regardless of how highly ranked Stanford is, the Irish need to take their shots down field with Floyd. Feeding the ball to Floyd quickly in the possession receiving game is fine, but they need to run the top off the Stanford defense, and athletically, the Cardinal don’t have anyone Floyd’s equal, and the secondary is missing standout safety Delano Howell. Floyd is just seven catches away from Golden Tate’s single-season record of 93. Expect him to break that sometime in the third quarter. In one of the premiere games for tight ends in the country, it’d be good for Tyler Eifert to go cement his place as the Mackey Award winner on Saturday night.

***

6. Another game, another set of alternate uniforms. But don’t worry Irish fans, these ones are on Stanford.

In a trend that’s likely leading to an ulcer for some football traditionalists out there, when the Irish battle the Cardinal on Saturday, they won’t be facing a team wearing their traditional white pants, cardinal jerseys and white helmets, but a squad that looks like a group of red storm troopers, with black matte helmets punctuating an all-red look.

The Cardinal are joining the Nike Pro Combat revolution, wearing an alternate uniform that’s a whole lotta red, which according to Nike’s marketing machine is a “metaphor for the pulse of life and the heart that pumps the relentless engine that is Stanford Pride.”

Stanford joins Oregon, Georgia, Boise State, Michigan State, LSU and Ohio State as team’s that have gone with the “Pro Combat” look, and of course, Shaw has no problem embracing it.

“I think they’re great,” Shaw said to the San Francisco Chronicle. “It’s a recruiting world that we live in.”

For an early look at what the Cardinal will be wearing when Andrew Luck takes his Senior Day photos, you can see every detail — right down to the Nike gloves with an “S” on the palms — here.

 

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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Kraemer, Eichenberg compete for RT spot, moving Bars inside, and Bivin to…

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Forty percent of the offensive line is essentially set in stone: fifth-year senior Mike McGlinchey at left tackle and senior Quenton Nelson at right guard.

The center position seems to be senior Sam Mustipher’s to lose.

That leaves the two starting spots on the right side of the line for a number of players—both young and experienced—to fight over.

Sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg have emerged as the frontrunners for the right tackle spot, moving senior Alex Bars inside to right guard. Bars started all 12 games last season at right tackle.

“Those two [Kraemer and Eichenberg] are the guys we have mapped out at right tackle, and they’re going to battle,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “Today Kraemer was there. Last two practices Eichenberg got a lot of the work. Eichenberg will go back there on Friday. They’re going to keep battling and splitting the action out there.”

Part of the reasoning in giving the two sophomores extended looks this spring is Notre Dame knows what it has in Bars when at right tackle.

“We would prefer to get him in at the guard position, but we know he can play the [tackle] position,” Kelly said.

A starting five of McGlinchey, the three seniors and either sophomore may seem to leave fifth-year lineman Hunter Bivin out in the cold. Not often is a player asked to return for a fifth year only to spend it on the bench. That is even more rare when considering the current Irish scholarship crunch.

Kelly compared Bivin’s role to that of Mark Harrell’s last year. Harrell appeared in all 12 games, starting two, and provided much needed depth and flexibility along the offensive line. Rather than have five backup offensive linemen, position coach Harry Hiestand relied on Harrell to provide support at multiple spots.

“It’s reasonable to assume that Hunter Bivin’s going to be involved in this as well,” Kelly said. “We’ve just asked Hunter to take a seat right now. He’s done that for the team.

“We think Hunter is going to be a Mark Harrell for us. A guy that’s extremely valuable, can play a number of positions. We trust him, but we want to see these two young players [Kraemer and Eichenberg]. Hunter is a guy that can play right or left tackle for us. He’s going to be a valuable player for us as a swing guy.”

On that note, this space will refer to Bivin as a fifth-year lineman, as was done above, rather than as a guard or as a tackle, until further notice. In his case, the broader description may be the most accurate.

Spring break out west is fine, but Wimbush better be ready to run

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It will undoubtedly become a habit, at least for the next five-plus months. If Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush sneezes in front of a camera, it just might lead to an uptick in webmd.com traffic. His every football move will certainly be analyzed, nitpicked and discussed at length. Thus, Irish coach Brian Kelly being asked about Wimbush’s spring break should surprise no one.

Rather than find a Florida beach, Wimbush spent his spring break working with private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield in San Diego alongside a handful of other college passers. Kelly said there is value to such a spring break but stopped short of setting any lofty expectations of the effects.

“I have no problem with [Wimbush] working out with George Whitfield,” Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice, the first following spring break and the third of 14 leading into the Blue-Gold Game on April 22. “George doesn’t work on the specifics to the offense. George is really working on the quarterback and throwing the football, moving in the pocket. George is really good at keeping those quarterbacks active and moving.”

Whitfield is best-known around Notre Dame and among Irish fans for working with former Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson during Golson’s academic suspension in 2013. Whitfield and Golson spent 10 weeks together, thus granting time for extensive off-field activities such as film study. Far shorter, Wimbush’s time out west appears to have been spent primarily doing drills.

“In those situations, it’s a bullpen session,” Kelly said. “They’re keeping their arms loose, they’re keeping their feet loose. He’s just keeping them active.”

It is hard to construe that activity as a negative, but it obviously lacks certain aspects crucial to Wimbush’s 2017 season. With only five career pass attempts and seven career rushes, Wimbush’s inexperience looms large. Developing the necessary intangibles to account for that may be just as, if not more, important as fitting his throws into tight windows.

“When it comes to the playbook, to his teammates, to his coaches here, Brandon understands that when the rubber hits the road, those are the guys that matter the most,” Kelly said. “He knows when it’s time for Notre Dame football, where the focus is.”

Included in that playbook will be an expectation for Wimbush to carry the ball. To date, Wimbush’s biggest play and possibly only imprint on most Notre Dame fans’ memories is a 58-yard touchdown scamper against Massachusetts in 2015.

Link to 17-second YouTube video which has unfortunately disabled embedding

Note, the play is not exclusively-designed for Wimbush to run. Now a rising junior, then a fellow freshman, running back Josh Adams comes across Wimbush’s front for a possible handoff. Instead, Wimbush makes the correct read and keeps the ball. Why state so clearly it was the proper read? Adams has to evade a Texas defender even though he never had the ball.

Future option plays should present Wimbush with the possibility of throwing the ball, too.

“He’ll be a runner in the offense,” Kelly said. “Do we want him to carry the ball 20 times? No.”

“I don’t think you’ll have a situation where we’re calling quarterback power or singular runs. He’s going to have options: hand it off, throw the ball out on the perimeter. You’ll see more of that than you will prescribed quarterback runs. We had a little bit more of that last year with Kizer, but I think you’ll see that he has an option to get the ball out of his hands more so than just prescribed runs.”

Those option plays, in particular, will require Wimbush to have a thorough familiarity both with the Notre Dame playbook and with his teammates’ tendencies.

RITA LEE OR 52-53?
Staying consistent with his comments over the last two months, Kelly once again reiterated the biggest changes new offensive coordinator Chip Long will bring to the Irish playbook will be in its wording. Perhaps going to an extreme example to illustrate his thinking, Kelly pointed to the future.

“We’re going to win next year and Chip is going to be the greatest offensive coordinator in the country and he’s going to get a head job, right?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “Then I’m not going to introduce the Chip Long offense to the next offensive coordinator.”

“It has to have my culture in it … The culture of the offense is still the base offense that I have always run because I have to be able to carry that with me from year to year.”

Within that ellipsis, Kelly gave two examples of possible verbiage changes. Without knowing much more behind them, they do not mean too much out here in the cobwebs of the internet, but they do provide a quick glimpse at what Kelly has been referring to when discussing lexicon since hiring Long.

“If he wants to change Ringo Lucky protection to Ram and Lion protection, go right ahead. If he wants to change certain calls, for example, 52-53 protection is now Rita Lee.”

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