Pregame Six Pack: One last time for 2011

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You’ve got to love college football. It’s the only sport where you can logically explain taking a month-long break in your schedule before playing a bowl game, an essentially meaningless exhibition game when it comes to postseason implications.

But that’s our sport and we all love it. And for Notre Dame and Florida State, two teams that failed to live up to lofty preseason expectations, tomorrow evening’s date in the Champs Sports Bowl gives two of college football’s most tradition-laden programs a chance to end this season on a high note. Is it the BCS game both fanbases hoped for before the season? No. But with five combined losses between the two programs before mid-October, the fact that the two teams are meeting in one of the most intriguing games of an otherwise mediocre slate of postseason games, it sure makes for some compelling football.

Before Brian Kelly‘s squad renews an old rivalry with the Seminoles on Thursday evening at 5:30 p.m. ET, here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings before we put a bow on an interesting 2011 season.

***

You can never avoid the winds of change in the college football world.

Rumors swirled the past few days of more big news coming in college football. Whether that was rumors that Michigan was going to drop Notre Dame in football or another team hightailing it from a conference in search of more money, you’ve got to give credit to Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany and Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott for actually thinking outside the box to both help their respective conferences while also not dropping another bomb on an already unstable landscape.

Starting as soon as next year, the two conferences will start a “collaboration,” a newly founded alliance that’ll have a lot of the benefits sought during the rumored “seismic shifts” without the bloodshed seen in the Big 12 and the SEC.

“Rather than go down the road of just trying to add members, we thought this was a way to keep who we were and an increased value for everybody,” Delany said.

“It’s a flexible approach to achieving some of the benefits of expansion without dealing with some of the other structural issues,” Scott added.

Of course, the one school that was probably most effected out of the conference members was Notre Dame. And as Pat Forde of Yahoo! Sports reports, Irish AD Jack Swarbrick was all over this from day one.

Here’s more from Forde:

The Fighting Irish have a huge part of their schedule invested in those leagues. The fiercely independent Irish have five ongoing annual series with teams from those leagues: Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue of the Big Ten, and USC and Stanford of the Pac-12. If the leagues are going to add an annual game between members, would that potentially squeeze Notre Dame out of the mix?

Not likely, said Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick, who has a close relationship with Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany.

“I don’t anticipate it having much of an impact,” Swarbrick told Yahoo! Sports. “I was aware it was coming; they sort of kept us informed. I think it’s a great thing for the two conferences.”

A more likely scenario than dropping Notre Dame is a reduction in conference games from nine to eight. Thus, the Big Ten vs. Pac-12 game would be a substitute for that league game on the schedule, which means Notre Dame’s spot would not have to be sacrificed in favor of a “guaranteed” home game against a lesser opponent.

Swarbrick has done a pretty impressive job maneuvering the Irish through some tricky times the past few years. It’s good to see Notre Dame will be able to hold onto these traditional opponents, and even better to see that the days of buying wins and scheduling cupcakes is possibly on its way out.

***

Expect special teams to play a big role in determining a winner.

It might be too late for the Irish to work their way out of the depths of mediocrity when it comes to their punt return game. But if there’s ever a game where the Irish need to show up in special teams, this is the one.

The Irish face the best set of specialists they’ll see all year, with punter Shawn Powell No. 1 in the country averaging 47-yards a kick and Dustin Hopkins an All-American place kicker. In a game where yardage will be at a premium, manufacturing field position and getting something — heck anything — out of the punt return game would be a huge help to an Irish offense that’ll be facing its stiffest task of the year. Just as important, it’ll be up to Mike Elston’s troops to slow down a dangerous set of Seminole return men, headlined by junior Gred Reid, who has averaged 11.4 yards a return.

“Florida State can put points on the board in the special teams,” Kelly said. “I think they’re the first team we will play this year that have that kind of dynamic ability in their special teams. It’s been a constant point of emphasis for us relative to how we have prepared in our bowl season, but clearly if you have two fairly even-matched teams sometimes special teams makes a big difference. We knew that going in and we are going to have to play well in that area.”

Adding another interesting twist to the special teams battle, the Seminoles All-American kicker was almost Irish, as Hopkins nearly selected the Irish before deciding to head to Tallahassee. It wasn’t as dramatic as Lorenzo Booker’s last second defection to the Seminoles, but a mysterious string of events pushed him to Florida Stat.

The junior All-American, who was a finalist for this year’s Lou Groza Award, admits now that a series of chance occurrences during his recruiting visits played at least some role in shaping his decision.

First, he and his family were walking in a Houston airport when they found an old Buffalo nickel, which featured the face of an American Indian on one side. Hopkins’ mother immediately joked that it might be a sign for the Seminoles, but the family just laughed it off.

Then during a recruiting trip to Northwestern’s football offices, the Hopkins clan spotted a trophy named for then-Florida State coach Bobby Bowden.

“My sister saw it and said, ‘Dustin, look … another sign,'” he recalled. “We laughed that one off, too.”

Then during his recruiting visit to South Bend, Ind., Hopkins went to eat with Notre Dame’s coaches at a Chili’s restaurant. And there on a wall was a mural featuring an American Indian riding a horse — an image not unlike Florida State’s own Osceola and Renegade.”It was just really ironic,” Hopkins said.

The message, of course: Don’t take a recruit to Chili’s on his official visit.

***

After losing his captaincy before the season, Michael Floyd finally gets to lead his team.

Among the permanent repercussions that came from Michael Floyd‘s DUI arrest last spring was getting stripped of his captaincy before the season started. The honor bestowed on the rising senior wide receiver at the award’s ceremony last winter was taken away as Floyd was put on probation by the school, and Harrison Smith was the sole captain of the Irish this season, with a game day captain named each week to join him.

But Floyd took his final classes as a student earlier in December, graduating at the semester break from Notre Dame. Scoring four As (and a C-) in his final semester, Floyd did all that was asked of him in the classroom, not to mention countless hours of community service and other off-the-field work. He also helped prove that the faith the university administration placed in him, not to mention Kelly staking his reputation on his star player, was deserved.

“He’s exhibited all the things necessary that we’ve asked him to do,” Kelly at a press conference Wednesday. “He’s gotten his degree from Notre Dame, he’s lived his life the right way, he’s been extraordinary in his preparation in practice. He exhibits all of those traits that we feel are important to be a game-day captain.”

Last year, Michael took the bowl game to torch a talented Miami secondary for a big game. This year, he’ll have a national spotlight on him against a talented Seminoles secondary, but one that presents some physical mismatches for the top Irish receiver in school history.

Regardless of who’s throwing to him, look for the Irish to take some shots down the field throwing to No. 3 — the last time we’ll be able to watch Mr. Michael Floyd don the Irish uniform.

***

Kelly hints that a staff promotion is coming from within.

The smoke that’s surrounded running backs coach Tim Hinton has struggled to clear, especially with Urban Meyer still looking to round out his offensive coaching staff in Columbus, and Hinton having such deep roots in the state of Ohio.

That said, both Hinton and Kelly have proclaimed Hinton is staying put, and Kelly once again made it seem that there won’t be any more defections, and it’s possible that any addition will come from coaches that already work for the Irish.

“We’re very excited that we’re going to be able to keep our staff in place,” Kelly said. “Obviously Charley Molnar is at UMass and we’re excited for him. But we’re going to be able to announce those things. I can tell you this, they’re guys who have already been on Notre Dame’s campus. That’s the exciting part that we’re going to have continuity within our staff and maintain that this year.”

Whether that means Ed Warinner will climb the ladder to offensive coordinator or secondary coach Chuck Martin will switch sides of the ball remains to be seen. We also don’t know just how coy Kelly was being — does “already been on Notre Dame’s campus” mean this year? If it does — the Irish have four solid candidates among their GA troops:

Scott Booker, Offensive Intern. Booker was a four-year starter at defensive back for Kent State, and coached the secondary for his alma mater from 2005-08 and at Western Kentucky in 2009. Booker took a step back, dropping down to the intern rank to come to Notre Dame, but could slide into the defensive staff if Martin moves to OC.

Bill Brechin, Offensive Intern. Brechin came to South Bend with Martin, playing for the former Grand Valley State coach as an All-Conference DB before working as a graduate assistant for the Lakers before switching sides of the ball in South Bend.

Jon Carpenter, Defensive Graduate Assistant. Carpenter played under Kelly at Cincinnati as a linebacker and is the younger brother of former Buckeye All-American and current NFL player Bobby Carpenter. He’d likely only fill a void on the defensive side of the ball.

Michael Painter, Defensive Graduate Assistant. Painter has worked with Kelly all the way back to Central Michigan, working his way from there to Cincinnati, where he spent three years as a staff associate. Painter spent some time working special teams for the Chippewas, an area he could chip in for the Irish.

***

How good is the Irish running game? We’ll find out against the Seminoles.

The numbers don’t look good for the Irish. After losing senior Jonas Gray with a knee injury against Boston College, the Irish will take on the nation’s toughest run defense in the country, with the Seminoles giving up only 2.32 yards per carry.

This is hardly the Irish’s first dance with a dominant running defense. Florida State will be the sixth team the Irish have faced in the Top 35 in the country in yards-per-carry, with the Irish putting up mixed results:

No. 1 — Florida State:
No. 7 — Michigan State: 32 carries, 114 yards, 2 TDs
No. 8 — South Florida: 29 carries, 117 yards, 1 TD
No. 11 — Stanford: 31 carries, 57 yards, 1 TD
No. 20 — Pittsburgh: 32 carries, 182 yards 1 TD
No. 35 — USC: 14 carries, 41 yards, 1 TD

That’s a modest average of 3.7 yards a carry against those five defenses, with sack yardage not taken into account. The Irish had their biggest ground games against Purdue, Air Force, and Maryland, one mediocre (Purdue) and two statistically horrible teams against the run.

With Theo Riddick in the backfield and Andrew Hendrix adding to the rush attack, the Irish will need to squeeze every bit of efficiency they can on the ground, even if the going is tough.

***

It’s a fond farewell to a senior class that left Notre Dame in a better place than they found it.

It’s a bittersweet time of year. Notre Dame will say good bye to another class of seniors, with Thursday’s bowl the last time we’ll see this group take the field. Here’s a quick run down of the class likely taking the field for the last time:

Harrison Smith — Senior leader grew more in five years than anyone.
David Ruffer — An often told story that’d make even Rudy blush.
Mike Ragone — Star-crossed tight end matured into a model citizen.
Andrew Nuss — Fifth year player supplied critical depth on the offensive line.
Nick Lezynski — Walk-on hopes to continue football career as a coach.
Gary Gray — Bounced back from early adversity. Potential to play on Sundays.
Taylor Dever — Never sniffed the field until Kelly arrived, then became two-year starter.
Patrick Coughlin — Former Irish track member followed his dream to football.
Hafis Williams — Reserve nose guard might spend fifth-year playing elsewhere.
Deion Walker — While he never lived up to the hype, he’s always been a team guy.
Jamoris Slaughter — Free of injury, Slaughter will be back for a fifth-year.
Ryan Sheehan — Walk-on walked away from track scholarship to join football team.
Ryan Sharpley — Former baseball player (and brother of Evan) joined team as WR.
Chris Salvi — Special teams dynamo honored as game captain.
Trevor Robinson — One of Irish’s quirkiest personalities, should find way to NFL.
David Posluszny — Played large on special teams, even if he struggled in brother’s shadow.
Andrew Plaska — Walk-on who’ll end up in medical school next year.
Sean Oxley — Turned down Ivy Leagues to walk-on at Notre Dame.
Brandon Newman — Senior DT will be remembered for personality… and Trick Shot Monday.
Matthew Mulvey — Walk-on QB and leader of Red Army.
Anthony McDonald — Linebacker battled health issues for most of career.
Dan McCarthy — Safety struggled to stay healthy after coming to ND with neck injury.
Dennis Mahoney — Law school likely for walk-on, who saw the field against Air Force.
Kapron Lewis-Moore — Knee injury ended season, but career will continue in 2012.
Ryan Kavanagh — Walk-on snapper added holder to his repertoire.
Ethan Johnson — Heart of defensive line battled injuries during final season.
Mike Grieco — Walk-on and Holy Cross transfer kicked extra point against Air Force.
Jonas Gray — Story of the season only sidetracked with ACL tear.
John Goodman — With one year of eligibility left, Goodman could stay or play elsewhere in 2012.
Mike Golic Jr. — Came up big after spending career as back-up. Might return in 2012.
Jonathan Frantz — After two years as a student, Frantz walked-on to the football team.
Michael Floyd — The greatest pure WR in Notre Dame history.
Darius Fleming — Chicago product battled through coaching changes to be best pass rusher.
Steve Filer — Knee injury ended a career that never found its mark.
Dayne Crist — A model student-athlete for Notre Dame. Has Kansas detour to get career on track.
Lane Clelland — After an attempted position switch, Injuries hurt Clelland’s career.
Braxston Cave — Foot surgery ended 2011 season, will be back in 2012.
Robert Blanton — A four year contributor, Blanton is athletic enough for an NFL shot.

One last chance to wear the blue and gold should be enough motivation for this group to leave Notre Dame victorious. Congratulations to each and every one of this group for a great accomplishment.

Browns pick former Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer 20th in second round

Associated Press
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After months of pointless chatter and a night spent waiting, DeShone Kizer’s NFL Draft experience ended Friday night when the Cleveland Browns drafted the former Notre Dame quarterback with the 20th pick in the second round, the No. 52 overall selection.

Originally from Toledo, Ohio, Kizer will have the opportunity to earn the starting job for the franchise less than two hours from his hometown. The Browns trotted out five different quarterbacks in 2016, only two of which remain with the team. Rookie Cody Kessler played in nine games, throwing for 1,380 yards and six touchdowns with only one interception while fellow rookie Kevin Hogan threw for 104 yards and two interceptions in four games.

The Browns have since added Brock Osweiler in a trade with the Houston Texans, though that trade was largely-viewed as a cash-for-picks swap, with the Browns “paying” for picks by taking on Osweiler’s contract in which he is owed $47 million over the next three seasons, including $16 million this season.

A year ago, the No. 52 pick (linebacker Deion Jones to the Atlanta Falcons) received a four-year, $4.546 million contract with a $1.506 million signing bonus.

Hall of fame running back and Browns legend Jim Brown announced the selection of Kizer at the draft festivities.

Speculation a year ago pegged Kizer as an early first-round pick. As the draft approached, projections of his slot varied widely, many including a second-round status. Despite first-round theatrics leading to three quarterbacks going in the first 12 picks Thursday night, Kizer had to wait another day before learning where he will start his NFL career. (more…)

Friday at 4: ‘Attention to detail’ includes Notre Dame Stadium

@NDFootball
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Brian Kelly proselytized multiple abstract concepts this spring. By the end of the 15 practices and subsequent media sessions, even the Irish coach knew some of his references to “grit” would be met by muted eye rolls from the press. If a questioner included the word in their query, Kelly reacted with tongue-in-cheek approval, “You’ve been listening.”

In his press conference the day before spring practices commenced, Kelly used the phrase “attention to detail” six separate times. While he was referring to his players on the football field, Kelly could have also been discussing the ongoing—but supposedly close to finished—construction at Notre Dame Stadium known as Campus Crossroads.

The three buildings around the exterior of the Stadium, the added suites and the video board above the south end zone have garnered the headlines. On a macro level, those are the changes of note. On a micro level, however, other details have trickled into the public stream of knowledge as the work nears its conclusion.

Over the weekend—and now reignited by a column from the South Bend Tribune’s Mike Vorel—the image of the newly-added visitors’ tunnel delighted Irish fans. Vorel likens the narrow entry to “the spot they’d stash the gladiators before feeding them to starving tigers in The Coliseum.” Assuredly, Vorel is going for dramatic effect, and it must work considering its citation here, but even a realistic view of the tunnel’s effects bodes well.

If nothing else, Notre Dame players should enjoy something of a psychological boost when racing out of their adult-sized tunnel and seeing their opponent trickle out of a tunnel seemingly-sized for ants. (Yes, the north end zone tunnel is at least three times bigger than the visitors’ tunnel.)

That pale, slanted staircase holds none of the luxuries of the home team’s entrance, something Kelly went out of his way to praise after using it in Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. (more…)

Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers

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You want complete honesty? The linebacker version of this series includes no revelations, no unexpected developments, no surprising spring performances. There is an allusion to a position switch, sure, but this piece became much simpler with the rover being discussed separately Thursday.

The idea was to capitalize on the NFL Draft for the morning and let the linebackers slip by in the afternoon, noticed only by those twiddling their thumbs through the last hours of the work week. Alas, former Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer was not drafted in the first round and a brief recap of his draft destination will need to await at least another day. Programming note: The NFL Draft reconvenes tonight (Friday) at 7 p.m. ET. The Green Bay Packers are on the clock. They will not draft a quarterback.

But back to the linebackers. This piece may have been intended to slip by with little fanfare, but that is not indicative of the Irish linebackers. Where Notre Dame was is so similar to where Notre Dame is simply because two experienced senior captains lead the way at linebacker.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
Aside from questions about defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s rover position, only one question stood out about this linebacker group: Who would start alongside senior Nyles Morgan: senior Greer Martini or junior Te’von Coney?

A year ago Coney recorded the fourth-most tackles on the team with 62. Martini finished fifth with 55, and his seven tackles for loss, including three sacks, dwarfed Coney’s 1.5. Yet Coney technically started nine games compared to Martini’s four.

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

With the rover often lining up essentially as a linebacker, there would only be space for one of Martini or Coney in most formations.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
In his first season with the Irish, Elko will have quite a luxury in referring to Coney as a backup linebacker. In some respects, that designation was inevitable as soon as Martini was named a captain. Nonetheless, Coney will see plenty of playing time.

The two captains—along with fellow captain, senior Drue Tranquill at rover—will be counted on throughout the summer and fall camp to continue the defense’s growth in Elko’s system. Elko said he installed “close to 50 percent” of his entire defense throughout spring practice. The linebackers must deal with the most difficult aspects of that learning.

“There’s been a noticeable improvement in terms of this starting to look like the defense we want this to look like as spring has gone on,” Elko said a week ago. “… Linebacker probably more than any other position, linebacker and safety, where the scheme takes some time to get used to, how you see it, how you fit it, how you feel it. Those guys have gotten better with that which has then allowed them to play faster as the spring has moved on.”

Sophomore Jonathan Jones will likely provide any further depth that may be needed in 2017, unless either of the incoming freshmen, David Adams and Drew White, excel from the outset. Irish coach Brian Kelly indicated sophomore Jamir Jones (no relation to Jonathan, but is former Notre Dame defensive lineman Jarron Jones’ brother) may be destined for time on the defensive line, in large part to Jones’s continued growth. Junior Josh Barajas let the spring come and go without mandating he be involved in these conversations, which may as well count as removing himself from the conversation in most regards.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame Was, Is & Could Be: Rover

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Rover

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Before spring practice, the rover position was lumped in with the linebackers in positional previews. Nearly two months later, that seems to have been the right placement—the rover will likely spend most of its time at the defense’s second level.

But since curiosity about the rover and its unknown place in Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme ran rampant—especially when compared to the rather solid understanding of the 2017 Irish linebackers—let’s take a look specifically at the rover.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:

“Who will start at [Elko’s] rover position,” this space asked. “What will his role entail?”

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

Senior safety Drue Tranquill was expected to see the most time at rover, perhaps with cameos from junior linebacker Asmar Bilal and sophomore safeties D.J. Morgan and Spencer Perry (since transferred).

More than anything, though, learning how Elko intended to deploy his defensive utility knife would answer the most questions about his defense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:

Tranquill will indeed lead the position, but not without much effort from Bilal.

“We’ve tried quite a few bodies out there,” Elko said Friday. “I think as spring has gone on, we’ve gotten a feel of what each of them can do, what parts of the package we can run with each of them. I think we’ve got a pretty good pulse now on how we want that thing to play out, who will be there doing what.”

Elko is excessively reluctant to discuss individual players, so asking him to expound on who will be at rover in particular situations was largely a fruitless exercise. Earlier this spring, Irish head coach Brian Kelly indicated Bilal would be featured against run-heavy offenses. That may well prove to be the case, but it is far more likely Tranquill sees the majority of the repetitions at the position.

RELATED READING: Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover positon, others likely to follow

“It’s been a good fit all spring [for Tranquill],” Kelly said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “He’s a plus player there for us. He really can impact what’s happening from snap to snap. He’s a physical player and playing low to the ball is really where he can do a lot of really good things for us.”

For his part, Tranquill enjoys the position and the unique number of duties innate to it. In theory, the rover aligns mostly with the linebackers but can be relied on to provide coverage when necessary. At other times, the rover will be asked to rush the passer. That flexibility allows Elko to keep the offense guessing.

“I love the rover position,” Tranquill said. “It’s a versatile position that allows you to come off the edge, allows you to play the run, play the pass, and do a lot of different things.”

Sometimes it allows you to pretend like you’re coming off the edge and then actually embarrass a potential first-round draft pick.

In senior left guard Quenton Nelson’s defense, Tranquill did add Nelson probably won more of their battles in spring practices than the defender did.

WHERE NOTRE DAME COULD BE:

Elko indicated there could be a third primary option in his tool kit. Notre Dame has a plethora of talented cornerbacks. Last week, Kelly indicated he might ask one of them to chip in at safety in obvious passing situations. Similarly, Elko predicted junior Shaun Crawford could play at rover against particular passing attacks, a la Bilal against certain rushing offenses.

“A lot of this is dictated by who that guy is lined up and what we’re trying to do,” Elko said. “We’re going to see a lot of really talented slot receivers. We’re going to have to match up and cover them well. There’s other names other than the big linebacker/safety bodies to put at that position. [Junior safety] Nick Coleman has done that some this spring. [Junior safety] Ashton White has done that some this spring. When Shaun gets healthy, I think he’ll do that some. That is all encompassing in that position.”

The 5-foot-9, 175-pound Crawford has since announced his return to full health, which should allow him plenty of time to readjust to contact before the start of fall practice.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line