Everett Golson

New Year’s resolutions for 2012 Irish

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It doesn’t take a CSI investigator to know that Irish fans are still smarting from the 18-14 loss to Florida State. Minutes away from a nine win season, the firm grasp the Irish defense had around the throat of the Seminoles loosened, and an offense that moved the ball prolifically earlier this season ground to a halt as both Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix struggled to do much of anything to help win a football game.

Instead of heading to the offseason winning an ugly, defense first football game and making incremental progress with a nine-win season, Kelly’s squad seems stuck in neutral thanks to a quarterbacking conundrum that will make spring practice 15 of the most important sessions this team will ever have.

With the calendar starting anew today, there’s no better time to lay out some New Year’s resolutions for the Fighting Irish as they take some time off before getting back to the grind of getting better and preparing for 2012.

For the secondary… May they learn and develop quickly. For Jamoris Slaughter, may he springboard forward after his coming-out party against the Seminoles, and become the dual-threat player he’s always been capable of as he takes over for Harrison Smith as the heart of the secondary. For Zeke Motta, may he continue to improve in coverage and get better tackling in the open field. After two years of special teams consistency, may Austin Collinsworth take that playmaking knack to a secondary in need of big plays. May Eilar Hardy come back healthy after a knee injury and Chris Badger be a quick study after his two-year mission. At cornerback, may Lo Wood and Bennett Jackson be ready to be thrown into the fire. The same goes for Josh Atkinson, who saw the field this season and will likely see it a lot more next year. With the redshirt off Jalen Brown, the athletic and tall cornerback could also emerge as a contender for playing time, where the defense will likely hinge on the young secondary’s ability to make plays.

For the linebackers… May Manti Te’o stay healthy for his senior season, a year where he’ll likely earn his reputation as one of college football’s best defenders. After going from the bottom of the outside linebacker depth chart to the starting will linebacker, may Dan Fox continue to show the athleticism that had the previous Irish coaching staff see a better prospect than Luke Kuechly. Carlo Calabrese, who lost playing time to Fox, can use 2012 to improve in space, building on the strides he took this year in coverage. Te’o’s return pushed back the emergence of Kendall Moore, but the talented youngster will find a way to make a difference for this defense next year. The same can be said for Justin Utupo and Jarrett Grace, two young and talented inside linebackers that will be contributors sooner than later. May Anthony Rabasa‘s shoulder heal quickly, allowing the freshman to participate in spring drills as he continues his transition to the interior of the defense.

With the outside of the linebacking crew, may the Irish find stability as they try to replace Darius Fleming. For Prince Shembo, may he find stability if he shifts to Fleming’s old position, where he’ll have the opportunity to rush the passer and feel more at home. May the freshman season of Ishaq Williams help the youngster develop after absorbing the transition for New York high schools to major college football. For Troy Niklas, may the talented freshman take his unique size and skill set and apply that at the dog linebacker. For Danny Spond, may he get through a season healthy, and finally be able to utilize the talent that had Kelly and the staff so high on him. For Ben Councell, may his redshirt season be fruitful for a young linebacker that could become a top-line 3-4 drop linebacker.

For the defensive line… May Kapron Lewis-Moore come back healthy after knee surgery. May Sean Cwynar return to help anchor the interior of the defensive line while also continuing his first-class education. May Tyler Stockton work his way into the interior line rotation during his final season. After a promising first season, may Louis Nix continue to improve, turning himself into an All-American. While Kona Schwenke spent a year of eligibility during fill-in duty, may he work his way into the defensive end rotation, taking some of the snaps Ethan Johnson left behind. May Chase Hounshell build on a surprising freshman campaign that found him working his way out of a redshirt and onto the field. With time in the weight room, he could add yet another promising pass rush option to a front line that could be among the best in recent Irish history. After spending 2011 on the sidelines, may Tony Springmann surprise everyone with his athleticism and size, adding another player with the versatility to play inside and out. May Stephon Tuitt and Aaron Lynch continue to evolve into bookends the Irish haven’t seen in years. For Tuitt, may the playing time he lost due to illness be paid back next season, when the already massive freshman has a chance for another 12 months in under Paul Longo. For Lynch, may the talented pass rusher work on the space between his ear pads, cutting down on the mental mistakes and personal fouls that pockmarked a freshman season that showed everyone just how talented he’ll be. (Lynch could also work on drawing the flags he earned for holding.)

For the offensive line… May Braxston Cave return healthy for 2012, anchoring the line from the center position while continuing to add finesse to a game certainly not lacking power. If Mike Golic returns, may he do it stronger at the point of attack and more versatile, giving the Irish another super-sub candidate a la Andrew Nuss. May Chris Watt build on an impressive 2011 season, where the left guard was one of the Irish’s most punishing run blockers. May Zack Martin continue being the technically sound left tackle he’s been for two straight seasons, and continue on his All-American trajectory. May Christian Lombard be ready to take over for Taylor Dever at right tackle, after spending 2011 waiting in the wings. May Tate Nichols come back healthy and ready to challenge for playing time at tackle as well, battling Lombard for the job and showing unnatural athleticism for a player of his size. May 2012 be the year Bruce Heggie isn’t a punch line. For Conor Hanratty, Nick Martin, and Matt Hegarty, may 2012 be the year they battle for Trevor Robinson’s vacant job. For Brad Carrico, may he be ready to see the field. For Jordan Prestwood, may the year used in the weight room translate to the playing field.

For the receivers and tight ends… May Tyler Eifert decide what’s best for him and his family. If it’s Notre Dame, may he stay healthy and continue to build his body physically. For Alex Welch and Ben Koyack, may they be ready for a larger role in the offense, whether or not Eifert decides to return for 2012. For Jake Golic, may back surgery fix whatever ailed the tight end running out of opportunities to make a difference. At wide receiver, if John Goodman comes back, may he dedicated himself to becoming the wide receiver people thought he’d be coming out of high school. For Theo Riddick, if he stays at wide receiver, may 2012 be the year that the lightbulb finally goes on. For Robby Toma, may he find a more permanent spot in the offense. For TJ Jones, may he use the personal tragedy of 2011 as motivation to become the type of receiver the Irish need, while also realizing that he’s halfway done with his career. For Daniel Smith, may he finally find his way onto the field, stay healthy, and give the Irish a big body that’s ready to fill the void left by Michael Floyd. For Davaris Daniels and Matthias Farley, may they learn from the redshirt season and be ready to come out swinging in 2012.

For the running backs… May Cierre Wood pledge to put together one of the best single season’s in Notre Dame rushing history, and give himself a difficult decision on whether or not he should stay in school or head to the NFL. May Cam Roberson finally get healthy after a devastating knee injury suffered last spring. May 2012 be a better year than the last for him. For George Atkinson, may he build on the game breaking skills he showed in the return game, while finding ways to improve as a position player. For Cam McDaniel, may the youngster build on a year where his eligibility was lost, but not all that much experience was gained.

For the quarterbacks… May they find some stability. For Tommy Rees, may he prove the growing mountain of skeptics wrong. Like all quarterbacks, they’re never as good as the good times nor as bad as the bad ones. May this offseason help restore confidence, build more knowledge in the passing game, and take a step forward in his decision making. Rees will never be able to run the ball, but he can move the offense, even if the Irish sputtered down the stretch. For Andrew Hendrix, may he continue learning the offense, giving Kelly and the coaching staff a true look at what he can do come spring practice. With a skill-set that’s never been questioned, he’ll need to cut back on decisions like the throw he made against the Seminoles while also proving to be more than just a battering ram in the running game. The Irish can be the offense Kelly wants with Hendrix behind center, and a quarterback that can run will take some pressure off a receiving corp short potentially two All-Americans. For Everett Golson, may 2012 be a year where he rises to the occasion. There might be no player with great expectations heaped onto him, and if there’s a player that can rescue an offense still stuck in transition, it’s Golson.

For the coaches… May Brian Kelly stick to his guns. Two years in South Bend didn’t erase 20 years of experience, even if the fish bowl is a whole lot bigger. Sometimes seasons like the past year build humility, and for Kelly may he learn from the bizarre circumstances that came to define the 2011 season. For Bob Diaco, may he learn to live dangerously. With a youthful secondary and one of the best front sevens the Irish have ever had, maybe he keep the gas pedal down and his foot on opponents’ throats, as opposed to playing from a base defense. May Mike Elston solve the punt return game, where Michael Floyd bailed the Irish out with his 41-yard return in the bowl game after the worst season in school history. May Tim Hinton be thankful he turned down Urban Meyer and Ohio State to stay with Notre Dame. May Ed Warinner reload the right side of the offensive line and a ground game that slowed down in the season’s final month. May the offensive coordinator, whoever he may be, be ready to put his stamp on the offense. May Tony Alford earn his keep both in recruiting and in preparing this wide receiving corp for life without No. 3.

Spring positions to watch for revelations: DL & WR

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

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

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

For now, though, Pagano remains a theoretical

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WR Lenzy makes 11th commitment, brings speed to Irish

lenzy
rivals.com
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At what point does an impressive recruiting roll become something more? When does it become a harbinger of things to come, even if not for a few seasons? How many notable commitments in a row establishes a class as special?

If the answer to any of the above is 11 commitments by the end of February, including five within two weeks, then Notre Dame is there following consensus four-star athlete Braden Lenzy’s announcement Thursday evening.

The Tigard High School (Portland, Ore) receiver/cornerback chose the Irish over offers from USC, Oregon and Michigan State, among a litany of others. In all, nine Pac-12 schools chased Lenzy—and a 10th, Washington, had shown interest—per rivals.com.

Lenzy will fit the leading 2018 need voiced by Irish coach Brian Kelly three weeks ago on National Signing Day 2017.

“Elite speed on offense will be a primary goal for us,” Kelly said Feb. 1. “Guys that can change the game on one possession. I think we’ll see that… We want a couple of home run hitters. We don’t care if they’re Darren Sproles’s size. We’re going to come off the board in terms of profile. We want some guys that can change the game on offense with elite speed.”

At 6-foot, 175 pounds, Lenzy is taller than Sproles’s 5-foot-6, but it is still his speed that drew Notre Dame’s interest.

“They made it clear they want me to do kickoff return and use me as a deep threat across the field,” he told Irish Illustrated. “Just being kind of an athlete, similar to what I’ve been doing already in high school, just on a bigger scale with a quarterback that can throw it a lot farther.”

Presuming Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush is that arm in 2018, throwing great distances should not be an issue. Between Lenzy and fellow 2018 commit Micah Jones, covering those distances should be a reasonable request, as well.

Lenzy brings Notre Dame’s class of 2018 to 11, including eight four-stars according to Rivals’ rating system. Current scholarship projections indicate the class will not be a large one, meaning the Irish coaching staff has already garnered the commitments of more than half the class. Once again, though, Kelly’s sentiment regarding recruiting timing should be remembered.

“We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

SWARBRICK’S TAKE ON RECRUITING
Kelly credited Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick with much assistance in securing the country’s No. 13 recruiting class in 2017. A refresher on those comments:

“In a lot of instances, [Swarbrick] had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it’s going,” Kelly said. “There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future.”

Swarbrick did not dispute the factual nature of any of that in an interview with the Indianapolis Star, but he did contest the need for praising what he saw as part of his job, one of the preferred parts of his job, at that.

“I can’t say anything about this year felt all that different,” Swarbrick told Star reporter Laken Litman. “Some asked questions about the future of the program and can we compete for a national championship. And I would talk about the elements of the program we were focused on improving.”

Swarbrick and Litman discussed a number of items in the second-half of the interview released by the Star, including Notre Dame’s facilities, a possible early signing period in football and if the Oct. 8, 2016, game against North Carolina State should have been played. Spoiler: No. Then why was it? Go check it out.

Swarbrick also told Litman he likes to write in his free time.

“I tend to think strategically with a pen in my hand.” Swarbrick added he is currently scribbling away on where he thinks college athletics are headed.

This scribe, for one, would be most interested in skimming those legal pads.

Will Wimbush, Elko and the early enrollees surprise in spring practice?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Exactly 59 days from today, the Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Sure, they will be playing against themselves, but nonetheless, it will be somewhat-competitive football played in gold helmets.

For timing context, exactly 59 days ago, you looked beneath the Christmas tree to learn if Santa Claus left you season tickets, socks or coal. I got socks. They had some of that extra cushioning, so I considered them a suitable treat.

Whether you care about my argyles or not (you don’t), for many the Blue-Gold Game and Christmas morning hold similar excitement. That fact is apparently why Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick does not concern himself when groups of alumni publicly lament his decisions, or lack thereof.

“I never worry about that,” Swarbirck told the Indianapolis Star in an exclusive interview you really should read. Go on, click the link, it will open in a new tab. You can come right back here when you are done.

“The hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion in your program. If that sort of stuff bothers you, you can’t be the athletic director, head coach or the quarterback at Notre Dame.”

That very passion will undoubtedly lead to frame-by-frame discussions of video snippets from spring practice, parsing of each and every word Irish coach Brian Kelly says in quick interviews after those practices, and extreme pessimism and optimism about the 2017 season.

In the Christmas spirit, what toys could bring the must excitement during the spring unwrapping? Personally, the gift I was unsure of always brought the most joy. I would rather open an unexpected book than know about a charcoal-gray suit. In other words, at least for today, let’s look past the offensive line, the running backs and the inside linebackers. Instead, let’s look forward to learning about… (more…)

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Karlos Williams #9 of the Florida State Seminoles scores the touchdown that would win the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their game at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.

With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.

The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.

Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.

Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.

If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.

Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order: (more…)