Spring Practice: Day Three report

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Saturday’s practice was already a victory with the Irish getting two big recruiting commitments along the offensive line. But with the team in full pads for the first time this spring, it also gave us a chance to take a look at the physicality of the team, with the UND.com practice video giving us a whole lot of action between the linemen.

This is about as in-depth of a breakdown as you can possibly get from seven-plus minutes of footage, but it should give you a crib sheet of what’s happening, almost down to the collision. There’s plenty to like, especially watching the young depth along the offensive line come together, and players like Jarrett Grace and Ishaq Williams come along.

  • 0:30 — Meteorologist Jack Nolan gives us the state of South Bend weather. If this is global warming, sign me up.
  • 0:39 — Mike Golic vs. Kona Schwenke. Golic wins early, Kona eventually overpowers him.
  • 0:44 — Tate Nichols vs. Aaron Lynch. Very impressive work by Nichols.
  • 1:07 — Prince Shembo breaks the team down to get practice started. Take a quick look on the right and you’ll see Tony Springmann in shorts and a hat. He’s a big dude, and that red hair is mighty impressive.
  • 1:20 — Matthias Farley vs. Chris Salvi. Impressive work by the converted safety. Looks very physical.
  • 1:26 — Cam McDaniel vs. Josh Atkinson. Wasn’t a pillow fight, but tough to give Atkinson the victory when he engaged low.
  • 1:33 — Robby Toma vs. Austin Collinsworth. You didn’t expect Toma to win, but nice work by Collinsworth.
  • 1:38 — Daniel Smith vs. Jamoris Slaughter. Nice work by Smith, who drove Slaughter backwards.
  • 1:43 — Luke Massa vs. Zeke Motta. Nicely done by Massa. I’m starting to like that kid.
  • 1:49 — Jalen Brown vs. Bennett Jackson. Slight edge to Brown, who looks impressive size wise and a legit six-foot-one, 200-pounds, something I wasn’t sure of before this.
  • 1:58 — John Goodman vs. Danny McCarthy. Even draw between the two fifth-year seniors. And apparently a mediocre one, because Kelly made them go twice.
  • 2:13 — TJ Jones vs. Lo Wood. Nice pop.
  • 2:20 — Toma vs. Collinsworth — Round two goes to Austin.
  • 2:28 — McDaniel vs. J. Atkinson. Give this one to Cam.
  • 2:30 — Farley vs. Salvi. Another W for Farley.
  • 2:35 — Nichols vs. Lynch. Big collision, but still leans Nichols way.
  • 2:43 — Golic vs. Schwenke. Another W for Kona.
  • 2:50 — Now we move onto the “rodeo” drill portion, which is basically one-on-one OL vs. Defender, with a running back having to go through the hole.
  • 2:51 — Louis Nix, mans game. Stands Golic up in the hole and makes a nice play on Cierre Wood
  •  2:55 — Chris Watt and Manti Te’o have a monster collision, with Te’o shaking off the block and making the play on George Atkinson. Not sure it was a victory by Te’o, but everybody was hopping around celebrating, so let’s go with it.
  • 3:04 — Tyler Eifert vs. Prince Shembo, and Shembo won the battle at the line of scrimmage, standing Eifert up in the hole and making the play on the back. Nicely done.
  • 3:12 — Our first Harry Hiestand appearance, who is very vocal about Matt Hegarty‘s performance against Kona. Not a great collision, as Schwenke tried to knife through the line.
  • 3:16 — Carlo Calabrese vs. Christian Lombard. Nice work by Lombard, who swallowed up the linebacker one on one.
  • 3:20 — After losing head up, Lynch got the better of Nichols in this drill, working off the block and swallowing up the running back.
  • 3:27 — Ben Koyack vs. Danny Spond. Nicely done by the junior outside linebacker, who looked physical while overpowering Koyack.
  • 3:33 — Conor Hanratty getting into the mix, doing a nice job on Tyler Stockton as Cierre Wood scoots through the hole.
  • 3:40 — Bruce Heggie does a good job powering into linebacker Dan Fox, but Fox makes a great play on Atkinson, and tackles the running back nicely, to the approval of Te’o and Bob Diaco.
  • 3:46 — Nick Martin does a nice job on newcomer Sheldon Day, who looks an awful lot like Emeka Nwankwo with the dreads out the back of his helmet. Robby Toma will some nice scoot through the hole at running back, showing the versatility of the hybrid position.
  • 3:52 — Tight end Alex Welch takes on linebacker Ishaq Williams, who makes a pretty impressive play on the ball carrier, who goes flying. Nicely done by the new No. 11.
  • 4:02 — Freshman linebacker Jarrett Grace does a great job taking on walk-on lineman Matt Tansey and then makes an impressive play on the running back. Nicely done. Very nicely done.
  • 4:12 — That’s Jordan Prestwood doing a nice job on Stephon Tuitt one-on-one, before Tuitt makes the tackle.
  • 4:15 — Jake Golic does a nice job on linebacker Anthony Rabasa, driving him out of the play.
  • 4:22 — Louis Nix does a great job standing Mike Golic up in the hole, but Everett Golson manages to tip-toe his way around him.
  • 4:31 — Nicely done, Carlo Calabrese. He stands up guard Chris Watt and makes a nice tackle on the ball carrier.
  • 4:37 — Want proof that Zack Martin is the real deal? Here you go. He handles Aaron Lynch easily. (Is there a third Martin brother? If so, I hope Notre Dame has already offered him.)
  • 4:44 — Baptism by fire for Troy Niklas, who stands up Prince Shembo in the hole, with Shembo winning the battle at the point of attack. Shembo did the same thing to Tyler Eifert to put things in perspective. Scott Booker is there to immediately coach Niklas up.
  • 4:52 — Another nice snap by Christian Lombard, who takes on Kendall Moore and puts him on rollerskates.
  • 5:02 — Kapron Lewis-Moore looks fully healthy, shaking off Tate Nichols and making the tackle.
  • 5:07 — Another impressive rep by Ishaq Williams, who drives a tight end back and makes an impressive tackle. Perhaps the lightswitch has gone on for the youngster?
  • 5:17 — The video breaks into coverage routes now, with one-on-one routes being run and thrown. Robby Toma makes a nice adjustment to Gunner Kiel‘s throw and makes the catch on Jamoris Slaughter.
  • 5:25 — You see why the coaching staff is so excited about Bennett Jackson. Early in his backpedal, Jackson stumbles, which allows John Goodman to get a step on him, but Jackson recovers, looks to actually locate the ball, and makes a play on a poorly thrown football. He’s certainly raw, but that’s a tough play athletically and he looked good recovering.
  • 5:37 — Ben Koyack just outsizes safety Chris Salvi, who can’t defend six-foot-five very well.
  • 5:48 — It’s Jackson vs. Goodman again for two snaps. Jackson is all over him on an out cut, but lets Goodman beat him long on a nicely thrown ball. Savvy veteran move by Goodman on the push off, but the ref in attendance didn’t call it. (No word on what conference affiliation this ref has.)
  • 5:55 — Good deep ball by Golson, who just misses a streaking wide out long, with nice coverage by Jackson.
  • 6:02 — More Jackson. This time defending Eifert on the go route with Rees throwing it a little inside and long. Credit Bennett for boxing Eifert out and keeping leverage. Tommy also needs to throw that ball outside and high.
  • 6:10 — TJ Jones beats Lo Wood for a big play down the field. Nicely thrown by Rees. Is it just me or is this more deep throws in a two-minute highlight clip than we saw all last season? (Bravo if that’s on you, Chuck Martin…)
  • 6:16 — Prince Shembo breaks on a pass to Troy Niklas. Nice play by Prince, but TEs need to make that catch.
  • 6:23 — Andrew Hendrix delivering a strike on a dig route to Eifert between Josh Atkinson and Zeke Motta. Nice throw and catch.
  • 6:38 — One missed deep ball and one connection by Rees, both to TJ Jones. Wood was in nice position and so was Jackson, but TJ went over the top of Bennett for the play.
  • 6:50 — Nice throw by Everett Golson, putting the ball up for John Goodman to make a play. For those of you wondering, Goodman has always been a really impressive practice player. Will be interesting to see that happens on Saturdays this coming season.
  • 7:04 — That’s Chuck Martin giving a loud, “That’s it, Gunner!” to his rookie quarterback, who throws a nice out to a TE Alex Welch.
  • 7:15 — Another practice video, another long run for Theo Riddick, who bounces outside for a big gainer against the reserve defense, using his stiffarm to run away from Josh Atkinson.
  • 7:25 — Boot pass from Golson to Niklas, with Troy doing a nice job in the open field avoiding tacklers. (Sign me up for about two dozen of these next year…)
  • 7:35 — Thankfully practice video ends, as my eyeballs were about to bleed.

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It’s interesting that we saw mostly deep throws from Tommy Rees. While most people are down on the rising junior, if he can throw a more accurate deep ball, this offense would be just fine. Last year, defenses knew the Irish weren’t a risk to go over the top, and as the year went on, more teams dropped seven and eight guys into coverage, making it awfully hard to find space in the defense without going over the top.

It would’ve been nice to see Davaris Daniels get some work in the video, but Kelly said after practice that Daniels suffered a minor leg injury and should be back at work Wednesday.

Back from break, Irish commence hitting; DT Elijah Taylor out with LisFranc injury

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Notre Dame last wore pads in its 45-27 defeat at USC back on Nov. 26, a full 117 days ago. Suffice it to say, the Irish enjoyed the chance to don their shoulder pads and hit each other in Wednesday’s third spring practice, the first one since returning from spring break.

“What I liked about it more than anything else is there wasn’t a big drop off today,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “Usually you go two days and then you take a week off, and then you come back and put your pads on—it took us only a couple of periods to get back up to form. That was nice to see.”

Contrary to previous years in spring practice, and perhaps practice in general, Kelly emphasized tackling, especially tackling in the open-field, in Wednesday’s drills.

“[I] felt like we needed to make up for a little lost ground,” he said. “We got in tackling today for the first time. That’ll be an emphasis. We’ll tackle a lot this spring to make up for lost ground.”

The early and often physical nature of practice didn’t bother any of the players, per Kelly, but also per presumed common sense. While Notre Dame’s coaching staff changes and public questioning played out in broad view, the players spent 117 days in private waiting to unleash some of the frustrations of 2016’s disappointing season.

“Everybody to a man has been looking forward to this day,” Kelly said. “It was a pretty difficult offseason for them. They were looking forward to putting the pads on and getting out there. I think they exhibited that today.”

TAYLOR OUT FOR SPRING, AT LEAST
Junior defensive tackle Elijah Taylor was not in pads Wednesday. In the final practice before spring break, another player stepped on Taylor’s foot, Kelly said. The resulting LisFranc fracture will keep Taylor out of the remaining dozen spring practices and limit him until at least July. Taylor saw action in four games last season, finishing with three tackles, including one for a loss.

Notre Dame team surgeon Dr. Brian Ratigan already performed Taylor’s surgery.

“Typical LisFranc fractures, we’ve had good success with their repairs,” Kelly said. “…We’ll be able to train around the injury. Full range of motion moving around and doing things in June, probably full clearance sometime in July.”

Without Taylor, the interior of Notre Dame’s defensive line becomes even shallower, though that may have been hard to previously comprehend. Junior Jerry Tillery looks to be ready to start, and senior Jonathan Bonner has moved to the inside, rather than at end as he has been for most of his career. Behind them, the Irish present only question marks.

Kelly said he will look to junior Micah Dew-Treadway to step forward in Taylor’s absence.

“Micah Dew-Treadway has had a really good offseason for us,” Kelly said. “Changed his body, has been doing a really good job in all facets, in the class room and weight room. He’s somebody that had been ascending anyway prior to the injury.

Kelly indicated junior Brandon Tiassum also could be expected to see more work with Taylor sidelined.

Seniors Daniel Cage and Pete Mokwuah are in the mix, as well. Cage struggled with concussion issues last season after a promising 2015.

Notre Dame will need to wait until the freshmen arrive—perhaps also joined by Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano, reportedly still taking official visits as he ponders his 2017 destination—for further reinforcements. Consensus four-star recruit Darnell Ewell would be the most likely candidate of the three expected arrivals to move up the depth chart right away.

In layman’s terms, a Lisfranc fracture occurs when a mid-foot bone connecting to a toe separates from the cluster of bones toward the heel. Note: This is stated here only to provide some context, nothing more. This particular scribe avoided most biology classes.

CLAYPOOL A RECEIVER AND THAT HE WILL STAY
Asked if he considered moving sophomore receiver Chase Claypool to defense, Kelly answered succinctly.

“We feel like we need his play on offense,” Kelly said. “He’ll continue to contribute on the special teams end of things, but we need his play on offense.”

KELLY ON KIZER’S NFL POTENTIAL
“I’ve had a number of conversations with GMs and coaches about [former Notre Dame quarterback] DeShone [Kizer], and my personal feeling is he has the biggest upside of all the quarterbacks. I don’t know that he’s prepared to come in and win a Super Bowl for you [this year]. Some may feel as though maybe one of the other quarterbacks are. I don’t know that firsthand. But I think, in time, he has the biggest upside of all the quarterbacks.

“I get it. It’s the NFL. Everybody’s under the same pressure of performing and needing somebody to come in right away, but I think he’s a guy that just needs some time. If he gets in the right situation, I think he’d be the guy to take.”

Kizer and eight other former Irish players will take part in a pro day tomorrow (Thursday) in front of some of those GMs and coaches.

Te’o to New Orleans; Booker to Nebraska

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Former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o has signed a two-year contract with the New Orleans Saints, per reports.

Once recovered from a torn Achilles, Te’o will join a crowded Saints linebacker corps. The Saints signed A.J. Klein—formerly of the Carolina Panthers—to a three-year, $15 million contract earlier in March and return Craig Robertson, who finished 2016 with 115 tackles.

All three have experience at the middle linebacker position in a 4-3 defense, though Klein and Robertson are both capable of playing at the strong side position, as well.

Before his week three injury, Te’o had started 34 of 38 games for the San Diego Chargers and notched 221 career tackles. With the Saints, he rejoins linebackers coach Mike Nolan, who held the same position with the Chargers in 2015 when Te’o finished with a career-high 83 tackles.

BOOKER REJOINS DIACO
It appears former Notre Dame tight ends coach and special teams coordinator Scott Booker will join the Nebraska coaching staff. Two former Irish coaches—defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and safeties coach Bob Elliott—already have seats in the Lincoln coaching room, which is quickly becoming something of a Notre Dame West.

Booker will reportedly join the Cornhuskers staff as a special teams analyst. He served as Notre Dame’s special teams coordinator from 2012 to 2016 before this past offseason’s extensive staff changes.

PRO DAY THURSDAY
A reminder: Notre Dame will hold its Pro Day this Thursday. Nine players will partake, obviously highlighted by quarterback DeShone Kizer.

The others: long snapper Scott Daly, running back Tarean Folson, tight end Chase Hounshell, defensive linemen Jarron Jones and Isaac Rochell, cornerback Cole Luke, safety Avery Sebastian and linebacker James Onwualu.

Kizer hopes to prove himself worthy of a first-round draft pick, while Jones and Rochell may be in the mix for a second-day pick, meaning in the second or third rounds.

As it is draft season, this discussion of why mock drafts exist even though most prognosticators cannot stand them is worth the few minutes needed to read.

MARCH MADNESS UPDATE
The majority of the “Inside the Irish” bracket pool’s leaders escaped the weekend’s chaos, though frontrunner andy44teg will not hold onto that top spot for long after his titlist pick, Duke, exited late the tournament late Sunday.

That will leave some character named Dennis and his North Carolina prediction as the presumptive favorite to win, well, to win absolutely nothing.

Five of the top 10 expect North Carolina to win the championship.

Pace of play: More snaps equal more scoring chances, right?

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It seems obvious enough: The more plays an offense runs, the more chances it has to score.

Sure, there is more to it than that, but the basic premise really is that simple. Ten more snaps equal 10 more opportunities at the end zone. Increasing Notre Dame’s tempo in that pursuit is not only part of why Irish coach Brian Kelly hired new offensive coordinator Chip Long, but it is also a primary emphasis of spring practice.

When Kelly announced Long’s hiring, he discussed simplifying play calls to increase pacing.

“Within our offensive system, we want to run more plays,” he said. “…There needs to be some retooling within the offensive nomenclature to be able to go to the level we want to.”

The day before spring practice began, Kelly again mentioned the correlation between lexicon and quickness of play.

“If tempo can be introduced in our offense, it has to be introduced at the ground level,” he said. “…I think with some of the things that we’ve been able to do offensively, with verbiage and nomenclature, I believe that we’ll be able to pick up the tempo even more.”

And following that first practice, one of Kelly’s first comments touched on—you guessed it—tempo.

“We were really looking at tempo on our offense,” he said. “I think we achieved that. To go fast and be sloppy is certainly not the end, but to be able to run a little bit more tempo with our offense and be effective in execution was really the most important thing.”

With the Irish returning to the practice field tomorrow (Wednesday) following spring break, the stress on speed will undoubtedly continue. Just how much of an increase can be expected of Long’s offense?

Last season, Notre Dame averaged 68.83 plays per game, in line with an average of 68.9 in Kelly’s seven years leading the Irish and similar to his average of 67.5 in three seasons at Cincinnati.

In his first and only season leading his own offense, Long averaged 74.15 plays per game at Memphis in 2016. Admittedly, one season is a small sample size, especially considering the variables prone to tilting any single college football game.

It does not take a perilous leap of faith to conclude Long picked up a good amount of offensive strategy and thinking during his four seasons as tight ends coach in Todd Graham’s Arizona State offense. More accurately, Long presumably learned from Mike Norvell, the offensive coordinator during that stretch in Tempe who then brought Long with him when Norvell took the job as head coach at Memphis.

During their shared seasons at Arizona State, Norvell and Long coached an offense that averaged 78.47 plays per game. Combine that figure with the aforementioned Memphis figure and the math yields a five-year average of 77.62 plays per game, nearly nine plays per game more than Notre Dame managed over the same stretch.

Will that be seen in 2017? The more-pertinent question may be, will it be seen in 32 days in the Blue-Gold Game? Kelly has said it will be Long’s offense to run, and April 22 will be the first chance to see that in effect.

“When I was at Cincinnati, I was the guy, I was running it by myself,” Kelly said before spring practice commenced. “I think going back to [that] is the most efficient way to do it, and get out of the way and let Chip run it.”


As has quickly become something of a norm in this space below is a listing of the stats condensed above. Before that, though, one quick note: Keep an eye on Memphis’s offense again this season. It returned the vast majority of its firepower, and Norvell will not hesitate to turn up the pressure on opposing defenses. The Tigers should be very entertaining.

(more…)

Friday at 4: 4-0 against West Virginia in history … in football

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Today, the thought of Notre Dame facing West Virginia immediately triggers thoughts of tomorrow (Saturday) and their NCAA Tournament matchup. Typically, though, those two universities facing each other would elicit memories of a particular football game.

The two faced each other plenty on the basketball court when they overlapped in the Big East for 17 seasons, compared to only four times ever on the football field. Of those four, the Irish hold a decisive 4-0 edge.

Is that significant? Not at all. But how productive and efficient do you think I have been this week? It’s the third week of March. The hope here is to reach for relevance, perhaps touch on noteworthiness and maybe even come near entertaining. If nothing else, 4-0 is a good set of memories to recall, especially that one aforementioned particular game.

Of course, that game was the 1989 Fiesta Bowl, a 34-21 national championship-sealing Notre Dame victory. Don’t let time cloud the hype of that game, a contest between the consensus No. 1 Irish and No. 3 Mountaineers.

The other three victories all came under the watch of Bob Davie: 21-14 on Nov. 22, 1997; 42-28 on Oct. 21, 2000 in Morgantown, W. Va.; and 34-24 on Oct. 13, 2001.

If this weekend’s basketball game goes the way Vegas expects—depending where you look, the line is hovering at West Virginia by two for the 12:10 p.m. ET tip—reminisce back to those four Irish football victories. After all, if West Virginia prevails, it is likely because the basketball game becomes quite physical and there may be a few football-esque plays.

Why “St.” Brown?
Junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown’s father, John Brown, joined ESPN’s 710 AM on Thursday. In addition to Equanimeous, Brown has two other football-catching sons: Stanford’s Osiris and five-star 2018 recruit Amon-ra. Thus, 710 and its hosts Keyshawn Johnson, Jorge Sedano and LZ Granderson reached out to John Brown to discuss Lavar Ball, the headline-making father of a trio of young, promising basketball stars including UCLA freshman Lonzo Ball.

“From what little I know about the guy … I think he’s doing, in general, a great job,” said Brown, a former two-time Mr. Universe and three-time Mr. World. “It’s not easy to raise three superstars… I think he’s doing a great job at promoting his boys. He loves his boys, just like every father, and just wants the best for his boys.”

Skipping past the biology lesson Brown then meandered into and its minefield of political correctness faux pas, Brown explained why his sons have such elaborate names compared to his.

“My wife was in the hospital pregnant, true story,” he said. “I told her, sweetheart, we have to talk about the name, because we can’t name the kid Brown. She goes why?

“I say, because it doesn’t look good on the back of a jersey… I say we’re going to put St. Brown because it will look good on the back of a jersey.”

If Brown, the father, was thinking of jerseys before his sons were even born, his preparation for their futures certainly expanded from there, including weightlifting programs beginning on their fifth birthdays, customized protein powder he now sells and emphasis on schoolwork.

“I told my sons when they were little, you cannot go to school on an athletic scholarship,” Brown said. “They were like, what? I said you can’t, it has to be academic, or we will not allow you. Of course, we were just saying that to get them to continue their schoolwork.”

To listen to all of Brown’s interview, head to the show’s podcast page and download the second hour of the March 16 show. Brown’s segment begins around the 21:20 mark and lasts a bit more than 10 minutes. A nod toward everyone’s preferred “Inside the Irish” writer, Keith Arnold, for taking advantage of the sun in Los Angeles to let me know about the Brown interview.

Before leaving this topic entirely, let’s remember Brown did more than add a holy designation to his offspring’s last names. When it comes to Notre Dame’s leading receiver last season, in fact, Brown displayed more creativity than this scribe ever will.

A quick correction
In Wednesday’s look at new Irish special teams coordinator Brian Polian’s last four years working with punt and kick units, glowplugv pointed out a typo in the statistics. The correct version: Notre Dame covered 22 punts in 2015, allowing 194 yards for an average of 8.82.

The four-year average numbers were accurate, as they were calculated from the notes next to the screen, not the mistake in the article.

A genuine thank you to glowplug for taking the time to check those numbers. He also argued the difference between Polian’s units at Nevada and the Irish renditions of the last four years was so negligible statistically it should not be looked at with much favor. If considering the numbers from a theoretical, data-driven standpoint, glowplug has a solid argument.

However, if applying those figures past theory, they could genuinely have an impact. If Notre Dame can gain 2.35 yards in field position with each exchange of punts, that can quickly become nearly 10 yards in a game. A shift of that magnitude can be all the difference in a fourth quarter dominated by two defenses.

March Madness update
The allure of absolutely no prize was enough to entice 69 entrants, none of which made it through a chalk-filled Thursday unscathed. Three picked 15 of the games correctly and earned 12 bonus points via upsets to establish a slight lead: Jackson; Q B; andy44teg.

Of the 69 prognosticators, a bold four predicted the Irish will win the national championship. They take the next step in that direction against West Virginia.

For now, it is not only Friday at 4, but it is also St. Patrick’s Day. Think about Notre Dame’s football record against West Virginia: 4-0. You know what to do.