Pregame Six Pack: Blue & Gold (and a certain Irish victory)

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It may count the same as the other fourteen practices allotted by NCAA rules during the spring, but there will be plenty of eyeballs on the last official workout of the school year for the Irish. With a national broadcast on NBC Sports Network kicking off at 1:30 p.m. ET, a spring spent mostly working away from the eyes of media will be opened up for all to see in high definition, tightening the microscope on a Notre Dame football program that’s had a roller-coaster spring.

From position changes to unexpected departures, a quarterback battle that’ll likely last deep into August, and a wide receiving corps in desperate need of reinforcements, plenty has happened since the Irish ended the 2011 season with a disappointing loss to Florida State.

To get you up to speed, the pregame six pack will give you six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings, as we prepare for a football game where the Irish are certain to win.

***

While the focus should stay on the players on the field, the most intriguing football player on campus is still Aaron Lynch.

Brian Kelly isn’t in the business of talking people into staying. In his first days as coach at Notre Dame, he wished wide receiver Shaq Evans well, unwilling to re-recruit a talented player to a team where he wasn’t committed to playing. While mystery still surrounds cornerback Tee Shepard‘s departure, Kelly didn’t blink when Shepard went home to Fresno, looking more and more a lock to never set foot on campus again after being one of the Irish’s most steadfast (and important) recruits.

A week ago, Kelly addressed the media without flinching, announcing that rising star defensive end Aaron Lynch “has quit the football team.” While he remains on campus finishing the semester before deciding where to take his prodigious talents, it appears that Kelly is fine with living the credo “next man in.” But that doesn’t mean his family is.

Thursday evening, Alice Lynch, Aaron’s mother and an active presence on Twitter, took to the popular social networking website to seek the help of former Irish defensive end Justin Tuck. “Please go to Zahm Hall and tell my son Aaron what a bad decision he is making by leaving ND. Thank you.”

The message spread like wildfire across the web, and certainly confirmed the suspicions of many that the younger Lynch is making a unilateral decision, one that wasn’t run by his mother, teammates, or coaches. That Lynch’s mother would reach out of Notre Dame’s best NFL player, a defensive end that battled culture shock in South Bend to become one of the best ambassadors of the university playing professional football, shows both the power of social media, and the lengths Lynch’s mother is willing to go to talk sense into her son.

Former Irish player Spencer Boyd took to Twitter today to announce Lynch would be joining Skip Holtz‘s South Florida team this summer, and there were other reports that Lynch would be visiting Tampa for a visit this weekend. But the fact Lynch’s mother would reach out to Tuck, who is serving as an honorary captain this Saturday, gives you the feeling that the final chapter in Lynch’s Notre Dame career may not have been written in ink.

***

With the depth chart at wide receiver dwindling, it’s time for Daniel Smith and Davaris Daniels to step up.

As the Irish enter the first year of life after Michael Floyd, they’ll walk into Saturday’s scrimmage with a depth chart more than a little short. With incoming freshman Justin Ferguson and Chris Brown not coming to campus until summer, even at full strength, it was tough to field a complete depth chart at the outside receiver positions.

Add to that some untimely injuries this spring, and the lack of receivers was a big reason Kelly decided against a traditional scrimmage that split the roster in half. With fifth-year senior John Goodman suffering a minor ankle injury that’ll likely keep him out of the spring game and Luke Massa suffering an ACL injury that’ll likely keep him sidelined into next season, the Irish are down to four scholarship players at the outside receiver positions — a number that just isn’t enough in a spread offense.

But the shortage should benefit two players that were persons of interest this spring: rising junior Daniel Smith and soon-to-be sophomore Davaris Daniels. Both have been under close watch by Kelly, and both seem to have performed up to task.

After bearing the brunt of some candid comments by Kelly, Daniels — who has already been pronounced one of the most dynamic athletes on the roster by the head coach — turned in a steady week of practice and has the staff feeling like he’ll be ready to go come fall.

“This last week, DaVaris Daniels really stepped up his play and became a guy that we can feel comfortable now saying that he’s going to help us win games next year,” Kelly said. “That’s a really important thing.”

After battling a difficult depth chart and some injury woes in his first two years in the program, Smith, a South Bend native that’s yet to make much of a difference on the field, made it through spring practice unscathed and ready to use his 6-foot-4 frame for some good.

“Daniel is important to us,” Kelly said this week. “We need him to come up and be a consistent player for us, and it’s been about injuries for him. He’s got the injury bug and it looks like he’s kicked it because he made every spring practice and he hadn’t been able to do that in his previous time here. So a really positive step for Daniel Smith this spring.”

TJ Jones returns the most snaps at the receiver position, and we’ll see if he can make a leap as an upperclassman after battling through a challenging season off the field last season. We’ll also see walk-on Andre Smith getting some reps, as the North Broward Prep, Florida prospect has done some nice things this spring.

***

While Kelly’s declared the playbook open, don’t expect to see all the new wrinkles.

Talking with coaches the past two years, the Blue-Gold game was one of the least efficient practices of the season. In Brian Kelly’s first year, the offense ran about as vanilla as it could possibly go, with Irish fans dazzled at a quick pace, and more than fine with seeing the same three running plays. On defense, Bob Diaco made sure his unit didn’t run a single alignment that they’d use during the season.

Last season, Kelly and company were happy to get out of the workout unscathed, with defensive starters pulled quickly, Dayne Crist and Tommy Rees both protected and pulled quickly, and the second half given to Andrew Hendrix, Everett Golson, not to mention the breakout performance of Aaron Lynch.

With four quarterbacks that need to see live bullets, and new offensive coordinator Chuck Martin running the show, Kelly has reversed course on what he’s trying to get out of the spring’s final workout.

“We’re going to show,” Kelly said. “Everybody has film on us. So we’re going to run our offense and our defense, and our quarterbacks are live, all four quarterbacks are live. They need to be live, they need to be part of it.”

Making his quarterbacks live is a luxury the Irish didn’t have in Kelly’s last two spring games, both featuring Crist rehabilitating a major knee injury. And while each quarterback will be treated like any other ball carrier, don’t truly expect to see all the new wrinkles come out, especially with Martin and Kelly completely revamping the personnel groupings.

One new play in particular to watch for? The “Fly Sweep” that West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen used to shred Clemson’s defense with in the Orange Bowl. (For the genesis of the play, here’s a great rundown.) We’ve already seen the play in UND.com practice videos, meaning Martin and Kelly won’t be afraid to show it again. With talented slot versatility with guys like Robby Toma, Theo Riddick, incoming freshman Davonte Neal and even Cierre Wood, don’t be surprised to see this come into play on Saturday.

***

Jamoris Slaughter will only be adding to his versatility.

After dropping down into the box last season to play outside linebacker against Air Force, the defense found one of its most versatile weapons in safety Jamoris Slaughter. After losing most of his junior year with a nagging foot injury suffered in the opener against Purdue, Slaughter showed his value by moving seamlessly from the back of the defense to the front seven, working well taking on both pulling guards and speedy receivers, filling in for field linebacker Prince Shembo, who struggled playing out of position for most of the year.

With field cornerback a major concern with Lo Wood and Josh Atkinson battling it out for the job across from junior Bennett Jackson, don’t be surprised to see Slaughter working in at another spot, optimizing one of the Irish’s most flexible players. What looked like an experiment at cornerback earlier in the spring is now clearly cross-training.

“I don’t think it’s an experiment,” Kelly said. “He’s in there if we need him. If we get into a bind or we lose a guy or two, he can go in there. I remember when I played baseball, I carried two gloves: a catcher’s mitt and a first baseman’s glove. That’s kind of what we’re doing with Jamoris. He’s our safety, but he’s got to be ready to go if we need him.”

There’s no cornerback help coming in the fall, with Shepard gone and the Irish unable to bring in any other recruits after players like Yuri Wright and Anthony Standifer had to be taken off the recruiting board. While Cam McDaniel has shown promise in his 14 practices learning a new position, getting the cornerbacks off the field healthy is of the utmost importance, as is making sure Slaughter can play anywhere. With the coaches confident that Zeke Motta and Austin Collinsworth can handle safety reps, adding another dimension to Slaughter’s game will only help.

***

It’s a recruiting reunion on campus this weekend for the Irish.

In years past, the Blue-Gold game has been a showcase weekend for the Irish coaching staff as they unofficially welcome handfuls of recruits to campus. That’ll stay the same this weekend, though most recruits coming to campus have already given their pledge to the Irish.

Nine of the ten verbal commitments to the Irish will be in South Bend this weekend for the Blue-Gold game. Offensive linemen Hunter Bivin, Steve Elmer, Mike McGlinchey and Colin McGovern will all reunite after seeing each other at the Irish’s last junior day. They’ll be joined by cornerback Devin Butler, defensive end Jacob Matuska, wide receivers James Onwualu and Corey Robinson and quarterback Malik Zaire. The only commitment that can’t make it this weekend is New Jersey cornerback Rashad Kinlaw.

The Irish hoped to get an appearance from uber-recruit Jaylon Smith, but the Fort Wayne product — who was timed running a 4.4, and dazzled at his regular outside linebacker/defensive end position before taking reps as a 6-foot-3, 230-pound shutdown cornerback at an Adidas combine recently — will be playing in a seven-on-seven tournament.

But fear not, Irish fans. Notre Dame has its own secret weapon working on Smith. None other than the school’s most popular athlete, All-American point guard Skylar Diggins. After Smith tweeted out candidates like Alabama, Ohio State, Notre Dame, and USC, Diggins — for all of her 230,439 followers to see — tweeted back at Smith, “Irish. Easy.”

***

Blue-Gold performance is no indicator for future earnings.

There are plenty of reasons to watch the Blue-Gold game on Saturday. (First of all, it’s your last chance to watch the Irish on TV until you’re up at dawn to see them playing Navy in Dublin.) But take anything that happens on the field with a grain of salt. A great performance in the Blue-Gold game is just that: A great performance in a spring scrimmage. For every performance like Aaron Lynch had last season, there’s one by Kyle Budinscak, who racked up five sacks during the 2001 spring game. (He never had more than three sacks in a season.) Cierre Wood’s big 2010 Blue-Gold game was a sign of things to come, while Junior Jabbie‘s breakout 2007 performance is noting more than a fun footnote in Irish lore.

With live quarterbacks, ones-versus-ones, and legitimate competition at several key positions, there’s plenty you can glean from the only up-close look at the Irish we’ll get until Dublin. But a terrific (or terrible) performance by anyone — quarterbacks included — may be big news to us, but only one of many data-points to coaches.

Saturday will be a fun one and will likely give a few hints at what’s to come. But if you’re expecting to reach any conclusions, you’ll walk away disappointed.

 

 

 

 

Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

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This space has mentioned a few times the dearth of returning sacks among Notre Dame’s defensive line. It is a pertinent fact—no returning Irish defensive lineman recorded a sack in the 2016 season—but it fails to mention the flipside of that.

Most of Notre Dame’s defensive linemen had few, if any, opportunities to rush the passer in 2016. Perhaps at the top of the list of those who should bring down the opposing passer a few times this fall, sophomore Daelin Hayes has laid claim to a starting rush spot through five spring practices.

“The athleticism is what obviously stands out,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “He’s extremely athletic, he’s fit physically, 250 pounds and very strong.”

These facts are, after all, the reasons Hayes was a highly sought-after five-star recruit according to rivals.com.

“It’s the football knowledge, learning the techniques at the position in which he plays is really the piece,” Kelly continued. “It’s just learning right now for him. This is the time to do it, in spring ball.

“Squeezing down on a tight end when the back is away. Wrong-arming the puller. These are all football terms and schemes that are a bit new to him. We have to be patient with him. He’s an explosive athlete. There’s going to be some mistakes along the way, and I’m okay with that as long as he’s learning.”

Without much depth pushing for playing time behind him, Hayes will have the opportunity to make, and subsequently understand, those mistakes. Seniors Jay Hayes (no relation) and Andrew Trumbetti are mired in competition for the other end spot, while sophomores Julian Okwara, Adetokunbo Ogundeji and Khalid Kareem may have even more development ahead of them than Daelin Hayes does.

Incoming freshmen Kofi Wardlow and Jonathon MacCollister will join the fray in the summer, but for now, the younger Hayes has his chance to impress with his natural gifts while absorbing the intricacies of new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s defense.

Hayes is not a complete unknown. While Okwara made four tackles last season in 11 games and Kareem appeared in four games, Hayes saw action in every contest, finishing the season with 11 tackles, one pass breakup and one forced fumble.

“He’s an athlete,” defensive line coach Mike Elston said last week. “He’s on the edge in a two-point stance. He’s not a trained, put-your-hand-on-the-ground defensive end. He played running back in high school. He can see things better in a two-point and can diagnose quicker. He’s able to be more productive.”

It may be accurate to mention no returning Notre Dame defensive linemen tackled a quarterback for a loss last season, but it is more precise to also include the Irish have possibilities of changing that trend.

SPEAKING OF THE DEFENSIVE LINE
Notre Dame is nearly as thin at defensive tackle as it is at end. Junior Jerry Tillery leads the way with senior end-converted-to-tackle Jonathan Bonner lining up next to him thus far. Their reserves: Oft-concussed senior Daniel Cage, senior Pete Mokwuah and junior Micah Dew-Treadway with junior Elijah Taylor out for the spring with a foot injury.

Theoretically, junior Brandon Tiassum is also in the mix, and three freshmen (Kurt Hinish, Myron Tagovailo-Amosa and four-star Darnell Ewell) will join the group in the summer.

And maybe, just maybe, perhaps, possibly … Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano could walk onto campus alongside those freshmen. Pagano visited Notre Dame the first week of March, and was due to look at Oklahoma and Arkansas the next two weekends, respectively. Instead, Pagano reportedly cancelled both of those visits Monday.

Pagano does still have a visit to Oregon scheduled for April 21. Until indicated otherwise, it may be prudent to presume Pagano hopes to land as close to his Hawaiian home as possible.

RELATED READING: 1 Day Until Spring Practice: A look at the defensive line

Recruiting success continues with OL Dirksen, class’s 12th commit

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Even in the doldrums of spring practice, Notre Dame’s recent recruiting success continues. Rivals.com three-star/scout.com four-star offensive lineman John Dirksen offered a verbal commitment to the Irish on Saturday, bringing the 2018 class to 12 commitments.

The 6-foot-5, 290-pounds Dirksen (Marion High School; Maria Stein, Ohio) joins consensus three-star prospect Cole Mabry (Brentwood H.S.; Brentwood, Tenn.) as the offensive linemen thus far among the 12. In three of the last four years, Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has pulled in four recruits, with 2015’s two (Trevor Ruhland, Tristen Hoge) as the exception. This recruiting cycle could again bring a limited offensive line haul, given the likely limits on the class’s size.

While any and all current class of 2018 team rankings should be taken with many grains of salt—there are 318 days between today and National Signing Day, after all—Dirksen’s commitment solidifies the Irish hold on the No. 3 class, per rivals.com. Other recruiting services place Notre Dame even higher.

Dirksen chose Hiestand and the Irish over offers from Michigan State, Iowa State and Boston College, among others.

 

Holmes out for spring; Jones & Jones shining

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Notre Dame’s spring continued over the weekend, and is all too often the case with football, that led to an injury. Early enrollee running back C.J. Holmes will probably miss the rest of spring practice due to a separated shoulder, Irish coach Brian Kelly announced following Saturday’s practice.

“We’ll get an MRI and know a little bit further on Monday once that calms down a little bit,” Kelly said. “We’ll get a picture of that and see. He had an open repair on that same shoulder his sophomore year in high school.”

Behind three backs, including two with experience, Holmes was unlikely to see playing time in the backfield in 2017.

Of those three backs, sophomore Tony Jones, Jr., is the unknown after preserving a year of eligibility last season. In limited practice viewing, however, Jones has only impressed. He has caught Kelly’s eye, as well.

“He’s 225 pounds, can catch the ball coming out of the backfield, [is] assignment correct, and can run elusively and can get into the second level,” Kelly said. “What does that equal? He’s a pretty good back.

“Obviously he was noticeable today in his play and he got some work with the first group as well. He wasn’t just getting second-team reps.”

Jones may be getting some first-unit exposure, but expect him to remain behind junior Josh Adams in the depth chart. Considering Jones’ style is somewhat comparable to Adams’, whereas junior Dexter Williams presents something of a change of pace, Williams should see more action than the sophomore, as well.

MORE PRAISE FOR ALIZE JONES
Junior tight end Alizé Jones—rather, Alizé Mack, per his Twitter account—has taken the lead in spring’s race of who reaps the most sound bite accolades. In complimenting Jones, who missed last season due to an academic suspension, Kelly also managed to laud new offensive coordinator Chip Long.

“I think Chip is doing a terrific job with [Jones],” Kelly said. “He’s got a good relationship. He knows how to rise him up when he needs to and scold him when he needs to. Alizé needs a little bit of that.

“He’s virtually un-coverable in certain areas of the field. I don’t care at any level. You can’t cover him. He just has that kind of talent. The one that I think stands out to me in the few days is he’s committed himself to being a blocker and playing physical. If he continues to do that, we’re going to find ourselves with a lot of tight ends on the field.”

Presumably, Jones would join graduate student tight end Durham Smythe in two tight end sets. It should be remembered, Long has historically shown a preference for such formations, and with Notre Dame’s plethora of options at the position, Long’s tendencies have no need to change. For that matter, Long had some praise for Jones this weekend, as well.

“Alizé can be as good as he wants to be,” Long said Friday. “…He’s growing up each and every day. Great joy to coach, and that whole group is. He doesn’t want to let that group down. There’s no question he can be as good as he wants to be.”

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.