Predictions: 2012 might not be all that bad

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It’s that time of year again.

Yep, that time of year where preseason predictions start trickling in, and Irish fans begin the process of forgetting the psychological beating they took the previous fall and begin to seek out the optimism that’ll skew their logic come autumn.

As the yearly slew of annual magazines start making their predictions, three of the better pundits out there have weighed in on the future of the 2012 Fighting Irish: Athlon Magazine, the legendary Phil Steele, and SBNation’s Bill Connelly, who might be my new favorite stat-based college football mind.

We already commented on Athlon’s preview of the Irish, who wisely ID’d the quarterbacking conundrum as the tipping point for this upcoming season. To save you some time, I thought I’d burn through both Steele and Connelly’s previews and point out some interesting tidbits.

PHIL STEELE: No. 21 NOTRE DAME

With Steele using shorthand and code to fit as many words as possible into his previews, here’s basically the gist of what he thinks about the Irish. (Download for free here.)

Steele has Andrew Hendrix winning the quarterbacking job, joining a group led by the South Bend Tribune’s Eric Hansen with that prediction. In typical Steele fashion, he points out how in Brian Kelly‘s first season with the Irish, he was hesitant to call QB runs with Dayne Crist and no back-up options. Crist still managed to run for 4 TDs, the most by an Irish QB since Jarious Jackson.

Steele has Davaris Daniels, Robby Toma, and TJ Jones winning wide receiver jobs. Mike Golic wins the right guard battle, and Kyle Brindza the place kicking job. Prince Shembo and Ishaq Williams will win outside linebacker jobs too, which maybe isn’t so crazy with Ben Councell and Danny Spond the only options at Troy Niklas‘ (and Shembo’s) departed dog linebacker position.

Steele is usually bullish on the Irish, and this year is no different. After breaking down the heartbreak of last season, he also makes the prediction that “despite their killer schedule, I will call for their most wins here since ’06.”

The Irish finished that season 10-3, with ugly losses to USC and LSU making you forget that the Irish had climbed into the top 5 of the AP poll.

I’ve got to believe most Irish fans would sign on for that season right now (minus an ugly loss to the Trojans).

BILL CONNELLY’S FIGHTING IRISH PREVIEW

Connelly looks at football teams through a different prism, and he’s chalked full of interesting thoughts through his preview. (Read the whole thing here.)

First for a painful reminder. Here’s Connelly’s assessment of the five Irish losses in 2011.

Notre Dame lost five games in 2011; in only one (Stanford 28, Notre Dame 14) were they beaten beyond the turnover points margin.

  • South Florida 23, Notre Dame 20. Turnover Points margin: minus-33.7 points. The Irish outgained South Florida by 254 yards but lost a staggering three turnovers inside the USF 10, one of which was returned 96 yards for a touchdown.
  • Michigan 35, Notre Dame 31. Turnover Points margin: minus-8.1 points. Notre Dame outgained Michigan by 61 yards and built a 24-7 lead in the third quarter, but they lost two more turnovers in the Michigan red zone, and eventually the Wolverines’ offense allowed them to catch up.
  • USC 31, Notre Dame 17. Turnover Points margin: minus-21.9 points. The Irish overcame an early 17-0 deficit to USC and were driving for the tying score, then gave up an 80-yard fumble return for a touchdown.
  • Florida State 18, Notre Dame 14. Turnover Points margin: minus-8.2 points. The Notre Dame defense held Florida State to 290 yards and even returned a fumble for a touchdown of their own, but they threw two interceptions inside the FSU 30 and lost.

Connelly speaks for most Irish faithful when he asks “how much can change in eight months? When do self-fulfilling prophecies stop fulfilling themselves?” Between that and a schedule that will be among the country’s most difficult on paper, it’s bizarre that he’s once again tabbing Notre Dame (with Texas and Florida) among the most underrated and overlooked teams in the country.

While properly ID’ing the lack of a No. 1 receiver, Connelly also points out the spoils the Irish have at running back and the strength of the offensive line. If only the Irish can figure out their quarterback situation, a dilemma that’ll likely determine whether or not Kelly goes back to being thought of as an offensive innovator or another offensive coach that defenses have caught up with:

Brian Kelly has led spectacular offenses nearly everywhere he has been. His final Cincinnati offense ranked second in Off. F/+, and his 2011 Irish improved from 42nd to 22nd. But fairly or unfairly, the turnovers and quarterback issues have created a bit of a stigma, and no matter who the quarterback is, the onus is on Kelly to begin figuring out how to prevent the glitches that cost them dearly last fall.

Defensively, the Irish took a step back last season, and if there’s one place things can quickly fix themselves it’s at forcing turnovers. For all the amazing things Manti Te’o has done, forcing turnovers wasn’t one of them. In fact, it’s an area that’ll likely keep this defense from going from good to great if it can’t improve.

Now, about those turnovers: Notre Dame somehow managed to force just eight fumbles a year ago. Only ten teams forced fewer; you almost accidentally force more than that in a given year. No defender forced more than one, and somehow in the course of 95.0 tackles, Te’o forced none. Notre Dame fumbled 10 more times than its opponents in 2011, and you are obviously going to lose the turnover battle when that is the case (especially when your quarterbacks throw nearly 20 interceptions to boot).

The good news: Of the 18 teams that forced eight or fewer fumbles in 2010, 15 improved their totals in 2011, and 10 forced at least 12.

The bad news: One of the teams that didn’t improve was Notre Dame, which also forced eight in 2010. Ouch. You can write off one iffy season in this regard, but two almost becomes a personality defect.

All in all, Connelly does a bit of bet hedging at the end of things, pointing to the stellar recruiting of the past few seasons as reasons the Irish could out-perform expectations while also looking at the schedule and key losses as reasons they’ll stay out of the BCS conversation.

Either way, it’s fun speculating as we just duck inside 100 days until the football season begins.

 

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?

What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

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Time spent on a traditional game wrap of a spring intrasquad exhibition seems misspent. Gold won Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game 27-14 led by rising sophomore quarterback Ian Book. The first-string defense (Gold) held the first-string offense to an average of 5.4 yards per play. For context’s sake: Last season Notre Dame gained an average of 6.1 yards per play and held opponents to 5.4.

With that abbreviated recap out of the way, what did Saturday’s pseudo-game environment show about the Irish? If the 20,147 in attendance paid attention, they had the chance to learn a few things:

Daelin Hayes will be ready to hit a quarterback in September
Notre Dame’s quarterbacks were off limits all spring. Bulls might charge when they see red, but the Irish defensive line has had to remember to ease up when they come across a quarterback’s red jersey. If sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes had forgotten that Saturday, Notre Dame might not have any quarterbacks left to play in the fall.

“At the end of the day, we’re on the same team,” Hayes said, dismissing any bitterness about the quarterbacks’ protections. “We have to keep our guys healthy. I wasn’t frustrated, but come September 2, you know.”

Officially, Hayes was credited with three sacks and another tackle for loss among his seven tackles. Admittedly, gauging sacks is tricky when the quarterback does not actually go to the ground. How many of Hayes’ three sacks and the defense’s 11 total would have been evaded if the defender needed to do more than touch the passer? That answer is highly subjective, but discounting Hayes’ numbers would miss the bigger picture.

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

Senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) notched two sacks and sophomore end Ade Ogundeji came the closest to tackling a red jersey when he stripped junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush from behind. The defensive line has been expected to be a weak point for the Irish moving forward, but the spring performance indicates it has a chance at holding its own. These accomplishments bear further merit considering Notre Dame’s offensive line is widely-considered one of its few spots of expected quality.

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

“I think it’s pretty clear Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I’d have to watch the film, but it seemed like [sophomore end] Julian Okwara was a hard guy to block coming off the edge, as well.”

Ian Book provides some peace of mind
Book was not spectacular, but he was also far from incompetent or intimidated. In his first action on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, Book completed 18-of-25 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by a 58-yard connection with sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. Meanwhile, junior Brandon Wimbush completed 22-of-32 passes for 303 yards.

Bluntly, one has not needed to follow Notre Dame for very long to fit that “long enough” qualification. Last season’s backup, Malik Zaire, saw competitive action against both Texas and Stanford. In 2015, DeShone Kizer came off the bench to start 11 games after Zaire suffered a season-ending ankle injury. (more…)

What Notre Dame players should you actually watch? Plus, catch up on reading

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If technology does its part, this will post as its typist meanders toward finding his credential for the Blue-Gold Game to conclude Notre Dame’s spring practice. If technology doesn’t do its part, well, then this will be lost to the cobwebs of the internet. Such as it goes.

This space has spent much of the past week discussing what to look for in the 12:30 p.m. ET exhibition. Worry about the big picture, not the individuals. Fret about the macro, not the micro.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the indivdual players
Blue-Gold Game primer with help from Notre Dame’s coordinators
Four defensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game
Four offensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game

But, if insistent on focusing on singular players, look to the inexperienced, the names you are unfamiliar with. The 15th and final practice of spring may be no more than a practice in reality, but it is in front of nearly 30,000 fans in Notre Dame Stadium. Some players do not have so much as that minimal experience.

“The Blue-Gold Game, specifically, is a time for us to emulate a game-like situation,” senior safety/linebacker/rover Drue Tranquill said. “Especially for guys like freshmen, second-semester guys coming in, it’s a great opportunity for them to get that game feeling, but also continue to take steps in the process to get better.”

The question on the tip of your tongue is a fair one. If you are unfamiliar with the names, how are you supposed to focus on those players? How are you to know who fits the appropriate tunnel vision version of perspective?

Let’s turn to Irish coach Brian Kelly’s mentions from Wednesday–primarily, sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara, sophomore long snapper John Shannon, senior kicker Sam Kohler, sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem and sophomore safety Jalen Elliott.

Obviously, that is just a sampling. Less obviously, this post’s purpose may or may not be to link to previous reading material and remind you of the vague but pertinent purposes to today’s endeavor. It is neither be-all nor end-all. It is simply another opportunity to gauge what may come down the line.

But hey, how about a prediction? Per Kelly, the first-team offense and second-team defense will be in blue, against the first-team defense and second-team offense in white.

PREDICTION: Blue 37, White 21

HOW TO WATCH
As a recurring reminder, the Blue-Gold Game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network, as well as streamed online at ndstream.nbcsports.com and on the NBC Sports app.

Friday at 4: Four offensive positions to watch in Notre Dame’s spring game

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There are two common ways of looking at the annual spring game.
It is the last action involving Notre Dame football readily available for public consumption until Sept. 2, 133 days away.
Or it is an exercise rife with contradiction exacerbated by hype, yielding little-to-no reliable intelligence.
Like much of life, the most accurate assessment falls somewhere between those two views.

If junior running back Dexter Williams breaks off two 50-yard-plus touchdown runs, does that mean he will have multiple big plays in 2017? Not at all. It does mean he will likely have more opportunities for them, though. Just like in spring’s previous 14 practices, the Irish coaches will take what they see and apply it moving forward.

The past—and as of Saturday evening, the Blue-Gold Game will qualify as the past—does not dictate the future, but it can influence one’s approach to it.

Aside from Williams (see the second item below for more on him and the running backs), what other players/positions could influence their future roles the most with their performance to close spring?

BIG PASSING TARGETS: Alizé Jones and Co.
In this instance, big is meant literally. Notre Dame has an embarrassment of riches of tall, long, physical tight ends and receivers. Junior Alizé Jones earns specific mention here due to his inaction last season. Irish fans and coaches alike have a better idea of sophomore receiver Chase Claypool and junior receiver Miles Boykin. They have 2016 film to look at.

Jones, however, sat out the season due to academic issues. His on-field performance largely remains a question mark, but if he combines this spring’s praise with his 6-foot-4 ½ frame holding 245 listed pounds, that could turn into an exclamation point.

“He’s a perfect fit,” new Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long said Friday. “That’s why I recruited him like crazy when I was at Arizona State. He’s a prototypical [tight end], a guy who can run, who can catch.

“The biggest thing about Alizé is he’s taking great pride in his blocking ability right now, his presence of being an end-line guy, his protection and his overall physicality. When you think like that, you’re going to become a better receiver.” (more…)