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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.

 

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

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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…)