Weekend notes: Jones, Tuck, and summer visits

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With students trickling back to South Bend to begin “voluntary” summer workouts and the summer semester, we are slowly on our way out of the doldrums as we crawl towards the 2012 football season.

We’ll continue profiling the freshman that are set to enroll in summer school. We’ll take a closer look at the sophomores who saved a year of eligibility last season. As we have the past two years, we’ll run down the Top 25 players on the Irish roster, and I’m slowly working my way through the Irish’s 2012 opponents, getting myself up to speed on the 12 teams that look to spoil the Irish’s BCS hopes.

A friendly reminder: While it’s just me on this side of the keyboard, this is a communal exercise. If there’s anything you’d like to see more of, feel free to reach out. You can find me on Twitter, lurking around in the comments below, or shoot me an email through the site.

Anyway, on to a few interesting links to get you through the weekend.

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Junior wide receiver TJ Jones was home in Atlanta and made an appearance on 790 The Zone sports radio. It was an interesting segment that gave some more insight into Jones, who is going to be looked upon to do some big things for the Irish this season after battling through adversity last season after the shocking loss of his father Andre at the far too young age of 42.

Jones sounded polished and the perfect representative of Notre Dame during his interview, where he talked a bit about his recruitment to Notre Dame and his relationship with Rocket Ismail.

“He’s my Godfather,” Jones said of Rocket. “I call him for advice, talk to him about anything, from life, to football, to his family and seeing how they’re doing.”

Jones also talked about his decision to come to Notre Dame, which hinged on the fact that Stanford wouldn’t let Jones early enroll.

“As things came closer to the end of that first semester of my senior season, graduating early really became important to me and I realized the benefits I’d gain from it,” Jones said. “That’s when I thought I should start looking at other places than Stanford and Notre Dame was another place with a degree like Stanford. Coach Weis came through with his other coaches and recruited me. Having my dad play there and getting to play early, really opened my eyes to Notre Dame.”

(Irish fans take note: There’s a Top 25 program that just got done playing in a BCS game that doesn’t allow recruits to early enroll, something Notre Dame started under Charlie Weis.)

Jones also was asked about the shocking loss of his father last June, and how it affected his family.

“You just learn to lean on the people who love you,” Jones said. “Friends, teammates, coaches if you’re close to them. For me being the oldest, who was still at home it was just me being the rock at that point. I couldn’t show weakness because I had four younger siblings and my mother who needed someone to be the rock for the family.”

With the Irish looking for someone to fill the very large shoes of Michael Floyd, Jones’ year of maturing after a family-shattering ordeal might help him. The only receiver with significant returning playing time, Jones should be poised to make a big leap forward this season.

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Speaking of great representatives of Notre Dame football, New York Giant Justin Tuck, the All-Pro, two-time Super Bowl winning defensive lineman, can add children’s author to his resume. (I imagine this will be just above Subway pitchman.)

The New York Times has more on Tuck’s creative — and philanthropic — endeavors:

Tuck, who has been the leader of the Giants’ defense for the past five seasons, is hardly the only athlete to write a children’s book. In New York alone, Alex Rodriguez and Curtis Granderson are children’s authors, and Tuck’s former teammate Tiki Barber published several titles with his twin, Ronde.

What separates Tuck, however, is the motivation behind the project; his commitment to getting children to read has become more than just the focus of his charity, RUSH for Literacy. It has also been the bedrock for Tuck and his wife, Lauran, as they get used to being parents.

“I like to think we’re pretty amazing parents,” Tuck said, laughing, “but that doesn’t mean it isn’t hard sometimes. There are lots of decisions to talk about and issues to figure out. But we know that reading is where it all starts. We know that for sure.”

Tuck’s charity — Read, Understand, Succeed, and Hope for Literacy, has raised more than $1 million and donated more than 45,000 books to children in New York, New Jersey, and central Alabama, where Tuck grew up. Tuck’s charity also holds a celebrity billiards tournament.

Tuck was last in the news in South Bend thanks to a Tweet from Alice Lynch, asking the star defensive end to talk some sense into her son. While the conversation between now-former Irish defensive ends didn’t change any hearts, Tuck has become one of the best ambassadors in the NFL, and a proud alumnus of Notre Dame. Hopefully Lynch can at least glean some of that from Tuck.

***

To switch topics to the never-ending story of recruiting, IrishSportsDaily.com has a great free article on the recruits most likely to pull the trigger on a commitment next. With several high profile recruits visiting campus in the next few weeks, there could be some more good news coming for Irish fans before the calendar turns again.

Brian Smith of ISD runs through a pretty prolific lists of recruits — defensive lineman Isaac Rochell, linebacker Alex Anzalone, Stanford commit Doug Randolph, uber-recruit Jaylon Smith, defensive end Ebenezer Ogundeko, linebacker Danny Mattingly, defensive end Tashawn Bower, and cornerback Cole Luke, who will be on campus with his high school coach, former Irish quarterback Steve Belles next week.

Getting prospects on campus during the summer and before their official visits is a huge step towards getting a recruit committed. Lots of credit should go to the coaching staff for getting these highly touted recruits to campus before the season.

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…)