Counting down the Irish: 15-11

56 Comments

Now that we’ve got our math mistakes cleaned up, let’s get back to some analysis of the Top 25 so far. The inclusion of Zeke Motta at No. 25 makes plenty of sense, and if there’s a breakout senior waiting to make his name, Motta is a pretty good candidate. Playing in the shadow of Harrison Smith, Motta has seen plenty of action for two solid seasons, and should feel comfortable anchoring the secondary, regardless of where Jamoris Slaughter is lined up.

A snapshot of the top 10 names on the list shows the Irish program seems to be in good shape for the future. Of the names listed, only Motta and Toma are finishing their eligibility this season, adding credence to the thought that 2013 might be a very promising year for the Irish.

More evidence that the youth of this roster is its strength comes from names 15-11. Once again, all five players listed will have eligibility remaining after ’12, and three are true sophomores. On-field experience might be the weakness of this group, with Chris Watt entering camp entrenched at his guard position, and Prince Shembo in and out of the starting lineup last season.

The third and final quarterback of the rankings slots his way in here, with Everett Golson coming in at No. 14. Golson, who redshirted during his freshman season, impressed during the Blue-Gold game, but also showed difficulties with game management duties and ball security, two very large issues that seem to be sticking points for Brian Kelly and new offensive coordinator Chuck Martin.  Still, anybody who doesn’t think Golson is going to find his way into the Irish offensive package is fooling themselves, and even if he isn’t the “starting” quarterback, expect to see a healthy dose of Golson in the Irish game plan.

Once again, here’s our voting panel:

Eric Hansen, South Bend Tribune @HansenSouthBend
John Walters, The Daily @jdubs88
John Vannie, NDNation.com
Eric Murtaugh, representing OneFootDown.com  @OneFootDown
Ryan Ritter, representing HerLoyalSons.com @HLS_NDtex
Keith Arnold, NBCSports.com’s Inside the Irish @KeithArnoldNBC

Here’s the list as it stands:

IRISH 2012 Top 25
25. Zeke Motta (S, Sr.)
24. Tommy Rees (QB, Jr.)
23. Andrew Hendrix (QB, Jr.)
22. Davonte Neal (WR, Fr.)
21. TJ Jones (WR, Jr.)
20. Robby Toma (WR, Sr.)
19. Christian Lombard (OL, Jr.)
18. Davaris Daniels (WR, So.)
17. Troy Niklas (TE, So.)
16. Bennett Jackson (CB, Jr.)

RANKINGS

15. Ishaq Williams (OLB, So.) After putting together the least impressive freshman season out of the “big three” defensive recruits, Williams turned it on this spring, taking advantage of Prince Shembo’s injury and rededicating himself to football after bouts of homesickness. Physically gifted, Williams is the prototype of what the Irish want in a ‘Cat’ linebacker, and has looked good enough in space that Bob Diaco might not hesitate to put he and Prince Shembo on the edges together. With some of the best pass rush potential on the roster, Williams could help this unit get more heat on the quarterback this season, something missing last year.

(Highest ranking: 9th. Lowest ranking: 20th)

14. Everett Golson (QB, So.) We’ll find out soon whether or not this ranking is a product of optimism or talent. Golson, a record-setting prep quarterback that sat out last season after enrolling early, has all the tools to be a perfect fit in Brian Kelly’s spread offense. He might not be as fast as Irish fans hope (he clocked a 4.8 forty during spring testing), but he’s elusive enough to supply a running threat at quarterback and has plenty of arm to make any throw in this offense. While rumors of ball security problems were semi-confirmed during the Blue-Gold game, so was the talent that make putting the keys to the offense in his hands a promising proposition.

(Highest ranking: 5th. Lowest ranking: 20th)

13. Chris Watt (LG, Sr.) At 6-foot-3, 310-pounds, Watt fits the profile of a left guard perfectly, and his first season starting showed him an effective partner with Zack Martin on the left side of the line. With a year of experience under his belt, not to mention another year with Paul Longo, Watt should be ready to thrive under new offensive line coach Harry Hiestand, who preaches a physicality that jives with the type of football the Illinois native likes to play. If Watt and Lombard play up to their potential, and the Irish find one more piece on the right side of the offensive line, this could be a very effective unit.

(Highest ranking: 6th. Lowest ranking: Unranked)

12. Prince Shembo (OLB, Jr.) Shembo’s lofty rating surprises me, yet also give you an idea of the pass rush potential the rising junior has. Playing mostly out of position at drop linebacker last season, it wasn’t a lost sophomore year, but a step back, as he logged only two sacks after having 4.5 during his rookie campaign. With Darius Fleming graduated, Shembo will likely step into the ‘Cat’ linebacker spot, though a foot injury this spring gave Ishaq Williams plenty of time to get comfortable there. Still, with Aaron Lynch no longer on the roster, Shembo might be best suited to put a hand on the ground and chase the quarterback. He’s not big enough to play end in the 3-4, but when the Irish slide a fourth man down, Shembo could be at his best rushing the passer.

(Highest ranking: 8th. Lowest ranking: 18th)

11. George Atkinson III (RB, So.) You wonder where Atkinson would be in these rankings if it weren’t for his electric spring game performance. Even without it, the 215-pound speedster would’ve surely tallied his share of votes thanks to his work in the Irish return game, where his two touchdowns tied a school record. Cierre Wood may be the starting running back and Theo Riddick will certainly deserve carries, but the homerun threat in the Irish backfield is Atkinson. Whether it’s from behind center or split wide, expect the offense to put an emphasis on getting Atkinson touches, and his world-class blend of power and speed should do the rest. Ball security issues aside (and that’s a big assumption), Atkinson showing comfort lined up in the backfield was the best surprise of the spring.

(Highest ranking: 5th. Lowest ranking: 17th)

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

Getty Images
5 Comments

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

Getty Images
26 Comments

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

Getty Images
7 Comments

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

Getty Images
4 Comments

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…)