Counting down the Irish: 10-6

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We’re heading down the stretch in our annual countdown of the Irish roster. If numbers 15 to 11 were all about bottled promise, 10-6 has a tried and true feel to it. After a youth movement was largely responsible for the upper echelon of this list, this group has a veteran feel to it. How veteran? Consider: Not one of these players was truly a Brian Kelly recruit. (Lewis-Moore, Riddick, Slaughter and Cave were all Weis recruits. Nix committed to Notre Dame when it didn’t have a head coach, a nice piece of recruiting by Tony Alford.)

If the Irish are going to put together a big season, they’ll need to get production out of this group. For guys like Lewis-Moore and Cave, it’ll mean rebounding from seasons decimated by injury. For Riddick, it’ll mean exorcising special teams demons and nicks and dings that kept him from being the electric football player Brian Kelly thought he had. There’s no member of the secondary with more on his shoulders than Slaughter, who will likely be a do-everything type of player in a secondary in desperate need. And Louis Nix will have to prove he’s the player some members of this panel think he is — His No. 3 ranking is the highest of any player we’ve seen so far, but his No. 18 grade shows his inconsistency.

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.)
15. Ishaq Williams (OLB, So.)
14. Everett Golson (QB, So.)
13. Chris Watt (LG, Sr.)
12. Prince Shembo (OLB, Jr.)
11. George Atkinson (RB, So.)

RANKINGS

10. Kapron Lewis-Moore (DE, 5th year) A knee injury ended Lewis-Moore’s season in late October, forcing the Irish to play without both starting defensive ends, crippling losses a year after Ethan Johnson and KLM anchored a position grouping short on depth. After rehabbing the injury, Lewis-Moore found himself in an unfamiliar spot this spring: A three-year returning starter who no longer had a starting job. That dilemma was solved when Aaron Lynch departed for South Florida, but Lewis-Moore had almost gotten lost in the shuffle, no easy task for a 6-foot-4, 306-pound defensive end. At his best, KLM can be a run-stuffing 3-4 defensive end that has plenty of athleticism. While the sack numbers have yet to come, Lewis-Moore will be counted on to anchor a position group looking to rebound after injuries decimated the group.

(Highest ranking: 8th. Lowest ranking: 19th)

9. Theo Riddick (RB, Sr.) Riddick enters his final season in South Bend at the position he started, joining Cierre Wood, George Atkinson (and Amir Carlisle) at running back, one of the deepest spots on the roster. After two uneven seasons at slot receiver, it’s hard to tell whether the move was a product of Riddick disappointing as a wideout, or his running skills too good to ignore. The answer is probably somewhere in the middle, and with Tony Alford taking over coaching running backs and slot receivers, Riddick finds himself in the rare position of being a perfect fit regardless of where he lines up.

Nobody in the panel was tougher on Riddick than I was, ranking him 13th and the third best running back on the roster. (I still haven’t forgotten the muffed punts and getting caught by a Navy DB.) Yet all reports coming out of South Bend have Riddick looking at home and solid in the backfield, pushing Cierre Wood for carries and being every bit the dynamic presence “Good Theo” can be when he’s playing with confidence. With the Irish in dire need of a dynamic returner in the punt game and an offensive threat capable of making big chunk plays, Riddick putting together a senior season to remember would be perfect timing for the Irish.

(Highest ranking: 8th. Lowest ranking: 13th)

8. Jamoris Slaughter (DB, 5th year) With the graduation of Harrison Smith, fifth-year senior Slaughter will likely take over the reins of the secondary. After struggling to stay healthy in 2010, Slaughter took over a key role in the Irish defense, giving coordinator Bob Diaco the flexibility to slide Slaughter down into the box, where the safety started replacing Prince Shembo in certain defensive sets. At 6-foot, 200-pounds, Slaughter lacks the ideal size for a safety, but his ability to play a multitude of positions, and his penchant to make big hits, has Slaughter looking comfortable down in the box. Early in spring, Slaughter displayed his versatility by taking some snaps at cornerback, a position thin on numbers after Robert Blanton and Gary Gray graduated. Yet Austin Collinsworth’s torn labrum likely ends that experiment, though the Irish have a half-dozen new safeties on the roster, and new coach Bob Elliott’s ability to get a youngster ready to play with help keep Slaughter versatile, part of what makes him so valuable to the defense.

(Highest ranking: 6th. Lowest ranking: 14th)

7. Braxston Cave (C, 5th year) Cave was another key veteran that suffered a season ending injury, when the senior center tore ligaments in his foot early in the Wake Forest game. While Mike Golic filled in admirably, there was a noticeable difference along the offensive line without Cave in the lineup and an offense that looked so promising throughout the early parts of the season sputtered to a disappointing close of the season. At 6-foot-3, 303-pounds, Cave is one of the strongest players on the Irish roster. He started 22 straight games before the injury and after taking precautions during spring football, Cave is completely healthy as the Irish prepare to enter fall camp. At his best, Cave is a powerful run blocker that’s deserving of the preseason watch list kudos being bestowed on him. With new head coach Harry Hiestand bringing in former All-Pro center Olin Kreutz to work with the interior of the line, expect a nice uptick along the offensive front.

(Highest ranking: 4th. Lowest ranking: 14th)

6. Louis Nix III (DT, Jr.) Nix is one of the most colorful personalities on the Irish roster, but the stout run-stuffing defensive tackle is also one of the team’s most enigmatic.  In his first season on the field after a redshirt year was needed to get Nix into shape, production wasn’t a problem — Nix was the most active defensive lineman on the team, making tackles on almost 11-percent of his snaps. Yet Nix’s ability to be consistent in both games and practices has worried the coaching staff, and Nix split reps with Kona Schwenke this spring at tackle, a product of a fitness regime that seemed to take its own offseason. If he’s in shape and on the field, Nix has all the talented needed to be the Irish’s best defensive tackle in recent memory. Yet Nix needs to put in the work to make himself that player. Entering his third season in the program, now is the time.

(Highest ranking: 3rd. Lowest ranking: 18th)

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…)