What we’ve learned: Offense

18 Comments

We’re roughly one week into fall camp, with the Irish finished with their first two-a-day practice on Friday. There’s been a little bit of everything so far: Injuries, departures, surprises, and position battles as camp gets under way.

Let’s take a quick swing through the offensive position groupings and get everyone up to speed.

QUARTERBACK:

The biggest story of camp will also be the defining position battle of the season. With Tommy Rees suspended for the season opener against Navy, the door is wide open for either the Everett Golson or Andrew Hendrix eras to begin. Early returns have been mostly neutral, though I’d be hard pressed to see a way that Everett Golson doesn’t end up the starter when the Irish take the field in Dublin. He’s just too intriguing of an athlete, with too diverse of a skillset not to give the first shot.

Still, contrary to what some fans suspect, it won’t be just lollipops and rainbows after the Irish offense rids itself of Rees. While the junior quarterback has taken mostly mental reps while head coach Brian Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin get Golson and Hendrix up to speed, Friday’s practice featured an openly fired up Kelly, who openly challenged someone to step up and take charge.

“You don’t have Tommy to bail you guys out,” Kelly said, according to a source. “One of you need to step up! We are going over there to win!”

While there’s no plan to use Gunner Kiel this season, the talented freshman has taken great strides since spring in his ability to grasp the offense. With better than expected speed and a big arm, Kiel still is on track to be the quarterback of the future.

RUNNING BACK:

It appears that the only thing that’s going to hold back senior running back Cierre Wood is some medical paperwork. After two days of red tape held up the Irish’s returning rusher, Wood is back and ready to lead a talented group.

The biggest news out of the running back depth chart has been the decision of Cam Roberson to retire from football after a debilitating knee injury made playing up to speed next to impossible. This outcome wasn’t entirely unexpected to Roberson or the coaching staff, but it’s always difficult to see an injury cut a career short.

Theo Riddick has impressed during his move back to running back, which interestingly might help him play the hybrid position better than he did when he was a wide receiver. George Atkinson presents another intriguing option, the biggest back in the depth chart while also possessing some of the most impressive speed in college football.

USC transfer Amir Carlisle is working back from a broken ankle suffered before spring practice. He’s an incredibly talented runner with blazing speed, and it’ll be interesting to see how the Irish plan on using the sophomore who earned immediate eligibility after filing for a hardship waiver.

It’s tough to imagine a scenario where Will Mahone works his way onto the field this season. With the depth in front of him, it makes sense to preserve a year of eligibility.

WIDE RECEIVERS

While Kelly has sounded confident that veterans John Goodman, TJ Jones and Robby Toma will anchor the position grouping, he’s made a point of throwing his talent trio of freshmen receivers into the rotation immediately.

Slot receiver Davonte Neal is almost a sure bet to contribute early and often, with the college-ready talent owning a solid grasp of football and an elite set of skills. Chris Brown might also find his way into the role of deep threat wide receiver, with the Carolina speedster being everything advertised after Kelly talked his ability up at Signing Day. Justin Ferguson also has great size, checking in at 6-foot-2, 195-pounds, and might work his way onto the field as well.

Davaris Daniels, after not playing during his freshman season, is the X Factor of the unit. He’ll likely get every chance to win a starting job, but even if he doesn’t he’ll be counted on to make plays and help a passing game that could be in a state of transition with a new quarterback likely leading the way this season.  Getting something out of Daniel Smith would be a bonus for this staff, as the local South Bend product has struggled to stay healthy for most of his career, but possesses some red zone size that’s much needed at the position.

TIGHT END

Senior All-American Tyler Eifert will undoubtedly be the leading man in the Irish aerial attack. But his supporting cast has taken a bump with the loss of junior Alex Welch. Counted on to be a part of key depth that’ll allow the Irish offense to be more versatile, Welch’s knee injury will in all likelihood cost him the season.

Troy Niklas and Ben Koyack are two intriguing sophomore prospects. Niklas’ size and athleticism are pretty unique. At 6-foot-7, 260-pounds, Niklas is a few hamburgers away from being an elite left tackle, but with good speed, solid hands, and an ability to run in the open field, the Irish might have another star tight end on the roster after moving Niklas from the defensive side of the ball.

That’s not to say that Koyack is a slouch. At 6-foot-5, 253-pounds, the sophomore is another massive athlete, and after a promising freshman season, expect Koyack to make a bigger dent in the stat sheet this season.

Jake Golic will slide into the rotation after Welch’s injury. It wasn’t too long ago that his brother Mike was considered nothing more than emergency depth, so there’s a chance that during his senior season, Jake will end up answering the bell if his number is called.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Braxston Cave looks to be on his way back from a difficult foot injury. The fifth-year center is one of the team’s emotional leaders, and has the potential to put together a very good season anchoring the offensive line. He has every chance to be the Irish’s best center since All-American Jeff Faine.

The left side of the offensive line looks strong with Chris Watt and Zack Martin anchoring the guard and tackle positions for the second straight season. With the departure of Jordan Prestwood, depth may be of some concern, where talented freshman Ronnie Stanley looks good, but not quite ready for primetime.

On the right side of the line, it’s looking like Christian Lombard has cemented the right tackle job with Mike Golic running with the first team at right guard. Sophomore Nick Martin will battle Golic for the job at guard, while Tate Nichols is the next man in at tackle. If there’s an injury among the starters expect Nichols to work in at right tackle, and the younger Martin to show some flexibility in his ability to kick inside or out.

The next generation of Irish offensive linemen still need to make strides during this season before Kelly or offensive line coach Harry Hiestand will feel comfortable inserting them into the rotation. Matt Hegarty, Bruce Heggie and Connor Hanratty all can provide depth on the inside of the line, while Mark Harrell has done a nice job in his first week, holding his own in one-on-one drills.

Recruiting success continues with OL Dirksen, class’s 12th commit

Getty Images
11 Comments

Even in the doldrums of spring practice, Notre Dame’s recent recruiting success continues. Rivals.com three-star/scout.com four-star offensive lineman John Dirksen offered a verbal commitment to the Irish on Saturday, bringing the 2018 class to 12 commitments.

The 6-foot-5, 290-pounds Dirksen (Marion High School; Maria Stein, Ohio) joins consensus three-star prospect Cole Mabry (Brentwood H.S.; Brentwood, Tenn.) as the offensive linemen thus far among the 12. In three of the last four years, Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has pulled in four recruits, with 2015’s two (Trevor Ruhland, Tristen Hoge) as the exception. This recruiting cycle could again bring a limited offensive line haul, given the likely limits on the class’s size.

While any and all current class of 2018 team rankings should be taken with many grains of salt—there are 318 days between today and National Signing Day, after all—Dirksen’s commitment solidifies the Irish hold on the No. 3 class, per rivals.com. Other recruiting services place Notre Dame even higher.

Dirksen chose Hiestand and the Irish over offers from Michigan State, Iowa State and Boston College, among others.

 

Holmes out for spring; Jones & Jones shining

Getty Images
15 Comments

Notre Dame’s spring continued over the weekend, and is all too often the case with football, that led to an injury. Early enrollee running back C.J. Holmes will probably miss the rest of spring practice due to a separated shoulder, Irish coach Brian Kelly announced following Saturday’s practice.

“We’ll get an MRI and know a little bit further on Monday once that calms down a little bit,” Kelly said. “We’ll get a picture of that and see. He had an open repair on that same shoulder his sophomore year in high school.”

Behind three backs, including two with experience, Holmes was unlikely to see playing time in the backfield in 2017.

Of those three backs, sophomore Tony Jones, Jr., is the unknown after preserving a year of eligibility last season. In limited practice viewing, however, Jones has only impressed. He has caught Kelly’s eye, as well.

“He’s 225 pounds, can catch the ball coming out of the backfield, [is] assignment correct, and can run elusively and can get into the second level,” Kelly said. “What does that equal? He’s a pretty good back.

“Obviously he was noticeable today in his play and he got some work with the first group as well. He wasn’t just getting second-team reps.”

Jones may be getting some first-unit exposure, but expect him to remain behind junior Josh Adams in the depth chart. Considering Jones’ style is somewhat comparable to Adams’, whereas junior Dexter Williams presents something of a change of pace, Williams should see more action than the sophomore, as well.

MORE PRAISE FOR ALIZE JONES
Junior tight end Alizé Jones—rather, Alizé Mack, per his Twitter account—has taken the lead in spring’s race of who reaps the most sound bite accolades. In complimenting Jones, who missed last season due to an academic suspension, Kelly also managed to laud new offensive coordinator Chip Long.

“I think Chip is doing a terrific job with [Jones],” Kelly said. “He’s got a good relationship. He knows how to rise him up when he needs to and scold him when he needs to. Alizé needs a little bit of that.

“He’s virtually un-coverable in certain areas of the field. I don’t care at any level. You can’t cover him. He just has that kind of talent. The one that I think stands out to me in the few days is he’s committed himself to being a blocker and playing physical. If he continues to do that, we’re going to find ourselves with a lot of tight ends on the field.”

Presumably, Jones would join graduate student tight end Durham Smythe in two tight end sets. It should be remembered, Long has historically shown a preference for such formations, and with Notre Dame’s plethora of options at the position, Long’s tendencies have no need to change. For that matter, Long had some praise for Jones this weekend, as well.

“Alizé can be as good as he wants to be,” Long said Friday. “…He’s growing up each and every day. Great joy to coach, and that whole group is. He doesn’t want to let that group down. There’s no question he can be as good as he wants to be.”

Friday at 4: 40-yard dashes and absurdity

UND.com -- Lighthouse Imaging
21 Comments

Of all the absurd things the football world often obsesses over, the 40-yard dash may be the most useless of them. Yes, it even beats out assigning star rankings to 16- and 17-year-olds, though not by much.

For now, let’s look past the rest of the inane Draft intricacies, such as former Irish defensive lineman Jarron Jones feeling pressured to increase his vertical jump by four inches. (He did, jumping to 24.5 inches in Notre Dame’s Pro Day on Thursday.) This scribe does not have an excess of time to spend discussing Jones’s outlandish wingspan if this piece is to post by its intended, though unnecessary, 4 p.m. ET deadline.

The 40-yard dash … No football play begins from a sprinter’s stance, yet it may be the factor most crucial to a low 40 time. Former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer posted a time of 4.83 seconds in the NFL Combine earlier this month. For context’s sake, Kizer ran .07 seconds slower than Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did as a draft prospect in the 2004 combine.

Roethlisberger has had himself an excellent career, and his ability to shrug off 300-pound defensive linemen is a testament to his athleticism. Put Kizer and Roethlisberger in the open field together, though, and Kizer would presumably have outrun Roethlisberger at any point of the two-time Super Bowl champion’s career. In Indianapolis, however, Roethlisberger did a better job of getting his hips through his first couple strides of the heralded 40-yard dash.

Here, watch Kizer train for the 40, the most-hyped measurement of his combine.

“The ultimate goal is to have yourself in the best position to have your body weight back in those legs so you can create enough torque to get out as quickly as possible,” Kizer said. “A guy who is as long as I am, with long limbs that I have, I’ve got to make sure that my weight distribution is in the best position for me to get out and catch up to some of those quicker guys who are a little lower to the ground.”

What part of that sounds applicable to football? The 40 turns Kizer’s size (6-foot-4, 237 pounds) into a negative. He worries about the angle of his knees. After his throwing session at the Thursday Pro Day, Kizer summed up the draft evaluation process even more succinctly.

“This process is very different in the sense that the way you look productive in the combine and in a pro day is very different from what productivity actually looks like out on the field.”

Well put.

More pertinent to the actual game of football, Kizer’s completion percentage in the staged workout could have been higher.

Then again, he was throwing to the likes of former Irish receivers Corey Robinson and Amir Carlisle and former running back Jonas Gray. Reportedly, the only contact Gray and Kizer had before the session was Kizer emailing the former New England Patriot the planned series of routes.

The NFL Draft, where Gmail becomes a necessity.

Let’s do away with the 40. If we insist on keeping it, let’s do it twice, once from a standing start and once from a running start. Those would simulate actual football movements: A receiver getting off the line, and a ballcarrier breaking away and trying to outrun the defense.

Asking DeShone Kizer to mimic Usain Bolt is an exercise in futility, idiocy, absurdity.

Cue end of rant.

Why cite the Roethlisberger time? Many, including Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke, have readily compared Kizer to Roethlisberger this spring.

The most notable line of that scouting report (scroll down to No. 32) may be its final one, echoing Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s sentiments from earlier this week.

“The mystery is whether he can regain his assertiveness,” Burke writes. “If so, he could turn out to be the 2017 class’s best QB. The team that drafts him will be taking a leap of faith.”

A leap. Not a dash.

For more Notre Dame Pro Day results, click here.

And with that, this just may make the 4 p.m. posting. You know what to do.

 

Tranquill continues work with safeties … for now

Getty Images
19 Comments

Drue Tranquill will see time at the oft-spoken of rover position, just not yet. For now, Notre Dame needs the senior at safety to provide leadership and communication while the rest of his position group gets up to speed.

“We really have to figure out what the coordination is going to be at the safety position,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “How much does Drue play down at rover? How much does he play back [at safety]?”

Only sophomore Devin Studstill returns any starts to the safety position aside from Tranquill’s career total of 18. Studstill started nine games last season.

That void has kept Tranquill working mostly with the defensive backs in the spring’s first few practices, rather than joining the likes of junior Asmar Bilal in the rover grouping.

“We didn’t want to pull our most veteran player out of the back end of our defense with Drue,” Kelly said. “I think it was more about the hesitancy of losing a great communicator in the back end than about the teaching.”

The time will come, however, for Tranquill to move up. Juniors Nick Coleman and Ashton White have moved to safety from the corner position. With more reps, they will not need to rely on Tranquill’s guidance as much. The same goes for, at least in theory, sophomore Jalen Elliott.

“It’s not really a heavy load of teaching for those guys,” Kelly said. “They’re picking it up quite well. We really want to get a chance to see a lot of guys back there.”

Kelly seemed particularly bullish on Coleman’s prospects at the position, provided he embrace the needed physicality. At 6-foot, 187 pounds, Coleman’s build may have been more suited on the outside, but Notre Dame’s plethora of promising cornerbacks provided an impetus to test Coleman at safety.

“The big thing will be Nick’s continuous development in tackling,” Kelly said. “You have to tackle back there. His ball skills are really good. We’ve seen that he’s able to play the ball. He has athleticism.

“We just want to continue to build on his tackling skills. If we go through the spring and say, ‘Well, he’s tackling really well,’ we’ll feel pretty good about the move.”

At that point, Tranquill will likely join Bilal at the hybrid position, which is something of a trademark to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Tranquill will be able to do what he does best: Pursue the ball.

“We all know what his strengths are,” Kelly said. “He’s a solid tackler. I don’t think there’s any safety in college football that wants to get matched up one-on-one with a skilled slot receiver. This would minimize that, when you play him close to the ball as a rover.

“And I think he’s pretty quick off the edge. I think we put him in a really good position in maximizing his skill set.”

Until then, Bilal will continue to be the frontrunner at rover, especially with the first four Irish opponents of 2017 presenting run-heavy offenses.

KELLY ON NICK WATKINS
Kelly was also asked about senior cornerback Nick Watkins, his fit into Elko’s defense and his return from injury.

“He’s very coachable, wants to learn, he’s pretty long,” Kelly said. “What I think Mike [Elko] does really well—and this is what I liked about my interactions with him—is, we all have strengths and weaknesses. He has a great eye of saying let’s take Nick’s strengths and let’s put him in a position where we can really utilize his strengths and put him in a position where maybe we’re not a right and left corner team, maybe we’re a short field/wide field team. Let’s apply him in that fashion.

“Nick’s long. He’s a little bit of a physical player. Let’s go to those strengths. He’s shown some of those attributes early on.”

RELATED READING:
Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover position, others likely to follow
2 Days Until Spring Practice: A look at the defensive backfield