Pregame Six Pack: Irish invade Dublin

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Football is finally here. And while I wasn’t able to watch South Carolina and Vanderbilt play one of their patented SEC slugfests, it’s good to know that it’s finally time to start talking about the games, instead of all the other rubbish that happens this time of year.

With thousands of fans from Navy and Notre Dame descending on the Emerald Isle, it’s time to finally kickoff the 2012 football season.

As usual here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers of miscellaneous musings as the Fighting Irish prepare to play the Midshipmen.

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1. While the first month of the season has been tough on Notre Dame, the Irish have usually fared well in the season opener.

Nobody is likely to forget last season’s opening game debacle against USF, but overall the season opener hasn’t usually been the problem for the Irish. While most bemoan the front-loaded nature of recent Irish schedules, it’s actually been a good run for opening days in recent years.

Lou Holtz: 9-2
Bob Davie: 4-1
Ty Willingham: 2-1
Charlie Weis: 4-1
Brian Kelly: 1-1

The Irish have won 20 of their last 25 openers, logging a collective 102-16-5 record overall. But it’s been a decade since they’ve gotten out of September unscathed, dating back to that magical start to the Ty Willingham era.

Beating Navy this weekend is the first step. But getting on a roll and getting past Purdue, Michigan and Michigan State will have the Irish right back on the map and in the hunt for a BCS bid.

(Sounds easy, right?)

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2. Starting away from home might not be a bad thing for rookie quarterback Everett Golson.

Ideally, you’d like your first-time starting quarterback to have the benefit of a home crowd and familiar surroundings. But the last time the Irish went on the road with a first-time starting quarterback things worked out just fine.

In 1994, the Irish started the much ballyhooed Ron Powlus era in Evanston, Illinois and the young quarterback certainly didn’t disappoint. Powlus threw for 291 yards and four touchdowns as the Irish routed Northwestern.

Since 1985, the Irish have debuted 20 quarterbacks. Sophomore Everett Golson will be the 21st. Fourteen of them won their openers, including a string of nine straight from 85-98. Let’s take a quick hop down memory lane…

1985 — Terry Andrysiak, Soph. 37-14 victory over Ol’ Miss.
1987 — Tony Rice, Soph. 35-14 victory over Air Force.
1987 — Kent Graham, Fr. 32-25 win over Boston College.
1990 — Rick Mirer, Soph. 28-24 win over No. 4 Michigan.
1991 — Paul Faila, Fr. 45-20 win over Purdue. (Played only first series.)
1993 — Kevin McDougal, Sr. 27-12 win over Northwestern.
1994 — Ron Powlus, Soph. 42-15 win over Northwestern.
1995 — Tom Krug, Jr. 44-14 win over Air Force.
1998 — Jarious Jackson, Sr. 36-20 win over No. 5 Michigan.
1998 — Eric Chappell, Jr. 10-0 loss to USC.
2000 — Arnaz Battle, Jr. 24-10 win over Texas A&M.
2000 — Gary Godsey, Soph. 23-21 win over Purdue.
2000 — Matt LoVecchio, Fr. 20-14 win over Stanford.
2001 — Carlyle Holiday, Soph. 24-3 loss to Texas A&M.
2003 — Brady Quinn, Fr. 23-10 loss to Purdue.
2007 — Jimmy Clausen, Fr. 31-10 loss to Penn State.
2007 — Evan Sharpley, Soph. 38-0 loss to USC.
2010 — Dayne Crist, Jr. 23-12 win over Purdue.
2010 — Tommy Rees, Fr. 28-3 win over No. 15 Utah.

We’ll find out if Golson’s debut is a footnote in Irish history or the beginning of a new era in Notre Dame quarterbacking.

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3. If Navy’s passing game is going to give the Irish fits, it’ll have to do it without its two starting wide receivers.

It isn’t just Brian Kelly sitting key starters out for the season opener. Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo has left starting wide receiver Brandon Turner home for a violation of team rules. Turner, at 6-foot-4, 225-pounds, was a red zone threat, solid blocker, and also  led the Midshipmen in receiving last season.

It’s been a disappointing start to the season for Turner, who failed his physical readiness test and missed a chunk of training camp. Quarterback Trey Miller will also be missing starter Matt Aiken with a knee injury that he suffered during fall camp. Still learning the intricacies of the triple option attack, Miller will be breaking in two new wide receivers, not exactly the plan heading into the season.

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4. Even after an embarrassing loss last season, memories of a Navy victory are still fresh in the heads of the Midshipmen.

Last season’s 42-point domination by the Irish didn’t erase the positive memories Navy players had from their shocking 35-17 victory over the Irish in 2010. With Ricky Dobbs running the offense and Alexander Teich bulldozing his way through the middle of the Irish defense, Navy forced Dayne Crist into some bad decisions and the Midshipmen coasted to a 35-17 win.

It’s a victory many players from the team are going to draw on this Saturday.

“It was an awesome game. Offensively, everything was clicking. It just seemed like every play was working and everyone executed,” Howell told the Capital Gazette. “You put that many points and yards up on a high-caliber team and it’s a lot of fun.”

A win by Navy would give the Midshipmen seniors a stunning three victories in four years over the Irish, an accomplishment only done twice in school history (1937 and 1964).

“Beating them one year doesn’t necessarily make it easier to beat them next year. Notre Dame always has an entire roster of big-time players and we need to remember that,” lineman Josh Cabral said. “At the same time, I think we’ve developed a sense that if we go in there and play as hard as we can and execute at a high level we have a chance. Obviously, we have to play perfect football in a lot of areas in order to beat them.”

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5. It takes quite a bit of work to turn the pitch into the gridiron.

There might not be a more unique stadium than the one the Irish and Midshipmen will battle in this weekend. Dublin’s Aviva Stadium hosts soccer and rugby matches, and will welcome Lady Gaga in a few weeks. But they had to do a little work to transform the stadium into a football field.

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6. It may not be the easiest place to play a football game, but all the Irish players and coaches are thankful to be playing in Dublin.

Brian Kelly might have caught a little flack for saying he preferred playing his football games in South Bend than Dublin, but it’s clear that this is a great life experience for both players and coaches.

While the logistics and challenges of uprooting a football program and putting them in a foreign country add some complexities to an already difficult upcoming season, team captain Manti Te’o said it best.

“It’s my first time outside the United States,” Te’o told UND.com. “I don’t think you could do this anywhere else but here at Notre Dame. It’s a special place and they give us opportunities to explore not only the states but the world and I’m really humbled to be here and really grateful to be here.”

He’s certainly not the only one that feels that way.

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

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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

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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

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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

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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.”

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