Opposition round-up

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With college football kicking off this weekend, Notre Dame wasn’t the only program that got to see what their team was made of. With a schedule that looked to be one of the most daunting slates in the country, I did my best to keep tabs on all the future Irish opponents.

Here’s a quick rundown of the opposition and how they looked in their respective season openers.

PURDUE — Just hours before the game, coach Danny Hope suspended quarterback Caleb TerBush for the game, citing a violation of team rules. That opened the door for sixth year quarterback Robert Marve, who overcame an early interception to breeze by Eastern Kentucky 48-6.

Purdue threw the ball 47 times against the Colonels, but also turned the ball over five times, something the Boilermakers will have to clean up as they move to a considerably more legitimate opponent.

Trending: They were what we thought they were, though the suspension of TerBush, who had just won the starting job, makes things interest.

MICHIGAN STATE — The Spartans probably had the most impressive performance of any team in the Big Ten, holding Boise State to only 206 yards of total offense as they rode running back Le’Veon Bell to a 17-13 victory.

If there’s a concern for Michigan State fans, it’s the passing game, with Andrew Maxwell throwing three interceptions in his first start after replacing Kirk Cousins. Linebacker Max Bullough led the defense in tackles and added 1.5 TFLs as the Spartans defense kept an entirely rebuilt Boise State roster in check.

Trending: The defense sounded to be as good as advertised, though they didn’t get a sack on the Broncos. If Mark Dantonio thinks he can give Le’Veon Bell 50 touches an afternoon, that might be saying more about his trust in the passing game than his love for Bell.

MICHIGAN — It appears one top-ten program in the state of Michigan has been exposed as paper lions. In what was supposed to be the premiere match-up of the college football weekend, Alabama absolutely dominated the Wolverines, neutralizing quarterback Denard Robinson while dominating the line of scrimmage.

Losing to Alabama is nothing to be ashamed of, but the 41-14 defeat never even seemed close. Making things more troubling is an injury to left tackle Taylor Lewan. Cornerback Blake Countess also was injured.

Trending: After a season where everything went right, the opening game couldn’t have gone more wrong for Michigan. The Wolverines will have a chance to right the ship with back-to-back dates with Air Force and Charley Molnar’s UMass squad before they head to South Bend.

MIAMI — After a slow start, the Hurricanes ran away from Boston College 41-32. Touted freshman Duke Johnson ran for 135 yards on just seven carries as Miami battled back from an early 14-point hole. Quarterback Shane Morris completed 28 of his 45 throws for 207 yards with both a TD and interception.

Trending: Eh. Not sure what to make of this game, though young Johnson, one of the most highly touted running backs to come out of Florida, could be worth keeping an eye on.

STANFORD — Life after Andrew Luck might not be so easy after all. Quarterback Josh Nunes played well enough in his debut, but a year after rolling over San Jose State by 54 points, the Cardinal needed to hold on and win 20-17. Stepfan Taylor ran for 116 yards in the win.

Trending: A win is a win. But this is far from impressive.

BYU — It was a pretty resounding victory for Bronco Mendenhall’s squad, spoiling Mike Leach’s debut at Washington State and rolling to an easy victory 30-6. Riley Nelson threw two touchdowns and for 285 yards and the the BYU defense held Wazzu to minus-five yards of rushing.

Trending: This will be an interesting test for the Irish, especially if the BYU passing attack is rounding into form.

OKLAHOMA — It was far from an impressive opening statement for the Sooners, who needed 14 fourth quarter points to pull away from UTEP. Landry Jones started slow before rallying his squad, but UTEP doomed itself after missing three field goals and failing on a fake punt.

Trending: The Sooners were a horrendous 5 of 16 on third down and struggling with efficiency. It’s certainly too soon to panic, but a mediocre debut for sure.

PITTSBURGH — It was a total calamity for new head coach Paul Chryst, who lost his debut to Youngstown State in rather convincing fashion 31-17. Ray Graham returned from an ACL injury, but had a critical fumble. Pitt also gave up over 200 yards on the ground and let the Penguins convert 11 of 16 third downs as Youngstown won their first game against a BCS school.

Trending: This could be an ugly season for Pitt, who might secretly be wishing they never fired Dave Wannstedt.

BOSTON COLLEGE — See above. Lost to Miami. That said, there were signs of life in the Eagles’ offense, a unit that’s been horrendous the past few seasons. Chase Rettig had a big day and hit Alex Amidon ten times for 149 yards.

Trending: Better than expected. But that’s not saying much.

WAKE FOREST — The Demon Deacons just barely scratched by Liberty, a FCS opponent that was tied with the Jim Grobe’s team heading into the fourth quarter. The offense struggled for much of the afternoon after replacing four starters up front. Tanner Price completed 16 of 28 passes, though the Deacs couldn’t reach 100 yards rushing.

Trending: Wake is going to go through some serious growing pains.

USC — The Trojans look every bit the offensive juggernaut expected as they raced off to a 35-point halftime lead over Hawaii and then cruised to a 49-10 win. Marquise Lee had a ridiculous 10 catches for 197 yards and also ran back a kickoff 100 yards for good measure. Matt Barkley completed 23 of 38 throws for 372 yards and four touchdowns.

Trending: Yikes. The Irish secondary has plenty of time to prepare for the dynamic passing offense of the Trojans. They’ll potentially be susceptible on defense but it might not matter with Barkley running the show.

 

 

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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