IBG: Can the Irish keep the train rolling?

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I don’t think anybody expected the Irish to steamroll Navy for the second straight season. Behind the rock solid offensive line play and an impressive performance by Manti Te’o’s defense, Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo called the Irish the best Notre Dame team he’d seen in 15 years.

Nobody knows how to take advantage of momentum less than the Irish lately, making Saturday’s date with Purdue another wild guess. Will Notre Dame follow the same formula as last Saturday, and repeat the drubbing they put on the Boilermakers last year? Can Notre Dame head into Michigan State undefeated, making for a pretty great primetime showdown in week three, before another one against the down-in-the-dumps Wolverines?

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet.

After last week’s thrilling debut, we’re back with another Irish Blogger Gathering. This time, I’m asking questions to our friends at Her Loyal Sons. Ryan Ritter — also known as NDTex — fielded my queries.

Here. We. Go.

Obviously, this season got off to a much better start than last year, with the Irish taking control over an undermanned opponent and dominating them. Nobody loves to jump to conclusions more than Irish fans, so in that spirit, give me your three best and worst takeaways from the 50-10 drubbing of Navy.

BEST

1. The offensive line dominated. Watching Navy get pushed back five yards on just about every play. I’m a big believer that teams are built in the trenches and then outward so I was positively giddy over what I saw from them against Navy.

2. Speed. Not just from our skill players like George Atkinson III or Theo Riddick, but from guys like Stephon Tuitt. We had a 300+ lineman outrun Navy and even non-ND fans were in awe. Notre Dame may just have that “SEC speed” that talking-heads were convinced the Irish would never have again.

3. The entire confidence of Golson. Even after the interception, he didn’t seem phased. Sure, we ran the ball a lot, but how many times have we watched a bad INT be followed up by additional mistakes at QB? Another play that stood out to me was the blind-side sack that he took early in the game. Not only did he somehow not fumble, but the next play he was rushed again and instead of making a panicked throw, calmly went out of the pocket and tried to get as much yardage as possible. It’s still quite early, but he doesn’t look like an inexperienced QB right now.

WORST

1. Dumb mistakes reared their ugly head again. Botched extra point attempts and a very, very bad INT by Golson. None of them were too costly, but Irish fans are going to be a sensitive bunch, myself included, after 2011’s disasters. These are flashbacks I’d prefer not to have.

2. Even though, I’m not in a panic mode, our secondary did not play well at all. Granted, the defense was selling out on the option, meaning no safety help for the young CBs, but watching Navy receivers easily burn them definitely didn’t give me any warm and fuzzy feelings.

3. Golson’s INT — yes, I’m going to mention this twice. Part of it is because I have very little to complain about, but the INT really was that bad. I don’t know if it was hubris or a horribly bad read that caused it, but you simply can’t stare down a receiver and then throw it into double coverage. Ask Tommy Rees how well that works out.

After not exactly lighting the world on fire in the secondary, the Irish defense will now play an offense with a quarterback whose primary skill is throwing the football. How do you expect the secondary to play Saturday afternoon?

To be perfectly frank, much better. As I said in the previous response, the CBs had practically zero safety help. It was all one-on-one, leave CBs on an island type coverage for the most part. That simply won’t repeat against Purdue.

Purdue will allow us to go back to our base defense and run normal coverage schemes once again. In fact, Notre Dame started to do this in the second half and lo and behold, we got Manti Te’o his first pick.

We’ll be far from perfect and I fully expect this young secondary to take a few lumps during Purdue and throughout the season, but that’s to be expect really with any defense. I mean, even Alabama gave up some huge plays on Denard Robinson floaters.

The Irish didn’t show much offensively in their victory over Navy, throwing the ball less than 20 times and relying on a back-to-the-basics ground attack. Any new wrinkles you expect to see against Purdue, or is Chuck Martin saving some bullets for East Lansing and the Wolverines?

I think Brian Kelly and Chuck Martin are doing exactly what they should be: the K.I.S.S. principle, “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”, back to basics, run the damn ball, or whatever else you want to call it. At media day in the offseason Kelly borderline admitted that he probably got too cute with the offense, knowing he had loads of play at his disposal. He mentioned specifically that Martin would say to him “here’s what we need to beat, now give me a play” and proceed from there.

“Get used to it” has been thrown out the window. The Irish appear to be more than willing to play to their strengths and not be cute about it.

As far as any wrinkles, I don’t expect anything too fancy. Perhaps a new formation or two making use of splitting Eifert out wide to cause severe mismatches or perhaps having more true spread formations with multiple WRs, but that’s about it. I don’t think the Kelly is going to turn around and tell Golson to throw 40 times either. Let a defense prove they can stop the run-first attack and then adjust from there.

***

For other entries in the IBG, head to Her Loyal Sons, The Subway Domer, and Strong and True for more answers to burning questions.

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.”

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