Akeem Hunt

Pregame Six Pack: Prepping for Purdue

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No doubt, expectations have been raised thanks to the Irish’s convincing victory over Navy. But one win is a data point. Two would make a trend. And over the past few years, the trend has never been a good one for Notre Dame.

With a stout defensive line and strength in the secondary, quarterback Everett Golson will be challenged. After executing a mostly simple game plan against the Midshipmen, Golson’s learning curve with rise as Notre Dame welcomes in-state rival Purdue, a dark horse candidate to win its division in the big Ten.

As the Irish prepare to open their home schedule on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC, here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers, or miscellaneous musings as No. 22 Notre Dame prepares to take on Purdue.

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1. After a mostly anonymous freshman season, sophomore Stephon Tuitt is already making his presence felt on a national level.

It seemed like most Irish fans were ready to call the defensive line a wash when Aaron Lynch departed during spring practice. But after a relatively quiet freshman season where his fellow classmate stole most of the media attention, Stephon Tuitt sprinted his way into the national headlines with his impressive opening performance.

The 6-foot-6, 305-pound defensive lineman is a dominant force along the front line, already showing his athleticism with his 77-yard fumble return. Mix that in with his physical tools and you’ve got draft gurus like Mel Kiper already singing Tuitt’s praises calling him, “Arguably the best defensive lineman virtually in college football, let alone the sophomore class.”

When asked what helped flip the switch, Brian Kelly pointed to an offseason where Tuitt transformed himself thanks to a tireless work ethic both on and off the field.

“The only word I remember him using was dominate,” Kelly said. “Dominate in the classroom — which he did this summer, over a 3.5 (g.p.a). Everything he did, he wanted to be the very definition. He’s been on this mission of, whatever it is, and it’s not just football, it’s everything in life. He’s a very, very driven young man right now.”

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2. Brian Kelly wouldn’t name a backup quarterback, but expect Tommy Rees to slide into the backup quarterback role.

After not taking a single team rep during fall camp, Tommy Rees very quickly got reintroduced to the Irish offense, taking virtually all the No. 2 reps in practice this week, making up for lost time in Chuck Martin‘s tweaked offensive system.

Kelly talked about the junior quarterback’s return to the depth chart and how he looked.

“I just think he continues to get better in ball position and ball placement and putting it away from the defender. Obviously we had too many turnovers last year,” Kelly said of Rees. “He’s still got room to work on things mechanically. He’s got a low arm slot. Sometimes the ball comes out in an area where I don’t want it. We’re working mechanics because he’s got the mental end of it down. But some of the mechanics we’re still trying to clean up.”

While there weren’t any media viewing windows of practice, word from inside the Gug had Rees incredibly sharp in his first team reps, moving the team efficiently in his first significant practice snaps of the season.

With three quarterbacks essentially in the rotation for playing time, you can expect freshman Gunner Kiel to hold onto a year of eligibility this season.

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3. After a sloppy week one, both teams need to do a better job on special teams or it might cost them the game.

You think Notre Dame had a bad week on special teams? Wait until you get a load out of Purdue’s week one performance. The Boilermakers fumbled a punt, and had both an extra point and a punt blocked. To make things worse, they also had two kickoffs go out of bounds, giving away free field position to an undermanned Eastern Kentucky team.

Still head coach Danny Hope isn’t making wholesale changes.

“The changes we’re going to make are from an execution standpoint,” Hope said.

Hope’s comments are in line with what Kelly said Thursday afternoon when asked about the Irish’s special teams flubs, most notably difficulties in the kicking game.

“There’s always concerns when you start like that,” Kelly said of the kicking units. “But I think they were more about nerves than they were about anything else. I think they settled in after we had a PAT and a poor kickoff and not a great punt. I think it was settling in first time and they had a good week.”

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4. In addition to making Notre Dame Stadium a louder place, the Irish are working on making it a more familiar home.

The hallowed grounds of Notre Dame Stadium might be too hallowed. After a season of mixed results on their home turf, Kelly decided to spend Thursday’s practice inside the stadium Rockne built to help the players build familiarity and comfort inside.

After stepping foot in the stadium only six or seven times last year, Kelly plans on spending every Thursday in the stadium.

“It’s important that our guys feel comfortable in there. I felt our guys at times, we ran in the stadium like we were running into the Basilica or we were running into the grotto,” Kelly said. “It almost seems there’s too much of a reverence there. It’s Notre Dame Stadium, it’s a football game. Let’s have some energy. We talked about that today. We’ll continue to beat that drum.”

Obviously, the Irish laid a few big eggs at home last season, which could have been the product of Notre Dame not being comfortable at home. With a different locker room, tighter quarters, and a ton of history, it’s conceivable that a stadium filled with a century of history had the Irish too on edge to play to their potential.

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5. While Amir Carlisle has been cleared to practice, it still hasn’t been decided when — or if — he’ll play this year.

Notre Dame caught a break when the NCAA granted Amir Carlisle‘s waiver which earned him immediate eligibility. Now it’s unclear whether he’ll ever use it this season. The talented former Southern Cal running back was expected to add another gamebreaker at the hybrid running back receiver position, but a broken ankle suffered before spring camp has kept Carlisle away from taking significant reps.

“He’s not ready to play in the system of offense. He’s ready to play where physically we feel he’s going to get some reps,” Kelly explained. “But it’s going to take him a little bit more time. This was really his first week of true practice. We tried to make it akin to the first week of really preseason camp for him. That’s kind of where he’s at.”

With the Irish deeper than they ever expected in the backfield and in the slot, the idea of saving a year of eligibility hasn’t been lost on the Irish offensive staff.

“The rules are you’ve got to do it within the first six games,” Kelly said about a potential redshirt. “We’ll see where we are. We’re counting on playing him, but we leave all those options open for a number of guys.”

Carlisle is probably itching to see the field, especially considering it’ll be in front of his family and father, who’ll be working with the Boilermakers as the head of the team’s strength and conditioning program.

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6. It may be cliche, but expect turnovers to tell the story of the game on Saturday.

Danny Hope chose quarterback Caleb TerBush to start the game on Saturday mostly because of what he doesn’t do: Turn the ball over. TerBush might lack the flair of sixth-year quarterback Robert Marve, and the legs of quarterback Rob Henry, but Hope believes he gives the team their best chance to hang in this football game.

“He did a great job in camp and won the job hands down,” Hope said of TerBush. “He separated himself from the others. It would be to our best advantage, I believe, to start Caleb this weekend because I feel like a smooth start in the beginning of the game at South Bend could be very important to our team.”

After turnovers ruined the Irish’s 2011 season, putting together a +3 box score at turnover margin was a pleasant surprise. Meanwhile, the Boilermakers turned the ball over five times, winning against a mediocre Eastern Kentucky team in spite of its difficulties playing clean.

Of course, TerBush didn’t get the Boilermakers off to the best start last season against ND. His first play from scrimmage TerBush was picked off by Gary Gray, and two players later Tommy Rees hit Michael Floyd for a 35-yard touchdown. The Irish sprinted out to a 21-0 lead before Purdue could even manage a field goal and running back Cierre Wood’s 191 yards on the ground helped the Irish coast to a 28-point win.

Spring positions to watch for revelations: DL & WR

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 05: Jerry Tillery #99 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish tackles Jerrod Heard #13 of the Texas Longhorns for a loss of yards during the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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If quarterback, rover and the early enrollees could be Notre Dame fans’ springtime Christmas thrills, what positions present as potential spots of coal?

Three former Irish players were invited to next week’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis: quarterback DeShone Kizer, defensive tackle Jarron Jones and defensive end Isaac Rochell. Losing two consistent defensive linemen leaves this year’s unit with some questions. Jones and Rochell combined for 100 tackles, 18 for loss and three sacks last season. Notre Dame’s returning defensive linemen combined to total 111 tackles and only 5.5 tackles for loss. To be clear, sacks are not included in that latter list because no returning defensive linemen recorded one. Among the returnees, junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37 tackles, three for loss) and senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26, 0.5) contributed solidly alongside the two NFL prospects.

This dearth of known and reliable linemen is a large part of why the potential transfer of Clemson graduate defensive tackle Scott Pagano is so intriguing. Pagano would immediately be a favorite to start, and if not that, at least rotate in heavily.

For now, though, Pagano remains a theoretical

By the end of spring practice, who already on campus will emerge alongside Tillery and Trumbetti in the Irish front? Senior ends Jay Hayes (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) and Jonathon Bonner (nine tackles) seem the most-likely candidates … aside from former four-star recruit and now rising sophomore Daelin Hayes. In his debut season, D. Hayes finished with 11 tackles.

Look for senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) to establish himself as Tillery’s immediate backup this spring, but that spot in the rotation will be up for competition all over again once four-star tackle Darnell Ewell (Lake Taylor High School; Norfolk, Va.) arrives on campus in the fall. His size and quickness should play right into new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s system.

Equanimeous and Who?
Not only did Notre Dame bring in a graduate transfer at receiver in former Michigan wideout Freddy Canteen, but it has also already received the commitments of two four-star receivers in the 2018 recruiting class. The continued emphasis on the position reflects the lack of bona fide game-breakers currently on the roster.

Junior Equanimeous St. Brown established himself as the top Irish threat in 2016, and he should shine only further with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush targeting him. Classmates often amplify each other’s success, simply due to the added shared reps innate to joining practice at the same time. With Torii Hunter, Jr., now pursuing a professional baseball career, who will prevent the secondary from focusing all its energies on St. Brown?

Canteen will not be with Notre Dame in the spring, as he does not graduate from Michigan until April. That will give a clear shot for the likes of juniors Chris Finke, C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin, and sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool to establish themselves. Did that say “clear” shot? It should probably read, “a chance to separate from the crowd.”

If a genuine threat does not line up opposite St. Brown, his explosiveness will likely be greatly reduced by focused defensive scheming. Wimbush will need another target before 2018.

Of course, here is where one should acknowledge the millennia-tested fact: Coal under pressure becomes diamonds.

2016 Notre Dame’s win expectancy was 7.2
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Johnson named the Irish as his team most likely to dramatically improve its record in 2017. Johnson’s thinking is based, at least in part, on Notre Dame’s second-order win total having been 7.2 in 2016, compared to the four wins the Irish actually walked away with. That discrepancy was the largest in the country.

Second-order win totals reflect how many points a team should have scored and allowed based on offensive and defensive stats. In theory, this shines a light on how luck and chance factored into results. Naturally, losing seven games by one possession will often be reflected by a higher second-order win total.

“Notre Dame’s win-loss record belied a solid, if imperfect, squad that just couldn’t pull out close games…” Johnson writes. “The Irish may not get back into College Football Playoff contention in 2017, but they’re bound to post a few more Ws because of reversion to the mean.”

Admittedly, the small sample size of a football season reduces the applicability of metrics such as second- and third-order wins when compared to baseball and basketball.

Jones becomes Mack
A quick piece of housekeeping: Apparently junior tight end Alizé Jones has changed his name to Alizé Mack.

While Notre Dame’s roster may not reflect that change yet, it is reasonable to expect it will after its next update. The football program has consistently respected the intricacies of players’ name preferences. Tai-ler Jones becoming TJ Jones jumps to mind, for example.

Anyways, hopefully noting Mack’s name change here might reduce some confusion down the line. Probably not. How many readers possibly read to the actual bottom of an article? But hey, in good faith.

WR Lenzy makes 11th commitment, brings speed to Irish

lenzy
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At what point does an impressive recruiting roll become something more? When does it become a harbinger of things to come, even if not for a few seasons? How many notable commitments in a row establishes a class as special?

If the answer to any of the above is 11 commitments by the end of February, including five within two weeks, then Notre Dame is there following consensus four-star athlete Braden Lenzy’s announcement Thursday evening.

The Tigard High School (Portland, Ore) receiver/cornerback chose the Irish over offers from USC, Oregon and Michigan State, among a litany of others. In all, nine Pac-12 schools chased Lenzy—and a 10th, Washington, had shown interest—per rivals.com.

Lenzy will fit the leading 2018 need voiced by Irish coach Brian Kelly three weeks ago on National Signing Day 2017.

“Elite speed on offense will be a primary goal for us,” Kelly said Feb. 1. “Guys that can change the game on one possession. I think we’ll see that… We want a couple of home run hitters. We don’t care if they’re Darren Sproles’s size. We’re going to come off the board in terms of profile. We want some guys that can change the game on offense with elite speed.”

At 6-foot, 175 pounds, Lenzy is taller than Sproles’s 5-foot-6, but it is still his speed that drew Notre Dame’s interest.

“They made it clear they want me to do kickoff return and use me as a deep threat across the field,” he told Irish Illustrated. “Just being kind of an athlete, similar to what I’ve been doing already in high school, just on a bigger scale with a quarterback that can throw it a lot farther.”

Presuming Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush is that arm in 2018, throwing great distances should not be an issue. Between Lenzy and fellow 2018 commit Micah Jones, covering those distances should be a reasonable request, as well.

Lenzy brings Notre Dame’s class of 2018 to 11, including eight four-stars according to Rivals’ rating system. Current scholarship projections indicate the class will not be a large one, meaning the Irish coaching staff has already garnered the commitments of more than half the class. Once again, though, Kelly’s sentiment regarding recruiting timing should be remembered.

“We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

SWARBRICK’S TAKE ON RECRUITING
Kelly credited Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick with much assistance in securing the country’s No. 13 recruiting class in 2017. A refresher on those comments:

“In a lot of instances, [Swarbrick] had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it’s going,” Kelly said. “There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future.”

Swarbrick did not dispute the factual nature of any of that in an interview with the Indianapolis Star, but he did contest the need for praising what he saw as part of his job, one of the preferred parts of his job, at that.

“I can’t say anything about this year felt all that different,” Swarbrick told Star reporter Laken Litman. “Some asked questions about the future of the program and can we compete for a national championship. And I would talk about the elements of the program we were focused on improving.”

Swarbrick and Litman discussed a number of items in the second-half of the interview released by the Star, including Notre Dame’s facilities, a possible early signing period in football and if the Oct. 8, 2016, game against North Carolina State should have been played. Spoiler: No. Then why was it? Go check it out.

Swarbrick also told Litman he likes to write in his free time.

“I tend to think strategically with a pen in my hand.” Swarbrick added he is currently scribbling away on where he thinks college athletics are headed.

This scribe, for one, would be most interested in skimming those legal pads.

Will Wimbush, Elko and the early enrollees surprise in spring practice?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Exactly 59 days from today, the Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Sure, they will be playing against themselves, but nonetheless, it will be somewhat-competitive football played in gold helmets.

For timing context, exactly 59 days ago, you looked beneath the Christmas tree to learn if Santa Claus left you season tickets, socks or coal. I got socks. They had some of that extra cushioning, so I considered them a suitable treat.

Whether you care about my argyles or not (you don’t), for many the Blue-Gold Game and Christmas morning hold similar excitement. That fact is apparently why Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick does not concern himself when groups of alumni publicly lament his decisions, or lack thereof.

“I never worry about that,” Swarbirck told the Indianapolis Star in an exclusive interview you really should read. Go on, click the link, it will open in a new tab. You can come right back here when you are done.

“The hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion in your program. If that sort of stuff bothers you, you can’t be the athletic director, head coach or the quarterback at Notre Dame.”

That very passion will undoubtedly lead to frame-by-frame discussions of video snippets from spring practice, parsing of each and every word Irish coach Brian Kelly says in quick interviews after those practices, and extreme pessimism and optimism about the 2017 season.

In the Christmas spirit, what toys could bring the must excitement during the spring unwrapping? Personally, the gift I was unsure of always brought the most joy. I would rather open an unexpected book than know about a charcoal-gray suit. In other words, at least for today, let’s look past the offensive line, the running backs and the inside linebackers. Instead, let’s look forward to learning about… (more…)

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Karlos Williams #9 of the Florida State Seminoles scores the touchdown that would win the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their game at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.

With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.

The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.

Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.

Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.

If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.

Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order: (more…)