And in that corner…The Michigan State Spartans

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After two straight games where the Irish were expected to win, No. 20 Notre Dame faces the first significant test of the 2012 season when they head to East Lansing as underdogs to take on No. 10 Michigan State. The Spartans are the early favorite in the Big Ten, winning an opening week showdown against Boise State before dominating Central Michigan.

A year after a disappointing loss to the Irish in South Bend, the Spartans seek to enact some revenge. With a defense that’s one of the nation’s best, but some question marks on the offensive side of the ball, we tracked down Ben Wilensky of  The Only Colors and got his take on this year’s Spartan squad.

1. On paper, the Spartans look every bit the Rose Bowl contenders they were expected to be. They gutted out a tough victory against Boise State and breezed to a win against Central Michigan. Take a snapshot after two games. Have there been any surprises or disappointments?

In short, MSU is 2-0, the defense has been terrific, and the majority of the other Big Ten contenders’ play so far can be best described as somewhere between disappointing and dismal. So, yeah, things are a-okay in East Lansing.

To add a bit more detail: the game against Boise State was close – although not nearly as close as the final score indicates, as MSU kneeled on the ball twice inside the BSU 5 yard line to end the game – but MSU was clearly the better team, dominating yardage, time of possession, and nearly every important statistic aside from turnovers. (More about those turnovers in a bit.) Yes, Boise is in rebuilding mode, but they’ve built their entire program on winning early-season games against powerhouse teams … and MSU escaped unscathed. The only real negative from the Boise game was the passing game – which turned around in a big way against Central Michigan, when Andrew Maxwell went 20-31 for 275 yards and 2 touchdowns.

Meanwhile, opponents have scored 20 points in two games against the Spartans. 14 have come by way of pick sixes (one thrown by Andrew Maxwell in the Boise game, and one by his backup, Connor Cook, against CMU), and 3 of the points happened when Boise took over at the MSU 22 yard line. That leaves one solitary field goal that can be fully charged against the defense.

The surprise is that everything has gone so well so far; there really isn’t much to complain about. There have been isolated disappointments – Maxwell’s performance against Boise, the relative lack of pass rush at times, some struggles with pass protection against Boise – but even those have been either improved (Maxwell) or totally nitpicky. The bottom line is that the team has looked every bit as good as Spartan fans hoped it would.

2. Quarterback Andrew Maxwell rebounded after a disastrous start to the season. How confident are you in the Spartans’ passing game, with the first-time starting quarterback tasked with building chemistry with an almost entirely new receiving corps? How often do you see Michigan State throwing the football on Saturday?

“Disastrous” is probably a bit strong. Maxwell definitely had struggles against against Boise, but of the three interceptions he threw, the first was not at all his fault, the second was, at most, partially his fault, while the third was his fault. The interceptions all occurred in the first half. In the second half, Maxwell was 10-15, including 5-5 in the critical last two drives of the game, where, in turn, MSU took the lead and then closed the game out. Against CMU, Maxwell was really quite good. He struggled a bit in the first two series of the game, when the wind was blowing very hard, but after that he was very good.

Many of Maxwell’s errors have occurred when he has thrown fastballs where changeups would do; the coaching staff apparently has been working with him on putting a bit more touch on his passes. He has struggled a bit when under heavy rush, so I’d expect ND to blitz often. Overall, however, he’s exactly what he appeared to be at the beginning of the season: immensely talented, but inexperienced. That inexperience has resulted in mistakes, but taken as a whole, the good has outweighed the bad.

The wide receivers are quite inexperienced, as you described. What they lack in experience, however, they make up for in sheer numbers, as 10 different players caught passes against Central Michigan. Bennie Fowler is probably the best of the bunch; he’s fast and physical and had a big day against CMU last week. Tony Lippett had a nightmare game against Boise State, and (probably as a result) received less playing time against CMU. But, he’s big and fast and will probably still play a role on Saturday. Keith Mumphery took much of Lippett’s playing time against CMU and acquitted himself fairly well. The remaining receivers are young but talented. DeAnthony Arnett is the most well-known, as he was impressive for Tennessee last year and then transferred to MSU. He has only one reception on the year, but it was for 48 yards. Aaron Burbridge and Macgarrett Kings are both freshmen who show quite a bit of promise.

The best receiver on the team – and at the very least, Maxwell’s favorite receiver – may be Dion Sims, the tight end, whose 10 catches this season have all resulted in first downs. Sims made some terrific plays in the second half against Boise, and at 6’5”, 285 he presents all kinds of matchup problems.

For obvious reasons, the offense is built around Le’Veon Bell, and I expect that won’t change against ND. However, I think there will be a concerted effort to establish the passing game, particularly given that the secondary seems to be the weakest part on the Irish defense. Bell nearly won the Boise game on his own; I doubt that he can do that against Notre Dame, and I doubt even more strongly that the coaching staff will ask him to do so. I’d expect to see quite a bit of passing on Saturday.

3. That’s two games without giving up an offensive touchdown. Eight starters return on a defense that was already pretty good. How good is this unit? Elite? On paper, it seems rock solid at all three levels — where should the Irish offense attack?

I’d take the MSU defense over any in the country save Alabama and maybe LSU. I suspect that Irish fans are a bit skeptical as ND had quite a bit of success on offense last year. Make no mistake, that was by far the worst game the defense played all season, and they’ve been absolutely terrific since then.

There are very few weaknesses. The linebackers are smart and very, very strong against the run. The secondary is shutdown-quality, and I think Johnny Adams and Darqueze Dennard may be the best pair of cornerbacks in the country. William Gholston is a terrorbeast at one defensive end – and if anything, Marcus Rush’s statistics at the other end are even better. They were incredible against Boise, repeatedly bailing out the offense. Notre Dame will present a bigger test, and I expect that they’ll give up their first touchdown of the year, but it will not come easy for the Irish.

If there’s one weak point on the defense, it’s probably on the interior of the line. The Spartans really miss Jerel Worthy’s pass rushing skills and big-play ability – though it’s probably unreasonable to expect to replace a player like that. MSU’s defensive tackles haven’t been able to generate much pass rush. So, the two-headed Golson/Rees monster may have more time to throw than you might expect. (They’ll still have to deal with the secondary.)

That said, CMU had some success running the ball to the outside. (CMU’s success was limited, however: all CMU running backs combined for a total of 88 rushing yards). As my co-author KJ wrote, “Given the insanely small rush defense numbers MSU posted against Boise, we’ll chalk that up to the “nobody’s perfect” category.” Furthermore, neither Boise nor CMU were able to run the ball on the inside at all. Still, if you’re looking for something to exploit, that may be it – and given Cierre Wood’s speed, I bet ND will try to run him to the outside.

4. Last year, the Spartans offensive line was learning on the fly. This year, some expected it to be the strongest of Dantonio’s offensive fronts. After putting the game on Le’Veon Bell’s back against Boise State, the Spartans didn’t run the ball as effectively as you’d have expected in their easy win over Central Michigan. A fluke? How will this OL match up with an Irish front seven that’s just outside the top ten in sacks?

I don’t think the sample size is big enough yet to call anything a fluke. But, I’m not particularly concerned. No doubt based on what they saw against Boise, CMU really stacked the box against MSU and dared Maxwell to beat them. Which he did. (And bear in mind, Bell still had two touchdowns before he was effectively shut down during the second half.) Bell was fine, and his carries were limited enough for him to be fresh for the ND game, which was the more important result anyway.

Overall, MSU’s offensive line has been good if not great. More than 80 of Bell’s yards against Boise came after contact, and those yards are all his – but the offensive line put him in a position to get those yards by repeatedly opening up holes for him.

The pass protection is a bit more of a concern – though, again, it’s a limited concern, because Maxwell hasn’t been sacked yet this year. Still, Boise had 7 hurries, and Maxwell made some poor decisions as a result of those hurries. I bet that ND will be able to get some pressure, and it’ll lead to at least one interception.

5. The Spartans are a four-to-five point favorite in Las Vegas. Is that how you see it? What does Michigan State have to do to hold off the Irish?

Given the home field advantage, that seems about right. I know that some Spartan fans are very, very confident about this game. I think MSU has a better team than Notre Dame, but ND is better than Boise State, and MSU didn’t exactly blow out the Broncos.

To win the game, MSU’s offensive line needs to fight ND’s defensive line to at least a draw. I think that’s the strongest unit for the Irish, and if ND wins that battle decisively, I think you’ll see a young quarterback (Maxwell) make some mistakes that MSU may not be able to recover from. Even if things go really poorly, I can’t see the Irish scoring more than 21 – 24 points. So, MSU’s offense doesn’t have to put up huge numbers, but I don’t think Bell can do it on his own – and for Maxwell to be successful, he’s going to need pass protection.

6. Any advice for Notre Dame on beating the Wolverines? Mark Dantonio seems to have the maize and blue figured out.

The best way to beat them is to totally overlook the MSU game and focus entirely on beating Michigan. I wholeheartedly endorse that plan.

More seriously, blitz Denard Robinson like there’s no tomorrow. He’ll probably slip out of the pressure once or twice for big gains, but he also makes terrible decisions under pressure. On offense, my usual answer would be to pound them with the running game, because their defensive line really isn’t good and their linebackers aren’t terrific either. But with the loss of Blake Countess, they’re really thin at cornerback. (The safeties, especially Kovacs, are pretty good.) The Michigan defense is much, much sounder than they were under Rodriguez, but it’s still filled with average players who played way above their pay grade last year, and are now coming back down to earth. (Man oh man do they miss Martin and Van Bergen.) I bet you’ll beat them this year.

Kraemer, Eichenberg compete for RT spot, moving Bars inside, and Bivin to…

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Forty percent of the offensive line is essentially set in stone: fifth-year senior Mike McGlinchey at left tackle and senior Quenton Nelson at right guard.

The center position seems to be senior Sam Mustipher’s to lose.

That leaves the two starting spots on the right side of the line for a number of players—both young and experienced—to fight over.

Sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg have emerged as the frontrunners for the right tackle spot, moving senior Alex Bars inside to right guard. Bars started all 12 games last season at right tackle.

“Those two [Kraemer and Eichenberg] are the guys we have mapped out at right tackle, and they’re going to battle,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “Today Kraemer was there. Last two practices Eichenberg got a lot of the work. Eichenberg will go back there on Friday. They’re going to keep battling and splitting the action out there.”

Part of the reasoning in giving the two sophomores extended looks this spring is Notre Dame knows what it has in Bars when at right tackle.

“We would prefer to get him in at the guard position, but we know he can play the [tackle] position,” Kelly said.

A starting five of McGlinchey, the three seniors and either sophomore may seem to leave fifth-year lineman Hunter Bivin out in the cold. Not often is a player asked to return for a fifth year only to spend it on the bench. That is even more rare when considering the current Irish scholarship crunch.

Kelly compared Bivin’s role to that of Mark Harrell’s last year. Harrell appeared in all 12 games, starting two, and provided much needed depth and flexibility along the offensive line. Rather than have five backup offensive linemen, position coach Harry Hiestand relied on Harrell to provide support at multiple spots.

“It’s reasonable to assume that Hunter Bivin’s going to be involved in this as well,” Kelly said. “We’ve just asked Hunter to take a seat right now. He’s done that for the team.

“We think Hunter is going to be a Mark Harrell for us. A guy that’s extremely valuable, can play a number of positions. We trust him, but we want to see these two young players [Kraemer and Eichenberg]. Hunter is a guy that can play right or left tackle for us. He’s going to be a valuable player for us as a swing guy.”

On that note, this space will refer to Bivin as a fifth-year lineman, as was done above, rather than as a guard or as a tackle, until further notice. In his case, the broader description may be the most accurate.

Spring break out west is fine, but Wimbush better be ready to run

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It will undoubtedly become a habit, at least for the next five-plus months. If Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush sneezes in front of a camera, it just might lead to an uptick in webmd.com traffic. His every football move will certainly be analyzed, nitpicked and discussed at length. Thus, Irish coach Brian Kelly being asked about Wimbush’s spring break should surprise no one.

Rather than find a Florida beach, Wimbush spent his spring break working with private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield in San Diego alongside a handful of other college passers. Kelly said there is value to such a spring break but stopped short of setting any lofty expectations of the effects.

“I have no problem with [Wimbush] working out with George Whitfield,” Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice, the first following spring break and the third of 14 leading into the Blue-Gold Game on April 22. “George doesn’t work on the specifics to the offense. George is really working on the quarterback and throwing the football, moving in the pocket. George is really good at keeping those quarterbacks active and moving.”

Whitfield is best-known around Notre Dame and among Irish fans for working with former Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson during Golson’s academic suspension in 2013. Whitfield and Golson spent 10 weeks together, thus granting time for extensive off-field activities such as film study. Far shorter, Wimbush’s time out west appears to have been spent primarily doing drills.

“In those situations, it’s a bullpen session,” Kelly said. “They’re keeping their arms loose, they’re keeping their feet loose. He’s just keeping them active.”

It is hard to construe that activity as a negative, but it obviously lacks certain aspects crucial to Wimbush’s 2017 season. With only five career pass attempts and seven career rushes, Wimbush’s inexperience looms large. Developing the necessary intangibles to account for that may be just as, if not more, important as fitting his throws into tight windows.

“When it comes to the playbook, to his teammates, to his coaches here, Brandon understands that when the rubber hits the road, those are the guys that matter the most,” Kelly said. “He knows when it’s time for Notre Dame football, where the focus is.”

Included in that playbook will be an expectation for Wimbush to carry the ball. To date, Wimbush’s biggest play and possibly only imprint on most Notre Dame fans’ memories is a 58-yard touchdown scamper against Massachusetts in 2015.

Link to 17-second YouTube video which has unfortunately disabled embedding

Note, the play is not exclusively-designed for Wimbush to run. Now a rising junior, then a fellow freshman, running back Josh Adams comes across Wimbush’s front for a possible handoff. Instead, Wimbush makes the correct read and keeps the ball. Why state so clearly it was the proper read? Adams has to evade a Texas defender even though he never had the ball.

Future option plays should present Wimbush with the possibility of throwing the ball, too.

“He’ll be a runner in the offense,” Kelly said. “Do we want him to carry the ball 20 times? No.”

“I don’t think you’ll have a situation where we’re calling quarterback power or singular runs. He’s going to have options: hand it off, throw the ball out on the perimeter. You’ll see more of that than you will prescribed quarterback runs. We had a little bit more of that last year with Kizer, but I think you’ll see that he has an option to get the ball out of his hands more so than just prescribed runs.”

Those option plays, in particular, will require Wimbush to have a thorough familiarity both with the Notre Dame playbook and with his teammates’ tendencies.

RITA LEE OR 52-53?
Staying consistent with his comments over the last two months, Kelly once again reiterated the biggest changes new offensive coordinator Chip Long will bring to the Irish playbook will be in its wording. Perhaps going to an extreme example to illustrate his thinking, Kelly pointed to the future.

“We’re going to win next year and Chip is going to be the greatest offensive coordinator in the country and he’s going to get a head job, right?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “Then I’m not going to introduce the Chip Long offense to the next offensive coordinator.”

“It has to have my culture in it … The culture of the offense is still the base offense that I have always run because I have to be able to carry that with me from year to year.”

Within that ellipsis, Kelly gave two examples of possible verbiage changes. Without knowing much more behind them, they do not mean too much out here in the cobwebs of the internet, but they do provide a quick glimpse at what Kelly has been referring to when discussing lexicon since hiring Long.

“If he wants to change Ringo Lucky protection to Ram and Lion protection, go right ahead. If he wants to change certain calls, for example, 52-53 protection is now Rita Lee.”

RELATED READING:
4 Days Until Spring Practice: A Look at QBs (Brandon Wimbush)
Pace of Play: More Snaps Equal More Scoring Chances, Right?

Back from break, Irish commence hitting; DT Elijah Taylor out with LisFranc injury

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Notre Dame last wore pads in its 45-27 defeat at USC back on Nov. 26, a full 117 days ago. Suffice it to say, the Irish enjoyed the chance to don their shoulder pads and hit each other in Wednesday’s third spring practice, the first one since returning from spring break.

“What I liked about it more than anything else is there wasn’t a big drop off today,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “Usually you go two days and then you take a week off, and then you come back and put your pads on—it took us only a couple of periods to get back up to form. That was nice to see.”

Contrary to previous years in spring practice, and perhaps practice in general, Kelly emphasized tackling, especially tackling in the open-field, in Wednesday’s drills.

“[I] felt like we needed to make up for a little lost ground,” he said. “We got in tackling today for the first time. That’ll be an emphasis. We’ll tackle a lot this spring to make up for lost ground.”

The early and often physical nature of practice didn’t bother any of the players, per Kelly, but also per presumed common sense. While Notre Dame’s coaching staff changes and public questioning played out in broad view, the players spent 117 days in private waiting to unleash some of the frustrations of 2016’s disappointing season.

“Everybody to a man has been looking forward to this day,” Kelly said. “It was a pretty difficult offseason for them. They were looking forward to putting the pads on and getting out there. I think they exhibited that today.”

TAYLOR OUT FOR SPRING, AT LEAST
Junior defensive tackle Elijah Taylor was not in pads Wednesday. In the final practice before spring break, another player stepped on Taylor’s foot, Kelly said. The resulting LisFranc fracture will keep Taylor out of the remaining dozen spring practices and limit him until at least July. Taylor saw action in four games last season, finishing with three tackles, including one for a loss.

Notre Dame team surgeon Dr. Brian Ratigan already performed Taylor’s surgery.

“Typical LisFranc fractures, we’ve had good success with their repairs,” Kelly said. “…We’ll be able to train around the injury. Full range of motion moving around and doing things in June, probably full clearance sometime in July.”

Without Taylor, the interior of Notre Dame’s defensive line becomes even shallower, though that may have been hard to previously comprehend. Junior Jerry Tillery looks to be ready to start, and senior Jonathan Bonner has moved to the inside, rather than at end as he has been for most of his career. Behind them, the Irish present only question marks.

Kelly said he will look to junior Micah Dew-Treadway to step forward in Taylor’s absence.

“Micah Dew-Treadway has had a really good offseason for us,” Kelly said. “Changed his body, has been doing a really good job in all facets, in the class room and weight room. He’s somebody that had been ascending anyway prior to the injury.

Kelly indicated junior Brandon Tiassum also could be expected to see more work with Taylor sidelined.

Seniors Daniel Cage and Pete Mokwuah are in the mix, as well. Cage struggled with concussion issues last season after a promising 2015.

Notre Dame will need to wait until the freshmen arrive—perhaps also joined by Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano, reportedly still taking official visits as he ponders his 2017 destination—for further reinforcements. Consensus four-star recruit Darnell Ewell would be the most likely candidate of the three expected arrivals to move up the depth chart right away.

In layman’s terms, a Lisfranc fracture occurs when a mid-foot bone connecting to a toe separates from the cluster of bones toward the heel. Note: This is stated here only to provide some context, nothing more. This particular scribe avoided most biology classes.

CLAYPOOL A RECEIVER AND THAT HE WILL STAY
Asked if he considered moving sophomore receiver Chase Claypool to defense, Kelly answered succinctly.

“We feel like we need his play on offense,” Kelly said. “He’ll continue to contribute on the special teams end of things, but we need his play on offense.”

KELLY ON KIZER’S NFL POTENTIAL
“I’ve had a number of conversations with GMs and coaches about [former Notre Dame quarterback] DeShone [Kizer], and my personal feeling is he has the biggest upside of all the quarterbacks. I don’t know that he’s prepared to come in and win a Super Bowl for you [this year]. Some may feel as though maybe one of the other quarterbacks are. I don’t know that firsthand. But I think, in time, he has the biggest upside of all the quarterbacks.

“I get it. It’s the NFL. Everybody’s under the same pressure of performing and needing somebody to come in right away, but I think he’s a guy that just needs some time. If he gets in the right situation, I think he’d be the guy to take.”

Kizer and eight other former Irish players will take part in a pro day tomorrow (Thursday) in front of some of those GMs and coaches.

Te’o to New Orleans; Booker to Nebraska

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Former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o has signed a two-year contract with the New Orleans Saints, per reports.

Once recovered from a torn Achilles, Te’o will join a crowded Saints linebacker corps. The Saints signed A.J. Klein—formerly of the Carolina Panthers—to a three-year, $15 million contract earlier in March and return Craig Robertson, who finished 2016 with 115 tackles.

All three have experience at the middle linebacker position in a 4-3 defense, though Klein and Robertson are both capable of playing at the strong side position, as well.

Before his week three injury, Te’o had started 34 of 38 games for the San Diego Chargers and notched 221 career tackles. With the Saints, he rejoins linebackers coach Mike Nolan, who held the same position with the Chargers in 2015 when Te’o finished with a career-high 83 tackles.

BOOKER REJOINS DIACO
It appears former Notre Dame tight ends coach and special teams coordinator Scott Booker will join the Nebraska coaching staff. Two former Irish coaches—defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and safeties coach Bob Elliott—already have seats in the Lincoln coaching room, which is quickly becoming something of a Notre Dame West.

Booker will reportedly join the Cornhuskers staff as a special teams analyst. He served as Notre Dame’s special teams coordinator from 2012 to 2016 before this past offseason’s extensive staff changes.

PRO DAY THURSDAY
A reminder: Notre Dame will hold its Pro Day this Thursday. Nine players will partake, obviously highlighted by quarterback DeShone Kizer.

The others: long snapper Scott Daly, running back Tarean Folson, tight end Chase Hounshell, defensive linemen Jarron Jones and Isaac Rochell, cornerback Cole Luke, safety Avery Sebastian and linebacker James Onwualu.

Kizer hopes to prove himself worthy of a first-round draft pick, while Jones and Rochell may be in the mix for a second-day pick, meaning in the second or third rounds.

As it is draft season, this discussion of why mock drafts exist even though most prognosticators cannot stand them is worth the few minutes needed to read.

MARCH MADNESS UPDATE
The majority of the “Inside the Irish” bracket pool’s leaders escaped the weekend’s chaos, though frontrunner andy44teg will not hold onto that top spot for long after his titlist pick, Duke, exited late the tournament late Sunday.

That will leave some character named Dennis and his North Carolina prediction as the presumptive favorite to win, well, to win absolutely nothing.

Five of the top 10 expect North Carolina to win the championship.