Pregame six pack: Identity check for the Irish

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After holding serve with victories over Navy and Purdue, we’ll finally get an identity check on No. 20 Notre Dame, as they head to East Lansing for a battle with No. 10 Michigan State.

The Irish are healthy after losing seven players during their hard-fought 20-17 victory. They’ll have their top two receiving threats back with Davaris Daniels rebounding nicely after an ankle tweak and All-American tight end Tyler Eifert cleared from a mild concussion. Starting running back Cierre Wood is back from suspension, and he’ll work into the rotation with Theo Riddick and George Atkinson. Quarterback Everett Golson, a week after sitting out the game’s winning drive in favor of veteran Tommy Rees, is ready for his first true road test.

Along the defensive line Kapron Lewis-Moore is back anchoring his defensive end position and junior linebacker Danny Spond returns to outside linebacker after a scary preseason injury. Jamoris Slaughter is fine after a big collision kept him from returning to a young secondary that improved from week one to two.

With its biggest test of the season ahead of it, it appears all hands are on deck for head coach Brian Kelly and Notre Dame. Let’s run through six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as No. 20 Notre Dame prepares to take on the Big Ten’s best in No. 10 Michigan State.

***

For the Irish to win, they’ll need to hang onto the football and control the line of scrimmage.

At this time last year, Notre Dame was winless and at the bottom of the NCAA rankings in turnover margin. After outgaining and outplaying both USF and Michigan, the Irish figured out how to lose two excruciatingly tough football games because they couldn’t hold onto the football.

Fast-forward one year and it’s a different story. Breaking in new quarterback Everett Golson, the Irish have won their first two battles, and have completely flipped the switch in the turnover category.

On paper, it’s a shocking contrast:

2011
Turnovers: 10
Differential: -7

2012
Turnovers: 2
Differential +4

Part two of the upset equation is controlling the line of scrimmage. A week after a disappointing performance along the offensive line, Kelly laid it out fairly simply.

“If Michigan State can exert their will on both fronts the offensive line and defensive line I think we probably know how that game’s gonna go,” Kelly said. “We feel like we have to be able to exert our same kind of presence on both sides of the ball.”

After reviewing the game film and turning the page, center Braxston Cave was candid about the offensive line’s play.

“We didn’t play up to our standard that we’ve set for ourselves and it showed,” Cave said. “When our team struggles we’re gonna put that on the offensive line.”

The Irish have already won the turnover battle twice this season after winning it only three times all of last year. If they can manage to do that and win the line of scrimmage, there’s a great chance they’ll walk out of East Lansing 3-0.

***

If recent history has told us anything, expect a close one Saturday night.

You can throw out the Irish’s rather easy 31-13 victory over the Spartans last year. In recent years, most times Notre Dame and Michigan State meet, it’s a game that will go down to the wire. For every Little Giants, there’s been the Irish’s epic 2006 comeback in the rain. The Spartans have won 10 of the last 15 games in this series, but nine of the last 12 have been decided by seven points or less.

Let’s take a quick trip down memory lane:

2011 — ND wins 31-13
2010 — MSU wins 34-31 (Little Giants)
2009 — ND wins 33-30 (Kyle McCarthy with the pick!)
2008 — MSU wins 23-7
2007 — MSU wins 31-10
2006 — ND wins 40-37 (Comeback in the rain)
2005 — MSU wins 44-41 (Flag plant.)
2004 — ND wins 31-24 (The Tommy Zbikowski show)
2003 — MSU wins 22-16
2002 — ND wins 21-17 (Dillingham to Battle for the win!)

The betting line for Saturday night’s game opened up at 4.5 points, but has surged to Michigan State being a six-point favorite. Interestingly, 87% of money is betting on the Spartans right now, potentially pushing this point spread even further in Sparty’s direction. With the Spartan’s looking impressive last weekend after following up a big win against Boise State, it’s not surprising that they’ve got Las Vegas’ attention.

***

Manti Te’o will be playing Saturday with a heavy heart.

You can’t blame linebacker Manti Te’o if his mind is on something other than football right now. The heart of the Irish defense has suffered his share of heartbreak this week, losing two people incredibly close to the senior from Hawaii. Te’o’s girlfriend Lennay Kekua lost a battle with leukemia this week. He also lost his grandmother within 24 hours.

“We lost some people very close to him, and it’s obviously taken a toll on him,” Kelly said. “Our players have been there for him and have been a great support. We’ll support him. He’ll be with us. He practiced. He’ll be playing Saturday against Michigan State. Unfortunately, he’s gone through a very rough 24, 48 hours. But his support and his family at home have been great, and all of the coaches and players have been there for him.

Te’o has not spoken publicly about the losses, and that’s an awful lot to deal with for anybody, let alone a senior in college. As always, the stoic leader of the Irish football team has said and done the right things, writing of Kekua on Twitter, “I may not hear your voice anymore but I do feel your presence.”

There are obviously logistical challenges that go into getting Te’o back to Hawaii for memorial services or funerals and Kelly mentioned the bye week as a potential opportunity for Te’o to return home. But for now the linebacker stays with his support system in South Bend.

“He wants to be with his teammates, he wants to be with the people that care about him,” Kelly said. “He’s a strong man and he’s going through a tough time, but he’ll rise to the occasion.”

***

Brian Kelly is on the “coolest seat in America.”

Jack Swarbrick made more headlines this week with the Irish move to the ACC, a transition that’s energized just about every athletics program on campus. He also made headlines last night talking with Dan Wetzel and Pat Forde of Yahoo! Sports when discussing the status of Brian Kelly the head coach and the state of the Irish football program.

“I couldn’t be more pleased. I like to say that my coach is on the coolest seat in America, as opposed to a hot seat. What we had to do was build a program. It’s not about changing whether you run the spread offense or something else, or if you run a 3-4 or 4-3. It was really for us, we had lost the elements of a really elite program over a course of time. Many years, not just a few. And that’s what we had to address.

“We had to focus on approach to strength and conditioning, and nutrition, and scheduling our athlete’s day, our approach to competitive scheduling, our facilities. We just had to take this thing down to ground zero and build all the elements back up so we had a foundation for success. And that’s what I see now.

“Now the AD built a crazy schedule this year, and we ought to fire him, but the foundation for success is there. I love the athleticism of this team and the quality of the student athletes. And I love what I think is coming in the next few years, so I couldn’t feel better about the program.”

The next two weeks will likely help define the 2012 season, but that should put an end to any discussions on minimum win total and other messageboard debates. Whether some fans like it or not, Swarbrick has decided to take the long view on the Notre Dame football program, and he’s setting the program up for success by realizing stability and a structured process are a good thing.

***

The focus might be on the Michigan State front seven, but the cornerbacks will challenge the Irish passing attack.

You might know the names Will Gholston and Max Bullough, but the back end of the Spartan defense will be a key to Saturday night. With Golson proving his can throw the football effectively last week, the Spartans might not want to load the box to take away the Irish running game and challenge Notre Dame to beat them through the air. But if they do, it’ll be because Mark Dantonio trusts his cornerbacks, the strength of his underrated secondary.

With Johnny Adams returning for a fifth season, he and Darqueze Dennard will be called upon to play big in the back end of the defense, often challenged with one-on-one match-ups in defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi‘s aggressive scheme.

“You just don’t have to worry about them, about things going wrong,” Bullough told the Detroit Free Press about his cornerbacking duo. “Sure, someone’s gonna make a play on them at times, that’s how football is. But for the most part we feel like we have better corners than a lot of the receivers we go against.”

With Tyler Eifert split wide to help create those match-ups, Bullough will get a chance to see if his theory is correct.

***

The time is right for the Irish to finally spring an upset at night.

It’s been quite some time since the Irish went out and made a primetime statement against a top ten opponent. As Tim Prister writes at Irish Illustrated, maybe it’s been way too long.

The Irish — 20-17 all-time against ranked opponents at night and 63-35-2 overall – have lost 10 straight night games against teams ranked in the top 10 with USC the most frequent perpetrator (three).

Notre Dame hasn’t won a road night game against a top 10 opponent since the Jan. 1, 1992 Sugar Bowl when Lou Holtz’s squad knocked off Steve Spurrier’s Florida Gators, 39-28, in the Superdome. Since then, the Irish have lost to:

  • No. 8 Florida State, 31-26, in the Jan. 1, 1996 Orange Bowl
  • No. 4 Tennessee, 38-14, on Nov. 6, 1999 in Knoxville
  • No. 5 Oregon State, 41-9, in the Jan. 1, 2001 Fiesta Bowl
  • No. 5 Nebraska, 27-10, on Sept. 8, 2001 in Lincoln
  • No. 6 USC, 44-13, on Nov. 30, 2002 in Los Angeles
  • No. 3 USC, 44-24, on Nov. 25, 2006 in Los Angeles
  • No. 4 LSU, 41-14, in the Jan. 3, 2007 Sugar Bowl
  • No. 5 USC, 38-3, on Nov. 29, 2008 in Los Angeles
  • No. 8 Pittsburgh, 27-22, on Nov. 14, 2009 in Pittsburgh
  • No. 4 Stanford, 28-14, on Nov. 26, 2011 in Palo Alto, Calif.

The Irish have been building to this moment ever since they laid an egg last year at home against USC. And while we’ve mentioned they aren’t the betting favorite and they’ll be playing in front of one of the more hostile environments that they’ll see all year, there’s reason to believe this could be the end of a long string of bad football.

“Our guys are confident and they prepared well and they should be (confident),” Kelly said. “They’re looking forward to the challenge of playing at Michigan State in what will be a great atmosphere.”

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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