Opposition round-up: Week three

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Let’s take a quick jog through the Irish schedule and see how Notre Dame’s past and future opponents did in week three.

NAVY — It looks like it might be another tough season in Annapolis, with Ken Niumatalolo’s squad turning the ball over four times against Penn State to give Bill O’Brien his first win. Quarterback Trey Miller, still nursing an ankle injury he suffered against Notre Dame, completed only 6 of 13 passes and only gained 21 yards on 18 carries. The Midshipmen outgained Penn State, but still were down 34-0 before scoring a late touchdown.

Trending: It’s not a surprise that Navy started 0-2 against Notre Dame and Penn State. How ugly it’s been might be though.

PURDUE — The Boilermakers rolled over Eastern Michigan 54-16, putting up 576 yards of offense against a MAC squad that has yet to win a game. Caleb TerBush completed 16 of his 24 passes with two touchdowns, but did throw a pick-six to give the Eagles one of their scores. Danny Hope’s squad ran for an impressive 392 yards on 42 carries and six touchdowns, emptying the backfield as the Boilermakers pulled away after EMU pulled to within four points in the middle of the second quarter.

Trending: A nice bounce back win for the Boilermakers, who have to feel good about themselves heading into Big Ten play.

No. 17 MICHIGAN — The Wolverines feasted on former Irish offensive coordinator Charley Molnar’s UMass squad, rolling to an easy 63-13 victory that featured another big game by Denard Robinson. The senior quarterback threw for 291 yards and 3 touchdowns while running for 106 yards on 10 carries. Still, the Minutemen gained 259 yards against Michigan, 100 more than they did against Indiana. (UConn held UMass to a paltry 59 yards.) Of course, the Wolverines face the Irish this Saturday, a better status check than any cupcake.

Trending: It’s clear the Wolverines are a flawed team on both lines, but they still have the ultimate wild card in Robinson. This status update will become clear Saturday night.

MIAMI — It appears that the Duke Johnson era at Miami has officially started, with the talented freshman running back scoring by ground, by air, and via kick return against Bethune-Cookman. The 38-10 win was a nice rebound after being embarrassed by Kansas State, but the Wildcats — the Bethune-Cookman Wildcats — ran for 233 yards against the Hurricanes, leaving plenty of questions about Al Golden’s defense.

Trending: Anything is better than what happened in Manhattan, but there’s still plenty of work to do for the ‘Canes.

No. 9 STANFORD — And the victory of the week goes to David Shaw’s Cardinal, who punched USC in the mouth and beat up the Trojans on the way to their fourth straight victory over Southern Cal. After only sliding by San Jose State in their season opener, Stanford sacked Matt Barkley five times, held the Trojans ground game to just 26 yards on 28 carries, and limited the vaunted USC aerial attack to 254 yards on 41 passes with two interceptions. Consider the blueprint to beat USC, especially without starting center Khalid Holmes, written.

Trending: It’s a huge jump up in the rankings for the Cardinal, who are also breaking in a new quarterback. A terrific win for coach David Shaw, who is emerging quite nicely from the shadow of Jim Harbaugh.

BYU — A fourth quarter comeback and two shots at a game-tying field goal wasn’t enough for BYU, who lost their Holy War with in-state rival Utah. The defeat drops the Cougars out of the top 25 and casts some doubts on the BYU ground game, which struggled against a Utah team that suffered an embarrassing defeat to Utah State. Riley Nelson and Cody Hoffman hooked up eight times for 120 yards and a touchdown, but kicker Riley Stephenson had a 51-yard field goal attempt blocked at the end of the game, but incredibly got another chance to make it after Utah’s students rushed the field before the play was blown dead. Stephenson then kicked the next attempt off the left upright, preserving the win for Kyle Wittingham.

Trending: A tough loss for BYU, who have to rebound quickly before facing Boise State on Thursday, then face Hawaii, Utah State, and Oregon State before heading to South Bend.

No. 6 OKLAHOMA — The Sooners took the week off from facing cupcakes to prepare for its first Big 12 opponent, No. 15 Kansas State. We’ll know much more about Landry Jones and company after they face off with Bill Snyder’s Wildcats in Norman this weekend.

Trending: Holding steady. First true look comes this Saturday.

PITTSBURGH — Paul Chryst’s first victory at Pitt was a big one, with the Panthers knocking off Frank Beamer’s No. 13 Virginia Tech squad after looking hapless in their first two games. Tailback Ray Graham ran for 94 yards and two touchdowns, but freshman Rushel Shell burst onto the scene with 157 yards to surprise the Hokies. Quarterback Tino Sunseri battled through a leg injury and found jumbo wideout Mike Shanahan five times for 111 yards and a game-clinching touchdown. The Panthers intercepted Tech QB Logan Thomas three times to help spring the upset.

Trending: Huge victory after looking pretty bad in convincing losses to Youngstown State and Cincinnati.

BOSTON COLLEGE — The Eagles will have Saturday off before their huge road test against Clemson next Saturday. Frank Spaziani’s troops managed a victory over Maine, but lost in a shootout to Miami before coming up short against Northwestern 22-13 on Saturday. Quarterback Chase Rettig has looked solid, but the Boston College ground game has only managed to run for 95 yards a game so far this season. The Eagles defense managed to keep Northwestern out of the end zone until the 4th quarter, even while giving up 560 yards of offense and 34 first downs.

Trending: With BC athletic director Gene DeFilippo retiring, there might not be a hotter seat in college football than Frank Spaziani’s.

WAKE FOREST — It was a Saturday to forget for Jim Grobe and his Demon Deacons, getting bludgeoned by Florida State 52-0 on Saturday after the Seminoles ran for 385 yards against a Wake Forest defense that was without Nikita Whitlock. After sneaking out an opening win against Liberty and rallying to beat North Carolina, The Deacs were held to just seven first downs and 126 total yards, with the Seminoles defense just overwhelming the rebuilt Wake Forest offensive line.

Trending: Clearly a step backwards, though I think most Wake Forest fans would be happy with being 2-1 right now. Three straight against Army, Duke and Maryland might help Grobe’s squad get their confidence back.

No. 13 USC — The Trojans found out the difference between being the hunter and the hunted on Saturday night, with the No. 2 ranked Trojans the first of the big-three atop college football to fall. While the star power certainly exists at USC, all the signs were there, especially with the offensive line in shambles after Khalid Holmes went down with an ankle injury. The Cardinal’s Stephan Taylor ran for 153 yards and the Trojans were held scoreless for the game’s final 41 minutes.

Trending: A huge step backwards for USC, who is learning that a football team is only as good as its weakest unit. On Saturday, the Trojans couldn’t run the ball, block, or kick a field goal. There’s plenty of season left, but expect the Trojans’ opponents to follow the script Stanford wrote.

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.