Michigan staff prepares for test against Irish

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The Michigan coaching staff met with the media this week to discuss the football game this weekend. Head coach Brady Hoke discussed the challenges ahead for his football team, while offensive coordinator Al Borges discussed the evolution of Denard Robinson and the work the offense still needs to do. And as it happened last year, defensive coordinator Greg Mattison was asked to look back on his eight years in South Bend, while also talking about the challenges that come from facing Everett Golson, Tyler Eifert, Cierre Wood and company.

Let’s cut down to the nitty gritty and find some interesting tidbits.

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After throwing 15 interceptions last season in his first year in Borges’ system, many wondered if Denard Robinson was a square peg being shoved into a round hole when shifting to Borges’ West Coast offense.

Robinson’s completion percentage plummeted during 2011, dropping to 55 percent after he completed 62.5 percent of his throws for 18 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in his first season starting for Rich Rodriguez. While Robinson’s commitment to the classroom and learning the Michigan offense has been commendable, the fruits of his labor aren’t yet apparent. Through three games, Robinson has completed just 54.7 percent of his throws, with four interceptions in three games to go along with six touchdown passes.

Still, Borges sees a more comfortable quarterback playing this season, and one that’s focused on the fundamentals.

“Without question. Without question,” Borges said.”How many balls have you seen him throw off his back foot in three games where he’s lunging backwards, tossing the ball in the middle of the secondary? He didn’t do that all the time last year but he did it some, and they were usually catastrophic, but he doesn’t do that near as much. I’m knocking on wood. I never assume anything, but his footwork is like night and day. He’s pulling balls down now and working up underneath the pocket and taking off and buying beats. He had a play during the game and it was a zero blitz where he got underneath the rush, gave Vince a chance to chip off a blitzing linebacker and threw the ball to Devin for a touchdown. A year ago he would have run backwards, and they’d have chased him for about an hour, and he’d probably end up throwing it out of bounds.

“It’s a different kid, and I think you’ll see more and more of that as you go.”

Of course, Irish fans saw more than a few of those lunging backward heaves into the secondary. Unfortunately for Notre Dame, they ended up being the plays that got Michigan back into the game in 2011.

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Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is tasked with a new challenge: shut down an Irish offense that now relies on mobile quarterback Everett Golson. He’s hoping the ability to work against a pretty elusive guy every day in practice helps with that.

“Well I hope a lot. I hope a lot,” Mattison said about containing a mobile quarterback.
“Although if you’ve seen the first three games, we haven’t looked great if the quarterback has scrambled. But I know the speed at which we have to play against Denard puts pressure on you every day. I would think that would help us when you get into a game like this.”

Even with a quarterback like Golson taking over for Tommy Rees, Mattison is confident that Notre Dame won’t alter their offensive identity.

“They’ve changed a little bit but they’re still Notre Dame,” Mattison said. “They want to run the football and they want you to make mistakes so they can hopefully get a shot on you and try to test your coverage with their speed and take shots down field. So I think it’s a lot alike. ”

While they didn’t necessarily hit on their shots down the field, you can consider it a good sign that Mattison and company know what’s likely coming, especially with vertical threats and mismatches with guys like Tyler Eifert and potentially Troy Niklas. (John Goodman scoring on the deep ball last Saturday, and Davaris Daniels‘ yards-per-catch have to help stretch the Wolverines’ defense out as well.)

Michigan hasn’t been good stopping the run, and they’re a bit undersized in their front seven after having to replace three of their top four up front from 2011. So if the Irish can get decent blocking from Ben Koyack after a disappointing start to the season, then there are some personnel matchups that Notre Dame can take advantage of, letting Eifert split wide.

You get the feeling that Eifert’s lack of production was because he’s the best in-line blocker Notre Dame has at tight end and Koyack and Niklas weren’t ready to handle that duty against a front seven like the Spartans.

Lastly, Mattison talked about just how important this rivalry is to him.

“This is as big as it gets to me,” he said. “I’ve always believed that forever. It’s just when you think of college football, you think of Michigan and you think of Notre Dame. This is really football. That’s what makes it exciting, and that’s what makes you excited that you’re at Michigan. That you’re here and you get a chance to go in there and see what you guys can do.”

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For his part, Hoke didn’t offer much bulletin board material, instead paying compliment to Notre Dame and their 3-0 start, and relishing the ability to play another good opponent and evaluating the progress his team has made after getting dominated up front by Alabama’s front seven.

“Seeing how far we’ve come from game one to game four is exciting,” Hoke said. “There’s no question this is going to be a test. They’ve been very productive as a football team, as a defensive team. We’re going to have to block the line of scrimmage. We need to do a great job with protection.”

What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

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Time spent on a traditional game wrap of a spring intrasquad exhibition seems misspent. Gold won Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game 27-14 led by rising sophomore quarterback Ian Book. The first-string defense (Gold) held the first-string offense to an average of 5.4 yards per play. For context’s sake: Last season Notre Dame gained an average of 6.1 yards per play and held opponents to 5.4.

With that abbreviated recap out of the way, what did Saturday’s pseudo-game environment show about the Irish? If the 20,147 in attendance paid attention, they had the chance to learn a few things:

Daelin Hayes will be ready to hit a quarterback in September
Notre Dame’s quarterbacks were off limits all spring. Bulls might charge when they see red, but the Irish defensive line has had to remember to ease up when they come across a quarterback’s red jersey. If sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes had forgotten that Saturday, Notre Dame might not have any quarterbacks left to play in the fall.

“At the end of the day, we’re on the same team,” Hayes said, dismissing any bitterness about the quarterbacks’ protections. “We have to keep our guys healthy. I wasn’t frustrated, but come September 2, you know.”

Officially, Hayes was credited with three sacks and another tackle for loss among his seven tackles. Admittedly, gauging sacks is tricky when the quarterback does not actually go to the ground. How many of Hayes’ three sacks and the defense’s 11 total would have been evaded if the defender needed to do more than touch the passer? That answer is highly subjective, but discounting Hayes’ numbers would miss the bigger picture.

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

Senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) notched two sacks and sophomore end Ade Ogundeji came the closest to tackling a red jersey when he stripped junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush from behind. The defensive line has been expected to be a weak point for the Irish moving forward, but the spring performance indicates it has a chance at holding its own. These accomplishments bear further merit considering Notre Dame’s offensive line is widely-considered one of its few spots of expected quality.

RELATED READING: Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

“I think it’s pretty clear Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I’d have to watch the film, but it seemed like [sophomore end] Julian Okwara was a hard guy to block coming off the edge, as well.”

Ian Book provides some peace of mind
Book was not spectacular, but he was also far from incompetent or intimidated. In his first action on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, Book completed 18-of-25 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by a 58-yard connection with sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. Meanwhile, junior Brandon Wimbush completed 22-of-32 passes for 303 yards.

Bluntly, one has not needed to follow Notre Dame for very long to fit that “long enough” qualification. Last season’s backup, Malik Zaire, saw competitive action against both Texas and Stanford. In 2015, DeShone Kizer came off the bench to start 11 games after Zaire suffered a season-ending ankle injury. (more…)

What Notre Dame players should you actually watch? Plus, catch up on reading

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If technology does its part, this will post as its typist meanders toward finding his credential for the Blue-Gold Game to conclude Notre Dame’s spring practice. If technology doesn’t do its part, well, then this will be lost to the cobwebs of the internet. Such as it goes.

This space has spent much of the past week discussing what to look for in the 12:30 p.m. ET exhibition. Worry about the big picture, not the individuals. Fret about the macro, not the micro.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the indivdual players
Blue-Gold Game primer with help from Notre Dame’s coordinators
Four defensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game
Four offensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game

But, if insistent on focusing on singular players, look to the inexperienced, the names you are unfamiliar with. The 15th and final practice of spring may be no more than a practice in reality, but it is in front of nearly 30,000 fans in Notre Dame Stadium. Some players do not have so much as that minimal experience.

“The Blue-Gold Game, specifically, is a time for us to emulate a game-like situation,” senior safety/linebacker/rover Drue Tranquill said. “Especially for guys like freshmen, second-semester guys coming in, it’s a great opportunity for them to get that game feeling, but also continue to take steps in the process to get better.”

The question on the tip of your tongue is a fair one. If you are unfamiliar with the names, how are you supposed to focus on those players? How are you to know who fits the appropriate tunnel vision version of perspective?

Let’s turn to Irish coach Brian Kelly’s mentions from Wednesday–primarily, sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara, sophomore long snapper John Shannon, senior kicker Sam Kohler, sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem and sophomore safety Jalen Elliott.

Obviously, that is just a sampling. Less obviously, this post’s purpose may or may not be to link to previous reading material and remind you of the vague but pertinent purposes to today’s endeavor. It is neither be-all nor end-all. It is simply another opportunity to gauge what may come down the line.

But hey, how about a prediction? Per Kelly, the first-team offense and second-team defense will be in blue, against the first-team defense and second-team offense in white.

PREDICTION: Blue 37, White 21

HOW TO WATCH
As a recurring reminder, the Blue-Gold Game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network, as well as streamed online at ndstream.nbcsports.com and on the NBC Sports app.

Friday at 4: Four offensive positions to watch in Notre Dame’s spring game

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There are two common ways of looking at the annual spring game.
It is the last action involving Notre Dame football readily available for public consumption until Sept. 2, 133 days away.
Or it is an exercise rife with contradiction exacerbated by hype, yielding little-to-no reliable intelligence.
Like much of life, the most accurate assessment falls somewhere between those two views.

If junior running back Dexter Williams breaks off two 50-yard-plus touchdown runs, does that mean he will have multiple big plays in 2017? Not at all. It does mean he will likely have more opportunities for them, though. Just like in spring’s previous 14 practices, the Irish coaches will take what they see and apply it moving forward.

The past—and as of Saturday evening, the Blue-Gold Game will qualify as the past—does not dictate the future, but it can influence one’s approach to it.

Aside from Williams (see the second item below for more on him and the running backs), what other players/positions could influence their future roles the most with their performance to close spring?

BIG PASSING TARGETS: Alizé Jones and Co.
In this instance, big is meant literally. Notre Dame has an embarrassment of riches of tall, long, physical tight ends and receivers. Junior Alizé Jones earns specific mention here due to his inaction last season. Irish fans and coaches alike have a better idea of sophomore receiver Chase Claypool and junior receiver Miles Boykin. They have 2016 film to look at.

Jones, however, sat out the season due to academic issues. His on-field performance largely remains a question mark, but if he combines this spring’s praise with his 6-foot-4 ½ frame holding 245 listed pounds, that could turn into an exclamation point.

“He’s a perfect fit,” new Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long said Friday. “That’s why I recruited him like crazy when I was at Arizona State. He’s a prototypical [tight end], a guy who can run, who can catch.

“The biggest thing about Alizé is he’s taking great pride in his blocking ability right now, his presence of being an end-line guy, his protection and his overall physicality. When you think like that, you’re going to become a better receiver.” (more…)

Blue-Gold Game primer with help from Notre Dame’s coordinators

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You didn’t hear? Notre Dame plays Notre Dame tomorrow. Here, let’s make this easy.

WHO? Notre Dame’s first-string offense against its first-string defense, and the Irish second-string defense against the second-string offense.
WHAT? It’s called the Blue-Gold Game, but there are two flaws to that title. One team will be wearing white, not gold, and while it is structured as a game, it is really nothing more than the 15th and final spring practice.
WHEN? 12:30 p.m. ET, Saturday, April 22, 2017 A.D. Yes, I am worried you might mistake this as occurring more than 2,000 years before the time of Christ.
WHERE? Notre Dame Stadium, but if you can’t make it there, tune in to NBC Sports Network.
HOW? Oh, not going to be at a TV? NBC still has you covered at this link: ndstream.nbcsports.com or on the NBC Sports app.

With those essentials out of the way, let’s pull a few quotes from this morning when new Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long and new defensive coordinator Mike Elko addressed the media. Hopefully, these might provide some general context for what to learn from tomorrow.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the individual players

Elko on how much of his defense he has successfully installed this spring:
“We’ve gotten close to 50 percent of all of it up and running. We’ve spent a lot of time defending this offense this spring, so we’re going to have to spend some time defending the offenses we play moving forward. That’s probably where a lot of the learning curve has to come.”

Elko on the most notable defensive improvements:
“We’re disrupting the football better. We’re leveraging the football better. We’re playing harder.”

Elko on what fans should look for from the Notre Dame defense Saturday:
“I hope they see a defense that is flying around. I hope they see a defense that is disrupting the football. I hope they see a defense that has their eyes in the right spot and is executing at a high level. All those things that we’re preaching aren’t going to change tomorrow. It’s not going to be different. It’s not going to be different when we line up against Temple.” (more…)