IBG: Waiting for the Wolverines

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I don’t know about you guys, but this week is moving mighty slow. While last Saturday’s game certainly had a high stakes feel to it, the date with the Wolverines feels amplified. Win, and the Irish go to 4-0, with a much needed week of rest to get healthy and continue into uncharted territory. A loss, well — it gives Irish fans 14 days to contemplate how Michigan once again broke their hearts.

With thousands of fans ready to descend on South Bend for what might be the most important home game since Pete Carroll and the Trojans came to town in 2005, we caught up with Josh Flynt of UND.com’s Strong and True blog. While the other two members of the Irish Blogger Gathering (Subway Domer & Her Loyal Sons) might get a little feisty with their questions, we kept things in check.

I posed Josh some questions, and he answered. On his blog, he asked me some questions and I answered. Funnily enough, they were pretty similar.

1. We can spend all afternoon talking about the match-ups and the supposed advantages the Irish have as they prepare to take on a Michigan team that looked less than impressive against Michigan and Air Force. Does it matter? They’ve got Denard Robinson, who has crafted his lore basically on destroying Notre Dame. What do you think needs to happen to make this Saturday night different than the last three?

I don’t know, maybe I’m delusional, but I think Notre Dame was better than Michigan in each of the past three seasons. Instead of looking to avenge three straight losses to the Wolverines, the Irish could probably be going for their fifth consecutive win over the team from Ann Arbor.

Unfortunately, that is not the case. The Irish turned the ball over five times last year and allowed 28 points in the fourth quarter at Michigan Stadium. They committed nine penalties for 75 yards.

But this season is different. Notre Dame has given up the football just twice, and has allowed only 30 points through three games.

Denard will make a few big plays. The key for the Irish will be limiting both how often, and when he makes them (ex. not on his team’s last drive). If the Notre Dame offense continues to protect the football and the defense plays with the same level of intensity it exhibited last Saturday, I’m confident the Irish will be 4-0 heading into their bye week.

2. During that fateful fourth quarter, the Michigan wide receivers had their way in a few jump ball, one-on-one, match-ups. Most of those guys are still in uniform for the maize and blue, and the Irish secondary will be even more inexperienced. With the Irish front seven pretty stout against the running game, do you expect the Wolverines’ offense to try to make their mark in the air?

While Denard can make plays with both his arm and his legs, he’s not exactly known for his passing ability. That said, I still expect Michigan to try to beat Notre Dame through the air. It just makes sense for the Wolverines offense to try to exploit the less experienced group.

Holding Le’Veon Bell to only 77 yards, I think the front seven showed it deserves to be considered among the best in the country. So hopefully the Irish can force #16 to make some hurried decisions, rather than allowing him to dance around in the pocket before breaking off a big run. If Nix, Tuitt, etc. play like they have recently, even with a young secondary, I really like our chances.

3. Last year’s night game against USC was a success right up until the Irish took the field. Then it turned into a depressing movie many Irish fans have already seen before, with the whole Crazy Train debacle adding in some gallows humor. Do you think the football team learned anything from the experience? Do you think the marketing / stadium P.A. team learned any new songs?

Improving the stadium atmosphere is definitely a work in progress, but the good news is that it has become a collective university effort. The athletic department launched the “Take a StaND” initiative before the Purdue game, and Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick has expressed that he wants to bring back the home field advantage at Notre Dame Stadium.

I’ve always felt that when it comes to building a raucous stadium environment, winning cures all. When asked about the atmosphere on Tuesday, Coach Kelly seemed to express asimilar mentality. “I continue to believe that if we play great football, if we do the things we did against Michigan State, then it’s going to be plenty loud enough in that stadium,” he said.

With the Irish sitting at 3-0 for the first time in a decade, I think the House That Rockne Built will be the loudest I’ve ever personally seen it on Saturday (Keep in mind, I’ve only been coming to games since I was a freshman in 2007, but still, I believe this is the biggest home game since USC 2005 – not to say the two are comparable).

For reasons I’ll never understand, Crazy Train is part of our nation’s sports culture and is used everywhere – it was played in Dublin and at Michigan State, and I can’t tell you how often I’ve been watching other football or basketball games on television and have heard it in the background. The main problem against USC was that it was the third down song, in a gamewhere Notre Dame struggled to stop a third down.

I know the Leprechaun Legion has offered its input and against Purdue, I thought there was a good mix of music – a share of classic stadium anthems, but also a few unique tunes that I’d like to see more often. (I can’t remember specific song titles, but I will keep an ear out this weekend).

Also, I know it’s a student favorite, but I really can’t stand Seven Nation Army. Sorry, y’all.

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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