Five things we’ve learned: Notre Dame 13, Michigan 6

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You never expected it to be easy. If Notre Dame was going to finally beat Michigan after three years of heart-stopping defeats, you didn’t think the Wolverines were going to lay down and go quietly into the night, did you?

That’s why in spite of six turnovers — four interceptions and a fumble by Denard Robinson — Michigan kept coming after the Irish, picking themselves off the ground like a villain you can’t kill in an action movie. But Notre Dame’s defense stood tall, pushing back the Wolverines’ attack until the Irish offense did just enough, and the No. 11 Fighting Irish escaped Notre Dame Stadium with a hard fought victory over No. 18 Michigan 13-6.

“I thought both football teams played awfully hard,” Michigan head coach Brady Hoke said after the game. “I think one played better when it came to execution and taking care of the football.”

Better was a relative term on Saturday night, as Notre Dame’s offense did the defense no favor. Everett Golson threw an interception deep in Notre Dame territory on his first snap of the evening. The Irish only managed 14 first downs on 239 yards of total offense. The running game the Irish hoped to rely on was shut down, running for just 94 yards on 31 carries.

But a win is a win, especially over Michigan. On another Saturday where two teams in the top ten lost (future Irish opponent Oklahoma being one of them) and LSU hung on for an ugly 12-10 victory over an Auburn team that was taken to overtime last week by Louisiana-Monroe, Notre Dame doesn’t need to compete in college football’s beauty pageant. They’ll be happy winning and moving on to a well deserved bye week.

After holding both Michigan and Michigan State without touchdowns for the first time since 1909, let’s find out what else we learned in No. 11 Notre Dame’s victory over Denard Robinson and No. 18 Michigan.

***

After letting Denard Robinson beat Notre Dame single-handedly for two straight years, the Irish defense shut down the heart of the Wolverines.

Denard Robinson has played football games that will be remembered forever in Michigan lore. Saturday night was not one of them.

After propelling Michigan to dramatic victories the Irish the past two seasons, the Irish absolutely shut down Michigan’s Heisman Trophy candidate, forcing five turnovers from Robinson as the Irish defense shut down the Michigan offense.

“Defensively, what can I say,” head coach Brian Kelly said after the game. “Six turnovers. Limited who we felt is one of the most dynamic offensive players in the country to no touchdowns. Just an incredible performance by our defense.”

After giving up almost 1,000 yards of offense to Robinson the past two seasons, Notre Dame shut down the quarterback, holding him to 13 of 24 passing for just 138 with four interceptions. On the ground, the Irish limited Robinson to just one run of 20 yards, and he needed 26 carries to gain 90 yards, a pedestrian 3.5 yards a carry. In a match-up many thought favored Michigan, the Irish defense absolutely killed the Wolverines, at one point intercepting five straight Michigan passes, and the inexperienced Notre Dame secondary stood strong.

“I think the key to stopping such a dynamic player like denard is everybody has to get to him,” Manti Te’o said after the game. “Everybody has to get to the ball. You have to really emphasize eleven guys to the ball and I think our coaches have done a great job in stressing the importance of everybody getting the ball.”

The ball was certainly up for grabs Saturday night and the Irish capitalized. Notre Dame held Robinson to the lowest passer rating of his career as a starter, all while holding him below 100 yards rushing. While nobody is ready to put the Irish defense in the same class as Alabama’s, the numbers are worth comparing.

Robinson vs. Alabama
11 of 26 for 200 yards. 1 TD, 2 INT (104.2 QB Rating). 10 rushes for 27 yards, 1 TD.

Robinson vs. Notre Dame
13 of 24 for 138. 0 TD, 4 INT (69.1 QB Rating). 26 rushes for 90 yards, 0 TD, 1 fumble.

After crumbling at the end of two straight losses to Michigan, Robinson was unable to do anything against the Irish, and it was a crushing blow to the senior quarterback that’s had so much success against Notre Dame.

“I’m disappointed in myself,” Robinson said. “The 22 years I’ve been living, this is the most disappointed I’ve been in myself.”

***

Notre Dame’s secondary is proving that you’d rather have a lack of experience than a lack of talent.

Saturday night was the night Notre Dame’s green secondary was going to get exposed. A running back (KeiVarae Russell) and wide receiver (Bennett Jackson) were starting at cornerback. A safety (Matthias Farley) that redshirted last year as a wide receiver was filling in for one of the defense’s best players. And anchoring the unit was a guy (Zeke Motta) many thought should turn into a linebacker. On paper, this was a disaster waiting to happen. In reality? Well, it might be the most talented secondary Notre Dame’s had in quite some time.

“I think after tonight, we all feel that we’ve got some young guys back there that can play at a high level,” Kelly said after the game. “I think our coaches have done a great job of getting the back end of our defense to the point where there’s a lot of confidence.”

Notre Dame went into the season with a secondary that many believed needed to stay healthy just to play serviceable football. But that didn’t happen. Tee Shepard, who many expected to battle for a starting job, didn’t make it to spring ball in South Bend. Austin Collinsworth, Lo Wood and Jamoris Slaughter are all lost for the season. Yet Kerry Cooks and Bob Elliott have turned a talented but untested  group of players into a confident group, encapsulated by freshman Nicky Baratti, a high school quarterback learning defense on the fly, stepping in front of a halfback pass and making a huge interception in the end zone.

For the third straight week, the Irish secondary has held a Big Ten opponent under 200 yards passing. Notre Dame’s seven interceptions is one less than the Irish had all last season with first round draft pick Harrison Smith roaming centerfield and returning starters Gary Gray and Robert Blanton at cornerback.

The young group certainly needs to keep learning and get better. But this game should put an end to the belief that there’s no talent in the back-end of the Irish defense.

***

While Everett Golson remains Notre Dame’s starting quarterback, it’s time for the youngster to grow up in a hurry.

After impressing on the big stage with a calm and collected performance against Michigan State, Everett Golson took a huge step backwards on Saturday night, failing to recover from the interception he threw on his first passing attempt. The future of the Irish is still very much in Golson’s hands, but it’s hard to fault Kelly for pulling the young quarterback and relieving him with junior Tommy Rees.

Golson’s stat line was a scary one: Just 3 of 8 passing for 30 yards with two interceptions. Golson’s second pick got him pulled, after the sophomore rolled right on second and goal and threw a jump ball into the end zone when throwing it away was the play the Irish coaching staff drilled into the quarterbacks’ heads all offseason. From there, Kelly kept the offense in Rees’ hands, and the junior completed 8 of 11 throws for 115 yards while running for the team’s only touchdown.

“I think we saw that the defense is such that we want to make sure that we limit turnovers,” Kelly said. “Early on we turned the ball over and that’s ultimately why we made the change at quarterback.”

Golson watched the games final 38 minutes on the sideline, a fate that has many wondering if the young quarterback will suffer a crisis of confidence. Kelly isn’t one of them.

“I don’t really believe it’s a matter of confidence as much as he just has to settle down,” Kelly said of Golson. “He was not as comfortable as I would have liked after playing the Michigan State game where he was in an incredible environment. He needs to settle down a bit and he’s going to be just fine.”

Kelly quickly named Golson his starter for Miami but didn’t take away the option to play Rees if he feels like the offense needs him.

“I think we’re fairly comfortable if we need Tommy to come in and handle some of the offense for us, if we feel like it’s necessary, we will,” Kelly said. “He’s a great asset to have if you need him to close out a game, and we’ll continue to go that route. We’d like to continue to develop Everett so we don’t have to do that, but we’re still going to try to win football games anyway possible.”

Winning games cures a lot of ills, and it’s also the key to keeping a potential thorny quarterbacking situation contained.

***

Notre Dame’s relentless front seven took Michigan out of its game plan early.

It didn’t take long for Al Borges to throw the kitchen sink at Notre Dame. Setting up a trick play from the first snap, the Wolverines relied on gimmicks from the start, hoping to catch Notre Dame’s defense out of position. It earned an early pass interference call against Danny Spond when wide receiver Devin Gardner tried to complete a throw-back pass, but it bit the Wolverines later, with Michigan relying on running back Vincent Smith to throw a halfback pass after a 12 play drive marched Michigan down to the Irish ten yard line.

Michigan’s first two trips into the Irish red zone netted zero points, thanks to the ferocious play of Notre Dame’s defensive front and Michigan’s unwillingness to go toe-to-toe in the red zone. After Golson’s early pick set up Michigan 1st and Goal at the Irish 10, the Wolverines proceeded to go backwards. First the Irish stuffed Fitzgerald Toussaint for a loss of two. Then it wasa  Prince Shembo sack of Robinson for a loss of three more. On 3rd and 15, it was Stephon Tuitt that made another big play, dropping Robinson for a 10 yard loss. First and Goal was now a 43-yard field goal attempt that Brendan Gibbons pushed wide.

With three more sacks tonight, the Irish now have 14 sacks on the year, averaging 3.5 a game through their first four. That rate would have been good for second nationally in 2011 and has the Irish more than half way past their total of 25 last season. (It’s also a rate that’s likely to improve, considering Navy, Purdue, Michigan State and Michigan were four of the stingier teams in the country when it comes to sacks — giving up an average of just 1.48 a game last year.)

More importantly, the Irish front seven is powering this football team as it grows. With an offense seeking an identity and a secondary learning on the fly, the physical front of the defense is powering this team to historic levels. The Irish haven’t won a football game scoring less points since 1990. They haven’t allowed six points or less to top-20 opponents in consecutive weeks since 1943. That’s a total of 36 points the Irish have given up in the first third of the season. That’s better than any Lou Holtz defense, and the best since 1975.

Many laughed when Bob Diaco openly stated that his goal was to have the best defense in America. The Irish might not be there yet, but they’re on pace to have one of the best defenses Notre Dame has fielded in over 20 years.

***

It might just be time to throw Manti Te’o’s name into the Heisman Trophy race.

It’s been 15 years since Charles Woodson was the only defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy. But it might be time to give Manti Te’o serious consideration for college football’s most prestigious award. Notre Dame’s star middle linebacker filled up the stat sheet once again, making eight tackles, one tackle-for-loss, and intercepting Denard Robinson twice on Saturday night. In a stadium where thousands of fans wore Hawaiian leis in support of Te’o after a horrible week of personal hardship, the senior linebacker from Hawaii followed up a dominant performance against Michigan State with another one against the Wolverines.

“He’s the guy in there,” Kelly said of his senior captain. “I mean, it all evolves around him, his personality, his strength. He’s a special guy. Take advantage of him when you’ve got him now, because I’ve never been around a kid like that.”

After turning down the opportunity to head to the NFL after his junior season, Te’o has returned with a vengeance, cleaning up an all-around game that was already considered to be one of the strongest in college football. Always known as a strong sideline to sideline player, Te’o fought the one knock on his game of not forcing turnovers, having never recovered a fumble nor intercepted a pass. Through four games, he’s got three interceptions and two fumble recoveries.

But perhaps more important than anything he’s done on the field, Te’o has taken over at the undeniable face of the Fighting Irish. After a decade filled with mostly offensive stars, the Irish take their cues and play to the likeness of their Hawaiian leader. His quiet strength and forceful will powering Notre Dame to their best start in a decade.

With thousands of fans chanting his name after the Irish’s victory, Te’o has also worked his way into a more hallowed status: Irish legend.

“Man, I said it before. Four years ago when I decided to come here, I didn’t know why,” Te’o said. “It’s starting to unveil itself why, why I felt that I was told to come here. I can’t thank my team enough. I can’t thank the students and just the fan base around the world, Notre Dame and non-Notre Dame fans. They’ve just been great. It’s very humbling for me and my family.”

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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Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover position, others likely to follow
2 Days Until Spring Practice: A look at the defensive backfield

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.”

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