Opposition round-up: Week five

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With the Irish taking the weekend off and members of the team getting a chance to return home or step away from football, many of Notre Dame’s opponents took the field this weekend.

Let’s take a run through the schedule and see how Notre Dame’s opponents did yesterday.

NAVY — After getting back on track against VMI, Navy lost an ugly game at home to San Jose State, getting blanked 12-0. That’s a 1-3 start for the Midshipmen, but it’s also a 4-1 start for San Jose State, whose only loss is a 20-17 defeat at the hands of Stanford. It was a horrible performance by the Navy offense, gaining only 144 yards, the worst total for the Midshipmen since 2002.

Trending: Backwards. It always looked like a rebuilding project for Ken Niumatalolo, but even with the defense keeping the opponents out of the end zone, another putrid offensive performance means it could get ugly this year in Annapolis.

PURDUE — The Boilermakers are off to a 3-1 start after surviving a barnburner against Marshall. Caleb TerBush led Purdue with four touchdown passes and outscored the Thundering Herd 51-41. Marshall quarterback Rakeem Cato threw the ball an astounding 68 times, completing 45 passes for 439 yards as Marshall put up 534 yards of total offense. Purdue was up 42-14 at halftime before Marshall roared back.

Trending: Purdue has scored 153 points in their three other games of the season. They may have taken their foot off the gas, but they might just be in the drivers seat of a very confusing divisional race to the Big Ten championship game.

MICHIGAN STATE — The Spartans lost the biggest game of Saturday 17-16 to Ohio State, unable to stop Braxton Miller, the Buckeyes’ one-man army. Le’Veon Bell was shutdown on the ground, limited to just 45 yards and forced to be Andrew Maxwell’s primary target. In a grind it out Big Ten match-up, the Spartans couldn’t do enough to pull out the victory.

Trending: A step backwards for a team that thought itself a top ten team, but the Spartans are still in the thick of a mediocre Big Ten race.

MICHIGAN — The Wolverines took the weekend off. They’ve got an interesting match-up next week with a Purdue team that has their offense rolling and a defensive front that should match-up well with the Michigan front line.

Trending: We’ll see if the Wolverines are the upper-echelon team many predicted in the preseason in the next few weeks.

MIAMI — In one of Saturday’s most exciting games, Miami won another offensive battle, this time against North Carolina State. Quarterback Stephen Morris set an ACC record with 566 yards passing, including a 62-yard bomb to Phillip Dorsett with just 19 seconds left to seal the victory. The Hurricanes defense gave up 664 yards, but still managed to win thanks to six Wolfpack turnovers, including four fumbles on five possessions.

Trending: There were worries that Miami’s offense didn’t have the playmakers you’d expect from a Hurricanes squad. But the offense has looked impressive so far this season, with the defense struggling. At 4-1, this looks like a very interesting test for Notre Dame.

No. 18 STANFORD — After vaulting into the top ten with a victory over USC, the Cardinal crashed back to earth in Seattle, getting upset by Washington on Thursday night. All the preseason worries there were about the Stanford offense after Andrew Luck manifested themselves, with Josh Nunes only completing 18 of 37 for 170 yards and an interception. The Stanford defense battering Huskies quarterback Keith Price all evening long, but Washington broke two huge plays — a fourth-and-one run for a 61-yard touchdown, and a game-clinching 35 yard screen pass to Kasen Williams — to win the game. Stanford only gained 235 yards of total offense.

Trending: It’s a step backwards for Stanford, but probably more of a leveling out. The Cardinal defense looked very impressive, but the offense is still finding its way.

BYU — The Cougars got healthy thanks to Norm Chow’s rebuilding Hawaii team, barreling through the Rainbows 47-0 on Friday night. It was an offensive explosion for BYU after struggling to do much of anything the past two weeks. Starting in place of injured quarterback Riley Nelson, freshman Taysom Hill looked solid throwing the ball while also running for 144 yards and running back Jamaal Williams ran for 155 as BYU rolled. The Cougars defense held Hawaii to just 149 yards and nine first downs.

Trending: A nice rebound by BYU, which looks to have a pretty solid defense coming together, and an interesting dual-threat wildcard quarterback in Hill.

No. 17 OKLAHOMA — The Sooners had the week off after losing a crusher to Kansas State last week. They’ll play Texas Tech before heading into the Red River Shootout.

Trending: I fully expect the Sooners to be 5-1 when they welcome Notre Dame to Norman.

PITTSBURGH — The Panthers also had the week off after leveling their record to 2-2 with a patsy victory over Garner-Webb. It was a welcome win after losing to Youngstown State, another game most Pitt fans expected to roll in.

Trending: With a big victory over Virginia Tech (who just lost to Cincinnati on Saturday), we’ll get a progress report on Paul Chryst’s squad when they play at Syracuse on Friday night.

BOSTON COLLEGE — The Eagles led Clemson at half, but they couldn’t hold on in the second half as quarterback Tajh Boyd and wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins connected 11 times for 197 yards. Chase Rettig threw for 341 yards and three touchdowns but also threw two interceptions. The Eagles running game couldn’t get started and the Eagles needed to play near perfect to beat Clemson, who played without All-American wide receiver Sammy Watkins.

Trending: A 1-3 start isn’t a good sign for Frank Spaziani, who started the season on one of the country’s hottest seats.

WAKE FOREST — The Demon Deacons got beat by Duke and back-up quarterback Anthony Boone on Saturday, falling to 3-2 on the year and 1-2 in ACC play. Tanner Price completed 19 of 38 for 230 yards, but threw two interceptions as Wake Forest turned the ball over four times. Perhaps bigger than the lost game was an injury to wide receiver Michael Campanaro, who broke his right hand in the second quarter and is expected to miss 3-4 weeks.

Trending: Without Campanaro, Wake Forest loses its best offensive weapon, and a team that didn’t have much artillery, now must navigate the meat of their conference schedule without him. They’re also missing standout defensive tackle Nikita Whitlock, their top interior player.

No. 13 USC  — The Trojans also had Saturday off, resting before facing the bulk of their Pac-12 schedule.

Trending: It’s hard to lose ground when you don’t play, but it wasn’t a very impressive week for USC opponents. Hawaii got smoked by BYU. Syracuse lost last week to Minnesota, and Stanford’s defeat to Washington exposed the Cardinal a bit. Add in Cal’s loss to Arizona State and we’ll see if USC is a legit national title contender or another paper tiger.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers

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You want complete honesty? The linebacker version of this series includes no revelations, no unexpected developments, no surprising spring performances. There is an allusion to a position switch, sure, but this piece became much simpler with the rover being discussed separately Thursday.

The idea was to capitalize on the NFL Draft for the morning and let the linebackers slip by in the afternoon, noticed only by those twiddling their thumbs through the last hours of the work week. Alas, former Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer was not drafted in the first round and a brief recap of his draft destination will need to await at least another day. Programming note: The NFL Draft reconvenes tonight (Friday) at 7 p.m. ET. The Green Bay Packers are on the clock. They will not draft a quarterback.

But back to the linebackers. This piece may have been intended to slip by with little fanfare, but that is not indicative of the Irish linebackers. Where Notre Dame was is so similar to where Notre Dame is simply because two experienced senior captains lead the way at linebacker.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
Aside from questions about defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s rover position, only one question stood out about this linebacker group: Who would start alongside senior Nyles Morgan: senior Greer Martini or junior Te’von Coney?

A year ago Coney recorded the fourth-most tackles on the team with 62. Martini finished fifth with 55, and his seven tackles for loss, including three sacks, dwarfed Coney’s 1.5. Yet Coney technically started nine games compared to Martini’s four.

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

With the rover often lining up essentially as a linebacker, there would only be space for one of Martini or Coney in most formations.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
In his first season with the Irish, Elko will have quite a luxury in referring to Coney as a backup linebacker. In some respects, that designation was inevitable as soon as Martini was named a captain. Nonetheless, Coney will see plenty of playing time.

The two captains—along with fellow captain, senior Drue Tranquill at rover—will be counted on throughout the summer and fall camp to continue the defense’s growth in Elko’s system. Elko said he installed “close to 50 percent” of his entire defense throughout spring practice. The linebackers must deal with the most difficult aspects of that learning.

“There’s been a noticeable improvement in terms of this starting to look like the defense we want this to look like as spring has gone on,” Elko said a week ago. “… Linebacker probably more than any other position, linebacker and safety, where the scheme takes some time to get used to, how you see it, how you fit it, how you feel it. Those guys have gotten better with that which has then allowed them to play faster as the spring has moved on.”

Sophomore Jonathan Jones will likely provide any further depth that may be needed in 2017, unless either of the incoming freshmen, David Adams and Drew White, excel from the outset. Irish coach Brian Kelly indicated sophomore Jamir Jones (no relation to Jonathan, but is former Notre Dame defensive lineman Jarron Jones’ brother) may be destined for time on the defensive line, in large part to Jones’s continued growth. Junior Josh Barajas let the spring come and go without mandating he be involved in these conversations, which may as well count as removing himself from the conversation in most regards.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame Was, Is & Could Be: Rover

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Rover

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Before spring practice, the rover position was lumped in with the linebackers in positional previews. Nearly two months later, that seems to have been the right placement—the rover will likely spend most of its time at the defense’s second level.

But since curiosity about the rover and its unknown place in Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme ran rampant—especially when compared to the rather solid understanding of the 2017 Irish linebackers—let’s take a look specifically at the rover.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:

“Who will start at [Elko’s] rover position,” this space asked. “What will his role entail?”

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

Senior safety Drue Tranquill was expected to see the most time at rover, perhaps with cameos from junior linebacker Asmar Bilal and sophomore safeties D.J. Morgan and Spencer Perry (since transferred).

More than anything, though, learning how Elko intended to deploy his defensive utility knife would answer the most questions about his defense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:

Tranquill will indeed lead the position, but not without much effort from Bilal.

“We’ve tried quite a few bodies out there,” Elko said Friday. “I think as spring has gone on, we’ve gotten a feel of what each of them can do, what parts of the package we can run with each of them. I think we’ve got a pretty good pulse now on how we want that thing to play out, who will be there doing what.”

Elko is excessively reluctant to discuss individual players, so asking him to expound on who will be at rover in particular situations was largely a fruitless exercise. Earlier this spring, Irish head coach Brian Kelly indicated Bilal would be featured against run-heavy offenses. That may well prove to be the case, but it is far more likely Tranquill sees the majority of the repetitions at the position.

RELATED READING: Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover positon, others likely to follow

“It’s been a good fit all spring [for Tranquill],” Kelly said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “He’s a plus player there for us. He really can impact what’s happening from snap to snap. He’s a physical player and playing low to the ball is really where he can do a lot of really good things for us.”

For his part, Tranquill enjoys the position and the unique number of duties innate to it. In theory, the rover aligns mostly with the linebackers but can be relied on to provide coverage when necessary. At other times, the rover will be asked to rush the passer. That flexibility allows Elko to keep the offense guessing.

“I love the rover position,” Tranquill said. “It’s a versatile position that allows you to come off the edge, allows you to play the run, play the pass, and do a lot of different things.”

Sometimes it allows you to pretend like you’re coming off the edge and then actually embarrass a potential first-round draft pick.

In senior left guard Quenton Nelson’s defense, Tranquill did add Nelson probably won more of their battles in spring practices than the defender did.

WHERE NOTRE DAME COULD BE:

Elko indicated there could be a third primary option in his tool kit. Notre Dame has a plethora of talented cornerbacks. Last week, Kelly indicated he might ask one of them to chip in at safety in obvious passing situations. Similarly, Elko predicted junior Shaun Crawford could play at rover against particular passing attacks, a la Bilal against certain rushing offenses.

“A lot of this is dictated by who that guy is lined up and what we’re trying to do,” Elko said. “We’re going to see a lot of really talented slot receivers. We’re going to have to match up and cover them well. There’s other names other than the big linebacker/safety bodies to put at that position. [Junior safety] Nick Coleman has done that some this spring. [Junior safety] Ashton White has done that some this spring. When Shaun gets healthy, I think he’ll do that some. That is all encompassing in that position.”

The 5-foot-9, 175-pound Crawford has since announced his return to full health, which should allow him plenty of time to readjust to contact before the start of fall practice.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line

Work in weight & film rooms has Hayes ready to meet five-star potential

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Common thinking might give four- and five-star recruits too much credit. They do not all arrive ready to play at the collegiate level on day one. It takes time, conditioning, learning. Perhaps it was that awareness that kept Daelin Hayes from letting his five-star ranking on rivals.com change his expectations. He knew he would have much work ahead of him when he arrived at Notre Dame as the only five-star prospect in the class of 2016.

Now finishing his freshman year, the defensive end notices the effects of his work as he puts in more.

“I remember my first time watching film, I was like, woah,” Hayes said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “I look quicker, like more twitch than I did. I was definitely—it’s hard to put into words—but to actually be able to go back and look at it and see how it affected the game was huge. [Director of football performance Matt] Balis has worked wonders for us.”

Hayes’ improved quickness showed in his three “sacks” in the intrasquad scrimmage. Going against future NFL prospect Mike McGlinchey at left tackle, Hayes faced a stiff challenge throughout spring’s 15 practices, not that he shied away from that task.

“I don’t think it was ever a point where it was overwhelming,” Hayes said. “I’ve always been a competitor. … But you guys know Mike, he’s huge, obviously a first-round talent and whatnot. I’m just grateful to be able to go against somebody like that each and every day. He makes me better. …

“I love competing with the guy. You go and do that with a guy in practice every day, then the game scenario comes, it’s like second nature. You can do this in practice, you can definitely do this against anybody.”

McGlinchey does not seem to mind the matchup, either.

“Daelin is a man who is blessed with a lot of size and athletic ability,” McGlinchey said Friday. “That presents a lot of problems for people in the game of football. He’s so young, and he has so much still to work on, it’s pretty cool to see what he’s capable of and then what he is going to do down the road.”

When Hayes arrived at Notre Dame, still recovering from a high school shoulder injury, he weighed 250 pounds with 18 percent body fat. Now, he said, he still weighs 250—the Irish roster lists him at 255—but is down to 10 percent body fat. It is that kind of change which has created more twitch and makes McGlinchey envision Hayes after more time spent improving in the weight room and the film room.

“I’m not the same athlete that I was when I first came in, not by any means,” Hayes said. “… Buying into that offseason program is going to be huge for our team.”

Per the Blue-Gold Game’s statistics, Hayes ended the scrimmage with seven tackles. Whether skeptical of the recordkeeping within a practice or not, seven tackles in one abbreviated afternoon compares favorably to Hayes’ total of 11 in 12 games last season. Some of that uptick is playing time, some of it is scheme, some of it is realization of the potential highlighted by a five-star ranking. For now, though, Hayes insists he intends to simply learn from last year’s 4-8 disappointment and embrace the changes brought by new Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko.

“With last year being the year that we had, there definitely was a yearning for change,” Hayes said. “When you have basically a reboot of the program, the guys are hungry and they don’t want to have to experience the same season as last year.

“Just continue to trust in that process. We’re hungry for something to cling on and buy into. When coach Elko, coach Balis, everybody came in as part of that reboot, I think we welcomed with open arms. [We’ll] continue to buy into the system and become more comfortable within the system.”

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line

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Heading into spring practice, a quick look was taken at each position group in order of “expected level of interest or question marks,” from least interesting to most, as dictated by an “Inside the Irish” reader. That series concluded with the defensive line.

Exiting spring practice, let’s reprise that premise and reverse the order. If the defensive line triggered the most questions, then answering them first seems to make some version of sense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
“Will enough defensive linemen prove themselves deserving of playing time to create a viable threat up front?” this space asked. “If so, who will those linemen be?”

RELATED READING: One day until spring practice: A look at the defensive line

Aside from senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26 tackles last season, 0.5 for loss), senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss amid a season lost largely to concussion) and junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37, 3), the Irish defensive line had little track record to cite or rely upon for confidence. Leading the unknowns and unprovens were sophomore ends Daelin Hayes, who recorded 11 tackles in 2016, and Julian Okwara (4).

The lack of depth and experience was apparent heading into the 15 spring practices.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
Look past the 11 sacks in the Blue-Gold Game. Intrasquad scrimmages featuring red-jerseyed quarterbacks make for inexact and context-less statistics. There is some value, however, in noting the defensive line got within reach of the quarterback at least eight times in an abbreviated game. (Three “sacks” came from the linebacker corps.)

“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, just buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

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

Hayes led the way with three sacks, and he will be expected to continue that in the fall, starting at the weakside/rush defensive end spot. Exiting spring, though, only he and Tillery solidified themselves as starters. Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Mike Elko claimed a successful spring for the front.

“I’m happy with our defensive line progress,” Elko said Friday. “Obviously there was a lot written about that group. I’m happy about the progress they’ve made this spring. I think [defensive line coach] Mike [Elston] has done a good job developing them. I think they are buying into the way we want to play defense. There’s probably four to five guys on the inside that are starting to get into a position where we feel comfortable that they can step in and help us.” (more…)