Opposition round-up: Week Six

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It was an up-and-down weekend for Notre Dame opponents. A few big wins. A few shocking losses. And a few close shaves. Overall, the Irish schedule went 7-5 (including the Miami loss), with Michigan laying it on Purdue and Boston College loses in shocking fashion to Army.

Let’s take a spin across the Notre Dame slate.

NAVY — Navy slid by Air Force in overtime on Saturday, winning on a fumble recovery in the end zone after backup quarterback Keenan Reynolds fumbled the snap into the end zone. The Midshipmen clinched the win when the defense knocked down an Air Force pass, giving them the inside track to win the Commander-in-Chief Trophy.

Trending: The Midshipmen are still just 2-3, but hope to build some momentum into a string of winnable games for Navy. Next up a Friday night test against Central Michigan.

PURDUE — The Boilermakers once again no-showed for a marquee game, getting drubbed by Michigan 44-13 at home. It was a hugely disappointing effort for Danny Hope’s squad, who let Denard Robinson run wild for 235 yards as the Wolverines did most of their damage on the ground. Purdue was held to just 15 first downs and 213 total yards and turned the ball over four times.

Trending: Epic fail for a Purdue team that thought itself a Big Ten darkhorse. They’ll have a shot at redemption against a Wisconsin team that looks like a shadow of its former self.

MICHIGAN STATE — Sparty erased a 17-point lead and roared back to beat Indiana 31-27, averting a potential crisis of faith for a team that still considers itself in the race for the Big Ten title. Andrew Maxwell threw for 290 yards and two touchdowns and Le’Veon Bell trudged his way to 121 yards on 37 carries and scored two touchdowns as the Spartans withstood eight penalties for 115 yards and scored 17 second half points to escape Bloomington.

Trending: Color me unimpressed by the win, especially when the Spartans offensive line is struggling to open holes for Bell, who ran for a pedistrian 3.3 yards per carry. A win is a win, but right now there isn’t a Big Ten team ranked in the Coaches Poll. That’s telling.

MICHIGAN — The Wolverines got back to winning on Saturday, with Denard Robinson putting his cape back on and gashing another Big Ten opponent. Michigan only threw for 105 yards, but played stingy defense and took care of business, reminding the college football world that not all two-loss teams are created equal.

Trending: Upwards. The Wolverines play Illinois before battling Michigan State. We’ll see if they can solve the Spartans before we decide if they are ready to make a run at the Big Ten title.

No. 17 STANFORD — It took all Stanford had to outlast Arizona last weekend, winning a shootout in overtime against Rich Rodriguez’s upstart offense. The good news for the Irish? Stanford’s defense finally looked to have some weaknesses. The bad news? Quarterback Josh Nunes got on track, and the Cardinal offense exploded for a season-best performance.

Trending: Holding steady. Two straight tight games for the Cardinal. Pulling out a victory after being down 48-34 in the fourth quarter is clutch.

BYU — It certainly wouldn’t have won a beauty pageant, but the Cougars beat Utah State 6-3 on Friday night, out-gutting the Aggies in a defensive battle. With Riley Nelson still sitting out with a back injury, freshman quarterback Taysom Hill threw for 235 yards and one touchdown. BYU’s defense has now held opponents out of the endzone for 13 straight quarters, one-upping Notre Dame’s performance. Something to watch: The Cougars’ kicking problems. They have been brutal this year.

Trending: With a young, mobile quarterback and a stout defense, BYU looks flawed, but tough.

No. 13 OKLAHOMA — The Sooners bounced back after their loss to Kansas State and vanquished some Texas Tech demons along the way beating the Red Raiders 41-20 in Lubbock. Landry Jones completed 25 of 40 passes for 259 yards and two touchdowns, and the Sooners had three interceptions as they ran away from Texas Tech in the second half.

Trending: We’ll find out after the Red River Shootout, a game that’ll like define either Texas or Oklahoma’s seasons this weekend. There wasn’t much explosiveness in Oklahoma’s offense this weekend.

PITTSBURGH — The Panthers lost a tight game to Syracuse on Friday night, falling 14-13 in the Carrier Dome. Pitt fought back from a 14-0 hole and pulled to within one point in the third quarter, but was unable to score in the fourth quarter. The Pitt offensive line struggled with protection all evening and Ray Graham was held to just 57 yards on 24 carries. (Meanwhile, freshman stud Rushel Shell only got one carry.)

Trending: It’s going to be a long season in Pittsburgh this year, with the offensive line a mess and the team in transition after some serious instability at head coach. Pitt now has to face the class of the Big East in No. 18 Louisville on Saturday.

BOSTON COLLEGE — There’s chaos in Chestnut Hill, as the end of the Frank Spaziani era looks near as the Eagles dropped to 1-4 after losing to Army 34-31 on Saturday. Army ran for a staggering 516 yards as they controlled the playclock and pulled off the huge upset when Trent Steelman ran for a 29-yard touchdown with 45 seconds left.

Trending: There isn’t a hotter seat in college football than Frank Spaziani. With AD Gene DeFilippo retired, it’ll be interesting to see when a change comes at head coach.

WAKE FOREST — The Demon Deacons fell to 3-3 on the season when Maryland edged past them on Saturday afternoon, courtesy of freshman Stefon Diggs’ 63-yard catch and run in the fourth quarter. Tanner Price completed just 13 of 38 throws for 170 yards, but two of them were touchdowns. Without top receiver Michael Campanaro, the Deacs offense was stuck in neutral.

Trending: Not much to worry about here, though you know Jim Grobe’s team will continue to improve.

No. 11 USC — The Trojans spotted Utah 14 points before erupting offensively, scoring 38 points with a downfield passing attack that has the Trojans looking like the team many thought they were. There are still issues — namely on the offensive line — but USC is back to No. 11 after a loss to Stanford.

Trending: This team could go either way. They’ve got no injury leeway, but if they stay healthy they’ll be Notre Dame’s toughest opponent on the schedule.

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…)