And in that corner… The Stanford Cardinal

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The Irish are well into their preparation for David Shaw’s Stanford team. As Brian Kelly and his coaching staff lay out the challenges in front of the team this week, they’ll be able to get a true measure of where this football team is from a physical perspective. The past two seasons, Stanford has plain old out-toughed the Irish, dominating the line of scrimmage and doing to Notre Dame what Brian Kelly wants to do to his opponents.

There’s no understating the loss of Andrew Luck to Stanford’s offense. The first pick in the NFL Draft had a bigger impact on Stanford’s program than any other player in history, leading the Cardinal to 23 wins over his final two seasons and back to back AP top seven finishes. Without Luck, the Cardinal offense has gone from 8th in the country to 83rd, as Josh Nunes has taken over at quarterback and the Cardinal needed to rebuild the offensive line after a pair of All-American offensive linemen departed.

That doesn’t mean this team has gotten soft.The Cardinal took down USC at home, quickly dashing the Trojan’s national title hopes. They also quickly rebounded from their loss to Washington, picking themselves off the mat to rally and beat Arizona in overtime.

The Cardinal come to South Bend ranked No. 17 in the country. Getting us up to speed on the team is the Stanford Daily’s George Chen. He’s the sports desk editor and football beat writer covering the Cardinal, so he’s got a great look at life on the Farm, and life after Andrew Luck.

George was good enough to answer some questions for us on the state of the Cardinal. Hope you enjoy.

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It’s been an interesting early run for Stanford. A near escape against San Jose State, a dominant upset of USC, the disappointing loss to Washington, and the overtime shootout against Arizona. Just who exactly is this team?

One of the big reasons why Saturday’s game is important for Stanford is because it serves as the perfect midseason test. Stanford had a shaky season opener against San Jose State, but the two games that have stood out the most is its upset over then-No. 2 USC and its loss to Washington on the road. Those two games showed a complete spectrum of the Cardinal’s performance so far this season, from its very best to its very worst. Coach Shaw and the players understand that Notre Dame is a huge test for them as the Cardinal hopes to establish itself as a steady team on the road. It’s difficult to say who this team is exactly right now, but this weekend will provide some good insight into whether Stanford belongs in the top-15 or not.

There is a lot of talent on the defensive side of the ball for the Cardinal. They’ve also given Notre Dame trouble the past two seasons, winning both games against Brian Kelly’s squad by two touchdowns or more. After giving up almost half-a-century to the Wildcats, what do you expect to see this weekend? 

I expect it to be a close, low-scoring game. The Cardinal defense gave up a ton of yards and points against Arizona last weekend, but it’s never matched up well against well-executed spread offenses (see Oregon). The players couldn’t be more happy going back to the smash-mouth, physical defense that they excel in. This game is going to be a defensive struggle.

Josh Nunes played what looked like his best game on paper last weekend. How has life after Luck been? Has Nunes done enough to lock down the starting job or will Brett Nottingham have a say in this?

Josh Nunes is without a doubt Stanford’s quarterback. Even after the Washington game, which was by far Nunes’ worst performance, Shaw made it clear that Nunes would not lose his job. I think people haven’t given him enough credit. No, he’s not Andrew Luck, but he’s coming into his own–a quarterback who can put his team in the position to win the game. Against USC, running back Stepfan Taylor was the hero, but Nunes also made some big-time throws and scrambles that kept the scoring drives alive. And obviously against Arizona, he came up clutch again when he marched the Cardinal down the field late in the fourth quarter for two touchdown-scoring drives. And there’s something to be said about Nunes’ poise. He has that all-important ability to flush the bad plays out of his mind. That’s rare to find in rookie quarterbacks.

For many, the jury was still out on David Shaw because he inherited a very good team from Jim Harbaugh and a once-in-a-generation quarterback in Andrew Luck. How do you evaluate the work Shaw and his coaching staff have done this year?

I think Shaw and the rest of the coaching staff have done an excellent job so far. Shaw received some criticism early in the season for his conservative play calling. I also think he’s done a great job of rotating guys in on the offensive line and defense so that the players can stay fresh as the game progresses. One of the more underrated aspects of his abilities is the recruiting success that Stanford has had. Sure, coach Harbaugh laid the ground, but Shaw and the current coaching staff deserves most of the credit for reeling in the best recruiting class in school history last year.

Obviously, Notre Dame’s defense has been very solid through five games. That’s also the strength of this Stanford team. How do you see Saturday playing out? What do the Cardinal have to do to leave South Bend victorious? 

The Cardinal needs to play at its very best if it wants to leave South Bend with a 5-1 record. Stanford can’t afford to have any turnovers on offense. For the most part, Nunes has done a solid job so far this season with protecting the ball and he’ll need to be extra careful against a stingy Notre Dame defense this Saturday. The Cardinal defense also needs to clamp down like it did against USC and prevent Everett Golson from making big plays with his feet. There’s a good reason why the Fighting Irish are the No. 7 team in the nation, but I foresee the Cardinal rising to the occasion and wining by a field goal.

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?

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…)