Miami v Notre Dame

Pregame Six Pack: Bring on BYU

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Leave it to Brian Kelly to spice up a week without an obvious storyline. With Everett Golson recovering from a mild concussion suffered last Saturday against Stanford, Kelly announced he’d be making a game-time decision on his starting quarterback.

Even better, he wouldn’t narrow things down between three candidates, the incumbent starter Golson, who didn’t practice this week until Wednesday, Tommy Rees, the guy people are slowly warming up to after he’s played fairly heroically as a reliever, or Andrew Hendrix, the forgotten man in the rotation, who Kelly said had a great week of practice.

So while there’s no grudge match, intriguing neutral site, or national rivalry on the line, don’t call this week boring.

Before No. 5 Notre Dame prepares to take on Brigham Young University, let’s run through six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings before the Irish and the Cougars battle at 3:30 p.m. ET this Saturday in South Bend.

***

Does a game time decision at quarterback mean anything to the Irish offense moving forward?

Once again, there’s a question mark at quarterback. And while this season has been anything but ordinary behind center, there’s certainly a strategic advantage to forcing BYU to prepare for three different options at quarterback. But before we start wondering if there’s anything behind the move, let’s take Kelly at his word.

“I won’t make a decision on the quarterback until game time,” Kelly said when discussing Everett Golson’s return from a mild concussion. “We’re monitoring his health. This is about health and safety. This isn’t about who the starting quarterback is.

“I want to see Everett for 48 hours. I want to go all the way up there. I don’t think there’s a cookie cutter approach to concussions. You want to see how they handle exertion. You want to see how they handle all the things leading up in film study and watching and then get back on the field. I want to take the 48 hours that I have before I make that decision.”

Credit Kelly for taking his time with a concussion and not rushing Golson back from a vicious hit. But just for the exercise, let’s just play out the scenario at quarterback through a different lens. The Irish are 14-point favorites against BYU, meaning the Irish should win this game with any one of the three options behind center. But that certainly won’t be the case when Notre Dame travels to Norman, where they’ll face their sternest test of the season. If there’s going to be a move at quarterback — namely to Tommy Rees — this would certainly be the week to give Rees a chance to break into the lineup.

After watching the offense continue to thrive with Rees under center and Golson understandably struggle against a defense like Stanford’s, getting Rees a few more live snaps, especially while Golson is coming back from a head injury, isn’t a bad plan.

Credit Kelly for handling the delicate dance at quarterback thus far. But don’t be surprised to see multiple quarterbacks on the field this Saturday, as Notre Dame gives Bob and Mike Stoops as much to think about as possible.

***

If the Irish look past BYU, they’ll have done it at their own peril.

If Brian Kelly worries about his squad looking past BYU, he can just get the attention of a former Irish coach that saw his team get jumped by the boys from Provo in Notre Dame Stadium: Lou Holtz. In 1994, a Holtz team that opened the season ranked No. 3 in the country lost a mid-October date against LaVell Edwards‘ Cougars 21-41, dropping the Irish out of the top 25 and helping them skid their way to a 6-5-1 record.

The Deseret News’ Jeff Call caught up with some of the former members of that ’94 Cougar team as they recounted some of their memories.

BYU returns to South Bend Saturday (1:30 p.m. MDT, NBC) to face an undefeated Notre Dame squad that is ranked No. 5 in the nation.

For longtime assistant coach Lance Reynolds, that win 18 years ago remains fresh in his mind, adding that it ranks among the greatest in school history.

“It would have to be among the best ones,” he said. “It was at Notre Dame, against a storied program. Anytime you get a win like that, at a place like that, it’s just huge. It was kind of like the Miami game (in 1990).”

Chad Lewis, who played tight end for the Cougars and now serves as an associate athletic director, recalled that as BYU’s team buses left the stadium after the game, Fighting Irish fans put down their coats and blankets and clapped their hands. “Our team stood staring out the window at these people,” Lewis said. “It was totally amazing.”

This year’s BYU team is led by a defense that’s put up some strong statistics while the offense gets back to their roots. Chief among that unit is pass rush specialist Kyle Van Noy. At 6-foot-3, 235-pounds, the outside linebacker filled the stat sheet during his sophomore season, among the team leaders across the board statistically. He’s taken a step forward during his junior campaign, with 7.5 sacks already this season, good for fourth in the country, and 11.5 tackles for loss.

When asked to compare Van Noy with the elite linebacker he has playing for him, Kelly was complimentary.

“I actually see Van Noy more as an edge player,” Kelly said. “I think the way they ask him to play, he gets the opportunity to get after the quarterback much more than Manti. But he’s a guy that is relentless like Manti. The great players have the same traits.  It’s just they are played at different positions, but they certainly could be interchangeable.”

While the generation before them got caught up in the mystique of Notre Dame, don’t expect this team to be awestruck.

“I don’t really get sucked into the hype of it all. It’ll be fun to go to South Bend and play there,” linebacker Spencer Hadley said. “Fans get to approach it that way but as players we don’t really get to look at it like that. It’s a business trip. It’s not like we’re going to Disneyland. We’re going to play a football game and we’re preparing as such.”

***

While we haven’t seen him yet on the field, safety Chris Badger isn’t questioning his decision to come back to Notre Dame.

Safety Chris Badger faces off against BYU, a program many thought the Utah native would be playing for by now. But Badger, who left Notre Dame after participating in Brian Kelly’s first spring practice to spend the better part of two years serving his Mormon mission in Ecuador, is settling in nicely in South Bend.

While many expected the 20-year-old freshman to be one of the early contributors on the field, spending two years away from the game, not to mention living in an impoverished third-world country, makes the transition back to major college football a difficult one.

Former Utah safety Steve Tate, who played for Urban Meyer, mentored Badger throughout the recruiting process and has stayed in touch with him during his journey from South Bend to Ecuador and back, talked about that difficult transition.

“I can only imagine what it’s like at Notre Dame,” Tate told the Deseret News. “You’ve got to be patient with guys off missions. You kind of feel like you are on an island, and as everyone knows at Utah and BYU, its difficult to get back in shape.”

When Tate got back, Eric Weddle told him he looked out of shape. “Well,” he replied, “I’ve been in a third-world country (Argentina) for two years.” That Badger is redshirting this year will make a big difference, said Tate.

Badger has had to deal with the realities of building a football program like Notre Dame, where he’s believed to be the first football player to have taken a Mormon mission.

“In an elite program, they don’t juggle their recruiting or numbers around returned missionaries,” Badger’s brother Troy told the Desert News. “Notre Dame and Kelly were great when Chris wanted to go on a mission. When you look at it, there haven’t been many successful returned missionaries at the big-time programs that recruit nationally. Most LDS athletes haven’t interrupted their careers to do it. For Chris, his chances were better if he stayed. But he really felt like he needed to go and he had a great experience in Ecuador. Now he’s back, it will take some work as well as luck to get that opportunity.”

Badger will be in uniform on the sideline against BYU, but won’t likely get his shot on the field until next season.

***

Everybody remembers USC, but Manti Te’o was also the one who got away for BYU, too.

Most Trojan fans grimace when they see video of a young Manti Te’o picking that Notre Dame hat back in Hawaii. But before Te’o narrowed things down to Notre Dame and USC, BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall gave chase after the Hawaiian linebacker.

“We wanted Manti,” BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall acknowledged. “We thought he was an excellent player. Heavy recruiting race. Had an official visit, saw everything that we had to offer, and [he] really didn’t want BYU. So, certainly our evaluation [of him] as a player was right. He’s very good.”

Adding to BYU’s pain was the fact that several of his family members told reporters prior to his official decision that he was leaning heavily toward BYU. Rumors abounded that something happened on his official visit that turned him away. However, Mendenhall said Tuesday he never felt like BYU had the edge. Nor did he ever get a reason from Te’o about why he rejected BYU.

“I don’t ever think it was [certain] that he was heading here,” Mendenhall said. “He chose to go elsewhere, and we wished him well, and that was it. I am glad to see he is having success.”

The Cougars (and Trojans) loss was certainly Notre Dame’s gain.

“I prayed about it, and everything pointed towards Notre Dame,” Te’o said this week about his collegiate choice. “Notre Dame is where I came because I was directed to come here.”

***

In his final year at Notre Dame, Kapron Lewis-Moore is making it count.

It was hardly the type of senior season you’d want to remember. After a knee injury cut his season short against USC, Kapron Lewis-Moore watched as his team’s season short-circuited as well. The veteran defensive end, who was one of the many Charlie Weis recruits rankled by Kelly’s infamous radio comments that nearly divided the team, carried a large chip on his shoulder as a season that opened with promise turned into an 8-5 year spent largely in neutral.

That chip might have stuck with Lewis-Moore into the spring as well, especially when he returned to practice after rehabbing his injury only to be rising sophomore Aaron Lynch’s back-up. It was an irritating bit of fuel for his inner fire.

“I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t,” Lewis-Moore told the Chicago Tribune. “Even if he was still here, I would still do whatever it takes to help the team. If my role was to be on the bench, or whatever, hey, so be it. I know what I can bring to the team.”

But Lynch is no longer in South Bend, instead waiting in South Florida for his year long sabbatical to end before he can return to football. But for Lewis-Moore, the home stretch of his collegiate career is upon us, and the fifth-year veteran, named one of the team’s captains this fall, has done his best to make up for lost time.

Lewis-Moore is anchoring the defensive end spot across from Stephon Tuitt, chipping in 18 tackles, with a sack and two TFLs. He’s also been a role model for young players like Sheldon Day, while contributing to the stiff defense front that makes running against Notre Dame so difficult.

“It’s crazy around here. Everybody is excited. At the same time, we have to keep our eye on the prize,” Lewis-Moore said.

Spoken like a true veteran.

***

As the Irish offense evolves, productivity trends emerge.

After listening to Brian Kelly earlier in the week, you get the feeling there’s plenty more to it than statistical breakdowns, but after six games, it’s time to start looking at some trends that are starting to emerge. As Notre Dame looks for ways to get more out of its offense, it might start looking at the productivity of their offensive weapons.

A quick down and dirty analysis of player targets and player production gives you an interesting look at the team’s offensive weapons and how well they’ve been performing. Let’s take a quick look at some of the key players.

Theo Riddick
80 rushes for 308 yards. 20 catches on 30 targets for 170 yards.
Targeted: 28% Production: 20%

Cierre Wood
47 rushes for 277 yards. 2 catches on 2 targets for 9 yards.
Targeted: 13% Production: 12%

George Atkinson
32 rushes for 290 yards. 2 catches on 2 targets for 41 yards.
Targeted: 9% Production: 12%

TJ Jones
19 catches on 33 targets for 235 yards.
Targeted: 9% Production: 10%

Davaris Daniels
14 catches on 21 targets for 231 yards
Targeted: 5% Production: 10%

Robby Toma
12 catches on 18 targets for 118 yards. 3 rushes for 23 yards.
Targeted: 5% Production: 6%

Tyler Eifert
15 catches on 28 targets for 246 yards.
Targeted: 7% Production: 10%

Suspension or not, it’s amazing that Theo Riddick has been targeted on 28% of Notre Dame’s plays from scrimmage, yet only produces 20% of the team’s total offense. You can say what you want about the play calls, blocking, or other circumstances, but no player is producing less with their opportunities than Riddick.

It’s also not hard to see who this team’s most explosive player is. With only nine percent of the team’s targets, George Atkinson is accounting for 12 percent of production. Only Tyler Eifert (+3%) and Davaris Daniels (+5%) is outperforming their opportunities like that, and it makes you wonder what that ankle injury did to slow down Daniels’ productivity.

A few quick looks at how to get this offense more effective:

* Do a better job of capitalizing on throws to Eifert — he’s only caught 15 of his 28 targets.
* Get the ball in George Atkinson’s hands more.
* If you’re going to give the ball to Riddick, do it through the air.
* Keep receivers like Daniels, TJ Jones, and Robby Toma involved.

Smith, Martin, Russell and Prosise all drafted Friday night

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 13: William Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Nick Martin #72 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrate a touchdown during the game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 13, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith, Nick Martin, KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise were all selected on Friday, with four Irish teammates taken on the second night of the NFL Draft. As mentioned, Smith came off the board at pick 34, with the Cowboys gambling on the injured knee of the Butkus Award winner. Nick Martin was selected at pick 50, joining former teammate Will Fuller in Houston.

The third round saw Russell and Prosise come off the board, with Kansas City jumping on the confident cornerback and the Seahawks taking Notre Dame’s breakout running back. It capped off a huge night for the Irish with Sheldon Day, one of the more productive football players in college football, still on the board for teams to pick.

Here’s a smattering of instant reactions from the immediate aftermath.

 

 

Jaylon Smith goes to Dallas with 34th pick

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07:  Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates by wearing the hat of team mascot, Lucky The Leprechaun, following their 42-30 win against the Pittsburgh Panthers at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith’s nightmare is over.

After watching his football life thrown into chaos with a career-altering knee injury, Smith came off the board after just two picks in the second round, selected by the Dallas Cowboys with the 34th pick. His selection ended the most challenging months of Smith’s young life, and come after cashing in a significant tax-free, loss-of-value insurance policy that’ll end up being just shy of a million dollars.

No, it’s not top-five money like Smith could’ve expected if he didn’t get hurt. But Smith isn’t expected to play in 2016.

And while there was a pre-draft fascination that focused on the doom and gloom more than the time-consuming recovery, it’s worth pointing out that Dallas’ medical evaluation comes from the source—literally. After all, it was the Cowboys team doctor, Dr. Dan Cooper, who performed the surgery to repair Smith’s knee.

Smith joins Ezekiel Elliott with the Cowboys, arguably the two best position players in the draft. While he might not be available in 2016, Smith will be under the supervision of the Cowboys’ medical staff, paid a seven-figure salary to get healthy with the hopes that he’ll be back to his All-American self sooner than later, especially as the nerve in his knee returns to full functionality.

Will Fuller brings his game-changing skills to the Texans offense

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07: Will Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish catches a pass before running into the endzone for a touchdown in the second quarter in front of Avonte Maddox #14 of the Pittsburgh Panthers during the game at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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In all the weeks and months leading up to the NFL Draft, one key tidbit linking Will Fuller to the Houston Texans never seemed to come up. The relationship between Brian Kelly and Bill O’Brien.

The two coaches share a high school alma mater, a friendship that made the due diligence on Notre Dame’s prolific playmaker easy. And it was clear that after all their research, Houston was aggressive in their pursuit of Fuller, trading up to make Notre Dame’s All-American the second receiver off the board, triggered a run at the position.

“He was a guy that we felt strongly about,” Texans general manager Rick Smith told the team’s official website. “We didn’t want to take a chance on not getting him. We were aggressive. We went and made the move.”

That move made Fuller’s decision to leave Notre Dame after three seasons a good one. While it’ll require the Irish to rebuild at a position where Fuller served as one of college football’s best home run hitters, it gives Houston a vertical threat that can extend the top of a defense for a Texans offense that was serious about finding some solutions for a team already in the playoff mix.

Yes, Fuller has work to do. Completing the easy catch is one big area. But for all the pre-draft talk about his limitations, Brian Kelly took on some of the criticism head-on when talking with the Texans’ media reporter.

“Some people have compared him to Teddy Ginn, that’s not fair. He can catch the ball vertically like nobody I’ve coached in 25 years,” Kelly said (a sentiment some hack also laid out). Teddy Ginn is a very good player, but this is a different kind of player. If you throw the ball deep, he’s going to catch the football.”

Fuller is never going to be the biggest receiver on the field. But while most of the banter on his game focused on the negative or his deep ball skills, expect Fuller to find a role not just running deep but unleashed in the screen game as well. After the Texans spent huge on quarterback Brock Osweiler and have invested in fellow Philadelphia native and 2015 third-round pick Jaelen Strong, Fuller wasn’t selected for the future but rather expected to be a day-one piece of the puzzle.

“This will change the speed on offense immediately,” Kelly said. “It was not ‘Hey, let’s wait a couple of years’. It was ‘Let’s go get this right now’ and I think Will will do that for them.”

Hiestand key to Ronnie Stanley’s ascent

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 28:  Ronnie Stanley of Notre Dame holds up a jersey with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after being picked #6 overall by the Baltimore Ravens during the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University on April 28, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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With Ronnie Stanley ending Notre Dame’s top-ten draft drought (seriously, we are running out of things to complain about), the Irish left tackle became Baltimore’s answer for a cornerstone along their offensive line. And as Ozzie Newsome, John Harbaugh and the rest of the Ravens well-respected staff did their due diligence, credit was heaped onto offensive line coach Harry Hiestand.

“One of my very best friends in coaching is Harry Hiestand,” Harbaugh said. “I talked to Harry a long time…all about Ronnie and he couldn’t speak highly enough about his character, to his intelligence, to his toughness. So you have people you trust in the profession and that goes a long way.”

That opinion of Hiestand is hardly specific to Harbaugh. It’s actually one of the many reasons Brian Kelly hired Hiestand when the Irish and Ed Warinner parted ways. Here’s Notre Dame’s head coach from his initial press release introducing Hiestand as his new line coach.

“When I was searching to fill this position, I asked some of the most respected offensive line coaches in football whom they would recommend,” Kelly said. “And Harry’s name was routinely mentioned as one of the best. His history of developing NFL-caliber offensive linemen speaks for itself, and I know our linemen will learn a lot from him.”

In an era where developing offensive lineman—not just at the college level but for play in the professional ranks—what Hiestand is doing is pretty special. Zack Martin certainly stands above the rest already, a Pro Bowl and All-Pro performer just two years after being a first round draft pick. Chris Watt was selected in the third round by the San Diego Chargers, and expect Nick Martin off the board by the time the evening is over.

 

For as surprising as Hiestand’s effectiveness is on the recruiting trail, maybe it shouldn’t be after you hear the raves that come from those that appreciate his work. That’s especially important as NFL coaches like Pete Carroll bemoan the lack of fundamentals some offensive linemen possess as they prepare for life in the professional ranks.

Here, CoachingSearch.com’s Chris Vannini pulled an interesting snippet from the Super Bowl winning head coach, with the Seahawks taking the drastic approach of converting defensive lineman at the NFL level because they think they’re better suited for the physicality.

“The style of play is different,” Carroll said. “There will be guys that we’re looking at that have never been in a (three-point) stance before. They’ve always been in a two-point stance. There are transitions that have to take place. In the last couple years, we’ve seen pretty strong adjustments by college offensive coordinators to adjust how guys are coming off the ball. They’re not as aggressive and physical-oriented as we like them to be.

“It is different. There is a problem. I looked at a couple guys this week, and I couldn’t find a running play where a guy came off the ball and had to knock a guy off the football. There wasn’t even a play in the game. It’s hard to evaluate what a guy’s gonna be like. We learn to, but it’s not he same as it’s been.”

The good news for Irish fans, especially after having to replace back-to-back first-round left tackles, is that there’s more talent coming through the pipeline. Mike McGlinchey’s move to the left side is already taking root. Left guard Quenton Nelson has earned raves from Kelly. Projected starting right tackle Alex Bars sounds not that far off, either.

In Stanley, the Irish found a talented high school athlete and molded him into a first-round pick. They did so even as he battled injuries that made it hard to dedicate time in the weight room, and bounced him around the offensive line from the right side to the left to find him playing time. Yes, he was a four-star recruit. But as we saw last night, star-rating takes a very large backseat to development.

With Stanley joining rarified air—he and Will Fuller make 66 first-round selections in program history—the Las Vegas native goes up on the wall as an aspiration for present and future Notre Dame lineman.

Just as importantly, he’s another tip of the cap to Hiestand.

 

For more reaction to the NFL Draft, give a listen to the latest episode of Blown Coverage, my podcast with John Walters.