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.

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…)