Theo Riddick

Five things we learned: Notre Dame 17, BYU 14

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From the sounds of it, you’d have thought Notre Dame’s football team beat BYU while keeping an eye on Twitter, Facebook and message boards. The same social media and white noise that Brian Kelly warned his team about all week was tough on the No. 5 team in the country after a hard fought 17-14 victory. So when the Irish head coach walked up the tunnel and into the winning team’s locker room, he let his team know that he expected to hear a little bit more celebration.

“I think the thing that was concerning for me the most is when our guys came in, I didn’t sense a great feeling after winning a tough, tough, football game,” Kelly said. “That’s a team that won ten games last year. That’s a bracket-buster team in basketball parlance. That’s a darn good football team.”

If the emotions were subdued inside Irish quarters, its because this football team understands that expectations have been elevated. And they’ll go nowhere but up after this victory, with Notre Dame packing their things and heading to Norman, Oklahoma where a date with the Oklahoma Sooners awaits.

With any quarterback controversy stopped in its tracks by Kelly before he even got off the field (Everett Golson will start against the Sooners), let’s find out what we learned in Notre Dame’s 17-14 victory.

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This football team can win without playing its best.

It wasn’t pretty for the Irish. Nor was the team playing to the noble characteristics that got them this far. But against a plucky opponent that took advantage of its opportunities, Notre Dame answered the bell in the second half, taking care of business and winning the football game. And while there’s joy after a victory, it’s clear that this team understands the expectations that come with being a top-five team.

“We won, and that’s great,” center Braxston Cave said after the game. “But I think guys hold themselves to a higher standard than what we put out there.”

It’s not just the guys in the locker room. Irish nation took to the internet, filled with panic and anxiety as they watched Notre Dame bumbled their way through the middle section of the football game. The passing game went dry. The defense couldn’t get off the field. Kyle Brindza missed two field goals he needed to convert. On a day where nothing seemed to go right, the Irish just went back to work and kept plugging, paying no attention to the energy vacuum that turned Notre Dame Stadium into a collection of 80,000 nervous fans sitting on their hands.

With just about everybody following Irish football knowing that a win would set up a gigantic match-up in Oklahoma next weekend, the Irish may not have been flat or fallen into a trap, but they sure didn’t play sharp. So they’ll celebrate a victory today, and come back tomorrow ready to correct some sloppy play.

“Saturday, you win the football game, and you need to feel that excitement,” Kelly said. “And then Sunday, Sunday could be an interesting day. But let’s wait for Sunday. Saturday is for success and celebration.”

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Even with George Atkinson stuck in neutral, Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood ran this team to victory.

Maybe Kelly was right when he wouldn’t put any stock into the fact that Theo Riddick was running for almost two yards per carry less than any other running back on the roster. Because today, Kelly was rewarded for putting his stock in Riddick, and the senior back played the best game of his Notre Dame career.

“I think what he did more than anything else is that he ran north and south and he plays physical,” Kelly said of Riddick’s efforts. “That gets an energy for everybody.  The O‑line sees a guy that’s really pounding it in there; I think that he got us that energy that we needed.”

No time was that energy needed more than in the third quarter, when the Irish offense was slumping and facing a third-and-one on their own 37-yard line. Needing to take advantage of a missed BYU field goal that could have turned the contest into a two-score game, Riddick broke a gang tackle at the line of scrimmage, kept his feet, and dashed for 55 yards before he was chased down at the BYU eight-yard line.

You’ll hardly mistake Riddick for a power back, a converted slot receiver who probably needs heels and a weight vest to get to his 5-foot-11, 200-pound program listing. But it’s been Riddick that’s gotten the tough inside yards for the Irish when they’ve needed them.

“He has run really hard and physical for us,” Kelly said. “Last year we had Jonas Gray, who was that big physical back. I’m not comparing him to Jonas because he’s not half his size, but running up between the tackles, it gives an energy to the entire team.”

Riddick’s long run was one of the game’s defining plays, but Cierre Wood also played his best game of the year. Facing a rush defense that was No. 3 in the country giving up just 67 yards a game, Wood sliced and diced his way through the Cougars for 114 yards on 18 carries. While George Atkinson struggled to get out in space and make plays, the veteran duo of best friends Riddick and Wood carried the load for the Irish.

***

From an afterthought to a key cog, Danny Spond has solved the Irish’s ‘Dog’ linebacker problems.

When Notre Dame received the commitment of blue-chip linebacker Jaylon Smith, many thought the youngster from Fort Wayne could step into the Irish starting lineup and fill a hole in the Irish linebacking corps. But after two seasons fighting his way through injuries and a crowded depth chart, Danny Spond has rewarded Brian Kelly for his faith.

Spond was one of Kelly’s first recruits, a prototype “RKG” before Irish fans really knew what one was. A converted high school quarterback, Kelly targeted Spond as a “big skill” talent, unsure of where he’d play once he got to South Bend, but sure that they’d find a place for a 6-foot-3, 230-pound athlete. After battling a scary migraine headache problem this preseason that on first glance looked career threatening, the junior linebacker has solidified the ‘Dog’ linebacker position, playing terrific football on the wide side of the field as both a run stopper and in pass coverage.

“He’s been so consistent,” Kelly said of Spond. “We don’t even take him off in nickel. I don’t know if you guys know it, he plays corner. Here is a guy that’s playing corner in our nickel package and running with No. 2 in bracket… He has been physical at the point of attack. Stopped teams that have wanted to go outside, I could go on and on.”

Spond iced the game with a game-ending interception deep in coverage, and made another terrific play knocking down a Riley Nelson pass. With the Irish playing Prince Shembo out of position last season on the wide side of the field and using Troy Niklas there as well, it was clear that Notre Dame needed someone to step up and take that role. While some expected that person to be sophomore Ben Councell, Spond has made himself an integral part of this defense.

“He’s been an unsung player on our defense and we appreciate him,” Kelly said. “He’s just played really, really well for us and he’s not even coming off the field.”

***

They may have given up two touchdowns, but the Irish defense played another rock solid game.

It says something about a defense when allowing 14 points is a disappointing performance. The Irish gave up their first defensive touchdown since Purdue, when broken coverage in the red zone resulted in Cody Hoffman‘s touchdown catch along the backline of the end zone. Fast-forward to another short field, as Kaneakua Friel‘s touchdown catch on linebacker Carlo Calabrese — with an assist to the replay official — put the Cougars in a rare place to score 14 points against the Irish defense in one quarter, the first time that’s happened this season.

“I think for us, we understood that we were beating ourselves and a lot of guys, we just needed to stay together,” Manti Te’o said after the game. “A lot of us were anxious and excited and we weren’t playing our brand of football. We came in at halftime and settled down and the result is the whole team just playing our brand of football.”

That brand of football included another banner game for the Irish’s star middle linebacker, with Te’o pitching in eleven tackles, his fourth interception of the season, and half a tackle-for-loss. After a few weeks with a quiet pass rush, the Irish also chased after Nelson all afternoon, getting four sacks — 1.5 courtesy of Stephon Tuitt — and forcing a few holding calls.

The Irish got a huge break when Nelson missed an open receiver behind the secondary, but otherwise Bob Diaco‘s unit created its own luck in the second half, limiting the Cougars to just 128 yards on 32 plays.

“We are finishing so well. It goes to their conditioning and mental and physical toughness,” Kelly said. “They believe they are going to win football games.  Doesn’t matter if they are behind. They have an energy about them that they believe they are going to win.”

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With Tommy Rees in the game, Tyler Eifert came alive. The rest of the passing game? Not so much.

It didn’t take long to figure out that Tyler Eifert has missed having Tommy Rees at quarterback. In the game’s first quarter, Eifert matched his season high in catches and scored a touchdown. While he and Rees didn’t connect again for the rest of the game, Eifert’s presence drew nearly exclusive double-coverage on the Irish star, forcing the Irish offense to change their method of attack.

That change turned out to be a difficult one. Against a stingy defense, Notre Dame couldn’t get their passing offense rebooted, with TJ Jones‘ nice 33-yard gain on a good deep throw by Rees one of the only positive passing plays after the first quarter. With Davaris Daniels letting a football hit him in the facemask before it fell for an interception and Rees missing a few throws in the flat to Theo Riddick, Kelly decided to turn to the running game to win the game.

And while most people still peg Kelly for a gun-slinging pass-happy coach, the Irish head coach didn’t want it any other way.

“We always philosophically like to go in thinking about running the football first,” Kelly said. “That’s who we are. We are becoming that kind of football team on offense. You talk about finding an identity; that’s why we talk with it.  Even when we were down, we kept running the football.

“It’s our identity and what we do. There were some opportunities we probably could have thrown the ball and didn’t need to take advantage of it at this point.  But again, that’s how we are playing the game now.”

Anybody looking for Rees to provide the missing spark in the Irish passing offense probably came away disappointed. The junior went 7 of 16 for 117 yards with a touchdown and an interception in his start, modest numbers against a top-25 passing defense. But the quarterback played well enough to win, even if it was mostly getting the Irish into the right run checks and handing off the football.

Those handoffs led to an astonishing 270 yards on the ground, powering the Irish to 7-0 on the year and setting the stage for a very big road trip to Oklahoma, where a top ten Sooners squad awaits.

“Listen, you can’t win games by 28 and 30 points. You need to find ways to win,” Kelly said. “That’s who we are.  There’s a lot of teams around the country that have made their programs on winning 7-6 and 13-7. It’s just who we are. Embrace who we are.”

It may not have been pretty, but it’s certainly hard to argue with the results.

Restocking the roster: Offensive Line

Notre Dame offensive line
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When Notre Dame takes the field this spring, there’ll be two very large holes in the offensive line that need filling. All-American left tackle Ronnie Stanley is gone. As is captain Nick Martin at center. Both three-year starters leave Harry Hiestand with some big decisions to make in the coming months as the Irish look to fill those key positions and still field a unit with the ability to dominate in the trenches.

The Irish have had incredible stability at left tackle, with Stanley sliding in seamlessly after four seasons of Zack Martin. Perhaps the best six-year run in the program’s storied history at the position, Stanley will likely join Martin as a first-rounder, back-to-back starters at a key spot that often dictates the play of one of the most important units on the field.

Replacing Nick Martin could prove equally tricky. Rising junior Sam Mustipher served as Martin’s backup in 2015, filing in capably for Martin after an ankle sprain took him off the field briefly against UMass. But Mustipher will face a challenge this spring from rising sophomore Tristen Hoge, the first true center recruited by Hiestand and Brian Kelly since they arrived in South Bend.

Kelly talked about 2017 being a big cycle on the recruiting trail for restocking the offensive line. You can see why when you look at the depth, particularly at tackle. Let’s look at the work that’s been done the previous two classes as Notre Dame continues to be one of the premier programs recruiting in the trenches.

 

DEPARTURES
Ronnie Stanley
, Sr. (39 starts)
Nick Martin, Grad Student (37 starts)
Mark Harrell, Sr* (No Starts, fifth-year available)

*Harrell’s departure is not confirmed, though expected.  

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Tristen Hoge
, C
Trevor Ruhland
, G
Jerry Tillery
, T
Parker Boudreaux
, G
Tommy Kraemer
, T
Liam Eichenberg
, T

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Hunter Bivin, T
Quenton Nelson, LG
Sam Mustipher, C
Steve Elmer, RG
Mike McGlinchey, RT

Alex Bars, T
Colin McGovern,* G/T
Tristen Hoge*, C
John Montelus*, G
Jimmy Byrne*, G
Trevor Ruhland*, G

*Has an additional year of eligibility remaining. 

ANALYSIS:
It’ll be a fascinating spring up front for the offensive line. We’ll get our first look at potential replacements and see if the Irish staff values a veteran presence (as it has done in the past) or puts former blue-chip recruits in position to become multi-year starters.

For now, I’m putting last season’s backups in line to ascend to starting spots. That’s not to say I think that’s what’ll happen. Hunter Bivin may have been Stanley’s backup last season, but as long as Alex Bars is fully recovered from his broken ankle, I think he’s the best bet to step into that job. Sharing reps at guard—not a natural spot for Bars to begin with—was more about getting him some experience, with the aim to move him into the lineup in 2016. That allows Bivin to be a key swing reserve, capable of playing on either the right or left side.

At center, the decision is less clear cut—especially since we’ve yet to see Tristen Hoge play a snap of football. Size and strength is a genuine concern at the point of attack for Hoge, not necessarily the biggest guy hitting campus. But it sounds like he’s had a nice first season from a developmental standpoint, and if he’s a true technician at the position, he could be a rare four-year starter at center if he’s able to pull ahead of Mustipher this spring.

On paper, the other three starting jobs don’t seem to be in question. Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey are ready to step to the forefront. Concerns about Steve Elmer’s buy-in will certainly be answered by spring, there’s little chance he’ll be on the field in March if he’s not going to be around in August. I’m of the mind that Elmer’s too good of a character guy to leave the program, even if his life doesn’t revolve around football 24/7. Now it’s time for him to clean up some of the flaws in his game, the only starter from last season who held back the Irish from being a truly elite group.

Depth isn’t necessarily a concern, but there isn’t a ton of it at tackle. That happens when you move a guy like Jerry Tillery to defensive line and lose a player like Stanley with a year of eligibility remaining. That could force the Irish to cross-train someone like Colin McGovern, a veteran who can swing inside or out if needed. McGovern seems to be a guy who would start in a lot of other programs, but has struggled to crack a two-deep that’s now filled with former blue-chip recruits, all of them essentially handpicked by Hiestand and Kelly.

Restocking the roster: Wide Receivers

Notre Dame v Florida State
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Some believe that the best way to look at recruiting is in two-year increments. As programs rebuild and rosters turn over, covering the needs of a football team over two recruiting cycles  allows a coaching staff to balance its roster.

That balance is critical to the health of a program. And it’s not just the work of a rebuilding coach. As we saw in Brian Kelly’s sixth season, injuries, attrition and scheme change impacted the defense, especially in the secondary.

Another position set to deal with major change is wide receiver. Gone is All-American Will Fuller, departing South Bend after three years, scoring 29 touchdowns over the past two seasons. He’ll look to run his way into the first round of the NFL Draft. Also gone are veterans Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle, putting the Irish in an unenviable position, needing to replace the team’s three leading receivers.

Reinforcements aren’t just on the way, they’re already on campus. While there’s not a ton of production to see, the recruiting stockpile has created a chance to reload for Mike Denbrock’s troop. So let’s take a look at the additions and subtractions on the roster, analyzing the two-year recruiting run as we restock the receiving corps.

DEPARTURES
Will Fuller
, Jr. (62 catches, 1,258 yards, 14 TDs)
Chris Brown, Sr. (48 catches, 597 yards, 4 TDs)
Amir Carlisle, GS (32 catches, 355 yards, 1 TD)
Jalen Guyton, Fr. (transfer)

 

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Equanimeous St. Brown

Miles Boykin*
CJ Sanders
Jalen Guyton
Chase Claypool*
Javon McKinley*
Kevin Stepherson*

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Corey Robinson, Sr.
Torii Hunter, Sr.*
Justin Brent, Jr.*
Corey Holmes, Jr.*
CJ Sanders, Soph.
Miles Boykin, Soph.*
Equanimeous St. Brown, Soph.
Kevin Stepherson, Fr.*

 

ANALYSIS
Brian Kelly expects St. Brown to step into Will Fuller’s shoes. If the Irish are able to pluck another sophomore from obscurity to the national spotlight, it’ll say quite a bit about the depth and productivity the Irish staff has built at the position. At 6-foot-5, St. Brown has a more tantalizing skill-set than Fuller—and he was a national recruit out of a Southern California powerhouse. But until we see St. Brown burn past defenders and make big plays, assuming the Irish won’t miss Fuller is a big leap of faith.

The next objective of the spring is getting Corey Robinson back on track. The rising senior had a forgettable junior season, ruined by injuries and some bruised confidence. A player who has shown flashes of brilliance during his three seasons in South Bend, the time is now for Robinson, not just as a performer but as an on-field leader.

Torii Hunter Jr. is also poised for a big season. After finding reps at slot receiver and possessing the versatility to see the field from multiple spots, Hunter needs to prove in 2016 that he’s not just a utility man but an everyday starter. His hands, smooth athleticism and speed should have him primed for a breakout. But Hunter might not want to stay in the slot if CJ Sanders is ready to take over. After a big freshman season on special teams, Sanders looks ready to make his move into the lineup, perhaps the purest slot receiver Brian Kelly has had since he arrived in South Bend.

The rest of the spring depth chart should have modest goals, though all face rather critical offseasons. Justin Brent is three years into his college career and the biggest headlines he’s made have been off the field. Whether he sticks at receiver or continues to work as a reserve running back remains to be seen. Corey Holmes is another upperclassman who we still can’t figure out. Will he ascend into the rotation with the top three veterans gone, or will he give way to some talented youngsters?

Miles Boykin earned praise last August, but it didn’t get him time on the field. He’ll enter spring with four years of eligibility, same as early-enrollee Kevin Stepherson. The Irish staff thinks Stepherson has the type of deep speed that they covet, capable of running past cornerbacks and stretching a defense. Boykin has size and physicality that could present intriguing options for an offense that’ll be less reliant on one man now that Fuller is gone.

Live Video Mailbag: 40-year decision, more BVG, freshmen and more

BVG
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We’ve done plenty of mailbags, but this is our first shot at a Live Video Mailbag. This should be a better way to answer more questions and hopefully interact with a few of you as we try to work off some of yesterday’s Super Bowl snacks.

Topics on the list: The 40-year decision, more Brian VanGorder talk, the incoming (and redshirt) freshmen and a whole lot more.

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