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.

***

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.”

***

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.”

***

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.

Recruiting success continues with OL Dirksen, class’s 12th commit

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Even in the doldrums of spring practice, Notre Dame’s recent recruiting success continues. Rivals.com three-star/scout.com four-star offensive lineman John Dirksen offered a verbal commitment to the Irish on Saturday, bringing the 2018 class to 12 commitments.

The 6-foot-5, 290-pounds Dirksen (Marion High School; Maria Stein, Ohio) joins consensus three-star prospect Cole Mabry (Brentwood H.S.; Brentwood, Tenn.) as the offensive linemen thus far among the 12. In three of the last four years, Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has pulled in four recruits, with 2015’s two (Trevor Ruhland, Tristen Hoge) as the exception. This recruiting cycle could again bring a limited offensive line haul, given the likely limits on the class’s size.

While any and all current class of 2018 team rankings should be taken with many grains of salt—there are 318 days between today and National Signing Day, after all—Dirksen’s commitment solidifies the Irish hold on the No. 3 class, per rivals.com. Other recruiting services place Notre Dame even higher.

Dirksen chose Hiestand and the Irish over offers from Michigan State, Iowa State and Boston College, among others.

 

Holmes out for spring; Jones & Jones shining

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Notre Dame’s spring continued over the weekend, and is all too often the case with football, that led to an injury. Early enrollee running back C.J. Holmes will probably miss the rest of spring practice due to a separated shoulder, Irish coach Brian Kelly announced following Saturday’s practice.

“We’ll get an MRI and know a little bit further on Monday once that calms down a little bit,” Kelly said. “We’ll get a picture of that and see. He had an open repair on that same shoulder his sophomore year in high school.”

Behind three backs, including two with experience, Holmes was unlikely to see playing time in the backfield in 2017.

Of those three backs, sophomore Tony Jones, Jr., is the unknown after preserving a year of eligibility last season. In limited practice viewing, however, Jones has only impressed. He has caught Kelly’s eye, as well.

“He’s 225 pounds, can catch the ball coming out of the backfield, [is] assignment correct, and can run elusively and can get into the second level,” Kelly said. “What does that equal? He’s a pretty good back.

“Obviously he was noticeable today in his play and he got some work with the first group as well. He wasn’t just getting second-team reps.”

Jones may be getting some first-unit exposure, but expect him to remain behind junior Josh Adams in the depth chart. Considering Jones’ style is somewhat comparable to Adams’, whereas junior Dexter Williams presents something of a change of pace, Williams should see more action than the sophomore, as well.

MORE PRAISE FOR ALIZE JONES
Junior tight end Alizé Jones—rather, Alizé Mack, per his Twitter account—has taken the lead in spring’s race of who reaps the most sound bite accolades. In complimenting Jones, who missed last season due to an academic suspension, Kelly also managed to laud new offensive coordinator Chip Long.

“I think Chip is doing a terrific job with [Jones],” Kelly said. “He’s got a good relationship. He knows how to rise him up when he needs to and scold him when he needs to. Alizé needs a little bit of that.

“He’s virtually un-coverable in certain areas of the field. I don’t care at any level. You can’t cover him. He just has that kind of talent. The one that I think stands out to me in the few days is he’s committed himself to being a blocker and playing physical. If he continues to do that, we’re going to find ourselves with a lot of tight ends on the field.”

Presumably, Jones would join graduate student tight end Durham Smythe in two tight end sets. It should be remembered, Long has historically shown a preference for such formations, and with Notre Dame’s plethora of options at the position, Long’s tendencies have no need to change. For that matter, Long had some praise for Jones this weekend, as well.

“Alizé can be as good as he wants to be,” Long said Friday. “…He’s growing up each and every day. Great joy to coach, and that whole group is. He doesn’t want to let that group down. There’s no question he can be as good as he wants to be.”

Friday at 4: 40-yard dashes and absurdity

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Of all the absurd things the football world often obsesses over, the 40-yard dash may be the most useless of them. Yes, it even beats out assigning star rankings to 16- and 17-year-olds, though not by much.

For now, let’s look past the rest of the inane Draft intricacies, such as former Irish defensive lineman Jarron Jones feeling pressured to increase his vertical jump by four inches. (He did, jumping to 24.5 inches in Notre Dame’s Pro Day on Thursday.) This scribe does not have an excess of time to spend discussing Jones’s outlandish wingspan if this piece is to post by its intended, though unnecessary, 4 p.m. ET deadline.

The 40-yard dash … No football play begins from a sprinter’s stance, yet it may be the factor most crucial to a low 40 time. Former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer posted a time of 4.83 seconds in the NFL Combine earlier this month. For context’s sake, Kizer ran .07 seconds slower than Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did as a draft prospect in the 2004 combine.

Roethlisberger has had himself an excellent career, and his ability to shrug off 300-pound defensive linemen is a testament to his athleticism. Put Kizer and Roethlisberger in the open field together, though, and Kizer would presumably have outrun Roethlisberger at any point of the two-time Super Bowl champion’s career. In Indianapolis, however, Roethlisberger did a better job of getting his hips through his first couple strides of the heralded 40-yard dash.

Here, watch Kizer train for the 40, the most-hyped measurement of his combine.

“The ultimate goal is to have yourself in the best position to have your body weight back in those legs so you can create enough torque to get out as quickly as possible,” Kizer said. “A guy who is as long as I am, with long limbs that I have, I’ve got to make sure that my weight distribution is in the best position for me to get out and catch up to some of those quicker guys who are a little lower to the ground.”

What part of that sounds applicable to football? The 40 turns Kizer’s size (6-foot-4, 237 pounds) into a negative. He worries about the angle of his knees. After his throwing session at the Thursday Pro Day, Kizer summed up the draft evaluation process even more succinctly.

“This process is very different in the sense that the way you look productive in the combine and in a pro day is very different from what productivity actually looks like out on the field.”

Well put.

More pertinent to the actual game of football, Kizer’s completion percentage in the staged workout could have been higher.

Then again, he was throwing to the likes of former Irish receivers Corey Robinson and Amir Carlisle and former running back Jonas Gray. Reportedly, the only contact Gray and Kizer had before the session was Kizer emailing the former New England Patriot the planned series of routes.

The NFL Draft, where Gmail becomes a necessity.

Let’s do away with the 40. If we insist on keeping it, let’s do it twice, once from a standing start and once from a running start. Those would simulate actual football movements: A receiver getting off the line, and a ballcarrier breaking away and trying to outrun the defense.

Asking DeShone Kizer to mimic Usain Bolt is an exercise in futility, idiocy, absurdity.

Cue end of rant.

Why cite the Roethlisberger time? Many, including Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke, have readily compared Kizer to Roethlisberger this spring.

The most notable line of that scouting report (scroll down to No. 32) may be its final one, echoing Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s sentiments from earlier this week.

“The mystery is whether he can regain his assertiveness,” Burke writes. “If so, he could turn out to be the 2017 class’s best QB. The team that drafts him will be taking a leap of faith.”

A leap. Not a dash.

For more Notre Dame Pro Day results, click here.

And with that, this just may make the 4 p.m. posting. You know what to do.

 

Tranquill continues work with safeties … for now

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Drue Tranquill will see time at the oft-spoken of rover position, just not yet. For now, Notre Dame needs the senior at safety to provide leadership and communication while the rest of his position group gets up to speed.

“We really have to figure out what the coordination is going to be at the safety position,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “How much does Drue play down at rover? How much does he play back [at safety]?”

Only sophomore Devin Studstill returns any starts to the safety position aside from Tranquill’s career total of 18. Studstill started nine games last season.

That void has kept Tranquill working mostly with the defensive backs in the spring’s first few practices, rather than joining the likes of junior Asmar Bilal in the rover grouping.

“We didn’t want to pull our most veteran player out of the back end of our defense with Drue,” Kelly said. “I think it was more about the hesitancy of losing a great communicator in the back end than about the teaching.”

The time will come, however, for Tranquill to move up. Juniors Nick Coleman and Ashton White have moved to safety from the corner position. With more reps, they will not need to rely on Tranquill’s guidance as much. The same goes for, at least in theory, sophomore Jalen Elliott.

“It’s not really a heavy load of teaching for those guys,” Kelly said. “They’re picking it up quite well. We really want to get a chance to see a lot of guys back there.”

Kelly seemed particularly bullish on Coleman’s prospects at the position, provided he embrace the needed physicality. At 6-foot, 187 pounds, Coleman’s build may have been more suited on the outside, but Notre Dame’s plethora of promising cornerbacks provided an impetus to test Coleman at safety.

“The big thing will be Nick’s continuous development in tackling,” Kelly said. “You have to tackle back there. His ball skills are really good. We’ve seen that he’s able to play the ball. He has athleticism.

“We just want to continue to build on his tackling skills. If we go through the spring and say, ‘Well, he’s tackling really well,’ we’ll feel pretty good about the move.”

At that point, Tranquill will likely join Bilal at the hybrid position, which is something of a trademark to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Tranquill will be able to do what he does best: Pursue the ball.

“We all know what his strengths are,” Kelly said. “He’s a solid tackler. I don’t think there’s any safety in college football that wants to get matched up one-on-one with a skilled slot receiver. This would minimize that, when you play him close to the ball as a rover.

“And I think he’s pretty quick off the edge. I think we put him in a really good position in maximizing his skill set.”

Until then, Bilal will continue to be the frontrunner at rover, especially with the first four Irish opponents of 2017 presenting run-heavy offenses.

KELLY ON NICK WATKINS
Kelly was also asked about senior cornerback Nick Watkins, his fit into Elko’s defense and his return from injury.

“He’s very coachable, wants to learn, he’s pretty long,” Kelly said. “What I think Mike [Elko] does really well—and this is what I liked about my interactions with him—is, we all have strengths and weaknesses. He has a great eye of saying let’s take Nick’s strengths and let’s put him in a position where we can really utilize his strengths and put him in a position where maybe we’re not a right and left corner team, maybe we’re a short field/wide field team. Let’s apply him in that fashion.

“Nick’s long. He’s a little bit of a physical player. Let’s go to those strengths. He’s shown some of those attributes early on.”

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