Game Day: No. 5 Notre Dame vs. BYU

23 Comments

With No. 5 Notre Dame preparing to take on BYU in a few hours, let’s empty the notebook and discuss a few last minute thoughts and questions I still have.

At this point, I’d be shocked if Tommy Rees doesn’t start. I’m not calling my shot, but I expect No. 11 to be behind center when the game starts. It’s as much because of Everett Golson’s concussion as it is BYU’s defense and Oklahoma around the corner. Does that mean he’ll play the entire game? Who knows. But I do think it’s time, especially with the Irish in rarefied air right now, to figure out how to use the team’s most effective quarterback each week, instead of just saving him for high-pressure, high-leverage situations.

While I just missed ESPN’s segment on Rees, Notre Dame’s “closer,” I’ve taken a lot of heat for supporting Rees as a quarterback. Do I think he’s the most talented QB on this roster? No. Do I think he’s got the highest ceiling of the quarterbacks on this roster? No. But is he the best guy Brian Kelly has right now? Absolutely. And I don’t think it’s all that close.

Bronco Mendenhall’s 3-4 defense is predicated on confusion, pressure, and making it tough on offenses. While they haven’t played the best competition, they have put up strong statistics, they’re stingy with first downs, and while they don’t force a ton of turnovers, they get after the quarterback.

I heard countless times that a mobile quarterback is the best thing against a blitzing team. Far from true. A quarterback that can process and make quick decisions and beat the blitz with quick throws can keep the Cougars off balance. Golson has already taken ten sacks this year, and really struggled pulling the trigger against Stanford.

Don’t expect the offensive fireworks to start early and often with Rees. Notre Dame will still do its fair share of punting. But with Golson slow to recover from a concussion and not get as much time with the game plan as Tommy, it only makes sense that the offense would lean on Rees to get through this weekend.

Even in success, recruiting is a roller coaster ride. You’d think the opportunity to wear No. 5 after Manti Te’o, and the opportunity to play in a defense that should be even better next year would be enough for a linebacking prospect. But Pennsylvania native Alex Anzalone, a four-star prospect and one of the top 100 players in the country, is struggling to keep his commitment to Notre Dame.

Per multiple reports, Anzalone cancelled his visit to South Bend this weekend, with his Wyomissing high school schedule making things logistically challenging with Saturday games. But his recent trip to Florida, where he has family and his father graduated from college, has complicated things for Anzalone.

The recruiting process hasn’t been easy for Anzalone. He made an early commitment to Ohio State and Urban Meyer in the spring. He flipped that commitment to Notre Dame after picking the Irish over his childhood favorite Gators. But Anzalone’s trip to Gainesville with his family last weekend, and the resurgent season under Will Muschamp has got him thinking, and it’s anybody’s guess what happens from here.

Notre Dame has back-up plans, with Stanford commit Isaac Savaiinaea, a rugged Hawaiian linebacker from Manti Te’o’s Punahou high school, taking an official visit to South Bend and enjoying himself. The Irish coaching staff won’t stop recruiting either player, and will have the ability to take Savaiinaea because Anzalone is early enrolling at the college of his choice.

It’s not all bad news for the Irish, with their No. 1 remaining offensive target visiting South Bend this weekend in Florida’s Tarean Folston. Folston is one of the few offensive recruits whose commitment Notre Dame would take right now, and getting him to campus was an important first step.

Will the Irish do a better job blocking off the edge? It wasn’t a banner Saturday for the Irish, as Stanford’s edge pressure created havoc all game with Chase Thomas and Trent Murphy impacting the game. Murphy had 10 tackles against Notre Dame and 1.5 sacks. Enter another dangerous edge player this weekend in BYU’s Kyle Van Noy, who already has 11.5 tackles-for-loss and 7.5 sacks. It’ll be up to Van Noy to get after the quarterback and make plays in the backfield, like he’s done all season.

Can the Irish offensive line dominate the line of scrimmage? I’d bet you that Harry Hiestand thinks they can. While the Cougars defense has been stout, they’re also undersized. A week after the Irish actually did a nice job running against a Stanford front that not many teams have run on, there’s every reason to think that the Irish should be able to succeed on the ground, especially if the weather plays a factor for the second consecutive week.

Looking for one blueprint to beat Bronco Mendenhall’s BYU team? Take a walk down memory lane. Back in 2005, a 4-2 Notre Dame team took on the Cougars in Notre Dame Stadium and faced a blitzing, attacking BYU defense. It was far from one of Mendenhall’s better teams, but Charlie Weis and the Irish put together a staggering offensive performance, throwing for 467 yards and gaining 27 first downs on the way to a 49-23 win.

Brady Quinn threw six touchdown passes on the afternoon, and while the Irish only ran for 64 yards on 23 carries, Weis, in vintage form, didn’t seem to mind.

“If they want to bring seven or eight on every play, we’ll throw it on every play,” Weis told NBC’s Lewis Johnson at halftime.

This Irish team doesn’t have the playmakers that the ’05 team had, and doesn’t have Brady Quinn, but it’s a good reminder on how to beat pressure with a quick passing game.

What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

Getty Images
11 Comments

Time spent on a traditional game wrap of a spring intrasquad exhibition seems misspent. Gold won Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game 27-14 led by rising sophomore quarterback Ian Book. The first-string defense (Gold) held the first-string offense to an average of 5.4 yards per play. For context’s sake: Last season Notre Dame gained an average of 6.1 yards per play and held opponents to 5.4.

With that abbreviated recap out of the way, what did Saturday’s pseudo-game environment show about the Irish? If the 20,147 in attendance paid attention, they had the chance to learn a few things:

Daelin Hayes will be ready to hit a quarterback in September
Notre Dame’s quarterbacks were off limits all spring. Bulls might charge when they see red, but the Irish defensive line has had to remember to ease up when they come across a quarterback’s red jersey. If sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes had forgotten that Saturday, Notre Dame might not have any quarterbacks left to play in the fall.

“At the end of the day, we’re on the same team,” Hayes said, dismissing any bitterness about the quarterbacks’ protections. “We have to keep our guys healthy. I wasn’t frustrated, but come September 2, you know.”

Officially, Hayes was credited with three sacks and another tackle for loss among his seven tackles. Admittedly, gauging sacks is tricky when the quarterback does not actually go to the ground. How many of Hayes’ three sacks and the defense’s 11 total would have been evaded if the defender needed to do more than touch the passer? That answer is highly subjective, but discounting Hayes’ numbers would miss the bigger picture.

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

Senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) notched two sacks and sophomore end Ade Ogundeji came the closest to tackling a red jersey when he stripped junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush from behind. The defensive line has been expected to be a weak point for the Irish moving forward, but the spring performance indicates it has a chance at holding its own. These accomplishments bear further merit considering Notre Dame’s offensive line is widely-considered one of its few spots of expected quality.

RELATED READING: Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

“I think it’s pretty clear Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I’d have to watch the film, but it seemed like [sophomore end] Julian Okwara was a hard guy to block coming off the edge, as well.”

Ian Book provides some peace of mind
Book was not spectacular, but he was also far from incompetent or intimidated. In his first action on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, Book completed 18-of-25 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by a 58-yard connection with sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. Meanwhile, junior Brandon Wimbush completed 22-of-32 passes for 303 yards.

Bluntly, one has not needed to follow Notre Dame for very long to fit that “long enough” qualification. Last season’s backup, Malik Zaire, saw competitive action against both Texas and Stanford. In 2015, DeShone Kizer came off the bench to start 11 games after Zaire suffered a season-ending ankle injury. (more…)

What Notre Dame players should you actually watch? Plus, catch up on reading

Getty Images
7 Comments

If technology does its part, this will post as its typist meanders toward finding his credential for the Blue-Gold Game to conclude Notre Dame’s spring practice. If technology doesn’t do its part, well, then this will be lost to the cobwebs of the internet. Such as it goes.

This space has spent much of the past week discussing what to look for in the 12:30 p.m. ET exhibition. Worry about the big picture, not the individuals. Fret about the macro, not the micro.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the indivdual players
Blue-Gold Game primer with help from Notre Dame’s coordinators
Four defensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game
Four offensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game

But, if insistent on focusing on singular players, look to the inexperienced, the names you are unfamiliar with. The 15th and final practice of spring may be no more than a practice in reality, but it is in front of nearly 30,000 fans in Notre Dame Stadium. Some players do not have so much as that minimal experience.

“The Blue-Gold Game, specifically, is a time for us to emulate a game-like situation,” senior safety/linebacker/rover Drue Tranquill said. “Especially for guys like freshmen, second-semester guys coming in, it’s a great opportunity for them to get that game feeling, but also continue to take steps in the process to get better.”

The question on the tip of your tongue is a fair one. If you are unfamiliar with the names, how are you supposed to focus on those players? How are you to know who fits the appropriate tunnel vision version of perspective?

Let’s turn to Irish coach Brian Kelly’s mentions from Wednesday–primarily, sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara, sophomore long snapper John Shannon, senior kicker Sam Kohler, sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem and sophomore safety Jalen Elliott.

Obviously, that is just a sampling. Less obviously, this post’s purpose may or may not be to link to previous reading material and remind you of the vague but pertinent purposes to today’s endeavor. It is neither be-all nor end-all. It is simply another opportunity to gauge what may come down the line.

But hey, how about a prediction? Per Kelly, the first-team offense and second-team defense will be in blue, against the first-team defense and second-team offense in white.

PREDICTION: Blue 37, White 21

HOW TO WATCH
As a recurring reminder, the Blue-Gold Game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network, as well as streamed online at ndstream.nbcsports.com and on the NBC Sports app.

Friday at 4: Four offensive positions to watch in Notre Dame’s spring game

Getty Images
4 Comments

There are two common ways of looking at the annual spring game.
It is the last action involving Notre Dame football readily available for public consumption until Sept. 2, 133 days away.
Or it is an exercise rife with contradiction exacerbated by hype, yielding little-to-no reliable intelligence.
Like much of life, the most accurate assessment falls somewhere between those two views.

If junior running back Dexter Williams breaks off two 50-yard-plus touchdown runs, does that mean he will have multiple big plays in 2017? Not at all. It does mean he will likely have more opportunities for them, though. Just like in spring’s previous 14 practices, the Irish coaches will take what they see and apply it moving forward.

The past—and as of Saturday evening, the Blue-Gold Game will qualify as the past—does not dictate the future, but it can influence one’s approach to it.

Aside from Williams (see the second item below for more on him and the running backs), what other players/positions could influence their future roles the most with their performance to close spring?

BIG PASSING TARGETS: Alizé Jones and Co.
In this instance, big is meant literally. Notre Dame has an embarrassment of riches of tall, long, physical tight ends and receivers. Junior Alizé Jones earns specific mention here due to his inaction last season. Irish fans and coaches alike have a better idea of sophomore receiver Chase Claypool and junior receiver Miles Boykin. They have 2016 film to look at.

Jones, however, sat out the season due to academic issues. His on-field performance largely remains a question mark, but if he combines this spring’s praise with his 6-foot-4 ½ frame holding 245 listed pounds, that could turn into an exclamation point.

“He’s a perfect fit,” new Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long said Friday. “That’s why I recruited him like crazy when I was at Arizona State. He’s a prototypical [tight end], a guy who can run, who can catch.

“The biggest thing about Alizé is he’s taking great pride in his blocking ability right now, his presence of being an end-line guy, his protection and his overall physicality. When you think like that, you’re going to become a better receiver.” (more…)

Blue-Gold Game primer with help from Notre Dame’s coordinators

Getty Images
8 Comments

You didn’t hear? Notre Dame plays Notre Dame tomorrow. Here, let’s make this easy.

WHO? Notre Dame’s first-string offense against its first-string defense, and the Irish second-string defense against the second-string offense.
WHAT? It’s called the Blue-Gold Game, but there are two flaws to that title. One team will be wearing white, not gold, and while it is structured as a game, it is really nothing more than the 15th and final spring practice.
WHEN? 12:30 p.m. ET, Saturday, April 22, 2017 A.D. Yes, I am worried you might mistake this as occurring more than 2,000 years before the time of Christ.
WHERE? Notre Dame Stadium, but if you can’t make it there, tune in to NBC Sports Network.
HOW? Oh, not going to be at a TV? NBC still has you covered at this link: ndstream.nbcsports.com or on the NBC Sports app.

With those essentials out of the way, let’s pull a few quotes from this morning when new Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long and new defensive coordinator Mike Elko addressed the media. Hopefully, these might provide some general context for what to learn from tomorrow.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the individual players

Elko on how much of his defense he has successfully installed this spring:
“We’ve gotten close to 50 percent of all of it up and running. We’ve spent a lot of time defending this offense this spring, so we’re going to have to spend some time defending the offenses we play moving forward. That’s probably where a lot of the learning curve has to come.”

Elko on the most notable defensive improvements:
“We’re disrupting the football better. We’re leveraging the football better. We’re playing harder.”

Elko on what fans should look for from the Notre Dame defense Saturday:
“I hope they see a defense that is flying around. I hope they see a defense that is disrupting the football. I hope they see a defense that has their eyes in the right spot and is executing at a high level. All those things that we’re preaching aren’t going to change tomorrow. It’s not going to be different. It’s not going to be different when we line up against Temple.” (more…)