The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. BYU

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It was a Saturday devoid of style points for No. 5 Notre Dame, who got a victory without playing their best yesterday. On a weekend where the rest of the top five all rolled to easy victories, the Irish slugged it out against BYU, needed to come back from down a touchdown to win in the second half.

Style points didn’t really mean much on Saturday, especially with Notre Dame heading to Norman, Oklahoma this weekend. With the Sooners opening up as 9.5 point favorites this afternoon, it’s clear that the Irish have their hands full this weekend.

Before we turn our focus to one of the biggest games of the last decade, let’s run through the good, bad, and ugly from Notre Dame’s 17-14 victory.

THE GOOD

Theo Riddick. I feel like I deserve to eat a little crow on this one, and Riddick was the spark plug that helped pick the Irish offense up when it was in desperate need of a big play.

Riddick’s 143 yards on 15 carries was a career high and his 55-yard run on third and one was the biggest play of his career. At this point, it’s not worth focusing on the things Riddick isn’t — a breakaway home-run threat for sure, after getting tracked down by BYU defenders — but he’s a complete back that runs hard and seems like a great leader.

Cierre Wood. As much as I liked the game Riddick played, I really enjoyed watching Wood run. He’s without question the team’s best running back, and on Saturday he continued to make big plays all afternoon, including a terrific 22-yard scamper late in the game that helped seal the victory.

The next step for Wood is getting some involvement in the passing game. I’ve got no idea why Wood hasn’t been incorporated into the passing game yet this season. His two catches for nine yards takes away a really important part of his skillset, and almost makes you forget that Wood had 47 catches over the past two seasons.

Getting Wood open in space, especially running wheel routes or easy swing passes would give opposing defenses something to think about, especially considering that role has been made exclusive to Riddick this season.

Tyler Eifert. It was awfully nice seeing Eifert be the most dangerous player on the football field again on Saturday. Even if it was only for the game’s first quarter. Eifert had four catches for 73 yards and a touchdown, moving him up in the Notre Dame record books and earning the game ball from head coach Brian Kelly.

Danny Spond. We mentioned it yesterday, but it’s worth hitting on again. Danny Spond played great yesterday, and has been the unsung hero of this defense. I was unaware that Spond was playing cornerback — cornerback! — in the nickel, but that goes to show you what kind of athlete the Irish have in the Colorado native.

Spond will face another big test this weekend, but his ability to step up and seize that outside linebacker job helps keep Prince Shembo on the field and keeps the Irish rush defense stout.

Kapron Lewis-Moore. He’s not quite an afterthought, but the fifth-year senior played a heck of a game on Saturday, racking up a sack, making five tackles and putting constant pressure on Riley Nelson.

Playing opposite Stephon Tuitt has its privileges, and it’s good to see KLM taking advantage of them. This weekend against Oklahoma he’ll need to continue to make big plays and get after the passer.

Stephon Tuitt. The sophomore went back to dominating at the line of scrimmage in both the run and pass game. Another multi-sack game (1.5) and five tackles is a nice day at the office.

Manti Te’o. That’s four interceptions for Te’o and another double-digit tackle game. Both Te’o and Bennett Jackson are tied for fourth in the country with four interceptions, pretty impressive when you think about it.

Winning the close ones. After being 2-9 in games decided by seven points of less, the Irish have turned the tables in close games. This season it has been Notre Dame getting it done in crunch time, not letting something happen to them. Notre Dame is now 7-1 in its last eight games decided by seven points or less.

“When we get into close games, the mentality now is we’re going to do whatever it takes to win,” Te’o said after the game. “It’s no longer just crossing our fingers and saying, ‘Please, please, please,’ and wait for the next shoe to drop. We’re always trying to be that person to go out and act and make things happen.”

That’s what the Irish did in the second half, not letting penalties or bad luck stop the comeback. When Riley Nelson and the Cougars had a chance to go down and win the game, it took two plays for that opportunity to be vanquished.

Quite a change from what things used to be like.

THE BAD

Sloppy Penalties. It was an uncharacteristic first half for the Irish on Saturday, with sophomores Troy Niklas and Matthias Farley taking really stupid penalties that hurt the team. Niklas’ 15-yarder backed Notre Dame up early while Farley’s tacked on 15-yards to an already big BYU play.

Add in Louis Nix’s facemask, the absolute worst penalty at a really bad time for the Irish defense and another false start along the offensive line and all five mistakes were mental mistakes, and certainly things that need to be cleaned up before next Saturday.

Kyle Brindza. The Irish’s sophomore kicker has made some big kicks this year. But he left six points on the board yesterday on field goals he needed to make. Brindza knocked two of four kickoffs into the end zone, but he’s got to do a better job cashing in points when he’s called upon.

Settling for Field Goals. Notre Dame converted 3 of 5 red zone opportunities, with Brindza’s misses the two disappointments. And while making the kicks is important to Brian Kelly, not settling for three is even more important.

“Two missed field goals, those have to be touchdowns on those drives. We can’t settle for field goals,” Kelly said Sunday. “As we go through it, what we’re looking for is how we can put more points on the board.  Settling for field goals has really been my focus here the last hour because, again, we just finished up with all of our breakdowns, and we’ll take a closer look at it, but again, I’ll go back and say we left too many points out there.  We’ve got to put more points on the board.”

Spoken like a coach that’s about to take on a top ten opponent.

Hot and Cold streaks. The Irish got off to a quick start in the passing game, with Tommy Rees doing a nice job stretching the field with Tyler Eifert. Yet after the first quarter, Rees and the passing game shut down, with Notre Dame seemingly unwilling to stretch the field vertically until TJ Jones caught a deep throw down the far sideline.

With Tommy Rees behind center, the offense seemed to slow itself down, working horizontally far too often instead of stretching the ball down the field. The only time we saw Davaris Daniels was when a football clanged off his facemask. The only great throws Rees seemed to make were downfield deep balls, a problem area last season, compared to his usually accurate underneath possession throws.

Notre Dame can win by managing the game. But with Rees running the show, the Irish didn’t attack BYU’s defense often enough, with only four players making catches.

Did Rees play great football? No. And certainly not good enough to make Kelly’s decision to go back to Golson as starter something he had to think about. But put some of that on a conservative game plan that made it awfully tough on itself.

Special Teams. Taking the special teams out of Mike Elston’s hands hardly made things better for the Irish. Right now, Notre Dame has been no better than ordinary on special teams, a huge disappointment considering the personnel the Irish have.

Let’s take a quick run through the units through seven games:

Opponent Kickoff Return: 94th.
Kickoff Return: 97th.
Opponent Punt Return: 31st.
Punt Return: 114th.

It’s certainly tougher to return punts in college with the proliferation of spread formations in coverage. But right now, it feels like Brian Kelly seems happy to merely guard against fake punts as opposed to trying to set up an actual return.

Just as important, after taking two kicks to the house last season, George Atkinson hasn’t done anything in the return game, and his blocking has been bad. Against an opponent like Oklahoma, the Irish need to be better than mediocre in special teams, and try to get a big play out of one of those units.

Lastly, Notre Dame needs to stop getting demolished in the punt game. Ben Turk’s 40.9 yard average isn’t terrible, but it’s 75th in the country. But add in the fact that Irish opponents are averaging 44 yards a kick, the 10th best against any team, and it’s keeping the Irish in bad field position too often.

Turk’s punt into the endzone was a terrible boot by a senior that should know better. It didn’t end up hurting Notre Dame, but Turk didn’t do the Irish any favors.

THE UGLY

The victory. That’s the definition of an ugly win. Mediocre red zone scoring, ground it out running, and winning without playing its best.

Fan Mental Toughness. During the live blog, you’d have thought Notre Dame Stadium was being torched by hoodlums and the Irish were losing by double-digits. The hecklers and boo-birds were everywhere, blaming Tommy Rees, Brian Kelly, play-calling, strategy, the announcers and every other reason under the sun. And the Irish were losing by just a touchdown at halftime.

Sure, it’s been a tough couple decades for Notre Dame fans. But man — the Irish are off to their best start in a decade when most were thinking an eight-win season would be a good year. On Saturday, it was doom and gloom and sky-falling stuff, even with the Irish holding on for the win.

With the Irish heading to Norman nearly double-digit underdogs, it’s a perfect situation for Brian Kelly and his Notre Dame team. You can play the nobody believes card, and get one of America’s most popular teams to actually think it’s just them against the world.

So while many of you take to the internet to blow off steam, suffer among like-minded fans, or enjoy the group therapy aspect of it all, here’s a pleasant reminder that things are good in Notre Dame nation. As good as they’ve been in a long time.

Now enjoy it already.

 

 

Nick Watkins announces transfer from Notre Dame

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With the announcement from fifth-year cornerback Nick Watkins he will seek a graduate transfer from Notre Dame, it may seem the Irish cornerback depth is taking a massive hit. It was actually that depth that likely spurred Watkins’ decision.

The Texas native announced his decision to transfer Thursday afternoon on Twitter.

“When I decided to attend Notre Dame, my primary goal was to earn a degree from this prestigious University,” Watkins wrote, “and I’m proud to say that I’ll achieve that goal.”

Watkins started nine games in 2017 before knee tendonitis slowed him, giving now-junior Troy Pride an opening to take the lead role opposite junior Julian Love. Pride played well and has continued that progress this spring, knocking Watkins from a starting role. Furthermore, senior Shaun Crawford saw some time at cornerback this spring, rather than focusing solely on nickelback, creating even more viable competition at cornerback.

Thus, Watkins will head elsewhere after making 37 career tackles in 35 games with the Irish, including 29 tackles last season with eight pass breakups and one interception. Watkins missed all of his junior season with a broken arm. Since he will graduate before transferring, Watkins will be immediately eligible wherever he ends up.

Notre Dame will also have four more cornerbacks joining the fray this summer when incoming freshmen D.J. Brown, Noah Boykin, Joe Wilkins and Tariq Bracy arrive.

The Irish roster still sits at a projected 87 scholarships for the coming fall, two over the maximum allowed by the NCAA.

Avery Davis’ move bumps Notre Dame’s RB depth from dire to versatile

Associated Press
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It may not be what Avery Davis always imagined, but his move to running back at least gets him on the field in a Notre Dame jersey. From a practical standpoint, Davis offers more than just running back depth amid a depleted Irish backfield. His move from quarterback to running back/receiver creates a new possibility of playmaking. That concept was the primary reason the sophomore welcomes the position switch rather than dreads it.

Davis’ motivations are that pure and simple. After spending the 2017 season preserving a year of eligibility and watching quarterbacks Brandon Wimbush and Ian Book both prove more than capable, Davis could see his chances at quarterbacking for Notre Dame dwindling. The prospect of another year with a similar view was not one to which he looked forward.

“I love the quarterback position, I’ve played it my whole life,” Davis said following the Blue-Gold Game. “But that redshirt season, to be standing on the sidelines knowing you could make an impact, knowing you could make plays, that pushed me into this.

“… What I’m really trying to do is help the team however I can.”

The Irish coaching staff’s motivations are undoubtedly as pure, regarding helping the team however Davis can, but one may wonder if the move would have happened if not for the dismissal of half the running back depth chart following the Citrus Bowl victory over LSU. Regardless, Notre Dame had a need, and Davis’ natural skills can now help fill it.

“It was a mutual understanding,” Davis said. “… I knew they were serious, because I was serious, too. Week two [of spring practices] I got my chance and that’s when it started clicking.”

By the end of spring practice, Davis had pushed his way firmly into the running back rotation, with a few cameos at receiver, as well. He finished the Blue-Gold Game with 30 rushing yards on 11 carries and 24 receiving yards on two catches, to go along with 2-for-2 passing for 26 yards in the closing moments.

The presence of a viable rushing and receiving threat plays right into the hands of Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long’s preferences. The mere presence of Davis on the field will put defenses into compromising positions. At least, that will be the theory.

It will likely not be long into the season when Davis first lines up in the backfield before motioning into the slot position, thus exposing more of the defense’s blitz and coverage intentions, if not outright forcing adjustments to them. Not long after that, Davis will at some point line up wide only to take a jet sweep a la Cam Smith in 2017’s first month and Kevin Stepherson in the latter half of the year.

These are the dilemmas created by a multi-dimensional threat such as Davis appears to be. Sure, it was just the spring game, but it showed the wrinkles he can create. No one else currently among Notre Dame’s running backs or receivers offers such a variety. Sophomore receiver Michael Young may come the closest, but his frame is not designed for the beating of a running back’s workload.

Nor is Davis’ at this point, necessarily, but he knows as much.

“It’s just more of a physical toll on your body,” he said when asked of the greatest difference from the quarterback position. “You take more hits. That’s something that comes with being in the weight room.”

Atop Davis’ offseason to-do list is add more muscle across the chest and in the shoulders. Next will be to work on his routes and pass-catching skills. As far as reading the defense’s approach, quarterback prepared him for that. His focus is now slightly different, looking for gaps at the line rather than gauging coverage holes, but the underlying skills are the same.

Along with the potential poised by Davis’ position switch and the inherent disclaimers attached to any spring successes, two more aspects of the sophomore’s future should be explicitly noted. First of all, he does not let slip even the slightest misgiving about the move from football’s glamor position. Davis knew what the Irish depth chart looked like when he arrived at Notre Dame, and he knew who had already committed in the following class in consensus four-star Phil Jurkovec.

“When it comes down to it, I love playing the game,” Davis said. “Wasn’t too hard for me. It was a personal decision.

“It was a decision to come here, and I’m living with it. I’m really happy with it, to be honest.”

Secondly, this is a move the Irish coaching staff is committed to, but it retains the right to work Davis in at quarterback. Even Jurkovec’s arrival is unlikely to knock Davis from the spot of No. 3 quarterback to be deployed in emergency situations, lest Jurkovec burn a year of eligibility to offer a quarter’s worth of work.

“The conversation we had with Avery is, what do you want to do?” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “If you want to stay [at quarterback], right now it looks like it’s 1A, 1B, and you’re 3. You can stay in that position, or we think you’ve got some talents to help our offense. He wanted to do this.

“He doesn’t want to give up his ability to play quarterback down the road, but in the meantime, you need to play this year. This gives him that opportunity.”

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS/IS AT RUNNING BACK:
Without Davis and the move of sophomore Jafar Armstrong from receiver, the Irish had two upperclassmen and an early-enrolled freshman at running back this spring. Each of senior Dexter Williams (pictured above) and junior Tony Jones have shown the physical ability to be a loadbearing ballcarrier in the past, but neither has stayed healthy enough to grant peace of mind if in that role. Depth was needed.

Specifically in reference to Williams, Kelly acknowledged past restrictions due to Williams’ durability, or lack thereof.

“How long can you stay on the field?” Kelly said Saturday. “He seemed to be a guy that we couldn’t keep on the field very long. He had a really good spring. He wasn’t a guy that we had to pull out or wasn’t conditioned well enough.”

Much like Davis, Armstrong’s emergence this spring soothes some of those concerns. In the Blue-Gold Game, he finished with 48 yards on five carries along with one catch for 21 yards, showing decent quickness with a burst that will become only more decisive with more experience.

Armstrong should be more than capable of replacing Deon McIntosh as the No. 3 or 4 running back who can offer some modicum of production. In time, he could certainly become more than that.

Early-enrollee Jahmir Smith did about what one would expect from a high school senior taking part in collegiate practices, and that is meant as a compliment, but by no means did he lay the groundwork to force his way into the rotation by September.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WILL BE:
The Irish will welcome C’Bo Flemister as a sixth running back in the fall. Presuming health of the top four (Williams, Jones, Davis and Armstrong), Flemister should join Smith in spending a year in strength and conditioning, perhaps adding some special teams work. More likely, though, at least one of that initial quartet will suffer a plaguing injury, if not something worse, and the freshmen duo could be a sprained ankle away from being activated, just as C.J. Holmes was halfway through 2017.

ONE MORE NOTE, NFL DRAFT-WISE:
The NFL draft begins tonight (Thursday). Former Notre Dame running back Josh Adams will not hear his name called in the first round, but it is likely his name comes up Saturday, somewhere between late in the fourth round and the end of the sixth round.

Notre Dame adds another 2019 commitment out of Georgia

rivals.com
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Eight months from now, Notre Dame may be forced to sign a smaller recruiting class than usual thanks to the larger class this past recruiting cycle. If that expectation does indeed hold, this past week’s five commitments, including consensus three-star safety Kyle Hamilton’s (Marist High School; Atlanta) on Tuesday evening, will be a hefty portion of the class.

Hamilton becomes the second safety in the class, and in the week, following the Saturday pledge of rivals.com four-star Litchfield Ajavon (Episcopal H.S.; Alexandria, Va.). Hamilton’s list of finalists included Michigan, Georgia, Ohio State and Clemson, a grouping more telling than perhaps his recruiting ranking is.

Some of that expected potential may derive from Hamilton’s 6-foot-3 frame. Such length at safety would be a change for the Irish, currently without a safety taller than six-feet in the rotation. Even heralded incoming-freshman Derrik Allen, also out of Georgia, is listed at only 6-foot-1.

It is a coincidence those two Georgia recruits, one signed and one now verbally-committed, are both safeties. Add in the January commitment of rivals.com three-star cornerback K.J. Wallace (Lovett; Atlanta), and a third defensive back comes from the state, along with class of 2018 signees tight end Tommy Tremble and running back C’Bo Flemister. Five prospects from Georgia, presuming both Hamilton and Wallace do indeed sign with Notre Dame, is not a coincidence.

“My point being is that it’s such a fertile ground in recruiting, you just need to be in [Georgia], and there’s great football players in there,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said in December 2017, during the inaugural early signing period. “We’ve got so many players that we can talk about that came of there. It’s just having a presence and getting back into a very, very good recruiting area for us. We need to have a great presence there.”

No matter what state Hamilton comes from, he could find himself quickly in the mix at safety upon his arrival. Presuming health for the current safety depth chart, juniors Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill will have one year of eligibility remaining apiece upon Hamilton’s enrollment. Junior Alohi Gilman will have two, thanks to spending the 2017 season sidelined following his transfer from Navy. Early-enrolled freshman Griffith and Allen will both have three more years, presuming both play in 2018.

Thus, Hamilton and Ajavon could find themselves backing up that last duo as soon as 2020.

Blue-Gold Game Leftovers: Notre Dame’s offensive ceiling is tantalizing, though also unlikely

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Immediately following the 2017 spring game, I walked by two much smarter, savvier and more veteran Notre Dame reporters on our way to post-game interviews. Our two minutes of exchange included them riffing on various hypothetical position changes that were eventually not seen come fall, including how much better of a guard than a tackle Tommy Kraemer could be. It should be noted, the junior began lining up at guard this spring.

My contribution to the conversation hinged entirely on repeating, “That offense just isn’t ready. It’s not close to ready.”

Of course, that assessment figured the spring game struggles were against a porous Irish defense, something freshly-arrived and since-departed defensive coordinator Mike Elko had already taken tangible steps toward fixing, far quicker than expected.

That evaluation also failed to recognize the potential of a running attack led by Josh Adams. Notre Dame knew it had a stalwart running back, and did not need to see more than eight carries for 39 yards and a touchdown from the lead back.

The point stood, though. The offense was not ready then or in November.

Driving away from this past Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game, the thought bouncing around my pickup’s two-seat cab was simple: This offense is unlikely to reach its ceiling, but if it did, it would be really, absurdly high-powered.

This time, that assessment offers some deference to first-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s ability to turn nine returning starters into another strong defense, perhaps superior to last year’s.

The praise of the offense must be hedged thanks to IF after IF after IF after IF. If senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush displays those mechanics and that accuracy against opposing defenses …
If senior running back Dexter Williams (pictured above) decides it is worthwhile to play, and play well, through pain …
If junior receiver Chase Claypool maintains the necessary emotional equilibrium …
If senior tight end Alizé Mack offers a consistent performance, even if not stellar, but stable …

In those four upperclassmen alone, the Irish have unique talents whom opposing defensive coordinators should lose sleep thinking about. They will determine how high this offense’s ceiling is, while the likes of senior receiver Miles Boykin, junior running back Tony Jones and sophomore tight end Cole Kmet will set the floor, along with what looks to be yet another overpowering offensive line (with Kraemer at right guard).

Obviously, the most-promising players always set the height of a vaulted the ceiling. As they perform against Michigan, Stanford and Virginia Tech will determine how the season ends. However, to pinpoint four like this is an extreme end of the spectrum.

Exiting last year’s Blue-Gold Game, it was clear Wimbush needed to learn much more of offensive coordinator Chip Long’s scheme. Aside from that, the only possible ways to increase the offense’s potency was to teach receiver Kevin Stepherson self-discipline and figure out why Mack could not make a gameday impact. The rest was essentially known, even if the running game’s potential was overlooked after the spring exhibition.

Entering this summer, the gap between the offense’s floor and its ceiling is a vast one. To have four question marks of this magnitude speaks to the possible volatility awaiting in the fall. Logically speaking, it is most likely two of the four above IFs become realities. In that case, it will be a good offense, but not the utterly threatening one conceivable. The odds are slim all four come to fruition, but crazier things have happened, especially when discussing the rapid development of 18- to 21-year-olds.

Without Adams following two All-American offensive linemen, this rendition of the Notre Dame offense may take a step backward, but the talent is there for it to actually improve, to carry the day if/when an experienced quarterback picks apart the defense (see: the Seminoles’ Deondre Francois).

That could not be said in 2017.

OTHER QUICK TAKEAWAYS FROM THE BLUE-GOLD GAME:
Much of this will be discussed in greater length in the coming two weeks, but …
— The interior of the offensive line — fifth-year left guard Alex Bars, fifth-year center Sam Mustipher and Kraemer at right guard — is quite a physically-imposing trio. Some defensive ends may find success against first-year starter and junior left tackle Liam Eichenberg, especially early in the season, but the inside trio should at least create massive holes for the Irish running game.

— Ideally Long can deploy Mack and Kmet together, but the spring performance of the latter certainly eases the concerns about the maturation and consistency of the former.

Notre Dame may need an unexpected influx of production from senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery if the fifth-year tackle he is intended to line up alongside, Jonathan Bonner, does not recover fully from a wrist injury suffered in the beginning of 2017. (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP)

— Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly insists fifth-year defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner’s fitness will not be overly-effected by the wrist injury that kept him out of most of spring practice and all of the Blue-Gold Game.

“He’s been doing everything (in weight-lifting) but at lighter weight, and now he’s only a couple of weeks away from being full-go,” Kelly said Saturday. “He was already physically really gifted, so we don’t think that’s going to be a big curve for him, and he’ll be able to start training aggressively when we get back here in June.”

Consider this scribe skeptical. Not only is Kelly often overly-optimistic about injury effects and timetables, but to think missing six months of strength and conditioning will not be noticeable along the defensive interior is idealistic at best. Bonner’s 2017 emergence was a direct result of the arrival of strength and conditioning coordinator Matt Balis.

Without more of that work, the Irish will need to turn to sophomore Kurt Hinish for an increase in snaps, perhaps pushing toward 50 per game with Bonner offering 20-30 and senior Micah Dew-Treadway filling in the balance. Hinish appears to be up to the task, which is necessary, because classmate Darnell Ewell is not.