Pregame Six Pack: Showdown with the Sooners

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Moments like this are earned. Big games, premiere Saturdays, they are a product of hard work off the field and fortune on the field. As Notre Dame prepares to play in their biggest game in a decade, and easily their most anticipated since Pete Carroll’s Trojans came to South Bend to battle first-year head coach Charlie Weis’ Fighting Irish, it’s worth remembering that as Herb Brooks once told us, “Great moments are born from great opportunities.”

The table is set for Notre Dame to walk into Norman, Oklahoma and surprise the college football world. It would certainly fit the bill of this improbable season, which has seen the Irish continue to win as this team searches for its offensive identity and matures before our eyes.

Brian Kelly isn’t under the impression that he has a great football team. But his team is ranked No. 5 in the country because they’ve defeated every team they lined up against, and on Saturday night, they’ll have their best opportunity to make another statement. But to beat the Sooners, Kelly knows it’s more about what his team does than anything Bob Stoops‘ squad can do.

“Our guys understand the importance of Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday relative to their preparation. The good part for me it hasn’t been a lot about Oklahoma,” Kelly said. “My feeling is that when your team is focused on yourself more so than who you’re playing, that’s the kind of focus you want.”

The Irish have a great deal of respect for Oklahoma, but they also know they control their own destiny this Saturday evening. And that’s what makes this weekend so exciting.

As No. 5 Notre Dame prepares to take off for battle against No. 8 Oklahoma, let’s run through six tidbits, fun facts, leftovers miscellaneous musing before Saturday evening’s 8:00 p.m. ET game.

***

If Notre Dame is going to win, they’re going to have to play better in the red zone.

There are a lot of places Notre Dame’s offense needs to improve. But to win at Owen Field, the Irish absolutely need to cash in their opportunities in the red zone. Right now, Notre Dame doesn’t seem to have a red zone identity. The pieces are there — Tyler Eifert on the fade, Everett Golson‘s legs, a fairly stout power running game — but the results haven’t been.

With the exception of Golson’s interception against Michigan, turnovers haven’t been the biggest problem. Execution has been. Kelly spoke openly about the two areas holding this offense back, throwing the football efficiently and production in the red zone.

“We have to be better on third down throwing the football, and we have to be better in the red zone,” Kelly said. “And those are areas of emphasis, and if we’re better in those two areas, then our efficiency is going to jump up. I’m interested in being more efficient in terms of our passing game.”

A quick glance at the rankings and you’ll actually see Notre Dame’s third down conversion rate isn’t terrible at 48th. But looking at the Irish in the red zone, especially cashing in touchdowns instead of field goals, and that’s a different story.

The Irish are 89th in the country in scoring rate, putting points up only 26 of 34 times, good for 76.47 percent. Scoring touchdowns is much worse though, with Notre Dame only getting six points 16 times. Compare that to Oklahoma, who is leading the country scoring on 97 percent of their trips and converting almost 76 percent of them for touchdowns, essentially get seven points just as often as Notre Dame gets anything.

If the Irish are going to win, they’ll need to win the red zone. Their defense makes that victory always possible, but the offense is going to need to do its part.

“We have to realize the importance of getting down there and putting points on the board,” senior tackle Zack Martin said. “Ten points in four appearances last game is not good enough. That’s not going to beat Oklahoma.”

***

He may not be a terror in the box score, but Prince Shembo is a scary dude on the field.

One of the great stories on the season is the work Prince Shembo has done taking over for Darius Fleming at the ‘Cat’ linebacker position. The junior, who played out of position last year, has been a pass-rushing terror off the edge, while playing stout run defense for a guy many were worried was undersized for the position.

Shembo’s stats might not reflect his work on the field, with his 3.0 sacks modest compared to his impact on the game. But the North Carolina native’s relentless passion, whether it’s screaming about his stolen bike seat or swinging a sledgehammer on the sidelines, embodies the passion, but workmanlike attitude this Irish defense is all about.

“Just do your assignment,” Shembo said this week. “If people try to do things they’ve never done before, that’s when the problems start. Just have confidence and do your job.”

That job will include dealing with Oklahoma’s jumbo quarterback package, anchored by the “Belldozer” sophomore quarterback Blake Bell. Shockingly, Bell doesn’t seem to worry Shembo too much.

“He’s a big guy. 6-6, 260. I squat 600. So we’re just going to go put our pads on and meet him in the hole,” Shembo said this week.

Whether Bell is 6-foot-6, 260 pounds or 6-foot-8, 340-pounds as nose tackle Louis Nix joked, don’t expect this defense to be intimidated, something Shembo credits to his teammates.

“We’ve got monsters on our team. Troy’s a monster, Eifert’s a monster,” Shembo told the Sun-Times. “The more you practice with monsters, the better. If I’ve got to fight a dragon every day — without getting killed, hopefully — I’ll know how to beat the dragon eventually.”

***

The war in the trenches should be won by Notre Dame.

We’re running out of superlatives for Notre Dame’s rush defense. By this time, we all know the unit hasn’t given up a touchdown on the ground yet. But let’s take a look at a team by team breakdown of how well the Irish have done shutting down their opponents compared to their performance against everybody else.

Navy Rushing Yards
Notre Dame: 149.0
Everybody Else: 251.3
102.3 yards below average

Purdue Rushing Yards
Vs. Notre Dame: 90
Vs. Everyone Else: 169.5
79.5 yards below average

Michigan State Rushing Yards
Vs. Notre Dame: 50
Vs. Everyone Else: 152.3
102.3 yards below average

Michigan Rushing Yards
Vs. Notre Dame: 161
Vs. Everyone Else: 232.8
71.8 yards below average

Miami Rushing Yards
Vs. Notre Dame: 85
Vs. Everyone Else: 132.9
47.9 yards below average

Stanford Rushing Yards
Vs. Notre Dame: 147
Vs. Everybody Else: 170.5
23.5 yards below average

BYU Rushing Yards
Vs. Notre Dame: 66
Vs. Everyone Else: 171.4
105.4 yards below average

It’s ridiculous to consider that Notre Dame’s worst comparative game against the run was against Miami, a game where the Irish throttled the ‘Canes 41-3. Saturday night, Notre Dame will certainly be tested at the line of scrimmage, and the Sooners’ running game is effective if not underutilized. The Sooners are averaging a gaudy 5.93 yards per carry, yet only running the ball 33 times a game.

(Edited to add Stanford’s rushing numbers, which detract from the above point, but are actually a bit more nuanced. Stanford has run for over 200 yards against USC, Arizona, and Cal, but their overall numbers are dragged down by 92 rush yards against Duke in a blowout win and 65 yards in their loss to Washington.)

The Irish won’t have the choice to walk away from the ground game, as they’ll need to establish the run early this weekend. And there’s reason to believe they can do it against the Sooners front, an undersized unit that might be the smallest front seven the Irish have faced since playing Navy.

If you’ve got 30 minutes, here’s a great breakdown of the battle in the trenches from the Solid Verbal’s Dan Rubenstein and Oregon offensive lineman Carson York, who is sitting out the season after undergoing right knee surgery. York’s unbiased opinion is favorable for the Irish, and he does a nice job of explaining the intricacies of things like the inside and outside zone running plays, staples of the Brian Kelly offense.

***

He’ll be the best quarterback Notre Dame’s faced this year, but what Landry Jones is going to show up?

Make no mistake, Landry Jones is a talented quarterback. But he’s far from bulletproof in pressure situations. The senior quarterback has put together an impressive career in Norman, thrust into duty as a redshirt freshman after Sam Bradford went down with a shoulder injury. From there, the former Parade All-American has all but rewritten the Sooner record books, holding 13 Oklahoma passing records, including the all-time passing yardage mark.

But Jones, an All-Big 12 quarterback who returned for his senior season after a somewhat disappointing 2011 campaign, reignited some of the criticism he’s taken over the years for big game struggles after the Sooners’ disappointing loss to Kansas State.

The statuesque quarterback, who has yet to log a run for positive yardage on the season, fumbled twice, including one in the end zone recovered for a Wildcats touchdown, and threw an interception in the Sooners’ 24-19 loss.

Jones talked about the struggles he had against Kansas State and the pressure he’s been putting on himself this season back in late September.

“It drives me nuts that we’re kind of underachieving right now,” Jones said after the loss. “I feel like, specifically for myself, I’ve definitely been underachieving this whole year. It’s one of those things that we played a good team in Kansas State and we made mistakes that put us into a position that we couldn’t win.”

Kansas State’s game plan was to flush Jones from the pocket, forcing the quarterback to make mistakes. With Stephon Tuitt, Prince Shembo and an Irish pass rush that already has 19 sacks on the year, expect that to be the part of Bob Diaco‘s thought process as well.

Even with some uneven performances, Jones will still likely hear his name called relatively early in this spring’s NFL Draft. And creit Jones for taking advantage of games against Texas Tech, Texas and Kansas to get back in rhythm, putting the Sooners offense in peak form heading into Saturday night’s game, while taking the pressure off himself.

“It was like walking on eggshells, trying so hard to play perfect that I was getting in my own way,” Jones told SI.com. “You can’t play like that. You can’t play like that as an athlete. You just have to not think and just go out there and react and play the way you know you’re capable of playing.”

***

Can Big Game Bob Stoops live up to his name?

There’s no question Bob Stoops earned his reputation as a big game coach. Taking over the Oklahoma program after coordinating Steve Spurrier’s Florida defenses, Stoops quickly turned the Sooners around, going 7-5 in his first season in Norman before running the table in 2000, winning the Orange Bowl and the national championship in his second season.

In Stoops’ first four seasons, he was unparalleled in big games, going 18-2 against ranked opponents, winning an Orange Bowl, a Cotton Bowl and a Rose Bowl, and three Big 12 championships along the way.

Stoops’ home record of 78-4 at Owen Field is astonishing, but look a bit closer and that big game success is starting to erode after surprising slip-ups seem to pockmark the Sooners’ prolonged success. While Oklahoma is 10-point favorites against Notre Dame, this wouldn’t be the first game the Sooners have lost being decided favorites.

The Sooners were two-touchdown favorites when Bill Snyder and Kansas State ambushed them. Last year, the No. 3 Sooners were shocked in Norman by Tommy Tuberville’s Texas Tech team, a 28-point underdog pulling off a huge upset. In 2010, the same thing went down, with No. 1 Oklahoma being shocked by No. 11 Missouri, again, with Stoops’ squad a favorite in the polls and in Vegas. And who can forget 2009, when BYU knocked out Sam Bradford and shocked the No. 3 Sooners, a 22-point opening day favorite.

No coach was capable of keeping pace with the torrid start of Stoops’ career, but the Sooners have lost nine conference games since October of 2009, a number that raises a few eyebrows when you consider the rarefied air in which Stoops is still held (not to mention paid).

Notre Dame’s big-game cred certainly isn’t anywhere near what it once was, likely playing into Irish’s underdog role. But that skepticism might need to extend to both sidelines on Saturday.

***

The Irish will need an ordinary game plan and an extraordinary Everett Golson to walk out of Norman winners.

Make no mistake, this game will be decided by the play of sophomore quarterback Everett Golson. For Notre Dame to win, the Irish need Golson to play the best game of his young career, and do it in the most hostile environment and on the biggest stage he’s experienced. If that’s too much pressure to heap on the shoulders of the Irish’s inexperienced signal-caller, well… tough. This is the kind of football game a quarterback goes to Notre Dame to play in. And this is the type of game the Irish need Golson to break through in if they’re going to exit the weekend 8-0.

“I really liked the way he practiced. Confident, moving, running around, throwing the ball with authority,” Kelly said. “Again, we’re probably all at that stage of, ‘Okay, when’s it going to happen? When’s it all going to come together?’ I think we’re all waiting and it’s going to.

“It hasn’t yet, but he’s starting to put together multiple practices in a row where I leave practice and go, ‘When this thing comes together, it’s going to be pretty exciting.'”

Feeling no ill-effects from the concussion that kept him from playing against BYU, Golson should feel more confident in his job than ever, after watching Tommy Rees falter when taken out of a supporting role and tested as a leading man. And after nursing a variety of maladies to start the season, Kelly believes the week off will be an added blessing for his quarterback.

“As I look back on it, it was the right thing to do,” Kelly said of sitting Golson out. “To really give him that week to kind of give over the hump.”

It may be a bit premature to announce that Golson is indeed over that hump, with the Sooners’ defense likely playing into that evaluation. But with some time to step back and catch his breath, Golson will be armed with a conservative game plan that this staff will ask him to execute efficiently, and if his natural talents help make some big plays, so be it.

After struggling in his first appearance under the Notre Dame microscope, Golson gets a rare mulligan Saturday night. For the Irish to win, he’ll need to take advantage of it.

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…)