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

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If it took a little longer to get this column up, it’s because I’m still trying to process the football game Notre Dame played. This is far from an original thought, but Brian Kelly‘s troops played as close to a perfect football game as you could have ever imagined, putting together near flawless execution in every segment of the game.

Even the head coach, a notoriously picky grader, had to acknowledge that this was the most complete performance his team has played by a longshot.

“In the four areas that we’ve asked our kids to play this game, it was on point,” Kelly said. “We wanted to be smart, disciplined physically, and mentally we wanted to be tougher than our opponent, and we hit all four of those. As it relates to what the message was and what we wanted to accomplish, it hit all four points for us.”

Let’s take one more look at No. 3 Notre Dame’s victory over Oklahoma, with plenty of good and not too much bad or ugly.

THE GOOD

Team Intelligence. Kelly’s quote above hits on this, but how refreshing was it to see the Irish as the team that wasn’t swallowed by the moment? Last year against USC and Stanford, Notre Dame shot themselves in the foot, started slow, and never had a chance to win. Against Oklahoma, it was the exact opposite. After weathering an early barrage by the Sooners, the Irish let the opponents implode.

The Irish committed only one penalty in the entire game, an innocuous five-yarder by Louis Nix, who bulldozed the Oklahoma offensive lineman for good measure. It was as close to perfect as a team performance, and the Irish offensive line cleaned up any problems they had over the past few weeks, which caused more than a few false start penalties.

Kelly and his staff work incredibly hard on the mental aspect of football. Saturday night, that effort was paid back in full.

The Run Defense. It’s a bit of a broken record at this point, but the Irish are playing historic run defense right now. Giving up just 15 yards on the ground to the Sooners is one of those stats that make you check for typos. Even if you take out the two gigantic negative plays that skew those stats in the Irish favor, Notre Dame held Oklahoma to 53 yards on 21 carries, with Sooner ball carriers getting only 2.5 yards per play. Perhaps more impressive is the long run of the day, a lowly seven yards, a shocking number against a team that wasn’t far from averaging that number heading into Saturday evening.

When asked Sunday if he can remember a stat sheet with as dominant of a running performance, Kelly came up empty.

“I can’t remember one that would have a stat like that,” Kelly said. “You would think the quarterback sometimes is going to scramble for seven yards. So, again, I think when you look at what we’re doing defensively, it starts up front. And the ability to control the line of scrimmage, and it just allows us to do so many things in the back end.”

The building blocks of Bob Diaco‘s defense is stopping the run. That Notre Dame was able to do that so completely helped set the tone for the passing game.

The Pass Defense. Sure, Landry Jones threw for 356 yards. But it took him 51 attempts to do it, and outside of Jalen Saunders 35 yard catch and run, it took until garbage time for the Sooners to hit on another long completion, when Kenny Stills was stopped just shy of the endzone and then the Irish defense kept them out.

In a game where just about everyone thought Notre Dame’s youthful secondary was going to be exposed as the weak link of the Irish D, the group played terrific football. With a game plan that gave Oklahoma the underneath throws, the secondary had an excellent night tackling, and played a huge role in limiting the Sooners to just 4 of 14 on third downs.

Kelly talked about the strategy going into limiting the Sooners’ offense to just 13 points.

“We wanted to keep the points down,” Kelly said. “We dropped 8 quite a bit in the coverage, so that’s going to match more with our three down. Our four down is our base nickel package, so we run coverages out of that front. So it’s really matching some fronts with some coverages that we wanted to run.”

Everett Golson. It was a heck of a night for the youngster. His 13 of 25 passing numbers aren’t terrific, but it sure was nice to watch Golson throw the ball away after escaping from the pocket and playing like a veteran when his team needed him. Kelly talked about his young quaterback’s reaction to the victory and what had him excited about his progress.

“I think what we were most pleased with was he was smart and he was disciplined,” Kelly said. “Some of the things that we were talking about between the art and science of the position. He threw the ball away when he was under duress made good decisions. So I think he’s feeling pretty good today.”

Just as important, Golson’s ability to run with the football and make plays with his legs was instrumental to the Irish offense being efficient. While his ball-carrying technique leaves plenty to be desired, his 64 yards of rushing, an impressive 5.8 yards a carry, was a difference maker. Even better, there were a few schematic wrinkles added to the game plan to take advantage of Golson’s legs, and the young quarterback helped the Irish be incredibly efficient on third down, converting 7 of 15.

“It allows us to do is to continue to be more balanced as an offense. We talked with some of the weaknesses we had on throwing the football, particularly on third down. We were much better in this game,” Kelly said. The mental development has been really good. If we continue to go that way, it’s going to give us an offense that’s going to be difficult to defend because we’ll have great balance. That’s what we’re trying to get with Everett in there. Not an offense that throws it 50 times, nor an offense that runs it 50 times. One that is really balanced and more difficult to defend.”

The offensive line. It’s hard to technically evaluate the play of the Irish front five, but the stats tell you all that you need to know. A terrific 5.5 yards a carry. 215 yards on the ground. Over 32 minutes in time of possession. Only one sack, a two-yard loss when Golson scrambled trying to get to the end zone. After struggling a bit as a unit earlier in the year, the Irish offensive line has galvanized, turning the rushing attack into a true weapon.

Hats off to Zack Martin, Chris Watt, Braxston Cave, Mike Golic, and Christian Lombard.

The wide receiver play. It’s time to start giving this group a little bit of credit. Lumping All-American Tyler Eifert into this group, the wide receivers made some huge plays Saturday night, with TJ Jones, Davaris Daniels and Robby Toma coming up big. This wasn’t a dink and dunk offense. And each guy made some big plays in one-on-one match-ups, situations many thought would favor the Sooners.  No catch was bigger than that of freshman Chris Brown, who went vertical on a 50-yard post that was the game’s biggest play.

It’s time to give Mike Denbrock some credit for what he’s done with another position group, and the veteran assistant coach has really helped turn one of the team’s biggest question marks into an asset.

KeiVarae Russell stepping up. The play of KeiVarae Russell was absolutely terrific as well. Russell had nine tackles on Saturday night, including half a tackle-for-loss. The Washington native is a terrific football player, and his switch from running back the day before fall camp is one of the best — if not the most under-discussed — stories of the year.

At this point, you should expect Freshman All-American accolades for Russell, who is holding down the field-side corner position on one of the nation’s best defenses, and putting up some impressive stats while he’s doing it.

***

Not to short change anybody’s performances, but let’s go rapid-fire through a few more.

Kyle Brindza: Heck of a response after looking shaky early. Those touchbacks were huge against a dangerous return team.

Cam McDaniel: Notre Dame’s ultimate Swiss Army Knife, McDaniel played in the secondary, returned kicks in place of George Atkinson, and earned the game ball after switching jerseys with Jalen Brown to honor a former teammate that drown. Gritty, emotional performance by one of the team’s unsung heroes.

Cierre Wood: At this point, he’s not going to become the feature back of the offense. But he certainly played like one Saturday night, bursting away from a team supposedly filled with elite speed and running for over 10 yards a carry.

Bennett Jackson: Gritty game by the team’s boundary corner, playing through a banged up shoulder. For those that wondered why the coaching staff wasn’t worried about Jackson sliding into the starting lineup, now you know.

Louis Nix & Stephon Tuitt: Their names might not be prevalent in the box score, but they both made huge impacts on the game. Nix chipped in four tackles and blew up the interior of the Sooners offensive line, while Tuitt constantly demanded double-teams.

Manti Te’o: For all the reasons we’ve discussed for weeks.

THE BAD

The Windows 8 Ads. That’s about all I can find that’s bad about Saturday night’s performance, the stupid yellow box advertisement that ESPN continued to put up in the corner of the screen, making you think there was a penalty on the play when really it was an add for Bill Gates’ newest operating system.

Yes, we noticed it. No, we’re not switching back from a Mac.

The Flu Bug. Kelly mentioned that the flu had hit the team pretty hard this week, with multiple guys battling through it during the week and George Atkinson kept off the team flight because of it. Time for a few doses of Vitamin C to be spread around the Gug.

THE UGLY

Nothing qualifies for ugly here, though it’ll be fun to listen to guys like Rick Reilly and Colin Cowherd today. I don’t imagine either back pedals very well at their age.

 

CB 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

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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.