Opposition round-up: Week Nine

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Let’s take a stroll across college football and see how Notre Dame’s opponents did last week.

NAVY — If Notre Dame fans are feeling disappointed in their opponents, don’t look at Navy. After a rough start, the Midshipmen have rallied nicely, continuing that trend with a big victory over East Carolina. Navy put up a season-high 563 yards of offense, powered by Gee Gee Green and freshman quarterback Keenan Reynolds, who had a pretty active passing stat-line, finishing 3 of 5 for 51 yards, managing to throw two touchdowns and one interception in that. The Navy defense held ECU to just 338 yards of total offense, controlling the clock for over 35 minutes.

Trending: Upwards. Navy is 5-3 and looking like a cinch for a bowl game, a proposition that looked shaky when the Midshipmen were sitting at 1-3.

PURDUE — Oh Purdue. The wheels are falling off the Boilermakers season with their fourth straight Big Ten loss. That dark-horse status can officially be taken outside and shot, with Purdue following up their heart-breaking loss to Ohio State by completing getting run out of Minneapolis on Saturday, trailing 34-7 at halftime. Caleb TerBush was absolutely awful, and by the time Robert Marve replaced him it was too late. Purdue’s supposedly stout defense let freshman quarterback Philip Nelson throw for three touchdowns and 246 yards in the 44-28 throttling.

Trending: A huge disappointment for Purdue, who needs to hand the reins of the offense over to Marve, a QB playing with a torn ACL.

MICHIGAN STATE — It may have set football back a half-century, but the Spartans “outlasted” No. 25 Wisconsin on Saturday 16-13 in overtime, thanks to some late game heroics from Andrew Maxwell and tight end Bennie Fowler. The Spartans’ defense was terrific against the Badgers, holding them to 190 total yards and holding Heisman finalist Montee Ball to just 46 yards on 22 carries. But the Spartans offense wasn’t much better, with Maxwell needing 39 throws to pass for 216 yards and Le’Veon Bell only ran for 3.7 yards a carry. The overtime victory threw the Big Ten’s title chase into chaos, and made the conference only look worse.

Trending: Ugly or not, a big victory of Mark Dantonio’s team, who already has four losses and needs to salvage the season.

MICHIGAN — Michigan fans got a glimpse of what life will be like without Denard Robinson. Needless to say, they weren’t pleased. The Wolverines lost to Nebraska 23-9, with their offense grinding to a halt after Robinson left with an injury late in the first half. Nebraska held the Wolverines offense at bay even with Robinson in the game, but feasted on Russell Bellomy, who went 3 of 16 passing for just 38 yards with three interceptions. It was a rude awakening and appropriately raised huge questions for the future of the Michigan offense in life after Denard.

Trending: Another step backwards for Michigan, though they are still in the thick of it in the Big Ten standings, and have a chance to end Ohio State’s ineligible dream season as well.

MIAMI — The Hurricanes were off on Saturday, taking a bye week after their showdown loss to Florida State before taking on Virginia Tech.

Trending: The week off hopefully settled a Hurricanes team that began its free fall after losing 41-3 to the Irish, dropping three in a row to get to 4-4.

No. 14 STANFORD — It wasn’t pretty for Stanford, but they escaped downtrodden Washington State with a 24-17 victory. The Cardinal defense did just about everything for Stanford, racking up 10 sacks and taking an interception back for a touchdown. Stephan Taylor couldn’t get going on the ground and Josh Nunes put up meager statistics, but it was a survive and advance game for the Cardinal, who get another cupcake match-up with Colorado before facing Oregon State, Oregon, and UCLA to end the regular season.

Trending: Notre Dame’s win against Stanford looks better and better with the Cardinal keeping their lofty ranking. They’ll need to earn it in the season’s final month.

BYU — A week after losing a tight one to the Irish, the Cougars roared past George Tech with an impressive 41-17 victory. Young running back Jamaal Williams scored four touchdowns and Riley Nelson ran and passed for two more as BYU dominated on offense while its stingy defense completely shut down the Yellow Jackets. Paul Johnson’s triple-option offense had only 12 first downs and 157 yards, managing just 40 through the air.

Trending: A nice rebound victory for Bronco Mendenhall’s team, who have Saturday off before facing Idaho, San Jose State, and New Mexico State, giving them a strong chance to salvage an eight-win regular season.

PITTSBURGH — The Panthers won their first Big East game of the season in style, dominating a surprising Temple team 47-17 thanks to Ray Graham’s three touchdowns. First-year head coach Paul Chryst is starting to see some consistency out of his team, who started the year with a loss to Youngstown State, but has rebounded to win four of their last six. Tino Sunseri completed 20 of 28 passes for three touchdowns and freshman running back Rushel Shell ran for 79 yards and a touchdown as well. It wasn’t all good news for the Panthers, who lost three players to season-ending injuries.

Trending: While the injuries could gut this team, the Panthers have two very good running backs. Quarterback Tino Sunseri is also playing the best football of his career with 13 touchdown passes and only two interceptions after an up-and-down career.

BOSTON COLLEGE — Chase Rettig’s 14-yard touchdown pass with less than a minute left beat Maryland and gave the Eagles just their second victory of the season. The Terps were down to their fourth-string quarterback on Saturday (who was also injured and lost for the season), but the Eagles were able to win with just 295 yards of offense, and only eight yards of rushing.

Trending: There was nowhere to go but up for Boston College, and the Eagles got a much needed victory against the injury-depleted Terps.

WAKE FOREST — The Demon Deacons got beaten badly by Clemson on Saturday 42-13, with Tajh Boyd throwing for five touchdowns and Sammy Watkins catching eight balls for 202 yards, as the Tigers racked up over 500 yards of offense. Tanner Price completed 27 of 44 passes for two touchdowns and Josh Harris ran for 76 yards on just ten carries but Wake Forest just couldn’t survive the Clemson onslaught, when the Tigers scored four touchdowns in the second quarter.

Trending: This doesn’t appear to be a very good Wake Forest defense, limiting just about any chance the Deacs have to be a good team. (Their offense isn’t too good either, ranking 92nd in passing and 112th in rushing yards.)

No. 17 USC — The Trojans were upset on Saturday by Rich Rodriguez’s Arizona squad, spoiling wide receiver Marqise Lee’s record-setting afternoon. USC had five turnovers and gave up 588 yards of offense, losing a 28-13 third quarter lead as the Wildcats scored 26 straight points before holding on for the victory. Matt Barkley threw for 493 yards in the losing effort as Lee has a ridiculous 16 catches for 345 yards. Lee had 12 catches for 255 yards in the first half alone.

Trending: We’re learning that the principles of football apply to the Trojans as well, with 13 penalties and five turnovers dooming USC and ending their dreams of a national title. They are set to face Oregon this Saturday in another huge test.

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…)