Tuesdays with BK: Prepping for Pitt

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With Superstorm Sandy battering the East Coast and many of our readers under water and in bad shape, let me be one of the many voices from somewhere safe to wish you all well and hope that you’ve stayed out of harm’s way.

Not to take the devastation that has hit our country’s Eastern Seaboard and try to make a misguided sports analogy, but there’s probably one to be had with Notre Dame right now. With the Irish safely through the Oklahoma game, Notre Dame has weathered the most difficult part of their schedule. Yet those expecting things to lighten up are all too ready to fall into a trap that caught the Irish napping in 2002, broke the hearts of many in 1993, and annually trip up undefeated football teams all across the country throughout the month of November.

With the 4-4 Pitt Panthers set to visit South Bend this weekend, Notre Dame is far from out of the woods. But at 8-0 and big-time favorites on Saturday night, Brian Kelly has to remain vigilant as he prepares his team for an opponent with enough talent to beat him.

See below for the entirety of Kelly’s Tuesday press conference. As usual, I’ll give you some interesting snippets.

***

Kelly was asked about letdowns, and specifically Notre Dame’s history of following up a historically important win with a befuddling and devastating loss. His answer was a great one.

“History will have no effect on how this team plays,” Kelly said. “What will affect how this team plays is how they prepare during the week and that is what I can control and that’s what our players can control.  So our focus is on what we can control.  If we don’t prepare well and have a good week, that’s going to spill into how we play Saturday.”

As a fan, you’ve got to be happy with that answer. Outside of Mike Denbrock, that loss in 2002 might not even be a distant memory on the radar. And the ’93 defeat, a portion of this football team wasn’t alive for it.

Kelly talked about what his focus is as the Irish move farther along in this uncharted territory.

“More than anything else is that you can prepare well, but if you’re not going to play a tough brand of football mentally and physically, then you can lose every week that you play,” Kelly said. “So I go back to the two things:  One, let’s take care of what we can control; and two, let’s exhibit the habits that we’ve used all week and all year to be the guide for what happens on Saturday.”

***

If you’re looking for things that got Irish fans’ goat this offseason, it was a comment attributed to Kelly at a fundraiser dinner that got twisted into Kelly setting his season goals at eight wins. The head coach did his best to clarify that statement, making it clear that a mediocre eight-win season wasn’t his goal, but the fact that the Irish’s inability to win eight games in three straight seasons pointed to the program’s stability issues, something all but lost in the angst from some fans.

Fast forward to today and Kelly has indeed won eight games in three straight years. And we can all chuckle about this little flap. But Kelly was asked about the different paths to eight wins and how big the challenge was this year.

“It’s a climb,” Kelly said, a smile almost climbing to his face as the question emerged. “You’re developing a football program on a consistency that you want your team to have. I think it’s pretty clear that we’re developing that consistency.  But the challenges each year are different because of the different players that you have. But it’s still the same.  It’s still, you know, habits on a day‑to‑day basis.  It’s still preparation.  It’s still performing.  That hasn’t changed.  But now you have a group of players that know what you expect from them going into where we are right now. ”

***

After playing his most impressive game at Notre Dame, Kelly was asked what’s next for Everett Golson.

“The passing game still needs to improve,” Kelly said. “We had what we consider four, maybe five opportunities that we left out there in terms of throwing the ball.  So we want to see a higher passing efficiency in that respect.  And then I think you’re correct in assuming that what we need now is to put together a string of games back to back.  I think those are the two things that we’re going to ask from Everett in terms of his progress.”

He’ll have a great opportunity to display that this weekend, with another defense that might struggle to stop the Irish run game, leaving opportunities down field for Notre Dame to hit some big passes.

***

With a different offensive philosophy, Kelly has changed his tune on time of possession, acknowledging that tweak this afternoon. The Irish are now 14th in the country in the statistic where in previous years Kelly finished dead last at Cincinnati during his undefeated season.

Kelly explained the thought process and how they measure their efficiency.

“We want our time of possession to equal certain amount of plays, and we’re falling a little bit behind that matrix, if you will,” Kelly said. “So we really need to continue to possess the football, but we’ve gotta run some more plays, and that means we have to plate a little bit quicker and be able to get the amount of plays that we want.

“We’re running a lot more play personnel groupings into the game whereas last year we were set pretty much in our rotations.  So some of it’s coaching, and the other part of it is we’ve gotta run some plays that you don’t check, that you call them and haul them.  So there’s a little bit of that element, and then we’ve gotta get our quarterback not walking around out there.  He’s gotta get out there and he’s gotta move a little bit quicker.  So all those three elements coming together.”

It’s an interesting explanation from Kelly, who spends a fair amount of time signaling the play in with the Red Army (the back-up quarterbacks hand-signaling in the plays), which isn’t the fastest process. But the idea of running more plays while continuing to control the ball likely means that this staff wants to keep limiting opponents’ offensive opportunities, while also understanding that they need more production out of their offense, something that’ll come with more experience at quarterback.

***

Recruiting success continues with OL Dirksen, class’s 12th commit

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Even in the doldrums of spring practice, Notre Dame’s recent recruiting success continues. Rivals.com three-star/scout.com four-star offensive lineman John Dirksen offered a verbal commitment to the Irish on Saturday, bringing the 2018 class to 12 commitments.

The 6-foot-5, 290-pounds Dirksen (Marion High School; Maria Stein, Ohio) joins consensus three-star prospect Cole Mabry (Brentwood H.S.; Brentwood, Tenn.) as the offensive linemen thus far among the 12. In three of the last four years, Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has pulled in four recruits, with 2015’s two (Trevor Ruhland, Tristen Hoge) as the exception. This recruiting cycle could again bring a limited offensive line haul, given the likely limits on the class’s size.

While any and all current class of 2018 team rankings should be taken with many grains of salt—there are 318 days between today and National Signing Day, after all—Dirksen’s commitment solidifies the Irish hold on the No. 3 class, per rivals.com. Other recruiting services place Notre Dame even higher.

Dirksen chose Hiestand and the Irish over offers from Michigan State, Iowa State and Boston College, among others.

 

Holmes out for spring; Jones & Jones shining

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Notre Dame’s spring continued over the weekend, and is all too often the case with football, that led to an injury. Early enrollee running back C.J. Holmes will probably miss the rest of spring practice due to a separated shoulder, Irish coach Brian Kelly announced following Saturday’s practice.

“We’ll get an MRI and know a little bit further on Monday once that calms down a little bit,” Kelly said. “We’ll get a picture of that and see. He had an open repair on that same shoulder his sophomore year in high school.”

Behind three backs, including two with experience, Holmes was unlikely to see playing time in the backfield in 2017.

Of those three backs, sophomore Tony Jones, Jr., is the unknown after preserving a year of eligibility last season. In limited practice viewing, however, Jones has only impressed. He has caught Kelly’s eye, as well.

“He’s 225 pounds, can catch the ball coming out of the backfield, [is] assignment correct, and can run elusively and can get into the second level,” Kelly said. “What does that equal? He’s a pretty good back.

“Obviously he was noticeable today in his play and he got some work with the first group as well. He wasn’t just getting second-team reps.”

Jones may be getting some first-unit exposure, but expect him to remain behind junior Josh Adams in the depth chart. Considering Jones’ style is somewhat comparable to Adams’, whereas junior Dexter Williams presents something of a change of pace, Williams should see more action than the sophomore, as well.

MORE PRAISE FOR ALIZE JONES
Junior tight end Alizé Jones—rather, Alizé Mack, per his Twitter account—has taken the lead in spring’s race of who reaps the most sound bite accolades. In complimenting Jones, who missed last season due to an academic suspension, Kelly also managed to laud new offensive coordinator Chip Long.

“I think Chip is doing a terrific job with [Jones],” Kelly said. “He’s got a good relationship. He knows how to rise him up when he needs to and scold him when he needs to. Alizé needs a little bit of that.

“He’s virtually un-coverable in certain areas of the field. I don’t care at any level. You can’t cover him. He just has that kind of talent. The one that I think stands out to me in the few days is he’s committed himself to being a blocker and playing physical. If he continues to do that, we’re going to find ourselves with a lot of tight ends on the field.”

Presumably, Jones would join graduate student tight end Durham Smythe in two tight end sets. It should be remembered, Long has historically shown a preference for such formations, and with Notre Dame’s plethora of options at the position, Long’s tendencies have no need to change. For that matter, Long had some praise for Jones this weekend, as well.

“Alizé can be as good as he wants to be,” Long said Friday. “…He’s growing up each and every day. Great joy to coach, and that whole group is. He doesn’t want to let that group down. There’s no question he can be as good as he wants to be.”

Friday at 4: 40-yard dashes and absurdity

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Of all the absurd things the football world often obsesses over, the 40-yard dash may be the most useless of them. Yes, it even beats out assigning star rankings to 16- and 17-year-olds, though not by much.

For now, let’s look past the rest of the inane Draft intricacies, such as former Irish defensive lineman Jarron Jones feeling pressured to increase his vertical jump by four inches. (He did, jumping to 24.5 inches in Notre Dame’s Pro Day on Thursday.) This scribe does not have an excess of time to spend discussing Jones’s outlandish wingspan if this piece is to post by its intended, though unnecessary, 4 p.m. ET deadline.

The 40-yard dash … No football play begins from a sprinter’s stance, yet it may be the factor most crucial to a low 40 time. Former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer posted a time of 4.83 seconds in the NFL Combine earlier this month. For context’s sake, Kizer ran .07 seconds slower than Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did as a draft prospect in the 2004 combine.

Roethlisberger has had himself an excellent career, and his ability to shrug off 300-pound defensive linemen is a testament to his athleticism. Put Kizer and Roethlisberger in the open field together, though, and Kizer would presumably have outrun Roethlisberger at any point of the two-time Super Bowl champion’s career. In Indianapolis, however, Roethlisberger did a better job of getting his hips through his first couple strides of the heralded 40-yard dash.

Here, watch Kizer train for the 40, the most-hyped measurement of his combine.

“The ultimate goal is to have yourself in the best position to have your body weight back in those legs so you can create enough torque to get out as quickly as possible,” Kizer said. “A guy who is as long as I am, with long limbs that I have, I’ve got to make sure that my weight distribution is in the best position for me to get out and catch up to some of those quicker guys who are a little lower to the ground.”

What part of that sounds applicable to football? The 40 turns Kizer’s size (6-foot-4, 237 pounds) into a negative. He worries about the angle of his knees. After his throwing session at the Thursday Pro Day, Kizer summed up the draft evaluation process even more succinctly.

“This process is very different in the sense that the way you look productive in the combine and in a pro day is very different from what productivity actually looks like out on the field.”

Well put.

More pertinent to the actual game of football, Kizer’s completion percentage in the staged workout could have been higher.

Then again, he was throwing to the likes of former Irish receivers Corey Robinson and Amir Carlisle and former running back Jonas Gray. Reportedly, the only contact Gray and Kizer had before the session was Kizer emailing the former New England Patriot the planned series of routes.

The NFL Draft, where Gmail becomes a necessity.

Let’s do away with the 40. If we insist on keeping it, let’s do it twice, once from a standing start and once from a running start. Those would simulate actual football movements: A receiver getting off the line, and a ballcarrier breaking away and trying to outrun the defense.

Asking DeShone Kizer to mimic Usain Bolt is an exercise in futility, idiocy, absurdity.

Cue end of rant.

Why cite the Roethlisberger time? Many, including Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke, have readily compared Kizer to Roethlisberger this spring.

The most notable line of that scouting report (scroll down to No. 32) may be its final one, echoing Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s sentiments from earlier this week.

“The mystery is whether he can regain his assertiveness,” Burke writes. “If so, he could turn out to be the 2017 class’s best QB. The team that drafts him will be taking a leap of faith.”

A leap. Not a dash.

For more Notre Dame Pro Day results, click here.

And with that, this just may make the 4 p.m. posting. You know what to do.

 

Tranquill continues work with safeties … for now

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Drue Tranquill will see time at the oft-spoken of rover position, just not yet. For now, Notre Dame needs the senior at safety to provide leadership and communication while the rest of his position group gets up to speed.

“We really have to figure out what the coordination is going to be at the safety position,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “How much does Drue play down at rover? How much does he play back [at safety]?”

Only sophomore Devin Studstill returns any starts to the safety position aside from Tranquill’s career total of 18. Studstill started nine games last season.

That void has kept Tranquill working mostly with the defensive backs in the spring’s first few practices, rather than joining the likes of junior Asmar Bilal in the rover grouping.

“We didn’t want to pull our most veteran player out of the back end of our defense with Drue,” Kelly said. “I think it was more about the hesitancy of losing a great communicator in the back end than about the teaching.”

The time will come, however, for Tranquill to move up. Juniors Nick Coleman and Ashton White have moved to safety from the corner position. With more reps, they will not need to rely on Tranquill’s guidance as much. The same goes for, at least in theory, sophomore Jalen Elliott.

“It’s not really a heavy load of teaching for those guys,” Kelly said. “They’re picking it up quite well. We really want to get a chance to see a lot of guys back there.”

Kelly seemed particularly bullish on Coleman’s prospects at the position, provided he embrace the needed physicality. At 6-foot, 187 pounds, Coleman’s build may have been more suited on the outside, but Notre Dame’s plethora of promising cornerbacks provided an impetus to test Coleman at safety.

“The big thing will be Nick’s continuous development in tackling,” Kelly said. “You have to tackle back there. His ball skills are really good. We’ve seen that he’s able to play the ball. He has athleticism.

“We just want to continue to build on his tackling skills. If we go through the spring and say, ‘Well, he’s tackling really well,’ we’ll feel pretty good about the move.”

At that point, Tranquill will likely join Bilal at the hybrid position, which is something of a trademark to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Tranquill will be able to do what he does best: Pursue the ball.

“We all know what his strengths are,” Kelly said. “He’s a solid tackler. I don’t think there’s any safety in college football that wants to get matched up one-on-one with a skilled slot receiver. This would minimize that, when you play him close to the ball as a rover.

“And I think he’s pretty quick off the edge. I think we put him in a really good position in maximizing his skill set.”

Until then, Bilal will continue to be the frontrunner at rover, especially with the first four Irish opponents of 2017 presenting run-heavy offenses.

KELLY ON NICK WATKINS
Kelly was also asked about senior cornerback Nick Watkins, his fit into Elko’s defense and his return from injury.

“He’s very coachable, wants to learn, he’s pretty long,” Kelly said. “What I think Mike [Elko] does really well—and this is what I liked about my interactions with him—is, we all have strengths and weaknesses. He has a great eye of saying let’s take Nick’s strengths and let’s put him in a position where we can really utilize his strengths and put him in a position where maybe we’re not a right and left corner team, maybe we’re a short field/wide field team. Let’s apply him in that fashion.

“Nick’s long. He’s a little bit of a physical player. Let’s go to those strengths. He’s shown some of those attributes early on.”

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Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover position, others likely to follow
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