And in that corner… The Pitt Panthers

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Expect things to be testy in Bristol this weekend, as Mark May and Lou Holtz actually have something to bicker about. After a massive win in Norman, the Irish return home to South Bend, a place that’s been much tougher on Notre Dame than any opponent’s stadium.

They’ll face a familiar opponent in the Pitt Panthers. Yet there isn’t much too familiar with Pitt. Another season, another head coaching change. After Todd Graham headed to Arizona State after just one season in the Steel City, Paul Chryst has taken over the program, bringing with him a strong offensive reputation after putting together some high-powered seasons in Wisconsin.

It was far from a smooth start for Chryst and company, who lost their debut against Youngstown State and started 0-2 before rallying to get to 4-4 on the season. Getting us up to speed on the state of the Pitt program is the Post-Gazette’s Sam Werner. Sam is in his first year covering the Panthers’ beat and is no stranger to the Notre Dame program, having covered the Irish for the student-run Observer not too long ago, working the Irish beat in ’09 and serving as managing editor in ’10.

I asked, Sam answered. Let’s all enjoy.

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It seems that Paul Chryst has stabilized the Panthers’ program after a few rocky years. One of the elite offensive coordinators in the game at Wisconsin, he’s brought back to Pittsburgh an offensive philosophy probably more befitting the program’s identity. How do you assess the job Chryst and his coaching staff have done in their first season?

It’s certainly been a little up and down, results-wise. The loss to Youngstown State was pretty much the worst way a coach could imagine starting his first head job, but Pitt has bounced back nicely to win some big games, notably over future ACC rival Virginia Tech. More than just the on the field results, though, Chryst’s job is about providing some program stability. That part of the job won’t happen for a few years, after he has sort of established himself as the head coach and the whirlwind of coaches that came in here is no longer an issue.

I do think Chryst has a bright future at Pitt for a couple of reasons. First, like you mentioned, the style of his offense fits in much better with the identity of the program and city. Todd Graham’s now-infamous “high-octane offense” just never really seemed to mesh. Two, while the program-wide stability may take a couple of years, Chryst is the perfect guy to do it. I’ve never been around a coach who is as consistent day-in, day-out with his approach to things. He’s the same guy after a win or after a loss, and he prepares the same way each week whether they’re playing Notre Dame or Gardner-Webb. That has to rub off and have a positive effect on his team.

In Ray Graham and Rushel Shell, the Panthers have two really talented runners. It looks like Graham is rounding back into form after a knee injury slowed down one of college football’s most under-the-radar players. And Shell was a prep phenom and looks impressive physically for a young guy. Running against the Irish has been no easy task. Can Pitt do it, especially with an offensive line that’s been up and down?

This is the matchup I keep coming back to when I’m looking at ways Pitt could win this game. I think the Panthers have to run the ball effectively to keep drives going and keep the game close, but I’m not so sure if that’s going to happen. Graham and Shell are very talented (and Shell especially is going to be a monster as his career progresses), but the running game has had some fits and starts over the last few weeks. They couldn’t really get it going against Buffalo two weeks ago, which doesn’t bode well for them this weekend. Having a first-time starter at right guard after losing Ryan Schlieper for the season last week won’t help either. So, in short, Pitt definitely does have a formidable rushing attack, but they haven’t shown me enough consistency this season to have me convinced that they’re going to be able to establish the run against Notre Dame’s defense.

One person really benefiting from the coaching change is quarterback Tino Sunseri. He’s playing the best football of his career in his final season at Pitt. With two really big and physical targets, the Panthers passing attack looks sneaky good. Assess for me what’s been the difference for Sunseri, who Notre Dame fans have seen quite a bit these past few years. And are Devin Street and Mike Shanahan the best receiving duo Notre Dame will see this season, outside of Robert Woods and Marqise Lee?

I think the biggest difference for Sunseri this season has just been his comfort level in the offense that Chryst runs. He’s being asked to much make fewer on-the-fly reads and decisions than he was last year, and get just get into a rhythm and make his throws. This has directly led to a drastic reduction in turnovers (he hasn’t thrown a pick in five weeks). I think there’s also something to be said for a fifth-year senior just sort of putting everything together in his final year. Bill Stull did it for Pitt in 2009, and Tino’s doing it this year. I said coming into the year that, in Chryst’s offense, Sunseri didn’t need to be a game-breaker quarterback, he just needed to be the equivalent of Scott Tolzien from the 2010 Badgers. So far, he has even exceeded that.

The receivers, too, have played a significant part in Sunseri’s development. Street is enjoying a breakout year as the passing game’s top target. Looking at him, he has always had the physical skills to be an elite receiver and the mental side of the game just seems to have started clicking this year. He also has talked about how he and Tino are on the same page in terms of breaking down coverages on the sideline this season. Shanahan is also important for the passing game, mostly because of his versatility. He mostly plays split wide but, especially with Pitt limited at tight end over the past few weeks, he has also worked inside on some blocking. I don’t know if these are the “best” receivers Notre Dame will face this side of USC, but they’re probably the most physically imposing.

Statistically, the Panthers defense looks decent, holding points down, rushing attacks to just 141 yards a game, and passing offenses to less than 200 yards a game. But they don’t force a lot of turnovers and they lack size at linebacker. Jarred Holley is a playmaker and the team looks strong up the middle. Can Pitt make things hard for Everett Golson and slow down an Irish running game that’s really hitting its stride?

The defense was dealt a huge blow this week with the news that two linebackers — MLB Dan Mason and WLB Manny Williams — will be out for the season. Regulars starting middle linebacker Shane Gordon has missed the last two games with a high ankle sprain, so he’s questionable as well. If he can’t go, Pitt will likely only have five linebackers to dress for Saturday’s game. I would expect Pitt to go with a lot of nickel and dime coverages Saturday. This will help them match up against Notre Dame’s spread, but also gets their best players on the field. Holley and Jason Hendricks have started at safety, but backups Andrew Taglianetti and Ray Vinopal are outstanding players, as well. Pitt will work to get those guys on the field.

This is also one of the areas that will be key for Pitt keeping it close. The run defense has been almost astonishingly inconsistent this season, shutting down Virginia Tech and Temple’s running games, but allowing Cincinnati, Youngstown State and Buffalo to get over 150 yards on the ground. If the good run defense shows up, this one will be close. If the bad run defense does (and those linebacker injuries really concern me), this has a chance to get out of hand like Notre Dame’s wins over Navy and Miami.

The Panthers are pretty heavy underdogs heading into Notre Dame Stadium. Who are two people that are going to have to play really big for Pitt if they’re going to pull off the upset? What’s the blueprint for success for Paul Chyst’s squad?

I’m going all-uglies on this one and pointing to two linemen. On offense, center Ryan Turnley is going to have his hands full going up against Louis Nix. He’ll have to at least slow down Nix from getting into the backfield immediately after the snap. On top of that, he’ll be tasked with organizing the offensive line as a whole facing the best defense they’ll play all season, with a first-time starter at right guard. I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect Pitt’s offensive line to totally contain Nix, Stephon Tuitt, Prince Shembo and company, since no one has done that this season. But if they can keep Sunseri relatively clean and generate enough push to get consistent positive yardage on the ground, Pitt has a chance. On defense, I think Aaron Donald really needs to have a game on the line. He’s probably Pitt’s best player, regardless of position, and can be a force. If he can get pressure on Golson and make him scramble around, Golson has shown that he’s still sort of working out the kinks of finding guys on the run. In the Oklahoma game, a lot of times he was just content to throw it away. That said, the rest of the defensive line has to do a good job setting contain on the edge so Golson doesn’t pick up big chunks with his feet.

I think the blueprint overall for a Pitt victory is to run the ball at least reasonably effectively, and hit one or two big plays through the air. They’re going to need to control time of possession and an early score wouldn’t hurt to get the crowd out of the game. On defense, I don’t think they’re quite ready to just shut down Notre Dame’s offense, so the Panthers are going to need a turnover or two, ideally in Notre Dame’s territory to set up some scores. Pitt isn’t going to win this game 38-35 or even 28-25. But if they play their best and Notre Dame’s focus is still in Norman, Pitt could win this game something like 13-9 (the same score they beat then-No. 2 West Virginia by in 2007).

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A special thanks to Sam for taking the time to make us smarter. For more Pitt coverage heading into the big game, check out Sam’s stuff at the Post-Gazette and follow him on Twitter @SWernerPG

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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