Pregame six pack: The Holy War

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When Notre Dame goes to Chestnut Hill, they’ll be playing not just to get to 10-0, but to continue a winning streak against a rival that brings out the ire of Irish fans everywhere. Even with Boston College 2-7 and in the midst of a season that’ll likely end with Frank Spaziani getting fired, you won’t see any sympathy from Notre Dame fans, and certainly won’t see Brian Kelly’s squad take things easy either.

Kelly might not be well versed — or a fan — of replaying Notre Dame football history, but it isn’t hard to understand why this game means something to both sides. The series between the two Catholic schools was fairly innocuous until 1992, when the Irish rolled the undefeated and ninth-ranked Eagles 54-7, going as far as to fake a punt in the third quarter with a 37-0 lead. Tom Coughlin and his squad didn’t take kindly to the move and the next year, the Eagles used that snub as fuel to their shocking 41-39 upset, ruining the Irish’s undefeated season just a week after they beat Florida State. The No. 8 Irish lost the year after that as well, and while Notre Dame rallied to take back the momentum of the series throughout the late 90s, from 2001-2008, Boston College reeled off six consecutive wins, a streak that included the Eagles’ shocking 14-7 win over Ty Willingham’s No. 4 ranked Irish, who donned green jerseys.

With the Irish once again No. 4 and taking on a decided underdog, the Eagles will relish their role as potential spoilers as any postseason aspirations have washed away with seven Boston College losses.

‘‘I would rather knock Notre Dame out of the national championship than go to the Toilet Bowl,’’ offensive lineman Emmett Cleary said. ‘‘They’re not Alabama, but they’re a very good team. They’re winners and they’ve pulled out a lot of close games, so we’ve got our work cut out for us, for sure.’’

As Notre Dame prepares to take on Boston College for the 22nd edition of the Holy War, here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings to get your ready for the Irish versus the Eagles.

***

If you were worried about the Irish special teams, you should worry about Spiffy Evans.

There isn’t a whole lot to get excited about for Boston College fans. But in a game where the Eagles will need to win by dominating the turnover battle and making big plays on special teams, one weapon the Irish will need to watch out for is wide receiver Spiffy Evans.

The sophomore from Hollywood, Florida hasn’t been burning up the field as a wide receiver, but he’s been one of the nation’s most explosive punt returners, averaging over 31 yards a return on the season. Evans has only had seven opportunities to field returns on the season, but he’s already broken one for a touchdown, and played a major factor in both of B.C.’s wins this year, racking up over 200 yards on five returns during the two wins.

Frank Spaziani talked about getting Evans involved in the return game.

“I think we’ve done a good job on our punt return scheme, Xs and Os, and then I think Spiffy has gotten a little more confidence and he knows where we’re going,” Spaziani said. “We’re not doing much back there, and it’s a matter of seeing an opening and taking it, and we’ve gotten a couple breaks with kicks and coverage and things like that. You put it all together, and it leads you to a 31‑yard average, which has been a big plus for us.”

Opponents haven’t started to kick away from Evans yet, but it’ll be interesting to watch how Ben Turk handles his punting duties on Saturday night.

***

Stephon Tuitt will be taking dead aim at Notre Dame’s single-season sack record.

With ten sacks through nine games, Stephon Tuitt ranks fifth in the country in taking down quarterbacks. And in his breakout sophomore season, Tuitt is also taking dead aim at the Notre Dame record books. Currently, Tuitt is tied for the third-best pass-rushing season in school history, tied with Bert Berry (1996) and Mike Gann (1984) with ten. He’s just a half sack behind Victor Abiamiri’s 2006 senior season and Justin Tuck’s impressive 2003 junior campaign, when Tuck racked up 13.5 sacks and 19 tackles-for-loss.

Making Tuitt’s season all the more impressive is the fact that he’s doing this as a true sophomore. Tuitt’s numbers for underclassmen are tops in the country, with Oregon State’s Scott Crichton (9.0) and South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney (8.5) trailing Tuitt’s sack totals. All of that done from his 3-4 defensive end position, and often times sliding inside to defensive tackle in pass rush situations.

A season after tallying just two sacks in spot duty, Kelly talked about the confidence he had in his all-everything defensive end.

“We thought that he could pick up and be a better pass rusher for us this year because we were going to give him more of those opportunities to do that,” Kelly said. “So being on the field as much as he has and the kind of player he is, he’s quote unquote an inside player, but as you know, when we go to four down, we can kick him out and he can play at the end position too.”

Against a Boston College offense that’ll depend on the passing game to move the football, Tuitt will certainly get his chances to rack up some stats Saturday night.

***

If the flu couldn’t slow Louis Nix down, don’t expect the Boston College offensive line to do it either.

A week after gutting out an impressive performance after spending two nights in the infirmary, Louis Nix is back and healthy, joking with the media and preparing to take on a hefty load up front with back-up defensive tackle Kona Schwenke battling a shoulder injury. After “going into a gun fight with a pair of scissors,” Nix is back to full strength and ready to challenge an Eagles front that’s struggling with some depth after guard Ian White questionable with an ankle injury.

The Eagles offensive front isn’t one of Spaziani’s most stout, and the mediocre B.C. running game — a horrific 122nd in the country with just 75 yards a game on 2.7 yards per carry — is in for a load with Nix fired up and back to his jovial self.

Nix even jokingly explained how he planned the Irish comeback against Pitt.

“We said, Coach, we’re going to let them go up 20-6 in the fourth. We’re going to try to come back, have the fans sweating,’” Nix joked. “Told Everett, don’t do your magic until the last five minutes. He agrees, ‘Yeah. I’m gonna get the touchdown, get the two-point conversion.’ Then I hit up Cierre, told him fumble the ball. And then he let it go. Then, at the end of the game, I hit up the Pitt kicker, ‘Just go to the right a little bit.’

“I’m just kidding. It was a close one. We’re just happy we won. We just kept fighting the whole game and that’s all that matters.”

Whether it was Nix, or “Touchdown Deal With It Jesus,” a healthy defense — with Manti Te’o also recovered from his own battle with the flu — should help the Irish shut down a one-dimensional Boston College offense.

***

While the chemistry on this Irish team is certainly a key to an undefeated start, some of that groundwork was laid last season by leaders like Jonas Gray.

There is no doubt that the unity and chemistry on this Fighting Irish squad is better than the previous teams under Brian Kelly. Whether that’s a product of entering the third year of the program or strong leaders like Manti Te’o, this team has continued to win close football games thanks to mental and physical toughness that just wasn’t exhibited enough last season.

But that’s not to say it wasn’t there. While the 2011 Irish slumped to a 8-5 record as injuries and turnovers marred the season, they were lucky to have some strong leaders that laid the groundwork for the 2012 team that’s now the surprise of college football. While you’d expect the locker room to miss veteran leaders like Harrison Smith and Michael Floyd, UND.com’s Strong and True moment featuring running back Jonas Gray gives you a good idea of the culture that’s being built under Kelly and his staff.

***

***

Gray’s postgame talk after having his knee demolished against Boston College is one of those moments that help you understand what makes sports so great. That Gray was able to support his teammates when he knew his career at Notre Dame was over — not to mention any professional aspirations — goes to show you that a team like this wasn’t just formed in one offseason, but a team that evolved over time.

Addressing the team on crutches and fighting back tears, Gray cites the same Alexander Dumas quote that Manti Te’o referenced this year, comparing life to a storm. “You will bask in the sunlight one moment, be shattered on the rocks the next. What makes you a man is what you do when the storm comes.”

After spending much of the offseason and training camp rehabilitating the knee injury suffered against the Eagles last year on Senior Day, Gray is now back to practicing with the Dolphins. It’s a moment in the sunlight that’s well deserved.

***

Another Saturday, another opportunity to improve for Everett Golson.

The lights might not be as bright as they were against Oklahoma, but Saturday night is another primetime opportunity for Everett Golson to take command of this Irish offense. A week after rallying the Irish back for victory against Pitt, Golson will have another chance to play a team that’s over-matched on paper.

This time, it’ll be up to the young quarterback to bury the opponent.

For the Irish to do that, they’ll need to play better in the red zone and get a more efficient performance out of Golson. When asked about the young quarterback’s week of practice, Kelly praised the progress Golson made staying in the pocket and making the correct throws.

“The thing we really asked him to do was to get his footwork settled within the pocket,” Kelly said. “That was probably the priority from last week’s game. Get settled in the pocket. I think you can say it all you want. They have to decide to want to do it and I thought he decided this week that he was going to work on that and he made some progress.”

Golson’s inability to settle in behind center cost him a few easy reads, including one to tight end Troy Niklas that Kelly acknowledged Thursday after practice. And with a young quarterback learning as he goes, mastering the basics and adding that to his game-breaking abilities will help catapult this offense to new places.

***

There’s a chance Notre Dame could come up smelling like Roses this year.

Thanksgiving weekend might not be the only trip the Irish take to Southern California this season. While there are plenty of permutations possible as postseason bowl implications continue to sort themselves out, there’s a growing chance that Notre Dame could find itself heading to Pasadena this year, matching the Irish up with the Grand-Daddy of them all, the Rose Bowl.

The Irish have only played in one Rose Bowl, way back in 1925, but if the Irish find themselves the odd man out in the National Championship game, a date on New Year’s Day in Pasadena might be quite the consolation prize.

“There is still so much that can happen, and of course the biggest story out there is whether we would take Notre Dame, but there is a lot to play out before it starts to become a serious conversation within our group,” Rose Bowl spokeswoman Gina Chappin said Wednesday.

The Irish playing in Pasadena will likely mean Oregon makes its way to Miami, bumping the No. 1 Pac-12 team out of its traditional spot in the Rose Bowl. And if Oregon State stumbles against Stanford and Oregon, and the Irish give USC another loss, the Irish all of a sudden look mighty attractive as an at-large option, with potentially no Pac-12 team even in the BCS top 14 .

‘‘There are so many variables that go into the conversation of the matchup. It’s not a conversation we have a lot,’’ Chappin said. ‘‘We’re at a position right now where it’s too early to focus on the what-ifs.’’

Any what-if that don’t include Notre Dame (and perhaps an undefeated Irish squad) in the national championship are obviously relegated to back-up duties. But January 1 in Pasadena certainly isn’t the worst fall back in the world.

Friday at 4: ‘Attention to detail’ includes Notre Dame Stadium

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Brian Kelly proselytized multiple abstract concepts this spring. By the end of the 15 practices and subsequent media sessions, even the Irish coach knew some of his references to “grit” would be met by muted eye rolls from the press. If a questioner included the word in their query, Kelly reacted with tongue-in-cheek approval, “You’ve been listening.”

In his press conference the day before spring practices commenced, Kelly used the phrase “attention to detail” six separate times. While he was referring to his players on the football field, Kelly could have also been discussing the ongoing—but supposedly close to finished—construction at Notre Dame Stadium known as Campus Crossroads.

The three buildings around the exterior of the Stadium, the added suites and the video board above the south end zone have garnered the headlines. On a macro level, those are the changes of note. On a micro level, however, other details have trickled into the public stream of knowledge as the work nears its conclusion.

Over the weekend—and now reignited by a column from the South Bend Tribune’s Mike Vorel—the image of the newly-added visitors’ tunnel delighted Irish fans. Vorel likens the narrow entry to “the spot they’d stash the gladiators before feeding them to starving tigers in The Coliseum.” Assuredly, Vorel is going for dramatic effect, and it must work considering its citation here, but even a realistic view of the tunnel’s effects bodes well.

If nothing else, Notre Dame players should enjoy something of a psychological boost when racing out of their adult-sized tunnel and seeing their opponent trickle out of a tunnel seemingly-sized for ants. (Yes, the north end zone tunnel is at least three times bigger than the visitors’ tunnel.)

That pale, slanted staircase holds none of the luxuries of the home team’s entrance, something Kelly went out of his way to praise after using it in Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. (more…)

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.”