Five things we learned: No. 4 Notre Dame 21, Boston College 6

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As it happens every year, college football becomes a true circus in November. With undefeated teams jockeying for postseason position, pundits screaming about bowl projections and odd-men-out, and elite teams crumbling under late-season pressure, this is the time of year that college football fans relish, if only for the certainty of absolute uncertainty.

Days like today are so unpredictably predictable. Louisville, a “top ten” team traveling to 4-5 Syracuse, got steamrolled, an upset everywhere but Las Vegas. Alabama, a team being fitted for their busts in the college football hall of fame, fell to a two-loss Texas A&M team, breaking open the top of the college football world. Even Oregon, a team that put up points by the bushel against USC, is in the midst of a close battle against 3-7 Cal.

And then there’s Notre Dame. The No. 4 team in the country comfortably beat Boston College 21-6, in a game that was never in doubt. Yet the Irish, who coasted out to a 21-3 lead and then seemingly (and somewhat maddeningly) put on the cruise control, avoided any of the pitfalls of November as they easily dispatched the over-matched Eagles. It was the type of victory Irish fans have begged for the past 20 years, as simple tasks often turned into season-ending mistakes. Yet with Irish fans begging to see the Irish make a move with a primetime audience watching, Irish head coach Brian Kelly channeled his inner-P.T. Barnum, leaving fans wanting more as the Irish coasted to victory.

As Brent Musberger and Kirk Herbstreit muttered the words “style points” a few dozen times, the Irish were conservative as they earned their victory, taking care of Boston College and moving on to the next one.

“We are going to work on winning against Wake Forest and take care of what we can take care,” Kelly said after the game. “When it’s all said and done, we’ll see where we are.”

So far, so good for Kelly and his Fighting Irish, who improved to 10-0. Let’s find out what else we learned in Notre Dame’s 21-6 victory.

1. Brian Kelly doesn’t care about style points.

Just days after American watched political strategists spend millions on Super PACS and mind-numbing advertising, Kelly, a former political aid, put his head down and coached to win the football game on Saturday night, turning down multiple opportunities to rack up points or to sway voters now looking to find a true No. 1 team. In a game that never seemed out of control, Saturday night’s victory was mostly frustrating for both the Irish defense, who struggled to make big plays against Boston College quarterback Chase Rettig, and the Irish offense, who just couldn’t get out of their own way as they tried to get their dominant running game unleashed against a mediocre Eagles run defense.

Kelly has spent the past few weeks touting the company line, declaring that winning games was good enough for an Irish football team that was still finding its offensive identity. And while two fumbles by Irish running backs certainly played into it, Kelly put his money where his mouth was, forgoing most of his passing game in the second half to simply win the game.

With the college football world recalibrating what reality is, Kelly simply coached to win the football game, more focused on getting to 10-0 than worrying about working its way into the No. 2 spot in the BCS.

“We really can’t waste any of our energy. We see how hard it is to win in college football,” Kelly said. “We can’t worry about those things. We have to focus on what we can do and that’s winning on the field. If people don’t like us winning, I don’t know what else to tell you.”

It may drive Irish fans nuts and keep pundits thinking that the Irish aren’t deserving of a spot at the top of the college football mountain, but it’s a sign that the Irish head coach not just talks the talk, but walks the walk.

2. Bennett Jackson is playing with a great deal of confidence.

Jackson might have dropped a sure pick-six interception when Rettig’s pass slid through his fingers. But Jackson didn’t miss much else on Saturday night, leading the Irish in tackles with eight, making one behind the line of scrimmage, and breaking up two total passes. Tasked with manning the short side of the field for the Irish defense, Jackson embodies everything Bob Diaco and the Irish defense look for in a boundary cornerback, high praise for the first-year starter.

The Irish coaching staff never worried about Jackson’s ability to step in for veteran Gary Gray and lock down a starting job. Even throughout spring drills, when the Irish secondary was all but a guessing game, Jackson was penciled in as not just a starter, but a guy the staff knew they could win with. Jackson has paid that confidence back in spades, playing terrific football on his way to four interceptions, rock-solid tackling, and confidence on the edge of the defense.

There are a lot of reasons why Brian Kelly will put the 2012 season at the top of his resume. But the development of Jackson, a converted wide receiver who made waves on special teams as a gunner early in his career, should be near the top of the page. In a system that demands accountability and builds players from the ground up, Jackson is the prototype for the Irish program, and somebody every recruit should want to emulate.

Over the next two weeks, Jackson will face some stiff tests. First, underrated Wake Forest wide receiver Michael Campanaro, and then the fearsome USC duo of Marqise Lee and Robert Woods. Expect Jackson to be up to the task.

3. Everett Golson and Tyler Eifert are starting to develop some chemistry.

Don’t look know, but Tyler Eifert is starting to find his place in the Irish offense. For the second consecutive Saturday, Everett Golson has looked to Eifert early and often, turning the 6-foot-6, 260-pound All-American into the focal point of the passing attack.

After failing to make more than four catches in any game this season, Eifert has now caught six balls in each of the past two weeks, chipping in 67 more yards Saturday night after 62 yards last weekend. No, the numbers aren’t gaudy, but they’re an important piece of an Irish offense that’s going to need to continue developing, if only for their late November showdown against USC, when Notre Dame is going to have to score some points to win.

The tight end position continues to evolve, with Troy Niklas scoring his first touchdown on a seven yard pass from Golson. Any offense the Irish can get from Niklas, especially as he works mostly attached to the formation as a valuable blocker in the run game, will only help make Eifert more dangerous, allowing the senior from Fort Wayne the opportunity to line up all over the football field.

Saturday night, Kelly called an offense that did just enough to win the football game comfortably, converting their first 10 third downs as Golson threw for 200 yards and two touchdowns, in command of the offense from start to finish, even with a run game was short of impressive, led by Theo Riddick’s 104 yards. Now all that’s left is to get Eifert involved down the field, taking advantage of the lanky tight end on the seam routes he racked up so much yardage on last season.

4. Once again the Irish defense held an opponent out of the end zone. But Notre Dame needs to get off the field and force more turnovers.

Yes, Notre Dame forced two late turnovers, including a sixth interception for linebacker Manti Te’o and a fumble recovery on a last-minute strip-sack by Stephon Tuitt. But up until the game’s final minutes, the Irish were unable to take the ball away from the Eagles, more than content to play bend-but-don’t-break defense against a B.C. offense that seemed happy to check the ball down and dump it off for first downs.

Against a high-powered attack like Oklahoma, that strategy makes all the sense in the world. But against offenses that you’d expect an elite defense to dominate — teams like the Eagles and Pitt — it makes you wonder if the Irish’s impressive stats are a product of elite front-seven talent or a great scheme.

At a school that once mightily embraced a decided schematic advantage, nobody should begrudge the Irish from finding creative ways to put together the nation’s best scoring defense. What the Irish do is very effective. According to Brian Fremeau of Football Outsiders, Bob Diaco’s defense has faced 93 opponent drives that have started at or inside their own 40-yard line. Only one of those has reached the end zone. Still, watching the team, you sometimes forget you’re watching the best Irish defense of the past 20 years.

After 10 games, both the Irish and the Crimson Tide have given up 111 points. That the Irish let Rettig pass for 247 yards and complete uncontested throws underneath should hardly matter.

Yet as the Irish prepare to take on a flawed but immensely talented USC team, armed with Matt Barkley, a quarterback that buys time in the pocket, and All-American receivers including Marqise Lee, the country’s most dangerous playmaker, it’s hard not to worry if we aren’t seeing the Irish’s Achilles heel exposed, even if it hasn’t been successful attacked yet.

5. It’s time to start monitoring the Irish injury situation.

Wide receiver DaVaris Daniels was seen wearing a sling after the game, the product of a shoulder-injury we’ll likely hear more about tomorrow. And freshman cornerback KeiVarae Russell, who played another rock-solid game, missed much of the fourth quarter, sitting with a head injury that you expect is a concussion. On Twitter, Daniels’ father Phillip, tweeted that DaVaris will be healthy by the Irish’s bowl game, almost assuming that the injury is serious enough to end Daniels’ regular season. For Russell, his status will be evaluated later this week, with it still too premature to know whether the Irish will be without their starting cornerback.

Injuries to Daniels and Russell are hardly back-breaking problems. But both are starters and key cogs in their respective units, with Daniels supplying the big play potential for the offense while Russell has been the team’s most pleasant surprise in the secondary.

At this time of year, no team is healthy, and John Goodman’s touchdown lets you know that perhaps the Irish have a veteran ready to step in and make plays on offense. But in a patchwork secondary already short Jamoris Slaughter, Russell’s health is of the utmost importance.

For the first time in a few weeks, the Irish injury report will be one to monitor.

 

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are

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Notre Dame will open spring practice in about two weeks. As always, the proceedings will be filled with positive reviews, optimistic outlooks, and an injury or two.

A quick look at each position group should lend a better understanding to those perspectives and effects, beginning with the group lacking many questions — the running backs. The biggest reason there is relative certainty around the running backs is there are just so few of them following the winter dismissals of rising junior Deon McIntosh and rising sophomore C.J. Holmes.

Spring Roster:
Rising senior Dexter Williams (pictured above)
Rising junior Tony Jones
Early-enrolled freshman Jahmir Smith
Rising junior Mick Assaf

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman C’Bo Flemister

No one received more praise last spring practice than Tony Jones. He had a successful 2017, but compared to that hype, it could have been considered under-performing. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
At some point, either Williams or Jones will be named the Irish starter. It is quite possible that will be a distinction without much difference, as the two could certainly complement each other well in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s system, which already prefers to use multiple running backs.

Human nature, though, dictates is more likely one back receives a majority of the carries.

Biggest Question:
If Williams lines up with the No. 1 offensive unit in the Blue-Gold Game (April 21) to conclude spring practice, that will be the first genuine and tangible evidence he has improved as a pass blocker. Despite his big-play speed and seeming-ease breaking tackles, Williams’ one-dimensional game rendered him as much a liability as an asset in 2017.

Even in the Citrus Bowl victory, Williams followed up back-to-back rushes for a combined 36 yards with a blown pass protection resulting in a 13-yard sack.

“You have to be able to protect the quarterback with all positions,” Long said Feb. 7. “That dictates a whole lot if you’re going to play a lot or just be a situational guy. It’s something you have to embrace, the physicality.

“… That’s really the main thing, other than protecting the ball, that’ll keep a back off the field in our offense.”

The best ability is availability, and both an ankle injury and a balky quad limited Williams in that respect in 2017. Little blame can be cast for the natural bruises of football. Nonetheless, he will need to “embrace the physicality” if he wants to become more than a situational back.

Otherwise, Jones will be the default option. He has already shown a knack for both pass blocking and catching, making him a three-down option. Notre Dame will always prefer that rather than tip its hand to a running play every time Williams enters the game.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Obviously, Josh Adams carried the burden in the running game last season. Behind rising senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush and McIntosh, Williams was only the No. 4 rusher on the roster in yards and touchdowns, while Jones was No. 4 in carries and No. 5 in yards and scores.

Williams: 360 yards on 39 carries, a 9.2 average, with four touchdowns. Two catches for 13 yards and one score.
Jones: 232 yards on 44 carries, a 5.3 average, with three touchdowns. Six catches for 12 yards.
Notre Dame gets the letter: Jahmir Smith
Notre Dame gets the letter: C’Bo Flemister

Monday’s Leftovers: Geography, as much as academics, caps Notre Dame’s recruiting possibilites

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A year ago, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly acknowledged a practical ceiling on Irish recruiting efforts.

“Since I’ve been here, if you look at the average rankings, we’re anywhere from 5 to 15,” Kelly said on 2017’s National Signing Day, a day on which Notre Dame secured the No. 13 class in the country, per rivals.com. “We’re going to fall somewhere in that range because there’s a line there we can’t get over based upon what our distinctions are here. That line is going to keep us between 5 and 15.

“We know where we’re going to fall. We’re going to continue to recruit the right kind of kids here.”

Sure enough, the Irish once again fall into that spectrum in 2018, finishing No. 11 per rivals. Though Notre Dame has risen above that range once (No. 3 in 2013) and fallen below it once (No. 20 in 2012) during Kelly’s tenure, his overall analysis remains accurate.

The instinct has always been to cite University academic standards as the greatest hurdle to rising into the top five consistently, but another aspect should not be overlooked. In a recent mailbag, Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples pondered the factors keeping the Irish from becoming a perennial 10-win team.

“Another major reason is a lack of a local recruiting base,” Staples wrote. “No program has a stronger national reach than Notre Dame, but that still doesn’t make recruiting nationally easy. It’s much easier to have hundreds of quality prospects within driving distances.”

That dynamic is a part of why the Irish are better positioned to reap rewards from high school juniors now being able to take official visits in April, May and June. Those time periods are less hectic for most high schoolers, so a long-distance trip may fit into the calendar with a bit less stress. Obviously, only time will tell the true impact of that new change.

Looking at both this past year’s recruiting rankings and the last nine years of rankings underscores and supports Staples’ point.

Rivals considered 33 prospects to be five-star recruits in 2018. Only seven schools managed to sign multiple such players: Georgia (8), Clemson (6), USC (5), Alabama (3), Ohio State (3), Penn State (2), and Miami (2). To speak more broadly, four schools in the Deep South, two in the Ohio-Pennsylvania corridor and one in California, all talent-rich areas, especially compared to Indiana, Illinois and Michigan.

If combining the total signees of both four- and five-star rankings by rivals, Notre Dame signed 12 such prospects. Only 11 schools signed more, including six of the above seven. (Clemson equaled the Irish haul, though its even split between four- and five-star recruits stands out compared to Notre Dame’s 12 four-stars.) The additional five: Oklahoma, Texas, Florida State, Auburn and Florida. In other words, two schools tapping into Texas, two schools within Florida and one more in the Deep South.

If looking at the last nine years of recruiting, the span of Kelly’s time in South Bend, only eight programs have consistently out-recruited the Irish, all but one mentioned already. LSU finished with the No. 13 recruiting class in 2018, lowering its nine-year average placement to 8.0. The Tigers are one of five SEC teams in that group of eight, joining Florida State, Ohio State and USC.

Sense a theme?

It will always be hard enough for Notre Dame to find high-caliber players likely to succeed at a strong academic institution in the Midwest. That task is even harder knowing how far away those players typically are to start with.

Other programs face a similar challenge, and few handle it as well. Consider the 2018 recruiting classes of Stanford, Michigan and Michigan State, for familiar context.

Stanford finished with 4 four-stars in rivals’ No. 63 class. The Wolverines pulled in 7 four-stars as part of the No. 24 class, while the Spartans signed 5 four-stars in the No. 26 grouping.

The Blue-Chip Ratio
Finishing within Kelly’s range has not stopped Notre Dame from consistently having one of the most-talented rosters in the country. If abiding by rivals rankings for consistency, 45 of the 89 players currently on the Irish roster (including incoming freshmen) were four- or five-star recruits.

A commonly-cited metric of a roster’s talent is the so-called “Blue-Chip Ratio.” Essentially, a national championship caliber team will have at least 50 percent of its roster consisting of former four- or five-star prospects. Entering 2017, Notre Dame was one of only 10 such teams in the country.

As should be expected, the other nine included six programs from the Deep South, Ohio State, USC and, as an ode to Jim Harbaugh’s early recruiting successes, Michigan.

A Presidents Day Reminder
Notre Dame cannot officially claim any POTUS as an alum, but both Josiah Bartlet and James Marshall would like to argue otherwise.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Notre Dame’s pending attrition actually intended to improve the roster
NCAA denies Notre Dame’s appeal, vacating 21 wins, including 12-0 in 2012
Notre Dame is right: The NCAA’s terrible precedent matters, but vacating wins does not
‘Accelerated’ start creates bright outlook for Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting cycle
Notre Dame’s successful early signing period now begets early visit questions

OUTSIDE READING:
NCAA appeals committee upholds vacation of Notre Dame wins
A letter from the President on the NCAA Infractions Case
Irish set high expectations for Jurkovec
Elston ‘recruits’ Tillery, Bonner for one last ride
Giants release defensive end Ishaq Williams with a failed physical designation
Re-ranking the longest FBS coaching tenures from 1-to-230
Hip injury to keep Stanford QB K.J. Costello sidelined for much of spring drills

Notre Dame’s successful early signing period now begets early visit questions

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Notre Dame used the first early signing period to its advantage, but in many respects, succeeding in that initial foray was by default. The Irish already had strong relationships with the recruiting class of 2018 when the NCAA finally agreed upon setting a 72-hour window for December. No other recruiting changes went into effect in the cycle, so the only shift was getting the paperwork ready and the grades verified six weeks earlier than usual.

“When you are presented with a new rule that gives you — go ahead, sign them early — and you’ve done all that work, that’s kind of a lay-up,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said on National Signing Day, Feb. 7. “The real work now begins with the early visits.”

A bit before finally nailing down the December early signing period, the NCAA also approved official visits for high school juniors in April, May and June. Previously, a recruit could not take an official visit until September of his senior year in high school.

For a program with a national reach in recruiting — pulling in multiple prospects from both coasts in the cycle of 2018, for example — it can be difficult to get a player to visit for a home game amidst his own football season. When it is possible, it is often a rushed trip. The recruit plays a high school game Friday night, flies to South Bend, possibly via Chicago, early Saturday morning and then departs mid-day Sunday to get back home in time for the school week.

Notre Dame can now instead slate that official visit for the summer, perhaps around a camp environment or the Blue-Gold Game (April 21).

In years to come, this expedited timing could have a greater effect on recruiting than the early signing period does.

“How we handle the back end of it, the back end being when are those visits going to start, when do you start them, when do you end them,” Kelly said, “That’s really what we’re trying to figure out at this point relative to tweaking and how that’s going to work.”

Theoretically, earlier visits could lead to earlier commitments, increasing the likelihood of more signings in December than in February, further de-emphasizing the traditional National Signing Day.

Amid all those changes, though, recruits are still allowed only five official visits and only one to each school. Of course, a recruit can make multiple unofficial visits, paying for those out of his and his family’s own pocket, but Notre Dame can pay for only one. As much as getting a recruit on campus earlier in the process should bode well for any program, it becomes a double-edged sword: Is it better to get a player on campus early and make that impression before other schools have the opportunity, or is it better to showcase a primetime game against a rival?

Irish recruiting coordinator Brian Polian suggested allowing two official visits per school, although remaining at only five total, on National Signing Day.

“Why not let a young man make two official visits to one institution? Because if somebody says to us, from far distance, I want to come make a visit to your place in the spring, well, ideally you want them to see a game atmosphere, as well,” Polian said. “There’s nothing like Notre Dame Stadium and this campus on a game weekend.

“Now we’re going to have to get into some strategic decisions about when do we want young men to take visits.”

Perhaps in time the NCAA will consider that adjustment, but it will not be for the cycle of 2019.

While when a player visits may impact the recruitment, Polian does not much care about when they commit, as long as they do. Notre Dame signed five prospects on National Signing Day who had not previously committed publicly, making it appear to be a strong finish to the class. Then again, the Irish also signed 21 players in the early signing period and received a 22nd commitment less than a week afterward.

“If you’ve got a really good class and they’ve been committed for a while, who cares when they said yes?” Polian said. “It’s as though the answers that you get at the end dictate your class.”

‘Accelerated’ start creates bright outlook for Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting cycle

rivals.com
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Thanks to signing 21 prospects during December’s early signing period, Notre Dame’s coaching staff began looking ahead to the 2019 recruiting cycle sooner than it usually would. The Irish needed to focus on only a handful of remaining 2018 possibilities, thus taking the time usually spent checking in on verbal commits and devoting it toward the needs of the future.

“[The early signing period] really allows us to accelerate and reach out into ’19, ’20 and beyond,” head coach Brian Kelly said in December. “You always feel in recruiting that you’re a click behind. You’re always trying to get ahead of it. This is the first time you truly feel like you’re about to get ahead of it.”

When Kelly or another coach says something to the effect of being ahead of schedule, they mean in terms of evaluating, communicating and beginning the year-long wooing more than they mean securing verbal commitments. Nonetheless, Notre Dame already has three pledges in the class of 2019.

Consensus four-star quarterback Cade McNamara (Demonte Ranch High School; Reno, Nev.) made it the second-consecutive cycle in which a highly-touted quarterback was the first Irish commitment, following Phil Jurkovec’s lead. Consensus four-star defensive tackle Jacob Lacey (South Warren H.S.; Bowling Green, Ky.), pictured above, committed shortly after McNamara, both in July, and rivals.com three-star cornerback K.J. Wallace (Lovett; Atlanta) made it a trio in late January.

Moving forward, the class’s success or failure may largely be determined by the defensive line commitments joining Lacey, or lack thereof. It is already the driving emphasis, part of that head start provided by the early signing period, and the preliminary responses have Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston optimistic.

“I’ve been at Notre Dame now going on for nine years, and I haven’t had a stronger group of underclassmen that I’m recruiting than I have this year in 2019,” Elston said on Feb. 7. “This could be the best defensive line haul we’ve ever had here.

“A lot of it is because I’ve been able to put ’18 to bed and get moving on the ’19s, go visit in their schools all throughout January.”

The Irish hosted about 20 juniors for a day in late January, and among them were five of the reasons Elston is so bullish on the defensive line possibilities, including the committed Lacey.

Twitter: @JacobLacey6

Pictured, from left to right: Consensus four-star defensive end/outside linebacker Nana Osafo-Mensah (Nolan Catholic; Forth Worth, Texas); consensus four-star defensive end Joseph Anderson (Siegel; Murfreesboro, Tenn.); Elston; consensus four-star defensive tackle Mazi Smith (East Kentwood; Kentwood, Mich.); Lacey; and consensus four-star defensive end Hunter Spears (Sachse; Texas).

Obviously, it is early in the cycle, any relative success or failure in the 2018 season could prove to be influential, and the number of other variables is innumerable, but getting such a group on campus a full year before they need to put pen to figurative paper is a big step for any recruiting process.

Notre Dame will also need to focus on finding more running back talent. Pulling in two this class only replaces what was lost in the dismissals of current sophomore Deon McIntosh and current freshman C.J. Holmes. It does not create depth for the future, and with rising senior Dexter Williams entering his final season of eligibility, the Irish will need to find that depth immediately following 2018.

Similarly, one of the 2019 recruits will almost certainly be a punter, with Tyler Newsome entering his fifth and final year with Notre Dame.

Williams will be one of six rising seniors entering their final years of eligibility. Add them to Newsome and the eight other fifth-years on the roster, and that makes for an immediate 15 spots to fill in the class of 2019.

Obviously, 15 recruits would be a small class. The subsequent question is usually, “How many players will Notre Dame be able to sign in 2019?” That is not the question to ask. The question to ask is, “How many players will leave Notre Dame before August of 2019?”

The Irish roster, as it stands now, would have 89 players this fall, four more than the NCAA maximum. Presume the four who depart before this coming August are not rising seniors. (Any such player would be better served to wait a year, get his degree and transfer as a graduate with immediate eligibility.)

After the 2018 season, eight then-seniors would have one more year of eligibility available, but it is unlikely more than three or four are asked to return for a fifth year. In rough order of likelihood: quarterback Brandon Wimbush, cornerback Shaun Crawford, receiver Miles Boykin, offensive lineman Trevor Ruhland, tight end Alizé Mack, linebacker Asmar Bilal, receiver Chris Finke, defensive tackle Micah Dew-Treadway. If only three of those are asked to return, now 20 spots have theoretically opened up for the recruiting class of 2019.

If rising junior Julian Love puts together a third stellar season, he will have an NFL decision to make. His departure would immediately raise the operating figure to 21.

That becomes the floor for the size of the next recruiting class. Next offseason’s natural, and perhaps presumed, attrition can raise that total. Another year of 27 recruits is unlikely, but 24 or 25 would create what could be by then a familiar numbers crunch.