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.

 

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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Kraemer, Eichenberg compete for RT spot, moving Bars inside, and Bivin to…

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Forty percent of the offensive line is essentially set in stone: fifth-year senior Mike McGlinchey at left tackle and senior Quenton Nelson at right guard.

The center position seems to be senior Sam Mustipher’s to lose.

That leaves the two starting spots on the right side of the line for a number of players—both young and experienced—to fight over.

Sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg have emerged as the frontrunners for the right tackle spot, moving senior Alex Bars inside to right guard. Bars started all 12 games last season at right tackle.

“Those two [Kraemer and Eichenberg] are the guys we have mapped out at right tackle, and they’re going to battle,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “Today Kraemer was there. Last two practices Eichenberg got a lot of the work. Eichenberg will go back there on Friday. They’re going to keep battling and splitting the action out there.”

Part of the reasoning in giving the two sophomores extended looks this spring is Notre Dame knows what it has in Bars when at right tackle.

“We would prefer to get him in at the guard position, but we know he can play the [tackle] position,” Kelly said.

A starting five of McGlinchey, the three seniors and either sophomore may seem to leave fifth-year lineman Hunter Bivin out in the cold. Not often is a player asked to return for a fifth year only to spend it on the bench. That is even more rare when considering the current Irish scholarship crunch.

Kelly compared Bivin’s role to that of Mark Harrell’s last year. Harrell appeared in all 12 games, starting two, and provided much needed depth and flexibility along the offensive line. Rather than have five backup offensive linemen, position coach Harry Hiestand relied on Harrell to provide support at multiple spots.

“It’s reasonable to assume that Hunter Bivin’s going to be involved in this as well,” Kelly said. “We’ve just asked Hunter to take a seat right now. He’s done that for the team.

“We think Hunter is going to be a Mark Harrell for us. A guy that’s extremely valuable, can play a number of positions. We trust him, but we want to see these two young players [Kraemer and Eichenberg]. Hunter is a guy that can play right or left tackle for us. He’s going to be a valuable player for us as a swing guy.”

On that note, this space will refer to Bivin as a fifth-year lineman, as was done above, rather than as a guard or as a tackle, until further notice. In his case, the broader description may be the most accurate.

Spring break out west is fine, but Wimbush better be ready to run

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It will undoubtedly become a habit, at least for the next five-plus months. If Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush sneezes in front of a camera, it just might lead to an uptick in webmd.com traffic. His every football move will certainly be analyzed, nitpicked and discussed at length. Thus, Irish coach Brian Kelly being asked about Wimbush’s spring break should surprise no one.

Rather than find a Florida beach, Wimbush spent his spring break working with private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield in San Diego alongside a handful of other college passers. Kelly said there is value to such a spring break but stopped short of setting any lofty expectations of the effects.

“I have no problem with [Wimbush] working out with George Whitfield,” Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice, the first following spring break and the third of 14 leading into the Blue-Gold Game on April 22. “George doesn’t work on the specifics to the offense. George is really working on the quarterback and throwing the football, moving in the pocket. George is really good at keeping those quarterbacks active and moving.”

Whitfield is best-known around Notre Dame and among Irish fans for working with former Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson during Golson’s academic suspension in 2013. Whitfield and Golson spent 10 weeks together, thus granting time for extensive off-field activities such as film study. Far shorter, Wimbush’s time out west appears to have been spent primarily doing drills.

“In those situations, it’s a bullpen session,” Kelly said. “They’re keeping their arms loose, they’re keeping their feet loose. He’s just keeping them active.”

It is hard to construe that activity as a negative, but it obviously lacks certain aspects crucial to Wimbush’s 2017 season. With only five career pass attempts and seven career rushes, Wimbush’s inexperience looms large. Developing the necessary intangibles to account for that may be just as, if not more, important as fitting his throws into tight windows.

“When it comes to the playbook, to his teammates, to his coaches here, Brandon understands that when the rubber hits the road, those are the guys that matter the most,” Kelly said. “He knows when it’s time for Notre Dame football, where the focus is.”

Included in that playbook will be an expectation for Wimbush to carry the ball. To date, Wimbush’s biggest play and possibly only imprint on most Notre Dame fans’ memories is a 58-yard touchdown scamper against Massachusetts in 2015.

Link to 17-second YouTube video which has unfortunately disabled embedding

Note, the play is not exclusively-designed for Wimbush to run. Now a rising junior, then a fellow freshman, running back Josh Adams comes across Wimbush’s front for a possible handoff. Instead, Wimbush makes the correct read and keeps the ball. Why state so clearly it was the proper read? Adams has to evade a Texas defender even though he never had the ball.

Future option plays should present Wimbush with the possibility of throwing the ball, too.

“He’ll be a runner in the offense,” Kelly said. “Do we want him to carry the ball 20 times? No.”

“I don’t think you’ll have a situation where we’re calling quarterback power or singular runs. He’s going to have options: hand it off, throw the ball out on the perimeter. You’ll see more of that than you will prescribed quarterback runs. We had a little bit more of that last year with Kizer, but I think you’ll see that he has an option to get the ball out of his hands more so than just prescribed runs.”

Those option plays, in particular, will require Wimbush to have a thorough familiarity both with the Notre Dame playbook and with his teammates’ tendencies.

RITA LEE OR 52-53?
Staying consistent with his comments over the last two months, Kelly once again reiterated the biggest changes new offensive coordinator Chip Long will bring to the Irish playbook will be in its wording. Perhaps going to an extreme example to illustrate his thinking, Kelly pointed to the future.

“We’re going to win next year and Chip is going to be the greatest offensive coordinator in the country and he’s going to get a head job, right?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “Then I’m not going to introduce the Chip Long offense to the next offensive coordinator.”

“It has to have my culture in it … The culture of the offense is still the base offense that I have always run because I have to be able to carry that with me from year to year.”

Within that ellipsis, Kelly gave two examples of possible verbiage changes. Without knowing much more behind them, they do not mean too much out here in the cobwebs of the internet, but they do provide a quick glimpse at what Kelly has been referring to when discussing lexicon since hiring Long.

“If he wants to change Ringo Lucky protection to Ram and Lion protection, go right ahead. If he wants to change certain calls, for example, 52-53 protection is now Rita Lee.”

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