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.

 

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.”

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line

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Heading into spring practice, a quick look was taken at each position group in order of “expected level of interest or question marks,” from least interesting to most, as dictated by an “Inside the Irish” reader. That series concluded with the defensive line.

Exiting spring practice, let’s reprise that premise and reverse the order. If the defensive line triggered the most questions, then answering them first seems to make some version of sense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
“Will enough defensive linemen prove themselves deserving of playing time to create a viable threat up front?” this space asked. “If so, who will those linemen be?”

RELATED READING: One day until spring practice: A look at the defensive line

Aside from senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26 tackles last season, 0.5 for loss), senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss amid a season lost largely to concussion) and junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37, 3), the Irish defensive line had little track record to cite or rely upon for confidence. Leading the unknowns and unprovens were sophomore ends Daelin Hayes, who recorded 11 tackles in 2016, and Julian Okwara (4).

The lack of depth and experience was apparent heading into the 15 spring practices.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
Look past the 11 sacks in the Blue-Gold Game. Intrasquad scrimmages featuring red-jerseyed quarterbacks make for inexact and context-less statistics. There is some value, however, in noting the defensive line got within reach of the quarterback at least eight times in an abbreviated game. (Three “sacks” came from the linebacker corps.)

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, just buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

RELATED READING: What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

Hayes led the way with three sacks, and he will be expected to continue that in the fall, starting at the weakside/rush defensive end spot. Exiting spring, though, only he and Tillery solidified themselves as starters. Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Mike Elko claimed a successful spring for the front.

“I’m happy with our defensive line progress,” Elko said Friday. “Obviously there was a lot written about that group. I’m happy about the progress they’ve made this spring. I think [defensive line coach] Mike [Elston] has done a good job developing them. I think they are buying into the way we want to play defense. There’s probably four to five guys on the inside that are starting to get into a position where we feel comfortable that they can step in and help us.” (more…)

Brian Kelly & Jack Swarbrick on Notre Dame’s changes moving forward

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Whether 2016’s disappointing 4-8 finish was the impetus to program-wide alterations at Notre Dame this offseason, it certainly underscored the need. For the last few months, Irish coach Brian Kelly has focused those changes on himself and self-assessment, and he reiterated that approach when talking with PFT Live’s Mike Florio early Monday morning.

“This is my 27th year of being a head coach, and prior to last year I had one losing season,” Kelly said. “You have a way of doing things, you have a system in place, you follow that year after year. Certainly you make tweaks along the way, but this is the first time where I’ve really taken a step back and made substantial changes in terms of how I’m doing things on a day-to-day basis…

“From my perspective, after being at it as long as I have, you have to take it on yourself that you’re the one that needs to make the corrections. It’s not the players.”

None of this is new. Kelly has been consistent in his springtime messaging, but others have looked past the effects of the 4-8 record and insist the changes were coming regardless of the win-loss totals. Senior captain Drue Tranquill, for example, acknowledged the severity of the losing record Friday but argued adjustments were needed no matter what the final scores were.

“If you have an average season like 8-4, some things might carry over to the next season,” Tranquill said the day before the spring practice finale. “Whereas when you go 4-8, something has to change.

“But I think even at Notre Dame, 8-4 is never really acceptable or tolerated. Those things that were taking place, just within our culture, would have been noticed whether we were 10-3, 4-8. The criticism gave it a lot more hype and juice. We could kind of feel as guys in the program throughout the past three years that certain things needed to change.

“Those things were finally brought to light and it happened to be during a 4-8 season. I don’t necessarily know that 4-8 was the reason all this change happened.”

New Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko expressed a similar sentiment Friday morning, discussing the pressure moving forward.

“If we were coming off a 12-0 season in which we were competing for the national championship, there would be pressure on us at Notre Dame to be successful this year,” Elko said. “That’s Notre Dame.”

Elko has been a quick study, as his comments were echoed the next day by Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick during NBC Sports Network’s broadcast of the Blue-Gold Game.

“We expect to compete for national championships and 4-8 is not acceptable,” Swarbrick said. “On the other hand, when you’re in that situation, you have to decide how you’re going to move forward. We decided to move forward by making a major investment in retooling our program with Brian as the leader of it. That’s not a one-year investment for us. We brought in some talented assistant coaches. We rebuilt elements of the program

“We view it as a multi-year investment going forward.”

KELLY ON RECRUITING PITCH
Using this week’s NFL Draft as a peg, Florio also asked Kelly about balancing players’ NFL aspirations with team success both in the recruiting process and during the actual season.

“We have to talk more in terms of process over production,” Kelly responded. “We talk in terms of you’re coming to Notre Dame for a reason. You’re going to get a degree, which will set you up for the rest of your life, and you’re going to play on the grandest stage at Notre Dame, so everybody will see you.

“As long as there’s the balance there—and there has to be that balance in terms of getting your education and playing for championships—then we’re okay. It’s when that balance is out of whack, we’ll have an issue. We vet that out in the recruiting process and make sure we don’t take any kids that are coming to Notre Dame just because they’re waiting for that [junior] year to complete so they can go to the draft.”

A reminder: The NFL Draft begins with its first round Thursday night. Kelly will be joining former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer at the draft in Philadelphia to await Kizer’s destination and future employer.

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