And in that corner… The Wake Forest Demon Deacons

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A year after surviving a battle in Winston-Salem, Notre Dame returns the favor, hosting Wake Forest in South Bend, the final home game of the season. For the Irish, every game is must-see TV, with an undefeated season on the line and a home record that’s included nothing but nail-biters. For the Demon Deacons, it an opportunity to play well against a good team, something that hasn’t happened yet this year for Jim Grobe’s squad.

At 5-5, Wake finds itself needing a win against either the Irish or Vanderbilt to become bowl eligible. As a three-touchdown underdog on Saturday, the Deacs will need to play their best game of the season to keep things interesting. Getting us up to speed on the state of Wake Forest football is Martin Rickman, editor of Blogger So Dear.

Can Wake Forest looking to stage one of college football’s more improbable upsets this Saturday? Martin was kind enough to give us a closer look at the Demon Deacons’ chances to steal a victory.

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1) As you’d expect from a team with a 5-5 record, Wake Forest has had an up and down season. At its best, what is this Demon Deacon team? At its worse, how bad does it get?

At its best, this team is a .500 team. Honestly. The defense is inconsistent and gives too much of a cushion in the secondary. It doesn’t limit big plays. The offensive line is a disaster. Tanner Price doesn’t trust his receivers aside from Michael Campanaro. The running game is unreliable. The playcalling is suspect. The coaching is conservative to a maddening level. Jim Grobe doesn’t trust his players this year, and the schedule is so weak, somehow with all the wounded on the offensive line, the suspensions and the injury to Campanaro in the middle of the season, the team is 5-5 and a win away from bowl eligibility. Funny how that works sometimes.

At its worst, this team lost to Maryland, almost lost to Army, got blasted by Florida State and was embarrassed by N.C. State and Clemson.

2) Last season, Brian Kelly was incredibly complimentary about the personnel Jim Grobe had on the field, and the Deacs played the Irish really tough. He said similar things in his weekly press conference, particularly about the defensive personnel. For someone that’s only seen highlights and box scores, is Kelly just offering coaching flattery or is there some good talent on Jim Grobe’s defense?

There is good talent on the defense, and that is one of the more frustrating issues this season. The defense was supposed to be the strong point. Nikita Whitlock was coming off a spectacular season a year ago, the linebacking corps was retooled and the secondary had some truly gifted athletes. But aside from some nice stretches here and there, the defense has been a huge disappointment. Part of that is from being on the field so much due to the ineptitude of the offense, but some of it is straight getting beat in coverage. A unit that was supposed to be a huge strength is just another representation of a lackluster year overall.

3) How much of the team’s inconsistency can be put on the offensive and defensive lines? What has been the problem there?

The offensive line has been decimated by injuries, but has been better than I expected knowing how patchwork it all was. Honestly, the lack of a consistent No. 2 receiver is one of the biggest issues on the offensive side of the ball. It completely messed with Tanner Price’s psyche.

The defensive line, I don’t know. It was supposed to be solid. But when you go with a scheme that emphasizes speed over size, you have to get to the quarterback and bring pressure. This team does not do a very good job of that.

4) In Tanner Price, Josh Harris, and Michael Campanaro, Wake Forest has three top-flight talents on offense. If the Demon Deacons are going to pull off the upset, what do you expect from them?

It’s going to have to be perfection for the trio. Notre Dame’s defense is second-to-none this season. Wake’s offense has its work cut out for it. But, I’ll play this game. Price needs to make throws in tight windows when he has the opportunity to take shots. Harris needs to fight for yards after contact and break a couple runs into the second level. Campanaro needs to catch everything thrown his way and break tackles. The entire team needs to take care of the football. Let’s start there.

5) A lot of Notre Dame fans are struggling to understand how Kansas State is ranked ahead of the Irish, especially when you look at common opponents and strength of schedule. As someone without a dog in this fight, how do you rank the three remaining undefeated teams? Where does Notre Dame fall on the spectrum of title contender-to-lucky to be there for you?

I actually wrote about this with Mark Ennis of East Coast Bias and Louisville’s ESPN 680 on Saturday when we were trying to put together our top 10. Notre Dame came in third for both of us, behind Oregon and Kansas State, and I realize that’s a bit of a sore subject for Irish fans, but we looked at how defense-heavy Notre Dame is and the recent struggles at times. But it’s really not far off.

I expect one of the three undefeateds to lose in the next two weeks anyway, so this won’t be an issue. Bottom line: Notre Dame takes care of business in the next two games, it’s all but assured the Fighting Irish will be playing for the National Championship.

6) Obviously, last year’s game was a tight contest and Wake Forest was in it until the end. What do you expect on Saturday?

Pain.

This game is not going to be close. But fans in South Bend are good hosts, so Wake fans making the trip will have a great time. And it’s always fun to play a night game against a Top 5 team.

If we’re making a prediction, let’s say 34-10. I honestly don’t know if it will even be that close.

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For more leading up to the game, follow Martin on Twitter @MartinRickman and check out the other great stuff going at Blogger So Dear, where haiku game recaps are the norm.

Recruiting success continues with OL Dirksen, class’s 12th commit

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Even in the doldrums of spring practice, Notre Dame’s recent recruiting success continues. Rivals.com three-star/scout.com four-star offensive lineman John Dirksen offered a verbal commitment to the Irish on Saturday, bringing the 2018 class to 12 commitments.

The 6-foot-5, 290-pounds Dirksen (Marion High School; Maria Stein, Ohio) joins consensus three-star prospect Cole Mabry (Brentwood H.S.; Brentwood, Tenn.) as the offensive linemen thus far among the 12. In three of the last four years, Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has pulled in four recruits, with 2015’s two (Trevor Ruhland, Tristen Hoge) as the exception. This recruiting cycle could again bring a limited offensive line haul, given the likely limits on the class’s size.

While any and all current class of 2018 team rankings should be taken with many grains of salt—there are 318 days between today and National Signing Day, after all—Dirksen’s commitment solidifies the Irish hold on the No. 3 class, per rivals.com. Other recruiting services place Notre Dame even higher.

Dirksen chose Hiestand and the Irish over offers from Michigan State, Iowa State and Boston College, among others.

 

Holmes out for spring; Jones & Jones shining

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Notre Dame’s spring continued over the weekend, and is all too often the case with football, that led to an injury. Early enrollee running back C.J. Holmes will probably miss the rest of spring practice due to a separated shoulder, Irish coach Brian Kelly announced following Saturday’s practice.

“We’ll get an MRI and know a little bit further on Monday once that calms down a little bit,” Kelly said. “We’ll get a picture of that and see. He had an open repair on that same shoulder his sophomore year in high school.”

Behind three backs, including two with experience, Holmes was unlikely to see playing time in the backfield in 2017.

Of those three backs, sophomore Tony Jones, Jr., is the unknown after preserving a year of eligibility last season. In limited practice viewing, however, Jones has only impressed. He has caught Kelly’s eye, as well.

“He’s 225 pounds, can catch the ball coming out of the backfield, [is] assignment correct, and can run elusively and can get into the second level,” Kelly said. “What does that equal? He’s a pretty good back.

“Obviously he was noticeable today in his play and he got some work with the first group as well. He wasn’t just getting second-team reps.”

Jones may be getting some first-unit exposure, but expect him to remain behind junior Josh Adams in the depth chart. Considering Jones’ style is somewhat comparable to Adams’, whereas junior Dexter Williams presents something of a change of pace, Williams should see more action than the sophomore, as well.

MORE PRAISE FOR ALIZE JONES
Junior tight end Alizé Jones—rather, Alizé Mack, per his Twitter account—has taken the lead in spring’s race of who reaps the most sound bite accolades. In complimenting Jones, who missed last season due to an academic suspension, Kelly also managed to laud new offensive coordinator Chip Long.

“I think Chip is doing a terrific job with [Jones],” Kelly said. “He’s got a good relationship. He knows how to rise him up when he needs to and scold him when he needs to. Alizé needs a little bit of that.

“He’s virtually un-coverable in certain areas of the field. I don’t care at any level. You can’t cover him. He just has that kind of talent. The one that I think stands out to me in the few days is he’s committed himself to being a blocker and playing physical. If he continues to do that, we’re going to find ourselves with a lot of tight ends on the field.”

Presumably, Jones would join graduate student tight end Durham Smythe in two tight end sets. It should be remembered, Long has historically shown a preference for such formations, and with Notre Dame’s plethora of options at the position, Long’s tendencies have no need to change. For that matter, Long had some praise for Jones this weekend, as well.

“Alizé can be as good as he wants to be,” Long said Friday. “…He’s growing up each and every day. Great joy to coach, and that whole group is. He doesn’t want to let that group down. There’s no question he can be as good as he wants to be.”

Friday at 4: 40-yard dashes and absurdity

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Of all the absurd things the football world often obsesses over, the 40-yard dash may be the most useless of them. Yes, it even beats out assigning star rankings to 16- and 17-year-olds, though not by much.

For now, let’s look past the rest of the inane Draft intricacies, such as former Irish defensive lineman Jarron Jones feeling pressured to increase his vertical jump by four inches. (He did, jumping to 24.5 inches in Notre Dame’s Pro Day on Thursday.) This scribe does not have an excess of time to spend discussing Jones’s outlandish wingspan if this piece is to post by its intended, though unnecessary, 4 p.m. ET deadline.

The 40-yard dash … No football play begins from a sprinter’s stance, yet it may be the factor most crucial to a low 40 time. Former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer posted a time of 4.83 seconds in the NFL Combine earlier this month. For context’s sake, Kizer ran .07 seconds slower than Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did as a draft prospect in the 2004 combine.

Roethlisberger has had himself an excellent career, and his ability to shrug off 300-pound defensive linemen is a testament to his athleticism. Put Kizer and Roethlisberger in the open field together, though, and Kizer would presumably have outrun Roethlisberger at any point of the two-time Super Bowl champion’s career. In Indianapolis, however, Roethlisberger did a better job of getting his hips through his first couple strides of the heralded 40-yard dash.

Here, watch Kizer train for the 40, the most-hyped measurement of his combine.

“The ultimate goal is to have yourself in the best position to have your body weight back in those legs so you can create enough torque to get out as quickly as possible,” Kizer said. “A guy who is as long as I am, with long limbs that I have, I’ve got to make sure that my weight distribution is in the best position for me to get out and catch up to some of those quicker guys who are a little lower to the ground.”

What part of that sounds applicable to football? The 40 turns Kizer’s size (6-foot-4, 237 pounds) into a negative. He worries about the angle of his knees. After his throwing session at the Thursday Pro Day, Kizer summed up the draft evaluation process even more succinctly.

“This process is very different in the sense that the way you look productive in the combine and in a pro day is very different from what productivity actually looks like out on the field.”

Well put.

More pertinent to the actual game of football, Kizer’s completion percentage in the staged workout could have been higher.

Then again, he was throwing to the likes of former Irish receivers Corey Robinson and Amir Carlisle and former running back Jonas Gray. Reportedly, the only contact Gray and Kizer had before the session was Kizer emailing the former New England Patriot the planned series of routes.

The NFL Draft, where Gmail becomes a necessity.

Let’s do away with the 40. If we insist on keeping it, let’s do it twice, once from a standing start and once from a running start. Those would simulate actual football movements: A receiver getting off the line, and a ballcarrier breaking away and trying to outrun the defense.

Asking DeShone Kizer to mimic Usain Bolt is an exercise in futility, idiocy, absurdity.

Cue end of rant.

Why cite the Roethlisberger time? Many, including Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke, have readily compared Kizer to Roethlisberger this spring.

The most notable line of that scouting report (scroll down to No. 32) may be its final one, echoing Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s sentiments from earlier this week.

“The mystery is whether he can regain his assertiveness,” Burke writes. “If so, he could turn out to be the 2017 class’s best QB. The team that drafts him will be taking a leap of faith.”

A leap. Not a dash.

For more Notre Dame Pro Day results, click here.

And with that, this just may make the 4 p.m. posting. You know what to do.

 

Tranquill continues work with safeties … for now

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Drue Tranquill will see time at the oft-spoken of rover position, just not yet. For now, Notre Dame needs the senior at safety to provide leadership and communication while the rest of his position group gets up to speed.

“We really have to figure out what the coordination is going to be at the safety position,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “How much does Drue play down at rover? How much does he play back [at safety]?”

Only sophomore Devin Studstill returns any starts to the safety position aside from Tranquill’s career total of 18. Studstill started nine games last season.

That void has kept Tranquill working mostly with the defensive backs in the spring’s first few practices, rather than joining the likes of junior Asmar Bilal in the rover grouping.

“We didn’t want to pull our most veteran player out of the back end of our defense with Drue,” Kelly said. “I think it was more about the hesitancy of losing a great communicator in the back end than about the teaching.”

The time will come, however, for Tranquill to move up. Juniors Nick Coleman and Ashton White have moved to safety from the corner position. With more reps, they will not need to rely on Tranquill’s guidance as much. The same goes for, at least in theory, sophomore Jalen Elliott.

“It’s not really a heavy load of teaching for those guys,” Kelly said. “They’re picking it up quite well. We really want to get a chance to see a lot of guys back there.”

Kelly seemed particularly bullish on Coleman’s prospects at the position, provided he embrace the needed physicality. At 6-foot, 187 pounds, Coleman’s build may have been more suited on the outside, but Notre Dame’s plethora of promising cornerbacks provided an impetus to test Coleman at safety.

“The big thing will be Nick’s continuous development in tackling,” Kelly said. “You have to tackle back there. His ball skills are really good. We’ve seen that he’s able to play the ball. He has athleticism.

“We just want to continue to build on his tackling skills. If we go through the spring and say, ‘Well, he’s tackling really well,’ we’ll feel pretty good about the move.”

At that point, Tranquill will likely join Bilal at the hybrid position, which is something of a trademark to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Tranquill will be able to do what he does best: Pursue the ball.

“We all know what his strengths are,” Kelly said. “He’s a solid tackler. I don’t think there’s any safety in college football that wants to get matched up one-on-one with a skilled slot receiver. This would minimize that, when you play him close to the ball as a rover.

“And I think he’s pretty quick off the edge. I think we put him in a really good position in maximizing his skill set.”

Until then, Bilal will continue to be the frontrunner at rover, especially with the first four Irish opponents of 2017 presenting run-heavy offenses.

KELLY ON NICK WATKINS
Kelly was also asked about senior cornerback Nick Watkins, his fit into Elko’s defense and his return from injury.

“He’s very coachable, wants to learn, he’s pretty long,” Kelly said. “What I think Mike [Elko] does really well—and this is what I liked about my interactions with him—is, we all have strengths and weaknesses. He has a great eye of saying let’s take Nick’s strengths and let’s put him in a position where we can really utilize his strengths and put him in a position where maybe we’re not a right and left corner team, maybe we’re a short field/wide field team. Let’s apply him in that fashion.

“Nick’s long. He’s a little bit of a physical player. Let’s go to those strengths. He’s shown some of those attributes early on.”

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