Pregame Six Pack: There’s no place like home

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Saturday ends another autumn of football at Notre Dame. When the No. 3 Fighting Irish run out of the tunnel against 5-5 Wake Forest, a contingent of 29 seniors will be honored for their commitment to their university. Some, like Manti Te’o and Tyler Eifert, have carried the flag for the program as they ascended back into the national championship conversation. Others, like walk-ons Blake Brelua and Grant Patton, will be honored for contributions never seen by 80,000 fans.

Every member of this senior class contributed something to the success of the Irish, already 10-0 and heading deeper into uncharted territory. And with a home crowd down to its final opportunity to cheer on this unlikely title contender, Saturday’s game — even if it looks lopsided on paper — is must-see television.

With the Fighting Irish and Demon Deacons set to do battle Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC, let’s run through six tidbits, fun facts, leftovers, and miscellaneous musings in the pregame six pack.

***

For Notre Dame, it’s time to protect their house.

An Under Armor slogan hardly belongs in a stadium adorned by adidas, but it’s been a long time since the Irish have projected their own house. If the Irish handle their business Saturday afternoon, the Irish will complete an undefeated home schedule for the first time since 1998.

“One of our goals, a tangible goal for us, was to protect our home field,” said Kelly earlier this week. “We felt, I think everybody in the program felt, that if you want to take that next step in terms of success, you’ve got to win at home.”

It’s been a downright mediocre stretch of football in South Bend for the Irish. As Tim Prister of Irish Illustrated points out, in the post-Davie era (to his credit, Davie sported a .774 winning percentage at home, only a tick worse than Lou Holtz’s .792 clip), Notre Dame Stadium turned into a neutral site, with both Ty Willingham and Charlie Weis struggling to play much better than .500 football at home.

Outside of Willingham’s first season at Notre Dame and Weis’ second year, the Irish have lost multiple games at home in every season since 2000. The ugly days started to become the norm at home, with blowout losses all but ruining the tenures of Kelly’s two predecessors. Willingham couldn’t survive drubbings like the 37-0 to Florida State in 2003 or the 41-16 loss to Purdue in 2004. Disappointing games like Michigan’s shocking upset of the Irish 47-21 in 2006 gave way to embarrassing home train wrecks in 2008 and 2009, when the Irish lost on Senior Day to an abysmal Syracuse team and had a November collapse that included losses to Navy and UConn.

After five home losses in his first two seasons in South Bend, Kelly seems to have righted the ship in the W-L column, even if he’s still tinkering with the formula that’ll help his team play better at home. When asked if he thought it possible to replicate the type of success Bob Stoops has had playing at home in Oklahoma, Kelly was unequivocal.

“Yeah, if I stayed employed here long enough,” Kelly said with a laugh. “That’s the toughest part. If you can stay one place long enough, you’ve got a chance to do that.”

***

Just because Bob Diaco is on the head coaching radar doesn’t mean he’s going anywhere.

As you’d expect from the coordinator of the country’s No. 1 scoring defense, Bob Diaco is getting a lot of mention as the head coaching carousel heats up. With rumored openings soon to turn to vacancies, expect the Irish defensive coordinator to get his tires kicked more than a few times. To his credit, Brian Kelly knows that.

“I want to provide all my coaches an opportunity.  If it advances their career to a leadership position, we want to be able to give them that opportunity,” Kelly said.

It’s been quite some time since an Irish assistant had the opportunity to take a high-profile head coaching job. (I’m excluding Charley Molnar’s UMass hire from this discussion.) Most focus on Barry Alvarez’s departure from Lou Holtz’s Irish staff to take over the Wisconsin program as the perfect succession plan. While that scenario looks to be playing out with Diaco taking on more leadership responsibility with his promotion to assistant head coach, the youthful Diaco still has some learning to do. Not to mention some unfinished business.

“Quite frankly, we don’t spend much time talking about it,” Kelly said. “You know Bob. He doesn’t want to talk about it. He didn’t come to Notre Dame to be the head coach somewhere else.  He came to Notre Dame to help win a national championship. We got a lot of the work left.  But if the right situation comes for Bob and he comes to me and asks me to give him advice on it, I certainly will.”

There is a ton to like about Bob Diaco the head coaching candidate. His passion, his energy, and his ability to connect with young people as a coach and a recruiter. That said, he’s far from a finished product, and he still displays some of his struggles with the media, as first shown in his debut season in South Bend, when his post-Navy interview went viral.

Diaco is loyal to Kelly and his family loves life in South Bend. But if a major BCS program comes knocking at the door, that offer might be a tough one to turn down. But with the Irish defense still pointed upwards, there’s no hurry for Diaco to leap at an opportunity. And that’s one of the big reasons I see him staying at Notre Dame for another year.

***

On the subject of staying in South Bend, expect Zack Martin to anchor an elite class of fifth-year players.

Brian Kelly has signed a few coveted six-star recruits in wide receiver Michael Floyd and linebacker Manti Te’o. Both turned down big NFL contracts to return for their final season at Notre Dame. Expect left tackle Zack Martin to add his name to that list, giving Kelly three straight years of keeping an elite player with NFL aspirations on campus.

Martin doesn’t have the upside of a Floyd or Te’o, mostly because he lacks the elite size needed at left tackle to be among the draft’s top picks. But the 6-foot-4, 304-pound senior captain is an integral part of the Irish offense and will win his third-straight Guardian of the Year award along the Irish front. Martin hasn’t allowed a sack since the second possession of the season opener. And he’ll add some much-needed continuity on an offensive line that’ll need to replace Braxston Cave and Mike Golic.

A three-year starter at left tackle already, Martin will have the chance to do some special things for the Irish and continue to carry the leadership torch for the team as they say goodbye to the emotional heart of the Irish.

***

A lot of time will be spent saying goodbye to Manti Te’o. But the Irish did themselves well by recruiting another terrific Hawaiian in Robby Toma.

For a guy who was considered part of the cost of recruiting Manti Te’o, Robby Toma has emerged as a legitimate threat at receiver for the Irish. The diminutive best friend of the Irish’s star linebacker, the 5-foot-9 Toma has been more than just a tag-along, racking up a respectable career line of 56 catches and 596 yards heading into Saturday’s game.

Just as important, he’s stabilized the slot receiver position after Theo Riddick moved back to running back, giving Kelly a player cut from the perfect mold of a teammate.

“It’s enjoyable to go out to practice because he’s always got a smile on his face and he’s always competing. He’s a competitive kid,” Kelly said this week. “Doesn’t matter what it is, he wants to win in it. He has always got something funny to say, a bit of a wise cracker.  I kind of like that about him.

“And he’s a really good football player and helped our football team this year. Great personality. We’re lucky that we were able to get him in our program as well.”

While the highly touted Shaq Evans couldn’t handle the coaching transition that brought Kelly and the spread offense to South Bend, the system, and fresh start, helped Toma thrive.

Not bad for a kid who’s best recruiting attribute was thought to be the fact that he was Manti Te’o’s best friend.

***

Bowl options are beginning to emerge in life after the BCS.

While the Irish are finding out first hand the complications that come along with an undefeated late-season run, the early dominoes are starting to fall in the quest to understand what life will look like in college football after the BCS is disbanded. With Jack Swarbrick signing a scheduling-agreement with the ACC for football and Notre Dame tying into the conference’s allotment for bowls, the Orange Bowl announced a lucrative pact with ESPN that’ll pay out $55 million annually to the participants of the game, pitting the ACC champion against either an SEC or Big Ten opponent, with the Irish also getting the opportunity to play twice in the next 12 years.

“The Orange Bowl qualifies as one of the most prestigious events in college football’s postseason and Notre Dame has played a part in that history, three times playing number-one ranked teams in our five previous appearances,” Swarbrick said. “We are honored to partner with two of the premier conferences, the SEC and the Big Ten, to make certain the ACC will have a top-flight opponent on a regular basis.”

The appearance of being limited to only two games in twelve year has some Irish fans scratching their heads, but the complete bowl picture hasn’t fully emerged. With the four-team playoff likely including the Orange Bowl as one of six bowls in the rotation for the semifinals, just how restrictive this collaboration will be is still being figured out. The Irish have only played in five Orange Bowls in their history with the last time coming 17 years ago, so any inclusion in the game might be victory enough.

***

Seniors staying, seniors going. A quick look as we try and forecast 2013.

We’ve already stated that Zack Martin is set to come back for his final year of eligibility. But after years of running short on numbers across the board, the Irish will need to make some difficult decisions on who will be welcome back for a fifth year of eligibility, with nine scholarship players eligible to apply for a fifth season.

Here’s our snap take on how this will all play out.

Carlo Calabrese — Returning
Tyler Eifert — Heading to the NFL
Dan Fox — Returning
Jake Golic — Graduating
Zack Martin — Returning
Tyler Stockton — Graduating
Nick Tausch — Graduating
Chris Watt — Returning
Cierre Wood — 50/50

I’ve heard conflicting reports on Cierre Wood’s final year of eligibility, but the senior did note on his Facebook page that he was preparing for his final game at Notre Dame. Wood, who despite missing the season’s first two games to suspension and conceding his starting job to Theo Riddick is averaging 6.3 yards a carry, has put plenty on film to show him worthy of an NFL draft pick. That said, he could elevate that spot with a final season that’d have him getting the bulk of carries for an Irish offense that should be vastly improved next season.

With an 85 man limit on scholarships, who stays will also likely be determined by how the Irish finish their recruiting class. The Irish would take the commitment of up to four more players, with that number flexing depending on attrition and medical hardships for Cam Roberson and Brad Carrico. (Tate Nichols’ health is also a true question mark.) It’s also worth adding to the wildcard list Jamoris Slaughter, who is applying for a sixth-year of eligibility after battling injuries for large portions of multiple seasons.

 

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.

MISSED THE BLUE-GOLD GAME?
It is available for streaming: here.

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?

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

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Time spent on a traditional game wrap of a spring intrasquad exhibition seems misspent. Gold won Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game 27-14 led by rising sophomore quarterback Ian Book. The first-string defense (Gold) held the first-string offense to an average of 5.4 yards per play. For context’s sake: Last season Notre Dame gained an average of 6.1 yards per play and held opponents to 5.4.

With that abbreviated recap out of the way, what did Saturday’s pseudo-game environment show about the Irish? If the 20,147 in attendance paid attention, they had the chance to learn a few things:

Daelin Hayes will be ready to hit a quarterback in September
Notre Dame’s quarterbacks were off limits all spring. Bulls might charge when they see red, but the Irish defensive line has had to remember to ease up when they come across a quarterback’s red jersey. If sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes had forgotten that Saturday, Notre Dame might not have any quarterbacks left to play in the fall.

“At the end of the day, we’re on the same team,” Hayes said, dismissing any bitterness about the quarterbacks’ protections. “We have to keep our guys healthy. I wasn’t frustrated, but come September 2, you know.”

Officially, Hayes was credited with three sacks and another tackle for loss among his seven tackles. Admittedly, gauging sacks is tricky when the quarterback does not actually go to the ground. How many of Hayes’ three sacks and the defense’s 11 total would have been evaded if the defender needed to do more than touch the passer? That answer is highly subjective, but discounting Hayes’ numbers would miss the bigger picture.

“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, buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

Senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) notched two sacks and sophomore end Ade Ogundeji came the closest to tackling a red jersey when he stripped junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush from behind. The defensive line has been expected to be a weak point for the Irish moving forward, but the spring performance indicates it has a chance at holding its own. These accomplishments bear further merit considering Notre Dame’s offensive line is widely-considered one of its few spots of expected quality.

RELATED READING: Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

“I think it’s pretty clear Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I’d have to watch the film, but it seemed like [sophomore end] Julian Okwara was a hard guy to block coming off the edge, as well.”

Ian Book provides some peace of mind
Book was not spectacular, but he was also far from incompetent or intimidated. In his first action on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, Book completed 18-of-25 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by a 58-yard connection with sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. Meanwhile, junior Brandon Wimbush completed 22-of-32 passes for 303 yards.

Bluntly, one has not needed to follow Notre Dame for very long to fit that “long enough” qualification. Last season’s backup, Malik Zaire, saw competitive action against both Texas and Stanford. In 2015, DeShone Kizer came off the bench to start 11 games after Zaire suffered a season-ending ankle injury. (more…)

What Notre Dame players should you actually watch? Plus, catch up on reading

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If technology does its part, this will post as its typist meanders toward finding his credential for the Blue-Gold Game to conclude Notre Dame’s spring practice. If technology doesn’t do its part, well, then this will be lost to the cobwebs of the internet. Such as it goes.

This space has spent much of the past week discussing what to look for in the 12:30 p.m. ET exhibition. Worry about the big picture, not the individuals. Fret about the macro, not the micro.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the indivdual players
Blue-Gold Game primer with help from Notre Dame’s coordinators
Four defensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game
Four offensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game

But, if insistent on focusing on singular players, look to the inexperienced, the names you are unfamiliar with. The 15th and final practice of spring may be no more than a practice in reality, but it is in front of nearly 30,000 fans in Notre Dame Stadium. Some players do not have so much as that minimal experience.

“The Blue-Gold Game, specifically, is a time for us to emulate a game-like situation,” senior safety/linebacker/rover Drue Tranquill said. “Especially for guys like freshmen, second-semester guys coming in, it’s a great opportunity for them to get that game feeling, but also continue to take steps in the process to get better.”

The question on the tip of your tongue is a fair one. If you are unfamiliar with the names, how are you supposed to focus on those players? How are you to know who fits the appropriate tunnel vision version of perspective?

Let’s turn to Irish coach Brian Kelly’s mentions from Wednesday–primarily, sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara, sophomore long snapper John Shannon, senior kicker Sam Kohler, sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem and sophomore safety Jalen Elliott.

Obviously, that is just a sampling. Less obviously, this post’s purpose may or may not be to link to previous reading material and remind you of the vague but pertinent purposes to today’s endeavor. It is neither be-all nor end-all. It is simply another opportunity to gauge what may come down the line.

But hey, how about a prediction? Per Kelly, the first-team offense and second-team defense will be in blue, against the first-team defense and second-team offense in white.

PREDICTION: Blue 37, White 21

HOW TO WATCH
As a recurring reminder, the Blue-Gold Game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network, as well as streamed online at ndstream.nbcsports.com and on the NBC Sports app.