Kapron Lewis-Moore, Manti Te'o, Tyler Eifert, Zack Martin

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.

 

Spring positions to watch for revelations: DL & WR

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 05: Jerry Tillery #99 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish tackles Jerrod Heard #13 of the Texas Longhorns for a loss of yards during the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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If quarterback, rover and the early enrollees could be Notre Dame fans’ springtime Christmas thrills, what positions present as potential spots of coal?

Three former Irish players were invited to next week’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis: quarterback DeShone Kizer, defensive tackle Jarron Jones and defensive end Isaac Rochell. Losing two consistent defensive linemen leaves this year’s unit with some questions. Jones and Rochell combined for 100 tackles, 18 for loss and three sacks last season. Notre Dame’s returning defensive linemen combined to total 111 tackles and only 5.5 tackles for loss. To be clear, sacks are not included in that latter list because no returning defensive linemen recorded one. Among the returnees, junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37 tackles, three for loss) and senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26, 0.5) contributed solidly alongside the two NFL prospects.

This dearth of known and reliable linemen is a large part of why the potential transfer of Clemson graduate defensive tackle Scott Pagano is so intriguing. Pagano would immediately be a favorite to start, and if not that, at least rotate in heavily.

For now, though, Pagano remains a theoretical

By the end of spring practice, who already on campus will emerge alongside Tillery and Trumbetti in the Irish front? Senior ends Jay Hayes (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) and Jonathon Bonner (nine tackles) seem the most-likely candidates … aside from former four-star recruit and now rising sophomore Daelin Hayes. In his debut season, D. Hayes finished with 11 tackles.

Look for senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) to establish himself as Tillery’s immediate backup this spring, but that spot in the rotation will be up for competition all over again once four-star tackle Darnell Ewell (Lake Taylor High School; Norfolk, Va.) arrives on campus in the fall. His size and quickness should play right into new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s system.

Equanimeous and Who?
Not only did Notre Dame bring in a graduate transfer at receiver in former Michigan wideout Freddy Canteen, but it has also already received the commitments of two four-star receivers in the 2018 recruiting class. The continued emphasis on the position reflects the lack of bona fide game-breakers currently on the roster.

Junior Equanimeous St. Brown established himself as the top Irish threat in 2016, and he should shine only further with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush targeting him. Classmates often amplify each other’s success, simply due to the added shared reps innate to joining practice at the same time. With Torii Hunter, Jr., now pursuing a professional baseball career, who will prevent the secondary from focusing all its energies on St. Brown?

Canteen will not be with Notre Dame in the spring, as he does not graduate from Michigan until April. That will give a clear shot for the likes of juniors Chris Finke, C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin, and sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool to establish themselves. Did that say “clear” shot? It should probably read, “a chance to separate from the crowd.”

If a genuine threat does not line up opposite St. Brown, his explosiveness will likely be greatly reduced by focused defensive scheming. Wimbush will need another target before 2018.

Of course, here is where one should acknowledge the millennia-tested fact: Coal under pressure becomes diamonds.

2016 Notre Dame’s win expectancy was 7.2
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Johnson named the Irish as his team most likely to dramatically improve its record in 2017. Johnson’s thinking is based, at least in part, on Notre Dame’s second-order win total having been 7.2 in 2016, compared to the four wins the Irish actually walked away with. That discrepancy was the largest in the country.

Second-order win totals reflect how many points a team should have scored and allowed based on offensive and defensive stats. In theory, this shines a light on how luck and chance factored into results. Naturally, losing seven games by one possession will often be reflected by a higher second-order win total.

“Notre Dame’s win-loss record belied a solid, if imperfect, squad that just couldn’t pull out close games…” Johnson writes. “The Irish may not get back into College Football Playoff contention in 2017, but they’re bound to post a few more Ws because of reversion to the mean.”

Admittedly, the small sample size of a football season reduces the applicability of metrics such as second- and third-order wins when compared to baseball and basketball.

Jones becomes Mack
A quick piece of housekeeping: Apparently junior tight end Alizé Jones has changed his name to Alizé Mack.

While Notre Dame’s roster may not reflect that change yet, it is reasonable to expect it will after its next update. The football program has consistently respected the intricacies of players’ name preferences. Tai-ler Jones becoming TJ Jones jumps to mind, for example.

Anyways, hopefully noting Mack’s name change here might reduce some confusion down the line. Probably not. How many readers possibly read to the actual bottom of an article? But hey, in good faith.

WR Lenzy makes 11th commitment, brings speed to Irish

lenzy
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At what point does an impressive recruiting roll become something more? When does it become a harbinger of things to come, even if not for a few seasons? How many notable commitments in a row establishes a class as special?

If the answer to any of the above is 11 commitments by the end of February, including five within two weeks, then Notre Dame is there following consensus four-star athlete Braden Lenzy’s announcement Thursday evening.

The Tigard High School (Portland, Ore) receiver/cornerback chose the Irish over offers from USC, Oregon and Michigan State, among a litany of others. In all, nine Pac-12 schools chased Lenzy—and a 10th, Washington, had shown interest—per rivals.com.

Lenzy will fit the leading 2018 need voiced by Irish coach Brian Kelly three weeks ago on National Signing Day 2017.

“Elite speed on offense will be a primary goal for us,” Kelly said Feb. 1. “Guys that can change the game on one possession. I think we’ll see that… We want a couple of home run hitters. We don’t care if they’re Darren Sproles’s size. We’re going to come off the board in terms of profile. We want some guys that can change the game on offense with elite speed.”

At 6-foot, 175 pounds, Lenzy is taller than Sproles’s 5-foot-6, but it is still his speed that drew Notre Dame’s interest.

“They made it clear they want me to do kickoff return and use me as a deep threat across the field,” he told Irish Illustrated. “Just being kind of an athlete, similar to what I’ve been doing already in high school, just on a bigger scale with a quarterback that can throw it a lot farther.”

Presuming Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush is that arm in 2018, throwing great distances should not be an issue. Between Lenzy and fellow 2018 commit Micah Jones, covering those distances should be a reasonable request, as well.

Lenzy brings Notre Dame’s class of 2018 to 11, including eight four-stars according to Rivals’ rating system. Current scholarship projections indicate the class will not be a large one, meaning the Irish coaching staff has already garnered the commitments of more than half the class. Once again, though, Kelly’s sentiment regarding recruiting timing should be remembered.

“We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

SWARBRICK’S TAKE ON RECRUITING
Kelly credited Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick with much assistance in securing the country’s No. 13 recruiting class in 2017. A refresher on those comments:

“In a lot of instances, [Swarbrick] had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it’s going,” Kelly said. “There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future.”

Swarbrick did not dispute the factual nature of any of that in an interview with the Indianapolis Star, but he did contest the need for praising what he saw as part of his job, one of the preferred parts of his job, at that.

“I can’t say anything about this year felt all that different,” Swarbrick told Star reporter Laken Litman. “Some asked questions about the future of the program and can we compete for a national championship. And I would talk about the elements of the program we were focused on improving.”

Swarbrick and Litman discussed a number of items in the second-half of the interview released by the Star, including Notre Dame’s facilities, a possible early signing period in football and if the Oct. 8, 2016, game against North Carolina State should have been played. Spoiler: No. Then why was it? Go check it out.

Swarbrick also told Litman he likes to write in his free time.

“I tend to think strategically with a pen in my hand.” Swarbrick added he is currently scribbling away on where he thinks college athletics are headed.

This scribe, for one, would be most interested in skimming those legal pads.

Will Wimbush, Elko and the early enrollees surprise in spring practice?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Exactly 59 days from today, the Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Sure, they will be playing against themselves, but nonetheless, it will be somewhat-competitive football played in gold helmets.

For timing context, exactly 59 days ago, you looked beneath the Christmas tree to learn if Santa Claus left you season tickets, socks or coal. I got socks. They had some of that extra cushioning, so I considered them a suitable treat.

Whether you care about my argyles or not (you don’t), for many the Blue-Gold Game and Christmas morning hold similar excitement. That fact is apparently why Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick does not concern himself when groups of alumni publicly lament his decisions, or lack thereof.

“I never worry about that,” Swarbirck told the Indianapolis Star in an exclusive interview you really should read. Go on, click the link, it will open in a new tab. You can come right back here when you are done.

“The hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion in your program. If that sort of stuff bothers you, you can’t be the athletic director, head coach or the quarterback at Notre Dame.”

That very passion will undoubtedly lead to frame-by-frame discussions of video snippets from spring practice, parsing of each and every word Irish coach Brian Kelly says in quick interviews after those practices, and extreme pessimism and optimism about the 2017 season.

In the Christmas spirit, what toys could bring the must excitement during the spring unwrapping? Personally, the gift I was unsure of always brought the most joy. I would rather open an unexpected book than know about a charcoal-gray suit. In other words, at least for today, let’s look past the offensive line, the running backs and the inside linebackers. Instead, let’s look forward to learning about… (more…)

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Karlos Williams #9 of the Florida State Seminoles scores the touchdown that would win the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their game at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.

With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.

The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.

Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.

Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.

If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.

Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order: (more…)