The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Wake Forest

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At this point, it’s probably best to give up looking for a bad and an ugly from the weekend that was. Between the Irish’s demolition of Wake Forest, senior day festivities, and losses by both Kansas State and Oregon, there hasn’t been a better autumn Saturday in South Bend in quite some time.

With the #1 shining above Grace Hall for the first time in a long time, let’s run through the good, the bad, and the ugly from Notre Dame’s 38-0 victory.

THE GOOD

Fast Starts. The Irish couldn’t have asked for a better start, with Cierre Wood exploding for 68 yards around the right side on an option pitch from Everett Golson. Watching Wood burst through the Demon Deacons secondary was a thing of beauty, with the season’s longest run of the year jump-starting the Irish.

That run wouldn’t have been made possible if it weren’t for Golson’s terrific throw on third down, where the young quarterback picked up a low snap and fired a strike to Theo Riddick in drop-eight coverage.

On the defensive side of the ball, it was Carlo Calabrese that got the defense off on the right foot. Calabrese absolutely crushed running back Josh Harris, jarring the football loose and forcing a turnover on Wake’s third offensive play. That was enough to flip the football field, put the Irish in good position on offense, and make the game a quick 14-0.

Everett Golson. Every Saturday Everett Golson is getting better. And against a mediocre Wake Forest defense, Golson looked terrific. Staying strong in the pocket, Golson played his best football of the season, attacking the Deacs vertically while buying time and playing mostly as a pocket passing game.

With his confidence overflowing, Golson made one bad decision, floating a ball into the end zone for Robby Toma. But he focused, came back down to earth, and finished the strongest game of his career. Golson put up a personal best for passing yardage and nearly set a school record with his 317 passing yards in the first half.

He’ll face the biggest test of his career this Saturday, but he’ll be entering the weekend playing the best football of his career.

Louis Nix. The junior defensive tackle was everywhere on Saturday, notching seven tackles from his nose guard position and being all but immovable as the rock in the middle of the defense. You don’t often see a nose guard leading a team in tackles, but that goes to show you the improvement Nix has made this season.

“His work volume has increased dramatically through his commitment and hard work in the weight room and in conditioning. And he plays so hard.  You know, he’s a guy that is all over the field,” Brian Kelly said of Nix after the game. He’s a guy that is playing the game at the highest level, and he did it through the off‑season conditioning and the commitment he made to it.”

Saying goodbye to Kapron Lewis-Moore will be tough, but a front three locked down by Stephon Tuitt, Nix, and Sheldon Day won’t miss a beat.

Cierre Wood. It’s fun to watch a running back wreak havoc at the second level of a defense. That was Wood’s day to a tee. Amazingly enough, Wood was caught in the backfield multiple times, forced for a loss on his first carry and falling victim to Wake’s attacking defense multiple times washing away any chance at positive gains. But he broke multiple big runs, with a 20-yard, 16-yard, and 43-yard dash ripping through the Demon Deacon’s defense after his opening 68 yard scamper. That’s the type of feast or famine running that happens against USC, with the Wood heading to the Coliseum to play at home in front of family and friends.

Team Defense. The shutout of Wake Forest was the first blanking of an opponent since the Irish stopped Nevada 35-0, with future star Colin Kaepernick getting shutdown by Charlie Weis and Jon Tenuta. Tanner Price and company only gained 209 yards on the day, averaging just 3.5 yards per play.  Even with back-ups playing for much of the fourth quarter, the Irish defense was relentless, delivering a shutout at home to cap off a terrific Senior Day.

Explosive Plays. So much for that methodical Irish offense that depended on a grind-it-out running game. Saturday’s offensive explosive featured multiple “big chunk” running plays (see Cierre Wood) and an aerial attack downfield by Golson. John Goodman continued his big play season, notching another long touchdown catch. TJ Jones caught a deep touchdown as well. If it weren’t for a nice play by a defensive back, Chris Brown would’ve had another long reception as well.

After struggling to stretch the field vertically, the Irish exploded with down field receptions, as Jones, Goodman, Theo Riddick, Robby Toma, and Tyler Eifert all had receptions of 24 yards or more. That’s an easy way to rack of passing yardage, and score a lot of points.

Clearing out the bench. Want to see a thing of beauty? How about the participation report from Saturday. Check out some of the names on there, including:

Charlie Fiessinger
Joe Romano
Nick Fitzpatrick
Jake Golic
Blake Breslau
Andrew Hendrix
Ben Councell
Eric Lee
Connor Calavaris
Conor Hanratty
Bruce Heggie
Dennis Mahoney
Nick Martin

At one point, two sets of brothers were on the field at the same time, with Jake and Mike Golic and Nick and Zack Martin all in the offensive huddle. A nice moment for two families that won’t easily be forgotten.

THE BAD

It’s hard to complain about a missed field goal by Kyle Brindza, but the sophomore is struggling from the right hash. While his kick percentage slides closer to 70 than you’d like, he’s still made just about every clutch kick he’s been asked to make.

Both Chris Brown and George Atkinson struggled to make some routine catches, answering questions from fans wondering why they weren’t getting the ball via air more often.

THE UGLY

This stays empty. Nothing ugly for an Irish program with the top graduation rate in the country to match their No. 1 ranking on the field.

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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