And in that corner… The Southern California Trojans

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Well folks, it doesn’t get any bigger than this one. With Thanksgiving upon us, it’s Notre Dame’s biennial trip to Los Angeles, with this showdown in the Coliseum meaning more than any other in recent memory for the Irish.

As we’ve discussed (and will continue to discuss for the next few days), Trojan’s quarterback Matt Barkley is out for the game after a nasty blindside sack sprained his shoulder. That leaves the Trojans with redshirt freshman Max Wittek piloting the dangerous USC aerial attack.

There are more storylines than we can keep track of this weekend. Helping us get us up to speed is Shotgun Spratling, a writer for Conquest Chronicles, a writer at College Baseball Daily, and a USC Graduate Journalist.

I threw the kitchen sink at Shotgun and he delivered with some great stuff. Hope you enjoy.

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1) Let’s just start with the obvious. How disappointing is this season? Looking back now, is it easier to see some of the flaws that have tripped up this Trojan team?

Whenever you start the season with not only dreams, aspirations, hopes, but also some level of expectations, of battling for the national championship, there is a tremendous amount of disappointment when that comes crashing down. Everyone knows there is tons of talent, but it hasn’t been fully realized. Losing to Stanford and Oregon, who have been the premier Pac-12 programs the last few years, is one thing, but losing to a pair of first-year head coaches was out of the realm of thought at the beginning of the season.

The flaws have been pretty obvious throughout the season. Turnovers have absolutely terrorized USC this year. The Trojans have the fifth most turnovers in the country. In fact, Houston is the only other school in the country that has forced 25+ turnovers and doesn’t have a positive turnover margin. Penalties were a problem earlier in the year and depth has been an issue, but in USC’s losses the turnovers have been difference makers.

2) While it sounds like Lane Kiffin’s job is safe, the assumption is that his father Monte’s is not. Can you put this season on the Trojan defense? From a statistical point of view, the numbers are disappointing, but not awful. What’s been the problem on the defensive side of the ball? Will replacing the older Kiffin solve them?

The defense has a bend-but-don’t-break philosophy, so giving up yards isn’t that big of a deal. But it has also just been plain bad at times. The Oregon game was absolutely atrocious. The players were not well prepared and weren’t disciplined enough to play the assignment football that is required to stop a spread option attack like Oregon’s.

There have been times when scheme has been the problem. For example, Monte Kiffin is over reliant on the base Cover-2 in third-and-long situations. USC gave up a crucial 3rd-and-10 run on Stanford’s go-ahead touchdown drive, a 3rd-and-22 on Arizona’s and a 3rd-and-13 on UCLA’s final scoring drive.

But players have also not made plays. Lane Kiffin said earlier this week that USC missed 23 tackles against UCLA; Lamar Dawson has struggled with assignments and angles at middle linebacker; and the No. 2 cornerback position has been a concern all season.

With as much clamoring as there has been for Monte’s head during the past two seasons, some type of move seems inevitable, especially because of how much he has struggled to make in-game adjustments against spread offensive attacks.

3) Matt Barkley’s senior season has been pretty disappointing. He’s made some puzzling decisions for a senior quarterback that’s played four full seasons of football and as it often happens, his senior year has been less of a victory tour and more of an opportunity for pundits and scouts to pick holes in his game. Where do you see Barkley going in the draft? What’s his ceiling? Did he make a mistake returning?

Personally, I never think it is a mistake for any player to return to school. For most of us schmoes, college is the best four years of our lives. For Barkley, I think it was the right move to make. Last year, he was, at best, the third best QB prospect and there were questions about his game.

He was able to work on his game and has answered some of those questions this season. Barkley has shown the ability to throw the deep ball much better this season, and he has had more opportunities to run an uptempo no-huddle offense, including making quick reads and calls at the line of scrimmage. He definitely hasn’t proven to be a can’t miss prospect. Barkley’s likely not the top guy in this year’s QB class, as was expected before the season, but this year’s class is much thinner than last season and there are several teams that will be looking for a new man under center.

Barkley has some limitations (height, arm strength, athleticism) and will have to prove his current shoulder sprain is of no future concern. However, he should still be in New York to hear his name called in the middle of the first round. His ceiling is as high as the draft position of a team that falls in love with his blonde hair, wide smile and Southern Cali charm (and maybe also his quarterbacking skills).

4) Do you get the feeling that USC fans are tired of Lane Kiffin’s act? Storming out of press conferences, switching numbers during games, going for two? Pete Thamel’s SI.com article heaped a lot of blame on Kiffin for the disappointing season. Do you think Pat Haden is wrong to be putting his belief in Kiffin?

A lot of fans are fed up with this season and everything that has happened. Kiffin’s never going to be a guy like Mike Riley that everyone loves, but if USC was 10-1 or 11-0, most people wouldn’t care about the media access issues or the number switching. However, when the team is a disappointing 7-4, the little things quickly add up.

If any of the small disturbances have been enough to distract the players then Kiffin definitely deserves blame, but fans quickly forget that after the sanctions USC was supposed to revert to being an average to mediocre team for the next five or six years.

Part of the reason, I believe Haden has been behind Kiffin is because Haden realizes how well the coaching staff has navigated the tumult of the sanctions thus far. Granted, that isn’t a ‘Get Out of Jail FREE’ card, but none of Kiffin’s incidents this season have had to do with running amok of the NCAA so he’s earned enough cache to get him through this season. If next season is anything like this year, that’s when I could see Haden making a move and bringing in his own coach.

5) Marqise Lee is putting up Heisman Trophy worthy numbers for a four-loss team. Even without Matt Barkley, how dangerous is this offense?

When the offensive line plays well, the offense is still capable of being Mortal Kombat deadly. Some even believe the offense will be more dangerous than it has been the last few games because Max Wittek may spread the ball around more than Barkley has this season.

While Marqise Lee has been out of this world and would potentially be the Heisman frontrunner if USC’s record was better, other offensive weapons have been rusting in the barn. The lack of production (and targets) for Robert Woods has even prompted the hashtags #freewoody and #freerobertwoods on Twitter. The Trojans also have a pair of dynamic tight ends that often get overlooked until in the red zone.

Wittek has the arm strength to make some throws Barkley can’t, but will Kiffin be aggressive with a young quarterback that has a reputation as a risk taker? Two years ago against Notre Dame, Kiffin didn’t trust senior Mitch Mustain enough to open up the playbook. Will he trust Wittek?

6) At the end of a disappointing season, do the Trojans have the mental fortitude to spring the upset? What’s the recipe for success for USC?

USC has too much talent to be counted out in this game…especially considering it is a rivalry game where anything that can happen is liable to happen.

Recipe for Success:
1) USC has to continue playing with more discipline. The Trojans have committed only 13 penalties in the last three games.
2) Win the trenches. Whoever can establish a strong rushing attack takes the pressure off their redshirt freshman quarterback. The defense that stops the run game puts the onus on a freshman quarterback in the biggest game of his life.
3) If the Trojans can hold onto the ball, avoiding the turnovers that have plagued them this season, they have a great shot at upsetting the No. 1 Irish for the third time in this historic rivalry.

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.”

RELATED READING:
Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover position, others likely to follow
2 Days Until Spring Practice: A look at the defensive backfield

Kraemer, Eichenberg compete for RT spot, moving Bars inside, and Bivin to…

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Forty percent of the offensive line is essentially set in stone: fifth-year senior Mike McGlinchey at left tackle and senior Quenton Nelson at right guard.

The center position seems to be senior Sam Mustipher’s to lose.

That leaves the two starting spots on the right side of the line for a number of players—both young and experienced—to fight over.

Sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg have emerged as the frontrunners for the right tackle spot, moving senior Alex Bars inside to right guard. Bars started all 12 games last season at right tackle.

“Those two [Kraemer and Eichenberg] are the guys we have mapped out at right tackle, and they’re going to battle,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “Today Kraemer was there. Last two practices Eichenberg got a lot of the work. Eichenberg will go back there on Friday. They’re going to keep battling and splitting the action out there.”

Part of the reasoning in giving the two sophomores extended looks this spring is Notre Dame knows what it has in Bars when at right tackle.

“We would prefer to get him in at the guard position, but we know he can play the [tackle] position,” Kelly said.

A starting five of McGlinchey, the three seniors and either sophomore may seem to leave fifth-year lineman Hunter Bivin out in the cold. Not often is a player asked to return for a fifth year only to spend it on the bench. That is even more rare when considering the current Irish scholarship crunch.

Kelly compared Bivin’s role to that of Mark Harrell’s last year. Harrell appeared in all 12 games, starting two, and provided much needed depth and flexibility along the offensive line. Rather than have five backup offensive linemen, position coach Harry Hiestand relied on Harrell to provide support at multiple spots.

“It’s reasonable to assume that Hunter Bivin’s going to be involved in this as well,” Kelly said. “We’ve just asked Hunter to take a seat right now. He’s done that for the team.

“We think Hunter is going to be a Mark Harrell for us. A guy that’s extremely valuable, can play a number of positions. We trust him, but we want to see these two young players [Kraemer and Eichenberg]. Hunter is a guy that can play right or left tackle for us. He’s going to be a valuable player for us as a swing guy.”

On that note, this space will refer to Bivin as a fifth-year lineman, as was done above, rather than as a guard or as a tackle, until further notice. In his case, the broader description may be the most accurate.

Spring break out west is fine, but Wimbush better be ready to run

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It will undoubtedly become a habit, at least for the next five-plus months. If Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush sneezes in front of a camera, it just might lead to an uptick in webmd.com traffic. His every football move will certainly be analyzed, nitpicked and discussed at length. Thus, Irish coach Brian Kelly being asked about Wimbush’s spring break should surprise no one.

Rather than find a Florida beach, Wimbush spent his spring break working with private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield in San Diego alongside a handful of other college passers. Kelly said there is value to such a spring break but stopped short of setting any lofty expectations of the effects.

“I have no problem with [Wimbush] working out with George Whitfield,” Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice, the first following spring break and the third of 14 leading into the Blue-Gold Game on April 22. “George doesn’t work on the specifics to the offense. George is really working on the quarterback and throwing the football, moving in the pocket. George is really good at keeping those quarterbacks active and moving.”

Whitfield is best-known around Notre Dame and among Irish fans for working with former Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson during Golson’s academic suspension in 2013. Whitfield and Golson spent 10 weeks together, thus granting time for extensive off-field activities such as film study. Far shorter, Wimbush’s time out west appears to have been spent primarily doing drills.

“In those situations, it’s a bullpen session,” Kelly said. “They’re keeping their arms loose, they’re keeping their feet loose. He’s just keeping them active.”

It is hard to construe that activity as a negative, but it obviously lacks certain aspects crucial to Wimbush’s 2017 season. With only five career pass attempts and seven career rushes, Wimbush’s inexperience looms large. Developing the necessary intangibles to account for that may be just as, if not more, important as fitting his throws into tight windows.

“When it comes to the playbook, to his teammates, to his coaches here, Brandon understands that when the rubber hits the road, those are the guys that matter the most,” Kelly said. “He knows when it’s time for Notre Dame football, where the focus is.”

Included in that playbook will be an expectation for Wimbush to carry the ball. To date, Wimbush’s biggest play and possibly only imprint on most Notre Dame fans’ memories is a 58-yard touchdown scamper against Massachusetts in 2015.

Link to 17-second YouTube video which has unfortunately disabled embedding

Note, the play is not exclusively-designed for Wimbush to run. Now a rising junior, then a fellow freshman, running back Josh Adams comes across Wimbush’s front for a possible handoff. Instead, Wimbush makes the correct read and keeps the ball. Why state so clearly it was the proper read? Adams has to evade a Texas defender even though he never had the ball.

Future option plays should present Wimbush with the possibility of throwing the ball, too.

“He’ll be a runner in the offense,” Kelly said. “Do we want him to carry the ball 20 times? No.”

“I don’t think you’ll have a situation where we’re calling quarterback power or singular runs. He’s going to have options: hand it off, throw the ball out on the perimeter. You’ll see more of that than you will prescribed quarterback runs. We had a little bit more of that last year with Kizer, but I think you’ll see that he has an option to get the ball out of his hands more so than just prescribed runs.”

Those option plays, in particular, will require Wimbush to have a thorough familiarity both with the Notre Dame playbook and with his teammates’ tendencies.

RITA LEE OR 52-53?
Staying consistent with his comments over the last two months, Kelly once again reiterated the biggest changes new offensive coordinator Chip Long will bring to the Irish playbook will be in its wording. Perhaps going to an extreme example to illustrate his thinking, Kelly pointed to the future.

“We’re going to win next year and Chip is going to be the greatest offensive coordinator in the country and he’s going to get a head job, right?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “Then I’m not going to introduce the Chip Long offense to the next offensive coordinator.”

“It has to have my culture in it … The culture of the offense is still the base offense that I have always run because I have to be able to carry that with me from year to year.”

Within that ellipsis, Kelly gave two examples of possible verbiage changes. Without knowing much more behind them, they do not mean too much out here in the cobwebs of the internet, but they do provide a quick glimpse at what Kelly has been referring to when discussing lexicon since hiring Long.

“If he wants to change Ringo Lucky protection to Ram and Lion protection, go right ahead. If he wants to change certain calls, for example, 52-53 protection is now Rita Lee.”

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