HeIsManti or Johnny Football: An incredibly biased opinion

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Having a blog that covers Notre Dame football stump for an Irish player’s Heisman candidacy is pretty transparent. And lame. So I’ll spare you some of the usual rhetoric that comes with this type of column. Do I think Manti Te’o should win the Heisman Trophy? Yes. Do I think he deserves it? Yes. Do I have much to support this argument? Not really.

All that being said, let’s do this anyway. Just because it’s that time of year, and we should at least have this play out for a bit.

As of yesterday, The HeismanPundit-CBSSports.com Heisman Straw Poll had Johnny Manziel with a significant lead over Manti Te’o, in essentially a two-horse race. The redshirt freshman quarterback, who has been branded perfectly with the “Johnny Football” moniker has lost two games, but owns the upset of the year with his victory over Alabama. Besides a highlight reel that includes some terrific sandlot skills, Manziel is also putting up stats that compare favorably to Tim Tebow, Sam Bradford, Cam Newton, and Robert Griffin III (or at least so says a Texas A&M blog). Add to that the 30,000 watt megaphone that is the SEC and a cool Techmo Bowl themed viral video, and I can’t say I blame anybody if Manziel is holding college football’s most prestigious award.

Manziel seems to have captured the hearts and minds of many voters already. And while I’m basically the old man on the front porch in this scenario, here are a few things that I can’t seem to shake.

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1. Manziel’s game against LSU was historically bad.

Sure, Manziel gets credit for beating Alabama, and rightfully so. But he should get equal blame for his game against LSU. Here’s a quick look at his numbers: 29 of 56 for 276 yards. 0 TD, 3 INT. 17 rushes for 27 yards. That’s one butt-ugly stat line, and might be the most historically terrible game any Heisman winner played in their crowning season. Let’s go back over the last ten years and look at the quarterbacks who won the trophy.

Heisman winning QBs worst regular season games
Carson Palmer, 2002: 18 of 46 for 186 yards. 1 TD, 0 INT (27-20 loss to Kansas St.)
Jason White, 2003: 27 of 50 for 298 yards. 0 TD, 2 INT (35-7 loss to Kansas St.)
Matt Leinart, 2004: 24 of 43 for 217 yards. 2 TD, 1 INT (38-0 victory over Washington)
Troy Smith, 2006: 12 of 22 for 115 yards. 1 TD, 2 INT (28-6 victory over Penn State)
Tim Tebow, 2007: 12 of 26 for 158 yards. 2 TD, 1 INT. 16 carries for 67 yards, 1 TD (28-24 L to LSU)
Sam Bradford, 2008: 13 of 32 for 255 yards. 3 TD, 0 INT. (58-25 victory over Kansas St.)
Cam Newton, 2010: 10 of 16 for 86 yards. 28 carries for 217 yards, 2 TD. (24-17 victory over LSU)
Robert Griffin III, 2011: 33 of 50 for 425 yards. 1 TD, 2 INT. (59-24 loss to Oklahoma State)

Stack Manziel’s afternoon against LSU up — one of his two losses — and it’s not even close. That’s the worst game that any Heisman quarterback of the last decade has played, with Jason White’s defeat in the Big 12 championship game — a game where many votes had already been cast — a distant second.

What’s the linebacker equivalent of that stat line? His defense giving up 50 points and getting run on for 300 yards?

2. How great are Manziel’s stats when adjusted for the system and the era?

Guys like Kenjon Barner and De’Anthony Thomas are penalized for being largely system players. Barner has 1,856 yards from scrimmage and sat on the sideline for most fourth quarters. Thomas is one of the game’s most electric all-purpose players. But because they’re playing in Chip Kelly’s offensive juggernaut, they’re largely relegated to the gimmick status.

Consider Manziel and the system he’s in. Just as Gus Malzahn was able to show, Kevin Sumlin has reminded SEC purists that up-tempo, spread, aerial attacks work in big-boy leagues, too. But compare Manziel’s numbers to the ones that Case Keenum put up at Houston, and you start to notice that maybe Manziel isn’t all that trenscendent, but merely a whole lot of fun to watch as a scrambler.

Manziel’s 24 touchdown passes? They’re exactly half of the total Case Keenum put up in 2011, when he finished 7th in Heisman voting, even though he threw for 5,631 yards and 48 touchdowns at Houston. Manziel’s numbers in a Sumlin-run offense pale in comparison to any of Keenum’s seasons, and really match up closer to David Piland’s, Keenum’s understudy, who threw for 24 touchdowns after Keenum was injured in 2010.

There doesn’t seem to be much mention of system when you look at Manziel, but he’s essentially the prototype system quarterback. While the legend of Johnny Football will sell a truckload of t-shirts in College Station, don’t expect the NFL to beat the door down for a wispy quarterback that’s six-foot tall on his tip-toes with arm strength even Tommy Rees would chuckle at.

3. Trout vs. Cabrera? That might not have anything on Johnny Football vs. HeIsManti.

The internet was up in arms over the American League MVP race this fall, when Detroit Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera hit for the Triple Crown, but was thought by many new-school baseball minds to have put up the inferior season when compared to Anaheim Angels centerfielder Mike Trout. While Cabrera won traditionalists over with the first Triple Crown in 45 years — leading the league in home runs, batting, average, and runs-batted-in — his old-school statistical dominance wasn’t as impressive as the impact the Angels rookie had on his team.

Comparing Te’o and Manziel give you some of the same dilemmas. In Te’o, the Heisman voters would have to break a number of molds if they were to crown him this year’s winner. Even Charles Woodson, the only other defensive player to win the award, moonlighted as a receiver and impacted the game as a return man. Yet Te’o is a linebacker, plain and simple. While he had more interceptions than any cornerback in the country, he spends his time in the trenches, just as likely to take on a guard than drop into coverage.

From an old-school/new-school perspective, Te’o and Manziel also strike an interesting fit. In many ways, Te’o should be the epitome of an old-school favorite, with his defensive status on one of the nation’s best units on the country’s only 12-0 national title contender. Yet new-school stat-heads should love what Te’o does even more than the traditionalists, with his mesmerizing mix of productivity and forced turnovers largely unseen for a player of his position.

Simply put, seasons like Manziel’s happen a whole lot more than seasons like Te’os. One is happening with another diminutive quarterback in DeKalb, where Northern Illinois’ Jordan Lynch is putting up stats that are almost a mirror-image of Manziel’s.

One of baseball’s best statistics is WAR, or Wins-Above-Replacement. Put simply, how many wins does player X add to the team over an average replacement? No doubt, Manziel has added a tremendous spark to the Aggies’ offense and given Kevin Sumlin a terrific triggerman in his first SEC season. But we’ve seen what Sumlin quarterbacks look like, and they didn’t put up numbers all that different from Manziel’s (more often, they were better). Meanwhile, for those of us that have watched the last decade of middle linebacker play in South Bend, I think we can all safely say that Te’o’s production over the last few guys manning the spot has been a transcendent change.

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In the end, it’s only a trophy. The Heisman has gone into the hands of some of the greatest athletes ever to play football, and ended up with winners who would never see the field in the NFL. It’s part of what makes the award so wonderful. There’s little question which direction Te’o is headed in even without the statue.

So while I don’t expect this to change any voters minds, one final statement:

Jjust because we all enjoy being swept up in Johnny Football mania, doesn’t mean he’s the country’s best player.

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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.