Christmas links: Crist, Jackson, and Elliott

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First and foremost, a very Merry Christmas to everyone. Thanks for being a part of a wonderful year, both on and off the field. It’s terrific to see how many readers we keep bringing to the Inside the Irish blog, and I appreciate all the new friends.

Hope you enjoy some time with family, a dash of holiday cheer, and a few links to get you through the day.

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Friend of the program Bruce Feldman has a great column on Dayne Crist, and how the former Irish quarterback is doing as he watches his former teammates prepare for battle with Alabama in the BCS National Championship.

As you’d expect, Crist was all class during his sit down with Feldman in Southern California. And while this final season of eligibility at Kansas didn’t turn out the way Crist, Kansas head coach Charlie Weis, or just about anybody that’s had a chance to get to know Crist hoped, as usual Dayne kept a positive attitude as he continues to plow forward.

Right now, that means prepping for a senior showcase All-Star game, where he’s hoping to wow an NFL scout or two and get a chance to head to an NFL training camp.

Do yourself a favor and read the entire story, but here’s a snippet from Feldman:

Dayne Crist spent four years in South Bend and in that time he . . .

  • Met his long-time girlfriend.
  • Began two seasons as the starting quarterback for the Fighting Irish.
  • Made many of his best friends.
  • Suffered two season-ending knee injuries.
  • Received more online death threats than he cares to count up.
  • Graduated with a 3.2 GPA and a Business degree.

Crist could’ve been in South Florida wearing the famed Notre Dame Golden helmet playing for the BCS title with so many of his closest friends — guys he lived with for four years, guys he calls his brothers. Actually, if the story played out the way many would’ve thought, Crist — the strapping 6-4, 235-pound former five-star California-bred quarterback — would’ve already sparked the Irish back to being a national powerhouse and be an NFL rookie right now. Instead, Crist transferred out of Notre Dame after getting his Business degree and ended up following former ND coach Charlie Weis to Kansas, where the Jayhawks went 1-11 while the 12-0 Fighting Irish are hoping to knock off mighty Alabama and win their first national title in almost 25 years.

Crist, though, is not second-guessing his decision to have transferred out as a grad student for the 2012 season. “I live my life with no regrets,” Crist said over lunch last week at a Southern California restaurant. “I really have had so many blessings in my life.”

Crist’s on-field plight has been covered quite a bit on these pages, and while many thought the five-star quarterback got a raw deal last season, ultimately it looks like Brian Kelly probably got things right.

That said, it’s never quite as simple as that. And after four years of watching a tremendous leader with all the physical attributes needed to be an NFL player never quite get things to click, it’s just a reminder of two things: 1) Quarterback is a really tough job. 2) Getting your degree is mighty important.

Whether it was the two major knee injuries or something else, Crist seems to lack the confidence that it takes to be a highly successful quarterback. But I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody took a shot on him, and at least gave him a chance to come to NFL training camp and fight his way onto a practice squad.

But if this is it for football, don’t worry about Crist. He’ll be successful in life after football and always continue to love Notre Dame.

“I love seeing those guys succeeding, and Notre Dame will always hold a special place in my heart,” Crist told Feldman. “I’ve gotten so many positives from going there.”

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From one former Irish quarterback to another, Wes Morgan of BlueandGold.com caught up with Jarious Jackson, and it’s great to see that the former Notre Dame record-setting quarterback is still playing the game that he loves.

At 35 years old, Jackson has spent the better part of the last dozen years in professional football. He spent four years with the Denver Broncos before starting a global odyssey that took him to the NFL Europe’s Barcelona Dragons, before finding a home in the CFL, winning two Grey Cups with the British Columbia Lions.

Now backing up Toronto Argonauts quarterback Ricky Ray, playing in the CFL hasn’t stopped Jackson from following the Irish, and the 12-0 season has been great fun for one of my favorite Irish players ever.

Here’s more from Morgan’s conversation with Jackson, and his assessment of the work Brian Kelly has done transforming the Irish.

Where the No. 1 Irish are today, just a couple weeks from taking on No. 2 Alabama in the BCS National Championship in Miami, doesn’t surprise Jackson, who learned a lot about head coach Brian Kelly from Toronto teammate Zach Collaros. The former Cincinnati quarterback played under Kelly and helped lead the Bearcats to a 12-0 regular season in 2009.

A combination of Kelly’s winning skillset and Notre Dame’s stubbornness, Jackson said, made a perfect marriage.

“I hate to use the old cliché, but it’s just haters,” Jackson said of critics’ claims that the Irish would never be back on top. … “Notre Dame has been hated on for years and years. Even back when I was being recruited to go there Notre Dame was being hated on. The fact that they’re back at the top of the mountain and doing so well, I think it’s a tribute to the kind of guys they constantly bring in and the type of attitude the guys have. Coach Kelly has done an outstanding job.”

His records have been surpassed by guys like Brady Quinn and Jimmy Clausen, but people often forget that Jackson left Notre Dame after setting the school’s single-season records for passing yards and completions in 1999, all while throwing 17 touchdown passing and finishing second on the team in rushing.

Jackson was a better passer than he got credit for, and did a nice job running the football, similarities he shares with Everett Golson. Jackson talked about what he sees in Golson.

“I’m beyond impressed,” Jackson told Morgan. “I’m looking at him as almost a RGIII or Andrew Luck in their first year in the NFL with the type of year he’s having. He’s just going out and trying to win games any way he can. As long as he can keep that mentality, he’s going to grow and keep getting better and better.”

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In a story that can’t help but bring out the Christmas spirit, Eric Hansen of the South Bend Tribune caught up with former Michigan head coach and Iowa athletics director Bump Elliott. The 87-year-old legend has watched the Irish closely this season, often beaming with pride as his son, Notre Dame safeties coach Bob Elliott, has resurrected a coaching career that was derailed by cancer.

“It’s a wonderful thing to see,” the elder Elliott told Hansen. “I’m really proud of my son, with the way he’s handled things. He’s faced a lot of adversity and has not shied away from it. He’s been strong and tough, and I really respect him for that. I’m so proud to be his father.”

The younger Elliott’s story is one we’ve told before but worth repeating. Elliott was the bright and energetic defensive coordinator for legendary Iowa coach Hayden Fry. But when Fry retired after the 1988 season, Elliott was in the throws of battling the blood cancer polycynthemia vera, and in desperate need of a bone marrow transplant.

Instead of replacing Fry, Elliott walked away from coaching to recapture his health, something he’s done successfully, now 14 years removed from his dangerous bout.

It’s amazing to see the immediate chemistry Elliott has had with the defense, working under two former players in Bob Diaco and Kerry Cooks. Elliott has been a calming influence for a position that lost Chuck Martin to the offense, lost lynchpin Harrison Smith to graduation, and Austin Collinsworth and Jamoris Slaughter to injuries.

With Zeke Motta and Matthias Farley, the group hasn’t missed a beat. That’s thanks to the great work of Elliott.

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.