The road to 12-0: Miami

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The fifth in a series that looks back at Notre Dame’s 12-0 regular season. For more, read entries on Navy, Purdue, Michigan State and Michigan.

After starting the season 4-0 for the first time in a decade, the Irish enjoyed a well-deserved bye week before prepping for another marquee opponent, the Miami Hurricanes. Even though Al Golden’s team was filled with youth along the depth chart, they came into Soldier Field 4-1, with an offense that had been surprisingly high powered, thanks to the arm of Stephen Morris.

With Notre Dame in the AP top ten for the first time since 2006, there was a ton of anticipation for the year’s Shamrock Series entry, even with the polarizing helmets and uniforms. There was also quite a bit of intrigue swirling around behind the scenes.

STATUS CHECK

Running the table through the first four games of the season reinvigorated a fanbase that hadn’t seen that happen since Ty Willingham’s first season. Still, there was plenty of skepticism about this team, if only because the offense was still a crude work-in-progress.

With a bye week to prepare, the Irish did their best to continue installation, but also continue to develop Everett Golson into the quarterback that was desperately needed by Kelly if he wanted to continue this climb up the mountain.

PRESSING QUESTIONS

Who actually is starting at quarterback?

Rumors swirled along the internet that a quarterback change was potentially in the works. With Everett Golson not exactly holding down the fort and Tommy Rees playing well in relief, a head coach known to have a hair trigger with quarterbacks continued to be questions about the man behind center.

But Brian Kelly continued to double down on Golson when asked about the depth chart.

“It’s the same guy who’s been the starter the last four weeks,” Kelly said the Thursday before the game. “I thought I made that pretty clear. But Everett will start in Week Five, and I expect him to start in Week Six and Seven and Eight, Nine, Ten, Eleven, Twelve, and Thirteen.”

Certainly emphatic words by the Irish head coach. But on Friday night, after the team had already traveled to Chicago, I heard from two sources that a quarterback change was coming. While Notre Dame denied it, I was told Tommy Rees was starting the game.

Twitter was a buzz Saturday morning after my initial report, and Alex Flanagan confirmed the rumor when she caught up with Kelly before the game.

It turned out to be much ado about nothing, as Rees played the first series before turning the keys to the offense back over to Golson. After the game, Kelly had this to say:

“Our team rules are pretty simple as it relates to being on time. We have high standards and we hold all of our players to that standard.”

Needing to dominate, the Irish offensive line turned the corner.

It looks like Harry Hiestand’s unit did some bonding over the bye week. After some so-so performances, the Irish offensive line absolutely dominated Miami up front, putting on a clinic in the second half as they took the then 86th ranked rushing offense in the country and rattled off a monster game.

Both Cierre Wood and George Atkinson went over 100 yards, and after a modest 106 yards in the first half, Notre Dame ran for a staggering 270 yards after halftime. Featured prominently for the first time this season was Wood, who broken the game open with a dazzling 37-yard run.

“He did a great job on his run, showed great patience, stepped on the heals of the guard and bent it back. He hadn’t done that all year,” Kelly said. “He had a great week of practice, preparing himself to do what we’ve asked him to do.”

After struggling in the trenches against physical opponents, the right side of the offensive line, Christian Lombard and Mike Golic, played their best game of the season.

Just how good was Bob Diaco’s Irish defense?

After a first series where Miami dropped two passes that could’ve gone for touchdowns, the Irish suffocated the Hurricanes, holding them to under 300 yards and just three points. Bob Diaco’s unit was in the middle of a truly impressive run.

Here’s what I wrote after the game:

Notre Dame hasn’t given up a touchdown over its last 12 quarters, holding Michigan State, Michigan and now Miami out of the end zone. The Irish defense is allowing just 7.8 points a game now, and has surrendered only three touchdowns on the season, the least amount in college football.

After scoring 86 points and gaining 1,260 yards over the last two Saturdays, Miami scored just three points and gained 285 yards of total offense. Missing on two deep chances on their first drive, the Hurricanes struggled to do anything against Notre Dame’s defense after the Irish got settled in.

“After we settled down to the speed of the game, we limited a very good offense,” Kelly said. “We didn’t give up the big plays and we certainly got a couple breaks early on. I thought we adjusted well to the speed of the game after the first quarter. Again, we have now held University of Miami, Michigan, and Michigan State to not scoring a touchdown. That’s an incredible feat for our defense.”

A victory like this one — a dominant performance on both sides of the ball against a marquee program in prime time — was a statement game for an Irish team that had just slid by

WHAT DID WE LEARN?

Notre Dame 41, Miami 3.

Notre Dame was getting tough to ignore. After five wins and a dominant performance against Miami, the Irish were looking like a pretty impressive football team. With a top five losing three undefeateds from their ranks that first Saturday of October, while there was plenty of work left to be done, Notre Dame was in the conversation for a BCS bowl.

The Irish’s 41-3 bludgeoning of Miami was its most dominant victory over the ‘Canes in 35 years, when Dan Devine’s Irish won the 1977 national title. With the offensive line picking up the pace and Everett Golson playing solid, the pieces were slowing coming together.

Offensively, the Irish took the bye week to open up the playbook and the tweaks showed themselves useful. Chuck Martin and Brian Kelly unlocked Golson’s ability to contribute in the running game and it gave the Miami defense — and every opponent watching film — one more thing to worry about. They also showed a run game that could be the basis of a strong offense.

“We used some formations to get some good match-ups,” Kelly said after the game. “They were rotating their coverage to Eifert quite a bit and it opened up a lot of things for us in the running game.”

A tremendous win on a big stage turned the Irish into one of the prominent early stories of the college football season. With ESPN set to return to South Bend for the first time in a long time, the Irish were already turning their attention to another edition of the biggest game of the year, with one-loss Stanford coming to town.

We might not have been sure how good this football team could be yet. But holding an explosive offense filled with speed and skill, and bullying Miami’s defense for the entire second half helped prove that this defense could play with anybody. And with an offense that continued to grow, the Irish ascended to No. 7 in the country.

Rochell drafted in 7th round; three other former Notre Dame players sign

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All the unnecessary draft conversation may have centered on DeShone Kizer, but the quarterback was not the only former Notre Dame player watching this weekend’s NFL Draft with rapt attention. Aside from Kizer, only Isaac Rochell heard his name called. The San Diego Chargers picked the defensive lineman in the seventh round Saturday with the 225th overall pick.

Rochell finished his Irish career with appearance in 49 of 51 possible games and 167 tackles, including 22 for loss and 4.5 sacks. In 2016, he recorded 55 tackles, good for sixth on the team, with seven for loss.

By the end of the evening, three more former Notre Dame starters had signed on with NFL teams as undrafted free agents. It should be noted, many argue the route available for undrafted free agents is preferable to that of late-round picks. An undrafted free agent can choose which of a handful of situations is preferable to him for whatever reason. A late-round pick does not have that luxury, but still makes a comparable salary.

Linebacker James Onwualu opted to join Rochell with the Chargers. Defensive lineman Jarron Jones signed with the New York Giants. Cornerback Cole Luke latched on with the Carolina Panthers.

Onwualu began his Irish career as a receiver before moving to linebacker before his sophomore season. He finished his career with 143 tackles, including 75 in 2016 with 11.5 for loss and three sacks. His 75 tackles finished behind only now-rising senior linebackers Nyles Morgan’s 94 and Drue Tranquill’s 79.

Battling injuries throughout his Notre Dame career, Jones made 105 tackles with 45 in 2016. His 11 tackles for loss were outdone only by the aforementioned Onwualu total.

Luke made 152 tackles in his Irish career, including 48 last season, and eight interceptions.

Three more players from past years’ Irish rosters could yet find an NFL home—long snapper Scott Daly, defensive lineman-turned-tight end Chase Hounshell and running back Tarean Folston. If any or all do not sign, they can still join teams for rookie mini-camps in hopes of making a positive impression.

RELATED READING: Browns pick former Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer 20th in second round

Browns pick former Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer 20th in second round

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After months of pointless chatter and a night spent waiting, DeShone Kizer’s NFL Draft experience ended Friday night when the Cleveland Browns drafted the former Notre Dame quarterback with the 20th pick in the second round, the No. 52 overall selection.

Originally from Toledo, Ohio, Kizer will have the opportunity to earn the starting job for the franchise less than two hours from his hometown. The Browns trotted out five different quarterbacks in 2016, only two of which remain with the team. Rookie Cody Kessler played in nine games, throwing for 1,380 yards and six touchdowns with only one interception while fellow rookie Kevin Hogan threw for 104 yards and two interceptions in four games.

The Browns have since added Brock Osweiler in a trade with the Houston Texans, though that trade was largely-viewed as a cash-for-picks swap, with the Browns “paying” for picks by taking on Osweiler’s contract in which he is owed $47 million over the next three seasons, including $16 million this season.

A year ago, the No. 52 pick (linebacker Deion Jones to the Atlanta Falcons) received a four-year, $4.546 million contract with a $1.506 million signing bonus.

Hall of fame running back and Browns legend Jim Brown announced the selection of Kizer at the draft festivities.

Speculation a year ago pegged Kizer as an early first-round pick. As the draft approached, projections of his slot varied widely, many including a second-round status. Despite first-round theatrics leading to three quarterbacks going in the first 12 picks Thursday night, Kizer had to wait another day before learning where he will start his NFL career. (more…)

Friday at 4: ‘Attention to detail’ includes Notre Dame Stadium

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Brian Kelly proselytized multiple abstract concepts this spring. By the end of the 15 practices and subsequent media sessions, even the Irish coach knew some of his references to “grit” would be met by muted eye rolls from the press. If a questioner included the word in their query, Kelly reacted with tongue-in-cheek approval, “You’ve been listening.”

In his press conference the day before spring practices commenced, Kelly used the phrase “attention to detail” six separate times. While he was referring to his players on the football field, Kelly could have also been discussing the ongoing—but supposedly close to finished—construction at Notre Dame Stadium known as Campus Crossroads.

The three buildings around the exterior of the Stadium, the added suites and the video board above the south end zone have garnered the headlines. On a macro level, those are the changes of note. On a micro level, however, other details have trickled into the public stream of knowledge as the work nears its conclusion.

Over the weekend—and now reignited by a column from the South Bend Tribune’s Mike Vorel—the image of the newly-added visitors’ tunnel delighted Irish fans. Vorel likens the narrow entry to “the spot they’d stash the gladiators before feeding them to starving tigers in The Coliseum.” Assuredly, Vorel is going for dramatic effect, and it must work considering its citation here, but even a realistic view of the tunnel’s effects bodes well.

If nothing else, Notre Dame players should enjoy something of a psychological boost when racing out of their adult-sized tunnel and seeing their opponent trickle out of a tunnel seemingly-sized for ants. (Yes, the north end zone tunnel is at least three times bigger than the visitors’ tunnel.)

That pale, slanted staircase holds none of the luxuries of the home team’s entrance, something Kelly went out of his way to praise after using it in Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. (more…)

Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers

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You want complete honesty? The linebacker version of this series includes no revelations, no unexpected developments, no surprising spring performances. There is an allusion to a position switch, sure, but this piece became much simpler with the rover being discussed separately Thursday.

The idea was to capitalize on the NFL Draft for the morning and let the linebackers slip by in the afternoon, noticed only by those twiddling their thumbs through the last hours of the work week. Alas, former Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer was not drafted in the first round and a brief recap of his draft destination will need to await at least another day. Programming note: The NFL Draft reconvenes tonight (Friday) at 7 p.m. ET. The Green Bay Packers are on the clock. They will not draft a quarterback.

But back to the linebackers. This piece may have been intended to slip by with little fanfare, but that is not indicative of the Irish linebackers. Where Notre Dame was is so similar to where Notre Dame is simply because two experienced senior captains lead the way at linebacker.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
Aside from questions about defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s rover position, only one question stood out about this linebacker group: Who would start alongside senior Nyles Morgan: senior Greer Martini or junior Te’von Coney?

A year ago Coney recorded the fourth-most tackles on the team with 62. Martini finished fifth with 55, and his seven tackles for loss, including three sacks, dwarfed Coney’s 1.5. Yet Coney technically started nine games compared to Martini’s four.

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

With the rover often lining up essentially as a linebacker, there would only be space for one of Martini or Coney in most formations.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
In his first season with the Irish, Elko will have quite a luxury in referring to Coney as a backup linebacker. In some respects, that designation was inevitable as soon as Martini was named a captain. Nonetheless, Coney will see plenty of playing time.

The two captains—along with fellow captain, senior Drue Tranquill at rover—will be counted on throughout the summer and fall camp to continue the defense’s growth in Elko’s system. Elko said he installed “close to 50 percent” of his entire defense throughout spring practice. The linebackers must deal with the most difficult aspects of that learning.

“There’s been a noticeable improvement in terms of this starting to look like the defense we want this to look like as spring has gone on,” Elko said a week ago. “… Linebacker probably more than any other position, linebacker and safety, where the scheme takes some time to get used to, how you see it, how you fit it, how you feel it. Those guys have gotten better with that which has then allowed them to play faster as the spring has moved on.”

Sophomore Jonathan Jones will likely provide any further depth that may be needed in 2017, unless either of the incoming freshmen, David Adams and Drew White, excel from the outset. Irish coach Brian Kelly indicated sophomore Jamir Jones (no relation to Jonathan, but is former Notre Dame defensive lineman Jarron Jones’ brother) may be destined for time on the defensive line, in large part to Jones’s continued growth. Junior Josh Barajas let the spring come and go without mandating he be involved in these conversations, which may as well count as removing himself from the conversation in most regards.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame Was, Is & Could Be: Rover