Kirby Smart, CJ Mosley

Irish offense ready to challenge Alabama secondary

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — With hundreds of reporters sifting through storylines looking for a new angle under every nook and cranny, Irish All-American Tyler Eifert ended up supplying the closest thing to bulletin board material this morning, when he called a Crimson Tide secondary that had to replace three NFL draft picks, well — human.

“They’re not perfect,” Eifert said. “They’re not supermen. They’re a really good defense, but they have weaknesses, too.”

And with that, the reports were off and running.

An hour later, when Notre Dame players and coaches departed and Alabama players and coaches took their turn with the media, suddenly a Crimson Tide defense Eifert called “the best defense we face all year,” was feeling challenged.

“They’re going to pick out something, a position or anything, to say they’re going to exploit. It’s not just Notre Dame. Any team will,” All-American Dee Milner told reporters. “I’m glad they chose the secondary. That just makes me want to play more.

“Hopefully when we get out on Monday night, we can showcase that we’re not a secondary that’s intimidated or can be messed with at all.”

Trying to find even a sliver of disrespect in anything Eifert or other Irish players said this morning would take an active imagination. But keying on the battle between Notre Dame’s pass catchers and Alabama’s secondary is wise. Because that’s going to be the Irish’s best bet to pick up yards by the chunk, especially after watching Texas A&M and Georgia have some success in the passing game.

If there’s been any consistent kryponite against the Tide secondary, it’s the NFL. Replacing first round draft picks Mark Barron and Dre Kirkpatrick was no easy task. And while Dee Milliner looks well on his way to hearing his name called early as well, the Tide have had to rebuild their secondary with junior-college transfer Deion Belue, underclassmen Tino Sunseri and Haha Clinton-Dix, joining the lone returning starter Robert Lester. It’s hardly the cobbled together group that Notre Dame runs out there, but that’s the machine that Nick Saban has built over the past few years.

And while Alabama players might be looking for motivation, defensive coordinator Kirby Smart acknowledges that Tyler Eifert and company possess some unique challenges, most leveled by the Irish’s All-American tight end.

“We haven’t faced a tight end with this much talent,” Smart said today. “The guy is a special player. People don’t give this kid enough credit for his blocking ability.

“He really forces you to play different defensively because he’s so multiple. And they do a great job as an offensive staff of managing their players and using their skill players in the right way.”

While this pass catching corps for the Irish hasn’t put up impressive individual numbers, they’ve been far better than many expected, winning one-on-one battles when their numbers were called. And if Notre Dame is going to make the kind of “big chunk” plays needed to move the ball, they’ll do it via the pass. They’ll also need Everett Golson to extend some plays, using his legs not unlike another redshirt quarterback that gave the Tide fits.

While statistically there’s not much common ground, after 40 days of scouting, Smart and the Tide defense has seen a lot of Johnny Manziel in the Irish’s dual-threat quarterback.

“The guy is a very good athlete. He’s got the ability to run the ball. He’s got extremely great arm talent,” Smart said of Golson, finding more than a few parallels. “There are a lot of similarities between the two. Both of them are youthful, and sometimes youth is a good thing. He doesn’t have a very long memory. He forgets it and he’s right back to the next play and will make another big play.”

Drue Tranquill named first-team Academic All-American

Drue Tranquill
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Drue Tranquill was named a first-team Academic All-American. The junior safety, who returned from his second major knee injury during his three-year career, earned the honors after posting a 3.74 GPA in mechanical engineering.

Tranquill is Notre Dame’s first academic All-American since Corey Robinson earned the honor after the 2014 season. He finished second on the team in tackles with 79 and lead the team in solo stops with 52. He also had two TFLs and an interception.

Tranquill is Notre Dame’s 60th Academic All-American, the third-most of any school behind Nebraska and Penn State. He’s active in the university community, serving as a mentor for the Core Leadership Team for Lifeworks Ministry, and is a member of Notre Dame Christian Athletes. He is a also member of the Student-Athlete Advisory Council (SAAC) and Rosenthal Leadership Academy.

 

Postseason Mailbag: Now Open

SAN ANTONIO, TX - NOVEMBER 12: Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly leads his team onto the field before the start of their game against Army in a NCAA college football game at the Alamodome on November 12, 2016 in San Antonio, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)
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It’s been too long. Let’s talk about the season, the decisions ahead and where Notre Dame stands after its nightmare of a 2016 season.

Drop your questions on Twitter @KeithArnold or in the comments below.

 

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If you’re interested in hearing my recap on the USC game and where Notre Dame’s goes now that the season is over, give a listen to the latest episode of Blown Coverage, with Newsweek’s John Walters. 

 

Report: Zaire set to depart with graduate transfer

Malik Zaire
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The wheels are in motion for Malik Zaire‘s exit from Notre Dame. What felt like an inevitability after Zaire lost out to DeShone Kizer after the Texas game is now a reality, as the Ohio native is expected to receive his release tomorrow, according to a report from Pete Sampson at Irish Illustrated.

Sampson identified four programs as potential landing spots for Zaire: Florida, Pitt, Michigan State and Wisconsin, Power Five programs that all had better seasons (minus the Spartans) than Notre Dame. All have uncertainty atop their quarterback depth chart, though none look like guaranteed jobs.

With Notre Dame out of a bowl, Zaire can get a jump start on looking around, capable of taking visits and finding a home after the semester. That would let him join a program in time for spring drills, where he’d compete and be able to play out his final year of eligibility.

When Zaire leaves he’ll join a line of recent quarterbacks to finish their eligibility elsewhere. Dayne Crist, Andrew Hendrix, Gunner Kiel and Everett Golson all either played or were recruited by Brian Kelly and finished their careers elsewhere. That could leave a scenario—one many predict—where the top-two on Notre Dame’s depth chart depart, Kizer to the NFL and Zaire elsewhere, turning the keys over to Brandon Wimbush who redshirted this season.

Tillery apologizes for actions during USC game

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Sophomore Jerry Tillery issued an apology for two controversial incidents against USC. Notre Dame’s defensive tackle was flagged for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after a referee caught him stepping on Zach Banner‘s ankle. Cameras also spotted him intentionally hitting Aca’Cedric Ware‘s head after the Trojan running back was injured after a collision with Nicco Fertitta.

Tillery wrote on Twitter:

“I want to take full responsibility for my actions on Saturday. I am truly sorry. I acted in a way that was out of character for me. What I displayed in those two instances were completely unbecoming and not indicative of the kind of player or person I am. My actions in those two instances do not represent what my family or Notre Dame has molded me to be. I want to especially apologize to Aca’Cedric, Zach, their families and anyone else affected by what I did. I assure you I will learn and grow from this moment and become a better man because of it.”

While the backlash on social media has been harsh, USC head coach Clay Helton downplayed it.

“It was a poor decision by a young person. I know it’s not Notre Dame football and I know that’s not Brian Kelly,” Helton said. “He’s been a class act the whole way and I know he’ll address it with his player and handle it in a way that he sees fit. I have always found Brian to be a man of class and integrity.”

Ware himself responded via Twitter, doing his best to put the incident to rest.

Kelly stated after the game that he’d review the incidents, both plays Kelly didn’t see happen live. With the season over, Tillery’s discipline will be handled internally.