Alabama wide receiver Cooper celebrates after scoring a touchdown in the fourth quarter during the NCAA SEC college football championship in Atlanta.

And in that corner… The Alabama Crimson Tide

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MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — Are we ready yet? After 40 days, there’s little to discuss that hasn’t already be covered for the past few weeks. But before we call no joy, it is worth at least discussing the very real difference that comes along with beach in South Florida right now. Just about every Alabama fan in town completely expects Notre Dame to get throttled.

Of course, on a night like tonight, optimism reigns supreme. When a guy like Mike Golic decides to cast away ESPN and play the role of Irish cheerleader, you know things are good. But for thousands of Irish fans,  being at the pep rally, listening to the Irish marching band, and hearing inspirational words from guys like actor Martin Short, Pat Terrell, Tony Rice, and Lou Holtz makes some sense.

Looking for the opposite perspective, I tracked down Don Kausler Jr., writer for the AL.com team of newspapers. Don and his crew have been spitting out stories just about on the hour since they arrived in Fort Lauderdale, so getting his perspective on the proceedings would be critical.

After pumping out a few thousand words, I asked questions and Don thankfully gave the answers.

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1. Most Notre Dame fans watched Alabama dismantle Michigan to open the season and slide by Georgia with a tremendous comeback in the SEC Championship. How good is this team? Could they be as good as the team that had five players drafted in the first 35 picks?

This is a very good team, maybe a great team, but it has a few flaws. The offense sometimes disappears in third quarters, but it has set a single-season school record with 500 points. The defense has four shutouts, and the first-team defense held two other opponents to no points, but LSU, Texas A&M and Georgia found ways to move the ball and score. It’s easier to throw than to run on this defense, and the Crimson Tide has been vulnerable to mobile quarterbacks. It contained the running of Michigan’s Denard Robinson, but he connected on two long passes. LSU’s Zach Mettenberger completed 24-35 passes for 298 yards and one touchdown. Georgia’s Aaron Murray completed 18-33 passes for 265 yards and one touchdown.

2. It appears that the Crimson Tide are battling a few injuries to some key players. How are Barrett Jones and Jesse Williams healing? How important are they to Alabama’s success?

Both have healed. Williams never missed practicing time. He has worn a brace on his sprained knee. Jones missed Alabama’s first nine postseason practices while recovering from a sprained foot. Both will start. Will either one play at 100 percent? That remains to be seen. Williams probably will be used only in situations where running is anticipated. Jones played essentially on one leg for three quarters in the SEC Championship Game, and he helped Alabama rush for 350 yards.

3. Notre Dame enters the national title game undefeated and ranked first in the nation, yet they’re decided underdogs. How does Nick Saban and the Alabama staff view Notre Dame’s personnel? Does it match-up to the SEC’s best?

 Saban and Alabama players have had nothing but great things to say about Notre Dame’s personnel. We’ve heard many comparisons between the Fighting Irish and SEC teams. Some Alabama players have said Notre Dame’s defense reminds them of Georgia’s star-studded unit that features three probable NFL first-round draft picks.

4. It looks like it’ll be strength vs. strength on January 7th when Alabama’s offensive line takes on Notre Dame’s front seven. Any individual match-up worth keeping a closer eye on?

Definitely keep an eye in the middle, where Alabama center Barrett Jones and Notre Dame nose guard Louis Nix III will battle. Alabama loves to run inside-zone plays, and if Jones can handle Nix solo, guards Chance Warmack and Anthony Steen will be able to block linebackers. If not, look for double teams, and Notre Dame linebackers might be able to clog running lanes.

5. Skill-wise, Notre Dame hasn’t faced a team with talent like Alabama. Irish fans know about the two-headed monster of Eddie Lacy and TJ Yeldon. Who else should they be worried about?

Freshman wide receiver Amari Cooper is dynamic and has emerged as a deep threat in recent games. Junior quarterback AJ McCarron is a savvy leader who seldom makes mistakes (26 TD passes vs. 3 interceptions). He is particularly dangerous on play-action passes that usually are set up by success on the ground. If Notre Dame pays too much attention to stopping Alabama’s running game, McCarron could make the Irish pay with passes. He will take what the defense gives up.

6. One issue that seems to stay below the mainstream radar is Oversigning. From 2008-12, the Tide signed 32 + 27 + 26 + 22 + 26 players, making the management of 85 scholarships difficult. Saban spoke delicately about the issue last year. Has anything changed in the SEC? Can you attribute some of the SEC’s dominance to the conference’s propensity to sign oversized recruiting classes?

Saban has gotten some grief, and he’s sensitive to the criticism, but he plays within the rules. Those rules changed in 2011. The SEC reduced the number of players a school can sign in one year from 28 to 25. “Back counting” is allowed for early enrollees if the program is under the 85-scholarship limit. Saban has offered some players “grayshirts,” meaning they sit out the fall semester and enroll in the spring. Skeptics say Saban engages in “roster management.” He says players create their own exits. That is, some leave because they don’t want to sit on Alabama’s bench. Some leave because they aren’t making good grades. Some are offered medical scholarships if they no longer are healthy enough to play. Ultimately, room typically is made for a maximum number of signees each year.

***

Special thanks to Don for getting me answers in a really busy week. For more, check out his Twitter feed and check out Al.com’s coverage of the national championship.

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Karlos Williams #9 of the Florida State Seminoles scores the touchdown that would win the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their game at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.

With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.

The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.

Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.

Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.

If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.

Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order: (more…)

Four-star WR Micah Jones chooses Irish; Rees may need to wait; Other late-week reading

jones
rivals.com
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A day may come when Notre Dame suffers a recruiting disappointment in the 2018 cycle, when a high school star spurns the Irish coaching staff for a foe, but it is not this day.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township High School; Gurnee, Ill.) committed to Notre Dame on Friday, joining a class of now 10 recruits, including four who committed just this week.

Jones chose the Irish over offers from the likes of Iowa, Michigan State and Ole Miss, among others.

He is the first receiver among the 10 commitments and the seventh considered a four-star prospect. At 6-foot-5, 196 pounds, Jones should present a large target for whomever the Notre Dame quarterback is in the fall of 2018, most likely then-senior Brandon Wimbush.

Tom, Tommy or Thomas; Assistant Coach or Graduate Assistant?
Thomas Rees may need to wait a season before officially being a coach at Notre Dame. The legislation to approve a 10th assistant coach was expected to be voted on, passed and effective in April. A newly-added amendment may push the effective date to following the 2017 season. The amendment will be voted on immediately before the legislation itself is.

The delay makes sense. Most coaching hirings and firings occur in December and January. In theory, creating a one-timing hiring frenzy following spring football could leave many programs in the lurch. In practice, however, this is not anticipated.

“The majority of the FBS guys that I’ve talked with currently believe that 10th coach is going to come from within their own organization,” Todd Berry told the Associated Press. Berry is the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association and former coach at Army and Louisiana-Monroe. “Quality control, graduate assistants, analysts, or they’re planning on hiring somebody that’s out of work.”

A majority is not a unanimity, though, and that carousel will innately work to the disadvantage of the Group of 5 schools.

As for Rees, a graduate assistant can still work extensively with players. The most-pertinent difference between a graduate assistant and an assistant coach is the former cannot recruit. Given Notre Dame’s recent success on the recruiting trail—and the early commitment of class of 2018 consensus four-star quarterback Phil Jurkovec (Pine-Richland H.S.; Gibsonia, Pa.)—Rees may not be an absolute necessity in that regard this cycle.

A Kizer Appraisal
Former NFL scout Greg Gabriel took a look at former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer this week, largely paying the draft prospect compliments.

In calling Kizer “the most talented quarterback in this draft class,” Gabriel set a high ceiling for Kizer’s spring. Part of Gabriel’s positive assessment comes from acknowledging Kizer’s responsibilities as the Irish signal-caller.

“The spread offense that Kizer played in at Notre Dame is more sophisticated than many of the spread offenses we see elsewhere at the collegiate level. The Notre Dame offense is a whole-field read scheme in which the quarterback has to go through a progression that encompasses both sides of the field. He also can change the play and/or protections at the line of scrimmage. Given all that, Kizer was asked to do more than many spread quarterbacks are asked to do.”

Gabriel also reflected on the dynamic differences for Kizer in 2015 and 2016 and what may have elicited some of his seeming stagnation.

“There was the unnecessary quarterback controversy at Notre Dame, and the offensive line wasn’t as experienced or as talented and the receivers were mostly first-year starters.”

As much as Gabriel raves about Kizer, he would be the first to tell you anything beyond individual player evaluation is a waste of air this early in the draft process. Mock drafts may be fun, but they are not much beyond that.

Take the fates of Tony Romo and Jimmy Garoppolo, for example. Few, if any, in the NFL expect them to dress for the Cowboys and Patriots, respectively, again. Where they end up could directly impact Kizer’s draft placement.

Jaylon Smith May Be Back to Form
Former Notre Dame and current Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith posted yet another encouraging video to Twitter. This one shows Smith really might be game-ready right now and, if not, almost certainly will be by the fall. Should there be any difficulty with the embedded video below, here is a link straight to it.

OL Mabry makes third commitment this week; WR Jones may follow Friday

mabry
rivals.com
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Two weeks ago, Irish coach Brian Kelly gave a non-answer of an answer to a question about a likely early signing period this coming December. Avoiding specifics, he indicated he thinks the effects of such a change will be seen on a case-by-case basis entirely dependent on the recruits.

“Some will, some won’t,” Kelly said. “…Each kid is going to have to react to it based upon also how their school is going to be dealing with it. Some will come off the board at the time.

“We’re expecting some to sign early, but I think our mindset is we’re going into it business as usual. We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

After this week, Notre Dame is going to have more year-long fights than anticipated. Consensus three-star offensive lineman recruit Cole Mabry (Brentwood High School; Brentwood, Tenn.) became the third prospect to offer a verbal commitment to the Irish coaching staff in less than 36 hours with his Wednesday decision. Mabry received the offer over the weekend, but waited a few days before making his decision public, lest emotions be dictating his thought process.

At 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds, Mabry will have time to add muscle to his frame, with four or five offensive tackles greeting him on the Notre Dame roster in the summer of 2018. That ability to mold his style and growth may have played a part in the Irish interest.

“They love my height and athleticism and how I play,” Mabry told rivals.com. “We got to break down film and go through things that they do that pair up with how I play now. They think I’ll be a great fit in their offense.”

Mabry is the ninth Notre Dame commitment in the class of 2018, though the first offensive lineman.

Judging by new Notre Dame director of football performance Matt Balis’s agenda for the Irish roster’s Valentine’s Day morning, Mabry will have much to look forward to in terms of strength and conditioning.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township H.S.; Gurnee, Ill.) is scheduled to announce his verbal commitment this Friday at 4 p.m. ET. Along with Notre Dame, Jones is considering Iowa, Michigan State, Nebraska, Ole Miss, Illinois and Northwestern. He would be the first receiver in Notre Dame’s 2018 class. Naturally, whomever Jones commits to, the recruiting fight will last until at least December, and perhaps all the way to February.

Notre Dame adds two top defensive back commits; Elliott officially a ‘Husker

allen
rivals.com
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It’s early. It’s really, really early. Not in the day, though this post is scheduled for an a.m. hour. No, it is early in the 2018 recruiting cycle. Any piece of news, each commitment, everything should be taken with two grains of salt.

Nonetheless, Notre Dame—and more specifically, new Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko and defensive backs coach Todd Lyght—enjoyed Tuesday’s recruiting news when two consensus four-star coverage men committed to the Irish.

Safety Derrik Allen (Lassiter High School; Marietta, Ga.) and cornerback Kalon Gervin (Cass Tech; Detroit, Mich.) joined a class of now eight commitments, six of which play on the defensive side of the ball.

Gervin, the No. 11 cornerback in the class according to rivals.com, waited mere days after attending Notre Dame’s Junior Day over the weekend. Irish coach Brian Kelly and staff’s failure to land a recruit at Gervin’s position in the 2017 haul actually helped reel in the recruit with offers from Florida, LSU, Michigan and dozens others.

“The opportunity to play right away, they didn’t sign a cornerback this last class,” Gervin told Blue & Gold Illustrated helped sway him. “Also, the education is second-to-none. It speaks for itself.”

Allen, pictured at top, has leaned toward Notre Dame for months. The No. 3 safety in the country per Rivals, he chose the Irish over the likes of Alabama, Clemson and Florida State.

Elliott officially to Nebraska

The two highly-touted defensive backs will not have the chance to learn under the tutelage of Bob Elliott. Nebraska officially announced the hiring of the former Notre Dame safeties (2012-13) and linebackers (2014) coach. Elliott spent the last two seasons serving as a special assistant to Kelly, focusing largely on defending the triple-option attacks of Army, Navy and Georgia Tech.

Elliott rejoins former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco in Lincoln. Diaco was hired as the Cornhuskers’ defensive coordinator in January.

The Lincoln Journal Star’s Brian Cristopherson reports Elliott will make a nice wage in eastern Nebraska.