Spring Solutions: Secondary

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After years where numbers dwindled, spring in the secondary will be a different picture. With a depth chart that rolls almost three deep, Kerry Cooks and Bob Elliott have their hands full as they continue to develop a position group that was the most surprising on the roster last season.

But even with their solid play, there’s plenty of work to do for the Irish secondary. At safety, there’ll be plenty of open competition, as Zeke Motta’s departure leaves no clear-cut leader at safety. With Bennett Jackson out for the spring healing from shoulder surgery, it also gives important snaps to a handful of cornerbacks that need to push their way into the playing rotation before three talented youngsters join them in the fall.

Let’s take a look at the Irish secondary, first the depth chart and then some spring objectives.

SECONDARY DEPTH CHART

Bennett Jackson, Sr. (recovering from surgery)
KeiVarae Russell, Soph.
Lo Wood, Sr.
Elijah Shumate, Soph.
Jalen Brown, Jr.
Josh Atkinson, Jr.

Matthias Farley, Jr.
Austin Collinsworth, Sr.
Eilar Hardy, Jr.
Nicky Baratti, Soph.
CJ Prosise, Soph.
John Turner, Soph.
Chris Badger, Soph.

SPRING OBJECTIVES:

Bennett Jackson: Get healthy. Jackson played much of last season with his shoulder in a harness. Taking the spring to get healthy is a luxury the senior cornerback can afford, especially after an impressive 2012 campaign.

KeiVarae Russell: Speaking of impressive 2012s, there might not have been one more impressive than Russell’s. The true freshman converted from running back and stepped immediately into the starting lineup. Outside of being beat long in the season opener, Russell played nicely throughout the season, showing the type of competitor he is as he gained confidence throughout the season.

Building off 2012 will be important for Russell, who needs to add some heft to his frame and continue to work on his speed and quickness out of breaks. Taking Russell’s game from impressive freshman season to just plain impressive should be the objective.

Lo Wood: After a heart-breaking Achilles tear took Wood off the field for 2012, coming back and feeling comfortable this spring should be enough of a reward. The injury couldn’t have come at a less advantageous time, with Wood garnering almost universal praise from the coaching staff for his hard work, which had all but locked him into the starting field-cornerback job.

Wood’s healthy return would mean a lot to the Irish secondary, adding another cover man to two proven entities. There’s every reason to believe Wood will be given the opportunity to fight Russell for the starting job, and at the very least will add some nice depth at the nickel, giving the unit some versatility.

Elijah Shumate: After sliding down to cornerback early in the season, Shumate showed a nose for the football, making more than a few big plays breaking up passes while covering slot receivers. Physically, Shumate has all the tools to be a boundary cornerback, with an impressive physicality to go along with speed that played well enough in his debut season.

It’s worth watching what the staff does with Shumate, who has some positional versatility. If the cornerback jobs are locked up, expect him to get a chance to fight for time at safety as well.

Jalen Brown: It’s not now or never time for Brown, as the junior needs to have a sense of urgency this spring. With three young corners coming in and a younger starter already in front of him, the 6-foot-1 Texan has the size and length the Irish are looking for in cornerbacks, but he’ll need to have that translate onto the field.

John Atkinson: Brown’s write-up could basically be echoed for Atkinson. Heading into his junior season, Atkinson is in danger of getting buried on the depth chart if he doesn’t have a good spring. To his credit, the speedster is taking off the track season to focus on football. But he’ll need to continue to hone his technique this spring as he builds confidence in coverage.

Matthias Farley: After filling in more than admirably last season, Farley heads into spring practice likely in the starting lineup, but still in need of mental and physical reps. The converted wide receiver made a more than impressive debut in the secondary, playing tough and physical near the line of scrimmage (even with a broken hand) while also holding up fine in coverage.

Austin Collinsworth: After an impressive spring, Collinsworth was injured during the Blue-Gold game, a tough break for a versatile defensive back that had stated his case for a lot of playing time. With a shoulder surgery keeping him out for most of the season, Collinsworth also had a back procedure, one similar to the surgery that Tyler Eifert had early in his career.

If there’s a guy that feels ready to step into the starting lineup, it’s Collinsworth. He’s a heady player and while it might take him some time to get up to speed physically, he’s a veteran that the defensive staff can trust in center field.

Eilar Hardy: These are 15 important practices for Hardy, who suffered a knee injury early in his career and spent most of last season buried on the depth chart. Entering his junior season, Hardy needs to show that he’s no longer suffering any ill effects from the knee, and also flash some of the ability that had many believing he was one of the elite recruits in his class.

Nicky Baratti: After an impressive freshman season, Baratti has to feel like he’s in the mix for a starting job. The youngster had a key interception and played significant minutes in crunch time, showing his worth in a unit that was in desperate need of bodies. This spring, Baratti will build on his debut, hoping to be the type of heavy hitter that roams the back-end of the secondary, capable of playing in the box or over the top.

CJ Prosise: If there’s an intriguing wildcard in the secondary this spring it’s Prosise, who spent time moonlighting at outside linebacker before officially saving a year of eligibility. At 6-foot-2, Prosise has great size for the position, and he’s got plenty of speed to spare as well. (I’m curious to see where Prosise weighs in when the updated roster is released.) He’s the type of player that should provide some positional flexibility as well.

John Turner: The Indianapolis native will take his redshirt off as well, bringing another big body to the back end of the defense. Questions about Turner’s speed have been around forever – even the Irish coaching staff waited to watch him run at their clinic before offering him a scholarship. But Turner will likely make an impact on special teams quickly, with the perfect physique needed for cover teams.

Chris Badger: After re-acclimating himself to football after a two year mission, Badger now jumps into a positional battle that many see him as an underdog in. It’s been a long time since we’ve had a chance to watch Badger play, but the guy we saw on tape, and the one that Charlie Weis offered a scholarship, was a physical safety that wasn’t afraid to play down in the box. At 6-foot, 193-pounds, Badger doesn’t have elite speed, but we’ll see if the football instincts he showed in his prep career can thrust him into the positional race.

Turnovers tip toward Notre Dame in a 38-18 victory at Michigan State

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Statistically, Notre Dame did not outplay Michigan State in the 38-18 Irish victory Saturday night. After all, the Spartans outgained Notre Dame by 142 yards. Even if ignoring the fourth quarter when the Irish had the game in hand, Michigan State matched Notre Dame.

One thing made the difference.

Rather, three things, as in two fumble recoveries and an interception.

“The story here is defensively we were taking the football away,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “… Rushing yards don’t really matter much, passing yards don’t matter much when you can take the football away and capitalize on it in the red zone.”

Indeed.

Notre Dame averaged 4.79 yards per carry on 39 rushes (sacks adjusted). The Irish converted eight of 14 third downs, a season-high rate of 57.1 percent. They reached the red zone four times and scored four touchdowns on those drives.

But the game hinged entirely on those three turnovers.

“Obviously, with those turnovers, being minus three [in turnover margin] in the first half createda b ig 14-point swing, number one,” Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio said. “… Ultimately, the turnovers are what crushes you.”

Notre Dame’s Shaun Crawford recovers a fumble in the end zone for a touchback after stripping the ball from Michigan State’s LJ Scott (3), preventing a Spartans touchdown in Saturday’s second quarter. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
Notre Dame led only 21-7 with Michigan State driving. This was still a genuine contest as Spartans junior running back L.J. Scott headed toward the end zone with 6:23 remaining in the second quarter.

Instead, Irish junior cornerback Shaun Crawford caught Scott at the end of his 15-yard rumble for the goal line. Inches before he crossed it, Crawford punched the ball loose, a move he later directly attributed to studying film of former Chicago Bears defensive back Charles “Peanut” Tillman. Crawford tracked down the ball in the end zone, turning a touchdown into a touchback.

He quite literally prevented a touchdown. Notre Dame got the ball back. Five plays later Irish junior running back Dexter Williams scored from 14 yards out, opening up the margin to 28-7. Michigan State would not get within two possessions the rest of the night.

PLAY OF THE GAME
Obviously, the play of the game is Crawford’s forced and recovered fumble. Rarely is one single play worth six points. Other moments lead up to it or a subsequent success could have replicated the effect. In this instance, however, Crawford’s savvy was worth exactly six points all on its own. Not to mention, it then led to an Irish scoring drive.

Honorable mention should certainly go to sophomore cornerback Julian Love’s 59-yard interception return for a touchdown. Love jumped Spartans quarterback Brian Lewerke’s throw so cleanly there was never any doubt about his arrival in the end zone once he secured the ball. Thanks to the defensive highlight, Notre Dame led 14-0 before even five minutes of the game had passed.

To be sure to mention the third turnover of the evening, pictured above, senior linebacker Greer Martini chased Lewerke to the sideline, popping the ball loose as he tackled the quarterback. Irish sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes landed on the fumble at Michigan State’s 24-yard line. It took all of six plays for Notre Dame to gain the 24 yards, culminating with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush finding Williams in the end zone from eight yards out, bringing the score to the aforementioned 21-7.

Crawford’s stellar defensive play came on the ensuing Spartans drive.

OVERLOOKED POINT OF THE GAME
Michigan State received the kickoff to start the second half. Trailing 28-7, a definitive touchdown drive would have returned some intrigue to the evening. The Spartans alternated three Scott rushes for a methodical 17 yards with Lewerke darts downfield, completing an 18-yarder to junior tight end Matt Sokol and a 20-yard pass to sophomore receiver Trishton Jackson, Michigan State did not need much time to reach the red zone.

On a third-and-six from the 20-yard line, Lewerke had some time to find a receiver. Irish sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara made sure it was not too much time, notching a two-yard sack.

The yardage of the loss was not important. Ending the drive shy of the end zone was. The Spartans opted for a 40-yard field goal, but cutting the Notre Dame lead to 18 did not have much of an effect on anyone’s urgency.

Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s sole passing touchdown Saturday night came when he found junior running back Dexter Williams along the sideline after Wimbush evaded pressure. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

PLAYER OF THE GAME
A week ago, this space would not give this nod to junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush despite his rushing for 207 yards and four touchdowns. To be fair, that was primarily a credit to junior running back Josh Adams’ work against Boston College.

Today, Wimbush gets it. He rushed for only 57 yards and one touchdown on seven carries, but out of the gates he attacked the Spartans with his arm. Finishing 14-of-20 for 173 yards and one touchdown through the air may not sound like much, but it was enough of a threat to keep Michigan State’s defense on its heels.

“We can probably move on about he can’t throw it,” Kelly said. “He’s just got the ability to do a lot at that position.”

The first play from scrimmage was a 10-yard completion to sophomore receiver Chase Claypool. Every play of the 78-yard drive was a pass attempt until the final two plays, both Wimbush carries, the latter a 16-yard touchdown run on a designed draw.

A week ago Wimbush managed only 96 passing yards. On the opening drive at Michigan State, he threw for 62. Any plans the Spartans had of forcing him to beat them with his arm went out the window. Wimbush clearly was up to the task.

STAT OF THE GAME
More accurately, it is a stat of the season.

Through four games, Notre Dame is allowing 18.25 points per game. No matter who the opponents have been, that is a promising number for 2017 through four games.

Last season that mark was 27.83. To provide more context, consider some of last year’s “better” performances. For outlying purposes and weather acknowledgements, discard the six points the Irish allowed Army and the 10 scored by North Carolina State in a literal hurricane. Notre Dame’s next best four defensive performances by points allowed were against Nevada (10 points), Stanford (10), Miami (27) and Navy (28). Those average to 20.5 points per game.

UNEXPECTED FACT OF THE NIGHT
Sophomore running back Deon McIntosh led Notre Dame in carries with 12, gaining 35 yards and scoring a touchdown. His increase in workload was a result of the Irish enjoying a comfortable lead and sophomore running back Tony Jones spending the evening in street clothes due to a sprained ankle.

Adams took nine rushes for 56 yards. Williams needed eight carries to gain 40 yards and a score. By no means did either struggle, but neither will complain at a night light on bumps and bruises yet complete with a victory.

“[Adams] is our bell cow, if you will, and we’re going to continue to utilize his physicality at the position,” Kelly said. “We think Dexter Williams is a great complementary back in terms of what he can do, and you saw what Deon was capable of. He runs hard. He’s a tough kid with a burst. [Jones] wasn’t able to go but we’ll get him back most likely next week.

“We think we’re very fortunate that we’ve got some depth at that position.”

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
“Statistics can lie to you.” — Dantonio.

He is not wrong.

SCORING SUMMARY

First Quarter
13:05 — Notre Dame touchdown. Brandon Wimbush 16-yard rush. Justin Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Michigan State 0. (7 plays, 78 yards, 1:55)
10:33 — Notre Dame touchdown. Julian Love 59-yard interception return. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 14, Michigan State 0.
6:33 — Michigan State touchdown. Darrell Stewart four-yard reception from Brian Lewerke. Matt Coghlin PAT good.  Notre Dame 14, Michigan State 7. (7 plays, 75 yards, 4:00)

Second Quarter
9:32 —Notre Dame touchdown. Dexter Williams eight-yard reception from Wimbush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 21, Michigan State 7. (6 plays, 24 yards, 2:23)
4:47 — Notre Dame touchdown. Williams 14-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 28, Michigan State 7. (5 plays, 80 yards, 1:34)

Third Quarter
11:13 — Michigan State field goal. Coghlin from 40 yards. Notre Dame 28, Michigan State 10. (9 plays, 53 yards, 3:38)
7:46 — Notre Dame touchdown. Deon McIntosh nine-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 35, Michigan State 10. (8 plays, 62 yards, 3:19)

Fourth Quarter
4:51 — Notre Dame field goal. Yoon from 46 yards. Notre Dame 38, Michigan State 10. (10 plays, 66 yards, 5:01)
3:09 — Michigan State touchdown. Gerald Holmes 25-yard reception from Lewerke. Two-point conversion good, Cody White reception from Lewerke. Notre Dame 38, Michigan State 18. (7 plays, 71 yards, 1:35)

Notre Dame at Michigan State: Who, what, when, where, why and by how much

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WHO? Notre Dame at Michigan State. Many years, this matchup would warrant anticipatory headlines. In this rendition, two teams coming off historically-disappointing seasons are looking to prove they are on the path back to top-flight competitiveness.

WHAT? As may become a theme this season, this will come down to how the Irish offensive line fares against the Spartans’ defensive front seven.

WHEN? 8:00 p.m. ET. Kickoff is scheduled for 8:12, though if the preceding game runs long, a five-minute contingency should be expected. At that point, though, the game will begin one way or another.

WHERE? Spartans Stadium, East Lansing, Mich. Years ago, a venture to this site is where I first learned a traveler’s rule of thumb: Never make a trip where the roundtrip travel is longer than the time spent at the destination. I have since violated the rule a total of once, when the New York Yankees visited the Detroit Tigers in the 2011 divisional round. The wrong team won. Speaking of baseball and apropos of nothing else aside from being reminded of it this week, Cy Young threw 749 complete games, a full 110 more than the next-most in history, Pud Galvin’s 639.

Fox has the broadcast this week. Aside from that meaning Gus Johnson will be providing the exhilarating play-by-play, not sure what else to share about that fact.

WHY? This will be the last game — unless a bowl situation were to arise — between Notre Dame and Michigan State until 2026. Whoever wins will get to display the vaunted megaphone trophy for nearly a decade without worry. If that doesn’t get everyone’s competitive juices flowing, well, then that is not much of an indicator of anything because it is actually a pretty absurd keepsake.

(Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

BY HOW MUCH? This line moved as high as Notre Dame by five, never to this eye falling below three, and that is where it settled in as of this Friday evening typing. With a combined points total over/under of 54, the theoretical projected score would be an Irish 28-25 victory.

That might be a bit high-scoring, especially considering the performance of Notre Dame’s defense to date. If Georgia could not surpass 20 points, there is no reason to think the Spartans can.

Notre Dame 23, Michigan State 17. (2-1 record on the season.)

THIS WEEK’S INSIDE THE IRSH READING:
Monday Morning Leftovers: Notre Dame should punt less, a Georgia ticket arrest & Bob Diaco’s fate
Questions for the Week: Ankles, Claypool and Notre Dame’s history at Spartan Stadium
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Ready for a tough week for the dozen foes, but that could mean some promising upsets
MSU’s man-to-man pass D may allow Notre Dame & Wimbush to rush more; Kelly on resting Adams
Who among Notre Dame’s receivers might emerge?
And In That Corner … The Michigan State Spartans and a recovery from a 3-9 season
Things To Learn: On Notre Dame’s defensive line, offensive line and Wimbush’s road readiness
Kelly on C.J. Sanders, Kevin Stepherson and punt returns; injury update
Friday at 4: Four things you do not see

INSIDE THE IRISH COVERAGE FROM THE BOSTON COLLEGE GAME
Notre Dame rushes past Boston College and record books
Notre Dame offense may trend toward run, partly thanks to Wimbush
Things We Learned: Notre Dame lacks an aerial attack and a punt return, has a defensive future
Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Canteen out for the season, Javon McKinley probably sitting also; Kelly on blocking strategy

THIS WEEK’S OUTSIDE READING:
Georgia ticket broker arrested for overselling Notre Dame vs. Bulldogs tickets
The NFL’s Crisis on Offense … may reflect a collegiate trend
At USC, Sundays and Mondays matter just as much as Saturdays
Remembering Michigan State’s epic “Little Giants” fake field goal against Notre Dame
Joe Thomas on measuring a running attack’s success
Nebraska fired athletic director Shawn Eichorst, putting the future employment of head coach Mike Riley, and by extension his defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, in doubt
A long look at Bob Davie’s checkered past as controversy swirls in New Mexico
The Unforgettable, Inspirational CFB Gameday Inside Iowa’s Children’s Hospital
A five-by-five Pac-12 After Dark bingo card for anyone staying up late to watch UCLA at Stanford
10 years after Mike Gundy’s “I’m a man! I’m 40!” rant, the columnist it was aimed at reflects

Friday at 4: Four things you do not see

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For all the enjoyment football brings so many, it is a game predicated on one sense above all others: sight.

Sure, the atmosphere in Spartans Stadium this weekend will include the sounds of yelling fans, the smells of propane grills and the taste of cheap, domestic buds. Even the weather will trigger the feeling of sweat.

The game itself, however, needs only working eyes. There is a reason film is usually watched on mute, after all.

There are some things related to the game not seen, or not seen often, though.

Let’s start with an educational session from the NFL’s Cal Ripken — Cleveland Browns left tackle Joe Thomas

Yes, that is the same Thomas as the one drafted in the same year, in the same round, by the same team as former Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn. Quinn has not seen NFL action since getting eight starts for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2012, throwing two touchdowns compared to eight interceptions.

Thomas, meanwhile, now blocks for his second former Irish passer while on his way to a likely 11th consecutive Pro Bowl. Note: This is Thomas’ 11th year in the NFL. Not only has he started all 162 games of his career, he has now played in more than 10,000 consecutive offensive snaps.

That’s, uhhh, a lot.

Thursday morning Thomas met with reporters and offered some insights to how he gauges a successful day at the office. (Fair warning: The following embedded video does include one four-letter word. Thomas’ point is quoted and summarized below, so the video may not be necessary to view.)

“You always hear a lot about 4.0 yards per carry, which is sort of everyone’s standard,” Thomas said. “… If you look at rushing in the NFL, you go alright, we went for 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 60. And then you go, we’re rushing really well, we have a seven-yard average. But really how are you going to get the offensive coordinator to call a run again if he’s getting one and two yards and facing a third-and-seven all the time?”

Well, you’re not.

Thomas prefers “rushing efficiency,” valuing runs of more than four yards, runs gaining first downs and runs finding the end zone. If those make up at least 60 percent of rush attempts, Thomas deems it a success.

“That’s what’s going to allow you to get 20, 25, 30 carries in a game,” he said. “Then you walk out of the game feeling good about getting your 100 yards at the end of the game versus saying you didn’t have four yards a carry, but you were really efficient so you did stay ahead of the sticks, and you were able to keep the offense on the field and be in manageable third downs.”

This space has previously argued the easiest way to learn if a rushing attack is potent or not is to simply note how many running attempts it has. This parallels Thomas’ argument: If the run game is not doing what it needs to do, the coaches will stop calling running plays. The run efficiency percentage is simply a more exact metric, albeit one you cannot see in a glimpse of a box score.

How has Notre Dame fared thus far this season?

Using Thomas’ standards, the Irish had a 61.90 percent rush efficiency in the season opener (42 rushes), a 32.35 percent rating in their one loss (34) and a 66.67 percent tally in last week’s record-setting rushing performance (51). (more…)

Kelly on C.J. Sanders, Kevin Stepherson and punt returns; injury update

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In his last media availability before Notre Dame heads to face Michigan State this weekend (8 p.m. ET on Saturday, Fox), Irish coach Brian Kelly did not discuss his receiver corps at all.

Just kidding.

Of the eight topics Kelly was questioned about, five of them dealt with wideouts in some respect, perhaps spending the most time on C.J. Sanders. The junior has yet to be seen contributing on offense this season.

“It’s not that he’s really done anything from last year to this year wrong,” Kelly said. “He’s actually stronger. I think he’s a better football player. You’re going to see him on the field. … As the season progresses, he’s going to play.”

Kelly cited the blocking provided by fifth-year Arizona State transfer Cam Smith as the biggest impediment between Sanders and an immediate increase in playing time, describing Smith’s blocking as “just physically” better. With sophomore Chase Claypool also seeing time on the boundary, Sanders faces stiffer competition for playing time.

“Do you move him back into the slot?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “We’re pretty comfortable moving guys around at this point at that position because of our need to put bigger-bodied guys in the offense with the tight end at that position.”

In other words, Kelly and Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long have moved receivers such as Sanders, and even Claypool, out to the boundary because they so often remove the slot receiver from the field in favor of an additional tight end.

Injury update

Speaking of Sanders, Kelly declared him “fine” in his recovery from a sprained ankle. For that matter, sophomore running back Tony Jones will be a “game-day decision” as to his availability due to a sprained ankle suffered against Boston College.

Kevin Stepherson update

There is no indication the sophomore receiver will join Notre Dame’s offense this week. Considering Stepherson did not even travel to face the Eagles, it is quite likely he watches this weekend on a television, as well. Yet, Kelly did speak positively of Stepherson’s return from something of an absence thus far this season.

“He’s had a good month,” Kelly said. “His last month has been pretty good. He’s been pretty consistent working to do the right things in the classroom and has exhibited the things that I’ve been looking for. He’s been working out with [the team] for the last week or so.”

But, to add some emphasis here again, Kelly did not imply Stepherson will play this weekend. In fact, the exact opposite.

“He’s still got a ways to go, but he’s making progress.”

On punt returns and Chris Finke

To complete this week’s second (third? fourth?!) receiver recap, Kelly defended junior receiver Chris Finke’s work as a punt returner this season. Irish opponents have punted 22 times in three games. Finke has attempted to return eight of them. He has netted a total of two yards.

“We’re pleased with him,” Kelly said. “There won’t be a change there.”

Kelly did include a caveat for praising Finke’s return game.

“We’ve been in a number of fourth down situations where we’ve asked for a fair catch and he hasn’t fair caught it,” Kelly said. “We have to be better there. He has to fair catch those balls.”

On the moments when Finke returned a punt to absolutely no avail, Kelly cited missed blocks as the culprit, not Finke’s decision to make a move with the ball.

“One of our gunners has to do better on hold-up,” he said. “We think we’ve had an opportunity for a couple of good returns. … If there’s a change, it will be with one of the gunners.”