Fighting Irish quarterback Golson brings the first team offense together during a practice session in Davie, Florida

Pregame Six Pack: Blue vs. Gold

17 Comments

Notre Dame’s spring practices will come to a close on Saturday with the annual Blue-Gold game. For the first time in what feels like a decade, there doesn’t seem to be a major storyline playing out in front of our eyes.

There is no quarterback controversy, with Everett Golson holding down the No. 1 job and Tommy Rees serving as the veteran backup. There is no cloud hanging over the head coach, with Brian Kelly and athletic director Jack Swarbrick putting the final touches on a contract extension. And while the Irish will need to replace an All-American on both sides of the ball, there’s confidence that the sums of the parts will do just fine filling the individual shoes of Tyler Eifert and Manti Te’o.

With the action set to be broadcast on NBC Sports Channel at 1 p.m. EST Saturday, let’s run through the pregame six pack. As usual, here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings before the offense takes on the defense.

1. With depth still not ideal, it’s going to be Offense vs. Defense on Saturday afternoon.

With some depth issues along the offensive line, Kelly decided to go with an offense vs. defense format for Saturday’s televised scrimmage. It’s the same scoring system that led to the defense beating the offense 42-31 last year, and will likely produce another high scoring affair.

For those unfamiliar with the set-up, here’s how the scoring system will be broken down.

OFFENSIVE POINTS:
6 points for a touchdown (1 point for PAT kicks, no rush allowed).
3 points for a field goal.

DEFENSIVE POINTS:
4 points for a defensive stop before offense crosses the 50.
2 points for a defensive stop after offense crosses the 50.
7 points for a turnover before the offense crosses the 50.
3 points for a turnover after the offense crosses the 50.
1 point for holding the offense to a field goal.

Last year, the offense turned the ball over six time, even with a running clock in the second half. Let’s see if they can clean things up this spring.

***

2. It’ll be a little shy of all hands on deck Saturday.

For a spring that’s been filled with its share of heavy hitting and full contact, the Irish walk into Saturday’s scrimmage with a pretty healthy roster. But Kelly walked us through the players that would be sitting out the Blue-Gold game.

Dan Fox, ILB – Shoulder
Bennett Jackson, CB – Shoulder
Nicky Baratti, S – Shoulder
Chase Hounshell, DL – Shoulder
Amir Carlisle, RB – Collarbone
Corey Robinson, WR – Elbow
Tyler Plantz, RB

Outside of Hounshell’s labrum tear, which will keep him out for the 2013 season, all injuries are expected to be healed before the start of summer camp.

***

3. Even though we won’t see Carlisle and Robinson this Saturday, it was an impressive spring for both players.

Irish fans will have to wait a few more months before getting a look at Amir Carlisle. The former USC running back, who received a waiver that granted him immediate eligibility in 2012, still sat out the season after lingering nerve damage slowed down his recovery from a broken ankle suffered on the eve of spring practice.

Carlisle suffered another injury setback this spring when he broke his collarbone during one of the team’s first padded practices, casting a doubt over whether or not he’ll ever be able to withstand the wear and tear that comes playing running back.

Kelly didn’t seem to have that concern. And Carlisle proved more than a few skeptics wrong by practicing almost immediately after surgery. He even put pads on for the team’s final workout, though will be held out of Saturday’s game.

“Amir Carlisle was in pads today, but we will not put him in a contact situation,” Kelly said. “He tried to talk himself into that, but we’re not going to let him.”

Holding Corey Robinson back from the Blue-Gold game will be a disappointment for Irish fans hoping to see for themselves the moves that turned more than a few heads this spring. Robinson, a below-the-radar recruit who many expected to need some seasoning, has looked more college-ready than anyone expected.

Kelly talked about the type of role Robinson can have next season for the Irish.

“He’ll be a role player, kind of like Chris Brown was,” Kelly said. “Chris helped us win a game against Oklahoma. That’s how you have to look at Corey Robinson. No, he’s not a finished product yet. He’s got to get stronger. But he does have a skill set. When you throw that ball near him, he comes down with it. So I think there’s a place for him in our offense, but he won’t be a featured guy.”

With an offense that struggled to produce points in the red zone last year, a six-foot-five (and growing) receiver with hands like Spiderman can’t be a bad thing.

4. We’ll see how ready the newcomers are on the Irish offensive line.

It’s a big day for the young offensive lineman on the Irish roster, with Harry Hiestand getting a nice long look at his depth chart. We already know that Zack Martin, Chris Watt and Christian Lombard are going to be in the starting lineup. What remains to be seen is who gets to next two jobs.

It appears Nick Martin and Conor Hanratty have the inside track at center and guard. But it’s a great opportunity for guys like Matt Hegarty and Mark Harrell to make a move, and young tackles Ronnie Stanley and Steve Elmer to show that they’re one of the best five, potentially pushing Lombard inside to guard.

Against one of the best defensive lines in the country, it’ll be one of the toughest assignments of the year for the offensive line. But before four new freshman make their way onto campus, it’s one last piece of game tape to show the coaching staff.

***

5. With Zeke Motta and Jamoris Slaughter gone, let’s see how the kids play at safety.

While the Irish secondary unfortunately had to say goodbye to Jamoris Slaughter far too early, this will be the first time we see the safeties without its two veterans leading. Last year, it was Motta who played traffic cop, getting the defense in alignment and holding down the fort. This year, that appears to have fallen into Matthias Farley‘s hands, with Elijah Shumate all but anointed by Kelly to be the other safety across from him earlier this week.

Just don’t tell Bob Diaco that.

The Irish’s star defensive coordinator wasn’t ready to heap praise on the talented rising sophomore, who has impressed the Irish staff, but still must have a ways to go.

“I wouldn’t say so, no,” Diaco bluntly said, when asked if Shumate was one of the spring’s stars. “Elijah we’re pleased with. He’s a very talented player. But he’s a long ways away from functioning and driving our defense. Light years away.”

That kind of tough love and honesty isn’t all that surprising from Diaco, who has always been brutally candid. But it also goes to show you how vital the safety position is in the Irish defense.

Since reloading the depth chart in recruiting, the position is now filled with players Kelly and Diaco hand picked for the system. And while it appears Farley has locked down one starting job, there will be others that see the field, with Shumate working as the No. 1 field safety by default.

With this spring a huge determining factor for the depth chart entering fall camp, keep an eye on a few guys battling to work their way into the rotation.

Austin Collinsworth is back and healthy after a lost season to injury. Eilar Hardy seems fully recovered from a serious knee injury that robbed him of some confidence and athleticism. Both have shown themselves useful this spring. Nicky Baratti will also force his way back into the conversation when he’s healthy.

Chuck Martin and the Irish offense will take some shots down the field on Saturday. With Bennett Jackson sitting, let’s see how the young secondary reacts.

***

6. In Notre Dame Stadium, natural grass is still greener… for now.

On the heels of Notre Dame and NBC’s ten-year extension, athletic director Jack Swarbrick spent some time with the media yesterday. In between ducking questions on scheduling and the announcement date of Brian Kelly’s new contract extension, Swarbrick calmed the nerves of traditionalists, when he said field turf was staying out of Notre Dame Stadium.

“I see nothing in the near term that would move us away from natural grass,” Swarbrick said. “Down the road as we contemplate the future of the facility, finding more ways to use it is important,” Swarbrick said. “Might turf be a dynamic in that? It may. But alone, it doesn’t solve the problem.”

If you enjoy reading between the lines of the always cagey Swarbrick, the sentence “contemplate the future of the facility,” might be one worth digging into. That could mean renovations, remodels, Jumbotrons, or private suites.

But until then, the improvements made by the field turf crew have been enough to stave off a change to an artificial surface.

Spring positions to watch for revelations: DL & WR

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 05: Jerry Tillery #99 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish tackles Jerrod Heard #13 of the Texas Longhorns for a loss of yards during the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
Getty Images
36 Comments

If quarterback, rover and the early enrollees could be Notre Dame fans’ springtime Christmas thrills, what positions present as potential spots of coal?

Three former Irish players were invited to next week’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis: quarterback DeShone Kizer, defensive tackle Jarron Jones and defensive end Isaac Rochell. Losing two consistent defensive linemen leaves this year’s unit with some questions. Jones and Rochell combined for 100 tackles, 18 for loss and three sacks last season. Notre Dame’s returning defensive linemen combined to total 111 tackles and only 5.5 tackles for loss. To be clear, sacks are not included in that latter list because no returning defensive linemen recorded one. Among the returnees, junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37 tackles, three for loss) and senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26, 0.5) contributed solidly alongside the two NFL prospects.

This dearth of known and reliable linemen is a large part of why the potential transfer of Clemson graduate defensive tackle Scott Pagano is so intriguing. Pagano would immediately be a favorite to start, and if not that, at least rotate in heavily.

For now, though, Pagano remains a theoretical

By the end of spring practice, who already on campus will emerge alongside Tillery and Trumbetti in the Irish front? Senior ends Jay Hayes (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) and Jonathon Bonner (nine tackles) seem the most-likely candidates … aside from former four-star recruit and now rising sophomore Daelin Hayes. In his debut season, D. Hayes finished with 11 tackles.

Look for senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) to establish himself as Tillery’s immediate backup this spring, but that spot in the rotation will be up for competition all over again once four-star tackle Darnell Ewell (Lake Taylor High School; Norfolk, Va.) arrives on campus in the fall. His size and quickness should play right into new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s system.

Equanimeous and Who?
Not only did Notre Dame bring in a graduate transfer at receiver in former Michigan wideout Freddy Canteen, but it has also already received the commitments of two four-star receivers in the 2018 recruiting class. The continued emphasis on the position reflects the lack of bona fide game-breakers currently on the roster.

Junior Equanimeous St. Brown established himself as the top Irish threat in 2016, and he should shine only further with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush targeting him. Classmates often amplify each other’s success, simply due to the added shared reps innate to joining practice at the same time. With Torii Hunter, Jr., now pursuing a professional baseball career, who will prevent the secondary from focusing all its energies on St. Brown?

Canteen will not be with Notre Dame in the spring, as he does not graduate from Michigan until April. That will give a clear shot for the likes of juniors Chris Finke, C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin, and sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool to establish themselves. Did that say “clear” shot? It should probably read, “a chance to separate from the crowd.”

If a genuine threat does not line up opposite St. Brown, his explosiveness will likely be greatly reduced by focused defensive scheming. Wimbush will need another target before 2018.

Of course, here is where one should acknowledge the millennia-tested fact: Coal under pressure becomes diamonds.

2016 Notre Dame’s win expectancy was 7.2
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Johnson named the Irish as his team most likely to dramatically improve its record in 2017. Johnson’s thinking is based, at least in part, on Notre Dame’s second-order win total having been 7.2 in 2016, compared to the four wins the Irish actually walked away with. That discrepancy was the largest in the country.

Second-order win totals reflect how many points a team should have scored and allowed based on offensive and defensive stats. In theory, this shines a light on how luck and chance factored into results. Naturally, losing seven games by one possession will often be reflected by a higher second-order win total.

“Notre Dame’s win-loss record belied a solid, if imperfect, squad that just couldn’t pull out close games…” Johnson writes. “The Irish may not get back into College Football Playoff contention in 2017, but they’re bound to post a few more Ws because of reversion to the mean.”

Admittedly, the small sample size of a football season reduces the applicability of metrics such as second- and third-order wins when compared to baseball and basketball.

Jones becomes Mack
A quick piece of housekeeping: Apparently junior tight end Alizé Jones has changed his name to Alizé Mack.

While Notre Dame’s roster may not reflect that change yet, it is reasonable to expect it will after its next update. The football program has consistently respected the intricacies of players’ name preferences. Tai-ler Jones becoming TJ Jones jumps to mind, for example.

Anyways, hopefully noting Mack’s name change here might reduce some confusion down the line. Probably not. How many readers possibly read to the actual bottom of an article? But hey, in good faith.

WR Lenzy makes 11th commitment, brings speed to Irish

lenzy
rivals.com
32 Comments

At what point does an impressive recruiting roll become something more? When does it become a harbinger of things to come, even if not for a few seasons? How many notable commitments in a row establishes a class as special?

If the answer to any of the above is 11 commitments by the end of February, including five within two weeks, then Notre Dame is there following consensus four-star athlete Braden Lenzy’s announcement Thursday evening.

The Tigard High School (Portland, Ore) receiver/cornerback chose the Irish over offers from USC, Oregon and Michigan State, among a litany of others. In all, nine Pac-12 schools chased Lenzy—and a 10th, Washington, had shown interest—per rivals.com.

Lenzy will fit the leading 2018 need voiced by Irish coach Brian Kelly three weeks ago on National Signing Day 2017.

“Elite speed on offense will be a primary goal for us,” Kelly said Feb. 1. “Guys that can change the game on one possession. I think we’ll see that… We want a couple of home run hitters. We don’t care if they’re Darren Sproles’s size. We’re going to come off the board in terms of profile. We want some guys that can change the game on offense with elite speed.”

At 6-foot, 175 pounds, Lenzy is taller than Sproles’s 5-foot-6, but it is still his speed that drew Notre Dame’s interest.

“They made it clear they want me to do kickoff return and use me as a deep threat across the field,” he told Irish Illustrated. “Just being kind of an athlete, similar to what I’ve been doing already in high school, just on a bigger scale with a quarterback that can throw it a lot farther.”

Presuming Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush is that arm in 2018, throwing great distances should not be an issue. Between Lenzy and fellow 2018 commit Micah Jones, covering those distances should be a reasonable request, as well.

Lenzy brings Notre Dame’s class of 2018 to 11, including eight four-stars according to Rivals’ rating system. Current scholarship projections indicate the class will not be a large one, meaning the Irish coaching staff has already garnered the commitments of more than half the class. Once again, though, Kelly’s sentiment regarding recruiting timing should be remembered.

“We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

SWARBRICK’S TAKE ON RECRUITING
Kelly credited Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick with much assistance in securing the country’s No. 13 recruiting class in 2017. A refresher on those comments:

“In a lot of instances, [Swarbrick] had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it’s going,” Kelly said. “There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future.”

Swarbrick did not dispute the factual nature of any of that in an interview with the Indianapolis Star, but he did contest the need for praising what he saw as part of his job, one of the preferred parts of his job, at that.

“I can’t say anything about this year felt all that different,” Swarbrick told Star reporter Laken Litman. “Some asked questions about the future of the program and can we compete for a national championship. And I would talk about the elements of the program we were focused on improving.”

Swarbrick and Litman discussed a number of items in the second-half of the interview released by the Star, including Notre Dame’s facilities, a possible early signing period in football and if the Oct. 8, 2016, game against North Carolina State should have been played. Spoiler: No. Then why was it? Go check it out.

Swarbrick also told Litman he likes to write in his free time.

“I tend to think strategically with a pen in my hand.” Swarbrick added he is currently scribbling away on where he thinks college athletics are headed.

This scribe, for one, would be most interested in skimming those legal pads.

Will Wimbush, Elko and the early enrollees surprise in spring practice?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Getty Images
39 Comments

Exactly 59 days from today, the Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Sure, they will be playing against themselves, but nonetheless, it will be somewhat-competitive football played in gold helmets.

For timing context, exactly 59 days ago, you looked beneath the Christmas tree to learn if Santa Claus left you season tickets, socks or coal. I got socks. They had some of that extra cushioning, so I considered them a suitable treat.

Whether you care about my argyles or not (you don’t), for many the Blue-Gold Game and Christmas morning hold similar excitement. That fact is apparently why Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick does not concern himself when groups of alumni publicly lament his decisions, or lack thereof.

“I never worry about that,” Swarbirck told the Indianapolis Star in an exclusive interview you really should read. Go on, click the link, it will open in a new tab. You can come right back here when you are done.

“The hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion in your program. If that sort of stuff bothers you, you can’t be the athletic director, head coach or the quarterback at Notre Dame.”

That very passion will undoubtedly lead to frame-by-frame discussions of video snippets from spring practice, parsing of each and every word Irish coach Brian Kelly says in quick interviews after those practices, and extreme pessimism and optimism about the 2017 season.

In the Christmas spirit, what toys could bring the must excitement during the spring unwrapping? Personally, the gift I was unsure of always brought the most joy. I would rather open an unexpected book than know about a charcoal-gray suit. In other words, at least for today, let’s look past the offensive line, the running backs and the inside linebackers. Instead, let’s look forward to learning about… (more…)

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)
Getty Images
41 Comments

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…)