Louis Nix, Steve Elmer

Five things we learned: Defense 54, Offense 43

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What a difference a year makes.

Just think: Twelve months ago, the Irish were in the middle of a four-man open race for the starting quarterback job. The coaching staff was rebuilt and reshuffled, all with the hopes of fixing an offense that needed to replace its best player. Coming off two 8-5 seasons, the sky felt like it just might actually be falling, with star freshman Aaron Lynch’s departure in the middle of spring feeling like an early sign that the Brian Kelly era was doomed to end just like those of Davie, Willingham and Weis.

Nothing an undefeated regular season and a date in the BCS National Championship game couldn’t fix.

On a frigid Saturday afternoon in South Bend, it really didn’t matter that the defense defeated the offense 54-43. It was just another day at the office for the Irish, with the glorified scrimmage a celebration of the hard work that’s gone into creating the foundation for the 2013 squad.

Let’s take a look at the five things we learned during the Blue’s 54-43 victory over the White.

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1. They are who we thought they were.

For the most part, the Blue-Gold game was absent of any real subplot. The Irish know who their quarterback is. They’ve got an idea of their depth chart at running back, wide receiver, tight end, and on the offensive line.

On the defensive side of the ball, this game provided another look at the growing depth in the front seven. It showed the work that still needs to be done in the secondary. But to credit Denny Green, the Irish are who we thought they were.

That might be a very good team, though it’s a squad with some work to be done.

The Irish offensive line struggled to get a push against the starting defense, no doubt hampered by the absence of Chris Watt, who was held out of action for precautionary reasons after a minor neck injury flared up during pregame. Everett Golson wasn’t as sharp as many hoped, with the red jersey almost an open invite to revert back to the sandlot quarterback Brian Kelly and Chuck Martin have been eliminating.

But nothing done today — and likely on purpose — showed opponents anything the Irish coaching staff didn’t want to show. And just as important, it didn’t give anybody any reason to think this upcoming season will be one with anything but sky-high expectations.

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2. While he might not have shown it today, Everett Golson took a great step forward this spring.

Everett Golson’s fairly average numbers didn’t tell the story of the rising junior’s spring. A year after surviving during a surprising 12-1 season, Golson spent the winter and spring moving into a leadership position, a role we saw him play not just today, but throughout the spring’s fourteen other official practices.

While Golson put up only modest numbers, 6 of 13 for 98 yards with an interception in the red zone, he talked after the game with NBC’s Alex Flanagan about something far more important — his improved confidence.

“It’s different,” Golson admitted to Flanagan on the field after the game. “But along with that comes responsibility. One of the things I’m trying to do this year is lead this team.”

That’s a quarterback that’s come a long way from last season. Golson was a young kid that openly admitted to being embarrassed after getting yanked against Michigan after a horrendous start. He’s also far from the kid who got benched for the first series against Miami for showing up late for a pregame meeting in Chicago.

After graduating stars like Michael Floyd and Tyler Eifert, the best player on the offense is now its starting quarterback. This spring showed that Golson understands the responsibility on his shoulders.

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3. If there’s an area of concern heading into the fall, it’s that the special teams are still very much a work-in-progress.

Brian Kelly said a large emphasis was put on improving the special teams this spring. It didn’t show on Saturday afternoon. While none of the coverage units were live during the scrimmage, a few of the major questions Irish fans had about the special teams were only magnified after watching the Blue-Gold game.

Kyle Brindza struggled as the team’s starting punter. (Walk-on Jude Rhodes was even worse.) Fifth-year senior Nick Tausch missed his first field goal attempt, before making three chip shots. And the open audition for punt returner looked more like a game of Hot Potato, with a slew of other candidates not looking like they wanted anything to do with catching the ball.

“I’d like to leave the spring feeling a little bit better about it, but we’ve got a lot of work to do,” Kelly admitted after the game.

Taking too much from the performance of the special teams units in 39 degree weather during non-contact situations isn’t wise. But Brindza’s inability to average more than 30 yards a punt is worrisome.

Kelly has pledged to use his best players on special teams come the fall, after seeing how Alabama dominated the third segment of the game with starters on all units. We’ll see if that happens come fall camp, when the Irish will have a full allotment of players on hand.

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4. We certainly didn’t learn this today, but Louis Nix is wonderful.

In a game that lacked any true breakthrough performances, Louis Nix provided the highlight of the afternoon, with a quarterback draw executed to perfection for a two-point conversion.

Nix, who looks every bit the 347-pounds he’s listed at, calmly looked both left and right before tucking the football and charging for the end zone. You could hardly blame Kendall Moore for stepping out of the big fella’s way, even though Nix was looking for a collision.

“My intentions were just to truck somebody,” Nix said after the game. “I didn’t care about the touchdown too much. I just wanted to run somebody over.”

That Kelly would give Nix the opportunity to take a snap at quarterback shows you how beloved the All-American nose guard is to his teammates. But perhaps a better illustration of that was shown during the Strong and True documentary, where Nix’s teammates rallied around him as he struggled to finish a particularly hellish conditioning session in the middle of Camp Kelly, a rugged winter workout that featured pushing a wood board along the snow-covered artificial surface.

That kind of thing isn’t easy for anybody, let alone a 350-pound nose guard. But then again neither is playing quarterback, as Nix admitted after the game.

“We haven’t actually conditioned me to read defenses yet,” Nix joked. “So I just ran it.”

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5. Brian Kelly is a different man.

The red-faced screamer of yesteryear would not recognize this head coach. Kelly, who didn’t see a ton of good from his offense, seemed to let it all roll off his shoulders, as much of a sign as you’d ever want from a head coach evaluating his football team.

It’s startling to see how different Kelly is heading into his fourth season at Notre Dame. While we heard that the head coach would evolve as his team learned what he expected from him, we’re now actually seeing it before our eyes.

When George Atkinson got creamed for running with his pads too high, Kelly joked about it with him, before reinforcing his coaching point. When his starting quarterback scrambled too much and threw a bad interception, Kelly called it valuable tape for a long offseason. The only time Kelly got really animated on the sideline was when new long-snapper Scott Daly jumped on a muffed punt — nearly taking out wide receiver TJ Jones’ legs.

It’s crazy to think that Kelly’s fourth season at Notre Dame is the first time he’s had a fourth season since Grand Valley way back in 1994, when half this roster wasn’t born. But Kelly’s stress-free attitude is a sign that all is well for the flagship athletic program under the Golden Dome.

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)
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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
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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)
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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)
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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…)