Five things we’ll learn: The season is finally upon us

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Within ten minutes of reaching the top of the college football mountain, Notre Dame fans had to feel like Sisyphus. After watching their beloved Irish vanquish a boulder carrying the burdens of tradition, unfulfilled expectations, and the final shouts of irrelevancy at the BCS National Championship game, the honeymoon lasted just minutes before the Crimson Tide knocked a dream season back down to earth.

The greek tragedy didn’t stop after the embarrassing 42-14 pummeling. Brian Kelly nearly knocked the oxygen out of ND Nation when the Philadelphia Eagles interviewed him, going radio silent for three days before eventually returning to the fold. That was nothing compared to Manti Te’o’s ordeal, with America learning all about Catfishing and a fictional girlfriend named Lennay Kekua.

Spring practice led to the departure of five-star freshman Gunner Kiel. That was trumped by the academic exile of starting quarterback Everett Golson. Throw in the loss of prized recruits Alex Anzalone and Eddie Vanderdoes, and just making it to training camp was enough of an accomplishment.

A long summer of workouts and four days in a sleepy farm town of Marion, Indiana hopefully put all of that in the past. And just 236 eventful days after last taking the field, the Irish will kickoff the ’13 season against Temple.

Before we focus on that game, let’s take a look at five things we’ll learn during the 2013 season.

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1. The final chapter in Tommy Rees’ career will determine his legacy. 

As NBC continues to try and regain the midas touch it once had developing television dramas, it could do worse than looking to its Saturday afternoon autumn time slot for inspiration. That’s where Tommy Rees has entranced Irish fans — with three seasons of football that have been anything but boring.

Defining Rees’ run in South Bend is complicated. It’s also something we’ve tried to do from almost the beginning, when the scrawny freshman that looked like he should’ve been played interhall was thrown into action against Tulsa and lost in spectacularly dramatic fashion. Rees may have lost that game — and a few others — but he’s certainly won his share as well.

After boos from the home crowd welcomed Rees during a late-game relief appearance against Purdue, Rees spent the ’12 season earning back the respect of just about every Notre Dame fan on the planet, proving to be the ultimate teammate while playing a critical role during the team’s undefeated regular season.

With the keys to the offense in Rees’ hands for one final season, even Kelly understands that this year will go a long way towards defining Tommy Rees and his legacy.

“I don’t think the story’s written,” Kelly said. “I think you write the story after he completes his journey here at Notre Dame. You know what, it could be a really interesting story.”

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2. Can Brian Kelly’s most talented backfield find a way to turn into his most productive?

Gone are the Irish’s three most prolific rushers from last season, with Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood both battling to make NFL rosters while Everett Golson spends his forced sabbatical in San Diego training. Yet even with just 74 returning carries in the Irish backfield, Kelly feels extraordinarily upbeat about the prospects of his running attack — whoever ends up leading the way.

“We’re just really blessed to have such great talent at the running back position,” Kelly said. “I don’t know that I’ve ever had as much depth at the running back position in all my years of coaching. All of them can contribute to our success.”

If finding carries for three backs was difficult last season, thinking Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin can find touches for George Atkinson, Cam McDaniel, Amir Carlisle, Will Mahone, Greg Bryant, and Tarean Folston is all but impossible. While preseason camp went a long way towards getting positive sound bites out of the coaching staff about all the good work that was getting done, it brought us no closer to knowing who’s actually going to carry the load once the games start to count.

George Atkinson may be the best blend of size and speed in the country. Amir Carlisle might be the most dangerous playmaker on the team. Greg Bryant could be a freshman All-American while Cam McDaniel could be the best pure running back on the team. But can this coaching staff find the proper platoon to take advantage of everyone’s skill-sets?

There’s every reason to believe that the offensive line should be even better run blockers than they were last season. Who they’ll be blocking for is the big question.

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3. Can the inside linebackers still play productive football without Manti Te’o?

For four seasons, Manti Te’o roamed the middle of the Irish defense, providing the heartbeat for a unit that improved every season. Anchoring the defense and calling the shots from his inside linebacker position, the unit took on his personality, as it became one of the school’s stingiest defenses in the modern era.

After splitting snaps playing next to Te’o, fifth-year seniors Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese will get the first chance to take over the inside, with junior Jarrett Grace working into the rotation as well. When asked about replacing an iconic player like Te’o, all three linebackers were smart enough to know that’s next to impossible.

“We have a bunch of leaders on our defense and instead of looking to one person we can look to several people,” Calabrese said. “It’s more of a team defense. We don’t have just one guy standing out this year. We have a bunch of guys that can play and can lead, which is going to make us successful.”

While replicating Te’o’s interception total might be impossible, his tackle productivity shouldn’t be as difficult. Splitting snaps next to Te’o, Fox and Calabrese combined for 112 tackles. Te’o’s award-winning campaign finished with 113.

Much of what Te’o brought to the defense wasn’t measured on a stat sheet. But with two of the team’s most experienced players anchoring the interior of the defense, Te’o’s legacy might be the pride that he instilled in the unit.

“I think our mentality would carry over more than anything,” Fox said. “The mentality that we don’t want anybody to score on us is something that we take pride in. We hold it close to us.”

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4. Can Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix form the most dominant 1-2 punch on the defensive front in the country?

Spend your time worrying about the NFL Draft come December. Otherwise you’ll miss the most talented defensive front Notre Dame has had in a very long time. Anchored by nose tackle Louis Nix and defensive end Stephon Tuitt, the Irish have two All-American caliber defensive linemen that could also be first round NFL draft picks.

Less than five years after the Irish defensive line couldn’t stop a powder puff team, Brian Kelly has turned the Irish front into a must-see group for pro scouts, according to NFL.com’s Bucky Brooks.

Studying Nix’s game tape, I was surprised by his savvy and skills as a pass rusher. Unlike most nose tackles of his stature, Nix is more than a pocket pusher. He effectively uses a “snatch and shed” maneuver to work past interior blockers on pressure attempts. Although his sack numbers are minimal, he reminds me of Vince Wilfork as an interior pass rusher.

Tuitt, who stands 6-foot-6, 322 pounds, is an ultra-talented five technique (defensive lineman who plays on the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle) with a tremendous combination of size, speed and athleticism. He flashes extraordinary snap-count anticipation and first-step quickness, which makes him difficult to block on the interior on single blocks. Tuitt complements his superior movement skills with terrific hand skills and upper-body strength. His ability to play with strength, power and leverage not only makes him an effective run defender, but it also makes him a problematic pass rusher as a defensive end in a three- or four-man front.

Paired with Sheldon Day, a sophomore defensive end who Kelly raved about earlier in camp, the Irish’s base three-man front should be one of the most stout in the country. They’ll likely improve when they go to four-down as well, dropping All-American candidate Prince Shembo down to the line of scrimmage or hybrid player Ishaq Williams.

Question marks can be solved quickly with a dominant defensive front. And no duo looks to be more dominant than Nix and Tuitt.

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5. Can Notre Dame adjust from being the hunter to the hunted?

Ask USC how it felt to start the season with a bullseye on their chest? The Trojans, who started last season as a favorite to win the national championship, ended the year losing five of six and embarrassing themselves in the Sun Bowl to a sub-.500 Georgia Tech squad.

One of the big reasons Brian Kelly shook up training camp was to forge a new identity for this football team. And he made it clear that “you don’t just begin this climb at the top of the mountain.” With fuel easy to find after a one-sided BCS Championship loss and the doubt that comes with losing your starting quarterback, the mission put to the team in January was clear.

“If we do it like we did last year, we’re going to be an 8-5 team because everybody has taken their motivation off what we did last year and have worked harder,” Kelly said. “We supplied motivation for the entire college football world that, if Notre Dame can do it, we can do it.

“So if you do it like you did last year, you’re an 8-5 football team.”

While we won’t know until the games starting counting for real if this team is up for the challenge of getting back to the top, but it appears clear that the group understands that last season’s success is in the rearview mirror.

“We left last year in the past. We are focusing on this year and focusing on today,” Calabrese said.  “We are focusing on this year and this team.”

Mid-week reading: On Wimbush; NCAA $$$; A look back at Te’o

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A litany of links typically makes for good Friday fodder. A week’s worth of the internet can help any reader through an unproductive end of the week. Unfortunately, spring practice’s rhythms are inconsistent, unlike summer’s constant nothingness and fall’s non-stop charge.

Hey, who said you can’t take a long lunch on a Wednesday, anyways?

MORE WIMBUSH AND WHITFIELD
Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples joined Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush out in San Diego two weeks ago during spring break, watching as Wimbush listened to private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield’s instructions. Staples, per usual, tells a good story, slipping some nuggets of information within it where you may not even notice.

Many around this space have asked who foots the bill when a college quarterback seeks out Whitfield’s tutelage. Per Staples, Wimbush’s mother paid for the week.

Throughout the story, Wimbush emphasizes the importance of a Notre Dame degree, going so far as to point to former Irish quarterbacks Everett Golson and Malik Zaire acquiring their diplomas before departing Notre Dame. None of us know Wimbush’s academic progress—now approaching his second summer school session, Wimbush is likely ahead of the usual second-semester sophomore’s credit pace—but this tidbit may prove pertinent in nine months time. Considering what its pertinence would say about a bigger picture, Irish fans should certainly hope it is of note.

To this memory, the classic image relayed from Golson’s time with Whitfield was Golson throwing over brooms held by staffers, mimicking the long limbs of charging defensive linemen. Those fictional pass rushers have become a bit more realistic in nature, now apparently represented with outstretched tennis rackets.

NCAA GIVING NOTRE DAME NEARLY $1 MILLION
In what has been described as a “one-time supplemental distribution,” the NCAA is dispersing $200 million among its members. The amount each school receives is determined by the total number of full scholarships it gives to student-athletes, with each partial scholarship contributing its appropriate fraction toward that total figure.

Notre Dame will receive $984,724 thanks to giving out 299.20 scholarships in 2013-14. Some context behind that latter number: The football team takes up 85 scholarships. The men’s basketball team is allowed 13, and the women’s basketball team gets 15. The remaining 186.20 are split among the other 20 varsity sports (counting men’s and women’s teams separately in rowing, swimming and diving, and track and field).

Other notable schools:
Ohio State receives the most, more than $1.3 million, thanks to its 403.98 scholarships.
USC’s 279.06 scholarships equates to $918,440.
Michigan’s 353.18 scholarships will yield close to $1.2 million.

All these dollars must be spent it ways aiding the student-athletes. Schools cannot put the funds toward items like stadium construction or coaches’ salaries. Rather, the NCAA indicated the money is for “the direct benefit of the student-athlete and their academic success, life skills, career success, health and safety and student-athlete focused diversity and inclusion initiatives.”

All expenditures must be approved by the NCAA. The money comes from an endowment that had reportedly come to exceed $360 million.

REMEMBER THE TE’O DRAFT HOOPLA?
The below video does not necessarily reveal anything we do not already know about former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o, despite its ponderous title. It does, however, make a good point.

Aside from a sporadic comment deep in the morass of these pages, not much is said about the Lennay Kekua situation anymore. At the time, it was the most talked about item anywhere, let alone in Notre Dame corners. Personally, a former co-worker at the Los Angeles Times called late one night that week four-plus years ago. He and I had not spoken in close to two years, and we haven’t spoken since. But the Te’o/Kekua story prompted him to seek an understanding of what in the world was going on.

In some irish.nbcsports.com history, the day after that story broke—it broke on Jan. 16, 2013, so I am referring to Jan. 17—still holds the record for most views to this particular site.

Good for Te’o to have successfully moved past that saga. These days, every comment former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer makes is scrutinized. He is even criticized for not having excellent timing with Jonas Gray, of all people. Looking back on Te’o, it should be remembered the most dramatic stories, one seemingly crafted perfectly for the internet, fade into the cobwebs of time.

[Here, a link in case the intended embed below fails.]

PHIL STEELE’S PROJECTED AP TOP 10
Enough with the past. Let’s project the future.

Phil Steele, of the revered Phil Steele’s College Football Preview, projected August’s Associated Press Top 10. Steele has accounted for voters’ tendencies rather accurately in years past, so it is not an entirely fruitless exercise. Then again, he is projecting the results of the first of many polls with no actual consequence.

Of Steele’s projected top-10, Notre Dame will face only No. 4 USC.

KENPOM’S TOO EARLY PRESEASON TOP 10
If you think Steele’s top 10 is too early, then skip this.

College basketball analytics master Ken Pomeroy put together his top 10 for next season, though any unexpected draft departures or transfers can certainly alter his calculations. After all, the season is not actually over yet.

Of certain Irish interest: No. 9 North Carolina, No. 8 Louisville and No. 6 Virginia. The last of those has already suffered a transfer which Pomeroy tweeted will “abruptly” end the Cavaliers’ time in his preseason top 10.

SPEAKING OF BASKETBALL, WELL DONE DENNIS, WHOEVER YOU ARE
Math is hard, so take this with a grain of salt, but I believe Dennis’ bracket of “Brey Brey’s Kids” will win the Inside the Irish March Madness pool. Dennis, your $984,724 is in the mail.

Don’t think that means there is no reason to watch the Final Four, though. Your host might be able to rise into the top half of the field, which would be good for his pride, and therefore the quality of writing in these parts.

It shouldn’t be too surprising my bracket flopped. This is a football page. Besides, by my eye, no one I actually know firsthand will finish higher than fourth. That is more of a relief than it should be.

Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

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This space has mentioned a few times the dearth of returning sacks among Notre Dame’s defensive line. It is a pertinent fact—no returning Irish defensive lineman recorded a sack in the 2016 season—but it fails to mention the flipside of that.

Most of Notre Dame’s defensive linemen had few, if any, opportunities to rush the passer in 2016. Perhaps at the top of the list of those who should bring down the opposing passer a few times this fall, sophomore Daelin Hayes has laid claim to a starting rush spot through five spring practices.

“The athleticism is what obviously stands out,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “He’s extremely athletic, he’s fit physically, 250 pounds and very strong.”

These facts are, after all, the reasons Hayes was a highly sought-after five-star recruit according to rivals.com.

“It’s the football knowledge, learning the techniques at the position in which he plays is really the piece,” Kelly continued. “It’s just learning right now for him. This is the time to do it, in spring ball.

“Squeezing down on a tight end when the back is away. Wrong-arming the puller. These are all football terms and schemes that are a bit new to him. We have to be patient with him. He’s an explosive athlete. There’s going to be some mistakes along the way, and I’m okay with that as long as he’s learning.”

Without much depth pushing for playing time behind him, Hayes will have the opportunity to make, and subsequently understand, those mistakes. Seniors Jay Hayes (no relation) and Andrew Trumbetti are mired in competition for the other end spot, while sophomores Julian Okwara, Adetokunbo Ogundeji and Khalid Kareem may have even more development ahead of them than Daelin Hayes does.

Incoming freshmen Kofi Wardlow and Jonathon MacCollister will join the fray in the summer, but for now, the younger Hayes has his chance to impress with his natural gifts while absorbing the intricacies of new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s defense.

Hayes is not a complete unknown. While Okwara made four tackles last season in 11 games and Kareem appeared in four games, Hayes saw action in every contest, finishing the season with 11 tackles, one pass breakup and one forced fumble.

“He’s an athlete,” defensive line coach Mike Elston said last week. “He’s on the edge in a two-point stance. He’s not a trained, put-your-hand-on-the-ground defensive end. He played running back in high school. He can see things better in a two-point and can diagnose quicker. He’s able to be more productive.”

It may be accurate to mention no returning Notre Dame defensive linemen tackled a quarterback for a loss last season, but it is more precise to also include the Irish have possibilities of changing that trend.

SPEAKING OF THE DEFENSIVE LINE
Notre Dame is nearly as thin at defensive tackle as it is at end. Junior Jerry Tillery leads the way with senior end-converted-to-tackle Jonathan Bonner lining up next to him thus far. Their reserves: Oft-concussed senior Daniel Cage, senior Pete Mokwuah and junior Micah Dew-Treadway with junior Elijah Taylor out for the spring with a foot injury.

Theoretically, junior Brandon Tiassum is also in the mix, and three freshmen (Kurt Hinish, Myron Tagovailo-Amosa and four-star Darnell Ewell) will join the group in the summer.

And maybe, just maybe, perhaps, possibly … Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano could walk onto campus alongside those freshmen. Pagano visited Notre Dame the first week of March, and was due to look at Oklahoma and Arkansas the next two weekends, respectively. Instead, Pagano reportedly cancelled both of those visits Monday.

Pagano does still have a visit to Oregon scheduled for April 21. Until indicated otherwise, it may be prudent to presume Pagano hopes to land as close to his Hawaiian home as possible.

RELATED READING: 1 Day Until Spring Practice: A look at the defensive line

Recruiting success continues with OL Dirksen, class’s 12th commit

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Even in the doldrums of spring practice, Notre Dame’s recent recruiting success continues. Rivals.com three-star/scout.com four-star offensive lineman John Dirksen offered a verbal commitment to the Irish on Saturday, bringing the 2018 class to 12 commitments.

The 6-foot-5, 290-pounds Dirksen (Marion High School; Maria Stein, Ohio) joins consensus three-star prospect Cole Mabry (Brentwood H.S.; Brentwood, Tenn.) as the offensive linemen thus far among the 12. In three of the last four years, Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has pulled in four recruits, with 2015’s two (Trevor Ruhland, Tristen Hoge) as the exception. This recruiting cycle could again bring a limited offensive line haul, given the likely limits on the class’s size.

While any and all current class of 2018 team rankings should be taken with many grains of salt—there are 318 days between today and National Signing Day, after all—Dirksen’s commitment solidifies the Irish hold on the No. 3 class, per rivals.com. Other recruiting services place Notre Dame even higher.

Dirksen chose Hiestand and the Irish over offers from Michigan State, Iowa State and Boston College, among others.

 

Holmes out for spring; Jones & Jones shining

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Notre Dame’s spring continued over the weekend, and is all too often the case with football, that led to an injury. Early enrollee running back C.J. Holmes will probably miss the rest of spring practice due to a separated shoulder, Irish coach Brian Kelly announced following Saturday’s practice.

“We’ll get an MRI and know a little bit further on Monday once that calms down a little bit,” Kelly said. “We’ll get a picture of that and see. He had an open repair on that same shoulder his sophomore year in high school.”

Behind three backs, including two with experience, Holmes was unlikely to see playing time in the backfield in 2017.

Of those three backs, sophomore Tony Jones, Jr., is the unknown after preserving a year of eligibility last season. In limited practice viewing, however, Jones has only impressed. He has caught Kelly’s eye, as well.

“He’s 225 pounds, can catch the ball coming out of the backfield, [is] assignment correct, and can run elusively and can get into the second level,” Kelly said. “What does that equal? He’s a pretty good back.

“Obviously he was noticeable today in his play and he got some work with the first group as well. He wasn’t just getting second-team reps.”

Jones may be getting some first-unit exposure, but expect him to remain behind junior Josh Adams in the depth chart. Considering Jones’ style is somewhat comparable to Adams’, whereas junior Dexter Williams presents something of a change of pace, Williams should see more action than the sophomore, as well.

MORE PRAISE FOR ALIZE JONES
Junior tight end Alizé Jones—rather, Alizé Mack, per his Twitter account—has taken the lead in spring’s race of who reaps the most sound bite accolades. In complimenting Jones, who missed last season due to an academic suspension, Kelly also managed to laud new offensive coordinator Chip Long.

“I think Chip is doing a terrific job with [Jones],” Kelly said. “He’s got a good relationship. He knows how to rise him up when he needs to and scold him when he needs to. Alizé needs a little bit of that.

“He’s virtually un-coverable in certain areas of the field. I don’t care at any level. You can’t cover him. He just has that kind of talent. The one that I think stands out to me in the few days is he’s committed himself to being a blocker and playing physical. If he continues to do that, we’re going to find ourselves with a lot of tight ends on the field.”

Presumably, Jones would join graduate student tight end Durham Smythe in two tight end sets. It should be remembered, Long has historically shown a preference for such formations, and with Notre Dame’s plethora of options at the position, Long’s tendencies have no need to change. For that matter, Long had some praise for Jones this weekend, as well.

“Alizé can be as good as he wants to be,” Long said Friday. “…He’s growing up each and every day. Great joy to coach, and that whole group is. He doesn’t want to let that group down. There’s no question he can be as good as he wants to be.”