Pregame Six Pack: Bring on the Owls

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Thirty-three weeks. Two hundred thirty-six days. Five thousand, six hundred sixty-four hours. Three hundred thirty-nine thousand eight hundred forty minutes. Twenty million, three hundred ninety thousand, four hundred seconds. No, those aren’t alternative lyrics to the Rent soundtrack, but rather how long the Irish have had to have the awful taste of defeat in their mouths.

After twelve glorious Saturdays of singing the Fight Song and celebrating sixty minutes (and sometimes more) of victorious football, the Irish laid an egg on the sport’s biggest stage, the clock striking midnight on a season cut from a fairy tale. The proceeding weeks acted as nothing more than piling on, with just about every conceivable headline working as another rimshot for Notre Dame haters sick and tired of another Irish return to glory, with this one carrying Notre Dame all the way to the BCS Championship game.

Weird as it may seem, the Notre Dame team and its coaching staff may have had better luck putting last season in the rearview mirror than the media and football-loving public. As we run out of things to talk about during the offseason abyss, a sort of revisionist history has set in — a recreation of last season that subtly shifted the Irish’s ugly but time-honored formula of ferocious defense and protecting the football into a revolving door of Hail Marys and Divine Intervention.

Twelve victories has started to turn into seven wins, five squeakers, and a public reckoning. Never mind that Notre Dame out-rushed, out-passed, out-first downed, and fumbled the ball away three times (including once in the end zone) against a Stanford team and still beat a team many expect to see play Alabama for the title this year. That victory has become the product of a referee’s overtime blunder. Forget that Ohio State scraped by a Cal team that got its coach fired, one of Mark Dantonio’s worst Spartan squads, a four-win Indiana team that lost to Ball State, needed a furious comeback (and overtime) to beat Purdue, and had close victories over Wisconsin and Michigan. Urban Meyer’s team is a consensus top two team in the country.

But all of that is water under the bridge now, with college football’s silly season all but forgotten with kickoffs happening all across the country on this final weekend of summer. So Irish fans put down your clubs. The battle is over and the games finally count. Now Brian Kelly’s squad gets to forge a new identity as it looks to take out some long festering frustrations against a Temple team that looks overmatched on paper.

With kickoff set for 3:30 p.m. ET in South Bend, and the game broadcast (and livestream) on NBC, let’s dive into the season’s first pregame six pack.

As usual, here are six tidbits, leftovers, fun facts, and miscellaneous musings before the No. 14 Fighting Irish take on the Temple Owls.

***

How much will the Irish showcase during their season opener? 

Notre Dame enters Saturday’s game better than a four touchdown favorite. And with a visit to Ann Arbor on the books for next weekend, there’s a very real possibility that the Irish show a very vanilla look on both sides of the ball, holding out their best stuff for the Wolverines.

Still, for Notre Dame fans looking to see just what this edition of the Irish have in store for us, even the most basic game plan will supply some long overdue answers.

Consider this a short checklist of things to keep an eye on:

* How does Kelly distribute carries?
* How often does Tommy Rees throw the football?
* Who’s the next man in on the defensive line?
* What’s the rotation like at safety and linebacker?
* How does the right side of the offensive line look?

We’ve already talked about the team approach to special teams, with graduate student Nick Tausch given the first shot at the placekicking job after losing the job to both David Ruffer and Kyle Brindza. But consider Saturday a chance to face live bullets while getting a feel for the game, especially in the above areas.

***

George Atkinson may be the team’s starting running back, but Amir Carlisle is the X (or Z) factor. 

It’s been a long time since Amir Carlisle has been spotted on a football field when it matters. After starting his Notre Dame career a calendar year later than he hoped, Carlisle will finally don the Blue and Gold this Saturday.

So much has changed since Carlisle was last a difference-maker on a football field. Back in 2011, Carlisle, then a gifted freshman running back for USC, turned a Matt Barkley screen pass into a touchdown, helping the Trojan quarterback set another school record on the afternoon.

After a transfer to Notre Dame and working his way back from a broken ankle and collarbone, Carlisle could be the key towards unlocking the Irish offense, the rare player with the ability to play running back or the slot (Z receiver), something Kelly has looked for since coming to South Bend.

While it appears that George Atkinson has held onto the starting role through a spirited training camp that featured pushes from all six scholarship running backs, Carlisle’s ability to do it all will be counted on by the head coach.

“Versatility is great if you can handle it. You can say, ‘I want you to be versatile and play all these positions,’ but if you can’t handle it, then you can’t be versatile,” Kelly explained. “What makes him the player that he is is that he can handle those dual roles, and you start with the fact that he’s a very smart kid.”

There will continue to be concerns about Carlisle’s durability until he proves its not an issue, but after a long wait, it’ll be fun to see what the Irish’s new #3 can do.

***

Not that the Irish wanted to use him, but the quarterback depth chart will be without Malik Zaire. 

My how fortunes have changed for a position that was once the envy of college football. Set to enter spring practice with five scholarship quarterbacks, the Irish are down to Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix this Saturday, with freshman Malik Zaire being held out because of a bout with mono.

That’s forced Kelly to turn to Luke Massa as the team’s emergency No. 3 quarterback, with the Ohio native returning to his signal-caller roots after ditching the red jersey for the wide receiver position group early in his Irish career. Kelly’s also turned to fourth-string walk-on Will Cronin, a little known senior who came out of nowhere to help this week.

“This morning our last blood workup for Malik was that he is not going to be able to play on Saturday,” Kelly said Thursday after practice. “Luke Massa took reps this week as our third quarterback. Will Cronin, a walk-on that we brought in as part of our 105 was scout team quarterback along with Rashad Kinlaw. Both of those young men were the scout team quarterbacks this week. But Luke got a lot of reps as our No. 3 this week.”

Massa was part of a three-quarterback class that included Rees and Hendrix and was perhaps best knows as the high school teammate of blue-chip offensive lineman Matt James at St. Xavier, who tragically passed away during a Spring Break accident during his senior year of high school. While Massa has made his way into the Irish’s Saturday plans as the team’s holder this season, seeing him at quarterback would be a sight.

But perhaps an even bigger one would be Cronin working his way onto the field. The 5-foot-11 inch, 180-pound senior walk-on wasn’t on the official roster the last three seasons for the Irish, already one-upping Rudy in the “would you believe it?” category. The 2008 2A Illinois state champion quarterback was an honorable mention Academic All-State competitor at Immaculate Conception high school in Elmurst, Illinois, putting up a career day in September of 2009 when he threw for 422 yards and five touchdowns in a tough 46-38 shootout loss to the St. Edwards Green Wave.

Part of me thinks Cronin having a chance to even contribute this week as a scout team player may turn this Saturday’s game into a new career-best moment.

(Now all he has to do is find his way onto the field in garbage time…)

***

With all the offseason offensive wrinkles, will Notre Dame finally reveal The Pistol?

Brian Kelly brought former Nevada coach Chris Ault to campus this offseason, inviting the offensive innovator to Notre Dame’s coaching clinic, where Ault talked about the Pistol offense. A formation and offensive package that Ault’s largely credited with inventing, it’s a shotgun formation that features a running back lined up directly behind the quarterback.

Early in fall camp, Kelly did his best to downplay the use of the Pistol. But even in the media’s limited viewing window, it’s been clear that the formation has been a big part of the team’s practice efforts. And with George Atkinson a running back that can do some damage if he gets started running downhill, the Pistol is a great way for a spread team to infuse a few power principles to its offensive attack.

“He ran downhill very well in high school, and we felt like the pistol could fit him very well,” Kelly said of Atkinson. “Not just him, but we felt like it was something that could benefit us moving forward.”

Still, Kelly was quick to downplay any widespread change to the offense, particularly when the best quarterbacks in the formation generally have some dual-threat capabilities.

“It’s just another piece to our offense that gives us the versatility that we’re looking for,” Kelly said earlier this week. “I think week to week you may see it a little bit more than others, and some you may not see it at all.  I just think it’s another piece that helps us complement the players we have.”

***

It’s finally time to see this freshman class in action.

Last year against Navy, the Irish played 47 different players in the first quarter alone, on the way to getting 17 players their first collegiate action. With a hot and humid day on tap for South Bend on Saturday, expect to see plenty of guys seeing the field.

That includes the freshman class. A group that Brian Kelly has already singled out as one of his most competitive ever, the “IrishMob” that was such a cohesive unit as a recruiting class will now get to strut their stuff on the field for the first time.

Let’s go quickly through the class and give you a quick rundown of what to expect from each player this Saturday:

Hunter Bivin — He’s made the two-deep, but expect him to stay on the sideline this year.
Greg Bryant — One of camp’s big surprises should be revealed this weekend.
Devin Butler — With depth at corner, Butler will likely spend Saturday watching.
Michael Deeb — Expect this mauler to make an impact on special teams immediately.
Steve Elmer — You’ll see him rotate in at right tackle.
Tarean Folston — It’s up in the air if he’ll work his way into the crowded RB rotation.
William Fuller — Just outside the two-deep, he’s a talented young deep threat.
Mike Heuerman — With three veterans in front of him, it might be special teams or bust.
Torii Hunter Jr. — While there’s been progress in his leg’s recovery, a redshirt is likely.
Rashad Kinlaw — Helped out at scout team QB, his athleticism could get him on the field.
Cole Luke — Already one of the team’s best corners. Will wear #36 because of special teams.
Jacob Matuska — One of the team’s best positions isn’t its deepest. But a likely redshirt.
Mike McGlinchey — One of camp’s biggest surprises. Closer to the field than many expected.
Colin McGovern — A high school injury and depth at guard makes a redshirt an easy choice.
John Montelus — Shoulder injury and 340-pounds of bulk means a saved year of eligibility.
James Onwualu — Kelly called him one of camp’s best surprises. Will see the field.
Doug Randolph — Surgery ended his season before it began.
Max Redfield — Just outside the two-deep (for now), he’s too talented to keep off special teams.
Corey Robinson — Get ready to see this red zone match-up wreak havoc.
Isaac Rochelle — Injuries or not, Rochelle is too talented to keep off the field.
Jaylon Smith — His star turns begins Saturday.
Durham Smythe — Silky smooth tight end is a long shot to play this year.
Malik Ziare — Mono or not, he’s better off saving a year of eligibility.

***

Most Notre Dame coaches find success. But for Brian Kelly, now comes the hard part.

While they didn’t go undefeated, Bob Davie, Ty Willingham and Charlie Weis all at one point looked like they’d be the next great Notre Dame head coach. So with Brian Kelly coming off a twelve-win regular season, now comes the hard part: Doing it again.

NBC Sports’ Joe Posnanski headed to South Bend last week to investigate what makes Brian Kelly different. After talking with Dan Fox, Zack Martin, assistant coach Bob Elliott and others, Posnanski believes it’s Kelly’s innate ability to understand and connect to his team.

Take this interesting snippet from Posnanski’s excellent piece:

All of last season, while coaching at Notre Dame, Bob Elliott would administer daily self-dialysis. His kidneys were failing. He said it was more of a pain that painful. This past February, after the season, he had a kidney transplant, with his sister Betsy as the donor. He says he’s doing well.

And he says that going through that last year while coaching a great Notre Dame team taught him a lot about what makes Brian Kelly win. Elliott has been around some of the greatest coaches in college football history. His father, Bump Elliott, was coach at Michigan for 10 years and athletic director at Iowa for more than two decades. Bob himself has coached for 34 years and has worked under Bill Snyder at Kansas State, under Hayden Fry at Iowa, under Dick Crum at North Carolina. He has some connection to just about everybody in college football.

And he says that what amazes him about Kelly is how well he understands the people around him. He said that Kelly seemed to know when to check in and when to butt out. Kelly seemed to know how to revitalize Elliott in low moments without making a big deal out of it. Kelly just understood. This is what everybody keeps coming back to when they talk about Kelly — Elliott says it’s the most remarkable talent of a remarkable coach.

“Oh, he’s a great technical coach too,” Elliott says. “He’s been successful for a long time and he knows the game as well as anybody. But what makes him unique, I think, is that guys like to play for Brian. Coaches like to coach for Brian. He’s one of my favorites. He lets coaches do our jobs without micromanaging unless there is something that needs to be micromanaged. And then he does it in a respectful way. And he is very much in charge — he sets the tone for everything.

“It’s hard to build a family environment. That’s what coaches are always going for, right? You want players who play for each other and push each other and make each other better. That’s a hard thing to accomplish. Brian Kelly is as good as anybody Ive ever seen at building that environment.”

It’s worth noting that in Brian Kelly’s first 39 games at Notre Dame, he’s won 28 of them. In Lou Holtz’s first 39 games, he won 29. Extracting just one more similarity from the two: Both Kelly and Holtz averaged five losses a season in their first two years on the Irish sideline. They each won twelve games their third season.

For the record, Holtz followed up his 1988 National Championship season with a 12-1 campaign only spoiled by a late November loss to Miami. We’ll see what Kelly has in store for an encore.

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.”

Friday at 4: 40-yard dashes and absurdity

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Of all the absurd things the football world often obsesses over, the 40-yard dash may be the most useless of them. Yes, it even beats out assigning star rankings to 16- and 17-year-olds, though not by much.

For now, let’s look past the rest of the inane Draft intricacies, such as former Irish defensive lineman Jarron Jones feeling pressured to increase his vertical jump by four inches. (He did, jumping to 24.5 inches in Notre Dame’s Pro Day on Thursday.) This scribe does not have an excess of time to spend discussing Jones’s outlandish wingspan if this piece is to post by its intended, though unnecessary, 4 p.m. ET deadline.

The 40-yard dash … No football play begins from a sprinter’s stance, yet it may be the factor most crucial to a low 40 time. Former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer posted a time of 4.83 seconds in the NFL Combine earlier this month. For context’s sake, Kizer ran .07 seconds slower than Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did as a draft prospect in the 2004 combine.

Roethlisberger has had himself an excellent career, and his ability to shrug off 300-pound defensive linemen is a testament to his athleticism. Put Kizer and Roethlisberger in the open field together, though, and Kizer would presumably have outrun Roethlisberger at any point of the two-time Super Bowl champion’s career. In Indianapolis, however, Roethlisberger did a better job of getting his hips through his first couple strides of the heralded 40-yard dash.

Here, watch Kizer train for the 40, the most-hyped measurement of his combine.

“The ultimate goal is to have yourself in the best position to have your body weight back in those legs so you can create enough torque to get out as quickly as possible,” Kizer said. “A guy who is as long as I am, with long limbs that I have, I’ve got to make sure that my weight distribution is in the best position for me to get out and catch up to some of those quicker guys who are a little lower to the ground.”

What part of that sounds applicable to football? The 40 turns Kizer’s size (6-foot-4, 237 pounds) into a negative. He worries about the angle of his knees. After his throwing session at the Thursday Pro Day, Kizer summed up the draft evaluation process even more succinctly.

“This process is very different in the sense that the way you look productive in the combine and in a pro day is very different from what productivity actually looks like out on the field.”

Well put.

More pertinent to the actual game of football, Kizer’s completion percentage in the staged workout could have been higher.

Then again, he was throwing to the likes of former Irish receivers Corey Robinson and Amir Carlisle and former running back Jonas Gray. Reportedly, the only contact Gray and Kizer had before the session was Kizer emailing the former New England Patriot the planned series of routes.

The NFL Draft, where Gmail becomes a necessity.

Let’s do away with the 40. If we insist on keeping it, let’s do it twice, once from a standing start and once from a running start. Those would simulate actual football movements: A receiver getting off the line, and a ballcarrier breaking away and trying to outrun the defense.

Asking DeShone Kizer to mimic Usain Bolt is an exercise in futility, idiocy, absurdity.

Cue end of rant.

Why cite the Roethlisberger time? Many, including Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke, have readily compared Kizer to Roethlisberger this spring.

The most notable line of that scouting report (scroll down to No. 32) may be its final one, echoing Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s sentiments from earlier this week.

“The mystery is whether he can regain his assertiveness,” Burke writes. “If so, he could turn out to be the 2017 class’s best QB. The team that drafts him will be taking a leap of faith.”

A leap. Not a dash.

For more Notre Dame Pro Day results, click here.

And with that, this just may make the 4 p.m. posting. You know what to do.

 

Tranquill continues work with safeties … for now

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Drue Tranquill will see time at the oft-spoken of rover position, just not yet. For now, Notre Dame needs the senior at safety to provide leadership and communication while the rest of his position group gets up to speed.

“We really have to figure out what the coordination is going to be at the safety position,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “How much does Drue play down at rover? How much does he play back [at safety]?”

Only sophomore Devin Studstill returns any starts to the safety position aside from Tranquill’s career total of 18. Studstill started nine games last season.

That void has kept Tranquill working mostly with the defensive backs in the spring’s first few practices, rather than joining the likes of junior Asmar Bilal in the rover grouping.

“We didn’t want to pull our most veteran player out of the back end of our defense with Drue,” Kelly said. “I think it was more about the hesitancy of losing a great communicator in the back end than about the teaching.”

The time will come, however, for Tranquill to move up. Juniors Nick Coleman and Ashton White have moved to safety from the corner position. With more reps, they will not need to rely on Tranquill’s guidance as much. The same goes for, at least in theory, sophomore Jalen Elliott.

“It’s not really a heavy load of teaching for those guys,” Kelly said. “They’re picking it up quite well. We really want to get a chance to see a lot of guys back there.”

Kelly seemed particularly bullish on Coleman’s prospects at the position, provided he embrace the needed physicality. At 6-foot, 187 pounds, Coleman’s build may have been more suited on the outside, but Notre Dame’s plethora of promising cornerbacks provided an impetus to test Coleman at safety.

“The big thing will be Nick’s continuous development in tackling,” Kelly said. “You have to tackle back there. His ball skills are really good. We’ve seen that he’s able to play the ball. He has athleticism.

“We just want to continue to build on his tackling skills. If we go through the spring and say, ‘Well, he’s tackling really well,’ we’ll feel pretty good about the move.”

At that point, Tranquill will likely join Bilal at the hybrid position, which is something of a trademark to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Tranquill will be able to do what he does best: Pursue the ball.

“We all know what his strengths are,” Kelly said. “He’s a solid tackler. I don’t think there’s any safety in college football that wants to get matched up one-on-one with a skilled slot receiver. This would minimize that, when you play him close to the ball as a rover.

“And I think he’s pretty quick off the edge. I think we put him in a really good position in maximizing his skill set.”

Until then, Bilal will continue to be the frontrunner at rover, especially with the first four Irish opponents of 2017 presenting run-heavy offenses.

KELLY ON NICK WATKINS
Kelly was also asked about senior cornerback Nick Watkins, his fit into Elko’s defense and his return from injury.

“He’s very coachable, wants to learn, he’s pretty long,” Kelly said. “What I think Mike [Elko] does really well—and this is what I liked about my interactions with him—is, we all have strengths and weaknesses. He has a great eye of saying let’s take Nick’s strengths and let’s put him in a position where we can really utilize his strengths and put him in a position where maybe we’re not a right and left corner team, maybe we’re a short field/wide field team. Let’s apply him in that fashion.

“Nick’s long. He’s a little bit of a physical player. Let’s go to those strengths. He’s shown some of those attributes early on.”

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