Five things we learned: Notre Dame 28, Temple 6

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The game ball for head coach Brian Kelly’s 200th career victory will likely find a place on the bookshelf. But there wasn’t much memorable about the Irish’s 28-6 win over Temple. But on a day where the Irish put up 543 yards of offense and managed to get ten freshmen their first taste of college football, that might just be a sign of how far the Irish football program has come under the fourth-year head coach.

On a day where Notre Dame and Kelly finalized a long-discussed contract extension, the Irish jumped out to a quick start, faltered a bit in the second quarter, but did enough to stay comfortably out in front of a game but overmatched Temple squad visiting South Bend for the first time.

Considering the way Notre Dame last opened a season at home (a shocking 23-20 loss to Skip Holtz’s USF Bulls), an easy 22-point victory was just what the doctor ordered, even if it wasn’t as impressive as many expected. But put part of the blame on the Irish’s early offensive explosion, scoring two touchdowns in the team’s first six offensive snaps. Still, Kelly was happy to exit the game victorious, protecting the playbook as they head to Ann Arbor next weekend.

“Openers are the most difficult, because the preparation and the planning, you don’t know what to expect,” Kelly explained. “We can talk about our team, we can think that we know about our team, but you really don’t until they get out there and play.”

Let’s take a look at the five things we learned during the Irish’s 28-6 victory.

 ***

With a newly announced contract extension, both Brian Kelly and Notre Dame have made a commitment to each other.  

Both Jack Swarbrick and Kelly had long talked about an agreement on a contract extension for Notre Dame’s fourth-year head coach. But as the weeks turned into months, many speculated that there was an difficult undercurrent beneath all the pleasantries.

Kelly said in fall camp that there was an agreement in principle. And late in the game, NBC’s Dan Hicks announced that Notre Dame and Kelly had finally agreed to a formal contract extension.

The particulars of the deal weren’t released, though Kelly did say it’s a five year extension, starting this season. That said, comments from both Swarbrick and Kelly indicate that the contract talks give both parties what they want.

“The new agreement ensures that Brian will continue to provide the type of leadership that has fundamentally changed this program, restored it and given it the foundation it needs for continued success in the future,” Swarbrick said after the game. “We could not be more pleased.”

After talking in macro terms early this week about some of the peculiarities that make coaching at Notre Dame different than other elite college football programs, Kelly talked about the partnership this contract signifies.

“The contract is one that’s involved the leadership of the university. We’ve all been in discussion about the future of the program,” Kelly said. “By signing this contract, we’re all in this together.”

***

In his first game back in the starting lineup, Tommy Rees looked just fine in control of the Irish offense. 

While it looked like an opening game for much of the team, senior quarterback Tommy Rees looked in midseason form. Rees opened the game on fire, throwing two deep touchdown passes to DaVaris Daniels on the team’s first two drives, on the way to completing 16 of 23 passes for 346 yards and three touchdowns.

For a season opener, Rees looked sharp and in control, and more importantly showed the capability of throwing down the field, piling up career high yardage totals on just 16 completions while playing turnover free football.

“I think we had four of five chunk plays of over thirty yards,” Kelly said. “A lot of the questions coming in was could we push the ball down field. I think we answered a lot of those questions right away.”

Rees doing it against Temple is different than him doing it against Michigan, but the senior quarterback looked confident and in control of the offense throughout the afternoon.

***

The Irish special teams needs to improve. Quickly. 

It’s clear that Notre Dame needs to find some answers on special teams. While Kelly talked about wanting to turn over the place-kicking duties to fifth-year senior Nick Tausch, it’s impossible to do that if the veteran kicker continues to snap-hook field goal attempts.

Likewise, Kelly talked about the development needed out of Kyle Brindza the punter. That was evident in Brindza’s two end-zone pooch punts, neither coming particularly close to pinning Temple deep in their own territory. Taking over the punting job with Ben Turk graduated, it’s clear that Brindza has the leg to do it, he just needs to refine his abilities.

“We’ll have to be technically better in our pooch punt with Kyle, but I’m confident that we’ll be able to do that,” Kelly said. “And certainly our field goal situation will need to be better. But again, all of those areas I’m very confident we’ll get better.”

With the kickoff team losing contain when Lo Wood missed a tackle, and a penalty on a punt return taking away a TJ Jones return, it’s clear that the Irish are still figuring out their special teams units. But Kelly is taking a glass half full approach, knowing full well that his team will need to play better when the opponents ramp up.

“We would like to execute better, but I saw some very encouraging signs in our special teams,” Kelly said.

Kelly wasn’t willing to commit to Tausch or Brindza as a placekicker for next week. Both missed their attempt, though Brindza got good wood on his, just hooking it left.

While kickoff, punt and field goal duties are a lot to heap on an underclassmen, Kelly might not have a choice if Tausch continues to struggle.

***

Even without marquee names, the Irish will make their share of big plays. 

The Irish are without an offensive star, with big names like Brady Quinn, Jeff Samardzija, Jimmy Clausen, Golden Tate, Michael Floyd, Kyle Rudoph and Tyler Eifert long gone. But even without the marquee names, the Irish look like an offense that’s going to make its fair share of explosive plays.

DaVaris Daniels proved that early, scoring two long touchdowns — the first two of his career — on his first two catches of the season. And TJ Jones looks like he’ll turn into another all-purpose weapon for the Irish, logging his first 100-yard receiving game with 138 yards on six catches, turning something into nothing quite a few times.

“I thought he was dynamic,” Kelly said of Jones. “Dynamic is a word I’d use as a receiver when we’re talking about after the catch.”

Add in the exciting start to Amir Carlisle’s Notre Dame career, a 45-yard run on the Irish’s first play from scrimmage, and impressive days from Troy Niklas, Chris Brown, and Cam McDaniel and George Atkinson, and the Irish might just be alright on offense.

“I think you’re going to see great distribution of the football across the board. And it’s going to be somebody new each week,” Kelly said. “You’re going to see a lot of guys contribute offensively and I think it’s for the better. It gives us great balance across the board.”

Daniels would’ve had a much bigger game if he didn’t tweak his groin chasing a deep throw from Rees. Kelly said he the junior receiver could’ve returned, but didn’t want to risk making the injury worse and keeping him out against Michigan.

***

In life after Te’o, there’s work to be done on defense. 

In Notre Dame’s first game without Manti Te’o roaming the middle of the field, there were some slip-ups. Temple gained 362 total yards against the Irish, winning the first down battle against Notre Dame 25-21, with quarterback Connor Reilly throwing the ball 46 times while only getting sacked once.

Still, the Irish limited Temple to six points, benefitting from two missed field goals. And while Dan Fox had ten tackles and Carlo Calabrese had nine, Kelly talked about some of the early struggles the Irish had at inside linebacker with run fits before straightening things out in the second half.

That said, anybody expecting to see a different brand of Irish defense doesn’t know Brian Kelly and Bob Diaco. Limiting points is always the agenda, even if that allows opponents to pick up yardage between the twenties.

“Our defense does not surrender big plays and keeps the points down, and really make you work to sustain drives and get it into the end zone,” Kelly explained after the game.

“I was okay with the dink and dunk that they were going to exhibit on offense. If they were going to continue to just take stick routes and swings, I was okay in letting that happen, as that’s how we play defensively.”

All that being said, there’s plenty of room for improvement. Louis Nix had three penalties and grew frustrated with the constant double teams. In the secondary, Elijah Shumate got beat twice for big gains in coverage. The Irish only made one play behind the line of scrimmage on the afternoon, a Tuitt sack, and let Temple hold the football for 28 minutes on the afternoon, with many drives extended with quarterback scrambles by Reilly. (If that doesn’t worry you in advance of Devin Gardner, nothing will.)

Still, to judge the Irish defense on a game-plan purposely vanilla is silly. And after the game it was clear the team had already moved their focus to Michigan, knowing full well that the Irish would have to play better to exit Ann Arbor with a victory.

“We didn’t obviously show a lot of our stuff today, which was our intention,” Kelly said. “And we’re happy that we didn’t have to put our entire game plan out there for everybody to see.

“We’re going to have to play better in all phases against Michigan next week, but we’re going to enjoy this victory today and our kids will get back to work Monday.”

What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

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Time spent on a traditional game wrap of a spring intrasquad exhibition seems misspent. Gold won Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game 27-14 led by rising sophomore quarterback Ian Book. The first-string defense (Gold) held the first-string offense to an average of 5.4 yards per play. For context’s sake: Last season Notre Dame gained an average of 6.1 yards per play and held opponents to 5.4.

With that abbreviated recap out of the way, what did Saturday’s pseudo-game environment show about the Irish? If the 20,147 in attendance paid attention, they had the chance to learn a few things:

Daelin Hayes will be ready to hit a quarterback in September
Notre Dame’s quarterbacks were off limits all spring. Bulls might charge when they see red, but the Irish defensive line has had to remember to ease up when they come across a quarterback’s red jersey. If sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes had forgotten that Saturday, Notre Dame might not have any quarterbacks left to play in the fall.

“At the end of the day, we’re on the same team,” Hayes said, dismissing any bitterness about the quarterbacks’ protections. “We have to keep our guys healthy. I wasn’t frustrated, but come September 2, you know.”

Officially, Hayes was credited with three sacks and another tackle for loss among his seven tackles. Admittedly, gauging sacks is tricky when the quarterback does not actually go to the ground. How many of Hayes’ three sacks and the defense’s 11 total would have been evaded if the defender needed to do more than touch the passer? That answer is highly subjective, but discounting Hayes’ numbers would miss the bigger picture.

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

Senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) notched two sacks and sophomore end Ade Ogundeji came the closest to tackling a red jersey when he stripped junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush from behind. The defensive line has been expected to be a weak point for the Irish moving forward, but the spring performance indicates it has a chance at holding its own. These accomplishments bear further merit considering Notre Dame’s offensive line is widely-considered one of its few spots of expected quality.

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

“I think it’s pretty clear Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I’d have to watch the film, but it seemed like [sophomore end] Julian Okwara was a hard guy to block coming off the edge, as well.”

Ian Book provides some peace of mind
Book was not spectacular, but he was also far from incompetent or intimidated. In his first action on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, Book completed 18-of-25 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by a 58-yard connection with sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. Meanwhile, junior Brandon Wimbush completed 22-of-32 passes for 303 yards.

Bluntly, one has not needed to follow Notre Dame for very long to fit that “long enough” qualification. Last season’s backup, Malik Zaire, saw competitive action against both Texas and Stanford. In 2015, DeShone Kizer came off the bench to start 11 games after Zaire suffered a season-ending ankle injury. (more…)

What Notre Dame players should you actually watch? Plus, catch up on reading

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If technology does its part, this will post as its typist meanders toward finding his credential for the Blue-Gold Game to conclude Notre Dame’s spring practice. If technology doesn’t do its part, well, then this will be lost to the cobwebs of the internet. Such as it goes.

This space has spent much of the past week discussing what to look for in the 12:30 p.m. ET exhibition. Worry about the big picture, not the individuals. Fret about the macro, not the micro.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the indivdual players
Blue-Gold Game primer with help from Notre Dame’s coordinators
Four defensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game
Four offensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game

But, if insistent on focusing on singular players, look to the inexperienced, the names you are unfamiliar with. The 15th and final practice of spring may be no more than a practice in reality, but it is in front of nearly 30,000 fans in Notre Dame Stadium. Some players do not have so much as that minimal experience.

“The Blue-Gold Game, specifically, is a time for us to emulate a game-like situation,” senior safety/linebacker/rover Drue Tranquill said. “Especially for guys like freshmen, second-semester guys coming in, it’s a great opportunity for them to get that game feeling, but also continue to take steps in the process to get better.”

The question on the tip of your tongue is a fair one. If you are unfamiliar with the names, how are you supposed to focus on those players? How are you to know who fits the appropriate tunnel vision version of perspective?

Let’s turn to Irish coach Brian Kelly’s mentions from Wednesday–primarily, sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara, sophomore long snapper John Shannon, senior kicker Sam Kohler, sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem and sophomore safety Jalen Elliott.

Obviously, that is just a sampling. Less obviously, this post’s purpose may or may not be to link to previous reading material and remind you of the vague but pertinent purposes to today’s endeavor. It is neither be-all nor end-all. It is simply another opportunity to gauge what may come down the line.

But hey, how about a prediction? Per Kelly, the first-team offense and second-team defense will be in blue, against the first-team defense and second-team offense in white.

PREDICTION: Blue 37, White 21

HOW TO WATCH
As a recurring reminder, the Blue-Gold Game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network, as well as streamed online at ndstream.nbcsports.com and on the NBC Sports app.

Friday at 4: Four offensive positions to watch in Notre Dame’s spring game

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There are two common ways of looking at the annual spring game.
It is the last action involving Notre Dame football readily available for public consumption until Sept. 2, 133 days away.
Or it is an exercise rife with contradiction exacerbated by hype, yielding little-to-no reliable intelligence.
Like much of life, the most accurate assessment falls somewhere between those two views.

If junior running back Dexter Williams breaks off two 50-yard-plus touchdown runs, does that mean he will have multiple big plays in 2017? Not at all. It does mean he will likely have more opportunities for them, though. Just like in spring’s previous 14 practices, the Irish coaches will take what they see and apply it moving forward.

The past—and as of Saturday evening, the Blue-Gold Game will qualify as the past—does not dictate the future, but it can influence one’s approach to it.

Aside from Williams (see the second item below for more on him and the running backs), what other players/positions could influence their future roles the most with their performance to close spring?

BIG PASSING TARGETS: Alizé Jones and Co.
In this instance, big is meant literally. Notre Dame has an embarrassment of riches of tall, long, physical tight ends and receivers. Junior Alizé Jones earns specific mention here due to his inaction last season. Irish fans and coaches alike have a better idea of sophomore receiver Chase Claypool and junior receiver Miles Boykin. They have 2016 film to look at.

Jones, however, sat out the season due to academic issues. His on-field performance largely remains a question mark, but if he combines this spring’s praise with his 6-foot-4 ½ frame holding 245 listed pounds, that could turn into an exclamation point.

“He’s a perfect fit,” new Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long said Friday. “That’s why I recruited him like crazy when I was at Arizona State. He’s a prototypical [tight end], a guy who can run, who can catch.

“The biggest thing about Alizé is he’s taking great pride in his blocking ability right now, his presence of being an end-line guy, his protection and his overall physicality. When you think like that, you’re going to become a better receiver.” (more…)

Blue-Gold Game primer with help from Notre Dame’s coordinators

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You didn’t hear? Notre Dame plays Notre Dame tomorrow. Here, let’s make this easy.

WHO? Notre Dame’s first-string offense against its first-string defense, and the Irish second-string defense against the second-string offense.
WHAT? It’s called the Blue-Gold Game, but there are two flaws to that title. One team will be wearing white, not gold, and while it is structured as a game, it is really nothing more than the 15th and final spring practice.
WHEN? 12:30 p.m. ET, Saturday, April 22, 2017 A.D. Yes, I am worried you might mistake this as occurring more than 2,000 years before the time of Christ.
WHERE? Notre Dame Stadium, but if you can’t make it there, tune in to NBC Sports Network.
HOW? Oh, not going to be at a TV? NBC still has you covered at this link: ndstream.nbcsports.com or on the NBC Sports app.

With those essentials out of the way, let’s pull a few quotes from this morning when new Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long and new defensive coordinator Mike Elko addressed the media. Hopefully, these might provide some general context for what to learn from tomorrow.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the individual players

Elko on how much of his defense he has successfully installed this spring:
“We’ve gotten close to 50 percent of all of it up and running. We’ve spent a lot of time defending this offense this spring, so we’re going to have to spend some time defending the offenses we play moving forward. That’s probably where a lot of the learning curve has to come.”

Elko on the most notable defensive improvements:
“We’re disrupting the football better. We’re leveraging the football better. We’re playing harder.”

Elko on what fans should look for from the Notre Dame defense Saturday:
“I hope they see a defense that is flying around. I hope they see a defense that is disrupting the football. I hope they see a defense that has their eyes in the right spot and is executing at a high level. All those things that we’re preaching aren’t going to change tomorrow. It’s not going to be different. It’s not going to be different when we line up against Temple.” (more…)