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.”

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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