And in that corner…The Michigan Wolverines

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Whatever we’re calling the Michigan-Notre Dame game, it’s immensely important. Not just for the fans, but for the trajectory of each team’s season. For the Irish, Saturday night’s battle in the Big House kicks off a tough five game stretch that has the Irish facing three straight Big Ten teams to go along with Oklahoma and Arizona State. For Michigan, it’s an early season victory that likely vaults them into the top ten, and is a springboard (along with assumed wins over Akron and UConn) into Big Ten action.

Gathering much from Michigan’s 50-point trouncing of Central Michigan is difficult. The bullet points are certainly there: Devin Gardner, some receiving weapons, and young and aggressive defense.

But to help us dig a little deeper is the Detroit News’ Angelique Chengelis. Covering the Wolverines beat since 1992, she’s seen quite a bit of the boys in maize and blue, and was kind enough to answer a few questions to get us up to speed on the big game.

I asked, she answered:

Winning by 50 points is an impressive way to open the season. Did the dominant victory over Central Michigan answer any of your offseason questions?

Only this question — would Michigan really play a lot of young players, including true freshmen? — and Brady Hoke did that, and I think in the end, that will be a big plus for this team. I think the interior of the offensive line is still a question mark and that depth chart, as offensive coordinator Al Borges said this week, is written in pencil. It was good to see Fitz Toussaint running the ball after his offseason of rehab from a broken left leg. It was also good to get an early look at freshman back Derrick Green, who has quickly climbed the depth chart from fifth to second (in part because of the season-ending injury to Drake Johnson), and as expected, freshman quarterback Shane Morris got in the game and got his feet wet.

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For better or worse, this offense is in Devin Gardner’s hands. Watching last weekend’s game, he put together quite a highlight reel, but also threw two interceptions, including one inside his own 10 yard line. After having their struggles with Denard Robinson (until last year), what type of quarterback are the Irish facing in Gardner? 

While Gardner doesn’t have the electricity of Denard (or the untied shoelaces), he has great athleticism, and I like what he did when he scrambled. The ONLY positive to take from the picks is that he didn’t drown in those — he rebounded quickly and recovered well. Clearly, as we’ve seen these last few Michigan-Notre Dame games, avoiding turnovers is absolutely key. I do not expect to see Gardner, who, by the way, is a better passer than Denard, making a habit of such bad throws like the two against CMU that resulted in picks.

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After a few good recruiting classes, there is some talented youth in Greg Mattison’s front seven. How will that group do against Notre Dame’s offensive line without Jake Ryan?

Michigan played a LOT of defensive linemen and rotated a lot at those spots — Quinton Washington this week said he was more refreshed than he’s ever been during and after a game because the rotation worked and kept everyone fresh. The linebackers were solid in the opener. Desmond Morgan played well, as did Cam Gordon and Brennen Beyer, the key guys replacing Ryan, and James Ross and Joe Bolden also got high marks.

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Another big match-up is the battle up front between the Wolverine’s offensive line and the Irish’s tough front seven. How does the rebuilt interior of Michigan’s line look?

Well, it looks like it’s still a work in progress. Graham Glasgow, who started at left guard, and Jack Miller, who started at center, are still engaged in competition at center. While I wouldn’t expect any great lineup changes, Borges suggested that could be a possibility, that jobs are up in the air. Across the board, though, the staff seemed to like the performance of redshirt freshman right guard Kyle Kalis. Again, while they got valuable game experience in the opener against CMU, Notre Dame presents a much more complete package that more than likely will give the Michigan offensive line some fits.

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Brian Kelly ruffled a few feathers when he said he didn’t consider Michigan to be one of Notre Dame’s historic rivals. Does anybody believe that? How do you characterize this rivalry from Michigan’s perspective? Considering the drama of the last few games, the rancor of the scheduling break, and the general disdain between the two schools’ fans, how big of a rivalry is this for Michigan?

I don’t think most people from either camp really believe that, but it has made for some fun conversations this week! I’ve always looked at it this way — Michigan State and Ohio State are Michigan’s most important rivalry games because they are vital in the Big Ten championship race. But Michigan considers Notre Dame its important non-conference rival. Because they are so similar in how their fan bases and programs value their traditions, and because they often recruit the same players and because they are the winningest programs, it carries that historic value. Michigan looks at the Notre Dame game as a battle against what often is a mirror image, and that games gives the Wolverines a better sense of who they are as a team and where they need to improve.

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I believe you are on the record picking the Wolverines in this one already. What kind of game do you think we are in for on Saturday night?

I am taking Michigan, in part because of the cliche-but-true — homefield advantage. Not that that helped Michigan two years ago under the lights against Notre Dame those first three quarters, but in that fourth-quarter flourish, the players definitely fed off the crowd. I think we’ll see a few critical turnovers, because, well, we usually do. I think we’ll see an aggressive Michigan defense doing its best to rattle Tommy Rees, get him to hang onto the ball and overthink situations. There’s no doubt Devin Gardner is aware of how huge this stage will be, and he likes that stage. I think he will be steady and play well and will find tight end Devin Funchess on some critical throws. But overall, I think it’s the Michigan defense that will dictate this one.

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A special thanks to Angelique for fitting this into her schedule this week. For more good stuff from her and the Detroit News, check out her Michigan coverage here, or follow her @Chengelis.

Browns pick former Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer 20th in second round

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After months of pointless chatter and a night spent waiting, DeShone Kizer’s NFL Draft experience ended Friday night when the Cleveland Browns drafted the former Notre Dame quarterback with the 20th pick in the second round, the No. 52 overall selection.

Originally from Toledo, Ohio, Kizer will have the opportunity to earn the starting job for the franchise less than two hours from his hometown. The Browns trotted out five different quarterbacks in 2016, only two of which remain with the team. Rookie Cody Kessler played in nine games, throwing for 1,380 yards and six touchdowns with only one interception while fellow rookie Kevin Hogan threw for 104 yards and two interceptions in four games.

The Browns have since added Brock Osweiler in a trade with the Houston Texans, though that trade was largely-viewed as a cash-for-picks swap, with the Browns “paying” for picks by taking on Osweiler’s contract in which he is owed $47 million over the next three seasons, including $16 million this season.

A year ago, the No. 52 pick (linebacker Deion Jones to the Atlanta Falcons) received a four-year, $4.546 million contract with a $1.506 million signing bonus.

Hall of fame running back and Browns legend Jim Brown announced the selection of Kizer at the draft festivities.

Speculation a year ago pegged Kizer as an early first-round pick. As the draft approached, projections of his slot varied widely, many including a second-round status. Despite first-round theatrics leading to three quarterbacks going in the first 12 picks Thursday night, Kizer had to wait another day before learning where he will start his NFL career. (more…)

Friday at 4: ‘Attention to detail’ includes Notre Dame Stadium

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Brian Kelly proselytized multiple abstract concepts this spring. By the end of the 15 practices and subsequent media sessions, even the Irish coach knew some of his references to “grit” would be met by muted eye rolls from the press. If a questioner included the word in their query, Kelly reacted with tongue-in-cheek approval, “You’ve been listening.”

In his press conference the day before spring practices commenced, Kelly used the phrase “attention to detail” six separate times. While he was referring to his players on the football field, Kelly could have also been discussing the ongoing—but supposedly close to finished—construction at Notre Dame Stadium known as Campus Crossroads.

The three buildings around the exterior of the Stadium, the added suites and the video board above the south end zone have garnered the headlines. On a macro level, those are the changes of note. On a micro level, however, other details have trickled into the public stream of knowledge as the work nears its conclusion.

Over the weekend—and now reignited by a column from the South Bend Tribune’s Mike Vorel—the image of the newly-added visitors’ tunnel delighted Irish fans. Vorel likens the narrow entry to “the spot they’d stash the gladiators before feeding them to starving tigers in The Coliseum.” Assuredly, Vorel is going for dramatic effect, and it must work considering its citation here, but even a realistic view of the tunnel’s effects bodes well.

If nothing else, Notre Dame players should enjoy something of a psychological boost when racing out of their adult-sized tunnel and seeing their opponent trickle out of a tunnel seemingly-sized for ants. (Yes, the north end zone tunnel is at least three times bigger than the visitors’ tunnel.)

That pale, slanted staircase holds none of the luxuries of the home team’s entrance, something Kelly went out of his way to praise after using it in Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. (more…)

Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers

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You want complete honesty? The linebacker version of this series includes no revelations, no unexpected developments, no surprising spring performances. There is an allusion to a position switch, sure, but this piece became much simpler with the rover being discussed separately Thursday.

The idea was to capitalize on the NFL Draft for the morning and let the linebackers slip by in the afternoon, noticed only by those twiddling their thumbs through the last hours of the work week. Alas, former Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer was not drafted in the first round and a brief recap of his draft destination will need to await at least another day. Programming note: The NFL Draft reconvenes tonight (Friday) at 7 p.m. ET. The Green Bay Packers are on the clock. They will not draft a quarterback.

But back to the linebackers. This piece may have been intended to slip by with little fanfare, but that is not indicative of the Irish linebackers. Where Notre Dame was is so similar to where Notre Dame is simply because two experienced senior captains lead the way at linebacker.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
Aside from questions about defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s rover position, only one question stood out about this linebacker group: Who would start alongside senior Nyles Morgan: senior Greer Martini or junior Te’von Coney?

A year ago Coney recorded the fourth-most tackles on the team with 62. Martini finished fifth with 55, and his seven tackles for loss, including three sacks, dwarfed Coney’s 1.5. Yet Coney technically started nine games compared to Martini’s four.

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

With the rover often lining up essentially as a linebacker, there would only be space for one of Martini or Coney in most formations.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
In his first season with the Irish, Elko will have quite a luxury in referring to Coney as a backup linebacker. In some respects, that designation was inevitable as soon as Martini was named a captain. Nonetheless, Coney will see plenty of playing time.

The two captains—along with fellow captain, senior Drue Tranquill at rover—will be counted on throughout the summer and fall camp to continue the defense’s growth in Elko’s system. Elko said he installed “close to 50 percent” of his entire defense throughout spring practice. The linebackers must deal with the most difficult aspects of that learning.

“There’s been a noticeable improvement in terms of this starting to look like the defense we want this to look like as spring has gone on,” Elko said a week ago. “… Linebacker probably more than any other position, linebacker and safety, where the scheme takes some time to get used to, how you see it, how you fit it, how you feel it. Those guys have gotten better with that which has then allowed them to play faster as the spring has moved on.”

Sophomore Jonathan Jones will likely provide any further depth that may be needed in 2017, unless either of the incoming freshmen, David Adams and Drew White, excel from the outset. Irish coach Brian Kelly indicated sophomore Jamir Jones (no relation to Jonathan, but is former Notre Dame defensive lineman Jarron Jones’ brother) may be destined for time on the defensive line, in large part to Jones’s continued growth. Junior Josh Barajas let the spring come and go without mandating he be involved in these conversations, which may as well count as removing himself from the conversation in most regards.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame Was, Is & Could Be: Rover

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Rover

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Before spring practice, the rover position was lumped in with the linebackers in positional previews. Nearly two months later, that seems to have been the right placement—the rover will likely spend most of its time at the defense’s second level.

But since curiosity about the rover and its unknown place in Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme ran rampant—especially when compared to the rather solid understanding of the 2017 Irish linebackers—let’s take a look specifically at the rover.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:

“Who will start at [Elko’s] rover position,” this space asked. “What will his role entail?”

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

Senior safety Drue Tranquill was expected to see the most time at rover, perhaps with cameos from junior linebacker Asmar Bilal and sophomore safeties D.J. Morgan and Spencer Perry (since transferred).

More than anything, though, learning how Elko intended to deploy his defensive utility knife would answer the most questions about his defense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:

Tranquill will indeed lead the position, but not without much effort from Bilal.

“We’ve tried quite a few bodies out there,” Elko said Friday. “I think as spring has gone on, we’ve gotten a feel of what each of them can do, what parts of the package we can run with each of them. I think we’ve got a pretty good pulse now on how we want that thing to play out, who will be there doing what.”

Elko is excessively reluctant to discuss individual players, so asking him to expound on who will be at rover in particular situations was largely a fruitless exercise. Earlier this spring, Irish head coach Brian Kelly indicated Bilal would be featured against run-heavy offenses. That may well prove to be the case, but it is far more likely Tranquill sees the majority of the repetitions at the position.

RELATED READING: Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover positon, others likely to follow

“It’s been a good fit all spring [for Tranquill],” Kelly said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “He’s a plus player there for us. He really can impact what’s happening from snap to snap. He’s a physical player and playing low to the ball is really where he can do a lot of really good things for us.”

For his part, Tranquill enjoys the position and the unique number of duties innate to it. In theory, the rover aligns mostly with the linebackers but can be relied on to provide coverage when necessary. At other times, the rover will be asked to rush the passer. That flexibility allows Elko to keep the offense guessing.

“I love the rover position,” Tranquill said. “It’s a versatile position that allows you to come off the edge, allows you to play the run, play the pass, and do a lot of different things.”

Sometimes it allows you to pretend like you’re coming off the edge and then actually embarrass a potential first-round draft pick.

In senior left guard Quenton Nelson’s defense, Tranquill did add Nelson probably won more of their battles in spring practices than the defender did.

WHERE NOTRE DAME COULD BE:

Elko indicated there could be a third primary option in his tool kit. Notre Dame has a plethora of talented cornerbacks. Last week, Kelly indicated he might ask one of them to chip in at safety in obvious passing situations. Similarly, Elko predicted junior Shaun Crawford could play at rover against particular passing attacks, a la Bilal against certain rushing offenses.

“A lot of this is dictated by who that guy is lined up and what we’re trying to do,” Elko said. “We’re going to see a lot of really talented slot receivers. We’re going to have to match up and cover them well. There’s other names other than the big linebacker/safety bodies to put at that position. [Junior safety] Nick Coleman has done that some this spring. [Junior safety] Ashton White has done that some this spring. When Shaun gets healthy, I think he’ll do that some. That is all encompassing in that position.”

The 5-foot-9, 175-pound Crawford has since announced his return to full health, which should allow him plenty of time to readjust to contact before the start of fall practice.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line