Red zone woes need fixing on both sides of the ball


After playing twelve sterling games where just about no offense could crack Notre Dame defense’s red zone code, it’s been an ugly stretch for Bob Diaco’s troops. First, Alabama bludgeoned them inside the 20 in the BCS Championship game, turning all five of their appearances into touchdowns. Now Michigan has done just about the same, with Devin Gardner cashing in Michigan’s four appearances for touchdowns.

Apologies to Temple, but that’s 9 for 9 for 63 points against the last two “real” opponents of the Irish. And while the defense certainly has some deficiencies it needs to fix between the 20s as well, if the Irish are going to rebound from this loss and meet their goals of making this a BCS season, they’ll need to fix both sides of the ball in the scoring zones.

We’ll get into some of the things the defense needs to tweak later, but one area of concern for Irish fans has been the play-calling in the red zone. As Blue & Gold Illustrated’s Lou Somogyi pointed out, Notre Dame is a whopping 1-10 when forced to throw the football at least 50 times in a game.

The Irish’s heavy hand in the passing game could have been dictated by a variety of reasons. The most obvious is falling behind by two scores. Another could be the different defensive looks Greg Mattison gave Tommy Rees and the Irish offense. Yet a season after living within the team’s offensive constraints and almost being forced to rely on a strong run game, Saturday night the Irish seemed to give up on it, especially when it got in the scoring area.

The Irish got incredibly pass happy when they found their way into scoring position, a knock that isn’t new to Kelly’s preferred play-calling. Last season, the Irish struggled mightily in the red zone, finishing a woeful 112th in the country in converting appearances into touchdowns at 48 percent. As one of the team’s chief offseason priorities, Kelly spoke during fall camp about Tommy Rees’ improvement in the red zone, yet the Irish’s struggled to convert appearances into points, scoring just two touchdowns in their five appearances in Ann Arbor.

After running for better than five yards a carry, the Irish all but abandoned the ground in the red zone. The numbers are ugly. Of the thirteen plays the Irish ran at or inside Michigan’s 20 yard-line, twelve of them were passes.

Here’s a breakdown of those plays:

1st and Goal at MICH 10 Amir Carlisle rush for 6 yards to the Mich 4.
2nd and Goal at MICH 4 Tommy Rees pass incomplete to DaVaris Daniels.
3rd and Goal at MICH 4 Tommy Rees pass complete to TJ Jones for 4 yards for a TOUCHDOWN.

1st and 10 at MICH 11 Tommy Rees pass incomplete to George Atkinson III.
2nd and 10 at MICH 11 Tommy Rees pass incomplete to TJ Jones.
3rd and 10 at MICH 11 Tommy Rees pass complete to Amir Carlisle for 4 yards to the Mich 7.

1st and 10 at MICH 20 Tommy Rees pass complete to Troy Niklas for 20 yards for a TOUCHDOWN.

3rd and 2 at MICH 15 Tommy Rees pass complete to DaVaris Daniels for a loss of 2 yards to the Mich 17.
4th and 4 at MICH 17 Tommy Rees pass incomplete to TJ Jones.

1st and 10 at MICH 20 Tommy Rees pass incomplete to Chris Brown.
2nd and 10 at MICH 20 Tommy Rees pass complete to TJ Jones for 7 yards to the Mich 13.
3rd and 3 at MICH 13 Tommy Rees pass complete to TJ Jones for 7 yards to the Mich 6 for a 1ST down.
1st and Goal at MICH 6 Tommy Rees pass intercepted by Blake Countess at the Mich 0, returned for no gain for a touchback.

Without knowing play calls or quarterback reads, it’s difficult to speak unequivocally about the decision to abandon the run in the part of the field where it’s most difficult to throw the football. But if the Irish want to improve their scoring efficiency in the red zone, using the run game to supplement the passing attack would be a good idea.

Tommy Rees didn’t play poorly on Saturday night, making one regrettable throw before the half that gave Michigan the football back in good scoring position. But Rees’ numbers in the red zone were 5 of 12 for 40 yards with 2 TDs and 1 INT. (Rees had both good luck and bad luck in the red zone, completing a tipped ball in the end zone for both a touchdown and an interception.)

It’s not hard to think back to Alabama’s punishing running game in the red zone to wonder why the Irish don’t take to the ground instead of the air when trying to score, especially with a quarterback that’s not exactly a running threat. Michigan did the same thing, running twice and throwing twice on their first red zone TD (also buoyed by a KeiVarae Russell pass interference), sandwiching a run between two passes on their second, running to set up the pass on their third red zone touchdown to extend the lead to 34-20, and then running twice versus three passes (two that resulted in pass interference calls) before the game was essentially iced on Drew Dileo’s touchdown on a slant.

If we’re to learn anything here, the first is stop committing pass interference penalties. But the second may be to add some diversity to the offensive playcalling inside the red zone, where the default looks too often to be a pass.

Notre Dame’s Pro Day showcases Nelson, Adams and Smythe, among others

In just 4.48 seconds, former Notre Dame running back Josh Adams took a step or 40 closer to hearing his name called during the NFL draft in late April. Adams’ 40-yard dash time would have been the fifth-best among running backs at the NFL combine in Indianapolis last month.

Then again, a foot injury that may require surgery could stymie Adams’ draft hopes. Both Irish Illustrated and ND Insider reported Adams vaguely confirmed the injury during Notre Dame’s Pro Day on Thursday, but he would not offer much in the way of specifics.

“Overall, I felt like everything went well,” Adams told Irish Illustrated. “I wanted to run low 4.4s, but to me it was all about how I felt. It was strong. I know the numbers may be all over the place, but I felt strong and to me, that’s good. I know it was fast. It wasn’t slow.”

One of nine former Notre Dame players to take part to varying extents in front of representatives from all 32 NFL teams, Adams’ numbers best compared to the results from his positional competition at the combine. His 60-yard shuttle time would have been No. 2 among running backs, his three-cone time would have been the best and his broad jump would have slotted fifth. Those may not be the end-all, be-all metrics when it comes to evaluating running backs, but they certainly helped Adams’ cause.

Only four others partook in the 40-yard dash: Linebackers Greer Martini and Nyles Morgan each ran a 4.78; defensive end Andrew Trumbetti ran a 4.83, and quarterback Malik Zaire ran a 4.93.

A surgery will also hamper Morgan before he commences his NFL career. Morgan silently fought through a shoulder injury much of his senior season and underwent labrum surgery soon after the Irish victory over LSU in the Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day.

“I still can’t bench press, and I was only cleared to run two or three weeks ago,” Morgan told ND Insider. “I think I showed them I’m an explosive player. I hope I showed them I can fit in any system. I’m going to keep working hard every day to prove it.”

While he did not showcase himself in any of the timed exercises, instead relying on his performance at the combine, tight end Durham Smythe continued his push onto draft boards this offseason. Considering his final and arguably his best season consisted of only 15 catches for 244 yards and one touchdown, Smythe began these draft preparations a bit of an unheralded possibility. By now, though, he is in many a draft conversation.

Pro Day: Nelson impresses, Smythe surprises

On the exact opposite end of that spectrum, left guard Quenton Nelson was a distinct reason for many of the 58 NFL front office personnel attending at all. The Indianapolis Colts, for example, hold the No. 6 pick in the draft. Nelson may fall to the Colts, at which point they will want to be sure of such a decision.

“You can see his natural power,” Colts general manager Chris Ballard told The Indianapolis Star. “He’s a big, strong man. He’s got quick feet, good agility and balance, so you see about everything you wanted to see. You saw it on tape, too. So it’s just reconfirming it.”

Receiver Equanimeous St. Brown and left tackle Mike McGlinchey also partook in the pro day.

Full results here

A few current Notre Dame players hung around, as well, with one standing out due to his water boy duties. Of course, given the protection offered by Nelson and McGlinchey last season, offering them water for an afternoon was the least Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush could do.

Love’s press coverage hinges on Notre Dame’s safeties

Associated Press

It will likely be a dichotomy all year. At least, that is the expectation. Every praise of Notre Dame’s secondary will be followed by a clarification that the applause applies specifically to the Irish cornerbacks. At times that will be an implied criticism of Notre Dame’s safeties, but even more often it will probably be an acknowledgement of an Irish strength. Of the choices ahead for defensive coordinator Clark Lea, settling on a rotation among cornerbacks is the only one created by a plethora of proven contributors.

With a trio of rising juniors in Julian Love, Troy Pride and Donte Vaughn along with rising senior Shaun Crawford and fifth-year Nick Watkins, Lea has five viable options for two starting roles. That excess will allow Notre Dame to rely on its nickel package at length this fall, and never hesitate about slipping a fourth cornerback onto the field in dime situations.

For now, the springtime emphasis is as much on improving the group as it is about settling on a pecking order.

“We’re really working on the competition end of things,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. “Add [early-enrolled freshman] Houston Griffith to that mix and we have what we feel is really good depth and competition. We want to take our game to a new level, and that new level is we have to be much more efficient on driving on some of the more intermediate and short routes and getting off the field on third down.”

In the past, the Irish focused on keeping everything in front of the secondary, often at the expense of giving up short-to-medium gains while limiting big-play mistakes.

“We’re probably a little bit over the top in terms of staying on our (backpedal) on some quick game things that didn’t allow us to close,” Kelly said. “The emphasis for our corners is to tighten up on some of the quick game.”

An optimistic reading between the lines could see that change in approach as evidence of a step forward from Notre Dame’s safeties. The risk of limiting the quick passing game is it would allow a receiver to get past the coverage with a simple double-move. If a safety can be relied on to provide over-the-top relief, that concern is mitigated.

Such a role may befit rising junior Alohi Gilman well. Gilman is best-known for his 76 tackles as a freshman at Navy, compared to five pass breakups and no interceptions. A dozen of those tackles came against the Irish, furthering his reputation as a physical force ready to provide run support. Kelly has seen a different side of Gilman this spring.

“He’s on the ball and somebody that can play the ball in the air,” Kelly said. “I don’t know if we had an interception from a safety last year. [Gilman is] a guy that will get his hands on the ball.”

Note: Notre Dame’s safeties recorded zero interceptions and a combined total of five pass breakups in 2017.

Julian Love came five yards away from returning a third interception for a touchdown in 2017 when he could not quite elude Wake Forest quarterback John Wolford. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Whoever ends up as the starting safeties, they will rely on the standard set by the cornerbacks to make their lives easier. In particular, third-year starter Love will have more opportunities with a shift toward a pressing defense. He has already shown a knack for jumping routes with great results, after all. Three times in 2017 Love correctly read quick routes and stepped in for an interception, returning two interceptions for touchdowns and coming yards away from a third.

“We’re going to be doing some things that are going to accentuate his ability to play press coverage,” Kelly said. “We want to play some press. It’s something we haven’t done much here, but it’s something he brings to our football team, and when you can press some guys and have the physicality that he has, it elevates his game.”

Imagining Love playing better than he did in 2017 — a season that saw him earn second-team All-American honors from — will strike fear into opposing quarterbacks, but if the Irish safeties are not up for the task of providing back-end support, a pressing defense could also gift those passers big-play opportunities.

Kelly on Notre Dame’s break in spring practices & linebacker options

Associated Press

Notre Dame restarted spring practice Tuesday, not much worse for the wear from spring break, per Irish head coach Brian Kelly and the conditioning tests tied to the return to campus.

“I’m sure they got a chance to be college students on break, but they also understood how important it was to come back in good physical condition,” Kelly said.

Much like it has frequently in the past, Notre Dame intentionally scheduled a few practices before taking more than a week off for the mid-semester break. In doing so, the Irish do not gain additional practice time, but they do stretch the time spent engaged in football activities during the spring, nonetheless. The NCAA allows only 15 spring practices, all to be held within 28 days, but when school is not in session, that clock pauses.

Thus, Kelly and his coaching staff spent the two practices preceding break focusing on scheme implementation. Worst-case scenario, Notre Dame gets its 15 practices with a slight bit less fatigue. Best-case scenario, the conversations before break mill around in players’ heads a bit for an additional week. It also helps allay some of the mid-semester academic burdens.

Whether as a result of that strategy or simply due to spending a second season within the same scheme, Kelly saw a more consistent performance from the Irish defense in Tuesday’s practice, the spring’s third and first in pads.

“You don’t see a lot of the miscues that maybe we had at other times, relative to the number of guys that have experience,” he said. “I don’t think you see it in a transformational sense as much as you see it in small areas that look to be really clean.”

That defense may go as far as its linebackers carry it this fall. The defensive line looks to be a strength both in terms of talent and depth. An array of skilled cornerbacks will hold up a secondary likely still plagued by average safety play. The linebackers, however, are not as clear an image yet. Fifth-year rover-turned-linebacker Drue Tranquill and rising senior Te’von Coney will lead the way, leaving a question mark at rover.

Kelly spoke well of rising senior Asmar Bilal at the position, but only against more physical opponents. Against a spread offense, a different option may be needed at the safety/linebacker hybrid position.

“We have some other options there,” Kelly said. “I don’t think it needs to come to, ‘Alright, this has to happen in the spring.’

“I think the nickel position will help us decide the rover positon. We know what we have in Asmar against the tight end there, and then we just keep working some young guys.”

One particular “young guy” in the mix is rising sophomore Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah, who has shown all the physical gifts necessary, but has yet to experience collegiate competition.

“It is strictly about his ability not to [make mistakes], and that’s just going to take time,” Kelly said. “He has traits, there’s no question about that from a physical standpoint. He has to get the traits from the other side of it, understanding the game and what we’re doing.”

In addition to rover, Notre Dame needs to find a backup linebacker to give Tranquill and Coney some rest when needed. At least at rover, situational packages can offer a breather to anyone who takes the majority of reps there.

While rising junior Jonathan Jones is the front-runner for that responsibility, three early-enrolled freshmen are in the mix, as well, although only to various degrees. Kelly indicated Bo Bauer may be the most game-ready of him, Jack Lamb and Ovie Oghoufo.

“[Bauer’s] physicality is really good,” Kelly said. “He’s capable of probably playing right away. Smart and physical.

“Of the three guys, he’s a little bit ahead of them, but each one of them has some interesting and unique traits that are going to allow them to be very successful for us.”

Kelly praised Oghoufo’s athleticism and football intellect, while hoping he will see gains in strength and conditioning this offseason. Lamb, meanwhile, is possibly athletically ready to see action, but may not yet be prepared for the wear-and-tear of playing as an interior linebacker.

The greatest play of Miles Boykin’s career to date may have come on a pass from Ian Book, but his chemistry with quarterback Brandon Wimbush has drawn attention already this spring. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

On Brandon Wimbush and Miles Boykin
Recapping every step forward or backward of every position this spring would become a repetitive and aimless exercise. One day rising sophomore receiver Michael Young will look like a rapidly-developing weapon, and a week later rising junior Javon McKinley may have replaced him as the flavor of the day.

But the competition at quarterback will be the topic paid most attention to, so when a pertinent bit is offered, it should be included. With that in mind, the only mention of either rising senior Brandon Wimbush or rising junior Ian Book on Tuesday was Kelly’s highlighting of the chemistry between Wimbush and classmate Miles Boykin.

“Wimbush and Miles have a great relationship out there,” Kelly said. “You can see that they’re going to connect on some big plays for us.”

Furthering the conversation on Boykin: “He’s playing with a lot of confidence, now with [former Irish receiver Equanimeous St. Brown] moving on, [Boykin] has that opportunity to really shine and he’s had three really good practices. I think that’s a guy now that ascends.”

Monday’s Leftovers: A worst-case scenario for Notre Dame’s spring, with links to read

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Notre Dame will return from spring break today and get back to practice tomorrow, presumably breaking out pads for the first time this spring. Obviously, Irish nightmares of spring practice focus on injuries. Aside from those, though, …

Continuing quarterback confusion throughout the spring would not please anybody, especially if the issue becomes even cloudier than it already is. Of course, there is a not-so-bad version of this: Both rising senior Brandon Wimbush and rising junior Ian Book perform well, making Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long’s decision heading into the fall a difficult one because he actually has multiple worthwhile options.

Then, there is the worst-case scenario: Both Wimbush and Book flail away this spring, culminating with them turning over the ball multiple times apiece in the Blue-Gold Game on April 21. Such disappointments could lead to incoming freshman Phil Jurkovec arriving this summer an immediate and genuine piece of the starting quarterback competition. That would speak worse of Wimbush’s and Book’s next month than it would inherently speak well of Jurkovec’s 2018 potential.

If rising junior Ian Book does not perform ably this spring, Notre Dame would be one step closer to a summer spent discussing a lack of options at quarterback. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

No receivers emerge, either.
After the Irish receivers appeared to be a strength last spring, the season brought only inconsistency and little production. If that trend continues this spring, it may not matter who is throwing the ball in the fall.

This might not keep Long or Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly up at night, though, with three more incoming freshmen arriving this summer to shore up the receiving corps, a bandage not available to fix if …

No fourth linebacker provides peace of mind.
With both early-enrolled freshmen Jack Lamb and Bo Bauer already practicing, an absence of a strong backup linebacker would have no likely solution this fall. If those two were not around, and both rising junior Jonathan Jones and rising senior Asmar Bilal — not to mention rising sophomores David White and Drew Adams — failed to impress this spring, then the hope could be Lamb or Bauer would arrive in the summer and be an immediate fix.

With them on-campus, a lack of a worthwhile linebacker exiting this spring would foreshadow a lack of rest and injury relief for fifth-year Drue Tranquill and rising senior Te’von Coney.

Lastly, and with the broadest view, 89 stays 89.
When the spring ends, the conversation will return to how the Irish roster will get down to the NCAA maximum-allowed 85 scholarships, four fewer than currently anticipated this fall. This would be extremely unlikely, although within a discussion of a worst-case scenario, but if summer begins and no outgoing transfers surface, then that scholarship crunch could quickly create unnecessary drama and suspense.

Right now, four spots of attrition is entirely reasonable and even usual. If that is still the number to be lost in late May, those adjectives may shift to avoidable and stressful.

— Last week’s “Leftovers” asked who should be Notre Dame’s fourth captain, a position to be filled by player vote at the end of spring practice.  The results tilted heavily toward the defense.

Coney: 37.27 percent
Rising junior cornerback Julian Love: 24.62 percent
Rising senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery: 15.34 percent

From there, Wimbush, fifth-year right guard Alex Bars and fifth-year tight end Nic Weishar all fell between 5 and 9 percent.

— With spring break over, a quick piece of scheduling housekeeping: Notre Dame will fit in 12 more practices before the spring sessions conclude with the Blue-Gold Game. That will entail practices on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, with a brief break for Easter.

— The biggest free agent of the NFL offseason signed with the Minnesota Vikings over the weekend. Kirk Cousins may elicit poor memories for Irish fans, being the former Michigan State quarterback who authored much of the Spartans’ 34-31 victory in 2010, a game more commonly referred to simply as “Little Giants.”

After just reaching his second Pro Bowl, former Notre Dame tight end Kyle Rudolph should be primed for an even better 2018 thanks to the Vikings’ signing of quarterback Kirk Cousins. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

But Cousins’ payday should bode well for someone else from that game. Tight end Kyle Rudolph reached the Pro Bowl this past season thanks to 57 catches for 532 yards and eight touchdowns. With Cousins throwing passes, Washington’s tight ends have put up stat lines dwarfing that the last few seasons. In looking at those stats, the last two years need to include two tight ends, since Jordan Reed has yet to stay healthy through an entire season.

2017: Reed and Vernon Davis combined for 70 catches for 859 yards and five touchdowns.
2016: Reed and Davis combined for 130 catches for 1,219 yards and eight touchdowns.
2015: Reed’s breakout campaign consisted of 87 catches for 952 yards and 11 touchdowns in only 14 games.

Rudolph could, even should, enjoy a career year catching passes from his former nemesis next season.

— Only one program can claim both a Sweet Sixteen entrant in the men’s basketball tournament and a top-25 football team. Who is it? (Answer at the bottom.)

Who should Notre Dame’s fourth captain be? And DeShone Kizer heads to the Green Bay Packers
Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s spring questions focus on four non-QB positions
A best-case scenario for Notre Dame’s spring

Bengals re-sign Tyler Eifert
Bob Diaco reportedly heads to Oklahoma as a defensive analyst
Michigan unlikely to have answer on Shea Patterson before practice begins

ANSWER TO THE ABOVE TRIVIA: Clemson, though even if the Tigers had lost Sunday, one program would still have been able to make that claim, considering Clemson beat another Tiger in Auburn.