Notre Dame v Michigan

Red zone woes need fixing on both sides of the ball

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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.

Live Video Mailbag: 40-year decision, more BVG, freshmen and more

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We’ve done plenty of mailbags, but this is our first shot at a Live Video Mailbag. This should be a better way to answer more questions and hopefully interact with a few of you as we try to work off some of yesterday’s Super Bowl snacks.

Topics on the list: The 40-year decision, more Brian VanGorder talk, the incoming (and redshirt) freshmen and a whole lot more.

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Kelly and Swarbrick turn attention to science of injury prevention

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Amidst the chaos of their live Signing Day show, UND.com ran had a far-reaching interview with head coach Brian Kelly. It was conducted by his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick, and his former team captain, Joe Schmidt.

So while there was a little bit of talk about the 23 recruits who signed their national letters-of-intent, there was also a very illuminating exchange on an issue that’s really plagued the Irish the past few seasons: Injuries.

Football is a dangerous game. And for as long as people play it, there’ll be impactful injuries that take players off the field. But as Notre Dame settles into what looks like their longest run of stability since the Holtz era, the focus of Kelly and Swarbrick has moved past modernizing the team’s medical services, strength program and nutrition and onto the science of injury prevention.

Here’s what Kelly said about the efforts currently taking shape:

“I think the science piece is very important, because no longer is it just about strength and conditioning,  it’s about durability. It’s the ability to continue to play at an optimal level but also with the rigors of a college schedule, and particularly here at Notre Dame, how do we maximize the time but maximizing getting the most out of our student-athletes and not lose them?

“As you know, we’ve had a couple years here in a rough stretch of injuries. And how do we have an injury prevention protocol that brings in the very best science? You’ve done a great job of reaching out in getting us those kind of resources. so I think tapping into that is probably the next piece. As well as providing the resources for our student-athletes. Continuing to look at facilities. Continuing to give our student-athletes maybe that little edge. Because everybody’s got 85 scholarships.”

It’s clear that the issue is one that’s on the radar for not just Kelly, but the athletic administration. So it’ll be interesting to see some of the steps taken as the program begins investing time and additional resources to an issue that’s really hit the Irish hard the past few seasons.

There’s plenty of other good stuff in the 13-minute interview, so give it a watch.

Five things we learned: Signing Day 2016

FILE - In this Jan. 1, 2016, file photo, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly makes a call during the first half of the Fiesta Bowl NCAA College football game against Ohio State in Glendale, Ariz. Kelly has agreed to a six-year contract to stay on as coach at Notre Dame through 2021, the school announced Friday, Jan. 29,2 016.  (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)
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There were no last minute defections. No roller coaster recruits or down-to-the-wire decisions. Heck, there were no fax machines—with Notre Dame ditching the office dinosaur for a wireless, smart phone option.

Brian Kelly inked another Top 10 recruiting class on Wednesday. And he did so in decidedly uneventful fashion.

“It’s awesome. I think that everybody should try it once in their career,” Kelly said.

So while Kelly and the Irish staff hold out hope that 5-star talents Caleb Kelly and Demetris Robertson still decide to spend their college careers in South Bend, the 23-man class announced Wednesday was another Top 10 effort and a step in the right direction for a program on very stable ground.

Let’s find out what we learned.

 

Notre Dame’s staff continued to focus on rebuilding the secondary and rushing the passer. 

Yes, Brian Kelly saw what you saw—a group that struggled getting to the passer or to field a nickel or dime personnel grouping. So they countered that in the best way they knew how: By continuing to stockpile talent.

Notre Dame added seven defensive backs and four edge defenders in the cycle. They include safeties Jalen Elliott, D.J. Morgan, Spencer Perry and Devin Studstill and cornerbacks Julian Love, Troy Pride and Donte Vaughn. Perhaps just as important is the impression some of these defenders made in their time on campus, with Kelly pointing to Elliott and Studstill’s work during summer camp really making them must-have recruits.

“Jalen Elliott competed like no player that I have seen since I’ve been coaching in a camp setting,” Kelly said. “Same thing with Devin Studstill. His skill level was of corner-like ability but had the size of the safety, and so our guys went right to them early on, and that was a focal point because we got a chance to see them up close and personal.”

At defensive end, the Irish welcome 5-star recruit Daelin Hayes, getting him on campus as he recovers from shoulder surgery. He’s joined by former Alabama commit Khalid Kareem, the strongside counterpart that is an early candidate to see the field, especially as the staff looks for someone to spell Isaac Rochell for a few snaps. Longer-term prospects include a few speed rushers—Julian Okwara (younger brother of Romeo) and Ade Ogundeji, a long-limbed, below-the-radar edge rusher.

“We’re pretty excited about the potential for some guys in this class that can answer some four-man pass rush needs that we do have,” Kelly said.

 

It may not be the biggest group, but Brian Kelly is excited about his offensive line—especially the guys he pulled from Ohio State’s backyard. 

Three recruits in the offensive line class point to a big 2017 at the position. But the three the Irish did sign—guard Parker Boudreaux and tackles Liam Eichenberg and Tommy Kraemer—have Kelly very happy.

“Parker Boudreaux has that physical presence inside like, and I’m not comparing him, but he’s a Quinton Nelson in terms of size and physicality,” Kelly said. “And then two edge guys with Liam and Tommy on the outside. Those two kids are as good as you’re going to find in the country, and couldn’t be more excited to have two kids from the state of Ohio, from two great Catholic schools in St. Ignatius and Cincinnati Elder from the state of Ohio.”

Both Eichenberg and Kraemer were priority targets for Urban Meyer and company, with neither wavering after committing to Notre Dame. Kraemer was Ohio’s Gatorade Player of the Year and an Army All-American. He’ll be able to step into the two-deep immediately, capable of playing up front if the Irish need him. Eichenberg more than held his own at the Under Armour All-American game and has a high ceiling, especially as he learns the game under Hiestand.

It doesn’t take away the sting of the Fiesta Bowl. But it’s a nice consolation prize.

 

Irish legacies Jamir Jones and Julian Okwara may have big brothers who played for Brian Kelly, but they earned scholarships on their own. 

Classmates Jarron Jones and Romeo Okwara will turn over the reins to their younger brothers, linebacker Jamir Jones and defensive end Julian Okwara. The younger duo’s commitments felt all but inevitable throughout this recruiting cycle—even if that wasn’t always the case.

Jones had to come to camp to earn a scholarship. Having played quarterback and tight end as a high school standout in Rochester, the defensive staff had to see how he moved before they could find a position for him to play.

Similarly, Okwara’s journey to Notre Dame shouldn’t be taken for granted. While his older brother leaves Notre Dame the team’s leading quarterback sacker, Julian has a better natural pass rush skill-set than the 2015 team-leader.

“Julian can separate himself in a way because he has an elite initial movement and speed that Romeo has had to try and develop,” Mike Elston said in Okwara’s Signing Day video. “Romeo has the size and the power and the aggressiveness, but Julian can really add value for us right away.”

Kelly talked about how important it was to not just land this duo, but to have them already understand what the journey is that lies ahead.

“We didn’t recruit them because their brothers were here. We recruited them because we thought they were players that fit here at Notre Dame that would be very successful,” Kelly said. “Obviously it helps when their brothers have a great experience here and really enjoy their Notre Dame experience as a student and as an athlete, so that helps you in the recruiting… those kids really fit and can stand on their own two feet.”

 

Even without Demetris Robertson in the fold, Notre Dame’s receiving class is a group to watch. 

You want productivity? Throw on a highlight tape of Javon McKinley. You want an intriguing set of physical tools? Look no further than Chase Claypool. You want a sleeper prospect who out-performed every elite prospect who came to the Irish Invasion camp? Then your man is Kevin Stepherson.

Most of the attention on Signing Day was the fate of 5-star receiver Demetris Robertson. But the trio of athletes that’ll reload the receiving corps is a group that deserves recognition even without an additional infusion.

McKinley provided the day’s only scare when his smart phone struggled to send his signature via electronic fax. Claypool sent his national letter of intent in the day after scoring 51 points on the basketball court. And Stepherson is already taking part in team workouts in Paul Longo’s strength facilities, getting a jump start with the spring semester and 15 practices as the Irish try to figure out what life looks like after Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle.

After Fuller left campus early on the back of two record-setting two seasons, Kelly said his staff has become more and more comfortable with the fact that his skill players need to develop quickly—especially with the allure of the NFL just ahead.

“If you’re really that good, you may not be here very long, and we hope that you’re here for four years and you stay, but you’ve got to be ready to compete,” Kelly said. “So our expectation in the recruiting process is for the wide receiver group to come in and compete to get on the field and be a player for us immediately.”

That’ll happen whether or not Robertson is a part of this group.

 

Amidst significant transition on both the coaching staff and recruiting office, Notre Dame managed a Top 10 class. Expect things to only get better from here. 

Let’s go back to Signing Day 2015. Within 24 hours of Brian Kelly’s press conference, he was dealing with two major changes—recruiting coordinator Tony Alford was out the door to Ohio State and Kerry Cooks was headed to Oklahoma. Two aces on the staff were gone, forcing the Irish to not just replace long-time staffers, but to find new area recruiters for the state of Texas and Alford’s stronghold in Florida.

Kelly brought in first-year college assistant Todd Lyght to work with defensive backs. He tapped the school’s rushing leader Autry Denson to handle the backs and duke it out in Florida. Mike Sanford shook up the offense as Bob Elliott moved into an off-field position. But perhaps just as important as those moves, Kelly turned over the administrative reins to Mike Elston, who moved into a recruiting coordinator position he had filled for his boss back at Cincinnati.

Elston had to reorganize a staff that saw relationships walk out the door and reboot a recruiting effort that saw significant changes behind the scenes. And in short order things got back on track and have progressed to the point that the Irish are ahead of the game, setting junior days and summer camp dates earlier than ever.

For those paying attention, they’ve noticed the improvements. Notre Dame has paid more attention to messaging—staffers more active on Twitter. There have been improvements on Instagram, Facebook and Vine—platforms that might sound like gobbledygook to grownups, but are critical pieces to a year-long recruiting effort. That should help this staff press ahead in 2017, a recruiting class that already has five members.

“With that team that we’ve put together, we’re not going to look back. It’s only going to get better,” Kelly said.

It was Elston that engineered the equipment truck visit to Savannah, a late-game recruiting move that drew a lot of attention to Notre Dame. It was recruiters like Denson who went to Alabama and got a visit out of Ben Davis, a Crimson Tide legacy who gave the Irish a much longer look than anybody could have expected. And it’s no surprise that a former Pro Bowler and first-round draft pick like Lyght was able to reel in a large group of defensive backs eager to learn from a guy who was a clear success story.

“I think each and every year, you hope that this group is the best group you’ve ever recruited,” Kelly said. “I’m hoping for that again.”