And in that corner… The Purdue Boilermakers

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It’s the first of the rivalry trophy games for Notre Dame, with Purdue and the Irish set to battle for the Shillelagh Trophy. (Not to be confused with the Jeweled Shillelagh…) With a new head coach and a new program direction in West Lafeyette, the college football world will be getting their first close look at new head coach Darrell Hazell, who comes over from Kent State after an eleven win regular season and an appearance in the GoDaddy.com Bowl.

With us to break down the match-up from Purdue’s perspective is Travis Miller from SBNation website Hammer & Rails. Travis has been kind enough to do this with me for about five seasons running, so we’ve had some great discussions in the past and he’s always done a great job breaking down Purdue.

There’s a ton to learn about a team that’s rebooted its program after saying goodbye to Danny Hope. (Including a great take on the dynamics of the Purdue-Notre Dame relationship.) Before we head to Ross-Ade Stadium this weekend and get a look at the World’s largest bass drum, let’s here what Travis has to say about the Boilermakers’ chances this weekend.

I asked, he answered. We all enjoyed and learned:

1) It’s been a rocky start to the Darrell Hazell era, but let’s not get to the on-field product just yet. After a tough run with Danny Hope, assess Hazell’s work as a program builder / salesman.

I have been a big fan of Hazell so far, at least in terms of everything off the field. He has gotten four recruits that look like excellent pieces to build around in Drue Tranquill (whom Notre Dame is after), Gelen Robinson (the brother of Michigan basketball player Glenn Robinson and son of the one-time Purdue great), David Blough (Elite 11 QB out of Texas that is suspiciously like Drew Brees), and Denzel Ward (monster offensive tackle). Hazell has also preached accountability and discipline, which were both lacking under the Hope regime.

I always felt people turned on Hope a little too quickly. His first season Purdue was 5-7, but they were legitimately a handful of plays and stupid mistakes from being 10-2. Unfortunately, those mistakes were never fixed and Purdue never grew beyond that point. It got to the point where people forgot the good of that year because the team never grew.

So far, Hazell has said and done all the right things in the buildup to the season. Unfortunately, the play on the field has been pretty bad.

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2) Now for the on-field product. It’s been pretty ugly, with Cincinnati sticking it to the Boilermakers followed up with Purdue just sliding by Indiana State. Talk me through the first two games and what you’ve seen. 

I think what is more disturbing about Cincinnati is that they blew out Purdue, then lost by 24 points to an Illinois team that has looked far worse for the past two seasons. Against the Bearcats Purdue tied it 7-7 just before halftime, then gave up a late first half drive for a TD. Cincinnati used halftime effective as a defensive stop and scored on the opening drive of the second half thanks to a huge 3rd and 9 conversion that went for 40 yards and changed the entire complexion of the game. Suddenly it was 21-7 and Purdue had had the ball for one play, a kneel down. The offense then went three-and-out, the defense got a stop, but Rob Henry threw a pick six. Effectively, in five offensive plays for Purdue they went from being tied to down three touchdowns.

Against Indiana State the offense was just awful. The Sycamores stuffed a first half 4th and 1 near midfield, then stuffed Purdue three times on first and goal from the 1 to hold for a field goal. Late in the half Purdue against got a first and goal from the one and was again stuffed three times, only ran out of time to get the field goal unit on the field.

Things are very, very bad when an FCS stuffs you seven times in a row when you need one yard. The defense looked far better, but the offense continued to be out of sync and showed nothing of the power run game we expected. I fear we are Michigan State without the benefit of having an excellent defense. Purdue’s defense can be good, but it is not good enough to save the offense being as bad as it is right now.

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3) Rob Henry is a guy that’s been in and out of the lineup for what seems like forever. What have you seen from him in the first two weeks of the season?

I think he is losing confidence because the offensive line in front of him has been pretty bad. Against Cincinnati he was running for his life all day. Against Indiana State he was better, but still not great. In John Shoop’s offense there is not a lot of room for improvisation and Henry is a more mobile quarterback. He won the job, however, straight up over two very talented freshmen that are probably better fits for a pro-style offense, so I am willing to give him some more time. If the offense continues to flounder on Saturday night you might see redshirt freshman Austin Appleby.

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4) There’s talent back on the defense with Ryan Russell, Bruce Gaston, and Ricardo Allen anchoring the unit. What kind of changes were made to the defense in the coaching transition? How stout of a challenge are the Irish in for on Saturday?

I think the defense can be a very good unit and for most of the Indiana State game it was pitching a shutout. I was pleased with the way Joe Gilliam played in the middle even though the linebackers are still a large question (and why we’re so excited for Tranquill and Robinson in next year’s class). Purdue also lost starting safety Landon Feichter to a broken leg against Indiana State, moving sophomore Anthony Brown tot hat spot.

For Purdue to have a shot the defensive line needs to be as successful as it was last year at disrupting the Irish offense. They need to be able to get into the backfield as well as contain the run because the linebackers are still suspect.

Unfortunately, with as bad as the offense has been playing and as strong as Notre Dame’s front seven is, they may have to pitch a shutout to give us a chance.

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5) Last week, we wasted a whole bunch of time talking about rivalries, scheduling priorities, and just about everything else that’s a product of college football’s realignment. As a Purdue fan, how do you view Notre Dame? How do you look at the delicate dance that Jack Swarbrick manages with ACC commitments and too many Big Ten obligations?

We view Notre Dame as our biggest football rival, quite honestly. It is always a bigger game because no matter where it is played, it is a guaranteed chance to be on national TV against a “name” team. With Indiana’s program being historically inept (Purdue leads that series 72-37-6) most Purdue fans simply expect to win vs. the Hoosiers. Against Notre Dame any victory raises eyebrows. Even Purdue’s last win, in 2007, drew attention because the Irish were in the midst of a historically bad season.

It also helps that it is an in-state rivalry that has been played every year since 1946. When you combine that with the perception of reversible jacket fans in Indiana (Indiana basketball and Notre Dame football fans) it just feels more natural. I know Notre Dame fans don’t view Purdue as much of a rival because of the historical dominance, but there is a history there of Purdue pulling of some shockers. Twice Purdue has beaten Notre Dame when they have been ranked No. 1 and once when they were No. 2.

It will be interesting to see what Morgan Burke, not Jack Swarbrick does going forward. The shift to a nine game Big Ten schedule in 2016 means that as of now, Purdue would alternate with six home games in even numbered years and 8 home games in odd numbers years because of the Notre Dame series and the alternating Big Ten schedule. Another shift, to Indiana hosting the Old Oaken Bucket games in the same years that Purdue goes to Notre Dame, could also be a factor.

Purdue is not giving up a guaranteed two home games in the non-conference season, so does it choose to keep Notre Dame and a pair of MAC-level teams or does it drop the Irish in favor of other home-and-home deals? As it looks right now, Purdue only has six home games in 2016 when it comes to South Bend (four Big Ten games, Cincinnati, and Nevada) and seven in 2017 (Five Big Ten, Notre Dame, Eastern Kentucky) with an open date. If Burke and Swarbrick can agree to switch years that teams host the series can likely go on for awhile, but who blinks and agrees to play two straight road games? Or, do they agree to a one-year (say 2016 or 2017) neutral-site game at Lucas Oil Stadium like the 1984 game at the old Hoosier Dome?

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6) On paper, this game doesn’t look kind for the Boilermakers. Yet they played the Irish tough last season and don’t seem to be that much worse on paper than last season. (Am I wrong?) What needs to change for Purdue to be victorious?

The offense has to show signs of being able to actually move the football. We expected a strong running game because of what Hazell ran at Kent State, where Dri Archer and Trayion Durham each rushed for over 1,200 yards last year. Purdue has two almost identical players in Akeem Hunt and Brandon Cottom. Cottom has been strangely missing from the offense and Hunt has been contained because the offensive line is struggling so much in front of him.

Yes, the defense gave up 42 points (really 35 because of the pick-6) at Cincinnati, but that was more the game getting out of hand than them being dominated from the start. They were much better against Indiana State, but they should have been given the competition. I think the defense can play well enough to keep Purdue in it, but the offense has to show a complete turnaround from what it has shown so far. If it continues to struggle as it has in the first two weeks (and struggling against an FCS opponent is not a good sign) Notre Dame wins easily.

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You can find more from Travis at the excellent Hammer & Rails site and from him on Twitter @HammerandRails.

Mid-week reading: On Wimbush; NCAA $$$; A look back at Te’o

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A litany of links typically makes for good Friday fodder. A week’s worth of the internet can help any reader through an unproductive end of the week. Unfortunately, spring practice’s rhythms are inconsistent, unlike summer’s constant nothingness and fall’s non-stop charge.

Hey, who said you can’t take a long lunch on a Wednesday, anyways?

MORE WIMBUSH AND WHITFIELD
Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples joined Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush out in San Diego two weeks ago during spring break, watching as Wimbush listened to private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield’s instructions. Staples, per usual, tells a good story, slipping some nuggets of information within it where you may not even notice.

Many around this space have asked who foots the bill when a college quarterback seeks out Whitfield’s tutelage. Per Staples, Wimbush’s mother paid for the week.

Throughout the story, Wimbush emphasizes the importance of a Notre Dame degree, going so far as to point to former Irish quarterbacks Everett Golson and Malik Zaire acquiring their diplomas before departing Notre Dame. None of us know Wimbush’s academic progress—now approaching his second summer school session, Wimbush is likely ahead of the usual second-semester sophomore’s credit pace—but this tidbit may prove pertinent in nine months time. Considering what its pertinence would say about a bigger picture, Irish fans should certainly hope it is of note.

To this memory, the classic image relayed from Golson’s time with Whitfield was Golson throwing over brooms held by staffers, mimicking the long limbs of charging defensive linemen. Those fictional pass rushers have become a bit more realistic in nature, now apparently represented with outstretched tennis rackets.

NCAA GIVING NOTRE DAME NEARLY $1 MILLION
In what has been described as a “one-time supplemental distribution,” the NCAA is dispersing $200 million among its members. The amount each school receives is determined by the total number of full scholarships it gives to student-athletes, with each partial scholarship contributing its appropriate fraction toward that total figure.

Notre Dame will receive $984,724 thanks to giving out 299.20 scholarships in 2013-14. Some context behind that latter number: The football team takes up 85 scholarships. The men’s basketball team is allowed 13, and the women’s basketball team gets 15. The remaining 186.20 are split among the other 20 varsity sports (counting men’s and women’s teams separately in rowing, swimming and diving, and track and field).

Other notable schools:
Ohio State receives the most, more than $1.3 million, thanks to its 403.98 scholarships.
USC’s 279.06 scholarships equates to $918,440.
Michigan’s 353.18 scholarships will yield close to $1.2 million.

All these dollars must be spent it ways aiding the student-athletes. Schools cannot put the funds toward items like stadium construction or coaches’ salaries. Rather, the NCAA indicated the money is for “the direct benefit of the student-athlete and their academic success, life skills, career success, health and safety and student-athlete focused diversity and inclusion initiatives.”

All expenditures must be approved by the NCAA. The money comes from an endowment that had reportedly come to exceed $360 million.

REMEMBER THE TE’O DRAFT HOOPLA?
The below video does not necessarily reveal anything we do not already know about former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o, despite its ponderous title. It does, however, make a good point.

Aside from a sporadic comment deep in the morass of these pages, not much is said about the Lennay Kekua situation anymore. At the time, it was the most talked about item anywhere, let alone in Notre Dame corners. Personally, a former co-worker at the Los Angeles Times called late one night that week four-plus years ago. He and I had not spoken in close to two years, and we haven’t spoken since. But the Te’o/Kekua story prompted him to seek an understanding of what in the world was going on.

In some irish.nbcsports.com history, the day after that story broke—it broke on Jan. 16, 2013, so I am referring to Jan. 17—still holds the record for most views to this particular site.

Good for Te’o to have successfully moved past that saga. These days, every comment former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer makes is scrutinized. He is even criticized for not having excellent timing with Jonas Gray, of all people. Looking back on Te’o, it should be remembered the most dramatic stories, one seemingly crafted perfectly for the internet, fade into the cobwebs of time.

[Here, a link in case the intended embed below fails.]

PHIL STEELE’S PROJECTED AP TOP 10
Enough with the past. Let’s project the future.

Phil Steele, of the revered Phil Steele’s College Football Preview, projected August’s Associated Press Top 10. Steele has accounted for voters’ tendencies rather accurately in years past, so it is not an entirely fruitless exercise. Then again, he is projecting the results of the first of many polls with no actual consequence.

Of Steele’s projected top-10, Notre Dame will face only No. 4 USC.

KENPOM’S TOO EARLY PRESEASON TOP 10
If you think Steele’s top 10 is too early, then skip this.

College basketball analytics master Ken Pomeroy put together his top 10 for next season, though any unexpected draft departures or transfers can certainly alter his calculations. After all, the season is not actually over yet.

Of certain Irish interest: No. 9 North Carolina, No. 8 Louisville and No. 6 Virginia. The last of those has already suffered a transfer which Pomeroy tweeted will “abruptly” end the Cavaliers’ time in his preseason top 10.

SPEAKING OF BASKETBALL, WELL DONE DENNIS, WHOEVER YOU ARE
Math is hard, so take this with a grain of salt, but I believe Dennis’ bracket of “Brey Brey’s Kids” will win the Inside the Irish March Madness pool. Dennis, your $984,724 is in the mail.

Don’t think that means there is no reason to watch the Final Four, though. Your host might be able to rise into the top half of the field, which would be good for his pride, and therefore the quality of writing in these parts.

It shouldn’t be too surprising my bracket flopped. This is a football page. Besides, by my eye, no one I actually know firsthand will finish higher than fourth. That is more of a relief than it should be.

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

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This space has mentioned a few times the dearth of returning sacks among Notre Dame’s defensive line. It is a pertinent fact—no returning Irish defensive lineman recorded a sack in the 2016 season—but it fails to mention the flipside of that.

Most of Notre Dame’s defensive linemen had few, if any, opportunities to rush the passer in 2016. Perhaps at the top of the list of those who should bring down the opposing passer a few times this fall, sophomore Daelin Hayes has laid claim to a starting rush spot through five spring practices.

“The athleticism is what obviously stands out,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “He’s extremely athletic, he’s fit physically, 250 pounds and very strong.”

These facts are, after all, the reasons Hayes was a highly sought-after five-star recruit according to rivals.com.

“It’s the football knowledge, learning the techniques at the position in which he plays is really the piece,” Kelly continued. “It’s just learning right now for him. This is the time to do it, in spring ball.

“Squeezing down on a tight end when the back is away. Wrong-arming the puller. These are all football terms and schemes that are a bit new to him. We have to be patient with him. He’s an explosive athlete. There’s going to be some mistakes along the way, and I’m okay with that as long as he’s learning.”

Without much depth pushing for playing time behind him, Hayes will have the opportunity to make, and subsequently understand, those mistakes. Seniors Jay Hayes (no relation) and Andrew Trumbetti are mired in competition for the other end spot, while sophomores Julian Okwara, Adetokunbo Ogundeji and Khalid Kareem may have even more development ahead of them than Daelin Hayes does.

Incoming freshmen Kofi Wardlow and Jonathon MacCollister will join the fray in the summer, but for now, the younger Hayes has his chance to impress with his natural gifts while absorbing the intricacies of new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s defense.

Hayes is not a complete unknown. While Okwara made four tackles last season in 11 games and Kareem appeared in four games, Hayes saw action in every contest, finishing the season with 11 tackles, one pass breakup and one forced fumble.

“He’s an athlete,” defensive line coach Mike Elston said last week. “He’s on the edge in a two-point stance. He’s not a trained, put-your-hand-on-the-ground defensive end. He played running back in high school. He can see things better in a two-point and can diagnose quicker. He’s able to be more productive.”

It may be accurate to mention no returning Notre Dame defensive linemen tackled a quarterback for a loss last season, but it is more precise to also include the Irish have possibilities of changing that trend.

SPEAKING OF THE DEFENSIVE LINE
Notre Dame is nearly as thin at defensive tackle as it is at end. Junior Jerry Tillery leads the way with senior end-converted-to-tackle Jonathan Bonner lining up next to him thus far. Their reserves: Oft-concussed senior Daniel Cage, senior Pete Mokwuah and junior Micah Dew-Treadway with junior Elijah Taylor out for the spring with a foot injury.

Theoretically, junior Brandon Tiassum is also in the mix, and three freshmen (Kurt Hinish, Myron Tagovailo-Amosa and four-star Darnell Ewell) will join the group in the summer.

And maybe, just maybe, perhaps, possibly … Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano could walk onto campus alongside those freshmen. Pagano visited Notre Dame the first week of March, and was due to look at Oklahoma and Arkansas the next two weekends, respectively. Instead, Pagano reportedly cancelled both of those visits Monday.

Pagano does still have a visit to Oregon scheduled for April 21. Until indicated otherwise, it may be prudent to presume Pagano hopes to land as close to his Hawaiian home as possible.

RELATED READING: 1 Day Until Spring Practice: A look at the defensive line

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.”