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Pregame Six Pack: Boiler up

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It may lack the wattage of last Saturday night’s primetime affair, but this weekend’s date with Purdue counts the same as the other eleven regular season games. With the Irish coming off a damaging defeat at the hands of Michigan that felt like a game that slipped away, Notre Dame will have a chance to rebound against Darrell Hazell’s Boilermakers that still seem to be finding their footing.

Hazell has already talked about the importance of this weekend’s game, and took to the school’s newspaper to implore the students “to get to Ross-Ade Stadium early, be loud and help us turn up the heat on the Fighting Irish.”

With No. 21 Notre Dame and Purdue set to play in primetime on Saturday night, let’s dig into the pregame six pack. As usual, here are six tidbits, leftovers, fun facts, and miscellaneous musings before the Irish and Boilermakers go to battle.

***

Brian Kelly has heard your plea to put Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston in the game. But finding carries is the hard part. 

If there was a question that overwhelmed the inbox this week, it was how Kelly and his offensive game plan could feature more of Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston. After looking mighty impressive in fall camp, Irish fans have waited to see what the freshman — especially Bryant — could do when he got his chance. Eight quarters later, this group is demanding an impact from one of the nation’s top freshman running backs.

When asked about his young backs today, Kelly explained that it wasn’t a learning curve Bryant and Folston were battling, but rather finding the snaps for a unit that’s already pushed Will Mahone into the slot rotation.

“They’re not being held back. The game itself and the way the game is played will determine how many running backs you can get in the game,” Kelly said. “I’m not just going to shuffle four or five guys in there if we’re in a game where I want to do a specific thing offensively. It really depends on how the game unfolds. I have confidence in all those guys.

“It’s not easy. I have no problem playing my freshmen running backs. We just have to find the right opportunities and when they need to be in the game.”

***

Let’s see if the Irish can get their red zone offense back on track. 

Whoever is carrying the ball for Notre Dame this weekend will likely get a few totes inside the Purdue 20-yard-line, especially after passing the ball on 12 of 13 snaps in the red zone against Michigan. That kind of balance could be a product of some unfriendly run looks, but also is something that the Irish need to challenge regardless.

Through two games, the Irish have scored touchdowns on just 42 percent of their red zone appearances, good for 102nd in the nation through eight quarters. And while Tommy Rees will need to be more accurate throwing the football, Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison made some interesting comments this week when talking about the Wolverines decided to defend the Irish offense last week.

“Our game plan was not to sell the farm a lot,” Mattison said. “We didn’t want to put our secondary in a position where a big play could get us. That secondary, I thought, did exactly what we hoped they would do as far as the game plan of keeping the ball inside and in front.

“We just have to hold them to no big plays and then when the field shrinks, now you have to hope that they do what they’re taught to do and how they’ve been practicing, and that’s what they did.”

With a shrunken field, let’s see if Kelly calls on his offensive line to make some room for the offense, doing so even against a sturdy Purdue defensive front.

***

Getting the defense back on track might be helped by playing a Purdue offense that’s really struggling. 

It’s still a surprise that Michigan’s offense was able to put up 41 points against Bob Diaco’s defense. But there may be no better slumpbuster for a unit feeling down than Purdue’s offense, which currently sits at 118th in the country. (Want to see something crazy? Take a look at Alabama’s offense, which enters week three at 123rd. Meanwhile, USC’s is 115th.)

Purdue offensive coordinator John Schoop talked about the challenges his offensive line faces this week playing against Louis Nix, Sheldon Day and Stephon Tuitt.

“We have to be as physical as we’ve ever been on the offensive line this week”, Shoop said. “We’re going against some guys that are just flat big, and we have to be as physical as we can in terms of protection and running the ball. I think we were a little more physical from week one to two, but we have to take it up exponentially this week against these guys.”

Also working against the Boilermakers is an injury to tight end Gabe Holmes, one of Purdue’s better offensive weapons. Hazell categorized Holmes’ injury as “pretty serious,” and all reports have him out for Saturday night and potentially the season. Holmes was the team’s leading receiver through two games.

***

After a tough loss, Kelly and the coaching staff did their best to pick up the slack. 

It’s been quite some time since the Irish had to rebound from a defeat. The team’s last three losses gave the team quite a bit of time to regroup, with defeats coming in two bowl games and a regular season finale.

But with a short week to get their confidence rebuilt and the team ready for another game, Kelly and his staff controlled things more this week than in the past, forcing the players to follow the beat of its leaders.

“Sometimes when you’re winning, you kind of let the players keep moving in the right direction,” Kelly said. “You’re still winning. You kind of let things go. You chalk it up to that’s the personality of this team.

“The coaches took over this week. We made sure that we did the things that we need to do. I’m sure that the players understand that that’s the way that practice has to go and they embraced that.”

It’s interesting that we’ve had all sorts of discussions about this team’s leadership and that after the loss Kelly made sure he and the coaches were providing the direction, not just the team’s three captains. Especially with a group without a transcendent leader like Manti Te’o, listening to the voices of the coaching staff should be one of the quickest ways to get mentally back on track.

***

When Purdue and Notre Dame play, there are always lots of connections on both sidelines. That’s certainly the case this weekend. 

Two in-state teams that have faced off every year since 1946 are bound to have things in common. Let’s check out a couple interesting layers to the Purdue-Notre Dame rivalry.

First let’s get to the obvious one. Running back Amir Carlisle is facing off with his father Duane, Purdue’s strength and conditioning coach. I had a chance to chat briefly with Carlisle after the Michigan game, and one of the few things that brought a smile to his face was thinking about playing against his dad. Duane, who is in his second year as Director of Sports Performance for the school as well as head strength and conditioning coach, talked about facing off with his son this weekend.

“You can think about how you’re going to feel, but I don’t know that I can actually plan for something like this,” the elder Carlisle told the Lafayette Journal Courier. “It’s a situation where Amir is playing for Notre Dame and I get an opportunity to see him.

“I’m just so thankful he’s on the field, because he’s battled through some adversity. It’s an opportunity for us to get a win as a team. I want us to win, but of course I want to see my son play well.”

Coaching against Notre Dame is one-time Irish linebacker Greg Hudson. Now the defensive coordinator under Hazell, Hudson returns to Indiana after coaching linebackers at Florida State.

“It never gets out of your system,” Hudson said of playing against his alma mater. “The (emotions) are probably a little higher, just because you’re directly in charge of that defense, and it’s also back here in Indiana. It feels like home. It’s a home game. And it has the bright lights and the big crew is coming in.”

Hudson was well known in recruiting circles probably for one of his biggest one-on-one battles against the Irish, when FSU went head-to-head for Aaron Lynch. Hudson ended up losing that battle (one that Notre Dame eventually lost just a few months later, when Lynch quit on the team.)

Lastly, key recruit Drue Tranquill will be in West Lafayette watching both teams intently. A soft commitment to Purdue, many believe it’s only a matter of time before Tranquill flips his commitment to the Irish, who see the high school safety following the path of Dan Fox and sliding down into the middle linebacker position. Tranquill will be on campus in South Bend next weekend to watch the Irish play Michigan State.

***

After turning over all three kicking jobs to Kyle Brindza, the Irish have another field position battle on their hands. 

It took exactly one week and a snap-hooked field goal attempt for Kyle Brindza to retake the field goal kicking job and become the Irish’s lone kicking specialist. While there’s time for Nick Tausch to fight his way back into the rotation and punter Alex Wulfeck has the ability to spell Brindza if needed, it’s the junior job.

Brindza talked about the increased workload and even acknowledged the need to put himself on a personal kick count, for fear he could leave his best stuff on the practice field.

“Even though my body might feel good, I’m still going to have a number count or else I might push it too much and wake up the next day and say ‘oh man, I feel horrible,’ ” Brindza told JJ Stankewitz of CSN Chicago.

If there’s one match-up you probably haven’t heard much about, it’s the battle at punter this weekend. Purdue’s Cody Webster is one of the nation’s top punters, and the Ray Guy Watch Lister carries an average of 49.9 yards a boot this year, besting everybody else in the country by more than a yard. With the Purdue offense still struggling to get the hang of their new offensive system, Webster will be a true weapon in the field position battle, a game that Brindza is still getting the hang of with his struggles directionally kicking.

Perhaps there’s one outlier that might actually flip this Purdue advantage in Notre Dame’s favor. While they haven’t been all that good in the red zone, Tommy Rees and the Irish offense have started four drives inside their own 20-yard line. They’ve scored touchdowns on three of them.

 

 

 

 

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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Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover position, others likely to follow
2 Days Until Spring Practice: A look at the defensive backfield

Kraemer, Eichenberg compete for RT spot, moving Bars inside, and Bivin to…

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Forty percent of the offensive line is essentially set in stone: fifth-year senior Mike McGlinchey at left tackle and senior Quenton Nelson at right guard.

The center position seems to be senior Sam Mustipher’s to lose.

That leaves the two starting spots on the right side of the line for a number of players—both young and experienced—to fight over.

Sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg have emerged as the frontrunners for the right tackle spot, moving senior Alex Bars inside to right guard. Bars started all 12 games last season at right tackle.

“Those two [Kraemer and Eichenberg] are the guys we have mapped out at right tackle, and they’re going to battle,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “Today Kraemer was there. Last two practices Eichenberg got a lot of the work. Eichenberg will go back there on Friday. They’re going to keep battling and splitting the action out there.”

Part of the reasoning in giving the two sophomores extended looks this spring is Notre Dame knows what it has in Bars when at right tackle.

“We would prefer to get him in at the guard position, but we know he can play the [tackle] position,” Kelly said.

A starting five of McGlinchey, the three seniors and either sophomore may seem to leave fifth-year lineman Hunter Bivin out in the cold. Not often is a player asked to return for a fifth year only to spend it on the bench. That is even more rare when considering the current Irish scholarship crunch.

Kelly compared Bivin’s role to that of Mark Harrell’s last year. Harrell appeared in all 12 games, starting two, and provided much needed depth and flexibility along the offensive line. Rather than have five backup offensive linemen, position coach Harry Hiestand relied on Harrell to provide support at multiple spots.

“It’s reasonable to assume that Hunter Bivin’s going to be involved in this as well,” Kelly said. “We’ve just asked Hunter to take a seat right now. He’s done that for the team.

“We think Hunter is going to be a Mark Harrell for us. A guy that’s extremely valuable, can play a number of positions. We trust him, but we want to see these two young players [Kraemer and Eichenberg]. Hunter is a guy that can play right or left tackle for us. He’s going to be a valuable player for us as a swing guy.”

On that note, this space will refer to Bivin as a fifth-year lineman, as was done above, rather than as a guard or as a tackle, until further notice. In his case, the broader description may be the most accurate.

Spring break out west is fine, but Wimbush better be ready to run

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It will undoubtedly become a habit, at least for the next five-plus months. If Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush sneezes in front of a camera, it just might lead to an uptick in webmd.com traffic. His every football move will certainly be analyzed, nitpicked and discussed at length. Thus, Irish coach Brian Kelly being asked about Wimbush’s spring break should surprise no one.

Rather than find a Florida beach, Wimbush spent his spring break working with private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield in San Diego alongside a handful of other college passers. Kelly said there is value to such a spring break but stopped short of setting any lofty expectations of the effects.

“I have no problem with [Wimbush] working out with George Whitfield,” Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice, the first following spring break and the third of 14 leading into the Blue-Gold Game on April 22. “George doesn’t work on the specifics to the offense. George is really working on the quarterback and throwing the football, moving in the pocket. George is really good at keeping those quarterbacks active and moving.”

Whitfield is best-known around Notre Dame and among Irish fans for working with former Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson during Golson’s academic suspension in 2013. Whitfield and Golson spent 10 weeks together, thus granting time for extensive off-field activities such as film study. Far shorter, Wimbush’s time out west appears to have been spent primarily doing drills.

“In those situations, it’s a bullpen session,” Kelly said. “They’re keeping their arms loose, they’re keeping their feet loose. He’s just keeping them active.”

It is hard to construe that activity as a negative, but it obviously lacks certain aspects crucial to Wimbush’s 2017 season. With only five career pass attempts and seven career rushes, Wimbush’s inexperience looms large. Developing the necessary intangibles to account for that may be just as, if not more, important as fitting his throws into tight windows.

“When it comes to the playbook, to his teammates, to his coaches here, Brandon understands that when the rubber hits the road, those are the guys that matter the most,” Kelly said. “He knows when it’s time for Notre Dame football, where the focus is.”

Included in that playbook will be an expectation for Wimbush to carry the ball. To date, Wimbush’s biggest play and possibly only imprint on most Notre Dame fans’ memories is a 58-yard touchdown scamper against Massachusetts in 2015.

Link to 17-second YouTube video which has unfortunately disabled embedding

Note, the play is not exclusively-designed for Wimbush to run. Now a rising junior, then a fellow freshman, running back Josh Adams comes across Wimbush’s front for a possible handoff. Instead, Wimbush makes the correct read and keeps the ball. Why state so clearly it was the proper read? Adams has to evade a Texas defender even though he never had the ball.

Future option plays should present Wimbush with the possibility of throwing the ball, too.

“He’ll be a runner in the offense,” Kelly said. “Do we want him to carry the ball 20 times? No.”

“I don’t think you’ll have a situation where we’re calling quarterback power or singular runs. He’s going to have options: hand it off, throw the ball out on the perimeter. You’ll see more of that than you will prescribed quarterback runs. We had a little bit more of that last year with Kizer, but I think you’ll see that he has an option to get the ball out of his hands more so than just prescribed runs.”

Those option plays, in particular, will require Wimbush to have a thorough familiarity both with the Notre Dame playbook and with his teammates’ tendencies.

RITA LEE OR 52-53?
Staying consistent with his comments over the last two months, Kelly once again reiterated the biggest changes new offensive coordinator Chip Long will bring to the Irish playbook will be in its wording. Perhaps going to an extreme example to illustrate his thinking, Kelly pointed to the future.

“We’re going to win next year and Chip is going to be the greatest offensive coordinator in the country and he’s going to get a head job, right?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “Then I’m not going to introduce the Chip Long offense to the next offensive coordinator.”

“It has to have my culture in it … The culture of the offense is still the base offense that I have always run because I have to be able to carry that with me from year to year.”

Within that ellipsis, Kelly gave two examples of possible verbiage changes. Without knowing much more behind them, they do not mean too much out here in the cobwebs of the internet, but they do provide a quick glimpse at what Kelly has been referring to when discussing lexicon since hiring Long.

“If he wants to change Ringo Lucky protection to Ram and Lion protection, go right ahead. If he wants to change certain calls, for example, 52-53 protection is now Rita Lee.”

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