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Irish need to improve up the middle

Sep 16, 2013, 12:01 PM EDT

Jeff Whittingham, Kyle Friend, Louis Nix III AP

A baseball team is often judged by its strength up the middle. Look at any great ball club and you’ll usually find a strong catcher behind the plate, a shortstop with range and a centerfielder that can run down just about anything.

When you look at the uneven performance coming from the Irish football team through three games, my head wanders back to my baseball days, riding the pines and chewing bubble gum at Eck Stadium. Strength up the middle is paramount for an elite baseball team. And that’s where this football team needs to find its focus as well.

There’s no better anchor point to build from than Louis Nix. While it’s hard for a nose guard to fill a stat sheet, Nix has looked the part of everybody’s All-American this season, constantly double-teamed as he takes on the interior of an offensive line. But if you’re wondering why this defense doesn’t look like the one that was on the field last season, keep looking up the middle, where two position groups are still in the middle of getting sorted.

Inside linebacker seems to be improving, though many hoped Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox would flourish when given the chance to play next to each other. The jury is still out, but neither Fox nor Calabrese look like the player they were when playing next to Te’o last season. Joining them in the rotation has been Jarrett Grace, who has looked like a guy getting heavy snaps for the first time in his career.

A season after being dominant against screen passes and short underneath throws thanks to Manti Te’o’s instincts, this defense is getting beat underneath too often. Call it dinking and dunking, but more accurately it’s called moving the chains, and the Irish are having a hard time getting off the field. Add to that struggles in the red zone after being so dominant there a season ago, and that’s why this group sits at No. 57 in scoring defense after playing two teams ranked outside the Top 100 in scoring offense.

Part of that comes from the instability at safety. Many assumed Matthias Farley was ready to step in and be a dominant player in the back end of the defense. That hasn’t been the case, with the former wide receiver still looking like a player growing into his position. After hoping that Elijah Shumate was going to step in and use his athleticism to effect the game at safety, the sophomore hasn’t been heard from, except when getting beat in pass coverage. Austin Collinsworth seems to be a guy the coaching staff can trust, but he hasn’t been a game changer. And the Irish’s most dynamic option, freshman Max Redfield, seems to be in the middle of a learning curve that still hasn’t gotten him onto the field.

The up the middle struggles aren’t just on defense. After having two running backs that knew exactly what was asked of them, the Irish ground game seems to be stuck in neutral. How much of that is on the guys toting the rock remains to be seen, but if you watched Brian Kelly’s interactions with the running backs, there are cutback lanes and alleys that haven’t been hit in the Irish’s zone blocking scheme.

Up the middle of the field, just about everybody is new. A five-headed running back monster where guys are learning on the job. A quarterback that took reps as a situational reliever last season. A new center. A trio of linebackers trying to replace the national defensive player of the year. And two safeties, one who sat out all last season with an injury.

There’s a reason Kelly continues to preach patience, and with a four game stretch that’ll likely define the season, now is the time to make sure the pieces come together.

“We know there’s going to be an evolution of getting those players in the right position, developing them. That’s going to take a little time,” Kelly said.

Well with the No. 1 defensive in the country coming to town and ranked Oklahoma and Arizona State squads before USC, time is of the essence.

100 Comments (Feed for Comments)
  1. ndcanuck - Sep 17, 2013 at 11:30 AM

    A few observations from Saturday:

    1. Actual halftime adjustments – it was good to see, and is something that needs to happen from here on out as ND faces better teams and better coaches.

    2. No disrespect to Cam – love the toughness – but if our best RB is a small, slow 3 star recruit we’re going to be in trouble. The freshmen NEED to start getting carries and playing time ASAP. This one-play-and-out stuff isn’t helping anyone.

    3. Tuitt is by no means living up to the hype; the secondary isn’t good enough to hold up if ND has to bring more bodies to get any pressure on the passer. Nix is playing well, but Day and Tuitt need to step up and beat their man once in a while. Not impressed so far.

    4. LBs look slow, but as it was pointed out here that has more to do with play recognition and reaction than pure physical speed. I expect that to improve. Calabrese is a blunt object; he can’t be expected to play well against the pass and they need to move their personel around better to avoid mismatches.

    5. Tommy got lucky a few times, but is throwing the ball downfield more effectively than in the past. I’d love to see them put Robinson in formations in the red zone more often; surprised they haven’t called his number more. Daniels is outstanding, and Nicholas has stepped up as well. If they can get the running game going at all, we can certainly be better on offense than we were last year.

    • 4horsemenrideagain - Sep 17, 2013 at 12:00 PM

      i won’t disagree with you on what it might say if CMC is the one getting the lions’ share of the carries, on that it might not bode well for the progress of the program, but on the other hand, what has this kid failed to do that causes so much handwringing? he he missed picking up blitzes? has he dropped passes out of the backfield? has he made bad cutbacks and misread blocks? no. he hasn’t done any of those things. all he’s done is play hard, mistake-free football and pick up positive yards on almost every carry. admittedly, he’s not a threat to break off a 60 yard run, but since when is that the hallmark of a starting back? at this point, unless BK is pushing hard to get carries for bryant and/or folston, it’s hard for me to see why CMC doesn’t get first dibs on the chance to get 15+ carries unless it’s because his speed somehow severely limits the playbook or allows defenses to line up some way BK wants to avoid having to face, but neither supposed limitation have been evident so far.

      • nudeman - Sep 17, 2013 at 12:18 PM

        ndcanuck and 4horseman

        Re: ndcanuck’s points:
        1. Agree.

        2. Cam: 4horseman, no one disagrees that Cam is a tough guy and an overachiever. But he’s not big or fast enough to be the feature RB for a program like ND. He runs very hard, he blocks and he catches the ball, and there’s a place for guys like that. But if you watch him, he can’t deliver a blow that knocks a defender on his heels. In fact when he lowers his head, he often gets knocked down hard himself. (Same with Amir)I love Cam. But if anyone thinks he’s better than Greg Bryant or even Folston, come on. And ndcanuck is right … this 1 carry then sit down and STFU is just stupid.

        3. Tuitt: Did you see Kelly say how he played great? I’m sorry … no tackles for a stud DL who’s supposed to go in the 1st round doesn’t impress me. They’re hiding something here. Maybe his weight, maybe an injury, maybe something else.

        4. LBs, except for Jaylon are trucks when playing in space. Just awful.

        5. Can’t criticize Rees too much. Any QB who throws it 33 times is going to get lucky once or twice. Only caveat I’ll add about Tommy is that he still has not broken the mold of playing well against bottom feeders (Temple & Purdue) and badly against good teams (UM). I want to see him play really well against OK, USC, ASU and/or Stanford before I offer to buy him dinner.

      • 4horsemenrideagain - Sep 17, 2013 at 1:33 PM

        i agree with your conclusion that he doesn’t have the size, speed or strength to be the every-down back, but with carlisle and GAIII yet to show they can run inside, and bryant and folston yet to get sufficient carries to make the judgment, until one of the others step up and show they deserve the carries instead of CMC, what’s the alternative? even beyond that though, to his credit CMC hasn’t had his own “coming up short” moment, while carlisle and GAIII have each had their fair share. so until the frosh are ready to carry the load, i’d like to see cam’s carries increase. if BK gave him the ball 15-20 times, is it that difficult to imagine him racking up 100 yards, and if so, how do you argue with that and tell him that’s just not good enough? especially since by all measures, he’s arguably the most complete back we have (running, blocking and receiving)

      • ndcanuck - Sep 17, 2013 at 1:54 PM

        I think you answered your own question horseman – Cam doesn’t have the size, speed or strength to be an every down back. He’s not going to scare anyone into changing their D when he’s in the game. That means they can still drop 8 and force Tommy to make mistakes, betting that Cam won’t make any big plays and beat them. If the shoe is on the other foot I’m happy to give a back like that 2 or 3 yards at a pop.

        The solution is also right there in your post – give Bryant (or Folston) more time on the field and let them develop. Will they miss some blitz pick ups? Sure. Do they give us the best chance to win? Maybe – that’s what we need to see. I think we’ve seen enough of GA3 to know what he brings (not much), Amir is talented but isn’t an inside runner, and Cam is what is he is (limited). With two likely studs on the bench, why waste more time?

        Consider this – the two freshmen are as much of an unknown quantity to ND as they are to the opponents. Could be a real advantage in terms of scheme – teams won’t recognize plays off of formations as easily if Byrant is in the backfield for example.

      • 4horsemenrideagain - Sep 17, 2013 at 2:26 PM

        CMC showed he could pick up yards against a defense loading up the box, and not just because he ran hard. he followed the block and hit the hole at the right moment. call him too small or too slow, but reading the blocks and hitting the hole on time seem like things carlisle and GAIII have struggled to do for the last 3 weeks. “oh but carlisle and GAIII are threats to get outside” i hear people say, and they’re right. but they haven’t run well inside, and on the other hand, CMC hasn’t run poorly on the stretch plays, or carries where he has popped outside. it’s not like he’s getting pulled down from behind by the DE following the play.

        as for your willingness to give up 2-3 yds/play per play, that’s my point exactly. he’s not getting 2 or 3 he’s averaging over 4 yds/game, and most of those carries are where he’s earning his supper in between the tackles, with a big slice of his yards coming on that last drive where purdue knew ND wasn’t putting the ball in the air.

        i do like your point about unknown players being tough to scout and scheme against, and i agree that when you’re sitting on talent like bryant and folston, you have to find some spots to give them a chance to produce. the only reason they haven’t gotten more time has to be that they haven’t shown it in practice yet. otherwise i don’t understand how you give those two horses one carry in an entire game. still, the only reason i can see why cmc doesn’t get 15 carries against MSU is because bryant and folston each get 6-8 and cut into cmc’s. i just can’t see trying to run inside wtih carlisle and GAIII and somehow hoping you get a different result.

      • nudeman - Sep 17, 2013 at 3:22 PM

        I don’t think canuck or I are saying Cam is no good. I think we both think he’s a really good ballplayer.

        I am saying that he’s not a 15 carry/game guy, week after week. He actually did get 15 carries against Purdue I think, and he took some terrific blows. Got snapped back to earth hard on a couple occasions. At 190 or whatever he is he can’t do that week in week out. He just can’t. Carlisle can’t either. Bryant might be able to – all the reports say he’s a monster in practice.

        The real shame here is GAIII. A terrific track guy with near world class speed. Much was made in the offseason about the additional bulk he’d added to his lower body, taking him up to 220. I don’t know if he is inherently timid or afraid of contact butI’ve never seen a guy go down so easily. Ron Dayne disease.

  2. gilessm - Sep 17, 2013 at 11:48 AM

    Through 3 games last year we didn’t run the ball well. 90 points through three last year, including the 50 dropped on Navy, compared to 89 this year. Last year against PU, 324 yards passing (35 from Rees’ last drive). This year: 309. Last year net rushing, 52 yards, this year 91. Given our stable of running backs and the deep threat potential with WR’s, I am encouraged by the offense. Hoping the D will improve, though this year’s performance on D was almost a mirror image of last year’s performance at home against PU. This year we held them to fewer rushing yards and only 6 more total yards, but of course the extra TD. I realize we are talking about two different teams than what played each other last year, and there are certainly issues to fix on both sides of the ball, but maybe the sky is not falling as quickly as it might seem. The next four games will certainly tell.

  3. knuterocknesghost - Sep 17, 2013 at 2:13 PM

    Cam McDaniel is credited with having 4.5 time in the 40 by both Scout and Rivals recruiting web sites. That equals DD’s time in the 40 and everyone thinks DD is playmaker. Cam is also listed as 5’10” and weighing in at 207 lbs. So far, he’s shown he’s the best north-south runner ND has. Not sure he should be graded as so-so or average as much as some like to think he should be here. With BK, among the most important attributes of a player are intensity and consistency. So far he’s demonstrated both of these. If Cam McDaniel is getting signficant carries, it’s because he’s a very good football player and not some dud.

  4. irish4006 - Sep 17, 2013 at 3:33 PM

    While I am thoroughly enjoying the debate on CMC as the featured back, I think the issue is somewhere else. Why are we always trying to take it outside (except for a few times)? With some big dudes in the backfield and a pretty good OL, I would have liked to see some more north south, roll them over type running. When I think of balance, it’s not just the balance in passing vs. rushing; I think of balance within rushing (inside vs. outside) and passing (short, dink and dunk vs. deep routes). Play calling on the offense has been a bit too vanilla so far.

    As for Reesus, he has been playing beyond my expectation. A few 2011 Rees throws here and there, sure, but he has made some outstanding throws as well. Throws with some touch and not just a heave followed by a prayer. We need to open up the playbook a little more.

    One obligatory Rees criticism – does anyone else think that the defense is playing him a bit, I noticed it a number of times against PU. They will give a look, Reesus will audible, change the play and then defense gets into a different formation pre-snap. Similar criticism for our defense, they show the blitz way too early; opponent changes the play, we go through with the blitz anyway for an easy completion and yet another 3rd and long conversion. Seems to me we are a little behind on these pre-snap adjustments. Lack of leadership? Lack of coaching? Lack of football intelligence on our players’ part?

    • nudeman - Sep 17, 2013 at 4:31 PM

      You have to be very careful about the newfound love for Reesus.
      His game against Purdue was excellent. No complaints. But he’s ALWAYS been able to beat the Purdues and Temples of the world.

      True to form, he went into Ann Arbor and in a big boy game threw up a stinker.
      He wasn’t alone, but there’s no denying he didn’t play well.

      This has been his patter over 3+ years now. Beats the Armys and Navys and Temples of the world and just isn’t good enough to beat the big boys.

      • irish4006 - Sep 17, 2013 at 5:43 PM

        I don’t want to put all my trust on him to beat the big boys. It is a team game, the team should be able to do it together.

        I do see your point and somewhat agree. Where I do not agree is that, although he beat the Purdues and the Temples in the past, I can’t remember him doing anything great in those games. This year, I have a feeling (from what I saw thus far) that the big game where he proves us wrong is just around the corner. He made some mistakes but also showed some really good signs. For example, he is not holding on to the ball to the point where he is fumbling it away (in addition to throwing the gimme interceptions). He has thrown some really good passes (compare a couple of his TD passes to DD this year to what he threw in OT vs. Stanford last year; the miracle catch by TJ; or the wild one to Goodman against Purdue).

        MSU will be a real test, so will be OU, ASU, USC. I am encouraged by his maturity and ‘improved’ arm strength; I am optimistic. Also, I have been so vocal in his criticism in the past, I feel like I owe him. :-)

      • don74 - Sep 17, 2013 at 11:33 PM


        yes it is a team effort. Against Michigan Kelly knew the Gardner was playing out of his mind. He avoided blitzes, pressure and played an almost mistake free game. It was up to the other half of the team to win it when down 4 points with 9 minutes to go. As George Steinbrenner used to say about Dave Winfield, Tommy spit the bit. Yes, he played an almost perfect game but when Kelly needed him to play mistake free ball he didn’t. I am not killing the kid, he’s a college football player who Is who he is. When he plays mistake free ball he is better than most and can win games. When he makes mistakes playing his game, which has a game plan tailored to cover his shortcomings, he is ordinary or less. He I who he is. Kelly and Martin have to gameplan for him. Fine. But when it’s crunch time he has to deliver. When he does all goes well and he gets credit. when he doesn’t….well we have seen it. Nude ain’t killing him, he’s simply pointing out that TR needs to truly take his game to the next level and that has nothing to do with arm strength, elusiveness or “game management”. Don’t spit the bit and follow the plan.

      • irish4006 - Sep 18, 2013 at 2:50 AM

        All good points, I sincerely hope that he is closer to that perfect game than we are giving him credit for. The signs are there…

        unfortunately, we just ran out of time, next three games will show us for sure who he is and what kind of ceiling we are looking at for the year.

  5. ndfenian - Sep 17, 2013 at 5:38 PM

    Regarding Tuitt, remember he had that hernia late last season, and surgery in the offseason. Kelly admitted months ago that he was not able to do certain workouts involving his abdomen and core, and that the weight gain was inevitable. Maybe this is the answer to the puzzle. Normally you don’t want your d-linemen to shed weight during a football season (see Weis era), but in this case, I hope Tuitt does.

  6. duncanslabs - Sep 18, 2013 at 9:44 AM

    The ND football team needs to reevaluate themselves PERSONALLY and establish a team leader, the pride just isn’t there. Sure we saw TR on the sidelines surrounded by his teammates and orchestrate a rally, but let’s face it…everywhere else in the realm of college football, when things get tight, the coaches come to the benches and get in the faces of those not performing…i.e. DEFENSE!!!! Tommy took the INITIATIVE to express his DESIRE, did any of us see that on DEFENSE!!!!

    I don’t care what anyone says about TR and CMC not being smart or not being an every down explosive playmaker because outside of one or two plays, the PREMIER rb’s have not shown me SHIT! The MU loss was not because of TR it was because of a very poor game plan. Brian Kelly and staff needed to look in the mirror following that loss, I have yet to see him in any losses stand up and take the blame! Now that you got your contract extension and your millions, perhaps Brian you can get back to fulfilling your obligation upon your hiring and “restore” ND to that championship legacy…or do we chalk this season up to waiting for Ghoulson to POSSIBLY return and develop these players for next season!

    Brian Kelly and the other coaches needed to stop the MU QB and couldn’t , they also needed to think of the MU game as a basketball game not a football game…whenever you have one team that you see is fast, mobile, and can EXTEND plays, you SLOW the game down…you don’t try and match speed with speed…or in the case of our DEFENSE…lack of…despite preseason analysis! Brian Kelly talks about the need for versatility and thinking outside the box. Well BK take a page out of Lou’s book, whenever the defense was not performing well, Lou took OVER the defense and made adjustments DURING the game…not at HALFTIME. IF your going to PREACH IT then TEACH IT !

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