And in that corner… The Michigan State Spartans

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Forever tied together because of their consecutive tenures at Cincinnati, Brian Kelly and Mark Dantonio are nonetheless polar opposites on the coaching spectrum. Dantonio’s teams embody the Big Ten archetype, built around a power offense and an aggressive defense. Kelly made his name at Cincinnati putting up points by the minute, spreading defenses out and turning Saturday afternoons into track meets.

As we’ve spent much of September debating the merits of Notre Dame rivalries, another comes this Saturday as the battle for the Megaphone Trophy comes to South Bend. After losing in gut-wrenching fashion in the first battle of Cincinnati coaches past, Dantonio gutted the Irish will a fake field goal in overtime, with “Little Giants” putting the game in the record books and Dantonio in the hospital with a mild heart attack after the victory. Kelly has had the better of the Spartans in the two years sense then, winning fairly easily in ’10, and then going to East Lansing and shutting down the then ranked No. 10 team in the country in a defensive showdown.

Watching it all has been Chris Vannini, who spends his time writing about Spartan football at The Only Colors and as the lead writer at CoachingSearch.com. Chris was kind enough to answer my numerous questions and pump out some really good stuff that’ll get everybody ready for a game that has plenty of subplots.

Enjoy.

Not all 3-0 records are created equal. It hasn’t exactly been easy sledding for the Spartans these first three games, especially offensively. Last Saturday against Youngstown State, things seemed to click. What’s been the problem for the offense? Was last week part of the solution or simply playing Youngstown State?

Problems? Where to start. Just about everything was a problem other than the running backs in the first two weeks. The line couldn’t block, the receivers couldn’t get open nor catch, the quarterbacks couldn’t find guys and the play-calling was odd. Then, against Youngstown State, everything clicked. Sure, part of it was playing Youngstown State, but when the offense couldn’t move the ball against two of the worst teams in FBS, it was a reason to celebrate a little bit.

Of course, this doesn’t mean the offense is fixed or anything, but it was the first time in more than a calendar year that MSU collectively put together a performance to feel good about. Now we know that this offense can actually do something. The ability to perform against better teams is still yet to be seen, though.

Replacing Dan Roushar has been the combo platter of Jim Bollman and Dave Warner. Assess their work so far? If you were Mark Dantonio and needed to find someone to run the offense, who would you go out and hire?

The Bollman hire was a bit odd, but it he had coached with Dantonio at a few others stops, and familiarity is everything with Dantonio. After last year’s offensive struggles, the new coaches promised changes, so there was reason for optimism. Two games into 2013, everything was the same. Last week saw better execution more than anything, and that obviously makes play-calling easier. The hope is that things are figured out. Bollman is a consultant between series, while Warner calls the plays. As for finding someone to run the offense, it’s all about familiarity, as I said. Dantonio loves to promote guys who would have been waiting their turn, as Roushar and then Warner were. If the rest of the season plays out like last year, perhaps a change could be made, but it’s not a guarantee. If Dantonio were to make an outside hire for a coordinator position, I have no idea what he would go for, but it would have to be someone who runs an offense with a mobile QB, as MSU has been recruiting for.

Let’s talk about the quarterback position. Is this Connor Cook’s team now?

It’s his team now, with an asterisk. He’s getting all the first-team reps and is the No. 1 quarterback. But if he struggles beyond belief or is injured at Notre Dame, I believe Andrew Maxwell would take over. MSU knows what it has with him, so first-team reps aren’t as important in practice. It’s not “Cook or die,” but he’s the No. 1 QB about as much as one can be after a quarterback battle.

On the flip side of the ball, the defense has been tremendous and sits at the statistical top of the heap after three game? Is there a regression coming? Or is this just another really, really good Pat Narduzzi defense?

A regression is coming simply because of the opponents, but this will still be a really good Narduzzi defense. It’s a senior-laden group that has been making the negative plays (sacks, TFLs, INTs) that were there in 2011 but were missing a year ago. The front four has been able to wreak havoc on its own, which is important for every team. The young players that have replaced last year’s starters haven’t missed a beat: defensive end Shilique Calhoun, linebacker Taiwan Jones and cornerback Trae Waynes.

The Notre Dame offense has run hot and cold this season. How do you see Narduzzi attacking it on Saturday?

This, to me, is the most interesting storyline. Based on what I’ve seen in the past two weeks, opponents have sat back in coverage and forced Notre Dame to dink and dunk down the field, waiting for the Irish to make a mistake. That’s not MSU’s style. This is a heavy blitzing team that leaves its corners on islands, expecting the pressure to force a bad throw. As a result, the defense can be susceptible for some big plays. You’re not going to dink and dunk down the field against this defense, but a big play or two can lead to scores. Narduzzi is all about not allowing an inch, but the past few weeks have shown that it’s OK to allow inches, just not big yards to ND. I can’t see MSU sitting back and only rushing four, even if those four can get some pressure. It’s just not what they do.

Name one player on offense and one player on defense that should give Irish fans nightmares this week.

On offense, I’m going to go with Cook because of his dual-threat ability. Devin Gardner was able to break contain and make plays against Notre Dame, while Purdue’s Rob Henry was able to move enough to keep plays alive. Cook is a big guy that brings the mobility that Maxwell doesn’t have. Given MSU’s poor offensive line performances against the Irish in recent years, he may be on the move a lot.

On defense, it should be Calhoun. He’s actually a better pass-rusher than Will Gholston, who left early for the NFL. He has two sacks, three TFLs, eight QB hurries, an interception and three fumble recoveries. Through two games, he was almost outscoring MSU’s offense, with two of the fumbles and the one interception returned for a touchdown. He’s a fast guy that gets the edge quickly.

Brian Kelly and Mark Dantonio have an “interesting” relationship. After Little Giants, Kelly has gotten the better of Dantonio the past two season, winning by large margins both in South Bend and East Lansing. Is this a game that brings out the best in Dantonio, his staff and the Spartans?

If not for that fake field goal, Dantonio could very well be 0-3 against Kelly. I think you’re going to see MSU throw the kitchen sink at the Irish. How effective that will be is hard to say. As we talked about, MSU only has one good performance out of three games against lowly opponents. But it’s good that it was the most-recent one. There’s some positive vibes around that haven’t been there for quite some time. Whatever the plan is, this game is going to come down to whether or not MSU’s offensive line can hold up. The Irish defensive line has destroyed the Spartans for the past two years. MSU has a full offensive line — it hasn’t in the past two years — but some guys are a little nicked up. If MSU can’t block, it’s over, and there’s not much of a way to gameplan against that. If they can block, then things can open up.

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Read more from Chris and the team over at The Only Colors, or follow on Twitter @TheOnlyColors or @ChrisVannini.

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.”

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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