TJ Jones, Taylor Richards

Michigan State mailbag

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Another week, another mailbag.

I’ve been enjoying the camaraderie in the comments section. It’s starting to feel like our big, dysfunction, happy family is starting to get along. Maybe 12-win regular seasons really help the spirits!

As usual, I’ll do my best to answer your questions. Feel free to correct me in the comments (also as usual).

@dickasman: Will Tuitt and Nix breakout this game? How’s MSU OL?

Ah, Dicky. A football question! So nice of you. I think this is one of the more interesting match-ups going because the offensive line for the Spartans has been pretty shaky. Just a quick glance through their depth chart and you’ll see five underclassmen in their two deep, including starters at left tackle, center, and right tackle.

So if there’s a game for the Irish to get some pressure on a young quarterback who up until last week was 12 for 27 for 74 yards, this might be the game.

@JoshHyde: Why does the o-line look worse than last year?

Are you sure it does? This group has only given up one sack in 112 passing attempts. While the rushing average is a meager 4.1 yards per carry, I think it’s a product of the running backs trying to find some rhythm while looking to establish “the guy” and work through five ball carriers.

Let’s turn back the clock so you can remember where this offensive line was at the same time last year. After beating Navy like a drum and running all over them, the run game ran for 1.4 yards a carry against Purdue and 3.6 yards a carry against Michigan State. And through three games, the Irish gave up a whopping eight sacks last season while breaking in Everett Golson.

So I guess what I’m saying is that I disagree with your assertion.

 

@JCirba: Does Tuitt, Shembo, or anybody reach double digit sacks this year?

Can I tell you after Saturday? I think you’ve obviously hit on the two guys that can do it. But we’ve yet to see Shembo get on track, even though he was mighty close to three or four sacks against Temple. (That said, his sacks come in bunches.)

This weekend looks like it could be a favorable match-up for both guys, but you might see a bunch of max protect looks to make sure this doesn’t happen. Before the season started, I thought both Tuitt and Shembo could get to double digits. We’ll know better after this weekend.

@mfmitchell88: Do you think it would be beneficial for Kelly & co. to eval. their own tendencies? We seem to be very predictable/scouted.

Every coaching staff self scouts. Brian Kelly’s does too. (Bill Belichick came in during the offseason and did some evaluation of how the Irish systems ran, so it’s not for lack of brain power.)

That said, I think the one criticism that’s been valid so far of the offense is that it’s been a bit predictable with some of it’s formational looks. Now Oregon is mighty predictable with its formations and tendencies, too. Stopping it is another story.

The offense will likely continue to add wrinkles as the season progresses. They did against Michigan and opened things up in the second half against Purdue. But yeah — I get that when you see Daniel Smith and Troy Niklas spread wide with TJ Jones in the slot that the Irish are likely throwing a screen to Jones. And the Irish’s screen offense wasn’t all that effective against Purdue. So a few change-ups are probably necessary.

don74: Of the following what group is most likely to “break out” this week: The coaching staff (BK, CM, BD), the ILB’s, the secondary or the RB’s? OL not mentioned, if the RB’s break out they did their job.

I’m going to say that the inside linebackers could have a nice Saturday. It’s going to be a physical match-up between the front sevens, and I think Carlo Calabrese, Dan Fox and Jarrett Grace should log quite a few tackles.

One thing to keep an eye on: Connor Cook. He’s an elusive kid and that’s given this defense some pains. A big play free secondary performance would also be very nice, and could spell victory for the Irish.

BlackIrish23: Looking beyond Daniels and Jones, who else do you see as having the potential to create additional match up problems from all these teams daring Rees to beat them with his arm?

I think this is the best personnel Notre Dame has had at wide receiver since the early Weis days, and probably much deeper. Forcing any team to look past their best two receivers is a mixed bag, but I think ND feels confident that a guy like Chris Brown can do some damage against defenses, especially as a third option. And just because we haven’t seen much of him yet, Corey Robinson is a guy that’ll be a real headache to defensive coordinators.

What about Troy Niklas? A 6-7, 270-pound Thor lookalike doesn’t seem all that fun to cover. And we’ve seen James Onwualu and Will Fuller get their chances as well. And CJ Prosise had a big catch after having a nice spring in the slot.

If Michigan State tries putting their secondary on an island with the Irish receivers, it could be a long day if Tommy Rees is accurate.

(Speaking of Tommy…)

@dudeacow: Tommy Rees would have passed 1000 yards already if not for a few drops. If he plays like he’s been playing for the rest of the season, his stat line will look like this: 4200 yards, 61%, 28-8 td/int. too early to include in an all-America conversation?

I believe the stat I saw this week is that Rees is leading all quarterbacks in the country in yardage against FBS teams. Project out those numbers for a full season and indeed — Rees will be having a very nice senior season, though I think it’s too early to talk about things like All-American awards.

I’m cutting this answer short until after this weekend. Then we can take another look.

andy44teg: How much stock do you seriously put into MSU having the top ranked D in the country this early in the year? Before last week Alabama had like the 115th ranked offense and we all saw how they spanked TAMU’s D.

Ah, good old sample size questions. Of course, there’s a big grain of salt along with that stat, but it sure sounds good. (Kind of like beating Michigan State when they were a “top ten” team last year.) No, they haven’t played anyone. But they’ve got really talented personnel and the defense has scored almost more points than the offense.

So underestimate them at your own peril.

@mtflsmitty: Based on your experience reading posts from the characters over the years, please write a short, fictional bio for:
– Historian
– Bern
– Dick
– Nude

I am staying so far away from this question it’s ridiculous. But I’d probably end up asking my mom for the answer to this one, as she spends quite a bit of time reading through the comments, asking me about the crew and worrying about all of you when skirmishes erupt and naughty things are said.

(Perhaps I’ll put her on the job and get back to you guys next week. But don’t get your hopes up, she’s a busy lady!)

I only step in once in a while. Most writers stay out of the comments section for their own mental health. And because, well — we’re writing the articles.

sm29irish: I know Prince and Ishaq are ahead of him but do you think Romeo Okwara could be used situationally to put more pressure on qb haven’t seen much of him this year? Also, what happened to the leprecat formation where Slaughter was successful. I think Shumate or Jaylon would really flourish in that position if it was implemented again at times.

This question was right on the brink of being too long to answer. But here goes: I don’t think Okwara is necessarily the answer as a situational pass rusher. He’s always the guy that swings over to the field side, which says more about his athleticism than his pass rush abilities.

What the leprecat Slaughter? I thought that was ND’s version of the Wildcat, which was used sparsely early in the Kelly era. What you’re likely thinking of is when Slaughter dropped down to play outside linebacker, taking over for Prince Shembo when he was at the Drop position. This was more of a product of personnel deficiencies, and Jaylon Smith is the answer there.

Smith’s been put in that spot already and done a nice job. As for Shumate, I think he’s finding life a bit more complicated than last season, where he covered slot receivers and let his athleticism take over. Don’t give up on him yet though. At this point in Harrison Smith’s career, Irish fans were ready to run him out of town.

sweetnd: 1) How much longer will Kiffin be coach at U$C? Forever (I hope). Or if he loses four games this season, until about December 1, after they get beat by UCLA again.
2) Why does Zahm suck? Why is the sky blue? (Love dorm rivalry questions…)
3) If Tommy throws for 4,000 yards and 28 td’s will he get drafted? If so what round? Good question. I don’t think so, but he’ll find his way to a training camp.
4) what’s your prediction? Will ND cover the spread? Predictions aren’t my thing. But if the past two seasons are any indication, this game will feel closer than the score is.

onward2victory: Coach Kelly won’t come out and say it, but do you think TJ Jones is healthy? He got banged up against Michigan and didn’t seem like himself against Purdue.

He looked pretty healthy making that circus catch near the pylon last week. I think Jones is fine, though he was a little banged up after the Michigan game. (I spoke with him then and he said he was fine, only that he got a pretty bad stinger, something he hasn’t had since high school.)

If Jones ISN’T healthy, you’ll probably see him come off punt return first. And if it’s an upper body issue, that’s far better than an ankle tweak or a sore knee. Let’s remember, Jones only hit 50 catches in a season for the first time last year. He’s already got 19 catches through three games.

lambda02750: Do you anticipate an increase in carries for the freshman backs this weekend?

Not really. But if one of the guys gets hot, they’ll keep getting the rock. But I just don’t think this is the type of game where you go out and force a ball into the least experienced guy on the team’s hands.

Let’s not turn this into another one of those only-at-Notre-Dame self-fulfilling prophesies, where fans get so upset that it turns Greg Bryant upset, and he starts looking around for better opportunities. We routinely saw Charlie Weis’s teams wilt down the stretch when the negativity just overwhelmed them.

(That and a lack of a defensive front…)

Irish A-to-Z: Nick Watkins

GLENDALE, AZ - JANUARY 01:  Wide receiver Michael Thomas #3 of the Ohio State Buckeyes runs with the ball as Nick Watkins #21 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish attempts to make a tackle during the first quarter of the BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl at the University of Phoenix Stadium on January 1, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona. Buckeyes won 44-28. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
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With the Fiesta Bowl serving as a springboard, junior cornerback Nick Watkins looked primed to make a move into the starting lineup as he entered his third season in the program. But a spring injury that’s been slow to heal has put his season into purgatory, another uncertainty for the Irish secondary.

A talented coverman who took some time to come into his own, Watkins now waits on bone growth in an injured arm, a second surgery initiated to jump start things. But with the regular season bearing down on the Irish and Watkins’ availability unknown, his contributions are a huge unknown for Notre Dame’s secondary.

 

NICK WATKINS
6’0.5″, 200 lbs.
Junior, No. 7, CB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A four-star, Top 150 recruit, Watkins stayed off the summer camp circuit and still wowed recruiting analysts. The Dallas native had one of the most impressive offer sheets of his recruiting cycle, picking Notre Dame over Alabama, Auburn, Florida State, Georgia, LSU, Ohio State, Texas, USC and UCLA.

Brian Kelly compared landing Watkins to “getting a No. 1 draft pick” on Signing Day.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Played in 11 games, making most of his appearances on special teams. Didn’t register any statistics.

Sophomore Season (2015): Played in 12 games, making one start against Ohio State and making eight tackles. Had one pass breakup.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Watkins fell out of the No. 3 job when Devin Butler beat him out for it, though took over before the Fiesta Bowl when Butler injured his foot in preparations.

Right now, Watkins is the third cornerback in a defense with a high-ceiling starting pair. I can’t think of a Notre Dame defense that hasn’t relied on their third cornerback, and think back to when we all worried how the Irish were going to get Darrin Walls, Gary Gray and Robert Blanton onto the field. It’ll work itself out.

So Watkins will get the reps this season. Or at least the first shot at the reps, with Devin Butler and a trio of freshmen all right behind him. And if he’s going to stay on the field, he’ll need to fully embrace the mental side of the game. I expect Watkins to make major progress here, especially after the harsh realization that elite physical tools may make it easy to lock down receivers in high school, but in VanGorder’s system, knowledge is almost more important.

Watkins is still every bit the prospect he was when he signed with the Irish. After a freshman season spent on special teams, he’ll be asked to take on more as a sophomore.

While he’s a key piece of the Irish future, Watkins can help Notre Dame win this year as well.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

There aren’t many questions about Watkins’ physical abilities, other than the fact that he hasn’t found a way to make an impact yet. That’s understandable considering he was stuck behind KeiVarae Russell and Cole Luke, though a breakout season seems on the verge of being stuck in neutral as he tries to recover from a slow-healing broken arm.

With plenty of tools in the toolbox, Watkins feels like the type of player who can ascend quickly once he’s given the chance. But then again that ascent is predicated on earning that opportunity—no small feat when you look at the athletes the Irish have recruited.

Entering his third season of eligibility, the clock is ticking. His ceiling will be determined by how quickly he’s back on the field, or if the Irish staff ultimately decides to save a year of eligibility if that’s what’s needed.

 

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Of all the injuries we tracked this offseason, Watkins’ broken arm seemed the least on the radar, though has a chance to be the most impactful. That Notre Dame’s medical staff is treating it aggressively says something about the player they think they have in Watkins—who Kelly said will be allowed to fight for a starting job once he’s physically able.

I’m no doctor—but that won’t stop me from evaluating Watkins’ progress. And for the most part, I don’t think it’s the best formula for success jumping into the mix with no training camp and limited time to get in shape at the most demanding position on Notre Dame’s roster.

While losing Watkins is a blow—especially with the length of these suspensions unknown—any chance to take a medical redshirt could be huge for Notre Dame’s depth, getting Watkins a chance to redo his junior season, capable of stepping in after Cole Luke departs.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston
Mark Harrell
Daelin Hayes
Jay Hayes
Tristen Hoge
Corey Holmes
Torii Hunter Jr.
Alizé Jones
Jamir Jones
Jarron Jones
Jonathan Jones
Tony Jones Jr.
Khalid Kareem
DeShone Kizer
Julian Love
Tyler Luatua
Cole Luke
Greer Martini
Jacob Matuska
Mike McGlinchey
Colin McGovern
Deon McIntosh
Javon McKinley
Pete Mokwuah
John Montelus
D.J. Morgan
Nyles Morgan
Sam Mustipher
Quenton Nelson
Tyler Newsome
Adetokunbo Ogundeji
Julian Okwara
James Onwualu
Spencer Perry
Troy Pride Jr.
Max Redfield
Isaac Rochell
Trevor Ruhland
CJ Sanders
Avery Sebastian
John Shannon
Durham Smythe
Equanimeous St. Brown
Kevin Stepherson
Devin Studstill
Elijah Taylor
Brandon Tiassum
Jerry Tillery
Drue Tranquill
Andrew Trumbetti
Donte Vaughn

Walk-on WR Chris Finke awarded scholarship

Chris Finke247
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Amidst the chaos of a weekend where Notre Dame football players made headlines for the wrong reasons, a good story comes from the ashes. Walk-on wide receiver Chris Finke was awarded a scholarship. The diminutive slot receiver, currently running No. 2 behind CJ Sanders and also a potential returner for the Irish, earned the scholarship on Monday.

News came via social media, where a group of teammates—and the Walk-on Players Union—gave their congratulations.

The 5-foot-9.5, 180-pounder from Archbishop Alter in Kettering, Ohio, has quick become a fan favorite. He’s also made himself a Brian Kelly favorite, earning mention last year for his steady hands and moves as a punt returner and this season for his work in the slot.

“He’s Robby Toma with more speed,” Kelly said during fall camp.

(Never mind his inauspicious introduction to BK, as described by the South Bend Tribune’s Mike Vorel.)

Finke took to social media after the news spread on Monday night with the following comment:

“Grateful. Can’t thank the coaches, staff, my teammates, family, friends, and the Good Lord enough!”

Here’s more instant reaction from teammates past and present.

 

Irish A-to-Z: Donte Vaughn

Donte Vaughn 247
Irish247
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It didn’t take long after Donte Vaughn arrived on campus to know that the Irish landed a special prospect in the Memphis native. A long-limbed, athlete with the body of a safety and the cover skills of a cornerback, Vaughn’s freshman season might have pivoted with the dismissal of Max Redfield.

With the Irish short bodies at free safety, it’s reasonable to think the staff will cross-train Vaughn to fill a hole. But even if they don’t, Vaughn is too good to keep off the field as a freshman, a skill-set and attitude that’ll allow Brian VanGorder and Todd Lyght to lean on Vaughn if the situation calls for it.

 

DONTE VAUGHN
6’2″, 200 lbs.
Freshman, No. 35, CB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A four-star recruit, All-USA Tennessee, 6A All-State, Liberty Bowl All-Star game MVP. Offers from Auburn, LSU, Miami, Ole Miss, Tennessee, and Texas A&M. Long, learn and recruited as a corner, Vaughn is a huge get out of a big program in Memphis.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

One look at Notre Dame’s roster and you begin to realize that the Irish don’t have another cornerback that looks like Vaughn. It’s the reason linebacker James Onwualu said this about him:

“He’s gonna be a freak. He’s so long, so smooth,” Onwualu told Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson. “He comes to work every single day and I respect that.”

That type of athleticism and physical profile gives Brian VanGorder a unique weapon and one that’ll likely be utilized far more when Cole Luke is gone and the Irish need someone to play on the wide side of the field in coverage. Until then, Vaughn’s going to be a wild card—with the potential to sub in when the Irish go nickel or dime, and maybe even help replace Redfield as the Irish look to a very young secondary to replace him.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Even without the boneheaded arrests from the weekend, Vaughn was going to play. But with uncertainty surrounding Ashton White and Redfield’s dismissal, this likely moves Vaughn into the plans against Texas—a jump that not many saw coming, even with his impressive skill-set.

Someone is going to come out of the woodwork and step into an important role in the secondary. We’re already counting on that from Devin Studstill. Put Vaughn in that category for me, a player I expect to finish the season as a key building block for 2017.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston
Mark Harrell
Daelin Hayes
Jay Hayes
Tristen Hoge
Corey Holmes
Torii Hunter Jr.
Alizé Jones
Jamir Jones
Jarron Jones
Jonathan Jones
Tony Jones Jr.
Khalid Kareem
DeShone Kizer
Julian Love
Tyler Luatua
Cole Luke
Greer Martini
Jacob Matuska
Mike McGlinchey
Colin McGovern
Deon McIntosh
Javon McKinley
Pete Mokwuah
John Montelus
D.J. Morgan
Nyles Morgan
Sam Mustipher
Quenton Nelson
Tyler Newsome
Adetokunbo Ogundeji
Julian Okwara
James Onwualu
Spencer Perry
Troy Pride Jr.
Max Redfield
Isaac Rochell
Trevor Ruhland
CJ Sanders
Avery Sebastian
John Shannon
Durham Smythe
Equanimeous St. Brown
Kevin Stepherson
Devin Studstill
Elijah Taylor
Brandon Tiassum
Jerry Tillery
Drue Tranquill
Andrew Trumbetti

 

Life after Max: Notre Dame’s options at safety

Studstill 247
Irish 247
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In the days after Notre Dame returned from Culver Academy to kick off training camp, head coach Brian Kelly went out on the ledge and praised Max Redfield.

“He’s been that guy that everybody was hoping for out of high school,” Kelly said.

A little more than a week later, Redfield’s career at Notre Dame is over.

Done in by the same maddening decision-making that kept Redfield from reaching his potential on the field—Friday night’s antics, with Redfield the lone senior with four underclassmen, puts an end not just to his career at Notre Dame, it puts Redfield’s life at a crossroads.

There is no amount of talent that allowed Kelly to keep Redfield on the roster. And as the Irish move on with no proven depth at a safety position that’s relied upon to be the last line of defense, the Irish now look to some unusual spots to find a dependable player that the former five-star recruit could never become.

With Texas just two weeks away, here are a few options worth considering:

 

1. Start Devin Studstill. 

The true freshman pushed his way into the mix during spring practice, far from any type of motivational ploy by the Irish coaching staff. He’s a smooth athlete, a capable tackler and intelligent defender who understands the concepts Brian VanGorder is asking for from his back end defenders.

Studstill has battled a nagging hamstring injury during camp but is back in action. He’s also the only true positional fit that’s close to capable of stepping in for Redfield without some major schematic adjustments.

He’s still a freshman—and that means the Irish will have to live with some of the mistakes that come when you’re seeing and doing things for the first time. But Studstill’s been the free safety of the future since he stepped onto campus. So the timeline is accelerated, but it’s long been the plan.

 

2. Find a way to play Drue Tranquill next to Avery Sebastian. 

Sixth-year senior Avery Sebastian was kept in the program for a reason. And if this isn’t the perfect opportunity to lean on a mature player who could bail the Irish out of problems, I’m not sure what is.

No, he’s not the perfect fit for the position. Nor is Tranquill. But if Notre Dame needs two low-mistake defenders in the secondary along side their talented cornerbacks, they could do a lot worse than playing Tranquill and Sebastian on first and second down before bringing in a nickel or dime package depending on the situation.

Multiple reporters came out of last week’s open practice praising Sebastian’s toughness and capable play at safety. While he’s yet to be able to stay healthy for any of his college career, he’d do the ordinary things well—something this team desperately needs.

Putting Tranquill, a 230-pound safety, next to Sebastian, a 5-foot-10 (on a good day) hammerhead, limits a team that wants to play a lot of man coverage. But if you’re looking to find dependability, you could do worse.

 

3. Give Donte Vaughn a look at safety. 

Notre Dame thinks they have a future cover corner in Vaughn, whose length and athleticism has people thinking big things about the Memphis native. But with the cornerback depth chart well stocked and the safeties raw and thin, there’s no harm in repping Vaughn at free safety.

The only thing harder than throwing a freshman in at free safety is doing it to a freshman who switched positions less than two weeks before the opener. But Vaughn isn’t your ordinary freshman, as senior James Onwualu attested to last week.

“He’s gonna be a freak. He’s so long, so smooth,” Onwualu told Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson. “He comes to work every single day and I respect that.”

That work ethic will serve him well. So will cross-training this week at safety with Studstill.

 

4. Keep cross-training and developing. 

Just because a player isn’t ready week one doesn’t mean they won’t be able to contribute. And the Irish coaching staff recruited a variety of shapes and sizes when they restocked the secondary in the last recruiting class, and we’ll now see how quickly they can find a way into the mix.

Expect Jalen Elliott to get an early look. While the staff thinks he’s a future strong safety, Elliott is talented enough to compete at both safety positions—and the door is open for him to do that. He’ll be one of the first guys taking back-up reps now that Redfield is gone.

D.J. Morgan, another talented safety out of a Southern California powerhouse program, will need to show he can physically hold up as a safety in the open field, but he’s got the length and size to play. That high level experience in high school should certainly make the transition to the college game easier.

Football players might be your best bet, too. While Julian Love has been taking two-deep reps at nickel corner, there’s an opening at safety and Love’s high school tape showed an athlete that could do any job. Nobody will confuse him with a prototype at the position, but if he can think his way through the job, he’ll have a shot.

 

5. Don’t panic. 

Notre Dame’s secondary has taken blows like this with Kelly at the helm. And even if you’d argue that Redfield was the one of the least-replaceable starters on the defense, there’s no reason to be throwing the towel in after one of the worst evenings in recent off-field history at Notre Dame.

But remember this: An August injury to a presumed starter and the dismissal of a blue-chip recruit before he ever took the field, forced a freshman running back to convert to cornerback. Then KeiVarae Russell started all 13 games on a team that played for a national title.

At safety that season a redshirt freshman converted wide receiver started 11 games after spending spring outside of the two-deep, with Matthias Farley stepping in at safety and picking up the slack after Jamoris Slaughter went down.

The Irish have recruited better than most programs in the country and have kept the emphasis on finding defensive backs who can play in this system. Even if the timetable has accelerated, there’s a plan in place.