Pregame Six Pack: Streaking into the Spartans

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In an era where spread offenses and up-tempo attacks seem to have taken over college football, the 77th meeting between Notre Dame and Michigan State probably looks a lot like a game played a generation ago.

“You might as well just play it in the parking lot,” Kelly cracked earlier this week. “It’s a fight. Roll up your sleeves.”

With the stage set for another physical brawl between two teams that have plenty of history together, the Irish will face their stiffest defensive test yet with the Spartans putting up some very impressive numbers (even against some not-so-impressive competition). With four defensive touchdowns and opponents gaining only 177 yards a game against Michigan State, the Notre Dame offense will have its hands full a two weeks of very slow starts.

As the stage is set for the Megaphone Trophy, let’s dig into some details before the game airs this Saturday afternoon at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC. Here are six tidbits, leftovers, fun facts, and miscellaneous musings before Notre Dame and Michigan State do battle.

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1. After practicing for the first time on Thursday, Sheldon Day looks like a game time decision.

After playing one of his most complete games of the season, Sheldon Day rolled an ankle late in the victory against Purdue. The Irish medical staff kept the sophomore defensive end’s foot in a boot until Thursday, when he gave it a test at practice.

Brian Kelly updated us on Day’s progress Thursday evening, with Kelly optimistic but still uncertain about his status for Saturday.

“He can play Saturday. We’ll see. He obviously missed Tuesday and Wednesday, but he’s available to us,” Kelly said. “We’ll see how he responds. It’ll be a game time decision. He practiced today, looked pretty good.”

The drop off after Day is significant, with sophomore Jarron Jones and freshman Isaac Rochelle next in line. After that, it’s likely a mix and match of guys like Kona Schwenke, Ishaq Williams and little used seniors Justin Utupo and Tyler Stockton.

“A little bit of everybody,” Kelly said. “All hands on deck.”

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2. With his confidence in place and play improved, if Tommy Rees continues at this clip he’ll be having a great season… against an even more impressive schedule. 

After taking command of the offense against Purdue, Tommy Rees went out and played what was probably his best half of football in his Notre Dame career. Rees has started off the season quickly, throwing for 969 yards through three games, seventh in the FBS, and first among quarterbacks that haven’t played a FCS (formerly I-AA) opponent.

Just as impressive, Rees has created big plays down the field, completing seven passes of 32 yards or more, compared to just 11 plays of that distance all year. While his physical attributes still leave something for many to desire, Rees continuing at this clip — especially against the defenses he’ll face — is quite an impressive feat.

Let’s take a look at the gauntlet of highly rated defenses Rees will face, starting on Saturday.

No. 1 Michigan State
No. 4. USC
No. 14. Oklahoma
No. 15. Stanford
No. 21. Arizona State
No. 36. BYU

It’s the beginning of quite a stretch for Rees, who will face four Top 21 defenses in a row before facing off against Air Force and Navy. It’s also likely to be the defining stretch of the season for this team.

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3. Finding touches isn’t the only hard part for a committee of running backs. Keeping your mindset plays a part as well. 

Over at the South Bend Tribune, Eric Hansen tracked down Randy Kinder this week to talk about what it’s like to be a part of a running back by committee. Kinder, who played during the final four seasons of Lou Holtz’s tenure in South Bend, was part of multiple backfields that got the ball to a wide variety of players.

“When you’re a young guy coming in, it’s a lot easier than when you’re an older guy,” Kinder told Hansen. “We knew when we got an opportunity, we had to make the most of it.”

Kinder did talk about the mental battle you wage as you fight to keep your confidence high. While we continually wonder about what this is doing to freshmen Greg Bryant or Tarean Folston, it could be making things even tougher on junior George Atkinson, who has looked really tentative and struggled breaking tackles.

“The flip side of that for me is going into my senior year, we had a young guy behind me who kind of blew things away,” Kinder said of Autry Denson. “And I found myself struggling to get as much playing time as possible. It’s a difficult thing. It’s something where you have to be very strong of mind and look for your spots. We were lucky because we had a good group who were very supportive and tried to keep us all focused on the team winning more than anything else.”

In ’93, Kinder, Ray Zellars and Lee Becton all got at least 89 touches, with Becton leading the team with 164 carries. In ’94, it was Kinder that led the team in carries with 119, while Becton got 100 and Zellars got 79. Kinder led the team again in ’95, with 143 carries to Marc Edwards 140 and Autry Denson’s 137. But in ’96, Kinder only had 53 carries and a career worst 4.7 yards-per-carry, a full yard below his previous season.

Talent is a champagne problem. But sometimes too much of it makes it even harder to utilize the personnel on your roster.

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4. Another year, another injury plagued Michigan State offensive line. Let’s see if the Irish defensive front can take advantage of it again. 

After three home games against underwhelming opponents, the Spartans will play in an opposing team’s stadium for the first time this year. That could be a very big test for another offensive line that Mark Dantonio has had to patch together.

“We’re going to find out a little bit more about who is who in our football team as we move forward,” Dantonio said this week. “It’s going to be exciting to see that.”

Up front is where the biggest challenge lies for the Spartan offense, with three starters only underclassmen, as well as half of the two-deep. This year, one of Michigan State’s best offensive lineman, right tackle Fou Fonoti, has been hobbled by injury. Center Travis Jackson missed last week with an injury and is listed as a co-starter. Neither will be at 100 percent on Saturday.

Sophomore left tackle Donovan Clark, a 6-foot-3, 300-pounder has himself quite a match-up with Stephon Tuitt this weekend. Redshirt freshman Jack Conkin has slid over to right tackle to make room for Clark. The Spartans had already lost likely starting right tackle Skyler Burkland after he retired this summer after multiple injuries.

Like in years past, it might not be an optimal group, but the edict is firm from the Spartans head coach.

“The best guys are gonna play, that’s all I can say,” Dantonio said this week. “The best guys are gonna play, and you’ve got to be able — especially as we move into our schedule — you’ve got to play firm at the tackles. You’ve got to pass protect and do the things you’ve got to do, but you’ve got to play with power as well.”

This looks like it could be the match-up of Saturday, with Tuitt and Prince Shembo likely liking their chops.

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5. Let’s not get too worried about Notre Dame’s ability to self scout just yet. 

After many people (me included) worried about the Irish’s predictability when playing in certain formations and personnel groupings, Kelly was asked about the halftime comments from Darrell Hazell last week about formational giveaways.

He didn’t sound overly concerned.

“We lined up in the same formation twelve times, eleven times on the last drive,” Kelly said Thursday. “They knew exactly what we were doing, and we had the ball for 7:22. It’s still about execution.”

Still, he didn’t dismiss the need for the Irish to be diligent self-scouting.

“I’ve been doing it a long time. We’ve been self-scouting a long time,” Kelly said. “We know what our tendencies are. We have that self-scouting information at our fingertips first thing Sunday when we get in from our graduate assistants.”

Expect to see a new set of wrinkles this Saturday against a Spartan defense that’s going to challenge the Irish aggressively, especially quarterback Tommy Rees.

“(Michigan State defensive coordinator) Pat Narduzzi does a great job with the scheme. They are a team that’s done a great job of forcing turnovers,” Kelly said earlier this week to SiriusXM’s Jack Arute. “They force you to protect and if you don’t the quarterbacks are throwing under duress and you know what happens.”

A more thorough self-scouting evaluation will happen over the bye week, just in time for the Irish to face off with USC.

***

6. Maybe Notre Dame Stadium is turning into a home field advantage after all. 

Don’t look now, but Notre Dame Stadium isn’t quite the visitors’ paradise that it once was. The Irish are close to matching their longest home winning streak in 15 years, with a victory on Saturday potentially making it ten straight games.

After watching both Charlie Weis and Tyrone Willingham struggle at home, Kelly’s Irish have seen things turn around, maybe not coincidentally after they started piping music into the stadium. The Irish haven’t lost at home since that fateful night against USC, when Crazy Train became a prelude to impending doom.

Kelly hasn’t been shy tweaking the home game weekend schedule, moving things like the team mass or the players walk to the stadium. It’s all been in a quest to focus his team properly for the task at hand.

“I just think the way we’ve spaced out the day, Friday and Saturday, has really helped our kids a lot,” Kelly said. “It’s given them the opportunity to regroup a little bit, focus in on the game and not all the other things that are going on around the campus.”

As for the game environment, Kelly talked about the added benefit piped-in music has brought to Saturdays at Notre Dame, with the players and student body being the primary beneficiaries.

“Those are all little things that have been worked through the team, and they enjoy it and they like it,” Kelly said. “Those are all little pieces where they feel like they are part of that, and part of the tradition is great, and then having a little bit of say in that, they really take some ownership in it.”

Still, winning at home isn’t just about a few new songs and a change in the weekend schedule.

“I think there’s a lot of things. There’s a lot of levels,” Kelly said. “We’ve learned how to play the game. I’ve always wanted our teams to play hard for four quarters and just fight really hard and we’ll figure out a way to win the games.  We’ve managed to do that by and large in terms of the way we play.”

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
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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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Back from break, Irish commence hitting; DT Elijah Taylor out with LisFranc injury

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Notre Dame last wore pads in its 45-27 defeat at USC back on Nov. 26, a full 117 days ago. Suffice it to say, the Irish enjoyed the chance to don their shoulder pads and hit each other in Wednesday’s third spring practice, the first one since returning from spring break.

“What I liked about it more than anything else is there wasn’t a big drop off today,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “Usually you go two days and then you take a week off, and then you come back and put your pads on—it took us only a couple of periods to get back up to form. That was nice to see.”

Contrary to previous years in spring practice, and perhaps practice in general, Kelly emphasized tackling, especially tackling in the open-field, in Wednesday’s drills.

“[I] felt like we needed to make up for a little lost ground,” he said. “We got in tackling today for the first time. That’ll be an emphasis. We’ll tackle a lot this spring to make up for lost ground.”

The early and often physical nature of practice didn’t bother any of the players, per Kelly, but also per presumed common sense. While Notre Dame’s coaching staff changes and public questioning played out in broad view, the players spent 117 days in private waiting to unleash some of the frustrations of 2016’s disappointing season.

“Everybody to a man has been looking forward to this day,” Kelly said. “It was a pretty difficult offseason for them. They were looking forward to putting the pads on and getting out there. I think they exhibited that today.”

TAYLOR OUT FOR SPRING, AT LEAST
Junior defensive tackle Elijah Taylor was not in pads Wednesday. In the final practice before spring break, another player stepped on Taylor’s foot, Kelly said. The resulting LisFranc fracture will keep Taylor out of the remaining dozen spring practices and limit him until at least July. Taylor saw action in four games last season, finishing with three tackles, including one for a loss.

Notre Dame team surgeon Dr. Brian Ratigan already performed Taylor’s surgery.

“Typical LisFranc fractures, we’ve had good success with their repairs,” Kelly said. “…We’ll be able to train around the injury. Full range of motion moving around and doing things in June, probably full clearance sometime in July.”

Without Taylor, the interior of Notre Dame’s defensive line becomes even shallower, though that may have been hard to previously comprehend. Junior Jerry Tillery looks to be ready to start, and senior Jonathan Bonner has moved to the inside, rather than at end as he has been for most of his career. Behind them, the Irish present only question marks.

Kelly said he will look to junior Micah Dew-Treadway to step forward in Taylor’s absence.

“Micah Dew-Treadway has had a really good offseason for us,” Kelly said. “Changed his body, has been doing a really good job in all facets, in the class room and weight room. He’s somebody that had been ascending anyway prior to the injury.

Kelly indicated junior Brandon Tiassum also could be expected to see more work with Taylor sidelined.

Seniors Daniel Cage and Pete Mokwuah are in the mix, as well. Cage struggled with concussion issues last season after a promising 2015.

Notre Dame will need to wait until the freshmen arrive—perhaps also joined by Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano, reportedly still taking official visits as he ponders his 2017 destination—for further reinforcements. Consensus four-star recruit Darnell Ewell would be the most likely candidate of the three expected arrivals to move up the depth chart right away.

In layman’s terms, a Lisfranc fracture occurs when a mid-foot bone connecting to a toe separates from the cluster of bones toward the heel. Note: This is stated here only to provide some context, nothing more. This particular scribe avoided most biology classes.

CLAYPOOL A RECEIVER AND THAT HE WILL STAY
Asked if he considered moving sophomore receiver Chase Claypool to defense, Kelly answered succinctly.

“We feel like we need his play on offense,” Kelly said. “He’ll continue to contribute on the special teams end of things, but we need his play on offense.”

KELLY ON KIZER’S NFL POTENTIAL
“I’ve had a number of conversations with GMs and coaches about [former Notre Dame quarterback] DeShone [Kizer], and my personal feeling is he has the biggest upside of all the quarterbacks. I don’t know that he’s prepared to come in and win a Super Bowl for you [this year]. Some may feel as though maybe one of the other quarterbacks are. I don’t know that firsthand. But I think, in time, he has the biggest upside of all the quarterbacks.

“I get it. It’s the NFL. Everybody’s under the same pressure of performing and needing somebody to come in right away, but I think he’s a guy that just needs some time. If he gets in the right situation, I think he’d be the guy to take.”

Kizer and eight other former Irish players will take part in a pro day tomorrow (Thursday) in front of some of those GMs and coaches.