The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Michigan State

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Upon second inspection, Notre Dame’s win over Michigan State doesn’t look much prettier. But the result is all that counts for Brian Kelly’s team, who need to quickly turn the page and prepare for the Oklahoma Sooners, coming to town with revenge on their mind.

At 3-1, the Irish sit at No. 22 in both major polls, well within range of their big picture goals. Yet any thoughts about the big picture should be tucked away for December, as this football team is in the middle of improving week to week, focusing only on doing enough to win on Saturday.

The Irish barely did that yesterday, failing to beat the Spartans in man-to-man coverage with a wide receiving corps that many expected would be good enough to do so. But after escaping a blocked punt on the game’s first offensive series, the Irish might played sloppy but made no major mistakes, doing enough on defense to hold the Spartans offense to just 13 points.

Let’s take a look at the good (a few things), the bad (a few more) and the whole lot of ugly that took place during Notre Dame’s 17-13 victory.

THE GOOD

Corey Robinson: It was a game-changing performance by the freshman wide receiver, who was the only receiver that could get on track against Michigan State’s physical coverage. At 6-foot-5, you’d expect Robinson’s ability to be predicated on going up and picking the ball, but he’s been a much better tactician than you’d expect for a young player learning the game.

“He’s a big target.  He tracks the ball so very well,” Kelly said of Robinson. “Look, if you can keep the ball in a position where he can play six‑six, he’s very difficult to defend.”

With the young receiver likely still swimming in the deep end, the Spartan’s man-to-man approach in some ways made it easier for Robinson to just take advantage of his physical traits and go get the football.

“It’s not conceptually a lot of different route adjustments,” Kelly said of the game plan against the Spartans. “You’re going to get press man, go up and get the football. In a large degree, that allows a guy like Corey to get some more playing time.”

After that kind of game, you’d like to think Robinson has earned some more playing time against the Sooners.

Stephon Tuitt: Playing the Spartans was just what the doctor ordered for Tuitt. Along with a sack, Tuitt had six total tackles, a highly productive day for the junior preseason All-American who has had a slow start to the season.

Sunday, Kelly talked a little bit about the offseason surgery, and slow-moving recovery that has maybe hampered Tuitt through the first quarter of the season.

“He couldn’t cut loose at times. In camp he dealt with a strain in the same area where he struggled at times really being able to cut loose,” Kelly disclosed. “He’s feeling great. He had a great week of practice.  His volume is up.  His reps are up.  You could see he’s really starting to come on.”

He’s coming on just in time for the Irish, who’ll need Tuitt at his best during this difficult stretch of the season and with Sheldon Day still working his way back from an ankle injury.

Carlo Calabrese & Jarrett Grace: Starting next to each other for the first time this season, both Calabrese and Grace had eight tackles, a nice contribution as the Irish played a nice game in the front seven.

Kelly talked about the solid contributions Calabrese has been making both on Saturday and throughout the season’s first month.

“He’s been playing solid football for us. He’s contributing on special teams. He’s having a good senior season for us,” Kelly said of Calabrese. “Really liked his attitude, his commitment. All the things you want from your senior. He played real physical football for us Saturday. Feel really good about the season he’s having up to this point.”

Grace started next to Calabrese and while he’s not Manti Te’o, he did show some athleticism that points to a bright future in the middle of the defense, taking over for Dan Fox after Kelly vowed to change things up.

Quick Hits: Heckuva first catch, Will Fuller. A really athletic play and great catch on the sidelines by the young freshman from Philly.

No Turnovers, No Loss. Notre Dame is now 12-0 under Brian Kelly when they don’t commit a turnover. That’s a stat that tells quite a story for a head coach now entering his fourth season in South Bend.

Getting back to the basics on Defense: Celebrating a performance against a Michigan State offense that might just be historically bad shouldn’t be anything to get too excited about. But this group did a nice job making forward progress, and Kelly said so today after looking at the tape.

“You’re talking about consistency up front. So on the defensive line we’re looking for that consistency,” Kelly said. “We’re looking at the linebacker position. You know, we’re replacing a guy like Te’o where you’re looking for a play‑maker at that position.  Then the physicality that we want.

“It wasn’t just at one position.  It was really at three levels:  the defensive line, linebacker, and defensive backs.  We saw on Saturday all three of those things show themselves.  We’ll now need to see that on a consistent basis.”

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THE BAD

Missed opportunities: Tommy Rees had some shots down field that he’s going to need to complete. In the first half, the Irish put the game on his shoulders and while it wasn’t just the quarterback that was a fraction off, that was more than enough for a defense like Michigan State’s.

Let’s just add Deep Passes to this here, because it’s hard to call Tommy Rees’ game a bad one when he didn’t throw a pick and did lead the Irish to a win. But it sure wasn’t one of his best.

The running game: After four games, it’s pretty clear that the Irish front five has some work to do. While Zack Martin and Chris Watt are playing solid football, two new starters in Nick Martin and Ronnie Stanley, and Christian Lombard playing at guard still look like a work in progress.

“I think in the run game, we need to continue to evolve,” Kelly said. “We’re getting so many different looks where at times we have to be able to identify different backers, who to work to. But by and large, we’re continuing to evolve offensively up front.  But with Ronnie Stanley, obviously Nick Martin as first‑time starters, those guys are making progress for us.  We’re getting strong play from the left side with Watt and Martin each and every day.  And Lombard continues to play consistent for us.”

Kelly is right to talk about some of the challenges this team has faced. But Purdue looked mighty ordinary giving up 41 points and 388 rush yards against Wisconsin. The revolving door at running back isn’t helping anything, but the Irish absolutely need to show more balance when Oklahoma comes to town.

Third Down and short: We hit on this pretty hard yesterday, but it’s worth repeating again. Notre Dame needs to do better on these conversions. The Irish tried rolling the pocket. Thanks to a missed block by Ben Koyack that didn’t work. They tried going long, that didn’t work. They tried running inside, that didn’t work.

It’ll be up to this staff to put together a few solutions in the coming days. But playing mistake free in critical situations would be a start.

Quick Hits: 

Come on, Jarron Jones. If you want to play on special teams, whiffing on a block like that just can’t happen.

While Irish fans are all for punt returns, they’re not for suicide missions. If TJ Jones wants to stay on the field in the return game, he’s going to need to make better decisions.

Bad swing and miss by Ben Councell. That’s a missed tackle that all 85,000 fans in the stands saw.

THE UGLY

The Victory: Brian Kelly said it’d be ugly. Just because you didn’t want to believe it is your problem. But for a turnover free performance, that was one of the uglier games I’ve had to watch multiple times that I can remember.

Too many flags: After rewatching the pass interference calls, I can see it both ways. The Spartans cornerbacks played some of the most physical football that you’ll ever see. But there was hand-fighting and tugging on just about every play, and Brian Kelly wasn’t just trolling when he said they could’ve had a few more.

What I can’t necessarily understand is some of the other judgment calls the refs made, including two personal foul calls on Notre Dame. It’s especially tough to miss a punch to the head and then call a 15-yarder on Notre Dame’s bench. Ditto on the personal foul on Cam McDaniel, who had his helmet ripped off and then only signaled a first down.

Still, it’s clear that the Spartans didn’t see the P.I. calls that way. Playing a physical brand of defense it made for a lot of judgment calls. Forgive Notre Dame fans if they aren’t exactly apologizing for a Big Ten officiating crew that finally saw things their way.

Creativity: Both Brian Kelly and Chuck Martin are smart guys that know more about football than everybody reading (or writing) this blog. But there’s got to be room in the playbook for some crossing routes, especially after they’ve killed the Irish defense in man coverage this year.

The vertical strikes down the field have long been part of Kelly’s offense. But picks and rubs work for both teams, and there’s got to be a few more ways to attack Cover Zero than just going long.

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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.”

RELATED READING:
4 Days Until Spring Practice: A Look at QBs (Brandon Wimbush)
Pace of Play: More Snaps Equal More Scoring Chances, Right?

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.

Te’o to New Orleans; Booker to Nebraska

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Former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o has signed a two-year contract with the New Orleans Saints, per reports.

Once recovered from a torn Achilles, Te’o will join a crowded Saints linebacker corps. The Saints signed A.J. Klein—formerly of the Carolina Panthers—to a three-year, $15 million contract earlier in March and return Craig Robertson, who finished 2016 with 115 tackles.

All three have experience at the middle linebacker position in a 4-3 defense, though Klein and Robertson are both capable of playing at the strong side position, as well.

Before his week three injury, Te’o had started 34 of 38 games for the San Diego Chargers and notched 221 career tackles. With the Saints, he rejoins linebackers coach Mike Nolan, who held the same position with the Chargers in 2015 when Te’o finished with a career-high 83 tackles.

BOOKER REJOINS DIACO
It appears former Notre Dame tight ends coach and special teams coordinator Scott Booker will join the Nebraska coaching staff. Two former Irish coaches—defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and safeties coach Bob Elliott—already have seats in the Lincoln coaching room, which is quickly becoming something of a Notre Dame West.

Booker will reportedly join the Cornhuskers staff as a special teams analyst. He served as Notre Dame’s special teams coordinator from 2012 to 2016 before this past offseason’s extensive staff changes.

PRO DAY THURSDAY
A reminder: Notre Dame will hold its Pro Day this Thursday. Nine players will partake, obviously highlighted by quarterback DeShone Kizer.

The others: long snapper Scott Daly, running back Tarean Folson, tight end Chase Hounshell, defensive linemen Jarron Jones and Isaac Rochell, cornerback Cole Luke, safety Avery Sebastian and linebacker James Onwualu.

Kizer hopes to prove himself worthy of a first-round draft pick, while Jones and Rochell may be in the mix for a second-day pick, meaning in the second or third rounds.

As it is draft season, this discussion of why mock drafts exist even though most prognosticators cannot stand them is worth the few minutes needed to read.

MARCH MADNESS UPDATE
The majority of the “Inside the Irish” bracket pool’s leaders escaped the weekend’s chaos, though frontrunner andy44teg will not hold onto that top spot for long after his titlist pick, Duke, exited late the tournament late Sunday.

That will leave some character named Dennis and his North Carolina prediction as the presumptive favorite to win, well, to win absolutely nothing.

Five of the top 10 expect North Carolina to win the championship.