Tulsa  v Oklahoma

And in that corner… The Oklahoma Sooners

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Oklahoma heads to South Bend for the first time since Bob Stoops’ debut season in Norman this weekend. A year after losing to Notre Dame in the comfy confines of Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium, the Sooners head to South Bend hoping to return the favor, with a prestige non-conference victory likely bringing some luster back to a program that’s won a lot of football games, but been outside the BCS for the past three years.

With a talented roster that’s yet to leave home or play a team with a winning record, this is the first big test for Stoops’ Sooners. And to get us prepared for the match-up, Oklahoman beat writer Jason Kersey took some time to answer a few questions.

Enjoy.

1) Walk us through what is going on at quarterback. From the outside, it seemed like a shocking decision to name Trevor Knight the starting quarterback out of camp, with Blake Bell all but assumed to be the heir apparent to Landry Jones. 

After some uneven appearances by Knight, the job looks to be Bell’s now, especially after passing for 400+ against Tulsa . Is it? After only knowing about the Belldozer, what’s in store for the Irish defense this weekend?

It’s safe to say that Trevor Knight’s rise in the quarterback derby was a pretty big surprise to everyone. Knight earned the job by displaying impressive flashes of athleticism throughout fall camp and the scrimmages, but when it came to game time, it was often apparent that he might not have been quite ready for this stage. He struggled mightily in the passing game, which is obviously really important in Oklahoma ’s offense.

Knight’s knee was injured late in the first half of the Sooners’ second game against West Virginia, but he still played the third quarter and threw two interceptions. So at the beginning of the fourth, they made the switch to Bell .

To answer your question, yes, the job is Bell’s, and unless he plays really, really bad against Notre Dame or gets hurt, there’s no reason to believe it won’t stay Bell’s for the foreseeable future.

I think there’s probably still a place for the Belldozer package in OU’s offense, but I would be shocked if it’s used much. Now that he’s the guy, they don’t want him taking those big hits.

2) The Notre Dame defense has been a different unit than the group that powered the Irish to the BCS National Championship game. Particularly, the secondary has struggled early this season. Is this an area the Sooners can exploit? On paper, this group looks really deep. Jalen Saunders is back after a big game against the Irish last season. Who are the dangerous skill players that the Irish will have to account for?

Judging from the Sooners’ most recent game, I would expect they’ll try to take advantage of a relatively weak Notre Dame secondary with the passing game. But I really expect them to work hard at establishing the run. OU has really been “persistent” — as Bob Stoops said Monday — in the run game, and it’s worked pretty well so far.

The Sooners rushed for 300 yards in their first two games, and they’ve got a strong group of backs that are capable of carrying the load, and the offensive line has beefed up and is playing much more physical than it did a year ago, when Notre Dame held OU to 15 rushing yards.

The skill guys Notre Dame will need to account for are Jalen Saunders, Sterling Shepard, Brennan Clay and Roy Finch.

3) Mike Stoops has installed a 3-3-5 defense. You wrote earlier this week about a leadership void last season. There were worries about the defensive front. What do we know about this group through three games?

The defensive line was a major area of concern entering the season, but that unit has really played well through three games. But OU obviously hasn’t faced a team like Notre Dame yet, so this will be a tremendous challenge for the defensive line.

The linebackers were an area of concern this year because of how badly they were used a year ago. Late in the season against high-powered spread attacks of Baylor, West Virginia , Oklahoma State and Texas A&M, Mike Stoops experimented with linebacker-less schemes to disastrous results.

But this year, the linebackers are a major part of the defense. Corey Nelson and Frank Shannon are among the defense’s best playmakers, which really is striking considering how they were used in 2012.

Nelson talked about a lack of leadership on defense last year, which I thought was a pretty interesting — and somewhat startling — confession. That doesn’t seem to be a problem so far in 2013.

4) Bob Stoops just got a new two-year extension, paying him a tremendous sum of money. After a dominant start in Norman, it’s been three years since the Sooners last BCS appearance. Stoops’ reputation seems to have taken a bit of a hit these past few years, especially since he started losing some of the big games he built his reputation on winning. Is he a victim of his own success? How do Sooner fans feel about their head coach, who will likely become the program’s all-time winningest coach this season?

I’d say Oklahoma fans, on the whole, are still appreciative of the job Bob Stoops has done with the Sooners. Those who aren’t probably need a reminder of the shape OU was in when Stoops arrived.

But it’s also fair to say that many fans are frustrated by some of the big-game struggles of the past few seasons. I think Bob, though, is also pretty frustrated by it, which is why he’s fired four assistant coaches in the past two seasons.

5) Last year, most were shocked when Notre Dame came into Norman and pulled away for a convincing win. Is this a weekend that’s been circled on the calendars for quite some time? Last weekend, we heard from Mark Dantonio how the game was important, but it was a non-conference game. How are the Sooners treating this Saturday?

Among fans and maybe some players, yes, I think the game has probably been circled for a while. Bob Stoops gave a similar answer when asked about the game’s importance, saying that it’s not a conference game and the season won’t be made or broken by Saturday’s result. I don’t necessarily buy that, though. I think this game is critical for a program that many have started to label as overrated. Oklahoma needs this win badly to boost its national reputation.

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To read more from Jason, check out his work at The Oklahoman and follow him on Twitter @JasonKersey.

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Karlos Williams #9 of the Florida State Seminoles scores the touchdown that would win the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their game at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.

With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.

The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.

Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.

Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.

If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.

Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order: (more…)

Four-star WR Micah Jones chooses Irish; Rees may need to wait; Other late-week reading

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rivals.com
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A day may come when Notre Dame suffers a recruiting disappointment in the 2018 cycle, when a high school star spurns the Irish coaching staff for a foe, but it is not this day.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township High School; Gurnee, Ill.) committed to Notre Dame on Friday, joining a class of now 10 recruits, including four who committed just this week.

Jones chose the Irish over offers from the likes of Iowa, Michigan State and Ole Miss, among others.

He is the first receiver among the 10 commitments and the seventh considered a four-star prospect. At 6-foot-5, 196 pounds, Jones should present a large target for whomever the Notre Dame quarterback is in the fall of 2018, most likely then-senior Brandon Wimbush.

Tom, Tommy or Thomas; Assistant Coach or Graduate Assistant?
Thomas Rees may need to wait a season before officially being a coach at Notre Dame. The legislation to approve a 10th assistant coach was expected to be voted on, passed and effective in April. A newly-added amendment may push the effective date to following the 2017 season. The amendment will be voted on immediately before the legislation itself is.

The delay makes sense. Most coaching hirings and firings occur in December and January. In theory, creating a one-timing hiring frenzy following spring football could leave many programs in the lurch. In practice, however, this is not anticipated.

“The majority of the FBS guys that I’ve talked with currently believe that 10th coach is going to come from within their own organization,” Todd Berry told the Associated Press. Berry is the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association and former coach at Army and Louisiana-Monroe. “Quality control, graduate assistants, analysts, or they’re planning on hiring somebody that’s out of work.”

A majority is not a unanimity, though, and that carousel will innately work to the disadvantage of the Group of 5 schools.

As for Rees, a graduate assistant can still work extensively with players. The most-pertinent difference between a graduate assistant and an assistant coach is the former cannot recruit. Given Notre Dame’s recent success on the recruiting trail—and the early commitment of class of 2018 consensus four-star quarterback Phil Jurkovec (Pine-Richland H.S.; Gibsonia, Pa.)—Rees may not be an absolute necessity in that regard this cycle.

A Kizer Appraisal
Former NFL scout Greg Gabriel took a look at former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer this week, largely paying the draft prospect compliments.

In calling Kizer “the most talented quarterback in this draft class,” Gabriel set a high ceiling for Kizer’s spring. Part of Gabriel’s positive assessment comes from acknowledging Kizer’s responsibilities as the Irish signal-caller.

“The spread offense that Kizer played in at Notre Dame is more sophisticated than many of the spread offenses we see elsewhere at the collegiate level. The Notre Dame offense is a whole-field read scheme in which the quarterback has to go through a progression that encompasses both sides of the field. He also can change the play and/or protections at the line of scrimmage. Given all that, Kizer was asked to do more than many spread quarterbacks are asked to do.”

Gabriel also reflected on the dynamic differences for Kizer in 2015 and 2016 and what may have elicited some of his seeming stagnation.

“There was the unnecessary quarterback controversy at Notre Dame, and the offensive line wasn’t as experienced or as talented and the receivers were mostly first-year starters.”

As much as Gabriel raves about Kizer, he would be the first to tell you anything beyond individual player evaluation is a waste of air this early in the draft process. Mock drafts may be fun, but they are not much beyond that.

Take the fates of Tony Romo and Jimmy Garoppolo, for example. Few, if any, in the NFL expect them to dress for the Cowboys and Patriots, respectively, again. Where they end up could directly impact Kizer’s draft placement.

Jaylon Smith May Be Back to Form
Former Notre Dame and current Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith posted yet another encouraging video to Twitter. This one shows Smith really might be game-ready right now and, if not, almost certainly will be by the fall. Should there be any difficulty with the embedded video below, here is a link straight to it.

OL Mabry makes third commitment this week; WR Jones may follow Friday

mabry
rivals.com
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Two weeks ago, Irish coach Brian Kelly gave a non-answer of an answer to a question about a likely early signing period this coming December. Avoiding specifics, he indicated he thinks the effects of such a change will be seen on a case-by-case basis entirely dependent on the recruits.

“Some will, some won’t,” Kelly said. “…Each kid is going to have to react to it based upon also how their school is going to be dealing with it. Some will come off the board at the time.

“We’re expecting some to sign early, but I think our mindset is we’re going into it business as usual. We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

After this week, Notre Dame is going to have more year-long fights than anticipated. Consensus three-star offensive lineman recruit Cole Mabry (Brentwood High School; Brentwood, Tenn.) became the third prospect to offer a verbal commitment to the Irish coaching staff in less than 36 hours with his Wednesday decision. Mabry received the offer over the weekend, but waited a few days before making his decision public, lest emotions be dictating his thought process.

At 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds, Mabry will have time to add muscle to his frame, with four or five offensive tackles greeting him on the Notre Dame roster in the summer of 2018. That ability to mold his style and growth may have played a part in the Irish interest.

“They love my height and athleticism and how I play,” Mabry told rivals.com. “We got to break down film and go through things that they do that pair up with how I play now. They think I’ll be a great fit in their offense.”

Mabry is the ninth Notre Dame commitment in the class of 2018, though the first offensive lineman.

Judging by new Notre Dame director of football performance Matt Balis’s agenda for the Irish roster’s Valentine’s Day morning, Mabry will have much to look forward to in terms of strength and conditioning.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township H.S.; Gurnee, Ill.) is scheduled to announce his verbal commitment this Friday at 4 p.m. ET. Along with Notre Dame, Jones is considering Iowa, Michigan State, Nebraska, Ole Miss, Illinois and Northwestern. He would be the first receiver in Notre Dame’s 2018 class. Naturally, whomever Jones commits to, the recruiting fight will last until at least December, and perhaps all the way to February.

Notre Dame adds two top defensive back commits; Elliott officially a ‘Husker

allen
rivals.com
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It’s early. It’s really, really early. Not in the day, though this post is scheduled for an a.m. hour. No, it is early in the 2018 recruiting cycle. Any piece of news, each commitment, everything should be taken with two grains of salt.

Nonetheless, Notre Dame—and more specifically, new Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko and defensive backs coach Todd Lyght—enjoyed Tuesday’s recruiting news when two consensus four-star coverage men committed to the Irish.

Safety Derrik Allen (Lassiter High School; Marietta, Ga.) and cornerback Kalon Gervin (Cass Tech; Detroit, Mich.) joined a class of now eight commitments, six of which play on the defensive side of the ball.

Gervin, the No. 11 cornerback in the class according to rivals.com, waited mere days after attending Notre Dame’s Junior Day over the weekend. Irish coach Brian Kelly and staff’s failure to land a recruit at Gervin’s position in the 2017 haul actually helped reel in the recruit with offers from Florida, LSU, Michigan and dozens others.

“The opportunity to play right away, they didn’t sign a cornerback this last class,” Gervin told Blue & Gold Illustrated helped sway him. “Also, the education is second-to-none. It speaks for itself.”

Allen, pictured at top, has leaned toward Notre Dame for months. The No. 3 safety in the country per Rivals, he chose the Irish over the likes of Alabama, Clemson and Florida State.

Elliott officially to Nebraska

The two highly-touted defensive backs will not have the chance to learn under the tutelage of Bob Elliott. Nebraska officially announced the hiring of the former Notre Dame safeties (2012-13) and linebackers (2014) coach. Elliott spent the last two seasons serving as a special assistant to Kelly, focusing largely on defending the triple-option attacks of Army, Navy and Georgia Tech.

Elliott rejoins former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco in Lincoln. Diaco was hired as the Cornhuskers’ defensive coordinator in January.

The Lincoln Journal Star’s Brian Cristopherson reports Elliott will make a nice wage in eastern Nebraska.