Pregame Six pack: Onward to Oklahoma

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One-third of the way into the season and the Fighting Irish still haven’t played a complete football game. After sliding by Temple, Purdue and Michigan State without their best efforts, there’s no room for mediocrity to creep into either side of the football’s efforts. To beat the 14th ranked Oklahoma Sooners, Notre Dame will need to play four quarters of very good football.

“We have to do a better job of being consistent through four quarters. We haven’t really put together those four quarters of really good football,” head coach Brian Kelly said on Thursday. “We’re going to need to do that against Oklahoma.”

Coming to town is a Sooners team that just established its offensive rhythm with quarterback Blake Bell and then took a week off. The early bye week felt a little bit like a scheduling snafu, but it did allow standout cornerback Aaron Colvin to get healthy.

What type of team the Sooners actually are is still to be determined. After beating up Louisiana-Monroe, a disappointing West Virginia team and Tulsa, Oklahoma heads to Notre Dame looking to find out if it’s got the type of team that can get Bob Stoops back to the BCS.

After downplaying the importance of this game for the past two weeks, Oklahoma offensive coordinator Jay Norvell let the cat out of the bag. “This is a special game,” Norvell told the Oklahoman. “We’d be lying if we say it’s just another game. It’s not. You don’t get to play in South Bend very often.”

Let’s walk through this week’s Pregame Six Pack. Here are six tidbits, leftovers, fun facts, and miscellaneous musings before No. 22 Notre Dame and No. 14 Oklahoma take the field.

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Getting the Sooners offense “off schedule” could be key on Saturday. 

With an impressive depth chart at both running back and receiver, and a quarterback that’s capable of doing damage both on the ground or through the air, the Sooners will be Notre Dame’s most difficult challenge of the season from a personnel perspective.

But if Bob Diaco’s defense wants to follow a script that already led them to victory once, they’ll try their best to keep Oklahoma’s offense “off schedule,” tripping up the Sooners on first down and forcing them into difficult down and distances.

As we talked about already this week, first down is a key play for just about every team. Last year, the Irish defense made some big plays, limiting the Sooners offense and also getting them off the field by only allowing 4-of-14 third down conversions.

But with a balanced Sooner attack and the No. 4 ranked offense in terms of efficiency (according to the Fremeau Efficiency Index), the Sooners know they need to do a better job of keeping themselves in favorable down and distances.

“We’ve got to do a good job of making efficient plays on first down, whether it’s running or throwing,” Norvell said. “And in this game, it’s important that you catch and you get upfield north and south and it’s not fancy. It’s just get upfield, get the yards you need, bang off pads and move on to the next play.”

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Sheldon Day might not be the only one battling an injury.

The good news for the Irish is that defensive end Sheldon Day is back and healthy, having a solid week of practice and pronounced ready to go by Kelly on Thursday, an impressive turn time by an important cog in the Irish’s front seven.

But in a rare look behind the curtain this week, courtesy of UND.com’s Strong and True video series, we saw some of the work that went into getting Cam McDaniel ready to play after fracturing his hand midweek in practice, and linebacker Dan Fox and offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley battle through injuries.

Kelly talked about the job Stanley did to get back into the game after a painful hip injury. But news that Fox has been battling nagging injuries since fall camp might shed new light on why the fifth-year senior has been off to a particularly slow start.

It’s difficult to tell what exactly is bothering Fox, but the senior linebacker will be counted on to play some important minutes against the Sooners. He’s got the athleticism to be an asset in pass coverage underneath, where the linebackers are still a work in progress. Last year, Fox chipped in five tackles against Oklahoma, and had one very key pass break-up, which Manti Te’o ended up intercepting on a huge momentum changer.

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Can Notre Dame contain the slot receiver? 

Last week, Irish fans watched Michigan State’s Macgarrett Kings backpedal into the end zone for an easy touchdown, beating safety Elijah Shumate so badly in man coverage that he could coast into the end zone.

Kings’s touchdown against the Irish was hardly the only damage done by a diminutive slot receiver. All season, the Irish have struggled to slow down the inside receiving threats, taking advantage of schematic changes and beating man coverage from the start of the season.

Taking a run through the four box scores the Irish have produced this year starts to show some trends emerging. And waterbug sized, lightning quick receivers have really hurt Notre Dame’s defense.

Against Temple, 5-foot-9, 175-pound Ryan Alderman had his best game of the season, leading the Owls with five catches for 65 yards against the Irish. Who can forget what Jeremy Gallon did to the Irish? The 5-8, 187-pound Wolverine had eight catches for 184 yards and three touchdowns to torch the Irish secondary. Against Purdue, it was 5-foot-9 Akeem Hunt would did most of the receiving damage, making nine catches for 72 yards and a touchdown. And Kings supplied one of the lone bright spots for the Spartans offense last Saturday.

All of that leads us to the Sooners’ Jalen Saunders. Last year, Saunders racked up an astonishing 15 catches for 181 yards against Notre Dame. After wreaking havoc underneath the Irish defense, Saunders might do something far deadlier if he’s given the chance against man coverage on Saturday.

Kelly and Bob Diaco have experimented with the Irish’s secondary personnel, shifting Cole Luke, Elijah Shumate, Devin Butler and Lo Wood in and out, trying to find the right cover man. But the Irish might be better off not trying to run with Oklahoma’s skill players, instead just throwing an umbrella over everything, using zone responsibilities to keep the play in front of them.

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Can the Irish offense get out of the gate quickly?

Perhaps Irish fans were spoiled early. After starting the season opener with two picture perfect scoring drives, it’s been rough sledding for the Irish to start games. Against Michigan, it was two three-and-outs, two punts and two scores for the Wolverines. Against Purdue it was worse, the Boilermakers marched down the field for a touchdown on the game’s first drive before shutting down the Irish’s first four drives. It was no better against Michigan State, with the Spartans getting a punt block on the first series of the game before watching the Irish offense sputter twice more.

With a crowd ready to carry the Irish if needed, the offense and defense will need to do their jobs, putting an early Irish score on the board and getting a few defensive stops while trying to get into rhythm with the speed of the Sooners.

“We’ve always talked about starting fast. It really hasn’t been part of this group yet consistently,” Kelly said. “But what they do is they finish really well, so I’d stick around if I were you, because they know how to finish games.”

Finishing games isn’t possible if you dig yourself too big of a whole. We witnessed that in Ann Arbor. It won’t be possible against Oklahoma if the Irish aren’t ready out of the gates.

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Will the Irish finally do their best to establish the run? 

Four games into the season and the Irish running game is still a mess. It doesn’t appear to be the offensive line’s fault, with the unit blending nicely, though succeeding mostly in pass protection. But against an Oklahoma  3-3-5 defense, can the Irish simply decide to run the ball and dictate tempo, or will they try and throw their way around bad defensive looks?

While Irish fans have screamed about trying to establish some offensive balance, the Irish head coach understands its importance, now it’s just a matter of executing better.

“I think from an offensive standpoint, we’ve got enough balance,” Kelly said. “We haven’t run the ball effectively enough throughout four quarters. There are times where we’ve been effective — we won some football games late, Purdue in particular — where we’ve been able to run the ball to finish out a game. But we’re not where we want to be in terms of running the ball effectively throughout the game, which is going to allow us to have a run-pass balance.”

Notre Dame’s running back depth chart features five backs — George Atkinson, Amir Carlisle, Cam McDaniel, Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant all listed as co-starters. The Irish haven’t been able to establish more than one of them in a game yet this year. But it might make some sense to give it a try if it keeps the Sooners off the field.

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 For two of college football’s most storied programs, this rivalry is awfully one-sided. 

There is no more winning program in the modern era than Oklahoma. The Sooners have the most victories and best winning percentage of any program since World War II. But as two of college football’s winningest programs get set to do battle, it’s a good time to remind you that Notre Dame has just historically owned this match-up.

Notre Dame holds a 9-1 record in this series, beating the Sooners in 1952, 1953, 1957, 1961, 1962, 1966, 1968, 1999, and 2012. Outside of the Sooners’ lone victory over the Irish, a 40-0 thrashing in 1956, the Irish have won seven straight in a span of seven decades, with the Irish beating a Sooners team ranked in the top 10 seven times in the ten meetings.

Notre Dame has dashed more Sooner dreams than just about any program, including Bob Stoops last visit to South Bend, when Jarious Jackson threw for two touchdowns and ran for another as the Irish stormed back to score 20 unanswered points to win 34-30 over No. 23 Oklahoma.

That game became a defining moment in the Stoops era at Oklahoma, helping to set the tone for the Sooners return to the top of college football.

“More than anything, I remember us leading in the third quarter by 16 and looking around and seeing too many happy faces,” Stoops said on Monday. “I felt there were too many guys who thought that they had this won, really realizing that we had not really learned how to truly compete yet for four quarters.

“I remember telling the coaches in meetings the next day, ‘Listen, they hadn’t been ahead of anybody like that on the road before. They don’t know how to handle it and we’ve got to teach them how to handle it – teach them how to finish games and to win a game like that.’

“Those guys hadn’t been in that situation.”

It didn’t take long for Stoops’ team to learn from the disappointing loss. The Sooners won the national championship the next year.

***

For more on Notre Dame’s match-up with Oklahoma, check out these stories from IrishIllustrated.com

From IrishIllustrated.com

Irish look for Norman momentum
by Douglas Farmer

A year ago, a win over Oklahoma provided the Irish with much-needed momentum. They hope it can do it again Saturday in Notre Dame Stadium.

From IrishIllustrated.com

Grace could have captain potential
by Pete Sampson

Barely a week after his first start, linebacker Jarrett Grace has already been mentioned as a potential future captain. On a defense looking for leadership, that could be a major boost.

Friday at 4: 40-yard dashes and absurdity

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Of all the absurd things the football world often obsesses over, the 40-yard dash may be the most useless of them. Yes, it even beats out assigning star rankings to 16- and 17-year-olds, though not by much.

For now, let’s look past the rest of the inane Draft intricacies, such as former Irish defensive lineman Jarron Jones feeling pressured to increase his vertical jump by four inches. (He did, jumping to 24.5 inches in Notre Dame’s Pro Day on Thursday.) This scribe does not have an excess of time to spend discussing Jones’s outlandish wingspan if this piece is to post by its intended, though unnecessary, 4 p.m. ET deadline.

The 40-yard dash … No football play begins from a sprinter’s stance, yet it may be the factor most crucial to a low 40 time. Former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer posted a time of 4.83 seconds in the NFL Combine earlier this month. For context’s sake, Kizer ran .07 seconds slower than Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did as a draft prospect in the 2004 combine.

Roethlisberger has had himself an excellent career, and his ability to shrug off 300-pound defensive linemen is a testament to his athleticism. Put Kizer and Roethlisberger in the open field together, though, and Kizer would presumably have outrun Roethlisberger at any point of the two-time Super Bowl champion’s career. In Indianapolis, however, Roethlisberger did a better job of getting his hips through his first couple strides of the heralded 40-yard dash.

Here, watch Kizer train for the 40, the most-hyped measurement of his combine.

“The ultimate goal is to have yourself in the best position to have your body weight back in those legs so you can create enough torque to get out as quickly as possible,” Kizer said. “A guy who is as long as I am, with long limbs that I have, I’ve got to make sure that my weight distribution is in the best position for me to get out and catch up to some of those quicker guys who are a little lower to the ground.”

What part of that sounds applicable to football? The 40 turns Kizer’s size (6-foot-4, 237 pounds) into a negative. He worries about the angle of his knees. After his throwing session at the Thursday Pro Day, Kizer summed up the draft evaluation process even more succinctly.

“This process is very different in the sense that the way you look productive in the combine and in a pro day is very different from what productivity actually looks like out on the field.”

Well put.

More pertinent to the actual game of football, Kizer’s completion percentage in the staged workout could have been higher.

Then again, he was throwing to the likes of former Irish receivers Corey Robinson and Amir Carlisle and former running back Jonas Gray. Reportedly, the only contact Gray and Kizer had before the session was Kizer emailing the former New England Patriot the planned series of routes.

The NFL Draft, where Gmail becomes a necessity.

Let’s do away with the 40. If we insist on keeping it, let’s do it twice, once from a standing start and once from a running start. Those would simulate actual football movements: A receiver getting off the line, and a ballcarrier breaking away and trying to outrun the defense.

Asking DeShone Kizer to mimic Usain Bolt is an exercise in futility, idiocy, absurdity.

Cue end of rant.

Why cite the Roethlisberger time? Many, including Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke, have readily compared Kizer to Roethlisberger this spring.

The most notable line of that scouting report (scroll down to No. 32) may be its final one, echoing Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s sentiments from earlier this week.

“The mystery is whether he can regain his assertiveness,” Burke writes. “If so, he could turn out to be the 2017 class’s best QB. The team that drafts him will be taking a leap of faith.”

A leap. Not a dash.

For more Notre Dame Pro Day results, click here.

And with that, this just may make the 4 p.m. posting. You know what to do.

 

Tranquill continues work with safeties … for now

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Drue Tranquill will see time at the oft-spoken of rover position, just not yet. For now, Notre Dame needs the senior at safety to provide leadership and communication while the rest of his position group gets up to speed.

“We really have to figure out what the coordination is going to be at the safety position,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “How much does Drue play down at rover? How much does he play back [at safety]?”

Only sophomore Devin Studstill returns any starts to the safety position aside from Tranquill’s career total of 18. Studstill started nine games last season.

That void has kept Tranquill working mostly with the defensive backs in the spring’s first few practices, rather than joining the likes of junior Asmar Bilal in the rover grouping.

“We didn’t want to pull our most veteran player out of the back end of our defense with Drue,” Kelly said. “I think it was more about the hesitancy of losing a great communicator in the back end than about the teaching.”

The time will come, however, for Tranquill to move up. Juniors Nick Coleman and Ashton White have moved to safety from the corner position. With more reps, they will not need to rely on Tranquill’s guidance as much. The same goes for, at least in theory, sophomore Jalen Elliott.

“It’s not really a heavy load of teaching for those guys,” Kelly said. “They’re picking it up quite well. We really want to get a chance to see a lot of guys back there.”

Kelly seemed particularly bullish on Coleman’s prospects at the position, provided he embrace the needed physicality. At 6-foot, 187 pounds, Coleman’s build may have been more suited on the outside, but Notre Dame’s plethora of promising cornerbacks provided an impetus to test Coleman at safety.

“The big thing will be Nick’s continuous development in tackling,” Kelly said. “You have to tackle back there. His ball skills are really good. We’ve seen that he’s able to play the ball. He has athleticism.

“We just want to continue to build on his tackling skills. If we go through the spring and say, ‘Well, he’s tackling really well,’ we’ll feel pretty good about the move.”

At that point, Tranquill will likely join Bilal at the hybrid position, which is something of a trademark to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Tranquill will be able to do what he does best: Pursue the ball.

“We all know what his strengths are,” Kelly said. “He’s a solid tackler. I don’t think there’s any safety in college football that wants to get matched up one-on-one with a skilled slot receiver. This would minimize that, when you play him close to the ball as a rover.

“And I think he’s pretty quick off the edge. I think we put him in a really good position in maximizing his skill set.”

Until then, Bilal will continue to be the frontrunner at rover, especially with the first four Irish opponents of 2017 presenting run-heavy offenses.

KELLY ON NICK WATKINS
Kelly was also asked about senior cornerback Nick Watkins, his fit into Elko’s defense and his return from injury.

“He’s very coachable, wants to learn, he’s pretty long,” Kelly said. “What I think Mike [Elko] does really well—and this is what I liked about my interactions with him—is, we all have strengths and weaknesses. He has a great eye of saying let’s take Nick’s strengths and let’s put him in a position where we can really utilize his strengths and put him in a position where maybe we’re not a right and left corner team, maybe we’re a short field/wide field team. Let’s apply him in that fashion.

“Nick’s long. He’s a little bit of a physical player. Let’s go to those strengths. He’s shown some of those attributes early on.”

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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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