Five things we learned: Oklahoma 35, Notre Dame 21

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Notre Dame’s first four plays could’ve served as the CliffsNotes for their 35-21 loss to Oklahoma. On third and long from the Irish 28, Oklahoma linebacker Eric Striker came unblocked off the backside, hitting Tommy Rees just as he was trying to throw. The ball ended up in linebacker Corey Nelson’s arms, and just 49 seconds into the game, the Sooners were up a touchdown.

Notre Dame’s next play from scrimmage was no better. Looking for TJ Jones on a slant route, Rees missed Jones but hit Sooner cornerback Aaron Colvin, who batted the ball into the air, where it was snatched up by linebacker Frank Shannon. Shannon scampered down the field, giving the Sooners the ball inside Notre Dame’s 35-yard line. Four plays later, Oklahoma was up 14 points

“If you’re going to turn the football over and give Oklahoma a 14 point lead, you’re in trouble,” Brian Kelly said after the game.

Even as the Irish tried their best to dig out of it, Bob Stoops’ Sooners seemed to have an answer for every counter the Irish seemed to mount. Riding an opportunistic defense that forced three turnovers — all of which were turned into touchdowns — and a mistake-free performance by Blake Bell, Oklahoma earned a big non-conference victory to close out September.

Let’s find out what else we learned in Oklahoma’s 35-21 victory over Notre Dame.

***

Notre Dame’s slow start practically doomed them from the beginning.

After a clockwork opening quarter against Temple, the first quarter has been a disaster for Notre Dame. We’ve talked about it before, but after three-and-outs against Michigan, and even uglier starts against Purdue and Michigan State, the Irish found the only way to one-up that futility with two interceptions in their first four offensive plays.

When asked about the slow starts, Kelly was candid about his frustrations.

“If I knew what that was, I would not be standing here right now. I’d be doing something else,” Kelly said. “This is my 23rd year as a head coach. You never expect to not pick up the simplest of stunts. You never expect not to run the right route when you’re supposed to. But they happen.

“That’s why we have ulcers in this business. So you go back and you’ve got to coach. You’ve got to do a better job communicating. Ultimately it falls on me. We lost today.”

Credit should go to the Irish for fighting back, making a game of it and pulling within a touchdown both late in the second quarter and again in the second half. But Kelly’s prediction that Notre Dame needed to play their best game to win proved true, and now it’s up to this staff to find some answers for the early woes.

***

***

Just as he was starting to look like the odd man out, George Atkinson took back the No. 1 running back job. 

Late in the first quarter, freshman Tarean Folston burst around the left side of the offensive line, sprinting for a 36-yard gain before being tackled inside the Oklahoma five-yard line. The freshman looked like he was racing to the top of a jumbled depth chart, with five backs all jockeying for position behind him.

And then George Atkinson reminded everybody why Kelly and the coaching staff can’t give up on him. Atkinson played his finest game in an Irish uniform, gaining 148 yards on just 14 carries, with his 80-yard touchdown run a reminder that the Irish have one of college football’s most explosive players in their backfield.

All of that doesn’t matter if Atkinson doesn’t run like it. And after four games, the 220-pound back was given a stark appraisal of his work by Kelly this week.

“We didn’t think George ran physical enough. We told him that,” Kelly said. “We told him if he wanted to be the starter, he can’t get tackled by his ankles. He’s 220 pounds and I thought he ran the ball today like I expect George Atkinson to run the ball. He’s got to do that every week.”

Entering the game ranked 100th in rushing, the Irish did their job running the football. The Irish gained 220 yards on the ground, netting a hearty 7.6 yards per carry with Folston also looking very good on his two touches.

With it painfully obvious that the Irish are simply unable to beat a quality opponent if they’re forced to be a one-dimensional passing team, the ground game’s revival might be the one positive that the Irish can take out of Saturday’s lost offensively.

***

This offense can’t succeed if it’s hoisted solely on the shoulders of Tommy Rees. 

It was an ugly step backwards for Tommy Rees, who finished the day 9 of 24 for just 104 yards, with two touchdowns and three interceptions. Dissecting the turnovers will help shine a kinder light on Rees — the backside blitz snafu wasn’t his fault, nor was an incorrect pattern by DaVaris Daniels on his third — but a combined 39 percent passing over the last two Saturdays is a pretty glaring datapoint that Rees can’t be the man that serves as the engine of the Irish offense.

“We don’t want to put Tommy in a position where he’s got to carry the whole load,” Kelly said after the game. “We thought in the second half we were able to get into a position where we ran the football, play action pass, some quick throws. That’s how we want to play.”

That was evident in the game plan, which used two tight end formations and Andrew Hendrix in short yardage and zone read looks, his first playing time of any importance since the Champs Sports Bowl at the end of the ’11 season. Hendrix didn’t necessarily look comfortable out there, but he did add another wrinkle to the Irish offense, especially in short yardage situations.

After being questioned about his offense’s predictability, Kelly’s curveball at quarterback could be a sign of things to come.

“We’re just trying to diversify the offense a little bit, trying to add some more looks,” Kelly said on Hendrix’s inclusion in the game plan.  “He’s got some work to do.  We’ve got to continue to work with him, but I think it gives us some things that the defense has to defend as well with him in there.”

Rees’s performance awoke a mob of critics that hardly ever go far from the scene. But with Notre Dame’s starting quarterback sitting in San Diego because of an academic impropriety, the vitriol for a senior leader that’s done nothing but his best for the Irish football program these past four seasons is one of the ugliest parts of Notre Dame Nation.

“We don’t want to put this whole thing on Tommy,” Kelly said. “It’s everybody. We always go back to the quarterback around here.  But this is about eleven players.”

***

Even a great defensive effort can be undone quickly by inconsistency. 

There was plenty of good mixed in by Bob Diaco’s defense, who did a nice job containing the Sooners’ passing game for most of the afternoon. But on a critical third down and short when the Irish needed a stop, Blake Bell hit an easy slant route to Sterling Shepard that all but sealed the football game for Oklahoma.

“I thought we gave up one play that we’d love to have back,” Kelly said after the game. “You know, the quick slant where we let Shepard inside. Just something that shouldn’t happen. Other than that, we were doing a really good job defensively against a very good offense.”

Oklahoma’s offense was able to run the football against the Irish, running for 212 yards and five yards a carry after being held to less than a yard a carry last season. And after establishing the ground game with the Sooners’ stable of backs and both Bell and backup quarterback Trevor Knight, that success opened up a back-breaking pass play that came out of a short-yardage running formation.

“When you can run the football in those sets, people have to start trickling down from the secondary to stop the run,” Stoops explained. “Generally, you can find some space to make big plays.  Fortunately, we caught one.”

With Sheldon Day still hampered by an ankle injury, the Irish got a nice effort by Kona Schwenke. Carlo Calabrese led the Irish with ten tackles. Freshman Jaylon Smith made seven stops and both Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt were active as well.

But with the chips in the middle and the defense needing a critical stop after clawing back to within a touchdown, they couldn’t deliver. In a scene too reminiscent of the fourth quarter in Ann Arbor, when it was time for one team to make a play, the opponent made it.

***

Fans and media members can focus on the implications of the loss. Brian Kelly and the Irish are going to get back to work. 

You can understand if Brian Kelly wasn’t too interested in discussing the Irish’s BCS hopes with the calendar still in September. That’s the type of big picture thinking that’s so destructive to a team that’s already dropped two games.

“I don’t really care about that stuff,” Kelly said after the game. “That’s for you guys to talk about.  I’ve got a football team here we’re trying to develop and work with.”

After five games, it’s easy to look at the remaining schedule and wonder what could be in store for an Irish team that is in the middle of its toughest stretch and still needs to play four games that look very losable on paper. But that’s not how this program operates.

“This is a group that each one of them knows why we lost the game,” Kelly said. “Each coach, each player in that locker room. This is a transparent group. There is nobody in there that is pointing a finger.  There are only thumb pointers in there.”

On Saturday, turnovers told the story, stacking the deck against a team that fought its hardest to get back into the game after spotting a talented opponent 14 points. While the Irish stayed with their game plan throughout most of the first half, the mistakes proved too costly as the Irish tried to play catch-up in the second half.

“I wanted to be in two tight ends and I wanted to run the football, and I wanted to run play action and I wanted to be able to control the game that way,” Kelly said of his original game plan.

“You just can’t turn the football the way we did. If we take care of the football, we might be in overtime right now. Who knows? But the bottom line from this offense is take care of the football. Play good defense. And these kids will battle their butts off and find a way to win.”

It wasn’t all negative on Saturday afternoon, though the Irish loss will likely knock Notre Dame out of the Top 25 for the first time since the second week of the ’12 season. The running game looks to have found its identity. The defense continues to make progress. And while it’s easy to think about what could’ve been had the Irish not started out so terribly, it’s back to the grind for the Irish, who next take on Arizona State, one of the most explosive passing teams in the country next Saturday night in Cowboys Stadium.

“We’re four years into our program. We know clearly what needs to be done,” Kelly said. “We’ll get back to work on Tuesday and work to get better.”

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.