The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Oklahoma

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Usually losing for the second time in the season’s opening month calls for greater introspection. But upon the second viewing of Notre Dame’s 35-21 loss to Oklahoma, the results were quite clear: Early turnovers sunk the Irish on Saturday.

Those turnovers ultimately fall on quarterback Tommy Rees. The senior leader of the Irish offense once again played a subpar football game, completing just nine of 24 throws for 104 yards, passing for two touchdowns but throwing three first half interceptions.

Brian Kelly talked Sunday about the options at quarterback, and for those asking for a change, they’ll be disappointed. Kelly publicly supported Rees as the Irish’s No. 1 quarterback, with Andrew Hendrix supplementing him.

“He certainly is,” Kelly said of Rees as the team’s QB1 moving forward. “With the recognition that Andrew is going to be able to help us out as well. But there’s no question that the quarterback that’s going to start for us is Tommy Rees.”

With the inmates restless and the Irish needing to move on quickly and prepare for Arizona State, let’s clean out the notebook and take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly from Notre Dame’s disappointing loss to Oklahoma.

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THE GOOD

George Atkinson. It was a great day at the office for Atkinson, who ran for a career-best 148 rushing yards against Oklahoma. Given a chance to establish some rhythm, Atkinson rewarded the staff with his best effort.

As the Irish prepare to play an Arizona State team that looks a lot more beatable when its offense is on the sideline, they’re going to need that commitment from the ground game, and Atkinson also gives them a threat to take it the distance as well.

Carlo Calabrese. We don’t usually see a Notre Dame linebacker making double-digit tackles not named Te’o. The fifth-year linebacker was stout on defense, filling the stat sheet with ten tackles.

Jaylon Smith & Elijah Shumate: The youngsters on defense both contributed seven tackles against the Sooners, a dynamic opponent that challenges you in a variety of ways.

Tarean Folston. A very impressive run by Folston around the left side of the offensive line set up an early Notre Dame touchdown. He didn’t get many more opportunities after Atkinson started to pick up steam, but Folston showed himself to be an explosive option.

Speaking of freshman running backs, more rumors have spread across the internet about Greg Bryant. Palm Beach Post reporter Jeff Greer said that Bryant’s father mentioned the plan to redshirt Bryant.

On Sunday, Kelly wasn’t willing to go that far, but acknowledged that Bryant wasn’t available because of a knee injury.

“He didn’t play this week because of a knee injury,” Kelly said. “But you know, when you start talking about medical redshirts and you talk about redshirts here at Notre Dame, we are way down that line.  We have got to slow down a little bit here.”

Saving a year of eligibility would be a nice perk for Bryant, and a nice bit of roster management for the Irish, especially with Elijah Hood decommitting from the recruiting class.

An offensive identity forming. It’s pretty clear that Notre Dame isn’t going to run the table by spreading an offense out and beating them with one-on-one passing match-ups. That type of game plan seems to work if your quarterback’s playing on Sunday, and mostly if their last names are Manning (only Peyton) or Brady.

Kelly talked about getting back to the basics, and setting a goal of 200 yards rushing and 200 yards receiving.

“From an identity standpoint, we ran for 200 yards,” Kelly said. “We have to be able to run for 200 and throw for 200 and that’s the identity we want to have as an offense.”

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THE BAD

Tommy Rees’s accuracy. Notre Dame can’t win completing less than 40% of their passes. And Rees just hasn’t been as accurate as the Irish need him to be the past few weeks.

“I’m disappointed with how I played individually,” Rees said after the game. “You’ve got to be better. You can’t turn the ball over and expect to win games against good teams like Oklahoma.”

While Kelly did commit to playing more of Andrew Hendrix, he also revealed his season-long plan to keep a redshirt on Malik Zaire, something that shouldn’t be all that surprising if you start to think about the roster management needed after losing Everett Golson and Gunner Kiel unexpectedly.

“My guess is right now, unless we have an injury, you’re not going to see Malik, unless we get into an injury situation,” Kelly said. “We only have the three quarterbacks, so we have to keep him ready to go.  But I’d prefer not to play him unless we have a medical situation.”

Rushing Defense. After a really stingy performance two seasons ago, the Irish just gave up too much on the ground against Oklahoma. The Sooners ran for five yards a carry, allowing Oklahoma to control the ball for nearly 36 minutes.

A season after not giving up a gain of over seven yards on the ground, the Sooners had five people with carries of over seven yards, including four ball carriers that had runs of twelve yards or more.

Ben Councell’s ejection. Outside linebacker Ben Councell was ejected from the game after a vicious helmet-to-helmet hit on Oklahoma running back Brennan Clay. The hit ended Councell’s afternoon early, and will likely cost him the first 30 minutes of the game against Arizona State, unless the Irish win their appeal.

“We don’t believe there was any intent there,” Kelly said.  “There was no intent, he was trying to make a play on the ball. We’ll obviously discuss it with the commissioner of the ACC and we’ll make our case that in video as we’ve looked at it, we clearly don’t see any intent for him to lead and intentionally try to strike with his helmet.”

If Councell isn’t back, the Irish will be in a bit of a pinch from a personnel perspective. Romeo Okwara could slide over to the field-side, or the Irish could slide a safety down in the box, perhaps a bigger body like John Turner.

Back-breaking slant for a touchdown. With 12:35 on the clock and the Irish down six points, Notre Dame could’ve gotten off the field with a third down stop and taking the ball back. But the Sooners lined up in a tight bunch formation, with Notre Dame looking to be in man coverage.

The Irish sent Bennett Jackson and Dan Fox off the short-side in a blitz, while Ishaq Williams dropped back into coverage. Sterling Shepard got a free release at the line of scrimmage and rant a quick slant across the middle, beating Jarrett Grace underneath before outrunning Matthias Farley and Austin Collinsworth to the end zone.

The blitz didn’t get there against the quick throw and the Sooners essentially clinched the victory.

QUICK HITS: 

* Bennett Jackson filled the stat sheet as a tackler, making seven stops and two behind the line of scrimmage, but he’s got to do a better job in coverage. Much is expected from the guy wearing a C on his chest.

* Brian Kelly wasn’t willing to put the blown blitz pick-up on one guy. But between Tommy Rees, Zack Martin and Chris Watt, they’ve got to pick that one up.

* In a passing game that relies on precision, the young wide receiving corps isn’t necessarily doing their job. In the same breath that Kelly talked about Rees’s need to be more accurate against man coverage, he also talked about the receivers needing to do their job better as well.

“We have got some young receivers out there that are not precise quite frankly in their route running,” Kelly said.

THE UGLY

A terrible start. You couldn’t script a worse beginning for Notre Dame. The perfect recipe to not just lose a football game, but to also take the crowd out of it.

Terrible turnovers. Notre Dame isn’t going to beat anyone with a -3 turnover differential. And they certainly aren’t going to do it against a good team like Oklahoma, who turned those three into 21 points. Let’s run through the three crucial mistakes, just for posterity’s sake.

* Turnover One: Interesting that Brian Kelly won’t call this an interception even though it’s in the books as a pick. Rees was hit as (or just before) he was hit, and it flies right into the linebacker’s arms. Pick Six to start the game.

* Turnover Two: This one is on Rees, who threw the slant early to a spot and missed. Cornerback Aaron Colvin batted the pass into the air, it was intercepted and a handful of plays later the Sooners were up 14-0.

* Turnover Three: Not a great design, especially when DaVaris Daniels ran an incorrect route. Still, the quarterback has to make a decision that’s better than that, and it was thrown either behind Daniels or into traffic if it was heading to Jones.

Terrible September. Irish fans might have forgotten that these are the perils of a Notre Dame schedule. While some teams start with a cream-puff non-conference slate, the Irish have battled one mediocre squad and then played three Big Ten teams and Oklahoma.

While any BCS National title dreams are gone, the Irish could still find a BCS bowl if they run the table or finish with three losses. But after watching Arizona State put the finishing touches on the Lane Kiffin era, the focus should only extend to the Sun Devils.

 

 

 

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
2 Days Until Spring Practice: A look at the defensive backfield

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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