And in that corner… The Arizona State Sun Devils

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Forgive Arizona State head coach Todd Graham for feeling comfortable at a job. For the first time in a few years, Graham might actually put down some roots, quickly reinvigorating the Sun Devil football program with a new approach after Dennis Erickson failed to return the program to its glory days.

Graham took over the Sun Devils and won eight games last year, blowing out Navy in the Kraft Hunger bowl to finish the season on a three game winning streak after a four-game slide nearly derailed a 5-1 start. The expectations were raised heading into the season, with the Sun Devil offense looking the part of an Pac-12 dark horse and Graham’s reputation as a defensive guru helping to erase some concerns up front.

The team’s decisive loss to Stanford made it clear that the Sun Devils weren’t quite ready to run among the elite of the Pac-12, but Graham’s knockout blow of USC will likely be something that carries this program forward — with Lane Kiffin’s proverbial kill shot the envy of fans everywhere, and something that clearly put ASU back on the national map.

To get us ready for Saturday night’s Shamrock Series game, I swapped questions with Cody Ulm of House of Sparky. I did my best to answer his questions over there while he took the time to answer some of mine here.

Hope you enjoy.

1) First things first: Where did that second half explosion come from and were there signs it was coming?

In no way did anyone see that coming. Alden Darby and Osahon Irabor had two huge turnovers that gave the Sun Devils the ball with premium field position late in the first half and they had to settle for field goals. Then, the Trojans came out of the locker room looking unstoppable with a 46-second drive to retake the lead. So the timing of USC’s implosion and Arizona State’s finest hour couldn’t have been more odd.

In a way though, that’s what makes Arizona State such a scary proposition for opponents. No, 28-7 third quarter runs aren’t going to happen on a regular basis because I doubt any team could face plant quite in the same way as the Trojans did. But in that quarter, the Sun Devils had three scoring drives of under 1:20 and the fourth score was a Darby pick-six. On both sides of the ball, ASU is opportunistic and aggressive. And when you factor in that Arizona State’s tempo is Oregon-esque when they execute properly, those type of outbursts are always a palpable possibility.

2) Notre Dame might not face a better quarterback than Taylor Kelly this season. He seems like quite a story as well, a little known two-star prospect that might be the best QB in the Pac-12. An accurate passer also looked like a potentially lethal dual-threat player as well. How well suited is he for Todd Graham’s offense?

Depending on how you feel about Kevin Hogan, I think that first statement just might be dead-on. But to answer your question, there isn’t a more ideal quarterback for Graham’s system. Coach Graham loves to put the pedal to the metal with his “high octane” offense. And to accomplish that, he needs a quarterback who consistently makes quick decisions and always makes the most of what the defense gives him. That’s precisely what Kelly does.

In a perfect world, Graham would probably like his quarterback to have a bit more arm strength. That said, I can’t remember I time that Kelly’s arm has actually cost ASU a game. And now that Arizona State has given him a legitimate No. 1 receiver in Jaelen Strong this season, he’s now finally the type of quarterback who can carry his team to victories. The Devils are only four games in to the 2013 season but the Kelly-Strong connection is already one of the most deadly combinations in the nation. The duo has the back shoulder pass down on lock, which allows the offense something to fall back on when all else fails.

The biggest knock on Kelly has been his play away from Sun Devil Stadium. For whatever reason, he just never seems to be in his comfort zone on the road. He’s always less aggressive, more prone to mistakes and it takes him far longer to get into a rhythm. So that’s certainly something to watch for this weekend. Also, the “dual-threat” moniker hasn’t held true this season before the USC game. While he’s never had blazing speed, he’s always at least been an instinctive runner who makes the right reads. This year, he has chosen to display that less often. He’s keeping far less read options and relying on his progressions instead of tucking and taking off. Of course, his rushing hot streak could carry over into this week because, as you touched on, Notre Dame has been burned by quarterbacks on the ground this season.

3) Speaking of the Sun Devils head coach, how have ASU fans warmed to Graham? He came to Tempe with a “unique” reputation, especially in Pittsburgh. What are the early returns?

Plain and simple, this fan base has fallen in love with Graham. He’s already being labeled as the savior of Arizona State football and it’s not just because of his product on the field. He’s infused tradition into a program sorely lacking a identity. Just by doing little things like throwing the game ball into the stands and reestablishing the beloved Camp Tontozona, he’s gotten each and every Sun Devil firmly in his corner. And the fanbase is reciprocating. Just last week against USC, Graham admitted that he had to change the way his defense got their calls because the student section was so loud.

Don’t get me wrong, no one is claiming the man walks on water. Graham’s propensity to burn timeouts on defense has become a running joke among ASU fans. And he still makes some baffling decisions from time-to-time (like that pooch-punt against Stanford). But those are minor gripes when you factor in all he’s done for the program in just under two years. He certainly earned his extension in my eyes.

4) The two best defensive tackles in the country might be on the same field this weekend. How has Will Sutton dealt with the high expectations heaped on him entering the season? What’s your assessment of the defense as a whole this year? Is the run defense this team’s achilles heel?

Entering last week’s game, I had been beginning to hear some unfair assessments of Sutton’s play. Some pundits were claiming that when he worked so hard to bulk up to 300 pounds this offseason, he put on “bad weight.” If I had to guess, those folks were just looking at the box scores.

Before last week’s two tackle for loss, one sack performance, the numbers weren’t exactly there for Sutton. But if these critics would have been watching the games, it would have been painfully obvious that Sutton was being double-teamed on probably 90% of his snaps (if not more). And when you factor in some of the individual All-American caliber talent along the offensive lines of Stanford, USC and Wisconsin, that certainly saying something.

As the nation saw last week, Arizona State’s defense can make some plays when Sutton gets rolling. But until they fix that run defense, they’re not going to be able to hang with the big boys. Honestly though, on a play-by-play basis, the run defense hasn’t been entirely awful. But just when you think they’re doing a good job limiting the damage, they’ll allow a huge 25-yard gain off the edge. And then another. And another.

I thought entering the season that the defensive line depth had improved but compounding injuries quickly sapped that theory. Arizona State will likely be missing their second best space eater in Jaxon Hood (hamstring) this weekend once again so expect Notre Dame to have no problem running wild. Yet as I said, this defense is opportunistic in every sense of the word. So if the offense gives them a big lead to work with or the turnovers begin to pile up, you can be sure they’ll take full advantage.

5) This offense looks dangerous. They move quickly, they put up points in a hurry, and when things are clicking, you see coaches get fired at airports. Juco transfer Jaelen Strong has gone over 100 yards in three straight games. Marion Grice had a dozen touchdowns in September. Do you think this weekend turns into a shootout?

Well, it takes two to tango, so it will be a shootout if Notre Dame is able to keep pace. And at this point, I don’t see that happens. From what I’ve seen, the Irish just aren’t built to compete that way. If they’re going to hang with Arizona State, they’ll have to get them out of their high-speed comfort zone early and force some three-and-outs.

I’d say stopping the run is key for Notre Dame but so far, we’ve seen Arizona State succeed despite not hitting their ideal yard-per-carry. I know this may be strange to hear considering his statistics but outside of the red zone, Grice isn’t actually living up to expectations. After averaging 6.6 yards per carry last season, he’s down to 3.9. Even though some poor blocking is to blame, Grice’s unparalleled vision just hasn’t consistently been there this year. Last week against USC, the run blocking was the best it has been and Grice took full advantage. Now, it’s just about carrying that over to Notre Dame. And I have my doubts that Dr. Disruptive, a.k.a Louis Nix, allows them to get that same push.

6) Lie Detector Test: What’d you think of the last minute referee work in the Wisconsin game? 

I wrote as soon as it happened that it was irresponsibly unacceptable on the part of the officiating crew to allow that to happen and I still firmly believe that. Their lack of urgency was embarrassing and Wisconsin fans had every right to be livid. That said, Arizona State played the better game and deserved to win. But as all sports fans know, just because you play the better game doesn’t mean you always win. The Badgers were primed to the steal that one due to Arizona State’s lackadaisical defense allowing a late drive with 1:36 left.

But what most didn’t factor in during all the commotion is that a walk-off field goal was far from a guarantee. The Badgers’ kicking game has been atrocious this season and Arizona State can certainly get some interior push from time-to-time with Sutton paving the way. And from the feedback I heard, Wisconsin fans definitely understood that. There are always going to be those rabid fanatics who say they got robbed in these type of situations but I’d like to compliment the Badger fanbase as a whole for handling it with so much class. We had a substantial amount of Wisconsin fans come over to our site to congratulate Arizona State fans and share their perspectives. Not to bag on Sun Devil fans but I’m not sure they would have handled it similarly if the shoe was on the other foot.

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For more good stuff on the Sun Devils and the run up to the Shamrock Series, check out House of Sparky, @HouseofSparky and @CodyUlm

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.

Pace of play: More snaps equal more scoring chances, right?

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It seems obvious enough: The more plays an offense runs, the more chances it has to score.

Sure, there is more to it than that, but the basic premise really is that simple. Ten more snaps equal 10 more opportunities at the end zone. Increasing Notre Dame’s tempo in that pursuit is not only part of why Irish coach Brian Kelly hired new offensive coordinator Chip Long, but it is also a primary emphasis of spring practice.

When Kelly announced Long’s hiring, he discussed simplifying play calls to increase pacing.

“Within our offensive system, we want to run more plays,” he said. “…There needs to be some retooling within the offensive nomenclature to be able to go to the level we want to.”

The day before spring practice began, Kelly again mentioned the correlation between lexicon and quickness of play.

“If tempo can be introduced in our offense, it has to be introduced at the ground level,” he said. “…I think with some of the things that we’ve been able to do offensively, with verbiage and nomenclature, I believe that we’ll be able to pick up the tempo even more.”

And following that first practice, one of Kelly’s first comments touched on—you guessed it—tempo.

“We were really looking at tempo on our offense,” he said. “I think we achieved that. To go fast and be sloppy is certainly not the end, but to be able to run a little bit more tempo with our offense and be effective in execution was really the most important thing.”

With the Irish returning to the practice field tomorrow (Wednesday) following spring break, the stress on speed will undoubtedly continue. Just how much of an increase can be expected of Long’s offense?

Last season, Notre Dame averaged 68.83 plays per game, in line with an average of 68.9 in Kelly’s seven years leading the Irish and similar to his average of 67.5 in three seasons at Cincinnati.

In his first and only season leading his own offense, Long averaged 74.15 plays per game at Memphis in 2016. Admittedly, one season is a small sample size, especially considering the variables prone to tilting any single college football game.

It does not take a perilous leap of faith to conclude Long picked up a good amount of offensive strategy and thinking during his four seasons as tight ends coach in Todd Graham’s Arizona State offense. More accurately, Long presumably learned from Mike Norvell, the offensive coordinator during that stretch in Tempe who then brought Long with him when Norvell took the job as head coach at Memphis.

During their shared seasons at Arizona State, Norvell and Long coached an offense that averaged 78.47 plays per game. Combine that figure with the aforementioned Memphis figure and the math yields a five-year average of 77.62 plays per game, nearly nine plays per game more than Notre Dame managed over the same stretch.

Will that be seen in 2017? The more-pertinent question may be, will it be seen in 32 days in the Blue-Gold Game? Kelly has said it will be Long’s offense to run, and April 22 will be the first chance to see that in effect.

“When I was at Cincinnati, I was the guy, I was running it by myself,” Kelly said before spring practice commenced. “I think going back to [that] is the most efficient way to do it, and get out of the way and let Chip run it.”


As has quickly become something of a norm in this space below is a listing of the stats condensed above. Before that, though, one quick note: Keep an eye on Memphis’s offense again this season. It returned the vast majority of its firepower, and Norvell will not hesitate to turn up the pressure on opposing defenses. The Tigers should be very entertaining.

(more…)

Friday at 4: 4-0 against West Virginia in history … in football

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Today, the thought of Notre Dame facing West Virginia immediately triggers thoughts of tomorrow (Saturday) and their NCAA Tournament matchup. Typically, though, those two universities facing each other would elicit memories of a particular football game.

The two faced each other plenty on the basketball court when they overlapped in the Big East for 17 seasons, compared to only four times ever on the football field. Of those four, the Irish hold a decisive 4-0 edge.

Is that significant? Not at all. But how productive and efficient do you think I have been this week? It’s the third week of March. The hope here is to reach for relevance, perhaps touch on noteworthiness and maybe even come near entertaining. If nothing else, 4-0 is a good set of memories to recall, especially that one aforementioned particular game.

Of course, that game was the 1989 Fiesta Bowl, a 34-21 national championship-sealing Notre Dame victory. Don’t let time cloud the hype of that game, a contest between the consensus No. 1 Irish and No. 3 Mountaineers.

The other three victories all came under the watch of Bob Davie: 21-14 on Nov. 22, 1997; 42-28 on Oct. 21, 2000 in Morgantown, W. Va.; and 34-24 on Oct. 13, 2001.

If this weekend’s basketball game goes the way Vegas expects—depending where you look, the line is hovering at West Virginia by two for the 12:10 p.m. ET tip—reminisce back to those four Irish football victories. After all, if West Virginia prevails, it is likely because the basketball game becomes quite physical and there may be a few football-esque plays.

Why “St.” Brown?
Junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown’s father, John Brown, joined ESPN’s 710 AM on Thursday. In addition to Equanimeous, Brown has two other football-catching sons: Stanford’s Osiris and five-star 2018 recruit Amon-ra. Thus, 710 and its hosts Keyshawn Johnson, Jorge Sedano and LZ Granderson reached out to John Brown to discuss Lavar Ball, the headline-making father of a trio of young, promising basketball stars including UCLA freshman Lonzo Ball.

“From what little I know about the guy … I think he’s doing, in general, a great job,” said Brown, a former two-time Mr. Universe and three-time Mr. World. “It’s not easy to raise three superstars… I think he’s doing a great job at promoting his boys. He loves his boys, just like every father, and just wants the best for his boys.”

Skipping past the biology lesson Brown then meandered into and its minefield of political correctness faux pas, Brown explained why his sons have such elaborate names compared to his.

“My wife was in the hospital pregnant, true story,” he said. “I told her, sweetheart, we have to talk about the name, because we can’t name the kid Brown. She goes why?

“I say, because it doesn’t look good on the back of a jersey… I say we’re going to put St. Brown because it will look good on the back of a jersey.”

If Brown, the father, was thinking of jerseys before his sons were even born, his preparation for their futures certainly expanded from there, including weightlifting programs beginning on their fifth birthdays, customized protein powder he now sells and emphasis on schoolwork.

“I told my sons when they were little, you cannot go to school on an athletic scholarship,” Brown said. “They were like, what? I said you can’t, it has to be academic, or we will not allow you. Of course, we were just saying that to get them to continue their schoolwork.”

To listen to all of Brown’s interview, head to the show’s podcast page and download the second hour of the March 16 show. Brown’s segment begins around the 21:20 mark and lasts a bit more than 10 minutes. A nod toward everyone’s preferred “Inside the Irish” writer, Keith Arnold, for taking advantage of the sun in Los Angeles to let me know about the Brown interview.

Before leaving this topic entirely, let’s remember Brown did more than add a holy designation to his offspring’s last names. When it comes to Notre Dame’s leading receiver last season, in fact, Brown displayed more creativity than this scribe ever will.

A quick correction
In Wednesday’s look at new Irish special teams coordinator Brian Polian’s last four years working with punt and kick units, glowplugv pointed out a typo in the statistics. The correct version: Notre Dame covered 22 punts in 2015, allowing 194 yards for an average of 8.82.

The four-year average numbers were accurate, as they were calculated from the notes next to the screen, not the mistake in the article.

A genuine thank you to glowplug for taking the time to check those numbers. He also argued the difference between Polian’s units at Nevada and the Irish renditions of the last four years was so negligible statistically it should not be looked at with much favor. If considering the numbers from a theoretical, data-driven standpoint, glowplug has a solid argument.

However, if applying those figures past theory, they could genuinely have an impact. If Notre Dame can gain 2.35 yards in field position with each exchange of punts, that can quickly become nearly 10 yards in a game. A shift of that magnitude can be all the difference in a fourth quarter dominated by two defenses.

March Madness update
The allure of absolutely no prize was enough to entice 69 entrants, none of which made it through a chalk-filled Thursday unscathed. Three picked 15 of the games correctly and earned 12 bonus points via upsets to establish a slight lead: Jackson; Q B; andy44teg.

Of the 69 prognosticators, a bold four predicted the Irish will win the national championship. They take the next step in that direction against West Virginia.

For now, it is not only Friday at 4, but it is also St. Patrick’s Day. Think about Notre Dame’s football record against West Virginia: 4-0. You know what to do.