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

Brian Kelly & Jack Swarbrick on Notre Dame’s changes moving forward

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Whether 2016’s disappointing 4-8 finish was the impetus to program-wide alterations at Notre Dame this offseason, it certainly underscored the need. For the last few months, Irish coach Brian Kelly has focused those changes on himself and self-assessment, and he reiterated that approach when talking with PFT Live’s Mike Florio early Monday morning.

“This is my 27th year of being a head coach, and prior to last year I had one losing season,” Kelly said. “You have a way of doing things, you have a system in place, you follow that year after year. Certainly you make tweaks along the way, but this is the first time where I’ve really taken a step back and made substantial changes in terms of how I’m doing things on a day-to-day basis…

“From my perspective, after being at it as long as I have, you have to take it on yourself that you’re the one that needs to make the corrections. It’s not the players.”

None of this is new. Kelly has been consistent in his springtime messaging, but others have looked past the effects of the 4-8 record and insist the changes were coming regardless of the win-loss totals. Senior captain Drue Tranquill, for example, acknowledged the severity of the losing record Friday but argued adjustments were needed no matter what the final scores were.

“If you have an average season like 8-4, some things might carry over to the next season,” Tranquill said the day before the spring practice finale. “Whereas when you go 4-8, something has to change.

“But I think even at Notre Dame, 8-4 is never really acceptable or tolerated. Those things that were taking place, just within our culture, would have been noticed whether we were 10-3, 4-8. The criticism gave it a lot more hype and juice. We could kind of feel as guys in the program throughout the past three years that certain things needed to change.

“Those things were finally brought to light and it happened to be during a 4-8 season. I don’t necessarily know that 4-8 was the reason all this change happened.”

New Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko expressed a similar sentiment Friday morning, discussing the pressure moving forward.

“If we were coming off a 12-0 season in which we were competing for the national championship, there would be pressure on us at Notre Dame to be successful this year,” Elko said. “That’s Notre Dame.”

Elko has been a quick study, as his comments were echoed the next day by Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick during NBC Sports Network’s broadcast of the Blue-Gold Game.

“We expect to compete for national championships and 4-8 is not acceptable,” Swarbrick said. “On the other hand, when you’re in that situation, you have to decide how you’re going to move forward. We decided to move forward by making a major investment in retooling our program with Brian as the leader of it. That’s not a one-year investment for us. We brought in some talented assistant coaches. We rebuilt elements of the program

“We view it as a multi-year investment going forward.”

KELLY ON RECRUITING PITCH
Using this week’s NFL Draft as a peg, Florio also asked Kelly about balancing players’ NFL aspirations with team success both in the recruiting process and during the actual season.

“We have to talk more in terms of process over production,” Kelly responded. “We talk in terms of you’re coming to Notre Dame for a reason. You’re going to get a degree, which will set you up for the rest of your life, and you’re going to play on the grandest stage at Notre Dame, so everybody will see you.

“As long as there’s the balance there—and there has to be that balance in terms of getting your education and playing for championships—then we’re okay. It’s when that balance is out of whack, we’ll have an issue. We vet that out in the recruiting process and make sure we don’t take any kids that are coming to Notre Dame just because they’re waiting for that [junior] year to complete so they can go to the draft.”

A reminder: The NFL Draft begins with its first round Thursday night. Kelly will be joining former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer at the draft in Philadelphia to await Kizer’s destination and future employer.

MISSED THE BLUE-GOLD GAME?
It is available for streaming: here.

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?

What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

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Time spent on a traditional game wrap of a spring intrasquad exhibition seems misspent. Gold won Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game 27-14 led by rising sophomore quarterback Ian Book. The first-string defense (Gold) held the first-string offense to an average of 5.4 yards per play. For context’s sake: Last season Notre Dame gained an average of 6.1 yards per play and held opponents to 5.4.

With that abbreviated recap out of the way, what did Saturday’s pseudo-game environment show about the Irish? If the 20,147 in attendance paid attention, they had the chance to learn a few things:

Daelin Hayes will be ready to hit a quarterback in September
Notre Dame’s quarterbacks were off limits all spring. Bulls might charge when they see red, but the Irish defensive line has had to remember to ease up when they come across a quarterback’s red jersey. If sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes had forgotten that Saturday, Notre Dame might not have any quarterbacks left to play in the fall.

“At the end of the day, we’re on the same team,” Hayes said, dismissing any bitterness about the quarterbacks’ protections. “We have to keep our guys healthy. I wasn’t frustrated, but come September 2, you know.”

Officially, Hayes was credited with three sacks and another tackle for loss among his seven tackles. Admittedly, gauging sacks is tricky when the quarterback does not actually go to the ground. How many of Hayes’ three sacks and the defense’s 11 total would have been evaded if the defender needed to do more than touch the passer? That answer is highly subjective, but discounting Hayes’ numbers would miss the bigger picture.

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

Senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) notched two sacks and sophomore end Ade Ogundeji came the closest to tackling a red jersey when he stripped junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush from behind. The defensive line has been expected to be a weak point for the Irish moving forward, but the spring performance indicates it has a chance at holding its own. These accomplishments bear further merit considering Notre Dame’s offensive line is widely-considered one of its few spots of expected quality.

RELATED READING: Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

“I think it’s pretty clear Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I’d have to watch the film, but it seemed like [sophomore end] Julian Okwara was a hard guy to block coming off the edge, as well.”

Ian Book provides some peace of mind
Book was not spectacular, but he was also far from incompetent or intimidated. In his first action on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, Book completed 18-of-25 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by a 58-yard connection with sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. Meanwhile, junior Brandon Wimbush completed 22-of-32 passes for 303 yards.

Bluntly, one has not needed to follow Notre Dame for very long to fit that “long enough” qualification. Last season’s backup, Malik Zaire, saw competitive action against both Texas and Stanford. In 2015, DeShone Kizer came off the bench to start 11 games after Zaire suffered a season-ending ankle injury. (more…)

What Notre Dame players should you actually watch? Plus, catch up on reading

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If technology does its part, this will post as its typist meanders toward finding his credential for the Blue-Gold Game to conclude Notre Dame’s spring practice. If technology doesn’t do its part, well, then this will be lost to the cobwebs of the internet. Such as it goes.

This space has spent much of the past week discussing what to look for in the 12:30 p.m. ET exhibition. Worry about the big picture, not the individuals. Fret about the macro, not the micro.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the indivdual players
Blue-Gold Game primer with help from Notre Dame’s coordinators
Four defensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game
Four offensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game

But, if insistent on focusing on singular players, look to the inexperienced, the names you are unfamiliar with. The 15th and final practice of spring may be no more than a practice in reality, but it is in front of nearly 30,000 fans in Notre Dame Stadium. Some players do not have so much as that minimal experience.

“The Blue-Gold Game, specifically, is a time for us to emulate a game-like situation,” senior safety/linebacker/rover Drue Tranquill said. “Especially for guys like freshmen, second-semester guys coming in, it’s a great opportunity for them to get that game feeling, but also continue to take steps in the process to get better.”

The question on the tip of your tongue is a fair one. If you are unfamiliar with the names, how are you supposed to focus on those players? How are you to know who fits the appropriate tunnel vision version of perspective?

Let’s turn to Irish coach Brian Kelly’s mentions from Wednesday–primarily, sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara, sophomore long snapper John Shannon, senior kicker Sam Kohler, sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem and sophomore safety Jalen Elliott.

Obviously, that is just a sampling. Less obviously, this post’s purpose may or may not be to link to previous reading material and remind you of the vague but pertinent purposes to today’s endeavor. It is neither be-all nor end-all. It is simply another opportunity to gauge what may come down the line.

But hey, how about a prediction? Per Kelly, the first-team offense and second-team defense will be in blue, against the first-team defense and second-team offense in white.

PREDICTION: Blue 37, White 21

HOW TO WATCH
As a recurring reminder, the Blue-Gold Game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network, as well as streamed online at ndstream.nbcsports.com and on the NBC Sports app.