Pregame Six Pack: Shamrocks and Sun Devils

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A Shamrock Series game is usually known for its alternate location and nontraditional uniforms. But when Notre Dame and Arizona State battle in primetime on Saturday night, it might also decide the season. As the Irish take on Todd Graham’s dangerous Sun Devils squad, Notre Dame is likely playing for their BCS lives. A win pushes the Irish to 4-2 heading into their bye week. It’ll likely also reinvigorate the Irish before taking on a wayward USC team, optimistically leading them into a stretch of football games that could get the Irish finally playing up to their potential.

Of course, after watching the Sun Devils blow USC out in the second half, Las Vegas has the Irish as almost a touchdown underdog tomorrow night, leading to the very real possibility that Notre Dame could be .500 after Saturday night, a disappointment at every level, with a bumpy road still ahead.

While the Irish aren’t ranked after two September losses, there are still national implications to Saturday night’s game. It’s time for the pregame six pack. Here are six tidbits, leftovers, fun facts, and miscellaneous musings before the Irish take on the Sun Devils.

***

After two tight games with Todd Graham, Brian Kelly is going to need to bring his best on Saturday night. 

Neither guy wearing the headset is playing the game. (It’s tough to call what Graham wears on the sideline a headset, but you get the idea.) Yet the chess match between Brian Kelly and Todd Graham is one to watch. Both Graham and Kelly are well regarded coaches, with both thought to be incredibly ambitious. That ambition has put both coaches in some tough spaces, with Graham making more than a few eyebrow raising moves in his career, walking away from two head coaching jobs after just a single season on the job. Kelly is equally ambitious, leaving two programs before their season was over and shocking many when he spoke with the Philadelphia Eagles just a day after losing the national championship.

After Graham stole a victory away from Kelly when Tulsa came in and shocked the Irish, Kelly won ugly at Pittsburgh. The rubber match is a game both coaches desperately need, and one that’ll likely define the trajectory of each team’s season.

***

Playing another defense that’s going to challenge him with man coverage, can Tommy Rees get back on track?

It’s been a tough couple weeks for Tommy Rees. No stat has defined that more than his completion percentage, with Rees struggling to even sniff 50 percent passing against Michigan State and Oklahoma. Heading into the season as the school’s most accurate passer in its history, Rees’s numbers just don’t make sense, even when you consider that the Irish have pushed the ball down field more aggressively than they had ever in the past.

On his weekly appearance on SiriusXM’s College Football Playbook with Jack Arute and former UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel, Kelly was asked pointedly about Rees’s struggles, and he gave this window into the varying reasons.

“It’s all man to man coverage, the last two weeks has been straight man to man. Part of it has been, you’re not getting any cupcake throws,” Kelly told Arute and Neuheisel. “So he’s got to be able to connect at probably a 55 percent completion ratio.

“In our estimation, he missed his last seven in a row late in the game on some basic stuff. He had three of them knocked down,  two of them on poor routes, and one of them where we got pushed back into the pocket. We’re talking about a little bit of everything. Not being accurate enough in man to man coverage. We’re talking about a number of young receivers not getting open in man coverage, not doing a good job of stair stepping or coming off rubs or making tough catches in man to man coverage, and that’s all adding up to a poor completion percentage rating.”

Here’s how Rees has faired against Todd Graham’s defense:

33 of 54 for 334 4 TD, 3 INT
24 of 41 for 215 1 TD, 1 INT

That’s a 60 percent completion number, which falls into the accuracy range Kelly wants for his quarterback. But if Rees is throwing more than 40 times on Saturday night, the Irish are in trouble.

***

Slowing down Taylor Kelly and the Sun Devils offense is key. But keep an eye on the hidden yardage as well. 

In a game where some Sun Devils players thought they could’ve put up 80 points, a big key to Arizona State’s 62-point explosion was field position. Todd Graham’s troops started in plus territory three times against USC, while the Trojans never started on the Sun Devil’s side of the fifty.

There’s a stark contrast in field position for Graham’s squads when it comes to wins and losses. In victories, the average starting field position has been the team’s own 37.4 yard line, while in losses its been their own 23.7.

As Kyle Brindza gets more comfortable handling kickoffs and punts, with Alex Wulfeck working in as a situational punter, forcing the Sun Devils to go the distance on their scoring drives will be key if the Irish are going to keep ASU’s points down.

***

Hidden Yardage is cool and all, but getting off the field is imperative. 

Apologies to Brindza and Wulfeck, but neither guy is getting the game ball this Saturday night for his punting. If the Irish are going to win this football game they’re going to need to get off the field on third down.

Right now, Notre Dame’s defense ranks a wretched 91st in the country on third downs, allowing opponents to convert at better than a 42 percent clip. That’s helped opponents extend drives, score points, and win football games.

Tim Prister of IrishIllustrated.com took a look at one of the big differences between this defense and last year’s edition, with this group already giving up ten touchdown drives of 75-yards or more.

No statistic is more startling than the number of long scoring drives surrendered by the Irish in five games this year. Temple equaled the number of 75-yard touchdown drives from the previous season in the first half of the first game.

Michigan added four more lengthy touchdown drives of 77, 75, 78 and 75 yards. Purdue had a pair of 75-yarders. Michigan State added another. Oklahoma had two, including an 88-yard drive late in the first half.

In 20 quarters of football so far this season, Notre Dame’s defense has allowed 10 – repeat, 10 – touchdown drives of 75 yards or more. Michigan State also had a 15-play, 75-yard field-goal drive and Oklahoma had a nine-play 65-yard field-goal drive.

A lot of factors go into these struggles — pass rush issues, struggles with man coverage, ill-timed blitzes. But Kelly thinks his defense is close. We’ll find out Saturday night if he’s right.

***

As the season rounds into its second act, freshmen are starting to step forward.

Don’t look know, but that heralded recruiting class Notre Dame landed is going to be called on to start helping win some football games. While some expect Brian Kelly to plug and play elite recruits, that just hasn’t been this coaching staff’s m.o. while in South Bend. Yet slowly but surely, a group many thought was among the best in the country on paper have started to make their presence felt on the field as well.

Let’s take a look at the freshmen that’ll likely be playing a key role on Saturday night:

Jaylon Smith — Starting OLB will carry the load for much of the game with Ben Councell suspended for the first half.
Tarean Folston — Atkinson’s breakout was great, but Folston might have moved into the No. 2 role.
Will Fuller — He’s had catches now in back to back games.
Isaac Rochelle — With Sheldon Day still struggling with an ankle injury, Rochelle’s been called into action early.
Cole Luke — The team’s starting nickel back, Luke will be facing a dangerous offense that plays just ten minutes from his Arizona home.
Corey Robinson — Averaging over 16 yards on his four catches. Is a red zone look coming next?
Steve Elmer — Already a versatile substitute on a group with plenty of depth.
James Onwualu — Yet to make his first catch, Onwualu has been physical blocking and on special teams.
Devin Butler — Another freshman that’s climbed the depth chart, Butler’s getting significant reps in coverage packages.
Max Redfield — The fourth safety on the two-deep, Redfield’s close to seeing the field.

***

Stanford supplied the recipe for beating Arizona State. Now the Irish need to try and replicate it. 

Three fourth quarter touchdowns made Arizona State’s 42-28 loss to Stanford look much more respectable. But if you’re looking for a recipe for victory, David Shaw’s team provided it. Now it’ll be up to the Irish to try and pull it off themselves.

Step One: Get off to a good start.

Believe it or not, Stanford didn’t score on their first possession. (They missed a 51-yard field goal.) But they did on their second. And their third. And kept their foot on the gas with four first half touchdowns.

Step Two: Make plays behind the line of scrimmage.

The Cardinal defense had three sacks of Taylor Kelly at the Farm, while also chipping in an absurd ten TFLs. (The Irish have 20 on the season, good for 104th in the country.)

Step Three: Run the football to win the game.

After jumping out to a 29-point halftime lead, Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan only threw the ball five times in the second half, milking 19 minutes off the clock. Stanford was one carry away from hitting the 50 mark. If Notre Dame can run the ball 40 times Saturday night, they’ll have won the football game.

Step Four: Get Arizona State to turn the football over.

In addition to getting to the quarterback and making plays behind the line of scrimmage, the Cardinal picked off Kelly twice. The first set up Stanford deep in ASU territory and led to the team’s first touchdown. (The second ended the game.)

Against an offense as explosive as the Sun Devil’s, winning the turnover battle will be key.

 

Rochell drafted in 7th round; three other former Notre Dame players sign

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All the unnecessary draft conversation may have centered on DeShone Kizer, but the quarterback was not the only former Notre Dame player watching this weekend’s NFL Draft with rapt attention. Aside from Kizer, only Isaac Rochell heard his name called. The San Diego Chargers picked the defensive lineman in the seventh round Saturday with the 225th overall pick.

Rochell finished his Irish career with appearance in 49 of 51 possible games and 167 tackles, including 22 for loss and 4.5 sacks. In 2016, he recorded 55 tackles, good for sixth on the team, with seven for loss.

By the end of the evening, three more former Notre Dame starters had signed on with NFL teams as undrafted free agents. It should be noted, many argue the route available for undrafted free agents is preferable to that of late-round picks. An undrafted free agent can choose which of a handful of situations is preferable to him for whatever reason. A late-round pick does not have that luxury, but still makes a comparable salary.

Linebacker James Onwualu opted to join Rochell with the Chargers. Defensive lineman Jarron Jones signed with the New York Giants. Cornerback Cole Luke latched on with the Carolina Panthers.

Onwualu began his Irish career as a receiver before moving to linebacker before his sophomore season. He finished his career with 143 tackles, including 75 in 2016 with 11.5 for loss and three sacks. His 75 tackles finished behind only now-rising senior linebackers Nyles Morgan’s 94 and Drue Tranquill’s 79.

Battling injuries throughout his Notre Dame career, Jones made 105 tackles with 45 in 2016. His 11 tackles for loss were outdone only by the aforementioned Onwualu total.

Luke made 152 tackles in his Irish career, including 48 last season, and eight interceptions.

Three more players from past years’ Irish rosters could yet find an NFL home—long snapper Scott Daly, defensive lineman-turned-tight end Chase Hounshell and running back Tarean Folston. If any or all do not sign, they can still join teams for rookie mini-camps in hopes of making a positive impression.

RELATED READING: Browns pick former Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer 20th in second round

Browns pick former Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer 20th in second round

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After months of pointless chatter and a night spent waiting, DeShone Kizer’s NFL Draft experience ended Friday night when the Cleveland Browns drafted the former Notre Dame quarterback with the 20th pick in the second round, the No. 52 overall selection.

Originally from Toledo, Ohio, Kizer will have the opportunity to earn the starting job for the franchise less than two hours from his hometown. The Browns trotted out five different quarterbacks in 2016, only two of which remain with the team. Rookie Cody Kessler played in nine games, throwing for 1,380 yards and six touchdowns with only one interception while fellow rookie Kevin Hogan threw for 104 yards and two interceptions in four games.

The Browns have since added Brock Osweiler in a trade with the Houston Texans, though that trade was largely-viewed as a cash-for-picks swap, with the Browns “paying” for picks by taking on Osweiler’s contract in which he is owed $47 million over the next three seasons, including $16 million this season.

A year ago, the No. 52 pick (linebacker Deion Jones to the Atlanta Falcons) received a four-year, $4.546 million contract with a $1.506 million signing bonus.

Hall of fame running back and Browns legend Jim Brown announced the selection of Kizer at the draft festivities.

Speculation a year ago pegged Kizer as an early first-round pick. As the draft approached, projections of his slot varied widely, many including a second-round status. Despite first-round theatrics leading to three quarterbacks going in the first 12 picks Thursday night, Kizer had to wait another day before learning where he will start his NFL career. (more…)

Friday at 4: ‘Attention to detail’ includes Notre Dame Stadium

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Brian Kelly proselytized multiple abstract concepts this spring. By the end of the 15 practices and subsequent media sessions, even the Irish coach knew some of his references to “grit” would be met by muted eye rolls from the press. If a questioner included the word in their query, Kelly reacted with tongue-in-cheek approval, “You’ve been listening.”

In his press conference the day before spring practices commenced, Kelly used the phrase “attention to detail” six separate times. While he was referring to his players on the football field, Kelly could have also been discussing the ongoing—but supposedly close to finished—construction at Notre Dame Stadium known as Campus Crossroads.

The three buildings around the exterior of the Stadium, the added suites and the video board above the south end zone have garnered the headlines. On a macro level, those are the changes of note. On a micro level, however, other details have trickled into the public stream of knowledge as the work nears its conclusion.

Over the weekend—and now reignited by a column from the South Bend Tribune’s Mike Vorel—the image of the newly-added visitors’ tunnel delighted Irish fans. Vorel likens the narrow entry to “the spot they’d stash the gladiators before feeding them to starving tigers in The Coliseum.” Assuredly, Vorel is going for dramatic effect, and it must work considering its citation here, but even a realistic view of the tunnel’s effects bodes well.

If nothing else, Notre Dame players should enjoy something of a psychological boost when racing out of their adult-sized tunnel and seeing their opponent trickle out of a tunnel seemingly-sized for ants. (Yes, the north end zone tunnel is at least three times bigger than the visitors’ tunnel.)

That pale, slanted staircase holds none of the luxuries of the home team’s entrance, something Kelly went out of his way to praise after using it in Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. (more…)

Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers

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You want complete honesty? The linebacker version of this series includes no revelations, no unexpected developments, no surprising spring performances. There is an allusion to a position switch, sure, but this piece became much simpler with the rover being discussed separately Thursday.

The idea was to capitalize on the NFL Draft for the morning and let the linebackers slip by in the afternoon, noticed only by those twiddling their thumbs through the last hours of the work week. Alas, former Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer was not drafted in the first round and a brief recap of his draft destination will need to await at least another day. Programming note: The NFL Draft reconvenes tonight (Friday) at 7 p.m. ET. The Green Bay Packers are on the clock. They will not draft a quarterback.

But back to the linebackers. This piece may have been intended to slip by with little fanfare, but that is not indicative of the Irish linebackers. Where Notre Dame was is so similar to where Notre Dame is simply because two experienced senior captains lead the way at linebacker.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
Aside from questions about defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s rover position, only one question stood out about this linebacker group: Who would start alongside senior Nyles Morgan: senior Greer Martini or junior Te’von Coney?

A year ago Coney recorded the fourth-most tackles on the team with 62. Martini finished fifth with 55, and his seven tackles for loss, including three sacks, dwarfed Coney’s 1.5. Yet Coney technically started nine games compared to Martini’s four.

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

With the rover often lining up essentially as a linebacker, there would only be space for one of Martini or Coney in most formations.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
In his first season with the Irish, Elko will have quite a luxury in referring to Coney as a backup linebacker. In some respects, that designation was inevitable as soon as Martini was named a captain. Nonetheless, Coney will see plenty of playing time.

The two captains—along with fellow captain, senior Drue Tranquill at rover—will be counted on throughout the summer and fall camp to continue the defense’s growth in Elko’s system. Elko said he installed “close to 50 percent” of his entire defense throughout spring practice. The linebackers must deal with the most difficult aspects of that learning.

“There’s been a noticeable improvement in terms of this starting to look like the defense we want this to look like as spring has gone on,” Elko said a week ago. “… Linebacker probably more than any other position, linebacker and safety, where the scheme takes some time to get used to, how you see it, how you fit it, how you feel it. Those guys have gotten better with that which has then allowed them to play faster as the spring has moved on.”

Sophomore Jonathan Jones will likely provide any further depth that may be needed in 2017, unless either of the incoming freshmen, David Adams and Drew White, excel from the outset. Irish coach Brian Kelly indicated sophomore Jamir Jones (no relation to Jonathan, but is former Notre Dame defensive lineman Jarron Jones’ brother) may be destined for time on the defensive line, in large part to Jones’s continued growth. Junior Josh Barajas let the spring come and go without mandating he be involved in these conversations, which may as well count as removing himself from the conversation in most regards.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame Was, Is & Could Be: Rover