Final thoughts before kickoff

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With Notre Dame in need of a rebound against an Arizona State team that looks a lot more dangerous than ever before, let’s run through ten Irish players that need to play well for Notre Dame to win in tonight’s primetime affair.

Tommy Rees. No need to sugarcoat it. (And after reading the comments on recent stories, nobody here has been.) Rees needs to play better to win. Against a Sun Devil defense that might spend 90 percent of its time in man-to-man coverage, the game’s going to be on Rees’s shoulders offensively, even with an emphasis in the running game.

After forgetting about underneath throws against Michigan State, the Irish did have some success on crossing routes against Oklahoma. But Rees will need to be able to connect on some downfield shots to loosen up a Sun Devils defense that isn’t exactly the stingiest group in the country.

Nick Martin. After practicing each week against Louis Nix, Martin will get his chance to face off with an All-American defensive tackle when it actually counts tonight. If Martin can hold up against Will Sutton, the Irish ground game can do some damage both inside and out.

Prince Shembo. Maybe it’s not entirely fair to call Shembo a part of the Witness Protection Program like I did earlier this week, but Shembo has got to start making his presence known in the pass rush department, an area where the Irish are in desperate need of production.

The senior linebacker has been called on to spend more time doing the little things right, like keeping leverage on the edge of the defense. But against a Sun Devil offense that can take big chunks of yardage in a hurry, a few plays made behind the line of scrimmage would do this unit some good.

Shembo is too good of a player to stay off the stat sheet for much longer. On the quick playing surface at Jerry World, I’m expecting the best game of the year for the cat linebacker.

Austin Collinsworth. Brian Kelly and Bob Diaco have a ton of faith in Collinsworth. But it’s time for the senior safety to reward the team with something more than being just consistent. After Harrison Smith and Zeke Motta played outstanding football anchoring the back end of the Irish defense, Collinsworth needs to provide more than just stability in the back end. Making sure the Irish aren’t caught in any broken coverages is mandatory, especially since those looks will surely be exploited by Sun Devils quarterback Taylor Kelly.

The back end of the Irish defense will be under more pressure than they’ve been all season. And while Collinsworth will likely share leadership duties with Matthias Farley, it’s time for the senior to take charge.

George Atkinson. After playing his best game in an Irish uniform, it’s time for Atkinson to do it again, especially against a Sun Devils defense that’s mediocre against the run. After running through arm tackles and making big plays against Oklahoma, the Irish absolutely need Atkinson to do it again, even if there’s a bullseye on his back.

Period.

DaVaris Daniels. If you listened to Brian Kelly this week, you start to get the feeling that this coaching staff desperately wants more out of Daniels. That means more Saturdays like the ones against Temple and Purdue than what’s happened the past two weeks, when Daniels has been shut down in man coverage for a combined four catches for 19 yards.

Kelly and Chuck Martin believe that Daniels can be the big play downfield receiver that the Irish count on. But that means Daniels needs to win the one-on-one battles, something he hasn’t done the past two weeks. Cornerback Osahon Irabor is one of the Sun Devils most experienced players. Starting across from him is Robert Nelson, another fifth-year senior. That’s a lot of experience, but it’s time for Daniels to produce against top shelf opponents. He did so against Alabama in the BCS title game, so the talent is there. Now he’s got to show the consistency.

Jarrett Grace. The junior linebacker has made his move into the starting lineup. Now he needs to play better in the pass game, where he’ll be challenging this evening by a speedy fleet of Sun Devil receivers.

Kelly talked about the slant play that got inside Grace on a critical third down that went for 56-yards and a touchdown. That can’t happen tonight if the Irish want to win.

Stephon Tuitt. With Sheldon Day still likely limited, Tuitt’s going to play a lot of minutes tonight. And he’s going to need to play dominant up front in helping to limit the Sun Devil’s run game. Tuitt has slowly improved since a slow start from his hernia surgery recovery. And while his good snaps have been good, his bad snaps haven’t looked the part of a future first rounder.

With all five starters on the Sun Devil offensive line upperclassmen, it’s going to be a good battle up front. And Tuitt is going to have to carry the load, because the drop off after Day and Schwenke is sizable.

Bennett Jackson. It’s been an up and down season for the Irish captain. And he’ll be challenged again tonight, with Arizona State pushing the football down the field and the tempo between plays.

Someone needs to help this defense recapture the swagger and confidence it had last season. Jackson is the one wearing the ‘C’ on his jersey, and that duty ultimately falls on him. But until he can gets his game in order, it’s tough for that moxie to wear off on his teammates.

TJ Jones. The senior receiver has the opportunity to steal the spotlight from the Sun Devil offense with a breakout performance tonight. Whether it’s a big play in the return game, breaking a screen pass for a big gain, or connecting on a long throw down the field, Jones needs to be the best player on the field for the Irish offense.

After 15 catches in the season’s first two games, Jones has only had ten grabs in the last three for just 114 yards. Those are the type of numbers he should put up tonight, especially if the Irish run game gives Jones a chance to be a weapon in the playaction passing game.

Recruiting success continues with OL Dirksen, class’s 12th commit

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Even in the doldrums of spring practice, Notre Dame’s recent recruiting success continues. Rivals.com three-star/scout.com four-star offensive lineman John Dirksen offered a verbal commitment to the Irish on Saturday, bringing the 2018 class to 12 commitments.

The 6-foot-5, 290-pounds Dirksen (Marion High School; Maria Stein, Ohio) joins consensus three-star prospect Cole Mabry (Brentwood H.S.; Brentwood, Tenn.) as the offensive linemen thus far among the 12. In three of the last four years, Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has pulled in four recruits, with 2015’s two (Trevor Ruhland, Tristen Hoge) as the exception. This recruiting cycle could again bring a limited offensive line haul, given the likely limits on the class’s size.

While any and all current class of 2018 team rankings should be taken with many grains of salt—there are 318 days between today and National Signing Day, after all—Dirksen’s commitment solidifies the Irish hold on the No. 3 class, per rivals.com. Other recruiting services place Notre Dame even higher.

Dirksen chose Hiestand and the Irish over offers from Michigan State, Iowa State and Boston College, among others.

 

Holmes out for spring; Jones & Jones shining

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Notre Dame’s spring continued over the weekend, and is all too often the case with football, that led to an injury. Early enrollee running back C.J. Holmes will probably miss the rest of spring practice due to a separated shoulder, Irish coach Brian Kelly announced following Saturday’s practice.

“We’ll get an MRI and know a little bit further on Monday once that calms down a little bit,” Kelly said. “We’ll get a picture of that and see. He had an open repair on that same shoulder his sophomore year in high school.”

Behind three backs, including two with experience, Holmes was unlikely to see playing time in the backfield in 2017.

Of those three backs, sophomore Tony Jones, Jr., is the unknown after preserving a year of eligibility last season. In limited practice viewing, however, Jones has only impressed. He has caught Kelly’s eye, as well.

“He’s 225 pounds, can catch the ball coming out of the backfield, [is] assignment correct, and can run elusively and can get into the second level,” Kelly said. “What does that equal? He’s a pretty good back.

“Obviously he was noticeable today in his play and he got some work with the first group as well. He wasn’t just getting second-team reps.”

Jones may be getting some first-unit exposure, but expect him to remain behind junior Josh Adams in the depth chart. Considering Jones’ style is somewhat comparable to Adams’, whereas junior Dexter Williams presents something of a change of pace, Williams should see more action than the sophomore, as well.

MORE PRAISE FOR ALIZE JONES
Junior tight end Alizé Jones—rather, Alizé Mack, per his Twitter account—has taken the lead in spring’s race of who reaps the most sound bite accolades. In complimenting Jones, who missed last season due to an academic suspension, Kelly also managed to laud new offensive coordinator Chip Long.

“I think Chip is doing a terrific job with [Jones],” Kelly said. “He’s got a good relationship. He knows how to rise him up when he needs to and scold him when he needs to. Alizé needs a little bit of that.

“He’s virtually un-coverable in certain areas of the field. I don’t care at any level. You can’t cover him. He just has that kind of talent. The one that I think stands out to me in the few days is he’s committed himself to being a blocker and playing physical. If he continues to do that, we’re going to find ourselves with a lot of tight ends on the field.”

Presumably, Jones would join graduate student tight end Durham Smythe in two tight end sets. It should be remembered, Long has historically shown a preference for such formations, and with Notre Dame’s plethora of options at the position, Long’s tendencies have no need to change. For that matter, Long had some praise for Jones this weekend, as well.

“Alizé can be as good as he wants to be,” Long said Friday. “…He’s growing up each and every day. Great joy to coach, and that whole group is. He doesn’t want to let that group down. There’s no question he can be as good as he wants to be.”

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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