Five things we learned: Notre Dame 37, Arizona State 34

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After a month of getting kicked around, picked on, and compared to last year’s historic unit, you can forgive Notre Dame’s defense for playing with a chip on their shoulder. And with Irish fans steaming after Tommy Rees’s throw sailed over DaVaris Daniels’ head to stop a clock with precious few seconds left, you can hardly blame senior linebacker Dan Fox for diving into the end zone after his interception, even though a kneel down would’ve ended the game.

Fox’s touchdown extended the Irish’s lead to ten points — all of them needed — as Notre Dame held off a late-charging Sun Devil offense for a wild 37-34 victory in AT&T Stadium. The Irish defense carried the day with three turnovers and a resurgent pass rush, winning a game that didn’t necessarily play like a shootout until the game’s final seconds.

“I just felt like we were getting better,” Kelly said of his defense. “You know, not to the level where we feel like we have arrived. We think there’s a lot left out there that needs to get better.”

For all the twists and turns the Irish took during the season’s opening month, Notre Dame now heads to the off week at 4-2 before welcoming USC to South Bend. Nobody will forget losses to Michigan and Oklahoma, but after a frustrating week spent poking holes in every facet of Kelly’s football team both during and after football games, the Irish won as an underdog in a game they desperately needed.

Let’s find out what else we learned during Notre Dame’s 37-34 Shamrock Series victory.

***

They’re not the same unit that led the Irish to the National Championship game. But Bob Diaco’s defense won the football game for Notre Dame. 

Entering Saturday night’s game with more questions than answers, Notre Dame’s defense was at a crossroads. An injury to Sheldon Day forced the defensive front to work in some players not exactly ready to contribute. The suspension of Ben Councell and a season-ending injury to Jarrett Grace led to Joe Schmidt and Romeo Okwara taking snaps at linebacker. And critical mistakes in the secondary turned some okay performances into bad ones.

But on a Saturday night where the Irish were facing their biggest test of the season, Bob Diaco dialed up a textbook game plan, and the Irish defense forced turnovers and got after the quarterback, two essentials on the way victory.

“They’re a very difficult offense to defend. They do so many things very well,” Kelly said. “It’s just a difficult offense to defend and thought we did a pretty darn good job.”

After being held sackless, Prince Shembo was a man on a mission on Saturday night, playing primarily with his hand on the ground and dominating with three sacks. Stephon Tuitt was relentless as well, adding a sack and forcing a fumble as he played a ton of snaps with Day still out. Bennett Jackson had a key strip when the team needed momentum. Matthias Farley rebounded after a tough series and made a clutch interception. Dan Fox stepped back in after Grace was injured and returned an interception for a touchdown.

No, it wasn’t the kind of stingy, mistake-free performance that marked last season’s historic regular season. But after failing to make big plays for much of the season, it was the defense that carried the weight.

The film room will show some of the areas that need to be cleaned up. But a gritty performance against an elite college offense was just what Brian Kelly had pointed at all week.

***

Needing to control the tempo of the football game, Notre Dame’s offense did their job. 

It wasn’t always pretty, but Tommy Rees and the Irish offense did their job, holding onto the football for over 35 minutes while keeping the Sun Devils off the field. A week after George Atkinson broke lose with his best game of the season, the junior turned over the crunch time carries to Dallas-area native Cam McDaniel, and the Texan answered the bell with 15 tough carries, running for 82 yards on the evening.

Playing 20 minutes from home, McDaniel was a key in the fourth quarter, carrying it nine straight times for the Irish.

“We’ve been looking for some consistency offensively, we knew heading into the game we had to control the football and keep that offense off the field,” Kelly said.

Against an Arizona State defense that had struggled against the run, Notre Dame only rushed for 3.9 yards per carry, with Atkinson never getting started. But when push came to shove the Irish ground game was there, and McDaniel’s gritty performance was a big reason why.

***

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After learning on the job in the season’s opening month, Jaylon Smith had a breakout performance. 

With Ben Councell forced to sit out the first half after an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and ejection last week, freshman Jaylon Smith was tasked with playing without a safety net against one of the most dangerous offenses in college football. Smith was up to the task, leading the Irish with nine tackles, including 1.5 for loss.

Danny Spond’s retirement during preseason forced Smith into an every snap role, playing a position that forces even the most athletic player to do an awful lot of thinking. Even with a steep learning curve, Smith’s freakish abilities have been seen in flashes, but never for four quarters like the ones he played on Saturday night.

“He’s a difficult guy to block. He’s got great speed,” Kelly said of Smith. “You saw him and his ability to track down Kelly in the open field. He’s a very important player now within our defense.”

With spread offenses making things harder and harder on defenses, a weapon like Smith might not always show up in the box score, but he’s certainly essential in slowing down a big play opponent like ASU.

He may have struggled keeping leverage a few times, but Smith was a dominant factor in containing Taylor Kelly in the run game, with the Sun Devils’ quarterback being held to less than one yard per carry.

***

In a must-have football game, Notre Dame’s veteran leaders rose to the occasion.

It’s been a relatively quiet season for Notre Dame’s captains. A year after Tyler Eifert and Manti Te’o became two of the leading men of college football, offensive tackle Zack Martin, wide receiver TJ Jones, and cornerback Bennett Jackson have remained mostly anonymous. That goes with the territory for Martin, but shouldn’t be the case for Jones and Jackson, who are desperately needed by this team to be key playmakers on both sides of the ball.

Saturday night, all three guys with a ‘C’ on their chest played great football. Martin anchored an offensive line that helped the offense rack up over 400 yards and kept Rees from getting sacked. Even with the Sun Devils defense bringing five and six men, they failed to get to Rees once, while the Irish run game did enough down the stretch to win.

Meanwhile, Jones caught eight balls for 135 yards and a touchdown, also contributing a huge punt return. As he needed to be, Jones was the best player on the field for the Irish offense, doing the little things right and also making big plays down the field. Facing man coverage and needing to defeat it, Jones and Rees were in sync all night.

“TJ’s best asset is how well he understands defenders are playing him, and then he runs routes based off of that,” Rees explained. “A guy like that I can trust and count on being on the same page.”

After being off for much of the first month, Bennett Jackson seems to have hit his stride as well, looking much better in man coverage and playing his usual physical brand of football at the boundary cornerback position. His tackle and strip of receiver Richard Smith also teed up an Irish touchdown, extending Notre Dame’s lead to 11 points late in the third quarter.

When the team needed it, the Irish’s senior leaders stepped up.

***

It wasn’t necessarily always pretty. But it was all hands on deck for the Irish victory. 

Joe Schmidt at inside linebacker. Romeo Okwara at defensive tackle. Forgotten man Ben Koyack chipping in an all-important touchdown catch. Notre Dame’s depth chart extended on Saturday night and the Irish won the game thanks to big performances by players big and small.

It wasn’t a victory that came without some losses. Both Daniel Smith and Jarrett Grace are lost for the season. Smith broke an ankle while Grace fractured his tibia. Smith will force the young Irish receiving corps to find another glue guy, someone willing to play physically and block on the perimeter. The loss of Grace will hurt the Irish even more, leaving the defense will Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese to man the inside linebacker positions with zero experience behind them.

Still, the Irish won a football game against a very talented Arizona State team. And while there were breakdowns in the secondary and uneven play on offense, Brian Kelly won for the eleventh time in his last twelve when the football game was decided by less than a touchdown.

The loss to Oklahoma last week sent fans into another spiral, where debates about the alma mater turned into a minor referendum on a team that pulled rabbits out of hats all last season. But with the noise once against getting louder around this football team, Kelly’s squad tuned it all out and played their best football of the season.

A pass rush that had been nonexistent roared. A defense that couldn’t force turnovers became opportunistic. Tommy Rees completed passes on the move and from an empty set. And even though the Irish committed nine penalties and struggled to close out the football game,  heading into the off week with a 4-2 record looks infinitely better than 3-3.

“It’s a big win for us,” Rees said after the game. “To get right back on the right track heading into the bye week, the halfway point of the season, was the kind of a game we understood the importance of.”

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

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This space has mentioned a few times the dearth of returning sacks among Notre Dame’s defensive line. It is a pertinent fact—no returning Irish defensive lineman recorded a sack in the 2016 season—but it fails to mention the flipside of that.

Most of Notre Dame’s defensive linemen had few, if any, opportunities to rush the passer in 2016. Perhaps at the top of the list of those who should bring down the opposing passer a few times this fall, sophomore Daelin Hayes has laid claim to a starting rush spot through five spring practices.

“The athleticism is what obviously stands out,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “He’s extremely athletic, he’s fit physically, 250 pounds and very strong.”

These facts are, after all, the reasons Hayes was a highly sought-after five-star recruit according to rivals.com.

“It’s the football knowledge, learning the techniques at the position in which he plays is really the piece,” Kelly continued. “It’s just learning right now for him. This is the time to do it, in spring ball.

“Squeezing down on a tight end when the back is away. Wrong-arming the puller. These are all football terms and schemes that are a bit new to him. We have to be patient with him. He’s an explosive athlete. There’s going to be some mistakes along the way, and I’m okay with that as long as he’s learning.”

Without much depth pushing for playing time behind him, Hayes will have the opportunity to make, and subsequently understand, those mistakes. Seniors Jay Hayes (no relation) and Andrew Trumbetti are mired in competition for the other end spot, while sophomores Julian Okwara, Adetokunbo Ogundeji and Khalid Kareem may have even more development ahead of them than Daelin Hayes does.

Incoming freshmen Kofi Wardlow and Jonathon MacCollister will join the fray in the summer, but for now, the younger Hayes has his chance to impress with his natural gifts while absorbing the intricacies of new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s defense.

Hayes is not a complete unknown. While Okwara made four tackles last season in 11 games and Kareem appeared in four games, Hayes saw action in every contest, finishing the season with 11 tackles, one pass breakup and one forced fumble.

“He’s an athlete,” defensive line coach Mike Elston said last week. “He’s on the edge in a two-point stance. He’s not a trained, put-your-hand-on-the-ground defensive end. He played running back in high school. He can see things better in a two-point and can diagnose quicker. He’s able to be more productive.”

It may be accurate to mention no returning Notre Dame defensive linemen tackled a quarterback for a loss last season, but it is more precise to also include the Irish have possibilities of changing that trend.

SPEAKING OF THE DEFENSIVE LINE
Notre Dame is nearly as thin at defensive tackle as it is at end. Junior Jerry Tillery leads the way with senior end-converted-to-tackle Jonathan Bonner lining up next to him thus far. Their reserves: Oft-concussed senior Daniel Cage, senior Pete Mokwuah and junior Micah Dew-Treadway with junior Elijah Taylor out for the spring with a foot injury.

Theoretically, junior Brandon Tiassum is also in the mix, and three freshmen (Kurt Hinish, Myron Tagovailo-Amosa and four-star Darnell Ewell) will join the group in the summer.

And maybe, just maybe, perhaps, possibly … Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano could walk onto campus alongside those freshmen. Pagano visited Notre Dame the first week of March, and was due to look at Oklahoma and Arkansas the next two weekends, respectively. Instead, Pagano reportedly cancelled both of those visits Monday.

Pagano does still have a visit to Oregon scheduled for April 21. Until indicated otherwise, it may be prudent to presume Pagano hopes to land as close to his Hawaiian home as possible.

RELATED READING: 1 Day Until Spring Practice: A look at the defensive line

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.