How we got here: Breaking down 4-2

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Brian Kelly won’t be joining us for his weekly Tuesday press conference, with the Irish having a week off before playing USC next weekend under the lights at Notre Dame Stadium. Kelly has talked a little bit about what the Irish coaching staff does with its in-season off weeks: player development for younger inexperienced players, rest and recovery for its front-line contributors, and a full self-assessment and scout for the coaching staff. We’ll be doing something similar here, looking over each position group to take stock of where this team is at the halfway mark.

First off, let’s look at some big picture things, comparing them to last season. With the bye week falling after four games last season, we’ve got a more complete picture today than we did after the Irish survived a 13-6 defensive slugfest to beat Michigan. But let’s try our best to compare apples to apples, and look at where this team is at the same point in each season.

RECORD:
2012: 6-0
2013: 4-2

Kelly has talked about the margin for error being razor thin, just as it was last season. Last season, the Irish had its defense to fall back on, giving Everett Golson a learning curve with a little bit of cushion. The defense carried the day for the Irish, holding opponents to just 52 points in the first six games of the season.

Like this season, the Irish faced three ranked opponents — No. 10 Michigan State, No. 18 Michigan, and No. 17 Stanford. Notre Dame won all three games, with only the victory over the Spartans being comfortable. This year, the Irish also squared off with three ranked teams, losing by two scores to both No. 17 Michigan and No. 14 Oklahoma, but beating No. 22 Arizona State.

Like last season, the second half of the schedule looks more favorable to the Irish. Notre Dame played one team ranked in the top ten last year during the home stretch, defeating No. 8 Oklahoma. This year, they’ve currently got only one ranked team on the slate, the season finale against No. 5 Stanford.

OFFENSE:

Outside of the 50-point outburst against Navy to open the season, the Irish looked average at best for much of the first half of last season. The 41-point outburst against Miami stands out, but it’s interesting that Golson only threw for 186 yards on 22 attempts against the Hurricanes, as the Irish racked up all of their points in the ground game, where they exploded for 376 yards.

That ground game seemed to come out of nowhere, considering the Irish ran for just 52 yards against Purdue, 122 yards against Michigan State, and 94 yards against the Wolverines. As impressive as the outburst was against the Hurricanes, perhaps even more impressive was the ground game the Irish established against Stanford, willing their way to a hard-earned 150 yards on 3.4 yards a carry.

Throwing the ball, Golson’s mark at the halfway point of the season was okay. He had thrown for just four touchdowns and three interceptions through six games, surprising when you look back at a 12-0 season with a filter of success. Even scarier, looking at Golson’s QBR, as equated by ESPN’s rankings, and he played some downright terrible games, with a 1.6 against Michigan a fairly large multiplier worst than Tommy Rees’ game against Oklahoma (a 10.3 QBR).

This season’s offense hasn’t found its rhythm running the ball yet, but they aren’t that far off of last year’s pace, especially when you consider this team will likely put up big numbers against subpar defensive teams like Air Force and Navy as well. The Irish are averaging just 136 yards per game on the ground, still only good for 91st in the country. Through the air they’re doing much better, but still a middle of the road 56th.

DEFENSE:

This isn’t much of a contest. Last season the Irish were giving up less than 10 points a game at this point, earning victories against Michigan State, Michigan and Stanford almost solely on the back of the defense. This season, the defense hasn’t played much better than mediocre in the team’s two losses, with the effort against Arizona State their best to date.

Last year’s early output was paced by Manti Te’o and a Stephon Tuitt. We all know Te’o’s heroics by now, but Tuitt came out of nowhere and had 6.5 sacks in the first six games of last season. The Irish just got to that number on the season on Saturday, thanks to the efforts of Prince Shembo and Tuitt.

Across the board the numbers aren’t all that close. This year’s defense is less stingy against the run. It’s giving up bigger plays against the pass. They aren’t taking the ball away as much, nor are they doing as well in the red zone.

Of course, that’s not always a fair standard to hold teams to, especially when last year’s defense put together a historic performance. But one look at the box score against Michigan and Oklahoma and see you the very different performances by these groups.

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