And in that corner… The USC Trojans

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There is no better intersectional rivalry in college football than the one between Notre Dame and Southern Cal. Started in 1926, and now meeting for the 85th time, the Irish lead the all-time series 44-35, with five ties between the two teams.

With quite a bit of turmoil and uncertainty surrounding the USC football program, I reached out to our old friend Shotgun Spratling to see what exactly is happening around Troy. In between writing at Conquest Chronicles, College Baseball Daily, SCPlaybook Magazine and Neon Tommy, Shotgun had some great insight into this Saturday night’s game.

I asked, he answered. Enjoy.

1) Pat Haden fired Lane Kiffin after just five games. Did he have much of a choice? What were the last two weeks like at USC? Was Thursday night’s win cathartic?

After the Arizona State game, the writing seemed to be on the wall. The same issues that were problematic over the tumultuous final 11 games (4-7) under Kiffin were present in Tempe. USChad trouble blocking up front, struggled to make second-half adjustments and saw breakdowns in the secondary.

Pat Haden likely believed he didn’t have a choice. He had seen what Kiffin could do and knew that a firing was inevitable, so instead of waiting until the end of the year, he went ahead and made the decision sooner rather than later, very similar to his midseason firing of hoops coach Kevin O’Neill earlier this year.

Since the Kiffin firing, there has been a renewed energy and excitement surrounding the team. Interim head coach Ed Orgeron is known for his infectious gravely Cajun voice and for his ability to destroy energy drinks on a regular basis.

His exuberance has permeated the team and spread to the fans as well. He brought back desserts to the training table meals. There was a team movie viewing the night before the Arizona game. Marcus Allen, Keyshawn Johnson and Ray Lewis have spoke with the team. Orgeron allowed the media back into practice, giving fans more access to information. They are all small changes, but it is swinging things back to the Pete Carroll rah-rah, fun culture and people are excited about the rest of the season.

That was on display Thursday night. Though there may have only been 50,000 fans actually in attendance (over 62,000 officially), it was a very boisterous 50K. And Orgeron and offensive coordinator Clay Helton, who was calling plays for the first time with USC, gave the fans what they wanted — downfield passing, using the middle of the field and giving several players opportunities to make plays.

2) Help me understand what’s going on with the Trojan defense. Statistically, they do some very impressive things. Yet they’ve also turned in two really mediocre performances in a row, albeit against two solid offenses.

How has Clancy Pendergast done in his first season running the defense?

USC’s defense has indeed been enigmatic. After shutting down Boston College’s Andre Williams, one of the best backs in the country this season, and the dynamic Chuckie Keaton of Utah State, the Trojans showed huge flaws against the Arizona schools.The biggest issue has been the secondary, just as it was last season. Clancy Pendergast relies on an attacking defense and when he brings extra defenders, that leaves a porous secondary in one-on-one situations — the exact goal of the spread option attack.

The key is getting pressure on the quarterback, which has been hit and miss. Leonard Williams and George Uko have been beasts on the line. Outside linebackers Morgan Breslin and Devon Kennard have made some big plays, but Breslin has missed two games already and is questionable this weekend.

Combine Breslin and a couple of defensive backs being banged up with USC’s scholarship limitations and there is a noticeable difference in the defense’s performance late in games. On the season, opponent’s offensive scoring increases each quarter from only 7 first quarter points to 46 in the fourth quarter.

While there are some technique issues with the Trojans struggling to contain the read option and the jet sweeps Arizona State ran successfully in the second half, depth issues are a legit concern. Give Pendergast a full roster of USC-caliber defenders that he is able to rotate in more freely and I think there is a noticeable difference from what we have seen the last two games.

3) It looks like injuries are once again killing the Trojans. Marqise Lee is questionable. A half-dozen other contributors could be limited. How bad is it? Will the luck of the Irish once again come in the form of a depleted USC roster.

Along with some of the defensive depth issues I touched on above, the Trojans have been absolutely decimated at the wide receiver position. After Lee went down in the Arizona game, Nelson Agholor and Victor Blackwell, who had previously missed time, were the only two scholarship receivers on the roster. Walk-ons George Katrib and Robby Kolanz had to be used in the regular rotation. USC also lost starting running back Tre Madden and future NFL tight end Xavier Grimble in the first half of that game.

The good news, however, is that the team is getting healthy. Senior running back Silas Redd returned from knee surgery last week. Receivers Darreus Rogers and De’Von Flournoy have returned to full practice this week. Lee has returned to practice in a limited role but expects to play Saturday. Grimble is probable and cornerback Anthony Brown should be back for the first time since the season opener.

Besides Lee, the biggest question mark is Breslin. It’s tough having your best offensive and defensive weapons out at the same time, but J.R. Tavai had a monster game in Breslin’s place last Thursday and Agholor proved he can fill Lee’s void if necessary.

4) Let’s get to the quarterback situation. It looks like Cody Kessler is playing better football after a pretty so-so start. What did the Trojans do differently against Arizona? After beating out Max Wittek, what’s Kessler’s ceiling? Is he a guy that can be a star, or is he keeping the position warm?

Kessler was hindered by very conservative playcalling early in the season, but even more so, by poor offensive line play. As I wrote after the Washington State loss, there were a number of “whiff” blocks that killed the Trojans. As the offensive line started to come together, the playbook opened up a bit. But against Arizona, Helton forced the issue, pushing the ball down the field to Agholor and using the middle of the field to take advantage of USC’s dynamic tight end duo and the pass-catching ability of the Trojans’ stable of running backs. Tight ends and running backs can be a quarterback’s best friend, so an increase in throws their way will only help Kessler’s development.

Kessler is a vocal leader — whether it’s in the huddle or in organizing offseason workouts this summer. His teammates respect him. While he doesn’t have the prototypical 6-foot-4 frame and rocket arm that Wittek possesses, Kessler can make every college throw and he is accurate on the run, allowing USC to utilize rollouts rather than relying solely on straight dropbacks. Last year’s Gatorade High School Player of the Year, Max Browne, could push Kessler for the starting role next season depending on the new head coach’s assessment of Kessler, but as of now, it’s his job to lose.

5) You’re Pat Haden. Who do you hire? Who on this staff do you keep? With UCLA back on track and the Pac-12 one of the deepest conferences in college football, how important is this decision?

I love being other people. If I’m Pat Haden, I shoot for the moon, the stars and maybe even another galaxy. This is USC — an undisputed top five job in college football. I make inquiries with Nick Saban and David Shaw. I call Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll. Do I expect any of these guys to say yes? Absolutely not, but it never hurts to ask and I want to hear Harbaugh’s reaction. Next I move to Baylor’s Art Briles (imagine the offensive excitement between Briles and basketball coach Andy Enfield), Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin, Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton and Louisville’s Charlie Strong.

The dark horse is Orgeron, who should be considered depending on the Trojans finish. Regardless, he has to be retained. There are very few people that are as revered around USC than Orgeron (and that was before being named interim coach). He is loved by everyone because of his energy and positivity. Plus, he’s a damn good recruiter and defensive line coach.

This is a huge decision because USC is known for its football. It’s even more imperative with UCLA trending upward. Traditionally the two schools are never strong at the same time. Why not? Who knows? But how much fun would it be if the Crosstown Showdown was determining the Pac-12 South at the end of the season every year?

***

You can read more from Shotgun at Conquest Chronicles and follow him on Twitter @ShotgunSpr

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

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Rover

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Before spring practice, the rover position was lumped in with the linebackers in positional previews. Nearly two months later, that seems to have been the right placement—the rover will likely spend most of its time at the defense’s second level.

But since curiosity about the rover and its unknown place in Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme ran rampant—especially when compared to the rather solid understanding of the 2017 Irish linebackers—let’s take a look specifically at the rover.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:

“Who will start at [Elko’s] rover position,” this space asked. “What will his role entail?”

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

Senior safety Drue Tranquill was expected to see the most time at rover, perhaps with cameos from junior linebacker Asmar Bilal and sophomore safeties D.J. Morgan and Spencer Perry (since transferred).

More than anything, though, learning how Elko intended to deploy his defensive utility knife would answer the most questions about his defense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:

Tranquill will indeed lead the position, but not without much effort from Bilal.

“We’ve tried quite a few bodies out there,” Elko said Friday. “I think as spring has gone on, we’ve gotten a feel of what each of them can do, what parts of the package we can run with each of them. I think we’ve got a pretty good pulse now on how we want that thing to play out, who will be there doing what.”

Elko is excessively reluctant to discuss individual players, so asking him to expound on who will be at rover in particular situations was largely a fruitless exercise. Earlier this spring, Irish head coach Brian Kelly indicated Bilal would be featured against run-heavy offenses. That may well prove to be the case, but it is far more likely Tranquill sees the majority of the repetitions at the position.

RELATED READING: Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover positon, others likely to follow

“It’s been a good fit all spring [for Tranquill],” Kelly said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “He’s a plus player there for us. He really can impact what’s happening from snap to snap. He’s a physical player and playing low to the ball is really where he can do a lot of really good things for us.”

For his part, Tranquill enjoys the position and the unique number of duties innate to it. In theory, the rover aligns mostly with the linebackers but can be relied on to provide coverage when necessary. At other times, the rover will be asked to rush the passer. That flexibility allows Elko to keep the offense guessing.

“I love the rover position,” Tranquill said. “It’s a versatile position that allows you to come off the edge, allows you to play the run, play the pass, and do a lot of different things.”

Sometimes it allows you to pretend like you’re coming off the edge and then actually embarrass a potential first-round draft pick.

In senior left guard Quenton Nelson’s defense, Tranquill did add Nelson probably won more of their battles in spring practices than the defender did.

WHERE NOTRE DAME COULD BE:

Elko indicated there could be a third primary option in his tool kit. Notre Dame has a plethora of talented cornerbacks. Last week, Kelly indicated he might ask one of them to chip in at safety in obvious passing situations. Similarly, Elko predicted junior Shaun Crawford could play at rover against particular passing attacks, a la Bilal against certain rushing offenses.

“A lot of this is dictated by who that guy is lined up and what we’re trying to do,” Elko said. “We’re going to see a lot of really talented slot receivers. We’re going to have to match up and cover them well. There’s other names other than the big linebacker/safety bodies to put at that position. [Junior safety] Nick Coleman has done that some this spring. [Junior safety] Ashton White has done that some this spring. When Shaun gets healthy, I think he’ll do that some. That is all encompassing in that position.”

The 5-foot-9, 175-pound Crawford has since announced his return to full health, which should allow him plenty of time to readjust to contact before the start of fall practice.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line

Work in weight & film rooms has Hayes ready to meet five-star potential

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Common thinking might give four- and five-star recruits too much credit. They do not all arrive ready to play at the collegiate level on day one. It takes time, conditioning, learning. Perhaps it was that awareness that kept Daelin Hayes from letting his five-star ranking on rivals.com change his expectations. He knew he would have much work ahead of him when he arrived at Notre Dame as the only five-star prospect in the class of 2016.

Now finishing his freshman year, the defensive end notices the effects of his work as he puts in more.

“I remember my first time watching film, I was like, woah,” Hayes said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “I look quicker, like more twitch than I did. I was definitely—it’s hard to put into words—but to actually be able to go back and look at it and see how it affected the game was huge. [Director of football performance Matt] Balis has worked wonders for us.”

Hayes’ improved quickness showed in his three “sacks” in the intrasquad scrimmage. Going against future NFL prospect Mike McGlinchey at left tackle, Hayes faced a stiff challenge throughout spring’s 15 practices, not that he shied away from that task.

“I don’t think it was ever a point where it was overwhelming,” Hayes said. “I’ve always been a competitor. … But you guys know Mike, he’s huge, obviously a first-round talent and whatnot. I’m just grateful to be able to go against somebody like that each and every day. He makes me better. …

“I love competing with the guy. You go and do that with a guy in practice every day, then the game scenario comes, it’s like second nature. You can do this in practice, you can definitely do this against anybody.”

McGlinchey does not seem to mind the matchup, either.

“Daelin is a man who is blessed with a lot of size and athletic ability,” McGlinchey said Friday. “That presents a lot of problems for people in the game of football. He’s so young, and he has so much still to work on, it’s pretty cool to see what he’s capable of and then what he is going to do down the road.”

When Hayes arrived at Notre Dame, still recovering from a high school shoulder injury, he weighed 250 pounds with 18 percent body fat. Now, he said, he still weighs 250—the Irish roster lists him at 255—but is down to 10 percent body fat. It is that kind of change which has created more twitch and makes McGlinchey envision Hayes after more time spent improving in the weight room and the film room.

“I’m not the same athlete that I was when I first came in, not by any means,” Hayes said. “… Buying into that offseason program is going to be huge for our team.”

Per the Blue-Gold Game’s statistics, Hayes ended the scrimmage with seven tackles. Whether skeptical of the recordkeeping within a practice or not, seven tackles in one abbreviated afternoon compares favorably to Hayes’ total of 11 in 12 games last season. Some of that uptick is playing time, some of it is scheme, some of it is realization of the potential highlighted by a five-star ranking. For now, though, Hayes insists he intends to simply learn from last year’s 4-8 disappointment and embrace the changes brought by new Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko.

“With last year being the year that we had, there definitely was a yearning for change,” Hayes said. “When you have basically a reboot of the program, the guys are hungry and they don’t want to have to experience the same season as last year.

“Just continue to trust in that process. We’re hungry for something to cling on and buy into. When coach Elko, coach Balis, everybody came in as part of that reboot, I think we welcomed with open arms. [We’ll] continue to buy into the system and become more comfortable within the system.”