Pregame Six Pack: More similar than different

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As Notre Dame and USC get set to do battle for the 85th time in the greatest intersectional rivalry in college football, it’s time to acknowledge that both programs see a lot more of themselves in the other one than they care to admit. For the Trojans, that means swallowing their pride and starting over, something Pat Haden did after Lane Kiffin lost seven of his last eleven games and watched his team drive away without him after giving up 62 points. (They can certainly look to Notre Dame for advice on that, the Irish have done it four times in the last 12 years.)

For the Irish, that means acknowledging their envy of the past decade of dominance that Pete Carroll created, a head coach with the type of charisma and strategic intellect that Irish fans have yearned for since they let Lou Holtz walk. Brian Kelly may just be that man, even if he doesn’t get the media cooing like Carroll did with his care-free attitude and surfer vibe.

After breaking an eight-game losing streak, Brian Kelly is hoping to build one of his own, winning against the Trojans for the second straight year, and his third time in four attempts. And while another monster recruiting weekend and home night game have the distractions at an all-time high, Kelly stated very simply the priority of his football team.

“The atmosphere, the game, the people around will take care of the environment,” Kelly said when asked about the circus surrounding the game. “Just win the damn game.  Win the game.  That’s what you need to do.”

In a game where nearly two dozen players chose between playing football in South Los Angeles or South Bend, we’re having a special edition of the Pregame Six Pack. Instead of leftovers, tidbits and miscellaneous musings, we’re looking at six players who very easily could have been playing for the other team.

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NELSON AGHOLOR: 

USC’s sophomore sensation was one of the Notre Dame coaching staff’s most coveted recruits. While Tony Alford spent months building a relationship with the Tampa native, and the Irish rolled out the red carpet for an official visit in October, Agholor ultimately decided to go west and join the Kiffins, where both Lane and Monte played equal roles in landing the five-star athlete.

Kelly talked about how much he liked the way Agholor played the game earlier this week.

“We love the fact that he could go all day. He’s one of those guys that just runs all day, plays fast every snap,” Kelly said. “That’s the kind of player he was.  That’s what we saw.  A guy that plays every single play.  He was a very good defensive player too in high school. So that’s the kind of player, that tenacious, every play, and elite speed and size.  So just a complete player from that standpoint.”

Agholor is coming off a career day, catching seven balls for 161 yards and a touchdown against Arizona. He’ll likely carry much of the load against the Irish as well.

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TROY NIKLAS: 

An Orange County native, Niklas could’ve joined a large handful of Southern California natives that find it too tough to turn down a USC offer. But the 6-foot-7, 270-pound tight end will instead play against the Trojans, battling against a team that could’ve used another big body on either side of the football.

Niklas talked a little bit about the decision making process with IrishSportsDaily.com.

“In the end, it was between Notre Dame and USC,” Niklas told ISD. “They were both up there, but in the end it was a clear decision on where I was going.

“It was one of those ‘forks in the road’ that you encounter in life.”

Ultimately a late recruiting visit the weekend before Signing Day was enough to get Niklas to pick the Irish, a moment celebrated by the Irish coaching staff live during the UND.com Signing Day show, and a revealing look into how this program evaluated Niklas.

Expect a big Saturday from the Irish’s tight ends, where Ben Koyack has finally joined Niklas as a weapon.

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MICHAEL HUTCHINGS: 

With Jarrett Grace hurt and the Irish likely depending on former walk-on Joe Schmidt to take major snaps, the Irish almost pulling Hutchings out of California and into the Midwest would’ve been huge for Bob Diaco’s troops.

Hutchings has already worked his way into the two-deep at inside linebacker, a position with a lot of talent at Southern Cal. He talked about the pull that was close to bringing him to South Bend, and also the fellow recruit that would’ve teamed with him to make one of the elite linebacking groups in the country.

“Jaylon has been in my ear a lot about Notre Dame,” Hutchings told Rivals.com back during his recruitment. “He just tells me that if I go there, the two of us won’t have to worry about playing the same position since we’re both being recruited at different linebacker spots. Notre Dame will need linebacker help after this year, and the two of us will be playing right next to each other.”

It turns out the Irish needed that help sooner than later. Missing on Hutchings hurt especially bad with the last minute defection of Alex Anzalone, who has played in four games for Florida, notching just one tackle.

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GEORGE ATKINSON III: 

If the Irish are going to get the type of offensive balance they want, they’ll have to get a nice Saturday night out of George Atkinson. The California native had an offer in play for Southern Cal, but ultimately decided to head to South Bend, where he could play with his brother Josh.

Atkinson has seen some big moments in the rivalry, his kickoff return in ’11 ignited the crowd and helped jumpstart the Irish after they had fallen behind 17-0. That was something the Trojans’ coaching staff pitched to Atkinson when he was offered a scholarship back in August 2010.

“They want to get the ball in my hands, so that’s good,” Atkinson told USCFootball.com back during his recruitment. “They didn’t really say where they were recruiting at specifically. I said I’d like to play offense, so I think they see me as a wide out.”

Many expected Atkinson to play wideout at Notre Dame as well, but the switch to the backfield looks like the correct role for the big back with speed. He’ll reaffirm that choice with a strong second half of the season that should get started Saturday night.

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HAYES PULLARD

The Trojans leading tackler was once one of West Coast recruiting wiz and now Nevada head coach Brian Polian’s key recruiting targets. The Irish got Pullard onto campus for an official visit during the Irish’s overtime win over Jake Locker and the Washington Huskies, but couldn’t close the deal.

The Parade All-American made a difference quickly at USC, averaging almost 90 tackles a season in his first three seasons. Charlie Weis wasn’t quite sure what they saw in Pullard, hoping he could play either linebacker or running back.

“It doesn’t matter to me,” Pullard told Irish Illustrated’s (AND live-blog contributor) Steve Hare. “They said they’d decide when I get there.”

Ultimately the Irish never got that opportunity, and instead have watched him rack up ridiculous numbers, making 13 tackles last year against Notre Dame and eight in 2011.

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AMIR CARLISLE

Nobody can say they’ve seen both sides of this rivalry like Amir Carlisle, who chose USC narrowly over Notre Dame during the recruiting process, played one season under Lane Kiffin, then transferred to Notre Dame. After sitting out the last opportunity to play the Trojans with a broken ankle, Carlisle admitted that this was a different game than most he’ll play.

“I’m not gonna lie, yeah, there’s an excitement for me personally to be able to face my former team,” Carlisle told reporters on Wednesday. “I’m going to approach this game like any other game, but there’s a little extra there.”

Finding a job for Carlisle, who has slipped out of the primary game plan these past couple weeks, could be important. After struggling against Purdue and coughing up a late game fumble, Carlisle’s struggled to get much of anything going, something he’d desperately like to change against USC.

The Irish would embrace it as well, with many believing that Carlisle is the team’s answer at slot receiver.

Carlisle stays in touch with some Trojans from Irish Illustrated on Vimeo.

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.