Mailbag: Air Force edition

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Another week, another Mailbag. Let’s get into your questions.

jcmpa: Given the struggles of the ND defense this year, last week not included, is Diaco still a legitimate head coaching candidate?

I think you might be taking “struggles” a little too seriously. It’s not as if this Notre Dame defense is getting torched, and when all is said and done, they’ll likely be a Top 25 unit. That’s three straight seasons as a Top 30 defense.

Diaco is young (just turned 40), energetic, passionate and a good looking dude. That said, I don’t think he’s in a hurry to move his family from South Bend unless the right offer comes his way.

As some background, Diaco and I had a chance to talk before the BCS Championship Game about him taking a head coaching job. He didn’t seem to stressed about it and said it’s all about timing and opportunity. Put simply, Diaco wouldn’t be who he was if he was spending that time looking for a new job.

He’ll be a great head coach one day. Maybe even soon.

irishaggie: After 7 games we only have one RB (GA) go over 100 yards. ND is 96th in the country in rushing yards. With a shaken up Tommy and a bad Air Force defense what RB do you think will have a break out game?

I think you’re on to something Aggie, but guessing what back is anyone’s guess. If I had to wager, I’d think that George Atkinson will bust a couple big plays and that’ll get him over 100 yards. Otherwise, if you’re looking for chaos, how about Tarean Folston getting 13 carries for 110 yards.

onward2victory: At this point of the season, is Jaylon Smith already one of the top 5 players on the roster?

So you’re saying Smith’s behind only this group?

Louis Nix – All-American
Stephon Tuitt — On his way there, likely 1st rounder if he wants to be
TJ Jones – Offensive MVP, Captain
Zack Martin — All-American caliber player

I think that’s probably a little too lofty, though I think he’s probably slotting in around the top ten, with guys like Prince Shembo, Troy Niklas, Chris Watt, and Bennett Jackson all playing more consistent football.

Still, that’s lofty ground for a true freshman.

irishlee: Do you think Tuitt will stay or go?

I think he stays. Don’t think the decision will be easy, but seeing that Senior Day presentation will be tough, and him telling The Observer that he wants to stay is telling.

irishdodger: So Air Force has six losses after one win over a brand of toothpaste, they’ve struggled keeping a QB healthy & their defense can’t stop air. Sounds like a recipe where ND will play down to their competition (ala Temple & Purdue) by waiting until the fourth quarter to put the Falcons away. You know I’m right…what say you?

If you’re right, why are you asking? I tend to think the Irish will take care of business.

mediocrebob: Why are other fans so obsessed with Notre Dame? I understand that their sorry programs don’t add up to all that Notre Dame is, but how do they have time to follow their weak programs, follow Notre Dame, and have a life all at the same time?

Trolls are hardly unique to Notre Dame, but there are plenty of reasons to hate on the Irish and a football program that sometimes plays by different rules. And Bob, don’t be so tough on yourself.

bernhtp: Given that Hendrix appears to be THE alternative to Rees, how much effort do you expect Kelly to expend to rehabilitate Hendrix’s confidence and performance? Do you expect him to get most of the snaps against a weak AF team, assuming the game is put away early? If Hendrix still fails to perform, do you expect Kelly to burn Zaire’s red shirt if Rees goes down again, the game is in jeopardy, and Zaire appears ready?

A lot of effort. (Not as much effort as it took to chop down your question, Bern. But I’ve gotta bust your chops a little bit here…) Getting Hendrix’s confidence up is going to be important, because I don’t think burning Zaire’s redshirt is an option unless they’ve got no other choice.

We tend to forget things as they pass us by. Remember when Everett Golson was playing in his first big game against Michigan and played worse than Hendrix last week? That didn’t ruin the kid, nor will last week ruin Hendrix.

domerboyirish: I’ve been trying to ask this for weeks but never seem to catch this segment. Why don’t we have a standard running back screen pass in our playbook? It seems like the perfect play for the players we have on the line and at tail back. What gives?

It’s a valid question DomerBoy. The Irish don’t tend to run many RB screens and I wonder if it’s a product of the spread attack. Count me among those that would like to see them incorporated more.

mtflsmitty: 1) How did Diaco change his game plan after Rees exited the game? Can you cite specific adjustments that allowed our D to get so stingy?

I don’t think there were that many specific adjustments. Stephon Tuitt just killed USC’s left tackle. And the Trojans didn’t have Marqise Lee to balance the passing attack.

2) The Max Redfield situation is interesting. Why hasn’t he seen more action? Are they waiting for him to put on a bit more weight? Is he having a hard time picking up the complexities of the defensive scheme? What else?

Redfield talked about this over bye week. He’s working on getting himself ready to play, and it’s one of the hardest positions on the roster to just walk in and play. He got some snaps at safety against USC and I don’t think it’s fair to tag the kid as a slow learning. He’s right on the edge of the two-deep and will likely challenge for a starting job by spring.

3) I don’t think Robinson has a catch in the last several games. After getting a lot of attention early why is he getting so few looks lately?

I don’t know if he’s gotten a lot of attention, other than from those of us breaking down the frames of ICON videos from UND.com. There is only one football. Getting the ball to TJ Jones and DaVaris Daniels are the first two reads in the passing game. Then Troy Niklas. Then you look at the other options… and there’s Robinson with a pack of guys like Chris Brown, Will Fuller and James Onwualu, who is still looking for that first catch.

steincj36: Keith, especially with a thin LB corps, how much will the altitude be a factor? We hear about the 4th qtr conditioning the team has, but South Bend is like 700 ft above sea level, not 7000…

Not much you can do about altitude in college football. If this game comes down to fourth quarter conditioning, something went pretty wrong for Notre Dame.

nducsb: With the recent setback BK has had at Notre Dame, do you think a jump to the NFL has officially been squelched  at least for this year? Was what happened last year basically just the Eagles reaching for straws (case in point, how horrific Chip Kelly is doing?)

This question kind of cracks me up. Setback? What happened? If losing two games to Oklahoma and Michigan is a setback, I think ND fans are getting mighty spoiled and might have their heads tucked while they sit out a pretty special run.

Here’s a quick breakdown of the last 20 games in college football, as pointed out by @OakND1

19-1: Alabama, Oregon, Ohio State, Northern Illinois
18-2: Florida State
17-3: Notre Dame, Clemson, Stanford, Louisville
16-4: South Carolina, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Boise State

If that’s a setback, we’ve got to re-evaluate expectations.

As for Chip Kelly’s NFL debut, NFL teams don’t replace head coaches unless the team is underperforming. That Andy Reid can start off undefeated with the Chiefs but couldn’t win with the Eagles gives you an idea of the personnel that Chip is dealing with.

Brian Kelly should be on a short list of any team hiring. Whether he’s interested is another story.

4horsemenrideagain: Was Hendrix’s “under-performance” against SC due to his nerves and to the big stage, or was it just a clever ploy by Hendrix to play poorly on purpose as a favor to Tommy Rees so that all of the Rees detractors would be a little more appreciative this week?

 

I think Hendrix might have been the second gunman on the grassy knoll, too. My guess? Probably nerves and the fact that he was stacked into some tough situations.

harvupdyke: Keith, do you see Alabama winning an unprecedented 3rd bcs national championship in a row? I’ll take your comments off the air. Roll dam tide.

Harv – You might want to head to Austin, Texas and start buying up some properties. But I think Alabama is the odds on favorite to win, though I would like to see Oregon take a shot at them.

tburke9601: What do you think of the Cam McDaniel photo sans helmet?

Handsome Devil. Now don’t fumble in the fourth quarter.

 

Back from break, Irish commence hitting; DT Elijah Taylor out with LisFranc injury

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Notre Dame last wore pads in its 45-27 defeat at USC back on Nov. 26, a full 117 days ago. Suffice it to say, the Irish enjoyed the chance to don their shoulder pads and hit each other in Wednesday’s third spring practice, the first one since returning from spring break.

“What I liked about it more than anything else is there wasn’t a big drop off today,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “Usually you go two days and then you take a week off, and then you come back and put your pads on—it took us only a couple of periods to get back up to form. That was nice to see.”

Contrary to previous years in spring practice, and perhaps practice in general, Kelly emphasized tackling, especially tackling in the open-field, in Wednesday’s drills.

“[I] felt like we needed to make up for a little lost ground,” he said. “We got in tackling today for the first time. That’ll be an emphasis. We’ll tackle a lot this spring to make up for lost ground.”

The early and often physical nature of practice didn’t bother any of the players, per Kelly, but also per presumed common sense. While Notre Dame’s coaching staff changes and public questioning played out in broad view, the players spent 117 days in private waiting to unleash some of the frustrations of 2016’s disappointing season.

“Everybody to a man has been looking forward to this day,” Kelly said. “It was a pretty difficult offseason for them. They were looking forward to putting the pads on and getting out there. I think they exhibited that today.”

TAYLOR OUT FOR SPRING, AT LEAST
Junior defensive tackle Elijah Taylor was not in pads Wednesday. In the final practice before spring break, another player stepped on Taylor’s foot, Kelly said. The resulting LisFranc fracture will keep Taylor out of the remaining dozen spring practices and limit him until at least July. Taylor saw action in four games last season, finishing with three tackles, including one for a loss.

Notre Dame team surgeon Dr. Brian Ratigan already performed Taylor’s surgery.

“Typical LisFranc fractures, we’ve had good success with their repairs,” Kelly said. “…We’ll be able to train around the injury. Full range of motion moving around and doing things in June, probably full clearance sometime in July.”

Without Taylor, the interior of Notre Dame’s defensive line becomes even shallower, though that may have been hard to previously comprehend. Junior Jerry Tillery looks to be ready to start, and senior Jonathan Bonner has moved to the inside, rather than at end as he has been for most of his career. Behind them, the Irish present only question marks.

Kelly said he will look to junior Micah Dew-Treadway to step forward in Taylor’s absence.

“Micah Dew-Treadway has had a really good offseason for us,” Kelly said. “Changed his body, has been doing a really good job in all facets, in the class room and weight room. He’s somebody that had been ascending anyway prior to the injury.

Kelly indicated junior Brandon Tiassum also could be expected to see more work with Taylor sidelined.

Seniors Daniel Cage and Pete Mokwuah are in the mix, as well. Cage struggled with concussion issues last season after a promising 2015.

Notre Dame will need to wait until the freshmen arrive—perhaps also joined by Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano, reportedly still taking official visits as he ponders his 2017 destination—for further reinforcements. Consensus four-star recruit Darnell Ewell would be the most likely candidate of the three expected arrivals to move up the depth chart right away.

In layman’s terms, a Lisfranc fracture occurs when a mid-foot bone connecting to a toe separates from the cluster of bones toward the heel. Note: This is stated here only to provide some context, nothing more. This particular scribe avoided most biology classes.

CLAYPOOL A RECEIVER AND THAT HE WILL STAY
Asked if he considered moving sophomore receiver Chase Claypool to defense, Kelly answered succinctly.

“We feel like we need his play on offense,” Kelly said. “He’ll continue to contribute on the special teams end of things, but we need his play on offense.”

KELLY ON KIZER’S NFL POTENTIAL
“I’ve had a number of conversations with GMs and coaches about [former Notre Dame quarterback] DeShone [Kizer], and my personal feeling is he has the biggest upside of all the quarterbacks. I don’t know that he’s prepared to come in and win a Super Bowl for you [this year]. Some may feel as though maybe one of the other quarterbacks are. I don’t know that firsthand. But I think, in time, he has the biggest upside of all the quarterbacks.

“I get it. It’s the NFL. Everybody’s under the same pressure of performing and needing somebody to come in right away, but I think he’s a guy that just needs some time. If he gets in the right situation, I think he’d be the guy to take.”

Kizer and eight other former Irish players will take part in a pro day tomorrow (Thursday) in front of some of those GMs and coaches.

Te’o to New Orleans; Booker to Nebraska

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Former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o has signed a two-year contract with the New Orleans Saints, per reports.

Once recovered from a torn Achilles, Te’o will join a crowded Saints linebacker corps. The Saints signed A.J. Klein—formerly of the Carolina Panthers—to a three-year, $15 million contract earlier in March and return Craig Robertson, who finished 2016 with 115 tackles.

All three have experience at the middle linebacker position in a 4-3 defense, though Klein and Robertson are both capable of playing at the strong side position, as well.

Before his week three injury, Te’o had started 34 of 38 games for the San Diego Chargers and notched 221 career tackles. With the Saints, he rejoins linebackers coach Mike Nolan, who held the same position with the Chargers in 2015 when Te’o finished with a career-high 83 tackles.

BOOKER REJOINS DIACO
It appears former Notre Dame tight ends coach and special teams coordinator Scott Booker will join the Nebraska coaching staff. Two former Irish coaches—defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and safeties coach Bob Elliott—already have seats in the Lincoln coaching room, which is quickly becoming something of a Notre Dame West.

Booker will reportedly join the Cornhuskers staff as a special teams analyst. He served as Notre Dame’s special teams coordinator from 2012 to 2016 before this past offseason’s extensive staff changes.

PRO DAY THURSDAY
A reminder: Notre Dame will hold its Pro Day this Thursday. Nine players will partake, obviously highlighted by quarterback DeShone Kizer.

The others: long snapper Scott Daly, running back Tarean Folson, tight end Chase Hounshell, defensive linemen Jarron Jones and Isaac Rochell, cornerback Cole Luke, safety Avery Sebastian and linebacker James Onwualu.

Kizer hopes to prove himself worthy of a first-round draft pick, while Jones and Rochell may be in the mix for a second-day pick, meaning in the second or third rounds.

As it is draft season, this discussion of why mock drafts exist even though most prognosticators cannot stand them is worth the few minutes needed to read.

MARCH MADNESS UPDATE
The majority of the “Inside the Irish” bracket pool’s leaders escaped the weekend’s chaos, though frontrunner andy44teg will not hold onto that top spot for long after his titlist pick, Duke, exited late the tournament late Sunday.

That will leave some character named Dennis and his North Carolina prediction as the presumptive favorite to win, well, to win absolutely nothing.

Five of the top 10 expect North Carolina to win the championship.

Pace of play: More snaps equal more scoring chances, right?

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It seems obvious enough: The more plays an offense runs, the more chances it has to score.

Sure, there is more to it than that, but the basic premise really is that simple. Ten more snaps equal 10 more opportunities at the end zone. Increasing Notre Dame’s tempo in that pursuit is not only part of why Irish coach Brian Kelly hired new offensive coordinator Chip Long, but it is also a primary emphasis of spring practice.

When Kelly announced Long’s hiring, he discussed simplifying play calls to increase pacing.

“Within our offensive system, we want to run more plays,” he said. “…There needs to be some retooling within the offensive nomenclature to be able to go to the level we want to.”

The day before spring practice began, Kelly again mentioned the correlation between lexicon and quickness of play.

“If tempo can be introduced in our offense, it has to be introduced at the ground level,” he said. “…I think with some of the things that we’ve been able to do offensively, with verbiage and nomenclature, I believe that we’ll be able to pick up the tempo even more.”

And following that first practice, one of Kelly’s first comments touched on—you guessed it—tempo.

“We were really looking at tempo on our offense,” he said. “I think we achieved that. To go fast and be sloppy is certainly not the end, but to be able to run a little bit more tempo with our offense and be effective in execution was really the most important thing.”

With the Irish returning to the practice field tomorrow (Wednesday) following spring break, the stress on speed will undoubtedly continue. Just how much of an increase can be expected of Long’s offense?

Last season, Notre Dame averaged 68.83 plays per game, in line with an average of 68.9 in Kelly’s seven years leading the Irish and similar to his average of 67.5 in three seasons at Cincinnati.

In his first and only season leading his own offense, Long averaged 74.15 plays per game at Memphis in 2016. Admittedly, one season is a small sample size, especially considering the variables prone to tilting any single college football game.

It does not take a perilous leap of faith to conclude Long picked up a good amount of offensive strategy and thinking during his four seasons as tight ends coach in Todd Graham’s Arizona State offense. More accurately, Long presumably learned from Mike Norvell, the offensive coordinator during that stretch in Tempe who then brought Long with him when Norvell took the job as head coach at Memphis.

During their shared seasons at Arizona State, Norvell and Long coached an offense that averaged 78.47 plays per game. Combine that figure with the aforementioned Memphis figure and the math yields a five-year average of 77.62 plays per game, nearly nine plays per game more than Notre Dame managed over the same stretch.

Will that be seen in 2017? The more-pertinent question may be, will it be seen in 32 days in the Blue-Gold Game? Kelly has said it will be Long’s offense to run, and April 22 will be the first chance to see that in effect.

“When I was at Cincinnati, I was the guy, I was running it by myself,” Kelly said before spring practice commenced. “I think going back to [that] is the most efficient way to do it, and get out of the way and let Chip run it.”


As has quickly become something of a norm in this space below is a listing of the stats condensed above. Before that, though, one quick note: Keep an eye on Memphis’s offense again this season. It returned the vast majority of its firepower, and Norvell will not hesitate to turn up the pressure on opposing defenses. The Tigers should be very entertaining.

(more…)

Friday at 4: 4-0 against West Virginia in history … in football

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Today, the thought of Notre Dame facing West Virginia immediately triggers thoughts of tomorrow (Saturday) and their NCAA Tournament matchup. Typically, though, those two universities facing each other would elicit memories of a particular football game.

The two faced each other plenty on the basketball court when they overlapped in the Big East for 17 seasons, compared to only four times ever on the football field. Of those four, the Irish hold a decisive 4-0 edge.

Is that significant? Not at all. But how productive and efficient do you think I have been this week? It’s the third week of March. The hope here is to reach for relevance, perhaps touch on noteworthiness and maybe even come near entertaining. If nothing else, 4-0 is a good set of memories to recall, especially that one aforementioned particular game.

Of course, that game was the 1989 Fiesta Bowl, a 34-21 national championship-sealing Notre Dame victory. Don’t let time cloud the hype of that game, a contest between the consensus No. 1 Irish and No. 3 Mountaineers.

The other three victories all came under the watch of Bob Davie: 21-14 on Nov. 22, 1997; 42-28 on Oct. 21, 2000 in Morgantown, W. Va.; and 34-24 on Oct. 13, 2001.

If this weekend’s basketball game goes the way Vegas expects—depending where you look, the line is hovering at West Virginia by two for the 12:10 p.m. ET tip—reminisce back to those four Irish football victories. After all, if West Virginia prevails, it is likely because the basketball game becomes quite physical and there may be a few football-esque plays.

Why “St.” Brown?
Junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown’s father, John Brown, joined ESPN’s 710 AM on Thursday. In addition to Equanimeous, Brown has two other football-catching sons: Stanford’s Osiris and five-star 2018 recruit Amon-ra. Thus, 710 and its hosts Keyshawn Johnson, Jorge Sedano and LZ Granderson reached out to John Brown to discuss Lavar Ball, the headline-making father of a trio of young, promising basketball stars including UCLA freshman Lonzo Ball.

“From what little I know about the guy … I think he’s doing, in general, a great job,” said Brown, a former two-time Mr. Universe and three-time Mr. World. “It’s not easy to raise three superstars… I think he’s doing a great job at promoting his boys. He loves his boys, just like every father, and just wants the best for his boys.”

Skipping past the biology lesson Brown then meandered into and its minefield of political correctness faux pas, Brown explained why his sons have such elaborate names compared to his.

“My wife was in the hospital pregnant, true story,” he said. “I told her, sweetheart, we have to talk about the name, because we can’t name the kid Brown. She goes why?

“I say, because it doesn’t look good on the back of a jersey… I say we’re going to put St. Brown because it will look good on the back of a jersey.”

If Brown, the father, was thinking of jerseys before his sons were even born, his preparation for their futures certainly expanded from there, including weightlifting programs beginning on their fifth birthdays, customized protein powder he now sells and emphasis on schoolwork.

“I told my sons when they were little, you cannot go to school on an athletic scholarship,” Brown said. “They were like, what? I said you can’t, it has to be academic, or we will not allow you. Of course, we were just saying that to get them to continue their schoolwork.”

To listen to all of Brown’s interview, head to the show’s podcast page and download the second hour of the March 16 show. Brown’s segment begins around the 21:20 mark and lasts a bit more than 10 minutes. A nod toward everyone’s preferred “Inside the Irish” writer, Keith Arnold, for taking advantage of the sun in Los Angeles to let me know about the Brown interview.

Before leaving this topic entirely, let’s remember Brown did more than add a holy designation to his offspring’s last names. When it comes to Notre Dame’s leading receiver last season, in fact, Brown displayed more creativity than this scribe ever will.

A quick correction
In Wednesday’s look at new Irish special teams coordinator Brian Polian’s last four years working with punt and kick units, glowplugv pointed out a typo in the statistics. The correct version: Notre Dame covered 22 punts in 2015, allowing 194 yards for an average of 8.82.

The four-year average numbers were accurate, as they were calculated from the notes next to the screen, not the mistake in the article.

A genuine thank you to glowplug for taking the time to check those numbers. He also argued the difference between Polian’s units at Nevada and the Irish renditions of the last four years was so negligible statistically it should not be looked at with much favor. If considering the numbers from a theoretical, data-driven standpoint, glowplug has a solid argument.

However, if applying those figures past theory, they could genuinely have an impact. If Notre Dame can gain 2.35 yards in field position with each exchange of punts, that can quickly become nearly 10 yards in a game. A shift of that magnitude can be all the difference in a fourth quarter dominated by two defenses.

March Madness update
The allure of absolutely no prize was enough to entice 69 entrants, none of which made it through a chalk-filled Thursday unscathed. Three picked 15 of the games correctly and earned 12 bonus points via upsets to establish a slight lead: Jackson; Q B; andy44teg.

Of the 69 prognosticators, a bold four predicted the Irish will win the national championship. They take the next step in that direction against West Virginia.

For now, it is not only Friday at 4, but it is also St. Patrick’s Day. Think about Notre Dame’s football record against West Virginia: 4-0. You know what to do.