Pregame Six Pack: Going up to Air Force

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As we prepared for Notre Dame to take on a 1-6 Air Force team that is winless in five Mountain West games, the storylines on the field between the Irish and Falcons seemed few and far between. For better or worse, the Irish coaching staff had seemingly “figured out” the option attack after their ugly opening attempt against Navy four seasons ago. And Troy Calhoun’s squad has been decimated by injuries, a handicap that too often is mortal at a place like the service academies.

But all of that changed yesterday with the news that Louis Nix won’t be traveling to Colorado Springs with his teammates, left home to rest a balky knee and heal a wounded shoulder. Add to that the loss of Christian Lombard and the insertion of true freshman Steve Elmer into the starting lineup, and all of a sudden there is some intrigue in a game that still hovers around a 20-point spread.

The series has been closer than you’d expect over the past six games. The Irish are 4-2 against the Falcons dating back to 1996, with two of those victories (’96 and ’00) needing overtime. Let’s open up this week’s pregame six pack. As usual, here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings before Notre Dame and Air Force play for the 30th time.

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Don’t wait until tomorrow morning, make sure you have CBS Sports Network on your cable package. 

Let’s get the public service announcement out of the way first. Not everybody gets the CBS Sports Network. Available in 99 million homes, CBS’s “growing” cable sports channel, with programming consisting of basically Jim Rome and a few other studio shows, is usually a pay add on to your package.

(I added it before the season kicked off, to catch the USC-Hawaii game.)

So before you come to the live-blog frantically searching for a channel update or website link, spend a few minutes this afternoon — and maybe a few dollars — to add the channel, or find a friend that’s got the game and be social.

Former Irish great Aaron Taylor will be in the both with CBS Sports’ Andrew Catalon and Lauren Gardner. For many the game won’t be broadcast in HD (though DirecTV and Dish Network provide it), so it’ll be a retro game watch for a large group of us.

But take care of it now or you’re stuck with me in the live blog.

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Without Louis Nix anchoring the defensive front, expect to see a lot more Kona Schwenke. 

During his final season in South Bend, Kona Schwenke has emerged as an almost super-sub, sliding into Sheldon Day’s role when the sophomore defensive end was nursing an ankle injury back to health. Now Schwenke will shift back into the nose guard position, subbing for Nix at the position he’s played the past few seasons.

Schwenke won’t likely be asked to play the traditional “two-gap” defensive tackle that Nix does so well. Rather he’ll join a rotation that’ll feature a steady dose of four down linemen, with Prince Shembo, Ishaq Williams and a host of others helping out up front.

Also moving inside will be Stephon Tuitt, who enters Saturdays game on a straight-up hot streak, trouble for Air Force, considering Tuitt has been so good against option teams.

“My job is to be in the middle, to be a Louis Nix,” Tuitt said this week.

Still, Schwenke’s rise has been plenty impressive, with his final season in South Bend showing the Hawaiian to be a productive performer and a great developmental project. Depth issues forced Schwenke onto the field earlier than the staff would have liked. But for a kid that arrived as a 230-pound outside linebacker and was an afterthought to most in recruiting,  seeing an impressive 303-pounder who has been really productive this season has been a fun process to watch.

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Heading back home to Colorado, Danny Spond takes comfort in finding what’s next.

There have to be a lot of emotions going through senior linebacker Danny Spond today as the Colorado native heads home for a game that’s likely been circled for a long time. Of course, Spond won’t be playing on Saturday, but rather helping coach the outside linebackers.

It’s that unique role that Spond talked about Wednesday. And one that he’s handled with the type of courage and grace that you come to expect from Spond, who embodies what Notre Dame hopes for in student-athletes.

“I know they can’t see me out there as a player, but they know what I’ve accomplished here and how hard I’ve worked to establish my role,” Spond said of the large group of family, friends and former coaches that’ll be watching the Irish take on Air Force. “Just for them to be out there supporting our team is enough for me.”

Perhaps one of the hardest parts to hear from Spond was that the football bug hasn’t gone anywhere. In fact, it’s gotten worse.

“Each game gets a little bit harder,” Spond told Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson. “It’ll probably be in my mind another five years, but I’m at peace with it and I understand that this is my role now.”

Spond does his best to fill that void by doing what he did as a player: Grind. He hasn’t missed a practice or a meeting with his position group. He still logs a lot of hours in the Gug. And he’s taken a philosophical approach that’s supported by his strong faith that will surely get him through life after football.

“Knowing that everything happens for a reason, and whatever that reason might be, I know it’s what’s best for me,” Spond said. “To really just understand that this wasn’t what’s in my plan and I’m excited for what’s next.”

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A few years after the Niklas brothers shared the field, it’s time for the Rochell’s to go head-to-head. 

The last time Air Force visited South Bend, the Niklas family had a special moment that paired Troy (then an outside linebacker) on the same field as his brother Austin. That baton is being passed down to the Rochells, where Irish freshman defensive end Isaac will have a chance to play against his brother Matt, a sophomore offensive tackle for Air Force.

The Colorado Springs Gazette’s Brent Briggeman caught up with the matriarch of the Rochell family, who talked about how special it’ll be to potentially see one son matched up against the other at the line of scrimmage.

“I don’t know how they’ll even keep a straight face,” Gina Rochell told the Gazette.

With the need to keep bodies fresh along the defensive front, the Irish staff will likely lean on young players like Rochell and Jarron Jones more (Jones will be coming directly from Rochester, New York, where he attended a family funeral). And that’s very exciting for the freshman from Georgia.

“He’s pretty excited about playing the game. He may even be matched up against his brother,” Kelly said on Thursday. “I think more than anything else, he’s excited about playing. Regardless of whether he’s playing against his brother or not, he knows he’s going to get into the game. He’s really excited about that.”

Briggeman’s profile on the Rochell family is worth reading, if only for the quotes he got from Matt, who talked about the primary difference between the two brothers’ college football experience.

“The only big difference I see is that they get up at like 9 and we get up at 6,” Matt told the Gazette. “He’s still busy, but he’s not getting up at 6. The big thing is sleep that I see; and food, actually. They eat a lot more food.”

(Score some points for Training Table!)

Back to the more important subject matter, the Rochell family won’t have too hard of time feeling like winners regardless of who walks off the field victorious on Saturday.

“You see your two kids out there and one’s playing for Notre Dame and one’s playing for the Air Force Academy,” Mrs. Rochell said. “It doesn’t get any better than that, academically, as far as I’m concerned.”

***

Tommy Rees may be healthy enough to be the starter, but for the health of the position Andrew Hendrix needs to get some snaps. 

While the Irish got good news that Tommy Rees would be healthy and capable of starting against Air Force, they absolutely need to make sure Andrew Hendrix is ready to play better football if called upon. And that opportunity might be easy to get against an Air Force defense that’s probably the worst group the Irish will play this season.

Hendrix isn’t as bad as we saw last weekend against USC. But Brian Kelly talked about how important it was to get him playing better, especially with the Irish staff trying desperately to hold onto Malik Zaire’s redshirt.

“I think what Andrew has to do is he’s got to take that practice now and he’s got to take that into games,” Kelly said earlier this week. “And hopefully he’ll use the experience that he had against USC and he’ll take that as a learning experience and translate what he does in practice now into games.”

During his weekly Thursday update, Kelly talked about the rep breakdown at practice, particularly the added snaps that both Hendrix and Zaire took this week. For those wondering why Kelly wasn’t quick to pull Hendrix last Saturday and insert Zaire into the game, it’s because the freshman quarterback had taken virtually zero reps with the first team offense this season. That changed this week.

“This week he got a handful of first team reps,” Kelly said.

Still, the priority was getting Hendrix up to speed, and the senior quarterback took more snaps Wednesday with the first team than he had all year, and if he does play, Hendrix will likely have access to more of the playbook, not just running packages.

In many ways, this could be a tryout for Hendrix and a potential fifth year. Next year, Everett Golson will be back and Zaire will be ready to compete. But will the Irish staff keep Hendrix around to battle for the No. 2 job over put themselves in a similar situation to this year, where they have a starter (an undersized one at that), an untested back-up, and a freshman that likely needs to redshirt?

Saturday might give us a clue.

While Cam McDaniel became a viral sensation this week, the running back job is still up for grabs. 

Cam McDaniel went from anonymous Notre Dame running back to viral internet sensation thanks to some faulty equipment. McDaniel’s helmet popped off (again) after a run against the Trojans, producing a bizarre (and handsome) photo that got plenty of people talking. It even got McDaniel booked for a segment on the TODAY show this morning, where Savannah Guthrie even asked for his digits. (Remember to dial 4 first for the dorms, Sav…)

Notoriety aside, Saturday will be an interesting status check for the crowded running back position. Will George Atkinson get the first chance to run against the undermanned Falcons rush defense? Can Tarean Folston get back on the field and earn himself more snaps? Will Amir Carlisle get more production out of his touches? Is Will Mahone healthy and ready to fight his way back onto the field?

The Falcons are giving up over 220 yards a game on nearly five yards a carry. And with the calendar about to turn to November, this is the time of year where the Irish ground game needs to work its way into dominance, especially with a favorable schedule the next few weeks.

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Brian Kelly & Jack Swarbrick on Notre Dame’s changes moving forward

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Whether 2016’s disappointing 4-8 finish was the impetus to program-wide alterations at Notre Dame this offseason, it certainly underscored the need. For the last few months, Irish coach Brian Kelly has focused those changes on himself and self-assessment, and he reiterated that approach when talking with PFT Live’s Mike Florio early Monday morning.

“This is my 27th year of being a head coach, and prior to last year I had one losing season,” Kelly said. “You have a way of doing things, you have a system in place, you follow that year after year. Certainly you make tweaks along the way, but this is the first time where I’ve really taken a step back and made substantial changes in terms of how I’m doing things on a day-to-day basis…

“From my perspective, after being at it as long as I have, you have to take it on yourself that you’re the one that needs to make the corrections. It’s not the players.”

None of this is new. Kelly has been consistent in his springtime messaging, but others have looked past the effects of the 4-8 record and insist the changes were coming regardless of the win-loss totals. Senior captain Drue Tranquill, for example, acknowledged the severity of the losing record Friday but argued adjustments were needed no matter what the final scores were.

“If you have an average season like 8-4, some things might carry over to the next season,” Tranquill said the day before the spring practice finale. “Whereas when you go 4-8, something has to change.

“But I think even at Notre Dame, 8-4 is never really acceptable or tolerated. Those things that were taking place, just within our culture, would have been noticed whether we were 10-3, 4-8. The criticism gave it a lot more hype and juice. We could kind of feel as guys in the program throughout the past three years that certain things needed to change.

“Those things were finally brought to light and it happened to be during a 4-8 season. I don’t necessarily know that 4-8 was the reason all this change happened.”

New Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko expressed a similar sentiment Friday morning, discussing the pressure moving forward.

“If we were coming off a 12-0 season in which we were competing for the national championship, there would be pressure on us at Notre Dame to be successful this year,” Elko said. “That’s Notre Dame.”

Elko has been a quick study, as his comments were echoed the next day by Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick during NBC Sports Network’s broadcast of the Blue-Gold Game.

“We expect to compete for national championships and 4-8 is not acceptable,” Swarbrick said. “On the other hand, when you’re in that situation, you have to decide how you’re going to move forward. We decided to move forward by making a major investment in retooling our program with Brian as the leader of it. That’s not a one-year investment for us. We brought in some talented assistant coaches. We rebuilt elements of the program

“We view it as a multi-year investment going forward.”

KELLY ON RECRUITING PITCH
Using this week’s NFL Draft as a peg, Florio also asked Kelly about balancing players’ NFL aspirations with team success both in the recruiting process and during the actual season.

“We have to talk more in terms of process over production,” Kelly responded. “We talk in terms of you’re coming to Notre Dame for a reason. You’re going to get a degree, which will set you up for the rest of your life, and you’re going to play on the grandest stage at Notre Dame, so everybody will see you.

“As long as there’s the balance there—and there has to be that balance in terms of getting your education and playing for championships—then we’re okay. It’s when that balance is out of whack, we’ll have an issue. We vet that out in the recruiting process and make sure we don’t take any kids that are coming to Notre Dame just because they’re waiting for that [junior] year to complete so they can go to the draft.”

A reminder: The NFL Draft begins with its first round Thursday night. Kelly will be joining former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer at the draft in Philadelphia to await Kizer’s destination and future employer.

MISSED THE BLUE-GOLD GAME?
It is available for streaming: here.

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?

What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

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Time spent on a traditional game wrap of a spring intrasquad exhibition seems misspent. Gold won Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game 27-14 led by rising sophomore quarterback Ian Book. The first-string defense (Gold) held the first-string offense to an average of 5.4 yards per play. For context’s sake: Last season Notre Dame gained an average of 6.1 yards per play and held opponents to 5.4.

With that abbreviated recap out of the way, what did Saturday’s pseudo-game environment show about the Irish? If the 20,147 in attendance paid attention, they had the chance to learn a few things:

Daelin Hayes will be ready to hit a quarterback in September
Notre Dame’s quarterbacks were off limits all spring. Bulls might charge when they see red, but the Irish defensive line has had to remember to ease up when they come across a quarterback’s red jersey. If sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes had forgotten that Saturday, Notre Dame might not have any quarterbacks left to play in the fall.

“At the end of the day, we’re on the same team,” Hayes said, dismissing any bitterness about the quarterbacks’ protections. “We have to keep our guys healthy. I wasn’t frustrated, but come September 2, you know.”

Officially, Hayes was credited with three sacks and another tackle for loss among his seven tackles. Admittedly, gauging sacks is tricky when the quarterback does not actually go to the ground. How many of Hayes’ three sacks and the defense’s 11 total would have been evaded if the defender needed to do more than touch the passer? That answer is highly subjective, but discounting Hayes’ numbers would miss the bigger picture.

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

Senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) notched two sacks and sophomore end Ade Ogundeji came the closest to tackling a red jersey when he stripped junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush from behind. The defensive line has been expected to be a weak point for the Irish moving forward, but the spring performance indicates it has a chance at holding its own. These accomplishments bear further merit considering Notre Dame’s offensive line is widely-considered one of its few spots of expected quality.

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

“I think it’s pretty clear Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I’d have to watch the film, but it seemed like [sophomore end] Julian Okwara was a hard guy to block coming off the edge, as well.”

Ian Book provides some peace of mind
Book was not spectacular, but he was also far from incompetent or intimidated. In his first action on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, Book completed 18-of-25 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by a 58-yard connection with sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. Meanwhile, junior Brandon Wimbush completed 22-of-32 passes for 303 yards.

Bluntly, one has not needed to follow Notre Dame for very long to fit that “long enough” qualification. Last season’s backup, Malik Zaire, saw competitive action against both Texas and Stanford. In 2015, DeShone Kizer came off the bench to start 11 games after Zaire suffered a season-ending ankle injury. (more…)

What Notre Dame players should you actually watch? Plus, catch up on reading

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If technology does its part, this will post as its typist meanders toward finding his credential for the Blue-Gold Game to conclude Notre Dame’s spring practice. If technology doesn’t do its part, well, then this will be lost to the cobwebs of the internet. Such as it goes.

This space has spent much of the past week discussing what to look for in the 12:30 p.m. ET exhibition. Worry about the big picture, not the individuals. Fret about the macro, not the micro.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the indivdual players
Blue-Gold Game primer with help from Notre Dame’s coordinators
Four defensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game
Four offensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game

But, if insistent on focusing on singular players, look to the inexperienced, the names you are unfamiliar with. The 15th and final practice of spring may be no more than a practice in reality, but it is in front of nearly 30,000 fans in Notre Dame Stadium. Some players do not have so much as that minimal experience.

“The Blue-Gold Game, specifically, is a time for us to emulate a game-like situation,” senior safety/linebacker/rover Drue Tranquill said. “Especially for guys like freshmen, second-semester guys coming in, it’s a great opportunity for them to get that game feeling, but also continue to take steps in the process to get better.”

The question on the tip of your tongue is a fair one. If you are unfamiliar with the names, how are you supposed to focus on those players? How are you to know who fits the appropriate tunnel vision version of perspective?

Let’s turn to Irish coach Brian Kelly’s mentions from Wednesday–primarily, sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara, sophomore long snapper John Shannon, senior kicker Sam Kohler, sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem and sophomore safety Jalen Elliott.

Obviously, that is just a sampling. Less obviously, this post’s purpose may or may not be to link to previous reading material and remind you of the vague but pertinent purposes to today’s endeavor. It is neither be-all nor end-all. It is simply another opportunity to gauge what may come down the line.

But hey, how about a prediction? Per Kelly, the first-team offense and second-team defense will be in blue, against the first-team defense and second-team offense in white.

PREDICTION: Blue 37, White 21

HOW TO WATCH
As a recurring reminder, the Blue-Gold Game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network, as well as streamed online at ndstream.nbcsports.com and on the NBC Sports app.