USC Notre Dame Football

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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Will Wimbush, Elko and the early enrollees surprise in spring practice?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Exactly 59 days from today, the Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Sure, they will be playing against themselves, but nonetheless, it will be somewhat-competitive football played in gold helmets.

For timing context, exactly 59 days ago, you looked beneath the Christmas tree to learn if Santa Claus left you season tickets, socks or coal. I got socks. They had some of that extra cushioning, so I considered them a suitable treat.

Whether you care about my argyles or not (you don’t), for many the Blue-Gold Game and Christmas morning hold similar excitement. That fact is apparently why Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick does not concern himself when groups of alumni publicly lament his decisions, or lack thereof.

“I never worry about that,” Swarbirck told the Indianapolis Star in an exclusive interview you really should read. Go on, click the link, it will open in a new tab. You can come right back here when you are done.

“The hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion in your program. If that sort of stuff bothers you, you can’t be the athletic director, head coach or the quarterback at Notre Dame.”

That very passion will undoubtedly lead to frame-by-frame discussions of video snippets from spring practice, parsing of each and every word Irish coach Brian Kelly says in quick interviews after those practices, and extreme pessimism and optimism about the 2017 season.

In the Christmas spirit, what toys could bring the must excitement during the spring unwrapping? Personally, the gift I was unsure of always brought the most joy. I would rather open an unexpected book than know about a charcoal-gray suit. In other words, at least for today, let’s look past the offensive line, the running backs and the inside linebackers. Instead, let’s look forward to learning about… (more…)

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Karlos Williams #9 of the Florida State Seminoles scores the touchdown that would win the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their game at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.

With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.

The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.

Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.

Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.

If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.

Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order: (more…)

Four-star WR Micah Jones chooses Irish; Rees may need to wait; Other late-week reading

jones
rivals.com
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A day may come when Notre Dame suffers a recruiting disappointment in the 2018 cycle, when a high school star spurns the Irish coaching staff for a foe, but it is not this day.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township High School; Gurnee, Ill.) committed to Notre Dame on Friday, joining a class of now 10 recruits, including four who committed just this week.

Jones chose the Irish over offers from the likes of Iowa, Michigan State and Ole Miss, among others.

He is the first receiver among the 10 commitments and the seventh considered a four-star prospect. At 6-foot-5, 196 pounds, Jones should present a large target for whomever the Notre Dame quarterback is in the fall of 2018, most likely then-senior Brandon Wimbush.

Tom, Tommy or Thomas; Assistant Coach or Graduate Assistant?
Thomas Rees may need to wait a season before officially being a coach at Notre Dame. The legislation to approve a 10th assistant coach was expected to be voted on, passed and effective in April. A newly-added amendment may push the effective date to following the 2017 season. The amendment will be voted on immediately before the legislation itself is.

The delay makes sense. Most coaching hirings and firings occur in December and January. In theory, creating a one-timing hiring frenzy following spring football could leave many programs in the lurch. In practice, however, this is not anticipated.

“The majority of the FBS guys that I’ve talked with currently believe that 10th coach is going to come from within their own organization,” Todd Berry told the Associated Press. Berry is the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association and former coach at Army and Louisiana-Monroe. “Quality control, graduate assistants, analysts, or they’re planning on hiring somebody that’s out of work.”

A majority is not a unanimity, though, and that carousel will innately work to the disadvantage of the Group of 5 schools.

As for Rees, a graduate assistant can still work extensively with players. The most-pertinent difference between a graduate assistant and an assistant coach is the former cannot recruit. Given Notre Dame’s recent success on the recruiting trail—and the early commitment of class of 2018 consensus four-star quarterback Phil Jurkovec (Pine-Richland H.S.; Gibsonia, Pa.)—Rees may not be an absolute necessity in that regard this cycle.

A Kizer Appraisal
Former NFL scout Greg Gabriel took a look at former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer this week, largely paying the draft prospect compliments.

In calling Kizer “the most talented quarterback in this draft class,” Gabriel set a high ceiling for Kizer’s spring. Part of Gabriel’s positive assessment comes from acknowledging Kizer’s responsibilities as the Irish signal-caller.

“The spread offense that Kizer played in at Notre Dame is more sophisticated than many of the spread offenses we see elsewhere at the collegiate level. The Notre Dame offense is a whole-field read scheme in which the quarterback has to go through a progression that encompasses both sides of the field. He also can change the play and/or protections at the line of scrimmage. Given all that, Kizer was asked to do more than many spread quarterbacks are asked to do.”

Gabriel also reflected on the dynamic differences for Kizer in 2015 and 2016 and what may have elicited some of his seeming stagnation.

“There was the unnecessary quarterback controversy at Notre Dame, and the offensive line wasn’t as experienced or as talented and the receivers were mostly first-year starters.”

As much as Gabriel raves about Kizer, he would be the first to tell you anything beyond individual player evaluation is a waste of air this early in the draft process. Mock drafts may be fun, but they are not much beyond that.

Take the fates of Tony Romo and Jimmy Garoppolo, for example. Few, if any, in the NFL expect them to dress for the Cowboys and Patriots, respectively, again. Where they end up could directly impact Kizer’s draft placement.

Jaylon Smith May Be Back to Form
Former Notre Dame and current Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith posted yet another encouraging video to Twitter. This one shows Smith really might be game-ready right now and, if not, almost certainly will be by the fall. Should there be any difficulty with the embedded video below, here is a link straight to it.

OL Mabry makes third commitment this week; WR Jones may follow Friday

mabry
rivals.com
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Two weeks ago, Irish coach Brian Kelly gave a non-answer of an answer to a question about a likely early signing period this coming December. Avoiding specifics, he indicated he thinks the effects of such a change will be seen on a case-by-case basis entirely dependent on the recruits.

“Some will, some won’t,” Kelly said. “…Each kid is going to have to react to it based upon also how their school is going to be dealing with it. Some will come off the board at the time.

“We’re expecting some to sign early, but I think our mindset is we’re going into it business as usual. We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

After this week, Notre Dame is going to have more year-long fights than anticipated. Consensus three-star offensive lineman recruit Cole Mabry (Brentwood High School; Brentwood, Tenn.) became the third prospect to offer a verbal commitment to the Irish coaching staff in less than 36 hours with his Wednesday decision. Mabry received the offer over the weekend, but waited a few days before making his decision public, lest emotions be dictating his thought process.

At 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds, Mabry will have time to add muscle to his frame, with four or five offensive tackles greeting him on the Notre Dame roster in the summer of 2018. That ability to mold his style and growth may have played a part in the Irish interest.

“They love my height and athleticism and how I play,” Mabry told rivals.com. “We got to break down film and go through things that they do that pair up with how I play now. They think I’ll be a great fit in their offense.”

Mabry is the ninth Notre Dame commitment in the class of 2018, though the first offensive lineman.

Judging by new Notre Dame director of football performance Matt Balis’s agenda for the Irish roster’s Valentine’s Day morning, Mabry will have much to look forward to in terms of strength and conditioning.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township H.S.; Gurnee, Ill.) is scheduled to announce his verbal commitment this Friday at 4 p.m. ET. Along with Notre Dame, Jones is considering Iowa, Michigan State, Nebraska, Ole Miss, Illinois and Northwestern. He would be the first receiver in Notre Dame’s 2018 class. Naturally, whomever Jones commits to, the recruiting fight will last until at least December, and perhaps all the way to February.