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.

***

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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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.

 

Tranquill continues work with safeties … for now

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Drue Tranquill will see time at the oft-spoken of rover position, just not yet. For now, Notre Dame needs the senior at safety to provide leadership and communication while the rest of his position group gets up to speed.

“We really have to figure out what the coordination is going to be at the safety position,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “How much does Drue play down at rover? How much does he play back [at safety]?”

Only sophomore Devin Studstill returns any starts to the safety position aside from Tranquill’s career total of 18. Studstill started nine games last season.

That void has kept Tranquill working mostly with the defensive backs in the spring’s first few practices, rather than joining the likes of junior Asmar Bilal in the rover grouping.

“We didn’t want to pull our most veteran player out of the back end of our defense with Drue,” Kelly said. “I think it was more about the hesitancy of losing a great communicator in the back end than about the teaching.”

The time will come, however, for Tranquill to move up. Juniors Nick Coleman and Ashton White have moved to safety from the corner position. With more reps, they will not need to rely on Tranquill’s guidance as much. The same goes for, at least in theory, sophomore Jalen Elliott.

“It’s not really a heavy load of teaching for those guys,” Kelly said. “They’re picking it up quite well. We really want to get a chance to see a lot of guys back there.”

Kelly seemed particularly bullish on Coleman’s prospects at the position, provided he embrace the needed physicality. At 6-foot, 187 pounds, Coleman’s build may have been more suited on the outside, but Notre Dame’s plethora of promising cornerbacks provided an impetus to test Coleman at safety.

“The big thing will be Nick’s continuous development in tackling,” Kelly said. “You have to tackle back there. His ball skills are really good. We’ve seen that he’s able to play the ball. He has athleticism.

“We just want to continue to build on his tackling skills. If we go through the spring and say, ‘Well, he’s tackling really well,’ we’ll feel pretty good about the move.”

At that point, Tranquill will likely join Bilal at the hybrid position, which is something of a trademark to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Tranquill will be able to do what he does best: Pursue the ball.

“We all know what his strengths are,” Kelly said. “He’s a solid tackler. I don’t think there’s any safety in college football that wants to get matched up one-on-one with a skilled slot receiver. This would minimize that, when you play him close to the ball as a rover.

“And I think he’s pretty quick off the edge. I think we put him in a really good position in maximizing his skill set.”

Until then, Bilal will continue to be the frontrunner at rover, especially with the first four Irish opponents of 2017 presenting run-heavy offenses.

KELLY ON NICK WATKINS
Kelly was also asked about senior cornerback Nick Watkins, his fit into Elko’s defense and his return from injury.

“He’s very coachable, wants to learn, he’s pretty long,” Kelly said. “What I think Mike [Elko] does really well—and this is what I liked about my interactions with him—is, we all have strengths and weaknesses. He has a great eye of saying let’s take Nick’s strengths and let’s put him in a position where we can really utilize his strengths and put him in a position where maybe we’re not a right and left corner team, maybe we’re a short field/wide field team. Let’s apply him in that fashion.

“Nick’s long. He’s a little bit of a physical player. Let’s go to those strengths. He’s shown some of those attributes early on.”

RELATED READING:
Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover position, others likely to follow
2 Days Until Spring Practice: A look at the defensive backfield

Kraemer, Eichenberg compete for RT spot, moving Bars inside, and Bivin to…

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Forty percent of the offensive line is essentially set in stone: fifth-year senior Mike McGlinchey at left tackle and senior Quenton Nelson at right guard.

The center position seems to be senior Sam Mustipher’s to lose.

That leaves the two starting spots on the right side of the line for a number of players—both young and experienced—to fight over.

Sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg have emerged as the frontrunners for the right tackle spot, moving senior Alex Bars inside to right guard. Bars started all 12 games last season at right tackle.

“Those two [Kraemer and Eichenberg] are the guys we have mapped out at right tackle, and they’re going to battle,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “Today Kraemer was there. Last two practices Eichenberg got a lot of the work. Eichenberg will go back there on Friday. They’re going to keep battling and splitting the action out there.”

Part of the reasoning in giving the two sophomores extended looks this spring is Notre Dame knows what it has in Bars when at right tackle.

“We would prefer to get him in at the guard position, but we know he can play the [tackle] position,” Kelly said.

A starting five of McGlinchey, the three seniors and either sophomore may seem to leave fifth-year lineman Hunter Bivin out in the cold. Not often is a player asked to return for a fifth year only to spend it on the bench. That is even more rare when considering the current Irish scholarship crunch.

Kelly compared Bivin’s role to that of Mark Harrell’s last year. Harrell appeared in all 12 games, starting two, and provided much needed depth and flexibility along the offensive line. Rather than have five backup offensive linemen, position coach Harry Hiestand relied on Harrell to provide support at multiple spots.

“It’s reasonable to assume that Hunter Bivin’s going to be involved in this as well,” Kelly said. “We’ve just asked Hunter to take a seat right now. He’s done that for the team.

“We think Hunter is going to be a Mark Harrell for us. A guy that’s extremely valuable, can play a number of positions. We trust him, but we want to see these two young players [Kraemer and Eichenberg]. Hunter is a guy that can play right or left tackle for us. He’s going to be a valuable player for us as a swing guy.”

On that note, this space will refer to Bivin as a fifth-year lineman, as was done above, rather than as a guard or as a tackle, until further notice. In his case, the broader description may be the most accurate.

Spring break out west is fine, but Wimbush better be ready to run

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It will undoubtedly become a habit, at least for the next five-plus months. If Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush sneezes in front of a camera, it just might lead to an uptick in webmd.com traffic. His every football move will certainly be analyzed, nitpicked and discussed at length. Thus, Irish coach Brian Kelly being asked about Wimbush’s spring break should surprise no one.

Rather than find a Florida beach, Wimbush spent his spring break working with private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield in San Diego alongside a handful of other college passers. Kelly said there is value to such a spring break but stopped short of setting any lofty expectations of the effects.

“I have no problem with [Wimbush] working out with George Whitfield,” Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice, the first following spring break and the third of 14 leading into the Blue-Gold Game on April 22. “George doesn’t work on the specifics to the offense. George is really working on the quarterback and throwing the football, moving in the pocket. George is really good at keeping those quarterbacks active and moving.”

Whitfield is best-known around Notre Dame and among Irish fans for working with former Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson during Golson’s academic suspension in 2013. Whitfield and Golson spent 10 weeks together, thus granting time for extensive off-field activities such as film study. Far shorter, Wimbush’s time out west appears to have been spent primarily doing drills.

“In those situations, it’s a bullpen session,” Kelly said. “They’re keeping their arms loose, they’re keeping their feet loose. He’s just keeping them active.”

It is hard to construe that activity as a negative, but it obviously lacks certain aspects crucial to Wimbush’s 2017 season. With only five career pass attempts and seven career rushes, Wimbush’s inexperience looms large. Developing the necessary intangibles to account for that may be just as, if not more, important as fitting his throws into tight windows.

“When it comes to the playbook, to his teammates, to his coaches here, Brandon understands that when the rubber hits the road, those are the guys that matter the most,” Kelly said. “He knows when it’s time for Notre Dame football, where the focus is.”

Included in that playbook will be an expectation for Wimbush to carry the ball. To date, Wimbush’s biggest play and possibly only imprint on most Notre Dame fans’ memories is a 58-yard touchdown scamper against Massachusetts in 2015.

Link to 17-second YouTube video which has unfortunately disabled embedding

Note, the play is not exclusively-designed for Wimbush to run. Now a rising junior, then a fellow freshman, running back Josh Adams comes across Wimbush’s front for a possible handoff. Instead, Wimbush makes the correct read and keeps the ball. Why state so clearly it was the proper read? Adams has to evade a Texas defender even though he never had the ball.

Future option plays should present Wimbush with the possibility of throwing the ball, too.

“He’ll be a runner in the offense,” Kelly said. “Do we want him to carry the ball 20 times? No.”

“I don’t think you’ll have a situation where we’re calling quarterback power or singular runs. He’s going to have options: hand it off, throw the ball out on the perimeter. You’ll see more of that than you will prescribed quarterback runs. We had a little bit more of that last year with Kizer, but I think you’ll see that he has an option to get the ball out of his hands more so than just prescribed runs.”

Those option plays, in particular, will require Wimbush to have a thorough familiarity both with the Notre Dame playbook and with his teammates’ tendencies.

RITA LEE OR 52-53?
Staying consistent with his comments over the last two months, Kelly once again reiterated the biggest changes new offensive coordinator Chip Long will bring to the Irish playbook will be in its wording. Perhaps going to an extreme example to illustrate his thinking, Kelly pointed to the future.

“We’re going to win next year and Chip is going to be the greatest offensive coordinator in the country and he’s going to get a head job, right?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “Then I’m not going to introduce the Chip Long offense to the next offensive coordinator.”

“It has to have my culture in it … The culture of the offense is still the base offense that I have always run because I have to be able to carry that with me from year to year.”

Within that ellipsis, Kelly gave two examples of possible verbiage changes. Without knowing much more behind them, they do not mean too much out here in the cobwebs of the internet, but they do provide a quick glimpse at what Kelly has been referring to when discussing lexicon since hiring Long.

“If he wants to change Ringo Lucky protection to Ram and Lion protection, go right ahead. If he wants to change certain calls, for example, 52-53 protection is now Rita Lee.”

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