Five things we learned: Notre Dame 45, Air Force 10

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Things may not have started out as planned for Notre Dame. The offense’s eleven-play opening drive ended with Kyle Brindza’s field goal attempt blocked. Then Air Force proceeded to march ten plays for 71 yards and a quick touchdown in under four minutes. But the Irish shrugged off a challenging start and cruised to an easy 45-10 victory, powered by a career-day by senior quarterback Tommy Rees.

The Falcons defense has struggled against good quarterbacks this season and Rees certainly looked like one on a perfect Saturday afternoon in Colorado Springs, throwing five touchdown passes while completing 17 of 22 passes for 284 yards, moving ahead of Ron Powlus for third place in career touchdown passes.

Freshmen Corey Robinson and Will Fuller caught their first touchdown passes. Sophomore Chris Brown did as well. Ben Koyack and TJ Jones also got into the action, with Jones catching a touchdown in his fifth straight game. After the slow start, Bob Diaco’s defense played very well, forcing two turnovers and allowing just ten points on the afternoon.

An easy win pushes the Irish to 6-2 and likely into the Top 25. Let’s find out what else we learned in Notre Dame’s 45-10 victory over Air Force.

No Nix, no problem for the Irish defense. 

You could understand why Irish fans would be nervous without Louis Nix, the tip of the spear for the Irish defense. The 350-pound All-American defensive tackle stayed home this weekend, resting a balky knee and shoulder, as his teammates picked up the slack for him. With Kona Schwenke stepping in and Stephon Tuitt sliding inside, the Irish defense rallied after a slow start to hold the Falcons to just ten points and 339 total yards.

As predicted, the Irish started Ishaq Williams and Prince Shembo at defensive end and used Tuitt and Schwenke on the inside. We also saw plenty of reserves getting opportunities, with freshman Isaac Rochell playing (against his brother), Jarron Jones contributing, Tyler Stockton taking reps along with a disruptive performance by Justin Utupo.

The Irish will face a similar scheme next week with Navy likely to be a tougher challenge than Air Force. But getting Nix some rest and recovery, and having the defense pick up the slack, is a good sign.

Matched up in man coverage, Tommy Rees made Air Force’s secondary pay. 

A week after missing most of the second half after taking a vicious hit, Tommy Rees dusted himself off and torched the Air Force defense. Rees may have missed one or two throws he’d like to have back, but he completed an impressive 17 of 22 for 284 yards and five touchdowns, fully in control of the offense against an overmatched Falcons secondary.

It’s hard to draw conclusions after a comfortable victory like the one we just witnessed. But if there’s a step forward Rees made it was with his accuracy throwing against man-to-man coverage. Rees routinely hit on deep throws, many sparked by playaction or double-moves, and connected on a 20-plus yard completion with five different receivers.

Getting into the act was a freshman class that just hasn’t had much opportunity yet this year. Corey Robinson made the type of catch we’ve been looking forward to seeing, snatching a deep throw away from a defensive back before scoring a 35-yard touchdown. Will Fuller also got behind the defense, only the third time in school history that two freshmen have caught touchdowns in a game.

Probably just as important as Rees’ impressive afternoon was the fact that it let Andrew Hendrix see the field and get the taste from last week’s game out of his mouth. Hendrix still struggled, but looked better against Air Force, completing one of his four passes for a 47-yard connection to Fuller and ran for a touchdown.

Jaylon Smith continues to make his move. 

It took a few plays for Jaylon Smith to get up to speed with the Air Force offense. Whether it was his fault or not, Smith lost contain as he tried to read both the run and the pitch as the Falcons got outside of him for a few big gains early. But the freshman showed how quickly he learns on his feet, and rebounded to co-lead the Irish in tackles with eight.

The production the Irish are getting out of Smith at the drop linebacker position is amazing when you consider the true freshman is learning on the job and still not as big as Bob Diaco would like him to be. Through eight games, he’s already matched Danny Spond’s tackle total from last season. In fact, one look back at the Irish defense during the Kelly era and you get an appreciation of how dangerous and productive Smith already is.

Through eight games, here are Smith’s cumulative numbers, compared to the full season stats of other Dog linebackers playing in Kelly’s hybrid 3-4/4-3 system.

Jaylon Smith: 39 tackles, 4.5 TFLs, 1 INT, 1 FF, 1 FR
Danny Spond: 39 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 INT,
Prince Shembo: 31 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 2 Sacks,
Kerry Neal: 42 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1.5 Sack, 1 FF, 1 FR

Smith was all over the field on Saturday afternoon, and was a referee’s inadvertent whistle away from scoring his first defensive touchdown. It’s becoming abundantly clear that Smith’s moving quickly past the learning phase and that greatness might be sooner than later.

***

In a muddled running back depth chart, Tarean Folston took an important step forward. 

If there’s one disappointing stat on paper in the Irish’s 35-point victory it’s the lack of running game. Against a unit that ranked among the worst in the country in stopping the run, the Irish only averaged 3.6 yards a carry, running for a modest 135 yards on 37 attempts.

Brian Kelly talked at halftime about Air Force’s decision to challenge Rees to beat the Falcons in man coverage. He did that, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that the ground game wasn’t as efficient as it could have been.

George Atkinson looked hesitant out of the gates, forgetting to run like a 220-pound power back. Amir Carlisle was nonexistent on his three touches. While Cam McDaniel led the team with 61 yards on ten carries, it was freshman Tarean Folston that had the most carries, gaining 47 yards on his eleven attempts.

As Brian Kelly still tries to sort out his running back depth chart, Folston helped his cause on Saturday by looking the part. The freshman ran with a spark and explosiveness that the other backs just don’t possess, looking comfortable running in Kelly’s zone blocking attack, and showed great ability to find creases in the defense and run effectively off his blocks.

The Irish will have another chance to overpower an opponent next weekend when they face an undersized Navy defensive front that entered Saturday 98th against the run. Don’t be surprised to see Folston and McDaniel start to separate themselves from the pack.

As the calendar turns to November, it’s worth watching a few injuries that could prove significant. 

After losing Christian Lombard for the season, Brian Kelly had to be holding his breath when he saw senior Chris Watt down, needing the assistance of two trainers to help him off the field. Kelly already plugged freshman Steve Elmer in at right guard, but the loss of Watt pushes Conor Hanratty into the lineup and weakens a left side that’s one of the finest in college football.

Freshman Mike McGlinchey made the trip on Saturday, an emergency option for the Irish in case there were bodies needed. But it’s worth keeping an eye on Watt’s health for next week, as the depth chart still isn’t as stocked as this staff wants it to be, especially with the hopes of redshirting everybody but Elmer from the rookie class.

Another injury worth keeping an eye on is the ankle of Sheldon Day. After playing early, Day was in street clothes during the second half, likely the product of tweaking an injury that sometimes takes months to get right. Without Day, the Irish production drops off a cliff in a hurry.

Pete Sampson of Irish Illustrated noted that the starting three of Day-Tuitt-Nix allowed just 1.62 yards a play against USC. Compare that to the trio of Schwenke-Tuitt-Nix, who allowed 6.5 yards per play. It might not matter against Navy, but against BYU and Stanford the Irish will need all hands on deck.

Watt was still in uniform as the No. 2 offensive line worked while Day watched the end of the game in street clothes, a good sign if you’re looking for them. He’s also played in all 47 games of his career, a testament to Watt’s durability. That’ll likely come in handy as he spends some extra time in the training room this week.

 

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.”

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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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