The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Air Force

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For much of the season, Notre Dame hasn’t done a great job playing as a favorite. That changed Saturday afternoon, as the Irish shrugged off Air Force’s opening score and proceeded to roll through an overmatched Falcons team.

The Irish scored 45 points, the most since last season’s opener against Navy. They racked up 466 yards, even with the No. 1 offense gone by the start of the fourth quarter. Steve Elmer’s false start on the game’s opening drive was the only penalty against Notre Dame. All in all, it was a very clean performance for Brian Kelly’s team, a group that looks to be coming together as they head into November.

The victory pushed Notre Dame back into the Coaches Poll at No. 25, though they are still unranked by the AP, even though they’ve beaten both Michigan State and Arizona State, the two teams standing between the Irish and Michigan.

With a month left in the season, there’s still plenty of football to play. So let’s take a look at the good, bad and ugly during Notre Dame’s 45-10 victory over Air Force.

THE GOOD

Tommy Rees. It was a heckuva day for the senior quarterback who threw as many touchdown passes as incompletions. Here are a few fun facts produced by Notre Dame’s Sports Information department to help put into context the afternoon Rees had.

* Most touchdown passes in a game since Jimmy Clausen threw five against Stanford in ’09.
* Efficiency Rating of 260.71, the best for an Irish quarterback since Clausen vs. Nevada in ’09.
* First time in school history that five different players had a TD catch in same game.
* Rees’ efficiency rating was the fifth best game of any college quarterback this season against an FBS team.
* Only six quarterbacks in the country have thrown more TDs than Rees.

Games like this one often times serve the purpose of inflating stats, but you still need to give Rees credit for taking advantage of it. Probably more important than anything, outside of one bad throw against Arizona State, Rees has been very accurate with balls thrown into coverage since a mid-season slump, and that showed yesterday.

Young Receivers. It was great to see Will Fuller, Corey Robinson and Chris Brown get in on the action this weekend, with all three making big plays. Robinson’s touchdown looked like something out of a spring practice video on UND.com.

Fuller’s two big catches showed us the speed that Brian Kelly has talked about since the moment the Philadelphia native stepped onto campus. When asked about Fuller, Kelly was complimentary about the young receiver.

“Elite speed. And he will come down with the football,” Kelly said. “We really like the way he tracks the ball.”

Probably the best touchdown of the afternoon came on Rees’ back-shoulder throw to Brown, a perfectly placed ball that was also a nice catch by the sophomore. After disappearing a bit these past few weeks, building some confidence for Brown as the Irish prepare to head into the season’s final month will be key.

Jaylon Smith. Smith led the Irish in tackles again and nearly had himself a defensive touchdown. The freshman outside linebacker is turning himself into one of the Irish’s best playmakers and his football IQ is growing by the day.

To start the game, it looked like Smith was struggling with the option. When asked about the early success Air Force had running at Smith, Kelly talked about the schematic challenges that contributed to those problems.

“We were in some coverages that really put him as the only player on the perimeter. We didn’t help him very much,” Kelly said.

“We had to make some changes. He battled, he played well. He’s just a tough, physical kid. It was just a matter of time to give him some support.”

Cornerbacks. Kerry Cooks’ cornerbacks had a nice performance on Saturday afternoon. Asked to roll up into the box on the field side, KeiVarae Russell, Cole Luke, Lo Wood, Bennett Jackson and Devin Butler combined to make 22 tackles, with Russell and Luke leading the way with six each.

“They were a huge difference in the game on Saturday. They were physical. They whipped the blockers,” Kelly said Sunday. “We didn’t get a whole lot more out of our inside-out pursuits, so our corners were having to whip blockers on the perimeter, and they did a very, very good job.”

Tarean Folston. It was nice to see the freshman running back step forward in the running game, positioning himself to take more and more carries in a crowded backfield that’s starting to sort itself out.

Kelly talked about that progress on Saturday after watching the game film.

“We think he’s making nice progress.,” Kelly said. “He’s trying to take reps away from George Atkinson, who’s been in the program for three years; Amir Carlisle, who played at USC as a freshman and transferred in with very good ball skills; and Cam McDaniel, who’s been a tough, physical runner for us.

“You’ve got to be really good to take reps away from each one of those guys, but he’s done that. He ran the ball well and effectively, and he continues to get better each and every week.”

TJ Jones. Another Saturday, another touchdown for Jones, who went over 100-yards for the third time this season. He’s now scored a touchdown in five consecutive games, just three behind the record by Jeff Samardzija and Golden Tate.

Ben Koyack. Don’t look now, but the Irish are developing the type of tight end depth many hoped to see this year. Koyack caught two passes, including a 22-yard touchdown, his second TD of the season.

“We think Ben Koyack is a guy that we wanted to get more playing time for,” Kelly said. “We thought we could get some particular matchups that we could get with Ben on the field that we like.”

Nice Kick, Kyle Brindza. 

THE BAD

Running Game Struggles. The Irish didn’t have the best game running the football, averaging just 3.6 yards a carry on Saturday. Kelly attributed some of that to Air Force stacking the box, but also to some struggles blocking the nose guard in the 3-4 system.

That forced the Irish to run some plays outside of their usual inside-outside zone blocking scheme, springing Cam McDaniel and Folston with some gap and pull techniques. Kelly talked a little bit more about the need to be versatile on the offensive line.

“I think we’ve got to just keep changing them up,” Kelly said. “We’ve got to run zone schemes. We’ve got to run gap schemes. We need to do a better job of mixing those up.”

Blocked Field Goal & Slow Start. This is the sixth game that the Irish have allowed their opponents to score first. While the Irish have come back to win four of those games, starting fast has still been a challenge for this group.

Also frustrating was the block of Kyle Brindza’s field goal. Troy Calhoun’s teams have been very good at getting to kicks, but this type of thing can be a game-changer, and the Irish need to tighten that up.

A knee injury to Ishaq Williams. The junior outside linebacker started the game at defensive end, but was lost early with a knee injury. In his Sunday check in with the media, Kelly would only say that Williams is doubtful for this Saturday against Navy.

THE UGLY

Other than the fact that the TV broadcast looked like it was from 1992, there’s nothing much to complain about after the Irish victory, Notre Dame’s 26th in the last 30 games.

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

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This space has mentioned a few times the dearth of returning sacks among Notre Dame’s defensive line. It is a pertinent fact—no returning Irish defensive lineman recorded a sack in the 2016 season—but it fails to mention the flipside of that.

Most of Notre Dame’s defensive linemen had few, if any, opportunities to rush the passer in 2016. Perhaps at the top of the list of those who should bring down the opposing passer a few times this fall, sophomore Daelin Hayes has laid claim to a starting rush spot through five spring practices.

“The athleticism is what obviously stands out,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “He’s extremely athletic, he’s fit physically, 250 pounds and very strong.”

These facts are, after all, the reasons Hayes was a highly sought-after five-star recruit according to rivals.com.

“It’s the football knowledge, learning the techniques at the position in which he plays is really the piece,” Kelly continued. “It’s just learning right now for him. This is the time to do it, in spring ball.

“Squeezing down on a tight end when the back is away. Wrong-arming the puller. These are all football terms and schemes that are a bit new to him. We have to be patient with him. He’s an explosive athlete. There’s going to be some mistakes along the way, and I’m okay with that as long as he’s learning.”

Without much depth pushing for playing time behind him, Hayes will have the opportunity to make, and subsequently understand, those mistakes. Seniors Jay Hayes (no relation) and Andrew Trumbetti are mired in competition for the other end spot, while sophomores Julian Okwara, Adetokunbo Ogundeji and Khalid Kareem may have even more development ahead of them than Daelin Hayes does.

Incoming freshmen Kofi Wardlow and Jonathon MacCollister will join the fray in the summer, but for now, the younger Hayes has his chance to impress with his natural gifts while absorbing the intricacies of new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s defense.

Hayes is not a complete unknown. While Okwara made four tackles last season in 11 games and Kareem appeared in four games, Hayes saw action in every contest, finishing the season with 11 tackles, one pass breakup and one forced fumble.

“He’s an athlete,” defensive line coach Mike Elston said last week. “He’s on the edge in a two-point stance. He’s not a trained, put-your-hand-on-the-ground defensive end. He played running back in high school. He can see things better in a two-point and can diagnose quicker. He’s able to be more productive.”

It may be accurate to mention no returning Notre Dame defensive linemen tackled a quarterback for a loss last season, but it is more precise to also include the Irish have possibilities of changing that trend.

SPEAKING OF THE DEFENSIVE LINE
Notre Dame is nearly as thin at defensive tackle as it is at end. Junior Jerry Tillery leads the way with senior end-converted-to-tackle Jonathan Bonner lining up next to him thus far. Their reserves: Oft-concussed senior Daniel Cage, senior Pete Mokwuah and junior Micah Dew-Treadway with junior Elijah Taylor out for the spring with a foot injury.

Theoretically, junior Brandon Tiassum is also in the mix, and three freshmen (Kurt Hinish, Myron Tagovailo-Amosa and four-star Darnell Ewell) will join the group in the summer.

And maybe, just maybe, perhaps, possibly … Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano could walk onto campus alongside those freshmen. Pagano visited Notre Dame the first week of March, and was due to look at Oklahoma and Arkansas the next two weekends, respectively. Instead, Pagano reportedly cancelled both of those visits Monday.

Pagano does still have a visit to Oregon scheduled for April 21. Until indicated otherwise, it may be prudent to presume Pagano hopes to land as close to his Hawaiian home as possible.

RELATED READING: 1 Day Until Spring Practice: A look at the defensive line

Recruiting success continues with OL Dirksen, class’s 12th commit

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Even in the doldrums of spring practice, Notre Dame’s recent recruiting success continues. Rivals.com three-star/scout.com four-star offensive lineman John Dirksen offered a verbal commitment to the Irish on Saturday, bringing the 2018 class to 12 commitments.

The 6-foot-5, 290-pounds Dirksen (Marion High School; Maria Stein, Ohio) joins consensus three-star prospect Cole Mabry (Brentwood H.S.; Brentwood, Tenn.) as the offensive linemen thus far among the 12. In three of the last four years, Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has pulled in four recruits, with 2015’s two (Trevor Ruhland, Tristen Hoge) as the exception. This recruiting cycle could again bring a limited offensive line haul, given the likely limits on the class’s size.

While any and all current class of 2018 team rankings should be taken with many grains of salt—there are 318 days between today and National Signing Day, after all—Dirksen’s commitment solidifies the Irish hold on the No. 3 class, per rivals.com. Other recruiting services place Notre Dame even higher.

Dirksen chose Hiestand and the Irish over offers from Michigan State, Iowa State and Boston College, among others.

 

Holmes out for spring; Jones & Jones shining

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Notre Dame’s spring continued over the weekend, and is all too often the case with football, that led to an injury. Early enrollee running back C.J. Holmes will probably miss the rest of spring practice due to a separated shoulder, Irish coach Brian Kelly announced following Saturday’s practice.

“We’ll get an MRI and know a little bit further on Monday once that calms down a little bit,” Kelly said. “We’ll get a picture of that and see. He had an open repair on that same shoulder his sophomore year in high school.”

Behind three backs, including two with experience, Holmes was unlikely to see playing time in the backfield in 2017.

Of those three backs, sophomore Tony Jones, Jr., is the unknown after preserving a year of eligibility last season. In limited practice viewing, however, Jones has only impressed. He has caught Kelly’s eye, as well.

“He’s 225 pounds, can catch the ball coming out of the backfield, [is] assignment correct, and can run elusively and can get into the second level,” Kelly said. “What does that equal? He’s a pretty good back.

“Obviously he was noticeable today in his play and he got some work with the first group as well. He wasn’t just getting second-team reps.”

Jones may be getting some first-unit exposure, but expect him to remain behind junior Josh Adams in the depth chart. Considering Jones’ style is somewhat comparable to Adams’, whereas junior Dexter Williams presents something of a change of pace, Williams should see more action than the sophomore, as well.

MORE PRAISE FOR ALIZE JONES
Junior tight end Alizé Jones—rather, Alizé Mack, per his Twitter account—has taken the lead in spring’s race of who reaps the most sound bite accolades. In complimenting Jones, who missed last season due to an academic suspension, Kelly also managed to laud new offensive coordinator Chip Long.

“I think Chip is doing a terrific job with [Jones],” Kelly said. “He’s got a good relationship. He knows how to rise him up when he needs to and scold him when he needs to. Alizé needs a little bit of that.

“He’s virtually un-coverable in certain areas of the field. I don’t care at any level. You can’t cover him. He just has that kind of talent. The one that I think stands out to me in the few days is he’s committed himself to being a blocker and playing physical. If he continues to do that, we’re going to find ourselves with a lot of tight ends on the field.”

Presumably, Jones would join graduate student tight end Durham Smythe in two tight end sets. It should be remembered, Long has historically shown a preference for such formations, and with Notre Dame’s plethora of options at the position, Long’s tendencies have no need to change. For that matter, Long had some praise for Jones this weekend, as well.

“Alizé can be as good as he wants to be,” Long said Friday. “…He’s growing up each and every day. Great joy to coach, and that whole group is. He doesn’t want to let that group down. There’s no question he can be as good as he wants to be.”

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.