And in that corner… The Pittsburgh Panthers

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One year after an underwhelming Pitt team came into Notre Dame Stadium and nearly ended the Irish’s dream season early, Paul Chryst‘s squad once again has the Irish in their sights. An up and down season could be kickstarted by a victory over Notre Dame.

It’s been a mixed back for the Panthers this season. They’ve shown spurts of having the offensive firepower to hang in the ACC, but haven’t been able to play the type of consistent football needed to take the program back to a winning level. Part of that is the product of massive instability at the top of the food chain, with Chryst replacing current Arizona State coach Todd Graham after a year, who replaced Mike Haywood before ever coaching a game, who was hired after the Dave Wannstedt era was ended.

Getting us up to speed on all things Pitt is Anson Whaley of Cardiac Hill. He’s been writing about all things Pitt Panthers, and was kind enough to answer my questions as a battered Irish squad gets ready to head east to play another primetime football game this Saturday.

I asked, he answered. Enjoy.

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Sitting at 4-4 after eight games, things from 30,000 feet feel like a mixed bag. The rushing offense is anemic, curious for a Paul Chryst offense. The defense is a respectable 34th in total defense, two slots ahead of Notre Dame, but has looked shaky against decent competition. Just how frustrating is this team for Panthers fans?

It’s been even more frustrating than normal to be honest. The team hasn’t shown any type of consistency all year and after some strong offensive games early this season, that unit has really taken a nosedive. The defense, as you stated, has been reasonable overall, but has had its share of struggles, too. That side of the ball gave up 55 points to Duke and a total of 75 to the likes of Old Dominion, New Mexico, and Navy. There have been far too many lapses, particularly in pass coverage.

What fans are starting to realize is that this just isn’t a very good team. They’ve proven they can beat bottom feeders, but don’t have a single quality win (no, beating a 6-2 Duke team doesn’t count) and while they’ve been competitive against some good teams, they also haven’t been able to put it all together.

It feels like Devin Street has been at Pitt forever. Tom Savage might be the truest journeyman quarterback in college football. Sprinkle in the impressive freshman campaign of Tyler Boyd, and will Pitt challenge the Irish secondary through the air?

Not if recent history holds true. Pitt’s aerial attack looked pretty good earlier in the season and Savage even tied a Pitt record with six touchdown passes against Duke. But the passing game has really struggled against better defenses. It’s not so much the fault of the skill players, who have been serviceable when Savage has had enough time to throw. The problem has been a very weak offensive line that has allowed Savage to be harassed for much of the season. Under pressure, it’s been hard for him to get anything going.

Tyler Boyd, who started the season strong disappeared off the radar screen until last week against Georgia Tech when he had 11 catches for 118 yards and a touchdown. The hope is that the team will start to look for him a bit more, but if the Irish defensive line pressures Savage, it’s hard to imagine the passing game having any kind of rhythm.

After saying goodbye to Rushel Shell, how has the Pitt run game done without him? Notre Dame could be heading into this game missing over half of its two-deep along the defensive line. Will Pitt do their best to pound the football?

The running game has, overall, been a bit of a mess. The same thing I mentioned earlier holds true here as well – they’ve played well against bad teams, but poorly against good ones. Unsurprisingly, Isaac Bennett and James Conner have had their best games against Old Dominion, New Mexico, and Duke. But they’ve struggled mightily against Florida State (69 combined yards), Virginia (32 combined yards), and Virginia Tech (32 combined yards). Things hit rock bottom last weekend against Georgia Tech as the pair had a whopping 19 yards. Pitt really misses Shell as Bennett and Conner have had trouble against better competition. It’s not all on them as the offensive line has been pretty bad, but they just haven’t gotten much going.

Paul Chryst is a run-first type of guy and I’d expect he’ll start by trying to establish the run to see what the pair can do. Savage will get his fair share of attempts, but Chryst will surely try to run the ball.

On the defensive side of the ball, the strength of the Panthers looks to be up front with Aaron Donald and company. Just how good is Donald? And will this group make things difficult for an Irish offensive line that could be short two starters?

Donald is an absolute freak and is looking like a potential first- or second-round talent. He’s doing things on the interior of the line that even defensive ends don’t do. You name it he does it – sacks, forced fumbles, double-digit tackle games … he’s just too much for 95% of the offensive linemen out there and even drawing double teams still finds a way to make an impact.

Unfortunately the rest of the line has been only mediocre, although defensive end Bryan Murphy has had some good games lately. Even so, though, Donald is capable of causing havoc on his own.

Assess the Paul Chryst era so far?

Still an incomplete grade for me. Many fans are displeased with the lack of progress so far since Pitt won only six games last year and is having a similar year this season. But the offensive line cupboard was so bare that it was hard to expect too much right away. On the recruiting end, he has managed to rebuild the line, bringing in five offensive linemen last year and has several more commitments for 2014. Chryst has unimpressed with his game coaching so far, but as I’ve said on my blog, this whole head coaching thing is new to him. Growing pains are to be expected and to grade him when he hasn’t even completed two seasons is wholly unfair.

A badly banged up Notre Dame team opened up 3.5 point favorites but that’s stretched to 5 points. How do you see this game shaking out? Pitt’s best win of the year looks like a 58-55 shootout. They’ve lost two straight to option teams Navy and Georgia Tech.

I expect Pitt to be right there. The Panthers always seem to get up for Notre Dame and are 2-3 over the past five games against the Irish. Even though they’ve dropped the past three, it’s only been by a total of 12 points and two of those games have been on the road. At home and coming off of the disappointment from last year, I expect it to be a close game. Five points against a very average team would seem to be on the low end, but with Pitt’s history against Notre Dame, I have a hard time seeing it be a blowout. I’m not sure if I’m ready to call a Pitt victory here, but a three-five win either way is how I think this will end up.

What’s the recipe for a Pitt victory?

If Pitt is going to win, the key will be getting Tom Savage time to throw. When he has that, he’s proven to be dangerous and with Street and Boyd, he has two of the better receivers in the ACC at his disposal. The Panthers need a solid defensive effort, obviously, but they’ve had that a few other times this season and still come up short. If Pitt is going to win, they’ll need to score more points than they have been lately – and for that to happen, the offensive line simply has to give Savage time to throw.

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For more from Anson, be sure to check him out everywhere he writes. You can also follow him on Twitter @AnsonWhaley or @PittPantherBlog.  

A spring perspective: Wimbush and his offensive line

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Many like to belittle spring practice as just spring practice. Similarly, others will gladly snub their noses at any positive reviews, insisting it is only warmer temperatures and sunshine eliciting optimism.

Another group sees every position change and depth chart shift as a definite indicator the program is on the right track.

The best assessment of these 15 practices falls somewhere between those two extremes, as most things in this world do.

Take the offensive line, for example. Why is it important to garner an idea of the starting five before fall? Once that is established, not only can the offensive line develop chemistry within itself, but it can also establish chemistry with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush. That is, in fact, what Wimbush cited as the item he needs to most improve in a WatchND interview with Jack Nolan over the weekend.

“I need to get better at making it easier for the offensive line and understanding my pocket awareness, where my escape lanes are and where I need to step up,” Wimbush said. “Those guys are working their butts off and I’m at 10 yards, [graduate student left tackle Mike] McGlinchey is getting pushed back and pushed right into me. I have to understand where my pocket is.”

That understanding will develop at an even quicker pace once Wimbush knows exactly whom he is working with on each snap. Spring’s greatest benefit is taking steps toward answering those questions.

As for his greatest strengths on the field, Wimbush pointed toward his athleticism.

“Being able to make plays, get outside the pocket, and I feel like breaking down the defense is some of my assets,” he said.

Assistants: Polian on defensive depth; Lyght on Love; and Lea on the rover

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Three Irish assistants were available to the media following Notre Dame’s sixth spring practice Wednesday. Each of special teams coordinator Brian Polian, defensive backs coach Todd Lyght and linebackers coach Clark Lea commented on something or other of note. Together there just might be enough substance to justify your time here today.

At the bottom of this post is a video with most of the below quotes and many more from yesterday’s session.

POLIAN ON DEFENSIVE DEPTH AFFECTING SPECIAL TEAMS
The most unique aspect of the special teams coordinator, at least when compared to his offensive and defensive counterparts, is the fact that his charges include nearly the entire breadth of the roster. Aside from the quarterbacks, the starting offensive line and the defensive tackles, just about every player could find himself on a kickoff coverage or return unit.

More often than not, defensive players—accustomed to seeking out contact, rather than attempting to avoid it—fill out most of those spots. That may not be the case with this Irish rendition, and not necessarily by choice.

“We’re not as deep as you’d want to be in some other spots with depth at linebacker and depth at safety,” Polian said. “So where are we going to make up those bodies, and they’re going to have to come from offense. Those guys have made very positive impressions.”

Polian specifically mentioned junior running back Dexter Williams, sophomore receiver Chase Claypool and sophomore running back Tony Jones, as well as sophomore safety Jalen Elliott, as having excelled thus far. When he came to Jones, Polian added phrases such as “real excited” and “fantastic,” echoing sentiments Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly espoused earlier this week.

Along with that personnel shift, Polian wants to increase the intensity with which players approach the third unit. Often seen as auxiliary duty, inferior to position group work, special teams should not include a dialed back attitude.

“The biggest change has to be the urgency with which we attack special teams and our execution and critical efficiency in important times of the game.”

The Indianapolis Star’s Laken Litman wrote a longer discussion of Polian’s comments, including how he will look to supplement junior receivers Chris Finke and C.J. Sanders at punt return.

“We’ll have a gong show and say who wants to get a look that’s not getting a look,” Polian said. “We’ll start firing balls at them and if you drop two, you’re fired. But we’ll find another one or two guys.”

Please, WatchND and Fighting Irish Media, please record all of that. The possibilities for hilarity would extend further only if Jarron Jones or Lou Nix were still around to insist on taking a turn.

LYGHT ON LOVE
Sophomore cornerback Julian Love saw plenty of action in 12 games last season, finishing with 45 tackles and one each of an interception, fumble forced and fumble recovered. Nonetheless, Lyght sees room for Love to improve.

“The thing for him and his development, when he’s uncomfortable … he has to rely more on his fundamentals and his technique and be proficient with his execution of his technique and those fundamentals,” Lyght said.

Love started eight games at cornerback last season, the most career starts at the position on the Irish roster. Thus, despite being only a sophomore, he is already in a position to lead.

“Julian can tackle in space, he can cover,” Lyght said. “We want him to get better in his man-to-man techniques and in his leadership role. He is a young player but he is going to play a lot for us.”

Love will play, and likely start, at the boundary cornerback position. As Irish Illustrated’s Tim O’Malley lays out in an elongated look at all five cornerbacks in the mix, the days of left/right cornerback duties are in the past.

“In the college game, it is a boundary/field game,” Lyght said. “It’s not like the NFL where the hashmarks are in the middle of the field and it’s a left/right game…

“If you get the guys comfortable playing boundary, playing field, they can get a better feel for the game, get a better feel for the route combinations, and be able to execute at a higher level playing that way.”

A quick layman’s translation: The hashmarks in college football are much wider than in the NFL. Thus, when the ball is placed on the right hashmark, the right side of the field becomes the boundary and is much narrower than the left, the field.

LEA ON THE ROVER
How about another take at explaining the heralded rover position in new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme? Let’s here Lea’s quick summary:

“We have a lot of bodies, so we’re really trying to identify who the right fit is,” he said. “The beauty of that position is it is a hybrid, so there are times you want a bigger-body linebacker type, there are times where you want more of a nickel type.”

Lea also took a moment to extensively praise the leadership of both senior linebackers Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini.


Mid-week reading: On Wimbush; NCAA $$$; A look back at Te’o

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A litany of links typically makes for good Friday fodder. A week’s worth of the internet can help any reader through an unproductive end of the week. Unfortunately, spring practice’s rhythms are inconsistent, unlike summer’s constant nothingness and fall’s non-stop charge.

Hey, who said you can’t take a long lunch on a Wednesday, anyway?

MORE WIMBUSH AND WHITFIELD
Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples joined Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush out in San Diego two weeks ago during spring break, watching as Wimbush listened to private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield’s instructions. Staples, per usual, tells a good story, slipping some nuggets of information within it where you may not even notice.

Many around this space have asked who foots the bill when a college quarterback seeks out Whitfield’s tutelage. Per Staples, Wimbush’s mother paid for the week.

Throughout the story, Wimbush emphasizes the importance of a Notre Dame degree, going so far as to point to former Irish quarterbacks Everett Golson and Malik Zaire acquiring their diplomas before departing Notre Dame. None of us know Wimbush’s academic progress—now approaching his second summer school session, Wimbush is likely ahead of the usual second-semester sophomore’s credit pace—but this tidbit may prove pertinent in nine months time. Considering what its pertinence would say about a bigger picture, Irish fans should certainly hope it is of note.

To this memory, the classic image relayed from Golson’s time with Whitfield was Golson throwing over brooms held by staffers, mimicking the long limbs of charging defensive linemen. Those fictional pass rushers have become a bit more realistic in nature, now apparently represented with outstretched tennis rackets.

NCAA GIVING NOTRE DAME NEARLY $1 MILLION
In what has been described as a “one-time supplemental distribution,” the NCAA is dispersing $200 million among its members. The amount each school receives is determined by the total number of full scholarships it gives to student-athletes, with each partial scholarship contributing its appropriate fraction toward that total figure.

Notre Dame will receive $984,724 thanks to giving out 299.20 scholarships in 2013-14. Some context behind that latter number: The football team takes up 85 scholarships. The men’s basketball team is allowed 13, and the women’s basketball team gets 15. The remaining 186.20 are split among the other 20 varsity sports (counting men’s and women’s teams separately in rowing, swimming and diving, and track and field).

Other notable schools:
Ohio State receives the most, more than $1.3 million, thanks to its 403.98 scholarships.
USC’s 279.06 scholarships equates to $918,440.
Michigan’s 353.18 scholarships will yield close to $1.2 million.

All these dollars must be spent it ways aiding the student-athletes. Schools cannot put the funds toward items like stadium construction or coaches’ salaries. Rather, the NCAA indicated the money is for “the direct benefit of the student-athlete and their academic success, life skills, career success, health and safety and student-athlete focused diversity and inclusion initiatives.”

All expenditures must be approved by the NCAA. The money comes from an endowment that had reportedly come to exceed $360 million.

REMEMBER THE TE’O DRAFT HOOPLA?
The below video does not necessarily reveal anything we do not already know about former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o, despite its ponderous title. It does, however, make a good point.

Aside from a sporadic comment deep in the morass of these pages, not much is said about the Lennay Kekua situation anymore. At the time, it was the most talked about item anywhere, let alone in Notre Dame corners. Personally, a former co-worker at the Los Angeles Times called late one night that week four-plus years ago. He and I had not spoken in close to two years, and we haven’t spoken since. But the Te’o/Kekua story prompted him to seek an understanding of what in the world was going on.

In some irish.nbcsports.com history, the day after that story broke—it broke on Jan. 16, 2013, so I am referring to Jan. 17—still holds the record for most views to this particular site.

Good for Te’o to have successfully moved past that saga. These days, every comment former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer makes is scrutinized. He is even criticized for not having excellent timing with Jonas Gray, of all people. Looking back on Te’o, it should be remembered the most dramatic stories, one seemingly crafted perfectly for the internet, fade into the cobwebs of time.

[Here, a link in case the intended embed below fails.]

PHIL STEELE’S PROJECTED AP TOP 10
Enough with the past. Let’s project the future.

Phil Steele, of the revered Phil Steele’s College Football Preview, projected August’s Associated Press Top 10. Steele has accounted for voters’ tendencies rather accurately in years past, so it is not an entirely fruitless exercise. Then again, he is projecting the results of the first of many polls with no actual consequence.

Of Steele’s projected top-10, Notre Dame will face only No. 4 USC.

KENPOM’S TOO EARLY PRESEASON TOP 10
If you think Steele’s top 10 is too early, then skip this.

College basketball analytics master Ken Pomeroy put together his top 10 for next season, though any unexpected draft departures or transfers can certainly alter his calculations. After all, the season is not actually over yet.

Of certain Irish interest: No. 9 North Carolina, No. 8 Louisville and No. 6 Virginia. The last of those has already suffered a transfer which Pomeroy tweeted will “abruptly” end the Cavaliers’ time in his preseason top 10.

SPEAKING OF BASKETBALL, WELL DONE DENNIS, WHOEVER YOU ARE
Math is hard, so take this with a grain of salt, but I believe Dennis’ bracket of “Brey Brey’s Kids” will win the Inside the Irish March Madness pool. Dennis, your $984,724 is in the mail.

Don’t think that means there is no reason to watch the Final Four, though. Your host might be able to rise into the top half of the field, which would be good for his pride, and therefore the quality of writing in these parts.

It shouldn’t be too surprising my bracket flopped. This is a football page. Besides, by my eye, no one I actually know firsthand will finish higher than fourth. That is more of a relief than it should be.

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