Quayshawn Nealy, Devin Street

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.

***

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.

***

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

Irish A-to-Z: Daelin Hayes

Daelin Hayes 247
Irish 247
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Notre Dame’s best pass rusher may be true freshman Daelin Hayes. The early-entry freshman came to South Bend with a 5-star rating and an NFL physique, but there are more questions than answers about the Michigan native.

None of those queries are bigger than his actually on-field abilities. With shoulder injuries plaguing him for two high school seasons and off-field family issues putting him in eligibility purgatory, Hayes is an elite football prospect in spite of the fact that he hasn’t played a lot of football.

Capable of practicing this spring even if he arrived on campus just weeks removed from a shoulder surgery, Hayes took reps and stayed active this spring, mostly because he’s the perfect fit for a pass-rushing role this fall—assuming his body (and brain) allow it.

 

 

DAELIN HAYES
6’3.5″, 257 lbs.
Freshman, No. 9, DE

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A U.S. Army All-American selection, Hayes earned a 5-star ranking from Rivals and was one of the best players in the Midwest, despite not being on the football field for much of his three seasons of high school football.

But that didn’t keep college football’s top programs from chasing him and Notre Dame won a hard-fought recruiting battle over programs like Ohio State, Michigan, Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma and USC.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Hayes opened eyes immediately on campus, testing with a 4.8 40-yard dash at 257 pounds. That type of speed allows him to play linebacker as well as defensive end, though it’s obviously a big reason why everybody sees a potential edge rusher when they look at him. The Irish staff cross-trained him this spring, though it’s pretty clear the need at weakside defensive end begs for Hayes to find a home there.

If Hayes stays healthy, he’s every bit the NFL prospect you come to expect from a 5-star defensive end recruit. I’m not sure he’s an Aaron Lynch type recruit (he’s shorted and thicker than the current version of Lynch), but the Irish roster doesn’t have a lot of athletes like this capable of chasing the quarterback.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I see a designated pass rusher season coming on for Hayes, with the hopes that it’ll allow him to specialize at something, and potentially stay healthy in a restricted role. Some have mentioned Kolin Hill’s freshman campaign as a comp. I think that’s setting the bar too low.

Instead, look at Prince Shumbo’s rookie campaign. Even as a tweener, Shembo found the field in pass rush situations, putting together a nice stat line with five TFLs and 4.5 sacks as a freshman.

Again, the hope is Hayes is a quick learner, because he’s played less than a full season of football at the high school level. So while he may have been a workout warrior and dominated the camp circuit on his way to a 5-star grade, that’s just not a lot of experience.

The good news? Notre Dame’s not asking him to play quarterback or free safety. They need him to chase down quarterbacks—a skill Keith Gilmore should be able to unearth from Hayes rather quickly.

Hayes should play every week this season if he can stay on the field. If he does that, I’ll say he matches Shembo’s freshman season.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston
Mark Harrell

Irish A-to-Z: Mark Harrell

Mark Harrell
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As a fifth-year player, Mark Harrell is the elder statesman of the offensive line. He’s also still waiting for his opportunity to crack the starting lineup.

That chance won’t likely come unless something goes wrong. But Harrell is the closing thing to an insurance policy on the offensive line, a versatile reserve who has spent time playing virtually every position up front.

Likely a bridge at tackle between starters Mike McGlinchey and Alex Bars and talented freshmen Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg, Harrell’s a program player, with loyalty running two-ways as he plays out his eligibility in South Bend.

 

MARK HARRELL
6’4″, 306 lbs.
Grad Student, No. 75, OL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A three or four-star prospect depending on the service, Harrell was a first-team All-State player in North Carolina with offers from Michigan, Auburn, Clemson, North Carolina, South Carolina, Stanford and Tennessee.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2012): Did not see action, saving a year of eligibility.

Sophomore Season (2013): Did not see action.

Junior Season (2014): Played in two games, seeing action against Rice and Michigan. Served as a backup at center, with the ability to also play guard and tackle.

Senior Season (2015): Saw action in five games. Played 12 snaps at right tackle against UMass, earning a +1.2 grade from PFF-College.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Feels like I could copy and paste after swapping out Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin’s names.

Harrell has the type of positional versatility you want in a backup. He served as a reserve center last year during the Blue-Gold game, and while he’s no longer on the depth chart behind Nick Martin, he’d likely be called upon in a pinch rather than burning Tristen Hoge’s redshirt. What happens if Ronnie Stanley or Mike McGlinchey go down at tackle is largely a mystery as well, so there’s likely playing opportunities, but again, only if things start to go awry.

Harrell will likely spend some time on special teams in 2015, capable of taking some snaps on field goal and punt teams. But the depth chart is packed and one of the toughest spots to get on the field, and Harrell’s lack of opportunity is largely because of the talent in front of him.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

A fifth-year backup, Harrell was tapped by Kelly this spring to move outside to tackle, hoping to solidify a depth chart that’s thinner than you’d expect, considering the impressive recruiting Harry Hiestand has done during his tenure in South Bend. But Harrell is likely on the outside because Jerry Tillery is playing defensive tackle and Ronnie Stanley was the first offensive lineman selected in the NFL Draft.

It’s hard to know what Harrell can do if we haven’t seen him do it yet. But at this point, the fact that the coaching staff preferred keeping him on the roster and serving as a backup (likely at right tackle) is telling—because there’s a very high likelihood that Harrell could’ve used his graduate transfer to step onto a campus of a lower-tier program and start right away.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

If all goes according to plan, we’ll only see Harrell in mop-up situations or on special teams. If it doesn’t? Expect to see how he does at right tackle, with a redshirt preferred for both talented freshmen tackles.

 

Regardless, peg Harrell for more appearances in 2016 than his career total of seven games, knowing that it’ll be important to gain some experience and keep McGlinchey and Bars fresh.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston

Irish A-to-Z: Tarean Folston

Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl
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When Tarean Folston limped off the field after his third carry of the season, few knew what would happen next. The junior running back’s season was finished. But it spawned giant years for C.J. Prosise and Josh Adams, turning Prosise into a third-round draft pick and Adams into the most prolific freshman runner in school history.

That big year could’ve been Folston’s. Behind an elite offensive line, the Florida native was primed to be the leading man in the Irish backfield, with a breakout season all but guaranteed.

But injuries happen. And after working his way back into shape during spring practice and returning to a depth chart that all of a sudden has some young competition, 2016 is a chance to make up for lost time.

 

TAREAN FOLSTON
5’9.5″, 214 lbs.
Senior, No. 25, RB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Notre Dame beat out Auburn on Signing Day, waiting a few uncomfortable extra hours for a fax from Folston after he went on a late-January visit. Folston was Florida’s 4A first-team All-State running back, a do-everything high school player.

The Under-Armour All-American had offers from Oregon, Florida, Florida State and a few dozen other programs before picking Notre Dame in early January.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2013): Played in 12 games, starting two as a true freshman. Nearly set a single-game freshman rushing record when he ran for 140 yards against Navy, the most since 1999. Named Offensive Newcomer of the Year.

Sophomore Season (2014): Ran for 889 yards and caught 190 yards worth of passes as the team’s leading rusher. Averaged over 5.0 yards per carry for the second-straight season. Broke 100 yards in four out of five games, coming two yards shy against North Carolina of making it five out of six.

Junior Season (2015): His season was cut short after just three carries (for 19 yards) against Texas, lost for the year with a torn ACL. Earned a medical redshirt.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

There’s no doubt in my mind that Folston wouldn’t put up monster numbers last year if he stayed healthy.

I’m doubling down on Folston. I expect the biggest season from a running back in the Kelly era — and I’m pegging Folston for a 1,200 yard, double-digit touchdown 2015.

Part of this confidence comes from seeing what Mike Sanford did riding a running QB and top-shelf back at Boise State. The other part comes from seeing Notre Dame’s offensive line figure itself out this spring instead of mixing and matching into fall camp.

But mostly it comes from the natural talent I see with Folston, a back who’ll get better as he collects touches. There’s nobody to steal them from Folston to begin the season. And after he establishes himself, there’s nobody who should take them away from him, either.

So stay healthy and Notre Dame will have a running back to showcase.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

My biggest question for Folston has also been one of his biggest strengths—the space between his ears. For two seasons, Folston’s vision and Football IQ have been excellent. The natural ability he displayed—too often in flashes—made him the envy of a depth chart filled with talented runners.

But coming back from a knee injury is different. And Folston needs to be able to cut loose with absolute conviction and get up the field, because breakaway speed has never been the power of his game.

The depth chart Folston returns to is a different beast than the one he left. Adams has the heft to run between the tackles and the speed to hit a home run. Dexter Williams is greatly improved. Even Justin Brent is an envious No. 4 back.

But Folston is an NFL running back. His versatility, ability to catch the ball in space, and make defenders miss likely didn’t go anywhere.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

This is Notre Dame’s leading ball carrier in 2016. That may be a bold statement. Or it could turn out to be an obvious one after we see Folston ripping through Texas and Nevada.

Still, this is a leap of faith considering we only saw brief glimpses of Folston is spring football, donning a non-contact jersey in the Blue-Gold game. And because of the season Adams put together in 2015. But Brian Kelly believes too much in his veteran running back and knows his value to this offense. With a running game that’ll likely be the strength of the attack, putting the ball in Folston’s hands early and often can’t be a bad plan.

I’m still betting that Josh Adams ends up with a higher yard-per-carry average, but I think Folston’s senior season will be his best in South Bend.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Fertitta

 

Irish A-to-Z: Nicco Fertitta

Nicco Fertitta CASHORE
Property of Matt Cashore / Irish Illustrated
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As Notre Dame searches for answers at safety, one under-discussed option is sophomore Nicco Fertitta. The Las Vegas native, best known through his recruitment as the high school teammate of Alizé Jones (and outside the football world for his father Lorenzo, the Chairman & CEO of the UFC), has been overlooked before. That comes with the territory when you’re built like a walk-on.

But Fertitta’s college career is on schedule—and maybe ahead of plans. A freshman season saw Fertitta make 11 appearances. A sophomore season will see more special teams duties, and if Fertitta can find a way, a battle to get into a very uncertain two-deep at both safety positions.

An overachiever who became a key piece of the foundation at one of the best high school football programs in the country, Fertitta faces long odds to do more than play special teams. But that’s business as usual for the pint-sized heavy-hitter, who’ll look to take a step forward in his second season in South Bend.

 

NICCO FERTITTA
5’8.5″, 185 lbs.
Sophomore, No. 28, S

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

U.S. Army All-American, First-team All-State per the Las Vegas Review Journal. State champion, with Bishop Gorman also being named a national champion (no championship game was played).

A three-star prospect, Fertitta chose Notre Dame over offers from Arizona, Hawaii, Houston, UNLV (where his prep coach Tony Sanchez took over the program) and Utah.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2015): Played in 11 games, all in special teams appearances. He made one tackle on the season and forced a fumble against UMass.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Got the special teams contributions right. Got a little bit ahead of myself thinking he’d have a chance to play in sub-packages.

I tend to think Fertitta is going to be one of the freshmen taking the field against Texas come September 5th. He’ll likely be covering kicks and chasing down punts, but Fertitta’s freshman season will hinge on his ability to make big plays in the game’s third phase, something Scott Booker is still looking to establish.

As a safety, Fertitta could also be very helpful in sub-packages. As Notre Dame takes on a heavy dose of run-heavy (and option) offenses in Georgia Tech, Navy, Pitt and Boston College, there’s a place for a run-stuffer with the ability to play in space, and just as Kelly and the Irish used Jamoris Slaughter, Fertitta could be an option at a position that doesn’t have a ton of flexibility.

But any road onto the field as a freshman should be considered a strong debut season for Fertitta.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Fertitta’s high school highlight reel showcased an undersized safety who hit like a freight train. That physicality likely helped get him on the field in 2015, but the aforementioned size feels like a larger barrier—especially when you see the disparity between Fertitta and a strong safety like Drue Tranquil.

Notre Dame knew the player they offered. They also knew he’d play large roles in the locker room as well as on special teams. Fertitta will likely take a step forward in special teams and then have a chance to compete for a backup role, especially before the reloaded secondary gives guys like Jalen Elliott and Spencer Perry a chance to get comfortable.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I expect Fertitta to play in all 13 games, but only take snaps on defense in mop-up duty. Unless injuries hit, Tranquill should be in the starting lineup with Avery Sebastian supplementing him. At free safety, Redfield will be competing with Devin Studstill, with a very large hole behind those two players.

If Fertitta looked and played the game like a center-fielder, that’s where I’d have him penciled in. But he’s a mini-Tranquil, with physical limitations also hindering his ability to be a single-high safety, making him a better fit at strong safety.

As long as there’s a hole in the depth chart at safety, you’ve got to give Fertitta a chance to see the field. And as long as there are multiple sub-packages and schemes being deployed by Brian VanGorder, there’s always a chance that a sure tackler like Fertitta can find a role. But it just feels like there are other options available that’ll better suit what VanGorder and Todd Lyght want from their secondary, leaving coverage teams the likely home for Fertitta in 2016 and beyond.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott