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IBG: Questions before Pitt

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Another week, another IBG. But this week we’re shaking it up a bit. Tip of the cap to Tex, who thought things were getting a bit stale after the loss of the Subway Domer, and this is a pretty cool way to do thing.

In the spirit of collaboration, everybody submitted one question to the group. We all answer everybody’s questions below, and be sure to check out our partners at:

Her Loyal Sons
ND Nation
UHND
Strong and True

Play along in the comments, as I think a few of these questions might spur some (clean) debate:

From NDTex at HerLoyalSons.com: Tommy Rees has very quietly put up some rather impressive passing numbers. His 22 TDs and 8 INTs are surprisingly not far off from Heisman candidate QBs such as Jameis Winston (24 TD, 6 INT), Johnny Manziel (26 TD, 8 INT), and Marcus Mariota (20 TD, 0 INT). While “Rees for Heisman” is an obvious stretch, especially since he isn’t a dual threat like the previously mentioned QBs, I’d wager tied 8th in the nation for TD passes is a lot more than most Notre Dame fans were expecting. Should we all be making a much bigger deal about this or should we wait and see how he ends the season?

I know people hammer on me all the time for this, but these are the types of numbers I expected from Rees. Tex kind of answers his own question when he mentions the whole dual-threat thing, as Mariota, Manziel or Winston wouldn’t be the weapon they are if they didn’t have big time wheels as well.

The best benchmark for Rees in my mind is Tony Pike. Brian Kelly’s veteran quarterback at Cincinnati put up big numbers in his final season, leading the Bearcats to an undefeated regular season. One look at his stats and you see a line that’s more similar to Rees than many would expect.

While Pike’s completion percentage is better at 62-percent, Rees is throwing for more yards an attempt and is just a few points behind in QBR. Adjust that for the schedule Rees has faced? You’re seeing a similar season (maybe even superior), something Irish fans didn’t think possible when looking at things on paper.

From Frank Vitovitch, UHND.com: Tarean Folston broke out in a big way against Navy last week with 140 yards.  How big of a role do you think the freshman back will play in the final three games and what level of production are you expecting from him down the stretch after his break through performance last weekend?

 The game against Pitt will be a nice barometer. I don’t think this turns into just the Folston show, but he’s going to certainly get the first chance to be the leading man, with George Atkinson and Cam McDaniel likely fitting play calls that better work to their skill-sets.

It won’t be easy sledding for the Irish ground game. We should keep an eye on Chris Watt and his injured PCL. Add to that that all three teams have a better statistical rush defense than Notre Dame (Pitt is 64th, BYU is 42nd and Stanford 11th) and if Folston does break out, the Irish have a great back on their hands.

From Mike Coffey, NDNation: Lots of comments after the game concerned the poor condition of the turf in Notre Dame Stadium and what can/should be done about it.  One of our number has contended the BYU game on November 23rd will be the last with the current grass in the Stadium.  What kind of a playing surface do you believe the Stadium should have and why?

I think Mike’s talking about me here. I just don’t think grass is the answer in Notre Dame Stadium, though the stadium renovation could be the key to making a hybrid surface like the one in Green Bay work.

As Brian Kelly mentioned, it isn’t just rolling out sod and tamping it down. Laying down multiple surfaces a season is expensive stuff, and so are the consultants and grass gurus that Notre Dame has brought in to help.

Part of playing in the house that Rockne built is dealing with the original plot of land and the drainage that was build all those years ago. Here’s an interesting article on the work that went into making the hybrid grass surface work at Lambeau. Not quite as simple as it seems.

The biggest reason I think getting rid of natural grass is important is that Notre Dame finally personnel that has the edge from a quickness and athletic perspective. This isn’t a team that’s going to grow the grass long when a visitor comes to town. The Irish practice both inside and out on FieldTurf. They’re playing a very large portion of their road games on the same surface.

I’m all for tradition, but when that tradition continues to include watching Irish ball carriers slip and fall in the backfield or linebackers fail to get traction as they cut back after an option quarterback, it’s time for a change.

 Aaron Horvath, Strong and True (UND.com) Due to the immense amount of injuries during the past few weeks to the Irish defense, do you think that playing both option teams on our schedule in back to back weeks was a good idea? And… Due to the thin defensive depth chart, what player who saw little playing time in the first nine games will breakout in the final three?

I’m going to steal Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo’s answer, when he said that playing back-to-back option games benefitted both teams. It was clear that Navy had a very good idea of what Notre Dame wanted to do. And it was also clear that the Irish made some changes after Air Force, like keeping Stephon Tuitt and the defensive line in a two-point stance.

There were reports that Notre Dame is likely getting out of the potential 2015 game with Air Force. If that’s the case, I don’t expect to see them on the schedule any time soon, especially with ACC games still trying to be crammed into a schedule that’s bursting at the seams.

For your bonus question, I think asking any defender to “standout” in these last three games is probably a little bit much. But I’m driving the bandwagon for Justin Utupo, a guy that’s going to play a lot of minutes down the stretch with the injuries up front.

Utupo was the LA Times lineman of the year, the same award that went to Troy Niklas. He had elite offers. He just doesn’t quite “fit” in this Irish defense, a bit of a tweener that’s bounced from defensive end to linebacker back to defensive line. But he’s been productive against Air Force and Navy and is the next man in for Bob Diaco.

***

Here’s the question I posed to the rest of the IBG and to you all:

From Keith Arnold, Inside the Irish – NBCSports.com: With the defense so beaten up, is winning out still possible? Would you prefer a lopsided match-up in a BCS bowl or a potential bowl win and possible 11-win season? Would the offseason narrative be better if ND won a second-tier bowl or lost a BCS bowl?

 

Will Wimbush, Elko and the early enrollees surprise in spring practice?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Exactly 59 days from today, the Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Sure, they will be playing against themselves, but nonetheless, it will be somewhat-competitive football played in gold helmets.

For timing context, exactly 59 days ago, you looked beneath the Christmas tree to learn if Santa Claus left you season tickets, socks or coal. I got socks. They had some of that extra cushioning, so I considered them a suitable treat.

Whether you care about my argyles or not (you don’t), for many the Blue-Gold Game and Christmas morning hold similar excitement. That fact is apparently why Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick does not concern himself when groups of alumni publicly lament his decisions, or lack thereof.

“I never worry about that,” Swarbirck told the Indianapolis Star in an exclusive interview you really should read. Go on, click the link, it will open in a new tab. You can come right back here when you are done.

“The hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion in your program. If that sort of stuff bothers you, you can’t be the athletic director, head coach or the quarterback at Notre Dame.”

That very passion will undoubtedly lead to frame-by-frame discussions of video snippets from spring practice, parsing of each and every word Irish coach Brian Kelly says in quick interviews after those practices, and extreme pessimism and optimism about the 2017 season.

In the Christmas spirit, what toys could bring the must excitement during the spring unwrapping? Personally, the gift I was unsure of always brought the most joy. I would rather open an unexpected book than know about a charcoal-gray suit. In other words, at least for today, let’s look past the offensive line, the running backs and the inside linebackers. Instead, let’s look forward to learning about… (more…)

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Karlos Williams #9 of the Florida State Seminoles scores the touchdown that would win the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their game at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.

With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.

The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.

Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.

Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.

If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.

Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order: (more…)

Four-star WR Micah Jones chooses Irish; Rees may need to wait; Other late-week reading

jones
rivals.com
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A day may come when Notre Dame suffers a recruiting disappointment in the 2018 cycle, when a high school star spurns the Irish coaching staff for a foe, but it is not this day.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township High School; Gurnee, Ill.) committed to Notre Dame on Friday, joining a class of now 10 recruits, including four who committed just this week.

Jones chose the Irish over offers from the likes of Iowa, Michigan State and Ole Miss, among others.

He is the first receiver among the 10 commitments and the seventh considered a four-star prospect. At 6-foot-5, 196 pounds, Jones should present a large target for whomever the Notre Dame quarterback is in the fall of 2018, most likely then-senior Brandon Wimbush.

Tom, Tommy or Thomas; Assistant Coach or Graduate Assistant?
Thomas Rees may need to wait a season before officially being a coach at Notre Dame. The legislation to approve a 10th assistant coach was expected to be voted on, passed and effective in April. A newly-added amendment may push the effective date to following the 2017 season. The amendment will be voted on immediately before the legislation itself is.

The delay makes sense. Most coaching hirings and firings occur in December and January. In theory, creating a one-timing hiring frenzy following spring football could leave many programs in the lurch. In practice, however, this is not anticipated.

“The majority of the FBS guys that I’ve talked with currently believe that 10th coach is going to come from within their own organization,” Todd Berry told the Associated Press. Berry is the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association and former coach at Army and Louisiana-Monroe. “Quality control, graduate assistants, analysts, or they’re planning on hiring somebody that’s out of work.”

A majority is not a unanimity, though, and that carousel will innately work to the disadvantage of the Group of 5 schools.

As for Rees, a graduate assistant can still work extensively with players. The most-pertinent difference between a graduate assistant and an assistant coach is the former cannot recruit. Given Notre Dame’s recent success on the recruiting trail—and the early commitment of class of 2018 consensus four-star quarterback Phil Jurkovec (Pine-Richland H.S.; Gibsonia, Pa.)—Rees may not be an absolute necessity in that regard this cycle.

A Kizer Appraisal
Former NFL scout Greg Gabriel took a look at former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer this week, largely paying the draft prospect compliments.

In calling Kizer “the most talented quarterback in this draft class,” Gabriel set a high ceiling for Kizer’s spring. Part of Gabriel’s positive assessment comes from acknowledging Kizer’s responsibilities as the Irish signal-caller.

“The spread offense that Kizer played in at Notre Dame is more sophisticated than many of the spread offenses we see elsewhere at the collegiate level. The Notre Dame offense is a whole-field read scheme in which the quarterback has to go through a progression that encompasses both sides of the field. He also can change the play and/or protections at the line of scrimmage. Given all that, Kizer was asked to do more than many spread quarterbacks are asked to do.”

Gabriel also reflected on the dynamic differences for Kizer in 2015 and 2016 and what may have elicited some of his seeming stagnation.

“There was the unnecessary quarterback controversy at Notre Dame, and the offensive line wasn’t as experienced or as talented and the receivers were mostly first-year starters.”

As much as Gabriel raves about Kizer, he would be the first to tell you anything beyond individual player evaluation is a waste of air this early in the draft process. Mock drafts may be fun, but they are not much beyond that.

Take the fates of Tony Romo and Jimmy Garoppolo, for example. Few, if any, in the NFL expect them to dress for the Cowboys and Patriots, respectively, again. Where they end up could directly impact Kizer’s draft placement.

Jaylon Smith May Be Back to Form
Former Notre Dame and current Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith posted yet another encouraging video to Twitter. This one shows Smith really might be game-ready right now and, if not, almost certainly will be by the fall. Should there be any difficulty with the embedded video below, here is a link straight to it.

OL Mabry makes third commitment this week; WR Jones may follow Friday

mabry
rivals.com
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Two weeks ago, Irish coach Brian Kelly gave a non-answer of an answer to a question about a likely early signing period this coming December. Avoiding specifics, he indicated he thinks the effects of such a change will be seen on a case-by-case basis entirely dependent on the recruits.

“Some will, some won’t,” Kelly said. “…Each kid is going to have to react to it based upon also how their school is going to be dealing with it. Some will come off the board at the time.

“We’re expecting some to sign early, but I think our mindset is we’re going into it business as usual. We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

After this week, Notre Dame is going to have more year-long fights than anticipated. Consensus three-star offensive lineman recruit Cole Mabry (Brentwood High School; Brentwood, Tenn.) became the third prospect to offer a verbal commitment to the Irish coaching staff in less than 36 hours with his Wednesday decision. Mabry received the offer over the weekend, but waited a few days before making his decision public, lest emotions be dictating his thought process.

At 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds, Mabry will have time to add muscle to his frame, with four or five offensive tackles greeting him on the Notre Dame roster in the summer of 2018. That ability to mold his style and growth may have played a part in the Irish interest.

“They love my height and athleticism and how I play,” Mabry told rivals.com. “We got to break down film and go through things that they do that pair up with how I play now. They think I’ll be a great fit in their offense.”

Mabry is the ninth Notre Dame commitment in the class of 2018, though the first offensive lineman.

Judging by new Notre Dame director of football performance Matt Balis’s agenda for the Irish roster’s Valentine’s Day morning, Mabry will have much to look forward to in terms of strength and conditioning.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township H.S.; Gurnee, Ill.) is scheduled to announce his verbal commitment this Friday at 4 p.m. ET. Along with Notre Dame, Jones is considering Iowa, Michigan State, Nebraska, Ole Miss, Illinois and Northwestern. He would be the first receiver in Notre Dame’s 2018 class. Naturally, whomever Jones commits to, the recruiting fight will last until at least December, and perhaps all the way to February.