Pitt Mailbag

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Let’s get to it.

NotreDan: How does the defensive scheme have to change with all of the injuries we have suffered? Can scheme even compensate? Have you heard anything from inside channels about this?

I think a different head coach and coordinator might be more prone to tweak scheme. But that hasn’t been Brian Kelly’s MO, and I certainly don’t believe that’s what Bob Diaco will do, either.

Knowing Diaco a little bit, I expect him to drill down on the fundamentals. He’ll spend more time talking about “mastering your musts,” the three things each position group absolutely must master. (Tim Prister at Irish Illustrated wrote about this a few weeks ago.)  You don’t take inexperienced players and add more to their plate, you focus on the basics.

On the surface, it makes complete sense to try and tweak things to play to what you have. But in reality, you’ve got 20 hours a week with these guys. That’s not enough to implement wholesale changes.

aisforara: Why is it that ND’s offense seems incapable (with the exception of Temple and Air Force games) of extending a one-score lead to a two-score lead? Is it complacency? A flaw in tactics or strategy? Lack of fire? Lack of leadership? Here’s what I do know: It’s incredibly frustrating.

Let’s throw out the lack of fire and leadership. I’d also consider schedule. It’s no coincidence that the easy games, Notre Dame has won easily. But I think struggles in the red zone have been part of the problem as well as the evolution of the running back position. Throw in the challenges had by the defense early in the year and it’s pretty tough to pull away from anybody.

@scottiefry: BK is 70th highest paid cfb coach? This article can’t be right.

I don’t think it is, either. Notre Dame is a private institution. They have no obligation to share information like a head coach’s salary. That info was likely taken off the school’s 990 tax form, a document that only tells a fraction of the story for compensation.

If I had to guess what Kelly was making, I think it’d be in the $3.5 million range.

yllibnosredna: Although it’s always a dubious subject to discuss (particularly recently at Notre Dame), I have a question in regards to ND’s most recent recruiting cycles. Despite the fact that ND’s coaching staff has done a tremendous job landing some big-time talent hitting the West coast and the southeast and Texas hard, it seems like ND is whiffing on some big fish in their own back yard. Perhaps not in Indiana (with Jaylon Smith, Sheldon Day, and Gunner Kiel all signing with ND), but in nearby Midwestern states, particularly Illinois–specifically the Chicago area. Names like Laquon Treadwell, Ty Isaac, and Ethan Pocic come to mind. In this year’s recruiting cycle, Nyles Morgan seems like a long shot, and neither Clifton Garrett nor Jamarco Jones (who attends a Catholic school) really even seemed to consider Notre Dame as a legitimate option. In addition, consensus top 5 recruit Jabrill Peppers, who also attends a Catholic school in a relatively nearby state, never had ND on his radar. I guess I am curious as to why lately ND has been able to grab a guy like Greg Bryant from a secular school in Florida yet is struggling to get a blue chip from a Catholic school in Chicago or the Northeast. Your thoughts?

Let’s work on brevity next time, shall we? But this is a good question and one that probably can’t be answered in a standard mailbag. There is no easy answer to a question like this, and believe me — Chuck Martin thought that he’d do really well in the Chicago area… and still does.

Trying to bunch the Chicagoland area in one basket is pretty foolish, and a guy like Ty Isaac would’ve probably gone to ND if he didn’t feel like he was walking away from his commitment to USC.  Some other Chicago guys, the Irish have come up No. 2. But I agree, they aren’t the pipeline that once was dominated by Holtz.

I had heard from someone inside the football department once that it only takes one bad experience by a player from a region or school to make it tough for anyone else to sign. Demetrius Jones’ high profile departure after one game playing for Charlie Weis didn’t help the Irish in the Chicago Public League. Tee Shepard and Deontay Greenberry not making it work at Notre Dame hasn’t helped in Fresno. But I don’t think there’s anything overly systemic about it, and one player can often open the flood gates.

jmfinsd: We all love Irish Chocolate and Tuitt, but apparently we’re biased. Neither is listed as one of the 12 finalists for the Lombardi award given to the nation’s top lineman (offensive or defensive) or linebacker. How can 2 guys be expected to be top 10 or 20 draft picks, but not be on this list? And while this does nothing to support an argument for Nix to come back do you think this is an indication of the perception of Tuitt that he needs to come back next year to rectify?

I think you’re reaching for something here, but not quite getting it. There are plenty of first round draft picks that aren’t Lombardi Award nominees. It happens every year, just not to Notre Dame fans. If you’re thinking that Nix, who has a final season of eligibility but will be getting his degree in the spring, would want to come back to win a Lombardi Award, you’ve got another thing coming.

As for Tuitt, I still think he’s coming back to school. But again, Notre Dame’s defensive system, and the attention both guys get, don’t make these guys exactly awards bait.

elkona: Keith, you seemed a touch acerbic on the live blog last week. Are the maniacs finally getting to you? Can the bye week not come soon enough?

I tend to get cranky on the live blog… just because. When I actually challenge some people’s antics, it’s because they’ve usually been saying something about five times as ridiculous that I didn’t publish. It’s also escalates quite a bit, especially as the game stays closer and closer.

For grown men and women sitting on their couches watching football and surfing the internet, I always have a hard time with people talking about how “embarrassing” a football team’s performance is, or how “inexcusable” it is that Notre Dame doesn’t dominate every play on every snap of every game.

I’m not going to lie, the bye week will be plenty of fun. But I tend to enjoy the fact based fight against some knuckleheads who can’t even make garage logic work.

rocket1988: Keith, When you go back to Notre Dame what are your favorite establishments to enjoy an adult beverage? Has it changed since you were a student?

Rocket, I’m not picky, but I usually end up at the Linebacker for a drink with friends, especially with its proximity to campus. But I’d love to take a trip down memory lane to Finnegans or reopen The Boat Club for a special engagement, but this whole “work trip” thing and writing makes it tough.

@jfoneill22: Keith, will you be suiting up on the defensive line this weekend?

Jeez, John. I haven’t gained that much weight this month eating craft service, have I?

tburke9601: Who gets the majority of the handoffs this week? And where has Davaris Daniels been the last couple of games? He has been very quiet lately.

I think Folston leads the team in carries, though I don’t think it’s a majority. As for Daniels, he’s been stuck in neutral the past few weeks and I can’t help but think that effort on 50-50 balls like the one that was intercepted before halftime is a reason why.

DaVaris has all the talent needed to take charge and dominate a game. He just hasn’t necessarily decided that he’s going to do it every Saturday, and there seems to be a lack of communication with Tommy Rees, something TJ Jones and Rees have in spades.

MichiganDomer1984: On a scale of 1 – 10 (10 is high), how obnoxiously unrealistic are ND fans in your opinion? Compared to other high brand programs? I am a double graduate and I actually hate a part of our fan base. Am I crazy?

I don’t think you are crazy. Not one bit. I tend to dislike that group, too. That being said, ND isn’t the only group like that. Far from it.

Maybe a good, solid 8.0 for obnoxiously unrealistic. But it is crazy that most Notre Dame fans forgot the Irish ran the table last regular season and have only lost two games with a backup quarterback.

ndgoldandblue: Keith, do you think the running game will have the same kind of success as last week against Navy? Why or why not?

No, I don’t. I think Aaron Donald is why.

Nudeman: QUESTION: For you, as a student and as a writer, what is the lowest point you can remember?

Nude, I’m shocked — SHOCKED! — that you’d focus on the absolute low point.

As an alum and fan, the 2005 Bush Push game was one of the lowest points of fandom. The high and perfection of the game and electricity in the stadium, and then the chaos and sadness of the loss was remarkable.

I’ve lost that kind of fan engagement since doing this for a job, but I think the lowest and saddest moments for me were covering stories like the Declan Sullivan tragedy and Matt James’ passing away on Spring Break.

Those two stories were remarkably difficult and I struggled with them because I connected with the life experiences both young men had and went through, but also because I couldn’t stand watching people so quickly define what the story was.

Neither of those tragedies were black and white, yet some reporting was just looking to assign blame and outrage and then move on. I had a very hard time with that.

Nudeman: BTW, the question on everyone’s mind: Dickasman has been conspicuously absent, of late.
Banned?

Nobody is banned. We are having some problems with comments going into Spam and the WordPress VIPs are helping with that. But there are some words that now get caught in the filter that didn’t before, so everybody will need to clean up the language.

 

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?

What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

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Time spent on a traditional game wrap of a spring intrasquad exhibition seems misspent. Gold won Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game 27-14 led by rising sophomore quarterback Ian Book. The first-string defense (Gold) held the first-string offense to an average of 5.4 yards per play. For context’s sake: Last season Notre Dame gained an average of 6.1 yards per play and held opponents to 5.4.

With that abbreviated recap out of the way, what did Saturday’s pseudo-game environment show about the Irish? If the 20,147 in attendance paid attention, they had the chance to learn a few things:

Daelin Hayes will be ready to hit a quarterback in September
Notre Dame’s quarterbacks were off limits all spring. Bulls might charge when they see red, but the Irish defensive line has had to remember to ease up when they come across a quarterback’s red jersey. If sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes had forgotten that Saturday, Notre Dame might not have any quarterbacks left to play in the fall.

“At the end of the day, we’re on the same team,” Hayes said, dismissing any bitterness about the quarterbacks’ protections. “We have to keep our guys healthy. I wasn’t frustrated, but come September 2, you know.”

Officially, Hayes was credited with three sacks and another tackle for loss among his seven tackles. Admittedly, gauging sacks is tricky when the quarterback does not actually go to the ground. How many of Hayes’ three sacks and the defense’s 11 total would have been evaded if the defender needed to do more than touch the passer? That answer is highly subjective, but discounting Hayes’ numbers would miss the bigger picture.

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

Senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) notched two sacks and sophomore end Ade Ogundeji came the closest to tackling a red jersey when he stripped junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush from behind. The defensive line has been expected to be a weak point for the Irish moving forward, but the spring performance indicates it has a chance at holding its own. These accomplishments bear further merit considering Notre Dame’s offensive line is widely-considered one of its few spots of expected quality.

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

“I think it’s pretty clear Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I’d have to watch the film, but it seemed like [sophomore end] Julian Okwara was a hard guy to block coming off the edge, as well.”

Ian Book provides some peace of mind
Book was not spectacular, but he was also far from incompetent or intimidated. In his first action on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, Book completed 18-of-25 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by a 58-yard connection with sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. Meanwhile, junior Brandon Wimbush completed 22-of-32 passes for 303 yards.

Bluntly, one has not needed to follow Notre Dame for very long to fit that “long enough” qualification. Last season’s backup, Malik Zaire, saw competitive action against both Texas and Stanford. In 2015, DeShone Kizer came off the bench to start 11 games after Zaire suffered a season-ending ankle injury. (more…)

What Notre Dame players should you actually watch? Plus, catch up on reading

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If technology does its part, this will post as its typist meanders toward finding his credential for the Blue-Gold Game to conclude Notre Dame’s spring practice. If technology doesn’t do its part, well, then this will be lost to the cobwebs of the internet. Such as it goes.

This space has spent much of the past week discussing what to look for in the 12:30 p.m. ET exhibition. Worry about the big picture, not the individuals. Fret about the macro, not the micro.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the indivdual players
Blue-Gold Game primer with help from Notre Dame’s coordinators
Four defensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game
Four offensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game

But, if insistent on focusing on singular players, look to the inexperienced, the names you are unfamiliar with. The 15th and final practice of spring may be no more than a practice in reality, but it is in front of nearly 30,000 fans in Notre Dame Stadium. Some players do not have so much as that minimal experience.

“The Blue-Gold Game, specifically, is a time for us to emulate a game-like situation,” senior safety/linebacker/rover Drue Tranquill said. “Especially for guys like freshmen, second-semester guys coming in, it’s a great opportunity for them to get that game feeling, but also continue to take steps in the process to get better.”

The question on the tip of your tongue is a fair one. If you are unfamiliar with the names, how are you supposed to focus on those players? How are you to know who fits the appropriate tunnel vision version of perspective?

Let’s turn to Irish coach Brian Kelly’s mentions from Wednesday–primarily, sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara, sophomore long snapper John Shannon, senior kicker Sam Kohler, sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem and sophomore safety Jalen Elliott.

Obviously, that is just a sampling. Less obviously, this post’s purpose may or may not be to link to previous reading material and remind you of the vague but pertinent purposes to today’s endeavor. It is neither be-all nor end-all. It is simply another opportunity to gauge what may come down the line.

But hey, how about a prediction? Per Kelly, the first-team offense and second-team defense will be in blue, against the first-team defense and second-team offense in white.

PREDICTION: Blue 37, White 21

HOW TO WATCH
As a recurring reminder, the Blue-Gold Game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network, as well as streamed online at ndstream.nbcsports.com and on the NBC Sports app.

Friday at 4: Four offensive positions to watch in Notre Dame’s spring game

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There are two common ways of looking at the annual spring game.
It is the last action involving Notre Dame football readily available for public consumption until Sept. 2, 133 days away.
Or it is an exercise rife with contradiction exacerbated by hype, yielding little-to-no reliable intelligence.
Like much of life, the most accurate assessment falls somewhere between those two views.

If junior running back Dexter Williams breaks off two 50-yard-plus touchdown runs, does that mean he will have multiple big plays in 2017? Not at all. It does mean he will likely have more opportunities for them, though. Just like in spring’s previous 14 practices, the Irish coaches will take what they see and apply it moving forward.

The past—and as of Saturday evening, the Blue-Gold Game will qualify as the past—does not dictate the future, but it can influence one’s approach to it.

Aside from Williams (see the second item below for more on him and the running backs), what other players/positions could influence their future roles the most with their performance to close spring?

BIG PASSING TARGETS: Alizé Jones and Co.
In this instance, big is meant literally. Notre Dame has an embarrassment of riches of tall, long, physical tight ends and receivers. Junior Alizé Jones earns specific mention here due to his inaction last season. Irish fans and coaches alike have a better idea of sophomore receiver Chase Claypool and junior receiver Miles Boykin. They have 2016 film to look at.

Jones, however, sat out the season due to academic issues. His on-field performance largely remains a question mark, but if he combines this spring’s praise with his 6-foot-4 ½ frame holding 245 listed pounds, that could turn into an exclamation point.

“He’s a perfect fit,” new Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long said Friday. “That’s why I recruited him like crazy when I was at Arizona State. He’s a prototypical [tight end], a guy who can run, who can catch.

“The biggest thing about Alizé is he’s taking great pride in his blocking ability right now, his presence of being an end-line guy, his protection and his overall physicality. When you think like that, you’re going to become a better receiver.” (more…)