Moshood Adeniji, Stephon Tuitt

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.

 

Spring positions to watch for revelations: DL & WR

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 05: Jerry Tillery #99 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish tackles Jerrod Heard #13 of the Texas Longhorns for a loss of yards during the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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If quarterback, rover and the early enrollees could be Notre Dame fans’ springtime Christmas thrills, what positions present as potential spots of coal?

Three former Irish players were invited to next week’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis: quarterback DeShone Kizer, defensive tackle Jarron Jones and defensive end Isaac Rochell. Losing two consistent defensive linemen leaves this year’s unit with some questions. Jones and Rochell combined for 100 tackles, 18 for loss and three sacks last season. Notre Dame’s returning defensive linemen combined to total 111 tackles and only 5.5 tackles for loss. To be clear, sacks are not included in that latter list because no returning defensive linemen recorded one. Among the returnees, junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37 tackles, three for loss) and senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26, 0.5) contributed solidly alongside the two NFL prospects.

This dearth of known and reliable linemen is a large part of why the potential transfer of Clemson graduate defensive tackle Scott Pagano is so intriguing. Pagano would immediately be a favorite to start, and if not that, at least rotate in heavily.

For now, though, Pagano remains a theoretical

By the end of spring practice, who already on campus will emerge alongside Tillery and Trumbetti in the Irish front? Senior ends Jay Hayes (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) and Jonathon Bonner (nine tackles) seem the most-likely candidates … aside from former four-star recruit and now rising sophomore Daelin Hayes. In his debut season, D. Hayes finished with 11 tackles.

Look for senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) to establish himself as Tillery’s immediate backup this spring, but that spot in the rotation will be up for competition all over again once four-star tackle Darnell Ewell (Lake Taylor High School; Norfolk, Va.) arrives on campus in the fall. His size and quickness should play right into new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s system.

Equanimeous and Who?
Not only did Notre Dame bring in a graduate transfer at receiver in former Michigan wideout Freddy Canteen, but it has also already received the commitments of two four-star receivers in the 2018 recruiting class. The continued emphasis on the position reflects the lack of bona fide game-breakers currently on the roster.

Junior Equanimeous St. Brown established himself as the top Irish threat in 2016, and he should shine only further with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush targeting him. Classmates often amplify each other’s success, simply due to the added shared reps innate to joining practice at the same time. With Torii Hunter, Jr., now pursuing a professional baseball career, who will prevent the secondary from focusing all its energies on St. Brown?

Canteen will not be with Notre Dame in the spring, as he does not graduate from Michigan until April. That will give a clear shot for the likes of juniors Chris Finke, C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin, and sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool to establish themselves. Did that say “clear” shot? It should probably read, “a chance to separate from the crowd.”

If a genuine threat does not line up opposite St. Brown, his explosiveness will likely be greatly reduced by focused defensive scheming. Wimbush will need another target before 2018.

Of course, here is where one should acknowledge the millennia-tested fact: Coal under pressure becomes diamonds.

2016 Notre Dame’s win expectancy was 7.2
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Johnson named the Irish as his team most likely to dramatically improve its record in 2017. Johnson’s thinking is based, at least in part, on Notre Dame’s second-order win total having been 7.2 in 2016, compared to the four wins the Irish actually walked away with. That discrepancy was the largest in the country.

Second-order win totals reflect how many points a team should have scored and allowed based on offensive and defensive stats. In theory, this shines a light on how luck and chance factored into results. Naturally, losing seven games by one possession will often be reflected by a higher second-order win total.

“Notre Dame’s win-loss record belied a solid, if imperfect, squad that just couldn’t pull out close games…” Johnson writes. “The Irish may not get back into College Football Playoff contention in 2017, but they’re bound to post a few more Ws because of reversion to the mean.”

Admittedly, the small sample size of a football season reduces the applicability of metrics such as second- and third-order wins when compared to baseball and basketball.

Jones becomes Mack
A quick piece of housekeeping: Apparently junior tight end Alizé Jones has changed his name to Alizé Mack.

While Notre Dame’s roster may not reflect that change yet, it is reasonable to expect it will after its next update. The football program has consistently respected the intricacies of players’ name preferences. Tai-ler Jones becoming TJ Jones jumps to mind, for example.

Anyways, hopefully noting Mack’s name change here might reduce some confusion down the line. Probably not. How many readers possibly read to the actual bottom of an article? But hey, in good faith.

WR Lenzy makes 11th commitment, brings speed to Irish

lenzy
rivals.com
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At what point does an impressive recruiting roll become something more? When does it become a harbinger of things to come, even if not for a few seasons? How many notable commitments in a row establishes a class as special?

If the answer to any of the above is 11 commitments by the end of February, including five within two weeks, then Notre Dame is there following consensus four-star athlete Braden Lenzy’s announcement Thursday evening.

The Tigard High School (Portland, Ore) receiver/cornerback chose the Irish over offers from USC, Oregon and Michigan State, among a litany of others. In all, nine Pac-12 schools chased Lenzy—and a 10th, Washington, had shown interest—per rivals.com.

Lenzy will fit the leading 2018 need voiced by Irish coach Brian Kelly three weeks ago on National Signing Day 2017.

“Elite speed on offense will be a primary goal for us,” Kelly said Feb. 1. “Guys that can change the game on one possession. I think we’ll see that… We want a couple of home run hitters. We don’t care if they’re Darren Sproles’s size. We’re going to come off the board in terms of profile. We want some guys that can change the game on offense with elite speed.”

At 6-foot, 175 pounds, Lenzy is taller than Sproles’s 5-foot-6, but it is still his speed that drew Notre Dame’s interest.

“They made it clear they want me to do kickoff return and use me as a deep threat across the field,” he told Irish Illustrated. “Just being kind of an athlete, similar to what I’ve been doing already in high school, just on a bigger scale with a quarterback that can throw it a lot farther.”

Presuming Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush is that arm in 2018, throwing great distances should not be an issue. Between Lenzy and fellow 2018 commit Micah Jones, covering those distances should be a reasonable request, as well.

Lenzy brings Notre Dame’s class of 2018 to 11, including eight four-stars according to Rivals’ rating system. Current scholarship projections indicate the class will not be a large one, meaning the Irish coaching staff has already garnered the commitments of more than half the class. Once again, though, Kelly’s sentiment regarding recruiting timing should be remembered.

“We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

SWARBRICK’S TAKE ON RECRUITING
Kelly credited Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick with much assistance in securing the country’s No. 13 recruiting class in 2017. A refresher on those comments:

“In a lot of instances, [Swarbrick] had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it’s going,” Kelly said. “There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future.”

Swarbrick did not dispute the factual nature of any of that in an interview with the Indianapolis Star, but he did contest the need for praising what he saw as part of his job, one of the preferred parts of his job, at that.

“I can’t say anything about this year felt all that different,” Swarbrick told Star reporter Laken Litman. “Some asked questions about the future of the program and can we compete for a national championship. And I would talk about the elements of the program we were focused on improving.”

Swarbrick and Litman discussed a number of items in the second-half of the interview released by the Star, including Notre Dame’s facilities, a possible early signing period in football and if the Oct. 8, 2016, game against North Carolina State should have been played. Spoiler: No. Then why was it? Go check it out.

Swarbrick also told Litman he likes to write in his free time.

“I tend to think strategically with a pen in my hand.” Swarbrick added he is currently scribbling away on where he thinks college athletics are headed.

This scribe, for one, would be most interested in skimming those legal pads.

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…)