Notre Dame v Air Force

Pregame Six Pack: Primetime at Pitt

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During a season filled with high-wire acts and last-second escapes, Notre Dame’s 29-26 victory over Pitt might have been the capper, with the Irish miraculously winning the game in triple overtime after trailing 20-6 in the fourth quarter.

They did so even with Everett Golson throwing a killer interception in the Pitt end zone, trailing by eight with under four minutes to go. They won even after Cierre Wood fumbled going into the end zone in double-overtime, surviving when a 33-yard field goal sailed wide right (with an assist from a high snap).

Saturday night’s game might not have the same dramatic set-up, but Notre Dame will face a similarly desperate team that wants badly to beat the Irish after losing three straight close games to Notre Dame. While Paul Chryst’s team has been inconsistent on both sides of the football, for 60 minutes on Saturday night, they’ll have the chance to turn their season around in front of a national audience.

“They don’t seem to like Notre Dame very much, and they want to beat Notre Dame,” Brian Kelly said earlier this week. “I think it’s one of those games where you know you’re going to go in and it’s going to be a fight.”

Let’s jump into the pregame six pack. As usual, here are six tidbits, fun facts, leftovers or miscellaneous musings before Notre Dame and Pittsburgh do battle on Saturday night in primetime.

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Matched up against the interior of Notre Dame’s offensive line, defensive tackle Aaron Donald will be Public Enemy No. 1 in the trenches for the Irish. 

He may lack the size of an elite defensive tackle, but Pitt’s Aaron Donald has been a terror this season, leading the country with 19.5 TFLs, averaging roughly 2.5 a game. Matched up on the interior of the Irish offensive line, freshman Steve Elmer and first-year starter Nick Martin have their toughest challenge of the season, especially with Chris Watt far from full strength with a PCL tear.

While Watt isn’t 100 percent, Pete Sampson of Irish Illustrated reported on the Irish Illustrated Insider podcast that Watt told him he was 100 percent going to play, and it’s likely because of the importance of keeping Donald out of the backfield.

Aaron Donald has been a one‑man wrecking crew,” Kelly said this week. “We know about him from last year.  Big, physical defensive line, and he will be somebody that we will have to game plan and find a way to slow down.  He’s in the backfield, very active.  I think for him, you know, you have a powerful guy, but he’s also extremely quick at the point of attack.”

Last year, Donald racked up seven tackles in Pitt’s near upset. Interestingly enough, after the overtime victory, Kelly talked a little bit about spreading the defense out to try and neutralize Donald. A week after playing a base with mostly two-tight ends, we’ll see how the Irish try and attack the Pitt defense.

***

With Ben Councell out for the season with an ACL tear, it’s Jaylon Smith or bust at outside linebacker. 

Heading into the season, most wondered how talented freshman Jaylon Smith would find his way onto the field. Now we’re wondering how he’s ever going to find his way off of it. Brian Kelly confirmed the bad news most assumed this week when he disclosed Ben Councell tore his ACL. That removes the returning two-deep depth chart at the Dog outside linebacker position with Danny Spond retired after his battle with migraine headaches.

We already know Smith is no ordinary freshman. But what’s really helped him grow throughout this season isn’t just his superior athleticism, but rather his ability to mental grasp one of the hardest positions on the Irish defense.

“I would say that each and every week he builds on his knowledge base,” Kelly explained. “That doesn’t necessarily happen in all the players that I’ve coached in my years.  Sometimes it takes a year to kinda digest everything and then come back that next year and you really see kind of a rise in your play.

“But with this young man, things happen to him, and they stick. He learns from mistakes that are made, and applies them the next week. He’s an extraordinary player in the sense that an accelerated learning curve for somebody that experiences it for the first time and very rarely does it come back to hit him again.”

That’s high praise from a head coach that doesn’t spend much time fawning over his players. And it also gives you an idea of the pressure that’ll be put on Smith during these last three games, with no true back-up at the position any more.

***

With the Irish beginning their ACC scheduling pact next season, expect plenty more of Pitt… and the expansion of a below-the-radar rivalry. 

Pitt tight end J.P. Holtz expanded on Brian Kelly’s quote about the Panthers not liking Notre Dame this week, with the young tight end carrying over some collateral anger from last year’s overtime defeat.

“Personally, I don’t like Notre Dame at all,” Holtz said said. “It’s just going to make me go harder. I just think they’re really cocky and their coaches are really cocky. I just don’t like that. They’re just different people there.” 

Holtz might have been the only player to voice the opinion, but it’s safe to say the feeling is likely shared. It’s also likely a product of some really close games over the past five seasons, with two decided in triple-overtime.

There’s been just 20 points separating these two teams over the past five years, with Notre Dame winning the last three games by a total of 11 points.

***

It’s been a long time, but Notre Dame might just finally have their starting defensive line together. 

With little depth left along the front of the Irish defensive line, Mike Elston might finally have his starting three ready to go after not being able to have the group together at full strength for just about any game this season.

Stephon Tuitt came out of the gates slowly, an offseason hernia surgery the culprit. Defensive end Sheldon Day has battled a high ankle sprain for the better part of the season. And Louis Nix sat out the past two weeks against Air Force and Navy, a balky knee and other ailments keeping him off the field.

Kelly updated Nix’s status, feeling confident that Big Lou will be ready for action and the final three regular season games of the season.

“He had a full week of practice, moved around well, Kelly said. “He was in the training room all week. Thursdays are our 48-hour meetings with the staff, which is where we get our pretty definitive idea of if our guys are gonna be full strength and everybody feels like he’s gonna be good to go.”

A week after Day hobbled off after aggravating his ankle injury with a cut block, the Irish hope he’ll be able to answer the bell as well, needing as many good reps out of the starting three as they can get before sliding down the depth chart.

Looking for a stat that best puts the health struggles the Irish have had up front into context? During the last six games, Tuitt, Nix and Day have played together just 13 snaps. They’ve given up just 21 yards and had two sacks.

(Hat-tip to Irish Illustrated for that one.)

***

Expect the Irish to challenge Pitt with the deep ball early and often. 

After spending much of his career throwing accurately and underneath, Tommy Rees and the Irish offense have taken shots down the field from the season opener. And after a rough patch in the middle of the season, Rees has rebounded and played very sound football from the Arizona State game on.

After completing 11 passes of 32 yards or more last season with a rocket-armed Everett Golson at the helm, Rees has already completed an astounding 14 passes of more than 32 yards. Rees’ success hasn’t just come with the deep ball, he’s also been more efficient taking chunks of 20-yards or more.

In his 34 starts entering the season, Rees had completed 59 throws that went for 20+ yards. In nine games this year he’s completed 37. In those 34 starts, he had only completed 20 passes of over 30 yards. This season he’s completed 15.

Even with two interceptions last week against Navy, Rees has put up an impressive 22-8 touchdown/interception ratio. Numbers that have been a good surprise in a season that’s had so many tough breaks.

***

We’ll see if Brian Kelly thinks Tarean Folston’s big game against Navy was more running back or opponent. 

While some looked at Tarean Folston’s 140-yards against Navy as his “Star is born” moment, the reality of the situation is that Cam McDaniel and George Atkinson also ran for over seven yards per carry.

There’s no doubting that Folston added a spark to the Irish ground game and a dimension that we haven’t yet seen, but on second inspection there deserves to be a bit of skepticism that comes with putting up stats against a service academy defense.

All that being said, we’ll see how impressed Brian Kelly was by Folston’s performance by the touches he gives the freshman Saturday night in front of a national audience. We’ve seen big games from fellow freshmen Corey Robinson and Will Fuller already this season, but they’ve gone back to non-factors just as quickly. That shouldn’t be the case with Folston, though we’ll see how heavy an allocation he takes in a running back rotation that looks to be down to Folston, Atkinson and McDaniel.

Probably the most surprising thing about Folston’s emergence last week were the crunch time carries. Then again, McDaniel, Atkinson and Carlisle have all coughed up footballs at inopportune times.

The Panthers only have one defensive lineman on their two-deep that weighs more than 300 pounds. They don’t have a single linebacker that weighs over 230. So the power advantage up front leans Irish. Let’s see how comfortable Kelly is putting the game on Folston’s shoulders.

Kelly and Swarbrick turn attention to science of injury prevention

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Amidst the chaos of their live Signing Day show, UND.com ran had a far-reaching interview with head coach Brian Kelly. It was conducted by his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick, and his former team captain, Joe Schmidt.

So while there was a little bit of talk about the 23 recruits who signed their national letters-of-intent, there was also a very illuminating exchange on an issue that’s really plagued the Irish the past few seasons: Injuries.

Football is a dangerous game. And for as long as people play it, there’ll be impactful injuries that take players off the field. But as Notre Dame settles into what looks like their longest run of stability since the Holtz era, the focus of Kelly and Swarbrick has moved past modernizing the team’s medical services, strength program and nutrition and onto the science of injury prevention.

Here’s what Kelly said about the efforts currently taking shape:

“I think the science piece is very important, because no longer is it just about strength and conditioning,  it’s about durability. It’s the ability to continue to play at an optimal level but also with the rigors of a college schedule, and particularly here at Notre Dame, how do we maximize the time but maximizing getting the most out of our student-athletes and not lose them?

“As you know, we’ve had a couple years here in a rough stretch of injuries. And how do we have an injury prevention protocol that brings in the very best science? You’ve done a great job of reaching out in getting us those kind of resources. so I think tapping into that is probably the next piece. As well as providing the resources for our student-athletes. Continuing to look at facilities. Continuing to give our student-athletes maybe that little edge. Because everybody’s got 85 scholarships.”

It’s clear that the issue is one that’s on the radar for not just Kelly, but the athletic administration. So it’ll be interesting to see some of the steps taken as the program begins investing time and additional resources to an issue that’s really hit the Irish hard the past few seasons.

There’s plenty of other good stuff in the 13-minute interview, so give it a watch.

Five things we learned: Signing Day 2016

FILE - In this Jan. 1, 2016, file photo, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly makes a call during the first half of the Fiesta Bowl NCAA College football game against Ohio State in Glendale, Ariz. Kelly has agreed to a six-year contract to stay on as coach at Notre Dame through 2021, the school announced Friday, Jan. 29,2 016.  (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)
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There were no last minute defections. No roller coaster recruits or down-to-the-wire decisions. Heck, there were no fax machines—with Notre Dame ditching the office dinosaur for a wireless, smart phone option.

Brian Kelly inked another Top 10 recruiting class on Wednesday. And he did so in decidedly uneventful fashion.

“It’s awesome. I think that everybody should try it once in their career,” Kelly said.

So while Kelly and the Irish staff hold out hope that 5-star talents Caleb Kelly and Demetris Robertson still decide to spend their college careers in South Bend, the 23-man class announced Wednesday was another Top 10 effort and a step in the right direction for a program on very stable ground.

Let’s find out what we learned.

 

Notre Dame’s staff continued to focus on rebuilding the secondary and rushing the passer. 

Yes, Brian Kelly saw what you saw—a group that struggled getting to the passer or to field a nickel or dime personnel grouping. So they countered that in the best way they knew how: By continuing to stockpile talent.

Notre Dame added seven defensive backs and four edge defenders in the cycle. They include safeties Jalen Elliott, D.J. Morgan, Spencer Perry and Devin Studstill and cornerbacks Julian Love, Troy Pride and Donte Vaughn. Perhaps just as important is the impression some of these defenders made in their time on campus, with Kelly pointing to Elliott and Studstill’s work during summer camp really making them must-have recruits.

“Jalen Elliott competed like no player that I have seen since I’ve been coaching in a camp setting,” Kelly said. “Same thing with Devin Studstill. His skill level was of corner-like ability but had the size of the safety, and so our guys went right to them early on, and that was a focal point because we got a chance to see them up close and personal.”

At defensive end, the Irish welcome 5-star recruit Daelin Hayes, getting him on campus as he recovers from shoulder surgery. He’s joined by former Alabama commit Khalid Kareem, the strongside counterpart that is an early candidate to see the field, especially as the staff looks for someone to spell Isaac Rochell for a few snaps. Longer-term prospects include a few speed rushers—Julian Okwara (younger brother of Romeo) and Ade Ogundeji, a long-limbed, below-the-radar edge rusher.

“We’re pretty excited about the potential for some guys in this class that can answer some four-man pass rush needs that we do have,” Kelly said.

 

It may not be the biggest group, but Brian Kelly is excited about his offensive line—especially the guys he pulled from Ohio State’s backyard. 

Three recruits in the offensive line class point to a big 2017 at the position. But the three the Irish did sign—guard Parker Boudreaux and tackles Liam Eichenberg and Tommy Kraemer—have Kelly very happy.

“Parker Boudreaux has that physical presence inside like, and I’m not comparing him, but he’s a Quinton Nelson in terms of size and physicality,” Kelly said. “And then two edge guys with Liam and Tommy on the outside. Those two kids are as good as you’re going to find in the country, and couldn’t be more excited to have two kids from the state of Ohio, from two great Catholic schools in St. Ignatius and Cincinnati Elder from the state of Ohio.”

Both Eichenberg and Kraemer were priority targets for Urban Meyer and company, with neither wavering after committing to Notre Dame. Kraemer was Ohio’s Gatorade Player of the Year and an Army All-American. He’ll be able to step into the two-deep immediately, capable of playing up front if the Irish need him. Eichenberg more than held his own at the Under Armour All-American game and has a high ceiling, especially as he learns the game under Hiestand.

It doesn’t take away the sting of the Fiesta Bowl. But it’s a nice consolation prize.

 

Irish legacies Jamir Jones and Julian Okwara may have big brothers who played for Brian Kelly, but they earned scholarships on their own. 

Classmates Jarron Jones and Romeo Okwara will turn over the reins to their younger brothers, linebacker Jamir Jones and defensive end Julian Okwara. The younger duo’s commitments felt all but inevitable throughout this recruiting cycle—even if that wasn’t always the case.

Jones had to come to camp to earn a scholarship. Having played quarterback and tight end as a high school standout in Rochester, the defensive staff had to see how he moved before they could find a position for him to play.

Similarly, Okwara’s journey to Notre Dame shouldn’t be taken for granted. While his older brother leaves Notre Dame the team’s leading quarterback sacker, Julian has a better natural pass rush skill-set than the 2015 team-leader.

“Julian can separate himself in a way because he has an elite initial movement and speed that Romeo has had to try and develop,” Mike Elston said in Okwara’s Signing Day video. “Romeo has the size and the power and the aggressiveness, but Julian can really add value for us right away.”

Kelly talked about how important it was to not just land this duo, but to have them already understand what the journey is that lies ahead.

“We didn’t recruit them because their brothers were here. We recruited them because we thought they were players that fit here at Notre Dame that would be very successful,” Kelly said. “Obviously it helps when their brothers have a great experience here and really enjoy their Notre Dame experience as a student and as an athlete, so that helps you in the recruiting… those kids really fit and can stand on their own two feet.”

 

Even without Demetris Robertson in the fold, Notre Dame’s receiving class is a group to watch. 

You want productivity? Throw on a highlight tape of Javon McKinley. You want an intriguing set of physical tools? Look no further than Chase Claypool. You want a sleeper prospect who out-performed every elite prospect who came to the Irish Invasion camp? Then your man is Kevin Stepherson.

Most of the attention on Signing Day was the fate of 5-star receiver Demetris Robertson. But the trio of athletes that’ll reload the receiving corps is a group that deserves recognition even without an additional infusion.

McKinley provided the day’s only scare when his smart phone struggled to send his signature via electronic fax. Claypool sent his national letter of intent in the day after scoring 51 points on the basketball court. And Stepherson is already taking part in team workouts in Paul Longo’s strength facilities, getting a jump start with the spring semester and 15 practices as the Irish try to figure out what life looks like after Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle.

After Fuller left campus early on the back of two record-setting two seasons, Kelly said his staff has become more and more comfortable with the fact that his skill players need to develop quickly—especially with the allure of the NFL just ahead.

“If you’re really that good, you may not be here very long, and we hope that you’re here for four years and you stay, but you’ve got to be ready to compete,” Kelly said. “So our expectation in the recruiting process is for the wide receiver group to come in and compete to get on the field and be a player for us immediately.”

That’ll happen whether or not Robertson is a part of this group.

 

Amidst significant transition on both the coaching staff and recruiting office, Notre Dame managed a Top 10 class. Expect things to only get better from here. 

Let’s go back to Signing Day 2015. Within 24 hours of Brian Kelly’s press conference, he was dealing with two major changes—recruiting coordinator Tony Alford was out the door to Ohio State and Kerry Cooks was headed to Oklahoma. Two aces on the staff were gone, forcing the Irish to not just replace long-time staffers, but to find new area recruiters for the state of Texas and Alford’s stronghold in Florida.

Kelly brought in first-year college assistant Todd Lyght to work with defensive backs. He tapped the school’s rushing leader Autry Denson to handle the backs and duke it out in Florida. Mike Sanford shook up the offense as Bob Elliott moved into an off-field position. But perhaps just as important as those moves, Kelly turned over the administrative reins to Mike Elston, who moved into a recruiting coordinator position he had filled for his boss back at Cincinnati.

Elston had to reorganize a staff that saw relationships walk out the door and reboot a recruiting effort that saw significant changes behind the scenes. And in short order things got back on track and have progressed to the point that the Irish are ahead of the game, setting junior days and summer camp dates earlier than ever.

For those paying attention, they’ve noticed the improvements. Notre Dame has paid more attention to messaging—staffers more active on Twitter. There have been improvements on Instagram, Facebook and Vine—platforms that might sound like gobbledygook to grownups, but are critical pieces to a year-long recruiting effort. That should help this staff press ahead in 2017, a recruiting class that already has five members.

“With that team that we’ve put together, we’re not going to look back. It’s only going to get better,” Kelly said.

It was Elston that engineered the equipment truck visit to Savannah, a late-game recruiting move that drew a lot of attention to Notre Dame. It was recruiters like Denson who went to Alabama and got a visit out of Ben Davis, a Crimson Tide legacy who gave the Irish a much longer look than anybody could have expected. And it’s no surprise that a former Pro Bowler and first-round draft pick like Lyght was able to reel in a large group of defensive backs eager to learn from a guy who was a clear success story.

“I think each and every year, you hope that this group is the best group you’ve ever recruited,” Kelly said. “I’m hoping for that again.”

 

Faxes in: Liam Eichenberg

Liam Eichenberg
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LIAM EICHENBERG
Cleveland, Ohio

Measurables: 6’6″, 280 lbs.

Accolades: 4-Star, Under Armour All-American, 2015 MaxPreps first-team All-American, 2015 American Family Insurance All-USA Ohio, AP All-Ohio Division I first-team.

Impressive Offers: Florida State, Miami, Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Tennessee

Projected Position: Offensive tackle.

Quick Take: Another offensive tackle with sky-high potential, Notre Dame snatched Eichenberg out from under Urban Meyer’s nose, bringing in yet another blue-chipper for Harry Hiestand to mold. More of a developmental project than Kraemer, Eichenberg’s upside could be just as lofty, especially after some time in a weight room and on the practice field.

What he means to the Irish: With numbers at tackle on the light side, Eichenberg won’t be asked to get on the field, but he might start his career in the two deep behind Mike McGlinchey. That could take away a redshirt if things go wrong, but the view from behind McGlinchey is a good spot for him, learning behind another talented athlete who came to campus as a developmental prospect but will enter his senior season (McGlinchey has two years of eligibility remaining) as a legit NFL prospect.

Eichenberg has the same kind of ceiling. He’ll just need to keep improving—something that he’s shown after a strong Under Armour All-American week in Orlando.

Obligatory YouTube clip: