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.

***

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.

Brian Kelly & Jack Swarbrick on Notre Dame’s changes moving forward

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Whether 2016’s disappointing 4-8 finish was the impetus to program-wide alterations at Notre Dame this offseason, it certainly underscored the need. For the last few months, Irish coach Brian Kelly has focused those changes on himself and self-assessment, and he reiterated that approach when talking with PFT Live’s Mike Florio early Monday morning.

“This is my 27th year of being a head coach, and prior to last year I had one losing season,” Kelly said. “You have a way of doing things, you have a system in place, you follow that year after year. Certainly you make tweaks along the way, but this is the first time where I’ve really taken a step back and made substantial changes in terms of how I’m doing things on a day-to-day basis…

“From my perspective, after being at it as long as I have, you have to take it on yourself that you’re the one that needs to make the corrections. It’s not the players.”

None of this is new. Kelly has been consistent in his springtime messaging, but others have looked past the effects of the 4-8 record and insist the changes were coming regardless of the win-loss totals. Senior captain Drue Tranquill, for example, acknowledged the severity of the losing record Friday but argued adjustments were needed no matter what the final scores were.

“If you have an average season like 8-4, some things might carry over to the next season,” Tranquill said the day before the spring practice finale. “Whereas when you go 4-8, something has to change.

“But I think even at Notre Dame, 8-4 is never really acceptable or tolerated. Those things that were taking place, just within our culture, would have been noticed whether we were 10-3, 4-8. The criticism gave it a lot more hype and juice. We could kind of feel as guys in the program throughout the past three years that certain things needed to change.

“Those things were finally brought to light and it happened to be during a 4-8 season. I don’t necessarily know that 4-8 was the reason all this change happened.”

New Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko expressed a similar sentiment Friday morning, discussing the pressure moving forward.

“If we were coming off a 12-0 season in which we were competing for the national championship, there would be pressure on us at Notre Dame to be successful this year,” Elko said. “That’s Notre Dame.”

Elko has been a quick study, as his comments were echoed the next day by Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick during NBC Sports Network’s broadcast of the Blue-Gold Game.

“We expect to compete for national championships and 4-8 is not acceptable,” Swarbrick said. “On the other hand, when you’re in that situation, you have to decide how you’re going to move forward. We decided to move forward by making a major investment in retooling our program with Brian as the leader of it. That’s not a one-year investment for us. We brought in some talented assistant coaches. We rebuilt elements of the program

“We view it as a multi-year investment going forward.”

KELLY ON RECRUITING PITCH
Using this week’s NFL Draft as a peg, Florio also asked Kelly about balancing players’ NFL aspirations with team success both in the recruiting process and during the actual season.

“We have to talk more in terms of process over production,” Kelly responded. “We talk in terms of you’re coming to Notre Dame for a reason. You’re going to get a degree, which will set you up for the rest of your life, and you’re going to play on the grandest stage at Notre Dame, so everybody will see you.

“As long as there’s the balance there—and there has to be that balance in terms of getting your education and playing for championships—then we’re okay. It’s when that balance is out of whack, we’ll have an issue. We vet that out in the recruiting process and make sure we don’t take any kids that are coming to Notre Dame just because they’re waiting for that [junior] year to complete so they can go to the draft.”

A reminder: The NFL Draft begins with its first round Thursday night. Kelly will be joining former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer at the draft in Philadelphia to await Kizer’s destination and future employer.

MISSED THE BLUE-GOLD GAME?
It is available for streaming: here.

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.