The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Pitt

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Most coaches institute a 24-hour rule. After a win or a loss, you’ve got 24 hours to put the game in the rearview mirror and move past it. That might be a little bit tougher for Brian Kelly and his team this Sunday, with the loss among the most frustrating in the Kelly era.

“Our mantra is, ‘You can’t start winning until you stop losing,’ and we did things tonight that cause losing,” Kelly said after the game.

The loss to Pittsburgh is a painful third of the season, likely pushing the Irish out of the polls as well as BCS consideration.

Let’s get on with the good, the bad and the ugly of Saturday’s 28-21 loss to Pitt.

THE GOOD

Jaylon Smith. The freshman is the Irish’s most consistent defensive player just ten games into his career. Smith added 11 tackles on Saturday night, one behind the line of scrimmage, to lead the team. While other veterans continue to have miscues and miss making plays in open space, Smith seems to just keep getting better, racking up stats at a position where very good players (Danny Spond, Prince Shembo) did most of their best work off the stat sheet.

TJ Jones. Jones made six catches for 149 yards, including a 80-yard touchdown. He also came to life in the running game, breaking loose on a 35-yarder that was one of two big gainers in the ground game.

The “good” rating should come with an asterisk after Jones coughed up the football inside the Pitt 10 when he was stripped after a long completion, but Jones kept his head in the game and continued to make plays.

That’s seven consecutive games for Jones with a touchdown catch, inching him closer to Golden Tate and Jeff Samaradzija’s record of eight games.

Ben Koyack. While referees took away a 39-yard touchdown catch and awarded the Irish the ball inside the 1-yard line, Koyack’s continued his emergence in the passing game with four catches for 76 yards, career numbers for the Oil City, Pennsylvania native who was playing within 100 miles of his hometown.

If there’s a bright spot that’s developed offensively this season, it’s the tight end position. Both Koyack and Troy Niklas will become indispensable weapons for Everett Golson next season.

George Atkinson. While most Irish fans probably didn’t want to see him out there, Atkinson played a nice game, getting some yardage on a kickoff return and running well enough in the running game. He averaged 9.5 yards per carry on his six touches, hitting the edge of the Pitt defense that was stout on the interior with Aaron Donald.

Kyle Brindza. Brindza must’ve showed Kelly something in pregame that had him believing that the junior kicker was able to make a 55-yarder at a stadium among the toughest in the NFL to make field goals.

But as a punter, Brindza was excellent, averaging 46.2 yards a punt, including a 56 yard rocket. Brindza very nearly had Pitt pinned inside their 1-yard line but the ball appeared to have hit the goal line before checking up.

Sheldon Day. You’ve got to be really impressed by the work Day did on Saturday night, coming back from another ankle tweak to make three huge tackles-for-loss, and really play well after Stephon Tuitt was ejected.

Both Day and Louis Nix outperformed Pitt’s Aaron Donald, who was held to just one assisted tackle, while Day made five solo stops and Nix had five total tackles.

THE BAD

Brian Kelly and the coaching staff. Far more football games are lost than won, and after making a career of letting the other guys do it, Brian Kelly’s squad gave one away. Kelly talked about the incredibly poor execution and acknowledged across the board how the team failed.

“I think what I’m most concerned about is the inability to put together a consistent effort tonight in November,” Kelly said. “We’re 10 games into the season. There’s really, for me, no reason why, and I take full responsibility for this as the head coach, that there’s no reason why we don’t execute at the level that we should in November, and that didn’t happen tonight.”

The offense was never able to get into a rhythm. That’s a coaches job, and while the ground game was tough sledding with Donald in the middle, six rushing attempts in the second half (for a whopping ten yards) isn’t even close to good enough.

Other head-scratching decisions include rolling Rees to his right inside the 5-yard line, and the disappearance of Tarean Folston.

If there’s one silver-lining in all of this, Kelly made a very important point during his postgame comments, and we’ll likely see a change at a few key positions that continue to underperform.

“We’ll go in Monday and put this behind us from a film standpoint. We won’t put this behind us from an evaluation standpoint, but we’ll put it behind us in terms of the game itself,” Kelly said. “We’ll weight train on Tuesday and then I’ll kind of make my decision as to how we move forward the rest of the week.”

Tommy Rees. There’s no sugar-coating Rees’ late game performance, especially the two interceptions that he threw to Pitt safety Ray Vinopal. Taking points off the board for the Irish and all but putting them on the board for the Panthers in a matter of two passing attempts, Rees took a huge step backwards after looking like he had steadied the ship offensively in the third quarter.

After the game, Rees answered some difficult questions for a guy that acknowledged letting his team down.

“I take accountability and responsibility,” Rees said. “When you put your defense in compromising situations like that, it’s hard for your defense to make stops. It starts with me. It starts with our senior leaders. We’ve got to come back better. There were definitely little things that we need to do in order to win games.”

There have been enough words dedicated to Rees over the past four years in the comments and columns here. But it was a really tough Saturday at the office for the Irish’s senior quarterback, who will play his final game at Notre Dame Stadium against BYU.

Bad tackling. Nobody is going to make every tackle, but at this point in the season there’s every reason to think Matthias Farley is playing himself out of a job with his sloppy tackling. The junior safety who filled in heroically last season after the Irish lost Jamoris Slaughter has made too many opponents highlight reels, missing key tackles as the Irish’s last line of defense.

That bad tackling bug has spread to cornerback Bennett Jackson, who was among the Irish’s most physical players at the boundary cornerback. KeiVarae Russell also had some big swings and misses from his field corner position, struggling to shed blocks and make plays.

Safety Eilar Hardy was third on the team with seven tackles on Saturday night. Don’t be surprised if he spends more time playing in the season’s final two games.

THE UGLY

Stephon Tuitt’s ejection. Football is a dangerous game and it’d be reckless if the NCAA and its officiating crews didn’t take steps to try to make the game safer. But Tuitt’s ejection is proof that on-field referees shouldn’t have the power to make game-changing, subjective judgment calls that result in ejection for a rule nobody really understands.

When Tom Savage took off running for the first down, he stopped being a defenseless quarterback. When he dropped the crown of his helmet and lowered his shoulder into Tuitt, he gave Tuitt no other option but to lower his body into tackling form to stop the 230-pound quarterback from getting the first down.

That an ACC crew could flag the hit, consider it ejection worthy, then have that belief upheld by a replay committee shows the complete failure of a rule change that had noble intentions. Just like last week against Navy, referees killed the Irish with game-changing penalties, in this case taking the Irish’s best defensive player off the field for a hit that shouldn’t even draw a flag.

Credit Brian Kelly for being so diplomatic last night about the officiating. If I were in his shoes I certainly wouldn’t have been. Between Tuitt’s ejection, a pass-interference call on Bennett Jackson that didn’t seem to exist and should have been nullified by Matthias Farley’s tipped pass, and the gift first down at the end of the game that replay someone confirmed, it was a bad day for the guys in the stripes.

Losing. Look, I get it. Losing stinks. It really stinks. And losing in a way where it’s pretty clear that your team did more to let the other team celebrate than your own, that’s a good reason to start howling at the moon.

During a live-blog, I “get the opportunity” to see a real-time look at the thoughts and feelings of Irish fans as they watch the ebb and flow of a football game. It’s unhealthy. It gives me anxiety, and I only cover the team. There is far more anger in football fans than joy, a sad thing considering we’ve only got two more games in the regular season and only get 12 or 13 chance to watch this team play. That anger and frustration has been there not just this season, but in all five that I’ve covered — yep, even last year’s.

I 100 percent understand anonymous internet griping as a way to stay sane. But I don’t understand the venom that’s often spewed at college kids, especially those participating at Notre Dame, student-athletes that do so many things the right way.

Getting mad at Matthias Farley or Dan Fox for missing a tackle? Going postal when Tommy Rees throws a terrible interception? I get it. But calling out kids that have more commitment to a cause and pride in their work than the person typing should force everyone to take a long hard look in the mirror.

A college scholarship is a wonderful thing. But I’m not sure it’s worth some of the outrage that spews out of a fanbase that takes pride in cheering for a team that’s “different” and “does things the right way.”

Because after games like Saturday night, it’s pretty clear that it’s a one-way street for a lot of fans.

 

 

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s tight ends, a surplus of depth, unproven talent

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Notre Dame has such tight end depth, it was somewhat surprising when the Irish pursued a second tight end in the class of 2018, but the possibilities of yet another playmaker in Tommy Tremble combined with a physical option in George Takacs forced the coaching staff’s decision.

“I always like to have that versatility each year and each signing class,” Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long said Feb. 7. “… We don’t want to pass up on a great athlete … being able to present different challenges to the defense with those kind of guys and still be very physical at the same time.”

That is a key to remember when looking at the Irish tight ends — Long sees different purposes amid the individuals in that position’s meeting room. Tremble, for example, could line up as a receiver as often as not while Takacs might fill in as Durham Smythe most recently did, serving as an additional blocker when needed and offering sure hands otherwise. In many respects, the two roles are two different positions.

Spring Roster:
— Fifth-year Nic Weishar, who Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said had shoulder surgery recently, though Kelly did not offer a timetable for return.
— Rising senior Alizé Mack.
— Rising sophomore Cole Kmet, when he is not pitching in relief for the Irish baseball team. Kmet made his second appearance of the season Thursday night. A letdown (3.0 IP, 3 ER, 3 H, 4 K), it did not go anywhere near as well as his debut did (4.0 IP, 0 ER, 1 H, 3 K).

@NDFootball

— Rising sophomore Brock Wright, who underwent a shoulder surgery of his own shortly following the regular season. A recent photo (left) from the @NDFootball Twitter account indicates Wright is partaking in at least some winter conditioning drills.
— Early-enrolled freshman Takacs.

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman Tremble.

Depth Chart Possibilities:
Long uses multiple tight ends, deploying both of those aforementioned archetypes at the same time. That tendency should be seen even more often in 2018 with more options now available. A full year in a collegiate program should have both Kmet and Wright ready for bigger roles, challenging Weishar for some of what were Smythe’s snaps in 2017.

The third tight end will see opportunities. It is essentially a second-string role. If granting the argument of two different forms of tight ends, then even the fourth tight end will get chances, as he will simply be the second-stringer in that particular role.

Kmet would seem the more likely of the rising sophomores to get a bit more time, but that only means Wright will see plenty of time in a blocking back role, just as he did in situational packages in 2017.

Biggest Question:
Kmet could find his way to a more prominent role if he offers something not yet seen from Mack: consistency not just on the field, but in all respects.

Can Mack finally translate his athleticism and potential into a consistent mismatch and productive threat? At his best, he could be the product of an offensive coordinator’s daydreams, but Mack has so rarely been at his best. That applies both on and off the field, considering his multiple drops in 2017 were followed by Kelly suspending Mack for an internal team matter for the Citrus Bowl before Notre Dame even headed down to Florida.

Another year of Mack spinning his wheels will result in a loss of playing time with the likes of Kmet and Tremble around. If Mack does not provide positive results in the spring while Kmet does, that shift could begin even before the Blue-Gold Game on April 21.

Fifth-year tight end Nic Weishar will provide Notre Dame not only with depth and experience in 2018, but also sure hands. That alone should give him a leg up on the other tight ends entering this spring. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Pertinent Reader Question:
“Every year a four- or five-star disappoints and every year a three-star or lower prospect surprises. My prediction is fall: Mack, rise: Weishar. I have been the lone man on the Weishar bandwagon for a few years now and really hope that this year he becomes the big receiving target we need.

What are your fallers and risers for this coming year?” — Mark H.

A logical argument can be made that “fallers” should not be labeled as such until after their collegiate careers conclude. There are so many factors that can limit a player for years before he breaks out. Consider rising senior receiver and former consensus four-star prospect Miles Boykin. As recently as New Year’s Eve, he may have been labeled a bust, but now he can lay claim to one of the most dramatic catches in Irish history and is a frontrunner for a starting role in 2018 with another year of eligibility remaining after that. He could end up with a stellar collegiate career by every measure.

Mack has had the opportunity to shine to date, and he has not done so, but he also might have two more seasons to go to change that reputation.

As for “risers,” Weishar makes sense and he certainly showcased his strong hands when given the chance in 2017, but his ceiling is likely not much higher than that. A couple touchdown catches, a handful of third-down conversions and a year of physical blocking would be a welcome success.

Notre Dame’s safeties, though, could stand out to fit the criteria laid out by Mark. If — and that is a two-letter word not to be overlooked — Navy transfer and rising junior Alohi Gilman and rising sophomore Jordan Genmark-Heath end up as productive starters for the season, then they will both have exceeded the expectations set out by star ratings.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Mack: 19 catches for 166 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by six receptions for 38 yards against North Carolina with rising junior quarterback Ian Book starting in place of an injured Brandon Wimbush.
Weishar: Nine catches for 52 yards and two touchdowns.
Kmet: Two catches for 14 yards; appeared in all 13 games.
Wright: Appeared in 11 games, no statistics recorded.

Notre Dame gets the letter: George Takacs
Notre Dame gets the letter: Tommy Tremble

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are
Linebackers, a proven two and then many questions

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s linebackers, a proven two and then many questions

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Any concerns about Notre Dame’s linebackers were allayed when Te’von Coney spurned the NFL to return for his senior season. That decision, and Drue Tranquill making the same move, means the Irish do not need to replace their two best playmakers at the position from last season.

Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Clark Lea does need to figure out how to fill in for the graduated Nyles Morgan and his 92 tackles, not to mention classmate Greer Martini and his 75, good for second and fourth on the team, respectively.

Spring Roster:
— Two known and welcome playmaking veterans in Coney and fifth-year Tranquill.
— More than a handful of unproven and untested possibilities in rising senior Asmar Bilal, rising juniors Jonathan Jones and Jamir Jones (no relation), and rising sophomores Drew White, David Adams and Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah.
— A trio of early-enrolled freshmen in Jack Lamb, Bo Bauer and Ovie Oghoufo.

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman Shayne Simon, a likely rover candidate.

Entering 2017, Te’von Coney was not even a starting linebacker. By the end of the season he was the leading tackler, and in 2018, he will be counted on as a defensive stalwart. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
Wherever Tranquill ends up — be it at rover or a more traditional linebacker position, with the latter seeming more likely — someone will need to earn the third starting role. Bilal is the front-runner for that duty, at either position, but he will need to show a quicker understanding of the game than he has in the past.

The rising senior has always been ready physically, but he has looked up the depth chart at the likes of Morgan, Martini, Coney and Tranquill. Opportunities were not readily available. Now that one very much is, Bilal will need to either seize it or get ready to be bypassed by the newcomers.

It would be a surprise for Lamb or Bauer to be named that third starter in their freshman season, but both could certainly land in the two-deep, as that entire second unit is up for grabs. Neither Jones showed much last season, and the linebacker recruiting emphasis of 2018 belied the coaching staffs’ opinions of the rising sophomores pretty clearly.

Presuming Bilal steps forward and secures the starting position, and some combination of Jones, Jones, Lamb and Bauer fill two of the backup roles, only Owusu-Koromoah stands out as an obvious rover substitute. In that respect, depth remains a concern at the defense’s second level, albeit less of one than in years past thanks to the influx of four touted freshmen.

Biggest Question:
Where does Tranquill line up against Michigan on Sept. 1? More to the current purpose, where does he line up in the Blue-Gold Game on April 21?

“My responsibility as linebackers coach is to put the best combination of people on the field,” Lea said Feb. 7. “I think everyone can see Drue Tranquill had a skillset, a talent base that can play multiple spots. Through the course of the winter and spring, we’ll take a look at different options.”

The duties at rover can be handled piecemeal, accounting for the tendencies of each opponent. When facing an up-tempo, aerial attack, perhaps even rising senior cornerback Shaun Crawford could be featured there. When facing a physical, ground-bound opponent, Bilal would make more sense.

Shifting around like that at the Buck linebacker spot makes far less sense. While Tranquill never necessarily had the speed to excel at safety, and two knee injuries only further limited him in that respect, he shined at rover in 2017. Concluding his collegiate career at linebacker is logical, both as it pertains to his development thus far and to his professional aspirations.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Rarely can a defense lose two of its top-four tacklers and still return more than 200 tackles from starting linebackers. Thus is the luxury provided by both Coney and Tranquill bypassing the NFL for another year.

Coney: 116 tackles, 13.0 tackles for loss including three sacks, and one forced fumble which he recovered.
Tranquill: 85 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss including 1.5 sacks, one interception, three pass breakups, three fumbles recovered and one fumble forced.
Bilal: 18 tackles with 1.5 for loss.
Jo. Jones: 10 tackles with one for loss and one pass breakup.
Ja. Jones: Four tackles.

A 2018 Statistical Thought:
Presuming linebacker health, the three starters should end up as Notre Dame’s leading tacklers once again in 2018, even with the presumed drop off from Morgan to insert Bilal or Owusu-Koromoah or Lamb or … here.

The Irish defensive line will be much improved in 2018. Once upon a time, that seemed a guarantee just because the expectations for the line entering 2017 were so low, but it instead became a strength. Developing that strength and making it the backbone of Notre Dame’s defense moving forward will serve to burgeon the linebackers’ tackle totals, both at and behind the line of scrimmage.

Notre Dame gets the letter: Jack Lamb
Notre Dame gets the letter: Bo Bauer
Notre Dame gets the letter: Shayne Simon
Notre Dame gets the letter: Ovie Oghoufo

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are

A second four-star defensive lineman, Hunter Spears, joins the Notre Dame class of 2019

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When Notre Dame got five heralded defensive line recruits on campus together in January, it turned heads. When Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston offered public optimism about the possible 2019 commitments, it raised expectations.

Notre Dame has now secured a second of those five with the Tuesday commitment of consensus four-star defensive end Hunter Spears (Sachse High School; Texas). He joins consensus four-star defensive tackle Jacob Lacey (South Warren H.S.; Bowling Green, Ky.) as the early foundation to the recruiting class, now with four prospects pledged.

“Honestly, just talking with the guys today — Jacob Lacey, Mazi Smith, Joseph Anderson, Nana Osafo-Mensah, and myself — if Notre Came can land all of us, that would be the dream d-line class for Notre Dame,” Spears told Irish Illustrated. “I could see another pass-rusher or two, also.”

The other three names Spears mentioned all joined Lacey and him on Jan. 27 at an on-campus Junior Day. All five qualify as consensus four-stars, with Smith (East Kentwood; Kentwood, Mich.) a tackle, Anderson (Siegel; Murfreesboro, Tenn.) an end, and Osafo-Mensah (Nolan Catholic; Fort Worth, Texas) a possible end/linebacker hybrid.

From left to right: Osafo-Mensah, Anderson, Elston, Smith, Lacey and Spears. (Twitter: @JacobLacey6)

Landing all five may be ambitious, but it would also be the envy of most of the country.

Spears already held offers from the likes of Alabama and Michigan State, despite missing his junior season with a knee injury. The Irish extended a scholarship offer to him in June, prompting an unofficial visit to watch a 49-14 Notre Dame victory over USC in October. In a video released by 247Sports.com, Spears cited that experience as one of the three primary reasons he committed, along with the educational opportunity and the “overall tradition and culture.”

Spears shows quickness for a defensive lineman, but not such that he would ever be considered an outside linebacker in any form. His size makes him an ideal candidate to set the edge against the run or possibly move inside when the Irish need a quicker defensive line to handle certain opponents. His agility, though, will make him a three-down threat, both a pass-rusher and an edge-setter.

Notre Dame currently has depth at defensive end, but with only one signed in the class of 2018 (Justin Ademilola) and one remaining from the class of 2017 (Kofi Wardlow), an influx will be a priority this recruiting cycle. Spears will theoretically have one season to adjust to collegiate competition before the quartet of rising juniors Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem, Julian Okwara and Ade Ogundeji run out of eligibility. (The first three have two seasons remaining, while Ogundeji has the possibility of three more years.)

Hence, that Junior Day emphasis and Elston’s confidence on National Signing Day.

“I’ve been at Notre Dame now going on for nine years, and I haven’t had a stronger group of underclassmen that I’m recruiting than I have this year in 2019,” Elston said. “This could be the best defensive line haul we’ve ever had here.”

Expect to read that quote again and again (and possibly again) if any of the remaining three in the above photo follow Spears’ and Lacey’s lead.

RELATED READING: ‘Accelerated’ start creates bright outlook for Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting cycle

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are

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Notre Dame will open spring practice in about two weeks. As always, the proceedings will be filled with positive reviews, optimistic outlooks, and an injury or two.

A quick look at each position group should lend a better understanding to those perspectives and effects, beginning with the group lacking many questions — the running backs. The biggest reason there is relative certainty around the running backs is there are just so few of them following the winter dismissals of rising junior Deon McIntosh and rising sophomore C.J. Holmes.

Spring Roster:
Rising senior Dexter Williams (pictured above)
Rising junior Tony Jones
Early-enrolled freshman Jahmir Smith
Rising junior Mick Assaf

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman C’Bo Flemister

No one received more praise last spring practice than Tony Jones. He had a successful 2017, but compared to that hype, it could have been considered under-performing. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
At some point, either Williams or Jones will be named the Irish starter. It is quite possible that will be a distinction without much difference, as the two could certainly complement each other well in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s system, which already prefers to use multiple running backs.

Human nature, though, dictates is more likely one back receives a majority of the carries.

Biggest Question:
If Williams lines up with the No. 1 offensive unit in the Blue-Gold Game (April 21) to conclude spring practice, that will be the first genuine and tangible evidence he has improved as a pass blocker. Despite his big-play speed and seeming-ease breaking tackles, Williams’ one-dimensional game rendered him as much a liability as an asset in 2017.

Even in the Citrus Bowl victory, Williams followed up back-to-back rushes for a combined 36 yards with a blown pass protection resulting in a 13-yard sack.

“You have to be able to protect the quarterback with all positions,” Long said Feb. 7. “That dictates a whole lot if you’re going to play a lot or just be a situational guy. It’s something you have to embrace, the physicality.

“… That’s really the main thing, other than protecting the ball, that’ll keep a back off the field in our offense.”

The best ability is availability, and both an ankle injury and a balky quad limited Williams in that respect in 2017. Little blame can be cast for the natural bruises of football. Nonetheless, he will need to “embrace the physicality” if he wants to become more than a situational back.

Otherwise, Jones will be the default option. He has already shown a knack for both pass blocking and catching, making him a three-down option. Notre Dame will always prefer that rather than tip its hand to a running play every time Williams enters the game.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Obviously, Josh Adams carried the burden in the running game last season. Behind rising senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush and McIntosh, Williams was only the No. 4 rusher on the roster in yards and touchdowns, while Jones was No. 4 in carries and No. 5 in yards and scores.

Williams: 360 yards on 39 carries, a 9.2 average, with four touchdowns. Two catches for 13 yards and one score.
Jones: 232 yards on 44 carries, a 5.3 average, with three touchdowns. Six catches for 12 yards.
Notre Dame gets the letter: Jahmir Smith
Notre Dame gets the letter: C’Bo Flemister