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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.

 

 

Irish A-to-Z: Nick Watkins

GLENDALE, AZ - JANUARY 01:  Wide receiver Michael Thomas #3 of the Ohio State Buckeyes runs with the ball as Nick Watkins #21 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish attempts to make a tackle during the first quarter of the BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl at the University of Phoenix Stadium on January 1, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona. Buckeyes won 44-28. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
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With the Fiesta Bowl serving as a springboard, junior cornerback Nick Watkins looked primed to make a move into the starting lineup as he entered his third season in the program. But a spring injury that’s been slow to heal has put his season into purgatory, another uncertainty for the Irish secondary.

A talented coverman who took some time to come into his own, Watkins now waits on bone growth in an injured arm, a second surgery initiated to jump start things. But with the regular season bearing down on the Irish and Watkins’ availability unknown, his contributions are a huge unknown for Notre Dame’s secondary.

 

NICK WATKINS
6’0.5″, 200 lbs.
Junior, No. 7, CB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A four-star, Top 150 recruit, Watkins stayed off the summer camp circuit and still wowed recruiting analysts. The Dallas native had one of the most impressive offer sheets of his recruiting cycle, picking Notre Dame over Alabama, Auburn, Florida State, Georgia, LSU, Ohio State, Texas, USC and UCLA.

Brian Kelly compared landing Watkins to “getting a No. 1 draft pick” on Signing Day.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Played in 11 games, making most of his appearances on special teams. Didn’t register any statistics.

Sophomore Season (2015): Played in 12 games, making one start against Ohio State and making eight tackles. Had one pass breakup.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Watkins fell out of the No. 3 job when Devin Butler beat him out for it, though took over before the Fiesta Bowl when Butler injured his foot in preparations.

Right now, Watkins is the third cornerback in a defense with a high-ceiling starting pair. I can’t think of a Notre Dame defense that hasn’t relied on their third cornerback, and think back to when we all worried how the Irish were going to get Darrin Walls, Gary Gray and Robert Blanton onto the field. It’ll work itself out.

So Watkins will get the reps this season. Or at least the first shot at the reps, with Devin Butler and a trio of freshmen all right behind him. And if he’s going to stay on the field, he’ll need to fully embrace the mental side of the game. I expect Watkins to make major progress here, especially after the harsh realization that elite physical tools may make it easy to lock down receivers in high school, but in VanGorder’s system, knowledge is almost more important.

Watkins is still every bit the prospect he was when he signed with the Irish. After a freshman season spent on special teams, he’ll be asked to take on more as a sophomore.

While he’s a key piece of the Irish future, Watkins can help Notre Dame win this year as well.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

There aren’t many questions about Watkins’ physical abilities, other than the fact that he hasn’t found a way to make an impact yet. That’s understandable considering he was stuck behind KeiVarae Russell and Cole Luke, though a breakout season seems on the verge of being stuck in neutral as he tries to recover from a slow-healing broken arm.

With plenty of tools in the toolbox, Watkins feels like the type of player who can ascend quickly once he’s given the chance. But then again that ascent is predicated on earning that opportunity—no small feat when you look at the athletes the Irish have recruited.

Entering his third season of eligibility, the clock is ticking. His ceiling will be determined by how quickly he’s back on the field, or if the Irish staff ultimately decides to save a year of eligibility if that’s what’s needed.

 

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Of all the injuries we tracked this offseason, Watkins’ broken arm seemed the least on the radar, though has a chance to be the most impactful. That Notre Dame’s medical staff is treating it aggressively says something about the player they think they have in Watkins—who Kelly said will be allowed to fight for a starting job once he’s physically able.

I’m no doctor—but that won’t stop me from evaluating Watkins’ progress. And for the most part, I don’t think it’s the best formula for success jumping into the mix with no training camp and limited time to get in shape at the most demanding position on Notre Dame’s roster.

While losing Watkins is a blow—especially with the length of these suspensions unknown—any chance to take a medical redshirt could be huge for Notre Dame’s depth, getting Watkins a chance to redo his junior season, capable of stepping in after Cole Luke departs.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston
Mark Harrell
Daelin Hayes
Jay Hayes
Tristen Hoge
Corey Holmes
Torii Hunter Jr.
Alizé Jones
Jamir Jones
Jarron Jones
Jonathan Jones
Tony Jones Jr.
Khalid Kareem
DeShone Kizer
Julian Love
Tyler Luatua
Cole Luke
Greer Martini
Jacob Matuska
Mike McGlinchey
Colin McGovern
Deon McIntosh
Javon McKinley
Pete Mokwuah
John Montelus
D.J. Morgan
Nyles Morgan
Sam Mustipher
Quenton Nelson
Tyler Newsome
Adetokunbo Ogundeji
Julian Okwara
James Onwualu
Spencer Perry
Troy Pride Jr.
Max Redfield
Isaac Rochell
Trevor Ruhland
CJ Sanders
Avery Sebastian
John Shannon
Durham Smythe
Equanimeous St. Brown
Kevin Stepherson
Devin Studstill
Elijah Taylor
Brandon Tiassum
Jerry Tillery
Drue Tranquill
Andrew Trumbetti
Donte Vaughn

Walk-on WR Chris Finke awarded scholarship

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Amidst the chaos of a weekend where Notre Dame football players made headlines for the wrong reasons, a good story comes from the ashes. Walk-on wide receiver Chris Finke was awarded a scholarship. The diminutive slot receiver, currently running No. 2 behind CJ Sanders and also a potential returner for the Irish, earned the scholarship on Monday.

News came via social media, where a group of teammates—and the Walk-on Players Union—gave their congratulations.

The 5-foot-9.5, 180-pounder from Archbishop Alter in Kettering, Ohio, has quick become a fan favorite. He’s also made himself a Brian Kelly favorite, earning mention last year for his steady hands and moves as a punt returner and this season for his work in the slot.

“He’s Robby Toma with more speed,” Kelly said during fall camp.

(Never mind his inauspicious introduction to BK, as described by the South Bend Tribune’s Mike Vorel.)

Finke took to social media after the news spread on Monday night with the following comment:

“Grateful. Can’t thank the coaches, staff, my teammates, family, friends, and the Good Lord enough!”

Here’s more instant reaction from teammates past and present.

 

Irish A-to-Z: Donte Vaughn

Donte Vaughn 247
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It didn’t take long after Donte Vaughn arrived on campus to know that the Irish landed a special prospect in the Memphis native. A long-limbed, athlete with the body of a safety and the cover skills of a cornerback, Vaughn’s freshman season might have pivoted with the dismissal of Max Redfield.

With the Irish short bodies at free safety, it’s reasonable to think the staff will cross-train Vaughn to fill a hole. But even if they don’t, Vaughn is too good to keep off the field as a freshman, a skill-set and attitude that’ll allow Brian VanGorder and Todd Lyght to lean on Vaughn if the situation calls for it.

 

DONTE VAUGHN
6’2″, 200 lbs.
Freshman, No. 35, CB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A four-star recruit, All-USA Tennessee, 6A All-State, Liberty Bowl All-Star game MVP. Offers from Auburn, LSU, Miami, Ole Miss, Tennessee, and Texas A&M. Long, learn and recruited as a corner, Vaughn is a huge get out of a big program in Memphis.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

One look at Notre Dame’s roster and you begin to realize that the Irish don’t have another cornerback that looks like Vaughn. It’s the reason linebacker James Onwualu said this about him:

“He’s gonna be a freak. He’s so long, so smooth,” Onwualu told Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson. “He comes to work every single day and I respect that.”

That type of athleticism and physical profile gives Brian VanGorder a unique weapon and one that’ll likely be utilized far more when Cole Luke is gone and the Irish need someone to play on the wide side of the field in coverage. Until then, Vaughn’s going to be a wild card—with the potential to sub in when the Irish go nickel or dime, and maybe even help replace Redfield as the Irish look to a very young secondary to replace him.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Even without the boneheaded arrests from the weekend, Vaughn was going to play. But with uncertainty surrounding Ashton White and Redfield’s dismissal, this likely moves Vaughn into the plans against Texas—a jump that not many saw coming, even with his impressive skill-set.

Someone is going to come out of the woodwork and step into an important role in the secondary. We’re already counting on that from Devin Studstill. Put Vaughn in that category for me, a player I expect to finish the season as a key building block for 2017.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston
Mark Harrell
Daelin Hayes
Jay Hayes
Tristen Hoge
Corey Holmes
Torii Hunter Jr.
Alizé Jones
Jamir Jones
Jarron Jones
Jonathan Jones
Tony Jones Jr.
Khalid Kareem
DeShone Kizer
Julian Love
Tyler Luatua
Cole Luke
Greer Martini
Jacob Matuska
Mike McGlinchey
Colin McGovern
Deon McIntosh
Javon McKinley
Pete Mokwuah
John Montelus
D.J. Morgan
Nyles Morgan
Sam Mustipher
Quenton Nelson
Tyler Newsome
Adetokunbo Ogundeji
Julian Okwara
James Onwualu
Spencer Perry
Troy Pride Jr.
Max Redfield
Isaac Rochell
Trevor Ruhland
CJ Sanders
Avery Sebastian
John Shannon
Durham Smythe
Equanimeous St. Brown
Kevin Stepherson
Devin Studstill
Elijah Taylor
Brandon Tiassum
Jerry Tillery
Drue Tranquill
Andrew Trumbetti

 

Life after Max: Notre Dame’s options at safety

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Irish 247
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In the days after Notre Dame returned from Culver Academy to kick off training camp, head coach Brian Kelly went out on the ledge and praised Max Redfield.

“He’s been that guy that everybody was hoping for out of high school,” Kelly said.

A little more than a week later, Redfield’s career at Notre Dame is over.

Done in by the same maddening decision-making that kept Redfield from reaching his potential on the field—Friday night’s antics, with Redfield the lone senior with four underclassmen, puts an end not just to his career at Notre Dame, it puts Redfield’s life at a crossroads.

There is no amount of talent that allowed Kelly to keep Redfield on the roster. And as the Irish move on with no proven depth at a safety position that’s relied upon to be the last line of defense, the Irish now look to some unusual spots to find a dependable player that the former five-star recruit could never become.

With Texas just two weeks away, here are a few options worth considering:

 

1. Start Devin Studstill. 

The true freshman pushed his way into the mix during spring practice, far from any type of motivational ploy by the Irish coaching staff. He’s a smooth athlete, a capable tackler and intelligent defender who understands the concepts Brian VanGorder is asking for from his back end defenders.

Studstill has battled a nagging hamstring injury during camp but is back in action. He’s also the only true positional fit that’s close to capable of stepping in for Redfield without some major schematic adjustments.

He’s still a freshman—and that means the Irish will have to live with some of the mistakes that come when you’re seeing and doing things for the first time. But Studstill’s been the free safety of the future since he stepped onto campus. So the timeline is accelerated, but it’s long been the plan.

 

2. Find a way to play Drue Tranquill next to Avery Sebastian. 

Sixth-year senior Avery Sebastian was kept in the program for a reason. And if this isn’t the perfect opportunity to lean on a mature player who could bail the Irish out of problems, I’m not sure what is.

No, he’s not the perfect fit for the position. Nor is Tranquill. But if Notre Dame needs two low-mistake defenders in the secondary along side their talented cornerbacks, they could do a lot worse than playing Tranquill and Sebastian on first and second down before bringing in a nickel or dime package depending on the situation.

Multiple reporters came out of last week’s open practice praising Sebastian’s toughness and capable play at safety. While he’s yet to be able to stay healthy for any of his college career, he’d do the ordinary things well—something this team desperately needs.

Putting Tranquill, a 230-pound safety, next to Sebastian, a 5-foot-10 (on a good day) hammerhead, limits a team that wants to play a lot of man coverage. But if you’re looking to find dependability, you could do worse.

 

3. Give Donte Vaughn a look at safety. 

Notre Dame thinks they have a future cover corner in Vaughn, whose length and athleticism has people thinking big things about the Memphis native. But with the cornerback depth chart well stocked and the safeties raw and thin, there’s no harm in repping Vaughn at free safety.

The only thing harder than throwing a freshman in at free safety is doing it to a freshman who switched positions less than two weeks before the opener. But Vaughn isn’t your ordinary freshman, as senior James Onwualu attested to last week.

“He’s gonna be a freak. He’s so long, so smooth,” Onwualu told Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson. “He comes to work every single day and I respect that.”

That work ethic will serve him well. So will cross-training this week at safety with Studstill.

 

4. Keep cross-training and developing. 

Just because a player isn’t ready week one doesn’t mean they won’t be able to contribute. And the Irish coaching staff recruited a variety of shapes and sizes when they restocked the secondary in the last recruiting class, and we’ll now see how quickly they can find a way into the mix.

Expect Jalen Elliott to get an early look. While the staff thinks he’s a future strong safety, Elliott is talented enough to compete at both safety positions—and the door is open for him to do that. He’ll be one of the first guys taking back-up reps now that Redfield is gone.

D.J. Morgan, another talented safety out of a Southern California powerhouse program, will need to show he can physically hold up as a safety in the open field, but he’s got the length and size to play. That high level experience in high school should certainly make the transition to the college game easier.

Football players might be your best bet, too. While Julian Love has been taking two-deep reps at nickel corner, there’s an opening at safety and Love’s high school tape showed an athlete that could do any job. Nobody will confuse him with a prototype at the position, but if he can think his way through the job, he’ll have a shot.

 

5. Don’t panic. 

Notre Dame’s secondary has taken blows like this with Kelly at the helm. And even if you’d argue that Redfield was the one of the least-replaceable starters on the defense, there’s no reason to be throwing the towel in after one of the worst evenings in recent off-field history at Notre Dame.

But remember this: An August injury to a presumed starter and the dismissal of a blue-chip recruit before he ever took the field, forced a freshman running back to convert to cornerback. Then KeiVarae Russell started all 13 games on a team that played for a national title.

At safety that season a redshirt freshman converted wide receiver started 11 games after spending spring outside of the two-deep, with Matthias Farley stepping in at safety and picking up the slack after Jamoris Slaughter went down.

The Irish have recruited better than most programs in the country and have kept the emphasis on finding defensive backs who can play in this system. Even if the timetable has accelerated, there’s a plan in place.