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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.

 

 

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: