Senior Day

Pregame Six Pack: Going out on a high note

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If the major concern heading into Senior Day was dealing with the team’s heightened emotions, a dash of reality set in on Thursday evening when the news of Louis Nix’s season-ending surgery sunk in. 

Working through emotions is one thing. Playing without the team’s 350-pound tip of the spear is quite another.

 

As the Irish prepare to take on BYU’s up-tempo, power-running attack, they’ll do so without Nix at the center of the defense. As Pete Sampson of Irish Illustrated pointed out on Twitter, the Irish will go their final ten games of the season getting just 23 snaps out of the starting trio of Stephon Tuitt, Nix and Sheldon Day, a case of perpetual snakebite after a season that felt kissed by the gods. 

Still, there’s a game to play on Saturday afternoon and the Irish need to win it, sending their seniors out on a high note.

Let’s get into the pregame six pack. As usual, here are six tidbits, leftovers, fun facts and miscellaneous musings before the Irish take on the Cougars at 3:30pm ET on NBC.

***

It won’t just be another Saturday for the guys running out of the tunnel. 

We’ll spend some more time later discussing the senior class. But for a 31 players, this might be the last time they run out of the tunnel at Notre Dame. That’s a factor that Brian Kelly has talked about.

“It’s always a concern,” said Kelly. “The emotional impact is always measured because you certainly don’t want your players playing emotionally. You want enthusiasm.

“We’ll be talking about that balance between the emotions of the last game and the enthusiasm of playing in your last game. We have to make sure we balance it because we’ve got quite a few seniors like BYU.”

On his weekly chat with Jack Arute and Rick Neuheisel on SiriusXM’s College Football Playbook radio show, Kelly revealed that the team spent some time this week savoring the moment, with the hopes that the emotion wouldn’t all pour out on Saturday. We’ll see how that plays out early on Saturday afternoon.

***

With the loss of Nix, slowing down Taysom Hill will be key. 

If there’s an immediate concern without Nix, it’s the health of the front seven. The guys backing up Nix aren’t in the best of shape either.

Kona Schwenke will try and give it a go after a high ankle injury of his own. He’ll slide back inside and try to take snaps at nose guard, even though he’s not fully healed. Jarron Jones will be out of his ankle boot, forced to take important snaps at the point of attack as well, along with Tyler Stockton.

Kelly updated Schwenke’s heath situation on Thursday evening, with the Hawaiian also playing his final home game in Notre Dame Stadium.

“He’s not 100 percent,” Kelly said of Schwenke. “Jarron Jones will have to play a lot in there. Jarron’s had a great week. Really pleased with his practice. Kona is going to give it all he has. He really wants to play. It’s important to him. He’s going to play. How much do we get out of him, we’ll see.”

Whoever ends up taking snaps, slowing down Hill is going to be key. The sophomore quarterback is second in the country with 44 rushes of 10-yards or more. With an arm (and wide receiver) that’s able to more than keep you honest, the Irish are going to have to play great fundamental football to shut down Hill.

“The first thing is to try and keep the ball away from Taysom Hill,” Kelly told Arute and Neuheisel. “If you put this kid on the field and give him an opportunity to run 85, 90 plays, they’re going to score too many points.”

***

Look to last year’s game plan for hints at Saturday’s attack. 

The Irish haven’t been able to effectively establish the run like they did last season. And no Saturday last year did the ground game play more importantly than in the Irish’s 17-14 victory over the Cougars.

The Irish ran for 270 yards against BYU, throwing just three times in the second half. With the weather looking like it could be a winter wonderland with temperatures below freezing, it’s pretty clear that it’s going to be a game won in the trenches.

Kelly talked a little bit about using the running game not just to move the chains, but to also establish the playaction passing game.

“Carving out the running game is the first thing we’re going to try to do,” Kelly told Arute and Neuheisel. “If we can’t do that, the ball has got  to get down the field. Pushing it vertically and trying to make those big chunk plays is the next job at hand.”

While they haven’t been as stingy, Kelly compared Bronco Mendenhall’s defense to Michigan State’s, with the secondary bunched within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. If the Irish are going to score points, they’re going to need to hit the Cougars over the top when that happens.

“Once the safeties start making plays near the line of scrimmage, the ball has got to get down the field,” Kelly explained. (Safety Daniel) Sorensen, when he starts making plays near the line of scrimmage, what we have to do with Tommy is that you can’t read him, you’ve got to be able to throw and run your play action game.”

***

On a Saturday that’ll likely tug at your heart strings, Jaylon Smith will honor his mentor Danny Spond in a classy tribute. 

If you don’t see No. 9 out on the edge of the defense wreaking havoc, don’t worry. Jaylon Smith will be there, he’ll just be doing it in teammate Danny Spond’s jersey.

 

Smith’s star turn as a freshman came out of necessity, with the five-star freshman thrust into the starting lineup after Spond was forced to retire because of debilitating migraine headaches. Spond then turned into a student-coach, working with Smith and junior Ben Councell on the ins and outs of a position that has been one of the toughest to fill in the Irish’s defensive system.

As a thank you for the tutelage, pupil will honor master by swapping No. 9 for No. 13.

“Jaylon Smith is going to be wearing Danny Spond’s number on Saturday in a manner to thank him for his mentorship this year,” Kelly announced on Thursday evening.

***

Entering the final home game of the regular season, Brian Kelly finally came clean about the quarterback position.

Expect a nice ovation for quarterback Tommy Rees on Saturday. The much maligned quarterback will be playing his final home game in front of his family and 80,000-plus friends, who will thank Rees for his four seasons in South Bend, an improbable run that’s pushed a guy many thought would only be a backup into the school record books.

While Kelly was effusive with his praise for Rees in his radio show comments with Jack Nolan, he finally came clean about his quarterback plans on the season, acknowledging that there was never any interest in getting Malik Zaire on the field this season.

“Quite honestly, without sugar-coating it and cutting through it, I wanted to redshirt him,” Kelly said. “I wanted a quarterback that was going to be a fifth-year guy. Throughout it all, we wanted that more than anything else, and we’re going to get that with Malik.”

Kelly briefly touched on the plans for next year, with spring opening a competition between returning quarterback Everett Golson and Zaire. He also acknowledged the decision on whether Andrew Hendrix will return or not hasn’t been made.

***

Nobody feels sorry for Notre Dame. But a look at what injuries have done to this roster is pretty staggering. 

Every football team is beat up this time of year. But a look at what’s happened this year gives you a better appreciation of just how decimated this roster has become.

As we look back on the senior class, what better time to look back at what’s happened to this roster. While not all of these subtractions are because of injury, the snapshot of where this roster has gotten hit gives you an idea of why this team is struggling to do something of the ordinary things well.

Wonder why the Front Seven play has been subpar? Consider that injuries have hit Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix, Sheldon Day, Kona Schwenke, Ishaq Williams, Tony Springmann, Chase Hounshell, Jarron Jones and Isaac Rochell.

Roster attrition also struck hard, with Everett Golson gone, Eddie Vanderdoes staying home and Gunner Kiel, Davonte Neal and Justin Ferguson transferring. Injuries robbed Tate Nichols, Brad Carrico and Cam Roberson of a career.

It was a lost season for Springmann, Hounshell, Torii Hunter Jr., Nicky Baratti and Danny Spond. Injuries ended the year for Daniel Smith, Will Mahone, Ben Councell, Greg Bryant and Jarrett Grace. Elijah Shumate missed multiple games as well.

Subtract out redshirting freshmen and Brian Kelly doesn’t need to snoop around an NFL program to know what it feels like to play with a 53 man roster.

Kelly maneuvered his way around injuries on Thursday while acknowledging there are some more that’ll be attended to after the season as well.

“There’s a number of guys. I couldn’t tell you who they are,” Kelly said, likely substituting the word couldn’t for won’t. “We’re going to have probably two or three shoulder guys. We’re going to have a couple of guys get scoped. It’s normal, end of the year, those surgeries that you have.”

Will Wimbush, Elko and the early enrollees surprise in spring practice?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Exactly 59 days from today, the Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Sure, they will be playing against themselves, but nonetheless, it will be somewhat-competitive football played in gold helmets.

For timing context, exactly 59 days ago, you looked beneath the Christmas tree to learn if Santa Claus left you season tickets, socks or coal. I got socks. They had some of that extra cushioning, so I considered them a suitable treat.

Whether you care about my argyles or not (you don’t), for many the Blue-Gold Game and Christmas morning hold similar excitement. That fact is apparently why Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick does not concern himself when groups of alumni publicly lament his decisions, or lack thereof.

“I never worry about that,” Swarbirck told the Indianapolis Star in an exclusive interview you really should read. Go on, click the link, it will open in a new tab. You can come right back here when you are done.

“The hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion in your program. If that sort of stuff bothers you, you can’t be the athletic director, head coach or the quarterback at Notre Dame.”

That very passion will undoubtedly lead to frame-by-frame discussions of video snippets from spring practice, parsing of each and every word Irish coach Brian Kelly says in quick interviews after those practices, and extreme pessimism and optimism about the 2017 season.

In the Christmas spirit, what toys could bring the must excitement during the spring unwrapping? Personally, the gift I was unsure of always brought the most joy. I would rather open an unexpected book than know about a charcoal-gray suit. In other words, at least for today, let’s look past the offensive line, the running backs and the inside linebackers. Instead, let’s look forward to learning about… (more…)

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Karlos Williams #9 of the Florida State Seminoles scores the touchdown that would win the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their game at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.

With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.

The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.

Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.

Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.

If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.

Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order: (more…)

Four-star WR Micah Jones chooses Irish; Rees may need to wait; Other late-week reading

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rivals.com
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A day may come when Notre Dame suffers a recruiting disappointment in the 2018 cycle, when a high school star spurns the Irish coaching staff for a foe, but it is not this day.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township High School; Gurnee, Ill.) committed to Notre Dame on Friday, joining a class of now 10 recruits, including four who committed just this week.

Jones chose the Irish over offers from the likes of Iowa, Michigan State and Ole Miss, among others.

He is the first receiver among the 10 commitments and the seventh considered a four-star prospect. At 6-foot-5, 196 pounds, Jones should present a large target for whomever the Notre Dame quarterback is in the fall of 2018, most likely then-senior Brandon Wimbush.

Tom, Tommy or Thomas; Assistant Coach or Graduate Assistant?
Thomas Rees may need to wait a season before officially being a coach at Notre Dame. The legislation to approve a 10th assistant coach was expected to be voted on, passed and effective in April. A newly-added amendment may push the effective date to following the 2017 season. The amendment will be voted on immediately before the legislation itself is.

The delay makes sense. Most coaching hirings and firings occur in December and January. In theory, creating a one-timing hiring frenzy following spring football could leave many programs in the lurch. In practice, however, this is not anticipated.

“The majority of the FBS guys that I’ve talked with currently believe that 10th coach is going to come from within their own organization,” Todd Berry told the Associated Press. Berry is the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association and former coach at Army and Louisiana-Monroe. “Quality control, graduate assistants, analysts, or they’re planning on hiring somebody that’s out of work.”

A majority is not a unanimity, though, and that carousel will innately work to the disadvantage of the Group of 5 schools.

As for Rees, a graduate assistant can still work extensively with players. The most-pertinent difference between a graduate assistant and an assistant coach is the former cannot recruit. Given Notre Dame’s recent success on the recruiting trail—and the early commitment of class of 2018 consensus four-star quarterback Phil Jurkovec (Pine-Richland H.S.; Gibsonia, Pa.)—Rees may not be an absolute necessity in that regard this cycle.

A Kizer Appraisal
Former NFL scout Greg Gabriel took a look at former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer this week, largely paying the draft prospect compliments.

In calling Kizer “the most talented quarterback in this draft class,” Gabriel set a high ceiling for Kizer’s spring. Part of Gabriel’s positive assessment comes from acknowledging Kizer’s responsibilities as the Irish signal-caller.

“The spread offense that Kizer played in at Notre Dame is more sophisticated than many of the spread offenses we see elsewhere at the collegiate level. The Notre Dame offense is a whole-field read scheme in which the quarterback has to go through a progression that encompasses both sides of the field. He also can change the play and/or protections at the line of scrimmage. Given all that, Kizer was asked to do more than many spread quarterbacks are asked to do.”

Gabriel also reflected on the dynamic differences for Kizer in 2015 and 2016 and what may have elicited some of his seeming stagnation.

“There was the unnecessary quarterback controversy at Notre Dame, and the offensive line wasn’t as experienced or as talented and the receivers were mostly first-year starters.”

As much as Gabriel raves about Kizer, he would be the first to tell you anything beyond individual player evaluation is a waste of air this early in the draft process. Mock drafts may be fun, but they are not much beyond that.

Take the fates of Tony Romo and Jimmy Garoppolo, for example. Few, if any, in the NFL expect them to dress for the Cowboys and Patriots, respectively, again. Where they end up could directly impact Kizer’s draft placement.

Jaylon Smith May Be Back to Form
Former Notre Dame and current Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith posted yet another encouraging video to Twitter. This one shows Smith really might be game-ready right now and, if not, almost certainly will be by the fall. Should there be any difficulty with the embedded video below, here is a link straight to it.

OL Mabry makes third commitment this week; WR Jones may follow Friday

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rivals.com
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Two weeks ago, Irish coach Brian Kelly gave a non-answer of an answer to a question about a likely early signing period this coming December. Avoiding specifics, he indicated he thinks the effects of such a change will be seen on a case-by-case basis entirely dependent on the recruits.

“Some will, some won’t,” Kelly said. “…Each kid is going to have to react to it based upon also how their school is going to be dealing with it. Some will come off the board at the time.

“We’re expecting some to sign early, but I think our mindset is we’re going into it business as usual. We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

After this week, Notre Dame is going to have more year-long fights than anticipated. Consensus three-star offensive lineman recruit Cole Mabry (Brentwood High School; Brentwood, Tenn.) became the third prospect to offer a verbal commitment to the Irish coaching staff in less than 36 hours with his Wednesday decision. Mabry received the offer over the weekend, but waited a few days before making his decision public, lest emotions be dictating his thought process.

At 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds, Mabry will have time to add muscle to his frame, with four or five offensive tackles greeting him on the Notre Dame roster in the summer of 2018. That ability to mold his style and growth may have played a part in the Irish interest.

“They love my height and athleticism and how I play,” Mabry told rivals.com. “We got to break down film and go through things that they do that pair up with how I play now. They think I’ll be a great fit in their offense.”

Mabry is the ninth Notre Dame commitment in the class of 2018, though the first offensive lineman.

Judging by new Notre Dame director of football performance Matt Balis’s agenda for the Irish roster’s Valentine’s Day morning, Mabry will have much to look forward to in terms of strength and conditioning.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township H.S.; Gurnee, Ill.) is scheduled to announce his verbal commitment this Friday at 4 p.m. ET. Along with Notre Dame, Jones is considering Iowa, Michigan State, Nebraska, Ole Miss, Illinois and Northwestern. He would be the first receiver in Notre Dame’s 2018 class. Naturally, whomever Jones commits to, the recruiting fight will last until at least December, and perhaps all the way to February.