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.”

Rochell drafted in 7th round; three other former Notre Dame players sign

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All the unnecessary draft conversation may have centered on DeShone Kizer, but the quarterback was not the only former Notre Dame player watching this weekend’s NFL Draft with rapt attention. Aside from Kizer, only Isaac Rochell heard his name called. The San Diego Chargers picked the defensive lineman in the seventh round Saturday with the 225th overall pick.

Rochell finished his Irish career with appearance in 49 of 51 possible games and 167 tackles, including 22 for loss and 4.5 sacks. In 2016, he recorded 55 tackles, good for sixth on the team, with seven for loss.

By the end of the evening, three more former Notre Dame starters had signed on with NFL teams as undrafted free agents. It should be noted, many argue the route available for undrafted free agents is preferable to that of late-round picks. An undrafted free agent can choose which of a handful of situations is preferable to him for whatever reason. A late-round pick does not have that luxury, but still makes a comparable salary.

Linebacker James Onwualu opted to join Rochell with the Chargers. Defensive lineman Jarron Jones signed with the New York Giants. Cornerback Cole Luke latched on with the Carolina Panthers.

Onwualu began his Irish career as a receiver before moving to linebacker before his sophomore season. He finished his career with 143 tackles, including 75 in 2016 with 11.5 for loss and three sacks. His 75 tackles finished behind only now-rising senior linebackers Nyles Morgan’s 94 and Drue Tranquill’s 79.

Battling injuries throughout his Notre Dame career, Jones made 105 tackles with 45 in 2016. His 11 tackles for loss were outdone only by the aforementioned Onwualu total.

Luke made 152 tackles in his Irish career, including 48 last season, and eight interceptions.

Three more players from past years’ Irish rosters could yet find an NFL home—long snapper Scott Daly, defensive lineman-turned-tight end Chase Hounshell and running back Tarean Folston. If any or all do not sign, they can still join teams for rookie mini-camps in hopes of making a positive impression.

RELATED READING: Browns pick former Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer 20th in second round

Browns pick former Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer 20th in second round

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After months of pointless chatter and a night spent waiting, DeShone Kizer’s NFL Draft experience ended Friday night when the Cleveland Browns drafted the former Notre Dame quarterback with the 20th pick in the second round, the No. 52 overall selection.

Originally from Toledo, Ohio, Kizer will have the opportunity to earn the starting job for the franchise less than two hours from his hometown. The Browns trotted out five different quarterbacks in 2016, only two of which remain with the team. Rookie Cody Kessler played in nine games, throwing for 1,380 yards and six touchdowns with only one interception while fellow rookie Kevin Hogan threw for 104 yards and two interceptions in four games.

The Browns have since added Brock Osweiler in a trade with the Houston Texans, though that trade was largely-viewed as a cash-for-picks swap, with the Browns “paying” for picks by taking on Osweiler’s contract in which he is owed $47 million over the next three seasons, including $16 million this season.

A year ago, the No. 52 pick (linebacker Deion Jones to the Atlanta Falcons) received a four-year, $4.546 million contract with a $1.506 million signing bonus.

Hall of fame running back and Browns legend Jim Brown announced the selection of Kizer at the draft festivities.

Speculation a year ago pegged Kizer as an early first-round pick. As the draft approached, projections of his slot varied widely, many including a second-round status. Despite first-round theatrics leading to three quarterbacks going in the first 12 picks Thursday night, Kizer had to wait another day before learning where he will start his NFL career. (more…)

Friday at 4: ‘Attention to detail’ includes Notre Dame Stadium

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Brian Kelly proselytized multiple abstract concepts this spring. By the end of the 15 practices and subsequent media sessions, even the Irish coach knew some of his references to “grit” would be met by muted eye rolls from the press. If a questioner included the word in their query, Kelly reacted with tongue-in-cheek approval, “You’ve been listening.”

In his press conference the day before spring practices commenced, Kelly used the phrase “attention to detail” six separate times. While he was referring to his players on the football field, Kelly could have also been discussing the ongoing—but supposedly close to finished—construction at Notre Dame Stadium known as Campus Crossroads.

The three buildings around the exterior of the Stadium, the added suites and the video board above the south end zone have garnered the headlines. On a macro level, those are the changes of note. On a micro level, however, other details have trickled into the public stream of knowledge as the work nears its conclusion.

Over the weekend—and now reignited by a column from the South Bend Tribune’s Mike Vorel—the image of the newly-added visitors’ tunnel delighted Irish fans. Vorel likens the narrow entry to “the spot they’d stash the gladiators before feeding them to starving tigers in The Coliseum.” Assuredly, Vorel is going for dramatic effect, and it must work considering its citation here, but even a realistic view of the tunnel’s effects bodes well.

If nothing else, Notre Dame players should enjoy something of a psychological boost when racing out of their adult-sized tunnel and seeing their opponent trickle out of a tunnel seemingly-sized for ants. (Yes, the north end zone tunnel is at least three times bigger than the visitors’ tunnel.)

That pale, slanted staircase holds none of the luxuries of the home team’s entrance, something Kelly went out of his way to praise after using it in Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. (more…)

Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers

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You want complete honesty? The linebacker version of this series includes no revelations, no unexpected developments, no surprising spring performances. There is an allusion to a position switch, sure, but this piece became much simpler with the rover being discussed separately Thursday.

The idea was to capitalize on the NFL Draft for the morning and let the linebackers slip by in the afternoon, noticed only by those twiddling their thumbs through the last hours of the work week. Alas, former Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer was not drafted in the first round and a brief recap of his draft destination will need to await at least another day. Programming note: The NFL Draft reconvenes tonight (Friday) at 7 p.m. ET. The Green Bay Packers are on the clock. They will not draft a quarterback.

But back to the linebackers. This piece may have been intended to slip by with little fanfare, but that is not indicative of the Irish linebackers. Where Notre Dame was is so similar to where Notre Dame is simply because two experienced senior captains lead the way at linebacker.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
Aside from questions about defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s rover position, only one question stood out about this linebacker group: Who would start alongside senior Nyles Morgan: senior Greer Martini or junior Te’von Coney?

A year ago Coney recorded the fourth-most tackles on the team with 62. Martini finished fifth with 55, and his seven tackles for loss, including three sacks, dwarfed Coney’s 1.5. Yet Coney technically started nine games compared to Martini’s four.

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

With the rover often lining up essentially as a linebacker, there would only be space for one of Martini or Coney in most formations.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
In his first season with the Irish, Elko will have quite a luxury in referring to Coney as a backup linebacker. In some respects, that designation was inevitable as soon as Martini was named a captain. Nonetheless, Coney will see plenty of playing time.

The two captains—along with fellow captain, senior Drue Tranquill at rover—will be counted on throughout the summer and fall camp to continue the defense’s growth in Elko’s system. Elko said he installed “close to 50 percent” of his entire defense throughout spring practice. The linebackers must deal with the most difficult aspects of that learning.

“There’s been a noticeable improvement in terms of this starting to look like the defense we want this to look like as spring has gone on,” Elko said a week ago. “… Linebacker probably more than any other position, linebacker and safety, where the scheme takes some time to get used to, how you see it, how you fit it, how you feel it. Those guys have gotten better with that which has then allowed them to play faster as the spring has moved on.”

Sophomore Jonathan Jones will likely provide any further depth that may be needed in 2017, unless either of the incoming freshmen, David Adams and Drew White, excel from the outset. Irish coach Brian Kelly indicated sophomore Jamir Jones (no relation to Jonathan, but is former Notre Dame defensive lineman Jarron Jones’ brother) may be destined for time on the defensive line, in large part to Jones’s continued growth. Junior Josh Barajas let the spring come and go without mandating he be involved in these conversations, which may as well count as removing himself from the conversation in most regards.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame Was, Is & Could Be: Rover