Five things we learned: Notre Dame 23, BYU 13

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Before an emotional Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium, Brian Kelly made sure the message to his team was very clear.

“We told them that, you’ll get a chance to kiss your mom again,” Kelly said after the game. “But you’ll remember winning the game. That’s the most important thing.”

And win they did, turning a frigid Saturday afternoon filled with wind and snow into a wonderful final chapter for the Class of 2013.

No, things didn’t turn out the way they could’ve for this group. But backed by a ground game that rushed for 235 yards, and a great defensive performance by a severely wounded unit, the Irish beat BYU for the second straight season in South Bend.

The victory sends the senior class out of South Bend with a win, and more important leads Notre Dame into Palo Alto with nothing to lose.

Let’s take a look at what we learned during the Irish’s 23-13 victory.

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Needing to get back into character, Brian Kelly called on the 2012 game plan to cement a victory. 

The Irish had a bye week to wash away one of the more disappointing Saturdays in Brian Kelly’s tenure at Notre Dame. They also had a chance to go back and look at what’s worked, putting together a vintage 2012 performance.

In weather that demanded a strong running game, the Irish rushed for 235 yards, equaling the passing game total. Even without Louis Nix, the defense played physical in the front seven while the secondary refused to give up the deep ball. And Kyle Brindza came up with a clutch special teams kick, booting a 51-yard field goal in the fourth quarter.

A week after being its own worse enemy, the Irish found its long-missing identity.

“This is the way we’ve got to play football,” Kelly said. “This is Notre Dame football. This is the way we need to play. This is what we’re capable of playing. It’s a much more physical brand of football that we are capable of playing, and quite frankly, our team did that and they responded accordingly.”

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Battered and bruised, Bob Diaco’s defense put together an impressive performance. 

Louis Nix took the field on Saturday, but only with the help of crutches to hug his mother at midfield. Kona Schwenke did his best to play through a high ankle sprain, but succumbed to the injury early. But Jarron Jones came out of nowhere to play inspired football, racking up seven tackles, a batted down pass, and a clutch field goal block.

After being plagued by inconsistencies all season, Bob Diaco’s defense looked an awful lot like the group many expected, limiting BYU to just 13 points. Senior Dan Fox was all over the field, leading the Irish in tackles with nine, including a sack of Taysom Hill and a pass breakup.

Stephon Tuitt looked every bit the All-American, notching seven stops of his own, a sack of Hill and three quarterback hurries, including the destruction of the pocket on the Cougars final fourth down attempt. 

Against one of the most difficult rushing attacks in the country to slow down, the Irish gave up 247 yards on the ground, but refused to give up the big play down field that has plagued this team.

“We gave up some things to hold up big plays,” Kelly said after the game.”We weren’t going to let them get over the top.”

The underneath stuff did lead to the Cougars converting 11 of 20 third downs. But the Irish defense stiffened in the red zone, allowing just one touchdown in four appearances inside the Irish 20.

Even with a group battered and bruised, Diaco’s defense managed to do more than just survive against the up-tempo BYU attack, holding the Cougars to just 13 points, matching their season low.

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In a season where the running game has gone missing, Cam McDaniel, Tarean Folston and George Atkinson stepped up. 

With the wind swirling early and conditions far from ideal for the passing game, everybody in the stadium expected Notre Dame to try and establish the running game. But not that many expected it to work so convincingly.

The Irish establishing the ground game early with Tarean Folston and George Atkinson, before Tommy Rees hit DaVaris Daniels over the top for a 61 yard touchdown. On a day where Notre Dame absolutely needed a quick start, the offense did exactly that.

All afternoon the running attack pacing the Irish offense, even when Matt Hegarty subbed in for Nick Martin after the junior center hyperextended his knee. (Conor Hanratty also started in place of Steve Elmer, though both played.)  

While both Folston and Atkinson ran for at least six yards a carry, Kelly called on junior Cam McDaniel to carry the load down the stretch, and McDaniel answered the bell with 117 rushing yards on 24 carries. It was McDaniel’s first 100-yard game and the most carries in his career.

When asked after the game about the running game, Kelly talked about the decision to put the game on the Texan’s shoulders.

“Cam is more of a downhill, inside the tackle north and south runner,” Kelly explained. “The game style fits him, and I don’t want to box him into a particular kind of runner, but he’s a physical inside runner, and so he and Tarean got a lot of carries inside out.  And George really helped us out a lot today, too, with some good, physical running, as well.”

A season after leaning almost exclusively on the ground game to beat BYU, the Irish were able to win the football game thanks to a consistent rushing attack, utilizing all three backs in a must-win.

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With the best game of his career, Jarron Jones might be the guy to replace Louis Nix at defensive tackle. 

While the future of Louis Nix hasn’t been determined, in all likelihood we’ve seen the last of Irish Chocolate at Notre Dame. But the wide spread panic about Nix’s replacement might have been quelled Saturday evening as Jarron Jones played a dominant game at the point of attack.

The sophomore defensive lineman shifted inside to nose guard almost out of necessity, making good on his coach’s early-week premonition that good things were coming for Jones.

“Jarron we felt like was coming on, and he played exceedingly well and I’m really happy for him,” Kelly said. “But we thought this was something that when we recruited him that he was capable of, and he showed that today.”

Getting that out of him hasn’t always been easy. Jones talked about the challenges he faced keeping focus and delivering the type of effort that gave the coaching staff faith in the sophomore from Rochester, New York.

“Just me being young and not focused,” Jones said, when asked about the early struggles he’s faced. “It was all over the place. It was in the classroom, it was also just me in general, I kinda saw myself like, ‘Where’s my life going?’ That’s when I kind of realized I needed to tighten the screw a lot.”

That tightening was on display this afternoon, with Jones making multiple plays at the point of attack and showing the type of promise you’d expect out of the 6-foot-5, 305-pounder with elite recruiting offers.

Injuries have pushed Jones’ time to now, one year ahead of even his own schedule. But when I asked him after the game if he wanted to be the guy to fill Nix’s shoes next season, the answer was clear.

“I would love to be that guy,” Jones said. “Obviously playing nose guard today, that was a lot of fun. This game was a lot of fun.” 

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In a season where things didn’t quite go according to plan, Senior Day played out picture perfect. 

No, they weren’t playing for a BCS birth. But every player made available after the hard-fought victory had just about the same thing to say about leaving Notre Dame Stadium a winner.

“Words can’t describe how good it feels to win your last game here,” Tommy Rees said after the game. “That’s four years in a row for us, which is awesome, and unless you’ve experienced it, it’s a pretty special feeling.”

It’s the goal of every football player to leave a program in a better place than where they found it. And to that measure, this class has fulfilled that goal.

“They set a consistent mark of success, in terms of winning at home, which is a big, big deal for us,” Kelly said after the game.  They won 20 out of their last 23 regular‑season games as a core group.  All those numbers go towards consistency and that’s really what we’re looking for.”

On Monday, Kelly brought his team back from an off-week with a full-contact ones versus ones scrimmage. It was there that the head coach knew his team was going to be just fine this weekend.

“We had a great week of practice. I thought our Monday where we went ones versus ones and banged it around, I could just sense right there that we were going to play pretty good today,” Kelly said.

And on a cold, wintery day, the Irish won. It wasn’t perfect. But the Irish left Notre Dame Stadium for the last time a winner.

Friday at 4: 40-yard dashes and absurdity

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Of all the absurd things the football world often obsesses over, the 40-yard dash may be the most useless of them. Yes, it even beats out assigning star rankings to 16- and 17-year-olds, though not by much.

For now, let’s look past the rest of the inane Draft intricacies, such as former Irish defensive lineman Jarron Jones feeling pressured to increase his vertical jump by four inches. (He did, jumping to 24.5 inches in Notre Dame’s Pro Day on Thursday.) This scribe does not have an excess of time to spend discussing Jones’s outlandish wingspan if this piece is to post by its intended, though unnecessary, 4 p.m. ET deadline.

The 40-yard dash … No football play begins from a sprinter’s stance, yet it may be the factor most crucial to a low 40 time. Former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer posted a time of 4.83 seconds in the NFL Combine earlier this month. For context’s sake, Kizer ran .07 seconds slower than Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did as a draft prospect in the 2004 combine.

Roethlisberger has had himself an excellent career, and his ability to shrug off 300-pound defensive linemen is a testament to his athleticism. Put Kizer and Roethlisberger in the open field together, though, and Kizer would presumably have outrun Roethlisberger at any point of the two-time Super Bowl champion’s career. In Indianapolis, however, Roethlisberger did a better job of getting his hips through his first couple strides of the heralded 40-yard dash.

Here, watch Kizer train for the 40, the most-hyped measurement of his combine.

“The ultimate goal is to have yourself in the best position to have your body weight back in those legs so you can create enough torque to get out as quickly as possible,” Kizer said. “A guy who is as long as I am, with long limbs that I have, I’ve got to make sure that my weight distribution is in the best position for me to get out and catch up to some of those quicker guys who are a little lower to the ground.”

What part of that sounds applicable to football? The 40 turns Kizer’s size (6-foot-4, 237 pounds) into a negative. He worries about the angle of his knees. After his throwing session at the Thursday Pro Day, Kizer summed up the draft evaluation process even more succinctly.

“This process is very different in the sense that the way you look productive in the combine and in a pro day is very different from what productivity actually looks like out on the field.”

Well put.

More pertinent to the actual game of football, Kizer’s completion percentage in the staged workout could have been higher.

Then again, he was throwing to the likes of former Irish receivers Corey Robinson and Amir Carlisle and former running back Jonas Gray. Reportedly, the only contact Gray and Kizer had before the session was Kizer emailing the former New England Patriot the planned series of routes.

The NFL Draft, where Gmail becomes a necessity.

Let’s do away with the 40. If we insist on keeping it, let’s do it twice, once from a standing start and once from a running start. Those would simulate actual football movements: A receiver getting off the line, and a ballcarrier breaking away and trying to outrun the defense.

Asking DeShone Kizer to mimic Usain Bolt is an exercise in futility, idiocy, absurdity.

Cue end of rant.

Why cite the Roethlisberger time? Many, including Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke, have readily compared Kizer to Roethlisberger this spring.

The most notable line of that scouting report (scroll down to No. 32) may be its final one, echoing Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s sentiments from earlier this week.

“The mystery is whether he can regain his assertiveness,” Burke writes. “If so, he could turn out to be the 2017 class’s best QB. The team that drafts him will be taking a leap of faith.”

A leap. Not a dash.

For more Notre Dame Pro Day results, click here.

And with that, this just may make the 4 p.m. posting. You know what to do.

 

Tranquill continues work with safeties … for now

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Drue Tranquill will see time at the oft-spoken of rover position, just not yet. For now, Notre Dame needs the senior at safety to provide leadership and communication while the rest of his position group gets up to speed.

“We really have to figure out what the coordination is going to be at the safety position,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “How much does Drue play down at rover? How much does he play back [at safety]?”

Only sophomore Devin Studstill returns any starts to the safety position aside from Tranquill’s career total of 18. Studstill started nine games last season.

That void has kept Tranquill working mostly with the defensive backs in the spring’s first few practices, rather than joining the likes of junior Asmar Bilal in the rover grouping.

“We didn’t want to pull our most veteran player out of the back end of our defense with Drue,” Kelly said. “I think it was more about the hesitancy of losing a great communicator in the back end than about the teaching.”

The time will come, however, for Tranquill to move up. Juniors Nick Coleman and Ashton White have moved to safety from the corner position. With more reps, they will not need to rely on Tranquill’s guidance as much. The same goes for, at least in theory, sophomore Jalen Elliott.

“It’s not really a heavy load of teaching for those guys,” Kelly said. “They’re picking it up quite well. We really want to get a chance to see a lot of guys back there.”

Kelly seemed particularly bullish on Coleman’s prospects at the position, provided he embrace the needed physicality. At 6-foot, 187 pounds, Coleman’s build may have been more suited on the outside, but Notre Dame’s plethora of promising cornerbacks provided an impetus to test Coleman at safety.

“The big thing will be Nick’s continuous development in tackling,” Kelly said. “You have to tackle back there. His ball skills are really good. We’ve seen that he’s able to play the ball. He has athleticism.

“We just want to continue to build on his tackling skills. If we go through the spring and say, ‘Well, he’s tackling really well,’ we’ll feel pretty good about the move.”

At that point, Tranquill will likely join Bilal at the hybrid position, which is something of a trademark to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Tranquill will be able to do what he does best: Pursue the ball.

“We all know what his strengths are,” Kelly said. “He’s a solid tackler. I don’t think there’s any safety in college football that wants to get matched up one-on-one with a skilled slot receiver. This would minimize that, when you play him close to the ball as a rover.

“And I think he’s pretty quick off the edge. I think we put him in a really good position in maximizing his skill set.”

Until then, Bilal will continue to be the frontrunner at rover, especially with the first four Irish opponents of 2017 presenting run-heavy offenses.

KELLY ON NICK WATKINS
Kelly was also asked about senior cornerback Nick Watkins, his fit into Elko’s defense and his return from injury.

“He’s very coachable, wants to learn, he’s pretty long,” Kelly said. “What I think Mike [Elko] does really well—and this is what I liked about my interactions with him—is, we all have strengths and weaknesses. He has a great eye of saying let’s take Nick’s strengths and let’s put him in a position where we can really utilize his strengths and put him in a position where maybe we’re not a right and left corner team, maybe we’re a short field/wide field team. Let’s apply him in that fashion.

“Nick’s long. He’s a little bit of a physical player. Let’s go to those strengths. He’s shown some of those attributes early on.”

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Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover position, others likely to follow
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Kraemer, Eichenberg compete for RT spot, moving Bars inside, and Bivin to…

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Forty percent of the offensive line is essentially set in stone: fifth-year senior Mike McGlinchey at left tackle and senior Quenton Nelson at right guard.

The center position seems to be senior Sam Mustipher’s to lose.

That leaves the two starting spots on the right side of the line for a number of players—both young and experienced—to fight over.

Sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg have emerged as the frontrunners for the right tackle spot, moving senior Alex Bars inside to right guard. Bars started all 12 games last season at right tackle.

“Those two [Kraemer and Eichenberg] are the guys we have mapped out at right tackle, and they’re going to battle,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “Today Kraemer was there. Last two practices Eichenberg got a lot of the work. Eichenberg will go back there on Friday. They’re going to keep battling and splitting the action out there.”

Part of the reasoning in giving the two sophomores extended looks this spring is Notre Dame knows what it has in Bars when at right tackle.

“We would prefer to get him in at the guard position, but we know he can play the [tackle] position,” Kelly said.

A starting five of McGlinchey, the three seniors and either sophomore may seem to leave fifth-year lineman Hunter Bivin out in the cold. Not often is a player asked to return for a fifth year only to spend it on the bench. That is even more rare when considering the current Irish scholarship crunch.

Kelly compared Bivin’s role to that of Mark Harrell’s last year. Harrell appeared in all 12 games, starting two, and provided much needed depth and flexibility along the offensive line. Rather than have five backup offensive linemen, position coach Harry Hiestand relied on Harrell to provide support at multiple spots.

“It’s reasonable to assume that Hunter Bivin’s going to be involved in this as well,” Kelly said. “We’ve just asked Hunter to take a seat right now. He’s done that for the team.

“We think Hunter is going to be a Mark Harrell for us. A guy that’s extremely valuable, can play a number of positions. We trust him, but we want to see these two young players [Kraemer and Eichenberg]. Hunter is a guy that can play right or left tackle for us. He’s going to be a valuable player for us as a swing guy.”

On that note, this space will refer to Bivin as a fifth-year lineman, as was done above, rather than as a guard or as a tackle, until further notice. In his case, the broader description may be the most accurate.

Spring break out west is fine, but Wimbush better be ready to run

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It will undoubtedly become a habit, at least for the next five-plus months. If Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush sneezes in front of a camera, it just might lead to an uptick in webmd.com traffic. His every football move will certainly be analyzed, nitpicked and discussed at length. Thus, Irish coach Brian Kelly being asked about Wimbush’s spring break should surprise no one.

Rather than find a Florida beach, Wimbush spent his spring break working with private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield in San Diego alongside a handful of other college passers. Kelly said there is value to such a spring break but stopped short of setting any lofty expectations of the effects.

“I have no problem with [Wimbush] working out with George Whitfield,” Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice, the first following spring break and the third of 14 leading into the Blue-Gold Game on April 22. “George doesn’t work on the specifics to the offense. George is really working on the quarterback and throwing the football, moving in the pocket. George is really good at keeping those quarterbacks active and moving.”

Whitfield is best-known around Notre Dame and among Irish fans for working with former Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson during Golson’s academic suspension in 2013. Whitfield and Golson spent 10 weeks together, thus granting time for extensive off-field activities such as film study. Far shorter, Wimbush’s time out west appears to have been spent primarily doing drills.

“In those situations, it’s a bullpen session,” Kelly said. “They’re keeping their arms loose, they’re keeping their feet loose. He’s just keeping them active.”

It is hard to construe that activity as a negative, but it obviously lacks certain aspects crucial to Wimbush’s 2017 season. With only five career pass attempts and seven career rushes, Wimbush’s inexperience looms large. Developing the necessary intangibles to account for that may be just as, if not more, important as fitting his throws into tight windows.

“When it comes to the playbook, to his teammates, to his coaches here, Brandon understands that when the rubber hits the road, those are the guys that matter the most,” Kelly said. “He knows when it’s time for Notre Dame football, where the focus is.”

Included in that playbook will be an expectation for Wimbush to carry the ball. To date, Wimbush’s biggest play and possibly only imprint on most Notre Dame fans’ memories is a 58-yard touchdown scamper against Massachusetts in 2015.

Link to 17-second YouTube video which has unfortunately disabled embedding

Note, the play is not exclusively-designed for Wimbush to run. Now a rising junior, then a fellow freshman, running back Josh Adams comes across Wimbush’s front for a possible handoff. Instead, Wimbush makes the correct read and keeps the ball. Why state so clearly it was the proper read? Adams has to evade a Texas defender even though he never had the ball.

Future option plays should present Wimbush with the possibility of throwing the ball, too.

“He’ll be a runner in the offense,” Kelly said. “Do we want him to carry the ball 20 times? No.”

“I don’t think you’ll have a situation where we’re calling quarterback power or singular runs. He’s going to have options: hand it off, throw the ball out on the perimeter. You’ll see more of that than you will prescribed quarterback runs. We had a little bit more of that last year with Kizer, but I think you’ll see that he has an option to get the ball out of his hands more so than just prescribed runs.”

Those option plays, in particular, will require Wimbush to have a thorough familiarity both with the Notre Dame playbook and with his teammates’ tendencies.

RITA LEE OR 52-53?
Staying consistent with his comments over the last two months, Kelly once again reiterated the biggest changes new offensive coordinator Chip Long will bring to the Irish playbook will be in its wording. Perhaps going to an extreme example to illustrate his thinking, Kelly pointed to the future.

“We’re going to win next year and Chip is going to be the greatest offensive coordinator in the country and he’s going to get a head job, right?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “Then I’m not going to introduce the Chip Long offense to the next offensive coordinator.”

“It has to have my culture in it … The culture of the offense is still the base offense that I have always run because I have to be able to carry that with me from year to year.”

Within that ellipsis, Kelly gave two examples of possible verbiage changes. Without knowing much more behind them, they do not mean too much out here in the cobwebs of the internet, but they do provide a quick glimpse at what Kelly has been referring to when discussing lexicon since hiring Long.

“If he wants to change Ringo Lucky protection to Ram and Lion protection, go right ahead. If he wants to change certain calls, for example, 52-53 protection is now Rita Lee.”

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