The good, the bad and the ugly: Notre Dame vs. BYU

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For the fourth straight season, Notre Dame sent its seniors out with a victory, a wonderful change from the Charlie Weis era where the Irish lost their two final home games in devastatingly painful fashion.

But on Saturday, the Irish put together a complete victory, a late-season win that felt like a great pitcher grinding his way through an October baseball game. Very rarely did it look pretty, but while the Irish didn’t have their best “stuff,” they got out of Saturday with a crucial eighth victory.

It may have taken a few weeks longer than they wanted, but hitting the eight-win threshold shouldn’t be taken for granted. That’s four seasons in a row where Notre Dame has won eight games, a feat not accomplished in South Bend in 20 years.

Before we turn our focus to Stanford, let’s take a quick stroll through the good, the bad and the ugly from the Irish’s 23-13 victory over BYU.

THE GOOD

The running game. Just what the doctor ordered. As we mentioned all week, the Irish knew they needed to run the ball and they did exactly that, putting together a great performance by both the front five and the three Irish ball carriers.

It was a positive day on the ground for Cam McDaniel, Tarean Folston and George Atkinson, with all three running hard and picking up positive yardage. McDaniel did the heavy lifting down the stretch, doing his best to be a wrecking ball between the tackles to help seal the game.

McDaniel’s 24 carries were a career high. Folston got 13 carries, breaking a 43-yarder and scoring a touchdown. Atkinson averaged seven yards a carry on his six touches, and more importantly didn’t have a negative play.

DaVaris Daniels. The junior wide receiver started the scoring off with a big catch over the top of BYU’s defense. His 107 receiving yards were the first time he went over the century mark since his big day against Purdue, and also the first time he’s caught more than five passes since mid-September.

While there were still some inconsistencies by Daniels, Kelly talked about the evolution of Daniels as a wide receiver, and his ability to fight through the grind of a season.

“I think he’s a young man that — I think the wide receiver has that tendency to get those soft tissue injuries that I think they have to acclimate themselves to not being 100 percent,” Kelly said. “Maybe it’s not a great analogy, but they’re thoroughbreds in the sense that they want to run and they want to feel great all the time, and quite frankly sometimes they’ve got to get by at 80 or 85.  And TJ has been able to do such a great job of understanding that, and I think TJ was very similar to Double‑D early in his career where he’d get banged up a little bit and it would affect his psyche and the way he played.

“I think Double‑D is getting through that now and understands that he’s not going to be necessarily 100 percent all the time, and he’s got to play through those things. I think we’re at that point now with the week off, he felt really good, obviously physically, as well. But I think that’s what we’re seeing with him, the grind of a long year. He’s not going to be 100 percent and he’s got to fight through those things.”

If we credit Daniels for anything, it’s for being up on his pop culture. After scoring his long touchdown, Daniels pulled his celebration right out of the new Hunger Games movie.

TJ Jones. No, he didn’t score a touchdown. No, he didn’t go for 100 yards. But Jones played big in his final game at Notre Dame Stadium, playing through the emotion of a very bittersweet Saturday for Jones and his family.

“I told myself, ‘Don’t cry,'” Jones said after the game. “I knew it was going to be emotional. I knew my mom was going to tear up and any time she does, it makes me tearup too, so I tried to hold it back and not get too emotional before the game.” 

Jones was able to catch five balls for 95 yards, another good day at the office, especially in the weather conditions. It would’ve been great to see him go into the record books along side Golden Tate and Jeff Samardzija, but the win probably felt mighty good.

Matt Hegarty. A really impressive game for the junior reserve center, thrown into the fire after Nick Martin’s knee injury late in the first quarter. Hegarty had to go head-up with two massive nose guards, acquitting himself quite well.

“I thought he did a pretty good job,” Kelly said of Hegarty’s play. “Certainly going in there first time, you know, against a 320‑pound guy on his nose, he did not go against a four‑down where he was uncovered. He had somebody on his nose virtually the entire three quarters that he was in there, snapped the ball without any mistakes.”

Kyle Brindza. Notre Dame’s kicker showed just how clutch he is with a key game-clinching 51-yard field goal in the fourth quarter. With the temperature likely in the teens, even if the kick was wind aided, Brindza stepped up and drilled a beauty in a pressure packed situation.

That’s now 11 of 12 in the fourth quarter for Brindza on his career, who also showed some street-cred going sleeveless out there. After the game, Brindza talked about not wanting to let down the seniors by missing a key kick, and actually lobbied Kelly to take the kick.

“They said to punt and I said, ‘What are you guys talking about? This is my field goal range,'” Brindza said. “They asked me if I was sure and I said, ‘Yeah.’ He has confidence in me and I have confidence in myself, so I’m always in his ear, but he doesn’t mind.”

Dan Fox. What a great way to go out for the senior from Ohio. Fox had nine tackles, including two TFLs, one being a sack of Taysom Hill. Both Fox and Carlo Calabrese had great afternoons, with Calabrese chipping in seven tackles as well.

Jarron Jones, Sheldon Day and Stephon Tuitt. We already hit on Jones and Tuitt last night, but it is worth mentioning again. Another sneaky-good performance by Sheldon Day, who has come back from his ankle injury with a vengeance.

The home crowd. It was an uneasy Saturday around campus before the game, with nobody really sure of what would happen. But the crowd was energized from start to finish, and celebrated the senior class with a ton of respect.

The student section’s late-game chant of “Tommy, Tommy!” was a really impressive display that clearly meant a lot to Rees in the postgame press conference.

THE BAD

Nick Martin’s knee injury. What a tough break for the junior center, who looked to have potentially avoided a serious injury when he walked off the field under his own power, but will now miss the rest of the season with knee surgery.

“Nick has a significant knee injury,” Kelly said on Sunday. “He’ll be out for this game, and he will not be able to play in the bowl game. We’re still getting a little bit more information.  We had an MRI. I’ll probably have a little bit more specific details, but he’s out for the season.”

It had to be a difficult moment for Zack Martin, seeing his brother down with an injury, ending their playing time together.

Tommy Rees’ fourth quarter interception. Rees threw the ball to Troy Niklas a little late, and BYU safety Craig Bills made an impressive one-handed interception. It’s the wrong time to start a late-game interception trend, and Rees will need to clean that up before Stanford on Saturday evening.

A bit of good news: The weather forecast for Palo Alto on Saturday is high-50s with a zero percent chance of precipitation and only light wind. Much better conditions than Rees has faced the past two games.

Safety Play. Austin Collinsworth got beat badly on a slant route near the goal line, something you just can’t give up. (He also fielded a blocked field goal, a no-no, but understandable considering the ball went straight into his arms.)

Matthias Farley continued his shoddy tackling, letting fullback Paul Lasike run through him for a huge 46-yard gain. Farley might have actually helped Lasike stay on his feet, with the former rugby player regaining his footing after coming into contact with Farley.

Eilar Hardy got the start and made eight tackles. Max Redfield chipped in three of his own, too. Change is a brewing at the position, but it’s also very possible that both Collinsworth and Farley are playing through a few injuries that’ll need an offseason to fix.

THE UGLY

This stays empty after a hard-fought victory.

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

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Rover

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Before spring practice, the rover position was lumped in with the linebackers in positional previews. Nearly two months later, that seems to have been the right placement—the rover will likely spend most of its time at the defense’s second level.

But since curiosity about the rover and its unknown place in Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme ran rampant—especially when compared to the rather solid understanding of the 2017 Irish linebackers—let’s take a look specifically at the rover.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:

“Who will start at [Elko’s] rover position,” this space asked. “What will his role entail?”

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

Senior safety Drue Tranquill was expected to see the most time at rover, perhaps with cameos from junior linebacker Asmar Bilal and sophomore safeties D.J. Morgan and Spencer Perry (since transferred).

More than anything, though, learning how Elko intended to deploy his defensive utility knife would answer the most questions about his defense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:

Tranquill will indeed lead the position, but not without much effort from Bilal.

“We’ve tried quite a few bodies out there,” Elko said Friday. “I think as spring has gone on, we’ve gotten a feel of what each of them can do, what parts of the package we can run with each of them. I think we’ve got a pretty good pulse now on how we want that thing to play out, who will be there doing what.”

Elko is excessively reluctant to discuss individual players, so asking him to expound on who will be at rover in particular situations was largely a fruitless exercise. Earlier this spring, Irish head coach Brian Kelly indicated Bilal would be featured against run-heavy offenses. That may well prove to be the case, but it is far more likely Tranquill sees the majority of the repetitions at the position.

RELATED READING: Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover positon, others likely to follow

“It’s been a good fit all spring [for Tranquill],” Kelly said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “He’s a plus player there for us. He really can impact what’s happening from snap to snap. He’s a physical player and playing low to the ball is really where he can do a lot of really good things for us.”

For his part, Tranquill enjoys the position and the unique number of duties innate to it. In theory, the rover aligns mostly with the linebackers but can be relied on to provide coverage when necessary. At other times, the rover will be asked to rush the passer. That flexibility allows Elko to keep the offense guessing.

“I love the rover position,” Tranquill said. “It’s a versatile position that allows you to come off the edge, allows you to play the run, play the pass, and do a lot of different things.”

Sometimes it allows you to pretend like you’re coming off the edge and then actually embarrass a potential first-round draft pick.

In senior left guard Quenton Nelson’s defense, Tranquill did add Nelson probably won more of their battles in spring practices than the defender did.

WHERE NOTRE DAME COULD BE:

Elko indicated there could be a third primary option in his tool kit. Notre Dame has a plethora of talented cornerbacks. Last week, Kelly indicated he might ask one of them to chip in at safety in obvious passing situations. Similarly, Elko predicted junior Shaun Crawford could play at rover against particular passing attacks, a la Bilal against certain rushing offenses.

“A lot of this is dictated by who that guy is lined up and what we’re trying to do,” Elko said. “We’re going to see a lot of really talented slot receivers. We’re going to have to match up and cover them well. There’s other names other than the big linebacker/safety bodies to put at that position. [Junior safety] Nick Coleman has done that some this spring. [Junior safety] Ashton White has done that some this spring. When Shaun gets healthy, I think he’ll do that some. That is all encompassing in that position.”

The 5-foot-9, 175-pound Crawford has since announced his return to full health, which should allow him plenty of time to readjust to contact before the start of fall practice.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line