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.

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
2 Days Until Spring Practice: A look at the defensive backfield

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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