Tyler Gaffney, Hayes Pullard

And in that corner… The Stanford Cardinal

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The regular season finale takes Notre Dame to Northern California on Saturday, where they’ll face No. 8 Stanford, a program that’s spent the past four seasons in rarified air. With the opportunity to win ten games for the fourth straight season, David Shaw’s Cardinal already have their ticket booked for the Pac-12 Championship game. But to finish off their season, they’ll look to settle a score from last year’s 20-13 overtime loss.

The storylines for the game are endless. Two excellent universities, among the elite football playing institutions in the country, with plenty in common. Players, coaches and administrators, the connectivity between both schools exists on all levels.

To get us up to speed on Saturday’s game is the San Jose Mercury News’ Jon Wilner. Jon has covered college football and basketball for almost 20 years and has had a front row seat watching the revival of the Stanford football program.

On a busy holiday week I threw Jon some questions and he sent back some really interesting answers.

Enjoy.

It’s another impressive season for Stanford, back in control of their Rose Bowl destiny thanks to Arizona’s upset of Oregon. But at this point, are people starting to wonder about the Cardinal’s losses? The loss to Utah stands out as baffling, and the loss to Washington last year looks worse in retrospect. Is this kind of criticism merely a product of continued success?

People are wondering about the loss to Utah, for sure. At the time, it didn’t seem so bad: Utah was 4-2 and outplayed the Cardinal that day. Since then, the Utes have collapsed (largely because of injuries and erratic QB play). I’m not sure the Washington loss has anything to do with anything, frankly. That was 14 months ago and Stanford has a different quarterback – it was a close road loss to a team that finished 7-6.

The bottom line is that Stanford’s approach lends itself to close games. The Cardinal play it old school: ball control, power running, huddles, and stout defense. Down-to-the-wire games are, with a few exceptions, a weekly event, and the Cardinal wins far more than it loses.

Staying on that theme, we’re now three years into the David Shaw era. He obviously inherited a great program (and quarterback) from Jim Harbaugh, but is it too early to include Shaw among the elite head coaches at the college level? Have you seen any weaknesses in his three seasons as the Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football?

Based on what we’ve seen thus far, I think you have to include him among the elite coaches, although that depends in part on how you define elite. He hasn’t won at multiple schools like a Saban or Meyer, which doesn’t mean he couldn’t. But based on what he has done with what he has where he is, he’s obviously pretty darn good. The list of back-to-back coach of the year winners in the Pac-12 is short, and he’s on it.

As for weakness, I haven’t seen any. Stanford fans occasionally get frustrated with the conservative approach, but that’s how Stanford is built and – bottom line – that’s how it must be built in order to succeed at the highest level. If Stanford tried to be like Oregon or Baylor, you can forget about conference titles and BCS berths.

Another year, another impressive defensive performance. Trent Murphy is having a monster season. Shane Skov as well. How good is this unit top to bottom? Are there any weaknesses?

It’s one of the top five or 10 defenses in the country. If there are any weaknesses, it’s probably speed at linebacker. But that’s splitting hairs. The Cardinal is a slab of granite against the run, relentless in its pass rushing and very good on the back line. In fact, the secondary has been the most improved unit over the past two or three years – it’s much more athletic, much better in man-to-man coverage and much better at tackling in the open field, as we’ve seen the last two years against Oregon

Irish fans are envious of Kevin Hogan, a guy with a ton of family connections to Notre Dame, but a QB the Irish staff slow played in recruiting. He pilots an offense with some dangerous weapons, namely Tyler Gaffney and Ty Montgomery, who should be a special teams weapon as well. Stanford can beat you in a number of ways. But who is Enemy No. 1 for the Notre Dame defense on Saturday?

Tommy Rees. The last thing a Louis Nix-less Notre Dame defense needs against Stanford’s power game is to have to defend short fields. That means Rees and the rest of the offense must protect the ball. Three-and-outs aren’t going to lose the game. Turnovers on the wrong half of the 50 will lose the game.

In addition to Montgomery and Gaffney, the Irish should be concerned with quarterback Kevin Hogan’s mobility, especially on third down. He has a knack for keeping drives alive.

How important is the Notre Dame-Stanford rivalry to the Cardinal? It’s been a priority for ND athletic director Jack Swarbrick. Stanford AD Bernard Muir spent six years at Notre Dame. As both these football programs stay among the elite, is this a game that grows in importance for Stanford and its fans?

It’s important for Stanford, although perhaps not to the degree that the Cal and USC games are important from an emotional standpoint and the Oregon game is important from a division title standpoint. It’s a good game for Notre Dame because of the west coast exposure, and there are tons of connections for Stanford above and beyond Hogan’s ties. (Cornerback Alex Carter’s dad, Tom, played for the Irish.) The schools compete against each other for recruits, especially those in the Midwest.

Last year’s game ended in dramatic (and controversial) fashion. How do you see things playing out this Saturday?

Stanford is better. If the Cardinal loses focus – if it’s looking ahead to the Pac-12 title game, for instance – then I think it could go down to the wire. But if Stanford is fully locked in, it should win by 10 or 14 points. Of course, one or two mistakes could change that. If Nix were playing, I might feel differently. But I expect Stanford’s defense to stop the Irish more often than the Irish defense stops Stanford.

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Check out more of Jon’s work at the Mercury News and give him a follow on Twitter @WilnerHotline

Spring positions to watch for revelations: DL & WR

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 05: Jerry Tillery #99 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish tackles Jerrod Heard #13 of the Texas Longhorns for a loss of yards during the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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If quarterback, rover and the early enrollees could be Notre Dame fans’ springtime Christmas thrills, what positions present as potential spots of coal?

Three former Irish players were invited to next week’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis: quarterback DeShone Kizer, defensive tackle Jarron Jones and defensive end Isaac Rochell. Losing two consistent defensive linemen leaves this year’s unit with some questions. Jones and Rochell combined for 100 tackles, 18 for loss and three sacks last season. Notre Dame’s returning defensive linemen combined to total 111 tackles and only 5.5 tackles for loss. To be clear, sacks are not included in that latter list because no returning defensive linemen recorded one. Among the returnees, junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37 tackles, three for loss) and senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26, 0.5) contributed solidly alongside the two NFL prospects.

This dearth of known and reliable linemen is a large part of why the potential transfer of Clemson graduate defensive tackle Scott Pagano is so intriguing. Pagano would immediately be a favorite to start, and if not that, at least rotate in heavily.

For now, though, Pagano remains a theoretical

By the end of spring practice, who already on campus will emerge alongside Tillery and Trumbetti in the Irish front? Senior ends Jay Hayes (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) and Jonathon Bonner (nine tackles) seem the most-likely candidates … aside from former four-star recruit and now rising sophomore Daelin Hayes. In his debut season, D. Hayes finished with 11 tackles.

Look for senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) to establish himself as Tillery’s immediate backup this spring, but that spot in the rotation will be up for competition all over again once four-star tackle Darnell Ewell (Lake Taylor High School; Norfolk, Va.) arrives on campus in the fall. His size and quickness should play right into new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s system.

Equanimeous and Who?
Not only did Notre Dame bring in a graduate transfer at receiver in former Michigan wideout Freddy Canteen, but it has also already received the commitments of two four-star receivers in the 2018 recruiting class. The continued emphasis on the position reflects the lack of bona fide game-breakers currently on the roster.

Junior Equanimeous St. Brown established himself as the top Irish threat in 2016, and he should shine only further with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush targeting him. Classmates often amplify each other’s success, simply due to the added shared reps innate to joining practice at the same time. With Torii Hunter, Jr., now pursuing a professional baseball career, who will prevent the secondary from focusing all its energies on St. Brown?

Canteen will not be with Notre Dame in the spring, as he does not graduate from Michigan until April. That will give a clear shot for the likes of juniors Chris Finke, C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin, and sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool to establish themselves. Did that say “clear” shot? It should probably read, “a chance to separate from the crowd.”

If a genuine threat does not line up opposite St. Brown, his explosiveness will likely be greatly reduced by focused defensive scheming. Wimbush will need another target before 2018.

Of course, here is where one should acknowledge the millennia-tested fact: Coal under pressure becomes diamonds.

2016 Notre Dame’s win expectancy was 7.2
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Johnson named the Irish as his team most likely to dramatically improve its record in 2017. Johnson’s thinking is based, at least in part, on Notre Dame’s second-order win total having been 7.2 in 2016, compared to the four wins the Irish actually walked away with. That discrepancy was the largest in the country.

Second-order win totals reflect how many points a team should have scored and allowed based on offensive and defensive stats. In theory, this shines a light on how luck and chance factored into results. Naturally, losing seven games by one possession will often be reflected by a higher second-order win total.

“Notre Dame’s win-loss record belied a solid, if imperfect, squad that just couldn’t pull out close games…” Johnson writes. “The Irish may not get back into College Football Playoff contention in 2017, but they’re bound to post a few more Ws because of reversion to the mean.”

Admittedly, the small sample size of a football season reduces the applicability of metrics such as second- and third-order wins when compared to baseball and basketball.

Jones becomes Mack
A quick piece of housekeeping: Apparently junior tight end Alizé Jones has changed his name to Alizé Mack.

While Notre Dame’s roster may not reflect that change yet, it is reasonable to expect it will after its next update. The football program has consistently respected the intricacies of players’ name preferences. Tai-ler Jones becoming TJ Jones jumps to mind, for example.

Anyways, hopefully noting Mack’s name change here might reduce some confusion down the line. Probably not. How many readers possibly read to the actual bottom of an article? But hey, in good faith.

WR Lenzy makes 11th commitment, brings speed to Irish

lenzy
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At what point does an impressive recruiting roll become something more? When does it become a harbinger of things to come, even if not for a few seasons? How many notable commitments in a row establishes a class as special?

If the answer to any of the above is 11 commitments by the end of February, including five within two weeks, then Notre Dame is there following consensus four-star athlete Braden Lenzy’s announcement Thursday evening.

The Tigard High School (Portland, Ore) receiver/cornerback chose the Irish over offers from USC, Oregon and Michigan State, among a litany of others. In all, nine Pac-12 schools chased Lenzy—and a 10th, Washington, had shown interest—per rivals.com.

Lenzy will fit the leading 2018 need voiced by Irish coach Brian Kelly three weeks ago on National Signing Day 2017.

“Elite speed on offense will be a primary goal for us,” Kelly said Feb. 1. “Guys that can change the game on one possession. I think we’ll see that… We want a couple of home run hitters. We don’t care if they’re Darren Sproles’s size. We’re going to come off the board in terms of profile. We want some guys that can change the game on offense with elite speed.”

At 6-foot, 175 pounds, Lenzy is taller than Sproles’s 5-foot-6, but it is still his speed that drew Notre Dame’s interest.

“They made it clear they want me to do kickoff return and use me as a deep threat across the field,” he told Irish Illustrated. “Just being kind of an athlete, similar to what I’ve been doing already in high school, just on a bigger scale with a quarterback that can throw it a lot farther.”

Presuming Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush is that arm in 2018, throwing great distances should not be an issue. Between Lenzy and fellow 2018 commit Micah Jones, covering those distances should be a reasonable request, as well.

Lenzy brings Notre Dame’s class of 2018 to 11, including eight four-stars according to Rivals’ rating system. Current scholarship projections indicate the class will not be a large one, meaning the Irish coaching staff has already garnered the commitments of more than half the class. Once again, though, Kelly’s sentiment regarding recruiting timing should be remembered.

“We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

SWARBRICK’S TAKE ON RECRUITING
Kelly credited Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick with much assistance in securing the country’s No. 13 recruiting class in 2017. A refresher on those comments:

“In a lot of instances, [Swarbrick] had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it’s going,” Kelly said. “There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future.”

Swarbrick did not dispute the factual nature of any of that in an interview with the Indianapolis Star, but he did contest the need for praising what he saw as part of his job, one of the preferred parts of his job, at that.

“I can’t say anything about this year felt all that different,” Swarbrick told Star reporter Laken Litman. “Some asked questions about the future of the program and can we compete for a national championship. And I would talk about the elements of the program we were focused on improving.”

Swarbrick and Litman discussed a number of items in the second-half of the interview released by the Star, including Notre Dame’s facilities, a possible early signing period in football and if the Oct. 8, 2016, game against North Carolina State should have been played. Spoiler: No. Then why was it? Go check it out.

Swarbrick also told Litman he likes to write in his free time.

“I tend to think strategically with a pen in my hand.” Swarbrick added he is currently scribbling away on where he thinks college athletics are headed.

This scribe, for one, would be most interested in skimming those legal pads.

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…)