Tarean Folston

Pregame Six Pack: Send off at Stanford

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The regular season comes to a close on Saturday, with No. 25 Notre Dame visiting No. 8 Stanford. The Irish will have a chance to beat four ranked opponents on the season, though pulling off a victory in Palo Alto will be the biggest win on a season that certainly had its ups and downs.

While we may hear plenty of talk about revenge for Stanford after last season’s 20-13 overtime defeat, Cardinal head coach David Shaw talked about the missed opportunities more than any controversies.

“In the end, the opportunities that were there for us to make, we didn’t make, the opportunities for Notre Dame to make, they made,” Shaw said. “And besides that last play of the game, that was the real difference in the game.”

Of course, it wasn’t a perfect game for the Irish, either. Everett Golson turned the ball over three times on fumbles (matching this season’s total), with one turning into Stanford’s only touchdown. But after Golson went out of the game after a nasty helmet-to-helmet hit, Tommy Rees rallied the Irish, completing all four passing attempts, including the game winner in overtime.

There will be no margin for error for the Irish this weekend, with two starters missing from the offensive line and Louis Nix watching from the sideline. But that’s why they play the game.

Let’s get to this weekend’s pregame six pack. As usual, here are six tidbits, fun facts, leftovers or miscellaneous musings before Saturday evening’s Notre Dame-Stanford game.

***

Never considered a tough place to play, heading to The Farm is no walk in the park anymore. 

If the Irish are going to knock off Stanford, they’ll be doing it in one of the toughest places to win in college football. The Cardinal have lost twice this season, but not on their home turf, with Stanford’s 15-game home winning streak the second longest in college football, one game behind South Carolina.

Since the Irish beat the Cardinal in Stanford Stadium as two mediocre three-win teams battled in 2007, Stanford has won 36 of 39 home games since then. Those wins aren’t just coming against cupcakes either.

Stanford is 12-1 at home against ranked opponents, including 4-1 against teams in the top ten. Their last home loss to a ranked team came against No. 6 Oregon in 2011.

***

After pitching a shutout against some pretty impressive competition, fifth-year left tackle Zack Martin has one more tough assignment this weekend. 

When Martin takes the field against Stanford, he’ll become the all-time leader for most career starts at Notre Dame, a record that won’t likely be beat any time soon. But for as impressive as Martin’s iron man streak is, his play this season has been just as good.

In this week’s game notes, the Notre Dame sports information department points out some of the very impressive talent the Irish have faced this year. Kyle Van Noy (BYU), Aaron Donald (Pitt), Shilique Calhoun (MSU), Leonard Williams (USC) and Frank Clark (Michigan) have combined for 77 TFLs and 31 sacks this season. Matched up against Martin, they’ve had just three TFLs and zero sacks.

Saturday, Stanford outside linebacker Trent Murphy brings another sizable challenge to the table, the nation’s leading quarterback sacker with 13. Last year, Murphy was dominant. While he might not be matched up with Martin all game, keeping Murphy in check with be key for the Irish.

Just how tough is Murphy? Well, he might just come from a long line of giants. His 52-year-old dad can still rep 225 pounds 25 times on the bench press. He wrestled a 400-pound steer calf for fun in high school. The fifth-year veterans will be ones to watch on Saturday.

***

One season after giving up the sport for professional baseball, the Irish will have to slow down running back Tyler Gaffney. 

Stuck behind Stephan Taylor for the past few seasons, Tyler Gaffney started for three seasons as an outfield for Stanford’s nationally-ranked baseball program. Drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 24th round, Gaffney said goodbye to his senior season of football, leaving the program for the minor leagues, where he put together an impressive 2012 season, hitting .297, with a .483 OBP in low-A State College.

But Gaffney came back to the football program, taking an unique redshirt season before putting his baseball career on hold as he returned in the spring to compete for the starting running back job.

“I weighed out my options down to the smallest details,” Gaffney told SI.com. “Getting your degree, being part of this team, being able to play football, is outweighing staying on the baseball team. It pretty much opens up three options rather than just one.”

Those options have only gotten more impressive, as Gaffney has been dominant this season, running for 1,296 yards and 16 touchdowns while going over 100 yards seven times this season, including a Herculean effort against Oregon, where he carried the ball 45 times.

Matched up against a really thin Irish defensive front, Gaffney will likely be the weapon of choice for David Shaw, and it’ll be up to the Irish front seven to limit the Doak Walker Award semifinalist.

***

After saying goodbye to some elite tight end talent, the Irish duo of Troy Niklas and Ben Koyack have turned in impressive seasons. 

For two programs that have produced a ton of good tight end talent lately, that Troy Niklas and Ben Koyack have turned into the most productive duo in college football certainly is a positive development this season for Notre Dame. 

After wondering how Notre Dame was going to replace All-American and Mackey Award winner Tyler Eifert, the Irish have shown exactly how. Take a look at the numbers over the past two seasons through 11 games:

Tyler Eifert: 40 catches for 555 yards (13.9 avg.) and 4 TDs
Troy Niklas/Ben Koyack
: 35 catches for 556 yards (15.9 avg.) and 8 TDs

Not since 1958, when Monty Stickles, Gary Meyers, Dick Royer and Bob Wetoska caught 10 touchdowns have the Irish tight ends scored more touchdowns than this season. With Niklas, Koyack and potentially Alex Welch returning next season, there’s plenty to look forward to at the position.

***

With another season finale in California, Notre Dame’s commitment to the West coast is critical. 

With scheduling dynamics forever changed because of Notre Dame’s commitment to five ACC games moving forward, two sets of games the Irish aren’t interested in losing are the series with USC and Stanford.

The Irish have committed to finishing their season in California, alternating years between USC and Stanford, a nice Thanksgiving trip away from South Bend. But it’s also a great way to continue building a roster that depends on California talent. The Irish played three games against the Pac-12 this year, the most since 2009.

Eleven members of the Irish, including seven scholarship players, are California natives. And finishing the season on the West Coast allows the Irish coaching staff to recruit the state before heading back, giving Mike Denbrock a chance to drop in on prospects like Tyler Luatua.

With Stanford, USC and UCLA all playing good football, it’s tough mining a state that’s one of the most talent-rich in the country. But it’s a commitment the Irish staff have made and continue to cash in on, with 2015 quarterback Blake Barnett the latest.

***

Injuries on defense have forced the depth chart to improve. 

Entering the season finale, 17 different players have started a game for the Irish. While injuries have decimated the team, they’ve also forced a lot of different people to see action. Let’s take a look at the 24 different players on the Irish roster to make at least 10 tackles this season (with that number potentially growing on Saturday).

Carlo Calabrese – 76
Dan Fox – 75
Jaylon Smith – 56
Bennett Jackson – 56
KeiVarae Russell – 47
Stephon Tuitt – 42
Matthias Farley – 41
Jarrett Grace – 41
Prince Shembo – 40
Austin Collinsworth – 28
Sheldon Day 27
Louis Nix – 27
Eilar Hardy – 25
Elijah Shumate – 23
Kona Schwenke – 20
Ben Councell – 15
Cole Luke – 15
Joe Schmidt – 14
Kendall Moore – 14
Jarron Jones – 14
Ishaq Williams – 13
Romeo Okwara – 13
Isaac Rochell – 10
Max Redfield – 10

Notre Dame hasn’t reached that milestone in over 50 years, when 29 different tacklers made 10 stops or more in 1962. These numbers are a product of some serious damage done to the two-deep depth chart, with 11 different players that opened the year in the two-deep having missed at least two games. (Those numbers don’t count guys like Danny Spond, Tony Springmann or Chase Hounshell, either.)

A stat like this is a big reason the Irish might not pull out a victory on Saturday evening, especially if the Stanford ground game finds its rhythm. But this season’s bad luck could be helpful in the future, with next year’s defense building experience early.

Four-star WR Micah Jones chooses Irish; Rees may need to wait; Other late-week reading

jones
rivals.com
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A day may come when Notre Dame suffers a recruiting disappointment in the 2018 cycle, when a high school star spurns the Irish coaching staff for a foe, but it is not this day.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township High School; Gurnee, Ill.) committed to Notre Dame on Friday, joining a class of now 10 recruits, including four who committed just this week.

Jones chose the Irish over offers from the likes of Iowa, Michigan State and Ole Miss, among others.

He is the first receiver among the 10 commitments and the seventh considered a four-star prospect. At 6-foot-5, 196 pounds, Jones should present a large target for whomever the Notre Dame quarterback is in the fall of 2018, most likely then-senior Brandon Wimbush.

Tom, Tommy or Thomas; Assistant Coach or Graduate Assistant?
Thomas Rees may need to wait a season before officially being a coach at Notre Dame. The legislation to approve a 10th assistant coach was expected to be voted on, passed and effective in April. A newly-added amendment may push the effective date to following the 2017 season. The amendment will be voted on immediately before the legislation itself is.

The delay makes sense. Most coaching hirings and firings occur in December and January. In theory, creating a one-timing hiring frenzy following spring football could leave many programs in the lurch. In practice, however, this is not anticipated.

“The majority of the FBS guys that I’ve talked with currently believe that 10th coach is going to come from within their own organization,” Todd Berry told the Associated Press. Berry is the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association and former coach at Army and Louisiana-Monroe. “Quality control, graduate assistants, analysts, or they’re planning on hiring somebody that’s out of work.”

A majority is not a unanimity, though, and that carousel will innately work to the disadvantage of the Group of 5 schools.

As for Rees, a graduate assistant can still work extensively with players. The most-pertinent difference between a graduate assistant and an assistant coach is the former cannot recruit. Given Notre Dame’s recent success on the recruiting trail—and the early commitment of class of 2018 consensus four-star quarterback Phil Jurkovec (Pine-Richland H.S.; Gibsonia, Pa.)—Rees may not be an absolute necessity in that regard this cycle.

A Kizer Appraisal
Former NFL scout Greg Gabriel took a look at former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer this week, largely paying the draft prospect compliments.

In calling Kizer “the most talented quarterback in this draft class,” Gabriel set a high ceiling for Kizer’s spring. Part of Gabriel’s positive assessment comes from acknowledging Kizer’s responsibilities as the Irish signal-caller.

“The spread offense that Kizer played in at Notre Dame is more sophisticated than many of the spread offenses we see elsewhere at the collegiate level. The Notre Dame offense is a whole-field read scheme in which the quarterback has to go through a progression that encompasses both sides of the field. He also can change the play and/or protections at the line of scrimmage. Given all that, Kizer was asked to do more than many spread quarterbacks are asked to do.”

Gabriel also reflected on the dynamic differences for Kizer in 2015 and 2016 and what may have elicited some of his seeming stagnation.

“There was the unnecessary quarterback controversy at Notre Dame, and the offensive line wasn’t as experienced or as talented and the receivers were mostly first-year starters.”

As much as Gabriel raves about Kizer, he would be the first to tell you anything beyond individual player evaluation is a waste of air this early in the draft process. Mock drafts may be fun, but they are not much beyond that.

Take the fates of Tony Romo and Jimmy Garoppolo, for example. Few, if any, in the NFL expect them to dress for the Cowboys and Patriots, respectively, again. Where they end up could directly impact Kizer’s draft placement.

Jaylon Smith May Be Back to Form
Former Notre Dame and current Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith posted yet another encouraging video to Twitter. This one shows Smith really might be game-ready right now and, if not, almost certainly will be by the fall. Should there be any difficulty with the embedded video below, here is a link straight to it.

OL Mabry makes third commitment this week; WR Jones may follow Friday

mabry
rivals.com
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Two weeks ago, Irish coach Brian Kelly gave a non-answer of an answer to a question about a likely early signing period this coming December. Avoiding specifics, he indicated he thinks the effects of such a change will be seen on a case-by-case basis entirely dependent on the recruits.

“Some will, some won’t,” Kelly said. “…Each kid is going to have to react to it based upon also how their school is going to be dealing with it. Some will come off the board at the time.

“We’re expecting some to sign early, but I think our mindset is we’re going into it business as usual. We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

After this week, Notre Dame is going to have more year-long fights than anticipated. Consensus three-star offensive lineman recruit Cole Mabry (Brentwood High School; Brentwood, Tenn.) became the third prospect to offer a verbal commitment to the Irish coaching staff in less than 36 hours with his Wednesday decision. Mabry received the offer over the weekend, but waited a few days before making his decision public, lest emotions be dictating his thought process.

At 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds, Mabry will have time to add muscle to his frame, with four or five offensive tackles greeting him on the Notre Dame roster in the summer of 2018. That ability to mold his style and growth may have played a part in the Irish interest.

“They love my height and athleticism and how I play,” Mabry told rivals.com. “We got to break down film and go through things that they do that pair up with how I play now. They think I’ll be a great fit in their offense.”

Mabry is the ninth Notre Dame commitment in the class of 2018, though the first offensive lineman.

Judging by new Notre Dame director of football performance Matt Balis’s agenda for the Irish roster’s Valentine’s Day morning, Mabry will have much to look forward to in terms of strength and conditioning.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township H.S.; Gurnee, Ill.) is scheduled to announce his verbal commitment this Friday at 4 p.m. ET. Along with Notre Dame, Jones is considering Iowa, Michigan State, Nebraska, Ole Miss, Illinois and Northwestern. He would be the first receiver in Notre Dame’s 2018 class. Naturally, whomever Jones commits to, the recruiting fight will last until at least December, and perhaps all the way to February.

Notre Dame adds two top defensive back commits; Elliott officially a ‘Husker

allen
rivals.com
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It’s early. It’s really, really early. Not in the day, though this post is scheduled for an a.m. hour. No, it is early in the 2018 recruiting cycle. Any piece of news, each commitment, everything should be taken with two grains of salt.

Nonetheless, Notre Dame—and more specifically, new Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko and defensive backs coach Todd Lyght—enjoyed Tuesday’s recruiting news when two consensus four-star coverage men committed to the Irish.

Safety Derrik Allen (Lassiter High School; Marietta, Ga.) and cornerback Kalon Gervin (Cass Tech; Detroit, Mich.) joined a class of now eight commitments, six of which play on the defensive side of the ball.

Gervin, the No. 11 cornerback in the class according to rivals.com, waited mere days after attending Notre Dame’s Junior Day over the weekend. Irish coach Brian Kelly and staff’s failure to land a recruit at Gervin’s position in the 2017 haul actually helped reel in the recruit with offers from Florida, LSU, Michigan and dozens others.

“The opportunity to play right away, they didn’t sign a cornerback this last class,” Gervin told Blue & Gold Illustrated helped sway him. “Also, the education is second-to-none. It speaks for itself.”

Allen, pictured at top, has leaned toward Notre Dame for months. The No. 3 safety in the country per Rivals, he chose the Irish over the likes of Alabama, Clemson and Florida State.

Elliott officially to Nebraska

The two highly-touted defensive backs will not have the chance to learn under the tutelage of Bob Elliott. Nebraska officially announced the hiring of the former Notre Dame safeties (2012-13) and linebackers (2014) coach. Elliott spent the last two seasons serving as a special assistant to Kelly, focusing largely on defending the triple-option attacks of Army, Navy and Georgia Tech.

Elliott rejoins former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco in Lincoln. Diaco was hired as the Cornhuskers’ defensive coordinator in January.

The Lincoln Journal Star’s Brian Cristopherson reports Elliott will make a nice wage in eastern Nebraska.

Could Kelly move a receiver to cornerback?

PALO ALTO, CA - NOVEMBER 30:  Bennett Jackson #2 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish intercepts this pass intended for Michael Rector #3 of the Stanford Cardinal during the fourth quarter at Stanford Stadium on November 30, 2013 in Palo Alto, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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Before the weekend, Notre Dame already had 10 receivers on its depth chart, all with at least two seasons of eligibility remaining. Cornerback, meanwhile, is a position where the roster seems to be lacking, with only seven currently on scholarship. The only fact staving off panic is that all seven also have two years of eligibility in hand. Nonetheless, an additional body in the defensive backfield at practice would seem to be a reasonable want, if not quite a necessity.

Thus, the addition of graduate transfer receiver Freddy Canteen—himself having two seasons of potential college football to go—brought the return of wonderings: Should one of the plethora of Irish receivers switch to breaking up passes?

Aside from balancing the roster and easing some concerns should an injury strike, such a move could also present the player a chance at increased playing time. By no means would the maneuver need to be a selfless one.

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has had success with such positional flipping. Specifically, Kelly and his coaching staff have overseen the successful switches of receiver-turned-cornerback Bennett Jackson and receiver-turned-safety-and-then-linebacker James Onwualu. Furthermore, defensive backs Matthias Farley and KeiVarae Russell both arrived at Notre Dame expecting to be on the offensive side of the ball before changes early in their careers.

BENNETT JACKSON
A three-star receiver recruit, Jackson stuck with Notre Dame during the transition from Charlie Weis to Brian Kelly, signing with the Irish only weeks after Kelly took the lead of the program. In his freshman season, Jackson carried the ball plenty, as the kick returner. Aside from fielding kickoffs, he had only one carry for 20 yards. That was it for his offensive playmaking.

On special teams, however, he excelled without the ball, too. Jackson finished with 10 tackles, including four against Purdue to start the season. That nose for the ballcarrier prompted the coaching staff to switch Jackson’s positional group. In the following three seasons, he amassed 147 tackles, 11 pass break-ups and two interceptions.

Before Notre Dame faced Alabama in the 2012 BCS National Championship Game, Jackson looked back on his career change.

“I liked receiver. Obviously, I wanted to be a guy with the ball in my hands,” he said. “At first, I wasn’t mad about it, but I wasn’t fond of it.

“As time went on, I actually liked the position a lot more. I had a lot more fun and I got to compete a lot more.”

JAMES ONWUALU
A four-star recruit with the ambiguous “athlete” designation in 2013, Onwualu—like Jackson—spent his freshman season as a receiver. Unlike Jackson, he actually caught some passes. Two, to be exact, for a total of 34 yards. Continuing on a parallel to Jackson, Onwualu totaled six tackles on special teams.

Years later, it is easy to see the receiving depth in Notre Dame’s class of 2013. Onwualu aside, the Irish brought in Corey Robinson, Torii Hunter, Jr., and Will Fuller. It was going to be a tough road to featured playing time for Onwualu. Realizing this, he set to finding a different path.

“I honestly wasn’t sure receiver was the spot for me anyway, so I walked right up to coach Kelly’s office and we had a talk about where I wanted to go and what my thoughts were for my career,” Onwualu told und.com early in his senior season. “We ended up agreeing that the defensive side, we might as well give it a shot, and it worked out.”

Initially, that conversation landed Onwualu at safety. At 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, he found himself at linebacker pretty quickly thereafter.

“That was a tough one for me because he’s so valuable offensively in a number of ways,” Kelly said before 2014 spring practice. “He’s such a consistent player and he loves to compete. But he’s got great contact skills.”

Onwualu ended his Notre Dame career with 143 total tackles, including those pivotal six his freshman season, along with six sacks.

MATTHIAS FARLEY & KEIVARAE RUSSELL
Both Farley and Russell entered Notre Dame as “athletes”, the former a three-star recruit and the latter a four-star prospect. While Farley was expected to line up at receiver and Russell at running back, each switched to safety and cornerback, respectively, before ever joining the Irish offense. Safe to say it worked out rather well for each.

WHO NOW?
Far be it for the internet to speculate, but that seems to be one of its three primary purposes in the 21st century.

None of the current 11 receivers entered college deemed “athletes” by recruitniks. One does mirror Jackson and Onwualu in that he excelled on special teams last year. Rising sophomore Chase Claypool recorded 11 tackles in his debut season to go along with his five catches for 81 yards. Claypool notched multiple tackles against Nevada, Syracuse and Virginia Tech.

Kelly and new defensive coordinator Mike Elko very well may choose to test fate in 2017 and rely on only seven cornerbacks. After all, how often would the Irish ever have more than four on the field, anyways?

But if Kelly and Elko err on the side of caution, whoever makes the positional switch should not cringe in doing so. It has worked out pretty well both for his predecessors and for Notre Dame.