Santa

Holiday Mailbag: Answers and Presents

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Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays. Here’s hoping you’re all spending these next few days finishing up work and getting closer to friends and family.

And as teased, we’re doing our first ever Holiday giveaway, thanks to LCP and Skybox Press. It’s the Official Illustrated History of Fighting Irish Football.  The book features 20 essays from former Notre Dame greats like Joe Montana, Paul Hornung, Dave Casper, Brady Quinn, Ken MacAfee, Ross Browner, Tony Rice and John Huarte.

It’s perfect for a coffee table and features over 300 photos. My niece Sydney picked the winner (don’t blame me!) but all of our readers are able to get the book on sale here, using the promo code “ND230” to cut the price from $75 to $39.95, which includes free shipping.

Here’s the mailbag. Sydney’s pick for the free book is at the bottom.

@Ontario_Bill: What is the greater loss with Diaco leaving…..schematics or recruiting? BD seemed to really connect with high school kids…

Bill, I’m going with “none of the above.” While I think Diaco was excellent as both a schemer and recruiter, his presence and energy in the locker room will be missed the most. We tend to forget that he took over a defense that wasn’t just mediocre, it was horrible. Probably even worse was the morale of the group, players that had seen coaches and systems come and go.

Diaco rebuilt the psyche of this group, starting with a “B.I.A.” chant (Best In America) that people started by chuckling at, but ended up almost achieving in 2012.

@DanFree5: can you explain the “Pot of Gold” craze? I think I managed to figure it out. Wondering where it started and the point.

During the recruiting quiet period, Notre Dame has managed to build momentum with the remaining recruits on the board. A smart initiative by the recruiting office and football staff, and it’s helped build an awareness during a usually slow period, and allowed Kelly to focus on prepping the team for the bowl game and vetting candidates for his coaching staff.

@IrishPhog: who are you hearing about for coordinators? Simply Cooks and Denbrock?

As you’d expect, there’s a pretty tight lid on this search. Talking to people inside the program, they’ve got no clue either. If I had to guess, I think Denbrock gets a promotion and a QB coach is brought in. Cooks might share the title with Mike Elston, but this is the one place where Kelly might bring in someone new to a leadership position.

I put together a pretty comprehensive look at this last night, working into the wee hours of the morning reading about coaching buyouts and contracts.

notthatconfused: Do you think Kelly will continue as quarterbacks coach, or will he hire someone (George Whitfield) to perform those duties?

George Whitfield isn’t coming to South Bend. He’s doing what he wants to do and he’s got a pretty good gig living close to the beach in San Diego and working with quarterbacks from all around the country.

tonyricemajorharris: Besides 5th year seniors, who else might be transferring?

That’s a good question. I’m not entirely comfortable speculating on who plans on leaving the program, but I think the biggest group will be graduated players with immediate eligibility. It’ll be interesting to see if these guys go join one of four coaches they had a connection with: Charlie Weis at Kansas, Charley Molnar at UMass, Chuck Martin and Miami or Bob Diaco at UConn.

I do think you have to look at guys buried on the depth chart and wonder if they’ll stick with it. The running back and safety depth chart is pretty daunting. Some veteran cornerbacks have been passed as well.

newmexicoirish: Keith this week has been a pretty good one for Irish recruiting. Of the remaining top targets for Notre Dame (Matt Elam, JuJu Smith, Michiah Quick, Terry Godwin) who do think the Irish have a realistic chance of signing? Is there room for Dalton Schultz or do you think we’re pretty well stocked at tight end?

In the next two years, Alex Welch, Troy Niklas and Ben Koyack will all depart. Does that mean Notre Dame will take three tight ends? I don’t know. But I expect them to take a full class and if they can fit Schultz, maybe they’ll take him.

NotreDan: We bounced it around a bunch this year, but in your opinion; how damaging was lack of leadership in the absence of Teo and Kappy, and who are the emerging team leaders for next year?

I don’t know that leadership was the reason this defense regressed. I think we probably overvalued the team’s personnel, and the loss of Danny Spond, the early season injury to Stephon Tuitt and Dan Fox, and some struggles in the secondary did it.

That Te’o was able to be a tackling machine and a turnover creator is really astounding. Many people forgot about the season he had because of the catfishing. But there’s a reason he was the most highly decorated defensive player in the modern era.

irishdodger: can you please lend your perspective as to where ND stands now in the CFB landscape versus the post Holtz era. With the Texas coaching search, it really puts into perspective how important it is for any school to make the right hire. Just thinking back to the Davie, O’Leary, Willingham, Weis eras makes me glad ND finally got it right w/ Kelly.

I think the coaching search at a place like USC ends the idea that prestigious programs can just pluck an elite coach from another top-level program. Notre Dame fans would have rioted if the Irish hired Sark, a guy that only now just won eight games.

Looking back, Notre Dame got caught institutionally napping at the worst time in college football history. It’s never good when you’re the last to realize the arms race has begun, and hiring Bob Davie has to go down as an all-timer. A big-time hire there and it would’ve been a very different 20 years.

bernhtp: Will we see an article titled “Tribute to Tommy” at the end of the season?

I think we’ve written about Tommy quite a bit. Let’s wait until after the season to take a closer look at all the departing seniors.

chadwalters425: How does Greg Bryant participating in bowl game practice not violate his medical redshirt?

You can practice. You just can’t play.

mediocrebob: How has Zaire’s growth and development gone thus far? I remember during spring ball people mentioning that he was very eager to learn. Has he gained weight? Is there a big difference between when he arrived last winter and now?

Bob, if someone in the media can tell you how Zaire is progressing, he’s got a secret view into practice that most of us don’t. He’s likely gained weight, gotten stronger and learned the playbook. We’ll get a better idea come spring ball, when an updated roster is released and a closer look at the team.

One thing I haven’t liked? Zaire’s propensity to get on Twitter and speak his feelings. Kelly already put the young quarterback on notice when he let it slip he was battling mono. But Zaire’s initial reaction to Chuck Martin’s hiring at Miami was hardly the type of response you want from the potential face of the Irish offense.

Still, these past few weeks have been a great opportunity for Zaire. He’s had a ton of one-on-one time with Kelly, and if there’s a way to jump start his career, this is it. With Tommy Rees departing, and Andrew Henrix quite possibly as well, Zaire’s gotten more time than he could dream of with his head coach during preparations for the Pinstripe Bowl.

jcodaniels: first time commenter, long time reader of your work. Love it. Well it looks as though I will again be depending on Amazon to get my wife’s Christmas gift to my house on time this year as I am terrible at getting something ahead of time. My question to you is, do you think it is OK that I got her something Notre Dame which is basically for me. Last year it was an electronic that was basically for me as well that had an ND background on it when she opened it. I think my love for Notre Dame is taking affect on my marriage. 

That’s why there’s Amazon Prime! But on a serious note, this offseason can’t come soon enough for you. Take a couple months away from it and come back refreshed in the fall. Don’t forget Bobby D’s poem.

chejoe: It seems to me that Kelly has been snake-bit by quarterbacks during his entire time at ND: first, Clausen graduates early, rather than play for him; next, Crist was not as good as we all thought (neither was Hendrix) and Dayne was injury prone; then, Kiel decides to transfer *right before* Golson gets kicked out of school. While Rees did all he could, and it was better than most (including me) give him credit for, he was obviously thrust into this role (repeatedly) despite simply not being the right man for the job. As we head into Rees’ final game in an ND uniform, I cannot help but wonder what the future holds for the ND offense. The one year that Kelly had as least *most* of his wishes at QB the Irish played for the title. How do you see it playing out?

I’m not sure there’s a question there, but I think you’re on to something. It’s worth noting that for the first time, Kelly will have a depth chart of quarterbacks that he recruited.

rocket1988: Alright here are some questions Mr. Arnold
Better beach: Hermosa or Manhattan? — Manhattan, of course.
Steak or Sushi? — Why not both. But I could eat sushi seven nights a week.
Ducks or Kings? — Gimme the Canucks. Lotta ND blood in the front office.
Favorite ND athlete of the past, present, or future? — Too hard. I’m partially to the CDH Raiders: Rashon Powers-Neal, Ryan Harris, Marcus Freeman, Michael Floyd, James Onwualu, and hell — baseball legend J.P. Gagne.
And last, your dream venue to cover and ND game? Dublin was pretty slick. But Fenway should be cool, too.

irishpuma: Seriously who are your favorite posters and who are your least likely to read or have a drink with.

You are each like my own — eh, special children.

ndfenian: For Keith or anybody that has a thought: why didn’t we see the offense employ screen passes to the running backs this year? Does Kelly not believe in the screen game to backs?

There were plenty of screen passes in this offense, but I agree, I’d like to see more running back screens. I’ll dig into this during the offseason.

dudeacow: Flashback: back when Kelly was hired, was this where you envisioned the program would be four years in? Include specifics (i.e., recruiting, offensive/defensive production, team speed, etc.)

That’s a pretty impossible question to answer. But to see the team make it to the BCS National Championship Game in their third season, and to see the defense rebuilt and an offense come together with such young, promising talent, there are on track.

Nudeman:  Many here and elsewhere have scratched their heads this year at the play calling. Too pass-happy for most of us. I could cite specific examples, but it’s not necessary. Personally I’ve never been 100% convinced that BK isn’t still calling the plays, but can’t prove that. Some have surmised it’s Rees audibling into passes; some have blamed Martin.

With a new OC next year and a new QB who doesn’t audible everything, not to mention Folston & Bryant being a year older and stronger, to what degree does this problem go away?

What a wonderfully loaded question. The bottom line is that Kelly’s offense can’t run optimally if the quarterback can’t run the ball. I tackled this a few days ago if you want to read more.

goirish3590: A phrase we frequently heard in reference to Bob Diaco’s style of defense was, “bend, don’t break,” and 2012′s defensive unit came to embody that sentiment. My question is this: do you think we’ll see a philosophical shift to perhaps a more aggressive defense, or do you think Kelly sticks closer to the idea of avoiding big plays?

That phrase was assigned by fans. The phrase that Brian Kelly and Bob Diaco used was “limit points.” And they did a very good job of that. While I think the defense needs to do a better job of taking away the football, avoiding big plays is pretty much the only proven way to keep scoring down.

THE WINNER:

TonyRiceMajorHarris. Congratulations on your Christmas present. Please send me an email with your mailing address (through the link) and we’ll get you a book.

 

 

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
rivals.com
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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…)