And in that corner… The Rutgers Scarlet Knights

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The Fighting Irish boarded a Delta 747 for New York on Monday afternoon, set to spend Christmas in the Big Apple before playing Rutgers in the Pinstripe Bowl on Saturday. The mood was jovial (if Twitter and Instagram are an indication) as the team took to the skies, a rare game where the Irish are playing for themselves.

While there was griping among fans about a northern destination, New York was an oasis this weekend, with temperatures reaching the 70s. It won’t last until the weekend, but Saturday’s high temperature should be in the low 40s, perfectly fine weather for football.

Now onto the game. Rutgers salvaged a postseason bid with a win in their season finale against USF, bringing Kyle Flood’s squad up the Jersey Turnpike for their highest profile game of the season. To get us a better idea of what awaits the Irish, The Star-Ledger’s Tom Luicci was kind enough to answer some questions for me.

Tom’s been covering college football for as long as I’ve been alive, with 34 years of experience, including 21 seasons as a national college football writer. That means he’s spent a lot of time covering the Irish, attending roughly 60 Notre Dame games between 1979 and 2000. He is New Jersey’s state chairman for the Heisman, a Harris Poll voter, and an instructor of elite Naval Aviators in Miramar (maybe one of these is a fib).

At a really busy time of year, I’m thankful Tom could spare some of his expertise to get us ready for the bowl game. Hope you enjoy.

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On paper, it’s not hard to see why Rutgers finished the season 6-6. They struggled with turnovers, gave up a ton of big plays, and just didn’t compete against above average teams in the conference. A year after winning nine games, what went wrong?

The short answer is this: The NFL Draft and key injuries. Rutgers had seven players drafted last year — which was more than any Big Ten team. And Rutgers isn’t a program like Ohio State that simply re-loads. It takes a little time to rebuild. Three of those players drafted were from the secondary, two were starting LBs (one was the two-time Big East Defensive Player of the Year) and the defense had to be overhauled.

Rutgers was the only team in the country to start two true freshmen corners in the same game this year. Teams took advantage of that, spreading out Rutgers’ defense and schooling the young secondary. Offensively, Paul James was the nation’s No. 2 rusher after four games when he broke his fibula and missed eight weeks and QB Gary Nova never elevated his play, which is why he was benched the final two games. In the secondary, one of the new starting CBs (Ian Thomas) abruptly quit the team and another (Lew Toler) suffered a season-ending broken arm. So the secondary was a mess all year.

What’s the latest with the Scarlet Knights’ QB situation. Will the Irish see senior Chas Dodd or Gary Nova? Where does Rutgers go moving forward at the position?

Dodd will start for the third straight game — after not starting a game before this year since the 2011 Pinstripe Bowl against Iowa State. Nova’s decision-making, turnovers and inability to jumpstart the offense are why he got benched after 23 straight starts. A spark or some change was needed. Going forward there will be a QB competition in the spring. Chris Laviano, a true freshman who is redshirting this year, is expected to give Nova a run for the starting job. Redshirt freshman Blake Ranking could as well.

Rutgers is bowl eligible, but it seems that Kyle Flood struggled to hold onto his job. He fired three coaches on his staff the day after the Pinstripe Bowl announced their selection of the Scarlet Knights. Looking past the bowl game, how does this program look as it enters the Big Ten?

With fewer spread teams in the Big Ten (and a new defensive coordinator to be named) Rutgers should be competitive. I know that sounds strange given how they were beaten up by spread teams this year but this defense is built more for the Big Ten style of play. Offensively, Rutgers returns everyone except WR Brandon Coleman. But Nova may or may not be the starting QB. The offensive line returns intact. TE Tyler Kroft is coming off a breakout year. And WR Leonte Carroo, if he can stay healthy, is an NFL-caliber player. Defensively, Rutgers loses four starters — but the reality is not one had a good year. And there is some promising young defensive talent on the roster. So on paper, this can be a competitive, Iowa-type team.

Flood fired his defensive coordinator Dave Cohen. The unit seems to have given up a ton of points, but they are ranked 4th in the country against the run, though have struggled mightily against the pass. How bad are things on that side of the ball? Or was Cohen fired for the off the field accusations of bullying players?

Cohen was fired because this was the worst pass defense in school history statistically — by a wide margin. And if Notre Dame gains 401 yards it will have allowed more yards than any defense in school history. This defense is good against the run, but the reality is that teams pass on this defense because they can. The secondary is the biggest issue. It’s painfully young. Even the one senior there — free safety Jeremy Deering — played offense his first three years. The front four has not done a good job helping out the secondary by getting enough pressure, either.

What can the Irish expect from the Rutgers offense? One-time Irish running back target Savon Huggins looks buried on the depth chart. Will the Scarlet Knight attack feature a heavy dose of Paul James?

With James healthy, as well as promising true freshman Justin Goodwin, Rutgers will have a run-first offense. Notre Dame appears vulnerable there — at least statistically — and ball control is the best way to keep a wobbly defense off the field. Rutgers is trying to expand its offense with some zone read wrinkles, so we may see more of that. Chas Dodd isn’t a high percentage passer but he does have a knack for making plays and he is a senior. Running the ball, throwing to the tight end, a controlled passing game with a few deep shots. That’s how Rutgers generally tries to approach games — unless (or until) they get out of hand.

The Irish are a pretty resounding favorite heading into the Bronx next week. Do you expect Rutgers to put up a fight and keep things close? Do you think Scarlet Knight fans will try to stake a claim to Yankee Stadium and New York City, or is that just the Yankees marketing department’s dream?

Rutgers is 2-0 in the new Yankee Stadium and I think there’s a general feeling that a good showing — not even a win necessarily — will provide some momentum into the off-season. If Notre Dame gets up by double digits quickly, this could just be another ugly Rutgers loss. But I think there’s far more motivation on Rutgers’ part to be playing Notre Dame than the other way around. But emotion only can carry a team so far. They have to play and play well. And Rutgers will have solid crowd support for the game.

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For more from Tom, check out his work at the Star-Ledger and give him a follow on Twitter @TomLuicci.

A spring perspective: Wimbush and his offensive line

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Many like to belittle spring practice as just spring practice. Similarly, others will gladly snub their noses at any positive reviews, insisting it is only warmer temperatures and sunshine eliciting optimism.

Another group sees every position change and depth chart shift as a definite indicator the program is on the right track.

The best assessment of these 15 practices falls somewhere between those two extremes, as most things in this world do.

Take the offensive line, for example. Why is it important to garner an idea of the starting five before fall? Once that is established, not only can the offensive line develop chemistry within itself, but it can also establish chemistry with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush. That is, in fact, what Wimbush cited as the item he needs to most improve in a WatchND interview with Jack Nolan over the weekend.

“I need to get better at making it easier for the offensive line and understanding my pocket awareness, where my escape lanes are and where I need to step up,” Wimbush said. “Those guys are working their butts off and I’m at 10 yards, [graduate student left tackle Mike] McGlinchey is getting pushed back and pushed right into me. I have to understand where my pocket is.”

That understanding will develop at an even quicker pace once Wimbush knows exactly whom he is working with on each snap. Spring’s greatest benefit is taking steps toward answering those questions.

As for his greatest strengths on the field, Wimbush pointed toward his athleticism.

“Being able to make plays, get outside the pocket, and I feel like breaking down the defense is some of my assets,” he said.

Assistants: Polian on defensive depth; Lyght on Love; and Lea on the rover

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Three Irish assistants were available to the media following Notre Dame’s sixth spring practice Wednesday. Each of special teams coordinator Brian Polian, defensive backs coach Todd Lyght and linebackers coach Clark Lea commented on something or other of note. Together there just might be enough substance to justify your time here today.

At the bottom of this post is a video with most of the below quotes and many more from yesterday’s session.

POLIAN ON DEFENSIVE DEPTH AFFECTING SPECIAL TEAMS
The most unique aspect of the special teams coordinator, at least when compared to his offensive and defensive counterparts, is the fact that his charges include nearly the entire breadth of the roster. Aside from the quarterbacks, the starting offensive line and the defensive tackles, just about every player could find himself on a kickoff coverage or return unit.

More often than not, defensive players—accustomed to seeking out contact, rather than attempting to avoid it—fill out most of those spots. That may not be the case with this Irish rendition, and not necessarily by choice.

“We’re not as deep as you’d want to be in some other spots with depth at linebacker and depth at safety,” Polian said. “So where are we going to make up those bodies, and they’re going to have to come from offense. Those guys have made very positive impressions.”

Polian specifically mentioned junior running back Dexter Williams, sophomore receiver Chase Claypool and sophomore running back Tony Jones, as well as sophomore safety Jalen Elliott, as having excelled thus far. When he came to Jones, Polian added phrases such as “real excited” and “fantastic,” echoing sentiments Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly espoused earlier this week.

Along with that personnel shift, Polian wants to increase the intensity with which players approach the third unit. Often seen as auxiliary duty, inferior to position group work, special teams should not include a dialed back attitude.

“The biggest change has to be the urgency with which we attack special teams and our execution and critical efficiency in important times of the game.”

The Indianapolis Star’s Laken Litman wrote a longer discussion of Polian’s comments, including how he will look to supplement junior receivers Chris Finke and C.J. Sanders at punt return.

“We’ll have a gong show and say who wants to get a look that’s not getting a look,” Polian said. “We’ll start firing balls at them and if you drop two, you’re fired. But we’ll find another one or two guys.”

Please, WatchND and Fighting Irish Media, please record all of that. The possibilities for hilarity would extend further only if Jarron Jones or Lou Nix were still around to insist on taking a turn.

LYGHT ON LOVE
Sophomore cornerback Julian Love saw plenty of action in 12 games last season, finishing with 45 tackles and one each of an interception, fumble forced and fumble recovered. Nonetheless, Lyght sees room for Love to improve.

“The thing for him and his development, when he’s uncomfortable … he has to rely more on his fundamentals and his technique and be proficient with his execution of his technique and those fundamentals,” Lyght said.

Love started eight games at cornerback last season, the most career starts at the position on the Irish roster. Thus, despite being only a sophomore, he is already in a position to lead.

“Julian can tackle in space, he can cover,” Lyght said. “We want him to get better in his man-to-man techniques and in his leadership role. He is a young player but he is going to play a lot for us.”

Love will play, and likely start, at the boundary cornerback position. As Irish Illustrated’s Tim O’Malley lays out in an elongated look at all five cornerbacks in the mix, the days of left/right cornerback duties are in the past.

“In the college game, it is a boundary/field game,” Lyght said. “It’s not like the NFL where the hashmarks are in the middle of the field and it’s a left/right game…

“If you get the guys comfortable playing boundary, playing field, they can get a better feel for the game, get a better feel for the route combinations, and be able to execute at a higher level playing that way.”

A quick layman’s translation: The hashmarks in college football are much wider than in the NFL. Thus, when the ball is placed on the right hashmark, the right side of the field becomes the boundary and is much narrower than the left, the field.

LEA ON THE ROVER
How about another take at explaining the heralded rover position in new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme? Let’s here Lea’s quick summary:

“We have a lot of bodies, so we’re really trying to identify who the right fit is,” he said. “The beauty of that position is it is a hybrid, so there are times you want a bigger-body linebacker type, there are times where you want more of a nickel type.”

Lea also took a moment to extensively praise the leadership of both senior linebackers Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini.


Mid-week reading: On Wimbush; NCAA $$$; A look back at Te’o

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A litany of links typically makes for good Friday fodder. A week’s worth of the internet can help any reader through an unproductive end of the week. Unfortunately, spring practice’s rhythms are inconsistent, unlike summer’s constant nothingness and fall’s non-stop charge.

Hey, who said you can’t take a long lunch on a Wednesday, anyway?

MORE WIMBUSH AND WHITFIELD
Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples joined Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush out in San Diego two weeks ago during spring break, watching as Wimbush listened to private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield’s instructions. Staples, per usual, tells a good story, slipping some nuggets of information within it where you may not even notice.

Many around this space have asked who foots the bill when a college quarterback seeks out Whitfield’s tutelage. Per Staples, Wimbush’s mother paid for the week.

Throughout the story, Wimbush emphasizes the importance of a Notre Dame degree, going so far as to point to former Irish quarterbacks Everett Golson and Malik Zaire acquiring their diplomas before departing Notre Dame. None of us know Wimbush’s academic progress—now approaching his second summer school session, Wimbush is likely ahead of the usual second-semester sophomore’s credit pace—but this tidbit may prove pertinent in nine months time. Considering what its pertinence would say about a bigger picture, Irish fans should certainly hope it is of note.

To this memory, the classic image relayed from Golson’s time with Whitfield was Golson throwing over brooms held by staffers, mimicking the long limbs of charging defensive linemen. Those fictional pass rushers have become a bit more realistic in nature, now apparently represented with outstretched tennis rackets.

NCAA GIVING NOTRE DAME NEARLY $1 MILLION
In what has been described as a “one-time supplemental distribution,” the NCAA is dispersing $200 million among its members. The amount each school receives is determined by the total number of full scholarships it gives to student-athletes, with each partial scholarship contributing its appropriate fraction toward that total figure.

Notre Dame will receive $984,724 thanks to giving out 299.20 scholarships in 2013-14. Some context behind that latter number: The football team takes up 85 scholarships. The men’s basketball team is allowed 13, and the women’s basketball team gets 15. The remaining 186.20 are split among the other 20 varsity sports (counting men’s and women’s teams separately in rowing, swimming and diving, and track and field).

Other notable schools:
Ohio State receives the most, more than $1.3 million, thanks to its 403.98 scholarships.
USC’s 279.06 scholarships equates to $918,440.
Michigan’s 353.18 scholarships will yield close to $1.2 million.

All these dollars must be spent it ways aiding the student-athletes. Schools cannot put the funds toward items like stadium construction or coaches’ salaries. Rather, the NCAA indicated the money is for “the direct benefit of the student-athlete and their academic success, life skills, career success, health and safety and student-athlete focused diversity and inclusion initiatives.”

All expenditures must be approved by the NCAA. The money comes from an endowment that had reportedly come to exceed $360 million.

REMEMBER THE TE’O DRAFT HOOPLA?
The below video does not necessarily reveal anything we do not already know about former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o, despite its ponderous title. It does, however, make a good point.

Aside from a sporadic comment deep in the morass of these pages, not much is said about the Lennay Kekua situation anymore. At the time, it was the most talked about item anywhere, let alone in Notre Dame corners. Personally, a former co-worker at the Los Angeles Times called late one night that week four-plus years ago. He and I had not spoken in close to two years, and we haven’t spoken since. But the Te’o/Kekua story prompted him to seek an understanding of what in the world was going on.

In some irish.nbcsports.com history, the day after that story broke—it broke on Jan. 16, 2013, so I am referring to Jan. 17—still holds the record for most views to this particular site.

Good for Te’o to have successfully moved past that saga. These days, every comment former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer makes is scrutinized. He is even criticized for not having excellent timing with Jonas Gray, of all people. Looking back on Te’o, it should be remembered the most dramatic stories, one seemingly crafted perfectly for the internet, fade into the cobwebs of time.

[Here, a link in case the intended embed below fails.]

PHIL STEELE’S PROJECTED AP TOP 10
Enough with the past. Let’s project the future.

Phil Steele, of the revered Phil Steele’s College Football Preview, projected August’s Associated Press Top 10. Steele has accounted for voters’ tendencies rather accurately in years past, so it is not an entirely fruitless exercise. Then again, he is projecting the results of the first of many polls with no actual consequence.

Of Steele’s projected top-10, Notre Dame will face only No. 4 USC.

KENPOM’S TOO EARLY PRESEASON TOP 10
If you think Steele’s top 10 is too early, then skip this.

College basketball analytics master Ken Pomeroy put together his top 10 for next season, though any unexpected draft departures or transfers can certainly alter his calculations. After all, the season is not actually over yet.

Of certain Irish interest: No. 9 North Carolina, No. 8 Louisville and No. 6 Virginia. The last of those has already suffered a transfer which Pomeroy tweeted will “abruptly” end the Cavaliers’ time in his preseason top 10.

SPEAKING OF BASKETBALL, WELL DONE DENNIS, WHOEVER YOU ARE
Math is hard, so take this with a grain of salt, but I believe Dennis’ bracket of “Brey Brey’s Kids” will win the Inside the Irish March Madness pool. Dennis, your $984,724 is in the mail.

Don’t think that means there is no reason to watch the Final Four, though. Your host might be able to rise into the top half of the field, which would be good for his pride, and therefore the quality of writing in these parts.

It shouldn’t be too surprising my bracket flopped. This is a football page. Besides, by my eye, no one I actually know firsthand will finish higher than fourth. That is more of a relief than it should be.

Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

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This space has mentioned a few times the dearth of returning sacks among Notre Dame’s defensive line. It is a pertinent fact—no returning Irish defensive lineman recorded a sack in the 2016 season—but it fails to mention the flipside of that.

Most of Notre Dame’s defensive linemen had few, if any, opportunities to rush the passer in 2016. Perhaps at the top of the list of those who should bring down the opposing passer a few times this fall, sophomore Daelin Hayes has laid claim to a starting rush spot through five spring practices.

“The athleticism is what obviously stands out,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “He’s extremely athletic, he’s fit physically, 250 pounds and very strong.”

These facts are, after all, the reasons Hayes was a highly sought-after five-star recruit according to rivals.com.

“It’s the football knowledge, learning the techniques at the position in which he plays is really the piece,” Kelly continued. “It’s just learning right now for him. This is the time to do it, in spring ball.

“Squeezing down on a tight end when the back is away. Wrong-arming the puller. These are all football terms and schemes that are a bit new to him. We have to be patient with him. He’s an explosive athlete. There’s going to be some mistakes along the way, and I’m okay with that as long as he’s learning.”

Without much depth pushing for playing time behind him, Hayes will have the opportunity to make, and subsequently understand, those mistakes. Seniors Jay Hayes (no relation) and Andrew Trumbetti are mired in competition for the other end spot, while sophomores Julian Okwara, Adetokunbo Ogundeji and Khalid Kareem may have even more development ahead of them than Daelin Hayes does.

Incoming freshmen Kofi Wardlow and Jonathon MacCollister will join the fray in the summer, but for now, the younger Hayes has his chance to impress with his natural gifts while absorbing the intricacies of new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s defense.

Hayes is not a complete unknown. While Okwara made four tackles last season in 11 games and Kareem appeared in four games, Hayes saw action in every contest, finishing the season with 11 tackles, one pass breakup and one forced fumble.

“He’s an athlete,” defensive line coach Mike Elston said last week. “He’s on the edge in a two-point stance. He’s not a trained, put-your-hand-on-the-ground defensive end. He played running back in high school. He can see things better in a two-point and can diagnose quicker. He’s able to be more productive.”

It may be accurate to mention no returning Notre Dame defensive linemen tackled a quarterback for a loss last season, but it is more precise to also include the Irish have possibilities of changing that trend.

SPEAKING OF THE DEFENSIVE LINE
Notre Dame is nearly as thin at defensive tackle as it is at end. Junior Jerry Tillery leads the way with senior end-converted-to-tackle Jonathan Bonner lining up next to him thus far. Their reserves: Oft-concussed senior Daniel Cage, senior Pete Mokwuah and junior Micah Dew-Treadway with junior Elijah Taylor out for the spring with a foot injury.

Theoretically, junior Brandon Tiassum is also in the mix, and three freshmen (Kurt Hinish, Myron Tagovailo-Amosa and four-star Darnell Ewell) will join the group in the summer.

And maybe, just maybe, perhaps, possibly … Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano could walk onto campus alongside those freshmen. Pagano visited Notre Dame the first week of March, and was due to look at Oklahoma and Arkansas the next two weekends, respectively. Instead, Pagano reportedly cancelled both of those visits Monday.

Pagano does still have a visit to Oregon scheduled for April 21. Until indicated otherwise, it may be prudent to presume Pagano hopes to land as close to his Hawaiian home as possible.

RELATED READING: 1 Day Until Spring Practice: A look at the defensive line