Pregame Six Pack: Bowling in the Big Apple

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Notre Dame finishes its 126th season on Saturday, going for a ninth win as they take on Rutgers in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. It’s the end of a season that many will remember for opportunities missed, though there was plenty of good to go along with the frustrating four losses.

With the Irish set to play a 6-6 Scarlet Knights team in balmy New York, let’s walk through our last pregame six pack before the offseason begins. As always, here are six tidbits, leftovers, fun facts, and miscellaneous musings before Notre Dame and Rutgers do battle.

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1. For Kerry Cooks and Mike Denbrock, it’s not just an average Saturday. 

With Bob Diaco and Chuck Martin now in charge of the UConn and Miami programs, Kerry Cooks and Mike Denbrock get their first shots to coordinate the offense and defense. While losing both coordinators this time of year isn’t exactly normal, it’s something that programs playing in bowl games sometimes face.

Both coaches have carried leadership roles on the staff previous to this interim assignment. Cooks was named co-defensive coordinator before the 2012 season while Denbrock received the title of passing game coordinator. They both talked about what Saturday will be like earlier this week.

“I look at it more as an opportunity to step into a role that needed filling so our football team could come here and have success against Rutgers. That’s really all it is for me right now,” Denbrock told Irish Illustrated. “We haven’t talked about the stuff that I know is out there. We’ve concentrated on just trying to prepare these guys the best we can and fill that void as best I can so the kids can feel a sense of normalcy about the way we’re doing things and can play their best.”

Cooks was just as philosophical, though you get the feeling he’d embrace the job if it was made permanent.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity,” Cooks told Irish Illustrated. “At least moving forward, whatever happens after this game, I can always say I was the defensive coordinator for Notre Dame, and I can always point back and say, ‘There it is for the Rutgers game.'”

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2. It should be bombs away for Tommy Rees and the Notre Dame receiving corps. 

After starting his second game in Yankee Stadium, Tommy Rees will play his final college game on Saturday at the same place. And with the weather forecast looking perfect and Rutgers secondary historically bad, Rees could go out in a blaze of glory.

The Scarlet Knights fired defensive coordinator Dave Cohen just a day after the regular season ended. Interim coordinator Joe Rossi, who coordinated the Maine defense for three years, is now tasked with trying to fix a unit that’s 122nd in the country against the pass.

Rossi talked about the challenge of trying to make big changes in just nine practices.

“It’s hard. You really can’t do too much,” Rossi told the Star-Ledger. “At the end of the day, if you spend too much time changing things, you’re not going to get good at those things. So we’ve really looked at ways we can get a little better here and there.

“It’s been a challenge. But I think we’ve done a good job with it.”

Rees has been a strong downfield passer this season, ranking 14th in the country in touchdown passes and 30th in the nation in yards per attempt.  Expect the ball to go vertical early and often Saturday afternoon.

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3. O Captain! My Captain! Part One: TJ Jones. 

This is it for TJ Jones, a four-year starter at wide receiver for the Irish. Jones’ final season has been his best, a productive, explosive year for a guy that grew into a No. 1 wide receiver after playing a complementary role for three seasons.

Forgotten in the loss to Stanford was Jones going over the 1,000 yard receiving mark. He’s also four catches from moving to second on the school’s all-time list, a surprising achievement that illustrates the impressive run Jones has had since arriving as an early enrollee freshman at the same time as Brian Kelly and company.

Jones has also done a good job as a punt returner this season. He’s averaging 8.7 yards a return, more than doubling the team’s productivity from last season. He’s also become a big play threat, averaging 16 yards a catch this year. If Jones gains over 130 yards on Saturday, he’ll move into the top five in Irish history for receiving yards.

While the lifetime achievements have been nice, Jones’ time at Notre Dame will be defined more by the man he has become. He’s been candid and open about that all year, discussing it after the Irish’s victory over BYU, an emotional Senior Day that also welcomed his late father Andre’s teammates back to campus to celebrate the 1988 national championship.

Earlier this week, Jones talked about the transformation he’s gone through since his father’s sudden passing in 2011.

“I believe I grew into the man that I am today at a very young age,” Jones told the Journal Gazette. “I matured quicker. I became the man of my house, and it taught me how to be a leader for my family. It allowed me to think bigger picture.”

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4. O Captain! My Captain! Part Two: Bennett Jackson. 

It’s a homecoming of sorts for Bennett Jackson, with the New Jersey native playing this Saturday in front of more family and friends than he can count. For some, Jackson’s senior season was a bit of a disappointment, with the veteran cornerback not necessarily flashing the type of playmaking ability that he started to display in his first season as a starter.

Yet Jackson looks to have once again gutted his way through an injury-riddled season, with a balky shoulder that barely held up last year looking to once again be the culprit. While Jackson’s career in South Bend will end, he’ll need to get to work before the NFL Scouting Combine and Notre Dame’s Pro Day, where he can show off his track speed and prototype size for scouts.

“I know I’m nowhere close to my full potential,” Jackson told MyCentralJersey.com. “I talk about it with my coaches all the time. I’m an unfinished product. I have raw talent, but I haven’t gotten all those reps that everyone else has gotten. I’m confident in myself and I think I’m going to grow each year.”

Notre Dame’s defensive leader leaves South Bend with his head held high, doing a lot of good during his four years with the Irish. Those contributions continue to be of great importance to Jackson, who has stayed close with friends, family and coaches throughout his time in college.

“You should never forget where you came from,” Jackson told his hometown paper. “I don’t look at myself as someone who’s bigger or better than anyone else. I think of myself as some small town Hazlet kid that just had an opportunity to play at Notre Dame and made the most of it.”

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5. O Captain! My Captain! Part Three: Zack Martin. 

Perhaps the hardest player to say goodbye to is Zack Martin. Notre Dame’s four-time offensive lineman of the year is probably one of college football’s most underrated players, something very hard to accomplish while wearing Notre Dame’s blue and gold.

For the 52nd time, Martin will start for the Irish, a record that won’t likely be eclipsed any time soon, unless college football significantly expands its schedule. While fellow starters Chris Watt, brother Nick Martin, and Christian Lombard won’t be joining him, Martin will hold tight a unit now featuring four first-year starters in Conor Hanratty, Matt Hegarty, Steve Elmer and Ronnie Stanley.

Martin is just the 18th two-time captain in Notre Dame history. He’s as close to a mistake-free football player as the Irish have on their roster, and the margin isn’t even close. He may not be the biggest or the strongest or the most impressive athletically, but Martin does just about everything you could ask from a college left tackle.

We’ll spend a ton of time this offseason talking about what the Irish offensive line will look like without Martin. But before we do that, let’s watch Martin shut down an opposing defensive end one last time.

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6. For one final Saturday, it’ll be Ws and Ls and Xs and Os. But after that, let the games begin. 

Consider this fair warning: For one more Saturday, we’ll have football to talk about. After that, all bets are off.

At this time last year, Notre Dame football felt in a pretty good place. The Irish were set to play for a national championship. Brian Kelly was the national coach of the year. Every assistant on staff was returning. Manti Te’o was the most decorated player in college football.

But it was all downhill once the BCS Championship game kicked off. Alabama pummeled the Irish in the first half, coasting to an easy victory. Kelly shocked Irish fans and the football world by going off the radar as he considered jumping to the NFL. Manti Te’o was defrocked, a catfishing story taking away the gloss that came with all those postseason awards. Eddie Vanderdoes tried to transfer out of South Bend before ever arriving. And Everett Golson’s academic suspension killed the Irish’s BCS hopes before they began.

It’s highly doubtful the Irish could have a calendar year as rocky as the one they just went through. But if you think it’s going to be a quiet nine months before Notre Dame kicks it off again, you’re nuts.

Monday will bring a handful of open NFL jobs. Mack Brown’s replacement at Texas still hasn’t been named. Recruits haven’t jumped in or out, with Signing Day still over a month away. And as Jerian Grant proved, the academic gauntlet at Notre Dame is something to always keep an eye on.

So let’s enjoy the ride Saturday afternoon. And then buckle up and expect the unexpected.

 

 

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