Zack Martin

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.

 

 

Spring positions to watch for revelations: DL & WR

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

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

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

For now, though, Pagano remains a theoretical

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WR Lenzy makes 11th commitment, brings speed to Irish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will Wimbush, Elko and the early enrollees surprise in spring practice?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Exactly 59 days from today, the Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Sure, they will be playing against themselves, but nonetheless, it will be somewhat-competitive football played in gold helmets.

For timing context, exactly 59 days ago, you looked beneath the Christmas tree to learn if Santa Claus left you season tickets, socks or coal. I got socks. They had some of that extra cushioning, so I considered them a suitable treat.

Whether you care about my argyles or not (you don’t), for many the Blue-Gold Game and Christmas morning hold similar excitement. That fact is apparently why Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick does not concern himself when groups of alumni publicly lament his decisions, or lack thereof.

“I never worry about that,” Swarbirck told the Indianapolis Star in an exclusive interview you really should read. Go on, click the link, it will open in a new tab. You can come right back here when you are done.

“The hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion in your program. If that sort of stuff bothers you, you can’t be the athletic director, head coach or the quarterback at Notre Dame.”

That very passion will undoubtedly lead to frame-by-frame discussions of video snippets from spring practice, parsing of each and every word Irish coach Brian Kelly says in quick interviews after those practices, and extreme pessimism and optimism about the 2017 season.

In the Christmas spirit, what toys could bring the must excitement during the spring unwrapping? Personally, the gift I was unsure of always brought the most joy. I would rather open an unexpected book than know about a charcoal-gray suit. In other words, at least for today, let’s look past the offensive line, the running backs and the inside linebackers. Instead, let’s look forward to learning about… (more…)

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Karlos Williams #9 of the Florida State Seminoles scores the touchdown that would win the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their game at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.

With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.

The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.

Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.

Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.

If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.

Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order: (more…)