Five things we learned: Notre Dame 29, Rutgers 16

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So many parts of Notre Dame’s 29-16 victory over Rutgers were forgettable. The sloppy turf inside Yankee Stadium, the special teams mistakes and the missed opportunities. But in the end, Brian Kelly’s Irish pulled away from Rutgers, winning a ninth game of the season, putting an appropriately frustrating bow on a difficult season.

At times, Notre Dame looked like a great football team. Moving the ball impressively between the 20s, limiting Rutgers offense to just 236 yards, and forcing turnovers and sacking the quarterback. Yet forced to kick five field goals, the Irish did their best to keep the Scarlet Knights in the game, getting precious little out of their 494 yards.

With the 2013 season in the books, let’s look at the five things we learned during the Irish’s Pinstripe Bowl win over Rutgers.

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1. No matter how ugly it was, heading into the offseason with nine wins and a bowl victory is better than the alternative. 

There will be no style points awarded for Notre Dame’s victory in Yankee Stadium. But walking away with a 29-16 victory was mandatory, and give credit to the Irish for at least doing that. While Notre Dame didn’t make it easy on themselves, the team gutted out a win by putting together a few clutch drives late, and forcing four turnovers against a Rutgers team that made a habit of giving the ball away.

On a slippery track that made more tackles than any one player, the Irish outside ground game was shut down and players on both sides of the ball were slipping and sliding. But even in a game that played every bit as ugly as any other this season, the Irish took home a victory.

Sending out the seniors in style was important. But so was taking some momentum into next season. With Everett Golson returning for spring practice and a young skill position depth chart taking shape, this offense will have the burden of great expectations. Exactly the type of fuel you’d prefer over the long offseason months.

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2. It wasn’t the going away party the Irish would’ve liked for captains TJ Jones and Bennett Jackson.

Against a suspect passing defense, TJ Jones had the chance to do some damage, possibly pushing his way up the Notre Dame record books with a monster game against the Scarlet Knights. But Jones’ afternoon got started on the wrong foot, when a low punt clanked off his shoulder pads, a killer turnover that gave Rutgers three easy points.

But that was hardly the worst of it for Jones. The senior receiver also got banged up on his eight-yard touchdown run, when he took a nasty hit reaching the football across the goal line. Jones wasn’t the same player after that hit, missing a few plays before coming back into the game.

Jones made five catches for 66 yards, but dropped an easy touchdown pass and struggled to keep his footing on the sloppy Yankee Stadium surface. Incorporated into the game plan as a rusher, receiver and special teams threat, Jones didn’t play his best during the Irish’s 29-16 victory, but he battled through a painful injury to help the Irish win.

The Irish’s defensive captain didn’t fair much better on Saturday. Bennett Jackson had a touch time with Rutgers receiver Brandon Coleman, getting beat for a 51-yarder over the top and a 14-yard touchdown. Jackson also had a 15-yard pass interference penalty, making it a finale to forget for the cornerback playing in front of family and friends.

It wasn’t all bad for Jackson. He made an aggressive play on a short pass that helped Kendall Moore come up with an interception and a nice stop on special teams late in the game. Those are the type of plays that’ll determine whether or not Jackson makes a living playing on Sundays, as the one-time special teams dynamo and former running back/receiver/return man will need to keep his Swiss Army skills sharp to make it in the NFL.

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3. Even though it looks like Kerry Cooks won’t get the defensive coordinator job, his group did a nice job on Saturday afternoon. 

Brian Kelly revealed after the game that he has decided on an outside hire to be his next defensive coordinator. While he wasn’t ready to name Bob Diaco’s replacement, it looks as if it won’t be Kerry Cooks. If this is it for Cooks as the defensive coordinator, he’s got to be happy with his unit’s performance.

The Irish racked up four sacks and also had four interceptions against Rutgers while holding the Scarlet Knights to just 236 yards. Put in tough situations with shoddy special teams play, the Irish limited Rutgers to just 16 points and only three of 12 third down conversions.

The Irish struggled at times defending quarterback Chas Dodd, who surprised with some impressive scrambles and runs. But Rutgers completed just 10 of 28 passes against the Irish, and averaged just 3.1 yards per carry. Nice work by a defense still playing well short of full strength.

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4. In the end, Tommy Rees was what we all thought he was. And Saturday he went out a winner. 

It was a hot and cold Saturday for Rees, who completed 27 of 47 passes for the Irish, throwing for 317 yards. Unwilling to give up the ball over the top, Rutgers was content to let Rees pick away at the underneath throws, which Rees did effectively, picking up 20 passing first downs and converting seven of 16 third downs.

But the Irish passing game just wasn’t able to get on track with throws down field, with Will Fuller, Jones and Davaris Daniels all unable to pull in catches that could’ve resulted in touchdowns.

Those kind of misses, especially in the red zone, help explain why the Irish scored just 29 points while gaining 494 yards. And Rees was hardly immune to mistakes, making a few bad decisions as he forced the football down field into coverage. But the Irish won another game when Rees didn’t commit a turnover, holding true on a datapoint that is four years in the making.

Saturday’s game made apparent the limitations the Irish have with Rees running the offense. That Rees’s quarterback sneak and two-yard scramble were just the second and third positive rushing play on the season for the quarterback show you just how difficult it is to run Brian Kelly’s offense without a mobile quarterback. But Kelly had nothing but good things to say about Rees as the veteran quarterback played his final game for the Irish.

“I’m a Tommy Rees fan for life,” Kelly said after the game.

5. With the game on the line, Zack Martin and the offensive line powered the Irish running game to a clinching score. 

With the Irish clinging to a three point lead, Brian Kelly turned to his offensive line to win the game. And for senior Zack Martin, it was one final opportunity to dominate an opponent. With the help of Troy Niklas’s clutch 28-yard catch up the seam, the ground game did the job and Martin earned the game’s MVP trophy.

After holding the Irish to meager gains during the first half, the Irish did damage on the ground after halftime, with Martin leading the way for Notre Dame. Taking the ball with under nine minutes left, the Irish marched 10 plays in over five minutes with Tarean Folston gaining 37 yards on six carries to seal the victory.

The play of the offensive line was a bright spot all season. That a group that lost three starters could continue to protect Rees so well when it mattered is a credit to Harry Hiestand and Martin, who was the binding agent on a line that had to break in four first-year starters.

There will be other offensive tackles taken before Martin in the upcoming NFL Draft, but Kelly was unequivocal in his praise for his four-year left tackle.

“He’s the best offensive lineman I’ve ever coached,” Kelly said.

Rochell drafted in 7th round; three other former Notre Dame players sign

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All the unnecessary draft conversation may have centered on DeShone Kizer, but the quarterback was not the only former Notre Dame player watching this weekend’s NFL Draft with rapt attention. Aside from Kizer, only Isaac Rochell heard his name called. The San Diego Chargers picked the defensive lineman in the seventh round Saturday with the 225th overall pick.

Rochell finished his Irish career with appearance in 49 of 51 possible games and 167 tackles, including 22 for loss and 4.5 sacks. In 2016, he recorded 55 tackles, good for sixth on the team, with seven for loss.

By the end of the evening, three more former Notre Dame starters had signed on with NFL teams as undrafted free agents. It should be noted, many argue the route available for undrafted free agents is preferable to that of late-round picks. An undrafted free agent can choose which of a handful of situations is preferable to him for whatever reason. A late-round pick does not have that luxury, but still makes a comparable salary.

Linebacker James Onwualu opted to join Rochell with the Chargers. Defensive lineman Jarron Jones signed with the New York Giants. Cornerback Cole Luke latched on with the Carolina Panthers.

Onwualu began his Irish career as a receiver before moving to linebacker before his sophomore season. He finished his career with 143 tackles, including 75 in 2016 with 11.5 for loss and three sacks. His 75 tackles finished behind only now-rising senior linebackers Nyles Morgan’s 94 and Drue Tranquill’s 79.

Battling injuries throughout his Notre Dame career, Jones made 105 tackles with 45 in 2016. His 11 tackles for loss were outdone only by the aforementioned Onwualu total.

Luke made 152 tackles in his Irish career, including 48 last season, and eight interceptions.

Three more players from past years’ Irish rosters could yet find an NFL home—long snapper Scott Daly, defensive lineman-turned-tight end Chase Hounshell and running back Tarean Folston. If any or all do not sign, they can still join teams for rookie mini-camps in hopes of making a positive impression.

RELATED READING: Browns pick former Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer 20th in second round

Browns pick former Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer 20th in second round

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After months of pointless chatter and a night spent waiting, DeShone Kizer’s NFL Draft experience ended Friday night when the Cleveland Browns drafted the former Notre Dame quarterback with the 20th pick in the second round, the No. 52 overall selection.

Originally from Toledo, Ohio, Kizer will have the opportunity to earn the starting job for the franchise less than two hours from his hometown. The Browns trotted out five different quarterbacks in 2016, only two of which remain with the team. Rookie Cody Kessler played in nine games, throwing for 1,380 yards and six touchdowns with only one interception while fellow rookie Kevin Hogan threw for 104 yards and two interceptions in four games.

The Browns have since added Brock Osweiler in a trade with the Houston Texans, though that trade was largely-viewed as a cash-for-picks swap, with the Browns “paying” for picks by taking on Osweiler’s contract in which he is owed $47 million over the next three seasons, including $16 million this season.

A year ago, the No. 52 pick (linebacker Deion Jones to the Atlanta Falcons) received a four-year, $4.546 million contract with a $1.506 million signing bonus.

Hall of fame running back and Browns legend Jim Brown announced the selection of Kizer at the draft festivities.

Speculation a year ago pegged Kizer as an early first-round pick. As the draft approached, projections of his slot varied widely, many including a second-round status. Despite first-round theatrics leading to three quarterbacks going in the first 12 picks Thursday night, Kizer had to wait another day before learning where he will start his NFL career. (more…)

Friday at 4: ‘Attention to detail’ includes Notre Dame Stadium

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Brian Kelly proselytized multiple abstract concepts this spring. By the end of the 15 practices and subsequent media sessions, even the Irish coach knew some of his references to “grit” would be met by muted eye rolls from the press. If a questioner included the word in their query, Kelly reacted with tongue-in-cheek approval, “You’ve been listening.”

In his press conference the day before spring practices commenced, Kelly used the phrase “attention to detail” six separate times. While he was referring to his players on the football field, Kelly could have also been discussing the ongoing—but supposedly close to finished—construction at Notre Dame Stadium known as Campus Crossroads.

The three buildings around the exterior of the Stadium, the added suites and the video board above the south end zone have garnered the headlines. On a macro level, those are the changes of note. On a micro level, however, other details have trickled into the public stream of knowledge as the work nears its conclusion.

Over the weekend—and now reignited by a column from the South Bend Tribune’s Mike Vorel—the image of the newly-added visitors’ tunnel delighted Irish fans. Vorel likens the narrow entry to “the spot they’d stash the gladiators before feeding them to starving tigers in The Coliseum.” Assuredly, Vorel is going for dramatic effect, and it must work considering its citation here, but even a realistic view of the tunnel’s effects bodes well.

If nothing else, Notre Dame players should enjoy something of a psychological boost when racing out of their adult-sized tunnel and seeing their opponent trickle out of a tunnel seemingly-sized for ants. (Yes, the north end zone tunnel is at least three times bigger than the visitors’ tunnel.)

That pale, slanted staircase holds none of the luxuries of the home team’s entrance, something Kelly went out of his way to praise after using it in Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. (more…)

Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers

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You want complete honesty? The linebacker version of this series includes no revelations, no unexpected developments, no surprising spring performances. There is an allusion to a position switch, sure, but this piece became much simpler with the rover being discussed separately Thursday.

The idea was to capitalize on the NFL Draft for the morning and let the linebackers slip by in the afternoon, noticed only by those twiddling their thumbs through the last hours of the work week. Alas, former Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer was not drafted in the first round and a brief recap of his draft destination will need to await at least another day. Programming note: The NFL Draft reconvenes tonight (Friday) at 7 p.m. ET. The Green Bay Packers are on the clock. They will not draft a quarterback.

But back to the linebackers. This piece may have been intended to slip by with little fanfare, but that is not indicative of the Irish linebackers. Where Notre Dame was is so similar to where Notre Dame is simply because two experienced senior captains lead the way at linebacker.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
Aside from questions about defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s rover position, only one question stood out about this linebacker group: Who would start alongside senior Nyles Morgan: senior Greer Martini or junior Te’von Coney?

A year ago Coney recorded the fourth-most tackles on the team with 62. Martini finished fifth with 55, and his seven tackles for loss, including three sacks, dwarfed Coney’s 1.5. Yet Coney technically started nine games compared to Martini’s four.

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

With the rover often lining up essentially as a linebacker, there would only be space for one of Martini or Coney in most formations.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
In his first season with the Irish, Elko will have quite a luxury in referring to Coney as a backup linebacker. In some respects, that designation was inevitable as soon as Martini was named a captain. Nonetheless, Coney will see plenty of playing time.

The two captains—along with fellow captain, senior Drue Tranquill at rover—will be counted on throughout the summer and fall camp to continue the defense’s growth in Elko’s system. Elko said he installed “close to 50 percent” of his entire defense throughout spring practice. The linebackers must deal with the most difficult aspects of that learning.

“There’s been a noticeable improvement in terms of this starting to look like the defense we want this to look like as spring has gone on,” Elko said a week ago. “… Linebacker probably more than any other position, linebacker and safety, where the scheme takes some time to get used to, how you see it, how you fit it, how you feel it. Those guys have gotten better with that which has then allowed them to play faster as the spring has moved on.”

Sophomore Jonathan Jones will likely provide any further depth that may be needed in 2017, unless either of the incoming freshmen, David Adams and Drew White, excel from the outset. Irish coach Brian Kelly indicated sophomore Jamir Jones (no relation to Jonathan, but is former Notre Dame defensive lineman Jarron Jones’ brother) may be destined for time on the defensive line, in large part to Jones’s continued growth. Junior Josh Barajas let the spring come and go without mandating he be involved in these conversations, which may as well count as removing himself from the conversation in most regards.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame Was, Is & Could Be: Rover