DaVaris Daniels, Ricardo Allen

Predicting the twists and turns of spring

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Around this time of year, most Irish fans thought the worst was behind them. The sting of a lopsided defeat in the national title game had almost worn off. The shock of the Manti Te’o catfishing story had faded, and the Irish had just inked one of the top recruiting classes in the country. While Gunner Kiel had decided to transfer, it was because he saw a roadblock in front of him, with Everett Golson on track to be a four year starter.

You wouldn’t have been crazy to think that things were going to be relatively boring. Coming off a 12 win season, Brian Kelly and the Irish had as solid of a foundation that this program had seen since Lou Holtz.

Of course, plenty of things happened between now and then. But as we take this week off from spring practice as Notre Dame completes spring break, it’s worth pointing out that crazy things happen. Especially if you’re following this football team.

Nobody could predict a starting quarterback will be expelled for a semester. Or that a plug-and-play defensive lineman would sign his letter-of-intent and only then decide to stay closer to home.

But while the big bombs are as unpredictable now as ever, there were a few on field surprises that also qualified. As we get ready to restart spring, let’s take a trip down memory lane and find another few that would qualify:

  • Cam McDaniel would end up leading the team in rushing.
  • Greg Bryant wouldn’t be the impact freshman running back. Tarean Folston would.
  • The offensive line would be ravaged by injury… and no one would really notice.
  • Neither Stephon Tuitt nor Louis Nix would be All-American.
  • Even returning 8 starters, Bob Diaco‘s defense would take a huge step backwards.
  • After being given a starting job during spring, Matthias Farley would be out of one by bowl season.
  • Tommy Rees would be Top 30 in TD passes and yards per pass, but 96th in completion percentage.
  • Troy Niklas and George Atkinson would leave for the NFL early.

With new coordinators on both sides of the football, a different system on defense and a return to the spread on offense, there are so many variables still up for grabs. So while we’ve only seen a few brief snippets of spring work, there’s no better time for surprises than now.

Let’s walk through four surprises that wouldn’t shock me.

Greg Bryant ends up leading the team in touchdowns. 

It’s too early to tell if Bryant is as good as Irish fans hope, but he certainly has a unique skillset that might be very valuable in this offense. Passing to running backs hasn’t been a priority for Kelly’s offense in his first four seasons in South Bend. But Bryant’s got the hands to make plays out of the backfield, and a spread attack could give him some favorable match-ups.

He’s also got the necessary heft to take over the goal line carries, something that Cam McDaniel didn’t quite capitalize on last season. Add in Bryant likely taking over in the punt return game for TJ Jones and his chance to take as many carries as he can earn, and Bryant’s slow start to his career could be forgotten quickly.

DaVaris Daniels will go over 1,000 yards receiving. Somebody else will, too. 

It’s been almost a decade since Notre Dame had two 1,000 yard receivers. But in 2014, don’t be shocked if Brian Kelly’s offense finally produces two of them. After getting close with Michael Floyd and Tyler Eifert (who came up short with 802 yards in 2011), you need to go back to the duo of Jeff Samardzija and Maurice Stovall in 2005, Charlie Weis’ first season in South Bend.

While we won’t see him this spring, expect DaVaris Daniels to come back a new man, a semester away putting his priorities in order. Daniels has the talent to play in the NFL and if things go according to his plan, next season will be his last in South Bend.

Behind Daniels, it’ll be an interesting race to see who can get the touches to push for 1,000 yards. My early hunch? Rising sophomore Will Fuller, who has the downfield speed and diversity in his game to become a weapon in this offense. You don’t put up 26.7 yards per catch as a freshman if you don’t have some explosive ability, and more targets will mean yards in a hurry for Fuller.

Even without Stephon Tuitt and Prince Shembo, Notre Dame will match their 2012 sack total. 

If there was a disappointment last season, it’s that the Irish pass rush disappeared, dropping from 33 sacks in 2012 to a woeful 21 in 2013. Whether it was a lack of creativity, struggles from key personnel or offenses preparing for the Irish after a big 2012, expect things to be different.

Our first look at the Irish defense featured Ishaq Williams and Romeo Okwara playing on the edges while Jarron Jones and Sheldon Day lined up on the inside. Also expect Jaylon Smith to get a chance to come after the quarterback, the Irish’s best athlete given a chance to wreak havoc.

Kelly has talked about some exotic sub-packages that are being installed this spring. He’s also talked about not worrying about where the pass rush is coming from. This might be the ultimate compliment to VanGorder, who spent last season with Rex Ryan, one of the greats at disguising blitzes.

On defense, an unheralded veteran and a unproven newcomer will burst onto the scene. 

Okay, this one might be a little lame. But expect one of the veterans on this team to take the coaching change and run with it. The early candidates:

Chase Hounshell: It’s only a matter of time before Hounshell gets a good break. He’s a big, strong, athletic defensive lineman who just needs to stay healthy after shoulder injuries have ruined his past two seasons.

Tony Springmann: On the verge of breaking out, a major knee injury put Springmann’s career in jeopardy, though it looks like he’ll come back this fall. Big enough to play either inside or outside, Springmann could wreak havoc as a one-gap player.

Anthony Rabasa: The most likely candidate for the Junior Jabbie spring superstar award, Rabasa has a chance to be a contributor next season. He’s a good football player that now actually has a position in this defense.

Justin Utupo: Another undersized player who took advantage of his opportunities last year. Utupo has a chance to do big things, mostly because a depth chart that had a ton of depth in front of him has thinned out. Add that to a scheme change and Utupo is a fun wildcard to follow.

James Onwualu: The staff didn’t move Onwualu because they wanted to bury him on the depth chart. With everyone starting with a blank slate, expect the max effort, high speed Onwualu to make fans quickly this spring, giving the Irish a safety who can run with receivers and bang in the box.

Andrew Trumbetti: The door is open for Trumbetti to bring some pass rush skills to South Bend. He’ll have spring to prove he belongs, the summer to physically prepare, and fall camp to make his move into the lineup.

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…)