Notre Dame at USC

Open Practice update: Saturday’s Six Pack of observations

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Saturday morning, Notre Dame’s practice was open to visiting coaches and local media. That means a slew of reports coming in and one guy (me) to read everything and give you some interesting observations.

While I wasn’t in South Bend for a two hour window into spring installation, consider this a trip around the horn as we piece together interesting insights and observations from the Irish’s fifth spring practice.

Here’s your bonus Saturday six pack after an open spring practice.

1. John Turner is no longer a forgotten man. 

I’m resisting the urge to turn him into a spring star, if only because we’ve had breakout spring sensations turn into pumpkins before. (Remember when Kona Schwenke had overtaken Louis Nix for the starting nose guard job?)

But Turner has clearly found a niche in Brian VanGorder’s defense, and the rising junior seems to be taking advantage of his opportunities.

“He’s been given a great opportunity here. We all knew about his physical ability. Now he’s been given a chance that is an incredible opportunity,” Brian Kelly said after practice Saturday. “We knew he had the ability to do it. Now he’s been given the chance to do it. I don’t know if he really had the chance last year, to be quite honest with you.”

After struggling to build a personnel package that allowed the Irish to match up well in nickel and dime sets early in his time in South Bend, just about every viewing window into practice has shown the Irish playing from various sub-packages. With a lot of talented players in the back end of the defense, Turner looks like he’s filling a role as a nickel linebacker with coverage skills and the ability to tackle.

Converted wide receiver James Onwualu spent quite a bit of practice there as well.

2. Amir Carlisle has recaptured his mojo. 

One look at the latest UND.com practice report gives you an idea of Amir Carlisle’s resurgence after a tough 2013 season. Spending his time exclusively at the slot receiver position, Carlisle was a reliable target, making multiple tough catches in traffic and being utilized in the passing game.

Kelly talked about the step forward Carlisle’s taken now that he’s plugged in at the slot.

“He’s just kind of going through the process of finding a home in a sense,” Kelly said. “Last year he didn’t really get into a rhythm offensively at running back, and then he’s playing a little bit of slash slot.

“Now he’s playing full-time at the receiver position. I think he’s getting into a consistent role. I think that’s very, very important for him. It’s helping a lot.”

Carlisle broke his collarbone early last spring, shortening his developmental process in the Irish offense. Getting all 15 practices this spring will really help him focus on the nuances of the position while building a rapport with his quarterbacks.

We’re still a long way from the last day of August. But Carlisle is a really talented football player who might now be playing the right position for him.

3. Everett Golson still has a little rust on him. 

It’s hard for some Irish fans to remember, but in the last three years Everett Golson has only played in 12 football games. Twelve? Twelve. (And three of those, he failed to break the 50 percent marker in passing accuracy.)

So while everybody expected Golson to immediately be the tonic that solved the Irish’s offensive struggles, it’s going to take more than five practices for Golson to get on the same page with a rebuilt offense.

“I don’t think he’s feeling comfortable yet. I think he’s still trying to find that,” Kelly said. “He doesn’t have any of the guys. He doesn’t have TJ. Daniels isn’t here. All the guys that he had a little bit of that timing with, he’s working with all new guys. He doesn’t have any of that. It’s really like he’s working with a whole new cast of characters in that sense.”

The early reviews from Saturday’s open practice called Golson more steady than spectacular. But any sense that the rebuilding defense would be overwhelmed by a high-powered offense this spring hasn’t happened yet, as the timing has been off and the offense is far from hitting on all cylinders.

4. Even though Golson will win the starting job, Malik Zaire could have an important role in this offense.

One of the biggest surprises of spring camp seems to be the athleticism of Malik Zaire. Put candidly, he’s a far more dynamic athlete in the open field than Golson. That shocks a lot of people, and could give Kelly and offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock another fancy car in the garage as they start to game plan for next season.

After all the grumbling about patching together the offense with multiple quarterbacks, Tim Prister of Irish Illustrated asked Kelly after practice Saturday if he’d be comfortable doing it again in 2014. The answer shouldn’t surprise you.

“I’ll do anything to win. If I felt like when we got to August, that is where we were, I’m all in,” Kelly said. “I can handle that. I think the ideal situation is one, but (Zaire) definitely has shown in himself to be ready to compete in some of those areas that you mentioned. I want to see him compete in all those areas. That’s a really good thing.”

5. Don’t expect Christian Lombard’s injury to cost him a starting job. 

After some speculation across the interwebs had Christian Lombard’s wrist injury a potential Wally Pipp situation, Kelly threw some cold water on that Saturday afternoon, all but assuring his return to the starting lineup at right guard.

“I would think he’d be really hard to beat out. He’s such a veteran, a senior,” Kelly said. “It just puts Harry (Hiestand) back to nine guys again, which he’s used to, unfortunately. Just makes us thinner at offensive line. You’d be hard-pressed to get a guy to unseat Lombard in there, he’s such a tough guy.”

While Conor Hanratty will do a solid job filling in to finish spring practice for Lombard and Matt Hegarty is doing the same at center for Nick Martin, it appears that the offensive line is coming together.

Ronnie Stanley, LT
Steve Elmer, LG
Nick Martin, C
Christian Lombard, RG
Mike McGlinchey, RT

6. KeiVarae Russell expects the team to play a whole bunch of man coverage. 

Notre Dame’s best cornerback was available to the media after practice and opened up about the difference in responsibilities for cornerbacks under Brian VanGorder. Put simply? There’s going to be a lot more man coverage.

BlueandGold.com’s Lou Somogyi caught up with the fast-talking cornerback, who sounded more than excited about the opportunity to play aggressively in VanGorder’s defense after mostly playing zone coverage under Bob Diaco.

“Coach D, he wanted to keep everything in front because big plays really cause losing,” Russell told Blue & Gold. “In 2012 we played a lot of zone as well, but we didn’t give up any big plays. Last year, the games we lost … it’s always big plays that cost us.

“Coach D’s philosophy was great but we never could really cause many turnovers just because we weren’t really aggressive. This one, there will be a lot of turnovers caused … (VanGorder) wants you to cover every single route. Two-yard curl, he wants you on it. That’s his mind-set: Don’t give them anything.

“Coach Diaco, it was more, ‘Give them this, give them that, give them the five-yard out, because it won’t beat us.’ Coach Diaco believes that big plays cause losing, and Coach VanGorder is, ‘Whatever happens, happens. But we want you on it and go from there.'”

Most that have seen Cody Riggs play expect him to walk in and play immediately at corner or nickel back. Cole Luke has the ability to be a very good cover corner. While Devin Butler recovers from shoulder surgery, the Irish staff got great things out of him during his freshman season. Sprinkle in contributors like Matthias Farley and this is the deepest cornerback group I can remember in South Bend.

 

 

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…)

Four-star WR Micah Jones chooses Irish; Rees may need to wait; Other late-week reading

jones
rivals.com
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A day may come when Notre Dame suffers a recruiting disappointment in the 2018 cycle, when a high school star spurns the Irish coaching staff for a foe, but it is not this day.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township High School; Gurnee, Ill.) committed to Notre Dame on Friday, joining a class of now 10 recruits, including four who committed just this week.

Jones chose the Irish over offers from the likes of Iowa, Michigan State and Ole Miss, among others.

He is the first receiver among the 10 commitments and the seventh considered a four-star prospect. At 6-foot-5, 196 pounds, Jones should present a large target for whomever the Notre Dame quarterback is in the fall of 2018, most likely then-senior Brandon Wimbush.

Tom, Tommy or Thomas; Assistant Coach or Graduate Assistant?
Thomas Rees may need to wait a season before officially being a coach at Notre Dame. The legislation to approve a 10th assistant coach was expected to be voted on, passed and effective in April. A newly-added amendment may push the effective date to following the 2017 season. The amendment will be voted on immediately before the legislation itself is.

The delay makes sense. Most coaching hirings and firings occur in December and January. In theory, creating a one-timing hiring frenzy following spring football could leave many programs in the lurch. In practice, however, this is not anticipated.

“The majority of the FBS guys that I’ve talked with currently believe that 10th coach is going to come from within their own organization,” Todd Berry told the Associated Press. Berry is the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association and former coach at Army and Louisiana-Monroe. “Quality control, graduate assistants, analysts, or they’re planning on hiring somebody that’s out of work.”

A majority is not a unanimity, though, and that carousel will innately work to the disadvantage of the Group of 5 schools.

As for Rees, a graduate assistant can still work extensively with players. The most-pertinent difference between a graduate assistant and an assistant coach is the former cannot recruit. Given Notre Dame’s recent success on the recruiting trail—and the early commitment of class of 2018 consensus four-star quarterback Phil Jurkovec (Pine-Richland H.S.; Gibsonia, Pa.)—Rees may not be an absolute necessity in that regard this cycle.

A Kizer Appraisal
Former NFL scout Greg Gabriel took a look at former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer this week, largely paying the draft prospect compliments.

In calling Kizer “the most talented quarterback in this draft class,” Gabriel set a high ceiling for Kizer’s spring. Part of Gabriel’s positive assessment comes from acknowledging Kizer’s responsibilities as the Irish signal-caller.

“The spread offense that Kizer played in at Notre Dame is more sophisticated than many of the spread offenses we see elsewhere at the collegiate level. The Notre Dame offense is a whole-field read scheme in which the quarterback has to go through a progression that encompasses both sides of the field. He also can change the play and/or protections at the line of scrimmage. Given all that, Kizer was asked to do more than many spread quarterbacks are asked to do.”

Gabriel also reflected on the dynamic differences for Kizer in 2015 and 2016 and what may have elicited some of his seeming stagnation.

“There was the unnecessary quarterback controversy at Notre Dame, and the offensive line wasn’t as experienced or as talented and the receivers were mostly first-year starters.”

As much as Gabriel raves about Kizer, he would be the first to tell you anything beyond individual player evaluation is a waste of air this early in the draft process. Mock drafts may be fun, but they are not much beyond that.

Take the fates of Tony Romo and Jimmy Garoppolo, for example. Few, if any, in the NFL expect them to dress for the Cowboys and Patriots, respectively, again. Where they end up could directly impact Kizer’s draft placement.

Jaylon Smith May Be Back to Form
Former Notre Dame and current Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith posted yet another encouraging video to Twitter. This one shows Smith really might be game-ready right now and, if not, almost certainly will be by the fall. Should there be any difficulty with the embedded video below, here is a link straight to it.

OL Mabry makes third commitment this week; WR Jones may follow Friday

mabry
rivals.com
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Two weeks ago, Irish coach Brian Kelly gave a non-answer of an answer to a question about a likely early signing period this coming December. Avoiding specifics, he indicated he thinks the effects of such a change will be seen on a case-by-case basis entirely dependent on the recruits.

“Some will, some won’t,” Kelly said. “…Each kid is going to have to react to it based upon also how their school is going to be dealing with it. Some will come off the board at the time.

“We’re expecting some to sign early, but I think our mindset is we’re going into it business as usual. We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

After this week, Notre Dame is going to have more year-long fights than anticipated. Consensus three-star offensive lineman recruit Cole Mabry (Brentwood High School; Brentwood, Tenn.) became the third prospect to offer a verbal commitment to the Irish coaching staff in less than 36 hours with his Wednesday decision. Mabry received the offer over the weekend, but waited a few days before making his decision public, lest emotions be dictating his thought process.

At 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds, Mabry will have time to add muscle to his frame, with four or five offensive tackles greeting him on the Notre Dame roster in the summer of 2018. That ability to mold his style and growth may have played a part in the Irish interest.

“They love my height and athleticism and how I play,” Mabry told rivals.com. “We got to break down film and go through things that they do that pair up with how I play now. They think I’ll be a great fit in their offense.”

Mabry is the ninth Notre Dame commitment in the class of 2018, though the first offensive lineman.

Judging by new Notre Dame director of football performance Matt Balis’s agenda for the Irish roster’s Valentine’s Day morning, Mabry will have much to look forward to in terms of strength and conditioning.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township H.S.; Gurnee, Ill.) is scheduled to announce his verbal commitment this Friday at 4 p.m. ET. Along with Notre Dame, Jones is considering Iowa, Michigan State, Nebraska, Ole Miss, Illinois and Northwestern. He would be the first receiver in Notre Dame’s 2018 class. Naturally, whomever Jones commits to, the recruiting fight will last until at least December, and perhaps all the way to February.