Spring Practice: Practice 11 breakdown

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A little Friday practice video gives us a good look at the rapidly improving wide receiver depth chart. After relying almost solely on TJ Jones last season, it looks like the Irish are going to be able to spread the field and pick their poison in the passing game.

Will Fuller looks ready to take a step forward. So does Corey Robinson, who just keeps getting better and better, with hands that look like Velcro. Amir Carlisle and CJ Prosise are intriuging options in the slot, while Chris Brown is another good option on the edge, a player that’ll have to fight for reps when DaVaris Daniels returns to the program.

The move of Onwualu likely confirms the confidence the Irish have in the players out wide. And while they’ll need to fill a really large vacancy left behind by Jones, the team’s MVP last season, it looks like they’ll be able to do it.

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0:15Jack Nolan sporting a nice zip up for his intro. Just as important, he reveals that the Irish did indeed get outside for two practices last week. For a team committed to fixing their special teams, it’s likely that both outdoor sessions gave Kyle Brindza and the return men (could that be a potential band name?) a chance at getting some much needed live work in.

Jack gives us the bad news that we’re out of practice reports, so we’re going to be blind until next weekend’s Blue-Gold game.

0:34 — A nice reminder: Set your DVR for Monday, April 7 at 6:30 p.m. ET for a special “Strong and True,” an inside look at spring practice on the NBC Sports Network.

0:46 — Welcome back, Nick Martin. The Irish’s starting center broke down the team for drills on Friday, wearing a helmet and jersey, but not in full gear. Multiple practice reports had Martin running the No. 1 offense when the team went to tempo drills, a nice sign that the rising senior is back and healthy after late season knee surgery.

1:03 — We see the Irish pass rush drills work on stripping the football, with tackling dummies armed with footballs. It’s noteworthy that defensive linemen, linebackers and defensive backs are all doing the tackling.

1:12 — That’s a good look at Everett Golson‘s fastball, as we go right over his shoulder as he throws a bullet to Corey Robinson on the curl route. Malik Zaire follows it up with a perfect ball to Greg Bryant, who releases late out of the backfield and crosses the imaginary linebackers.

1:19 — A cool drill to enforce staying low has Anthony Rabasa (56) matching up against tight end Durham Smythe (80) in blocking drills.

1:24 — Welcome back, Devin Butler. The rising sophomore cornerback was working out with the Irish in helmet and jersey. Butler took to social media to express his pleasure in getting back on the field three months removed from surgery, something that I’m sure made Brian Kelly happy.

1:28 — After watching (and rewatching) these videos all spring, there’s a distinctly different look to CJ Prosise than the other receivers on this roster. Physically, Prosise is a gigantic guy, with a lower body that looks like it should be on a linebacker.

He does a nice job running a speed out, though juggles the ball before coming up with it.

1:32 — Golson fires downfield to Corey Robinson and Cole Luke is up to the task, breaking up a vertical route.

1:36 — Now THAT’S the Amir Carlisle I thought the Irish were getting. The slot receiver looks mighty dangerous in the open field, cutting back against the grain against the reserve Irish secondary and getting loose.

Carlisle is a high character, highly skilled athlete. He might not be a true tailback, but there’s room in this offense for his skill set, especially as the Irish transition back to a speed/spread attack.

1:44 — If we were making Steve Elmer highlights this spring, not too many reps would take place against Sheldon Day. Day gets inside Elmer’s length and powers the guard back, all but dominating another rep.

Day could catch a lot of teams by surprise next season, wreaking havoc on the inside of the offensive line as he’s allowed to attack up field.

1:46 — Welcome to the party, James Onwualu (17). The converted wide receiver steps into the hole and lays a good stick on Greg Bryant, joined in the backfield by Michael Deeb.

1:48Mike Heuerman (9) breaks an out route off right in front of Elijah Shumate (22). Then Amir Carlisle does the same in front of Eilar Hardy.

1:53 — Good rep by Chase Hounshell (50), who works against Mike McGlinchey before being passed inside to Conor Hanratty. If you’re an Irish fan, you should be rooting for Hounshell, who has had horrendous luck as he’s had to work his way back from multiple shoulder surgeries that have kept him off the field for the better part of three seasons.

1:56 — McGlinchey kicks Ishaq Williams outside, easily deflecting the Irish’s defensive end.

1:57Chris Brown (2) hits the brakes and shakes off Connor Cavalaris before ripping down field on the deep route. You’re going to need some good protection to hit on that throw, but it’s a home run shot that Irish fans have been looking for from Brown since he did it against Oklahoma.

2:04 — On the roll, Zaire throws a perfect deep ball to Will Fuller (7) down the sidelines, connecting for a big play against the back-ups in the secondary.

2:07 — That rush of air you just heard? That was Ben Koyack (18) blowing by Nicky Baratti (29). If Koyack is given the chance to match up with a safety down field, Kelly and Mike Denbrock will like that opportunity.

2:10 — Speaking of open field, getting the ball to Greg Bryant down field might not be safe for Irish fans battling high blood pressure. Bryant eliminates space between him and Eilar Hardy, breaking off his route as Hardy bails out and makes an easy catch.

I’m having a hard time wondering how a defense can defend that play, and think (or hope) this could finally be the year where we see the Irish offense utilize their speed out of the backfield in the passing game.

2:16 — Not hard to see the difference between Cam McDaniel and Bryant. Matthias Farley stays in his backpedal before breaking nicely on the ball, making a great play for an interception.

2:22 — Robinson hits the brakes and makes a nice catch in front of Jalen Brown (21). The senior cornerback could see the field more with Rashad Kinlaw’s dismissal.

2:27Romeo Okwara drops the BOOM! on Hunter Bivin (70). It’s still really weird seeing anybody else wearing Zack Martin’s number, especially in a collision like that.

That’s an impressive rep by Okwara.

2:31 — That’s the Playstation 3 version of Greg Bryant. Wait, that’s the REAL version of Greg Bryant. Great cut and ability to accelerate and get up field. That one looked like it could’ve gone the distance.

2:34 — He might not have all the size in the world, but Justin Utupo (53) is a disruptive player. He might be able to do some damage on the interior of the defensive line, especially taking limited snaps.

2:37 — That’s a lot of power on display by Jarron Jones, pushing Mark Harrell back into the imaginary quarterback.

2:40Isaac Rochell (90) gets underneath John Montelus (60) and pushes the big guard backwards. That’s a solid rep by Rochell, who could play a lot of football this season.

2:43 — Great catch, Chris Brown.

2:46Tarean Folston (25) shakes and bakes Max Redfield (10) split out wide. Folston looks pretty natural split wide as well.

2:50 — One of our first looks at Andrew Trumbetti (98), going up against starting left tackle Ronnie Stanley. Not bad, kid.

2:56 — Zaire connects with Brown behind linebacker Michael Deeb and beneath the safeties. A nice downfield gain for the offense.

3:00 — Another look at Colin McGovern (62) another good looking rep. He loses his balance a little late against Anthony Rabasa, but recovers nicely.

3:03 — That’s a pattern we haven’t seen too often by Will Fuller. From the looks of it, Josh Atkinson hadn’t either. Nice move to shake open for the easy catch.

3:07 — That’s more like it, Steve Elmer.

3:12 — Even a jersey grab can’t help Jalen Brown against Corey Robinson, who makes a ridiculous circus catch for a big gainer.

Big Bird is going to be a good one.

 

 

 

 

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line

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Heading into spring practice, a quick look was taken at each position group in order of “expected level of interest or question marks,” from least interesting to most, as dictated by an “Inside the Irish” reader. That series concluded with the defensive line.

Exiting spring practice, let’s reprise that premise and reverse the order. If the defensive line triggered the most questions, then answering them first seems to make some version of sense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
“Will enough defensive linemen prove themselves deserving of playing time to create a viable threat up front?” this space asked. “If so, who will those linemen be?”

RELATED READING: One day until spring practice: A look at the defensive line

Aside from senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26 tackles last season, 0.5 for loss), senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss amid a season lost largely to concussion) and junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37, 3), the Irish defensive line had little track record to cite or rely upon for confidence. Leading the unknowns and unprovens were sophomore ends Daelin Hayes, who recorded 11 tackles in 2016, and Julian Okwara (4).

The lack of depth and experience was apparent heading into the 15 spring practices.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
Look past the 11 sacks in the Blue-Gold Game. Intrasquad scrimmages featuring red-jerseyed quarterbacks make for inexact and context-less statistics. There is some value, however, in noting the defensive line got within reach of the quarterback at least eight times in an abbreviated game. (Three “sacks” came from the linebacker corps.)

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, just buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

RELATED READING: What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

Hayes led the way with three sacks, and he will be expected to continue that in the fall, starting at the weakside/rush defensive end spot. Exiting spring, though, only he and Tillery solidified themselves as starters. Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Mike Elko claimed a successful spring for the front.

“I’m happy with our defensive line progress,” Elko said Friday. “Obviously there was a lot written about that group. I’m happy about the progress they’ve made this spring. I think [defensive line coach] Mike [Elston] has done a good job developing them. I think they are buying into the way we want to play defense. There’s probably four to five guys on the inside that are starting to get into a position where we feel comfortable that they can step in and help us.” (more…)

Brian Kelly & Jack Swarbrick on Notre Dame’s changes moving forward

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Whether 2016’s disappointing 4-8 finish was the impetus to program-wide alterations at Notre Dame this offseason, it certainly underscored the need. For the last few months, Irish coach Brian Kelly has focused those changes on himself and self-assessment, and he reiterated that approach when talking with PFT Live’s Mike Florio early Monday morning.

“This is my 27th year of being a head coach, and prior to last year I had one losing season,” Kelly said. “You have a way of doing things, you have a system in place, you follow that year after year. Certainly you make tweaks along the way, but this is the first time where I’ve really taken a step back and made substantial changes in terms of how I’m doing things on a day-to-day basis…

“From my perspective, after being at it as long as I have, you have to take it on yourself that you’re the one that needs to make the corrections. It’s not the players.”

None of this is new. Kelly has been consistent in his springtime messaging, but others have looked past the effects of the 4-8 record and insist the changes were coming regardless of the win-loss totals. Senior captain Drue Tranquill, for example, acknowledged the severity of the losing record Friday but argued adjustments were needed no matter what the final scores were.

“If you have an average season like 8-4, some things might carry over to the next season,” Tranquill said the day before the spring practice finale. “Whereas when you go 4-8, something has to change.

“But I think even at Notre Dame, 8-4 is never really acceptable or tolerated. Those things that were taking place, just within our culture, would have been noticed whether we were 10-3, 4-8. The criticism gave it a lot more hype and juice. We could kind of feel as guys in the program throughout the past three years that certain things needed to change.

“Those things were finally brought to light and it happened to be during a 4-8 season. I don’t necessarily know that 4-8 was the reason all this change happened.”

New Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko expressed a similar sentiment Friday morning, discussing the pressure moving forward.

“If we were coming off a 12-0 season in which we were competing for the national championship, there would be pressure on us at Notre Dame to be successful this year,” Elko said. “That’s Notre Dame.”

Elko has been a quick study, as his comments were echoed the next day by Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick during NBC Sports Network’s broadcast of the Blue-Gold Game.

“We expect to compete for national championships and 4-8 is not acceptable,” Swarbrick said. “On the other hand, when you’re in that situation, you have to decide how you’re going to move forward. We decided to move forward by making a major investment in retooling our program with Brian as the leader of it. That’s not a one-year investment for us. We brought in some talented assistant coaches. We rebuilt elements of the program

“We view it as a multi-year investment going forward.”

KELLY ON RECRUITING PITCH
Using this week’s NFL Draft as a peg, Florio also asked Kelly about balancing players’ NFL aspirations with team success both in the recruiting process and during the actual season.

“We have to talk more in terms of process over production,” Kelly responded. “We talk in terms of you’re coming to Notre Dame for a reason. You’re going to get a degree, which will set you up for the rest of your life, and you’re going to play on the grandest stage at Notre Dame, so everybody will see you.

“As long as there’s the balance there—and there has to be that balance in terms of getting your education and playing for championships—then we’re okay. It’s when that balance is out of whack, we’ll have an issue. We vet that out in the recruiting process and make sure we don’t take any kids that are coming to Notre Dame just because they’re waiting for that [junior] year to complete so they can go to the draft.”

A reminder: The NFL Draft begins with its first round Thursday night. Kelly will be joining former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer at the draft in Philadelphia to await Kizer’s destination and future employer.

MISSED THE BLUE-GOLD GAME?
It is available for streaming: here.

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?

What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

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Time spent on a traditional game wrap of a spring intrasquad exhibition seems misspent. Gold won Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game 27-14 led by rising sophomore quarterback Ian Book. The first-string defense (Gold) held the first-string offense to an average of 5.4 yards per play. For context’s sake: Last season Notre Dame gained an average of 6.1 yards per play and held opponents to 5.4.

With that abbreviated recap out of the way, what did Saturday’s pseudo-game environment show about the Irish? If the 20,147 in attendance paid attention, they had the chance to learn a few things:

Daelin Hayes will be ready to hit a quarterback in September
Notre Dame’s quarterbacks were off limits all spring. Bulls might charge when they see red, but the Irish defensive line has had to remember to ease up when they come across a quarterback’s red jersey. If sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes had forgotten that Saturday, Notre Dame might not have any quarterbacks left to play in the fall.

“At the end of the day, we’re on the same team,” Hayes said, dismissing any bitterness about the quarterbacks’ protections. “We have to keep our guys healthy. I wasn’t frustrated, but come September 2, you know.”

Officially, Hayes was credited with three sacks and another tackle for loss among his seven tackles. Admittedly, gauging sacks is tricky when the quarterback does not actually go to the ground. How many of Hayes’ three sacks and the defense’s 11 total would have been evaded if the defender needed to do more than touch the passer? That answer is highly subjective, but discounting Hayes’ numbers would miss the bigger picture.

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

Senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) notched two sacks and sophomore end Ade Ogundeji came the closest to tackling a red jersey when he stripped junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush from behind. The defensive line has been expected to be a weak point for the Irish moving forward, but the spring performance indicates it has a chance at holding its own. These accomplishments bear further merit considering Notre Dame’s offensive line is widely-considered one of its few spots of expected quality.

RELATED READING: Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

“I think it’s pretty clear Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I’d have to watch the film, but it seemed like [sophomore end] Julian Okwara was a hard guy to block coming off the edge, as well.”

Ian Book provides some peace of mind
Book was not spectacular, but he was also far from incompetent or intimidated. In his first action on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, Book completed 18-of-25 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by a 58-yard connection with sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. Meanwhile, junior Brandon Wimbush completed 22-of-32 passes for 303 yards.

Bluntly, one has not needed to follow Notre Dame for very long to fit that “long enough” qualification. Last season’s backup, Malik Zaire, saw competitive action against both Texas and Stanford. In 2015, DeShone Kizer came off the bench to start 11 games after Zaire suffered a season-ending ankle injury. (more…)