Everett Golson

Pregame Six Pack: 85th annual Blue-Gold game

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Welcome back to football. And what easier way back into it than a guaranteed Irish victory. After a long offseason, Notre Dame fans near and far will get their annual spring checkup on their favorite football team. What they’ll see? Well, that might not be that simple.

Everett Golson is back, a long journey completed after last taking the field as the presumed starter in the 84th annual Blue-Gold game. He’s joined by Malik Zaire on the scholarship depth chart, with both signal callers expected to get an extended look on Saturday.

What will Brian Kelly choose to show? That’s not entirely clear, either. After talking up an up-tempo attack and the evolution of the offense to a full-scale spread attack, it’s hard to expect Kelly to show off too many of the cards up his sleeve, especially with a national broadcast and a hungry fanbase that’ll dissect every snap taken.

But why sweat the small stuff? After one of the worst winters in memory, there’s football in Notre Dame Stadium, with a live blog hosted here and the game available to view both on NBC Sports Network and on NBCSports.com starting at 12:30 p.m. EDT. (Here’s an early-bird link to the game.)

Here’s your pregame six pack. As usual, here are six tidbits, fun facts, leftovers and miscellaneous musings before the Irish do battle for Blue-Gold glory. 

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First off, let’s take a look at the rules.

You might need an accounting degree to understand this year’s scoring system. But let’s start with the easy stuff.

The first half will be close to real football. Each quarter will be two 12-minute periods, with normal clock rules. The second half will be running time, with the quarters set for 15 minutes each.

The offense’s scoring system is as follows:

Field goal: 3 points
Touchdown: 6 points
Extra Point: 1 point
2-point Conversion: 2 points
Big Chunk Pass (20+ yards): 2 points
Big Chunk Run (15+): 2 points
Two consecutive first downs: 2 points

This is how the defense scores points:

Defensive Stop Before 50-yard line: 4 points
Defensive Stop After the 50-yard line: 2 points
Turnover Forced Before 50-yard line: 7 points
Turnover Forced After 50-yard line: 3 points
Forces a Field Goal (Make or Miss): 1 point
Three-and-out: 2 points

Make sense? Good, you can explain it to me during the live blog.

***

Irish fans excited to see Brian VanGorder’s defense? Don’t get your hopes up. 

Notre Dame’s new defensive coordinator will be on display this Saturday, Irish fan’s first opportunity to see the changes Brian VanGorder made to Bob Diaco’s system. Some will be obvious: Expect to see the Irish mostly in four-down sets. Some will be most subtle: Nickel and Dime sub-packages could be plentiful.

But for those expecting to see VanGorder throw the kitchen sink at the Irish offense, don’t hold your breath.

For the first time in five seasons, the Irish will head into the season with the advantage of having VanGorder’s system a mystery to opponents. What tape do you study? A season under Gene Chizik at Auburn? Rex Ryan’s defense will the Jets? Old film from the Atlanta Falcons? Even older tape from the beginning of the Mark Richt era at Georgia?

The first conversation I had with former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco was a month after the new coaching staff’s first spring game in South Bend. When I asked him how his defense played, he carefully responded, “They did a nice job doing what we asked them to do.” I kindly asked him to explain. Diaco then confided that they played a scheme that they’d never play again, simply for the purpose of not giving anything away.

Don’t expect the attitude to change, especially with a young, unproven personnel group.

***

Thanks to a razor thin depth chart, we should see plenty of Everett Golson and Malik Zaire. 

The quarterbacks will be off limits. But thanks to a scholarship depth chart that’s exactly two deep, we should see plenty of Everett Golson and Malik Zaire on Saturday (and walk-on Charlie Fiessinger). This is hardly Golson’s triumphant return, with a scrimmage far from making this “finished business.” But the rising senior will be in his first game-like situation, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the South Carolina native wants to put on a show for the fans.

The same can be said for Zaire. After providing one of the rare highlights in last year’s Blue-Gold game with a nice touchdown pass, Zaire won’t have the opportunity to fully take advantage of his skill set if he’s off limits, but he’ll need to show full command of the offense put into his hands.

We just talked about the fact that Brian VanGorder might not throw the type of exotic blitzes he’s known for at the Irish offense on Saturday. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t doing it this spring.

I want our quarterbacks to see it all,” Kelly said earlier this week. “They have seen more exotics, more things than they will see next year at any one time, and it’s difficult on them. It’s really hard on them, but I’d rather have it be difficult, so when I go into that meeting, we have great meetings that we can teach off of and learn off of, and get better at. Our quarterbacks understand that.

“What they’re seeing is really some 500-level stuff. It’s all good stuff, and I’d rather have it that way than have them line up like ducks and then we get to the fall and it’s the first time I’ve ever seen that, coach. 
It’s hard, it’s made for some tough meetings, but I think it’s really good teaching in the spring. I’d rather be teaching in those meetings than just saying this is pretty easy.”

***

Even after a disappointing slide to four losses, Brian Kelly is still viewed among the elite. 

It’s that time of year where arbitrary lists and rankings get plenty of attention. Or at least this one should. Athlon released their rankings for all 128 college football coaches and as you may or may not have expected, Brian Kelly was close to the top.

Kelly slotted in at No. 9 in the rankings, falling in just behind Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio (who if it weren’t for a play called Little Giants, would be winless against the Irish head coach.)

Here’s the top 10:

1. Nick Saban
2. Urban Meyer
3. Steve Spurrier
4. Bob Stoops
5. Art Briles
6. Bill Snyder
7. Jimbo Fischer
8. Mark Dantonio
9. Brian Kelly
10. Gus Malzahn

Stanford’s David Shaw comes in at No. 12, Louisville’s Bobby Petrino at No. 16, Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald at No. 18, Arizona State’s Todd Graham at No. 19. Michigan’s Brady Hoke is No. 38 and USC’s Steve Sarkisian is No. 44. That’s a lot of coaching talent on next year’s schedule.

***

 What in the name of Junior Jabbie? Will we actually learn anything on Saturday?

For every revealing spring game there’s a breakout performer like Junior Jabbie, the anonymous back-up running back who burst onto the scene like a supernova, but never appeared again. There are plenty of chances for that to happen this year, with a stable of walk-on running backs likely carrying the ball in the second half and Charlie Fiessenger probably running the second half show as well.

But a quick look back at last year’s game revealed some interesting tidbits. First, the special teams were a mess. Second, the running game was still trying to figure out exactly what it was.

Mostly, the feeling at the game was one different than most. The Irish were settled. They were coming off a 12-1 season. They had their starting quarterback ready to take the next step.

It’s different,” Golson told Alex Flanagan after the game. “But along with that comes responsibility. One of the things I’m trying to do this year is lead this team.”

Obviously, the trap door hadn’t opened yet. But expect a more business-like performance on Saturday, even if we won’t know what any of this actually means.

***

Even with changes on his staff and roster, Kelly seems all in. 

Earlier this week, CBS Sports’ Jeremy Fowler sat down with Brian Kelly and picked the head coach’s brain. In a wide ranging conversation where Kelly talked about Declan Sullivan (Kelly delivered the keynote at the memorial fund’s annual dinner), Kelly also talked about some lighter things.

A growing duel over surfboards in offices with Bob Stoops, and a recent foursome at Augusta National with Tom Brady (no big deal, Charlie Weis isn’t the only Notre Dame coach that gets to hang with the Patriots)!

Kelly opened up about things big and small about life at Notre Dame.Do yourself a favor and read the entire article, but here are a few snippets that I found very interesting:

Kelly talked with Brady specifically about the workload that exists in the NFL.

As if that four-putt somewhere on Amen Corner wasn’t humbling enough for Kelly, who shot 91, Brady asked Kelly if players today understood the difficulty of making an NFL roster. Most of them have “no idea,” Kelly realized.

“They are putting in 10 hours a day,” Kelly said of NFL players. “Right now, college guys are putting in maybe 10 to 12 hours a week [because of NCAA rules].”

Kelly’s evaluation of this team also was worth noting, a distinct difference between the team that could have three first round draft picks.

“It’s not really a top-heavy NFL Draft pick team, but this might be our most talented top to bottom,” Kelly told Fowler.

Perhaps Kelly’s most revealing detail was just how important he feels the quarterback is in his system. After noticing how quickly Florida State was able to turn the tables with Jameis Winston (and the fact that Kelly himself rode a young quarterback to the BCS title game), he talked about the essential nature of a good quarterback in college football.

“It’s all about the quarterback,” Kelly told Fowler. “Manage the pocket. He’s got to have answers.”

We’ll get our first extended look as to whether Golson and Zaire have those answers on Saturday afternoon.

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…)