Spring Preview: Michigan Wolverines

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September 6, 2014. Mark the date in your calendar.

Notre Dame’s last shot at vengeance against Michigan, the foil to the Irish over the last handful of seasons, with almost every loss being more painful than the next. Because just as the modern “kinda rivalry” escalates in hatred, it will take a break.

Athletic directors Jack Swarbrick and Dave Brandon couldn’t find common ground to continue the series, so it’ll take a break until at least 2020, far too long for football fans getting used to seeing these two programs duke it out in early September.

While Brady Hoke and the Wolverines have had Notre Dame’s number in early September, they’ve struggled once the calendar hit October. After winning 11 games in his first season in Ann Arbor, Hoke has stumbled in his next two seasons, losing 11 games the last two years. He’s made changes on his coaching staff, letting go of veteran offensive coordinator Al Borges this offseason, though he’s still got question marks all across his program.

To get us up to speed on the Michigan program, Adam Biggers from Maize N Brew was kind enough to give us a spring update. In an offseason of critical importance to the Wolverines, Biggers gives us a really interesting look at a program that appears close to a tipping point.

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After winning 11 games in his first season, Brady Hoke has put together disappointing back-to-back seasons in Ann Arbor. He made a big change in the offseason firing Al Borges and bringing in Doug Nussmeier.

Can you give Notre Dame fans a “Hot Seat” check? Is it possible Hoke gets fired after this season? 

This season is without question a make-or-break year for Hoke. Some have viewed Nussmeier’s hiring as Plan B—should things go south for Hoke, who probably has to win at least eight or nine games, including a win over a rival (ND, MSU, OSU), to save his job.

Hoke’s a likable guy who treats his players well, according to what I’ve seen and heard. But Rich Rodriguez was a nice guy, too. Wins matter. But so does development. If the team doesn’t mature—particularly the O-line—and fails to notch victories over quality competition, then we could easily see Hoke depart. Michigan fans are getting restless.

Doug Nussmeier’s hiring was one of the biggest splashes of the offseason, though some reports had him leaving Alabama regardless. What’s expected out of Nussmeier? Is this Hoke doubling down on the power football that he promised to bring with him to Ann Arbor?

Honestly, I think the hiring of Nussmeier was a bit premature—but it was necessary. Al Borges (OC) couldn’t get a hold on the running backs, and an awful O-line didn’t make things easier. Really, it’s a wonder that Darrell Funk (OL) didn’t lose his job before Borges got canned. But that’s how it goes. Dave Brandon, the AD, and Hoke needed someone who’d bring the familiar smash-mouth attitude.

Nussmeier proved himself at Alabama and, believe it or not, has similar talent to work with in Ann Arbor. Unrealistic, maybe, but Nussmeier is expected to get this show on the road TODAY. Blame his past success for that. He can’t fall into the “youth” excuses, which have been quite common with Hoke. Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith are too talented to rot in a dreadful backfield. Nussmeier won’t let that happen.

It’s tough for Nussmeier to do anything without his quarterback situation figured out. Is this Devin Gardner’s job still? Is Shane Morris a viable option? Was it an open competition during spring practice?

Gardner is competitor and intelligent student of the game. But he’s far from ideal for Nussmeier’s system. He’ll get his shot, but don’t count on his senior status being enough to cement the job. Morris could easily press for the role. That being said, it’s obviously Gardner’s job to lose. The future seems bright for Wolverines quarterbacks. Michigan and Gardner are probably hoping the “future” is next year. Morris got the nod in the BWW Bowl, but that’s been about it. After him, it’s Wilton Speight, a true frosh, and Russell Bellomy…

The offensive line will need to replace Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield. The running game was a mess last season. What’s going to make it improve?

Well, that’s the big question. Any suggestions on your end?!

Erik Magnuson generated a little buzz prior to injuring his shoulder—he actually played with a bad shoulder for the latter half of 2013. He’s expected to make a full recovery and compete for the LT position. He’ll probably win it, but Mason Cole, a true freshman, may push for the job. At the very least, he’d serve as a quality No. 2. As for Schofield at RT, the Wolverines have a few (hopefully) interchangeable parts: David Dawson, Logan Tuley-Tillman, Ben Braden, Ben Pliska, Kyle Bosch and a few others. I’m expecting a carousel this fall.

Improvement will come as continuity develops. I know it sounds cliche, but I these guys have to genuinely like each other in order to put their bodies on the line each week (during games and practice). I don’t believe everyone was on the same page in 2013, especially the O-line.

What’s Greg Mattison working with this season? He loses a few key pieces on his defensive line and in the secondary, but returns a lot of talent as well. Is this a group that’s expected to anchor the team?

If Jabrill Peppers is as-advertised, the Wolverines secondary will get a huge boost—and it’s already pretty solid without the 5-star super recruit.

The defensive backs will most certainly anchor Mattison’s defense, which has great depth at linebacker—and Jake Ryan making his return from an ACL injury—and two possible stars up front: Ondre Pipkins and Willie Henry. And then there’s always Brennen Beyer, who can play DE and OLB. Michigan’s defense was ranked No. 13 in total defense this past season (yeah, I couldn’t believe it either–but it’s true!)

Just how crazy do you think this year’s Notre Dame-Michigan game will be? After holding court and winning both night home games in Ann Arbor, both teams will get a very big test in the season’s second weekend. Does this one mean more considering the indefinite break in the series after this year?

This one is megalithic!

The end. Over. Done with. For college football’s sake, these guys need to iron out a deal and keep this seasonal rivalry intact. Saturdays aren’t Saturdays if you can’t watch Notre Dame vs. Michigan. I’m hoping that this game excites the powers that be to the point where they immediately announce the Irish and Wolverines will play FOREVER.

Jokes aside, this game is important, historical and a bit sad. Let’s hope it’s not the last.

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For more coverage on the Wolverines, check out Maize and Brew and give Adam a follow on Twitter @AdamBiggers81.

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

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This space has mentioned a few times the dearth of returning sacks among Notre Dame’s defensive line. It is a pertinent fact—no returning Irish defensive lineman recorded a sack in the 2016 season—but it fails to mention the flipside of that.

Most of Notre Dame’s defensive linemen had few, if any, opportunities to rush the passer in 2016. Perhaps at the top of the list of those who should bring down the opposing passer a few times this fall, sophomore Daelin Hayes has laid claim to a starting rush spot through five spring practices.

“The athleticism is what obviously stands out,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “He’s extremely athletic, he’s fit physically, 250 pounds and very strong.”

These facts are, after all, the reasons Hayes was a highly sought-after five-star recruit according to rivals.com.

“It’s the football knowledge, learning the techniques at the position in which he plays is really the piece,” Kelly continued. “It’s just learning right now for him. This is the time to do it, in spring ball.

“Squeezing down on a tight end when the back is away. Wrong-arming the puller. These are all football terms and schemes that are a bit new to him. We have to be patient with him. He’s an explosive athlete. There’s going to be some mistakes along the way, and I’m okay with that as long as he’s learning.”

Without much depth pushing for playing time behind him, Hayes will have the opportunity to make, and subsequently understand, those mistakes. Seniors Jay Hayes (no relation) and Andrew Trumbetti are mired in competition for the other end spot, while sophomores Julian Okwara, Adetokunbo Ogundeji and Khalid Kareem may have even more development ahead of them than Daelin Hayes does.

Incoming freshmen Kofi Wardlow and Jonathon MacCollister will join the fray in the summer, but for now, the younger Hayes has his chance to impress with his natural gifts while absorbing the intricacies of new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s defense.

Hayes is not a complete unknown. While Okwara made four tackles last season in 11 games and Kareem appeared in four games, Hayes saw action in every contest, finishing the season with 11 tackles, one pass breakup and one forced fumble.

“He’s an athlete,” defensive line coach Mike Elston said last week. “He’s on the edge in a two-point stance. He’s not a trained, put-your-hand-on-the-ground defensive end. He played running back in high school. He can see things better in a two-point and can diagnose quicker. He’s able to be more productive.”

It may be accurate to mention no returning Notre Dame defensive linemen tackled a quarterback for a loss last season, but it is more precise to also include the Irish have possibilities of changing that trend.

SPEAKING OF THE DEFENSIVE LINE
Notre Dame is nearly as thin at defensive tackle as it is at end. Junior Jerry Tillery leads the way with senior end-converted-to-tackle Jonathan Bonner lining up next to him thus far. Their reserves: Oft-concussed senior Daniel Cage, senior Pete Mokwuah and junior Micah Dew-Treadway with junior Elijah Taylor out for the spring with a foot injury.

Theoretically, junior Brandon Tiassum is also in the mix, and three freshmen (Kurt Hinish, Myron Tagovailo-Amosa and four-star Darnell Ewell) will join the group in the summer.

And maybe, just maybe, perhaps, possibly … Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano could walk onto campus alongside those freshmen. Pagano visited Notre Dame the first week of March, and was due to look at Oklahoma and Arkansas the next two weekends, respectively. Instead, Pagano reportedly cancelled both of those visits Monday.

Pagano does still have a visit to Oregon scheduled for April 21. Until indicated otherwise, it may be prudent to presume Pagano hopes to land as close to his Hawaiian home as possible.

RELATED READING: 1 Day Until Spring Practice: A look at the defensive line

Recruiting success continues with OL Dirksen, class’s 12th commit

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Even in the doldrums of spring practice, Notre Dame’s recent recruiting success continues. Rivals.com three-star/scout.com four-star offensive lineman John Dirksen offered a verbal commitment to the Irish on Saturday, bringing the 2018 class to 12 commitments.

The 6-foot-5, 290-pounds Dirksen (Marion High School; Maria Stein, Ohio) joins consensus three-star prospect Cole Mabry (Brentwood H.S.; Brentwood, Tenn.) as the offensive linemen thus far among the 12. In three of the last four years, Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has pulled in four recruits, with 2015’s two (Trevor Ruhland, Tristen Hoge) as the exception. This recruiting cycle could again bring a limited offensive line haul, given the likely limits on the class’s size.

While any and all current class of 2018 team rankings should be taken with many grains of salt—there are 318 days between today and National Signing Day, after all—Dirksen’s commitment solidifies the Irish hold on the No. 3 class, per rivals.com. Other recruiting services place Notre Dame even higher.

Dirksen chose Hiestand and the Irish over offers from Michigan State, Iowa State and Boston College, among others.

 

Holmes out for spring; Jones & Jones shining

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Notre Dame’s spring continued over the weekend, and is all too often the case with football, that led to an injury. Early enrollee running back C.J. Holmes will probably miss the rest of spring practice due to a separated shoulder, Irish coach Brian Kelly announced following Saturday’s practice.

“We’ll get an MRI and know a little bit further on Monday once that calms down a little bit,” Kelly said. “We’ll get a picture of that and see. He had an open repair on that same shoulder his sophomore year in high school.”

Behind three backs, including two with experience, Holmes was unlikely to see playing time in the backfield in 2017.

Of those three backs, sophomore Tony Jones, Jr., is the unknown after preserving a year of eligibility last season. In limited practice viewing, however, Jones has only impressed. He has caught Kelly’s eye, as well.

“He’s 225 pounds, can catch the ball coming out of the backfield, [is] assignment correct, and can run elusively and can get into the second level,” Kelly said. “What does that equal? He’s a pretty good back.

“Obviously he was noticeable today in his play and he got some work with the first group as well. He wasn’t just getting second-team reps.”

Jones may be getting some first-unit exposure, but expect him to remain behind junior Josh Adams in the depth chart. Considering Jones’ style is somewhat comparable to Adams’, whereas junior Dexter Williams presents something of a change of pace, Williams should see more action than the sophomore, as well.

MORE PRAISE FOR ALIZE JONES
Junior tight end Alizé Jones—rather, Alizé Mack, per his Twitter account—has taken the lead in spring’s race of who reaps the most sound bite accolades. In complimenting Jones, who missed last season due to an academic suspension, Kelly also managed to laud new offensive coordinator Chip Long.

“I think Chip is doing a terrific job with [Jones],” Kelly said. “He’s got a good relationship. He knows how to rise him up when he needs to and scold him when he needs to. Alizé needs a little bit of that.

“He’s virtually un-coverable in certain areas of the field. I don’t care at any level. You can’t cover him. He just has that kind of talent. The one that I think stands out to me in the few days is he’s committed himself to being a blocker and playing physical. If he continues to do that, we’re going to find ourselves with a lot of tight ends on the field.”

Presumably, Jones would join graduate student tight end Durham Smythe in two tight end sets. It should be remembered, Long has historically shown a preference for such formations, and with Notre Dame’s plethora of options at the position, Long’s tendencies have no need to change. For that matter, Long had some praise for Jones this weekend, as well.

“Alizé can be as good as he wants to be,” Long said Friday. “…He’s growing up each and every day. Great joy to coach, and that whole group is. He doesn’t want to let that group down. There’s no question he can be as good as he wants to be.”

Friday at 4: 40-yard dashes and absurdity

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Of all the absurd things the football world often obsesses over, the 40-yard dash may be the most useless of them. Yes, it even beats out assigning star rankings to 16- and 17-year-olds, though not by much.

For now, let’s look past the rest of the inane Draft intricacies, such as former Irish defensive lineman Jarron Jones feeling pressured to increase his vertical jump by four inches. (He did, jumping to 24.5 inches in Notre Dame’s Pro Day on Thursday.) This scribe does not have an excess of time to spend discussing Jones’s outlandish wingspan if this piece is to post by its intended, though unnecessary, 4 p.m. ET deadline.

The 40-yard dash … No football play begins from a sprinter’s stance, yet it may be the factor most crucial to a low 40 time. Former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer posted a time of 4.83 seconds in the NFL Combine earlier this month. For context’s sake, Kizer ran .07 seconds slower than Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did as a draft prospect in the 2004 combine.

Roethlisberger has had himself an excellent career, and his ability to shrug off 300-pound defensive linemen is a testament to his athleticism. Put Kizer and Roethlisberger in the open field together, though, and Kizer would presumably have outrun Roethlisberger at any point of the two-time Super Bowl champion’s career. In Indianapolis, however, Roethlisberger did a better job of getting his hips through his first couple strides of the heralded 40-yard dash.

Here, watch Kizer train for the 40, the most-hyped measurement of his combine.

“The ultimate goal is to have yourself in the best position to have your body weight back in those legs so you can create enough torque to get out as quickly as possible,” Kizer said. “A guy who is as long as I am, with long limbs that I have, I’ve got to make sure that my weight distribution is in the best position for me to get out and catch up to some of those quicker guys who are a little lower to the ground.”

What part of that sounds applicable to football? The 40 turns Kizer’s size (6-foot-4, 237 pounds) into a negative. He worries about the angle of his knees. After his throwing session at the Thursday Pro Day, Kizer summed up the draft evaluation process even more succinctly.

“This process is very different in the sense that the way you look productive in the combine and in a pro day is very different from what productivity actually looks like out on the field.”

Well put.

More pertinent to the actual game of football, Kizer’s completion percentage in the staged workout could have been higher.

Then again, he was throwing to the likes of former Irish receivers Corey Robinson and Amir Carlisle and former running back Jonas Gray. Reportedly, the only contact Gray and Kizer had before the session was Kizer emailing the former New England Patriot the planned series of routes.

The NFL Draft, where Gmail becomes a necessity.

Let’s do away with the 40. If we insist on keeping it, let’s do it twice, once from a standing start and once from a running start. Those would simulate actual football movements: A receiver getting off the line, and a ballcarrier breaking away and trying to outrun the defense.

Asking DeShone Kizer to mimic Usain Bolt is an exercise in futility, idiocy, absurdity.

Cue end of rant.

Why cite the Roethlisberger time? Many, including Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke, have readily compared Kizer to Roethlisberger this spring.

The most notable line of that scouting report (scroll down to No. 32) may be its final one, echoing Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s sentiments from earlier this week.

“The mystery is whether he can regain his assertiveness,” Burke writes. “If so, he could turn out to be the 2017 class’s best QB. The team that drafts him will be taking a leap of faith.”

A leap. Not a dash.

For more Notre Dame Pro Day results, click here.

And with that, this just may make the 4 p.m. posting. You know what to do.