Spring preview: Purdue

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While much ado has been made about the ending of the Michigan-Notre Dame “rivalry,” the long-running intrastate rivalry between the Irish and Purdue Boilermakers will take a break after this season, after scheduling struggles for both programs forced a break to a series that’s been played annually since 1946.

Last year was the first for Darrell Hazell, and it was an ugly one. Outside of playing Notre Dame tough, the Boilermakers trudged through an ugly season, finishing 1-11 with their lone victory over Indiana State.

To give us a spring progress report on the state of Purdue football, I tracked down our old friend Travis Miller, the editor of Hammer and Rails, home to all things Purdue sports.

Miller gave us an in-depth look at the program as it exits a very important spring.

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Can you give us an honest appraisal of the state of Purdue football right now? How painful was last year’s 1-11 campaign? Is there light at the end of the tunnel?

Last year was brutal. Not only was Purdue 1-11, it wasn’t even a competitive 1-11. There were occasionally some sign of competence such as the Notre Dame and Michigan State games, but for the most part Purdue got drilled week-in, week-out. It certainly wasn’t fun.

Purdue is not going to get much better until its offensive line improves. Last year it could not protect the quarterback and could not block for the run. After seeing the spring game I am not exactly inspired. There are a few JuCo guys coming in the fall including 4-star tackle David Hedelin, but he may not be available. He played a few games for a club team in his native Sweden and is facing a possible NCAA suspension.

The good news is that it will be hard to get much worse. The schedule should be much easier with Western and Central Michigan instead of Cincinnati and a really good Northern Illinois team. If there is even a little progress Purdue should at least win its three non-conference games other than Notre Dame.

 

John Shoop’s offense returns 10 starters. Is that a good news/bad news sentence? Spring games aren’t necessarily a great indicator of future success, but it seemed like things are still out of sorts.

I am a big fan of the skill players, but again, the line has been awful, especially at the tackle spots. Hedelin and Corey Clements, another JuCo tackle, will likely come in and start from day 1. Robert Kuglar is pretty solid at the center position and the guards are at least coming along, but Hedelin and Clements need to be an answer at tackle. In the spring game none of the returning tackles looked all that good and Ryan Russell had more sacks than he did all of last season.

 

To that point, how has Danny Etling looked this spring? The decision to go with Etling last year pointed to a “the future is now” type of situation, but is the young quarterback ready to lead this team?

I think so. He just needs time to throw and I think he can do some pretty special things. The quarterback that impressed me most in the spring game, however, was true freshman David Blough. He reminds a lot of Purdue fans of another quarterback we recruited from Texas that was undersized, but was a diligent worker and ready to prove a point. Blough is a long way from being the next Drew Brees, but he has talked the talk so far and after graduating high school early to go through spring practice he showed enough to me that he can at least compete for the job.

For now, however, the job still belongs to Etling, and he will only show improvement as long as he is protected.

 

Greg Hudson’s defense had a tough season. But again, 8 starters return (though the loss of Bruce Gaston and Ricardo Allen has to hurt). How do you expect the defense to rebound?

I think the defense will be much better if it has an offense that can stay on the field for more than three plays. There were several games last season where the defense would be sound for a half, only to wilt in the second half because it was on the field far too much. Cincinnati, Iowa, Illinois, and Michigan State come to mind as games where Purdue looked great for a half but the offense did nothing to help out.

Help is on the way in linebackers Ja’Whaun Bentley and Gelen Robinson. Purdue desperately need linebackers that can make a difference. We haven’t had anything close to an all-Big Ten linebacker in over 10 years, but Bentley and Robinson have a lot of excitement around them. Robinson is the son of former basketball player Glenn Robinson and younger brother of the guy playing at Michigan. He is a two-time undefeated state wrestling champion and also a champion in the shot put, so he is an athlete with a mean streak that is expected to play from day 1. We desperately need that.

 

 What’s a realistic bar for the 2014 Purdue Boilermakers? How do fans feel about Darrell Hazell after one really ugly season?

I think we need at least four wins. Beating Western Michigan, Central Michigan, and Southern Illinois should happen. I also think we should beat someone like Illinois because the Illini have one Big Ten win in its last 22 games and that barely came over Purdue last season. I don’t think it is a stretch that Purdue can win that game.

Outside of that, I think we just want to see a competitive football team again. Purdue’s most complete game last year came against Notre Dame and for two years in a row it has competed against a much better Irish team. The Irish are the first “real” opponent of 2014, so another competitive game would be a big step forward.

 

The Purdue/Notre Dame series is taking a break until 2020 after this season. How do Purdue fans feel about this? A product of realignment, and the B1G’s nine-game conference schedule and ND’s ACC commitment? Or the end of the world and just another data-point that money is ruining college football? (I suppose it could be something in between, too…)

Personally, I think it is ridiculous that the series is ending. All the factors you mentioned are bringing an end to a series that last almost 70 years without a conference affiliation. It could have been saved too. From Purdue’s standpoint all we needed to do was shift the home date from odd-numbered years to even-numbered years would have kept us with seven home game per season. With Notre Dame already losing Michigan and Michigan State there was room to work there too, at least from what I see.

I am going to miss Notre Dame because it is a showcase game for our program every season. When it is at Purdue it is almost always a night game so ABC/ESPN can put the Irish in prime time. When it is at Notre Dame it is a nationally televised game. Now Purdue coaches can’t go in and say to a recruit they have a guaranteed national game every season, something that is a nice guarantee for as bad as we are right now.

I feel like both sides are at fault here and it easily could have been saved.

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For more from Miller, check out Hammer & Rails and follow him on Twitter @HammerandRails.

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.