Florida State Seminoles quarterback Jameis Winston throws a pass against the Auburn Tigers in the fourth quarter during the NCAA BCS Championship football game in Pasadena

(Post) Spring update: Florida State

35 Comments

After a bit of a break, we’re back with another update on Notre Dame’s opponents. And this one might be the stiffest of them all.

The Irish will play their first true away game in one of the most formidable venues in college football, visiting Tallahassee and Doak Campbell Stadium to take on the national champs, Florida State. Jimbo Fisher’s team returns the Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston and a slew of talented players expecting to take another run at a national title.

In the most optimistic of scenarios, the game against Florida State will have national implications. Even if doesn’t, it’ll be the highlight of an Irish slate that has a handful of premiere matchups.

To get us up to speed, Warchant.com’s Ben Jones took some time and answered some (I hope) good questions from me.

Let’s get to it:

On first glance, it’s striking to see the talent that’s returning to this roster. Per FSU’s spring prospectus, seven starters return on both sides of the ball. But there were a lot of key departures as well. Help put into context how this team looks on paper compared to last season’s national champs.

You’re right; there are some big pieces coming back and also some key roles that need to be filled. Offensively, FSU returns a Heisman winner at quarterback, four of five linemen, and a senior who has led the team in receiving in each of the last three years. They lose a Rimington winner at center and their first 1,000-yard rusher since Warrick Dunn, but the roster is well constructed and those shouldn’t be major issues. Replacing Kelvin Benjamin, a 6-foot-6 wide receiver with 15 touchdown receptions last year, is a big deal, but there are enough other receiving options to believe it won’t be too big of an obstacle to overcome.

On defense, FSU has to replace vocal leaders in linebacker Telvin Smith and defensive back Lamarcus Joyner. Safety Terrence Brooks was an impact player also, but again, strong recruiting for several years has restocked the roster and there should be players to pick up their production. Like many teams in June, this team has some questions. But it also has plenty of potential answers.

 

The Seminoles scored more than 50 points a game last year. Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston returns behind a very experienced offensive line. Is there anything that can hold this unit back?

Losing Benjamin, a first round draft pick, is a big deal. He had 10 touchdowns in the final six games, including the game winner in Pasadena, and was nearly impossible to cover. FSU also lost slot receiver Kenny Shaw, who had over 900 yards and was quietly productive as an outlet for underneath passes. With them gone, expect tight end Nick O’Leary (557 yards, 7 TDs in 2013) to take an even bigger role in the red zone and on short routes across the middle.

Having Jameis Winston eliminates a lot of problems, but there’s no veteran behind the redshirt sophomore. Clint Trickett transferred to West Virginia and Jacob Coker left for Alabama, meaning sophomore Sean Maguire (21 career pass attempts) is the only player with any experience behind him. He might be able to keep FSU afloat, but he’s an unknown for now.

 

Seems like a similar song for the defense. The nation’s top unit needs to replace (at least one) key starter at every level, but seems primed for a reload. What concerns do you have for Charles Kelly’s defense?

The biggest concern for the defense is replacing defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan. It’s not often a nose tackle is disruptive enough to finish third on the team in tackles (63) and lead the team in TFLs, but that’s what Jernigan did as a junior before leaving for the NFL. There’s no defensive tackle behind him who’s as explosive, and that’s a concern.

FSU will have to find someone on the defensive line to draw double teams and give the linebackers a chance to make plays. The best candidate might be junior Mario Edwards, a five-star recruit who’s always had incredible physical ability but hasn’t tapped his full potential. If he develops into a star, the defense should be strong at every level again.

 

For the past few seasons it felt like Jimbo Fisher had one of the nation’s top rosters and a schedule that set up perfectly for a championship game run. Yet the Seminoles always seemed to trip themselves up. Does last year’s championship win — against an SEC team no less — feel like it could open the flood gates?

It absolutely felt like a breakthrough for a program that had fallen into a lull in the last decade toward the end of the Bobby Bowden era. As you observed, beating an SEC team for the title was a significant achievement for a team that considers Florida its biggest rival and regularly competes with Georgia, Alabama and Auburn for recruits. Considering how the roster has been built, FSU fans are hopeful they can follow up with another strong season. The Seminoles open the season with a game against Oklahoma State in Dallas, and their goal is to finish the season in Dallas for the national championship.

 

Can you give Irish fans an idea of how Jimbo Fisher is viewed? While it looks like the coach-in-waiting tab was obviously successful now that the Seminoles have won a title, there had to be some impatience there for a while? Do Seminoles fans view Fisher as an elite head coach or a guy that is merely running one of college football’s flagship programs built by Bobby Bowden?

There were some questions earlier in Fisher’s tenure as the Seminoles had head-scratching losses against teams like N.C. State and Wake Forest. Finishing an undefeated season and winning a national championship quiets a lot of questions though, and his success in the draft (18 players chosen in the last two years) has shown that he can identify and develop talent.

Bowden will always be considered the architect of the program, but this is Fisher’s team now. FSU went 24-16 in Bowden’s last three years, while Fisher has gone 45-10 in four seasons. The decision to remove Bowden was difficult and awkward, but you’d be hard pressed to find anyone now who doesn’t think Fisher is the right man to lead the program.

 

It’s hard to write about Jameis Winston without getting into some of the off the field controversy. The embarrassing shoplifting situation, the other minor police blotter material, and the very serious rape charges. None garnering more than a slap on the wrist.

As someone much closer to the situation, what do you make of it? Are we past the youthful indiscretions? The New York Times had a rather unflattering portrayal of the entire situation that the school disputed, but have you noticed any changes in Winston or the program since the allegations late last season?

Frankly, this is difficult to answer. It seems that we never know the athletes we cover as well as we think we do, and that’s true with Jameis as well. There were some media restrictions placed on him this spring during baseball season and football practice. He spoke before spring football started and after the spring game, but not between those two for a full month, if memory serves.

Winston told reporters in New York at the Heisman ceremony he knew he’d have a different life going forward and wouldn’t be able to do some things he could normally do, but the crab legs incident does make you question his judgment. FSU has tried to keep someone around him when he’s in public — for example, he had a campus police officer with him at all baseball road games. But you can’t have someone with him 24/7. It wouldn’t surprise me if this summer and fall passes quietly off the field with no new incidents for him, but it also wouldn’t surprise me if there’s another indiscretion.

Either way, there will continue to be noise around the rape allegations. There may be a civil suit coming (against Winston, FSU, or the Tallahassee police), and the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is investigating the university for Title IX violations connected to the incident.

 

Turning the subject back to football, getting Notre Dame and Florida State together is always a big deal. Is this the highlight game of the schedule for Noles fans, too?

It’s absolutely one of the highlights. The home schedule this year is very strong, with Clemson and Florida also visiting Tallahassee. The end-of-season game with the rival Gators is probably bigger, but Notre Dame might make more FSU fans more nervous. As of now, it’s my upset pick for this season.

I’m curious to see what Everett Golson in his return to Notre Dame. There are questions for the Irish to answer, but you also saw FSU slow down a bit towards the end of last year. Duke gave FSU some trouble early in the ACC Championship, and Auburn was just a play or two away from winning. If teams can look at those games and see what was successful, they might be able to create a game plan that will really do some damage.

***

Special thanks to Ben for going above and beyond. For more from him, you can find his writing work at Warchant, and follow him on Twitter @WarchantBen

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)
Getty Images
39 Comments

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
rivals.com
32 Comments

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)
Getty Images
39 Comments

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)
Getty Images
41 Comments

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…)