Post-Spring Update: Arizona State

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Last year, Notre Dame’s most impressive win might have been its neutral site victory over Arizona State in the Shamrock Series. Limiting the Sun Devils possessions while playing extremely efficient football, the Irish beat a team that won the Pac-12 South in Todd Graham’s second season in the desert.

This year, Notre Dame travels to Tempe for a big non-conference showdown, continuing a rivalry between Brian Kelly and Todd Graham that had the Sun Devils’ coach spring an upset with Tulsa in 2010, lose a close game at Pitt in 2011, and fall short last year.

To get us up to speed with the state of Arizona State’s football program, Nick Krueger managing editor of the House of Sparky, was kind enough to answer some of my questions about the Sun Devils.

 

Todd Graham was named the Pac-12 Coach of the Year after winning the South division and 10 games. Can you assess the state of the program with Graham heading into his third season? How is Graham viewed by Sun Devil faithful, considering his hiring wasn’t a consensus home run at the time.

If Todd Graham ran for mayor of Tempe, he would probably win right now. Despite the bowl loss last season, fans are incredibly pleased with what Graham has done so far. He’s very focused on the character and attitude of his players (he calls it “speaking victory”) and brings a passion to the ASU football program that hadn’t been seen around here in awhile. It’s evidenced by former players coming back to support the program in a big way which didn’t really happen before Graham arrived.

It’s no secret that Graham’s goals for this program are a Rose Bowl and National Championship victory and he’s not going to settle for anything less. Almost everyday talking with media after practice he’ll evaluate whether or not the team put in a, “championship effort.” He even put a sticker of the Pac-12 championship trophy on the back of each player’s practice helmet as a consistent reminder about the goal.

The Sun Devils have also continued to strengthen their recruiting class reaching deeper into SEC country for more talented players while also convincing more local players to stay put.

The one thing that really convinced me that he is committed to this program was when former athletic director Steve Patterson left for more money at the University of Texas. Graham is from Texas and contract details aside, he could have jumped ship for what many believed was his dream job. Graham elected to stay put stating he wants to become the winningest coach in ASU history.

 

Offensively, the Sun Devils are expected to score a bunch of points again. The engine that drives it is quarterback Taylor Kelly. Is there a more under-the-radar player in college football? Irish fans saw him last season, but what makes him so perfect for Graham’s offense?

One of the biggest storylines coming into this upcoming season will be whether or not Kelly can make the jump from solid starting Division I quarterback to a true Heisman Trophy contender.

Todd Graham is very defensive minded and offensive coordinator Mike Norvell is in charge of running the offense and shaping Taylor Kelly as a quarterback. It is tough to find such a talented player in a power six conference as off-the-map as Kelly but it’s not in his nature or personality to soak up the spotlight. He’s just a kid from Idaho trying to improve as much as he can.

What makes him such a great fit for Norvell’s up-tempo zone read offense is his instinctual ability to read the edge rusher and make a quick decision whether to pass or run. The ability that Kelly has to make plays with his feet is incredibly underrated too. Unfortunately for Kelly, the zone-read lives and dies with the play of the offensive line, which struggled against Notre Dame last season.

 

It’s almost a complete reboot on the defensive side of the football. The Sun Devils return just two starters — the biggest overhaul of any squad in the preseason Top 25. Did spring help answer some questions? What needs to be solved before the Sun Devils kick off 2014? What are the biggest challenges for Keith Patterson’s defense?

The defense is a big mystery right now and the Sun Devils have a lot of pieces to put together as you said. The one huge standout in the Spring was early-enrollee freshman DJ Calhoun, a four-star linebacker out of California. He ball hawked really well and made some outstanding plays in practice. he definitely turned heads and has a starting spot as it stands right now.

Rashad Wadood, who would have most likely started at cornerback, left the program last week which only added to the Sun Devils issues. The biggest problem will probably be at the cornerback and safety positions where ASU didn’t recruit as strongly as they did at linebacker or defensive line.

The good thing for the Sun Devils is that they got some impressive junior college commitments such as Dalvon Stuckey and Darrius Caldwell on the defensive line to help with the inexperience. Connor Humphreys, Tashon Smallwood and Renell Wren are also three names to remember as true freshmen who could help in the trenches.

 

Last year, the Irish held off the Sun Devils in AT&T Stadium despite big games from Jaelen Strong and D.J. Foster. Do you expect more of the same from the ASU offense, or will new game-changers emerge? Is the formula for victory the same this year as last?

There are certainly some new players that could come out of the woodwork. The offensive line returns almost all of the starters from last season and adds Christian Westerman who was a four-star recruit and transferred from Auburn. Taylor Kelly should have some more weapons to play with as well. Jaelen Strong and D.J. Foster return but the Sun Devils also have high expectations for incoming wide receivers Eric Lauderdale, a four-star JUCO transfer, and 6-foot-4 redshirt freshman Ellis Jefferson who showed a lot of potential in spring practice.

The formula for victory comes down to the Sun Devils being more balanced. ASU only had 51 rushing yards against Notre Dame last season so they will have to find more success there. Taylor Kelly also has to limit turnovers. He threw two interceptions against the Fighting Irish last season and the stat that everybody at ASU loves to cite is that Kelly is 6-8 in games when he throws an interception and 12-1 when he doesn’t.

 

Where do you set the bar for the 2014 season? A veteran quarterback and a big-time offense return. But questions on defense and a solid Pac-12 slate is in front of the Sun Devils. Do you expect ASU to challenge for the South title again? What’s your definition of a good season?

As you touched on, the uncertainty on defense makes this difficult to gauge. The Sun Devils will certainly be involved in some high-scoring affairs next season. With Brett Hundley and Myles Jack returning to UCLA, I would put them as favorites to win the Pac-12 South but I wouldn’t put ASU too far behind them. The Sun Devils have potential for a better defense than many might expect. Given that the Pac-12 is only getting tougher, I’ll say anything less than eight wins would be a disappointment next year.

 

Notre Dame’s visit to Tempe was one that former athletic director Steve Patterson fought hard to keep. How highly anticipated is the Irish’s visit to Sun Devil Stadium?

I can’t speak for everyone at ASU but I believe there is still a sense of bitterness in Tempe about that whole situation that the Sun Devils will probably try to use as motivation.

The chance that both ASU and Notre Dame could be ranked in the top- 25 when the game rolls around and the “rematch” aspect definitely adds to the local excitement about this matchup.

Mizzou and Wisconsin came to town in 2011 and 2013 respectively but as far as out of conference traditional football powerhouses visiting ASU is concerned, this game is in my opinion the most anticipated out of conference home game for the Sun Devils since Matthew Stafford, A.J. Green and No. 3 Georgia came to Sun Devil Stadium in 2008.

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Check out more from Nick at House of Sparky or on Twitter @NickPKrueger.

Rochell drafted in 7th round; three other former Notre Dame players sign

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All the unnecessary draft conversation may have centered on DeShone Kizer, but the quarterback was not the only former Notre Dame player watching this weekend’s NFL Draft with rapt attention. Aside from Kizer, only Isaac Rochell heard his name called. The San Diego Chargers picked the defensive lineman in the seventh round Saturday with the 225th overall pick.

Rochell finished his Irish career with appearance in 49 of 51 possible games and 167 tackles, including 22 for loss and 4.5 sacks. In 2016, he recorded 55 tackles, good for sixth on the team, with seven for loss.

By the end of the evening, three more former Notre Dame starters had signed on with NFL teams as undrafted free agents. It should be noted, many argue the route available for undrafted free agents is preferable to that of late-round picks. An undrafted free agent can choose which of a handful of situations is preferable to him for whatever reason. A late-round pick does not have that luxury, but still makes a comparable salary.

Linebacker James Onwualu opted to join Rochell with the Chargers. Defensive lineman Jarron Jones signed with the New York Giants. Cornerback Cole Luke latched on with the Carolina Panthers.

Onwualu began his Irish career as a receiver before moving to linebacker before his sophomore season. He finished his career with 143 tackles, including 75 in 2016 with 11.5 for loss and three sacks. His 75 tackles finished behind only now-rising senior linebackers Nyles Morgan’s 94 and Drue Tranquill’s 79.

Battling injuries throughout his Notre Dame career, Jones made 105 tackles with 45 in 2016. His 11 tackles for loss were outdone only by the aforementioned Onwualu total.

Luke made 152 tackles in his Irish career, including 48 last season, and eight interceptions.

Three more players from past years’ Irish rosters could yet find an NFL home—long snapper Scott Daly, defensive lineman-turned-tight end Chase Hounshell and running back Tarean Folston. If any or all do not sign, they can still join teams for rookie mini-camps in hopes of making a positive impression.

RELATED READING: Browns pick former Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer 20th in second round

Browns pick former Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer 20th in second round

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After months of pointless chatter and a night spent waiting, DeShone Kizer’s NFL Draft experience ended Friday night when the Cleveland Browns drafted the former Notre Dame quarterback with the 20th pick in the second round, the No. 52 overall selection.

Originally from Toledo, Ohio, Kizer will have the opportunity to earn the starting job for the franchise less than two hours from his hometown. The Browns trotted out five different quarterbacks in 2016, only two of which remain with the team. Rookie Cody Kessler played in nine games, throwing for 1,380 yards and six touchdowns with only one interception while fellow rookie Kevin Hogan threw for 104 yards and two interceptions in four games.

The Browns have since added Brock Osweiler in a trade with the Houston Texans, though that trade was largely-viewed as a cash-for-picks swap, with the Browns “paying” for picks by taking on Osweiler’s contract in which he is owed $47 million over the next three seasons, including $16 million this season.

A year ago, the No. 52 pick (linebacker Deion Jones to the Atlanta Falcons) received a four-year, $4.546 million contract with a $1.506 million signing bonus.

Hall of fame running back and Browns legend Jim Brown announced the selection of Kizer at the draft festivities.

Speculation a year ago pegged Kizer as an early first-round pick. As the draft approached, projections of his slot varied widely, many including a second-round status. Despite first-round theatrics leading to three quarterbacks going in the first 12 picks Thursday night, Kizer had to wait another day before learning where he will start his NFL career. (more…)

Friday at 4: ‘Attention to detail’ includes Notre Dame Stadium

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Brian Kelly proselytized multiple abstract concepts this spring. By the end of the 15 practices and subsequent media sessions, even the Irish coach knew some of his references to “grit” would be met by muted eye rolls from the press. If a questioner included the word in their query, Kelly reacted with tongue-in-cheek approval, “You’ve been listening.”

In his press conference the day before spring practices commenced, Kelly used the phrase “attention to detail” six separate times. While he was referring to his players on the football field, Kelly could have also been discussing the ongoing—but supposedly close to finished—construction at Notre Dame Stadium known as Campus Crossroads.

The three buildings around the exterior of the Stadium, the added suites and the video board above the south end zone have garnered the headlines. On a macro level, those are the changes of note. On a micro level, however, other details have trickled into the public stream of knowledge as the work nears its conclusion.

Over the weekend—and now reignited by a column from the South Bend Tribune’s Mike Vorel—the image of the newly-added visitors’ tunnel delighted Irish fans. Vorel likens the narrow entry to “the spot they’d stash the gladiators before feeding them to starving tigers in The Coliseum.” Assuredly, Vorel is going for dramatic effect, and it must work considering its citation here, but even a realistic view of the tunnel’s effects bodes well.

If nothing else, Notre Dame players should enjoy something of a psychological boost when racing out of their adult-sized tunnel and seeing their opponent trickle out of a tunnel seemingly-sized for ants. (Yes, the north end zone tunnel is at least three times bigger than the visitors’ tunnel.)

That pale, slanted staircase holds none of the luxuries of the home team’s entrance, something Kelly went out of his way to praise after using it in Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. (more…)

Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers

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You want complete honesty? The linebacker version of this series includes no revelations, no unexpected developments, no surprising spring performances. There is an allusion to a position switch, sure, but this piece became much simpler with the rover being discussed separately Thursday.

The idea was to capitalize on the NFL Draft for the morning and let the linebackers slip by in the afternoon, noticed only by those twiddling their thumbs through the last hours of the work week. Alas, former Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer was not drafted in the first round and a brief recap of his draft destination will need to await at least another day. Programming note: The NFL Draft reconvenes tonight (Friday) at 7 p.m. ET. The Green Bay Packers are on the clock. They will not draft a quarterback.

But back to the linebackers. This piece may have been intended to slip by with little fanfare, but that is not indicative of the Irish linebackers. Where Notre Dame was is so similar to where Notre Dame is simply because two experienced senior captains lead the way at linebacker.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
Aside from questions about defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s rover position, only one question stood out about this linebacker group: Who would start alongside senior Nyles Morgan: senior Greer Martini or junior Te’von Coney?

A year ago Coney recorded the fourth-most tackles on the team with 62. Martini finished fifth with 55, and his seven tackles for loss, including three sacks, dwarfed Coney’s 1.5. Yet Coney technically started nine games compared to Martini’s four.

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

With the rover often lining up essentially as a linebacker, there would only be space for one of Martini or Coney in most formations.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
In his first season with the Irish, Elko will have quite a luxury in referring to Coney as a backup linebacker. In some respects, that designation was inevitable as soon as Martini was named a captain. Nonetheless, Coney will see plenty of playing time.

The two captains—along with fellow captain, senior Drue Tranquill at rover—will be counted on throughout the summer and fall camp to continue the defense’s growth in Elko’s system. Elko said he installed “close to 50 percent” of his entire defense throughout spring practice. The linebackers must deal with the most difficult aspects of that learning.

“There’s been a noticeable improvement in terms of this starting to look like the defense we want this to look like as spring has gone on,” Elko said a week ago. “… Linebacker probably more than any other position, linebacker and safety, where the scheme takes some time to get used to, how you see it, how you fit it, how you feel it. Those guys have gotten better with that which has then allowed them to play faster as the spring has moved on.”

Sophomore Jonathan Jones will likely provide any further depth that may be needed in 2017, unless either of the incoming freshmen, David Adams and Drew White, excel from the outset. Irish coach Brian Kelly indicated sophomore Jamir Jones (no relation to Jonathan, but is former Notre Dame defensive lineman Jarron Jones’ brother) may be destined for time on the defensive line, in large part to Jones’s continued growth. Junior Josh Barajas let the spring come and go without mandating he be involved in these conversations, which may as well count as removing himself from the conversation in most regards.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame Was, Is & Could Be: Rover