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.

Notre Dame lands four-star former FSU commit, Houston Griffith, at safety

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If its defensive backfield was a concern this recruiting cycle, Notre Dame is putting together a strong finish to the class of 2018 to eradicate those worries. Consensus four-star Houston Griffith (IMG Academy; Bradenton, Fla.) became the second defensive back to commit to the Irish this week with his Tuesday evening declaration and the fifth of Notre Dame’s 19 (and counting) expected signees.

Griffith immediately becomes the most highly-rated commit in the Irish class. Rivals.com considers him the No. 3 safety in the class, the No. 9 player in Florida and the No. 35 overall prospect in the country. He had long been a Notre Dame target but initially committed to Florida State, partly due to the Irish struggles a year ago.

After Notre Dame showed much improvement this season — more specifically, its defensive shift — Griffith reopened his recruitment in late November.

“The changes that [Irish coach Brian Kelly] made really helped,” Griffith told Blue & Gold Illustrated. “The guys I know up there tell me it’s a different program, it’s a different team up there. Last season was a learning year and this year shows that they are starting to get all the pieces.”

Griffith has certainly bought in on the direction trending from 2016 to 2017.

“I feel like the next few years all the pieces are there to compete for a national championship.”

In addition to the Seminoles, Griffith held scholarship offers from the vast majority of college football’s powers, including Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State and USC.

He presents as a safety and seems to have been targeted as one, but he could also see early time at cornerback. In theory, a freshman may have a better chance of grasping that latter position. Then again, Notre Dame has a few established playmakers at cornerback; it very much does not have that luxury at safety.

At either position, Griffith and his fellow defensive back commits should shore up a position grouping that the Irish essentially whiffed on in 2017, when only two safeties were signed (Isaiah Robertson and Jordan Genmark-Heath) with no cornerbacks in the mix. Griffith is the third safety in the class of 2018, joining consensus four-star Derrik Allen (Lassiter H.S.; Marietta, Ga.) and consensus three-star Paul Moala (Penn; Mishawaka, Ind.).

All three, as well as the two cornerback commits and the other 14 prospects, are intended to sign with Notre Dame during this year’s early signing period, Dec. 20-22.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Running Backs

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Notre Dame’s running game stood little chance of exceeding expectations this season, considering how ambitious they were to start. This space’s preseason predictions, intended as a conservative and realistic harbinger of the months then-ahead, projected junior running back Josh Adams to gain 1,174 to 1,274 rushing yards this season. That upper limit would have placed Adams fourth in Irish program history, just ahead of his position coach’s 1,268 yards gained in 1997.

With a game to go, Adams stands only 51 yards of breaking Vagas Ferguson’s single-season record of 1,437 rushing yards, set back in 1979.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
In addition to the anticipation regarding Adams’ third season as a contributor, the Notre Dame backfield had depth entering the season. Junior Dexter Williams could provide a speed threat while sophomore Tony Jones built on springtime buzz as a do-everything option, often described as the best receiver of the group.

Early-enrolled freshman C.J. Holmes’ shoulder injury in spring practice seemingly sidelined him for the season, opening the door for sophomore Deon McIntosh to move from receiver to the backfield as a rest-granting fourth-stringer.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
As good as the season was for the Irish on the ground, it will be marked by “What if” thoughts as much as anything else. What if Adams had not worn down as the season progressed? What if Williams had been healthy for more than a week or two in the season’s first two months?

Even with his figurative crawl to the season’s conclusion, Adams surpassed all preseason projections and expectations. It still must be noted he gained only 195 yards on 54 carries in the final three regular season games, a 3.61 average.

Williams, meanwhile, was limited throughout the year. At the beginning, specifically against Georgia, that appeared to be by coaching decisions, but for most of the season, ankle and quad ailments robbed the speedster of his primary quality.

Absolutely no one expected sophomore Deon McIntosh to be the second-leading rusher among Notre Dame’s running backs in 2017. Credit to McIntosh, though, for making the most of an opportunity granted by others’ injuries.(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Jones, when healthy, provided a schematic shift as much as any statistical production. Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long clearly preferred Jones to be half of any two-back formation, due to Jones’ overall aptness.

McIntosh capitalized on every chance granted him, providing fourth-quarter rest to those limping from sprained ankles whenever the Irish had a worthwhile lead.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING
Some of a statistical influx in rushing production should be credited to junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush, but the ground game as a whole was more successful in 2017 than it was a year ago no matter how the numbers are dissected.

2016: 2,123 yards on 410 carries (sacks adjusted); 176.9 yards per game and 5.18 yards per rush.
2017: 3,462 yards on 501 carries (sacks adjusted); 288.5 yards per game and 6.91 yards per rush.

— Jr. Josh Adams: 1,386 yards on 191 carries; nine touchdowns; 7.3 yards per rush; 10 catches for 82 yards.
— So. Deon McIntosh: 368 yards on 65 carries; five touchdowns; 5.7 yards per rush; three catches for eight yards.
— Jr. Dexter Williams: 324 yards on 37 carries; four touchdowns; 8.8 yards per rush; two catches for 13 yards.
— So. Tony Jones: 232 yards on 43 carries; three touchdowns; 5.4 yards per rush; four catches for 13 yards.
— Fr. C.J. Holmes: 32 yards on eight carries; 4.0 yards per rush.

COMING QUESTIONS
Will Adams stay for his senior year and further his assault on the Notre Dame record books or will he head to the NFL Draft with a year of collegiate eligibility remaining? He very much should take the latter option. Running backs’ careers are not long due to the very nature of the position. For the second year in a row, that wear and tear proved itself on Adams. There is little chance he could put together an even better season in 2018.

Thus, this is his chance to go in the Draft’s first couple rounds. By every reasoning, Adams should take this opportunity.

When utilized, junior running back Dexter Williams has proven to be a viable threat for Notre Dame. He has not always been incorporated into the game plan, though, partly due to classmate Josh Adams’ rampant success. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

At that point, will Long be able to incorporate Williams into the two-back set? Those multiple running back formations were some of the most productive looks for the Irish offense, and they almost entirely came with Jones joining Adams. Between pass-catching and pass-blocking, Williams lagged behind those two significantly. For the threats presented in a two-back alignment to be real, though, he will need to broaden his skillset appropriately.

If Williams doesn’t, could a healthy Holmes plug into the system? As much praise as McIntosh received, and earned, this season, he will never be the answer in the Notre Dame backfield. Holmes may be.

With Wimbush again the presumed starter in 2018, the ground game will be featured for another fall. The offensive line is (almost certainly) losing two first-round Draft picks, but it has enough experience to hold its own moving forward. Which back emerges as the workhorse if Adams turns pro could be the biggest offensive question all spring and summer. Williams may present the most big-play potential, but Jones has already shown greater consistency overall.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends

Monday’s Leftovers: Notre Dame lands second cornerback commitment

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Hardly a week shy of the early signing period, Notre Dame doubled its cornerback haul in the class of 2018 with Tariq Bracy’s commitment Sunday night.

A rivals.com three-star recruit, Bracy (Milpitas High School, Calif.) had long said the Irish led in his recruitment, having visited campus for Notre Dame’s 49-14 victory over USC on Oct. 21. Rivals rates Bracy as the No. 65 overall prospect in California.

“The coaches, they made me feel welcome,” Bracy said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “They really wanted me to go down there. They like my skillset. The players, they were welcoming, too. It’s really the whole atmosphere about Notre Dame, and the academics, too.”

Bracy opted for the Irish over a number of schools on the west coast, including Utah, Cal and Washington State.

Notre Dame now has 18 commitments in the class, including consensus-three star cornerback Joseph Wilkins (North Fort Myers H.S., Fla.). All 18 are expected to sign National Letters of Intent during the inaugural early signing period Dec. 20-22. For that matter, it remains possible an additional commitment or two could join those ranks either before the three-day stretch or in the midst of it.

Irish coach Brian Kelly has said he would evaluate any commitment not signing during the December dates as not being genuinely committed to Notre Dame, still needing further recruitment.

— Bracy’s, and Wilkins’, commitment holds more value for the Irish than many of the other 16 in the class thus far. In the last recruiting cycle, Notre Dame failed to sign so much as one cornerback.

Neither Bracy nor Wilkins may start in 2018. They, in fact, almost certainly will not, but they will provide both depth and a possibility of a future at the position.

— Just as another reminder — it is listed twice on the legal pad providing today’s outline, after all — the early signing period runs from Dec. 20 to Dec. 22. There will still be a nationwide focus on National Signing Day, Feb. 7, as any recruits not yet signed will have even more of a share of the spotlight.

— Bowl games have little long-term evaluatory value. They do, however, provide a delightful stretch of mid-day and/or mid-week December distractions. As an example, consider the game-a-day outlook on the horizon …

Sat., Dec. 16: Middle Tennessee St. v. Arkansas State; 8 p.m. ET; a high-scoring affair, if nothing else.
Tues., Dec. 19: Akron vs. FAU; 7 p.m. ET; Lane Kiffin with a nation’s lonely eyes turned to him.
Wed., Dec. 20: Louisiana Tech vs. Southern Methodist; 8 p.m. ET.
Thurs., Dec. 21: Temple vs. Florida International; 8 p.m. ET; Notre Dame’s season-opening opponent is favored by seven.
Fri., Dec. 22: Central Michigan vs. Wyoming; 4 p.m. ET; Josh Allen’s farewell to college football.
Sat., Dec. 23: Texas Tech vs. South Florida; 12 p.m. ET; This very well may end up being the most-dramatic bowl game.
Sun., Dec. 24: Houston vs. Fresno St.; 8:30 p.m. ET.
Tues., Dec. 26: Kansas State vs. UCLA; 9 p.m. ET.
Wed., Dec. 27: Boston College vs. Iowa; 5:15 p.m. ET; Of the 10 Irish foes in bowl games, six are like the Eagles, underdogs.
Thurs., Dec. 28: Stanford vs. TCU; 9 p.m. ET; A healthy Bryce Love could erase the 2.5-point spread in the Horned Frogs favor.
Fri., Dec. 29: USC vs. Ohio State; 8:30 p.m. ET; As strongly as the Trojans finished the season, they are still touchdown underdogs in the Cotton Bowl.
Sat., Dec. 30: Wisconsin vs. Miami, 8 p.m. ET; Despite playing at home, literally so, the Hurricanes are nearly touchdown underdogs.
Mon., Jan. 1: Georgia vs. Oklahoma; 5 p.m. ET; Frankly, Notre Dame vs. LSU in the Citrus Bowl will be but an appetizer for an evening of outstanding college football.

During Notre Dame’s retrospective awards, Tranquill & Weishar set focus forward

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Notre Dame spent Friday night giving out awards to recognize 2017’s top players, but the night’s attention went to two pieces of news received regarding next season. Both linebacker Drue Tranquill and tight end Nic Weishar announced intentions to return for fifth seasons in 2018.

Tranquill especially seemed increasingly unlikely to return after a career season and a two-year stretch of health set him up for NFL consideration. The idea of what could have been, of what could be, proved too much for him to bypass his remaining season of collegiate eligibility.

“I think it started after the Miami game, just on the busses, realized that we probably weren’t going to make the College Playoff anymore and realized everything everyone had put into this thing,” Tranquill told Irish Illustrated. “I felt I owed it to this team in my heart to come back and finish what we started.”

Tranquill’s return will stymie what could have been a decimating linebacker exodus. Senior captains Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini are both out of eligibility. If Tranquill had joined them in pursuing an NFL future this spring, Notre Dame would have lost three of its top four tacklers, and perhaps all four. Leading tackler, junior linebacker Te’von Coney and his 99 takedowns including 13 for loss and three sacks, is still considering an early entry into the NFL Draft.

Weishar’s return will provide a baseline at tight end following the departure of current fifth-year Durham Smythe.

RELATED READING: Where Notre Dame is & was: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame is & was: Tight Ends

As for the Echoes awards, senior left guard Quenton Nelson received Most Valuable Player honors, only the third offensive lineman to be named MVP in Irish history.

Along the lines of Tranquill’s and Weishar’s returns, only a couple of Friday night’s awards portend future developments. Freshman offensive lineman Dillan Gibbons performed well enough behind the scenes to claim Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year. With Nelson presumably heading to the NFL, Gibbons could insert himself into the competition to fill the left guard spot.

Sophomore safety Alohi Gilman spent the season following his transfer from Navy leading the scout defense. His success there only furthers the likelihood he will be starting in the defensive backfield when Michigan arrives at Notre Dame Stadium on Sept. 1.

With few surprises — perhaps naming junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush and senior defensive lineman Jonathan Bonner the offensive and defensive newcomers of the year, respectively, was too obvious to be widely-considered beforehand — the full listing of the awards …

— Most Valuable Player: Sr. left guard Quenton Nelson.
— Offensive Player of the Year: Jr. running back Josh Adams.
— Defensive Player of the Year: Sr. linebacker Nyles Morgan.
— Impact Player: Jr. linebacker Te’von Coney.
— Offensive Newcomer of the Year: Jr. quarterback Brandon Wimbush.
— Defensive Newcomer of the Year: Sr. defensive lineman Jonathan Bonner.
— Offensive Lineman of the Year: Fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey.
— Moose Krause Lineman of the Year: Jr. defensive tackle Jerry Tillery.
— Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year: Fr. lineman Dillan Gibbons.
— Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year: So. safety and Navy transfer Alohi Gilman.
— Special Teams Player of the Year: Sr. linebacker Greer Martini (eight special teams tackles).
— Walk-On Players Union Player of the Year: Jr. linebacker Robert Regan.
— Next Man In: Sr. defensive end Andrew Trumbetti.
— Father Lange Iron Cross, for weight room presence: Fifth-year tight end Durham Smythe.
— Pietrosante Award for leadership, teamwork, etc.: Sr. captain and former walk-on Austin Webster.
— Rockne Student-Athlete of the Year: Sr. linebacker Drue Tranquill.
— Irish Around the Bend, for community service: Sr. tight end Nic Weishar.

THIS WEEK’S INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Notre Dame to the Citrus Bowl to face LSU, with some numbers
Monday’s Leftovers: Brian Kelly on Notre Dame in the Citrus Bowl, facing LSU, and the early signing period
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Receivers
Notre Dame releases 2018 home schedule, includes trip to Yankee Stadium
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends
Friday at 4: Projecting Notre Dame’s Echoes

THIS WEEK’S OUTSIDE READING:
SI’s 2017 All-America Teams
LSU RB Derrius Guice on NFL decision: ‘I will not know until after the bowl game’
RB Mark Walton leaving Miami early for the NFL