Post-spring update: USC

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No game means more to Notre Dame fans than the annual battle with USC. College football’s greatest intersectional rivalry serves as an annual litmus test for both programs, and when both teams are playing good football, it turns the Irish and Trojans’ annual battle into one of the year’s premiere matchups.

A rivalry that’s been marked by winning streaks has swung back in Notre Dame’s favor. And after watching the Trojans dominate for much of the 2000s as the Irish program sunk into instability, it’s USC’s turn to covet the program in South Bend, with Brian Kelly winning three of the last four.

After Pat Haden ended the Lane Kiffin era at LAX after an embarrassing September loss to Arizona State, he picked former Pete Carroll assistant Steve Sarkisian to run the program. The hire wasn’t the splashy one many expected, especially considering the head start Haden had, but it brings an established Pac-12 coach to Heritage Hall.

Getting us caught up on the tumultuous times at Southern Cal is USCFootball.com’s Ryan Abraham. With the Trojans still looking like a team with elite talent and great expectations, Ryan was able to give us a look inside the Irish’s rivals with a Thanksgiving weekend battle set as the 2014 season finale.

 

Times they are a changing in Heritage Hall. After four head coaches in a 65-day span, Steve Sarkisian enters year one and USC’s scholarship sanctions are complete.

Can you give us a brief state of the union on the USC program, independent of the on-field product that’s still TBD?

Certainly the last several months have been interesting for Trojan fans. The lows of losing at home to Washington State, Lane Kiffin getting fired and losing to both arch rivals made last season tough. But Ed Orgeron did a nice job of rallying the troops and got the fan base excited again with a win over a top-5 Stanford squad. When Orgeron wasn’t retained and left the program, there was more turmoil and a lot of upset fans and players. But Clay Helton stepped in and secured a double-digit win season for the Trojans with a Las Vegas Bowl victory over Fresno State.

When Steve Sarkisian took over, he had plenty of fires to put out. Many felt he was just Lane Kiffin 2.0 and the pro-Orgeon crowd wasn’t going to be happy with any hire let alone another more junior member of Pete Carroll’s old USC staff. Sark started to win more people over with his four-for-four close on Signing Day, including a couple of five-star prospects. Then the up-tempo style and open spring practices gave fans something more to look forward to.

Now with NCAA probation ending last month and fully attended summer workouts going on, the team appears to have some momentum heading into fall camp. But while most of the sentiment around the program is positive right now, an early loss this season could easily derail the team and knock them back down a few notches.

 

On paper, the Trojans look to be rock solid. Eight starters return on both sides of the ball. Quarterback Cody Kessler finished with a bang. Do expectations immediately return to the top of the Pac-12 South and a place in the Playoff?

When you are talking about programs like USC and Notre Dame, expectations are always high no matter what. So even though this team will likely have at most 69 recruited scholarship athletes on the roster, a new coaching staff and new schemes, the Trojans will still be expected to make a run at winning the Pac-12 South. It would be a lot to overcome, but they have the roster to do it. Kessler has been dealing well and now has a year under his belt and plenty of weapons around him. The defense should be even better than last year led by Leonard Williams, likely a top-5 pick in next year’s NFL Draft. Depth is still an issue, but as long as this team can stay healthy, they should be able to compete against Arizona State and UCLA for an opportunity to win the conference.

 

Watching Spring Practice, what are the biggest changes you see happening on the offensive side of the ball? Same for the defense?

The most obvious change has been the higher tempo at practice on both sides of the ball. There isn’t a lot of standing around looking at clipboards or play sheets any longer, they run a play and then run back to the line to run another. All of the teaching is done watching the film, when they are on the practice field it is all about getting in as many reps as possible. It seems much more efficient and the players seem to enjoy the pace.

 

Let’s go back to the hiring of Sark. He’s a native son. He was a part of Pete Carroll’s incredible run. But he didn’t ever seem to get over the hump at Washington. (Granted, he inherited a program in chaos, courtesy of Ty Willingham.)

Various reports had Pat Haden looking elsewhere before going to Sark. Where do you stand on his hiring and will he be more successful than Kiffin and get the Trojans back to college football’s summit?

I have covered Sark before when he was at USC and he was someone that was always popular with players and media. If I was hiring the head coach for USC he would not have been on my short list, but I understand why Pat Haden went in that direction. His turnaround of a 0-12 team in Seattle was great, but taking a team from bad to good is one thing, good to great is another. We never saw great at UW and he was a coach that could have been on the hot seat if they would have lost to rival WSU last year.

But having said all that, I think he and his young coaching staff are set up pretty well at this point. The schedule isn’t overly difficult (skipping Oregon and Washington this year) and they get to recruit 25 players again during what is probably the best recruiting class in California over the past decade. To me, he should be more successful than Lane Kiffin was at USC.

 

Under Carroll, there was an undeniable swagger that came with the Trojans, and they played their best in the season’s biggest games — especially dominating their local rival UCLA. The balance of power has swung in the Bruins favor after a 50-0 beatdown, with two straight losses to Jim Mora.

In a region where SC has held the most power for recruits in their own backyard, has that changed in the years since Carroll exited and the sanctions began?

Jim Mora does have momentum on his side with two-straight victories over USC. But really until UCLA starts grabbing the local top-rated prospects in recruiting battles between USC and UCLA, it is still going to be a USC football town. We saw in the 90’s when UCLA won eight in a row, the balance of power had shifted. USC dominated the series after that and become not just the local favorite but a national power as well.

If you look at last year’s recruiting class, only one of the top-10 players in California took an official visit to UCLA. Of the 12 prospects they had a shot at on signing day, only one signed with the Bruins. That has to change in order for UCLA to get to USC’s level.

I feel with another couple of victories over the Trojans UCLA can get back to what we saw during the Cade McNown years, but they are not there yet.

 

In a series marked by dominant runs by either USC or Notre Dame, after a really impressive run by the Trojans, the Irish have won three of the last four.

Pat Haden is no stranger to Notre Dame and the rivalry. From the SC perspective, where does this game measure on the schedule and what is its importance, both to players, coaches and alumni/fanbase?

The Notre Dame and UCLA games are always the most important to USC fans. On the local level, it is unprecedented to have two major football programs in the same city and that creates unique challenges for the coaches, players and fans. On the national level it doesn’t get much better than USC and Notre Dame and having that out of conference game on the schedule always creates drama and adds credibility to both programs.

Most USC fans you talk to feel that if they had to pick one, the game against the Fighting Irish is the most important. So much history and so many All-Americans, Heisman Trophies and National Championships to make that rivalry second to any. But I think if you ask the players and coaches I feel UCLA would likely win on the importance scale simply because of the proximity of the two schools. The teams not only compete for recruits, they compete for headlines in the same newspapers and local television stations. You can keep a loss to Notre Dame in the back of your mind a lot easier than you can a loss to UCLA.

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Special thanks to Ryan for taking the time over the holiday weekend to get us up to speed on the Trojans. For more of his excellent USC coverage, check out USCFootball.com on the Rivals network and follow Ryan on Twitter @InsideTroy

Brian Kelly & Jack Swarbrick on Notre Dame’s changes moving forward

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Whether 2016’s disappointing 4-8 finish was the impetus to program-wide alterations at Notre Dame this offseason, it certainly underscored the need. For the last few months, Irish coach Brian Kelly has focused those changes on himself and self-assessment, and he reiterated that approach when talking with PFT Live’s Mike Florio early Monday morning.

“This is my 27th year of being a head coach, and prior to last year I had one losing season,” Kelly said. “You have a way of doing things, you have a system in place, you follow that year after year. Certainly you make tweaks along the way, but this is the first time where I’ve really taken a step back and made substantial changes in terms of how I’m doing things on a day-to-day basis…

“From my perspective, after being at it as long as I have, you have to take it on yourself that you’re the one that needs to make the corrections. It’s not the players.”

None of this is new. Kelly has been consistent in his springtime messaging, but others have looked past the effects of the 4-8 record and insist the changes were coming regardless of the win-loss totals. Senior captain Drue Tranquill, for example, acknowledged the severity of the losing record Friday but argued adjustments were needed no matter what the final scores were.

“If you have an average season like 8-4, some things might carry over to the next season,” Tranquill said the day before the spring practice finale. “Whereas when you go 4-8, something has to change.

“But I think even at Notre Dame, 8-4 is never really acceptable or tolerated. Those things that were taking place, just within our culture, would have been noticed whether we were 10-3, 4-8. The criticism gave it a lot more hype and juice. We could kind of feel as guys in the program throughout the past three years that certain things needed to change.

“Those things were finally brought to light and it happened to be during a 4-8 season. I don’t necessarily know that 4-8 was the reason all this change happened.”

New Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko expressed a similar sentiment Friday morning, discussing the pressure moving forward.

“If we were coming off a 12-0 season in which we were competing for the national championship, there would be pressure on us at Notre Dame to be successful this year,” Elko said. “That’s Notre Dame.”

Elko has been a quick study, as his comments were echoed the next day by Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick during NBC Sports Network’s broadcast of the Blue-Gold Game.

“We expect to compete for national championships and 4-8 is not acceptable,” Swarbrick said. “On the other hand, when you’re in that situation, you have to decide how you’re going to move forward. We decided to move forward by making a major investment in retooling our program with Brian as the leader of it. That’s not a one-year investment for us. We brought in some talented assistant coaches. We rebuilt elements of the program

“We view it as a multi-year investment going forward.”

KELLY ON RECRUITING PITCH
Using this week’s NFL Draft as a peg, Florio also asked Kelly about balancing players’ NFL aspirations with team success both in the recruiting process and during the actual season.

“We have to talk more in terms of process over production,” Kelly responded. “We talk in terms of you’re coming to Notre Dame for a reason. You’re going to get a degree, which will set you up for the rest of your life, and you’re going to play on the grandest stage at Notre Dame, so everybody will see you.

“As long as there’s the balance there—and there has to be that balance in terms of getting your education and playing for championships—then we’re okay. It’s when that balance is out of whack, we’ll have an issue. We vet that out in the recruiting process and make sure we don’t take any kids that are coming to Notre Dame just because they’re waiting for that [junior] year to complete so they can go to the draft.”

A reminder: The NFL Draft begins with its first round Thursday night. Kelly will be joining former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer at the draft in Philadelphia to await Kizer’s destination and future employer.

MISSED THE BLUE-GOLD GAME?
It is available for streaming: here.

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?

What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

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Time spent on a traditional game wrap of a spring intrasquad exhibition seems misspent. Gold won Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game 27-14 led by rising sophomore quarterback Ian Book. The first-string defense (Gold) held the first-string offense to an average of 5.4 yards per play. For context’s sake: Last season Notre Dame gained an average of 6.1 yards per play and held opponents to 5.4.

With that abbreviated recap out of the way, what did Saturday’s pseudo-game environment show about the Irish? If the 20,147 in attendance paid attention, they had the chance to learn a few things:

Daelin Hayes will be ready to hit a quarterback in September
Notre Dame’s quarterbacks were off limits all spring. Bulls might charge when they see red, but the Irish defensive line has had to remember to ease up when they come across a quarterback’s red jersey. If sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes had forgotten that Saturday, Notre Dame might not have any quarterbacks left to play in the fall.

“At the end of the day, we’re on the same team,” Hayes said, dismissing any bitterness about the quarterbacks’ protections. “We have to keep our guys healthy. I wasn’t frustrated, but come September 2, you know.”

Officially, Hayes was credited with three sacks and another tackle for loss among his seven tackles. Admittedly, gauging sacks is tricky when the quarterback does not actually go to the ground. How many of Hayes’ three sacks and the defense’s 11 total would have been evaded if the defender needed to do more than touch the passer? That answer is highly subjective, but discounting Hayes’ numbers would miss the bigger picture.

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

Senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) notched two sacks and sophomore end Ade Ogundeji came the closest to tackling a red jersey when he stripped junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush from behind. The defensive line has been expected to be a weak point for the Irish moving forward, but the spring performance indicates it has a chance at holding its own. These accomplishments bear further merit considering Notre Dame’s offensive line is widely-considered one of its few spots of expected quality.

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

“I think it’s pretty clear Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I’d have to watch the film, but it seemed like [sophomore end] Julian Okwara was a hard guy to block coming off the edge, as well.”

Ian Book provides some peace of mind
Book was not spectacular, but he was also far from incompetent or intimidated. In his first action on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, Book completed 18-of-25 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by a 58-yard connection with sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. Meanwhile, junior Brandon Wimbush completed 22-of-32 passes for 303 yards.

Bluntly, one has not needed to follow Notre Dame for very long to fit that “long enough” qualification. Last season’s backup, Malik Zaire, saw competitive action against both Texas and Stanford. In 2015, DeShone Kizer came off the bench to start 11 games after Zaire suffered a season-ending ankle injury. (more…)

What Notre Dame players should you actually watch? Plus, catch up on reading

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If technology does its part, this will post as its typist meanders toward finding his credential for the Blue-Gold Game to conclude Notre Dame’s spring practice. If technology doesn’t do its part, well, then this will be lost to the cobwebs of the internet. Such as it goes.

This space has spent much of the past week discussing what to look for in the 12:30 p.m. ET exhibition. Worry about the big picture, not the individuals. Fret about the macro, not the micro.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the indivdual players
Blue-Gold Game primer with help from Notre Dame’s coordinators
Four defensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game
Four offensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game

But, if insistent on focusing on singular players, look to the inexperienced, the names you are unfamiliar with. The 15th and final practice of spring may be no more than a practice in reality, but it is in front of nearly 30,000 fans in Notre Dame Stadium. Some players do not have so much as that minimal experience.

“The Blue-Gold Game, specifically, is a time for us to emulate a game-like situation,” senior safety/linebacker/rover Drue Tranquill said. “Especially for guys like freshmen, second-semester guys coming in, it’s a great opportunity for them to get that game feeling, but also continue to take steps in the process to get better.”

The question on the tip of your tongue is a fair one. If you are unfamiliar with the names, how are you supposed to focus on those players? How are you to know who fits the appropriate tunnel vision version of perspective?

Let’s turn to Irish coach Brian Kelly’s mentions from Wednesday–primarily, sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara, sophomore long snapper John Shannon, senior kicker Sam Kohler, sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem and sophomore safety Jalen Elliott.

Obviously, that is just a sampling. Less obviously, this post’s purpose may or may not be to link to previous reading material and remind you of the vague but pertinent purposes to today’s endeavor. It is neither be-all nor end-all. It is simply another opportunity to gauge what may come down the line.

But hey, how about a prediction? Per Kelly, the first-team offense and second-team defense will be in blue, against the first-team defense and second-team offense in white.

PREDICTION: Blue 37, White 21

HOW TO WATCH
As a recurring reminder, the Blue-Gold Game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network, as well as streamed online at ndstream.nbcsports.com and on the NBC Sports app.