And in that corner… The Rice Owls

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Notre Dame opens the 2014 season with a visit from Rice on Saturday afternoon. While on paper, a matchup with the Conference USA squad looks like it could be a good way to get the rust off, taking the Owls lightly would be a large mistake.

Head coach David Bailiff has slowly built up his program, with 2013 the high-water mark. The Owls won their conference and 10 games, relying on a strong ground game, an inventive offense and a stingy defense.

To get us ready for the Owls, the Houston Chronicle‘s Joseph Duarte was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about Rice. With just 10 starters back, the Owls will certainly look different than they did last season, though they’ve got some returning weapons that make for a good challenge.

Hope you enjoy.

 

Q: Coming off a 10-win season and a Conference USA title, Rice is the type of opening game opponent that might not draw headlines, but certainly deserves some respect. For those of us getting our first look at the Owls, tell us about head coach David Bailiff and the work he’s done building this program.

After a 10-win campaign in Bailiff’s second season – fueled by one of the nation’s top pass-catch combos in Chase Clement and Jarett Dillard – the Owls went 2-10, 4-8 and 4-8 and there were rumblings about his job security. But a funny thing happened on the way to the unemployment line: the Owls got hot during the second half of the 2012 season, becoming bowl eligible on the final day, and have been on a roll ever since.

Rice has won 15 of its last 19 games, matching the best two-year stretch in the 102-year history of the football, and is coming off a second straight bowl appearance. With his Texas roots, Bailiff has proven to be the right fit for the academic-first Owls program and is well-respected and liked by his players. He received a new five-year contract this offseason.

 

Q: Driphus Jackson takes over at quarterback after playing a supporting role in 2012 and 2013. All reports show a very capable athlete. Is he the type of quarterback that can break open a game with his legs? Will he be able to take advantage of some very solid wide receiver depth the Owls return?

Jackson isn’t your typical first-year starter, having received plenty of meaningful snaps the last two seasons as an injury replacement for former starter Taylor McHargue (graduation). He’s pulled off two big rallies in his brief career, a second-half comeback to beat Air Force in the 2012 Armed Forces Bowl and against Kansas in 2013. McHargue was a running threat, and that will continue with Jackson.

While the coaching staff knows Jackson can take off at any moment the big test early on will be how he develops a comfort level in the pocket and takes advantage of what should be a deep receiving corps, led by Jordan Taylor (55 receptions, 848 yards, 8 TDs) and Dennis Parks (29 receptions, 508 yards, 3 TDs). One injury-related note out of camp: starting tight end Connor Cella will be out 4-to-6 weeks with a fractured rib.

 

Q: It looks like Rice has a star along the defensive line in Christian Covington, and then it gets pretty dicey. After a solid defense propelled the Owls last season, the ability to reload is in question. With a lack of size up front, do you expect Notre Dame’s large offensive line to try and win a power game?

The defensive line is the Owls’ biggest concern. Covington is on most of the major preseason awards lists and could become a rarity at Rice and leave for the NFL a year early as a projected first-rounder. Rice had counted on a formidable inside combo of Covington and Stuart Mouchantaf, but those plans were derailed when Mouchantaf suffered a knee injury in the offseason. The Owls also went through camp without Derek Brown, who was expected to start but has been absent due to an undisclosed reason. Even so, the Owls will break in a pair of new inexperienced players at defensive end (junior Brian Nordstrom and senior Zach Patt).

 

Q: For Notre Dame fans getting their first look at the Owls, who are the playmakers on both sides of the ball that could be primed for big games?

On offense, Jordan Taylor has a knack for making big catches. He sat out most of the last week of camp with a sore foot but that was as a precaution and he is expected to be fine for the season opener. He is a big part of the offense and a regular target for Jackson.

On defense, keep an eye on senior cornerback Bryce Callahan. Last year the Owls had Phillip Gaines, considered the best cornerback in school history who was drafted in the third round by the Chiefs. Teams rarely threw in Gaines’ direction – a strategy that will likely be the case with Callahan, who has 11 career interceptions and needs four more to tie the school record.

 

Q: What’s the recipe for a Rice victory? Will the Owls try and overwhelm a young Irish defense that could be getting younger without KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams? Is the run game capable of limiting Notre Dame’s touches? What’s your take on the Owls’ best way to win, especially early in the season?

The Owls led Conference USA in rushing (227.4 yards) last season and have regularly been among the nation leaders in time of possession – just the type of grinding, time-consuming style that they will need to have a chance against the Irish. They must replace 1,200-yard rusher Charles Ross and will do so with a backfield that is five deep with Jowan Davis, who had 476 yards in a strong freshman season; C-USA title game MVP Luke Turner, a former high school quarterback who works out of the Wild Owl formation; Darik Dillard, the younger brother of former Rice All-American receiver Jarett Dillard; and Brandon Hamilton, considered the bruiser of the bunch who redshirt with an injury last season. The Owls won’t be scared to pull a few surprises with the deep pass, but expect them to try and establish the run game early.

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For more from Joe in the lead-up to Saturday’s game, you can find his work here or follow his Rice coverage on Twitter @Chronicle_Owls

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