Pregame Six Pack: At long last, the season begins

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That took long enough, didn’t it? After far too long, football is back.

With a preseason camp that the Irish survived mostly healthy, the biggest hits came off the field. As an academic investigation claimed its fifth player Thursday, Notre Dame heads into their season opener against Rice short wide receiver DaVaris Daniels, safety Eilar Hardy, linebacker Kendall Moore, cornerback KeiVarae Russell and defensive end Ishaq Williams.

The Irish will finally show their restructured defense helmed by Brian VanGorder, with Saturday afternoon our first look at the young and inexperienced defense that’ll be the X-factor of the season. Breaking in the new FieldTurf inside Notre Dame Stadium, the Irish will attempt to kickoff the season in style.

Before we get there, let’s crack open our pregame six pack. As usual, here are six tidbits, fun facts, leftovers or miscellaneous musings before the Irish take on the Owls at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC.

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1. We’ll find out pretty quickly if Brian VanGorder’s defense can hold up against a running offense. 

Last year, Rice’s offense moved impressively on the ground. The Owls rushing attack finished 17th in the nation with 227 yards a game, making a pledge to controlling the ball via the run. That commitment was a big reason why the Owls ranked 12th in the country in time of possession.

Charles Ross, who led Rice in rushing last season with 1,280 yards, is gone. But quarterback Driphus Jackson is a run threat, and backs like Jawon Davis and Darik Dillard are going to get their opportunities. So if you were wondering if Brian VanGorder’s young defense can hold up in the trenches, it won’t take long to find out.

A closer look to Rice’s commitment to running is pretty impressive. In the regular season, their lowest total rushing attempts were 42 carries, when the Owls ran for 192 yards in a 23-14 win over Kansas. In their loss to Texas A&M, Rice ran for 306 yards on 51 attempts. The Owls 31-26 loss to Houston? Still ran 45 times for 174 yards and two touchdowns.

Only in Rice’s blowout 44-7 loss to Mississippi State in the Liberty Bowl did the Owls not hit the 40-carry mark. Even then, they still managed to tote the ball 32 times, in a game the Owls trailed by five touchdowns by midway through the third quarter.

 

2. Even against a team that feels like a run first (and maybe second, too) offense, converted wide receiver James Onwualu gets the first opportunity at Sam linebacker. 

One of the stories of fall camp was the ascent of James Onwualu, who finished last season with four starts at wide receiver and begins this year in the starting lineup at outside linebacker. Joining Joe Schmidt and Jaylon Smith as starters, nobody’s going to get this trio mixed up with the big bodies that anchored Bob Diaco’s 3-4, but this trio sets a new bar for athleticism.

When asked about Ben Councell’s availability for Saturday, Kelly showed no hesitations playing Councell for fear that his surgically repaired ACL wasn’t properly healed. But rather, Kelly explained that even if Rice is going to run the ball 40 times, formationally it makes sense for the 220-pound Onwualu to play in the game.

“In terms of the way we’re playing the defense, it’s definitely been more towards handling spread teams,” Kelly explained. “That’s why we feel like we’d be better-suited with some more athleticism… (Because Rice) is in open sets.”

We’ve heard nothing but superlatives about Onwualu, and his ability to prepare. Consider Saturday afternoon a progress report on the sophomore.

 

3. Let the Greg Bryant era begin. (Again.)

Sure Bryant had a few carries early last season, not making much out of those opportunities. But a nagging knee injury allowed the blue-chip recruit to take a medical redshirt and Saturday’s game serves as a mulligan for the redshirt freshman.

The depth chart at running back lists captain Cam McDaniel atop a three-man first-string, though you’ve got to expect to see Bryant quite a bit on Saturday, if only to get the butterflies out before taking on Michigan.

With the Irish expecting to move with pace, the running game will dictate the tempo. Even with standout defensive lineman Christian Covington anchoring the interior of the defensive line, the rest of the unit is still finding its role. But Bryant will get his chances to break a big one. He’ll just need to show some patience.

Even if it isn’t Bryant, Saturday serves as the first test for the Irish coaching staff. How they split touches between Tarean Folston, McDaniel and Bryant will likely dictate how productive the Irish offense can be.  After getting less than the sum of the team’s parts at running back last year, it’s a big season to reestablish Notre Dame’s ground game.

 

4. First time back? Let’s run through the new kids on defense. 

Basically, the only guys you’ll really recognize are defensive lineman Sheldon Day, linebacker Jaylon Smith and safety Austin Collinsworth. Day and Collinsworth were awarded captaincy by Kelly earlier this week, and Smith probably should have.

But outside of that trio, nobody will blame you for pulling out a roster. Up front, we’ll see debut starts for sophomore Isaac Rochell and freshman Andrew Trumbetti. If it’s not Trumbetti at defensive end, junior Romeo Okwara will be in line to make his second career start.

Defensive tackle Jarron Jones feels like a veteran, but in reality he’s only started one game in his career. But he’ll pair with Day on the interior of the defensive line, taking as many reps as possible before the juniors gives way to grad student Justin Utupo and true freshman Daniel Cage.

Backing up the linebacking trio is a group of youngsters. Freshmen Nyles Morgan backs up Schmidt. Fellow freshman Greer Martini is in the two-deep behind Smith. And junior John Turner is the next man in behind Onwualu.

Without KeiVarae Russell’s 26 starts at cornerback, the Irish secondary is pretty green. as well Cody Riggs will make his first start in South Bend after playing 40 games for Florida. Cole Luke starts his first game at cornerback. Max Redfield starts his second, after Kelly forced him into the lineup against Rutgers. Add to that some veteran experience in Collinsworth, and you’ve got a secondary that desperately needs to communicate well.

(And maybe wear names on the backs of their jerseys, just for the fans’ sake.)

 

5. After all the talk of spread offense and hurry-up, tempo attacks, this is our first look at the “new look” Irish offense. 

Everett Golson has traveled the long road back. Now he’ll take off the red jersey and be a live target for the first time since Alabama took dead aim at him. That’s over 600 days since Golson last suited up when it counts, so don’t necessarily expect everything to go perfectly from the start.

But that being said, it’s time for the Irish to push the pace of the game and utilize the zone-read, spread principles Kelly’s been waiting to unleash since Golson arrived.

The running game is there. The offensive line’s advantage is distinct. Now it’s time to see what the Irish offense looks like under Mike Denbrock’s supervision and the play-calling of Kelly.

The Irish are short their No. 1 receiver as Daniels continues to be wrapped up in the academic investigation. But that shouldn’t stop Notre Dame from running and gunning all afternoon. But one player to keep an eye on: sophomore receiver Corey Robinson. He had a pin inserted into his thumb and had it casted late last week. He was somehow miraculously back at practice Tuesday, good to go, per Kelly.

 

6. Opening Day hasn’t been all that kind to Kelly’s Irish squad. After a distracting last few weeks, can the Irish set things aside and play a dominant game?

The Irish are 21-point favorites over Rice, a school that’s 0-4 against Notre Dame, with a collective one touchdown in those games. Can the Irish put the Owls away early and build momentum into next week’s matchup with Michigan?

First things first, Kelly’s Irish may be 3-1 on opening days, but only Notre Dame’s win over Navy in Dublin could be considered a rousing success. Last year, after jumping on Temple, the offense struggled and the defense showed some of the inadequacies that plagued them all season. In Kelly’s first season, the Irish won ugly over Danny Hope’s Purdue team.

Of course, 2011’s opener against South Florida is going to be difficult to forget. Watching the Irish short-circuit with five turnovers in a lightning-delayed game at Notre Dame Stadium could go down among the most miserable losses of the last 20 years.

The weather forecast for Saturday shows a good chance of rain. But regardless of what the weather brings, Saturday is an opportunity for the Irish to make a statement and set the tone for the 2014 season.

Make no mistake, this Rice team isn’t coming to South Bend to take one on the chin. David Bailiff’s team has won 15 of their last 19 games, a record you don’t get by accident. But with or without five suspended players, the Irish have a large personnel advantage.

Now they need to take care of business and get ready for a battle with Michigan that could go down for the ages.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Friday at 4: 40-yard dashes and absurdity

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Of all the absurd things the football world often obsesses over, the 40-yard dash may be the most useless of them. Yes, it even beats out assigning star rankings to 16- and 17-year-olds, though not by much.

For now, let’s look past the rest of the inane Draft intricacies, such as former Irish defensive lineman Jarron Jones feeling pressured to increase his vertical jump by four inches. (He did, jumping to 24.5 inches in Notre Dame’s Pro Day on Thursday.) This scribe does not have an excess of time to spend discussing Jones’s outlandish wingspan if this piece is to post by its intended, though unnecessary, 4 p.m. ET deadline.

The 40-yard dash … No football play begins from a sprinter’s stance, yet it may be the factor most crucial to a low 40 time. Former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer posted a time of 4.83 seconds in the NFL Combine earlier this month. For context’s sake, Kizer ran .07 seconds slower than Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did as a draft prospect in the 2004 combine.

Roethlisberger has had himself an excellent career, and his ability to shrug off 300-pound defensive linemen is a testament to his athleticism. Put Kizer and Roethlisberger in the open field together, though, and Kizer would presumably have outrun Roethlisberger at any point of the two-time Super Bowl champion’s career. In Indianapolis, however, Roethlisberger did a better job of getting his hips through his first couple strides of the heralded 40-yard dash.

Here, watch Kizer train for the 40, the most-hyped measurement of his combine.

“The ultimate goal is to have yourself in the best position to have your body weight back in those legs so you can create enough torque to get out as quickly as possible,” Kizer said. “A guy who is as long as I am, with long limbs that I have, I’ve got to make sure that my weight distribution is in the best position for me to get out and catch up to some of those quicker guys who are a little lower to the ground.”

What part of that sounds applicable to football? The 40 turns Kizer’s size (6-foot-4, 237 pounds) into a negative. He worries about the angle of his knees. After his throwing session at the Thursday Pro Day, Kizer summed up the draft evaluation process even more succinctly.

“This process is very different in the sense that the way you look productive in the combine and in a pro day is very different from what productivity actually looks like out on the field.”

Well put.

More pertinent to the actual game of football, Kizer’s completion percentage in the staged workout could have been higher.

Then again, he was throwing to the likes of former Irish receivers Corey Robinson and Amir Carlisle and former running back Jonas Gray. Reportedly, the only contact Gray and Kizer had before the session was Kizer emailing the former New England Patriot the planned series of routes.

The NFL Draft, where Gmail becomes a necessity.

Let’s do away with the 40. If we insist on keeping it, let’s do it twice, once from a standing start and once from a running start. Those would simulate actual football movements: A receiver getting off the line, and a ballcarrier breaking away and trying to outrun the defense.

Asking DeShone Kizer to mimic Usain Bolt is an exercise in futility, idiocy, absurdity.

Cue end of rant.

Why cite the Roethlisberger time? Many, including Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke, have readily compared Kizer to Roethlisberger this spring.

The most notable line of that scouting report (scroll down to No. 32) may be its final one, echoing Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s sentiments from earlier this week.

“The mystery is whether he can regain his assertiveness,” Burke writes. “If so, he could turn out to be the 2017 class’s best QB. The team that drafts him will be taking a leap of faith.”

A leap. Not a dash.

For more Notre Dame Pro Day results, click here.

And with that, this just may make the 4 p.m. posting. You know what to do.

 

Tranquill continues work with safeties … for now

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Drue Tranquill will see time at the oft-spoken of rover position, just not yet. For now, Notre Dame needs the senior at safety to provide leadership and communication while the rest of his position group gets up to speed.

“We really have to figure out what the coordination is going to be at the safety position,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “How much does Drue play down at rover? How much does he play back [at safety]?”

Only sophomore Devin Studstill returns any starts to the safety position aside from Tranquill’s career total of 18. Studstill started nine games last season.

That void has kept Tranquill working mostly with the defensive backs in the spring’s first few practices, rather than joining the likes of junior Asmar Bilal in the rover grouping.

“We didn’t want to pull our most veteran player out of the back end of our defense with Drue,” Kelly said. “I think it was more about the hesitancy of losing a great communicator in the back end than about the teaching.”

The time will come, however, for Tranquill to move up. Juniors Nick Coleman and Ashton White have moved to safety from the corner position. With more reps, they will not need to rely on Tranquill’s guidance as much. The same goes for, at least in theory, sophomore Jalen Elliott.

“It’s not really a heavy load of teaching for those guys,” Kelly said. “They’re picking it up quite well. We really want to get a chance to see a lot of guys back there.”

Kelly seemed particularly bullish on Coleman’s prospects at the position, provided he embrace the needed physicality. At 6-foot, 187 pounds, Coleman’s build may have been more suited on the outside, but Notre Dame’s plethora of promising cornerbacks provided an impetus to test Coleman at safety.

“The big thing will be Nick’s continuous development in tackling,” Kelly said. “You have to tackle back there. His ball skills are really good. We’ve seen that he’s able to play the ball. He has athleticism.

“We just want to continue to build on his tackling skills. If we go through the spring and say, ‘Well, he’s tackling really well,’ we’ll feel pretty good about the move.”

At that point, Tranquill will likely join Bilal at the hybrid position, which is something of a trademark to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Tranquill will be able to do what he does best: Pursue the ball.

“We all know what his strengths are,” Kelly said. “He’s a solid tackler. I don’t think there’s any safety in college football that wants to get matched up one-on-one with a skilled slot receiver. This would minimize that, when you play him close to the ball as a rover.

“And I think he’s pretty quick off the edge. I think we put him in a really good position in maximizing his skill set.”

Until then, Bilal will continue to be the frontrunner at rover, especially with the first four Irish opponents of 2017 presenting run-heavy offenses.

KELLY ON NICK WATKINS
Kelly was also asked about senior cornerback Nick Watkins, his fit into Elko’s defense and his return from injury.

“He’s very coachable, wants to learn, he’s pretty long,” Kelly said. “What I think Mike [Elko] does really well—and this is what I liked about my interactions with him—is, we all have strengths and weaknesses. He has a great eye of saying let’s take Nick’s strengths and let’s put him in a position where we can really utilize his strengths and put him in a position where maybe we’re not a right and left corner team, maybe we’re a short field/wide field team. Let’s apply him in that fashion.

“Nick’s long. He’s a little bit of a physical player. Let’s go to those strengths. He’s shown some of those attributes early on.”

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Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover position, others likely to follow
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Kraemer, Eichenberg compete for RT spot, moving Bars inside, and Bivin to…

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Forty percent of the offensive line is essentially set in stone: fifth-year senior Mike McGlinchey at left tackle and senior Quenton Nelson at right guard.

The center position seems to be senior Sam Mustipher’s to lose.

That leaves the two starting spots on the right side of the line for a number of players—both young and experienced—to fight over.

Sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg have emerged as the frontrunners for the right tackle spot, moving senior Alex Bars inside to right guard. Bars started all 12 games last season at right tackle.

“Those two [Kraemer and Eichenberg] are the guys we have mapped out at right tackle, and they’re going to battle,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “Today Kraemer was there. Last two practices Eichenberg got a lot of the work. Eichenberg will go back there on Friday. They’re going to keep battling and splitting the action out there.”

Part of the reasoning in giving the two sophomores extended looks this spring is Notre Dame knows what it has in Bars when at right tackle.

“We would prefer to get him in at the guard position, but we know he can play the [tackle] position,” Kelly said.

A starting five of McGlinchey, the three seniors and either sophomore may seem to leave fifth-year lineman Hunter Bivin out in the cold. Not often is a player asked to return for a fifth year only to spend it on the bench. That is even more rare when considering the current Irish scholarship crunch.

Kelly compared Bivin’s role to that of Mark Harrell’s last year. Harrell appeared in all 12 games, starting two, and provided much needed depth and flexibility along the offensive line. Rather than have five backup offensive linemen, position coach Harry Hiestand relied on Harrell to provide support at multiple spots.

“It’s reasonable to assume that Hunter Bivin’s going to be involved in this as well,” Kelly said. “We’ve just asked Hunter to take a seat right now. He’s done that for the team.

“We think Hunter is going to be a Mark Harrell for us. A guy that’s extremely valuable, can play a number of positions. We trust him, but we want to see these two young players [Kraemer and Eichenberg]. Hunter is a guy that can play right or left tackle for us. He’s going to be a valuable player for us as a swing guy.”

On that note, this space will refer to Bivin as a fifth-year lineman, as was done above, rather than as a guard or as a tackle, until further notice. In his case, the broader description may be the most accurate.

Spring break out west is fine, but Wimbush better be ready to run

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It will undoubtedly become a habit, at least for the next five-plus months. If Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush sneezes in front of a camera, it just might lead to an uptick in webmd.com traffic. His every football move will certainly be analyzed, nitpicked and discussed at length. Thus, Irish coach Brian Kelly being asked about Wimbush’s spring break should surprise no one.

Rather than find a Florida beach, Wimbush spent his spring break working with private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield in San Diego alongside a handful of other college passers. Kelly said there is value to such a spring break but stopped short of setting any lofty expectations of the effects.

“I have no problem with [Wimbush] working out with George Whitfield,” Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice, the first following spring break and the third of 14 leading into the Blue-Gold Game on April 22. “George doesn’t work on the specifics to the offense. George is really working on the quarterback and throwing the football, moving in the pocket. George is really good at keeping those quarterbacks active and moving.”

Whitfield is best-known around Notre Dame and among Irish fans for working with former Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson during Golson’s academic suspension in 2013. Whitfield and Golson spent 10 weeks together, thus granting time for extensive off-field activities such as film study. Far shorter, Wimbush’s time out west appears to have been spent primarily doing drills.

“In those situations, it’s a bullpen session,” Kelly said. “They’re keeping their arms loose, they’re keeping their feet loose. He’s just keeping them active.”

It is hard to construe that activity as a negative, but it obviously lacks certain aspects crucial to Wimbush’s 2017 season. With only five career pass attempts and seven career rushes, Wimbush’s inexperience looms large. Developing the necessary intangibles to account for that may be just as, if not more, important as fitting his throws into tight windows.

“When it comes to the playbook, to his teammates, to his coaches here, Brandon understands that when the rubber hits the road, those are the guys that matter the most,” Kelly said. “He knows when it’s time for Notre Dame football, where the focus is.”

Included in that playbook will be an expectation for Wimbush to carry the ball. To date, Wimbush’s biggest play and possibly only imprint on most Notre Dame fans’ memories is a 58-yard touchdown scamper against Massachusetts in 2015.

Link to 17-second YouTube video which has unfortunately disabled embedding

Note, the play is not exclusively-designed for Wimbush to run. Now a rising junior, then a fellow freshman, running back Josh Adams comes across Wimbush’s front for a possible handoff. Instead, Wimbush makes the correct read and keeps the ball. Why state so clearly it was the proper read? Adams has to evade a Texas defender even though he never had the ball.

Future option plays should present Wimbush with the possibility of throwing the ball, too.

“He’ll be a runner in the offense,” Kelly said. “Do we want him to carry the ball 20 times? No.”

“I don’t think you’ll have a situation where we’re calling quarterback power or singular runs. He’s going to have options: hand it off, throw the ball out on the perimeter. You’ll see more of that than you will prescribed quarterback runs. We had a little bit more of that last year with Kizer, but I think you’ll see that he has an option to get the ball out of his hands more so than just prescribed runs.”

Those option plays, in particular, will require Wimbush to have a thorough familiarity both with the Notre Dame playbook and with his teammates’ tendencies.

RITA LEE OR 52-53?
Staying consistent with his comments over the last two months, Kelly once again reiterated the biggest changes new offensive coordinator Chip Long will bring to the Irish playbook will be in its wording. Perhaps going to an extreme example to illustrate his thinking, Kelly pointed to the future.

“We’re going to win next year and Chip is going to be the greatest offensive coordinator in the country and he’s going to get a head job, right?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “Then I’m not going to introduce the Chip Long offense to the next offensive coordinator.”

“It has to have my culture in it … The culture of the offense is still the base offense that I have always run because I have to be able to carry that with me from year to year.”

Within that ellipsis, Kelly gave two examples of possible verbiage changes. Without knowing much more behind them, they do not mean too much out here in the cobwebs of the internet, but they do provide a quick glimpse at what Kelly has been referring to when discussing lexicon since hiring Long.

“If he wants to change Ringo Lucky protection to Ram and Lion protection, go right ahead. If he wants to change certain calls, for example, 52-53 protection is now Rita Lee.”

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