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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.