Five things we learned: Notre Dame 48, Rice 17

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The last stormy, humid season opener at Notre Dame Stadium found an infamous place in the Irish history books. Saturday afternoon’s 48-17 drubbing of Rice will be remembered in a much better light.

That’s because the return of Everett Golson took a page out of a Marvel movie’s script. After missing 600 days of football, Golson put on his cape and did his best to make up for lost time, playing a near perfect game as he put up five touchdowns in a breakthrough offensive performance for Notre Dame.

By foot, Golson kept the Owls at bay, scrambling to keep plays alive while single-handedly solving the team’s red zone woes with three rushing touchdowns. Those rushing totals have only been matched by Jarious Jackson and some guy named Hornung, whose stiff-arming trophy sits proudly on display in the football office.

By air Golson was even more impressive, rarely missing a throw as his 14 completions covered 295 yards. Five different Irish receivers caught passes of 25 yards or more, with Golson averaging a hearty 21 yards a completion.

Playing on a new FieldTurf track that favors teams built for speed, the Irish offense paced the attack while Brian VanGorder’s young defense held its own. With an easy victory in the books, let’s look at the five things we learned in the Irish’s 48-17 win over Rice.

 

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After two weeks of nothing but distractions, Brian Kelly’s young Irish team took care of business. 

When head coach Brian Kelly named Everett Golson his starting quarterback 17 days ago, he thought he was eliminating the last big storyline of fall camp. Little did he know, but just 48 hours later the Irish football program would be under seige, with four (and now five) players wrapped up in an academic investigation that had some people wondering if the Golden Dome was burning.

The loss of three front-line starters was a blow, with DaVaris Daniels, KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams all expected to play critical roles on the field. But Saturday afternoon the Irish showed no signs of blinking, following their head coach’s mantra of “Next Man In” and taking care of business.

“I was really proud of them today,” Kelly said. “I said before we get into talking about the win, I just want to tell you that I’m proud of the way you’ve handled yourself. And that means a lot moving forward. When your locker room has got that kind of resolve, good things are going to happen to you.”

If the academic mess was mostly self-inflicted, the other obstacles faced this preseason haven’t been. Prostate cancer surgery kept offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock from attending the start of training camp. Graduate assistant (and former Irish captain) Kyle McCarthy is also undergoing chemotherapy while still trying to work with the team.

Add in a knee injury to captain and starting safety Austin Collinsworth suffered on Thursday and you’ve got two chaotic weeks that the Irish not just survived, but won in convincing style.

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Brian Kelly is a pretty good head coach when he’s got Everett Golson at quarterback. 

It’s worth pointing out: With Everett Golson playing, Brian Kelly is 12-1. Without him, Kelly’s 26-14. That’s the difference between getting a statue and hiring a realtor.

With Golson, the Irish offense became the aggressive, downfield, big play attack that Kelly had quietly been advertising since the offseason. And all credit goes to the quarterback who put aside the distraction of returning to the big stage and simply played excellent football.

Golson barely missed a ball if you take away his throw aways and a few drops, one from C.J. Prosise that cost him an even gaudier stat line. But that’s the magic of what Golson does for the Irish offense, a dual-threat runner with a preference to pass.

Put Rice head coach David Bailiff down as a believer.

“Golson’s just an amazing, amazing quarterback,” Bailiff said after the game. “He was a dynamic player a year ago… He’s taken that year off and you can tell he’s matured. You can tell he’s studied the game.”

Of course, doing it against Rice is a lot different than doing it against Michigan, who comes to South Bend next weekend. But on a rainy Saturday, Brian Kelly showed how efficient his offense is when he’s got Everett Golson behind center.

 

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After a year of getting beaten up, Notre Dame’s special teams were special. 

What a difference a year makes. Last year, you couldn’t have blamed the coaching staff from removing any mention of the word special when dealing with Scott Booker’s special teams unit. On Saturday, the Irish return game looked impressive, with both Cody Riggs and Greg Bryant breaking big returns in the punt game and Amir Carlisle breaking a 36-yard kickoff return.

The Irish racked up 80 yards on five punt returns. Last year, the Irish managed just 106 yards all season — surprisingly the best cumulative total of the Kelly era to date.

While Kyle Brindza missed his first field goal attempt and caught a funky hop on his first kickoff that bounced started Rice on the 35, the rest of the rebuilt unit was rock solid, including James Onwualu stuffing Rice’s fake punt attempt short.

The highlight of the afternoon had to be the punt returns by Riggs and Bryant, with three nice returns flipping the field and starting the Irish off with great field position. After a season of getting killed in the “Hidden Yards” ledger, Kelly had perhaps the best special teams day of his career in South Bend.

 

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Notre Dame’s ground game looks like the engine to drive the offense. 

Kelly and offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock found the perfect mix for the running game, and all three backs played great football, even with limited attempts. Cam McDaniel, Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant all averaged at least five yards a carry, with Bryant leading the way with 71 yards and his first career touchdown.

The Irish’s 281 rushing yards were their most since the 2012 Shamrock Series victory over Miami. Their 42 rushing attempts showed a willingness to commit to a balanced offense, as the ground game powered the Irish to the finish.

“We don’t have an exact science,” Kelly said for splitting carries. “I wish I could be that smart. But we are really trying to figure out how to get them the carries that they all deserve, and also keep them in the flow of the game.”

With Conor Hanratty getting the surprise start over Matt Hegarty at left guard, the Irish offensive line put a new twist on what Harry Hiestand’s troops would look like up front in life after Zack Martin and Chris Watt. And while Nick Martin got called for two snap infractions (Kelly put those on Golson, not Martin), it was a strong performance by the running game.

 

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For one Saturday, the kids on defense were all right.

Sure, there were breakdowns. Elijah Shumate and Nicky Baratti might turn red during Sunday’s tape session after seeing their coverage mistakes turn into six points. But the Irish’s rebuilt defense played well on Saturday, holding Rice to 367 total yards, and holding up surprisingly well against the run.

Powered by a ground game that led Conference USA last season, Rice ran 41 times on Saturday, but only managed to gain 141 yards with Romeo Okwara, Andrew Trumbetti, Isaac Rochell playing well while Jarron Jones and Sheldon Day excelled in the trenches.

“I just really thought that we were going to be able to hold up very well, and Joe Schmidt with Jaylon (Smith) were outstanding,” Kelly said. You’ve got those six guys, if they can hold up against the run, we’re going to be in pretty good shape, and I thought that was going to be the case and it ended up being it today.”

 

Perhaps even better, the Irish broke in a ton of young players. One look at the participation chart forced even the most die-hard fans to occasionally check the roster.

Freshman Drue Tranquill played major minutes. So did Daniel Cage up front. Greer Martini played significant snaps. Andrew Trumbetti and Grant Blankenship found their way onto the stat sheet.

Also playing their first minutes were Nyles Morgan and Nick Watkins, while seldom-used veterans like Justin Utupo and Anthony Rabasa saw action.

With little tape to study, Bailiff sounded impressed by the work of VanGorder’s new unit.

“They did a good job of changing their fronts from a four down to three down,” Bailiff siad. “I think it led to some problems just for us identifying what they were doing.

“I thought they did a good job and didn’t make a lot of mistakes today. Tackled well in space. They tackled a lot better than we hoped they would.”

Two breakdowns in the secondary cost the Irish 14 points. Ultimately it didn’t matter on Saturday. But come next weekend when Michigan is in town, the Irish will need to play much cleaner on the back end.

 

 

Recruiting success continues with OL Dirksen, class’s 12th commit

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Even in the doldrums of spring practice, Notre Dame’s recent recruiting success continues. Rivals.com three-star/scout.com four-star offensive lineman John Dirksen offered a verbal commitment to the Irish on Saturday, bringing the 2018 class to 12 commitments.

The 6-foot-5, 290-pounds Dirksen (Marion High School; Maria Stein, Ohio) joins consensus three-star prospect Cole Mabry (Brentwood H.S.; Brentwood, Tenn.) as the offensive linemen thus far among the 12. In three of the last four years, Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has pulled in four recruits, with 2015’s two (Trevor Ruhland, Tristen Hoge) as the exception. This recruiting cycle could again bring a limited offensive line haul, given the likely limits on the class’s size.

While any and all current class of 2018 team rankings should be taken with many grains of salt—there are 318 days between today and National Signing Day, after all—Dirksen’s commitment solidifies the Irish hold on the No. 3 class, per rivals.com. Other recruiting services place Notre Dame even higher.

Dirksen chose Hiestand and the Irish over offers from Michigan State, Iowa State and Boston College, among others.

 

Holmes out for spring; Jones & Jones shining

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Notre Dame’s spring continued over the weekend, and is all too often the case with football, that led to an injury. Early enrollee running back C.J. Holmes will probably miss the rest of spring practice due to a separated shoulder, Irish coach Brian Kelly announced following Saturday’s practice.

“We’ll get an MRI and know a little bit further on Monday once that calms down a little bit,” Kelly said. “We’ll get a picture of that and see. He had an open repair on that same shoulder his sophomore year in high school.”

Behind three backs, including two with experience, Holmes was unlikely to see playing time in the backfield in 2017.

Of those three backs, sophomore Tony Jones, Jr., is the unknown after preserving a year of eligibility last season. In limited practice viewing, however, Jones has only impressed. He has caught Kelly’s eye, as well.

“He’s 225 pounds, can catch the ball coming out of the backfield, [is] assignment correct, and can run elusively and can get into the second level,” Kelly said. “What does that equal? He’s a pretty good back.

“Obviously he was noticeable today in his play and he got some work with the first group as well. He wasn’t just getting second-team reps.”

Jones may be getting some first-unit exposure, but expect him to remain behind junior Josh Adams in the depth chart. Considering Jones’ style is somewhat comparable to Adams’, whereas junior Dexter Williams presents something of a change of pace, Williams should see more action than the sophomore, as well.

MORE PRAISE FOR ALIZE JONES
Junior tight end Alizé Jones—rather, Alizé Mack, per his Twitter account—has taken the lead in spring’s race of who reaps the most sound bite accolades. In complimenting Jones, who missed last season due to an academic suspension, Kelly also managed to laud new offensive coordinator Chip Long.

“I think Chip is doing a terrific job with [Jones],” Kelly said. “He’s got a good relationship. He knows how to rise him up when he needs to and scold him when he needs to. Alizé needs a little bit of that.

“He’s virtually un-coverable in certain areas of the field. I don’t care at any level. You can’t cover him. He just has that kind of talent. The one that I think stands out to me in the few days is he’s committed himself to being a blocker and playing physical. If he continues to do that, we’re going to find ourselves with a lot of tight ends on the field.”

Presumably, Jones would join graduate student tight end Durham Smythe in two tight end sets. It should be remembered, Long has historically shown a preference for such formations, and with Notre Dame’s plethora of options at the position, Long’s tendencies have no need to change. For that matter, Long had some praise for Jones this weekend, as well.

“Alizé can be as good as he wants to be,” Long said Friday. “…He’s growing up each and every day. Great joy to coach, and that whole group is. He doesn’t want to let that group down. There’s no question he can be as good as he wants to be.”

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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