The good, bad and ugly: Notre Dame vs. Rice

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Upon second viewing, quarterback Everett Golson’s 2014 debut is just as impressive. The senior quarterback, playing his first game in 600 days, didn’t seem to miss a beat, leading Notre Dame with five total touchdowns on the way to a 48-17 victory over Rice.

With Golson behind center, the offense did everything a little bit better. The run game blossomed. The passing game became explosive. Those red zone woes? The Irish converted six of six, with four touchdowns.

Golson’s five total touchdowns capped off one of the week’s best performances. Let’s take a look at the rest of the team before turning the page to Michigan in this week’s good, bad and ugly.

 

THE GOOD

Golson. We already said it. It just needed to be said again.

Looking at his 14 of 22 throwing performance, he probably deserved to have at least 55 more yards and a touchdown if C.J. Prosise didn’t do his best Featherstone impression from Necessary Roughness. Then again, Will Fuller didn’t help out when Golson put a perfect deep ball off his hands that Fuller didn’t squeeze right before.

My favorite throw of the afternoon: Golson rolling left with the pocket moving with him, and hitting Amir Carlisle on a deep flag, in stride over underneath coverage.

That was an NFL throw.

The run game. That’s the way Notre Dame should run the ball this season against an undermanned defensive front. Outside of Christian Covington (who managed just two tackles against Christian Lombard and the interior of the line), Rice wasn’t able to hang with the big boys up front, nor the backs who looked decisive and quick.

Cam McDaniel looked good in his eight carries. Tarean Folston looked as smooth as ever with 12 carries, leading the backs. But Greg Bryant showed the type of explosive burst that makes him tough to keep on the sideline (though mishaps on the goal line is the best way I can think of to keep him off the field).

Obviously, rolling through Rice for big yardage isn’t the same as doing it against Michigan and Greg Mattison. But it’s a great start for the ground game, with Golson also playing very effectively as a runner.

Field Position: Notre Dame dominated the field position battle, averaging over plus-10 in starting field position in each quarter. The Irish’s third quarter was pretty impressive, starting at the 47 and converting 4 of 5 third downs.

Joe Schmidt. Making his first start, Schmidt led the Irish with eight tackles, playing physical and looking active in both the run and pass game. Kelly said Schmidt graded out as the team’s best performer, though thought this was only the beginning for him.

“He was pretty good yesterday. He probably was our best player defensively,” Kelly said. “He’s got some things that he’s got to get better at. But I thought as a true first‑time starter, he was the best player for us.”

Sheldon Day. The defensive tackle finished second on the team with six tackles, a pretty productive day for the junior anchor of the defensive line. He had one TFL and came close to making a few more.

Brian VanGorder’s Run Defense. Credit to the front seven for holding up pretty well against Rice’s run game.

If you had told Notre Dame fans that a front playing Day, Jarron Jones, Justin Utupo, Isaac Rochell, Grant Blankenship, Andrew Trumbetti, Daniel Cage and Romeo Okwara would’ve given up 3.5 yards a carry and only one explosive play, they’d have taken it every day of the year.

The Return Game. Cody Riggs, Greg Bryant and Amir Carlisle did a great job being decisive. And credit to the punt return team for —what a concept– holding their blocks and letting their playmakers make plays.

(Don’t worry Cam, I’m going to forget that I noticed you blocking nobody on the return where Carlisle got stuffed short.)

The Red Zone Offense. Maybe Brian Kelly wasn’t kidding around about a mobile quarterback in tight quarters helping out. Six of six is nice, and four touchdowns is even better. (But another look at the tape will have the Irish feeling like they left one or two TDs out there.)

Matthias Farley. I may have already used it here, but Farley is the Tommy Rees of the Irish defense. Perfect? No. Makes mistakes? Oh, you’ve noticed?

But in one series, Farley basically turned the momentum of the football game completely around, making a tackle, collecting half a sack, and making a really athletic interception with next to no time left in the first half.

Then Golson and C.J. Prosise put the dagger in the Owls’ chest, turning a manageable game into a 28-10 halftime lead. The Irish scored 14 points in the final 153 seconds of the first half. Coffee is for closers, and there was Folgers waiting in the locker room.)

Playing a nickel back role that he’s only playing because of KeiVarae Russell’s suspension and Austin Collinsworth’s injury, Farley had the game’s biggest defensive series.

Quick Hits: 

* He wasn’t overly noticed out there, but for a first game at outside linebacker James Onwualu did a nice job in space. And on the fake punt.

* Nice job, slot receivers. Amir Carlisle looks pretty natural at wide receiver. Outside of his drop, C.J. Prosise is a pretty dangerous guy in space… especially at 220 pounds.

Jarron Jones showed up in a good way.

* That didn’t look like a freshman making the big hit when Andrew Trumbetti came off the edge.

* Welcome to college football Malik Zaire. I liked everything about that run except for that high step.

* All the kids played. (Except Jhonny Williams and Jon Bonner). But what a great way to get the young guys some experience.

* Before all of you guys start complaining about Notre Dame’s recruiting efforts, note that Drue Tranquill and Greer Martini both played major minutes on defense. Both were three-star guys with less than impressive offer lists. Maybe defer to the coaching staff on talent evaluation.

 

THE BAD

Communication in the secondary. Rice’s two touchdowns came on blown coverage on the back end, first by Elijah Shumate and the second by Nicky Baratti, a rude awakening for a guy coming back after some bad luck with his shoulders.

With Austin Collinsworth going down on Thursday afternoon, some mishaps were to be expected. But here’s how Kelly recapped the issues on his Sunday teleconference, putting the onus on Max Redfield and Shumate to do a better job working together.

“We got into a very unique situation where we had 24 hours really to get them communicating more effectively,” Kelly said. “We gave up five explosive plays — four passes — three of them directly related to poor communication.”

When asked if Farley was the answer at safety, Kelly feels that Shumate is still the guy best suited for strong safety.

“We can get that corrected. Both those guys are the kind of skill players we want back there. We have to address that issue, which we will this week.”

Slow Starts. It might be nit-picky, but Notre Dame went three-and-out on its first two possessions, something that can’t happen against Michigan next weekend. On second inspection, it looked like a combination of missed blocks in the run game and a bit of hesitancy by Golson on a few passes.

(I also think after seeing McDaniel get the start on the first series, it should be shifted around with Folston and Bryant getting early snaps.)

The Drops. Come on now, C.J. Prosise. Don’t drop gift-wrapped touchdowns. (But nice job working back into the play after Golson broke into a scramble.)

Will Fuller also needs to catch that deep ball if he wants to continue putting up monster yards-per-catch numbers. Not to mention the drop by Ben Koyack. That’s a habit I had hoped Koyack shed when turning into a senior leader.

Diagnosing Route concepts. Hang with me here. When Notre Dame’s defense got burnt on a few passes, it was a product of not seeing the passing concept in time.

The first crossing route that Rice hit the Irish on, Notre Dame had freshman defensive end Andrew Trumbetti standing up in coverage. In his first collegiate game, I can’t truly blame the kid for not seeing a receiver dragging back across to him.

The Irish got lucky when an illegal formation penalty robbed the Owls of another big gainer on a similar concept. But cornerback Cole Luke and Shumate didn’t do a great job communicating on the wheel route that Luke Turner and Driphus Jackson hit on.

As a wise man named GI Joe said, “Knowing is half the battle.” And against Doug Nussmeier and Michigan’s new offense, you can bet the Wolverines will try and bait the Irish secondary into making some mistakes.

Quick Hits: 

* No breakfast balls, Kyle Brindza. This isn’t No. 1 on the Warren Course. Brindza snap-hooked his first field goal attempt left and put his first kickoff out of bounds before righting the ship.

* I’m not putting Jaylon Smith in the bad category, but statistically his three tackles were well below the floor I had set for his box score impact on the game. He was close to turning at least one of those three tackles into another TFL, and his head coach’s comments Sunday afternoon were interesting.

“He played with great effort. Had some mental mistakes. I think he’s still learning the position. But he plays with great effort and great enthusiasm,” Kelly said. “When it comes to Jaylon, he takes his work very seriously. I would expect that you’re going to see significant improvement from Jaylon from week one to week two.”

* Hey Special Teamers: On pooch punts, look up for the football, don’t just go to the returner pretending to fair catch the ball. Kyle Brindza got robbed on two punts that could’ve been downed inside the five yard line.

Steve Elmer and Ronnie Stanley got beat with some speed moves — Elmer on the Owls’ sack of Golson and Stanley when defensive end Brian Nordstrom knifed inside of him. Nordstrom produced 1.5 TFLs.

 

THE UGLY

An easy opening victory after months without football? Especially after watching dynasty-in-the-making programs like Florida State and Alabama sweat wins out?

Enjoy the Rice victory and get ready for Michigan week.

 

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.”

RELATED READING:
4 Days Until Spring Practice: A Look at QBs (Brandon Wimbush)
Pace of Play: More Snaps Equal More Scoring Chances, Right?

Back from break, Irish commence hitting; DT Elijah Taylor out with LisFranc injury

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Notre Dame last wore pads in its 45-27 defeat at USC back on Nov. 26, a full 117 days ago. Suffice it to say, the Irish enjoyed the chance to don their shoulder pads and hit each other in Wednesday’s third spring practice, the first one since returning from spring break.

“What I liked about it more than anything else is there wasn’t a big drop off today,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “Usually you go two days and then you take a week off, and then you come back and put your pads on—it took us only a couple of periods to get back up to form. That was nice to see.”

Contrary to previous years in spring practice, and perhaps practice in general, Kelly emphasized tackling, especially tackling in the open-field, in Wednesday’s drills.

“[I] felt like we needed to make up for a little lost ground,” he said. “We got in tackling today for the first time. That’ll be an emphasis. We’ll tackle a lot this spring to make up for lost ground.”

The early and often physical nature of practice didn’t bother any of the players, per Kelly, but also per presumed common sense. While Notre Dame’s coaching staff changes and public questioning played out in broad view, the players spent 117 days in private waiting to unleash some of the frustrations of 2016’s disappointing season.

“Everybody to a man has been looking forward to this day,” Kelly said. “It was a pretty difficult offseason for them. They were looking forward to putting the pads on and getting out there. I think they exhibited that today.”

TAYLOR OUT FOR SPRING, AT LEAST
Junior defensive tackle Elijah Taylor was not in pads Wednesday. In the final practice before spring break, another player stepped on Taylor’s foot, Kelly said. The resulting LisFranc fracture will keep Taylor out of the remaining dozen spring practices and limit him until at least July. Taylor saw action in four games last season, finishing with three tackles, including one for a loss.

Notre Dame team surgeon Dr. Brian Ratigan already performed Taylor’s surgery.

“Typical LisFranc fractures, we’ve had good success with their repairs,” Kelly said. “…We’ll be able to train around the injury. Full range of motion moving around and doing things in June, probably full clearance sometime in July.”

Without Taylor, the interior of Notre Dame’s defensive line becomes even shallower, though that may have been hard to previously comprehend. Junior Jerry Tillery looks to be ready to start, and senior Jonathan Bonner has moved to the inside, rather than at end as he has been for most of his career. Behind them, the Irish present only question marks.

Kelly said he will look to junior Micah Dew-Treadway to step forward in Taylor’s absence.

“Micah Dew-Treadway has had a really good offseason for us,” Kelly said. “Changed his body, has been doing a really good job in all facets, in the class room and weight room. He’s somebody that had been ascending anyway prior to the injury.

Kelly indicated junior Brandon Tiassum also could be expected to see more work with Taylor sidelined.

Seniors Daniel Cage and Pete Mokwuah are in the mix, as well. Cage struggled with concussion issues last season after a promising 2015.

Notre Dame will need to wait until the freshmen arrive—perhaps also joined by Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano, reportedly still taking official visits as he ponders his 2017 destination—for further reinforcements. Consensus four-star recruit Darnell Ewell would be the most likely candidate of the three expected arrivals to move up the depth chart right away.

In layman’s terms, a Lisfranc fracture occurs when a mid-foot bone connecting to a toe separates from the cluster of bones toward the heel. Note: This is stated here only to provide some context, nothing more. This particular scribe avoided most biology classes.

CLAYPOOL A RECEIVER AND THAT HE WILL STAY
Asked if he considered moving sophomore receiver Chase Claypool to defense, Kelly answered succinctly.

“We feel like we need his play on offense,” Kelly said. “He’ll continue to contribute on the special teams end of things, but we need his play on offense.”

KELLY ON KIZER’S NFL POTENTIAL
“I’ve had a number of conversations with GMs and coaches about [former Notre Dame quarterback] DeShone [Kizer], and my personal feeling is he has the biggest upside of all the quarterbacks. I don’t know that he’s prepared to come in and win a Super Bowl for you [this year]. Some may feel as though maybe one of the other quarterbacks are. I don’t know that firsthand. But I think, in time, he has the biggest upside of all the quarterbacks.

“I get it. It’s the NFL. Everybody’s under the same pressure of performing and needing somebody to come in right away, but I think he’s a guy that just needs some time. If he gets in the right situation, I think he’d be the guy to take.”

Kizer and eight other former Irish players will take part in a pro day tomorrow (Thursday) in front of some of those GMs and coaches.

Te’o to New Orleans; Booker to Nebraska

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Former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o has signed a two-year contract with the New Orleans Saints, per reports.

Once recovered from a torn Achilles, Te’o will join a crowded Saints linebacker corps. The Saints signed A.J. Klein—formerly of the Carolina Panthers—to a three-year, $15 million contract earlier in March and return Craig Robertson, who finished 2016 with 115 tackles.

All three have experience at the middle linebacker position in a 4-3 defense, though Klein and Robertson are both capable of playing at the strong side position, as well.

Before his week three injury, Te’o had started 34 of 38 games for the San Diego Chargers and notched 221 career tackles. With the Saints, he rejoins linebackers coach Mike Nolan, who held the same position with the Chargers in 2015 when Te’o finished with a career-high 83 tackles.

BOOKER REJOINS DIACO
It appears former Notre Dame tight ends coach and special teams coordinator Scott Booker will join the Nebraska coaching staff. Two former Irish coaches—defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and safeties coach Bob Elliott—already have seats in the Lincoln coaching room, which is quickly becoming something of a Notre Dame West.

Booker will reportedly join the Cornhuskers staff as a special teams analyst. He served as Notre Dame’s special teams coordinator from 2012 to 2016 before this past offseason’s extensive staff changes.

PRO DAY THURSDAY
A reminder: Notre Dame will hold its Pro Day this Thursday. Nine players will partake, obviously highlighted by quarterback DeShone Kizer.

The others: long snapper Scott Daly, running back Tarean Folson, tight end Chase Hounshell, defensive linemen Jarron Jones and Isaac Rochell, cornerback Cole Luke, safety Avery Sebastian and linebacker James Onwualu.

Kizer hopes to prove himself worthy of a first-round draft pick, while Jones and Rochell may be in the mix for a second-day pick, meaning in the second or third rounds.

As it is draft season, this discussion of why mock drafts exist even though most prognosticators cannot stand them is worth the few minutes needed to read.

MARCH MADNESS UPDATE
The majority of the “Inside the Irish” bracket pool’s leaders escaped the weekend’s chaos, though frontrunner andy44teg will not hold onto that top spot for long after his titlist pick, Duke, exited late the tournament late Sunday.

That will leave some character named Dennis and his North Carolina prediction as the presumptive favorite to win, well, to win absolutely nothing.

Five of the top 10 expect North Carolina to win the championship.