Appalachian v Michigan

And in that corner… The Michigan Wolverines

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A week after both Notre Dame and Michigan took their opponents to the proverbial woodshed, they’ll do battle one more time, with both proud programs hoping to do the same to their nemesis.

In a game that’s one of the premiere matchups in college football, the lights will shine bright over Notre Dame Stadium as Brian Kelly tries to even things up with Brady Hoke. While Hoke’s seat in Ann Arbor may be warming up after a significant regression the past two seasons, he’s beaten Brian Kelly in two of three matchups.

With a primetime kickoff and the game a key September barometer for success, the last scheduled meeting between both teams will likely be even saltier than usual, in a rivalry recently defined lately by close and heart-wrenching games.

Getting us ready for action is Bleacher Report’s Adam Biggers.

 

Let’s get this first question out of the way: How strong is the hatred coming from Michigan’s side of this “rivalry.” As strong as it is for Michigan State? That “team from Ohio?” (After being in Ann Arbor last year, I’ve got to think strong to quite strong at the very least.)

There are a lot of Notre Dame alums and fans in Michigan, so Wolverines fans have the experience of running into one of three enemies at every turn, especially those in Ann Arbor, who are minutes away from the borderline of savage society (just kidding, Ohio!).

Saturday, the No. 1 enemy will be Notre Dame—the only team that should exist for the Wolverines this weekend.

 

Outside of the revenge/upset storyline, how much can you learn from the Wolverines beating an Appalachian State team that was 4-8 in the FCS last year? Change the name to another directional school and would there be as much excitement about the impressive victory?

Michigan did what it had to do, so I’m not going to get too excited about the 52-14 victory. Brady Hoke’s staff had a solid game plan. The players did their jobs. The O-line held tight, the D-line pretty much owned the trenches. Everything that a Michigan fan wanted to see was clear and present at The Big House.

At the end of the day, the Wolverines removed a thorn from their side, but I don’t think they’re looking at it as some monumental accomplishment. But I know for a fact that they’re geared up for Notre Dame.

Jake Ryan told me that the game will be a real test for the defense. I agree. It’ll also be one for the offense, which didn’t dazzle me for four quarters this past weekend.

 

That said, this was Doug Nussmeier’s debut as offensive coordinator and playcaller and all reports had to be rosy. The Wolverines offense racked up 560 yards on 55 plays. The running game plowed its way to 350 yards, at an astounding 9.7 yards per touch. Devin Gardner completed 13 of 14 passes with three touchdowns to Devin Funchess.

Is Nussmeier in walk-on-water territory after Game One? Is there a grain of salt with all of this? After Al Borges’ offense torched the Irish last year, just how terrified should Notre Dame fans be of the Michigan offense come Saturday night?

Hahaha. No. Not yet. Not even close.

However, to say that Michigan fans are happy about his presence would be an understatement. Watching Devin Gardner and Devin Funchess play catch during the first half of the season-opening win over Appalachian State was a welcome sight; likewise with Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith, who combined for 285 yards and three touchdowns.

It appears that guys whose names start with “D” are going to be stars this fall. Doug Nussmeier could very well be next.

But let’s wait and see how he does against Notre Dame before going bonkers over bonking the Mountaineers.

 

Greg Mattison tweaked his role in the defense, coaching linebackers now as he and Mark Smith switch roles. There looks to be a lot of talent returning. After Mattison (or the moment) seemed to overwhelm Everett Golson in 2012, how do you think the Wolverines will attack the Irish offense?

Michigan’s defense is going to throw everything at everyone, regardless of helmet color, jersey creed or nationality. Michigan fans should prepare for what could be Mattison’s best defense yet—and that’s saying a lot, considering he brought the Wolverines from the cellar to top-25 contention (defensively) in his first year.

Respecting Golson’s athleticism, I’d imagine that he’ll have a linebacker glued to him for much of the game, anticipating his every move. I’m also going to guess that Notre Dame receivers won’t get a lot of breathing room.
On media day, Jourdan Lewis and Blake Countess, both corners, told me that they were more than confident in their secondary.

That’s a great sign, obviously. A defense is only as strong as its last line of…well…defense.

I like the D-line, especially with Brennen Beyer, Ondre Pipkins, Willie Henry and Matt Godin, among a few others, looking like they’ll be all hustle in 2014. During Week 1, the Wolverines gave up 153 yards on the ground. I wouldn’t think that they’d be too keen on letting sophomores Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant getting remotely close to that. If there’s one “weakness” evident after the opener, it’s run defense up the middle—that has to be buttoned down quickly, which shouldn’t be a problem. You can bet that Mattison’s pumping film right now.

 

If you were Brian Kelly, how would you attack the Wolverines defense? On the ground, where Michigan gave up a 100-yard rushing game? Through the air? Brady Hoke might be on the hot seat, but he’s beated Kelly three of four times.

Well, as kind of mentioned above, I’d go up the middle until the Wolverines stop allowing positive yardage. Again, this area needs to be tightened up before Saturday; it’s the most concerning aspect of Mattison’s unit so far.

 

What’s your gut tell you about Saturday night? Notre Dame opened as a six-point favorite in a game that really favors the underdog. In the last game until both ADs can kiss and make up, what are the keys to victory?

Keeping emotions in check will be huge. Neither team can afford an ejection, especially of a star player or even coach, so it’s important for both sides to remain relatively calm—which is easier said than done, considering that this is it (as of now, anyway).

Staples of solid defense, such as winning first and thirds, creating turnovers and limiting the big play are always a good place to start. If I’m Kelly, I want to make sure that Green and Smith are cold. Once warmed up, they can go through walls.

When I asked Smith if he and Green proved anything Saturday, Smith told me this: “[Derrick and I are] powerful runners. It’s going to take more than one person to bring us down.”

These guys are focused and ready to do damage. The Irish have to find a way to cap them—not to mention Devin Funchess—if they want to ensure victory. I see this one going down the final moments, with Michigan slipping away by less than a touchdown.

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You can get more from Adam on Twitter @AdamBiggers81.

Will Wimbush, Elko and the early enrollees surprise in spring practice?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Exactly 59 days from today, the Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Sure, they will be playing against themselves, but nonetheless, it will be somewhat-competitive football played in gold helmets.

For timing context, exactly 59 days ago, you looked beneath the Christmas tree to learn if Santa Claus left you season tickets, socks or coal. I got socks. They had some of that extra cushioning, so I considered them a suitable treat.

Whether you care about my argyles or not (you don’t), for many the Blue-Gold Game and Christmas morning hold similar excitement. That fact is apparently why Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick does not concern himself when groups of alumni publicly lament his decisions, or lack thereof.

“I never worry about that,” Swarbirck told the Indianapolis Star in an exclusive interview you really should read. Go on, click the link, it will open in a new tab. You can come right back here when you are done.

“The hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion in your program. If that sort of stuff bothers you, you can’t be the athletic director, head coach or the quarterback at Notre Dame.”

That very passion will undoubtedly lead to frame-by-frame discussions of video snippets from spring practice, parsing of each and every word Irish coach Brian Kelly says in quick interviews after those practices, and extreme pessimism and optimism about the 2017 season.

In the Christmas spirit, what toys could bring the must excitement during the spring unwrapping? Personally, the gift I was unsure of always brought the most joy. I would rather open an unexpected book than know about a charcoal-gray suit. In other words, at least for today, let’s look past the offensive line, the running backs and the inside linebackers. Instead, let’s look forward to learning about… (more…)

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Karlos Williams #9 of the Florida State Seminoles scores the touchdown that would win the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their game at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.

With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.

The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.

Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.

Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.

If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.

Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order: (more…)

Four-star WR Micah Jones chooses Irish; Rees may need to wait; Other late-week reading

jones
rivals.com
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A day may come when Notre Dame suffers a recruiting disappointment in the 2018 cycle, when a high school star spurns the Irish coaching staff for a foe, but it is not this day.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township High School; Gurnee, Ill.) committed to Notre Dame on Friday, joining a class of now 10 recruits, including four who committed just this week.

Jones chose the Irish over offers from the likes of Iowa, Michigan State and Ole Miss, among others.

He is the first receiver among the 10 commitments and the seventh considered a four-star prospect. At 6-foot-5, 196 pounds, Jones should present a large target for whomever the Notre Dame quarterback is in the fall of 2018, most likely then-senior Brandon Wimbush.

Tom, Tommy or Thomas; Assistant Coach or Graduate Assistant?
Thomas Rees may need to wait a season before officially being a coach at Notre Dame. The legislation to approve a 10th assistant coach was expected to be voted on, passed and effective in April. A newly-added amendment may push the effective date to following the 2017 season. The amendment will be voted on immediately before the legislation itself is.

The delay makes sense. Most coaching hirings and firings occur in December and January. In theory, creating a one-timing hiring frenzy following spring football could leave many programs in the lurch. In practice, however, this is not anticipated.

“The majority of the FBS guys that I’ve talked with currently believe that 10th coach is going to come from within their own organization,” Todd Berry told the Associated Press. Berry is the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association and former coach at Army and Louisiana-Monroe. “Quality control, graduate assistants, analysts, or they’re planning on hiring somebody that’s out of work.”

A majority is not a unanimity, though, and that carousel will innately work to the disadvantage of the Group of 5 schools.

As for Rees, a graduate assistant can still work extensively with players. The most-pertinent difference between a graduate assistant and an assistant coach is the former cannot recruit. Given Notre Dame’s recent success on the recruiting trail—and the early commitment of class of 2018 consensus four-star quarterback Phil Jurkovec (Pine-Richland H.S.; Gibsonia, Pa.)—Rees may not be an absolute necessity in that regard this cycle.

A Kizer Appraisal
Former NFL scout Greg Gabriel took a look at former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer this week, largely paying the draft prospect compliments.

In calling Kizer “the most talented quarterback in this draft class,” Gabriel set a high ceiling for Kizer’s spring. Part of Gabriel’s positive assessment comes from acknowledging Kizer’s responsibilities as the Irish signal-caller.

“The spread offense that Kizer played in at Notre Dame is more sophisticated than many of the spread offenses we see elsewhere at the collegiate level. The Notre Dame offense is a whole-field read scheme in which the quarterback has to go through a progression that encompasses both sides of the field. He also can change the play and/or protections at the line of scrimmage. Given all that, Kizer was asked to do more than many spread quarterbacks are asked to do.”

Gabriel also reflected on the dynamic differences for Kizer in 2015 and 2016 and what may have elicited some of his seeming stagnation.

“There was the unnecessary quarterback controversy at Notre Dame, and the offensive line wasn’t as experienced or as talented and the receivers were mostly first-year starters.”

As much as Gabriel raves about Kizer, he would be the first to tell you anything beyond individual player evaluation is a waste of air this early in the draft process. Mock drafts may be fun, but they are not much beyond that.

Take the fates of Tony Romo and Jimmy Garoppolo, for example. Few, if any, in the NFL expect them to dress for the Cowboys and Patriots, respectively, again. Where they end up could directly impact Kizer’s draft placement.

Jaylon Smith May Be Back to Form
Former Notre Dame and current Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith posted yet another encouraging video to Twitter. This one shows Smith really might be game-ready right now and, if not, almost certainly will be by the fall. Should there be any difficulty with the embedded video below, here is a link straight to it.

OL Mabry makes third commitment this week; WR Jones may follow Friday

mabry
rivals.com
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Two weeks ago, Irish coach Brian Kelly gave a non-answer of an answer to a question about a likely early signing period this coming December. Avoiding specifics, he indicated he thinks the effects of such a change will be seen on a case-by-case basis entirely dependent on the recruits.

“Some will, some won’t,” Kelly said. “…Each kid is going to have to react to it based upon also how their school is going to be dealing with it. Some will come off the board at the time.

“We’re expecting some to sign early, but I think our mindset is we’re going into it business as usual. We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

After this week, Notre Dame is going to have more year-long fights than anticipated. Consensus three-star offensive lineman recruit Cole Mabry (Brentwood High School; Brentwood, Tenn.) became the third prospect to offer a verbal commitment to the Irish coaching staff in less than 36 hours with his Wednesday decision. Mabry received the offer over the weekend, but waited a few days before making his decision public, lest emotions be dictating his thought process.

At 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds, Mabry will have time to add muscle to his frame, with four or five offensive tackles greeting him on the Notre Dame roster in the summer of 2018. That ability to mold his style and growth may have played a part in the Irish interest.

“They love my height and athleticism and how I play,” Mabry told rivals.com. “We got to break down film and go through things that they do that pair up with how I play now. They think I’ll be a great fit in their offense.”

Mabry is the ninth Notre Dame commitment in the class of 2018, though the first offensive lineman.

Judging by new Notre Dame director of football performance Matt Balis’s agenda for the Irish roster’s Valentine’s Day morning, Mabry will have much to look forward to in terms of strength and conditioning.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township H.S.; Gurnee, Ill.) is scheduled to announce his verbal commitment this Friday at 4 p.m. ET. Along with Notre Dame, Jones is considering Iowa, Michigan State, Nebraska, Ole Miss, Illinois and Northwestern. He would be the first receiver in Notre Dame’s 2018 class. Naturally, whomever Jones commits to, the recruiting fight will last until at least December, and perhaps all the way to February.