Corey Robinson

Pregame Six Pack: Syracuse in the way of perfect September

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Win September. Sounds easy enough, but Notre Dame has only started 4-0 a dozen times since 1970 and just twice since the turn of the century. But by beating Syracuse on Saturday night the Irish have a chance to enter the most difficult stretch of their season on a perfect role.

Brian Kelly utilized his bye week to practice his young team hard, a rarity for the head coach. But with position shifts along the offensive line and a beat-up roster forcing youth into action, Kelly and his staff were still evaluating their personnel, making the early week off an opportunity for self-assessment.

“I think we found out a little bit more about our football strengths and weaknesses,” Kelly said Thursday. “So, I think we addressed some of what we felt were some apparent weaknesses as we move forward and that we’re gonna play to some of our strengths.”

Notre Dame’s first road test is in familiar confines. Heading back to the New York metropolitan area to take on the Orange, they’ll play an away game in front of a crowd that very well could be pro-Notre Dame.

Here comes the Pregame Six Pack. As usual, here are six tidbits, fun facts, leftovers or miscellaneous musings before Notre Dame battles Syracuse in another primetime affair.

 

As Notre Dame and Syracuse reunite in 2014, 100 years ago their battle help put the Irish on the national map. 

With Notre Dame and Syracuse playing for the first time since 2008, it’s worth taking a quick look back at the six previous games between the two programs. While they’ve come mostly in clusters (a two-game series in ’61 and ’63, three games in ’03, 05 and ’08), the first meeting a century ago is a game of some historical importance.

Notre Dame historian Jim Lefebvre took a look back at the game, where Jesse Harper brought his team east looking for a battle, and emerged with a program-defining 20-0 win over a Syracuse squad that had  stomped Michigan.

From Jim’s research:

The 1914 Notre Dame team traveled to Syracuse and beat The Orange 20-0 to solidify ND’s place among the football powers.

Notre Dame’s trajectory as a team that would play anyone, anywhere was set in 1913. After his hiring from Wabash College as ND’s head coach and athletic director, Harper set about creating a schedule that would take his squad to faraway places that simply didn’t appear on the schedule of other teams from the Midwest…

Referee and Chicago sportswriter Walter Eckersall observed: “Notre Dame’s decisive victory over Syracuse, 20 to 0…gives the Hoosier eleven an equal claim to the western championship with Illinois and Nebraska….The South Benders played good football against Syracuse…Notre Dame’s victory over the New York eleven, the team which decisively defeated Michigan, entitles it to recognition.”

The game Saturday night might not be one of the red letter matchups on the Irish schedule this year, but it certainly carries a bit of significance.

 

Matching up Notre Dame’s receivers with a suspect Syracuse secondary might be a game inside the game worth watching. 

An early look at the matchup points your eyes to Notre Dame’s passing attack against the Syracuse secondary. But injury and depth issues for both teams could make this one of the defining matchups of the game.

Syracuse has lost defensive back Wayne Morgan for the game, the converted corner playing a key reserve role in all three games. Notre Dame will be without starting slot receiver Amir Carlisle.

On the Irish side, that opens the door for Torii Hunter Jr., who Kelly said had an excellent week of practice.

“Torii Hunter really progressed later in the week,” Kelly said, citing a breakthrough in playing through the injury. That should open up an opportunity for the skilled sophomore receiver to utilize a skillset that’s always excited the head coach.

“He’s got sure hands, great acceleration and he’s strong,” Kelly continued. “He’s gonna be a really good player. We’ve just gotta get him out there and get him going.”

 

In a football game that might be closer than many suspect, cashing in points in the red zone will be critical. 

Much has been made about Notre Dame’s improvement in the red zone. The Irish will need to continue that efficiency in the scoring area, a region on the field where Notre Dame has a decided advantage over Syracuse.

“We try to play our best red-zone defense possible but they are a great offense,” Orange head coach Scott Shafer said during his weekly teleconference. “They’ve been spectacular in the red zone.”

Syracuse’s offense is going to need to improve in the red zone, where they’ll be facing another stout Irish defense in the scoring area. It’s worth looking back at the success Notre Dame has had in the red zone defensively.

The Irish rank fourth nationally this year, giving up just four scores. But since Kelly arrived in South Bend, the Irish are second in FBS in the red zone, giving up just 3.7 points per red zone drive. They are the best defense since 2010 in allowing touchdowns, giving them up at just a 46-percent clip.

Shafer bemoaned a few missed scoring opportunities that tipped the scales against Maryland. He’ll be facing a tougher test this weekend.

 

Notre Dame’s rushing defense will face a stiff test. 

It’s good versus good on the ground, with the Irish defense facing a very good rushing attack in Syracuse. With quarterback Terrel Hunt running for 7.0 yards a carry and a deep running back depth chart behind him, the Orange will be the truest test this Irish defense has faced so far. Senior back Prince-Tyson Gulley’s career 5.59 yards per carry average trails only two guys named Ernie Davis and Jim Brown. So that’s a pretty convincing sign that he’s a big play waiting to happen.

There’s a rather elegant symmetry to it all with both Notre Dame’s rushing defense and Syracuse’s running offense ranked 19th in the country. But just as the Irish have done a great job playing defense in the red zone, the ability to stop the run has been a building block of Kelly’s program.

Even with a new system and a rebuilt front seven, the Irish defense is managing to live up to the reputation,  a group that since 2010 is eighth nationally in points allowed. With Syracuse’s primary offensive attack coming on the ground, it’ll be interesting to see if the Irish can live up to their stingy ways. Notre Dame trails only Alabama in rushing touchdowns allowed since 2011, making this a key early season test for a young group that’s played brilliantly so far.

 

A resolution is coming soon for the five suspended players. Or at least Brian Kelly thinks it is. 

There’s no official comment out of Notre Dame on the suspensions of DaVaris Daniels, Eilar Hardy, Kendall Moore, KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams. But Kelly believes that there’s a chance all of this could be wrapped up by next Thursday.

“I think in talking with a couple of the players I think they have scheduled hearings next Tuesday and Wednesday,” Kelly said Thursday before leaving for New York. “I don’t have confirmation on all five. But I know from what I hear first hand I know Tuesday and Wednesday. I’m hearing second hand that they’re trying to get them all wrapped up by Thursday of next week.”

That’s not to say that all five would be made available to play football, or that they’ll be allowed to. But Kelly did give consideration into allowing them to practice and attend meetings before deciding it was better to have the whole thing behind them before opening that door.

With one of the season’s largest distractions almost behind, the conclusion of all of this has to be welcome for all parties involved.

 

 

Brian Kelly thinks the bye week comes at a perfect time. Now his team needs to play like it. 

We’ll see the fruits of two weeks of labor on Saturday night. The adjustments made to the offensive line are final; Ronnie Stanley will stay at left tackle while the rest of the line will be shuffled, with Nick Martin at left guard, Matt Hegarty at center, Steve Elmer at right guard and Christian Lombard at tackle.

But that’s not all that’s been accomplished. Expect the receivers to take a step forward and to see some more snaps for the young tight ends. The secondary had a chance to catch its breath as well, with captain Austin Collinsworth easing his way back on Saturday.

The potential influx of injured players and potentially seeing three assumed starters finally back in uniform late next week opens all sorts of possibilities. But none of those matter unless the Irish win this week, something Kelly knows all too well.

That’s why the head coach worked his team hard this week, delivering the following assessment.

“We are who we are. We’re a fairly young football team, we’re gonna be inexperienced in some areas,” Kelly said. “That’s not gonna change much. We’re gonna get better. But in the short term here are our strengths and weaknesses and let’s go to work on that. I think that’s what we tried to accomplish in the bye week.”

We’ll get a progress report Saturday evening.

 

 

 

 

Tommy Rees officially joins Kelly’s staff

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 28:  Head coach Brian Kelly talks to Tommy Rees #11 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the New Era Pinstripe Bowl against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at Yankee Stadium on December 28, 2013 in the Bronx borough of New York City.  (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
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Notre Dame has made official what Keith Arnold first reported Jan. 2: Tommy Rees will join Brian Kelly’s staff as the Irish quarterbacks coach.

Or, to adhere to Notre Dame’s release, “Tom” Rees will join Kelly’s staff as the quarterbacks coach.

“When I finished my playing career and graduated from Notre Dame, I wanted to do two things,” Rees said in the statement. “First, I wanted to coach, and second, at some point in my career I hoped to get an opportunity to return and do it at my alma mater.”

Rees spent 2016 as an offensive assistant with the San Diego Chargers, working with coach Mike McCoy to keep afloat an offense plagued by injuries, beginning with receiver Keen Allen’s ACL tear in the first week. Nonetheless, the Chargers finished seventh in the NFL in passing, ninth in scoring and 14th in total offense.

Rees will need that experience working with rising junior Brandon Wimbush, the only quarterback on the roster with any college game experience, though not a single start under his belt.

“I’m very excited to have Tom join our staff,” Kelly said. “He possesses an understanding of the game, and most importantly the quarterback position, that’s unique. He’s a true student of the game and great communicator that will offer immediate dividends toward guiding our quarterback room.”

Rees should not need much time to get up to speed with Kelly’s playbook or system, having operated within it in 46 games over four seasons, including 31 starts. He finished with a 23-8 record as a starter, 7,670 career yards and 61 touchdowns, highlighted by 3,257 yards and 27 touchdowns in 2013 alone. Only Rees, Brady Quinn, Jimmy Clausen and Everett Golson have ever exceeded 3,000 passing yards in a single Notre Dame season.

With this hire, Kelly completes his retooling of his coaching staff. The newcomers include:
Defensive coordinator: Mike Elko
Offensive coordinator: Chip Long
Special teams coordinator: Brian Polian
Linebackers coach: Clark Lea
Wide receivers coach: Del Alexander
Quarterbacks coach: Tom(my) Rees

Brent’s transfer makes sense for both sides

Justin Brent, Devin Butler
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Justin Brent’s pending transfer makes sense on the surface if for no other reason than his complete lack of game action in the last two seasons. A slightly-deeper look, however, explains the move even further.

The rising senior running back had no logical path to playing time at Notre Dame given the performances of some of his peers. Both in the backfield and at receiver, younger players shined this past season while Brent rode the bench.

RUNNING BACKS

– It may have taken four games for rising junior Josh Adams to find the end zone, but he finished the season with 933 yards on 158 rushing attempts, carrying the ball at least eight times in all 12 games. Most notably, Adams finished the season with 350 yards and three rushing touchdowns over the last three weeks. That strong close shows Adams was not worn down in his second season of consistent use (2015: 13 games, 117 carries, 869 rushing yards, six touchdowns) and can be expected to provide the same bellwether output next season.

– Adams’s classmate, Dexter Williams, has not had the same success, but he did provide some relief throughout the season – most notably against Nevada (eight carries for 59 yards) and Syracuse (eight for 80 and a score) – on his way to 212 yards and three touchdowns on 39 carries.

Between Adams and Williams, combined with NFL-bound Tarean Folston’s steady output and quarterback DeShone Kizer’s mobility in the past and the possibility of Brandon Wimbush’s in the future, there were not carries for Brent to showcase his potential. This is before even factoring in rising sophomores Deon McIntosh and Tony Jones, both of whom preserved a year of eligibility in 2016, or any incoming recruits.

WIDE RECEIVERS

– Rising junior Equanimeous St. Brown proved worthy of learning to spell his first name in 2016, catching 58 passes for 961 yards and nine scores, but St. Brown looks to be far from alone in the receiving corps moving forward. Classmates C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin each found the end zone this past season, despite competing with senior Torii Hunter, Jr., for both snaps and targets. Sanders finished with 24 receptions for 293 yards and two touchdowns while Boykin caught six passes for 81 yards and a score.

– Rising sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Chris Finke and Chase Claypool add to the depth at the position. Stepherson scored on an even 20 percent of his 25 receptions for 462 yards. On a personal note, he did not actually reach the end zone on his 53-yard catch-and-dash against Miami, but I will still never forget that particular play because the accompanying roar convinced my nine-year-old niece it was well past time to leave Notre Dame Stadium to watch the game on a television where the noise would not be so surprising.

Finke chipped in 10 catches for 122 yards and two scores, and Claypool caught five passes for 81 yards.

– Again, this listing does not account for players such as rising sophomore Javon McKinley who saw action in seven games but has not yet contributed to the passing game or any incoming recruits. (We’ll get to the recruits later in the week, and even more so next week when, you know, they have signed.)

It should also be noted: Brent enrolled early at Notre Dame, and thus, he has already completed six academic semesters, not to mention time spent in class each summer as is typical of most, if not all, of the football roster. If he does indeed graduate from the University this spring, he will be eligible to play elsewhere immediately thanks to the NCAA’s stance on graduate student transfers. More than that, though, he will have two years of eligibility remaining.

Admittedly, such a confluence is rare and certainly adds reasoning to Brent’s maneuver, whether it result in him playing at UCLA, Miami, Arizona State, Indiana, Purdue or Ohio State, as he indicated to the South Bend Tribune were his top choices. Notre Dame does face Miami on Nov. 11.

Lament Brent’s decision if you must, but it was a logical decision by him, and Notre Dame’s shortcomings last season were rarely where Brent would have aided. Nor will the Irish appear to be wanting in those spots in 2017.

Report: Justin Brent to transfer

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Justin Brent has not seen the playing field since Notre Dame faced LSU in the Music City Bowl back in December of 2014. That now looks like it will be the last time Irish fans see him in a Notre Dame uniform, as well. Reports indicate the rising senior running back will transfer.

Irish 247’s Tom Loy broke the news, soon confirmed by Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson.

A consensus top-100 pick out of Indianapolis (Ind.) Speedway High School, Brent arrived in South Bend with high expectations, but will depart without an official statistic aside from snaps in nine games his freshman season. He recorded no catches, carries or tackles.

 

Thanks Keith, Now Dear Readers…

SOUTH BEND, IN - NOVEMBER 19: Josh Adams #33 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish takes a hand off from DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on November 19, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Virginia Tech defeated Notre Dame 34-31.(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Dear “Inside the Irish” fans, “Inside the Irish” foes and, of course, my parents –
Dear curious purveyors, my stand-alone predecessor and Tim Raines –
Mostly, dear Notre Dame fans, Notre Dame spectators and college students enjoying any and all hallowed traditions –

Yes, unfortunately for you and fortunately for me, Keith tossed me the keys to this 1971 Volkswagen Beetle known as NBC Sports’ “Inside the Irish” blog. Don’t worry, I know how to drive stick shift.

If I were feeling corny, I would tell you I first reported on Notre Dame football in the fall of 1996, shouting out the garage window to my father as Allen Rossum returned Purdue’s opening kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown. If we are ignoring sentimental childhood stories, however, then it would be more accurate to call 2009’s home-opener against Colin Kaepernick’s Nevada my beginning on the beat.

Over the last few days I reached out to a few of you readers whom I know, asking why you enjoyed Keith Arnold’s coverage. So as to keep them honest, I neglected to tell them I would be stepping into this spotlight today.

Repeatedly, I heard buzz words such as readable, reasonable and realistic. Those will be my goals, as well. My predecessor at The Observer no longer dabbles in journalism, but I still trust his view on most things. His response strikes me as an admirable objective.

“We are smart, informed sports fans with an irrational passion for ND football, and appreciate writers who share those traits but are professional enough to step back from the irrationality and put things in perspective… We like a realistic take, not a knee-jerk reaction.”

On that note, you will not see me give a recruiting update with my every breath. You will also not see me dispense as much cinema advice as Keith did. I am simply not the film-nik he is, though I am listening to the “La La Land” soundtrack as I write this. You will find jazz increases your words per minute rate.

I will often speak of gambling terms, but not to encourage the vice. Rather, I find those odds to be a thought-provoking and informing means of evaluating things. Today, various books strongly expected President Trump’s inauguration speech to last longer than 15 minutes. Thus, I figured it would last longer than 15, but not by all that much since such was the over/under mark set. I could step away from the computer and watch it without losing too much of my day. It lasted 16:18.

I will try to be conversational, especially in these Friday letters/news-dumps/updates/recaps, should they become a recurring piece.

I intend to keep many, but not all, of Keith’s recurring features, as daunting as many of them seem. If I am to make this place my own, some will have to change. It’s okay, we’ll get through that together.

So ask questions, state your wonderings and pitch story ideas. This very format was a seed watered by one of you early this morning. Admittedly, prior to suggesting this he referred to me in terms I refuse to post publicly, but old drinking buddies have earned that right.

It’s late Friday afternoon. Grab a drink, and don’t you dare leave it unfinished.

– Douglas.