Sun Devils present major challenge for Irish (VIDEO)

59 Comments

Brian Kelly met with the local media on Tuesday to discuss Notre Dame’s trip to Tempe this weekend. And the battle with Arizona State certainly has Brian Kelly’s attention.

A season after playing one of their best games in beating Todd Graham‘s squad in AT&T Stadium in Dallas, Kelly knows it’ll take a similar effort to emerge victorious. With quarterback Taylor Kelly finding his rhythm after missing three games with a foot injury, Kelly talked about the scheme offensive coordinator Mike Norvell employs.

“Offensively I think Mike Norvell, one of the best offensive coordinators in the country, does a great job. Great balance on offense. I think that’s one of the things that stands out right away,” Kelly said. “Their ability to run the football sets up their play action pass… Just a very dynamic offense that is multiple. Multiple formations, multiple personnel groupings, play fast. Very dynamic offense, and they have been for the last few years.”

Of course, Kelly has gotten to know the flip side of the football for the Sun Devils as well. After facing off with Graham as Tulsa, Pitt and Arizona State’s head coach, Graham and defensive coordinator Keith Patterson run an attacking, aggressive scheme that isn’t too different than the one the Irish go up against every day at practice.

“Defensively you’re going to get a very similar look that we try to employ. It’s an aggressive scheme, one that is going to try to take away the run but also try to get the ball away from you,” Kelly said.

That scheme has turned around after some high-profile struggles. Against UCLA, the Sun Devils defense melted down, giving up 62 points and 580 yards of offense. But after escaping Southern Cal on a Hail Mary pass to win 38-34, the defense has helped carry the team, giving up just 10, 10 and 16 points to Stanford, Washington and Utah last weekend.

Kelly talked about the changes to the Sun Devil defense, mostly in their ability to eliminate the big plays that killed them.

“There’s eight new players on that defense, so you could see that they’re understanding what they’re doing a lot better and what Coach Graham wants them to do,” Kelly said. “I think when we broke down the film, I think USC had three plays for 256 yards, three plays for 256 yards. I think they’ve eradicated some of those catastrophe type plays out of their defense.”

***

When it comes to the Irish, the biggest personnel change this week was the move of Nyles Morgan into the starting middle linebacker job. The depth chart now lists Morgan in front of Michael Deeb with Joe Schmidt done for the season after successful ankle surgery this morning.

Kelly was asked how the Irish defense will fare with a youngster in the middle of it, and the head coach was candid, especially when discussing Morgan’s inexperience.

“Look, Nyles has been here 12 weeks. He’s had 12 weeks of coaching, and Coach VanGorder is extremely confident in Nyles’ ability to go in there and play,” Kelly said. “We think we’ve got a guy that can go in there. His traits are pretty clear. He’s extremely athletic. We’ll put him in a position where he can help us win a football game on Saturday.”

Kelly quickly praised the freshman’s ability to dig in and prepare. He also talked about the tough teaching he’s already withstood this season, with VanGorder and Kelly not taking it easy on a young player that this staff believes has sky-high potential.

“We have been so hard on him. I think we said to him about three weeks in, ‘You’re either going to quit or you’re going to be one of the best players that’s ever played here,'” Kelly explained. “We’re hard on him, really hard on him, and he just keeps coming back asking for more. That’s the kind of kid he is.”

 ***

Outside of Schmidt’s season-ending injury, just about everybody else got out of the Navy game alive. A season after injuries collapsed the defensive depth chart, it should be all (other) hands on deck, with Jarron Jones, Sheldon Day and James Onwualu back to practice this afternoon.

“Our full medical would be James Onwualu was cleared yesterday through his concussion testing protocol, so he is cleared for practice today,” Kelly said. “Jarron had an ankle sprain which responded well to treatment, so he’ll be full go at practice today. Sheldon Day had a brachial plexus, so he responded well to treatment. He’s strong today, so he’s cleared for practice.”

While I watched a lot of Doogie Howser as a kid, in case you were wondering, “brachial plexus” is the medical term for “stinger,” so Day got out of a nasty collision with Onwualu in about the best condition you could ask for.

***

A week after emerging as one of the better wide receivers on the field against Florida State, sophomore Will Fuller disappeared on Saturday against Navy. While he scored his ninth touchdown of the season against the Midshipmen, his three catches for just 16 yards didn’t sit well with his head coach.

When Kelly was asked about redshirt freshman receiver Torii Hunter finding more snaps this weekend, Kelly turned the focus to his emerging star receiver.

“Well, if Will Fuller practices the way he did last week, [Torii] will get a lot more playing time, because that’s the way he played,” Kelly quipped.

***

After playing seemingly every road game with a primetime kickoff, last week ABC announced that kickoff will be in the 3:30 ET time slot, with a local kick scheduled for a relatively early 1:37 p.m.

The news was a surprise not just for fans, but for the Irish coaching staff as well. And while the logistics make for an easier return to South Bend after the football game, it’ll require a slight tweak to the standard away game schedule.

“We were in a routine of playing night games, so I mean, my preference, I’m a coach, so I’m a product of habit. I would have preferred the habit of playing night games,” Kelly said, when asked about his preference.

“Having said that, it will make no difference on the outcome of the game, whether it’s at noon, 1:30, 2:30, 6:30 or midnight. I’m used to getting in that routine for our football team. It might have been a little bit cooler at night. Other than that, no excuses, let’s go play.”

With high temperatures expected to be in the low-to-mid-80s on Saturday, the Irish have already started working with their nutrition team to add additional fluids to their diet.

***

Lastly, graduate assistant Kyle McCarthy had surgery today as he continues his battle with cancer. Kelly said that surgery was successful.

Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

Getty Images
11 Comments

This space has mentioned a few times the dearth of returning sacks among Notre Dame’s defensive line. It is a pertinent fact—no returning Irish defensive lineman recorded a sack in the 2016 season—but it fails to mention the flipside of that.

Most of Notre Dame’s defensive linemen had few, if any, opportunities to rush the passer in 2016. Perhaps at the top of the list of those who should bring down the opposing passer a few times this fall, sophomore Daelin Hayes has laid claim to a starting rush spot through five spring practices.

“The athleticism is what obviously stands out,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “He’s extremely athletic, he’s fit physically, 250 pounds and very strong.”

These facts are, after all, the reasons Hayes was a highly sought-after five-star recruit according to rivals.com.

“It’s the football knowledge, learning the techniques at the position in which he plays is really the piece,” Kelly continued. “It’s just learning right now for him. This is the time to do it, in spring ball.

“Squeezing down on a tight end when the back is away. Wrong-arming the puller. These are all football terms and schemes that are a bit new to him. We have to be patient with him. He’s an explosive athlete. There’s going to be some mistakes along the way, and I’m okay with that as long as he’s learning.”

Without much depth pushing for playing time behind him, Hayes will have the opportunity to make, and subsequently understand, those mistakes. Seniors Jay Hayes (no relation) and Andrew Trumbetti are mired in competition for the other end spot, while sophomores Julian Okwara, Adetokunbo Ogundeji and Khalid Kareem may have even more development ahead of them than Daelin Hayes does.

Incoming freshmen Kofi Wardlow and Jonathon MacCollister will join the fray in the summer, but for now, the younger Hayes has his chance to impress with his natural gifts while absorbing the intricacies of new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s defense.

Hayes is not a complete unknown. While Okwara made four tackles last season in 11 games and Kareem appeared in four games, Hayes saw action in every contest, finishing the season with 11 tackles, one pass breakup and one forced fumble.

“He’s an athlete,” defensive line coach Mike Elston said last week. “He’s on the edge in a two-point stance. He’s not a trained, put-your-hand-on-the-ground defensive end. He played running back in high school. He can see things better in a two-point and can diagnose quicker. He’s able to be more productive.”

It may be accurate to mention no returning Notre Dame defensive linemen tackled a quarterback for a loss last season, but it is more precise to also include the Irish have possibilities of changing that trend.

SPEAKING OF THE DEFENSIVE LINE
Notre Dame is nearly as thin at defensive tackle as it is at end. Junior Jerry Tillery leads the way with senior end-converted-to-tackle Jonathan Bonner lining up next to him thus far. Their reserves: Oft-concussed senior Daniel Cage, senior Pete Mokwuah and junior Micah Dew-Treadway with junior Elijah Taylor out for the spring with a foot injury.

Theoretically, junior Brandon Tiassum is also in the mix, and three freshmen (Kurt Hinish, Myron Tagovailo-Amosa and four-star Darnell Ewell) will join the group in the summer.

And maybe, just maybe, perhaps, possibly … Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano could walk onto campus alongside those freshmen. Pagano visited Notre Dame the first week of March, and was due to look at Oklahoma and Arkansas the next two weekends, respectively. Instead, Pagano reportedly cancelled both of those visits Monday.

Pagano does still have a visit to Oregon scheduled for April 21. Until indicated otherwise, it may be prudent to presume Pagano hopes to land as close to his Hawaiian home as possible.

RELATED READING: 1 Day Until Spring Practice: A look at the defensive line

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

Getty Images
20 Comments

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

Getty Images
15 Comments

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

UND.com -- Lighthouse Imaging
22 Comments

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.