Pregame Six Pack: The present and future of a key rivalry

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Expectations have been recalibrated. But it doesn’t take a view from 30,000 feet to understand the importance of Notre Dame’s annual battle with USC.

While the four losses each team has suffered this season have muted the national view of the greatest intersectional rivalry in college football, a good Notre Dame-USC football game is usually a great thing for college football.

Especially now. As we get ready to go through the first, and only, vote of the College Football Playoff selection committee that actually matters, games like this one — a high-profile, non-conference, national matchup will be the type of game that the committee will view as important. Especially when it goes apples-to-apples against the cupcakes we’ve seen scheduled the last few weeks from SEC programs looking for a rest before a tough in-conference finish.

Both programs will limp into the Coliseum. Notre Dame both literally and figuratively, with a defense more battered and bruised than any we’ve seen in the recent past. The depth on the Trojans roster is far from healthy as well, with scholarship sanctions and a few key injuries also depleting a talent-rich but razor thin team.

In our regular-season finale, we’re changing things up a bit. As we run through the pregame six pack, consider these six Notre Dame players vital to the rivalry game success of the Irish on Saturday afternoon, both now and in the future.

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Cole Luke. Notre Dame’s sophomore cornerback is playing his way into quite a player. After contributing only part time as a freshman, Luke ends the year as the team’s No. 1 coverman, facing another difficult assignment a week after being matched up with Louisville’s DaVante Parker.

Kelly talked about the ascent of Luke this season, calling him one of the best developments of the season.

“Cole Luke is turning into an A player. He’s not an A player yet. He was a C player coming into the year. He’s a B-plus player right now,” Kelly said on Tuesday. ”

The Arizona native will likely take on the assignment of Nelson Agholor, USC’s top receiver and a junior potentially playing his final college game in the Coliseum. Agholor isn’t the physical handful that Jaelen Strong or Parker are, but he’s a smooth athlete that’s electric with the ball in his hands both as a receiver and in the return game.

As Luke prepares to transition from a sophomore to an upperclassman, he’s going to face yet another challenge that should prepare him for next season, when he’ll be ready to be a force at cornerback, finally lined up across from KeiVarae Russell.

“He did a heck of a job against the kid from Louisville,” Kelly said. “We matched him up all day. So that was clear that he’s a player that’s ascending for us.”

 

Nick Martin, Matt Hegarty & Steve Elmer. All three interior offensive linemen have more eligibility. But they aren’t likely thinking about next year when they face the challenge of USC’s Leonard Williams. The USC All-American is a wrecking ball in the middle of the defensive line, with the 6-foot-5, 300-pound junior a menace who will likely be in the hunt for No. 1 overall pick in next year’s NFL Draft.

“Leonard Williams is probably singularly the best defensive player front guy we’ll see this year. He’s simply that good of a player,” Kelly said Tuesday. “We’ll have to find ways to double him and slow him down.  He’s one of the best defensive linemen I’ve seen in a few years.  He’s that good of a player.”

This trio is likely to form this double team, with Elmer or Martin teaming with Hegarty to do their best to slow down Williams, the Trojans sack-leader with six, and who in 37 career games nearly matches that in tackles for loss, with 35.5 in his career.

Very quietly, the ground game has rounded into form this season. Much of that credit has gone to Tarean Folston’s emergence, but the front five should be given some of that credit as well.

That entire group will be tested on Saturday. And with the running game essential if the Irish are going to keep the ball away from the Trojans up-tempo offense, keeping Williams from a gigantic finale in the Coliseum will be critical.

 

Will Fuller. Notre Dame’s sophomore receiver is on record watch, his 14 touchdown catches just one behind Jeff Samardzija and Golden Tate’s single-season mark. Match him up with a young Trojan secondary that’s talented but ranked 111th in the country in passing defense and Fuller could be poised to write a big chapter in a rivalry game he could dominate for the next three seasons.

While Luke’s ascent on defense has been the surprise of the year on that side of the football, Fuller is poised to break 1,000 receiving yards for the first time since Michael Floyd did it. His touchdown numbers show you a player that’s efficient at finding his way to pay dirt, even as he grows into the role of a No. 1 target.

Kelly talked about that growth earlier this week, with the still stick-skinny Fuller now tasked with growing into his body.

“He’s not a guy that can carry it by himself.  He’s not physically able to just go out there and knock off double coverage,” Kelly said. “He can beat any man coverage around with his speed.  But he’s not physically able to go and play like Megatron (Calvin Johnson) and those beasts.

“His next step is to continue to work on his physical development.  And that’s the next step for him.”

 

Max Redfield. The sophomore still seems stuck in the doghouse. But he’s the future at a safety position where he’s physically capable of filling the role, only still taking baby steps as he’s learning his way through his second system in as many years in South Bend.

Saturday’s game means quite a bit to Redfield. He’s a former USC commit who starred in Southern California as a prep athlete. So if there’s ever a Saturday for Redfield to play with the type of tenacity and mental sharpness that Kelly and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder demand, this is the one.

Drue Tranquill’s ACL injury almost forced Elijah Shumate out of the doghouse. But if Shumate’s playing strong safety and Austin Collinsworth is playing as the free safety, it’s only a matter of time before Redfield gets his opportunities, because a one-armed Collinsworth just isn’t a good physical matchup for the athleticism that runs two-deep in the Trojan’s receiving corps.

While Kelly preaches patience with Redfield’s development, some fans have seemingly already tabbed Redfield a bust. It’s the same thing that happened with Harrison Smith, who three years into the position seemed a lost soul before the lightbulb switched on and Smith emerged as a force at safety in his (redshirt) junior season. It might take until next year for Redfield to take that leap, but there’s reason to believe it’s still coming.

Redfield will learn this defense — if he can take on Mandarin Chinese in the classroom, he can learn VanGorder’s system.

It’s his athleticism that you just can’t teach.

 

Greer Martini. That Notre Dame’s freshman middle linebacker is starting is a nice reminder in the not-so-scientific state of the modern recruiting world. Because only former walk-on Joe Schmidt had a lesser recruiting profile than Martini. Schmidt’s worked out pretty well for the Irish. And it looks like Martini is going to be a pretty good linebacker as well.

Martini is starting in the middle because even the best laid plans can go belly up. Jarrett Grace is still in the middle of a daunting rehabilitation. Schmidt’s departure all but signaled the demise of this defense. Fellow freshman Nyles Morgan is sitting out a half-game suspension after his targeting penalty, leaving Martini to take over the job as middle linebacker, just 11 games into his college career.

“I’m kind of blown away, I never thought as a freshman I’d have the opportunity to have my first start at the Coliseum,” Martini said Wednesday.

But Martini’s worked his way up the depth chart because of an advanced football IQ that the Irish coaching staff identified very early. Martini was the earliest pledge of the group, with the Irish staff watching Martini grow up as a football player at Woodberry Forest, where C.J. Prosise and Doug Randolph played before him.

Pete Sampson at Irish Illustrated caught up with Woodberry Forest head coach Clint Alexander, who isn’t surprised that Martini is making an early mark.

At Woodberry, Martini played football, basketball and baseball. Alexander discovered him during a junior high sports camp when the Irish freshman excelled in soccer, lacrosse, softball, golf and tennis.

When the junior high kid had free time during that camp, he found Alexander to talk more football.

“That’s when I told my wife that if Greer comes here, he’ll be the best inside linebacker we’ve ever had,” Alexander said. “He ended up being a coach on the field for me. He could give adjustments, make checks, see the big picture.

“I know he certainly takes that ‘slow, white boy linebacker’ concept and gets a chip on his shoulder. When (Joe Schmidt) got hurt, Greer was probably a bigger version of him with more athleticism.”

Now it’s up to Martini to hold the fort against one of the most athletic offenses the Irish have faced all season. And even without Schmidt, Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones — the only projected upperclassmen starters outside of Austin Collinsworth — it’s time to find a way to beat the Trojans on Saturday.

“We all know that we’re young. But we’re all going to challenge each other to be better,” Martini said. “It doesn’t matter how young we are. We’ve got to perform, and I think that’s what we’re going out to do.”

 

Everett Golson. Make no mistake, Notre Dame’s best chance to win on Saturday is a big game by Golson. And after battling back in the second half against Louisville, Golson will face another attacking defense that aims to confuse and disrupt the second-year starter.

Reminding fans and media members that Golson is only in his second year as a starter is likely a fruitless endeavor, but one that remains important. Golson has fewer career starts than Ronnie Stanley. Irish fans understand that Stanley’s still growing into the player that he’ll become. So is Golson. For better, and at times, for worse.

After playing the role of conservative game-manager as a freshman, Golson’s responsibilities as a quarterback grew considerably this season. We’ve seen that in his production, with his 29 touchdown passes and 3,280 yards both Top 10 in the country. Combined with his eight touchdown runs and two two-point conversions, Golson is fourth in the country in points responsible for. That’s no small feat.

But those points have come at a cost. And while Golson’s early-season success had some (ESPN’s Desmond Howard the most visible) calling his 2013 season spent training with George Whitfield a value-add, no amount of practice time can make up for lost game experience.

The lumps Golson has taken are the type of struggles you get with a second-year quarterback, especially one who is the focal point of the offense. So on Saturday, Golson will have one more opportunity to balance his responsibilities as a game-manager with his skills as a playmaker.

His ability to successful walk that line will determine whether Notre Dame or USC emerges victorious on Saturday.

 

Assistants: Polian on defensive depth; Lyght on Love; and Lea on the rover

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Three Irish assistants were available to the media following Notre Dame’s sixth spring practice Wednesday. Each of special teams coordinator Brian Polian, defensive backs coach Todd Lyght and linebackers coach Clark Lea commented on something or other of note. Together there just might be enough substance to justify your time here today.

At the bottom of this post is a video with most of the below quotes and many more from yesterday’s session.

POLIAN ON DEFENSIVE DEPTH AFFECTING SPECIAL TEAMS
The most unique aspect of the special teams coordinator, at least when compared to his offensive and defensive counterparts, is the fact that his charges include nearly the entire breadth of the roster. Aside from the quarterbacks, the starting offensive line and the defensive tackles, just about every player could find himself on a kickoff coverage or return unit.

More often than not, defensive players—accustomed to seeking out contact, rather than attempting to avoid it—fill out most of those spots. That may not be the case with this Irish rendition, and not necessarily by choice.

“We’re not as deep as you’d want to be in some other spots with depth at linebacker and depth at safety,” Polian said. “So where are we going to make up those bodies, and they’re going to have to come from offense. Those guys have made very positive impressions.”

Polian specifically mentioned junior running back Dexter Williams, sophomore receiver Chase Claypool and sophomore running back Tony Jones, as well as sophomore safety Jalen Elliott, as having excelled thus far. When he came to Jones, Polian added phrases such as “real excited” and “fantastic,” echoing sentiments Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly espoused earlier this week.

Along with that personnel shift, Polian wants to increase the intensity with which players approach the third unit. Often seen as auxiliary duty, inferior to position group work, special teams should not include a dialed back attitude.

“The biggest change has to be the urgency with which we attack special teams and our execution and critical efficiency in important times of the game.”

The Indianapolis Star’s Laken Litman wrote a longer discussion of Polian’s comments, including how he will look to supplement junior receivers Chris Finke and C.J. Sanders at punt return.

“We’ll have a gong show and say who wants to get a look that’s not getting a look,” Polian said. “We’ll start firing balls at them and if you drop two, you’re fired. But we’ll find another one or two guys.”

Please, WatchND and Fighting Irish Media, please record all of that. The possibilities for hilarity would extend further only if Jarron Jones or Lou Nix were still around to insist on taking a turn.

LYGHT ON LOVE
Sophomore cornerback Julian Love saw plenty of action in 12 games last season, finishing with 45 tackles and one each of an interception, fumble forced and fumble recovered. Nonetheless, Lyght sees room for Love to improve.

“The thing for him and his development, when he’s uncomfortable … he has to rely more on his fundamentals and his technique and be proficient with his execution of his technique and those fundamentals,” Lyght said.

Love started eight games at cornerback last season, the most career starts at the position on the Irish roster. Thus, despite being only a sophomore, he is already in a position to lead.

“Julian can tackle in space, he can cover,” Lyght said. “We want him to get better in his man-to-man techniques and in his leadership role. He is a young player but he is going to play a lot for us.”

Love will play, and likely start, at the boundary cornerback position. As Irish Illustrated’s Tim O’Malley lays out in an elongated look at all five cornerbacks in the mix, the days of left/right cornerback duties are in the past.

“In the college game, it is a boundary/field game,” Lyght said. “It’s not like the NFL where the hashmarks are in the middle of the field and it’s a left/right game…

“If you get the guys comfortable playing boundary, playing field, they can get a better feel for the game, get a better feel for the route combinations, and be able to execute at a higher level playing that way.”

A quick layman’s translation: The hashmarks in college football are much wider than in the NFL. Thus, when the ball is placed on the right hashmark, the right side of the field becomes the boundary and is much narrower than the left, the field.

LEA ON THE ROVER
How about another take at explaining the heralded rover position in new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme? Let’s here Lea’s quick summary:

“We have a lot of bodies, so we’re really trying to identify who the right fit is,” he said. “The beauty of that position is it is a hybrid, so there are times you want a bigger-body linebacker type, there are times where you want more of a nickel type.”

Lea also took a moment to extensively praise the leadership of both senior linebackers Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini.


Mid-week reading: On Wimbush; NCAA $$$; A look back at Te’o

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A litany of links typically makes for good Friday fodder. A week’s worth of the internet can help any reader through an unproductive end of the week. Unfortunately, spring practice’s rhythms are inconsistent, unlike summer’s constant nothingness and fall’s non-stop charge.

Hey, who said you can’t take a long lunch on a Wednesday, anyways?

MORE WIMBUSH AND WHITFIELD
Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples joined Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush out in San Diego two weeks ago during spring break, watching as Wimbush listened to private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield’s instructions. Staples, per usual, tells a good story, slipping some nuggets of information within it where you may not even notice.

Many around this space have asked who foots the bill when a college quarterback seeks out Whitfield’s tutelage. Per Staples, Wimbush’s mother paid for the week.

Throughout the story, Wimbush emphasizes the importance of a Notre Dame degree, going so far as to point to former Irish quarterbacks Everett Golson and Malik Zaire acquiring their diplomas before departing Notre Dame. None of us know Wimbush’s academic progress—now approaching his second summer school session, Wimbush is likely ahead of the usual second-semester sophomore’s credit pace—but this tidbit may prove pertinent in nine months time. Considering what its pertinence would say about a bigger picture, Irish fans should certainly hope it is of note.

To this memory, the classic image relayed from Golson’s time with Whitfield was Golson throwing over brooms held by staffers, mimicking the long limbs of charging defensive linemen. Those fictional pass rushers have become a bit more realistic in nature, now apparently represented with outstretched tennis rackets.

NCAA GIVING NOTRE DAME NEARLY $1 MILLION
In what has been described as a “one-time supplemental distribution,” the NCAA is dispersing $200 million among its members. The amount each school receives is determined by the total number of full scholarships it gives to student-athletes, with each partial scholarship contributing its appropriate fraction toward that total figure.

Notre Dame will receive $984,724 thanks to giving out 299.20 scholarships in 2013-14. Some context behind that latter number: The football team takes up 85 scholarships. The men’s basketball team is allowed 13, and the women’s basketball team gets 15. The remaining 186.20 are split among the other 20 varsity sports (counting men’s and women’s teams separately in rowing, swimming and diving, and track and field).

Other notable schools:
Ohio State receives the most, more than $1.3 million, thanks to its 403.98 scholarships.
USC’s 279.06 scholarships equates to $918,440.
Michigan’s 353.18 scholarships will yield close to $1.2 million.

All these dollars must be spent it ways aiding the student-athletes. Schools cannot put the funds toward items like stadium construction or coaches’ salaries. Rather, the NCAA indicated the money is for “the direct benefit of the student-athlete and their academic success, life skills, career success, health and safety and student-athlete focused diversity and inclusion initiatives.”

All expenditures must be approved by the NCAA. The money comes from an endowment that had reportedly come to exceed $360 million.

REMEMBER THE TE’O DRAFT HOOPLA?
The below video does not necessarily reveal anything we do not already know about former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o, despite its ponderous title. It does, however, make a good point.

Aside from a sporadic comment deep in the morass of these pages, not much is said about the Lennay Kekua situation anymore. At the time, it was the most talked about item anywhere, let alone in Notre Dame corners. Personally, a former co-worker at the Los Angeles Times called late one night that week four-plus years ago. He and I had not spoken in close to two years, and we haven’t spoken since. But the Te’o/Kekua story prompted him to seek an understanding of what in the world was going on.

In some irish.nbcsports.com history, the day after that story broke—it broke on Jan. 16, 2013, so I am referring to Jan. 17—still holds the record for most views to this particular site.

Good for Te’o to have successfully moved past that saga. These days, every comment former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer makes is scrutinized. He is even criticized for not having excellent timing with Jonas Gray, of all people. Looking back on Te’o, it should be remembered the most dramatic stories, one seemingly crafted perfectly for the internet, fade into the cobwebs of time.

[Here, a link in case the intended embed below fails.]

PHIL STEELE’S PROJECTED AP TOP 10
Enough with the past. Let’s project the future.

Phil Steele, of the revered Phil Steele’s College Football Preview, projected August’s Associated Press Top 10. Steele has accounted for voters’ tendencies rather accurately in years past, so it is not an entirely fruitless exercise. Then again, he is projecting the results of the first of many polls with no actual consequence.

Of Steele’s projected top-10, Notre Dame will face only No. 4 USC.

KENPOM’S TOO EARLY PRESEASON TOP 10
If you think Steele’s top 10 is too early, then skip this.

College basketball analytics master Ken Pomeroy put together his top 10 for next season, though any unexpected draft departures or transfers can certainly alter his calculations. After all, the season is not actually over yet.

Of certain Irish interest: No. 9 North Carolina, No. 8 Louisville and No. 6 Virginia. The last of those has already suffered a transfer which Pomeroy tweeted will “abruptly” end the Cavaliers’ time in his preseason top 10.

SPEAKING OF BASKETBALL, WELL DONE DENNIS, WHOEVER YOU ARE
Math is hard, so take this with a grain of salt, but I believe Dennis’ bracket of “Brey Brey’s Kids” will win the Inside the Irish March Madness pool. Dennis, your $984,724 is in the mail.

Don’t think that means there is no reason to watch the Final Four, though. Your host might be able to rise into the top half of the field, which would be good for his pride, and therefore the quality of writing in these parts.

It shouldn’t be too surprising my bracket flopped. This is a football page. Besides, by my eye, no one I actually know firsthand will finish higher than fourth. That is more of a relief than it should be.

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

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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

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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.