Five things we learned: USC 49, Notre Dame 14

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Held together by duct tape, twine and every bit of adhesive Brian Kelly could find, Notre Dame’s 2014 season officially exploded Saturday afternoon. The wreckage included a decimated defense incapable of stopping anyone and an offense in the middle of a full-blown identity crisis.

With a four-game losing streak ending the Irish’s regular season at 7-5, Notre Dame made an unranked USC team look like a vintage Pete Carroll squad. The Trojans sprinted to 577 yards of offense and could’ve added plenty more if they wanted to do so. On defense, Steve Sarkisian’s team finally forced Everett Golson to the sidelines, benched as Malik Zaire took over down 35 points after Golson put together four straight punts followed up by two turnovers.

The regular season is over, with the Irish losing five of their last six to end this season with a thud. After flying back to South Bend tonight, they’ll have a few weeks to perform the autopsy on the season that was before learning their bowl fate.

So let’s get to the five things we learned in Notre Dame’s most lopsided defeat of the Kelly era.

 

Notre Dame has a quarterback controversy. 

It seemed preposterous just a month ago that the Irish would find themselves in this position. But after giving Everett Golson the hook in the second quarter, Malik Zaire provided a spark for the Irish offense and turned the month of December into a very interesting one around the Gug.

“Today we thought we had some things early on that we didn’t execute on,” Kelly said after the game. “And that’s why we made a change at the QB position.”

Zaire turned the Irish offense around in short order. His three-play scoring drive took less than a minute and included everything Irish fans have been begging for from Golson. A run from Greg Bryant. A 49-yard completion to Chris Brown. And an 11-yard quarterback keeper for the score.

Zaire moved the Irish into field goal range just before half as well, though Kyle Brindza’s attempt clanged off the left upright.

Asked after the game how he thought Zaire played, Kelly liked what he saw from a young quarterback playing his first significant minutes.

“We tried to get a spark offensively and I think Malik gave us that spark,” Kelly said. “He did some pretty good things.”

On paper, a 9 of 20 afternoon against the 111th-best pass defense in the country isn’t enough to make this change a no-brainer. But credit Zaire for showing the type of competitive spirit and energy this team desperately needed, especially after the game was out of hand.

“The only message I wanted to convey was that we need to play with a lot of heart and that we need to have a no-quit attitude,” Zaire said after the game. “I felt like we were in the game until the clock hit zero. We cannot quit. And we need to play with a lot of heart even when the scoreboard says something different.”

Something’s wrong with Everett Golson. After playing productive football amidst his turnover problems, Golson’s struggles against USC’s defense were the biggest surprise of Saturday afternoon.

And now that makes December a key month of practice at a position that seemed at its strongest in October.

 

Notre Dame’s defense is absolutely decimated.

Notre Dame didn’t have much of a chance on defense heading into the game. And that was before the Irish lost six more players from their two-deep.

On the defensive line, the Irish lost Jacob Matuska and Jay Hayes. At linebacker, Greer Martini went down. And in the secondary the Irish lost Max Redfield and Austin Collinsworth. Cody Riggs didn’t even dress, wearing a walking boot from the sideline. Add those losses to Sheldon Day, Jarron Jones and Joe Schmidt, and there wasn’t much the Irish coaching staff could do.

“We knew we were shorthanded. We’ve lost a lot of players on defense over the last five weeks,” Kelly said after the game. “It’s been a very difficult run for us with key players on defense. And having to play so many freshman on defense. We just haven’t been able to stop anybody, and it’s been a difficult run for us.”

That was evident from the start, as the Irish tried their best to stop the run by loading the box. But that left Notre Dame’s young secondary in man coverage, and led to Cody Kessler’s career day.

“We loaded up against the run. We were in man coverage all day,” Kelly acknowledged. “We knew it was pick your poison today. And we just don’t have a lot of answers in that situation.”

That’s to be expected at just about any program when you reach this level of injuries. And against an offense that just had too much talent, Kelly all but acknowledged the hole his young defense was playing from.

“They played as hard as they can. It’s just there’s a deficiency there personnel wise,” Kelly said.

 

Greg Bryant took advantage of his opportunities on Saturday.

If you’re looking for a silver-lining to the drubbing, sophomore running back Greg Bryant took advantage of his increased reps on Saturday afternoon. After making a big play in the punt return game against Louisville, Bryant led the Irish in rush yards with 79, breaking into the USC secondary more than a few times.

“It was nice to get him in and get him more touches, that’s what our intentions were,” Kelly said after the game. “We got him in on kickoff as well and I thought he ran hard.

“The more he’s in the game he’s starting to feel more comfortable running the ball. He’s a nice addition to our offense where we have a backfield now where we feel those kids are just getting better and better.”

Bryant looked especially effective running with Zaire in the backfield. Multiple times the Irish hit the Trojans with a zone-read play, with both quarterback and running back picking up a big gain.

While Bryant did most of his damage with the game well in hand, he’ll take this momentum into bowl practice. And paired with Tarean Folston the Irish have a two-headed running back depth chart that’ll look awfully nice in 2015.

 

Mike McGlinchey appears to have made his move at right tackle.

It took until the final game of the regular season, but Kelly and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand decided to put sophomore Mike McGlinchey in at right tackle and the first-year performer held his own.

The massive right tackle paired with fellow sophomore Steve Elmer to keep the quarterback protected, often times against USC All-American Leonard Williams.

“Other than the last play, our quarterback was clean when he was in there. And obviously that’s the biggest thing,” Kelly said. “When you go to right tackle, you want your quarterback upright. So the initial observation, and again, I didn’t watch the film so I can’t give you the specifics, our first thought is can he hold up on the edge, especially when Leonard Williams is lined up over you.”

That wasn’t the case with Christian Lombard, who got beat on the strip-sack fumble that spelled the demise of Golson. And while McGlinchey is still learning how to keep his feet and play against pass rushers, he’s a promising piece of the future along an offensive line with four starters likely returning.

 

Remember this game. Because Brian Kelly and his team certainly will.

As Cody Kessler was setting records and USC scored more first half points against Notre Dame than any opponent since 1998, the Irish were all but helpless. That made for a painful afternoon, and one that’ll likely serve as a reference point during an important offseason that’s taken the Irish as far away from the mountain top as they’ve been since Kelly took over the program.

“It’s a red-letter day for our football players and coaches alike,” Kelly said. “Two years ago we were playing for a national championship. Today, we got our butts beat. And it wasn’t as close as the score.”

Kelly was careful to put into context where he sees this football team. And with Jack Swabrick and Father John Jenkins standing inside the small media tent, Kelly made a careful distinction as to where this team sat.

“This is not a program situation. This is a personnel,” Kelly said. “We’re talking about young guys growing up and maturing.”

That’s a hard to understand distinction, but one where Kelly still deserves the benefit of the doubt. But as the Irish try and piece together an eighth victory that’s remained elusive for most of November, Kelly made it clear that the final weeks for this football team will be steeped in competition.

“They got punched in the nose today. So you want to see a response, too,” Kelly explained. “The bowl preparation, we’re going to have to see a response. All jobs are available. We’re going to have to see something from this group.”

 

 

 

Friday at 4: 40-yard dashes and absurdity

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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.

 

Tranquill continues work with safeties … for now

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Drue Tranquill will see time at the oft-spoken of rover position, just not yet. For now, Notre Dame needs the senior at safety to provide leadership and communication while the rest of his position group gets up to speed.

“We really have to figure out what the coordination is going to be at the safety position,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “How much does Drue play down at rover? How much does he play back [at safety]?”

Only sophomore Devin Studstill returns any starts to the safety position aside from Tranquill’s career total of 18. Studstill started nine games last season.

That void has kept Tranquill working mostly with the defensive backs in the spring’s first few practices, rather than joining the likes of junior Asmar Bilal in the rover grouping.

“We didn’t want to pull our most veteran player out of the back end of our defense with Drue,” Kelly said. “I think it was more about the hesitancy of losing a great communicator in the back end than about the teaching.”

The time will come, however, for Tranquill to move up. Juniors Nick Coleman and Ashton White have moved to safety from the corner position. With more reps, they will not need to rely on Tranquill’s guidance as much. The same goes for, at least in theory, sophomore Jalen Elliott.

“It’s not really a heavy load of teaching for those guys,” Kelly said. “They’re picking it up quite well. We really want to get a chance to see a lot of guys back there.”

Kelly seemed particularly bullish on Coleman’s prospects at the position, provided he embrace the needed physicality. At 6-foot, 187 pounds, Coleman’s build may have been more suited on the outside, but Notre Dame’s plethora of promising cornerbacks provided an impetus to test Coleman at safety.

“The big thing will be Nick’s continuous development in tackling,” Kelly said. “You have to tackle back there. His ball skills are really good. We’ve seen that he’s able to play the ball. He has athleticism.

“We just want to continue to build on his tackling skills. If we go through the spring and say, ‘Well, he’s tackling really well,’ we’ll feel pretty good about the move.”

At that point, Tranquill will likely join Bilal at the hybrid position, which is something of a trademark to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Tranquill will be able to do what he does best: Pursue the ball.

“We all know what his strengths are,” Kelly said. “He’s a solid tackler. I don’t think there’s any safety in college football that wants to get matched up one-on-one with a skilled slot receiver. This would minimize that, when you play him close to the ball as a rover.

“And I think he’s pretty quick off the edge. I think we put him in a really good position in maximizing his skill set.”

Until then, Bilal will continue to be the frontrunner at rover, especially with the first four Irish opponents of 2017 presenting run-heavy offenses.

KELLY ON NICK WATKINS
Kelly was also asked about senior cornerback Nick Watkins, his fit into Elko’s defense and his return from injury.

“He’s very coachable, wants to learn, he’s pretty long,” Kelly said. “What I think Mike [Elko] does really well—and this is what I liked about my interactions with him—is, we all have strengths and weaknesses. He has a great eye of saying let’s take Nick’s strengths and let’s put him in a position where we can really utilize his strengths and put him in a position where maybe we’re not a right and left corner team, maybe we’re a short field/wide field team. Let’s apply him in that fashion.

“Nick’s long. He’s a little bit of a physical player. Let’s go to those strengths. He’s shown some of those attributes early on.”

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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.”

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