Postseason Mailbag: The ‘Moving Forward’ edition

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We’ll find out over the weekend where Notre Dame will go bowling. Until then, let’s dig into the mailbag.

 

NotreDan:

Here are ND’s rivals recruiting class rankings:

2014: #11
2013: #3
2012: #20
2011: #10

Here are TCU’s

2014: #50
2013: #30
2012: #37
2011: #26

Please explain the obvious question.

You mean, “How did TCU go 4-8 last year, with wins against just SE Louisiana, SMU, Iowa State and Kansas?”

Or, “How do men who watch primarily YouTube clips of high school football stars formulate objective rankings?”

Just kidding. How about the, “How come Notre Dame does so well in recruiting rankings but not necessarily on the field?”

I get your point. I really do. But you’re also likely part of the faction that complains when Notre Dame signs low-three star prospects like Will Fuller and Corey Robinson, but loves it when they turn into elite players.

The 2011 class won’t be what we thought it was, mostly because of injuries and attrition. But give up on the other classes at your own risk. I tend to think that 2013 group is going to lead this program to great heights, even if this year still stings.

 

schuey73: If Redfield is out of the bowl game, who is going to play Safety with Shumate? Hardy? Farley? Riggs?

Good question. Depending on Redfield’s injury, it’s likely going to be Shumate and Hardy, with perhaps… Matthias Farley filling in? (Even though he’s the team’s best nickel back.)

I don’t expect Cody Riggs to play another game for the Irish. I just think it’s too risky, considering that the next important rep he takes as a football player will be either at his Pro Day or the NFL Scouting Combine.

This position is in a bad, bad place from an injuries perspective. They’ll need to figure something out, maybe even support from John Turner, but getting Shumate up to speed should be first priority.

 

@LaFontaine12: Is there a chance Alford may go to CSU?

There’s a chance. And it sure would be great to see him get a shot.

For as important as Alford is to Notre Dame and their recruiting efforts, he’s a coach that deserves an opportunity to run a program and is the rare non-coordinator who has the people skills and leadership to be a great head coach.

And I’m not the only guy who thinks so.

 

cajunirish: Who starts in the bowl game, EG or MZ. I for one would like to see what MZ can do with a whole game. 

Where have we gone wrong with player development? Seems that we realize surprisingly little of the potential that we talk about in our recruits.

I have a feeling just about every fanbase feels that way about the recruits they sign. Mostly because we spend months and months in the offseason talking about these guys.

If you have joined the camp of “Brian Kelly doesn’t develop his players,” you’ve jumped off a cliff after a decade-plus of data suggesting he’s one of the best in the country at doing so.

There’s no doubt that Everett Golson regressed down the stretch, with his passive play against USC the worst football he exhibited all season.

I’d want to take the bowl game and play both of them — because evaluating Zaire when he was playing a USC defense with a 35-point lead isn’t exactly an apples to apples comparison. (When the Trojans decided to bring heat, they stopped Zaire, too.)

There’s no better way to go into spring than with both Golson and Zaire feeling like they have a chance to win a job. I think it’s great for the competitive situation.

Kidding with NotreDan aside, recruiting rankings are sometimes really unfair to players, especially guys like Greg Bryant and Max Redfield, two players tabbed with the “five-star” label, but kids that need time to develop. Now they’ll enter Year 3 at a time when they should be making their move to stardom, not feeling like they’ve already failed.

When you play freshmen, you get freshmen results. We saw that down the stretch, in all its ugliness. Even if Nyles Morgan was making 10 tackles a game he was still in the wrong place and missed a dozen more.

That’s player development. And I’m guessing that’ll be more of an emphasis this spring than in years past. But the struggles this season will help next year.

sfnd: 

Keith, Please imagine yourself in another’s shoes. What are the 3 most important concerns / questions regarding the ND football program if you are :

A. Jack Swarbrick

B. Brian Kelly

C. A top high school recruit

For Swarbrick:
1. Are we still making progress?
2. Is the backslide because of on-field woes or foundational issues?
3. Make sure I’ve got an updated list of replacements for every head coaching job on campus, football included.

For Brian Kelly:
Just read this again.

For recruits:
1. Can I make the NFL?
2. Will I get my degree?
3. What kind of gear am I wearing?

 

fwirish: do you think it will really be an open competition for the position next year?

Sure do. Because Kelly had a lot of people believing last year’s competition was real, and I never for one minute thought Zaire even had a chance.

To answer a sub-question, I think it’s a two-man race, with Kizer having to fight his way into the conversation and Wimbush likely trying to drink from the firehose.

In many ways, Golson’s struggles paired with Zaire’s comfort in the spotlight will mean that Kelly will hopefully be able to elevate the play of both players and also challenge them to compete harder, if only because there’s no fear if one goes down that the other can’t keep up.

The position is healthy. Unfortunately, we had to watch Golson continue to stub his toe to get to this point.

 

irish1958: Keith, Everybody knows Saban is a great coach. How do you think he would do if he lost 17 players from his two deep defense and one of his leading offensive weapons?

Jokes aside, there may be no program better situated to handle a rash of injuries than Alabama’s. And that comes from years of oversigning “roster management.” In that regard, it’s probably Alabama…and then everybody else.

 

coachtemp: Do you believe that BK and staff read the articles/comments posted here on Inside the Irish?

I cut the rest of this question out because I certainly hope that the staff doesn’t read this stuff!

Not that I don’t think that my opinion matters, but these guys are working 100 hour weeks trying to grind through a season. You want them to troll the comments or my columns for run game suggestions?

Too often writers/readers/websites take credit for suggesting something and then seeing it happen. Chances are, a smart/competent football staff will come to the same realization themselves.

I believe this group will figure it out. I haven’t changed my expectations for next season at all. In many ways, I think the struggles will provide even better fuel for next season.

 

steincj36: Is it just me, or did BK seem a little “disconnected” from the team in the 2nd half of the season? Like laying 100% blame on Everett after ASU and saying “they got their butt kicked” after USC? It just seems as if he personally refused to take the burden of the losses and rather put it on the players.

I ask this because I think Everett lost all his confidence when Kelly verbally undressed him after ASU.

I thought I already wrote this, but it’s worth posting again. I was standing in the room and asking questions when BK spoke postgame after ASU.

And I don’t think a single person in that room read it as “laying 100% blame on Everett.” I’ve been surprised and disappointed that people are spinning a narrative (that I’ve seen growing) that Kelly only blames his players for mistakes.

More to this point, right after the ASU game I watched Golson come into the media room and basically say the same thing. He doesn’t have a live feed into the head coach’s comments. So it’s not like he and BK had a chance to get their stories straight.

Golson lost his confidence because he COULDN’T STOP TURNING THE FOOTBALL OVER! That caused him to play tight — and just like a pitcher that starts steering the ball towards home plate, it never goes well.

Golson isn’t broken. And he’s hardly a guy with a weak will or strength of mind. Did we all forget that this was a kid who was kicked out of school and instead of transferring somewhere else and playing immediately he came back to Notre Dame?

These guys aren’t checked out. Nobody is disconnected. There’s just a ton of frustration that comes along with losing — both players (suspensions and injuries) and football games.

Lastly point (and sorry if this comes off as a rant against you, steiny) but Kelly seems in a bad spot. You want the standard coachspeak or a guy who is willing to be candid? I’ll take the version we’ve got all night long.

 

ndrocks2: Keith – what have you heard about the junior college prospect from Fresno City College, running back Jeremy Smith? When was the last time we recruited a JuCo player that you can remember?

I can’t remember a junior college player transferring in football. (Though I do know some athletes that transferred in after getting credits at the community college level.) But I did some digging on Smith, and ND’s interest in him is legit. Also, while he spent this season playing at the JuCo level, he was a full qualifier out of high school who didn’t like his offers and went out to do better for himself.

And after watching his film, it looks like he did that.

From what I hear, ND is working through some of the transfer issues, especially from a school like Fresno City College. But if things work out, Smith will come in as a sophomore with three years of eligibility remaining.  He’ll add some much needed depth and power to the running backs group, and a safety net if the Irish come up empty down the stretch chasing a second running back.

 

flandersst1: Given Brian Kelly’s history with multiple QB’s (i.e. he used 5 QB’s at Cinci in 2008 and won the Big East), would it be a bad thing if he platooned EG and MZ next year until game action indicated who was clearly better?

I wrote before the Rice game that I thought Zaire would get a series in the first half. So I’ve never hade an issue with playing both guys. But I think for every successful multi-quarterback system, there’s been about a hundred that didn’t work.

So I just prefer the leash gets shorter and both guys are held accountable. A platoon suggests both guys are ready. And that’s still the big question, because we certainly didn’t see enough from Zaire to prove he is.

But it’ll sure make for more interesting debate this offseason.

 

prodigolson: What should I be filling up my glass with when the Irish take the field for the bowl game?

Tears. It’s the last real football game we’ll be watching for nine months.

 

 

Notre Dame at Michigan State: Who, what, when, where, why and by how much

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WHO? Notre Dame at Michigan State. Many years, this matchup would warrant anticipatory headlines. In this rendition, two teams coming off historically-disappointing seasons are looking to prove they are on the path back to top-flight competitiveness.

WHAT? As may become a theme this season, this will come down to how the Irish offensive line fares against the Spartans’ defensive front seven.

WHEN? 8:00 p.m. ET. Kickoff is scheduled for 8:12, though if the preceding game runs long, a five-minute contingency should be expected. At that point, though, the game will begin one way or another.

WHERE? Spartans Stadium, East Lansing, Mich. Years ago, a venture to this site is where I first learned a traveler’s rule of thumb: Never make a trip where the roundtrip travel is longer than the time spent at the destination. I have since violated the rule a total of once, when the New York Yankees visited the Detroit Tigers in the 2011 divisional round. The wrong team won. Speaking of baseball and apropos of nothing else aside from being reminded of it this week, Cy Young threw 749 complete games, a full 110 more than the next-most in history, Pud Galvin’s 639.

Fox has the broadcast this week. Aside from that meaning Gus Johnson will be providing the exhilarating play-by-play, not sure what else to share about that fact.

WHY? This will be the last game — unless a bowl situation were to arise — between Notre Dame and Michigan State until 2026. Whoever wins will get to display the vaunted megaphone trophy for nearly a decade without worry. If that doesn’t get everyone’s competitive juices flowing, well, then that is not much of an indicator of anything because it is actually a pretty absurd keepsake.

(Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

BY HOW MUCH? This line moved as high as Notre Dame by five, never to this eye falling below three, and that is where it settled in as of this Friday evening typing. With a combined points total over/under of 54, the theoretical projected score would be an Irish 28-25 victory.

That might be a bit high-scoring, especially considering the performance of Notre Dame’s defense to date. If Georgia could not surpass 20 points, there is no reason to think the Spartans can.

Notre Dame 23, Michigan State 17. (2-1 record on the season.)

THIS WEEK’S INSIDE THE IRSH READING:
Monday Morning Leftovers: Notre Dame should punt less, a Georgia ticket arrest & Bob Diaco’s fate
Questions for the Week: Ankles, Claypool and Notre Dame’s history at Spartan Stadium
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Ready for a tough week for the dozen foes, but that could mean some promising upsets
MSU’s man-to-man pass D may allow Notre Dame & Wimbush to rush more; Kelly on resting Adams
Who among Notre Dame’s receivers might emerge?
And In That Corner … The Michigan State Spartans and a recovery from a 3-9 season
Things To Learn: On Notre Dame’s defensive line, offensive line and Wimbush’s road readiness
Kelly on C.J. Sanders, Kevin Stepherson and punt returns; injury update
Friday at 4: Four things you do not see

INSIDE THE IRISH COVERAGE FROM THE BOSTON COLLEGE GAME
Notre Dame rushes past Boston College and record books
Notre Dame offense may trend toward run, partly thanks to Wimbush
Things We Learned: Notre Dame lacks an aerial attack and a punt return, has a defensive future
Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Canteen out for the season, Javon McKinley probably sitting also; Kelly on blocking strategy

THIS WEEK’S OUTSIDE READING:
Georgia ticket broker arrested for overselling Notre Dame vs. Bulldogs tickets
The NFL’s Crisis on Offense … may reflect a collegiate trend
At USC, Sundays and Mondays matter just as much as Saturdays
Remembering Michigan State’s epic “Little Giants” fake field goal against Notre Dame
Joe Thomas on measuring a running attack’s success
Nebraska fired athletic director Shawn Eichorst, putting the future employment of head coach Mike Riley, and by extension his defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, in doubt
A long look at Bob Davie’s checkered past as controversy swirls in New Mexico
The Unforgettable, Inspirational CFB Gameday Inside Iowa’s Children’s Hospital
A five-by-five Pac-12 After Dark bingo card for anyone staying up late to watch UCLA at Stanford
10 years after Mike Gundy’s “I’m a man! I’m 40!” rant, the columnist it was aimed at reflects

Friday at 4: Four things you do not see

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For all the enjoyment football brings so many, it is a game predicated on one sense above all others: sight.

Sure, the atmosphere in Spartans Stadium this weekend will include the sounds of yelling fans, the smells of propane grills and the taste of cheap, domestic buds. Even the weather will trigger the feeling of sweat.

The game itself, however, needs only working eyes. There is a reason film is usually watched on mute, after all.

There are some things related to the game not seen, or not seen often, though.

Let’s start with an educational session from the NFL’s Cal Ripken — Cleveland Browns left tackle Joe Thomas

Yes, that is the same Thomas as the one drafted in the same year, in the same round, by the same team as former Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn. Quinn has not seen NFL action since getting eight starts for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2012, throwing two touchdowns compared to eight interceptions.

Thomas, meanwhile, now blocks for his second former Irish passer while on his way to a likely 11th consecutive Pro Bowl. Note: This is Thomas’ 11th year in the NFL. Not only has he started all 162 games of his career, he has now played in more than 10,000 consecutive offensive snaps.

That’s, uhhh, a lot.

Thursday morning Thomas met with reporters and offered some insights to how he gauges a successful day at the office. (Fair warning: The following embedded video does include one four-letter word. Thomas’ point is quoted and summarized below, so the video may not be necessary to view.)

“You always hear a lot about 4.0 yards per carry, which is sort of everyone’s standard,” Thomas said. “… If you look at rushing in the NFL, you go alright, we went for 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 60. And then you go, we’re rushing really well, we have a seven-yard average. But really how are you going to get the offensive coordinator to call a run again if he’s getting one and two yards and facing a third-and-seven all the time?”

Well, you’re not.

Thomas prefers “rushing efficiency,” valuing runs of more than four yards, runs gaining first downs and runs finding the end zone. If those make up at least 60 percent of rush attempts, Thomas deems it a success.

“That’s what’s going to allow you to get 20, 25, 30 carries in a game,” he said. “Then you walk out of the game feeling good about getting your 100 yards at the end of the game versus saying you didn’t have four yards a carry, but you were really efficient so you did stay ahead of the sticks, and you were able to keep the offense on the field and be in manageable third downs.”

This space has previously argued the easiest way to learn if a rushing attack is potent or not is to simply note how many running attempts it has. This parallels Thomas’ argument: If the run game is not doing what it needs to do, the coaches will stop calling running plays. The run efficiency percentage is simply a more exact metric, albeit one you cannot see in a glimpse of a box score.

How has Notre Dame fared thus far this season?

Using Thomas’ standards, the Irish had a 61.90 percent rush efficiency in the season opener (42 rushes), a 32.35 percent rating in their one loss (34) and a 66.67 percent tally in last week’s record-setting rushing performance (51). (more…)

Kelly on C.J. Sanders, Kevin Stepherson and punt returns; injury update

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In his last media availability before Notre Dame heads to face Michigan State this weekend (8 p.m. ET on Saturday, Fox), Irish coach Brian Kelly did not discuss his receiver corps at all.

Just kidding.

Of the eight topics Kelly was questioned about, five of them dealt with wideouts in some respect, perhaps spending the most time on C.J. Sanders. The junior has yet to be seen contributing on offense this season.

“It’s not that he’s really done anything from last year to this year wrong,” Kelly said. “He’s actually stronger. I think he’s a better football player. You’re going to see him on the field. … As the season progresses, he’s going to play.”

Kelly cited the blocking provided by fifth-year Arizona State transfer Cam Smith as the biggest impediment between Sanders and an immediate increase in playing time, describing Smith’s blocking as “just physically” better. With sophomore Chase Claypool also seeing time on the boundary, Sanders faces stiffer competition for playing time.

“Do you move him back into the slot?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “We’re pretty comfortable moving guys around at this point at that position because of our need to put bigger-bodied guys in the offense with the tight end at that position.”

In other words, Kelly and Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long have moved receivers such as Sanders, and even Claypool, out to the boundary because they so often remove the slot receiver from the field in favor of an additional tight end.

Injury update

Speaking of Sanders, Kelly declared him “fine” in his recovery from a sprained ankle. For that matter, sophomore running back Tony Jones will be a “game-day decision” as to his availability due to a sprained ankle suffered against Boston College.

Kevin Stepherson update

There is no indication the sophomore receiver will join Notre Dame’s offense this week. Considering Stepherson did not even travel to face the Eagles, it is quite likely he watches this weekend on a television, as well. Yet, Kelly did speak positively of Stepherson’s return from something of an absence thus far this season.

“He’s had a good month,” Kelly said. “His last month has been pretty good. He’s been pretty consistent working to do the right things in the classroom and has exhibited the things that I’ve been looking for. He’s been working out with [the team] for the last week or so.”

But, to add some emphasis here again, Kelly did not imply Stepherson will play this weekend. In fact, the exact opposite.

“He’s still got a ways to go, but he’s making progress.”

On punt returns and Chris Finke

To complete this week’s second (third? fourth?!) receiver recap, Kelly defended junior receiver Chris Finke’s work as a punt returner this season. Irish opponents have punted 22 times in three games. Finke has attempted to return eight of them. He has netted a total of two yards.

“We’re pleased with him,” Kelly said. “There won’t be a change there.”

Kelly did include a caveat for praising Finke’s return game.

“We’ve been in a number of fourth down situations where we’ve asked for a fair catch and he hasn’t fair caught it,” Kelly said. “We have to be better there. He has to fair catch those balls.”

On the moments when Finke returned a punt to absolutely no avail, Kelly cited missed blocks as the culprit, not Finke’s decision to make a move with the ball.

“One of our gunners has to do better on hold-up,” he said. “We think we’ve had an opportunity for a couple of good returns. … If there’s a change, it will be with one of the gunners.”

Things To Learn: On Notre Dame’s defensive line, offensive line and Wimbush’s road readiness

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It is a curious, frustrating time in the college football season. We think we know everything. We actually know nothing.

Notre Dame beat up on Boston College and Temple, but fell a play short against Georgia. If the Bulldogs are what they appear to be, then the Irish may be a very competitive team this year. If they aren’t, then that one-play-short speaks much louder. This weekend should do wonders in providing that context when Georgia hosts Mississippi State. On a more micro scale …

Who does Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko task with spying Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke?

Spartans quarterback Brian Lewerke cruised to a 61-yard touchdown run two weeks ago against Western Michigan. Preventing such a jaunt willb ea high priority for the Notre Dame defense. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)

The junior quarterback has already taken 15 carries for 171 yards (sacks adjusted) through two games this season. Notre Dame’s defensive success will not hinge entirely on limiting Lewerke’s ability to break from the pocket, but that will be a crucial part of it.

“He’s more than just a manager of the offense, he can throw it,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. “Highly accurate. He has more than just escapability. He’s fast, he can run.”

To limit that running, Elko will possibly assign a linebacker to keeping his eyes on Lewerke at most, if not all, times. There are two obvious candidates for this duty: seniors Nyles Morgan and Drue Tranquill.

Which one gets the gig more often will play a part in further understanding of Elko’s preferred defensive wrinkle, the rover, manned by Tranquill. To date, Tranquill’s role has been to crash the line on any obvious running play while providing coverage of tight ends otherwise. This has fit his skill set quite well. Rather than worry about the speed of a receiver challenging a safety deep, Tranquill is facing more physical-based assignments. The one thing the captain has never needed to worry about on the football field is his physicality.

With that job description in mind, Morgan may seem the more obvious choice to have an eye on Lewerke, but that may limit Morgan’s naturally tendencies of always finding his way to the ballcarrier. Such is the dilemma presented by a dual-threat quarterback.

Notre Dame’s ability to contain Lewerke will portend how Wake Forest and, to a much lesser extent, North Carolina may fare against the Irish defense. Deacons quarterback John Wolford has rushed for 226 yards on 29 carries (sacks adjusted, as usual) this season, though 108 of those yards came against Boston College, a defense very clearly vulnerable to quarterback rushes. Tar Heels quarterback Chazz Surratt has already notched three rushing touchdowns this season, though that is not the same inherent quandary of a truly mobile quarterback.

Part of the Irish defense’s discipline this weekend will come down to the young defensive line. Can those linemen mind their assignments?

“If you fall asleep in zone option, [Lewerke is] going to pull it and is capable of running out,” Kelly said.

In other words, if sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes crashes too hard on a running back headed up the middle, Notre Dame could quickly be exposed to Lewerke racing up the sideline. It seems appropriate here to mention the two freshmen defensive tackles Kelly praised Tuesday, Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish.

“We trust that they’re going to execute the techniques that we’ve asked them to,” Kelly said. “They’re not jumping out of their fits. There might be times where physically or technically there might be some mistakes, but they’re extremely coachable. … If we ask them to do something, they’re going to do it.”

If those two continue to successfully complement senior Jonathan Bonner and junior Jerry Tillery in the middle, that should offer Hayes the peace of mind to not over pursue a running back dive and instead man the outside lane. If he does not feel the need to make a play because he knows Hinish is capable of holding his own, that should help limit Lewerke’s chances, as well.

How will the Irish offensive line fare against a good, but not great, defensive front seven?
This plays into the introductory concept. Notre Dame’s offensive line protected junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush well against both Temple and Boston College, allowing a total of two sacks. As it pertains to the rushing attack, the offensive line opened hole after wide hole in those two contests. (more…)