And in that corner… The LSU Tigers

16 Comments

Notre Dame’s inclusion in the ACC’s bowl selections came in handy this year. As the Irish back-slid throughout November, they still held onto some preferred real estate, finding themselves in a pretty nice consolation game, with the opportunity to play in Nashville in the Music City Bowl.

Unfortunately, they’ll be going up against one of the SEC’s premier programs in LSU. The Tigers, who went through some of their own growing pains this season in an 8-4 campaign, still managed to produce one of the nation’s top defenses and a running game that’s a tough draw for a decimated Notre Dame defense.

While visions of Sugar Bowl’s past don’t necessarily apply, the Irish are significant underdogs heading into their December 30 finale. And to get us ready for the Music City Bowl, Bleacher Report’s Carter Bryant.

Hope you enjoy:

 

Quite a bit has been made of the quarterback situation at Notre Dame, with Everett Golson playing his way from Heisman contender to platoon player. But the LSU quarterback position has been a bit of a mess as well. What should we expect from the position during the Music City Bowl?

LSU’s quarterback has been a headache. Fans have clamored for Brandon Harris to get snaps, but Miles has stuck with Anthony Jennings. Jennings is a limited passer that completes less than 50 percent of the throws. Expect him to start, but there is a slight chance Harris will play though he has rarely seen the field since Auburn.

 

Help me figure out this LSU defense. On paper, it looks really strong, a top 10 defense by just about every measure available. But the Tigers are giving up 4.2 yards per carry, pointing to some softness on the inside — not surprising given some of the youthful concerns entering the season. If you’re Brian Kelly, how do you attack LSU?

Those rushing statistics are a tad inflated due to inexperience to start the season. Wisconsin, Mississippi State and Auburn, the first three Power Five teams the Tigers faced, gashed them. Since then, no team has rushed for more than 137 yards in a game. LSU’s defensive tackles became better players after limited mike linebacker D.J. Welter was replaced by the more athletic Kendell Beckwith.

Notre Dame should try to run the football some, but the Irish are best through the air (no matter who is at QB). LSU is not great at rushing the passer and Notre Dame has the receiving talent to eventually get open against the Tigers’ fantastic secondary. I would also not be surprised if Brian Kelly tries some zone read.

 

Just about every Notre Dame fan alive expects to see LSU run early and often against a front seven that’s decimated by injuries. Will this be the kickoff to Leonard Fournette’s 2015 Heisman campaign? It wouldn’t be an LSU offense without ridiculous depth at that position. Who else joins him?

My viewpoint of LSU’s running backs is a tad different than others. Fournette is the best of the bunch, but he, along with the rest of LSU’s running backs, are not great at breaking tackles. Backups Terrence Magee and Darrel Williams are powerful, between the tackles runners. Jaylon Smith should have a big game in the box score.

LSU’s offensive line has had some spectacular games (Ole Miss, Texas A&M, Florida) and some duds (Arkansas, Mississippi State, Wisconsin). With ND’s injuries, there is no excuse for the Tigers to not have success (despite starting center Elliott Porter being sidelined with an injury).

 

Sticking with Fournette, what did you make of his freshman season? Underwhelming? About what you expected? What kind of football player do you see him developing into?

The final statistics look fine for Fournette. 891 and eight touchdowns is a good number considering some dud games he had and the lack of a passing game.

But Fournette’s frosh year was a tad underwhelming as well. He went down easy often and struggled to make defenders miss in the open field to create big gains. It is easier said than done, but the No. 1 recruit in the country should be able to do that. He also got plenty of touches as a kickoff returner and did little.

(Here is some tape study I did on Fournette’s masterful game against Texas A&M.)

I’m not sure if he will ever be a Heisman finalist. LSU’s got some great 2015 commits along with Williams. Miles will never make him the bell cow. I do think he can be an All-SEC performer. His speed and power is off the charts. A summer watching Jeremy Hill tape will do him some good.

 

When you look at the personnel Les Miles continually turns out, he’s responsible for practically a two-deep of starting talent on Sundays, with no college program passing the NFL eyeball test better than the Tigers. Yet it doesn’t feel like LSU wins at the clip it should. (Look at the offensive talent Zach Mettenberger had surrounding him last year…)

Is that a product of playing in the rough and tumble SEC? Is it the peculiarities of Miles as a head coach? Am I just seeing this incorrectly? LSU is still a Top 10 program in college football. But it also feels like they’re underperforming. (Or tell me I’m nuts.)

This is a tough philosophical question I get asked often. It all depends on what is the determination of success. If 10 wins a year is considered successful, Miles is the guy. He has done that seven out of 10 possible times. He’s won multiple SEC titles and a BCS crown. His players love him.

Part of this is Alabama. They are a damn strong football team. The Crimson Tide continuously have No. 1 classes and Saban is Saban. Plus the SEC as a whole is pretty good.

It is fair though to question if LSU has gotten maximum value on its talent, especially last season. The defense was gutted from the year before, but it was still embarrassing. As were the Tigers’ performances against Ole Miss and Arkansas (though they won the game, it took a miracle comeback). Bengals rookie Jeremy Hill tweeted about this, and Dan Patrick has mentioned it on his radio program.

There is so much more to this, but that’s a start.

 

What’s John Chavis got to do to get a chance at being a head coach? Or is he just a guy that’s built to be a D-Coordinator? Brian Kelly said he expects a ton of man coverage on the Irish receivers and physicality in the trenches. How do you expect LSU to take on some talented skill players for the Irish?

Chavis is getting paid a ridiculous amount to be LSU’s defensive coordinator. Though he is an interesting coach, he isn’t flashy and lacks a true desire for fame.

Notre Dame’s offensive line has given up some three sack games, but LSU’s pass rush is not that great. That should give time for Fuller and Robinson to get open. Also, playing man coverage opens up huge rushing opportunities for both of Notre Dame’s quarterbacks.

If the Irish can’t run, expect Chavis to play a ton of his 3-2-6 “Mustang” package, which puts six defensive backs on the field at once. This creation by Chavis has been dangerous for defenses. Expect to see Jamal Adams and Jalen Mills to be all over the field.

 

Notre Dame fans don’t feel too good about this matchup. Memories of the boat race that turned Jamarcus Russell into the No. 1 pick are still fresh. What kind of game do you expect to see in Nashville?

That Sugar Bowl was great for LSU fans. Brady Quinn, Jeff Samardzija and the rest of the Irish had a ton of hype going into that game. It is still crazy how easily the Tigers won that game.

There is no reason for LSU to not win this game by two possessions. I watched some of Notre Dame’s final four games. The Irish looked so bad. Fuller and Robinson could give the Tigers trouble, but uncertainty at quarterback makes that tough.

LSU has been sluggish in some bowl games under Miles. The last two years are prime examples. But in the end, I expect an LSU victory.

***

Special thanks to Carter for getting this done before the holiday crush. You can find more of his work at B/R and follow him on Twitter @CarterthePower.

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

Getty Images
25 Comments

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

Getty Images
36 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
21 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
19 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.”