Counting down the Irish: Final grades, 20-16

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As we continue our final rankings of the 2014 season, it’s an interesting look at the youth of the Irish roster. Remove fifth-year senior Christian Lombard from the group and our first five players had a collective zero starts heading into the season.

That helps explain some of the issues that came along with this team. As complementary parts, Malik Zaire, Romeo Okwara, Drue Tranquill and Nyles Morgan have the talent to be key contributors. But as starters asked to carry the load? That’s when we saw some of the ugly parts of this season.

That theme continues with our next five players. Outside of a key veteran, this group also had a steep learning curve. At times, that meant some difficulties — and those struggles weighed into a 7-5 season.

That’s not to say this group isn’t talented. You’d be hard pressed to find five better recruits. Two from this group were five-star prospects. Per Rivals’ evaluations, all five were Top 10 players at their position and all within the Top 120 players in the country.

The best part? All four return, with key roles on the 2015 roster pretty much assured.

Let’s get on to the rankings.

 

2014 IRISH TOP 25 FINAL GRADES

25. Christian Lombard (RT, GS)
24. Malik Zaire (QB, Soph.)
23. Romeo Okwara (DE, Jr.)
22. Drue Tranquill (S, Fr.)
21. Nyles Morgan (LB, Fr.)

 

Michigan at Notre Dame
Michigan at Notre DameChicago Tribune/MCT via Getty Images

 

20. Max Redfield (S, Soph.): After sitting out most of his freshman season, Max Redfield was pushed into the starting lineup for the Pinstripe Bowl by head coach Brian Kelly. He stayed there after spring and fall camp, a key cog in the starting lineup for 2014.

But Redfield’s season seemed to go as the Irish’s went. When things were going well, Redfield was a featured part. When they weren’t, Redfield was in the spotlight. Success has a funny way of hiding weaknesses.

Redfield’s season had some unquestionable bright spots. A key interception during the shutout of Michigan. He also contributed 54 tackles, good enough for fourth on the team. But Redfield lost his starting job after a disappointing game against Arizona State, with color commentator Chris Spielman blasting Redfield for missing a key tackle on the sideline.

The Irish coaching staff made a change after the game in Tempe, bad timing for Redfield as the two unrelated moves seemed interconnected. And while he wasn’t overly explanatory about the move, Brian Kelly cited a lack of production from Redfield.

The demotion hurt the Irish, with Kelly and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder suffering through some mediocre safety play with Austin Collinsworth and Drue Tranquill in the starting lineup before injuries forced Redfield and Shumate back onto the field. Redfield then suffered a rib injury early against the Trojans, momentarily putting the position down to Shumate and recently returned Eilar Hardy.

At his best, Redfield has all the tools it takes to be an elite safety. But after being forced to learn two systems in two seasons, it still feels like Redfield is a beat slow diagnosing what he sees, neutralizing the physical gifts that he has.

After two years, Irish fans would’ve gladly returned Harrison Smith for an open scholarship. So it’s far too early to call Redfield a disappointment. But it’s an important offseason for Redfield, who needs to take a big step forward before his junior year.

Preseason: 12th. Final: 20th. 

 

Michigan v Notre Dame
Michigan v Notre DameJonathan Daniel/Getty Images

 

 

19. Steve Elmer (RG, Soph.): The question wasn’t whether Steve Elmer would start. It was where. But after spending spring at guard, Kelly and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand’s gamble to move Elmer to right tackle backfired, necessitating a four-position shuffle after three games that ended with Nick Martin at guard, Matt Hegarty at center and Christian Lombard outside at right tackle.

Pinning all of that on Elmer is unfair. The reality of the situation always had Elmer among the best five offensive linemen on the roster, with Matt Hegarty chosen to start over a first-timer in Mike McGlinchey. But while Elmer looks the part of a college tackle, he struggled moving outside to the edge before finding a rhythm at guard as the season wore on.

A few bad snaps likely color fans opinion of Elmer’s season. And after finding his footing, Elmer showed the physical skills that still make him a very impressive prospect as he enters the final two seasons of his college career.

The offseason allows Elmer the opportunity to settle into a position and develop there. With his time at tackle likely over, Elmer can work on becoming a steady and physical force on the inside.

Preseason: 11th. Final: 19th. 

 

Stanford v Notre Dame
Stanford v Notre DameJonathan Daniel/Getty Images

 

18. Ben Koyack (TE, Sr.): Koyack played more snaps than any skill player on the offensive depth chart. And after being thrust into an every-down role after Troy Niklas bolted for the NFL, Koyack performed admirably in his only season as a starter.

His 4th-and-long touchdown catch against Stanford was the play of the year. His 29 catches were fourth most on the team. But Koyack’s inconsistency was a microcosm of the offense’s play, and his struggles as a blocker hurt the Irish multiple times. On a depth chart with zero experience behind him, Koyack picked up the slack in 2014, with Durham Smythe, Mike Heuerman and Tyler Luatua brought on slowly.

But after enjoying an impressive run of tight ends with Kyle Rudolph, Tyler Eifert and Troy Niklas, Koyack’s senior season checks in a notch below — hardly an indictment for a senior who should have a chance to play on Sundays as well.

Preseason: 10th. Final: 18th.

 

Purdue v Notre Dame
Purdue v Notre DameMichael Hickey/Getty Images

 

17. Elijah Shumate (S, Jr.): After injuries plagued Shumate during his sophomore season, a transition to a new defensive system took longer to take hold than many expected. Athletically superior to senior captain Austin Collinsworth, Shumate was the fan’s choice for a strong safety, even if he wasn’t the coaching staff’s. But injuries forced Shumate into the lineup from the opening game. And some struggles showcased why Collinsworth got the initial nod.

Again, Shumate’s season wasn’t all bad. He finished third on the team with 64 tackles, and his interception to end the Michigan game was one of the season’s best highlights. But Shumate found his way into the staff’s doghouse, missing a key snap against Northwestern that cost the Irish big time, a mistake that just can’t happen to a player that’s got more experience than just about anybody else on the field with him.

Entering his senior season, Shumate’s review could basically mirror the one written for Redfield. His physical talent can’t take off until his mental aptitude catches up. Another offseason learning VanGorder’s defense can only help.

Preseason: Unranked (27th). Final: 17th.

 

Greg Bryant, Taylor Richards
Greg Bryant, Taylor RichardsAP Photo/Michael Conroy, File

 

16. Greg Bryant (RB, Soph.): No, Bryant wasn’t the breakout star many expected. But upon final inspection, his numbers weren’t too shabby either. The sophomore (who took a medical redshirt last season) led the Irish in yards per carry at 5.5. He also provided a spark in the return game.

That’s about what people expected, though they didn’t see the midseason lull that plagued Bryant’s overall productivity. Yet that feels almost predictable looking back at things, with Bryant pressing to do too much, the propensity to chase the big play when making the ordinary one would’ve been just fine.

That’s a byproduct of sharing carries with Tarean Folston and Cam McDaniel. It’s also comes from the weight of great expectations, with Bryant’s high school ranking still framing early playing career. But against USC Bryant created the big plays that had long been expected of him by playing within the framework of the offense, merely letting his talent do the work.

With little depth behind him, Bryant will team with Tarean Folston in 2015 to create a two-deep that’s the envy of just about every program in college football. It may have taken a little bit longer than some expected, but Bryant is on track to be a prolific offensive player.

Preseason: 9th. Final: 16th.

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?

What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

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Time spent on a traditional game wrap of a spring intrasquad exhibition seems misspent. Gold won Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game 27-14 led by rising sophomore quarterback Ian Book. The first-string defense (Gold) held the first-string offense to an average of 5.4 yards per play. For context’s sake: Last season Notre Dame gained an average of 6.1 yards per play and held opponents to 5.4.

With that abbreviated recap out of the way, what did Saturday’s pseudo-game environment show about the Irish? If the 20,147 in attendance paid attention, they had the chance to learn a few things:

Daelin Hayes will be ready to hit a quarterback in September
Notre Dame’s quarterbacks were off limits all spring. Bulls might charge when they see red, but the Irish defensive line has had to remember to ease up when they come across a quarterback’s red jersey. If sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes had forgotten that Saturday, Notre Dame might not have any quarterbacks left to play in the fall.

“At the end of the day, we’re on the same team,” Hayes said, dismissing any bitterness about the quarterbacks’ protections. “We have to keep our guys healthy. I wasn’t frustrated, but come September 2, you know.”

Officially, Hayes was credited with three sacks and another tackle for loss among his seven tackles. Admittedly, gauging sacks is tricky when the quarterback does not actually go to the ground. How many of Hayes’ three sacks and the defense’s 11 total would have been evaded if the defender needed to do more than touch the passer? That answer is highly subjective, but discounting Hayes’ numbers would miss the bigger picture.

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

Senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) notched two sacks and sophomore end Ade Ogundeji came the closest to tackling a red jersey when he stripped junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush from behind. The defensive line has been expected to be a weak point for the Irish moving forward, but the spring performance indicates it has a chance at holding its own. These accomplishments bear further merit considering Notre Dame’s offensive line is widely-considered one of its few spots of expected quality.

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

“I think it’s pretty clear Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I’d have to watch the film, but it seemed like [sophomore end] Julian Okwara was a hard guy to block coming off the edge, as well.”

Ian Book provides some peace of mind
Book was not spectacular, but he was also far from incompetent or intimidated. In his first action on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, Book completed 18-of-25 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by a 58-yard connection with sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. Meanwhile, junior Brandon Wimbush completed 22-of-32 passes for 303 yards.

Bluntly, one has not needed to follow Notre Dame for very long to fit that “long enough” qualification. Last season’s backup, Malik Zaire, saw competitive action against both Texas and Stanford. In 2015, DeShone Kizer came off the bench to start 11 games after Zaire suffered a season-ending ankle injury. (more…)

What Notre Dame players should you actually watch? Plus, catch up on reading

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If technology does its part, this will post as its typist meanders toward finding his credential for the Blue-Gold Game to conclude Notre Dame’s spring practice. If technology doesn’t do its part, well, then this will be lost to the cobwebs of the internet. Such as it goes.

This space has spent much of the past week discussing what to look for in the 12:30 p.m. ET exhibition. Worry about the big picture, not the individuals. Fret about the macro, not the micro.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the indivdual players
Blue-Gold Game primer with help from Notre Dame’s coordinators
Four defensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game
Four offensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game

But, if insistent on focusing on singular players, look to the inexperienced, the names you are unfamiliar with. The 15th and final practice of spring may be no more than a practice in reality, but it is in front of nearly 30,000 fans in Notre Dame Stadium. Some players do not have so much as that minimal experience.

“The Blue-Gold Game, specifically, is a time for us to emulate a game-like situation,” senior safety/linebacker/rover Drue Tranquill said. “Especially for guys like freshmen, second-semester guys coming in, it’s a great opportunity for them to get that game feeling, but also continue to take steps in the process to get better.”

The question on the tip of your tongue is a fair one. If you are unfamiliar with the names, how are you supposed to focus on those players? How are you to know who fits the appropriate tunnel vision version of perspective?

Let’s turn to Irish coach Brian Kelly’s mentions from Wednesday–primarily, sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara, sophomore long snapper John Shannon, senior kicker Sam Kohler, sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem and sophomore safety Jalen Elliott.

Obviously, that is just a sampling. Less obviously, this post’s purpose may or may not be to link to previous reading material and remind you of the vague but pertinent purposes to today’s endeavor. It is neither be-all nor end-all. It is simply another opportunity to gauge what may come down the line.

But hey, how about a prediction? Per Kelly, the first-team offense and second-team defense will be in blue, against the first-team defense and second-team offense in white.

PREDICTION: Blue 37, White 21

HOW TO WATCH
As a recurring reminder, the Blue-Gold Game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network, as well as streamed online at ndstream.nbcsports.com and on the NBC Sports app.

Friday at 4: Four offensive positions to watch in Notre Dame’s spring game

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There are two common ways of looking at the annual spring game.
It is the last action involving Notre Dame football readily available for public consumption until Sept. 2, 133 days away.
Or it is an exercise rife with contradiction exacerbated by hype, yielding little-to-no reliable intelligence.
Like much of life, the most accurate assessment falls somewhere between those two views.

If junior running back Dexter Williams breaks off two 50-yard-plus touchdown runs, does that mean he will have multiple big plays in 2017? Not at all. It does mean he will likely have more opportunities for them, though. Just like in spring’s previous 14 practices, the Irish coaches will take what they see and apply it moving forward.

The past—and as of Saturday evening, the Blue-Gold Game will qualify as the past—does not dictate the future, but it can influence one’s approach to it.

Aside from Williams (see the second item below for more on him and the running backs), what other players/positions could influence their future roles the most with their performance to close spring?

BIG PASSING TARGETS: Alizé Jones and Co.
In this instance, big is meant literally. Notre Dame has an embarrassment of riches of tall, long, physical tight ends and receivers. Junior Alizé Jones earns specific mention here due to his inaction last season. Irish fans and coaches alike have a better idea of sophomore receiver Chase Claypool and junior receiver Miles Boykin. They have 2016 film to look at.

Jones, however, sat out the season due to academic issues. His on-field performance largely remains a question mark, but if he combines this spring’s praise with his 6-foot-4 ½ frame holding 245 listed pounds, that could turn into an exclamation point.

“He’s a perfect fit,” new Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long said Friday. “That’s why I recruited him like crazy when I was at Arizona State. He’s a prototypical [tight end], a guy who can run, who can catch.

“The biggest thing about Alizé is he’s taking great pride in his blocking ability right now, his presence of being an end-line guy, his protection and his overall physicality. When you think like that, you’re going to become a better receiver.” (more…)