Pregame Six Pack: A Music City Finale

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The 2014 season comes to a close on Tuesday afternoon, with Notre Dame playing the role of underdog against LSU in the Music City Bowl. After finishing the regular season on a four-game slide, a date with Les Miles’ young and talented Tigers isn’t the type of opponent that instills a lot of hope in the Irish faithful.

But Brian Kelly said he wanted a challenge for his team and they’ll have one on Tuesday afternoon.

First and foremost is LSU’s defense. With Malik Zaire getting his first start, he’ll meet John Chavis. The SEC’s top-rated unit, Zaire will face a worthy adversary as he hopes to start 2015 in the drivers seat for a quarterback job that should be wide open.

In our last Pregame Six Pack until next September, let’s get ready for the Music City Bowl.

 

Can Notre Dame stop the run?

That’s likely the difference in this football game. And while the Irish are still missing Joe Schmidt and Jarron Jones, the month off to restructure the front seven will likely make a difference.

If you’re reading between the lines, a few things seem fairly clear. First, Sheldon Day may be officially healthy, but he’s got a long way to go before he’s able to be the every-down player the Irish need. Kelly tabbed Day’s play count around 40 or 50 snaps, which is roughly the number of carries the Tigers will likely attempt.

Secondly, it appears Isaac Rochell will be asked to take on the bulk of the work inside. After Jacob Matuska struggled in his first significant action, Rochell will slide inside to try and combat the power advantage the Tigers have in the trenches. Matuska battled a shoulder/nerve injury that limited his strength and ability to hold his own against USC, but healthy or not, it’s a tough battle for a first-year player still finding his way.

But that’s what the Irish have to choose from. So Brian VanGorder’s unit will have to patch things together, not their best strong suit this season. LSU will help as well, with a passing game that’s one of the least efficient the Irish have faced. But none of that matters if Notre Dame can’t hold its own against a running game that’s intent on breaking the will of the Irish.

 

What will the Irish get out of Malik Zaire?

There are few better opportunities than the one Malik Zaire will get this afternoon. The sophomore quarterback who finally saw the field against USC gets the start against the Tigers. Welcome to the Big Leagues, kid.

What that means from a playing time perspective remains to be seen, with Kelly still committed to playing Everett Golson. But if Zaire wants a chance to prove he can be the man driving the Irish offense, there’s no better litmus test than against LSU.

The Tigers secondary is one of the toughest in college football. Their run defense has not lived up to that standard, with Wisconsin, Mississippi State and Auburn all having big games on the ground. Zaire’s skills as a runner are often discussed. Now we’ll see if they’re more than just a talking point, with the zone read key to the Irish’s game plan with the young quarterback on the field.

(And no quarterback playing for Brian Kelly is going to get by as a bad passer.)

After a nice performance against USC, Zaire handled the media well, looking the part of a starting quarterback at a big-time program. If he can move the offense and lead the team against LSU, we’ll have ourselves a very interesting spring.

 

What type of performance can we expect from LSU?

For all the skepticism out there about Notre Dame’s chances right now, it’s worth noting that the Tigers aren’t coming in as world beaters. After ripping off three straight wins, including a victory over No. 3 Ole Miss, the Tigers seemed to have the wind ripped from their sails after Alabama snuck out of Tiger Stadium with an overtime victory.

The loss to the Crimson Tide was followed up by a 17-0 skunking by Arkansas. And while LSU rallied in their season finale to beat Texas A&M, the Tigers haven’t exactly been the best bowl performers the past few years, sleepwalking past Iowa last year 21-14 and losing to Clemson in the Chick-fil-A bowl the year before.

The Tigers’ passing offense is a mess, with quarterback Anthony Jennings completing less than 50 percent of his passes and throwing just 10 touchdowns against seven interceptions. (Three of those TD passes came against someone called Sam Houston.) And defensively, the architect of the LSU attack might have other things on his mind.

John Chavis was offered a three-year extension worth $4 million weeks ago. But while other defensive assistants have signed their contract extensions, the Times-Picayune reports that Chavis hasn’t. An offer to join Kevin Sumlin’s staff at Texas A&M seems to be a sticking point.

Does any of this matter? Maybe not. But it’s worth noting that after a disappointing four-loss season of its own, the Tigers aren’t exactly happy to be in Nashville, either.

 

Can Will Fuller make a statement — and set a record in the process?

Notre Dame wide receiver Will Fuller’s big sophomore season flew surprisingly under the radar on the national scene. With four 100-yard efforts and the best single-season totals for a sophomore in school history in catches, yards and touchdowns, Fuller has the chance to make an impact against a secondary that’s among the most talented in the country… not to mention catch Jeff Samardzija and Golden Tate in the process.

Fuller’s season was the breakout of the year. But it still saw the wispy Philadelphia native go through some growing pains. For all the catches Fuller made, you can’t help but think about the ones he missed. A few drops took some large plays off the board, and likely a few scores off the stat sheet.

Cornerbacks Jalen Collins and Tre’Davious White are a talented duo, with safeties Jalen Mills and Ronald Martin excellent as well. LSU has built its defensive brand playing man coverage. If Fuller breaks loose this afternoon, he’ll set the stage for a monster 2015 after a record-setting 2014.

 

Stay or Go? A good performance in the Music City Bowl could be the decision maker. 

Junior left tackle Ronnie Stanley has been discussed as a potential first-round offensive tackle as way-too-early mock drafts begin to emerge. While opinions on where he’ll go seem to vary, Stanley’s talents will be tested early and often against an LSU front that’s combined for 69 tackles for loss.

While the pass rush hasn’t necessarily been the strong suit of the Tigers defense, Stanley will provide another piece of excellent game tape for NFL talent evaluators to pick through, if Stanley decides that three seasons in South Bend are enough.

Brian Kelly didn’t want to discuss the NFL evaluations that Stanley, Nick Martin, Sheldon Day and Everett Golson received. But multiple sources confirmed to me that Stanley didn’t receive a coveted first-round grade when he heard back from the league.

That’s usually enough to get a return for a senior season. But after losing three players with eligibility left after last season and none of them going in the first round, there’s still a tough decision to make. And while his return would be a huge recruiting victory for Kelly and the Irish staff, Stanley will likely weigh his performance in the Music City Bowl before making any decisions.

 

Can Brian Kelly — and the offensive line — control the game with the Irish offense?

If there was something more disappointing than the Irish’s total defensive collapse against USC it was the brutal start for the offense. While back-to-back turnovers eventually took Everett Golson off the field, starting the game with four straight punts should’ve been even more worrying.

Against the Trojans, the Irish leaned heavily on the possession passing game and struck out. Golson’s inaccuracy, along with a lack of running game, put the vulnerable defense in a tough spot and they certainly didn’t fight their way out of it. (It might have been Paper Bag 49, Irish 14 in the Coliseum that afternoon.)

Kelly has talked openly about the blame he places on the offense for this season’s second-half collapse. And he is the head of that unit. So with one more opportunity to make Kelly the first Irish coach to win eight-or-more games in his first five seasons, he needs to get back to calling the type of game that had the Irish nearly pull off the upset against Florida State.

With Malik Zaire starting, it appears Kelly understands that he needs a strong running game to perch up the defense and possess the football. And after a mediocre season, the starting five has one last shot to prove they’re an ascending position group, not a unit that needs rebooting this spring.

Running the ball won’t just be a necessity to beat the Tigers defense. It’ll keep the ball away from LSU, making it harder for the Tigers to break down the Irish defense with a ground and pound mentality.

But when Golson plays, he’ll also need to run the football, not just drop back and throw it. He’s shown the ability to control the chains with his feet, like he did against Florida State. (He did it even better against Oklahoma in 2012, the ultimate 3rd-and-short weapon.)

Kelly desperately wants to leave Nashville with a victory. He’s going to have to do his best coaching job of the year to do so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This space has mentioned a few times the dearth of returning sacks among Notre Dame’s defensive line. It is a pertinent fact—no returning Irish defensive lineman recorded a sack in the 2016 season—but it fails to mention the flipside of that.

Most of Notre Dame’s defensive linemen had few, if any, opportunities to rush the passer in 2016. Perhaps at the top of the list of those who should bring down the opposing passer a few times this fall, sophomore Daelin Hayes has laid claim to a starting rush spot through five spring practices.

“The athleticism is what obviously stands out,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “He’s extremely athletic, he’s fit physically, 250 pounds and very strong.”

These facts are, after all, the reasons Hayes was a highly sought-after five-star recruit according to rivals.com.

“It’s the football knowledge, learning the techniques at the position in which he plays is really the piece,” Kelly continued. “It’s just learning right now for him. This is the time to do it, in spring ball.

“Squeezing down on a tight end when the back is away. Wrong-arming the puller. These are all football terms and schemes that are a bit new to him. We have to be patient with him. He’s an explosive athlete. There’s going to be some mistakes along the way, and I’m okay with that as long as he’s learning.”

Without much depth pushing for playing time behind him, Hayes will have the opportunity to make, and subsequently understand, those mistakes. Seniors Jay Hayes (no relation) and Andrew Trumbetti are mired in competition for the other end spot, while sophomores Julian Okwara, Adetokunbo Ogundeji and Khalid Kareem may have even more development ahead of them than Daelin Hayes does.

Incoming freshmen Kofi Wardlow and Jonathon MacCollister will join the fray in the summer, but for now, the younger Hayes has his chance to impress with his natural gifts while absorbing the intricacies of new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s defense.

Hayes is not a complete unknown. While Okwara made four tackles last season in 11 games and Kareem appeared in four games, Hayes saw action in every contest, finishing the season with 11 tackles, one pass breakup and one forced fumble.

“He’s an athlete,” defensive line coach Mike Elston said last week. “He’s on the edge in a two-point stance. He’s not a trained, put-your-hand-on-the-ground defensive end. He played running back in high school. He can see things better in a two-point and can diagnose quicker. He’s able to be more productive.”

It may be accurate to mention no returning Notre Dame defensive linemen tackled a quarterback for a loss last season, but it is more precise to also include the Irish have possibilities of changing that trend.

SPEAKING OF THE DEFENSIVE LINE
Notre Dame is nearly as thin at defensive tackle as it is at end. Junior Jerry Tillery leads the way with senior end-converted-to-tackle Jonathan Bonner lining up next to him thus far. Their reserves: Oft-concussed senior Daniel Cage, senior Pete Mokwuah and junior Micah Dew-Treadway with junior Elijah Taylor out for the spring with a foot injury.

Theoretically, junior Brandon Tiassum is also in the mix, and three freshmen (Kurt Hinish, Myron Tagovailo-Amosa and four-star Darnell Ewell) will join the group in the summer.

And maybe, just maybe, perhaps, possibly … Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano could walk onto campus alongside those freshmen. Pagano visited Notre Dame the first week of March, and was due to look at Oklahoma and Arkansas the next two weekends, respectively. Instead, Pagano reportedly cancelled both of those visits Monday.

Pagano does still have a visit to Oregon scheduled for April 21. Until indicated otherwise, it may be prudent to presume Pagano hopes to land as close to his Hawaiian home as possible.

RELATED READING: 1 Day Until Spring Practice: A look at the defensive line

Recruiting success continues with OL Dirksen, class’s 12th commit

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Even in the doldrums of spring practice, Notre Dame’s recent recruiting success continues. Rivals.com three-star/scout.com four-star offensive lineman John Dirksen offered a verbal commitment to the Irish on Saturday, bringing the 2018 class to 12 commitments.

The 6-foot-5, 290-pounds Dirksen (Marion High School; Maria Stein, Ohio) joins consensus three-star prospect Cole Mabry (Brentwood H.S.; Brentwood, Tenn.) as the offensive linemen thus far among the 12. In three of the last four years, Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has pulled in four recruits, with 2015’s two (Trevor Ruhland, Tristen Hoge) as the exception. This recruiting cycle could again bring a limited offensive line haul, given the likely limits on the class’s size.

While any and all current class of 2018 team rankings should be taken with many grains of salt—there are 318 days between today and National Signing Day, after all—Dirksen’s commitment solidifies the Irish hold on the No. 3 class, per rivals.com. Other recruiting services place Notre Dame even higher.

Dirksen chose Hiestand and the Irish over offers from Michigan State, Iowa State and Boston College, among others.

 

Holmes out for spring; Jones & Jones shining

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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.”