Five things we learned: Notre Dame 31, LSU 28

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The snickering started early. After choosing to receive, Notre Dame fumbled the opening kickoff. They burned their first timeout before running a play. And when Malik Zaire got tracked down in the backfield on his first attempted run, a tidal wave of social media chatter left the Irish for dead.

But the next 59-and-a-half minutes told a different story.

Notre Dame’s 31-28 victory over LSU in the Music City Bowl may have only pushed the Irish to 8-5, a slightly better than mediocre finish to a season that started with such high hopes. But after Kyle Brindza’s field goal tucked inside the left upright after Les Miles attempted twice to recall the ghosts that haunted the Irish’s senior kicker throughout most of the season, the outpouring of emotions from a young Notre Dame team told a much different story.

The Irish won perhaps the most important eight-victory of a season in recent memory, sending Notre Dame into the offseason on a high note as they prepare to mount a playoff run in 2015.

Let’s find out what we learned.

 

With Notre Dame’s offense needing to win in the trenches to have any chance at victory, Harry Hiestand’s offensive line carried the day. 

Much has been said about the up and down performance from Notre Dame’s offensive line this season. After losing Zack Martin and Chris Watt from the 2013 unit and reshuffling the starting five in September, the front five hasn’t played with the aggression many expected from a young but talented group.

That wasn’t the case on Tuesday afternoon.

Against the SEC’s top defense, Harry Hiestand’s offensive line helped the Irish possess the football for an astounding 37 minutes, controlling the clock, the football and dictating terms to one of America’s most physically impressive defenses.

Notre Dame ran for 263 yards against LSU, averaging 5.2 yards per carry. That’s a number that would’ve been assuredly a typo had you not seen the game, but behind 51 attempts — both Malik Zaire and Tarean Folston breaking the 20 carries — the Irish offensive line showed a physicality that took even the broadcast crew by surprise.

“Say what you want about Notre Dame failing against the SEC and the SEC being too physical,” ESPN’s Rod Gilmore said. “Not up front with this offensive line today. Notre Dame’s offensive line has been dominant with the big boys of the SEC.”

After the game, Notre Dame’s head coach said it best.

“We dictated the outcome by controlling the football,” Brian Kelly said.

 

Who cares about what comes next? Paired together, Malik Zaire and Everett Golson found a way to win the football game. 

Want an idea of how much this game meant? After leading his teammates to victory in his first start, Malik Zaire brushed away tears as he did his first postgame interview as a winning quarterback.

Zaire talked about those emotions after the game.

“Just the whole season, being a little bit frustrated in terms of pondering my place on this football team,” Zaire said, when asked about his mindset as he basked in the victory. “Being able to still stay focused, still stay tuned in even when things around me weren’t going the way that I felt I could contribute to the team.

“Life is about these opportunities that we get each and every day and taking advantage of them. I’m thankful for that lesson and I didn’t want to ruin it for this football team coming off the losses we have.”

While Golson certainly took a backseat to Zaire on a chilly afternoon in Nashville, he played a critical role in the victory as well. The senior returned to the field to help drive the Irish offense to a game-winning drive, returning to the field after taking a nasty hit on a wild third-down conversion to Will Fuller that required a medical injection to help numb the pain.

“I thought Everett was outstanding,” Kelly said. “Nobody really knows this, he got hit pretty hard on the play that he made. He had to go in and get a shot, the first time he’s ever done that since he’s been here at Notre Dame. To come back out and play, I was really proud of him.”

While the idea of a soap opera-like quarterback controversy is catnip to a media that needs something to talk about over the next nine months, it’s worth taking what Kelly has said for the past month at face value: He built a game plan to beat LSU.

“This really was just about this game,” Kelly said. “Playing both of them, my focus was about winning this game. And we’ll figure out the quarterback situation come January.”

That was made possible by both quarterbacks putting the team first and trusting the guy that brought them to South Bend.

“I thought they played very well and I thought they played well because they played together and they played unselfish,” Kelly said. “They trusted what we called. The big word for us was trust. Let us call the game. Trust what we’re calling. Trust what we’re doing. And we’re going to get you there. I thought that was pretty evident from Everett and from Malik.”

 

While it wasn’t always pretty, Brian VanGorder’s defense got the stops it needed and helped win the football game. 

After getting sliced and diced by just about every offense it faced since Florida State, Notre Dame’s much-maligned defense did enough to win the football game. Held together by duct tape and glue, Brian VanGorder’s young unit made enough big plays to help the Irish emerge victorious.

Every little play mattered. An opening three-and-out after the Irish scored first? Critical in winning the time of possession. Getting a big stop before halftime? Game defining (even if it seemed mighty close on replay).

Sheldon Day returned to recover a critical fumble. Max Redfield emerged from the doghouse and made a team-high 14 tackles. If the defensive performance was about finding a way to win, then getting too wrapped up in Leonard Fournette’s dominant performance is missing the point.

The defense made the plays they needed to make, keeping an opponent under 30 points for the first time since VanGorder’s unit led the Irish to victory over Stanford in early October. And the return of Day and Cody Riggs, a month off — not to mention a change in coaching strategy — clearly helped.

“We were beat up and tired late in the season. Getting a break really rejuvenated our football team, particularly our defense,” Kelly said. “And quite frankly, we kept our defense off the field. We did a better job, I did a better job coaching. And I think that helped in this respect, we didn’t have to put our defense in some tough positions.”

 

Brian Kelly outcoached Les Miles. 

While some Notre Dame fans spent the day pining for Michigan’s new head football coach, the guy roaming the Irish sidelines put together one of his finest performances since coming to South Bend. Brian Kelly pulled a rabbit from his hat, putting together a masterful game plan as the Irish completely outfoxed Les Miles and his coaching staff.

Kelly hit every right note en route to the tight victory, utilizing multiple personnel sets on offense, two quarterbacks perfectly and a game-winning drive that reframes the next nine months completely. While Irish fans spent December wondering if a mutiny was on the horizon, the football team they had left for dead pulled out a victory against a team that took Alabama to overtime and didn’t lose a football game outside of the SEC West.

While the massive adjustments to the schematic game plan came too late to salvage 2014, those that wondered what Notre Dame could possibly get from playing in a bowl game saw clearly just how well the much-maligned staff prepared their football team.

“That’s all we talked about. We really talked about this more being a life lesson for handling adversity,” Kelly said about preparing his team. “We had some adversity. Everybody was down on Notre Dame and our kids and we can’t do this and we can’t do that. I said, ‘That’s going to happen in life.’ You just have to believe in yourself, believe in what you’re doing, stick with it and trust what you’re doing.’ And if you do that, you’re going to be okay.”

Against a college football coach who has done a better job than anyone assembling talent outside of Tuscaloosa, Brian Kelly reminded all those who hadn’t already left him for dead that he didn’t forget how to coach.

 

After a season of heartbreak, a win in the Music City Bowl feels like poetic justice for the 2014 Irish. 

If you’re looking for a perfect season finale, even the end of Breaking Bad doesn’t have anything on the ending of Notre Dame’s 2014 season. In letting Kyle Brindza boot the game-winning field goal after struggling so mightily throughout this season, an Emmy-winning writers room couldn’t have scripted a better finish for an 8-5 season.

Nothing came easy for this team. Not even summer school.

But while this team might not have known well enough how to win, it certainly didn’t know how to quit. And the victory over LSU was proof of that.

And while most eyes turn immediately to 2015, it’s worth tipping your cap to a senior class that did the little things needed to make sure Kelly got an eighth victory, making him Notre Dame’s first head coach to win eight or more in his first five seasons.

In his final collegiate game, Cam McDaniel’s one carry came on a blown audible by Malik Zaire. But you saw the senior captain going head up with Leonard Fournette on kickoff coverage, making a tackle early in the game by stepping in the way of a freight train.

Ben Koyack finished his career as well. After struggling as a blocker at times this season, Koyack held his own in the trenches when the Irish desperately needed him, then came through with a clutch third-down conversion to move the chains with under two minutes left in the game.

Cody Riggs returned for a game that could only hurt his professional chances. But there he was nearly intercepting a pass with one hand on the opening drive and making one of the underrated plays of the game, tracking LSU’s John Dairse across the field in man coverage and forcing him out of bounds before the goal line with seconds remaining in the second quarter. (The Tigers would fail to convert their fake field goal attempt.)

Christian Lombard gave his health to this football team. So did Austin Collinsworth. Justin Utupo went from bottom of the depth chart to the bottom of the pile after being called to action as the defense lost man after man.

A four-loss November and dropping five of six to close the season is still difficult to conceive. But this team deserves every bit of celebration tonight in Nashville, closing out the year with the most improbable of wins.

Tranquill continues work with safeties … for now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kraemer, Eichenberg compete for RT spot, moving Bars inside, and Bivin to…

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Forty percent of the offensive line is essentially set in stone: fifth-year senior Mike McGlinchey at left tackle and senior Quenton Nelson at right guard.

The center position seems to be senior Sam Mustipher’s to lose.

That leaves the two starting spots on the right side of the line for a number of players—both young and experienced—to fight over.

Sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg have emerged as the frontrunners for the right tackle spot, moving senior Alex Bars inside to right guard. Bars started all 12 games last season at right tackle.

“Those two [Kraemer and Eichenberg] are the guys we have mapped out at right tackle, and they’re going to battle,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “Today Kraemer was there. Last two practices Eichenberg got a lot of the work. Eichenberg will go back there on Friday. They’re going to keep battling and splitting the action out there.”

Part of the reasoning in giving the two sophomores extended looks this spring is Notre Dame knows what it has in Bars when at right tackle.

“We would prefer to get him in at the guard position, but we know he can play the [tackle] position,” Kelly said.

A starting five of McGlinchey, the three seniors and either sophomore may seem to leave fifth-year lineman Hunter Bivin out in the cold. Not often is a player asked to return for a fifth year only to spend it on the bench. That is even more rare when considering the current Irish scholarship crunch.

Kelly compared Bivin’s role to that of Mark Harrell’s last year. Harrell appeared in all 12 games, starting two, and provided much needed depth and flexibility along the offensive line. Rather than have five backup offensive linemen, position coach Harry Hiestand relied on Harrell to provide support at multiple spots.

“It’s reasonable to assume that Hunter Bivin’s going to be involved in this as well,” Kelly said. “We’ve just asked Hunter to take a seat right now. He’s done that for the team.

“We think Hunter is going to be a Mark Harrell for us. A guy that’s extremely valuable, can play a number of positions. We trust him, but we want to see these two young players [Kraemer and Eichenberg]. Hunter is a guy that can play right or left tackle for us. He’s going to be a valuable player for us as a swing guy.”

On that note, this space will refer to Bivin as a fifth-year lineman, as was done above, rather than as a guard or as a tackle, until further notice. In his case, the broader description may be the most accurate.

Spring break out west is fine, but Wimbush better be ready to run

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It will undoubtedly become a habit, at least for the next five-plus months. If Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush sneezes in front of a camera, it just might lead to an uptick in webmd.com traffic. His every football move will certainly be analyzed, nitpicked and discussed at length. Thus, Irish coach Brian Kelly being asked about Wimbush’s spring break should surprise no one.

Rather than find a Florida beach, Wimbush spent his spring break working with private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield in San Diego alongside a handful of other college passers. Kelly said there is value to such a spring break but stopped short of setting any lofty expectations of the effects.

“I have no problem with [Wimbush] working out with George Whitfield,” Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice, the first following spring break and the third of 14 leading into the Blue-Gold Game on April 22. “George doesn’t work on the specifics to the offense. George is really working on the quarterback and throwing the football, moving in the pocket. George is really good at keeping those quarterbacks active and moving.”

Whitfield is best-known around Notre Dame and among Irish fans for working with former Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson during Golson’s academic suspension in 2013. Whitfield and Golson spent 10 weeks together, thus granting time for extensive off-field activities such as film study. Far shorter, Wimbush’s time out west appears to have been spent primarily doing drills.

“In those situations, it’s a bullpen session,” Kelly said. “They’re keeping their arms loose, they’re keeping their feet loose. He’s just keeping them active.”

It is hard to construe that activity as a negative, but it obviously lacks certain aspects crucial to Wimbush’s 2017 season. With only five career pass attempts and seven career rushes, Wimbush’s inexperience looms large. Developing the necessary intangibles to account for that may be just as, if not more, important as fitting his throws into tight windows.

“When it comes to the playbook, to his teammates, to his coaches here, Brandon understands that when the rubber hits the road, those are the guys that matter the most,” Kelly said. “He knows when it’s time for Notre Dame football, where the focus is.”

Included in that playbook will be an expectation for Wimbush to carry the ball. To date, Wimbush’s biggest play and possibly only imprint on most Notre Dame fans’ memories is a 58-yard touchdown scamper against Massachusetts in 2015.

Link to 17-second YouTube video which has unfortunately disabled embedding

Note, the play is not exclusively-designed for Wimbush to run. Now a rising junior, then a fellow freshman, running back Josh Adams comes across Wimbush’s front for a possible handoff. Instead, Wimbush makes the correct read and keeps the ball. Why state so clearly it was the proper read? Adams has to evade a Texas defender even though he never had the ball.

Future option plays should present Wimbush with the possibility of throwing the ball, too.

“He’ll be a runner in the offense,” Kelly said. “Do we want him to carry the ball 20 times? No.”

“I don’t think you’ll have a situation where we’re calling quarterback power or singular runs. He’s going to have options: hand it off, throw the ball out on the perimeter. You’ll see more of that than you will prescribed quarterback runs. We had a little bit more of that last year with Kizer, but I think you’ll see that he has an option to get the ball out of his hands more so than just prescribed runs.”

Those option plays, in particular, will require Wimbush to have a thorough familiarity both with the Notre Dame playbook and with his teammates’ tendencies.

RITA LEE OR 52-53?
Staying consistent with his comments over the last two months, Kelly once again reiterated the biggest changes new offensive coordinator Chip Long will bring to the Irish playbook will be in its wording. Perhaps going to an extreme example to illustrate his thinking, Kelly pointed to the future.

“We’re going to win next year and Chip is going to be the greatest offensive coordinator in the country and he’s going to get a head job, right?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “Then I’m not going to introduce the Chip Long offense to the next offensive coordinator.”

“It has to have my culture in it … The culture of the offense is still the base offense that I have always run because I have to be able to carry that with me from year to year.”

Within that ellipsis, Kelly gave two examples of possible verbiage changes. Without knowing much more behind them, they do not mean too much out here in the cobwebs of the internet, but they do provide a quick glimpse at what Kelly has been referring to when discussing lexicon since hiring Long.

“If he wants to change Ringo Lucky protection to Ram and Lion protection, go right ahead. If he wants to change certain calls, for example, 52-53 protection is now Rita Lee.”

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Back from break, Irish commence hitting; DT Elijah Taylor out with LisFranc injury

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Notre Dame last wore pads in its 45-27 defeat at USC back on Nov. 26, a full 117 days ago. Suffice it to say, the Irish enjoyed the chance to don their shoulder pads and hit each other in Wednesday’s third spring practice, the first one since returning from spring break.

“What I liked about it more than anything else is there wasn’t a big drop off today,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “Usually you go two days and then you take a week off, and then you come back and put your pads on—it took us only a couple of periods to get back up to form. That was nice to see.”

Contrary to previous years in spring practice, and perhaps practice in general, Kelly emphasized tackling, especially tackling in the open-field, in Wednesday’s drills.

“[I] felt like we needed to make up for a little lost ground,” he said. “We got in tackling today for the first time. That’ll be an emphasis. We’ll tackle a lot this spring to make up for lost ground.”

The early and often physical nature of practice didn’t bother any of the players, per Kelly, but also per presumed common sense. While Notre Dame’s coaching staff changes and public questioning played out in broad view, the players spent 117 days in private waiting to unleash some of the frustrations of 2016’s disappointing season.

“Everybody to a man has been looking forward to this day,” Kelly said. “It was a pretty difficult offseason for them. They were looking forward to putting the pads on and getting out there. I think they exhibited that today.”

TAYLOR OUT FOR SPRING, AT LEAST
Junior defensive tackle Elijah Taylor was not in pads Wednesday. In the final practice before spring break, another player stepped on Taylor’s foot, Kelly said. The resulting LisFranc fracture will keep Taylor out of the remaining dozen spring practices and limit him until at least July. Taylor saw action in four games last season, finishing with three tackles, including one for a loss.

Notre Dame team surgeon Dr. Brian Ratigan already performed Taylor’s surgery.

“Typical LisFranc fractures, we’ve had good success with their repairs,” Kelly said. “…We’ll be able to train around the injury. Full range of motion moving around and doing things in June, probably full clearance sometime in July.”

Without Taylor, the interior of Notre Dame’s defensive line becomes even shallower, though that may have been hard to previously comprehend. Junior Jerry Tillery looks to be ready to start, and senior Jonathan Bonner has moved to the inside, rather than at end as he has been for most of his career. Behind them, the Irish present only question marks.

Kelly said he will look to junior Micah Dew-Treadway to step forward in Taylor’s absence.

“Micah Dew-Treadway has had a really good offseason for us,” Kelly said. “Changed his body, has been doing a really good job in all facets, in the class room and weight room. He’s somebody that had been ascending anyway prior to the injury.

Kelly indicated junior Brandon Tiassum also could be expected to see more work with Taylor sidelined.

Seniors Daniel Cage and Pete Mokwuah are in the mix, as well. Cage struggled with concussion issues last season after a promising 2015.

Notre Dame will need to wait until the freshmen arrive—perhaps also joined by Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano, reportedly still taking official visits as he ponders his 2017 destination—for further reinforcements. Consensus four-star recruit Darnell Ewell would be the most likely candidate of the three expected arrivals to move up the depth chart right away.

In layman’s terms, a Lisfranc fracture occurs when a mid-foot bone connecting to a toe separates from the cluster of bones toward the heel. Note: This is stated here only to provide some context, nothing more. This particular scribe avoided most biology classes.

CLAYPOOL A RECEIVER AND THAT HE WILL STAY
Asked if he considered moving sophomore receiver Chase Claypool to defense, Kelly answered succinctly.

“We feel like we need his play on offense,” Kelly said. “He’ll continue to contribute on the special teams end of things, but we need his play on offense.”

KELLY ON KIZER’S NFL POTENTIAL
“I’ve had a number of conversations with GMs and coaches about [former Notre Dame quarterback] DeShone [Kizer], and my personal feeling is he has the biggest upside of all the quarterbacks. I don’t know that he’s prepared to come in and win a Super Bowl for you [this year]. Some may feel as though maybe one of the other quarterbacks are. I don’t know that firsthand. But I think, in time, he has the biggest upside of all the quarterbacks.

“I get it. It’s the NFL. Everybody’s under the same pressure of performing and needing somebody to come in right away, but I think he’s a guy that just needs some time. If he gets in the right situation, I think he’d be the guy to take.”

Kizer and eight other former Irish players will take part in a pro day tomorrow (Thursday) in front of some of those GMs and coaches.