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.

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s linebackers, a proven two and then many questions

Associated Press
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Any concerns about Notre Dame’s linebackers were allayed when Te’von Coney spurned the NFL to return for his senior season. That decision, and Drue Tranquill making the same move, means the Irish do not need to replace their two best playmakers at the position from last season.

Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Clark Lea does need to figure out how to fill in for the graduated Nyles Morgan and his 92 tackles, not to mention classmate Greer Martini and his 75, good for second and fourth on the team, respectively.

Spring Roster:
— Two known and welcome playmaking veterans in Coney and fifth-year Tranquill.
— More than a handful of unproven and untested possibilities in rising senior Asmar Bilal, rising juniors Jonathan Jones and Jamir Jones (no relation), and rising sophomores Drew White, David Adams and Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah.
— A trio of early-enrolled freshmen in Jack Lamb, Bo Bauer and Ovie Oghoufo.

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman Shayne Simon, a likely rover candidate.

Entering 2017, Te’von Coney was not even a starting linebacker. By the end of the season he was the leading tackler, and in 2018, he will be counted on as a defensive stalwart. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
Wherever Tranquill ends up — be it at rover or a more traditional linebacker position, with the latter seeming more likely — someone will need to earn the third starting role. Bilal is the front-runner for that duty, at either position, but he will need to show a quicker understanding of the game than he has in the past.

The rising senior has always been ready physically, but he has looked up the depth chart at the likes of Morgan, Martini, Coney and Tranquill. Opportunities were not readily available. Now that one very much is, Bilal will need to either seize it or get ready to be bypassed by the newcomers.

It would be a surprise for Lamb or Bauer to be named that third starter in their freshman season, but both could certainly land in the two-deep, as that entire second unit is up for grabs. Neither Jones showed much last season, and the linebacker recruiting emphasis of 2018 belied the coaching staffs’ opinions of the rising sophomores pretty clearly.

Presuming Bilal steps forward and secures the starting position, and some combination of Jones, Jones, Lamb and Bauer fill two of the backup roles, only Owusu-Koromoah stands out as an obvious rover substitute. In that respect, depth remains a concern at the defense’s second level, albeit less of one than in years past thanks to the influx of four touted freshmen.

Biggest Question:
Where does Tranquill line up against Michigan on Sept. 1? More to the current purpose, where does he line up in the Blue-Gold Game on April 21?

“My responsibility as linebackers coach is to put the best combination of people on the field,” Lea said Feb. 7. “I think everyone can see Drue Tranquill had a skillset, a talent base that can play multiple spots. Through the course of the winter and spring, we’ll take a look at different options.”

The duties at rover can be handled piecemeal, accounting for the tendencies of each opponent. When facing an up-tempo, aerial attack, perhaps even rising senior cornerback Shaun Crawford could be featured there. When facing a physical, ground-bound opponent, Bilal would make more sense.

Shifting around like that at the Buck linebacker spot makes far less sense. While Tranquill never necessarily had the speed to excel at safety, and two knee injuries only further limited him in that respect, he shined at rover in 2017. Concluding his collegiate career at linebacker is logical, both as it pertains to his development thus far and to his professional aspirations.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Rarely can a defense lose two of its top-four tacklers and still return more than 200 tackles from starting linebackers. Thus is the luxury provided by both Coney and Tranquill bypassing the NFL for another year.

Coney: 116 tackles, 13.0 tackles for loss including three sacks, and one forced fumble which he recovered.
Tranquill: 85 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss including 1.5 sacks, one interception, three pass breakups, three fumbles recovered and one fumble forced.
Bilal: 18 tackles with 1.5 for loss.
Jo. Jones: 10 tackles with one for loss and one pass breakup.
Ja. Jones: Four tackles.

A 2018 Statistical Thought:
Presuming linebacker health, the three starters should end up as Notre Dame’s leading tacklers once again in 2018, even with the presumed drop off from Morgan to insert Bilal or Owusu-Koromoah or Lamb or … here.

The Irish defensive line will be much improved in 2018. Once upon a time, that seemed a guarantee just because the expectations for the line entering 2017 were so low, but it instead became a strength. Developing that strength and making it the backbone of Notre Dame’s defense moving forward will serve to burgeon the linebackers’ tackle totals, both at and behind the line of scrimmage.

Notre Dame gets the letter: Jack Lamb
Notre Dame gets the letter: Bo Bauer
Notre Dame gets the letter: Shayne Simon
Notre Dame gets the letter: Ovie Oghoufo

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are

A second four-star defensive lineman, Hunter Spears, joins the Notre Dame class of 2019

rivals.com
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When Notre Dame got five heralded defensive line recruits on campus together in January, it turned heads. When Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston offered public optimism about the possible 2019 commitments, it raised expectations.

Notre Dame has now secured a second of those five with the Tuesday commitment of consensus four-star defensive end Hunter Spears (Sachse High School; Texas). He joins consensus four-star defensive tackle Jacob Lacey (South Warren H.S.; Bowling Green, Ky.) as the early foundation to the recruiting class, now with four prospects pledged.

“Honestly, just talking with the guys today — Jacob Lacey, Mazi Smith, Joseph Anderson, Nana Osafo-Mensah, and myself — if Notre Came can land all of us, that would be the dream d-line class for Notre Dame,” Spears told Irish Illustrated. “I could see another pass-rusher or two, also.”

The other three names Spears mentioned all joined Lacey and him on Jan. 27 at an on-campus Junior Day. All five qualify as consensus four-stars, with Smith (East Kentwood; Kentwood, Mich.) a tackle, Anderson (Siegel; Murfreesboro, Tenn.) an end, and Osafo-Mensah (Nolan Catholic; Fort Worth, Texas) a possible end/linebacker hybrid.

From left to right: Osafo-Mensah, Anderson, Elston, Smith, Lacey and Spears. (Twitter: @JacobLacey6)

Landing all five may be ambitious, but it would also be the envy of most of the country.

Spears already held offers from the likes of Alabama and Michigan State, despite missing his junior season with a knee injury. The Irish extended a scholarship offer to him in June, prompting an unofficial visit to watch a 49-14 Notre Dame victory over USC in October. In a video released by 247Sports.com, Spears cited that experience as one of the three primary reasons he committed, along with the educational opportunity and the “overall tradition and culture.”

Spears shows quickness for a defensive lineman, but not such that he would ever be considered an outside linebacker in any form. His size makes him an ideal candidate to set the edge against the run or possibly move inside when the Irish need a quicker defensive line to handle certain opponents. His agility, though, will make him a three-down threat, both a pass-rusher and an edge-setter.

Notre Dame currently has depth at defensive end, but with only one signed in the class of 2018 (Justin Ademilola) and one remaining from the class of 2017 (Kofi Wardlow), an influx will be a priority this recruiting cycle. Spears will theoretically have one season to adjust to collegiate competition before the quartet of rising juniors Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem, Julian Okwara and Ade Ogundeji run out of eligibility. (The first three have two seasons remaining, while Ogundeji has the possibility of three more years.)

Hence, that Junior Day emphasis and Elston’s confidence on National Signing Day.

“I’ve been at Notre Dame now going on for nine years, and I haven’t had a stronger group of underclassmen that I’m recruiting than I have this year in 2019,” Elston said. “This could be the best defensive line haul we’ve ever had here.”

Expect to read that quote again and again (and possibly again) if any of the remaining three in the above photo follow Spears’ and Lacey’s lead.

RELATED READING: ‘Accelerated’ start creates bright outlook for Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting cycle

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are

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Notre Dame will open spring practice in about two weeks. As always, the proceedings will be filled with positive reviews, optimistic outlooks, and an injury or two.

A quick look at each position group should lend a better understanding to those perspectives and effects, beginning with the group lacking many questions — the running backs. The biggest reason there is relative certainty around the running backs is there are just so few of them following the winter dismissals of rising junior Deon McIntosh and rising sophomore C.J. Holmes.

Spring Roster:
Rising senior Dexter Williams (pictured above)
Rising junior Tony Jones
Early-enrolled freshman Jahmir Smith
Rising junior Mick Assaf

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman C’Bo Flemister

No one received more praise last spring practice than Tony Jones. He had a successful 2017, but compared to that hype, it could have been considered under-performing. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
At some point, either Williams or Jones will be named the Irish starter. It is quite possible that will be a distinction without much difference, as the two could certainly complement each other well in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s system, which already prefers to use multiple running backs.

Human nature, though, dictates is more likely one back receives a majority of the carries.

Biggest Question:
If Williams lines up with the No. 1 offensive unit in the Blue-Gold Game (April 21) to conclude spring practice, that will be the first genuine and tangible evidence he has improved as a pass blocker. Despite his big-play speed and seeming-ease breaking tackles, Williams’ one-dimensional game rendered him as much a liability as an asset in 2017.

Even in the Citrus Bowl victory, Williams followed up back-to-back rushes for a combined 36 yards with a blown pass protection resulting in a 13-yard sack.

“You have to be able to protect the quarterback with all positions,” Long said Feb. 7. “That dictates a whole lot if you’re going to play a lot or just be a situational guy. It’s something you have to embrace, the physicality.

“… That’s really the main thing, other than protecting the ball, that’ll keep a back off the field in our offense.”

The best ability is availability, and both an ankle injury and a balky quad limited Williams in that respect in 2017. Little blame can be cast for the natural bruises of football. Nonetheless, he will need to “embrace the physicality” if he wants to become more than a situational back.

Otherwise, Jones will be the default option. He has already shown a knack for both pass blocking and catching, making him a three-down option. Notre Dame will always prefer that rather than tip its hand to a running play every time Williams enters the game.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Obviously, Josh Adams carried the burden in the running game last season. Behind rising senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush and McIntosh, Williams was only the No. 4 rusher on the roster in yards and touchdowns, while Jones was No. 4 in carries and No. 5 in yards and scores.

Williams: 360 yards on 39 carries, a 9.2 average, with four touchdowns. Two catches for 13 yards and one score.
Jones: 232 yards on 44 carries, a 5.3 average, with three touchdowns. Six catches for 12 yards.
Notre Dame gets the letter: Jahmir Smith
Notre Dame gets the letter: C’Bo Flemister

Monday’s Leftovers: Geography, as much as academics, caps Notre Dame’s recruiting possibilites

Associated Press
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A year ago, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly acknowledged a practical ceiling on Irish recruiting efforts.

“Since I’ve been here, if you look at the average rankings, we’re anywhere from 5 to 15,” Kelly said on 2017’s National Signing Day, a day on which Notre Dame secured the No. 13 class in the country, per rivals.com. “We’re going to fall somewhere in that range because there’s a line there we can’t get over based upon what our distinctions are here. That line is going to keep us between 5 and 15.

“We know where we’re going to fall. We’re going to continue to recruit the right kind of kids here.”

Sure enough, the Irish once again fall into that spectrum in 2018, finishing No. 11 per rivals. Though Notre Dame has risen above that range once (No. 3 in 2013) and fallen below it once (No. 20 in 2012) during Kelly’s tenure, his overall analysis remains accurate.

The instinct has always been to cite University academic standards as the greatest hurdle to rising into the top five consistently, but another aspect should not be overlooked. In a recent mailbag, Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples pondered the factors keeping the Irish from becoming a perennial 10-win team.

“Another major reason is a lack of a local recruiting base,” Staples wrote. “No program has a stronger national reach than Notre Dame, but that still doesn’t make recruiting nationally easy. It’s much easier to have hundreds of quality prospects within driving distances.”

That dynamic is a part of why the Irish are better positioned to reap rewards from high school juniors now being able to take official visits in April, May and June. Those time periods are less hectic for most high schoolers, so a long-distance trip may fit into the calendar with a bit less stress. Obviously, only time will tell the true impact of that new change.

Looking at both this past year’s recruiting rankings and the last nine years of rankings underscores and supports Staples’ point.

Rivals considered 33 prospects to be five-star recruits in 2018. Only seven schools managed to sign multiple such players: Georgia (8), Clemson (6), USC (5), Alabama (3), Ohio State (3), Penn State (2), and Miami (2). To speak more broadly, four schools in the Deep South, two in the Ohio-Pennsylvania corridor and one in California, all talent-rich areas, especially compared to Indiana, Illinois and Michigan.

If combining the total signees of both four- and five-star rankings by rivals, Notre Dame signed 12 such prospects. Only 11 schools signed more, including six of the above seven. (Clemson equaled the Irish haul, though its even split between four- and five-star recruits stands out compared to Notre Dame’s 12 four-stars.) The additional five: Oklahoma, Texas, Florida State, Auburn and Florida. In other words, two schools tapping into Texas, two schools within Florida and one more in the Deep South.

If looking at the last nine years of recruiting, the span of Kelly’s time in South Bend, only eight programs have consistently out-recruited the Irish, all but one mentioned already. LSU finished with the No. 13 recruiting class in 2018, lowering its nine-year average placement to 8.0. The Tigers are one of five SEC teams in that group of eight, joining Florida State, Ohio State and USC.

Sense a theme?

It will always be hard enough for Notre Dame to find high-caliber players likely to succeed at a strong academic institution in the Midwest. That task is even harder knowing how far away those players typically are to start with.

Other programs face a similar challenge, and few handle it as well. Consider the 2018 recruiting classes of Stanford, Michigan and Michigan State, for familiar context.

Stanford finished with 4 four-stars in rivals’ No. 63 class. The Wolverines pulled in 7 four-stars as part of the No. 24 class, while the Spartans signed 5 four-stars in the No. 26 grouping.

The Blue-Chip Ratio
Finishing within Kelly’s range has not stopped Notre Dame from consistently having one of the most-talented rosters in the country. If abiding by rivals rankings for consistency, 45 of the 89 players currently on the Irish roster (including incoming freshmen) were four- or five-star recruits.

A commonly-cited metric of a roster’s talent is the so-called “Blue-Chip Ratio.” Essentially, a national championship caliber team will have at least 50 percent of its roster consisting of former four- or five-star prospects. Entering 2017, Notre Dame was one of only 10 such teams in the country.

As should be expected, the other nine included six programs from the Deep South, Ohio State, USC and, as an ode to Jim Harbaugh’s early recruiting successes, Michigan.

A Presidents Day Reminder
Notre Dame cannot officially claim any POTUS as an alum, but both Josiah Bartlet and James Marshall would like to argue otherwise.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Notre Dame’s pending attrition actually intended to improve the roster
NCAA denies Notre Dame’s appeal, vacating 21 wins, including 12-0 in 2012
Notre Dame is right: The NCAA’s terrible precedent matters, but vacating wins does not
‘Accelerated’ start creates bright outlook for Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting cycle
Notre Dame’s successful early signing period now begets early visit questions

OUTSIDE READING:
NCAA appeals committee upholds vacation of Notre Dame wins
A letter from the President on the NCAA Infractions Case
Irish set high expectations for Jurkovec
Elston ‘recruits’ Tillery, Bonner for one last ride
Giants release defensive end Ishaq Williams with a failed physical designation
Re-ranking the longest FBS coaching tenures from 1-to-230
Hip injury to keep Stanford QB K.J. Costello sidelined for much of spring drills