The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. LSU

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On second viewing, Notre Dame’s victory over LSU still happened. After watching the Irish find ways not to get it done all November, Brian Kelly’s team handled adversity — and a leaky defense — and executed down the stretch, sending the Tiger faithful (not Notre Dame’s) into the offseason grumbling about the foundation of their program.

A two quarterback system work. So did a ball-control offense. The defense may have started taking on water, but it did enough to get things done. With players young and old making key contributions, let’s run through the final good, bad and ugly of the season.

 

THE GOOD

Malik Zaire. What a gutty performance by the young lefty in the first start of his career. As a ball career, Zaire is a load — a 235-pounder that may serve as the team’s power back. As a passer he was more than competent, showing nice accuracy in a still-developing, complementary part of his game.

But if there’s a reason to fall in love with Zaire after roughly six quarters of football, it’s the presence he cuts almost immediately as an offensive leader. There was no fear in Zaire when he took the stage. Not as a runner, nor as a passer.

That’s not to say it was all perfect. He made mistakes — a fourth-down keep that went for nothing, when Tarean Folston knifed easily through the line for what would’ve been a first down. The overthrown deep ball down the middle into double coverage that got him quickly pulled in the two-minute offense. But it’s tough to get mad at a kid for calling his own number in crunch time.

Zaire’s personality took over the offense, and the young sledge hammer seemed to drive the physicality of the offense.

 

The Offensive Line. Giving Zaire credit for the physicality is only partially fair. The play up front was outstanding, with Harry Hiestand’s maligned offensive line showing up and taking charge.

In his first start at right tackle, Mike McGlinchey held up just fine. Even better, we saw some nastiness from the young sophomore, unafraid to get into the face of LSU middle linebacker Kendell Beckwith after a run play.

Kelly credited left tackle Ronnie Stanley for getting the team fired up — the junior a vocal leader before the game, something that has yet to happen in his career. Stanley looked the part of a dominant blocker as well, with a stay-or-go decision that’ll likely determine just how good this group can be next season.

 

The Coaching Staff. You want fired up? Rewatch Brian Kelly and Harry Hiestand jawing after LSU lands a big hit on Everett Golson. For those that thought Notre Dame’s bowl game was an exercise in futility, good thing the staff didn’t treat it that way.

As mentioned last night, Kelly flat outcoached Les Miles. An LSU staff with one of college football’s elite defensive coordinators and a Super Bowl winning offensive coordinator came up short to a staff that many fans wanted to see rebooted.

 

The Moxie. A team that came in as losers of five of six and four-straight had no business being as confident as they were. Yet this Notre Dame team found a way to live under a rock this month, not falling into the echo chamber that escalates from simmering discontent to four-alarm fire.

Do you want to see safeties Elijah Shumate and Max Redfield talking trash? Probably not. But it’s much better than seeing them play with their tails between their legs. Does it make sense for a first-time starter at right tackle to mix it up with one of the SEC’s best linebackers? Not really. But that’s the exact attitude needed to win and the Irish displayed the confidence of a champion.

 

Quick Hits: He didn’t play perfectly, but it was nice to see Max Redfield active and aggressive as a tackler. The pop pass that got behind the secondary may have been on Redfield, but mistakes of aggression are a lot better than late reactions.

* Converted wide receiver James Onwualu went head-up with Leonard Fournette and lived to tell about it. Making that tackle is all about attitude, and says quite a bit about Onwualu’s evolution as a linebacker. It’ll be fun to watch that position group evolve in Year 2 of BVG.

* Downhill running by Tarean Folston is a thing of beauty. His numbers may not have been that impressive, but everything Folston does is.

* An active game by Jaylon Smith reminds you that Smith falls second to no athlete, even the best of the SEC. Now he’s got to learn how to take on blockers against a downhill scheme.

* Good for Kyle Brindza. I probably would’ve given the game ball to Malik Zaire, but what a great honor to a senior leader who struggled mightily this year.

* The more I watch C.J. Prosise, the more I wish I ranked him even higher in my final rankings. He’s going to be a dynamic weapon next season.

* This should get Irish fans pumped up:

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THE BAD

Big Plays Given Up. It’s hard to poke at Brian VanGorder’s Scotch Tape defense, but the big plays very nearly sunk a really admirable effort.

The Irish defense played with a lot of heart, but a long touchdown run by Leonard Fournette and a broken coverage touchdown pass to open the second half could very well have been back-breakers.

(I’ll lump Fournette’s 100-yard kickoff return here as well. That might have counted in a two-hand touch league as well.)

As the Irish move into 2015 mode, finding a middle ground is a necessity for this group. Splashes of dominance won’t matter if the big plays continue to haunt. Playing on a tight rope and contesting everything will remain a part of this defense’s DNA. But situational awareness is a key to development.

It’s Over. We’ve got nine months until Notre Dame hosts… TEXAS!

 

THE UGLY

It’s hard to find anything to complain about after Notre Dame’s stunning victory. As mentioned in the Five Things, this is as much of a season-salvager as you could ask for.

Beating a name-brand opponent from the SEC West. Doing it by playing a physical brand of football that the SEC wants to monopolize. Watching a group of young players emerge as team leaders for 2015, adding to a strong veteran group.

Notre Dame started 13 true underclassmen in the victory. Kelly incorporated the future as well, getting in tight ends Durham Smythe and Tyler Luatua along with a non-stop rotation of young defenders.

Just as important, Kelly showed the blueprint for successfully mixing and matching quarterbacks Malik Zaire and Everett Golson, opening up the offensive inventory and giving opposing coordinators nine months of headaches in the meantime. While two quarterbacks seems to scare everybody else, the duo the Irish have brings you back to 2006, when Urban Meyer matched Chris Leak and Tim Tebow to win a national title.

 

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…)