William Fuller, Julian Whigham, Durell Eskridge

Pregame Six Pack: Finishing spring practice strong

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With the quarterback battle taking center stage, Notre Dame’s spring practice focused on Everett Golson and Malik Zaire. Yet Brian Kelly spent this spring making sure his team was improving heading into this September, where the Irish’s high hopes will either live or die.

Saturday afternoon’s spring game is just one of 15 practices leading into next season. But the Blue-Gold game is a rare opportunity for a progress report not just of the high-profile quarterback battle, but for a look at the state of the Irish roster, with each team playing at full strength as the offense battles the defense.

You have viewing options. It’ll be live on NBCSN. It’ll also stream live on NBCSports.com.

With most of our attention this spring stuck on the battle between Golson and Zaire, let’s take a run through the Pregame Six Pack, and take a look at some roster battles that may factor into the equation come September 5.

 

For Jarrett Grace, the hard part is finished. 

Earlier this week, the latest entry of Onward Notre Dame aired on NBCSN, and it featured linebacker Jarrett Grace. We’ve talked about his long road back to the field after a devastating leg injury in 2013. But Grace talks about it himself in some of the finest moments of the half-hour documentary.

On the field, Grace gives the Irish great flexibility at the inside linebacker positions. In the locker room, his return gives Notre Dame another true leader.

See for yourself the battles Grace faced as he fought his way back to the field.

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Blink and you might miss them. But safeties Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate’s progress this spring is critical. 

No, you shouldn’t expect to see a bunch of big plays from Notre Dame’s starting safeties. That’s because with little depth behind Redfield and Shumate, there’s zero reason you’ll see the starting battery at the back of the Irish defense for the whole game. But after a big spring, Brian Kelly is talking like Notre Dame’s safety problems are a thing of the past, and that’d be very good news for Brian VanGorder’s defense.

In Redfield and Shumate, the Irish have two elite athletes to play safety. The two former top recruits are starting in front of a bunch of… well—a lot of question marks.

While Avery Sebastian has been on campus a few times taking notice of the defense, the third safety currently on the roster is a huge step behind the starting duo of Redfield and Shumate. With Nicky Baratti recovering from shoulder surgery and Drue Tranquill being held back because of an ACL surgery he’s recovered quickly from, the Irish depth chart this spring is thin.

So even if we don’t necessarily see the progress on the field on Saturday, the Irish coaching staff thinks the safety position has taken a huge step forward this spring, something that’s crucial to Notre Dame’s success in 2015.

 

What impact has Todd Lyght had over the cornerback play?

While the safety position took the brunt of the criticism, the Irish’s cover game suffered during November’s collapse last year as well. While Cole Luke had a breakout sophomore season, the loss of KeiVarae Russell was badly felt after Cody Riggs began having foot problems.

The battle opposite Luke this spring is one to watch, with rising sophomore Nick Watkins taking on soon-to-be junior Devin Butler. Last November, Butler made some highlight reels for a talented group of opposing wide receivers, not exactly where you want to see your number displayed.

Barring anything crazy, Russell will be back on campus this summer and back in the starting lineup. But while former Pro Bowler and Notre Dame All-American Todd Lyght’s first job was fixing the communication problems at the safety position, infusing some of his knowledge at a cornerback position that needed a confidence booster after a rough November was also on the docket.

The message seems to have been received. Watkins has worked his way even with Butler, the battle for the third cornerback job getting a jumpstart before talented freshman Shaun Crawford hits campus this June. Against a tough opponent—Notre Dame’s wide receiving corps—let’s see if the cover men can hold up.

 

Will we see Mike Sanford’s impact on the offense during the Blue-Gold game? 

Brian Kelly didn’t pull Mike Sanford from Boise State to just run Kelly’s offense. He brought him to shake things up. So while a televised spring game might be heavy on vanilla, it’ll be interesting to see if any of Sanford’s influence shows itself during this afternoon’s contest.

Sanford’s primary work this spring was coaching the quarterbacks. But after the Boise State offense took a journeyman quarterback and scored nearly 40 points a game, hopefully we’ll see some of that rub off in South Bend.

Focus on the running game. Last year, Jay Ajayi was one of college football’s biggest and best work horses. With three backs being shuffled through this spring, it looks like it’ll be an ensemble cast, but the commitment that Sanford showed to the run last season would do the Irish some good.

 

Can C.J. Prosise take a big spring and turn it into a big Blue-Gold game?

Nobody expected C.J. Prosise’s breakout this spring to be at running back. But the Irish might have found a new home run-threat runner at slot receiver.

Of course, fellow slot receiver Amir Carlisle was the former running back, Notre Dame’s starter in the season opener at the position in 2013. But Prosise is looking less like a contingency plan and more like a guy that’s going to play a significant role in the offense.

Kelly talked about getting him 10 carries a game while praising his natural talents at running back. Mike Denbrock called him one of the team’s best offensive players, period. After breaking off a huge 70-plus yard touchdown run last Saturday in the team’s biggest full-contact scrimmage, will we see the same from Prosise this Saturday?

 

What will Jerry Tillery do next?

At this point, what could Jerry Tillery do next to surprise us? Goal line quarterback, beating out Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones in the Irish Chocolate package? The early-enrollee freshman has been the talk of spring, working with the first-unit defense and displaying dominant traits that have many believing the 6-foot-6 defensive tackle is a star in the making.

Brian Kelly spent the early part of spring praising Tillery. Brian VanGorder and new defensive line coach Keith Gilmore have gotten in on it, too. So while they’ve also tried their best to tamp down some of those expectations, it’s too late: At this point, some of us are expecting a hybrid of Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt.

Tillery was set for the offensive line, a spot he’d have likely redshirted at while Ronnie Stanley manned the left tackle position. But with Jarron Jones extremely limited this spring and Sheldon Day held back, Tillery’s move to defense has been critical.

One of Notre Dame’s quirkiest and most interesting freshman—he took an official visit to Dartmouth and participates in recreational triathlons— is also one of the best.

 

In a crowded wide receiving depth chart, will another star rise to match Will Fuller? 

Last year we saw a record-setting season from sophomore Will Fuller. This year, Mike Denbrock’s hoping to find someone else to join him in the bright lights.

Senior Chris Brown seems to be rising to that challenge. After making one of the 2012 season’s best highlights against Oklahoma, Brown’s had just average production since then.

Tools wise, he’s got the ability to be much better than average. The former prep track star has elite speed. He’s got good size at 6-foot-1.5. And if it’s not Brown stepping to the forefront, there are plenty of other candidates.

Corey Robinson has been slowed this spring by nagging injuries, but should advance his game in his third season. Torii Hunter Jr. may have made headlines for moonlighting with the baseball team this spring, but Hunter has made his move on the gridiron, cross-training between the slot and outside positions.

Young freshmen Justin Brent and Corey Holmes have had their chance to get into the depth chart. And if they don’t, freshmen Miles Boykin, Jaylon Guyton, CJ Sanders, and Equanimeous St. Brown plan on making their move come fall.

Spring positions to watch for revelations: DL & WR

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 05: Jerry Tillery #99 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish tackles Jerrod Heard #13 of the Texas Longhorns for a loss of yards during the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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If quarterback, rover and the early enrollees could be Notre Dame fans’ springtime Christmas thrills, what positions present as potential spots of coal?

Three former Irish players were invited to next week’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis: quarterback DeShone Kizer, defensive tackle Jarron Jones and defensive end Isaac Rochell. Losing two consistent defensive linemen leaves this year’s unit with some questions. Jones and Rochell combined for 100 tackles, 18 for loss and three sacks last season. Notre Dame’s returning defensive linemen combined to total 111 tackles and only 5.5 tackles for loss. To be clear, sacks are not included in that latter list because no returning defensive linemen recorded one. Among the returnees, junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37 tackles, three for loss) and senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26, 0.5) contributed solidly alongside the two NFL prospects.

This dearth of known and reliable linemen is a large part of why the potential transfer of Clemson graduate defensive tackle Scott Pagano is so intriguing. Pagano would immediately be a favorite to start, and if not that, at least rotate in heavily.

For now, though, Pagano remains a theoretical

By the end of spring practice, who already on campus will emerge alongside Tillery and Trumbetti in the Irish front? Senior ends Jay Hayes (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) and Jonathon Bonner (nine tackles) seem the most-likely candidates … aside from former four-star recruit and now rising sophomore Daelin Hayes. In his debut season, D. Hayes finished with 11 tackles.

Look for senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) to establish himself as Tillery’s immediate backup this spring, but that spot in the rotation will be up for competition all over again once four-star tackle Darnell Ewell (Lake Taylor High School; Norfolk, Va.) arrives on campus in the fall. His size and quickness should play right into new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s system.

Equanimeous and Who?
Not only did Notre Dame bring in a graduate transfer at receiver in former Michigan wideout Freddy Canteen, but it has also already received the commitments of two four-star receivers in the 2018 recruiting class. The continued emphasis on the position reflects the lack of bona fide game-breakers currently on the roster.

Junior Equanimeous St. Brown established himself as the top Irish threat in 2016, and he should shine only further with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush targeting him. Classmates often amplify each other’s success, simply due to the added shared reps innate to joining practice at the same time. With Torii Hunter, Jr., now pursuing a professional baseball career, who will prevent the secondary from focusing all its energies on St. Brown?

Canteen will not be with Notre Dame in the spring, as he does not graduate from Michigan until April. That will give a clear shot for the likes of juniors Chris Finke, C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin, and sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool to establish themselves. Did that say “clear” shot? It should probably read, “a chance to separate from the crowd.”

If a genuine threat does not line up opposite St. Brown, his explosiveness will likely be greatly reduced by focused defensive scheming. Wimbush will need another target before 2018.

Of course, here is where one should acknowledge the millennia-tested fact: Coal under pressure becomes diamonds.

2016 Notre Dame’s win expectancy was 7.2
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Johnson named the Irish as his team most likely to dramatically improve its record in 2017. Johnson’s thinking is based, at least in part, on Notre Dame’s second-order win total having been 7.2 in 2016, compared to the four wins the Irish actually walked away with. That discrepancy was the largest in the country.

Second-order win totals reflect how many points a team should have scored and allowed based on offensive and defensive stats. In theory, this shines a light on how luck and chance factored into results. Naturally, losing seven games by one possession will often be reflected by a higher second-order win total.

“Notre Dame’s win-loss record belied a solid, if imperfect, squad that just couldn’t pull out close games…” Johnson writes. “The Irish may not get back into College Football Playoff contention in 2017, but they’re bound to post a few more Ws because of reversion to the mean.”

Admittedly, the small sample size of a football season reduces the applicability of metrics such as second- and third-order wins when compared to baseball and basketball.

Jones becomes Mack
A quick piece of housekeeping: Apparently junior tight end Alizé Jones has changed his name to Alizé Mack.

While Notre Dame’s roster may not reflect that change yet, it is reasonable to expect it will after its next update. The football program has consistently respected the intricacies of players’ name preferences. Tai-ler Jones becoming TJ Jones jumps to mind, for example.

Anyways, hopefully noting Mack’s name change here might reduce some confusion down the line. Probably not. How many readers possibly read to the actual bottom of an article? But hey, in good faith.

WR Lenzy makes 11th commitment, brings speed to Irish

lenzy
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At what point does an impressive recruiting roll become something more? When does it become a harbinger of things to come, even if not for a few seasons? How many notable commitments in a row establishes a class as special?

If the answer to any of the above is 11 commitments by the end of February, including five within two weeks, then Notre Dame is there following consensus four-star athlete Braden Lenzy’s announcement Thursday evening.

The Tigard High School (Portland, Ore) receiver/cornerback chose the Irish over offers from USC, Oregon and Michigan State, among a litany of others. In all, nine Pac-12 schools chased Lenzy—and a 10th, Washington, had shown interest—per rivals.com.

Lenzy will fit the leading 2018 need voiced by Irish coach Brian Kelly three weeks ago on National Signing Day 2017.

“Elite speed on offense will be a primary goal for us,” Kelly said Feb. 1. “Guys that can change the game on one possession. I think we’ll see that… We want a couple of home run hitters. We don’t care if they’re Darren Sproles’s size. We’re going to come off the board in terms of profile. We want some guys that can change the game on offense with elite speed.”

At 6-foot, 175 pounds, Lenzy is taller than Sproles’s 5-foot-6, but it is still his speed that drew Notre Dame’s interest.

“They made it clear they want me to do kickoff return and use me as a deep threat across the field,” he told Irish Illustrated. “Just being kind of an athlete, similar to what I’ve been doing already in high school, just on a bigger scale with a quarterback that can throw it a lot farther.”

Presuming Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush is that arm in 2018, throwing great distances should not be an issue. Between Lenzy and fellow 2018 commit Micah Jones, covering those distances should be a reasonable request, as well.

Lenzy brings Notre Dame’s class of 2018 to 11, including eight four-stars according to Rivals’ rating system. Current scholarship projections indicate the class will not be a large one, meaning the Irish coaching staff has already garnered the commitments of more than half the class. Once again, though, Kelly’s sentiment regarding recruiting timing should be remembered.

“We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

SWARBRICK’S TAKE ON RECRUITING
Kelly credited Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick with much assistance in securing the country’s No. 13 recruiting class in 2017. A refresher on those comments:

“In a lot of instances, [Swarbrick] had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it’s going,” Kelly said. “There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future.”

Swarbrick did not dispute the factual nature of any of that in an interview with the Indianapolis Star, but he did contest the need for praising what he saw as part of his job, one of the preferred parts of his job, at that.

“I can’t say anything about this year felt all that different,” Swarbrick told Star reporter Laken Litman. “Some asked questions about the future of the program and can we compete for a national championship. And I would talk about the elements of the program we were focused on improving.”

Swarbrick and Litman discussed a number of items in the second-half of the interview released by the Star, including Notre Dame’s facilities, a possible early signing period in football and if the Oct. 8, 2016, game against North Carolina State should have been played. Spoiler: No. Then why was it? Go check it out.

Swarbrick also told Litman he likes to write in his free time.

“I tend to think strategically with a pen in my hand.” Swarbrick added he is currently scribbling away on where he thinks college athletics are headed.

This scribe, for one, would be most interested in skimming those legal pads.

Will Wimbush, Elko and the early enrollees surprise in spring practice?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Exactly 59 days from today, the Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Sure, they will be playing against themselves, but nonetheless, it will be somewhat-competitive football played in gold helmets.

For timing context, exactly 59 days ago, you looked beneath the Christmas tree to learn if Santa Claus left you season tickets, socks or coal. I got socks. They had some of that extra cushioning, so I considered them a suitable treat.

Whether you care about my argyles or not (you don’t), for many the Blue-Gold Game and Christmas morning hold similar excitement. That fact is apparently why Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick does not concern himself when groups of alumni publicly lament his decisions, or lack thereof.

“I never worry about that,” Swarbirck told the Indianapolis Star in an exclusive interview you really should read. Go on, click the link, it will open in a new tab. You can come right back here when you are done.

“The hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion in your program. If that sort of stuff bothers you, you can’t be the athletic director, head coach or the quarterback at Notre Dame.”

That very passion will undoubtedly lead to frame-by-frame discussions of video snippets from spring practice, parsing of each and every word Irish coach Brian Kelly says in quick interviews after those practices, and extreme pessimism and optimism about the 2017 season.

In the Christmas spirit, what toys could bring the must excitement during the spring unwrapping? Personally, the gift I was unsure of always brought the most joy. I would rather open an unexpected book than know about a charcoal-gray suit. In other words, at least for today, let’s look past the offensive line, the running backs and the inside linebackers. Instead, let’s look forward to learning about… (more…)

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Karlos Williams #9 of the Florida State Seminoles scores the touchdown that would win the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their game at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.

With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.

The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.

Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.

Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.

If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.

Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order: (more…)