Taquan Mizzell

And in that corner… The Virginia Cavaliers

30 Comments

Nothing sets the tone of a football season like the opening weekend. So while Notre Dame fans feel an added confidence after watching the Irish dispatch Texas in such a one-sided manner, Virginia fans are feeling… well—pretty much the opposite.

The Cavaliers’ opening game was a one-sided affair, helping UCLA freshman quarterback Josh Rosen announce his presence with authority in the Bruins lopsided 36-14 victory, a three-touchdown win that maybe wasn’t even that close.

So with the seat of Virginia head coach Mike London already a bit sweaty even before the season began, an 0-1 start to the year has many of the Hoos’ faithful on edge.

Getting us ready for Saturday afternoon’s game is Streaking the Lawn‘s Paul Wiley. After a nice offseason check-up, Paul gives us some candid real-talk on the state of the Cavaliers, and it’s safe to say that not all is well in Charlottesville.

Hope you enjoy.

 

UCLA beat Virginia rather handily in the season opener, not exactly the start to the season that Mike London and his team wanted. Let’s start by being optimists. Did you see anything on Saturday that you thought was better than expected?

Running back Taquan “Smoke” Mizzell lived up to the offseason reports that he’s improved. A highly touted recruit out of high school, he hasn’t been the world-beater that we expected when he first came to Charlottesville. But the Mizzell I saw on Saturday is a runner that is more decisive into his running lanes and sure-handed out of the backfield. He showed great combinations of elusiveness and toughness in the open field against a very talented Bruins defense. Hopefully a harbinger of much more positive things to come this season.

 

Now the flip-side of that coin. After eight months of offseason work, what was the most disappointing part of the loss?

Same stuff, different day. What’s bothered us Wahoos the most over the past few years has been playcalling that ranges from unimaginative all the way to lackluster, and boneheaded penalties that put our offense behind the sticks or extend the other team’s drives. And on Saturday, there we went again. Coach London and offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild had spent the offseason trumpeting a return to power running; the Hoos averaged 2.9 yards per carry.

The number of drives that went run-run-screen became so predictable that Pop Warner coaches could’ve seen it coming. Virginia committed seven penalties for 45 yards; at just over six yards a flag, that means they were almost exclusively the mental-error variety, and not the playing-too-hard variety. For any fool like me who had spent game week talking himself into thinking things would be different this year, Saturday afternoon was a hard snap back to reality.

How did Matt Johns play? Notre Dame’s front seven dominated Texas up front, especially when the score got lopsided and the Longhorns had to get one-dimensional. The UVA running game struggled against the Bruins. How was Johns when it came to pressure packages and making good decisions when the game was put on his shoulders?

I gotta give credit where it’s due: Johns was better than I expected. I had been firmly in Camp Lambert during the offseason, as I thought Greyson had more talent and could stretch the field a bit more. Once Lambert left, I’ve been wary in coming around to seeing the positive in Johns’s play. But it was there on Saturday. 21-of-35 for 238 yards, with touchdowns even to interceptions, is a competent game-manager’s stat line. The pick was Johns trying to do too much, which was a recurring theme from last season. So too was a backwards pass that was fortunately reversed on replay (somehow).

Johns has a playmaker’s mentality and that’s what this offense needs when the odds are pretty good the play is going to break down. But he needs to become ok with living to play another down instead of trying to force what isn’t there.

 

Defensively, the UVa defense got shredded by true freshman Josh Rosen in a very impressive debut. After seeing the performance Notre Dame’s offense put together against Texas, how do you think Jon Tenuta will adjust as he gets ready to play against his former employer?

[Shrug emoji]. Seriously. The defense was supposed to be the unit that carried this team and it got straight torched. What was most troubling was seeing how badly the secondary got torn apart. Some of the credit there is definitely due to Rosen; the TD pass to Duarte over Quin Blanding was a perfectly thrown ball that beat some damn good coverage. The loss of the top two pass-rushers from last year was definitely apparent, as the defense only recorded one sack and no QB hurries. If Malik Zaire faces the same pass rush that Rosen did, they won’t even have to retouch the gold paint on his helmet next week.

 

If there was a positive, it looked like Smoke Mizzell had a nice game, especially in the passing attack. Is this a direction where you expect UVa to go? Or will they try to get back to the power running game, especially considering the Hoos dominated the time of possession against UCLA.

It’s really hard to tell. A lot of the time it seems like logic and Virginia football don’t operate in the same circles. I’d love to see Smoke get more touches in more creative ways. But I said the same thing about Darius Jennings last year, and Khalek Shepherd the year before that, and E.J. Scott the year before that, et cetera et cetera. I have zero faith that Fairchild or London will stop slamming our collective forehead into the brick wall when it comes to the power running they seem to fetishize, which means poor Smoke will spend the rest of his U.Va. days speeding into non-existent running lanes.

 

One game doesn’t define a season. But how badly did this take the wind from the sails of the Cavaliers’ fan base? What do you expect the environment to be like on Saturday afternoon?

Whatever pleasant sea breeze there was in our sails pretty quickly turned into little more than a stale fart. By the Hoos’ fourth drive against the Bruins, headed deep into UCLA territory thanks to two drive-extending Bruins penalties, Fairchild got away from the passing attack that had marched the ball down the field and ran Albert Reid out of the wildcat. From the 19 yard line, U.Va. managed 8 yards on three carries and settled for a field goal. That’s about as much Fairchild-in-a-nutshell as one can get. As soon as it happened, my dad and I agreed the game was over; we’d simply seen this series of events too many times to hope for anything better.

Scott Stadium may be two-thirds full on Saturday, but I 100% expect Notre Dame fans to make up close to a majority of the attendees. There are just too many better things to do in central Virginia on a fall afternoon than watch this coaching staff embarrass the players whose talents and effort we admire.

 

On a scale of one (not happening) to ten (get ready to storm the field), what are you hopes/expectations for an upset and Virginia ending Saturday with a record of 1-1? What needs to happen for the Hoos to pull it off?

Does your scale allow for negatives? Seeing what the Irish did to Texas leaves me absolutely zero hope of a U.Va. win on Saturday. Notre Dame at -10.5 in Vegas is pretty much free money. If D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Branden Albert, Eugene Monroe, and Heath Miller all decide playing college football is better than the NFL, and all of them got the most bizarre NCAA waivers ever, and all of them suited up on Saturday, I bet Virginia could cover. Barring that, it should be a happy flight home for the Irish.

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)
Getty Images
26 Comments

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
rivals.com
30 Comments

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)
Getty Images
39 Comments

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)
Getty Images
41 Comments

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…)