And in that corner… The Virginia Cavaliers

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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.

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…)