Pregame Six Pack: Hunting for the Hoos

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After a very impressive opening night victory over Texas, Notre Dame packs up and takes flight, heading to the Commonwealth of Virginia for the first time in school history to take on the Cavaliers. A week after Mike London’s team took a tough opening loss to UCLA, the home team will try to rally at Scott Stadium.

With the Irish another double-digit favorite, many expect Notre Dame’s momentum to roll right into an early-season showdown with Georgia Tech. But as we’ll soon get to, winning on the road has been a challenge of late, and it’s as good of a time as any for the Irish to put their road woes behind them and start the season 2-0.

With the first of Notre Dame’s six ACC opponents on tap for a Saturday afternoon start in Charlottesville, let’s get to the pregame six pack.

 

Road woes? Time to end those. 

Popular stat this week: Notre Dame hasn’t won a road game since beating Air Force in 2013. Unpacking that stat a bit, it’s both understandable and yet a little bit unnerving.

Last year, the Irish lost on the road to Florida State, Arizona State and USC. While they won three times outside of Notre Dame Stadium beating Navy, Syracuse and Purdue, games all played in neutral sites.

In 2013, Notre Dame finished the regular season with a loss to Stanford. Just a few weeks before that was the disappointing road debacle against Pitt. So while this is hardly the losing streaks we used to hear about when Michigan State or Boston College came onto the schedule, it’s a legitimate (although short-term) trend, and one that you can expect Brian Kelly will let his team know about.

A Notre Dame loss on Saturday would be a shock—even for Virginia fans. But sandwiched between an opening night date with Texas and a Top 15 matchup against Georgia Tech, this Saturday’s afternoon kickoff has all the makings of a trap game.

 

Welcome to Virginia, Irish. Everybody’s excited to have you. 

Saturday will be Notre Dame’s first visit to Charlottesville for football, and just the second time the two programs have played each other in football. The last came in the 1989 Kickoff Classic, when the No. 2 Irish, fresh off a national championship, handily beat a Virginia team that ended up with 10 wins.

While the Mike London era has brought a sense of apathy to the Wahoo fanbase, this game seems to standout from others. And this quote from Jerry Ratcliffe of the Charlottesville Daily Progress pretty much captured it:

“The game sold out in 25 minutes, surpassed in recent UVa history by only Taylor Swift’s concert and the Cavalier baseball team’s unexpected hosting of a NCAA Super Regional en route to its national championship.”

Finishing behind Taylor Swift and former Notre Dame baseball assistant coach Brian O’Connor’s national championship baseball team? The allure of the Irish is alive and well.

 

Game tape confirms what we saw last Saturday: The Cavaliers expect a stout defense. 

Yesterday, we talked about needing to see more from Notre Dame’s defense, with their dominant performance against Texas just a single datapoint. But when asked about Notre Dame’s front seven and the linebacking corps led by Jaylon Smith and Joe Schmidt, London knows his offense is in for a challenge.

“I believe that their front seven is very formidable.  Guys that are again athletic and fast and we just played a team that was really fast, really athletic,” London said, comparing the Irish defense to UCLA’s.

“You look at Notre Dame from guys up front and the linebacking corps, they’re capable of running and running out of mistakes. It’s going to be important for us to be on schedule, stay on schedule, try to do things that we can that are our strengths and control the football a little bit and make sure we use those players or those schemes that can help us be successful.”

Last week, former five-star running back Taquan “Smoke” Mizzell had a big game catching the ball out of the backfield, reeling in eight catches for 100 yards. While the power ground game that Virginia hoped to deploy stuttered, after watching Texas try unsuccessfully to catch the Irish with a speed attack, the Cavaliers will try to slow it down and grind things out.

We’ll see how successful that strategy turns out.

 

Where should we expect to see improvement from Malik Zaire? How about as a runner. 

After jumping into the national spotlight with a near-perfect game throwing the football, quarterback Malik Zaire’s game is already in midseason form. But as we look for areas for him to improve, Zaire the zone-read, option quarterback needs to do a better job with his decision making and reading the play.

Kelly was asked about Zaire’s day as a runner. And needless to say he wasn’t all that impressed with his nine carries for 16 yards.

“He should have been nine carries for 60, 70 yards, maybe more. There’s a lot of room for improvement in there,” Kelly said. “He’s very capable. He knows where he needs to get better in that. So the fundamentals of working in his reads, and it’s all very correctible and things that we’ll get straightened out this week.”

We saw a few misses by Zaire, most notably a fumbled meshpoint with C.J. Prosise and allowing Texas linebacker Malik Jefferson to nearly decapitate Josh Adams. Zaire also did a bit too much bouncing for my liking, trying to beat players to the outside instead of getting north and south against the defense.

I expect the ground game to be on display Saturday afternoon, especially with rain scheduled to hit Charlottesville right around kickoff. So while that could slow down the passing game, it should put the crosshairs on Zaire to be a good read-option triggerman, something he’s more than capable of doing.

 

There’s a lot of familiarity with Notre Dame on the Virginia sidelines. 

It may be the first visit to Charlottesville for Notre Dame’s football team, but the Cavaliers coaching staff has plenty of familiarity with the Irish football program.

We already mentioned former defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta. Spending the 2008 and 2009 seasons working for Charlie Weis, Tenuta left South Bend when Weis was relieved of his duties and spent some time at North Carolina State before returning to his alma mater as defensive coordinator.

Another former Weis assistant coaches for the Cavaliers with defensive line coach Jappy Oliver working for Mike London. Oliver filled that role for Weis’ first four seasons, but was replaced by veteran Randy Hart after the 2008 season. Oliver has a Grand Valley connection with Brian Kelly, coaching the defensive line back in 1988 when Kelly was just a graduate assistant. He also worked with Irish coaching analyst Jeff Quinn at Buffalo as his defensive line coach, one of many stops in a long coaching career.

Virginia offensive line coach Dave Borbely spent four seasons working with Bob Davie in South Bend. Before working at Notre Dame, Borbely coached the offensive line for former Irish coach Ty Willingham at Stanford.

 

Don’t look now, but the emphasis on the running game is happening in a hurry. 

Lost amidst the stunning accuracy Malik Zaire displayed last Saturday was the fact that Notre Dame ran the ball 52 times against Texas. The comes after finishing the 2014 season with 51 rushing attempts in the Music City Bowl.

That’s the first time Notre Dame has run the ball over 50 times in consecutive games since the 2005 season, when they ran it 50 times in a lopsided win over Purdue and then 52 times in the narrow loss to USC.

Tallying the two-game total of 103 carries, it’s been since 2001 since Notre Dame has run the ball more in two consecutive games, dating back to a two-game, late-season stretch against Boston College and Tennessee. The Irish lost both those football games.

Just about everybody expected the Irish to emphasize the run this season, especially as Zaire got his feet wet. Well, Zaire threw the ball better than everybody thought he would, and Notre Dame still ran the ball more than they have in a decade.

So far, so good.

 

 

Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

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This space has mentioned a few times the dearth of returning sacks among Notre Dame’s defensive line. It is a pertinent fact—no returning Irish defensive lineman recorded a sack in the 2016 season—but it fails to mention the flipside of that.

Most of Notre Dame’s defensive linemen had few, if any, opportunities to rush the passer in 2016. Perhaps at the top of the list of those who should bring down the opposing passer a few times this fall, sophomore Daelin Hayes has laid claim to a starting rush spot through five spring practices.

“The athleticism is what obviously stands out,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “He’s extremely athletic, he’s fit physically, 250 pounds and very strong.”

These facts are, after all, the reasons Hayes was a highly sought-after five-star recruit according to rivals.com.

“It’s the football knowledge, learning the techniques at the position in which he plays is really the piece,” Kelly continued. “It’s just learning right now for him. This is the time to do it, in spring ball.

“Squeezing down on a tight end when the back is away. Wrong-arming the puller. These are all football terms and schemes that are a bit new to him. We have to be patient with him. He’s an explosive athlete. There’s going to be some mistakes along the way, and I’m okay with that as long as he’s learning.”

Without much depth pushing for playing time behind him, Hayes will have the opportunity to make, and subsequently understand, those mistakes. Seniors Jay Hayes (no relation) and Andrew Trumbetti are mired in competition for the other end spot, while sophomores Julian Okwara, Adetokunbo Ogundeji and Khalid Kareem may have even more development ahead of them than Daelin Hayes does.

Incoming freshmen Kofi Wardlow and Jonathon MacCollister will join the fray in the summer, but for now, the younger Hayes has his chance to impress with his natural gifts while absorbing the intricacies of new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s defense.

Hayes is not a complete unknown. While Okwara made four tackles last season in 11 games and Kareem appeared in four games, Hayes saw action in every contest, finishing the season with 11 tackles, one pass breakup and one forced fumble.

“He’s an athlete,” defensive line coach Mike Elston said last week. “He’s on the edge in a two-point stance. He’s not a trained, put-your-hand-on-the-ground defensive end. He played running back in high school. He can see things better in a two-point and can diagnose quicker. He’s able to be more productive.”

It may be accurate to mention no returning Notre Dame defensive linemen tackled a quarterback for a loss last season, but it is more precise to also include the Irish have possibilities of changing that trend.

SPEAKING OF THE DEFENSIVE LINE
Notre Dame is nearly as thin at defensive tackle as it is at end. Junior Jerry Tillery leads the way with senior end-converted-to-tackle Jonathan Bonner lining up next to him thus far. Their reserves: Oft-concussed senior Daniel Cage, senior Pete Mokwuah and junior Micah Dew-Treadway with junior Elijah Taylor out for the spring with a foot injury.

Theoretically, junior Brandon Tiassum is also in the mix, and three freshmen (Kurt Hinish, Myron Tagovailo-Amosa and four-star Darnell Ewell) will join the group in the summer.

And maybe, just maybe, perhaps, possibly … Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano could walk onto campus alongside those freshmen. Pagano visited Notre Dame the first week of March, and was due to look at Oklahoma and Arkansas the next two weekends, respectively. Instead, Pagano reportedly cancelled both of those visits Monday.

Pagano does still have a visit to Oregon scheduled for April 21. Until indicated otherwise, it may be prudent to presume Pagano hopes to land as close to his Hawaiian home as possible.

RELATED READING: 1 Day Until Spring Practice: A look at the defensive line

Recruiting success continues with OL Dirksen, class’s 12th commit

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Even in the doldrums of spring practice, Notre Dame’s recent recruiting success continues. Rivals.com three-star/scout.com four-star offensive lineman John Dirksen offered a verbal commitment to the Irish on Saturday, bringing the 2018 class to 12 commitments.

The 6-foot-5, 290-pounds Dirksen (Marion High School; Maria Stein, Ohio) joins consensus three-star prospect Cole Mabry (Brentwood H.S.; Brentwood, Tenn.) as the offensive linemen thus far among the 12. In three of the last four years, Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has pulled in four recruits, with 2015’s two (Trevor Ruhland, Tristen Hoge) as the exception. This recruiting cycle could again bring a limited offensive line haul, given the likely limits on the class’s size.

While any and all current class of 2018 team rankings should be taken with many grains of salt—there are 318 days between today and National Signing Day, after all—Dirksen’s commitment solidifies the Irish hold on the No. 3 class, per rivals.com. Other recruiting services place Notre Dame even higher.

Dirksen chose Hiestand and the Irish over offers from Michigan State, Iowa State and Boston College, among others.

 

Holmes out for spring; Jones & Jones shining

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Notre Dame’s spring continued over the weekend, and is all too often the case with football, that led to an injury. Early enrollee running back C.J. Holmes will probably miss the rest of spring practice due to a separated shoulder, Irish coach Brian Kelly announced following Saturday’s practice.

“We’ll get an MRI and know a little bit further on Monday once that calms down a little bit,” Kelly said. “We’ll get a picture of that and see. He had an open repair on that same shoulder his sophomore year in high school.”

Behind three backs, including two with experience, Holmes was unlikely to see playing time in the backfield in 2017.

Of those three backs, sophomore Tony Jones, Jr., is the unknown after preserving a year of eligibility last season. In limited practice viewing, however, Jones has only impressed. He has caught Kelly’s eye, as well.

“He’s 225 pounds, can catch the ball coming out of the backfield, [is] assignment correct, and can run elusively and can get into the second level,” Kelly said. “What does that equal? He’s a pretty good back.

“Obviously he was noticeable today in his play and he got some work with the first group as well. He wasn’t just getting second-team reps.”

Jones may be getting some first-unit exposure, but expect him to remain behind junior Josh Adams in the depth chart. Considering Jones’ style is somewhat comparable to Adams’, whereas junior Dexter Williams presents something of a change of pace, Williams should see more action than the sophomore, as well.

MORE PRAISE FOR ALIZE JONES
Junior tight end Alizé Jones—rather, Alizé Mack, per his Twitter account—has taken the lead in spring’s race of who reaps the most sound bite accolades. In complimenting Jones, who missed last season due to an academic suspension, Kelly also managed to laud new offensive coordinator Chip Long.

“I think Chip is doing a terrific job with [Jones],” Kelly said. “He’s got a good relationship. He knows how to rise him up when he needs to and scold him when he needs to. Alizé needs a little bit of that.

“He’s virtually un-coverable in certain areas of the field. I don’t care at any level. You can’t cover him. He just has that kind of talent. The one that I think stands out to me in the few days is he’s committed himself to being a blocker and playing physical. If he continues to do that, we’re going to find ourselves with a lot of tight ends on the field.”

Presumably, Jones would join graduate student tight end Durham Smythe in two tight end sets. It should be remembered, Long has historically shown a preference for such formations, and with Notre Dame’s plethora of options at the position, Long’s tendencies have no need to change. For that matter, Long had some praise for Jones this weekend, as well.

“Alizé can be as good as he wants to be,” Long said Friday. “…He’s growing up each and every day. Great joy to coach, and that whole group is. He doesn’t want to let that group down. There’s no question he can be as good as he wants to be.”

Friday at 4: 40-yard dashes and absurdity

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Of all the absurd things the football world often obsesses over, the 40-yard dash may be the most useless of them. Yes, it even beats out assigning star rankings to 16- and 17-year-olds, though not by much.

For now, let’s look past the rest of the inane Draft intricacies, such as former Irish defensive lineman Jarron Jones feeling pressured to increase his vertical jump by four inches. (He did, jumping to 24.5 inches in Notre Dame’s Pro Day on Thursday.) This scribe does not have an excess of time to spend discussing Jones’s outlandish wingspan if this piece is to post by its intended, though unnecessary, 4 p.m. ET deadline.

The 40-yard dash … No football play begins from a sprinter’s stance, yet it may be the factor most crucial to a low 40 time. Former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer posted a time of 4.83 seconds in the NFL Combine earlier this month. For context’s sake, Kizer ran .07 seconds slower than Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did as a draft prospect in the 2004 combine.

Roethlisberger has had himself an excellent career, and his ability to shrug off 300-pound defensive linemen is a testament to his athleticism. Put Kizer and Roethlisberger in the open field together, though, and Kizer would presumably have outrun Roethlisberger at any point of the two-time Super Bowl champion’s career. In Indianapolis, however, Roethlisberger did a better job of getting his hips through his first couple strides of the heralded 40-yard dash.

Here, watch Kizer train for the 40, the most-hyped measurement of his combine.

“The ultimate goal is to have yourself in the best position to have your body weight back in those legs so you can create enough torque to get out as quickly as possible,” Kizer said. “A guy who is as long as I am, with long limbs that I have, I’ve got to make sure that my weight distribution is in the best position for me to get out and catch up to some of those quicker guys who are a little lower to the ground.”

What part of that sounds applicable to football? The 40 turns Kizer’s size (6-foot-4, 237 pounds) into a negative. He worries about the angle of his knees. After his throwing session at the Thursday Pro Day, Kizer summed up the draft evaluation process even more succinctly.

“This process is very different in the sense that the way you look productive in the combine and in a pro day is very different from what productivity actually looks like out on the field.”

Well put.

More pertinent to the actual game of football, Kizer’s completion percentage in the staged workout could have been higher.

Then again, he was throwing to the likes of former Irish receivers Corey Robinson and Amir Carlisle and former running back Jonas Gray. Reportedly, the only contact Gray and Kizer had before the session was Kizer emailing the former New England Patriot the planned series of routes.

The NFL Draft, where Gmail becomes a necessity.

Let’s do away with the 40. If we insist on keeping it, let’s do it twice, once from a standing start and once from a running start. Those would simulate actual football movements: A receiver getting off the line, and a ballcarrier breaking away and trying to outrun the defense.

Asking DeShone Kizer to mimic Usain Bolt is an exercise in futility, idiocy, absurdity.

Cue end of rant.

Why cite the Roethlisberger time? Many, including Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke, have readily compared Kizer to Roethlisberger this spring.

The most notable line of that scouting report (scroll down to No. 32) may be its final one, echoing Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s sentiments from earlier this week.

“The mystery is whether he can regain his assertiveness,” Burke writes. “If so, he could turn out to be the 2017 class’s best QB. The team that drafts him will be taking a leap of faith.”

A leap. Not a dash.

For more Notre Dame Pro Day results, click here.

And with that, this just may make the 4 p.m. posting. You know what to do.