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.

 

 

Notre Dame’s 2018 defense bolstered with Coney & Tillery returns

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Notre Dame’s defense found some stability last week with the promotion of linebackers coach Clark Lea to defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Mike Elston to associate head coach following Mike Elko’s abrupt departure, but only some stability.

That foundation is much more solid now after the Irish announced the returns of both junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery on Monday.

Both Coney and Tillery enjoyed noticeable developmental progress in one year under Elko.  Coney totaled a whopping 116 tackles to lead Notre Dame, far and away his best season. Among those takedowns, he managed 13 for loss, including three sacks. Tillery, meanwhile, led the Irish with 4.5 sacks this season, adding another 4.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble.

Notre Dame’s defensive tackle situation may have bordered on dire if not for the return of junior Jerry Tillery. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

With Lea and Elston sticking around, Coney and Tillery are well-positioned for even further growth. If nothing else, they will step into starring roles in a rather complete front seven.

Notre Dame loses senior linebackers Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini, as well as senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner and senior defensive end Andrew Trumbetti. If Coney and Tillery had joined that group, the front seven would have been rife with unproven commodities and little depth. Instead, Coney will fill in at linebacker, meaning only one youngster will need to step forward, and Tillery will headline a defensive line surging under Elston.

After amassing 17 tackles in the Citrus Bowl victory over LSU, Coney insisted he had not yet put much consideration into his future.

“I’m just right now still focused on the win,” he said. “We just got this 10th win. I’m just trying to soak up the moment. This is a great moment. … Focusing on that and the win and enjoying it with my brothers.”

Those words combined with Elko’s sudden departure for Texas A&M made Coney’s return seem unlikely. His breakout season at least placed him into NFL draft conversations and capitalizing on that chance would have made a good amount of logical sense.

With Lea in his ear for another season, Coney will have a chance to become more than a physical player excelling in run defense and develop his coverage skills. Coney and senior Drue Tranquill will lead an otherwise lacking linebacker corps.

Sophomores Jonathan and Jamir Jones (no relation) made 10 and four tackles, respectively, this year. Jonathan saw more playing time on defense, occasionally spelling senior Nyles Morgan, but has not yet looked the part of an every-down contributor. Irish coach Brian Kelly has previously admitted to considering a move to defensive line for Jamir, but that unit’s progression made that position shift less of a necessity.

If any of the incoming four linebackers or the two current freshmen, David Adams or Drew White, were to emerge, however, such a move may become an available luxury. Only Tillery’s return makes it a genuine luxury, though.

Tillery’s 56 tackles this year showed a level of consistency not seen in his first two seasons. His length alone makes Tillery an intriguing draft prospect. Logically speaking, a second season of such production, if not even increased output, should further his professional hopes. By returning along with Elston, the player/coach combination will provide experience to a position group otherwise devoid of it. With Bonner having said he will not return, Tillery and current freshmen Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish are the only returning defensive tackles of contributory note.

Freshman Darnell Ewell will also certainly enter the rotation after spending 2017 preserving a year of eligibility. Juniors Micah Dew-Treadway and Brandon Tiassum will be in the mix, as well. Incoming freshmen consensus four-star defensive tackle Jayson Ademiloloa (St. Peter’s Prep; Jersey City, N.J.) and consensus three-star defensive tackle Ja’Mion Franklin (North Caroline High School; Ridgely, Md.) will complete the fray.

Reports on Monday indicate junior Elijah Taylor will leave Notre Dame after missing 2017 with a LisFranc fracture suffered in spring practice. He appeared in four games in 2016, making four tackles including one for loss. More than anything else, his departure is a step toward reaching the NCAA maximum of 85 rostered players. With Coney and Tillery returning but Taylor departing, the Irish roster currently stands at 86 players, though a few more recruits may be added. (This does not count sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson, indefinitely suspended and presumed not likely to play for Notre Dame in 2018.)

Monday’s Leftovers: Coney & Tillery once enrolled early at Notre Dame, now to the NFL or not?

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Today marks two occasions. It is the day before Notre Dame begins its spring semester. In other words, it is the day before this year’s seven early enrollees begin classes. It is also the deadline for early entrants to file for the NFL draft.

There are two common threads to the separate events. Junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery both enrolled early in 2015, and they have both delayed their stay-or-go decisions to today.

With the early signing period’s implementation, the former date holds less import. These players have already signed with the Irish. Gone are the days of putting down a drink and racing to a computer after finding a source to confirm a consensus five-star quarterback’s early arrival. With an early signing period, Gunner Kiel likely would have been bound to at least begin his career at LSU in the spring of 2012, rather than show up on Notre Dame’s campus at the 11th hour.

The tangible value of arriving early can still hold legitimacy, but that theoretical does not become much of a reality until spring practice commences, anyway.

Junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery (99) will need to decide today if he will head to the NFL Draft or return for his senior year. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

So an early enrollee summary can wait until tomorrow’s first day of classes. In the meantime, breathes remain baited waiting for the decisions from Coney and Tillery. Will they return for a year under first-time defensive coordinator Clark Lea, or follow the lead of running back Josh Adams and receiver Equanimeous St. Brown and head for the NFL?

As has been discussed and seems rather obvious, both Coney and Tillery would greatly boost the 2018 Irish defense. They would also both likely hear their names called in the NFL draft, so there is merit to whatever option each chooses.

— As it pertains to the early enrollees, the measureable benefit of the semester’s head start can be debated. In looking at the last three classes, it has appeared to have great effect with a few of the freshmen, but not for most.

2015: Tillery, Coney, defensive lineman Micah Dew-Treadway, offensive lineman Tristen Hoge.
2016: Safety Devin Studstill, receiver Kevin Stepherson, defensive end Daelin Hayes, defensive end Khalid Kareem, safety Spencer Perry.
2017: Offensive lineman Robert Hainsey, tight end Brock Wright, running back C.J. Holmes, safety Isaiah Robertson, offensive lineman Aaron Banks.

Of those 14, Tillery, Studstill, Stepherson and Hainsey offered genuine contributions in their debut seasons.

Tillery started three games in 2015, appearing in all 12, making 12 tackles with one sack. More than the counting statistics, the depth Tillery provided at defensive tackle was an absolute necessity.

As injuries and suspensions purged the Irish secondary just before the 2016 season’s start, Studstill was forced into a starting role. He finished the year with 38 tackles, an interception and a forced fumble. He was not yet ready to be a collegiate starting safety, but he was needed to be, and the time spent going through the paces in the spring provided Studstill enough of a base to be somewhat serviceable from the outset.

Stepherson broke out as a deep threat right away — a likelihood with or without an early enrollment simply due to his speed. In his only complete season with the Irish, Stepherson caught 25 passes for 462 yards and five touchdowns.

Hainsey’s impact was far and away the most distinct. He went from the second most-heralded early-enrolled offensive lineman to a starter at right tackle. That surge puts Hainsey in pole position to start at left tackle in 2018. He may have ended up there, anyway, but the freshman first played a pivotal role on the best offensive line in the country.

— It would not be a site dedicated to football if it did not include some mention of the Minnesota Vikings’ victory Sunday evening. Some adjective should precede victory in the previous sentence, but no quick combination encapsulates just how absurd, dramatic and, per the quickly-adhered catchphrase, miraculous the conclusion was.

Stefon Diggs’ game-winning touchdown may not have been as excellent as Irish receiver Miles Boykin’s was in the Citrus Bowl if compared in a vacuum, but Diggs’ score came with no time remaining on the clock, while Boykin’s was merely an excellent play that if failed, other chances would have followed.

Of course, being the Vikings, the Notre Dame connection is thorough.

— A thought experiment sparked by that Minneapolis tangent … The Minnesota Timberwolves played their first game in franchise history Nov. 3, 1989, meaning it has endured a title drought the exact same length as the Irish have.

Which wins its respective championship first?

9-win, 30-TD quarterbacks like Wimbush are rare; Links to read

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It is not easy to win nine or 10 games in one season. It is not easy for Notre Dame, for any team, and it is not easy for a quarterback.

If granting the premise the Irish would have won at North Carolina if junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush had not sprained his foot the weekend beforehand, then Wimbush indeed notched nine wins this season. That does not credit him with the Citrus Bowl victory over LSU, though it is certainly possible he would have found a way to win that game, too.

In doing so, Wimbush accounted for 30 touchdowns, 16 through the air and 14 through the ground.

Those two facts alone will guarantee Wimbush a chance to start at quarterback for Notre Dame on Sept. 1, as they should. After all, how many nine-win quarterbacks were there in 2017? How many players scored 30 combined touchdowns? Not many.

Obviously there will always be a Baker Mayfield or a Lamar Jackson, but consistent and frequent production is not as easy as the two Heisman winners make it seem. If narrowing the focus to Power Five teams, only 21 quarterbacks won nine games this season. That should probably bump to 22 out of deference to McKenzie Milton leading Central Florida to an undefeated season.

It bears noting the Irish faced six of those quarterbacks: Georgia’s Jake Fromm (13 wins) USC’s Sam Darnold (11), Michigan State’s Brian Lewerke (10), Miami’s Malik Rosier (10), North Carolina State and Ryan Finley (9), and LSU with Danny Etling (9).

Again keeping the field to the Power Five conferences with an exemption for the 13-0 Knights, only 14 players managed 30 total touchdowns, including Wake Forest quarterback John Wolford (29 passing, 10 rushing).

Between the two lists, just nine quarterbacks can claim both:
McKenzie Milton, Central Florida: 13 wins; 37 passing touchdowns, eight rushing.
Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma: 12 wins; 43 passing, five rushing.
J.T. Barrett, Ohio State: 12 wins; 35 passing, 12 rushing.
Trace McSorley, Penn State: 11 wins; 28 passing, 11 rushing.
Sam Darnold, USC: 11 wins; 26 passing, five rushing.
Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State: 10 wins; 37 passing, 10 rushing.
Malik Rosier, Miami (FL): 10 wins; 26 passing, five rushing.
Brandon Wimbush, Notre Dame: 9 wins; 16 passing, 14 rushing.
Luke Falk, Washington State: 9 wins; 30 passing.

This is not to say Wimbush should have an easy path to the starting gig for 2018. Before a long offseason of quarterback headlines and interminable debates, this is to say Wimbush has produced enough he will and should get his chance, despite any late-season struggles and obviously-needed improvements. Underselling Wimbush’s 2017 serves no point but to offer an exceptionally-flawed argument.

A FUN BIT OF TRIVIA:
No NFL team has both hosted the Super Bowl and played a divisional playoff game at home in the same year. The Minnesota Vikings will do just that Sunday (4:40 p.m. ET; v. New Orleans; FOX), as the Super Bowl will be at U.S. Bank Stadium in a few weeks. Some might deem the Vikings as “Notre Dame North” thanks to their reliance on former Irish safety Harrison Smith, tight end Kyle Rudolph and — less of a reliance, to be accurate — receiver Michael Floyd.

That is not the piece of trivia, though.

Stanford Stadium hosted the 1985 Super Bowl, with the San Francisco 49ers beating the Miami Dolphins.

Anyone who has been to a Notre Dame game at Stanford can use that fact to realize in a tangible manner just how much the NFL has grown in the last three decades. The idea of the world’s largest entertainment event being held at The Farm is genuinely beyond fathoming for those of a certain generation, this scribe included.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Monday’s Leftovers: On Notre Dame’s dual needs at defensive coordinator and those effects
Notre Dame promoting Lea & Elston bodes well for at least the short term
Harry Hiestand leaves Notre Dame on good terms and in good shape
A quick breakdown of Notre Dame’s offensive roster

OUTSIDE READING:
Jack Lamb on Clark Lea: “best possible choice” for Notre Dame
Clark Lea’s promotion was a win for continuity, and one Notre Dame sorely needed
Optimism for Notre Dame football in 2018 starts with the Irish defense
Irish ‘feel really good’ about O-line in ‘18
In Harry Hiestand, Matt Nagy hits a home run on his first swing at Bears’ coaching staff
Notre Dame’s Moore Award personal for Taylor
What happens if the Vikings reach Super Bowl LII? Expect plenty of logistical challenges

Editor’s Note: Yes, the above quarterback bit was originally intended to run a bit longer in the weekly “Friday at 4” slot, but the timing did not fit last week with the defensive coordinator shift and the time was not at hand this week to get the piece put together as “Friday at 4” dictates.

Then again, stalling for a day creates another day of halfway-worthwhile content in a time of year that is devoid of much substance, aside from coaching changes, transfers, NFL declarations, et al.

And in the spirit of “Friday at 4,” how great would it be to have Dr. Stephen Strange as a weekend partner in figurative crime?

A quick breakdown of Notre Dame’s offensive roster

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While Notre Dame awaits stay-or-go decisions from junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, its offensive side of the roster is set … for now. As was briefly discussed in the most-recent “Monday’s Leftovers,” the Irish roster is currently at 87 players. That could rise as high as 90 if the incoming recruiting class rounds up to 25 signees and both Coney and Tillery return for the 2018 season.

A quick, even terse, look at the offense can provide reference for conversations and debates at both the virtual and real-world bar as the roster sheds a handful of players.

A couple quick notes: The order of this listing is not intended to stake a stance on positional competitions (cough quarterback cough). This is simply presenting the options available moving forward.

The designations following each of the 10 receivers are inherently speculative. With junior Equanimeous St. Brown declaring for the NFL and sophomore Kevin Stepherson not expected to be around next season, Notre Dame will need to tinker and experiment with receiver alignments throughout the offseason.

To a degree, the same goes for the offensive linemen, particularly among the backups. Rarely is there a genuine second-unit. Rather, one or two utility options will serve as backups for the whole line.

Quarterback (4):
Jr. Brandon Wimbush
So. Ian Book
Fr. Avery Davis
Incoming fr. Phil Jurkovec

Running back (5):
Jr. Dexter Williams
So. Tony Jones
So. Deon McIntosh
Fr. C.J. Holmes
Inc. fr. Jahmir Smith

Receiver (10):
Jr. Miles Boykin (field)
So. Chase Claypool (boundary)
Fr. Michael Young (slot)
Sr. Freddy Canteen (slot)
So. Jafar Armstrong (field)
So. Javon McKinley (boundary)
Jr. Chris Finke (slot)
Inc. fr. Braden Lenzy (slot)
Inc. fr. Kevin Austin (boundary)
Inc. fr. Micah Jones (field)

Tight end (6):
Jr. Alizé Mack
Sr. Nic Weishar
Fr. Cole Kmet
Fr. Brock Wright
Inc. fr. George Takacs
Inc. fr. Tommy Tremble

Offensive line (12):
Fr. Robert Hainsey (LT)
Fr. Josh Lugg (LG)
Sr. Sam Mustipher (C)
Sr. Alex Bars (RG)
So. Tommy Kraemer (RT)
So. Liam Eichenberg (T)
Fr. Aaron Banks (G)
Jr. Trevor Ruhland (G, C)
Fr. Dillan Gibbons (G)
Inc. fr. Cole Mabry (G)
Inc. fr. John Dirksen (G)
Inc. fr. Luke Jones (T, committed, not signed)

Specialists (4):
Jr. Justin Yoon (PK)
Sr. Tyler Newsome (P)
So. John Shannon (LS)
Fr. Jonathan Doerer (KO)