Pregame Six Pack: Keys to stopping Tech’s offensive juggernaut

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The objective is straightforward. Accomplishing it? That’s much more difficult. As Paul Johnson and his Georgia Tech team travel to South Bend, they bring with them an offense that’s provided sleepless nights to opposing coaches all around the country.

Johnson’s triple-option attack stresses defenses in ways others do not. Its ability to be both singular and multiple, simple and yet complex; it starts to feel like we’re discussing a Sherlock Holmes villain, not an offensive scheme concocted in a long-ago era of football and improved upon by Johnson over the last two decades.

So while Georgia Tech leaves half of the offensive menu largely untouched (so far, Yellow Jacket quarterback Justin Thomas has thrown the ball 13 times this season, the same as DeShone Kizer), the challenge is a singular one, and will likely determine the path Brian Kelly’s football team will travel this season.

As we crack open this pregame six pack, we’re going to focus on six key members*  of the Irish who will play a large part in determining if Notre Dame sings the alma mater undefeated, or if the home crowd heads to the parking lot with frowns on their faces.

 

JAYLON SMITH

Notre Dame’s defensive star needs to be one on Saturday. Last year against Navy, Smith only made six tackles. Against Georgia Tech, that number should double if the junior is on his game.

Also playing a factor is where Smith lines up. After being taken out of certain plays schematically, Notre Dame’s staff has made certain that whatever the Yellow Jackets plan on doing, they’ll need to accomplish it by going through Smith.

“We’ve made sure that regardless of the situation, Jaylon is going to be central to what happens on the field on Saturday,” Kelly said on Tuesday.

That should mean a move to the middle for Smith, likely in tandem with Joe Schmidt. And while that’ll mean tougher sledding in the trenches for a linebacker who is still learning how to shed blockers and excel in the interior, Smith’s other-worldly athleticism and skills need to be on display.

 

DESHONE KIZER

Making his first start, Kizer carries the weight of the Irish offense on his shoulders. But this week Kelly and the Irish offensive staff did their best to tell Kizer he was just one-eleventh of the equation.

“We want to make sure that he understands that he’s got a lot of good players around him,” Kelly said. “He needs to just be who he is and we’ll take advantage of what his skills are.”

That’s easier said than done. Kizer’s life has been turned inside out this week. After shuffling through his first year on campus as just another football player, the biggest news heading into spring football was that Kizer would see the field…as the holder.

But after the transfer of Everett Golson and the injury to Malik Zaire, Kizer is now the starting quarterback on a Top 10 football team.

“I’m trying my hardest to make it as normal as I can,” Kizer told Jac Collinsworth this week for our Stay Gold podcast. “Obviously there’s some things you just can’t get around… It can become overwhelming at times, but I think I’ve done a pretty good job trying to push myself into my academics and push myself into preparing for Georgia Tech, trying to ignore some of the extra stuff that comes with the position.”

If Kizer’s on-field performance is anything like his game-week remarks, the Irish offense won’t miss a beat. From the moment he took the podium after Notre Dame’s win over Virginia, everything that’s come out of Kizer’s mouth has been a really impressive display for a young kid seeing and doing things for the first time.

Now it’s time for him to parlay that into a heady afternoon on the football field, with Kelly’s continual reminder to simply stay within himself.

“He doesn’t need to come in here and put everybody on his shoulders and say I’m going to save the day for Notre Dame when Malik goes down,” Kelly said. “We have a system here in place. Just do exactly what we ask you to do and you’re going to be fine.”

 

THE OTHER SAFETIES (DRUE TRANQUILL & MATTHIAS FARLEY)

You thought we’d spend a few hundred more words on the play of Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate? (Believe me, I could…) No, the safeties that I’m most interested in are sophomore Drue Tranquill and graduate student Matthias Farley. Both will likely play critical roles in the defensive game plan, asked to make plays in space and tackle the pitch man on the edges of the defense.

Tranquill’s size and speed has quickly made him a useful cog in Notre Dame’s sub-packages, with Brian VanGorder utilizing Tranquill in dime packages and as a blitzer. On Saturday, expect to see Tranquill around the line of scrimmage, asked to come up and tackle from the edge, a 225-pounder who should be able to run with Georgia Tech’s backfield.

Farley’s role might come at the expense of Redfield’s, with the veteran a nearly forgotten part of the defensive scheme last season against Navy. But when he got his chances, Farley did some serious damage, notching two sacks of Keenan Reynolds (the only two of the game) and five tackles in limited minutes.

Notre Dame’s secondary needs to tackle better. They need to do their jobs better. And while Farley doesn’t have the athleticism that Redfield does, he has two working hands and a head on his shoulders that should help keep missed tackles—and mental mistakes—down.

That’s a critical piece of the puzzle for the secondary this week, with everybody tasked with a different objective. And the game plan demands excellence from this group if the Irish are going to pull out a win on Saturday.

“They’re all going to play a role in our success. And they’re all going to have to tackle well and they’re all going to have to be so locked in on their keys,” Kelly said, when asked about the back-end of his defense.

After a tough weekend at the office against Virginia, can this group rally to stop a Georgia Tech offense that was 76 spots better in scoring offense in 2014?

“The answer to that question will not be evident until Saturday around seven o’clock,” Kelly said with a smile.

 

SHELDON DAY

Notre Dame’s returning captain on the defensive line needs to wreak havoc and lead from the front. Against an offensive line that’s done a dominant job run blocking and controlling the point of attack, Day needs to fill the stat sheet, but also drag along with him Isaac Rochell, Daniel Cage, Jerry Tillery and defensive ends Romeo Okwara and Andrew Trumbetti.

There are so many factors that’ll determine whether this game is won or lost. But it’s hard to find a position group more important than the defensive line. After looking like a unit that wore down last week against Virginia’s offensive line, how Keith Gilmore’s position group handles the non-stop challenge of the Yellow Jacket’s ground game will be fascinating.

Day will shift inside and out, asked to do everything from tackle the dive, stop Justin Thomas and destroy blockers to free up the linebackers behind him. And just as important, he’ll have to stay healthy against an offensive line that utilizes a cut-blocking scheme to trigger some elements of its ground attack.

(Before you say it, let’s get this out of the way: It’s legal. Get over it.)

Day is four years into his college football career, one that started in Dublin against a Navy offense running a similar scheme. As he plays his two final games against the triple-option, taking all his acquired knowledge and leading his position group with a big afternoon is a key to victory.

 

NICK MARTIN

Color me unimpressed by the short-yardage performance of Harry Hiestand’s group last week. And while the Irish are averaging a robust 5.4 yards per carry and 233 yards a game running the football, none of it will matter if the offense can’t convert on 3rd-and-short.

Martin is the leader of the unit and triggers the point of attack. Earlier this week, he made it clear that he understands that the problems the Irish had up front and knows they need to be corrected by Saturday afternoon.

“As an offensive line we talk about where to find the obvious run and the obvious pass,” Martin said Wednesday, when asked about the struggles on third down and in short yardage situations. “And plain and simple we haven’t been good enough in that situation. Good thing is every week’s new, every week’s different. You can’t dwell in the past, you can only learn from it and move on from there.”

There will be opportunities to exploit Georgia Tech’s defensive line. The Yellow Jackets gave up a shade over five yards a carry last season, a dreadful 105th in the country in that category. And while defensive coordinator Ted Roof returns most of his defense, they are still susceptible up front, as long as the Irish offensive line puts together a complete game.

There is a lot on Martin’s shoulders this week. Communication with a first-time starting quarterback. Making sure the chains move and protections get picked up. But as a fifth-year player and a returning captain, that’s part of the gig.

Everybody inside Notre Dame Stadium knows it’ll be important for the Irish ground game to hold its own. It’s Martin’s job to make sure the offensive line imposes its will.

 

BRIAN KELLY

Enough about the subplot between Paul Johnson and Brian VanGorder. This game will come down to the head of the Irish football program getting the most out of his team and out-coaching Johnson.

That means finding solutions on defense. It’ll mean orchestrating a better offensive game plan than the one in Charlottesville. And it also requires a victory on special teams.

“We don’t have big margins for error in any one of those three areas. Guys need to be locked in,” Kelly said on Thursday. “The challenge this week was to be a smarter football team. A more efficient football team. And then (have) a great will to win. We need to bring that as well.”

Kelly has shown an ability to rally his team. And in many ways entering Notre Dame Stadium as an underdog will be helpful, though it’s hard to think anybody in the Irish locker room needs added incentive to play well.

Contrary to public opinion, Notre Dame doesn’t need to be perfect to beat Georgia Tech. But they need to be very good and very efficient.

As we look back on past victories, this game calls to mind the Irish’s impressive Shamrock Series win over Arizona State in 2013. The defense held their own against the Sun Devils’ high-powered attack. Tommy Rees engineered an efficient day in Dallas. And the special teams executed, with Kyle Brindza making three second-half field goals, including a 53-yarder.

A victory over Georgia Tech will go a long way toward providing a road map to the lofty places the Irish want to go. A defeat? Well it could very well do irreparable harm to mission objectives that still stand intact, even after five dispiriting injuries.

Kelly is viewed as an elite coach in college football circles. Days like Saturday are where he’ll earn that reputation. So if the Irish are going to win against the Yellow Jackets, the troops aren’t the only ones who’ll have to do a great job. The man leading the charge needs to push all the right buttons, too.

 

 

 

Tranquill continues work with safeties … for now

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Drue Tranquill will see time at the oft-spoken of rover position, just not yet. For now, Notre Dame needs the senior at safety to provide leadership and communication while the rest of his position group gets up to speed.

“We really have to figure out what the coordination is going to be at the safety position,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “How much does Drue play down at rover? How much does he play back [at safety]?”

Only sophomore Devin Studstill returns any starts to the safety position aside from Tranquill’s career total of 18. Studstill started nine games last season.

That void has kept Tranquill working mostly with the defensive backs in the spring’s first few practices, rather than joining the likes of junior Asmar Bilal in the rover grouping.

“We didn’t want to pull our most veteran player out of the back end of our defense with Drue,” Kelly said. “I think it was more about the hesitancy of losing a great communicator in the back end than about the teaching.”

The time will come, however, for Tranquill to move up. Juniors Nick Coleman and Ashton White have moved to safety from the corner position. With more reps, they will not need to rely on Tranquill’s guidance as much. The same goes for, at least in theory, sophomore Jalen Elliott.

“It’s not really a heavy load of teaching for those guys,” Kelly said. “They’re picking it up quite well. We really want to get a chance to see a lot of guys back there.”

Kelly seemed particularly bullish on Coleman’s prospects at the position, provided he embrace the needed physicality. At 6-foot, 187 pounds, Coleman’s build may have been more suited on the outside, but Notre Dame’s plethora of promising cornerbacks provided an impetus to test Coleman at safety.

“The big thing will be Nick’s continuous development in tackling,” Kelly said. “You have to tackle back there. His ball skills are really good. We’ve seen that he’s able to play the ball. He has athleticism.

“We just want to continue to build on his tackling skills. If we go through the spring and say, ‘Well, he’s tackling really well,’ we’ll feel pretty good about the move.”

At that point, Tranquill will likely join Bilal at the hybrid position, which is something of a trademark to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Tranquill will be able to do what he does best: Pursue the ball.

“We all know what his strengths are,” Kelly said. “He’s a solid tackler. I don’t think there’s any safety in college football that wants to get matched up one-on-one with a skilled slot receiver. This would minimize that, when you play him close to the ball as a rover.

“And I think he’s pretty quick off the edge. I think we put him in a really good position in maximizing his skill set.”

Until then, Bilal will continue to be the frontrunner at rover, especially with the first four Irish opponents of 2017 presenting run-heavy offenses.

KELLY ON NICK WATKINS
Kelly was also asked about senior cornerback Nick Watkins, his fit into Elko’s defense and his return from injury.

“He’s very coachable, wants to learn, he’s pretty long,” Kelly said. “What I think Mike [Elko] does really well—and this is what I liked about my interactions with him—is, we all have strengths and weaknesses. He has a great eye of saying let’s take Nick’s strengths and let’s put him in a position where we can really utilize his strengths and put him in a position where maybe we’re not a right and left corner team, maybe we’re a short field/wide field team. Let’s apply him in that fashion.

“Nick’s long. He’s a little bit of a physical player. Let’s go to those strengths. He’s shown some of those attributes early on.”

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Kraemer, Eichenberg compete for RT spot, moving Bars inside, and Bivin to…

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Forty percent of the offensive line is essentially set in stone: fifth-year senior Mike McGlinchey at left tackle and senior Quenton Nelson at right guard.

The center position seems to be senior Sam Mustipher’s to lose.

That leaves the two starting spots on the right side of the line for a number of players—both young and experienced—to fight over.

Sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg have emerged as the frontrunners for the right tackle spot, moving senior Alex Bars inside to right guard. Bars started all 12 games last season at right tackle.

“Those two [Kraemer and Eichenberg] are the guys we have mapped out at right tackle, and they’re going to battle,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “Today Kraemer was there. Last two practices Eichenberg got a lot of the work. Eichenberg will go back there on Friday. They’re going to keep battling and splitting the action out there.”

Part of the reasoning in giving the two sophomores extended looks this spring is Notre Dame knows what it has in Bars when at right tackle.

“We would prefer to get him in at the guard position, but we know he can play the [tackle] position,” Kelly said.

A starting five of McGlinchey, the three seniors and either sophomore may seem to leave fifth-year lineman Hunter Bivin out in the cold. Not often is a player asked to return for a fifth year only to spend it on the bench. That is even more rare when considering the current Irish scholarship crunch.

Kelly compared Bivin’s role to that of Mark Harrell’s last year. Harrell appeared in all 12 games, starting two, and provided much needed depth and flexibility along the offensive line. Rather than have five backup offensive linemen, position coach Harry Hiestand relied on Harrell to provide support at multiple spots.

“It’s reasonable to assume that Hunter Bivin’s going to be involved in this as well,” Kelly said. “We’ve just asked Hunter to take a seat right now. He’s done that for the team.

“We think Hunter is going to be a Mark Harrell for us. A guy that’s extremely valuable, can play a number of positions. We trust him, but we want to see these two young players [Kraemer and Eichenberg]. Hunter is a guy that can play right or left tackle for us. He’s going to be a valuable player for us as a swing guy.”

On that note, this space will refer to Bivin as a fifth-year lineman, as was done above, rather than as a guard or as a tackle, until further notice. In his case, the broader description may be the most accurate.

Spring break out west is fine, but Wimbush better be ready to run

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It will undoubtedly become a habit, at least for the next five-plus months. If Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush sneezes in front of a camera, it just might lead to an uptick in webmd.com traffic. His every football move will certainly be analyzed, nitpicked and discussed at length. Thus, Irish coach Brian Kelly being asked about Wimbush’s spring break should surprise no one.

Rather than find a Florida beach, Wimbush spent his spring break working with private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield in San Diego alongside a handful of other college passers. Kelly said there is value to such a spring break but stopped short of setting any lofty expectations of the effects.

“I have no problem with [Wimbush] working out with George Whitfield,” Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice, the first following spring break and the third of 14 leading into the Blue-Gold Game on April 22. “George doesn’t work on the specifics to the offense. George is really working on the quarterback and throwing the football, moving in the pocket. George is really good at keeping those quarterbacks active and moving.”

Whitfield is best-known around Notre Dame and among Irish fans for working with former Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson during Golson’s academic suspension in 2013. Whitfield and Golson spent 10 weeks together, thus granting time for extensive off-field activities such as film study. Far shorter, Wimbush’s time out west appears to have been spent primarily doing drills.

“In those situations, it’s a bullpen session,” Kelly said. “They’re keeping their arms loose, they’re keeping their feet loose. He’s just keeping them active.”

It is hard to construe that activity as a negative, but it obviously lacks certain aspects crucial to Wimbush’s 2017 season. With only five career pass attempts and seven career rushes, Wimbush’s inexperience looms large. Developing the necessary intangibles to account for that may be just as, if not more, important as fitting his throws into tight windows.

“When it comes to the playbook, to his teammates, to his coaches here, Brandon understands that when the rubber hits the road, those are the guys that matter the most,” Kelly said. “He knows when it’s time for Notre Dame football, where the focus is.”

Included in that playbook will be an expectation for Wimbush to carry the ball. To date, Wimbush’s biggest play and possibly only imprint on most Notre Dame fans’ memories is a 58-yard touchdown scamper against Massachusetts in 2015.

Link to 17-second YouTube video which has unfortunately disabled embedding

Note, the play is not exclusively-designed for Wimbush to run. Now a rising junior, then a fellow freshman, running back Josh Adams comes across Wimbush’s front for a possible handoff. Instead, Wimbush makes the correct read and keeps the ball. Why state so clearly it was the proper read? Adams has to evade a Texas defender even though he never had the ball.

Future option plays should present Wimbush with the possibility of throwing the ball, too.

“He’ll be a runner in the offense,” Kelly said. “Do we want him to carry the ball 20 times? No.”

“I don’t think you’ll have a situation where we’re calling quarterback power or singular runs. He’s going to have options: hand it off, throw the ball out on the perimeter. You’ll see more of that than you will prescribed quarterback runs. We had a little bit more of that last year with Kizer, but I think you’ll see that he has an option to get the ball out of his hands more so than just prescribed runs.”

Those option plays, in particular, will require Wimbush to have a thorough familiarity both with the Notre Dame playbook and with his teammates’ tendencies.

RITA LEE OR 52-53?
Staying consistent with his comments over the last two months, Kelly once again reiterated the biggest changes new offensive coordinator Chip Long will bring to the Irish playbook will be in its wording. Perhaps going to an extreme example to illustrate his thinking, Kelly pointed to the future.

“We’re going to win next year and Chip is going to be the greatest offensive coordinator in the country and he’s going to get a head job, right?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “Then I’m not going to introduce the Chip Long offense to the next offensive coordinator.”

“It has to have my culture in it … The culture of the offense is still the base offense that I have always run because I have to be able to carry that with me from year to year.”

Within that ellipsis, Kelly gave two examples of possible verbiage changes. Without knowing much more behind them, they do not mean too much out here in the cobwebs of the internet, but they do provide a quick glimpse at what Kelly has been referring to when discussing lexicon since hiring Long.

“If he wants to change Ringo Lucky protection to Ram and Lion protection, go right ahead. If he wants to change certain calls, for example, 52-53 protection is now Rita Lee.”

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Back from break, Irish commence hitting; DT Elijah Taylor out with LisFranc injury

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Notre Dame last wore pads in its 45-27 defeat at USC back on Nov. 26, a full 117 days ago. Suffice it to say, the Irish enjoyed the chance to don their shoulder pads and hit each other in Wednesday’s third spring practice, the first one since returning from spring break.

“What I liked about it more than anything else is there wasn’t a big drop off today,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “Usually you go two days and then you take a week off, and then you come back and put your pads on—it took us only a couple of periods to get back up to form. That was nice to see.”

Contrary to previous years in spring practice, and perhaps practice in general, Kelly emphasized tackling, especially tackling in the open-field, in Wednesday’s drills.

“[I] felt like we needed to make up for a little lost ground,” he said. “We got in tackling today for the first time. That’ll be an emphasis. We’ll tackle a lot this spring to make up for lost ground.”

The early and often physical nature of practice didn’t bother any of the players, per Kelly, but also per presumed common sense. While Notre Dame’s coaching staff changes and public questioning played out in broad view, the players spent 117 days in private waiting to unleash some of the frustrations of 2016’s disappointing season.

“Everybody to a man has been looking forward to this day,” Kelly said. “It was a pretty difficult offseason for them. They were looking forward to putting the pads on and getting out there. I think they exhibited that today.”

TAYLOR OUT FOR SPRING, AT LEAST
Junior defensive tackle Elijah Taylor was not in pads Wednesday. In the final practice before spring break, another player stepped on Taylor’s foot, Kelly said. The resulting LisFranc fracture will keep Taylor out of the remaining dozen spring practices and limit him until at least July. Taylor saw action in four games last season, finishing with three tackles, including one for a loss.

Notre Dame team surgeon Dr. Brian Ratigan already performed Taylor’s surgery.

“Typical LisFranc fractures, we’ve had good success with their repairs,” Kelly said. “…We’ll be able to train around the injury. Full range of motion moving around and doing things in June, probably full clearance sometime in July.”

Without Taylor, the interior of Notre Dame’s defensive line becomes even shallower, though that may have been hard to previously comprehend. Junior Jerry Tillery looks to be ready to start, and senior Jonathan Bonner has moved to the inside, rather than at end as he has been for most of his career. Behind them, the Irish present only question marks.

Kelly said he will look to junior Micah Dew-Treadway to step forward in Taylor’s absence.

“Micah Dew-Treadway has had a really good offseason for us,” Kelly said. “Changed his body, has been doing a really good job in all facets, in the class room and weight room. He’s somebody that had been ascending anyway prior to the injury.

Kelly indicated junior Brandon Tiassum also could be expected to see more work with Taylor sidelined.

Seniors Daniel Cage and Pete Mokwuah are in the mix, as well. Cage struggled with concussion issues last season after a promising 2015.

Notre Dame will need to wait until the freshmen arrive—perhaps also joined by Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano, reportedly still taking official visits as he ponders his 2017 destination—for further reinforcements. Consensus four-star recruit Darnell Ewell would be the most likely candidate of the three expected arrivals to move up the depth chart right away.

In layman’s terms, a Lisfranc fracture occurs when a mid-foot bone connecting to a toe separates from the cluster of bones toward the heel. Note: This is stated here only to provide some context, nothing more. This particular scribe avoided most biology classes.

CLAYPOOL A RECEIVER AND THAT HE WILL STAY
Asked if he considered moving sophomore receiver Chase Claypool to defense, Kelly answered succinctly.

“We feel like we need his play on offense,” Kelly said. “He’ll continue to contribute on the special teams end of things, but we need his play on offense.”

KELLY ON KIZER’S NFL POTENTIAL
“I’ve had a number of conversations with GMs and coaches about [former Notre Dame quarterback] DeShone [Kizer], and my personal feeling is he has the biggest upside of all the quarterbacks. I don’t know that he’s prepared to come in and win a Super Bowl for you [this year]. Some may feel as though maybe one of the other quarterbacks are. I don’t know that firsthand. But I think, in time, he has the biggest upside of all the quarterbacks.

“I get it. It’s the NFL. Everybody’s under the same pressure of performing and needing somebody to come in right away, but I think he’s a guy that just needs some time. If he gets in the right situation, I think he’d be the guy to take.”

Kizer and eight other former Irish players will take part in a pro day tomorrow (Thursday) in front of some of those GMs and coaches.