Five things we learned: Notre Dame 30, Georgia Tech 22

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame’s defense pulled off a magic trick. In broad daylight, with 80,000 fans watching intently, Brian VanGorder’s defense took the power out of Georgia Tech’s triple-option attack.

The Irish moved to 3-0 on the season, beating the Yellow Jackets 30-22, a game that only got close after Notre Dame’s players started planning how to best use their 24-hour celebration window. Kicking off the game as home underdogs a week after escaping Charlottesville with a last-second victory, Brian Kelly’s team made a very loud statement on Saturday afternoon, winning with a first-time starting quarterback, a significant (and growing) body count, and by conquering a offense that had torched just about everyone it had faced.

“It was a program win today,” Kelly said in his postgame comments. “You can sustain some injuries, some key injuries, and still play at a high level. I think that’s what is for me most revealing.”

Powering their way through one of the schedule’s toughest games, Notre Dame moves to 3-0, thanks to a complete team performance. Let’s find out what else we learned.

Hat’s off to Brian VanGorder and company. All that work studying the option paid off. 

There probably wasn’t a happier man in Notre Dame Stadium than Brian VanGorder. The second-year Irish defensive coordinator slayed the dragon on Saturday afternoon, with his defense dominating George Tech’s triple-option attack.

After putting up video game numbers against Alcorn State and Tulane, Paul Johnson’s offense came to South Bend and got shut down. Notre Dame’s front seven pummeled Georgia Tech’s front, aggressively attacked quarterback Justin Thomas, and dominated third down.

“I think our defensive plan was outstanding,” Kelly said. “I think our team executed it up until maybe the last couple of minutes where we probably lost a little bit of our focus. But all in all, just a tremendous performance by our football team.”

Joe Schmidt paced the Irish will ten tackles. A reconfigured starting lineup, with Drue Tranquill taking Max Redfield off the field, Jerry Tillery starting at nose guard, and Greer Martini starting over James Onwualu, pushed the Irish into a larger, more physical unit. It’s also a group that took the challenge of Justin Thomas and the Yellow Jacket’s offense head on.

“We wanted to be very aggressive. I think we were probably as aggressive as any defense that we had watched on film,” Kelly said. “Being very aggressive was an important element within the plan itself.”

That aggression likely contributed to a nightmarish start for Tech, with Paul Johnson forced to burn two early timeouts. It also made things tough on Thomas, who only gained 29 yards on 10 rushing attempts and completed just three of 12 passes. Outside of a four-play, 80-yard touchdown drive, the Irish went toe-to-toe with Georgia Tech and won a fist fight.

And that’s a victory that this coaching staff should cherish.

 

In his first start, DeShone Kizer did his job well enough to win. 

Quarterback DeShone Kizer was not the story on Saturday afternoon. And that’s a very, very good thing. Kizer did a very nice job piloting the Irish offense, completing 20 of 28 passes for 238 yards, including hitting Will Fuller for a 46-yard touchdown pass.

And while he threw the Irish’s first interception of the season, Kizer executed the game plan designed for him and didn’t allow Georgia Tech’s pressure schemes to derail the offense.

“I thought he did great. He did exactly what we expected him to do,” captain Nick Martin said after the game. “He’s a very poised and intelligent quarterback. He did his job.”

Kizer talked about that job, speaking candidly after the game about the game plan  the coaches installed, and how Kelly, associate head coach Mike Denbrock and offensive coordinator Mike Sanford made things easy on him.

“It was a very safe game plan. There wasn’t much that Georgia Tech could do that we didn’t have an answer for,” Kizer said after the game. “We had a really safe game plan and obviously that was great for me in my first start to be completely comfortable and ready for anything they could throw at me.

Kizer made a rookie mistake, locking on Corey Robinson in the red zone and throwing a bad interception. But he shook it off, owned the mistake and moved on to the next play.

“What I liked about him is he immediately takes ownership. He’s not a guy that’s looking to say, ‘Well, it’s his fault,’ or, ‘I didn’t know this,'” Kelly said. “I love the way he is able to move on and process it and get back to playing the game.”

 

C.J. Prosise is not just settling into a starting job, he’s producing at a historic pace. 

Earlier this week, Blue & Gold Illustrated’s Lou Somogyi mentioned that C.J. Prosise’s 253 yards were the most of any Irish running back in the season’s first two games in over 50 years.

And that was before he ran for 198 yards and three touchdowns.

Prosise broke the game open on Saturday, his 91-yard touchdown run the longest ever in Notre Dame Stadium. It was the type of knockout punch Irish fans hoped Prosise could deliver, especially after watching him lead the Irish in yards per catch last season and look promising in spring practice when he was still moonlighting at the position.

Prosise is learning on the job, a scary though considering how quickly he is piling up yards. And with 22 carries, he’s also earning Kelly’s trust, with the Irish head coach leaning on the senior to carry the offense down the stretch.

Notre Dame ran for 215 yards, very nearly topping Georgia Tech, who the Irish held to 216 yards on the ground. And behind a strong performance by the Irish offensive line, Prosise is on pace for a monster season.

 

Another week, another game-breaking performance by Will Fuller. 

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Will Fuller torched another secondary. Notre Dame’s junior receiver is a touchdown scoring machine.

Fuller scored for the fifth time this season in the first quarter, inexplicably getting behind the Yellow Jackets secondary and sprinting into the south end zone. He very nearly scored again, taking a quick screen and zig-zagging his way through the Georgia Tech defense for a big gain, his first big play in the screen game.

Even as he becomes one of the nation’s most prolific pass catchers, Fuller is still finding a way to beat opponents. And that’s after they’ve probably game-planned for the junior all week.

“He’s just an unbelievable player,” Martin said after the game. “He’s so fast and when you see the ball is thrown to him, you know the play is about to be made.”

Fuller had his first drop of the season, costing the Irish a third-down conversion. But his six catches for 131 yards makes that three-straight games going over 100 yards, with Fuller now having scored 20 touchdowns in his last 16 games.

That’s incredible.

 

Brian Kelly’s game plan tells you everything you need to know about this football team. 

First-time starter at quarterback. A defense that just gave up 27 points to Virginia. And an opponent that could’ve forced scoreboard operators to make room for a third-digit. You couldn’t have blamed Kelly if he managed the game hoping to avoid risk.

Instead, Notre Dame’s head coach went the opposite direction. An all-out defensive attack on the triple-option. Using his timeouts on defense to keep the clock alive. And never blinking when things didn’t go as planned.

This was a football game that could’ve been lost. Red zone interceptions likely had fans wondering if the sky was falling. Justin Yoon clanked one extra point off the upright and missed another. The clock-saving measures back-fired when freshman Alizé Jones coughed up the football giving Georgia Tech another shot to score.  And the devastating knee injury to Drue Tranquill, robbed the Irish a key element in their defensive game plan.

But the Irish didn’t panic. That’s not Kelly, nor is that this football team. Even as Notre Dame likely exits Saturday with their season-ending injury list growing to a half-dozen, the mental strength of this football team and the depth that Kelly has accumulated has turned this group into one that has the ingredients to be special.

There are no statues resurrected for a strong first quarter of the season. And the 2014 edition of the Irish were halfway to an undefeated regular season when the bottom fell out.

But the resolve of the head coach was matched by that of his players. And after the game, linebacker Joe Schmidt said it best when he talked about what it means to him to be playing with this group.

“I’m so proud. I love being a member of this defense. I love being a member of this football team. Before this football game, you look in the next guy’s eye and you know that he’s going to fight for you…It’s a powerful thing, and I’m proud of each guy on this team and I love just being a member of this team.”

 

 

 

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.