Pregame Six Pack: Moving on to UMass

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After starting the season with three “Power Five” conference opponents, the Irish get in on some rare MACtion this weekend, welcoming Massachusetts to South Bend for their very first meeting on the gridiron. In a game that was initially scheduled to reunite (it’s hard to call this match-up a reward) ex-Irish offensive coordinator Charley Molnar with his former employer, Molnar only lasted two seasons at UMass he took the Minutemen to the FBS level, notching just two victories total before he was replaced by Mark Whipple.

In his second tour of duty in Amherst, Whipple has made incremental progress. But sitting at a disappointing 0-2, he heads to Notre Dame trying to earn his first victory of the season as a nearly 30-point underdog.

With the Yellow Jackets in the rearview mirror and a date in Death Valley just around the corner, human nature could turn this weekend into a perfect trap. But even if the Irish step in one or two of those on Saturday, Brian Kelly and the Irish staff should be able to win comfortably and give their depth chart some work.

With a beautiful weekend forecast in South Bend, let’s get to the pregame six pack. Pregame show starts at 3:00 p.m on NBCSN. Game coverage starts at 3:30 on NBC. You can also stream it all here.

As summer turns to fall, we’ll take a closer look at some of the ingredients that’ll make for a satisfying victory this weekend.

 

Brian Kelly needs to get Brandon Wimbush on the field. And expect him to get it done early. 

When Brandon Wimbush ascended to the No. 2 quarterback job after Malik Zaire got hurt, Kelly said he was taking the redshirt off of his prized freshman. And while Georgia Tech managed to make things interesting and kept Wimbush from earning his first garbage time snaps last weekend, expect to see the blue-chip freshman this weekend. And early in the game.

“You usually try to get him in as quickly as possible. Try to get him in before the game gets in to a rhythm for the starting quarterback,” Kelly said on Thursday, before reminding everybody this isn’t a two-quarterback system.

“There’s no intention of trying to play two quarterbacks. This is just trying to get Brandon in the game and get him a little bit of playing time. Try to do it sooner rather than later. We’ll just try to pick our spot when to do that.”

On our Stay Gold podcast, Jac Collinsworth and I debated when you give Wimbush a look. I said get it done early. Jac thought give Wimbush the entire fourth quarter.

Kelly can’t say that he expects the fourth quarter to be garbage time, though he probably thinks that’s how this game should go if the Irish handle their business. But after activating Wimbush last week and likely serving him the offense through a fire hose, one thing seems certain—Kelly feels more comfortable having to play his freshman this week than last week.

“If he has to go in, I feel a whole lot better that if he has to go in we can win the game with him,” Kelly said.

 

In year two of his captaincy, Sheldon Day has elevated the play of the defensive linemen around him—and his leadership abilities. 

Sheldon Day may have had a ‘C’ on his jersey last season. But it’s taken until his senior year to grow into the job. For anybody who watched Tuesday night’s Showtime episode of “A Season with Notre Dame,” Day’s growing relationship with freshman Jerry Tillery is an early contender for “sitcom we want Fighting Irish Media to develop.”

Day has been able to show Tillery and sophomore Daniel Cage the ropes, while also demanding impressive play out of that duo. And if you ask Kelly what impresses him the most about Day as a senior, that’s it.

“I couldn’t be more proud of (Day) in the way that he’s matured and taken hold of his captainship in a manner that I didn’t know that he could,” Kelly said. “He’s able to bring all those personalities together, and he’s now not afraid to hold others accountable which is a huge step in being a great leader. His play has been really good, but what I’ve been most pleased with is the way that he’s practiced. He’s set a standard for practice and I couldn’t be more proud of him.”

Both Day and Isaac Rochell have had a pretty lofty work volume through three games. While the Irish’s dominant performance against Texas kept their snap count down, Day played 126 snaps against Virginia and Georgia Tech while Rochell racked up 133. Those numbers feel unsustainable.

So on Saturday, look to see the Irish finally get to flex some of their depth along the defensive line, with Jonathan Bonner, Pete Mokwuah and Jacob Matuska getting some opportunities on the inside while Andrew Trumbetti will return to the field after spending the Georgia Tech game on the sideline.

With UMass passing early and often, it’s a good opportunity for the Irish defensive front to make some noise and gain some experience. And if Day has any say in things, his young teammates will produce.

 

After letting loose his frustration on Twitter late Wednesday night, one young defensive lineman who’s not going to play is Jay Hayes. (And that may have always been part of the plan.)

Social Media. It giveth, and it taketh away. And it appears to have taken away Jay Hayes’ opportunity to travel to the team hotel and dress with the team on Saturday. The sophomore defensive tackle may be one of the more lively Twitter follows on the team, with his free-wheeling personality coming out 140 characters at a time. But on Wednesday night, Hayes’ frustrations over playing time seemed to bubble over, and he fired off a few tweets that all but said as much.

Hayes deleted the tweets, but that didn’t make them disappear. And on Thursday Kelly acknowledged the situation, calling it a life lesson and one that Hayes will learn from.

“There has to be responsibility as it relates to social media. And you have to think before you hit send,” Kelly said. “What you have to do is come knock on my door instead of hitting the send button. These are good lessons to be learned. If he has a job at Google and he talks about his boss that way, he’s probably not going to have a job the next day.”

Kelly made it clear he wasn’t banning Hayes from social media or taking away Twitter from his players, as some coaches at the college level have done this season. Kelly called it a “life lesson.”

Hayes’ lack of playing time is also likely part of a plan to save a year of eligibility. After taking off his redshirt late last season, both Hayes and defensive end Grant Blankenship haven’t played this season. And if the defensive line stays healthy, that’s likely how Kelly plans on keeping things, preserving a fifth year for both players and fortifying the defensive front for an extra season.

“We have great faith in Jay. He’s going to play here. He’s still in the developmental stage,” Kelly said. We like Jay. Just like we like Blankenship. Just like we like Trumbetti, who didn’t play last week. These are guys chomping at the bit. They want to play.

“But we’ve got good players, and that’s a good problem to have. We’re okay with Jay Hayes. Jay’s going to be fine. But it’s a good life lesson.”

 

C.J. Prosise could run wild on Saturday afternoon. But getting Josh Adams and Dexter Williams comfortable might be a better plan. 

Colorado ran for 390 yards against UMass. With C.J. Prosise already sitting at No. 5 in the country with 451 rushing yards, Prosise could make it two-thirds of the way to 1,000 yards on the season with another day like last week.

But while the Irish will likely get the running game revved up, don’t expect to see another 20-carry day for Prosise. I think you’ll see the senior max out around 12 to 15 touches, and then hand over the reins to Josh Adams and Dexter Williams. Both freshmen need to get comfortable in the offense, and Saturday afternoon is a perfect time to do it.

Quarterback DeShone Kizer talked about the importance of setting up the running game, and how it might not even matter who’s running the football if the offensive line plays the way they’ve been playing.

“One good thing about this offense is we are starting to create an identity. Our offensive line is so powerful up front and our running backs are so good, there’s not much you can do to stop our run game,” Kizer said.

 

Entering week four, a freshman will have to do something impressive to take the redshirt off. 

Max Redfield is back in the starting lineup, broken thumb a week better after watching the Irish beat up Georgia Tech’s triple-option. And while the loss of Drue Tranquill had Kelly and the Irish’s defensive staff trying to decide what to do with the dwindling safety depth chart, it appears Notre Dame will try to get by without playing freshman Mykelti Williams.

Williams was elevated from the scout team this week in practice, but Nicky Baratti will be the next safety in if that’s needed. Kelly talked a little bit about the decision, acknowledging that it isn’t enough to take a redshirt off just for special teams contributions.

“We’re not going to play any freshman on special teams if they can’t impact offense or defense,” Kelly said. “If they haven’t played up until this point, they’re not going to play on special teams unless they can impact offense or defense.

“Once we feel they’re capable of impacting that side of the ball, then we’ll engage them in special teams.”

At this point, it’ll be interesting to see how Kelly handles the freshmen who have seen limited reps. Among them, Equanimeous St. Brown and Nicco Fertitta. St. Kelly could decide to keep both of them off the field for the remainder of the season, preserving a season of eligibility.

Freshman cornerback Nick Coleman has been dynamic on special teams, so he could be a candidate to slide into Tranquill’s dime back role, or don’t be surprised if Coleman challenges Devin Butler and Nick Watkins for the outside cornerback job in nickel.

At this time of year, roster management is critical. And after suffering three-straight weeks of bad luck early this season, the Irish deserve a chance to preserve some seasons.

 

After getting picked apart against Virginia, Notre Dame’s secondary gets a shot at redemption (before an even bigger game next weekend). 

Nobody will be quick to forget the pass defense against Virginia. The Irish made quarterback Matt Johns look like Johnny Unitas, with Johns scrambling and throwing the Cavaliers back into the football game in the second half, a surprise against a cover group that should’ve been one of the strengths of the team.

Kelly spoke briefly about the defensive breakdowns in the immediate aftermath of the closer Irish victory, though moved quickly on to game-planning for the Yellow Jackets. But a week later we’ll get to see the Irish secondary made any improvements as they get a chance to take on a prolific passing offense.

UMass quarterback Blake Frohnapfel is one of the country’s most underrated passers. The 6-foot-6 graduate transfer is in his second season piloting Whipple’s offense and he’s a returning All-MAC quarterback.

With a challenge ahead, Kelly is hopeful that his secondary will play better this time around.

“We’ll get tested. I’m not ready to say that we’ve corrected everything. We’re going to have to go out and play,” Kelly said. “I have confidence that they’re going to play much better than they did against Virginia, but they’re going to have to go out and do it now.”

Frohnapfel pairs with senior Tajae Sharpe, who Kelly paid a large compliment to earlier in the week when he said he might be one of the best receivers that the Irish see all year. Sharpe had 85 catches for 1,281 yards last season and has started this year with two 11 catch efforts for nearly 300 receiving yards. Sharpe will be a good challenge for KeiVarae Russell and Cole Luke a week before they travel to play against Clemson’s skill talent.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.”

RELATED READING:
Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover position, others likely to follow
2 Days Until Spring Practice: A look at the defensive backfield

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.