Five things we learned: Notre Dame 62, UMass 27

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On paper, Notre Dame did everything you’d expect on Saturday afternoon. The Irish’s dominant 62-27 victory looked every bit the lopsided win you would’ve expected from a 30-point favorite, with Notre Dame running for 457 yards and scoring 62 points, the first time over 60 since Lou Holtz pasted Rutgers in 1996.

So while most scoffed when Brian Kelly did his best to tell everyone this Tuesday that Notre Dame couldn’t afford to look past the Minutemen, the Irish head coach was also telling the truth.

The Minutemen delivered. At least for the game’s first 25 minutes.

Late in the second quarter, UMass was outgaining the Irish. They had 261 yards of offense and were averaging 9.0 yards a play, thanks to a 56-yard pass and an 83-yard touchdown run. They led the turnover battle and also scored touchdowns in both their red zone appearances.

Yet they were still down a point.

From there, the Irish pulled away, capitalizing on a great series of events on special teams. Tyler Newsome pinned UMass inside their one-yard-line. CJ Sanders followed some great blocking and scored Notre Dame’s first punt return touchdown since Golden Tate. And after the Irish put up seven points on the first series after halftime, the route was on. And when the onslaught stopped, the Irish put together a 34-point run that turned Saturday afternoon into a track meet.

Notre Dame accomplished all of their goals this afternoon, setting up an undefeated showdown next weekend in Death Valley as the Irish travel to Clemson.

Let’s find out what else we learned.

 

Notre Dame’s depth is overwhelming. 

Brian Kelly made quite a statement this preseason when he was asked how his 2015 team matched up with the 2012 team that played for a national championship. Kelly said this team was deeper and more athletic than the team that went 12-1. And we saw that on display this afternoon.

In the 62-27 victory, Notre Dame showcased the bottom-half of their roster, a group of players who may be short on experience but are very heavy on athleticism and talent. The Irish offense had its way with UMass from the start, with DeShone Kizer, C.J. Prosise and Will Fuller doing what you’d expect. But when the reserves started getting snaps, the dominance kept coming.

We got a look at Notre Dame’s bright future on Saturday afternoon. And while some fans may have turned the channel during garbage time, Kelly knew how important it was to see young players like Brandon Wimbush and Dexter Williams get opportunities.

Wimbush showcased his rocket arm on a deep ball to Will Fuller. (First called a 50-yard completion before replay overturned the call.) Williams showed a nice burst on the first touchdown run of his career, a 14-yard run that was the highlight of a seven-carry afternoon. Josh Adams went over 100 yards, a 70-yard touchdown the latest highlight for the freshman.

Defensively, Brian VanGorder’s backups got an opportunity to play all of the fourth quarter. Linebackers Greer Martini and Nyles Morgan ate up tackles almost immediately, collecting 15 combined. Te’von Coney played big minutes as well, while young cornerbacks Nick Coleman and Nick Watkins mixed into the secondary.

Getting those snaps is crucial in a game like this. And it also allowed the Irish to make progress even with the back-ups in, showcasing the impressive talent that Kelly and his staff have stockpiled as the program continues to build.

 

The Irish’s first half defense leaves quite a few unanswered questions heading into Clemson. 

Yes, Brian Kelly told us that UMass would challenge Notre Dame’s defense in the first half. But did anybody really believe him?

That the Irish were on pace to give up over 500 yards of offense to the Minutemen has to have people a little worried as Notre Dame prepares to take on Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson. And the early holes in the Irish defense will likely have Brian VanGorder at the greaseboard all night looking for a fix.

Led by Blake Frohnapfel and Tajae Sharpe, the UMass offense has some talent. And Mark Whipple’s use of unbalanced fronts and heavy-doses of screens and draws kept the Irish off-balance before they settled down in the second half.

At 22-21, most Irish fans were grumbling. But if you’re looking for a silver lining, it’s the recover the Irish made after halftime.

In the third quarter, UMass had the ball four times. They gained a total of 51 yards, punting twice, then turning the ball over to Notre Dame twice, once on downs the other time courtesy of a Matthias Farley tip and Cole Luke interception.

That’s a much-needed step forward after a slow start. But 21 early points and two game-changing big plays allowed are cause for concern with one of the toughest challenges of the season awaiting the Irish next Saturday.

 

Notre Dame’s special teams—that’s right, the special teams—triggered this victory.

Time to once again tip the cap to Scott Booker and the Irish special teams. It was Notre Dame’s third unit that played a huge role in breaking this game open, something we don’t always say. And it all started with punter Tyler Newsome.

Newsome had a monster day this afternoon, not exactly something you equate with winning. But the first-year punter averaged 52.4 yards a kick, good for the single-game record in school history.

While two of those five punts ended up in the end zone, it was the one that Devin Butler pinned inside the one-yard line that triggered Notre Dame’s explosion. The Irish defense got a three-and-out from UMass and then excellent blocking on the punt return, setting up CJ Sanders with open real estate in front of him. The freshman did the rest, zig-zagging his way through the Minutemen, following his blocks into the end zone for a 50-yard touchdown.

We’ve gotten used to Notre Dame’s excellent kick coverage, with the Irish once again doing a good job on punts and kickoffs. Add to it Jarrett Grace and Greer Martini sniffing out a fake punt by the Minutemen and even Justin Yoon’s missed extra point (the hold didn’t look perfect) can’t sour a great day by the special teams.

 

Notre Dame has established its offensive identity with a power running game. 

Notre Dame ran for 457 yards on Saturday, the most since 1996, when Lou Holtz was still running the option. And the Irish ground game was consistently dominant, there from the opening minutes of the afternoon.

C.J. Prosise ran for 149 yards and two touchdowns, then took the afternoon off after 15 carries. Josh Adams went for 133, his 70-yard score pushing him past Prosise as he averaged 10.2 yards a carry. Dexter Williams was the low man on the totem pole, and he averaged 6.9 a touch, showing great explosiveness and good vision running behind a dominant offensive line.

Each played a key part in Notre Dame’s offensive attack, something Kelly wanted to see as they put together this week’s game plan.

“I think we had made that decision that even last week, that we probably redlined C.J. a little bit, and we had to really get Josh involved early, which we did, and then it was nice to see him run well,” Kelly said. “And then Dexter obviously is a very gifted player, and we saw that today. He’s got great speed. He’s just still learning, but I think we all saw today what kind of athletic ability he has.”

On the day, the Irish averaged nine yards a carry against the Minutemen. Take away the 20-yard team loss when Sam Mustipher rocketed a snap over Brandon Wimbush’s shoulder and that average would’ve been 9.5.

Heading into the toughest road contest on the schedule, the Irish ground game seems to be hitting on all cylinders. That was reflected in Notre Dame’s improvement on third down, converting 8 of 13. It’s also a credit to an offensive line that bullied and pushed around UMass from the opening snap. Again, Clemson is a different beast, and the rebuilt Tiger defense looked impressive against Louisville.

But getting all three backs significant carries—and just as importantly, success—was crucial. So was allowing Prosise some time to rest. Because come next weekend, the Irish are going to ask Prosise to carry the load. And you can bet he and the offensive line will be up for the challenge.

 

Getting Brandon Wimbush experience this afternoon was critical. But DeShone Kizer will determine whether or not Notre Dame can run this pre-bye week gauntlet undefeated. 

In case you didn’t know heading into today, Brandon Wimbush is an exciting player. He’s got the arm strength to overthrow Will Fuller on a go-route and the speed to nearly run for 100 yards, coming up eight yards shy on just four carries.

Wimbush showcased why his future is tantalizingly bright on Saturday. He officially completed three of five passes, yet two throws that didn’t count—the replay overturn on the Fuller deep ball and the flag erasing Equanimeous St. Brown‘s touchdown—give you a better idea of his playmaking ability.

But equally clear is the fate of this team will be decided by DeShone Kizer. The sophomore didn’t play perfect in his second start, but he kept taking positive strides on Saturday afternoon, putting together a solid day at the office completing 15 of 22 for two touchdowns.

Kizer did throw another interception, a slight underthrow on a deep post to Fuller, who had one-on-one coverage until a safety came over late. (Kelly put that on Fuller, a grab the All-American understandably should make). Kizer also showed some shaky accuracy, skipping a few curl routes at receivers’ feet, throws that should be easy completions.

But you can also see the game slowing down for Kizer. Sure, part of that was UMass’s defense. But the rest is Kizer understanding what a defense is showing him, and the cerebral first-year player is taking advantage.

“One thing about him is that if you do a good job of showing him something, he’s going to pick it up,” Kelly said. “If you remind him about it, he can self-correct. Some can’t. Some need more film. Some need more repetition. He’s not that kind of guy.”

So while Wimbush showed some flashes of talent, Kizer will be asked to lead this team to victory. And while he wasn’t given much of a challenge on Saturday, he’ll be pushed to the max next weekend.

 

Assistants: Polian on defensive depth; Lyght on Love; and Lea on the rover

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Three Irish assistants were available to the media following Notre Dame’s sixth spring practice Wednesday. Each of special teams coordinator Brian Polian, defensive backs coach Todd Lyght and linebackers coach Clark Lea commented on something or other of note. Together there just might be enough substance to justify your time here today.

At the bottom of this post is a video with most of the below quotes and many more from yesterday’s session.

POLIAN ON DEFENSIVE DEPTH AFFECTING SPECIAL TEAMS
The most unique aspect of the special teams coordinator, at least when compared to his offensive and defensive counterparts, is the fact that his charges include nearly the entire breadth of the roster. Aside from the quarterbacks, the starting offensive line and the defensive tackles, just about every player could find himself on a kickoff coverage or return unit.

More often than not, defensive players—accustomed to seeking out contact, rather than attempting to avoid it—fill out most of those spots. That may not be the case with this Irish rendition, and not necessarily by choice.

“We’re not as deep as you’d want to be in some other spots with depth at linebacker and depth at safety,” Polian said. “So where are we going to make up those bodies, and they’re going to have to come from offense. Those guys have made very positive impressions.”

Polian specifically mentioned junior running back Dexter Williams, sophomore receiver Chase Claypool and sophomore running back Tony Jones, as well as sophomore safety Jalen Elliott, as having excelled thus far. When he came to Jones, Polian added phrases such as “real excited” and “fantastic,” echoing sentiments Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly espoused earlier this week.

Along with that personnel shift, Polian wants to increase the intensity with which players approach the third unit. Often seen as auxiliary duty, inferior to position group work, special teams should not include a dialed back attitude.

“The biggest change has to be the urgency with which we attack special teams and our execution and critical efficiency in important times of the game.”

The Indianapolis Star’s Laken Litman wrote a longer discussion of Polian’s comments, including how he will look to supplement junior receivers Chris Finke and C.J. Sanders at punt return.

“We’ll have a gong show and say who wants to get a look that’s not getting a look,” Polian said. “We’ll start firing balls at them and if you drop two, you’re fired. But we’ll find another one or two guys.”

Please, WatchND and Fighting Irish Media, please record all of that. The possibilities for hilarity would extend further only if Jarron Jones or Lou Nix were still around to insist on taking a turn.

LYGHT ON LOVE
Sophomore cornerback Julian Love saw plenty of action in 12 games last season, finishing with 45 tackles and one each of an interception, fumble forced and fumble recovered. Nonetheless, Lyght sees room for Love to improve.

“The thing for him and his development, when he’s uncomfortable … he has to rely more on his fundamentals and his technique and be proficient with his execution of his technique and those fundamentals,” Lyght said.

Love started eight games at cornerback last season, the most career starts at the position on the Irish roster. Thus, despite being only a sophomore, he is already in a position to lead.

“Julian can tackle in space, he can cover,” Lyght said. “We want him to get better in his man-to-man techniques and in his leadership role. He is a young player but he is going to play a lot for us.”

Love will play, and likely start, at the boundary cornerback position. As Irish Illustrated’s Tim O’Malley lays out in an elongated look at all five cornerbacks in the mix, the days of left/right cornerback duties are in the past.

“In the college game, it is a boundary/field game,” Lyght said. “It’s not like the NFL where the hashmarks are in the middle of the field and it’s a left/right game…

“If you get the guys comfortable playing boundary, playing field, they can get a better feel for the game, get a better feel for the route combinations, and be able to execute at a higher level playing that way.”

A quick layman’s translation: The hashmarks in college football are much wider than in the NFL. Thus, when the ball is placed on the right hashmark, the right side of the field becomes the boundary and is much narrower than the left, the field.

LEA ON THE ROVER
How about another take at explaining the heralded rover position in new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme? Let’s here Lea’s quick summary:

“We have a lot of bodies, so we’re really trying to identify who the right fit is,” he said. “The beauty of that position is it is a hybrid, so there are times you want a bigger-body linebacker type, there are times where you want more of a nickel type.”

Lea also took a moment to extensively praise the leadership of both senior linebackers Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini.


Mid-week reading: On Wimbush; NCAA $$$; A look back at Te’o

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A litany of links typically makes for good Friday fodder. A week’s worth of the internet can help any reader through an unproductive end of the week. Unfortunately, spring practice’s rhythms are inconsistent, unlike summer’s constant nothingness and fall’s non-stop charge.

Hey, who said you can’t take a long lunch on a Wednesday, anyways?

MORE WIMBUSH AND WHITFIELD
Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples joined Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush out in San Diego two weeks ago during spring break, watching as Wimbush listened to private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield’s instructions. Staples, per usual, tells a good story, slipping some nuggets of information within it where you may not even notice.

Many around this space have asked who foots the bill when a college quarterback seeks out Whitfield’s tutelage. Per Staples, Wimbush’s mother paid for the week.

Throughout the story, Wimbush emphasizes the importance of a Notre Dame degree, going so far as to point to former Irish quarterbacks Everett Golson and Malik Zaire acquiring their diplomas before departing Notre Dame. None of us know Wimbush’s academic progress—now approaching his second summer school session, Wimbush is likely ahead of the usual second-semester sophomore’s credit pace—but this tidbit may prove pertinent in nine months time. Considering what its pertinence would say about a bigger picture, Irish fans should certainly hope it is of note.

To this memory, the classic image relayed from Golson’s time with Whitfield was Golson throwing over brooms held by staffers, mimicking the long limbs of charging defensive linemen. Those fictional pass rushers have become a bit more realistic in nature, now apparently represented with outstretched tennis rackets.

NCAA GIVING NOTRE DAME NEARLY $1 MILLION
In what has been described as a “one-time supplemental distribution,” the NCAA is dispersing $200 million among its members. The amount each school receives is determined by the total number of full scholarships it gives to student-athletes, with each partial scholarship contributing its appropriate fraction toward that total figure.

Notre Dame will receive $984,724 thanks to giving out 299.20 scholarships in 2013-14. Some context behind that latter number: The football team takes up 85 scholarships. The men’s basketball team is allowed 13, and the women’s basketball team gets 15. The remaining 186.20 are split among the other 20 varsity sports (counting men’s and women’s teams separately in rowing, swimming and diving, and track and field).

Other notable schools:
Ohio State receives the most, more than $1.3 million, thanks to its 403.98 scholarships.
USC’s 279.06 scholarships equates to $918,440.
Michigan’s 353.18 scholarships will yield close to $1.2 million.

All these dollars must be spent it ways aiding the student-athletes. Schools cannot put the funds toward items like stadium construction or coaches’ salaries. Rather, the NCAA indicated the money is for “the direct benefit of the student-athlete and their academic success, life skills, career success, health and safety and student-athlete focused diversity and inclusion initiatives.”

All expenditures must be approved by the NCAA. The money comes from an endowment that had reportedly come to exceed $360 million.

REMEMBER THE TE’O DRAFT HOOPLA?
The below video does not necessarily reveal anything we do not already know about former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o, despite its ponderous title. It does, however, make a good point.

Aside from a sporadic comment deep in the morass of these pages, not much is said about the Lennay Kekua situation anymore. At the time, it was the most talked about item anywhere, let alone in Notre Dame corners. Personally, a former co-worker at the Los Angeles Times called late one night that week four-plus years ago. He and I had not spoken in close to two years, and we haven’t spoken since. But the Te’o/Kekua story prompted him to seek an understanding of what in the world was going on.

In some irish.nbcsports.com history, the day after that story broke—it broke on Jan. 16, 2013, so I am referring to Jan. 17—still holds the record for most views to this particular site.

Good for Te’o to have successfully moved past that saga. These days, every comment former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer makes is scrutinized. He is even criticized for not having excellent timing with Jonas Gray, of all people. Looking back on Te’o, it should be remembered the most dramatic stories, one seemingly crafted perfectly for the internet, fade into the cobwebs of time.

[Here, a link in case the intended embed below fails.]

PHIL STEELE’S PROJECTED AP TOP 10
Enough with the past. Let’s project the future.

Phil Steele, of the revered Phil Steele’s College Football Preview, projected August’s Associated Press Top 10. Steele has accounted for voters’ tendencies rather accurately in years past, so it is not an entirely fruitless exercise. Then again, he is projecting the results of the first of many polls with no actual consequence.

Of Steele’s projected top-10, Notre Dame will face only No. 4 USC.

KENPOM’S TOO EARLY PRESEASON TOP 10
If you think Steele’s top 10 is too early, then skip this.

College basketball analytics master Ken Pomeroy put together his top 10 for next season, though any unexpected draft departures or transfers can certainly alter his calculations. After all, the season is not actually over yet.

Of certain Irish interest: No. 9 North Carolina, No. 8 Louisville and No. 6 Virginia. The last of those has already suffered a transfer which Pomeroy tweeted will “abruptly” end the Cavaliers’ time in his preseason top 10.

SPEAKING OF BASKETBALL, WELL DONE DENNIS, WHOEVER YOU ARE
Math is hard, so take this with a grain of salt, but I believe Dennis’ bracket of “Brey Brey’s Kids” will win the Inside the Irish March Madness pool. Dennis, your $984,724 is in the mail.

Don’t think that means there is no reason to watch the Final Four, though. Your host might be able to rise into the top half of the field, which would be good for his pride, and therefore the quality of writing in these parts.

It shouldn’t be too surprising my bracket flopped. This is a football page. Besides, by my eye, no one I actually know firsthand will finish higher than fourth. That is more of a relief than it should be.

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.