The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. UMass

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After Notre Dame’s 62-27 win, Brian Kelly said the Irish will follow their standard 24-hour rule and celebrate their victory. But here’s guessing they cut the celebration short a few hours, knowing there was significant work to be done before heading to South Carolina for their biggest game of the year thus far.

But before we turn our full attention to next weekend in Death Valley, let’s close the book on the weekend that was. Here’s your good, bad and ugly from the Irish’s 35-point win.

 

THE GOOD

The Ground Game. Notre Dame ran for 457 yards on Saturday. That’s the first time over 400 since the 1996 season. It’s the fifth-straight game the Irish have gone over 200 yards, the first time that’s happened since 2000. So it’s safe to say that the offensive line, C.J. Prosise and the rest of the Irish ground gainers have it going pretty good right now.

The mismatch up front was obvious from the start, maybe even before the start considering Colorado gashed UMass in a season-opening win. And it’s tough to say much more succinctly than UMass head coach Mark Whipple said after the game.

“We just couldn’t handle their offensive line. Their offensive line just manhandled us,” Whipple said.

Prosise got the 15 carries that I thought he should get. Josh Adams was fed the ball and he responded with a 70-yarder for a touchdown and his first 100-yard afternoon. Dexter Williams looked good and even both quarterbacks were effective running the ball.

A few years ago, the Irish couldn’t find a back who could break a 20-yard run. Now, Notre Dame has a backfield of home run hitters (including a back-up quarterback!), none more impressive than Prosise, who had two more touchdown runs of 15+ yards. He’s already at 600 yards for the season, and could’ve probably been two-thirds of the way to 1,000 had Kelly kept giving him the football.

A dominant performance when we were expecting one. That’s what good football teams do.

 

The Special Teams. Tyler Newsome set a Notre Dame record with an average of 52.4 yards per punt. C.J. Sanders returned a punt for a touchdown, the first since Golden Tate did it in 2009. Jarrett Grace and Greer Martini sniffed out a fake punt and everything but an extra point off the upright was pretty much perfect.

Freshman Nicco Fertitta also ripped loose a football on a kickoff, though UMass jumped on the fumble. (Worth noting: Montgomery VanGorder came in to hold late in the game, likely as a backup, but also possibly because DeShone Kizer’s got plenty on his plate.)

The Irish flipped the field and took over the game when Newsome’s punt was pinned inside the one-yard-line. That Kelly put his trust in the special teams and not the offensive line was telling and another good strategic move by the Irish head coach.

 

Big Plays for the offense. Notre Dame scored four different touchdowns of 35 yards or more. That makes nine touchdowns this season over 35-yards or longer, a nice reminder that this team is filled with guys who can take the ball the distance whenever they get a shot at it.

Five different players had a run of a dozen yards or more. Four different receivers caught a pass 15 yards or longer. If the Irish can find ways to make plays in space against Clemson next week, it’ll be hard to slow Notre Dame down.

 

The Kids. So many young players got on the field on Saturday. And just as many of them looked good doing it. After sticking mostly with the two deep in the first three games, Notre Dame cleared the benches on Saturday afternoon.

Brandon Wimbush made a terrific debut. He showed elite arm strength and game-breaking athleticism, breaking the longest QB run since Andrew Hendrix nearly took it to the house against Air Force.

Wimbush is clearly still learning. His decision to not run the ball, freestyle on the fly and throw deep to Equanimeous St. Brown, was sandlot football. It was completely illegal (the Irish had multiple offensive linemen down field blocking, aka doing their job). But it also revealed both players’ ability, something we’ll likely see in the years to come.

Notre Dame’s No. 2 offensive line got work, with Hunter Bivin giving Ronnie Stanley a break after he was rolled up right after half and Alex Bars getting in on the right side. Sam Mustipher put a snap past Wimbush, but otherwise he was unnoticed—another good thing.

Defensively, it was great to see young players everywhere. Greer Martini led the Irish in tackles. Nyles Morgan managed to make seven, playing only in garbage time. Linebacker Te’von Coney played some key snaps (he was on the field in goal line) and we got a look at Nick Watkins and Nick Coleman as well.

It was a next generation game for the Irish and that group looked very good.

 

Quick Hits: 

Chris Brown made his second touchdown catch of the season. That’s a career high. That’s a surprising stat to me, and Brown’s emergence at the No. 2 receiver is a pleasant surprise, matching up to the dominance he’s routinely displayed in practice.

Nice to see Sheldon Day earn another sack. Day made a big play to kill what was left of UMass’s momentum. Another surprise? Day’s two sacks is now tied with his career high in a season, when he was a freshman in 2012.

That preseason knee injury to Corey Robinson? Weird, it wasn’t a season-ender. Kelly said Sunday that Robinson received a cortisone shot and will be back at practice on Tuesday.

Worth noting: Max Redfield may be listed as the starter, but Matthias Farley played a lot of first team reps at safety. And not surprising, it was a tipped ball that Farley got his hands on that led to Cole Luke‘s first interception of the season, just the first of the year for the Irish.

(It was good seeing Redfield out there in the second half earning his keep with some of the backups. He needs to take the reps, especially against an offense that throws the football.)

It’s getting normal to see C.J. Prosise break really long touchdown runs. But that 56-yarder was a thing of beauty.

The Defense played great in the third quarter, and really not as terribly as maybe we all thought. (We’ll still get to them later in the bad section…)

Last tip of the cap: Mark Whipple. He’s a cagey football coach and his postgame comments were tremendous.

 

THE BAD

Big plays hurting the defense. For the second time this season, a trick play baffled the Irish defense. And almost shockingly, UMass broke a touchdown run right up the gut, a game-changing score from the Minutemen.

It’s hard to feel 100-percent warm and fuzzy about the state of the defense after watching the weekend performance. Coverage was good, but hardly great. Cole Luke had an interception, but he was also beat for a big gain. KeiVarae Russell continues to look good, but he’s still clutching and grabbing too much.

Here’s how Kelly described the secondary’s play after four games.

“I think there’s times where we’re competing and challenging throws, and then there’s some times that we’re not,” Kelly said. “I think that if you’re asking Coach VanGorder and Coach Lyght, I think what we’re looking for is consistency and competing for the ball. Some of it is technique where we’re losing at the line of scrimmage in some instances, and then some of it is just not being as aggressive as we’d like to be to the ball. So at times, we are getting those two things. We just need to get it more consistently.”

Clemson will test Luke and Russell, and even more critically, the safeties. And if the Irish get through the Tigers, watching USC’s receiving corps take Cody Kessler dump offs and turn them into gigantic plays, Notre Dame’s athleticism on the edge will need to be mirrored by excellent technique.

Moving on to the run-fits, that Notre Dame gave up yardage on the ground and at one point was being outgained by the Minutemen as they averaged 9.0 yards per play—that was cause for concern, grumblings that echoed across all of cyberspace for a time.

But here’s another look at the UMass offensive performance, removing the three game-changing negative plays Notre Dame allowed (trick-play pass, long run and flipped field interception by Kizer):

3-1 PUNT
6-14 PUNT
4-5 PUNT
3-5 PUNT
5-34 PUNT
4-7 INT

UMass gained 139 yards and had two double-digit play drives in their final two possessions against the Irish subs. So while cleaning up the big play is critical, it wasn’t as if the defense was sliced and diced.

 

THE UGLY

Staying empty. Young kids running around everywhere. Two dodged bullets (Ronnie Stanley, Corey Robinson) in the injury department. All in all, a fun Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

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.