Pregame Six Pack: It’s still the big one

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During a week where much of the attention has been diverted to off-the-field drama, Saturday night’s rivalry matchup between Notre Dame and USC seems to have been pushed off center stage. Part of that comes from the Trojans entering with two-losses, an early-season national matchup fizzling out before October. But as the Trojans head to South Bend with an interim leader, fifth-year linebacker Joe Schmidt said it best.

“USC doesn’t like us, and we don’t really like them,” Schmidt said after the Navy game. “And that’s just how it’s going to be forever.”

So the glitz and glamour of the nation’s premier intersectional rivalry might be a bit subdued this year. But that doesn’t make the game any less important. Especially after the Trojans absolutely humiliated the Irish last year in the Coliseum.

With Southern Cal bringing legends in to the practice field to try and keep the team on the tracks, what Trojans team takes the field Saturday night will be anybody’s guess. But they’re a dangerous outfit—a talented team with nothing to lose.

Let’s get to the pregame six pack. Even with chaos surrounding Troy, it doesn’t make the game matter any less.

Notre Dame needs to show it won’t suffer from the dreaded Navy hangover. 

After Navy won three of four games starting in 2007, Notre Dame took back control of the series, with last week’s relatively easy victory the fifth-straight win over the Midshipmen. But that’s only one element of beating Navy. The Irish need to go out this week and prove they can defeat the other.

Fox Sports’ Bruce Feldman first coined the “Body Blow theory” a few years back when considering the physical punishment that hits a team a week after a physical game. The theory was designed with a heavyweight like Stanford in mind. But one astute reader of Bruce’s pointed out the punishment Navy puts on its opponents. (The Midshipmen had just hung tough with Ohio State until the Buckeyes pulled away, only for Ohio State to lose the week after to Virginia Tech, their only loss of the 2014 season.) The theory stuck.

The last eight times Notre Dame has played Navy, they’ve gone 2-6 the next week. Those two wins? The Tommy Rees save over Purdue in 2012 and the come-from-behind victory a year earlier against Wake Forest. Neither the Boilermakers nor the Demon Deacons had a winning record.

The six losses range the spectrum. Charlie Weis fought the good fight against a solid Pitt team in 2009, but had brutal losses in 2007 and 2008. In 2010, Kelly suffered his lone dismantling at the hands of Navy only to lose the following week to Tulsa in one of the toughest weeks in recent memory. In 2013, the Irish followed up a nail-biter against Navy by playing horribly against Pitt, killing any BCS hopes with a disappointing road loss.

Last year, Kelly seemed to downplay any sense of a potential hangover. Then the Irish went into Sun Devil Stadium and spotted ASU a 34-3 lead in the second quarter. This year, he acknowledged the physicality that comes with banging in the trenches every play with Navy, but also talked about the week off that’s just around the corner.

“We’ve got a week off next week, so our guys have a totally different mindset with the bye week,” Kelly said.

This USC team is more talented than any of the teams that hung those six losses on the Irish. Then again, Notre Dame is better, too.

For both the Irish and the Trojans, keys to their offensive attack need to get back on track. 

As our good friends at Pro Football Focus took a closer look at Saturday night’s game, an interesting datapoint emerged. The strength of both teams’ offenses aren’t quite clicking on all cylinders.

After lighting up Arizona State two weeks ago, USC had a week off and then laid a surprising egg against Washington. A week after Cody Kessler completed 19 of his 33 passes for 375 yards and threw five touchdowns against just one interception, the USC passing game was completely out of sorts against the Huskies.

While he completed 68 percent of his passes when he wasn’t pressured, Kessler was just three of ten for 24 yards under pressure, per PFF. He threw an interception and was sacked five times. That made for a stat line that was near a career-worst for Kessler, completing just 16 of 29 throws for 156 yards and two interceptions.

Notre Dame’s struggles in the run game were obvious to anybody watching the Clemson game. But even against Navy, the Irish’s usually prolific ground game wasn’t in sync either. Per PFF, the Irish managed a negative grade from their offensive line against the Midshipmen.

The main culprits? Mike McGlinchey and Steve Elmer, who both garnered negative grades. That’s two straight tough starts for McGlinchey, who also struggled at Clemson. In his first start, Alex Bars was slightly below average with a -0.7 grade, while only Nick Martin (0.2) and Ronnie Stanley (0.6) had positive days.

As we dig into the keys of Saturday evening, Notre Dame’s running game dictating terms is a key piece of the puzzle. And just as important for an Irish win? Making sure the Trojans passing attack stays inefficient.

With the focus on Notre Dame’s safety play, Elijah Shumate is emerging as a senior playmaker and leader. 

Max Redfield will move back into the starting lineup, taking on the hometown team he committed to as a recruit until he gave Notre Dame a longer look. And after a tough week against the option, Redfield will need to be on top of his game.

But one player who is already there is Elijah Shumate. The senior who has long had all the physical ability in the world, seems to have put his struggles behind him. Quietly, Shumate is having a very nice year, no longer challenged to match his physical skills with his performace in Brian VanGorder’s scheme. After a very strong performance against Navy (one bone-rattling TFL and a game-clinching interception), Kelly talked about the emergence of the New Jersey native.

“Skyrocketing. I wish I had him another couple of years,” Kelly said. “He’s really coming into his own. I’m really proud of him.”

When asked what took so long for the lightbulb to go on, Kelly didn’t point to one particular thing or the other. Rather he talked about the maturation process of a college football player, something he’s seeing take shape in his other starting safety as well.

“Some guys it just takes longer to get to that point. He was still cooking, he just wasn’t done yet,” Kelly explained. “He’s one of those guys that are ascending for us. It’s really nice to see. He’s such a great kid. He cares so much. He was working so hard at his craft and he was struggling. And it was wearing on him and to see him start to break through, it’s one of the gratifying things for a coach.”

When Notre Dame and USC play in the elements, the Irish haven’t lost since Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president. 

Want to know why USC visits Notre Dame in October, but USC still hosts the Irish in November? Cold weather. In 1959, the Trojans last visit to South Bend was so cold that USC athletic director Jess Hill proposed moving USC’s next visit to Notre Dame to October, while the Irish would continue coming to the Coliseum in late November. Notre Dame agreed, and it’s been that way ever since.

But with November temperatures coming to South Bend this weekend, it’ll be another interesting data point for a football program that hasn’t spent much time playing in chilly weather. In the history of USC’s program, they’ve only played 20 “cold weather” games. And while their record in those is 11-8-1, against the Irish it hasn’t been good at all.

USC hasn’t beaten Notre Dame in “cold weather” (as defined by USC’s media relations department) since 1939. That includes a loss in 2013, a 2010 game in a cold November rain storm in Southern California in 2010, a tie game in 1994, and losses in 1959, 1952, and 1949.

So while those visiting campus this weekend will be grumbling that they’re in need of long johns and an extra layer or two, the Trojans could be feeling the same way, too. And that’s a very good thing for the Irish.

As injuries mount, USC’s passing game will need to rely on some untested talent. 

Notre Dame suffered it’s share of devastating injuries. But as the Trojans head to South Bend, they’ll be pushed to the brink at some key positions. We’ve already talked about the loss of starting center and Rimington Trophy candidate Max Tuerk. But for as talented as JuJu Smith-Schuster and two-way talent Adoree Jackson are, the rest of the Trojan receiving corps is badly banged up.

The Los Angeles Times’ Lindsey Thiry lays out just how limited the Trojans could be at receiver.

Junior Isaac Whitney will not be available after he suffered a broken collarbone this week, interim Coach Clay Helton announced Thursday.

Steven Mitchell Jr., a third-year sophomore, also is unlikely to be available because of an ankle sprain.

Whitney and Mitchell have combined for 23 receptions, six for touchdowns.

Junior Darreus Rogers, who has been slowed because of a hamstring injury, will be a game-time decision. Rogers was sidelined in the first half against Arizona State on Sept. 26 and did not play last week against Washington.

Next in line to see the field is redshirt freshman Jalen Greene, a converted quarterback who became a receiver in fall camp. After that is true freshman Deontay Burnett. Both come from SC feeder school Serra, the football juggernaut that features eight players on the Trojan roster.

It’s going to be a busy recruiting weekend on campus, and Notre Dame hopes to show its best to a talented group of prospects. 

While the weather will be cooling off, the Irish recruiting efforts will be heating up. Notre Dame will welcome a large group of 2016 and 2017 recruits to campus, a signature weekend on the recruiting calendar.

Here are some of the prospects who’ll be on campus this weekend taking in the game.

Notre Dame commits:
Ian Book, QB
Tony Jones Jr., RB
Tommy Kraemer, OL
Julian Love, DB
Adetokunbo Ogundeji, DE
Spencer Perry, S
John Shannon, LS
Kevin Stepherson, WR
Cole Kmet, TE (2017)
Josh Lugg, OL (2017)

That group of Irish commits will likely make sure this talented crew of visitors is having a great time:

Brandon Burton, S
Damar Hamlin, CB
Daelin Hayes, LB
Khalid Kareem, DE
Jeffrey McCullouch, LB
Javon McKinley, WR
Ikenna Okeke, S
Tony Pride, CB
Devin Studstill, S

Hayes is just coming off a high-profile de-commitment from USC this week while Kareem no longer considers himself an Alabama commit. As spots in the Irish recruiting class fill up—especially in the secondary—it’ll be interesting if there’s a commitment or two to be had this weekend.

Work in weight & film rooms has Hayes ready to meet five-star potential

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Common thinking might give four- and five-star recruits too much credit. They do not all arrive ready to play at the collegiate level on day one. It takes time, conditioning, learning. Perhaps it was that awareness that kept Daelin Hayes from letting his five-star ranking on rivals.com change his expectations. He knew he would have much work ahead of him when he arrived at Notre Dame as the only five-star prospect in the class of 2016.

Now finishing his freshman year, the defensive end notices the effects of his work as he puts in more.

“I remember my first time watching film, I was like, woah,” Hayes said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “I look quicker, like more twitch than I did. I was definitely—it’s hard to put into words—but to actually be able to go back and look at it and see how it affected the game was huge. [Director of football performance Matt] Balis has worked wonders for us.”

Hayes’ improved quickness showed in his three “sacks” in the intrasquad scrimmage. Going against future NFL prospect Mike McGlinchey at left tackle, Hayes faced a stiff challenge throughout spring’s 15 practices, not that he shied away from that task.

“I don’t think it was ever a point where it was overwhelming,” Hayes said. “I’ve always been a competitor. … But you guys know Mike, he’s huge, obviously a first-round talent and whatnot. I’m just grateful to be able to go against somebody like that each and every day. He makes me better. …

“I love competing with the guy. You go and do that with a guy in practice every day, then the game scenario comes, it’s like second nature. You can do this in practice, you can definitely do this against anybody.”

McGlinchey does not seem to mind the matchup, either.

“Daelin is a man who is blessed with a lot of size and athletic ability,” McGlinchey said Friday. “That presents a lot of problems for people in the game of football. He’s so young, and he has so much still to work on, it’s pretty cool to see what he’s capable of and then what he is going to do down the road.”

When Hayes arrived at Notre Dame, still recovering from a high school shoulder injury, he weighed 250 pounds with 18 percent body fat. Now, he said, he still weighs 250—the Irish roster lists him at 255—but is down to 10 percent body fat. It is that kind of change which has created more twitch and makes McGlinchey envision Hayes after more time spent improving in the weight room and the film room.

“I’m not the same athlete that I was when I first came in, not by any means,” Hayes said. “… Buying into that offseason program is going to be huge for our team.”

Per the Blue-Gold Game’s statistics, Hayes ended the scrimmage with seven tackles. Whether skeptical of the recordkeeping within a practice or not, seven tackles in one abbreviated afternoon compares favorably to Hayes’ total of 11 in 12 games last season. Some of that uptick is playing time, some of it is scheme, some of it is realization of the potential highlighted by a five-star ranking. For now, though, Hayes insists he intends to simply learn from last year’s 4-8 disappointment and embrace the changes brought by new Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko.

“With last year being the year that we had, there definitely was a yearning for change,” Hayes said. “When you have basically a reboot of the program, the guys are hungry and they don’t want to have to experience the same season as last year.

“Just continue to trust in that process. We’re hungry for something to cling on and buy into. When coach Elko, coach Balis, everybody came in as part of that reboot, I think we welcomed with open arms. [We’ll] continue to buy into the system and become more comfortable within the system.”

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line

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Heading into spring practice, a quick look was taken at each position group in order of “expected level of interest or question marks,” from least interesting to most, as dictated by an “Inside the Irish” reader. That series concluded with the defensive line.

Exiting spring practice, let’s reprise that premise and reverse the order. If the defensive line triggered the most questions, then answering them first seems to make some version of sense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
“Will enough defensive linemen prove themselves deserving of playing time to create a viable threat up front?” this space asked. “If so, who will those linemen be?”

RELATED READING: One day until spring practice: A look at the defensive line

Aside from senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26 tackles last season, 0.5 for loss), senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss amid a season lost largely to concussion) and junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37, 3), the Irish defensive line had little track record to cite or rely upon for confidence. Leading the unknowns and unprovens were sophomore ends Daelin Hayes, who recorded 11 tackles in 2016, and Julian Okwara (4).

The lack of depth and experience was apparent heading into the 15 spring practices.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
Look past the 11 sacks in the Blue-Gold Game. Intrasquad scrimmages featuring red-jerseyed quarterbacks make for inexact and context-less statistics. There is some value, however, in noting the defensive line got within reach of the quarterback at least eight times in an abbreviated game. (Three “sacks” came from the linebacker corps.)

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, just buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

RELATED READING: What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

Hayes led the way with three sacks, and he will be expected to continue that in the fall, starting at the weakside/rush defensive end spot. Exiting spring, though, only he and Tillery solidified themselves as starters. Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Mike Elko claimed a successful spring for the front.

“I’m happy with our defensive line progress,” Elko said Friday. “Obviously there was a lot written about that group. I’m happy about the progress they’ve made this spring. I think [defensive line coach] Mike [Elston] has done a good job developing them. I think they are buying into the way we want to play defense. There’s probably four to five guys on the inside that are starting to get into a position where we feel comfortable that they can step in and help us.” (more…)

Brian Kelly & Jack Swarbrick on Notre Dame’s changes moving forward

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Whether 2016’s disappointing 4-8 finish was the impetus to program-wide alterations at Notre Dame this offseason, it certainly underscored the need. For the last few months, Irish coach Brian Kelly has focused those changes on himself and self-assessment, and he reiterated that approach when talking with PFT Live’s Mike Florio early Monday morning.

“This is my 27th year of being a head coach, and prior to last year I had one losing season,” Kelly said. “You have a way of doing things, you have a system in place, you follow that year after year. Certainly you make tweaks along the way, but this is the first time where I’ve really taken a step back and made substantial changes in terms of how I’m doing things on a day-to-day basis…

“From my perspective, after being at it as long as I have, you have to take it on yourself that you’re the one that needs to make the corrections. It’s not the players.”

None of this is new. Kelly has been consistent in his springtime messaging, but others have looked past the effects of the 4-8 record and insist the changes were coming regardless of the win-loss totals. Senior captain Drue Tranquill, for example, acknowledged the severity of the losing record Friday but argued adjustments were needed no matter what the final scores were.

“If you have an average season like 8-4, some things might carry over to the next season,” Tranquill said the day before the spring practice finale. “Whereas when you go 4-8, something has to change.

“But I think even at Notre Dame, 8-4 is never really acceptable or tolerated. Those things that were taking place, just within our culture, would have been noticed whether we were 10-3, 4-8. The criticism gave it a lot more hype and juice. We could kind of feel as guys in the program throughout the past three years that certain things needed to change.

“Those things were finally brought to light and it happened to be during a 4-8 season. I don’t necessarily know that 4-8 was the reason all this change happened.”

New Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko expressed a similar sentiment Friday morning, discussing the pressure moving forward.

“If we were coming off a 12-0 season in which we were competing for the national championship, there would be pressure on us at Notre Dame to be successful this year,” Elko said. “That’s Notre Dame.”

Elko has been a quick study, as his comments were echoed the next day by Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick during NBC Sports Network’s broadcast of the Blue-Gold Game.

“We expect to compete for national championships and 4-8 is not acceptable,” Swarbrick said. “On the other hand, when you’re in that situation, you have to decide how you’re going to move forward. We decided to move forward by making a major investment in retooling our program with Brian as the leader of it. That’s not a one-year investment for us. We brought in some talented assistant coaches. We rebuilt elements of the program

“We view it as a multi-year investment going forward.”

KELLY ON RECRUITING PITCH
Using this week’s NFL Draft as a peg, Florio also asked Kelly about balancing players’ NFL aspirations with team success both in the recruiting process and during the actual season.

“We have to talk more in terms of process over production,” Kelly responded. “We talk in terms of you’re coming to Notre Dame for a reason. You’re going to get a degree, which will set you up for the rest of your life, and you’re going to play on the grandest stage at Notre Dame, so everybody will see you.

“As long as there’s the balance there—and there has to be that balance in terms of getting your education and playing for championships—then we’re okay. It’s when that balance is out of whack, we’ll have an issue. We vet that out in the recruiting process and make sure we don’t take any kids that are coming to Notre Dame just because they’re waiting for that [junior] year to complete so they can go to the draft.”

A reminder: The NFL Draft begins with its first round Thursday night. Kelly will be joining former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer at the draft in Philadelphia to await Kizer’s destination and future employer.

MISSED THE BLUE-GOLD GAME?
It is available for streaming: here.

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?