Chris Milton, Will Fuller

Pregame Six Pack: It’s still the big one

47 Comments

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.

Spring positions to watch for revelations: DL & WR

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 05: Jerry Tillery #99 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish tackles Jerrod Heard #13 of the Texas Longhorns for a loss of yards during the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
Getty Images
37 Comments

If quarterback, rover and the early enrollees could be Notre Dame fans’ springtime Christmas thrills, what positions present as potential spots of coal?

Three former Irish players were invited to next week’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis: quarterback DeShone Kizer, defensive tackle Jarron Jones and defensive end Isaac Rochell. Losing two consistent defensive linemen leaves this year’s unit with some questions. Jones and Rochell combined for 100 tackles, 18 for loss and three sacks last season. Notre Dame’s returning defensive linemen combined to total 111 tackles and only 5.5 tackles for loss. To be clear, sacks are not included in that latter list because no returning defensive linemen recorded one. Among the returnees, junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37 tackles, three for loss) and senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26, 0.5) contributed solidly alongside the two NFL prospects.

This dearth of known and reliable linemen is a large part of why the potential transfer of Clemson graduate defensive tackle Scott Pagano is so intriguing. Pagano would immediately be a favorite to start, and if not that, at least rotate in heavily.

For now, though, Pagano remains a theoretical

By the end of spring practice, who already on campus will emerge alongside Tillery and Trumbetti in the Irish front? Senior ends Jay Hayes (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) and Jonathon Bonner (nine tackles) seem the most-likely candidates … aside from former four-star recruit and now rising sophomore Daelin Hayes. In his debut season, D. Hayes finished with 11 tackles.

Look for senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) to establish himself as Tillery’s immediate backup this spring, but that spot in the rotation will be up for competition all over again once four-star tackle Darnell Ewell (Lake Taylor High School; Norfolk, Va.) arrives on campus in the fall. His size and quickness should play right into new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s system.

Equanimeous and Who?
Not only did Notre Dame bring in a graduate transfer at receiver in former Michigan wideout Freddy Canteen, but it has also already received the commitments of two four-star receivers in the 2018 recruiting class. The continued emphasis on the position reflects the lack of bona fide game-breakers currently on the roster.

Junior Equanimeous St. Brown established himself as the top Irish threat in 2016, and he should shine only further with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush targeting him. Classmates often amplify each other’s success, simply due to the added shared reps innate to joining practice at the same time. With Torii Hunter, Jr., now pursuing a professional baseball career, who will prevent the secondary from focusing all its energies on St. Brown?

Canteen will not be with Notre Dame in the spring, as he does not graduate from Michigan until April. That will give a clear shot for the likes of juniors Chris Finke, C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin, and sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool to establish themselves. Did that say “clear” shot? It should probably read, “a chance to separate from the crowd.”

If a genuine threat does not line up opposite St. Brown, his explosiveness will likely be greatly reduced by focused defensive scheming. Wimbush will need another target before 2018.

Of course, here is where one should acknowledge the millennia-tested fact: Coal under pressure becomes diamonds.

2016 Notre Dame’s win expectancy was 7.2
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Johnson named the Irish as his team most likely to dramatically improve its record in 2017. Johnson’s thinking is based, at least in part, on Notre Dame’s second-order win total having been 7.2 in 2016, compared to the four wins the Irish actually walked away with. That discrepancy was the largest in the country.

Second-order win totals reflect how many points a team should have scored and allowed based on offensive and defensive stats. In theory, this shines a light on how luck and chance factored into results. Naturally, losing seven games by one possession will often be reflected by a higher second-order win total.

“Notre Dame’s win-loss record belied a solid, if imperfect, squad that just couldn’t pull out close games…” Johnson writes. “The Irish may not get back into College Football Playoff contention in 2017, but they’re bound to post a few more Ws because of reversion to the mean.”

Admittedly, the small sample size of a football season reduces the applicability of metrics such as second- and third-order wins when compared to baseball and basketball.

Jones becomes Mack
A quick piece of housekeeping: Apparently junior tight end Alizé Jones has changed his name to Alizé Mack.

While Notre Dame’s roster may not reflect that change yet, it is reasonable to expect it will after its next update. The football program has consistently respected the intricacies of players’ name preferences. Tai-ler Jones becoming TJ Jones jumps to mind, for example.

Anyways, hopefully noting Mack’s name change here might reduce some confusion down the line. Probably not. How many readers possibly read to the actual bottom of an article? But hey, in good faith.

WR Lenzy makes 11th commitment, brings speed to Irish

lenzy
rivals.com
32 Comments

At what point does an impressive recruiting roll become something more? When does it become a harbinger of things to come, even if not for a few seasons? How many notable commitments in a row establishes a class as special?

If the answer to any of the above is 11 commitments by the end of February, including five within two weeks, then Notre Dame is there following consensus four-star athlete Braden Lenzy’s announcement Thursday evening.

The Tigard High School (Portland, Ore) receiver/cornerback chose the Irish over offers from USC, Oregon and Michigan State, among a litany of others. In all, nine Pac-12 schools chased Lenzy—and a 10th, Washington, had shown interest—per rivals.com.

Lenzy will fit the leading 2018 need voiced by Irish coach Brian Kelly three weeks ago on National Signing Day 2017.

“Elite speed on offense will be a primary goal for us,” Kelly said Feb. 1. “Guys that can change the game on one possession. I think we’ll see that… We want a couple of home run hitters. We don’t care if they’re Darren Sproles’s size. We’re going to come off the board in terms of profile. We want some guys that can change the game on offense with elite speed.”

At 6-foot, 175 pounds, Lenzy is taller than Sproles’s 5-foot-6, but it is still his speed that drew Notre Dame’s interest.

“They made it clear they want me to do kickoff return and use me as a deep threat across the field,” he told Irish Illustrated. “Just being kind of an athlete, similar to what I’ve been doing already in high school, just on a bigger scale with a quarterback that can throw it a lot farther.”

Presuming Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush is that arm in 2018, throwing great distances should not be an issue. Between Lenzy and fellow 2018 commit Micah Jones, covering those distances should be a reasonable request, as well.

Lenzy brings Notre Dame’s class of 2018 to 11, including eight four-stars according to Rivals’ rating system. Current scholarship projections indicate the class will not be a large one, meaning the Irish coaching staff has already garnered the commitments of more than half the class. Once again, though, Kelly’s sentiment regarding recruiting timing should be remembered.

“We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

SWARBRICK’S TAKE ON RECRUITING
Kelly credited Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick with much assistance in securing the country’s No. 13 recruiting class in 2017. A refresher on those comments:

“In a lot of instances, [Swarbrick] had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it’s going,” Kelly said. “There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future.”

Swarbrick did not dispute the factual nature of any of that in an interview with the Indianapolis Star, but he did contest the need for praising what he saw as part of his job, one of the preferred parts of his job, at that.

“I can’t say anything about this year felt all that different,” Swarbrick told Star reporter Laken Litman. “Some asked questions about the future of the program and can we compete for a national championship. And I would talk about the elements of the program we were focused on improving.”

Swarbrick and Litman discussed a number of items in the second-half of the interview released by the Star, including Notre Dame’s facilities, a possible early signing period in football and if the Oct. 8, 2016, game against North Carolina State should have been played. Spoiler: No. Then why was it? Go check it out.

Swarbrick also told Litman he likes to write in his free time.

“I tend to think strategically with a pen in my hand.” Swarbrick added he is currently scribbling away on where he thinks college athletics are headed.

This scribe, for one, would be most interested in skimming those legal pads.

Will Wimbush, Elko and the early enrollees surprise in spring practice?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Getty Images
39 Comments

Exactly 59 days from today, the Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Sure, they will be playing against themselves, but nonetheless, it will be somewhat-competitive football played in gold helmets.

For timing context, exactly 59 days ago, you looked beneath the Christmas tree to learn if Santa Claus left you season tickets, socks or coal. I got socks. They had some of that extra cushioning, so I considered them a suitable treat.

Whether you care about my argyles or not (you don’t), for many the Blue-Gold Game and Christmas morning hold similar excitement. That fact is apparently why Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick does not concern himself when groups of alumni publicly lament his decisions, or lack thereof.

“I never worry about that,” Swarbirck told the Indianapolis Star in an exclusive interview you really should read. Go on, click the link, it will open in a new tab. You can come right back here when you are done.

“The hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion in your program. If that sort of stuff bothers you, you can’t be the athletic director, head coach or the quarterback at Notre Dame.”

That very passion will undoubtedly lead to frame-by-frame discussions of video snippets from spring practice, parsing of each and every word Irish coach Brian Kelly says in quick interviews after those practices, and extreme pessimism and optimism about the 2017 season.

In the Christmas spirit, what toys could bring the must excitement during the spring unwrapping? Personally, the gift I was unsure of always brought the most joy. I would rather open an unexpected book than know about a charcoal-gray suit. In other words, at least for today, let’s look past the offensive line, the running backs and the inside linebackers. Instead, let’s look forward to learning about… (more…)

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Karlos Williams #9 of the Florida State Seminoles scores the touchdown that would win the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their game at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Getty Images
41 Comments

Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.

With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.

The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.

Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.

Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.

If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.

Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order: (more…)