And in that corner… The Temple Owls

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A lot has changed since Temple visited South Bend to kick off the 2013 season. Head coach Matt Rhule had just taking over for Steve Addazio, who had jumped to Boston College after a few nice seasons in Philadelphia.

Rhule had returned to the Owls from the NFL, back to the place where he had coordinated Al Golden’s offense during Golden’s impressive build job that got him a chance in Miami.

Rhule’s work has been brick-by-brick. A two-win season first year built to last season’s 6-6 campaign. But 2015 has been a dream start, capitalizing on a veteran defense and a team that’s shown a champion’s mentality—with the Owls holding the inside track for an American Conference title, something most didn’t think possible just a few years ago.

With the college football world focused on the Owls’ evening in the spotlight on Saturday, Temple will be ready for its star turn. And getting us ready for what might be the biggest game in Temple program history is the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Marc Narducci.

Marc has been with the Inquirer for over 30 years, covering just about every sport the area has to offer. During one of the busiest weeks covering Temple football in a long, long time, he still found time to share his thoughts about the state of the Owls and this weekend’s big game.

Hope you enjoy.

Temple’s season-opening win over Penn State started 2015 with a bang. Since then, Matt Rhule’s team has done nothing but win. Before we getting into this weekend’s matchup, can you provide Notre Dame fans with some context for this 7-0 start? In your opinion, is this the high-water mark for Temple football?

It is only the high water mark because the program has never been 7-0 to start a season. So in that aspect it is, but the team feels there is so much more to accomplish. Many felt that the Penn State win, the first over the Nittany Lions in 74 years, would be the high water mark, but then the next week Temple had no letdown and beat the preseason American Athletic Conference favorite Cincinnati on the road.

I really believe in Temple’s mind, the actual high water mark hasn’t been accomplished. The goal has always been to win the AAC title and Temple is clearly in the driver’s seat to at least represent its division in the title game.

 

The Owls are getting it done with defense. They’re 8th in the country in scoring defense and No. 6 against the run. What’s been the secret to their success?

I think the biggest factor is experience. This is a unit that allowed 17.5 points per game last year and has improved, while playing a more difficult schedule. Temple is allowing 14.6 points per game and the team has great senior leadership. Linebacker Tyler Matakevich is the only FBS player to lead his team in tackles in every game this season. He has 420 tackles for his career and could become the seventh player in NCAA history to record 100 or more tackles each season (He has 65 this year).

DT Matt Ioannidis doesn’t have big stats, but he has been a load to move up front. And the best pure pass rusher is Praise Martin-Oguike, who at 6-2, and 255 is a little undersized, but quick. He has been hampered by injuries, but has shown great flashes. And he made the biggest defensive play of the year – blocking an extra point against UMass that was returned for a two-point defensive score by Will Hayes in a 25-23 last-minute win. The Owls also have a strong secondary, led by the corners, sophomore Sean Chandler and senior Tavon Young. Chandler has been the best one-on-one defender this year.

 

This still feels very much like an offense that’s a work in progress. P.J. Walker played big down the stretch in the comeback victory over East Carolina, but nationally the Owls are 93rd in the country running the football and 92nd throwing it. What’s the secret for Temple’s offensive success on Saturday night? And is Walker the most important piece of the puzzle?

You are right that the offense is a work in progress. The Owls have had trouble getting started in games. Walker separated his shoulder in the opening win over Penn State, but he is a tough kid and didn’t miss any time. He says now he is feeling much better. Walker hasn’t been much of a running threat, which would really open things up. He has been inconsistent, but has shown great composure when it was needed during fourth quarter comebacks against UMass and East Carolina. Plus, he is taking care of the ball. Last year he threw 13 TDs and 15 interceptions. This year he has nine TD passes and three interceptions.

An underrated aspect of the offense’s success is the improved play of the offensive line, led by Rimington candidate, senior Kyle Friend, who at 6-2, 305 is considered undersized, but he is one of the strongest players, if not the strongest on the team. The OL has only allowed seven sacks and junior running back Jahad Thomas leads the AAC in rushing with 117.4 yards per game. He has rushed for 822 yards (5.0 avg.) and 12 TDs.

 

It’s hard to get caught up on the Owls and not notice the season Tyler Matakevich is having. He’s been a tackling machine and has a team-high four interceptions. But the core of the Temple defense is playing equally impressive defense—Matt Ioannidis and Haason Reddick have been great up front and Nate D. Smith has been incredibly disruptive as well, especially in limited snaps. Is that a testament to veteran defensive coordinator Phil Snow’s system? Rhule’s player development? Good recruiting?

It is all of the above. As for recruiting, none of these players was highly recruited, but Temple has a penchant for developing these type of players. For instance, Temple was Matakevich’s only Division I offer. Temple never worries about what the 5-star or 4-star lists say. More than many staffs, the coaches look inside a player and see what he is all about.

If you look, many of these guys are below the height/weight standards people are looking for. Matakevich is 6-1, 232. Nate D. Smith is a converted linebacker who is 6-0, 236. Yet all these players have toughness that is off the chart, something that Rhule looks for in recruiting.

 

Staying on the topic of Rhule, he’s likely to get a long look from a number of major programs that’ll be hiring a new head coach. In your mind, what are the odds that he’s coaching the Owls at this time next season? What has made him so successful at Temple in such a short period of time.

I would place the odds of 50-50 that Rhule stays. He really like Philadelphia, likes Temple and counting his years as an assistant has been there nine years. I think it appeals to him working in a pro city, where his every move isn’t scrutinized. Temple realized what an outstanding coach he could be when they extended his contract before this year, despite having a 8-16 record his first two years. Unlike his predecessor, Steve Addazio, Rhule never looked at this job as a place to climb the ladder. Remember, he left the pros as an assistant to come back here. That all said, if a big program offers him four times the salary, it would be hard to turn down. So we will see.

 

It’s an incredibly exciting time to be following Temple football. A sold out Lincoln Financial Stadium. A national TV broadcast with the weekend’s only game featuring ranked opponents. (ESPN’s College GameDay, too.)

With a long dormant stadium project potentially back to life, what has this season meant for the football program and the university? And is it possible to quantify what a win over Notre Dame on Saturday would mean?

This season has meant everything to football. The fact that Temple is making a strong push now for a football stadium, is a way of capitalizing on all the success. The win over Penn State meant a lot in terms of recruiting and national publicity. Just multiply that by 10 if the Owls are able to beat Notre Dame.

It would help in recruiting, fund raising and more importantly, would give the Owls a chance to earn a New Year’s Day or New Year’s Eve bowl bid. Even if Temple loses but accredits itself well, being on GameDay and ABC is invaluable publicity.

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.