Pregame Six Pack: On to November (almost)

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Trick or Treat. As Notre Dame prepares to take on undefeated Temple in a game that might be the biggest in the home team’s history, Halloween night could be good old fashioned fun… or a house of horrors.

Coming back from a much-needed weekend off, the Irish now need to show they’re capable of being the program that turned November into a month of dominance, not the team that burst at the seams in 2015.

While the calendar doesn’t turn until postgame, head coach Brian Kelly expressed the sentiment correctly.

“I think for us, it will be October is for pretenders and November will be for contenders,” Kelly said on Tuesday. “And we’ll show ourselves in that regard because of our schedule in November.”

That begins with Temple. The American Conference leader, the Owls are unexpectedly among the nation’s undefeated team—courtesy of Matt Rhule and a tremendous defense.

With the Irish unexpectedly playing in the week’s highest-profile matchup on the college football slate, let’s get on to the Pregame Six Pack.

 

After growing comfortable in the starting job, DeShone Kizer has set the bar high. Very high.

It didn’t take long to understand that DeShone Kizer wasn’t your average backup quarterback. Nor did it take long for the sophomore to find the same comfort level and maturity he displays off the field between the lines.

Back to campus rested and ready for the final five-game stretch, Kizer talked about the elevated goals he has for the season—making it clear he wants to play like the best quarterback in the country.

“I think that my biggest adjustment that I’ve evaluated for myself is having a mindset, of not only being a good quarterback, but to take it to greatness,” Kizer explained Wednesday. “I need to be able to prepare to be the best quarterback in the nation every week.

“I was in the position the first half of the year where I was a replacement. I was a guy who was able to manage a game and accomplish a mission in that sense. Now I want to take it into the second half of the year and be the best quarterback in the nation every time I step on the field. Because I know that after evaluating the first half, that I have the ability to.”

That type of confidence shouldn’t come as a surprise. And while Kelly joked after being told about Kizer’s comments on Thursday evening that he half-expected Kizer to go third-person with comments like that, he also said the quarterback is backing up those words with his focus and play in practice.

“I thought his communication and his presence today with our offense was like a fifth-year senior,” Kelly said Thursday. “He is a very confident player right now.”

 

With Alex Bars lost for the season, the offensive line has needed to mix and match. 

When you look back at all the injuries Notre Dame suffered this season, the broken ankle Alex Bars suffered against USC wasn’t necessarily the most impactful. But it has certainly forced the Irish to make some significant moves along the offensive line.

Bars may have been playing behind Quenton Nelson at guard, but he was likely Notre Dame’s third tackle, even if he wasn’t listed on the depth chart. And while Nelson’s through the woods after missing a full game with a high ankle sprain and gutting out the majority of the USC battle after Bars went down, there are still dominoes falling as Harry Hiestand reshuffles the Irish depth behind the starting five.

Junior Colin McGovern appears to be the next man in. He’ll cross-train not just at guard, but work outside as Mike McGlinchey’s backup. (Hunter Bivin is Ronnie Stanley’s backup.) And while John Montelus is listed as the backup to Steve Elmer, backup center Sam Mustipher also took reps at guard during practice this week, giving some flexibility if McGovern’s number is called on the outside.

Kelly explained the entire adjusted operation on Thursday.

“McGovern has to play inside and out. Bivin will be at tackle. McGovern will play a little bit of guard and a little bit of tackle if we need him to go in on the right side. Sam Mustipher is playing a little bit of guard as well. We have cross-trained him at the backup center position and the guard position. We are really working with three guys and two guys at the guard position with McGovern and Mustipher.”

With Mustipher working away from center, true freshman Tristen Hoge worked as the No. 2 behind Nick Martin. While it wouldn’t make any sense to burn a redshirt this late in the game, Hoge is traveling with Notre Dame to Temple, a nice perk after a good week of practice. (Even better? Working with the two-deep before the battle to replace Nick Martin begins this spring.)

All spring, Notre Dame’s coaches talked up the Irish depth along the offensive line. We might have to see it go into action, no easy task against a veteran and disruptive front seven for Temple.

 

The Showtime experiment? An early success, according to Jack Swarbrick. 

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick sat down and talked with Irish Illustrated’s Tim Prister about “A Season With Notre Dame,” Showtime’s much-discussed docuseries chronicling the Irish’s 2015 season. And while the entire interview is very much worth the read, it’s fairly easy to say that the university views it as a huge success.

Namely, because Swarbrick feels like the open-door policy to Notre Dame’s football program can serve to take on the skeptics who feel like college athletics’ amateurism model is broken and beyond repair.

Here’s Swarbrick, when asked about the early response to the show:

“It’s been really positive. Very, very positive, and it goes to the reservations I had. The decision to do it for me was about principally one thing, and that was in the national debate that’s going on about college athletics, the level of cynicism that has emerged in this debate and the one-sidedness of it from my perspective, I thought it was really important to have a voice in that discussion through this show. To be able to say, ‘You can be as much of a cynic as you want, but these are real students having this experience at our university.’

“I was very motivated to create for people – not just Notre Dame fans – but people across the country to see this. Every day is another story about something college sports is doing wrong, and I sort of viewed this as almost an obligation we had to tell the other side of the story.”

While Kelly has had his share of fun during press conferences or media appearances talking about the additional layer of scrutiny that comes with a video crew following his every move, it’s interesting to point out that the Showtime opportunity came via the head coach himself, approached through talent agency CAA, where Kelly is a client.

That’s another datapoint that leads you to believe that Kelly is a guy who is fast finding his comfort at Notre Dame, not secretly maneuvering for one of the man open jobs that round him up among the usual suspects of candidates.

 

Notre Dame’s defense has been “boom or bust.” But Brian Kelly still believes the Irish have a solid four quarters ahead of them. 

As we try to decode just what type of defense Notre Dame has, it’s easy to point to the maddening lapses… as well as the dominant spurts of play. The good? Notre Dame ranks 15th in the country in forcing three-and-outs. The bad? Well, they’re usually either getting off the field immediately or giving up a touchdown.

Brian Fremeau of Football Outsiders has come up with a intriguing new stat by looking at Boom or Bust rates for offensive and defensive performances. Specifically, what percentage of drives end up in touchdowns or three-and-outs. Notre Dame is in Fremeau’s Top 15 “Boom or Bust” defenses—not exactly a badge of honor. The Irish are one of just two programs with a winning record against FBS opponents (NC State is the other) among those 15.

When asked about the defensive performance of the team and what he expects to see in the coming weeks, Kelly sounded like Brian VanGorder’s group was trending up.

“I just think they have not put the four quarters together they are capable of,” Kelly said. “I think that’s going to happen. I really do. I’m not just wishing. When we’re playing together and not making some of the correctable mistakes, we can play really good football.”

 

This might be the biggest game in Temple history. But Matt Rhule and his players are doing their best to treat it like any other Saturday. 

Buses will leave campus at 4:45 a.m. Saturday morning, shipping Temple students to ESPN’s set at Independence Hall. And an NFL town has taken a decided turn this week, subbing Owls in for Eagles (especially with Chip Kelly’s struggles).

Most of Temple’s veteran roster experienced the 2013 visit to Notre Dame. And while they certainly expect something far rowdier on Saturday night, they’re trying their best to treat this like any other game.

“We don’t pretend it’s not here,” Rhule told reporters earlier this week. “We don’t pretend GameDay’s not coming. We don’t pretend that we’re not playing Notre Dame. All those things are great, but they don’t help us play better. All we can do is control how we play. That’s the message.”

That message has been heard by a veteran roster that features 10 returning starters on defense, and only one underclassman in either the offensive or defensive starting lineup. And while the Irish have been the biggest game on every opponent’s schedule thus far in 2015, Rhule feels like his team won’t let the moment impact the way the Owls play.

“I’m not concerned that the moment will be too big,” Rhule said. “Are we good enough to hang with Notre Dame? That’s the concern.”

 

Max Redfield or Matthias Farley? Kelly’s not saying. But both need to play better football. 

Notre Dame’s safety play has been less than satisfactory this season. Derailed early by a thumb injury to Max Redfield and season-ending losses of Shaun Crawford and Drue Tranquill, Elijah Shumate has provided some stability at strong safety, but Kelly has all but acknowledged that the defensive staff is trying its best to get an elevated level of play from Matthias Farley and Redfield.

“Honestly, what I want and what we have are two different things,” Kelly said Tuesday, when asked about the position. “Both those kids are committed to being the best players that they can be and we are coaching them every single day… We’re working hard with them every day.”

Redfield earned the start against Navy and was replaced early by Farley. Farley earned the start against USC and was replaced by Redfield. So going against Temple, Kelly was open that both would play and contribute. But he wasn’t ready to say you was starting.

“We just feel like I think both of those guys are going to give us what we need at the position and it’s going to be one where both of them are going to have to help us win.”

 

 

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.

 

Tranquill continues work with safeties … for now

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Drue Tranquill will see time at the oft-spoken of rover position, just not yet. For now, Notre Dame needs the senior at safety to provide leadership and communication while the rest of his position group gets up to speed.

“We really have to figure out what the coordination is going to be at the safety position,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “How much does Drue play down at rover? How much does he play back [at safety]?”

Only sophomore Devin Studstill returns any starts to the safety position aside from Tranquill’s career total of 18. Studstill started nine games last season.

That void has kept Tranquill working mostly with the defensive backs in the spring’s first few practices, rather than joining the likes of junior Asmar Bilal in the rover grouping.

“We didn’t want to pull our most veteran player out of the back end of our defense with Drue,” Kelly said. “I think it was more about the hesitancy of losing a great communicator in the back end than about the teaching.”

The time will come, however, for Tranquill to move up. Juniors Nick Coleman and Ashton White have moved to safety from the corner position. With more reps, they will not need to rely on Tranquill’s guidance as much. The same goes for, at least in theory, sophomore Jalen Elliott.

“It’s not really a heavy load of teaching for those guys,” Kelly said. “They’re picking it up quite well. We really want to get a chance to see a lot of guys back there.”

Kelly seemed particularly bullish on Coleman’s prospects at the position, provided he embrace the needed physicality. At 6-foot, 187 pounds, Coleman’s build may have been more suited on the outside, but Notre Dame’s plethora of promising cornerbacks provided an impetus to test Coleman at safety.

“The big thing will be Nick’s continuous development in tackling,” Kelly said. “You have to tackle back there. His ball skills are really good. We’ve seen that he’s able to play the ball. He has athleticism.

“We just want to continue to build on his tackling skills. If we go through the spring and say, ‘Well, he’s tackling really well,’ we’ll feel pretty good about the move.”

At that point, Tranquill will likely join Bilal at the hybrid position, which is something of a trademark to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Tranquill will be able to do what he does best: Pursue the ball.

“We all know what his strengths are,” Kelly said. “He’s a solid tackler. I don’t think there’s any safety in college football that wants to get matched up one-on-one with a skilled slot receiver. This would minimize that, when you play him close to the ball as a rover.

“And I think he’s pretty quick off the edge. I think we put him in a really good position in maximizing his skill set.”

Until then, Bilal will continue to be the frontrunner at rover, especially with the first four Irish opponents of 2017 presenting run-heavy offenses.

KELLY ON NICK WATKINS
Kelly was also asked about senior cornerback Nick Watkins, his fit into Elko’s defense and his return from injury.

“He’s very coachable, wants to learn, he’s pretty long,” Kelly said. “What I think Mike [Elko] does really well—and this is what I liked about my interactions with him—is, we all have strengths and weaknesses. He has a great eye of saying let’s take Nick’s strengths and let’s put him in a position where we can really utilize his strengths and put him in a position where maybe we’re not a right and left corner team, maybe we’re a short field/wide field team. Let’s apply him in that fashion.

“Nick’s long. He’s a little bit of a physical player. Let’s go to those strengths. He’s shown some of those attributes early on.”

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