Five things we learned: Notre Dame 42, Pitt 30

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Notre Dame’s offense made it clear very quickly that it meant business on Saturday afternoon. With most wondering how playing early on the road would impact a team that hasn’t been the same outside of South Bend (and hasn’t had to set an alarm clock to play football in years), DeShone Kizer and company needed just three well-executed plays to announce their intentions.

Two nice gains by C.J. Prosise set the table for Will Fuller to get behind the Pitt secondary. From there, the offense was off and running, Kizer orchestrating the Irish attack like a savvy veteran as Notre Dame dominated Pitt and coasted to the finish for an easier-than-it-sounds 42-30 victory.

There were bumps along the way, most notably on defense. Brian VanGorder’s unit struggled after halftime and gave up big plays to an offense that usually can’t make them. But Kizer and Company bailed them out—continuing to score touchdowns against a Pitt defense that doesn’t usually give them up when opponents get in their red zone.

Garbage time once again hurt the Irish, with Max Redfield mentally checking out and freshman Brandon Wimbush gift-wrapping six points to the Panthers. But in a series where the favorite rarely plays like it, Notre Dame came out crisp and efficiency, looking very much like a dominant football team at a time of year where everybody—especially the College Football Playoff committee—is watching.

Let’s find out what else we learned.

 

Everybody else knew it, but Pat Narduzzi shouldn’t try to single-cover Will Fuller. 

Everybody in the stadium knew about Will Fuller’s big-play ability. But that didn’t stop Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi from playing aggressive, putting his cornerbacks on an island against Fuller early and often as he did his best to turn the Irish one-dimensional.

It didn’t work.

Fuller abused Pitt’s secondary early and often, catching three touchdowns among his seven receptions for 152 yards. He got behind Pitt’s covermen from the beginning, with sophomore Avonte Maddox and senior Lafayette Pitts unable to run with one of college football’s most difficult covers.

Fuller could’ve had an even bigger game. Kizer missed the junior receiver on two throws that also could’ve gone the distance, overthrowing a receiver that not many thought could be missed long. But with the Irish ground game ripping off yardage and Pitt searching for answers, Narduzzi’s gamble blew up, and even after making a few tweaks, he still wasn’t able to find the right formula.

After the game, Narduzzi all but threw up his arms.

“We changed it up a little bit,” Narduzzi said, when asked about his scheme to stop Notre Dame’s best receiver. “But he’s a good football player, what are you going to do?”

 

With C.J. Prosise down, Josh Adams stepped up. 

Notre Dame awaits word on an injury to running back C.J. Prosise, who left the game near the end of the first quarter with a shoulder injury. Kelly wasn’t quite sure how to classify it when speaking postgame, though he told ESPN’s Todd McShay that the senior is day-to-day.

“It’s one where he’s going to continue to be evaluated,” Kelly said in his postgame comments, according to Nick Ironside of Irish 247. “Shoulder, neck, upper body… He’s doing pretty good right now, but we’ll evaluate and he’ll be a day-to-day situation.”

Prosise is also undergoing concussion protocol. Knocked out of the game after hitting the turf hard, the baton was passed to freshman Josh Adams and he delivered. Adams ran tough, putting together 147 well-earned yards on the afternoon, averaging 7.4 yards per carry on his 20 attempts. He also cashed in a score on a jet sweep—statistically considered a pass—but blocked and run to perfection by Notre Dame.

That effort was enough to earn the rookie the game ball, stepping in for the Irish’s most valuable player and not missing a beat.

“Anytime anyone gets a game ball that means we did well as a team. That’s what’s most important,” Adams said after the game.

A week after Notre Dame’s ground game was stuck in neutral, the Irish took advantage of a Pittsburgh front that showed vulnerability the past few weeks. And Adams’ physical running style deserves a lot of the credit, the freshman getting up field and reading his blocks well. Just another example of “Next Man In” for Brian Kelly.

“We had to call on our depth again today, and he stepped up for us,” Kelly said.

 

Notre Dame’s red zone offense was wonderful. 

Brian Kelly answered a ton of questions about Notre Dame’s red zone struggles during this week’s media availability. But nothing he said in front of a podium spoke as loud as his team’s performance inside Pittsburgh’s 20-yard line.

The Irish were flawless in the red zone, scoring touchdowns on every opportunity they had against a Pitt defense among the stingiest in the country. After spending additional time in practice and taking a big picture approach to the consistency needed by all 11 players on the field, the Irish cashed in by executing perfectly when they needed to do so.

A perfect strike thrown by Kizer to Torii Hunter Jr. was helped by a great playaction fake, a new wrinkle in the playcalling that might as well have been borrowed from Kelly’s friend Bill Belichick. Another perfect strike from Kizer on 3rd-and-9 to Fuller answered Pitt’s score to open the second half.

The ground game had it going, too. It was credited as a touchdown pass, but great blocking allowed Adams to walk in around the right side on an outside sweep. And Kizer’s zone-keeper let him walk into the end zone for the Irish’s final score, the only impact the quarterback made in the ground game a week after carrying the load against Temple.

The Irish went cold for a time in the first half on offense, three straight three-and-outs bogging down the offensive attack. But Notre Dame scored 42 points even while being held to 437 yards, and they have their efficiency to thank.

 

With Torii Hunter entering the secondary, Brian VanGorder might have found a solution for his nickel defense. 

Notre Dame knows it can’t make it through the season without a nickel defense. So Kelly and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder called on receiver Torii Hunter to cross-train on defense, with the Irish’s two-sport athlete showing two-way skills on the gridiron as well.

Hunter came into the game in the first half, allowing the Irish to get another athlete on the field in the backend of the defense. He very nearly got involved on a sack as well, blitzing off the edge on a critical third-down stop.

Kelly revealed after the game that the decision to move Hunter had been three weeks in the making. Freshman Nick Coleman also saw some time. With some mental mistakes once again plaguing the Irish on the backend, this group is still in flux. But with three weeks to go, and the Irish needing Romeo Okwara rushing the passer, not dropping into coverage, Hunter looked like a possible solution, one brought on by necessity.

“We couldn’t trade for a nickel,” Kelly cracked after the game.

 

In control from the beginning, it was just another big Saturday for DeShone Kizer.

It’s not supposed to look this easy. Against one of college football’s best defensive schemers, DeShone Kizer seemed to have every answer.

Notre Dame’s sophomore quarterback continues to look like a savvy veteran, not a guy starting his seventh game. Kizer completed 19 of 26 passes, throwing for 262 yards and five touchdowns. That’s the most of any Irish quarterback outside the friendly confines of Notre Dame Stadium, and Kizer very likely could’ve gone for more had he not turned over the keys to freshman Brandon Wimbush with the Irish comfortably ahead 42-17.

It was far from a solo effort. The irish had the ground game rolling and perfect protection from the offensive line. Able to beat Pitt with both the run and the pass, Notre Dame didn’t need Kizer to go out and win the game for them—they need him to facilitate an attack with weapons at every position and up and down the depth chart.

“We needed to be very efficient on offense and we were,” Kelly said. “I think that was the difference today, big plays on offense. Will Fuller, DeShone Kizer and Josh Adams stepping in for us today. I think that was the best performance of our offensive line to date this year. Probably the most consistent performance for four quarters and I think that was the difference today.”

That consistency can only come when the quarterback is operating at a high level. And that’s where Kizer is, just two months of game experience into his college career.

Earlier in the week, Kelly was asked about Kizer’s ability to step in and lead. He said Kizer reminded him of his backup at Cincinnati, Zach Collaros. In 2009, Collaros was called into action after starter Tony Pike went down. The offense didn’t miss a beat, with the then sophomore throwing 10 touchdown passes and only two interceptions while Pike was on the mend as the Bearcats rolled to an undefeated regular season.

Notre Dame is three games away from doing something just as special, potentially taking a spot in the College Football Playoff, even after they lost starter Malik Zaire in week two and incumbent Everett Golson after spring practice.

And they’re able to be there thanks to the rapid success of Kizer.

Assistants: Polian on defensive depth; Lyght on Love; and Lea on the rover

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Three Irish assistants were available to the media following Notre Dame’s sixth spring practice Wednesday. Each of special teams coordinator Brian Polian, defensive backs coach Todd Lyght and linebackers coach Clark Lea commented on something or other of note. Together there just might be enough substance to justify your time here today.

At the bottom of this post is a video with most of the below quotes and many more from yesterday’s session.

POLIAN ON DEFENSIVE DEPTH AFFECTING SPECIAL TEAMS
The most unique aspect of the special teams coordinator, at least when compared to his offensive and defensive counterparts, is the fact that his charges include nearly the entire breadth of the roster. Aside from the quarterbacks, the starting offensive line and the defensive tackles, just about every player could find himself on a kickoff coverage or return unit.

More often than not, defensive players—accustomed to seeking out contact, rather than attempting to avoid it—fill out most of those spots. That may not be the case with this Irish rendition, and not necessarily by choice.

“We’re not as deep as you’d want to be in some other spots with depth at linebacker and depth at safety,” Polian said. “So where are we going to make up those bodies, and they’re going to have to come from offense. Those guys have made very positive impressions.”

Polian specifically mentioned junior running back Dexter Williams, sophomore receiver Chase Claypool and sophomore running back Tony Jones, as well as sophomore safety Jalen Elliott, as having excelled thus far. When he came to Jones, Polian added phrases such as “real excited” and “fantastic,” echoing sentiments Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly espoused earlier this week.

Along with that personnel shift, Polian wants to increase the intensity with which players approach the third unit. Often seen as auxiliary duty, inferior to position group work, special teams should not include a dialed back attitude.

“The biggest change has to be the urgency with which we attack special teams and our execution and critical efficiency in important times of the game.”

The Indianapolis Star’s Laken Litman wrote a longer discussion of Polian’s comments, including how he will look to supplement junior receivers Chris Finke and C.J. Sanders at punt return.

“We’ll have a gong show and say who wants to get a look that’s not getting a look,” Polian said. “We’ll start firing balls at them and if you drop two, you’re fired. But we’ll find another one or two guys.”

Please, WatchND and Fighting Irish Media, please record all of that. The possibilities for hilarity would extend further only if Jarron Jones or Lou Nix were still around to insist on taking a turn.

LYGHT ON LOVE
Sophomore cornerback Julian Love saw plenty of action in 12 games last season, finishing with 45 tackles and one each of an interception, fumble forced and fumble recovered. Nonetheless, Lyght sees room for Love to improve.

“The thing for him and his development, when he’s uncomfortable … he has to rely more on his fundamentals and his technique and be proficient with his execution of his technique and those fundamentals,” Lyght said.

Love started eight games at cornerback last season, the most career starts at the position on the Irish roster. Thus, despite being only a sophomore, he is already in a position to lead.

“Julian can tackle in space, he can cover,” Lyght said. “We want him to get better in his man-to-man techniques and in his leadership role. He is a young player but he is going to play a lot for us.”

Love will play, and likely start, at the boundary cornerback position. As Irish Illustrated’s Tim O’Malley lays out in an elongated look at all five cornerbacks in the mix, the days of left/right cornerback duties are in the past.

“In the college game, it is a boundary/field game,” Lyght said. “It’s not like the NFL where the hashmarks are in the middle of the field and it’s a left/right game…

“If you get the guys comfortable playing boundary, playing field, they can get a better feel for the game, get a better feel for the route combinations, and be able to execute at a higher level playing that way.”

A quick layman’s translation: The hashmarks in college football are much wider than in the NFL. Thus, when the ball is placed on the right hashmark, the right side of the field becomes the boundary and is much narrower than the left, the field.

LEA ON THE ROVER
How about another take at explaining the heralded rover position in new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme? Let’s here Lea’s quick summary:

“We have a lot of bodies, so we’re really trying to identify who the right fit is,” he said. “The beauty of that position is it is a hybrid, so there are times you want a bigger-body linebacker type, there are times where you want more of a nickel type.”

Lea also took a moment to extensively praise the leadership of both senior linebackers Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini.


Mid-week reading: On Wimbush; NCAA $$$; A look back at Te’o

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A litany of links typically makes for good Friday fodder. A week’s worth of the internet can help any reader through an unproductive end of the week. Unfortunately, spring practice’s rhythms are inconsistent, unlike summer’s constant nothingness and fall’s non-stop charge.

Hey, who said you can’t take a long lunch on a Wednesday, anyways?

MORE WIMBUSH AND WHITFIELD
Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples joined Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush out in San Diego two weeks ago during spring break, watching as Wimbush listened to private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield’s instructions. Staples, per usual, tells a good story, slipping some nuggets of information within it where you may not even notice.

Many around this space have asked who foots the bill when a college quarterback seeks out Whitfield’s tutelage. Per Staples, Wimbush’s mother paid for the week.

Throughout the story, Wimbush emphasizes the importance of a Notre Dame degree, going so far as to point to former Irish quarterbacks Everett Golson and Malik Zaire acquiring their diplomas before departing Notre Dame. None of us know Wimbush’s academic progress—now approaching his second summer school session, Wimbush is likely ahead of the usual second-semester sophomore’s credit pace—but this tidbit may prove pertinent in nine months time. Considering what its pertinence would say about a bigger picture, Irish fans should certainly hope it is of note.

To this memory, the classic image relayed from Golson’s time with Whitfield was Golson throwing over brooms held by staffers, mimicking the long limbs of charging defensive linemen. Those fictional pass rushers have become a bit more realistic in nature, now apparently represented with outstretched tennis rackets.

NCAA GIVING NOTRE DAME NEARLY $1 MILLION
In what has been described as a “one-time supplemental distribution,” the NCAA is dispersing $200 million among its members. The amount each school receives is determined by the total number of full scholarships it gives to student-athletes, with each partial scholarship contributing its appropriate fraction toward that total figure.

Notre Dame will receive $984,724 thanks to giving out 299.20 scholarships in 2013-14. Some context behind that latter number: The football team takes up 85 scholarships. The men’s basketball team is allowed 13, and the women’s basketball team gets 15. The remaining 186.20 are split among the other 20 varsity sports (counting men’s and women’s teams separately in rowing, swimming and diving, and track and field).

Other notable schools:
Ohio State receives the most, more than $1.3 million, thanks to its 403.98 scholarships.
USC’s 279.06 scholarships equates to $918,440.
Michigan’s 353.18 scholarships will yield close to $1.2 million.

All these dollars must be spent it ways aiding the student-athletes. Schools cannot put the funds toward items like stadium construction or coaches’ salaries. Rather, the NCAA indicated the money is for “the direct benefit of the student-athlete and their academic success, life skills, career success, health and safety and student-athlete focused diversity and inclusion initiatives.”

All expenditures must be approved by the NCAA. The money comes from an endowment that had reportedly come to exceed $360 million.

REMEMBER THE TE’O DRAFT HOOPLA?
The below video does not necessarily reveal anything we do not already know about former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o, despite its ponderous title. It does, however, make a good point.

Aside from a sporadic comment deep in the morass of these pages, not much is said about the Lennay Kekua situation anymore. At the time, it was the most talked about item anywhere, let alone in Notre Dame corners. Personally, a former co-worker at the Los Angeles Times called late one night that week four-plus years ago. He and I had not spoken in close to two years, and we haven’t spoken since. But the Te’o/Kekua story prompted him to seek an understanding of what in the world was going on.

In some irish.nbcsports.com history, the day after that story broke—it broke on Jan. 16, 2013, so I am referring to Jan. 17—still holds the record for most views to this particular site.

Good for Te’o to have successfully moved past that saga. These days, every comment former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer makes is scrutinized. He is even criticized for not having excellent timing with Jonas Gray, of all people. Looking back on Te’o, it should be remembered the most dramatic stories, one seemingly crafted perfectly for the internet, fade into the cobwebs of time.

[Here, a link in case the intended embed below fails.]

PHIL STEELE’S PROJECTED AP TOP 10
Enough with the past. Let’s project the future.

Phil Steele, of the revered Phil Steele’s College Football Preview, projected August’s Associated Press Top 10. Steele has accounted for voters’ tendencies rather accurately in years past, so it is not an entirely fruitless exercise. Then again, he is projecting the results of the first of many polls with no actual consequence.

Of Steele’s projected top-10, Notre Dame will face only No. 4 USC.

KENPOM’S TOO EARLY PRESEASON TOP 10
If you think Steele’s top 10 is too early, then skip this.

College basketball analytics master Ken Pomeroy put together his top 10 for next season, though any unexpected draft departures or transfers can certainly alter his calculations. After all, the season is not actually over yet.

Of certain Irish interest: No. 9 North Carolina, No. 8 Louisville and No. 6 Virginia. The last of those has already suffered a transfer which Pomeroy tweeted will “abruptly” end the Cavaliers’ time in his preseason top 10.

SPEAKING OF BASKETBALL, WELL DONE DENNIS, WHOEVER YOU ARE
Math is hard, so take this with a grain of salt, but I believe Dennis’ bracket of “Brey Brey’s Kids” will win the Inside the Irish March Madness pool. Dennis, your $984,724 is in the mail.

Don’t think that means there is no reason to watch the Final Four, though. Your host might be able to rise into the top half of the field, which would be good for his pride, and therefore the quality of writing in these parts.

It shouldn’t be too surprising my bracket flopped. This is a football page. Besides, by my eye, no one I actually know firsthand will finish higher than fourth. That is more of a relief than it should be.

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.