The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Pitt

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On a Saturday where we saw multiple Playoff contenders drop by the wayside, Notre Dame’s ability to handle their business was a welcome relief. Courtesy of DeShone Kizer‘s poise and a nice effort by both the offense and defense, the Irish managed to cruise to an easy victory, even while only putting up 437 offensive yards, their lowest output in a victory this season.

Notre Dame lost offensive engine C.J. Prosise, but rolled on behind freshman Josh Adams. And Irish receiver Will Fuller reminded opposing teams why trying to cover him with one man is a bad idea, Pat Narduzzi’s calculus failing a simple logic test.

With Senior Day next Saturday and the Irish big favorites against a young Wake Forest team, let’s take a look at the good, bad and ugly from Notre Dame’s 42-30 win over Pittsburgh.

THE GOOD

Josh Adams. Perhaps Adams will be the player who allows Irish fans to finally take a deep breath and wait until a recruit gets to campus before evaluating him. (Just kidding. I know he won’t be.) Remember, it was Adams who was one of the “head-shaking” offers of Brian Kelly’s coaching staff, a three-star running back with just an average offer list who was also coming off of an ACL tear.

Yet Adams has been what the Irish staff thought he could be—a big, powerful, fast and instinctive runner who has quickly picked up the system and provided a much-needed backup to C.J. Prosise.

We saw that on Saturday, with Adams gashing Pitt’s defense for 147 yards on just 20 carries. He scored on a quick flip from Kizer, and he ran for tough yards on inside looks, something the Irish haven’t been all that successful doing.

Kelly has commented that Adams might just be scratching the surface. That’s a tantalizing prospect, considering he’s averaging a ridiculous 7.6 yards per carry.

However quickly Prosise returns to the field, expect Adams to have earned his way into the rotation. He can take some of the load off Prosise’s back, especially as the senior works to get healthy through some nagging injuries.

“I think he proved to everybody that he’s capable against a very good defense in Pittsburgh of getting deserved carries, earned carries. He earned that opportunity in this game,” Kelly said of Adams. “I think he can lessen the load for C.J. and provide us with another option in there, as well. I would agree that he earned that this weekend.”

 

DeShone Kizer. Notre Dame’s sophomore quarterback had a statistical day that was among the best in Irish football history. His six total touchdowns match an all-time record. His five touchdown passes and zero interceptions push his completion percentage up to 66 percent and his TD:INT ratio to 16 scores against just six takeaways. And his mastery of the offense looks more and more complete, capable of doing whatever he wanted on Saturday against a pretty good defense.

After the game, Kizer talked about how happy he was with the offense’s execution, especially the offensive line going against pressure specialist Pat Narduzzi.

“It was unbelievable. They executed our game plan all the way through,” Kizer said. “We knew that Narduzzi had some tricks he was going to throw at us, but we predicted them pretty well. The offensive line did a really good job executing.”

It’s clear that the bar has been raised for Kizer. That performance felt more expected than anything else, especially with all segments of the offense operating at maximum efficiency.

Sunday, Kelly acknowledged Kizer’s ascent, with Saturday his best game grade of the season.

“I graded him out very, very high. I would probably say right now that he did some things in this game that he hasn’t done all year,” Kelly said. “I think that probably is because he’s gaining so much more confidence and seeing some things that he feels really comfortable with that has allowed him to now elevate his game to the level that it is right now. I would probably agree that it was his best performance this year.”

 

Tyler Newsome. Let’s give Notre Dame’s punter some credit! A week after kicking the ball poorly against Temple, Newsome got back to the basics and launched the football against Pitt, another special teams unit that’s been very disruptive this season in terms of blocks.

Newsome helped flip the field twhen the Irish offense sputtered for a time in the first half, and averaged 51.8 yards per kick with three punts over 50 yards.

“I thought he was outstanding,” Kelly said after the game.

 

Torii Hunter Jr. Hunter chipped in with three catches and scored his second touchdown of the season on Saturday. But more importantly, he unveiled the defense’s newest plan to find consistency in the nickel alignment, with the junior receiver moonlighting as a coverman.

Kelly revealed on Saturday that Hunter had been working at the position for three weeks. On Sunday, he talked a little bit more about the thought process of putting Hunter, there, a part-time player with the ability to take on a bit more workload.

“Torii Hunter shares reps offensively, so we felt like he was a great fit to do some work on defense,” Kelly said.

 

Romeo Okwara. It’s time to acknowledge Notre Dame’s senior defensive end. His sneaky contributions to the pass rush are getting less sneaky by the day, with two more sacks this weekend.

Okwara is up to six sacks on the season, a number not many expected anybody to get to this year. And now that Brian VanGorder feels some comfort giving Hunter reps in coverage maybe Okwara won’t have to drop into the flat anymore.

 

Will Fuller. How pleased was Notre Dame’s weapon with his performance, a game that pushed him up the record books, passing a few guys named Samardzija and Tate?

“It’s just another day at the office. I’m doing what I have to do,” Fuller said. “When the ball is in the air, it is my ball and it is my job to go get it.”

Three more touchdowns for Notre Dame’s assassin, a guy only too happy to face one-on-one coverage.

 

THE BAD

Garbage Time. This team has turned garbage time into a disaster zone. Consider the Irish’s performance against Georgia Tech, allowing the Yellow Jackets to make it interesting. Saturday wasn’t quite as bad, but it sure got interesting after the Irish secondary forgot about Tyler Boyd and Brandon Wimbush gave the Panthers’ defense a free six points.

Put this in the category of champagne problems, but it’s worth pointing out that these things can matter. When the playoff committee goes back and looks at the wins over Georgia Tech and Pitt, they might not be reminded that both games were lopsided until the Irish decided to drive the car like Toonces the Cat.

It’s great getting depth some experience, but not if it’s going to turn into a white-knuckle affair.

 

Jekyll & Hyde Defense. It’s only fair to praise Brian VanGorder’s unit when they do something good after I’ve spent a lot of time pointing out the bad. In the first half, the Irish managed to get off the field after Pitt made some progress, even stiffening in the red zone.

That was particularly impressive considering the Irish were playing without safety Elijah Shumate and still able to hold the usually accurate Nate Peterman to a 3 for 18 first half.

But the second half was a different story. The Panthers scored three touchdowns on their four second half drives, mixing in one three-and-out with 77, 76, and 75 yard touchdown drives—three long touchdown drives for a team that hasn’t been able to do that all year.

As feared, Tyler Boyd broke Pitt’s yardage record on a big play. The good news? It didn’t matter.

“We had a blown coverage and then we were sloppy with the football. If you take those two mistakes away, I thought it was as good as we’ve played in some time,” said Kelly.

It didn’t matter this weekend—and likely won’t until a trip to Palo Alto. But with the look of a contender, it’s up to the defense to hold up its end of the bargain, especially when the competition stiffens.

 

C.J. Prosise’s injury. The good news appears to be Prosise will be fine, with the running back going through concussion protocol as a precaution while he recovers from an “upper body” injury, a very NHL-like classification for what is likely just maximum soreness after a big collision with the ground.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Kelly and the offensive staff holds Prosise out against Wake Forest, if only as a precaution. But the Irish don’t really have the depth to deal with this type of injury, with Adams only now emerging and fellow freshman Dexter Williams still figuring things out.

Walk-on Josh Anderson is an option as well, but this offense needs Prosise—a talented game-breaker who can do so many things as a back and receiver that he demands opponents’ attention. With a pitch count much higher than anybody expected, this is an injury that needs monitoring.

 

THE UGLY

Nothing. Notre Dame is used to returning home after a game in the wee hours of the morning. Saturday? They were home for dinner.

Sure, you can pick at a win like this—missed tackles, blocks and opportunities. But the red zone offense was elite. The pass defense limited Pitt to just 12 of 32 passing and didn’t give up points or maximum yardage on either of the Panthers’ trick play attempts.

The Irish are 8-1 as they head home for Senior Day. In the middle of a trying season, every answer seems to be coming up Irish.

 

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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Kraemer, Eichenberg compete for RT spot, moving Bars inside, and Bivin to…

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Forty percent of the offensive line is essentially set in stone: fifth-year senior Mike McGlinchey at left tackle and senior Quenton Nelson at right guard.

The center position seems to be senior Sam Mustipher’s to lose.

That leaves the two starting spots on the right side of the line for a number of players—both young and experienced—to fight over.

Sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg have emerged as the frontrunners for the right tackle spot, moving senior Alex Bars inside to right guard. Bars started all 12 games last season at right tackle.

“Those two [Kraemer and Eichenberg] are the guys we have mapped out at right tackle, and they’re going to battle,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “Today Kraemer was there. Last two practices Eichenberg got a lot of the work. Eichenberg will go back there on Friday. They’re going to keep battling and splitting the action out there.”

Part of the reasoning in giving the two sophomores extended looks this spring is Notre Dame knows what it has in Bars when at right tackle.

“We would prefer to get him in at the guard position, but we know he can play the [tackle] position,” Kelly said.

A starting five of McGlinchey, the three seniors and either sophomore may seem to leave fifth-year lineman Hunter Bivin out in the cold. Not often is a player asked to return for a fifth year only to spend it on the bench. That is even more rare when considering the current Irish scholarship crunch.

Kelly compared Bivin’s role to that of Mark Harrell’s last year. Harrell appeared in all 12 games, starting two, and provided much needed depth and flexibility along the offensive line. Rather than have five backup offensive linemen, position coach Harry Hiestand relied on Harrell to provide support at multiple spots.

“It’s reasonable to assume that Hunter Bivin’s going to be involved in this as well,” Kelly said. “We’ve just asked Hunter to take a seat right now. He’s done that for the team.

“We think Hunter is going to be a Mark Harrell for us. A guy that’s extremely valuable, can play a number of positions. We trust him, but we want to see these two young players [Kraemer and Eichenberg]. Hunter is a guy that can play right or left tackle for us. He’s going to be a valuable player for us as a swing guy.”

On that note, this space will refer to Bivin as a fifth-year lineman, as was done above, rather than as a guard or as a tackle, until further notice. In his case, the broader description may be the most accurate.

Spring break out west is fine, but Wimbush better be ready to run

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It will undoubtedly become a habit, at least for the next five-plus months. If Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush sneezes in front of a camera, it just might lead to an uptick in webmd.com traffic. His every football move will certainly be analyzed, nitpicked and discussed at length. Thus, Irish coach Brian Kelly being asked about Wimbush’s spring break should surprise no one.

Rather than find a Florida beach, Wimbush spent his spring break working with private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield in San Diego alongside a handful of other college passers. Kelly said there is value to such a spring break but stopped short of setting any lofty expectations of the effects.

“I have no problem with [Wimbush] working out with George Whitfield,” Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice, the first following spring break and the third of 14 leading into the Blue-Gold Game on April 22. “George doesn’t work on the specifics to the offense. George is really working on the quarterback and throwing the football, moving in the pocket. George is really good at keeping those quarterbacks active and moving.”

Whitfield is best-known around Notre Dame and among Irish fans for working with former Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson during Golson’s academic suspension in 2013. Whitfield and Golson spent 10 weeks together, thus granting time for extensive off-field activities such as film study. Far shorter, Wimbush’s time out west appears to have been spent primarily doing drills.

“In those situations, it’s a bullpen session,” Kelly said. “They’re keeping their arms loose, they’re keeping their feet loose. He’s just keeping them active.”

It is hard to construe that activity as a negative, but it obviously lacks certain aspects crucial to Wimbush’s 2017 season. With only five career pass attempts and seven career rushes, Wimbush’s inexperience looms large. Developing the necessary intangibles to account for that may be just as, if not more, important as fitting his throws into tight windows.

“When it comes to the playbook, to his teammates, to his coaches here, Brandon understands that when the rubber hits the road, those are the guys that matter the most,” Kelly said. “He knows when it’s time for Notre Dame football, where the focus is.”

Included in that playbook will be an expectation for Wimbush to carry the ball. To date, Wimbush’s biggest play and possibly only imprint on most Notre Dame fans’ memories is a 58-yard touchdown scamper against Massachusetts in 2015.

Link to 17-second YouTube video which has unfortunately disabled embedding

Note, the play is not exclusively-designed for Wimbush to run. Now a rising junior, then a fellow freshman, running back Josh Adams comes across Wimbush’s front for a possible handoff. Instead, Wimbush makes the correct read and keeps the ball. Why state so clearly it was the proper read? Adams has to evade a Texas defender even though he never had the ball.

Future option plays should present Wimbush with the possibility of throwing the ball, too.

“He’ll be a runner in the offense,” Kelly said. “Do we want him to carry the ball 20 times? No.”

“I don’t think you’ll have a situation where we’re calling quarterback power or singular runs. He’s going to have options: hand it off, throw the ball out on the perimeter. You’ll see more of that than you will prescribed quarterback runs. We had a little bit more of that last year with Kizer, but I think you’ll see that he has an option to get the ball out of his hands more so than just prescribed runs.”

Those option plays, in particular, will require Wimbush to have a thorough familiarity both with the Notre Dame playbook and with his teammates’ tendencies.

RITA LEE OR 52-53?
Staying consistent with his comments over the last two months, Kelly once again reiterated the biggest changes new offensive coordinator Chip Long will bring to the Irish playbook will be in its wording. Perhaps going to an extreme example to illustrate his thinking, Kelly pointed to the future.

“We’re going to win next year and Chip is going to be the greatest offensive coordinator in the country and he’s going to get a head job, right?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “Then I’m not going to introduce the Chip Long offense to the next offensive coordinator.”

“It has to have my culture in it … The culture of the offense is still the base offense that I have always run because I have to be able to carry that with me from year to year.”

Within that ellipsis, Kelly gave two examples of possible verbiage changes. Without knowing much more behind them, they do not mean too much out here in the cobwebs of the internet, but they do provide a quick glimpse at what Kelly has been referring to when discussing lexicon since hiring Long.

“If he wants to change Ringo Lucky protection to Ram and Lion protection, go right ahead. If he wants to change certain calls, for example, 52-53 protection is now Rita Lee.”

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