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.

 

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s linebackers, a proven two and then many questions

Associated Press
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Any concerns about Notre Dame’s linebackers were allayed when Te’von Coney spurned the NFL to return for his senior season. That decision, and Drue Tranquill making the same move, means the Irish do not need to replace their two best playmakers at the position from last season.

Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Clark Lea does need to figure out how to fill in for the graduated Nyles Morgan and his 92 tackles, not to mention classmate Greer Martini and his 75, good for second and fourth on the team, respectively.

Spring Roster:
— Two known and welcome playmaking veterans in Coney and fifth-year Tranquill.
— More than a handful of unproven and untested possibilities in rising senior Asmar Bilal, rising juniors Jonathan Jones and Jamir Jones (no relation), and rising sophomores Drew White, David Adams and Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah.
— A trio of early-enrolled freshmen in Jack Lamb, Bo Bauer and Ovie Oghoufo.

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman Shayne Simon, a likely rover candidate.

Entering 2017, Te’von Coney was not even a starting linebacker. By the end of the season he was the leading tackler, and in 2018, he will be counted on as a defensive stalwart. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
Wherever Tranquill ends up — be it at rover or a more traditional linebacker position, with the latter seeming more likely — someone will need to earn the third starting role. Bilal is the front-runner for that duty, at either position, but he will need to show a quicker understanding of the game than he has in the past.

The rising senior has always been ready physically, but he has looked up the depth chart at the likes of Morgan, Martini, Coney and Tranquill. Opportunities were not readily available. Now that one very much is, Bilal will need to either seize it or get ready to be bypassed by the newcomers.

It would be a surprise for Lamb or Bauer to be named that third starter in their freshman season, but both could certainly land in the two-deep, as that entire second unit is up for grabs. Neither Jones showed much last season, and the linebacker recruiting emphasis of 2018 belied the coaching staffs’ opinions of the rising sophomores pretty clearly.

Presuming Bilal steps forward and secures the starting position, and some combination of Jones, Jones, Lamb and Bauer fill two of the backup roles, only Owusu-Koromoah stands out as an obvious rover substitute. In that respect, depth remains a concern at the defense’s second level, albeit less of one than in years past thanks to the influx of four touted freshmen.

Biggest Question:
Where does Tranquill line up against Michigan on Sept. 1? More to the current purpose, where does he line up in the Blue-Gold Game on April 21?

“My responsibility as linebackers coach is to put the best combination of people on the field,” Lea said Feb. 7. “I think everyone can see Drue Tranquill had a skillset, a talent base that can play multiple spots. Through the course of the winter and spring, we’ll take a look at different options.”

The duties at rover can be handled piecemeal, accounting for the tendencies of each opponent. When facing an up-tempo, aerial attack, perhaps even rising senior cornerback Shaun Crawford could be featured there. When facing a physical, ground-bound opponent, Bilal would make more sense.

Shifting around like that at the Buck linebacker spot makes far less sense. While Tranquill never necessarily had the speed to excel at safety, and two knee injuries only further limited him in that respect, he shined at rover in 2017. Concluding his collegiate career at linebacker is logical, both as it pertains to his development thus far and to his professional aspirations.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Rarely can a defense lose two of its top-four tacklers and still return more than 200 tackles from starting linebackers. Thus is the luxury provided by both Coney and Tranquill bypassing the NFL for another year.

Coney: 116 tackles, 13.0 tackles for loss including three sacks, and one forced fumble which he recovered.
Tranquill: 85 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss including 1.5 sacks, one interception, three pass breakups, three fumbles recovered and one fumble forced.
Bilal: 18 tackles with 1.5 for loss.
Jo. Jones: 10 tackles with one for loss and one pass breakup.
Ja. Jones: Four tackles.

A 2018 Statistical Thought:
Presuming linebacker health, the three starters should end up as Notre Dame’s leading tacklers once again in 2018, even with the presumed drop off from Morgan to insert Bilal or Owusu-Koromoah or Lamb or … here.

The Irish defensive line will be much improved in 2018. Once upon a time, that seemed a guarantee just because the expectations for the line entering 2017 were so low, but it instead became a strength. Developing that strength and making it the backbone of Notre Dame’s defense moving forward will serve to burgeon the linebackers’ tackle totals, both at and behind the line of scrimmage.

Notre Dame gets the letter: Jack Lamb
Notre Dame gets the letter: Bo Bauer
Notre Dame gets the letter: Shayne Simon
Notre Dame gets the letter: Ovie Oghoufo

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are

A second four-star defensive lineman, Hunter Spears, joins the Notre Dame class of 2019

rivals.com
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When Notre Dame got five heralded defensive line recruits on campus together in January, it turned heads. When Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston offered public optimism about the possible 2019 commitments, it raised expectations.

Notre Dame has now secured a second of those five with the Tuesday commitment of consensus four-star defensive end Hunter Spears (Sachse High School; Texas). He joins consensus four-star defensive tackle Jacob Lacey (South Warren H.S.; Bowling Green, Ky.) as the early foundation to the recruiting class, now with four prospects pledged.

“Honestly, just talking with the guys today — Jacob Lacey, Mazi Smith, Joseph Anderson, Nana Osafo-Mensah, and myself — if Notre Came can land all of us, that would be the dream d-line class for Notre Dame,” Spears told Irish Illustrated. “I could see another pass-rusher or two, also.”

The other three names Spears mentioned all joined Lacey and him on Jan. 27 at an on-campus Junior Day. All five qualify as consensus four-stars, with Smith (East Kentwood; Kentwood, Mich.) a tackle, Anderson (Siegel; Murfreesboro, Tenn.) an end, and Osafo-Mensah (Nolan Catholic; Fort Worth, Texas) a possible end/linebacker hybrid.

From left to right: Osafo-Mensah, Anderson, Elston, Smith, Lacey and Spears. (Twitter: @JacobLacey6)

Landing all five may be ambitious, but it would also be the envy of most of the country.

Spears already held offers from the likes of Alabama and Michigan State, despite missing his junior season with a knee injury. The Irish extended a scholarship offer to him in June, prompting an unofficial visit to watch a 49-14 Notre Dame victory over USC in October. In a video released by 247Sports.com, Spears cited that experience as one of the three primary reasons he committed, along with the educational opportunity and the “overall tradition and culture.”

Spears shows quickness for a defensive lineman, but not such that he would ever be considered an outside linebacker in any form. His size makes him an ideal candidate to set the edge against the run or possibly move inside when the Irish need a quicker defensive line to handle certain opponents. His agility, though, will make him a three-down threat, both a pass-rusher and an edge-setter.

Notre Dame currently has depth at defensive end, but with only one signed in the class of 2018 (Justin Ademilola) and one remaining from the class of 2017 (Kofi Wardlow), an influx will be a priority this recruiting cycle. Spears will theoretically have one season to adjust to collegiate competition before the quartet of rising juniors Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem, Julian Okwara and Ade Ogundeji run out of eligibility. (The first three have two seasons remaining, while Ogundeji has the possibility of three more years.)

Hence, that Junior Day emphasis and Elston’s confidence on National Signing Day.

“I’ve been at Notre Dame now going on for nine years, and I haven’t had a stronger group of underclassmen that I’m recruiting than I have this year in 2019,” Elston said. “This could be the best defensive line haul we’ve ever had here.”

Expect to read that quote again and again (and possibly again) if any of the remaining three in the above photo follow Spears’ and Lacey’s lead.

RELATED READING: ‘Accelerated’ start creates bright outlook for Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting cycle

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are

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Notre Dame will open spring practice in about two weeks. As always, the proceedings will be filled with positive reviews, optimistic outlooks, and an injury or two.

A quick look at each position group should lend a better understanding to those perspectives and effects, beginning with the group lacking many questions — the running backs. The biggest reason there is relative certainty around the running backs is there are just so few of them following the winter dismissals of rising junior Deon McIntosh and rising sophomore C.J. Holmes.

Spring Roster:
Rising senior Dexter Williams (pictured above)
Rising junior Tony Jones
Early-enrolled freshman Jahmir Smith
Rising junior Mick Assaf

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman C’Bo Flemister

No one received more praise last spring practice than Tony Jones. He had a successful 2017, but compared to that hype, it could have been considered under-performing. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
At some point, either Williams or Jones will be named the Irish starter. It is quite possible that will be a distinction without much difference, as the two could certainly complement each other well in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s system, which already prefers to use multiple running backs.

Human nature, though, dictates is more likely one back receives a majority of the carries.

Biggest Question:
If Williams lines up with the No. 1 offensive unit in the Blue-Gold Game (April 21) to conclude spring practice, that will be the first genuine and tangible evidence he has improved as a pass blocker. Despite his big-play speed and seeming-ease breaking tackles, Williams’ one-dimensional game rendered him as much a liability as an asset in 2017.

Even in the Citrus Bowl victory, Williams followed up back-to-back rushes for a combined 36 yards with a blown pass protection resulting in a 13-yard sack.

“You have to be able to protect the quarterback with all positions,” Long said Feb. 7. “That dictates a whole lot if you’re going to play a lot or just be a situational guy. It’s something you have to embrace, the physicality.

“… That’s really the main thing, other than protecting the ball, that’ll keep a back off the field in our offense.”

The best ability is availability, and both an ankle injury and a balky quad limited Williams in that respect in 2017. Little blame can be cast for the natural bruises of football. Nonetheless, he will need to “embrace the physicality” if he wants to become more than a situational back.

Otherwise, Jones will be the default option. He has already shown a knack for both pass blocking and catching, making him a three-down option. Notre Dame will always prefer that rather than tip its hand to a running play every time Williams enters the game.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Obviously, Josh Adams carried the burden in the running game last season. Behind rising senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush and McIntosh, Williams was only the No. 4 rusher on the roster in yards and touchdowns, while Jones was No. 4 in carries and No. 5 in yards and scores.

Williams: 360 yards on 39 carries, a 9.2 average, with four touchdowns. Two catches for 13 yards and one score.
Jones: 232 yards on 44 carries, a 5.3 average, with three touchdowns. Six catches for 12 yards.
Notre Dame gets the letter: Jahmir Smith
Notre Dame gets the letter: C’Bo Flemister

Monday’s Leftovers: Geography, as much as academics, caps Notre Dame’s recruiting possibilites

Associated Press
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A year ago, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly acknowledged a practical ceiling on Irish recruiting efforts.

“Since I’ve been here, if you look at the average rankings, we’re anywhere from 5 to 15,” Kelly said on 2017’s National Signing Day, a day on which Notre Dame secured the No. 13 class in the country, per rivals.com. “We’re going to fall somewhere in that range because there’s a line there we can’t get over based upon what our distinctions are here. That line is going to keep us between 5 and 15.

“We know where we’re going to fall. We’re going to continue to recruit the right kind of kids here.”

Sure enough, the Irish once again fall into that spectrum in 2018, finishing No. 11 per rivals. Though Notre Dame has risen above that range once (No. 3 in 2013) and fallen below it once (No. 20 in 2012) during Kelly’s tenure, his overall analysis remains accurate.

The instinct has always been to cite University academic standards as the greatest hurdle to rising into the top five consistently, but another aspect should not be overlooked. In a recent mailbag, Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples pondered the factors keeping the Irish from becoming a perennial 10-win team.

“Another major reason is a lack of a local recruiting base,” Staples wrote. “No program has a stronger national reach than Notre Dame, but that still doesn’t make recruiting nationally easy. It’s much easier to have hundreds of quality prospects within driving distances.”

That dynamic is a part of why the Irish are better positioned to reap rewards from high school juniors now being able to take official visits in April, May and June. Those time periods are less hectic for most high schoolers, so a long-distance trip may fit into the calendar with a bit less stress. Obviously, only time will tell the true impact of that new change.

Looking at both this past year’s recruiting rankings and the last nine years of rankings underscores and supports Staples’ point.

Rivals considered 33 prospects to be five-star recruits in 2018. Only seven schools managed to sign multiple such players: Georgia (8), Clemson (6), USC (5), Alabama (3), Ohio State (3), Penn State (2), and Miami (2). To speak more broadly, four schools in the Deep South, two in the Ohio-Pennsylvania corridor and one in California, all talent-rich areas, especially compared to Indiana, Illinois and Michigan.

If combining the total signees of both four- and five-star rankings by rivals, Notre Dame signed 12 such prospects. Only 11 schools signed more, including six of the above seven. (Clemson equaled the Irish haul, though its even split between four- and five-star recruits stands out compared to Notre Dame’s 12 four-stars.) The additional five: Oklahoma, Texas, Florida State, Auburn and Florida. In other words, two schools tapping into Texas, two schools within Florida and one more in the Deep South.

If looking at the last nine years of recruiting, the span of Kelly’s time in South Bend, only eight programs have consistently out-recruited the Irish, all but one mentioned already. LSU finished with the No. 13 recruiting class in 2018, lowering its nine-year average placement to 8.0. The Tigers are one of five SEC teams in that group of eight, joining Florida State, Ohio State and USC.

Sense a theme?

It will always be hard enough for Notre Dame to find high-caliber players likely to succeed at a strong academic institution in the Midwest. That task is even harder knowing how far away those players typically are to start with.

Other programs face a similar challenge, and few handle it as well. Consider the 2018 recruiting classes of Stanford, Michigan and Michigan State, for familiar context.

Stanford finished with 4 four-stars in rivals’ No. 63 class. The Wolverines pulled in 7 four-stars as part of the No. 24 class, while the Spartans signed 5 four-stars in the No. 26 grouping.

The Blue-Chip Ratio
Finishing within Kelly’s range has not stopped Notre Dame from consistently having one of the most-talented rosters in the country. If abiding by rivals rankings for consistency, 45 of the 89 players currently on the Irish roster (including incoming freshmen) were four- or five-star recruits.

A commonly-cited metric of a roster’s talent is the so-called “Blue-Chip Ratio.” Essentially, a national championship caliber team will have at least 50 percent of its roster consisting of former four- or five-star prospects. Entering 2017, Notre Dame was one of only 10 such teams in the country.

As should be expected, the other nine included six programs from the Deep South, Ohio State, USC and, as an ode to Jim Harbaugh’s early recruiting successes, Michigan.

A Presidents Day Reminder
Notre Dame cannot officially claim any POTUS as an alum, but both Josiah Bartlet and James Marshall would like to argue otherwise.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Notre Dame’s pending attrition actually intended to improve the roster
NCAA denies Notre Dame’s appeal, vacating 21 wins, including 12-0 in 2012
Notre Dame is right: The NCAA’s terrible precedent matters, but vacating wins does not
‘Accelerated’ start creates bright outlook for Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting cycle
Notre Dame’s successful early signing period now begets early visit questions

OUTSIDE READING:
NCAA appeals committee upholds vacation of Notre Dame wins
A letter from the President on the NCAA Infractions Case
Irish set high expectations for Jurkovec
Elston ‘recruits’ Tillery, Bonner for one last ride
Giants release defensive end Ishaq Williams with a failed physical designation
Re-ranking the longest FBS coaching tenures from 1-to-230
Hip injury to keep Stanford QB K.J. Costello sidelined for much of spring drills