during their game at BB&T Field on October 30, 2015 in Winston Salem, North Carolina.

And in that corner… The Wake Forest Demon Deacons

30 Comments

It’s a special Saturday in Notre Dame Stadium, as the senior class will play their final football game on campus. A group that’s put together a tremendous home field advantage will have to reclaim their winning ways on Senior Day, a streak tarnished during last season’s loss to Louisville.

The Demon Deacons come into Saturday as heavy underdogs. Nearly four touchdowns separate the two teams, the gulf a product of a gut-job renovation undertaken by second-year head coach Dave Clawson.

Clawson has worked his way up the coaching ranks, managing to gain experience as a head coach at smaller programs like Fordham and Richmond before landing a MAC job at Bowling Green. Four good seasons there led him to Winston-Salem, where he took over the Wake Forest program from Jim Grobe.

Joining us from Blogger So Dear is Griffin Kurzius. We traded Q&As (so head over there), and Griffin did a great job getting us up to speed on the state of the program as Dave Clawson rebuilds.

Hope you enjoy.

 

When we had a discussion this summer, concerns about a young roster and a difficult schedule existed. So sitting at 3-6, can you assess this season against the expectations? Any struggles more disappointing than expected? Any progress feel ahead of schedule?

Before the season, many of us at BSD asserted that Wake would be improved in every department except wins. Last season, Wake limped its way to three wins. With remaining games against Notre Dame, Clemson and Duke, getting three wins again is highly likely. This season, however, youthful mistakes thwarted the Deacs from a fourth. As such, the Demon Deacons are lightyears ahead of last year’s team and right on schedule. Last season, Dave Clawson + Co tore down the house.

This year, with 75 percent of the team comprised of freshmen and sophomores, the foundation for the house is being built. Clawson + Co are building the walls and have the roof in place, so to speak. The pieces are on the roster to turn bring Wake back to a bowl game for the first time since 2011. Some fans believe that this will occur as soon as next season, but they will assuredly be back in the bowl conversation by 2017.

As for right now, the fanbase understands where the program is and the current expectations. They are thrilled with Clawson’s recruiting and that he progressed one of the worst offenses in the last twenty years (in 2014) to respectability. This offense actually (believe it or not) moves the ball. Right now, the fanbase isn’t concerned with the color of the front door or the living room fireplace, Deacs fans are content with building a brick foundation with a slate roof.

 

One look at the advanced stats for the Deacs and it’s pretty clear that the offensive line is a mess. Is it just youth? Is that the spot that feels like a game-wrecker, especially with Sheldon Day so disruptive at defensive tackle for Notre Dame?

The starting left and right tackles are both freshmen, which, uh… doesn’t bode too well for our quarterbacks and running backs. Remarkably, this line is STILL better than the revolving doors on the line in 2014. Last season, the Deacs led the nation in sacks allowed. So any improvement is improvement, right?

But in all seriousness, this is a good question. Both Justin Herron (LT) and Phil Haynes (RT) were sought after three-star recruits, Wake’s bread and butter to consistently return to bowl eligibility. With more experience and time in the weight room, the team should be fine. But until then, I sit on the edge of my couch with my fingers crossed for the safety of our dear and running backs.

Yes, like with most of our ACC foes already, Notre Dame’s overall size and experience up front will cause more problems than Mike Myers on Halloween night. With absolutely no wiggle room for the running backs and no time for the quarterbacks, Wake is cornered into calling short-to-intermediate passing plays. Wide receivers KJ Brent and Cortez Lewis both possess impressive speed, size and catching prowess. The question always remains: will they have enough time to get open before the quarterback feels the pressure?

 

On the flip side of that, Wake Forest’s defense is really good. Brandon Chubb is having a monster season. Marquel Lee is disruptive. The Deacs have seen some good offensive personnel—Florida State, North Carolina to name two. What worries you about the matchup this weekend against the balanced Irish attack? Stopping the run? Will Fuller in the deep passing game? (All of the above?)

Like you alluded to with Brandon Chubb and Marquel Lee, Wake boasts arguably the best linebacking core in the ACC. They hit the gaps like a battering ram and have a great sense for which hole the running back wants to attack.

Overall, Wake’s front seven does a great job at eating up run plays and keeping the quarterback in the pocket. The biggest concern this season is big plays in the passing game. Speedy receivers have had success getting behind the defense and striking on home-run plays. DeShone Kizer clearly has a rocket arm and has the confidence to swing for the fences. With Will Fuller, averaging 20.5 yards per reception, the secondary will have more than their hands full.

In Saturday’s game, I expect the Demon Deacons to be stout against the run for three quarters, but allow several big plays to Irish wide receivers. In the fourth quarter, the front seven will wear down and the running backs will close the game out.

 

Talk me through what’s happening at quarterback with John Wolford and Kendall Hinton. Does the adage, “If you have two quarterbacks, you really have none” apply? What’s the difference in Wolford and Hinton’s games? And if you had your druthers, who would be taking most of the snaps on Saturday?

After observing this situation unfold, the adage is absolutely correct. To quickly provide a back story, sophomore John Wolford entered the season as the starter. Wolford is adept at reading defenses and has pinpoint accuracy on short-to-intermediate routes. He got injured and true freshman Kendall Hinton quickly proved his worth.

Trying to contain the elusive Hinton is like trying to put a cat in a cage. He has a huge arm but has suspect accuracy and makes some freshmen reads. They both offer vastly different looks and finally are both healthy. What has been dumbfounding is how they are rotating playing time. Let’s be clear: this isn’t Florida in 2006 where Chris Leak ran the offense and Tim Tebow played near the goal line.

Wolford will get three drives, then Hinton will sub in for three, then Wolford will take two and then Hinton will get his turn. Given their different skill sets, the offense and the playcalling depend on the quarterback. With the frequent rotations, the quarterbacks don’t have enough time to get into a rhythm. Meanwhile, this constant change prevents the other 10 players on the field to feel comfortable.

Against a Notre Dame team that will get frequent pressure on the quarterback, Wake should start a player who will get outside the pocket and make plays out of thin air. This is Kendall Hinton. Does he give Wake the best chance to win every week? No. But against the No. 4 team in the country, he can extend plays and keep the Irish off balance. Overall, it’s an awkward situation and Clawson doesn’t want to isolate either player and facilitate a transfer. This controversy likely won’t get handled until Summer 2016.

 

Everybody knew it’d be a renovation for Dave Clawson. There was optimism during the offseason, even after a 3-9 season. Wake Forest hung tough with Indiana, Florida State, and are coming off a really tough loss to Louisville. The home stretch looks brutal for this team, with ND, Clemson and Duke. But does it still feel like there’s light at the end of the tunnel?

I spoke about this above, but absolutely. As they say in Batman “The night is darkest just before the dawn. And I promise you, the dawn is coming.” Last season was the darkest point of the night. This season, there is a semblance of talent. It will take time for them to blossom, but there are clear flashes of raw talent on this roster. The same couldn’t be said last year. As I said above, many fans believe next year-with an easier schedule (no Notre Dame in a non-conference game)- that Wake has a good chance to reach a bowl. If not next year, the Demon Deacons will return in 2017. There is too much athleticism, youth and development for a turnaround to not take place.

 

Vegas has this a pretty lopsided game with the Irish a 27-point favorite on Senior Day. That feels like a lot of points to lay against a defense that’s pretty stingy. How do you feel heading into Saturday? Is there a morale victory out there to be had?

Our basketball coach Danny Manning doesn’t believe in morale victories. Me? At 3-6. In South Bend. Against the No. 4 team in the nation? Absolutely. Ideally, the Demon Deacons put up an admirable fight and keep the game within striking distance in the first half. But more than that, this is a huge opportunity on NBC and I just hope the Deacs don’t put up an embarrassing goose egg on national TV. Finally, I hope our team gets out of South Bend alive, spirits high, and healthy.

Spring positions to watch for revelations: DL & WR

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 05: Jerry Tillery #99 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish tackles Jerrod Heard #13 of the Texas Longhorns for a loss of yards during the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
Getty Images
37 Comments

If quarterback, rover and the early enrollees could be Notre Dame fans’ springtime Christmas thrills, what positions present as potential spots of coal?

Three former Irish players were invited to next week’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis: quarterback DeShone Kizer, defensive tackle Jarron Jones and defensive end Isaac Rochell. Losing two consistent defensive linemen leaves this year’s unit with some questions. Jones and Rochell combined for 100 tackles, 18 for loss and three sacks last season. Notre Dame’s returning defensive linemen combined to total 111 tackles and only 5.5 tackles for loss. To be clear, sacks are not included in that latter list because no returning defensive linemen recorded one. Among the returnees, junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37 tackles, three for loss) and senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26, 0.5) contributed solidly alongside the two NFL prospects.

This dearth of known and reliable linemen is a large part of why the potential transfer of Clemson graduate defensive tackle Scott Pagano is so intriguing. Pagano would immediately be a favorite to start, and if not that, at least rotate in heavily.

For now, though, Pagano remains a theoretical

By the end of spring practice, who already on campus will emerge alongside Tillery and Trumbetti in the Irish front? Senior ends Jay Hayes (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) and Jonathon Bonner (nine tackles) seem the most-likely candidates … aside from former four-star recruit and now rising sophomore Daelin Hayes. In his debut season, D. Hayes finished with 11 tackles.

Look for senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) to establish himself as Tillery’s immediate backup this spring, but that spot in the rotation will be up for competition all over again once four-star tackle Darnell Ewell (Lake Taylor High School; Norfolk, Va.) arrives on campus in the fall. His size and quickness should play right into new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s system.

Equanimeous and Who?
Not only did Notre Dame bring in a graduate transfer at receiver in former Michigan wideout Freddy Canteen, but it has also already received the commitments of two four-star receivers in the 2018 recruiting class. The continued emphasis on the position reflects the lack of bona fide game-breakers currently on the roster.

Junior Equanimeous St. Brown established himself as the top Irish threat in 2016, and he should shine only further with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush targeting him. Classmates often amplify each other’s success, simply due to the added shared reps innate to joining practice at the same time. With Torii Hunter, Jr., now pursuing a professional baseball career, who will prevent the secondary from focusing all its energies on St. Brown?

Canteen will not be with Notre Dame in the spring, as he does not graduate from Michigan until April. That will give a clear shot for the likes of juniors Chris Finke, C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin, and sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool to establish themselves. Did that say “clear” shot? It should probably read, “a chance to separate from the crowd.”

If a genuine threat does not line up opposite St. Brown, his explosiveness will likely be greatly reduced by focused defensive scheming. Wimbush will need another target before 2018.

Of course, here is where one should acknowledge the millennia-tested fact: Coal under pressure becomes diamonds.

2016 Notre Dame’s win expectancy was 7.2
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Johnson named the Irish as his team most likely to dramatically improve its record in 2017. Johnson’s thinking is based, at least in part, on Notre Dame’s second-order win total having been 7.2 in 2016, compared to the four wins the Irish actually walked away with. That discrepancy was the largest in the country.

Second-order win totals reflect how many points a team should have scored and allowed based on offensive and defensive stats. In theory, this shines a light on how luck and chance factored into results. Naturally, losing seven games by one possession will often be reflected by a higher second-order win total.

“Notre Dame’s win-loss record belied a solid, if imperfect, squad that just couldn’t pull out close games…” Johnson writes. “The Irish may not get back into College Football Playoff contention in 2017, but they’re bound to post a few more Ws because of reversion to the mean.”

Admittedly, the small sample size of a football season reduces the applicability of metrics such as second- and third-order wins when compared to baseball and basketball.

Jones becomes Mack
A quick piece of housekeeping: Apparently junior tight end Alizé Jones has changed his name to Alizé Mack.

While Notre Dame’s roster may not reflect that change yet, it is reasonable to expect it will after its next update. The football program has consistently respected the intricacies of players’ name preferences. Tai-ler Jones becoming TJ Jones jumps to mind, for example.

Anyways, hopefully noting Mack’s name change here might reduce some confusion down the line. Probably not. How many readers possibly read to the actual bottom of an article? But hey, in good faith.

WR Lenzy makes 11th commitment, brings speed to Irish

lenzy
rivals.com
32 Comments

At what point does an impressive recruiting roll become something more? When does it become a harbinger of things to come, even if not for a few seasons? How many notable commitments in a row establishes a class as special?

If the answer to any of the above is 11 commitments by the end of February, including five within two weeks, then Notre Dame is there following consensus four-star athlete Braden Lenzy’s announcement Thursday evening.

The Tigard High School (Portland, Ore) receiver/cornerback chose the Irish over offers from USC, Oregon and Michigan State, among a litany of others. In all, nine Pac-12 schools chased Lenzy—and a 10th, Washington, had shown interest—per rivals.com.

Lenzy will fit the leading 2018 need voiced by Irish coach Brian Kelly three weeks ago on National Signing Day 2017.

“Elite speed on offense will be a primary goal for us,” Kelly said Feb. 1. “Guys that can change the game on one possession. I think we’ll see that… We want a couple of home run hitters. We don’t care if they’re Darren Sproles’s size. We’re going to come off the board in terms of profile. We want some guys that can change the game on offense with elite speed.”

At 6-foot, 175 pounds, Lenzy is taller than Sproles’s 5-foot-6, but it is still his speed that drew Notre Dame’s interest.

“They made it clear they want me to do kickoff return and use me as a deep threat across the field,” he told Irish Illustrated. “Just being kind of an athlete, similar to what I’ve been doing already in high school, just on a bigger scale with a quarterback that can throw it a lot farther.”

Presuming Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush is that arm in 2018, throwing great distances should not be an issue. Between Lenzy and fellow 2018 commit Micah Jones, covering those distances should be a reasonable request, as well.

Lenzy brings Notre Dame’s class of 2018 to 11, including eight four-stars according to Rivals’ rating system. Current scholarship projections indicate the class will not be a large one, meaning the Irish coaching staff has already garnered the commitments of more than half the class. Once again, though, Kelly’s sentiment regarding recruiting timing should be remembered.

“We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

SWARBRICK’S TAKE ON RECRUITING
Kelly credited Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick with much assistance in securing the country’s No. 13 recruiting class in 2017. A refresher on those comments:

“In a lot of instances, [Swarbrick] had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it’s going,” Kelly said. “There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future.”

Swarbrick did not dispute the factual nature of any of that in an interview with the Indianapolis Star, but he did contest the need for praising what he saw as part of his job, one of the preferred parts of his job, at that.

“I can’t say anything about this year felt all that different,” Swarbrick told Star reporter Laken Litman. “Some asked questions about the future of the program and can we compete for a national championship. And I would talk about the elements of the program we were focused on improving.”

Swarbrick and Litman discussed a number of items in the second-half of the interview released by the Star, including Notre Dame’s facilities, a possible early signing period in football and if the Oct. 8, 2016, game against North Carolina State should have been played. Spoiler: No. Then why was it? Go check it out.

Swarbrick also told Litman he likes to write in his free time.

“I tend to think strategically with a pen in my hand.” Swarbrick added he is currently scribbling away on where he thinks college athletics are headed.

This scribe, for one, would be most interested in skimming those legal pads.

Will Wimbush, Elko and the early enrollees surprise in spring practice?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Getty Images
39 Comments

Exactly 59 days from today, the Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Sure, they will be playing against themselves, but nonetheless, it will be somewhat-competitive football played in gold helmets.

For timing context, exactly 59 days ago, you looked beneath the Christmas tree to learn if Santa Claus left you season tickets, socks or coal. I got socks. They had some of that extra cushioning, so I considered them a suitable treat.

Whether you care about my argyles or not (you don’t), for many the Blue-Gold Game and Christmas morning hold similar excitement. That fact is apparently why Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick does not concern himself when groups of alumni publicly lament his decisions, or lack thereof.

“I never worry about that,” Swarbirck told the Indianapolis Star in an exclusive interview you really should read. Go on, click the link, it will open in a new tab. You can come right back here when you are done.

“The hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion in your program. If that sort of stuff bothers you, you can’t be the athletic director, head coach or the quarterback at Notre Dame.”

That very passion will undoubtedly lead to frame-by-frame discussions of video snippets from spring practice, parsing of each and every word Irish coach Brian Kelly says in quick interviews after those practices, and extreme pessimism and optimism about the 2017 season.

In the Christmas spirit, what toys could bring the must excitement during the spring unwrapping? Personally, the gift I was unsure of always brought the most joy. I would rather open an unexpected book than know about a charcoal-gray suit. In other words, at least for today, let’s look past the offensive line, the running backs and the inside linebackers. Instead, let’s look forward to learning about… (more…)

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Karlos Williams #9 of the Florida State Seminoles scores the touchdown that would win the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their game at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Getty Images
41 Comments

Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.

With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.

The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.

Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.

Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.

If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.

Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order: (more…)