And in that corner… The Wake Forest Demon Deacons

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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.

Work in weight & film rooms has Hayes ready to meet five-star potential

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Common thinking might give four- and five-star recruits too much credit. They do not all arrive ready to play at the collegiate level on day one. It takes time, conditioning, learning. Perhaps it was that awareness that kept Daelin Hayes from letting his five-star ranking on rivals.com change his expectations. He knew he would have much work ahead of him when he arrived at Notre Dame as the only five-star prospect in the class of 2016.

Now finishing his freshman year, the defensive end notices the effects of his work as he puts in more.

“I remember my first time watching film, I was like, woah,” Hayes said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “I look quicker, like more twitch than I did. I was definitely—it’s hard to put into words—but to actually be able to go back and look at it and see how it affected the game was huge. [Director of football performance Matt] Balis has worked wonders for us.”

Hayes’ improved quickness showed in his three “sacks” in the intrasquad scrimmage. Going against future NFL prospect Mike McGlinchey at left tackle, Hayes faced a stiff challenge throughout spring’s 15 practices, not that he shied away from that task.

“I don’t think it was ever a point where it was overwhelming,” Hayes said. “I’ve always been a competitor. … But you guys know Mike, he’s huge, obviously a first-round talent and whatnot. I’m just grateful to be able to go against somebody like that each and every day. He makes me better. …

“I love competing with the guy. You go and do that with a guy in practice every day, then the game scenario comes, it’s like second nature. You can do this in practice, you can definitely do this against anybody.”

McGlinchey does not seem to mind the matchup, either.

“Daelin is a man who is blessed with a lot of size and athletic ability,” McGlinchey said Friday. “That presents a lot of problems for people in the game of football. He’s so young, and he has so much still to work on, it’s pretty cool to see what he’s capable of and then what he is going to do down the road.”

When Hayes arrived at Notre Dame, still recovering from a high school shoulder injury, he weighed 250 pounds with 18 percent body fat. Now, he said, he still weighs 250—the Irish roster lists him at 255—but is down to 10 percent body fat. It is that kind of change which has created more twitch and makes McGlinchey envision Hayes after more time spent improving in the weight room and the film room.

“I’m not the same athlete that I was when I first came in, not by any means,” Hayes said. “… Buying into that offseason program is going to be huge for our team.”

Per the Blue-Gold Game’s statistics, Hayes ended the scrimmage with seven tackles. Whether skeptical of the recordkeeping within a practice or not, seven tackles in one abbreviated afternoon compares favorably to Hayes’ total of 11 in 12 games last season. Some of that uptick is playing time, some of it is scheme, some of it is realization of the potential highlighted by a five-star ranking. For now, though, Hayes insists he intends to simply learn from last year’s 4-8 disappointment and embrace the changes brought by new Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko.

“With last year being the year that we had, there definitely was a yearning for change,” Hayes said. “When you have basically a reboot of the program, the guys are hungry and they don’t want to have to experience the same season as last year.

“Just continue to trust in that process. We’re hungry for something to cling on and buy into. When coach Elko, coach Balis, everybody came in as part of that reboot, I think we welcomed with open arms. [We’ll] continue to buy into the system and become more comfortable within the system.”

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line

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Heading into spring practice, a quick look was taken at each position group in order of “expected level of interest or question marks,” from least interesting to most, as dictated by an “Inside the Irish” reader. That series concluded with the defensive line.

Exiting spring practice, let’s reprise that premise and reverse the order. If the defensive line triggered the most questions, then answering them first seems to make some version of sense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
“Will enough defensive linemen prove themselves deserving of playing time to create a viable threat up front?” this space asked. “If so, who will those linemen be?”

RELATED READING: One day until spring practice: A look at the defensive line

Aside from senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26 tackles last season, 0.5 for loss), senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss amid a season lost largely to concussion) and junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37, 3), the Irish defensive line had little track record to cite or rely upon for confidence. Leading the unknowns and unprovens were sophomore ends Daelin Hayes, who recorded 11 tackles in 2016, and Julian Okwara (4).

The lack of depth and experience was apparent heading into the 15 spring practices.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
Look past the 11 sacks in the Blue-Gold Game. Intrasquad scrimmages featuring red-jerseyed quarterbacks make for inexact and context-less statistics. There is some value, however, in noting the defensive line got within reach of the quarterback at least eight times in an abbreviated game. (Three “sacks” came from the linebacker corps.)

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, just buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

RELATED READING: What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

Hayes led the way with three sacks, and he will be expected to continue that in the fall, starting at the weakside/rush defensive end spot. Exiting spring, though, only he and Tillery solidified themselves as starters. Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Mike Elko claimed a successful spring for the front.

“I’m happy with our defensive line progress,” Elko said Friday. “Obviously there was a lot written about that group. I’m happy about the progress they’ve made this spring. I think [defensive line coach] Mike [Elston] has done a good job developing them. I think they are buying into the way we want to play defense. There’s probably four to five guys on the inside that are starting to get into a position where we feel comfortable that they can step in and help us.” (more…)

Brian Kelly & Jack Swarbrick on Notre Dame’s changes moving forward

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Whether 2016’s disappointing 4-8 finish was the impetus to program-wide alterations at Notre Dame this offseason, it certainly underscored the need. For the last few months, Irish coach Brian Kelly has focused those changes on himself and self-assessment, and he reiterated that approach when talking with PFT Live’s Mike Florio early Monday morning.

“This is my 27th year of being a head coach, and prior to last year I had one losing season,” Kelly said. “You have a way of doing things, you have a system in place, you follow that year after year. Certainly you make tweaks along the way, but this is the first time where I’ve really taken a step back and made substantial changes in terms of how I’m doing things on a day-to-day basis…

“From my perspective, after being at it as long as I have, you have to take it on yourself that you’re the one that needs to make the corrections. It’s not the players.”

None of this is new. Kelly has been consistent in his springtime messaging, but others have looked past the effects of the 4-8 record and insist the changes were coming regardless of the win-loss totals. Senior captain Drue Tranquill, for example, acknowledged the severity of the losing record Friday but argued adjustments were needed no matter what the final scores were.

“If you have an average season like 8-4, some things might carry over to the next season,” Tranquill said the day before the spring practice finale. “Whereas when you go 4-8, something has to change.

“But I think even at Notre Dame, 8-4 is never really acceptable or tolerated. Those things that were taking place, just within our culture, would have been noticed whether we were 10-3, 4-8. The criticism gave it a lot more hype and juice. We could kind of feel as guys in the program throughout the past three years that certain things needed to change.

“Those things were finally brought to light and it happened to be during a 4-8 season. I don’t necessarily know that 4-8 was the reason all this change happened.”

New Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko expressed a similar sentiment Friday morning, discussing the pressure moving forward.

“If we were coming off a 12-0 season in which we were competing for the national championship, there would be pressure on us at Notre Dame to be successful this year,” Elko said. “That’s Notre Dame.”

Elko has been a quick study, as his comments were echoed the next day by Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick during NBC Sports Network’s broadcast of the Blue-Gold Game.

“We expect to compete for national championships and 4-8 is not acceptable,” Swarbrick said. “On the other hand, when you’re in that situation, you have to decide how you’re going to move forward. We decided to move forward by making a major investment in retooling our program with Brian as the leader of it. That’s not a one-year investment for us. We brought in some talented assistant coaches. We rebuilt elements of the program

“We view it as a multi-year investment going forward.”

KELLY ON RECRUITING PITCH
Using this week’s NFL Draft as a peg, Florio also asked Kelly about balancing players’ NFL aspirations with team success both in the recruiting process and during the actual season.

“We have to talk more in terms of process over production,” Kelly responded. “We talk in terms of you’re coming to Notre Dame for a reason. You’re going to get a degree, which will set you up for the rest of your life, and you’re going to play on the grandest stage at Notre Dame, so everybody will see you.

“As long as there’s the balance there—and there has to be that balance in terms of getting your education and playing for championships—then we’re okay. It’s when that balance is out of whack, we’ll have an issue. We vet that out in the recruiting process and make sure we don’t take any kids that are coming to Notre Dame just because they’re waiting for that [junior] year to complete so they can go to the draft.”

A reminder: The NFL Draft begins with its first round Thursday night. Kelly will be joining former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer at the draft in Philadelphia to await Kizer’s destination and future employer.

MISSED THE BLUE-GOLD GAME?
It is available for streaming: here.

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?