Pregame Six Pack: Another tough goodbye

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Notre Dame will recognize the accomplishments of 27 seniors and graduate students on Saturday, the final home game for a group that has won a lot of games. Sitting at 37-11 since the recruiting class of 2012 arrived on campus, winning three more games this season will mean this group averaged 10 wins a season—no small feat.

When asked about this group’s legacy, Brian Kelly acknowledged the foundation they built, especially turning Notre Dame Stadium into a dominant home-field advantage.

“They can feel proud of a solid foundation and consistency of winning,” Kelly said Thursday evening.

That accomplishment is impressive, especially when you dig deeper into this group. Set aside the graduate students. The 2012 recruiting class still managed to pack a punch, especially considering the star-crossed group that emerged.

The Irish signed only 17 players on that first Wednesday in February of 2012, the biggest news the fax that never came, when four-star receiver Deontay Greenberry picked Houston over Notre Dame. So while the cornerstones of the No. 4 team in the country reside in this group, it’s also easily the most star-crossed recruiting class that Kelly signed.

Five of the 17 signees are gone. Transferred away are wide receivers Justin Ferguson and Davonte Neal. Running back Will Mahone exited Notre Dame after an off-field incident in his hometown. Crown jewels of the class, cornerback Tee Shepard and quarterback Gunner Kiel, never played a down for the Irish.

But 12 remain, and along with a handful of walk-ons and graduate students, they’ll be celebrated on Saturday. And rightfully so. In a game that should likely allow the benches to empty if Notre Dame handles their business, it could be a special day in South Bend.

So let’s get on to the Six Pack.

 

C.J. Prosise practiced Thursday. But if you’re playing hunches, expect to see Josh Adams in the starting lineup. 

Senior running back C.J. Prosise was back on the field today, taking part in football activities for the first time since leaving the Pitt game in the first half. And while he’s making progress in his return to the field, Kelly said Prosise’s status is still up in the air.

“We still haven’t made a decision,” Kelly said, while acknowledging that Prosise is still in the concussion protocol. “But he had a good day today…It’s not my decision to make really. It’s still in the hands of the doctors. But he looked good to me.”

For anybody that’s followed Kelly’s injury updates over the past few years, this seems like a dead giveaway that Prosise will only be available in an emergency situation, one that doesn’t necessarily exist this weekend.

So Josh Adams will likely carry the load this weekend, the freshman taking over for the senior who deserves a hug from mom and dad… and then a weekend off. We’ll also see fellow freshman Dexter Williams, who Kelly said had a nice week of practice.

 

Will Fuller may have declared his intention to return for his senior season. But that doesn’t mean Brian Kelly won’t go through the process with him. 

Wednesday’s big news that Will Fuller planned to return for his senior season sent shockwaves through the college football world. But Brian Kelly’s response was more measured.

Kelly has seen seniors return (Te’o, Eifert, Floyd and Martin) and seen them go (Rudolph, Tuitt and Niklas). But you can’t help but think the head coach learned from his offseason work last year with Ronnie Stanley and Sheldon Day, two seniors that evaluated the pros and cons and both ended up back in South Bend.

So while Fuller sounded emphatic that he’ll be terrorizing defensive backs in South Bend for another season, Kelly sounded like a coach who wasn’t taking any chances with any of his veterans with the option to head to the NFL after this year.

“I’ve told all the guys I’ll sit down with them. I’ve put together folders for each one of these guys and obviously each one of these kids have different circumstances and as to why they would come back or entertain looking at the draft,” Kelly explained. “I think Will’s got some factors we have to talk about relative to staying or going that I need to communicate with him. I’d love to see him come back, but we’ve got to see where it all shakes out at the end of the year.”

Not quite the reaction you were looking for? Me neither. But Kelly was quick to square things away after his initial comments.

“I don’t want to make it sound like I don’t want him back. Very pleased to have him back,” Kelly said with a large grin. “It’s just important that each one of these guys go through the process.”

Kelly’s message isn’t just for Fuller. But likely for Jaylon Smith, KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise, three guys who could go either way.

 

Let’s tip a cap to one of the more impressive seniors in recent memory: Jarrett Grace. 

It’ll be an emotional day at Notre Dame Stadium for Jarrett Grace and his family. The senior linebacker is in all likelihood playing his final college football game (a petition for a sixth year is still up in the air). And while these five seasons haven’t gone the way he planned them, the one-time heir to Manti Te’o’s inside linebacker job has much to be proud of, especially making it all the way back from a devastating leg injury that required multiple surgeries.

“To even be able to make it back was really my goal,” Grace said. “I didn’t know if I could play at all. I didn’t know how my body was going hold up and if I would be able to play in every single game.

“I have been able to contribute and I am more than happy with that. I am preparing each and every week…. I have embraced it and enjoyed every second of it.”

Grace joined the Jack Swarbrick radio show, and Swarbrick and his co-host, linebacker Joe Schmidt, had a tremendous conversation. Schmidt and Grace, two very close friends, talk about basically everything—and what you can’t help but take away is how much they love Notre Dame, and how great they are as shining examples of the university’s student-athletes.

 

The difficult task of slowing down Notre Dame’s offense just got tougher for the Demon Deacons. 

Already a 27-point underdog, Wake Forest didn’t need any additional handicaps. Yet Josh Banks, the Demon Deacon’s top defensive tackle, was suspended for the final three games of the season this week, taking one of the defense’s most important players off the field this weekend.

Wake Forest head coach Dave Clawson wasn’t clear about the issue, only stating that Banks violated team rules.

“I am disappointed this has occured,” Clawson said in a statement. “Hopefully this becomes a teachable moment for Josh and the other players in our program who will  benefit  in the long run.

That turns his job over to a redshirt freshman, with Willie Yarbary stepping into the lineup. And while the strength of Dave Clawson’s roster is a front seven that features some of the best linebackers in the ACC, losing a guy who was supposed to eat up blockers and had started 21-straight games isn’t what this defense needs.

 

With the hype train at full steam, DeShone Kizer continues to be the calming presence this offense needs. 

DeShone Kizer… Heisman Trophy candidate?

Sounds silly, but ESPN’s Mike Wilbon went out and said it on Sportscenter Thursday, bunching Kizer with LSU’s Leonard Fournette in the front pack of the Heisman race. It may be an unofficial ballot, and isn’t anything more than a talking point, but Kizer is picking up fans everywhere he goes. College Football Playoff committee chair Jeff Long pointed out the stellar play of the young quarterback as well.

Don’t expect it to impact Kizer, though. Wonder if Kizer’s busy comparing stats as he awaits his invite to New York? Think again.

“I couldn’t tell you how many touchdowns I even have on the season. I have no idea where I’m at,” Kizer said Wednesday.

Kizer’s ability to stay in the moment will likely be tested in a different way this weekend. With the Irish understanding the benefit of a beauty pageant win, the need to be flashy could bring some unforced errors to an offense that did a nice job eradicating them against Pitt.

The young quarterback credited his position coach and offensive coordinator Mike Sanford. He also talked about the evolution of the offense. But most impressively, any wonder how he’s staying grounded can be answered by his response to the same question.

“Just watch my film. There’s way too many opportunities that I don’t come up successful that keep me down there,” Kizer said. “There are way too many mistakes that I’ve made from week to week. Last week was a pretty successful game for the offense, but there’s still a couple balls that need to be caught. There are a couple passes that were caught that were spectacular catches that should have been pitch and catches.

“I believe that as a quarterback, the only way to ground yourself is to evaluate your performance. I’m not even near where I should be, and there is still so much room to develop and so much room to get better and mature.”

 

Take the time and tip your cap not just to the senior class, but to the wonderful profiles written by The Observer. 

You know Sheldon Day, Ronnie Stanley, Nick Martin and Joe Schmidt. But how about Travis Allen, Josh Anderson, Eamon McOsker and Nick Ossello?

Every senior class member got a profile in The Observer, with Notre Dame’s excellent student newspaper putting together a staggering amount of work in anticipation of the final home game. Do yourself a favor and read them all.

Youcan enjoy the great profile on the decision Ronnie Stanley made to return. But you can also take the time to read about Cam Bryan, a walk-on who dreamed of going to Notre Dame, got in after being wait-listed, then taught himself how to play football after beginning his life on the gridiron on Stanford’s interhall football team—and stuck around for a graduate semester because he knew this football team was going to be good.

(That’s dedication.)

It’ll be a special Saturday in Notre Dame Stadium. And even if it’s expected to be a lopsided Senior Day, it could be a wonderful salute to a group that’s battled through quite a journey to get here—and has an important mission still to be accomplished.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Five things we learned: Duke 38, Notre Dame 35

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The tombstone for Brian Kelly’s seventh football team in South Bend might read:

Here lies Notre Dame. They found ways to lose.

That might lean dramatic, but the Irish are 1-3, a 38-35 defeat at the hands of Duke the latest boondoggle for a team that’s waking up all the wrong echoes. And Kelly’s program—led by a historically bad defense— is plummeting, a free-fall from what seemed like solid ground entering the season.

But that’s what a perfect storm will do. A horrific defense, a schizophrenic offense, poor leadership and a young roster stepping into every trap laid, every banana peel dropped, especially when the chips are on the table.

A week after getting out-classed by Michigan State, Notre Dame faces a much different monster in the mirror.

“I told our guys we’re going in the wrong direction. We’re not going to continue to go in this direction,” Kelly said postgame. “We’ll have to reevaluate what we’re doing, who we are doing it with and how we’re doing it. All of those things.

Let’s find out what we learned.

 

Notre Dame’s defense has infected the entire football team. 

A last-second kneel down was all that kept Duke from crossing 500 yards of offense. But it isn’t enough that the Irish defense is getting decimated by every competent football team that lines up across from them. Their mediocre play has infected the entire team.

That’s what happens when you put pressure on your offense to score every series. That’s what happens when you coach to protect one vulnerability, only to unleash another.

Because it isn’t enough that this defense misses tackles, blows assignments and plays with an alarmingly low IQ. They’ve found a way to infect the offense and the entire coaching philosophy, too.

There’s no need to spend words indicting Brian VanGorder (or Kelly for hiring him) or the position coaches for failing to get the defense in the right position. Kelly made it abundantly clear that any move he makes will likely be postseason, not as some sort of mid-season shuffle.

Because even a back-to-the-basics week did nothing to salvage things. We saw no uptick from working on tackling midweek in mid-September, for preaching the fundamentals; “speed to power” in one ear and out the other, like a Duke player weaving through defenders to daylight.

This defense is toxic and has found a way to derail all three segments of the team, hoisting enough pressure onto DeShone Kizer that it was as much the guys in blue making his afternoon tough as it was David Cutcliffe’s team.

 

Blame coaching all you want, but Brian Kelly is making it clear that he’s holding his players accountable, too. 

Brian Kelly said all the right things about coaching accountability, spitting out the perfunctory cliches—”I’m a 1-3 football coach. We’re all 1-3 football coaches”—through gritted teeth.

But it didn’t take long for Kelly to make his true feelings clear, taking dead aim at the effort and attitude that his team showed Saturday afternoon, making it clear he’ll be looking for a different type of football player to take the field next week.

“Guys that have fire and grit. We had one guy in the entire football team that had emotion and fire. And that was Dexter Williams. He’s the only one. He’s the only one that I saw,” Kelly said after some prodding.

“So if you want to play for me moving forward. I don’t care what your resume said, if you’re a five star, if you had 100 tackles or 80 receptions or 30 touchdown passes, you better have some damn fire and energy in you. We lack it. We lack it severely.”

After another week where veterans were just as responsible for futility as any rookies, Kelly made it clear that he’s set to make sweeping changes to the team that’ll take the field next weekend in East Rutherford against Syracuse.

“Every position. All 22 of them, will be evaluated. Each and every position,” Kelly said. “There is no position that is untouchable on this football team. That’s the quarterback all the way down.”

 

Notre Dame needs to find an offensive identity, too. Because DeShone Kizer wasn’t close to good enough to bail them out. 

There’s no applauding the 534 yards of offense the Irish put up. Because when push came to shove, the Irish offense failed to score when they had two final chances to win the football game—a troubling trend that’s beginning to emerge.

The ground game struggled. Behind an offensive line that’s still making too many mistakes, Josh Adams, Tarean Folston and Dexter Williams were all held below five yards a carry. Only Kizer found an explosive play on the ground, his 23-yarder the only running gain the Irish had over 20 yards.

Kizer put up some empty statistics as well. He was clearly pressing for much of the second half, even after the momentary boost the offense got from the defense after halftime. Kizer’s fourth quarter was one to forget, just 3 of 7 passing for 45 yards, taking a sack, throwing a mindless interception on 3rd-and-20, and short-circuiting any comeback chance with a poor final drive.

Combine that with some head-scratching reads, a handful of missed touch passes and an inexcusable fumble, and it was a difficult afternoon for the Irish’s star quarterback.

“Below standard,” Kelly said of his quarterback’s play.

 

Once again turnovers, special teams and self-inflicted wounds killed the Irish. 

Want to learn how to throw away momentum? Give up a 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.

With Chase Claypool, Julian Okwara and Nick Coleman all blowing tackles, even a serious injury to return man extraordinaire Devon Edwards didn’t stop backup Shaun Wilson from taking one to the house, flipping the game completely on its head when it looked like the Irish could bury Duke early.

Add in Kizer’s fumble, his fourth-quarter interception (and another one he gift-wrapped that was dropped) and Equanimeous St. Brown getting stripped after a big gain, and it’s a formula the Irish know all too well.

“There’s not a lot of things to point out other than the obvious. Three turnovers, all of them impact the game. Sloppy turnovers. A kickoff return for a touchdown,” Kelly said to open his postgame comments. “And the inability to mount anything consistently throughout the game. Once you feel like you have something going pretty good and then we tend to make a mistake and let teams back in the game.”

That’s certainly what happened Saturday afternoon, with the Irish capable of delivering a knockout punch and instead carrying the Blue Devils off the ropes and right back into the game.

Toss in some of the worst tackling—both attempts and angles—you’ll ever see and you’ve got a recipe for defeat.

 

You need to live and die with the kids. Because this might not be rock bottom. 

Bad news: This could get worse.

Because as Kelly mentioned last week, there are no trades, no waiver wire and no cuts in college football. Sure, you can run Brian VanGorder out of town if you really think that’ll help, but it’s only going to add more instability to a season that’s not close to rock bottom—not with offenses like Syracuse, Stanford, Miami, Virginia Tech, Army, Navy and USC on the schedule.

(No disrespect meant to NC State, I’m sure they’ll find a way to get theirs, too.)

The roster that Kelly himself assembled deserves examination. But that’s the group that needs to get this team out of trouble. And it’s tough to say any amount of hard coaching will allow that to happen.

So live and die with the kids.

Donte Vaughn, welcome to the starting lineup. Julian Love, see you there, too.

Khalid Kareem, Jamir Jones and Julian Okwara can’t be any worse at getting off blocks than Andrew Trumbetti—who plays like a two-gap defensive tackle instead of a guy attempting to rush the passer.

Offensively, pass the baton to Equanimeous St. Brown already—he’s clearly the team’s No. 1 receiver. Give Chase Claypool and Kevin Stepherson reps at the X if Torii Hunter can’t scare teams downfield. And if Tarean Folston can’t find that next gear, Dexter Williams certainly seems willing to show you his.

Notre Dame’s football program is in a dangerous place, and all are responsible.

Because lost somewhere between the fancy new facilities, the social media partnership with Bleacher Report, and the sports-science and nutrition commitments that treat this program better than most NFL outfits, a simple fundamental got lost in the process–and this football team got soft.

We could’ve seen this coming. Kelly hinted at worries during the spring and summer, especially as he openly had questions about this team’s veteran leadership. Those problems were exposed in August, when one senior leader thought it wise to drag four underclassmen with him on a Cheech and Chong adventure, all while exercising his Second Amendment rights, too.

So match a lack of leadership with mediocre effort and a young roster looking for veteran examples and you can bet that Kelly’s postgame comments for the media were a subdued echo of what he said behind closed doors.

“It looks like it’s hard to play, like we’re pulling teeth. We’re playing football for Notre Dame! It looks like it’s work,” Kelly said, almost exacerbated. “Last I checked they were getting a scholarship to play this game. There’s no fun, there’s no enjoyment, there’s no energy.

“We’ve gotta look for the guys that want to have fun and play this game with passion and energy and that’s the way we have to go.”

 

 

Where to watch: Notre Dame vs. Duke

Josh Adams Nevada
AP
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It’s another Saturday of football at Notre Dame. And if you’re unable to tune in on NBC at 3:30 p.m., or you want more than our afternoon broadcast with Mike Tirico, Doug Flutie and Kathryn Tappen, we’ve got you covered.

 

For the PREGAME SHOW AT 3:00PM ON NBCSN, CLICK HERE.

For the BROADCAST FEED OF NOTRE DAME VS. DUKE, CLICK HERE.

For the BANDS AT HALFTIME, CLICK HERE.

And your POSTGAME COACHES PRESS CONFERENCES, CLICK HERE.

Here’s to a great Saturday, the first one of autumn.

 

Pregame Six Pack: Back to the grind

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 17: Members of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish sing the alma mater following a loss to the Michigan State Spartans at Notre Dame Stadium on September 17, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Michigan State defeated Notre Dame 36-28. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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Enough has been made about the fate of Brian Kelly’s football team. Now it’s time to play. Because for the young team that takes the field each week, Saturday is an opportunity to improve, a chance to win a football game, and one of 12 Saturdays that serve as a reward for the hard work that goes in all year round.

At 1-2, nothing is served by looking at the big picture. Conversely, it’s Kelly’s job to drill down, making sure his players and coaches understand that the details are what will be critical on this third-straight home weekend.

With the team focusing on the little things, let’s do the same in the Pregame Six Pack. With the Irish and the Blue Devils meeting for the first time since 2007 on Saturday afternoon, let’s focus on six key position groups that will ensure the Irish leave the game at a level 2-2.

 

The defensive backs. Players young and old need to take a step forward. That means Cole Luke needs to rebound from his worst week wearing an Irish uniform and Devin Studstill needs to keep improving. That means the Irish need to hold up not just in pass coverage, but in run fits as well—the focus as much on youngsters as it is on Drue Tranquill and Avery Sebastian.

Without Max Redfield, Shaun Crawford, Devin Butler and Nick Watkins, this group has no reinforcements other than the youth on the roster. And Kelly sounded fairly clear that with the Irish out of the picture for a big postseason spot, he may be inclined to save Watkins’ year of eligibility and let him forearm heal with time.

“We’re at a point right now where we have to make a decision whether we want to get him in,” Kelly said.  “I would say standing here in front of you right now, based upon my conversation with Dr. Ratigan, he thinks it’s still two more weeks, and if that’s the case, I would lean toward not playing him this year. Not to use up a half-year on him.”

That means Nick Coleman’s going to keep playing. Donte Vaughn will get his chances, too. And it’s up to everybody to step their games up—because this is the group that needs to get the job done.

 

The Offensive Line. The Irish front didn’t have a strong Saturday last weekend. And so you can guess that Harry Hiestand let his unit know this week that those results wouldn’t be good enough.

Expect to see a new attitude this week. That means a commitment to sustaining blocks. It means a diligence in spotting pressures. And it means getting the ground game—and the line of scrimmage—moving.

“It comes down to what we do and that’s the way football is, especially on the offensive side of the ball, it’s executing what you need to do and what your job is,” Mike McGlinchey said this week. “Doing that against a look that is in front of you, that’s the great thing about playing offense, especially offensive line, is a lot of it is in your control. You just have to be able to see what’s happening in front of you and trust the guys next to you to get the job done and that’s what’s going to happen.”

Expects Duke’s defense to challenge Notre Dame’s front with varied looks and a multitude of different pressures. But after struggling against the Spartans, expect a very motivated Irish offensive line to set the tone on Saturday.

 

 

The Pass Rush. Brian Kelly called Duke quarterback Daniel Jones “as good as anyone in the country as far as running their offense.” That’s high praise for a young player just getting started, but it’s likely a credit to a smart quarterback and a very good offensive coaching staff. So as the Irish defense tries to find its footing, expect the Blue Devils staff to see some opportunities after watching three games of tape from Notre Dame’s defense.

But a developing set of receivers and a struggling offensive line should give Notre Dame’s woeful pass rush some opportunities to establish themselves. It should also help protect a secondary that found itself in position to make plays last week, but just didn’t get the job done.

The Blue Devils short passing game has had success. But if Duke tries to extend those throws down the field, the Irish defense better be ready. You can only do so much in the secondary. Against a Duke offensive line that hasn’t been at its best, the Irish front should be able to pin its ears back and get after the quarterback, with veterans like Isaac Rochell or a rookie like Daelin Hayes. The door is open to get a sack or two from a position group that’s been missing in action through the season’s first quarter.

 

Special Teams. Scott Booker’s unit has to want to get that bad taste from their mouth. Jalen Elliott’s penalty took a score off the board. Miles Boykin’s mistake gave the football to the Spartans. And Nicco Fertitta took a stupid penalty, getting himself noticed for all the wrong reasons.

CJ Sanders is due for a bounce back. And Duke’s specialists have been struggling, too. If the Irish want to win this game convincingly, they can dominate the third phase of the football game, helping the defense with field position and setting up the offense with a short field or two.

 

Wide Receivers. I noticed Chase Claypool attacking the football. Notre Dame’s coaching staff did, too. Now it’s time to add the talented freshman to the mix, another downfield weapon who can exploit mismatches and bring a physicality to a unit that already features Equanimeous St. Brown.

Duke’s defense isn’t bad. But they’ll be asked to do a lot, committing bodies to stop the running game and hold up the Blue Devils if the offense can’t get rolling. But for as good as DeShone Kizer has been this season, he’s due a few big plays from the guys catching passes. A season after Will Fuller served as a home run hitter, it’s time for an Irish pass catcher to take a long ball to the house.

 

The Head Coach. Yes, I know this is cheating. The head coach isn’t a position group.

But this is Brian Kelly’s team. That means that he’s ultimately in charge of Brian VanGorder’s besieged defense, the special teams that struggled last week and the offense that went missing for two quarters.

Kelly’s been under the bright lights before. And after seven seasons, a little external heat isn’t anything that’s going to come as a surprise—no matter how successful he’s been turning this program around.

 

“It comes with the territory. I know what the expectations are for the football program at Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “When you build expectations you’re going to be criticized. I have no problem with that. I get that. As I said, I’m a 1-2 football coach. If you’re not criticizing a 1-2 football coach, your fan base is pretty soft.”

So it’s up to Kelly to have his team avoid the noise. It’s up to the coaches and players inside the Gug to find the motivation. And it’s up to the team to play with an internal motivation that doesn’t take into account the team’s postseason destination.

The message has been sent, at least if you listen to one of the team’s captains.

“It’s got to be self and team pride,” McGlinchey said this week. “It’s the constant battle to become the best person and player you can be each and every day. And along with that, become the best team we can be every day. That’s the motivation, just become better and do better and continue to work for that, and everything that we do is about.”

The message is clear. Now delivering on it is essential.

Behind the Irish: Gameday traditions

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With Notre Dame ready to welcome Duke to South Bend for a third-straight home weekend, our Behind the Irish feature takes a look at some of the unique home traditions of football Saturdays at Notre Dame.

Brian Kelly and players Nyles Morgan, Josh Adams, Torii Hunter, DeShone Kizer, Isaac Rochell and Mike McGlinchey give us a look at their favorite gameday traditions.