The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Wake Forest

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Notre Dame is 9-1. That’s the main bullet point that follows up a fairly unmemorable performance that saw the Irish win with ease, even if they were statistically held at bay by Wake Forest.

But in a month critical for the Irish’s postseason fate, Notre Dame keeps chugging along. Winning games and playing better defense after a late-game lapse against Pittsburgh killed some forward momentum.

With a special weekend in Fenway Park up next, the Irish can spend the week preparing to face one of the best statistical defenses in the country. But before we turn the page, let’s recap Notre Dame’s 28-7 Senior Day victory as we go over the good, bad and ugly.

 

THE GOOD

Josh Adams‘ explosiveness. Throw away the stat sheet. It wasn’t an easy day at the office for freshman Josh Adams. He took some big hits. He ran tentatively at times. And the Irish missed C.J. Prosise in the short passing game.

But nobody will remember the ten touches that Adams had that resulted in gains of one yard or less. Not when Adams broke loose for a 98-yard touchdown run, all but icing the game when he extending Notre Dame’s lead to 21-points just two plays after Wake Forest nearly cut the lead to seven.

“Obviously, the run was one for the highlight reel,” Kelly said postgame.  “But he is a young man that runs tough, physical, between the tackles, and has size, strength and speed. He’s got all those things, and he’s only going to get better. It’s nice to see a true freshman out there competing at that level.”

 

Getting Healthy. Nobody wants to say it this bluntly, but Notre Dame didn’t seem too worried about losing to Wake Forest. They held back C.J. Prosise, who could’ve played. They rested defensive tackle Daniel Cage and tight end Nic Weishar, both unknown injuries who were also in the concussion protocol.

If there was a big worry for this week, it was James Onwualu’s knee. On Sunday, Brian Kelly gave good news, saying no knee surgery would be needed, though Onwualu won’t be available against Boston College and his return for Stanford is in question.

While Equanimeous St. Brown‘s shoulder injury will require surgery, Kelly expects Prosise, Cage and Weishar to be back next week.

“I’d say probable on all of the concussion guys. Onwualu will be out. He’s got a second-degree MCL. That’s really it,” Kelly said. “We don’t have anybody else that showed any injuries that would put them in any other kind of position from the game.”

Boston College is another flawed football team, though one with a great defense. It’s also yet another opponent with an extended week to prepare for Notre Dame. So having everybody back before heading to Stanford is a good thing.

 

The “high-leverage” defense. Notre Dame’s defense played really well on Saturday, holding Wake Forest to just seven points, only earned after a dubious roughing the snapper call. And even if the Demon Deacons outgained Notre Dame by putting up 340 total yards, it was refreshing to see the Irish defense stiffen when the going got tough—not necessarily how it’s gone this season.

Jaylon Smith made 14 tackles, and was in excellent coverage on a fourth down stop. Joe Schmidt was active, notching 10 tackles after staying mostly off the stat sheet the past few weeks.

The Irish were able to be productive because they were making big plays. Romeo Okwara’s three sacks were all important, including a highlight reel acrobatic play. Sheldon Day added two more TFLs. Schmidt came through unblocked on multiple blitzes, never getting home but always putting a hit on the quarterback. Smith blitzed a few times as well, getting to the quarterback, and then screaming off the edge on the game’s critical fourth down stop.

It wasn’t all perfect, but the mistakes didn’t lead to points. That was likely because Wake Forest’s offense is one of the least productive units in the country. But it’s a step forward nonetheless, holding an opponent below their average and ending a 20-points allowed streak that had gone on since week two.

 

Quick Hits: 

His passing numbers probably take him out of the most ridiculous “Heisman conversation inclusion” I can remember, but DeShone Kizer didn’t throw any interceptions, stayed away from the big mistake, and scored two more rushing touchdowns. (Bonus points for Kizer running over a Wake Forest DB.)

Good job, Chase Hounshell. You got your first career catch. (But miss any more blocks and nobody will remember it.)

You’ve got to think Andrew Trumbetti will remember that gift-wrapped touchdown for a long time.

It was very great to see Jarrett Grace out there running around and making plays. His two tackles came on an emotional day for Grace’s family and the entire senior class.

I liked the physicality of both Elijah Shumate and Max Redfield. Both were active in run support and seemed to play clean in coverage as well.

 

THE BAD

Every other run but the 98-yarder. Notre Dame’s offensive line lost way too many one-on-one matchups for my liking. Wake Forest has talented linebackers and Dave Clawson and defensive coordinator Mike Elko added their share of tricks up front, but too often Notre Dame’s offensive line just lost battles up front.

We saw it from Steve Elmer (again). We saw Quenton Nelson get beat. And we also saw DeShone Kizer struggle to get the Irish in the right protections, spending too much time counterpunching at the line of scrimmage.

There’s no question the Irish offensive line is battling their share of injuries, with Nick Martin and Nelson still playing through ankle injuries and other issues likely kept off the radar. But Wake Forest was able to dominate the time of possession battle because the Irish couldn’t stay on the field. And that’s because Wake challenged the Irish to a run-game matchup with even numbers and, minus one very important play, won the battle.

 

Winning in “uncomfortably comfortable” fashion. Nobody’s opinion but the Playoff Committee matters. But you wouldn’t have been alone if you got frustrated listening to the talking heads and television analysts last night arguing about the horse race for the four playoff spots.

Yesterday was far from an impressive Saturday for most playoff contenders. Throw away Alabama’s decisive victory over a really terrible (offensively, at least) Mississippi State team and it was a survive and advance weekend.

No. 1 Clemson was in a dogfight with Syracuse before pulling away and winning by 10. Ohio State looked just okay with J.T. Barrett at quarterback, too, beating Illinois 28-3. Iowa is proving to be just a little bit better than every average team it plays, still undefeated by surviving Minnesota. And Oklahoma State needed help from the replay booth and a huge late-game rally to beat a three-win Iowa State team.

 

Oklahoma won a big game, beating Baylor in the rain. And some thought that was enough for the Sooners to ascend into the driver’s seat for the No. 4 hole. But can the committee forget that Oklahoma lost to a Texas team that hasn’t beaten anybody else and lost to Notre Dame by five touchdowns?

Who knows. And quite seriously, who cares.

None of it matters until early December. But with two of the easiest games on the schedule both this week and next, it would help if the Irish did more than put up a season-low for yardage and won both games with style.

This wasn’t a tough victory, a three-score lead for just about 40 minutes. But next weekend against a Boston College team who will be looking at Notre Dame’s home game inside Fenway Park as their Super Bowl and bowl game all wrapped into one? It’d be great to win another not-close one.

 

THE UGLY

What’s ugly about a victory on Senior Day? (Nothing.) This senior class won 21 home games, tied for the best four-year total in Notre Dame history. The critics will scour the record books, trying to punch holes in the personnel, opponents or competition, and still find a way to say that Lou or Ara wouldn’t have lost to Louisville or Northwestern.

But it’s not 1988 anymore. There’s cell phones, the internet, and college football played at a different level all across the country.

So even if they haven’t won a national championship or a major bowl game, this class has done something very special. Add to that the fact that Notre Dame’s seniors haven’t allowed this football team to blink even as they’ve lost key cog after key cog.

That means something. And a final home win—even if the play on the field wasn’t memorable—will last for a lifetime, the only important part being an easy victory and a great celebration.

Recruiting success continues with OL Dirksen, class’s 12th commit

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Even in the doldrums of spring practice, Notre Dame’s recent recruiting success continues. Rivals.com three-star/scout.com four-star offensive lineman John Dirksen offered a verbal commitment to the Irish on Saturday, bringing the 2018 class to 12 commitments.

The 6-foot-5, 290-pounds Dirksen (Marion High School; Maria Stein, Ohio) joins consensus three-star prospect Cole Mabry (Brentwood H.S.; Brentwood, Tenn.) as the offensive linemen thus far among the 12. In three of the last four years, Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has pulled in four recruits, with 2015’s two (Trevor Ruhland, Tristen Hoge) as the exception. This recruiting cycle could again bring a limited offensive line haul, given the likely limits on the class’s size.

While any and all current class of 2018 team rankings should be taken with many grains of salt—there are 318 days between today and National Signing Day, after all—Dirksen’s commitment solidifies the Irish hold on the No. 3 class, per rivals.com. Other recruiting services place Notre Dame even higher.

Dirksen chose Hiestand and the Irish over offers from Michigan State, Iowa State and Boston College, among others.

 

Holmes out for spring; Jones & Jones shining

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Notre Dame’s spring continued over the weekend, and is all too often the case with football, that led to an injury. Early enrollee running back C.J. Holmes will probably miss the rest of spring practice due to a separated shoulder, Irish coach Brian Kelly announced following Saturday’s practice.

“We’ll get an MRI and know a little bit further on Monday once that calms down a little bit,” Kelly said. “We’ll get a picture of that and see. He had an open repair on that same shoulder his sophomore year in high school.”

Behind three backs, including two with experience, Holmes was unlikely to see playing time in the backfield in 2017.

Of those three backs, sophomore Tony Jones, Jr., is the unknown after preserving a year of eligibility last season. In limited practice viewing, however, Jones has only impressed. He has caught Kelly’s eye, as well.

“He’s 225 pounds, can catch the ball coming out of the backfield, [is] assignment correct, and can run elusively and can get into the second level,” Kelly said. “What does that equal? He’s a pretty good back.

“Obviously he was noticeable today in his play and he got some work with the first group as well. He wasn’t just getting second-team reps.”

Jones may be getting some first-unit exposure, but expect him to remain behind junior Josh Adams in the depth chart. Considering Jones’ style is somewhat comparable to Adams’, whereas junior Dexter Williams presents something of a change of pace, Williams should see more action than the sophomore, as well.

MORE PRAISE FOR ALIZE JONES
Junior tight end Alizé Jones—rather, Alizé Mack, per his Twitter account—has taken the lead in spring’s race of who reaps the most sound bite accolades. In complimenting Jones, who missed last season due to an academic suspension, Kelly also managed to laud new offensive coordinator Chip Long.

“I think Chip is doing a terrific job with [Jones],” Kelly said. “He’s got a good relationship. He knows how to rise him up when he needs to and scold him when he needs to. Alizé needs a little bit of that.

“He’s virtually un-coverable in certain areas of the field. I don’t care at any level. You can’t cover him. He just has that kind of talent. The one that I think stands out to me in the few days is he’s committed himself to being a blocker and playing physical. If he continues to do that, we’re going to find ourselves with a lot of tight ends on the field.”

Presumably, Jones would join graduate student tight end Durham Smythe in two tight end sets. It should be remembered, Long has historically shown a preference for such formations, and with Notre Dame’s plethora of options at the position, Long’s tendencies have no need to change. For that matter, Long had some praise for Jones this weekend, as well.

“Alizé can be as good as he wants to be,” Long said Friday. “…He’s growing up each and every day. Great joy to coach, and that whole group is. He doesn’t want to let that group down. There’s no question he can be as good as he wants to be.”

Friday at 4: 40-yard dashes and absurdity

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Of all the absurd things the football world often obsesses over, the 40-yard dash may be the most useless of them. Yes, it even beats out assigning star rankings to 16- and 17-year-olds, though not by much.

For now, let’s look past the rest of the inane Draft intricacies, such as former Irish defensive lineman Jarron Jones feeling pressured to increase his vertical jump by four inches. (He did, jumping to 24.5 inches in Notre Dame’s Pro Day on Thursday.) This scribe does not have an excess of time to spend discussing Jones’s outlandish wingspan if this piece is to post by its intended, though unnecessary, 4 p.m. ET deadline.

The 40-yard dash … No football play begins from a sprinter’s stance, yet it may be the factor most crucial to a low 40 time. Former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer posted a time of 4.83 seconds in the NFL Combine earlier this month. For context’s sake, Kizer ran .07 seconds slower than Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did as a draft prospect in the 2004 combine.

Roethlisberger has had himself an excellent career, and his ability to shrug off 300-pound defensive linemen is a testament to his athleticism. Put Kizer and Roethlisberger in the open field together, though, and Kizer would presumably have outrun Roethlisberger at any point of the two-time Super Bowl champion’s career. In Indianapolis, however, Roethlisberger did a better job of getting his hips through his first couple strides of the heralded 40-yard dash.

Here, watch Kizer train for the 40, the most-hyped measurement of his combine.

“The ultimate goal is to have yourself in the best position to have your body weight back in those legs so you can create enough torque to get out as quickly as possible,” Kizer said. “A guy who is as long as I am, with long limbs that I have, I’ve got to make sure that my weight distribution is in the best position for me to get out and catch up to some of those quicker guys who are a little lower to the ground.”

What part of that sounds applicable to football? The 40 turns Kizer’s size (6-foot-4, 237 pounds) into a negative. He worries about the angle of his knees. After his throwing session at the Thursday Pro Day, Kizer summed up the draft evaluation process even more succinctly.

“This process is very different in the sense that the way you look productive in the combine and in a pro day is very different from what productivity actually looks like out on the field.”

Well put.

More pertinent to the actual game of football, Kizer’s completion percentage in the staged workout could have been higher.

Then again, he was throwing to the likes of former Irish receivers Corey Robinson and Amir Carlisle and former running back Jonas Gray. Reportedly, the only contact Gray and Kizer had before the session was Kizer emailing the former New England Patriot the planned series of routes.

The NFL Draft, where Gmail becomes a necessity.

Let’s do away with the 40. If we insist on keeping it, let’s do it twice, once from a standing start and once from a running start. Those would simulate actual football movements: A receiver getting off the line, and a ballcarrier breaking away and trying to outrun the defense.

Asking DeShone Kizer to mimic Usain Bolt is an exercise in futility, idiocy, absurdity.

Cue end of rant.

Why cite the Roethlisberger time? Many, including Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke, have readily compared Kizer to Roethlisberger this spring.

The most notable line of that scouting report (scroll down to No. 32) may be its final one, echoing Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s sentiments from earlier this week.

“The mystery is whether he can regain his assertiveness,” Burke writes. “If so, he could turn out to be the 2017 class’s best QB. The team that drafts him will be taking a leap of faith.”

A leap. Not a dash.

For more Notre Dame Pro Day results, click here.

And with that, this just may make the 4 p.m. posting. You know what to do.

 

Tranquill continues work with safeties … for now

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Drue Tranquill will see time at the oft-spoken of rover position, just not yet. For now, Notre Dame needs the senior at safety to provide leadership and communication while the rest of his position group gets up to speed.

“We really have to figure out what the coordination is going to be at the safety position,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “How much does Drue play down at rover? How much does he play back [at safety]?”

Only sophomore Devin Studstill returns any starts to the safety position aside from Tranquill’s career total of 18. Studstill started nine games last season.

That void has kept Tranquill working mostly with the defensive backs in the spring’s first few practices, rather than joining the likes of junior Asmar Bilal in the rover grouping.

“We didn’t want to pull our most veteran player out of the back end of our defense with Drue,” Kelly said. “I think it was more about the hesitancy of losing a great communicator in the back end than about the teaching.”

The time will come, however, for Tranquill to move up. Juniors Nick Coleman and Ashton White have moved to safety from the corner position. With more reps, they will not need to rely on Tranquill’s guidance as much. The same goes for, at least in theory, sophomore Jalen Elliott.

“It’s not really a heavy load of teaching for those guys,” Kelly said. “They’re picking it up quite well. We really want to get a chance to see a lot of guys back there.”

Kelly seemed particularly bullish on Coleman’s prospects at the position, provided he embrace the needed physicality. At 6-foot, 187 pounds, Coleman’s build may have been more suited on the outside, but Notre Dame’s plethora of promising cornerbacks provided an impetus to test Coleman at safety.

“The big thing will be Nick’s continuous development in tackling,” Kelly said. “You have to tackle back there. His ball skills are really good. We’ve seen that he’s able to play the ball. He has athleticism.

“We just want to continue to build on his tackling skills. If we go through the spring and say, ‘Well, he’s tackling really well,’ we’ll feel pretty good about the move.”

At that point, Tranquill will likely join Bilal at the hybrid position, which is something of a trademark to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Tranquill will be able to do what he does best: Pursue the ball.

“We all know what his strengths are,” Kelly said. “He’s a solid tackler. I don’t think there’s any safety in college football that wants to get matched up one-on-one with a skilled slot receiver. This would minimize that, when you play him close to the ball as a rover.

“And I think he’s pretty quick off the edge. I think we put him in a really good position in maximizing his skill set.”

Until then, Bilal will continue to be the frontrunner at rover, especially with the first four Irish opponents of 2017 presenting run-heavy offenses.

KELLY ON NICK WATKINS
Kelly was also asked about senior cornerback Nick Watkins, his fit into Elko’s defense and his return from injury.

“He’s very coachable, wants to learn, he’s pretty long,” Kelly said. “What I think Mike [Elko] does really well—and this is what I liked about my interactions with him—is, we all have strengths and weaknesses. He has a great eye of saying let’s take Nick’s strengths and let’s put him in a position where we can really utilize his strengths and put him in a position where maybe we’re not a right and left corner team, maybe we’re a short field/wide field team. Let’s apply him in that fashion.

“Nick’s long. He’s a little bit of a physical player. Let’s go to those strengths. He’s shown some of those attributes early on.”

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