Pregame Six Pack: Here comes the Green Monster

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Fenway Park’s iconic Green Monster has transformed, the left field wall now an ode to the Fighting Irish and Notre Dame. Sound crazy? That’s the least of it.

Saturday night’s Shamrock Series game against Boston College will be different. (From TV viewers, here’s your most recent reminder—the broadcast is up the dial at NBCSN, not on NBC Sports.)

Playing in their hometown, the Eagles will be visitors. They’ll also be dressing at home—loading onto buses after prepping for the game across town in the comfort of their own facilities, a much easier logistical move than trying to jam a football team into the already cramped visitor’s locker room underneath the baseball stadium.

On paper, the Eagles are heavy underdogs, with Notre Dame a more than a two-touchdown favorite. But as we’ve seen in this series time and time again, weird things happen. So with the Frank Leahy Trophy on the line, the Irish get a chance to go for their 10th victory of the season.

Let’s get to the pregame six pack.

 

Without Daniel Cage, how will the Irish defensive line look?

On the stat sheet, sophomore nose guard Daniel Cage’s impact has been minimal. In nine games, Cage has made 17 total tackles, chipping in three tackles for loss. But for the second straight game, Cage will be held out as he deals with a concussion. And as we saw last week, his departure triggers quite a change for the defensive line.

Starting defensive end Isaac Rochell slid inside to tackle, pairing him with Sheldon Day, who still bounced inside and out. That forced sophomore Andrew Trumbetti into the lineup opposite Romeo Okwara. While Trumbetti made one of the biggest plays of the game with his interception for a touchdown, he also was more than a little bit loose on some run fits.

Notre Dame’s rushing defense struggled at times against Wake Forest, a surprise considering the Demon Deacons relative youth along the offensive line. Against Boston College’s anemic offense, the Eagles will take anything they can get—especially on the ground, head coach Steve Addazio’s preferred method of transportation.

Getting Cage healthy is critical, especially with a game against Stanford looming. So is getting the light to go back on for Jerry Tillery, the freshman seemingly stuck in neutral after a strong start to the season.

Last week we saw rare appearances from Jon Bonner and Grant Blankenship. They’ll likely get another chance to compete. But the Irish are at their best with Rochell lined up across from Okwara on the outside and Tillery and Cage sharing time next to Day.

Cage’s progress for next week is worth monitoring. So is how the Irish play this weekend without their starting nose guard.

 

C.J. Prosise is back in the lineup. Now finding ways to make him productive is the next step. 

Notre Dame’s running game has one of their toughest matchups this season on Saturday night. With Boston College leading the nation in rush defense, it’s foolish to think the Irish want to go toe-to-toe with the Eagles’ front seven.

For as good as the Irish offensive line has played this season, they haven’t been great triggering a north and south rushing attack. The heat will be on guards Quenton Nelson and Steve Elmer and center Nick Martin. They’ll be facing off against a disruptive duo in defensive tackles Connor Wujciak and Truman Gutapfel.

The struggles on the ground aren’t just on the interior of the offensive line. They’re also a product of the learning curve both C.J. Prosise and Josh Adams have faced, each seeing life as a college football running back for the first time.

While we’ll likely see DeShone Kizer throwing the football early and often, Notre Dame won’t abandon the ground game completely. But as the Irish try to manufacture a rush offense, expect to see Notre Dame attack the Eagles on the edges.

We’ve seen Prosise be productive running stretch plays or outside zones. He’s also been a weapon lined up in the slot, taking jet sweeps around the edge. The Irish have to feel good about their matchups at offensive tackle with Ronnie Stanley and Mike McGlinchey. But if they can’t get good support from tight ends Chase Hounshell and Tyler Luatua blocking, it’ll be tough sledding outside as well as in the trenches.

 

The logistics of substitutions are going to be a challenge for both teams. 

We will see the “peculiarities” of Fenway Park from the onset of Saturday night’s game. Mainly, the fact that both Notre Dame and Boston College will be sharing a sideline.

In many ways it’ll look like the Hockey East showdowns between the Irish and the Eagles on Saturday night, with the long change playing a significant part in substitutions, especially down by the opposite goal line. Depending on the direction, there’s a chance each team will have to send substitutes on a significant run—hitting the field from the opposite side of the 50-yard line as they enter the game in goal line situations. That’s been an area of concern for Brian Kelly this week.

“We had to work a lot on the logistics of getting personnel in and out from the sidelines, which is a little more in-depth than you might think, trying to get your group down there,” Kelly said on Thursday.

The biggest difference is bringing personnel in around the goal lines. Both Kelly and Boston College coach Steve Addazio have already been on conference calls with the officiating crew this week, confirming the ground rules for the evening. And that’s set up a new set of circumstances that’ll sometimes have players sprinting off the field inside the 5-yard line, and then running around the opposing team’s bench, with each team controlling 40 yards between the 5-yard line and the 45.

“We can leave from the 4-yard line to the back of the end zone and then go behind their team bench,” Kelly explained. “We can never go and leave the field from the 5- to the 45. But we can leave from the 4- to the end line and then go back around.”

Confused? Let’s hope the Irish aren’t. Because after seeing Notre Dame struggle with personnel changes on the fly last season against no-huddle attacks, getting the right guys on the field in scoring situations is critical.

 

If the Irish get ahead, it could be another big day for Romeo Okwara. 

Romeo Okwara ranks eighth in the country in sacks with nine. No, that’s not a typo. Okwara’s late surge—five sacks in the past two weeks—has catapulted him into the national picture when it comes to rushing the passer, a sentence nobody expected to read this year (and I certainly didn’t think I’d type).

But Okwara’s great play is coming at the perfect time. And if Boston College’s horrific offense gets forced to play catch up, Okwara could be feasting on walk-on quarterback John Fadule early and often.

The Eagles offensive line has struggled (to be kind). Drilling down a bit farther, ProFootballFocus’s grading system has BC’s five starting offensive linemen as the offense’s five lowest-graded players. Among them are starting tackles Dave Bowen and Aaron Monteiro, who Okwara will spend the evening lining up against.

It’s not ridiculous to think that Okwara could put together another double-digit sack output, especially if the Irish offense scores some early points. That could allow the senior to make an unlikely run at the Notre Dame record books, with Stephon Tuitt (12) and Justin Tuck (13.5) within reach with three games to go.

 

Will Steve Addazio and Don Brown put Boston College’s secondary in one-on-one matchups with Will Fuller? (They shouldn’t.)

When trying to come up with a game plan to contain Notre Dame’s running game and wide receiver Will Fuller, Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi essentially threw up his hands during his postgame press conference.

“We changed it up a little bit,” Narduzzi said after the game. “But he’s a good football player, what are you going to do?”

What you can do is commit multiple defensive backs to containing Fuller, something Wake Forest did as they limited Notre Dame’s All-American candidate to just three catches. But in Boston College’s downhill, stacked-box scheme, the Eagles rely on their secondary to hold their ground, doing so in man coverage with not a lot of help.

That’s likely a recipe for disaster, especially with injuries wreaking havoc on the Boston College secondary.

The Eagles might be finding themselves in a quandary not dissimilar to the one Pitt had. While Boston College’s personnel in the front seven is far superior to Pitt’s, providing help to the back end could erode the rush defense’s superiority, a key piece of the puzzle for the Eagles.

Notre Dame’s big-play ability needs to emerge. The Irish have already scored 11 touchdowns of 50+ yards this season, believed to be a school record.

While the Eagles are the nation’s best statistical defense, big plays have still found a way to derail them. Early in their 24-8 loss to North Carolina State, the Wolfpack hit on a 83-yard touchdown pass. Clemson’s Artavis Scott scored on a 51-yarder on a day that the Tigers racked up 532 yards and 420 through the air.

Fuller already has 12 touchdown catches on the season, needing three more to match his shared school record. He could make some very good progress towards that Saturday night if the Eagles leave him on an island.

 

Saturday night is all about DeShone Kizer’s ability to manage the game and the offense. 

No player faces a bigger test that sophomore quarterback DeShone Kizer. With the gameplan likely hoisted onto his shoulders, Kizer will have to be smart with the football, cognizant of the Eagles’ ability to wrack up tackles for loss, and efficient with his opportunities.

Kizer has passed just about every test he’s faced this year. The Eagles defense is another great one, especially a week before heading to Stanford. Schematically, both teams share similarities. Kizer’s success on Saturday will be predicated on his ability to stay aggressive when opportunities present themselves, while also understanding that sometimes the best play he can make is avoiding the negative one.

The downfield passing game should allow Kizer to take some shots. The screen game could also be a big part of the puzzle, especially as the Irish try to loosen up the Eagles front seven. But all of it demands smart play from the quarterback.

Kizer’s shown himself to be a quick study this season. With the nation’s top defense across from him, we’ll see how he stacks up.

 

 

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?

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

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Time spent on a traditional game wrap of a spring intrasquad exhibition seems misspent. Gold won Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game 27-14 led by rising sophomore quarterback Ian Book. The first-string defense (Gold) held the first-string offense to an average of 5.4 yards per play. For context’s sake: Last season Notre Dame gained an average of 6.1 yards per play and held opponents to 5.4.

With that abbreviated recap out of the way, what did Saturday’s pseudo-game environment show about the Irish? If the 20,147 in attendance paid attention, they had the chance to learn a few things:

Daelin Hayes will be ready to hit a quarterback in September
Notre Dame’s quarterbacks were off limits all spring. Bulls might charge when they see red, but the Irish defensive line has had to remember to ease up when they come across a quarterback’s red jersey. If sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes had forgotten that Saturday, Notre Dame might not have any quarterbacks left to play in the fall.

“At the end of the day, we’re on the same team,” Hayes said, dismissing any bitterness about the quarterbacks’ protections. “We have to keep our guys healthy. I wasn’t frustrated, but come September 2, you know.”

Officially, Hayes was credited with three sacks and another tackle for loss among his seven tackles. Admittedly, gauging sacks is tricky when the quarterback does not actually go to the ground. How many of Hayes’ three sacks and the defense’s 11 total would have been evaded if the defender needed to do more than touch the passer? That answer is highly subjective, but discounting Hayes’ numbers would miss the bigger picture.

“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, buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

Senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) notched two sacks and sophomore end Ade Ogundeji came the closest to tackling a red jersey when he stripped junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush from behind. The defensive line has been expected to be a weak point for the Irish moving forward, but the spring performance indicates it has a chance at holding its own. These accomplishments bear further merit considering Notre Dame’s offensive line is widely-considered one of its few spots of expected quality.

RELATED READING: Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

“I think it’s pretty clear Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I’d have to watch the film, but it seemed like [sophomore end] Julian Okwara was a hard guy to block coming off the edge, as well.”

Ian Book provides some peace of mind
Book was not spectacular, but he was also far from incompetent or intimidated. In his first action on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, Book completed 18-of-25 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by a 58-yard connection with sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. Meanwhile, junior Brandon Wimbush completed 22-of-32 passes for 303 yards.

Bluntly, one has not needed to follow Notre Dame for very long to fit that “long enough” qualification. Last season’s backup, Malik Zaire, saw competitive action against both Texas and Stanford. In 2015, DeShone Kizer came off the bench to start 11 games after Zaire suffered a season-ending ankle injury. (more…)

What Notre Dame players should you actually watch? Plus, catch up on reading

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If technology does its part, this will post as its typist meanders toward finding his credential for the Blue-Gold Game to conclude Notre Dame’s spring practice. If technology doesn’t do its part, well, then this will be lost to the cobwebs of the internet. Such as it goes.

This space has spent much of the past week discussing what to look for in the 12:30 p.m. ET exhibition. Worry about the big picture, not the individuals. Fret about the macro, not the micro.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the indivdual players
Blue-Gold Game primer with help from Notre Dame’s coordinators
Four defensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game
Four offensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game

But, if insistent on focusing on singular players, look to the inexperienced, the names you are unfamiliar with. The 15th and final practice of spring may be no more than a practice in reality, but it is in front of nearly 30,000 fans in Notre Dame Stadium. Some players do not have so much as that minimal experience.

“The Blue-Gold Game, specifically, is a time for us to emulate a game-like situation,” senior safety/linebacker/rover Drue Tranquill said. “Especially for guys like freshmen, second-semester guys coming in, it’s a great opportunity for them to get that game feeling, but also continue to take steps in the process to get better.”

The question on the tip of your tongue is a fair one. If you are unfamiliar with the names, how are you supposed to focus on those players? How are you to know who fits the appropriate tunnel vision version of perspective?

Let’s turn to Irish coach Brian Kelly’s mentions from Wednesday–primarily, sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara, sophomore long snapper John Shannon, senior kicker Sam Kohler, sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem and sophomore safety Jalen Elliott.

Obviously, that is just a sampling. Less obviously, this post’s purpose may or may not be to link to previous reading material and remind you of the vague but pertinent purposes to today’s endeavor. It is neither be-all nor end-all. It is simply another opportunity to gauge what may come down the line.

But hey, how about a prediction? Per Kelly, the first-team offense and second-team defense will be in blue, against the first-team defense and second-team offense in white.

PREDICTION: Blue 37, White 21

HOW TO WATCH
As a recurring reminder, the Blue-Gold Game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network, as well as streamed online at ndstream.nbcsports.com and on the NBC Sports app.

Friday at 4: Four offensive positions to watch in Notre Dame’s spring game

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There are two common ways of looking at the annual spring game.
It is the last action involving Notre Dame football readily available for public consumption until Sept. 2, 133 days away.
Or it is an exercise rife with contradiction exacerbated by hype, yielding little-to-no reliable intelligence.
Like much of life, the most accurate assessment falls somewhere between those two views.

If junior running back Dexter Williams breaks off two 50-yard-plus touchdown runs, does that mean he will have multiple big plays in 2017? Not at all. It does mean he will likely have more opportunities for them, though. Just like in spring’s previous 14 practices, the Irish coaches will take what they see and apply it moving forward.

The past—and as of Saturday evening, the Blue-Gold Game will qualify as the past—does not dictate the future, but it can influence one’s approach to it.

Aside from Williams (see the second item below for more on him and the running backs), what other players/positions could influence their future roles the most with their performance to close spring?

BIG PASSING TARGETS: Alizé Jones and Co.
In this instance, big is meant literally. Notre Dame has an embarrassment of riches of tall, long, physical tight ends and receivers. Junior Alizé Jones earns specific mention here due to his inaction last season. Irish fans and coaches alike have a better idea of sophomore receiver Chase Claypool and junior receiver Miles Boykin. They have 2016 film to look at.

Jones, however, sat out the season due to academic issues. His on-field performance largely remains a question mark, but if he combines this spring’s praise with his 6-foot-4 ½ frame holding 245 listed pounds, that could turn into an exclamation point.

“He’s a perfect fit,” new Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long said Friday. “That’s why I recruited him like crazy when I was at Arizona State. He’s a prototypical [tight end], a guy who can run, who can catch.

“The biggest thing about Alizé is he’s taking great pride in his blocking ability right now, his presence of being an end-line guy, his protection and his overall physicality. When you think like that, you’re going to become a better receiver.” (more…)