Pregame Six Pack: An epic season finale

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Breaking Bad. Mad Men. Game of Thrones. None of them had season finales with more on the line than Notre Dame on Saturday.

Walt White battled Gustavo Fring. Four houses met for a Red Wedding. And Don Draper survived Sterling Cooper (and himself) again and again.

But Brian Kelly’s team has a chance to finish a season for the ages. Because after a year of twists and turns, celebrations and disappointments, and key characters dropping like flies, Notre Dame has a chance to vanquish Stanford—one last noble foe—and wrap up a few lofty objectives in their final 60 minutes of football for the regular season.

Winning will be no easy task. And it’s the lone mission, one that’s largely been obscured by hours of debating playoff scenarios, none worthy of the oxygen consumed until the final cards are laid on the table.

Like any great theater, the hero is wounded. The Irish limp into Palo Alto, unimpressive winners the past two weeks. Missing KeiVarae Russell and most likely C.J. Prosise, Notre Dame will have to find a way to beat a Stanford team who once again is the class of the Pac-12, college football’s deepest conference.

So buckle up. Shake off the tryptophan. (It’s not a real excuse, anyway.)

It’s time for one final Pregame Six Pack, as we wait to find out the fate of the Irish after an incredible 2015 season.

 

Stopping Christian McCaffrey isn’t just another job. It might be stopping college football’s best player. 

Brian Kelly coined a new phrase this season during his Tuesday press conferences, deeming top players “game-wreckers.” We heard it with USC’s Adoree Jackson. Again with Pitt’s Tyler Boyd. But none are as lethal as Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey.

The Cardinals’ sophomore running back has been one of college football’s most impressive players. And he’s receiving the awards kudos to prove it—McCaffrey was a midseason All-American, and is in consideration for the Doak Walker, Maxwell, Walter Camp and Hornung Awards.

So while media types had the early focus on LSU’s Leonard Fournette, it’s McCaffrey who might be the best football player in the country. At least his head coach thinks so.

“Has anybody seen a running back, I’ll say this, a football player, better than Christian McCaffrey this year?” Shaw asked after last week’s effort against Cal. “Tell me. Show him to me. I haven’t seen anybody.

“We played a lot of night games, which we all talked about. So we had a lot of time to sit and watch football. I have not seen anybody in America like this kid. He’s truly, truly special. Kickoff returner, runner, receiver, blocker, he got a couple nice blocks today. The kid’s just truly, truly special. And our guys know that and they take a lot of pride in blocking for him down the field because the guy makes special, special plays.”

McCaffrey enters the season finale with a ridiculous 2,807 all-purpose yards, capable of reaching 3,000 on the season, a number only eclipsed by Barry Sanders at the FBS level. He’s averaging 30 touches of the football a game, meaning Shaw has been feeding him the football at a level befitting his leading man status.

So for the Irish to win, Notre Dame’s defense needs to find a way to keep McCaffrey from making game-wreckin plays, something he’s done to teams just about every week.

 

Preventing big plays? That hinges on Notre Dame’s safety play. 

Brian Kelly’s Tuesday press conference featured a wonderful moment, as Kelly unleashed a wry smile that said so much more than any of the words he uttered during his roughly 40 minutes of media availability this week.

Asked by Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson about the evils of 20+ yard runs allowed, Kelly could only smile when asked a question that both sides of the query knew was pretty straight forward.

“I’d like to give you an easy answer,” Kelly said. “But when you give up big plays, you need second-level and third-level support. I think our first-level defense has been really, really good. Our second-level defense has been solid. And our third level has not been as good.”

The easy answer, of course, would’ve been driving a steamroller over safeties Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate. The duo has been a weak link from a consistency point of view, with Redfield’s woes particularly striking at key moments throughout the year, including last week on Boston College’s 80-yard touchdown score.

There’s precious little depth at the position, especially after injuries to Drue Tranquill, Avery Sebastian and Shaun Crawford. And with Matthias Farley needed as a cornerback this week after the loss of KeiVarae Russell, it’ll be up to Redfield and Shumate to be the type of third-level support that’ll contain the one-man wrecking crew that McCaffrey has been to opposing defenses.

 

His approval rating my not be the highest among Irish fans, but Brian VanGorder has a fan in Stanford’s David Shaw. 

Notre Dame’s defensive struggles have been mostly pinned on the scheme of Brian VanGorder. The Irish’s second-year defensive coordinator has installed an NFL scheme in South Bend, but that’s come with some head-scratching lapses by the personnel asked to execute the game plans.

But for all the gripes about VanGorder, it’s worth remembering the battle between Notre Dame and Stanford from last season. Namely, VanGorder’s excellent game plan shutting down the Cardinal offense.

In the Irish’s thrilling 17-14 win, Stanford gained only 205 yards of total offense. They ran for just 47 net yards on 32 carries. The Irish forced eight punts with Stanford gaining only 14 first downs as the Irish sacked Kevin Hogan four times among seven TFLs that rainy October day.

“I think they’ve got an outstanding defensive coordinator,” Shaw said in his postgame comments last October. “He mixes it up, a lot of pressure. We picked up not as many as we’d like, our quarterback got hit a lot today. Give them a lot of credit for their scheme.  

“We flat out missed some things and some things our guys just got beat.  It was a great mix.  There were a couple of plays that were there to make but we just didn’t make them.  I think the counting for the guys they lost, they did an outstanding scheme on the defensive side, and their guys played hard.  They played fast.  And you can tell they’re very well coached because they’re running full speed where they’re supposed to be.”

Notre Dame’s starting defense that day featured Shumate, Redfield and Cole Luke in the secondary. Joe Schmidt and Jaylon Smith at linebacker. Sheldon Day, Isaac Rochell and Romeo Okwara along the defensive line. That’s essentially the same personnel that’ll take the field on Saturday.

Can they do it again? VanGorder’s scheme isn’t as mysterious after 24 games of tape. But that game provided a really solid datapoint to believe this defense can carry the day, even if it’s struggled to do so this season.

 

Stanford’s defensive front has an unlikely anchor: Cal graduate transfer Brennan Scarlett. 

After what feels like a decade of having homegrown monsters wreaking havoc along the defensive line, Stanford had to go to college football’s waiver wire to find its standout for 2015.

Defensive end Brennan Scarlett is Stanford’s most consistent defensive lineman. It’s a string of good football for a player whose four-year career at Cal was ruined by injuries. Scarlett earned his degree at Stanford’s bitter rival, then made one of the more unlikely transfers, heading across the bay to play with his brother in Palo Alto.

Scarlett leads Stanford in snaps played along the defensive line and graded out as their best defensive lineman against Cal in their rivalry game victory. Shaw talked about how important the fifth-year transfer has been for the Cardinal this season.

“I’m really happy for Brennan Scarlett coming over from Cal, a lot of respect from those guys,” Shaw said after beating the Bears. “It was not a contentious thing. It was very understandable why he came across, no disrespect to Cal… The guys wanted to win this one for him, because we didn’t know where we would be right now on this football team without Brennan Scarlett.”

Scarlett’s upside was one of the reasons why Notre Dame was rumored to have been pursuing Scarlett as a potential graduate transfer. (They landed his Cal teammate Avery Sebastian.) But the Portland native joined his younger brother Cameron in Palo Alto, and now will be a key piece to Stanford’s front that’ll try to slow the Irish offense.

 

A Stanford team usually built around power now has its share of game-breaking speed. 

David Shaw built upon Jim Harbaugh’s blueprint to design an unlikely bully in the Pac-12. But after standing out as a power unit in a conference filled with team speed, Stanford has gotten in on the act as well, recruiting some players with home run potential.

McCaffrey stands out among great runners of Stanford past. While Toby Gerhart, Stepfan Taylor and Tyler Gaffney were all incredibly prolific, none had 10.8 100-meter speed. But McCaffrey wouldn’t anchor the Cardinals’ 4×100 relay team.

Freshman Bryce Love provides game-breaking speed. He’s been a track star since he won USA Track and Field Athlete of the Year as a 12-year-old. Sophomore receiver Isaiah Brandt-Sims is the fastest man on the roster for the Cardinal. While it hasn’t translated to much playing time, Brandt-Sims has clocked a 10.5 100m—placing him among the best sprinters in the Pac-12.

Leading receiver Michael Rector has track speed as well. He couldn’t beat Brandt-Sims as a high schooler in Washington, but he’s run a 10.8—speed comparable to C.J. Prosise and Chris Brown in high school.

Stanford’s offensive attack may be carried on McCaffrey’s shoulders, but Shaw has deep threat options if the Irish commit too many resources to stopping the running back. And with cornerbacks Devin Butler, Nick Watkins and Nick Coleman seeing significant playing time for the first time this season, expect Shaw to take a couple of deep shots.

 

For the Irish to win, they’ll need DeShone Kizer to outplay Kevin Hogan. 

Cardinal quarterback Kevin Hogan will be playing his final game in Stanford Stadium. The fifth-year senior is a four-year starter, an improbable quarterback to be at the top of the record books in a program that features greats like Andrew Luck and John Elway.

It’s well-known that Hogan dreamed of playing for Notre Dame. Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel wrote earlier this week about family road trips to South Bend, with a young Hogan wearing a Joe Montana or Brady Quinn jersey.

Hogan has played both good football and bad in his time on The Farm. Some of the bad came during last season, when the veteran quarterback was playing with a heavy heart as his father fought and eventually lost his battle with cancer. (Thamel’s story covers these heartbreaking events.)

It’ll be an emotional night in Stanford Stadium for Hogan, who’ll say goodbye to his home of the last five years. And if the Irish want to pull out a win, they’ll need to spoil the evening for the former Irish fan.

Doing so will require great play by not just the Notre Dame defense, but from young quarterback DeShone Kizer. coming off a game where he finally looked and played like a freshman, Kizer will need to show he’s rebuilt his confidence after stumbling badly against Boston College, his accuracy and decision making shot after early-game struggles.

Kizer will be asked to carry the game in ways Hogan has only had to do at times. Mainly as a runner. Kizer has already been Notre Dame’s short yardage weapon, but without Prosise, he’ll likely carry a larger load, taking the burden off freshmen Josh Adams and Dexter Wiliams.

But Hogan’s feet will be a factor on Saturday as well. With the Irish defense susceptible to quarterback scrambles, Hogan can be a key weapon as a runner for the Cardinal. He had a combined 25 carries in Stanford’s two closest games, capable of moving the chains—and more—if teams key on McCaffrey.

Red Zone success will be critical. With Hogan at the helm, Stanford is No. 31 in the country converting touchdowns inside the 20-yard line. Notre Dame is 77th. Stanford has the better red zone defense as well, with the Cardinal at No. 19 at preventing touchdowns and the Irish 82nd. (Oddly, the Irish dominate this stat when you consider scoring percentage, though most view touchdown conversion as the better measurement of success.)

Hogan’s career is coming to an end. Kizer’s is just beginning. On Saturday, both quarterbacks will be key in determining victory.

 

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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Kraemer, Eichenberg compete for RT spot, moving Bars inside, and Bivin to…

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Forty percent of the offensive line is essentially set in stone: fifth-year senior Mike McGlinchey at left tackle and senior Quenton Nelson at right guard.

The center position seems to be senior Sam Mustipher’s to lose.

That leaves the two starting spots on the right side of the line for a number of players—both young and experienced—to fight over.

Sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg have emerged as the frontrunners for the right tackle spot, moving senior Alex Bars inside to right guard. Bars started all 12 games last season at right tackle.

“Those two [Kraemer and Eichenberg] are the guys we have mapped out at right tackle, and they’re going to battle,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “Today Kraemer was there. Last two practices Eichenberg got a lot of the work. Eichenberg will go back there on Friday. They’re going to keep battling and splitting the action out there.”

Part of the reasoning in giving the two sophomores extended looks this spring is Notre Dame knows what it has in Bars when at right tackle.

“We would prefer to get him in at the guard position, but we know he can play the [tackle] position,” Kelly said.

A starting five of McGlinchey, the three seniors and either sophomore may seem to leave fifth-year lineman Hunter Bivin out in the cold. Not often is a player asked to return for a fifth year only to spend it on the bench. That is even more rare when considering the current Irish scholarship crunch.

Kelly compared Bivin’s role to that of Mark Harrell’s last year. Harrell appeared in all 12 games, starting two, and provided much needed depth and flexibility along the offensive line. Rather than have five backup offensive linemen, position coach Harry Hiestand relied on Harrell to provide support at multiple spots.

“It’s reasonable to assume that Hunter Bivin’s going to be involved in this as well,” Kelly said. “We’ve just asked Hunter to take a seat right now. He’s done that for the team.

“We think Hunter is going to be a Mark Harrell for us. A guy that’s extremely valuable, can play a number of positions. We trust him, but we want to see these two young players [Kraemer and Eichenberg]. Hunter is a guy that can play right or left tackle for us. He’s going to be a valuable player for us as a swing guy.”

On that note, this space will refer to Bivin as a fifth-year lineman, as was done above, rather than as a guard or as a tackle, until further notice. In his case, the broader description may be the most accurate.

Spring break out west is fine, but Wimbush better be ready to run

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It will undoubtedly become a habit, at least for the next five-plus months. If Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush sneezes in front of a camera, it just might lead to an uptick in webmd.com traffic. His every football move will certainly be analyzed, nitpicked and discussed at length. Thus, Irish coach Brian Kelly being asked about Wimbush’s spring break should surprise no one.

Rather than find a Florida beach, Wimbush spent his spring break working with private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield in San Diego alongside a handful of other college passers. Kelly said there is value to such a spring break but stopped short of setting any lofty expectations of the effects.

“I have no problem with [Wimbush] working out with George Whitfield,” Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice, the first following spring break and the third of 14 leading into the Blue-Gold Game on April 22. “George doesn’t work on the specifics to the offense. George is really working on the quarterback and throwing the football, moving in the pocket. George is really good at keeping those quarterbacks active and moving.”

Whitfield is best-known around Notre Dame and among Irish fans for working with former Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson during Golson’s academic suspension in 2013. Whitfield and Golson spent 10 weeks together, thus granting time for extensive off-field activities such as film study. Far shorter, Wimbush’s time out west appears to have been spent primarily doing drills.

“In those situations, it’s a bullpen session,” Kelly said. “They’re keeping their arms loose, they’re keeping their feet loose. He’s just keeping them active.”

It is hard to construe that activity as a negative, but it obviously lacks certain aspects crucial to Wimbush’s 2017 season. With only five career pass attempts and seven career rushes, Wimbush’s inexperience looms large. Developing the necessary intangibles to account for that may be just as, if not more, important as fitting his throws into tight windows.

“When it comes to the playbook, to his teammates, to his coaches here, Brandon understands that when the rubber hits the road, those are the guys that matter the most,” Kelly said. “He knows when it’s time for Notre Dame football, where the focus is.”

Included in that playbook will be an expectation for Wimbush to carry the ball. To date, Wimbush’s biggest play and possibly only imprint on most Notre Dame fans’ memories is a 58-yard touchdown scamper against Massachusetts in 2015.

Link to 17-second YouTube video which has unfortunately disabled embedding

Note, the play is not exclusively-designed for Wimbush to run. Now a rising junior, then a fellow freshman, running back Josh Adams comes across Wimbush’s front for a possible handoff. Instead, Wimbush makes the correct read and keeps the ball. Why state so clearly it was the proper read? Adams has to evade a Texas defender even though he never had the ball.

Future option plays should present Wimbush with the possibility of throwing the ball, too.

“He’ll be a runner in the offense,” Kelly said. “Do we want him to carry the ball 20 times? No.”

“I don’t think you’ll have a situation where we’re calling quarterback power or singular runs. He’s going to have options: hand it off, throw the ball out on the perimeter. You’ll see more of that than you will prescribed quarterback runs. We had a little bit more of that last year with Kizer, but I think you’ll see that he has an option to get the ball out of his hands more so than just prescribed runs.”

Those option plays, in particular, will require Wimbush to have a thorough familiarity both with the Notre Dame playbook and with his teammates’ tendencies.

RITA LEE OR 52-53?
Staying consistent with his comments over the last two months, Kelly once again reiterated the biggest changes new offensive coordinator Chip Long will bring to the Irish playbook will be in its wording. Perhaps going to an extreme example to illustrate his thinking, Kelly pointed to the future.

“We’re going to win next year and Chip is going to be the greatest offensive coordinator in the country and he’s going to get a head job, right?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “Then I’m not going to introduce the Chip Long offense to the next offensive coordinator.”

“It has to have my culture in it … The culture of the offense is still the base offense that I have always run because I have to be able to carry that with me from year to year.”

Within that ellipsis, Kelly gave two examples of possible verbiage changes. Without knowing much more behind them, they do not mean too much out here in the cobwebs of the internet, but they do provide a quick glimpse at what Kelly has been referring to when discussing lexicon since hiring Long.

“If he wants to change Ringo Lucky protection to Ram and Lion protection, go right ahead. If he wants to change certain calls, for example, 52-53 protection is now Rita Lee.”

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