Five things we learned: Ohio State 44, Notre Dame 28

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Brian Kelly hoped this game would be different. Different from the last time Notre Dame was on a big postseason stage.

But seven minutes into the Fiesta Bowl, it looked like the Irish had suffered another first-round knockout. Ohio State’s offense was running through the Irish. Notre Dame’s defensive star Jaylon Smith was carted to the locker room with a major knee injury. And for a moment it looked like Ohio State would do to the Irish what Alabama did at the end of the 2012 season.

Yet the Irish battled back. And while a score of 44-28 certainly didn’t achieve what Notre Dame set out to do, the Irish offense managed to keep things interesting even if the defense had no answer for Ezekiel Elliott, J.T. Barrett and the rest of the Ohio State offense.

Undermanned, overpowered and out-dueled, Notre Dame lost the Fiesta Bowl. They were beat in the trenches on both sides of the football, even with the Buckeyes short some frontline players, including Joey Bosa, who was ejected late in the first quarter. But the Irish never quit, even as the bodycount piled up on a roster already ravaged by season-ending injuries.

Another season is in the books, the Buckeyes hanging a third-loss on the Irish in the Fiesta Bowl. Let’s find out what we learned during Ohio State’s dominant 44-28 win over Notre Dame.

 

Jaylon Smith’s knee injury is a heartbreaking start to 2016. 

When Jaylon Smith’s leg bent unnaturally after a shove from Ohio State tackle Taylor Decker, Notre Dame’s most impressive football player saw his season end in nightmarish fashion. The Butkus Award-winner was carted off the field with what Kelly called “a significant knee injury,” putting his football career and skyward trajectory into a holding pattern.

On the field, the loss of Smith all but ended any hopes the Irish defense had for slowing down Ohio State’s offense. Notre Dame’s star linebacker is the rare athlete who can stuff the run while also covering receivers, and after true freshman Te’von Coney went down in Smith’s place, we saw Jarrett Grace struggle as he was forced to play Will linebacker next to Joe Schmidt.

Smith’s injury was more than just a fatal blow to the Irish defense. It also clouds a future that looked destined for an early first-round pick in the upcoming NFL Draft. That still could be the case—medical advancements have turned even ACL surgery into something fairly routine. But Smith’s status, whether as one of the country’s best returning college football players if he chooses to come back to South Bend or as one of the draft’s bluechip talents, is on hold until more is learned about his injury and his timeline for recovery.

Smith deserved a better end to an incredible All-American season.

 

Decimated by injuries, suspensions and scheme, it should be back to the drawing board for Notre Dame’s defense.

Notre Dame’s defense appeared to be dead on arrival at University of Phoenix Stadium. Brian VanGorder’s defensive personnel was decimated, a toxic combination of injuries, embarrassing suspensions and ill-fitting scheme.

Putting aside the much-discussed schematic problems, injuries continued to wreak havoc. We already talked about the crippling loss of Smith and his understudy Coney. But a game-week injury to Sheldon Day was revealed in the hours leading up to kickoff. Kelly said in his postgame comments that he thought Day broke his foot on Wednesday. Add to that was an illness that forced the senior to take an IV before the game.

Sophomore nose guard Daniel Cage badly sprained his ankle earlier in bowl prep, limiting his abilities to contribute in the trenches. Throw in Devin Butler’s broken foot suffered after the Irish arrived in Arizona and the natural grass at Scottsdale Community College may as well have been a minefield.

Now to the self-inflicted wounds:

Max Redfield may not have helped the Irish beat Ohio State. But a veteran starter sent home for rule violations is inexcusable. Likewise, Jerry Tillery may not have faired much better in the trenches against Ezekiel Elliott and company, but Tillery was a rare healthy body for an Irish defense that badly needed him. That type of immaturity wasn’t expected from a young player who had been carrying himself like a veteran.

Players will get healthy. Suspensions will inevitably be served. But for Notre Dame to challenge for a national championship, the defense has to get better.

That starts at the top. Brian Kelly tapped Brian VanGorder to replace Bob Diaco. He promised that VanGorder would bring an exotic, NFL scheme with him to South Bend. We’ve seen the complexities of an NFL defense. Yet all too often, we’ve seen the challenges of young football players trying to absorb those nuances.

Diaco turned this defense into one of college football’s most fundamentally sound and impressive units. VanGorder’s scheme has done the opposite, creating a group capable of dominance at times and self-destruction at others.

No coordinator could’ve dug the Irish out of the shorthanded hole they were in on Friday afternoon. But Kelly and VanGorder need to take a long look at the way they do things. Because asking college athletes to absorb game-specific, NFL schemes on top of a challenging academic course load isn’t working.

 

Even without Joey Bosa and Adolphus Washington, Ohio State’s defense won the battle in the trenches.

Notre Dame’s offensive line struggled with Ohio State’s front seven. That might have been the true surprise of the Fiesta Bowl, especially considering the loss of Washington, senior defensive tackle Tommy Schutt and the early-game ejection of Joey Bosa.

Notre Dame’s running game was held to just 121 yards, with C.J. Prosise pulled early after struggling with his balky ankle. That left Josh Adams to do the dirty work against one of the nation’s stingiest defenses. While the rookie broke Darius Walker’s freshman rushing record, he was held mostly in check with just 14 carries for 78 yards, a large chunk of that coming late.

Ohio State’s pass rush also troubled Notre Dame. DeShone Kizer was sacked four times, pressured constantly by an athletic group of Buckeye pass rusher that took dead aim at the young Irish quarterback. Linebacker Darron Lee had two sacks, including one that forced a fumble. Former Notre Dame lacrosse commit Sam Hubbard had another. The pressure wore on Kizer, who hardly looked comfortable in the pocket, missing some easy throws, mostly the result of the chaos surrounding him and its impact on his fundamentals.

 

Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin have played their final games for Notre Dame. Returning in 2016 are starters Steve Elmer, Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson, with Alex Bars likely sliding in at left tackle. There are bright days ahead for Harry Hiestand’s offensive line. But the Fiesta Bowl wasn’t one of them.

 

In a game filled with future NFL stars, Will Fuller still managed to make the game’s biggest play. 

What a fitting end to Will Fuller’s season. The junior receiver, who has yet to make an official decision on whether or not to enter the upcoming NFL Draft, sprinted past Ohio State’s defense for an 81-yard touchdown, his 14th of the season and his 10th score of at least 30 yards on the season.

Fuller’s ability to make big plays continues to be unmatched. That’s his third 70-plus yard touchdown catch from Kizer, matching deep scores against USC and Stanford. It’s his 29th touchdown of the past two seasons, the best number in college football.

For Brian Kelly, bringing back Fuller might be the most important job of the next month for a coaching staff that’s still trying to finalize its 2016 recruiting class. The Philadelphia native made a public statement earlier in the season that he’d return for his senior season though has backed away from that stance, deciding to make a final decision after the season. Fuller didn’t reveal his NFL advisory board evaluation, though inconsistency with his hands and a lack of elite size could push him into a second or third round pick.

Notre Dame’s staff found the right recipe to bring back Ronnie Stanley and Sheldon Day, with both seniors helping their draft stock in 2015. Manti Te’o did the same en route to the most decorated defensive season of any player in college football.

But Kelly might want to tell Fuller about how he helped Michael Floyd use his final season in South Bend to boost his draft stock. Floyd worked to become a more complete receiver and turned into the 13th overall pick after a record-setting senior year. Expect Kelly, Jack Swarbrick and receivers coach Mike Denbrock to make their case very soon, with the deadline for a decision coming in mid-January.

But if this is it for Fuller in an Irish uniform, that blur of blue you saw streaking down the sideline towards the end zone is a fitting finish.

 

While they finished short of their objective, there’s no way to call this season a failure. 

Notre Dame came up short three times this season. But after dealing with a head-shaking amount of injuries and adversity this season, Brian Kelly didn’t find it hard to praise his football team.

“Couldn’t be more proud of the football team. An honor to coach them, honor to be around them,” Kelly said postgame. “The way they competed this year, regardless of the circumstances, they just kept playing.”

With losses to undefeated Clemson, two-loss Stanford and one-loss Ohio State, Notre Dame certainly has the most impressive three-loss resume in the country. And for years to come we’ll likely play the “what if” game when it comes to wondering about what a full strength Irish team could’ve done had it had a chance to go through the 2015 season even moderately healthy.

That type of wondering won’t help the Irish move forward. So even if Team 127’s legacy isn’t one of a national champion, the foundation built by this football team is certainly significant.

Veteran leaders like Sheldon Day and Joe Schmidt have left their mark. And the injuries suffered created opportunities that’ll pay off in the years to come. We saw it during the Fiesta Bowl loss, with cornerback Nick Watkins competing with a talented group of Buckeye receivers and Josh Adams continuing his evolution from unknown freshman to record-setting back, replacing a converted wide receiver who managed to run for over 1,000 yards as well.

There are obvious areas to improve, with the team’s defensive identity certainly being first on the list. But any wonder if a tough Fiesta Bowl loss would derail the program’s momentum moving into 2016 was erased when Kelly talked openly about where he sees his program as it moves forward into his seventh season.

“We’re going to keep banging at the door. Keep playing Ohio State, keep playing Florida State, keep playing Alabama, keep playing these teams in these kinds of venues, in these kinds of games. We don’t want to be playing directional teams with no profile to them,” Kelly said.

“We’ve made significant progress since where we were in 2012. We’ll get there. Hopefully we won’t have as many injuries. We’ll get back here again. We’ll win them. I had a similar process in my career earlier when I was in Division II. Took us about six years to win a playoff game. Then we won three national championships.

“I’m not saying we’re ready to win three national championships. But stay the course, keep doing what we’re doing, keep recruiting, keep bringing in great guys like this, and we’ll get there.”

Four-star WR Micah Jones chooses Irish; Rees may need to wait; Other late-week reading

jones
rivals.com
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A day may come when Notre Dame suffers a recruiting disappointment in the 2018 cycle, when a high school star spurns the Irish coaching staff for a foe, but it is not this day.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township High School; Gurnee, Ill.) committed to Notre Dame on Friday, joining a class of now 10 recruits, including four who committed just this week.

Jones chose the Irish over offers from the likes of Iowa, Michigan State and Ole Miss, among others.

He is the first receiver among the 10 commitments and the seventh considered a four-star prospect. At 6-foot-5, 196 pounds, Jones should present a large target for whomever the Notre Dame quarterback is in the fall of 2018, most likely then-senior Brandon Wimbush.

Tom, Tommy or Thomas; Assistant Coach or Graduate Assistant?
Thomas Rees may need to wait a season before officially being a coach at Notre Dame. The legislation to approve a 10th assistant coach was expected to be voted on, passed and effective in April. A newly-added amendment may push the effective date to following the 2017 season. The amendment will be voted on immediately before the legislation itself is.

The delay makes sense. Most coaching hirings and firings occur in December and January. In theory, creating a one-timing hiring frenzy following spring football could leave many programs in the lurch. In practice, however, this is not anticipated.

“The majority of the FBS guys that I’ve talked with currently believe that 10th coach is going to come from within their own organization,” Todd Berry told the Associated Press. Berry is the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association and former coach at Army and Louisiana-Monroe. “Quality control, graduate assistants, analysts, or they’re planning on hiring somebody that’s out of work.”

A majority is not a unanimity, though, and that carousel will innately work to the disadvantage of the Group of 5 schools.

As for Rees, a graduate assistant can still work extensively with players. The most-pertinent difference between a graduate assistant and an assistant coach is the former cannot recruit. Given Notre Dame’s recent success on the recruiting trail—and the early commitment of class of 2018 consensus four-star quarterback Phil Jurkovec (Pine-Richland H.S.; Gibsonia, Pa.)—Rees may not be an absolute necessity in that regard this cycle.

A Kizer Appraisal
Former NFL scout Greg Gabriel took a look at former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer this week, largely paying the draft prospect compliments.

In calling Kizer “the most talented quarterback in this draft class,” Gabriel set a high ceiling for Kizer’s spring. Part of Gabriel’s positive assessment comes from acknowledging Kizer’s responsibilities as the Irish signal-caller.

“The spread offense that Kizer played in at Notre Dame is more sophisticated than many of the spread offenses we see elsewhere at the collegiate level. The Notre Dame offense is a whole-field read scheme in which the quarterback has to go through a progression that encompasses both sides of the field. He also can change the play and/or protections at the line of scrimmage. Given all that, Kizer was asked to do more than many spread quarterbacks are asked to do.”

Gabriel also reflected on the dynamic differences for Kizer in 2015 and 2016 and what may have elicited some of his seeming stagnation.

“There was the unnecessary quarterback controversy at Notre Dame, and the offensive line wasn’t as experienced or as talented and the receivers were mostly first-year starters.”

As much as Gabriel raves about Kizer, he would be the first to tell you anything beyond individual player evaluation is a waste of air this early in the draft process. Mock drafts may be fun, but they are not much beyond that.

Take the fates of Tony Romo and Jimmy Garoppolo, for example. Few, if any, in the NFL expect them to dress for the Cowboys and Patriots, respectively, again. Where they end up could directly impact Kizer’s draft placement.

Jaylon Smith May Be Back to Form
Former Notre Dame and current Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith posted yet another encouraging video to Twitter. This one shows Smith really might be game-ready right now and, if not, almost certainly will be by the fall. Should there be any difficulty with the embedded video below, here is a link straight to it.

OL Mabry makes third commitment this week; WR Jones may follow Friday

mabry
rivals.com
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Two weeks ago, Irish coach Brian Kelly gave a non-answer of an answer to a question about a likely early signing period this coming December. Avoiding specifics, he indicated he thinks the effects of such a change will be seen on a case-by-case basis entirely dependent on the recruits.

“Some will, some won’t,” Kelly said. “…Each kid is going to have to react to it based upon also how their school is going to be dealing with it. Some will come off the board at the time.

“We’re expecting some to sign early, but I think our mindset is we’re going into it business as usual. We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

After this week, Notre Dame is going to have more year-long fights than anticipated. Consensus three-star offensive lineman recruit Cole Mabry (Brentwood High School; Brentwood, Tenn.) became the third prospect to offer a verbal commitment to the Irish coaching staff in less than 36 hours with his Wednesday decision. Mabry received the offer over the weekend, but waited a few days before making his decision public, lest emotions be dictating his thought process.

At 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds, Mabry will have time to add muscle to his frame, with four or five offensive tackles greeting him on the Notre Dame roster in the summer of 2018. That ability to mold his style and growth may have played a part in the Irish interest.

“They love my height and athleticism and how I play,” Mabry told rivals.com. “We got to break down film and go through things that they do that pair up with how I play now. They think I’ll be a great fit in their offense.”

Mabry is the ninth Notre Dame commitment in the class of 2018, though the first offensive lineman.

Judging by new Notre Dame director of football performance Matt Balis’s agenda for the Irish roster’s Valentine’s Day morning, Mabry will have much to look forward to in terms of strength and conditioning.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township H.S.; Gurnee, Ill.) is scheduled to announce his verbal commitment this Friday at 4 p.m. ET. Along with Notre Dame, Jones is considering Iowa, Michigan State, Nebraska, Ole Miss, Illinois and Northwestern. He would be the first receiver in Notre Dame’s 2018 class. Naturally, whomever Jones commits to, the recruiting fight will last until at least December, and perhaps all the way to February.

Notre Dame adds two top defensive back commits; Elliott officially a ‘Husker

allen
rivals.com
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It’s early. It’s really, really early. Not in the day, though this post is scheduled for an a.m. hour. No, it is early in the 2018 recruiting cycle. Any piece of news, each commitment, everything should be taken with two grains of salt.

Nonetheless, Notre Dame—and more specifically, new Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko and defensive backs coach Todd Lyght—enjoyed Tuesday’s recruiting news when two consensus four-star coverage men committed to the Irish.

Safety Derrik Allen (Lassiter High School; Marietta, Ga.) and cornerback Kalon Gervin (Cass Tech; Detroit, Mich.) joined a class of now eight commitments, six of which play on the defensive side of the ball.

Gervin, the No. 11 cornerback in the class according to rivals.com, waited mere days after attending Notre Dame’s Junior Day over the weekend. Irish coach Brian Kelly and staff’s failure to land a recruit at Gervin’s position in the 2017 haul actually helped reel in the recruit with offers from Florida, LSU, Michigan and dozens others.

“The opportunity to play right away, they didn’t sign a cornerback this last class,” Gervin told Blue & Gold Illustrated helped sway him. “Also, the education is second-to-none. It speaks for itself.”

Allen, pictured at top, has leaned toward Notre Dame for months. The No. 3 safety in the country per Rivals, he chose the Irish over the likes of Alabama, Clemson and Florida State.

Elliott officially to Nebraska

The two highly-touted defensive backs will not have the chance to learn under the tutelage of Bob Elliott. Nebraska officially announced the hiring of the former Notre Dame safeties (2012-13) and linebackers (2014) coach. Elliott spent the last two seasons serving as a special assistant to Kelly, focusing largely on defending the triple-option attacks of Army, Navy and Georgia Tech.

Elliott rejoins former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco in Lincoln. Diaco was hired as the Cornhuskers’ defensive coordinator in January.

The Lincoln Journal Star’s Brian Cristopherson reports Elliott will make a nice wage in eastern Nebraska.

Could Kelly move a receiver to cornerback?

PALO ALTO, CA - NOVEMBER 30:  Bennett Jackson #2 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish intercepts this pass intended for Michael Rector #3 of the Stanford Cardinal during the fourth quarter at Stanford Stadium on November 30, 2013 in Palo Alto, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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Before the weekend, Notre Dame already had 10 receivers on its depth chart, all with at least two seasons of eligibility remaining. Cornerback, meanwhile, is a position where the roster seems to be lacking, with only seven currently on scholarship. The only fact staving off panic is that all seven also have two years of eligibility in hand. Nonetheless, an additional body in the defensive backfield at practice would seem to be a reasonable want, if not quite a necessity.

Thus, the addition of graduate transfer receiver Freddy Canteen—himself having two seasons of potential college football to go—brought the return of wonderings: Should one of the plethora of Irish receivers switch to breaking up passes?

Aside from balancing the roster and easing some concerns should an injury strike, such a move could also present the player a chance at increased playing time. By no means would the maneuver need to be a selfless one.

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has had success with such positional flipping. Specifically, Kelly and his coaching staff have overseen the successful switches of receiver-turned-cornerback Bennett Jackson and receiver-turned-safety-and-then-linebacker James Onwualu. Furthermore, defensive backs Matthias Farley and KeiVarae Russell both arrived at Notre Dame expecting to be on the offensive side of the ball before changes early in their careers.

BENNETT JACKSON
A three-star receiver recruit, Jackson stuck with Notre Dame during the transition from Charlie Weis to Brian Kelly, signing with the Irish only weeks after Kelly took the lead of the program. In his freshman season, Jackson carried the ball plenty, as the kick returner. Aside from fielding kickoffs, he had only one carry for 20 yards. That was it for his offensive playmaking.

On special teams, however, he excelled without the ball, too. Jackson finished with 10 tackles, including four against Purdue to start the season. That nose for the ballcarrier prompted the coaching staff to switch Jackson’s positional group. In the following three seasons, he amassed 147 tackles, 11 pass break-ups and two interceptions.

Before Notre Dame faced Alabama in the 2012 BCS National Championship Game, Jackson looked back on his career change.

“I liked receiver. Obviously, I wanted to be a guy with the ball in my hands,” he said. “At first, I wasn’t mad about it, but I wasn’t fond of it.

“As time went on, I actually liked the position a lot more. I had a lot more fun and I got to compete a lot more.”

JAMES ONWUALU
A four-star recruit with the ambiguous “athlete” designation in 2013, Onwualu—like Jackson—spent his freshman season as a receiver. Unlike Jackson, he actually caught some passes. Two, to be exact, for a total of 34 yards. Continuing on a parallel to Jackson, Onwualu totaled six tackles on special teams.

Years later, it is easy to see the receiving depth in Notre Dame’s class of 2013. Onwualu aside, the Irish brought in Corey Robinson, Torii Hunter, Jr., and Will Fuller. It was going to be a tough road to featured playing time for Onwualu. Realizing this, he set to finding a different path.

“I honestly wasn’t sure receiver was the spot for me anyway, so I walked right up to coach Kelly’s office and we had a talk about where I wanted to go and what my thoughts were for my career,” Onwualu told und.com early in his senior season. “We ended up agreeing that the defensive side, we might as well give it a shot, and it worked out.”

Initially, that conversation landed Onwualu at safety. At 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, he found himself at linebacker pretty quickly thereafter.

“That was a tough one for me because he’s so valuable offensively in a number of ways,” Kelly said before 2014 spring practice. “He’s such a consistent player and he loves to compete. But he’s got great contact skills.”

Onwualu ended his Notre Dame career with 143 total tackles, including those pivotal six his freshman season, along with six sacks.

MATTHIAS FARLEY & KEIVARAE RUSSELL
Both Farley and Russell entered Notre Dame as “athletes”, the former a three-star recruit and the latter a four-star prospect. While Farley was expected to line up at receiver and Russell at running back, each switched to safety and cornerback, respectively, before ever joining the Irish offense. Safe to say it worked out rather well for each.

WHO NOW?
Far be it for the internet to speculate, but that seems to be one of its three primary purposes in the 21st century.

None of the current 11 receivers entered college deemed “athletes” by recruitniks. One does mirror Jackson and Onwualu in that he excelled on special teams last year. Rising sophomore Chase Claypool recorded 11 tackles in his debut season to go along with his five catches for 81 yards. Claypool notched multiple tackles against Nevada, Syracuse and Virginia Tech.

Kelly and new defensive coordinator Mike Elko very well may choose to test fate in 2017 and rely on only seven cornerbacks. After all, how often would the Irish ever have more than four on the field, anyways?

But if Kelly and Elko err on the side of caution, whoever makes the positional switch should not cringe in doing so. It has worked out pretty well both for his predecessors and for Notre Dame.