The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Ohio State

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The end is here. If the Fiesta Bowl loss didn’t bring on that finality, then surely the quick decisions of C.J. Prosise, Will Fuller and KeiVarae Russell to move on to the NFL served as official notice.

For a season as thrilling as the 127th in Notre Dame history, the Fiesta Bowl wasn’t the type of lasting memory you’ll want to take with you. The Irish defense entered the game battered, bruised and suspended, never able to muster much of an opposition for an Ohio State attack that seemed to take what it wanted on the ground and threw just enough to keep things interesting.

After a shaky start, the Irish did find their footing. DeShone Kizer never looked fully comfortable after a month layoff, and the Irish running game was limited after C.J. Prosise tapped out after just three snaps. Throw in some uneven offensive line play and while the final offensive performance of the season wasn’t necessarily sterling, Notre Dame did put up the most yardage and score as many points as any other opponent the Buckeyes faced this season.

Recruiting continues, NFL decisions are still coming, and more unexpected changes are surely to come. But before we get there, let’s get one last good, bad and ugly in.

 

THE GOOD

Sheldon Day. Playing his final game at Notre Dame, Day showed the type of warrior that he’s become, battling through a foot the coaching staff believed was broken after a mid-week injury suffered in Scottsdale. It didn’t stop Day, who played another great game—13 total on the season.

Day added another TFL, forced a fumble and batted down two passes for the Irish, filling up the stat sheet and winning more battles than anyone else on the Irish defense. He did it at less than 100-percent, playing through an injury that he might not have been able to fight through in year’s past, putting a final exclamation point on a stellar senior season.

 

Josh Adams. His stat-line only included 78 rushing yards on 14 carries, but the freshman answered the bell, a critical piece to the offensive puzzle when C.J. Prosise exited after his ankle failed to respond from a severe sprain suffered against Boston College.

Adams’ freshman season now goes into the Notre Dame record books, a crazy thought when you consider he seemed like an absolute lock to redshirt this spring. He finishes the year with a school record 835 yards on just 117 attempts, a 7.1 yards per carry average that obliterates anything we’ve seen in recent years. More importantly, his solid play down the stretch is even more critical with Prosise’s decision to head to the NFL, leaving the freshman to carry the position group until Tarean Folston returns from his ACL injury.

 

Will Fuller. As I said in the Five Things, it was a fitting way for Fuller to end his Notre Dame career. The junior receiver will be remembered for the ridiculous amount of game-changing plays he was able to make, scoring 29 touchdowns over the past two seasons.

We’ll spend more time analyzing this in the offseason, but you can make quite an argument that Fuller may have had the best career of recent greats Michael Floyd, Golden Tate and Jeff Samardzija. That alone should quiet Irish fans down when they worry if Recruit X or Recruit Y has enough stars or good enough scholarship offers. Fuller committed to Notre Dame as a three-star nobody, picking the Irish over a Penn State program that had just been nuked.

 

Red Zone touchdowns. Let’s give the Irish credit for converting all three of their red zone opportunities into touchdowns. It was a point of emphasis during bowl preparation and the Irish executed near the goal line, not an easy thing to do against the Buckeyes.

The Irish got a key rushing touchdown from Adams near the goal line. They got a great effort from Kizer before the half and a perfectly thrown fade to Chris Brown, proof that Notre Dame can execute a finesse throw in tight quarters.

 

Joe Schmidt & Jarrett Grace. We got to see Schmidt and Grace play side-by-side for much of the game after injuries took Jaylon Smith and Te’von Coney from the game. And while it wasn’t all good, you couldn’t ask for much more from the two fifth-year seniors, with Schmidt leading the Irish in tackles with 13 (including a TFL) and making an interception and Grace adding nine stops of his own along with a TFL.

Grace played out of position at Will, asked to chase down receivers and play in space, not his strong suit. But the senior did it without complaint, just another selfless act for a veteran who battled back from a career-threatening leg injury.

While Schmidt has had enough coverage to last another four years, he held the Irish defense together, leading a M.A.S.H. unit with his acumen and toughness. The good news? There are better athletes to replace both veterans. But the leadership both exhibited will be sorely missed, and each player is a tremendous example of what you want out of a teammate and a Notre Dame student-athlete.

 

Three Losses. No, it doesn’t make sense to put three losses in the good section. But when you consider that Notre Dame will finish the season with a 10-3 record with their three losses to Top 5 teams by a total of 20 points, this season starts to compare to some of those Lou Holtz squads that Irish fans keep wanting Brian Kelly to replicate.

Certainly, a lot of you will want to put up a “10-3 is not good enough” banner in the weight room. And I think Kelly appropriately rejected any notion that this year was as good as it gets.

But with the insane body count that tested this team’s depth to no end, it’s pretty miraculous that the Irish nearly pulled off a win against Stanford in the regular season finale and battled back from two early uppercuts that the Buckeyes threw at them. Match up the Irish with Iowa in the Fiesta Bowl instead of Ohio State and it’s likely the Irish are sitting here as an 11-win team and a top-five ranking.

 

THE BAD

DeShone Kizer. If we’re going to spend time each week praising the sophomores maturity and poise, we need to point out when he doesn’t play his best. Kizer completed 22 of 37 throws for 284 yards, a completely solid stat-line taken at face value. But Notre Dame needed Kizer to play better, and too often the young quarterback was flustered in the pocket, unable to make a quick decision or fully comprehend what the defense was doing to him until it was too late. He was also oddly inaccurate with some deep balls, showing a rare lack of touch on throws he looked great on all season.

Kizer threw an ugly interception when he didn’t notice a linebacker drop underneath his intended target. He threw another bad one that was nullified by Joey Bosa’s targeting penalty. His poor accuracy stemmed from sloppy fundamentals, short-hopping some quick throws like he did early in the season before smoothing out his mechanics.

Unequivocally, Kizer’s season was a resounding success. (Just look at how Oregon played with their backup quarterback in the Alamo Bowl.) As a redshirt freshman he went from a spring spent as the No. 3 quarterback to a starter who looks like a building block of the program. He’ll face a huge fight this spring when Malik Zaire is fully cleared to participate and Brandon Wimbush returns. Kizer just didn’t play as well as was needed in the Fiesta Bowl, and it’s a reminder that a starting job in 2016 is far from secure.

 

The battered front seven. Jaylon Smith was lost after 11 plays. Coney lost after just seven. Greer Martini battling through a broken hand, playing just four snaps as the linebacking corps was decimated.

Up front, no Jerry Tillery compounded the issues that limited Daniel Cage to just six snaps on a badly sprained ankle. Jarron Jones impacted the game—his deflection and pocket push led to Joe Schmidt’s interception—but he was limited to just 14 plays.

With no defensive tackle opposite a severely wounded Sheldon Day, the Irish were forced to slide Isaac Rochell inside and play Romeo Okwara and Andrew Trumbetti at defensive end. It was a recipe made for disaster. Jonathan Bonner took up the extra snaps at defensive tackle, nearly doubling his season-high for snaps. Trumbetti did the same, on the field for 80 of 86 total plays.

The cumulative effect of these changes were a killer. While Trumbetti flashed a few times and made some impactful plays, he’s a poor run defender, especially against an offensive line like Ohio State’s. Okwara, usually a weakside defensive end, was neutralized playing the strongside. Asking Bonner to do more than hold his own isn’t fair. Nor is Rochell anywhere near as impactful in the trenches.

Taking away Jaylon made J.T. Barrett’s job much easier. As a scrambler, Grace and Schmidt were no match. As a thrower, the underneath routes were now being covered by a 250-pound linebacker who taught himself to run again last year, not a linebacker who plays like a gazelle.

At full strength could this defense have held up? We can’t be sure. But this was closer to the personnel the Irish played against USC with last year than the full-strength group the Irish needed, and once the totality of the injuries showed itself, the Irish defense was pretty much always fighting an unwinnable fight.

 

The Offensive Line. This starting five will be remembered as one of Notre Dame’s best since Joe Moore was coaching the guys in the trenches. With Ronnie Stanley likely a first-rounder and Nick Martin sure to get drafted as well, the Irish also have future building blocks in Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson, while Steve Elmer has another year to play up to his potential and Alex Bars will certainly benefit from the snaps he took this year as he likely moves into the left tackle job.

That said, this line struggled against ultra-aggressive fronts. We saw it against Clemson and again against Temple. Boston College limited what the Irish were able to do on the ground as well, following a similar blueprint to those that had success before them.

Even without three starters—including Joey Bosa, whose targeting ejection made life easier for the offensive line—Kizer was under siege for most of the afternoon. Perhaps asking for the living-room comfort that Kizer has had in the pocket for much of the season was too much, but winning in the trenches wasn’t. Notre Dame’s running game wasn’t able to get going, less about in-game circumstances and more about the one-on-one battles. And the passing rhythm was off, taking away some of the big-play opportunities.

Again, this was a tremendous offensive line. They allowed both C.J. Prosise and Josh Adams to put up incredible seasons. But in short yardage and red zone situations, this group struggled. That’ll be a point of emphasis this offseason as Harry Hiestand, who also needs to find a replacement at center.

 

THE UGLY

Jaylon Smith’s injury. Nothing seems less fair than Smith going down with a major knee injury. While we don’t have the specifics yet, a few reports point to both ACL and MCL injuries. That means considerable rehab ahead for Smith, and it could impact his decision to head to the NFL, which seemed like a certainty beforehand.

That said, it appears Smith was protected. ESPN’s Darren Rovell reported over the weekend that Smith has a $5 million insurance policy that protects him if he slides out of the first round. It’s a similar policy to the one UCLA’s Myles Jack has, another star junior linebacker who decided to declare for the draft even as he recovers from surgery.

In all likelihood, Smith will be just fine. The NFL was well aware of his prodigious skill-set, something he won’t have to prove at the scouting combine, but rather just have teams turn on game tape. And if the injury allows Smith to come back to Notre Dame and play out his eligibility while he earns his degree, he’ll likely be protected by an insurance policy as well. That’s a choice Smith very well could make, if he believes he’s capable of returning to Top 5 status, not Top 20.

It’s hard not to wonder if seeing Smith go down impacted the decision made by C.J. Prosise or Will Fuller. For all of us, it was a stark reminder that football is a dangerous game, where one snap can alter a career.

We saw that all too often this season. Notre Dame needs to—and likely has already started—a full-scale investigation into why the injury bug has now decimated two-straight teams. Nothing should be off limits as this group tries to find a formula to limit the season-ruining injuries that capped this team’s ceiling at 10-wins.

From preseason camp to the bowl game, the Irish were faced with key injuries that required the team to pick up and move on without some of their key personnel. Ultimately, that did the Irish in. Not just in the Fiesta Bowl, but against Stanford and Clemson as well.

But that’s football.

 

 

 

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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Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover position, others likely to follow
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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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