Malik Zaire, John Turner, Jarrett Grace
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Pregame Six Pack: Green Irish roster prepares for Blue-Gold game

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For the 87th time, Notre Dame will play the Blue-Gold game. And for Irish fans tuning in for the first time this spring, they’ll likely need a new program.

As Brian Kelly’s seventh team in South Bend takes shape, it’ll look drastically different from the core of the previous two teams. Gone are standouts like Jaylon Smith, Will Fuller, Sheldon Day, Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin. Captain Joe Schmidt no longer stands in the middle of the defense.

Offensively, the Irish are expected to retain their firepower, but they’ll do so without their leading rusher and three leading receivers. They’ll also need to replace three starters along the offensive line, the Irish without a Martin on the offensive line for the first time since Kelly took over.

For the second time in as many springs, the Blue-Gold game will give a national audience a look at one of the country’s most compelling quarterback battle. Only this time one quarterback isn’t likely to flee town.

With a picture perfect weather forecast and a good crowd expected, a new generation of Irish football players will step into the spotlight, their turn to build on the legacy of the group before them. With a senior class that set a record for winning games in Notre Dame Stadium, the bar has been raised.

Brian Kelly will be wired for sound. Friend of the program Jac Collinsworth will be holding it down on the sidelines in place of Kathryn Tappen who is on NHL duty. So let’s crack open a pregame six pack that ends in the perfect fashion: A 100-percent guaranteed Irish victory, televised live on NBCSN on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. ET.

 

Kizer versus Zaire will be the closest thing we see to a quarterback showdown. Blink and you might miss it. 

Brian Kelly raised some eyebrows when he confirmed that both quarterbacks would be live during the Blue-Gold game. (For how long? That’s the big question.) But as Kelly, offensive coordinator Mike Sanford and associate head coach Mike Denbrock try to get a better grasp on who’ll pilot the offense next fall, seeing both Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer in a natural environment is a necessary evil.

Both Zaire and Kizer will be aiming to impress on Saturday, each trying to make a final lasting impression before the long offseason months. For Zaire, he’ll once again remind people he’s a “lights-on” kind of quarterback, the type of player who elevates his play once he gets off the practice field and into a game situation. For Kizer, Saturday will be about dictating terms as a quarterback, showcasing the assets that made him one of the most impressive redshirt freshmen in the nation.

Kelly talked about having Zaire and Kizer both captain a team, pitting them against each other. He also talked about making both live—understanding that the zone read game will be a critical component of the offense. But don’t expect that to last.

Brandon Wimbush will eat up some of the snaps. So will fellow backups Montgomery VanGorder and walk-on Nolan Henry. The real goal is getting both Kizer and Zaire out of spring healthy, knowing that any final decision on playing time will be decided in the fall.

In the meantime, cherish our only great look at the battle all spring, because the next time you’ll see them is in August.

 

Will Jerry Tillery and Jarron Jones finally step forward in the last practice of spring? 

Brian VanGorder declared both defensive tackle jobs available heading into fall camp. And while just about everybody who follows the Irish have fifth-year senior Jarron Jones penciled in alongside sophomore Jerry Tillery, when VanGorder talks you’d be wise to listen.

While neither Tillery nor Jones were around yesterday to hear the third-year defensive coordinators comments, you can guess the message has been sent.

“If we started tomorrow, I am not sure who the starters would be,” VanGorder said. “I have an idea, but it’s going to be competitive going into training camp. No one has established themselves as a starter at the defensive tackle position. We will keep it competitive and see if we can grow and develop some young players.”

While we’ll get to see some of the young talent VanGorder referenced on the ascending defensive line, with Pete Mokwuah, Jonathan Bonner, Micah Dew-Treadway, Jay Hayes, Khalid Kareem, Elijah Taylor and Brandon Tiassum a strong core who could pick up some of the slack.

But these jobs needed to be seized by both Jones and Tillery, two mountainous men who could both wreak havoc against opposing offenses. Let’s see if the live action brings out the best in them.

 

For Folston, Crawford and Tranquill, getting onto the field for the Blue-Gold Game is gravy. 

That Tarean Folston, Shaun Crawford and Drue Tranquill have all rebounded and reasserted their position on the depth chart is impressive. Because in year’s past, they’d likely have spent 15 practices rehabilitating their knees and sitting in the cold tub.

The Irish’s trio of bad luck, season-ruining knees have all had ahead-of-schedule recoveries. Folston has reasserted himself at the top of the running back depth chart. Crawford has played his way into the conversation to start opposite Cole Luke when he’s not anchored into the all important job working in the slot. And Tranquill—two ACL tears in two seasons—is ready to go from the cold tub to the starting strong safety job.

How this trio is used on Saturday is anybody’s guess. But it’s already been a successful spring for three key contributors who worked hard to make it back to spring ball ahead of schedule.

 

With the depth chart open in front of him, Saturday could be a preview of Torii Hunter’s 2016 coming out party. 

After entering Notre Dame recovering from a horrific leg injury suffered at the Army All-American All-Star game, wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr.‘s career got off to a slow start. But after a redshirt and two years working his way into the rotation, don’t be shocked if Hunter tries making up for lost time on Saturday.

Expected to become Notre Dame’s next No. 1 receiver with Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle all gone, Hunter may have punched his own ticket to a monster statistical season. That’s what should happen when you run a 4.42 40-yard dash and have the ability to play anywhere on the field (even defense—Hunter was the staff’s choice to cross-train as a defensive back when the Irish went searching for a nickel back.)

Finally at the top of the food chain and also tasked with teaching a young group of talent with Corey Robinson still out with lingering concussion symptoms, don’t be surprised if Hunter decides leading by example is the best course of action, getting vertical on Saturday and running by every defensive back at least once.

Hunter’s a below-the-radar player who is primed for a breakthrough in 2016. Coming off of a 28-catch, 363-yard season, not too many people will see it coming.

So maybe Kelly is happy to let him stay off the grid, leaving spring to some impressive youth and Hunter to announce his presence once he arrives in Austin on Labor Day Weekend.

 

The kids are going to be all right. 

Keep an eye out for some of the quick studies earning a lot of kudos from the coaching staff. Early enrollee freshmen Devin Studstill (No. 13) and Kevin Stepherson (No. 29) may have numbers that look like they should belong to walk-ons, but both have been dynamic this spring. Studstill is challenging Max Redfield for playing time at free safety. Stepherson has already found his way into the two-deep, a three-star receiver who already looks the part of an ankle-breaking playmaker.

After preserving a year of eligibility last season, linebackers Asmar Bilal and Josh Barajas will get more playing time than they can handle on Saturday. Both Indiana natives have had to learn through the firehouse as Mike Elston’s had just four healthy scholarship linebackers during spring ball. Both could take that momentum onto the field next spring, with Bilal in the conversation for the starting Will linebacker job.

While a new load of reinforcements will be on campus in June, a few defensive backs who spent 2015 watching now have a chance to charge into battle. We already talked about Crawford. But Ashton White also looks like a physical corner who has crossover abilities at safety. Redshirt freshman Miles Boykin could be another matchup problem as a receiver, the beneficiary of Corey Robinson’s missed practice time at the boundary wide receiver.

We’ve seen glimpses from emerging contributors like Equanimeous St. Brown, Dexter Williams, Alizé Jones (likely to spend some time with Boykin at W receiver), while Tristen Hoge fights for time at guard. All have essentially taken this spring as a chance to fight for a significant in the rotation.

Expect one (or more) of these names to have a big Saturday.

 

Take it from Junior Jabbie. Not all spring game performances are created equal. 

A clutch touchdown catch from Justin Brent and Corey Holmes sharing the team lead with three catches. Jhonny Williams and Grant Blankenship notching sacks. Max Redfield running an interception back for a touchdown. None of those occurrences in last year’s Blue-Gold game were signs of big things to come in 2015.

Of course, the flip-side is also true. Before he shattered most first-year quarterback records in South Bend, DeShone Kizer was getting outplayed by Montgomery VanGorder, hitting rock bottom with a 1-of-5 performance for three total yards, taking a safety and sack in a game where he wasn’t even full contact.

Spring games reveal themselves in different ways. Junior Jabbie will go down in Irish lore for a spring game performance that netted him an MVP trophy. He was never heard from again. John Owens was unblockable in the 2000 Blue-Gold game, notching three sacks. That was triple his career total. Chris Olsen went from MVP to quarterback transfer, a dozen years before Everett Golson pulled the same chute.

Last year, we saw clues of the team that emerged in the fall.  Notre Dame’s offensive line was a strength, C.J. Prosise‘s switch to running back looked natural. But this is also just 1/15th of spring drills—and the only ones broadcast to fans (and opposing coaches) trying to glean anything from an Irish team filled with unknowns.

I’m often reminded of comments former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco made when he discussed his first defense’s performance in his inaugural Blue-Gold game in South Bend. He was pleased with their effort, happy they executed the gameplan he delivered. Then he revealed they’ll never play that scheme again.

Happy Blue-Gold game.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spring positions to watch for revelations: DL & WR

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 05: Jerry Tillery #99 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish tackles Jerrod Heard #13 of the Texas Longhorns for a loss of yards during the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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If quarterback, rover and the early enrollees could be Notre Dame fans’ springtime Christmas thrills, what positions present as potential spots of coal?

Three former Irish players were invited to next week’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis: quarterback DeShone Kizer, defensive tackle Jarron Jones and defensive end Isaac Rochell. Losing two consistent defensive linemen leaves this year’s unit with some questions. Jones and Rochell combined for 100 tackles, 18 for loss and three sacks last season. Notre Dame’s returning defensive linemen combined to total 111 tackles and only 5.5 tackles for loss. To be clear, sacks are not included in that latter list because no returning defensive linemen recorded one. Among the returnees, junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37 tackles, three for loss) and senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26, 0.5) contributed solidly alongside the two NFL prospects.

This dearth of known and reliable linemen is a large part of why the potential transfer of Clemson graduate defensive tackle Scott Pagano is so intriguing. Pagano would immediately be a favorite to start, and if not that, at least rotate in heavily.

For now, though, Pagano remains a theoretical

By the end of spring practice, who already on campus will emerge alongside Tillery and Trumbetti in the Irish front? Senior ends Jay Hayes (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) and Jonathon Bonner (nine tackles) seem the most-likely candidates … aside from former four-star recruit and now rising sophomore Daelin Hayes. In his debut season, D. Hayes finished with 11 tackles.

Look for senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) to establish himself as Tillery’s immediate backup this spring, but that spot in the rotation will be up for competition all over again once four-star tackle Darnell Ewell (Lake Taylor High School; Norfolk, Va.) arrives on campus in the fall. His size and quickness should play right into new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s system.

Equanimeous and Who?
Not only did Notre Dame bring in a graduate transfer at receiver in former Michigan wideout Freddy Canteen, but it has also already received the commitments of two four-star receivers in the 2018 recruiting class. The continued emphasis on the position reflects the lack of bona fide game-breakers currently on the roster.

Junior Equanimeous St. Brown established himself as the top Irish threat in 2016, and he should shine only further with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush targeting him. Classmates often amplify each other’s success, simply due to the added shared reps innate to joining practice at the same time. With Torii Hunter, Jr., now pursuing a professional baseball career, who will prevent the secondary from focusing all its energies on St. Brown?

Canteen will not be with Notre Dame in the spring, as he does not graduate from Michigan until April. That will give a clear shot for the likes of juniors Chris Finke, C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin, and sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool to establish themselves. Did that say “clear” shot? It should probably read, “a chance to separate from the crowd.”

If a genuine threat does not line up opposite St. Brown, his explosiveness will likely be greatly reduced by focused defensive scheming. Wimbush will need another target before 2018.

Of course, here is where one should acknowledge the millennia-tested fact: Coal under pressure becomes diamonds.

2016 Notre Dame’s win expectancy was 7.2
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Johnson named the Irish as his team most likely to dramatically improve its record in 2017. Johnson’s thinking is based, at least in part, on Notre Dame’s second-order win total having been 7.2 in 2016, compared to the four wins the Irish actually walked away with. That discrepancy was the largest in the country.

Second-order win totals reflect how many points a team should have scored and allowed based on offensive and defensive stats. In theory, this shines a light on how luck and chance factored into results. Naturally, losing seven games by one possession will often be reflected by a higher second-order win total.

“Notre Dame’s win-loss record belied a solid, if imperfect, squad that just couldn’t pull out close games…” Johnson writes. “The Irish may not get back into College Football Playoff contention in 2017, but they’re bound to post a few more Ws because of reversion to the mean.”

Admittedly, the small sample size of a football season reduces the applicability of metrics such as second- and third-order wins when compared to baseball and basketball.

Jones becomes Mack
A quick piece of housekeeping: Apparently junior tight end Alizé Jones has changed his name to Alizé Mack.

While Notre Dame’s roster may not reflect that change yet, it is reasonable to expect it will after its next update. The football program has consistently respected the intricacies of players’ name preferences. Tai-ler Jones becoming TJ Jones jumps to mind, for example.

Anyways, hopefully noting Mack’s name change here might reduce some confusion down the line. Probably not. How many readers possibly read to the actual bottom of an article? But hey, in good faith.

WR Lenzy makes 11th commitment, brings speed to Irish

lenzy
rivals.com
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At what point does an impressive recruiting roll become something more? When does it become a harbinger of things to come, even if not for a few seasons? How many notable commitments in a row establishes a class as special?

If the answer to any of the above is 11 commitments by the end of February, including five within two weeks, then Notre Dame is there following consensus four-star athlete Braden Lenzy’s announcement Thursday evening.

The Tigard High School (Portland, Ore) receiver/cornerback chose the Irish over offers from USC, Oregon and Michigan State, among a litany of others. In all, nine Pac-12 schools chased Lenzy—and a 10th, Washington, had shown interest—per rivals.com.

Lenzy will fit the leading 2018 need voiced by Irish coach Brian Kelly three weeks ago on National Signing Day 2017.

“Elite speed on offense will be a primary goal for us,” Kelly said Feb. 1. “Guys that can change the game on one possession. I think we’ll see that… We want a couple of home run hitters. We don’t care if they’re Darren Sproles’s size. We’re going to come off the board in terms of profile. We want some guys that can change the game on offense with elite speed.”

At 6-foot, 175 pounds, Lenzy is taller than Sproles’s 5-foot-6, but it is still his speed that drew Notre Dame’s interest.

“They made it clear they want me to do kickoff return and use me as a deep threat across the field,” he told Irish Illustrated. “Just being kind of an athlete, similar to what I’ve been doing already in high school, just on a bigger scale with a quarterback that can throw it a lot farther.”

Presuming Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush is that arm in 2018, throwing great distances should not be an issue. Between Lenzy and fellow 2018 commit Micah Jones, covering those distances should be a reasonable request, as well.

Lenzy brings Notre Dame’s class of 2018 to 11, including eight four-stars according to Rivals’ rating system. Current scholarship projections indicate the class will not be a large one, meaning the Irish coaching staff has already garnered the commitments of more than half the class. Once again, though, Kelly’s sentiment regarding recruiting timing should be remembered.

“We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

SWARBRICK’S TAKE ON RECRUITING
Kelly credited Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick with much assistance in securing the country’s No. 13 recruiting class in 2017. A refresher on those comments:

“In a lot of instances, [Swarbrick] had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it’s going,” Kelly said. “There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future.”

Swarbrick did not dispute the factual nature of any of that in an interview with the Indianapolis Star, but he did contest the need for praising what he saw as part of his job, one of the preferred parts of his job, at that.

“I can’t say anything about this year felt all that different,” Swarbrick told Star reporter Laken Litman. “Some asked questions about the future of the program and can we compete for a national championship. And I would talk about the elements of the program we were focused on improving.”

Swarbrick and Litman discussed a number of items in the second-half of the interview released by the Star, including Notre Dame’s facilities, a possible early signing period in football and if the Oct. 8, 2016, game against North Carolina State should have been played. Spoiler: No. Then why was it? Go check it out.

Swarbrick also told Litman he likes to write in his free time.

“I tend to think strategically with a pen in my hand.” Swarbrick added he is currently scribbling away on where he thinks college athletics are headed.

This scribe, for one, would be most interested in skimming those legal pads.

Will Wimbush, Elko and the early enrollees surprise in spring practice?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Exactly 59 days from today, the Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Sure, they will be playing against themselves, but nonetheless, it will be somewhat-competitive football played in gold helmets.

For timing context, exactly 59 days ago, you looked beneath the Christmas tree to learn if Santa Claus left you season tickets, socks or coal. I got socks. They had some of that extra cushioning, so I considered them a suitable treat.

Whether you care about my argyles or not (you don’t), for many the Blue-Gold Game and Christmas morning hold similar excitement. That fact is apparently why Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick does not concern himself when groups of alumni publicly lament his decisions, or lack thereof.

“I never worry about that,” Swarbirck told the Indianapolis Star in an exclusive interview you really should read. Go on, click the link, it will open in a new tab. You can come right back here when you are done.

“The hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion in your program. If that sort of stuff bothers you, you can’t be the athletic director, head coach or the quarterback at Notre Dame.”

That very passion will undoubtedly lead to frame-by-frame discussions of video snippets from spring practice, parsing of each and every word Irish coach Brian Kelly says in quick interviews after those practices, and extreme pessimism and optimism about the 2017 season.

In the Christmas spirit, what toys could bring the must excitement during the spring unwrapping? Personally, the gift I was unsure of always brought the most joy. I would rather open an unexpected book than know about a charcoal-gray suit. In other words, at least for today, let’s look past the offensive line, the running backs and the inside linebackers. Instead, let’s look forward to learning about… (more…)

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Karlos Williams #9 of the Florida State Seminoles scores the touchdown that would win the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their game at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.

With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.

The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.

Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.

Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.

If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.

Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order: (more…)