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Pregame Six Pack: Sunday night special

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Amidst the busiest football weekend of the season, Notre Dame and Texas have Sunday night to themselves. That gives the Irish a chance to make a statement (or take a step back) in front of a national audience, as 100,000 screaming Texas fans will do their best to help the Longhorns rebound from last season’s drubbing.

With an August speed bump behind them and a two-quarterback scheme ahead, Brian Kelly’s team comes to Austin ready to unveil a roster with few things certain. Most expect a high-powered offense, a young and athletic defense, and a consistent special teams unit. But until things kickoff, all of that is merely speculation.

With one of college football’s blue-blooded matchups just around the corner, let’s get to our first Pregame Six Pack. Because with the Labor Day holiday signifying the end of summer, there’s football to play.

 

Notre Dame has had a ton of success against the Longhorns. 

When you’re the third-winningest program in the history of college football, not many schools can claim to have your number. But the Irish have historically had Texas by the Longhorns.

(Sorry, had to try it.)

Notre Dame’s won five straight against Texas, including last year’s 38-3 beating. Texas hasn’t beat the Irish since 1970, with Notre Dame holding more wins over Texas than any team not in their conference. Notre Dame leads the all-time series 9-2, with games doing back to 1913.

Other big wins include clinching the school’s tenth national title in the Cotton Bowl in 1978 and Jim Sanson knocking through a 39-yard game-winner in Austin in September, 1996.

Of course, none of that helps two young teams on Sunday night, but historically the Notre Dame-Texas rivalry is surprisingly one-sided.

 

Young. Talented. But on the road. 

Notre Dame will have the more talented football team on the field Sunday night. But the Irish haven’t always seen that talent translate on the road, and starting the season outside of South Bend is a rarity. This will be just the 31st time in the 128 seasons of the program where the Irish will go to someone else’s home field.

Digging deeper, road openers haven’t been kind to the Irish. Not when Ty Willingham brought Notre Dame to BYU. Or when Bob Davie got run out of Nebraska. Add to that some of the struggles Brian Kelly’s teams have had on the road and it’s understandable why Las Vegas sees this as close a a field goal rather than the five-touchdown blowout that came last season.

The Irish return just seven starters—three on offense, four on defense. That’s the lowest total in a dozen seasons, three less than perhaps the worst team in school history, the 3-9 Irish of 2007. So Kelly is taking great pains to make sure his team is doing all the little things right, knowing that they’re key to winning the football game.

“I think both teams are certainly focused on the little things in the opener,” Kelly said on Tuesday. “Special teams and taking care of the football and assignments. And I think that for me is the same thing when we’ve got a number of young players that are going to be playing in this game.

“I think what I’m most interested in is how we handle the adversity that we’ll face the first time. Certainly there will be some adversity, and how we charge through that and manage it will say a lot about this football team moving forward.”

This week there was plenty of crowd noise piped into practice. There were plenty of test runs and dress rehearsals. But Kelly also talked about the importance of finding the right players for the pressure-cooker situations. And he’s confident that his program has built up the right kind of personnel for the challenge.

“You try to recruit the right kind of kids that understand that when they come here, they’re going to be under intense scrutiny and spotlight and they’re gonna play in these kinds of games,” Kelly said.

“The second thing is you try and put them under intense scrutiny and pressure during the week. I wouldn’t consider our practices to be easy on kids in the sense we’re keeping pressure on them mentally to be sharp. They can’t be thin skinned. A lot of those things help you deal with an environment that is raucous and loud.”

 

Notre Dame will begin a new tradition on Sunday. 

Nobody will wear the jersey No. 1 this season. Instead, Kelly will award that jersey each week to a different player. Kelly walked through the mechanics of that process—a new tradition inside the program.

“The captains will have recommendations that will go to our staff and I during our 48-hour meeting, which is generally Thursdays,” Kelly explained. “At that staff meeting we will take those recommendations, discuss them as a staff, and then I’ll make the decision on who is awarded the No. 1 jersey.

“We won’t let them know until that jersey is in that locker in pregame. They won’t wear it out to pregame. But they’ll know in pregame that they are the recipient of it. Everybody will find out when they run out of the tunnel.”

Because of eligibility issues, an offensive lineman won’t be allowed to wear the jersey. But they’re still eligible to win the jersey, though it’ll remain hung in the locker room.

So if you’re keeping an eye out on Sunday night, watch for No. 1. It’ll likely be the reward of an excellent training camp and preseason.

 

The late Greg Bryant will be on the minds of his former teammates. 

The Irish will also take the field for the first time since Greg Bryant—the last man to wear No. 1 for the Irish—was murdered. And while Bryant had left the program and was in the process of rebooting his life and career at UAB when he was shot and killed, his presence is still felt among his former teammates.

CSN Chicago’s JJ Stankevitz dug into this, talking to players and coaches about moving forward while honoring Bryant.  Running back coach Autry Denson was candid about the emotions this team is still facing.

“That was a very tough situation, still is,” Denson told Stankevitz. “His impact is being felt. You see practice, you see GB towels, things of that nature. And that’s a testament to who Greg is because Greg was such a great young man. He needed guidance, just like anybody else, as he was figuring out. But even though he wasn’t here, everybody here was still wishing him well. Nobody had any ill will. It was like, do what you have to do for you and we still have your back.

“Greg is Greg. He had an unbelievable smile and an unbelievable — it was just infectious, his attitude.”

While the No. 1 won’t technically honor Bryant or his memory, his former teammates will certainly be thinking about him when and if they get the chance to wear his old jersey.

 

“Me and Tarean talk about it a lot, to get No. 1 and stuff like that,” captain Torii Hunter told Stankevitz. “If you get No. 1, you gotta have the game of your life. That’s GB’s number. You gotta bring all the sauce.”

“Anything possible to show that this is for GB,” Folston said.

 

 

Josh Adams is in scary good company. (And not just Tarean Folston…)

Brian Kelly spoke after Thursday practice sounding very much like a head coach itching to go, his roster remarkably healthy heading into the weekend. We’ll find out if that means running back Josh Adams is full-go after battling hamstring issues all August. Because if he is, he’ll likely pick up right where he left off.

For a record-setting freshman season, Adams if saying remarkably under the radar. How good was Adams’ rookie year? Consider these names: Jamal Charles, C.J. Spiller and Nick Chubb.

Since 2000, those are the only other Power 5 true freshmen running backs to average at least seven yards a carry with more than 100 attempts.

Adams’ ascent was only possible after Tarean Folston went down just three carries into 2015. And Kelly expects his veteran back to take off quickly, ready to return against the Longhorns after having his season end against them last year.

“I’ve been very impressed with his camp, his elusiveness, the way he’s run,” Kelly said about Folston. “I expect him to have a significant impact in what we do offensively… He gives the offensive line an opportunity to get on their blocks. I know they love blocking for him because he makes our offensive line really look good on combination blocks. So I expect him to do some good things for us.”

The ground game will likely serve as the engine of this offensive attack. And these two backs could have a very big evening.

 

Sunday night’s big matchup is tugging at Lou Holtz.

Everybody knows that Lou Holtz loves Notre Dame. But Lou has a soft spot for Texas as well. So when the two teams kickoff this Sunday night, expect Notre Dame’s second-winningest coach of all-time to be slightly conflicted.

Not just because of Charlie Strong. Holtz’s affinity for Strong is well known, and he showed his admiration for his former defensive line coach by appearing in Austin earlier this week.

“I’m here because of my tremendous respect for Charlie Strong,” Holtz said as he addressed the Longhorns. “I’ve had a lot of great assistants, Urban Meyer, Barry Alvarez… Nobody is better than Charlie Strong as a person. I love him like a son.”

But Holtz’s grandson Trey is a fifth-year senior on the Longhorns. He’s a four-time member of the Big 12 Commissioner’s Honor Roll and serves as the team’s holder. So you can excuse Holtz if he’s cheering for somebody else on Saturday, especially when his grandson gets a chance to trot out every time the Longhorns score.

Here’s video of Holtz addressing the team this week, rolling out a familiar magic trick and inspirational message to the Longhorns.

 

 

 

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PREDICTION: Blue 37, White 21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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