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Five things we learned: Texas 50, Notre Dame 47

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Notre Dame’s 2016 season begins with a loss. And the explanation for it is both simple and confounding.

The Irish lost because Brian VanGorder’s defense was no match for a Texas offense trotting out a freshman starter and a new system. They lost because they gave up three opportunities for DeShone Kizer to drive the Irish for touchdowns—something he did six times.

They lost because another offseason installing a defensive system somehow once again forgot some universal truths that every armchair quarterback in America knows all too well.

There will be positive takeaways. Young players stepping forward, like Equanimeous St. Brown and Shaun Crawford. A resiliency that didn’t leave town with the senior class from 2015, a 17-point deficit erased as the Irish fought to get the game to overtime.

But ultimately, seven seasons into his tenure in South Bend, Brian Kelly knows the score.

“There’s no moral victories,” Kelly said postgame. “Losing is losing”

Let’s find out the five things we learned.

 

Three seasons into Brian VanGorder’s tenure as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator, his unit is the same as it ever was. 

Notre Dame’s last three big games—Stanford, Ohio State and now Texas—are a stark reminder that the Irish defense isn’t fit for primetime. Not when Tyrone Swoopes and D'Onta Foreman are pinballing through would-be tacklers. Not when Shane Buechele is getting started writing his Texas-sized legend, beating Irish defensive backs over the top. And especially not when a group of intelligent student-athletes seem to always find the banana peel to slip on in the game’s critical moments.

VanGorder’s unit—young for certain, after having to replace its well-established nucleus—was learning on the job Saturday. But failing is failing, and Kelly’s warnings to anybody that would listen about the pace of Texas’s offense seemed to be ignored by the 11 guys caught flat-footed to open the football game.

The Irish gave up 517 yards and 50 points to the Texas offense. They let Buechele throw for 280 yards on just 16 completions. They gave up big plays over the top, chain-movers in the trenches and allowed seven scores on seven red zone appearances.

More maddening, they looked lost when everybody in the stadium seemed to know what was coming but them. They failed again and again in the red zone. And with the game on the line and the Irish needing to make a stand, it was hard enough to get the right personnel on the field, let alone make a big play.

Those days of the simple-yet-consistent unit that bent but didn’t break under Bob Diaco? Gone faster than Jon Tenuta dialing up another blitz call on 3rd-and-long.

Credit certainly goes to a Texas team with intriguing and emerging talent at skill positions, not to mention three bulldozers in Swoopes, Foreman and Chris Warren. But game one of 2016 reminds many that the highest paid assistant coach in Notre Dame history isn’t getting his job done.

 

Brian Kelly wouldn’t say it after the game. But DeShone Kizer needs to be Notre Dame’s starting quarterback. 

It’s hardly a bold statement.

Not after Kizer propped the Irish offense on his shoulders and carried them back into the football game. Completing 15 of 24 passes for 215 yards and five touchdowns, while running for 77 more yards and another score, Kizer’s six scores will find their way into the record books as one of the best losing performances in school history.

But you can’t help but wonder what he’d have done with three more series—especially when Charlie Strong admitted postgame that his game plan for Zaire was to crowd the box and dare the lefty to beat him with his arm.

Zaire didn’t—and couldn’t, only throwing five times while harassed by the swarming Longhorns defense on all three of his series. And while Kelly wouldn’t make any declaration about where the offense would go moving quickly towards the home opener against Nevada, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where Kizer doesn’t lead the offense moving forward.

Pinning this loss on the quarterback shuffle isn’t fair. Not when it was the defense giving up six yards a play and seven scores in seven red zone appearances. And Zaire can still play a role in this offense–just one that looks much more like what Tyrone Swoopes was doing, not as a co-leading man.

The worst-case scenario at quarterback just hit the Irish like the punch to the jaw the Longhorns delivered—Kelly’s quarterback battle took a loss to find his starter.

 

Without Torii Hunter, Notre Dame’s wide receiving corps is lost. 

Notre Dame’s offense was irreparably harmed when senior receiver Torii Hunter took a vicious hit in the end zone, a shot to the head that by any definition of college football’s targeting rule should have resulted in a first down and ejection.

Brian Kelly was incredulous postgame, unable to understand how Texas safety DeShon Elliott’s hit to Hunter’s head didn’t draw a flag—or further review by the Big 12 officiating crew in charge of the replay booth. But perhaps more disappointing than the loss of Hunter for the rest of the game as he went to the locker room to be evaluated for a concussion was the state of Notre Dame’s receiving corps without their senior captain.

The Irish looked lost without Hunter on the field. Other than the perfect strike Kizer floated to Josh Adams in the corner of the end zone, the veteran quarterback completed just one other throw downfield for the rest of the game, connecting with CJ Sanders on a chain-moving third-down conversion for six yards.

Never was Kizer’s discomfort with his receivers more apparent than on his chance to win the game in regulation. With the game tied and the Irish offense given over three minutes to march down the field, Kizer took a sack when no receiver turned to look as an outside blitz came. Then, with communication difficult to the outside of the formation, Kelly chose to run on 3rd-and-12, keeping the ball on the ground and away from his inexperienced receivers in a crunch-time moment.

Learning on the job was always expected. But without Hunter as a foundation, the Irish receivers looked lost.

 

Newcomers Equanimeous St. Brown and Shaun Crawford made big-time debuts. 

Sophomore Equanimous St. Brown isn’t going to be Will Fuller. But he did a pretty good impression on Sunday night, catching two touchdowns among his five grabs for 75 yards.

The lanky target, who flew under the radar this spring and preseason as other options emerged, quickly established himself as Notre Dame’s big play receiver. His nifty footwork converted a nicely thrown fade from Kizer on the game’s opening drive. His acrobatic hand plant made for another highlight-worthy touchdown grab. Two scores in his first start are a promising debut to a receiver who only managed one catch all last season.

Crawford’s debut was just as impactful. While he was on the wrong end of a deep pass in the first half, the sophomore’s first game after sitting out all of last season after an August ACL injury was everything you could’ve advertised.

Crawford’s first career interception turned the momentum of the game, setting up the Irish with a short field and easy touchdown. His two-point conversion return on a blocked extra point was the exact type of play we’d only heard of Crawford making—the right guy in the right place at the right time.

It’s tough to take too much comfort after a gutting loss like the one the Irish just experienced, but two young standouts expected to play big roles on this team seem poised for big seasons.

 

One loss does not make a season. But fixing what ails this team is Job No. 1 for Brian Kelly and his staff. 

Notre Dame’s goals for the season are still intact. Especially on a wild weekend that saw major shakeups in the Pac-12, Big 12 and SEC. So while no team should need a wake-up call after one week, perhaps it was necessary for Brian Kelly’s young team.

In case you needed a reminder, there’s going to be some heavy lifting this season. That’s what happens when you return just seven starters, replacing multiple All-Americans on both sides of the ball and are admittedly still searching for your offensive and defensive identity heading into the season.

There’s plenty of good to take away from Sunday night—though you might have to look harder at the defensive side of the ball to find it. But it’s going to take some hard coaching to make sure this group doesn’t lose control, as eight penalties, including a personal foul on middle linebacker Nyles Morgan, made quite evident.

There’s plenty of time to question tactics—the choice of playing a mostly three-down front still has me scratching my head. But coaching is done presnap. It’s up to the players to make tackles and cover receivers, or pick up blitzers and convert tough first downs.

On a Sunday night that’ll be remembered for a long time in Austin, the first sellout crowd since the 2013 season got what they paid for.

And unfortunately, Notre Dame leaves footing the bill.

 

 

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.”

RELATED READING:
4 Days Until Spring Practice: A Look at QBs (Brandon Wimbush)
Pace of Play: More Snaps Equal More Scoring Chances, Right?

Back from break, Irish commence hitting; DT Elijah Taylor out with LisFranc injury

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Notre Dame last wore pads in its 45-27 defeat at USC back on Nov. 26, a full 117 days ago. Suffice it to say, the Irish enjoyed the chance to don their shoulder pads and hit each other in Wednesday’s third spring practice, the first one since returning from spring break.

“What I liked about it more than anything else is there wasn’t a big drop off today,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “Usually you go two days and then you take a week off, and then you come back and put your pads on—it took us only a couple of periods to get back up to form. That was nice to see.”

Contrary to previous years in spring practice, and perhaps practice in general, Kelly emphasized tackling, especially tackling in the open-field, in Wednesday’s drills.

“[I] felt like we needed to make up for a little lost ground,” he said. “We got in tackling today for the first time. That’ll be an emphasis. We’ll tackle a lot this spring to make up for lost ground.”

The early and often physical nature of practice didn’t bother any of the players, per Kelly, but also per presumed common sense. While Notre Dame’s coaching staff changes and public questioning played out in broad view, the players spent 117 days in private waiting to unleash some of the frustrations of 2016’s disappointing season.

“Everybody to a man has been looking forward to this day,” Kelly said. “It was a pretty difficult offseason for them. They were looking forward to putting the pads on and getting out there. I think they exhibited that today.”

TAYLOR OUT FOR SPRING, AT LEAST
Junior defensive tackle Elijah Taylor was not in pads Wednesday. In the final practice before spring break, another player stepped on Taylor’s foot, Kelly said. The resulting LisFranc fracture will keep Taylor out of the remaining dozen spring practices and limit him until at least July. Taylor saw action in four games last season, finishing with three tackles, including one for a loss.

Notre Dame team surgeon Dr. Brian Ratigan already performed Taylor’s surgery.

“Typical LisFranc fractures, we’ve had good success with their repairs,” Kelly said. “…We’ll be able to train around the injury. Full range of motion moving around and doing things in June, probably full clearance sometime in July.”

Without Taylor, the interior of Notre Dame’s defensive line becomes even shallower, though that may have been hard to previously comprehend. Junior Jerry Tillery looks to be ready to start, and senior Jonathan Bonner has moved to the inside, rather than at end as he has been for most of his career. Behind them, the Irish present only question marks.

Kelly said he will look to junior Micah Dew-Treadway to step forward in Taylor’s absence.

“Micah Dew-Treadway has had a really good offseason for us,” Kelly said. “Changed his body, has been doing a really good job in all facets, in the class room and weight room. He’s somebody that had been ascending anyway prior to the injury.

Kelly indicated junior Brandon Tiassum also could be expected to see more work with Taylor sidelined.

Seniors Daniel Cage and Pete Mokwuah are in the mix, as well. Cage struggled with concussion issues last season after a promising 2015.

Notre Dame will need to wait until the freshmen arrive—perhaps also joined by Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano, reportedly still taking official visits as he ponders his 2017 destination—for further reinforcements. Consensus four-star recruit Darnell Ewell would be the most likely candidate of the three expected arrivals to move up the depth chart right away.

In layman’s terms, a Lisfranc fracture occurs when a mid-foot bone connecting to a toe separates from the cluster of bones toward the heel. Note: This is stated here only to provide some context, nothing more. This particular scribe avoided most biology classes.

CLAYPOOL A RECEIVER AND THAT HE WILL STAY
Asked if he considered moving sophomore receiver Chase Claypool to defense, Kelly answered succinctly.

“We feel like we need his play on offense,” Kelly said. “He’ll continue to contribute on the special teams end of things, but we need his play on offense.”

KELLY ON KIZER’S NFL POTENTIAL
“I’ve had a number of conversations with GMs and coaches about [former Notre Dame quarterback] DeShone [Kizer], and my personal feeling is he has the biggest upside of all the quarterbacks. I don’t know that he’s prepared to come in and win a Super Bowl for you [this year]. Some may feel as though maybe one of the other quarterbacks are. I don’t know that firsthand. But I think, in time, he has the biggest upside of all the quarterbacks.

“I get it. It’s the NFL. Everybody’s under the same pressure of performing and needing somebody to come in right away, but I think he’s a guy that just needs some time. If he gets in the right situation, I think he’d be the guy to take.”

Kizer and eight other former Irish players will take part in a pro day tomorrow (Thursday) in front of some of those GMs and coaches.

Te’o to New Orleans; Booker to Nebraska

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Former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o has signed a two-year contract with the New Orleans Saints, per reports.

Once recovered from a torn Achilles, Te’o will join a crowded Saints linebacker corps. The Saints signed A.J. Klein—formerly of the Carolina Panthers—to a three-year, $15 million contract earlier in March and return Craig Robertson, who finished 2016 with 115 tackles.

All three have experience at the middle linebacker position in a 4-3 defense, though Klein and Robertson are both capable of playing at the strong side position, as well.

Before his week three injury, Te’o had started 34 of 38 games for the San Diego Chargers and notched 221 career tackles. With the Saints, he rejoins linebackers coach Mike Nolan, who held the same position with the Chargers in 2015 when Te’o finished with a career-high 83 tackles.

BOOKER REJOINS DIACO
It appears former Notre Dame tight ends coach and special teams coordinator Scott Booker will join the Nebraska coaching staff. Two former Irish coaches—defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and safeties coach Bob Elliott—already have seats in the Lincoln coaching room, which is quickly becoming something of a Notre Dame West.

Booker will reportedly join the Cornhuskers staff as a special teams analyst. He served as Notre Dame’s special teams coordinator from 2012 to 2016 before this past offseason’s extensive staff changes.

PRO DAY THURSDAY
A reminder: Notre Dame will hold its Pro Day this Thursday. Nine players will partake, obviously highlighted by quarterback DeShone Kizer.

The others: long snapper Scott Daly, running back Tarean Folson, tight end Chase Hounshell, defensive linemen Jarron Jones and Isaac Rochell, cornerback Cole Luke, safety Avery Sebastian and linebacker James Onwualu.

Kizer hopes to prove himself worthy of a first-round draft pick, while Jones and Rochell may be in the mix for a second-day pick, meaning in the second or third rounds.

As it is draft season, this discussion of why mock drafts exist even though most prognosticators cannot stand them is worth the few minutes needed to read.

MARCH MADNESS UPDATE
The majority of the “Inside the Irish” bracket pool’s leaders escaped the weekend’s chaos, though frontrunner andy44teg will not hold onto that top spot for long after his titlist pick, Duke, exited late the tournament late Sunday.

That will leave some character named Dennis and his North Carolina prediction as the presumptive favorite to win, well, to win absolutely nothing.

Five of the top 10 expect North Carolina to win the championship.