The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Texas

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The sun came up in South Bend Monday morning. But likely well before that, Brian Kelly and his coaching staff were in the office—a day behind on preparations for Nevada, with an unexpected loss already on their resume.

Moving forward is the only option for a young Irish football team who showed plenty of character on Sunday night, though none of that adds up to a victory. And while there’ll be plenty of opportunities to diagnose all that ails this football team, let’s go through the good, the bad and the ugly from Sunday night’s 50-47 double-overtime loss.

 

THE GOOD

DeShone Kizer. Notre Dame’s junior quarterback played exceptional football, throwing for five touchdowns and running for another against the Longhorns. With Kizer at quarterback, the Irish scored six touchdowns… leading us into a discussion everybody (or at least the one typing this) is already sick of.

Kizer’s poise has improved from his redshirt freshman campaign. His ability to stand tall in the pocket and throw is unmatched. And for as good as we all believe Malik Zaire to be as a runner of the football, Kizer’s Football IQ and comfort making split-second decisions make him probably at least Zaire’s equal when it comes to the lethalness of the zone read.

He wasn’t perfect. With the game on the line and more than three minutes remaining, the Irish couldn’t do anything more than go three-and-out. But Notre Dame’s part-time quarterback just because a Heisman Trophy candidate, making the decision to pick a starter all but academic.

 

C.J. SandersNotre Dame’s slot receiver and return man was a dynamic piece of the puzzle for the Irish. His 25-yard score in overtime made things easy for the Irish offense. His dazzling 40-yard punt return helped set the Irish up as well.

With no depth behind him at slot receiver other than former walk-on Chris Finke, Sanders needed to play big. And he did.

 

Equanimous St. Brown. It’s interesting to look at the expectations of a sophomore receiver with one catch to his name. Especially after most in the media forgot about his potential breakout after seeing others step to the forefront.

“Well he’s a stud. We expected it out of him,” DeShone Kizer said after the game. “We treated him as if he was a veteran because quite frankly, all the reps he got last year as well as all the things he did this year, he is a veteran. So we’re relying on him to make big plays just like he did today.”

Two touchdowns in game one was a nice way to start.

 

Isaac Rochell. Notre Dame’s veteran defensive lineman was about the only guy up front who consistently held his own in the trenches. He tallied nine total tackles and made 2.5 TFLs, graded out by PFF College as the team’s best defender.

With the Irish struggling to find a good fit in their odd front, Rochell moved inside and out as Brian VanGorder looked for a solution. Rochell was a consistent force up front, and also a workhorse, playing a ridiculous 87 snaps.

 

Nyles Morgan. While I was tempted to keep him out of the good category after he took a 15-yard personal foul penalty, Morgan made 13 tackles from his middle linebacker spot, leading the Irish defense. Nine of those stops were solo.

In a brawl that required Morgan to play big and go head-to-head with not just a 250-pound running back or quarterback but also interior offensive linemen, Morgan did a nice job holding up under pressure.

 

Quick Hits: 

It was great to see Tarean Folston back on the field, his 54-yard run on the first series of the game a nice reminder that Folston didn’t forget how to play the position.

What a great knack for blocking kicks Jarron Jones has shown. The length and power the fifth-year senior brings to the point of attack is a true weapon.

Justin Yoon‘s consecutive field goal streak ended when his 36-yarder was blocked. But he made a clutch kick in overtime and did a nice job with four touchbacks on six kickoffs.

Notre Dame’s offense made it through the game without a turnover. That’s the first time the Irish have lost without committing one, Kelly now 19-1 in games where the Irish put up a goose egg in that category.

Those worries about Devin Studstill not being up for it turned out to be unfounded. Studstill played 47 snaps, doing a nice job as Notre Dame’s highest-rated defensive back, per PFF College.

 

THE BAD

The Defensive Front. If there’s a surprise for most Irish fans, it’s the battle Notre Dame’s defensive line lost to the Texas front. Even with three of the five Longhorn starters battling nagging injuries, Texas won the war at the point of attack, scoring five rushing touchdowns and running for 237 net yards.

The decision to start Andrew Trumbetti is one that’ll look questionable when the tape goes on. No doubt it was a move necessitated by the injury to Jay Hayes, who didn’t play, but Trumbetti was overwhelmed as a run defender and no better as a pass rusher.

Jarron Jones only logged 26 snaps and Daniel Cage only played 33. That’s not going to get it done for the Irish when they need those big bodies in the trenches, especially considering how impactful Cage was when he was on the field.

 

The big plays. Nick Coleman won’t want to watch this tape again. Asked to play three deep against Texas’ receiving weapons, Coleman got torched multiple times, unable to run with John Burt, who got vertical on the Irish defense.

“We were in cover three when we got beat. We weren’t even man-to-man,” Kelly explained, a surprise to most. “The inability to play cover three requires better coaching on our part.

“I thought we put ourselves in a tough position when we let the ball get thrown over our head. That’s one thing were the game changed a little bit.”

Texas took dead aim at Coleman until Shaun Crawford was moved outside and Julian Love came in at nickel. Drue Tranquill also subbed out, Studstill taking his reps while Sebastian stayed on the field. The loss of Nick Watkins loomed large on Sunday night, an additional cover corner needed, especially if Coleman is going to commit a defensive back’s cardinal sin.

 

Missed tackles. Sure, it’s easy to call it a missed tackle when you’re trying to take down a 250-pound bowling ball. But there just wasn’t enough sure tackling when Notre Dame had a chance to slow down Texas’ runners—and it consistently blew up in the Irish defense’s face.

An unofficial tally revealed some key misses by Avery Sebastian, inserted into the lineup because of his ability to do the little things and know the system. He was hardly alone—Morgan missed a handful, Jerry Tillery ran through a few TFLs, including one that came on the game’s final play.

Greer Martini’s debut at Will had him playing like a guy learning a new position—understandable since he moved there late in training camp.

 

Tyler Newsome. Notre Dame’s eccentric punter has a booming leg. But he had a case of the shanks on Sunday night—not the first time the young specialist has struggled on the big stage to flip the field.

Newsome’s first punt was a bomb. The rest? Not as much. And while his 24 yarder late in the game didn’t come back to bite the Irish, Newsome needs to sharpen up his mental approach to get past this tough outing.

 

Torii Hunter’s missed targeting call. At this point, it’s over. Notre Dame can expect acknowledgment of the mistake, but it’s not changing the game. Watching the hit again, the ball looked tucked into Hunter’s arm and possessed before he was hit in the head—a blow that we’ve seen called so often, especially with a newfound emphasis on the penalty.

Perhaps the refs just missed it. Perhaps the replay officials missed it too, with ESPN’s cameras so focused on Torii Hunter’s reaction in the stands to the critical timing of the penalty.

However it happened, it was a brutal no-call, especially with Notre Dame’s history of having these flags go against them.

 

The Offensive Line. I’m hesitant to fully call the offensive line play “bad,” but I’m going to do it. Notre Dame did run for 206 yards, but take away the 83 yards on two carries (Folston & Kizer) and it’s 2.8 yards per carry. That’s just not good enough—not against a Texas defensive front that was overwhelmed last season and lost its best interior players.

Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson are expected to be All-American caliber players. But the right side of the offensive line struggled and Sam Mustipher got called for a snap infraction in a critical situation. Most importantly, when the Irish needed to move the point of attack and get the ground game going late in the game they couldn’t do it.

Sure, Texas brought a ton of heat. But I have a very high bar set for this group and they didn’t live up to it.

 

THE UGLY

The Aftermath. Nobody expected to be calling for the defensive coordinator’s head after week one. And while I certainly didn’t go easy on VanGorder, it’s worth pointing to the personnel the Irish have playing—a reminder that even Bob Diaco would struggle if you take away guys like Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Darius Fleming, Prince Shembo and Aaron Lynch.

Of course, that doesn’t excuse anything. But if you thought Kelly was going to scrap the plan for the season after one tough weekend, think again.

Here are his comments when essentially asked to evaluate his defensive coordinator:

“I mean it’s the first game, and you go into the first game and — first time starters, and we have a lot of young guys that got their first start,” Kelly explained.  “We’ll critically evaluate and I think everybody needs to tap the brakes and relax.

“This is a football team that showed great resolve, took the lead down 17 points in the fourth quarter up 35-31, and we needed to come up with one more stop or one more better offensive possession, you know, to win the football game and we didn’t do that.

“So this narrative about it’s all the defense’s fault is, you know, just Monday morning quarterbacking. If we get a better punt, if we flip field position, if we make a catch or a throw we’re talking about some different things.”

Getting some distance from the loss, Kelly’s confidence is understandable, especially considering he knows his personnel—and their limitations—better than anyone. But the margin for error this season is zero. And seeing the deficiencies in this defense against Texas, expect opponents to pounce.

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.

Pace of play: More snaps equal more scoring chances, right?

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It seems obvious enough: The more plays an offense runs, the more chances it has to score.

Sure, there is more to it than that, but the basic premise really is that simple. Ten more snaps equal 10 more opportunities at the end zone. Increasing Notre Dame’s tempo in that pursuit is not only part of why Irish coach Brian Kelly hired new offensive coordinator Chip Long, but it is also a primary emphasis of spring practice.

When Kelly announced Long’s hiring, he discussed simplifying play calls to increase pacing.

“Within our offensive system, we want to run more plays,” he said. “…There needs to be some retooling within the offensive nomenclature to be able to go to the level we want to.”

The day before spring practice began, Kelly again mentioned the correlation between lexicon and quickness of play.

“If tempo can be introduced in our offense, it has to be introduced at the ground level,” he said. “…I think with some of the things that we’ve been able to do offensively, with verbiage and nomenclature, I believe that we’ll be able to pick up the tempo even more.”

And following that first practice, one of Kelly’s first comments touched on—you guessed it—tempo.

“We were really looking at tempo on our offense,” he said. “I think we achieved that. To go fast and be sloppy is certainly not the end, but to be able to run a little bit more tempo with our offense and be effective in execution was really the most important thing.”

With the Irish returning to the practice field tomorrow (Wednesday) following spring break, the stress on speed will undoubtedly continue. Just how much of an increase can be expected of Long’s offense?

Last season, Notre Dame averaged 68.83 plays per game, in line with an average of 68.9 in Kelly’s seven years leading the Irish and similar to his average of 67.5 in three seasons at Cincinnati.

In his first and only season leading his own offense, Long averaged 74.15 plays per game at Memphis in 2016. Admittedly, one season is a small sample size, especially considering the variables prone to tilting any single college football game.

It does not take a perilous leap of faith to conclude Long picked up a good amount of offensive strategy and thinking during his four seasons as tight ends coach in Todd Graham’s Arizona State offense. More accurately, Long presumably learned from Mike Norvell, the offensive coordinator during that stretch in Tempe who then brought Long with him when Norvell took the job as head coach at Memphis.

During their shared seasons at Arizona State, Norvell and Long coached an offense that averaged 78.47 plays per game. Combine that figure with the aforementioned Memphis figure and the math yields a five-year average of 77.62 plays per game, nearly nine plays per game more than Notre Dame managed over the same stretch.

Will that be seen in 2017? The more-pertinent question may be, will it be seen in 32 days in the Blue-Gold Game? Kelly has said it will be Long’s offense to run, and April 22 will be the first chance to see that in effect.

“When I was at Cincinnati, I was the guy, I was running it by myself,” Kelly said before spring practice commenced. “I think going back to [that] is the most efficient way to do it, and get out of the way and let Chip run it.”


As has quickly become something of a norm in this space below is a listing of the stats condensed above. Before that, though, one quick note: Keep an eye on Memphis’s offense again this season. It returned the vast majority of its firepower, and Norvell will not hesitate to turn up the pressure on opposing defenses. The Tigers should be very entertaining.

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