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And in that corner… The Nevada Wolf Pack

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The Irish have a home opener to prepare for. And a week after being the centerpiece on the biggest opening weekend college football can remember, they’ve got a distinctly different job—getting ready for a game that’s far from buzz worthy.

That doesn’t mean the Nevada Wolf Pack should be taken lightly. Even after squeaking out an overtime victory against FCS Cal Poly, Brian Polian brings his young team into South Bend intent on being the latest former Notre Dame assistant to topple the Irish.

With an experienced quarterback and a talented ground game, Polian must feel good after watching the Notre Dame defense struggle with Texas. Even as he did his best to assuage Irish fans that the sky wasn’t falling, there’s likely more confidence coming from Reno than if Notre Dame was riding high off a comeback victory.

Joining us during a busy week is the Reno Gazette-Journal’s Chris Murray. Murray is the RGJ’s sports columnist, and has had a front row seat for Brian Polian’s takeover of the Wolf Pack’s football program. He’s done the dirty work that comes with helping Irish fans get beyond a tough night in Austin and get ready for the home opener.

Hope you enjoy.

 

Seemed like a tale of two halves last Saturday as Nevada pulled out an overtime win against Cal Poly. At their best, the Wolf Pack made things look easy. At their worse, things got beyond interesting, especially when Cal Poly had a chance to win on a two-point conversion attempt late. What’d you make of the Wolf Pack’s 2016 debut?

I would grade it a C- or D+ overall simply for being pushed into overtime by an FCS team that went 4-7 last season. Of course, Cal Poly runs a triple-option and has led the FCS in rushing three straight seasons, so it was an odd matchup. The defense actually looked fine but the offense didn’t take advantage of a Cal Poly defense that allowed more than 35 points per game to FCS foes last year.

The offensive looked great in the first quarter but did almost nothing for the rest of the game, including just 14 plays (and two first downs) on four series in the second half. That was worrisome as was the fact Nevada couldn’t put away Cal Poly after a strong first 15 minutes. It will take us a couple of months to see if this was an anomaly or a foreshadowing of how the rest of the season will play out. Obviously, Nevada hopes it is the former.

 

Notre Dame fans have known Brian Polian since Charlie Weis had him on his coaching staff. Polian seemed a long way from a head coaching gig in those years, known mostly for his huge recruiting win landing Manti Te’o. You had an excellent profile of Polian before the season started, but what’s his tenure been like in Reno?

Slow-moving might be the best way to put it. He’s now one-game below .500 since he became Nevada’s head coach in 2013 (19-20 overall) and while he’s clearly improved the Wolf Pack’s classroom efforts and kept the team out of the “bad part of the newspaper,” as Nevada’s athletic director put it, the Wolf Pack seems stuck at the 7-6 mark, which is where it was in the two years before Polian was hired.

The offense has declined during his tenure while the defense has improved. This was expected to be the breakthrough season and it still could but that first impression wasn’t the best. Wolf Pack fans also don’t seem to be completely on board as the season-opening attendance was under 20,000, its lowest for a home opener since 2010 (when Nevada counted actual attendance rather than tickets distributed). After this season, Polian has only one year left on his contract, so it’s kind of a make-or-break season. He did say that without his stint at Notre Dame he wouldn’t be a head coach today. He was very complementary of his time in South Bend.

 

Quarterback Tyler Stewart seemed to pick up where he left off after a nice junior season — showing some much improved accuracy against Cal Poly when they committed to stopping the run. Obviously, he’ll face a stiffer opponent next Saturday. But is it as simple as saying the offense will succeed if Stewart plays well? Or is getting James Butler and the ground game rolling behind an experienced offensive line more important?

Given how much emphasis Nevada puts on its rushing attack, I think it’s fair to say that how the Wolf Pack will run the ball will dictate its offensive success. Obviously the quarterback has a huge role in every offense and that’s no different for Nevada. If the Wolf Pack is going to compete for a Mountain West West Division title or flirt with nine or 10 wins, Stewart has to be a top-50 quarterback in the nation.

He doesn’t have to carry the team like Colin Kaepernick and Cody Fajardo did in recent seasons, but he has guide a more explosive passing attack, which is under the direction of first-year coordinator Tim Cramsey. Still, the Wolf Pack is going to run the ball 60 percent of the time and wants to pound away on first and second down and then use play action. So, the run game is the biggest key.

 

Defensively, it’s tough to take much from a season opener against an opponent like Cal Poly. But Scott Boone’s troops came up with some big plays when they needed to, especially in overtime. Who are a few defenders who need to play big on Saturday in South Bend.

Yeah, there’s not much Notre Dame can derive from the Wolf Pack’s opener, which Scott Boone likes. He’s made some changes in the offseason that will debut against Notre Dame and is hopeful that’s an advantage because the Irish haven’t seen the Wolf Pack’s traditional defense yet this season.

The top two playmakers are the safeties: Dameon Baber, who was second-team All-MW last year as a true freshman (he didn’t debut until game four because he was going to redshirt) and Asauni Rufus, who led Nevada with 105 tackles last season as a redshirt freshman. Both of those guys are excellent athletes, especially Baber, who originally committed to Oregon State out of high school.

The front seven is young, with six new starters. If there’s one guy you want to key on who could give Notre Dame trouble it is sophomore defensive end Malik Reed, who the coaches are high on. He has to get pressure in the backfield all game long if Nevada has a shot at the upset.

 

Notre Dame’s coming off a short week and an emotional loss. Polian knows Notre Dame. Can Nevada play better than the last time they came to South Bend, when Colin Kaepernick, Chris Ault and a very good Nevada team got blown away?

Nevada is hoping it does better than that 35-0 performance. There are two things playing in Nevada’s favor: (1) The extra prep time. Nevada played Friday and Notre Dame late Sunday. That’s two extra days or prep. Plus, Notre Dame is playing Nevada between two big games (Texas and Michigan State). Not matter what they say, the Irish aren’t going to treat Nevada like those other two teams; and (2) The Wolf Pack has played at Texas A&M (in 2015) and Florida State and UCLA (in 2013) in recent seasons, so the big stage shouldn’t be an issue.

The Wolf Pack played Texas A&M tough (44-27 with Nevada inside the 10-yard line in the final minutes before essentially taking a knee) in front of 103,000 fans. So, 80,000 at Notre Dame shouldn’t be an issue. That doesn’t mean Nevada is going to threaten in this one, but the size of the game shouldn’t derail them. Nevada’s 2009 roster that lost at Notre Dame, 35-0, was one of the most talented in school history. The Wolf Pack just didn’t show up in that game. Even though this Nevada team isn’t as talented, it should do better than 35-0.

***

Do yourself a favor and catch up by giving Chris a follow on Twitter @MurrayRGJ. Also spend a few minutes reading his profile on Brian Polian, which I really enjoyed. 

 

Recruiting success continues with OL Dirksen, class’s 12th commit

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Even in the doldrums of spring practice, Notre Dame’s recent recruiting success continues. Rivals.com three-star/scout.com four-star offensive lineman John Dirksen offered a verbal commitment to the Irish on Saturday, bringing the 2018 class to 12 commitments.

The 6-foot-5, 290-pounds Dirksen (Marion High School; Maria Stein, Ohio) joins consensus three-star prospect Cole Mabry (Brentwood H.S.; Brentwood, Tenn.) as the offensive linemen thus far among the 12. In three of the last four years, Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has pulled in four recruits, with 2015’s two (Trevor Ruhland, Tristen Hoge) as the exception. This recruiting cycle could again bring a limited offensive line haul, given the likely limits on the class’s size.

While any and all current class of 2018 team rankings should be taken with many grains of salt—there are 318 days between today and National Signing Day, after all—Dirksen’s commitment solidifies the Irish hold on the No. 3 class, per rivals.com. Other recruiting services place Notre Dame even higher.

Dirksen chose Hiestand and the Irish over offers from Michigan State, Iowa State and Boston College, among others.

 

Holmes out for spring; Jones & Jones shining

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Notre Dame’s spring continued over the weekend, and is all too often the case with football, that led to an injury. Early enrollee running back C.J. Holmes will probably miss the rest of spring practice due to a separated shoulder, Irish coach Brian Kelly announced following Saturday’s practice.

“We’ll get an MRI and know a little bit further on Monday once that calms down a little bit,” Kelly said. “We’ll get a picture of that and see. He had an open repair on that same shoulder his sophomore year in high school.”

Behind three backs, including two with experience, Holmes was unlikely to see playing time in the backfield in 2017.

Of those three backs, sophomore Tony Jones, Jr., is the unknown after preserving a year of eligibility last season. In limited practice viewing, however, Jones has only impressed. He has caught Kelly’s eye, as well.

“He’s 225 pounds, can catch the ball coming out of the backfield, [is] assignment correct, and can run elusively and can get into the second level,” Kelly said. “What does that equal? He’s a pretty good back.

“Obviously he was noticeable today in his play and he got some work with the first group as well. He wasn’t just getting second-team reps.”

Jones may be getting some first-unit exposure, but expect him to remain behind junior Josh Adams in the depth chart. Considering Jones’ style is somewhat comparable to Adams’, whereas junior Dexter Williams presents something of a change of pace, Williams should see more action than the sophomore, as well.

MORE PRAISE FOR ALIZE JONES
Junior tight end Alizé Jones—rather, Alizé Mack, per his Twitter account—has taken the lead in spring’s race of who reaps the most sound bite accolades. In complimenting Jones, who missed last season due to an academic suspension, Kelly also managed to laud new offensive coordinator Chip Long.

“I think Chip is doing a terrific job with [Jones],” Kelly said. “He’s got a good relationship. He knows how to rise him up when he needs to and scold him when he needs to. Alizé needs a little bit of that.

“He’s virtually un-coverable in certain areas of the field. I don’t care at any level. You can’t cover him. He just has that kind of talent. The one that I think stands out to me in the few days is he’s committed himself to being a blocker and playing physical. If he continues to do that, we’re going to find ourselves with a lot of tight ends on the field.”

Presumably, Jones would join graduate student tight end Durham Smythe in two tight end sets. It should be remembered, Long has historically shown a preference for such formations, and with Notre Dame’s plethora of options at the position, Long’s tendencies have no need to change. For that matter, Long had some praise for Jones this weekend, as well.

“Alizé can be as good as he wants to be,” Long said Friday. “…He’s growing up each and every day. Great joy to coach, and that whole group is. He doesn’t want to let that group down. There’s no question he can be as good as he wants to be.”

Friday at 4: 40-yard dashes and absurdity

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Of all the absurd things the football world often obsesses over, the 40-yard dash may be the most useless of them. Yes, it even beats out assigning star rankings to 16- and 17-year-olds, though not by much.

For now, let’s look past the rest of the inane Draft intricacies, such as former Irish defensive lineman Jarron Jones feeling pressured to increase his vertical jump by four inches. (He did, jumping to 24.5 inches in Notre Dame’s Pro Day on Thursday.) This scribe does not have an excess of time to spend discussing Jones’s outlandish wingspan if this piece is to post by its intended, though unnecessary, 4 p.m. ET deadline.

The 40-yard dash … No football play begins from a sprinter’s stance, yet it may be the factor most crucial to a low 40 time. Former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer posted a time of 4.83 seconds in the NFL Combine earlier this month. For context’s sake, Kizer ran .07 seconds slower than Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did as a draft prospect in the 2004 combine.

Roethlisberger has had himself an excellent career, and his ability to shrug off 300-pound defensive linemen is a testament to his athleticism. Put Kizer and Roethlisberger in the open field together, though, and Kizer would presumably have outrun Roethlisberger at any point of the two-time Super Bowl champion’s career. In Indianapolis, however, Roethlisberger did a better job of getting his hips through his first couple strides of the heralded 40-yard dash.

Here, watch Kizer train for the 40, the most-hyped measurement of his combine.

“The ultimate goal is to have yourself in the best position to have your body weight back in those legs so you can create enough torque to get out as quickly as possible,” Kizer said. “A guy who is as long as I am, with long limbs that I have, I’ve got to make sure that my weight distribution is in the best position for me to get out and catch up to some of those quicker guys who are a little lower to the ground.”

What part of that sounds applicable to football? The 40 turns Kizer’s size (6-foot-4, 237 pounds) into a negative. He worries about the angle of his knees. After his throwing session at the Thursday Pro Day, Kizer summed up the draft evaluation process even more succinctly.

“This process is very different in the sense that the way you look productive in the combine and in a pro day is very different from what productivity actually looks like out on the field.”

Well put.

More pertinent to the actual game of football, Kizer’s completion percentage in the staged workout could have been higher.

Then again, he was throwing to the likes of former Irish receivers Corey Robinson and Amir Carlisle and former running back Jonas Gray. Reportedly, the only contact Gray and Kizer had before the session was Kizer emailing the former New England Patriot the planned series of routes.

The NFL Draft, where Gmail becomes a necessity.

Let’s do away with the 40. If we insist on keeping it, let’s do it twice, once from a standing start and once from a running start. Those would simulate actual football movements: A receiver getting off the line, and a ballcarrier breaking away and trying to outrun the defense.

Asking DeShone Kizer to mimic Usain Bolt is an exercise in futility, idiocy, absurdity.

Cue end of rant.

Why cite the Roethlisberger time? Many, including Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke, have readily compared Kizer to Roethlisberger this spring.

The most notable line of that scouting report (scroll down to No. 32) may be its final one, echoing Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s sentiments from earlier this week.

“The mystery is whether he can regain his assertiveness,” Burke writes. “If so, he could turn out to be the 2017 class’s best QB. The team that drafts him will be taking a leap of faith.”

A leap. Not a dash.

For more Notre Dame Pro Day results, click here.

And with that, this just may make the 4 p.m. posting. You know what to do.

 

Tranquill continues work with safeties … for now

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Drue Tranquill will see time at the oft-spoken of rover position, just not yet. For now, Notre Dame needs the senior at safety to provide leadership and communication while the rest of his position group gets up to speed.

“We really have to figure out what the coordination is going to be at the safety position,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “How much does Drue play down at rover? How much does he play back [at safety]?”

Only sophomore Devin Studstill returns any starts to the safety position aside from Tranquill’s career total of 18. Studstill started nine games last season.

That void has kept Tranquill working mostly with the defensive backs in the spring’s first few practices, rather than joining the likes of junior Asmar Bilal in the rover grouping.

“We didn’t want to pull our most veteran player out of the back end of our defense with Drue,” Kelly said. “I think it was more about the hesitancy of losing a great communicator in the back end than about the teaching.”

The time will come, however, for Tranquill to move up. Juniors Nick Coleman and Ashton White have moved to safety from the corner position. With more reps, they will not need to rely on Tranquill’s guidance as much. The same goes for, at least in theory, sophomore Jalen Elliott.

“It’s not really a heavy load of teaching for those guys,” Kelly said. “They’re picking it up quite well. We really want to get a chance to see a lot of guys back there.”

Kelly seemed particularly bullish on Coleman’s prospects at the position, provided he embrace the needed physicality. At 6-foot, 187 pounds, Coleman’s build may have been more suited on the outside, but Notre Dame’s plethora of promising cornerbacks provided an impetus to test Coleman at safety.

“The big thing will be Nick’s continuous development in tackling,” Kelly said. “You have to tackle back there. His ball skills are really good. We’ve seen that he’s able to play the ball. He has athleticism.

“We just want to continue to build on his tackling skills. If we go through the spring and say, ‘Well, he’s tackling really well,’ we’ll feel pretty good about the move.”

At that point, Tranquill will likely join Bilal at the hybrid position, which is something of a trademark to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Tranquill will be able to do what he does best: Pursue the ball.

“We all know what his strengths are,” Kelly said. “He’s a solid tackler. I don’t think there’s any safety in college football that wants to get matched up one-on-one with a skilled slot receiver. This would minimize that, when you play him close to the ball as a rover.

“And I think he’s pretty quick off the edge. I think we put him in a really good position in maximizing his skill set.”

Until then, Bilal will continue to be the frontrunner at rover, especially with the first four Irish opponents of 2017 presenting run-heavy offenses.

KELLY ON NICK WATKINS
Kelly was also asked about senior cornerback Nick Watkins, his fit into Elko’s defense and his return from injury.

“He’s very coachable, wants to learn, he’s pretty long,” Kelly said. “What I think Mike [Elko] does really well—and this is what I liked about my interactions with him—is, we all have strengths and weaknesses. He has a great eye of saying let’s take Nick’s strengths and let’s put him in a position where we can really utilize his strengths and put him in a position where maybe we’re not a right and left corner team, maybe we’re a short field/wide field team. Let’s apply him in that fashion.

“Nick’s long. He’s a little bit of a physical player. Let’s go to those strengths. He’s shown some of those attributes early on.”

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