Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer (14) runs for a first down against Texas during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Sunday, Sept. 4, 2016, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
AP / Eric Gay

Talking Irish: Week One recap with JJ Stankevitz

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The Avengers. The DC Universe. If this summer has taught us anything, it’s that people love superheroes uniting and merging universes.

(Or the exact opposite.)

Anyway, partner in crime—and member of the NBC/Comcast universe—JJ Stankevitz and I joined forces for what I hope will be an enjoyable new feature. Its the two of us chatting about Notre Dame football, something we already do pretty much non-stop this time of year, me here at Inside the Irish and JJ over at CSN Chicago.

So with a disappointing Texas game behind us and the home opener just around the corner, let’s roll out our first weekly installment.

Hope you enjoy.

Keith: I’ll be the first to admit it, I was surprised that Notre Dame lost last weekend. I looked at everything and just couldn’t figure out how this was a 2-pt line. Did you see this coming?

JJ: I mean, I predicted a Notre Dame 30-23 win, so I guess I didn’t.
But I’ll say this: That was mostly predicated on me not thinking Texas’ offense was going to be good enough. But as soon as Buechele led that first scoring drive and the 18-wheeler package started humming, I wished I could’ve gone back and re-done my prediction.

I still probably would’ve picked ND to win, but I would’ve gone with Texas scoring more points. There was just so much uncertainty going into that game.

Did Texas’ offense surprise you, Keith, or did Notre Dame’s defense disappoint you? Or somewhere in between?

Keith: It’s got to be somewhere in between — but I was super surprised at the defensive line play — namely, that I thought the guys up front got whipped, and they got whipped by a group that was banged up entering the game. Texas’s push at the point of attack really surprised me.

I’m less surprised by Buechele actually — while everybody started writing the legend, I secretly hoped we didn’t just give birth to another Tate Forcier. What do you do with the DL?

JJ: I mean, the stats don’t lie — ND was better with four down linemen than three. So I go with four.

Keith: I can’t claim to be a tape-breakdown expert, but it certainly wasn’t Andrew Trumbetti’s finest performance.

JJ: Whether that would’ve solved everything, we don’t know, but Brian Kelly admitted Tuesday he would’ve had more big bodies in against the Swoopes package. But even with four DLs there, they needed to generate a more consistent push.

Keith: That weakside DE position took exactly 5 minutes to be exposed as a problem.

JJ: I’d expect to see a lot of Jay Hayes there when he’s fully healthy. He took most of the first-team reps at that spot during the spring and preseason practices open to the media and looked solid enough there.
That being said, I don’t expect to see him this weekend, do you?

Keith: At this point, I’d have the guy with his foot elevated between now and next Tuesday, hoping he’s ready for a slugfest in the trenches against Michigan State.

JJ: If he’s healthy, he’ll play – no reason to hold out a guy who’s 100%. But it’s a short week and Nevada isn’t exactly a star opponent, so I could see him getting limited snaps. But you gotta get him some work so his first real test since 2014 won’t be against that bruising Michigan State side.

Keith: Remember, he was “healthy” heading into Texas, too.

JJ: I guess to put a wrap on the defense: Are you confident it can pull together and be good enough for Notre Dame to still have a successful year?

Keith: Successful yes. But I’m not sure what that means anymore. I had 10 to 11 wins as possible for this team.

JJ: I realize that was a loaded question, ha.

Keith:  And I really did think the defensive would play much, much better.
Now I probably have taken a step away from the ledge when it comes to Brian VanGorder, and I actually think BK is right to be preaching patience here — he’s breaking in SO many new players and doing it without a safety who was probably one of the three most important people on this defense, but this team will only be as good as its defense. And right now, that’s not very good.

JJ: Look, you can win a lot of games with your offense bailing out an underperforming defense. But you can’t contend for a playoff spot with that.

Keith: I think that’s true. Maybe Oklahoma would disagree — at least last year — but underperforming is one thing. What those guys did on Sunday night wasn’t underperforming.

JJ: The Big 12 is a different animal with that, though. Underperforming was last year’s defense.

Keith:  I’ll leave my defensive comments at this: I’m worried about not just the scheme, but the personnel. That’s what was more surprising to me. That ND’s guys were getting blown off the ball and their DBs were getting torched vertical.

JJ: There are a few individual players who looked good Sunday — Nyles Morgan and Shaun Crawford come to mind — but the whole defense has to be better.

But you raise the question: Can it?If the personnel isn’t there, and the scheme isn’t there, then what is? I guess we have 11 games to find out.

Keith: That’s essentially the big rub on the Brian VanGorder defense. What do you hang your hat on? This is starting to feel pretty “Tenuta-ish.”

***

Keith: So DeShone Kizer announced that DeShone Kizer would be the team’s starting quarterback. What do you make of the decision? And what do you think of BK having Kizer handle it?

JJ: That it was obvious? The way it was handled made sense.

On one hand, Kelly and Kizer talked, and it was clear Kizer was going to be the starter. Kizer was the only QB who talked to the media on Wednesday, so if he didn’t say anything about being the starter and delayed the announcement to Thursday, it would’ve raised far more questions than ND would’ve wanted.

But on the other hand, if Kelly came out Wednesday and briefly told us that Kizer was his starter, it’d be making a bigger deal out of it than I think anyone wants. It was clear Kizer outplayed Zaire and was going to be the starter, so don’t make a big deal out of it and let Kizer say it and move on.

Long story short: Having Kizer announce it was the path of least resistance and most common sense. I was fine with it.

KA: I couldn’t agree more. Nothing diffuses this like having Kizer talk about it. It also keeps all of us from picking around at BK, asking him how Malik took it, blah blah blah…

What do you think happens with Malik? I tend to think he’ll still get a series against Nevada in the first half. If only to get the bad taste out of his mouth.

JJ: It’s hard to not feel sorry for the kid, right? It’s a tough situation.

Keith: This feels pulled straight from Friday Night Lights or something.

JJ: He *should* be starting. He would’ve in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013, and probably should’ve in 2014, in retrospect. But then he wins the starting job, gets hurt, and a guy who’s turning into a first-round pick right before our eyes comes along and takes his spot.

Keith: But the flip of that is: Damn — DeShone Kizer is good.

JJ: He’s so good!

Keith: This is a guy who Brian Kelly praised on Signing Day for being: Tall. Big. And Tall — in that order.

JJ: Bruce Feldman had a good look back at his recruiting process over on Fox Sports this week. Kizer was about as unimpressive in the Elite 11 as possible because he wasn’t solely focused on being a QB then.

But Kizer talked about it Wednesday and said something interesting — that being a three-sport athlete in high school was the best thing that ever happened to him. Not only did he gain other mental/physical skills from playing basketball and baseball, but it delayed the information dump about being a QB until he was mature enough to handle it.

So instead of having all this stuff thrown at him at age 16, he’s getting it at age 19, 20, and understands it better and is mature enough to handle it now. And we’re seeing him develop into a guy who could be a legit Heisman contender and first-round pick.

Keith: Pete Carroll once told me that he preferred recruiting multi-sport athletes. He thought they could be molded much better at college.

JJ: I’ve had a number of people in MLB front offices and clubhouses tell me they like multi-sport athletes more, too. So what was your favorite play Kizer made Sunday night? The somersault TD throw to ESB, the 29-yard TD run, the scramble-and-throw TD to Torii Hunter or the teardrop to Adams?

Keith: The throw to Adams, for sure. And honestly, I don’t think he played his best game. And I think the receivers were a big part of the problem.
I thought the offense came unglued once Torii Hunter got hurt. And it was because they had three or four kids lined up out there that didn’t seem to have a clue as to what they were doing.

JJ: Agreed. I think it was on the possession after that ridiculous two-point blocked PAT score where Kizer threw incomplete to Kevin Stepherson on third down. Having Hunter there would’ve been huge for that drive.

***

Keith: What do you want to see this weekend?

JJ:  First and foremost, Notre Dame’s defense has to get some positive momentum behind it. Nevada nearly lost to Cal Poly, which went 4-7 at FCS last year, so even though they’ve made back-to-back bowl games Brian Polian doesn’t quite bring the strongest side to South Bend.

This is a good opportunity for Notre Dame’s defense to get the bad taste out of its mouth from Texas and hold an opponent to, ideally, under 20 points. No explosive plays, make some third down stops, and hold them to a reasonable YPP average. Second, just for Kizer to continue to develop a rapport with the young WRs, especially assuming Hunter is out. Make sense? What about you?

Keith: Mostly good defense and a non-competitive game. I think this team can still achieve all of their goals. But they have to win. And they need to get themselves prepared for a tough run in the schedule. But defense first and foremost. And no broken plays.

JJ: Yep yep yep. Selfishly, I would like to not have six or seven re-writes of my game story, as was the case on Sunday.

Got a prediction? I’ll go first: Notre Dame 52, Nevada 24

Keith: I like that number. I think getting to the 50-point mark should be the goal — and to do it in regulation time.

Can I steal your score? That’s pretty solid.

Report: Justin Brent to transfer

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Justin Brent has not seen the playing field since Notre Dame faced LSU in the Music City Bowl back in December of 2014. That now looks like it will be the last time Irish fans see him in a Notre Dame uniform, as well. Reports indicate the rising senior running back will transfer.

Irish 247’s Tom Loy broke the news, soon confirmed by Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson.

A consensus top-100 pick out of Indianapolis (Ind.) Speedway High School, Brent arrived in South Bend with high expectations, but will depart without an official statistic aside from snaps in nine games his freshman season. He recorded no catches, carries or tackles.

 

Thanks Keith, Now Dear Readers…

SOUTH BEND, IN - NOVEMBER 19: Josh Adams #33 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish takes a hand off from DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on November 19, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Virginia Tech defeated Notre Dame 34-31.(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Dear “Inside the Irish” fans, “Inside the Irish” foes and, of course, my parents –
Dear curious purveyors, my stand-alone predecessor and Tim Raines –
Mostly, dear Notre Dame fans, Notre Dame spectators and college students enjoying any and all hallowed traditions –

Yes, unfortunately for you and fortunately for me, Keith tossed me the keys to this 1971 Volkswagen Beetle known as NBC Sports’ “Inside the Irish” blog. Don’t worry, I know how to drive stick shift.

If I were feeling corny, I would tell you I first reported on Notre Dame football in the fall of 1996, shouting out the garage window to my father as Allen Rossum returned Purdue’s opening kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown. If we are ignoring sentimental childhood stories, however, then it would be more accurate to call 2009’s home-opener against Colin Kaepernick’s Nevada my beginning on the beat.

Over the last few days I reached out to a few of you readers whom I know, asking why you enjoyed Keith Arnold’s coverage. So as to keep them honest, I neglected to tell them I would be stepping into this spotlight today.

Repeatedly, I heard buzz words such as readable, reasonable and realistic. Those will be my goals, as well. My predecessor at The Observer no longer dabbles in journalism, but I still trust his view on most things. His response strikes me as an admirable objective.

“We are smart, informed sports fans with an irrational passion for ND football, and appreciate writers who share those traits but are professional enough to step back from the irrationality and put things in perspective… We like a realistic take, not a knee-jerk reaction.”

On that note, you will not see me give a recruiting update with my every breath. You will also not see me dispense as much cinema advice as Keith did. I am simply not the film-nik he is, though I am listening to the “La La Land” soundtrack as I write this. You will find jazz increases your words per minute rate.

I will often speak of gambling terms, but not to encourage the vice. Rather, I find those odds to be a thought-provoking and informing means of evaluating things. Today, various books strongly expected President Trump’s inauguration speech to last longer than 15 minutes. Thus, I figured it would last longer than 15, but not by all that much since such was the over/under mark set. I could step away from the computer and watch it without losing too much of my day. It lasted 16:18.

I will try to be conversational, especially in these Friday letters/news-dumps/updates/recaps, should they become a recurring piece.

I intend to keep many, but not all, of Keith’s recurring features, as daunting as many of them seem. If I am to make this place my own, some will have to change. It’s okay, we’ll get through that together.

So ask questions, state your wonderings and pitch story ideas. This very format was a seed watered by one of you early this morning. Admittedly, prior to suggesting this he referred to me in terms I refuse to post publicly, but old drinking buddies have earned that right.

It’s late Friday afternoon. Grab a drink, and don’t you dare leave it unfinished.

– Douglas.

And in that corner… Introducing Douglas Farmer

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 17: Members of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish sing the alma mater following a loss to the Michigan State Spartans at Notre Dame Stadium on September 17, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Michigan State defeated Notre Dame 36-28. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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It’s time to turn over the keys. On a day where our great nation makes a peaceful transition, so does our humble blog.

I’d love to say I was smart enough to time my departure for the same day as inauguration, but as they say, it’s better to be lucky than good. And I was lucky to get the gig, and happy to turn it over to someone who I believe is a better-than-good writer: Douglas Farmer.

Douglas was Editor-in-Chief of The Observer when he was a student at Notre Dame. He’s worked for old media—earning a byline at the Los Angeles Times and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He’s worked the ND beat, not just at the school paper, but at Blue & Gold. And now, I’m very happy to say, he’s taking over Inside the Irish, a transition that I think will go wonderfully.

To give you an idea of who Douglas is, I milked one last column gave him the And in this Corner treatment.

Hope you enjoy. And, one last request—Be Nice.

 

Douglas, you graduated from Notre Dame in 2012, and last covered the Irish on a day-to-day basis in the 2014 season. What has you excited to come back to the beat?

Douglas Farmer: Given Notre Dame’s past season, I would say I am most excited to take an in-depth look at how the Irish respond — and perhaps rebound — in 2017. It has been awhile (nearly a decade, more accurately) since Notre Dame has needed to do that, so it is one area of football there is not much institutional knowledge to rely upon.

Aside from that, the general engagement with a fan base so devotedly-interested in its topic is always something to look forward to. Even during a 4-8 season, that fan base does not waver in its curiosity and thirst for information.

 

A nice perk is also getting paid for the addiction that is Notre Dame Football, no?

DF: I prefer to subscribe to Hurricane Carter’s opinion on addictions: Do not be addicted to anything “they” can take away from you.

 

Well put. As I thought about the decision to move on, I came to the conclusion that there’s no perfect time to ever do so. That said, other than the head coach, this is as close to a reboot as you can ask for. Do these next few months get you excited, especially as an almost entirely new staff take charge?

DF: Just had to slip in a reference to removing the head coach, didn’t you?

Bouncing back from a rough season is the most appealing story line in sports, in anything really. Take a look at any movie you have ever watched (or, in your case, perhaps even been involved in). The hero experiences conflict just before redemption. Now, I am not saying Notre Dame is the hero. I am saying watching the team, the program, try to rebound has me very interested.

The staff turnover is an added wrinkle, and will only increase the work ahead for the program. Before the players can learn the plays, they have to learn the staff. Before that, the staff has to learn about each other.

 

So what’s the plan with the blog? You plan on getting to know the characters below the fold in the comments? Keep the A-to-Z series rolling? Do a better job proof-reading?

DF: I do not intend to outright abandon any institution or established series you have devoted years to. Thus, I would expect A-to-Z to continue in some form. But we will see. That is an easy thing to say when I have not yet reached the misery that must be “Q, R, S, …”

I would like to engage with the readers, but only so far as logic and rational conversation will allow. I have no interest in devolving to who knows what depths. Proof-reading, well, I want to say I will excel at that, but that just sets me up to eat a lot of crow when I miss a letter in April.

 

Smart. Will tell you about the A-to-Z… This roster is a front-loaded one, alphabetically, at least.

DF: All of high school I had a locker next to a Favre. (Not really related.) I understand the luxuries the alphabet can provide.

 

Let’s go rapid fire for a second: Favorite game you saw in person at Notre Dame?

DF: Either the 2012 Stanford game or the 2011 South Florida game. I realize how absurd that latter answer sounds, but that is part of why it stands the test of time. It was such a unique experience. Plus, being allowed to go back to the dorm for an hour at halftime made the whole day more entertaining.

 

Best road game experience?

DF: 2010 Army in Yankee Stadium jumps to the top of the heap, though I suppose technically not a road game. Go ahead and score against me for this, but I am a lifelong Yankees fan. That was a big one for me.

(KA note: The Observer must not have had the $$ to send the editor to Dublin…)

(DF note to KA’s note: I graduated in May 2012. The Observer did manage to send four staffers to Dublin the following September. Sometimes I wonder if I would not have been better off if I had taken two years to get through fifth grade.)

 

Favorite player to watch during your time as a student?

DF: Golden Tate could have walked around the football field as Maximus, for all I’m concerned, given how entertaining he often was. Though Lou Nix also holds a lofty place in my regard.
I lived a door down from Lou for two years, part of the reasoning there.

 

Favorite villain of the Irish from your time watching/following Notre Dame football?

DF: Pete Carroll runs away with the award. His candidacy is enhanced by my Wisconsin-bred Packer fandom.I do not like disliking Pete Carroll. I very much wish I could be indifferent toward him. The Falcons granted me that luxury for nine months.

 

Part of what has me excited about this transition is that I actually thought you’d be a good person to turn the keys over to, as I enjoyed reading your stuff when you were at The Observer and covering the Irish in your post-graduation years. What’s the most exciting part for you about taking over the blog? And what do you look forward to doing with it?

DF: I am most excited for the chance to write, and the chance to write about something on which I consider myself relatively knowledgeable. I look forward to seeing where the blog environment takes me. The open-ended aspect of it presents all sorts of possibilities.

Theoretically, I can be more freewheeling than elsewhere, get in-and-out quicker of some pieces, spend more time on others. I know Notre Dame fans of all varieties — the obsessed, the apathetic, pessimistic, optimistic, etc. — including some who have yet to decide how they feel about Tommy Rees. (Feel positively about him. It’s that simple.)

My sample size is certainly representative of the fan base as a whole. That wide swath is what makes covering Notre Dame enjoyable, and very well may provide the blog some direction and material on its own.

Oh, and I appreciate those kind words, Keith. I’ll Venmo you $20 later tonight.

 

Sliding a final question into my lightning round. What’s your handle on NDNation? (Kidding!)

DF: I will take my right to not incriminate myself, otherwise known as the Fifth.

Notre Dame makes Alexander and Balis hires official

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Notre Dame confirmed the news that Del Alexander and Matt Balis are joining Brian Kelly’s staff. As expected, Alexander will coach wide receivers while Balis was named director of football performance.

The program announced both hires on Thursday.

“I was looking for an experienced teacher, mentor, recruiter and developer of student-athletes,” head coach Brian Kelly said in a statement. “Del not only met the criteria, but he exceeded it. He also understands, respects and values the type of young men we want to bring to this University and football program.”

Alexander, who’ll lean on his West Coast roots and familiarity with new offensive coordinator Chip Long, said the following:

“I’m excited to officially get on board, hit the road recruiting, and to find and develop the best student-athletes in the country. Notre Dame is a special place, and I’ve been able to the see the power of its brand on the recruiting trails across the country for the last 15-20 years. I’m honored and humbled to serve this University, this program and these remarkable young men.”

Balis comes to Notre Dame from UConn, with an impressive pedigree that counts jobs at Mississippi State, Florida, Virginia and Utah. He takes over for Paul Longo, who is taking a leave of absence from the football program, per the official release.

“Matt comes to Notre Dame with impeccable credentials and incredibly high praise from the likes of Urban Meyer, Mickey Marotti, Dan Mullen, Bob Diaco and Al Groh,” Kelly said. “He’s already instituted a strength program built with a foundation that focuses on hard work, discipline and top-notch competition. Matt will demand the best from our players, not only in the weight room, but in many other areas within our program. I couldn’t be more excited to have him in place moving forward.”