Pregame Six Pack: No place like home

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The Irish are home. After failing to get through an opening weekend stress test in the unfriendly confines of Darrell K Royal Memorial Stadium, Notre Dame gets a chance to get back to normal with a Saturday in South Bend.

Even on short rest and a compressed preparation schedule, the Irish are hopeful to leave behind the sting of last weekend’s double-overtime defeat and get healthy—both mentally and physically—against a Nevada team that is young and needed overtime to beat FCS opponent Cal Poly.

With DeShone Kizer named as the teams starter and adjustments made to the lineup on defense, Brian Kelly feels that even with a tweaked run-up to the weekend, his team is ready to go.

“We were able to make up for the short week by really spreading the practice out,”  Kelly said Thursday. “We got all our work in and (Friday) we’ll have about 50 minutes on the field and we’ll be ready for Nevada on Saturday.”

To get all of us ready for Saturday, let’s turn the Pregame Six Pack on its head. Here are six players to focus on as the Irish get back to the basics against the Wolf Pack.

 

DESHONE KIZER

He’s clearly earned the starting job on the field. Now it’ll be up to Kizer to navigate the tricky dynamics of unseating a veteran leader who has a ton of respect in the locker room.

The good news is that Kizer lit up Texas, accounting for six touchdowns while giving up three series to Malik Zaire. That settled any debate on the field. So with a body of work that only picked up where it left off last season, Kelly’s expectations for the junior’s performance are unchanged.

“My expectation is that he’s the starter for this game and we know that based upon what he’s done in the past that he’s been very effective as a starting quarterback,” Kelly said. “I expect him to continue in that role. If he’s not effective, if he’s not what we’ve known him to be, we’ve got one heck of a good quarterback ready to play.”

That other quarterback, Malik Zaire, will have a lot of focus on him. And while Kelly is uninterested in the subplots that seemed destined to start after the camera found Zaire after nearly every good play Kizer made, the head coach was happy that his senior back-up went to work this week with his mind in the right place.

“I thought he had two really very good days,” Kelly said of Zaire. “I thought he was really focused, locked in, and is ready to lead our football team. That’s all I’ve asked him to be—ready to lead our team.”

 

JARRON JONES

The fifth-year senior made one of last week’s critical plays, blocking the extra point that Shaun Crawford returned for the game’s tying two points. But Notre Dame needs more from Jones, who is healthy after a season lost to injury, but still clearly working through the mental side of recovery.

“I don’t see that there’s anything that’s holding him back from a physical standpoint, Kelly said. “If anything is holding him back, it’s perceived. There’s nothing from a training room perspective that’s on my report that would put him back.”

One of the big surprises of last weekend was the loss in the trenches to the Longhorns. Some of that can be attributed to the three-man front the Irish deployed. Some should be focused on the lack of impact Jones made, playing only 26 snaps in a time share with Daniel Cage.

“He’s got to give us some quality snaps in there at the shade with Daniel, that’s his role,” Kelly said. “Continue to be a good technician. He doesn’t have to be a guy that gets a lot of tackles for a loss but he’s strong. Play physical and play with great technique.”

Irish fans expect more than just a technician. Especially after seeing the impact he had when he was healthy and motivated in 2014.

 

DEVIN STUDSTILL 

Notre Dame’s young free safety made it through his first game without any hiccups. And after the decision to start Drue Tranquill in his place backfired, it’s time to throw the early-enrollee freshman into the fire and see how he comes out.

Even with Avery Sebastian cleared through the concussion protocol, Studstill is moving into the lineup. And while Nevada won’t test Notre Dame’s personnel quite like Texas’s athletic receiving corp, it’s a great test for the Irish free safety, who’ll be doing and seeing things for the first time inside of Notre Dame Stadium, all while needing to be the stabilizing force of a secondary that had multiple busted coverages.

“He will see a lot of playing time this week,” Kelly said Tuesday. “We will have to continue to give him the opportunity to get out there and play and experience the scenarios that you can’t really duplicate in practice.”

 

Corey Holmes

Torii Hunter will take the practice field Friday, his status on Saturday still up in the air. But regardless of Hunter’s return, Holmes needs to seize the opportunity ahead of him, one of spring’s big surprises all but absent in Austin last weekend.

With C.J. Sanders locked in as the team’s dynamic slot receiver, Holmes will have to do his damage at the X receiver, lined up on the wide side of the field and often times on an island against defenders asked to run with the Irish’s fastest receiver. Now it’s time to see Holmes’ track speed translate to the football field. Because for the veteran to stay in the mix at receiver, he’ll need to make a few plays down the field, especially in the vertical passing game, a key part of the Irish offense last season thanks to Will Fuller.

K.J. Stepherson will also get a chance to contribute. But his knowledge base is still a work-in-progress, Kelly acknowledging what most of us saw during crunch time at Texas. That leaves an opportunity for the third-year veteran, a chance to build a niche role in the Irish offense as Hunter recovers from a nasty concussion.

 

QUENTON NELSON

Notre Dame’s All-American candidate at left guard didn’t play his best last weekend. He graded out negative against the Longhorns according to PFF College, struggles as a run blocker that are antithetical to what are believed to be the strengths of his game.

Expect some frustrations to be taken out on a Nevada front seven that’s breaking in six new starters. And Nelson, a 330-pound cinder block, needs to take a tough opening week and get back on track.

It’s hardly analysis to say that Notre Dame’s offense is better when the run game is humming. But to make things easier for a still-inexperienced receiving corps, the ground game needs to be the engine, opening up opportunities down field when Nevada adds an extra hat in the box to slow down the Irish running backs.

Billed as one of the best pairings in college football, Nelson and Mike McGlinchey didn’t put up the performance expected of them last weekend. That’ll change quickly on Saturday.

 

DRUE TRANQUILL

Back at home at strong safety, Tranquill needs to recapture his confidence. Because while his limitations in coverage seemed to be exploited last week, he’s far too important of a defender for the Irish to be thrown aside after one week.

“He was put in a situation where he fully understands what’s expected of him, things that he has to work on. He’s a guy that is very conscientious and works hard at his craft,” Kelly said.

Against triple-option opponents like Navy, his skills jump out — a sure tackler in the box and a great safety working inside out. But the Irish defense needs more from him than specialty work, and he’ll be given another chance this week to expand his repertoire.

“He’s not just a downhill box safety,” Kelly explained. “He has to play on the hash, he has to play man-to-man, he has to do more than roll down and be a flat-foot safety making tackles as the extra hat.”

Nevada loves to run the football, so there’ll be plenty of chances to make an impact in the ground game. But if he can’t survive in space and hold up against the pass, the Irish will need to make some big changes to their defensive alignment.

Report: Corey Holmes set to transfer

Irish Illustrated / Matt Cashore
Matt Cashore / Irish Illustrated
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Receiver Corey Holmes is transferring from Notre Dame. The junior, who has two seasons of eligibility remaining, will look for a new program after earning his degree this summer, Tom Loy of Irish247 reports.

Holmes told Irish247:

“It’s just the best decision for me. I’m graduating this summer and I’m just going to find the best fit for me to finish things up.”

Even after a strong spring, Holmes saw little action this season, though he played extensively against USC in the season finale. He had four catches against the Trojans, a large part of his 11 on the year, also his career total.

That Holmes wasn’t able to find a consistent spot in the rotation is likely a big reason why he’s looking for a new opportunity. After opening eyes after posting a 4.42 40-yard dash during spring drills, the Irish coaching staff looked for a way to get Holmes onto the field. But after losing reps at the X receiver on the outside, Holmes bounced inside and out, never finding a regular spot in the rotation, playing behind Torii Hunter Jr. and Kevin Stepherson on the outside and CJ Sanders and Chris Finke in the slot.

Holmes has two seasons of eligibility remaining, redshirting his sophomore season. Because he’ll earn his degree this summer, he’ll be able to play immediately next year. Irish 247 reports that Holmes is looking at Miami, UCLA, Arizona State, Arizona and North Carolina, though he’ll have a semester to find other fits.

 

Mailbag: All about BK

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 17:  (L-R) Sam Kohler #29, head coach Brian Kelly, Grace Kelly and Hunter Bivin #70 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish sing the alma mater following a loss to the Michigan State Spartans of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish 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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Welcome to a fairly action-packed Mailbag. Why didn’t one of you guys remind me to do these more often?

This one, as the title suggests, is all about Brian Kelly.

 

@chrise384: Do you think that silence from Swarbrick this week means anything or do you think it’s status quo and BK is back in ’17?

I think Swarbrick’s been silent because there’s nothing else to say. He made his comment to ESPN that Kelly would be back in 2017. Why would it benefit him to say anything else?

Kelly also made comments—10 feet away from his boss—that he’d be back and doesn’t want to go anywhere. So other than releasing a 2:37 a.m. tweet reiterating Kelly’s intentions—and essentially calling B.S. on the reports that BK was looking to get out—there’s no reason to respond to the noise, when there’s a ton of work to do and big decisions still to make.

Speaking of those…

 

Domer521: Keith – The banquet is next Friday evening. Do you expect any announcements regarding recruits or DC/assistant coaches before then?

I don’t. For a variety of reasons, I think Kelly is waiting to make any formal moves on his staff until after that evening. And in reality, any college assistant that’s going to come to Notre Dame is probably coaching in a bowl game, and won’t leave his program until after that game is played.

(That doesn’t mean that BK isn’t lining things up. I expect that he is.)

So while the idea of getting a coordinator on hand now might be ideal, the reality of the situation is that you need someone ready to hit the recruiting trail after the New Year, taking the world by storm for that final month and closing stretch until Signing Day.

 

@GhostAKG: Many are saying Charlie Strong for our new DC. Is that good/realistic? And what are some of the names you’ve been hearing more?

I was one of the people to speculate, but the more you think about it the less it makes sense. Charlie Strong is a head coach. And a good one. Any return to South Bend would feel incredibly temporary, with the circus following every job vacancy that opens up—with fans and media speculating, “Is this the one to get Strong back to the head job?”

That’s not a headache BK and company would want to deal with, especially when you consider how much this collective fanbase sweats out coordinator hires or parallel moves.

(Remember when Tony Alford left after Signing Day and it felt like someone died around here?)

Charlie Strong is a good man and a good coach. But that’s the wrong type of hire for ND. I think he’ll probably take a year off to examine the landscape, continue to cash those fat checks coming from Austin, and then get back into it next year.

 

irishwilliamsport:

Keith, I know this is an exercise in futility but I’ll ask a mailbag question… What would you guess BK’s combined job approval rating is among all fan bases ?

You’ve got me. No clue. Does anybody have a good job approval rating?

At this point, I don’t think anybody’s approval rating is all that high at 4-8, to the point that Jack Swarbrick—a guy who might be the most powerful and intelligent athletic director in the country—has seen fans turn on him as well.

I wasn’t quite sure what you were getting at with your question about “all fan bases,” but maybe you were talking about the perception of Kelly both inside and out of the program? If so, I thought Colin Cowherd’s take on Kelly, at least from a national perspective and a guy who watches a lot of college football, is interesting. (It’s a perspective that’s pretty common, I must say.)

 

codenamegee: 

What has Brian Kelly done to make you think he can win a championship at Notre Dame. Looking at his FBS coaching resume his teams have never beaten a top 5 team. I just don’t get why everyone thinks he’s a good coach. Notre Dame is poorly coached (too many mental breakdowns), offense lacks imagination (Running plays are too predictable, no tail back screens, no delay draws, lack of counters and traps). Yet all I hear how Brian Kelly is this great coach or Brian Kelly is a great offensive mind. If he is, he hasn’t showed it since he’s been in South Bend.

Well, first off—and this is a biggie—he played for one. So let’s not ignore that. And he was maybe one play away from getting invited to playing for another last year, a game-winning, last-second field goal against Stanford knocking the Irish from the playoff.

Now I get that playing for one isn’t the same as winning one. And when it comes to comparing this program to Alabama’s, frankly I don’t think Notre Dame has a chance to get to that level until Nick Saban retires… or the NCAA finds something illegal in his program. So if that’s the bar you’ll set, I’m not sure he can get there. And I’m not sure Notre Dame is willing to do what it takes to get there. And frankly, that’s something I’m okay with—especially as you

Last point for you—have you really heard anybody calling Brian Kelly a good coach lately? Is anybody following Notre Dame saying Kelly’s done a good job this season? Has the coach himself even said that? Have I?

Listen, I get it. Losing seasons are terrible. They are really painful and this one came out of nowhere, making it worse. Then throw on top of that just how close the games were—each week a decision here or there, or a blown assignment or missed opportunity sometimes the singular difference between a win and a loss.

That all adds up. And it certainly will carry into next season, a direct reflection on the coach’s job status, regardless of the length of his remaining contract.

 

irishdog80: Can Brian Kelly truly survive and thrive as head coach at Notre Dame or is his best opportunity a fresh start at a new school or pro team?

I don’t think Kelly would’ve stayed if he didn’t think he could thrive. He could get another job if he wanted one. And I don’t think Swarbrick would’ve let him stick around if he didn’t have comfort that the football program—a team that he spends more time around than anybody outside the players and the coaches—was in good hands, and that this was a bad season, not a bad program.

That’s a really good question though, Irishdog. We’ve seen Bob Stoops rally. We’ve seen David Shaw bounce back, though neither pulled a four-win season. And for now, I think Kelly can, too. But it’s worth pointing out that the rumor everybody seemed to be fired up about, three-win & nine-loss Mark Dantonio, would be a huge coaching upgrade over Kelly is funny, considering Dantonio just took a College Football Playoff team and drove it off a cliff.

 

 

irishcatholic16: With reports that Brian Kelly is seeking job opportunities outside of Notre Dame then shortly after saying that he’s committed to Notre Dame along with him bolting Cincinnati in the same fashion (saying he would stay then leaving), do you think he will lose the trust of his team and could we see more decommits as a result? Will the team trust him knowing that he isn’t fully committed?

I have no belief that those reports are true. And I have no reason to think that Kelly’s team—seven years in—would have their trust of the man leading the program hinging on reports from national media pundits.

Are we still talking about the way he left Cincinnati? Because it sure looked to me an awful lot like every coach leaves their program—Tom Herman just the latest example of a coach left in an unwinnable situation, with the media ready to pounce by asking unanswerable questions.

Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t doubt that Kelly’s agent was talking to teams. He was. He’s the same guy that reps Herman, and a handful of other top-shelf coaches. But that’s what agents do. They talk about their clients, 99% of the time without the client ever having any idea he’s doing it.

 

 

bjc378:

I’ll ask the obvious question. Sorry, I didn’t listen to the podcast.

Do you (still) think BK should be the Irish coach next year? If so, how long of a leash do you give him next year and what changes would you demand? If not, or if he decides to coach elsewhere, what’s your wish list look like?

No apology necessary, first off, on the podcast. It’s supplemental, but listen for John Walters’ wisdom, it’s basically like telling your friends you subscribe to Newsweek.

As for BK, yes I do think he should be the coach next year. I don’t think Notre Dame is a program that should fire someone for a single bad season—period. I didn’t like it when they did it to Ty (in retrospect it was the right thing to do), and I wouldn’t like it if they did it to Kelly, a year off a ten-win season and a Fiesta Bowl appearance.

(Also worth noting, they don’t do it in hockey, basketball, baseball, soccer, or any other sport.)

As for the leash? That’s hard to say. I think we’ll know quite a bit about this team at the end of next September. They’ll have played Temple (the potential AAC champ coached by one of the nation’s underrated head coaches in Matt Rhule), Georgia, Boston College, Michigan State and—don’t laugh—Miami (Ohio), who has got it going now under Chuck Martin. So if that month goes sideways and the season does too, I won’t have any problem with Swarbrick trying to upgrade and make a change.

As for the wish list? No clue. Not at this point. I’ll take Jon Gruden off of it, so cross him off before anybody asks me. And any other NFL head coach.

But I’d start by looking at someone like Willie Taggart, a young Harbaugh protege who coached at Stanford and has now done good work as a head coach at both Western Kentucky and USF.

Drue Tranquill named first-team Academic All-American

Drue Tranquill
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Drue Tranquill was named a first-team Academic All-American. The junior safety, who returned from his second major knee injury during his three-year career, earned the honors after posting a 3.74 GPA in mechanical engineering.

Tranquill is Notre Dame’s first academic All-American since Corey Robinson earned the honor after the 2014 season. He finished second on the team in tackles with 79 and lead the team in solo stops with 52. He also had two TFLs and an interception.

Tranquill is Notre Dame’s 60th Academic All-American, the third-most of any school behind Nebraska and Penn State. He’s active in the university community, serving as a mentor for the Core Leadership Team for Lifeworks Ministry, and is a member of Notre Dame Christian Athletes. He is a also member of the Student-Athlete Advisory Council (SAAC) and Rosenthal Leadership Academy.

 

Postseason Mailbag: Now Open

SAN ANTONIO, TX - NOVEMBER 12: Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly leads his team onto the field before the start of their game against Army in a NCAA college football game at the Alamodome on November 12, 2016 in San Antonio, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)
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It’s been too long. Let’s talk about the season, the decisions ahead and where Notre Dame stands after its nightmare of a 2016 season.

Drop your questions on Twitter @KeithArnold or in the comments below.

 

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If you’re interested in hearing my recap on the USC game and where Notre Dame’s goes now that the season is over, give a listen to the latest episode of Blown Coverage, with Newsweek’s John Walters.