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

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What a difference a week makes. Brian Kelly’s post-Texas proclamation to “relax” seems much easier now than last Monday. That’s what an easy notch in the win column does for you. And a defense that looked much better playing in its base set than trying to slow down Texas.

While a true test of what this team looks like won’t come until next Saturday night against Michigan State, a 25-point second quarter—and some big plays by Brian VanGorder’s defense—made sure that the sky wasn’t falling.

Let’s put the win against the Wolf Pack behind us as the preparations turn towards Sparty. The battle for the Megaphone awaits.

 

THE GOOD

Red Zone Offense. What a difference a year makes. At least so far. Notre Dame’s offense clearly lacks the explosiveness of last season’s. That’s to be expected when you lose freaks like Will Fuller and C.J. Prosise. But the Irish efficiency is much improved, a credit to DeShone Kizer and the Irish red zone offense.

The Irish were six for six again this week, scoring five touchdowns in their drives inside the 20-yard line. (And memo to the RTDB Crowd: Justin Yoon’s field goal came after three-straight runs inside Nevada’s 10-yard line.) The biggest change? Kizer’s accuracy.

A tweet from Pete Sampson at Irish Illustrated laid it out best: In 2015’s regular season, Kizer went 17 of 40 in the red zone, throwing nine touchdowns and five interceptions. This season, Kizer’s already completed 7 of his 10 throws, with five touchdowns and, most importantly, no interceptions.

 

The Run Defense. Things aren’t necessarily broken up front for the Irish, with Notre Dame’s under siege front seven limiting Nevada to just 99 rushing yards on 30 attempts. The strength of the Wolf Pack offense was the ground game, and the Irish withstood a few wrinkles—including a dose of triple option—to keep Nevada’s offense offtrack.

A return to base defense certainly helped. So did a strong performance for Te’von Coney, making his first start at Will linebacker, replacing Greer Martini in the lineup. But once the Irish found their footing on the opening series, the unit built on that crucial 4th-down stop and played very good football.

“We still have a lot of work to do, but we came together,” Daniel Cage said postgame. “We got on each other and took over the game.”

Cage’s knifing stop on fourth down triggered that. So did a very nice game by James Onwualu, who chipped in two TFLs from the Sam linebacker position. Throw in an impactful game by Jonathan Bonner, who almost doubled his snap count from a week earlier, and the front seven is evolving and finding its footing in time for another stiff test.

 

The Kids. There were a lot of firsts for the Irish on Saturday. Catches for receivers Corey Holmes, Kevin Stepherson, Chris Finke and Chase Claypool. Starts for Te’von Coney and Devin Studstill, and appearances for young players Jamir Jones, Khalid Kareem, Tristen Hoge and Trevor Ruhland.

Just as important as any debuts was deepening the rotation. Cornerback Donte Vaughn is a key piece of the puzzle now with Shaun Crawford lost for the season. Julian Love is now the team’s starter at nickel back. And if Nick Coleman continues to struggle, don’t be surprised if Jalen Elliott finds his way onto the field more as well.

Last season’s defensive rotation was almost nonexistent. That won’t be the case this year, as Kelly commented on how he thinks his defense can improve with more players taking on key roles.

“I think it makes us a better defense. I think moving forward you’re going to see a combination of more guys instead of maybe just one or two guys in that rotation.” Kelly was talking specifically about the linebackers in that comment, though it clearly applies to all pieces of the defensive puzzle.

 

Quick Hits: 

Sure, it was a slow start. But Notre Dame’s second quarter explosion had the Irish scoring 25 points, the most in a quarter since the Irish scored 28 against Pitt in 2005, Charlie Weis’ debut.

Brian VanGorder’s defense has usually featured a playmaker at Sam linebacker. Senior captain James Onwualu is quickly becoming one, his two TFLs very impactful. (He nearly had three, but crashed a bit too far inside on a Nevada end-around.)

No, the interception didn’t count. But it was a really nice play by Cole Luke, who was his steady self on Saturday, and also very good against the run.

Great hands by Kevin Stepherson, who took a big hit, but held on to his first touchdown. That’s a lot of trust in a freshman in the red zone.

Nice hands by Jarron Jones, too. Snagging that screen pass that set up an Irish score.

“I think I have great hands,” Jones said postgame. “These hands aren’t big for nothing. I know I can grab a ball.”

A week after Greer Martini earned the starting job at the Will linebacker spot, it looks like Te’von Coney took it back. The sophomore tied for the team lead with five tackles, including one for loss.

 

THE BAD

Pass Rush. With Nevada chasing the Irish after a big second quarter, the Wolf Pack needed to go to the air to try and mount a comeback. So while Nevada quarterbacks Tyler Stewart and Ty Gangi threw 26 times, the Irish defense didn’t get a single sack.

Adding in the Texas stats and the Irish defense has yet to sack the quarterback on 53 passing attempts. They’ve statistically gotten seven quarterback hits, with only Isaac Rochell notching more than one (he has three).

While Jay Hayes continues to recover from a high-ankle sprain, Andrew Trumbetti is manning the weakside defensive end spot. And for the second-straight week, Trumbetti hasn’t mounted anything close to a pass rush, locked down by offensive linemen and generating a second week of negative grading in the pass rush category by PFF College.

We saw young players get their shot at generating a pass rush. Khalid Kareem took a 15-yard personal foul for a late hit (announced during the broadcast as Jay Hayes), while Jon Bonner, Daelin Hayes, Julian Okwara and Jamir Jones also played.

But the Irish need to find a way to get a pass rush. Especially to support a secondary that’s going to be learning as they go with Crawford down and freshmen Julian Love and Devin Studstill playing key roles.

 

The Slow Start. I had a hard time finding a more frustrating first 15 minutes in recent memory than Saturday’s. Whether it was the offense committing penalties to slow themselves down or the opening drive for Nevada, it was an ugly start to a game where I’m sure the coaching staff stressed “start fast.”

Some of that could be attributed to Shaun Crawford’s injury. Some to the new wrinkles from first-year Nevada offensive coordinator Tim Cramsey. But whatever the cause, it took some time for the Irish to settle in, something that won’t make next weekend easy.

 

THE UGLY

Shaun Crawford’s season-ending injury. We talked about the on-field implications. But watching Shaun Crawford go down after making another big play was devastating.

After the game, Cole Luke talked about moving forward without him.

“Shaun’s a great player. He’s just a freak of nature and one of those guys who loves the game,” Luke said. “He comes out to work every single day. That’ll be hard to replace, but we’ll try to lock that in on the young guys.

“You never know when your last play or rep will happen, so you have to treat it like your last. We have a lot of great young guys who will step up and try to fill that role.”

Expect Brian Kelly to reveal more on the time frame of Crawford’s surgery and recovery later today and this week. But we’ve already heard from Crawford on social media—and his response is incredible.

 

Assistants: Polian on defensive depth; Lyght on Love; and Lea on the rover

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Three Irish assistants were available to the media following Notre Dame’s sixth spring practice Wednesday. Each of special teams coordinator Brian Polian, defensive backs coach Todd Lyght and linebackers coach Clark Lea commented on something or other of note. Together there just might be enough substance to justify your time here today.

At the bottom of this post is a video with most of the below quotes and many more from yesterday’s session.

POLIAN ON DEFENSIVE DEPTH AFFECTING SPECIAL TEAMS
The most unique aspect of the special teams coordinator, at least when compared to his offensive and defensive counterparts, is the fact that his charges include nearly the entire breadth of the roster. Aside from the quarterbacks, the starting offensive line and the defensive tackles, just about every player could find himself on a kickoff coverage or return unit.

More often than not, defensive players—accustomed to seeking out contact, rather than attempting to avoid it—fill out most of those spots. That may not be the case with this Irish rendition, and not necessarily by choice.

“We’re not as deep as you’d want to be in some other spots with depth at linebacker and depth at safety,” Polian said. “So where are we going to make up those bodies, and they’re going to have to come from offense. Those guys have made very positive impressions.”

Polian specifically mentioned junior running back Dexter Williams, sophomore receiver Chase Claypool and sophomore running back Tony Jones, as well as sophomore safety Jalen Elliott, as having excelled thus far. When he came to Jones, Polian added phrases such as “real excited” and “fantastic,” echoing sentiments Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly espoused earlier this week.

Along with that personnel shift, Polian wants to increase the intensity with which players approach the third unit. Often seen as auxiliary duty, inferior to position group work, special teams should not include a dialed back attitude.

“The biggest change has to be the urgency with which we attack special teams and our execution and critical efficiency in important times of the game.”

The Indianapolis Star’s Laken Litman wrote a longer discussion of Polian’s comments, including how he will look to supplement junior receivers Chris Finke and C.J. Sanders at punt return.

“We’ll have a gong show and say who wants to get a look that’s not getting a look,” Polian said. “We’ll start firing balls at them and if you drop two, you’re fired. But we’ll find another one or two guys.”

Please, WatchND and Fighting Irish Media, please record all of that. The possibilities for hilarity would extend further only if Jarron Jones or Lou Nix were still around to insist on taking a turn.

LYGHT ON LOVE
Sophomore cornerback Julian Love saw plenty of action in 12 games last season, finishing with 45 tackles and one each of an interception, fumble forced and fumble recovered. Nonetheless, Lyght sees room for Love to improve.

“The thing for him and his development, when he’s uncomfortable … he has to rely more on his fundamentals and his technique and be proficient with his execution of his technique and those fundamentals,” Lyght said.

Love started eight games at cornerback last season, the most career starts at the position on the Irish roster. Thus, despite being only a sophomore, he is already in a position to lead.

“Julian can tackle in space, he can cover,” Lyght said. “We want him to get better in his man-to-man techniques and in his leadership role. He is a young player but he is going to play a lot for us.”

Love will play, and likely start, at the boundary cornerback position. As Irish Illustrated’s Tim O’Malley lays out in an elongated look at all five cornerbacks in the mix, the days of left/right cornerback duties are in the past.

“In the college game, it is a boundary/field game,” Lyght said. “It’s not like the NFL where the hashmarks are in the middle of the field and it’s a left/right game…

“If you get the guys comfortable playing boundary, playing field, they can get a better feel for the game, get a better feel for the route combinations, and be able to execute at a higher level playing that way.”

A quick layman’s translation: The hashmarks in college football are much wider than in the NFL. Thus, when the ball is placed on the right hashmark, the right side of the field becomes the boundary and is much narrower than the left, the field.

LEA ON THE ROVER
How about another take at explaining the heralded rover position in new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme? Let’s here Lea’s quick summary:

“We have a lot of bodies, so we’re really trying to identify who the right fit is,” he said. “The beauty of that position is it is a hybrid, so there are times you want a bigger-body linebacker type, there are times where you want more of a nickel type.”

Lea also took a moment to extensively praise the leadership of both senior linebackers Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini.


Mid-week reading: On Wimbush; NCAA $$$; A look back at Te’o

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A litany of links typically makes for good Friday fodder. A week’s worth of the internet can help any reader through an unproductive end of the week. Unfortunately, spring practice’s rhythms are inconsistent, unlike summer’s constant nothingness and fall’s non-stop charge.

Hey, who said you can’t take a long lunch on a Wednesday, anyways?

MORE WIMBUSH AND WHITFIELD
Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples joined Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush out in San Diego two weeks ago during spring break, watching as Wimbush listened to private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield’s instructions. Staples, per usual, tells a good story, slipping some nuggets of information within it where you may not even notice.

Many around this space have asked who foots the bill when a college quarterback seeks out Whitfield’s tutelage. Per Staples, Wimbush’s mother paid for the week.

Throughout the story, Wimbush emphasizes the importance of a Notre Dame degree, going so far as to point to former Irish quarterbacks Everett Golson and Malik Zaire acquiring their diplomas before departing Notre Dame. None of us know Wimbush’s academic progress—now approaching his second summer school session, Wimbush is likely ahead of the usual second-semester sophomore’s credit pace—but this tidbit may prove pertinent in nine months time. Considering what its pertinence would say about a bigger picture, Irish fans should certainly hope it is of note.

To this memory, the classic image relayed from Golson’s time with Whitfield was Golson throwing over brooms held by staffers, mimicking the long limbs of charging defensive linemen. Those fictional pass rushers have become a bit more realistic in nature, now apparently represented with outstretched tennis rackets.

NCAA GIVING NOTRE DAME NEARLY $1 MILLION
In what has been described as a “one-time supplemental distribution,” the NCAA is dispersing $200 million among its members. The amount each school receives is determined by the total number of full scholarships it gives to student-athletes, with each partial scholarship contributing its appropriate fraction toward that total figure.

Notre Dame will receive $984,724 thanks to giving out 299.20 scholarships in 2013-14. Some context behind that latter number: The football team takes up 85 scholarships. The men’s basketball team is allowed 13, and the women’s basketball team gets 15. The remaining 186.20 are split among the other 20 varsity sports (counting men’s and women’s teams separately in rowing, swimming and diving, and track and field).

Other notable schools:
Ohio State receives the most, more than $1.3 million, thanks to its 403.98 scholarships.
USC’s 279.06 scholarships equates to $918,440.
Michigan’s 353.18 scholarships will yield close to $1.2 million.

All these dollars must be spent it ways aiding the student-athletes. Schools cannot put the funds toward items like stadium construction or coaches’ salaries. Rather, the NCAA indicated the money is for “the direct benefit of the student-athlete and their academic success, life skills, career success, health and safety and student-athlete focused diversity and inclusion initiatives.”

All expenditures must be approved by the NCAA. The money comes from an endowment that had reportedly come to exceed $360 million.

REMEMBER THE TE’O DRAFT HOOPLA?
The below video does not necessarily reveal anything we do not already know about former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o, despite its ponderous title. It does, however, make a good point.

Aside from a sporadic comment deep in the morass of these pages, not much is said about the Lennay Kekua situation anymore. At the time, it was the most talked about item anywhere, let alone in Notre Dame corners. Personally, a former co-worker at the Los Angeles Times called late one night that week four-plus years ago. He and I had not spoken in close to two years, and we haven’t spoken since. But the Te’o/Kekua story prompted him to seek an understanding of what in the world was going on.

In some irish.nbcsports.com history, the day after that story broke—it broke on Jan. 16, 2013, so I am referring to Jan. 17—still holds the record for most views to this particular site.

Good for Te’o to have successfully moved past that saga. These days, every comment former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer makes is scrutinized. He is even criticized for not having excellent timing with Jonas Gray, of all people. Looking back on Te’o, it should be remembered the most dramatic stories, one seemingly crafted perfectly for the internet, fade into the cobwebs of time.

[Here, a link in case the intended embed below fails.]

PHIL STEELE’S PROJECTED AP TOP 10
Enough with the past. Let’s project the future.

Phil Steele, of the revered Phil Steele’s College Football Preview, projected August’s Associated Press Top 10. Steele has accounted for voters’ tendencies rather accurately in years past, so it is not an entirely fruitless exercise. Then again, he is projecting the results of the first of many polls with no actual consequence.

Of Steele’s projected top-10, Notre Dame will face only No. 4 USC.

KENPOM’S TOO EARLY PRESEASON TOP 10
If you think Steele’s top 10 is too early, then skip this.

College basketball analytics master Ken Pomeroy put together his top 10 for next season, though any unexpected draft departures or transfers can certainly alter his calculations. After all, the season is not actually over yet.

Of certain Irish interest: No. 9 North Carolina, No. 8 Louisville and No. 6 Virginia. The last of those has already suffered a transfer which Pomeroy tweeted will “abruptly” end the Cavaliers’ time in his preseason top 10.

SPEAKING OF BASKETBALL, WELL DONE DENNIS, WHOEVER YOU ARE
Math is hard, so take this with a grain of salt, but I believe Dennis’ bracket of “Brey Brey’s Kids” will win the Inside the Irish March Madness pool. Dennis, your $984,724 is in the mail.

Don’t think that means there is no reason to watch the Final Four, though. Your host might be able to rise into the top half of the field, which would be good for his pride, and therefore the quality of writing in these parts.

It shouldn’t be too surprising my bracket flopped. This is a football page. Besides, by my eye, no one I actually know firsthand will finish higher than fourth. That is more of a relief than it should be.

Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

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This space has mentioned a few times the dearth of returning sacks among Notre Dame’s defensive line. It is a pertinent fact—no returning Irish defensive lineman recorded a sack in the 2016 season—but it fails to mention the flipside of that.

Most of Notre Dame’s defensive linemen had few, if any, opportunities to rush the passer in 2016. Perhaps at the top of the list of those who should bring down the opposing passer a few times this fall, sophomore Daelin Hayes has laid claim to a starting rush spot through five spring practices.

“The athleticism is what obviously stands out,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “He’s extremely athletic, he’s fit physically, 250 pounds and very strong.”

These facts are, after all, the reasons Hayes was a highly sought-after five-star recruit according to rivals.com.

“It’s the football knowledge, learning the techniques at the position in which he plays is really the piece,” Kelly continued. “It’s just learning right now for him. This is the time to do it, in spring ball.

“Squeezing down on a tight end when the back is away. Wrong-arming the puller. These are all football terms and schemes that are a bit new to him. We have to be patient with him. He’s an explosive athlete. There’s going to be some mistakes along the way, and I’m okay with that as long as he’s learning.”

Without much depth pushing for playing time behind him, Hayes will have the opportunity to make, and subsequently understand, those mistakes. Seniors Jay Hayes (no relation) and Andrew Trumbetti are mired in competition for the other end spot, while sophomores Julian Okwara, Adetokunbo Ogundeji and Khalid Kareem may have even more development ahead of them than Daelin Hayes does.

Incoming freshmen Kofi Wardlow and Jonathon MacCollister will join the fray in the summer, but for now, the younger Hayes has his chance to impress with his natural gifts while absorbing the intricacies of new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s defense.

Hayes is not a complete unknown. While Okwara made four tackles last season in 11 games and Kareem appeared in four games, Hayes saw action in every contest, finishing the season with 11 tackles, one pass breakup and one forced fumble.

“He’s an athlete,” defensive line coach Mike Elston said last week. “He’s on the edge in a two-point stance. He’s not a trained, put-your-hand-on-the-ground defensive end. He played running back in high school. He can see things better in a two-point and can diagnose quicker. He’s able to be more productive.”

It may be accurate to mention no returning Notre Dame defensive linemen tackled a quarterback for a loss last season, but it is more precise to also include the Irish have possibilities of changing that trend.

SPEAKING OF THE DEFENSIVE LINE
Notre Dame is nearly as thin at defensive tackle as it is at end. Junior Jerry Tillery leads the way with senior end-converted-to-tackle Jonathan Bonner lining up next to him thus far. Their reserves: Oft-concussed senior Daniel Cage, senior Pete Mokwuah and junior Micah Dew-Treadway with junior Elijah Taylor out for the spring with a foot injury.

Theoretically, junior Brandon Tiassum is also in the mix, and three freshmen (Kurt Hinish, Myron Tagovailo-Amosa and four-star Darnell Ewell) will join the group in the summer.

And maybe, just maybe, perhaps, possibly … Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano could walk onto campus alongside those freshmen. Pagano visited Notre Dame the first week of March, and was due to look at Oklahoma and Arkansas the next two weekends, respectively. Instead, Pagano reportedly cancelled both of those visits Monday.

Pagano does still have a visit to Oregon scheduled for April 21. Until indicated otherwise, it may be prudent to presume Pagano hopes to land as close to his Hawaiian home as possible.

RELATED READING: 1 Day Until Spring Practice: A look at the defensive line

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.