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Can Notre Dame rebuild its secondary on the fly?

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Shaun Crawford is done for the season. Max Redfield didn’t make it to the season opener. Nick Watkins is still waiting on a broken arm to heal. Devin Butler is suspended indefinitely and wearing a walking boot.

A talented depth chart went from stockpiled to bare bones in two weeks, a nice reminder that you can never have enough talent on a roster.

So the Irish move forward, likely junking their latest contingency plan to try and find a way to stabilize the back-end—all while teaching a remarkably young group of defensive backs to grow up quickly. It’s a challenge that nobody saw coming entering the season. But it’s one that’s par for the course as Notre Dame continues to battle tough luck on the defensive side of the ball.

It’s not all bad news. Especially when you consider that Michigan State and Duke are still breaking in young quarterbacks, with Syracuse, NC State and Stanford not much more experienced.

But how can the Irish rebuild a secondary that’s already showed holes? A few humble suggestions below.

 

STICK WITH STUDSTILL

Devin Studstill played every snap of the Nevada game, a toss into the proverbial deep end if there ever was one. Studstill held up just fine, likely making the Irish coaching staff wish they’d have trusted the talented youngster more against Texas, when the staff chose to lean on Drue Tranquill and Avery Sebastian instead of the true freshman.

It took less than a half of football in Austin to understand that wasn’t going to work. And now two games into the season it’s Studstill or bust at free safety, a choice that gives the Irish defense a look towards the future while also best serving their present-day goals.

Studstill wasn’t perfect on Saturday. But he was strong in run support and had no major hiccups in the passing game, already an athletic improvement over Tranquill and Sebastian, two in-the-box defenders asked to be too far outside their comfort zone in centerfield.

You never want to be breaking in a true freshman safety. But doing it now against quarterbacks just as green as Studstill is at least making the best of a bad situation.

 

GET NICK COLEMAN RIGHT… OR GET YOUNG AT CORNER, TOO. 

Nick Coleman has a bullseye on his back. And he will until he starts making some plays. Coleman knows that, Brian Kelly knows that, and everybody in Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday night will know that, too.

“They’re going to keep going at Nick Coleman,” Kelly acknowledged. “We’re quite aware of that situation. But I think Nick has showed himself that he’s up to the task and he’s going to continue to work to get better at it. When you lose a player like Crawford, the guy that comes in, they’re going to pick on him. But I like the fact that Nick has made the kind of corrections necessary to go out there and compete for the football.

Some of those adjustments showed on the field against Nevada. Then again, so did Coleman’s downfield stumble, turning for the football but then losing his feet on an easy deep ball completion.

Assuming Ashton White is no longer in the head coach’s doghouse, he should be getting a look during practice. So should Donte Vaughn, the lanky freshman able to make up for some mistakes with his length and athleticism. Jalen Elliott and Julian Love are competitive, high-IQ football players. Give them a shot and see what happens.

The staff isn’t giving up on Coleman, nor should they. He’s a competitive kid, a good athlete and someone they think highly of.

But he’ll need to find a way to get his mental game straighten out quickly. Because opposing quarterbacks aren’t going to be looking at Cole Luke when they’ve got Coleman on the other side of the field.  And the ball will keeping coming at him until he starts making some plays.

 

KEEP IT SIMPLE.

Notre Dame’s 3-3-5 against Texas will likely go down as the bad-idea of the season, a move designed to give the Irish their best chance at winning, but one that could also be considered outthinking themselves. Of course, that’s ignoring the job Texas did in the trenches, the missed tackles by the players Notre Dame put in position to make the plays, and the deep throws that went over the top of a coverage scheme designed to guard against that very thing.

But that’s football. And a big reason why Brian VanGorder will now go back to the chalkboard, hoping to design a defense that allows his young talent to figure things out, but also gives his scheme a chance to make up for some glaring personnel weaknesses.

Even the best secondary can’t cover receivers forever. And with Notre Dame’s current pass rush, that’s the ask. (At least if they want to drop six or seven.) That same pressure is applied if the front seven can’t slow down an opponents run game—committing extra hats to the box should help, but it leaves a young secondary vulnerable and on islands.

With the heat already cranked up on VanGorder, it’ll be the long-time assistant’s job to find a happy medium, manufacturing confusion and heat on quarterbacks while also making sure the Irish can win on first and second downs.

None of that sounds simple. But of course, that’s what young players need—and why VanGorder’s paychecks have all those zeroes.

 

HAVE THE OFFENSE HELP OUT WHILE THE DEFENSE GROWS EACH WEEK.  

Don’t expect things to be solved on Saturday. But progress needs to be made, making sure that the team Notre Dame puts on the field in October is better than the one asked to survive September.

Brian Kelly has built a roster to his liking. He’s had a successful recruiting run. And he’s found defensive backs that fit the profile that VanGorder is looking for, man-coverage skills that should be able to hold up in space better than the Cover 2 players he inherited.

Now Todd Lyght needs to coach them up. VanGorder needs to keep designing sound schemes. And Kelly needs his offense to support the other side of the football—taking pressure off his defense by either scoring points by the bushel or keeping opponents off the field. (Preferably both.)

DeShone Kizer and the offensive line can be a big piece of the defensive puzzle. So can a three-headed running back position that can eat clock and limit possessions. With a quarterback capable of winning football games with his arm, his feet and—more importantly—his head, adjusting a game plan to pick up the slack for the defense shouldn’t be asking too much.

Because if it allows the defense to tread water for a few weeks as the kids get used to things, this defense can get better week to week.

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.

 

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.