Pregame Six Pack: Return of the Spartans

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It’s a return to the familiar this weekend, with Michigan State and Notre Dame back together again on the football field. A rivalry that’s one of Notre Dame’s oldest and most established returns after a few seasons away, and brings with it plenty of tradition—and even more intrigue—with Saturday night’s kickoff just around the corner.

Fifty years after waging war in a 10-10 tie that’s among the sports most talked about games, Mark Dantonio and Brian Kelly return to battle, a big game that should reveal plenty about both teams.

With a 7:30 primetime kickoff on NBC ahead, let’s get to the Pregame Six Pack.

As with every game against Michigan State, a physical battle is expected. But so Kelly’s young team keeping its poise.

Don’t tell Brian Kelly that Michigan State plans to bully the Irish around. Because he expects his team to hold up quite well in a matchup that should test the Irish’s physicality.  

“Our entire offensive line are all physical guys. Josh Adams is a physical player. Drue Tranquill is a physical player, Te’von Coney,” Kelly said. “All of our guys like the physical contact. They’ll rise to the occasion of what the game calls for and the mental toughness to match what Michigan State is all about.”

Michigan State is usually about running the football, and LJ Scott is certainly capable. They’re about a stout defense, a unit that’ll be led by All-American candidate Malik McDowell and defensive captains Riley Bullough and Demetrious Cox.

But Kelly knows matching the Spartans strength and toughness is only one piece of the puzzle. Doing that while keeping your wits about you is the other.

“This is not a boxing match,” Kelly said. “This is not UFC. We’ve got to execute. We’ve got to catch the football. What we can’t get caught up in is the emotion of a game like this. Where words turn into poor actions.

“I’ve talked to our guys about being poised and doing their job. If they do that, our team is strong enough and physical enough to match up with anybody.”

Torii Hunter Jr. may be a little bit rusty. But he’ll be ready to go against a Michigan State secondary that will challenge the Irish. 

After taking the week off against Nevada, Notre Dame’s senior captain Torii Hunter Jr. will be back out leading a young receiving corps. And while the team’s medical staff played things safe last week, Kelly said Hunter is ready to go, though he needed to play a little bit of catch-up this week to get ready for a critical match-up against the Spartans’ physical secondary.

“You take a week off in our offense where there’s so much volume for those wide receivers, you lose a little bit,” Kelly said. “So it was kind of getting the kinks out. Today he looked pretty much back to where he had been.”

That return makes things much easier for DeShone Kizer—and the entire Irish receiving rotation. Because with Equanimeous St. Brown locked in at the W and C.J. Sanders doing very nice things in the slot, bringing Hunter back to the wide side of the field and allowing Kevin Stepherson and Corey Holmes to play supporting roles will get Mike Denbrock’s young position group back in sync.

It’ll also allow us to see if Hunter is capable of attacking an opponent down the field, something we’ve seen in pieces (like the Blue-Gold game), but yet to see in a big-time match-up.

“They’re going to see if their DBs are tougher than our wide receivers,” Hunter said this week. “So it’s going to be that type of game. We’re going to have to make plays and they’re good at what they do.”

While Brian Kelly has expressed confidence in Nick Coleman and his young secondary, he’s pushing to get junior Nick Watkins back from injury. 

With Shaun Crawford’s season finished after an achilles tear, Nick Coleman will once again be given a chance to rebound from a tough first few weeks. Even as freshmen like Donte Vaughn and Julian Love find their footing, Kelly is hoping that junior Nick Watkins can make some progress as he continues to recover from a broken arm.

“He practiced very hard this week. He was in a lot of football this week,” Kelly said.

Watkins looked like the frontrunner to be the team’s starter at cornerback before a broken forearm took him out of commission. And while Kelly mentioned that a medical redshirt is potentially in the cards for Watkins if his training staff can’t stimulate enough bone growth, the fact that the team is practicing him hard enough to monitoring him with their GPS tracking system points to the hope of getting him back to buoy a questionable position during a stretch run.

“He’s a kid who started for us and played pretty good in the Bowl game. He’s in pretty good shape, his volume was really good in practice,” Kelly explained. “We just need to get a green light that we’re not putting him in a position to hurt himself.”

Not much is known about Michigan State’s fifth-year quarterback Tyler O’Connor. But he’s already won a pretty big football game. 

No, the win over Furman doesn’t count—even if O’Connor’s 13 of 18 performance and three touchdown passes was a nice 2016 debut.

It was O’Connor’s work behind center when the Spartans took down Ohio State last year, pulling off a 17-14 victory that nobody saw coming. A windy and rainy Saturday (not to mention Ohio State’s defense) made it tough to show muche statistically, but O’Connor completed 7 of his 12 throws, adding a touchdown and no turnovers. He also carried the ball eight times—including a few critical 4th down conversions on a game-tying touchdown drive early in the fourth quarter.

So after going into Columbus and leaving with a victory, don’t expect the stage to be too big for O’Connor in South Bend. Named a team captain (something Connor Cook never did) even though it’s only his first season starting, the 6-foot-3, 228-pounder comes to Notre Dame with a lot of confidence.

“We can go out there and do anything that we decide to do and what we put our minds to as long as we go as one,” O’Connor told the Detroit Free Press. “When we have that chemistry and mind-set that we’re not going to be defeated and we’re not going to be stopped, we do feel unstoppable.”

Six years later, Mark Dantonio breaks down Little Giants. 

In a rivalry that’s seen plenty of drama, Mark Dantonio broke down perhaps the most dramatic finish of the Michigan State-Notre Dame rivalry, sketching for ESPN the overtime, fake field goal that the Spartans pulled off to win 34-31 in East Lansing back in 2010.

A game that sent Dantonio to the hospital after—he suffered a minor heart attack—remains a sore spot for Irish fans, many convinced that the play clock had hit zero before Michigan State got the snap off.

That win might have kickstarted the Michigan State’s program. Because the 2010 season began a historic run for the Spartans, with Dantonio going a ridiculous 64-16 since then, winning at least 11 games in all but one season.

But he hasn’t beaten Notre Dame since.

Brian Kelly isn’t worried about the lack of sacks. But he does need to figure out how the Irish will make Tyler O’Connor uncomfortable on Saturday night. 

Brian Kelly did his best to tell us that he thinks sacks are overrated. And even if that’s a tough one to believe, the Irish head coach expanded on what his pass rush needs to do to impact Tyler O’Connor. Because if Brian VanGorder’s front seven is going to protect his young secondary, the Irish need to find a way to make things difficult for the Michigan State passing attack.

“You saw how quickly the balls come out the last couple weeks. We’ve harassed the quarterback the last week, forced him into some bad throws,” Kelly said. “What you want to do is, you want the quarterback to feel uncomfortable back there and to be pressured into making some poor decisions and poor throws.”

That happened against Nevada, with the Wolf Pack’s quick passing game ineffective with Tyler Stewart connecting on just 10 of his 23 throws. And while allowing a team to get the ball out quickly and earn their way down the field feels like a great problem for Notre Dame’s defense to have, getting more defenders in the mix who can impact the pass rush is certainly also a priority.

Kelly talked about working junior Jay Hayes and freshman Daelin Hayes into the mix. He also mentioned true freshmen Julian Okwara and Jamir Jones.

So far the weakside defensive end job has been Andrew Trumbetti’s. A high ankle sprain has slowed Jay down, while Daelin is still learning on the job—though he should be motivated to make an impact against a team he once committed to as a recruit.

Kelly’s confident that’ll happen.

“Before it’s all said and done, both those guys will play a role in our defense,” Kelly said. “I’m very confident that you’re going to see both the Hayes play more football.”

***

For your listening pleasure, John Walters and I talk about this weekends game and if a win against Michigan State can serve as a launch point. 

 

Kraemer, Eichenberg compete for RT spot, moving Bars inside, and Bivin to…

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Forty percent of the offensive line is essentially set in stone: fifth-year senior Mike McGlinchey at left tackle and senior Quenton Nelson at right guard.

The center position seems to be senior Sam Mustipher’s to lose.

That leaves the two starting spots on the right side of the line for a number of players—both young and experienced—to fight over.

Sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg have emerged as the frontrunners for the right tackle spot, moving senior Alex Bars inside to right guard. Bars started all 12 games last season at right tackle.

“Those two [Kraemer and Eichenberg] are the guys we have mapped out at right tackle, and they’re going to battle,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “Today Kraemer was there. Last two practices Eichenberg got a lot of the work. Eichenberg will go back there on Friday. They’re going to keep battling and splitting the action out there.”

Part of the reasoning in giving the two sophomores extended looks this spring is Notre Dame knows what it has in Bars when at right tackle.

“We would prefer to get him in at the guard position, but we know he can play the [tackle] position,” Kelly said.

A starting five of McGlinchey, the three seniors and either sophomore may seem to leave fifth-year lineman Hunter Bivin out in the cold. Not often is a player asked to return for a fifth year only to spend it on the bench. That is even more rare when considering the current Irish scholarship crunch.

Kelly compared Bivin’s role to that of Mark Harrell’s last year. Harrell appeared in all 12 games, starting two, and provided much needed depth and flexibility along the offensive line. Rather than have five backup offensive linemen, position coach Harry Hiestand relied on Harrell to provide support at multiple spots.

“It’s reasonable to assume that Hunter Bivin’s going to be involved in this as well,” Kelly said. “We’ve just asked Hunter to take a seat right now. He’s done that for the team.

“We think Hunter is going to be a Mark Harrell for us. A guy that’s extremely valuable, can play a number of positions. We trust him, but we want to see these two young players [Kraemer and Eichenberg]. Hunter is a guy that can play right or left tackle for us. He’s going to be a valuable player for us as a swing guy.”

On that note, this space will refer to Bivin as a fifth-year lineman, as was done above, rather than as a guard or as a tackle, until further notice. In his case, the broader description may be the most accurate.

Spring break out west is fine, but Wimbush better be ready to run

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It will undoubtedly become a habit, at least for the next five-plus months. If Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush sneezes in front of a camera, it just might lead to an uptick in webmd.com traffic. His every football move will certainly be analyzed, nitpicked and discussed at length. Thus, Irish coach Brian Kelly being asked about Wimbush’s spring break should surprise no one.

Rather than find a Florida beach, Wimbush spent his spring break working with private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield in San Diego alongside a handful of other college passers. Kelly said there is value to such a spring break but stopped short of setting any lofty expectations of the effects.

“I have no problem with [Wimbush] working out with George Whitfield,” Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice, the first following spring break and the third of 14 leading into the Blue-Gold Game on April 22. “George doesn’t work on the specifics to the offense. George is really working on the quarterback and throwing the football, moving in the pocket. George is really good at keeping those quarterbacks active and moving.”

Whitfield is best-known around Notre Dame and among Irish fans for working with former Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson during Golson’s academic suspension in 2013. Whitfield and Golson spent 10 weeks together, thus granting time for extensive off-field activities such as film study. Far shorter, Wimbush’s time out west appears to have been spent primarily doing drills.

“In those situations, it’s a bullpen session,” Kelly said. “They’re keeping their arms loose, they’re keeping their feet loose. He’s just keeping them active.”

It is hard to construe that activity as a negative, but it obviously lacks certain aspects crucial to Wimbush’s 2017 season. With only five career pass attempts and seven career rushes, Wimbush’s inexperience looms large. Developing the necessary intangibles to account for that may be just as, if not more, important as fitting his throws into tight windows.

“When it comes to the playbook, to his teammates, to his coaches here, Brandon understands that when the rubber hits the road, those are the guys that matter the most,” Kelly said. “He knows when it’s time for Notre Dame football, where the focus is.”

Included in that playbook will be an expectation for Wimbush to carry the ball. To date, Wimbush’s biggest play and possibly only imprint on most Notre Dame fans’ memories is a 58-yard touchdown scamper against Massachusetts in 2015.

Link to 17-second YouTube video which has unfortunately disabled embedding

Note, the play is not exclusively-designed for Wimbush to run. Now a rising junior, then a fellow freshman, running back Josh Adams comes across Wimbush’s front for a possible handoff. Instead, Wimbush makes the correct read and keeps the ball. Why state so clearly it was the proper read? Adams has to evade a Texas defender even though he never had the ball.

Future option plays should present Wimbush with the possibility of throwing the ball, too.

“He’ll be a runner in the offense,” Kelly said. “Do we want him to carry the ball 20 times? No.

“I don’t think you’ll have a situation where we’re calling quarterback power or singular runs. He’s going to have options: hand it off, throw the ball out on the perimeter. You’ll see more of that than you will prescribed quarterback runs. We had a little bit more of that last year with Kizer, but I think you’ll see that he has an option to get the ball out of his hands more so than just prescribed runs.”

Those option plays, in particular, will require Wimbush to have a thorough familiarity both with the Notre Dame playbook and with his teammates’ tendencies.

RITA LEE OR 52-53?
Staying consistent with his comments over the last two months, Kelly once again reiterated the biggest changes new offensive coordinator Chip Long will bring to the Irish playbook will be in its wording. Perhaps going to an extreme example to illustrate his thinking, Kelly pointed to the future.

“We’re going to win next year and Chip is going to be the greatest offensive coordinator in the country and he’s going to get a head job, right?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “Then I’m not going to introduce the Chip Long offense to the next offensive coordinator.

“It has to have my culture in it … The culture of the offense is still the base offense that I have always run because I have to be able to carry that with me from year to year.”

Within that ellipsis, Kelly gave two examples of possible verbiage changes. Without knowing much more behind them, they do not mean too much out here in the cobwebs of the internet, but they do provide a quick glimpse at what Kelly has been referring to when discussing lexicon since hiring Long.

“If he wants to change Ringo Lucky protection to Ram and Lion protection, go right ahead. If he wants to change certain calls, for example, 52-53 protection is now Rita Lee.”

RELATED READING:
4 Days Until Spring Practice: A Look at QBs (Brandon Wimbush)
Pace of Play: More Snaps Equal More Scoring Chances, Right?

Back from break, Irish commence hitting; DT Elijah Taylor out with LisFranc injury

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Notre Dame last wore pads in its 45-27 defeat at USC back on Nov. 26, a full 117 days ago. Suffice it to say, the Irish enjoyed the chance to don their shoulder pads and hit each other in Wednesday’s third spring practice, the first one since returning from spring break.

“What I liked about it more than anything else is there wasn’t a big drop off today,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “Usually you go two days and then you take a week off, and then you come back and put your pads on—it took us only a couple of periods to get back up to form. That was nice to see.”

Contrary to previous years in spring practice, and perhaps practice in general, Kelly emphasized tackling, especially tackling in the open-field, in Wednesday’s drills.

“[I] felt like we needed to make up for a little lost ground,” he said. “We got in tackling today for the first time. That’ll be an emphasis. We’ll tackle a lot this spring to make up for lost ground.”

The early and often physical nature of practice didn’t bother any of the players, per Kelly, but also per presumed common sense. While Notre Dame’s coaching staff changes and public questioning played out in broad view, the players spent 117 days in private waiting to unleash some of the frustrations of 2016’s disappointing season.

“Everybody to a man has been looking forward to this day,” Kelly said. “It was a pretty difficult offseason for them. They were looking forward to putting the pads on and getting out there. I think they exhibited that today.”

TAYLOR OUT FOR SPRING, AT LEAST
Junior defensive tackle Elijah Taylor was not in pads Wednesday. In the final practice before spring break, another player stepped on Taylor’s foot, Kelly said. The resulting LisFranc fracture will keep Taylor out of the remaining dozen spring practices and limit him until at least July. Taylor saw action in four games last season, finishing with three tackles, including one for a loss.

Notre Dame team surgeon Dr. Brian Ratigan already performed Taylor’s surgery.

“Typical LisFranc fractures, we’ve had good success with their repairs,” Kelly said. “…We’ll be able to train around the injury. Full range of motion moving around and doing things in June, probably full clearance sometime in July.”

Without Taylor, the interior of Notre Dame’s defensive line becomes even shallower, though that may have been hard to previously comprehend. Junior Jerry Tillery looks to be ready to start, and senior Jonathan Bonner has moved to the inside, rather than at end as he has been for most of his career. Behind them, the Irish present only question marks.

Kelly said he will look to junior Micah Dew-Treadway to step forward in Taylor’s absence.

“Micah Dew-Treadway has had a really good offseason for us,” Kelly said. “Changed his body, has been doing a really good job in all facets, in the class room and weight room. He’s somebody that had been ascending anyway prior to the injury.

Kelly indicated junior Brandon Tiassum also could be expected to see more work with Taylor sidelined.

Seniors Daniel Cage and Pete Mokwuah are in the mix, as well. Cage struggled with concussion issues last season after a promising 2015.

Notre Dame will need to wait until the freshmen arrive—perhaps also joined by Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano, reportedly still taking official visits as he ponders his 2017 destination—for further reinforcements. Consensus four-star recruit Darnell Ewell would be the most likely candidate of the three expected arrivals to move up the depth chart right away.

In layman’s terms, a Lisfranc fracture occurs when a mid-foot bone connecting to a toe separates from the cluster of bones toward the heel. Note: This is stated here only to provide some context, nothing more. This particular scribe avoided most biology classes.

CLAYPOOL A RECEIVER AND THAT HE WILL STAY
Asked if he considered moving sophomore receiver Chase Claypool to defense, Kelly answered succinctly.

“We feel like we need his play on offense,” Kelly said. “He’ll continue to contribute on the special teams end of things, but we need his play on offense.”

KELLY ON KIZER’S NFL POTENTIAL
“I’ve had a number of conversations with GMs and coaches about [former Notre Dame quarterback] DeShone [Kizer], and my personal feeling is he has the biggest upside of all the quarterbacks. I don’t know that he’s prepared to come in and win a Super Bowl for you [this year]. Some may feel as though maybe one of the other quarterbacks are. I don’t know that firsthand. But I think, in time, he has the biggest upside of all the quarterbacks.

“I get it. It’s the NFL. Everybody’s under the same pressure of performing and needing somebody to come in right away, but I think he’s a guy that just needs some time. If he gets in the right situation, I think he’d be the guy to take.”

Kizer and eight other former Irish players will take part in a pro day tomorrow (Thursday) in front of some of those GMs and coaches.

Te’o to New Orleans; Booker to Nebraska

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Former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o has signed a two-year contract with the New Orleans Saints, per reports.

Once recovered from a torn Achilles, Te’o will join a crowded Saints linebacker corps. The Saints signed A.J. Klein—formerly of the Carolina Panthers—to a three-year, $15 million contract earlier in March and return Craig Robertson, who finished 2016 with 115 tackles.

All three have experience at the middle linebacker position in a 4-3 defense, though Klein and Robertson are both capable of playing at the strong side position, as well.

Before his week three injury, Te’o had started 34 of 38 games for the San Diego Chargers and notched 221 career tackles. With the Saints, he rejoins linebackers coach Mike Nolan, who held the same position with the Chargers in 2015 when Te’o finished with a career-high 83 tackles.

BOOKER REJOINS DIACO
It appears former Notre Dame tight ends coach and special teams coordinator Scott Booker will join the Nebraska coaching staff. Two former Irish coaches—defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and safeties coach Bob Elliott—already have seats in the Lincoln coaching room, which is quickly becoming something of a Notre Dame West.

Booker will reportedly join the Cornhuskers staff as a special teams analyst. He served as Notre Dame’s special teams coordinator from 2012 to 2016 before this past offseason’s extensive staff changes.

PRO DAY THURSDAY
A reminder: Notre Dame will hold its Pro Day this Thursday. Nine players will partake, obviously highlighted by quarterback DeShone Kizer.

The others: long snapper Scott Daly, running back Tarean Folson, tight end Chase Hounshell, defensive linemen Jarron Jones and Isaac Rochell, cornerback Cole Luke, safety Avery Sebastian and linebacker James Onwualu.

Kizer hopes to prove himself worthy of a first-round draft pick, while Jones and Rochell may be in the mix for a second-day pick, meaning in the second or third rounds.

As it is draft season, this discussion of why mock drafts exist even though most prognosticators cannot stand them is worth the few minutes needed to read.

MARCH MADNESS UPDATE
The majority of the “Inside the Irish” bracket pool’s leaders escaped the weekend’s chaos, though frontrunner andy44teg will not hold onto that top spot for long after his titlist pick, Duke, exited late the tournament late Sunday.

That will leave some character named Dennis and his North Carolina prediction as the presumptive favorite to win, well, to win absolutely nothing.

Five of the top 10 expect North Carolina to win the championship.