AP

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Michigan State

63 Comments

The Megaphone returns to East Lansing. And Notre Dame goes back to work.

On a weekend that served as a separation Saturday of sorts, contenders and pretenders emerged. Unfortunately for the Irish, they’re on the outside looking in, a familiar formula costing Notre Dame in a game that played out with all too much familiarity.

A porous defense, an inconsistent offense and bad special teams. Let’s get through the good, bad and ugly from Notre Dame’s disappointing 36-28 loss.

 

THE GOOD

Fourteen minutes (roughly): That’s the amount of time the Irish were playing at full octane. From the moment they took the football over with 3:45 remaining in the third quarter and went all-in to storm back.

You saw DeShone Kizer cut loose. You saw the offense stress the Spartans vertically. Defensively, the Irish managed to get stops. No, they still couldn’t get off the field quickly time—though they forced three-straight punts.

On a Saturday when everybody should be looking for building blocks, this is the best place to start.

 

Quick Hits: 

* Lost amidst the loss in the trenches was a nice game by Quenton Nelson. The junior was rock-solid in his assignments on the inside, grading out as the best player for the Irish, per PFF College.

* Brian Kelly said postgame that this wasn’t just going to be DeShone Kizer bailing the team out. But he sure tried. Kizer wasn’t perfect and his discomfort in the pocket led to some accuracy issues. But with the game on his shoulders, he roared the team back.

Notre Dame has now scored 15 touchdowns. All but two of them have come from either Kizer’s arm or legs. While some are ready to throw in the towel for the season, Notre Dame’s coaching staff just needs to find some sense of competence from the defense, or risk wasting a historic season by Kizer.

* For the first time in his career, the elite athleticism and tantalizing promise of Jerry Tillery finally showed through. The sophomore flashed those dominant traits, making two TFLs and proving to be disruptive at times in the trenches, a much-needed development if the Irish defense is going to stop that flaming tire from burning down the defense.

* Nice to meet you, Chase Claypool. That’s one athletic dude streaking down the field. Can we find a few more opportunities for the young man?

* Most of his catches came after the Irish had to play catchup, but nice to see Torii Hunter Jr. come back and look healthy, too.

* Durham Smythe helped the Irish tight ends out of witness protection. After nearly entering the doghouse with a critical penalty that took a touchdown off the board.

* It’s hard to say how well Nyles Morgan is playing, especially when the Will linebacker position continues to struggle. But Morgan is a tackling machine, adding 10 more and eight solo stops.

 

THE BAD

Cole Luke. Upon further review, Luke’s evening was just as bad as it was in real-time. The senior cornerback’s struggles make no sense, though his confidence is likely bruised and he’s certainly pressing. That makes a smart football player do some less-than-intelligent things—Luke’s mental mistakes just as head-scratching as the physical, one-on-one losses.

There’s no need to harp or pile on, though it’s a game Luke will need to quickly forget. Especially with the Irish in need of getting on an upswing before Stanford comes to town in three weeks.

 

The special teams. The bar has been raised for Scott Booker’s special teams unit. And they didn’t come close to clearing it on Saturday night. A game-changing start by CJ Sanders was erased by Jalen Elliott’s holding. Miles Boykin’s mistake was a Pop Warner error if there ever was one. That’s as much on Boykin as it is on Sanders, Booker and everybody else that should be looking for the football.

Tyler Newsome was pumped up after he drilled a 71-yarder. And while his 50.3 yard average and three punts inside the 20 will look like a successful game, Newsome once again botched his first kick, failing to flip the field when the Irish needed him to do so.

Throw in Nicco Fertitta’s bone-headed unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after making a nice block and it was amateur hour in a phase of the game that Kelly talked about this week as being critical.

 

Drue Tranquill. Notre Dame expected Drue Tranquill to play a key role in this defense. Instead, he’s been a huge part of the problem.

Tranquill was a liability again Saturday night, a key defender that was counted on to be a sure-tackling strong safety. And as intelligent, hard-working, and well-respected as Tranquill is, he’s killing the Irish defense with his inconsistencies.

It’s easy to take some of the bad that comes with Tranquill in coverage if he’s a sledgehammer against the run. But the junior who has heroically returned from two major knee injuries has been really suspect, when the team needs him to be a rock as they break in Devin Studstill. He led the Irish in missed tackles on Saturday night, the only defender who graded out (per PFF College) worse than Luke.

Tranquill is still a young player, injuries essentially robbing him of a full season—and two key springs—of development. But the junior needs to find his rhythm quickly, or Notre Dame needs to push Avery Sebastian into a much larger role.

 

The pass rush. That’s three weeks and no sacks. And while the Irish did manage to make things slightly uncomfortable for Tyler O’Connor, the Irish are the only Power Five team not to have tackled the opposing team’s quarterback behind the line of scrimmage.

Spin it any way you want, and that’s a big problem. Especially when you’re trying to help a young secondary.

 

The defensive personnel. Perhaps some of the comfort that comes with calling for Brian VanGorder’s head is that it ignores the other possibility. Namely, that Notre Dame’s defensive personnel just isn’t that good.

Yes, it’s becoming more and more obvious that VanGorder isn’t a good fit. (Yes, I know that’s an understatement.) But it’s also becoming more and more obvious that the Irish just aren’t that good on defense.

It’s pretty clear that Notre Dame’s staff has swung and missed on the defensive side of the football, all those high-profile recruits struggling to live up to their ranking. It’s also clear that you can have a handful of talented players on the field, but they’re quickly erased if one or two aren’t doing their job.

The Irish can’t rush the passer. That’s less on VanGorder’s exotic schemes or Keith Gilmore’s teaching techniques than it is on Andrew Trumbetti or the rest of the personnel that can’t win their one on one battle, especially a few seasons of recruiting misses at defensive end.

 

 

Freshmen are freshmen. They’re seeing and doing things for the first time. And right now, Notre Dame is relying on too many of them, young kids and inexperienced talent trying to hold up their end of the bargain while Morgan, Isaac Rochell and James Onwualu play better-than-average football. That the Irish don’t have any other veterans capable of beating out the kids shows you how difficult it is to transition systems and do so while upgrading talent.

Running a high-priced and unsuccessful coach out of town is always an option—and it looks like that’s the way this will end up. But when you think about Kelly’s fiery comments from postgame, through the subpar personnel lens, this comment feels a little bit different.

“Those are the guys we have. We can’t trade em. They’re not getting cut. We recruited them. I told our staff, ‘Those are our guys, so we’ve got to get ’em better. We’ve got to put them in better position to make plays,’” Kelly said.

 

THE UGLY

Another loss against a quality team. If Notre Dame wants to measure itself against the best, they won’t like what they see. The Irish have lost four of their last five, Nevada the only win. That type of slide during the seventh season of a head coach’s tenure isn’t a datapoint you want to see.

Of course, there’s context for everything. The Irish lost 10 players to the NFL. They’re breaking in an unprecedented amount of new starters—three more than the worst team in Notre Dame history. And that was before preseason and injury attrition hit.

It might be our fault for believing this team could reload and compete for a playoff berth. Because only Ohio State and Alabama have proven they’re up to that task. But adjusting expectations in mid-September is an ugly place to be. And yet that’s where we stand, with Notre Dame finding another way to shoot themselves in the foot when taking on a team that’s capable of matching up with them athletically.

So the focus shifts. And while some Irish fans might check out for the fall, it’d be a surprise if Kelly’s team did. Especially a young roster that’ll now get younger and younger, the goals more incremental now than ever.

“The focus just becomes on what I just talked about: each individual getting better, each individual improving from week and week,” Kelly said on Sunday. “The focus being really much more smaller in a sense. All we’re looking for is to find a way to win and beat Duke. That’s really the goal that’s in front of us.”

It’s been a few years since Irish fans saw their postseason dreams ruined in September. But for the players and coaches who put in a year-round commitment, there’s been too much work put in to abandon things now.

“This is work. We’ve got some work to do. But we got a group that will fight and compete. I’m proud of the way they go out and represent Notre Dame on the field,” Kelly said. “We got to clean up a lot of things. We’ll continue to work with a lot of young players. I’m confident that we’ll be a better football team in November than we are in September.”

Tranquill continues work with safeties … for now

Getty Images
3 Comments

Drue Tranquill will see time at the oft-spoken of rover position, just not yet. For now, Notre Dame needs the senior at safety to provide leadership and communication while the rest of his position group gets up to speed.

“We really have to figure out what the coordination is going to be at the safety position,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “How much does Drue play down at rover? How much does he play back [at safety]?”

Only sophomore Devin Studstill returns any starts to the safety position aside from Tranquill’s career total of 18. Studstill started nine games last season.

That void has kept Tranquill working mostly with the defensive backs in the spring’s first few practices, rather than joining the likes of junior Asmar Bilal in the rover grouping.

“We didn’t want to pull our most veteran player out of the back end of our defense with Drue,” Kelly said. “I think it was more about the hesitancy of losing a great communicator in the back end than about the teaching.”

The time will come, however, for Tranquill to move up. Juniors Nick Coleman and Ashton White have moved to safety from the corner position. With more reps, they will not need to rely on Tranquill’s guidance as much. The same goes for, at least in theory, sophomore Jalen Elliott.

“It’s not really a heavy load of teaching for those guys,” Kelly said. “They’re picking it up quite well. We really want to get a chance to see a lot of guys back there.”

Kelly seemed particularly bullish on Coleman’s prospects at the position, provided he embrace the needed physicality. At 6-foot, 187 pounds, Coleman’s build may have been more suited on the outside, but Notre Dame’s plethora of promising cornerbacks provided an impetus to test Coleman at safety.

“The big thing will be Nick’s continuous development in tackling,” Kelly said. “You have to tackle back there. His ball skills are really good. We’ve seen that he’s able to play the ball. He has athleticism.

“We just want to continue to build on his tackling skills. If we go through the spring and say, ‘Well, he’s tackling really well,’ we’ll feel pretty good about the move.”

At that point, Tranquill will likely join Bilal at the hybrid position, which is something of a trademark to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Tranquill will be able to do what he does best: Pursue the ball.

“We all know what his strengths are,” Kelly said. “He’s a solid tackler. I don’t think there’s any safety in college football that wants to get matched up one-on-one with a skilled slot receiver. This would minimize that, when you play him close to the ball as a rover.

“And I think he’s pretty quick off the edge. I think we put him in a really good position in maximizing his skill set.”

Until then, Bilal will continue to be the frontrunner at rover, especially with the first four Irish opponents of 2017 presenting run-heavy offenses.

KELLY ON NICK WATKINS
Kelly was also asked about senior cornerback Nick Watkins, his fit into Elko’s defense and his return from injury.

“He’s very coachable, wants to learn, he’s pretty long,” Kelly said. “What I think Mike [Elko] does really well—and this is what I liked about my interactions with him—is, we all have strengths and weaknesses. He has a great eye of saying let’s take Nick’s strengths and let’s put him in a position where we can really utilize his strengths and put him in a position where maybe we’re not a right and left corner team, maybe we’re a short field/wide field team. Let’s apply him in that fashion.

“Nick’s long. He’s a little bit of a physical player. Let’s go to those strengths. He’s shown some of those attributes early on.”

RELATED READING:
Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover position, others likely to follow
2 Days Until Spring Practice: A look at the defensive backfield

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

Getty Images
15 Comments

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

Getty Images
29 Comments

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

Getty Images
10 Comments

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.