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And in that corner… The Duke Blue Devils

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Notre Dame needs to turn the page. Desperate to get a win on Saturday and even their record at 2-2, a struggling Duke team might be just the answer.

Yet David Cutcliffe’s program is far from the doormat it once was. And even with a slow start to the 2015 season, the veteran head coach has won at least eight games in each of the last three seasons, including a Pinstripe Bowl win last year against Indiana.

But with the season seemingly derailed this August when returning starting quarterback Thomas Sirk suffered a torn achilles, Cutcliffe had to adapt. And to get us up to speed on that reboot is Amrith Ramkumar.

Ramukmar is a senior at Duke from Norman, Oklahoma. He’s the editor-in-chief emeritus on the school’s newspaper, The Chronicle, and now serves as the sports editor when he’s not studying political science.

Amrith went deep to get us up to speed on Saturday afternoon’s game.

 

 

Did the trajectory of this season change when Thomas Sirk went down in late August? How have David Cutcliffe and offensive coordinator Zac Roper adapted with Daniel Jones at the helm?

This is a difficult question to answer because no one really knows how healthy Sirk was before the season-ending injury—he was still recovering from the February Achilles tear when he suffered a partial tear that knocked him out of the season in August. With that said, all indications were that Sirk was recovering well and would have been available around this time of the season, so I would say the August injury still did change the trajectory of the season.

Not only was Sirk Duke’s leading passer and rusher last season, he was also the team’s undisputed leader and gave the offense an identity as a power-running team—something it has largely lacked through three games. With Jones at the helm, Duke is running its quarterback much less, which has made life easier for opposing defenses. Sirk averaged 4.9 yards per carry last year on a combination of both designed runs and heady scrambles when the pocket broke down, an element of the offense the Blue Devils could desperately use this year with a shaky offensive line.

Although it seems like Jones might be a better pure passer than Sirk, he does not have the offensive line or weapons on the outside to consistently make defenses pay for crowding the line of scrimmage. The result has been that Duke is forced to rely almost solely on its short passing game to move the football, and too often turnovers and penalties are making that strategy backfire.

 

After an early-season win in the opener, the Blue Devils have followed that with two tough losses, the first to Wake Forest and last Saturday to Northwestern. For Notre Dame fans who have been too busy wallowing in misery after their own team’s 1-2 start, can you quickly diagnose any of the major issues that have led to two somewhat surprising losses?

Cutcliffe said it best after the Northwestern game—Duke has been consistently inconsistent in every aspect of the game. Offensively, the Blue Devil offensive line has struggled to open holes for two of Duke’s most talented players in running backs Jela Duncan and Shaun Wilson, which is putting too much pressure on Jones to carry the load with his arm. The Blue Devils have been one of the most disciplined teams in the nation the past four years, but so far in 2016 are beating themselves with 10 turnovers through three games and more than seven penalties per contest.

Duke’s defense has had several bright spots, shutting Wake Forest down early in that game then eventually slowing down Northwestern’s running game. But when the offense starts floundering, the defense is easily worn down, and in the second half of both games the Blue Devils gave up several explosive plays that decided the game.

The major issues extend to the kicking game as well. The Blue Devils had two four-time All-ACC kickers in kicker Ross Martin and punter Will Monday graduate last spring, and their replacements have again taken away a critical part of the team’s identity. True freshman kicker A.J. Reed has missed three field goals inside 40 yards and redshirt freshman punter Austin Parker has also looked uncomfortable, dropping a perfect snap against Northwestern to set up the Wildcats’ go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter.

All of that uncertainty in all three phases has compounded, and the result is that Duke has just 27 points in its last 10 quarters.

 

Defensively, Jim Knowles unit has held up thus far — though it struggled to stop the run against Wake Forest and then gave up big plays through the air against Northwestern. Offensive hasn’t necessarily been the problem for DeShone Kizer and Notre Dame. How should they attack the Blue Devils’ defense?

As you mentioned, Duke’s defense has been solid in the first half this season, but once the Blue Devils get worn down, they begin to crack. Notre Dame should use Kizer’s mobility and its strength up front to force Duke to commit extra bodies near the line of scrimmage and shut down the running game. That should open up big-play opportunities through the air as the game wears on, and if Notre Dame can keep its early drives alive and make the Duke defense tire, the Fighting Irish offense should have another big game.

 

Conversely, Notre Dame’s defense has struggled from Day One, though held up against Nevada just fine. With a slow start to the season, is Duke’s offense poised to break out this Saturday? And if so, who are your candidates for a big weekend?

Duke’s offense doesn’t look like it’s poised to break out, simply because it keeps getting in its own way after crossing midfield. The Blue Devils do have talent on that side of the ball at skill positions, though, and if they can protect Jones, I would expect Duke to try to get Wilson and wideout Chris Taylor the ball in space.

Wilson is one of the Blue Devils’ fastest players and has nice hands coming out of the backfield—his 39-yard reception against Northwestern set up Duke’s only touchdown. I could see Cutcliffe and Roper coming up with some creative ways to get Wilson involved just to see if they can jump-start the offense, and the same can be said for Taylor.

Taylor is one of the few Blue Devil receivers with the speed to get behind the defense. Against Wake Forest, that resulted in one of the Blue Devil’s longest passes of the season, and against Northwestern he broke free again but Jones could not complete the pass. When protected, Jones has shown he can throw a nice deep ball, so if Notre Dame gives the redshirt freshman enough time, I could see Taylor having a breakout game with the Fighting Irish likely focusing on starters T.J. Rahming and Anthony Nash.

 

David Cutcliffe is becoming too well-recognized to retain his title as the country’s most under-appreciated head coach. But can you help explain what a good job he’s done at Duke? And while it was well before your time following the team, can you let Irish fans know what they missed out on when Cutcliffe had to leave Charlie Weis’ first coaching staff because of health issues?

The stat that I still struggle to wrap my head around is that in the eight years before Duke hired Cutcliffe, the Blue Devils won 10 football games. In places like South Bend and my hometown of Norman, Okla., 10 is considered about par for the course in a season. The fact that Duke went 10-2 in the 2013 regular season and won 48 games in Cutcliffe’s first eight years is pretty remarkable.

The Blue Devils are in a tough spot this season, but the overall talent level has increased immeasurably since he arrived. It’s becoming common for Duke fans to turn on NFL games and see former Duke players like Laken Tomlinson, Jamison Crowder and Ross Cockrell playing on Sundays. It’s no longer a shock when recruits at quarterback and running back are turning down the nation’s best programs to come to Durham, and the team’s facilities and talent level are starting to reflect that. The way Cutcliffe has prioritized bringing in the right type of players and coaches for Duke’s program has drawn comparisons to what Coach K did for the basketball team during his first 10 years, and up to this point the results have backed it up. Cutcliffe has simply transformed the football culture at the school.

As far as what Notre Dame missed out on, I have just been struck with how Cutcliffe has managed to adapt his system to different personnel so far at Duke. He is known as a quarterback guru, but actually has not had top-tier recruits to work with at that position. Yet he still got amazing production out of Sean Renfree, Anthony Boone and Sirk last year. Whether it was finding more ways to get Crowder the ball in space or using the quarterback more as a designed runner, he always seems to work out the right formula to get the job done. It has not come together yet so far this season, but I’ll be shocked if the Blue Devils don’t make major strides by the time the year is finished.

 

Notre Dame opens up as pretty heavy favorites — 17 points. What’s the perfect recipe for a Duke upset?

The recipe for Duke is simple—the Blue Devils have to run the ball to shorten the game and win the turnover battle for the first time this season. Whether it’s using Jones or backup Parker Boehme, Duncan, Wilson or even another running back, Duke has almost no chance if it lets Notre Dame tee off on Jones. If the Blue Devils can keep the Fighting Irish defense honest and avoid the mistakes that have haunted them lately, they could give themselves a chance.

Duke’s defense has come up with some big plays this year and has been much more effective rushing the passer. If it can force Kizer into some mistakes and finally capitalize on offense and special teams, the Blue Devils could keep this one close. Ultimately, I see Notre Dame’s superior talent in the trenches wearing Duke down once again, but if the Blue Devils can finally get their offensive line comfortable, they could surprise the home team.

 

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.

 

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.”