Talking Irish: Moving on after Michigan State

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As we have the past few weeks, JJ Stankevitz and I break things down after a tough week for Notre Dame football.

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KA: First off — congrats on the pick. What made you think that was going to happen? (A Spartans’ win)

JJ: It was mostly a distrust of the Brian VanGorder defense. It didn’t come through last year against Stanford and it didn’t come through against Texas. And until further notice, you never bet against a streak, right? Though I guess I didn’t get MSU enough credit. (I went with 27-26 MSU)

But the loss wasn’t all on the defense. How would you evaluate the offense going forward?

KA: I’m pretty down on the offensive line play. I thought the front five has been underwhelming, I think we got WAY too excited about McGlinchey and Nelson as some type of wrecking crew, and I think, in general, these guys look a lot like a group with four new starters (at least positionally) working together for the first time.

JJ: Bingo. It’s certainly not for a lack of talent, but sometimes O-lines need time to come together. We’re seeing that now. I mean, last year, ND was 4th in opportunity rate. This year, they’re 79th. There are problems on O, no doubt.

KA:  But I think we owe it to the people with pitchforks and torches to circle back to the D.
So let me ask you this: Give me your odds (%wise) on Brian VanGorder being the team’s defensive coordinator come spring practice?

(too hot?)😎

JJ: I guess I don’t want to speculate about a guy losing his job, but I’ll say this, that just because Brian Kelly is defending him now doesn’t mean his job is safe.

KA: That’s fair. I just think it’s amazing that we’ve all essentially called the guy GONE, when BK is saying the exact opposite thing.

JJ: Giving up on a coach after three games and publicly putting him on the hot seat probably is counter-productive for a season that still has 10 weeks left in it.

KA: Couldn’t agree more. And I thought one of the big things BK had to say last week that struck me was his commentary on the personnel and the players that they recruited.

If I have a big revelation — I’m just kind of coming to the conclusion that it’s just as much about the Jimmys and the Joes as it is about the Xs and the Os. Which scares me a bit, but also explains things from a coaching POV.

JJ: Right, but it’s not an excuse.

KA: But why isn’t it an excuse? This team lost: The Butkus Award winner, their leading sacker, their leading TFL DT, a captain at MLB, a 3rd round CB, their starting free safety and starting SS. Why are we surprised they’re worse?

JJ: Because the players ultimately were recruited by the coaching staff. If the personnel isn’t there, it first and foremost falls on the guys who brought them in, which is sort of what Kelly was getting at.

I guess we shouldn’t be surprised, based on that. But this is college football, where every roster cycles through players on a four-year cycle. You have to be able to replace them.
Indeed.

JJ: At other schools, a down year is fine. But the expectations at Notre Dame don’t allow for that.

KA: It’s kind of maddening. The Tenuta era was a long time ago—and I don’t think this is THAT bad — but it’s now in a similar conversation.

(Palette cleanser)

So is Duke just a perfect slump buster? Or is there something about this game that scares you, too?

JJ: Duke’s efficient passing offense is a bit troublesome. But they only scored 27 combined points against Wake Forest and Northwestern, which, meh. And Notre Dame hasn’t scored fewer than 28 points at home since Oct. 4, 2014 vs. Stanford.

Are you worried about anything for this one?

KA: I’m now in “worried about everything” mode. So yes, to be candid. And mostly because I’ve done a 180 on just about every defender NOT named James Onwualu, Isaac Rochell and Nyles Morgan. I’d bet Duke and take the 17 points, and then it’d be the first time ever I lost money on ND and they ended up winning convincingly.

(Strictly from a hypothetical gambling POV, of course…)

JJ: At this juncture, style points don’t matter. Notre Dame isn’t making the playoff, but just winning games is the most important thing. So even if it’s a sloppy win…hey, it’s a win, and ND will take it.

KA: That’s a really important point. And one that I really struggled to get across in my writing post-Michigan State loss. We spent a solid DECADE as ND people watching the Irish get out of September with multiple losses. Never once did it feel like the season was “lost,” at least not with nine games to go.

JJ: And it’s certainly not lost for the 80+ players inside the Gug. Torii Hunter said this week that getting to 10 wins still would be a good accomplishment, and James Onwualu basically said that playing for personal pride should count for a lot.

KA: 10 wins would be an incredible season — no matter the year. It doesn’t happen all that often around here.

I’ll have you do the same thought-exercise I did this week: How much have you changed your expectations for the remaining schedule after seeing how straight-up bad this D is?

JJ: So I predicted 10 wins before the season, either through a 9-3 regular season + bowl win of 10-2 regular season + bowl loss. I think now, the 2013 team is about my expectation, probably 9-4.

KA: So a loss to Stanford and Miami and a win against USC?

JJ: And if Notre Dame is competitive with Stanford and beats Miami, I’ll be more willing to go back to my preseason prediction.

KA: At least Irish fans can enjoy the schadenfreude with USC.

JJ:  Miami is weird. Maybe that win that game and lose to NC State or Navy or Army or something.

KA: It’s nuts. Army looks downright terrifying. I actually think Syracuse’s up-tempo attack looks pretty scary, too.

JJ: Yeah, that’s a topic for next week. Fear the Babers.

KA:  Okay – let’s get positive here! Give me 3 things areas or players who’ll take a big step forward this weekend?

JJ: The O-line, the D-Line and DeShone Kizer. I think this O-line coalesces at some point — you have to trust the talent and Hiestand. The D-line has individually played well but not consistently as a unit. But I like what I’ve seen in spurts from Cage/Jones, Tillery and Rochell. And DeShone Kizer is very good and will only continue to grow on being very good.

KA:  I’ll give you mine: Big day on Special Teams (gonna get crazy and call for a block or 40+ yard return), the TRUE freshmen, and the pass rush. (First sack coming!)

JJ: It has to, right?

I’ll give you my projection: Notre Dame 42, Duke 27

KA: I’ll give you, ND 37, Duke 21.No cover. ND win.

Looks like a summer day this weekend in South Bend — don’t get too crazy drinking Tim O’Malley’s free Cherry Coke.

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?

What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

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Time spent on a traditional game wrap of a spring intrasquad exhibition seems misspent. Gold won Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game 27-14 led by rising sophomore quarterback Ian Book. The first-string defense (Gold) held the first-string offense to an average of 5.4 yards per play. For context’s sake: Last season Notre Dame gained an average of 6.1 yards per play and held opponents to 5.4.

With that abbreviated recap out of the way, what did Saturday’s pseudo-game environment show about the Irish? If the 20,147 in attendance paid attention, they had the chance to learn a few things:

Daelin Hayes will be ready to hit a quarterback in September
Notre Dame’s quarterbacks were off limits all spring. Bulls might charge when they see red, but the Irish defensive line has had to remember to ease up when they come across a quarterback’s red jersey. If sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes had forgotten that Saturday, Notre Dame might not have any quarterbacks left to play in the fall.

“At the end of the day, we’re on the same team,” Hayes said, dismissing any bitterness about the quarterbacks’ protections. “We have to keep our guys healthy. I wasn’t frustrated, but come September 2, you know.”

Officially, Hayes was credited with three sacks and another tackle for loss among his seven tackles. Admittedly, gauging sacks is tricky when the quarterback does not actually go to the ground. How many of Hayes’ three sacks and the defense’s 11 total would have been evaded if the defender needed to do more than touch the passer? That answer is highly subjective, but discounting Hayes’ numbers would miss the bigger picture.

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

Senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) notched two sacks and sophomore end Ade Ogundeji came the closest to tackling a red jersey when he stripped junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush from behind. The defensive line has been expected to be a weak point for the Irish moving forward, but the spring performance indicates it has a chance at holding its own. These accomplishments bear further merit considering Notre Dame’s offensive line is widely-considered one of its few spots of expected quality.

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

“I think it’s pretty clear Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I’d have to watch the film, but it seemed like [sophomore end] Julian Okwara was a hard guy to block coming off the edge, as well.”

Ian Book provides some peace of mind
Book was not spectacular, but he was also far from incompetent or intimidated. In his first action on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, Book completed 18-of-25 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by a 58-yard connection with sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. Meanwhile, junior Brandon Wimbush completed 22-of-32 passes for 303 yards.

Bluntly, one has not needed to follow Notre Dame for very long to fit that “long enough” qualification. Last season’s backup, Malik Zaire, saw competitive action against both Texas and Stanford. In 2015, DeShone Kizer came off the bench to start 11 games after Zaire suffered a season-ending ankle injury. (more…)

What Notre Dame players should you actually watch? Plus, catch up on reading

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If technology does its part, this will post as its typist meanders toward finding his credential for the Blue-Gold Game to conclude Notre Dame’s spring practice. If technology doesn’t do its part, well, then this will be lost to the cobwebs of the internet. Such as it goes.

This space has spent much of the past week discussing what to look for in the 12:30 p.m. ET exhibition. Worry about the big picture, not the individuals. Fret about the macro, not the micro.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the indivdual players
Blue-Gold Game primer with help from Notre Dame’s coordinators
Four defensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game
Four offensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game

But, if insistent on focusing on singular players, look to the inexperienced, the names you are unfamiliar with. The 15th and final practice of spring may be no more than a practice in reality, but it is in front of nearly 30,000 fans in Notre Dame Stadium. Some players do not have so much as that minimal experience.

“The Blue-Gold Game, specifically, is a time for us to emulate a game-like situation,” senior safety/linebacker/rover Drue Tranquill said. “Especially for guys like freshmen, second-semester guys coming in, it’s a great opportunity for them to get that game feeling, but also continue to take steps in the process to get better.”

The question on the tip of your tongue is a fair one. If you are unfamiliar with the names, how are you supposed to focus on those players? How are you to know who fits the appropriate tunnel vision version of perspective?

Let’s turn to Irish coach Brian Kelly’s mentions from Wednesday–primarily, sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara, sophomore long snapper John Shannon, senior kicker Sam Kohler, sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem and sophomore safety Jalen Elliott.

Obviously, that is just a sampling. Less obviously, this post’s purpose may or may not be to link to previous reading material and remind you of the vague but pertinent purposes to today’s endeavor. It is neither be-all nor end-all. It is simply another opportunity to gauge what may come down the line.

But hey, how about a prediction? Per Kelly, the first-team offense and second-team defense will be in blue, against the first-team defense and second-team offense in white.

PREDICTION: Blue 37, White 21

HOW TO WATCH
As a recurring reminder, the Blue-Gold Game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network, as well as streamed online at ndstream.nbcsports.com and on the NBC Sports app.

Friday at 4: Four offensive positions to watch in Notre Dame’s spring game

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There are two common ways of looking at the annual spring game.
It is the last action involving Notre Dame football readily available for public consumption until Sept. 2, 133 days away.
Or it is an exercise rife with contradiction exacerbated by hype, yielding little-to-no reliable intelligence.
Like much of life, the most accurate assessment falls somewhere between those two views.

If junior running back Dexter Williams breaks off two 50-yard-plus touchdown runs, does that mean he will have multiple big plays in 2017? Not at all. It does mean he will likely have more opportunities for them, though. Just like in spring’s previous 14 practices, the Irish coaches will take what they see and apply it moving forward.

The past—and as of Saturday evening, the Blue-Gold Game will qualify as the past—does not dictate the future, but it can influence one’s approach to it.

Aside from Williams (see the second item below for more on him and the running backs), what other players/positions could influence their future roles the most with their performance to close spring?

BIG PASSING TARGETS: Alizé Jones and Co.
In this instance, big is meant literally. Notre Dame has an embarrassment of riches of tall, long, physical tight ends and receivers. Junior Alizé Jones earns specific mention here due to his inaction last season. Irish fans and coaches alike have a better idea of sophomore receiver Chase Claypool and junior receiver Miles Boykin. They have 2016 film to look at.

Jones, however, sat out the season due to academic issues. His on-field performance largely remains a question mark, but if he combines this spring’s praise with his 6-foot-4 ½ frame holding 245 listed pounds, that could turn into an exclamation point.

“He’s a perfect fit,” new Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long said Friday. “That’s why I recruited him like crazy when I was at Arizona State. He’s a prototypical [tight end], a guy who can run, who can catch.

“The biggest thing about Alizé is he’s taking great pride in his blocking ability right now, his presence of being an end-line guy, his protection and his overall physicality. When you think like that, you’re going to become a better receiver.” (more…)