The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Syracuse

39 Comments

After a miserable September, the Irish kicked off October in a far more fitting fashion. Their 50-33 win, a much-needed victory after a week of chaos inside the Gug, hopefully served to settle down a program that has had to restructure its coaching staff and revise its goals before the season’s first month was finished.

While it’s a short-term band-aid if there ever was one, the victory gets the program back on course. It makes a bowl appearance more probably than not, and it gives a young Irish roster some positive affirmations.

So before we turn the page on the Orange, let’s take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly.

 

THE GOOD

Equanimeous St. BrownNotre Dame’s sophomore receiver is building confidence by the bushel. At least he should be. Because at a position where most expected the W to be the weakness, St. Brown is the Irish’s No. 1 receiver.

That leap was something that some saw coming after hints during a freshman season where St. Brown’s practice exploits were rumored. But a slow spring and the ascent of Kevin Stepherson in the spring had few talking about the sophomore. But with six touchdowns and 541 yards through four games, St. Brown is on track for a monster season.

 

Donte Vaughn. The true freshman cornerback led the defense in snaps, playing all 78 for the Irish. And for the most part he acquitted himself quite nicely.

The lanky, 6-foot-2 coverman spent a large portion of the afternoon matched up against Syracuse’s Amba Etta-Tawo, and for the most part he held him in check. That was a battle Brian Kelly seemed fairly comfortable about the freshman’s ability to hold up—so good that they slid Cole Luke inside to the nickel and kept Vaughn matched up with Syracuse’s most dangerous weapon, a guy putting up All-American numbers through the season’s first quarter.

Vaughn might have solidified a starting role for the remainder of the season.

 

Te’von Coney. Moved around the field, Coney was at his most impactful on Saturday afternoon, making seven official tackles and multiple times blowing up a play at the point of attack.

Schematically it was wonderful to see Coney moved all over the field, at times lining up over a wide receiver in a bunch formation, destroying blocks as the Orange tried to beat him with a few quick throws, all of which Coney did a great job covering.

Given the chance to start for Brian VanGorder after Greer Martini played a tough Texas game, Coney has struggled with consistency since then. But against Syracuse, he looked like the kind of “in space” linebacker who had very high expectations before this season.

 

Dexter WilliamsGiven the chance after a nice game against Duke, Williams made the most out of his opportunity—his 59-yard touchdown run a gain that salvaged the rushing attack.

It also turned the running back race on its head. Williams continues to move up the depth chart, likely closer to being the starter than the third-stringer at this point. And Kelly gave Williams credit for the development he’s shown on and off the field.

“He’s gotten bigger and stronger and faster, but where I see it is off the field. He’s grown in maturity, and I think that that’s translated itself on the field,” Kelly said on Sunday.

“He comes to practice every day with great energy and enthusiasm and I think that that has a lot to do with him being very comfortable here at Notre Dame. But let’s not mistake the fact that he’s also put on about 15 pounds. He’s explosive, and that’s all because he’s made that commitment to obviously Notre Dame and himself.”

 

The Big Chunk Offensive Plays. Equanimeous St. Brown, Dexter Williams and Kevin Stepherson all took big plays to the house. And those four scores did plenty to erase some of the other inefficiencies in the offensive performance.

A year after the Irish had the most explosive offense in school history, big plays won the day. And they were a sight for sore eyes. Even better? All three of these playmakers are underclassmen.

 

Quick Hits: 

* When Jay Hayes began to emerge as a starting candidate for the weakside starting defensive end position, it always seemed like a curious fit. That explains why Hayes was used differently this weekend, and still found a way to notch nearly two dozen snaps.

“He did some pretty good things. He’s a big physical kid,” Kelly said.

Kelly talked about Hayes’ challenge as a “tweener,” not quite a three-technique, and not really a weakside defensive end, either. But with the Irish needed to be tougher at the point of attack, Hayes gave them a boost.

* I’ve probably set the bar too high, but you’ve got to include DeShone Kizer in the “good” if he throws for the third-highest yardage total in school history. It wasn’t a perfect afternoon in the offense, but he made some really nice throws and he played a second half that Kelly really liked.

* The run defense took a nice step forward, limiting big plays and featuring some impressive work by Nyles Morgan, Daniel Cage, James Onwualu and Coney.  Making Syracuse one-dimensional was key and credit the Irish front seven for doing that.

* Jarron Jones is the best kick blocker I’ve watched. His ability to both get a push and use his length to elevate sure is a nice luxury. That two-point swing was huge.

* You can’t get done with the good without mentioning Greg Hudson. It must’ve been a great week for the former Notre Dame linebacker who did a great job being a team player this week.

 

THE BAD

The Slow Start on Defense. It looked like things were headed in a very bad direction after watching the defense the first two series. Quick strike touchdowns. Free runners streaking vertically through the secondary. And whatever changes dialed up midweek looked like bad ideas.

But the Irish found their footing and actually had a pretty impressive outing, especially in the second half. But what a crazy start to the football game—with points hitting the board like a pinball machine.

 

The Run Blocking. It’s going to be an important week for Harry Hiestand’s troops. Because North Carolina State has a solid defensive line—much better than Syracuse. And take away two big runs and the Irish ground game was really mediocre, getting no push in the trenches and failing to win as they attacked the edges of the Orange defense.

Colin McGovern tapped out as he tried to fight through a high-ankle sprain. Hunter Bivin was the next man in and struggled at times. Alex Bars got noticed a few times for the wrong reasons, too.

If this season has done anything, it’s served as a reminder that last year’s offensive line was incredible and that the Irish miss first-rounder Ronnie Stanley and second-rounder Nick Martin.

 

The False Start Penalties. The next guy to jump offsides on 3rd-and-less-than-five should get stuck carrying the dirty laundry back to campus. Notre Dame’s defensive front—certainly a group eager to impressive—wasn’t all that sharp on Eric Dungey’s hard count.

New Rule: If you can pass admissions at Notre Dame, you should be able to watch the football and not bite on the hard count on 3rd-and-short.

 

The targeting penalty. Devin Studstill getting thrown out of the game—after a replay official triggered the review—was all the worst parts of a rule that seems to be good sense, but rarely gets properly enforced.

Listening to Kelly postgame, you could hear a head coach who was clearly frustrated, with the loss of Studstill a huge impact on an already young and inexperienced secondary.

“He was definitely not targeting. I don’t understand the rule,” Kelly said.

 

 

THE UGLY

That was one ugly win. And that’s a good thing. Because for the past few seasons we’ve had a hard time remembering that an ugly win is a good thing, and too often we’ve gotten wrapped up in style points as most struggled to enjoy Saturdays where the Irish sang the fight song postgame but didn’t play up to their potential.

Well, one terrible September goes a long way toward a remedy.

With next weekend’s kickoff set for noon, the Irish dodge a primetime bullet that usually comes with a highly-ranked Irish team going on the road. That’s mostly a good thing, especially if the Wolfpack—and their fans— find themselves a little slow rolling out of bed.

But at this point, there’s no such thing as a bad win. So good, bad, or ugly—any way to get it done will be good enough for this crew.

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

Getty Images
6 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
18 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
9 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.

Te’o to New Orleans; Booker to Nebraska

Getty Images
4 Comments

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.