Getty

And in that corner… The North Carolina State Wolf Pack

26 Comments

Notre Dame is off to Raleigh on Friday—hopefully ahead of Hurricane Matthew. The Irish look to square their record at 3-3 and do so against a talented North Carolina State team that suffered a disappointing early-season loss to East Carolina.

A game that this offseason may have had the makings of a trap no longer has a chance at being overlooked, not with every weekend vital and not with the major midseason changes already taking place in the defensive team room. It’s also taken a huge turn towards the Wolf Pack, who opened as three-point underdogs but now appear to be field goal favorites in Las Vegas.

To get us ready for Dave Doeren’s team, we welcome in Daniel Lacy. A senior at North Carolina State who is majoring in sports management and minoring in journalism, Daniel writes for the student newspaper, the Technician, and is in his second semester as the sports editor.

I asked and Daniel answered. Hope we all enjoy.

 

 

When Tom O’Brien was replaced by Dave Doeren four years ago, NC State brass wanted to take the football program to the next level. Yet after two stellar seasons at Northern Illinois, Doreen’s success in Raleigh has been far more modest.

What are expectations for this year? And how stable do you think Doeren is as he gets into the meat of his 2016 schedule — a daunting stretch run?

Last season, expectations were sky-high, with some talks of NC State being a 10-win team. It fell well short of that, partially due to the midseason losses of its two star running backs — Shadrach Thornton before ACC play after he was kicked off the team and Matt Dayes in the eighth game of the season against Clemson after he sustained a season-ending foot injury. Therefore, expectations were not nearly as high coming into this season, especially with a more formidable nonconference schedule that features Notre Dame and ECU rather than last year’s slate that featured all cupcake games in Troy, Eastern Kentucky, Old Dominion and South Alabama. Based on the tough schedule and loss of a few key seniors, expectations are that the Wolfpack most likely won’t surpass last season’s 7-6 record, and that six wins would be optimal for the team.

As for Doeren, I haven’t personally heard anything about his job being on the line other than the upset fan base after the loss to ECU. But if I had to guess, I would say that his job is safe for now, especially if the team goes .500. You’re absolutely right about the schedule though, it is a tough road ahead for the Pack. It faces Notre Dame, Clemson, Louisville and Florida State in four of the next five weeks before closing the season against Miami and UNC. Getting to .500 will not be as easy as it might sound on the surface, or as it has been in the past two seasons for this team.

Ryan Finley certainly has to be viewed as a nice surprise this season, the Boise State transfer flashing an impressive 9:0 TD:INT ratio, while completing 72 percent of his throws. What’s the Wolfpack offense look like with Eli Drinkowitz at the helm? How much trouble do you think they’ll give a Notre Dame offense that found only modest success last weekend with interim coach Greg Hudson at defensive coordinator?

The offense under Drinkwitz has looked much more efficient and moves at a faster pace. He has done a good job of working to his players’ strengths, and Finley has really thrived in his offense up to this point.

It also seems to features the wide receivers more, as Stephen Louis already has over 300 receiving yards on the season, while last year’s No. 1 wideout, Jumichael Ramos, finished with only 457. As long as it gets its playmakers involved, namely Dayes, Louis and Jaylen Samuels, this could end up being a high-scoring game.

 

Irish fans might not realize it, but this Wolfpack defense has a good looking front seven and a talented defense — featuring Josh Jones, Arius Moore, Kentavias Street and Darian Roseboro.

While the schedule hasn’t featured an offense as good as Notre Dame’s, how good can this defense be? And where do you expect the Irish to try to attack it?

The defensive line is definitely the strength of NC State’s defense, with the two guys you mentioned paired with the other three starters — juniors Bradley Chubb, B.J. Hill and Justin Jones — forming a rock-solid unit. It held Wake Forest to under 70 rushing yards and has nine sacks in the last two games, so as long as the D-line keeps performing at this level, it makes the whole defense better.

That being said, Notre Dame will surely attack the defense through the air. NC State’s pass defense struggled last year, and the loss of two starters in the secondary from last season — Juston Burris, a fourth-round draft pick, and Hakim Jones — hasn’t helped to start this season. It has improved marginally on the surface, but will undoubtedly be tested over the next few weeks.

 

From a playmaking perspective, running back Matthew Dayes has already broken 100 yards in three of the first four games. Jaylen Samuels seems like a unique weapon as well, with seven offensive touchdowns already.

Is this the best offensive personnel (excluding Jacoby Brissett) Doeren has had in Raleigh since he’s taken over?

This is a tough one. In 2014, NC State had a three-headed monster (Tony Creecy, Thornton and Dayes) in the backfield to go with Bo Hines at wideout and David Grinnage as a good red-zone target. Last year, Thornton, Dayes and Samuels all looked terrific at the beginning of the season, but as I previously mentioned, Thornton and Dayes weren’t playing by the end of the season. It also lost three starting offensive linemen from last season. If everything stays intact, this could end up being the best group of offensive playmakers in the Doeren era.

Dayes and Samuels might be the two most talented players on the entire team. Dayes has been a workhorse and the team leans on him for success. Samuels is listed as a tight end, but can line up just about anywhere on offense and is particularly dangerous on jet sweeps, shovel passes or swing passes where he has space to operate, and as you mentioned, he is great in the redzone, with seven touchdowns so far this season and 16 last season. Finley and Louis have both been nice surprises, but Notre Dame will be their biggest test yet.

 

Notre Dame opened as slight favorites, with the line moving in NC State’s direction. With an early kickoff and the Irish off to a disappointing start, this game doesn’t necessarily have the high profile nature both problems probably hoped for. How important is this visit for Wolfpack fans, only the second time these programs have played, and the first since the 2003 Gator Bowl?

This is a very important game for fans. NC State will be wearing throwback uniforms as it celebrates the 50th anniversary of the team playing in Carter-Finley Stadium. Like you said, these two teams have rarely played each other in the past, so this could be a once in a lifetime opportunity for Wolfpack fans and I’m sure they’d love to top off the experience by seeing a win.

 

If the Wolfpack win, give me a reason on offense and defense why it happens. If they lose, same thing.

And if you’re feeling generous, do you have a prediction?

If it wins, on offense, it will have needed contributions from all of its playmakers. Finley continues to be consistent and careful with the football, Dayes rushes for over 100 yards, Samuels gets a pair of touchdowns and Louis gets around 80 receiving yards.

Defensively, its pass defense can’t allow DeShone Kizer to get going. Part of the reason the Wolfpack lost to ECU was because Philip Nelson completed 33 of 43 pass attempts for 297 yards. It needs to limit Kizer and maybe force a couple turnovers.

If it loses, it would be because the Wolfpack couldn’t get Dayes going on offense. As I said previously, the team leans on him for success. Last week, Wake Forest cut the lead to 10 and had the momentum leaning in its direction going into the fourth quarter. This was largely because Dayes only got one carry in the third quarter, causing the offense to sputter and open a door for Wake to climb back into the game. It can’t afford not to get Dayes involved against a much better Notre Dame team.

Defensively, it would’ve allowed Kizer to get going both through the air and on the ground. NC State has struggled against dual-threat quarterbacks in the past couple years, namely Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, UNC’s Marquise Williams and Boston College’s Tyler Murphy (back when the latter two were still in school), particularly against the zone-read. NC State has yet to face a dynamic dual-threat quarterback, but it could be the deciding factor in each of its next three games as it faces Kizer, Watson and Louisville’s Lamar Jackson in the next three weeks.

Score Prediction: 41-31 Notre Dame. Both of these teams were expected to enter this game undefeated, but neither has been good as expected. Because of this, NC State has a shot at keeping it close, but simply hasn’t fared well enough against teams of Notre Dame’s caliber in the past few years under Doeren to convince me that it has a shot at the upset.

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

Getty Images
1 Comment

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
6 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.

Pace of play: More snaps equal more scoring chances, right?

Getty Images
28 Comments

It seems obvious enough: The more plays an offense runs, the more chances it has to score.

Sure, there is more to it than that, but the basic premise really is that simple. Ten more snaps equal 10 more opportunities at the end zone. Increasing Notre Dame’s tempo in that pursuit is not only part of why Irish coach Brian Kelly hired new offensive coordinator Chip Long, but it is also a primary emphasis of spring practice.

When Kelly announced Long’s hiring, he discussed simplifying play calls to increase pacing.

“Within our offensive system, we want to run more plays,” he said. “…There needs to be some retooling within the offensive nomenclature to be able to go to the level we want to.”

The day before spring practice began, Kelly again mentioned the correlation between lexicon and quickness of play.

“If tempo can be introduced in our offense, it has to be introduced at the ground level,” he said. “…I think with some of the things that we’ve been able to do offensively, with verbiage and nomenclature, I believe that we’ll be able to pick up the tempo even more.”

And following that first practice, one of Kelly’s first comments touched on—you guessed it—tempo.

“We were really looking at tempo on our offense,” he said. “I think we achieved that. To go fast and be sloppy is certainly not the end, but to be able to run a little bit more tempo with our offense and be effective in execution was really the most important thing.”

With the Irish returning to the practice field tomorrow (Wednesday) following spring break, the stress on speed will undoubtedly continue. Just how much of an increase can be expected of Long’s offense?

Last season, Notre Dame averaged 68.83 plays per game, in line with an average of 68.9 in Kelly’s seven years leading the Irish and similar to his average of 67.5 in three seasons at Cincinnati.

In his first and only season leading his own offense, Long averaged 74.15 plays per game at Memphis in 2016. Admittedly, one season is a small sample size, especially considering the variables prone to tilting any single college football game.

It does not take a perilous leap of faith to conclude Long picked up a good amount of offensive strategy and thinking during his four seasons as tight ends coach in Todd Graham’s Arizona State offense. More accurately, Long presumably learned from Mike Norvell, the offensive coordinator during that stretch in Tempe who then brought Long with him when Norvell took the job as head coach at Memphis.

During their shared seasons at Arizona State, Norvell and Long coached an offense that averaged 78.47 plays per game. Combine that figure with the aforementioned Memphis figure and the math yields a five-year average of 77.62 plays per game, nearly nine plays per game more than Notre Dame managed over the same stretch.

Will that be seen in 2017? The more-pertinent question may be, will it be seen in 32 days in the Blue-Gold Game? Kelly has said it will be Long’s offense to run, and April 22 will be the first chance to see that in effect.

“When I was at Cincinnati, I was the guy, I was running it by myself,” Kelly said before spring practice commenced. “I think going back to [that] is the most efficient way to do it, and get out of the way and let Chip run it.”


As has quickly become something of a norm in this space below is a listing of the stats condensed above. Before that, though, one quick note: Keep an eye on Memphis’s offense again this season. It returned the vast majority of its firepower, and Norvell will not hesitate to turn up the pressure on opposing defenses. The Tigers should be very entertaining.

(more…)