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Pregame Six Pack: Into the storm

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As Hurricane Matthew hits the Southeast, the Irish head to Raleigh. And after a week of contingency plans and storm tracking, the focus now changes decidedly—winning a football game that’ll present a new set of challenges for the Irish.

We’ve seen monsoon conditions. We’ve seen must-win weekends. And we’ve seen the Irish try and play good football in hostile environments. And even if nobody is going to confuse Carter-Finley Stadium with Clemson’s Memorial Stadium, the 50-year anniversary of the home of the Wolf Pack will have the NC State faithful ready to make things difficult.

A week after moving on from Brian VanGorder and emergency installing a game plan for Syracuse, Brian Kelly and his young team face another big challenge. Finding a way to even their record to 3-3 on the road against a team with plenty of talent.

Let’s get to the pregame sick pack.

 

Can the young Irish secondary play mistake free and still challenge Ryan Finley and the NC State passing game? 

Notre Dame’s secondary made some sweeping changes last week, a relative youth movement in effect with Troy Pride, Julian Love and Donte Vaughn sliding in at cornerback. And after a tough start against Syracuse, the unit settled in and played solid football, re-emerging as a basic-concept unit that went back to the basics to beat an offense that moved quickly and challenged vertically.

But that type of tweak won’t be enough against NC State. Not with Ryan Finley completing 72 percent of his passes and the Boise State transfer still to throw an interception. Not with Eli Drinkwitz’s tweaked scheme.

So after making it out of intro-level installation, the big question will be Notre Dame’s ability to make progress while also guarding against mental mistakes—not to mention an advanced offensive scheme.

“They’re a spot-passing team. They’re really good at getting into open spaces. They have really good concepts that stress your defense,” Kelly explained this week.

“You can’t be a vanilla coverage team. You have to show them different looks. Or they’ll just wear you out. You can’t get off the field. You can’t just line up like ducks or you’re going to be on the field all day.”

Last week the Irish were pressed into a tight situation when freshman Devin Studstill was ejected for a controversial targeting call. That forced Nicco Fertitta onto the field for his first substantial playing time, the diminutive sophomore holding up as a two-deep safety.

But if the Irish want to take their next step forward defensively, they’ll need to incorporate a few strategic wrinkles while also protecting the freshmen that’ll inhabit just about every high-leverage position on the field.

Julian Love thinks they’re ready.

“I think our confidence is growing each day,” Love told CSN Chicago’s JJ Stankevitz. “At first we were nervous but now when we step on the field, we feel natural and it’s something that we’ve all worked for and we’re building off each other.”

 

Don’t tell Brian Kelly that his offensive line is struggling. 

While Notre Dame’s struggle in the trenches against Syracuse was noticeable, the results were never in doubt. That’s because the Irish posted 50-points, moving the ball at will through the air as DeShaun Kizer had the school record for passing yards in his sights before taking his foot off the gas.

It was easy to ignore some inconsistency in the ground game when Josh Adams and Dexter Williams broke long runs. So when Kelly was asked what’s ailing a running game that most expect to be more dominant, Kelly didn’t just look at the five starters up front, he looked at the massive roster turnover on the offensive side of the ball.

“We got seven new starters. There’s a lot of new pieces,” Kelly said.”I guess there’s definitely inconsistencies, but I wouldn’t throw it on the offensive line. I’d throw it on perimeter blocking, I’d throw it on decision making; coaching. There’s a lot of factors there.

“The right side is evolving. Half or two-thirds there are still coming together. They’re getting better. Those are two really good players on the left side, I think everybody knows that. One guy or two guys don’t make an offensive line.”

Colin McGovern will be back in the starting lineup, his high ankle sprain healthy enough. And while there’s certainly credence to the moving pieces that Kelly references, a tough war in the trenches will be on display as the Wolf Pack’s defensive front is the most disruptive the Irish have faced this season.

 

DeShone Kizer, from an opponent’s perspective. 

Mike McGlinchey has pledged to return for 2017. DeShone Kizer has made no such declaration, an NFL evaluation still evolving, and a choice that might be too hard to turn down.

But as we sort out the superlatives that have come from the mock draft community and an echo chamber that sometime’s runs away from reality, Wolf Pack head coach Dave Doeren had this appraisal of the Irish’s third-year quarterback.

“Well, he’s got really good talent around him, to start,” Doeren said. “They protect him well. He’s only been sacked twice. He’s got an offensive system that is well run. They give him a lot of opportunities to throw the ball down the field and guys make plays for him.

“As far as him personally, I think he’s a very accurate deep ball thrower. He’s tough, he takes some shots, but puts the ball right on the money. And he’s competed on a big stage for a long time, so I think he’s got good poise.”

 

 

The defensive basics will start by slowing down running back Matt Dayes

If beating Syracuse felt like scheming against an option attack, stopping NC State may sound easier, but it presents a bigger challenge. Namely, Wolf Pack running back Matt Dayes.

After having a big 2015 season derailed by injuries, Dayes is back. He’s gone over 100 yards in three of four starts and is the focal point of Kelly’s as his defense tries to master its musts.

“They’ve got a really diversified offensive scheme. I think, number one, you can’t give up big play runs,” Kelly said. “I think Matt Dayes is a game breaker. I think he can definitely be a difference maker in this game.”

That means the focus is on Notre Dame’s front seven, and the work we’ll see from Daniel Cage, Jarron Jones, Nyles Morgan and Isaac Rochell will set the tone.

Because slowing down Dayes is the start. The Irish also need to find a way to limit Stephen Louis in the passing game. The 6-foot-2 sophomore has made some big plays, averaging more than 25 yards a touch against East Carolina and Wake Forest and is very difficult to tackle.

“I think those two guys are really key to their offense,” Kelly said. “Finley is very smart and a very good quarterback. But Dayes and Louis are the guys that we have to focus on.”

 

 

Can the Irish defense shut down a competent quarterback?

All respect given to Dayes and Louis, but Notre Dame’s defense has made a lot of mediocre quarterbacks look like All-Americans. And Ryan Finley is no mediocre quarterback.

The Boise State transfer came east with offensive coordinator Eli Drinkwitz, both leaving the Broncos to join Dave Doeren. And after both his freshman and sophomore seasons were ruined by injuries, Finley—who graduated in three years from Boise State—now has three years of eligibility in Raleigh.

“He is a great manager,” Doeren said last week, according to Blue & Gold. “He knows Coach [Drinkwitz], he understands why he does what he does and does a good job managing that part of the offense.

“He puts us in the right place a lot of times. I’ve said it many times. He throws a very catchable ball and he gets it out quick and allows his players to make plays. That’s the best thing a quarterback can do is get the ball to the right people quickly and let them do their thing. He’s done that repetitively and he’ll continue to get better because he’s a critic of himself and he works out it.”

Irish offensive coordinator Mike Sanford knows both Finley and Drinkwitz from his year in Boise, though Kelly downplayed any help that might give the Irish staff. But winning might require the Irish defense to make Finley play down this weekend, something we haven’t seen from an opposing quarterback too often these past two seasons under Brian VanGorder.

 

Rain + Special Teams + Turnovers = All causes for concern. 

No, that’s not an exact equation. But any time rain—and multiple inches are forecasted—is part of a football game, it’s time to restate the obvious. Mainly, the Irish need to make sure that the weather doesn’t impact their game.

That means taking great care of the football. That means being clean on special teams. And it means making sure that any huge game-changing plays are forced, not suffered.

Rewind back to last year at Clemson and the Irish didn’t get out clean. The Irish had four turnovers, with three fumbles lost, in a game where only two points made the difference.

With Justin Yoon and Tyler Newsome off to a slow start, with CJ Sanders making some big plays but Scott Booker’s coverage unit giving up a few as well, the basics are going to be a big part of the story.

Even if Hurricane Matthew’s impact isn’t going to be as bad as first feared, heavy rain is almost guaranteed. And on natural Bermuda grass, expect a sloppy track.

So the Irish, a 2-3 team that has struggled to do the ordinary things well, needs to play cleaner than the Wolf Pack to win.

Notre Dame’s 2018 defense bolstered with Coney & Tillery returns

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Notre Dame’s defense found some stability last week with the promotion of linebackers coach Clark Lea to defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Mike Elston to associate head coach following Mike Elko’s abrupt departure, but only some stability.

That foundation is much more solid now after the Irish announced the returns of both junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery on Monday.

Both Coney and Tillery enjoyed noticeable developmental progress in one year under Elko.  Coney totaled a whopping 116 tackles to lead Notre Dame, far and away his best season. Among those takedowns, he managed 13 for loss, including three sacks. Tillery, meanwhile, led the Irish with 4.5 sacks this season, adding another 4.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble.

Notre Dame’s defensive tackle situation may have bordered on dire if not for the return of junior Jerry Tillery. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

With Lea and Elston sticking around, Coney and Tillery are well-positioned for even further growth. If nothing else, they will step into starring roles in a rather complete front seven.

Notre Dame loses senior linebackers Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini, as well as senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner and senior defensive end Andrew Trumbetti. If Coney and Tillery had joined that group, the front seven would have been rife with unproven commodities and little depth. Instead, Coney will fill in at linebacker, meaning only one youngster will need to step forward, and Tillery will headline a defensive line surging under Elston.

After amassing 17 tackles in the Citrus Bowl victory over LSU, Coney insisted he had not yet put much consideration into his future.

“I’m just right now still focused on the win,” he said. “We just got this 10th win. I’m just trying to soak up the moment. This is a great moment. … Focusing on that and the win and enjoying it with my brothers.”

Those words combined with Elko’s sudden departure for Texas A&M made Coney’s return seem unlikely. His breakout season at least placed him into NFL draft conversations and capitalizing on that chance would have made a good amount of logical sense.

With Lea in his ear for another season, Coney will have a chance to become more than a physical player excelling in run defense and develop his coverage skills. Coney and senior Drue Tranquill will lead an otherwise lacking linebacker corps.

Sophomores Jonathan and Jamir Jones (no relation) made 10 and four tackles, respectively, this year. Jonathan saw more playing time on defense, occasionally spelling senior Nyles Morgan, but has not yet looked the part of an every-down contributor. Irish coach Brian Kelly has previously admitted to considering a move to defensive line for Jamir, but that unit’s progression made that position shift less of a necessity.

If any of the incoming four linebackers or the two current freshmen, David Adams or Drew White, were to emerge, however, such a move may become an available luxury. Only Tillery’s return makes it a genuine luxury, though.

Tillery’s 56 tackles this year showed a level of consistency not seen in his first two seasons. His length alone makes Tillery an intriguing draft prospect. Logically speaking, a second season of such production, if not even increased output, should further his professional hopes. By returning along with Elston, the player/coach combination will provide experience to a position group otherwise devoid of it. With Bonner having said he will not return, Tillery and current freshmen Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish are the only returning defensive tackles of contributory note.

Freshman Darnell Ewell will also certainly enter the rotation after spending 2017 preserving a year of eligibility. Juniors Micah Dew-Treadway and Brandon Tiassum will be in the mix, as well. Incoming freshmen consensus four-star defensive tackle Jayson Ademiloloa (St. Peter’s Prep; Jersey City, N.J.) and consensus three-star defensive tackle Ja’Mion Franklin (North Caroline High School; Ridgely, Md.) will complete the fray.

Reports on Monday indicate junior Elijah Taylor will leave Notre Dame after missing 2017 with a LisFranc fracture suffered in spring practice. He appeared in four games in 2016, making four tackles including one for loss. More than anything else, his departure is a step toward reaching the NCAA maximum of 85 rostered players. With Coney and Tillery returning but Taylor departing, the Irish roster currently stands at 86 players, though a few more recruits may be added. (This does not count sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson, indefinitely suspended and presumed not likely to play for Notre Dame in 2018.)

Monday’s Leftovers: Coney & Tillery once enrolled early at Notre Dame, now to the NFL or not?

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Today marks two occasions. It is the day before Notre Dame begins its spring semester. In other words, it is the day before this year’s seven early enrollees begin classes. It is also the deadline for early entrants to file for the NFL draft.

There are two common threads to the separate events. Junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery both enrolled early in 2015, and they have both delayed their stay-or-go decisions to today.

With the early signing period’s implementation, the former date holds less import. These players have already signed with the Irish. Gone are the days of putting down a drink and racing to a computer after finding a source to confirm a consensus five-star quarterback’s early arrival. With an early signing period, Gunner Kiel likely would have been bound to at least begin his career at LSU in the spring of 2012, rather than show up on Notre Dame’s campus at the 11th hour.

The tangible value of arriving early can still hold legitimacy, but that theoretical does not become much of a reality until spring practice commences, anyway.

Junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery (99) will need to decide today if he will head to the NFL Draft or return for his senior year. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

So an early enrollee summary can wait until tomorrow’s first day of classes. In the meantime, breathes remain baited waiting for the decisions from Coney and Tillery. Will they return for a year under first-time defensive coordinator Clark Lea, or follow the lead of running back Josh Adams and receiver Equanimeous St. Brown and head for the NFL?

As has been discussed and seems rather obvious, both Coney and Tillery would greatly boost the 2018 Irish defense. They would also both likely hear their names called in the NFL draft, so there is merit to whatever option each chooses.

— As it pertains to the early enrollees, the measureable benefit of the semester’s head start can be debated. In looking at the last three classes, it has appeared to have great effect with a few of the freshmen, but not for most.

2015: Tillery, Coney, defensive lineman Micah Dew-Treadway, offensive lineman Tristen Hoge.
2016: Safety Devin Studstill, receiver Kevin Stepherson, defensive end Daelin Hayes, defensive end Khalid Kareem, safety Spencer Perry.
2017: Offensive lineman Robert Hainsey, tight end Brock Wright, running back C.J. Holmes, safety Isaiah Robertson, offensive lineman Aaron Banks.

Of those 14, Tillery, Studstill, Stepherson and Hainsey offered genuine contributions in their debut seasons.

Tillery started three games in 2015, appearing in all 12, making 12 tackles with one sack. More than the counting statistics, the depth Tillery provided at defensive tackle was an absolute necessity.

As injuries and suspensions purged the Irish secondary just before the 2016 season’s start, Studstill was forced into a starting role. He finished the year with 38 tackles, an interception and a forced fumble. He was not yet ready to be a collegiate starting safety, but he was needed to be, and the time spent going through the paces in the spring provided Studstill enough of a base to be somewhat serviceable from the outset.

Stepherson broke out as a deep threat right away — a likelihood with or without an early enrollment simply due to his speed. In his only complete season with the Irish, Stepherson caught 25 passes for 462 yards and five touchdowns.

Hainsey’s impact was far and away the most distinct. He went from the second most-heralded early-enrolled offensive lineman to a starter at right tackle. That surge puts Hainsey in pole position to start at left tackle in 2018. He may have ended up there, anyway, but the freshman first played a pivotal role on the best offensive line in the country.

— It would not be a site dedicated to football if it did not include some mention of the Minnesota Vikings’ victory Sunday evening. Some adjective should precede victory in the previous sentence, but no quick combination encapsulates just how absurd, dramatic and, per the quickly-adhered catchphrase, miraculous the conclusion was.

Stefon Diggs’ game-winning touchdown may not have been as excellent as Irish receiver Miles Boykin’s was in the Citrus Bowl if compared in a vacuum, but Diggs’ score came with no time remaining on the clock, while Boykin’s was merely an excellent play that if failed, other chances would have followed.

Of course, being the Vikings, the Notre Dame connection is thorough.

— A thought experiment sparked by that Minneapolis tangent … The Minnesota Timberwolves played their first game in franchise history Nov. 3, 1989, meaning it has endured a title drought the exact same length as the Irish have.

Which wins its respective championship first?

9-win, 30-TD quarterbacks like Wimbush are rare; Links to read

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It is not easy to win nine or 10 games in one season. It is not easy for Notre Dame, for any team, and it is not easy for a quarterback.

If granting the premise the Irish would have won at North Carolina if junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush had not sprained his foot the weekend beforehand, then Wimbush indeed notched nine wins this season. That does not credit him with the Citrus Bowl victory over LSU, though it is certainly possible he would have found a way to win that game, too.

In doing so, Wimbush accounted for 30 touchdowns, 16 through the air and 14 through the ground.

Those two facts alone will guarantee Wimbush a chance to start at quarterback for Notre Dame on Sept. 1, as they should. After all, how many nine-win quarterbacks were there in 2017? How many players scored 30 combined touchdowns? Not many.

Obviously there will always be a Baker Mayfield or a Lamar Jackson, but consistent and frequent production is not as easy as the two Heisman winners make it seem. If narrowing the focus to Power Five teams, only 21 quarterbacks won nine games this season. That should probably bump to 22 out of deference to McKenzie Milton leading Central Florida to an undefeated season.

It bears noting the Irish faced six of those quarterbacks: Georgia’s Jake Fromm (13 wins) USC’s Sam Darnold (11), Michigan State’s Brian Lewerke (10), Miami’s Malik Rosier (10), North Carolina State and Ryan Finley (9), and LSU with Danny Etling (9).

Again keeping the field to the Power Five conferences with an exemption for the 13-0 Knights, only 14 players managed 30 total touchdowns, including Wake Forest quarterback John Wolford (29 passing, 10 rushing).

Between the two lists, just nine quarterbacks can claim both:
McKenzie Milton, Central Florida: 13 wins; 37 passing touchdowns, eight rushing.
Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma: 12 wins; 43 passing, five rushing.
J.T. Barrett, Ohio State: 12 wins; 35 passing, 12 rushing.
Trace McSorley, Penn State: 11 wins; 28 passing, 11 rushing.
Sam Darnold, USC: 11 wins; 26 passing, five rushing.
Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State: 10 wins; 37 passing, 10 rushing.
Malik Rosier, Miami (FL): 10 wins; 26 passing, five rushing.
Brandon Wimbush, Notre Dame: 9 wins; 16 passing, 14 rushing.
Luke Falk, Washington State: 9 wins; 30 passing.

This is not to say Wimbush should have an easy path to the starting gig for 2018. Before a long offseason of quarterback headlines and interminable debates, this is to say Wimbush has produced enough he will and should get his chance, despite any late-season struggles and obviously-needed improvements. Underselling Wimbush’s 2017 serves no point but to offer an exceptionally-flawed argument.

A FUN BIT OF TRIVIA:
No NFL team has both hosted the Super Bowl and played a divisional playoff game at home in the same year. The Minnesota Vikings will do just that Sunday (4:40 p.m. ET; v. New Orleans; FOX), as the Super Bowl will be at U.S. Bank Stadium in a few weeks. Some might deem the Vikings as “Notre Dame North” thanks to their reliance on former Irish safety Harrison Smith, tight end Kyle Rudolph and — less of a reliance, to be accurate — receiver Michael Floyd.

That is not the piece of trivia, though.

Stanford Stadium hosted the 1985 Super Bowl, with the San Francisco 49ers beating the Miami Dolphins.

Anyone who has been to a Notre Dame game at Stanford can use that fact to realize in a tangible manner just how much the NFL has grown in the last three decades. The idea of the world’s largest entertainment event being held at The Farm is genuinely beyond fathoming for those of a certain generation, this scribe included.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Monday’s Leftovers: On Notre Dame’s dual needs at defensive coordinator and those effects
Notre Dame promoting Lea & Elston bodes well for at least the short term
Harry Hiestand leaves Notre Dame on good terms and in good shape
A quick breakdown of Notre Dame’s offensive roster

OUTSIDE READING:
Jack Lamb on Clark Lea: “best possible choice” for Notre Dame
Clark Lea’s promotion was a win for continuity, and one Notre Dame sorely needed
Optimism for Notre Dame football in 2018 starts with the Irish defense
Irish ‘feel really good’ about O-line in ‘18
In Harry Hiestand, Matt Nagy hits a home run on his first swing at Bears’ coaching staff
Notre Dame’s Moore Award personal for Taylor
What happens if the Vikings reach Super Bowl LII? Expect plenty of logistical challenges

Editor’s Note: Yes, the above quarterback bit was originally intended to run a bit longer in the weekly “Friday at 4” slot, but the timing did not fit last week with the defensive coordinator shift and the time was not at hand this week to get the piece put together as “Friday at 4” dictates.

Then again, stalling for a day creates another day of halfway-worthwhile content in a time of year that is devoid of much substance, aside from coaching changes, transfers, NFL declarations, et al.

And in the spirit of “Friday at 4,” how great would it be to have Dr. Stephen Strange as a weekend partner in figurative crime?

A quick breakdown of Notre Dame’s offensive roster

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While Notre Dame awaits stay-or-go decisions from junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, its offensive side of the roster is set … for now. As was briefly discussed in the most-recent “Monday’s Leftovers,” the Irish roster is currently at 87 players. That could rise as high as 90 if the incoming recruiting class rounds up to 25 signees and both Coney and Tillery return for the 2018 season.

A quick, even terse, look at the offense can provide reference for conversations and debates at both the virtual and real-world bar as the roster sheds a handful of players.

A couple quick notes: The order of this listing is not intended to stake a stance on positional competitions (cough quarterback cough). This is simply presenting the options available moving forward.

The designations following each of the 10 receivers are inherently speculative. With junior Equanimeous St. Brown declaring for the NFL and sophomore Kevin Stepherson not expected to be around next season, Notre Dame will need to tinker and experiment with receiver alignments throughout the offseason.

To a degree, the same goes for the offensive linemen, particularly among the backups. Rarely is there a genuine second-unit. Rather, one or two utility options will serve as backups for the whole line.

Quarterback (4):
Jr. Brandon Wimbush
So. Ian Book
Fr. Avery Davis
Incoming fr. Phil Jurkovec

Running back (5):
Jr. Dexter Williams
So. Tony Jones
So. Deon McIntosh
Fr. C.J. Holmes
Inc. fr. Jahmir Smith

Receiver (10):
Jr. Miles Boykin (field)
So. Chase Claypool (boundary)
Fr. Michael Young (slot)
Sr. Freddy Canteen (slot)
So. Jafar Armstrong (field)
So. Javon McKinley (boundary)
Jr. Chris Finke (slot)
Inc. fr. Braden Lenzy (slot)
Inc. fr. Kevin Austin (boundary)
Inc. fr. Micah Jones (field)

Tight end (6):
Jr. Alizé Mack
Sr. Nic Weishar
Fr. Cole Kmet
Fr. Brock Wright
Inc. fr. George Takacs
Inc. fr. Tommy Tremble

Offensive line (12):
Fr. Robert Hainsey (LT)
Fr. Josh Lugg (LG)
Sr. Sam Mustipher (C)
Sr. Alex Bars (RG)
So. Tommy Kraemer (RT)
So. Liam Eichenberg (T)
Fr. Aaron Banks (G)
Jr. Trevor Ruhland (G, C)
Fr. Dillan Gibbons (G)
Inc. fr. Cole Mabry (G)
Inc. fr. John Dirksen (G)
Inc. fr. Luke Jones (T, committed, not signed)

Specialists (4):
Jr. Justin Yoon (PK)
Sr. Tyler Newsome (P)
So. John Shannon (LS)
Fr. Jonathan Doerer (KO)