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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.

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

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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

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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

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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?

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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.

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