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Talking Irish: On to Stanford

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Another week, another conversation with JJ Stankevitz at CSN Chicago, as we try to make sense of what’s going on in South Bend. Here we tackle last week’s hurricane, “blaming” players, where to go next with a defensive coordinator hire, and if Brian Kelly’s job is really in trouble. 

Oh yeah. And Stanford. That, too. 

***

JJ: Well Keith, the good news is my clothes are finally dry from last weekend, and my rage from N.C. State towing my car has subsided. Before we dive into Stanford, what — if any — takeaways did you have from that miserable game of “football” last Saturday?

KA: Mostly that it should’ve at least been delayed.

JJ: **nods furiously**

KA: I know — I know — My initial answer should be, at least according to some, that the football program should be shut down and that BK should have been fired on the runway, but seriously. That wasn’t football.That wasn’t close to football.

And the fact that they jammed that game into that window — just so ABC could keep their broadcast window — is beyond lame. I checked around, and ND didn’t have a say. It was an ACC and NC State call.

JJ: Yep, exactly. It’s more on the ACC than anything else. It’s a miracle nobody got seriously injured, too, or no fans got their cars stuck in flooding (that I know of).

KA: I know, I should be in umbrage mode, but I have a hard time counting that as a football game — and that’s the one thing that doesn’t really get me all that worked up, though if ND ends with five wins or fails to get the bowl bid, you will wonder… (Though again, it’s NOT why they lost. It just shouldn’t have been played in the eye of a freaking hurricane.)

JJ: I guess if Notre Dame does go 5-7, you can point to playing the game in a hurricane as being a problem, but…losses to Duke, Michigan State and Texas are far worse, in my opinion. Especially since two of those three teams might not make a bowl either!

KA: Yes, that’s where I’m at, too. This first half of the season feels like a hurricane. And not in an impressive way, but rather like “oh my god, look what you’ve done” way.  To that point, let’s get right into it.

It’s been a weird week. And a toxic one. I haven’t seen it this bad since early 2010, and it actually feels a lot like the second half of 2008 — not quite the demise of 2009, but not that far away, either.

I’m not asking you to name third hand sources that may or may not be around the locker room. But do you think BK has lost his team? Or will we find that out against Stanford?

JJ:  So I’ll say this. This week, I’ve been reading up on Oregon a lot to see how other writers are covering an unexpected disaster of a season. And from the looks of it there, Mark Helfrich has lost the team.

Whether or not Brian Kelly has lost the Irish locker room, they’re not getting blown out or giving up 70 points a game. That would, to me, show a lack of effort that can’t be recovered. So I don’t know how much emphasis I put on the whole “lost the team” notion when they’re playing in close games.

Does that make sense?

KA: And my conversation with Do at the Stanford Daily, there are people at Stanford who want David Shaw fired, too.

JJ:  WHAT

KA: Some people just want to see the world burn. Two straight five-touchdown losses.

JJ: You have gotta be bleeping me.

KA: And look at Dantonio — same thing. Lotta Spartan fans thinking the guy lost it. Crazy pills are the universal drug of choice in college football.

JJ: Look, I get that Brian Kelly has soured himself to people because of the yelling and postgame criticisms of players.

JJ: But oh my gosh, wanting David Shaw fired. And Dantonio. What is happening?! That’s madness!

KA: Seriously. You hit on something interesting. I got hammered in some parts of the ND sphere (you can probably guess) for having the nerve to point to BK’s locker room talk after Kelly got killed for some comments from the postgame.
But I tend to think what BK says to the team is more important to them than what he says to the media right after.

JJ:  I thought DeShone Kizer had a really, really good answer to that whole debate.

“Blame is definitely not the word. In this game there are 11 guys who are required to do their job. And in order for us to go out there and to give a better result than we have in these last six games, you have to challenge guys. And when you guys sit up here and ask about specifics on guys, he’s going to let you know exactly what happened and in order for us to not up come out successful.

“That can be perceived as blame, but perception is part of what we do here working with the media. James walks in and he gives an answer, and it’s perceived as if he’s saying that it’s a horrible thing that coach puts blame on guys. But I’m sitting here having a conversation with him, and all he’s trying to say is, hey, yeah, it’s tough when the coach calls you out. But we take that as a challenge here.

“We accept everything as a team. But individually you’re going to have to get challenged to play your best. And when you’re 2-4 right now, everyone has to point their finger at themselves and look at themselves in the mirror and accept those challenges so that we can come out and be more successful and hopefully put together the wins that we need to put together in the second half of the season.”

That’s his full quote (he even went out of his way to help clarify a quote from James Onwualu that could’ve been mis-interpreted. This guy is a whiz with media.)

I’m not going to sit here and tell you that everything is okay inside the Gug, because Notre Dame is 2-4. But it’s worth noting this debate hasn’t affected recruiting, at least yet.

KA:  True. Somehow those 17 year-old kids aren’t reading message boards or my comments or the guys arguing under your articles. Weird.

***

KA: Let’s take this thing forward — because that’s the only way we can look at this. There’s a very real chance that McCaffrey isn’t playing this weekend.
Stanford’s got a few maulers on the defensive front, but they’ve had a tough two weeks.

Before I get your prediction, what are some battles you think that are mission critical to a win?

JJ: So Notre Dame’s defensive strategy is probably going to look a lot like it did last year in California — stop Christian McCaffrey (if he plays) and hope the quarterback doesn’t beat you.

The good news: Ryan Burns and Keller Chryst are nowhere close to being as good as Kevin Hogan was. The bad news: Well, so was Daniel Jones. And Tyler O’Connor, I guess.

KA:  Kevin Hogan: The future of the Cleveland Browns. They’re calling Tom Rees next.

JJ: Pull him out of coaching. Thought I’d love to see Rees and DeShone Kizer on the same sideline!

KA: This will be a huge progress report for the defense. It’s not like we saw anything last week. And it’s also not like Stanford is lighting it up right now.

JJ: Here’s a stat: Washington State entered last weekend with four sacks as a team. They left with seven. If Notre Dame can’t get sacks against Stanford, it never will. (Can’t believe I just typed that.)

KA:  I saw that tweet. That was very informative. (Follow JJ @JJStankevitz)

JJ: #BRANDS

KA:  #CONTENT #SYNERGY

JJ: But Keith, curious — what do you hope to see from this defense? Keep everything in front of them and not get beat, or try to take a few shots at making plays against a maybe-vulnerable offense?

KA: I’d just like some baseline logic. For instance: If you’re going to send the house — play off in coverage. If you’re going to go heavy to stop the run, play zone behind it.

JJ:  Smart, simple solutions. Low key, too: Mike Elston deserves a lot of credit for whatever defensive turnaround we’ve seen to date, too.

KA: I really think that Hudson coming in — and BK putting his hands all over this unit feels so logical now, but man — it sure makes you think that the BVG era was just one gigantic misstep. Can we peg that all to Nick Saban out-scheming Bobby D and the boys that fateful BCS title game?

JJ: I would certainly hope not. If that was the case, you throw all your money into ND1, drive it to Clemson, and back it up to Brent Venables’ house after the 2013 season.

KA: So maybe that’ll lead me to my final point before we get into the game (other than where we should have a beer on Friday night…) Do you dump a pile of cash on a national coordinator?

Do you take on Charlie Strong? Do you win the “Name” battle? Or do you think BK goes somewhere familiar?

JJ: It’d be a disservice to the program if Kelly didn’t reach out to Dave Aranda given the coaching turnover at LSU. Derek Mason, if Vanderbilt lets him go, would be a good call.

KA:  I think that’s the dream trio, right?

JJ: Aranda, Mason, Strong?

KA: Yes. Though Strong’s name is taking a beating. I’m sure there are some under-the-radar names that might come up, too.

JJ:  Or consider this, Tom Herman goes to LSU, keeps Dave Aranda, but makes Todd Orlando available in the process. I know Mike Elko has been brought up by few forward-thinking fans — he’s done a lot with absolutely no talent at Wake Forest.

KA: Like it. I just don’t know if ND is going to go multi-million dollar coordinator.

KA: I lied – one more doom and gloom question.

How ugly do you think this season needs to get before Swarbrick thinks about making a major change? And wouldn’t he need to make sure he had a guy in hand before he did it?

JJ:  I mean, if they go 3-9 and, I don’t think you can rule anything out. But that being said…I find it really, really hard to believe Kelly won’t be the coach here in 2017.

KA: That’s where I’m at, too.

JJ: And to answer your second question — you’re not getting Tom Herman, you’re not getting Urban Meyer, and there’s not that up-and-coming obvious candidate out there.

KA: Exactly. That’s been — and will continue to be — my point.

JJ: So if you fire Kelly, you might get stuck with Plan F, which could pull Notre Dame only further down into the depths of mediocrity.

KA: Not that we’re all happy and excited — let’s get to Saturday. Where you at?
W? L? A Greg Hudson renaissance?

JJ:  *peeks to make sure nobody’s looking*

31-27 Notre Dame.

KA: WOW.

JJ: I think this is sneakily a pretty good matchup for Notre Dame. And I know tying my cart to a 2-4 horse that lost to Duke is dangerous.

KA: I like your fire. But I am going hedge: ND loses a tight one if McCaffrey plays. ND wins by 10 points if he doesn’t. There’s just not enough info out there to make a calculation when college football’s most prolific weapon is a 50-50 proposition.

JJ: Fair, though college football’s most prolific weapon only has 84 yards on 20 carries in his last two games. And Notre Dame’s defense hasn’t been terrible against the run this year.

KA: When 10 guys key on him, David Shaw still isn’t afraid to give it to him.
That’s a man with no pitch count.

JJ: True, and the whole tackling thing hasn’t been great for Notre Dame.

KA: You’re bringing us down, JJ!

JJ:  I just said they’d win! Positivity!

KA: I’ll let us leave it at that —
a battle for another rivalry trophy that nobody knew existed. #LEGENDS

JJ: #LEADERS Wait. Wrong thing.

KA: Haha. Alright — I’ll see you this weekend. I’ll be the guy wandering aimlessly as he finds his way into the new press box.

JJ: It’s pretty high up, but the hot dogs are present as ever. See you there!

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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