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Pregame Six Pack: Looking for a win

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Perhaps the least controversial place for Brian Kelly to be this week is on the sidelines. Because after creating a stir in front of a post-game microphone, and with media speculation ramping up from all the predictable places, Kelly—Notre Dame’s seventh-year head coach and the owner of a contract extension that is set to keep him in South Bend until 2021—is ready to get back to football.

And more importantly, he thinks his team is, too.

“They’re ready. They just have to break through,” Kelly said Thursday. “They’re doing all the things I’m asking. They’ve just got to go win. It’s going to happen. I would have liked it to happen a few weeks ago, and they would have as well.”

That it didn’t is why we’re in this 2-4 mess. And it’s why there are storm clouds amidst the pleasant weekend forecast, a slew of unhappy fans forcing a head coach’s approval rating to sink like a major party presidential candidate.

So let’s get to the Pregame Six Pack. With a a big game under the lights and two football teams in desperate need of a win, it’s another big weekend for football in South Bend.

With or without Christian McCaffrey, the objective on defense will be the same. 

There’s still no word on if Christian McCaffrey, Stanford’s heart and soul, will take the field this weekend. But even if he’s a scratch, Brian Kelly doesn’t believe the defensive objective changes for Notre Dame.

“It’s like anything else. It’s not that we had an hex on him and he fell down. We controlled the line of scrimmage,” Kelly explained Tuesday. “We will have to control the line of scrimmage again, and if you can control the line of scrimmage and win the match-ups up front you can definitely slow him down. Teams have shown that.”

There’s progress being made up front, with Jarron Jones playing better football, Jerry Tillery ascending and Daniel Cage finding his rhythm as the Irish play more of a three-man front.

And even if Stanford is 102nd in the country in yards per play, this will be a stern test.

Getting the offense back on track will be key as well. 

Nobody wants to forget NC State faster than Notre Dame’s offense. Because a group that was averaging 40 points and 500 yards a game looked terrible—maybe (gasp!) even worse than the game plan. (On second thought, maybe not that bad.)

But there’s plenty of confidence in this unit. It didn’t just disappear in a week. And assuming nobody’s aiming a firehose at DeShone Kizer, he should have time to pick apart a Stanford defense that’s really struggled the past few weeks.

Kizer talked about the challenge ahead and raising the bar for the offense.

“We need to be a team that goes out, starts strong, maintains that same strong start throughout the whole game, and then finish as strong as we started,” Kizer said. “We go out and we show great spurts. We have athletes all over the field. We have a great offensive line. We’re completely sound across the board and very skilled.

“But with that, we haven’t done a good job of going out and keeping our pedal to the floor the whole game. We hit lapses, and that’s the truth. That’s the reality of how this season has started and those lapses have come back and ended up with four losses.”

Those lapses have included uneven play from Notre Dame’s rising star at quarterback. While Kizer’s three-game stretch of passing against Michigan State, Syracuse and Duke was the second-highest total in school history, his consistency disappeared at times, plagued by accuracy issues and decision-making that feel spurred on by a quarterback pressing to do too much.

But Kizer sees improvement coming. And he thinks it’s just around the corner.

“The confidence I have is because we haven’t had a full game. We have so much more to move forward on,” Kizer said. “We have so much more out there, and as an offense we can still put so many more points and move them forward. That potential makes me excited for what this offense can do.”

Playing great offense means playing better on first down. 

The Irish haven’t just been plagued by defensive struggles. The offense has also had a hard time digging itself out of early holes. And while some have focused on the team’s third-down struggles, Kelly mentioned that the team’s self-scout has pegged the problems on first down production.

“Our self-scout shows that we need to be better on first down. There is a trickle down affect into our third-down manageability, if you will,” Kelly explained. “So what we have looked at since Monday is why we were in the numbers that we were in and our self-scout shows some negative plays that we’ve got to get out of our offense. It’s really the negative plays, and that has got to be cleaned up for us to have a better third down efficiency.”

Those negative plays have often been because of some inconsistency along the offensive line. And those struggles were on full display against NC State, an Irish front that struggled in the trenches against the Wolfpack defensive line.

Left tackle and captain Mike McGlinchey talked about the line’s need to take a step forward. And he pegged it not to anything having to do with technique or scheme, but rather the groups attention to detail.

“I think it is a mindset, and it’s a mindset about execution. And that’s all really offense comes down to is executing your job,” McGlinchey said. “I think it just comes down to a mindset of, yes, I’m going to get my job done, and I’m going to execute to the best of my ability on each and every play. And as soon as we can do that as consistently as we want to do that, I think we’ll be a lot better off.”

With very little fanfare, Stanford has become a wonderful rivalry. 

Maybe it’s the fact that the two schools are institutional peers. Maybe it’s because the rivalry has featured some wonderfully exciting games these past few years.

But it’s worth taking a look at the Notre Dame-Stanford rivalry through a different lens, because after some questioned the decision to keep Stanford among the yearly rivals when games with Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue all went to part-time opponents, the decision to go all-in with Stanford has been paid in full by the Cardinal, who have played elite football since Jim Harbaugh revived the program, turning this battle into something players look forward to.

“As much as you don’t want to say it’s just another game, but it’s not. It’s Stanford. It’s our rival,” McGlinchey said. “They’re a traditional powerhouse. They’re a phenomenally coached football team just as we are. And it’s just one of those things that you get up for certain games and this is one of them.”

Nobody was calling Stanford a traditional powerhouse when Buddy Teevens and Walt Harris were running the program into the ground. But with David Shaw building a program that has some Irish fans wishing it was the one in South Bend, it’s worth tipping your cap to Jack Swarbrick for making sure the Irish and Cardinal battle each year.

No time like Saturday night to get the pass rush rolling. 

The Irish ended their sack drought. They ended their forced-fumble streak against NC State. But getting off the schneid is one thing. Now it’s time for the Irish defensive line to make some forward progress—especially getting after the passer.

Because Stanford’s offensive line looks fragile. A unit that was viewed as one of the best in the country is now looking at a two-week run where they’ve given up 15 TFLs, including 11 sacks.

PFF College’s grading system tells the story. Only one of Stanford’s five starters up front has a positive grade this season. Last year? Four of five, with Joshua Garnett playing at an All-American level and Johnny Caspers not far off.

The strength of Notre Dame’s defense has been the front seven. Very quietly, Jarron Jones has been thriving—the team’s highest-graded defender on PFF. Isaac Rochell is right behind him. Jon Bonner has been impressive in his limited snaps. Jerry Tillery followed  his worst performance of the season with his best. Daelin Hayes and Jay Hayes are finally earning snaps along with Andrew Trumbetti.

The opportunities are there for the taking. And winning the line of scrimmage in the run game shouldn’t be the only goal.

Even at the bottom, Brian Kelly believes this team has the ingredients of something special. 

Notre Dame’s head coach wasn’t in the mood to go big-picture on Thursday. But prodded into thinking back to other struggles he’s had over his 27 years as a head coach, Kelly made an interesting comparison for this football team—looking back to when some of his players were in diapers.

“It reminds me of my Grand Valley State team in 1999. We went 5-5-1, and then we went 50-3 or 50-4,” Kelly said, before joking that even this quote will be taken out of context. “It reminds me of a team that once they gain their confidence and once they break through, they’re going to have some success for a while.”

That’s the goal from here on out. Find that confidence. Find that momentum. And realize that this roster, even if it feels frustrating and difficult now, will be the one that’s tasked with winning football games in the very near future.

“[We] played a lot of young players. Let them experience it. Held them to high standards,” Kelly said of that Grand Valley team. “We’ve heard that before and really didn’t make any excuses. They were young, but [we] pushed them pretty hard, knowing that they were going to be successful.”

Kelly might be selling hope, a valuable commodity for a head coach on the lookout for hard-to-find wins. But he’s likely to get the benefit of the doubt from his bosses, a season that looks like an outlier during a career that’s seen Kelly win clips at a rate among the best in the game.

But that doesn’t buy him unlimited time. And after four losses by 21 points, Kelly knows that his team needs to break through.

“We’re going to be in close games. We’ve just got to finish them,” Kelly said. “That’s the will, the single-minded focus. I think they clearly understand that. They’re ready 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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