Five things we learned: Stanford 17, Notre Dame 10

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Different week, same nightmare.

Notre Dame’s fifth loss of the season may have unraveled differently than the previous four, but the end result was the same—a late-game rally that came up short and a few very large questions for the man in charge of the program.

Stanford ended their two-game losing streak by scoring 17 second-half points to top the Irish 17-10. And on an evening where you could’ve excused both sidelines from showing the apathy that seemed to surround this game, both teams played desperate for a win, with the Cardinal swarming DeShone Kizer on the game’s final snap.

“This is a bitter pill to swallow,” Brian Kelly said after the game. “I love those kids in there. They had great energy. They wanted to win. They did everything that they knew in terms of what they felt like they could do to win, and they just came up a little short again.”

Let’s find out what we learned.

 

DeShone Kizer may be in a slump, but Brian Kelly is over-thinking his quarterback position. 

DeShone Kizer played poorly. Before he returned to the field for the game’s final drive, Kizer was just seven of 16 for 99 yards, with two interceptions, including a game-changing pick-six that starting the second half’s swing.

But he’s still Notre Dame’s best option at the position, even if Kelly had to see Malik Zaire one more time to know it.

Looking for a spark, Kelly turned to Zaire. And instead of turning the offense around, the senior backup put together three series where the Irish went three-and-out, safety, three-and-out, seven plays for a grand total of minus-nine yards.

“That was a head coaching decision,” Kelly explained postgame. “I just felt like it was important to try to get some energy back. We lost some energy, and I thought going to Malik would do that.”

The move backfired, with the offense shutout in the second half and Stanford controlling the clock and possession of the football. And while the struggles were hardly exclusive to either quarterback, Kizer’s return to the game wasn’t enough to bail the Irish out—an impressive drive done in by Solomon Thomas and the Stanford defense in the shadow of the north end zone.

Zaire’s time in South Bend has been star-crossed. A job lost by injury, two depth chart battles ending with him on the outside looking in. But fairness isn’t a tenet of major college football. And doing what’s fair isn’t helping the team.

So in a season where Kelly desperately searches for a rabbit in every hat, he once again came up empty when he tried calling Zaire’s number, taking three possessions away from the one quarterback who gave the Irish their best shot to win the game.

 

Sam Mustipher’s snapping has become a problem. But the whole offensive line is in a slump. 

The hurricane was gone. But Sam Mustipher’s problems were not. And the Irish center had another tough day at the office, sailing a snap by Zaire that gave Stanford two points and another by Kizer that cost the Irish 11 yards.

On the sideline, Kelly and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand huddled, likely deciding whether or not to insert sophomore center Tristen Hoge into the lineup. They didn’t, and Mustipher got back on track. But with another fire brewing during a season filled with flames,  after the game Kelly said all the right things about his embattled center.

“Listen, Sam is a great kid. He wants to do it right. He feels terrible. But we’ll just keep working at it, and it’s just an unfortunate situation,” Kelly said.

Mustipher’s shotgun struggles might have been the ones to stand out, but he wasn’t alone. Hunter Bivin had a difficult matchup all evening in at right guard for Colin McGovern, and Stanford’s three sacks felt like double that with Notre Dame’s quarterbacks constantly under siege.

Notre Dame gained just 307 yards, a few long runs and a 33-yard completion to Torii Hunter buoying that total. And a week after having no answer for the NC State front four, the Irish offensive line struggled against Stanford as well.

 

Jarron Jones is back to playing like Jarron Jones. And developing into a leader while he’s doing it. 

Fifth-year senior Jarron Jones made the game’s most impressive play, putting his blocker on roller skates, steam-rolling his way to quarterback Ryan Burns, sacking, striping and recovering the fumble he forced. It was an incredible display of raw power and athleticism, and a continued uptick for Jones as he plays his way back into a dominant force.

A season that started with Jones only being a part-time participant has turned into a final season where the Rochester native returns to the form that had so many excited before injuries ruined his 2015 before it started. But more interestingly, Jones’ postgame comments showed a commitment that Kelly applauded postgame, and leadership traits that weren’t always observable now seem to be the fuel that will drive Jones through the home stretch of his final season in South Bend.

“No matter how hard things get, I mean, I’ve never even been in this situation before. No matter how hard things get, we’ve got to stay the course,” Jones said.  “We’ve got to still believe in our coaches, believe in each other. Believe that we can get each other out of this and all we have to do is push each other, love each other and play for each other, which we did today.”

 

Notre Dame’s young defense took another step forward–even if it doesn’t make the loss sit any better. 

The young Irish defense that replaced Brian VanGorder and restructured their scheme went nine-consecutive quarters without giving up an offensive touchdown. And while that kind of progress sure feels empty after a demoralizing loss, Greg Hudson has infused an energy into a unit that was left for dead in September, and has managed to transform itself even while it relies on multiple freshmen in the secondary.

The Irish held Stanford to just 296 yards. While Bryce Love found some success, his 23 carries for 129 yards paced the evening, the defense played well enough to win for the second-straight week, a risk-averse strategy helping to eliminate some of the inconsistencies that doomed VanGorder’s unit.

“They’re learning a lot as we go, so we want to minimize big plays, which I think we’ve done a really good job of keeping the points down,” Kelly said.
“The thing that I wanted to do when we made the change was keep the points down and limit the big plays.”

Hudson has managed to do that, relying mostly on a three-man front. He’s found a way to get to the quarterback and protect his back-end, the secondary willing to give up the underneath throw to avoid the one over the top. And on a Saturday night where the Irish lined up Troy Pride, Julian Love, Devin Studstill, Jalen Elliott and Donte Vaughn for major snaps, the experience that group is earning will hopefully pay off in the future.

 

Brian Kelly hasn’t lost his football team. But this team goes into the off week hoping this is rock bottom. 

This is a team in search for answers. Because even with energy, effort and enthusiasm, Kelly’s football team isn’t winning games. That leaves this team looking inward, a week off hopefully offering some breathing room and a chance to slow down a snowball that keeps rolling.

“We’re going through a tough spot. But they’re committed to wanting to get through this together,” Kelly said. “Their attitude is incredible, their commitment is incredible. I love coaching this group.”

Kelly spoke of holding this group to a “high standard,” partially an explanation for postgame performance and fiery sideline behavior that’s drawn scorn, particularly as the focus turns to the head coach amidst the most difficult run of Kelly’s time in South Bend. But as the walls close in, there didn’t appear to be any fractures in team unity.

“If everybody out there doesn’t think we love each other and play for each other, then I don’t know what kind of game they are watching,” Jones said postgame. “I felt like this was the most energetic game we’ve ever had, in my four years here.”

That sentiment was echoed by captains Mike McGlinchey, Torii Hunter and James Onwualu as well. It’s often accompanied by a frustration that has all parties—head coach, players, and likely administrators—wondering when things will turn.

So as the university breaks for a week, the football team will trudge on, searching for answers and doing it as united as a 2-5 team can be.

“I told the guys, this is the no-apology zone. Nobody needs to apologize to anybody,” Kelly said.  “It’s one of those things where everybody knows where we’re at.

“We’re 2-5, and we’re going to get reminded of it by everybody in the country about a million times. We’re 2-5, I’m 2-5, everybody is 2-5, so no one needs to apologize. What we need to do is coach better and execute better, and that will cure a lot of things.”

 

 

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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