Pregame Six Pack: Finding answers

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With a week off to step away, the Irish are back with a hefty challenge. Find a third victory and keep bowl eligibility alive with a win against Miami.

On paper, the odds aren’t that long. The Irish actually opened as a favorite this Saturday, though that turned quickly to two-point underdogs. It’s a common move these past few weeks—Vegas believing that Notre Dame will eventually snap out of this funk, though the betting public thinks otherwise. So far, the betting public has been right.

So while most fans look for a silver lining (one that won’t likely be coming until next season), this football team looks for a win. And as Kelly’s young depth chart seeks validation after some hard work and even harder losses, the Hurricanes are coming.

Let’s get to the Pregame Six Pack. Before a 3:30 NBC kickoff at Notre Dame Stadium, let’s look at six potential slump busters for the Irish as they look to break through.

 

COLE LUKE. Notre Dame’s senior cornerback needed a rest. And let’s hope he got it last week because one of Miami’s all-time receiving leaders is coming to town.

Luke may not draw Stacy Coley every snap, but he’s slowly returning to his spot as the playmaker in Notre Dame’s secondary. Coming off a big game that would’ve been even bigger had an early whistle not taken away a strip-and-score, Luke needs to find a way to make an impact against Brad Kaaya—who will likely be taking dead aim at the freshmen surrounding him.

Since Luke moved inside to the slot, he’s rejuvenated his game. And we saw that against Stanford, his best performance, though in a losing effort. And with Miami likely expecting to complete a high percentage of their throws, Luke needs to capitalize a few times, taking a shot—and cashing it in—when the opportunity presents itself.

 

JOSH ADAMS. Brian Kelly admitted this week what everybody watching Josh Adams was wondering all season. Is the sophomore running back really 100 percent?

No, he’s not—banged up and working through things since fall camp, a variety of soft-tissue issues making it difficult for Adams to display the horsepower and speed he showcased in the most impressive freshmen seasons in school history.

But against Miami’s beat-up defensive front, the Irish need to establish a running game to call off a pass rush that’ll want to pin its ears back and get after DeShone Kizer. And if Adams was able to catch his breath after a week off, he’ll be the best answer for a running game that’s looking for big, explosive plays.

 

TORII HUNTER. What’d you do on your off weekend? Well, Torii Hunter got married. The newlywed now needs to turn these next few weeks into a honeymoon (see what I did there?), five weeks to finish a regular season off strong after he had his year derailed in the season opener against Texas on a dirty hit in the end zone.

One tweak to Hunter’s game is where he’s lining up. The Irish featured Hunter less at the X receiver and more in the slot last week, an idea some blogging idiot around here (the one typing) had been advocating. It’s put Kevin Stepherson in a position to make more plays one-on-one, while putting Hunter into a spot where his skills and savvy can get loose over the middle.

Hunter’s best trait is his versatility, something that Kizer can also utilize. And while the offense had a poor outing against Stanford’s defense, Hunter found some openings, four catches for 70 yards. That’s momentum worth following.

 

SAM MUSTIPHER. After losing his mojo the last few weeks, Mustipher needs to get his shotgun snapping back under control. And just as important, he needs to get his mind off the mechanical first step of his job, because Miami’s Kendrick Norton will be looking to do some damage across from him.

Norton’s had a nice impact as a run defender this season and the Irish have struggled on the interior, with Mustipher, Colin McGovern and Hunter Bivin struggling. McGovern is healthy again, back in the lineup after missing the Stanford game. And for the Irish to keep the ball moving and stay ahead of the chains, they can’t afford any wayward snaps—or blown assignments on the inside—to derail them.

The staff believes Mustipher will pull out of his funk—watching him get right after sailing a safety past Malik Zaire against Stanford. Now he’s got to trigger a ground game that should have opportunities, the Hokies running for over 250 yards last week against Miami.

 

ISAAC ROCHELL. It’s been a quiet season from Rochell, a senior defensive lineman who made his best impact as an iron man last year, but a member of the supporting cast. So while he’s been steady this year, he hasn’t been spectacular, failing to make the leap to leading man that many of us expected this season. That’s not to say that Rochell has been bad, he’s excelled at times, and he was mostly anonymous against Stanford.

There’s an opportunity to change that. Miami’s offensive tackle depth chart is ravaged, with Sunny Odogwu out and Tyree St. Louis struggling mightily. Virginia Tech sacked the quarterback a ridiculous eight times last week—more than the Irish have on the season.

With the Notre Dame defense likely leaving defenders in coverage to slow down Kaaya and the passing game, it’ll be up to the defensive line to generate some pass rush. And while it’s not a trait that stands out for him, Rochell has a chance to win his one-on-one matchups, something he’s more than capable of doing.

 

DESHONE KIZER. Notre Dame’s chances to win or lose still likely ride on Kizer’s shoulders. After a tough couple of weeks and a poor performance against Stanford, expect Kizer to rally—and the Irish coaching staff to help him as they tailor a game plan that’ll play to his strengths.

That could mean added emphasis on getting the ground game going, knowing that Kizer is deadly working as a play-action passer. It’ll likely also include having protection shored up against Miami’s blitz, with Stanford’s pressure getting to Kizer.

Kizer’s second season as a starter has gone the way many go at this stage. Moments of greatness mixed in with a handful of struggles. So while many of us thought early in the year that Kizer was ready for the next level and the challenge of Sundays, this is a growth curve, hardly the straight line you’d sometimes predict.

So with a wounded Miami team in the middle of a three-game slide, it’s time for Kizer to see his opening. And a struggling Irish team that demands efficient and opportunistic play needs its best playmaker to get the job done.

 

Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers

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You want complete honesty? The linebacker version of this series includes no revelations, no unexpected developments, no surprising spring performances. There is an allusion to a position switch, sure, but this piece became much simpler with the rover being discussed separately Thursday.

The idea was to capitalize on the NFL Draft for the morning and let the linebackers slip by in the afternoon, noticed only by those twiddling their thumbs through the last hours of the work week. Alas, former Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer was not drafted in the first round and a brief recap of his draft destination will need to await at least another day. Programming note: The NFL Draft reconvenes tonight (Friday) at 7 p.m. ET. The Green Bay Packers are on the clock. They will not draft a quarterback.

But back to the linebackers. This piece may have been intended to slip by with little fanfare, but that is not indicative of the Irish linebackers. Where Notre Dame was is so similar to where Notre Dame is simply because two experienced senior captains lead the way at linebacker.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
Aside from questions about defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s rover position, only one question stood out about this linebacker group: Who would start alongside senior Nyles Morgan: senior Greer Martini or junior Te’von Coney?

A year ago Coney recorded the fourth-most tackles on the team with 62. Martini finished fifth with 55, and his seven tackles for loss, including three sacks, dwarfed Coney’s 1.5. Yet Coney technically started nine games compared to Martini’s four.

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

With the rover often lining up essentially as a linebacker, there would only be space for one of Martini or Coney in most formations.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
In his first season with the Irish, Elko will have quite a luxury in referring to Coney as a backup linebacker. In some respects, that designation was inevitable as soon as Martini was named a captain. Nonetheless, Coney will see plenty of playing time.

The two captains—along with fellow captain, senior Drue Tranquill at rover—will be counted on throughout the summer and fall camp to continue the defense’s growth in Elko’s system. Elko said he installed “close to 50 percent” of his entire defense throughout spring practice. The linebackers must deal with the most difficult aspects of that learning.

“There’s been a noticeable improvement in terms of this starting to look like the defense we want this to look like as spring has gone on,” Elko said a week ago. “… Linebacker probably more than any other position, linebacker and safety, where the scheme takes some time to get used to, how you see it, how you fit it, how you feel it. Those guys have gotten better with that which has then allowed them to play faster as the spring has moved on.”

Sophomore Jonathan Jones will likely provide any further depth that may be needed in 2017, unless either of the incoming freshmen, David Adams and Drew White, excel from the outset. Irish coach Brian Kelly indicated sophomore Jamir Jones (no relation to Jonathan, but is former Notre Dame defensive lineman Jarron Jones’ brother) may be destined for time on the defensive line, in large part to Jones’s continued growth. Junior Josh Barajas let the spring come and go without mandating he be involved in these conversations, which may as well count as removing himself from the conversation in most regards.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame Was, Is & Could Be: Rover

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Rover

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Before spring practice, the rover position was lumped in with the linebackers in positional previews. Nearly two months later, that seems to have been the right placement—the rover will likely spend most of its time at the defense’s second level.

But since curiosity about the rover and its unknown place in Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme ran rampant—especially when compared to the rather solid understanding of the 2017 Irish linebackers—let’s take a look specifically at the rover.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:

“Who will start at [Elko’s] rover position,” this space asked. “What will his role entail?”

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

Senior safety Drue Tranquill was expected to see the most time at rover, perhaps with cameos from junior linebacker Asmar Bilal and sophomore safeties D.J. Morgan and Spencer Perry (since transferred).

More than anything, though, learning how Elko intended to deploy his defensive utility knife would answer the most questions about his defense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:

Tranquill will indeed lead the position, but not without much effort from Bilal.

“We’ve tried quite a few bodies out there,” Elko said Friday. “I think as spring has gone on, we’ve gotten a feel of what each of them can do, what parts of the package we can run with each of them. I think we’ve got a pretty good pulse now on how we want that thing to play out, who will be there doing what.”

Elko is excessively reluctant to discuss individual players, so asking him to expound on who will be at rover in particular situations was largely a fruitless exercise. Earlier this spring, Irish head coach Brian Kelly indicated Bilal would be featured against run-heavy offenses. That may well prove to be the case, but it is far more likely Tranquill sees the majority of the repetitions at the position.

RELATED READING: Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover positon, others likely to follow

“It’s been a good fit all spring [for Tranquill],” Kelly said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “He’s a plus player there for us. He really can impact what’s happening from snap to snap. He’s a physical player and playing low to the ball is really where he can do a lot of really good things for us.”

For his part, Tranquill enjoys the position and the unique number of duties innate to it. In theory, the rover aligns mostly with the linebackers but can be relied on to provide coverage when necessary. At other times, the rover will be asked to rush the passer. That flexibility allows Elko to keep the offense guessing.

“I love the rover position,” Tranquill said. “It’s a versatile position that allows you to come off the edge, allows you to play the run, play the pass, and do a lot of different things.”

Sometimes it allows you to pretend like you’re coming off the edge and then actually embarrass a potential first-round draft pick.

In senior left guard Quenton Nelson’s defense, Tranquill did add Nelson probably won more of their battles in spring practices than the defender did.

WHERE NOTRE DAME COULD BE:

Elko indicated there could be a third primary option in his tool kit. Notre Dame has a plethora of talented cornerbacks. Last week, Kelly indicated he might ask one of them to chip in at safety in obvious passing situations. Similarly, Elko predicted junior Shaun Crawford could play at rover against particular passing attacks, a la Bilal against certain rushing offenses.

“A lot of this is dictated by who that guy is lined up and what we’re trying to do,” Elko said. “We’re going to see a lot of really talented slot receivers. We’re going to have to match up and cover them well. There’s other names other than the big linebacker/safety bodies to put at that position. [Junior safety] Nick Coleman has done that some this spring. [Junior safety] Ashton White has done that some this spring. When Shaun gets healthy, I think he’ll do that some. That is all encompassing in that position.”

The 5-foot-9, 175-pound Crawford has since announced his return to full health, which should allow him plenty of time to readjust to contact before the start of fall practice.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line

Work in weight & film rooms has Hayes ready to meet five-star potential

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Common thinking might give four- and five-star recruits too much credit. They do not all arrive ready to play at the collegiate level on day one. It takes time, conditioning, learning. Perhaps it was that awareness that kept Daelin Hayes from letting his five-star ranking on rivals.com change his expectations. He knew he would have much work ahead of him when he arrived at Notre Dame as the only five-star prospect in the class of 2016.

Now finishing his freshman year, the defensive end notices the effects of his work as he puts in more.

“I remember my first time watching film, I was like, woah,” Hayes said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “I look quicker, like more twitch than I did. I was definitely—it’s hard to put into words—but to actually be able to go back and look at it and see how it affected the game was huge. [Director of football performance Matt] Balis has worked wonders for us.”

Hayes’ improved quickness showed in his three “sacks” in the intrasquad scrimmage. Going against future NFL prospect Mike McGlinchey at left tackle, Hayes faced a stiff challenge throughout spring’s 15 practices, not that he shied away from that task.

“I don’t think it was ever a point where it was overwhelming,” Hayes said. “I’ve always been a competitor. … But you guys know Mike, he’s huge, obviously a first-round talent and whatnot. I’m just grateful to be able to go against somebody like that each and every day. He makes me better. …

“I love competing with the guy. You go and do that with a guy in practice every day, then the game scenario comes, it’s like second nature. You can do this in practice, you can definitely do this against anybody.”

McGlinchey does not seem to mind the matchup, either.

“Daelin is a man who is blessed with a lot of size and athletic ability,” McGlinchey said Friday. “That presents a lot of problems for people in the game of football. He’s so young, and he has so much still to work on, it’s pretty cool to see what he’s capable of and then what he is going to do down the road.”

When Hayes arrived at Notre Dame, still recovering from a high school shoulder injury, he weighed 250 pounds with 18 percent body fat. Now, he said, he still weighs 250—the Irish roster lists him at 255—but is down to 10 percent body fat. It is that kind of change which has created more twitch and makes McGlinchey envision Hayes after more time spent improving in the weight room and the film room.

“I’m not the same athlete that I was when I first came in, not by any means,” Hayes said. “… Buying into that offseason program is going to be huge for our team.”

Per the Blue-Gold Game’s statistics, Hayes ended the scrimmage with seven tackles. Whether skeptical of the recordkeeping within a practice or not, seven tackles in one abbreviated afternoon compares favorably to Hayes’ total of 11 in 12 games last season. Some of that uptick is playing time, some of it is scheme, some of it is realization of the potential highlighted by a five-star ranking. For now, though, Hayes insists he intends to simply learn from last year’s 4-8 disappointment and embrace the changes brought by new Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko.

“With last year being the year that we had, there definitely was a yearning for change,” Hayes said. “When you have basically a reboot of the program, the guys are hungry and they don’t want to have to experience the same season as last year.

“Just continue to trust in that process. We’re hungry for something to cling on and buy into. When coach Elko, coach Balis, everybody came in as part of that reboot, I think we welcomed with open arms. [We’ll] continue to buy into the system and become more comfortable within the system.”

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line

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Heading into spring practice, a quick look was taken at each position group in order of “expected level of interest or question marks,” from least interesting to most, as dictated by an “Inside the Irish” reader. That series concluded with the defensive line.

Exiting spring practice, let’s reprise that premise and reverse the order. If the defensive line triggered the most questions, then answering them first seems to make some version of sense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
“Will enough defensive linemen prove themselves deserving of playing time to create a viable threat up front?” this space asked. “If so, who will those linemen be?”

RELATED READING: One day until spring practice: A look at the defensive line

Aside from senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26 tackles last season, 0.5 for loss), senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss amid a season lost largely to concussion) and junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37, 3), the Irish defensive line had little track record to cite or rely upon for confidence. Leading the unknowns and unprovens were sophomore ends Daelin Hayes, who recorded 11 tackles in 2016, and Julian Okwara (4).

The lack of depth and experience was apparent heading into the 15 spring practices.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
Look past the 11 sacks in the Blue-Gold Game. Intrasquad scrimmages featuring red-jerseyed quarterbacks make for inexact and context-less statistics. There is some value, however, in noting the defensive line got within reach of the quarterback at least eight times in an abbreviated game. (Three “sacks” came from the linebacker corps.)

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, just buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

RELATED READING: What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

Hayes led the way with three sacks, and he will be expected to continue that in the fall, starting at the weakside/rush defensive end spot. Exiting spring, though, only he and Tillery solidified themselves as starters. Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Mike Elko claimed a successful spring for the front.

“I’m happy with our defensive line progress,” Elko said Friday. “Obviously there was a lot written about that group. I’m happy about the progress they’ve made this spring. I think [defensive line coach] Mike [Elston] has done a good job developing them. I think they are buying into the way we want to play defense. There’s probably four to five guys on the inside that are starting to get into a position where we feel comfortable that they can step in and help us.” (more…)