Five things we learned: Notre Dame 30, Miami 27

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It’ll likely be relegated to the online supplement of the coffee table book memorializing the historic Notre Dame-Miami rivalry. But that doesn’t take away from the drama in the Irish’s 30-27 victory, a win that had all makings of a nightmarish year-in-review for Brian Kelly’s squad, until a young Irish roster rallied after giving up 27 unanswered points, sealing the win on the game’s final play.

But as Brad Kaaya laid pinned under a stack of bodies as the clock mercifully hit 0:00, the Irish finished off a much-needed victory—especially gratifying after spending the midsection of the game finding new ways to give it away.

These sixty minutes embodied the Irish season. There were moments of brilliance—a quick start and dominating first quarter that had Irish fans thinking back to the 2010 post-bye week jumping of a ranked Utah team.

But then—of course—there were the next 40 minutes, a toxic brew of stalled-out offense, self-inflicted mistakes and special teams implosions, with the Irish giving away a 20-point lead to find themselves trailing 27-20 with under seven minutes remaining after C.J. Sanders gift-wrapped Miami’s go-ahead touchdown, muffing a punt inside his own 5-yard-line, the cherry on top of the Irish special teams implosion.

But even with the collective stomach of the stadium queasy and remote controls tossed around ND Nation, Brian Kelly’s team found itself, scoring the game’s final 10 points to pull out the win.

“No one was surprised,” Kelly said of his team’s late-game resolve. “They were just happy as heck that it’s finally over, that they got through it in a close game, that they found a way to win.”

That the Irish did, earning their third victory of the season and keeping those bowl eligibility alive to fight another week.

Let’s find out what we learned.

 

Jarron Jones was unblockable today. 

Notre Dame’s fifth-year senior earned not just the game ball on Saturday, but probably a few job offers for next year. Because the 330-pounder absolutely dominated the trenches, looking like the Jarron Jones many of us thought would emerge after his coming out party against Florida State two seasons ago.

But Jones has traveled a long road since then, injuries turning him into a shell of his former self. But after the tweak in defensive scheme and a renewed commitment to being a senior leader, the Rochester, New York native supplied what could be used as his NFL Draft sizzle reel on Saturday alone, a one-man wrecking crew as he racked up seven solo tackles and an astounding six tackles-for-loss, dominating Miami center Nick Linder.

“I think that was as good of performance that we’ve had in a while here. Jarron was outstanding. He was awarded the game ball,” Kelly said postgame. “What stands out to me more than anything is that when your senior is playing his best ball, that says a lot about how he feels about coming to work every day, getting better, regardless of the record. I think that’s a real positive for our program and for him individually. He was a beast today.”

You saw that buy-in on Jones’s face postgame after the Stanford loss, an emotional veteran proudly defending his team. From the sideline after the victory, Jones talked about the goal of getting to the postseason, the win a huge first step for the team.

“It lifts us up. It lifts us up in a big way,” Jones told NBC’s Kathryn Tappen. “We’ve got to win out to go to a bowl game, so we’ve got to keep pushing, keep it moving.”

 

DeShone Kizer got a huge monkey off his back. 

Notre Dame’s junior quarterback hasn’t been having much fun lately. Stuck amidst the longest losing streak of his lifetime—at any level–Kizer didn’t hide his relief postgame.

“I feel like this whole stadium is off my shoulders,” Kizer said. “The last couple games in this stadium haven’t gone the way we wanted them to. But to come out and get this done the way we did today was awesome.”

Kizer’s play was a big part. He completed 25 of 38 passes for 263 yards and two touchdowns. He threw no interceptions. He got the ball out in rhythm, making big plays both down the field and also on quick routes, spreading the ball to 10 different receivers on Saturday, with the offensive staff deciding that up-tempo would be the best way to slow down a Miami defense that came into the game as the top team in the country in tackles-for-loss.

“Really, really pleased with some of the play within the play,” Kelly said of Kizer’s game. “For me, my eye is focused on rhythm, timing, getting the ball out of your hand. And I thought it was the best since he’s been here, in getting the ball out of his hand.”

That was necessary, as the Irish offensive line still struggled at the point of attack against the Hurricanes. And while Kizer’s been victimized by his own success (and maybe the echo-chamber that has his name still climbing the rungs of mock draft ladders everywhere), Kelly tried his best to praise the game his quarterback played, while reminding everybody that he’s still a work in progress.

“He’s not flawless yet. So, sorry guys. He’s not flawless yet,” Kelly said. “He’s got some work that he’ll continue to work on, but he was really good today. He did a lot of really good things today.”

 

Notre Dame’s special teams nearly lost this game for the Irish. 

Notre Dame’s special teams continue to be horrendous.

(Pause for emphasis)

Scott Booker’s unit didn’t cover itself in glory on Saturday. Two critical mistakes on punt returns gave Miami the ball back and a go-ahead score. They got out-schemed on an onside kick with freshman Jalen Elliott looking like he forgot the rules of the game. And they got another Tyler Newsome’s punt blocked for good measure, enough mistakes to drive the Irish’s early-game momentum into a brick wall.

The special teams didn’t cost the Irish the football game. And to their credit, they actually executed when it was needed, as Chris Finke broke off a huge 23-yard punt return to start the Irish in Miami territory on the game-clinching drive that ended with Justin Yoon booting a game-winning chip shot with 3o seconds left.

But at this point, Irish fans likely yearn for the days of John “Fair Catch” Goodman back returning kicks, hoping that a no-joy approach will at least kill any chance of disaster. Because Sanders delivered a ton of that, making the worst decision of the evening that resulted in seven points for the other guys and also failing to keep Troy Pride away from a short punt that flipped possession and kept Miami alive.

Kelly tried to keep things positive postgame, understandable because the Irish broke their losing streak. And as Kathryn Tappen reported from observing Kelly’s conversation with Sanders after the punt-touchdown debacle, he didn’t undress the sophomore, but stressed being decisive, something Kelly echoed after the game.

“We have to be more confident. We’ve got really good players who care a lot and have a lot of pride in what they do every single day,” Kelly said. “I just need to reinforce with those guys to be more decisive. They’re coming on the other end of that.”

 

Notre Dame’s defense continues to make gigantic strides in life after Brian VanGorder. 

Brian Kelly has talked about some of the limitations that come with the main objectives of not giving up big plays and simply limiting the points. But at this point, Kelly should look at what the results have been—a completely transformed defense that looks nothing like the unit that was a four-alarm fire under Brian VanGorder.

Saturday, Notre Dame’s defense dominating the trenches. They held the Hurricanes to just 18 net rushing yards and had five sacks and 12 total TFLs on the evening, beating Brad Kaaya to a pulp and slowing down some skill players who looked like very tough matchups for Notre Dame’s three freshman cornerbacks.

After the game, Kelly took a moment to respond to the criticism of his team’s pass rush (“We do sack the quarterback here at Notre Dame”) while also crediting his restructured defensive staff for their game plan.

“We knew, more than anything else in this game, that we had to attack the line of scrimmage,” Kelly explained. “I thought it was an outstanding game plan that our defensive coaches put together, and that was we really needed to be aggressive at the line of scrimmage.”

To do that, the secondary had to hold up in coverage. And they did, with Cole Luke nearly taking an interception to the house and Dante Vaughn and Julian Love making some very big pass break-ups.

With Nyles Morgan cashing in nine tackles and two more sacks of his own, this defense is starting to play like we thought it could before the season started, a frustrating footnote considering the early-season futility we saw under VanGorder.

 

Some fans will write this off as a meaningless victory. But Brian Kelly views it as a building block for the future of his program. 

Don’t tell Kelly—or his team—that this win didn’t matter. So some will (somewhat understandably) scoff at this victory, Kelly views it as a first step towards getting this young roster on track to build the mindset of a champion.

After the game, Notre Dame’s seventh-year head coach talked about what a win does for this team, allowing them to avoid another week of toxicity that’s been difficult for his young team to ignore.

“It just meant that we’re not going to have to go through this again,” Kelly said. “We were all going to have to listen to, ‘Okay, the locker room is falling apart,’ a bunch of baloney, and we’d have to go through all this again.”

This staff believes in the process they’ve laid out. But they also understand that you need to see success if you’re going to keep preaching that the wins will take care of themselves if you just put in the work.

“We were still going to do the same thing. The attitude would have been great. Their preparation would have been great,” Kelly said. “But they were going to have to figure out how to win a football game late, and that meant they had to execute better, they had to play all phases better at the end, and they did.”

Scoring the game’s final 10 points helped. So did some luck—DeShone Kizer miraculously recovering Durham Smythe‘s goal line fumble—averting disaster that would’ve been the third critical mistake made by a senior on the afternoon (Torii Hunter’s olé block on 4th-and-1 joined by Mike McGlinchey’s inexplicable false start).

But a win is a win. And coming back from the brink is something that this young roster needed to badly pull off.

“Now they know how to do that,” Kelly said of the late-game win. “Now there’s a lot more confidence in that room that they believe that they can do it, and if they just pay attention to the little things and are more decisive, they’re going to win.”

Four-star WR Micah Jones chooses Irish; Rees may need to wait; Other late-week reading

jones
rivals.com
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A day may come when Notre Dame suffers a recruiting disappointment in the 2018 cycle, when a high school star spurns the Irish coaching staff for a foe, but it is not this day.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township High School; Gurnee, Ill.) committed to Notre Dame on Friday, joining a class of now 10 recruits, including four who committed just this week.

Jones chose the Irish over offers from the likes of Iowa, Michigan State and Ole Miss, among others.

He is the first receiver among the 10 commitments and the seventh considered a four-star prospect. At 6-foot-5, 196 pounds, Jones should present a large target for whomever the Notre Dame quarterback is in the fall of 2018, most likely then-senior Brandon Wimbush.

Tom, Tommy or Thomas; Assistant Coach or Graduate Assistant?
Thomas Rees may need to wait a season before officially being a coach at Notre Dame. The legislation to approve a 10th assistant coach was expected to be voted on, passed and effective in April. A newly-added amendment may push the effective date to following the 2017 season. The amendment will be voted on immediately before the legislation itself is.

The delay makes sense. Most coaching hirings and firings occur in December and January. In theory, creating a one-timing hiring frenzy following spring football could leave many programs in the lurch. In practice, however, this is not anticipated.

“The majority of the FBS guys that I’ve talked with currently believe that 10th coach is going to come from within their own organization,” Todd Berry told the Associated Press. Berry is the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association and former coach at Army and Louisiana-Monroe. “Quality control, graduate assistants, analysts, or they’re planning on hiring somebody that’s out of work.”

A majority is not a unanimity, though, and that carousel will innately work to the disadvantage of the Group of 5 schools.

As for Rees, a graduate assistant can still work extensively with players. The most-pertinent difference between a graduate assistant and an assistant coach is the former cannot recruit. Given Notre Dame’s recent success on the recruiting trail—and the early commitment of class of 2018 consensus four-star quarterback Phil Jurkovec (Pine-Richland H.S.; Gibsonia, Pa.)—Rees may not be an absolute necessity in that regard this cycle.

A Kizer Appraisal
Former NFL scout Greg Gabriel took a look at former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer this week, largely paying the draft prospect compliments.

In calling Kizer “the most talented quarterback in this draft class,” Gabriel set a high ceiling for Kizer’s spring. Part of Gabriel’s positive assessment comes from acknowledging Kizer’s responsibilities as the Irish signal-caller.

“The spread offense that Kizer played in at Notre Dame is more sophisticated than many of the spread offenses we see elsewhere at the collegiate level. The Notre Dame offense is a whole-field read scheme in which the quarterback has to go through a progression that encompasses both sides of the field. He also can change the play and/or protections at the line of scrimmage. Given all that, Kizer was asked to do more than many spread quarterbacks are asked to do.”

Gabriel also reflected on the dynamic differences for Kizer in 2015 and 2016 and what may have elicited some of his seeming stagnation.

“There was the unnecessary quarterback controversy at Notre Dame, and the offensive line wasn’t as experienced or as talented and the receivers were mostly first-year starters.”

As much as Gabriel raves about Kizer, he would be the first to tell you anything beyond individual player evaluation is a waste of air this early in the draft process. Mock drafts may be fun, but they are not much beyond that.

Take the fates of Tony Romo and Jimmy Garoppolo, for example. Few, if any, in the NFL expect them to dress for the Cowboys and Patriots, respectively, again. Where they end up could directly impact Kizer’s draft placement.

Jaylon Smith May Be Back to Form
Former Notre Dame and current Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith posted yet another encouraging video to Twitter. This one shows Smith really might be game-ready right now and, if not, almost certainly will be by the fall. Should there be any difficulty with the embedded video below, here is a link straight to it.

OL Mabry makes third commitment this week; WR Jones may follow Friday

mabry
rivals.com
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Two weeks ago, Irish coach Brian Kelly gave a non-answer of an answer to a question about a likely early signing period this coming December. Avoiding specifics, he indicated he thinks the effects of such a change will be seen on a case-by-case basis entirely dependent on the recruits.

“Some will, some won’t,” Kelly said. “…Each kid is going to have to react to it based upon also how their school is going to be dealing with it. Some will come off the board at the time.

“We’re expecting some to sign early, but I think our mindset is we’re going into it business as usual. We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

After this week, Notre Dame is going to have more year-long fights than anticipated. Consensus three-star offensive lineman recruit Cole Mabry (Brentwood High School; Brentwood, Tenn.) became the third prospect to offer a verbal commitment to the Irish coaching staff in less than 36 hours with his Wednesday decision. Mabry received the offer over the weekend, but waited a few days before making his decision public, lest emotions be dictating his thought process.

At 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds, Mabry will have time to add muscle to his frame, with four or five offensive tackles greeting him on the Notre Dame roster in the summer of 2018. That ability to mold his style and growth may have played a part in the Irish interest.

“They love my height and athleticism and how I play,” Mabry told rivals.com. “We got to break down film and go through things that they do that pair up with how I play now. They think I’ll be a great fit in their offense.”

Mabry is the ninth Notre Dame commitment in the class of 2018, though the first offensive lineman.

Judging by new Notre Dame director of football performance Matt Balis’s agenda for the Irish roster’s Valentine’s Day morning, Mabry will have much to look forward to in terms of strength and conditioning.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township H.S.; Gurnee, Ill.) is scheduled to announce his verbal commitment this Friday at 4 p.m. ET. Along with Notre Dame, Jones is considering Iowa, Michigan State, Nebraska, Ole Miss, Illinois and Northwestern. He would be the first receiver in Notre Dame’s 2018 class. Naturally, whomever Jones commits to, the recruiting fight will last until at least December, and perhaps all the way to February.

Notre Dame adds two top defensive back commits; Elliott officially a ‘Husker

allen
rivals.com
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It’s early. It’s really, really early. Not in the day, though this post is scheduled for an a.m. hour. No, it is early in the 2018 recruiting cycle. Any piece of news, each commitment, everything should be taken with two grains of salt.

Nonetheless, Notre Dame—and more specifically, new Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko and defensive backs coach Todd Lyght—enjoyed Tuesday’s recruiting news when two consensus four-star coverage men committed to the Irish.

Safety Derrik Allen (Lassiter High School; Marietta, Ga.) and cornerback Kalon Gervin (Cass Tech; Detroit, Mich.) joined a class of now eight commitments, six of which play on the defensive side of the ball.

Gervin, the No. 11 cornerback in the class according to rivals.com, waited mere days after attending Notre Dame’s Junior Day over the weekend. Irish coach Brian Kelly and staff’s failure to land a recruit at Gervin’s position in the 2017 haul actually helped reel in the recruit with offers from Florida, LSU, Michigan and dozens others.

“The opportunity to play right away, they didn’t sign a cornerback this last class,” Gervin told Blue & Gold Illustrated helped sway him. “Also, the education is second-to-none. It speaks for itself.”

Allen, pictured at top, has leaned toward Notre Dame for months. The No. 3 safety in the country per Rivals, he chose the Irish over the likes of Alabama, Clemson and Florida State.

Elliott officially to Nebraska

The two highly-touted defensive backs will not have the chance to learn under the tutelage of Bob Elliott. Nebraska officially announced the hiring of the former Notre Dame safeties (2012-13) and linebackers (2014) coach. Elliott spent the last two seasons serving as a special assistant to Kelly, focusing largely on defending the triple-option attacks of Army, Navy and Georgia Tech.

Elliott rejoins former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco in Lincoln. Diaco was hired as the Cornhuskers’ defensive coordinator in January.

The Lincoln Journal Star’s Brian Cristopherson reports Elliott will make a nice wage in eastern Nebraska.

Could Kelly move a receiver to cornerback?

PALO ALTO, CA - NOVEMBER 30:  Bennett Jackson #2 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish intercepts this pass intended for Michael Rector #3 of the Stanford Cardinal during the fourth quarter at Stanford Stadium on November 30, 2013 in Palo Alto, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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Before the weekend, Notre Dame already had 10 receivers on its depth chart, all with at least two seasons of eligibility remaining. Cornerback, meanwhile, is a position where the roster seems to be lacking, with only seven currently on scholarship. The only fact staving off panic is that all seven also have two years of eligibility in hand. Nonetheless, an additional body in the defensive backfield at practice would seem to be a reasonable want, if not quite a necessity.

Thus, the addition of graduate transfer receiver Freddy Canteen—himself having two seasons of potential college football to go—brought the return of wonderings: Should one of the plethora of Irish receivers switch to breaking up passes?

Aside from balancing the roster and easing some concerns should an injury strike, such a move could also present the player a chance at increased playing time. By no means would the maneuver need to be a selfless one.

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has had success with such positional flipping. Specifically, Kelly and his coaching staff have overseen the successful switches of receiver-turned-cornerback Bennett Jackson and receiver-turned-safety-and-then-linebacker James Onwualu. Furthermore, defensive backs Matthias Farley and KeiVarae Russell both arrived at Notre Dame expecting to be on the offensive side of the ball before changes early in their careers.

BENNETT JACKSON
A three-star receiver recruit, Jackson stuck with Notre Dame during the transition from Charlie Weis to Brian Kelly, signing with the Irish only weeks after Kelly took the lead of the program. In his freshman season, Jackson carried the ball plenty, as the kick returner. Aside from fielding kickoffs, he had only one carry for 20 yards. That was it for his offensive playmaking.

On special teams, however, he excelled without the ball, too. Jackson finished with 10 tackles, including four against Purdue to start the season. That nose for the ballcarrier prompted the coaching staff to switch Jackson’s positional group. In the following three seasons, he amassed 147 tackles, 11 pass break-ups and two interceptions.

Before Notre Dame faced Alabama in the 2012 BCS National Championship Game, Jackson looked back on his career change.

“I liked receiver. Obviously, I wanted to be a guy with the ball in my hands,” he said. “At first, I wasn’t mad about it, but I wasn’t fond of it.

“As time went on, I actually liked the position a lot more. I had a lot more fun and I got to compete a lot more.”

JAMES ONWUALU
A four-star recruit with the ambiguous “athlete” designation in 2013, Onwualu—like Jackson—spent his freshman season as a receiver. Unlike Jackson, he actually caught some passes. Two, to be exact, for a total of 34 yards. Continuing on a parallel to Jackson, Onwualu totaled six tackles on special teams.

Years later, it is easy to see the receiving depth in Notre Dame’s class of 2013. Onwualu aside, the Irish brought in Corey Robinson, Torii Hunter, Jr., and Will Fuller. It was going to be a tough road to featured playing time for Onwualu. Realizing this, he set to finding a different path.

“I honestly wasn’t sure receiver was the spot for me anyway, so I walked right up to coach Kelly’s office and we had a talk about where I wanted to go and what my thoughts were for my career,” Onwualu told und.com early in his senior season. “We ended up agreeing that the defensive side, we might as well give it a shot, and it worked out.”

Initially, that conversation landed Onwualu at safety. At 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, he found himself at linebacker pretty quickly thereafter.

“That was a tough one for me because he’s so valuable offensively in a number of ways,” Kelly said before 2014 spring practice. “He’s such a consistent player and he loves to compete. But he’s got great contact skills.”

Onwualu ended his Notre Dame career with 143 total tackles, including those pivotal six his freshman season, along with six sacks.

MATTHIAS FARLEY & KEIVARAE RUSSELL
Both Farley and Russell entered Notre Dame as “athletes”, the former a three-star recruit and the latter a four-star prospect. While Farley was expected to line up at receiver and Russell at running back, each switched to safety and cornerback, respectively, before ever joining the Irish offense. Safe to say it worked out rather well for each.

WHO NOW?
Far be it for the internet to speculate, but that seems to be one of its three primary purposes in the 21st century.

None of the current 11 receivers entered college deemed “athletes” by recruitniks. One does mirror Jackson and Onwualu in that he excelled on special teams last year. Rising sophomore Chase Claypool recorded 11 tackles in his debut season to go along with his five catches for 81 yards. Claypool notched multiple tackles against Nevada, Syracuse and Virginia Tech.

Kelly and new defensive coordinator Mike Elko very well may choose to test fate in 2017 and rely on only seven cornerbacks. After all, how often would the Irish ever have more than four on the field, anyways?

But if Kelly and Elko err on the side of caution, whoever makes the positional switch should not cringe in doing so. It has worked out pretty well both for his predecessors and for Notre Dame.