SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 29: Durham Smythe #80 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish leaps for a touchdown but would go on to fumble the ball during the game against the Miami Hurricanes at Notre Dame Stadium on October 29, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Miami 30-27. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Miami

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The celebration was likely cathartic. The night of, less a time to dwell on the negative, but rather let loose after finally—finally—winning a tight game.

Of course, that doesn’t make Sunday morning’s tape session any easier. It doesn’t erase some of the frustrating mistakes that kept Miami in the game early as they were wobbling on the ropes, propped the Canes up with special teams blunders, and very nearly handed them the win until snapping back to reality.

In other words, the win was good. But there was plenty of bad and ugly mixed in there as well.

Let’s get to it.

 

THE GOOD

Jarron Jones. The afternoon Jones put together was nothing short of extraordinary. The fifth-year senior earned his first game ball, and had the most tackles-for-loss of any FBS player in a single game this season. And it wasn’t against a directional school, it was Miami.

Jones was too good to take off the field, playing a season-high 54 snaps, far and away the most he’s played this season. But he was asked to hold the point of attack and do so in a game where Daniel Cage left the field after just 22 plays and went into the team’s concussion protocol.

Jones gave the game ball to his mom. Which is always the right decision.

 

The Defense. Give it up to the rebuilt Irish defense, essentially winning the game for Notre Dame by playing an absolutely dominant first 20-plus minutes and closing the game off with a big-time sack of Brad Kaaya. The Irish dominated at the point of attack with 12 TFLs, the most the Irish have made since 2005. The secondary held up, playing plenty of man coverage and not giving up a single catch of 25 yards or more.

In short, if this is what an on-the-fly staff can do with this crew, there might be some hope that this could be a job that’ll attract a high-level national candidate. Because there’s young talent on this defense. And we’re watching it come together quite nicely.

Kelly applauded the defensive game plan postgame. And no play epitomized the job the rebuilt staff did more than the game’s final snap—when the Irish caught the Miami offensive line with a delayed Nyles Morgan blitz, a sack that ended the game.

 

The Resolve. Could you have blamed the Irish for giving up? Because looking at my Twitter mentions and the general well-being of fans watching this game go backwards in real-time, it was ugly out there. Very ugly, with most of you having given up.

So while we can nitpick about the way the Irish won (I’m not sure this resolve could’ve handled a Miami recovery on Durham Smythe‘s goal line fumble), the Irish were technically due a break, and credit should go to this young team for not packing it in after another week where crisis hit.

Quick Hits: 

Tackling. How much better did this team tackle? Watching Drue Tranquill come up and hit, Nyles Morgan make eight solo stops and the young secondary do their job limiting yards after catches, it was a nice piece of in-season progress for a group that looked woeful early in the season.

DeShone Kizer. He missed some throws—something Kelly almost made light of Saturday night. But he also kept the Irish on schedule, out of long down-and-distances, and did a much better job of converting on third down, 8 of 16 on the day.

After feeling like he was the lone contributor on the offense the past few weeks, the Irish seemed to almost purposely spread it around—10 different players making catches and Josh Adams supplying the game’s defining offensive play. More importantly, Kizer didn’t turn the ball over, a mistake that would’ve been too much to overcome the way the Irish were already giving it away on special teams.

Devin Studstill might not have had his name called once on the NBC broadcast. And you know what? That’s a good thing. The Irish safety play in the run game was critically important, and Studstill was a big part of that.

Julian Love & Donte Vaughn. Just a reminder, those are freshman cornerbacks—and a duo that really didn’t play much until a quarter of the way into the season. But Love and Vaughn held their own out there against a talented Miami receiving corps, with both Love and Vaughn making very nice plays on the football.

Kevin Stepherson & Equanimeous St. BrownTwo young receivers making big plays. St. Brown’s touchdown catch was critical and Stepherson showed why Brian Kelly likes him outside at the X receiver spot.

 

THE BAD

The 27-point run.  When this team goes cold, it goes ice cold. And while they managed to get out of the tailspin before they crashed and burned, these type of swings are just so, so damaging.

Want to know how you let a team back in the game? You take a hot start and you go like this after thre-straight scoring drives:

Punt, FG, Fumble, Punt, Halftime, Punt, Turnover on Downs, Punt, Fumble.

Thirteen possessions. Three to start the game with scores. Two to end the game with scores. And then the nine in the middle. Yuck.

 

Seniors Coming up Short. With the game at pivotal places, three veterans had a chance to do big things. Instead, they did the opposite.

With two receivers for one defensive back, captain Torii Hunter Jr. had to make a block to spring C.J. Sanders on 4th-and-1. Instead, he swung and missed and Sanders was drilled for a loss, a huge momentum swing that had Miami tie the game with a field goal heading into the 4th quarter.

Senior tight end Durham Smythe made the bone-headed decision to extend the ball for the goal line as he leapt for the end zone. Instead, he fumbled away what could’ve been the game until DeShone Kizer bailed him out.

(Smythe took to Twitter in appreciation, a move I respect immensely.)

Lastly, captain Mike McGlinchey made a head-scratching mistake, jumping offsides when the Irish had the ball at the Miami one-yard line with a chance to give the Irish some serious breathing room by punching in a touchdown. Instead, the veteran inexplicably jumped, pushing the Irish back outside the 5-yard line, forcing the Irish to make a special teams play—something they struggled to do most of the day.

All three of these mistakes are things that happen in football games. But they’re mistakes from a young team you expect out of your young players, not three veteran leaders.

Quick Hits: 

The offensive line is still really inconsistent. And a look at the postgame grades from PFF tell you why. McGlinchey had his worst game of the season. On the other side, Bars played his best game since Duke, a big afternoon for the first-year starter in a tough matchup. After Colin McGovern only lasted five plays before going into the concussion protocol, Hunter Bivin struggled badly at right guard—the second really tough game in a row he’s played.

Next to him, Sam Mustipher got his bad snaps out of his system. But he got dominated, according to PFF’s grading. Put it into context: Jarron Jones made Miami center Nick Linder look like a high schooler out there, grading out as a team-worst -4.7. On the other side of the ball, Mustipher had a -4.6.

Troy Pride, there will be days like this. The freshman struggled in coverage and got picked on by Miami’s receiving corps, targeted five times and giving up four catches. Throw in a pass interference call and the muffed punt that hit him and it was a tough day at the office from the freshman.

 

THE UGLY

The special teams. At this point, it’s difficult to ignore. Scott Booker’s special teams are horrendous, and it’s a really horrible mix of bad execution, shoddy fundamentals and back-breaking mistakes.

The Irish have plenty of young players on the field and it’s easy to say mistakes by underclassmen like Pride, Jalen Elliott and C.J. Sanders are part of the maturation process. But after losing the NC State game on a rugby punt call, the Irish almost lost this one because of four crucial mistakes—the muff, getting caught on an onside kick (something Mark Richt acknowledged that they saw on film from previous weeks), another blocked punt and Sanders’ inexplicable gift to the Canes for a go-ahead score.

Booker is a young coach. He’s a good recruiter. He’s got a harder job than usual with the tight end missing Alizé Jones and no other coach able to take over the special teams. Both Mike Elston and Mike Denbrock have experience coaching the unit, but Elston runs the Irish recruiting efforts and Denbrock is the team’s play caller and associate head coach.

Kelly has defended Booker publicly. Then again, he did the same thing before relieving Brian VanGorder of his duties.

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.