Talking Irish: Shamrock Series (and more!)

19 Comments

After a few very busy weeks, CSN Chicago’s JJ Stankevitz returns for some chatter. Enjoy. 

 

KA: Last we chatted the Cubs hadn’t won a World Series, America didn’t have a new president-elect, and Brian Kelly hadn’t lost to Navy. So… Do you feel like things in South Bend are any worse now than they were a couple weeks ago?

JJ: Not really, honestly. The Navy game played out like a lot of this year’s games have played out: A special teams mistake (that shouldn’t have been called, but still), a questionable coaching decision, some poor execution here and there and voila, a narrow loss.

To paraphrase the late, great Dennis Green, the Irish are who we thought they were.

KA: I think you’ve hit on it. The loss to Navy wasn’t bad in my mind. It was what it was—a good football team playing a perfect game and beating a more talented (but bad) football team that made a crucial mistake. It was just that the team was Navy, and that, historically, means something very bad.

JJ: The biggest issue here is that Notre Dame played good football against Navy and lost by 1. In previous years, playing good football against Navy meant a 40-point win or something along those lines.

KA: That’s a good point. I don’t know if I call it good football. They forced half-a-punt and kicked 2 FGs in red zone opportunities.

JJ: Maybe not good football, but it certainly wasn’t *bad* football, of which we’ve seen a lot this year. And part of that is the strength of Navy’s program — Ken Niumatalolo is a top-10 coach in this country — but still.

KA: I think you can honestly make the argument — on the football side — that this is the worst rivalry Notre Dame has. Zero upside to it. You win, you should. You lose, you’re mocked.

JJ: From that standpoint, yeah. I love it from a historical standpoint, but I also double-majored in history at Mizzou, so.

KA: I’ll ask you a question I asked John Walters on our podcast. Staying with the election theme — What do you do to make Notre Dame football great again — if you’re Jack Swarbrick?

JJ: First and foremost, better offensive line play and a healthy stable of running backs.
And a renewed commitment to running the football.

No. 2, stop with the mind-numbing special teams mistakes.

No. 3, a COLLEGE-level defense that has a clear identity that’s easy for young players to pick up and cycle through the system.

Those are mine. Yours?

KA: So those feel like things BK needs to do. Is that the same thing as Swarbrick?

JJ: Ah, I see what you’re saying. I only ask because I think those are the principles that we should all agree with, but at the same time, i think you have to make some changes to the staff and program at a macro level to do that.

JJ: If I’m Swarbrick, you can’t be shy about another million-dollar coordinator.
But you better make sure your coach gets the right one.

KA: Completely agree.

JJ: And I think you have to push back if Kelly really is serious about not needing significant changes from this season.

KA: I think the loss to Navy essentially killed the Greg Hudson / in-house DC solution.

JJ: Which is probably a net benefit they don’t even consider that.

KA: I’m at the point where ANY big-picture topic that BK talks about at this point, it’s merely just doing the least amount of damage possible and just trying to get to the offseason.

JJ: Which is entirely fair.

KA: Here’s one for you: Over/Under on number of snaps played by Jarron Jones against Army?

JJ: Hmmmmm. It can’t be 12! Kelly said, without coming out and directly saying it, that Jones had a bad week of practice leading up to Navy. But with Daniel Cage still out with that concussion, Notre Dame really needs him in there for more than a couple of series to have a shot at stopping Army’s offense with any consistency.

So I’ll say 20.5. Which is still low, but probably one or two more series than he had against Navy.

KA: Notre Dame actually did okay against the fullback against Navy, all things considered. And I do expect the safety play to be much, much better after learning on the fly.

Does Army scare you as much as Navy?

JJ: Not at all. Statistically they’re a better matchup for ND, which given last week’s one-point loss, *should* result in a win on Saturday. But we’ve seen this before, with games that should be wins turning into losses, so who knows.

KA: I’m in agreement on that point. I think the lack of explosive plays from Army leads you to believe that they’re less dynamic running the offense, but then again, their defense has been no joke.

***

KA: I’ll leave you with this: As we approach the second Shamrock Series in San Antonio, against an opponent like Army, where do you stand on this peculiarity of ND’s schedule? Is it worth taking this gig on the road? Or does it necessitate a good opponent and an interesting venue?

JJ: It’ll be good to hit the reset button on it in 2017. I think the opponents need to get better for it, more like ASU in 2013. Otherwise, it stops being a showcase game. I mean this year, ticket prices on the secondary market are looooooow. Like Tampa Bay Rays in the midst of a losing season low.

I’m interested to see locations and opponents for it starting back up in 2018. Maybe it goes international?

KA: Ireland (not a Shamrock Series game) was an incredible experience. And ND traveled to Dublin about 25x better than any of the schools to follow.

JJ: The American owners of AS Roma want Notre Dame and BC to play at their new stadium with the pope flipping the coin, so…  (**That was a few years ago they said that…)

KA: Rome would be awesome. Sign me up for that assignment. But little things like Toronto or Mexico City don’t sound terrible, either.

JJ: Yep yep yep. Or Vancouver. That would be great. Just so we could all go to Vancouver.

KA: I am driving the Vancouver bandwagon. No better city to visit and lots of fun to be had. Just find me the Under Armour tie-in to Notre Dame and Canada and funky helmets.

I’ll start you with the predictions. I told Sal Interdonato that the Irish would win 31-20.

JJ: Notre Dame 33, Army 24 Pretty close!

KA: Great minds. Look forward to us being equally right or wrong. Last tip before you travel. Just remember — There’s no basement in the Alamo.

***

With the election all anybody can talk about, John Walters and I dipped our toes in the water, before asking if Brian Kelly could make Notre Dame football great again?  (Warning: It’s not all football.) 

 

Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers

Getty Images
1 Comment

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

Getty Images
4 Comments

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

Getty Images
25 Comments

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

Getty Images
17 Comments

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…)