Pregame Six Pack: Another option opportunity

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The Shamrock Series is here. With the university essentially picking up and moving to San Antonio for the weekend, there’s more than just a football game on Saturday afternoon planned, as presentations from university faculty and researchers, a 5k run/walk, and a mass all on the docket.

Brian Kelly’s dance card isn’t as full, but his objectives are more pressing. Namely, find a way to keep the season alive for another week. Because winning against Army feels beyond mandatory, and there’s also a hope that the team finds a spark before returning to South Bend for another postseason elimination game against Virginia Tech.

The mission is clear, and it is critical. Win a football game, or stare a school record for futility straight in the eyes.

Let’s get to the Pregame Six Pack.

 

It feels like a lifetime ago, but Kelly’s first win over Army in a Shamrock Series game was a gigantic one. 

After suffering a humiliating defeat against Navy, Notre Dame rebounded in a big way to beat Army, a 27-3 victory in a game that Brian Kelly’s young staff absolutely needed to have. Playing in Yankee Stadium and giving up a 17-play, 78-yard opening drive that ended with a Black Knights field goal, Bob Diaco’s defense stiffened the rest of the way, stopping Army’s fullback and knocking quarterback Trent Steelman, not giving up another point.

Watching from the Yankee Stadium press box that night, you could see the emotion on the field after the victory. Coaches hugged as they went to the locker room, Diaco embracing Paul Longo after the defensive performance.

Kelly’s message postgame sounds an awful lot like the one he’s delivering to his wayward team these days.

“It’s a culmination of just the same message,” Kelly said on that chilly November evening. “I know it’s boring and it’s not a great story for you. But it’s just a consistency in our approach every single day. Guys are really understanding where they fit and how to play the game.”

 

DeShone Kizer added another wrinkle to what will soon be a very interesting off-season. 

Most expect DeShone Kizer to leave Notre Dame after this season, a projected first-round draft pick with the chance to sign a very lucrative NFL contract. But Kizer spoke this week about the future, and his comments certainly leave things much more open than most expect.

When asked about sophomore Brandon Wimbush, currently redshirting and preserving a season of eligibility, Kizer spoke about an upcoming position battle—something that would be music to Irish fans’ ears.

” I look forward to competing with him whenever that time does come,” Kizer said. “I think there’s going to be three guys here who all have the ability to throw the ball with the best of them. There’s going to be three guys who have had the experience in game, and that competition is going to be very interesting.”

Kizer clarified that those three quarterbacks were indeed Kizer, Malik Zaire and Wimbush. And that answer is surprising, mostly because the smart money pointed at a depth chart that had just Wimbush at the top with both Kizer (NFL) and Zaire (graduate transfer) moving on.

So even if there’s no decision from either veteran quarterback on their fate after 2016, consider this another interesting wrinkle in an offseason that’ll be filled with big news.

 

Expect more time for young talent in the secondary. 

Drue Tranquill and Julian Love are both cleared for Saturday’s game, two key pieces of the Irish’s secondary against Army. But even with Tranquill’s return, and his usually stellar play against the option, expect to see more from the young Irish secondary, with safeties Devin Studstill and Jalen Elliott earning time at safety and Love, Troy Pride and Donte Vaughn continuing to eat up reps at cornerback.

Kelly already praised Love’s play at corner, earning high marks for his ability to read and react to Navy’s option. But outside of a few tough plays, Studstill, Elliott and Vaughn all held their own as well.

Kelly especially liked Elliott’s play, the type of instinctive football they saw on tape when they recruited him—and certainly a different player than the one who froze up on an onside kick a few weeks ago.

“He had to settle into the game a little bit, but once he did, we started to see his ability to run and put himself in the kind of positions that were really what we saw from him coming in to Notre Dame,” Kelly explained.

 

Expect another big afternoon for Greer Martini. 

Notre Dame’s “option specialist” is much more than that. And after leading the Irish in tackles against Navy, expect that number to go up. Because Ahmad Bradshaw will be challenging the Irish on the edge of the defense, and Martini will be there waiting.

After starting his career as a young player who struggled to control his emotions and the highs and lows of on-field success, Martini’s taken big strides since a really disappointing game against Texas, allowing his football IQ to take over, something that pays off against the triple option.

“He had a good sense in high school of defending it and understanding it. He plays the game that way,” Kelly said Thursday. ” He’s a very cerebral kid, very smart. He attacks the football but in a real controlled manner. He’s never out of control. That’s really the most important thing. You have to attack the option, but you have to be in control, and he does that well.”

 

This defense needs to get off the football field. 

Army isn’t Navy, not when it comes to moving the chains. But the Black Knights are still a Top 35 offense when it comes to converting third downs, no slouch, but not up to the task with the Midshipmen, a top 10 unit.

So as we look back at the Irish performance last weekend, the lack of offensive possessions was a direct response to the struggles to get off the field on D. And the challenges come when a triple option attack is willing to risk it on 4th-down, stressing the defense for another down.

“I think the strain comes from 4th-and-1. That’s where the strain comes from. And so that’s why it’s so important that when it’s 3rd-and-5,” Kelly explained.  “Where we started to do a really good job in the fourth quarter is we started bending back the runners. There were a couple of occasions where we didn’t bend back runners in the third quarter.

“They were falling forward, so instead of 4th-and-3, it’s 4th-and-1. And so that’s where it becomes mentally a little bit more difficult when it’s 4th-and-1. You get them 4th and 4, now go ahead. Let’s see what you got. It’s the 4th-and-1s where you’re really — you’re not successful on third down when it’s 4th and 1.”

Army doesn’t have Will Worth. But they do rely on their fullback quite a bit more than the Midshipmen, meaning the Irish defense (maybe even Jarron Jones), will need to slow down 220-pound sophomore Andy Davidson, a converted linebacker who plays physically.

 

Paper tiger or difficult matchup? We’ll find out soon about Army’s defense. 

On paper, Army’s success on defense is startling. The Black Knights are giving up just 18.1 points a game, good for 13th in the nation. Their rushing defense is in the Top 25 and their passing defense is No. 6 in the country, allowing just 166 yards per game. That success is incredible, especially when you consider the physical mismatches the Black Knights face on a weekly basis.

But digging deeper into those numbers requires you to look at Army’s opponents. And Notre Dame’s offense, even as inconsistent as its been all season, is the best the Black Knights will face.

Only Air Force, who scored 31 and racked up 444 yards against Army, is ranked in the Top 60. And Rice, UTEP, Buffalo, North Texas and Wake Forest are all ranked below No. 90, with UTEP, UNT and Wake 107th or worse.

So while Army defensive coordinator Jay Bateman is sure to throw some exotic looks at Notre Dame’s offensive line and Alex Aukerman and Andrew King have wreaked their fair share of havoc, it’s a different type of test for Army this weekend.

 

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…)