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.

 

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.