Five things we learned: Virginia Tech 34, Notre Dame 31

72 Comments

Behind center and ready to play a hero, Malik Zaire awaited the snap. Little did he know the clock was already running.

Seven of the 13 precious seconds remaining in the fourth quarter ticked off the field as the senior surveyed the field, the Irish still needing a nice gain to make a game-tying field goal even possible. And after Zaire left the pocket looking to make a play, even a completion wouldn’t have made a difference. He was out of time.

A fitting final snap of the season in Notre Dame Stadium if there ever was one.

Notre Dame’s fast start and 17-0 lead were not enough, as the Irish fell for the seventh time this year, with Virginia Tech rallying to win 34-31. After scoring on four of their first five drives and exploding for 24 first-half points, DeShone Kizer and the offense cooled off, punting on six of their next seven series as the Hokies offense rallied for the win.

A young Irish defense fought valiantly but gave up four scoring drives in the second half. Kizer’s couldn’t replicate his first-half success.  And any hope of stealing a bowl appearance with two wins against the season’s toughest back-to-back is finished.

So as the lights go out on Notre Dame Stadium for the final time this season, let’s find out what we learned.

 

A gutty effort by DeShone Kizer wasn’t enough to get it done. 

In what might have been his final game in Notre Dame Stadium, DeShone Kizer showed plenty of heart. But he didn’t play well enough to win the game.

Kizer completed 16 of 33 throws for 235 yards and two touchdowns. He led the team in rushing attempts with 16, earning all 69 yards he gained. But when the Irish needed to move the chains and win the game late, the Irish came up empty twice.

Of course, not all of that is on Kizer. A strong wind made accuracy a major challenge. The offensive line that protected him well for the majority of the game, struggled down the stretch. And a perfect deep ball that Kizer lofted down the sideline slid through Equanimeous St. Brown‘s hands, a game-changing catch that never was.  On a Saturday where the Irish offense needed to carry the team to victory, Kizer was just three of 15 in the second half, with Bud Foster’s defense shutting down the Irish in the game’s final 30 minutes, save Josh Adams’ 67-yard touchdown run.

Kizer was unwilling to discuss his future postgame, only that he had a decision to make after the season. But he reportedly hung around on the field after the loss, perhaps taking things in one last time before declaring for the NFL Draft, a decision the smart money already thinks is made.

After taking two clear head-shots that deserved personal foul calls, Kizer clearly left it all on the field. Unfortunately, there were a few missed plays out there as well, and they ended up costing the Irish.

 

Notre Dame’s young secondary couldn’t keep pace with Virginia Tech’s talented receivers. 

Someday a few years from now, Notre Dame fans will look back at the challenge Donte Vaughn, Devin Studstill and Julian Love faced on Saturday and reminisce that games like this helped forge the unit into something better. Until then, it’ll just be called growing pains.

Asked to go toe-to-toe with perhaps the best trio of receivers they’ll face all season (or at least until next weekend), the young defensive backs had some tough assignments, with Isaiah Ford catching seven of his 10 targets for 86 yards and Cam Phillips and Bucky Hodges bringing in touchdown catches. Add in a long catch and run by slot man C.J. Carroll that went for 62 yards and the Irish were unable to make a big play against the Hokies passing attack—other than the gift-wrapped interception that bounced through the hands of Phillips and into the arms of Drue Tranquill.

The Irish defense had multiple opportunities to go out and win the game, but came up short. After holding the Hokies to just 135 yards in the first half they gave up 284 yards in the second, with 206 of those coming through the air. (That doesn’t count the 15 yards that came on a questionable pass interference call on Cole Luke, a play that Kelly thought Luke played perfectly.)

 

We knew the young secondary would have its hands full. Ultimately, it was the Hokies that won the aerial battle.

 

Once again, a fast start can’t make up for a soft finish. 

As we’ve seen far too often this season, Notre Dame’s fast start wasn’t enough. And after being one of the best coaches in America when playing with a lead, the Irish have been disastrous this year, blowing a 17-zip start and a 10-point halftime lead.

Asked to put his finger on the issue, Kelly couldn’t identify one thing.

“We had some balls that were catchable that we didn’t catch. I just don’t think we executed quite as well offensively,” Kelly said. “We weren’t as sharp in the second half as we were in the first half.”

It helps that Virginia Tech got its act together. After Jarod Evans gave away a fumble and the Hokies stumbled out of the gates, head coach Justin Fuente rallied his team—even as a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty cost his team an offensive series. Evans led the charge, the massive quarterback the most effective ball-carrier for the Hokies run game, a challenging personnel matchup especially with a fullback on the field that forced the Irish out of their preferred five-man secondary.

For Kelly, it’s another tight loss. A coach who built his reputation on winning games late and doing the job in November is now struggling to find solutions at a critical time of the year. A loser of just 13 one-score games in his first six seasons, he’s lost seven in this season alone.

This one as painful as the rest, his young team giving up the game’s final 13 points to go home a loser.

 

It should be back to the drawing board for Notre Dame’s offensive leadership. 

Last season, the Irish deftly handled the trio of Brian Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford atop the org chart on the offensive side of the football. This season? Quite the opposite.

Because after another hot start to the game—triggered by some pretty impressive Xs and Os and play scripting—it was Virginia Tech that made all the winning adjustments, with Notre Dame’s offensive trio unable to counterpunch after the Hokies game back from halftime.

After reluctantly giving up play-calling last season and seeing the team put up its most explosive numbers ever, this football team’s schizophrenic nature has to be driving Kelly crazy. And after leaning on NFL talent like Will Fuller and C.J. Prosise, this team just hasn’t been able to find the right formula for clutch, late-game play.

When asked about the offensive coaching structure and the decision to give-up play-calling, Kelly steered clear of any second-guessing.

 

“I’m trying the best I can to offer some solutions, but you really have to trust in the play-calling and the execution quite frankly is part of that,” Kelly explained. It’s play-calling, it’s execution, and we had some opportunities that we didn’t convert.”

With his career at a crossroads, expect the head coach to reevaluate the hierarchy. And if you were a betting man, you’d have to assume that Kelly will go back to betting on himself.

 

 

There’s a young team with a promising future in South Bend. But finding a way to shake off this nightmarish season will be Brian Kelly’s largest challenge. 

Eventually it sounds like a broken record. Even the head coach acknowledged it after the game.

“These kids are wonderful kids. I’m just at a loss for words as to what to tell them,” Kelly said. “It’s just been a difficult year. They’ve worked so hard. They play so hard. They’ve been ahead in so many of these games and been so close in the fourth quarter.  Unfortunately, it’s just one of those years. I haven’t had one like this in my 25, 26 years of being a head coach. It just hasn’t gone their way.”

Like we’ve seen all season, the positives have been there. Big plays from Chase Claypool and Chris Finke. Huge games from young defenders like Te’von Coney and veterans like James Onwualu and Jarron Jones.

But as the Irish look for the successful recipe for winning football, they too often have come up just short—with a different culprit seemingly each week. Missed blocks. Ten penalties (and a few crucial ones missed.) Red zone miscues that turn seven points into three. And a crunch time mistake that turns into a fatal mistake.

“I just love our kids. I love the way they battle. We’re going to wake up from this nightmare,” Kelly said, before joking that he hoped he’ll wake up 11-0.

He won’t. And any relief from this nightmare won’t come this November, not with a trip to Los Angeles next weekend that’ll require his players to provide the motivation, now that Notre Dame’s bowl dreams are dashed.

But beyond that, this will be on the head coach. And after assuring himself his first losing season since he rebuilt Central Michigan’s football program, the focus will be on the man on charge. Because he’s got a talented group of players. Now he desperately needs to teach them how to win.

 

 

 

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

jones
rivals.com
23 Comments

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
45 Comments

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
26 Comments

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)
Getty Images
13 Comments

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.