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Pregame Sick Pack: Tackling the Trojans

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When the 2016 season began, most had the finale as the marquee game on Notre Dame’s schedule. But few imagined its importance would be one-sided, USC the only team capable of improving its postseason fate.

For the Irish, motivation is internal. With no postseason bowl possible, the chance to salvage something—or play spoiler to the Trojans—is all that’s left. And just days after the NCAA did its best to embarrass the Notre Dame football program, anything less than a wholehearted effort in Los Angeles could bring the same result.

With Thanksgiving in the rearview and an afternoon kick set for just after high-noon (local time) in Los Angeles, let’s crack open the final pregame six pack.

 

Sam Darnold may steal all the attention, but USC’s ground game could be the real weapon on Saturday. 

We’ll get to Darnold in a bit. But if the Irish are going to find a way to win on Saturday, they’ll need to slow down a USC rushing attack that’s on fire lately. Since Arnold was inserted into the starting lineup, the Trojans’ running game has been explosive, averaging 240 yards a game and being held below 175 yards by just Washington.

Ronald Jones has been the heavy-hitter lately, starting the season slowly but looking like the home run threat that the Irish recruited heavily out of Texas as well. Jones has seen his numbers explode since mid-October, scoring 10 of his 11 touchdowns in that span, averaging 137 yards a game.

Senior Justin Davis was slowed by an ankle sprain, but looks to be healthy as well, giving the Trojans two explosive rushers who’ll challenge Notre Dame all afternoon, running behind a veteran offensive line anchored by seniors Zack Banner and Chad Wheeler.

 

Notre Dame’s receivers must make plays downfield against USC’s secondary. 

Last year, Will Fuller landed a haymaker on Trojan star Adoree Jackson. Without Fuller, can the Irish find a receiver capable of landing that punch?

Torii Hunter practiced this week, though his availability for the season finale isn’t clear. That leaves Kevin Stepherson and Equanimeous St. Brown on the outside, both putting together nice seasons, though each have only reminded Irish fans just how special Fuller’s 2015 campaign really was.

Notre Dame knows the Trojan starters at cornerback well, having recruited both Jackson and Iman “Biggie” Marshall before both ultimately decided to stay home. And while Jackson’s reputation as one of college football’s biggest playmakers is deserved, he has been more susceptible to the big play than you might expect.

On the season, Jackson’s given up five touchdown passes. He’s ranked just 130th at his position by PFF when measuring the opponent’s passer rating when targeting him, a surprise when you consider Marshall’s ranked just 121st. PFF’s evaluations across the board don’t matchup with Jackson’s reputation, giving credence to the idea that the young and unproven Irish receivers have a chance to do some damage in the season finale.

 

Can Notre Dame start fast and also finish strong?

We’ve seen the Irish get off to a quick start. We haven’t seen them mirror that with a strong fourth quarter. Brian Kelly talked about those struggles on Tuesday, clearly understanding the difficulties that have hit his football team in the fourth quarter, when so many of these games are still on the line.

“We’ve been outscored 51-16,” Kelly said, focused on the team’s fourth-quarter results. “You’ve got to look at everything. You’ve got to look at structure on defense, you’ve got to look at structure on offense.

“You’ve got to look at your special teams. You’ve got to look at conditioning. You’ve got to look at everything. You know, fourth quarter — we’ve scored 46 points in the fourth quarter this year. At this time last year we’ve scored 106. So we’re down 60 points in the fourth quarter.”

Those 60 points are enough to change the balance of just about every defeat this season, when you consider that Notre Dame’s seven losses have come by a combined 32 points. And it’s a big reason why Kelly is going back to the drawing board this offseason to root out the issue.

“I don’t think there’s any stone that you leave unturned when you go to the fourth quarter and not have the success in the fourth quarter,” Kelly said. “Also, there’s experience and not being experienced and not handling the mental end of things, and so there are a number of different factors that are involved in there.”

 

Sam Darnold has been dynamic. So the Irish need to take advantage of the mistakes he’s still making. 

Brian Kelly’s appreciation for what Sam Darnold does for USC’s offense was apparent from the very start of his comments on Tuesday.

“Obviously the big difference there, Sam Donald, when he’s been inserted into the lineup, that’s been a transformation for that football team offensively,” Kelly said. “He’s as good as I’ve seen in a long, long time. His escapability, his ability to throw on the run, his accuracy. I don’t see anything there that is anything short of brilliant in terms of the way he’s playing right now, and of course he’s got a great supporting cast.”

That’s high praise from a coach who certainly sets a high bar for quarterback praise. And now Kelly and his staff need to figure out how to slow down Darnold, a guy who is dangerous as a thrower and runner, and plays as aggressively as any quarterback the Irish have seen this season.

That aggression is where the Irish need to take aim.  Because while Darnold’s completing 68.3 percent of his throws, he’s still giving a few back to the opponent. He has six interceptions in the past four games, the only black marks on a stretch of football that has the Trojans playing among the best in the country. (He’s doing all of that while still completing 70 percent of his throws in those four games.)

 

Can the Irish show heart after all that has gone wrong?

Notre Dame is a 17-point underdog on Saturday. Against USC. And that’s usually a very, very bad sign for the Irish.

Will this game get ugly? History isn’t on Notre Dame’s side. Because as Tim Prister of Irish Illustrated points out, Notre Dame in the roll of a heavy underdog against the Trojans usually ends with the Victory March getting played on repeat.

But this Irish football team looks different. And if we’re to believe the players and the head coach, they’ll perform differently, especially considering the mulligan we gave this team the last time they went to the Coliseum and got hammered—with a defensive depth chart that was decimated.

Injuries won’t be a factor on Saturday. Pride will. So Notre Dame will need to buck the trend if they’re going to be able to surprise the oddsmakers.

 

 

DeShone Kizer is poised to be an early first-round pick. But if this is it, can he deliver a big victory on his way out?

Quarterback DeShone Kizer is expected to leave Notre Dame after the season and head to the NFL. But before he does, a big victory on his resume may help his cause.

Kizer has had a ton hoisted on his shoulders this season. And while he’s done a ton of good things in a very trying season, an upset victory and a big-time performance would certainly help both his personal draft stock and the Irish’s exit plans.

After a really strong debut season, Kizer’s trajectory has been a little flatter than most expected. His touchdown passes are up and interceptions are down, but his overall quarterback rating is below last season’s and his completion percentage has dipped below 60 percent. Against good defenses those numbers are down even farther, Virginia Tech the latest to hold Kizer in check, joining Stanford, NC State (with the assist of a hurricane), and Michigan State.

Sure, a young set of skill players has been a major part of this. Throwing to three first-year starters as opposed to Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle will do that.

But if Kizer’s ready to be the hope of a future NFL franchise, he’ll find a way to play a great game on Saturday, where the weather is supposed to make a turn for the worst as the game rolls on. Because a win against one of college football’s hottest teams might be a heckuva way to make a first impression.

Rochell drafted in 7th round; three other former Notre Dame players sign

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All the unnecessary draft conversation may have centered on DeShone Kizer, but the quarterback was not the only former Notre Dame player watching this weekend’s NFL Draft with rapt attention. Aside from Kizer, only Isaac Rochell heard his name called. The San Diego Chargers picked the defensive lineman in the seventh round Saturday with the 225th overall pick.

Rochell finished his Irish career with appearance in 49 of 51 possible games and 167 tackles, including 22 for loss and 4.5 sacks. In 2016, he recorded 55 tackles, good for sixth on the team, with seven for loss.

By the end of the evening, three more former Notre Dame starters had signed on with NFL teams as undrafted free agents. It should be noted, many argue the route available for undrafted free agents is preferable to that of late-round picks. An undrafted free agent can choose which of a handful of situations is preferable to him for whatever reason. A late-round pick does not have that luxury, but still makes a comparable salary.

Linebacker James Onwualu opted to join Rochell with the Chargers. Defensive lineman Jarron Jones signed with the New York Giants. Cornerback Cole Luke latched on with the Carolina Panthers.

Onwualu began his Irish career as a receiver before moving to linebacker before his sophomore season. He finished his career with 143 tackles, including 75 in 2016 with 11.5 for loss and three sacks. His 75 tackles finished behind only now-rising senior linebackers Nyles Morgan’s 94 and Drue Tranquill’s 79.

Battling injuries throughout his Notre Dame career, Jones made 105 tackles with 45 in 2016. His 11 tackles for loss were outdone only by the aforementioned Onwualu total.

Luke made 152 tackles in his Irish career, including 48 last season, and eight interceptions.

Three more players from past years’ Irish rosters could yet find an NFL home—long snapper Scott Daly, defensive lineman-turned-tight end Chase Hounshell and running back Tarean Folston. If any or all do not sign, they can still join teams for rookie mini-camps in hopes of making a positive impression.

RELATED READING: Browns pick former Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer 20th in second round

Browns pick former Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer 20th in second round

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After months of pointless chatter and a night spent waiting, DeShone Kizer’s NFL Draft experience ended Friday night when the Cleveland Browns drafted the former Notre Dame quarterback with the 20th pick in the second round, the No. 52 overall selection.

Originally from Toledo, Ohio, Kizer will have the opportunity to earn the starting job for the franchise less than two hours from his hometown. The Browns trotted out five different quarterbacks in 2016, only two of which remain with the team. Rookie Cody Kessler played in nine games, throwing for 1,380 yards and six touchdowns with only one interception while fellow rookie Kevin Hogan threw for 104 yards and two interceptions in four games.

The Browns have since added Brock Osweiler in a trade with the Houston Texans, though that trade was largely-viewed as a cash-for-picks swap, with the Browns “paying” for picks by taking on Osweiler’s contract in which he is owed $47 million over the next three seasons, including $16 million this season.

A year ago, the No. 52 pick (linebacker Deion Jones to the Atlanta Falcons) received a four-year, $4.546 million contract with a $1.506 million signing bonus.

Hall of fame running back and Browns legend Jim Brown announced the selection of Kizer at the draft festivities.

Speculation a year ago pegged Kizer as an early first-round pick. As the draft approached, projections of his slot varied widely, many including a second-round status. Despite first-round theatrics leading to three quarterbacks going in the first 12 picks Thursday night, Kizer had to wait another day before learning where he will start his NFL career. (more…)

Friday at 4: ‘Attention to detail’ includes Notre Dame Stadium

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Brian Kelly proselytized multiple abstract concepts this spring. By the end of the 15 practices and subsequent media sessions, even the Irish coach knew some of his references to “grit” would be met by muted eye rolls from the press. If a questioner included the word in their query, Kelly reacted with tongue-in-cheek approval, “You’ve been listening.”

In his press conference the day before spring practices commenced, Kelly used the phrase “attention to detail” six separate times. While he was referring to his players on the football field, Kelly could have also been discussing the ongoing—but supposedly close to finished—construction at Notre Dame Stadium known as Campus Crossroads.

The three buildings around the exterior of the Stadium, the added suites and the video board above the south end zone have garnered the headlines. On a macro level, those are the changes of note. On a micro level, however, other details have trickled into the public stream of knowledge as the work nears its conclusion.

Over the weekend—and now reignited by a column from the South Bend Tribune’s Mike Vorel—the image of the newly-added visitors’ tunnel delighted Irish fans. Vorel likens the narrow entry to “the spot they’d stash the gladiators before feeding them to starving tigers in The Coliseum.” Assuredly, Vorel is going for dramatic effect, and it must work considering its citation here, but even a realistic view of the tunnel’s effects bodes well.

If nothing else, Notre Dame players should enjoy something of a psychological boost when racing out of their adult-sized tunnel and seeing their opponent trickle out of a tunnel seemingly-sized for ants. (Yes, the north end zone tunnel is at least three times bigger than the visitors’ tunnel.)

That pale, slanted staircase holds none of the luxuries of the home team’s entrance, something Kelly went out of his way to praise after using it in Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. (more…)

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