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Five things we learned: USC 45, Notre Dame 27

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LOS ANGELES — The end is here. And it looked, for the most part, like the rest of it.

Notre Dame’s 45-27 loss shared all too many similarities with their other seven defeats.  Special teams blunders. A devastating stretch before halftime that altered the game’s outcome. And a mostly gutty effort that ended with the Irish losing because they gave away much more than they took.

The Irish showed plenty of fight on Saturday. Unfortunately, they showed just as much charity. Two special teams touchdowns for Adoree Jackson. A DeShone Kizer gift-wrapped pick six. Add them together and three scores were just too many to spot the hottest football team in the country.

The Irish end their season with four wins. They leave behind many more unanswered questions. Let’s find out what we learned.

 

Adoree Jackson against Notre Dame’s special teams was an unfair fight. 

Notre Dame knew Adoree Jackson was one of the country’s most dangerous return men. They kicked to him anyway.

Jackson’s 55-yard punt return and 97-yard kickoff return were two more touchdowns given up by Scott Booker’s special teams, a fitting end to a nightmarish season where the five return scores allowed only covered a fraction of the damage done.

On a day where the Irish special teams needed to be clean, they were anything but. And when Jackson picked up a bouncing punt and sprinted to the end zone, he turned a field goal-game into a 10-pointer. And when Jackson answered his coverage blunder with a hurdling, highlight reel return touchdown, he all but ended the game.

“Unfortunately today, special teams was a huge deciding factor in the game and we gave up two touchdowns there to a very talented player,” Kelly said postgame. “But we knew how talented he was going into the game.”

That talent presented omnipresent problems, the Irish unwilling to kick away from Jackson when they knew playmakers like Ronald Jones and JuJu Smith-Schuster awaited. And with Jackson’s lone catch going 52-yards for a touchdown, the All-American candidate left Irish defenders grasping at air as the all-purpose weapon scored three times—with Irish fans hoping they’ve seen Jackson for the last time with a stay-or-go decision coming soon.

(Speaking of those…)

 

DeShone Kizer may well be a high first-round draft pick. But before he makes his final decision, he’d be wise to look at all the information on hand. 

DeShone Kizer hasn’t made any decisions. That was the message from the quarterback after he faced a swarm of tape recorders, all hoping to get something from a football player far too smart to offer anything.

But if this is indeed it for Kizer, he’ll leave a resume far less convincing than the one he had entering the season. As NFL teams looks for a quarterback to change the future of their franchise, Kizer will need to prove that the player showing up on tape is the real deal, not a signal-caller who regressed in his second season as a starter.

Kizer’s final Saturday of the season was another mixed bag. His 17 completions included some throws that’ll make football men nod with approval. But his 15 misses included some head-shakers, none more confounding than Ajene Harris‘s interception, the throw into coverage breaking Notre Dame’s back.

Kizer’s receiving corps was undermanned, with Corey Holmes struggling in a featured role and Chris Finke supplying most of the playmaking. Add in challenging weather conditions, and it was difficult to tell if Kizer struggled or merely fought an uphill fight.

“There were some good things that he did. At times, he didn’t get the support that he needed,” Kelly said postgame. “There were some balls that could’ve been caught. It could’ve been a little bit better of a throw, a little bit better of a catch. It was kind of a mixed bag.”

Notre Dame has submitted paperwork for an NFL evaluation, a key factor in Ronnie Stanley deciding to return after his third season. While Kizer is a favorite of the mock draft community, he’d be wise to make sure the reality matches with the perception before making any final decisions.

 

Two nightmarish minutes told the story of the season. 

In the second quarter, Justin Yoon trotted onto the field, hoping to even a game at 10-10. Instead, the sophomore kicker’s miss triggered a two-minute run that was the beginning of the end for the Irish.

Technically, the Irish defense delayed things, forcing the Trojans to punt in just four plays. But with the Irish down just three points and hoping to take some momentum into half (Kelly deferred possession until the third quarter), they imploded—going backwards before the Irish threw away some good luck on special teams (Scott Daly’s high snap that blew through Tyler Newsome’s hands was erased by the officiating crew), trading a safety for a touchdown as Jackson’s magic act starting with just over 90 seconds remaining.

Two players later, Kizer’s interception turned a tight game into a 17-point deficit. And with 63 seconds left in the half, Notre Dame was lucky to get to the break without any more damage—even though the game was essentially done.

Kelly has often talked about the lapses this football team has shown, a season marked by streaks of poor football that too often contributed to a critical loss. That was evident once again.

“We just have not been able to sustain performances for four quarters,” Kelly said. “We’ve shown a propensity of self-inflicted wounds.”

 

The mistakes covered up a gutty performance by an Irish team that went toe-to-toe with the Trojans. 

Notre Dame wasn’t blown off the field. They weren’t outclassed. And while an eighth defeat and the end of a season eliminates any opportunity to find silver linings, the fact that Notre Dame kept Sam Darnold in check and out-scored the Trojans offense is certainly something most didn’t see coming.

Neither was Josh Adams’ afternoon, a 180-yard performance the high-water mark of the season. While Ronald Jones broke loose for a long touchdown and Jackson got one of his own, the defense—playing many young players—will take this momentum forward.

“I liked a lot of things that we did today. The toughness that I was really looking for,” Kelly said. “We had a lot of inexperienced players out there so they learned a lot from it.”

Julian Love’s nine tackles end his season on a high note. Elijah Taylor’s surprising play gives a clue as to how the Irish will move forward without Jarron Jones. Kevin Stepherson left Jackson in his wake as he caught his fifth touchdown. Equanimeous St. Brown‘s late touchdown catch from Malik Zaire might have come in garbage time, but a ninth score is a big number for the sophomore.

If Brian Kelly is indeed going to lead this team forward, he’ll need to find a way to begin that transition to 2017 now.

 

The coaching carousel doesn’t look like it’ll include Brian Kelly. But that doesn’t mean big changes aren’t coming—and maybe sooner than later. 

As Jack Swarbrick watched from the side of the cramped interview tent, he didn’t look like an athletic director about to make a cataclysmic move. So unless a plot twist befitting the final scenes of the Godfather takes place over the next 48 hours, Notre Dame will move forward with Brian Kelly atop the football program.

But that doesn’t mean big changes aren’t coming.

Kelly will return to South Bend to take stock of his program. He’ll talk to his outgoing players—not to mention his boss—and forge a path. And that likely means some significant changes to a coaching staff that’s already looking or a defensive coordinator.

“Everything is on the table. I have to evaluate a lot of things within the program,” Kelly said. “There are some really good things in place but I’ve always felt that the blend of continuity and change is the sweet spot. And for me, we need to clearly look at where that is because it was off. And so I have to clearly look at where that mix is of continuity and change.”

A defensive coordinator is the first step forward, a national search that likely needs to reach a conclusion before the team’s year-end banquet set for mid-December. A change on special teams is also probably mandatory, Scott Booker leaving few who believe he’s a viable option for any longer.

In the past, Kelly has leaned on his own coaching network to find answers. The optics of that alone lead you to believe that will be off the table. But heading into his eighth season, a reinvention is in order.

Whether Kelly can accomplish that or not remains the unanswerable question. But change better come quickly. Because a September schedule that features a visit from Georgia, four bowl teams, and Mark Dantonio will be here before we know it.

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…)