AP

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. USC

33 Comments

Notre Dame’s 2016 season is finished, the Irish coming up woefully short of their lofty preseason goals. And as fast as the team bus could leave the Coliseum on Saturday evening, Brian Kelly needs to turn his program around.

But before we get into that heavy offseason remodel, let’s get through the good, bad and ugly.

 

THE GOOD

Josh Adams. It wasn’t a great season for Josh Adams, who couldn’t get out of training camp without getting dinged up. But he certainly finished the season strong—a career-best 180 yards on the ground against a USC defense that had held six of its previous seven opponents to season-low point totals.

Adams burst out of the gates, stopped just short of the goal line on a 74-yard scamper to open the game. But even without that big number buoying his stat line, Adams still ran for nearly six yards a carry, a very nice outing.

Adams will be a key piece of next season’s offense. Finishing on a good note was a good start.

 

Jarron Jones. Total respect to Jones, who certainly played like a senior leader on Saturday, another monster effort in the trenches with seven tackles and 1.5 TFL. Any worry that he’d be checked out after bowl eligibility disappeared was eliminated immediately, and Jones led the Irish defense with a PFF-best +3.9 rating—a dominant effort by any measurement.

Postgame, Jones was proud of the defense’s effort, emotional about this being it for him at Notre Dame, and also emboldened about the status of head coach Brian Kelly.

“I think it’s garbage. If anything, Coach Kelly deserves another chance, if people are talking about him being fired,” Jones said. “The fact that it’s one bad season. He took us to the national championship and the Fiesta Bowl last season. He’s a great coach and just because we have one trip up doesn’t mean he should be fired.”

 

Equanimeous St. Brown & Kevin Stepherson. We wanted to see Notre Dame’s young receivers hold their own against USC’s talented cornerbacks. Well St. Brown led the game with 94 receiving yards and a touchdown and Stepherson torched Adoree Jackson for a 29-yard touchdown on a double move.

While Torii Hunter wasn’t able to give much to the Irish offense in his limited action, the two sophomores looked like starting outside receivers—with Stepherson finally getting action after Corey Holmes was targeted 10 times and came away with just four catches for 29 yards.

Notre Dame’s athleticism on the edge wasn’t great. But it was a nice building block for next season, St. Brown and Stepherson key pieces to the 2017 puzzle.

 

Julian Love. Notre Dame’s freshman cornerback held his own against USC’s talented receiving corps, giving up seven catches, but limiting those receptions to just 51 yards.

Love looks like a building block. With Troy Pride playing 25 snaps and Donte Vaughn 17, those three freshman will have every chance to take over next season, with Shaun Crawford hopefully ready to return from his achilles injury.

Love is an interesting freshman. He’s played very solid football, well beyond expectations. But to take the next step, he’ll need to continue to play with the high football IQ that he displays, because his physical traits aren’t going to jump out.

Still, this is was an incredibly positive debut season. And Love’s finale against USC, where he played nearly every snap, was another great game for the rookie.

 

The Offensive Line. It was a really strong final game for the guys up front, who may have given up six sacks to USC’s pass rush, but seemed to win the battle at the point of attack while doing a better job than the stats indicated, even in the passing game.

Surprisingly, redshirt senior Mark Harrell graded out as PFF’s top blocker, with Quenton Nelson playing another solid game. Mike McGlinchey didn’t allow a sack at left tackle, though did false start again—something he’ll need to get under control this offseason.

The Irish need to find stability with this starting five, a group that should welcome all but Harrell back, and could also see competition at center and right guard again, even with Sam Mustipher returning. But it was a nice competitive effort that Kelly applauded postgame.

“I liked the way our offensive line was able to at times exert their will in tough third-down-and-short and tough fourth-down situations,” Kelly said.

 

THE BAD

Jerry Tillery. A season after being one of the featured members of the Irish football team on Showtime, Tillery showcased all the wrong things in an embarrassing afternoon.

Two very bad looks for Tillery, who after being flagged for his personal foul, heard quite a bit from his head coach. And while the internet’s reaction to the two cheap shots was probably just as dumb as Tillery’s decision (no, he shouldn’t be expelled), Kelly made it quite clear that after they review the incidents (he didn’t see either live), that Tillery will be held accountable.

“Jerry has to be accountable of this actions every day. Jerry is a good kid. If he made a mistake we’ll hold him accountable for that mistake,” Kelly said. “Again, I don’t know the scenario, we’ll take a look at it. Jerry is a very smart kid and if there is something there we have to handle internally we certainly will and we’ll hold our players accountable internally.”

Worse than any on-field decision is the fact that Tillery desperately needs to grow up. He’ll be the defensive line’s most experienced player in 2017. By most reports he’s a great student-athlete, and a fully incorporated part of the student body. But he also now has a second black mark on his football resume, a Fiesta Bowl suspension when he was one of the rare healthy linemen available.

Tillery’s leadership is important and he plays a critical position of need for next season. So maybe this incident will turn him around.

 

Nicco Fertitta’s ejection. The sophomore safety delivered the hit of the season on Saturday, separating Aca’Cedric Ware from the football on a nasty hit that ended with Ware down for an extended time and leaving the game with a suspected concussion. But after the third replay review found Fertitta guilty of targeting and ultimately ejected, it gave the football back to USC and gave the Irish another loss this season on helmet-to-helmet hits.

Whether people Fertitta deserved to be ejected mostly falls upon partisan lines. But one thing that’s undeniable is the subjectiveness of the penalty and the inconsistent enforcement, a rule that desperately needs changing when it’s the rare judgment call that carries with it an automatic ejection.

 

THE UGLY

The Special Teams. It was a fitting end to one of the most disappointing special teams seasons I can ever remember, with Scott Booker’s unit turning Adoree Jackson into Superman on Saturday. The two return scores make five on the season, and they were essentially eliminating factors in the Irish’s upset bid on Saturday.

At this point, Brian Kelly needs to look for outside help on special teams. A phase of the game that’s almost always only been paid lip service by the Irish head coach, it’s not going to get fixed because Kelly brings on a special teams analyst like Marty Biagi, who may have helped bring new ideas to the conversation, though they certainly didn’t help.

At every step the special teams were brutal. A rugby punt decision led to a blocked kick and loss in a hurricane against NC State. A hold on the opening kickoff took away a touchdown against Michigan State. Kickoff and punt returns were a hold-your-breath consideration, maddening when you consider the general competence of placekicker Justin Yoon and punter Tyler Newsome.

 

The list of breakdowns is long. The fixes are necessary. And a failure in the finale felt like par for the course.

 

4-8. No explanation necessary.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers

Getty Images
1 Comment

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

Getty Images
4 Comments

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

Getty Images
25 Comments

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

Getty Images
17 Comments

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…)