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Friday at 4: Links, and Brian Kelly ‘is the coach this season, like it or not’

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This one has been gnawing at me for a bit now, to be honest. Nevertheless, I refrained.

I’m new in these parts.
Why risk instigation when that is not my intent?
Wouldn’t it be a better usage of my time to go see “Logan” instead of writing an introduction to a link dump? No one will ever know the introduction was even considered.

Then don74 had to come around and tiptoe right up to the point I have long considered. Here we are.

Amid a larger philosophical question about sports, entertainment and predictability, don74 asked a few of his fellow readers, “If you truly believe you know the outcome, why are you so vested in this? If it’s to say I told you so, you already have that. Kelly is 0-13 vs top-12 teams in the last 5 years. In and of itself that’s all that needs to be understood to look at the program. … He IS the coach this season, like it or not.” Editor’s Note: Notre Dame is 0-8 against top-12 teams in the last four years. Five years ago, the Irish topped No. 10 Michigan State and No. 8 Oklahoma amidst a 12-game winning streak you may vaguely remember.

The broader discussion of why we watch sports can be left for another day. I remember the first time I had it—senior year of high school in calculus with a guy who now performs on or near Broadway. His argument for theater certainly held and holds merit.

To the issue at hand, though: Brian Kelly is Notre Dame’s coach in 2017. Let’s approach this abstractly.

I am hosting something of a happy hour tonight. Afterward, a few other Notre Dame alums and I will presumably head to one of those establishments serving adult beverages. In an alternate universe, by the end of the night I may find just enough false bravado to convince some intriguing and age-appropriate female to give me her number with the indication we could have more adult beverages next weekend. I know, it’s unlikely, but maybe in that alternate universe it could happen.

For efficiency’s sake, let’s call this girl Claire.

Know what I will not do? I will not call Claire at 3 a.m., an hour after the bars close. I will not get upset when she does not call me back within 10 minutes. I will not complain bitterly until the start of the Monday workday.

Why won’t I do that? Timing.

If I call Claire on Wednesday or Thursday to set up a chance at drinks Friday, I might get aggravated if I don’t hear back from her before the weekend. That frustration would be understandable. (Then again, there is a reason this scenario is fictional. Claire ignoring my call would be the most-understandable aspect of this hypothetical.)

Why would it be acceptable to express chagrin then? Timing.

Brian Kelly will coach Notre Dame in 2017. Anyone reading Inside the Irish is at least vaguely familiar with his track record, including both the good years (2012, 2015) and the more-recent rough years (2014, 2016). Spending the next six months repeatedly airing any grievances with him informs no one. At the most, it reminds a few. Perhaps angrily tapping away at an iPhone provides some with a therapeutic release. I can grasp the value in that, but at some point, switch to an Android. That alone will bring your life much-needed tranquility.

Claire won’t pick up the phone if I call her five hours before the sun rises Saturday morning, but she might if I try Wednesday evening. The difference is obvious: Timing.

In November or December and even some of January, Kelly’s job status and any complaints therein were reasonable and pertinent topics of conversation. Why are they not now? Timing.

Brian Kelly will coach Notre Dame in 2017. How the Irish fare this season will determine his 2018 job prospects. Nothing expressed here and now will.

Also from the depths of the readers’ comments, glowplugv asked for more context regarding the statistics at the bottom of Thursday’s look at the rover position. Specifically, “You didn’t provide the passes attempted stat to see what the actual balance was between run/pass for those teams. I would assume it was tilted to the run but that would be good to see too.”

A valid point. As one might expect from this site, sacks are considered snaps devoted to the passing game, so in the below breakdowns, sacks factor into the passing side of the distribution, not the rushing.

2016 Temple rushed 535 times and dropped back to pass 432 times.
2016 Georgia rushed 509 times and dropped back to pass 413 times.
2016 Boston College rushed 538 times and dropped back to pass 324 times.
2016 Michigan State rushed 444 times and dropped back to pass 397 times.

For context’s sake: last season Notre Dame rushed 410 times and dropped back to pass 416 times. The nation’s top rushing attack, New Mexico, took to the ground 676 times and dropped back to pass only 191 times.

Two links, coincidentally both from Sports Illustrated
If you have not yet read Pete Thamel’s piece on Brian Kelly’s offseason, it is very much worthwhile. In addition to the tidbits on yoga, omelets and Kelly’s bridal party, Thamel informs us Notre Dame interviewed five strength coaches, three wide receivers coaches, three offensive coordinators and two defensive coordinators before deciding on those hires.

Sports Illustrated also collaborated with money.com to list the best colleges for sports fans to attend. Apparently the ideal sweet spot to enjoy competitive athletics while setting oneself up for a lifetime of high earnings is Stanford. No. 2, however, is Notre Dame, one slot ahead of Michigan.

Te’o a free agent
Personally, former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o reaching free agency had completely skirted my knowledge until an Adam Schefter tweet crossed my screen. I pass it along in case it evaded any of your purviews, as well, on the off-chance you may wonder where Te’o lands next.

A piece of useless trivia
Chuck Norris’s real name is Carlos. You probably don’t care, but I learned this Wednesday night. More than anything, what amazes me is that this is not commonly-known. During the run of Chuck Norris memes and one-liners, how did Carlos never get into the mix? The internet missed an opportunity, there.

Lastly, I did go see “Logan.” It might have been the best usage of a Tuesday night since I was an undergrad regular at karaoke with $2 double rail drinks. Speaking of drinks, this posted Friday afternoon at 4 p.m. ET. You know what to do.

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…)