Amir Carlisle

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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.

Five things we learned: Notre Dame 39, Nevada 10

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Notre Dame’s home opener went the way you’d want. An easy victory, a ton of young players getting experience, and a team back on track with Michigan State coming to town next weekend.

And while head coach Brian Kelly said all the right things about a Nevada team that threw the kitchen sink at the Irish, Wolf Pack head man Brian Polian probably said it best.

“If we were supposed to beat Notre Dame, we wouldn’t be in the Mountain West conference.”

It wasn’t all easy. The Irish offense was slow out of the gate. The defense struggled on their opening series, but made some game-changing plays and held Nevada to just 300 yards. After after a first 20 minutes that was as forgettable as any from last season, the Irish’s talent took over, a victory inside Notre Dame Stadium that leveled the team to 1-1 on the year.

Let’s find out what we learned.

 

The loss of Shaun Crawford will be felt on and off the field.

The defense suffered a painful loss Saturday afternoon when Shaun Crawford went down early with a season-ending achilles injury. The sophomore was hurt after breaking up a pass that initially looked like a forced fumble and recovery. And instead of it being another big play by the diminutive defensive back, it’s a heartbreaking second-straight lost season for Crawford.

A season after not having a Plan B when Crawford went down in August, the Irish will now deploy theirs. That means Nick Coleman back to corner, a week after getting torched at Texas. True freshman Julian Love moves to nickel. And freshman Donte Vaughn will continue to get a look as the Irish secondary waits for junior Nick Watkins to recover from his broken arm.

Earlier in the week, Kelly talked about Coleman’s need to rebound and stay ready. Little did he know that a few days later, he’d be back in the starting lineup.

“Nick played with much better technique and a lot more confidence,” Kelly said. “He’s got to be that player for us with Shaun lost for the season.”

 

The defense woke up and made some plays.

The Irish defense played much, much better on Saturday, a relief not just to the 80,000 inside Notre Dame Stadium and the millions watching at home, but to a coaching staff that had to be wondering what to make of the unproven unit.

Especially after Nevada’s opening drive.

The Wolf Pack marched 62 yards on their opening possession, moving the chains and sustaining a 10-play drive that saw Polian eschew a field goal attempt for a 4th-and-1 run inside the Irish red zone. But Asauni Rufus never had a chance when Daniel Cage knifed through the line and the stop was a big momentum changer for the Irish defense, giving up just 61 yards the rest of the first half.

“We needed some confidence,” Kelly said postgame. “So that fourth-down stop was really a confidence builder for our defense.”

Also building their confidence was Jarron Jones’ interception, the fifth-year senior snagging a screen pass and setting the Irish offense up with the ball near the goal line. While the defense’s two other big plays—Crawford’s forced fumble and Tranquill’s return, along with a very nice interception by Cole Luke—were both overturned by referees, the defense played more than respectable after getting bludgeoned in Austin.

It took a group of back-ups to finally give up a touchdown to Nevada and the Wolf Pack were held to just 300 total yards— a big step forward for a unit that focused not on mixing and matching exotic looks, but playing fundamentally sound football.

“I thought we tackled better, played the ball better in the air, and just made the kind of improvement that we were looking for from week one to week two,” Kelly said.

 

DeShone Kizer is the engine of this offense. 

After earning the starting job, DeShone Kizer backed it up with a near flawless performance, a 15 for 18 day with two touchdowns, the only poor throw on the afternoon an underthrown deep ball to Kevin Stepherson. Add in another touchdown on the ground and two more through the air and Kizer’s responsible for nine touchdowns through the first two weeks, elite play by the junior signal caller.

Kelly praised Kizer’s poise, applauding that he’s willing to take what the defense is giving him. He also praised Kizer’s development in the scoring area, the Irish scoring all six times they were in the scoring zone, with five touchdowns and just one field goal.

“I think he was a little bit more patience in certain areas,” Kelly said. “Especially in the red zone. Where now he’s had two touchdowns in the red zone where he’s been really patient, hitting his third and fourth option down there.”

With the game in hand, Kizer turned the keys of the offense over to Malik Zaire, who played well in relief, making a few big plays and driving the Irish to a score. But Kizer is the most important piece of the puzzle for this team, and his efficiency—even while breaking in a young group of receivers—has been really impressive.

 

With Equanimeous St. Brown and C.J. Sanders, the Irish have two young, dynamic talents at receiver. 

Don’t look now, but Notre Dame has two emerging stars at wide receiver. Both Equanimeous St. Brown and C.J. Sanders continued their hot start, with both sophomores playing large without Torii Hunter available.

St. Brown had 85 yards and six catches, nearly breaking two big plays early. Sanders’ numbers might have been more modest, five catches for 46 yards and a score, but he came through with a clutch fourth-down conversion and scored the team’s first touchdown.

With Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle all gone, Kelly talked about the challenge to replace that trio and fill their shoes with the next generation.

“We had the spring and the summer to really spend the time at developing. We knew they had to be the next guys in,” Kelly said. “And we had a lot of confidence that we were going to be able to turn over a very good group. But they needed to obviously work together.”

While Kelly applauded the jump in play from week one to week two for the defense, the same step forward was made by the young receivers, with Kevin Stepherson scoring his first touchdown, Corey Holmes converting a clutch third-and-long, and Chris Finke and Chase Claypool making their first career grabs.

“We wanted to get them involved early. We felt like it was important to get Corey and Stepherson some touches early,” Kelly said. “Get them some confidence and they’ll make some plays for us.”

 

Kelly will keep rotating backs, but Josh Adams is quickly establishing himself as a workhorse.

Josh Adams had a big Saturday. And Notre Dame’s record-setter as a freshman did his best to take a three-man rotation and make it a one-man show. Adams only needed 10 touches to get past 100 yards, running for 106 yards and breaking off a nifty 43-yarder in the third quarter.

Though Adams, Tarean Folston and Dexter Williams each got ten carries, Kelly was asked postgame if Adams is starting to emerge as the team’s No. 1 back.

“He’s good. You can call him whatever you want. No. 1, No. 101,” Kelly said. “It’s one of those things where Folston had 10 carries, Adams had 10 carries and Williams had 10 carries, but you can make the argument that (Adams) should get 20.

“But Folston is a pretty sharp guy and Dexter is explosive. I think we’ll keep a balance in there, but Adams looked good today.”

In his first extended playing time this season, Williams showed a burst that might have been better than both Adams and Folston. So while the loss of C.J. Prosise (and his home-run speed) has changed the complexion of the Irish ground game, Adams’ ascent is coming at a perfect time—with Michigan State just around the corner.

 

 

Irish A-to-Z: Corey Holmes

Property of Matt Cashore / Irish Illustrated

Two mostly anonymous seasons gave way to a breakthrough spring for Corey Holmes. Triggering that rise? A blazing 40-yard dash that forced eyes to open on an Irish coaching staff looking to replace speedster Will Fuller and starters Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle.

Now the key is to carry that momentum into the fall. With positional versatility helpful, Holmes now needs to find a niche in the system—a home for him to utilize a skill-set that never seemed to be in question.

With young receivers surrounding him and no true experience to be found at the position, Homes is in perfect position to break loose in 2016.

 

COREY HOLMES
6′.5″, 190 lbs.
Junior, No. 15, WR

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Injuries slowed Holmes during his career at St. Thomas Aquinas, the powerhouse Florida program. But it didn’t stop colleges from chasing him.

The four-star prospect had offers from Florida, Florida State, Michigan, Oklahoma and many more. He was also an Under Armour All-American.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Saw action against Rice and Michigan before spending the majority of the season on the scout team.

Sophomore Season (2015): Did not play, preserving a year of eligibility.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Feel pretty good about this, considering nobody saw a redshirt coming. The idea of Holmes in the slot seems to be something being explored right now—as well as the deep-ball specialist.

Too many receivers, not enough footballs. I’m putting Holmes into the group that might be able to serve as the “designated deep threat,” and pretty much think 10 catches on the season would make a productive year.

That number could go up if he’s capable of serving as a Z receiver. The slot seems to be the only place—unless injuries strike—where Holmes could carve out a niche, but that would mean that CJ Prosise made a full transition to running back and Carlisle lets injuries get in the way of his final season in South Bend.

While no player wants to hear it, last season’s redshirt was the best thing to happen to Holmes, especially considering the logjam. Because if both Will Fuller and Corey Robinson stick around, it might be 2016 until Holmes has a chance to step forward.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

At his best, Holmes could turn into a TJ Jones type—an undersized, smooth receiver who can also get behind a secondary. But that’ll necessitate taking a big step forward in 2016, the year where he’ll have his best chance to stand out before a group of young and talented receivers find their footing.

Holmes’ lack of size and physicality has to be a limiting factor. You can work around that when you have speed like Will Fuller. But even if Holmes ran a 4.39 this spring, Fuller ran faster than that before you considered the fact that played even faster in cleats.

To be clear, a Jones-like ceiling would be a great career for a receiver who enters his third season in the program without a catch. The sophomore redshirt was crucial to preserving his development timeline. Now a big third season is equally important.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Can Holmes be the breakout star in this offense? He has as good of a chance as anybody. But I’m hesitant to buy in completely to Holmes taking his big spring and bringing that onto the field. I think Holmes is destined to be a specialty guy, the type of over-the-top deep threat that he’s uniquely qualified to be.

Opportunity is there, especially in the slot if CJ Sanders‘ recovery takes more time than the staff wants. But I don’t see Holmes skills playing best inside, but rather on the wide side of the field. That means he’ll need to beat out a talented young player like Equanimeous St. Brown for reps, not necessarily an easy thing.

Maybe a Jones comparison here makes sense. In his second season of eligibility, Jones had 38 catches for 366 yards and three touchdowns. I don’t think Holmes will get 40 targets, let alone catches. But if he averages 15 yards a catch (a big number that would mean he’d be getting mostly downfield targets), he could be an impact player if he made 20 catches. I think that’d qualify as an excellent season.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston
Mark Harrell
Daelin Hayes
Jay Hayes
Tristen Hoge

 

Number changes begin roster shakeup

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With freshmen on campus and summer workouts beginning, Brian Kelly’s 2016 football team is beginning to take shape. And while it’s hardly the type of news that moves the meter, a few returning Irish football players will be wearing different numbers than the last time we saw them.

Blue & Gold’s Lou Somogyi got his hands on the jersey changes. They are:

Asmar Bilal, No. 22 (previously 27)
Shaun Crawford, No. 20 (previously 14)
CJ Sanders, No. 3 (previously 9)
Equanimeous St. Brown, No. 6 (previously 86)
Devin Studstill, No. 14 (previously 13)
Nick Watkins, No. 7 (previously 21)
Brandon Wimbush, No. 7 (previously 12)
Dexter Williams, No. 2 (previously 34)
Malik Zaire, No. 9 (previously 8)

If we’re really digging deep into these changes, the only move that’s really interesting is Zaire’s move from No. 8 to No. 9. That number was taken by Sanders last year (on offense, Jaylon Smith had it previously) and Mike Heuerman previously.

The other moves feel logical, the result of a young player getting a chance to select a number they liked after a player departed from the program. Sanders and St. Brown took over jerseys from Amir Carlisle and KeiVarae Russell respectively. Williams takes Chris Brown’s number and Crawford takes over for C.J. Prosise. Studstill’s move likely comes because Tyler Luatua returns to the program and both could participate on special teams.

 

CJ Sanders ahead of schedule after hip surgery

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Notre Dame’s slot receiver position hinges on the health of rising sophomore CJ Sanders. And according to a few updates from head coach Brian Kelly, Sanders is ahead of schedule as he recovers from surgery that repaired his hip flexor.

“CJ is ahead of schedule by almost three weeks, which is really good news,” Kelly told Blue & Gold’s Lou Somogyi.

Sanders, who returned both a punt and a kick for a touchdown during his freshman season, will spend more time at receiver—assuming he’s healthy. Six weeks ago, Sanders showed some of the progress he was making, running on an anti-gravity treadmill for the first time since surgery. That trajectory seems to have held, with Kelly hopeful that Sanders can train with his teammates this summer.

As the Irish restock a depth chart that needs to replace starters Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle, having Sanders as an option in the slot is key to opening up a depth chart that needs Torii Hunter Jr. on the outside.

Notre Dame’s receiving corps will be coming into focus over the next few weeks. Senior Corey Robinson will announce on Wednesday his intentions for next season, deciding whether to continue to play football or end his career after multiple concussions. Even Robinson’s decision to return might not change the decision to keep Alizé Jones on the outside, with the tight end spending time this spring at the boundary receiver spot.

From there, the Irish receiving corps is high on potential but low on experience. Assuming he stays healthy, Hunter will fill one starting spot. From there, intriguing talents like Equanimous St. Brown and freshman Kevin Stepherson look like players capable of contributing, but they’ll be learning on the fly. Neither project to be slot receivers.

Freshmen Chase Claypool and Javon McKinley both arrived on campus over the weekend, though neither is a traditional slot receiver. Corey Holmes spent some time working in the slot this spring, though his deep speed might be better used on the wide side, replacing Fuller at the field receiver position.

With Sanders out this spring, walk-on receiver Chris Finke earned plenty of reps. Finke is also in the mix to replace Sanders as the team’s punt returner.