Keith Arnold

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 05: Sheldon Day #91 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Isaac Rochell #90 celebrate after making a tackle for a loss of yards against the Texas Longhorns during the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)

Bye week snapshot: Defensive Line

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Notre Dame’s 2015 plans were thrown off when Jarron Jones was injured during preseason camp. But even without a true pass rusher, Keith Gilmore’s position group has done a nice job—getting a leading man performance from Sheldon Day and precocious play from Jerry Tillery.

The Irish are giving up just over three touchdowns a game, ranked 41st in the country with 22.6 points against. While a big game against Navy pushed the rush defense down to 81st in the country, the Irish have been effective making plays behind the line of scrimmage, 35th in the country in TFLs, impressive considering they only have 11 sacks (82nd in the country).

With five games to go and the defense’s best football in front of it, let’s take a look at the defensive line.

 

MVP: Sheldon Day

While his numbers on the stat sheet still don’t match his impact on the field, Day has shown what a good decision it was to come back for his senior season by wreaking havoc in the trenches. Moving inside and out, Day has been Notre Dame’s most impactful player behind the line of scrimmage, even if he’s only managed to convert two sacks compared to his 10 quarterback hits.

Just as impressive as Day’s productivity has been his ability to stay on the field. With the depth chart shorter than ideal, the pressure has been on Day to play the lion’s share of snaps. He’s been able to do that, staying on the field for just about every play that mattered for the Irish defense, all while racking up an absurdly high PFF rating of 29.8, the third-best ranking of any defensive tackle in college football.

 

Impressive Newcomer: Jerry Tillery

Yes, you knew this was going to be Tillery. But even if his stats seem relatively pedestrian, what he’s doing is not. Tillery’s ability to hold his own in the trenches have allowed Day to play like he has this season. And the fact that Tillery is doing this all while still figuring things out—and against two option opponents—everybody who is calling him a special player knows what they’re talking about.

Interestingly enough, Tillery’s best game of the season was against Clemson. That the freshman was able to go toe to toe, especially as a stout run defender against one of the better teams in the country, was huge. Paired with run-stuffer Daniel Cage, this duo has done a tremendous job filling in for Jarron Jones.

 

Secretly Productive: Isaac Rochell (and Romeo Okwara)

Notre Dame’s defensive ends are too often discussed for what they can’t do. Yet both Rochell and Okwara are doing a nice job filling up the stat sheet, with Rochell the defensive line’s most productive tackler and Okwara once again finding a way to lead the team in sacks.

Rochell earns his living as a run defender. He hasn’t shown any productivity as a pass rusher if you’re to believe PFF’s rating system. But with 35 total tackles and 5.5 TFLs, he’s a handful for offensive tackles, and shown himself capable when he’s shifted inside.

Blink and you might have missed Okwara once again move to the top of the sack list. The senior has three sacks among his 16 total tackles, a fairly prolific number that at least helps buoy the one true deficiency of the defensive personnel. Interestingly, Okwara’s mental lapses have been what’s stood out to PFF, not his sacks. His lowest rated game of the season against USC had Okwara taking down Cody Kessler.

 

Waiting His Turn: Jay Hayes

While his Twitter outburst earned him a scolding from his head coach, the ability to save a year of Hayes’ eligibility this season would be huge. After burning a redshirt late last year when Notre Dame had zero depth, Hayes’ frustrations of not seeing the field likely came because he didn’t see the big picture.

Without Sheldon Day next season, Hayes will be a rotational player, playing opposite Jarron Jones and Daniel Cage and likely teaming with Tillery at three-technique. So credit the Irish staff for finding a good way to earn Hayes that year back, even if Notre Dame hasn’t had the best luck with five-year defensive linemen.

 

Showtime posts two free episodes of “A Season With Notre Dame”

Property of Showtime Sports
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Interested in watching Notre Dame’s doc-series, but don’t have Showtime? Your bye week problems are over.

In a fairly unprecedented move, Showtime has released their two most recent episodes of “A Season With Notre Dame” for free. You can see behind the scenes of Notre Dame’s impressive victory over Navy and their rivalry win over USC.

The series has been a weekly look inside Notre Dame’s football program. It’s featured a behind-the-scenes look at injuries to guys like Jarron Jones, Malik Zaire, Tarean Folston and Drue Tranquill. It’s also given up the sitcom we can’t stop dreaming about—Sheldon & Jerry, who are quite literally (the size of) two-and-a-half men.

Enjoy the two episodes here, or on Sho.com, YouTube or Facebook.

Episode Six:

Episode Seven: 

Bye week snapshot: Special Teams

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Long seen as one of the weaker parts of Brian Kelly’s team, Season Six in South Bend has turned the special teams into a weapon for the Irish. And you’d really have been hard pressed to see it coming.

Yes, Notre Dame’s depth chart is as strong as it’s ever been. But stepping into key roles on special teams were true freshman placekicker Justin Yoon, redshirt freshman Tyler Newsome and true freshman CJ Sanders. Three first year performers with quite a responsibility hoisted onto their shoulders.

But they’ve all thrived in the situations. Yoon battled through some shaky moments to be a clutch operator. Newsome shanked one kick against Clemson, but also put up a career day for an Irish punter. And Sanders’ impact has turned him into one of the more dangerous punt returners in the nation.

With coverage teams doing their job and the Irish making a game-changing punt block against USC, it’s all come up roses for Scott Booker, who up until now served as a human piñata for Irish fans.

Let’s take a quick look at the specialists.

Justin Yoon — FG: 9 of 11, long of 52. PAT: 29 of 31
Tyler Newsome — 30 punts, 43.5 yard average, 13 inside 20, 9 of 50+ yards

CJ Sanders — Kick: 12 returns for 290, average 24.2, long of 46 Punt: 14 for 142, average of 10.1 yards per punt. Long of 50, one TD.
Amir Carlisle — Kick: 8 for 156, average of 19.5, long of 29

 

Co-MVPs: Justin Yoon & Tyler Newsome

Notre Dame’s freshman placekicker has missed a few kicks, most notably two extra point attempts. But after battling through some early struggles, Yoon has proven to be rock solid, never letting the moment get bigger than him.

After watching Notre Dame’s kick unit fall to pieces last season, Yoon’s resiliency has to be the most impressive thing so far. When called upon to make clutch kicks, especially against Clemson, Navy and USC, he’s been money. Brian Kelly said on Signing Day last February that Yoon would be one of the most impactful freshmen. He’s proven to be correct.

For as nice of a surprise as Yoon has been, Newsome’s ability to boom the football has come out of nowhere. While we all talked about DeShone Kizer‘s struggles in the spring game, Newsome was no great shakes, either. Yet put him on the field in 2015 and he’s shown the ability to flip the field, with nine 50+ yard punts and some really nice work pinning opponents inside the 20.

If all goes according to plan, Notre Dame’s next four seasons at kicker and punter are locked into place. You couldn’t ask for more.

 

Most Promising Future: CJ Sanders

Now that Notre Dame has the depth to enhance their special teams units, Sanders will likely be the beneficiary. The lightning-bug sized slot receiver isn’t getting the reps offensively some thought he’d get, but he quickly took over on kick returns and has been excellent returning punts as well.

Sanders has good speed, can turn on a dime and hasn’t shown any nerves catching the football. And after years of watching John Goodman call fair catches, having a game-changing return man who wasn’t absolutely mandatory as an every down player allows Kelly and Scott Booker to take some chances. Credit the freshman for allowing them to do it.

Bye week snapshot: Offensive line

Sep 12, 2015; Charlottesville, VA, USA; The Notre Dame Fighting Irish offense lines up against the Virginia Cavaliers defense in the second quarter at Scott Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
USA Today Sports
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Entering the season, Harry Hiestand’s offensive line had all the ingredients to be one of the more dominant units in recent Notre Dame memory. A star-in-the-making in left tackle Ronnie Stanley. A fifth-year veteran and two-time captain in center Nick Martin. Add in former high-profile recruits like Quenton Nelson and Steve Elmer, along with promising tackle Mike McGlinchey, and there was plenty of reason for optimism.

Expected to be the strength of this offense, the line hasn’t disappointed.

The Irish ground game is one of the best and most explosive in the country. The Irish are seventh in the country in yards per play, and averaging 38.3 points a game, another Top 15 unit.

We’ve seen the time this line has given young quarterbacks Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer to throw and the holes they’ve opened for C.J. Prosise. But with no true statistics to calculate how this group is playing, we’ve turned to ProFootballFocus’s snap count and grading system, our best look at a progress report for the six main contributors along the offensive line.

The MVP: Ronnie Stanley

It shouldn’t a surprise that Ronnie Stanley grades out as the top performer along the offensive line. What might be a surprise is how badly penalties have impacted his overall rating. Stanley is head and shoulders above every other blocker when it comes to pass protection. Only Quenton Nelson and Nick Martin edge him in the run game. But penalties have killed his grade.

The senior potential first-rounder knows he needs to clean up the mental mistakes, some penalties attributed to the different cadences between Zaire and Kizer. But with some good defenses still on the schedule, Stanley has an opportunity to finish strong and play dominant football.

 

Needs a better second half: Steve Elmer

While I won’t take these ratings as bible, it doesn’t take much to notice the slow start to the season by Steve Elmer. The junior is in his third season in the starting lineup, and even though he’s found his home at guard it appears he’s still making too many mistakes.

Elmer’s overall grade is negative mostly based on two tough games—the season opener against Texas and, maybe surprisingly, some struggles against Navy. But Elmer’s held down his starting position, playing the most snaps of any starter on the line, matched by Mike McGlinchey’s 493 plays.

The major deficiencies have come in run blocking. We’ve seen Elmer get his body out of position, too often swinging and missing on a block in tight quarters. Those end up being play-ruiners, and if the junior can clean those up he’ll likely help power the interior ground game, especially against strong rush defenses like Temple, Pitt, Boston College and Stanford, all Top 40 teams against the run.

 

Early Season Surprise: Quenton Nelson

I knew Quenton Nelson was tough. But I didn’t think he’d immediately step into the starting lineup and grade out as Notre Dame’s best run blocker. Nelson’s grades are buoyed by a dominant performance against UMass, but the fact he’s at the top of the stat sheet here is impressive. I also like the fact that he was able to come in and gut out 44 snaps against USC after suffering an ankle sprain. He didn’t earn a positive grade, but the Irish ground game wore down the Trojans late in that ball game.

 

Bye week snapshot: Wide Receivers

Chris Milton, Will Fuller
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If you’re looking for an appropriate image to associate with the wide receiving corps from the “first half” of the season (I know it’s been seven games), take your pick:

  • There’s Will Fuller running by the Texas Longhorn secondary.
  • Or Will Fuller breaking Virginia fans’ hearts.
  • Or perhaps Fuller running three strides behind USC’s fastest man, Adoree Jackson.

One of the deepest and most athletic groups of wide receivers in school history hasn’t let Everett Golson’s transfer or Malik Zaire‘s injury slow them down. And that’s mostly because of the excellence from Fuller and the emergence of senior Chris Brown as a capable No. 2 receiver.

With five games remaining and DeShone Kizer getting more and more comfortable in the job, there’s plenty of opportunities for big games ahead. Let’s take a look at where the Irish sit and hand out some kudos.

WIDE RECEIVERS

 

Baddest dude on the block: Will Fuller

Any first-half All-American team without Fuller on it feels incomplete. It also doesn’t appreciate what makes Fuller the offensive weapon that he’s become. The junior isn’t sneaking up on anybody this season, not after 15 touchdowns in 2014. But even with chaos at quarterback and an offense more geared to the running game, Fuller is still impacting football games—on pace to better last year’s historic season, even if he’ll be doing it in 17 less touches.

The junior has cleaned up the major deficiencies in his game, and has significant cut his drops this season (though the rain at Clemson got the better of him). And his confidence against USC has to have Irish fans feeling even better—Fuller wanted the challenge against Adoree Jackson and relished the opportunity to make game-changing plays against a cornerback most expected to be his athletic superior.

There’s room for improvement still. The screen game—last year’s bread and butter—hasn’t taken off. There’s also more downfield opportunities, Kizer taking a shot on 50-50 balls deep is never a bad gamble.

Finding a way to slow down the Irish offense usually starts with defenses committed to stuffing the run. That means less defenders downfield, a conundrum that Brian Kelly knows how to exploit. Let’s see if Fuller can put some separation in the record books by continuing his consistency and doubling his touchdown total.

 

Most Improved: Chris Brown

That the Irish coaching staff has turned Chris Brown into a legit No. 2 wide receiver is a credit to Mike Denbrock’s coach and Brown’s ability to harness his skills. Long talked about as one of the best athletes at the position, Brown seemed to be giving his best performances on the practice field.

That’s turned this season with Brown showing good hands, the ability to move the chains and a ball magnet—his 27 catches are nearing his 2014 season total and he’s already doubled his touchdowns. The second half of the season could give Brown some downfield opportunities, too.

 

Area for Improvement: Holding on to the football. 

For all the playmakers on this team, one constant source of attention needs to be holding onto the football. We’ll give the drops a pass after the Clemson monsoon. But both Brown and Torii Hunter Jr. have lost fumbles inside the 10-yard line, turning scores into turnovers because they were trying to do too much.

Interestingly, we saw the reaction from the Irish players and coaching staff, thanks to behind-the-scenes footage on both Showtime and UND.com. The staff was both firm (BK serving mostly as the bad cop) and encouraging (Denbrock acting as the good one), knowing that the psyche of this group needs to stay confident—because the personnel at this position has too much talent to go into a funk.

We saw Corey Robinson conquer his demons last week with a huge catch for the go-ahead touchdown. We’ll see Hunter and Brown get their shots in the coming weeks as well. But with quick screens and jet sweeps not going off the play sheet anytime soon, keeping the turnovers down, especially inside the scoring area, is critical.

 

Pay no attention: CJ Sanders and Equanimeous St. Brown

The two freshmen really haven’t made a dent in the stat sheet. But last week we saw their value on Notre Dame’s special teams pay immediate dividends. The most obvious was St. Brown’s block of a USC punt that Amir Carlisle scooped up for the score. St. Brown jumped so high he blocked the kick with his jersey number. In the coming weeks, expect to see St. Brown get another look at receiver, even if it means taking Brown or Corey Robinson off the field.

Sanders impact on special teams has been one of the below-the-radar successes of the season. On his 14 punt returns, Sanders is averaging 10.1 an attempt. Put that into context with these elite return men.

CJ Sanders – 14 punt returns, 142 yards, 10.14 yards per, 1 TD
Adoree Jackson – 11 returns, 112 yards, 10.18 yards per, 0 TDs
Jabrill Peppers – 14 returns, 144 yards, 10.29 yards per, 0 TDs

It’s only a matter of time before Sanders breaks a kickoff return, especially with some of the blocking wrinkles the Irish are displaying.

The tall and small combo of St. Brown and Sanders have been game-changers in special teams. They’ve also shown future freshman the best way to contribute, especially with a depth chart that’s as stacked as the receiving corps.