Keith Arnold

C.J. Prosise, Jamal Golden

Pregame Six Pack: Moving on to UMass

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After starting the season with three “Power Five” conference opponents, the Irish get in on some rare MACtion this weekend, welcoming Massachusetts to South Bend for their very first meeting on the gridiron. In a game that was initially scheduled to reunite (it’s hard to call this match-up a reward) ex-Irish offensive coordinator Charley Molnar with his former employer, Molnar only lasted two seasons at UMass he took the Minutemen to the FBS level, notching just two victories total before he was replaced by Mark Whipple.

In his second tour of duty in Amherst, Whipple has made incremental progress. But sitting at a disappointing 0-2, he heads to Notre Dame trying to earn his first victory of the season as a nearly 30-point underdog.

With the Yellow Jackets in the rearview mirror and a date in Death Valley just around the corner, human nature could turn this weekend into a perfect trap. But even if the Irish step in one or two of those on Saturday, Brian Kelly and the Irish staff should be able to win comfortably and give their depth chart some work.

With a beautiful weekend forecast in South Bend, let’s get to the pregame six pack. Pregame show starts at 3:00 p.m on NBCSN. Game coverage starts at 3:30 on NBC. You can also stream it all here.

As summer turns to fall, we’ll take a closer look at some of the ingredients that’ll make for a satisfying victory this weekend.

 

Brian Kelly needs to get Brandon Wimbush on the field. And expect him to get it done early. 

When Brandon Wimbush ascended to the No. 2 quarterback job after Malik Zaire got hurt, Kelly said he was taking the redshirt off of his prized freshman. And while Georgia Tech managed to make things interesting and kept Wimbush from earning his first garbage time snaps last weekend, expect to see the blue-chip freshman this weekend. And early in the game.

“You usually try to get him in as quickly as possible. Try to get him in before the game gets in to a rhythm for the starting quarterback,” Kelly said on Thursday, before reminding everybody this isn’t a two-quarterback system.

“There’s no intention of trying to play two quarterbacks. This is just trying to get Brandon in the game and get him a little bit of playing time. Try to do it sooner rather than later. We’ll just try to pick our spot when to do that.”

On our Stay Gold podcast, Jac Collinsworth and I debated when you give Wimbush a look. I said get it done early. Jac thought give Wimbush the entire fourth quarter.

Kelly can’t say that he expects the fourth quarter to be garbage time, though he probably thinks that’s how this game should go if the Irish handle their business. But after activating Wimbush last week and likely serving him the offense through a fire hose, one thing seems certain—Kelly feels more comfortable having to play his freshman this week than last week.

“If he has to go in, I feel a whole lot better that if he has to go in we can win the game with him,” Kelly said.

 

In year two of his captaincy, Sheldon Day has elevated the play of the defensive linemen around him—and his leadership abilities. 

Sheldon Day may have had a ‘C’ on his jersey last season. But it’s taken until his senior year to grow into the job. For anybody who watched Tuesday night’s Showtime episode of “A Season with Notre Dame,” Day’s growing relationship with freshman Jerry Tillery is an early contender for “sitcom we want Fighting Irish Media to develop.”

Day has been able to show Tillery and sophomore Daniel Cage the ropes, while also demanding impressive play out of that duo. And if you ask Kelly what impresses him the most about Day as a senior, that’s it.

“I couldn’t be more proud of (Day) in the way that he’s matured and taken hold of his captainship in a manner that I didn’t know that he could,” Kelly said. “He’s able to bring all those personalities together, and he’s now not afraid to hold others accountable which is a huge step in being a great leader. His play has been really good, but what I’ve been most pleased with is the way that he’s practiced. He’s set a standard for practice and I couldn’t be more proud of him.”

Both Day and Isaac Rochell have had a pretty lofty work volume through three games. While the Irish’s dominant performance against Texas kept their snap count down, Day played 126 snaps against Virginia and Georgia Tech while Rochell racked up 133. Those numbers feel unsustainable.

So on Saturday, look to see the Irish finally get to flex some of their depth along the defensive line, with Jonathan Bonner, Pete Mokwuah and Jacob Matuska getting some opportunities on the inside while Andrew Trumbetti will return to the field after spending the Georgia Tech game on the sideline.

With UMass passing early and often, it’s a good opportunity for the Irish defensive front to make some noise and gain some experience. And if Day has any say in things, his young teammates will produce.

 

After letting loose his frustration on Twitter late Wednesday night, one young defensive lineman who’s not going to play is Jay Hayes. (And that may have always been part of the plan.)

Social Media. It giveth, and it taketh away. And it appears to have taken away Jay Hayes’ opportunity to travel to the team hotel and dress with the team on Saturday. The sophomore defensive tackle may be one of the more lively Twitter follows on the team, with his free-wheeling personality coming out 140 characters at a time. But on Wednesday night, Hayes’ frustrations over playing time seemed to bubble over, and he fired off a few tweets that all but said as much.

Hayes deleted the tweets, but that didn’t make them disappear. And on Thursday Kelly acknowledged the situation, calling it a life lesson and one that Hayes will learn from.

“There has to be responsibility as it relates to social media. And you have to think before you hit send,” Kelly said. “What you have to do is come knock on my door instead of hitting the send button. These are good lessons to be learned. If he has a job at Google and he talks about his boss that way, he’s probably not going to have a job the next day.”

Kelly made it clear he wasn’t banning Hayes from social media or taking away Twitter from his players, as some coaches at the college level have done this season. Kelly called it a “life lesson.”

Hayes’ lack of playing time is also likely part of a plan to save a year of eligibility. After taking off his redshirt late last season, both Hayes and defensive end Grant Blankenship haven’t played this season. And if the defensive line stays healthy, that’s likely how Kelly plans on keeping things, preserving a fifth year for both players and fortifying the defensive front for an extra season.

“We have great faith in Jay. He’s going to play here. He’s still in the developmental stage,” Kelly said. We like Jay. Just like we like Blankenship. Just like we like Trumbetti, who didn’t play last week. These are guys chomping at the bit. They want to play.

“But we’ve got good players, and that’s a good problem to have. We’re okay with Jay Hayes. Jay’s going to be fine. But it’s a good life lesson.”

 

C.J. Prosise could run wild on Saturday afternoon. But getting Josh Adams and Dexter Williams comfortable might be a better plan. 

Colorado ran for 390 yards against UMass. With C.J. Prosise already sitting at No. 5 in the country with 451 rushing yards, Prosise could make it two-thirds of the way to 1,000 yards on the season with another day like last week.

But while the Irish will likely get the running game revved up, don’t expect to see another 20-carry day for Prosise. I think you’ll see the senior max out around 12 to 15 touches, and then hand over the reins to Josh Adams and Dexter Williams. Both freshmen need to get comfortable in the offense, and Saturday afternoon is a perfect time to do it.

Quarterback DeShone Kizer talked about the importance of setting up the running game, and how it might not even matter who’s running the football if the offensive line plays the way they’ve been playing.

“One good thing about this offense is we are starting to create an identity. Our offensive line is so powerful up front and our running backs are so good, there’s not much you can do to stop our run game,” Kizer said.

 

Entering week four, a freshman will have to do something impressive to take the redshirt off. 

Max Redfield is back in the starting lineup, broken thumb a week better after watching the Irish beat up Georgia Tech’s triple-option. And while the loss of Drue Tranquill had Kelly and the Irish’s defensive staff trying to decide what to do with the dwindling safety depth chart, it appears Notre Dame will try to get by without playing freshman Mykelti Williams.

Williams was elevated from the scout team this week in practice, but Nicky Baratti will be the next safety in if that’s needed. Kelly talked a little bit about the decision, acknowledging that it isn’t enough to take a redshirt off just for special teams contributions.

“We’re not going to play any freshman on special teams if they can’t impact offense or defense,” Kelly said. “If they haven’t played up until this point, they’re not going to play on special teams unless they can impact offense or defense.

“Once we feel they’re capable of impacting that side of the ball, then we’ll engage them in special teams.”

At this point, it’ll be interesting to see how Kelly handles the freshmen who have seen limited reps. Among them, Equanimeous St. Brown and Nicco Fertitta. St. Kelly could decide to keep both of them off the field for the remainder of the season, preserving a season of eligibility.

Freshman cornerback Nick Coleman has been dynamic on special teams, so he could be a candidate to slide into Tranquill’s dime back role, or don’t be surprised if Coleman challenges Devin Butler and Nick Watkins for the outside cornerback job in nickel.

At this time of year, roster management is critical. And after suffering three-straight weeks of bad luck early this season, the Irish deserve a chance to preserve some seasons.

 

After getting picked apart against Virginia, Notre Dame’s secondary gets a shot at redemption (before an even bigger game next weekend). 

Nobody will be quick to forget the pass defense against Virginia. The Irish made quarterback Matt Johns look like Johnny Unitas, with Johns scrambling and throwing the Cavaliers back into the football game in the second half, a surprise against a cover group that should’ve been one of the strengths of the team.

Kelly spoke briefly about the defensive breakdowns in the immediate aftermath of the closer Irish victory, though moved quickly on to game-planning for the Yellow Jackets. But a week later we’ll get to see the Irish secondary made any improvements as they get a chance to take on a prolific passing offense.

UMass quarterback Blake Frohnapfel is one of the country’s most underrated passers. The 6-foot-6 graduate transfer is in his second season piloting Whipple’s offense and he’s a returning All-MAC quarterback.

With a challenge ahead, Kelly is hopeful that his secondary will play better this time around.

“We’ll get tested. I’m not ready to say that we’ve corrected everything. We’re going to have to go out and play,” Kelly said. “I have confidence that they’re going to play much better than they did against Virginia, but they’re going to have to go out and do it now.”

Frohnapfel pairs with senior Tajae Sharpe, who Kelly paid a large compliment to earlier in the week when he said he might be one of the best receivers that the Irish see all year. Sharpe had 85 catches for 1,281 yards last season and has started this year with two 11 catch efforts for nearly 300 receiving yards. Sharpe will be a good challenge for KeiVarae Russell and Cole Luke a week before they travel to play against Clemson’s skill talent.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3-0: Assessing the Irish at the quarter-turn

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 19: DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish passes against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 19, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Georgia Tech 30-22. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Step back from the computer. Or perhaps imagine yourself at a summer barbecue, talking football over a cold one with your friends. If someone told you the Irish would be 3-0 with decisive victories over Texas and Georgia Tech, you’d have taken it, right?

Well that’s where Brian Kelly’s team finds itself, undefeated at the end of the first quarter of the season. And while the cost of doing business has been steep—six key players, including starters at nose guard, running back, quarterback, tight end, and in the nickel and dime package—the Irish are No. 6 in the country heading into their weekend tilt with UMass.

Let’s take a look at each position group and take stock of where we are.

 

QUARTERBACK

After starting out elite, Malik Zaire struggled at Virginia before ending his season with a broken ankle. Zaire had passed with pinpoint precision in a victory over Texas and then averaged nearly nine yards a carry as a runner at the time of his injury against Virginia.

DeShone Kizer came in and after a slow start rallied the Irish with a late-game touchdown against the Cavaliers, with a touchdown throw for the ages to Will Fuller. Then Kizer executed a conservative game plan against Georgia Tech in his first start, throwing an interception but leading the Irish to victory.

Combine both quarterbacks work through three games and their collective stat-line—55 of 83 (66.2%) for 762 yards, 7 TD, 1 INT—it’s tough to ask for much more.

Overall: All things considered, this is a great result for a position currently living on the edge. And it’s a credit to new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford. Limiting the interceptions while being explosive in the pass game has been critical. But more difficult challenges are ahead, starting next weekend with a road trip to Clemson.

 

RUNNING BACK

On his third carry of the season, Tarean Folston saw a hole, cut hard off the back of his offensive line and exploded for a gain of 15 yards. It was his last play of the 2015 season. Folston’s ACL tore on the run, an injury that even slowed down and rewound is inexplicable. After losing Greg Bryant to academics and Folston to a knee injury, the door opened for C.J. Prosise to carry the load.

He’s done all of that, currently fifth in the nation in rushing yards with 451. At 150 yards a game, if Prosise can stay healthy he’s likely to shatter the single-season record held by Vagas Ferguson, and right now has an outside chance at running for 2,000 yards. A powerful runner still learning how to be a back, Prosise’s big-play potential has been obvious, he’s scored touchdowns on runs of 24 yards, 17 yards and a Notre Dame Stadium record 91-yards.

Behind Prosise, Josh Adams and Dexter Williams are still figuring things out. Adams started quickly against Texas, and really only saw minimal time against Virginia and Georgia Tech. Williams has seen even less, with Justin Brent still working with the scout team.

Overall: Limiting Prosise’s pitch count is the next order of business, though he’ll likely take just about every carry against Clemson, especially on the road. But if the young backs can build confidence against UMass and Navy and Prosise can carry the load against Clemson and USC, getting to the bye week healthy should be the goal.

 

WIDE RECEIVERS

It’s been the Will Fuller show. Notre Dame’s most explosive offensive weapon leads the nation in touchdown catches with five, not missing a beat with the quarterback change and growing attention in coverage. Senior Chris Brown has emerged as the No. 2 receiver, somewhat of a surprise, considering where Corey Robinson and Brown left things last season.

The depth at this position makes early returns tough to analyze. Other than understanding that Fuller is going to be fed the football, Brown could give some of his receptions to Robinson, Torii Hunter or Amir Carlisle and there’s nobody that would be that surprised. Freshman Equanimeous St. Brown has seen the field early, but it requires Fuller to stay off of it, a bad trade for the Irish offense. A redshirt is still possible for the lanky freshman, so we’ll see how they go there.

Overall: It’s hard for this group to do much more, especially considering the movement at the quarterback position. But Fuller is on pace to shatter single-season records, Brown is on pace for 60 catches and the depth at the position should help Kizer to stay comfortable, with too much talent to cover if the Irish receivers can find 1-on-1 matchups.

 

TIGHT ENDS

When Durham Smythe went down, the minimal experience the Irish had went down with him. Sure, Tyler Luatua played last season. But he was a glorified blocker, who’ll now have every opportunity to take more snaps.

We saw Brian Kelly force feed Alizé Jones the football. The freshman has done some good things, but has a drop and a critical fumble that nearly cost the Irish big time. Nic Weishar made his first catch against Georgia Tech and will likely be a safety valve, a solid pass catcher even if he’s still learning how to block.

With the running game explosive and the receiving corps stacked, there just aren’t a lot of footballs to go around. But Jones has potential, Luatua will be asked to do multiple jobs and even Chase Hounshell has seen some time, likely an option as a blocker. This group hasn’t done anything outstanding through the first quarter of the season. But ordinary and assignment-correct football will be just fine.

Overall: It’s not like Tyler Eifert or Kyle Rudolph is out there. Jones has a bright future that Kelly and company want to jump start, but this offense could stay conservative with Kizer at the helm.

 

OFFENSIVE LINE

Outside of a tough afternoon in Virginia blocking in obvious running situations, Harry Hiestand’s offensive line has protected the quarterback and helped trigger an explosive ground game. There’s been some difficulties handling presnap responsibilities—too many false starts. But a starting five of Ronnie Stanley, Quenton Nelson, Nick Martin, Steve Elmer and Mike McGlinchey already looks like a rock-solid group.

Dictating the tempo of the football game is on the offensive line’s plate. And we’ll get a valuable datapoint against Clemson next weekend, with the Death Valley night crowd doing its best to make communication nonexistent and the Tigers challenging the Irish at the point of attack.

Overall: This is a group with a tremendously high ceiling. Stanley looks like a first rounder and Nick Martin is playing with more confidence now that he’s fully healthy. Seeing McGlinchey in space and you begin to understand why Kelly loves him, and Nelson and Elmer are two mauling guards. The numbers tell us one thing—this team can control play. But this season will be determined by this group keeping Kizer upright and the Irish in control, especially in upcoming tests against Clemson and USC.

 

Part Two on the defense next… 

 

Mailbag: Now Open

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 06:  A U.S. Postal service employee leaves the loading dock to deliver mail from the Los Feliz Post Office on February 6, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. The U.S. Postal Service plans to end Saturday delivery of first-class mail by August, which could save the service $2 billion annually after losing nearly $16 billion last fiscal year.  (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
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Notre Dame’s 3-0, a perfect first quarter of the season, even with a nightmarish set of circumstances. What are you looking for now from Brian Kelly’s team? 

Ask your questions below or on Twitter @KeithArnold. 

 

Is Jaylon Smith the best linebacker in college football?

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Notre Dame’s junior linebacker Jaylon Smith is off to a fast start. He’s leading the team in solo tackles and just edges Joe Schmidt for the lead in total tackles. He’s also leading the team in TFLs, shares the lead in sacks, and already has two tallies in the pass breakups and pass defended, while also forcing a fumble and recovering one as well.

Asked by Brian Kelly and the defensive staff to elevate his game this season, Smith has done just that. Combined with his elite athletic traits and an advanced knowledge of the defensive scheme, Smith’s in the conversation for the country’s best linebacker.

At the quarter-turn of the season, ProFootballFocus thinks he’s the best.

He leads their grading system with a PFF rating of 10.8, the highest of any linebacker in the country. Smith’s defensive performance is a big reason why the Irish check in at No. 6 in the AP poll this week and sit at 3-0.

 

Once again, the defense calls on Matthias Farley

Matthias Farley
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When Matthias Farley grows older, when his beard turns from black to grey, he’ll look back on his years at Notre Dame and smile. The fifth-year captain is a football survivor. He’s also the face of the resiliency that head coach Brian Kelly has instilled in his roster.

How best to succinctly tell Farley’s story? Let’s try.

Matthias Farley: The back-up plan? Matthias Farley: Bailing out the defense since 2012? Matthias Farley: No matter where you bury him on the depth chart, he’ll be there when you need him?

Last Saturday, Farley added another chapter to one of the more remarkable on-field stories we’ve seen in recent years. After spending the first half on the sidelines and playing special teams, Farley was called into action after Drue Tranquill went down.

And then, on one of his first snaps of the afternoon, Farley found a way to be involved in one of the biggest plays of the game: he and Jaylon Smith forced a fumble that Smith very nearly ran back for a touchdown.

There he was, a back-up superhero who only gets to put his cape on when Superman or Batman pull a groin or tweak a hamstring. Kelly talked on Tuesday about Farley’s ability to impact games, while still not being able to find his way into the starting lineup.

“He doesn’t like it,” Kelly said. “He wants to be out there starting. He believes that he can help this football team as a starter. But he’s one of those guys that makes this 2015 football team special in that he’ll do whatever is necessary for the good of the team.”

Farley has made a career out of being ready. It started in 2012, when the converted receiver was just days into his career as a safety when he leap-frogged fifth-year safety Dan McCarthy as the opening day option specialist in Notre Dame’s drubbing of Navy in Dublin. Then when Jamoris Slaughter’s season ended just a few weeks later, Farley was asked to step into the starting lineup, to carry one-eleventh of the weight for one of Notre Dame’s finest defenses in school history.

His teammates know that. Farley found a way to be a key piece of a defense that led the Irish to an undefeated regular season. And they’re hoping he’ll do it again.

“Matthias started like nine games on the way to the National Championship Game, and started in the National Championship Game and played I think four years now,” Joe Schmidt said Wednesday.

“He’s been a starter. He’s been not a starter. He’s been the special teams captain. He’s been just about everything in his time here, and so I just think it’s so funny that it’s even a question if he’s ready or if he’s going to perform because he’s a baller.

“He’s been a baller. He’s always going to be a baller.”

Farley’s fit in Brian VanGorder’s defense has been a curious one. After an injury-plagued and disappointing 2013 season, Farley switched positions, turning him from starting safety into what amounted to roughly a sixth-string cornerback. Farley looked closer to Siberia than the starting lineup.

But what ended up happening? KeiVarae Russell gets suspended.  Cody Riggs got hurt. And Farley ended up filling up the stat sheet better than any other defender on the roster.

Entering 2015, Farley once again didn’t look like he had a place in this defense. Freshman Shaun Crawford looked like a perfect fit at nickel cornerback. Safeties Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate were dialed into the starting lineup. Even in specialty packages, Tranquill was a better fit for the battering ram VanGorder was looking for in dime and option situations.

So Farley did his job. And for two games, that meant leading the special teams.

“A captain’s role is to lead and it doesn’t always have to be on every single down,” Farley said Wednesday. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be a play-a-hundred-plays-a-game kind of deal.”

But that moment is coming. With the Next Man In now clearly focused on Farley’s availability, the veteran has the opportunity to finish his collegiate career playing a ton of important snaps for the defense, a group that understandably has confidence in one of the team’s best leaders. Even if—once again—it’s by accident.

“We all have complete confidence in Matthias because he’s been there and he’s done it,” Schmidt said.  “He’s been successful and he’ll continue to be successful.”