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2 Days Until Spring Practice: A Look at the Linebackers

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A year ago, Notre Dame returned two of its top 10 tacklers from the previous season. Defensive end Isaac Rochell finished fifth on the team in 2015 with 63 tackles, and cornerback Cole Luke rounded out the listing with 41.

This season, the Irish return four of their top five and six of the top 10, led by senior Nyles Morgan and his 94 tackles—including six tackles for loss and four sacks. The exception within the top five is linebacker James Onwualu and his 75 tackles, including 11.5 for loss and three sacks.

Onwualu’s departure will be noticed, but Morgan makes this first part easy: He will not only start but also lead the Notre Dame defense.

Rounding out last season’s top-five, junior Te’von Coney (62 tackles) and senior Greer Martini (55, with seven for loss and three sacks) make this second part simple: One of them will line up alongside Morgan.

This third part is neither easy nor simple. It is, in fact, one large question only to be answered by time observing new defensive coordinator Mike Elko: Who will start at his rover position, and what will that role entail? The best bet is last year’s second-leading tackler, senior Drue Tranquill (79 tackles). Any answer to the question of his role hinges largely on conjecture at this point.

In Elko’s past, the rover has aligned more with the linebackers than with the safeties, though its entire premise is to be a hybrid of the two. When Elko’s defense is described as a 4-2-5, the rover is among those 5, so it really is a 4-3-4. At times, however, the rover can slot in among the front line, either as an additional pass-rush threat or in place of one. This theoretical flexibility is the rover’s chief allure, somewhat diminishing the adverse effect an up-tempo offense hopes to garner by minimizing defensive substitutions. If one player can be effective at all three levels, the defense can adjust to the offense’s personnel without relying on players racing in from the sideline.

At 6-foot-1.5 and 225 pounds, Tranquill plays physically enough to fill this role, hence the presupposition he will get the first crack at it. After him, junior Asmar Bilal and sophomores Spencer Perry and D.J. Morgan figure to at least study the position.

Freshman Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah will join those ranks come summer and fall.

Bilal will also provide depth at the linebacker position behind Morgan, Martini and Coney. To a lesser extent, junior Josh Barajas will, as well, while sophomores Jonathan Jones and Jamir Jones (no relation) represent unknowns to date. Jamir saw action in 10 games last season, recording eight tackles. New linebackers coach Clark Lea may find unknown capabilities in either or both of the two, always an ideal possibility with a new coach and defensive scheme.

Freshmen David Adams and Drew White will further the depth at linebacker, though not this spring.

As was noted in regards to 2015’s passing statistics, a football season’s small sample size makes any even smaller grouping of games ripe for manipulation to prove any preferred point. Nevertheless … last year the Irish gave up 2,189 rushing yards at a 4.14 yards per carry and 182.4 yards per game clip, good for the No. 72-ranked rushing defense in the country.

After defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s firing four games into the season, Notre Dame allowed 173.1 yards per game over eight games, which would have ranked No. 66 in the NCAA over a full season. Among those final eight games, the Irish played North Carolina State in a literal hurricane and faced two option-dependent offenses in Navy and Army. The game against the Wolfpack would not usually find itself in this disclaimer, but the weather forced State to run the ball 51 times, compared to its average of 37.75 times across its other 12 games.

Remove those three games and their combined total of 706 rushing yards, not to mention five touchdowns on the ground, and the post-BVG rushing yards allowed per game falls to 135.8, akin to the No. 30-best rushing defense in the nation. Perhaps just as impressively, in that five-game sample, Notre Dame allowed only five rushing touchdowns.

Lastly, just as a note to fill out the earlier listing regarding returning tacklers: Of 2015’s top 10, Notre Dame also returns sophomore cornerback Julian Love (45 tackles) and sophomore safety Devin Studstill (38). They finished ninth and 10, respectively.


Previous Positional Group Spring Previews
Offensive Linemen
Tight Ends/Receivers
Running Backs
Quarterbacks
Defensive Backs
Wednesday, March 8: Spring practice begins

2 Days Until Spring Practice: A Look at the Defensive Backfield

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In many respects, looking at last year’s defensive performances, both as a team and as individuals, is time spent in folly. Four games into the 2016 season, the Notre Dame defense shifted drastically when Greg Hudson took over the duties of defensive coordinator after Irish coach Brian Kelly dismissed Brian VanGorder. Mike Elko will now install a new scheme, likely moving some players around and evaluating others differently than his predecessors did.

While spring practice is far from as enthralling as the fall in any respect, what it can show in situations like these makes it genuinely intriguing.

In the defensive backfield, that intrigue focuses on the deep but unproven cornerback position. Cole Luke’s graduation will be noticed, not that safety Avery Sebastian’s won’t be, but it will not be as significant as the exit of Luke’s 38 career starts.

For these purposes, discussions of Elko’s rover position—and those most-likely to fill it, being senior Drue Tranquill and sophomores Spencer Perry and D.J. Morgan—will be included in a later look at linebackers. In theory, that new wrinkle will fit in more with the Nyles Morgans and Greer Martinis of the world than the Nic(k)s Watkins, Colemans and Fertittas.

All of the Irish defensive backs returning from 2016 will also be able to return next season. Only Nick Watkins is a senior, and he will yet have a year of eligibility remaining after this season. That holds true even if including the rover position, with Tranquill there fitting the description just applied to Watkins.

Notre Dame returns 19 starts from last fall at cornerback, though two come from junior Shaun Crawford who tore his Achilles tendon in the season’s second game, a 39-10 victory over Nevada. While Crawford’s ability is real and his value to the depth chart tangible, he is superfluous to this conversation until proven healthy, and that will certainly not be this spring. For a reminder’s sake, one reader followed the commitment of consensus four-star cornerback Kalon Gervin by asking, “When was the last time ND got a true CB in Gervin ranked this high?” Only two years ago, Crawford is the answer. He was the No. 7 cornerback in the 2015 class, per rivals.com.

Two more of those starts come from junior Nick Coleman, who fell down the depth chart after starting two of last season’s first three games. Barring unforeseen growth, his contributions at cornerback are likely in the past, though he may yet remain in the defensive backfield.

That leaves Watkins, who also missed last season due to a broken arm, and sophomores Julian Love (eight starts), Donte Vaughn (four) and Troy Pride (three). This spring may not reveal which two among those four will start come fall, but it should give a strong indication as to any comfort level within Elko’s defense.

Love would seem a frontrunner—his eight starts were the season’s final eight games—while Vaughn and Pride remain more theoreticals than proven commodities. Vaughn started against Syracuse, Stanford, Navy and Army. Pride started against Stanford, Miami and USC.

No defensive coordinator will gripe about having this variety of options, especially in today’s era of football when a third cornerback is needed on the field as often as not. Notre Dame may have as many as five viable possibilities at the position. This spring four will look to impress.

Safety brings less uncertainty. Sophomore Devin Studstill started nine games in his debut campaign, making 38 tackles and one interception, also forcing one fumble. With Tranquill’s anticipated move to rover, Studstill may be counted on as the veteran of the defensive backfield.

His counterpart will presumably come from the trio of juniors Coleman and Nicco Fertitta, and sophomore Jalen Elliott. With the afore-discussed five-some of corners, Coleman may get a look at safety. The same goes for junior Ashton White.

Ferttta and Elliott both chipped in at the position last season, each appearing in all 12 games and tallying 17 and 14 tackles, respectively. The former would provide a lower floor, the latter a higher ceiling.

Early enrollee Isaiah Robertson will further the depth a safety this spring, and playing time does appear to be available if he proves himself worthy of it. If not, he will undoubtedly contribute on special teams under new special teams coordinator Brian Polian.

Freshman Jordan Genmark-Heath will join the safety ranks come summer and fall.

Last year, the Irish gave up a total of 2,357 passing yards at a rate of 7.53 yards per attempt and 196.4 yards per game (No. 21 in the country). After VanGorder’s departure, that last figure fell to 168.13 yards per game, which would have been the NCAA’s sixth-best, but statistics can be manipulated any which way to prove one’s desired point. In the season’s final eight games, Notre Dame played North Carolina State in a literal hurricane, as well as two option-dependent teams in Navy and Army. Remove those three games and their combined total of 102 passing yards, and the post-BVG passing yards allowed per game average jumps to 248.6., in line with the No. 87 passing defense over the entire season.


Previous Positional Group Spring Previews
Offensive Linemen
Tight Ends/Receivers
Running Backs
Quarterbacks
Wednesday, March 8: Spring practice begins

Kizer’s combine interview looks back while his 40-time runs forward

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DeShone Kizer might be looking toward April’s NFL Draft, but the questions about Notre Dame’s disappointing 2016 kept coming Friday at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis. Attending the combine requires each player to meet with the media, so Kizer had no recourse to avoid the questions. Then again, doing so likely would have raised a red flag on teams’ draft profiles.

“I didn’t make enough plays,” the former Irish quarterback said. “The ball is in my hand every play. It’s my job at Notre Dame to put us in a position to win games, to trust the guys around me and develop the guys around me to make the plays with me.”

By the end of the session, Kizer pivoted slightly from that look directly into the mirror, acknowledging the quarterback competition with Malik Zaire may have distracted him more than would have been ideal.

“I do think I spent too much time thinking about that rather than developing the guys around me, developing the trust.

“The 2015 team and the 2016 team were completely different. We almost had a completely different roster on offense. I think there should have been a little bit more time spent with me trying to develop that trust, develop the guys around me to make those plays in the fourth-quarter drives.

“At times, I was looking over my shoulder too much and I think that’s probably my biggest regret this past season.”

Kizer does not embellish when he points out the offensive turnover between the two seasons. Heading into 2016, the Irish were without 2015’s leading rusher (C.J. Prosise, 156 attempts for 1,100 yards and 11 touchdowns), three leading receivers (in order of catches, most to fewest: Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle) and three offensive linemen who started all 13 games (Ronnie Stanley, Steve Elmer and Nick Martin).

Nonetheless, Kizer finished with 2,925 yards and 26 touchdowns on 212-of-361 passing with nine interceptions. He added 779 yards and eight scores on 104 rushing attempts when not counting sacks and their yardage lost as the NCAA does. Kizer fumbled five times, losing three of them.

But the NFL already knew all those numbers unlike the numbers learned over the weekend.

Kizer measured 6-foot-4 ¼ and 233 pounds with a hand 9 7/8 inches in length. (How to measure your hand at home? Spread it on a flat surface. Measure from the tip of your pinkie to the tip of your thumb. Michael Jordan’s measured about 11 3/8 inches.)

Kizer clocked an official 4.83 seconds in the 40-yard dash.

With those oh-so-key figures logged, Kizer spent Saturday morning throwing to receivers also looking to impress NFL scouts.

The combine includes interviews with teams, as well. In a quarterback-needy league, Kizer and the other top prospects—from North Carolina, Mitchell, neé Mitch, Trubisky; from Texas Tech, Patrick Mahomes; from Clemson, Deshaun Watson—are not only popular in those 15-minute meetings, but also chess pieces in the conversations afterward. When San Francisco 49ers general manager John Lynch raves about Kizer, it may be a genuine indication of the quarterback-desperate 49ers’ thoughts as they hold the draft’s second-overall pick. It could also be Lynch putting on a front for the other 31 teams of the league.

Kizer reportedly met with the Bears (No. 3 pick, likely about to release incumbent starter Jay Cutler), the Jets (No. 6, no entrenched starter) and the Chiefs (No. 27, incumbent Alex Smith has long presented a high-floor, low-ceiling situation), as well.

Scouts will have another chance to see Kizer in an orchestrated setting at Notre Dame’s pro day, March 23. Quarterbacks often perform better in those throwing sessions thanks to the more-familiar targets who are not necessarily trying to make each catch look as impressive as possible.

4 Days Until Spring Practice: A Look at QBs (Brandon Wimbush)

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While DeShone Kizer spent today at the NFL Draft Combine hoping to secure a first-day selection at the end of April, Notre Dame’s remaining three quarterbacks presumably focused ahead four days to the beginning of spring practice. (Look for a summary of Kizer’s combine performance in this space by the end of the weekend, if not the day.)

“Three” does not include incoming freshman Avery Davis. Davis should be looking ahead to prom or some other leisurely activity. Live life, young fella, your time to buckle down is coming soon enough.

“Three” does include senior Montgomery VanGorder, junior Brandon Wimbush and sophomore Ian Book. With hopes of not stepping too heavily on the toes of Wimbush’s summer entry in the “A to Z” series, what should spring practice bring from those three?
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Mailbag: Fact-checking & answering some reader comments

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The mailbag is a mainstay of any sportswriter’s inventory these days. The readers do the hardest work for the writer, delivering an idea to write about. In that respect, it is just this side of lazy. Call it efficient.

It nonetheless serves a few purposes. A properly-executed mailbag answers pertinent questions, encourages reader engagement and corrects a few inaccurate facts. Mailbags were fact-checking before “fact-checking” became a piece of politics and punditry.

Focusing on answering questions and demonstrating that all those comments are noticed, let’s do the modern version of a mailbag: Let’s respond to comments left in the depths of “Inside the Irish” from the last few weeks. Editor’s Note: These comments were edited for brevity and clarity, but their content and context was not adjusted.

Rbmat: Two tight ends used effectively would be music to many ears. Force defenses to bring the safety down to respect the run … and take away the pressure from your young quarterback. Please, Douglas, tell me our new OC hates the spread.

I cannot tell you that, Rbmat. If anything, look for new offensive coordinator Chip Long to use athletic tight ends in a way that somewhat increases the spread offense. Take junior Alizé Mack, for instance. His athleticism should allow him to line up not only on the line but also in the slot or perhaps even out wide, forcing the defense to either cover him with a linebacker in open space or with an undersized defensive back.

Irish coach Brian Kelly has said Long will maintain an up-tempo offense. Matchup problems like Mack are best exploited in a spread environment.

That can still aid the run game. If Mack is lined up off the line in any manner and a linebacker remains with him in coverage, then one less linebacker is in the box keeping an eye on junior running back Josh Adams or whichever unproven back proves to be his stablemate.

To be clear, Mack is merely an example for these purposes. Who the tight end or two could be will begin to reveal itself March 8.

nudeman: No one will benefit more from a rejuvenated, overhauled strength and conditioning program than the offensive line. Unlike the defensive line, there is some real talent on the offensive line. ND’s offensive performance last year tailed off as the game progressed and I think the OL was just poorly conditioned. Do I recall correctly that they scored something like 22 points in the fourth quarter in the last games? That’s putrid.

That stat is correct, and certainly concerning, but there should be at least three notes added to it. One of those games was the 44-6 rout of Army. That was, in fact, the score entering the fourth quarter. Notre Dame did not need to fret about adding any points. Another of those was the 50-33 victory over Syracuse. The Irish led 47-27 entering the final frame. Again, no need to worry. Lastly, one of those eight games was played in a literal hurricane. Criticizing an offense for not scoring enough in those conditions falls somewhere in the category of missing the forest for the trees.

If looking at the other five games, the Irish scored a total of 125 points with 19 coming in the fourth quarter. Logically, one might expect about 25 percent of a team’s points to come in each quarter. (There are flaws to that logic, but it will hold well enough for this exercise.) In those five close, weather-appropriate games to close the 2016 season, Notre Dame scored 15.2 percent of its points in the fourth quarter. Should that number be higher? Yes. Is it abnormally low when factoring in the small sample size? Not necessarily.

ndnphx: Regarding that “win expectancy” stat: I tend to believe Kelly’s ND teams have underachieved in win expectancy every year but 2012. Is there a way to research previous years and see if that is the case? I’d wonder if it really is a matter of “luck and chance” or if a trend emerges.

Thanks to the good people over at footballoutsiders.com, there is indeed a way to research previous years, and a trend does emerge. When Notre Dame wins nine or more games, luck and chance played a role in some of those victories. When the Irish lose five or more, luck and chance factored into some of those defeats. In other words, the exact trend one would expect to emerge, does emerge.

As a refresher, the “win expectancy” ndnphx references is second-order win totals, which reflect how many points a team should have scored and allowed based on offensive and defensive stats. In a season where seven losses come by one possession, a second-order win total higher than the actual win total should be expected.

The small sample size of a football season reduces the applicability of metrics like this. There is never a chance for things to balance out, and by the next season, the team’s makeup could be entirely different. Second-order win totals, however, can still present a broader view of a season, rather than focusing on each game’s one or two make-or-break, 50/50 plays.

2016 actual record: 4-8 – second-order record: 7.2-4.8
2015 actual record: 10-3 – second-order record: 10.0-3.0
2014 actual record: 8-5 – second-order record: 8.5-4.5
2013 actual record: 9-4 – second-order record: 7.8-5.2
2012 actual record: 12-1 – second-order record: 10.1-2.9
2011 actual record: 8-5 – second-order record: 8.1-4.9
2010 actual record: 8-5 – second-order record: 9.0-4.0

irishwilliamsport: I don’t know if it still holds true, but every five-star guy Nick Saban had at one point at Alabama turned into a first-round draft choice.

It never held true. Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa in time for the 2007 recruiting class. Among the 24 signees that February, none were five-star recruits according to rivals.com. The following year, Saban netted three: receiver Julio Jones, athlete Burton Scott and offensive lineman Tyler Love.

Jones went on to be the sixth-overall pick in 2011 and dominates opposing secondaries like no other threat currently in the NFL.

Scott transferred to South Alabama after two seasons in Saban’s program. In his senior year with the Jaguars, the safety made 84 tackles with one sack, intercepted two passes and forced two fumbles. He was not a first-round draft choice.

Love, a 6-foot-7, 285-pound recruit, graduated from Alabama with two championship rings and a year of eligibility remaining. He played in 14 games over his career. He was not a first-round draft choice.

The point here is not to criticize irishwilliamsport, but rather to make it clear not everything stated in the comments is accurate.

rocknek9: Irish coming to California twice in one year in 2018, I don’t know if I ever remember that. Both in SoCal. Douglas, could you research that?

Two of 2007’s three victories came in California: A 20-6 victory over UCLA in Pasadena on Oct. 6, and a 21-14 win against Stanford in Palo Alto on Nov. 24.

As for two games in southern California, I researched as far back as through 1989 so I could simply yet definitively say, it has not happened in my lifetime.

bjc378: So long as we’re talking dream scenarios for next season, how about Notre Dame wins its first six games, then comes out against a top-five USC in the green jerseys? Brian Kelly has yet to use them, and I’d like to see those again. Mr. Farmer, do you like the green jerseys or what? It’s time for you to take a side.

As long as all parties are properly attired and the colors are easily distinguishable, I have no opinion whatsoever about the color of any team’s jerseys.

It should be noted, Notre Dame has worn a shade of green six times under Kelly. Five of those came in Shamrock Series games (’10, ’11, ’13, ’15 and ’16), and the sixth was a throwback version worn at Michigan in 2011.

Sure, those are different than the green jerseys bjc378 presumably references, but those occasions may have diminished the want, motivation or need for Kelly to trot out that version of an alternative.

irish1993: Is it April 22 yet?

No, not yet. There are only 184 days until Sept. 2, though.

Now then, this posted at 4 p.m. ET on a Friday. You should know what to do.