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Notre Dame’s Opponents: Temple

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There are exactly two weeks remaining until a Monday arrives with a Notre Dame game awaiting on the other end of the work week. For the second time in five years, the Irish will open against Temple. In 2013, the Owls were entering their first season under a first-time head coach after their previous leader left for a Power Five school beginning with the letter ‘B.’

Admittedly, specifying that Boston College and Baylor open with the same letter of the alphabet may be a reach, but in doing so, everything about that 2013 sentence will hold true for Temple again in 2017.

2016 REVIEW
The Owls went 10-4 last season, including losses to both Memphis and Wake Forest. The season’s highlight came when Temple beat then-No. 20 Navy 34-10 in the American Athletic Conference title game.

Those losses to Memphis and Wake Forest warrant extra notice for Irish fans this season—Memphis’ offensive coordinator Chip Long now holds that role at Notre Dame and the same can be said for Wake Forest’s defensive coordinator Mike Elko.

Long and the Tigers stretched the Owls’ defense further than it did throughout the rest of the season, though Temple still held Memphis to much less than its usual output. Against the Owls, the Tigers managed 34 points, though 14 of those came off a defensive score and a special teams touchdown, lowering the actual offensive production to only 20 points. Temple allowed 17.2 points per game in its 13 other contests, while Memphis averaged 39.25 points per game otherwise.

The Tigers rushed for 149 yards, less than their average across the rest of the year of 160.2 rushing yards, but also more than the Owls’ usual allowance of 129.9 yards. Memphis threw for 174 yards, far short of its usual 315.3, yet more than Temple’s 150.5 average. The Tigers gained an average of 5.6 yards per play, closer to its usual 6.3 yards than the Owls’ standard of 4.6 yards allowed per play.

Against Wake Forest, a quick look at the stats becomes quickly skewed. Temple trailed 31-7 in the second quarter, thus taking to the air, and doing so somewhat successfully, finally succumbing to a final score of 34-26. The Deacons held the Owls to -20 rushing yards on 23 attempts while giving up 396 passing yards and 5.2 yards per play. If removing the bowl game from Temple’s season, the Owls averaged 32.8 points, 191.2 rushing yards, 225.2 passing yards and 6.0 yards per play. Wake Forest allowed an average of 21.8 points, 155.9 rushing yards, 214.2 passing yards and 5.3 yards per play.

WHAT TEMPLE LOST
To start with, Temple lost Rhule. Back-to-back 10-4 seasons put him in position to move on to a bigger gig, and considering the amount of talent leaving the program at the same time, it would appear Rhule made the smart move.

The NFL drafted three Owls, including defensive end Hasson Reddick as the No. 13 overall pick to the Arizona Cardinals and left tackle Dion Dawkins with the No. 63 overall pick courtesy of the Buffalo Bills. Perhaps more notably at the collegiate level, quarterback Phillip Walker was one of six undrafted free agents to sign with NFL teams.

A four-year starter, Walker set the career passing mark at Temple with 10,669 yards. He was only 121 yards away from setting the record in only three seasons before adding 3295 yards in 2016. Joining him among those undrafted free agents, running back Jahad Thomas ran for 953 yards and 14 touchdowns last year.

The Owls also lost what seems to be their entire linebacker corps, returning only one of their top-six tacklers.

WHAT TEMPLE GAINED
This category is meant to be about recruiting. So as not to reduce the following “HEAD COACH” section as entirely unnecessary, the incoming coach will be mentioned there. Among recruits, Temple signed a total of 16 players in the class of 2017, including three prospects rated as three-stars by rivals.com. Of those three, linebacker Malik Burns and quarterback Todd Centeio could conceivably see notable playing time this season.

HEAD COACH
Geoff Collins takes over the program fresh from spending six seasons as a defensive coordinator in the SEC, the two most-recent at Florida. There may not be much else to know about Collins until he leads a program. He has spent his entire career on the defensive side of the ball, including four years playing linebacker at Western Carolina.

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY

Temple junior running back Ryquell Armstead Getty Images)

Collins tapped a former Fordham colleague to lead the Owls offense, pulling Dave Patenaude from the offensive coordinator role at Coastal Carolina, a Football Championship Series program. While with the Chanticleers, it is hard to underscore how dynamic Patenaude’s offense was, including a 2015 season in which it averaged 37.3 points per game while churning through six different quarterbacks.

At Temple, Patenaude will obviously need to adjust to an inexperienced quarterback. A starter has yet to be named, and it appears there is a non-zero chance Centeio earns the nod. Whoever takes the first snap will have the luxury of turning to a tested running back in junior Ryquell Armstead. Though he was not the starter, Armstead still took 156 carries for 919 yards and 14 touchdowns last year.

For that matter, the quarterback will have Walker’s top-four receivers available to target, led by senior Keith Kirkwood and junior Ventell Bryant.

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
Formerly the defensive backs coach at Purdue, defensive coordinator Taver Johnson is expected to keep Temple’s 4-3 defense intact. Doing so should allow him to rely on a strong secondary, perhaps the Owls’ most-reliable defensive asset. Senior free safety Sean Chandler, 6-foot and 190 pounds, and junior strong safety Delvon Randall, 5-foot-11 and 208 pounds, lead the way along the back-line.

SEASON OUTLOOK
Rhule left for one of the most-challenging job openings in recent years. He did so in part because his profile would never be higher than it was following Temple’s 2016 season. This year certainly does not have the makings of another 10-4 campaign. The over/under on Owl wins this year is a middling 6.5, and Notre Dame currently stands as a 15-point favorite for the Sept. 2 season opener.

In 19 days, Irish fans should take particular notice of what Temple players wear Nos. 6, 7 and 8. The Owls have a relatively-young tradition of bestowing single-digit numbers upon players deemed “Temple Tuff” by their teammates. Of the names mentioned above, Kirkwood, Bryant, Chandler and Randall all wear single digits and will be expected to contribute heavily. Nos. 6-8 are unclaimed at the moment.

Tomorrow: Georgia
Wednesday: Boston College
Thursday: Michigan State
Friday: Miami (OH)
Saturday: North Carolina
Sunday: Bye Week (Nice how that works out, isn’t it? Almost like it was planned.)
Monday, the 21st: USC
Tuesday, 22nd: North Carolina State
Wednesday, 23rd: Wake Forest
Thursday, 24th: Miami (FL)
Friday, 25th: Navy
Saturday, 26th: Stanford (The same day as Stanford’s opener vs. Rice in Australia.)
Sunday, 27th: One last breath before the season truly begins.

Notre Dame & Wisconsin schedule an (un)mysterious announcement

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The official Notre Dame football Twitter account’s post does not leave much room for wonder.

About the only questions remaining after seeing that graphic would be: How many games will Notre Dame and Wisconsin play and when and where will they be played?

The email sent to media alerting of a Monday press conference (12:30 p.m. ET) indicates answers to two of those questions.

“Members of the media are invited to the Under Armour Brand House in downtown Chicago for a major football scheduling announcement by the University of Notre Dame, University of Wisconsin, Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers.”

It does not take much extrapolation to believe the Irish and Badgers have put together a two-game neutral-site series featuring Lambeau Field and Soldier Field.

As to when, the Chicago Tribune’s Teddy Greenstein reports the series will head to Green Bay in 2020 and Chicago in 2021.

This scribe, for one, has already made it pretty clear how he feels about the first half of that rip, in particular — Friday at 4: If and when in Lambeau … (July 28)

Notre Dame reveals new locker room; awards Webster a scholarship

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It will not be only the fans who need to adjust to the expanded, renovated and updated Notre Dame Stadium. The $400 million Campus Crossroads Project and its bells-and-whistles will demand some renewed focus from the team itself. That was part of Irish coach Brian Kelly’s reasoning in holding Saturday’s practice in the Stadium.

Largely an intrasquad scrimmage, the practice utilized the video board above the south end zone.

“You start to run your offense down to that scoreboard and big screen, it is imposing in that it can distract you if you’re not really locked in,” Kelly said. “… That’s a different dynamic in that stadium. I thought that was great to be in there today. We gave them a chance to scrimmage with those things that can tend to distract players at times.”

With that in mind, Notre Dame will hold an open scrimmage Aug. 20, cleverly-coined the “New & Gold Game,” featuring a performance by the band, cheerleaders on the sidelines and other aspects of a game day experience. The practice will not only serve to introduce fans to the Stadium’s new amenities, but also to condition the Irish to the less-obvious game day items that have changed, including where they dress.

“We’re going to treat it as a game,” Kelly said. “We’re going in the locker room. We’re going to make it as much like a game situation and create that so it’s not the first time we do it in all respects. I want to get that out of the way before we play Temple.”

Notre Dame unveiled some of those aspects in the last few days.

It seems the players may have approved of some of the locker room updates just a little bit.

At the end of that player tour of the locker room, Kelly awarded a scholarship to (now-former) walk-on receiver Austin Webster. Webster was named a captain back in December, the first walk-on to hold that honor in Irish history. Whether he still holds that distinction is a matter of semantics for another time.

Webster’s scholarship brings Notre Dame to the NCAA maximum allowed of 85. Kelly entered preseason practice knowing he had one scholarship available to recognize a player with, but said he did not expect that player to be Webster, captainship notwithstanding.

“When we came into camp, he was not on the list to get one. He earned it,” Kelly said. “… He wasn’t guaranteed one. He had to go earn it and he earned it.”

Webster will undoubtedly chip in on special teams, seeing action on two units, according to Kelly, but his contributions have extended well beyond the field.

“He was a great representative of all [the 20-plus walk-ons] and even touched scholarship players with the right traits that I was looking for, that I wanted to model,” Kelly said. “So not only did we have a guy that was sacrificing for Notre Dame in all those areas, he also possessed the traits that I wanted to mirror right out of the gates.”

Improved conditioning apparent along Notre Dame’s lines; Smith emerges as second receiver

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Irish coach Brian Kelly met with the media Saturday after Notre Dame’s 11th preseason practice. He discussed pertinent topics tying both to the on-field progress of the team three weeks before the season-opener against Temple and to some off-field items. A summary of the latter will come later today, but in an attempt to keep these notebooks quick and organized, this includes only Kelly’s thoughts relative to football-specific items.

On conditioning, specifically among the linemen
Technically speaking, the weight room should probably fall among the off-field bits, but its effects are most-noticeable on the field. Kelly is seeing the most improvement in fitness along the offensive and defensive lines.

One might think senior right guard Alex Bars would be juggling quite a bit this preseason, adjusting to the move inside from right tackle. To hear Kelly tell it, that would be quite an inaccurate presumption.

“Alex Bars arguably has had as good a camp as anybody that we have,” Kelly said. “… In terms of transforming his body in the offseason, losing 10-12 pounds and gaining explosiveness, he has really put himself in position to be an elite player. He moves well. He’s smart. He has multi-position ability.”

To that thought of multiple positions, Kelly mentioned not only the obvious of guard and tackle, but also center, indicating it remains possible, if not likely, Bars would be the first choice for a long-term replacement of senior center Sam Mustipher should one be necessary. Junior Trevor Ruhland has been backing up Mustipher in practices.

“If you ask [offensive line coach] Harry Hiestand, Ruhland has graded out really well which was important for us for a backup center,” Kelly said.

Both Bars and Ruhland are only contingency plans at center, though. Mustipher is not only an established starter, but an improved one. The Irish spent much of Saturday’s practice scrimmaging, running upward of 70 plays, per Kelly. He did not necessarily expect the team to keep up full effort through all 70-plus plays, considering some players may not yet have converted overall fitness into game-shape.

“I told the team, ‘We’re not ready to play today, we’ve got three weeks left,’” Kelly said. “‘But if we’re looking at some things we did really well today, we played 76 plays and we did not have one guy that I felt was not physically-conditioned to keep going today. There was not a drop-off from play No. 1 to play No. 76 with the conditioning element.’

“And Sam was one of those guys at times, you worried a little bit about him in terms of conditioning. There’s no worry about him with that at all.”

An improved conditioning and weight-training program has helped directly across the ball from Mustipher, too. While Kelly recognized he sounded a bit like a scratched record with his constant and specifically-focused praises, he still doubled down on them when making note of senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner, though some of Bonner’s improvements also come from the additional time spent at tackle after playing defensive end earlier in his career.

“He’s just so much more agile, moves so much better,” Kelly said. “[Bonner was] a bit mechanical last year in a sense that he wasn’t as comfortable with the position. He’s so much more comfortable with the position that he’s playing.

“Again, I keep reverting back to this, but correctiveness in his weight training has allowed him to be much [more] athletic in his movements.”

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Kelly’s strongest accolades for offseason improvements under the direction of strength coordinator Matt Balis were reserved for senior defensive end Jay Hayes. Improved physical and mental conditioning may have Hayes ready to contribute, essentially for the first time in his career. To refresh any memories, Hayes burned a year of eligibility late in his freshman season to provide Notre Dame with some defensive line depth amid injuries, making two tackles in three games, before then sitting out his entire sophomore year. Last season, Hayes made 10 tackles in 10 games.

“When you look at it, he’s had to wait for this opportunity,” Kelly said. “He’s had some ups and downs along the way. You just have to be gritty. [Hayes] came in, heralded as a recruit and some things didn’t go his way. He’s had to fight through it.

“He’s a great testament to some of our younger players about hanging in there. He’s in a great place right now.”

On finding a No. 2 receiver

Earlier in the week, Kelly acknowledged how far ahead of the pack junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown is. Behind him, receivers 2-11 seemed to be only a day away from jumping to the top or falling to the bottom. From that mix, fifth-year senior and Arizona State graduate transfer Cam Smith has established himself as the next option after St. Brown. Smith’s institutional knowledge of offensive coordinator Chip Long’s playbook certainly helped his cause, having been coached by Long for three seasons with the Sun Devils.

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“If [St. Brown] has a ticket on the train, [Smith] is getting close to punching his [ticket],” Kelly said, referring to the metaphor he employed previously. “We’re looking for that now. We’re looking for the consistency. He’s been consistent. That’s really what has started to separate him from the other receivers. Every day you’re getting the same from him.”

When healthy, Smith was known as a deep threat at Arizona State, relying on his natural speed to take the top off a secondary. That was the role Kelly admitted he initially envisioned for the transfer. Smith has offered more than that.

“He’s a little different than what I thought. … He’s got strong hands. Physically, as you have seen his physique, he’s very strong,” Kelly said, adding the GPS tracking of Smith during practice shows he maintains his top-end speed at the end of a day, even after logging some of the highest mileage on the team.

His rise to No. 2 receiver positions Smith for the field position, though both he and St. Brown will likely see action at both the field and the boundary in order to expedite any up-tempo aspirations.

Kelly said the rest of the receiving corps continues to move around on the field, looking to find the best fits among a talented yet developing group.

On three kickers
The Irish will likely rely on three different specialists in the kicking game this season, as foreshadowed as far back as National Signing Day. Freshman Jonathan Doerer will take over kickoff duties from junior Justin Yoon, allowing Yoon to focus on placekicking while senior punter Tyler Newsome sticks to, well, punting.

“We don’t want to put any dual responsibility on anybody at this point,” Kelly said. “We want them to take the specialty of that particular position and … be consistent at that one.

“If there’s anyone that kicks at another position, it will be because they mastered one and somebody hasn’t mastered their own.”

Friday at 4: Human nature and opponents’ momentum

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Speculating about past seasons is a fruitless exercise, but it can be used to underscore valid points moving forward.

This week, Irish coach Brian Kelly looked back to the beginning of 2016, noting the difference in team-wide demeanors between that group and the current roster.

“I knew [last year] that we needed to get off to a good start,” Kelly said. “We needed confidence, and that’s not the case with this group. They just need to go play.”

Kelly’s point is a valid one and one implicit with human nature. When things go bad, we start to expect more things to follow suit. After Notre Dame lost in double overtime to Texas, it endured two more one-possession losses in the next three games. Suddenly, the Irish were three bounces away from being 4-0 heading into a two-week stretch of North Carolina State and Stanford. The shortcomings built upon themselves from there.

Looking at this season, Notre Dame’s schedule opens in a much more favorable manner. The second week does feature a stout challenge in Georgia, but aside from that, the first six weeks should see the Irish as distinct favorites. Even against the Bulldogs, Notre Dame will be favored, though by only three or four points. Such an opening stretch could change the dynamics leading into the USC tilt Oct. 21.

“If this team opens up 6-0 like I think they will, they’ll be playing with a lot more confidence level as the season goes on,” ESPN analyst Phil Steele said earlier this summer. “They’ll go on the field expecting to win.”

If granting this overall premise, it should apply to any opponents, as well. Some unexpected teams could face the Irish already flying high, believing in each and every aspect of their games, ready to continue that roll. Some high-profile foes might meet Notre Dame already expecting mistakes.

Let’s take a look at the 12 opponents’ schedules to try to spot who could be trending upward or otherwise when they take on the Irish.

Temple: Notre Dame is the Owls’ opener, so there is obviously no previous indicator applicable here. Instead, let’s note Temple will have nine days to prepare for hosting Houston on Sept. 30 immediately after playing this year’s top-projected American Athletic team, South Florida.

Georgia: The Bulldogs open the season against Appalachian State (Sept. 2, 6:15 p.m. ET). The Mountaineers did take Tennessee to overtime to open last season, so they will not be intimidated by facing an SEC team, but Georgia should be just fine, even if Appalachian State offers a scare for a few quarters. (more…)