SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 19: Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates with Cole Luke #36 after recovering a fumble against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the third 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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Cowboys plan to activate Jaylon Smith

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The Dallas Cowboys plan to activate rookie linebacker Jaylon Smith, a huge development in Smith’s recovery from a major knee injury. And while it’s not necessarily a sign that Smith will be a part of the Cowboys’ stretch run, it’s an indicator that the former Notre Dame All-American and Butkus Award winner is making progress after his injury in last season’s Fiesta Bowl sent his career on an unexpected detour.

Cowboys VP Steven Jones announced the news on local Dallas radio, telling 105.3 The Fan that Smith can help the team as the season continues, even if it’s only in practices. From the Dallas News:

“That doesn’t mean anything with change with Jaylon in terms of his routine,” he said. “I don’t actually see him [returning to the field], even though he’s eligible to practice — just to extend your period. If we weren’t to activate him, then they would certainly be done if they don’t start practicing.

Jones also said the team will not activate tight end James Hanna, who underwent season-ending knee surgery. He had a previous surgery in August.

“So really it’ll just be Jaylon and McFadden that we’d give that shot to keep them alive,” Jones said. “And McFadden will actually return to practice full bore. But Jaylon’s routine won’t change at the moment.”

Much of the focus on Smith’s return has been focused on the nerve in his knee regenerating. The nerve was the major reason why Smith slid from the draft’s first five picks until the second round, a time-consuming process and a recovery that doesn’t always happen.

A source with knowledge of the situation has confirmed that Smith’s nerve is responding as the team and Smith had hoped. While he’s not at full power, he has taken major strides in the months he’s been working with the Cowboys medical staff, who feel confident enough in the overall health of Smith’s knee (he also reportedly suffered ACL and LCL tears) to allow him to participate in practice, less than 11 months after the initial injury.

Smith’s recovery comes as no surprise to those who coached and played with him in South Bend. Former head coach Brian Kelly had this to say about Smith earlier this year.

“You don’t need to worry about that with Jaylon Smith. He could fall to the seventh round. He’s going to be a star in the NFL. It really doesn’t matter,” Kelly said this spring. “He’s so driven and so focused on what’s in front of him that he’ll overcome this. I have no doubt about it.

“This is a generational player. You go generations and don’t get a player or a kid like this.”

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Virginia Tech

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before—the Irish lost a close football game.

After jumping out to a quick start, Notre Dame gave away a halftime lead and allowed Virginia Tech to close the game with 13 straight points, a defeat on senior day that wasted good efforts by a handful of players young and old.

The loss guarantees Brian Kelly his first losing season in South Bend. It also takes the Irish to Los Angeles with a Southern Cal team smelling blood in the water and playing better football than just about any team in the country not named Alabama.

Let’s get straight into the good, bad and ugly.

 

THE GOOD

Jarron Jones. It was an impressive home finale for Jones, who was a monster in the trenches against the Hokies offensive line. He had nine tackles, officially credited with five solo stops. He had a TFL and broke up a pass. His PFF Grade was a team-leading +5.5, contributing to the awful afternoon of Hokies center Eric Gallo.

So while Jones didn’t make much of an impact against the triple option attacks of Navy and Army, he played huge against the Hokies. And the good news is that there’s no offense on Sundays that’ll feature a dive, option and pitch man with undersized offensive linemen diving at his knees.

 

DeShone Kizer. Again, if this was it, it was a gutty effort. If this was it, it’ll be less about the 3-of-15 second half and more about the courage under fire he showed.

If Kizer is indeed as well respected by NFL circles as he is in the mock-draft community, then he owes it to himself to put on a baseball cap and become the future of a team that’ll hopefully find a way to win the games that the Irish couldn’t this year. After the game, he was candid about the decision in front of him.

“I don’t know yet. I think that there’s definitely an opportunity, to possibly play at the next level,” Kizer said. “I think that after next week we’ll evaluate the season and evaluate the situation as a family.”

 

Quick Hits: 

At this point, this feels like a back-handed compliment, but what an impressive opening drive. Seven play, 78 yards, and seven points. Tough to ask for more.

It was nice to see Te’von Coney fill the stat sheet. Ten tackles for the sophomore in a late-season start. Notre Dame’s linebacking corps is in good shape next season, even as it says goodbye to James Onwualu, who also had a big, big afternoon.

Josh Adams got to 100 yards, courtesy of his big 67-yard touchdown run. But he actually graded out quite poorly, mostly for his struggles in the passing game. (One tell as to where Adams is from a health perspective. He nearly got run down on his long run—something that certainly wouldn’t have happened last season.)

If you didn’t enjoy seeing Chris Finke score a nifty touchdown on a perfect throw on a post route from DeShone Kizer, you’ve lost all joy. (I can understand why.)

 

THE BAD

The officiating. When Justin Fuente gets an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for a five-yarder going the wrong way and Brian Kelly (rightfully) nearly exploded after the ACC officials—both on the field and in the booth—missed multiple targeting and helmet-to-helmet hits on DeShone Kizer, you know it’s a terrible day for the guys in the stripes.

 

The Second Half. The defense got shredded. The offense hit the brakes. The coaching staff lost the battle of the grease boards and headsets. All in all, it was 30 depressing minutes of football, with the Hokies making all the plays down the stretch.

 

THE UGLY

All of it. At this point, the lines are very clearly—and loudly—drawn. You either want Brian Kelly out, or you have him on very, very thin ice. And whether you think the program is best served by having Kelly atop it next season or not, this much is universal—it hasn’t been a good season for the head coach.

He knows it. His bosses know it. And his team knows it. And as different circumstances play into the same near-weekly result, Kelly seems to be doing whatever it takes to just get through the season, knowing that changes, whether he’s publicly acknowledged them or not, are coming.

“There are some things we’re going to have to do in the off-season,” Kelly said after the game. “There are a lot of inexperienced players that are going to benefit from this. I’m not benefitting at all being in front of you losing this football game. It’s not helping me any. It’s going to help those guys that have gone through it. So we’ll bank on that.”

Five things we learned: Virginia Tech 34, Notre Dame 31

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Behind center and ready to play a hero, Malik Zaire awaited the snap. Little did he know the clock was already running.

Seven of the 13 precious seconds remaining in the fourth quarter ticked off the field as the senior surveyed the field, the Irish still needing a nice gain to make a game-tying field goal even possible. And after Zaire left the pocket looking to make a play, even a completion wouldn’t have made a difference. He was out of time.

A fitting final snap of the season in Notre Dame Stadium if there ever was one.

Notre Dame’s fast start and 17-0 lead were not enough, as the Irish fell for the seventh time this year, with Virginia Tech rallying to win 34-31. After scoring on four of their first five drives and exploding for 24 first-half points, DeShone Kizer and the offense cooled off, punting on six of their next seven series as the Hokies offense rallied for the win.

A young Irish defense fought valiantly but gave up four scoring drives in the second half. Kizer’s couldn’t replicate his first-half success.  And any hope of stealing a bowl appearance with two wins against the season’s toughest back-to-back is finished.

So as the lights go out on Notre Dame Stadium for the final time this season, let’s find out what we learned.

 

A gutty effort by DeShone Kizer wasn’t enough to get it done. 

In what might have been his final game in Notre Dame Stadium, DeShone Kizer showed plenty of heart. But he didn’t play well enough to win the game.

Kizer completed 16 of 33 throws for 235 yards and two touchdowns. He led the team in rushing attempts with 16, earning all 69 yards he gained. But when the Irish needed to move the chains and win the game late, the Irish came up empty twice.

Of course, not all of that is on Kizer. A strong wind made accuracy a major challenge. The offensive line that protected him well for the majority of the game, struggled down the stretch. And a perfect deep ball that Kizer lofted down the sideline slid through Equanimeous St. Brown‘s hands, a game-changing catch that never was.  On a Saturday where the Irish offense needed to carry the team to victory, Kizer was just three of 15 in the second half, with Bud Foster’s defense shutting down the Irish in the game’s final 30 minutes, save Josh Adams’ 67-yard touchdown run.

Kizer was unwilling to discuss his future postgame, only that he had a decision to make after the season. But he reportedly hung around on the field after the loss, perhaps taking things in one last time before declaring for the NFL Draft, a decision the smart money already thinks is made.

After taking two clear head-shots that deserved personal foul calls, Kizer clearly left it all on the field. Unfortunately, there were a few missed plays out there as well, and they ended up costing the Irish.

 

Notre Dame’s young secondary couldn’t keep pace with Virginia Tech’s talented receivers. 

Someday a few years from now, Notre Dame fans will look back at the challenge Donte Vaughn, Devin Studstill and Julian Love faced on Saturday and reminisce that games like this helped forge the unit into something better. Until then, it’ll just be called growing pains.

Asked to go toe-to-toe with perhaps the best trio of receivers they’ll face all season (or at least until next weekend), the young defensive backs had some tough assignments, with Isaiah Ford catching seven of his 10 targets for 86 yards and Cam Phillips and Bucky Hodges bringing in touchdown catches. Add in a long catch and run by slot man C.J. Carroll that went for 62 yards and the Irish were unable to make a big play against the Hokies passing attack—other than the gift-wrapped interception that bounced through the hands of Phillips and into the arms of Drue Tranquill.

The Irish defense had multiple opportunities to go out and win the game, but came up short. After holding the Hokies to just 135 yards in the first half they gave up 284 yards in the second, with 206 of those coming through the air. (That doesn’t count the 15 yards that came on a questionable pass interference call on Cole Luke, a play that Kelly thought Luke played perfectly.)

 

We knew the young secondary would have its hands full. Ultimately, it was the Hokies that won the aerial battle.

 

Once again, a fast start can’t make up for a soft finish. 

As we’ve seen far too often this season, Notre Dame’s fast start wasn’t enough. And after being one of the best coaches in America when playing with a lead, the Irish have been disastrous this year, blowing a 17-zip start and a 10-point halftime lead.

Asked to put his finger on the issue, Kelly couldn’t identify one thing.

“We had some balls that were catchable that we didn’t catch. I just don’t think we executed quite as well offensively,” Kelly said. “We weren’t as sharp in the second half as we were in the first half.”

It helps that Virginia Tech got its act together. After Jarod Evans gave away a fumble and the Hokies stumbled out of the gates, head coach Justin Fuente rallied his team—even as a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty cost his team an offensive series. Evans led the charge, the massive quarterback the most effective ball-carrier for the Hokies run game, a challenging personnel matchup especially with a fullback on the field that forced the Irish out of their preferred five-man secondary.

For Kelly, it’s another tight loss. A coach who built his reputation on winning games late and doing the job in November is now struggling to find solutions at a critical time of the year. A loser of just 13 one-score games in his first six seasons, he’s lost seven in this season alone.

This one as painful as the rest, his young team giving up the game’s final 13 points to go home a loser.

 

It should be back to the drawing board for Notre Dame’s offensive leadership. 

Last season, the Irish deftly handled the trio of Brian Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford atop the org chart on the offensive side of the football. This season? Quite the opposite.

Because after another hot start to the game—triggered by some pretty impressive Xs and Os and play scripting—it was Virginia Tech that made all the winning adjustments, with Notre Dame’s offensive trio unable to counterpunch after the Hokies game back from halftime.

After reluctantly giving up play-calling last season and seeing the team put up its most explosive numbers ever, this football team’s schizophrenic nature has to be driving Kelly crazy. And after leaning on NFL talent like Will Fuller and C.J. Prosise, this team just hasn’t been able to find the right formula for clutch, late-game play.

When asked about the offensive coaching structure and the decision to give-up play-calling, Kelly steered clear of any second-guessing.

 

“I’m trying the best I can to offer some solutions, but you really have to trust in the play-calling and the execution quite frankly is part of that,” Kelly explained. It’s play-calling, it’s execution, and we had some opportunities that we didn’t convert.”

With his career at a crossroads, expect the head coach to reevaluate the hierarchy. And if you were a betting man, you’d have to assume that Kelly will go back to betting on himself.

 

 

There’s a young team with a promising future in South Bend. But finding a way to shake off this nightmarish season will be Brian Kelly’s largest challenge. 

Eventually it sounds like a broken record. Even the head coach acknowledged it after the game.

“These kids are wonderful kids. I’m just at a loss for words as to what to tell them,” Kelly said. “It’s just been a difficult year. They’ve worked so hard. They play so hard. They’ve been ahead in so many of these games and been so close in the fourth quarter.  Unfortunately, it’s just one of those years. I haven’t had one like this in my 25, 26 years of being a head coach. It just hasn’t gone their way.”

Like we’ve seen all season, the positives have been there. Big plays from Chase Claypool and Chris Finke. Huge games from young defenders like Te’von Coney and veterans like James Onwualu and Jarron Jones.

But as the Irish look for the successful recipe for winning football, they too often have come up just short—with a different culprit seemingly each week. Missed blocks. Ten penalties (and a few crucial ones missed.) Red zone miscues that turn seven points into three. And a crunch time mistake that turns into a fatal mistake.

“I just love our kids. I love the way they battle. We’re going to wake up from this nightmare,” Kelly said, before joking that he hoped he’ll wake up 11-0.

He won’t. And any relief from this nightmare won’t come this November, not with a trip to Los Angeles next weekend that’ll require his players to provide the motivation, now that Notre Dame’s bowl dreams are dashed.

But beyond that, this will be on the head coach. And after assuring himself his first losing season since he rebuilt Central Michigan’s football program, the focus will be on the man on charge. Because he’s got a talented group of players. Now he desperately needs to teach them how to win.

 

 

 

Where to watch: Notre Dame vs. Virginia Tech

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It’s the final home weekend of the season. And if you aren’t in front of the TV and at home to watch the NBC broadcast, we’ve got options for you. See the below links:

WATCH NOTRE DAME vs. VIRGINIA TECH HERE

CLICK HERE FOR THE NOTRE DAME BAND HALFTIME SHOW

CLICK HERE FOR THE POSTGAME PRESS CONFERENCES FOR BRIAN KELLY & JUSTIN FUENTE.

Pregame coverage starts at 3 p.m. ET live on NBC with Countdown to Kickoff, with Liam McHugh and Dhani Jones. Kickoff is at 3:30 with Dan Hicks, Doug Flutie and Kathryn Tappen on the call. Former Irish quarterback Jimmy Clausen will join as a guest analyst at halftime. You can watch all of that here or on the NBC Sports App on your mobile phone or tablet.

 

 

 

Pregame Six Pack: One last Saturday at home

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 10: James Onwualu #17 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates with Nick Coleman #24 and Isaac Rochelle #90 after making a tackle for a loss against the Nevada Wolf Pack in the first half at Notre Dame Stadium on September 10, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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It’s Senior Day in South Bend. And while it wasn’t the year—or the group—that Brian Kelly wanted to be saying goodbye to, it’s still another season in the rearview, a fall that went by way too fast.

So as the Irish welcome Virginia Tech to Notre Dame for the first time, the Pregame Six Pack gets a little nostalgic. Because for most of this season, we’ve talked about this team’s youth. And this time, it’s time to tip a cap to the seniors.

As usual, there’s plenty of great reading out there. For my money, it starts at The Observer, who continued their tradition of profiling every senior in the class, from Josh Anderson to Malik Zaire.  So let’s get to it. With the weather winter coming, maybe as soon as tomorrow, let’s focus on six seniors key to a Notre Dame victory.

 

JARRON JONES

He survived the triple-option, protected by his head coach who took more than a few bullets for the fifth-year player. Now Jarron Jones needs to pay the favor back, winning in the trenches and blowing up the pocket to make things uncomfortable for Jerod Evans.

Jones has a favorable matchup against Hokies center Eric Gallo. He’s playing his last home football game with his brother, with Jamir coming on strong as a special teams force. And after making it out of Navy and Army unscathed, Jones isn’t sure where he’ll end up next year—he’s heard everything from first rounder to undrafted—he’s just appreciative that he’s one of the last men standing in his class.

“I am just happy I made it,” Jones told IrishSportsDaily.com on Wednesday. “It’s just been a great five years here. Having the met the guys I have met, playing with the guys and coaches I have, everything has been great. Being here the past five years has been some of the best of my life.”

When he wants to, Jones is one of the most dominant players on the football field. You have to assume tomorrow’s special to Jones, a good thing for the Irish defense.

 

SCOTT DALY

It might be the kiss of death for a long snapper, but there’s a ton of love floating around for Scott Daly, who has spent five years on campus staying below the radar. That’s the best sign of a great career you could ever ask for.

“I think maybe that is the best compliment,” Brian Kelly said. “When you do not talk about your long snapper for four years, that’s a pretty remarkable thing. To be that efficient, to be that consistent over four years is pretty amazing, what he’s been able to accomplish here.”

Daly came into South Bend with the best recruiting pedigree you could ask for, named by Chris Rubio as the nation’s top long snapper. He’ll leave it with a legitimate chance to take those talents to the NFL.

A great career by a snapper who now has to deal with more stories written about him this week than his entire career combined. No pressure!

 

JAMES ONWUALU

The latest Cretin-Derham Hall product to come through South Bend has done all that’s asked of him, an unlikely defensive leader considering he entered this season as the most seasoned receiver on the Irish roster. With multiple positions and four-seasons of starting experience under his belt, Onuwalu has tried his best to cherish these final moments before the next challenge.

“I try to once a week, just on Sundays to go down to the Grotto,” Onwualu said this Wednesday. “Just kind of spend some time to think about how lucky I am to be at a school like this and to have accomplished all that I did and have the opportunities that I have.”

While a career in finance will be waiting for him, Onwualu has shown enough this season to have a chance at continuing his career on the field, both as a open-field linebacker as well as a special teamer, something Brian Kelly talked about and Onwualu reluctantly discussed.

“I definitely do desire to play in the National Football League, and it will be something that I’ll be chasing here in a few months,” Onwualu said. “But as of now just trying to finish up the career on a high note.”

 

 

COLE LUKE

After a nightmarish start to the season, Cole Luke has successfully rebooted his year, reminding everybody that he’s every bit the playmaker he was as a sophomore. When Greg Hudson took over and Todd Lyght went back to coaching up his secondary, the move to slide Luke inside freed him to be what he was—an instinctive cover-man who finds his way to the football.

That’s been apparent the past few weeks as Luke has found ways to impact the game over and over. And that challenge will be even more apparent this weekend, with Evans the most efficient quarterback the Irish have faced by a wide margin. Even after throwing two interceptions against Georgia Tech last weekend, Evans’s TD:INT ratio sits at an impressive 22:4, a threat with his legs as well as his arm.

That leaves Luke opportunities in his final home football game to steal the spotlight, maybe the role he was always destined to play.

 

MIKE MCGLINCHEY

Notre Dame’s starting left tackle isn’t going anywhere, announcing his planned return earlier in the season. But before he turns his lens to 2017, there’s a big challenge coming from Bud Foster’s defense, potentially from former Irish recruit Ken Ekanum.

Virginia Tech’s senior edge player made some headlines when he accused the Irish staff of pulling his scholarship offer when he was injured during postseason all-star play before picking a college. Kelly responded by denying the charge, but did acknowledge that his spot might have filled. (There’s reason to believe Kelly here.) Putting bad blood aside, McGlinchey, who has struggled with some mental lapses surrounding the snap count, could be put to the test by the Hokies best pass rusher.

But Saturday is an opportunity for McGlinchey to continue improving, putting behind him the lapses that take away from his spurts of dominance. After Irish fans have been spoiled by years of Zack Martin and Ronnie Stanley, Saturday with be another important datapoint in McGlinchey’s evolution.

 

MALIK ZAIRE

If Saturday goes according to plan, Zaire might not even see the field. But the fact that he was able to blend into the scenery, and do so when things didn’t go his way, is a testament to the veteran quarterback—who’ll have a choice to stick around for a fifth year and compete for a job or explore his options as a graduate transfer.

Zaire’s not Notre Dame’s best quarterback—no shame considering the ceiling that DeShone Kizer possesses. But if this is it for him, he’ll have left a lasting impression on Brian Kelly’s program, both as a competitor and in his few moments of brilliance.

Zaire’s season-opening start against Texas was as close to a statistically perfect game as possible. His win against LSU in the Music City Bowl may go down as Kelly’s most unlikely victory. And his passion on the field against USC in a lost-second half showed the type of leader he had become.

So while he wasn’t able to provide a spark this season with his limited opportunities, he did all that was asked of him. So just because he finished on the wrong side of one of the most competitive position groups we’ve seen in years, doesn’t mean he should be any less proud of these four challenging years.