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Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the individual players

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Inevitably, Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game’s most exciting moments will come when a young receiver breaks loose for a long touchdown or an unproven defensive lineman makes plays in the offensive backfield on consecutive snaps. Those will be the tidbits fans take with them to nurture their optimism over the spring.

The more informative aspects of the final spring practice, however, will be whatever can be gleaned from the offensive and defensive schemes. With a new defensive coordinator focused on turnovers and a new offensive coordinator preaching tempo, the Blue-Gold Game will offer the best looks yet at how those concepts have taken hold.

Following the spring’s 13th practice Wednesday, Irish coach Brian Kelly said defensive coordinator Mike Elko had successfully installed his base defense.

That base defense’s success will hinge on its ability to create turnovers. Should the Irish offense commit a few in the weekend exhibition, it may be considered as much a positive sign regarding the defense’s growth as a negative indicator of the offense’s sloppiness.

“The most important thing is the scheme in itself is the fundamentals of football,” Kelly said April 7 of Elko’s approach. “Being in the right place to be timely in taking the football away. It’s being in the right gap. All the fundamentals that we’re talking about that we lacked at times.”

Saturday’s pseudo-game environment should present a good evaluation of those fundamentals. While it will fall short of the pressure of playing in front of a sellout crowd in September, it will certainly provide more of an atmosphere than any of spring’s practices have. Especially with an inexperienced defensive line facing Notre Dame’s rather experienced offensive line, the ability or inability of the former unit to hold its own within the new scheme will be far more projectable intel than sophomore Daelin Hayes’ individual performance.

“We’re going to be a smarter, more disciplined football team. That, I think, is going to put us in position to be schematically a better football team,” Kelly said. “Without having to create and be exotic, we can be a football team that takes the football away and is a better football team because we’re just fundamentally in a really good position each and every snap.”

HOW DOES THE OFFENSE HANDLE ITS OWN TEMPO?
On the other side, offensive coordinator Chip Long’s greatest influence on the scheme may be its pacing. Though largely operating within Kelly’s playbook, Long intends to expedite the Irish tempo.

Long coached under Todd Graham at Arizona State from 2012 to 2015. Presumably, he carried forward some of Graham’s philosophy from those four seasons. Earlier this month, Graham expressed some dismay about how many teams utilize fast-paced play.

“I think a lot of people nowadays might as well huddle up,” the Arizona State head coach said on the Associated Press Top 25 podcast. “All they’re doing is just [tempo for the sake of tempo]. We’re not that. We want to push the pace, but there’s a way you do that. You don’t just hurry up. You have to manage tempo. I’m talking about managing snaps.”

Graham then turned to some numbers which could be useful in gauging Notre Dame’s success with a quicker-paced scheme.

“If you turn the ball over, you’re going to play five less snaps on average,” Graham said. “For every three-and-out, you’re losing two to three snaps.”

Naturally, those snaps then become defensive snaps, putting your defensive unit at risk both in terms of exhaustion and in opponents’ scoring chances. Graham sees value in tempo, but only if it comes with possession. Utilize the tempo to create a mismatch, not simply to try to tire out your opponent.

“When we call a play, we want to get the ball to our best guy on their less guy,” Graham said. “When we come up and there are less numbers over here, we’re going to run it over here… (more…)

How will new NCAA legislation actually affect Notre Dame?

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The NCAA came one step closer to a number of new rules last week. For the most part, Notre Dame expected the decisions as approved.

The bullet points:

  • Classes of signed recruits may no longer exceed 25 players.
  • Beginning next spring, high school juniors may take official visits in April, May and June.
  • Pending one more approval, recruits may now sign during a December period, in addition to the traditional timetable beginning in February.
  • Tom Rees will technically be a graduate assistant for 2017, not an assistant coach.
  • Following college basketball’s lead, “individuals associated with a prospect” may no longer be hired to support positions.

Now what effect, if any, will those pieces of legislation have for the Irish?

Brian Kelly has never signed more than 25 recruits to a Notre Dame class, so that rule seemingly would have no effect on the Irish. His peak in regards to volume came with classes of 24, 23 and 24 in 2013, 2014 and 2015, respectively.

Theoretically, the hard cap on signees could filter some talent to Notre Dame. If other schools known for over-signing can no longer do such, their Nos. 26-whatever will have to go elsewhere. The ensuing domino effect could land a recruit with the Irish. In practice, this will be impossible to quantify, but the logic holds on its own.

With 12 recruits committed to Notre Dame in the class of 2018 already and the likelihood of a scholarship crunch limiting the class’s size, the Irish will not be in danger of pushing 25 this cycle.

Next cycle, however, Notre Dame may have better odds with many recruits thanks to the new springtime official visits. Previously, a recruit could not take an official visit until September of his senior year in high school, relatively late in the recruiting process. Beginning with the class of 2019 (presently concluding their sophomore years in high school), recruits may take official visits in April, May and June of their junior year.

Notre Dame can pay for the travel and lodging of an official visit. Suddenly, Kelly will have the chance to showcase the school and campus far earlier in the recruiting cycle. That first—and earlier—impression should only help. For example, next year’s Blue-Gold Game could be a recruiting jewel, displaying some of the pomp and circumstance of a Notre Dame gameday without waiting for a high school’s bye week to match with an Irish home game.

If a prospect enjoys that sampling, it is possible he pays for himself to visit during the season. It certainly seems making that investment is more likely if able to see Notre Dame vs. Michigan on Sept. 1, 2018, or Notre Dame vs. Florida State on Nov. 10, 2018. At least, that is more likely than making that investment to see an intrasquad scrimmage in April.

On this past National Signing Day, Kelly addressed the potential changes in recruiting strategy tied to an earlier signing day. Essentially, he expected no changes in recruiting strategy.

“I think each kid is going to have to react to it based upon also how their school is going to be dealing with it,” Kelly said. “I think some will come off the board at that time. I think we’re getting our hands around it a little bit. We’re expecting some to sign early, but our mindset is we’re going into it business as usual.

“We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

As the new legislation concerns Rees, he was hired with the hopes of being a full-fledged coach this season, but trends indicated a few months of delay may push that to next season. Indeed, Notre Dame can have only nine assistants until the new rule goes into effect Jan. 9, 2018. Irish coach Brian Kelly has said that will not alter Rees’s role as quarterbacks coach. (more…)

A look at Kizer’s fall from top pick to possibly the top pick … of the second round

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The NFL Draft consumes football conversation this time of year for one reason: There is not much else going on in the football universe. Similarly, college fans overanalyze each school’s recruiting class throughout January. What else are they supposed to do?

The elongated and unnecessary conversation about former Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer’s professional future can finally come to a close in two weeks, less than that if he is fortunate enough to be selected in next Thursday’s first round. (The second and third rounds are Friday night, the 28th. Even the most pessimistic views mentioned here and anywhere else do not have Kizer lasting into the weekend.)

Until then, reviews of Kizer remain pertinent. Fortunately for this space’s sanity, next week will be spent with a stronger focus on next Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. The lack of new material about the current Irish certainly has not slowed the inane exercise of trying to get into the minds of NFL front office decision makers.

For now, though, let’s indulge. It’s a holiday weekend, after all—Indulging is what is done on holiday weekends. Note: None of the below is meant to reopen conversation of Notre Dame’s disappointing 2016 season. That has been done plenty. These comments concern where Kizer may end up in two weeks and why. Discussions of any positive or negative effects Irish coach Brian Kelly may or may not have had on Kizer are moot. Kizer is what he is right now. That, and what he could theoretically become, is all NFL teams are concerned about.

There was a time when Kizer was not only a first-round lock, but likely a pick early in the night, when the draft still holds wide interest. Monday’s rendition of the Ringer NFL Show podcast featured a conversation between host Robert Mays and Daniel Jeremiah of the NFL Network. Jeremiah aptly summarized the peak of Kizer’s draft prospects.

“I came into the fall with him as my top quarterback,” Jeremiah said. “…I went to the Notre Dame-Texas game. I left the stadium, and I think I wrote about it after the game. I said, I think he’s the favorite for the Heisman Trophy, I think he’s the best quarterback in this draft class. … In my mind, I thought he had a chance to be the No. 1 overall pick. Then it just went downhill quick.”

Before delving into Jeremiah’s examples of Kizer’s slide downhill, let’s jump to now. Where does he stand currently? One SI.com mock draft this week projected he would go No. 13 to the Arizona Cardinals. That’s convenient, considering Kizer commented Tuesday about his visit to the Cardinals.

“It was a pretty routine trip,” Kizer said. “All these different trips are all important for showing who you are as a quarterback, looking forward, once again, to seeing what team ends up taking me.

“Obviously, they’re the No. 13 pick. It’d be an awesome situation if I can go learn behind a guy like [Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer] for a year.”

Both 12 picks and one pick ahead of the Cardinals, the Cleveland Browns also need a quarterback. SI.com’s Andy Benoit sees Kizer’s experience in a pro-style passing system as fitting well with the Browns’ scheme, but likely not so high as the No. 12 pick.

“What if he’s still on the board when they open the second round with the 33rd overall pick? This would be a nice fit,” Benoit writes.

From being in the conversation for the top overall pick to start September to possibly being the top pick of the second round leading into the draft? Downhill does seem accurate.

“You can find excuses in there for him, when you talk about your center is gone, your left tackle is gone, your No. 1 receiver is gone,” Jeremiah said, referring to Nick Martin, Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller, respectively. “He played an awful weather game, on and on and on, dropped passes, this that and the other. But there’s also plenty of blame you can throw on his shoulders just in terms of locking on receivers, not truly being accurate. He has to shoulder some blame for that.”

Despite all those excuses and criticisms, Jeremiah remained high on one of Kizer’s skills, a rather important skill for an NFL quarterback.

“Then, I just thought, one thing I know about him is he is an outstanding thrower, but the rest of it we can work through,” Jeremiah said. “He is an outstanding thrower.”

Then Kizer went to the NFL combine in Indianapolis, and Jeremiah took to questioning even that one paramount talent.

“I don’t care about connecting on balls down the field to receivers you’ve never seen before,” Jeremiah said. “But there were more than a few curl routes … he was just bailing all over the place. You sit there and go, okay, he’s under 60 percent. That’s not a great predicator for guys going forward.”

Per Jeremiah, only two of last season’s NFL starters had losing records in their final year of college and completed fewer than 60 percent of their passes: Jay Cutler and Trevor Siemian, not exactly high-water comparisons.

Comparisons among his draft competitors are not inherently flattering, either. Pro Football Focus ranks Kizer the No. 17 of 25 quarterbacks in this draft class when it comes to overall passing. He is No. 18 in adjusted completion percentage, No. 20 in the short-range passing game, and No. 18 in both deep passes and handling of blitzes. Aside from handling the subsequent pressure well (No. 4), Kizer does not rate particularly highly in any of Pro Football Focus’s rankings. (There are worse ways to spend three-to-five minutes than reading through this Pro Football Focus chart.)

Pro Football Focus grades only tangible factors, on-field performance. It does not consider the more abstract concepts. Obviously, NFL teams do, and those evaluations are not sky-high, either, as one AFC head coach told SI.com’s Albert Breer.

“He’s got the size, the arm talent, and he’s very bright,” Breer reports being told. “Bu there’s a disconnect there. There are diva qualities there, and he seems to get voices in his head, like he’s fighting who he is. And once the cycle starts, he can’t get himself right.”

All these concerns—perhaps made more apparent by Notre Dame’s 4-8 season, but likely to be discovered at some point in the draft process no matter 2016’s results—have led to Kizer’s slide, maybe all the way out of the first round no matter who has picks where. But what if the Cardinals could find a way to grab him in the second round? Carson Palmer has at least a couple seasons left in his arm, provided he can protect his knees moving forward.

Then Kizer may have a chance to follow a path Jeremiah projected as ideal.

“If you can rebuild [Kizer’s confidence], if you can rebuild him from the floor in terms of some of the footwork that fell off, man, he could be really, really good. He’s what you want from the size and arm talent standpoint.”

Just like with 18-year-old recruits each February, only time will tell how Kizer fares. Two weeks from now, this projection and analysis can fade away into watching that figurative pot of talent, waiting for it to boil.

Editor’s Note: Consider this an entry in the “Friday at 4” genre. It did not seem fitting to post a piece at 3 p.m. CT on Good Friday ending with some vague reference to enjoying the weekend.

Kizer on Kelly’s comments: ‘It’s honestly the truth’

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Well, this was predictable. Former Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer agrees with Irish coach Brian Kelly that Kizer has more growing to do on the football field. Kizer appeared on ESPN Chicago 1000 FM’s “Kap and Co,” hosted by David Kaplan and Jordan Cornette on Tuesday morning.

Cornette, a former Notre Dame basketball player and current basketball announcer, has publicly criticized Kelly, including during the recent hubbub after Kelly said Kizer “needs more football.” Naturally, Cornette asked Kizer how he felt about his former coach’s opinion.

“It’s honestly the truth,” Kizer said. “I have two more years available [of college eligibility]. I’m only 21 years of age. There is a lot of growth for me. There’s a lot of growth for everyone in this draft. There’s a lot of guys out there who had to make big adjustments as they move into the NFL, and I know it. That’s why I’m not the No. 1 quarterback guaranteed walking into this draft as we speak.”

Kizer nearly came across as appreciative of Kelly’s comments, viewing them as a chance akin to those granted by many NFL teams when they ask about Notre Dame’s disappointing 2016 season.

“For me, that’s just another opportunity for me to acknowledge that yes I do need to grow,” Kizer said. “Yes, when I am meeting with these coaches on the potential teams that I play n, I need to understand that I need to buy into their coaching to become successful, to fill in those gaps, to truly become a pro that I need to become.”

As of Tuesday morning, Kizer had not spoken with Kelly regarding the unnecessarily-controversial comments. That is in part due to Kizer’s busy pre-draft schedule, most recently reportedly meeting with the Arizona Cardinals. That is also, at least in part, because Kizer does not see it as needed. Neither does Kelly, surmises Kizer.

“If it is something that he truly believes or something that could be taken down the wrong path, he would address it with me in the first place,” Kizer said. “As soon as all this chaos created around the couple comments and he didn’t come reach out to me, I quickly understood that it really wasn’t as big of a deal as it could be pushed out to be.

“If it was something which he felt strongly about or something that he was going to address the media and make a big deal, he would’ve warned me before. That’s how our relationship has always been. There would be dialogue before that.”

Such a straightforward approach fits in line with the player-coach relationship and track record Kizer described. Kizer said he went to Notre Dame expecting to be coached a certain way, and that is exactly what happened.

“Off the field with coach Kelly, our relationship was just as it is expected to be,” Kizer said. “That was one where [if] we saw each other, we’d have a couple conversations here and there, but for the most part we were all about business.

“We were just both so competitive that at times you see on the sidelines and you see from an outsider’s perspective at times, we’re going to clash heads. That just comes with the competitive nature of both of us.

“He expects a lot out of me and I expect him to hold me to those same standards. It is what it is. Coach Kelly and I have created a great relationship and it’ll be a lifelong relationship. He was my college coach. He taught me what I know with football right now, and it’ll forever by me platform for whatever success I have moving forward into the NFL.”

(more…)

McKinley, Boykin show depth in Irish WR corps

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If there is any advantage to starting an inexperienced quarterback such as Notre Dame junior Brandon Wimbush, it is the chemistry he theoretically developed with the younger receivers while taking third team and scout team practice reps the past couple seasons. Irish coach Brian Kelly eluded to as much following the first spring practice.

“There is a relationship already built with these guys,” Kelly said March 8. “Brandon has been with them for the last couple of years, so we’re not starting from scratch, but there are nuances of the position that they’re going to have to work out.

“I thought in particular there is already a pretty good sense of relationship if you will between the receivers and Brandon. I think we saw that today. At least, I did.”

The eldest members of the current receiving corps are, in fact, Wimbush’s classmates. He may have thrown more passes to Equanimeous St. Brown in practice than any other target. This spring’s 15 practices, concluding with the April 22 Blue-Gold Game, have presented and should present Wimbush with ample opportunity to improve his rapport with the other options, especially with a mild hamstring injury limiting St. Brown at the end of last week.

Sophomore Javon McKinley, for example, received more chances Friday in St. Brown’s place. Returning from a late-October broken leg, Kelly said McKinley remains somewhat limited and will wear a red jersey in the Blue-Gold Game, designating him as a non-contact participant.

“We want to get him competing,” Kelly said. “We played him as a true freshman, so we have a high opinion of him. He’s rusty … It was a great opportunity for Javon in there and we think we can get him some more work as we progress.”

Kelly echoed his comments from a week earlier praising Miles Boykin. Apparently the junior’s springtime consistency has not gone unnoticed.

“Miles is starting to build some ‘bank,’ if you will, as it relates to consistency. I’m using the word bank, he’s putting a lot in the bank of trust, that we can trust he’s going to give us the kind of performance that’s going to lend itself toward playing time,” Kelly said.

“He’s been very consistent as a ball-catcher. He’s been very consistent in terms of assignments. His traits have been very evident in terms of attention to detail. … He gets a lot of those back-shoulder throws where he has to go up and get it and he lands, physically, he gets beat up a little bit. I see him in there getting treatment and he comes back out and makes good decisions.”

As it pertains to back-shoulder throws, Boykin’s 6-foot-4, 225-pound frame undoubtedly helps his cause. As it pertains to the assignments, Boykin and most of the other receivers need to learn more, Kelly said, thanks to new offensive coordinator Chip Long’s emphasis on tempo.

In years past, receivers have largely broken down into three sub-groups: field (otherwise known as X), boundary (W) and slot (Z). Just like with defensive backs, the field and boundary designations pertain to the much wider hashmarks in college football. When the ball is placed on the right hashmark, the right side of the field becomes the boundary and is much narrower than the left, the field.

But if looking to snap the ball quickly, waiting for two receivers to swap sides of the field can be counterproductive. Thus, the Irish offense will be less specific in those assignments, per Kelly.

“It is blurred,” he said. “You have to play all three positions. There is a little bit of specialty to the short-side receiver, the boundary receiver. You won’t see as much of a Z receiver into the short field because that’s where you get a lot of your individual matchups.”

STEPHERSON NURSING A HAMSTRING INJURY
Sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson has been limited by a hamstring injury this spring, Kelly said.

“It’s been a lingering hamstring [injury] that has not responded quite well,” Kelly said. “It was pulled again. We’re treating it pretty aggressively with anti-inflammatories. He has not needed [platelet-rich plasma treatment], but he just hasn’t been right. He hasn’t been 100 percent.”

For context’s sake, and to tie to the earlier positional explanation, Stepherson excelled in his freshman season at the field, or X, receiver position, where he had more room to utilize his speed and did not always have a safety monitoring him, as he would be more likely to on the boundary.