After a long offseason of cyclical conversations, staff turnover and repeated mea culpas, Notre Dame is only 48 hours from kicking off against Temple and putting all of that into the past. Whether happy with the retention of Irish coach Brian Kelly or not, perhaps now is the time to finally accept the reality he will be Notre Dame’s coach in the 2017 season opener. Go ahead and wager heavily he will be the coach against Stanford in November, as well.
With that issue settled, what should be gleaned from this weekend? Obviously, the final score bears the most merit, but there will be some other factors offering indications of the season ahead.
Speaking of staff turnover, how will offensive coordinator Chip Long fit in calling plays?
First of all, remaining skeptical Kelly will yield all play calling duties to Long is understandable. That has long been Kelly’s territory. He has insisted it will now be Long’s domain, and there is little reason to not take that at face value. The opportunity to dictate the Notre Dame offense is part of what brought Long to South Bend.
But for the cynics and skeptics, believing may require seeing. In this instance, such is fair. If granting that presumption, though, then the question is, just how distinct will Long’s influence be?
The Irish offense boasts more tight ends than it can get on the field at one time. Well, perhaps not literally. The five-man position group could theoretically join five offensive linemen and junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush to create the most jumbo of jumbo packages. For now, let’s stick to more realistic possibilities.
How often will Long trot out two tight ends — likely graduate student Durham Smythe attached next to a tackle and junior Alizé Mack aligned not far from the line — instead of three receivers? It will also be curious to see who is the third tight end involved. In a system frequently featuring two tight ends, the third option becomes a routine contributor. Will that be senior Nic Weishar or one of the freshmen, Brock Wright or Cole Kmet?
Six months ago, one would have presumed either Wright or Kmet would preserve a year of eligibility this season. To an extent, that would still make sense. Even if both the freshmen have moved past Weishar on the depth chart, barring injury Notre Dame is unlikely to need four tight ends this season. Staggering that eligibility could be helpful down the line. Given the praise heaped on both Wright and Kmet, however, it seems less likely either will spend the entire season on the sideline.
Keeping an eye on the freshmen’s usage Saturday could shed light on that down-the-road thinking.
Continuing with Long and the offensive scheme … What will its pace be?
In the early days of up-tempo offenses, it was counterintuitive to think one could have quick pace but still rely on the running game. The Air Raid offense didn’t function that way, nor did certain renditions of Chip Kelly’s Oregon.
Nowadays, an up-tempo offense is as much about manipulating the defense as it is about snapping the ball rapidly. The latter does play into the former, but snapping the ball with 20-plus seconds remaining on the play clock is not inherently necessary to manipulate the defense. Simply getting to the line of scrimmage quickly can accomplish that.
Seeing how the Irish offense embraces the tempo mentality should further illustrate Long’s amount of control over the scheme. (more…)
And In That Corner … The Temple Owls, defending American Athletic Conference champions
Simply enough, push is about to come to shove. Notre Dame is ready to put its 4-8 debacle of a year ago in the rearview mirror for good. Meanwhile, Temple would like to repeat most of 2016, even with a new coach at the helm after Matt Rhule went to clean up the mess at Baylor.
Perhaps as notably as the loss of Rhule, the Owls lost four-year starting quarterback Phillip Walker, the school’s all-time passing yards leader.
To get a better idea of how Temple has adjusted to new head coach Geoff Collins and the number of options to replace Walker, let’s turn to Matt Vender of OwlScoop.com, the pertinent rivals.com affiliate. This will be Vender’s fourth season covering Temple, and his institutional knowledge certainly shows in some of his in-depth responses here.
DF: Perhaps Matt Rhule’s departure should not have come as a surprise. That is what happens at Group of Five schools. Did that seeming inevitability of the coaching transition allow for a somewhat smooth offseason or has the turnover remained a prevalent concern?
MV: The transition was relatively smooth. Obviously, the team was disappointed when Matt Rhule met with them and announced he was leaving for Baylor. While people on the outside thought Rhule would jump ship, the players were still shocked for a short period of time. The loss of Rhule made them look like a different – and unorganized – team in the Military Bowl loss to Wake Forest.
But when Geoff Collins was hired, there was a feeling of familiarity even though the Owls’ first-year coach is from Atlanta and spent a large chunk of his coaching career in the South. Collins coached with Rhule in two different stints – Albright College and Western Carolina University. Collins also coached former Temple defensive backs coach Francis Brown, who followed Rhule to Baylor, as a player at Western Carolina. The Collins transition was fairly smooth because he had Rhule and Brown to lean on.
Obviously you have not yet seen a Geoff Collins-coached team take the field, but what have your impressions of him been so far?
When talking to reporters, Collins likes to be secretive, as is the case with many college football coaches. Florida coach Jim McElwain – Collins’ close friend and mentor – has yet to name a starting quarterback, and Collins has taken the same approach as his former boss. (Quite literally as Vender offered this answer, McElwain named sophomore Feleipe Franks the starting quarterback for this week’s matchup with Michigan, rather than Notre Dame graduate transfer Malik Zaire.) Collins has also held back on releasing a traditional depth chart. Instead, Temple put out a list of players who are “above the line” at the beginning of the week. The “above the line” phrase has been used by Collins ad nauseam since the start of spring practice, but it signifies the players who are ready to play in game action.
Like Rhule, Collins is energetic and runs fast-paced practices. The practices have been interesting to watch because often 44 players – and sometimes up to 88 – can be on the field at once. During practice, Collins jumps around and coaches different position groups, including the fullbacks. He has provided the program with a burst of energy and a new flavor, while also continuing a lot of the traditions Rhule started.
Related to that, Temple has a few new coordinators now, just like Notre Dame does. There has been a touch of defensive reshuffling to adjust to Mike Elko around here. Is the Temple personnel expected to match with the new coordinators’ intentions?
On offense, I have confidence in Dave Patenaude, the newly minted offensive coordinator who has yet to coach at the FBS level. While at Coastal Carolina, Patenaude played seven different quarterbacks last season and still went 10-2. The quarterback situation at Temple is uncertain but judging from Patenaude’s past success, he should be able to get production from at least one of the quarterbacks on the roster.
And while Temple only returns four starters on defense, there is still a wealth of young talent. Defensive coordinator Taver Johnson has a deep defensive line group, young and speedy linebackers, two solid boundary cornerbacks in redshirt senior Artrel Foster and graduate transfer Mike Jones, and what Collins has called one of the best safety duos in the country. While the Owls’ youth on defense could show at times this season, Collins and Johnson should be able to get this unit to produce. The Owls ranked third in total defense last season.
Patenaude certainly has his work cut out for him after the Owls lost Walker. Is Patenaude really going to attempt to overcome that by using three quarterbacks this weekend?
Could three quarterbacks see at least one snap on Saturday? Sure. But I’d expect redshirt junior Frank Nutile to start the game. Redshirt sophomore Logan Marchi will probably be given a series in the first half. If Marchi moves the ball and Nutile struggles, there could be a quick swap. The Owls also have “specialized packages” for true freshman Todd Centeio, who has shown impressive flashes in preseason camp. This is not a smokescreen. There has not been enough separation at quarterback.
The quarterback quandary is the obvious question on offense. What are the big questions on defense for Temple?
The big question coming into spring practice was the linebackers. The Owls lost three starting linebackers to graduation. The group of linebackers are young but the speed has stood out during practice. Sophomore Shaun Bradley is the expected starter at middle linebacker, while sophomore Sam Franklin and redshirt freshman Isaiah Graham-Mobley will likely accompany Bradley in the starting lineup. For all three guys, it will be their first college starts. And for Graham-Mobley, it will be his first college game action. Despite the talent and speed at the position, the lack of experience is a concern, especially heading into a hectic environment like Notre Dame.
Temple will also replace edge rushers Haason Reddick, the No. 13 overall pick in April’s NFL Draft by the Arizona Cardinals, and Praise Martin-Oguike, who is competing in training camp for a roster spot with the Miami Dolphins. Two senior defensive ends in Sharif Finch, who has dealt with chronic knee issues and received a medical redshirt last season, and Jacob Martin are returning and project to start against Notre Dame. The Owls will also utilize redshirt freshman Quincy Roche and redshirt sophomores Dana Levine and DeAndre Kelly.
Due to a lack of experience, linebacker and defensive end are the two biggest questions heading into the season. I still expect them to pressure the quarterback, and I also expect the linebackers to grow up quickly.
This is not a rebuilding job for the Owls new coaching staff. Rhule, and Steve Addazio and Al Golden before him, had an established program. What are the season expectations around the football facilities?
From talking to players and people inside of Temple’s Edberg-Olson Hall, they believe that beating Notre Dame is attainable. Redshirt sophomore defensive back Kareem Ali told reporters earlier this week they plan to “beat [Notre Dame’s] #$%.” Bradley said that the Owls are going to South Bend to blow out Notre Dame. The expectation amongst the players is to beat Notre Dame. They made that clear throughout the week. The other expectation is to win another conference title, as they did last season. And of course, Temple expects to win a bowl game for the first time since 2011.
What are your expectations for the first season of the Geoff Collins era?
While I like the talent and depth on this team, I think No. 19 South Florida will be too much for Temple to handle. The Bulls are my pick to win the American Athletic Conference’s East Division and conference championship. But the expectations for Collins, even in his first year, should be high. Rhule left Collins with a talented roster. I expect Temple to win seven or eight games, finish second in the AAC East and play in a bowl game.
Before getting to any Saturday-specific predictions, let’s use a catch-all here. What other notes should Notre Dame fans be aware of or particular players should they be on the lookout for this weekend?
I mentioned Centeio briefly earlier, but he’s expected to see some action on Saturday. Collins has talked about “special packages” the Owls have put together for a certain quarterback, although he has not named that player. Centeio will likely come in and spell the starter (hypothetically Nutile) to run some run-pass-option plays. The Dwyer (Fla.) High School product could be a difference maker if he turns loose for a long run.
Temple’s safety duo, featuring junior Delvon Randall and senior Sean Chandler, is probably the best in the AAC. Collins has said Randall and Chandler might form one of the top safety combos in the country. While there is some inexperience on the defensive side of the ball, the safety spot is one of the strengths of the team.
Sophomore receiver Isaiah Wright could be asked to do some interesting things. The Connecticut native was used as a running back, receiver and Wildcat quarterback last season as a true freshman. He could see action at all three positions Saturday.
The receiving corps as a whole, led by redshirt junior Ventell Bryant and seniors Adonis Jennings and Keith Kirkwood, is strong. Regardless of who starts at quarterback, he will have a wealth of weapons to target.
How do you expect Saturday to play out? Readers here know I like to use spreads as an evaluation metric. This game opened with Notre Dame as “only” an 11-point favorite. That has now spiked as high as 18 points. Would you expect a closer game throughout than that?
I envision Notre Dame putting up a lot of points, despite the fact that I like the talent on this Temple defense. A few mistakes by the young linebacker group could severely hurt the Owls. I am unsure of how Temple will be able to pressure Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush, especially against the left side of the Notre Dame offensive line. Ultimately, Notre Dame’s athleticism will be too much for Temple to handle.
Dare I ask for a score prediction? I suppose I dared.
Notre Dame 38, Temple 24.
Three defensive tenets will define Notre Dame’s & Elko’s success
Brian Kelly couldn’t keep a straight face, though the question Tuesday was not meant in jest.
“Defensively speaking if you had to prioritize three areas that you really need to see improvement on in, [what would those areas be]?”
The Irish coach smiled.
“[Only] three areas?” he responded.
Kelly’s initial self-deprecating answer was valid. The Notre Dame defense struggled across the board last year, most notably in the season’s first month. Improvement must begin somewhere, though, and when pushed, Kelly offered three areas.
“To play great defense, the basic tenets are not going to change,” he said. “You have to be great against the run. There’s nobody in here that follows football that would say you’re going to be a defense that’s successful if you can’t stop the run.
“… Component number two for us is the back end of our defense not giving up those big plays down the field. We gave up too many of them early in the season and it put us behind.
“… Then the third, ball disruptions. We have to be able to take away the football.”
Even only a quick look at the 2016 Irish defense shows the struggles in those areas. When adjusting to remove the 14 sacks from rush totals, Notre Dame allowed 189.7 rushing yards per game with an average carry of 4.4 yards allowed. The Irish forced only 14 turnovers courtesy of eight interceptions and six fumble recoveries.
(In reviewing last year’s statistics, the fumbles recovered compared to the fumbles forced warrants notice. Notre Dame forced 20 fumbles, but managed to land on only six of them. This ratio is commonly held up as the quickest indicator of how [un]lucky a team was in a given season, as those recoveries often quite literally come down to how a ball bounced.)
When it comes to the big plays allowed, rather than go through each game’s play-by-play, just a brief look at the first month’s box scores reveals how prevalent those mishaps were in opening the season 1-3. For this piece’s sake, let’s define a “big play allowed” as 20 yards or more. (more…)
A possible Notre Dame three-back attack fits with Long’s past
Irish coach Brian Kelly was not referring to the Canadian Football League when he said three of Notre Dame’s running backs had “futures to play past this level.” He was instead implying juniors Josh Adams and Dexter Williams and sophomore Tony Jones could all have NFL careers ahead of them.
Call it a bounty of backfield riches.
“When you have three outstanding backs, they all have to fit in what you’re doing in some fashion,” Kelly said Tuesday. “I think each one of them has a little bit of a different style.”
With only one football in play at a time, though, it would seem difficult to utilize all three, even if they have varied skillsets. In years past, specifically last season, Notre Dame has certainly struggled with that task. Last year senior Tarean Folston gained only 334 yards on 77 attempts while Williams took 39 carries for 200 yards. Neither became a genuine part of the rushing attack focused around Adams (158 attempts, 933 yards, 5.9 yards per carry average). Nonetheless, Kelly said he expects all three of his alleged future pros to contribute this season.
“It would surprise me if all three of them weren’t actively involved in the game,” he said. “As you know, we’re going to play more than one back. They’re all going to be actively involved in the game plan.”
Some of that confidence may derive from new Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long — as of Saturday that initial three-letter adjective will no longer be either applicable or used. In his one season as offensive coordinator at Memphis, Long showed an ability to utilize multiple backs to greater effect, a tendency he presumably picked up from Tigers head coach Mike Norvell, who Long also coached under at Arizona State when Norvell was the offensive coordinator and Long the receivers coach.
Bringing that predilection with him now should allow Long to maintain the up-tempo pace his scheme desires.
“Definitely play a guy that has a hot hand,” Kelly said, “but you have two other guys that if they’re fresh, we’re not going to run a guy where he’s not at 100 percent.”
Last season at Memphis, Long very clearly avoided wearing any one back out. Despite relying on the ground game, a strong run game at that, no back ever had more than 17 carries in a game, that high being reached only once. For comparison’s sake, Adams reached 17 and 20 carries in two separate games and Folston touted the ball 18 times in the 2016 season opener at Texas.
No Tiger back came within 25 carries of Adams’ season total, even with an extra game, yet the top-three Memphis rushers ran 38 more times than Notre Dame’s did. All three of those Tigers, including two Tigers, had more chances than Folston, let alone Williams’ limited 39.
Even with that lack of a reliance on a workhorse, Memphis never attempted fewer than 31 rushes in a game, once reaching as high as 53. In nine of their 13 games, they ran for at least 146 yards. Notre Dame fell short of 30 carries three times last season, and twice failed to clear even 60 yards gained. However, aside from those two games, the Irish always rushed for at least 147 yards.
The theoretical moral of this story: Combining Long’s multi-back habit with Notre Dame’s trio of talented backs could quickly turn a strong but inconsistent rushing attack into a game-defining mainstay.
Note the usage of could.
Then-senior Doroland Dorceus: 13 games, 132 rush attempts, 810 yards, nine touchdowns, 6.1 yards per carry.
Freshman Patrick Taylor: 13 games, 93 rush attempts, 546 yards, two touchdowns, 5.9 yards per carry.
Freshman Darrell Henderson: 13 games, 87 rush attempts, 482 yards, five touchdowns, 5.5 yards per carry.
2015 Arizona State:
Then-sophomore Demario Richard: 11 games, 198 rush attempts, 1,050 yards, seven touchdowns, 5.3 yards per carry.
Sophomore Kalen Ballage: 10 games, 125 rush attempts, 653 yards, four touchdowns, 5.2 yards per carry.
Senior D.J. Foster: 13 games, 55 carries, 280 yards, one touchdown, 5.1 yards per carry.
The Sun Devils never had fewer than 28 rush attempts in a game, topping out at 55. In nine of their 13 games, they ran for at least 144 yards.
2014 Arizona State:
Foster: 13 games, 194 rush attempts, 1,081 yards, nine touchdowns, 5.6 yards per carry.
Richard: 12 games, 84 rush attempts, 478 yards, four touchdowns, 5.7 yards per carry.
Ballage: 11 games, 42 rush attempts, 126 yards, three touchdowns, 3.0 yards per carry.
Arizona State ran fewer than 31 times in only one game, a 38-34 shootout victory at USC. The Sun Devils cleared 200 yards four times.
2016 Notre Dame:
Adams: 12 games, 158 rush attempts, 933 yards, five touchdowns, 5.9 yards per carry.
Folston: 10 games, 77 rush attempts, 334 yards, two touchdowns, 4.3 yards per carry.
Williams: 12 games, 39 rush attempts, 200 yards, three touchdowns, 5.1 yards per carry.
Admittedly, some of this has been covered before in this space, but a refresher just before the season actually begins will not hurt anyone, and it may even serve to educate those wise few who spent their springs and summers not worrying about college football.
And to them, welcome back. Kickoff is in three days.
Sophomore safety and Navy transfer Alohi Gilman will not play in Notre Dame’s opener against Temple this Saturday. Irish coach Brian Kelly announced Tuesday the NCAA denied Gilman’s request for a waiver to be immediately eligible after his transfer. Notre Dame may yet appeal the ruling, Kelly said during his weekly press conference.
“We obviously feel as though we’ve got some information that we would like the NCAA to see,” Kelly said. “I don’t make that decision … but I think we have some information that we probably would like to share.”
Gilman’s appeal was based around the military changing its stance on how professional athletic aspirations would conflict with one’s service. Gilman made 76 tackles in his one season with the Midshipmen, good for second on the team, while also adding five tackles for loss and five pass breakups. Whether eligible this season or not, he has three years of eligibility remaining at the moment.
Without Gilman on the depth chart, the two-deep roster released by Notre Dame on Tuesday morning has junior cornerback-turned-safety Nick Coleman starting at field safety with sophomore Jalen Elliott getting the nod at boundary safety ahead of classmate Devin Studstill. Freshman Isaiah Robertson fills in behind Coleman on the depth chart, though it is conceivable sophomore cornerback Julian Love sees time on the backline, as well.
Mack at 100 percent
Junior tight end Alizé Mack has battled a nagging hamstring injury for the last couple weeks, but Kelly said he is fully healthy at this point.
“He’s looked really good and has been very active,” Kelly said.
Perhaps a nagging hamstring injury before the season does not usually warrant second-billing in a press conference notebook like this, but after he missed last season due to an academic suspension, Mack’s return has been long-heralded. Especially in new offensive coordinator Chip Long’s system and its preference for using multiple tight ends, having Mack around from the outset could be crucial for the Irish offense.
Seven freshmen in the two-deep, including two DTs
Including Robertson, five freshmen have positioned themselves well to see playing time Saturday. Receiver Michael Young is listed as one of the two backup options behind graduate student and Arizona State transfer Cam Smith, along with junior C.J. Sanders.
Josh Lugg will back up Quenton Nelson at left guard while Robert Hainsey handles that duty at right tackle. Kicker Jonathan Doerer will handle kickoff duties, allowing junior Justin Yoon to focus on placekicking.
Most notably, Notre Dame’s second set of defensive tackles is composed entirely of freshmen, beating out players years their elder. Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa will back up senior Jonathan Bonner and Kurt Hinish will back up junior Jerry Tillery.
“They have the physical ability to go in there and compete,” Kelly said of the young duo. “They’re strong, they possess the mental capability to handle what we’re throwing at them in terms of picking up the coaching techniques.”
Despite that praise, Kelly did try to temper expectations for Tagovaiola-Amosa and Hinish. The starters remain Bonner and Tillery. Juniors Micah Dew-Treadway and Brandon Tiassum could still see some playing time. At some point, junior Elijah Taylor could return from the LisFranc fracture he suffered in the spring.
“We’re talking about a role that we believe [the freshmen] can fulfill for us,” Kelly said. “… We’re not asking them to play 40-50 snaps. These are small roles that we’re going to ask them to play, and we think that they can handle that type of role that we’re prescribing them.”
Along with the freshmen, the Irish defense should routinely incorporate a number of backups this weekend. Senior defensive end Andrew Trumbetti is listed as a co-starter on both ends of the line, along with sophomore Daelin Hayes and senior Jay Hayes. Junior Te’von Coney is listed as an “OR” starter with senior captain Greer Martini. Whether or not Trumbetti or Coney actually starts, each will see plenty of playing time.
“Eleven guys playing 85 snaps is not the kind of defense that we’re about,” Kelly said. “Trumbetti is a guy who can play either end position for us, so right away he’s a guy that comes to mind as somebody that’s going to be sharing both sides of that. Te’von Coney, obviously, with Greer immediately. We can talk about more than two corners being on the field. We mentioned the two freshmen are going to have to play a role in the defensive line rotation.
“Just right there, you’re talking about 15-16 defensive players immediately having to be in a rotation.”
With the expectation of Long running an up-tempo offense and thus creating more possessions and plays, it will be even more vital for Notre Dame to have fresh options on defense.
Only Rees and Elko up in the box
Quarterbacks coach Tom Rees and defensive coordinator Mike Elko will be the sole coaches in the press box for the Irish this weekend, with the rest of the staff patrolling the sidelines. This is a bit more drastic split than has been seen in recent years.
Kelly said he makes those decisions based on what the coordinators prefer. Long, for example, wants to be immersed in the game as he makes play calls.
“He wants to get a feel and a comfort level,” Kelly said. “… He’ll start the first game on the sideline and see how that rolls.”