Associated Press

And In That Corner … The Georgia Bulldogs, led by freshman QB Jake Fromm

35 Comments

Notre Dame does not often play SEC teams. Georgia’s arrival this weekend will be the first regular season game against such an opponent since the Irish hosted and beat Tennessee 41-21 in 2005, outscoring the Volunteers by 20 points in the fourth quarter.

To gain a better look into an SEC title contender, welcome Marc Weiszer. Marc has covered the Bulldogs for the Athens Banner-Herald since 2003.

DF: Let’s start with the big question. From your conversations in and around Athens, are as many Georgia fans making the trek northward as has been widely reported and advertised?
MW: Sure seems that way. Georgia’s allotment of 8,000 tickets (plus another 400 for the Redcoat Band) could hardly meet demand. With the Falcons playing in Chicago Sunday and the Cubs slated to have a Friday day game (since moved to night), thousands are making it a big sports weekend.

The week has been dominated by talk of freshman Jake Fromm stepping in for sophomore Jacob Eason at quarterback due to Eason’s knee injury. To my often-faulty memory, there were some rumblings of Fromm being a factor this season even if Eason was healthy. Was that just idle offseason speculation or was there something to that possibility?
Probably somewhere in between. Coach Kirby Smart set the scene of a competition this spring with Fromm pushing Eason for the job, but that was more about the freshman showing good leadership and having off-field habits of being a film room maven that I’m sure coaches would love any quarterback to emulate. Smart acknowledged Eason was the guy in July, but Fromm gave Georgia a more than capable backup and could be turned to if Eason faltered. Or, as we saw in the first quarter of the opener against Appalachian State, if injury knocked him out of the game.

Georgia sophomore quarterback Jacob Eason’s knee sprain will keep him out of action this weekend. (AP Photo/John Amis)

Has the injury to Eason drastically altered the mood around the program? Certainly no one on the team would ever admit such, but losing your starting quarterback must dampen expectations.
There’s been no noticeable “woe is us” type response. If anything, the way Georgia’s offense was energized after Fromm came in the game — three straight touchdown drives after punting on the first series — showed he could be more than just a placeholder until Eason comes back. Eason had a pretty good freshman season — 14 touchdowns, 7 interceptions, late fourth-quarter drives to win at Missouri and Kentucky — but his 55 percent completion percentage and not quite living up to the five-star hype left many looking for more this season from Eason.

From what you have seen of Fromm in practices and in Saturday’s 31-10 victory over Appalachian State, what are his distinct strengths? What about weaknesses, aside from being a true freshman suddenly thrown into the action?
At 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds, Fromm doesn’t have the size or probably the big arm that wows like Eason, but he showed last week his quick release can be effective and the Bulldogs used tempo with success in the 31-10 win. He seems to have the respect of his teammates and he’s more fiery than Eason who was encouraged to become more vocal. It’s a small sample size so far for Fromm so we’ll learn a whole lot more about him after Saturday night on that stage. Then again, he hit three home runs in the Little League World Series as a 13-year old playing for his Warner Robins, Ga. team. (See Fromm introduce himself at 0:13 in the below video.) (more…)

Things to Learn during Georgia’s visit to Notre Dame

Getty Images
44 Comments

Notre Dame opened the season in promising fashion last week. Then again, that was not the same Temple team as the last two years. The Irish should have kicked off the season in style. That result on its own is not necessarily a harbinger of a strong campaign to come. Just look at 2016’s home-opening 39-10 victory over Nevada. It did not exactly prove to be a predictor of a promising year.

This week’s top-25 matchup with No. 15 Georgia will provide an entirely different version of a test, one much more likely applicable to the future.

The Bulldogs were always going to play to their strengths, but that rings even truer now with a freshman making his first start at quarterback. How Notre Dame handles those particular strengths will teach the most about the 2017 rendition of the Irish.

Georgia’s defensive front-seven is its most notable asset. It will make the Notre Dame rushing game earn every yard it gains and it will force the Irish offensive line to work for every second junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush spends in the pocket.

Will the right tackle(s) be ready for that duty?
Expecting sophomore Tommy Kraemer to again rotate with freshman Robert Hainsey, both will need to be ready to face the likes of junior defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter and senior linebackers Davin Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter. Bellamy and Carter combined for 10 sacks last season, often acting as much as defensive ends as linebackers. The Kraemer/Hainsey duo will need to slow that rush if the Notre Dame offense is to hum anywhere near as well as it did last weekend.

For that matter, this may be an indicative measuring stick for that position battle moving forward. The fact that it remains a question does not bode well for Kraemer’s performance to date. No matter how well Hainsey, an early enrollee, has performed, Kraemer has had a chance to secure this starting spot for 10 months now. Not doing so definitively is his opportunity lost.

Hainsey, meanwhile, committed half the Irish penalties last week. (Committing only four total penalties is a facet of last week’s performance not praised enough, including in this space.) That may have been mere freshman nerves — especially considering neither jump was enticed by the defense in anyway — but it cannot continue if he expects to usurp Kraemer.

Does Notre Dame have a developed enough passing attack to keep Kirby Smart’s defense honest?
If it does, the Irish did not show it off last week, not that they needed to. The greatest concern about the passing game has been who will emerge as the second option behind junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown. That worry may be superfluous. Yes, establishing an additional reliable target for Wimbush makes sense, but it may not be inherently necessary.

Take the last three seasons. Notre Dame’s No. 2 receiver in any of those years never surpassed 48 catches, 597 yards or five touchdowns.

2016: St. Brown — 58 catches, 961 yards, nine touchdowns.
Torii Hunter, Jr. — 38 catches, 521 yards, three touchdowns.
2015: Will Fuller — 62 catches, 1,258 yards, 14 touchdowns.
Chris Brown — 48 catches, 597 yards, four touchdowns.
2014: Fuller —76 catches, 1,094 yards, 15 touchdowns.
Corey Robinson — 40 catches, 539 yards, five touchdowns. (more…)

Notre Dame’s ‘demeanor in running the football’

29 Comments

The above clip montage is rather mundane. Notre Dame sophomore running back Tony Jones never comes close to breaking off a real highlight, aside from a ho-hum seven-yard touchdown run. Why in the world would such a video be cobbled together, let alone featured atop an article?

Because it is mundane. That’s the point. Not every run can be a 66-yard dash up the sideline.

In his collegiate debut, Jones did not wow. He did not dazzle. He took six carries for 19 yards, all included above. He also reduced junior Josh Adams’ workload by six carries, saved Adams from more than half a dozen hits and kept Adams off the turf five times.

Those contributions should not be minimized. Not only do they keep the starter a bit fresher, they also wear down the defense. Bit by bit, that can lead to a 60-yard jaunt.

“Having a good run game, you have to have big plays,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following the 49-16 victory over Temple on Saturday. “When you drop your safeties down and decide that you’re going to play eight [or] nine guys on the line of scrimmage, if you break through, those are the things that come with it.”

Before continuing, let’s be clear: This is not to say Jones’ only contributions this year will be as the wave beating down on the rock. His moments to break through will undoubtedly come. When Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush says he thinks he has “three of the best backs in the country” behind him, he is not paying lip service to Jones or junior Dexter Williams. Wimbush believes that statement, with reason.

This is to say separating one aspect of the running game from the rest of it misses the sum of the parts. When Kelly gave the game ball to Adams, the captain did not hesitate to say it belongs to the entire offensive unit.

“Every guy on that offensive unit has developed a mindset of taking it upon themselves to be the player that we can count on,” Adams said afterward. “Offensive line, run behind me. Wide receivers, throw me the ball. Quarterbacks, give me the play so I can run it. Running back, give me the ball so I can run hard.”

Every player may want to be counted on, but with eight or nine defenders approaching the line of scrimmage, Kelly has typically tried to count on the passing game. His logic made sense: If the defense is going to leave only one safety to help cover the receivers, target the one-on-one matchup. It should favor the offense. (more…)

Three sacks show much more of Notre Dame’s defense

11 Comments

Brandon Wimbush had just made the first real mistake of his time as Notre Dame’s starting quarterback. A very-avoidable interception gave Temple possession a mere 14 yards from the end zone. With the Irish lead only 28-10 and more than 20 minutes remaining, a quick score would have returned the season opener to competitive. When Owls senior tight end Chris Myarick was left uncovered approaching the goal line on the ensuing third down, a touchdown seemed quite likely.

Instead, Temple was forced to attempt a 36-yard field goal, missed wide left.

What changed?

Well, a lot, and it traces back much further than that third-and-five. The dramatic example simply underscores the differences between the Notre Dame defense a year ago and the version put on display in Saturday’s 49-16 victory over the Owls.

At the snap, senior rover Drue Tranquill crashed toward the line of scrimmage while junior safety Nick Coleman played the space Tranquill left. Senior linebacker Nyles Morgan kept his eyes on the quarterback. Who was supposed to cover Myarick is a question only answerable in the Irish film room. That answer was rendered moot, though, by a charging Te’von Coney.

The junior linebacker locked onto junior quarterback Logan Marchi as he rolled left, taking Marchi down for a 10-yard sack, the third of the day for Notre Dame. By all appearances, Coney prevented a simple pitch-and-catch for a touchdown.

“If he doesn’t do his job, they’re going to find that tight end,” Kelly said Tuesday. “He covers up for a mistake on a play.”

Kelly added Coney would not have made that play a year ago. Instead, he would have been distracted by senior running back David Hood moving from right to left across the line, heading for the flat. Coney would have likely followed Hood, rather than leave the offense’s safety valve to be picked up by sophomore safety Devin Studstill, as happened Saturday.

“We were covering up for [Coney’s] mistakes last year,” Kelly said. “It’s not just the physical talent. He really had that in a large degree. Where he’s taken the huge jump is in his traits. His attention to detail, his focus, he is a locked-in football player. That’s where he’s making the jump.”

Coney’s jump coincides with a defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme, one that perhaps plays to his strengths. For that matter, it may play to every linebacker’s strengths, and it just so happens the Irish have a number of talented linebackers these days.

“It’s the philosophical approach to how we teach the defensive front and the way that it is taught from the very first day that the defense is put in,” Kelly said. “We’re not a read-and-react defense. We’re going to create a new line of scrimmage.

“… The defensive line is going to play in a manner that they’re going to get off the football. Our linebackers are downhill players. You can see that with 11 tackles for loss from 10 different players.”

Especially on that third-and-five, Coney was moving downhill, ignoring the previous line of scrimmage.

Similarly, both Tranquill and senior defensive end Jay Hayes exhibited that purpose on the second play from scrimmage of the second half. Temple set up for a screen pass, but Tranquill was in the backfield so quickly, Marchi no longer had that intended option. Instead, he had Hayes bearing down on him after shedding his blocker with a quick spin move.

Hayes was not officially credited with anything more than a quarterback hurry from that play. That is, not that Hayes. He forced Marchi toward sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes (no relation), who sacked the Owl out of bounds. But it was Tranquill’s coverage and the first rusher that made the play.

Again, that play would not have been made last year. Jay Hayes simply was not capable of it. An offseason spent working with the new strength and conditioning staff as well as the trainers positioned Hayes to start and contribute from week one.

“He needed to match that strength and size with his footwork and change of direction,” Kelly said. “He committed to that in the offseason. Our strength staff did a great job. Rob Hunt and the trainers did a great job on correctives with [Hayes’] footwork and his feet in particular to get him where his change of direction now matches and meets his physicality.

“That’s always lagged behind with Jay. Now it matches who he is and that’s why he’s having the success he’s having.”

These praises of a renewed pass rush and simple aggression in Elko’s defense come without even mentioning Notre Dame’s first sack. Sophomore end Julian Okwara gets the credit for that one, but perhaps more notable: All four defensive linemen on the play were reserves with Okwara joined by freshman tackle Kurt Hinish, junior tackle Brandon Tiassum and senior end Andrew Trumbetti.

An unfinished product
By no means was the Irish defense perfect against Temple. First of all, 16 points proves that. Second of all, it was week one, perfection was unlikely. Third, Kelly has repeatedly asked for excellence, specifically not perfection.

Yet certain mistakes are correctable.

“I’d probably say tackling,” senior linebacker and captain Greer Martini said. “But as a defensive unit, you can always say you can tackle better.”

Kelly agreed.

“We have to tackle better,” he said. “There’s no question defensively. That will start within all phases of our tackling.

“I told our football team situational awareness has to get better. We had some situations where we’ve got to react quicker. … We backed up in the end zone on a throw. We have to know where we are on the field.”

Presumably, Kelly was referring to the 11-yard touchdown pass from Marchi to senior receiver Brodrick Yancy in the fourth quarter, a screen pass that conceivably should not have advanced much past the line of scrimmage.

Irish sophomore cornerback Julian Love hesitated, allowing the blocking receiver to engage without a challenge. At that point, neither Studstill nor junior rover Asmar Bilal were able to take the proper angles to prevent Yancy from scoring.

Frankly, Notre Dame was lucky to have that opportunity to stop the Owls. On the play immediately prior, Temple sophomore tight end Kenny Yeboah beat Irish sophomore safety Jalen Elliott in the end zone but could not handle Marchi’s pass.

It was week one. Those mistakes will happen.

It was also a long offseason, one that apparently instilled a better understanding of assignments, better conditioning and a straightforward defensive approach. These were all preached for eight months, but now there is finally tangible evidence of them.

Brian Kelly on Georgia’s defense, RBs & Notre Dame vs. the SEC

20 Comments

Brian Kelly has seen a Kirby Smart-coached defense before. Thus, he recognizes Georgia’s defensive scheme, reminiscent of the approach taken by a certain Alabama team.

“Certainly have a great deal of respect for Kirby Smart,” the Irish coach said Tuesday. “Certainly know him from his days at Alabama [where Smart was defensive coordinator] and we played them obviously in the national championship game.”

Mel Tucker is the Bulldogs defensive coordinator, having followed Smart from Alabama after the 2015 season when Smart took the Georgia head coaching job. Tucker was the defensive backs coach with the Tide for the 2015 season. Whichever one may be pulling the strings, Kelly sees Smart’s presence.

“Defensively, the thing that stands out there is certainly Kirby’s fingerprints,” he said. “Mel is running the defense, but you can see Kirby’s influence there, as well, which you would as a head coach.”

The Bulldogs typically feature three defensive linemen, but easily switch to four when the situation calls for it. Kelly said he counts as many as nine Georgia defensive linemen who contribute up front, led by junior tackle Trenton Thompson. With four veteran linebackers patrolling the area, as well, the front-seven will present a steep challenge for the Irish offensive line, no matter how veteran the latter unit may be.

“What it is about [Smart’s] defense is that when you have four linebackers, you’ve got guys running off edges,” Kelly said. “They can get to you off the edge as well as moving the front around. When you’re in three down [defensive linemen], you can easily play three down and four down from week to week. So there is that ability to morph to what you want to be from week to week, and that in itself allows him a lot of creativity.”

To counter that creativity, Notre Dame will look to improve its pass protection from a week ago. Kelly said that aspect of the game did not have “any glaring weaknesses,” but naturally needed improvement, namely in screen blocking and bootleg blocking.

“The physical pieces of offensive linemen in terms of their growth, we feel really good about that and they’re going to continue to get better,” he said. “There were things that happened on Saturday that we can control in coaching and teaching to take some of the hits off our quarterback.”

Georgia running back Sony Michel. (AP Photo/John Amis)

Offensively, the conversation may be about Bulldogs freshman quarterback Jake Fromm taking over for injured sophomore Jacob Eason, and understandably so, but Kelly’s focus remains on the Georgia running backs, seniors Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. If either gets past the first wave of Irish defenders, it will likely spell greater trouble.

“They’re difficult to tackle one-on-one at the second level,” Kelly said. “If you let these guys go through to the second level and you’re relying on your safeties one-on-one from 12 yards off to make tackles, they need to be of NFL pedigree to make those tackles consistently. And [even then] I don’t know that they will because these two kids are extraordinary talents.”

When it comes to Fromm, there may not be much film to study of him, having played only three quarters of collegiate football, but Kelly is somewhat familiar with the Georgia native, thanks to watching his high school film while evaluating recruits in years past. Notre Dame never pursued Fromm, having already zeroed in on its quarterback in the class of 2017 in current freshman Avery Davis, but Kelly was nonetheless impressed with Fromm back then.

“I always liked his presence and his savvy,” Kelly said. “He always just seemed to be somebody very comfortable. He reminds me a lot of a quarterback we have, [sophomore] Ian Book, on our team. Just has that ‘it’ as a quarterback.”

On scheduling & the SEC
Georgia marks the third SEC team Kelly has faced during his Notre Dame tenure, losing to Alabama in the 2012 National Championship Game and beating LSU in the 2014 Music City Bowl. The mixed results left Kelly knowing what is necessary for the Irish to beat the best of the SEC.

Led by left tackle Zack Martin and defensive lineman Sheldon Day (right), Notre Dame topped the SEC’s LSU in the 2014 Music City Bowl. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

“You certainly know the talent level that you’re going up against, but you also know that it still comes down to your preparation and execution and that you’re capable of beating those teams,” he said. “Certainly we weren’t capable of beating Alabama that day, but we did against LSU. I think the takeaway is that your preparation and execution, you can beat with a Notre Dame football team anybody that you play.”

In the coming years, at least two more SEC teams are on the Irish schedule. Notre Dame and Arkansas have a home-and-home series slated for 2020 and 2025, and Texas A&M will travel to South Bend in 2025 a year after the Irish visit College Station.

“This is the great part of being an independent football team. You get these kinds of games, getting the chance to play against a team that is regarded as one of the very best in the SEC,” Kelly said.

“… Those conversations were about how do we best balance [scheduling] without it being too strong of a schedule to sustain itself throughout the entire year, and this game fit pretty good in that balance.”

54 & counting
Notre Dame played two dozen defenders for double digit snaps against Temple, and Kelly expects that rotation to continue. In fact, he can envision even more players finding the field than the 54 that did in the season opener. Particularly, more of an offensive rotation could be in the works. On at least one level, that is not possible, as the Irish trotted out all five of their tight ends against the Owls.

Of the players seeing their first significant action, Kelly specifically acknowledged five who performed well: junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush, sophomore running back Tony Jones, freshman safety Isaiah Robertson and freshmen defensive tackles Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish.

Injuries & eligibility update
The NCAA denied the appeal for immediate eligibility for sophomore safety and Navy transfer Alohi Gilman. He will be eligible for the 2018 season and will have three years remaining.

Junior defensive tackle Micah Dew-Treadway will practice Tuesday and is expected to play against Georgia after not dressing against Temple due to a knee sprain.

Graduate student tight end Durham Smythe will go through Tuesday’s practice in a non-contact role, and if that goes well, he should be cleared from the concussion protocol.