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Pregame Six Pack: One last Saturday at home

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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.

 

Behind the Irish: Worldwide support

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You didn’t need to be in Dublin to kickoff the 2012 season to understand the reach of Notre Dame football. But our final “Behind the Irish” for the season takes a look at the global support the Irish football team receives, thanks to a passionate group of fans that cover the entire globe.

Listen to current Irish players like Malik Zaire, James Onwualu, Nyles Morgan and Josh Adams talk about the support they receive from one of the largest fanbases in all of sports.

And in that corner… The Virginia Tech Hokies

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Notre Dame’s ACC partnership yields a new opponent this weekend, as Virginia Tech and the Irish meet for the first time. After Frank Beamer took his alma mater to unparalleled heights and a national profile on the football field, he turned the program over to Justin Fuente, and the former Memphis coach has done big things in his first year in Blacksburg.

With transfer quarterback Jerod Evans behind center, Fuente has the Hokies offense back on track. Inheriting long-time defensive coordinator Bud Foster keeps Virginia Tech’s defense among the most aggressive and stingy in the country.

To get us ready for this weekend’s game, I’m joined by Faizan Hasnany, the sports editor for the Collegiate Times, the student newspaper at Virginia Tech. Born in Pakistan and raised in Northern Virginia, Faizan is a senior studying Business Information Technology with a passion for sports analytics.

In the middle of a chaotic week and a packed course load, he took some time to get us educated on the Hokies. Hope you enjoy.
* The change from Frank Beamer to Justin Fuente appeared (from afar) to be one of the best transitions from coaching legend to new leader. Can you speak to the job Fuente has done so far, and how he’s handled taking over for the guy who essentially built the Hokies into what they are?

Justin Fuente has done an incredible job so far taking over for Frank Beamer, and has really won over the fanbase at Virginia Tech. It was definitely a very smooth tranistion for him, since Beamer left behind so much returning talent on both sides of the ball and since the Hokies did retain Bud Foster at defensive coordinator.

The one thing that sticks out to me about Fuente is that he doesn’t show a lot of emotion particularly after wins and losses. He is a firm believer in going 1-0 in each week, a statement that is echoed by him and his players numerous times in every press conference.

 

* Jerod Evans is having a big season. His two interceptions against Georgia Tech doubled his season total and he’s thrown 22 touchdown passes while being the Hokies leading rusher. There were great expectations for the JUCO transfer before he arrived. Has he exceeded them?

Surprisingly, with Jerod Evans, despite being such a highly touted JUCO recruit, nobody was truly certain until the season started that he would be Tech’s starting quarterback. Evans and redshirt-senior Brenden Motley, who filled in as the starter for Michael Brewer most of last season, split first team reps throughout the entire offseason.

That being said, Evans undoubtedly exceeded expectations, and is on his way to surpassing Tyrod Taylor’s record for most passing touchdowns in a season of 24. He has also led the Hokies in every rushing category with 608 yards on 132 attempts and six touchdowns on the ground.

 

* Hiring Fuente felt like a coup for Virginia Tech. But getting Bud Foster to stay as defensive coordinator may have been even bigger. How has that relationship been, considering some people expected Foster to be the guy who took over for Beamer when he hung them up?

Retaining Bud Foster as defensive coordinator was huge for Virginia Tech. In addition to his abilities as a defensive coordinator and recruiter, Foster has also been important by just giving the Hokies continuity and easing the transition between head coaches.

The relationship between Fuente and Foster seems great so far, with Fuente granting Foster the freedom to just keep doing what he has been all these years as the main defensive playcaller for the Hokies.

 

* Tremaine Edmunds and Woody Baron are wreaking havoc behind the line of scrimmage for the Hokies, a combined 31 TFLs and 9 sacks between them. What do they do so well that allows them to be so disruptive? What other defenders will be key in slowing down DeShone Kizer and the Irish offense?

Both Woody Baron and Tremaine Edmunds are exceptionally athletic and quick at their positions, allowing them to get in the backfield with ease. Baron is very explosive off the ball and has great hands and technique.

Another player on the defensive end who will be a key in slowing down Kizer and the Irish offense will be Tremaine’s brother, Terrell Edmunds. Terrell has 61 tackles this year along with three interceptions and six passes defended and is extremely versatile at that rover position.

 

The lopsided loss to Georgia Tech seemed to be a huge let down. Was that a product of facing a triple-option opponent—something Irish fans know well—or an inconsistent team still learning how to play under a new head coach?

The loss to Georgia Tech showed on full display something that has plagued the Hokies defense consistently in recent years. Not specifically the triple option, but just mobile quarterbacks in general that the Tech defense has struggled with.

 

* Vegas has Notre Dame slightly favored at home on Senior Day, yet the Hokies are tied for 1st in the ACC Coastal division while the Irish are fighting for postseason eligibility. In the first ever matchup between these two programs, how big of a game is this for Hokie fans, and what does VT need to do to earn their eighth win?

This is definitely a big game for the Hokies being that it is the first matchup between the two and they don’t want to drop two games in a row at this point in the season, though it is probably a bigger game for the Irish, fighting for postseason eligibility. Since it is an out of conference match-up this game won’t have any implications on Tech’s chances at winning the division. Tech will need a consistent offensive performance up front from its line. Last week they allowed five sacks and were unable to create holes consistently to get the run game going.

 

Kelly prepared for unique Senior Day send-off

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Notre Dame will honor the program’s seniors on Saturday, a send-off that would be made sweeter with a victory over Virginia Tech. But while Brian Kelly will greet and appreciate 28 seniors who’ll run out of the tunnel in the season’s final home game, he’s hopeful that this won’t be goodbye for most.

Because while Jarron Jones, James Onwualu, Isaac Rochell, Cole Luke, Mark Harrell, Scott Daly and Avery Sebastian are saying goodbye, there’s plenty of eligibility remaining.

So that turns Senior Day into a different one than most. Especially when Notre Dame’s head coach thinks back to what could have been.

“We don’t have as many seniors that have used up their eligibility,” Kelly explained when asked about the emotions of the upcoming weekend. “I’m crying right now because I don’t have Will Fuller. He didn’t have a senior day. Jaylon Smith, Ronnie Stanley, Kavari Russell, is that enough?

“Those guys, they’re all juniors, and they really didn’t have a true senior day. And then there’s a number of guys that have eligibility remaining. So it’s kind of changed a little bit. Where my first couple of years you knew who those guys were. Now it’s a lot grayer as to who is a senior and who’s not a senior.”

That gray area is a source of optimism, especially for a staff looking to build on the tail-end of the season. So while the decisions on staying or going will be left until later, Saturday’s game will honor the group of established contributors that’ll be playing for a final time in an Irish uniform.

Kelly singled out his two graduating captains, seniors James Onwualu and Isaac Rochell, strong leaders who led from the front during a challenging season.

“The hardest workers during our toughest times were Isaac Rochell and James Onwualu in particular, those two guys,” Kelly said. “It was crucial when we made a change defensively, playing all those freshmen, we needed guys to lead by example. We didn’t need a guy yelling and screaming. And those two guys led by example.”

As much as this season turned into taking lumps and getting experience, there’s always going to be some of that in South Bend, a place that forces student-athletes to graduate before applying for a fifth-year. While that gives veterans and role players a shot at college football’s version of free agency, Kelly understands that’s part of the deal.

More importantly, if he’s doing his job, he expects more senior days like this one.

“When you have really good football players that have the opportunity to go to the NFL, that’s going to be a reality here at Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “I’d love for everybody to stay and use their four years of eligibility, and have their degree and do all that. But the reality of it is that those situations are going to keep coming up.”

BK breaks down Shamrock Series win

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Before Brian Kelly breaks down Virginia Tech on Tuesday, listen to BK talk about the Shamrock Series victory with Watch ND’s Jack Nolan.

He discussed the development of Kevin Stepherson and C.J. Sanders‘ kickoff return to jumpstart the effort. He also talks about the defensive play by veterans like Cole Luke, James Onwualu and Isaac Rochell as well as youngsters like Julian Love.