Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt, Justin Thomas

Mailbag: About Schmidt, CJ, the QB (and that open job at USC)

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Thanks for the good questions, everybody. I did my best to pick ones that matched up with a slew of similar ones… and pick ones that I thought I’d enjoy answers.

(Why? Why not, I thought.)

Here goes nothing:

 

IrishDodger: Keith, please offer your opinion on the play of Joe Schmidt. We all love Joe’s story but he seemed to lose a step after his injury and even let Navy neutralize him. I’m afraid he’ll be further exposed this weekend and against Stanford. Why is it the less talented players seem to pick up the defense better than the 4-star phenoms?

I’ve gotten a half-dozen questions about Joe Schmidt’s play and this one from IrishDodger seemed to cover most of the angles. My opinion on his play? It’s been… a mix of very good, okay, and once or twice slightly disappointing.

As I look at Joe’s PFF grade—a website that knows a ton about football and literally grades and charts every play—I kind of see what they see. A disappointing performance against Virginia (I believe I tweeted that Joe overran a few tackles) and subpar play against Clemson, when Schmidt only had one tackle. (A quick plug for PFF. If you are a college football junky you should absolutely pony up the $$ to see their premium stats. It’s an incredible service, and it’ll help your fantasy team, too.)

Some have asked why Joe is playing. That answer is simple: He’s Notre Dame’s best middle linebacker. Brian Kelly said it point-blank in a press conference a few weeks ago and he’d likely say it again.

Dodger, you should know me well enough by now that I’m going to chuckle at your 4-star recruiting mention. Those rankings mean about as much as the gold star I gave myself for an excellent column last week. Just look at Greer Martini. He was a guy that Irish fans wondered why he was even being recruited. Now he’s my odds-on-favorite to be the starter next season.

Is Joe a perfect player? No. Is he a step slower than last year? I’m not sure, but we sure are ignoring the fact that he’s been playing with a cast on his thumb since Game One. Schmidt’s been asked to handle some of the toughest jobs on the field. And if he struggles at times doing that, you can bet that Nyles Morgan will, too.

There’s a lot of good football left in Notre Dame’s captain and leader. And I expect to see it during the second half of the season.

 

wisner74: Keith – C.J.Prosise’s spectacular development at RB is one of the big stories this year, and freshman RB Josh Adams appears to be coming along very nicely. At the same time, ND’s talented D-backfield seems not to be meeting fans’ expectations. What, if anything, do you think that says about the relative performance of two of the new Irish position coaches, Autry Denson and Todd Lyght?

Notre Dame’s secondary is still a work in progress. But Kelly commended Elijah Shumate’s solid play of late on Thursday and expect to see Cole Luke and KeiVarae Russell begin to find a rhythm now that the option football is behind them.

Again, fan expectations aren’t necessarily reality. And saying Autry Denson is doing better than Todd Lyght because C.J. Prosise is a freak of nature isn’t necessarily a sound logic jump. But the Irish are still struggling at the safety position, and amidst all the box jumps and Instagram training videos we might have forgotten that Russell didn’t play football or even practice for a full calendar year, so expecting him to go from the shelf to lockdown status was a stretch.

 

ndlv: Keith, you have just been hired as a head coach. Whom do you hire as your defensive coordinator – Diaco or Van Gorder?

I think you do exactly what Brian Kelly did. Hire Bob Diaco.

Diaco is a builder. He took a group that was literally laughed at and made them believe they could be the best defense in America. When Irish fans heard the defense chanting “B.I.A.” you couldn’t miss the snarkiness. Two seasons later, Diaco had the Irish defense leading Notre Dame to the BCS title game. No they weren’t the best defense in America. But I think they were second or third.

All that being said, I think VanGorder gets a bum rap. You could have brought Bill Parcells, Buddy Ryan, or any other defensive guru in football history in last November and I’m not sure they’d have been able to make chicken salad with that group. Notre Dame’s front seven was decimated, and you just can’t defend if you’re getting blown off the ball and playing kids who have no clue what they’re doing.

That’s not to say that VanGorder has been perfect. I do think sometimes his group gets too scheme reliant. This group also has some maddening lapses—big plays that go for quick scores and a softness in the red zone that still scares me. But Notre Dame has played some good defense this year, save a handful of series. And they’re doing it without their starting nose tackle, and primary nickel and dime backs.

 

blushirts88: How comfortable are you with Kizer at QB? Do you feel he can handle this game at home?

I’ve been really impressed, haven’t you? And if you haven’t, maybe you didn’t see Kizer in the Blue-Gold game this spring. He was—and he admitted as much to Jac Collinsworth for our Stay Gold podcast—horrific, and basically hit rock bottom as he wondered if football was even the sport for him.

But his poise has been excellent. He throws a pretty ball and has no problem getting it down field. He has yet to have that “lost freshman” look, and that includes in a pouring rain storm in Death Valley.

He’s missed some throws. He’s forced some others. But his leadership and demeanor is contagious, he’s a really conscientious kid. I think he’s doing more than just keep Malik’s seat warm, he’s creating competition in the ranks and also helping the Irish stay on track to achieve their goals.

 

blackirish23:

KA – 2 Questions:

1. If you could have ONE of our injured players back for the bowl game (hopefully the playoffs), who would it be and why?

I’d want Jarron Jones back and healthy. That’s kind of an easy one for me, though I’d love to see what Tarean Folston would do behind this offensive line.

2. In the process of writing an article, does it ever cross your mind which way the comments thread will go? If so, does it ever affect your writing/wording for the article in any way?

Ha. I can safely say that I’ve never worried about what you guys were going to say. Maybe my mom has, but I know that behind every faceless commenter on the internet who writes mean things, there’s really just somebody who wants to be loved.

(I tell myself.)

 

andy44teg: Hey, Keith, saw on ESPN the other day that BK’s name was possibly out there for replacing Sark. Is that just some blow-hard trying to get interweb clicks or is there any juice to that at all?

I’ve got no clue. But here’s how I view it: There wasn’t a writer in town who wasn’t shocked when Sark no-showed for Sunday practice and created this mess. So if you’re telling me that in the 24 hours between his indefinite suspension and his firing that all these reporters went and hit the phones and started talking to anonymous sources, I’d be really surprised.

That said, Brian Kelly is going to be on every list for job openings until he eventually leaves Notre Dame or decides to retire in South Bend. He’s a successful coach who runs a program the right way, is a professional and has a reputation for building programs—and he’s currently doing it at a really difficult place like Notre Dame.

When BK went and visited with the Philadelphia Eagles, he gave certain people, some Notre Dame fans among them, a lifetime pass to believe he’ll be gone at the first chance he gets. But watching him on Showtime and seeing how he’s grown comfortable in his job, I don’t get the feeling he’s a guy looking to uproot his family. Rather, I think he’s a confident coach committed to winning a title at Notre Dame, knowing that alone will allow him to do whatever he wants.

 

 

Pregame Six Pack: It’s still the big one

Chris Milton, Will Fuller
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During a week where much of the attention has been diverted to off-the-field drama, Saturday night’s rivalry matchup between Notre Dame and USC seems to have been pushed off center stage. Part of that comes from the Trojans entering with two-losses, an early-season national matchup fizzling out before October. But as the Trojans head to South Bend with an interim leader, fifth-year linebacker Joe Schmidt said it best.

“USC doesn’t like us, and we don’t really like them,” Schmidt said after the Navy game. “And that’s just how it’s going to be forever.”

So the glitz and glamour of the nation’s premier intersectional rivalry might be a bit subdued this year. But that doesn’t make the game any less important. Especially after the Trojans absolutely humiliated the Irish last year in the Coliseum.

With Southern Cal bringing legends in to the practice field to try and keep the team on the tracks, what Trojans team takes the field Saturday night will be anybody’s guess. But they’re a dangerous outfit—a talented team with nothing to lose.

Let’s get to the pregame six pack. Even with chaos surrounding Troy, it doesn’t make the game matter any less.

Notre Dame needs to show it won’t suffer from the dreaded Navy hangover. 

After Navy won three of four games starting in 2007, Notre Dame took back control of the series, with last week’s relatively easy victory the fifth-straight win over the Midshipmen. But that’s only one element of beating Navy. The Irish need to go out this week and prove they can defeat the other.

Fox Sports’ Bruce Feldman first coined the “Body Blow theory” a few years back when considering the physical punishment that hits a team a week after a physical game. The theory was designed with a heavyweight like Stanford in mind. But one astute reader of Bruce’s pointed out the punishment Navy puts on its opponents. (The Midshipmen had just hung tough with Ohio State until the Buckeyes pulled away, only for Ohio State to lose the week after to Virginia Tech, their only loss of the 2014 season.) The theory stuck.

The last eight times Notre Dame has played Navy, they’ve gone 2-6 the next week. Those two wins? The Tommy Rees save over Purdue in 2012 and the come-from-behind victory a year earlier against Wake Forest. Neither the Boilermakers nor the Demon Deacons had a winning record.

The six losses range the spectrum. Charlie Weis fought the good fight against a solid Pitt team in 2009, but had brutal losses in 2007 and 2008. In 2010, Kelly suffered his lone dismantling at the hands of Navy only to lose the following week to Tulsa in one of the toughest weeks in recent memory. In 2013, the Irish followed up a nail-biter against Navy by playing horribly against Pitt, killing any BCS hopes with a disappointing road loss.

Last year, Kelly seemed to downplay any sense of a potential hangover. Then the Irish went into Sun Devil Stadium and spotted ASU a 34-3 lead in the second quarter. This year, he acknowledged the physicality that comes with banging in the trenches every play with Navy, but also talked about the week off that’s just around the corner.

“We’ve got a week off next week, so our guys have a totally different mindset with the bye week,” Kelly said.

This USC team is more talented than any of the teams that hung those six losses on the Irish. Then again, Notre Dame is better, too.

For both the Irish and the Trojans, keys to their offensive attack need to get back on track. 

As our good friends at Pro Football Focus took a closer look at Saturday night’s game, an interesting datapoint emerged. The strength of both teams’ offenses aren’t quite clicking on all cylinders.

After lighting up Arizona State two weeks ago, USC had a week off and then laid a surprising egg against Washington. A week after Cody Kessler completed 19 of his 33 passes for 375 yards and threw five touchdowns against just one interception, the USC passing game was completely out of sorts against the Huskies.

While he completed 68 percent of his passes when he wasn’t pressured, Kessler was just three of ten for 24 yards under pressure, per PFF. He threw an interception and was sacked five times. That made for a stat line that was near a career-worst for Kessler, completing just 16 of 29 throws for 156 yards and two interceptions.

Notre Dame’s struggles in the run game were obvious to anybody watching the Clemson game. But even against Navy, the Irish’s usually prolific ground game wasn’t in sync either. Per PFF, the Irish managed a negative grade from their offensive line against the Midshipmen.

The main culprits? Mike McGlinchey and Steve Elmer, who both garnered negative grades. That’s two straight tough starts for McGlinchey, who also struggled at Clemson. In his first start, Alex Bars was slightly below average with a -0.7 grade, while only Nick Martin (0.2) and Ronnie Stanley (0.6) had positive days.

As we dig into the keys of Saturday evening, Notre Dame’s running game dictating terms is a key piece of the puzzle. And just as important for an Irish win? Making sure the Trojans passing attack stays inefficient.

With the focus on Notre Dame’s safety play, Elijah Shumate is emerging as a senior playmaker and leader. 

Max Redfield will move back into the starting lineup, taking on the hometown team he committed to as a recruit until he gave Notre Dame a longer look. And after a tough week against the option, Redfield will need to be on top of his game.

But one player who is already there is Elijah Shumate. The senior who has long had all the physical ability in the world, seems to have put his struggles behind him. Quietly, Shumate is having a very nice year, no longer challenged to match his physical skills with his performace in Brian VanGorder’s scheme. After a very strong performance against Navy (one bone-rattling TFL and a game-clinching interception), Kelly talked about the emergence of the New Jersey native.

“Skyrocketing. I wish I had him another couple of years,” Kelly said. “He’s really coming into his own. I’m really proud of him.”

When asked what took so long for the lightbulb to go on, Kelly didn’t point to one particular thing or the other. Rather he talked about the maturation process of a college football player, something he’s seeing take shape in his other starting safety as well.

“Some guys it just takes longer to get to that point. He was still cooking, he just wasn’t done yet,” Kelly explained. “He’s one of those guys that are ascending for us. It’s really nice to see. He’s such a great kid. He cares so much. He was working so hard at his craft and he was struggling. And it was wearing on him and to see him start to break through, it’s one of the gratifying things for a coach.”

When Notre Dame and USC play in the elements, the Irish haven’t lost since Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president. 

Want to know why USC visits Notre Dame in October, but USC still hosts the Irish in November? Cold weather. In 1959, the Trojans last visit to South Bend was so cold that USC athletic director Jess Hill proposed moving USC’s next visit to Notre Dame to October, while the Irish would continue coming to the Coliseum in late November. Notre Dame agreed, and it’s been that way ever since.

But with November temperatures coming to South Bend this weekend, it’ll be another interesting data point for a football program that hasn’t spent much time playing in chilly weather. In the history of USC’s program, they’ve only played 20 “cold weather” games. And while their record in those is 11-8-1, against the Irish it hasn’t been good at all.

USC hasn’t beaten Notre Dame in “cold weather” (as defined by USC’s media relations department) since 1939. That includes a loss in 2013, a 2010 game in a cold November rain storm in Southern California in 2010, a tie game in 1994, and losses in 1959, 1952, and 1949.

So while those visiting campus this weekend will be grumbling that they’re in need of long johns and an extra layer or two, the Trojans could be feeling the same way, too. And that’s a very good thing for the Irish.

As injuries mount, USC’s passing game will need to rely on some untested talent. 

Notre Dame suffered it’s share of devastating injuries. But as the Trojans head to South Bend, they’ll be pushed to the brink at some key positions. We’ve already talked about the loss of starting center and Rimington Trophy candidate Max Tuerk. But for as talented as JuJu Smith-Schuster and two-way talent Adoree Jackson are, the rest of the Trojan receiving corps is badly banged up.

The Los Angeles Times’ Lindsey Thiry lays out just how limited the Trojans could be at receiver.

Junior Isaac Whitney will not be available after he suffered a broken collarbone this week, interim Coach Clay Helton announced Thursday.

Steven Mitchell Jr., a third-year sophomore, also is unlikely to be available because of an ankle sprain.

Whitney and Mitchell have combined for 23 receptions, six for touchdowns.

Junior Darreus Rogers, who has been slowed because of a hamstring injury, will be a game-time decision. Rogers was sidelined in the first half against Arizona State on Sept. 26 and did not play last week against Washington.

Next in line to see the field is redshirt freshman Jalen Greene, a converted quarterback who became a receiver in fall camp. After that is true freshman Deontay Burnett. Both come from SC feeder school Serra, the football juggernaut that features eight players on the Trojan roster.

It’s going to be a busy recruiting weekend on campus, and Notre Dame hopes to show its best to a talented group of prospects. 

While the weather will be cooling off, the Irish recruiting efforts will be heating up. Notre Dame will welcome a large group of 2016 and 2017 recruits to campus, a signature weekend on the recruiting calendar.

Here are some of the prospects who’ll be on campus this weekend taking in the game.

Notre Dame commits:
Ian Book, QB
Tony Jones Jr., RB
Tommy Kraemer, OL
Julian Love, DB
Adetokunbo Ogundeji, DE
Spencer Perry, S
John Shannon, LS
Kevin Stepherson, WR
Cole Kmet, TE (2017)
Josh Lugg, OL (2017)

That group of Irish commits will likely make sure this talented crew of visitors is having a great time:

Brandon Burton, S
Damar Hamlin, CB
Daelin Hayes, LB
Khalid Kareem, DE
Jeffrey McCullouch, LB
Javon McKinley, WR
Ikenna Okeke, S
Tony Pride, CB
Devin Studstill, S

Hayes is just coming off a high-profile de-commitment from USC this week while Kareem no longer considers himself an Alabama commit. As spots in the Irish recruiting class fill up—especially in the secondary—it’ll be interesting if there’s a commitment or two to be had this weekend.

Recruiting wars just another part of ND-USC rivalry

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 29:  Nelson Agholor #15 of the USC Trojans celebrates his touchdown with George Farmer #8 to take a 35-0 lead over the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on November 29, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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Saturday will be a very big day in South Bend. Not just for the historic intersectional rivalry taking place on the field, but for the battles taking place off of it.

Notre Dame will welcome a slew of highly sought after recruits to campus, many with interest from both teams on the field. And as the Trojan football program looks to be in transition yet again, there’s a great opportunity for Notre Dame to make a significant move in an ever-present recruiting battle that’s just another part of the Notre Dame-USC rivalry.

We’ll spend some time tomorrow confirming some of the most important visitors. But it isn’t hard to see the connectivity between these two programs—all you have to do is look at their respective depth charts.

Both rosters feature players that were recruited hard by both programs. And with some of the game’s elite playmakers likely swinging the balance of Saturday night’s game, it’s incredible to think how different this rivalry could look with a handful of jerseys switched.

JuJu Smith-Schuster was the big recruit that got away from Notre Dame, with Mike Denbrock very nearly getting the talented wide receiver to leave Southern California and come to South Bend. Left tackle Ronnie Stanley was the top prospect at the top-Pac 12 feeder school in Nevada. The anchor of the Irish offensive line had more familiarity with USC than any other program, though it didn’t help the Trojans in the end.

Down the line, you’ll find players recruited hard by each coaching staff. In Irish wide receiver Amir Carlisle, you’ll even find one who has played for both programs.

While it’s far from an exact breakdown, per Rivals.com’s recruiting offers, here are the players from both team’s two-deep that had an opportunity to play for both programs.

 

USC
Steven Mitchell*, WR 
Adoree Jackson*, WR/CB
JuJu Smith-Schuster*, WR
Zach Banner*, OL
Damien Mama*, OL
Justin Davis*, RB
Ronald Jones*, RB
Su’a Cravens*, OLB
Porter Gustin*, DE
Michael Hutchings*, MLB
Osa Masina*, LB/TE
Iman Marshall*, CB
Chris Hawkins*, S
Leon McQuay, S
Ykili Ross, S

 

 

NOTRE DAME

Amir Carlisle, WR
Ronnie Stanley*, OT
Tyler Luatua, TE
Alizé Jones*, TE
Equanimeous St. Brown, WR
Jaylon Smith*, LB
KeiVarae Russell*, CB
Cole Luke*, CB
CJ Sanders, WR
Max Redfield*, S

*Top 100 recruit

 

Former Trojans rally USC before trip to South Bend

LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 21:  Interim coach Clay Helton of the USC Trojans watches his players, including John Akiba #36, warm up before playing the Fresno State Bulldogs in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl at Sam Boyd Stadium on December 21, 2013 in Las Vegas, Nevada. USC won 45-20.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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Before traveling to Notre Dame, a group of ex-players arrived on campus to show support for the current team and interim head coach Clay Helton. Yesterday, it was university president Max Nikias and athletic director Pat Haden at practice. Today, former standouts like Keyshawn Johnson and Willie McGinest spoke to the team after practice.

Thanks to USC’s practice being open to the media, we got a listen to the motivational tactics coming from former players, including this talk from Helton.

The last time Haden fired a coach midseason, he replaced Lane Kiffin (who was hired by former AD Mike Garrett) with defensive line coach Ed Orgeron. The feisty Cajun lifted the spirits of a team that was in a tailspin, rallying USC to a 6-2 finish to the regular season that included an upset of No. 4 Stanford, with losses to only Notre Dame and crosstown rival UCLA.

USC hopes that Helton is capable of capturing the same magic, salvaging a season that started with the Trojans in the Top 10, but had them drop two of their first three conference games. Helton will certainly earn every victory he gets. The upcoming USC schedule features three-straight ranked teams, then continues with Pac-12 conference play against Arizona, Colorado and Oregon before welcoming UCLA to the Coliseum.

 

Irish haven’t forgotten embarrassment in Coliseum

Cody Kessler
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In a 2014 season where USC quarterback Cody Kessler lit up the stat sheet, one game stands above the rest—his decimation of Notre Dame. The Pac-12’s most accurate quarterback had a career day against an undermanned Irish defense, completing 80 percent of his 40 throws, gashing the Irish for 372 yards and a ridiculous six touchdown passes.

While the current Irish defense barely resembles the group that was forced to take the field last season, it’s pretty clear that this Notre Dame football team won’t forget that afternoon in the Coliseum any time soon.

“It was an embarrassment. I think it’s fair to say that,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly acknowledged on Tuesday.

On what Kelly called a “red-letter day,” the Irish were blown out against USC, a place they last visited to clinch a trip to the BCS Championship game. Last year’s matchup had the Trojans’ immensely talented group of skill players exposing Notre Dame’s ability to cover—and tackle—in space. This year, some of the same players that were on the field for that blowout, will need to step their game up.

Safeties Elijah Shumate and Matthias Farley played a significant part of that game. Max Redfield did as well, until a rib injury pulled him from action. After playing strong football all season against a difficult schedule, Cole Luke had his worst Saturday of the season. Devin Butler struggled in coverage as well, forced into action after Cody Riggs’ foot wouldn’t let him answer the bell.

Yes, KeiVarae Russell will be playing this year, a huge addition to a group that needs his athleticism and competitiveness on the field. And more importantly, Notre Dame’s front seven will actually look like their front seven. But after watching Washington successfully disrupt Kessler and force him into one of his career-worst performances, the Irish will attempt to do the same.

“We saw what he did against us last year when we weren’t able to generate any pressure against him. It was shooting fish in a barrel against us,” Kelly said. “So I think it’s very important that we get him moving his feet, but I think that that’s probably every defensive coordinator’s objective in every game, to get the quarterback out of rhythm.

“He’s hard to do that with. So we have to launch a plan that certainly gets him out of rhythm. If you can do that, you can have success with any quarterback, not just Cody Kessler.”

The Trojans are missing starting center Max Tuerk, an All-Pac 12 standout. Coming off a bye week, USC played one of its worst games up front, though their running game as remarkably stout, averaging 6.3 yards per carry when you take out Kessler’s sack yardage.

The battle in the trenches will help dictate how the Irish do against the pass, the two units sharing responsibility for slowing down a USC offense that has struggled to reach its potential at times this season. But ultimately, the secondary’s ability to stay in coverage will determine how aggressive the Irish can be in their pursuit of Kessler.

“If you can play man coverage, you get a lot more variety, and certainly we feel like we can play man,” Kelly said. “That allows us to do some more things, and we feel Cole and KeiVarae are capable of doing that.”

After living through one of the ugliest Saturdays in recent Irish football memory, the Irish expect an better outcome this weekend. But they’ll have to slow down a scary offense to achieve it.