The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Pitt

66 Comments

A second viewing of Notre Dame’s 15-12 victory doesn’t add new perspective to Saturday’s win. The maddening inconsistencies that have plagued this football team still exist, rearing their ugly heads when you’d least expect it. Two turnovers, a missed field goal, and too many penalties all combine to give you a squad that has understandably driven Irish fans nuts.

At one moment, Notre Dame looks like a BCS-level team, capable of moving the ball by air or ground in big chunks, shut down quarterbacks and running backs with an impressive group of defensive players. At others, the offense is a turnover machine, the special teams are horrendous, and the secondary needs a trip back to Football 101, where covering receivers and looking for the football aren’t mutually exclusive exercises.

But that’s life at 2-2. And after two head-scratching losses, the Irish’s two least impressive offensive outputs are wins that Notre Dame absolutely had to have. Like it or not, that’s progress. And while it certainly hasn’t been pretty, Brian Kelly‘s job isn’t to win games with style points, it’s to win games. With a proven track record of getting his teams to improve throughout the year  — seen last year with the Irish’s November to remember — there’s every reason to believe that this team will work through the troubles that ail them.

A winning streak is a winning streak, and the Irish’s win in Pittsburgh was a must have. Let’s take a look at the good, bad and ugly of Notre Dame’s 15-12 victory.

GOOD

After struggling in short yardage situations, the Irish offensive line came up huge. In a game where the Irish needed to dominate the line of scrimmage, Ed Warinner‘s guys up front did some serious work in the trenches, winning every short-yardage battle they were presented with.

The Irish were 8 for 8 in third or fourth and short (three yards or less):

1st Quarter

3rd and 2 — Cierre Wood runs for 2 yards.
3rd and 2 — Cierre Wood runs for 2 yards.
3rd and 3 — Rees hits Michael Floyd for 5 yards (Defensive holding call accepted).

2nd Quarter

3rd and 3 — Rees hits Tyler Eifert for 6 yards.

3rd Quarter

3rd and 3 — Jonas Gray runs for 4 yards.
4th and 1 — Tommy Rees runs for 1 yard.

4th Quarter

3rd and 2 — Cierre Wood runs for 3 yards
4th and 1 — Tommy Rees sneaks for 1 yard.

While Irish fans watching on TV weren’t as confident, Kelly paid his offensive lineman the ultimate compliment when he trusted them to end the game on Tommy Rees‘ sneak. Interior linemen Braxston CaveChris Watt and Trevor Robinson came through, even if they only made it by half a football.

A few other things to file under the good category:

*Jonas Gray‘s burst around the corner, and confidence in the open field. I can’t say enough about the 79-yard touchdown, and after a tough first carry where Gray made a poor read on a well set-up run play, Gray turned the game on its head with his game-breaking touchdown.

* Punter Ben Turk also had his best ballgame of the season, putting three punts inside the Pitt 20 and launching another ball 47 yards. It’s hard to get too excited about a 37.2 yard punting average, but Turk did his job, and for the first time didn’t mis-kick any of his punts.

* While he didn’t break it for a touchdown, George Atkinson had another nice day returning kickoffs. His 36-yard return helped the Irish start with good field position in the second quarter.

* Repeating yesterday’s thoughts, Darius Fleming played a dominant football game at the line of scrimmage.

THE BAD

If you’re wondering what life looks like after Michael Floyd, it might not be all that pretty. With Pitt putting two men on Floyd, the Irish couldn’t take advantage of a defense that came into the game ranked 119th against the pass. Credit the defensive game plan put together by Todd Graham and his coaching staff, but if the Irish are going to keep winning football games, they’re going to need to get more out of Theo Riddick and TJ Jones.

Riddick had a quiet six catches yesterday and Jones was held to three catches for 31 yards. Whether it means giving Robby Toma more snaps or forcing the ball into Riddick earlier to get him involved, the Irish need to get production from somebody other than Floyd and tight end Tyler Eifert. It was a disheartening step back for the Irish offense, especially against a group that had shown serious coverage lapses when they were tested.

More importantly, the Irish have to decide what kind of offense they want to be. With Rees at the helm, they aren’t able to run zone read plays where the quarterback is a running option. But that doesn’t mean they need to be a read and react offense that assesses what the defense gives and counter-punches. The Irish have already shown that while that works in spurts, it also puts way too much pressure on a young quarterback, and taking what the defense gives you only works when you don’t have a penchant for throwing interceptions.

The Irish have one of their most potent rushing attacks in nearly a decade. They also have a wide receiving corps that goes as many as five or six deep. That sets up perfectly for a push-the-pace offense that dictates terms to the defense, not the other way around. The Irish aren’t going to be an explosive offense if they play horizontal football, dinking and dunking their way down the field. And while Rees can’t beat you with a QB keeper, he throws a great ball up the seam, showing more than enough arm strength and timing to eat up chunks of field vertically.

THE UGLY

This football team still makes too many head-scratching mistakes. This week’s culprits were on special teams, where the Irish nearly cost themselves a football game with a roughing the punter penalty on sophomore Austin Collinsworth, giving Pitt a much needed first down on the Panthers’ only touchdown drive of the afternoon.

Kicking from their own end zone, Collinsworth tried to make a big play with a punt block up the middle, but dove straight into the legs of punter Matt Yoklic, who sold the refs on a 15-yard personal foul call. Whether you disagree with the refs call or not (Collinsworth barely touched the punter), the Irish haven’t shown themselves capable of making game-changing plays that require sound execution, and Mike Elston‘s unit would’ve been better served setting up for an easy return, especially considering Pitt’s mediocre kickers. Collinsworth is one of the Irish’s best special teamers, but coming right up the middle he made the cardinal sin of diving straight at the kicker and instead of the Irish starting with the ball at midfield, Tino Sunseri drove his team for their only score.

While the punt return game continues to be mediocre with John Goodman handling returns, the Irish field goal unit missed its second kick in three attempts, this one pushed wide right by David Ruffer after long-snapper Jordan Cowart‘s snap came back as a knuckleball. Cowart’s only job is to snap, and he’s been erratic this season on both punts and kicks, a real area of concern for the Irish, who need more certainty from all their special teams units.

***

Possibly the best part of this column is that the Irish come up with a win in the ugly category. The Irish were able to win a football game without playing anywhere near their best. It’s certainly not the kind of thing people were expecting four games into the season, but after starting 0-2, the Irish simply need to keep picking up Ws, regardless of how maddening it can be.

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Early NFL departures hit Georgia, Michigan and Stanford hardest

Getty Images
8 Comments

A sign of a strong program is one that loses players to the NFL before they exhaust eligibility. In that vein, Notre Dame lost a consensus first-team All-American cornerback, its leading receiver and a long-time tease of a tight end. The last of those (Alizé Mack) was never expected back for a fifth season; replacing Miles Boykin’s production is certainly within reason; and a consensus first-team All-American should be expected to take the route junior Julian Love has.

Even with that expectation, losing Love — and to a lesser extent, Boykin — alters the natural roster cycle, the inherent design intended during recruiting. Reloading is always the hope, the next intention, but very rarely is the young backup comparable to the near professional, even by the end of the coming season.

Nonetheless, the Irish got off easy this cycle compared to four of their 2019 opponents …

GEORGIA: Junior running back Elijah Holyfield, the Bulldogs’ second-leading rusher, departs after gaining 1,018 rushing yards with seven touchdowns on 6.4 yards per carry this season. Frankly, that is the least of Georgia’s losses. Three of quarterback Jake Fromm’s four favorite targets will leave eligibility on the figurative table:

— Junior receiver Riley Ridley: 44 catches for 570 yards and nine touchdowns in 2018.
— Junior receiver Mecole Hardman: 34 catches for 532 yards and seven touchdowns.
— Junior tight end Isaac Nauta: 30 catches for 430 yards and three touchdowns.

Without running back Karan Higdon, Michigan will presumably rely on its passing game more in 2019, quarterback Shea Patterson’s second season as a Wolverine. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

MICHIGAN: The Wolverines got good news when quarterback Shea Patterson opted to return for 2019, but losing leading-rusher Karan Higdon (1,178 yards, 10 touchdowns, 5.3 average) will be an issue head coach Jim Harbaugh undoubtedly hoped to avoid. Junior tight end Zach Gentry, Patterson’s third-most prolific target with 32 catches for 514 yards and two scores, will also head to the next level.

On the flip side, Harbaugh could have hoped linebacker Devin Bush (team-leading 80 tackles with 9.5 for loss including five sacks), defensive end Rashan Gary (44 tackles with seven for loss including 3.5 sacks) or linebacker David Long (17 tackles with one interception) might return, but no such luck for Michigan.

Duke junior quarterback Daniel Jones will head to the NFL after his third season as a starter, immediately lowering the Blue Devils’ 2019 expectations. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

DUKE: Junior linebacker Joe Giles-Harris paced the Blue Devils with 81 tackles, including seven for loss with one sack, doing so in only nine games. But losing Giles-Harris is hardly the concern for Duke. The decision to turn pro from quarterback Daniel Jones is.

In his third year as a starter, the junior fought through a broken collarbone to still play in 11 games in 2018, completing 60.5 percent of his passes for 2,674 yards and 22 touchdowns with nine interceptions. He added 319 rushing yards and three touchdowns.

Jones’ decision may come as a surprise, but it is one that should work out well for both him and Notre Dame. Some mock drafts project him as a top-10 pick. In a draft light on quarterbacks — partly because Oregon’s Justin Herbert returned for another season, yet already somewhat counteracted by the Monday draft entry from Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray — Jones could end up being the third or fourth passer picked.

BOSTON COLLEGE: The Eagles will say farewell to junior cornerback Hemp Cheevers after he notched seven interceptions this season, returning one for a touchdown, to go along with 39 tackles.

STANFORD: This will seem like the Cardinal lost a lot to the NFL draft, but it could have been worse: As the departures mounted, so did speculation junior quarterback K.J. Costello might follow them. He opted not to.

Stanford will be without running back Bryce Love after his prodigious two seasons as the starter. Consider that a loss akin to the Irish Love, the inevitable price of enjoying the success in the first place.

Junior receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside will capitalize on his breakout season of 1,059 yards and 14 touchdowns, depriving Costello of his favorite jump-ball threat.

Junior tight end Kaden Smith will also head to the next level, in large part thanks to his 47 catches for 635 yards and two touchdowns this past season.

Louisville, New Mexico, Virginia, Bowling Green, USC, Virginia Tech and Navy all did not lose anyone early or pseudo-early to the NFL draft.

Autry Denson leaves Notre Dame to take over at Charleston Southern

Getty Images
15 Comments

Notre Dame’s all-time leading rusher will no longer coach its current running backs. After four seasons at his alma mater, Autry Denson has been named the head coach at Charleston Southern, an FCS-level program, per a release Monday afternoon.

The second-longest tenured coach on Brian Kelly’s staff (behind only defensive line coach Mike Elston; tied with cornerbacks coach Todd Lyght), Denson had produced quality Irish backs, peaking with Josh Adams’ 1,430 rushing yards in 2017, leading an offense that averaged 269.5 rushing yards per game.

“I am so excited for Autry as he embarks on the next step of his coaching career as the new head coach at Charleston Southern,” Kelly said in a statement. “He has done a tremendous job for us during his time at Notre Dame.

“He not only developed our running backs to produce at a high level on the field, but he was also instrumental in their growth as young men.”

Only Adams and C.J. Prosise broke 1,000 rushing yards in a season under Denson, though Dexter Williams gained 995 in only nine games this past season. A third-round pick in 2016, Prosise has spent his entire career with the Seattle Seahawks, while Adams rushed for 511 yards and three touchdowns in his rookie season with the Philadelphia Eagles. Williams should join them in the NFL in April’s draft.

All of them paled in comparison to Denson’s college days, a career that saw him gain 4,318 rushing yards, 43 touchdowns and three seasons of more than 1,000 rushing yards. A 1998 All-American, Denson then spent five years in the NFL.

Denson began his coaching career at the FCS level at Bethune-Cookman in Daytona Beach, Fla., a couple hundred miles up the coast from his hometown outside of Miami.

“I was drawn to Charleston Southern by the vision of this great Christian university of integrating faith in learning, leading and serving,” Denson said. “As a result, I knew this could be a place where I could build and lead a program to honor Christ by operating with character, integrity, transparency, accountability and community.”

Charleston Southern went 5-6 in 2018 under Mark Tucker, who went 11-11 in two seasons before resigning last month.

Program-record 10 early enrollees mark the beginning of Notre Dame’s 2019

Getty Images
12 Comments

With the early enrollment of 10 freshmen, Notre Dame’s 2019 has begun. Usually this sparks a debate among outsiders pitting the advantages of early enrollment against the high school experiences lost. Not only is that an argument held by those far from both the program and high school, but it is also one missing the team-wide edge gained.

With 10 additional scholarship bodies this spring, the Irish will have 77 on hand, as of now. A total of 16 of those will be offensive linemen, including four mid-year arrivals. Whereas there are some springs in which Notre Dame struggles to field a second unit on its offensive line, this March and April will feature three complete units with a body to spare.

There will be just as many defensive lines, with three early enrollees bringing the total up to 14 scholarship players knocking around this spring, though the health of rising sophomore Ja’Mion Franklin (quad) may drop that a notch.

Either way, the Irish will have more depth on hand this spring than usual. The 10 freshmen spurning a semester of high school will still have their chance at added weight room time, meaningful spring repetitions and theoretical development, but those rewards can end up as much hypothetical as realized. It is nearly impossible to predict if running back Kyren Williams (pictured above) will be tangibly more developed in September because he got to South Bend in January. Linebacker Jack Kiser is unlikely to play much as a freshman in either scenario; punter Jay Bramblett is certainly going to no matter what. However, the opportunity to have thorough practices with up-front depth should only enhance the effects of this spring.

None of this will ever become exactly normal, even if Notre Dame has increased its early enrollee numbers from beginning in 2006 to seven last season and now these 10. Of this grouping, some are the first to make this exact leap in their high school’s history. Many private schools do not make such possible. For that matter, this influx speaks to this group in particular, not an overall trend.

It is, nonetheless, a group receiving many of the same praises Irish head coach Brian Kelly has offered in years past and will undoubtedly offer as long as he remains in this post.

“These guys are serious about what they are doing,” Kelly said in December’s early signing period. “They are signing up for getting a degree and winning a national championship. These are not silly guys. These are guys that are really focused on coming here to win a national championship.”

Of course, that is always Kelly’s stated goal. The national championship game may be 364 days from now, but that process has already begun anew.

The 10 early enrollees:
Offensive tackles Quinn Carroll and Andrew Kristofic
Offensive guard John Olmstead
Center Zeke Correll
Running back Kyren Williams
Defensive tackles Jacob Lacey and Hunter Spears
Defensive end NaNa Osafo-Mensah
Linebacker Jack Kiser
Punter Jay Bramblett

Claypool’s return welcome news for Notre Dame

Getty Images
55 Comments

Notre Dame will need to replace only one receiver next season. Chase Claypool announced he will return for his senior season Thursday evening. This may have been long presumed, but less qualified players have entered the NFL draft with eligibility remaining in years past.

With the departure of Miles Boykin, Claypool will become the leading Irish target, the prime candidate to replace Boykin’s 59 catches for 872 yards and eight touchdowns. A year ago, asking Claypool to put up numbers like that would have been a leap beyond reason, but after a 2018 season in which he accounted for 50 catches, 639 yards and four touchdowns, Claypool becoming an offense’s best playmaker is fathomable beyond just pinning those hopes on the Canadian native’s athleticism.

Claypool’s career began as a special teams star, making 11 tackles in 2016, while catching only five passes for 81 yards. An inconsistent sophomore season followed, managing 29 catches for 402 yards and two touchdowns. Those may sound like solid numbers, but they include only five catches in the season’s final four games and only one game with more than four catches all season.

Claypool had at least four catches in seven games this season, all started by junior quarterback Ian Book. With Book throwing, Claypool averaged 4.67 catches and 58.56 yards per game, highlighted by eight for 130 at Northwestern.

Claypool and current senior Chris Finke will presumably both start again, while one of a number of rising sophomores could step in either for Boykin on the boundary or for Claypool on the field side with Claypool possibly taking over boundary duties.

With five catches for 90 yards in his freshman campaign and a skill set similar to Boykin’s, Kevin Austin may be the front-runner for that starting role.