Pregame Six Pack: Shamrocks and Sun Devils

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A Shamrock Series game is usually known for its alternate location and nontraditional uniforms. But when Notre Dame and Arizona State battle in primetime on Saturday night, it might also decide the season. As the Irish take on Todd Graham’s dangerous Sun Devils squad, Notre Dame is likely playing for their BCS lives. A win pushes the Irish to 4-2 heading into their bye week. It’ll likely also reinvigorate the Irish before taking on a wayward USC team, optimistically leading them into a stretch of football games that could get the Irish finally playing up to their potential.

Of course, after watching the Sun Devils blow USC out in the second half, Las Vegas has the Irish as almost a touchdown underdog tomorrow night, leading to the very real possibility that Notre Dame could be .500 after Saturday night, a disappointment at every level, with a bumpy road still ahead.

While the Irish aren’t ranked after two September losses, there are still national implications to Saturday night’s game. It’s time for the pregame six pack. Here are six tidbits, leftovers, fun facts, and miscellaneous musings before the Irish take on the Sun Devils.

***

After two tight games with Todd Graham, Brian Kelly is going to need to bring his best on Saturday night. 

Neither guy wearing the headset is playing the game. (It’s tough to call what Graham wears on the sideline a headset, but you get the idea.) Yet the chess match between Brian Kelly and Todd Graham is one to watch. Both Graham and Kelly are well regarded coaches, with both thought to be incredibly ambitious. That ambition has put both coaches in some tough spaces, with Graham making more than a few eyebrow raising moves in his career, walking away from two head coaching jobs after just a single season on the job. Kelly is equally ambitious, leaving two programs before their season was over and shocking many when he spoke with the Philadelphia Eagles just a day after losing the national championship.

After Graham stole a victory away from Kelly when Tulsa came in and shocked the Irish, Kelly won ugly at Pittsburgh. The rubber match is a game both coaches desperately need, and one that’ll likely define the trajectory of each team’s season.

***

Playing another defense that’s going to challenge him with man coverage, can Tommy Rees get back on track?

It’s been a tough couple weeks for Tommy Rees. No stat has defined that more than his completion percentage, with Rees struggling to even sniff 50 percent passing against Michigan State and Oklahoma. Heading into the season as the school’s most accurate passer in its history, Rees’s numbers just don’t make sense, even when you consider that the Irish have pushed the ball down field more aggressively than they had ever in the past.

On his weekly appearance on SiriusXM’s College Football Playbook with Jack Arute and former UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel, Kelly was asked pointedly about Rees’s struggles, and he gave this window into the varying reasons.

“It’s all man to man coverage, the last two weeks has been straight man to man. Part of it has been, you’re not getting any cupcake throws,” Kelly told Arute and Neuheisel. “So he’s got to be able to connect at probably a 55 percent completion ratio.

“In our estimation, he missed his last seven in a row late in the game on some basic stuff. He had three of them knocked down,  two of them on poor routes, and one of them where we got pushed back into the pocket. We’re talking about a little bit of everything. Not being accurate enough in man to man coverage. We’re talking about a number of young receivers not getting open in man coverage, not doing a good job of stair stepping or coming off rubs or making tough catches in man to man coverage, and that’s all adding up to a poor completion percentage rating.”

Here’s how Rees has faired against Todd Graham’s defense:

33 of 54 for 334 4 TD, 3 INT
24 of 41 for 215 1 TD, 1 INT

That’s a 60 percent completion number, which falls into the accuracy range Kelly wants for his quarterback. But if Rees is throwing more than 40 times on Saturday night, the Irish are in trouble.

***

Slowing down Taylor Kelly and the Sun Devils offense is key. But keep an eye on the hidden yardage as well. 

In a game where some Sun Devils players thought they could’ve put up 80 points, a big key to Arizona State’s 62-point explosion was field position. Todd Graham’s troops started in plus territory three times against USC, while the Trojans never started on the Sun Devil’s side of the fifty.

There’s a stark contrast in field position for Graham’s squads when it comes to wins and losses. In victories, the average starting field position has been the team’s own 37.4 yard line, while in losses its been their own 23.7.

As Kyle Brindza gets more comfortable handling kickoffs and punts, with Alex Wulfeck working in as a situational punter, forcing the Sun Devils to go the distance on their scoring drives will be key if the Irish are going to keep ASU’s points down.

***

Hidden Yardage is cool and all, but getting off the field is imperative. 

Apologies to Brindza and Wulfeck, but neither guy is getting the game ball this Saturday night for his punting. If the Irish are going to win this football game they’re going to need to get off the field on third down.

Right now, Notre Dame’s defense ranks a wretched 91st in the country on third downs, allowing opponents to convert at better than a 42 percent clip. That’s helped opponents extend drives, score points, and win football games.

Tim Prister of IrishIllustrated.com took a look at one of the big differences between this defense and last year’s edition, with this group already giving up ten touchdown drives of 75-yards or more.

No statistic is more startling than the number of long scoring drives surrendered by the Irish in five games this year. Temple equaled the number of 75-yard touchdown drives from the previous season in the first half of the first game.

Michigan added four more lengthy touchdown drives of 77, 75, 78 and 75 yards. Purdue had a pair of 75-yarders. Michigan State added another. Oklahoma had two, including an 88-yard drive late in the first half.

In 20 quarters of football so far this season, Notre Dame’s defense has allowed 10 – repeat, 10 – touchdown drives of 75 yards or more. Michigan State also had a 15-play, 75-yard field-goal drive and Oklahoma had a nine-play 65-yard field-goal drive.

A lot of factors go into these struggles — pass rush issues, struggles with man coverage, ill-timed blitzes. But Kelly thinks his defense is close. We’ll find out Saturday night if he’s right.

***

As the season rounds into its second act, freshmen are starting to step forward.

Don’t look know, but that heralded recruiting class Notre Dame landed is going to be called on to start helping win some football games. While some expect Brian Kelly to plug and play elite recruits, that just hasn’t been this coaching staff’s m.o. while in South Bend. Yet slowly but surely, a group many thought was among the best in the country on paper have started to make their presence felt on the field as well.

Let’s take a look at the freshmen that’ll likely be playing a key role on Saturday night:

Jaylon Smith — Starting OLB will carry the load for much of the game with Ben Councell suspended for the first half.
Tarean Folston — Atkinson’s breakout was great, but Folston might have moved into the No. 2 role.
Will Fuller — He’s had catches now in back to back games.
Isaac Rochelle — With Sheldon Day still struggling with an ankle injury, Rochelle’s been called into action early.
Cole Luke — The team’s starting nickel back, Luke will be facing a dangerous offense that plays just ten minutes from his Arizona home.
Corey Robinson — Averaging over 16 yards on his four catches. Is a red zone look coming next?
Steve Elmer — Already a versatile substitute on a group with plenty of depth.
James Onwualu — Yet to make his first catch, Onwualu has been physical blocking and on special teams.
Devin Butler — Another freshman that’s climbed the depth chart, Butler’s getting significant reps in coverage packages.
Max Redfield — The fourth safety on the two-deep, Redfield’s close to seeing the field.

***

Stanford supplied the recipe for beating Arizona State. Now the Irish need to try and replicate it. 

Three fourth quarter touchdowns made Arizona State’s 42-28 loss to Stanford look much more respectable. But if you’re looking for a recipe for victory, David Shaw’s team provided it. Now it’ll be up to the Irish to try and pull it off themselves.

Step One: Get off to a good start.

Believe it or not, Stanford didn’t score on their first possession. (They missed a 51-yard field goal.) But they did on their second. And their third. And kept their foot on the gas with four first half touchdowns.

Step Two: Make plays behind the line of scrimmage.

The Cardinal defense had three sacks of Taylor Kelly at the Farm, while also chipping in an absurd ten TFLs. (The Irish have 20 on the season, good for 104th in the country.)

Step Three: Run the football to win the game.

After jumping out to a 29-point halftime lead, Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan only threw the ball five times in the second half, milking 19 minutes off the clock. Stanford was one carry away from hitting the 50 mark. If Notre Dame can run the ball 40 times Saturday night, they’ll have won the football game.

Step Four: Get Arizona State to turn the football over.

In addition to getting to the quarterback and making plays behind the line of scrimmage, the Cardinal picked off Kelly twice. The first set up Stanford deep in ASU territory and led to the team’s first touchdown. (The second ended the game.)

Against an offense as explosive as the Sun Devil’s, winning the turnover battle will be key.

 

Notre Dame’s defensive line recruiting surge continues with Texas four-star’s commitment

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Defensive line coach Mike Elston predicted Notre Dame would enjoy great recruiting success along its defensive line this cycle. With Saturday’s commitment of consensus four-star defensive end NaNa Osafo-Mensah (Nolan Catholic High School; Fort Worth, Texas), Elston can consider his boasts backed up.

“I haven’t had a stronger group of underclassmen that I’m recruiting than I have this year in 2019,” Elston said on Feb. 7, the most-recent National Signing Day.

“This could be the best defensive line haul we’ve ever had here.”

Osafo-Mensah is the third consensus four-star defensive end to join the Irish class of 2019 and the highest-rated of the trio, joining Howard Cross (St. Joseph H.S.; Montvale, N.J.) and Hunter Spears (Sachse; Texas). Per rivals.com, Osafo-Mensah is the No. 160 prospect in the country and the No. 17 in Texas. The recruiting service lists Osafo-Mensah as an outside linebacker, and the No. 6 outside linebacker in the country, but his 6-foot-4 frame holding about 220 pounds projects as a pass-rushing defensive end in the future.

Osafo-Mensah is not only explosive, but he has the length of a top-flight quarterback hound. Obviously, he remains a bit light as he finishes his junior year in high school.

Osafo-Mensah chose Notre Dame over his homestate Texas, with Oklahoma and Texas A&M also pursuing him strongly. Just about every college football power offered him a scholarship, notably including Alabama, Michigan and USC.

With the Irish, he becomes the 10th commit in the class, including consensus-four star defensive tackle Jacob Lacey (South Warren; Bowling Green, Ky.). Clearly the defensive line is an emphasis for Elston, defensive coordinator Clark Lea and Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly.

If not for the changes to NCAA recruiting rules in the last cycle, Osafo-Mensah and the rest may still be in the early parts of the recruitment process. First of all, December’s early signing period gave the coaching staff a head start on chasing the next set of recruits.

“A lot of it is because I’ve been able to put [the class of 2018] to bed and get moving on the ‘19s and go visit in their schools all throughout January,” Elston said.

Those impressions led to Osafo-Mensah’s official visit last month. Before the new rules, he would not have been able to take a paid-for trip to campus until the fall.

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 85 George Takacs, tight end, early-enrolled freshman

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-6, 245 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Early-enrolled freshman with four years of eligibility remaining, including the 2018 season.
Depth chart: One could argue Takacs is the second option as an H-back blocker behind sophomore Brock Wright, but the arrival of Auburn transfer fullback Keenan Sweeney could diminish the immediate need for Takacs in that regard.
Recruiting: A rivals.com four-star recruit and No. 15 tight end in the class, the U.S. Army All-American chose Notre Dame over Georgia, Wisconsin and homestate Florida, also holding offers from much of the southeast, including Florida State, Tennessee and Auburn.

QUOTE(S)
A meniscus tear before spring practice started cut short Takacs’ early impressions. Thus, the only available insights into Takacs trace back to National Signing Day proceedings.

“George is already here doing a great job,” Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long said on Feb. 7. “… The good thing I got to see this year with George, though, is he was split out wide and did a lot of good things in the passing game.”

WHAT WAS SAID WHEN TAKACS’ NATIONAL LETTER OF INTENT ARRIVED
“The target Takacs presents to his quarterback makes him an intriguing possibility all on its own. With reach to match his 6-foot-6 frame, Takacs can get to nearly any ball in his vicinity, making up for a lack of top-end speed.”

2018 OUTLOOK
Takacs will likely be healthy before the fall, if not already. He underwent surgery for the bucket tear in his cartilage, which typically reduces recovery time from the injury. Nonetheless, the step back limited the positive effects of Takacs’ early enrollment.

The most logical result of that is Takacs spends the season on the sidelines, getting healthy and getting up to college fitness levels.

DOWN THE ROAD
Long’s praise of Takacs’ ability in the passing game indicates the tight end may be more of a complete player than he was originally recruited to be. On the surface, Takacs looks to be the successor to Wright as an attached tight end, strengthening the Notre Dame running game.

If he can do both that and catch passes, even if only short routes in the flat or on bootlegs, Takacs will fit right into Long’s multiple tight end schemes. Those formations make it so every tight end on the Irish roster matters. Three rotate in frequently, making the fourth tight end actually within the two-deep depth chart. When fifth-year Nic Weishar runs out of eligibility and senior Alizé Mack ponders the NFL, Takacs will be that fourth tight end, at the absolute least, with classmate Tommy Tremble the third tight end, especially if he sees action this year while Takacs reaches full health.

NOTRE DAME 99-to-2:
No. 99 Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle, senior
No. 97 Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle, senior
No. 95 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 94 Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 93 (theoretically) Ja’Mion Franklin, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 91 Ade Ogundeji, defensive end, junior
No. 90 (theoretically) Tommy Tremble, tight end, incoming freshman
No. 89 Brock Wright, tight end, sophomore
No. 88 Javon McKinley, receiver, junior
No. 87 Michael Young, receiver, sophomore
No. 86 Alizé Mack, tight end, senior

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 86 Alizé Mack, tight end

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-4 ¾, 244 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Senior with two seasons of eligibility remaining, including 2018, though Notre Dame is sometimes stingy in extending fifth-year offers to players who missed a season due to academic issues.
Depth chart: Mack will start as the detached tight end with sophomore Cole Kmet now another vertical threat at the position.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star recruit and U.S. Army All-American, Mack originally committed to UCLA before opting for Notre Dame.

CAREER TO DATE
One would be generous to describe Mack’s career as “up-and-down.” Aside from a 45-yard reception at Temple as a freshman in 2015, Mack’s actual play has hardly gotten off the ground, partly due to an academic suspension that cost him his sophomore season.

Last year, Mack made only 19 catches for 166 yards and one touchdown in 10 games, starting six of them. More notable than the plays he did make, Mack missed three games entirely, all with concerning reason. A concussion kept Mack sidelined against Wake Forest. He then did not line up for any snaps in the season finale at Stanford, though he was there and, as far as is known, healthy. Less ambiguously, Mack was suspended for an “internal issue” before the Citrus Bowl.

That distinction ruled out another academic concern, but the disciplinary matter still stands out as another hiccup for Mack’s progression.

2015: 13 games, five starts, 13 receptions for 190 yards.
2017: 10 games, six starts, 19 receptions for 166 yards and one touchdown.

QUOTE(S)
Despite his repeated drops and rare instances of separation from coverage in 2017, Mack’s physical gifts have hardly been questioned. His maturity, consistency and eligibility, however, have often been disputed and subsequently defended.

“As it relates to Alizé Mack, a lot of things were areas that he had to clean up off the field, which he has,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said at the start of spring practice. “He has not been on any lists. I’m really proud of him and what he’s done. He knows he’s got to go prove it now. He’s got to be consistent as a ball catcher. He’s got to be great in-line as well as detached.

“He’s got some good players around him that he’s got to go and beat out because he’s coming off a suspension. He’s very humble. Like I said, he’s done all the little things the right way for us off the field. His attention to detail has been great. Good for him. Now he’s got to go put that together.”

As spring progressed, Kelly’s assessment of Mack sounded quite similar. Mack had performed well and slowly regained at least some of the coaching staff’s trust.

“He’s been more consistent. … From a traits standpoint, he lost the opportunity to play in the bowl game and all of that was based upon understanding how important it is to do all the things the right way all the time.

“I’m happy for him that he’s showing more consistency when he does. The jury is still out there. He still has a ways to go.”

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“More than [former Notre Dame receiver Equanimeous] St. Brown receiving an appropriately high number of targets, the biggest hurdle between Mack and impressive statistics will indeed be his blocking and overall attitude. The Irish have other options at tight end to contribute to [offensive coordinator Chip] Long’s preference for two tight ends. If Mack does not earn the playing time in all aspects of the game, he will not receive it.

“… The excitement around Mack this spring may have exceeded realistic expectations. In that regard, Mack is set up for perceived failure in 2017. If he matched the above theoretical stat line [of 55 catches for 750 yards and four touchdowns], some would lament the fact that he scored only four times.”

2018 OUTLOOK
Mack’s off-field missteps color any forward-looking projections, but his lack of production when on the field should minimize any expectations just as much. Notre Dame could have desperately used his play-making abilities throughout 2017, especially considering the inconsistency offered at quarterback.

Instead, Mack offered little but sporadic glimpses of what he could be.

The senior could be a game-changing utility. His four catches for 37 yards in the Blue-Gold Game on April 21 would be an excellent baseline. When Irish senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush found Mack for 15 yards on the very first play from scrimmage, it showed a devotion to finding that baseline by both Wimbush and the coaching staff. Wimbush targeted his classmate an additional three times in the exhibition, all completed.

Looking for that level of a floor moving forward may be the most practical path. Extending those stats across a full season, Mack would make 52 catches for 451 yards.

What would be most notable about such a season? Mack would appear in all 13 games, just as he did his freshman season. Furthermore, two of his four spring exhibition catches were for first downs. Accounting for 26 first downs in a season would be about 10 percent of the times the offense moves the chains via any method.

DOWN THE ROAD
Mack’s physical abilities alone will make the NFL consider him, be it after this season or following 2019. Whether or not he returns for a fifth year is a different question altogether. If Kmet plays as well in 2018 as this spring’s praise forecasts, then the combination of him and Mack putting defenses in compromising positions for two full seasons would be the equivalent of Long’s ideal form of an offense.

Kmet’s emergence would also diminish the need for Mack to return, along with classmate Brock Wright and two freshmen tight ends in George Takacs and Tommy Tremble.

Mack’s past academic issues will not entirely preclude the offer of a fifth year, but they further complicate the conversation.

NOTRE DAME 99-to-2:
No. 99 Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle, senior
No. 97 Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle, senior
No. 95 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 94 Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 93 (theoretically) Ja’Mion Franklin, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 91 Ade Ogundeji, defensive end, junior
No. 90 (theoretically) Tommy Tremble, tight end, incoming freshman
No. 89 Brock Wright, tight end, sophomore
No. 88 Javon McKinley, receiver, junior
No. 87 Michael Young, receiver, sophomore

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 87 Michael Young, receiver

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Listed Measurements: 5-foot-10, 192 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Sophomore with three seasons of eligibility remaining, including 2018.
Depth chart: Young should start as the boundary receiver, a position where he can best use his speed and strong hands to challenge an isolated cornerback.
Recruiting: A consensus three-star recruit, Young was one of only two receivers to arrive at Notre Dame in the class of 2017, a late de-commitment leading to the subsequent addition of Jafar Armstrong. With Armstrong now a running back/receiver hybrid, Young is the sole full-time pass-catcher left in the class, an important fact to remember as four strongly-recruited freshmen receivers join the ranks.

CAREER TO DATE
Young played in all 13 games as a freshman, but finished with only four catches for 18 yards and one touchdown, adding one rush for six yards and 18 kick return yards on one chance. As injuries depleted the Irish receivers corps before the Citrus Bowl, Young’s opportunity presented itself. He made the relative most of it, catching the touchdown pass from Ian Book which first tied LSU in the fourth quarter.

QUOTE(S)
While Young saw playing time throughout his freshman season, it took some time for him to produce on the field. Notre Dame receivers coach Del Alexander pointed to a bit of a freshman wall as having slowed Young between preseason practice and his late-season development.

“[Young] showed his talents early in [2017 preseason] camp,” Alexander said in late March. “Sometimes it is hard to sustain the drive and the grit to get to the end of the season. He was able to self-evaluate, take a good look in the mirror, say I have more, and he was capable of doing this. He was able in the second half of the season to push again and to find opportunities.”

That freshman wall was both a physical and a mental hindrance.

“He wasn’t as open to coaching, he didn’t see things as clearly,” Alexander said. “As time went on and he became more and more eager to play, he started to listen a little more, and that helped him see more. That freed his game up where he was able to make more plays.”

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“Notre Dame enjoys depth at the receiver position. It will be difficult for Young to crack that this season. Defaulting to a season preserving eligibility seems too simple an answer, even if it is unlikely Young contributes to the offense in a meaningful manner.

“Special teams coordinator Brian Polian publicly wished for more options for his coverage units this spring. Young could help fill that void, and while he is spending the eligibility, chip in offensively in spot duty.

“The slot might be the thinnest of the Irish receiving positions, especially if the cloud around [former Notre Dame receiver Kevin] Stepherson turns out to be more than idle speculation. At that point, having Young in the rotation could prove useful.”

2018 OUTLOOK
With the exception of the incoming freshmen, specifically Braden Lenzy, Young provides the best and arguably singular top-end speed among the Irish receivers. Senior Chris Finke is very quick and senior Miles Boykin has underrated burst, but Young’s ability to alter an opposing secondary’s coverage is unparalleled at this point. Notre Dame will need that.

Projecting specific statistical benchmarks is difficult since they depend so much on the Irish quarterbacks’ development. More importantly than predicting a floor (perhaps 25 catches for 400 yards and five touchdowns), a consistent season would help with the passers’ progress. A year ago, Notre Dame’s receivers were just as up-and-down as quarterback Brandon Wimbush was. If Young can prove to be a productive option week-in and week-out, that safety valve could do wonders for the passing game as a whole.

Admittedly, the same thing can, should and will be said about Boykin, although with a higher floor considering his advantage in experience and greater spring praise from the Irish coaches.

DOWN THE ROAD
Few receivers end up as three-year starters. Young may have that ahead of him. By the tail end of that, he would be one of the most-established receivers during Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly’s entire tenure.

A sub-six-foot receiver with three seasons of starts? That sounds a lot like TJ Jones, who racked up 37 starts across his four seasons, finishing with 2,429 yards and 19 touchdowns on 181 receptions in 51 games. His senior season is often overlooked despite its stellar nature, catching 70 passes for 1,108 yards and nine touchdowns.

If Young ever puts together a year like that, it will be noticed. That may be an ideal scenario, but a 40-start career, be it that actual number or only figuratively-speaking, will produce numbers at some point or another.

NOTRE DAME 99-to-2:
No. 99 Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle, senior
No. 97 Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle, senior
No. 95 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 94 Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 93 (theoretically) Ja’Mion Franklin, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 91 Ade Ogundeji, defensive end, junior
No. 90 (theoretically) Tommy Tremble, tight end, incoming freshman
No. 89 Brock Wright, tight end, sophomore
No. 88 Javon McKinley, receiver, junior