NOTRE DAME’S PLOW HORSES
If that’s a glimpse of what’s to come with Notre Dame’s offensive line, the Irish are going to average in the 35-to-40 point range. That was an impressive display.
Say what you will about Texas. At the present time, that’s a pretty bad football team. But the strength of that group is its interior defensive line. Notre Dame’s offensive line jabbed and jabbed and jabbed early, and then beat the daylights out of that front in the second half.
Personally, that’s the best and most physically effective I’ve seen Nick Martin play in a Notre Dame uniform. He’s healthy, he’s clearly stronger than ever, and he’s added physicality to his ability to play like a technician.
Ronnie Stanley played cat-toying-with-the-mouse games all day against Texas’ defensive ends. They had no chance against him. His combination of size and athleticism clearly is NFL first-round level. When he spreads out in that athletic pass-blocking stance, there aren’t many college defensive ends that are going to get around him.
That was a very impressive debut by Quenton Nelson at left guard. This wasn’t just his first start; it was his first game. I really anticipated him getting caught up in the moment and playing ineffectively at times. Kelly has talked about him controlling his emotions, and I thought Alex Bars might see some early action.
Nelson never gave Bars a chance. If he wasn’t assignment sound, Nelson simply hit somebody, pushed somebody, pulled somebody, leaned on somebody or fell on somebody. If Nelson battled nerves, his response was to play aggressively every play, up to and through the whistle.
Whenever there was a pile of players trying to bring down an Irish running back, Nelson (and usually several other offensive linemen) were right there to aid the cause by pushing or leaning on the pile.
Notre Dame’s game plan had Nelson pulling/on the run frequently. It must be an alarming site for an opposing defender to see that big lug coming ‘round the bend. He’s as wide as a garage door and you know he’s going to attack you aggressively. Yet Nelson did a tremendous job of not lunging and ending up on the ground. He stayed on his feet and bulldozed all night.
He missed a pulling block on a one-yard loss by Prosise, and then on the next play, he helped spring Prosise for a nine-yard gain as Nelson threw not one, but two blocks. Nelson threw multiple blocks on several plays, including his presence around the pile to offer a forward push. On one second-half run as the Irish took complete control of the trenches, Nelson bull-rushed safety Dylan Haines off the field.
He had one false start on a result that prompted Kelly to turn to Mike Denbrock and give him grief. But personally, I’d call that a tremendous debut for Nelson (again, without knowing exactly how assignment-perfect he was).
“Where I was most pleased was in his pass protection,” said Kelly Sunday, adding another layer to the assessment of the performance. “He handed off twists and stunts very well to give Malik time to throw the ball on third down.
“I was a little concerned with pass protection because he is a guy that likes to go for the knockout punch. But his sets were solid. He’s got to continue to work with his center and tackle. Sometimes he likes to take on things by himself, but I thought for a first start, he did very well.”
Right guard Steve Elmer and right tackle Mike McGlinchey appeared (from my amateur offensive line observer’s perspective) to have the greatest consistency issues, although both did their share of manhandling with the other three.
McGlinchey, according to Kelly and even McGlinchey himself, fights to keep his emotions in check. Plus, with his length, he has to be technique-sound to the letter. He made just his second start, which means he has much to learn, particularly at the position he plays and the athletes he’ll lock horns with.
Body control/balance are the snap-by-snap challenges facing McGlinchey, but he showed good instincts on a late push in pass protection and generally played aggressively. He’s just such a physically-overwhelming presence at 6-foot-7 ½, 310 pounds that he should continue to get better and more challenging for defensive ends. But remember, he’s barely played.
I thought Elmer ended up on the ground more than he did at the end of last season when he was starting to put it all together. He, too, will be fine and joined in on the physical manhandling. He’s developing into a very good offensive guard. When his pad level and balance are sound and he’s staying on his feet, he’s a bull. He’s not as good on the run as Nelson, but it’s a nice change of pace to pull Elmer. He, too, is a “Caution: Wide Load” caravan coming through the tunnel.
To see an offensive line a) physically pound an opposing defense and b) rally around the football 20 yards downfield tells you where the group’s mindset, strength and conditioning were on a hot and humid evening in the Midwest.
RECEIVERS MAKING PLAYS
Will Fuller is an incredibly productive wide receiver, but you know that, so we won’t belabor the point this early in the season. But here are a few statistics to summarize.
He’s been a full-time starter at wideout for 14 games. In that time, he has 83 receptions (one catch shy of six per game), 1,236 yards (15.2 yards per catch, 88.2 yards per game), and has scored in 12 out of 14 games, including five with multiple touchdowns. He’s had at least five catches in 11 out of 14 games.
If Malik Zaire can throw the football with the accuracy he showed against Texas, there will be no drop-off in Fuller’s numbers, which was a thought following the departure of Everett Golson.
The player who completely went under the radar in August was Amir Carlisle, who conspicuously did not participate in any pre-season interviews with the media. He was a real weapon for the Irish at the Z position against the Longhorns, catching three passes for 55 yards, using his quickness to get to the edge and showing once again that he’s a force on routes up the seams.
He’s a jet-sweep threat whose burst will allow him to snap off some double-digit yardage runs. He could even take a carry or two from a conventional running back position if Kelly and his staff choose to branch off with him.
Corey Robinson made a great 3rd-and-15 catch for 20 yards on a poorly thrown ball. He had two receptions for 35 yards. Chris Brown scored just his third career touchdown and finished with three receptions for 38 yards. Torii Hunter, Jr. caught two for 31 yards (20 long).
The tight ends didn’t get involved in the passing game, except for one catch by Durham Smythe for six yards and a poorly thrown ball to Smythe who just couldn’t find the handle. But the tight ends will come into play. Freshman wideout Equanimeous St. Brown wasn’t targeted, but he threw a key block on Josh Adams’ first touchdown. Freshman tight end Alize’ Jones showed some freshman jitters, but he’ll get his along the way.
Zaire connected with four different receivers on third down for first-down conversions: Brown 17 yards on 3rd-and-7, Fuller 16-yard touchdown on 3rd-and-11, Hunter 11 yards on 3rd-and-5, and Robinson 20 yards on 3rd-and-15. Zaire also found Smythe for six yards on 3rd-and-7.
That’s utilizing your assets.
Fuller had seven catches for 142 yards and two scores; Carlisle, Brown, Robinson and Hunter combined for 10 catches, 159 yards and a touchdown. That’s a great distribution. Keep feeding the big dog and let the rest of the canine crew play significant roles.
C.J. Prosise obviously has pass-catching ability out of the backfield, although the loss of Tarean Folston (18 catches, 190 yards, one TD in ’14) hurts the variety. We’ll see if Josh Adams is incorporated in that fashion. Pass-catching was an asset for him coming out of high school.
NEWSOME CONTINUES PRE-SEASON FORM
Full disclosure: When Brian Kelly raved about red-shirt freshman punter Tyler Newsome in the pre-season for his distance (better than 50-yard average) and hang time (above 4.0 seconds), I kept picturing him from last fall and this spring with the up-and-down nature of his punts.
Forty-five yarders weren’t uncommon; neither were 32-yarders sliding off the side of his foot.
It will be a whole new ball game on the road this weekend against Virginia and even more so at Clemson in Week Five. But Newsome did a whole lot more impressing than shanking in his collegiate debut, making this skeptic think he not only could be good, but a weapon as well.
His first career kickoff was one of the ugliest you’re ever going to see. His boot following Notre Dame’s first touchdown went out of bounds outside of the 20-yard line and it was a straight shot off the foot into no man’s land. It was a kickoff man’s nightmare after his punting debut was a 50-yarder that one-hopped into the end zone.
By the second half, Newsome was tucking kickoffs into the front corner of the end zone, which played a significant role in limiting Texas to starting points at the 22-, 24-, 19- and 23-yard lines.
Newsome also settled in at punter. His 48-yarder that Daje Johnson caught inside the 10 and tried to return was so high and beautiful that it prompted a couple members of the media in the press box to turn to one another and say, “That’s about a perfect of a punt as you’re ever going to see.”
Newsome had zero touchbacks. Not sure if that’s by design since the four kickoffs that were returned gave Texas an average starting position of the 22-yard line, which of course would be better than touchbacks. But after a horrific first kickoff, Newsome performed really well in his debut.
THE MANY FACETS OF SPECIAL TEAMS
Special teams are so misunderstood because there’s a tendency to comment on one aspect of it and not factor in the whole picture. There are so many components to special teams that you can’t say the special teams stink because a kicker missed a field goal or an opposing punt returner snapped off a 25-yarder. Likewise, you can give up a long return – which can be a fatal mistake – and do the myriad other aspects well without acknowledging the complete picture.
Against Texas, the Irish offered a varied, mixed bag of productivity and poor fundamentals. Let’s get the bad out of the way first. C.J. Sanders fumbled a punt and let another roll to the five when he could have saved five yards or so. Tyler Newsome sent a kickoff out of bounds that was closer to the Mishawaka, Ind. city limits than the field of play. Amir Carlisle made a very unwise decision when he hesitated and then returned a kickoff to the 10, costing the Irish 15 valuable yards. Justin Yoon missed a field goal. Notre Dame was offside on a kickoff that cost the Irish about 10 yards of field position.
Those are all sloppy miscues that could be game-determining factors in a close game.
But the Irish also did a ton of things well, particularly with the coverage teams, which is why Brian Kelly came away with a strong first impression.
As elaborated upon above, Newsome had a very strong overall debut. Yoon nailed his first field-goal attempt. DeShone Kizer, as he showed in the pre-season, has a very calming, soft catch-and-placement of the football for Yoon.
The punt coverage – two returns for three yards – was outstanding with veterans like KeiVarae Russell with two tackles, Matthias Farley with one (although it was wiped out by a penalty) and Jarrett Grace with one on a kickoff.
It’s no wonder that opinions are scattered all over the board when people talk about special teams. The Irish were pretty bad in a couple of areas against Texas, and really good in some areas where they’ve struggled in the past. We’ll continue to track every aspect of play each week to provide the most accurate assessment of the many facets that are part of the all-encompassing “special teams.”
AROUND THE GRIDIRON
If he were a less-talented player, Alize Jones might not get another shot to catch a pass for a while. But he’s worth a second (and third and fourth) chance considering the athleticism he provides. Credit to Brian Kelly for reassuring the talented youngster when he came off the field after his first-drive drop…Liked the decision to go for 4th-and-1 at the Texas 46 in the opening drive, but Nick Martin false-started with Stanley reacting to Martin’s flinch. It was one of four false starts on the Irish, although the ones against Steve Elmer and Stanley were just a split-second too early…Pretty cool to see the 40 or 50 private jets sitting at Michiana Regional Airport…Justin Yoon has to keep tabs on his operation time. He tends to be a bit deliberate, although on the missed 45-yard field goal, he started the process a touch ahead of schedule. Finding a consistent timing/rhythm has yet to be achieved…Malik Zaire certainly had a legitimate beef for a facemask penalty early in the second drive when linebacker Edwin Freeman latched on for a four-yard loss…Note: Notre Dame time of possession 39:10, Texas 20:50. It’s never been an important stat for Kelly-coached teams, or at least it wasn’t at Cincinnati. It is very important at Notre Dame, particularly now that the Irish are leaning more on the ground game…Note: Notre Dame got a ton of good reps for a bunch of backups. That will pay dividends. It would be great if they could do that again versus Virginia and UMass in Week Four…
One got the sense Kelly automatically sent Yoon out for 38-yard field goal right in the middle of the field midway through the second quarter just to get the youngster’s feet wet. It would have been 3rd-and-1 from the 21 with the Irish already leading, 14-0. But Kelly didn’t hesitate, and his instincts proved correct…I thought Max Redfield was aggressive and tackled well, despite missing a tackle of Johnathon Gray on Gray’s 11-yard run, which was the only double-digit run of the game for the Longhorns…Notre Dame really benefitted from Aussie punter Michael Dickson’s early-game struggles…Interesting play/alignment: Durham Smythe and Tyler Luatua are stacked left with Luatua on the back end. The ball is snapped to Zaire, who fakes as if he’s going to follow the blocks of his tight ends to his left, but then cuts back with the pulling Quenton Nelson taking the edge as Steve Elmer and Mike McGlinchey down-block and Luatua serves as Zaire’s body guard in front. The play gained eight yards with C.J. Prosise throwing a downfield block that completely neutralized cornerback Duke Thomas. Zaire really sold the fake left, and then wisely stepped out of bounds. This was a nice variation that often goes unnoticed in the flow of the game. Notre Dame’s menu of plays against Texas was vast and diverse…
Don’t think for a second that Notre Dame is out of the woods at safety. The Texas game was not a good test. (Virginia QB Matt Johns and its offense will be a better one with much sterner tests down the road.) Until Elijah Shumate becomes more technique conscious, the Irish will remain suspect on the back end. He lunges and loses open-field balance. He’s a big hitter, but he’s got to strike the balance between physicality and remaining a fundamentally-sound tackler. He picked up a needless facemask penalty on Amanti Foreman’s terrible decision to backtrack across the field for what would have been a 10-yard loss. Shumate’s facemask penalty – with a posse of Notre Dame defenders around the ball – was a 25-yard mistake and totally unnecessary. Shumate later came back and made a nice reaction on a swing pass to Daje Johnson for a four-yard loss. But this is a senior who must be more consistent…Love the Fr. Ted sticker on back of the helmets, and Kelly wore a Fr. Ted pin on his shirt. If you recorded the game and didn’t see the halftime tribute to Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., go back and check it out. “Fr. Ted, as he was affectionately known, was a man of his times…and ahead of them,” said the narrator of the piece. Said Rev. John I Jenkins: “He will always walk among us.” Dan Hicks said Hesburgh was a huge fan of the football program, which isn’t a statement ringing with truth. But he appreciated the avenues Notre Dame football opened for Notre Dame’s message to be spread throughout the world…
Joe Schmidt completely misread the 20-yard tunnel screen to Daje Johnson, who wasn’t even listed as a starter. Johnson was their only weapon in the passing game, catching six of the eight Longhorn completions. Yes, even Joe Schmidt makes errors in judgment.…As a fan of the game, not big on the timeouts twice before field goals at the end of the first half. But from a coaching standpoint, it’s always the percentage move. One of numerous good coaching decisions by Kelly as kicker Nick Rose made two from 52 yards that didn’t count, and missed when it did. Nice little fist bump between Kelly and Brian VanGorder as the Irish defensive coordinator acknowledged the head coach’s tactics…By the way, what would it be like to be on the receiving end of VanGorder’s wild-eye scorn?…Underrated fumble recovery by Torii Hunter, Jr. on C.J. Sanders’ punt return. Matthias Farley was there, too. Credit to Sanders for bouncing back with three “quiet” fair catches…On Wednesday, KeiVarae Russell talked about how if he gets a receiver to take an inside route, he’s got him where he wants him. Well, John Burt disproved that theory, at least on the 48-yarder in which Russell allowed him to get inside and streak past. Agree with Tim O’Malley in his Monday Musings. That play will only benefit Russell…Memo to Texas’ third-team linebacker Breckyn Hager: Taunting Dexter Williams after a tackle for loss in a game you’re losing by 35 with under two minutes remaining is bush league…Tough break for Kelly. By the time he finished his interview with NBC’s Kathryn Tappen after the game, he had missed the singing of the Alma Mater, and he wasn’t thrilled about it.
The three most impressive aspects of Zaire’s home starting debut were: passing accuracy, continued protection of the football, and the development into a pass-first quarterback.