Tim Prister’s Tale of the Tape

Jaylon Smith is the most disruptive force off the edge in Notre Dame history. Romeo Okwara is finishing his career on a high note as sacks approach double digits.

KIZER AND HIS ‘WORST GAME’

It’s a true testament to the maturity and rapid development of DeShone Kizer when a red-shirt freshman quarterback making his eighth start completes 13-of-19 passes (68.4 percent) without an interception and it’s considered the worst performance of his brief career.

Judging a quarterback’s performance based upon such modest numbers – including a mere 111 yards passing (8.5 yards per completion, 5.8 yards per attempt) – is very subjective without the coaching footage to review. How do we know what kind of routes the receivers were running? How do we know what kind of separation they were getting? How do we know exactly what the defense was doing to defend?

Suffice it to say that this was not Kizer’s best performance, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t have significant value. Maybe Wake Forest didn’t “drop eight” as much as Notre Dame claimed – four times by Pete Sampson’s count -- but clearly they were devoting plenty of resources to Will Fuller and trying to confuse the young quarterback with a variety of looks up front.

We said it all week but it generally was dismissed. You can’t just say Wake Forest was terrible and Notre Dame should score 40. Wake Forest’s offense is anemic; its defense is above average.

The fact the Demon Deacons rank 24th in the country in pass defense is impressive, but it can be deceiving. Often times, a defense with quality numbers against the pass is a defense that is surrendering so much on the ground that the opposition doesn’t have to pass. That’s not the case with Wake. It ranked 60th in rushing defense which, for the record, is one notch ahead of Notre Dame’s rush defense.

It’s also a bit revealing when Kizer’s worst game did not include an interception. He was sacked three times, and if there’s on rap on his game, it’s that he can be overly patient and hold on to the football a bit too long. One of those sacks – when Quenton Nelson was defeated on an inside rush – was not his fault. Another time, when the Irish had three negative yardage plays in a row at the end of the first half, they were out-numbered up front.

Kizer did not throw a touchdown pass for the first time in eight starts. Yet it’s more important that he didn’t force a pass into too tight of a window, especially when the temptation is so great with Fuller. (Note: Kizer also has not lost a fumble this season, which is noteworthy considering the epidemic proportion of that stat a year ago. It’s also a reflection of a quality pass-blocking offensive line.)

What’s been noticeable about Kizer from the outset of the launching of his career is his knowledge of where the moving parts are, where they need to be, and where they will end up. The best example was the 13-yard pass to Torii Hunter, Jr. on the first scoring drive in which Kizer rolled right and hit Hunter coming back to the left. He (as does Hunter) has a feel for where the pockets in the coverage will be, which is why he’s perhaps over-patient at times waiting for his receivers to get to the spot.

Minus the sacks, he ran 10 times for 54 yards. He showed tremendous vision and great use of his blockers on his first touchdown run from 12 yards with Amir Carlisle and Fuller leading the charge. On a mid-second quarter scramble in which Wake Forest dropped eight, he ran for 16 and plowed Wake Forest Whip Cameron Glenn for a first down.

If what happened against Wake Forest constitutes a bad game for Kizer, this kid is going to go down in history as one of Notre Dame’s all-time greats.

THE MARKET CORRECTION

If you read Irish Illustrated, you know we foresaw a significant change in Notre Dame’s rushing figures after the record-setting 457-yard explosion against UMass in week four, which raised the average at the one-third mark of the season to 284.7.

The erosion was bound to happen against the remaining two-thirds of the schedule, if for no other reason than the steady flow of quality run defenses would win at least a few battles along the way while the outrageous yardage figure had plenty of room for “correction.” The quality run defenses possessed by Clemson, Navy, USC, Temple, Pittsburgh, Wake Forest, Boston College and Stanford were undoubtedly going to drag the number down, even if the Irish posted respectable rushing figures.

What four weeks of action indicated, 10 weeks have validated.

The first four opponents Notre Dame played were Texas, Virginia, Georgia Tech and UMass. After 10 weeks, their rush defense rankings are: 72nd (Virginia 171.4 ypg., 4.8 ypc.), 73rd (Georgia Tech 171.7, 4.7), 97th (Texas 194.2, 4.1) and 103rd (UMass 201.6, 4.5).

Then came rush defenses No. 25 (Clemson 131.2, 3.7), No. 33 (Navy, 136.4, 3.9), No. 28 (USC, 124.0, 3.6), No. 26 (Temple 132.2, 3.9), No. 38 (Pittsburgh, 139.8, 4.5) and No. 60 (Wake Forest, 161.3, 4.3).

In those six games, the Irish have rushed for more than 200 yards just once and that was against USC. The lowest was a 111-yard effort against Clemson, which in and of itself is progress. Brian Kelly’s first five Notre Dame teams prior to this season frequently were held under 100 yards rushing. In fact, it happened 16 times -- an average of 3.3 times per year -- and approximately one-fourth of the games played under Kelly (65 prior to this season).

Other rushing efforts this year have been 178 against Navy, the 214 versus USC, 168 against Temple, 175 versus Pittsburgh and 171 against Wake Forest.

If that’s the low measure of rushing output against some real quality defenses, that’s pretty good and a huge step forward in the running game – with plenty of room to grow, beginning with lost yardage plays/stuffs.

Notre Dame rushed for 20 less yards against Clemson than the Tigers are allowing for the year. But in each of the next five games, the Irish exceeded the mark of their opponent’s current rush defense average: plus-42 Navy, plus-34 USC, plus-36 Temple, plus-36 Pittsburgh and plus-10 Wake Forest.

In 2012, Notre Dame rushed for 202.5 yards per game during the regular season, but the 32-yard sputter against Alabama dropped it to 189.3 upon the conclusion of the season. Notre Dame is down to 215.6 through 10 games this year. If the Irish rush for 120 yards against Boston College, they’ll be down to 207.

Ten weeks into the 2015 season, Boston College has the No. 1 rush defense in the country, allowing just 71.7 yards per game and a mere 2.1 yards per carry while tied for first with Alabama and Mississippi for the fewest rushing touchdowns allowed (five).

Stanford is not the suffocating defense that it has been in recent years. The 134.3 yards rushing per game this year is 30 per game more than 2014. More telling is the 4.1 average per carry, a full yard more than the 3.07 from a year ago. If the Irish rush in that 170-yard range against the Cardinal, that’s a number on paper that likely would bode well for Notre Dame.

But like 2012, Notre Dame’s inflated early-season rushing marks are coming back to the field.

THE CURIOUS GROUND GAME

The “Market Correction” is an example of early-season numbers telling the story over what was to come the next six weeks.

Notre Dame, however, defies logic offensively in other ways. The Irish are 30th in the country in scoring, 24th in rushing, 39th in passing, and 26th in total offense. And then there are the negative yards plays.

Notre Dame is 100th in plays that result in lost yardage, an average of 6.9 per game. As a point of reference, Texas is 105th, Wake Forest is 109th, Temple is 123rd, and Boston College is 128th, allowing nine tackles behind the line of scrimmage per game.

Those all make sense. The fact Alabama is 109th does not, especially since they’re 39th in sacks allowed.

Why does Notre Dame give up so many negative yardage plays? They say everything starts up front, meaning the offensive line, but it might very well start at tight end. The issue generally is closer to the snap of the football, but Notre Dame’s tight ends have been wildly inconsistent blocking on the perimeter, and Brian Kelly’s offenses live on the perimeter.

Durham Smythe was considered the best receiver among the tight ends whose blocking skills were catching up before his season-ending injury in game two.

Tyler Luatua, who has had concussion issues two years in a row, has been inconsistent, due largely to his limited lateral mobility. Nic Weishar appears to be fundamentally sound in his set up/square up of defenders. But he’s an inexperienced blocking tight end on this level where it takes a unique combination of technique, strength, quickness and change of direction.

Chase Hounshell also looks pretty fundamentally sound at times, but his inexperience is apparent when it comes to adjusting after contact. You’ve got to have good feet and/or the muscle memory as to how to slide upon contact and maintain balance and leverage. Hounshell simply doesn’t have enough man-hours in the task.

Freshman Aliz’e Jones is a wide receiver with tight end genes, so the transition to college blocker is a long journey.

Notre Dame is a program that is accustomed to consistent blocking from the tight end position. The Irish have not had it this year, and that is critical in an offense that really likes to pressure the edges in the ground as well as passing games.

The offensive line established an early-season identity by beating up on a bunch of bad run defenses. It’s a very good offensive line, there’s no doubt about that. It’s great when it comes to pass blocking. But defenders knifing through to make tackles behind the line of scrimmage are a regular occurrence, by good defenses (Pittsburgh 10), (Clemson 9) as well as bad (Texas 9).

Right guard Steve Elmer has had a strange season. Strange from the standpoint that once he settled in at right guard in game four last season, he was damn good. He was Notre Dame’s best interior blocker. He’s been inconsistent in ’15.

It’s not as if Elmer hasn’t made plays in 2015. He’s made a ton of them, including Josh Adams’ 98-yard run (see “The Record-Setting Run” below). Notre Dame puts its guards on the move frequently, and when Elmer gets his pads out in front, plays under control and gets a squared-up body on somebody, he’s going to win that battle because he’s a big, strong dude at 6-5 ½, 315 pounds. He’s at his best, however, when he’s lining up low and just plowing forward. Not a lot of adjustments to be made when you’re just plowing forward.

But Elmer lacks “transitional athleticism.” Interior line play is a lot of grinding. Elmer lacks the athleticism to transition back under control after getting knocked off his stride. He doesn’t recover quickly from getting bumped off his line, which is an athletic shortcoming. It’s a big reason why the test at right tackle in ’14 was short-lived (and probably never should have been attempted in the first place) because he was way out of his physical capabilities out there.

You can’t say all of Notre Dame’s offensive line problems are on Elmer. But it appears others are playing pretty well. Center Nick Martin clearly has played the best football of his career, and left guard Quenton Nelson is a bone fide five-star talent progressing at an accelerated pace.

That leaves tackles Ronnie Stanley and Mike McGlinchey. Is Ronnie Stanley playing up to his billing, which is No. 1 tackle in the country? I’m not the person to judge that because I don’t investigate that until the college football season is over. But it probably wouldn’t be an inaccurate statement to say that Stanley has played, at the very least, in the four-star range. He’s consistently very good if not great.

McGlinchey’s pretty darn good, too. He is a nightmare matchup physically because of his length and athleticism. He comes at defenders with these massively long limbs, and he’s only going to get better because he has the athleticism to improve his body control and balance, which is pretty good right now, particularly for a guy of his length. He has eligibility through the 2017 season.

So that’s a pretty good offensive line, but if there is a leak on the interior and inconsistent blocking on the perimeter by the tight ends, that’s enough for an opponent to slip through and dump a Notre Dame offensive player behind the line of scrimmage 69 times in 10 games, particularly with inexperienced running backs. (Why does Notre Dame have so many long plays – 10 of more than 50 yards? That has a lot to do with an exceptional wide receiver blocking corps.)

Even though Alex Bars showed great promise in his two starts against Navy and USC, it’s hard to imagine offensive line coach Harry Hiestand bumping Elmer from the lineup to give Bars a shot. It’s not his style. Continuity is king, as it is with most offensive line coaches.

But a healthy Bars allowed to legitimately compete with Elmer could have been a very interesting battle. Bars – as we’ve described before – is gargantuan from the standpoint that someone that wide is rarely that tall (a legit 6-foot-6). He’s wider than his 320-pound listing indicates.

He showed excellent pad level and balance in his two starts, both straight ahead and on the run. He wasn’t a finished product by any means. But he showed a lot of promise and maturity for a guy playing on this level for the first time.

We’ll never know what might have happened this year with a healthy Bars. Next year, with an opening at tackle, Bars likely slides outside to get the best five players on the field. Elmer is not going to lose his job to anyone next year, especially since the Irish already are going to have to replace Nick Martin at center with an inexperienced offensive lineman.

TRUMBETTI’S BIG (AND REVEALING) DAY

What a unique moment for sophomore defensive end Andrew Trumbetti, who not only logged way more time against Wake Forest than he has at any point in the first nine games, but was the fortunate recipient of a small-handed quarterback losing the grip on the football that spit right into Trumbetti’s hands for a tailor-made 28-yard interception return.

The play was made possible, not surprisingly, by Sheldon Day’s dismissal of Wake Forest left guard Tyler Hayworth. Day forced quarterback John Wolford to make a decision sooner than he would have liked. Wolford may have been trying to not throw the football and the forward movement of his arm coerced the football out of his hand. Either way, Trumbetti was the beneficiary.

This is the same guy, however, who couldn’t get on the field throughout most of the first nine games. In eight games played – he didn’t play against Georgia Tech’s triple-option – he had just six tackles and four near misses on sacks.

Why hasn’t Trumbetti taken more time from Romeo Okwara? For starters, Okwara has become a beast with an incredible five straight games with at least one sack, including five in the last two games. The other reason is because Trumbetti – if the Wake Forest game is an indication – has great difficulty getting off blocks in the run game.

We also saw evidence of why he didn’t play against Georgia Tech when quarterback Kendall Hinton kept on a 3rd-and-2 read-option play where Trumbetti clearly had outside contain. He disregarded that responsibility in lieu of crashing into the side of the pile with no chance of contact with the running back had the running back actually gotten the ball. Hinton gained 23 yards.

Trumbetti is active but inconsistent. He’s athletic enough to get to the football and alter plays. He’s inconsistent enough to run by the play.

Next year, the level of competition for playing time at end will be different with Okwara out the door. But Trumbetti may face some younger competition that has the ability to play with a greater degree of consistency. The Irish desperately need Trumbetti to progress in an upward arc.

THE INCREDIBLE JAYLON SMITH

I made a statement in Monday’s podcast that I generally tend to stay away from. But there just is absolutely no doubt about it.

Jaylon Smith is the quickest, most explosive, most lethal off-the-edge defensive player in the history of Notre Dame football.

If you’re from my generation, you may wonder where Ross Browner fits into that category, but I’m not comparing Smith to Browner, who was a defensive end. I’m talking about a two-point stance, off-the-edge guy -- true linebacker coming from the outside.

Smith is No. 1 all-time at Notre Dame and it isn’t even close.

When Smith comes off the edge and cuts that corner, it’s like a base runner cutting the corner at second base on a first-to-third single. He gets down the line of scrimmage so quickly that it’s difficult for the offensive player with the football to even react. He narrows ground so explosively and decisively that one second he’s five yards away and a split second later, he’s wrapping you up like Spiderman’s web.

The true brilliance of Smith’s versatility came midway through the fourth quarter when Wake Forest threatened to make it a 28-14 game. On 3rd-and-goal from the seven, Smith blitzed, pouncing on John Wolford before a receiver had a chance to break open and before Wolford was even close to being ready to throw it.

On 4th-and-goal from the seven, Smith lined up over tight end Cam Serigne, who was split left in the slot. As NBC’s Dan Hicks suggested Smith might come on the blitz again, he instead followed Serigne, who crossed Smith’s face to Smith’s left. Smith pounced on the play, eating up the space Serigne created and diving across the path of the football.

Yes, Smith wrapped his back (left) hand around Serigne’s waist. But you know, when an athlete like Jaylon Smith is defending and making it look so easy, there may be an unintended free pass from an official. He probably figures Smith doesn’t need to interfere to make the play.

Smith’s greatest shortcoming leads directly to his greatest strength. He is so skilled that he wants to ad lib. (If you were Jaylon Smith, wouldn’t you be inclined to ad lib?) And that’s what gives him the potential for stardom on the next level because Jaylon Smith unleashed as he continues to mature and grow into his body is a level of skill we’ve never seen before at Notre Dame, and undoubtedly a unique one in the NFL as well.

When Brian VanGorder says in the Showtime episode that he’s not sure Smith makes the defense better, it’s a valid notion. A defense with Jaylon Smith on it, and Sheldon Day and Isaac Rochell as well along the front seven, should not leak nearly as often as it does. Yeah, Joe Schmidt gets overwhelmed by blocks and the Irish aren’t nearly as consistent in the middle of the line as they would be with a healthy Jarron Jones. The back end of the defense has been the biggest issue. But too much gets by the Irish at the second level, and that shouldn’t happen with a talent like Smith at Will linebacker.

Whether it’s eye discipline or just discipline in general, Smith doesn’t always diagnose plays accurately. He chooses poor run fits at times and doesn’t anticipate where the ball will be, more so in the middle of the field than on the edge. (He owns the edge, whether it’s rushing the passer or chasing all the way to the sideline where his athletic skills shine.)

That’s not to say it’s all on Smith. But when it comes to making the players around him better, Joe Schmidt does a much better job at that than Smith. Smith can dominate the game by himself, which Schmidt obviously cannot. But can Smith get the other players to reach for his level of play?

Bottom line: Smith is a once-in-a-lifetime defensive talent. When you have a player of that caliber, you expect to have a defense that is among the best Notre Dame has ever had, and that’s clearly not the case. The challenge for Smith, as he almost undoubtedly moves to the next level after this season, is to be great while helping create a great defense.

OKWARA COMES OF AGE

Brian Kelly is asked about Romeo Okwara a lot these days as the 20-year-old senior defensive end has raised his sack total for the year to nine, including at least one in each of the last five games and five in the last two games (two vs. Pittsburgh, three vs. Wake Forest).

I’m stealing a notion first offered by a colleague in our business who said many of those sacks have come when there’s been five, six seconds to rush, which is being resourceful but not a great off-the-edge pass rusher out of the chute.

But Okwara is getting to the quarterback more quickly now, too, and it’s coming at just the right time when the Irish will need these skills against Stanford and whatever opponents(s) they face after that.

Kelly has said several times that it’s just the natural maturation of Okwara that is allowing him to take off. He said he arrived Notre Dame when he was 17, but he actually was still 16 when summer school started in 2012.

A ton of people cringed when Okwara was used on special teams as a freshman, burning up a year of eligibility when he could have used a red-shirt season about as badly as anyone in the program.

Kelly said repeatedly that Okwara’s football knowledge was very limited, which made playing him as a freshman that much more frustrating. He played Cat linebacker in Bob Diaco’s scheme behind Prince Shembo. He even lined up at nose tackle when Diaco needed some pass rush in 3rd-and-long situations in 2013. Then came the transition to defensive end under Brian VanGorder.

Okwara had a lot thrown at him, particularly for a player limited in football knowledge coming in.

Throughout most of his first three years in the program – and really, the first half of ’15 – Okwara remained largely ineffective or, perhaps more accurately, not impactful.

He had four sacks in ’14, but 2.5 of them came in the first three games. In the two years prior to that, in limited action, he had 0.5 sacks. In the first five games of ’15, he had a sack against Texas and that was it.

It’s been interesting to see Okwara’s body language the last five games. He had a sack against Navy, USC and Temple, two at Pittsburgh and three in his home-finale against Wake Forest. He expects to get to the quarterback now, and he’s bouncing around with confidence.

A true sign of where his head is now was late in the Pittsburgh game when, after recording a pair of sacks, he chased a pass up the sideline and actually caused a fumble by a Panther wideout that kicked out of bounds.
 
He hurdled an attempt at a block to get to Wake Forest quarterback John Wolford on one sack, which was critical because it accounted for a loss of seven with a personal foul penalty against the Demon Deacons. That caused a missed field goal from 51 yards. Okwara also caused the fumble that Grant Blankenship inexplicably failed to pounce on.

If one were to pick the most improved Irish player in the secondary, it would be Elijah Shumate. At linebacker, it would be James Onwualu. But no one’s game has skyrocketed on the Irish defense, particularly the second half of the season, more than Romeo Okwara’s.
 

THE RECORD-SETTING RUN

Love to break down key plays in games because so often, it’s a blur. Replay has deciphered some of the mysteries that used to exist in the early days of televised football, but the announcers can’t catch everything as they describe the play.

Josh Adams’ 98-yard touchdown run – not just the longest in Notre Dame Stadium history, but Notre Dame history, period – was a piece of football art from start to finish.

It began with right tackle Mike McGlinchey’s attention to detail and Steve Elmer’s powerful block on the right side of the line of scrimmage. McGlinchey made sure Elmer was secure on end Wendell Dunn, and then quickly turned out to tend to cornerback Brad Watson. Elmer buried Dunn.

Adams immediately saw the opportunity in front of him and he powered through the right-hand tackle attempt by Watson as McGlinchey’s presence helped Adams power through.

Adams’ left stiff-arm block on Wake Forest Whip Ryan Janvion was decisive and powerful. At this point, there’s a real chance this could go, but there was work to be done.

It’s interesting to see the sideline angle because when Adams was at the 18, Wake Forest Rover Hunter Williams was at the 21. Working up the field at the 19 was Irish wideout Chris Brown, whose instincts quickly told him that Adams was going to out-run the 220-pound Williams, even though Williams was three yards further upfield than Adams.

Brown didn’t hesitate. He pealed off, disregarding Williams, and burst upfield where he joined Will Fuller to run interference on cornerback Dionte Austin. Now it’s a footrace involving four players, three of which were in home blue jerseys. Austin had no chance, but Brown and Fuller left nothing to chance as they continued to keep themselves between Adams and Austin, and Adams completed the mission.

Absolutely beautiful execution of a record-setting play against a defense that would give up just 73 yards rushing outside of the 98-yard burst.

AROUND THE GRIDIRON

The move of Isaac Rochell inside in the absence of Daniel Cage says something about where Jerry Tillery is at this stage of the season. Tillery is a wonderful story for Showtime, but he’s going to have to make a ton of improvement – including adding more grit and toughness – to be an effective starting three-technique next season…Wake Forest has six seniors on its team, which makes their performance/effort against Notre Dame all the more impressive…KeiVarae Russell played a very physical brand of football against Wake Forest. But if he doesn’t learn to turn and see the football in the passing game, he’s playing his final year of football, unless he chooses to come back in ‘16…Unequivocally the best game Joe Schmidt has played since Georgia Tech…Don’t underestimate Amir Carlisle’s contribution to the passing game in the second half of the season…The marshmallows for the final home game need to go away. The officials announced there would be a penalty on the home team and then didn’t follow through. The disrespect toward your football team and the people who put the game on is incredible. You’re basking in the disruptive nature of your behavior for what? It’s terrible for the turf and is a nightmare to clean. The cleanup in the stands is a painstaking task the following day. Time to bury this tradition, which is disrespectful to all involved, most especially your team…

James Onwualu has developed into a solid, legitimate outside linebacker. It’s unfortunate that his knee injury likely will knock him out for the balance of the regular season. But looking forward to seeing Greer Martini’s role expand. He is a natural, instinctual football player who gives up something in the speed department, but adds a bigger body with physicality and solid tackling fundamentals. Might be what Notre Dame needs against Stanford. Martini is a quality open-field tackler…While the 4th-and-4 interference penalty on Cole Luke as the second quarter began was not a great call, Luke has made a habit of grabbing jersey on most pass plays. Luke’s game has not progressed as one might have expected after a real quality sophomore campaign in ’14…After Josh Adams’ 98-yard run, it was a 7-7 game over the final 39:59…Grant Blankenship. Seriously?...Good to see Jonathan Bonner on the outside rush from a two-point stance that led to a sack, but was negated by a facemask penalty on Romeo Okwara. Notre Dame is going to need Bonner to become a regular contributor in ’16 with eligibility through ’18…Understand why they instituted an offside penalty on the defense when a lineman jumps and causes an offensive lineman to move, but still hate it…

Notre Dame had just one three-and-out defensively against Wake Forest. It would have been two if not for roughing the snapper penalty. So apparently the punt return team can’t touch the snapper at all because that is a weak penalty, just as it was against North Carolina last year in Notre Dame Stadium…Simply do not understand why Dan Hicks refers to Notre Dame defensive end as Romeo Ogwara…When your punter is one of your captains, you have a leadership problem, don’t you? Yes, Alex Kinal was an Australian football player. He’s tough. But he’s still a punter…In the last 22 games, Kinal has three touchbacks. One came against Notre Dame…Stunning to see Doug Randolph, Grant Blankenship, Jonathan Bonner and Jerry Tillery on the field at the Notre Dame 25…Chase Hounshell, pass-receiving threat. Big third-down conversion late in the third quarter…Dave Clawson goes ballistic with the personal foul penalty. He’s right: Raking the football out is not a penalty, but throwing Chris Brown down with the left hand is unnecessary roughness. Don’t understand picking up the flag once it’s called. Are the refs going to enforce coaches staying along their sideline, or are they going to be allowed to run on the field any time they’d like?...Commendable that a loving father like David Robinson attends every one of Corey’s games. But it’s not quite the sacrifice that Dan Hicks makes it out to be when you consider David Robinson’s standing in life. There are parents with a whole lot less financial wherewithal at every single game. Robinson’s sacrifice is rather minimal in comparison. His love for his children, however, is genuine...Some would argue Kelly should have had more of a sense of urgency in final drive against Wake Forest to make it 35-7. Do you agree?


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