Prister’s Thursday Thoughts

Aligning comparable former players to the ones occupying starting roles on defense this fall, there’s plenty of uncertainty among the defensive front seven in 2016.

ALL-COMPARISON TEAM
This week, Irish Illustrated presented its cumulative comparisons throughout the summer in our ND A-to-Z series. Four offensive players were compared to future first-round draft choices:

• Quarterback DeShone Kizer was compared to Brady Quinn, both of whom excelled in their first year of eligibility. In O’Malley’s Monday Musings, he compared Kizer’s remarkably similar first-year stats to Rick Mirer’s (which came in his second year of eligibility).

Regardless whether you compare Kizer to Quinn or Mirer, it’s a comparison to a first-round draft choice.

• Tight end Alizé Jones was compared to 1992 first-rounder Derek Brown, who was quite a bit taller than Jones, but had a similar athletic skillset. In fact, Jones is probably more athletic.

• Quenton Nelson was compared to 1994 first-rounder Aaron Taylor, who is a nominee for the College Football Hall of Fame.

• Mike McGlinchey was likened to recent first-round choice Ronnie Stanley, who appears to be following a similar timeline in addition to the same position switch from right to left tackle.

The Irish could win a lot of football games and score a lot of points with offensive players like that. Other comparisons included Josh Adams to Jerome Heavens (1975-78), Kevin Stepherson to TJ Jones (2010-13), Equanimeous St. Brown to Bobby Brown (1995-98), Alex Bars to Mike Rosenthal (1996-99), Miles Boykin to Malcolm Johnson (1995-98) and Durham Smythe to John Carlson (2004-07).

Now granted, these are very subjective comparisons. There are dozens of players to compare them to, and frankly, we were probably influenced by the recent successes of the Irish offense as Brian Kelly has developed a 30-point-plus unit that looks like it’s here to stay.

But all things being equal, and if our comparisons were made with a degree of accuracy, it’s interesting to see the defensive comparisons.

This would be the starting lineup compared to the current projected starters on the 2016 defense:

DE-Grant Irons (1997-2001)
NT-Antwon Jones (1996-99)
DT-Greg Pauly (2001-04)
DE-Ronald Talley (2005-06)
OLB-Matthias Farley (2012-15)
MLB-Corey Mays (2002-05)
WLB-Bobbie Howard (1995-98)
CB-Tommy Carter (1990-92)
FS-Zeke Motta (2009-12)
SS-Tom Zbikowski (2004-07)
CB-Raeshon McNeil (2006-09)

Could you have a great defense with those players?

Let’s start with the defensive line. Irons, Jones, Pauly and Talley would be a good but not a great line.

Mays and Howard at their best would be a good set of inside linebackers. (James Onwualu, due to his size and background, was compared to Farley.)

Carter – the only first-round draft choice on defense – plus Motta (projecting Max Redfield at his best), Zbikowski (compared to Drue Tranquill in want-to if not athleticism) and McNeil -- would be a damn good secondary.

But it starts up front, and therein lies the concerns with the 2016 defense on paper with the opening of camp a little more than two weeks away.

SCORING DRIVE RESPONSE (SDR)
Irish Illustrated has mentioned before how it goes about putting together statistical analysis stories. Often times, it starts with a curiosity as to what a study of a stat will reveal. So you go through the numbers, tabulate the results, and formulate a story based upon the facts.

Earlier this week, I wondered how Notre Dame’s offense responded in 2015 after the defense allowed a score, and on the flipside, how the defense responded to a Notre Dame offensive score.

In other words, how did the offense respond when the defense let down, and how did the defense react to offensive prosperity?

I have to admit that when I explored the notion of figuring out Notre Dame’s “scoring drive response” (SDR) numbers from 2015, the expectation was that the defense was poor in this category, as it was in so many others.

The results were shocking…on both sides of the football.

Affixing a “win” for a positive ensuing drive, “half-a-win” for a field goal following a touchdown (or vice versa), and a “loss” for a negative response to success on the other side of the ball, the numbers were not only overwhelmingly positive for the defense, but less-than-stellar for an offense that averaged nearly 35 points per game.

The final tally was 48½ wins for the defense and just 18 losses. In other words, nearly three times to one, an offensive score by the Irish was followed up with a forced punt, turnover or turnover on downs by the defense.

Offensively, there were 20½ wins and 24 losses. In other words, the offense failed to score more often after the defense yielded a score than it responded with a score.

What gives? Will it stand the test of time? Is it a significant stat?

On paper, it looks doubtful the defense will continue this positive trend since most of Notre Dame’s best defenders are gone from the 2015 team. But we’re going to track Notre Dame’s SDR during the 2016 season to see if it’s a legitimately telling statistic or a mere anomaly in a season in which the defense paled in comparison to the offensive production.

Responding offensively in 2016 will take on greater importance because without Will Fuller and C.J. Prosise to provide a big play for a touchdown, the Irish will need to react to the allowance of points scored better than it did in ’15.

HOOPS GLIMPSE
The recent rule change (last year I believe, maybe the year before) of allowing men’s basketball teams to have one organized practice per week during the summer provides a tremendous opportunity to help bring the team together in advance of the start of October practice.

Earlier this week, Notre Dame’s one-hour-and-15-minute session was open to the media and – without reading too much into that brief glimpse – very enlightening.

While the Irish have two big holes to fill – point guard with the loss of Demetrius Jackson and a big-man spot with the departure of Zach Auguste – the latter seemed much more critical than the former.

Granted, the loss of Jackson -- who could run and slash and use his incredible athleticism to break down a defense and get to the basket – is significant. But the hole is not as gaping as it is with the loss of Auguste.

Matt Farrell emerged during the post-season in the spring, and the arrival of big-time freshman T.J. Gibbs should narrow the gap created by Jackson’s departure. More questions exist without Auguste.

Bonzie Colson’s paint presence/consistency will be more crucial than ever. But he needs help, and from the group of Martinas Geben, Austin Torres, Elijah Burns and John Mooney, it’s simply too early to tell which/how many will be able to help fill the gap left by Auguste’s 14.0 points and 10.7 rebounds per game.

Mike Brey and his staff continue to rave about Geben, but that’s a we’ll-believe-it-when-we-see-it proposition. Burns and Mooney are the unknowns – Burns because of a knee injury that kept him out of action as a true freshman and Mooney, who is a true freshman. Torres has the most experience of the quartet and, quite honestly, the most savvy and feel for the game. But he’s undersized and offensively challenged.

Look for plenty of four-around-one looks – which Brey prefers anyway – and a surge in three-point shooting, which was more of Brey’s modus operandi in the early days of his tenure at Notre Dame in the early 2000s.

Brey, long-time assistant Rod Balanis and new coach/former Irish big man Ryan Humphrey all talk about the role of the Irish big man circa 2016-17 as that of a screener, rebounder and defender. Their offense will come on put-backs, screen-and-rolls, and dump-offs after penetration draws the defenders.

V.J. Beachem, Steve Vasturia and Matt Ryan are going to shoot and make a ton of three-pointers this year. It’s imperative that Beachem, Vasturia, Farrell and Gibbs slash to the basket and penetrate to a) create perimeter shots and b) create dump-offs to the big men.

Colson, at an undersized 6-foot-5 with a 7-foot-0 wingspan, can create mismatches with opposing bigs by popping out and making the opposition respect his jumper.

This is a team that can make the NCAA tournament for the seventh time in eight years. But the bigs are going to have to be productive, and that isn’t going to be easy because they are, for the most part, below-the-rim players.

Think about it: Jerian Grant, Pat Connaughton, Auguste and even point guard Jackson were above-the-rim players. The Irish don’t have that kind of athleticism, which will prompt Brey to make a return to his roots and put a greater emphasis on the three-point shot once again.

ENDS AND ODDS
• So Showtime’s “A Season With…” series moves from South Bend, Ind., to Tallahassee, Fla. this fall. Absolutely can’t wait to see just how different the portrayal of these two programs is.
• On at least two occasions this week during the Republican National Convention, there has been a reference made to the four-year choice of the next president being a 40-year choice for the country. Sound familiar?
• Speaking of the RNC, former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz – who came out weeks ago in support of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump -- created a bit of a stir at the Eagle Forum lunch in Cleveland for his comments about immigrants in the United States, equating it to an “invasion,” as reported by Betsy Woodruff of the Daily Beast.
Holtz also was pictured carrying a Crown Royal pouch. (Former ESPN colleagues acknowledged that Holtz frequently used the pouch to carry something other than Crown Royal, which I tend to believe.)
Don’t know what to make of all of this other than now that he’s not in coaching, Holtz’s political bent, which has always been strong, is on display for all to see.
• Jerian Grant’s MVP performance in the NBA summer league championship has to make the Chicago Bulls feel pretty good about their one-two point guard punch with Rajon Rondo.
Oh, and by the way, now that Grant’s name is in the news, we’re hearing his name mispronounced frequently. It’s pronounced JARE-en, not JARE-ee-en. Even some of the local media has been mispronouncing it.


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