Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

Prister’s Thursday Thoughts

There were tons of signs that this would not be the same team as last year, beginning with the incredible amount of talent that left the program.

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The question was first asked after Notre Dame’s loss to Duke dropped the Irish to 1-3. It was asked again after N.C. State when they fell to 2-4. Most definitely after losing to Stanford to drop to 2-5 and Navy to 3-6.

How did we miss by so much? Why is this team not nearly as good as we thought?

Two categories should cover it: Things you could expect and things you didn’t expect. While we didn’t (and couldn’t) anticipate a 5-7 or 4-8 season, numerous stories appeared on Irish Illustrated throughout the summer that provided warning signs.

Let’s start with things we expected:

• Lost experienced, good-to-great players: When you look at it now, it all makes sense. Reading and pondering these names in August is a lot different than reading and pondering these names now.

The following players on the 2015 team are not on the 2016 team due to graduation, injury or suspension.

Will Fuller, Ronnie Stanley, Jaylon Smith, Sheldon Day, Nick Martin, C.J. Prosise, Romeo Okwara, KeiVarae Russell, Elijah Shumate, Steve Elmer, Matthias Farley, Joe Schmidt, Chris Brown, Amir Carlisle, Alize Jones, Shaun Crawford, Max Redfield, Nick Watkins, Corey Robinson and Jarrett Grace.

The departure of the talent, experience, productivity and leadership packed into those 20 names gashed this football program. Enough to be 4-8? Of course not. The degree of failure falls on the coaching staff

• Wrong defensive coordinator, wrong approach: Brian VanGorder was incompatible on the Notre Dame coaching staff. The defensive players didn’t respond to him at all. The scheme against Texas and in general was atrocious. The players couldn’t have success under him. As long as he was on the staff, there was a ceiling on the team’s success, and it was low.

• No sacks, no surprise: Irish Illustrated said numerous times during the summer/August camp that there were no sack guys, other than perhaps Isaac Rochell, who looked improved. Rochell has one sack. Twelve of the 13 sacks have come in the last six games; just one in the first four games when the Irish lost three times.

• Drop-off at 3-technique: Sheldon Day had 15½ tackles for loss at three-technique in ’15; Jerry Tillery has three tackles for loss at three-technique. Notre Dame had 84 tackles for loss (6.4 per game) and 25 sacks (1.9 per game) in 13 games in ‘15; the Irish have 54 tackles for loss (5.4) and 13 sacks (1.3 per game). Virtually all of those ’16 numbers have come in the last six games.

• Young linebackers: Although we really like the direction this unit is going, its youth, inconsistent run fits and poor tackling against Texas, Michigan State and Duke contributed to the losses.

• Tranquill’s role: You knew VanGorder wouldn’t utilize talented but specialized safety Drue Tranquill in a way that would maximize his assets. Tranquill was asked to do things he could not physically do. Since VanGorder was fired, Tranquill has tackled better and hasn’t been put in situations where he has to match up with receivers he can’t handle.

• Young receiving corps: The notion that a group of youngsters would adequately replace veterans Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle was a concern. Equanimeous St. Brown and Kevin Stepherson have stepped forward, but Torii Hunter, Jr., C.J. Sanders and the rest of the receiving corps has not, including the tight end position until the Navy and Army games.
 
• Losing Steve Elmer: He was a plow-horse with experience at right guard. Replacements have included by Colin McGovern, Hunter Bivin and Mark Harrell. McGovern has competed well, but injuries have sabotaged his season.

As for the things you couldn’t expect…

• Coaching: We thought Brian Kelly and his staff would lead Notre Dame to eight or nine wins. The staff has rebounded since the slow start, particularly on defense, but special teams have been worse than normal.

• Offensive slump vs. N.C. State, Stanford and Navy: DeShone Kizer lost his accuracy. (It’s QB coach Mike Sanford’s job to make sure that doesn’t happen.) Brian Kelly and his play-callers wouldn’t run the ball in a hurricane, thus contributing to the slump. The offensive line didn’t provide enough push and the running backs have been banged up.

• Offensive line struggles: Losing Elmer hurt, but this unit has not gotten consistent play from Mike McGlinchey, Sam Mustipher and Alex Bars while Quenton Nelson hasn’t been as dominant as expected. The right guard position has been in flux.

• Coleman started slowly: Not a complete shock, although he looked primed to make a solid contribution based upon his August camp. Asked to contribute early with Shaun Crawford at the nickel, the sophomore cornerback couldn’t handle the responsibility and it cost the Irish in September.

• Decimated secondary: The losses of Redfield, Nick Watkins, Crawford and even Devin Butler – on the heels of losing Russell and Shumate – became an extreme talent drain in the secondary. Freshmen, guys who are coming around, weren’t ready to make a positive difference in September.

• Justin Yoon’s miss vs. Duke: He’s been great since the N.C. State game. But in a three-point loss at home to Duke, he missed a 42-yard field goal, one the Irish couldn’t afford with VanGorder’s defense still hemorrhaging yards and points.

• Cole Luke vs. Michigan State: The senior cornerback really has been good this season. But he had a catastrophic performance against the Spartans in a one-score loss.

• Josh Adams’ injury: Naturally, Adams was going to build on his record-setting rookie season. Instead, a hamstring injury nagged him from the end of the summer through most of the season. Behind an offensive line that hasn’t provided the wiggle room of last year’s front, Adams has been hit-and-miss.

LIMITED CONSTANTS

Which players can we say have been consistently good this season? This excludes anyone’s whose performance contributed to a defeat. It’s a short list.

• LB-James Onwualu: With a team-leading 9½ tackles for loss, the No. 3 tackler on the team and the central leader of the defense has been stellar.

• DL-Isaac Rochell: He doesn’t make difference-making plays and couldn’t improve his pass rush. But he holds the point of attack, plays every snap hard, has versatility and is a mainstay up front.

• WR-Equanimeous St. Brown: He scored six touchdowns against Texas-Michigan State-Duke-Syracuse. He caught a team-leading three passes in the hurricane and had the second most (three) against Stanford. Against Miami-Navy, he had 11 receptions for 134 yards and two touchdowns. He leads the team in receptions (48), yards (777) and touchdowns (eight).

• WR-Kevin Stepherson: We cut him some slack because he is a freshman. He didn’t catch a pass in the opener against Texas and didn’t have more than three catches until the Navy game. But for a freshman, he’s been a steady contributor with the third-most catches (21) and second-most touchdowns (four).

• DB-Julian Love: He didn’t start until the fifth game of the season against Syracuse. It was a breakthrough move in the secondary. Despite not starting the first four games and playing sparingly, he’s eighth on the team in stops, one of just six players with an interception, and just keeps getting better.

Certainly we could stretch the boundaries of the criteria and include DeShone Kizer, Quenton Nelson, Jerry Tillery, Jarron Jones, Nyles Morgan, Greer Martini, Cole Luke and Justin Yoon. But that’s not enough constants to be a quality football team.

BOWLING FOR DOLLARS

Just a little info on the bowls for which Notre Dame is eligible and what might influence which direction the Irish turn when/if choosing a minor bowl. Not all minor bowls are created equally, at least not financially.

Here are the possibilities in order of payout:

• TaxSlayer Bowl (Jacksonville, Fla.; Dec. 31) -- ($3,500,000)
• Sun Bowl (El Paso, Texas; Dec. 30) -- $2,000,000)
• Pinstripe Bowl (New York; Dec. 28) -- $1,800,000)
• Belk Bowl (Charlotte, N.C.; Dec. 29) -- $1,700,000
• Quick Lane Bowl (Detroit; Dec. 26) -- $1,200,000
• Independence Bowl (Shreveport, La.; Dec. 26) -- $1,150,000
• Military Bowl (Annapolis, Md.; Dec. 27) -- $1,000,000
• St. Petersburg Bowl (St. Petersburg, Fla.; Dec. 26) -- $537,500

Would a trip back to Jacksonville (TaxSlayer) a few weeks after playing Navy there be worth it? For the Notre Dame coffers, absolutely. (Note: At 6-6, the Irish likely would end up in the TaxSlayer, Sun, Pinstripe or Belk Bowls. At 5-7, if they were to get a bid, it would be the other four, three of which are on Dec. 26.)

NOTRE DAME HOOPS

What the Irish have shown in two exhibition games (a combined 222-106 scoring advantage), in the opener against Bryant (89-64), and last night against the WAC’s Seattle University – a resounding 92-49 victory – is impressive.

The Irish are ahead of schedule on both ends of the floor.

But do not make the same mistake that was made with the football team – thinking that Notre Dame could easily compensate for the loss of Will Fuller and Ronnie Stanley, or Jaylon Smith and KeiVarae Russell, or C.J. Prosise and Sheldon Day.

The loss of Zach Auguste and Demetrius Jackson was, is and remains huge. Auguste could be maddening at times, but he was an offensive/rebounding machine. Bonzie Colson can’t do the dirty work underneath alone. There are no other consistent low-post scoring threats.

Yes, the Irish have a lot of shooters, and the Matt Farrell/T.J. Gibbs tandem will be good enough most of the time. But Jackson took over games from the point guard position. The Irish do not have a point guard that can score 24 points by shooting and slashing his way to the basket the way Jackson did.

Pump the breaks. Let’s see what the Irish have next week at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn when they play Colorado and Texas. And then let’s see what happens against Iowa, Villanova and Purdue. Then the ACC.

To say Auguste and Jackson won’t be missed that much is way, way too early to declare. In fact, it’s simply wrong, except as it pertains to Auguste’s defensive deficiencies.

AGAINST ALL ODDS

• Utah -14½ vs. Oregon
• Duke +7½ @ Pittsburgh
• Florida +14 ½ @ LSU
• Michigan -24 vs. Indiana
Season record vs. spread: 20-15


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