NEW YORK -- Rutgers offensive coordinator Ron Prince, who served as head coach at Kansas State and spent time in the NFL as well, has a great deal of respect for two Irish defensive linemen he’ll have to face in Saturday’s Pinstripe Bowl, and another who, unfortunately for Notre Dame, has played his last game for the Irish.
In typical coaching fashion, Prince referred to Stephon Tuitt (No. 7), Louis Nix (No. 1) and Jarron Jones (No. 94) by number as opposed to name.
“No. 7 reminds me a lot of a guy we had at Virginia, Chris Canty,” said Prince of Tuitt. “He’s a very big, strong player who plays with tremendous leverage and can really knock back blockers. He’s an expert in the technique that they teach in two-gapping. He has tremendous hands, hat placement, and you see that for a season’s worth of tape.
“He can hold the point, which has helped their inside linebackers to get their eyes out in front of some of the run plays, and they don’t have to worry about the offensive tackle working up to them. He’s a fantastic player and I think he has a fantastic skill set.
“I think No. 1 is a dynamic player,” said Prince of Nix. “He not only has the ability to knock back and hold the point, but has some of the finer points of playing nose tackle, like being able to recognize the difference between a base block and a back block. He can transition his eyes from the center to the guard and turn his pads and feet as well as anybody we’ve seen.
“No. 94 also has been able to do those things very well. He’s extremely athletic and extremely flexible. I was very surprised, under the circumstances created for him to be the starter, that we had plenty of tape of him playing in the games and playing well. He was no vacation. This guy is a good player, too.”
Line of communication lined up: The Rutgers defensive front moves around pre-snap as much as any team the Irish have faced this year. Notre Dame has three interior offensive linemen with seven combined starts.
The combination of these two factors makes Notre Dame’s communication Saturday against the Scarlet Knights absolutely essential if the Irish are to cap off the 2013 season with a victory in the Pinstripe Bowl.
Standing along the sideline throughout bowl preparation have been fifth-year senior Chris Watt, red-shirt senior Christian Lombard and red-shirt junior Nick Martin. Playing in their places are true freshman Steve Elmer, red-shirt junior Matt Hegarty and red-shirt junior Conor Hanratty.
“Fortunately for us we’ve got Tommy (Rees) back there at quarterback and that’s one of his biggest strengths, being able to see defenses and get us in the right play,” said fifth-year senior left tackle Zack Martin. “(Rutgers does) a lot of pre-snap movement to mess with you and make big plays. But when you’ve got a guy back there to handle that, it helps.”
Nobody understands pre-snap reads better than Rees, much to the chagrin of some impatient Notre Dame observers who view the Irish signalcaller’s propensity for changing plays at the line as a source of tremendous frustration. But against the Scarlet Knights, it will be absolutely imperative.
“At the end of the day, it comes down to reading the defense, understanding the basics of what they’re trying to do and I’m sure they’ll have some wrinkles we haven’t seen,” Rees said. “But I’m going to have to be prepared to do some things. We put in some things to take advantage of the different looks.”
Rees has had to adjust some of his pre-snap communication with three youngsters in the lineup, particularly at center where Hegarty will be making just his second start after Nick Martin handled snapping duties the first 10 plus games.
“The communication between me and Hegarty is big with the different counts we try to go on,” Rees said. “Up front, they’ve got Zack echoing things and Coach (Harry) Hiestand is really a great coach and does a great job of preparing them. They have experience up there. They know the way I communicate and the way I can check some things up there. I don’t expect too much to be lost with the guys up front.
“I try to make sure I over-communicate some things to Matt that I could get away with when Nick was at center. The first couple games, I felt like I needed to do that. But throughout (bowl) practice, I feel like he’s picked up things pretty quickly. He did a great job the past couple games. The communication has been great.”
From Martin to Denbrock: For a receiver like TJ Jones, who is accustomed to listening to receivers coach Mike Denbrock offer instruction in practice, Denbrock’s move to offensive coordinator for the bowl game in place of Chuck Martin has been smooth. More than that, it’s been noteworthy.
“Now that he’s in charge of the entire offense, he’s going to have to ‘conversate’ with everyone on the same level that he did with just the receivers,” Jones said. “I think people are realizing his ability to lead a group of guys, his ability to make play calls, his ability to be a players’ coach, to know players’ bodies, to know the speed of the tempo, when to slow it down, and really just being a players coach.”
Denbrock, who has always played the behind-the-scenes role under Brian Kelly, has never been afraid to be heard on the football field. During the few occasions the media has been allowed to observe, Denbrock’s voice carries as much as anyone’s.
“He’s take charge,” Jones said. “He knows the position he’s in. He’s responsible for our play and how we perform on the field. He knows that if we perform poorly, it’s going to come back to him. So he knows the responsibility he has, knows he has to make sure we’re performing and knows when to take charge when he needs to.”
A tall challenge: Senior cornerback Bennett Jackson will be making his final appearance in a Notre Dame uniform and will frequently butt heads with 6-foot-6, 220-pound Rutgers wide receiver Brandon Coleman, who declared his intention to enter the NFL draft after the Pinstripe Bowl.
Coleman has put up modest numbers - 32 receptions for 373 yards and three touchdowns - but is a challenge for anyone, particularly a cornerback giving away a half a foot in height.
“It starts off at the line mostly,” Jackson said. “Body position and really attacking the ball in the air. With big guys, there’s a bigger target to get your hands on. I’m going to work personally on just being a little more physical up front, and then just winning the battle for the ball in the air by putting myself in great position.
“He’s a huge target. He’s got good feet and when the ball is in the air, he’s got a wide range that he can make a play. He’s a good receiver. I’ve just got to go out there and limit him.”