Trying to improve red zone efficiency, Irish get tricky

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Trying to improve red zone efficiency, Irish get tricky

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- In an effort to combat one of the worst red zone touchdown rates in the nation, Notre Dame's offense has tried some new looks in practice leading up to the BCS Championship. The actual specifics aren't important, since everything the media saw this week in South Florida was calculated. More importantly, there's a greater sense of urgency permeating Notre Dame's offense when it gets inside the red zone.

For a team that's only found the end zone 46 percent of the time when its offense gets inside its opponents' 20-yard line, something had to change.

"I think once we got to the red zone, for a lot of people, it was 'let's get in the end zone' but it wasn't -- I don't want to say there wasn't a want to, but it wasn't do-or-die for us," wide receiver T.J. Jones said. "And that's what we've established.

"It's taken that month to work on what you do in the red zone to flip your mindset when you're in the red zone to know it's do-or-die," he added.

Notre Dame beat USC despite seeing drives stall on far too many occasions. If Kyle Brindza attempts six field goals against Alabama, Notre Dame's probably in trouble.

"Coach Kelly is going to set up some things to actually let us score touchdowns, because we have to," running back Theo Riddick said following Notre Dame's win over USC. "We have to get better at that, being in the red zone."

The other part of this equation deals with Alabama's red zone defense, which is among the best in college football. Opponents have converted red zone opportunities into points about three in every five tries against Alabama this year, although the Tide have allowed 14 touchdowns -- six more than Notre Dame -- on those chances.

But with only 27 opponent red zone attempts (tied for the lowest among FBS teams) at which to look, Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chuck Martin doesn't have a whole lot of tape to work with.

"The few clips when teams get inside their 10 so you can really game plan and organize a good plan, the score is typically 48 to nothing, and there's none of the starters on the field for Alabama," Martin said. "It's hard to game plan against what they do late in the game when they're up by 50 points. That's the other task for them is you're trying to see how you can attack them and what they're going to do against you or certain formations, and you know they've got their backups in and they're just kind of finishing out the game."

A way to fight that unknown is to toss in an unknown as well, as in a play or two Alabama hasn't seen on film. But Kirby Smart's defense -- which prides itself on a "war zone" mentality inside the 20 -- expects some new wrinkles to Notre Dame's red zone offense.

"In a game like this, you got what, five weeks to prepare, you know there's going to be some trick plays that'll be thrown into it," cornerback Dee Milliner said. "You gotta focus in, read your keys and just know when they like to throw in a trick play here or there. We got a great coaching staff that have us prepared when they do run a trick play, just reading our keys and it's up to us to make the plays."

If one of those plays is a wildcat formation with Theo Riddick taking a direct snap or even a fake field goal -- both plays witnessed in practice this week -- the key for Notre Dame is to catch Alabama off guard. The Irish rarely did that during the regular season.

In a championship game, teams will pull out all the stops. Refrigerator Perry scored a touchdown in Super Bowl XX -- although don't expect Notre Dame to use the same line of thinking with its own large defensive tackle.

"I don't want give it away, but they have put the ball in my hands a couple times in practice," Louis Nix joked, hushing his tone and leaning in with a smile. "It's a special option with me and (defensive end Stephon) Tuitt. It's going well. I'll show a pass to him, if I want. I'm a selfish guy so I might just fake it and just keep it. We scored on it a couple times.

"Alabama, be on the lookout for it."

Northern Illinois adds running back Fotis Kokosioulis

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USA TODAY

Northern Illinois adds running back Fotis Kokosioulis

Northern Illinois University added it's fourth known verbal commitment today in its growing Class of 2018.

Maine South junior running back Fotis Kokosioulis (5-foot-8, 165 pounds) added an offer from the Huskies on Tuesday after making a spring practice visit, and today he gave head coach Rod Carey his verbal commitment.

"I chose NIU because it's been a school that I've liked for awhile now," Kokosioulis said moments ago. "I like the facilities at NIU, the stadium and everything else they have to offer. I also really like all the coaches at NIU. I felt that even if I got more offers I would've still chose NIU over other schools. I know that there are bigger school and programs but I feel that I just fit in well at NIU, so I committed."

Kokosioulis, who was an All-State performer for the Class 8A state champion Maine South Hawks in 2016, is now the fourth known in-state verbal commitment for Rod Carey and the Huskies and the fifth known commitment overall. Kokosioulis joins Andrew defensive end Mike DeHaan, Plainfield East defensive end Jack Sullivan and Danville tight end Julian Pearl in the NIU Huskies in-state Class of 2018.

High School coaches 'leave no stone unturned' in helping players explore next level

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Photo at top: Loyola Academy assistant coach Paul Pryma extends his hand toward a Steinmetz High School player during pregame introductions on Feb. 21. (Andres Waters/MEDILL)

High School coaches 'leave no stone unturned' in helping players explore next level

By Andres Waters
Special Contributor to CSNChicago.com

After Loyola Academy held off rival New Trier 43-40 to win the 2017 Zion-Benton regional championship, Ramblers head coach Tom Livatino had a special message for his players.

"That's the best celebration that I have ever been a part of," Livatino said. "Because everybody was completely about love. You guys love each other and we all can tell. I'm really, really proud just to be one of our coaches."

While the speech was a powerful way for Livatino to tell the players of his appreciation, he and other high school coaches engage in something much bigger to show players how proud they are: college recruiting.

In addition to time spent planning and practicing, coaches also sacrifice countless hours each week helping their players find opportunities to play at the next level.

"It's a really long part of the process, but to be honest, it's a part of the job that I absolutely love," Livatino said. "We demand so much of our players in every aspect. And, from a basketball standpoint, the least I could do is everything in my power to help them out."

Less than 48 hours after the Ramblers completed their season with a loss to Evanston Township in the Waukegan Sectional semifinal, Livatino was back in his office holding individual meetings with each player.

Starting with the 10 departing seniors, Livatino discussed the factors that go into choosing a college for high school athletes.

His conversations with the two players who already committed, senior guards Ramar Evans and Matt Lynch, focused on how they felt about their next steps. With the others, Livatino asked whether they wanted to play at the next level and, if so, which schools they wanted to attend that shared an interest in them. The conversations held with the Ramblers' juniors are very similar.

"I wasn't just looking for basketball, I was looking for a fit academically and socially," said Lynch, who committed to Division III St. Norbert College. "[Livatino] said St. Norbert would be the best fit for me. It fit everything I was looking for."

Read the full story at Medill Reports Chicago.

CSN Chicago, in partnership with Northwestern University,  features journalism by students in the graduate program at Medill School of Journalism. The students are reporters for Medill News Service. Medill faculty members edit the student work. Click here for more information about Medill.