And in that corner… the Nevada Wolf Pack

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(“And in that corner” will be a weekly feature where we find an expert on Notre Dame’s opponent to give a look from the other side. Because opposing viewpoints are good, right?)

While Vegas sportsbooks have the Irish hovering a bit above a two-touchdown favorite, there is a solid minority that truly believe that Nevada can come to Notre Dame stadium and shock the college football world. One member of that minority is Juan Lopez, the sports editor of the Nevada Sagebrush, the university’s independent newspaper. 

Juan was kind enough to chat on the phone with me a few times, trade more than a few emails, and let me into the mind of the Wolf Pack. He and about 3,000 other Nevada football fans will be making their first trip to Notre Dame this weekend, and needless to say, they are a bit excited.

Inside the Irish: Let’s start straight, Juan. How nervous should ND fans be this weekend?

Juan Lopez: Very. Nevada’s offense was one of the most prolific in the nation last year. It ranked fifth in the country with 508.5 ypg and scored 41 or more points in 7 games last season. The team speed is much improved this season. Our two stud defensive ends are back (Dontay Moch and Kevin Basped). They combined for 21.5 sacks last season. Colin Kaepernick is one of the premiere dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation. Rush defense ranked 6th last year.

ITI: (Having Minter-like flashbacks…) Both ND and Nevada went 7-6, although ND ended with a resounding win in the bowl game while the Wolf Pack were thumped. What do you expect from the Wolf Pack this season? Over/Under on wins?

JL: I wouldn’t say the Wolf Pack was thumped. The score was 42-35 against a previously ranked ACC team. I, realistically, expect, at worst, a two-loss season for Nevada this season. 10-2 would be the worst the Wolf Pack could finish. Looking at the schedule, the only two losable games are Notre Dame on Sept. 5 and Nov. 27 at Boise State (haven’t beaten BSU since 1998) The over/under on wins is 9.5.

ITI: Chris Ault has been with Nevada football for a long time. He’s had three different terms as head coach. Can you tell us a little bit more about Ault?

JL: Ault is a very blatant guy — with his players and with the media. If you ask a stupid question, he’s going to tell you it’s a stupid question and then give you a stupid answer. But his knowledge of football is vast. He created the pistol offense in 2004, which has been imitated across the country by other schools and he thinks the pistol has been responsible for putting us in prime time games. (LSU, Hawaii, Syracuse, Oregon, Florida State, Ohio State, Virginia Tech — these are some of the guys who have used a version of the pistol.) I can see how players are drawn to play for him. Yes, he yells at you, but it’s insightful, it fires you up and leaves you a better player. Not many people can get to say they practice in front of a Hall of Fame coach every day.

ITI: The offense has really been the story of Nevada’s success. Most of the people that really follow ND football have heard about Colin Kaepernick, but there are quite a few offensive weapons in Chris Ault’s offense. Can you pump these guys’ tires for a bit?

JL: The running back group should be one of the top groups in the nation. Vai Taua began as a 4th stringer last season, and because of some injuries, he moved up to starter and led the WAC in rushing (1,521) and was eighth in the nation. He’s a big guy at 220 pounds, but he had 17 runs of 20 yards or more last season.

ITI: (Gulp, as I think of Armando Allen…)

JL: Luke Lippincott, he led the WAC in rushing the year before with 1,420 yards and is a standout receiver. Offensive lineman Alonzo Durham is one of the top tackles on the West Coast. He was named first-team All-WAC by a ton of publications, and has started 37 games so far. The other tackle is Mike Gallet, he was picked All-WAC first teams too, and he’s only a junior. 

Receivers are a question. Brandon Wimberly is a projected starter at one of the spots. He has the potential to be big-time. Last season on the scout team, he would torch our first-team corners. Tight end Virgil Green is set for a breakout season. He is about as uber-athletic as they come. Body type reminds me of Vernon Davis. Very fast, pure muscle, runs great routes and has solid hands. He should be a factor in the passing game.

ITI: Can you talk a little about what makes Chris Ault’s pistol so special? Was it his design or was it something that offensive coordinator Chris Klenakis brought in?

JL: It was mostly an Ault creation. The basics of it are this: the QB lines up 3 yards behind the center (a semi-shotgun) with the running back about 2 yards behind him. There are three WRs. What makes this pistol special is Kaepernick. He is a threat to run any time he touches the ball. The zone read uses Kaep’s abilities perfectly. The play gives him the option to hand off the ball to a running back or keep it and take it around the edge.

ITI: Now let’s get to the ugly part. Nevada ranked #6 in the country in run defense, but ranked as the 119th best passing defense in college football, which was dead last. Was your secondary that bad? (Or your run game that good?) What can we expect from the defense?

JL: Very ugly part. The rankings don’t tell the entire truth. There’s a mixture of both that go into the rankings. If teams were to pass and run evenly on Nevada, the run defense would probably rank in the 30s while the pass defense would be somewhere in the 50s. But there’s a reason team’s passed 57 percent of the time versus Nevada.

The defensive backs coach was in his first year, our defensive coordinator was in his first year, and three of the five DBs who played the most were in their first year. Basically, they were young and inexperienced.

To completely answer your question: The run defense was stellar, but not as good as the No. 6 ranking. The pass D was bad. Very, very bad. But not as bad as the 119th indicated.

ITI: If the game unfolded perfectly for Nevada, how would it go? Can you give me a recipe for an upset victory for the Wolf Pack?

JL: The recipe would start with rushing the football. IF Nevada can rush the ball, keep Clausen and the rest of the offensive weapons on the sideline, the Wolf Pack should be fine. 300-plus yards on the ground is not a stretch.

The next step would be limiting and creating turnovers. This goes pretty much for any game, but especially this one. If Nevada wants to go into this hostile environment and win, it cannot turn the ball over more than twice. Its defense must also cause at least two turnovers while pressuring Clausen all game. It might not be possible to slow down ND’s receivers, but it’s very likely Clausen will eat dirt a few times.

Last is special teams. Nevada’s return games were terrible last year. No spark came from that until This year, though, the punt returner is Vai Taua and kickoff returner is freshman RB Mike Ball who has more talent than anyone else I’ve ever seen in person. Special teams will play a role in field position.

If Nevada does these things well, a win by 10-plus points shouldn’t be a surprise.

ITI: (Beginning first Rosary of the week…) What scares you the most about this Notre Dame team?

JL: The scariest thing about Notre Dame is the scariest thing about any team facing Nevada — it’s passing game. Golden Tate and Michael Floyd look very impressive from some videos I’ve seen of them and Clausen has good pocket presence and great arm strength. I don’t think Notre Dame will be able to run the ball successfully so its passing game will be on full display Saturday.

ITL: You’re around the team quite a bit, can you get a feel on the team’s attitude traveling for the first time to a place like Notre Dame? Is it just another game? Or do they understand that this is a historic matchup?

JL: The entire team, from head coach to ball boy, knows this is the biggest game in Nevada’s history in terms of national exposure. It is not just another game for anybody involved with Nevada. I’ve had guys tell me they’re losing sleep and that the Notre Dame game was used as a recruiting tool to bring them here to Nevada. This is easily the biggest game some of these guys will ever play in. And they’re very excited to see the sights of South Bend. The team is going to visit the College Football Hall of Fame.  

ITI: Most Vegas books have the Irish as two touchdown favorites. If gambling were legal and we promoted that sort of thing here (it is legal where Juan is), what’s your pocketbook say?

JL: What I’m about to say will extract a lot of “homer” calls, but I truthfully believe Nevada will win. Everyone keeps talking about last season and how the Wolf Pack lost to Hawaii and New Mexico State (very poor teams), but everyone is quick to forget how many near upsets Notre Dame escaped. Last season was last season. I’m sure ND is much improved as well and is ready for the game, but the Wolf Pack is a better team. My money would definitely be on Nevada.

If you’d like more of Juan Lopez and the Nevada Sagebrush’s coverage on the historic Notre Dame matcup, please check it out at http://www.nevadasagebrush.com/notre_dame

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s tight ends, a surplus of depth, unproven talent

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Notre Dame has such tight end depth, it was somewhat surprising when the Irish pursued a second tight end in the class of 2018, but the possibilities of yet another playmaker in Tommy Tremble combined with a physical option in George Takacs forced the coaching staff’s decision.

“I always like to have that versatility each year and each signing class,” Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long said Feb. 7. “… We don’t want to pass up on a great athlete … being able to present different challenges to the defense with those kind of guys and still be very physical at the same time.”

That is a key to remember when looking at the Irish tight ends — Long sees different purposes amid the individuals in that position’s meeting room. Tremble, for example, could line up as a receiver as often as not while Takacs might fill in as Durham Smythe most recently did, serving as an additional blocker when needed and offering sure hands otherwise. In many respects, the two roles are two different positions.

Spring Roster:
— Fifth-year Nic Weishar, who Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said had shoulder surgery recently, though Kelly did not offer a timetable for return.
— Rising senior Alizé Mack.
— Rising sophomore Cole Kmet, when he is not pitching in relief for the Irish baseball team. Kmet made his second appearance of the season Thursday night. A letdown (3.0 IP, 3 ER, 3 H, 4 K), it did not go anywhere near as well as his debut did (4.0 IP, 0 ER, 1 H, 3 K).

@NDFootball

— Rising sophomore Brock Wright, who underwent a shoulder surgery of his own shortly following the regular season. A recent photo (left) from the @NDFootball Twitter account indicates Wright is partaking in at least some winter conditioning drills.
— Early-enrolled freshman Takacs.

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman Tremble.

Depth Chart Possibilities:
Long uses multiple tight ends, deploying both of those aforementioned archetypes at the same time. That tendency should be seen even more often in 2018 with more options now available. A full year in a collegiate program should have both Kmet and Wright ready for bigger roles, challenging Weishar for some of what were Smythe’s snaps in 2017.

The third tight end will see opportunities. It is essentially a second-string role. If granting the argument of two different forms of tight ends, then even the fourth tight end will get chances, as he will simply be the second-stringer in that particular role.

Kmet would seem the more likely of the rising sophomores to get a bit more time, but that only means Wright will see plenty of time in a blocking back role, just as he did in situational packages in 2017.

Biggest Question:
Kmet could find his way to a more prominent role if he offers something not yet seen from Mack: consistency not just on the field, but in all respects.

Can Mack finally translate his athleticism and potential into a consistent mismatch and productive threat? At his best, he could be the product of an offensive coordinator’s daydreams, but Mack has so rarely been at his best. That applies both on and off the field, considering his multiple drops in 2017 were followed by Kelly suspending Mack for an internal team matter for the Citrus Bowl before Notre Dame even headed down to Florida.

Another year of Mack spinning his wheels will result in a loss of playing time with the likes of Kmet and Tremble around. If Mack does not provide positive results in the spring while Kmet does, that shift could begin even before the Blue-Gold Game on April 21.

Fifth-year tight end Nic Weishar will provide Notre Dame not only with depth and experience in 2018, but also sure hands. That alone should give him a leg up on the other tight ends entering this spring. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Pertinent Reader Question:
“Every year a four- or five-star disappoints and every year a three-star or lower prospect surprises. My prediction is fall: Mack, rise: Weishar. I have been the lone man on the Weishar bandwagon for a few years now and really hope that this year he becomes the big receiving target we need.

What are your fallers and risers for this coming year?” — Mark H.

A logical argument can be made that “fallers” should not be labeled as such until after their collegiate careers conclude. There are so many factors that can limit a player for years before he breaks out. Consider rising senior receiver and former consensus four-star prospect Miles Boykin. As recently as New Year’s Eve, he may have been labeled a bust, but now he can lay claim to one of the most dramatic catches in Irish history and is a frontrunner for a starting role in 2018 with another year of eligibility remaining after that. He could end up with a stellar collegiate career by every measure.

Mack has had the opportunity to shine to date, and he has not done so, but he also might have two more seasons to go to change that reputation.

As for “risers,” Weishar makes sense and he certainly showcased his strong hands when given the chance in 2017, but his ceiling is likely not much higher than that. A couple touchdown catches, a handful of third-down conversions and a year of physical blocking would be a welcome success.

Notre Dame’s safeties, though, could stand out to fit the criteria laid out by Mark. If — and that is a two-letter word not to be overlooked — Navy transfer and rising junior Alohi Gilman and rising sophomore Jordan Genmark-Heath end up as productive starters for the season, then they will both have exceeded the expectations set out by star ratings.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Mack: 19 catches for 166 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by six receptions for 38 yards against North Carolina with rising junior quarterback Ian Book starting in place of an injured Brandon Wimbush.
Weishar: Nine catches for 52 yards and two touchdowns.
Kmet: Two catches for 14 yards; appeared in all 13 games.
Wright: Appeared in 11 games, no statistics recorded.

Notre Dame gets the letter: George Takacs
Notre Dame gets the letter: Tommy Tremble

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are
Linebackers, a proven two and then many questions

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s linebackers, a proven two and then many questions

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Any concerns about Notre Dame’s linebackers were allayed when Te’von Coney spurned the NFL to return for his senior season. That decision, and Drue Tranquill making the same move, means the Irish do not need to replace their two best playmakers at the position from last season.

Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Clark Lea does need to figure out how to fill in for the graduated Nyles Morgan and his 92 tackles, not to mention classmate Greer Martini and his 75, good for second and fourth on the team, respectively.

Spring Roster:
— Two known and welcome playmaking veterans in Coney and fifth-year Tranquill.
— More than a handful of unproven and untested possibilities in rising senior Asmar Bilal, rising juniors Jonathan Jones and Jamir Jones (no relation), and rising sophomores Drew White, David Adams and Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah.
— A trio of early-enrolled freshmen in Jack Lamb, Bo Bauer and Ovie Oghoufo.

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman Shayne Simon, a likely rover candidate.

Entering 2017, Te’von Coney was not even a starting linebacker. By the end of the season he was the leading tackler, and in 2018, he will be counted on as a defensive stalwart. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
Wherever Tranquill ends up — be it at rover or a more traditional linebacker position, with the latter seeming more likely — someone will need to earn the third starting role. Bilal is the front-runner for that duty, at either position, but he will need to show a quicker understanding of the game than he has in the past.

The rising senior has always been ready physically, but he has looked up the depth chart at the likes of Morgan, Martini, Coney and Tranquill. Opportunities were not readily available. Now that one very much is, Bilal will need to either seize it or get ready to be bypassed by the newcomers.

It would be a surprise for Lamb or Bauer to be named that third starter in their freshman season, but both could certainly land in the two-deep, as that entire second unit is up for grabs. Neither Jones showed much last season, and the linebacker recruiting emphasis of 2018 belied the coaching staffs’ opinions of the rising sophomores pretty clearly.

Presuming Bilal steps forward and secures the starting position, and some combination of Jones, Jones, Lamb and Bauer fill two of the backup roles, only Owusu-Koromoah stands out as an obvious rover substitute. In that respect, depth remains a concern at the defense’s second level, albeit less of one than in years past thanks to the influx of four touted freshmen.

Biggest Question:
Where does Tranquill line up against Michigan on Sept. 1? More to the current purpose, where does he line up in the Blue-Gold Game on April 21?

“My responsibility as linebackers coach is to put the best combination of people on the field,” Lea said Feb. 7. “I think everyone can see Drue Tranquill had a skillset, a talent base that can play multiple spots. Through the course of the winter and spring, we’ll take a look at different options.”

The duties at rover can be handled piecemeal, accounting for the tendencies of each opponent. When facing an up-tempo, aerial attack, perhaps even rising senior cornerback Shaun Crawford could be featured there. When facing a physical, ground-bound opponent, Bilal would make more sense.

Shifting around like that at the Buck linebacker spot makes far less sense. While Tranquill never necessarily had the speed to excel at safety, and two knee injuries only further limited him in that respect, he shined at rover in 2017. Concluding his collegiate career at linebacker is logical, both as it pertains to his development thus far and to his professional aspirations.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Rarely can a defense lose two of its top-four tacklers and still return more than 200 tackles from starting linebackers. Thus is the luxury provided by both Coney and Tranquill bypassing the NFL for another year.

Coney: 116 tackles, 13.0 tackles for loss including three sacks, and one forced fumble which he recovered.
Tranquill: 85 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss including 1.5 sacks, one interception, three pass breakups, three fumbles recovered and one fumble forced.
Bilal: 18 tackles with 1.5 for loss.
Jo. Jones: 10 tackles with one for loss and one pass breakup.
Ja. Jones: Four tackles.

A 2018 Statistical Thought:
Presuming linebacker health, the three starters should end up as Notre Dame’s leading tacklers once again in 2018, even with the presumed drop off from Morgan to insert Bilal or Owusu-Koromoah or Lamb or … here.

The Irish defensive line will be much improved in 2018. Once upon a time, that seemed a guarantee just because the expectations for the line entering 2017 were so low, but it instead became a strength. Developing that strength and making it the backbone of Notre Dame’s defense moving forward will serve to burgeon the linebackers’ tackle totals, both at and behind the line of scrimmage.

Notre Dame gets the letter: Jack Lamb
Notre Dame gets the letter: Bo Bauer
Notre Dame gets the letter: Shayne Simon
Notre Dame gets the letter: Ovie Oghoufo

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are

A second four-star defensive lineman, Hunter Spears, joins the Notre Dame class of 2019

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When Notre Dame got five heralded defensive line recruits on campus together in January, it turned heads. When Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston offered public optimism about the possible 2019 commitments, it raised expectations.

Notre Dame has now secured a second of those five with the Tuesday commitment of consensus four-star defensive end Hunter Spears (Sachse High School; Texas). He joins consensus four-star defensive tackle Jacob Lacey (South Warren H.S.; Bowling Green, Ky.) as the early foundation to the recruiting class, now with four prospects pledged.

“Honestly, just talking with the guys today — Jacob Lacey, Mazi Smith, Joseph Anderson, Nana Osafo-Mensah, and myself — if Notre Came can land all of us, that would be the dream d-line class for Notre Dame,” Spears told Irish Illustrated. “I could see another pass-rusher or two, also.”

The other three names Spears mentioned all joined Lacey and him on Jan. 27 at an on-campus Junior Day. All five qualify as consensus four-stars, with Smith (East Kentwood; Kentwood, Mich.) a tackle, Anderson (Siegel; Murfreesboro, Tenn.) an end, and Osafo-Mensah (Nolan Catholic; Fort Worth, Texas) a possible end/linebacker hybrid.

From left to right: Osafo-Mensah, Anderson, Elston, Smith, Lacey and Spears. (Twitter: @JacobLacey6)

Landing all five may be ambitious, but it would also be the envy of most of the country.

Spears already held offers from the likes of Alabama and Michigan State, despite missing his junior season with a knee injury. The Irish extended a scholarship offer to him in June, prompting an unofficial visit to watch a 49-14 Notre Dame victory over USC in October. In a video released by 247Sports.com, Spears cited that experience as one of the three primary reasons he committed, along with the educational opportunity and the “overall tradition and culture.”

Spears shows quickness for a defensive lineman, but not such that he would ever be considered an outside linebacker in any form. His size makes him an ideal candidate to set the edge against the run or possibly move inside when the Irish need a quicker defensive line to handle certain opponents. His agility, though, will make him a three-down threat, both a pass-rusher and an edge-setter.

Notre Dame currently has depth at defensive end, but with only one signed in the class of 2018 (Justin Ademilola) and one remaining from the class of 2017 (Kofi Wardlow), an influx will be a priority this recruiting cycle. Spears will theoretically have one season to adjust to collegiate competition before the quartet of rising juniors Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem, Julian Okwara and Ade Ogundeji run out of eligibility. (The first three have two seasons remaining, while Ogundeji has the possibility of three more years.)

Hence, that Junior Day emphasis and Elston’s confidence on National Signing Day.

“I’ve been at Notre Dame now going on for nine years, and I haven’t had a stronger group of underclassmen that I’m recruiting than I have this year in 2019,” Elston said. “This could be the best defensive line haul we’ve ever had here.”

Expect to read that quote again and again (and possibly again) if any of the remaining three in the above photo follow Spears’ and Lacey’s lead.

RELATED READING: ‘Accelerated’ start creates bright outlook for Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting cycle

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are

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Notre Dame will open spring practice in about two weeks. As always, the proceedings will be filled with positive reviews, optimistic outlooks, and an injury or two.

A quick look at each position group should lend a better understanding to those perspectives and effects, beginning with the group lacking many questions — the running backs. The biggest reason there is relative certainty around the running backs is there are just so few of them following the winter dismissals of rising junior Deon McIntosh and rising sophomore C.J. Holmes.

Spring Roster:
Rising senior Dexter Williams (pictured above)
Rising junior Tony Jones
Early-enrolled freshman Jahmir Smith
Rising junior Mick Assaf

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman C’Bo Flemister

No one received more praise last spring practice than Tony Jones. He had a successful 2017, but compared to that hype, it could have been considered under-performing. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
At some point, either Williams or Jones will be named the Irish starter. It is quite possible that will be a distinction without much difference, as the two could certainly complement each other well in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s system, which already prefers to use multiple running backs.

Human nature, though, dictates is more likely one back receives a majority of the carries.

Biggest Question:
If Williams lines up with the No. 1 offensive unit in the Blue-Gold Game (April 21) to conclude spring practice, that will be the first genuine and tangible evidence he has improved as a pass blocker. Despite his big-play speed and seeming-ease breaking tackles, Williams’ one-dimensional game rendered him as much a liability as an asset in 2017.

Even in the Citrus Bowl victory, Williams followed up back-to-back rushes for a combined 36 yards with a blown pass protection resulting in a 13-yard sack.

“You have to be able to protect the quarterback with all positions,” Long said Feb. 7. “That dictates a whole lot if you’re going to play a lot or just be a situational guy. It’s something you have to embrace, the physicality.

“… That’s really the main thing, other than protecting the ball, that’ll keep a back off the field in our offense.”

The best ability is availability, and both an ankle injury and a balky quad limited Williams in that respect in 2017. Little blame can be cast for the natural bruises of football. Nonetheless, he will need to “embrace the physicality” if he wants to become more than a situational back.

Otherwise, Jones will be the default option. He has already shown a knack for both pass blocking and catching, making him a three-down option. Notre Dame will always prefer that rather than tip its hand to a running play every time Williams enters the game.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Obviously, Josh Adams carried the burden in the running game last season. Behind rising senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush and McIntosh, Williams was only the No. 4 rusher on the roster in yards and touchdowns, while Jones was No. 4 in carries and No. 5 in yards and scores.

Williams: 360 yards on 39 carries, a 9.2 average, with four touchdowns. Two catches for 13 yards and one score.
Jones: 232 yards on 44 carries, a 5.3 average, with three touchdowns. Six catches for 12 yards.
Notre Dame gets the letter: Jahmir Smith
Notre Dame gets the letter: C’Bo Flemister