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

Blue-Gold Game Leftovers: Notre Dame’s offensive ceiling is tantalizing, though also unlikely

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Immediately following the 2017 spring game, I walked by two much smarter, savvier and more veteran Notre Dame reporters on our way to post-game interviews. Our two minutes of exchange included them riffing on various hypothetical position changes that were eventually not seen come fall, including how much better of a guard than a tackle Tommy Kraemer could be. It should be noted, the junior began lining up at guard this spring.

My contribution to the conversation hinged entirely on repeating, “That offense just isn’t ready. It’s not close to ready.”

Of course, that assessment figured the spring game struggles were against a porous Irish defense, something freshly-arrived and since-departed defensive coordinator Mike Elko had already taken tangible steps toward fixing, far quicker than expected.

That evaluation also failed to recognize the potential of a running attack led by Josh Adams. Notre Dame knew it had a stalwart running back, and did not need to see more than eight carries for 39 yards and a touchdown from the lead back.

The point stood, though. The offense was not ready then or in November.

Driving away from this past Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game, the thought bouncing around my pickup’s two-seat cab was simple: This offense is unlikely to reach its ceiling, but if it did, it would be really, absurdly high-powered.

This time, that assessment offers some deference to first-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s ability to turn nine returning starters into another strong defense, perhaps superior to last year’s.

The praise of the offense must be hedged thanks to IF after IF after IF after IF. If senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush displays those mechanics and that accuracy against opposing defenses …
If senior running back Dexter Williams (pictured above) decides it is worthwhile to play, and play well, through pain …
If junior receiver Chase Claypool maintains the necessary emotional equilibrium …
If senior tight end Alizé Mack offers a consistent performance, even if not stellar, but stable …

In those four upperclassmen alone, the Irish have unique talents whom opposing defensive coordinators should lose sleep thinking about. They will determine how high this offense’s ceiling is, while the likes of senior receiver Miles Boykin, junior running back Tony Jones and sophomore tight end Cole Kmet will set the floor, along with what looks to be yet another overpowering offensive line (with Kraemer at right guard).

Obviously, the most-promising players always set the height of a vaulted the ceiling. As they perform against Michigan, Stanford and Virginia Tech will determine how the season ends. However, to pinpoint four like this is an extreme end of the spectrum.

Exiting last year’s Blue-Gold Game, it was clear Wimbush needed to learn much more of offensive coordinator Chip Long’s scheme. Aside from that, the only possible ways to increase the offense’s potency was to teach receiver Kevin Stepherson self-discipline and figure out why Mack could not make a gameday impact. The rest was essentially known, even if the running game’s potential was overlooked after the spring exhibition.

Entering this summer, the gap between the offense’s floor and its ceiling is a vast one. To have four question marks of this magnitude speaks to the possible volatility awaiting in the fall. Logically speaking, it is most likely two of the four above IFs become realities. In that case, it will be a good offense, but not the utterly threatening one conceivable. The odds are slim all four come to fruition, but crazier things have happened, especially when discussing the rapid development of 18- to 21-year-olds.

Without Adams following two All-American offensive linemen, this rendition of the Notre Dame offense may take a step backward, but the talent is there for it to actually improve, to carry the day if/when an experienced quarterback picks apart the defense (see: the Seminoles’ Deondre Francois).

That could not be said in 2017.

OTHER QUICK TAKEAWAYS FROM THE BLUE-GOLD GAME:
Much of this will be discussed in greater length in the coming two weeks, but …
— The interior of the offensive line — fifth-year left guard Alex Bars, fifth-year center Sam Mustipher and Kraemer at right guard — is quite a physically-imposing trio. Some defensive ends may find success against first-year starter and junior left tackle Liam Eichenberg, especially early in the season, but the inside trio should at least create massive holes for the Irish running game.

— Ideally Long can deploy Mack and Kmet together, but the spring performance of the latter certainly eases the concerns about the maturation and consistency of the former.

Notre Dame may need an unexpected influx of production from senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery if the fifth-year tackle he is intended to line up alongside, Jonathan Bonner, does not recover fully from a wrist injury suffered in the beginning of 2017. (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP)

— Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly insists fifth-year defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner’s fitness will not be overly-effected by the wrist injury that kept him out of most of spring practice and all of the Blue-Gold Game.

“He’s been doing everything (in weight-lifting) but at lighter weight, and now he’s only a couple of weeks away from being full-go,” Kelly said Saturday. “He was already physically really gifted, so we don’t think that’s going to be a big curve for him, and he’ll be able to start training aggressively when we get back here in June.”

Consider this scribe skeptical. Not only is Kelly often overly-optimistic about injury effects and timetables, but to think missing six months of strength and conditioning will not be noticeable along the defensive interior is idealistic at best. Bonner’s 2017 emergence was a direct result of the arrival of strength and conditioning coordinator Matt Balis.

Without more of that work, the Irish will need to turn to sophomore Kurt Hinish for an increase in snaps, perhaps pushing toward 50 per game with Bonner offering 20-30 and senior Micah Dew-Treadway filling in the balance. Hinish appears to be up to the task, which is necessary, because classmate Darnell Ewell is not.

Notre Dame gains commitments of four-star defensive end and three-star offensive tackle

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At this rate, Notre Dame might fill its 2019 recruiting class by the time the school year ends. With a Sunday morning commitment of a consensus four-star defensive end followed by a Monday evening pledge from a consensus three-star offensive tackle, the Irish class has grown from three recruits to seven in just four days.

The No. 238 prospect in the country and No. 28 at defensive end, per rivals.com, Howard Cross III (St. Joseph High School; Montvale, N.J.) announced his commitment via Twitter shortly after leaving campus from a visit for the Blue-Gold Game, choosing the Irish over offers from Michigan, North Carolina State and Virginia Tech, among others.

“I could tell [current Notre Dame players] really loved the school,” Cross said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “It was really, really big to talk to them. When I was going to all the colleges, that was the main thing I wanted to do. I wanted to get the perspective of the players.”

Cross joins consensus four-star defensive end Hunter Spears (Sachse H.S.; Texas) as half of the four defensive linemen already in the Irish recruiting class. As always, no collegiate defensive line can be deep enough. Considering the previous two recruiting classes have yielded a total of two defensive ends — Kofi Wardlow and Justin Ademilola — opportunity should be aplenty for Cross and Spears early in their careers.

The defensive end duo will likely spend a not-insignificant portion of their collegiate career practices butting heads with Andrew Kristofic (Pine-Richland; Gibsonia, Pa.). If the high school of Pine-Richland jumps off the figurative page to Notre Dame recruitniks, that is because Kristofic has much experience protecting high school teammate and incoming Irish freshman quarterback Phil Jurkovec.

He chose Notre Dame, and new offensive line coach Jeff Quinn, rather than offers from a lengthy list including Clemson, Georgia and Ohio State.

“The combination that their school is able to provide being one of the very best schools in the entire country academically and one of the very athletically stands out,” Kristofic said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “I think they have the best combination of those two things on top of being a school that is known for being able to produce such great offensive linemen is something that no other schools really have the combination of all those.

“When you can put together all the things that they can there, it’s certainly not something you can overlook or take for granted.”

The beginning of this influx of commitments came with the Friday decision of consensus four-star offensive tackle John Olmstead (St. Joseph; Metuchen, N.J.), the only other offensive lineman in the class to this point. Of the seven recruits committed to the Irish, five are four-star talents.

Former Notre Dame defensive lineman, Kona Schwenke, dies at 25

und.com
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Former Notre Dame defensive lineman Kona Schwenke, 25, reportedly died in his sleep Sunday morning. The cause of death has not yet been confirmed.

Schwenke spent four seasons along the Irish defensive front, culminating in a 23-tackle senior season, in 2013. Attrition along the defensive line in his first two seasons forced Schwenke into playing time, costing him a likely fifth-year with much greater production. He played in 31 games total, making 30 tackles.

Part of a Hawaiian surge in Notre Dame recruiting, Schwenke joined the likes of receiver Robby Toma and linebacker Manti Te’o in coming from the island in 2009 and 2010. The first two committed during Charlie Weis’ tenure, but Schwenke made the leap at the very beginning of Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s career, one of the first recruits to commit to Kelly at Notre Dame. Since then, sophomore defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa has renewed the trend.

Schwenke graduated in 2014 with a degree in anthropology. He then signed with the practice squad of the Kansas City Chiefs, moving around four different NFL franchises chasing his dream. Earlier this month he took part in a scouting event, The Spring League, gaining some notice when he forced Heisman-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel into a fumble.

Former Irish teammates took to social media Sunday afternoon celebrating Schwenke’s life and friendship.

Things We Learned: Wimbush’s and Claypool’s proven potential raises Notre Dame’s ceiling

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It may have just been an intrasquad scrimmage in April, but the Blue-Gold Game included the most-consistent performance seen by the public in rising-senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s career at Notre Dame. Looking through 2017’s game-by-game stats, no other showing comes very close to Saturday’s 19-of-33 passing for 341 yards and two touchdowns with one interception.

His 57.6 percent completion rate was outdone only once, when he completed 70 percent of his passes, 14-of-20, for 173 yards and one touchdown at Michigan State. This weekend’s accuracy could have ended up a few points higher, too, if Wimbush had been allowed to scramble on broken plays, rather than try to force a pass into tight coverage.

Yes, it may have just been the conclusion to spring practices, but Wimbush proved he physically can put together an accurate day with more than his coaches and teammates watching.

“Obviously, I wasn’t too accurate last year,” Wimbush said. “I missed some balls that should have been completed. It’s the fundamentals and my footwork, emphasizing urgency with my footwork that will help me.”

The minutiae of fundamentals and footwork manifest themselves by throwing behind receivers on drag routes, making Equanimeous St. Brown reach behind himself to pull in a five-yard throw intended to turn into 10 or 15 yards. They result in hitting Alizé Mack’s shoes in the flat against Miami (OH) on a first-and-10 in the red zone. The simple change in arm angle turns simple pick-ups into lost downs and torpedoes any hopes of a tolerable completion percentage and efficient drives down the field.

Throughout the latter half of 2017, Irish head coach Brian Kelly acknowledged those mechanical mistakes, but put off rectifying them until the offseason, lest a week’s game planning be lost to rushed returns to basics. With an offseason working on those building blocks, Wimbush showed Saturday he can make those throws, finding Mack, Cole Kmet, Chris Finke and even Jafar Armstrong either crossing just past the line of scrimmage or in the flat. His completion percentage reflected it, and the offense moved down the field.

“Consistency in his mechanics was probably the biggest thing,” Kelly said. “His (arm) drop put him in a lot of compromising situations in terms of throwing the football, and so I think that was cleaned up. Started with his attention to those things, and being very coachable.

“Then repetition, doing it consistently, play in and play out. We’re not there yet, but we made a huge jump forward.”

Ian Book finished the Blue-Gold Game 17-of-30 for 292 yards and a touchdown, trailing Brandon Wimbush in all categories and likely solidifying the quarterback competition in Wimbush’s favor. (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP)

This may all read as if through rose-colored lenses — and it needs to be again acknowledged this was in front of a generously-announced crowd of 31,729, far from the Stadium’s capacity of 80,795 — but the numbers are unprecedented in Wimbush’s tenure. He gained 10.33 yards per attempt. The closest he managed last season was 9.33 yards per attempt against Wake Forest, when he completed only 50 percent of his passes. Even last year’s Blue-Gold Game saw only 9.47 yards per Wimbush passing attempt, although it did include a 68.75 percent completion rate.

Then things changed in the season. Wimbush’s muscle memory vanished. He had it once. He may have it again.

“It was [committed to muscle memory] coming out of high school and going through a couple years of college,” Wimbush said. “Then, sometimes you just lose sight of what got you to where you are, and I think that happened to me last year. I went back to the details and the fundamentals and got it right.”

None of this means a thing if Wimbush returns to aiming at Mack’s shins against Michigan on Sept. 1, but it is now clear he should be able to avoid that habit. Another four months of this trend-line, and perhaps some of this spring Saturday’s stats could become figures seen on a fall weekend.

Of course, Wimbush had help. Two of his passes went to rising-junior receiver Chase Claypool for 25 yards, part of Claypool’s six total receptions for 151 yards and two touchdowns.

For a rising-senior with only 12 catches for 253 yards last season, Miles Boykin is rather established as Notre Dame’s top receiving option. One could be forgiven for assuming Claypool would have had those honors after catching 29 passes for 402 yards last season. Instead, he spent much of the spring working with the second set of Irish receivers, while Boykin, rising-sophomore Michael Young and rising-senior Chris Finke took the starting reps.

That did not sit well with Claypool.

“I was starting with the 2s there, and I kind of wanted to show that’s not my position,” he said. “… I think my potential is limitless. I like to think of it that way, that I’ll never peak.”

If Claypool’s potential has a limitation, it is due to his emotions, something Kelly has spent the spring harping on. When Claypool makes a first-down grab, his focus should be on the rest of the drive, not celebrating moving the chains. Likewise, after a dropped pass, he needs to ready himself for the next down, not dwell on the missed opportunity.

“He wasn’t one of our cool, calm and collected guys last year, but he’s really worked hard on that and the way he’s practiced has allowed him to be much more focused,” Kelly said. “… Since he’s found where that optimal zone is for him to be when he plays, he’s been so much more consistent.

“If he continues to trend this way, we’ve got another big, rangy, physical wide receiver that we can put on the field.”

Remove Claypool’s afternoon against Wake Forest to start November, in which he caught nine passes for 180 yards and a touchdown, and the then-sophomore never topped 60 yards or four receptions last season. As physically gifted as he very clearly is, inconsistent was just as apt an adjective when discussing the Canadian product.

Finding that “optimal zone” against the Wolverines will be a challenge, but it is one Claypool knows is ahead of him.

“I think I can do that every time,” he said. “I told [rising-junior quarterback Ian] Book and Wimbush, the only way they’ll stop me — with all confidence, I don’t want to be cocky — is if they [pass interfere with] me. … It kind of showed I can make plays, but I have to still keep working until I can give myself the opportunity.”

How many times can “Aloha, Alohi” be used before it gets old? Oh wait, it already is? Fine. So be it. Anyway, welcome Alohi Gilman as a starting safety.

The rising-junior transfer from Navy totaled only six tackles and did not break up any passes, but he also did not appear to blow any coverages or outright miss any tackles. (He can thank rising-junior cornerback Troy Pride for cleaning up a takedown of Finke which Gilman was on the verge of mishandling.)

Alohi Gilman, left, made a heads-up strip of rising-sophomore receiver Michael Young to further cement Gilman’s status as a starting safety for the Irish defense. (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP)

When Wimbush connected with Young off a play-action fake early on, Gilman made the instinctual play to swat the exposed ball out of Young’s hands and then recovered the fumble. That nose for the ball has been missing among Notre Dame’s safeties in recent years.

“If you look at every time [Gilman is] near the football, there is high contact with him,” Kelly said. “That’s what we’re looking for at that position: High contact, plays the ball well in the air, a very smart football player.

“He’s what we thought he would be. He started a little slow in the spring. I think he’s really picked it up to the point where he’s making things happen back at that safety position.”

Unless incoming freshman Derrik Allen makes an immediate impression or early-enrolled freshman Houston Griffith shows great development over the summer, Gilman and rising-junior Jalen Elliott will likely man the Irish backline against Michigan. It is no coincidence they created a turnover apiece Saturday.

Notre Dame will need that new indoor practice facility when it is finished next summer.

Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game was one of only two practices the Irish held outdoors this spring, out of a possible 15. Such are the joys of a northwestern Indiana winter. The ceilings at the Loftus Sports Complex are too low to genuinely work on the kicking game, and it showed with fifth-year punter Tyler Newsome averaging only 40.5 yards per punt and rising-senior kicker Justin Yoon missing two of five field goals.

The new indoor facility is intended to have higher ceilings, allowing those specialists more offseason work.

Kelly was not concerned in the least by the kicking performances, and considering the veterans at his disposal currently, his calm makes sense. Nonetheless, the new practice facility is needed, even if it is another whole spring away from being completed.

Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting received another boost with the commitment of rivals.com four-star safety Litchfield Ajavon (Episcopal High School; Alexandria, Va.).

Not much else needs to be said about Ajavon’s recruitment. Until further notice, safety play will remain a concern for the Irish, so pulling in a talent like Ajavon’s is vital. He is the fifth commitment in the Notre Dame class of 2019, following in the Friday footsteps of consensus four-star offensive tackle John Olmstead.