And in that corner… the Washington State Cougars

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It’s got to be tough right now for Washington State Cougar fans. Outside of an overtime victory against SMU, things have been pretty bleak this season for the Cougs. If you take a look at the national stats, it’s not too hard to figure out why Wazzou has been struggling. They’ve got a spot in the bottom ten teams in just about every statistical category across the board, minus punting, where Reid Forrest is averaging almost 44 yards per punt.

Sean Hawkins has been covering Washington State football since 2004. He’s seen plenty of dark skies, and hopefully he’s channeling his inner-Harvey Dent right now. (Not with the Two-Face thing, but with the “the night is always darkest just before the dawn,” attitude.) He’s written at FanHouse covering Pac-10 football, and headlines the staff over at the aptly named WSU Football Blog, so if anyone has a pulse for this football team, it’d be him.

We exchanged a few questions and answers (some fairly long questions and answers) and here’s what this Saturday’s game looks like from his corner.

Inside the Irish: So it’s been a tough season. What’s morale like for Cougars fans?

Sean Hawkins: It has been a tough season-and-a-half if you want to know
the truth. It started in ’08 with some epic losses (69-0 vs. USC, 66-3 vs Cal,
63-14 vs. Oregon). There has been some improvement in ’09, but with unbelievable
injury issues, and an alarming drop in depth and game-ready talent has all
played a part in a 3-17 stretch since the beginning of 2008. Overall, there has
been some wavering optimism, not all that surprising given the struggles. But
the hardcore fans have hung in there. They know and understand the situation
when Paul Wulff took over the program, and it has become painfully clear on a
weekly basis that there is a long way to go!

ITI: Where did it all go
wrong? Do you go back to Mike Price leaving?

SH: Price’s departure was a huge
blow to a program that finally looked like it was turning the corner. In 2002,
WSU won the Pac-10 (the last Pac-10 team other than USC to represent the
conference in the Rose Bowl), but that season was the first time in Price’s
tenure that the program had consecutive winning seasons. We all know what
happened next – Price bolted for a date with Destiny in ‘Bama, and is still
unbeaten as the head coach of the Crimson Tide…..but the problem was leaving
the program in the hands of Bill Doba.

At the time it all went down,
Doba looked like the right move. Many key players were coming back in 2003, and
Doba was widely respected in the coaching ranks. Doba is a fantastic human
being, classy and gracious all throughout his tenure. But he wasn’t exactly the
head coach to keep things going long-term. Some of this were terrible personal
issues as his wife Judy lost a long, draining battle with cancer. But Doba had
been an assistant coach for decades, and suddenly was thrust into being the man
to keep the program on the upswing. Long term, it just didn’t work out, and started to
really fall apart at the end. Not only did they miss on some big recruiting
targets, but academics suffered, and WSU paid dearly with a BCS-high 8
scholarships lost due to the NCAA APR rule. Even worse, there were a reported 25
arrestable offenses by players during Doba’s final 18 months as head coach. So
back to your question? It really did start with Price’s departure, but you have to combine his departure with the fact that the program wasn’t left
in the best hands for long-term success.

ITI: Is Paul Wulff the man for the job?

SH: The verdict is still out on this one. First, one must appreciate
the backstory of Paul Wulff.
He is one of our own, a former center on the team in the late
80’s.  He played under Jim Walden, Dennis Erickson and Mike Price, and
was a good, tough player who got by on smarts and grit instead of raw
talent.  He has been through the Pullman experience as a player, and many
believe he knows what it takes to build a winner at WSU.  H
e
has had a lot of personal tragedy of his own, losing his mother at an early age
to murder, a murder in which his own father was the prime suspect until the day
he died. They never did find her body, and the crime went unsolved. Later in his
life, Wulff lost his first wife to cancer. So he has dealt with a considerable
amount of tragedy that no man should have to experience in his life, and all at
a fairly young age.


Wulff is regarded as a man of high character,
and he has gone to great lengths to 
install  a tough, structured, disciplined
program that is beginning to take shape. Several first-and-second year players
are moving up the depth chart, as coach Wulff has put together some very good
recruiting classes. The hardcore fan believes in the long-term approach of
building the program up with years of strong recruiting classes, where they can
put together layers and layers of depth and, ultimately, compete for postseason
play on a yearly basis.


That said, there is a contingent that believes
this may not work out. The naysayers will point out that while Wulff was
successful in the Big Sky conference prior to coming to WSU, winning a few
  conference titles as well as coach of the
year honors on multiple occasions, well, he hasn’t yet shown he can do it on the
BCS level. And the way they have lost some games, where they have been
absolutely buried early and often, has turned off some of the fan base.


Some describe the situation as a little uneasy, as Wulff has intimated
on more than one occasion that the former coaching staff should
shoulder much of
the blame for the team’s current struggles. Meanwhile, WSU is in the final
stages of a fundraising campaign that would complete a phase III renovation of
Martin Stadium, giving WSU much-needed revenue streams with premium seating to
help them maintain their standing in the Pac-10. 
Go to
Martinstadium.org for more!  Operators are standing by.  🙂 
But they aren’t there yet. While it looks promising, some of the
losses on the field
combined
with a brutal economy 
haven’t exactly helped the fundraising
cause off the field.


The true measure of Wulff will be what the team
does in 2011. By then, his first two
 recruiting classes will be
upperclassmen, and then it will be fair to judge his abilities as a BCS coach.
But we just aren’t there yet.

ITI: The Irish have done a very nice job
making freshman quarterbacks look good. Do you expect Jeff Tuel to do the same?
What WRs will be putting up monster numbers this week for the Cougs?

SH: Jeff
Tuel was a fantastic find by the WSU coaching staff. Tuel didn’t even start at
QB until his senior year in high school, but he burst onto the scene with
an impressive combo of mobility and a
strong, accurate arm. The true frosh turned a lot of heads during fall camp, and
combined with the struggles of the QB’s ahead of him, Tuel was the starter by
the end of September.


As to what he will do this Saturday? It is still
hard to tell. Tuel’s experience has been 1) some success in garbage time vs.
USC, 2) a di
sasterous start at Oregon where he didn’t even make
it out of the first quarter, 3) a run-for-your-life performance vs. ASU, and
finally, 4) a breakthrough performance vs. Cal where he threw for 354 yards with
two Td’s and zero turnovers.


A huge issue early in Tuel’s play were some
major injury problems on the offensive line. The Cougs’ lost three starters up
front, replaced by young, not-ready-for-prime-time players. However, vs. Cal
last week, a couple of capable offensive linemen in Zack Williams and Steven
Ayers returned to action. Their presence helped keep young Tuel upright and able
to not only makes some good reads, but stand tall in the pocket and deliver the
ball to the right players at the right time.


As to his weapons, well,
they are young, young, young! Jared Karstetter is one starter, a tall, strong
sophomore we
hope will turn
into
Jeff Smardzjilla, minus the mullet of course. True frosh Gino
Simone was the top recruit in the state of Washington last year, and is emerging
as
one  of
Tuel’s favorite targets. Newcomer Johnny Forzani, a junior transfer from Canada
who never even played high school football, has become the primary deep target.
He set a Pac-10 record with a 99-yard TD vs. ASU, and hauled in a gorgeous
68-yard score last week vs. Cal. It is a good, productive, young base of
wideouts that has the fans excited for what is to come.


ITI:
Is this game a
big deal for Wazzou? Does going to San Antonio and playing Notre Dame move the
needle for fans and players or is this just another game?

SH: Absolutely
moves the needle! They will be sky-high for this one, playing on national TV
against the most storied program in college football. This will be the closest
to a bowl game that these kids will experience for some time, so they will
definitely be JACKED for this one!

ITI: If you were playing the probability
game, what are the chances WSU walks out a winner?

SH: Slim to none. Sure,
it’s possible, I mean who thought Syracuse could win @ Notre Dame last year
(sorry)? But see, Vegas has this thing at Notre Dame giving 30. Those guys tend
to know what they are doing. It is their mortgage riding on being right more
times than not! I can’t imagine 30-point dogs come out a winner too
often?

ITI: What’s the recipe for an upset?

SH: Turnovers and a fast start
would be probably the only way an upset could go down. WSU has improved in the
takeaway department from last year, now ranking among the Pac-10 leaders in
interceptions and fumble recoveries. But the slow starts are a huge problem, one
they haven’t come close to figuring out. WSU hasn’t scored a TD in the first
quarter of any game this year, and you have to go back to almost a year ago to
when they actualy hit paydirt in the first 15 minutes (vs Arizona
, 11/8/08).

I
think it would take something shocking, like a lightning-quick score or two
early, combined with some Irish mistakes
  giving WSU some confidence. And Notre
Dame is going to have to come out flat. But you just never know what 18-22 year
olds are going to do on a weekly basis. 
It’s probably easy to
assume
Notre Dame won’t be taking WSU seriously, so, who
knows.

If you’ve made it this far, be sure to check out our Q&A over at the WSU Football blog where we discuss hard-hitting topics like JC’s future with the Irish, the state of the Irish passing defense, Armando, Rudy, Te’o, and Kyle, as well as the Charlie Weis hot-seat debate… I even break tradition and give a prediction for the first time this season.

Nick Watkins announces transfer from Notre Dame

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With the announcement from fifth-year cornerback Nick Watkins he will seek a graduate transfer from Notre Dame, it may seem the Irish cornerback depth is taking a massive hit. It was actually that depth that likely spurred Watkins’ decision.

The Texas native announced his decision to transfer Thursday afternoon on Twitter.

“When I decided to attend Notre Dame, my primary goal was to earn a degree from this prestigious University,” Watkins wrote, “and I’m proud to say that I’ll achieve that goal.”

Watkins started nine games in 2017 before knee tendonitis slowed him, giving now-junior Troy Pride an opening to take the lead role opposite junior Julian Love. Pride played well and has continued that progress this spring, knocking Watkins from a starting role. Furthermore, senior Shaun Crawford saw some time at cornerback this spring, rather than focusing solely on nickelback, creating even more viable competition at cornerback.

Thus, Watkins will head elsewhere after making 37 career tackles in 35 games with the Irish, including 29 tackles last season with eight pass breakups and one interception. Watkins missed all of his junior season with a broken arm. Since he will graduate before transferring, Watkins will be immediately eligible wherever he ends up.

Notre Dame will also have four more cornerbacks joining the fray this summer when incoming freshmen D.J. Brown, Noah Boykin, Joe Wilkins and Tariq Bracy arrive.

The Irish roster still sits at a projected 87 scholarships for the coming fall, two over the maximum allowed by the NCAA.

Avery Davis’ move bumps Notre Dame’s RB depth from dire to versatile

Associated Press
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It may not be what Avery Davis always imagined, but his move to running back at least gets him on the field in a Notre Dame jersey. From a practical standpoint, Davis offers more than just running back depth amid a depleted Irish backfield. His move from quarterback to running back/receiver creates a new possibility of playmaking. That concept was the primary reason the sophomore welcomes the position switch rather than dreads it.

Davis’ motivations are that pure and simple. After spending the 2017 season preserving a year of eligibility and watching quarterbacks Brandon Wimbush and Ian Book both prove more than capable, Davis could see his chances at quarterbacking for Notre Dame dwindling. The prospect of another year with a similar view was not one to which he looked forward.

“I love the quarterback position, I’ve played it my whole life,” Davis said following the Blue-Gold Game. “But that redshirt season, to be standing on the sidelines knowing you could make an impact, knowing you could make plays, that pushed me into this.

“… What I’m really trying to do is help the team however I can.”

The Irish coaching staff’s motivations are undoubtedly as pure, regarding helping the team however Davis can, but one may wonder if the move would have happened if not for the dismissal of half the running back depth chart following the Citrus Bowl victory over LSU. Regardless, Notre Dame had a need, and Davis’ natural skills can now help fill it.

“It was a mutual understanding,” Davis said. “… I knew they were serious, because I was serious, too. Week two [of spring practices] I got my chance and that’s when it started clicking.”

By the end of spring practice, Davis had pushed his way firmly into the running back rotation, with a few cameos at receiver, as well. He finished the Blue-Gold Game with 30 rushing yards on 11 carries and 24 receiving yards on two catches, to go along with 2-for-2 passing for 26 yards in the closing moments.

The presence of a viable rushing and receiving threat plays right into the hands of Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long’s preferences. The mere presence of Davis on the field will put defenses into compromising positions. At least, that will be the theory.

It will likely not be long into the season when Davis first lines up in the backfield before motioning into the slot position, thus exposing more of the defense’s blitz and coverage intentions, if not outright forcing adjustments to them. Not long after that, Davis will at some point line up wide only to take a jet sweep a la Cam Smith in 2017’s first month and Kevin Stepherson in the latter half of the year.

These are the dilemmas created by a multi-dimensional threat such as Davis appears to be. Sure, it was just the spring game, but it showed the wrinkles he can create. No one else currently among Notre Dame’s running backs or receivers offers such a variety. Sophomore receiver Michael Young may come the closest, but his frame is not designed for the beating of a running back’s workload.

Nor is Davis’ at this point, necessarily, but he knows as much.

“It’s just more of a physical toll on your body,” he said when asked of the greatest difference from the quarterback position. “You take more hits. That’s something that comes with being in the weight room.”

Atop Davis’ offseason to-do list is add more muscle across the chest and in the shoulders. Next will be to work on his routes and pass-catching skills. As far as reading the defense’s approach, quarterback prepared him for that. His focus is now slightly different, looking for gaps at the line rather than gauging coverage holes, but the underlying skills are the same.

Along with the potential poised by Davis’ position switch and the inherent disclaimers attached to any spring successes, two more aspects of the sophomore’s future should be explicitly noted. First of all, he does not let slip even the slightest misgiving about the move from football’s glamor position. Davis knew what the Irish depth chart looked like when he arrived at Notre Dame, and he knew who had already committed in the following class in consensus four-star Phil Jurkovec.

“When it comes down to it, I love playing the game,” Davis said. “Wasn’t too hard for me. It was a personal decision.

“It was a decision to come here, and I’m living with it. I’m really happy with it, to be honest.”

Secondly, this is a move the Irish coaching staff is committed to, but it retains the right to work Davis in at quarterback. Even Jurkovec’s arrival is unlikely to knock Davis from the spot of No. 3 quarterback to be deployed in emergency situations, lest Jurkovec burn a year of eligibility to offer a quarter’s worth of work.

“The conversation we had with Avery is, what do you want to do?” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “If you want to stay [at quarterback], right now it looks like it’s 1A, 1B, and you’re 3. You can stay in that position, or we think you’ve got some talents to help our offense. He wanted to do this.

“He doesn’t want to give up his ability to play quarterback down the road, but in the meantime, you need to play this year. This gives him that opportunity.”

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS/IS AT RUNNING BACK:
Without Davis and the move of sophomore Jafar Armstrong from receiver, the Irish had two upperclassmen and an early-enrolled freshman at running back this spring. Each of senior Dexter Williams (pictured above) and junior Tony Jones have shown the physical ability to be a loadbearing ballcarrier in the past, but neither has stayed healthy enough to grant peace of mind if in that role. Depth was needed.

Specifically in reference to Williams, Kelly acknowledged past restrictions due to Williams’ durability, or lack thereof.

“How long can you stay on the field?” Kelly said Saturday. “He seemed to be a guy that we couldn’t keep on the field very long. He had a really good spring. He wasn’t a guy that we had to pull out or wasn’t conditioned well enough.”

Much like Davis, Armstrong’s emergence this spring soothes some of those concerns. In the Blue-Gold Game, he finished with 48 yards on five carries along with one catch for 21 yards, showing decent quickness with a burst that will become only more decisive with more experience.

Armstrong should be more than capable of replacing Deon McIntosh as the No. 3 or 4 running back who can offer some modicum of production. In time, he could certainly become more than that.

Early-enrollee Jahmir Smith did about what one would expect from a high school senior taking part in collegiate practices, and that is meant as a compliment, but by no means did he lay the groundwork to force his way into the rotation by September.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WILL BE:
The Irish will welcome C’Bo Flemister as a sixth running back in the fall. Presuming health of the top four (Williams, Jones, Davis and Armstrong), Flemister should join Smith in spending a year in strength and conditioning, perhaps adding some special teams work. More likely, though, at least one of that initial quartet will suffer a plaguing injury, if not something worse, and the freshmen duo could be a sprained ankle away from being activated, just as C.J. Holmes was halfway through 2017.

ONE MORE NOTE, NFL DRAFT-WISE:
The NFL draft begins tonight (Thursday). Former Notre Dame running back Josh Adams will not hear his name called in the first round, but it is likely his name comes up Saturday, somewhere between late in the fourth round and the end of the sixth round.

Notre Dame adds another 2019 commitment out of Georgia

rivals.com
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Eight months from now, Notre Dame may be forced to sign a smaller recruiting class than usual thanks to the larger class this past recruiting cycle. If that expectation does indeed hold, this past week’s five commitments, including consensus three-star safety Kyle Hamilton’s (Marist High School; Atlanta) on Tuesday evening, will be a hefty portion of the class.

Hamilton becomes the second safety in the class, and in the week, following the Saturday pledge of rivals.com four-star Litchfield Ajavon (Episcopal H.S.; Alexandria, Va.). Hamilton’s list of finalists included Michigan, Georgia, Ohio State and Clemson, a grouping more telling than perhaps his recruiting ranking is.

Some of that expected potential may derive from Hamilton’s 6-foot-3 frame. Such length at safety would be a change for the Irish, currently without a safety taller than six-feet in the rotation. Even heralded incoming-freshman Derrik Allen, also out of Georgia, is listed at only 6-foot-1.

It is a coincidence those two Georgia recruits, one signed and one now verbally-committed, are both safeties. Add in the January commitment of rivals.com three-star cornerback K.J. Wallace (Lovett; Atlanta), and a third defensive back comes from the state, along with class of 2018 signees tight end Tommy Tremble and running back C’Bo Flemister. Five prospects from Georgia, presuming both Hamilton and Wallace do indeed sign with Notre Dame, is not a coincidence.

“My point being is that it’s such a fertile ground in recruiting, you just need to be in [Georgia], and there’s great football players in there,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said in December 2017, during the inaugural early signing period. “We’ve got so many players that we can talk about that came of there. It’s just having a presence and getting back into a very, very good recruiting area for us. We need to have a great presence there.”

No matter what state Hamilton comes from, he could find himself quickly in the mix at safety upon his arrival. Presuming health for the current safety depth chart, juniors Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill will have one year of eligibility remaining apiece upon Hamilton’s enrollment. Junior Alohi Gilman will have two, thanks to spending the 2017 season sidelined following his transfer from Navy. Early-enrolled freshman Griffith and Allen will both have three more years, presuming both play in 2018.

Thus, Hamilton and Ajavon could find themselves backing up that last duo as soon as 2020.

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

Associated Press
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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.