And in that corner… the UConn Huskies

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It’s tough not to cheer for UConn. After what the school has gone through in the month since Jasper Howard was murdered, the football team has seen games slip from their grasp in every conceivable way possible.

While I’ve tried to watch as much of the Huskies as possible to get ready for this Saturday’s tilt, nobody has seen more UConn football than Russell Blair, a football writer for the school’s Daily Campus. He’s chronicled the football season first-hand and covered the Jasper Howard tragedy as well. I had a chance to exchange emails with Russell the past few days and asked him a few questions that will give us a better clue of what to expect this weekend when the Huskies play their first ever football game at Notre Dame Stadium.

Hope you enjoy…

Inside the Irish: Talking strictly football, how heartbreaking has this season been?
Losing by 2, 2, 3, 4 and 4 points? You’re sitting at 4-5 and you could
just as easily be in the discussion for the Big East title. What is
morale like?

Russell Blair: I don’t think that the fans have given up on the team yet but a loss on
Saturday could cause many fans to lose faith in the season.  A lot of
the local writers picked us to finish 7-5 or 8-4 and that 7-5 mark is a
possibility but we need to get wins over the Irish and USF, two tough
games, to make that happen.  Furthermore, if we fall to 6-6 and Notre
Dame takes the Big East berth in the Gator Bowl we may be fighting for
an at-large bid that might not come.  The hardest thing to deal with is
that it sometimes seems we find ways to lose games that we should be
winning.  The safety in the end zone against UNC, the 81-yard touchdown
with under 40 seconds to go against Rutgers, these are the kind of
inexcusable plays that have cost us games we had a good chance of
winning.  Most people expected UConn to make a bowl this year and if we
don’t make a bowl I think that would be one of the toughest things for
fans and those in the program itself to swallow.

ITI: Let’s talk about the tragedy of Jasper Howard. What has it been like to
be a student at UConn through all of this? We’ve seen how the football
team has tried to battle through this, but how has the student body
reacted?

RB: As terrible a tragedy as the murder of Jasper Howard was I think if
anything, it has brought the student body that much closer together.
 From the candlelight vigils to the way that the students acted at the
first home game following his death against Rutgers I think the
students have bonded together over this common tragedy and have done a
great job reminding the national media that Jasper wasn’t just a
football player but a fellow student as well.  It’s been a month since
the incident and I think most students are well on their way moving on
with their lives but it’s something that nobody here at UConn is ever
going to forget as long as they live.

ITI: Talk a little bit about the quarterback situation. Zach Frazer was the
first quarterback recruit of Charlie Weis. He was a promising get by
head coach Randy Edsall, but hasn’t really lit it up since he got his
chance. What’s the future of the QB position for UConn?

RB: I think Frazer has shown flashes of excellence but he hasn’t really
panned out in the end.  He’s got a cannon for an arm but he often
doesn’t make the best choices as shown by his 7 interceptions to just 4
passing touchdowns.  The QB situation for UConn has been shaky all
season long, Frazer was the starter coming into the season before his
injury and Cody Endres did a fairly good job replacing him and actually
earned the starting job for himself.  Even when Frazer was deemed 100
percent healthy, Endres remained the starter.  Now the shoe is on the
other foot and Endres is out for the year so Frazer got his job back
but maybe not the way he wanted.  I think if Zach has a good
performance over these last three games and leads UConn to a bowl
victory it will be hard to take away the job from him next season.
 However, if his performance continues to be mediocre look for a
three-way competition in the spring between Frazer, Endres and redshirt
freshman Mike Box.

ITI: It looks like the running attack has gotten going and the
Notre Dame defense has done it’s best to make everyone look good. Who
can we expect to torment the Irish will big plays, either on the ground
or in the air?

RB: The Notre Dame rush defense is giving up over 150 yards per game and
UConn has a strong tandem of backs in Andre Dixon and Jordan Todman.
 Todman actually earned back the top spot on the depth chart this week,
partially due to Dixon getting banged up but Todman has also shown
promise and a newfound ability to run hard between the tackles and not
just around the outside.  Look for Todman to try to exploit the Notre
Dame front seven and with UConn’s sturdy offensive line I wouldn’t be
surprised to see him break off another 100-yard rushing game with maybe
a 20-plus yard run somewhere in there.  As for the passing game, the
Huskies’ 10 touchdowns  this season is already double their total from
last year but give credit to Marcus Easley for that.  Easley has 5 TDs
and has shown the ability to make big plays so he will probably be the
guy the Irish have to look for in the passing game.  He has a touchdown
in each of his last five games and has racked up 80 yards at least in
those five contests and I expect him to find gaps in the Notre Dame
secondary.

ITI: Notre Dame’s season has swooned, and Charlie Weis is now squarely on
the hot seat. Does that take away from the historic nature of this
game? We’ve heard that it’s just another football game, but does coming
to Notre Dame for the first time mean something?

RB: While Notre Dame is nowhere near the powerhouse they were in the late
1980s and early 1990s, this game still does have some sense of
historical implication given that it may be the only time the Huskies
ever travel to South Bend.  Though a series was in the works, albeit
not a true home and home as UConn’s “home” games were at Giants Stadium
and Gillete, those plans have been scrapped and it looks like it’ll be
just a one time deal.  But this won’t be the only big time game for
UConn, signing home and home series with Tennessee and Michigan has
given the Huskies a handful of big time games and while Notre Dame has
a large national following this game will likely not be what it might
have appeared to be when it was initially planned several years ago.
 As for Charlie Weis, the fact that he is fighting for his job and
UConn is fighting for their first win since the loss of Howard only
adds to the emotion of the day.  I expect both teams to leave it all
out on the field and it should be a pretty entertaining football game.

ITI: The Huskies staged a furious rally and nearly caught Cincy. Any
thoughts on the Bearcats and the apple of many Irish fan’s eye, Brian
Kelly?

RB: UConn kept Cincinnati much closer than many people expected, especially
at their own place in Nippert Stadium.  I think that Cincinnati is the
real deal and if they run the table they should have a shot at the BCS
National Championship.  Say what you will about Big East football but I
think that Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and even West Virginia to an extent,
have proven that there are always going to be a few good sides that
come out of what many consider to be the weakest of the BCS
conferences.  The fact that there were no Big East teams in the AP Top
25 to begin the season may have made some of the coaches and players
play with a little chip on their shoulder but the conference has
cemented itself as having teams as good, if not better, than those in
the Big 10, Big 12 or SEC.  I think Brian Kelly is a great coach and
the excitement he brings to his team is unparalleled.  Cincinnati is
trying to keep him around and I know he’s not the first choice for the
Irish but if Notre Dame comes calling I think he’ll have a hard time
saying no.  Losing Brian Kelly would be a big blow for the Big East.
 Take West Virginia for example, losing Rich Rodriguez has hurt them
over the past few seasons.

ITI: Prognosis for Saturday’s game?

RB: This is a tough one, earlier this season when both teams had
higher expectations for the season I would have said Notre Dame would
win big.  I still think Notre Dame is going to win, but I think it’ll
be a closer game.  Losing Jasper Howard is going to hurt us in the
secondary, especially against the likes of Michael Floyd and Golden
Tate.  Blidi Wreh-Wilson is a great kid but he’s a redshirt freshman
and he’s got a lot of work to do to get his game to the level that
Howard was playing at.  Not to mention that Clausen has proven himself
to be one of the top quarterbacks in the country.  UConn’s defense,
which has been their anchor the last few seasons, gave up 47 points to
Cincinnati and I think Notre Dame shouldn’t have trouble finding the
endzone.  I really hope the Huskies win, it would be a big time win for
the program, but I just don’t see it happening.

My prediction:  Notre Dame 35, UConn 24 

Special thanks to Russell for the in-depth analysis, and sparing all of us from my attempt at learning the A to Zs of UConn in a week. For more of Russell’s writing, check out his column at the Daily Campus.

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.”

Editor’s Note: That video has since been removed from this post due to its incessant auto-play function, but it can still be viewed here.

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