Stepping up… The offensive line

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We’re starting a feature here that should get everybody ready for Spring Practice. “Stepping Up” (not to be confused with the Channing Tatum/Jenna Dewan tour-de-force dance movie) looks at the holes on the depth chart and who is likely to fill them. I hope everybody enjoys…

If one position’s inconsistency defined the Charlie Weis era, it was the offensive line. While the defense was the unit that ultimately led to Weis’ ouster after five seasons, the offensive line’s volatility and inconsistency — sometimes expected, sometimes mind-boggling — mirrored the struggles of Charlie Weis as a coach and the Irish during his tenure.

While Weis’ 3-9 2007 team is a reflection on the recruiting failures of Tyrone Willingham, the staggering inefficiency of the offensive line also showed how difficult Weis’ pro-style scheme was to pick up for a group of lineman thrown into action after last playing significant minutes at the high school level. 2008’s up-and-down season along the offensive line resulted in the departure of offensive line coach John Latina, and Frank Verducci was brought in to get better results out of a finally veteran group.

While last season’s offensive line saw vast improvements, and Verducci did a impressive job, there was rarely a time where the offensive line dominated an opponent. Whether it was inopportune penalties, inconsistent run-blocking, or ill-timed sacks, it never felt like the offensive line became the veteran force that the Irish needed.

Entering the Brian Kelly era, let’s take a look at who the offensive line loses, who’s returning, and the key lineman that need to step up.

KEY LOSSES:

With the departure of Paul Duncan, Eric Olsen, and Sam Young, the Irish arguably lose the three most important starters along the offensive line. While Duncan was hardly considered an elite left tackle, he did a service able job covering Jimmy Clausen’s blindside. As an offensive captain, Olsen supplied leadership and spearheaded the line, successfully shifting to center to open up playing time for sophomore Trevor Robinson. And while Sam Young may never have become the Outland candidate that many thought the Irish signed when he committed to the Irish from St. Thomas Aquinas, he ended up starting every game of his collegiate career, a pretty miraculous feat in this era of college football.

RETURNING STARTERS:

Chris Stewart returns at guard for the Irish as a fifth year player, where he’s expect to thrive in his final year of eligibility. Stewart’s redshirt should pay dividends, and I expect him to be a force on the interior of the Irish line. Trevor Robinson also returns to the starting lineup, though he might not be lining up on the interior of the offensive line if the Irish can’t find proper tackles to fill the open voids. Robinson battled some injuries last season, but played impressive football for a sophomore and hopefully will take the leap from good to great during his third season. Dan Wenger also comes back for his fifth year, likely returning to center and anchoring the inside of the offensive line. Wenger was the odd-man-out after Olsen shifted to center, but was a valuable reserve that picked up the slack when Robinson was hobbled.

STEPPING UP:

The battle for the two tackle positions is the key to next season’s offensive front. Replacing three starters puts the Irish in a none too envious position of having to replace the majority of minutes along the front line. Our friends over at Blue-Gray Sky point to an ominous statistic, comparing the 43 percent of returning playing time to the 42 percent that returned to the dreadful 2007 offensive line. 

Nobody expects the offensive to nose-dive like it did in 2007, and Brian Kelly’s spread attack doesn’t put nearly the same pressure on lineman that Weis’ offense did. But for the Irish to be an elite offense again, they’ll need some of the following guys to step up and win a job.

Matt Romine, Left Tackle: Romine was a highly-touted recruit, and long expected to challenge for a starting tackle position. Yet injuries, bad luck, and the depth chart have combined to get in the way of Romine playing a significant part of the offense. I expect the coaching change to benefit Romine greatly, as a fresh start and a new scheme will finally put Romine in a position to succeed.

Taylor Dever, Right Tackle: Dever found himself stuck behind Sam Young, which relegated him to only special teams duty the last two seasons. Yet all reports say Dever has the size and athleticism to play on the edge of the offensive front, where he’ll likely be given the first opportunity to win a job.

Dark Horses: Don’t count out guys like Andrew Nuss, who don’t necessarily have an open job to compete for, but will be given every chance to win a starting position. I also expect to hear from athletic tackle Lane Clelland, who profiles nicely into this offense. It’ll be interesting to see how freshman Chris Watt acquits himself this spring, fresh off a redshirt year where he reportedly impressed the former coaching staff. If Dan Wenger doesn’t get it done at center, both Braxton Cave and Mike Golic Jr. will look to challenge at the position.  

During Notre Dame’s retrospective awards, Tranquill & Weishar set focus forward

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Notre Dame spent Friday night giving out awards to recognize 2017’s top players, but the night’s attention went to two pieces of news received regarding next season. Both linebacker Drue Tranquill and tight end Nic Weishar announced intentions to return for fifth seasons in 2018.

Tranquill especially seemed increasingly unlikely to return after a career season and a two-year stretch of health set him up for NFL consideration. The idea of what could have been, of what could be, proved too much for him to bypass his remaining season of collegiate eligibility.

“I think it started after the Miami game, just on the busses, realized that we probably weren’t going to make the College Playoff anymore and realized everything everyone had put into this thing,” Tranquill told Irish Illustrated. “I felt I owed it to this team in my heart to come back and finish what we started.”

Tranquill’s return will stymie what could have been a decimating linebacker exodus. Senior captains Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini are both out of eligibility. If Tranquill had joined them in pursuing an NFL future this spring, Notre Dame would have lost three of its top four tacklers, and perhaps all four. Leading tackler, junior linebacker Te’von Coney and his 99 takedowns including 13 for loss and three sacks, is still considering an early entry into the NFL Draft.

Weishar’s return will provide a baseline at tight end following the departure of current fifth-year Durham Smythe.

RELATED READING: Where Notre Dame is & was: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame is & was: Tight Ends

As for the Echoes awards, senior left guard Quenton Nelson received Most Valuable Player honors, only the third offensive lineman to be named MVP in Irish history.

Along the lines of Tranquill’s and Weishar’s returns, only a couple of Friday night’s awards portend future developments. Freshman offensive lineman Dillan Gibbons performed well enough behind the scenes to claim Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year. With Nelson presumably heading to the NFL, Gibbons could insert himself into the competition to fill the left guard spot.

Sophomore safety Alohi Gilman spent the season following his transfer from Navy leading the scout defense. His success there only furthers the likelihood he will be starting in the defensive backfield when Michigan arrives at Notre Dame Stadium on Sept. 1.

With few surprises — perhaps naming junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush and senior defensive lineman Jonathan Bonner the offensive and defensive newcomers of the year, respectively, was too obvious to be widely-considered beforehand — the full listing of the awards …

— Most Valuable Player: Sr. left guard Quenton Nelson.
— Offensive Player of the Year: Jr. running back Josh Adams.
— Defensive Player of the Year: Sr. linebacker Nyles Morgan.
— Impact Player: Jr. linebacker Te’von Coney.
— Offensive Newcomer of the Year: Jr. quarterback Brandon Wimbush.
— Defensive Newcomer of the Year: Sr. defensive lineman Jonathan Bonner.
— Offensive Lineman of the Year: Fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey.
— Moose Krause Lineman of the Year: Jr. defensive tackle Jerry Tillery.
— Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year: Fr. lineman Dillan Gibbons.
— Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year: So. safety and Navy transfer Alohi Gilman.
— Special Teams Player of the Year: Sr. linebacker Greer Martini (eight special teams tackles).
— Walk-On Players Union Player of the Year: Jr. linebacker Robert Regan.
— Next Man In: Sr. defensive end Andrew Trumbetti.
— Father Lange Iron Cross, for weight room presence: Fifth-year tight end Durham Smythe.
— Pietrosante Award for leadership, teamwork, etc.: Sr. captain and former walk-on Austin Webster.
— Rockne Student-Athlete of the Year: Sr. linebacker Drue Tranquill.
— Irish Around the Bend, for community service: Sr. tight end Nic Weishar.

THIS WEEK’S INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Notre Dame to the Citrus Bowl to face LSU, with some numbers
Monday’s Leftovers: Brian Kelly on Notre Dame in the Citrus Bowl, facing LSU, and the early signing period
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Receivers
Notre Dame releases 2018 home schedule, includes trip to Yankee Stadium
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends
Friday at 4: Projecting Notre Dame’s Echoes

THIS WEEK’S OUTSIDE READING:
SI’s 2017 All-America Teams
LSU RB Derrius Guice on NFL decision: ‘I will not know until after the bowl game’
RB Mark Walton leaving Miami early for the NFL

Friday at 4: Projecting Notre Dame’s Echoes

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Notre Dame will host its annual awards ceremony tonight, “Echoes.” The evening of laughs and good food serves as a coda to the regular season, always taken with a light-hearted approach. Nonetheless, the event is, in many respects, as much about the future as it is anything else. Along with a marquee game (or, this season, two) and the summer’s Irish Invasion camp, Echoes has become one of Notre Dame’s pivotal recruiting weekends.

On the surface, that latter dynamic may seem diminished this year. With the early signing period fewer than two weeks away, it would make some sense for recruits on the fence to put off a public commitment for that much longer and enjoy the subsequent luster the week leading into Christmas. Whether those high-profile recruits commit or not, they will get a look at the Irish program away from the field. There is value to that. It is not quite a normal evening on campus, but it is more like the 25 non-football weeks than it is otherwise.

As for the awards themselves, rarely is there a surprise. Consider this somewhere between a declaration of who should win and a projection of what will come.

MVP, both deserving and projected: Junior running back Josh Adams should have this locked up. No one player on the defense had a season worthy of taking attention away from the rushing attack, and the argument to be made for senior left guard Quenton Nelson will be devalued in the next entry. This may not be the conclusion the “33 Trucking” campaign envisioned, but it is the only award awaiting it.

Offensive Player of the Year, both deserving and projected: Nelson fits this to the letter. It also sets the night up well for each offensive stalwart to get some recognition. It is not that Nelson cannot win multiple awards, it just is not the usual trend of this evening — Adams deserves the MVP, though, so do not question that for a moment. Nelson was the best lineman on a great line, and he was certainly worthy of Thursday’s Outland Trophy, which instead went to Houston defensive tackle Ed Oliver.

Offensive Lineman of the Year, deserving: The entire offensive line. That may seem a cliché, but it worked as an impeccable unit this season.

Offensive Lineman of the Year, projected: If looking past Nelson, then this obviously goes to fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey.

Defensive Player of the Year, deserving: Junior linebacker Te’von Coney led Notre Dame with 99 tackles, including 13.0 for loss and three sacks. For four weeks stretching across October and November — the peak of the Irish season — Coney led the defense in tackles each and every Saturday.

Defensive Player of the Year, projected: Senior linebacker Drue Tranquill is far from undeserving. He finished third with 74 tackles, including 8.5 for loss, with an interception and three fumble recoveries. To some degree, this may be a career perseverance acknowledgement before Tranquill heads to the NFL Draft.

Defensive Lineman of the Year, deserving: Either defensive coordinator Mike Elko or defensive line coach Mike Elston should walk away with this. The job transforming the defensive line from a position of weakness to a source of strength cannot be lauded enough.

Defensive Lineman of the Year, projected: Junior tackle Jerry Tillery put together the best statistical year along the defensive front with 52 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and 4.0 sacks.

Notre Dame’s Shaun Crawford recovers a fumble in the end zone for a touchback after stripping the ball from Michigan State’s LJ Scott (3) in the 38-18 Irish victory on Sept. 23. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

Play of the Year, deserving: Junior cornerback Shaun Crawford’s fumble-causing punch at Michigan State quite literally stopped the Spartans from a touchdown. There is no likely or sure or play away qualifier in that claim. Without Crawford’s heads-up play, Michigan State would have been in the end zone a blink later. Instead, he both forced and recovered the fumble. This was much more unique and heads-up than any deep touchdown pass, leaping interception or lengthy scoring run.

Play of the year, projected: Insert a long Adams touchdown run here, likely the one featuring a stiff-arm against Miami (OH).

Offensive Newcomer of the Year, deserving: Freshman right tackle Robert Hainsey was not expected to contribute this season. Even as a backup, that was likely to be in name only, with sophomore Liam Eichenberg the next man in at both tackle positions. Instead, Hainsey split time with sophomore Tommy Kraemer all season with Eichenberg becoming the in-name-only reserve.

Hainsey’s pass blocking completed the stout offensive line. Without him, as great as the unit was, it would have had a glaring hole likely exposed by Boston College’s Harold Landry, North Carolina State’s Bradley Chubb and Wake Forest’s Duke Ejiofor. Hainsey handled all three ably. To be clear, that is a true freshman holding his own against the ACC’s Defensive Player of the Year (Chubb), a second-team all-ACC end (Ejiofor) and a third-team all-ACC end (Landry).

Notre Dame sophomore running back Deon McIntosh was not expected to be a vital cog to the Irish offense this year, but in many respects, that is exactly what he was.(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Offensive Newcomer of the Year, projected: As crucial as Hainsey was, sophomore running back Deon McIntosh’s statistics earn some acknowledgement. Splitting his carries between garbage time and providing needed rest for a banged up position, McIntosh took 65 rushing attempts for 368 yards and five touchdowns, finishing the season third among Notre Dame rushers in all three categories behind only Adams and junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush.

Defensive Newcomer of the Year, deserving: If Coney does not receive this nod, it is simply because it is a stretch to call him a “newcomer.” He had appeared in 24 of a possible 25 games before this season, making 75 tackles with two for loss. He was 2017’s greatest surprise and holds the most 2018 promise, finishing this year with 99 tackles, including 13.0 for loss with 3.0 sacks.

Defensive Newcomer of the Year, projected: Can Crawford count as a “newcomer?” He had appeared in just two games before this year, twice stung by season-ending injuries. Finally healthy, he finished 2017 with 32 tackles, two interceptions, two fumble recoveries, one fumble forced (the aforementioned punch) and 1.5 sacks.

If not Crawford, then sophomore Khalid Kareem undoubtedly qualifies, and deservedly so.

Next Man In, deserving: The regular season was remarkable in its health, such that it may be hard to remember the Irish were without two defensive tackles they had expected to count on. Junior Elijah Taylor suffered a Lisfranc fracture during spring practice and senior Daniel Cage stepped away from football to focus on recovering from concussion symptoms and knee surgery.

Without those two, finding someone, anyone, else became a priority. Freshmen Myron Tagovaiola-Amosa and Kurt Hinish filled that role with aplomb.

Next Man In, projected: Even though no Notre Dame running back was ever officially out for more than a week, McIntosh essentially served this role throughout most of the season’s fourth quarters. By then, the other backs were too banged up to offer much acceleration, and McIntosh’s spells were genuinely needed.

Special Teams Player of the Year, deserving: Can this go to senior holder Montgomery VanGorder if for no other reason than to expose more people to this video?

Special Teams Player of the Year, projected: Can’t really go wrong with junior kicker Justin Yoon, right?

Pietrosante Award for leadership, teamwork, etc., deserved: If this doesn’t land in the hands of either senior linebacker Drue Tranquill or fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey, it is only because their qualities are known and recognizing someone beneath the radar holds some merit.

Pietrosante Award, projected: Former walk-on and senior captain Austin Webster could arise here without shocking anyone.

Other awards:
Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year: Whoever wins this, it is often a precursor of things to come. If a freshman offensive lineman or receiver Jafar Armstrong wins it, immediately slot that player into springtime conversations.
Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year: Not as many freshmen are constrained to scout team on the defensive side of the ball, so forecasting this can be more of a shot in the dark.
Rockne Student-Athlete of the Year: Tranquill won this a year ago. It seems reasonable the engineering major could repeat.
Father Lange Iron Cross Award for weight room presence.
Irish Around the Bend Award for community service.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends

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When Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly first introduced his new coaching staff way back in January, he singled out offensive coordinator Chip Long’s penchant for finding ways to use tight ends in his play calling.

“[He] utilized two tight ends, which was going to be a mode that we have to move toward with the great depth that we have at that position,” Kelly said Jan. 30.

Technically speaking, that was even before the Irish signed two more tight ends on National Signing Day that same week, bringing the roster’s total to six before Tyler Luatau’s career ended with a medical hardship during the summer.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
With Durham Smythe’s return for a fifth year, Long had at least one tight end he could trust. Senior Nic Weishar presented a security blanket if need be and junior Alizé Mack brought great hype upon his return from a season lost to academic issues. Having those three around allowed for the two freshmen, Cole Kmet and Brock Wright, to progress as the young luxuries they are.

Fifth-year tight end Durham Smythe saved his best year for his last year at Notre Dame. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
Long did use two tight ends with frequency. Smythe usually lined up attached to the line while Mack would be detached as more of a receiving threat. Occasionally, one or the other would line up in the backfield as an H-back, creating a run-pass wrinkle for the defense to diagnose at the snap.

Smythe blossomed in the role, putting together a quality final season both in blocking and in receiving. To a degree, his success serves as a lament exposed. He presumably could have offered just as much in 2016 if the offense had not essentially forgotten about the position.

Weishar also enjoyed a few moments of shine, enough so to give thought to a role — one in the mold of what Smythe fit this season — in 2018.

Mack, meanwhile, formed the mold of frustration, tantalizingly so. Long tried to include him in the offense, going Mack’s direction more than any other name thus far herein, but Mack never grasped the opportunity, that often times being a literal description of the mishaps.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING
The receiving stats are a bit misleading. With Mack not yet ready for a pivotal role, none of the active trio were going to join the line of recent Irish tight ends with outstanding aerial productions. Rather, Smythe contributed to the Notre Dame ground attack alongside the likes of senior left guard Quenton Nelson and fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey. For that matter, Mack handled his share of blocking, as well — one area his frustrations may have worked in Irish favor.

Fifth-year Durham Smythe: 13 catches for 234 yards and one touchdown.
Jr. Alizé Mack: 19 catches for 166 yards and one touchdown in 10 games.
Sr. Nic Weishar: Seven catches for 39 yards and two touchdowns.
Fr. Cole Kmet: Two catches for 14 yards.
Fr. Brock Wright: No statistics, but saw action in 11 games, primarily as a blocker, sometimes in a fullback role.

Before figuring out the tight end’s role in Notre Dame’s offense next year, the Irish need to determine if current senior Nic Weishar will return for a fifth year. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

COMING QUESTIONS
Before this fall, looking at the 2018 tight ends and genuinely wondering what will come of Weishar would have seemed absurd. Indeed, such is now the case. Will Notre Dame extend Weishar a fifth-year invite? If so, will he take it, or will he look to serve as a graduate transfer somewhere else he would not need to compete with the likes of Mack, Wright and Kmet for catches?

Weishar showed reliability in the red zone, specifically, this season, and could serve as a locker room and position group leader. The odds are the Irish coaching staff hopes he returns, counting on natural attrition to figure out a scholarship crunch later on.

Ideally, Mack will not be part of that annual tradition like he was two years ago. Instead, he can provide the answer to the wondering of was his disappointing fall largely a result of rust, immaturity/youth or, well, what?

Mack has the physical talent. Combining the speed of a receiver with the size of a tight end can be a game-changing luxury, if that talent shows up ready to play. Perhaps Mack did this year and was just unlucky. A 12-game sample size could obscure that. Two seasons of it, though, would point to a larger issue.

How much more of Wright and Kmet will Long find use for? At least one will be necessary, and that is presuming both do not pass or at least pressure Weishar for playing time — and even that assumes Weishar returns. Long’s two tight end thoughts make a third tight end a necessity, always one injury away from significant playing time.

Kmet saw more chances in passing situations this season while Wright was an erstwhile blocker out of the backfield. Though both arrived at Notre Dame highly-heralded, neither had a chance to make a notable imprint, but there was good reason for that. There were three talented veterans ahead of them on the depth chart. At least one of those will be gone next season, and a full offseason in a collegiate weight room should ready the young duo even more so.

There is an offensive philosophy quandary here. On any given play, Long can fill five skill positions. Assuming a running back is involved in nearly all of those, he is down to four. If continuing with a multiple-tight end emphasis, that leaves only two spots for receivers. While the receivers may not have been an impressive grouping this season, Long could want to see three of those — namely, junior Equanimeous St. Brown and sophomores Kevin Stepherson and Chase Claypool — as often as not.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends

Notre Dame releases 2018 home schedule, includes trip to Yankee Stadium

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Notre Dame will return to Yankee Stadium next season. Considering that will be the 27th Irish trip the Bronx, it is not that much of an outlier. The schedule of kickoffs at Notre Dame Stadium, however, does break from the norm with two an hour earlier than usual and three under the lights.

The Irish will host Syracuse on Nov. 17 in a return of the Shamrock Series at Yankee Stadium. Notre Dame most recently visited the venue in the 2013 Pinstripe Bowl, a victory over Rutgers, and in a 2010 win against Army, also a Shamrock Series occasion.

That game will kick off at 2:30 p.m. ET on NBC. By not being a primetime game, as has usually been the case with the home-away-from-home contests, it allows NBC to pick up a third primetime game at Notre Dame Stadium. The contract between the school and the network allows for five night games in every two-year window. With no Shamrock Series game this past season and subsequently only two night games, that leaves three chances for 2018.

Sept. 1 — v. Michigan — 7:30 p.m. ET on NBC.
Sept. 8 — v. Ball State — 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC.
Sept. 15 — v. Vanderbilt — 2:30 p.m. ET on NBC.
Sept. 29 —v. Stanford —7:30 p.m. ET on NBC
Oct. 13 — v. Pitt — 2:30 p.m. ET on NBC.
Nov. 10 — v. Florida State — 7:30 p.m. ET on NBC.
Nov. 17 — v. Syracuse at Yankee Stadium — 2:30 p.m. ET on NBC.

With only one true home game following the Oct. 20 bye week, Notre Dame may once again be exposing itself to the tires of travel down the homestretch.

Notre Dame also released its 2019 and 2020 schedules, which to this memory, had not yet been seen in final form, though still without broadcast times.

2019
Sept. 2, Monday, Labor Day — at Louisville
Sept. 14 — v. New Mexico
Sept. 21 — at Georgia
Sept. 28 — v. Virginia
Oct. 5 — v. Bowling Green
Oct. 12 — v. USC
Oct. 26 — at Michigan
Nov. 2 — Virginia Tech
Nov. 9 — at Duke
Nov. 16 — v. Navy
Nov. 23 — v. Boston College
Nov. 30 — at Stanford

2020
Sept. 5 — v. Navy in MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
Sept. 12 — v. Arkansas
Sept. 19 — v. Western Michigan
Sept. 26 — at Wake Forest in Charlotte, N.C.
Oct. 3 — v. Wisconsin in Lambeau Field, Green Bay, Wis.
Oct. 10 — v. Stanford
Oct. 17 — at Pittsburgh
Oct. 31 — v. Duke
Nov. 7 — v. Clemson
Nov. 14 — at Georgia Tech
Nov. 21 — v. Louisville
Nov. 28 — at USC