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.  

Hunter, McGlinchey, Onwualu and Rochell named Notre Dame captains

Michigan v Notre Dame
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Brian Kelly named Notre Dame’s captains for the 2016 team. Seniors Torii Hunter Jr., Mike McGlinchey, James Onwualu and Isaac Rochell will officially lead the team.

Kelly made the news public on Wednesday after practice, his first media availability since the arrest of six players in two separate incidents on Friday evening. And in his four selections, Kelly named four new team leaders after having to replace all five of the team’s captains from last season.

In Hunter, Kelly has named the team’s lone veteran receiver as a captain, expecting a breakout season in both production and leadership. The most experienced returner after three starters departed and Corey Robinson retired due to concussions, Hunter has less starts at the position than fellow captain Onwualu—now a linebacker—Kelly quipped.

McGlinchey carries the torch for the offensive line, a fourth-year senior who’ll have a chance to play his way into a first-round draft pick or return for a fifth year. After Zack and Nick Martin each wore the ‘C’ for two-straight seasons, McGlinchey will carry that leadership forward.

James Onwualu is the lone remaining starter for the Irish at linebacker, replacing both Joe Schmidt and Jaylon Smith as a captain. Onwualu has earned positive reviews for his play on-field as the team’s Sam linebacker, and has always stood out for his lead-from-the-front attitude.

Rochell is the rock of the defensive line, a third-year starter who replaces Sheldon Day as the group’s leader. He’ll be joined by Jarron Jones as veteran contributors in a group that also replaces key starter Romeo Okwara.

 

Devin Butler pleads not guilty to two felony charges

Devin Butler WNDU
WNDU via Twitter
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The legal process has begun for senior cornerback Devin Butler. After being charged with two felonies stemming from his arrest outside The Linebacker Lounge on Friday night, Butler was in court Wednesday afternoon to plead not guilty to the charges.

St. Joseph County prosecutors waited to decide what charges to file against Butler, ultimately deciding on Tuesday to charge him with two level six felonies for resisting law enforcement and battery of a police officer. Preliminary accounts, most stemming from the arrest report, state that Butler got into an altercation with South Bend police officer Aaron Knepper after a fight broke up outside the bar, with multiple officers detaining Butler after the deployment of a taser.

Butler was accompanied by his father and girlfriend to court, declining comment questioned by the waiting swarm of press outside the courthouse. He’ll now begin a legal fight that could also dictate not just his status as a football player but as a student at Notre Dame. Brian Kelly has suspended Butler from the football indefinitely, independent of the legal process and the University’s formal handling of the matter.

The South Bend Tribune points out that the officer involved in the case has drawn attention in the past, with three lawsuits filed against him after allegations of misconduct.

Butler is expected back in court on September 1.

 

Irish A-to-Z: Nic Weishar

CLEMSON, SC - OCTOBER 3: Nic Weishar #82 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish juggles a pass during the game against the Clemson Tigers at Clemson Memorial Stadium on October 3, 2015 in Clemson, South Carolina. (Photo by Tyler Smith/Getty Images)
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A year after earning major practice reps when the position group couldn’t stay healthy, Nic Weishar gets another chance to step forward with the loss of Alizé Jones. While the Chicagoland product won’t be an option at the boundary receiver position, he’s a catch-first player who’ll help the Irish passing game if given a chance.

With weapons on the outside still coming into focus after Torii Hunter, Weishar has slowly earned the trust of a coaching staff—and two quarterbacks—who appreciate his catch radius and ball skills. While his evolution into a true tight end is still ongoing, there’s opportunities to carve out a niche in the Irish offense as Weishar enters his third season in the program.

 

NIC WEISHAR
6’4″, 240 lbs.
Junior, No. 82, TE

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A first-team All-State player in Illinois, Weishar was a U.S. Army All-American and a four-star prospect. He had offers from Iowa, Michigan, Ohio State and Oklahoma though picked Notre Dame early in the process.

Kelly called him “the finest pass catching tight end we saw” on Signing Day.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Did not see action, preserving a year of eligibility.

Sophomore Season (2015): Played in 12 games, starting two (Clemson, Stanford). Made three catches for 18 yards.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

I got caught up in the preseason hype, because even as Durham Smythe went down, the offense didn’t use the tight end enough.

This might not sound like high praise, but I think we need to set modest expectations for Weishar this season. To that point, I think 10 to 15 catches sounds about right, though the sophomore can feel free to blow right past that number if he feels like it.

Weishar’s been a handful during camp, reportedly dominating the second-team defense and linebackers in coverage. As Durham Smythe and Alize Jones have been limited in camp, it’s allowed Weishar to take some first-team reps as well.

The red zone could be the X factor for Weishar, and will obviously be one of the keys to the Irish offense. While you’d expect the Irish to lean heavily on the running game near the goal line, Weishar is one of many great pass options to consider, as long as the staff has faith in the decision-making skills of Malik Zaire.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

There are crafty tight ends who use their wily nature and Football IQ to create opportunities and then freaks who physically take what they want. Nobody will confuse Weishar for the latter, and we’ll see if he keeps discovering ways to become the former. At a position group that’s been the envy of most colleges, that Weishar could cap-out as a solid supporting cast member is no slight—there’s still plenty of work for him in that role in this system.

Ultimately, we’ll see if there’s an ascent possible. Can Weishar do both the in-line and detached jobs well? Can he find a way to wreak havoc down the field, another Irish tight end who finds room running the seam?

I’m not looking for a game-breaker in Weishar. But taking advantage of your opportunities in man coverage shouldn’t be too much to ask, especially if the run game is rolling and the Irish quarterbacks can find a few reliable receivers.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I’m setting the ceiling at 10 catches this season, though I’d be happy to be wrong. While Weishar is again the No. 2 tight end, and there’s a better argument to be made for sharing the ball with tight ends this season than last, it’s still an offense with a handful of playmakers to incorporate before working our way down to TE2.

I could be underrating Weishar, who has earned more than his share of raves for his hands and reliability as a red zone target. But if you’re picking favorites behind Hunter and trying to find a place in the pecking order for Weishar, I have him below guys like Equanimeous St. Brown and even Miles Boykin before figuring out what Durham Smythe’s production will be.

The staff will find a way to use Weishar to best accentuate his skills. As of right now, I just think that’s going to be as a guy who gets one or two targets a game, though some of those should come in the red zone.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston
Mark Harrell
Daelin Hayes
Jay Hayes
Tristen Hoge
Corey Holmes
Torii Hunter Jr.
Alizé Jones
Jamir Jones
Jarron Jones
Jonathan Jones
Tony Jones Jr.
Khalid Kareem
DeShone Kizer
Julian Love
Tyler Luatua
Cole Luke
Greer Martini
Jacob Matuska
Mike McGlinchey
Colin McGovern
Deon McIntosh
Javon McKinley
Pete Mokwuah
John Montelus
D.J. Morgan
Nyles Morgan
Sam Mustipher
Quenton Nelson
Tyler Newsome
Adetokunbo Ogundeji
Julian Okwara
James Onwualu
Spencer Perry
Troy Pride Jr.
Max Redfield
Isaac Rochell
Trevor Ruhland
CJ Sanders
Avery Sebastian
John Shannon
Durham Smythe
Equanimeous St. Brown
Kevin Stepherson
Devin Studstill
Elijah Taylor
Brandon Tiassum
Jerry Tillery
Drue Tranquill
Andrew Trumbetti
Donte Vaughn
Nick Watkins

Irish A-to-Z: Nick Watkins

GLENDALE, AZ - JANUARY 01:  Wide receiver Michael Thomas #3 of the Ohio State Buckeyes runs with the ball as Nick Watkins #21 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish attempts to make a tackle during the first quarter of the BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl at the University of Phoenix Stadium on January 1, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona. Buckeyes won 44-28. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
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With the Fiesta Bowl serving as a springboard, junior cornerback Nick Watkins looked primed to make a move into the starting lineup as he entered his third season in the program. But a spring injury that’s been slow to heal has put his season into purgatory, another uncertainty for the Irish secondary.

A talented coverman who took some time to come into his own, Watkins now waits on bone growth in an injured arm, a second surgery initiated to jump start things. But with the regular season bearing down on the Irish and Watkins’ availability unknown, his contributions are a huge unknown for Notre Dame’s secondary.

 

NICK WATKINS
6’0.5″, 200 lbs.
Junior, No. 7, CB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A four-star, Top 150 recruit, Watkins stayed off the summer camp circuit and still wowed recruiting analysts. The Dallas native had one of the most impressive offer sheets of his recruiting cycle, picking Notre Dame over Alabama, Auburn, Florida State, Georgia, LSU, Ohio State, Texas, USC and UCLA.

Brian Kelly compared landing Watkins to “getting a No. 1 draft pick” on Signing Day.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Played in 11 games, making most of his appearances on special teams. Didn’t register any statistics.

Sophomore Season (2015): Played in 12 games, making one start against Ohio State and making eight tackles. Had one pass breakup.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Watkins fell out of the No. 3 job when Devin Butler beat him out for it, though took over before the Fiesta Bowl when Butler injured his foot in preparations.

Right now, Watkins is the third cornerback in a defense with a high-ceiling starting pair. I can’t think of a Notre Dame defense that hasn’t relied on their third cornerback, and think back to when we all worried how the Irish were going to get Darrin Walls, Gary Gray and Robert Blanton onto the field. It’ll work itself out.

So Watkins will get the reps this season. Or at least the first shot at the reps, with Devin Butler and a trio of freshmen all right behind him. And if he’s going to stay on the field, he’ll need to fully embrace the mental side of the game. I expect Watkins to make major progress here, especially after the harsh realization that elite physical tools may make it easy to lock down receivers in high school, but in VanGorder’s system, knowledge is almost more important.

Watkins is still every bit the prospect he was when he signed with the Irish. After a freshman season spent on special teams, he’ll be asked to take on more as a sophomore.

While he’s a key piece of the Irish future, Watkins can help Notre Dame win this year as well.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

There aren’t many questions about Watkins’ physical abilities, other than the fact that he hasn’t found a way to make an impact yet. That’s understandable considering he was stuck behind KeiVarae Russell and Cole Luke, though a breakout season seems on the verge of being stuck in neutral as he tries to recover from a slow-healing broken arm.

With plenty of tools in the toolbox, Watkins feels like the type of player who can ascend quickly once he’s given the chance. But then again that ascent is predicated on earning that opportunity—no small feat when you look at the athletes the Irish have recruited.

Entering his third season of eligibility, the clock is ticking. His ceiling will be determined by how quickly he’s back on the field, or if the Irish staff ultimately decides to save a year of eligibility if that’s what’s needed.

 

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Of all the injuries we tracked this offseason, Watkins’ broken arm seemed the least on the radar, though has a chance to be the most impactful. That Notre Dame’s medical staff is treating it aggressively says something about the player they think they have in Watkins—who Kelly said will be allowed to fight for a starting job once he’s physically able.

I’m no doctor—but that won’t stop me from evaluating Watkins’ progress. And for the most part, I don’t think it’s the best formula for success jumping into the mix with no training camp and limited time to get in shape at the most demanding position on Notre Dame’s roster.

While losing Watkins is a blow—especially with the length of these suspensions unknown—any chance to take a medical redshirt could be huge for Notre Dame’s depth, getting Watkins a chance to redo his junior season, capable of stepping in after Cole Luke departs.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston
Mark Harrell
Daelin Hayes
Jay Hayes
Tristen Hoge
Corey Holmes
Torii Hunter Jr.
Alizé Jones
Jamir Jones
Jarron Jones
Jonathan Jones
Tony Jones Jr.
Khalid Kareem
DeShone Kizer
Julian Love
Tyler Luatua
Cole Luke
Greer Martini
Jacob Matuska
Mike McGlinchey
Colin McGovern
Deon McIntosh
Javon McKinley
Pete Mokwuah
John Montelus
D.J. Morgan
Nyles Morgan
Sam Mustipher
Quenton Nelson
Tyler Newsome
Adetokunbo Ogundeji
Julian Okwara
James Onwualu
Spencer Perry
Troy Pride Jr.
Max Redfield
Isaac Rochell
Trevor Ruhland
CJ Sanders
Avery Sebastian
John Shannon
Durham Smythe
Equanimeous St. Brown
Kevin Stepherson
Devin Studstill
Elijah Taylor
Brandon Tiassum
Jerry Tillery
Drue Tranquill
Andrew Trumbetti
Donte Vaughn