And in that corner… the Michigan Wolverines

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While most of us are still processing the opening win against Purdue, there’s no game that’s been circled on Irish calendars more than the rematch against Michigan. Last season’s stunning loss was the coronation of freshman quarterback Tate Forcier, who thanks to some questionable play-calling and mediocre defense by Notre Dame, and some impressive moxie and field presence, led the Wolverines to a last-second touchdown to beat the favored Irish.

Fast forward a year, and so much has changed. Forcier is now third in the depth chart behind Denard Robinson. Charlie Weis is now sitting in the press box for the Kansas City Chiefs. And the two promising seasons that got off to decent starts for both the Irish and Wolverines? They ended with both teams spending the holidays and bowl season at home.

A convincing opening victory against UConn orchestrated by the stunning play of Denard “Shoelace” Robinson has Wolverines fans calling off the dogs that were chasing head coach Rich Rodriguez out of town, and potentially gearing up for a season where they play the role of Big Ten darkhorse. Covering it all is AnnArbor.com’s Michael Rothstein, who has the unique perspective of having walked the Irish beat as well, covering Notre Dame for the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette before making the move to Ann Arbor.

Mike was nice enough to answer a few questions on the state of the Wolverines, their defense, that Shoelace guy, and Michigan fans’ perspective on their former local son, Brian Kelly.

Inside the Irish: Both squads had impressive debuts on Saturday: Michigan with an impressive offensive showing, Notre Dame with a strong defensive game. What was more surprising?

Michael Rothstein: I’d say Notre Dame having a strong defensive showing. The defense, in
many ways, is what really did Charlie Weis in at Notre Dame last year.
He spent more time recruiting offensive talent and then had a stubborn
defensive coordinator so it was tough to really say how much talent was
there. With Michigan, you had a feeling the offense would be dynamic
because there are a lot of playmakers and the promise Denard Robinson
showed in the spring. So I’d say Notre Dame’s defense – although I’m not
sold on either defense just yet.

ITI: Let’s get serious. Can the Michigan defense win the game with the secondary they’re trotting out there?

MR: On paper? No. Michigan will see the best wide receiver it’ll face all
year (Michael Floyd), the best tight end it’ll see (Kyle Rudolph) and
probably one of the top three quarterbacks on the schedule in Dayne
Crist, with Ohio State’s Terrelle Pryor and Iowa’s Ricky Stanzi being
the other two. Notre Dame has a lot of offensive options and Michigan’s
secondary really wasn’t tested last week. Plus, it’s now down two
defensive starters as Troy Woolfolk is out for the season with a
preseason ankle injury and freshman safety Carvin Johnson is “highly
doubtful” according to Rich Rodriguez with a sprained left MCL. If the
Wolverines’ secondary can manage to contain this Notre Dame offense,
I’ll become a believer. But not until I see it do something.

ITI: Did Rich Rodriguez win back some of the Michigan faithful with a strong opening win? Is he still on the hot seat? After last year’s 4-0 start, what does he have to accomplish to stick around for year four?

MR: Winning, unsurprisingly, cures a lot. Make no doubt, Saturday was a big
win for Rodriguez, perhaps even bigger than the season-opener a year ago
because this time it was against a BCS league opponent which had been
touted as a contender in the Big East. And Michigan, for the most part,
was dominant. So I think some fans have probably started to shift back
to Rodriguez if they were on the fence about him. One game, though,
doesn’t cure all. A loss Saturday and Michigan is still 1-1. It’s funny,
actually, on the numbers question. I’m at the point where I refuse to
give any sort of number projection because I just don’t know. I don’t
know if numbers will play into it as much as progress (barring injury)
and that there isn’t some major change in the status when the NCAA comes
back with its findings from the August Committee on Infractions
hearing. I’d say if Michigan were to start 4-0 this year, it’d be more
of an accomplishment because it’ll be two very well-coached teams. Randy
Edsall is a really good coach and Brian Kelly, from a coaching
standpoint, is better than Charlie Weis and Jon Tenuta.

ITI: You reported that Tate Forcier said he was “out” after Saturday’s game. What’s going on at QB and with the Forcier family in general? Is Forcier a locker-room cancer? Is he going to continue the family legacy of transferring schools?

MR: I’d have to say very few people really know when it comes to what is
going on with the Forcier situation. And that’s what I’m calling it now.
He said what he said to me, then his father  told the AP he is “150
percent” not transferring. And then according to the Channel 7 news
guy’s Twitter feed here in Michigan, he started to blame the media
saying they were trying to drive his son out of Michigan. It’s been a
weird set of circumstances. There certainly have been a lot of rumors,
though. Can’t speak to the locker room issue, save for that in the
spring and the preseason, Rodriguez pointed to Forcier as a guy who
needed to improve some of his off-the-field stuff and Woolfolk called
him out on media day. That sort of stuff just doesn’t sit well with
teammates. Reports have been that he’s earned that trust back, but he
was still No. 3 on Saturday against Connecticut. That answer is just a
long way of saying it is certainly a situation to continually pay
attention to as the season progresses.

ITI: Let’s talk Shoelace. He was pretty electric last weekend. Is he a star in the making? What do the Irish have to do to keep him in check? And when is someone going to explain to him that actually tying his shoelaces and using his cleats properly would actually help him?

MR: I think he is. He was flat impressive Saturday. The thing that I
wondered – especially after watching him a year ago – is how he’d handle
pressure and what would happen when he had to pass. I think he answered
all of those questions at least for one week. Notre Dame’s defense, on
tape, looked a lot better than Connecticut in person. As far as the
shoelaces, I’d be hesitant to change anything. Consider it a quirk –
much like Jim Furyk’s golf swing – that you just leave alone. I think
Notre Dame will have to hit him and play good contain defense on the
ends to keep him honest and in the pocket. When he starts to scramble,
that’s when he’s even more dangerous.

ITI: What’s the impression of Brian Kelly as a coach from the UM perspective? Are the Irish more dangerous with Kelly in charge?

MR: I think so, if for no other reason than sometimes change is good for a
program. It was clear toward the end that it just wasn’t working with
Weis and Jimmy Clausen at quarterback. Clausen had so much talent but it
never seemed like the team was fully behind him from the time he
stepped on campus. Crist, though, is an overwhelmingly likable guy,
which makes it easier to rally around him. Kelly, too, seems more down
to earth than Weis. And understand, this opinion is just from talking
with others and from my experience mostly with Weis. But he’s been a
head coach before and has a lot of talent at his disposal. Plus, he’s
already shown he can recruit. I think people up here respect Kelly, for
sure. After all, he had success in the state both at Grand Valley on the
Division II level and then at Central Michigan in the MAC. Rodriguez
has faced him before and they have a mutual close friend in Butch Jones,
so I don’t think he is going to be surprised by anything Kelly tries to
do. But there is certainly mutual respect there.

ITI: What does Michigan have to do to win in South Bend?

MR: Hope the secondary doesn’t get burned too bad and that Robinson is able
to replicate, at least in part, what he did last week. Michigan doesn’t
need the record-setting day it got out of Robinson again this week, but
that’s because he has a couple good running backs in Michael Shaw and
Vincent Smith who can do some of the lifting for him. Michigan’s main
problem will be containing Floyd and Rudolph. If it can get some
pressure on Crist – and the Michigan defensive line is probably the
strongest part of that unit – then I think the Wolverines have a shot.
Either way, it’s a close game.

ITI: Obviously, last year’s game came down to the wire, with a few critical breaks going Michigan’s way. What do you see happening this year?

MR: Not sure. And I say that fairly at this point. Michigan’s secondary is
still such a large question that I have a tough time believing they can
hold it together for a whole game against this type of passing talent.
That said, Notre Dame’s tackling from the linebackers, specifically
Te’o, wasn’t great. If the middle linebacker is missing tackles against
Robinson or Shaw, that could open any play up to turn into a touchdown. I
think, much like last year, it is a very offensive-based game. Not
going to make a prediction just yet because I’ll do that at AnnArbor.com
later in the week. Also, because as of Tuesday afternoon, I just don’t
know what way I’m going to go.

*****

Check out Mike’s coverage as he covers the game this week. Want a trip down Memory Lane? Here’s what we had to say about the game last year. 

Four-star OL John Olmstead chooses Notre Dame over Michigan

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With the addition of a consensus four-star offensive lineman, Notre Dame gained its fourth commitment in the class of 2019 on Friday afternoon. John Olmstead (St. Joseph High School; Metuchen, N.J.) becomes the first offensive lineman to join the class.

He cited the tradition of the Irish program as a key factor to his decision.

Considered the No. 10 tackle prospect in the country per rivals.com — also the No. 1 player in New Jersey and No. 63 recruit in the country — Olmstead is the third consensus four-star in the class, all trench factors. He held a lengthy offer sheet, including the likes of LSU, Florida and Oklahoma, but Olmstead had narrowed his final choices to the Irish, Michigan, Mississippi, Minnesota and Rutgers.

When Olmstead arrives at Notre Dame, he will have some time to wait before an opportunity is readily-available at tackle. Rising-sophomore Robert Hainsey and rising-junior Liam Eichenberg are positioned to start at right and left tackle, respectively, this season. Each has three years of eligibility remaining, meaning Olmstead would likely spend at least his first two seasons in strictly a reserve role.

The Irish signed four offensive linemen in the class of 2018, but all were a bit less-heralded than the usual recruit Notre Dame hauls in at the position. New offensive line coach Jeff Quinn played a vital role in gaining the National Signing Day pledge of rivals.com three star tackle Jarrett Patterson, whose pass protection skills mark him as a high-ceiling contributor in years to come.

Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s running game and depth lead Blue-Gold Game questions

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For every strong performance in tomorrow’s conclusion to Notre Dame’s spring practices, a misstep or mistake will inherently match. If rising-senior running back Dexter Williams breaks loose for a 40-yard touchdown run, a critic might note the lack of speed in the Irish secondary. Should the Notre Dame defensive line wreak havoc in the backfield all afternoon, it may be due to a shoddy offensive line rather than a stellar defensive front. Interceptions will be considered equal parts a quarterback’s failing and a defensive back’s playmaking.

A year ago, defensive end Daelin Hayes recorded multiple “sacks” in the Blue-Gold Game. Whether or not he actually tackled a quarterback, the pressures indicated to the public’s eye that the right side of the Irish offensive line would be a 2017 weakness. Instead, they should have sparked no offensive line worry, only taken as a precursor to Hayes’ three real-world sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss in the fall. The right side of the line, manned by the tag-team of Tommy Kraemer and Robert Hainsey, was actually a strength, part of the country’s best offensive line.

Such are the flaws to over-analyzing an intrasquad scrimmage.

With those disclaimers in mind, the things to learn in the Blue-Gold Game hinge more on scheme, order of appearance and type of usage. Throughout the spring, the Irish offense has focused on the passing game. Yes, the running game drove the Notre Dame offense throughout 2017, but it is now without two All-American offensive linemen and a record-setting running back. At some point, the ground game needs to be proven all over again, and that point is supposedly Saturday.

“As it relates to our offense against our defense, we’ve thrown the ball much more than we’ve run it because of those things that we’ve wanted to grow in,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said over the weekend. “The spring game, we’ll get a better sense because we’ll run the ball a whole lot more and we’ll be who we have been.”

Rising-senior Dexter Williams is Notre Dame’s presumptive starter at running back, but finally showing an eagerness to engage in pass blocking could cement that status. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

That sense will begin with Williams and rising-junior Tony Jones (pictured at top). Williams appears to have the starting position within his grasp, but picking up a few pass blocks against the likes of Hayes would solidify that pecking order. Aside from that, perhaps the greatest thing to learn regarding Williams and Jones is, can they get through a competitive environment without injury?

Of course, limiting their carries will not only help that cause, but also reveal what kind of running back depth Notre Dame has. After the two injury-plagued upperclassmen, all the Irish can claim is an early-enrolled freshman, a receiver-turned-hybrid and a quarterback-turned-running back/receiver.

The Irish desperately need at least one of, preferably two of, Jahmir Smith, Jafar Armstrong and Avery Davis, respectively, to step forward.

The offensive line has set itself. With four returning starters and a long-touted tackle-of-the-future in rising-junior Liam Eichenberg along the front, the blocking is not the concern in the running game. Williams’ speed and Jones’ versatility offer promising potential when healthy. But this is football, both will not be healthy throughout the fall. Other carries need to be handled ably by at least a portion of that trio.

Though he may be the youngest, Smith may be the best option, simply because Armstrong’s and Davis’ responsibilities vary so greatly as they bounce between running back and receiver and, in Davis’ case, quarterback.

How will offensive coordinator Chip Long deploy Armstrong and Davis? Will they spend more time in the backfield or at slot receiver?

The addition of the two pass-catching backs increases the likelihood of Long using his favorite alignment, one with two running backs, at least one of which is a veritable route-runner and pass-catcher. Williams has never proven himself to fit that description, though Long noted Williams has improved his pass-catching as of last week. When Jones was injured last year, Long could no longer deploy the two-back set that quickly puts opposing defenses in unavoidable binds.

“That was a big part of our offense in spring ball, fall camp, then the backs got knocked out and hobbled,” Long said. “We couldn’t use that part of our offense. It hurt us.”

Should Jones twist an ankle again in September, Armstrong and/or Davis should keep that option available for Long’s play calls.

“Just having the ability with more depth back there, those type of guys, instead of just being Tony, now you have Avery, possibly Jafar,” Long said. “Injuries can’t take us out of that personnel.”

When he was healthy, Jones would often motion out of the backfield in those alignments. Although he finished the year with only six catches for 12 yards, the mere threat of his receiving abilities altered defensive approaches.

At other points, Jones was a bulldozer of a blocker, taking on multiple defenders to help spring either quarterback Brandon Wimbush or now-NFL-bound Josh Adams for a longer gain. Jones is likely to remain the best at this varied skillset, but having depth in the role is a luxury critical to Long’s preferred offensive scheme.

Most starting positions are settled, especially with the offensive line now set. Safety is not. Who will start at safety? Who will be the second-unit?

Rising-junior Jalen Elliott’s tackling miscues of the past have not yet prevented him from sitting atop Notre Dame’s depth chart at safety, though new challengers have joined the mix this spring in Alohi Gilman and Houston Griffith. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Even the candidates at safety have ebbed and flowed this spring. Rising-sophomore Jordan Genmark-Heath now appears to be headed toward a future at linebacker and rising-senior Nick Coleman has dabbled at nickelback while early-enrollee Houston Griffith moved from cornerback to safety to become another considered option.

At this point, rising-juniors Jalen Elliott and Alohi Gilman appear to be the likely starters, with Griffith offering a possibility of that changing as he learns the position over the summer. Defensive coordinator Clark Lea has certainly left the door open for just such a development, or even the emergence of incoming-freshman Derrik Allen.

“The depth back there has yet to really take shape and we’re not in a hurry to dictate who is the 1 and who is the 2,” Lea said Tuesday. “… Those guys have a lot on their plate, it takes some time. They need some time to be able to execute those responsibilities at a high level. We’re getting to that point, I don’t think we’re all the way there yet.”

Learning who the starting duo is, and who fills in the second unit — be it still Genmark-Heath or Coleman, or rising-junior Devin Studstill or rising-senior Nicco Fertitta — the concerns of tackling from the position or attacking the ball in the air will be naturally included. Elliott’s physical gifts have long been evident, but he has lacked in both those areas. If he trots out with the starting defense but does not exhibit improvement in both categories, that will be portend another year of poor play along the defense’s back line, no matter what Lea may say publicly.

“I do think we’re not doing as much to adjust for the need for time to let them come along,” he said. “I think we’re allowed to get back into what is the base of the package, which is exciting.”

Notre Dame had a strong defense in 2017. Aside from the precarious positions offensive turnovers put the defense in at Miami and Stanford, it rarely buckled. Realizing the defense played that well while only occasionally getting into its most basic package because the safety play was so dismal is a sobering conclusion. It is also a tantalizing thought of what could come in 2018 with nine returning starters and improved safety play.

Lastly, who be the fourth Irish captain? When Kelly named fifth-year center Sam Mustipher, fifth-year punter Tyler Newsome and fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill captains early in spring practice, he said a fourth would be voted upon by the team as spring came to its close.

At that point, the most-likely candidates, all rising seniors or fifth-year graduates, seemed to be defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, linebacker Te’von Coney, left guard Alex Bars, quarterback Brandon Wimbush, tight end Nic Weishar or cornerback Nick Watkins. Rising-junior cornerback Julian Love’s talent alone made him an outside contender.

As spring practice has progressed, reading between the lines might reduce that pool to three front-runners of Tillery, Coney and Bars. The first two of those three have had disciplinary issues during their time at Notre Dame, oftentimes an exclusionary factor in this conversation. To hear offensive line coach Jeff Quinn on the issue, the fourth captain should be Bars.

“Anytime your big guys run the program, I think you always have a better chance of succeeding,” Quinn said Thursday.

Two more quick-hitters:
— How will Coney fare in pass coverage?
Coney may not play that much this weekend. He does not need to prove anything in the 15th spring practice, while his backups need every rep they can get. When Coney is on the field though, watching him in coverage against any of the Irish tight ends could be revelatory. Lea has put the onus on himself for Coney’s past coverage woes.

“Coverage is a product of teaching,” Lea said. “Coverage deficiency can be a product of teaching deficiency. … Some guys do it naturally and some guys don’t, they have other things they have strength with. … As a unit, we’ve put a focus here on the end of spring practice in playing better in coverage and as a result, we’re seeing that play out in skeleton and team periods.”

— Will the receivers flash any speed?
When it comes to the positioning and usage of unique talents, the mismatches created by Armstrong and Davis may be the most predictive, but Notre Dame lost much of its outside speed with the departures of Equanimeous St. Brown (to the NFL) and Kevin Stepherson (to repeated disciplinary issues). The defensive headaches caused by those two-back sets are best taken advantage of when a receiver can also take the top off a defense. Rising-sophomore Michael Young and rising-senior Chris Finke are both quick and shifty, but neither has shown truly top-end speed to this point. Despite his 6-foot-4, 227-pound, frame, rising-senior Miles Boykin has apparently improved his burst quite a bit this offseason. Fifth-year Freddy Canteen landed on the Irish roster last offseason largely due to his natural speed, before injury cut short his first season with the Irish.

Can any of them single-handedly alter a defense’s coverage, or will Notre Dame need to turn to incoming freshmen for that threat?

Notre Dame announces two-game series with Alabama

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A decade from now, Notre Dame and Alabama will meet in the regular season for the first time since 1987, a 37-6 victory for the Irish. Notre Dame announced a home-and-home series with the Crimson Tide for 2028 and 2029. Both contests will open their respective seasons.

Notre Dame Stadium will host the first leg of the series Sept. 2, 2028. The Irish will then travel to Tuscaloosa for the first time in program history Sept. 1, 2029.

Of course, Notre Dame and Alabama most-recently met in the BCS National Championship Game in Miami to conclude the 2012 season. It remains hard for Irish fans to forget how that game went.

Considering Tide head coach Nick Saban is currently 66 years old and Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly is entering his ninth season with the Irish, neither is likely to be at the helm in 2028.

Instead of acknowledging who will not be holding a clipboard for the two-game tilt, it can be worth pondering who will be, albeit with a tongue planted firmly in one’s cheek.

And who will be playing? This scribe’s nephew is in first grade. He will be a freshman in college in 2029, presuming he continues to get the grades to gain admission for a post-secondary education.

On a more serious note, adding Alabama to the schedule continues a deliberate effort by Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick to get more SEC contests on the schedule in years to come. The Irish will face Vanderbilt in 2018, Georgia in 2019, Arkansas in 2020 and 2025, and Texas A&M in 2024 and 2025. Notre Dame also hosted Georgia in 2017.

This plan is a part of Swarbrick’s hopes of having data points against four of the Power Five conferences each year, with the SEC and the Big 12 the conferences needing a bit more foresight and extra effort in order to get on the schedule. The Irish already face five ACC teams per year, two Pac-12 programs in Stanford and USC each season and have Big Ten matchups scheduled through at least 2028 already. No Big 12 games are currently scheduled, though Notre Dame recently concluded home-and-home series with both Oklahoma and Texas.

As linebacker depth questions persist, Notre Dame turns to a safety

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Go back a month in this space and of the biggest questions entering Notre Dame’s spring practices, a defensive reserve merited mentioning. “Another early-enrolled freshman could be the answer to the question of, who will be the fourth linebacker?”

It looks less and less likely the Irish will rely on a freshman to provide the entirety of depth at linebacker. For that matter, Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea does not expect to need one backup to learn multiple positions a la Te’von Coney at the beginning of last season.

(In the above photo, Coney, No. 4, is featured, as the defense will do this season. In the background, Asmar Bilal, No. 22, can be seen as a factor in the play, a defensive hope in 2018.)

Between Coney, Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini, Lea had three capable linebackers to fill the two interior positions in 2017. By cross-training Coney at both Mike and Buck, the Irish did not need to lean on any other substitute.

“In some ways, that’s unfair at times because the Mike and Buck, though conceptually tied together, they’re different,” Lea said Tuesday. “Different body types, different people. We’d rather not do that. We’d rather not go three-for-two. We’d rather go two-for-two and make it like a hockey line (substitution). That would be the way it would work best. I’m not sure how that’s going to shape up right now.”

Throughout spring, the presumption was rising-senior Asmar Bilal would both start at rover and provide injury-protection depth along the interior, with fifth-year Drue Tranquill starting at Buck and remaining a break-in-case-of-emergency option at rover, his 2017 position. Such a scenario still needed a fourth linebacker to offer some snaps of rest for the starters. Either one of the three early-enrolled freshmen would need to grasp that task or rising-junior Jonathan Jones would claim it.

“They know they’re competing for a chance to play,” Lea said. “Where [Jones] might have fallen into a lull mid-spring, I think here in the last few days he’s come out here and really changed his game.”

Joining Jones this week, rising-sophomore Jordan Genmark-Heath moved up a level from the safeties to try his hand at linebacker. Per Lea, the move mirrors Bilal’s cross-training on the interior — Notre Dame would rather know what it has available long before it is needed.

“We don’t move a guy unless we identify things that he brings to the table that allow him to be successful,” Lea said. “It’s not just throwing paint at the wall. We’ve seen him play in a manner that we know he can handle the Buck position. I would argue he’s looked very natural there.

“… You know what he can do for you at safety, too, so we’re not closing our eyes to that possibility. You have a short window here where you have a chance to get a look at somebody who makes you more athletic at the second level.”

The mixing and matching of the Irish linebacker reserves will continue for at least the rest of this week, and almost certainly into preseason practices. Unlike the beginning of spring practice, however, it does not hinge on only one name, and the early-enrollees are not seen as the saving graces.

Instead Jones may back up Coney, Genmark-Heath support Tranquill and either rising-sophomore Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah or classmate Isaiah Robertson provide depth behind Bilal.

“You always want the ability through the course of the season to have your best three on the field,” Lea said. “You always want to have an idea of what that three look like if injury happens or if a young player comes along and how you can shift and shape the pieces to ensure that you’re at your competitive best.”