Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. Michigan

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Kyle Rudolph galloped down the field, looking over his shoulder for a defensive back that wasn’t going to catch him. He registered the second-longest play in the history of Notre Dame football, a 95-yard touchdown pass from Dayne Crist, who returned from a bell-ringing at the beginning of the game to ignite the Irish in the second half and lead them to a 24-21 lead with under four minutes to play.

With a rainbow emerging over Notre Dame Stadium and the sun breaking through the dark skies, this was supposed to be the opening chapter of the Brian Kelly legend, a signature win in only Kelly’s second game on the sidelines for the Irish.

Instead, it was snatched away by another hero, the electric Denard Robinson, who single-handedly won the football game for Michigan, bringing back the visiting Wolverines in the final thirty seconds for a game-winning touchdown run, the final piece of a incredible performance as Michigan defeated Notre Dame 28-24 in Notre Dame Stadium.

In a game that featured three Notre Dame quarterbacks, just as many Irish interceptions, and one of the all-time great performances by a visiting quarterback, the Brian Kelly era suffered its first setback. Here’s what we learned.

1. The Irish offense depends on Dayne Crist.

Notre Dame opened the game with a picture perfect drive, marching 71 yards on 13 plays for a touchdown in less than four minutes. The Irish offense balanced a nice mix of run and pass, even getting a big pick-up out of Crist on the ground, who capably steered the offense down the field for a touchdown in the game’s opening minutes, plunging into the end zone on a quarterback sneak from the one-yard line.

But a collision that looked unsubstantial ended up throwing the Irish offense into a lurch, as the sneak injured Crist and forced true freshman Tommy Rees and junior Nate Montana into the game. Rees’ first passing attempt was a flea-flicker that he put into the chest of Michigan defender Jonas Mouton, an inauspicious start to his career. After another incompletion, Kelly brought in Montana, who did no better, completing only 8 of 17 throws and forcing a poor interception into double coverage.

Crist is far from perfect as a quarterback — his inexperience showed often this afternoon. But the Irish offense needs Crist if they want to play at a level befitting of the Irish’s goals, and the Notre Dame offense was abysmal without their signal caller. Brian Kelly hasn’t minced words, the Irish need to keep Crist healthy to win football games. The first half showed that Kelly knew what they were talking about.

2. Denard Robinson is the most dangerous quarterback in college football.

Most thought Robinson’s performance against UConn was an aberration. Turns out it was: Unfortunately for Irish fans, it was underwhelming compared to what he did against Notre Dame. Robinson completed 24 of 40 throws for 244 yards and a touchdown pass. Those numbers would be solid for a drop-back passer, but Robinson controlled the football game on the ground — running for 258 yards on 28 carries and two touchdowns. His 87-yard touchdown run at the end of the first half extended Michigan’s lead to 14 points and forced Kelly to play for seven at the end of the half, a decision that came back to haunt the Irish. His final touchdown run with 27 seconds left sealed the Irish’s fate, and pushed Robinson to the forefront of any discussion that involves college football’s most dangerous players (let alone Heisman candidates).

Michigan will go as far as Robinson takes them, or as long as he survives. His electric speed and “good-enough” throwing ability allows Rich Rodriguez to stretch opposing defenses to limits they haven’t seen, and the 502 total yards from Robinson were a Michigan record, the second for yardage in as many weeks for the sophomore. While people have been quick to claim that Rodriguez found his Pat White, Robinson offers an explosiveness that even White never had.

3. The Irish offense needs to engage its playmakers.

While Kyle Rudolph and TJ Jones made big plays, the Irish offense will only goes as far as its playmakers take them. For the second consecutive Saturday, Michael Floyd looked ordinary, picking up the bulk of his yardage on the games final two completions, and was kept in check and without a touchdown for a second consecutive weeks, something that never happened last season.

Kelly’s offense isn’t the fade and slant attack that Charlie Weis featured, but that doesn’t mean that the Irish can’t take advantage of Floyd’s inherent advantages. There’s no reason that the Irish offense doesn’t give Floyd chances to just “go up and get it,” even if it isn’t what this spread system does. For Notre Dame to make it to the BCS, they’ll need to get better production out of Floyd and Theo Riddick.

4. The Irish defense is a different — and better — unit than last year’s group.

While 533 yards of offense is nothing to be proud of, holding Michigan to seven points in the second half is something to hang your hat on. Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco proved he could make half-time adjustments, and if it weren’t for the final three minutes of the afternoon, those adjustments would’ve been one of the best stories of the day.

Notre Dame couldn’t force the turnover they desperately needed this afternoon and gave up way more explosive plays than they could afford, but they certainly showed an impressive physicality and endurance when playing against a running threat like Robinson. It’ll be up to the defense to prepare for another gigantic test next weekend and prove that the first two weeks of the season weren’t luck. 

5. There is fight in the Fighting Irish.

Moral victories lost their value after last season’s 6-6 campaign, but Notre Dame’s comeback has to have people feeling good about a team that nearly won a football game where the Irish lost the turnover battle 3-0 and had to play with two quarterbacks with zero experience for much of the first half. While the end result was eerily similar to the stunning finish in Ann Arbor last year, the way the Irish got there has to be encouraging, and the football team has shown under Brian Kelly that they’ll put themselves in positions to win football games.

In many ways, the football season starts now. With a loss on the slate, there is no more wiggle room for the Irish to try and reach their goals, and if Notre Dame can rebound from this loss and win on the road next week, we’ll know that this team has forgotten the terrible second half of the 2009 season.

When asked after the game by reporter Alex Flanagan what this Notre Dame team’s breaking point was, Kelly never missed a beat.

“We don’t have one,” Kelly said.

This moral victory will only be worth something if the Irish prove soemthing next weekend against Michigan State. 

Notre Dame adds another 2019 commitment out of Georgia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Immediately following the 2017 spring game, I walked by two much smarter, savvier and more veteran Notre Dame reporters on our way to post-game interviews. Our two minutes of exchange included them riffing on various hypothetical position changes that were eventually not seen come fall, including how much better of a guard than a tackle Tommy Kraemer could be. It should be noted, the junior began lining up at guard this spring.

My contribution to the conversation hinged entirely on repeating, “That offense just isn’t ready. It’s not close to ready.”

Of course, that assessment figured the spring game struggles were against a porous Irish defense, something freshly-arrived and since-departed defensive coordinator Mike Elko had already taken tangible steps toward fixing, far quicker than expected.

That evaluation also failed to recognize the potential of a running attack led by Josh Adams. Notre Dame knew it had a stalwart running back, and did not need to see more than eight carries for 39 yards and a touchdown from the lead back.

The point stood, though. The offense was not ready then or in November.

Driving away from this past Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game, the thought bouncing around my pickup’s two-seat cab was simple: This offense is unlikely to reach its ceiling, but if it did, it would be really, absurdly high-powered.

This time, that assessment offers some deference to first-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s ability to turn nine returning starters into another strong defense, perhaps superior to last year’s.

The praise of the offense must be hedged thanks to IF after IF after IF after IF. If senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush displays those mechanics and that accuracy against opposing defenses …
If senior running back Dexter Williams (pictured above) decides it is worthwhile to play, and play well, through pain …
If junior receiver Chase Claypool maintains the necessary emotional equilibrium …
If senior tight end Alizé Mack offers a consistent performance, even if not stellar, but stable …

In those four upperclassmen alone, the Irish have unique talents whom opposing defensive coordinators should lose sleep thinking about. They will determine how high this offense’s ceiling is, while the likes of senior receiver Miles Boykin, junior running back Tony Jones and sophomore tight end Cole Kmet will set the floor, along with what looks to be yet another overpowering offensive line (with Kraemer at right guard).

Obviously, the most-promising players always set the height of a vaulted the ceiling. As they perform against Michigan, Stanford and Virginia Tech will determine how the season ends. However, to pinpoint four like this is an extreme end of the spectrum.

Exiting last year’s Blue-Gold Game, it was clear Wimbush needed to learn much more of offensive coordinator Chip Long’s scheme. Aside from that, the only possible ways to increase the offense’s potency was to teach receiver Kevin Stepherson self-discipline and figure out why Mack could not make a gameday impact. The rest was essentially known, even if the running game’s potential was overlooked after the spring exhibition.

Entering this summer, the gap between the offense’s floor and its ceiling is a vast one. To have four question marks of this magnitude speaks to the possible volatility awaiting in the fall. Logically speaking, it is most likely two of the four above IFs become realities. In that case, it will be a good offense, but not the utterly threatening one conceivable. The odds are slim all four come to fruition, but crazier things have happened, especially when discussing the rapid development of 18- to 21-year-olds.

Without Adams following two All-American offensive linemen, this rendition of the Notre Dame offense may take a step backward, but the talent is there for it to actually improve, to carry the day if/when an experienced quarterback picks apart the defense (see: the Seminoles’ Deondre Francois).

That could not be said in 2017.

OTHER QUICK TAKEAWAYS FROM THE BLUE-GOLD GAME:
Much of this will be discussed in greater length in the coming two weeks, but …
— The interior of the offensive line — fifth-year left guard Alex Bars, fifth-year center Sam Mustipher and Kraemer at right guard — is quite a physically-imposing trio. Some defensive ends may find success against first-year starter and junior left tackle Liam Eichenberg, especially early in the season, but the inside trio should at least create massive holes for the Irish running game.

— Ideally Long can deploy Mack and Kmet together, but the spring performance of the latter certainly eases the concerns about the maturation and consistency of the former.

Notre Dame may need an unexpected influx of production from senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery if the fifth-year tackle he is intended to line up alongside, Jonathan Bonner, does not recover fully from a wrist injury suffered in the beginning of 2017. (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP)

— Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly insists fifth-year defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner’s fitness will not be overly-effected by the wrist injury that kept him out of most of spring practice and all of the Blue-Gold Game.

“He’s been doing everything (in weight-lifting) but at lighter weight, and now he’s only a couple of weeks away from being full-go,” Kelly said Saturday. “He was already physically really gifted, so we don’t think that’s going to be a big curve for him, and he’ll be able to start training aggressively when we get back here in June.”

Consider this scribe skeptical. Not only is Kelly often overly-optimistic about injury effects and timetables, but to think missing six months of strength and conditioning will not be noticeable along the defensive interior is idealistic at best. Bonner’s 2017 emergence was a direct result of the arrival of strength and conditioning coordinator Matt Balis.

Without more of that work, the Irish will need to turn to sophomore Kurt Hinish for an increase in snaps, perhaps pushing toward 50 per game with Bonner offering 20-30 and senior Micah Dew-Treadway filling in the balance. Hinish appears to be up to the task, which is necessary, because classmate Darnell Ewell is not.

Notre Dame gains commitments of four-star defensive end and three-star offensive tackle

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At this rate, Notre Dame might fill its 2019 recruiting class by the time the school year ends. With a Sunday morning commitment of a consensus four-star defensive end followed by a Monday evening pledge from a consensus three-star offensive tackle, the Irish class has grown from three recruits to seven in just four days.

The No. 238 prospect in the country and No. 28 at defensive end, per rivals.com, Howard Cross III (St. Joseph High School; Montvale, N.J.) announced his commitment via Twitter shortly after leaving campus from a visit for the Blue-Gold Game, choosing the Irish over offers from Michigan, North Carolina State and Virginia Tech, among others.

“I could tell [current Notre Dame players] really loved the school,” Cross said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “It was really, really big to talk to them. When I was going to all the colleges, that was the main thing I wanted to do. I wanted to get the perspective of the players.”

Cross joins consensus four-star defensive end Hunter Spears (Sachse H.S.; Texas) as half of the four defensive linemen already in the Irish recruiting class. As always, no collegiate defensive line can be deep enough. Considering the previous two recruiting classes have yielded a total of two defensive ends — Kofi Wardlow and Justin Ademilola — opportunity should be aplenty for Cross and Spears early in their careers.

The defensive end duo will likely spend a not-insignificant portion of their collegiate career practices butting heads with Andrew Kristofic (Pine-Richland; Gibsonia, Pa.). If the high school of Pine-Richland jumps off the figurative page to Notre Dame recruitniks, that is because Kristofic has much experience protecting high school teammate and incoming Irish freshman quarterback Phil Jurkovec.

He chose Notre Dame, and new offensive line coach Jeff Quinn, rather than offers from a lengthy list including Clemson, Georgia and Ohio State.

“The combination that their school is able to provide being one of the very best schools in the entire country academically and one of the very athletically stands out,” Kristofic said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “I think they have the best combination of those two things on top of being a school that is known for being able to produce such great offensive linemen is something that no other schools really have the combination of all those.

“When you can put together all the things that they can there, it’s certainly not something you can overlook or take for granted.”

The beginning of this influx of commitments came with the Friday decision of consensus four-star offensive tackle John Olmstead (St. Joseph; Metuchen, N.J.), the only other offensive lineman in the class to this point. Of the seven recruits committed to the Irish, five are four-star talents.

Former Notre Dame defensive lineman, Kona Schwenke, dies at 25

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Former Notre Dame defensive lineman Kona Schwenke, 25, reportedly died in his sleep Sunday morning. The cause of death has not yet been confirmed.

Schwenke spent four seasons along the Irish defensive front, culminating in a 23-tackle senior season, in 2013. Attrition along the defensive line in his first two seasons forced Schwenke into playing time, costing him a likely fifth-year with much greater production. He played in 31 games total, making 30 tackles.

Part of a Hawaiian surge in Notre Dame recruiting, Schwenke joined the likes of receiver Robby Toma and linebacker Manti Te’o in coming from the island in 2009 and 2010. The first two committed during Charlie Weis’ tenure, but Schwenke made the leap at the very beginning of Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s career, one of the first recruits to commit to Kelly at Notre Dame. Since then, sophomore defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa has renewed the trend.

Schwenke graduated in 2014 with a degree in anthropology. He then signed with the practice squad of the Kansas City Chiefs, moving around four different NFL franchises chasing his dream. Earlier this month he took part in a scouting event, The Spring League, gaining some notice when he forced Heisman-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel into a fumble.

Former Irish teammates took to social media Sunday afternoon celebrating Schwenke’s life and friendship.