And in that corner… the Michigan State Spartans

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Looking to catch a good football game? Your best bet is to buy a ticket to Notre Dame vs. Michigan State, because this series usually guarantees something dramatic is going to happen, and for some reason the ticket is never as in demand as other Irish rivalries.

Last year’s high-wire escape win for the Irish pretty much encapsulated the last decade of games with the Spartans. Both teams had a chance to win, both nearly gave it away, and this time — the Irish walked away with the victory.

As we did last year, we caught up with LVS of the Spartan blog The Only Colors, who has been paying plenty of attention to Mark Dantonio’s troops in their two opening victories against Western Michigan and Florida Atlantic. He was kind enough to give us all a scouting report, something Irish fans will need as they shake off the hangover from a tough loss last week.

(I also crossed the tracks and answered some questions for him on the Irish, so if you’re interested, give that a read as well.)

Inside the Irish: Assess the Spartans’
season so far. Two wins against underwhelming competition and an offense that
seems to have transitioned to a ground attack. Has anything surprised you after
two weeks?

LVS: The main surprise for me has been the running game.  I expected that MSU would run the ball better
than last season, but the results so far have been above and beyond what even
the most optimistic Spartan fan could have hoped for.  The offensive line is blocking very well, and
Edwin Baker and Le’Veon Bell have looked superb.  A third option at running back, Larry Caper,
will be making his season debut this weekend, and should make a good situation
better.  Caper was MSU’s best running
back for most of last season, and yet, amazingly, it seems that he’ll be
struggling for carries simply because Baker and Bell have been so good.

 Unfortunately, while the rushing attack has emerged, the
passing game–which, as you implied, was the strength of the entire team last
year–has struggled.  In the first game,
those struggles were at least partially a result of drops.  (5, by my count.)  But that wasn’t the case last week, when Kirk
Cousins was relatively inaccurate, and threw a really poor interception from Florida Atlantic’s 1-yard line.  I’m convinced that
the passing game is going to come around; Cousins proved how good he was last
season, and we still have a horde of talented receivers.  Personally, I think Cousins is going to be
motivated by how this game ended last year, and put together a good performance
on Saturday night.

Earlier in the year,
you guys ranked the ND game as the 4th toughest on your schedule, and thought
ND’s chances hinged on Brian Kelly. Still feel the same way?

Having now seen the messiah-like substance that is Denard
Robinson, I might be inclined to put our game in Ann Arbor ahead of Saturday’s
game, in terms of difficulty.  But, yeah,
I’ve seen both of the Irish games so far, and they seem to be roughly what I
thought they’d be: a talented group that occasionally makes mistakes due to
inexperience.  With that in mind, I’m
glad we’re playing early in the season, and happier still that this will be ND’s
first road game.

I think that Brian Kelly was a very good hire and will
probably have a lot of success in South Bend. 
It’s simply a question of how quickly that success will come.  After beating a Purdue team that looks worse
than advertised, and losing to a Michigan team which is probably good but not
great, I think it’s too early to tell if ND’s big jump will come this
season.  I’d guess that it’ll take at
least another year or so, but this weekend could reveal a lot about that.

Last year you called Blair White’s
breakout game. Anyone you see having a dynamic day this Saturday night?

I’ll choose Edwin Baker; while he’s been great the past two
weeks, playing like that in front of a national TV audience would be a truer
breakout.  Anyway, he’s a powerful runner
who nonetheless has the speed to get to the outside.  And if he gets to the outside, given the
problems ND’s had at OLB, he could very well turn those runs into big gains.  MSU’s offensive line has been outstanding so
far, and if they can give Baker some lanes, he’ll take them.

 I’ll also hedge a bit by nominating Keshawn Martin as well.  He’s an incredible punt returner, and, if ND
kicks to him, I think he’ll do a lot of damage. 
You might see him gain big chunks on end-arounds or trap handoffs, too. 

It’s the first road game of the year for
the Irish. How difficult of an atmosphere will it be to play in this year?

Spartan Stadium gets particularly loud and nasty during
night games, and this Saturday won’t be any different.  Our stadium isn’t the biggest one in the
world (although at 75,000+ capacity, it’s certainly not tiny), but the
double-deck design traps sound and makes for a particularly loud
atmosphere.  I’m sure the Irish players
are expecting a hostile atmosphere, and they’ll get it.


Last year’s team seemed to get away from
the traditional Spartan offensive attack, and the first two games seem like MSU
is trying to turn the offense into a physical football team. What can Irish
fans expect from head coach Mark Dantonio and the Spartans on defense?

You can expect a defensive line that’s solid against the run
and middling in pass rush, one of the best linebacking corps in the country,
and a secondary that’s better than it was last year, but is still probably
sub-par.

 Briefly: Colin Neely had an excellent game at defensive end
last week, and Jerel Worthy is a very solid defensive tackle.  You may see a bit of William Gholston at
defensive end.  He was one of the top
defensive recruits in the country last year; he’s 6’7″, strong, very quick, and
has looked excellent in limited playing time so far this year.  I have a feeling that the coaching staff
might take the wraps off him on Saturday.

 Greg Jones leads the linebackers, and is quite simply one of
the best defensive players in college football. 
Eric Gordon and Chris Norman are the outside linebackers and they aren’t
bad, either.  As a group, they’re
excellent against the run and are deadly on the blitz.  They’re weaker in pass coverage, and I fear
that Kyle Rudolph may be able to exploit them.

 The secondary was a trainwreck of unbelievable proportions
last year, and pass defense (or really lack thereof) destroyed MSU’s season.  I think they’re better this year.  Chris L. Rucker is still vulnerable, but
Johnny Adams has looked fairly good at the other corner, and the safeties
(Trenton Robinson and Marcus Hyde) have made some nice pass breakups.  That’s not to say that Notre Dame won’t have
success throwing the ball, but I feel better about the secondary than I did
last year.

 The coaching staff has used a very, very basic 4-3 in the
first two games, with very few blitzes and no exotic stuff.  I suspect that we’ll see more variation
against ND; the talk all through the off-season was about how MSU will play a
lot of 3-4 this year.  We haven’t seen
that yet, but this could very well be the week.

Obviously, Notre Dame won a close one
last year. The past eight years of this game have been filled with tight games,
tough defeats for both squads, and a growing intensity to the rivalry. Where
does this game stand for Michigan State?

Firmly behind the Michigan game in the Spartan
consciousness, but very important nonetheless. 
It’s Notre Dame, so whether the game is home or away, it’s a nationally
televised game and a headline-grabber. 
If the 2006 meltdown had come against almost any other team, people
would have forgotten about it after a few weeks.  But it was against Notre Dame, so everyone
remembers.  (Mike Valenti didn’t help in
that regard.  Thanks a lot, pal.)  Each year there are conference games that
mean more to me than this one; for instance, this year the Iowa and Wisconsin
games will be huge.  But this one is always near the top.  The fact that they’ve been very, very good
games in recent years (and also that we’ve won plenty of them) certainly doesn’t
hurt.

What’s your gut feeling for Saturday
night?

I’m usually pretty manic-depressive about predicting MSU
games, so the fact that I’m reasonably optimistic about this one disturbs me
some.  I love the way we’ve run the ball
so far, I think that Kirk Cousins will be highly motivated to atone for his
interception last season, and while I don’t think our defense is going to
dominate Notre Dame, I certainly don’t think they’ll be steamrolled,
either.  It’s always risky to count on a
quarterback playing well in his first road start, and I think we’ll have some
success blitzing Crist and rattling him. 
There are plenty of ways MSU could lose this game: Michael Floyd could
go off, as could Kyle Rudolph (and the latter is more likely, in my opinion), we
could turn the ball over a ton, we could have horrific defensive breakdowns,
and so on.

 But I think the first two games have been perfect for MSU:
challenging enough to keep the team interested, but not challenging enough to
force the coaches to open up the playbook or for the players to be tired/banged
up heading into this game.  Furthermore, playing
this game in East Lansing will make a difference.  From the beginning of spring practice, there’s
been a terrific vibe surrounding this MSU team; they’re talented and ready, and
I think they’ll pass their first big test of the year.  30-24 MSU, or something like that.

    

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.