IBG: Bring on Stanford

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The Irish Blogger Gathering continues with some pertinent questions about the game against  Stanford. Running the show with a Q&A befitting the written exam on the GRE is the crew from One Foot Down, who have certainly put some time and effort into the questions at hand.

I’ll do my best to answer them. (Apologies for no Opponent Preview this morning, you’d be shocked at how hard it is to find someone that actually writes and follows Stanford.)

1. After suffering through back to back heart breaking losses
how have your expectations for this season changed?  Has the rough start
affected your expectations for the Brian Kelly era?

I’m rethinking my Rose Bowl prediction, but I don’t think I’ve changed my expectations. From an end-game perspective, I didn’t have a number of wins in mind that would make me think this season was a success or not, but it’d be great to see this team get better as the year went on, which would be a change from the past few seasons.

The last two coaching staffs did a great job of building early momentum, infusing excitement into the fanbase and recharging everyone. Obviously Kelly’s two last-second losses killed the momentum he was building and some fans understandably reacted. I’d like to think of myself as a level-headed, logical optimist when it comes to Notre Dame, and I’m not going to let two brutal breaks change that.

2. Our defense has given up 28 points in both of our last two
games. But our defense has also forced a few three and outs and has
looked fairly stout out times. So on D, are we Jekyll or Hyde?  Or are
we just a work in progress?

I think work-in-progress is a fair label. I also think that this defense is structurally flawed, thanks to some poor roster management. Kelly was left in a bad spot, particularly with depth at defensive end and in the secondary, and it’s hard to play winning defense without those two positions having good depth. That said, I’m more bullish on the Irish defense than others, probably because I’ve had the chance to sit with Bob Diaco and listen to the staff’s philosophies. Make no mistake: If the Irish don’t play great defense this year, it isn’t because of the coaches. Habits are hard to break, and while there have been improvements, last year’s Irish defense did a lot of things poorly, and we’re seeing some of those habits come out at the worst of times.

3. I’ve heard that Bill Walsh believed that if he saw a player
make one great play, he and his staff could coach that player to
consistently make great plays. The Irish offense clearly made some great
plays against State.  Our Offense also unfortunately disappeared at
critical times. Are we just witnessing the process of Kelly and his
staff teaching the lads to consistently make great plays?

Kelly hinted at the problems on the offense when he discussed ball-control throws yesterday. For the Irish offense to move the chains, Dayne Crist needs to do a better job making the short throws, making the proper two-man reads, and getting the Irish offense to operate at a higher efficiency level. I fully appreciate how difficult the transition must’ve been from a Charlie Weis pro-style, downfield offense to a Brian Kelly no-huddle, spread attack. Crist hasn’t played a lot of football, had to rehab a torn ACL this offseason, and still is playing at a pretty high level.

4. Where would you rank Stanford among the Irish opponents?
Would a defeat of the Cardinal be the biggest win of the last six years?

Before the season, I ranked the Stanford game as the 7th hardest on the schedule, and I absolutely take that back right now. Even if Stanford is a paper lion, I think they’re a more dangerous team than BC, Michigan, and Michigan State, so Notre Dame has to play a clean football game to win.

As for the biggest win of the last six years… Huh? This is still Stanford. Don’t get me wrong it’d be a big win, and looking back at the last six years and the quality wins is a depressing exercise, but I can’t call beating a Stanford team that beat up on Sacramento State, UCLA, and Wake Forest the best win of the last six years. 

5. While many outsiders and a contingent of fans have cited ND’s
academic standards as a hindrance to football success, many Irish
supporters consider Notre Dame’s unique combination of strong academics
and big-time football (and faith) as an advantageous niche in the
college football world.  With stricter admission standards and far-less
football notoriety, Harbaugh’s Cardinal have burst onto the national
recruiting scene to again prove that plenty of really good football
players welcome academic challenges as long as they come with a chance
to compete at the highest level.  Could you foresee sustained excellence
by Stanford Football and would you perceive a perennially strong
Cardinal program as any kind of a threat to Notre Dame’s niche?

Without getting too macro, Stanford is taking advantage of having a prestigious name brand, something Notre Dame knows plenty about. That said, there aren’t too many similarities that Notre Dame and Stanford share after crossing off good academics and private institutions. What’s getting good football players to Palo Alto is Jim Harbaugh. He’s an aggressive recruiter chasing top-talent, and doing it in one of the premiere states for football talent. Do I think Stanford threatens Notre Dame’s niche? No. But if last year was an indicator (Notre Dame and Stanford each poached players from each other), the Irish and Cardinal will see plenty of each other on the recruiting trail, just because they’re forced to look at the same profile of athlete.

6. Let’s talk statistics.  Will they matter this weekend?

a. Coming into the game, Stanford has the #3 ranked Scoring Offense
nationally (51.67 pts/gm) with the 14th ranked Rushing Offense (242.33
yds/gm).  Notre Dame’s Scoring Offense ranks 73rd (26.00 pts) with the
99th ranked Rushing Defense (197 yds/gm). 
Will the Irish be able to contain Stanford’s rushing attack?  

This is the match-up of the afternoon. Stanford’s offense and quarterback Andrew Luck both depend on a strong rushing attack. Stanford pounded the ball 49 times against UCLA and averaged 4.3 yards a carry — not all that spectacular when you consider that UCLA turned the ball over four times. Notre Dame’s defense hasn’t been stout by any means against the run, but they should stack up physically, and need to eliminate the big play.

b. Notre Dame’s Passing Offense is 8th nationally (318
yds/gm) and Stanford’s Passing Efficiency Defense is 3rd nationally (74
yds/gm). Will Stanford be able to contain the Irish passing attack? 

The Irish need to be able to throw the ball against UCLA. I’m not buying the hype on the newly transformed Cardinal defense. I’m throwing out games against Sacramento State, a mediocre team in the Big Sky Conference, and UCLA has some of the most dreadful quarterback play in the country. That said, the 3-4 defense could be exactly what Stanford needs to play better on the defensive side of the ball, but the Irish should get a very good luck from their scout team and defensive coaches this week. As long as Dayne Crist and company can stop turning the ball over, Notre Dame will be able to score some points.

c. Stanford gave up 170 yds rushing to UCLA and 265 yds rushing to Wake Forest.  Notre Dame has averaged 133 yds/gm so far. Do you expect Kelly to utilize the Irish rushing attack more?

Kelly will go with what’s working, but I suspect we’ll see Armando Allen, Cierre Wood, Jonas Gray, and possibly Robert Hughes getting some carries Saturday. There hasn’t been great balance on offense for the Irish, but before we get worried, they’ve only played three games and Armando Allen has looked great this year. The Stanford run defense looks susceptible, and I’m sure Kelly will try and control the game on the ground.

d. Stanford is ranked 4th in Red Zone Defense (50%) while the
Irish have the 65th ranked Red Zone Offense (82%).   Stanford’s Red
Zone Offense is tied for 1st (100%) in conversions and the Irish
Defense’s Red Zone conversions allowed is 36th (75%).  Will the Irish be able to stop Stanford’s RZ conversions and improve theirs?  How would you do that? 

I don’t have any idea if the Irish will stop Stanford in the red zone. Ideally they’d do it before Stanford gets there, or win the field position battle and set up longer fields for the Cardinal. Andrew Luck is a really really good quarterback and his mobility makes Stanford dangerous in the red zone. The Irish need to hold on to the football and make their red zone possessions count. No team is going to keep a 50 percent red zone average like Stanford’s defense has, but the Irish need to hold on to the football down in Stanford’s end of the field and get touchdowns instead of field goals to win the game.

7. 1-2 is pretty tough to deal with for a football team still
trying to find its identity.  Meanwhile, Stanford is looking like a
well-oiled machine thus far.  Do you think this Irish squad can really
bounce back from another heart-breaking loss against the Cardinal?  What
if it’s not all that close?

Slow down, Mr. Negative. On paper, Notre Dame matches up fine with Stanford. It was only last year where Notre Dame moved the ball up and down the field with a team playing for nothing with a dead-man-walking coach, and a defense not much better.  Put frankly, the Irish have just been on the wrong-end of two very heart-breaking losses. But Brian Kelly isn’t going to lose his team after three games, and like it or not, transitions are tough. There are going to be bumps in the road. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the Irish win, and for as lopsided as this may appear, Stanford is only a four-point favorite in Las Vegas. 

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.