Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. Stanford

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Van Morrison said it best: There’ll be days like this.

Stuck in neutral for much of the afternoon, Notre Dame’s took a large step backward as Jim Harbaugh’s Stanford squad easily defeated the Irish 37-14, dropping Notre Dame to 1-3 on the season.

The Cardinal physically dominated the game, winning the battle at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. The revamped Cardinal defense was all that was advertised, holding the Irish to only 44 yards rushing and continuously taking Dayne Crist to the ground. On offense, Stanford put together a workman-like performance, getting 166 yards on the ground and giving Andrew Luck all day to throw the football. Even on special teams, Stanford had the upper-hand, limiting the Irish kick returners to meager gains and consistently dominating the field position battle.

With three losses in the first four games of the season, Notre Dame will have to reevaluate their goals for the season. Here are five things we learned during Stanford’s 37-14 win over Notre Dame.

1. Notre Dame’s offensive line was exposed.

Today was not a banner day for Ed Warinner’s crew. The three-man front of Stanford’s defense confused and dominated the Irish, keeping Notre Dame’s running game obsolete. More surprising, Stanford was able to pressure Dayne Crist with a three- and four-man pass rush, allowing Cardinal defenders to drop seven and eight men into coverage and clog up passing lanes.

Stanford blitzed early and often and drilled Dayne Crist just as much, continually putting the Irish quarterback to the turf. The first three weeks, Notre Dame’s inexperienced tackles looked up to the task at hand. This afternoon, they didn’t. No offensive line is immune to growing pains, but this afternoon’s performance was an ugly reminder that Notre Dame is breaking in three new starters up front. Expect an emphasis in practice this week to be put on the snap count, as Stanford took advantage of Crist’s predictable delivery and timed their blitzes perfectly.

2. The Irish special teams need to improve quickly.

There’s no excuse for Notre Dame not to be better on special teams, and this afternoon’s performance was mediocre at best. Earlier in the week, Brian Kelly put Cierre Wood on notice that his hesitance on kick returns wouldn’t be tolerated. Wood failed to answer the bell this afternoon, tip-toeing out of the end zone on the opening kickoff and failing to get past the 20 yard line multiple times. It’s not all on Wood either, as the blocking up front failed to create running lanes.

The hidden yardage battle was also becoming glaringly obvious, with punter Ben Turk only averaging 32 yards a kick on his five punts, including a massive shank when he tried to kick one rugby style. While the game was already out of reach, the onside kick attempt by the Irish was a triple-failure as well, with kicker Nick Tausch failing to kick the ball ten yards, Harrison Smith running offsides, and Stanford recovering the ball.

On Thursday, Kelly had this to say about the special-teamers:

“We’ve taken our lumps on some effort things, more so than we have
schematically, Kelly said. “Obviously one of things I mentioned earlier in the week,
I didn’t like the effort of some of the veteran players on special
teams… I’m not putting you on the bus —
if you’re the third string whatever position and you’re not giving us
great effort on special teams, then I’m just going to leave you home.”

Mike Elston’s a very good special teams coach and you can bet there will be plenty of time dedicated to fixing these problems. Now we’ll see if Kelly is true to his word when the travel squad is announced for next week’s game at Boston College.

3. Manti Te’o is a dynamic presence.

While it was in a losing effort, Manti Te’o was all over the field this afternoon, making a career-high 21 tackles this afternoon. Te’o runs sideline to sideline as good as any middle linebacker in college football, and the hit he made on the Stanford sideline is a great reminder that he’s a got knock-out power as well.

“He played with a will today,” Kelly said about Te’o. “He had a look o his face, a toughness to him that he hasn’t displayed since he’s been a player here at Notre Dame. Today is one of those watershed moments for a defensive plyer that we can model.”

If you’re looking for reasons to believe that Te’o’s becoming a complete player, don’t look at the stats he’s putting up. Instead, rewatch the great job he did in coverage, running stride-for-stride down the seam and making a great play on a well-delivered Andrew Luck pass for a pass break-up. Te’o is a true sophomore and still very much a work-in-progress, but Notre Dame has found the rock in the middle of its defense.

4. Dayne Crist is having growing pains.

Dayne Crist reminded us that he’s only making the fourth start of his career this afternoon. Even though he got off to a quick start, Crist once again hit a lull in the middle of the game, grinding the Irish passing attack to a halt as he missed on five consecutive throws and struggled making the correct reads. With the Irish ground game MIA, it was up to Dayne to carry the offense and the first-year starter just wasn’t able to get it done.

“Every day he’s growing,” Kelly said of Crist. “There’s new things he’s confronted with. He’s learning. But it is a process. This is the maturation of a quarterback right before your eyes.”

Stanford defensive coordinator Vic Fangio had Crist off-balance or in the turf much of the afternoon, giving the quarterback multiple looks and dropping as many as eight white shirts into coverage. Fangio also took away tight end Kyle Rudolph, and Crist was lost without his safety valve.

5. Stanford is in a different class than Notre Dame right now.

At the quarter-mark of the season, it’s clear that Stanford is just a better football team than Notre Dame right now. Think about this: The Irish defense picked off Andrew Luck twice, held him below 250 yards passing, kept the vaunted Cardinal running game below four yards a carry… and Stanford still beat Notre Dame by 23 points.

“Begin by tipping my hat to Stanford, Coach Harbaugh,” Kelly said. “Well-coached football team. They were well prepared. It’s a fine football team. They deserved to win today.”

Harbaugh’s troops play an incredible effective brand of football, controlling the clock, the line of scrimmage, and never backing down from an opponent. We’ll find out if Stanford has a Rose Bowl worthy squad in the next two weeks, but Stanford’s last three wins — dominating UCLA, Wake Forest, and Notre Dame — certainly rank among the best in college football.

As for the Irish, they’re at a fork in the road and Kelly knows it.

“There’s going to be a lot of 1-3 football teams across the country,” Kelly said. “Some are going to finish 1-11, some are going to be 9-3. It’s what you decide to do from here on out.”

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.