And in that corner… The Pitt Panthers

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It’s hard to believe that a little over eleven months ago, the No. 8 ranked Pitt Panthers were welcoming in a Charlie Weis-coached Notre Dame squad that had just lost to Navy without ever punting the football. It was the beginning of the end for Weis and the 2009 Fighting Irish, as Golden Tate’s heroics and the trio of Michael Floyd, Jimmy Clausen and Tate’s fourth quarter rally weren’t enough to spring the upset in Heinz Field.

One coaching change, two star players, and a season later, Brian Kelly’s Irish welcome Dave Wannstedt and company to South Bend. The Panthers’ 2010 season has already hit two speed bumps, with an overtime loss to Utah opening the season and a 31-3 pasting at the hands of the Miami Hurricanes giving Pitt two early losses in the first four games of the season. Alex Oltmann, the sports editor for the student run Pitt News, has been there every step of the way covering the Panthers.

He was nice enough to answer some questions for me as the Irish prepare to take on Pitt this Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

Inside the Irish: Obviously, Pitt fans knew that the opening four games had two tough
opponents: Utah and Miami. The loss to Utah was a heartbreaker, the
Miami loss, disheartening. Where does the psyche of this team and its
fanbase site after a 2-2 start?

Alex Oltmann: After starting 1-2, both the team and the fans were very disappointed.
The team had two primetime Thursday night games with a lot of
anticipation building up for both and they ended up as losses. The team
was embarrassed after its 1-2 start, but the win last Saturday over FIU
gave them and the fanbase some confidence heading into South Bend this
week.  But even with the win, there’s still plenty of pessimistic fans
around the city and on campus.

Most people expected big things from Dion Lewis this year. Yet after
four games its another sophomore, Ray Graham, leading the team in
rushing, while getting less touches than Lewis. Is there a running back
controversy at Pitt? How will Wannstedt distribute carries on Saturday?

There’s no real controversy over who will start at running back, Dion
Lewis ran for nearly 1,800 yards last year, was a front-runner for the
Heisman trophy going into this season and will start when the offense
takes the field against the Irish. But with that being said, Ray Graham
has earned more carries and coach Dave Wannstedt said he will get more
going forward. So look for Lewis to still get more carries than Graham
on Saturday, but still expect to see Graham heavily involved in the
offense.

Notre Dame fans remember the bludgeoning that Jonathan Baldwin gave to
Darrin Walls and the ND secondary last year. Obviously his production
has suffered with Tino Sunseri at the helm of the offense. What is Pitt
getting out of their passing game
this year?

Sunseri has struggled at times this season, but he hasn’t gotten much
help from his offensive line. Without much time to stand in the pocket,
it hasn’t allowed Baldwin’s routes to develop downfield. Fans know what
they’re going to get from the future first round pick Baldwin, but
fellow receiver Mike Shanahan has been a pleasant surprise. Pitt’s No. 2
receiver has stepped up this season with 14 catches for 190 yards after
being a reserve last year. Sunseri has a strong arm and a good grasp of
the offense and with more game experience and added confidence, has all
the tools to be effective with those receivers and the others as well.

Pitt’s defense suffered a big loss with injuries to Greg Romeus and Dan
Mason. Brian Kelly is obviously familiar with Pitt’s defensive scheme
and personnel. How do you stack up the battle between the Irish offense
and the Pitt defense.

Losing Romeus and Mason definitely hurt, but the defense is forced to
move on without them and has. Romeus’ backup, Brandon Lindsey, has
performed well and is very quick off the edge. Dom DeCicco was moved
from starting safety to weakside linebacker to provide more speed there,
but it’s essentially the nickelback position right now. They will need
that speed and athleticism if they’re going to have a linebacker
covering Kyle Rudolph. Pitt’s defensive backs could struggle to cover Michael Floyd much like they struggled in the second half against him
and Golden Tate last season. Both starters, Antwuan Reed and Ricky Gary
are capable of having big games, but are first year starters.

Put into words the Dave Wannstedt era so far, from a Pitt fan’s perspective.

The Wannstedt era at Pitt has had mixed reviews with two schools of
thought. The first is that he’s helped to turn the program around,
beating West Virginia in the huge upset in 2007, winning 10 games last
year for the first time since 1981 and serving as a great recruiter
especially in Western Pennsylvania. But the other side of the argument
would say that he hasn’t won enough big games like the ones against
Cincinnati the last two seasons and against West Virginia last year, and
that he’s mismanaged some games with questionable play calling like in
their 3-0 loss to Oregon State in the Sun Bowl in 2008. There’s always
going to be pessimists, so I would say that the majority of fans are
pro-Wannstedt.

What’s your gut feeling about Saturday. What does Pitt have to do to win the football game?

My gut feeling says the game will be close on Sunday. In order to win
Pitt has to get pressure on Dayne Crist which will fall primarily on
the defensive line since defensive coordinator Phil Bennett is not a big
proponent of blitzing. Secondly, Pitt has to establish the running game
with Lewis and Graham early. This will take some pressure off Sunseri
and set up the play-action pass.

Check out Alex’s coverage of Pitt football at the Pitt News as the game approaches this weekend.

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.