IBG: Life at the half-way point

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With Western Michigan not exactly the sexiest of opponents and the season exactly half-way finished, the guys at We Never Graduate hosted the Irish Blogger Gathering with a fairly meaty selection of questions.

I’ll do my best to answer the bonus question without getting Jack Donaghy calling downstairs for my head.

The Irish have posted back-to-back victories over teams that have
given us fits the past decade to pull back to .500, but when you head to
the message boards on ND Nation, Rivals, etc. all you see is
unrelenting negativity. Some cry Kelly’s in over his head and doomed to
fail, others bitch and moan about the run-to-pass ratio, and many more
say that even though we’ve won the last two there’s no improvement over
last year’s team. What’s your take on the negativity that’s swirling
around the program on the internet? What message would you like to
convey to ND Nation?

Cynicism and negative are hardly anything new for Notre Dame football, and definitely aren’t relegated to the websites mentioned above. (Just take a look at some of the comments around here.) I’m not old enough to remember the early days of Lou or much of anything before, but I’m guessing since Knute Rockne, the Irish fanbase has been filled with a small — but incredibly vocal — group of blowhard windbags.

Here’s a few comments that I feel work for just about every one of “those guys.”

1) College football coaches know more about football than you do… I promise.
2) The techniques you learned back when you played are most likely wrong… I promise.
3) This isn’t the Rockne or Leahy era. It’s a lot harder to win football games now.
4) Installing a new offensive system with an unproven quarterback, three new offensive linemen and without your All-American wide receiver brings some growing pains.
5) For those worried about the run/pass ratio: If you look at the stats — the Irish run more on non-scoring drives than on scoring drives.

All that being said, I don’t blame Irish fans for taking a wait and see approach. We’ve been burned badly by the last two coaches, and there are far too many intelligent people to fall head-over-heels in love again.

When Western Michigan and Tulsa were announced as 2010 opponents last
fall there was a full-throttle meltdown among ND fans that was surpassed
only by The F-Word Incident
in April in terms of sheer outrage. Well, if the opinions expressed
then are the same now the apocalypse has finally arrived and a MAC squad
is about to forever sully our field by stepping foot on it. Have your
thoughts on the Western Michigan/Tulsa games changed since they were
announced? Would you rather ND Stadium sell out and continue the streak
that extends back almost 40 years or see the streak broken so that the
powers-that-be know just how disrespected you feel by the audacity they
showed in scheduling such inferior opponents?

Jack Swarbrick needed to fill a schedule that was left for him, and Tulsa and Western Michigan did the Irish a favor by signing on the dotted line. That said, if you want to get angry, get angry about how front-loaded the schedule is. Six straight games against tough competition is a recipe for disaster, especially when you’re starting a season without an experienced quarterback.

I’d much rather see a game with Tulsa or Western Michigan in the opening two weeks of the season, when teams start to find their identity and players get readjusted to the game. If Notre Dame’s schedule allows them to get back to BCS Bowls consistently, I don’t think Swarbrick and the ND brass will be apologizing for a non-traditional opponent anytime soon.

Most people painted AD Jack Swarbrick as the villain when the Western
Michigan/Tulsa games were made public. Since then he’s made drastic
moves in locking down opponents on future schedules, went through the
process of firing Weis and hiring Kelly, and navigated ND through the
murky waters of conference realignment. Has your personal opinion on
Swarbrick been altered over the past year?

Maybe I’m the only one, but hiring Jack Swarbrick is the best decision Notre Dame athletics has made since they hired Lou Holtz. I wrote a column a few months ago calling Swarbrick the knight in shining armor that saved college football, and after spending a few weekends back on campus and talking to people that are well-connected at the university, they all seem to agree with my theory.

It’s hard for my personal opinion to change much on Swarbrick, just because I’ve had so much respect for the job he’s done since day one.

We’re at the halfway point so it’s a perfect time to step back real
quick and evaluate what’s happened thus far. What have been your two
biggest surprises at this juncture of the season? Choose one positive
and one negative.

My one positive surprise? Call it a tie between David Ruffer and Ian Williams. When a group of us selected the Top 25 players on the Irish roster, nobody put Ruffer on their list. Right now, he’s probably running second place for offensive MVP behind Armando Allen. Add Ian Williams to the list because he’s been an absolutely force at nose guard. Williams made himself a lot of money with the work he’s done this year, and he’s a perfect example of the maturation process of a defensive lineman — and a good reminder why it pays to redshirt big bodies if you can. (Imagine if Williams was coming back for a fifth year?)

My one negative? It’s got to be the two last-second losses. The Irish still have struggled to become closers, something that I’m expecting to see change in the second half of the season. If you’re a Notre Dame fan, there’s nothing that could feel worse than taking a loss in the last minute to both the Wolverines and the Spartans. 

Which player that hasn’t contributed much to this point in the season do you see emerging as a contributor down the stretch?

I expect to see more out of Darius Fleming, who hasn’t been the player that I expected. The CAT linebacker is a position that should thrive in Bob Diaco’s system and while Fleming played a nice game last Saturday, he still disappears too often and struggled mightily against the roll-out boot pass in coverage as well. (Dishonorable mention should probably go to the entire outside linebacker position, who I’m expecting a gigantic second half from.)

Scholarships are running thin and some tough decisions are going to have
to be made this spring when it comes to offering 5th years to current
seniors. If you’re Coach Kelly who do you offer and who is left out in
the cold to make room for the incoming freshman class?  Here’s a link to the 2011 scholarship chart for a list of potential 5th years.

This is a tough question, and I’m going to hold off going too far into detail, only because I don’t want to offend any of the guys that might not be asked back. Here’s a few names that absolutely need to come back without question:

Harrison Smith
Gary Gray
Michael Floyd
Kyle Rudolph

If the Irish can get both these four back on campus for their senior seasons, they’ll probably feel better making the tough decision on guys like Matt Romine, Emeka Nwankwo, and Steve Paskorz. Depth at places like the secondary and defensive end will likely play a role, as will the depth chart along the offensive line.

BONUS: You’ve been challenged to a Tailgate Olympiad by some chaunce from
Southern Cal and you need to assemble a dream team of your fellow Irish
fans to compete in the following events: Flip Cup (four-man
team), Beer Pong, Hamburger Eating Contest (two-man team),
Cornhole/Bags/Whatever You Call It, Individual Race (Editor’s note: It’s bad for you), and
Thunderdome (Editor’s note: It’s bad for you, too). Your captaincy role on this team is Ryder Cup style so you’ll be
monitoring the proceedings rather than actually partaking. Throw some
internet love out to your fellow tailgate All-Stars that have delivered
through the years and let us know who you’d put in each slot to make
sure Troy fell in the parking lot as well as on the field…and while
you’re at it, tell us what three songs you’d be blasting as you rolled
to victory.

I’ve long retired from competitive tailgating, but have plenty of great memories of some Hall of Fame performances back in the college days. I was never a flip cup guy… didn’t see the point. As for throwing ping-pong balls, I’d call on he thunderous right arm of former Irish great Drew Duff. I’ll steer clear of anything called the Thunderdome that didn’t include the 1987 Minnesota Twins, as well as an individual race — that never ends well. But if it comes to a two-man hamburger eating contest, you could do no better than the dynamic duo of former Irish hockey players Connor Dunlop and Brett Henning. These two would steal candy from a baby, as long as it had enough carbs and saturated fats.

As for the three songs — I’ll defer those choices to good friend and former hockey great John Wroblewski, who would pull the plug on my music and put on his iPod anyway…   

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s linebackers, a proven two and then many questions

Associated Press
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Any concerns about Notre Dame’s linebackers were allayed when Te’von Coney spurned the NFL to return for his senior season. That decision, and Drue Tranquill making the same move, means the Irish do not need to replace their two best playmakers at the position from last season.

Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Clark Lea does need to figure out how to fill in for the graduated Nyles Morgan and his 92 tackles, not to mention classmate Greer Martini and his 75, good for second and fourth on the team, respectively.

Spring Roster:
— Two known and welcome playmaking veterans in Coney and fifth-year Tranquill.
— More than a handful of unproven and untested possibilities in rising senior Asmar Bilal, rising juniors Jonathan Jones and Jamir Jones (no relation), and rising sophomores Drew White, David Adams and Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah.
— A trio of early-enrolled freshmen in Jack Lamb, Bo Bauer and Ovie Oghoufo.

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman Shayne Simon, a likely rover candidate.

Entering 2017, Te’von Coney was not even a starting linebacker. By the end of the season he was the leading tackler, and in 2018, he will be counted on as a defensive stalwart. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
Wherever Tranquill ends up — be it at rover or a more traditional linebacker position, with the latter seeming more likely — someone will need to earn the third starting role. Bilal is the front-runner for that duty, at either position, but he will need to show a quicker understanding of the game than he has in the past.

The rising senior has always been ready physically, but he has looked up the depth chart at the likes of Morgan, Martini, Coney and Tranquill. Opportunities were not readily available. Now that one very much is, Bilal will need to either seize it or get ready to be bypassed by the newcomers.

It would be a surprise for Lamb or Bauer to be named that third starter in their freshman season, but both could certainly land in the two-deep, as that entire second unit is up for grabs. Neither Jones showed much last season, and the linebacker recruiting emphasis of 2018 belied the coaching staffs’ opinions of the rising sophomores pretty clearly.

Presuming Bilal steps forward and secures the starting position, and some combination of Jones, Jones, Lamb and Bauer fill two of the backup roles, only Owusu-Koromoah stands out as an obvious rover substitute. In that respect, depth remains a concern at the defense’s second level, albeit less of one than in years past thanks to the influx of four touted freshmen.

Biggest Question:
Where does Tranquill line up against Michigan on Sept. 1? More to the current purpose, where does he line up in the Blue-Gold Game on April 21?

“My responsibility as linebackers coach is to put the best combination of people on the field,” Lea said Feb. 7. “I think everyone can see Drue Tranquill had a skillset, a talent base that can play multiple spots. Through the course of the winter and spring, we’ll take a look at different options.”

The duties at rover can be handled piecemeal, accounting for the tendencies of each opponent. When facing an up-tempo, aerial attack, perhaps even rising senior cornerback Shaun Crawford could be featured there. When facing a physical, ground-bound opponent, Bilal would make more sense.

Shifting around like that at the Buck linebacker spot makes far less sense. While Tranquill never necessarily had the speed to excel at safety, and two knee injuries only further limited him in that respect, he shined at rover in 2017. Concluding his collegiate career at linebacker is logical, both as it pertains to his development thus far and to his professional aspirations.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Rarely can a defense lose two of its top-four tacklers and still return more than 200 tackles from starting linebackers. Thus is the luxury provided by both Coney and Tranquill bypassing the NFL for another year.

Coney: 116 tackles, 13.0 tackles for loss including three sacks, and one forced fumble which he recovered.
Tranquill: 85 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss including 1.5 sacks, one interception, three pass breakups, three fumbles recovered and one fumble forced.
Bilal: 18 tackles with 1.5 for loss.
Jo. Jones: 10 tackles with one for loss and one pass breakup.
Ja. Jones: Four tackles.

A 2018 Statistical Thought:
Presuming linebacker health, the three starters should end up as Notre Dame’s leading tacklers once again in 2018, even with the presumed drop off from Morgan to insert Bilal or Owusu-Koromoah or Lamb or … here.

The Irish defensive line will be much improved in 2018. Once upon a time, that seemed a guarantee just because the expectations for the line entering 2017 were so low, but it instead became a strength. Developing that strength and making it the backbone of Notre Dame’s defense moving forward will serve to burgeon the linebackers’ tackle totals, both at and behind the line of scrimmage.

Notre Dame gets the letter: Jack Lamb
Notre Dame gets the letter: Bo Bauer
Notre Dame gets the letter: Shayne Simon
Notre Dame gets the letter: Ovie Oghoufo

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are

A second four-star defensive lineman, Hunter Spears, joins the Notre Dame class of 2019

rivals.com
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When Notre Dame got five heralded defensive line recruits on campus together in January, it turned heads. When Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston offered public optimism about the possible 2019 commitments, it raised expectations.

Notre Dame has now secured a second of those five with the Tuesday commitment of consensus four-star defensive end Hunter Spears (Sachse High School; Texas). He joins consensus four-star defensive tackle Jacob Lacey (South Warren H.S.; Bowling Green, Ky.) as the early foundation to the recruiting class, now with four prospects pledged.

“Honestly, just talking with the guys today — Jacob Lacey, Mazi Smith, Joseph Anderson, Nana Osafo-Mensah, and myself — if Notre Came can land all of us, that would be the dream d-line class for Notre Dame,” Spears told Irish Illustrated. “I could see another pass-rusher or two, also.”

The other three names Spears mentioned all joined Lacey and him on Jan. 27 at an on-campus Junior Day. All five qualify as consensus four-stars, with Smith (East Kentwood; Kentwood, Mich.) a tackle, Anderson (Siegel; Murfreesboro, Tenn.) an end, and Osafo-Mensah (Nolan Catholic; Fort Worth, Texas) a possible end/linebacker hybrid.

From left to right: Osafo-Mensah, Anderson, Elston, Smith, Lacey and Spears. (Twitter: @JacobLacey6)

Landing all five may be ambitious, but it would also be the envy of most of the country.

Spears already held offers from the likes of Alabama and Michigan State, despite missing his junior season with a knee injury. The Irish extended a scholarship offer to him in June, prompting an unofficial visit to watch a 49-14 Notre Dame victory over USC in October. In a video released by 247Sports.com, Spears cited that experience as one of the three primary reasons he committed, along with the educational opportunity and the “overall tradition and culture.”

Spears shows quickness for a defensive lineman, but not such that he would ever be considered an outside linebacker in any form. His size makes him an ideal candidate to set the edge against the run or possibly move inside when the Irish need a quicker defensive line to handle certain opponents. His agility, though, will make him a three-down threat, both a pass-rusher and an edge-setter.

Notre Dame currently has depth at defensive end, but with only one signed in the class of 2018 (Justin Ademilola) and one remaining from the class of 2017 (Kofi Wardlow), an influx will be a priority this recruiting cycle. Spears will theoretically have one season to adjust to collegiate competition before the quartet of rising juniors Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem, Julian Okwara and Ade Ogundeji run out of eligibility. (The first three have two seasons remaining, while Ogundeji has the possibility of three more years.)

Hence, that Junior Day emphasis and Elston’s confidence on National Signing Day.

“I’ve been at Notre Dame now going on for nine years, and I haven’t had a stronger group of underclassmen that I’m recruiting than I have this year in 2019,” Elston said. “This could be the best defensive line haul we’ve ever had here.”

Expect to read that quote again and again (and possibly again) if any of the remaining three in the above photo follow Spears’ and Lacey’s lead.

RELATED READING: ‘Accelerated’ start creates bright outlook for Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting cycle

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are

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Notre Dame will open spring practice in about two weeks. As always, the proceedings will be filled with positive reviews, optimistic outlooks, and an injury or two.

A quick look at each position group should lend a better understanding to those perspectives and effects, beginning with the group lacking many questions — the running backs. The biggest reason there is relative certainty around the running backs is there are just so few of them following the winter dismissals of rising junior Deon McIntosh and rising sophomore C.J. Holmes.

Spring Roster:
Rising senior Dexter Williams (pictured above)
Rising junior Tony Jones
Early-enrolled freshman Jahmir Smith
Rising junior Mick Assaf

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman C’Bo Flemister

No one received more praise last spring practice than Tony Jones. He had a successful 2017, but compared to that hype, it could have been considered under-performing. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
At some point, either Williams or Jones will be named the Irish starter. It is quite possible that will be a distinction without much difference, as the two could certainly complement each other well in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s system, which already prefers to use multiple running backs.

Human nature, though, dictates is more likely one back receives a majority of the carries.

Biggest Question:
If Williams lines up with the No. 1 offensive unit in the Blue-Gold Game (April 21) to conclude spring practice, that will be the first genuine and tangible evidence he has improved as a pass blocker. Despite his big-play speed and seeming-ease breaking tackles, Williams’ one-dimensional game rendered him as much a liability as an asset in 2017.

Even in the Citrus Bowl victory, Williams followed up back-to-back rushes for a combined 36 yards with a blown pass protection resulting in a 13-yard sack.

“You have to be able to protect the quarterback with all positions,” Long said Feb. 7. “That dictates a whole lot if you’re going to play a lot or just be a situational guy. It’s something you have to embrace, the physicality.

“… That’s really the main thing, other than protecting the ball, that’ll keep a back off the field in our offense.”

The best ability is availability, and both an ankle injury and a balky quad limited Williams in that respect in 2017. Little blame can be cast for the natural bruises of football. Nonetheless, he will need to “embrace the physicality” if he wants to become more than a situational back.

Otherwise, Jones will be the default option. He has already shown a knack for both pass blocking and catching, making him a three-down option. Notre Dame will always prefer that rather than tip its hand to a running play every time Williams enters the game.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Obviously, Josh Adams carried the burden in the running game last season. Behind rising senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush and McIntosh, Williams was only the No. 4 rusher on the roster in yards and touchdowns, while Jones was No. 4 in carries and No. 5 in yards and scores.

Williams: 360 yards on 39 carries, a 9.2 average, with four touchdowns. Two catches for 13 yards and one score.
Jones: 232 yards on 44 carries, a 5.3 average, with three touchdowns. Six catches for 12 yards.
Notre Dame gets the letter: Jahmir Smith
Notre Dame gets the letter: C’Bo Flemister

Monday’s Leftovers: Geography, as much as academics, caps Notre Dame’s recruiting possibilites

Associated Press
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A year ago, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly acknowledged a practical ceiling on Irish recruiting efforts.

“Since I’ve been here, if you look at the average rankings, we’re anywhere from 5 to 15,” Kelly said on 2017’s National Signing Day, a day on which Notre Dame secured the No. 13 class in the country, per rivals.com. “We’re going to fall somewhere in that range because there’s a line there we can’t get over based upon what our distinctions are here. That line is going to keep us between 5 and 15.

“We know where we’re going to fall. We’re going to continue to recruit the right kind of kids here.”

Sure enough, the Irish once again fall into that spectrum in 2018, finishing No. 11 per rivals. Though Notre Dame has risen above that range once (No. 3 in 2013) and fallen below it once (No. 20 in 2012) during Kelly’s tenure, his overall analysis remains accurate.

The instinct has always been to cite University academic standards as the greatest hurdle to rising into the top five consistently, but another aspect should not be overlooked. In a recent mailbag, Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples pondered the factors keeping the Irish from becoming a perennial 10-win team.

“Another major reason is a lack of a local recruiting base,” Staples wrote. “No program has a stronger national reach than Notre Dame, but that still doesn’t make recruiting nationally easy. It’s much easier to have hundreds of quality prospects within driving distances.”

That dynamic is a part of why the Irish are better positioned to reap rewards from high school juniors now being able to take official visits in April, May and June. Those time periods are less hectic for most high schoolers, so a long-distance trip may fit into the calendar with a bit less stress. Obviously, only time will tell the true impact of that new change.

Looking at both this past year’s recruiting rankings and the last nine years of rankings underscores and supports Staples’ point.

Rivals considered 33 prospects to be five-star recruits in 2018. Only seven schools managed to sign multiple such players: Georgia (8), Clemson (6), USC (5), Alabama (3), Ohio State (3), Penn State (2), and Miami (2). To speak more broadly, four schools in the Deep South, two in the Ohio-Pennsylvania corridor and one in California, all talent-rich areas, especially compared to Indiana, Illinois and Michigan.

If combining the total signees of both four- and five-star rankings by rivals, Notre Dame signed 12 such prospects. Only 11 schools signed more, including six of the above seven. (Clemson equaled the Irish haul, though its even split between four- and five-star recruits stands out compared to Notre Dame’s 12 four-stars.) The additional five: Oklahoma, Texas, Florida State, Auburn and Florida. In other words, two schools tapping into Texas, two schools within Florida and one more in the Deep South.

If looking at the last nine years of recruiting, the span of Kelly’s time in South Bend, only eight programs have consistently out-recruited the Irish, all but one mentioned already. LSU finished with the No. 13 recruiting class in 2018, lowering its nine-year average placement to 8.0. The Tigers are one of five SEC teams in that group of eight, joining Florida State, Ohio State and USC.

Sense a theme?

It will always be hard enough for Notre Dame to find high-caliber players likely to succeed at a strong academic institution in the Midwest. That task is even harder knowing how far away those players typically are to start with.

Other programs face a similar challenge, and few handle it as well. Consider the 2018 recruiting classes of Stanford, Michigan and Michigan State, for familiar context.

Stanford finished with 4 four-stars in rivals’ No. 63 class. The Wolverines pulled in 7 four-stars as part of the No. 24 class, while the Spartans signed 5 four-stars in the No. 26 grouping.

The Blue-Chip Ratio
Finishing within Kelly’s range has not stopped Notre Dame from consistently having one of the most-talented rosters in the country. If abiding by rivals rankings for consistency, 45 of the 89 players currently on the Irish roster (including incoming freshmen) were four- or five-star recruits.

A commonly-cited metric of a roster’s talent is the so-called “Blue-Chip Ratio.” Essentially, a national championship caliber team will have at least 50 percent of its roster consisting of former four- or five-star prospects. Entering 2017, Notre Dame was one of only 10 such teams in the country.

As should be expected, the other nine included six programs from the Deep South, Ohio State, USC and, as an ode to Jim Harbaugh’s early recruiting successes, Michigan.

A Presidents Day Reminder
Notre Dame cannot officially claim any POTUS as an alum, but both Josiah Bartlet and James Marshall would like to argue otherwise.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Notre Dame’s pending attrition actually intended to improve the roster
NCAA denies Notre Dame’s appeal, vacating 21 wins, including 12-0 in 2012
Notre Dame is right: The NCAA’s terrible precedent matters, but vacating wins does not
‘Accelerated’ start creates bright outlook for Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting cycle
Notre Dame’s successful early signing period now begets early visit questions

OUTSIDE READING:
NCAA appeals committee upholds vacation of Notre Dame wins
A letter from the President on the NCAA Infractions Case
Irish set high expectations for Jurkovec
Elston ‘recruits’ Tillery, Bonner for one last ride
Giants release defensive end Ishaq Williams with a failed physical designation
Re-ranking the longest FBS coaching tenures from 1-to-230
Hip injury to keep Stanford QB K.J. Costello sidelined for much of spring drills