Pregame Twelve Pack: Tulsa edition

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(Due to the lack of media access to the team this week, and the Declan Sullivan tragedy, we’re cutting down the 12 pack to 6 items. We’ll be back next week with a full slate of fun facts, tidbits, and miscellaneous items.)

1. While the game will go on, the Irish will pay tribute to Declan Sullivan.

With the week’s tragedy overshadowing the football game, Notre Dame canceled both the Friday pep rally and the football luncheon, weekly staples during home games. Also canceled were Brian Kelly’s radio show, as well as any media availability between Wednesday and Saturday for Irish coaches and players.

Athletic director Jack Swarbrick announced that the Irish will put a decal on their helmets to honor Declan and there will be a moment of silence. They’ll also dedicate this football game to Sullivan’s memory.

2. Notre Dame and Tulsa meet for the first time. The time they almost met is stuff of Tulsa legend.

While Saturday’s date in Notre Dame Stadium will mark the first time these two programs face off in football, “the game that could have been” is one almost for the ages.

According to Robert Ruttland’s 1952 book entitled “The Golden Hurricane: Fifty Years of Football at The University of Tulsa,” the Irish nearly came to Tulsa in 1916.

I’ll let the Tulsa Sports Information Department take it from here:

Tulsa, known as Kendall College at the time, had finished its’ season at 10-0 and were claimed the unoffical “state champions” with wins over both Oklahoma and Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State) . . . excerpts from the book tell the story –– “most of the Kendall squad turned in its football equipment and drew basketball uniforms. But to a few Tulsa businessmen, there was one game left on the Kendall schedule –– with the fabulous Irish of Notre Dame. How close Kendall came to playing Notre Dame in the final of the 1916 season probably will never be known, but a definite move was under way with some of the town’s wealthiest oil men reportedly backing the promotion. Notre Dame was contacted regarding the possibilities of such a game, to have been played in Tulsa. Response from the Indiana school indicated an interest in the post-season match. Bringing Notre Dame to Tulsa would have paid immeasurable dividends to both the city and the college. With the exception of the A&M game, the team was virtually untested (Kendall outscored the opposition that year 566-40), and it is possible that the (Sam) McBirney-(Francis) Schmidt combination could have paid off with an upset over powerful Notre Dame. Negotiations for the game, which were hastily drawn and presented, reached a cooling point because of the large guarantee Notre Dame wanted. Tulsa rooters hinted the match ‘fell through’ because, upon checking the records, Notre Dame authorities might have had apprehensions over their own chances. The important fact was that the game was not played, and for reasons that remain obscure. It might have been a mere promoter’s dream, but the value of the match would have reached down to the present day insofar as it would have affected athletic relations at The University of Tulsa.”

Ninety-four years later, The Golden Hurricane finally gets their shot at Notre Dame.

3. G.J. Kinne is a guy that should scare the Irish.

It’s only taken 19 games for junior G.J. Kinne to climb into the record books at Tulsa, with his 4,587 career passing yards the eighth most in the school’s history. Kinne is averaging 241 yards per game, and Brian Kelly compared him to a gunslinger who likes to wear Wranglers.

“Kinne, the quarterback, is — he reminds me of Brett Favre out there,” Kelly said. “He’s got the number. He likes to obviously have the ball in his hands.”

Any questions on Kinne’s pedigree should’ve been answered by his original college choice, when the dual-threat quarterback  signed with his home-state Texas Longhorns and head coach Mack Brown. The two-time Class 3-A offensive player of the year in Texas, who finished his career with 130 touchdowns (second in Texas high school history), transferred after a freshman season stuck behind Colt McCoy, John Chiles and Sherrod Harris.

Kinne’s father is a high school coach and a former teammate of Tulsa head coach Todd Graham, and Graham’s brother Brent worked as a defensive coordinator for Kinne’s father, making the transfer natural.

“We’re extremely excited to have a player of G.J.’s caliber,” Tulsa coach Todd Graham said then. “He has been a winner his whole life. For a player of his caliber to transfer to Tulsa speaks volumes about our program and where we’re are at this point. He had a lot of big-time scholarship offers out of high school.”

4. While Gus Malzahn is out at Tulsa, offensive coordinator Chad Morris is the next closest thing.

When Gus Malzahn was pulled from the Arkansas high-school ranks to coordinator then-Arkansas coach Houston Nutt’s Razorback offense, many thought it was a ploy to sign prep-star Mitch Mustain, Malzahn’s prized Springdale quarterback that agreed to join him in Fayetteville. When Malzahn’s no-huddle, hurry-up spread offense was tossed aside for a power running attack, Mustain transferred to USC and Malzahn took his talents to Tulsa, where he ran turned Todd Graham’s offense into one of the most potent in all of college football. When Auburn head coach Gene Chizik lured Malzahn away from Tulsa and back into the SEC, Graham looked back into the high school ranks and hired another successful high school coach, Chad Morris… who just so happened to befriend Malzahn seven years ago, when Malzahn took Arkansas high school football by storm.

“Gus and I have had an unbelievable relationship. I’m very thankful to him,” Morris said earlier this season.

Irish fans don’t have to think hard when trying to imagine what it’d be like if Notre Dame reached out for a succesful high school coach to run their program. For Tulsa’s sake, it looks like the gamble is working again.

5. The road doesn’t get any easier for Bob Diaco.

A week after his worst as a defensive coordinator, Bob Diaco welcomes Tulsa’s high-powered offensive attack into Notre Dame Stadium, short the heart of his defensive line and with a secondary that’s still struggling to get three safeties healthy.

Diaco has gone from pleasant surprise to overwhelmed bum in some fans mind, but if you’re looking for a test of how ready Diaco is to lead the Notre Dame defense, you’ll have four consecutive opponents that’ll push the Irish to the max:

  • TULSA — No. 8 in Total Offense.
  • UTAH — No. 3 in Scoring Offense.
  • ARMY —  No. 8 in Rushing Offense (one place above Navy)
  • USC — No. 7 in Total Offense.

The health of the Irish secondary and Sean Cwynar’s ability to replace Ian Williams will likely decide if Notre Dame goes bowling or not this year, and if the Irish do, credit should go to Diaco for putting together a great final quarter of the season.

For those that want to, it’ll be easy to bury Diaco if the defense gives up a rash of points these next four weeks, but there isn’t a team in the country that faces a more diverse slate of offensive attacks.

6. It looks like a turn for the better for Notre Dame institution Jeff Jeffers.

Let’s end this column with some much-needed good news. This out of WNDU’s NewsCenter, where South Bend sports pillar Jeff Jeffers is reportedly making great progress after he suffered a stroke in late August, just days before he was set to cover his 36th Notre Dame football season.

“When I woke up one morning and they said, ‘You had a stroke’ and I’m like, am I going to die?” Jeff recounted to WNDU’s Maureen McFadden.  “They say, ‘You’re not going to die, you’re in the hospital, you’re in the rehab unit and here’s what we’re going to do.’ And that was a month and a half ago and I’m fine,” says Jeff.

With the help of Jeff’s wife (and live-in nurse) Leslie, Jeff hopes to be back covering the Irish in no time.

“I should be back to work soon, how soon is soon is anybody’s guess, but I’ve received tremendous care with everybody with St. Joe Med and Rehab,” said Jeffers. “I’m on the mend and I hope the worst is passed.”

I had the pleasure to spend some time with Jeff in South Bend this summer as he emceed a few of the dinners for the Fantasy Football camp. There was nobody more welcoming to me, or optimistic that this coaching staff would be the one that brought the Fight back to the Fighting Irish.

It sure seems like Jeff’s practicing what he preaches as well, fighting back strong after a health scare that’d knock weaker men out. Here’s hoping that he keeps taking the fight to his stroke, and is back covering the Irish soon.

Four-star OL John Olmstead chooses Notre Dame over Michigan

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With the addition of a consensus four-star offensive lineman, Notre Dame gained its fourth commitment in the class of 2019 on Friday afternoon. John Olmstead (St. Joseph High School; Metuchen, N.J.) becomes the first offensive lineman to join the class.

He cited the tradition of the Irish program as a key factor to his decision.

Considered the No. 10 tackle prospect in the country per rivals.com — also the No. 1 player in New Jersey and No. 63 recruit in the country — Olmstead is the third consensus four-star in the class, all trench factors. He held a lengthy offer sheet, including the likes of LSU, Florida and Oklahoma, but Olmstead had narrowed his final choices to the Irish, Michigan, Mississippi, Minnesota and Rutgers.

When Olmstead arrives at Notre Dame, he will have some time to wait before an opportunity is readily-available at tackle. Rising-sophomore Robert Hainsey and rising-junior Liam Eichenberg are positioned to start at right and left tackle, respectively, this season. Each has three years of eligibility remaining, meaning Olmstead would likely spend at least his first two seasons in strictly a reserve role.

The Irish signed four offensive linemen in the class of 2018, but all were a bit less-heralded than the usual recruit Notre Dame hauls in at the position. New offensive line coach Jeff Quinn played a vital role in gaining the National Signing Day pledge of rivals.com three star tackle Jarrett Patterson, whose pass protection skills mark him as a high-ceiling contributor in years to come.

Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s running game and depth lead Blue-Gold Game questions

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For every strong performance in tomorrow’s conclusion to Notre Dame’s spring practices, a misstep or mistake will inherently match. If rising-senior running back Dexter Williams breaks loose for a 40-yard touchdown run, a critic might note the lack of speed in the Irish secondary. Should the Notre Dame defensive line wreak havoc in the backfield all afternoon, it may be due to a shoddy offensive line rather than a stellar defensive front. Interceptions will be considered equal parts a quarterback’s failing and a defensive back’s playmaking.

A year ago, defensive end Daelin Hayes recorded multiple “sacks” in the Blue-Gold Game. Whether or not he actually tackled a quarterback, the pressures indicated to the public’s eye that the right side of the Irish offensive line would be a 2017 weakness. Instead, they should have sparked no offensive line worry, only taken as a precursor to Hayes’ three real-world sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss in the fall. The right side of the line, manned by the tag-team of Tommy Kraemer and Robert Hainsey, was actually a strength, part of the country’s best offensive line.

Such are the flaws to over-analyzing an intrasquad scrimmage.

With those disclaimers in mind, the things to learn in the Blue-Gold Game hinge more on scheme, order of appearance and type of usage. Throughout the spring, the Irish offense has focused on the passing game. Yes, the running game drove the Notre Dame offense throughout 2017, but it is now without two All-American offensive linemen and a record-setting running back. At some point, the ground game needs to be proven all over again, and that point is supposedly Saturday.

“As it relates to our offense against our defense, we’ve thrown the ball much more than we’ve run it because of those things that we’ve wanted to grow in,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said over the weekend. “The spring game, we’ll get a better sense because we’ll run the ball a whole lot more and we’ll be who we have been.”

Rising-senior Dexter Williams is Notre Dame’s presumptive starter at running back, but finally showing an eagerness to engage in pass blocking could cement that status. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

That sense will begin with Williams and rising-junior Tony Jones (pictured at top). Williams appears to have the starting position within his grasp, but picking up a few pass blocks against the likes of Hayes would solidify that pecking order. Aside from that, perhaps the greatest thing to learn regarding Williams and Jones is, can they get through a competitive environment without injury?

Of course, limiting their carries will not only help that cause, but also reveal what kind of running back depth Notre Dame has. After the two injury-plagued upperclassmen, all the Irish can claim is an early-enrolled freshman, a receiver-turned-hybrid and a quarterback-turned-running back/receiver.

The Irish desperately need at least one of, preferably two of, Jahmir Smith, Jafar Armstrong and Avery Davis, respectively, to step forward.

The offensive line has set itself. With four returning starters and a long-touted tackle-of-the-future in rising-junior Liam Eichenberg along the front, the blocking is not the concern in the running game. Williams’ speed and Jones’ versatility offer promising potential when healthy. But this is football, both will not be healthy throughout the fall. Other carries need to be handled ably by at least a portion of that trio.

Though he may be the youngest, Smith may be the best option, simply because Armstrong’s and Davis’ responsibilities vary so greatly as they bounce between running back and receiver and, in Davis’ case, quarterback.

How will offensive coordinator Chip Long deploy Armstrong and Davis? Will they spend more time in the backfield or at slot receiver?

The addition of the two pass-catching backs increases the likelihood of Long using his favorite alignment, one with two running backs, at least one of which is a veritable route-runner and pass-catcher. Williams has never proven himself to fit that description, though Long noted Williams has improved his pass-catching as of last week. When Jones was injured last year, Long could no longer deploy the two-back set that quickly puts opposing defenses in unavoidable binds.

“That was a big part of our offense in spring ball, fall camp, then the backs got knocked out and hobbled,” Long said. “We couldn’t use that part of our offense. It hurt us.”

Should Jones twist an ankle again in September, Armstrong and/or Davis should keep that option available for Long’s play calls.

“Just having the ability with more depth back there, those type of guys, instead of just being Tony, now you have Avery, possibly Jafar,” Long said. “Injuries can’t take us out of that personnel.”

When he was healthy, Jones would often motion out of the backfield in those alignments. Although he finished the year with only six catches for 12 yards, the mere threat of his receiving abilities altered defensive approaches.

At other points, Jones was a bulldozer of a blocker, taking on multiple defenders to help spring either quarterback Brandon Wimbush or now-NFL-bound Josh Adams for a longer gain. Jones is likely to remain the best at this varied skillset, but having depth in the role is a luxury critical to Long’s preferred offensive scheme.

Most starting positions are settled, especially with the offensive line now set. Safety is not. Who will start at safety? Who will be the second-unit?

Rising-junior Jalen Elliott’s tackling miscues of the past have not yet prevented him from sitting atop Notre Dame’s depth chart at safety, though new challengers have joined the mix this spring in Alohi Gilman and Houston Griffith. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Even the candidates at safety have ebbed and flowed this spring. Rising-sophomore Jordan Genmark-Heath now appears to be headed toward a future at linebacker and rising-senior Nick Coleman has dabbled at nickelback while early-enrollee Houston Griffith moved from cornerback to safety to become another considered option.

At this point, rising-juniors Jalen Elliott and Alohi Gilman appear to be the likely starters, with Griffith offering a possibility of that changing as he learns the position over the summer. Defensive coordinator Clark Lea has certainly left the door open for just such a development, or even the emergence of incoming-freshman Derrik Allen.

“The depth back there has yet to really take shape and we’re not in a hurry to dictate who is the 1 and who is the 2,” Lea said Tuesday. “… Those guys have a lot on their plate, it takes some time. They need some time to be able to execute those responsibilities at a high level. We’re getting to that point, I don’t think we’re all the way there yet.”

Learning who the starting duo is, and who fills in the second unit — be it still Genmark-Heath or Coleman, or rising-junior Devin Studstill or rising-senior Nicco Fertitta — the concerns of tackling from the position or attacking the ball in the air will be naturally included. Elliott’s physical gifts have long been evident, but he has lacked in both those areas. If he trots out with the starting defense but does not exhibit improvement in both categories, that will be portend another year of poor play along the defense’s back line, no matter what Lea may say publicly.

“I do think we’re not doing as much to adjust for the need for time to let them come along,” he said. “I think we’re allowed to get back into what is the base of the package, which is exciting.”

Notre Dame had a strong defense in 2017. Aside from the precarious positions offensive turnovers put the defense in at Miami and Stanford, it rarely buckled. Realizing the defense played that well while only occasionally getting into its most basic package because the safety play was so dismal is a sobering conclusion. It is also a tantalizing thought of what could come in 2018 with nine returning starters and improved safety play.

Lastly, who be the fourth Irish captain? When Kelly named fifth-year center Sam Mustipher, fifth-year punter Tyler Newsome and fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill captains early in spring practice, he said a fourth would be voted upon by the team as spring came to its close.

At that point, the most-likely candidates, all rising seniors or fifth-year graduates, seemed to be defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, linebacker Te’von Coney, left guard Alex Bars, quarterback Brandon Wimbush, tight end Nic Weishar or cornerback Nick Watkins. Rising-junior cornerback Julian Love’s talent alone made him an outside contender.

As spring practice has progressed, reading between the lines might reduce that pool to three front-runners of Tillery, Coney and Bars. The first two of those three have had disciplinary issues during their time at Notre Dame, oftentimes an exclusionary factor in this conversation. To hear offensive line coach Jeff Quinn on the issue, the fourth captain should be Bars.

“Anytime your big guys run the program, I think you always have a better chance of succeeding,” Quinn said Thursday.

Two more quick-hitters:
— How will Coney fare in pass coverage?
Coney may not play that much this weekend. He does not need to prove anything in the 15th spring practice, while his backups need every rep they can get. When Coney is on the field though, watching him in coverage against any of the Irish tight ends could be revelatory. Lea has put the onus on himself for Coney’s past coverage woes.

“Coverage is a product of teaching,” Lea said. “Coverage deficiency can be a product of teaching deficiency. … Some guys do it naturally and some guys don’t, they have other things they have strength with. … As a unit, we’ve put a focus here on the end of spring practice in playing better in coverage and as a result, we’re seeing that play out in skeleton and team periods.”

— Will the receivers flash any speed?
When it comes to the positioning and usage of unique talents, the mismatches created by Armstrong and Davis may be the most predictive, but Notre Dame lost much of its outside speed with the departures of Equanimeous St. Brown (to the NFL) and Kevin Stepherson (to repeated disciplinary issues). The defensive headaches caused by those two-back sets are best taken advantage of when a receiver can also take the top off a defense. Rising-sophomore Michael Young and rising-senior Chris Finke are both quick and shifty, but neither has shown truly top-end speed to this point. Despite his 6-foot-4, 227-pound, frame, rising-senior Miles Boykin has apparently improved his burst quite a bit this offseason. Fifth-year Freddy Canteen landed on the Irish roster last offseason largely due to his natural speed, before injury cut short his first season with the Irish.

Can any of them single-handedly alter a defense’s coverage, or will Notre Dame need to turn to incoming freshmen for that threat?

Notre Dame announces two-game series with Alabama

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A decade from now, Notre Dame and Alabama will meet in the regular season for the first time since 1987, a 37-6 victory for the Irish. Notre Dame announced a home-and-home series with the Crimson Tide for 2028 and 2029. Both contests will open their respective seasons.

Notre Dame Stadium will host the first leg of the series Sept. 2, 2028. The Irish will then travel to Tuscaloosa for the first time in program history Sept. 1, 2029.

Of course, Notre Dame and Alabama most-recently met in the BCS National Championship Game in Miami to conclude the 2012 season. It remains hard for Irish fans to forget how that game went.

Considering Tide head coach Nick Saban is currently 66 years old and Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly is entering his ninth season with the Irish, neither is likely to be at the helm in 2028.

Instead of acknowledging who will not be holding a clipboard for the two-game tilt, it can be worth pondering who will be, albeit with a tongue planted firmly in one’s cheek.

And who will be playing? This scribe’s nephew is in first grade. He will be a freshman in college in 2029, presuming he continues to get the grades to gain admission for a post-secondary education.

On a more serious note, adding Alabama to the schedule continues a deliberate effort by Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick to get more SEC contests on the schedule in years to come. The Irish will face Vanderbilt in 2018, Georgia in 2019, Arkansas in 2020 and 2025, and Texas A&M in 2024 and 2025. Notre Dame also hosted Georgia in 2017.

This plan is a part of Swarbrick’s hopes of having data points against four of the Power Five conferences each year, with the SEC and the Big 12 the conferences needing a bit more foresight and extra effort in order to get on the schedule. The Irish already face five ACC teams per year, two Pac-12 programs in Stanford and USC each season and have Big Ten matchups scheduled through at least 2028 already. No Big 12 games are currently scheduled, though Notre Dame recently concluded home-and-home series with both Oklahoma and Texas.

As linebacker depth questions persist, Notre Dame turns to a safety

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Go back a month in this space and of the biggest questions entering Notre Dame’s spring practices, a defensive reserve merited mentioning. “Another early-enrolled freshman could be the answer to the question of, who will be the fourth linebacker?”

It looks less and less likely the Irish will rely on a freshman to provide the entirety of depth at linebacker. For that matter, Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea does not expect to need one backup to learn multiple positions a la Te’von Coney at the beginning of last season.

(In the above photo, Coney, No. 4, is featured, as the defense will do this season. In the background, Asmar Bilal, No. 22, can be seen as a factor in the play, a defensive hope in 2018.)

Between Coney, Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini, Lea had three capable linebackers to fill the two interior positions in 2017. By cross-training Coney at both Mike and Buck, the Irish did not need to lean on any other substitute.

“In some ways, that’s unfair at times because the Mike and Buck, though conceptually tied together, they’re different,” Lea said Tuesday. “Different body types, different people. We’d rather not do that. We’d rather not go three-for-two. We’d rather go two-for-two and make it like a hockey line (substitution). That would be the way it would work best. I’m not sure how that’s going to shape up right now.”

Throughout spring, the presumption was rising-senior Asmar Bilal would both start at rover and provide injury-protection depth along the interior, with fifth-year Drue Tranquill starting at Buck and remaining a break-in-case-of-emergency option at rover, his 2017 position. Such a scenario still needed a fourth linebacker to offer some snaps of rest for the starters. Either one of the three early-enrolled freshmen would need to grasp that task or rising-junior Jonathan Jones would claim it.

“They know they’re competing for a chance to play,” Lea said. “Where [Jones] might have fallen into a lull mid-spring, I think here in the last few days he’s come out here and really changed his game.”

Joining Jones this week, rising-sophomore Jordan Genmark-Heath moved up a level from the safeties to try his hand at linebacker. Per Lea, the move mirrors Bilal’s cross-training on the interior — Notre Dame would rather know what it has available long before it is needed.

“We don’t move a guy unless we identify things that he brings to the table that allow him to be successful,” Lea said. “It’s not just throwing paint at the wall. We’ve seen him play in a manner that we know he can handle the Buck position. I would argue he’s looked very natural there.

“… You know what he can do for you at safety, too, so we’re not closing our eyes to that possibility. You have a short window here where you have a chance to get a look at somebody who makes you more athletic at the second level.”

The mixing and matching of the Irish linebacker reserves will continue for at least the rest of this week, and almost certainly into preseason practices. Unlike the beginning of spring practice, however, it does not hinge on only one name, and the early-enrollees are not seen as the saving graces.

Instead Jones may back up Coney, Genmark-Heath support Tranquill and either rising-sophomore Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah or classmate Isaiah Robertson provide depth behind Bilal.

“You always want the ability through the course of the season to have your best three on the field,” Lea said. “You always want to have an idea of what that three look like if injury happens or if a young player comes along and how you can shift and shape the pieces to ensure that you’re at your competitive best.”