Pregame Twelve Pack: Big Apple edition

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It’s Friday, so that means another Pregame Twelve Pack, this one a special Yankee Stadium edition. Here’s twelve fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as the Irish prepare to play Army at Yankee Stadium in primetime on NBC.

1. If a picture is worth a thousand words, the New York Times just spotted us eight thousand.

I’m a sucker for history, so if you are too, head over to the New York Times‘ website for a great photo gallery from the historic clashes between Notre Dame and Army in Yankee Stadium.

While we mentioned the 1946 Game of the Century earlier in the week, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the wonderful column that ESPN‘s Ivan Maisel wrote about the Army vs. Notre Dame games of the 1930s and 40s. Maisel writes that the Army/Notre Dame rivalry had become so heated after the 1946 game that the Army had to call off the game to save the military’s reputation.

Here’s a snippet, describing why Army walked away from its biggest rival:

Notre Dame won 14 of those 22 games in Yankee Stadium. Army won five. Three finished in a tie. Through it all, the teams thrust and parried for supremacy on the field and among the fans. Army commanded national respect. After all, it was the United States Military Academy.

“West Point always has regarded its football team as representative of the service, the country, the people,” wrote longtime Army coach Earl “Red” Blaik in “You Have To Pay The Price,” his 1960 autobiography. “We were received that way wherever we played, with one exception: the Notre Dame game in Yankee Stadium.”

Notre Dame had the urban working class, the Catholic sons and daughters of immigrants looking for a beachhead in a sport long dominated by Ivy League schools that excluded people whose name ended in a vowel…

The academy made an announcement late in the year that the 1947 game would be the last. Perhaps to soothe the separation, Army made its first trip to Notre Dame Stadium. The Irish won, 27-7.

“The game was generating a form of psychological hate detrimental to the best interests of the United States Army,” Blaik wrote. “The Army could hardly tolerate a condition that bred such ill will for the service and the Military Academy.”

Imagine the Red Sox announcing that they didn’t want to play the Yankees anymore.

“The decision was wildly unpopular,” Blaik said. “The animosity that descended on us was heavy and it lingered for at least three years. … I am as certain today, as I was then, that the break was a good thing. By coming when it did, it prevented a longer and more serious rift.”

While many people are talking about the (potentially unsafe) transformation of Wrigley Field for Northwestern vs. Illinois this weekend, the 50th meeting of these two proud schools adds an element that not many rivalries can touch.

2. The primetime game will have the attention of some of Notre Dame’s most prized recruits.

A primetime stage in one of sports most revered venues offers Brian Kelly and his coaching staff the opportunity to impress quite a few potential recruits. They’ll do that on Saturday night with three top targets in attendance at Yankee Stadium.

No recruit draws the adoration of Irish fans quite like Brooklyn defensive end Ishaq Williams, a freakish athlete that has the size and speed to be a terror off the edge in Bob Diaco’s 3-4 defense. While rumors have been flying of a potential commitment from Williams to the Irish, they’ve been refuted by those close to the star defender. Still, the Irish are in great shape, hanging in the race for the nation recruit far longer than many thought possible, and Williams will be there watching the Irish battle Army.

Also in attendance is Jersey City’s Savon Huggins, who would be a great addition to the running back depth chart with the loss of Armando Allen and Robert Hughes. Brian Kelly came out and watched Huggins play while the Irish were in town to play Navy and Huggins is returning the favor this weekend in the Bronx.

IrishSportsDaily.com also reports that Miles Shuler will be at the game. Shuler isn’t a name that Irish fans have talked a lot about recently, but he’s got offers from Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, and Stanford, and has the Irish in his top seven schools. Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco recruits New Jersey, where Shuler is from, and I’m guessing Shuler could look really good out on an island in coverage or using his elite speed on the edge of the offense as well.

3. What’s the difference between Army and Navy? Well, their schedules for one thing.

Only one win separates seven win Navy from six win Army. Both have a top ten rushing attack with Navy rushing for just over 300 yards a game and the Black Knights putting up 280 a game. But a closer look at the way Army got to their bowl eligibility shows were the two teams likely separate.

Jeff Sagarin, USA Today’s statistical guru ranks Army’s schedule as the 118th toughest in college football, virtually the bottom of the barrel. The most impressive win on the Army schedule came during week four when they beat Duke 35-21. The Knights hung with Hawaii, Temple, and Rutgers, but lost big to Air Force before recovering to route Sagarin’s 121st ranked team, Kent State.

Take nothing away from Rich Ellerson’s Army team, which is transitioning to the option attack and ahead of schedule on its way back to respectability, but Army hasn’t beaten anyone yet. If Army can win their last two games against Notre Dame and then Navy, Ellerson’s name should be up for every national coaching award (not to mention on a few big college’s short list).

4. Notre Dame vs. Army, it all began on a baseball diamond.

While there isn’t any dirt left on the diamond thanks to a miraculous transformation, the rivalry between the Irish and the Black Knights began on a baseball field back in 1913. I’ll let Jim Lefebvre of Forever Irish take over.

It is ironic, yet fitting, that this great football spectacle was for so long contested in the crown jewel of the nation’s baseball parks, Yankee Stadium. That’s because it was baseball that first brought the two schools together. In January, 1913, Army agreed to host Notre Dame during ND’s spring trip. On May 24 at West Point, Army defeated Notre Dame, 3-0, and a rivalry began.

Also that spring, the leaders of athletics at West Point were scrambling to fill an opening on their football schedule. Army sent numerous letters of inquiry to schools in the East and eventually the Midwest. It initially offered Notre Dame $600 to cover expenses for the trip, and after some haggling, upped the offer to $1,000.

That was barely enough to send 18 players and two coaches via railroad from South Bend to New York. It was said the team brought sandwiches made on the Notre Dame campus, and traveled with just 14 pairs of cleats.

At West Point on the afternoon of Nov. 1, 1913, the 3,000 spectators who had gathered to watch the parade of the Corps of Cadets and then filled the Cullum Field Hall bleachers, were looking forward to a match of power football. Notre Dame had romped through its first three opponent by a combined score of 169-7. Army was also undefeated.

Knute Rockne, the Irish end and captain, is limping late in the first quarter. But on the next play, he streaks downfield, and quarterback Gus Dorais lofts a long pass over the heads of the defenders. Rockne catches it in stride and races to the end zone. Before the afternoon was done, the Irish completed 14 of 17 passes for 243 yards – numbers unheard of at at the time. The final: Notre Dame 35, Army 13.

Witnesses marvel at the display. “I’ve always believed such playing possible under the new rules,” said Bill Roper, the Princeton coach and the game’s umpire. “But never have I seen the forward pass used to such perfection.”

There’s plenty of rich historical tidbits at Lefebvre’s website, and it’s worth reading more at Forever Irish.

5. The Irish running backs are all battling it out.

The Irish are still looking for their first 100-yard rusher of the season, but Jonas Gray is pushing for a chance to be the first one to get there, breaking out for 44 yards on just three carries after battling back from some injuries. Running backs coach Tim Hinton thinks that Gray will see more of the field this weekend.

“I’m sure he’ll get more reps this week,” Hinton said earlier this week. “We’ve wanted to get him in the game all year, but to be honest with you, he just wasn’t back up to speed. Until he got back up to speed, we didn’t want to put him in. It was nice to see him get an explosive run. He actually had two very good runs. Hopefully, we’ll just continue to put him in the lineup and go.”

Battling Gray is senior Robert Hughes who could be a gigantic matchup problem for the undersized Army defense as well the Irish’s #1 running back, sophomore (or redshirt freshman) Cierre Wood, who head coach Brian Kelly has been pleased with as he continues to mature.

“He’s getting so much better. Just his ability to go out there and compete every snap,” Kelly said. “It requires a concentration level he’s never had to have before. He’s been sitting there watching or just taking some reps, now he’s in there and got to be locked in, and that matures somebody.”

Kelly’s aware that the offense hasn’t put up a 100 yard rusher yet, and if the Irish offensive line can build off the game they played last week, that could change on Saturday night.

“I’m pleased with our ability to pick and choose when we need to run the football,” Kelly said. “We’ve got to do it on a more consistent basis.”

6. With big opponents on the horizon, Notre Dame isn’t the only team looking at a trap game.
With tomorrow night’s game giving the Irish a chance to be bowl eligible, it’s unlikely the Irish will overlook a more-than-able Army squad. But still, it’s hard not to think ahead to next weekend’s showdown with USC as a true check of how the Irish have developed under Kelly and his coaching staff in year one.
But surprisingly enough, Irish fans aren’t the only people worried that their squad may be overlooking this weekend’s opponent to begin prepping for their next opponent. Army coach Rich Ellerson was asked whether the Black Knights are potentially looking past the Irish to get prepped for arch-rival Navy.
“No. The guys will be excited to play,” Ellerson said about the Irish. “We’ll have all kinds of challenges on Saturday and that won’t be one of them. I think having that sixth win on the shelf and in place, we’re done patting ourselves on the back. That’s nice to have, we’ve turned a corner but we’re not looking back at the corner we just turned. We’re looking ahead at the next opportunity, the next challenge. Our guys won’t have a hard time with that. They’re looking forward to it.”
I never thought this could be a storyline, but perhaps the Irish will catch Army sleeping on Saturday night.
7. A closer look at bowl game match-ups stresses the importance of winning out.
It’s kind of an obvious point, but winning games is awfully important for the Irish as they push toward the postseason. Winning one game is mandatory, but it doesn’t necessarily open up all that many opportunities for the Irish.
Double-dipping at both the Bleacher Report and his blog We Never Graduate, Matt Mattare took a look at the five most intriguing bowl matchups for Notre Dame this postseason, with one option not so red hot for the Irish:
5. Notre Dame vs. Utah in the Maaco Las Vegas Bowl — Dec. 22, Las Vegas, NV
4. Notre Dame vs. MAC Champ in Little Caesar’s Bowl — Dec. 26, Detroit, MI
3. Notre Dame vs. Nevada in Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl — Jan 9, San Francisco, CA
2. Notre Dame vs. Boise State/TCU (Kraft/Vegas)
1. Notre Dame vs. ACC No. 2 in Champs Sports Bowl — Dec. 28, Orlando, FL
Matt did a good job of breaking down the likelihood of these match-ups, so if you’re one of those football fans that love guessing what bowl game your favorite team might end up in instead of waiting a few weeks, this article will be right up your alley.
8. Robby Toma: From forgotten man to starting wide receiver.
It’s quite amazing to consider that a wide receiver largely considered a throw-in to the Manti Te’o scholarship offer is now starting at Z wide receiver, one of the most important positions in Brian Kelly’s offense. But Robby Toma is hardly your average wide receiver.
Thanks to some injuries and the transfer of Shaq Evans, Toma finds himself in the starting lineup at Yankee Stadium on Saturday night, with TJ Jones still not 100 percent after getting banged up in practice last week.
“TJ practiced again today, but he’s not going with the first unit,” Kelly said. “Robby is still going with the first unit and my expectations are that’s how it would end up on Saturday, that Robby would continue to start at the Z and TJ would back him up.”
I think if you took a poll among diehard Irish fans and asked them who leads Notre Dame in yards per catch, not many would pick the 5-foot-9 (and that’s a gift) Hawaiian that weighs 175-pounds. But there’s Toma and his 13.6 yard average sitting atop the stat-sheet for the Irish. Prediction: Toma scores his first touchdown for the Irish tomorrow.
9. How the Irish handle the option will determine if whether or not Notre Dame wins the game.
With Army’s ability to run the football and Kelly admitting that Notre Dame isn’t able to win a football game with their offense, possessions are going to be at a premium and stops by the defense will be extremely important. The only way the Irish can get a stop is to get a grasp on the triple-option, something they couldn’t do against Navy.
The coaching staff was incredibly quiet on the strategy they’d take to stop the option, but if you listened carefully, Kelly gave the closest thing to intel away with a quick comment:
“They have to defend the arc and they’ve got to be able to play QB-to-pitch for most points, unless you move the point and change things up, which obviously we’re going to do a lot of,” Kelly said of his edge defenders. “When you really break it down, it’s their ability to defend. Take on a block, shed it and ether get to dive, QB or pitch.”
For those of you reading closely, I think this means we won’t see Manti Te’o chasing the quarterback down the line like you saw against Navy. Diaco’s gameplan against the Midshipmen seemed intent on protecting the outside linebackers, a strategy that obviously backfired.
I’m on the record for how I think the Irish will play the option, but if Kelly just gave us a hint, expect to hear from guys like Brian Smith, Kerry Neal, Darius Fleming, Prince Shembo and possibly Steve Filer.
10. The Class of 2007… What could’ve been.
The guys at One Foot Down examined the 2007 recruiting class, a group headlined by Jimmy Clausen that was supposed to be one of the best in the country. Instead, the 2007 class is looking at an ugly distinction, going down as one of the losing-est in Irish football history.
Let’s take a bullet-point look at the class and see how they ended up.
Armando Allen — Multi-year starter. Injuries hampered his ceiling.
Jimmy Clausen — Left after three years. Would’ve walked out ND’s leading passer.
Taylor Dever — Starting tackle, has another year of eligibility remaining.
Gary Gray — Playing his best football. Sat out season for personal reasons, returning for 5th year.
Robert Hughes — Bruising back not a great fit in Kelly offense.
Duval Kamara — Started strong, before losing time to Floyd and Tate.
Kerry Neal — System changes hurt development. Average season as starting OLB.
Aaron Nagel — Transferred to Northwestern. Now a fullback.
Andrew Nuss — Playing behind Chris Stewart at guard.
Emeka Nwankwo — Forgotten man finding time in a thin DE rotation.
Steve Paskorz — Linebacker turned fullback and back again is injured and likely done at ND.
Mike Ragone — Between injuries and self-inflicted mistakes, Ragone hasn’t hit potential.
Matt Romine — Highly touted tackle that didn’t live up to hype.
Brian Smith — A roller coaster career could go out on a high.
Harrison Smith — Jerked between OLB and FS, finally developing at proper position.
Golden Tate — Left early after winning Biletnikoff. One of best players in college football.
Brandon Walker — Kicker who battled injuries and couldn’t get off bench.
Ian Williams — Played for four season on the interior of the defense.
OFD answers the question “What went wrong with this class?” His take:
1) Terrible depth provided by Ty. 2) Terrible development by CW. 3) No veteran leadership.
All in all, good insight. This class would look much different if Weis used redshirts better and a Golden and Jimmy decided to stay.
11) Notre Dame and Army competed for the same recruit. (Kinda…)
You wouldn’t think that Army coach Rich Ellerson and Brian Kelly see each other too often on the recruiting trail. But Ellerson tells the story of a battle between the Black Knights and the Irish were Army came out on top for a player.
“We have a guy in this class, that’s a freshman right now, who we think is going to be a really good player, it was us and Notre Dame,” Ellerson said earlier this week. “The deal was, could he walk-on at Notre Dame? If he could walk-on at Notre Dame, he was going to Notre Dame, but they didn’t have a spot for him in the 105 and we got him, and we think he’s going to be wonderful. That’s still the pecking order in the recruiting world.”
Ellerson has had his fair share of run-ins with the Irish recruiting, and they certainly all didn’t end this way.
“Once upon a time when we were at Arizona, we had a great year in the early ‘90s and we had gone to the Fiesta Bowl and we were a top-five team,” Ellerson said. “We said this was a breakthrough for us, now we can recruit with those guys. There were nine guys that year that we were recruiting that Notre Dame was recruiting – all nine of them went to Notre Dame, nothing had changed. That is the gold standard, that’s brand name, Notre Dame is brand name.”

People will mistakenly interpret this as meaning Notre Dame’s walk-ons should be able to beat Army, but that’s just not the way college football is anymore. Still, it gives you an idea of the type of player that Ellerson and the other service academy coaches look for when they’re out on the recruiting trail.

12. For all those Irish fans that are yearning for a jumbotron, enjoy the evening.
While I’ll forever push to remove the natural grass in Notre Dame Stadium and put in field-turf, I’m still anti-Jumbotron. But tomorrow evening at Yankee Stadium, Irish fans will be treated to instant replay, moving images, and the ability to play a semi-home game with a working video board.

The Jumbotron won’t be the only thing that makes this Saturday a little different from the rest. While Notre Dame has plenty of hallowed monuments around campus, Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park will be open from 4:00 p.m. until 7:15 p.m. Saturday night, from the opening of the stadium until kickoff for those that want to take in a piece of Yankee history while watching some football.

It’s an incredible weekend that gets started with plenty of pageantry in the Big Apple, before the focus turns to football. While the same was true last week, there’s no game more important for the Irish than the one in front of them. What Notre Dame team shows up? We’ll have to find out Saturday night at 7 p.m.

Monday’s Leftovers: Notre Dame lands second cornerback commitment

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Hardly a week shy of the early signing period, Notre Dame doubled its cornerback haul in the class of 2018 with Tariq Bracy’s commitment Sunday night.

A rivals.com three-star recruit, Bracy (Milpitas High School, Calif.) had long said the Irish led in his recruitment, having visited campus for Notre Dame’s 49-14 victory over USC on Oct. 21. Rivals rates Bracy as the No. 65 overall prospect in California.

“The coaches, they made me feel welcome,” Bracy said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “They really wanted me to go down there. They like my skillset. The players, they were welcoming, too. It’s really the whole atmosphere about Notre Dame, and the academics, too.”

Bracy opted for the Irish over a number of schools on the west coast, including Utah, Cal and Washington State.

Notre Dame now has 18 commitments in the class, including consensus-three star cornerback Joseph Wilkins (North Fort Myers H.S., Fla.). All 18 are expected to sign National Letters of Intent during the inaugural early signing period Dec. 20-22. For that matter, it remains possible an additional commitment or two could join those ranks either before the three-day stretch or in the midst of it.

Irish coach Brian Kelly has said he would evaluate any commitment not signing during the December dates as not being genuinely committed to Notre Dame, still needing further recruitment.

— Bracy’s, and Wilkins’, commitment holds more value for the Irish than many of the other 16 in the class thus far. In the last recruiting cycle, Notre Dame failed to sign so much as one cornerback.

Neither Bracy nor Wilkins may start in 2018. They, in fact, almost certainly will not, but they will provide both depth and a possibility of a future at the position.

— Just as another reminder — it is listed twice on the legal pad providing today’s outline, after all — the early signing period runs from Dec. 20 to Dec. 22. There will still be a nationwide focus on National Signing Day, Feb. 7, as any recruits not yet signed will have even more of a share of the spotlight.

— Bowl games have little long-term evaluatory value. They do, however, provide a delightful stretch of mid-day and/or mid-week December distractions. As an example, consider the game-a-day outlook on the horizon …

Sat., Dec. 16: Middle Tennessee St. v. Arkansas State; 8 p.m. ET; a high-scoring affair, if nothing else.
Tues., Dec. 19: Akron vs. FAU; 7 p.m. ET; Lane Kiffin with a nation’s lonely eyes turned to him.
Wed., Dec. 20: Louisiana Tech vs. Southern Methodist; 8 p.m. ET.
Thurs., Dec. 21: Temple vs. Florida International; 8 p.m. ET; Notre Dame’s season-opening opponent is favored by seven.
Fri., Dec. 22: Central Michigan vs. Wyoming; 4 p.m. ET; Josh Allen’s farewell to college football.
Sat., Dec. 23: Texas Tech vs. South Florida; 12 p.m. ET; This very well may end up being the most-dramatic bowl game.
Sun., Dec. 24: Houston vs. Fresno St.; 8:30 p.m. ET.
Tues., Dec. 26: Kansas State vs. UCLA; 9 p.m. ET.
Wed., Dec. 27: Boston College vs. Iowa; 5:15 p.m. ET; Of the 10 Irish foes in bowl games, six are like the Eagles, underdogs.
Thurs., Dec. 28: Stanford vs. TCU; 9 p.m. ET; A healthy Bryce Love could erase the 2.5-point spread in the Horned Frogs favor.
Fri., Dec. 29: USC vs. Ohio State; 8:30 p.m. ET; As strongly as the Trojans finished the season, they are still touchdown underdogs in the Cotton Bowl.
Sat., Dec. 30: Wisconsin vs. Miami, 8 p.m. ET; Despite playing at home, literally so, the Hurricanes are nearly touchdown underdogs.
Mon., Jan. 1: Georgia vs. Oklahoma; 5 p.m. ET; Frankly, Notre Dame vs. LSU in the Citrus Bowl will be but an appetizer for an evening of outstanding college football.

During Notre Dame’s retrospective awards, Tranquill & Weishar set focus forward

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Notre Dame spent Friday night giving out awards to recognize 2017’s top players, but the night’s attention went to two pieces of news received regarding next season. Both linebacker Drue Tranquill and tight end Nic Weishar announced intentions to return for fifth seasons in 2018.

Tranquill especially seemed increasingly unlikely to return after a career season and a two-year stretch of health set him up for NFL consideration. The idea of what could have been, of what could be, proved too much for him to bypass his remaining season of collegiate eligibility.

“I think it started after the Miami game, just on the busses, realized that we probably weren’t going to make the College Playoff anymore and realized everything everyone had put into this thing,” Tranquill told Irish Illustrated. “I felt I owed it to this team in my heart to come back and finish what we started.”

Tranquill’s return will stymie what could have been a decimating linebacker exodus. Senior captains Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini are both out of eligibility. If Tranquill had joined them in pursuing an NFL future this spring, Notre Dame would have lost three of its top four tacklers, and perhaps all four. Leading tackler, junior linebacker Te’von Coney and his 99 takedowns including 13 for loss and three sacks, is still considering an early entry into the NFL Draft.

Weishar’s return will provide a baseline at tight end following the departure of current fifth-year Durham Smythe.

RELATED READING: Where Notre Dame is & was: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame is & was: Tight Ends

As for the Echoes awards, senior left guard Quenton Nelson received Most Valuable Player honors, only the third offensive lineman to be named MVP in Irish history.

Along the lines of Tranquill’s and Weishar’s returns, only a couple of Friday night’s awards portend future developments. Freshman offensive lineman Dillan Gibbons performed well enough behind the scenes to claim Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year. With Nelson presumably heading to the NFL, Gibbons could insert himself into the competition to fill the left guard spot.

Sophomore safety Alohi Gilman spent the season following his transfer from Navy leading the scout defense. His success there only furthers the likelihood he will be starting in the defensive backfield when Michigan arrives at Notre Dame Stadium on Sept. 1.

With few surprises — perhaps naming junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush and senior defensive lineman Jonathan Bonner the offensive and defensive newcomers of the year, respectively, was too obvious to be widely-considered beforehand — the full listing of the awards …

— Most Valuable Player: Sr. left guard Quenton Nelson.
— Offensive Player of the Year: Jr. running back Josh Adams.
— Defensive Player of the Year: Sr. linebacker Nyles Morgan.
— Impact Player: Jr. linebacker Te’von Coney.
— Offensive Newcomer of the Year: Jr. quarterback Brandon Wimbush.
— Defensive Newcomer of the Year: Sr. defensive lineman Jonathan Bonner.
— Offensive Lineman of the Year: Fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey.
— Moose Krause Lineman of the Year: Jr. defensive tackle Jerry Tillery.
— Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year: Fr. lineman Dillan Gibbons.
— Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year: So. safety and Navy transfer Alohi Gilman.
— Special Teams Player of the Year: Sr. linebacker Greer Martini (eight special teams tackles).
— Walk-On Players Union Player of the Year: Jr. linebacker Robert Regan.
— Next Man In: Sr. defensive end Andrew Trumbetti.
— Father Lange Iron Cross, for weight room presence: Fifth-year tight end Durham Smythe.
— Pietrosante Award for leadership, teamwork, etc.: Sr. captain and former walk-on Austin Webster.
— Rockne Student-Athlete of the Year: Sr. linebacker Drue Tranquill.
— Irish Around the Bend, for community service: Sr. tight end Nic Weishar.

THIS WEEK’S INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Notre Dame to the Citrus Bowl to face LSU, with some numbers
Monday’s Leftovers: Brian Kelly on Notre Dame in the Citrus Bowl, facing LSU, and the early signing period
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Receivers
Notre Dame releases 2018 home schedule, includes trip to Yankee Stadium
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends
Friday at 4: Projecting Notre Dame’s Echoes

THIS WEEK’S OUTSIDE READING:
SI’s 2017 All-America Teams
LSU RB Derrius Guice on NFL decision: ‘I will not know until after the bowl game’
RB Mark Walton leaving Miami early for the NFL

Friday at 4: Projecting Notre Dame’s Echoes

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Notre Dame will host its annual awards ceremony tonight, “Echoes.” The evening of laughs and good food serves as a coda to the regular season, always taken with a light-hearted approach. Nonetheless, the event is, in many respects, as much about the future as it is anything else. Along with a marquee game (or, this season, two) and the summer’s Irish Invasion camp, Echoes has become one of Notre Dame’s pivotal recruiting weekends.

On the surface, that latter dynamic may seem diminished this year. With the early signing period fewer than two weeks away, it would make some sense for recruits on the fence to put off a public commitment for that much longer and enjoy the subsequent luster the week leading into Christmas. Whether those high-profile recruits commit or not, they will get a look at the Irish program away from the field. There is value to that. It is not quite a normal evening on campus, but it is more like the 25 non-football weeks than it is otherwise.

As for the awards themselves, rarely is there a surprise. Consider this somewhere between a declaration of who should win and a projection of what will come.

MVP, both deserving and projected: Junior running back Josh Adams should have this locked up. No one player on the defense had a season worthy of taking attention away from the rushing attack, and the argument to be made for senior left guard Quenton Nelson will be devalued in the next entry. This may not be the conclusion the “33 Trucking” campaign envisioned, but it is the only award awaiting it.

Offensive Player of the Year, both deserving and projected: Nelson fits this to the letter. It also sets the night up well for each offensive stalwart to get some recognition. It is not that Nelson cannot win multiple awards, it just is not the usual trend of this evening — Adams deserves the MVP, though, so do not question that for a moment. Nelson was the best lineman on a great line, and he was certainly worthy of Thursday’s Outland Trophy, which instead went to Houston defensive tackle Ed Oliver.

Offensive Lineman of the Year, deserving: The entire offensive line. That may seem a cliché, but it worked as an impeccable unit this season.

Offensive Lineman of the Year, projected: If looking past Nelson, then this obviously goes to fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey.

Defensive Player of the Year, deserving: Junior linebacker Te’von Coney led Notre Dame with 99 tackles, including 13.0 for loss and three sacks. For four weeks stretching across October and November — the peak of the Irish season — Coney led the defense in tackles each and every Saturday.

Defensive Player of the Year, projected: Senior linebacker Drue Tranquill is far from undeserving. He finished third with 74 tackles, including 8.5 for loss, with an interception and three fumble recoveries. To some degree, this may be a career perseverance acknowledgement before Tranquill heads to the NFL Draft.

Defensive Lineman of the Year, deserving: Either defensive coordinator Mike Elko or defensive line coach Mike Elston should walk away with this. The job transforming the defensive line from a position of weakness to a source of strength cannot be lauded enough.

Defensive Lineman of the Year, projected: Junior tackle Jerry Tillery put together the best statistical year along the defensive front with 52 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and 4.0 sacks.

Notre Dame’s Shaun Crawford recovers a fumble in the end zone for a touchback after stripping the ball from Michigan State’s LJ Scott (3) in the 38-18 Irish victory on Sept. 23. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

Play of the Year, deserving: Junior cornerback Shaun Crawford’s fumble-causing punch at Michigan State quite literally stopped the Spartans from a touchdown. There is no likely or sure or play away qualifier in that claim. Without Crawford’s heads-up play, Michigan State would have been in the end zone a blink later. Instead, he both forced and recovered the fumble. This was much more unique and heads-up than any deep touchdown pass, leaping interception or lengthy scoring run.

Play of the year, projected: Insert a long Adams touchdown run here, likely the one featuring a stiff-arm against Miami (OH).

Offensive Newcomer of the Year, deserving: Freshman right tackle Robert Hainsey was not expected to contribute this season. Even as a backup, that was likely to be in name only, with sophomore Liam Eichenberg the next man in at both tackle positions. Instead, Hainsey split time with sophomore Tommy Kraemer all season with Eichenberg becoming the in-name-only reserve.

Hainsey’s pass blocking completed the stout offensive line. Without him, as great as the unit was, it would have had a glaring hole likely exposed by Boston College’s Harold Landry, North Carolina State’s Bradley Chubb and Wake Forest’s Duke Ejiofor. Hainsey handled all three ably. To be clear, that is a true freshman holding his own against the ACC’s Defensive Player of the Year (Chubb), a second-team all-ACC end (Ejiofor) and a third-team all-ACC end (Landry).

Notre Dame sophomore running back Deon McIntosh was not expected to be a vital cog to the Irish offense this year, but in many respects, that is exactly what he was.(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Offensive Newcomer of the Year, projected: As crucial as Hainsey was, sophomore running back Deon McIntosh’s statistics earn some acknowledgement. Splitting his carries between garbage time and providing needed rest for a banged up position, McIntosh took 65 rushing attempts for 368 yards and five touchdowns, finishing the season third among Notre Dame rushers in all three categories behind only Adams and junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush.

Defensive Newcomer of the Year, deserving: If Coney does not receive this nod, it is simply because it is a stretch to call him a “newcomer.” He had appeared in 24 of a possible 25 games before this season, making 75 tackles with two for loss. He was 2017’s greatest surprise and holds the most 2018 promise, finishing this year with 99 tackles, including 13.0 for loss with 3.0 sacks.

Defensive Newcomer of the Year, projected: Can Crawford count as a “newcomer?” He had appeared in just two games before this year, twice stung by season-ending injuries. Finally healthy, he finished 2017 with 32 tackles, two interceptions, two fumble recoveries, one fumble forced (the aforementioned punch) and 1.5 sacks.

If not Crawford, then sophomore Khalid Kareem undoubtedly qualifies, and deservedly so.

Next Man In, deserving: The regular season was remarkable in its health, such that it may be hard to remember the Irish were without two defensive tackles they had expected to count on. Junior Elijah Taylor suffered a Lisfranc fracture during spring practice and senior Daniel Cage stepped away from football to focus on recovering from concussion symptoms and knee surgery.

Without those two, finding someone, anyone, else became a priority. Freshmen Myron Tagovaiola-Amosa and Kurt Hinish filled that role with aplomb.

Next Man In, projected: Even though no Notre Dame running back was ever officially out for more than a week, McIntosh essentially served this role throughout most of the season’s fourth quarters. By then, the other backs were too banged up to offer much acceleration, and McIntosh’s spells were genuinely needed.

Special Teams Player of the Year, deserving: Can this go to senior holder Montgomery VanGorder if for no other reason than to expose more people to this video?

Special Teams Player of the Year, projected: Can’t really go wrong with junior kicker Justin Yoon, right?

Pietrosante Award for leadership, teamwork, etc., deserved: If this doesn’t land in the hands of either senior linebacker Drue Tranquill or fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey, it is only because their qualities are known and recognizing someone beneath the radar holds some merit.

Pietrosante Award, projected: Former walk-on and senior captain Austin Webster could arise here without shocking anyone.

Other awards:
Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year: Whoever wins this, it is often a precursor of things to come. If a freshman offensive lineman or receiver Jafar Armstrong wins it, immediately slot that player into springtime conversations.
Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year: Not as many freshmen are constrained to scout team on the defensive side of the ball, so forecasting this can be more of a shot in the dark.
Rockne Student-Athlete of the Year: Tranquill won this a year ago. It seems reasonable the engineering major could repeat.
Father Lange Iron Cross Award for weight room presence.
Irish Around the Bend Award for community service.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends

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When Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly first introduced his new coaching staff way back in January, he singled out offensive coordinator Chip Long’s penchant for finding ways to use tight ends in his play calling.

“[He] utilized two tight ends, which was going to be a mode that we have to move toward with the great depth that we have at that position,” Kelly said Jan. 30.

Technically speaking, that was even before the Irish signed two more tight ends on National Signing Day that same week, bringing the roster’s total to six before Tyler Luatau’s career ended with a medical hardship during the summer.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
With Durham Smythe’s return for a fifth year, Long had at least one tight end he could trust. Senior Nic Weishar presented a security blanket if need be and junior Alizé Mack brought great hype upon his return from a season lost to academic issues. Having those three around allowed for the two freshmen, Cole Kmet and Brock Wright, to progress as the young luxuries they are.

Fifth-year tight end Durham Smythe saved his best year for his last year at Notre Dame. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
Long did use two tight ends with frequency. Smythe usually lined up attached to the line while Mack would be detached as more of a receiving threat. Occasionally, one or the other would line up in the backfield as an H-back, creating a run-pass wrinkle for the defense to diagnose at the snap.

Smythe blossomed in the role, putting together a quality final season both in blocking and in receiving. To a degree, his success serves as a lament exposed. He presumably could have offered just as much in 2016 if the offense had not essentially forgotten about the position.

Weishar also enjoyed a few moments of shine, enough so to give thought to a role — one in the mold of what Smythe fit this season — in 2018.

Mack, meanwhile, formed the mold of frustration, tantalizingly so. Long tried to include him in the offense, going Mack’s direction more than any other name thus far herein, but Mack never grasped the opportunity, that often times being a literal description of the mishaps.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING
The receiving stats are a bit misleading. With Mack not yet ready for a pivotal role, none of the active trio were going to join the line of recent Irish tight ends with outstanding aerial productions. Rather, Smythe contributed to the Notre Dame ground attack alongside the likes of senior left guard Quenton Nelson and fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey. For that matter, Mack handled his share of blocking, as well — one area his frustrations may have worked in Irish favor.

Fifth-year Durham Smythe: 13 catches for 234 yards and one touchdown.
Jr. Alizé Mack: 19 catches for 166 yards and one touchdown in 10 games.
Sr. Nic Weishar: Seven catches for 39 yards and two touchdowns.
Fr. Cole Kmet: Two catches for 14 yards.
Fr. Brock Wright: No statistics, but saw action in 11 games, primarily as a blocker, sometimes in a fullback role.

Before figuring out the tight end’s role in Notre Dame’s offense next year, the Irish need to determine if current senior Nic Weishar will return for a fifth year. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

COMING QUESTIONS
Before this fall, looking at the 2018 tight ends and genuinely wondering what will come of Weishar would have seemed absurd. Indeed, such is now the case. Will Notre Dame extend Weishar a fifth-year invite? If so, will he take it, or will he look to serve as a graduate transfer somewhere else he would not need to compete with the likes of Mack, Wright and Kmet for catches?

Weishar showed reliability in the red zone, specifically, this season, and could serve as a locker room and position group leader. The odds are the Irish coaching staff hopes he returns, counting on natural attrition to figure out a scholarship crunch later on.

Ideally, Mack will not be part of that annual tradition like he was two years ago. Instead, he can provide the answer to the wondering of was his disappointing fall largely a result of rust, immaturity/youth or, well, what?

Mack has the physical talent. Combining the speed of a receiver with the size of a tight end can be a game-changing luxury, if that talent shows up ready to play. Perhaps Mack did this year and was just unlucky. A 12-game sample size could obscure that. Two seasons of it, though, would point to a larger issue.

How much more of Wright and Kmet will Long find use for? At least one will be necessary, and that is presuming both do not pass or at least pressure Weishar for playing time — and even that assumes Weishar returns. Long’s two tight end thoughts make a third tight end a necessity, always one injury away from significant playing time.

Kmet saw more chances in passing situations this season while Wright was an erstwhile blocker out of the backfield. Though both arrived at Notre Dame highly-heralded, neither had a chance to make a notable imprint, but there was good reason for that. There were three talented veterans ahead of them on the depth chart. At least one of those will be gone next season, and a full offseason in a collegiate weight room should ready the young duo even more so.

There is an offensive philosophy quandary here. On any given play, Long can fill five skill positions. Assuming a running back is involved in nearly all of those, he is down to four. If continuing with a multiple-tight end emphasis, that leaves only two spots for receivers. While the receivers may not have been an impressive grouping this season, Long could want to see three of those — namely, junior Equanimeous St. Brown and sophomores Kevin Stepherson and Chase Claypool — as often as not.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends