Weekend round-up: Offers, Tuitt, Bullard and Stonum

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The Irish are making a play at another Georgia native that likely won’t head north quietly. While Brian Kelly, Chuck Martin and company were successful getting Stephon Tuitt out of the land of peaches (we’ll get to Tuitt more in a bit), they’ll have quite a bit of company as they pursue Tucker High School’s Josh Dawson, a 6-foot-4, 226-pound outside linebacker/defensive end.

Michael Carvell at AJC.com caught up with Dawson to discuss Notre Dame’s entrance on the scene:

Tucker High School’s Josh Dawson was offered an early scholarship by Notre Dame on Sunday night.

The 6-foot-4, 226-pounder has nearly 20 offers, including UGA, Virginia Tech and South Carolina. He is projected to play defensive end or linebacker in college.

“I’m excited because it’s Notre Dame, and they have a pretty big name in football across the country,” Dawson told the AJC. Dawson added that he is not favoring any schools at this moment.

“I thought I had a good chance at getting offered by Notre Dame because one of the assistants came by the school a couple of weeks ago, saw me working out, took some of my film and told my coaches they would get back to me. I didn’t know it would be this soon.”

Dawson said if there’s an offer he expected but hasn’t gotten, it would be Georgia Tech. “I talked to one of the Georgia Tech assistants maybe three weeks ago. They haven’t been out to any of our spring practices [at Tucker]. I don’t know what’s going on. Hopefully they will come by this week and make an offer. I’m interested.”

Dawson mentioned that he’s interested in hearing from big-hitters like Alabama, Florida and Auburn, so expect quite a battle for Dawson, who comes from a pipeline school known for producing plenty of University of Georgia football players.

“We have so many people from Tucker going to UGA,” Dawson told UGASports.com. “It’s a tradition and most people who get that offer go ahead and commit to Georgia. I’m just going to take it slow but it’s a big thing. Three of my coaches actually went to Georgia.”

Don’t expect the Irish staff to be intimidated, but pulling a guy like Dawson out of Tucker would be quite the accomplishment.

***

Speaking of recruiting accomplishments, the AJC also caught up with incoming Irish freshman Stephon Tuitt, who looked back on the high-pressure process of getting recruited.

Stephon Tuitt was one of the state’s top recruiting dramas in 2011. The 5-star defensive end from Monroe Area High School initially pledged to Notre Dame but switched to Georgia Tech in mid-January. It lasted for about 30 hours as Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly quickly hopped on a plane to fly down to Georgia to convince Tuitt to commit again to Notre Dame, which Tuitt did, signing last February.

More than three months later, Tuitt was asked about his second choice. “If I didn’t go to Notre Dame, it would’ve been Georgia Tech. It came down to the point where it was … what my feelings were, talking to my family about them, looking for a brighter future, and that I felt more comfortable at Notre Dame. There’s nothing Georgia Tech could’ve done better. They recruited me very well.”

Tuitt was asked different questions as they looked back on the recruiting process and had a few interesting responses, including the regret of not visiting any West Coast schools during the process and Dabo Sweeney’s sales pitch on letting Tuitt play two-ways as both a tight end and a defensive end.

Still, if there’s a sentence that crystallizes Tuitt’s recruitment, this is it:

“It got crazy toward the end when it was finally time to sign the papers,” Tuitt said. “There’s a lot of pressure on you. People think you ought to sign with other schools than the one you signed with. Other than that, I enjoyed the recruiting precess and look forward to playing at the next level.”

Irish fans certainly looked forward to seeing Tuitt play there, too.

***

Former Irish offensive lineman Alex Bullard has been granted a hardship waiver by the NCAA, allowing the Tennessee native to be eligible immediately for the home-state Volunteers.

Bullard transferred out of Notre Dame after the death of his father. His decision to play for the home-state Vols came after he told Brian Kelly and the Irish coaching staff that he wanted to be closer to his mother and family.

Bullard has immediately drawn the eyes of the Tennessee coaching staff, putting together an impressive spring practice after being thrust into the middle of an open competition after right tackle Ja’Wuan James was sidelined with mononucleosis. Bullard was given the Harvey Robinson Award by coaches for being the biggest surprise on offense this spring.

“He has a lot of pride and he works very hard,” Vols offensive line coach Harry Hiestand said. “He has talent. It’s all brand new to him. He will progress. He’s been a pleasant surprise for us.”

Bullard is cross-training on the offensive line and has shown an ability to slide inside to center as well. You’ve got to wonder where Bullard would stand in the race to replace Chris Stewart at right guard. The coaching staff never got a true look at Bullard after he missed most of last year’s spring practice as he dealt with his father’s illness and only saw the field against Michigan State, Boston College, and Western Michigan.

Bullard took to Twitter to comment on the news that he’d be eligible next season for Tennessee.

“Just officially got the news… I’d like to give a shout out to the NCAA for allowing me to be eligible for this upcoming season.”

***

Meanwhile, it looks like Michigan has an offseason headache that’s threatening to derail any momentum built in Brady Hoke’s first offseason.

Early last Friday morning, standout wide receiver Darryl Stonum was pulled over and arrested for his second drunk driving offense during his time in Ann Arbor. Stonum was booked into jail at 4:30 a.m. by University of Michigan police, and the arrest was confirmed by a U-M spokesperson, where Stonum was stopped around 2:30 a.m. at an intersection near campus.

Head coach Brady Hoke released this statement:

“Darryl made a poor decision that is unacceptable and won’t be tolerated. He will be disciplined for behavior that is unbecoming of a Michigan football player. This is a serious situation, we are disappointed, and any athletic department discipline will be handled internally.

“We will provide the appropriate support and counseling in order for him to learn and grow from this mistake. Darryl has been suspended indefinitely from all team activities. If he fulfills all of his commitments he has to the legal system and our program, we will make a determination regarding his return to the team.”

It isn’t hard to see the similarities between Stonum and Irish wide receiver Michael Floyd, whose recent DUI arrest caused quite a stir in both the Notre Dame and national media.

Obviously, there’s a fairly large difference in the two when you consider this is Stonum’s second drunk-driving arrest, the first came during his freshman season at Michigan, when he served a one-game suspension for the September arrest. Stonum also ran into trouble when he failed to live up to the terms of his probation, missing court dates and failing to submit to the court ordered random alcohol testing. Stonum spent three nights in jail for the violations.

Brady Hoke’s comments left quite a bit of light at the end of the tunnel for both Stonum and Michigan, though you’ve got to wonder if public backlash will pressure the first-year coach into making an example of one of his leading receivers, like new Florida head coach Will Muschamp did when he kicked Janoris Jenkins off the team following his second drug-related arrest.

Stonum had 49 catches for 633 yards last season, so he’s nowhere near as productive as Floyd has been for the Irish, but it’ll be interesting following both the Michigan and national reaction to Stonum’s troubles. (I’m guessing it’ll be a fraction of the reaction that Floyd’s mishap elicited.)

May… One of the few times of year where football coaches just sit on pins and needles hoping their players simply take care of their final exams and stay out of trouble.

Notre Dame adds another 2019 commitment out of Georgia

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Eight months from now, Notre Dame may be forced to sign a smaller recruiting class than usual thanks to the larger class this past recruiting cycle. If that expectation does indeed hold, this past week’s five commitments, including consensus three-star safety Kyle Hamilton’s (Marist High School; Atlanta) on Tuesday evening, will be a hefty portion of the class.

Hamilton becomes the second safety in the class, and in the week, following the Saturday pledge of rivals.com four-star Litchfield Ajavon (Episcopal H.S.; Alexandria, Va.). Hamilton’s list of finalists included Michigan, Georgia, Ohio State and Clemson, a grouping more telling than perhaps his recruiting ranking is.

Some of that expected potential may derive from Hamilton’s 6-foot-3 frame. Such length at safety would be a change for the Irish, currently without a safety taller than six-feet in the rotation. Even heralded incoming-freshman Derrik Allen, also out of Georgia, is listed at only 6-foot-1.

It is a coincidence those two Georgia recruits, one signed and one now verbally-committed, are both safeties. Add in the January commitment of rivals.com three-star cornerback K.J. Wallace (Lovett; Atlanta), and a third defensive back comes from the state, along with class of 2018 signees tight end Tommy Tremble and running back C’Bo Flemister. Five prospects from Georgia, presuming both Hamilton and Wallace do indeed sign with Notre Dame, is not a coincidence.

“My point being is that it’s such a fertile ground in recruiting, you just need to be in [Georgia], and there’s great football players in there,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said in December 2017, during the inaugural early signing period. “We’ve got so many players that we can talk about that came of there. It’s just having a presence and getting back into a very, very good recruiting area for us. We need to have a great presence there.”

No matter what state Hamilton comes from, he could find himself quickly in the mix at safety upon his arrival. Presuming health for the current safety depth chart, juniors Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill will have one year of eligibility remaining apiece upon Hamilton’s enrollment. Junior Alohi Gilman will have two, thanks to spending the 2017 season sidelined following his transfer from Navy. Early-enrolled freshman Griffith and Allen will both have three more years, presuming both play in 2018.

Thus, Hamilton and Ajavon could find themselves backing up that last duo as soon as 2020.

Blue-Gold Game Leftovers: Notre Dame’s offensive ceiling is tantalizing, though also unlikely

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Immediately following the 2017 spring game, I walked by two much smarter, savvier and more veteran Notre Dame reporters on our way to post-game interviews. Our two minutes of exchange included them riffing on various hypothetical position changes that were eventually not seen come fall, including how much better of a guard than a tackle Tommy Kraemer could be. It should be noted, the junior began lining up at guard this spring.

My contribution to the conversation hinged entirely on repeating, “That offense just isn’t ready. It’s not close to ready.”

Of course, that assessment figured the spring game struggles were against a porous Irish defense, something freshly-arrived and since-departed defensive coordinator Mike Elko had already taken tangible steps toward fixing, far quicker than expected.

That evaluation also failed to recognize the potential of a running attack led by Josh Adams. Notre Dame knew it had a stalwart running back, and did not need to see more than eight carries for 39 yards and a touchdown from the lead back.

The point stood, though. The offense was not ready then or in November.

Driving away from this past Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game, the thought bouncing around my pickup’s two-seat cab was simple: This offense is unlikely to reach its ceiling, but if it did, it would be really, absurdly high-powered.

This time, that assessment offers some deference to first-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s ability to turn nine returning starters into another strong defense, perhaps superior to last year’s.

The praise of the offense must be hedged thanks to IF after IF after IF after IF. If senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush displays those mechanics and that accuracy against opposing defenses …
If senior running back Dexter Williams (pictured above) decides it is worthwhile to play, and play well, through pain …
If junior receiver Chase Claypool maintains the necessary emotional equilibrium …
If senior tight end Alizé Mack offers a consistent performance, even if not stellar, but stable …

In those four upperclassmen alone, the Irish have unique talents whom opposing defensive coordinators should lose sleep thinking about. They will determine how high this offense’s ceiling is, while the likes of senior receiver Miles Boykin, junior running back Tony Jones and sophomore tight end Cole Kmet will set the floor, along with what looks to be yet another overpowering offensive line (with Kraemer at right guard).

Obviously, the most-promising players always set the height of a vaulted the ceiling. As they perform against Michigan, Stanford and Virginia Tech will determine how the season ends. However, to pinpoint four like this is an extreme end of the spectrum.

Exiting last year’s Blue-Gold Game, it was clear Wimbush needed to learn much more of offensive coordinator Chip Long’s scheme. Aside from that, the only possible ways to increase the offense’s potency was to teach receiver Kevin Stepherson self-discipline and figure out why Mack could not make a gameday impact. The rest was essentially known, even if the running game’s potential was overlooked after the spring exhibition.

Entering this summer, the gap between the offense’s floor and its ceiling is a vast one. To have four question marks of this magnitude speaks to the possible volatility awaiting in the fall. Logically speaking, it is most likely two of the four above IFs become realities. In that case, it will be a good offense, but not the utterly threatening one conceivable. The odds are slim all four come to fruition, but crazier things have happened, especially when discussing the rapid development of 18- to 21-year-olds.

Without Adams following two All-American offensive linemen, this rendition of the Notre Dame offense may take a step backward, but the talent is there for it to actually improve, to carry the day if/when an experienced quarterback picks apart the defense (see: the Seminoles’ Deondre Francois).

That could not be said in 2017.

OTHER QUICK TAKEAWAYS FROM THE BLUE-GOLD GAME:
Much of this will be discussed in greater length in the coming two weeks, but …
— The interior of the offensive line — fifth-year left guard Alex Bars, fifth-year center Sam Mustipher and Kraemer at right guard — is quite a physically-imposing trio. Some defensive ends may find success against first-year starter and junior left tackle Liam Eichenberg, especially early in the season, but the inside trio should at least create massive holes for the Irish running game.

— Ideally Long can deploy Mack and Kmet together, but the spring performance of the latter certainly eases the concerns about the maturation and consistency of the former.

Notre Dame may need an unexpected influx of production from senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery if the fifth-year tackle he is intended to line up alongside, Jonathan Bonner, does not recover fully from a wrist injury suffered in the beginning of 2017. (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP)

— Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly insists fifth-year defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner’s fitness will not be overly-effected by the wrist injury that kept him out of most of spring practice and all of the Blue-Gold Game.

“He’s been doing everything (in weight-lifting) but at lighter weight, and now he’s only a couple of weeks away from being full-go,” Kelly said Saturday. “He was already physically really gifted, so we don’t think that’s going to be a big curve for him, and he’ll be able to start training aggressively when we get back here in June.”

Consider this scribe skeptical. Not only is Kelly often overly-optimistic about injury effects and timetables, but to think missing six months of strength and conditioning will not be noticeable along the defensive interior is idealistic at best. Bonner’s 2017 emergence was a direct result of the arrival of strength and conditioning coordinator Matt Balis.

Without more of that work, the Irish will need to turn to sophomore Kurt Hinish for an increase in snaps, perhaps pushing toward 50 per game with Bonner offering 20-30 and senior Micah Dew-Treadway filling in the balance. Hinish appears to be up to the task, which is necessary, because classmate Darnell Ewell is not.

Notre Dame gains commitments of four-star defensive end and three-star offensive tackle

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At this rate, Notre Dame might fill its 2019 recruiting class by the time the school year ends. With a Sunday morning commitment of a consensus four-star defensive end followed by a Monday evening pledge from a consensus three-star offensive tackle, the Irish class has grown from three recruits to seven in just four days.

The No. 238 prospect in the country and No. 28 at defensive end, per rivals.com, Howard Cross III (St. Joseph High School; Montvale, N.J.) announced his commitment via Twitter shortly after leaving campus from a visit for the Blue-Gold Game, choosing the Irish over offers from Michigan, North Carolina State and Virginia Tech, among others.

“I could tell [current Notre Dame players] really loved the school,” Cross said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “It was really, really big to talk to them. When I was going to all the colleges, that was the main thing I wanted to do. I wanted to get the perspective of the players.”

Cross joins consensus four-star defensive end Hunter Spears (Sachse H.S.; Texas) as half of the four defensive linemen already in the Irish recruiting class. As always, no collegiate defensive line can be deep enough. Considering the previous two recruiting classes have yielded a total of two defensive ends — Kofi Wardlow and Justin Ademilola — opportunity should be aplenty for Cross and Spears early in their careers.

The defensive end duo will likely spend a not-insignificant portion of their collegiate career practices butting heads with Andrew Kristofic (Pine-Richland; Gibsonia, Pa.). If the high school of Pine-Richland jumps off the figurative page to Notre Dame recruitniks, that is because Kristofic has much experience protecting high school teammate and incoming Irish freshman quarterback Phil Jurkovec.

He chose Notre Dame, and new offensive line coach Jeff Quinn, rather than offers from a lengthy list including Clemson, Georgia and Ohio State.

“The combination that their school is able to provide being one of the very best schools in the entire country academically and one of the very athletically stands out,” Kristofic said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “I think they have the best combination of those two things on top of being a school that is known for being able to produce such great offensive linemen is something that no other schools really have the combination of all those.

“When you can put together all the things that they can there, it’s certainly not something you can overlook or take for granted.”

The beginning of this influx of commitments came with the Friday decision of consensus four-star offensive tackle John Olmstead (St. Joseph; Metuchen, N.J.), the only other offensive lineman in the class to this point. Of the seven recruits committed to the Irish, five are four-star talents.

Former Notre Dame defensive lineman, Kona Schwenke, dies at 25

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Former Notre Dame defensive lineman Kona Schwenke, 25, reportedly died in his sleep Sunday morning. The cause of death has not yet been confirmed.

Schwenke spent four seasons along the Irish defensive front, culminating in a 23-tackle senior season, in 2013. Attrition along the defensive line in his first two seasons forced Schwenke into playing time, costing him a likely fifth-year with much greater production. He played in 31 games total, making 30 tackles.

Part of a Hawaiian surge in Notre Dame recruiting, Schwenke joined the likes of receiver Robby Toma and linebacker Manti Te’o in coming from the island in 2009 and 2010. The first two committed during Charlie Weis’ tenure, but Schwenke made the leap at the very beginning of Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s career, one of the first recruits to commit to Kelly at Notre Dame. Since then, sophomore defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa has renewed the trend.

Schwenke graduated in 2014 with a degree in anthropology. He then signed with the practice squad of the Kansas City Chiefs, moving around four different NFL franchises chasing his dream. Earlier this month he took part in a scouting event, The Spring League, gaining some notice when he forced Heisman-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel into a fumble.

Former Irish teammates took to social media Sunday afternoon celebrating Schwenke’s life and friendship.