Prince Shembo, Sean Cwynar, Hafis Williams

Counting down the Irish: 20-16

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This is the second installment of “Counting down the Irish,” our annual ranking of the Top 25 players on Notre Dame’s roster. Click here for our ratings of players 25-21.

If you’re looking for a grouping high on expectations, look no further than numbers 20-16 on our list. Youth is served with four true sophomores checking in, as TJ Jones, Louis Nix, Tommy Rees and Prince Shembo join senior Braxston Cave in the rankings.

Of the first ten players listed, only fifth-year senior Taylor Dever is playing his final year of eligibility. Cave is a senior, but has a fifth-year available to him. After a freshman season spent working his way into playing shape, Louis Nix checks in at No. 19, a lofty spot for a guy that’s largest accomplishment in South Bend has been successfully self-coining the nickname “Irish Chocolate.”

Interestingly enough, players 25-21 had three returning starters and Chris Watt, who likely assumes Chris Stewart’s vacant spot. Players 20-16 only have one guy assured of a starting job come USF. Jones is still battling for a starting spot, Nix will likely split snaps with Sean Cwynar, while Prince Shembo enters fall camp neck-and-neck with fellow sophomore Danny Spond. As for Tommy Rees, an undefeated freshman campaign still has him in a four-man quarterbacking race that’ll be the talk of preseason camp.

Once again, here is our esteemed group of panelists:

Frank Vitovitch of UHND.com
DomerMQ of HerLoyalSons.com
Eric Murtaugh of OneFootDown.com
Matt Mattare of WeNeverGradute.com
Matt & CW of RakesofMallow.com

RANKINGS

20. TJ Jones (WR, Soph.): Jones burst onto the scene at Notre Dame, wowing the coaching staff in spring practice after enrolling early and then becoming the first freshman to catch touchdowns in his first two games.  After making five catches against both Navy and Tulsa, Jones was hobbled by injuries for the rest of the season, making only one catch after October 30. He’ll likely start his sophomore season as the leading candidate to start opposite Michael Floyd.

Highest ranking: 13th. Lowest ranking: Unranked (2 times).

19. Louis Nix (NT, Soph.): The gigantic sophomore is a little less gigantic after spending his freshman season working on his conditioning and weight — a number that ballooned upwards of 360 pounds. Notre Dame hasn’t had a defensive tackle built like Nix in recent memory. What that translates to on the field is anyone’s guess.

Highest ranking: 11th. Lowest ranking: Unranked (once).

18. Braxston Cave (C, Sr.): Cave was locked in a tight battle for the starting center job when Dan Wenger suffered a preseason concussion last August, an injury that ended his Notre Dame career, but opened the door for Cave. Learning on the job, the South Bend native got better as the year progressed, and Brian Kelly named Cave one of the team’s best players in spring practice. Cave was named to the Rimington Trophy’s watch list this preseason.

Highest ranking: 12th. Lowest ranking: 23rd.

17. Tommy Rees (QB, Soph.): Tommy Rees came a long way in 2010. After throwing an interception on his first series against Michigan and looking lost at sea, Rees led the Irish to an impressive drive during some mop-up work against Navy, then powered the Irish to a 4-0 finish after Dayne Crist got hurt against Tulsa. The sophomore won’t wow you physically, but his comfort in Kelly’s spread offense is obvious.

Highest ranking: 9th. Lowest ranking: Unranked (2 times).

16. Prince Shembo (OLB, Soph.): As a freshman, Prince Shembo only made nine tackles, but over half of them were behind the line of scrimmage. Working into the linebacker rotation, Shembo finished third on the team with 4.5 sacks, including two against Boston College. After playing mostly as a pass-rush specialist, Shembo and Danny Spond will battle for the drop linebacker job, with Shembo adding a pass-rush element to the position that neither Kerry Neal nor Brian Smith possessed.

Highest ranking: 13th. Lowest ranking: Unranked (once).

ANALYSIS

After looking at players 20-16, here are a few questions that I posed the group. I’ve highlighted a few answers that I found interesting.

 

TJ Jones burst onto the scene early in the year before coming back down to earth. What are realistic expectations for Jones as a sophomore?

Frank @UHND — I think Jones will improve quite a bit in his second season and will greatly benefit from a healthy Theo Riddick taking attention away from him.  As a third receiver, Jones is match up problem for a safety because of his speed.  I expect more consistent performances out of Jones as a sophomore too.

Matt @WeNeverGraduate — Jones got banged up big time last fall which is why he spiraled into oblivion as the season progressed. He’s got the tools to be a very good receiver, he’s just not a big guy so he needs to find a way to overcome the weekly grind of D-I college football. My gut says this isn’t going to be the year he breaks out (that will be next year), so the expectation level should be around 35 catches for 500 yards and a couple touchdowns.

We’ve never seen Louis Nix in a game, but he’s obviously expected to do big things. Who spends more time on the field this season: Nix or Sean Cwynar?

Matt @WeNeverGraduate —  I saw Big Lou on the field in the spring game. You couldn’t miss him–he was the dumptruck planted between the hashes on defense. While Nix is going to play a huge role in the defense, his workload will be curbed to keep him as fresh as possible. Ultimately that will mean Cwynar sees more total snaps.

Eric @OneFootDown — Ultimately I think Nix will spend more time on the field. Stamina aside, I think he will prove to be far too talented to not be playing just a little more snaps than Cwynar (who has his own problems coming off injury). I’m thinking that even a tired Nix at 80% is better than the rest of our options at nose tackle…he may be just that good.

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons — Cwynar. Far be it from me to make any sort of statements about the merit’s of Kelly’s offensive system and the effects experienced as a result by the defense, but ND faced 905 plays last year – nearly 70 snaps/game – as a defense. Nix is a special beast, but if he were a mythical beast, I think the underdog human trying to defeat him would seek to wear him out.

Brian Kelly cited Braxston Cave’s learning curve as one of the reasons why the offense didn’t move at the pace it wanted to last year. Is Cave ready to play at a level befitting the growing expectations?

Frank @UHND — Year two in Kelly’s system and more familiarity with the player he’s snapping too should allow Cave to improve in his final season.  I think Cave might still be a little limited in the offense because he’s more of a power lineman than an athletic one, but I do think he’ll be more comfortable with the pace this season.

Eric @OneFootDown — I believe Cave is ready and all indications are that he’s ready to have a big year. While he didn’t have a great year in 2010, I thought he played a lot better than most people give him credit for. I love his physicality and I believe he has good chemistry with the hopeful starter, Dayne Crist.

Matt @WeNeverGraduate — I thought Cave made a lot of solid progress over the course of the year, but I still want to see him use his absurd strength more effectively. He’s one of the strongest guys on the entire team (if not the strongest), but he just doesn’t maul defenders like he should. Maybe that was because he was hesitant as a first year starter in a new offense? I don’t know.

Over/Under: Tommy Rees will start four games for the Irish. What’s your Over/Under for TD/INT for Rees as a sophomore?

Matt @WeNeverGraduate — Under. It’s a dangerous choice because basically I’m gambling on whether Crist’s knees will hold up, but I’m in an optimistic mood today so I’ll roll with the Great Dayne. Rees is the perfect back-up, I just don’t think his ceiling is nearly as high as any of the other quarterbacks on the roster. I’ll put the over/under for TD’s/INT’s at 8 and 4. Rees will see the field, it just won’t be often.

MB&CW @RakesofMallow — Over. Dayne’s a better athlete, but I’d put money on him getting injured again this season. That said I’d set the over/under for Rees’ TD/INT ratio at 2.5 because he’s a natural fit in this offense.

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons — I’ll put Rees as starting 6 games for the o/u. And we’ll call it 12 TDs and 7 INTs in 6 games. That would actually put him right on pace with his ~6 games of PT last year, but 1 INT better. I think the bigger question to his (and ND’s success), is can he improve on his completion % and yards/attempt? In 2010, he finished at ~61% and just 6.7 YPA. In Kelly’s system, he either needs to bump his completion % significantly, or manage a healthier YPA to keep the job.

How confident are you in Prince Shembo’s move from pass-rushing specialist to drop linebacker?

Frank @UHND — There will be growing pains, but Shembo is an animal on the field so any hiccups from Shembo will be more than made up for with the big plays he’ll make.  I think we’ll see Shembo get caught out of position in coverage from time to time, but I think we’ll see him in opposing backfields much more frequently.

DomerMQ @HerLoyalSons — Tough question. He’s obviously explosive, so he’s got an ability to move quickly, but so much of being an effective pass defender is about range – both in lateral motion and wing-span. At 6’2″ and 250lbs, it’s hard to picture him being “rangy.” Still, what he showed he could do on the field last year leaves me feeling comfortable that he’ll at least be serviceable at the position.

MB&CW @RakesofMallow — Shembo and Fleming have very similar pass-rushing abilities. I don’t think Shembo’s a natural fit at drop-linebacker and I could see him and Fleming playing both drop and rush during a game. It may be preferable to have two guys who can play both positions on the field together. If there’s one position group I’m really excited to watch this fall, it’s the linebackers. Te’o, Calabrese, Shembo, Fleming starting; Filer, Ishaq, Fox, Moore, Spond, oh the vapors . . . [passes out].

MY THOUGHTS

I’m one of the people that kept TJ Jones and Tommy Rees out of my top 25 lists. I really like both guys as football players — especially Rees — I’m just not sure they’re going to have the production needed to make this list. Rees’ career at ND is going to be a very interesting one to watch. He could become a great college quarterback and a true “winner,” or he could be the next Matt LoVecchio. My question with Jones is whether he’s physical enough to endure a full season or explosive enough to become a true playmaker. I was impressed by his hands and how smooth he was, but playing on the outside is a tougher job than lining up in the slot.

Prince Shembo’s transition to the drop linebacker position may be one of the most important on the roster. The fact that both Spond and Shembo acquitted themselves so well in the spring that Kelly named them the only two candidates for the Dog linebacker job is quite a gamble, as there are less than a dozen tackles between the sophomores. Both are great athletes, and Shembo gives Bob Diaco his best opportunity to present opposing defenses with a defense that actually looks like a mirror image, with both Shembo and Darius Fleming dangerous pass rushers.

Braxston Cave and Louis Nix are two guys on the “show me” team. While I expect they’ll both have successful seasons, I’m not ready to anoint either as impact players just yet.

 

Spring positions to watch for revelations: DL & WR

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 05: Jerry Tillery #99 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish tackles Jerrod Heard #13 of the Texas Longhorns for a loss of yards during the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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If quarterback, rover and the early enrollees could be Notre Dame fans’ springtime Christmas thrills, what positions present as potential spots of coal?

Three former Irish players were invited to next week’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis: quarterback DeShone Kizer, defensive tackle Jarron Jones and defensive end Isaac Rochell. Losing two consistent defensive linemen leaves this year’s unit with some questions. Jones and Rochell combined for 100 tackles, 18 for loss and three sacks last season. Notre Dame’s returning defensive linemen combined to total 111 tackles and only 5.5 tackles for loss. To be clear, sacks are not included in that latter list because no returning defensive linemen recorded one. Among the returnees, junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37 tackles, three for loss) and senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26, 0.5) contributed solidly alongside the two NFL prospects.

This dearth of known and reliable linemen is a large part of why the potential transfer of Clemson graduate defensive tackle Scott Pagano is so intriguing. Pagano would immediately be a favorite to start, and if not that, at least rotate in heavily.

For now, though, Pagano remains a theoretical

By the end of spring practice, who already on campus will emerge alongside Tillery and Trumbetti in the Irish front? Senior ends Jay Hayes (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) and Jonathon Bonner (nine tackles) seem the most-likely candidates … aside from former four-star recruit and now rising sophomore Daelin Hayes. In his debut season, D. Hayes finished with 11 tackles.

Look for senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) to establish himself as Tillery’s immediate backup this spring, but that spot in the rotation will be up for competition all over again once four-star tackle Darnell Ewell (Lake Taylor High School; Norfolk, Va.) arrives on campus in the fall. His size and quickness should play right into new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s system.

Equanimeous and Who?
Not only did Notre Dame bring in a graduate transfer at receiver in former Michigan wideout Freddy Canteen, but it has also already received the commitments of two four-star receivers in the 2018 recruiting class. The continued emphasis on the position reflects the lack of bona fide game-breakers currently on the roster.

Junior Equanimeous St. Brown established himself as the top Irish threat in 2016, and he should shine only further with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush targeting him. Classmates often amplify each other’s success, simply due to the added shared reps innate to joining practice at the same time. With Torii Hunter, Jr., now pursuing a professional baseball career, who will prevent the secondary from focusing all its energies on St. Brown?

Canteen will not be with Notre Dame in the spring, as he does not graduate from Michigan until April. That will give a clear shot for the likes of juniors Chris Finke, C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin, and sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool to establish themselves. Did that say “clear” shot? It should probably read, “a chance to separate from the crowd.”

If a genuine threat does not line up opposite St. Brown, his explosiveness will likely be greatly reduced by focused defensive scheming. Wimbush will need another target before 2018.

Of course, here is where one should acknowledge the millennia-tested fact: Coal under pressure becomes diamonds.

2016 Notre Dame’s win expectancy was 7.2
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Johnson named the Irish as his team most likely to dramatically improve its record in 2017. Johnson’s thinking is based, at least in part, on Notre Dame’s second-order win total having been 7.2 in 2016, compared to the four wins the Irish actually walked away with. That discrepancy was the largest in the country.

Second-order win totals reflect how many points a team should have scored and allowed based on offensive and defensive stats. In theory, this shines a light on how luck and chance factored into results. Naturally, losing seven games by one possession will often be reflected by a higher second-order win total.

“Notre Dame’s win-loss record belied a solid, if imperfect, squad that just couldn’t pull out close games…” Johnson writes. “The Irish may not get back into College Football Playoff contention in 2017, but they’re bound to post a few more Ws because of reversion to the mean.”

Admittedly, the small sample size of a football season reduces the applicability of metrics such as second- and third-order wins when compared to baseball and basketball.

Jones becomes Mack
A quick piece of housekeeping: Apparently junior tight end Alizé Jones has changed his name to Alizé Mack.

While Notre Dame’s roster may not reflect that change yet, it is reasonable to expect it will after its next update. The football program has consistently respected the intricacies of players’ name preferences. Tai-ler Jones becoming TJ Jones jumps to mind, for example.

Anyways, hopefully noting Mack’s name change here might reduce some confusion down the line. Probably not. How many readers possibly read to the actual bottom of an article? But hey, in good faith.

WR Lenzy makes 11th commitment, brings speed to Irish

lenzy
rivals.com
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At what point does an impressive recruiting roll become something more? When does it become a harbinger of things to come, even if not for a few seasons? How many notable commitments in a row establishes a class as special?

If the answer to any of the above is 11 commitments by the end of February, including five within two weeks, then Notre Dame is there following consensus four-star athlete Braden Lenzy’s announcement Thursday evening.

The Tigard High School (Portland, Ore) receiver/cornerback chose the Irish over offers from USC, Oregon and Michigan State, among a litany of others. In all, nine Pac-12 schools chased Lenzy—and a 10th, Washington, had shown interest—per rivals.com.

Lenzy will fit the leading 2018 need voiced by Irish coach Brian Kelly three weeks ago on National Signing Day 2017.

“Elite speed on offense will be a primary goal for us,” Kelly said Feb. 1. “Guys that can change the game on one possession. I think we’ll see that… We want a couple of home run hitters. We don’t care if they’re Darren Sproles’s size. We’re going to come off the board in terms of profile. We want some guys that can change the game on offense with elite speed.”

At 6-foot, 175 pounds, Lenzy is taller than Sproles’s 5-foot-6, but it is still his speed that drew Notre Dame’s interest.

“They made it clear they want me to do kickoff return and use me as a deep threat across the field,” he told Irish Illustrated. “Just being kind of an athlete, similar to what I’ve been doing already in high school, just on a bigger scale with a quarterback that can throw it a lot farther.”

Presuming Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush is that arm in 2018, throwing great distances should not be an issue. Between Lenzy and fellow 2018 commit Micah Jones, covering those distances should be a reasonable request, as well.

Lenzy brings Notre Dame’s class of 2018 to 11, including eight four-stars according to Rivals’ rating system. Current scholarship projections indicate the class will not be a large one, meaning the Irish coaching staff has already garnered the commitments of more than half the class. Once again, though, Kelly’s sentiment regarding recruiting timing should be remembered.

“We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

SWARBRICK’S TAKE ON RECRUITING
Kelly credited Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick with much assistance in securing the country’s No. 13 recruiting class in 2017. A refresher on those comments:

“In a lot of instances, [Swarbrick] had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it’s going,” Kelly said. “There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future.”

Swarbrick did not dispute the factual nature of any of that in an interview with the Indianapolis Star, but he did contest the need for praising what he saw as part of his job, one of the preferred parts of his job, at that.

“I can’t say anything about this year felt all that different,” Swarbrick told Star reporter Laken Litman. “Some asked questions about the future of the program and can we compete for a national championship. And I would talk about the elements of the program we were focused on improving.”

Swarbrick and Litman discussed a number of items in the second-half of the interview released by the Star, including Notre Dame’s facilities, a possible early signing period in football and if the Oct. 8, 2016, game against North Carolina State should have been played. Spoiler: No. Then why was it? Go check it out.

Swarbrick also told Litman he likes to write in his free time.

“I tend to think strategically with a pen in my hand.” Swarbrick added he is currently scribbling away on where he thinks college athletics are headed.

This scribe, for one, would be most interested in skimming those legal pads.

Will Wimbush, Elko and the early enrollees surprise in spring practice?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Exactly 59 days from today, the Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Sure, they will be playing against themselves, but nonetheless, it will be somewhat-competitive football played in gold helmets.

For timing context, exactly 59 days ago, you looked beneath the Christmas tree to learn if Santa Claus left you season tickets, socks or coal. I got socks. They had some of that extra cushioning, so I considered them a suitable treat.

Whether you care about my argyles or not (you don’t), for many the Blue-Gold Game and Christmas morning hold similar excitement. That fact is apparently why Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick does not concern himself when groups of alumni publicly lament his decisions, or lack thereof.

“I never worry about that,” Swarbirck told the Indianapolis Star in an exclusive interview you really should read. Go on, click the link, it will open in a new tab. You can come right back here when you are done.

“The hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion in your program. If that sort of stuff bothers you, you can’t be the athletic director, head coach or the quarterback at Notre Dame.”

That very passion will undoubtedly lead to frame-by-frame discussions of video snippets from spring practice, parsing of each and every word Irish coach Brian Kelly says in quick interviews after those practices, and extreme pessimism and optimism about the 2017 season.

In the Christmas spirit, what toys could bring the must excitement during the spring unwrapping? Personally, the gift I was unsure of always brought the most joy. I would rather open an unexpected book than know about a charcoal-gray suit. In other words, at least for today, let’s look past the offensive line, the running backs and the inside linebackers. Instead, let’s look forward to learning about… (more…)

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Karlos Williams #9 of the Florida State Seminoles scores the touchdown that would win the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their game at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.

With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.

The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.

Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.

Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.

If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.

Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order: (more…)