Counting down the Irish: 15-11

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This is the third 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 and 20-16

After revealing ten players on our Top 25 list, we’ve named three-fifths of the presumed starting offensive line, a quarterback that went undefeated last season, two linebackers that seem on track to start, two talented newcomers that have yet to see the field, and both a wide receiver and safety that the Irish are counting on.

Because list form is always easier, here you go:

25. Taylor Dever (OT, Sr.)
24. Chris Watt (OG, Jr.)
23. Zeke Motta (S, Jr.)
22. Aaron Lynch (DE, Fr.)
21. Carlo Calabrese (LB, Jr.)
20. TJ Jones (WR, Soph.)
19. Louis Nix (NT, Soph.)
18. Braxston Cave (C, Sr.)
17. Tommy Rees (QB, Soph.)
16. Prince Shembo (OLB, Soph.)

Of the ten players listed, only Taylor Dever is entering his final year of eligibility, a sign that the depth chart is getting deeper at Notre Dame, something Brian Kelly stressed from his first days in South Bend. As we unveil the next five members of our list, we add some veteran leadership to the list, with four seniors and a junior ranked between 15 and 11.

Once again, here’s our esteemed voting panel:

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

15. Trevor Robinson (RG, Sr.): Last season has to be considered a disappointment for Robinson, who failed to build on the momentum he brought into 2010. Whether it was nagging injuries or the difficulty transitioning to a different system, Robinson wasn’t the elite player many expected him to be. After focusing on strength work and playing better as the season went on, Robinson enters his final season ready to put all the pieces together.

Highest ranking: 3rd. Lowest ranking: Unranked (once).

14. Ethan Johnson (DE, Sr.): After shifting back outside to his more natural 3-4 defensive end position, Johnson put together a solid season for the Irish, tallying five sacks, six TFLs and starting all 13 games at defensive end across from Kapron Lewis-Moore. Johnson stepped onto campus as a freshman and played, likely a mistake for a guy that sat out his senior year of high school with a knee injury, and while it’s taken longer than people hoped, he’s got a chance to live up to the great expectations he brought with him to South Bend.

Highest ranking: 13th. Lowest ranking: 19th.

13. Dayne Crist (QB, Sr.): The number thirteen is appropriate for Crist, who’s had an unlucky run in his three seasons on campus. Whether you view Crist’s first season as a starter as a failure or as a season to build on likely determines where you rank him, with opinions varying wildly both among our panelists and the Irish fanbase at large. In nine games last year, Crist completed 59 percent of his throws with 15 touchdowns and 7 interceptions.

Highest ranking: 4th. Lowest ranking: Unranked (once).

12. Tyler Eifert (TE, Jr.): When Kyle Rudolph went down, Irish fans barely knew Eifert, a backup who played only briefly against Nevada as a freshman before a dangerous back injury ended his season. But Eifert’s 2010 season was one of the most surprising on the roster, with the sophomore not just picking up the slack for Rudolph, but becoming a key target for both Crist and Tommy Rees. At 6-foot-6 and 242 pounds, Eifert is another match-up problem for defenses, and has an ability to stretch the field even Rudolph didn’t have.

Highest ranking: 9th. Lowest ranking: 16th.

11. Kapron Lewis-Moore (DE, Sr.): After sitting out his freshman season, Moore burst onto the scene as a sophomore, winning a starting job at defensive end in 2009 while making seven tackles-for-loss and 2.5 sacks in his first year of duty. KLM’s production behind the line of scrimmage diminished in the 3-4, but he finished fourth on the team in tackles, racking up 62 stops. Thanks to saving a year of eligibility, Lewis-Moore has two seasons at ND left, giving his career a remarkably different feel than his classmate and fellow defensive end Johnson.

Highest ranking: 5th. Lowest ranking: 18th.

ANALYSIS

After looking at the players ranked 15-11, I posed a few questions to the group. Here are some of the answers I found interesting.

Trevor Robinson was on the 2010 Outland Trophy watch list. He isn’t on the 2011 list. What can we expect out of Robinson in his final season at Notre Dame?

Eric @OneFootDown — I think we can expect a very strong season from Robinson, including him being in the running for some postseason awards and being a mid-round draft pick. I thought it was pretty obvious that he was the one linemen who was not ready for the spread last year and spent a lot of the season not at a comfortable weight, and possibly even injured. We’ve seen him be too talented to not expect a great senior season.

MB&CW @RakesofMallow — I’m refusing to believe that Robinson wasn’t at least partially dinged up last year, because the guy who was such a force early in his career was getting shoved around like a tackling dummy for parts of games.  There’s also the consideration that perhaps he just didn’t pick up on the new schemes right away, and that hesitation was proving deadly.  I’m expecting a big bounce back from Robinson as he helps anchor the offensive line.

Matt @WeNeverGraduate — Expect a huge bounce back season; he’ll be the best lineman on the team. Robinson took a clear step backwards last season, but there were a couple different reasons for that. The fact that he had to reshape his body (again) and was forced to pick up a new scheme he didn’t really fit into held him back. He’s finally got some continuity and consistency in terms of philosophy and coaching. If you saw the way he began to flatten defensive linemen against Southern Cal and Miami you knew he was getting more comfortable in the spread. He’s going to be a stud this season.

Ethan Johnson is in his final year of eligibility as well. Can he reach the expectations people had for him when he signed with the Irish four years ago?

Frank @UHND — I’m not sure if he can reach those expectations because those expectations were so high.  Notre Dame will also have unprecedented depth at defensive end this year so Johnson might not get enough snaps to put up huge numbers.  Because of that depth though Johnson will be more effective whenever he’s on the field and I’m very surprised to see him ranked below KLM.

MB&CW @RakesofMallow — I don’t think he’ll be able to meet the expectations that come with being the type of highly-touted recruit that he was on signing day, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to have a bad season.  I would guess that at the end of the year, we’re going to be looking at a steady, very capable rotation of over a half dozen defensive ends and blitz linebackers, meaning that it will be tough for one guy to stand out.  As Lynch, Tuitt and Williams get more and more confident – as well as Nix and Shembo – that will slowly chip away at Ethan’s playing time, unless he is performing at some superhuman level previously unseen during his time in South Bend.

Matt @WeNeverGraduate — No, he was just overrated and overbilled from the beginning. That’s not to rag on the kid; he’s had a very productive career and is in line for yet another strong season. He just never had the physical tools to be the superstar some seemed to have him pegged for upon arrival in South Bend.

In 100 words or less: Best Case, Worst Case, Most Likely Case for Dayne Crist’s 2011 season.

Eric @OneFootDown — Best Case without getting too crazy, would be 35+ touchdowns, less than 10 picks, and moving his way into the top 5 draft eligible quarterbacks while notching 10+ wins for the Irish. Worst case is that he’s injured in the first game or two, and misses yet another season. The likely scenario is a very solid season, I’ll say 3,427 yards with 29 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.

Frank @UHND — Best case – Crist stays healthy for all 13 games, builds off his 2010 experience, and lives up to his potential by tossing 25+ TDs with single digit INTs and double digit wins.  Worst Case – Crist suffers another major injury and tumbles down the depth chart not to be heard from again at Notre Dame.  Most likely – Crist is solid, sometimes spectacular, but still struggles at times and misses one or two games.

MB&CW @RakesofMallow — Best case: Healthy knee and consistent drives like the first halves of Pitt and BC.
Worst case: Another season-ending leg injury that strikes earlier than the last two seasons.
Most likely: Some great throws mixed in with enough gopher balls to have people grumbling for someone else by the midpoint of the Michigan State game.

Matt @WeNeverGraduate — Best case is he stays healthy, irons out the inconsistency, and develops into a Tony Pike-esque producer in the spread. Worst case is that he shatters one or both of his knees and misses the year. Most Likely is a step in the right direction, just not a giant one. There will still be cold spells, they just won’t be as common as they were last year (when he would hit seven straight passes then miss five in a row). Sign me up for 28 TD’s and 9 INT’s…and I’ll go down to The Grotto real quick and light a candle for every ligament in his knees.

Tyler Eifert was the breakout player of 2010. How would you use him in 2011 to continue his ascent?

Eric @OneFootDown — I think I would keep him in a more traditional tight end role as much as possible. The only way I would move him outside a lot is if the other receivers prove to be not effective. I like Eifert’s blocking and I think it will help the run game if he’s on the line more often. Plus, he can surprise teams a lot easier there, instead of lining up out wide and being so one dimensional and such a big target for the defense.

Frank @UHND — Eifert was pretty much thrown right into the fire after Rudolph’s injury so I don’t think his role will change a whole lot.  He might see some more passes, but with hopefully a healthy Theo Riddick, an improved TJ Jones, and some good young receivers there might not be enough balls to go around for Eifert to see many more passes.

MB&CW @RakesofMallow — We’ve been really spoiled as Irish fans, with Fasano giving way to Carlson giving way to Rudolph.  Then when Rudy went down, there was a barely a beat missed before Eifert came streaking across the middle of the field, a new Great White Hope.  Considering the question marks around the receiver position, I would take advantage of Eifert’s ability in space and flex him out into the slot.  Let 5’ 11” cornerbacks try to deal with him.

Kapron Lewis-Moore or Ethan Johnson: Who has the more productive year?

Eric @OneFootDown — Lewis-Moore because I think he’s athletically on a different plain and has more of an explosive game. Their number of tackles might be close to each other, but KLM will likely have more tackles for loss and sacks.

Frank @UHND — Johnson has been more productive for the past three seasons so I’ll go with Johnson again.  KLM improved a lot from 2009 to 2010, but I still think Johnson is the best DE on the squad.

MB&CW @RakesofMallow — Despite the massive amount of kind words from the coaching staff for KLM all offseason, I’m going with Ethan, who outpaced his defensive line counterpart in both tackles for loss (6 to 2.5) and sacks (5 to 2).  KLM nearly doubled Ethan in total tackles, so you could easily make the case that he was the more productive overall performer.  I went back and forth on this and think it’ll be close, but I’ll say Ethan comes out slightly ahead in the big plays department, which is what I’m looking for from this defense.

Matt @WeNeverGraduate — KLM. He’s got superstar potential, EJ just doesn’t. To me it’s like comparing Justin Tuck to Patrick Kuntz. I’m not saying KLM will be Tuck by any stretch, I’m just saying he’s got an extremely high ceiling and Johnson lacks it.

MY THOUGHTS

While MQ caught a lot of grief (and earned plenty of eyeballs) for leaving Dayne Crist unranked, he wasn’t the most polarizing player on the roster. That honor goes to Trevor Robinson, who was ranked as high as 3rd on one ballot and left off another one, a higher variance than any player receiving votes. I tend to think of Robinson as a good, but not great, lineman — ranking him at 17th, and two slots behind Braxston Cave, who received some preseason notice, just like Robinson did last year. That said, there’s every chance that the light bulb flips on for Robinson, a guy that strength-wise just hasn’t turned into the type of player an elite guard needs to be.

Also interesting is the difference in voting for defensive ends. Kapron Lewis-Moore was more productive from a sheer tackles perspective, but Ethan Johnson had more sacks and TFLs. I had EJ just a hint in front of KLM because of this, but it’s interesting to notice that most rated Lewis-Moore higher, likely because it just feels like he’s still on the way up — example No. 2,358 why redshirting linemen is a good idea, unless they’re a true star (like Aaron Lynch could be).

As much as losing Kyle Rudolph to the NFL Draft was a big deal, Irish fans need not worry about the tight end position. With Tyler Eifert, they have a perfect fit for Brian Kelly’s offense, and behind him the Irish have plenty of good depth with Mike Ragone, Jake Golic, Alex Welch and promising freshman Ben Koyack.

Of course, what happens with the Irish season likely is determined by what kind of play the Irish get out of Crist. If he performs like a top-ten player on the roster, the Irish are BCS bound. If he struggles to develop the feel and timing needed for Kelly’s offense, the Irish offense will sputter, and any promise of double-digit wins will likely go up in smoke. (Unless BK can truly pull a rabbit from his hat in the form of Rees, Golson or Hendrix.)

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s defensive line, a returning strength

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Notre Dame returns eight of its top nine defensive linemen. Such a year-to-year retention is nearly beyond most possibilities, so it should not be understated how much that defensive line could determine any Irish success found in 2018.

Spring Roster:
— The theoretical starters: Rising junior Daelin Hayes at drop (pass-rushing) end, rising senior Jerry Tillery at three-technique (pass-rushing) tackle, fifth-year Jonathan Bonner at nose tackle and fifth-year Jay Hayes at strong-side (edge-setting) end.
— The likely second-unit: Rising junior Julian Okwara at drop end, rising sophomore Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa at three-tech, rising sophomore Kurt Hinish at nose and rising junior Khalid Kareem at strong-side end.
— The presumed third-stringers: Rising junior Ade Ogundeji at drop end, rising senior Micah Dew-Treadway at three-tech, rising sophomore Darnell Ewell at nose and rising sophomore Kofi Wardlow at strong-side end.

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman Justin Ademilola at drop end, incoming freshman Jayson Ademilola at three-tech and incoming freshman Ja’Mion Franklin at nose tackle.

Kurt Hinish was not expected to contribute much his freshman season. The fact that he provided genuine interior depth only sets the table for further Irish success along the defensive line in 2018. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
A lot of cross-training has and will occur among the defensive linemen, so nailing any one player down to the above position is a fool’s errand. Jay Hayes will be ready to move inside against quicker and lighter opponents, just like Justin Ademilola will dabble a bit in strong-side development to keep future options available, simply as examples.

Nonetheless, the primary rotation should carry over from last year with the exception of flipping Tillery and Bonner to three-tech and nose, respectively. Entering 2017, Bonner was not a sure thing to withstand the physical duties of the nose position, hence the alignment then.

Daelin Hayes and Okwara will spell each other enough to be sure there is always a viable pass-rush threat on the field. Ogundeji could possibly further that rotation, but he did not see much action last year and would need to progress greatly to do so in 2018; that is as much a credit to Hayes and Okwara as it is a criticism of Ogundeji, if not even more of the former.

Jay Hayes will feature against run-dominant opponents and obvious running situations, while Kareem will offer a strong pass-rush from that side when needed. If another year under the tutelage of strength and conditioning coordinator Matt Balis has furthered Kareem’s physicality, perhaps he will cut into Hayes’ snaps, but their frames alone emphasize the difference between the two. Last season, both were listed at or just shy of 6-foot-4, but Hayes carried an additional 24 pounds, 290 to 266.

Tagovailoa-Amosa and Hinish will keep Tillery and Bonner fresh, presumably even more so than last year.

Biggest Question:
That brings the defensive line conversation to Ewell. He arrived on campus much more-heralded as a recruit than either Tagovailoa-Amosa or Hinish, but the latter two were more college-ready. That is not inherently an indictment of Ewell’s recruiting rankings, based more so on future potential than immediate readiness.

Will a full year of collegiate coaching, not to mention strength and conditioning, have Ewell primed to live up to his recruiting hype?

He will not usurp any of the four already established in the middle. Tillery is the best current talent among the grouping and Bonner proved to be able to hold the point of attack in 2017. Tagovailoa-Amosa’s knack for finding the backfield was an unexpected strength, and the depth provided by Hinish is part of what helped Tillery finally shine and contributed, in part, to making Bonner’s breakthrough possible.

Nonetheless, Ewell could further that rotation, only freshening the legs available at the point of attack.

Defensive line depth cannot be emphasized enough, and if Ewell shows up ready and willing this spring, Notre Dame may be more ready in the middle than it has been in, hmmm, at least a long while. (Note to self: This could be a comparison to find an answer to.)

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Tillery: 56 tackles with nine for loss, including 4.5 sacks and one forced fumble.
D. Hayes: 30 tackles with 6.5 for loss, including three sacks and two fumbles recovered.
Bonner: 30 tackles with 3.5 for loss, including two sacks.
J. Hayes: 27 tackles with 3.5 for loss, including one sack with one fumble recovered.
Kareem: 21 tackles with 5.5 for loss, including three sacks and one fumble recovered.
Okwara: 17 tackles with 4.5 for loss, including 2.5 sacks and one interception along with one fumble forced.
Tagovailoa-Amosa: 12 tackles with 1.5 for loss.
Hinish: Eight tackles with 0.5 for loss.

2017 Stats Departed:
The point in this series is to look forward, but it bears noting just how little the Irish lost from the defensive line after 2017, a season in which the unit proved preseason expectations very wrong and became quite a strength. Of the contributing defensive linemen from the fall, only two are not expected to return in 2018:

Andrew Trumbetti: 28 tackles with four for loss, including 0.5 for loss.
Brandon Tiassum: Two tackles.

Notre Dame gets the letter: Jayson and Justin Ademilola
Notre Dame gets the letter: Ja’Mion Franklin

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are
Linebackers, a proven two and then many questions
Tight ends, a surplus of depth, unproven talent

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s tight ends, a surplus of depth, unproven talent

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Notre Dame has such tight end depth, it was somewhat surprising when the Irish pursued a second tight end in the class of 2018, but the possibilities of yet another playmaker in Tommy Tremble combined with a physical option in George Takacs forced the coaching staff’s decision.

“I always like to have that versatility each year and each signing class,” Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long said Feb. 7. “… We don’t want to pass up on a great athlete … being able to present different challenges to the defense with those kind of guys and still be very physical at the same time.”

That is a key to remember when looking at the Irish tight ends — Long sees different purposes amid the individuals in that position’s meeting room. Tremble, for example, could line up as a receiver as often as not while Takacs might fill in as Durham Smythe most recently did, serving as an additional blocker when needed and offering sure hands otherwise. In many respects, the two roles are two different positions.

Spring Roster:
— Fifth-year Nic Weishar, who Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said had shoulder surgery recently, though Kelly did not offer a timetable for return.
— Rising senior Alizé Mack.
— Rising sophomore Cole Kmet, when he is not pitching in relief for the Irish baseball team. Kmet made his second appearance of the season Thursday night. A letdown (3.0 IP, 3 ER, 3 H, 4 K), it did not go anywhere near as well as his debut did (4.0 IP, 0 ER, 1 H, 3 K).

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— Rising sophomore Brock Wright, who underwent a shoulder surgery of his own shortly following the regular season. A recent photo (left) from the @NDFootball Twitter account indicates Wright is partaking in at least some winter conditioning drills.
— Early-enrolled freshman Takacs.

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman Tremble.

Depth Chart Possibilities:
Long uses multiple tight ends, deploying both of those aforementioned archetypes at the same time. That tendency should be seen even more often in 2018 with more options now available. A full year in a collegiate program should have both Kmet and Wright ready for bigger roles, challenging Weishar for some of what were Smythe’s snaps in 2017.

The third tight end will see opportunities. It is essentially a second-string role. If granting the argument of two different forms of tight ends, then even the fourth tight end will get chances, as he will simply be the second-stringer in that particular role.

Kmet would seem the more likely of the rising sophomores to get a bit more time, but that only means Wright will see plenty of time in a blocking back role, just as he did in situational packages in 2017.

Biggest Question:
Kmet could find his way to a more prominent role if he offers something not yet seen from Mack: consistency not just on the field, but in all respects.

Can Mack finally translate his athleticism and potential into a consistent mismatch and productive threat? At his best, he could be the product of an offensive coordinator’s daydreams, but Mack has so rarely been at his best. That applies both on and off the field, considering his multiple drops in 2017 were followed by Kelly suspending Mack for an internal team matter for the Citrus Bowl before Notre Dame even headed down to Florida.

Another year of Mack spinning his wheels will result in a loss of playing time with the likes of Kmet and Tremble around. If Mack does not provide positive results in the spring while Kmet does, that shift could begin even before the Blue-Gold Game on April 21.

Fifth-year tight end Nic Weishar will provide Notre Dame not only with depth and experience in 2018, but also sure hands. That alone should give him a leg up on the other tight ends entering this spring. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Pertinent Reader Question:
“Every year a four- or five-star disappoints and every year a three-star or lower prospect surprises. My prediction is fall: Mack, rise: Weishar. I have been the lone man on the Weishar bandwagon for a few years now and really hope that this year he becomes the big receiving target we need.

What are your fallers and risers for this coming year?” — Mark H.

A logical argument can be made that “fallers” should not be labeled as such until after their collegiate careers conclude. There are so many factors that can limit a player for years before he breaks out. Consider rising senior receiver and former consensus four-star prospect Miles Boykin. As recently as New Year’s Eve, he may have been labeled a bust, but now he can lay claim to one of the most dramatic catches in Irish history and is a frontrunner for a starting role in 2018 with another year of eligibility remaining after that. He could end up with a stellar collegiate career by every measure.

Mack has had the opportunity to shine to date, and he has not done so, but he also might have two more seasons to go to change that reputation.

As for “risers,” Weishar makes sense and he certainly showcased his strong hands when given the chance in 2017, but his ceiling is likely not much higher than that. A couple touchdown catches, a handful of third-down conversions and a year of physical blocking would be a welcome success.

Notre Dame’s safeties, though, could stand out to fit the criteria laid out by Mark. If — and that is a two-letter word not to be overlooked — Navy transfer and rising junior Alohi Gilman and rising sophomore Jordan Genmark-Heath end up as productive starters for the season, then they will both have exceeded the expectations set out by star ratings.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Mack: 19 catches for 166 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by six receptions for 38 yards against North Carolina with rising junior quarterback Ian Book starting in place of an injured Brandon Wimbush.
Weishar: Nine catches for 52 yards and two touchdowns.
Kmet: Two catches for 14 yards; appeared in all 13 games.
Wright: Appeared in 11 games, no statistics recorded.

Notre Dame gets the letter: George Takacs
Notre Dame gets the letter: Tommy Tremble

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are
Linebackers, a proven two and then many questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Editor’s Note: That video has since been removed from this post due to its incessant auto-play function, but it can still be viewed here.

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

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

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

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

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

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