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.)

Four-star OL John Olmstead chooses Notre Dame over Michigan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notre Dame announces two-game series with Alabama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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