Spartan notes: Diaco, Cousins, Narduzzi, and more

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Sometimes you just need to get a column out there, and purge some of the fun facts you’ve been storing up for the week. After spending a lot of time watching and re-watching last Saturday’s debacle, getting up to speed on the Spartans, and reassessing where this team is, you tend to forget that just because the Irish started 0-2 doesn’t mean they have the luxury of packing it in and not paying attention.

Here are a few assorted thoughts:

Last year, Bob Diaco took a ton of heat for the candidness he showed after the Irish’s loss to Navy. With a fourth quarter collapse that have a lot of people grumbling about the defensive coordinator, Diaco took his lumps appropriately, without giving the kind of insight that got him skewered last year after the Navy loss.

“If we talk specifics than we hinder ourselves going forward, but I will say that we’ve identified and addressed the fourth quarter as a team, from Coach Kelly right on down to the assistants and the players,” Diaco said. “Everyone in the organization takes accountability for that time frame and we’re going to move forward.”

The question was asked to Brian Kelly who essentially said the same thing, but Diaco was asked why the Irish didn’t roll to dime coverage in those last 30 seconds.

“At that particular point we’ve repped in practice that particular call and it was poorly executed,” Diaco said. “And at the end of the day, I’m responsible for execution so I take full accountability.”

Diaco has a slight pause after “poorly executed,” and a reporter used that as a window to get in another question. But Diaco was sure to finish his sentence making it clear that any breakdowns by players ultimately fall on him.

That includes senior cornerback Gary Gray. Diaco joined Kelly in defending Gray and picking him up from an obviously disappointing game.

“Gary is one of the best players we have on our defense. We love Gary. I’ve got a massive amount of respect for him,” Diaco said. “Like I said, I take responsibility for that play, I take responsibility for all those plays. No one in this organization is interested in placing blame on any of the players, that’s for sure.”

It’s up to Diaco, Chuck Martin and Kerry Cooks to get Gray ready to answer the bell. If you’re Michigan State, you’re clearly going to take aim at the senior. If Gray has his head in the right place and irons out some of the technical mistakes he’s making, he could have a big day.

***

Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins likely knows how Gray feels. It was Cousins that had the Spartans deep in Irish territory back in 2009 when he threw an ill-advised interception to Kyle McCarthy that sealed a 33-30 victory for Notre Dame.

Cousins comes back to Notre Dame Stadium for the first time since that game and he’s assuming the Irish defense that played well against USF and for three quarters against Michigan will be the one showing up, not the group from the final 15 minutes of last Saturday.

Joe Rexrode of the Lansing State Journal has more:

“I view them as the first three quarters,” Kirk Cousins said. “I don’t pay a lot of attention to the fourth quarter. I think a couple of those balls, if No. 4 turns his back around it’s an interception. So it’s great for Michigan to win the game but I don’t view it a whole lot as their defense is terrible and Michigan’s offense is amazing. I view it as, if that guy turns around, the game’s over long ago. So I expect them to be a very, very tough defense.”

No. 4, by the way, is senior cornerback Gary Gray. He’s getting the Jaren Hayes treatment, circa 2004, in South Bend. Reporters are coming up just short of asking Brian Kelly if he plans to sit Gray in the corner for a two-week timeout. Here’s what Kelly said Tuesday about Gray:

“It’s unfortunate that people look at that one position because it’s not just Gary Gray that we put this loss on,” Kelly said. “There’s a lot of situations. If we don’t turn the ball over, Gary Gray’s name is not even brought up.
“Gary is going to be fine. He’s a senior. He’ll bounce back. He had a great game last year against Michigan State, and he’s been really solid for us. So we need Gary Gray to come up and play good football this weekend against Michigan State.”

Cousins obviously saw the Gray mistakes and is aware of the criticism, but he’s not looking at Gray like a weak link. Really, he isn’t.

“It’s unfortunate for him, I think he’s a very, very good corner,” Cousins said of Gray. “He’s played a lot of football for them. So when you’ve played that long, I feel like he’s gonna be ready. And obviously he had an off night last week, but he’s right in position. It’s not like he’s getting beat deep.

“I mean he’s right there to make the play, so that shows he’s in position and has the athleticism to cover people, and I think it’s probably a little undeserved criticism on his end. And I expect him to come back this week and play at a much higher level. So I don’t think it’s something where we’re saying, ‘Let’s pick on him, we think he’s weak.’ I think that across the board they’re a much better defense than maybe that last quarter showed against Michigan.”

Cousins is an impressive guy, a good quarterback and a much better leader, but you’d be foolish to think the Spartans won’t try and take their shots at Gray, either with B.J. Cunningham, the Spartans’ all-time leading receiver or with other guys that could be match-up problems for the Irish.

***

If you’re looking for a fun personality, check out defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, who likened keeping an eye on Irish receiver Michael Floyd to finding Waldo.

“Obviously, you do something special against him but nothing extravagant,” Narduzzi said yesterday to the assembled Spartan media. “The big thing is to know where he is all the time.”

“You ever read the books, Where’s Waldo? He’s Waldo,” Narduzzi said. “We have to know where he, because he’s everywhere. You can’t find Waldo in the book sometimes, you look forever and the kids can find him but you can’t? Well we have to make sure our kids can find him when we can’t.”

It took a few weeks for the Irish to move Floyd around last year, keeping him mostly on the boundary side of the field opposite Kyle Rudolph. Kelly and Charley Molnar have moved No. 3 around more this year, and with 25 catches in the first two weeks, you can tell the results have been good.

Narduzzi also had a nice assessment of the difference between Tommy Rees and Dayne Crist.

“I think what you see on tape is Rees is a gamer. Maybe doesn’t get rattled,” Narduzzi said. “He just seems like a smooth guy out there, nothing gets him rattled. When he makes checks, he’s smooth. Crist the same but you see Crist get maybe a little more nervous when he’s making checks. Do I have enough time? But I think Crist has got a stronger arm, so he scares you, he’s got a stronger arm I think. And I walked off that field last year going, ‘That Crist will be an NFL quarterback,’ and I think he will be. I think that guy will be a first-round quarterback. So they’ve got two very good quarterbacks that are both dangerous.”

It’s always been clear that Crist has the tools. It’s just a matter of if he can get the toolbox up to speed.

***

Cleaning up some personnel matters:

Danny Spond is out with a hamstring injury. Freshman Troy Niklas now moves into the No. 2 slot at the dog linebacker position, playing behind sophomore Prince Shembo. That’s two freshman in the two-deep at outside linebacker, with Ishaq Williams backing up Darius Fleming.

With Mike Ragone out for the season with a torn ACL, freshman Ben Koyack moves to the No. 2 tight end. Sophomore Alex Welch is on his way back from a foot injury, but is questionable. Jake Golic is back and available.

It looks like John Goodman is back returning punts again this week.

 

 

 

 

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 5 Nyles Morgan, linebacker

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-1, 238 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Senior with only one season of eligibility remaining
Depth chart: Morgan will start as the middle linebacker in defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme. Junior Te’von Coney essentially backs up both Morgan and fellow senior linebacker Greer Martini. If another reserve is needed, the Irish will most likely turn to sophomore Jonathan Jones before looking to the freshmen duo of Drew White and David Adams.
Recruiting: A rivals.com four-star prospect, Morgan whittled his recruitment down from a lengthy list including Alabama, Florida and Michigan. His final decision was between Notre Dame and Ole Miss. Yes, that Ole Miss. As more and more is learned about Mississippi circa 2013 and 2014, the U.S. Army All-American’s decision stands out as increasingly insightful. Rivals rated the first-team USA Today All-American as the class’s No. 5 inside linebacker, the No. 2 recruit in Illinois and the No. 72 overall player in the country.

CAREER TO DATE
Morgan went from minimal action to a starting role his freshman season when Joe Schmidt went down with an injury against Navy. Morgan started four of the season’s five final games, with the exception being against USC. He nonetheless made 11 tackles against the Trojans, his third consecutive game with a tackles total in the double digits.

With Schmidt back to health in 2015, Morgan’s role returned to special teams and mop-up duties before leading the defense last year.

2014: 12 games, four starts, 47 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 0.5 sacks.
2015: 13 games, 17 tackles, one forced fumble.
2016: 12 games, 12 starts, 94 tackles, six tackles for loss, four sacks, one fumble recovery.

Morgan’s 94 tackles and four sacks each led the Irish last year, and his six tackles for loss is second among returning defenders, trailing Martini by one takedown behind the line of scrimmage.

QUOTE(S)
Perhaps the most-illuminating mention of Morgan in the past eight months came on National Signing Day, an odd piece of timing for a rising senior. Irish coach Brian Kelly mentioned Morgan while describing Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah’s recruiting visit only a week earlier. Kelly meant to be praising Owusu-Koramoah’s dedication to football, but he also showed part of the reasoning in naming Morgan a captain for 2017.

“We hosted [Owusu-Koramoah] with Nyles Morgan, “Kelly said. “When you host somebody, you want them to see Notre Dame and see the social aspects. These guys didn’t leave the film room. It was like they were joined at the hip for six hours just talking football.”

WHAT KEITH ARNOLD PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
Notre Dame’s leading tackler. And it might not even be close. Yes, he’ll need to stay healthy. And yes, he’ll [need] to cut down on some of the mental mistakes that can turn a three-yard gain into a 30-yarder. But Morgan is the perfect prototype for middle linebacker in [former Irish defensive coordinator Brian] VanGorder’s scheme — and that’s what sold him on Notre Dame in the first place.

“It won’t be all perfect for Morgan. I wonder if there’s a role for him on third downs, especially in passing situations. But his athleticism, toughness and nose for the football make this a relatively easy forecast.”

2017 OUTLOOK
If a healthy Morgan does not again lead the Irish in tackles, it will be a good sign for the implementation of the rover, Elko’s preferred defensive wrinkle. More precisely, it will be a sign senior Drue Tranquill took to that position better than anyone could have expected. Otherwise, expect Morgan to lead the way. (Last year he topped Tranquill’s second-place tackle total by 15.)

In the 99-to-2 entry for No. 45 Jonathan Jones, this space set the season’s over/under on defensive snaps missed by a healthy Morgan in competitive situations at 5.5. That may seem bold, but Notre Dame does not have many options behind him, nor would it likely use them if it did, and Morgan’s career arc shows why not.

As a freshman, Morgan may have racked up tackles commiserate with his playing time, but he also missed tackles and struggled as much as he succeeded. The speed of the game and concepts needing grasping were too much, it seemed. If he was forced into playing time as a sophomore, it is safe to presume he would have fared better, but still not as well as he did last year.

Continuing that progression this season should lead to 100-plus tackles, two handfuls of tackles for loss and perhaps a repeat of last year’s four sacks. Again, though, if Morgan falls short of those figures, it may actually bode well for the defense. It would mean Tranquill is flying to the ball unencumbered by coverage concerns, it would mean the defensive tackles are shedding blockers and getting to ballcarriers on their own, and it would mean sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes is bringing down the quarterback before Morgan can get to him.

DOWN THE ROAD
Morgan will be drafted. His frame and leadership will entice more than a few NFL teams, but it would take a truly transcendent senior season and excellent combine results to make him an early-round pick. That is as much due to the modern NFL as it is to Morgan’s potential.

He has yet to reach his ceiling, though, and that ceiling certainly entails an NFL career.


2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
No. 95: Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 92)
No. 94: Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 95)
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92: Jonathon MacCollister; defensive end (originally theorized as No. 46)
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end
No. 88: Javon McKinley, receiver
No. 87: Michael Young, receiver (originally theorized as No. 84)
No. 86: Alizé Mack, tight end
No. 85: Tyler Newsome, punter
No. 84: Cole Kmet, tight end (originally theorized as No. 90)
No. 83: Chase Claypool, receiver
No. 82: Nic Weishar, tight end
No. 81: Miles Boykin, receiver
No. 80: Durham Smythe, tight end
No. 78: Tommy Kraemer, right tackle
No. 77: Brandon Tiassum, defensive tackle
No. 76: Dillan Gibbons, offensive lineman (originally theorized as No. 65)
No. 75: Josh Lugg, offensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 73)
No. 75: Daniel Cage, defensive tackle
No. 74: Liam Eichenberg, right tackle
No. 72: Robert Hainsey, offensive tackle
No. 71: Alex Bars, offensive lineman
No. 70: Hunter Bivin, offensive lineman
No. 69: Aaron Banks, offensive lineman
No. 68: Mike McGlinchey, left tackle
No. 67: Jimmy Byrne, offensive lineman
No. 58: Elijah Taylor, defensive tackle
No. 57: Trevor Ruhland, offensive lineman
No. 56: Quenton Nelson, left guard
No. 55: Jonathan Bonner, defensive lineman
No. 54: John Shannon, long snapper
No. 53: Sam Mustipher, center
No. 53: Khalid Kareem, defensive lineman
No. 48: Greer Martini, inside linebacker
No. 47: Kofi Wardlow, defensive end
No. 45: Jonathan Jones, inside linebacker
No. 44: Jamir Jones, linebacker/defensive lineman
No. 42: Julian Okwara, defensive end
No. 41: Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 94)
No. 40: Drew White, linebacker
No. 39: Jonathan Doerer, kicker (originally theorized as No. 52)
No. 38: Deon McIntosh, running back/receiver
No. 35: David Adams, linebacker
No. 34: Tony Jones, Jr., running back
No. 33: Josh Adams, running back
No. 32: D.J. Morgan, safety
No. 30: Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, rover
No. 29: Kevin Stepherson, receiver
No. 28: Nicco Fertitta, safety
No. 27: Julian Love, cornerback
No. 26: Ashton White, safety
No. 25: Jafar Armstrong, receiver (originally theorized as No. 87)
No. 24: Nick Coleman, safety
No. 23: Drue Tranquill, rover
No. 22: Asmar Bilal, rover
No. 21: Jalen Elliott, safety
No. 20: Shaun Crawford, cornerback
No. 19: Justin Yoon, kicker
No. 18: Troy Pride, cornerback
No. 17: Isaiah Robertson, safety
No. 16: Cameron Smith, receiver
No. 15: C.J. Holmes, running back
No. 14: Devin Studstill, safety
No. 13: Avery Davis, quarterback
No. 13: Jordan Genmark Heath, safety
No. 12: Ian Book, quarterback
No. 12: Alohi Gilman, safety
No. 11: Freddy Canteen, receiver
No. 10: Chris Finke, receiver
No. 9: Daelin Hayes, defensive end
No. 8: Donte Vaughn, cornerback
No. 7: Brandon Wimbush, quarterback
No. 7: Nick Watkins, cornerback
No. 6: Equanimeous St. Brown, receiver

TRANSFERS
No. 66: Tristen Hoge, offensive lineman, transfers to BYU
No. 50: Parker Boudreaux, offensive lineman
No. 30: Josh Barajas, linebacker, to transfer to Illinois State

INJURIES
No. 13: Tyler Luatua, tight end, career ended by medical hardship

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 6 Equanimeous St. Brown, receiver

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-5, 204 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Junior with two years of eligibility remaining including the 2017 season.
Depth chart: St. Brown will start as the field receiver, otherwise known as the X. Even as he may move around from the field to the boundary, St. Brown will be a threat for nearly every offensive snap.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star recruit, St. Brown held offers from 10 of the Pac-12 programs with Oregon and Oregon State the outliers, as well as from LSU, Miami and Vanderbilt, among others. The Under Armour All-American waited until National Signing Day to commit to the Irish. Rivals.com listed him as the No. 15 receiver in the class of 2015, the No. 23 prospect in California and the No. 144 player in the country.

CAREER TO DATE
After a ho-hum, limited-action, injury-shortened freshman season, St. Brown broke out last year, to say the least. St. Brown led Notre Dame in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns, establishing himself as then-quarterback DeShone Kizer’s most-dangerous as well as most-consistent target.

2015: Seven games, one reception for eight yards before a shoulder injury ended his debut campaign. St. Brown blocked a punt against USC.
2016: 12 games, 12 starts, 58 receptions for 961 yards and nine touchdowns. Highlighting his season, St. Brown took four catches for 182 yards and two touchdowns against Syracuse, including a 79-yard score on the first play from scrimmage. He also logged 116 receiving yards against Duke.

QUOTES
When a sophomore comes about two average-length catches short of a 60-reception, 1,000-yard and 10-touchdown season, not much needs to be worried about the following spring. Instead, Irish coach Brian Kelly noted the improvements in the receiver corps around its standout, though St. Brown is obviously working to stay ahead of the pack, as well.

“I see better balance,” Kelly said in late March. “We have some guys that will come up to the level [St. Brown] was at least year to give the quarterback and the offense a little more balance than we had last year. [St. Brown] will be a better player. He’s working on some of the weaknesses that he has, which limits him in certain areas, and he’s diligently working on those.

“You’re going to see a better supporting cast across the board, which will give us much more balance. More importantly, it’s going to give us much more consistency from an offensive standpoint.”

WHAT KEITH ARNOLD PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
The drop-off from a veteran like Chris Brown to a receiver with one career catch is sizable. But from a physical skills perspective, St. Brown can do everything needed to be a standout, he just needs to grow up in a hurry.

“Predicting a breakout sophomore season like the ones Golden Tate or Will Fuller had isn’t fair. But with a strong running game and Torii Hunter across from him, St. Brown will have plenty of opportunities to make big plays, he just needs to seize those chances.

“Can St. Brown put himself on course to be the next great Irish receiver? The hype has slowed, but there’s no reason the answer should be no.

“This camp has been all about young receivers finding consistency. While [current-sophomore] Kevin Stepherson seems to have taken most of the excitement, I think St. Brown will be the best of the bunch — at least in 2016.

“But let’s keep expectations in check. I’ll set the bar somewhere between Torii Hunter’s 2015 and Chris Brown’s junior season, with St Brown catching somewhere around 30 balls if he stays healthy and holds onto his starting job.”

2017 OUTLOOK
Suffice it to say, St. Brown exceeded any and all expectations in 2016, beginning with his tumbling touchdown against Texas. In a way, those successes make it likely St. Brown falls short of expectations in 2017. If he does appear to take a step back, whether that is shown in statistics or not, it could be partly due to the added depth Kelly referred to.

Notre Dame has more options at receiver this year, losing only Hunter form last year’s top-five receivers, and only him and [Purdue transfer] Corey Holmes among those with double-digit catches. Meanwhile, junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush will have an ascending junior Miles Boykin to target at the boundary position and returning, to much hype, junior tight end Alizé Mack drawing attention, as well.

Defenses will not be able to key on St. Brown this season, but Wimbush will not be doing so, either. Overall, that behooves the team, even if it lessens St. Brown’s chances of gaining 39 more yards than last season to reach a four-digit total.

DOWN THE ROAD
Do not be surprised if St. Brown declares for the NFL after this, his junior, season. This is a player with an intellect capable enough to speak three languages fluently (German, French and he dabbles in a little English). He will presumably be close to graduation by the end of 2018’s spring semester. A strong season with a few notable highlights could solidify a strong draft status.

That said, do not be surprised if St. Brown returns to Notre Dame for another year. If he does, that may be a positive indicator for the Irish for a few years beyond 2018. St. Brown’s youngest brother, Amon-Ra St. Brown, is the No. 1 receiver and No. 4 player overall in the class of 2018, per rivals.com, and is considering a list of scholarship offers even more impressive than his oldest brother’s was. Name a prominent college football program and Amon-Ra has heard from its coaching staff, including Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State, Miami, Oklahoma and Oregon (though still no note of Oregon State).

If the consensus five-star chooses Notre Dame over USC and Stanford, perhaps Equanimeous St. Brown will not be able to resist spending a season lining up alongside his brother. However, it should be noted, the middle St. Brown brother, Osiris, will be a freshman receiver at Stanford this season.


2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
No. 95: Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 92)
No. 94: Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 95)
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92: Jonathon MacCollister; defensive end (originally theorized as No. 46)
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end
No. 88: Javon McKinley, receiver
No. 87: Michael Young, receiver (originally theorized as No. 84)
No. 86: Alizé Mack, tight end
No. 85: Tyler Newsome, punter
No. 84: Cole Kmet, tight end (originally theorized as No. 90)
No. 83: Chase Claypool, receiver
No. 82: Nic Weishar, tight end
No. 81: Miles Boykin, receiver
No. 80: Durham Smythe, tight end
No. 78: Tommy Kraemer, right tackle
No. 77: Brandon Tiassum, defensive tackle
No. 76: Dillan Gibbons, offensive lineman (originally theorized as No. 65)
No. 75: Josh Lugg, offensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 73)
No. 75: Daniel Cage, defensive tackle
No. 74: Liam Eichenberg, right tackle
No. 72: Robert Hainsey, offensive tackle
No. 71: Alex Bars, offensive lineman
No. 70: Hunter Bivin, offensive lineman
No. 69: Aaron Banks, offensive lineman
No. 68: Mike McGlinchey, left tackle
No. 67: Jimmy Byrne, offensive lineman
No. 58: Elijah Taylor, defensive tackle
No. 57: Trevor Ruhland, offensive lineman
No. 56: Quenton Nelson, left guard
No. 55: Jonathan Bonner, defensive lineman
No. 54: John Shannon, long snapper
No. 53: Sam Mustipher, center
No. 53: Khalid Kareem, defensive lineman
No. 48: Greer Martini, inside linebacker
No. 47: Kofi Wardlow, defensive end
No. 45: Jonathan Jones, inside linebacker
No. 44: Jamir Jones, linebacker/defensive lineman
No. 42: Julian Okwara, defensive end
No. 41: Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 94)
No. 40: Drew White, linebacker
No. 39: Jonathan Doerer, kicker (originally theorized as No. 52)
No. 38: Deon McIntosh, running back/receiver
No. 35: David Adams, linebacker
No. 34: Tony Jones, Jr., running back
No. 33: Josh Adams, running back
No. 32: D.J. Morgan, safety
No. 30: Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, rover
No. 29: Kevin Stepherson, receiver
No. 28: Nicco Fertitta, safety
No. 27: Julian Love, cornerback
No. 26: Ashton White, safety
No. 25: Jafar Armstrong, receiver (originally theorized as No. 87)
No. 24: Nick Coleman, safety
No. 23: Drue Tranquill, rover
No. 22: Asmar Bilal, rover
No. 21: Jalen Elliott, safety
No. 20: Shaun Crawford, cornerback
No. 19: Justin Yoon, kicker
No. 18: Troy Pride, cornerback
No. 17: Isaiah Robertson, safety
No. 16: Cameron Smith, receiver
No. 15: C.J. Holmes, running back
No. 14: Devin Studstill, safety
No. 13: Avery Davis, quarterback
No. 13: Jordan Genmark Heath, safety
No. 12: Ian Book, quarterback
No. 12: Alohi Gilman, safety
No. 11: Freddy Canteen, receiver
No. 10: Chris Finke, receiver
No. 9: Daelin Hayes, defensive end
No. 8: Donte Vaughn, cornerback
No. 7: Brandon Wimbush, quarterback
No. 7: Nick Watkins, cornerback

TRANSFERS
No. 66: Tristen Hoge, offensive lineman, transfers to BYU
No. 50: Parker Boudreaux, offensive lineman
No. 30: Josh Barajas, linebacker, to transfer to Illinois State

INJURIES
No. 13: Tyler Luatua, tight end, career ended by medical hardship

LB Shayne Simon’s commitment could solve rover questions of the future

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With its second commitment in three days, Notre Dame moved a notable step closer to filling its class of 2018. Consensus four-star outside linebacker Shayne Simon (St. Peter’s Prep; Jersey City, N.J.) chose the Irish over Michigan in a Tuesday afternoon announcement.

“The way they carry themselves and how they go about things at Notre Dame is something I really enjoy,” Simon told rivals.com. “Their reputation for being such a great academic institution was also very intriguing to me.”

A U.S. Army All-American, rivals.com rates Simon the No. 9 outside linebacker in the class, the No. 4 prospect in New Jersey and the No. 138 overall recruit in the country. At 6-foot-2, 210 pounds and with developing, though already viable, coverage skills, Simon could project as Notre Dame’s next entry at rover, the preferred wrinkle to Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme.

Currently, senior Drue Tranquill mans the position, but by the time Simon arrives on campus, Tranquill will be in his final year of eligibility, leaving only current-junior Asmar Bilal and freshman Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah ahead of Simon. Whereas Owusu-Koramoah is a safety moving up to rover, Simon could fill a role similar to Bilal, focusing on ground-dominant opponents while Owusu-Koramoah sees more action against pass-happy foes.

Whether at rover or not, Notre Dame looks to be thin at linebacker in the coming years. Once current senior captains Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini depart, only junior Te’von Coney and sophomore Jonathan Jones would remain from last year’s depth chart, with sophomore Jamir Jones expected to slowly transition to the defensive line and freshmen David Adams and Drew White joining the program this summer.

The class of 2018 already had two linebackers in the class — Simon joins rivals.com four-star Matthew Bauer (Cathedral Prep School; Erie, Pa.) and consensus three-star Ovie Oghoufo (Harrison High School; Farmington Hills, Mich.). Combined with Bauer, rivals.com’s No. 7 inside linebacker and No. 129 overall prospect, Simon could form a longtime mid-level partnership on Notre Dame’s defense.

Simon’s commitment brings the Irish class to 14, after running back Jahmir Smith joined those ranks Sunday evening. Simon knows two of the earliest commitments in the class very well: He is teammates and classmates with the defensive linemen twins Jayson and Justin Ademilola.

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 7 Nick Watkins, cornerback

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-1, 203 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Senior with two years of eligibility remaining including the 2017 season.
Depth chart: Partly due to his size, partly due to his seniority and partly due to his overall skill, Watkins is the likely starter at the boundary cornerback position this fall. Sophomore Donte Vaughn backs up Watkins, but it is more likely to be junior Shaun Crawford as the third cornerback on the field, though he is expected to focus on nickel back.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star prospect, Watkins could have gone to about any school he wanted, receiving offers from Alabama, Florida State and Ohio State, just to name a few. His recruiting rankings may not have been as high as those offers would indicate since he did not take part in much of the camp circuit. Rivals.com rated the Under Armour All-American the No. 15 cornerback in the class of 2014, the No. 22 recruit in Texas and the No. 186 overall player in the country.

CAREER TO DATE
Originally, Watkins struggled to see much playing time because the Irish could rely on KeiVarae Russell and Cole Luke to man the position. When injuries decimated Notre Dame’s depth, Watkins got his first chance at genuine playing time against the dynamic Ohio State offense in the Fiesta Bowl following the 2015 season. He rose to the challenge, making three tackles and breaking up one pass against an offense filled with pro prospects.

2014: 11 games almost entirely on special teams, no other statistics.
2015: 12 games, one start (Ohio State), contributed both on special teams and as a defensive reserve, eight tackles.
2016: A broken arm suffered in spring practice did not heal in time to make playing Watkins a worthwhile maneuver last season, thus preserving him a year of eligibility.

QUOTE(S)
A year lost to injury is never a positive thing, but Irish coach Brian Kelly pointed to some hidden perks to Watkins spending 2016 on the sidelines.

“Nick is playing with a lot of confidence,” Kelly said in late March. “He’s long. He’s very coachable. He’s a great kid and [I] really like the way he’s competing out there. The season off obviously was in a lot of ways disappointing, but I think he benefited greatly from that year to see it, to learn. He’s had a really terrific offseason in the weight room and you can see his transition out of his break, breaking on the ball, playing physical at the line of scrimmage. Nice to have him back. He really gives us a presence out there that we’re starting to feel.”

That presence is part of why the cornerbacks are now more often described as boundary and field positions, rather than left and right or strong side and weak side.

“What I think [defensive coordinator] Mike [Elko] does really well … is we all have strengths and weaknesses,” Kelly said. “He has a great eye of saying let’s take Nick’s strengths and let’s put him in a position where we can really utilize his strengths. Maybe we’re not a right and left corner team — maybe we’re a short field, wide field. Let’s apply him in that fashion.

“Nick’s long. He’s a little bit of a physical player and let’s go to those strengths. He’s shown some of those attributes early on.”

WHAT KEITH ARNOLD PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
Of all the injuries we tracked this offseason, Watkins’ broken arm seemed the least on the radar, though has a chance to be the most impactful. That Notre Dame’s medical staff is treating it aggressively says something about the player they think they have in Watkins — who Kelly said would be allowed to fight for a starting job once he’s physically able.

“I’m no doctor — but that won’t stop me from evaluating Watkins’ progress. And for the most part, I don’t think it’s the best formula for success jumping into the mix with no training camp and limited time to get in shape at the most demanding position on Notre Dame’s roster.

“While losing Watkins is a blow — especially with the length of these suspensions unknown — any chance to take a medical redshirt could be huge for Notre Dame’s depth, getting Watkins a chance to redo his junior season, capable of stepping in after Cole Luke departs.”

2017 OUTLOOK
In theory, a broken arm should not have lingering effects 18 months later. With that in mind, Watkins should have a strong hold on playing time this season. His performance against Ohio State may have been only one game, but it was such a promising showing there is a distinct temptation to forgo any sample size disclaimers.

Watkins’ physicality can be applied on the boundary, where the sideline limits a receiver’s escape options. The question will be how long it takes Watkins to get back up to game speed, both mentally and physically. The latter half of that query may come down to instinct. As for his mental readjustment, Watkins may be the biggest beneficiary of the particular tendencies of the first few Irish opponents. Temple, Georgia and Michigan State all lean heavily on their run games, giving Watkins a few weeks to adjust to his first consistent collegiate playing time.

DOWN THE ROAD
Losing Watkins in 2016, along with a number of other defensive backs, undoubtedly played a role in the disappointing season. No one would say having him around in 2018 will be worth that trade, but it is a nice perk.

Notre Dame’s cornerback depth will be a genuine asset the next two seasons. Having Watkins around for the second half of that will play a crucial part in stabilizing the position amid recent recruiting misses.


2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
No. 95: Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 92)
No. 94: Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 95)
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92: Jonathon MacCollister; defensive end (originally theorized as No. 46)
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end
No. 88: Javon McKinley, receiver
No. 87: Michael Young, receiver (originally theorized as No. 84)
No. 86: Alizé Mack, tight end
No. 85: Tyler Newsome, punter
No. 84: Cole Kmet, tight end (originally theorized as No. 90)
No. 83: Chase Claypool, receiver
No. 82: Nic Weishar, tight end
No. 81: Miles Boykin, receiver
No. 80: Durham Smythe, tight end
No. 78: Tommy Kraemer, right tackle
No. 77: Brandon Tiassum, defensive tackle
No. 76: Dillan Gibbons, offensive lineman (originally theorized as No. 65)
No. 75: Josh Lugg, offensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 73)
No. 75: Daniel Cage, defensive tackle
No. 74: Liam Eichenberg, right tackle
No. 72: Robert Hainsey, offensive tackle
No. 71: Alex Bars, offensive lineman
No. 70: Hunter Bivin, offensive lineman
No. 69: Aaron Banks, offensive lineman
No. 68: Mike McGlinchey, left tackle
No. 67: Jimmy Byrne, offensive lineman
No. 58: Elijah Taylor, defensive tackle
No. 57: Trevor Ruhland, offensive lineman
No. 56: Quenton Nelson, left guard
No. 55: Jonathan Bonner, defensive lineman
No. 54: John Shannon, long snapper
No. 53: Sam Mustipher, center
No. 53: Khalid Kareem, defensive lineman
No. 48: Greer Martini, inside linebacker
No. 47: Kofi Wardlow, defensive end
No. 45: Jonathan Jones, inside linebacker
No. 44: Jamir Jones, linebacker/defensive lineman
No. 42: Julian Okwara, defensive end
No. 41: Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 94)
No. 40: Drew White, linebacker
No. 39: Jonathan Doerer, kicker (originally theorized as No. 52)
No. 38: Deon McIntosh, running back/receiver
No. 35: David Adams, linebacker
No. 34: Tony Jones, Jr., running back
No. 33: Josh Adams, running back
No. 32: D.J. Morgan, safety
No. 30: Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, rover
No. 29: Kevin Stepherson, receiver
No. 28: Nicco Fertitta, safety
No. 27: Julian Love, cornerback
No. 26: Ashton White, safety
No. 25: Jafar Armstrong, receiver (originally theorized as No. 87)
No. 24: Nick Coleman, safety
No. 23: Drue Tranquill, rover
No. 22: Asmar Bilal, rover
No. 21: Jalen Elliott, safety
No. 20: Shaun Crawford, cornerback
No. 19: Justin Yoon, kicker
No. 18: Troy Pride, cornerback
No. 17: Isaiah Robertson, safety
No. 16: Cameron Smith, receiver
No. 15: C.J. Holmes, running back
No. 14: Devin Studstill, safety
No. 13: Avery Davis, quarterback
No. 13: Jordan Genmark Heath, safety
No. 12: Ian Book, quarterback
No. 12: Alohi Gilman, safety
No. 11: Freddy Canteen, receiver
No. 10: Chris Finke, receiver
No. 9: Daelin Hayes, defensive end
No. 8: Donte Vaughn, cornerback
No. 7: Brandon Wimbush, quarterback

TRANSFERS
No. 66: Tristen Hoge, offensive lineman, transfers to BYU
No. 50: Parker Boudreaux, offensive lineman
No. 30: Josh Barajas, linebacker, to transfer to Illinois State

INJURIES
No. 13: Tyler Luatua, tight end, career ended by medical hardship