Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. Michigan State

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Robert Blanton wasn’t taking the bait. After doing everything but putting on Superman’s cape in Notre Dame’s 31-13 victory over No. 15 Michigan State, NBC’s Alex Flanagan asked the senior cornerback if this was the best game he’s ever played.

“No, ma’am,” Blanton replied matter-of-factly.

The response is the perfect one for a veteran leader on a football team that needs to keep playing better if it wants to continue digging out from it’s 0-2 start. But his answer might be truthful as well, as it was Blanton that swung the momentum of the Irish season last year, when he came off the edge and blocked a Utah punt and returned it for a touchdown, opening the floodgates and turning around a season that had reached a treacherous tipping point after losing 28-27 to Tulsa.

With the season on the brink, it was Blanton who did it again, having a monster game with six tackles, an interception, three tackles for loss, a quarterback sack, and three passes broken up.

“You talk about guys that lead by example,” Brian Kelly said when asked about his senior cornerback. “He also leads, but he’s probably one of our more emotional leaders out there. So when you need a big play, he seems to be around the ball quite a bit.”

Blanton was all over the field for the Irish, and with Notre Dame out to a big lead, the ball was in the air plenty of times, with Spartans quarterback Kirk Cousins forced to throw 53 times. Late in the game, with Cousins deep in Irish territory and the chance to cut the game to a one-score deficit, Blanton stepped in front of the senior quarterback’s pass and snatched back the game’s momentum, sealing the victory with an 82-yard return to the Spartans 12 yard line.

The Irish certainly weren’t perfect, but Notre Dame convincingly beat the defending co-champs of the Big Ten and salvaged their season.

“You’ve got to make your own luck,” Kelly said after the game. “And we did.”

Let’s find out what we learned in Notre Dame’s 31-13 victory over No. 15 Michigan State.

1. That’s the Notre Dame defense that everybody expected. 

After playing their worst quarter of football in the Brian Kelly era, the Irish defense went out and made an impressive statement against a team that needed to run the football to win the game. The Irish defense held the Spartans to 29 yards on 23 carries, a minuscule 1.3 yards per carry, with the two-headed monster of Le’Veon Bell and Edwin Baker — a duo that ran for over 200 yards and two touchdowns last year against the Irish — held to only 53 yards.

More impressively, the Irish defense had continual pressure on Cousins. While the Irish only got two sacks, the defensive line and linebackers were in the backfield all afternoon, and the Spartans 12 penalties were mostly a product of not being able to stop an Irish pass rush with a reconstructed offensive line.

“I think our defensive mentality is such that they feel like they can play with anybody,” Kelly said after the game.

After imploding last Saturday in front of a prime-time audience, the Irish defense, led with 12 tackles by Manti Te’o, ten by Gary Gray, and eight by Harrison Smith, put on quite a show.

2. Against a stout opponent, the Irish running game beat the Spartans’ rushing attack.

While the Irish offense sputtered for most of the second half, the Irish’s opening drive dictated the tone of the afternoon, with Cierre Wood and the Irish pounding the ball down the Spartans’ throat for an opening drive touchdown that was just what the home crowd needed. After losing yardage on the game’s opening play, Wood had carries of 11 yards, 16 yards, two yards, and 11 yards before bursting around the corner for 22 yards and a touchdown. That’s 59 yards on the opening drive for Wood, or more than Florida Atlantic managed the entire game.

Wood scored two rushing touchdowns on the afternoon, but if you’re looking for an encouraging statistic, it’s that Jonas Gray led the team in yards, rushing 65 yards on only 12 carries, pounding the ball hard between the tackles and nearly breaking a few runs with his deceptive speed. More importantly, Gray showed he had Kelly’s confidence when he took carries deep in Irish territory with the game on the line.

Wood’s play early this year may be the most encouraging thing for this offense, but Gray stepping up as a capable No. 2 running back is what the Irish will need if they’re going to make a run this season.

3. Here come the freshman. 

With the Irish needing a spark, Notre Dame turned to two of its youngest players to provide it, with freshman defensive end Aaron Lynch and running back George Atkinson making game changing plays.

“Aaron is an outstanding pass rusher,” Kelly said after the game. “I think he showed that today. If he didn’t get to the quarterback, he got held.”

What Lynch did was nearly replicate a performance from last spring that had Irish fans anxiously awaiting the pass rush specialist’s impact on the Irish defense. While it took until the season’s third week, Lynch was all over the field, playing defensive tackle in some alignments and rushing off the edge in others, constantly drawing penalties and chasing down Cousins when he was back to pass. Lynch made five tackles, had one sack and had an incredible six quarterback hits on Cousins. (Ethan Johnson was second with three.) With Lynch and Stephon Tuitt getting more comfortable, the Irish should be able to roll through four guys at the position, giving the Irish plenty of depth.

On special teams, Atkinson gave the Irish the lift that it needed, returning a first quarter kick 89 yards for a gigantic touchdown. It was the Irish’s first kick return for a touchdown since Armando Allen, and Atkinson was the first freshman to run one back since some guy named Raghib Ismail did in his debut season.

Atkinson’s speed was apparent, and watching the freshman running back pull away from Bennett Jackson and everybody else on the football field reminds you of his game-breaking ability. While the freshman was also guilty of laying a fumble on the ground late in the game, credit Kelly and special teams coach Mike Elston for seeing an opportunity against the Spartans’ kickoff team and taking advantage of it.

In all, six freshman saw the field, with outside linebacker Troy Niklas forced into the starting lineup in place of Prince Shembo after the sophomore missed the game with a family medical emergency. Niklas contributed three tackles at the ‘Dog’ linebacker position and while he wasn’t perfect, he stepped up and contributed when the Irish needed it most.

4. Turnovers are still killing the Irish. 

There’s no celebrating three turnovers. The Irish’s two first half turnovers nearly kept the Spartans in the game if it weren’t for the solid work of Bob Diaco‘s defense, giving up only three points in “sudden change” situations. Tommy Rees was blinded-sided early in the game by defensive lineman Kevin Pickelman, and the hit jarred the football loose giving the Spartans the ball. Rees also threw a bad interception in the first half, at that point his seventh pick in seven quarters.

After the game, Kelly mentioned Rees’ interception and fumble were part of his maturation process, with the sophomore knowing immediately the mistake he made on the interception.

“Tommy’s developing,” Kelly said. “I’m not happy with the interceptions, but he knows what’s happening and he’s going to continue to get better.”

If you’re looking for a head-scratcher, John Goodman provided the weekly heart-attack for Irish fans, with the sure-handed senior muffing an easy punt return deep in the Irish territory when a fair catch would’ve basically iced the game. The ball slid through the seniors arms, the Spartans recovered, and were on the verge of scoring a touchdown that would’ve brought the game to one score when Blanton stepped in with his heroics.

Asked if Kelly can take the bad with the good as log as the Irish win the game, the usually slick-talking head coach became unexpectedly tongue-tied.

After stopping and starting, tripping on all the words that probably wanted to come out, the head coach managed to get his message out succinctly.

“I don’t. No.”

5. It might have been a little early to bury the Irish secondary. 

If you only watched the highlights of the Irish’s meltdown against the Wolverines, you’d be excused to think that the Irish secondary was one of the weaknesses of the team. But with Kirk Cousins forced to throw the ball 53 times, the Irish secondary stood up well against the pressure, with Blanton, Smith, Gray, Zeke Motta, and Jamoris Slaughter all making their presence felt during Saturday’s victory.

While the story of the game is rightfully Blanton, Smith played an incredible second half, breaking up an impressive four passes by Cousins and covering the field sideline-to-sideline as the Spartans tried in vain to play catch-up. And after a game to forget, Gray shrugged off an early completion over his head to add ten tackles and one pass break-up.

“I think they played outstanding down the stretch,” Kelly said of his secondary. “Came up with a big interception. It’s nice when you’re coaching a team and they’re able to bounce back from adversity as a team, as a unit. As an individual, Gary Gray played one of his best games at Notre Dame since I’ve been here.”

Cousins was able to throw for 329 yards, not exactly minimal yardage, but the Irish secondary kept the big plays to a minimum. While B.J. Cunningham had 12 catches for 158 yards, his longest was the sideline fade on Gray. With the pressure on the Irish secondary, the group came up with an interception and eight pass breakups, a great day at the office for a group that needed to rebound.

In a season that still holds lofty aspirations, the Irish got the win they desperately needed.

“They just needed to finish,” Kelly said after the game. “Finish the game, find a way to win.”

Monday’s Leftovers: Notre Dame lands second cornerback commitment

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Hardly a week shy of the early signing period, Notre Dame doubled its cornerback haul in the class of 2018 with Tariq Bracy’s commitment Sunday night.

A rivals.com three-star recruit, Bracy (Milpitas High School, Calif.) had long said the Irish led in his recruitment, having visited campus for Notre Dame’s 49-14 victory over USC on Oct. 21. Rivals rates Bracy as the No. 65 overall prospect in California.

“The coaches, they made me feel welcome,” Bracy said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “They really wanted me to go down there. They like my skillset. The players, they were welcoming, too. It’s really the whole atmosphere about Notre Dame, and the academics, too.”

Bracy opted for the Irish over a number of schools on the west coast, including Utah, Cal and Washington State.

Notre Dame now has 18 commitments in the class, including consensus-three star cornerback Joseph Wilkins (North Fort Myers H.S., Fla.). All 18 are expected to sign National Letters of Intent during the inaugural early signing period Dec. 20-22. For that matter, it remains possible an additional commitment or two could join those ranks either before the three-day stretch or in the midst of it.

Irish coach Brian Kelly has said he would evaluate any commitment not signing during the December dates as not being genuinely committed to Notre Dame, still needing further recruitment.

— Bracy’s, and Wilkins’, commitment holds more value for the Irish than many of the other 16 in the class thus far. In the last recruiting cycle, Notre Dame failed to sign so much as one cornerback.

Neither Bracy nor Wilkins may start in 2018. They, in fact, almost certainly will not, but they will provide both depth and a possibility of a future at the position.

— Just as another reminder — it is listed twice on the legal pad providing today’s outline, after all — the early signing period runs from Dec. 20 to Dec. 22. There will still be a nationwide focus on National Signing Day, Feb. 7, as any recruits not yet signed will have even more of a share of the spotlight.

— Bowl games have little long-term evaluatory value. They do, however, provide a delightful stretch of mid-day and/or mid-week December distractions. As an example, consider the game-a-day outlook on the horizon …

Sat., Dec. 16: Middle Tennessee St. v. Arkansas State; 8 p.m. ET; a high-scoring affair, if nothing else.
Tues., Dec. 19: Akron vs. FAU; 7 p.m. ET; Lane Kiffin with a nation’s lonely eyes turned to him.
Wed., Dec. 20: Louisiana Tech vs. Southern Methodist; 8 p.m. ET.
Thurs., Dec. 21: Temple vs. Florida International; 8 p.m. ET; Notre Dame’s season-opening opponent is favored by seven.
Fri., Dec. 22: Central Michigan vs. Wyoming; 4 p.m. ET; Josh Allen’s farewell to college football.
Sat., Dec. 23: Texas Tech vs. South Florida; 12 p.m. ET; This very well may end up being the most-dramatic bowl game.
Sun., Dec. 24: Houston vs. Fresno St.; 8:30 p.m. ET.
Tues., Dec. 26: Kansas State vs. UCLA; 9 p.m. ET.
Wed., Dec. 27: Boston College vs. Iowa; 5:15 p.m. ET; Of the 10 Irish foes in bowl games, six are like the Eagles, underdogs.
Thurs., Dec. 28: Stanford vs. TCU; 9 p.m. ET; A healthy Bryce Love could erase the 2.5-point spread in the Horned Frogs favor.
Fri., Dec. 29: USC vs. Ohio State; 8:30 p.m. ET; As strongly as the Trojans finished the season, they are still touchdown underdogs in the Cotton Bowl.
Sat., Dec. 30: Wisconsin vs. Miami, 8 p.m. ET; Despite playing at home, literally so, the Hurricanes are nearly touchdown underdogs.
Mon., Jan. 1: Georgia vs. Oklahoma; 5 p.m. ET; Frankly, Notre Dame vs. LSU in the Citrus Bowl will be but an appetizer for an evening of outstanding college football.

During Notre Dame’s retrospective awards, Tranquill & Weishar set focus forward

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Notre Dame spent Friday night giving out awards to recognize 2017’s top players, but the night’s attention went to two pieces of news received regarding next season. Both linebacker Drue Tranquill and tight end Nic Weishar announced intentions to return for fifth seasons in 2018.

Tranquill especially seemed increasingly unlikely to return after a career season and a two-year stretch of health set him up for NFL consideration. The idea of what could have been, of what could be, proved too much for him to bypass his remaining season of collegiate eligibility.

“I think it started after the Miami game, just on the busses, realized that we probably weren’t going to make the College Playoff anymore and realized everything everyone had put into this thing,” Tranquill told Irish Illustrated. “I felt I owed it to this team in my heart to come back and finish what we started.”

Tranquill’s return will stymie what could have been a decimating linebacker exodus. Senior captains Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini are both out of eligibility. If Tranquill had joined them in pursuing an NFL future this spring, Notre Dame would have lost three of its top four tacklers, and perhaps all four. Leading tackler, junior linebacker Te’von Coney and his 99 takedowns including 13 for loss and three sacks, is still considering an early entry into the NFL Draft.

Weishar’s return will provide a baseline at tight end following the departure of current fifth-year Durham Smythe.

RELATED READING: Where Notre Dame is & was: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame is & was: Tight Ends

As for the Echoes awards, senior left guard Quenton Nelson received Most Valuable Player honors, only the third offensive lineman to be named MVP in Irish history.

Along the lines of Tranquill’s and Weishar’s returns, only a couple of Friday night’s awards portend future developments. Freshman offensive lineman Dillan Gibbons performed well enough behind the scenes to claim Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year. With Nelson presumably heading to the NFL, Gibbons could insert himself into the competition to fill the left guard spot.

Sophomore safety Alohi Gilman spent the season following his transfer from Navy leading the scout defense. His success there only furthers the likelihood he will be starting in the defensive backfield when Michigan arrives at Notre Dame Stadium on Sept. 1.

With few surprises — perhaps naming junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush and senior defensive lineman Jonathan Bonner the offensive and defensive newcomers of the year, respectively, was too obvious to be widely-considered beforehand — the full listing of the awards …

— Most Valuable Player: Sr. left guard Quenton Nelson.
— Offensive Player of the Year: Jr. running back Josh Adams.
— Defensive Player of the Year: Sr. linebacker Nyles Morgan.
— Impact Player: Jr. linebacker Te’von Coney.
— Offensive Newcomer of the Year: Jr. quarterback Brandon Wimbush.
— Defensive Newcomer of the Year: Sr. defensive lineman Jonathan Bonner.
— Offensive Lineman of the Year: Fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey.
— Moose Krause Lineman of the Year: Jr. defensive tackle Jerry Tillery.
— Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year: Fr. lineman Dillan Gibbons.
— Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year: So. safety and Navy transfer Alohi Gilman.
— Special Teams Player of the Year: Sr. linebacker Greer Martini (eight special teams tackles).
— Walk-On Players Union Player of the Year: Jr. linebacker Robert Regan.
— Next Man In: Sr. defensive end Andrew Trumbetti.
— Father Lange Iron Cross, for weight room presence: Fifth-year tight end Durham Smythe.
— Pietrosante Award for leadership, teamwork, etc.: Sr. captain and former walk-on Austin Webster.
— Rockne Student-Athlete of the Year: Sr. linebacker Drue Tranquill.
— Irish Around the Bend, for community service: Sr. tight end Nic Weishar.

THIS WEEK’S INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Notre Dame to the Citrus Bowl to face LSU, with some numbers
Monday’s Leftovers: Brian Kelly on Notre Dame in the Citrus Bowl, facing LSU, and the early signing period
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Receivers
Notre Dame releases 2018 home schedule, includes trip to Yankee Stadium
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends
Friday at 4: Projecting Notre Dame’s Echoes

THIS WEEK’S OUTSIDE READING:
SI’s 2017 All-America Teams
LSU RB Derrius Guice on NFL decision: ‘I will not know until after the bowl game’
RB Mark Walton leaving Miami early for the NFL

Friday at 4: Projecting Notre Dame’s Echoes

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Notre Dame will host its annual awards ceremony tonight, “Echoes.” The evening of laughs and good food serves as a coda to the regular season, always taken with a light-hearted approach. Nonetheless, the event is, in many respects, as much about the future as it is anything else. Along with a marquee game (or, this season, two) and the summer’s Irish Invasion camp, Echoes has become one of Notre Dame’s pivotal recruiting weekends.

On the surface, that latter dynamic may seem diminished this year. With the early signing period fewer than two weeks away, it would make some sense for recruits on the fence to put off a public commitment for that much longer and enjoy the subsequent luster the week leading into Christmas. Whether those high-profile recruits commit or not, they will get a look at the Irish program away from the field. There is value to that. It is not quite a normal evening on campus, but it is more like the 25 non-football weeks than it is otherwise.

As for the awards themselves, rarely is there a surprise. Consider this somewhere between a declaration of who should win and a projection of what will come.

MVP, both deserving and projected: Junior running back Josh Adams should have this locked up. No one player on the defense had a season worthy of taking attention away from the rushing attack, and the argument to be made for senior left guard Quenton Nelson will be devalued in the next entry. This may not be the conclusion the “33 Trucking” campaign envisioned, but it is the only award awaiting it.

Offensive Player of the Year, both deserving and projected: Nelson fits this to the letter. It also sets the night up well for each offensive stalwart to get some recognition. It is not that Nelson cannot win multiple awards, it just is not the usual trend of this evening — Adams deserves the MVP, though, so do not question that for a moment. Nelson was the best lineman on a great line, and he was certainly worthy of Thursday’s Outland Trophy, which instead went to Houston defensive tackle Ed Oliver.

Offensive Lineman of the Year, deserving: The entire offensive line. That may seem a cliché, but it worked as an impeccable unit this season.

Offensive Lineman of the Year, projected: If looking past Nelson, then this obviously goes to fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey.

Defensive Player of the Year, deserving: Junior linebacker Te’von Coney led Notre Dame with 99 tackles, including 13.0 for loss and three sacks. For four weeks stretching across October and November — the peak of the Irish season — Coney led the defense in tackles each and every Saturday.

Defensive Player of the Year, projected: Senior linebacker Drue Tranquill is far from undeserving. He finished third with 74 tackles, including 8.5 for loss, with an interception and three fumble recoveries. To some degree, this may be a career perseverance acknowledgement before Tranquill heads to the NFL Draft.

Defensive Lineman of the Year, deserving: Either defensive coordinator Mike Elko or defensive line coach Mike Elston should walk away with this. The job transforming the defensive line from a position of weakness to a source of strength cannot be lauded enough.

Defensive Lineman of the Year, projected: Junior tackle Jerry Tillery put together the best statistical year along the defensive front with 52 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and 4.0 sacks.

Notre Dame’s Shaun Crawford recovers a fumble in the end zone for a touchback after stripping the ball from Michigan State’s LJ Scott (3) in the 38-18 Irish victory on Sept. 23. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

Play of the Year, deserving: Junior cornerback Shaun Crawford’s fumble-causing punch at Michigan State quite literally stopped the Spartans from a touchdown. There is no likely or sure or play away qualifier in that claim. Without Crawford’s heads-up play, Michigan State would have been in the end zone a blink later. Instead, he both forced and recovered the fumble. This was much more unique and heads-up than any deep touchdown pass, leaping interception or lengthy scoring run.

Play of the year, projected: Insert a long Adams touchdown run here, likely the one featuring a stiff-arm against Miami (OH).

Offensive Newcomer of the Year, deserving: Freshman right tackle Robert Hainsey was not expected to contribute this season. Even as a backup, that was likely to be in name only, with sophomore Liam Eichenberg the next man in at both tackle positions. Instead, Hainsey split time with sophomore Tommy Kraemer all season with Eichenberg becoming the in-name-only reserve.

Hainsey’s pass blocking completed the stout offensive line. Without him, as great as the unit was, it would have had a glaring hole likely exposed by Boston College’s Harold Landry, North Carolina State’s Bradley Chubb and Wake Forest’s Duke Ejiofor. Hainsey handled all three ably. To be clear, that is a true freshman holding his own against the ACC’s Defensive Player of the Year (Chubb), a second-team all-ACC end (Ejiofor) and a third-team all-ACC end (Landry).

Notre Dame sophomore running back Deon McIntosh was not expected to be a vital cog to the Irish offense this year, but in many respects, that is exactly what he was.(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Offensive Newcomer of the Year, projected: As crucial as Hainsey was, sophomore running back Deon McIntosh’s statistics earn some acknowledgement. Splitting his carries between garbage time and providing needed rest for a banged up position, McIntosh took 65 rushing attempts for 368 yards and five touchdowns, finishing the season third among Notre Dame rushers in all three categories behind only Adams and junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush.

Defensive Newcomer of the Year, deserving: If Coney does not receive this nod, it is simply because it is a stretch to call him a “newcomer.” He had appeared in 24 of a possible 25 games before this season, making 75 tackles with two for loss. He was 2017’s greatest surprise and holds the most 2018 promise, finishing this year with 99 tackles, including 13.0 for loss with 3.0 sacks.

Defensive Newcomer of the Year, projected: Can Crawford count as a “newcomer?” He had appeared in just two games before this year, twice stung by season-ending injuries. Finally healthy, he finished 2017 with 32 tackles, two interceptions, two fumble recoveries, one fumble forced (the aforementioned punch) and 1.5 sacks.

If not Crawford, then sophomore Khalid Kareem undoubtedly qualifies, and deservedly so.

Next Man In, deserving: The regular season was remarkable in its health, such that it may be hard to remember the Irish were without two defensive tackles they had expected to count on. Junior Elijah Taylor suffered a Lisfranc fracture during spring practice and senior Daniel Cage stepped away from football to focus on recovering from concussion symptoms and knee surgery.

Without those two, finding someone, anyone, else became a priority. Freshmen Myron Tagovaiola-Amosa and Kurt Hinish filled that role with aplomb.

Next Man In, projected: Even though no Notre Dame running back was ever officially out for more than a week, McIntosh essentially served this role throughout most of the season’s fourth quarters. By then, the other backs were too banged up to offer much acceleration, and McIntosh’s spells were genuinely needed.

Special Teams Player of the Year, deserving: Can this go to senior holder Montgomery VanGorder if for no other reason than to expose more people to this video?

Special Teams Player of the Year, projected: Can’t really go wrong with junior kicker Justin Yoon, right?

Pietrosante Award for leadership, teamwork, etc., deserved: If this doesn’t land in the hands of either senior linebacker Drue Tranquill or fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey, it is only because their qualities are known and recognizing someone beneath the radar holds some merit.

Pietrosante Award, projected: Former walk-on and senior captain Austin Webster could arise here without shocking anyone.

Other awards:
Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year: Whoever wins this, it is often a precursor of things to come. If a freshman offensive lineman or receiver Jafar Armstrong wins it, immediately slot that player into springtime conversations.
Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year: Not as many freshmen are constrained to scout team on the defensive side of the ball, so forecasting this can be more of a shot in the dark.
Rockne Student-Athlete of the Year: Tranquill won this a year ago. It seems reasonable the engineering major could repeat.
Father Lange Iron Cross Award for weight room presence.
Irish Around the Bend Award for community service.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends

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When Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly first introduced his new coaching staff way back in January, he singled out offensive coordinator Chip Long’s penchant for finding ways to use tight ends in his play calling.

“[He] utilized two tight ends, which was going to be a mode that we have to move toward with the great depth that we have at that position,” Kelly said Jan. 30.

Technically speaking, that was even before the Irish signed two more tight ends on National Signing Day that same week, bringing the roster’s total to six before Tyler Luatau’s career ended with a medical hardship during the summer.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
With Durham Smythe’s return for a fifth year, Long had at least one tight end he could trust. Senior Nic Weishar presented a security blanket if need be and junior Alizé Mack brought great hype upon his return from a season lost to academic issues. Having those three around allowed for the two freshmen, Cole Kmet and Brock Wright, to progress as the young luxuries they are.

Fifth-year tight end Durham Smythe saved his best year for his last year at Notre Dame. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
Long did use two tight ends with frequency. Smythe usually lined up attached to the line while Mack would be detached as more of a receiving threat. Occasionally, one or the other would line up in the backfield as an H-back, creating a run-pass wrinkle for the defense to diagnose at the snap.

Smythe blossomed in the role, putting together a quality final season both in blocking and in receiving. To a degree, his success serves as a lament exposed. He presumably could have offered just as much in 2016 if the offense had not essentially forgotten about the position.

Weishar also enjoyed a few moments of shine, enough so to give thought to a role — one in the mold of what Smythe fit this season — in 2018.

Mack, meanwhile, formed the mold of frustration, tantalizingly so. Long tried to include him in the offense, going Mack’s direction more than any other name thus far herein, but Mack never grasped the opportunity, that often times being a literal description of the mishaps.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING
The receiving stats are a bit misleading. With Mack not yet ready for a pivotal role, none of the active trio were going to join the line of recent Irish tight ends with outstanding aerial productions. Rather, Smythe contributed to the Notre Dame ground attack alongside the likes of senior left guard Quenton Nelson and fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey. For that matter, Mack handled his share of blocking, as well — one area his frustrations may have worked in Irish favor.

Fifth-year Durham Smythe: 13 catches for 234 yards and one touchdown.
Jr. Alizé Mack: 19 catches for 166 yards and one touchdown in 10 games.
Sr. Nic Weishar: Seven catches for 39 yards and two touchdowns.
Fr. Cole Kmet: Two catches for 14 yards.
Fr. Brock Wright: No statistics, but saw action in 11 games, primarily as a blocker, sometimes in a fullback role.

Before figuring out the tight end’s role in Notre Dame’s offense next year, the Irish need to determine if current senior Nic Weishar will return for a fifth year. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

COMING QUESTIONS
Before this fall, looking at the 2018 tight ends and genuinely wondering what will come of Weishar would have seemed absurd. Indeed, such is now the case. Will Notre Dame extend Weishar a fifth-year invite? If so, will he take it, or will he look to serve as a graduate transfer somewhere else he would not need to compete with the likes of Mack, Wright and Kmet for catches?

Weishar showed reliability in the red zone, specifically, this season, and could serve as a locker room and position group leader. The odds are the Irish coaching staff hopes he returns, counting on natural attrition to figure out a scholarship crunch later on.

Ideally, Mack will not be part of that annual tradition like he was two years ago. Instead, he can provide the answer to the wondering of was his disappointing fall largely a result of rust, immaturity/youth or, well, what?

Mack has the physical talent. Combining the speed of a receiver with the size of a tight end can be a game-changing luxury, if that talent shows up ready to play. Perhaps Mack did this year and was just unlucky. A 12-game sample size could obscure that. Two seasons of it, though, would point to a larger issue.

How much more of Wright and Kmet will Long find use for? At least one will be necessary, and that is presuming both do not pass or at least pressure Weishar for playing time — and even that assumes Weishar returns. Long’s two tight end thoughts make a third tight end a necessity, always one injury away from significant playing time.

Kmet saw more chances in passing situations this season while Wright was an erstwhile blocker out of the backfield. Though both arrived at Notre Dame highly-heralded, neither had a chance to make a notable imprint, but there was good reason for that. There were three talented veterans ahead of them on the depth chart. At least one of those will be gone next season, and a full offseason in a collegiate weight room should ready the young duo even more so.

There is an offensive philosophy quandary here. On any given play, Long can fill five skill positions. Assuming a running back is involved in nearly all of those, he is down to four. If continuing with a multiple-tight end emphasis, that leaves only two spots for receivers. While the receivers may not have been an impressive grouping this season, Long could want to see three of those — namely, junior Equanimeous St. Brown and sophomores Kevin Stepherson and Chase Claypool — as often as not.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends