And in that corner… The Pitt Panthers

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For the first time in more than half a decade, the Irish will prepare to take on a Pittsburgh team that doesn’t feature Dave Wannstedt on the sidelines. Kicked to the curb after winning 27 games over the last three seasons, the Pitt brass finally tired of the Wannstedt era, known for it’s inability to get over the hump, even while the results were mostly pretty good.

After an offseason most Pitt fans would like to forget (not to mention Mike Haywood, who filed suit against the university this week over his firing), the university named Tulsa coach Todd Graham its new head coach. Graham has brought in a philosophy and style polar opposite of Wannstedt’s, but the stated mission is clear: Take the team past its current plateau.

With Pitt and Syracuse announcing their walking away from the Big East to join the ACC, the traditional rivalry between the Irish and the Panthers might soon be coming to an end. But until then, Graham has shown he understands the importance of Saturday’s game.

“I think there’s Penn State, West Virginia and Notre Dame, when you think of the three games that mean the most to our players and our programs,” Graham said.  “It’s a big deal. We’ve got a great tradition around this game.”

With all the news that’s swirling around the Pitt program, we thought we’d go inside the school’s walls to get our update on the Irish’s weekend opponent. Here to answer our questions is Lauren Kirschman, sports editor of The Pitt News, the university paper.

Inside the Irish: Obviously, Notre Dame had their own fourth quarter implosion, but how disheartening was Pitt’s collapse against Iowa? Win and the Todd Graham era starts off at 3-0 with a huge victory against a Big Ten power in their house. Lose, and it makes you think about the uneven performances against Buffalo and Maine. Do we know who this team is yet?

Lauren Kirschman: The Panthers are exactly what they looks like: a team going through a complete and total transition in philosophy and style. Anyone who watched Dave Wannstedt’s Pitt teams and have seen Todd Graham’s squad this year should be able to tell that. Although the loss to Iowa was extremely disappointing, for the first three quarters of that game Pitt finally looked like it was executing Graham’s system as it should be executed. It seems that Pitt’s major problem right now is putting together a complete game. Still, it’s apparent that the players haven’t completely made an adjustment from Wannstedt’s methodical, pro-style system to Graham’s no-huddle, self-described “high-octane” style of play. Once that starts to click, I think we’ll really get an idea of the identity of this team.

ITI: Pitt has looked good running the ball with Ray Graham. But the offensive line has really struggled to hold up against a pass rush. The Irish front seven had its best game of the year against Michigan State, constantly knocking around Kirk Cousins. Can the Panthers offensive line hold up on Saturday?

LK: In the Iowa game, Tino Sunseri wasn’t hit all that much, at least not compared to the rest of the season. Iowa sacked Sunseri three times, while Maine sacked him seven times. Pitt had real problems picking up blitzes in the Maine game but against Iowa the protection was decent. The real problem against Iowa seemed to be that Sunseri needs to get rid of the ball faster. I think the offensive line will hold it’s own on Saturday, but you might see some more roll outs and Sunseri out of the pocket more. But if Sunseri doesn’t make quicker decisions and get rid of the ball against Notre Dame, I think it’s going to be a long day for Pitt.

ITI: How has the defensive transition gone with Keith Patterson and Tony Gibson. Statistically speaking, Pitt has been solid against the run but has put up some really ugly numbers in the passing game. What’s been the problem? It is talent or is the scheme been tough to pick up?

LK: It’s a little bit of both, but the best players that Pitt has seem to be on the field right now. The primary problem seems to be the linebackers, who, as you mentioned, are solid against the run but continue to struggle defending the passing game. Pitt gave up 399 passing yards against Iowa. Graham said there were 12 errors by the pass defense in the third quarter against the Hawkeyes and a lot of the errors seem to be mental mistakes. Graham cited communication problems, saying that there were a few times when the players had the wrong call. He also said that he might have overestimated how much the defense can handle and he might have to be more patient in teaching the new system. What that says to me is that the scheme is difficult to pick up and many of the blown coverages come from the players not understanding where they are supposed to be. There have been a few plays this season where two players have gotten mixed up on coverages, leading to a big play for the opponent. Unfortunately for Pitt, Notre Dame has the best passing offense that it has seen this season and maybe the best the Panthers will see all year.

ITI: What have the early returns looked like on Todd Graham and his coaching staff? Anything that’s surprised you?

LK: I don’t think anything has really surprised me. A lot of Pitt fans expected Graham and his staff to come in, install this new system and then instantly start scoring 50 points a game. But that’s just not how it works. Installing a new system, especially one that is so different than the one that came before it, takes time. Even though Pitt lost against Iowa, for at least three quarters you could see definite improvement from the Panthers both offensively and defensively from that first game against Buffalo. What I like the most about Graham is his honestly–he knows there are problems with the team and he willingly admits that–and his determination to stick with his system. He admitted after the Maine game that if he would’ve run the ball the entire game, the margin of victory would have been greater, but he wants to install a well-rounded offensive system and that includes the passing attack. There will be positive pay off for that later. When the Panthers are playing well, you can see how Graham’s system is supposed to look. For periods of time against Iowa, the offense attacked and looked smooth and capable of scoring those 50 points a game.

ITI: As both a student and as someone that follows Pitt sports pretty closely, what are your feelings on the announced move to the ACC?

LK: I like the move. I think with the conference climate like it is now, it was important for Pitt to make a move and find a stable conference. If Pitt didn’t, another team would have, and Pitt would’ve been left behind. It is so difficult to strengthen a conference like the Big East because of the combination of football and non-football schools. The move to the ACC improves the football schedule and gives Pitt the chance to compete in a larger conference with a championship game. While I don’t like to see the dismantling of the Big East basketball conference, which I believe is the best conference in the country, I think it was going to end whether Pitt left or not. So overall, this was the best move for Pitt to make in order to ensure that it is in a good position when the conference realignment ends.

ITI: We know about Ray Graham and Brandon Lindsey. Name one player on both sides of the ball that’ll be a key to Pitt winning?

LK: Quarterback Tino Sunseri and outside linebacker EJuan Price.

When Sunseri is playing well, the offense looks like it’s supposed to look. For awhile against Iowa, Sunseri put on a solid performance, making several nice runs and getting rid of the ball quickly. But then, he also made some critical errors in a dropped snap and an interception after Iowa took the lead at the end of the fourth quarter. Pitt needs Sunseri to play well on Saturday and move the Panthers down the field without the turnovers. Sunseri also tends to hold the ball too long, which makes the offensive line’s job more difficult. As a quarterback adjusting to Graham’s system, Sunseri has the most difficult and important job in the offense. If he can improve this week, the offense as a whole will improve as well.

Price, a true freshman, is already a talented pass rusher. He is a player that could really cause Notre Dame problems if he plays well. He had two sacks against Iowa. But Price, like other members of the defense, is struggling a bit with coverages as well. A huge key to Pitt winning is Price, and the rest of the Pitt defense, eliminating errors that could open up big play opportunities for Notre Dame’s offense.

ITI: How do you see Saturday (early) afternoon playing out?

LK: As I mentioned before, Notre Dame is the most talented passing team the Panthers have faced so far. Unfortunately for Pitt, that spells trouble. I don’t see Pitt’s defense improving enough this week to shut down Notre Dame’s offensive attack enough to pull out the victory. On the positive side for Pitt, I see the Panthers improving this week and putting together a more complete game than they did against Iowa. One of the keys to Pitt potentially pulling out a victory is forcing turnovers as that seems to be one of Notre Dame’s weak spots this season. But the Panthers haven’t excelled in that department so far this year.

***

As we lead up to this Saturday’s game, check out more of Laura’s work at the Pitt News here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RELATED READING: ‘Accelerated’ start creates bright outlook for Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting cycle

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

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Notre Dame will open spring practice in about two weeks. As always, the proceedings will be filled with positive reviews, optimistic outlooks, and an injury or two.

A quick look at each position group should lend a better understanding to those perspectives and effects, beginning with the group lacking many questions — the running backs. The biggest reason there is relative certainty around the running backs is there are just so few of them following the winter dismissals of rising junior Deon McIntosh and rising sophomore C.J. Holmes.

Spring Roster:
Rising senior Dexter Williams (pictured above)
Rising junior Tony Jones
Early-enrolled freshman Jahmir Smith
Rising junior Mick Assaf

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman C’Bo Flemister

No one received more praise last spring practice than Tony Jones. He had a successful 2017, but compared to that hype, it could have been considered under-performing. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
At some point, either Williams or Jones will be named the Irish starter. It is quite possible that will be a distinction without much difference, as the two could certainly complement each other well in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s system, which already prefers to use multiple running backs.

Human nature, though, dictates is more likely one back receives a majority of the carries.

Biggest Question:
If Williams lines up with the No. 1 offensive unit in the Blue-Gold Game (April 21) to conclude spring practice, that will be the first genuine and tangible evidence he has improved as a pass blocker. Despite his big-play speed and seeming-ease breaking tackles, Williams’ one-dimensional game rendered him as much a liability as an asset in 2017.

Even in the Citrus Bowl victory, Williams followed up back-to-back rushes for a combined 36 yards with a blown pass protection resulting in a 13-yard sack.

“You have to be able to protect the quarterback with all positions,” Long said Feb. 7. “That dictates a whole lot if you’re going to play a lot or just be a situational guy. It’s something you have to embrace, the physicality.

“… That’s really the main thing, other than protecting the ball, that’ll keep a back off the field in our offense.”

The best ability is availability, and both an ankle injury and a balky quad limited Williams in that respect in 2017. Little blame can be cast for the natural bruises of football. Nonetheless, he will need to “embrace the physicality” if he wants to become more than a situational back.

Otherwise, Jones will be the default option. He has already shown a knack for both pass blocking and catching, making him a three-down option. Notre Dame will always prefer that rather than tip its hand to a running play every time Williams enters the game.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Obviously, Josh Adams carried the burden in the running game last season. Behind rising senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush and McIntosh, Williams was only the No. 4 rusher on the roster in yards and touchdowns, while Jones was No. 4 in carries and No. 5 in yards and scores.

Williams: 360 yards on 39 carries, a 9.2 average, with four touchdowns. Two catches for 13 yards and one score.
Jones: 232 yards on 44 carries, a 5.3 average, with three touchdowns. Six catches for 12 yards.
Notre Dame gets the letter: Jahmir Smith
Notre Dame gets the letter: C’Bo Flemister

Monday’s Leftovers: Geography, as much as academics, caps Notre Dame’s recruiting possibilites

Associated Press
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A year ago, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly acknowledged a practical ceiling on Irish recruiting efforts.

“Since I’ve been here, if you look at the average rankings, we’re anywhere from 5 to 15,” Kelly said on 2017’s National Signing Day, a day on which Notre Dame secured the No. 13 class in the country, per rivals.com. “We’re going to fall somewhere in that range because there’s a line there we can’t get over based upon what our distinctions are here. That line is going to keep us between 5 and 15.

“We know where we’re going to fall. We’re going to continue to recruit the right kind of kids here.”

Sure enough, the Irish once again fall into that spectrum in 2018, finishing No. 11 per rivals. Though Notre Dame has risen above that range once (No. 3 in 2013) and fallen below it once (No. 20 in 2012) during Kelly’s tenure, his overall analysis remains accurate.

The instinct has always been to cite University academic standards as the greatest hurdle to rising into the top five consistently, but another aspect should not be overlooked. In a recent mailbag, Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples pondered the factors keeping the Irish from becoming a perennial 10-win team.

“Another major reason is a lack of a local recruiting base,” Staples wrote. “No program has a stronger national reach than Notre Dame, but that still doesn’t make recruiting nationally easy. It’s much easier to have hundreds of quality prospects within driving distances.”

That dynamic is a part of why the Irish are better positioned to reap rewards from high school juniors now being able to take official visits in April, May and June. Those time periods are less hectic for most high schoolers, so a long-distance trip may fit into the calendar with a bit less stress. Obviously, only time will tell the true impact of that new change.

Looking at both this past year’s recruiting rankings and the last nine years of rankings underscores and supports Staples’ point.

Rivals considered 33 prospects to be five-star recruits in 2018. Only seven schools managed to sign multiple such players: Georgia (8), Clemson (6), USC (5), Alabama (3), Ohio State (3), Penn State (2), and Miami (2). To speak more broadly, four schools in the Deep South, two in the Ohio-Pennsylvania corridor and one in California, all talent-rich areas, especially compared to Indiana, Illinois and Michigan.

If combining the total signees of both four- and five-star rankings by rivals, Notre Dame signed 12 such prospects. Only 11 schools signed more, including six of the above seven. (Clemson equaled the Irish haul, though its even split between four- and five-star recruits stands out compared to Notre Dame’s 12 four-stars.) The additional five: Oklahoma, Texas, Florida State, Auburn and Florida. In other words, two schools tapping into Texas, two schools within Florida and one more in the Deep South.

If looking at the last nine years of recruiting, the span of Kelly’s time in South Bend, only eight programs have consistently out-recruited the Irish, all but one mentioned already. LSU finished with the No. 13 recruiting class in 2018, lowering its nine-year average placement to 8.0. The Tigers are one of five SEC teams in that group of eight, joining Florida State, Ohio State and USC.

Sense a theme?

It will always be hard enough for Notre Dame to find high-caliber players likely to succeed at a strong academic institution in the Midwest. That task is even harder knowing how far away those players typically are to start with.

Other programs face a similar challenge, and few handle it as well. Consider the 2018 recruiting classes of Stanford, Michigan and Michigan State, for familiar context.

Stanford finished with 4 four-stars in rivals’ No. 63 class. The Wolverines pulled in 7 four-stars as part of the No. 24 class, while the Spartans signed 5 four-stars in the No. 26 grouping.

The Blue-Chip Ratio
Finishing within Kelly’s range has not stopped Notre Dame from consistently having one of the most-talented rosters in the country. If abiding by rivals rankings for consistency, 45 of the 89 players currently on the Irish roster (including incoming freshmen) were four- or five-star recruits.

A commonly-cited metric of a roster’s talent is the so-called “Blue-Chip Ratio.” Essentially, a national championship caliber team will have at least 50 percent of its roster consisting of former four- or five-star prospects. Entering 2017, Notre Dame was one of only 10 such teams in the country.

As should be expected, the other nine included six programs from the Deep South, Ohio State, USC and, as an ode to Jim Harbaugh’s early recruiting successes, Michigan.

A Presidents Day Reminder
Notre Dame cannot officially claim any POTUS as an alum, but both Josiah Bartlet and James Marshall would like to argue otherwise.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Notre Dame’s pending attrition actually intended to improve the roster
NCAA denies Notre Dame’s appeal, vacating 21 wins, including 12-0 in 2012
Notre Dame is right: The NCAA’s terrible precedent matters, but vacating wins does not
‘Accelerated’ start creates bright outlook for Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting cycle
Notre Dame’s successful early signing period now begets early visit questions

OUTSIDE READING:
NCAA appeals committee upholds vacation of Notre Dame wins
A letter from the President on the NCAA Infractions Case
Irish set high expectations for Jurkovec
Elston ‘recruits’ Tillery, Bonner for one last ride
Giants release defensive end Ishaq Williams with a failed physical designation
Re-ranking the longest FBS coaching tenures from 1-to-230
Hip injury to keep Stanford QB K.J. Costello sidelined for much of spring drills