Pregame Six Pack: Prepping for Pitt

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What a difference a week makes. Irish fans didn’t quite know what to make of last weekend’s game: an annual rivalry, a game the Irish usually don’t fare well in, and Las Vegas somehow favoring Notre Dame by almost a touchdown even though they were the team with an 0-2 record and Michigan State was undefeated and ranked No. 15 in the country.

Well the wise guys in Sin City are once again making a heavy move for the Irish, with the line opening with ND favored by 3.5 point only to double in hours. The Irish are a touchdown favorite against a Pitt team that’s a fourth quarter collapse away from being undefeated. Once again, there are still plenty of Irish fans waiting to jump back on the Notre Dame bandwagon. After years of being the worst bet in town, the Irish are now Vegas’ darling.

As we do every week, here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as the Fighting Irish prepare to take on Pittsburgh at 12:00 p.m. ET. (Join us for our live blog!)

1. For those complaining about Tommy Rees’ turnovers, you’re forgetting how football works.

There’s been a lot of bellyaching over sophomore Tommy Rees‘ rash of turnovers this season. His hometown newspaper, the Lake Forest-Lake Bluff Patch has a nice feature on the new leading man at Notre Dame, and it looks at the “Good Tommy, Bad Tommy” phenomenon.

“He plays a good role. We don’t expect Tommy to be vocal guy,” said Floyd, predicted by many to be a 2012 first-round draft choice. “I put that on my hands to do that job. We just want to make sure Tommy gets the ball and does the right things and eliminates mistakes.”

Rees detractors — and there are many amongst Irish fans – -will reframe the debate around Floyd’s last comment. Consider this — in 10 quarters of play this season, Rees has turned the ball over seven times (five interceptions, two lost fumbles).

This burgeoning demon reared its ugly head in the first quarter against the Spartans when Rees fumbled and threw an interception on back-to-back drives. The “oh, here we go again” chorus inside Notre Dame stadium was as loud as the pre-game one for “God Bless America.”

But that’s life with a young quarterback. When Brian Kelly pulled the quick hook on Dayne Crist‘s season, he did so knowing that Rees would make youthful mistakes, but that the good would out-weigh the bad.

For those ready to get rid of Rees, let’s take a quick look back at Brady Quinn and Jimmy Clausen, two quarterbacks that turned out to be some of the better players in Notre Dame history. We’ll compare all three’s first seven starts, and then their sophomore numbers:

Brady Quinn:

First Seven Starts: 121 of 258 (47%) 5 TD, 11 INT, 86.1 QB Rating. W/L Record: 3-4
Sophomore Season: 191 of 353 (54%) 17 TD, 10 INT, 125.9 QB Rating. W/L Record: 6-6

Jimmy Clausen:

First Seven Starts: 99 of 175 (56%) 4 TD, 5 INT, 93.1 QB Rating. W/L Record: 1-6
Sophomore Season: 268 of 440 (61%) 25 TD, 17 INT, 132.5 QB Rating. W/L Record: 7-6

Tommy Rees*:

First Seven Starts: 139 of 220 (63%) 16 TD, 10 INT, 138.7 QB Rating. W/L Record: 5-2
Sophomore Season: 69 of 99 (70%) 6 TD, 5 INT, 145.1 QB Rating. W/L Record: 1-1

*Stats include the Tulsa game as a start.

It’s pretty easy to see by just about every measure you can think of, Rees is off to a much better pace than the two other guys that have rewritten the Notre Dame passing record books. As you can tell by Tommy’s sophomore season, his efficiency is so impressive in spite of his interceptions, mostly powered by a near 70 percent completion percentage. Nobody wants to see interceptions and fumbles. It’s just what you get when you go with an inexperienced quarterback. What separates Rees is what he does when he’s not turning it over.

2. Paging Darius Fleming, Darius Fleming, the Irish defense requests your help.

With a season at Cat linebacker under his belt, everybody thought senior linebacker Darius Fleming was primed for a big final season at Notre Dame. That included his head coach:

“He’ll be one of the more explosive players in the country this year,” Kelly said. “He’s just comfortable now. Last year it was all robotic. It was ‘get to this spot,’ now he flows to that spot. It’s a big difference.”

That explosion hasn’t showed up yet, with Fleming struggling to produce with dual-threat quarterbacks B.J. Daniels and Denard Robinson neutralizing one of the Irish’s best pass rushing threats.

After two games, Kelly wasn’t ready to praise Fleming’s productivity. But after his best Saturday of the year, Kelly is hopeful his senior linebacker is ready to elevate his game.

“He had his best game of the year,” Kelly said. “Last week I was asked about him. I think my comments were ‘Good, not great.’ We have a high bar for him. He played great. He played his best game of the year. One time is an accident I told him. Twice, you know you’re trending in the right direction. Hopefully we see it again.”

In many ways, Fleming’s poor play hurts both linebacker positions because it’s also keeping Prince Shembo away from the Cat linebacker position, somewhere he’s a better fit for because of his natural pass rush ability. (Now, Shembo spends most snaps standing half-way in the slot of the field side.) Fleming struggled to get out of the gates last year as well but rallied. Let’s see if Darius does so against a Pitt offensive line that’s dreadful against pass rushes.

3. Aaron Lynch might just be getting started.

You’ve got to love Aaron Lynch. The freshman defensive end showed his age when he mistakenly answered a question about Pittsburgh’s suspect pass blocking honestly.

Lou Somogyi of Blue & Gold Illustrated has more:

When Notre Dame freshman defensive end Aaron Lynch met with the media this Wednesday, he was asked about a Pitt offense that ranked 114th in sacks allowed per game (4.0). Most notably, FCS opponent Maine had recorded seven against the Panthers in its 35-29 defeat on Sept. 10.

When asked about those figures, Lynch responded honestly and directly.

“I’m not down on Maine or anything, but I know Notre Dame’s pass rush defense with all the guys we have is more dominant … it makes us happy to know that another team got seven, so that just builds us up to like we’re going to get 10 or 12,” Lynch said. “That’s how I look at it.”

Oops, a classic rookie mistake. Several feet away, Notre Dame’s director of football media operations, Brian Hardin, cringed and shook his head. The proper and politically correct response would have been, “We have great respect for Pitt and we know they have a great offensive line.”

Ten or twelve sacks would be a miracle afternoon for the Irish. But after analyzing Lynch’s effort last Saturday, maybe a historic performance isn’t that far away.

Early in the week, we took a closer look at Lynch’s impressive Saturday, an afternoon where one sack could’ve just as easily been three or four if it weren’t for veteran quarterback Kirk Cousins‘ quick trigger. I mentioned that Lynch’s six quarterback hurries were better than the entire Irish defense in every game but Utah last year. Lynch’s six quarterback hurries would also have been good for a season-high last year, besting Fleming, Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore, who each had five QB hurries to tie for the team lead in all of 2010.

4. With Irish punt returns, expect the unexpected. Especially this Saturday.

Don’t worry, the Irish won’t plan on muffing another punt on Saturday, with Theo Riddick and John Goodman already coughing up the football at really inopportune times. With four guys in the running to return punts — Riddick, Goodman, Robby Toma and Harrison Smith — Kelly’s also taking into consideration some of the tweaks the Panthers run in their standard punt return game.

“They’ll be times when we don’t have a punt returner in punting situations on the field because they leave the quarterback on the field so we’ve got to be prepared for that,” Kelly said. “We’ve had Harrison Smith back there in case we obviously get into a situation where we believe they’re going to punt for sure. It’s rather deceptive in a sense that they take the quarterback and only move him back a couple of yards so you really can’t tell if they’re running an offensive play. So we’ll get our punt team out there but we may not get them out when the quarterback is still on the field.”

For those of you that have been asking for a way to just keep a return man away from the ball, Tulsa’s tricky scheme might just be the answer to your prayers.

5. The battle on Saturday might not just be on the football field. It might make its way up to the pressbox, too.

Along with long-time Big East member Syracuse, Pitt shocked the college sports world with the announcement that the two teams would be leaving the Big East and joining the ACC, setting off another flurry of madness that had the college football world on nuclear alert until Larry Scott and the Pac-12 told the rest of the country to stand down.

Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette noticed that Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick — as he was last year — was right in the middle of things. Only this time, Swarbrick voiced his displeasure over Pitt chancellor Mark Dordenberg and athletic director Steve Pederson‘s decision to abandon the Big East to USA Today.

Here’s what Swarbrick said:

“I don’t understand it. How do you vote as a collegiate president on something that has the potential to provide some benefit for your institution and the conference you’re affiliated with but has a very negative consequence for a host of other members of the academy, as presidents like to call it? I’d like to know how much of these discussions are: What’s right? What is the best thing for the larger enterprise, and how many other schools would be adversely impacted?” Swarbrick went on to criticize Nordenberg for taking a leadership position in fighting to keep the Big East together and “with no notice to anybody, abandoning it. That’s hard to understand in the context of an industry in which collegiality and integrity are supposed to be such key parts.”

Cook doesn’t seem to like Swarbrick’s comments. More from the Pittsburgh columnist:

It’s pretty hard to get too upset with Marinatto. His conference was left for dead as a football league with the Pitt and Syracuse defections. Of course, he’s going to be bitter. Beyond that, blaming someone else is a lot easier than looking in the mirror and seeing a weak leader staring back, a weak leader who showed no signs of being able to keep the Big East together. Michael Tranghese and Dave Gavitt — great Big East commissioners before him — he is not.

But offensive and preposterous don’t even begin to describe Swarbrick’s remarks. How dare he criticize any other university’s leadership for looking after its school’s best interests? He and his Notre Dame bosses aren’t the least bit interested in any “larger enterprise.” They care only about Notre Dame’s bottom line. That doesn’t make them wrong or bad people. Any of us in their position would do the same thing. But it does make Swarbrick a hypocrite. I repeat: How dare he?

The Big East has been good to Notre Dame. It has given it a home for its men’s and women’s basketball teams and its Olympic sports teams while allowing it to keep its independent status in football. That’s enabled Notre Dame to retain all of its television money from its NBC contract instead of dividing it evenly with conference partners. Remember, the Notre Dame leaders are stone cold, bottom-line people. Clearly, they don’t like to share.

If Notre Dame officials cared about the Big East, they could have saved it by joining as a football member. If that had happened, there’s no doubt the Big East would be a heavyweight in the college game. Pitt and Syracuse wouldn’t have left. Other schools — maybe, just maybe, even Penn State — would be fighting to join. That’s the clout that Notre Dame has.

It’s clear that Swarbrick might have kicked a hornet’s nest or two in the Steel City, but both sides of this argument have some validity. Swarbrick and about a million other rational people are wondering if university chancellors and leaders are really as greedy as they seem, willing to tip over decades of tradition and put college sports into upheaval just to chase more money for their school, all while leaving decades-long partners in a lurch. Cook and other Big East supporters have long bristled at the Irish’s arrangement with the Big East, a seemingly one-sided partnership that gives Irish sports a home while still keeping football independent. It’s true that Swarbrick’s likely making his point loud and clear because he’s against the kind of upheaval that’ll force the Irish to give up their football independence and pick a conference for all sports.

That said, Notre Dame — even without football — has done plenty to help the Big East. To say any differently would be ignoring a lot of truths.

6. It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a… No! Not a Jumbotron!

Relax Irish fans, Brian Kelly really doesn’t have a vote. But for all those traditionalists out there, the time is coming sooner than you’d like to believe. And if it were up to the head coach, a Jumbotron will be coming to Notre Dame Stadium.

Brian Hamilton explains:

“I think it enhances obviously the game experience more than anything else,” Kelly said during his weekly radio show Thursday night. “I’m not afraid to say it’s a great addition because it creates a great atmosphere in the stadium.

“As well as (promoting) your brand — I thought one of the nice things Michigan did was that the scoreboard did not have any advertising. It just had their brand on there. So, yeah, count me in favor of that. But as I’ve said many times before, they’re not going to be polling me as to whether we get a Jumbotron or not.”

Genuine or not, Kelly insisted this was merely a commentary on the times and not a hand-tipping.

“I don’t have any inside information on this, but I would be surprised if we didn’t have a Jumbotron at some time in Notre Dame Stadium,” Kelly said. “Everybody is watching TV, you’ve got superconferences and all kinds of things going. If you’re going to stay in this arena, I’m sure things will change. It’s just going to take some time.”

After the Irish’s game in Yankee Stadium last season and seeing the new video boards in Michigan Stadium, there’s a ton of support inside the Notre Dame athletic department for a Jumbotron, something that’d truly enhance the stadium experience and go a long way toward keeping the home fans engaged and enthusiastic.

There will always be those “old school” fans that hate the idea, but nobody is asking to use the video screen like USC does at the Coliseum, screeching out commercials and advertisements at decibel levels nearly inhumane. With the Irish’s digital assets looking better and better as the years go by (take a look at UND.com’s new videos if you don’t know what I’m talking about), it only makes more sense to join the 21st century by installing a tastefully done video screen (and some field turf).

Nobody wants to adorn Touchdown Jesus in Ed Hardy, they just want to make Saturday afternoon a better experience. If that gets fans up from sitting on their hands, even the biggest curmudgeons in ND Nation shouldn’t have a problem with that.

Notre Dame adds another 2019 commitment out of Georgia

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Eight months from now, Notre Dame may be forced to sign a smaller recruiting class than usual thanks to the larger class this past recruiting cycle. If that expectation does indeed hold, this past week’s five commitments, including consensus three-star safety Kyle Hamilton’s (Marist High School; Atlanta) on Tuesday evening, will be a hefty portion of the class.

Hamilton becomes the second safety in the class, and in the week, following the Saturday pledge of rivals.com four-star Litchfield Ajavon (Episcopal H.S.; Alexandria, Va.). Hamilton’s list of finalists included Michigan, Georgia, Ohio State and Clemson, a grouping more telling than perhaps his recruiting ranking is.

Some of that expected potential may derive from Hamilton’s 6-foot-3 frame. Such length at safety would be a change for the Irish, currently without a safety taller than six-feet in the rotation. Even heralded incoming-freshman Derrik Allen, also out of Georgia, is listed at only 6-foot-1.

It is a coincidence those two Georgia recruits, one signed and one now verbally-committed, are both safeties. Add in the January commitment of rivals.com three-star cornerback K.J. Wallace (Lovett; Atlanta), and a third defensive back comes from the state, along with class of 2018 signees tight end Tommy Tremble and running back C’Bo Flemister. Five prospects from Georgia, presuming both Hamilton and Wallace do indeed sign with Notre Dame, is not a coincidence.

“My point being is that it’s such a fertile ground in recruiting, you just need to be in [Georgia], and there’s great football players in there,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said in December 2017, during the inaugural early signing period. “We’ve got so many players that we can talk about that came of there. It’s just having a presence and getting back into a very, very good recruiting area for us. We need to have a great presence there.”

No matter what state Hamilton comes from, he could find himself quickly in the mix at safety upon his arrival. Presuming health for the current safety depth chart, juniors Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill will have one year of eligibility remaining apiece upon Hamilton’s enrollment. Junior Alohi Gilman will have two, thanks to spending the 2017 season sidelined following his transfer from Navy. Early-enrolled freshman Griffith and Allen will both have three more years, presuming both play in 2018.

Thus, Hamilton and Ajavon could find themselves backing up that last duo as soon as 2020.

Blue-Gold Game Leftovers: Notre Dame’s offensive ceiling is tantalizing, though also unlikely

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Immediately following the 2017 spring game, I walked by two much smarter, savvier and more veteran Notre Dame reporters on our way to post-game interviews. Our two minutes of exchange included them riffing on various hypothetical position changes that were eventually not seen come fall, including how much better of a guard than a tackle Tommy Kraemer could be. It should be noted, the junior began lining up at guard this spring.

My contribution to the conversation hinged entirely on repeating, “That offense just isn’t ready. It’s not close to ready.”

Of course, that assessment figured the spring game struggles were against a porous Irish defense, something freshly-arrived and since-departed defensive coordinator Mike Elko had already taken tangible steps toward fixing, far quicker than expected.

That evaluation also failed to recognize the potential of a running attack led by Josh Adams. Notre Dame knew it had a stalwart running back, and did not need to see more than eight carries for 39 yards and a touchdown from the lead back.

The point stood, though. The offense was not ready then or in November.

Driving away from this past Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game, the thought bouncing around my pickup’s two-seat cab was simple: This offense is unlikely to reach its ceiling, but if it did, it would be really, absurdly high-powered.

This time, that assessment offers some deference to first-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s ability to turn nine returning starters into another strong defense, perhaps superior to last year’s.

The praise of the offense must be hedged thanks to IF after IF after IF after IF. If senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush displays those mechanics and that accuracy against opposing defenses …
If senior running back Dexter Williams (pictured above) decides it is worthwhile to play, and play well, through pain …
If junior receiver Chase Claypool maintains the necessary emotional equilibrium …
If senior tight end Alizé Mack offers a consistent performance, even if not stellar, but stable …

In those four upperclassmen alone, the Irish have unique talents whom opposing defensive coordinators should lose sleep thinking about. They will determine how high this offense’s ceiling is, while the likes of senior receiver Miles Boykin, junior running back Tony Jones and sophomore tight end Cole Kmet will set the floor, along with what looks to be yet another overpowering offensive line (with Kraemer at right guard).

Obviously, the most-promising players always set the height of a vaulted the ceiling. As they perform against Michigan, Stanford and Virginia Tech will determine how the season ends. However, to pinpoint four like this is an extreme end of the spectrum.

Exiting last year’s Blue-Gold Game, it was clear Wimbush needed to learn much more of offensive coordinator Chip Long’s scheme. Aside from that, the only possible ways to increase the offense’s potency was to teach receiver Kevin Stepherson self-discipline and figure out why Mack could not make a gameday impact. The rest was essentially known, even if the running game’s potential was overlooked after the spring exhibition.

Entering this summer, the gap between the offense’s floor and its ceiling is a vast one. To have four question marks of this magnitude speaks to the possible volatility awaiting in the fall. Logically speaking, it is most likely two of the four above IFs become realities. In that case, it will be a good offense, but not the utterly threatening one conceivable. The odds are slim all four come to fruition, but crazier things have happened, especially when discussing the rapid development of 18- to 21-year-olds.

Without Adams following two All-American offensive linemen, this rendition of the Notre Dame offense may take a step backward, but the talent is there for it to actually improve, to carry the day if/when an experienced quarterback picks apart the defense (see: the Seminoles’ Deondre Francois).

That could not be said in 2017.

OTHER QUICK TAKEAWAYS FROM THE BLUE-GOLD GAME:
Much of this will be discussed in greater length in the coming two weeks, but …
— The interior of the offensive line — fifth-year left guard Alex Bars, fifth-year center Sam Mustipher and Kraemer at right guard — is quite a physically-imposing trio. Some defensive ends may find success against first-year starter and junior left tackle Liam Eichenberg, especially early in the season, but the inside trio should at least create massive holes for the Irish running game.

— Ideally Long can deploy Mack and Kmet together, but the spring performance of the latter certainly eases the concerns about the maturation and consistency of the former.

Notre Dame may need an unexpected influx of production from senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery if the fifth-year tackle he is intended to line up alongside, Jonathan Bonner, does not recover fully from a wrist injury suffered in the beginning of 2017. (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP)

— Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly insists fifth-year defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner’s fitness will not be overly-effected by the wrist injury that kept him out of most of spring practice and all of the Blue-Gold Game.

“He’s been doing everything (in weight-lifting) but at lighter weight, and now he’s only a couple of weeks away from being full-go,” Kelly said Saturday. “He was already physically really gifted, so we don’t think that’s going to be a big curve for him, and he’ll be able to start training aggressively when we get back here in June.”

Consider this scribe skeptical. Not only is Kelly often overly-optimistic about injury effects and timetables, but to think missing six months of strength and conditioning will not be noticeable along the defensive interior is idealistic at best. Bonner’s 2017 emergence was a direct result of the arrival of strength and conditioning coordinator Matt Balis.

Without more of that work, the Irish will need to turn to sophomore Kurt Hinish for an increase in snaps, perhaps pushing toward 50 per game with Bonner offering 20-30 and senior Micah Dew-Treadway filling in the balance. Hinish appears to be up to the task, which is necessary, because classmate Darnell Ewell is not.

Notre Dame gains commitments of four-star defensive end and three-star offensive tackle

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At this rate, Notre Dame might fill its 2019 recruiting class by the time the school year ends. With a Sunday morning commitment of a consensus four-star defensive end followed by a Monday evening pledge from a consensus three-star offensive tackle, the Irish class has grown from three recruits to seven in just four days.

The No. 238 prospect in the country and No. 28 at defensive end, per rivals.com, Howard Cross III (St. Joseph High School; Montvale, N.J.) announced his commitment via Twitter shortly after leaving campus from a visit for the Blue-Gold Game, choosing the Irish over offers from Michigan, North Carolina State and Virginia Tech, among others.

“I could tell [current Notre Dame players] really loved the school,” Cross said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “It was really, really big to talk to them. When I was going to all the colleges, that was the main thing I wanted to do. I wanted to get the perspective of the players.”

Cross joins consensus four-star defensive end Hunter Spears (Sachse H.S.; Texas) as half of the four defensive linemen already in the Irish recruiting class. As always, no collegiate defensive line can be deep enough. Considering the previous two recruiting classes have yielded a total of two defensive ends — Kofi Wardlow and Justin Ademilola — opportunity should be aplenty for Cross and Spears early in their careers.

The defensive end duo will likely spend a not-insignificant portion of their collegiate career practices butting heads with Andrew Kristofic (Pine-Richland; Gibsonia, Pa.). If the high school of Pine-Richland jumps off the figurative page to Notre Dame recruitniks, that is because Kristofic has much experience protecting high school teammate and incoming Irish freshman quarterback Phil Jurkovec.

He chose Notre Dame, and new offensive line coach Jeff Quinn, rather than offers from a lengthy list including Clemson, Georgia and Ohio State.

“The combination that their school is able to provide being one of the very best schools in the entire country academically and one of the very athletically stands out,” Kristofic said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “I think they have the best combination of those two things on top of being a school that is known for being able to produce such great offensive linemen is something that no other schools really have the combination of all those.

“When you can put together all the things that they can there, it’s certainly not something you can overlook or take for granted.”

The beginning of this influx of commitments came with the Friday decision of consensus four-star offensive tackle John Olmstead (St. Joseph; Metuchen, N.J.), the only other offensive lineman in the class to this point. Of the seven recruits committed to the Irish, five are four-star talents.

Former Notre Dame defensive lineman, Kona Schwenke, dies at 25

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Former Notre Dame defensive lineman Kona Schwenke, 25, reportedly died in his sleep Sunday morning. The cause of death has not yet been confirmed.

Schwenke spent four seasons along the Irish defensive front, culminating in a 23-tackle senior season, in 2013. Attrition along the defensive line in his first two seasons forced Schwenke into playing time, costing him a likely fifth-year with much greater production. He played in 31 games total, making 30 tackles.

Part of a Hawaiian surge in Notre Dame recruiting, Schwenke joined the likes of receiver Robby Toma and linebacker Manti Te’o in coming from the island in 2009 and 2010. The first two committed during Charlie Weis’ tenure, but Schwenke made the leap at the very beginning of Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s career, one of the first recruits to commit to Kelly at Notre Dame. Since then, sophomore defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa has renewed the trend.

Schwenke graduated in 2014 with a degree in anthropology. He then signed with the practice squad of the Kansas City Chiefs, moving around four different NFL franchises chasing his dream. Earlier this month he took part in a scouting event, The Spring League, gaining some notice when he forced Heisman-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel into a fumble.

Former Irish teammates took to social media Sunday afternoon celebrating Schwenke’s life and friendship.