Five things we learned: Notre Dame 38, Purdue 10

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It took roughly 30 seconds to realize that this Saturday might be slightly different for the Irish.

Purdue quarterback Caleb TerBush locked onto a crossing route on the game’s first play from scrimmage. He failed to see Gary Gray (let alone Harrison Smith) who locked onto TerBush’s ill-fated throw. Gray stepped in front of the pass around midfield and returned it to the Purdue 35, and just like that the Irish defense was off to a start even Brian Kelly couldn’t have scripted.

From there, it was Tommy Rees‘ turn. Rees dropped back to pass on his second snap of the night, looking to both silence his doubters and find Michael Floyd, running deep on a post route, answering any question Purdue might have had about Ricardo Allen‘s chances to cover the Irish’s best offensive player one-on-one.

Three plays, two big ones. Seven points for the Irish.

The Fighting Irish many people expected in 2011 finally showed up to play, cruising to a convincing 38-10 victory over Purdue on Saturday night. In doing so, they crossed off a laundry list of items that coaches, players, and fans have been waiting to see.

“We got off to a good start obviously on the road against a Big Ten team, which was a key for us,” Kelly said after the game. “Getting Mike Floyd the ball early on really gave us a lot of confidence offensively. Defensively it’s been very similar week after week: making it difficult for teams to run the football.”

Powered by Cierre Wood‘s best game in an Irish uniform, Floyd’s dominating performance, and a defensive attack that held the nation’s No. 11 rushing attack to just 84 yards on 27 carries, the Irish improved to 3-2 on the season, heading into a tricky home date with Air Force before a much needed bye week.

Here’s what we learned:

The Irish threw for show, but ran for dough.

So maybe I’m misappropriating an old golfing axiom, but Rees’ best night of the season wasn’t the story of the game. It was the absolutely dominating performances by Wood and Jonas Gray, each of whom had their best games in an Irish uniform.

“Our running game set up everything that we did today,” Kelly said. “When you can run the game effectively you can be a good play-caller.”

Wood put on a show Saturday night, torching Purdue from the get go, and averaging about 10 yards a touch from scrimmage, an absolutely dominant stat line that was accentuated by a thrilling 55-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. Wood looked electric in the open field, ran tough between the tackles, and continued his maturation into a complete running back — having the Irish’s biggest rushing game from scrimmage since Julius Jones ran for 218 yards against Stanford in 2003.

Wood has run for 584 yards on the season, averaging over 5.5 yards a carry. Many Irish fans suspected Wood was ready for a breakout season. What they didn’t see was his back-up statistically out-performing him.

Gray ran for 94 yards and a touchdown tonight, averaging over six yards a carry against Purdue. (If you saw this season coming after Gray coughed the ball up on the season’s opening drive against South Florida, you’re lying.) Gray has looked powerful on short yardage runs, confident in space, and continues to demand a bigger role in the offense. After getting only three carries against Pitt, Gray totted the ball 15 times against Purdue, averaging 6.3 yards per carry on the night. Gray’s season statistics are even gaudier than Wood’s, with Jonas running for 326 yards so far this year, and doing it at over 8.1 yards per carry.

If the Irish have aspirations to have a high-powered offense, they’ll need to continue to run the ball with impunity, opening up a play-action passing game and more vertical threats. If Kelly’s attack is known for its flashy aerial numbers, tonight reminded everyone that the engine that drives the Irish offense should be the ground attack.

2. Another vaunted running attack, another impressive outing by the Irish defense.

We mentioned the Irish’s ability to shut down opponent’s running attack on Friday. Well, it’s time to update the chart:

USF                                             Vs. Notre Dame                                    Vs. Everybody Else
Rushing Yards/Game               126.0                                                       262.7
Average Per Rush                      3.0                                                           6.1

Michigan                                    Vs. Notre Dame                                    Vs. Everybody Else
Rushing Yards/Game               114.0                                                       348.0
Average Per Rush                      4.4                                                           7.3

Michigan State                          Vs. Notre Dame                                    Vs. Everybody Else
Rushing Yards/Game               29.0                                                        181.3
Average Per Rush                      1.3                                                           4.1

Pittsburgh                                   Vs. Notre Dame                                    Vs. Everybody Else
Rushing Yards/Game               103.0                                                       192.6
Average Per Rush                      2.7                                                           4.4

Purdue                                        Vs. Notre Dame                                    Vs. Everybody Else
Rushing Yards/Game               84.0                                                       258.7
Average Per Rush                      3.1                                                           5.6

The Irish shut down Purdue’s running attack, limiting Ralph Bolden to just 17 yards and forcing TerBush and Robert Marve to throw the football, something they struggled to do successfully. In fact, Purdue’s 84 rushing yards actually look much better than the Boilermakers actually played, with 40 yards on six carries coming in Purdue’s final drive against Irish reserves. Count that series out and Purdue is looking at an even more anemic 2.09 yards per carry.

3. After some up and down performances, Tommy Rees took a step in the right direction.

We all know that a great running attack is a passing game’s best complement. But Rees also showed how important it was for the Irish to take shots down the field, with the Irish offense adding another vertical element to its attack as Rees threw for 254 yards, three touchdowns, and better yet — no interceptions.

From the game’s opening drive, you saw the Irish stretch Purdue’s defense vertically, with Floyd’s deep post pattern for a touchdown a sign of things to come. Rees didn’t have his most accurate game throwing down field — for the first time this year, he actually over-threw his wide receivers — but the deep throws opened up the underneath routes, where Rees did plenty of damage.

More importantly for the Irish, Rees also showed some progress in his decision making. Rees spread the ball around, throwing touchdown passes to Floyd, Tyler Eifert and TJ Jones, while looking more comfortable in his progressions.

“I saw some really good things. The last touchdown that he threw, where he started his progression with Mike Floyd on an individual route and worked his way back to his fourth receiver, I told him coming off, those are the signs that I’m looking for.”

As the offensive stats show, Rees seemed to do a good job putting the Irish in the right run/pass call, and for the first time this season, the Irish didn’t turn the football over. Rees still wasn’t perfect, and he got away with a few ball throws. While the Irish left some points on the field in the first half, the sophomore quarterback moved the Irish to 551 yards and 34 first downs, easily their best performance of the Kelly era.

Not cashing in on those opportunities in some of the games coming up on the schedule could spell disaster for the Irish. But credit Rees for taking a big step forward with this offense.

4. It’s time for the special teams to pick their game up.

With John Goodman returning punts, it appears Kelly and special teams coach Mike Elston are conceding a return game instead of risking another muffed return. But the Irish absolutely need to improve the other facets of their special teams play, which were once again shoddy.

David Ruffer missed two more field goals tonight, with one being blocked in the first half. While Ruffer’s struggling, his holder and snapper aren’t doing him any favors, with long-snapper Jordan Cowart again playing poorly. Cowart has struggled snapping on both punts and field goals, and was replaced by Braxston Cave late in the game on Ruffer’s lone make of the evening. Cowart also found himself deeper inside Kelly’s doghouse after drawing an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.

“He’s got to have his poise and composure,” Kelly said walking off the field at halftime to Holly Rowe. Then he got off one of his best zingers of the year. “He’s got to walk away. He’s a long snapper!”

One-liners aside, the Irish’s special teams has taken a step back this season, even taking into account George Atkinson‘s touchdown return two weeks ago. With Air Force, a bye week, then Southern Cal, expect the Irish to put a few wrinkles into their special teams game. More importantly, expect an added emphasis put on discipline and assignments, two things that go along way in the game’s third phase.

5. Keep a close eye on the Irish’s defensive ends this week.

The Irish quickly found themselves short-handed at defensive end this week. With freshman Stephon Tuitt kept home from Purdue for a class-attendance team policy violation, the Irish found themselves in a sticky spot when senior defensive end Ethan Johnson hobbled off the field in the first half. Down to Kapron Lewis-Moore and Aaron Lynch as regular contributors, Kelly called on Hafis Williams and Kona Schwenke to play some important minutes.

“They needed to come through. We were a little short-handed, so consequently we needed Kona to come in and play for us and he did a good job.”

Johnson’s ankle injury and Tuitt’s one-game suspension forced a plan B on Kelly, who had hinted previously that he was toying with the idea of saving a year of Schwenke’s eligibility by not playing him at all this year if things went well. But Schwenke was forced into the fold with Williams, with Hafis chipping in a tackle-for-loss and two tackles in limited time.

Aaron Lynch got another sack for the Irish, but seemed to tire with the added reps on the field. With Johnson in a walking boot on the sidelines and day-to-day this week, getting stout defensive line play on the edges of this defense will be more important than ever with Air Force’s option attack stressing the fundamentals of the Irish defense.

The Irish were lucky that Lewis-Moore and Johnson survived last season, when there was little depth behind the two starters. Johnson’s injury and Tuitt’s suspension thinned out a position that had just finally developed consistent depth, and Williams, Schwenke, Lynch and Lewis-Moore picked up the slack. But if the Irish want to continue dominating at the point of attack, they’ll need their full allotment of assets.

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