IBG: Anchors…Away!

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(Yes, I know the song is titled Anchors Aweigh.)

A four game winning streak had people feeling pretty good about the Irish. But a loss to now 6-1 USC has people ready to jump overboard, just as Navy and its dangerous triple-option attack come to town. While Irish fans might be walking around with an anvil tied to their leg, the guys on the field don’t have that option, with just five more opportunities to play football this regular season.

The gentlemen over at One Foot Down supplied this week’s questions. There’s plenty more to talk about today, so let’s get right after it:

Coach Kelly refused to fall on the proverbial sword after USC.  He felt that some of the players that needed to play with poise just didn’t.  Do you agree or disagree?  Did coaching play a role in our egg-laying against USC?

I completely, 100 percent agree. Football coaches coach. Football players play. Even if the coaching staff didn’t have its best day — and it certainly didn’t — the guys on the field are to blame for that one.

(Yes, I know this is when people comment, “It’s the coaches JOB to make sure that the players on the field are ready!” Only partially true. The coaching staff lays out the blueprint. The players still need to execute it.)

From play one of that game, the Irish didn’t meet expectations. On offense and on defense. That people are riled up that Kelly said he wouldn’t fall on his proverbial sword and change what he’s done for twenty years during bye week preparation, is pretty ridiculous. (Note: That’s what the question was.)

But even if Kelly did decide to call out his players, I’m absolutely fine with it. Coaches use the media to motivate players all the time. I’m 100 percent for it, and I’m 100 percent against coddling players on a football team that’s still trying to properly develop the right DNA. If that means mentioning that Cierre Wood didn’t play well or the defensive front seven played poorly (No. 5 included), so be it.

In their post-game interviews, Coach Kelly, Jonas Gray, Harrison Smith, and Tyler Eifert all called the atmosphere for USC “electric.”  Coincidence?

No. I called it that, too. It was absolutely electric in there, and on campus all weekend.

(I didn’t realize that people had started to think that there was some kind of PR campaign to use the same word or description. That’s ridiculous. It was really the only word you can use to describe that atmosphere, so if you’re wondering why everybody said the same thing, don’t over think it.)

A quick aside: About 90 minutes before the game, I went down to the first row by the tunnel and just watched the swarm of recruits and people on the sideline for about 20 minutes. To a guy, you could see the look in the eyes of the high school recruits visiting campus. Each and every one of them did their best to try and stay cool, but every once in a while they’d take a second to soak it all in, almost picture themselves out on that field getting ready to go to battle.

Sure, it’s special on campus before every big game. But there was something different about last Saturday night. Even if the Irish spit the bit the first time, I absolutely support an annual night game. (Tee up 2012 vs. Michigan right now.)

Is your faith in this coaching staff shaken after Saturday night’s debacle?

Absolutely not.

It’s as if people are forgetting that the Irish had worked their way all but out of a 17-0 hole and were set to tie the game as the fourth quarter was approaching when Dayne Crist forgot how to take a snap, forgot how to fall on a football, and took the Irish’s chances of winning the game from greater than 50% to about 10% in one catastrophic play.

On no planet is that play on the coaching staff.

Back in the olden days (like 1998), an Irish football coach got at least until the third season to have people start freaking out if they didn’t have a national championship run in them. While guys like Bob Stoops, Jim Tressel, Nick Saban, Les Miles and Urban Meyer had people thinking that year two was the season it’d happen, it was only the impressive work that Kelly did with the defense and in recruiting that had people even thinking that was possible this year.

Are these close losses absolutely frustrating? Yes. But I, for one, think the Irish losing because they made mistakes is far more encouraging that watching them get bludgeoned by USC or Michigan.

Should we be satisfied with a mere win over Navy, or does it have to be somewhat convincing?

Any win against Navy should be satisfying. Do people forget that the Midshipmen have won three of the last four against Notre Dame?

That said, as long as the offense rebounds and the Irish win, people should be satisfied. Navy does not have a good enough defense to stop the Irish offense. Notre Dame should be able to run the ball or throw the ball at will, and as long as they clean up their work in the red zone, they should put up all the points they need to.

If they can force a turnover or two with Navy playing a young quarterback, this game could get into Air Force territory, too. But expect to see Navy move the ball between the 20s.

Will the Irish shut down the vaunted Navy triple option, or are we in for a shootout?

I guess I jumped the gun a little bit on this one, but I don’t think ND will ever completely shut down the option. Yesterday, Bill Wagner talked about the subtle changes Navy will likely make with their offense, and the result might actually help the Irish against the option, though Trey Miller is a much better passing threat than Kris Proctor.

That said, the Irish defensive front is in for their biggest challenge of the year. Notre Dame will be starting three freshman (eligibility wise) across the front with Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix and Aaron Lynch all likely getting the call. Chase Hounshell will be next in line at defensive end. Navy has to be licking their chops at their good luck, with both seniors Kapron Lewis-Moore and Ethan Johnson either out (KLM) or severely limited (EJ’s high ankle sprain won’t go away.)

Take us out with a quotation, clip, or photo to summarize your post-USC/pre-Navy state of fandom.

Man, this is far tougher than I expected. Since I’m in this fight regardless of W or L, I’d just ask anybody that wants to keep commenting or reading to just remember that this is football. It’s a hard sport and Notre Dame doesn’t have the advantages they did 30 years ago. More importantly, this is supposed to be fun. We only get this for like 13 weeks a year and then it’s winter.

Then, I’d like to steer everybody to this video, which I can’t host here. The Irish are in definite need of a montage.

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.