Five things we learned: Notre Dame 45, Maryland 21

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In case you didn’t know, Notre Dame’s trip to the nation’s capital had nothing to do about football. Just ask athletic director Jack Swarbrick.

“In many ways the motivation for all this has virtually nothing to do with football,” Swarbrick said. “What we want to do is expose more people to Notre Dame. With two days worth of events here, this is about having a major Notre Dame presence here in the Washington, D.C., area – about serving the larger University mission.”

But for those of you who haven’t figured out this part yet either, here’s another newsflash: Brian Kelly and his football team don’t care about being brand ambassadors. They don’t care what you think about their disco-globe helmets, their green jerseys, or those gaudy leprechaun covered undershirts. They just want to play football. Play winning football.

The Irish accomplished their mission on Saturday night, absolutely dominating Maryland 45-21 in a game that the Terrapins were never really in. Mixing a smash-mouth running game by Jonas Gray and Cierre Wood and efficient passing from Tommy Rees, the Irish won their seventh game in their last eight attempts.

“We got off to a fast start,” Kelly said afterwards. “I thought it was important for us to come here and really make a statement early on and I thought we did that.”

Kelly’s team did more than that, piling up over 500 yards of offense in a game that was out of reach for most of the second half. The win pushed the Irish to 7-3 on the season, their seventh win in the last eight games.

Let’s find out what else we learned:

***

With a running game the best Notre Dame’s seen since Lou Holtz, the Irish dominated this game on the ground.

Everybody in the stadium probably knew Notre Dame was going to try and do it, but the Irish ran the ball straight through the Terrapins defense, with Gray leading the way. It took the senior back until the final three games of his senior season to do it, but Jonas finally had his first 100 yard day, running for 136 yards and two touchdowns — his seventh game in a row with a rushing score after entering the season without one.

True, the Terrapins have been terrible against the run, but the Irish helped them play up to their reputation, with Gray and Wood combining for 153 yards and two touchdowns in the first half alone, a seven-yard clip that dictated the tone of the game.

“The guys in front did a great job. The receivers did a great job blocking up field,” Gray said. “We knew we would be able to run the ball. It was starting with a physical mentality and continuing that throughout the game.”

For the second Saturday in a row, it was Gray starting in the backfield after following Wood into the game for the season’s first eight games. But Gray’s physical presence has been too much to keep off the field, and the senior’s breakthrough season was something the coaching staff had always hoped to see.

“I thought he was capable of it,” Kelly said. “We told him that his reps would be based upon his ability to play physical and you could see he doesn’t want to get off the field.”

It didn’t seem likely, but Gray’s late career renaissance will likely keep him on the field on Sundays, too.

***

After a season marked by unevenness, the Irish played a complete game in all three phases tonight.

In a season that’ll likely be remembered by back-breaking mistakes and the team’s inability to play consistently, the Irish’s domination of Maryland was satisfying in that they finally got a complete performance by all three facets of the football team.

“It was a total team effort today,” Kelly said. “If you look at it, our special teams — David Ruffer had a 52-yard field goal, Ben Turk punted the ball very, very well. Defensively we scored. Offensively we were able to play fast at times, which is a sign of a growing offense. So when we look at it, a very good victory for our football team.”

It was a breakthrough performance for the Irish specialists, with Ruffer breaking out of a season-long funk with a career long 52-yard field goal, a beautiful draw that hooked perfectly between the uprights. Turk ripped his season long punt — a 58-yard moon ball — and pinned the Terrapins inside their ten yard line twice.

Kelly was happy with his team’s performance and very happy that a solid week of preparation resulted in a victory.

“Our players truly understand how to win football games now, and it starts with our preparation during the week,” Kelly said. “They know that they have to be able to bring all three phases. We look to repeat that next week, and that’s the challenge to our football team.”

***

Robby Toma is playing his way into the slot receiver role.

The Irish were without slot receiver Theo Riddick, who missed Saturday night’s game with a pulled hamstring. But with Riddick missing, the Irish might have found their starting slot receiver: A pineapple-sized Hawaiian named Robby Toma.

Starting in Riddick’s place, Toma had seven catches for 74 yards, making highlight reel catches and infusing a true third receiving weapon to team with wide receiver Michael Floyd and tight end Tyler Eifert.

“He really adds a dimension to our offense,” Kelly said of Toma. “You saw that tonight, especially in the quick game stuff. He’s very good with the ball in his hands, run after catch, just a smart receiver. He’s a really good football player.”

Not many people expected to get a really good football player when Toma received and accepted a scholarship offer as the high school best friend of all-world recruit Manti Te’o. But Toma brings a feel to the slot that Riddick — a converted running back — just doesn’t possess yet.

If there’s a controversy, Kelly certainly isn’t acknowledging it. It’s just another step towards building a championship-level team.

“He’s been waiting for his chance, his opportunity,” Kelly said of Toma. “He’s a classic case of our next man in.”

***

The evolution of Tommy Rees continues.

The Irish’s sophomore quarterback is seemingly the favorite topic of just about every Irish fan, and Tommy Rees‘ evening is a case study in just how polarizing a sophomore quarterback only 13 starts into a career can be. For the first time this season, Kelly and Rees pushed the tempo of the Irish offense, and with the sophomore at the helm, the offense moved efficiently while not turning the ball over.

“Any way that we could establish a quicker tempo, allows us an opportunity to either put the ball out on the perimeter to our skill guys or run the ball inside,” Kelly explained. “Tommy did a really nice job tonight of feel. We went fast and he had to have a feel, do I give the ball out or do I put it on the perimeter and throw it. He had a nice feel for it.”

Of course, just watching Rees it’s easy to focus on what the sophomore quarterback can’t do, rather than what he did do, and it’s become a passion for some Irish fans convinced that the team’s least talented quarterback is tasked with running the offense. On Saturday night, Rees was sacked three times, going down for the first time since the Pitt game in September. It could have been a product of a hurry-up system with Mike Golic in place for injured Braxston Cave at center, but Rees also held onto the ball too long on one or two of those.

Just as obvious are Tommy’s limitations outside the pocket. The sophomore looked like he was running in quicksand when trying to scramble for yardage, a reminder that Kelly and his spread offense don’t have a quarterback that can give the running game a true zone-read option. (Not that it mattered on Saturday.)

Just the same, people complaining about Rees’ day tend to skip where he does his best work: the stat sheet. Even though he missed a few open deep throws, Rees still piled up some impressive numbers, completing 30 of 37 throws for 296 yards and two touchdowns. Consider those numbers include two drops by Michael Floyd and another by TJ Jones and Rees put together a mighty fine evening.

Will it ever be enough to stop people from complaining about him? Doubtful, because the siren song of a talented but unused quarterback is something desperate Irish fans will never be able to turn down. But with 11 wins in 13 starts, Rees’ .846 winning percentage would slot him between Tom Clements and Joe Theismann amongst the winningest quarterbacks in school history.

***

With the defense swarming, the special teams solid and the offense efficient, for one Saturday, the Irish attained a complete victory.

Ss complimentary as Kelly was after Saturday night’s victory, any thought that this victory meant anything more than one good Saturday was quickly squashed by the head coach.

“It was just today,” Kelly said of his team’s win. “You know, it’s Saturday, November the 12th. We played the way we need to play in all three phases. We’ll see what happens on the 19th of November.”

And that, is the thing with the 2011 Fighting Irish. On any given Saturday, this football team can look like one of the country’s best, making it easy to wonder what might have been had the Irish not given the game away against USF or imploded defensively against Michigan. But that’s the exact reason why Kelly won’t let this team take a big picture view at this season, especially with crucial games against Boston College and Stanford left to be played.

“I think for us the process is what we do during the week because we’re not at that point where it’s habit, that we do it the right way all the time,” Kelly said. “We’re making good progress there. We really can’t fly at 35,000 feet, so to speak. We have to really focus on the day-to-day.”

Still, the Irish got plenty of what they wanted out of Saturday night’s victory. With Manti Te’o protecting a tender ankle, linebackers Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese got plenty of snaps, and Kendall Moore gave us a promising look at what life will look like after-Te’o. With the team comfortably ahead, Austin Collinsworth, Bennett Jackson and Lo Wood got to take significant snaps, with Wood gifted a pick-six interception that’ll do nothing but build confidence.

More importantly, Kelly’s Irish have won five straight in November, almost entirely erasing the six-game skid that ended the Charlie Weis era. While this team might not yet be able to savor the experience, the win reminds me of something Bob Diaco said just as the team’s training camp was getting started.

“It was 1922 Gandhi to young India, where he talked about satisfaction being in the effort,” Diaco said back in August. “That it’s not in the attainment, but true victory is full effort… There needs to be refocusing daily on the things that need to get done today to create winning. Today. And tomorrow is tomorrow.”

For just one night, the Irish won convincingly. The rest of it — extending the brand of Notre Dame, Inc. by playing neutral site home games, wondering about what might have been with this football team, looking ahead to the polls, bowl slotting and Stanford — that can all wait.

 

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

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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

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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

Notre Dame’s successful early signing period now begets early visit questions

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Notre Dame used the first early signing period to its advantage, but in many respects, succeeding in that initial foray was by default. The Irish already had strong relationships with the recruiting class of 2018 when the NCAA finally agreed upon setting a 72-hour window for December. No other recruiting changes went into effect in the cycle, so the only shift was getting the paperwork ready and the grades verified six weeks earlier than usual.

“When you are presented with a new rule that gives you — go ahead, sign them early — and you’ve done all that work, that’s kind of a lay-up,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said on National Signing Day, Feb. 7. “The real work now begins with the early visits.”

A bit before finally nailing down the December early signing period, the NCAA also approved official visits for high school juniors in April, May and June. Previously, a recruit could not take an official visit until September of his senior year in high school.

For a program with a national reach in recruiting — pulling in multiple prospects from both coasts in the cycle of 2018, for example — it can be difficult to get a player to visit for a home game amidst his own football season. When it is possible, it is often a rushed trip. The recruit plays a high school game Friday night, flies to South Bend, possibly via Chicago, early Saturday morning and then departs mid-day Sunday to get back home in time for the school week.

Notre Dame can now instead slate that official visit for the summer, perhaps around a camp environment or the Blue-Gold Game (April 21).

In years to come, this expedited timing could have a greater effect on recruiting than the early signing period does.

“How we handle the back end of it, the back end being when are those visits going to start, when do you start them, when do you end them,” Kelly said, “That’s really what we’re trying to figure out at this point relative to tweaking and how that’s going to work.”

Theoretically, earlier visits could lead to earlier commitments, increasing the likelihood of more signings in December than in February, further de-emphasizing the traditional National Signing Day.

Amid all those changes, though, recruits are still allowed only five official visits and only one to each school. Of course, a recruit can make multiple unofficial visits, paying for those out of his and his family’s own pocket, but Notre Dame can pay for only one. As much as getting a recruit on campus earlier in the process should bode well for any program, it becomes a double-edged sword: Is it better to get a player on campus early and make that impression before other schools have the opportunity, or is it better to showcase a primetime game against a rival?

Irish recruiting coordinator Brian Polian suggested allowing two official visits per school, although remaining at only five total, on National Signing Day.

“Why not let a young man make two official visits to one institution? Because if somebody says to us, from far distance, I want to come make a visit to your place in the spring, well, ideally you want them to see a game atmosphere, as well,” Polian said. “There’s nothing like Notre Dame Stadium and this campus on a game weekend.

“Now we’re going to have to get into some strategic decisions about when do we want young men to take visits.”

Perhaps in time the NCAA will consider that adjustment, but it will not be for the cycle of 2019.

While when a player visits may impact the recruitment, Polian does not much care about when they commit, as long as they do. Notre Dame signed five prospects on National Signing Day who had not previously committed publicly, making it appear to be a strong finish to the class. Then again, the Irish also signed 21 players in the early signing period and received a 22nd commitment less than a week afterward.

“If you’ve got a really good class and they’ve been committed for a while, who cares when they said yes?” Polian said. “It’s as though the answers that you get at the end dictate your class.”