Weekend six pack: plane tracker edition

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With a bowl game still to be determined, the Irish aren’t quite sure when their next game is. For players, that means a week where there isn’t a whole lot to do.

“I hate not knowing what to do with your free time,” linebacker Carlo Calabrese tweeted yesterday.

Well that makes a few thousand of us, Carlo. We’ve got a few hundred days to talk about what’s happened this season. But in a week where players twiddled their thumbs, Brian Kelly just earned enough miles to fly platinum all year.

After starting on the West Coast last weekend, Kelly criss-crossed the country, with the university’s Cessna Citation hitting nine airports before returning to South Bend around 7 p.m. Thursday night. Where did he go? Well — Let’s roll out a special weekend six pack and talk about it.

1. The battle with USC has just begun. 

The Trojans definitely got the better of the Irish on the field this year. But right now, Notre Dame is out to a lead, and trying to run out the clock with two of their most talented California recruits. Cousins Tee Shepard and Deontay Greenberry are two of the highest profile recruits that Notre Dame has currently committed. Shepard will walk onto campus with a good shot to win immediate playing time in the secondary. Greenberry is the closest thing the Irish have to Michael Floyd, and he’s not on the roster until June.

If it were up to Lane Kiffin and his coaching staff, neither will end up on the Irish roster. Within the last 48 hours, hard-core recruitniks were thrown for a tizzy when news broke that both Shepard and Greenberry planned on seeing USC this weekend. Brian Kelly reportedly took his in-home visit with Shepard earlier in the week while Mike Denbrock was welcomed into the Greenberry household. The cousins always said they’d take their official visits, but a spook job this late in the game by the Trojans — who have somehow proclaimed themselves champions of a division they weren’t technically allowed to compete for — have Irish fans worried.

According to this tweet, the worries on Shepard should be alleviated, as it appears Shepard is going nowhere except South Bend in January to enroll early. As for Greenberry, Brian Kelly has wisely saved his in-home visit, and while the Trojans may get their opportunity to entertain the 6-foot-3 wide receiver, just one look at the depth charts and his cousins decision to enroll at South Bend, and the Irish are still doing more than all right.

2. This coaching staff doesn’t take no for an answer. 

It’s amazing to think that Notre Dame is out to almost a dozen uncommitted recruits, has just a handful of spots left in the class, and is still working even harder on players that most don’t think they have a chance with. The best two examples are across the country from each other: Arizona offensive lineman Andrus Peat and South Florida cornerback Brian Poole.

Today, offensive line coach Ed Warinner put plenty to think about in Peat’s ear, and the super blue-chip prospect moved the Irish back into consideration after cooling on the team considerably. Jason Sapp of BlueandGold.com has more:

“I’d say it helped,” he shared of Notre Dame’s chances of being in the group of schools he’s looking at for his other officials. “I’m considering taking a visit again now.

“I just got a better feel for Coach Warinner, who would be my position coach if I went there, and my parents and I got to ask any questions we had about the program. I’m not sure if I’m going to take an official there yet, but I’m going to call (Irish head coach Brian) Kelly tomorrow and possibly set one up.”

Adding another massive left tackle prospect would help stockpile talent on the offensive front. But adding a guy like Poole — who has long been committed to the Florida Gators — would satisfy a huge need for the Irish, and Tony Alford‘s on the case. According to multiple reports, the Poole family is high on a Notre Dame education and has taken a look at the depth chart in front of him, giving the Irish a legitimate chance to flip another Top 100 player in the country, who has offers from just about every power team in the Southeast.

3. Carolina on the mind. 

There’s a big fish still out there. It’s Keith Marshall, the talented running back from Raleigh, North Carolina, that has Mark Richt and Brian Kelly doing battle. Marshall was named Gatorade’s National Player of the Year yesterday, and has decided to announce his college choice on December 6th, with the intention of enrolling in school early.

Yet that’s far from the only open line the Irish have down in the Carolinas. The Irish are once again hitting the area hard, and Kelly has gone and visited a trio of Carolina commitments — Charlotte natives Mark Harrell and Romeo Okwara, and also South Carolina wide receiver Chris Brown, who reported to BlueandGold.com’s Jason Sapp that he was fully qualified for next year.

All three of those recruits are below-the-radar targets, and Okwara is particularly high on the Irish board, with Notre Dame unwilling to take blue-chip recruit Tommy Schutt‘s commitment with Okwara ready to pledge Irish. Okwara is incredibly young, making his 6-foot-4, 240-pound frame something that’s easily projectable.

4. Irish fans are already getting ready to re-hate Urban Meyer.

More than a few eyebrows were raised when Kelly announced Urban Meyer would be talking at the staff’s annual coaching clinic last offseason. Didn’t this new staff know that Meyer, even if he was out of coaching, was the enemy?

Well — if Kelly wasn’t aware of it then, he’ll certainly be more mindful of it now that they’ll be running into each other on the recruiting trail. The first collision? None other than current Irish offensive line commitment Taylor Decker. But don’t worry Irish fans, Decker’s rock solid in his commitment.

“Urban Meyer called my high school coach but I didn’t talk to him directly and one of the coaches came to the school and talked to my coach,” Decker told Irish Illustrated. “My coach said it was very brief and that coach Meyer said they were interested in me. As far as I’m concerned I’m still committed to Notre Dame.”

Decker’s been committed to the Irish since March, making him one of those old reliable recruits you tend to undervalue. But the fact that in the first days of Meyer’s term in Columbus he’s talking to the Vandalia, Ohio native, well — the Irish’s prom date just got a lot more attractive.

5. It’s not 4 a.m. yet, but Bob Diaco’s back on the case.

One of the sneaky good recruiters on this coaching staff is defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, who handles the Northeast for the Irish. Last year, that meant reeling in five-star recruit Ishaq Williams at 4 a.m.when he waited outside the family’s Brooklyn home. No word on when Diaco secured the visit, but he’s talked New Jersey safety Elijah Shumate — one of the best players in the region — into an official visit for later in December. If it’s up to Diaco, he’ll be joined by his teammate cornerback Yuri Wright, who is another cornerback that could likely walk onto campus and compete for a job.

The Irish aren’t recruiting the Northeast all that hard this year, but getting Shumate and Wright on campus will be a big benefit, and if that happens Diaco proved last year he’ll go the extra mile to land them.

6. Enjoy recruiting in moderation. 

Let’s dump the sixth one out and start drinking some water. It’s the beginning of December. If we get too hot into this, we’ll be one-eyed texting by the end of the month and rolled up in a corner and fast asleep with our shoes on before Signing Day rolls around a few months from now. That’s no way for us to be, and this will never be a hotbed for recruiting news, though I’ll certainly do my best to keep you up to speed.

Still — it deserves a mention: The internet is a very open playground, and there’s now really easy ways to follow your favorite athletes and recruits, be it on Twitter, Facebook, or whatever it is the kids are enjoying these days. But it deserves an even stronger mention — consider the recruiting world the zoo. Stare all you want at the lions and tigers, but please — don’t touch them. Nothing good can happen.

So cheer for your favorite team to sign that five-star running back or quarterback, but please use your head. Don’t send messages, emails, Twitter messages, or anything else to these kids pushing them to a school. If you donate money to your favorite college, you might be committing a recruiting violation. Even if you don’t, it’s just plain weird. Think back to those days when you were 17. Would you want to see the 2011 you poking around in your life as you try and pick a college? Me neither.

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.