Five things we learned: Florida State 18, Notre Dame 14

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If you could boil down one game to encapsulate a season, you might have something that looks like the Champs Sports Bowl. During Notre Dame’s 18-14 loss, the Irish turned just about every conceivable emotion for a football fan on its head– ecstasy to agony, confidence to frustration, bravado to helplessness.

At times, the Irish looked like the BCS contender many thought they were entering the season. The defense absolutely overwhelmed Florida State’s offensive line, beating quarterback E.J. Manuel to a pulp while limiting the Seminoles to single-digit rushing yards for much of the game. Offensively, the Irish cobbled together just enough in the second quarter to control the line of scrimmage, running Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood, targeting Michael Floyd and Tyler Eifert, even mixing in the running of Andrew Hendrix with the passing of Tommy Rees.

Then the game flipped, and as it did too often this season, the snowball built, and the Irish tumbled out of control. The Irish weren’t able to overcome three interceptions, two coming in the Florida State endzone. The secondary that played so well swarming to the football failed to do its job when the throw went over its head. And after having what looked like a comfortable 14-0 lead, the Irish gave up the final 18 points of the game, turning a potential ninth victory against an impressive opponent into a logic-defying fifth loss of the season.

“The turnovers were again a large reason for us not to be able to win this football game,” head coach Brian Kelly said after the game. “It’s been the case all year. It started at South Florida, and continued to show itself throughout the entire year.”

This football team showed us what it was all season, and then proved it one last time on Thursday night, making the same mistakes that doomed the Irish all year. Let’s find out what we learned during the Champs Sports Bowl, the crushing finale to one of the most frustrating seasons the Irish have played in a very long time.

***

The Irish will never be a successful team if they can’t solve the quarterbacking situation.

There aren’t many teams good enough to turn the ball over three times and beat a good football team. Notre Dame proved that, one-upping themselves by having Rees throw two of the interceptions in the end zone while Hendrix set up the Seminoles deep in Irish territory when he hit Florida State linebacker Nigel Bradham in the chest. Any aspirations the Irish had to be an elite football team went down the drain with the team’s quarterback play, and three crucial interceptions against the Seminoles put the focus straight on that issue for head coach Brian Kelly.

“It’s nice to be able to talk about a Notre Dame football team that plays championship defense, because they did that today,” Kelly said. “Now we’ve got to get our offense to obviously play at that level as well. That will be the next step for our football program. Getting our offense to play at the same level that our defense is evolving to.”

Even if Rees went out and threw for 400 yards and five touchdowns, the competition at quarterback would’ve been open heading into spring practice, and Rees’ struggles against another elite defense adds yet another data-point for those who don’t believe the sophomore quarterback has what it takes to lead the Irish back into the elite of college football.

Kelly sticking with Rees for much of the bowl game shows you that while Tommy still makes maddeningly bad decisions interspersed with some impressive throws, Kelly thought he was the best guy to protect a fourteen point second half lead. But for those thinking that just because Rees was the guy for the Irish throughout the 2011 season he’s the guy for next year, fear not.

“I’m going to evaluate everything that I do and how we do it,” Kelly said. “Because the offense just has to get better.”

Expect all three quarterbacks on the roster to get a shot at running this offense. And while Andrew Hendrix certainly has a skill-set that uniquely qualifies him to take over, the guy that has the most potential still hasn’t taken a snap. In Everett Golson, Kelly has the prototype triggerman for what he needs to run his optimal offense. Whether he’s ready to run the show or not remains to be seen.

The quarterback position got derailed in the season’s opening minutes, and ironically Dayne Crist’s undoing initially wasn’t his own, but rather Jonas Gray’s goalline fumble. From there, the senior quarterback was tentative, missing more throws than he made, and making a critical red zone mistake before going scoreless and into halftime down 16 points in his one half of football.

We’ll never know what Dayne Crist would’ve done if he came back out after halftime. But there’s good reason to believe that whoever was playing quarterback was gap filling for Golson or Hendrix, two guys better suited to run the offense. Even with an Irish win and flawless quarterback play, this would’ve been the top story of the spring. But the Irish collapse behind center tonight all but assured it.

***

After playing aggressively for most of the first half, calling off the dogs killed the Irish defense.

When Lou Holtz questions your strategy, you know you’ve got reason to be second-guessed. But even Dr. Lou was wondering why the Irish stopped blitzing in the second half, giving E.J. Manuel time to throw the ball and an overwhelmed offensive line time to catch its breath.

After spending much of the first half running for his life, Manuel settled down and had a nice second half, completing a few deep circus catches over Irish cornerbacks Gary Gray and Robert Blanton, pulling the Seminoles back in a game that they were dominated in for much of the evening.

After going up two touchdowns, it seems that the Irish were content to go back to their base defense, forcing the Seminoles to earn their yards and they guarded against the big play in zone coverage. But by allowing Manuel time to breathe, they enabled the FSU offense to make the big play, with wide receivers Bert Reed and Rashad Greene catching touchdowns to lead the Seminoles back and Kenny Shaw giving the secondary fits as well.

It’ll be lost in the shuffle, but safety Jamoris Slaughter played his best game in an Irish uniform from a hybrid linebacker position, racking up two sacks as the Irish pass rush pressured FSU relentlessly. Aaron Lynch also dominated the team he almost played for, adding 1.5 sacks and spending much of the evening chasing Manuel down in the backfield. Stephon Tuitt rallied back from an illness that derailed the end of his season to play another excellent game, giving the Irish front seven some really impressive building blocks for next year.

Holding the Seminoles to under 250 yards is a good day at the office and placing the blame for this loss on the defense is particularly foolish, especially considering that Bob Diaco‘s troops put up half the team’s points with a forced fumble by Manti Te’o and scoop and score by safety Zeke Motta. But after two seasons at the helm of the Irish defense, Diaco will need to evolve this defense next season, taking advantage of the horses he has up front, especially when he won’t be able to lean on a veteran secondary.

***

With Michael Floyd departing, the Irish are going to have to find offense from somewhere.

After making a circus catch on a jump ball in the corner of the end zone for his 37th career touchdown catch, Michael Floyd‘s Irish career ended on the sideline when his teammates needed him the most, unable to get back into the game after suffering an injury securing the ball after beating talented FSU cornerback Greg Reid for a ball that seemed destined for Reid’s hands.

The senior wide receiver, who broke the game’s first big play with an early 41 yard punt return that set the Irish up in FSU territory, seemed dinged up before the touchdown catch, after a big collision on the Seminoles sideline with safety Lamarcus Joyner, who collided with Floyd and cornerback Xavier Rhodes, sending his teammate out for the game with an apparent knee injury.

“He’s just an incredible competitor,” Kelly said of his star receiver. “This is my 22nd year and I’ve had great players, guys that have gone on to have great careers in the NFL or doctors and lawyers, you remember the guys that overcome. The guys that compete and battle. He did that today.”

Floyd didn’t play the best game of his career, limited to just five catches for 41 yards, dropping a deep ball that could’ve gone all the way early in the game and being overthrown on another deep throw where he had his man beat. But Floyd’s departure from the field in the game’s final quarter gave Irish fans a grim look at what this offense will look like without it’s star receiver.

It might be hard to recognize for Irish fans, but Floyd is the only receiver on the roster that keeps defenses honest. The Seminoles secondary didn’t seem concerned with anybody other than Floyd and tight end Tyler Eifert, with the Irish’s all-time leading receiver the number one priority for a secondary that suffered multiple injuries in the game. Yet without Floyd in the game, the Irish couldn’t take advantage of the depleted secondary, and it was John Goodman acting as the deep threat for Rees, targeted in the endzone on the game’s defining interception.

Reinforcements are coming, with Deontay Greenberry one of the most important commitments on the Irish board right now and the Irish still in the hunt for some blue-chip, college ready talent. But after watching four years of the Irish’s most dominant wide receiver in school history, the Irish offense will need to find someone to fill the very large hole Floyd leaves behind.

***

Tyler Eifert has a tough decision to make.

With Floyd graduated and heading to the NFL, the spotlight is now on tight end Tyler Eifert to decide whether or not he’ll return for his senior season at Notre Dame or follow in the footsteps of Kyle Rudolph and exit Notre Dame after three seasons and declare himself eligible for the NFL Draft.

Eifert led the Irish with six catches and 90 yards in a losing effort, taking a few bruising hits while making tough catches for big gains from both Rees and Hendrix. The solid performance capped off a season with 63 catches — and Irish record for tight ends and the best season in the NCAA — while also being named a Mackey Award finalist. Reports say Eifert has heard he’s graded out as a second or third round player, not as good of an assessment Rudolph received last year, but good enough to make the decision difficult for Eifert and his family.

Talking to the Chicago Tribune after the game, Eifert knows he’s got a choice to make.

“I mean, there’s not much more information I can get to make a decision,” Eifert told the Tribune. “I think I have pretty much everything I need. It’s just a matter of what I personally want to do and figuring it out.”

If Eifert returns for just his third season of competition, the Irish will have a proven offensive weapon to build around, and someone to keep defenses honest. He’ll also have a chance to work on his physicality, the area of his game that likely drags his draft grade down a round or so. If he doesn’t, the Irish might look to see if Mike Ragone‘s eligible for an injury hardship waiver and a sixth year, or work quickly to get freshman Ben Koyack and sophomore Alex Welch ready for action, with no tight end currently on the recruiting radar.

Unwilling to make any proclamations after a difficult loss, Eifert has to make a decision before the January 15 deadline.

“I’d like to figure out what I’m doing as soon as I can,” Eifert told the Tribune, “but it’s not really a decision to rush.”

***

After rolling into last offseason with momentum, it’s time to batten down the hatches and get to work.

The unprecedented forward momentum the Irish took into last year’s offseason didn’t propell the Irish to 2011 greatness. So perhaps a stinging ending to a frustrating season will help refocus a football team that absolutely needs to do better at the little things that differentiate a 8-5 football team from one that finds itself in a BCS bowl.

Fans will always grumble and question whether the men in charge are the right ones for the job. Back-to-back 8-5 seasons likely add members to that bandwagon, a group that always has strength in numbers among the Notre Dame faithful. But Brian Kelly and his coaching staff are going nowhere, and while they’ll face lower approval ratings than they had last offseason, they need to continue their dogged chase to transform this football team.

“We know what we need to do,” Kelly said. “We’ve already talked about it. The players that are going to be back for the 2012 football season will be committed to getting that end done.”

After transforming a defense that destroyed Charlie Weis’ career at Notre Dame, Kelly will look at the flaws of his offense. Hired as an offensive innovator, Kelly will now look to improve a unit that played the bowl game short its offensive coordinator and will likely be filling the hole from within.

“We have to get our offense better,” Kelly stated. “When I say better, I’m not talking about the way our guys compete, I’m talking about, we turn the ball over. And we cannot win football games at the highest level if we continue to turn the ball over. The coaches have to get better. The players have to get better. And we need to solve this issue if we’re going to be an elite football team.”

While the next three months will be dedicated to fixing problems that doomed this football team, the next 35 days will be dedicated to finishing strong on the recruiting trail. After identifying the frailty of his defensive front seven, Kelly’s built a unit that can stack up with the rest of the BCS contenders.  Now it’s time to upgrade the deteriorating skill positions on the team, bulking up both the wide receiving and defensive back coffers with hopes that the staff has identified game-ready talent that’s able to step in and compete.

Once again the vultures will swirl above the football program, wondering if Brian Kelly is the right man for the toughest job in college football. That’s what happens when you lose football games the way this team did, and give away a bowl game to a traditional rival like Florida State. But after getting ahead of themselves in a season lost to maddening inconsistencies, the Irish will have five perfect examples (USF, Michigan, USC, Stanford, and Florida State) of why they need to keep focusing on the task ahead instead of what’s behind them. It may be hard for those of us watching on television or the stands, but for a football program with a singular goal, the frustration of 2011 will likely power this group into 2012.

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No.6 Equanimeous St. Brown, receiver

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-5, 204 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Junior with two years of eligibility remaining including the 2017 season.
Depth chart: St. Brown will start as the field receiver, otherwise known as the X. Even as he may move around from the field to the boundary, St. Brown will be a threat for nearly every offensive snap.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star recruit, St. Brown held offers from 10 of the Pac-12 programs with Oregon and Oregon State the outliers, as well as from LSU, Miami and Vanderbilt, among others. The Under Armour All-American waited until National Signing Day to commit to the Irish. Rivals.com listed him as the No. 15 receiver in the class of 2015, the No. 23 prospect in California and the No. 144 player in the country.

CAREER TO DATE
After a ho-hum, limited-action, injury-shortened freshman season, St. Brown broke out last year, to say the least. St. Brown led Notre Dame in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns, establishing himself as then-quarterback DeShone Kizer’s most-dangerous as well as most-consistent target.

2015: Seven games, one reception for eight yards before a shoulder injury ended his debut campaign. St. Brown blocked a punt against USC.
2016: 12 games, 12 starts, 58 receptions for 961 yards and nine touchdowns. Highlighting his season, St. Brown took four catches for 182 yards and two touchdowns against Syracuse, including a 79-yard score on the first play from scrimmage. He also logged 116 receiving yards against Duke.

QUOTES
When a sophomore comes about two average-length catches short of a 60-reception, 1,000-yard and 10-touchdown season, not much needs to be worried about the following spring. Instead, Irish coach Brian Kelly noted the improvements in the receiver corps around its standout, though St. Brown is obviously working to stay ahead of the pack, as well.

“I see better balance,” Kelly said in late March. “We have some guys that will come up to the level [St. Brown] was at least year to give the quarterback and the offense a little more balance than we had last year. [St. Brown] will be a better player. He’s working on some of the weaknesses that he has, which limits him in certain areas, and he’s diligently working on those.

“You’re going to see a better supporting cast across the board, which will give us much more balance. More importantly, it’s going to give us much more consistency from an offensive standpoint.”

WHAT KEITH ARNOLD PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
The drop-off from a veteran like Chris Brown to a receiver with one career catch is sizable. But from a physical skills perspective, St. Brown can do everything needed to be a standout, he just needs to grow up in a hurry.

“Predicting a breakout sophomore season like the ones Golden Tate or Will Fuller had isn’t fair. But with a strong running game and Torii Hunter across from him, St. Brown will have plenty of opportunities to make big plays, he just needs to seize those chances.

“Can St. Brown put himself on course to be the next great Irish receiver? The hype has slowed, but there’s no reason the answer should be no.

“This camp has been all about young receivers finding consistency. While [current-sophomore] Kevin Stepherson seems to have taken most of the excitement, I think St. Brown will be the best of the bunch — at least in 2016.

“But let’s keep expectations in check. I’ll set the bar somewhere between Torii Hunter’s 2015 and Chris Brown’s junior season, with St Brown catching somewhere around 30 balls if he stays healthy and holds onto his starting job.”

2017 OUTLOOK
Suffice it to say, St. Brown exceeded any and all expectations in 2016, beginning with his tumbling touchdown against Texas. In a way, those successes make it likely St. Brown falls short of expectations in 2017. If he does appear to take a step back, whether that is shown in statistics or not, it could be partly due to the added depth Kelly referred to.

Notre Dame has more options at receiver this year, losing only Hunter form last year’s top-five receivers, and only him and [Purdue transfer] Corey Holmes among those with double-digit catches. Meanwhile, junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush will have an ascending junior Miles Boykin to target at the boundary position and returning, to much hype, junior tight end Alizé Mack drawing attention, as well.

Defenses will not be able to key on St. Brown this season, but Wimbush will not be doing so, either. Overall, that behooves the team, even if it lessens St. Brown’s chances of gaining 39 more yards than last season to reach a four-digit total.

DOWN THE ROAD
Do not be surprised if St. Brown declares for the NFL after this, his junior, season. This is a player with an intellect capable enough to speak three languages fluently (German, French and he dabbles in a little English). He will presumably be close to graduation by the end of 2018’s spring semester. A strong season with a few notable highlights could solidify a strong draft status.

That said, do not be surprised if St. Brown returns to Notre Dame for another year. If he does, that may be a positive indicator for the Irish for a few years beyond 2018. St. Brown’s youngest brother, Amon-Ra St. Brown, is the No. 1 receiver and No. 4 player overall in the class of 2018, per rivals.com, and is considering a list of scholarship offers even more impressive than his oldest brother’s was. Name a prominent college football program and Amon-Ra has heard from its coaching staff, including Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State, Miami, Oklahoma and Oregon (though still no note of Oregon State).

If the consensus five-star chooses Notre Dame over USC and Stanford, perhaps Equanimeous St. Brown will not be able to resist spending a season lining up alongside his brother. However, it should be noted, the middle St. Brown brother, Osiris, will be a freshman receiver at Stanford this season.


2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
No. 95: Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 92)
No. 94: Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 95)
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92: Jonathon MacCollister; defensive end (originally theorized as No. 46)
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end
No. 88: Javon McKinley, receiver
No. 87: Michael Young, receiver (originally theorized as No. 84)
No. 86: Alizé Mack, tight end
No. 85: Tyler Newsome, punter
No. 84: Cole Kmet, tight end (originally theorized as No. 90)
No. 83: Chase Claypool, receiver
No. 82: Nic Weishar, tight end
No. 81: Miles Boykin, receiver
No. 80: Durham Smythe, tight end
No. 78: Tommy Kraemer, right tackle
No. 77: Brandon Tiassum, defensive tackle
No. 76: Dillan Gibbons, offensive lineman (originally theorized as No. 65)
No. 75: Josh Lugg, offensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 73)
No. 75: Daniel Cage, defensive tackle
No. 74: Liam Eichenberg, right tackle
No. 72: Robert Hainsey, offensive tackle
No. 71: Alex Bars, offensive lineman
No. 70: Hunter Bivin, offensive lineman
No. 69: Aaron Banks, offensive lineman
No. 68: Mike McGlinchey, left tackle
No. 67: Jimmy Byrne, offensive lineman
No. 58: Elijah Taylor, defensive tackle
No. 57: Trevor Ruhland, offensive lineman
No. 56: Quenton Nelson, left guard
No. 55: Jonathan Bonner, defensive lineman
No. 54: John Shannon, long snapper
No. 53: Sam Mustipher, center
No. 53: Khalid Kareem, defensive lineman
No. 48: Greer Martini, inside linebacker
No. 47: Kofi Wardlow, defensive end
No. 45: Jonathan Jones, inside linebacker
No. 44: Jamir Jones, linebacker/defensive lineman
No. 42: Julian Okwara, defensive end
No. 41: Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 94)
No. 40: Drew White, linebacker
No. 39: Jonathan Doerer, kicker (originally theorized as No. 52)
No. 38: Deon McIntosh, running back/receiver
No. 35: David Adams, linebacker
No. 34: Tony Jones, Jr., running back
No. 33: Josh Adams, running back
No. 32: D.J. Morgan, safety
No. 30: Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, rover
No. 29: Kevin Stepherson, receiver
No. 28: Nicco Fertitta, safety
No. 27: Julian Love, cornerback
No. 26: Ashton White, safety
No. 25: Jafar Armstrong, receiver (originally theorized as No. 87)
No. 24: Nick Coleman, safety
No. 23: Drue Tranquill, rover
No. 22: Asmar Bilal, rover
No. 21: Jalen Elliott, safety
No. 20: Shaun Crawford, cornerback
No. 19: Justin Yoon, kicker
No. 18: Troy Pride, cornerback
No. 17: Isaiah Robertson, safety
No. 16: Cameron Smith, receiver
No. 15: C.J. Holmes, running back
No. 14: Devin Studstill, safety
No. 13: Avery Davis, quarterback
No. 13: Jordan Genmark Heath, safety
No. 12: Ian Book, quarterback
No. 12: Alohi Gilman, safety
No. 11: Freddy Canteen, receiver
No. 10: Chris Finke, receiver
No. 9: Daelin Hayes, defensive end
No. 8: Donte Vaughn, cornerback
No. 7: Brandon Wimbush, quarterback
No. 7: Nick Watkins, cornerback

TRANSFERS
No. 66: Tristen Hoge, offensive lineman, transfers to BYU
No. 50: Parker Boudreaux, offensive lineman
No. 30: Josh Barajas, linebacker, to transfer to Illinois State

INJURIES
No. 13: Tyler Luatua, tight end, career ended by medical hardship

LB Shayne Simon’s commitment could solve rover questions of the future

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With its second commitment in three days, Notre Dame moved a notable step closer to filling its class of 2018. Consensus four-star outside linebacker Shayne Simon (St. Peter’s Prep; Jersey City, N.J.) chose the Irish over Michigan in a Tuesday afternoon announcement.

“The way they carry themselves and how they go about things at Notre Dame is something I really enjoy,” Simon told rivals.com. “Their reputation for being such a great academic institution was also very intriguing to me.”

A U.S. Army All-American, rivals.com rates Simon the No. 9 outside linebacker in the class, the No. 4 prospect in New Jersey and the No. 138 overall recruit in the country. At 6-foot-2, 210 pounds and with developing, though already viable, coverage skills, Simon could project as Notre Dame’s next entry at rover, the preferred wrinkle to Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme.

Currently, senior Drue Tranquill mans the position, but by the time Simon arrives on campus, Tranquill will be in his final year of eligibility, leaving only current-junior Asmar Bilal and freshman Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah ahead of Simon. Whereas Owusu-Koramoah is a safety moving up to rover, Simon could fill a role similar to Bilal, focusing on ground-dominant opponents while Owusu-Koramoah sees more action against pass-happy foes.

Whether at rover or not, Notre Dame looks to be thin at linebacker in the coming years. Once current senior captains Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini depart, only junior Te’von Coney and sophomore Jonathan Jones would remain from last year’s depth chart, with sophomore Jamir Jones expected to slowly transition to the defensive line and freshmen David Adams and Drew White joining the program this summer.

The class of 2018 already had two linebackers in the class — Simon joins rivals.com four-star Matthew Bauer (Cathedral Prep School; Erie, Pa.) and consensus three-star Ovie Oghoufo (Harrison High School; Farmington Hills, Mich.). Combined with Bauer, rivals.com’s No. 7 inside linebacker and No. 129 overall prospect, Simon could form a longtime mid-level partnership on Notre Dame’s defense.

Simon’s commitment brings the Irish class to 14, after running back Jahmir Smith joined those ranks Sunday evening. Simon knows two of the earliest commitments in the class very well: He is teammates and classmates with the defensive linemen twins Jayson and Justin Ademilola.

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 7 Nick Watkins, cornerback

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-1, 203 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Senior with two years of eligibility remaining including the 2017 season.
Depth chart: Partly due to his size, partly due to his seniority and partly due to his overall skill, Watkins is the likely starter at the boundary cornerback position this fall. Sophomore Donte Vaughn backs up Watkins, but it is more likely to be junior Shaun Crawford as the third cornerback on the field, though he is expected to focus on nickel back.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star prospect, Watkins could have gone to about any school he wanted, receiving offers from Alabama, Florida State and Ohio State, just to name a few. His recruiting rankings may not have been as high as those offers would indicate since he did not take part in much of the camp circuit. Rivals.com rated the Under Armour All-American the No. 15 cornerback in the class of 2014, the No. 22 recruit in Texas and the No. 186 overall player in the country.

CAREER TO DATE
Originally, Watkins struggled to see much playing time because the Irish could rely on KeiVarae Russell and Cole Luke to man the position. When injuries decimated Notre Dame’s depth, Watkins got his first chance at genuine playing time against the dynamic Ohio State offense in the Fiesta Bowl following the 2015 season. He rose to the challenge, making three tackles and breaking up one pass against an offense filled with pro prospects.

2014: 11 games almost entirely on special teams, no other statistics.
2015: 12 games, one start (Ohio State), contributed both on special teams and as a defensive reserve, eight tackles.
2016: A broken arm suffered in spring practice did not heal in time to make playing Watkins a worthwhile maneuver last season, thus preserving him a year of eligibility.

QUOTE(S)
A year lost to injury is never a positive thing, but Irish coach Brian Kelly pointed to some hidden perks to Watkins spending 2016 on the sidelines.

“Nick is playing with a lot of confidence,” Kelly said in late March. “He’s long. He’s very coachable. He’s a great kid and [I] really like the way he’s competing out there. The season off obviously was in a lot of ways disappointing, but I think he benefited greatly from that year to see it, to learn. He’s had a really terrific offseason in the weight room and you can see his transition out of his break, breaking on the ball, playing physical at the line of scrimmage. Nice to have him back. He really gives us a presence out there that we’re starting to feel.”

That presence is part of why the cornerbacks are now more often described as boundary and field positions, rather than left and right or strong side and weak side.

“What I think [defensive coordinator] Mike [Elko] does really well … is we all have strengths and weaknesses,” Kelly said. “He has a great eye of saying let’s take Nick’s strengths and let’s put him in a position where we can really utilize his strengths. Maybe we’re not a right and left corner team — maybe we’re a short field, wide field. Let’s apply him in that fashion.

“Nick’s long. He’s a little bit of a physical player and let’s go to those strengths. He’s shown some of those attributes early on.”

WHAT KEITH ARNOLD PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
Of all the injuries we tracked this offseason, Watkins’ broken arm seemed the least on the radar, though has a chance to be the most impactful. That Notre Dame’s medical staff is treating it aggressively says something about the player they think they have in Watkins — who Kelly said would be allowed to fight for a starting job once he’s physically able.

“I’m no doctor — but that won’t stop me from evaluating Watkins’ progress. And for the most part, I don’t think it’s the best formula for success jumping into the mix with no training camp and limited time to get in shape at the most demanding position on Notre Dame’s roster.

“While losing Watkins is a blow — especially with the length of these suspensions unknown — any chance to take a medical redshirt could be huge for Notre Dame’s depth, getting Watkins a chance to redo his junior season, capable of stepping in after Cole Luke departs.”

2017 OUTLOOK
In theory, a broken arm should not have lingering effects 18 months later. With that in mind, Watkins should have a strong hold on playing time this season. His performance against Ohio State may have been only one game, but it was such a promising showing there is a distinct temptation to forgo any sample size disclaimers.

Watkins’ physicality can be applied on the boundary, where the sideline limits a receiver’s escape options. The question will be how long it takes Watkins to get back up to game speed, both mentally and physically. The latter half of that query may come down to instinct. As for his mental readjustment, Watkins may be the biggest beneficiary of the particular tendencies of the first few Irish opponents. Temple, Georgia and Michigan State all lean heavily on their run games, giving Watkins a few weeks to adjust to his first consistent collegiate playing time.

DOWN THE ROAD
Losing Watkins in 2016, along with a number of other defensive backs, undoubtedly played a role in the disappointing season. No one would say having him around in 2018 will be worth that trade, but it is a nice perk.

Notre Dame’s cornerback depth will be a genuine asset the next two seasons. Having Watkins around for the second half of that will play a crucial part in stabilizing the position amid recent recruiting misses.


2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
No. 95: Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 92)
No. 94: Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 95)
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92: Jonathon MacCollister; defensive end (originally theorized as No. 46)
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end
No. 88: Javon McKinley, receiver
No. 87: Michael Young, receiver (originally theorized as No. 84)
No. 86: Alizé Mack, tight end
No. 85: Tyler Newsome, punter
No. 84: Cole Kmet, tight end (originally theorized as No. 90)
No. 83: Chase Claypool, receiver
No. 82: Nic Weishar, tight end
No. 81: Miles Boykin, receiver
No. 80: Durham Smythe, tight end
No. 78: Tommy Kraemer, right tackle
No. 77: Brandon Tiassum, defensive tackle
No. 76: Dillan Gibbons, offensive lineman (originally theorized as No. 65)
No. 75: Josh Lugg, offensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 73)
No. 75: Daniel Cage, defensive tackle
No. 74: Liam Eichenberg, right tackle
No. 72: Robert Hainsey, offensive tackle
No. 71: Alex Bars, offensive lineman
No. 70: Hunter Bivin, offensive lineman
No. 69: Aaron Banks, offensive lineman
No. 68: Mike McGlinchey, left tackle
No. 67: Jimmy Byrne, offensive lineman
No. 58: Elijah Taylor, defensive tackle
No. 57: Trevor Ruhland, offensive lineman
No. 56: Quenton Nelson, left guard
No. 55: Jonathan Bonner, defensive lineman
No. 54: John Shannon, long snapper
No. 53: Sam Mustipher, center
No. 53: Khalid Kareem, defensive lineman
No. 48: Greer Martini, inside linebacker
No. 47: Kofi Wardlow, defensive end
No. 45: Jonathan Jones, inside linebacker
No. 44: Jamir Jones, linebacker/defensive lineman
No. 42: Julian Okwara, defensive end
No. 41: Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 94)
No. 40: Drew White, linebacker
No. 39: Jonathan Doerer, kicker (originally theorized as No. 52)
No. 38: Deon McIntosh, running back/receiver
No. 35: David Adams, linebacker
No. 34: Tony Jones, Jr., running back
No. 33: Josh Adams, running back
No. 32: D.J. Morgan, safety
No. 30: Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, rover
No. 29: Kevin Stepherson, receiver
No. 28: Nicco Fertitta, safety
No. 27: Julian Love, cornerback
No. 26: Ashton White, safety
No. 25: Jafar Armstrong, receiver (originally theorized as No. 87)
No. 24: Nick Coleman, safety
No. 23: Drue Tranquill, rover
No. 22: Asmar Bilal, rover
No. 21: Jalen Elliott, safety
No. 20: Shaun Crawford, cornerback
No. 19: Justin Yoon, kicker
No. 18: Troy Pride, cornerback
No. 17: Isaiah Robertson, safety
No. 16: Cameron Smith, receiver
No. 15: C.J. Holmes, running back
No. 14: Devin Studstill, safety
No. 13: Avery Davis, quarterback
No. 13: Jordan Genmark Heath, safety
No. 12: Ian Book, quarterback
No. 12: Alohi Gilman, safety
No. 11: Freddy Canteen, receiver
No. 10: Chris Finke, receiver
No. 9: Daelin Hayes, defensive end
No. 8: Donte Vaughn, cornerback
No. 7: Brandon Wimbush, quarterback

TRANSFERS
No. 66: Tristen Hoge, offensive lineman, transfers to BYU
No. 50: Parker Boudreaux, offensive lineman
No. 30: Josh Barajas, linebacker, to transfer to Illinois State

INJURIES
No. 13: Tyler Luatua, tight end, career ended by medical hardship

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 7 Brandon Wimbush, quarterback

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-1 ½, 226 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Junior with three years of eligibility remaining including the 2017 season.
Depth chart: Wimbush will start at quarterback against Temple in 39 days. If needed, sophomore Ian Book will back up Wimbush, though obviously the Irish very much hope Book is not needed for more than an occasional snap this fall.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star recruit, Wimbush originally committed to Penn State. When he chose Notre Dame, he did so to the dismay of a litany of other programs, including Alabama, Ohio State and Stanford. Rivals.com rated the 2014 New Jersey Gatorade Player of the Year and Under Armour All-American the No. 4 dual-threat quarterback in his class, the No. 2 prospect in New Jersey and the No. 60 overall in the country. Wimbush was also named a Max Preps first-team All-American, if those earlier honors were not enough.

CAREER TO DATE
Wimbush reaches his junior year with three years of eligibility remaining in a bit of unorthodox fashion, seeing action his freshman season while intentionally preserving a year of eligibility in 2016. The broken ankle suffered by Malik Zaire in 2015’s second week forced Wimbush to ready for action as DeShone Kizer’s backup. In order to get him some snaps before a competitive need arose, Irish coach Brian Kelly inserted Wimbush two weeks later during a rout of Massachusetts. He got a similar opportunity in a November victory over Pittsburgh.

With both Zaire and Kizer healthy in 2016, Notre Dame could keep Wimbush on the sidelines and return him to the originally-intended timeline.

2015: Two games, 3-of-5 passing for 17 yards, seven rushes for 96 yards, including a 58-yard touchdown run against UMass.
2016: Preserved a year of eligibility.

QUOTES
Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long both sang Wimbush’s praises and spoke of his needed improvements the day before this spring’s Blue-Gold Game.

“Brandon can make all the throws,” Long said. “The biggest thing is his footwork, getting that corrected, getting him more confident with that.

“There’s not a throw he can’t make. His velocity, the way it comes out of his hands is tremendous. He throws a really nice deep ball. He’s doing a lot better job, just his presence in the pocket, understanding when he needs to evade and doing a nice job throwing on the run. Still a lot to go, but once he gets his footwork down and cleans it up, the sky is the limit for him.”

Long also indicated Wimbush grew as a leader throughout the spring, but is not yet counted on in that capacity, partly because he does not need to be.

“The best thing about Brandon is he’s never too high and never too low,” Long said. “That’s what you want with your quarterbacks.

“We have enough leaders who are proven, have been there in the heat of battle. He just needs to go out there and operate the offense. I don’t want to have any more added pressure on his shoulders. If he does that, we’re all going to be happy. As time goes, the leadership can grow, but be a great follower right now.”

WHAT KEITH ARNOLD PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
To date, this portion of each 99-to-2 entry has been pulled from the “Crystal Ball” piece of Keith’s series. In this instance, “Future Potential” is the more pertinent bit, though the Crystal Ball was entirely accurate.

When it comes to upside, you can make the argument that Wimbush has the best of any quarterback on campus. And the fact that a sophomore quarterback is on board with using a redshirt season as a sophomore also points to a maturity you really have to like in a quarterback.

“That said, the depth chart will eventually force Wimbush to step in and skip the part of the learning curve that includes a young player making first-time mistakes. Because assuming that Kizer or Zaire will be on campus next season, Wimbush will have two seasons to run the offense, likely a fourth-year junior when the fog clears.

“That’s plenty of time to establish himself. But it’ll require the lion’s share of his developments to take place on Monday to Friday, not Saturdays.”

2017 OUTLOOK
This isn’t complicated. As Wimbush goes, so will go Notre Dame’s offense. To a large extent, as the Irish offense goes, so will go the season. A quick application of the transitive property indicates as Wimbush goes, so will go Notre Dame’s season as a whole.

That could be a lot to put on an unproven and inexperienced starter. Wimbush should be the exception to that rule. He displayed his athleticism in his first collegiate action with that 58-yard touchdown scamper. His arm has dazzled in practices for two years now such that it seems it might be unanimous he had the strongest arm on the team last season.

Will Wimbush make some mistakes this season? Undoubtedly. But the same could be said of any experienced veteran, as well.

As far as projecting any statistics, let’s defer to Phil Steele’s computers, both because they have a proven track record and because speculating the output of an unknown commodity such as Wimbush sounds like the job for an automated program. They project the Irish offense will average 268.0 passing yards per game. That would top every year of Kelly’s time at Notre Dame aside from 2014’s 285 passing yards per game.

If Wimbush reaches that mark while limiting turnovers — and that is not even factoring in his legs’ inevitable impact on the game — then the Irish should have little difficulty making the scoreboard work in 2017.

DOWN THE ROAD
Barring injury, a la Zaire, Wimbush will start until he heads to the NFL. That could conceivably happen as soon as after this season or as far off in the distant future as after the 2019 campaign. Wimbush’s acceptance of spending his sophomore season on the sideline leads one to think he is in no rush to get to the next level, though any starting quarterback at Notre Dame undoubtedly has that ambition in due time.

The most-likely scenario seems to be Wimbush spends four seasons with the Irish before taking his chance among the professionals. That theory would leave Book with two seasons of eligibility, freshman Avery Davis with a likely three and class of 2018 commit Phil Jurkovec a hypothetical four seasons to make his mark.


2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
No. 95: Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 92)
No. 94: Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 95)
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92: Jonathon MacCollister; defensive end (originally theorized as No. 46)
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end
No. 88: Javon McKinley, receiver
No. 87: Michael Young, receiver (originally theorized as No. 84)
No. 86: Alizé Mack, tight end
No. 85: Tyler Newsome, punter
No. 84: Cole Kmet, tight end (originally theorized as No. 90)
No. 83: Chase Claypool, receiver
No. 82: Nic Weishar, tight end
No. 81: Miles Boykin, receiver
No. 80: Durham Smythe, tight end
No. 78: Tommy Kraemer, right tackle
No. 77: Brandon Tiassum, defensive tackle
No. 76: Dillan Gibbons, offensive lineman (originally theorized as No. 65)
No. 75: Josh Lugg, offensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 73)
No. 75: Daniel Cage, defensive tackle
No. 74: Liam Eichenberg, right tackle
No. 72: Robert Hainsey, offensive tackle
No. 71: Alex Bars, offensive lineman
No. 70: Hunter Bivin, offensive lineman
No. 69: Aaron Banks, offensive lineman
No. 68: Mike McGlinchey, left tackle
No. 67: Jimmy Byrne, offensive lineman
No. 58: Elijah Taylor, defensive tackle
No. 57: Trevor Ruhland, offensive lineman
No. 56: Quenton Nelson, left guard
No. 55: Jonathan Bonner, defensive lineman
No. 54: John Shannon, long snapper
No. 53: Sam Mustipher, center
No. 53: Khalid Kareem, defensive lineman
No. 48: Greer Martini, inside linebacker
No. 47: Kofi Wardlow, defensive end
No. 45: Jonathan Jones, inside linebacker
No. 44: Jamir Jones, linebacker/defensive lineman
No. 42: Julian Okwara, defensive end
No. 41: Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 94)
No. 40: Drew White, linebacker
No. 39: Jonathan Doerer, kicker (originally theorized as No. 52)
No. 38: Deon McIntosh, running back/receiver
No. 35: David Adams, linebacker
No. 34: Tony Jones, Jr., running back
No. 33: Josh Adams, running back
No. 32: D.J. Morgan, safety
No. 30: Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, rover
No. 29: Kevin Stepherson, receiver
No. 28: Nicco Fertitta, safety
No. 27: Julian Love, cornerback
No. 26: Ashton White, safety
No. 25: Jafar Armstrong, receiver (originally theorized as No. 87)
No. 24: Nick Coleman, safety
No. 23: Drue Tranquill, rover
No. 22: Asmar Bilal, rover
No. 21: Jalen Elliott, safety
No. 20: Shaun Crawford, cornerback
No. 19: Justin Yoon, kicker
No. 18: Troy Pride, cornerback
No. 17: Isaiah Robertson, safety
No. 16: Cameron Smith, receiver
No. 15: C.J. Holmes, running back
No. 14: Devin Studstill, safety
No. 13: Avery Davis, quarterback
No. 13: Jordan Genmark Heath, safety
No. 12: Ian Book, quarterback
No. 12: Alohi Gilman, safety
No. 11: Freddy Canteen, receiver
No. 10: Chris Finke, receiver
No. 9: Daelin Hayes, defensive end
No. 8: Donte Vaughn, cornerback

TRANSFERS
No. 66: Tristen Hoge, offensive lineman, transfers to BYU
No. 50: Parker Boudreaux, offensive lineman
No. 30: Josh Barajas, linebacker, to transfer to Illinois State

INJURIES
No. 13: Tyler Luatua, tight end, career ended by medical hardship