New Year’s resolutions for 2012 Irish

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It doesn’t take a CSI investigator to know that Irish fans are still smarting from the 18-14 loss to Florida State. Minutes away from a nine win season, the firm grasp the Irish defense had around the throat of the Seminoles loosened, and an offense that moved the ball prolifically earlier this season ground to a halt as both Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix struggled to do much of anything to help win a football game.

Instead of heading to the offseason winning an ugly, defense first football game and making incremental progress with a nine-win season, Kelly’s squad seems stuck in neutral thanks to a quarterbacking conundrum that will make spring practice 15 of the most important sessions this team will ever have.

With the calendar starting anew today, there’s no better time to lay out some New Year’s resolutions for the Fighting Irish as they take some time off before getting back to the grind of getting better and preparing for 2012.

For the secondary… May they learn and develop quickly. For Jamoris Slaughter, may he springboard forward after his coming-out party against the Seminoles, and become the dual-threat player he’s always been capable of as he takes over for Harrison Smith as the heart of the secondary. For Zeke Motta, may he continue to improve in coverage and get better tackling in the open field. After two years of special teams consistency, may Austin Collinsworth take that playmaking knack to a secondary in need of big plays. May Eilar Hardy come back healthy after a knee injury and Chris Badger be a quick study after his two-year mission. At cornerback, may Lo Wood and Bennett Jackson be ready to be thrown into the fire. The same goes for Josh Atkinson, who saw the field this season and will likely see it a lot more next year. With the redshirt off Jalen Brown, the athletic and tall cornerback could also emerge as a contender for playing time, where the defense will likely hinge on the young secondary’s ability to make plays.

For the linebackers… May Manti Te’o stay healthy for his senior season, a year where he’ll likely earn his reputation as one of college football’s best defenders. After going from the bottom of the outside linebacker depth chart to the starting will linebacker, may Dan Fox continue to show the athleticism that had the previous Irish coaching staff see a better prospect than Luke Kuechly. Carlo Calabrese, who lost playing time to Fox, can use 2012 to improve in space, building on the strides he took this year in coverage. Te’o’s return pushed back the emergence of Kendall Moore, but the talented youngster will find a way to make a difference for this defense next year. The same can be said for Justin Utupo and Jarrett Grace, two young and talented inside linebackers that will be contributors sooner than later. May Anthony Rabasa‘s shoulder heal quickly, allowing the freshman to participate in spring drills as he continues his transition to the interior of the defense.

With the outside of the linebacking crew, may the Irish find stability as they try to replace Darius Fleming. For Prince Shembo, may he find stability if he shifts to Fleming’s old position, where he’ll have the opportunity to rush the passer and feel more at home. May the freshman season of Ishaq Williams help the youngster develop after absorbing the transition for New York high schools to major college football. For Troy Niklas, may the talented freshman take his unique size and skill set and apply that at the dog linebacker. For Danny Spond, may he get through a season healthy, and finally be able to utilize the talent that had Kelly and the staff so high on him. For Ben Councell, may his redshirt season be fruitful for a young linebacker that could become a top-line 3-4 drop linebacker.

For the defensive line… May Kapron Lewis-Moore come back healthy after knee surgery. May Sean Cwynar return to help anchor the interior of the defensive line while also continuing his first-class education. May Tyler Stockton work his way into the interior line rotation during his final season. After a promising first season, may Louis Nix continue to improve, turning himself into an All-American. While Kona Schwenke spent a year of eligibility during fill-in duty, may he work his way into the defensive end rotation, taking some of the snaps Ethan Johnson left behind. May Chase Hounshell build on a surprising freshman campaign that found him working his way out of a redshirt and onto the field. With time in the weight room, he could add yet another promising pass rush option to a front line that could be among the best in recent Irish history. After spending 2011 on the sidelines, may Tony Springmann surprise everyone with his athleticism and size, adding another player with the versatility to play inside and out. May Stephon Tuitt and Aaron Lynch continue to evolve into bookends the Irish haven’t seen in years. For Tuitt, may the playing time he lost due to illness be paid back next season, when the already massive freshman has a chance for another 12 months in under Paul Longo. For Lynch, may the talented pass rusher work on the space between his ear pads, cutting down on the mental mistakes and personal fouls that pockmarked a freshman season that showed everyone just how talented he’ll be. (Lynch could also work on drawing the flags he earned for holding.)

For the offensive line… May Braxston Cave return healthy for 2012, anchoring the line from the center position while continuing to add finesse to a game certainly not lacking power. If Mike Golic returns, may he do it stronger at the point of attack and more versatile, giving the Irish another super-sub candidate a la Andrew Nuss. May Chris Watt build on an impressive 2011 season, where the left guard was one of the Irish’s most punishing run blockers. May Zack Martin continue being the technically sound left tackle he’s been for two straight seasons, and continue on his All-American trajectory. May Christian Lombard be ready to take over for Taylor Dever at right tackle, after spending 2011 waiting in the wings. May Tate Nichols come back healthy and ready to challenge for playing time at tackle as well, battling Lombard for the job and showing unnatural athleticism for a player of his size. May 2012 be the year Bruce Heggie isn’t a punch line. For Conor Hanratty, Nick Martin, and Matt Hegarty, may 2012 be the year they battle for Trevor Robinson’s vacant job. For Brad Carrico, may he be ready to see the field. For Jordan Prestwood, may the year used in the weight room translate to the playing field.

For the receivers and tight ends… May Tyler Eifert decide what’s best for him and his family. If it’s Notre Dame, may he stay healthy and continue to build his body physically. For Alex Welch and Ben Koyack, may they be ready for a larger role in the offense, whether or not Eifert decides to return for 2012. For Jake Golic, may back surgery fix whatever ailed the tight end running out of opportunities to make a difference. At wide receiver, if John Goodman comes back, may he dedicated himself to becoming the wide receiver people thought he’d be coming out of high school. For Theo Riddick, if he stays at wide receiver, may 2012 be the year that the lightbulb finally goes on. For Robby Toma, may he find a more permanent spot in the offense. For TJ Jones, may he use the personal tragedy of 2011 as motivation to become the type of receiver the Irish need, while also realizing that he’s halfway done with his career. For Daniel Smith, may he finally find his way onto the field, stay healthy, and give the Irish a big body that’s ready to fill the void left by Michael Floyd. For Davaris Daniels and Matthias Farley, may they learn from the redshirt season and be ready to come out swinging in 2012.

For the running backs… May Cierre Wood pledge to put together one of the best single season’s in Notre Dame rushing history, and give himself a difficult decision on whether or not he should stay in school or head to the NFL. May Cam Roberson finally get healthy after a devastating knee injury suffered last spring. May 2012 be a better year than the last for him. For George Atkinson, may he build on the game breaking skills he showed in the return game, while finding ways to improve as a position player. For Cam McDaniel, may the youngster build on a year where his eligibility was lost, but not all that much experience was gained.

For the quarterbacks… May they find some stability. For Tommy Rees, may he prove the growing mountain of skeptics wrong. Like all quarterbacks, they’re never as good as the good times nor as bad as the bad ones. May this offseason help restore confidence, build more knowledge in the passing game, and take a step forward in his decision making. Rees will never be able to run the ball, but he can move the offense, even if the Irish sputtered down the stretch. For Andrew Hendrix, may he continue learning the offense, giving Kelly and the coaching staff a true look at what he can do come spring practice. With a skill-set that’s never been questioned, he’ll need to cut back on decisions like the throw he made against the Seminoles while also proving to be more than just a battering ram in the running game. The Irish can be the offense Kelly wants with Hendrix behind center, and a quarterback that can run will take some pressure off a receiving corp short potentially two All-Americans. For Everett Golson, may 2012 be a year where he rises to the occasion. There might be no player with great expectations heaped onto him, and if there’s a player that can rescue an offense still stuck in transition, it’s Golson.

For the coaches… May Brian Kelly stick to his guns. Two years in South Bend didn’t erase 20 years of experience, even if the fish bowl is a whole lot bigger. Sometimes seasons like the past year build humility, and for Kelly may he learn from the bizarre circumstances that came to define the 2011 season. For Bob Diaco, may he learn to live dangerously. With a youthful secondary and one of the best front sevens the Irish have ever had, maybe he keep the gas pedal down and his foot on opponents’ throats, as opposed to playing from a base defense. May Mike Elston solve the punt return game, where Michael Floyd bailed the Irish out with his 41-yard return in the bowl game after the worst season in school history. May Tim Hinton be thankful he turned down Urban Meyer and Ohio State to stay with Notre Dame. May Ed Warinner reload the right side of the offensive line and a ground game that slowed down in the season’s final month. May the offensive coordinator, whoever he may be, be ready to put his stamp on the offense. May Tony Alford earn his keep both in recruiting and in preparing this wide receiving corp for life without No. 3.

Notre Dame lands four-star former FSU commit, Houston Griffith, at safety

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If its defensive backfield was a concern this recruiting cycle, Notre Dame is putting together a strong finish to the class of 2018 to eradicate those worries. Consensus four-star Houston Griffith (IMG Academy; Bradenton, Fla.) became the second defensive back to commit to the Irish this week with his Tuesday evening declaration and the fifth of Notre Dame’s 19 (and counting) expected signees.

Griffith immediately becomes the most highly-rated commit in the Irish class. Rivals.com considers him the No. 3 safety in the class, the No. 9 player in Florida and the No. 35 overall prospect in the country. He had long been a Notre Dame target but initially committed to Florida State, partly due to the Irish struggles a year ago.

After Notre Dame showed much improvement this season — more specifically, its defensive shift — Griffith reopened his recruitment in late November.

“The changes that [Irish coach Brian Kelly] made really helped,” Griffith told Blue & Gold Illustrated. “The guys I know up there tell me it’s a different program, it’s a different team up there. Last season was a learning year and this year shows that they are starting to get all the pieces.”

Griffith has certainly bought in on the direction trending from 2016 to 2017.

“I feel like the next few years all the pieces are there to compete for a national championship.”

In addition to the Seminoles, Griffith held scholarship offers from the vast majority of college football’s powers, including Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State and USC.

He presents as a safety and seems to have been targeted as one, but he could also see early time at cornerback. In theory, a freshman may have a better chance of grasping that latter position. Then again, Notre Dame has a few established playmakers at cornerback; it very much does not have that luxury at safety.

At either position, Griffith and his fellow defensive back commits should shore up a position grouping that the Irish essentially whiffed on in 2017, when only two safeties were signed (Isaiah Robertson and Jordan Genmark-Heath) with no cornerbacks in the mix. Griffith is the third safety in the class of 2018, joining consensus four-star Derrik Allen (Lassiter H.S.; Marietta, Ga.) and consensus three-star Paul Moala (Penn; Mishawaka, Ind.).

All three, as well as the two cornerback commits and the other 14 prospects, are intended to sign with Notre Dame during this year’s early signing period, Dec. 20-22.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Running Backs

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Notre Dame’s running game stood little chance of exceeding expectations this season, considering how ambitious they were to start. This space’s preseason predictions, intended as a conservative and realistic harbinger of the months then-ahead, projected junior running back Josh Adams to gain 1,174 to 1,274 rushing yards this season. That upper limit would have placed Adams fourth in Irish program history, just ahead of his position coach’s 1,268 yards gained in 1997.

With a game to go, Adams stands only 51 yards of breaking Vagas Ferguson’s single-season record of 1,437 rushing yards, set back in 1979.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
In addition to the anticipation regarding Adams’ third season as a contributor, the Notre Dame backfield had depth entering the season. Junior Dexter Williams could provide a speed threat while sophomore Tony Jones built on springtime buzz as a do-everything option, often described as the best receiver of the group.

Early-enrolled freshman C.J. Holmes’ shoulder injury in spring practice seemingly sidelined him for the season, opening the door for sophomore Deon McIntosh to move from receiver to the backfield as a rest-granting fourth-stringer.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
As good as the season was for the Irish on the ground, it will be marked by “What if” thoughts as much as anything else. What if Adams had not worn down as the season progressed? What if Williams had been healthy for more than a week or two in the season’s first two months?

Even with his figurative crawl to the season’s conclusion, Adams surpassed all preseason projections and expectations. It still must be noted he gained only 195 yards on 54 carries in the final three regular season games, a 3.61 average.

Williams, meanwhile, was limited throughout the year. At the beginning, specifically against Georgia, that appeared to be by coaching decisions, but for most of the season, ankle and quad ailments robbed the speedster of his primary quality.

Absolutely no one expected sophomore Deon McIntosh to be the second-leading rusher among Notre Dame’s running backs in 2017. Credit to McIntosh, though, for making the most of an opportunity granted by others’ injuries.(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Jones, when healthy, provided a schematic shift as much as any statistical production. Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long clearly preferred Jones to be half of any two-back formation, due to Jones’ overall aptness.

McIntosh capitalized on every chance granted him, providing fourth-quarter rest to those limping from sprained ankles whenever the Irish had a worthwhile lead.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING
Some of a statistical influx in rushing production should be credited to junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush, but the ground game as a whole was more successful in 2017 than it was a year ago no matter how the numbers are dissected.

2016: 2,123 yards on 410 carries (sacks adjusted); 176.9 yards per game and 5.18 yards per rush.
2017: 3,462 yards on 501 carries (sacks adjusted); 288.5 yards per game and 6.91 yards per rush.

— Jr. Josh Adams: 1,386 yards on 191 carries; nine touchdowns; 7.3 yards per rush; 10 catches for 82 yards.
— So. Deon McIntosh: 368 yards on 65 carries; five touchdowns; 5.7 yards per rush; three catches for eight yards.
— Jr. Dexter Williams: 324 yards on 37 carries; four touchdowns; 8.8 yards per rush; two catches for 13 yards.
— So. Tony Jones: 232 yards on 43 carries; three touchdowns; 5.4 yards per rush; four catches for 13 yards.
— Fr. C.J. Holmes: 32 yards on eight carries; 4.0 yards per rush.

COMING QUESTIONS
Will Adams stay for his senior year and further his assault on the Notre Dame record books or will he head to the NFL Draft with a year of collegiate eligibility remaining? He very much should take the latter option. Running backs’ careers are not long due to the very nature of the position. For the second year in a row, that wear and tear proved itself on Adams. There is little chance he could put together an even better season in 2018.

Thus, this is his chance to go in the Draft’s first couple rounds. By every reasoning, Adams should take this opportunity.

When utilized, junior running back Dexter Williams has proven to be a viable threat for Notre Dame. He has not always been incorporated into the game plan, though, partly due to classmate Josh Adams’ rampant success. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

At that point, will Long be able to incorporate Williams into the two-back set? Those multiple running back formations were some of the most productive looks for the Irish offense, and they almost entirely came with Jones joining Adams. Between pass-catching and pass-blocking, Williams lagged behind those two significantly. For the threats presented in a two-back alignment to be real, though, he will need to broaden his skillset appropriately.

If Williams doesn’t, could a healthy Holmes plug into the system? As much praise as McIntosh received, and earned, this season, he will never be the answer in the Notre Dame backfield. Holmes may be.

With Wimbush again the presumed starter in 2018, the ground game will be featured for another fall. The offensive line is (almost certainly) losing two first-round Draft picks, but it has enough experience to hold its own moving forward. Which back emerges as the workhorse if Adams turns pro could be the biggest offensive question all spring and summer. Williams may present the most big-play potential, but Jones has already shown greater consistency overall.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends

Monday’s Leftovers: Notre Dame lands second cornerback commitment

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Hardly a week shy of the early signing period, Notre Dame doubled its cornerback haul in the class of 2018 with Tariq Bracy’s commitment Sunday night.

A rivals.com three-star recruit, Bracy (Milpitas High School, Calif.) had long said the Irish led in his recruitment, having visited campus for Notre Dame’s 49-14 victory over USC on Oct. 21. Rivals rates Bracy as the No. 65 overall prospect in California.

“The coaches, they made me feel welcome,” Bracy said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “They really wanted me to go down there. They like my skillset. The players, they were welcoming, too. It’s really the whole atmosphere about Notre Dame, and the academics, too.”

Bracy opted for the Irish over a number of schools on the west coast, including Utah, Cal and Washington State.

Notre Dame now has 18 commitments in the class, including consensus-three star cornerback Joseph Wilkins (North Fort Myers H.S., Fla.). All 18 are expected to sign National Letters of Intent during the inaugural early signing period Dec. 20-22. For that matter, it remains possible an additional commitment or two could join those ranks either before the three-day stretch or in the midst of it.

Irish coach Brian Kelly has said he would evaluate any commitment not signing during the December dates as not being genuinely committed to Notre Dame, still needing further recruitment.

— Bracy’s, and Wilkins’, commitment holds more value for the Irish than many of the other 16 in the class thus far. In the last recruiting cycle, Notre Dame failed to sign so much as one cornerback.

Neither Bracy nor Wilkins may start in 2018. They, in fact, almost certainly will not, but they will provide both depth and a possibility of a future at the position.

— Just as another reminder — it is listed twice on the legal pad providing today’s outline, after all — the early signing period runs from Dec. 20 to Dec. 22. There will still be a nationwide focus on National Signing Day, Feb. 7, as any recruits not yet signed will have even more of a share of the spotlight.

— Bowl games have little long-term evaluatory value. They do, however, provide a delightful stretch of mid-day and/or mid-week December distractions. As an example, consider the game-a-day outlook on the horizon …

Sat., Dec. 16: Middle Tennessee St. v. Arkansas State; 8 p.m. ET; a high-scoring affair, if nothing else.
Tues., Dec. 19: Akron vs. FAU; 7 p.m. ET; Lane Kiffin with a nation’s lonely eyes turned to him.
Wed., Dec. 20: Louisiana Tech vs. Southern Methodist; 8 p.m. ET.
Thurs., Dec. 21: Temple vs. Florida International; 8 p.m. ET; Notre Dame’s season-opening opponent is favored by seven.
Fri., Dec. 22: Central Michigan vs. Wyoming; 4 p.m. ET; Josh Allen’s farewell to college football.
Sat., Dec. 23: Texas Tech vs. South Florida; 12 p.m. ET; This very well may end up being the most-dramatic bowl game.
Sun., Dec. 24: Houston vs. Fresno St.; 8:30 p.m. ET.
Tues., Dec. 26: Kansas State vs. UCLA; 9 p.m. ET.
Wed., Dec. 27: Boston College vs. Iowa; 5:15 p.m. ET; Of the 10 Irish foes in bowl games, six are like the Eagles, underdogs.
Thurs., Dec. 28: Stanford vs. TCU; 9 p.m. ET; A healthy Bryce Love could erase the 2.5-point spread in the Horned Frogs favor.
Fri., Dec. 29: USC vs. Ohio State; 8:30 p.m. ET; As strongly as the Trojans finished the season, they are still touchdown underdogs in the Cotton Bowl.
Sat., Dec. 30: Wisconsin vs. Miami, 8 p.m. ET; Despite playing at home, literally so, the Hurricanes are nearly touchdown underdogs.
Mon., Jan. 1: Georgia vs. Oklahoma; 5 p.m. ET; Frankly, Notre Dame vs. LSU in the Citrus Bowl will be but an appetizer for an evening of outstanding college football.

During Notre Dame’s retrospective awards, Tranquill & Weishar set focus forward

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Notre Dame spent Friday night giving out awards to recognize 2017’s top players, but the night’s attention went to two pieces of news received regarding next season. Both linebacker Drue Tranquill and tight end Nic Weishar announced intentions to return for fifth seasons in 2018.

Tranquill especially seemed increasingly unlikely to return after a career season and a two-year stretch of health set him up for NFL consideration. The idea of what could have been, of what could be, proved too much for him to bypass his remaining season of collegiate eligibility.

“I think it started after the Miami game, just on the busses, realized that we probably weren’t going to make the College Playoff anymore and realized everything everyone had put into this thing,” Tranquill told Irish Illustrated. “I felt I owed it to this team in my heart to come back and finish what we started.”

Tranquill’s return will stymie what could have been a decimating linebacker exodus. Senior captains Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini are both out of eligibility. If Tranquill had joined them in pursuing an NFL future this spring, Notre Dame would have lost three of its top four tacklers, and perhaps all four. Leading tackler, junior linebacker Te’von Coney and his 99 takedowns including 13 for loss and three sacks, is still considering an early entry into the NFL Draft.

Weishar’s return will provide a baseline at tight end following the departure of current fifth-year Durham Smythe.

RELATED READING: Where Notre Dame is & was: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame is & was: Tight Ends

As for the Echoes awards, senior left guard Quenton Nelson received Most Valuable Player honors, only the third offensive lineman to be named MVP in Irish history.

Along the lines of Tranquill’s and Weishar’s returns, only a couple of Friday night’s awards portend future developments. Freshman offensive lineman Dillan Gibbons performed well enough behind the scenes to claim Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year. With Nelson presumably heading to the NFL, Gibbons could insert himself into the competition to fill the left guard spot.

Sophomore safety Alohi Gilman spent the season following his transfer from Navy leading the scout defense. His success there only furthers the likelihood he will be starting in the defensive backfield when Michigan arrives at Notre Dame Stadium on Sept. 1.

With few surprises — perhaps naming junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush and senior defensive lineman Jonathan Bonner the offensive and defensive newcomers of the year, respectively, was too obvious to be widely-considered beforehand — the full listing of the awards …

— Most Valuable Player: Sr. left guard Quenton Nelson.
— Offensive Player of the Year: Jr. running back Josh Adams.
— Defensive Player of the Year: Sr. linebacker Nyles Morgan.
— Impact Player: Jr. linebacker Te’von Coney.
— Offensive Newcomer of the Year: Jr. quarterback Brandon Wimbush.
— Defensive Newcomer of the Year: Sr. defensive lineman Jonathan Bonner.
— Offensive Lineman of the Year: Fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey.
— Moose Krause Lineman of the Year: Jr. defensive tackle Jerry Tillery.
— Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year: Fr. lineman Dillan Gibbons.
— Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year: So. safety and Navy transfer Alohi Gilman.
— Special Teams Player of the Year: Sr. linebacker Greer Martini (eight special teams tackles).
— Walk-On Players Union Player of the Year: Jr. linebacker Robert Regan.
— Next Man In: Sr. defensive end Andrew Trumbetti.
— Father Lange Iron Cross, for weight room presence: Fifth-year tight end Durham Smythe.
— Pietrosante Award for leadership, teamwork, etc.: Sr. captain and former walk-on Austin Webster.
— Rockne Student-Athlete of the Year: Sr. linebacker Drue Tranquill.
— Irish Around the Bend, for community service: Sr. tight end Nic Weishar.

THIS WEEK’S INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Notre Dame to the Citrus Bowl to face LSU, with some numbers
Monday’s Leftovers: Brian Kelly on Notre Dame in the Citrus Bowl, facing LSU, and the early signing period
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Receivers
Notre Dame releases 2018 home schedule, includes trip to Yankee Stadium
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends
Friday at 4: Projecting Notre Dame’s Echoes

THIS WEEK’S OUTSIDE READING:
SI’s 2017 All-America Teams
LSU RB Derrius Guice on NFL decision: ‘I will not know until after the bowl game’
RB Mark Walton leaving Miami early for the NFL