SOUTH BEND, Ind. — After a dreary Friday filled with intermitten rain, it’s a beautiful Saturday in South Bend, where spring practice concludes with the 83rd annual Blue-Gold spring game. As usual, we’ll be live-blogging the proceedings, and the game will also be shown live on the NBC Sports channel.
With our first truly good look at the four-headed quarterback competition, the Irish offense will take on the defense in last four quarters of football before the games start counting for real. Joining me in the live chat will be two writers from The Observer, Notre Dame’s student run newspaper. Editor-in-Chief Allan Joseph and sports editor AndrewGastelum will add some fun to the proceedings and hopefully add some on-campus insight to the fun.
So buckle up, embrace the inevitable (an Irish win) and join the fun.
Have you heard? Notre Dame hired Wake Forest’s defensive coordinator Mike Elko during the offseason. Let’s mention that up top here on the nearly-impossible chance you read this space but missed that news.
Without Elko, it will be curious to see how, or if, the Demon Deacons defense continues to improve. Though without the orchestrator of the defense, Wake Forest is also without someone exposing the defense’s tendencies to opponents before the games. That certainly cannot hurt its performance.
Years from now, only the “WakeyLeaks” controversy of the Demon Deacons’ 2016 season will be remembered. The 4-0 start, 7-6 finish including a 3-5 mark in conference play, and the first touchdown scored in a conference victory under head coach Dave Clawson will all be forgotten. Still less than a year removed from the season, let’s not forget them here.
Indeed, in the two previous ACC wins under Clawson in his first two seasons, Wake Forest had managed only field goals. The Deacons topped Duke 24-14 to record a more-legitimate feeling in a conference victory in the season’s second weekend.
Aside from the 34-26 win over Temple in the Military Bowl, the two other 2016 results warranting mention are the 17-6 loss at Florida State, simply because Elko’s defense held the Seminoles to a mere 17 points, and the 44-12 defeat at Louisville. In the latter loss, Wake Forest led 12-10 with only 11 minutes left before the Cardinals ran away with it.
That defeat prompted the first allegations that the Deacons’ radio analyst was slipping intel to opponents. Indeed, he was. Obviously, that led to his departure from the gig. In 2017, it should hold no pertinent effect aside from remaining an intriguing, noteworthy and hard-to-believe story.
A more pertinent note: Wake Forest went 4-2 in one-possession games last season.
WHAT WAKE FOREST LOST
In addition to Elko and his right-hand man, new Irish linebackers coach Clark Lea, the Deacons lost significant players from their defense. No. 1 tackler and inside linebacker Marquel Lee heard his name called in the NFL Draft’s fifth round, a deserved honor after totaling 105 tackles, 7.5 sacks and 12.5 more tackles for loss last season.
Their No. 3 tackler and linebacker Thomas Brown (65 tackles, four sacks, 4.5 tackles for loss) and No. 4 tackler and cornerback Brad Watson (63, six pass breakups, two interceptions) also graduated from the program.
Offensively, Wake Forest returns much more intact, losing only its center and left guard.
WHAT WAKE FOREST GAINED
In the No. 74 recruiting class in the country per rivals.com, the Deacons signed only one four-star prospect, defensive lineman Mike Allen. Listed at 6-foot-5, 245 pounds, it may take some time into the season for Allen to become a prominent contributor.
Clawsen enters his fourth season with the Deacons, having come from Bowling Green. His 13-24 Wake Forest record may be dismal, but 2016 could have marked a turning point for the program. Not only did the Deacons win their first bowl game since 2008, but Clawsen notched his first winning record in Winston-Salem, following two consecutive 3-9 seasons.
To mention this odd factoid again: Clawsen’s first two ACC victories came entirely thanks to field goals, a 6-3 victory vs. Virginia Tech in double overtime in 2014 and a 3-0 win at Boston College in 2015.
Wake Forest literally returns all its contributing skill players from last year’s offense. That unit may not have been dynamic, averaging only 20.4 points per game, but the offense has improved each year under Clawsen, and returning so much of the roster implies it should again. In 2014, the Deacons averaged 14.8 points per game, raising that to 17.4 in 2015.
Even the running game, though still hampered by limited yards per carry averages, has improved every season under Clawsen, rising from 40 rushing yards per game in 2014 (yes, you read that correctly) to 105 a year later and 146 a year ago. That may be very gradual improvement, but it is improvement, nonetheless.
What may hamper the Wake Forest offense would be a quarterback controversy. Senior John Wolford has started 33 games in the last three years, including 11 last year. His statistics were lacking, though, finishing with only nine touchdowns against 10 interceptions and a 55.5 percent completion rate. Undoubtedly somewhat due to those struggles, Clawsen named junior Kendall Hinton the starter before preseason practice.
Last year, Hinton suffered a knee injury, thus pushing Wolford into the starting position. More of a dual-threat, Hinton presents an arguably-higher ceiling. Wolford, meanwhile, has performed so well in preseason practice, Clawsen may have to reevaluate his decision and perhaps give both quarterbacks chances this season. He has said he expects to need both, and thus has given both first-team repetitions in practice, but that may simply be a precaution given Hinton’s injury history.
Similar to the gradual offensive progression, Elko’s defense improved consistently during his Deacon tenure. In 2014, they allowed 26.4 points per game, dropping that to 24.6 in 2015 and 22.2 last year. Mirroring that trend, the Wake Forest defense gave up 183 rushing yards per game in 2014 before lowering that to 161 in 2015 and 142 last season.
Now, former Minnesota defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel takes over the unit. As it will likely come up in November conversations, let’s note now: Sawvel was a Notre Dame graduate assistant from 1996 to 1999.
He inherits a roster led by senior defensive end Duke Ejiofor, who filled the stat line in 2016, recording 10.5 sacks, 6.5 tackles for loss, four pass breakups and one interception.
Sophomore safety Jessie Bates broke onto the scene as a freshman, finishing second on the team in tackles with an even 100, while adding five interceptions and four pass breakups. Sawvel coached defensive backs at Minnesota before being promoted to defensive coordinator in 2016, so he should see the block of marble that is Bates and marvel at what he could become.
If the Deacons fail to win any of those games, they would need to run the table to reach bowl eligibility and exceed that win total. Even a theoretical “gimme” game will not be such for Wake Forest, which travels to Appalachian State within the first month of the season. Unlike the Deacons, the Mountaineers received votes in the preseason polls du jour.
When opponents are described as “trap games,” that typically indicates the foe is only an average team, but Notre Dame will play down to its level for whatever scheduling or otherwise reason. Make no mistake about it: When the Irish host North Carolina State on Oct. 28, they will not be entering a trap game. The Wolfpack will be anything but average this season.
Come year’s end, NC State’s record may be only 8-4 or perhaps 9-3. More than a reflection of the team’s overall talent, that will be an effect of playing in the ACC’s Atlantic Division.
That division ground down the Wolfpack last year. If a particular field goal had found its mark, though, current projections would likely be far more optimistic. Such are the perils of college football and its small sample size.
NC State finished 2016 with a 7-6 overall record, 3-5 in the ACC. If deferring to advanced metrics, it could be quickly argued the Wolfpack performed such they should have won eight or nine games, losing four separate contests by one possession or less while winning only two such games.
The first of those losses came in the season’s second week, 33-30 at East Carolina. From there, NC State rattled off three wins, culminating with the 10-3 victory over Notre Dame in a literal hurricane.
A week later, the aforementioned fateful field goal missed its mark, allowing eventual national champion Clemson to sneak into overtime when hosting the Wolfpack, later prevailing 24-17. That started a four-game losing streak for NC State, including a 54-13 shellacking at Louisville (44-0 at halftime) before stumbling 21-14 vs. Boston College.
Looking to end that disappointing stretch, NC State led Florida State late in the fourth quarter before giving up a touchdown, falling 24-20.
The Wolfpack ended the season with a 41-17 victory over Vanderbilt in the Independence Bowl.
WHAT NC STATE LOST
This section will be quick today, as the Wolfpack lost only three players of distinct note. Running back Matthew Dayes heard his name called in the NFL Draft’s seventh round after leading NC State with 1,166 rushing yards, a 4.7 yards per carry average and 10 touchdowns.
Defensive backs Josh Jones and Jack Tocho also enjoyed the NFL Draft, going in the second and seventh rounds, respectively. Jones led the Wolfpack with 109 tackles last season, adding eight pass breakups and three interceptions, matching Tocho’s nine pass breakups and two interceptions.
WHAT NC STATE GAINED
The Wolfpack signed 20 commits in the class of 2017, the No. 53 class in the country per rivals.com, including two four-star recruits. Defensive tackle Grant Gibson will not see much action this year, but receiver Antoine Thompson could find himself in the mix.
Dave Doeren enters his fifth year at NC State with a middling 25-26 record. Even if removing his 3-9 debut, the resulting 22-17 record includes only ho-hum seasons of 8-5, 7-6 and 7-6. Nonetheless, he has a contract through 2019.
This year’s Wolfpack present Doeren his best chance yet to break into the Clemson and Florida State controlled upper-ranks of the division, let alone of the conference. Louisville also remains just below those two powers, however above NC State in recent years.
For a team known for its defense, the Wolfpack still present a dynamic offense. In theory, it should only improve on last year’s 27.0 points per game, now entering offensive coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz’s second season. Drinkwitz came from Boise State, where he held the same role, and now-junior quarterback Ryan Finley followed him in the move. Finley completed 60.4 percent of his passes last season, throwing 18 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
Though Finley loses his most-productive offensive weapon in Dayes, he does return his top-four pass-catchers, with two of them also filling in for Dayes in the backfield. Junior Jaylen Samuels led NC State with 55 receptions last year, taking them for 565 yards and seven touchdowns while also adding 189 rushing yards and six touchdowns on a 5.7 average per carry.
At 5-foot-11, 223 pounds, Samuel will be a bruising back defenses have to fear in all aspects of the game. While keeping an eye on him, they may struggle not to lose senior running back Nyheim Hines, all 5-foot-9, 197 pounds of him. Hines caught 43 passes for 525 yards last season, and will be as much a preferred target of Finley’s as he will be a ballcarrier, if not more so.
Senior receiver Stephen Louis used his deep-threat abilities (19.4 yards per catch) to lead the Wolfpack in receiving yards, totaling 678, while sophomore Kelvin Harmon will line up opposite Louis, fresh off a debut campaign complete with 27 catches for 462 yards and five touchdowns.
With all of these weapons, Finley will have one more luxury: time. The NC State offensive line allowed only 17 sacks last year and returns four starters to continue that trend.
It is the Wolfpack defensive line that remains the entire team’s greatest strength. Four seniors start, led by defensive end Bradley Chubb. In 2016, Chubb managed 10.5 sacks and 11.5 more tackles for loss. If trying to run away from him, opposing offenses find Kentavious Street, who totaled 30 tackles, 5.5 sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss last year. Street may be a preferable choice, but he is not exactly an ideal one.
On the interior, tackle Justin Jones recorded 43 tackles, three sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss while 6-foot-4, 315-pound BJ Hill fills the middle.
Hill absorbs blockers, freeing the linebackers, primarily senior inside linebacker Jerod Fernandez. He was second on the team in tackles in 2016 with 88. Classmate Airius Moore finished third with 86, not to mention 2.5 sacks and 11 tackles for loss, yet Moore may not even start this year with the return of senior Germaine Pratt from a shoulder injury. Pratt offers more of a coverage set of skills than Moore’s physical game. In some respects, that physicality becomes an expendable luxury thanks to the dominant defensive line.
Some coverage help may be needed thanks to losing both Jones and Tocha. If the secondary does hold up, the Wolfpack could lower an already-impressive average of 22.8 points allowed per game from a year ago. During Doren’s tenure in Raleigh, along with defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable, that average has fallen every season. Their first year saw a mark of 30.2 before improving to 27.0 in 2014 and 25.8 in 2015.
Being competitive will not be enough for NC State this year. Defensive front sevens like this group are rare commodities not to be wasted on psychological breakthroughs. The Wolfpack need to win in 2017, even if the over/under win total is only at 7.5.
That number is low because of the division. NC State’s schedule includes a trip to Florida State and visits from both Louisville and Clemson, as well as North Carolina at the end of the season. If adding in the trip to Notre Dame to that listing of games, the Wolfpack may realistically think of winning three of the five, and a 10-2 record could be enough to land in a top-tier bowl game. Managing only two losses in conference play might also position NC State to be the beneficiary of the division cannibalizing itself.
This fall’s schedule places Notre Dame’s bye week directly before the matchup with USC. Spending two weeks preparing for this rendition of the Trojans will be a nice, and likely a needed, luxury. USC is deservedly mentioned in any conversation on College Football Playoff contenders.
Part of the reasoning to holding the Trojans in high esteem entering this season ties to how they ended last year. That strong finish stands in stark contrast to how they opened 2016.
Replacing an NFL-bound quarterback in Cody Kessler and a second-round pick of a linebacker/safety who led their defense in every way in Su’a Cravens, USC struggled on both sides of the ball to begin last season. Frankly, describing the season-opener as a struggle is charitable. The 52-6 loss to Alabama was a complete and utter rout, exactly as the score implies a year later.
A win over Utah State a week later did not give USC enough momentum to handle the following two contests, losses at Stanford and Utah to drop the Trojans to 1-3 after having started the year in the top 20 of both the coaches and the AP polls.
Enter then-sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold. His first career start came against the Utes, and while his presence did not yield a victory that week, he did proceed to lead USC to nine straight wins, culminating with a 52-49 topping of Penn State in a back-and-forth shootout in the Rose Bowl. That positive ending bumped the Trojans to No. 3 in the final coaches poll and No. 5 in the AP.
Also included in the winning streak was a 26-13 victory at Washington, a win USC nearly had a chance to repeat in the Pac 12 championship game, except Colorado finished a game ahead of the Trojans in the South Division. The Buffaloes’ one previous loss in the conference? It indeed came at the hands of Darnold’s group.
WHAT USC LOST
Darnold will need to turn to new targets this year, having lost his top two receivers from 2016. JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers combined to catch 126 passes for 1,610 yards and 14 touchdowns with an average of 12.8 yards per reception.
Darnold will also be protected by a few new offensive linemen, losing left tackle Chad Wheeler, right tackle Zach Banner and left guard Damien Mama, a former Notre Dame recruiting target.
Defensively, cornerback Adoree’ Jackson was a first-round draft pick. Not only did he have five interceptions last year, but he also had two punt returns and two kick returns for scores. His secondary compatriot, safety Leon McQuay, heard his name called in the sixth round.
WHAT USC GAINED
The country’s No. 6 recruiting class, per rivals.com, featured 23 commits total and 17 four-star prospects. The most-likely of those to see a genuine role this season is running back Stephen Carr. While he will not start or become the primary ballcarrier, barring injury, Carr will likely contribute to the Trojans offense beginning early in the season.
Defensive tackle Marlon Tuipulotu could open the season as a starter, filling in where Stevie Tu’ikolovatu left off.
If USC had not turned its season around last September, it is likely Clay Helton would have spent this offseason sweating. Instead, he has found a grip on the position he twice held on an interim basis.
This will be his second full season as the Trojans head coach, following three years as the offensive coordinator under Lane Kiffin, Ed Orgeron and Steve Sarkisian, and three years as Kiffin’s quarterbacks coach.
Darnold has gotten the most hype this offseason, and it is warranted after he completed 67.2 percent of his passes in his 10 starts, throwing 31 touchdowns and only nine interceptions. Yet, Darnold may not be the biggest key to the USC offense. That would be junior running back Ronald Jones. Jones notched 1,082 rushing yards and 12 scores last year, averaging 6.1 yards per carry.
Hence, no matter how highly-touted Carr is, he will not usurp Jones.
Receivers senior Steven Mitchel and junior Deontay Burnett will attempt to keep opposing defenses from focusing only on Jones, along with sophomore tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe. Burnett caught 56 passes for 622 yards and seven touchdowns last season while Imatorbhebhe averaged 14.7 yards on his 17 catches, finding the end zone four times.
If they can match the production lost from Smith-Schuster and Rogers, the Trojans should be able to exceed last year’s 477 yards per game. For that matter, when Darnold took over as starter, USC’s output jumped to 523.3 yards per game, including 225 rushing yards each week.
Only a third of the teams in the country can claim a linebacker on the Butkus Award Watch List. The Trojans trot out three in junior Cameron Smith (83 tackles, six for loss), junior Porter Gustin (68 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 7.5 tackles for loss) and senior Uchenna Nwosu (53 tackles, three sacks, 4.5 tackles for loss). The trio will ease some of the pressure felt by USC’s secondary as it works to replace Jackson and McQuay.
Overall, the Trojans defense spreads the wealth. Last season nine defenders made at least 50 tackles, five of which return. For context: The Irish had six such tacklers in 2016, four of which return.
USC will have a good 2017. The question is just how good. The coaches poll slotted the Trojans at No. 4. The AP poll, set to be released today (Monday) at noon Eastern, should offer a similar gauge.
If USC gets past Stanford in week two, it will be well on its way toward clearing an over/under win total of 9.5. In the Pac-12 South, the greatest competition will be Utah, who the Trojans host the week before they head to Notre Dame.
It illustrates the nature of the NFL Draft that No. 2 overall pick quarterback Mitch Trubisky and eventual second-rounder and former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer were hardly ever in the same conversation about the 2017 first overall pick. Trubisky rose up draft boards after, and possibly partly due to, Kizer had already fallen down them.
No matter where the two passers went in April’s draft, both their former teams are now adjusting to life without them. Notre Dame’s response to that is clear: Plug junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush into an offense that did not lose much else. North Carolina, meanwhile, has a lot more questions to answer in addition to the quarterback quandary.
In the span of the first week of October, North Carolina went from a possibly program-defining victory to a harsh reminder it is not yet joined the ACC’s elite. From there, the season stumbled forward, culminating in a three-game FBS-level losing streak.
The Tar Heels upended Florida State on Oct. 1 in Tallahassee thanks to a 54-yard game-winning field goal from senior Nick Weiler. Suddenly at 4-1 — with the only loss being a respectable 33-24 defeat to then-No. 18 Georgia in a season kickoff special — North Carolina could think big picture.
Virginia Tech had other ideas. Only a week later, the same team that had just scored a road upset of the No. 12 team in the country fell at home to the No. 25 Hokies by a not-as-close-as-it-sounds score of 34-3.
In the first paragraph of this section, it notes the Tar Heels “stumbled forward” after that loss. That phrasing was chosen to indicate North Carolina did not outright collapse. It, in fact, followed up the clunker with a 20-13 win at No. 16 Miami (FL), raising the Tar Heels’ record in one-possession games to 3-0. Somewhere in the next few weeks, though, that clutch ability disappeared.
North Carolina lost its final three games against FBS foes — the distinction is needed since the Tar Heels slipped in a 41-7 victory over Football Championship Subdivision power The Citadel before their regular season finale — all by one score. Included in that streak: Losses to each of North Carolina’s biggest rivals, 28-27 at Duke and 28-21 vs. North Carolina State.
A 25-23 defeat to No. 16 Stanford in the Sun Bowl dropped the Tar Heels’ record to 8-5, quite a disappointment if looking back on the excitement of the Oct. 1 triumph.
WHAT NORTH CAROLINA LOST
Including Trubisky, six North Carolina contributors were drafted by the NFL this spring. Essentially, all of the Tar Heels’ offensive skill position players departed, including four of their top-five receivers and their top-four rushers (with Trubisky third).
Ryan Switzer stands out as the most notable receiver, pulling in 96 catches last season for 1,112 yards and six touchdowns. He was also the long-established punt returner, someone who Notre Dame game-planned around controlling back in 2014, and game-planned around successfully, it should be remembered. Elijah Hood, a former Notre Dame commit, and TJ Logan combined to rush for 1,508 yards and 15 touchdowns last year before both hearing their names called at the draft.
On the other side of the ball, North Carolina lost far less, most notably third-round draft pick defensive tackle Nazir Jones, who had 2.5 sacks and 7 more tackles for loss.
The aforementioned Florida State hero, kicker Weiler, also departed.
WHAT NORTH CAROLINA GAINED
The Tar Heels incoming graduate transfers warrant as much, if not more, recognition as the recruiting class. Head coach Larry Fedora seemingly raided the SEC’s cupboards for any suitable spare ingredients, coming away with LSU quarterback Brandon Harris, Florida center Cameron Dillard and Auburn running back Stanton Truitt.
Truitt will need to compete with freshman Michael Carter, who turned down offers from Florida, Tennessee and Louisville to join a 20-member North Carolina recruiting class, rated No. 30 in the country by rivals.com. Receiver J.T. Cauthen joined Carter in the class rather than head to Michigan, Oklahoma or Virginia Tech and considering the exodus of receivers this offseason, could become an immediate contributor.
In Fedora’s five seasons at Chapel Hill, he has amassed a 40-25 overall record, making last year’s 8-5 tally exactly average for his tenure. He has led North Carolina to four bowl games in those five years, but making it five out of six will be a difficult task this season.
It should be noted Fedora has shown to prefer a mobile quarterback, even getting 308 yards and five rushing touchdowns out of the prototypical-passer Trubisky. Harris may fit that mold perfectly.
Losing four of its top-five receivers, top-four rushers and quarterback would be hard for any offense to recover from. In order to do so, starting with the offensive line makes sense, and the Tar Heels return three starters plus a promising sophomore right tackle, in addition to the Florida transfer Dillard.
What will remain unclear at least until North Carolina’s opener against Cal, and will probably remain muddled well into the season, is who exactly that line will block for. Truitt and Carter are competing with sophomore Jordan Brown for top running back honors. Shoulder injuries hampered Truitt throughout his time at Auburn. Once finally healthy last season, he took 31 carries for 187 yards and two touchdowns while catching seven passes for another 100 yards and a score. Those numbers may be modest, but they easily trump Brown’s totals of 20 carries for 45 yards and a touchdown.
Of the three, Carter has received the most hype. He may not be the lead back to begin the season, but six weeks in it is distinctly possible the freshman will have absorbed enough to take that role.
Presumably, Harris will start at quarterback. It is not a sure thing, and junior Nathan Elliott has reportedly been given an equal share of repetitions in preseason practice, but the dual-threat Harris makes the most sense. Either way, the quarterback will be looking to an inexperienced receiver corps led by senior Austin Proehl, the son of former NFL receiver Ricky Proehl. The younger Proehl totaled 43 catches for 597 yards and three touchdowns last year, finishing third on the team in both of the first two categories.
On the complete opposite end of the returning players spectrum when compared to the offense, North Carolina’s defense returns its top three tacklers and all of its linebackers, led by senior Cole Holcomb (115 tackles) and junior Andrew Smith (113). Century tacklers are somewhat rare in college football, making it even more notable the Tar Heels return a third in senior safety Donnie Miles and his 102 takedowns.
Losing Jones in the middle is no small thing, but then again, this defense allowed 227.3 rushing yards per game in 2016. Plugging in junior Aaron Crawford (6-foot-1, 310 pounds) could bolster that aspect of containment, even if he is not necessarily as much of a presence in the backfield as Jones was.
Senior cornerback MJ Stewart could have probably declared for the draft, instead opting to return to build on a season in which he broke up 11 passes, leading a secondary that rated No. 12 in the country against the pass.
The Tar Heels defense did lose one more additional piece: Defensive coordinator Gene Chizik retired. Linebackers coach John Papuchis takes over, meaning continuity should lead to little drop-off.
North Carolina scored 32.3 points per game in 2016, a low in Fedora’s time there. It is hard to believe an entirely new offense will top that number this season, putting even more pressure on the defense. That defense, however, performed at a level consistent with Fedora’s tenure, allowing 24.9 points per game. Aside from 2014’s 39.0 points allowed per game, which led to Chizik’s arrival, Fedora’s defenses have given up between 24.5 and 25.7 points.
All this is to say, matching last year’s 8-5 seems a tall order. It is more likely the Tar Heels fall short of their over/under win total of 7, finishing fifth or sixth in the ACC’s Coastal Division.