The way too early 2012 starting lineup: Defense

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Two guys expected to push their way into the starting defensive lineup instead pushed their way out of town. With Aaron Lynch and Tee Shepard both leaving the Irish football team before spring practice concluded, Notre Dame will have to win with the players they have on the roster, and see if any incoming freshmen have the ability to come in this June and fight their way onto the field.

After watching the positional battles play out during 15 spring practices, here’s the way too early defensive depth chart, heading into unofficial workouts.

DEFENSIVE LINE

The loss of Lynch will certainly sting, but there’s plenty of depth here and it’s not like the Irish will be piecing things together. Rarely does a four-year starter get overlooked, but expect Kapron Lewis-Moore to step his game up during his final season in South Bend, and hold down one defensive end spot. Stephon Tuitt, who had a promising freshman season held back by some early immaturity and then a bout with mono, looks like a future star across from him.

The talk of spring practice was Kona Schwenke. Named the most improved defensive player of the spring, Schwenke pushed Louis Nix at nose guard, running with the first team while Nix battled his fitness and the coaching staff motivated him.

With Chase Hounshell limited and Tony Springmann out for the spring, early-enrollee Sheldon Day impressed during his first work with the team. If the season started tomorrow, Day would likely be in the rotation, though that might not be the case next fall. Tyler Stockton, undersized for the Irish system, but an effort player during spring drills, will also try to work his way into the rotation.

Early projections for opening day:

Kapron Lewis-Moore
Louis Nix
Stephon Tuitt

Chase Hounshell
Kona Schwenke
Tony Springmann
Sheldon Day
Tyler Stockton
Jarron Jones

Thoughts: Dropping Nix back to the second-team was motivation 101 for a defensive tackle that looked to add a few unwanted pounds in the months between the season and spring ball. While the pass rush undoubtedly is hurt with the loss of Lynch, the Irish still feel like the front seven of this team is its strength, and it’ll be interesting to see the step forward made by guys like Hounshell, who played last year, and Springmann, who didn’t, but has a ton of promise.

LINEBACKERS

This group is the strength of the defense. Headlined by All-American candidate Manti Te’o, who took off 10 pounds in the offseason and looks better than ever, there’s a ton of versatile talent across the line. While Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese split time next to Te’o last season, expect to hear from guys like Jarrett Grace and Kendall Moore. Both Anthony Rabasa and Justin Utupo impressed during spring drills, and walk-on Joe Schmidt is a guy that’s going to help the team win as well.

On the outside, Prince Shembo suffered a turf toe injury that required surgery. The injury pushed Ishaq Williams to the forefront, and the rising sophomore took command of the position. Danny Spond and Ben Councell will battle for the dog linebacker job, with Councell looking to gain the edge by the end of spring practice. There’s not a ton of depth here, especially with Troy Niklas switching to tight end, though Romeo Okwara will enter the outside linebacking group come summer.

Early projections for opening day:

Prince Shembo, OLB
Manti Te’o, ILB
Dan Fox, ILB
Ben Councell, OLB

Ishaq Williams
Carlo Calabrese
Danny Spond
Kendall Moore
Jarrett Grace
Anthony Rabasa
Joe Schmidt
Romeo Okwara

Thoughts: I think Williams and Shembo will be on the field together plenty, so saying Prince beats out Ishaq for the job isn’t truly reality. Last season, we saw Fox and Calabrese split time and they’ll likely do the same again this year, with Jarrett Grace fighting to get in the mix as well. You can’t call the season Manti Te’o put together last year disappointing, but I expect to see a man on fire next season. Visibly lighter and moving quicker, he’ll be among the best defenders in college football. I also think the future behind him is bright with Kendall Moore. All he seems to do is make plays when given the chance. The dog linebacker position is one to watch. Ben Councell’s physicality was impressive, but he’ll be taking his first real snaps next season. The strengths of this defense could put the unit in more three-linebacker sets, with Shembo putting a hand on the ground in pass rushing situations.

SECONDARY

This might as well be an open casting call, after regulars Harrison Smith, Robert Blanton and Gary Gray depart after holding down jobs for multiple seasons. There’s no question that cornerback is a question mark on this roster. But don’t think Bennett Jackson is part of that conversation. Privately, the coaching staff thinks they might have a first round talent playing the boundary corner, where Jackson’s size, physicality and speed make an intriguing player.

Lo Wood and Josh Atkinson will likely battle for the field corner job. The winner will be the guy who can do the least wrong, as nobody wants to field a defense that gives up the play over the top. Wood doesn’t have the upside of Atkinson, but he’s put in workmanlike hours, and if he keeps things in front of him, he’ll be okay. Jalen Brown looks the part of a starting cornerback, but he’s got to do a better job covering receivers if the staff is going to feel like they can count on him. (When the UND.com videos even show you getting beat, that’s not good…) New addition to the mix Cam McDaniel proved to the staff that he’s a good football player, moving to corner after Tee Shepard left South Bend, and impressing with his ability to get up to speed.

At safety, the staff feels good about Jamoris Slaughter, Zeke Motta and Austin Collinsworth. Slaughter has the ability to make “the leap” this year, building on a season that saw him turn into one of the Irish’s true impact defenders. It’s also the end of the road for Motta, who certainly passes the eyeball test as an athlete and safety. Former walk-on Chris Salvi was brought back on scholarship and will headline the special teams, and Matthias Farley and Eilar Hardy found their footing this spring. The Irish will also welcome reinforcements this summer with Nick Baratti, CJ Prosise, Elijah Shumate, and John Turner. (Thanks to the readers that reminded me that Chris Badger will return to the Irish after missing two years after his Mormon Mission. Depth chart adjusted)

Early projections for opening day:

Bennett Jackson
Zeke Motta
Jamoris Slaughter
Josh Atkinson

Austin Collinsworth
Lo Wood
Cam McDaniel
Eilar Hardy
Jalen Brown
Matthias Farley
Chris Badger
CJ Prosise
Elijah Shumate
Nick Baratti
John Turner

Thoughts: We’ll likely see a lot of the top six guys in the secondary, and it’ll be up to Kerry Cooks and Bob Elliott to get the guys up to speed. This defense will be as good as the secondary lets them be, and Elliott has made a great impact wherever he’s been. You’ve got to wonder if any of the safeties recruited can slide into the cornerback mix. My guess? CJ Prosise will get a chance, which helps explain why we’ve heard some rumblings about Prosise trying to cut weight.

Notre Dame adds another 2019 commitment out of Georgia

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Eight months from now, Notre Dame may be forced to sign a smaller recruiting class than usual thanks to the larger class this past recruiting cycle. If that expectation does indeed hold, this past week’s five commitments, including consensus three-star safety Kyle Hamilton’s (Marist High School; Atlanta) on Tuesday evening, will be a hefty portion of the class.

Hamilton becomes the second safety in the class, and in the week, following the Saturday pledge of rivals.com four-star Litchfield Ajavon (Episcopal H.S.; Alexandria, Va.). Hamilton’s list of finalists included Michigan, Georgia, Ohio State and Clemson, a grouping more telling than perhaps his recruiting ranking is.

Some of that expected potential may derive from Hamilton’s 6-foot-3 frame. Such length at safety would be a change for the Irish, currently without a safety taller than six-feet in the rotation. Even heralded incoming-freshman Derrik Allen, also out of Georgia, is listed at only 6-foot-1.

It is a coincidence those two Georgia recruits, one signed and one now verbally-committed, are both safeties. Add in the January commitment of rivals.com three-star cornerback K.J. Wallace (Lovett; Atlanta), and a third defensive back comes from the state, along with class of 2018 signees tight end Tommy Tremble and running back C’Bo Flemister. Five prospects from Georgia, presuming both Hamilton and Wallace do indeed sign with Notre Dame, is not a coincidence.

“My point being is that it’s such a fertile ground in recruiting, you just need to be in [Georgia], and there’s great football players in there,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said in December 2017, during the inaugural early signing period. “We’ve got so many players that we can talk about that came of there. It’s just having a presence and getting back into a very, very good recruiting area for us. We need to have a great presence there.”

No matter what state Hamilton comes from, he could find himself quickly in the mix at safety upon his arrival. Presuming health for the current safety depth chart, juniors Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill will have one year of eligibility remaining apiece upon Hamilton’s enrollment. Junior Alohi Gilman will have two, thanks to spending the 2017 season sidelined following his transfer from Navy. Early-enrolled freshman Griffith and Allen will both have three more years, presuming both play in 2018.

Thus, Hamilton and Ajavon could find themselves backing up that last duo as soon as 2020.

Blue-Gold Game Leftovers: Notre Dame’s offensive ceiling is tantalizing, though also unlikely

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Immediately following the 2017 spring game, I walked by two much smarter, savvier and more veteran Notre Dame reporters on our way to post-game interviews. Our two minutes of exchange included them riffing on various hypothetical position changes that were eventually not seen come fall, including how much better of a guard than a tackle Tommy Kraemer could be. It should be noted, the junior began lining up at guard this spring.

My contribution to the conversation hinged entirely on repeating, “That offense just isn’t ready. It’s not close to ready.”

Of course, that assessment figured the spring game struggles were against a porous Irish defense, something freshly-arrived and since-departed defensive coordinator Mike Elko had already taken tangible steps toward fixing, far quicker than expected.

That evaluation also failed to recognize the potential of a running attack led by Josh Adams. Notre Dame knew it had a stalwart running back, and did not need to see more than eight carries for 39 yards and a touchdown from the lead back.

The point stood, though. The offense was not ready then or in November.

Driving away from this past Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game, the thought bouncing around my pickup’s two-seat cab was simple: This offense is unlikely to reach its ceiling, but if it did, it would be really, absurdly high-powered.

This time, that assessment offers some deference to first-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s ability to turn nine returning starters into another strong defense, perhaps superior to last year’s.

The praise of the offense must be hedged thanks to IF after IF after IF after IF. If senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush displays those mechanics and that accuracy against opposing defenses …
If senior running back Dexter Williams (pictured above) decides it is worthwhile to play, and play well, through pain …
If junior receiver Chase Claypool maintains the necessary emotional equilibrium …
If senior tight end Alizé Mack offers a consistent performance, even if not stellar, but stable …

In those four upperclassmen alone, the Irish have unique talents whom opposing defensive coordinators should lose sleep thinking about. They will determine how high this offense’s ceiling is, while the likes of senior receiver Miles Boykin, junior running back Tony Jones and sophomore tight end Cole Kmet will set the floor, along with what looks to be yet another overpowering offensive line (with Kraemer at right guard).

Obviously, the most-promising players always set the height of a vaulted the ceiling. As they perform against Michigan, Stanford and Virginia Tech will determine how the season ends. However, to pinpoint four like this is an extreme end of the spectrum.

Exiting last year’s Blue-Gold Game, it was clear Wimbush needed to learn much more of offensive coordinator Chip Long’s scheme. Aside from that, the only possible ways to increase the offense’s potency was to teach receiver Kevin Stepherson self-discipline and figure out why Mack could not make a gameday impact. The rest was essentially known, even if the running game’s potential was overlooked after the spring exhibition.

Entering this summer, the gap between the offense’s floor and its ceiling is a vast one. To have four question marks of this magnitude speaks to the possible volatility awaiting in the fall. Logically speaking, it is most likely two of the four above IFs become realities. In that case, it will be a good offense, but not the utterly threatening one conceivable. The odds are slim all four come to fruition, but crazier things have happened, especially when discussing the rapid development of 18- to 21-year-olds.

Without Adams following two All-American offensive linemen, this rendition of the Notre Dame offense may take a step backward, but the talent is there for it to actually improve, to carry the day if/when an experienced quarterback picks apart the defense (see: the Seminoles’ Deondre Francois).

That could not be said in 2017.

OTHER QUICK TAKEAWAYS FROM THE BLUE-GOLD GAME:
Much of this will be discussed in greater length in the coming two weeks, but …
— The interior of the offensive line — fifth-year left guard Alex Bars, fifth-year center Sam Mustipher and Kraemer at right guard — is quite a physically-imposing trio. Some defensive ends may find success against first-year starter and junior left tackle Liam Eichenberg, especially early in the season, but the inside trio should at least create massive holes for the Irish running game.

— Ideally Long can deploy Mack and Kmet together, but the spring performance of the latter certainly eases the concerns about the maturation and consistency of the former.

Notre Dame may need an unexpected influx of production from senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery if the fifth-year tackle he is intended to line up alongside, Jonathan Bonner, does not recover fully from a wrist injury suffered in the beginning of 2017. (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP)

— Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly insists fifth-year defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner’s fitness will not be overly-effected by the wrist injury that kept him out of most of spring practice and all of the Blue-Gold Game.

“He’s been doing everything (in weight-lifting) but at lighter weight, and now he’s only a couple of weeks away from being full-go,” Kelly said Saturday. “He was already physically really gifted, so we don’t think that’s going to be a big curve for him, and he’ll be able to start training aggressively when we get back here in June.”

Consider this scribe skeptical. Not only is Kelly often overly-optimistic about injury effects and timetables, but to think missing six months of strength and conditioning will not be noticeable along the defensive interior is idealistic at best. Bonner’s 2017 emergence was a direct result of the arrival of strength and conditioning coordinator Matt Balis.

Without more of that work, the Irish will need to turn to sophomore Kurt Hinish for an increase in snaps, perhaps pushing toward 50 per game with Bonner offering 20-30 and senior Micah Dew-Treadway filling in the balance. Hinish appears to be up to the task, which is necessary, because classmate Darnell Ewell is not.

Notre Dame gains commitments of four-star defensive end and three-star offensive tackle

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At this rate, Notre Dame might fill its 2019 recruiting class by the time the school year ends. With a Sunday morning commitment of a consensus four-star defensive end followed by a Monday evening pledge from a consensus three-star offensive tackle, the Irish class has grown from three recruits to seven in just four days.

The No. 238 prospect in the country and No. 28 at defensive end, per rivals.com, Howard Cross III (St. Joseph High School; Montvale, N.J.) announced his commitment via Twitter shortly after leaving campus from a visit for the Blue-Gold Game, choosing the Irish over offers from Michigan, North Carolina State and Virginia Tech, among others.

“I could tell [current Notre Dame players] really loved the school,” Cross said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “It was really, really big to talk to them. When I was going to all the colleges, that was the main thing I wanted to do. I wanted to get the perspective of the players.”

Cross joins consensus four-star defensive end Hunter Spears (Sachse H.S.; Texas) as half of the four defensive linemen already in the Irish recruiting class. As always, no collegiate defensive line can be deep enough. Considering the previous two recruiting classes have yielded a total of two defensive ends — Kofi Wardlow and Justin Ademilola — opportunity should be aplenty for Cross and Spears early in their careers.

The defensive end duo will likely spend a not-insignificant portion of their collegiate career practices butting heads with Andrew Kristofic (Pine-Richland; Gibsonia, Pa.). If the high school of Pine-Richland jumps off the figurative page to Notre Dame recruitniks, that is because Kristofic has much experience protecting high school teammate and incoming Irish freshman quarterback Phil Jurkovec.

He chose Notre Dame, and new offensive line coach Jeff Quinn, rather than offers from a lengthy list including Clemson, Georgia and Ohio State.

“The combination that their school is able to provide being one of the very best schools in the entire country academically and one of the very athletically stands out,” Kristofic said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “I think they have the best combination of those two things on top of being a school that is known for being able to produce such great offensive linemen is something that no other schools really have the combination of all those.

“When you can put together all the things that they can there, it’s certainly not something you can overlook or take for granted.”

The beginning of this influx of commitments came with the Friday decision of consensus four-star offensive tackle John Olmstead (St. Joseph; Metuchen, N.J.), the only other offensive lineman in the class to this point. Of the seven recruits committed to the Irish, five are four-star talents.

Former Notre Dame defensive lineman, Kona Schwenke, dies at 25

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Former Notre Dame defensive lineman Kona Schwenke, 25, reportedly died in his sleep Sunday morning. The cause of death has not yet been confirmed.

Schwenke spent four seasons along the Irish defensive front, culminating in a 23-tackle senior season, in 2013. Attrition along the defensive line in his first two seasons forced Schwenke into playing time, costing him a likely fifth-year with much greater production. He played in 31 games total, making 30 tackles.

Part of a Hawaiian surge in Notre Dame recruiting, Schwenke joined the likes of receiver Robby Toma and linebacker Manti Te’o in coming from the island in 2009 and 2010. The first two committed during Charlie Weis’ tenure, but Schwenke made the leap at the very beginning of Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s career, one of the first recruits to commit to Kelly at Notre Dame. Since then, sophomore defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa has renewed the trend.

Schwenke graduated in 2014 with a degree in anthropology. He then signed with the practice squad of the Kansas City Chiefs, moving around four different NFL franchises chasing his dream. Earlier this month he took part in a scouting event, The Spring League, gaining some notice when he forced Heisman-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel into a fumble.

Former Irish teammates took to social media Sunday afternoon celebrating Schwenke’s life and friendship.