Weekend notes: Swarbrick, Watch Lists, Life after Floyd, and more

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You can’t blame Jack Swarbrick for taking a vacation. With his work helping to put together a college football playoff done, Swarbrick and his family took a much needed vacation. But that didn’t stop word getting out that Notre Dame was in discussions with the ACC about in-roads to the Orange Bowl.

Earlier in the week, Notre Dame’s John Heisler confirmed discussions.

“Since the development of the new plan for post-season football, the ACC and Notre Dame have had discussions relating to the Orange Bowl,” Heisler said. “While presidents have been consulted, the discussions have been between ACC conference staff and Jack.”

With the bowl system obviously in the midst of a shake-up after the playoff is instituted during the 2014 season, Notre Dame is deadset on correcting a situation that has the Irish awfully scarce on bowl opportunities outside of the BCS.

Yet reports that Notre Dame has set out to commandeer the bowl game as partners with the ACC might be a little far fetched, as Jack Swarbrick acknowledged earlier this week, during an interview with local NBC affiliate WNDU.

“I think there’s been a little bit of misunderstanding with all of that,” Swarbrick told Jeff Jeffers. “It’s been portrayed as a Notre Dame discussion or somebody else’s discussion but it’s much more a collective effort to structure something that has a solution for the other side of the Orange Bowl. “So a lot of us are engaged in that,” Swarbrick continued. “It isn’t limited to Notre Dame. We’re making progress but there’s more work to be done.”

Regardless, it’s a proactive step in the right direction for Notre Dame, who already used their exemption into the Champs Sports Bowl and have limited bowl options right now for years they don’t qualify for the BCS.

***

It’s that time of year again. Watch List time, where dozens of good players are included on a list trying to anticipate postseason awards. It’s a bit silly, but certainly a nice honor for some of the better football players in the country.

Let’s run the list of Irish players getting mentioned:

Manti Te’o – Lott Trophy, Bednarik Award, Nagurski Award,
Braxston Cave – Rimington Trophy, Outland Trophy,
Tyler Eifert – Mackey Award, Maxwell Award
Zack Martin – Outland Trophy,
Kapron Lewis-Moore – Nagurski Award,
Cierre Wood – Maxwell Award

The list for the Lombardi, Butkus, Biletnikoff, Davey O’Brien, Doak Walker, and Walter Camp awards have yet to be released, but this should get you up to speed.

It’s worth noting that Eifert is the only tight end on the list for the Maxwell Award.

***

As the Irish offense tries to figure out how to live life after Michael Floyd, Blue & Gold’s Lou Somogyi did a great job pointing out that the Irish have a pretty good track record of rebounding after losing a key offensive player.

Here’s Lou’s top three examples over the past 25 years:

1. How Now Without Brown?
1987:
Senior Tim Brown won the Heisman Trophy during an 8-4 season and was the No. 6 pick in the NFL Draft.
1988: Although no one on the 1988 team caught more than 16 passes, the Irish improved to 12-0 to win the national title.

2. Backfield In Motion
1992 :
The star-studded backfield for the 10-1-1 team featured No. 2 NFL pick Rick Mirer at quarterback, 5th-place Heisman finisher Reggie Brooks at tailback, and junior fullback Jerome “The Bus” Bettis went pro early as the No. 10 pick.
1993: The unheralded trio of quarterback Kevin McDougal, tailback Lee Becton and fullback Ray Zellars emerged superbly while the Irish finished 11-1 and No. 2.

3. Action Even Without Jackson
1999:
QB Jarious Jackson broke Joe Theismann’s 29-year school record for most passing yards in a season (2,753) and was the second leading rusher with 464 yards. Alas, the Irish also committed 30 turnovers and finished 5-7.
2000: When freshman QB Matt LoVecchio was thrown into the fire, Notre Dame averaged 74 yards less per game than with Jackson — but it committed an NCAA record low eight turnovers to finish 9-2 and earn a BCS bid. The efficiency, resourcefulness and team play of 2000 is a good template for the 2012 Irish to follow after the 2011 unit averaged 413 yards per game (similar to 1999) but committed 29 turnovers (similar to 1999).

The days are likely over of a team winning a national championship with no receiver catching more than 16 balls, but an optimist could make a good argument that losing Floyd will help keep the Irish offensive attack more balanced.

Notre Dame will still have its instant mismatch, with Tyler Eifert moving all around the field. But the Irish’s reliance on Floyd last season might have handicapped a quick strike, vertically driven offense Irish fans have been expecting to see since Brian Kelly came from Cincinnati.

***

A few final tidbits on recent Irish commitment Justin Brent, who is set to sign in the ’14 class. We’ll find out how good Brent is during his junior season, a breakthrough year for most high school players.

Even if we don’t know just how high Brent’s ceiling is yet, a year ago football was almost an afterthought for the Indianapolis athlete. Focused on his basketball career, Brent almost gave up on football completely, with the 6-foot-3 point guard drawing interesting from heavyweights like Indiana, Purdue, Georgetown, Marquette, and others.

“I’ve been playing basketball my whole life and I’ve also played football my whole life, but I think basketball is where it’s at,” Brent told InsideTheHall.com last July. “With football, I was contemplating not even playing this year, but I guess a lot of coaches like an athlete that play two sports and plus I just like it a lot to play. But I was always nervous about the fact that I could receive an injury. But I’m going to stay with it. College wise, I’ve gotten one letter from Texas A & M and it was just a questionnaire, but that’s the only thing I’ve gotten for football. I don’t think I see myself playing football in college, I think it’s basketball.”

Good thing for all involved that Brent decided to stick with football during his sophomore season. The athleticism that had college basketball coaches taking notice will undoubtedly help Brent on the gridiron.

 

 

 

 

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.