Counting down the Irish: The top five

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You could do a lot worse than the two players that topped every judges ballot. Both Manti Te’o and Tyler Eifert are consensus preseason All-Americans, and both will be the anchor of their respective units this season for the Irish.

In Eifert, new offensive coordinator Chuck Martin has a weapon as versatile as any in the country. At 6-foot-6, 251-pounds, Eifert has the size to attach to the formation, block in the running game or break free down the seam. He’s also got the athleticism to split wide, acting as a super-sized wide receiver that’ll wreak havoc on opposing secondaries.

In Te’o, the Irish have their ultimate tackling machine, especially with a healthy Te’o looked more fit and fast than ever. The heart and soul of a unit that needs to elevate its play even while replacing three key pieces in the secondary, Te’o will be asked to do a lot during his final season in South Bend.

There was a clear-cut divide between Te’o and Eifert and everybody else. Te’o received four first-place votes while Eifert received two. From there, Cierre Wood emerged as the third-best player on the roster. Behind him, three-year starting left tackle Zack Martin. And perhaps the most surprising vote-receiver of all, sophomore Stephon Tuitt, who absolutely looks the part of an All-American defensive end, but still needs to prove it on the football field.

Once again, here’s our voting panel:

Eric Hansen, South Bend Tribune @HansenSouthBend
John Walters, The Daily @jdubs88
John Vannie, NDNation.com
Eric Murtaugh, representing OneFootDown.com  @OneFootDown
Ryan Ritter, representing HerLoyalSons.com @HLS_NDtex
Keith Arnold, NBCSports.com’s Inside the Irish @KeithArnoldNBC

Here’s the list as it stands:

IRISH 2012 Top 25
25. Zeke Motta (S, Sr.)
24. Tommy Rees (QB, Jr.)
23. Andrew Hendrix (QB, Jr.)
22. Davonte Neal (WR, Fr.)
21. TJ Jones (WR, Jr.)
20. Robby Toma (WR, Sr.)
19. Christian Lombard (OL, Jr.)
18. Davaris Daniels (WR, So.)
17. Troy Niklas (TE, So.)
16. Bennett Jackson (CB, Jr.)
15. Ishaq Williams (OLB, So.)
14. Everett Golson (QB, So.)
13. Chris Watt (LG, Sr.)
12. Prince Shembo (OLB, Jr.)
11. George Atkinson (RB, So.)
10. Kapron Lewis-Moore (DE, Grad.)
9. Theo Riddick (RB, Sr.)
8. Jamoris Slaughter (DB, Grad.)
7. Braxston Cave (C, Grad.)
6. Louis Nix III (DT, Jr.)

RANKINGS

5. Stephon Tuitt (DE, Soph.) That Tuitt finds himself at No. 5 is largely a product of what’s expected of the hulking sophomore, not necessarily anything that happened during his freshman season. While the 6-foot-6, 295-pound second-year player put up solid numbers during his freshman season (30 tackles, 3 TFL, and 2 sacks), it was a season that was hampered by a bout with mono, and a disciplinary blip that cost Tuitt the chance to play at Purdue.

While Aaron Lynch was the headline grabber last season, many inside the program view Tuitt as the future star, and his imposing frame and impressive athleticism make this sophomore a star in the making. Anchoring the spot across from Kapron-Lewis-Moore, and able to slide inside on pass-rushing downs, Tuitt is the type of athlete Notre Dame hasn’t often had on the defensive line. Expect a big jump in production from Tuitt, who will line up everywhere across the defensive front.

(Highest ranking: 3rd. Lowest ranking: 11th)

4. Zack Martin (LT, Sr.) After winning Notre Dame’s lineman of the year award in his first two seasons playing, Martin has the left tackle position locked down for the Irish. At 6-foot-4, 304 pounds, Martin may lack the dominant size you’d expect from a bookend left tackle, but after sitting out his freshman season, all Martin’s done is produce, anchoring the offensive line in both of Brian Kelly’s first two seasons.

Martin has received the proper national notice this offseason, finding himself on a variety of watch lists. Whether Martin propels himself into one of the elite linemen in the country will largely depend on how well Harry Hiestand’s troops perform during a daunting 2012 schedule. With a fifth-year of eligibility still available, Martin could be a rare four-year starter at left tackle.

(Highest ranking: 3rd. Lowest ranking: 9th)

3. Cierre Wood (RB, Sr.) Jonas Gray’s breakthrough senior season may have diminished the year that Wood put together last year. Averaging over five yards a carry, Wood ran for 1,102 yards and 9 touchdowns, only the 16th 1,000 yard season in Irish history. At 6-foot, 215-pounds, Wood has shown impressive durability running inside while also showing plenty of speed and breakaway skill, providing a surprising amount of big-yardage runs throughout the year.

There’s no doubting the struggles Wood and the Irish running game had against USC last year, with Wood’s five carries for five yards putting a large statistical hole in his season. But over the two years he’s been featured in the Irish offense, big plays have come rather easily for the Oxnard, California native. In games that he’s received 10 carries or more, only once (2011’s 16-14 win over Boston College) has Wood failed to break a 10-yard run.

Wood has a fifth year of eligibility available to him, but it’s unclear whether he plans to use it. In an offensive backfield now filled with weapons, it’s also unclear how many touches the Irish plan to give Wood. But with surprisingly good hands and versatility, it’d be wise to get the ball early and often to the offense’s most reliable runner.

(Highest ranking: 3rd. Lowest ranking: 9th)

2. Tyler Eifert (TE, Sr.) In the golden era of Irish tight ends, Eifert has shown himself the best of the group, putting together a first-team All-American junior season as Eifert lead the country in catches among tight ends. At 6-foot-6, 251-pounds, Eifert is a walking match-up problem, and without Michael Floyd split wide, expect the football to go to the big Fort Wayne product even more often this season.

Eifert’s ascent is a pretty impressive one, with the senior not all that long ago being a forgotten name. Injured early in his freshman season, there was little expected of Eifert during his sophomore season until tight end Kyle Rudolph went down with a hamstring injury. From there, Eifert put together an impressive run, making all but one of his 27 catches down the stretch for the Irish as they rallied and ended 2010 with four straight victories.

Eifert was the only tight end on the Maxwell Award’s watch list and has been a preseason first-team All-American on multiple lists. He’ll likely be the first tight end taken in next year’s NFL Draft, even though he has a final season of eligibility remaining.

(Highest ranking: 1st. Lowest ranking: 2nd)

1. Manti Te’o (LB, Sr.) Rarely does a highly touted recruit come in and do exactly what is hoped for, but Manti Te’o has absolutely delivered the goods during his three seasons in South Bend. After an All-American campaign with 128 tackles during his junior season, Te’o shocked the college football world when he announced he was returning for his senior season.

At 6-foot-2, 255-pounds, Te’o is a prototype inside linebacker, with terrific instincts and speed that takes him sideline to sideline. He also showed himself to be a threat in the pass rush, contributing five sacks last season after logging onto two combined in his first two seasons. After an ankle injury plagued him throughout his junior season, Te’o cut weight during spring workouts, looking leaner and quicker (and finally healthy) through spring drills. Entering camp, Te’o is the unquestionable leader of the Irish, was a first-team preseason All-American, and will be one of the first middle linebackers selected in the NFL Draft.

(Highest ranking: 1st. Lowest ranking 2nd)

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.