Everett Golson

What we’ve learned: Offense

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We’re roughly one week into fall camp, with the Irish finished with their first two-a-day practice on Friday. There’s been a little bit of everything so far: Injuries, departures, surprises, and position battles as camp gets under way.

Let’s take a quick swing through the offensive position groupings and get everyone up to speed.

QUARTERBACK:

The biggest story of camp will also be the defining position battle of the season. With Tommy Rees suspended for the season opener against Navy, the door is wide open for either the Everett Golson or Andrew Hendrix eras to begin. Early returns have been mostly neutral, though I’d be hard pressed to see a way that Everett Golson doesn’t end up the starter when the Irish take the field in Dublin. He’s just too intriguing of an athlete, with too diverse of a skillset not to give the first shot.

Still, contrary to what some fans suspect, it won’t be just lollipops and rainbows after the Irish offense rids itself of Rees. While the junior quarterback has taken mostly mental reps while head coach Brian Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin get Golson and Hendrix up to speed, Friday’s practice featured an openly fired up Kelly, who openly challenged someone to step up and take charge.

“You don’t have Tommy to bail you guys out,” Kelly said, according to a source. “One of you need to step up! We are going over there to win!”

While there’s no plan to use Gunner Kiel this season, the talented freshman has taken great strides since spring in his ability to grasp the offense. With better than expected speed and a big arm, Kiel still is on track to be the quarterback of the future.

RUNNING BACK:

It appears that the only thing that’s going to hold back senior running back Cierre Wood is some medical paperwork. After two days of red tape held up the Irish’s returning rusher, Wood is back and ready to lead a talented group.

The biggest news out of the running back depth chart has been the decision of Cam Roberson to retire from football after a debilitating knee injury made playing up to speed next to impossible. This outcome wasn’t entirely unexpected to Roberson or the coaching staff, but it’s always difficult to see an injury cut a career short.

Theo Riddick has impressed during his move back to running back, which interestingly might help him play the hybrid position better than he did when he was a wide receiver. George Atkinson presents another intriguing option, the biggest back in the depth chart while also possessing some of the most impressive speed in college football.

USC transfer Amir Carlisle is working back from a broken ankle suffered before spring practice. He’s an incredibly talented runner with blazing speed, and it’ll be interesting to see how the Irish plan on using the sophomore who earned immediate eligibility after filing for a hardship waiver.

It’s tough to imagine a scenario where Will Mahone works his way onto the field this season. With the depth in front of him, it makes sense to preserve a year of eligibility.

WIDE RECEIVERS

While Kelly has sounded confident that veterans John Goodman, TJ Jones and Robby Toma will anchor the position grouping, he’s made a point of throwing his talent trio of freshmen receivers into the rotation immediately.

Slot receiver Davonte Neal is almost a sure bet to contribute early and often, with the college-ready talent owning a solid grasp of football and an elite set of skills. Chris Brown might also find his way into the role of deep threat wide receiver, with the Carolina speedster being everything advertised after Kelly talked his ability up at Signing Day. Justin Ferguson also has great size, checking in at 6-foot-2, 195-pounds, and might work his way onto the field as well.

Davaris Daniels, after not playing during his freshman season, is the X Factor of the unit. He’ll likely get every chance to win a starting job, but even if he doesn’t he’ll be counted on to make plays and help a passing game that could be in a state of transition with a new quarterback likely leading the way this season.  Getting something out of Daniel Smith would be a bonus for this staff, as the local South Bend product has struggled to stay healthy for most of his career, but possesses some red zone size that’s much needed at the position.

TIGHT END

Senior All-American Tyler Eifert will undoubtedly be the leading man in the Irish aerial attack. But his supporting cast has taken a bump with the loss of junior Alex Welch. Counted on to be a part of key depth that’ll allow the Irish offense to be more versatile, Welch’s knee injury will in all likelihood cost him the season.

Troy Niklas and Ben Koyack are two intriguing sophomore prospects. Niklas’ size and athleticism are pretty unique. At 6-foot-7, 260-pounds, Niklas is a few hamburgers away from being an elite left tackle, but with good speed, solid hands, and an ability to run in the open field, the Irish might have another star tight end on the roster after moving Niklas from the defensive side of the ball.

That’s not to say that Koyack is a slouch. At 6-foot-5, 253-pounds, the sophomore is another massive athlete, and after a promising freshman season, expect Koyack to make a bigger dent in the stat sheet this season.

Jake Golic will slide into the rotation after Welch’s injury. It wasn’t too long ago that his brother Mike was considered nothing more than emergency depth, so there’s a chance that during his senior season, Jake will end up answering the bell if his number is called.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Braxston Cave looks to be on his way back from a difficult foot injury. The fifth-year center is one of the team’s emotional leaders, and has the potential to put together a very good season anchoring the offensive line. He has every chance to be the Irish’s best center since All-American Jeff Faine.

The left side of the offensive line looks strong with Chris Watt and Zack Martin anchoring the guard and tackle positions for the second straight season. With the departure of Jordan Prestwood, depth may be of some concern, where talented freshman Ronnie Stanley looks good, but not quite ready for primetime.

On the right side of the line, it’s looking like Christian Lombard has cemented the right tackle job with Mike Golic running with the first team at right guard. Sophomore Nick Martin will battle Golic for the job at guard, while Tate Nichols is the next man in at tackle. If there’s an injury among the starters expect Nichols to work in at right tackle, and the younger Martin to show some flexibility in his ability to kick inside or out.

The next generation of Irish offensive linemen still need to make strides during this season before Kelly or offensive line coach Harry Hiestand will feel comfortable inserting them into the rotation. Matt Hegarty, Bruce Heggie and Connor Hanratty all can provide depth on the inside of the line, while Mark Harrell has done a nice job in his first week, holding his own in one-on-one drills.

Spring positions to watch for revelations: DL & WR

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 05: Jerry Tillery #99 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish tackles Jerrod Heard #13 of the Texas Longhorns for a loss of yards during the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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If quarterback, rover and the early enrollees could be Notre Dame fans’ springtime Christmas thrills, what positions present as potential spots of coal?

Three former Irish players were invited to next week’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis: quarterback DeShone Kizer, defensive tackle Jarron Jones and defensive end Isaac Rochell. Losing two consistent defensive linemen leaves this year’s unit with some questions. Jones and Rochell combined for 100 tackles, 18 for loss and three sacks last season. Notre Dame’s returning defensive linemen combined to total 111 tackles and only 5.5 tackles for loss. To be clear, sacks are not included in that latter list because no returning defensive linemen recorded one. Among the returnees, junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37 tackles, three for loss) and senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26, 0.5) contributed solidly alongside the two NFL prospects.

This dearth of known and reliable linemen is a large part of why the potential transfer of Clemson graduate defensive tackle Scott Pagano is so intriguing. Pagano would immediately be a favorite to start, and if not that, at least rotate in heavily.

For now, though, Pagano remains a theoretical

By the end of spring practice, who already on campus will emerge alongside Tillery and Trumbetti in the Irish front? Senior ends Jay Hayes (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) and Jonathon Bonner (nine tackles) seem the most-likely candidates … aside from former four-star recruit and now rising sophomore Daelin Hayes. In his debut season, D. Hayes finished with 11 tackles.

Look for senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) to establish himself as Tillery’s immediate backup this spring, but that spot in the rotation will be up for competition all over again once four-star tackle Darnell Ewell (Lake Taylor High School; Norfolk, Va.) arrives on campus in the fall. His size and quickness should play right into new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s system.

Equanimeous and Who?
Not only did Notre Dame bring in a graduate transfer at receiver in former Michigan wideout Freddy Canteen, but it has also already received the commitments of two four-star receivers in the 2018 recruiting class. The continued emphasis on the position reflects the lack of bona fide game-breakers currently on the roster.

Junior Equanimeous St. Brown established himself as the top Irish threat in 2016, and he should shine only further with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush targeting him. Classmates often amplify each other’s success, simply due to the added shared reps innate to joining practice at the same time. With Torii Hunter, Jr., now pursuing a professional baseball career, who will prevent the secondary from focusing all its energies on St. Brown?

Canteen will not be with Notre Dame in the spring, as he does not graduate from Michigan until April. That will give a clear shot for the likes of juniors Chris Finke, C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin, and sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool to establish themselves. Did that say “clear” shot? It should probably read, “a chance to separate from the crowd.”

If a genuine threat does not line up opposite St. Brown, his explosiveness will likely be greatly reduced by focused defensive scheming. Wimbush will need another target before 2018.

Of course, here is where one should acknowledge the millennia-tested fact: Coal under pressure becomes diamonds.

2016 Notre Dame’s win expectancy was 7.2
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Johnson named the Irish as his team most likely to dramatically improve its record in 2017. Johnson’s thinking is based, at least in part, on Notre Dame’s second-order win total having been 7.2 in 2016, compared to the four wins the Irish actually walked away with. That discrepancy was the largest in the country.

Second-order win totals reflect how many points a team should have scored and allowed based on offensive and defensive stats. In theory, this shines a light on how luck and chance factored into results. Naturally, losing seven games by one possession will often be reflected by a higher second-order win total.

“Notre Dame’s win-loss record belied a solid, if imperfect, squad that just couldn’t pull out close games…” Johnson writes. “The Irish may not get back into College Football Playoff contention in 2017, but they’re bound to post a few more Ws because of reversion to the mean.”

Admittedly, the small sample size of a football season reduces the applicability of metrics such as second- and third-order wins when compared to baseball and basketball.

Jones becomes Mack
A quick piece of housekeeping: Apparently junior tight end Alizé Jones has changed his name to Alizé Mack.

While Notre Dame’s roster may not reflect that change yet, it is reasonable to expect it will after its next update. The football program has consistently respected the intricacies of players’ name preferences. Tai-ler Jones becoming TJ Jones jumps to mind, for example.

Anyways, hopefully noting Mack’s name change here might reduce some confusion down the line. Probably not. How many readers possibly read to the actual bottom of an article? But hey, in good faith.

WR Lenzy makes 11th commitment, brings speed to Irish

lenzy
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At what point does an impressive recruiting roll become something more? When does it become a harbinger of things to come, even if not for a few seasons? How many notable commitments in a row establishes a class as special?

If the answer to any of the above is 11 commitments by the end of February, including five within two weeks, then Notre Dame is there following consensus four-star athlete Braden Lenzy’s announcement Thursday evening.

The Tigard High School (Portland, Ore) receiver/cornerback chose the Irish over offers from USC, Oregon and Michigan State, among a litany of others. In all, nine Pac-12 schools chased Lenzy—and a 10th, Washington, had shown interest—per rivals.com.

Lenzy will fit the leading 2018 need voiced by Irish coach Brian Kelly three weeks ago on National Signing Day 2017.

“Elite speed on offense will be a primary goal for us,” Kelly said Feb. 1. “Guys that can change the game on one possession. I think we’ll see that… We want a couple of home run hitters. We don’t care if they’re Darren Sproles’s size. We’re going to come off the board in terms of profile. We want some guys that can change the game on offense with elite speed.”

At 6-foot, 175 pounds, Lenzy is taller than Sproles’s 5-foot-6, but it is still his speed that drew Notre Dame’s interest.

“They made it clear they want me to do kickoff return and use me as a deep threat across the field,” he told Irish Illustrated. “Just being kind of an athlete, similar to what I’ve been doing already in high school, just on a bigger scale with a quarterback that can throw it a lot farther.”

Presuming Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush is that arm in 2018, throwing great distances should not be an issue. Between Lenzy and fellow 2018 commit Micah Jones, covering those distances should be a reasonable request, as well.

Lenzy brings Notre Dame’s class of 2018 to 11, including eight four-stars according to Rivals’ rating system. Current scholarship projections indicate the class will not be a large one, meaning the Irish coaching staff has already garnered the commitments of more than half the class. Once again, though, Kelly’s sentiment regarding recruiting timing should be remembered.

“We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

SWARBRICK’S TAKE ON RECRUITING
Kelly credited Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick with much assistance in securing the country’s No. 13 recruiting class in 2017. A refresher on those comments:

“In a lot of instances, [Swarbrick] had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it’s going,” Kelly said. “There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future.”

Swarbrick did not dispute the factual nature of any of that in an interview with the Indianapolis Star, but he did contest the need for praising what he saw as part of his job, one of the preferred parts of his job, at that.

“I can’t say anything about this year felt all that different,” Swarbrick told Star reporter Laken Litman. “Some asked questions about the future of the program and can we compete for a national championship. And I would talk about the elements of the program we were focused on improving.”

Swarbrick and Litman discussed a number of items in the second-half of the interview released by the Star, including Notre Dame’s facilities, a possible early signing period in football and if the Oct. 8, 2016, game against North Carolina State should have been played. Spoiler: No. Then why was it? Go check it out.

Swarbrick also told Litman he likes to write in his free time.

“I tend to think strategically with a pen in my hand.” Swarbrick added he is currently scribbling away on where he thinks college athletics are headed.

This scribe, for one, would be most interested in skimming those legal pads.

Will Wimbush, Elko and the early enrollees surprise in spring practice?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Exactly 59 days from today, the Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Sure, they will be playing against themselves, but nonetheless, it will be somewhat-competitive football played in gold helmets.

For timing context, exactly 59 days ago, you looked beneath the Christmas tree to learn if Santa Claus left you season tickets, socks or coal. I got socks. They had some of that extra cushioning, so I considered them a suitable treat.

Whether you care about my argyles or not (you don’t), for many the Blue-Gold Game and Christmas morning hold similar excitement. That fact is apparently why Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick does not concern himself when groups of alumni publicly lament his decisions, or lack thereof.

“I never worry about that,” Swarbirck told the Indianapolis Star in an exclusive interview you really should read. Go on, click the link, it will open in a new tab. You can come right back here when you are done.

“The hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion in your program. If that sort of stuff bothers you, you can’t be the athletic director, head coach or the quarterback at Notre Dame.”

That very passion will undoubtedly lead to frame-by-frame discussions of video snippets from spring practice, parsing of each and every word Irish coach Brian Kelly says in quick interviews after those practices, and extreme pessimism and optimism about the 2017 season.

In the Christmas spirit, what toys could bring the must excitement during the spring unwrapping? Personally, the gift I was unsure of always brought the most joy. I would rather open an unexpected book than know about a charcoal-gray suit. In other words, at least for today, let’s look past the offensive line, the running backs and the inside linebackers. Instead, let’s look forward to learning about… (more…)

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Karlos Williams #9 of the Florida State Seminoles scores the touchdown that would win the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their game at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.

With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.

The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.

Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.

Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.

If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.

Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order: (more…)