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How we got here: A look at the Irish secondary

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What we know is that presumed starting field cornerback Lo Wood is out for the season after rupturing his achilles tendon in a non-contact drill. What we don’t know is who’ll replace him in the starting lineup.

But maybe Brian Kelly does.

“I’m absolutely sure who’s going to replace him,” Kelly said yesterday when he addressed the media. “It’s just a matter of where and when that decision is going to be made. We know we’ve got four corners outside of Bennett that are going to compete, and we know all of them can play that position.

“Now they’re on stage, they get an opportunity over the next 10 days to determine who that’s going to be.”

For those just getting up-to-speed on Notre Dame football this August, the candidates for the job are sophomores Josh Atkinson and Jalen Brown, and freshmen KeiVarae Russell and Elijah Shumate. Combined, they’ve played a total of three defensive snaps. Three. All taken by Atkinson in mop-up time against Air Force.

The loss of Wood undoubtedly hurts the Irish and weakens a position that already had a magnifying glass on it. But before we clear the deck chairs, it bears mentioning that Wood only played 11 percent of the snaps last season and only saw more than 10 in comfortable wins against Purdue, Air Force, Navy and Maryland, before playing 19 snaps in the defensive slugfest against Boston College.

Still, Kerry Cooks‘ cornerbacks now have little margin for error. Even if Cam McDaniel stays full-time at cornerback, the Irish have little depth and none of it is tested.

How’d we get there? Glad you asked. Let’s turn back the clock and check out the defensive back recruiting classes:

2008 (fifth-year players): Three DBs recruited. 
Robert Blanton — Played four years. Drafted by the Minnesota Vikings to play safety.
Dan McCarthy —  Fifth-year reserve safety. Looked as if his career was finished until surprise 5th year.
Jamoris Slaughter — Hybrid player, multi-year starter for Irish at safety.

2009 (seniors): Two DBs recruited.
E.J. Banks — Left Notre Dame after one season. Now a walk-on DB at Pitt.
Zeke Motta — Starting safety for Irish.

2010 (juniors): Five DBs recruited
Chris Badger — Left on Mormon mission. Now a freshman safety.
Spencer Boyd — Academic and personal issues had Boyd depart before ever taking a snap.
Austin Collinsworth — Torn labrum will likely cost him 2012 season.
Lo Wood — Torn achilles tendon will cost him 2012 season.
Bennett Jackson — Former WR. First year starting cornerback.

2011 (sophomores): Four DBs recruited
Matthias Farley — Spent 2011 as WR. Fighting for time at safety.
Josh Atkinson — Spent 2011 on special teams. Fighting for starting CB job.
Jalen Brown — Redshirted freshman season. Fighting for CB job.
Eilar Hardy — Knee injury cost him freshman season.

2012 (freshman): Six DBs recruited 
Nicky Baratti — Getting strong reviews at safety.
KeiVarae Russell — Moved to CB first day of practice.
CJ Prosise — Playing safety and outside linebacker.
Tee Shepard — Left school in spring after early enrolling.
Elijah Shumate — Shifted from safety to cornerback.
John Turner — Developmental safety prospect.

How the Irish got to where they are is a product injuries, Brian Kelly’s recruiting choices, and the roster management of Charlie Weis. Holes in the 2008 and 2009 recruiting classes, where the Irish only signed five total defensive backs and zero true corners, have come back to bite Notre Dame, with the situation only exacerbated by Banks and Boyd leaving the program and a rash of injuries.

While missing out or losing key cornerback recruits like Ronald Darby, Tee Shepard, Yuri Wright, Bennett Okotcha (now transferring from Oklahoma after a redshirt season) and a handful of others, the shuffling of the roster — and recruitment of versatile players like Farley, Russell, and McDaniel (who will also spend more time in the defensive backfield) — has helped the Irish weather the storm as well as they can while they’ve put their focus on filling other noticeable roster holes (defensive end, outside linebacker, and wide receiver, to name a few.)

If you expected Brian Kelly to cry poor in preseason because of his untested depth chart, you don’t know anything about the third-year Irish coach. But if you listen carefully, you get the sense that Kelly knows what he has in his defensive backfield. After expressing how terrible he feels for Wood, who had an incredible offseason and put himself in a position to perform well this season, Kelly spoke of his confidence in the untested depth behind the injured junior.

“I feel really good about the other five corners that we have as well,” Kelly said. “We’ve got five scholarship corners that we believe can play the kind of football necessary for us to be successful. So we’ll move forward at that position. I think we have enough depth there to play very good football.”

In the past Kelly has talked about how he evaluates his roster. There’s a three-pronged rating system that he uses to evaluate players on his roster. If a player receives a three, he’s capable of playing championship football. If a player receives a two, he’s capable of playing winning football. If a player receives a one, he’s not ready to play.

Digging deeper into that quote, you get the feeling that the five cornerbacks might not garner many threes, but their ability to “play the kind of football necessary for us to be successful,” lets you behind the curtain on the internal evaluation process, and gives you a clue of what to expect out of the Irish defense as they protect their liabilities, something defensive coordinator Bob Diaco talked about on Media Day.

“The biggest thing that’s going to impact the style of defense that we play is the secondary and who’s in there,” Diaco told Jack Nolan at UND.com. “If particular guys are in there, we may need to manage the game which will create a different pattern of calls.”

Diaco made these comments before the loss of Wood, giving you an insight into the thought process even before the junior went down. But with one less hand on deck, it’ll be the defense’s ability to protect the secondary not just by coverage choices but by pressure in the front seven, that’ll determine whether the Irish defense can withstand its difficult 2012 schedule.

Until then, Diaco, Cooks and safeties coach Bob Elliott have some work to do.

 

7 Days Until Spring Practice: A Look at the OL

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 17: Quenton Nelson #56 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates after a 10-yard touchdown reception by Corey Robinson against the USC Trojans in the fourth quarter of the game at Notre Dame Stadium on October 17, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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One week from now this space can feature new activity on a football field, complete with pads, footballs and everything. For now, though, the looks back to recent seasons with future ponderings must continue.

A broad view quickly separates positional groupings into seven. Hey, that’s how many days are in a week. Wow, that’s timely.

Embracing that convenience, the question is in what order to discuss those seven groupings. Rather than make a unilateral decision, I asked an old friend who claims to be a longtime “Inside the Irish” reader.

“I’d probably go offense first, just because I think there are more question marks and intrigue on defense with the new coordinator and all that,” he said. “Then I’d probably order them by expected level of interest or question marks.”

With that mandate, today presents a quick look at the Notre Dame offensive line.


The Irish return four 12-game starters from last season in graduate student tackle Mike McGlinchey, senior tackle Alex Bars, senior guard Quenton Nelson and senior center Sam Mustipher. Logically, those four will retain their starting spots.

Aside from that foursome’s 75 career starts, graduate student Hunter Bivin brings back the only start among the possibilities for the fifth spot. He faces a steep climb to claim the lead role at right guard, though.

If those four do retain their spots atop the depth chart, junior Tristen Hoge and sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg will give offensive line coach Harry Hiestand options.

Hiestand could keep Bars at right tackle, making Hoge the likely candidate at right guard, or Hiestand could opt to move Bars to right guard and let Kraemer and Eichenberg challenge each other for the starting right guard role.

Either way, the Notre Dame offensive line should provide a solid foundation for the 2017 Irish offense. An added season—and offseason, including the coming spring practices—of 80 percent of the line working together can only help build on last year’s performance. Of all places, chemistry and unity serve as greatest assets on the offensive front. It takes time to develop those.

While last year’s rushing statistics fall short when compared to 2015’s, they were not disappointing on their own. Removing sacks and the yards lost from them—the NCAA counts sacks as rushes, despite how they can inappropriately distort rushing statistics—Notre Dame finished with 2,123 rushing yards on 410 attempts for an average of 5.18 yards per carry.

In 2015, the Irish finished with 2,858 rushing yards on 453 attempts for an average of 6.31 yards per carry. The added game in that season accounted for 146 of that added yardage. Obviously, the flow of particular games in 2016 also may have skewed the total stats, though the average still fell by more than a yard.

Last season, Notre Dame allowed 28 sacks, compared to 26 in 13 games the year prior.

The alignment that first faces Temple will likely not be decided upon until fall practices. Hiestand has a proven history of shuffling linemen into positions to create the best unit, so an unexpected maneuver would not be the most shocking development. Nonetheless, any glimpses spring practices provide of what he is tinkering with should provide some insight as to where Bars, Hoge, Kraemer and Eichenberg stand.

Junior guard Trevor Ruhland and sophomore guard Parker Boudreaux will keep that competition honest. Early enrollee freshmen tackle Aaron Banks and guard Robert Hainsey will provide even more added depth, but anything more than that is quite unlikely. Classmates Josh Lugg and Dillan Gibbons will join the ranks at the end of summer.


Having already pointed out the congruence of seven position groups and seven days in a week, below is the rest of the week’s intended scheduling, at least in that regard. If I publicize it here, I have no choice but to follow through, right?

Thursday: Receivers/Tight Ends*
Friday: Running Backs
Saturday: Quarterbacks
Sunday: Defensive Backs
Monday: Linebackers
Tuesday: Defensive Linemen
Wednesday, March 8: Spring practice begins.

*To be completely honest, the consulted reader did not specify if tight ends should fit among the offensive line or the receivers. That was a unilateral decision.

Notre Dame returns 15 starters in 2017; How many do its opponents?

TEMPE, AZ - NOVEMBER 08:  Quarterback Taylor Kelly #10 of the Arizona State Sun Devils throws a pass under pressure from linebacker Nyles Morgan #5 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the fourth quarter of the college football game at Sun Devil Stadium on November 8, 2014 in Tempe, Arizona. The Sun Devils defeated the Fighting Irish 55-31.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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In six months—180 days, to be even more precise—college football will return. Sure, spring practice might be only eight days away in South Bend, but those sessions will have no tangible effect on the national championship chase.

On Aug. 25, Stanford will face Rice in Sydney. According to AP Style, one does not need to notate Australia there, but some thoroughness can’t hurt, right? For that matter, South Florida will take on San Jose State, and Hawai’i will travel all the way to Foxboro, Mass. to take on Massachusetts.

Six months ago—well, again, 180 days to be exact—No. 19 Louisville introduced America to quarterback Lamar Jackson in a 70-14 rout of Charlotte, kicking off the 2016 season with an eight-touchdown performance from the eventual Heisman winner. No. 9 Tennessee topped Appalachian State 20-13 in overtime, setting the stage for a Volunteers season full of dramatics.

A week after the Cardinal go down under to face the Owls, Notre Dame will open its season against Temple with 15 returning starters, eight on offense and seven on defense, pending any spring or summer departures or injuries. According to Phil Steele, 24 teams return more experience.

Offense: Offensive linemen Mike McGlinchey (12 starts in 2016), Quenton Nelson (12), Sam Mustipher (12) and Alex Bars (12); tight end Durham Smythe (12); receiver Equanimeous St. Brown (12); running back Josh Adams (nine) and C.J. Sanders (seven)
Defense: Safeties Drue Tranquill (12) and Devin Studstill (nine); cornerback Julian Love (eight); linebackers Nyles Morgan (12) and Te’von Coney (nine); and defensive linemen Jerry Tillery (11) and Andrew Trumbetti (seven)

How does this Irish listing compare to Notre Dame’s opponents? Right about middle of the pack. (If a quarterback is not specifically mentioned, the team does not return a starter at that position.)

Sept. 2 — v. Temple, returns 10 starters; six on offense and four on defense
Sept. 9 — v. Georgia, returns 17 starters; seven on offense, including quarterback Jacob Eason, and 10 on defense
Sept. 16 — at Boston College, returns 15 starters; eight on offense and seven on defense
Sept. 23 — at Michigan State, returns nine starters; four on offense and five on defense
Sept. 30 — v. Miami (Ohio), returns 16 starters; eight on offense, including quarterback Gus Ragland, and eight on defense
Oct. 7 — at North Carolina, returns 12 starters; five on offense and seven on defense
Oct. 21 — v. USC, returns 12 starters; five on offense, including quarterback and Heisman-threat Sam Darnold, and seven on defense
Oct. 28 — v. North Carolina State, returns 17 starters; nine on offense, including quarterback Ryan Finley, and eight on defense
Nov. 4 — v. Wake Forest, returns 15 starters; nine on offense, including quarterback John Wolford, and six on defense
Nov. 11 — at Miami (Fla.), returns 15 starters; seven on offense and eight on defense
Nov. 18 — v. Navy, returns 13 starters; five on offense and eight on defense
Nov. 25 — at Stanford, returns 16 starters; eight on offense, including quarterback Ryan Burns, and eight on defense

Naturally, the number of returning starters is cyclical, and some might argue teams with lackluster records one season should not want to return many starters the next. Then again, those players started over others for a presumed reason in the first place

Acknowledging that cycle, it seems innate to take a look at how many starters Notre Dame might return in 2018. By no means is the intent here to look past 2017. Rather, consider this something of a scholarship chart cliff notes. As always, this does not factor in the inevitable injuries, transfers and departures otherwise inherent to the coming six months.

Of the above eight offensive returnees, McGlinchey and Smythe will both be out of eligibility following 2017, and Nelson will nearly-certainly depart for the first round of the NFL Draft. The other five, though, could all be back in blue-and-gold. One would think quarterback Brandon Wimbush—2017’s assumed starter—will return, as would whoever the third receiver is in 2017, considering there is no senior at the position aside from graduate transfer Freddy Canteen who has two years of eligibility remaining anyways. If a tight end such as freshman early enrollee Brock Wright or junior Alizé Mack were to usurp Smythe, then the Irish may have eight returning offensive starters again in 2018.

Of the above seven defensive returnees, only Morgan and Trumbetti will finish their eligibility this season. If Tranquill does indeed end up manning the rover position in new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme, that will open a starting spot for another safety. Whoever that is, he will have eligibility remaining, as will whatever cornerback lines up opposite Love. The defensive line remains a quandary, but it is distinctly possible Notre Dame returns eight defensive starters, as well, in 2018.

Fortunately, spring practice begins March 8, and some light can begin to shine on those questions regarding the defensive line and the overall defensive alignment. In addition to garnering excitement for 2017, they can also shed some insights into the seasons to come.

Oh, and in case you are curious, Stanford will fly 7,434 miles to get to Sydney while Hawai’i will travel a mere 5,083 to get to Gillette Stadium.

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

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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.