Five things we’ll learn: The 2012 Fighting Irish

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There’s no better time of year to be a football fan. Everybody is undefeated. The team looks confident and ready for battle. Your coaching staff is confident they’ve filled the holes in the roster and players are ready to step up and have a breakthrough season. In other words, it’s still August.

For Notre Dame fans, hope still springs eternal. It may have been difficult to pick yourself up off the mat again — especially after last season’s demoralizing results — but after nine months of poking and prodding, over-analyzing and critiquing, there’s light at the end of the tunnel: It may be crazy, but (once again) this year could be the year.

Of course, that conclusion could be shot to hell in the next 72 hours. With a football team breaking in a new quarterback that’s yet to play a game, a schedule that feels like your rolling a boulder up a hill, and a roster thin enough at certain positions that there’s little margin for error, the 2012 season could very easily get ugly in a hurry. But that’s what you worry about next week. Until then, it’s all about enjoying the potential. Because it can never last long enough.

As the Fighting Irish make their way across the Atlantic Ocean for its opening game against Navy, here are five things we’ll learn in the 2012 season.

With the weight of ND Nation on his shoulders, Everett Golson will learn quickly whether he’s ready for primetime.

It doesn’t happen often, but the Irish fanbase has gotten their way. After sitting out a redshirt season and getting up to speed on the rigors of college football, sophomore quarterback Everett Golson is now the man in charge of the Notre Dame offense. The talented South Carolina product certainly has the pedigree: Record-setting prep career, athleticism that netted him a basketball scholarship from North Carolina, and prodigious skills on the piano that have him looking like a wunderkind. There may be no better player on paper to throw your belief behind.

But Brian Kelly understands the proposition and believes he can get enough out of his young quarterback to make it worth the effort.

“He’s going to make some mistakes and we know that we’re going to have to overcome those,” Kelly said of Golson this week. “But if he’s not out of character on Saturday, I will safely say, he will do a very good job of taking care of the football. But that’s why they play the game.”

Well said, coach.

After losing three starters, the secondary will decide whether or not Bob Diaco’s defense takes the next step.

For those fretting about the Irish’s rebooted secondary, its worth taking a trip down memory lane. Heading into the 2010 season, things weren’t exactly rainbows and lollipops on the back-end of the Irish defense. Some bum named Harrison Smith was going to get relegated to outside linebacker after two up-and-down seasons. Kelly’s inexperienced defensive staff needed to get Gary Gray and Darrin Walls to play up to their potential. There were a staggering amount of big plays being made by the guys in the wrong jerseys, never a good proposition for a position grouping where mistakes usually mean points for the bad guys.

After a veteran unit had a disappointing 2011 season, Kelly shuffled the deck and brought in veteran defensive coach Bob Elliott to work with Diaco and cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks. He also reloaded the position grouping, adding an influx of young talent to the depth chart. There are plenty of variables, but the staff believes they can play good enough to win games. That’ll mean getting seniors Zeke Motta and Jamoris Slaughter to anchor the group. It’ll mean getting Bennett Jackson to play up to his star-in-the-making ability. And more importantly, getting freshman starter KeiVarae Russell to play like someone that hasn’t spent a month at cornerback.

In today’s era of college football, even the most elite teams have holes in their roster where unproven talent needs to step up. For the 2012 season to be a good one, the Irish need to make sure their holes don’t get exposed.

The Irish have the strength up front to have a great offensive line… as long as nobody gets hurt.

Irish fans have bemoaned the preseason losses of tight end Alex Welch and cornerback Lo Wood. But there’s no position where there’s a thinner margin for error than offensive line. New line coach Harry Hiestand‘s unit has the makings of an elite unit, with Braxston Cave, Chris Watt, and Zack Martin all capable of playing like All-Americans. Joined by first-year starters Mike Golic and Christian Lombard, this unit could be one of the best Irish lines since the glory days under Joe Moore and Lou Holtz. Unless somebody gets hurt.

Knock on wood, but there’s no position grouping that falls off a cliff like the line. Trading in a player like Martin for a freshman like Ronnie Stanley would be akin to turning over the keys to the Ferrari for your babysitter’s old Civic. (That’s no knock on Stanley, who will be a good one before his career is over.) With five offensive linemen coming in next year’s recruiting class, reinforcements are on the way. But the Irish need to get through this season unscathed up front. If they do, expect big things from an unproven offense. If they don’t… well, it’s be baptism by fire for some untested players.

With the offense in his hands, we’ll find out if Chuck Martin is Kelly’s ace in the hole.

When a college football coach gets a chance to bring in a new offensive coordinator, promoting from within is fairly common. But when that promotion goes to a defensive position coach, it usually deserves an eyebrow raise. Yet Kelly’s promotion of trusted aide Chuck Martin to offensive coordinator was met with nearly universal approval after Charley Molnar took the head coaching job at UMass. The former Grand Valley State head coach will now be Kelly’s eyes in the coaching box, in charge of fixing an offense that’s been far from extraordinary in the first two years of the Brian Kelly era.

Martin has wowed everyone surrounding the program in his two years on the staff. He’s smart, personable, and acts like the spotlight of Notre Dame is no different than life in Division II. But he’s now tasked with building something great out of a unit breaking in a first-year quarterback. He’ll have tools — All-American Tyler Eifert, game-breaking depth at running back, and a strong line. If he’s able to get the job done, expect Martin to get his own football program sooner than later. It’ll be a promotion well deserved.

After an identity crisis, we’ll find out if Brian Kelly doubling down on himself worked.

Give Kelly credit for this: After a disappointing 2011 season, the head coach did a ton of self-evaluation. After acting like a CEO of a major corporation, Kelly got back to doing what got him to South Bend: Coaching Football. That meant building relationships with players he inherited, and getting his hands dirty as he implemented the Xs and Os that had many believing the Irish hired an innovator when they brought Kelly in to replace Charlie Weis.

Instead of hitting the banquet tour and building the Irish brand, Kelly spent the offseason and summer in South Bend. He implemented a new accountability system with his players that worked as a two-way street, forcing the king of the castle to get to know the players that’ll have the coach’s fate in his hands.

Early reports have been nothing but good. Yet with a meat-grinder of a schedule in front of the team, any cracks in the armor will show quickly. Kelly made tough decisions by suspending quarterback Tommy Rees and Carlo Calabrese. He did the same with starting running back Cierre Wood and defensive end Justin Utupo. You can’t do that without a solid group of team leaders, something Kelly reaffirmed by naming four captains to the team — all recruits from the previous regime.

It’s been said a thousand times, but year three is the defining year for Notre Dame head coaches. Nobody in their right mind expects Kelly to win a national championship like those before him did in their third autumn in South Bend. But for all the good Kelly’s done implementing a system that’s conducive for success, it’s time for the him to get it done on the field. That means putting together a season that surprises in a good way, even winning a game or two that nobody expects him to win.

Now all he’s got to do is play the games.

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.