And in that corner: The Purdue Boilermakers

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After starting 2011 in the worst possible fashion, Irish fans couldn’t feel better about things after a 50-10 drubbing of Navy. First-time starting quarterback Everett Golson looked confident and smooth in his debut. The Irish ground attack was prolific, even without starter Cierre Wood. And even without defensive end Aaron Lynch, the Irish continually harassed Navy quarterback Trey Miller.

But that was Navy. The Midshipmen spent almost half a century as an Irish doormat before breaking through in 2007 and winning twice more since then, including beating Brian Kelly’s 2010 squad. Now it appears the Irish are back to their dominating ways, notching two straight 40-point wins.

Now the Irish will turn their attention to the Big Ten and in-state rival Purdue. The matchup won’t have the same heat as the games against Michigan State and Michigan, but Danny Hope’s Purdue squad shouldn’t be overlooked. Fresh off their own impressive first win, we brought in Travis Miller of Hammer & Rails to discuss all things Boilermakers.

We’ve done this three times before (20092010, 2011), a nice time capsule back as we look at the evolution of this series.

I asked, Travis answered. Here we go:

The Boilermakers did a nice job taking care of business on opening day, whipping Eastern Kentucky handily on a day where not everybody had as good of luck with their respective cupcakes. And they did so with some significant pregame distractions, like the last minute suspension of starting quarterback Caleb TerBush. After last year’s nail biter with Middle Tennessee, did you see this coming?

I did not. I expected EKU to put up a better fight, especially since they challenged a very good Kansas State team last year in Manhattan before falling 10-7. This was a rout in every sense of the word. Even giving up five turnovers didn’t hurt Purdue as the defense allowed zero points after them. Kawann Short was dominant in blocking a field goal and an extra point. Even the middle linebacker play was solid after losing Dwayne Beckford due to his recent arrest.

I expected to win, but EKU has one of the best running backs in FCS, a quality receiver, and an experienced quarterback. I didn’t expect to be so dominant on defense to where we only had one bad play, a 30 yard touchdown run by Matt Denham.

Speaking of the QB situation, Marve threw an early pick and had a fumble, but was pretty impressive as the game got rolling. Does that make you willing to scrap TerBush as a starter and roll with the veteran? I know Hope hasn’t decided yet, but is one game against an FCS opponent enough for you?

Whatever makes us ditch the crazy quarterback rotation is good enough for me. I think Marve finally showed what type of player he can be. Yes, he is a veteran, but of his 14 previous starts and through all of last year he has never really been THE guy. At Miami he split every game with Jacory Harris. In 2010 he had three starts before hurting his knee, and even then Rob Henry took a few snaps. Last year he split time with TerBush.

Marve impressed me because he was making good decisions on the roll out and making throws we quite frankly haven’t had a quarterback capable of making in some time. We got our tight ends involved as more than a last resort and most of Marve’s mobility is back. I think the upside for him is higher than TerBush, so he should be the guy. Also, I do not like that a team captain and starter did something (whatever it was) to get suspended right before the opener.

Most people know about All-American candidate Kawann Short, but I’ve heard plenty of good things about the rest of Purdue’s front four. Paired with a strong secondary, how good are you expecting this defense to be? What are your early impressions of new D.C. Tim Tibesar?

I was extremely impressed. We covered the middle of the field on third and long, something I have been screaming for us to do for years. After watching part of the Navy game I had nightmares of forcing a 3rd and 15 only to see Tyler Eifert wandering completely uncovered over the middle for an 18 yard catch. Now I have some hope.

Will Lucas really impressed me with his play at linebacker. Landon Feichter, a guy who was a very unheralded walk-on last year, has earned a starting safety spot and he responded with a pick six and two pass break ups. I also thought Jalani Phillips had a solid game in terms of being disruptive up front with Short and Bruce Gaston.

Of course, this is all against an FCS team. Notre Dame is a much better gauge of competition, so we shall see this week.

The Boilermakers have been a dark-horse candidate to make a run in the Big Ten this year, especially with Penn State and Ohio State already off the board. It’s been a tough few years for Purdue fans, do you get a sense of optimism this year?

I do. It’s really a three-team race with Illinois and Wisconsin. I thought on day one Illinois played better than I thought and Wisconsin played worse. If you’re blasting a good FCS team at home while the favorite in the division is struggling with theirs it is definitely a confidence boost.

I do view the Notre Dame game as a major test to see how we stack up against the Big Ten. It is the only non-conference game that should give us trouble, and last year we were completely uncompetitive. If Purdue comes out and rolls over just like last year I will be very concerned.

Did watching the Irish’s impressive performance on Saturday morning have you feeling more or less confident about the upcoming game? 

I am pretty neutral, mostly because I didn’t expect either blowout to be so dominant. Obviously, Purdue cannot have five turnovers and expect to win. If Purdue fixes that, however, I think the defense can at least slow down Reddick, Eifert, and Atkinson. Those are the three players I am most concerned with. Defensively, I know we offer a different look from Navy’s triple option. Even with the turnovers we moved the ball at will just like Notre Dame.

It is hard to make a definite choice because both of our games were the result of one team being far and away better than the other. I will say that Purdue’s performance encouraged me more than Notre Dame’s discouraged me.

Vegas opened the line for Saturday’s game at 14.5 points. Cliff Notes version of how Purdue pulls off the upset.

First off, Danny Hope picks Robert Marve and sticks with him. I don’t mind the occasional Rob Henry snap as a wildcat QB that can throw, but Marve has to be THE guy. Second, we don’tturn the ball over. Third, we have improved special teams. We had an extra point blocked, kicked a ball out of bounds, fumbled a punt return, and had a punt blocked. Those would be disastrous against Notre Dame. Fourth, we have to be aggressive defensively and not let ND’s running game go wild like last season with Wood.

[Editor’s note: The guys at Hammer & Rails have already addressed Danny Hope picking Caleb TerBush as the starter for Saturday.]

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.