Pregame Six Pack: Prepping for Purdue

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No doubt, expectations have been raised thanks to the Irish’s convincing victory over Navy. But one win is a data point. Two would make a trend. And over the past few years, the trend has never been a good one for Notre Dame.

With a stout defensive line and strength in the secondary, quarterback Everett Golson will be challenged. After executing a mostly simple game plan against the Midshipmen, Golson’s learning curve with rise as Notre Dame welcomes in-state rival Purdue, a dark horse candidate to win its division in the big Ten.

As the Irish prepare to open their home schedule on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC, here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers, or miscellaneous musings as No. 22 Notre Dame prepares to take on Purdue.

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1. After a mostly anonymous freshman season, sophomore Stephon Tuitt is already making his presence felt on a national level.

It seemed like most Irish fans were ready to call the defensive line a wash when Aaron Lynch departed during spring practice. But after a relatively quiet freshman season where his fellow classmate stole most of the media attention, Stephon Tuitt sprinted his way into the national headlines with his impressive opening performance.

The 6-foot-6, 305-pound defensive lineman is a dominant force along the front line, already showing his athleticism with his 77-yard fumble return. Mix that in with his physical tools and you’ve got draft gurus like Mel Kiper already singing Tuitt’s praises calling him, “Arguably the best defensive lineman virtually in college football, let alone the sophomore class.”

When asked what helped flip the switch, Brian Kelly pointed to an offseason where Tuitt transformed himself thanks to a tireless work ethic both on and off the field.

“The only word I remember him using was dominate,” Kelly said. “Dominate in the classroom — which he did this summer, over a 3.5 (g.p.a). Everything he did, he wanted to be the very definition. He’s been on this mission of, whatever it is, and it’s not just football, it’s everything in life. He’s a very, very driven young man right now.”

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2. Brian Kelly wouldn’t name a backup quarterback, but expect Tommy Rees to slide into the backup quarterback role.

After not taking a single team rep during fall camp, Tommy Rees very quickly got reintroduced to the Irish offense, taking virtually all the No. 2 reps in practice this week, making up for lost time in Chuck Martin‘s tweaked offensive system.

Kelly talked about the junior quarterback’s return to the depth chart and how he looked.

“I just think he continues to get better in ball position and ball placement and putting it away from the defender. Obviously we had too many turnovers last year,” Kelly said of Rees. “He’s still got room to work on things mechanically. He’s got a low arm slot. Sometimes the ball comes out in an area where I don’t want it. We’re working mechanics because he’s got the mental end of it down. But some of the mechanics we’re still trying to clean up.”

While there weren’t any media viewing windows of practice, word from inside the Gug had Rees incredibly sharp in his first team reps, moving the team efficiently in his first significant practice snaps of the season.

With three quarterbacks essentially in the rotation for playing time, you can expect freshman Gunner Kiel to hold onto a year of eligibility this season.

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3. After a sloppy week one, both teams need to do a better job on special teams or it might cost them the game.

You think Notre Dame had a bad week on special teams? Wait until you get a load out of Purdue’s week one performance. The Boilermakers fumbled a punt, and had both an extra point and a punt blocked. To make things worse, they also had two kickoffs go out of bounds, giving away free field position to an undermanned Eastern Kentucky team.

Still head coach Danny Hope isn’t making wholesale changes.

“The changes we’re going to make are from an execution standpoint,” Hope said.

Hope’s comments are in line with what Kelly said Thursday afternoon when asked about the Irish’s special teams flubs, most notably difficulties in the kicking game.

“There’s always concerns when you start like that,” Kelly said of the kicking units. “But I think they were more about nerves than they were about anything else. I think they settled in after we had a PAT and a poor kickoff and not a great punt. I think it was settling in first time and they had a good week.”

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4. In addition to making Notre Dame Stadium a louder place, the Irish are working on making it a more familiar home.

The hallowed grounds of Notre Dame Stadium might be too hallowed. After a season of mixed results on their home turf, Kelly decided to spend Thursday’s practice inside the stadium Rockne built to help the players build familiarity and comfort inside.

After stepping foot in the stadium only six or seven times last year, Kelly plans on spending every Thursday in the stadium.

“It’s important that our guys feel comfortable in there. I felt our guys at times, we ran in the stadium like we were running into the Basilica or we were running into the grotto,” Kelly said. “It almost seems there’s too much of a reverence there. It’s Notre Dame Stadium, it’s a football game. Let’s have some energy. We talked about that today. We’ll continue to beat that drum.”

Obviously, the Irish laid a few big eggs at home last season, which could have been the product of Notre Dame not being comfortable at home. With a different locker room, tighter quarters, and a ton of history, it’s conceivable that a stadium filled with a century of history had the Irish too on edge to play to their potential.

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5. While Amir Carlisle has been cleared to practice, it still hasn’t been decided when — or if — he’ll play this year.

Notre Dame caught a break when the NCAA granted Amir Carlisle‘s waiver which earned him immediate eligibility. Now it’s unclear whether he’ll ever use it this season. The talented former Southern Cal running back was expected to add another gamebreaker at the hybrid running back receiver position, but a broken ankle suffered before spring camp has kept Carlisle away from taking significant reps.

“He’s not ready to play in the system of offense. He’s ready to play where physically we feel he’s going to get some reps,” Kelly explained. “But it’s going to take him a little bit more time. This was really his first week of true practice. We tried to make it akin to the first week of really preseason camp for him. That’s kind of where he’s at.”

With the Irish deeper than they ever expected in the backfield and in the slot, the idea of saving a year of eligibility hasn’t been lost on the Irish offensive staff.

“The rules are you’ve got to do it within the first six games,” Kelly said about a potential redshirt. “We’ll see where we are. We’re counting on playing him, but we leave all those options open for a number of guys.”

Carlisle is probably itching to see the field, especially considering it’ll be in front of his family and father, who’ll be working with the Boilermakers as the head of the team’s strength and conditioning program.

***

6. It may be cliche, but expect turnovers to tell the story of the game on Saturday.

Danny Hope chose quarterback Caleb TerBush to start the game on Saturday mostly because of what he doesn’t do: Turn the ball over. TerBush might lack the flair of sixth-year quarterback Robert Marve, and the legs of quarterback Rob Henry, but Hope believes he gives the team their best chance to hang in this football game.

“He did a great job in camp and won the job hands down,” Hope said of TerBush. “He separated himself from the others. It would be to our best advantage, I believe, to start Caleb this weekend because I feel like a smooth start in the beginning of the game at South Bend could be very important to our team.”

After turnovers ruined the Irish’s 2011 season, putting together a +3 box score at turnover margin was a pleasant surprise. Meanwhile, the Boilermakers turned the ball over five times, winning against a mediocre Eastern Kentucky team in spite of its difficulties playing clean.

Of course, TerBush didn’t get the Boilermakers off to the best start last season against ND. His first play from scrimmage TerBush was picked off by Gary Gray, and two players later Tommy Rees hit Michael Floyd for a 35-yard touchdown. The Irish sprinted out to a 21-0 lead before Purdue could even manage a field goal and running back Cierre Wood’s 191 yards on the ground helped the Irish coast to a 28-point win.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Offensive Line

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Notre Dame’s offensive line was clearly going to be a strength entering the season. Before a single snap, two expected All-Americans were leading the way. Sure enough, senior left guard Quenton Nelson ended up a unanimous All-American while fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey secured consensus honors.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
The only question about the offensive line entering the season was who would take over at right tackle with senior Alex Bars moving inward to right guard. Counting Bars, the line returned four starters.

Presumably, sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg were the two involved in the right tackle competition. Through spring practice, Kraemer appeared to have an edge large enough to be considered the starter but not so large as to eradicate any further discussion in preseason practice.

Neither inspired an excess of confidence, such that offensive line coach Harry Hiestand would even acknowledge the possibility of Bars still being the best right tackle option on the roster. Hiestand was not considering moving Bars, though. The gap between Bars and anyone else at right guard was much greater than the discrepancy between Bars and Kramer (or Eichenberg).

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
Freshman Robert Hainsey forced his way into the right tackle competition at some point before the season. He did so to such an extent, Eichenberg was relegated to the nominal duty of backing up McGlinchey. How much work does that job not warrant? Eichenberg saw action in only five games, the streak of Irish routs running from the trip to Boston College through the thrashing of USC.

Kraemer and Hainsey shared the position all season, the latter showing adeptness in pass protection while the Kraemer’s strength came in the running game, although the two usually swapped playing time by the series, not by the situation.

Fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey’s final Irish season will be remembered as a year he established himself as the voice of the team while leading what could still be named the nation’s best offensive line. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The other 80 percent of the line held to summer’s expectations. Senior center Sam Mustipher’s season should be noted. While Nelson and McGlinchey earned the headlines and awards — and deservedly so — Mustipher quietly played nearly as well.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING
The offensive line’s dominance this season best shows itself in the running statistics. When looking at sacks allowed, Notre Dame endured only three fewer than last year (25 compared to 28), somewhat a cost of trotting out a quarterback himself so inclined to run the ball.

2016: 2,123 yards on 410 carries (sacks adjusted); 176.9 yards per game and 5.18 yards per rush.
2017: 3,462 yards on 501 carries (sacks adjusted); 288.5 yards per game and 6.91 yards per rush.

COMING QUESTIONS
It is readily and widely assumed Nelson will head to the NFL while both Mustipher and Bars will return for their final seasons of eligibility. All three would be the logical decisions.

If that all proves true, the Irish essentially return four “starters.” Both Kraemer and Hainsey saw enough action this season to be considered starters for the intent of this and nearly any offseason conversation.

Before deciding on the fifth starter, Hiestand will need to decide what position that newcomer will slot into. One of Kraemer or Hainsey could move to left tackle or left guard. (Kraemer at left guard would make some sense.) Bars could move to left guard, leaving right guard open for, again, Kraemer or Hainsey. (Again, moving Kraemer to guard seems an inevitability in the next three years.) There could be a thought to moving both Kraemer and Hainsey to the left side and finding a new right tackle. (Want to guess who would be projected at left guard in that scenario?)

The only certainty: Mustipher will start at center, presuming he returns. For kicks and giggles, it could be speculated how much preseason hype Mustipher will get as the stalwart of a seemingly-unproven line. That s-adjective belies a trick question; this will not be as unproven a unit as it may appear on the surface.

Replacing Nelson’s and McGlinchey’s chemistry, physicality and maturity will not happen, but there is reason to think the drop-off may not be debilitating. Mustipher can provide the steadying force for Bars to reinforce. Another year in a collegiate program should only further Hainsey’s immediate progress. A hypothetical move to guard will fit Kraemer’s skillset more naturally.

That leaves that pesky fifth starter spot. It could go to a number of options, but the frontrunners will be a quartet of youngsters already in the weight room.

Obviously, Eichenberg will get his chance. Freshman Dillan Gibbons earned offensive scout team player of the year honors last week, often a precursor to first-team contributions in the near future. All the way back on National Signing Day, this space saw Gibbons as “a prototypical Harry Hiestand offensive guard.”

If neither Eichenberg nor Gibbons, the focus will turn to freshmen Joshua Lugg and Aaron Banks. The latter enrolled early as a highly-touted tackle, part of why Hainsey’s fall emergence came as such a surprise. If any freshman was to contribute along the line, it was always assumed it would be Banks. Lugg, meanwhile, measures 6-foot-7 and 300 pounds. He is a tackle in the making at some point in his Notre Dame career.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING
Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Receivers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends
Where Notre Dame was & is: Running Backs
Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Backs

Friday at 4: Bowl games are fun, but little else, even for Notre Dame vs. LSU

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Bowl games are [insert positive adjective here]. Make no mistake about that. They provide players and fans an excuse to head south in December, even if that destination is El Paso, Texas, or Birmingham, Ala. Warmer temperatures are always preferable. That’s science.

For those not making a trek to Shreveport, La., or Orlando, Fla., the 39 games sprinkled throughout 17 days provide a break from primetime reruns or, in the best of times, from mid-day office minutiae. Football is preferable to “Young Sheldon” or remembering to include the new cover sheet on the TPS report. Again, empirical evidence establishes this as a fact.

And for the grinding gambler, bowl games represent one last chance to exit the college football season with a net gain, furthering the dreams of continuing similar growth annually for two decades in order to secure retirement based off a hobby. On a smaller scale, bowl pools establish a chance for bragging rights, and little is better than holiday season bragging rights. That’s a bit shy of sound logic, but it is a reality, nonetheless.

All that acknowledged, bowl games should still not be factored much into long-term views, forward-looking or retrospective. They are the most uncertain of sporting events, having little attachment to either the season prior or the season eight months away.

When else does a team not play for a month on either side of a competition? There is a reason an answer is lacking. It’s an absurd practice. (Albeit, again, a delightful one. There are five games Saturday and only one of those 10 teams is from a Power Five conference, yet this scribe intends to watch each and every one of the five.) (Is that the first sign of a problem? Maybe, maybe not.)

Notre Dame finished 2017 with a 9-3 record and two losses in its final three games. Beating No. 17 LSU in the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1 in the aforementioned Disney-based metropolis should not change the taste of that November letdown. At most, it can support an argument of the Irish simply being worn down by season’s end, but that would not change the fact of them indeed being worn down when it mattered.

When Notre Dame beat LSU in the 2014 Music City Bowl, it did not change the tenor of the season, and it did not lead to 2015’s success. Rather, the following year’s breakthroughs came from surprises shown only after injuries. (Getty Images)

Losing to the Tigers is not a greater sign of a program stuck spinning its wheels in the winter’s snow. It is not an indication of failing to win a game when it matters. Notre Dame already went 2-3 in those big games this year. In retrospect, perhaps the victory at Michigan State should raise that record to 3-3, but a big game feels like one as it occurs, and that Saturday evening in September did not hold such weight.

A big game does not come five weeks following the last consequential contest. A big game has some tangible effect on games to come. Outside of the College Football Playoff, no bowl game claims either factor. They are simply enjoyable exhibitions.

Hence, the common practice for coaches with new jobs is to move on, apparently abandoning their team before the season is technically over. It is becomingly increasingly-normal for NFL Draft prospects to sit out bowl games, be it out of precaution or preemptive recovery. They have nothing to gain, no ring, no record, yet much to lose in an injury a la former Irish linebacker Jaylon Smith in the 2015 Fiesta Bowl.

To pull from a comment shortly after Notre Dame fell to Miami, dashing any Playoff hopes, “I truly don’t get how you think wins over Navy and a pedestrian Stanford team carry more weight than a win over an Ohio St or TCU or Clemson in a major bowl game. Agree to disagree, I guess.”

A win at Stanford would have sent the Irish to a bowl game of greater note (likely the Fiesta Bowl, in the end), but that would not have been the reason it held consequence. Winning in-season, week-after-week, day-after-day becomes ingrained. A win Saturday creates momentum for a good practice on Tuesday, begetting a consistent showing Wednesday, which leads to attention to detail on Thursday. Before you know it, another weekend victory is in hand.

Concluding the season by knocking off the Cardinal would have set a standard of the revamped Irish being better than their most-similar foes.

Beating LSU will do little except provide fodder for both sides of the “Brian Kelly must go/stay” argument, an inane debate which will undoubtedly proceed unabated for an entire offseason when it should be recognized as utterly pointless absolutely no later than Jan. 9.

This memory should stick with the Irish throughout 2018’s first eight months, not whatever happens in Orlando. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Losing to LSU will not “fester over the winter,” to use another commenter’s worry. Losing to Stanford should. Getting embarrassed at Miami will.

If (when) Central Florida falls for the first time this year, how vocal will the sideways glances toward Scott Frost be, as the head coach splits his time between his new gig at Nebraska and his loyal charges in Orlando? They won’t be vocal at all. Frost delivered a 13-0 season. That is what will be remembered.

When Oregon blows past Boise State this weekend, will the Ducks take solace in thinking they could have challenged Stanford for the Pac-12 North Division if only their quarterback had stayed healthy? No, they will still look at the 7-5 season as the disappointment it was, not to mention they’ll be led by their newest head coach with Willie Taggart gone already in less than one calendar year.

When Arizona and Purdue combine for more than 65 points, will that be a sign their defenses need vast improvements in the offseason? No, the Wildcats giving up 34.1 yards per game already makes that pretty clear. The Boilermakers, contrarily, shouldn’t panic no matter the Foster Farms Bowl result. Head coach Jeff Brohm clearly has them trending in the right direction on both sides of the ball. In addition to a dynamic offense, Purdue gave up only 19.3 points per game this season.

Notre Dame very well may beat LSU. It certainly wants to. But that result will not reflect the 2017 season, and it will not be a catalyst into 2018. Let’s skip the argument of bowl victories set a foundation for success the following season. The data overwhelmingly says there is no distinct correlation to such thinking.

Rather, the Citrus Bowl will simply be a physical and entertaining game. On a day inevitably spent on the couch, likely horizontally, what more can genuinely be asked for?

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Backs

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Notre Dame’s secondary presents one position of such strength it is continually pondered if raiding that depth could salvage the near-vacuum in the other half of the Irish defensive backfield. That was true before the season, and it remains the case now.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
A bounty of cornerbacks, led by sophomore Julian Love, provided some sense of comfort in the Irish defense’s back line. A finally-healthy junior Shaun Crawford could finally contribute as a nickelback, and senior Nick Watkins, largely thanks to his length, established himself as a starter during spring practice.

That marked three bona fide starters before even acknowledging the depth provided by sophomores Donte Vaughn and Troy Pride.

Then there were the safeties. Such confidence in the depth chart did not exist in the spring or at any point of the preseason. Junior Nick Coleman secured one safety spot in the spring, while sophomores Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill failed to separate from each other in the competition to line up alongside Coleman. To be clear, that was not a credit to both showing such great abilities.

When the NCAA denied sophomore Alohi Gilman’s waiver for immediate eligibility following his transfer from Navy, Elliott became the de facto starter.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
On paper, Love’s season was essentially unparalleled. He returned two interceptions for touchdowns and nearly managed a third. Rare can a coaching staff genuinely and reasonably discuss moving a position’s best player, but Love very well may be the best Irish safety, as well. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has admitted as much as a distinct possibility.

Junior cornerback Shaun Crawford did quite a bit of everything for Notre Dame in his first healthy season. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

For now, though, Love remains at cornerback. Crawford complemented him excellently in a playmaking sense, forcing his impact upon the game even more than could have been anticipated, though it is logical to think finally seeing a season’s worth of action tired his legs by the end.

Watkins, meanwhile, put together a strong season until knee tendonitis limited him — and created an opportunity for Pride to prematurely insert himself into 2018’s conversations — in November. In the moment, Watkins seemed a weakness against Miami (OH) when RedHawks junior receiver James Gardner caught two touchdowns over Watkins. With time diminishing overreactions, Gardner’s success seems a credit to him (and his 6-foot-4 frame) more than a knock on Watkins.

For that matter, it may not have been a knock on Watkins at all. Let’s pull from the respective “Things We Learned”As much as one may want to see Watkins break each of those passes up, it could also be wondered why there was not a safety helping on the occasion. That latter position remains the biggest Irish concern, offensive or defensive.

That concern remains pressing. Coleman played alright, but did not necessarily excel. Any continuing debate between Elliott and Studstill persists yet out of lack of a strong impression. The rest of the Irish defense’s surge limited the dramatic effect of the positional need, but it cannot be denied, nonetheless.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING
Opponents passed more often against Notre Dame this season than they did a year ago. It makes sense; the Irish led more often and for much of the year, led by large margins. Thus, the averages offer a better comparison between the autumns as a rough estimate of passing efficiency.

2016: 2,357 yards allowed on 193-of-313 passing; 61.66 percent completion rate; 7.53 yards per attempt; 12.21 yards per completion.
2017: 2,562 yards allowed on 233-of-412 passing; 56.55 percent completion rate; 6.22 yards per attempt; 11.00 yards per completion.

So. Julian Love — 62 tackles; three interceptions; 17 pass breakups.
Jr. Nick Coleman — 42 tackles; three pass breakups.
So. Jalen Elliott — 38 tackles; one pass breakup.
Jr. Shaun Crawford — 32 tackles; two interceptions, five pass breakups; two fumbles recovered; one fumble forced.
Sr. Nick Watkins — 27 tackles; one interception; eight pass breakups.
So. Troy Pride — 22 tackles; one interception; two pass breakups.
So. Devin Studstill — 16 tackles.
Fr. Isaiah Robertson — Eight tackles.
So. Donte Vaughn — Six tackles.

COMING QUESTIONS
Earning a nod as defensive scout team player of the year should speak to Gilman’s potential impact in 2018. By all indications, he was the best safety on the roster in 2017 with the arguable exception of Love. Will Gilman live up to this billing?

As it pertains to Love, the coaching staff should move him to safety only if the gap between him and the otherwise starter there is greater than the gap between Love and the next man up at cornerback, presumably Pride. (In this respect, compare it to senior Alex Bars lining up at right guard this season rather than right tackle, his previous position. He was the best option at right tackle, but the drop from Bars to sophomore Tommy Kraemer and freshman Robert Hainsey was minimal. The talent discrepancy between Bars and any other right guard option would have been much more drastic.) Is it in defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s best interests to keep Love at cornerback or move the excellent defender to safety?

If it is not Love who provides a minimum of depth at safety, it could be a recruit. Consensus four-star Houston Griffith comes to mind not only due to his commitment this week, but also because he fits right into Notre Dame’s needs.

A similar thought applies to current freshman Isaiah Robertson. He saw special teams action this season. A full year readying in a college system could have him poised to contribute, be it in support of Coleman or in place of him.

OUTSIDE READING
ND Insider’s Eric Hansen put together a worthwhile read on Gilman following last week’s program awards: Full speed ahead? There’s no happy medium for Notre Dame safety Alohi Gilman

INSIDE THE IRISH READING
Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends
Where Notre Dame was & is: Running Backs

Notre Dame beats Michigan for three-star TE Tommy Tremble

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One of Notre Dame’s deepest positions got even stronger with the Thursday morning commitment of rivals.com three-star tight end Tommy Tremble (Wesleyan High School; Norcross, Ga.). The No. 18 tight end in the class, per rivals.com, Tremble’s decision essentially came down to the Irish or Michigan.

A Wednesday night visit from Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, offensive coordinator Chip Long and running backs coach Autry Denson may have played a part in tipping the scales, though Tremble told Blue & Gold Illustrated he had been leaning toward the Irish since his official visit in October.

“There’s not many tight ends in the country that can do the kind of things that I can do,” Tremble said, then referencing Long’s view of the position in his system. “[Long] said with that in this type of offensive scheme it could be explosive.

“I’m going to be the hardest working at the entire college at anything. At everything too, not just football. I’m just going to make it work.”

In his first season at Notre Dame, Long showed his predilection for using multiple tight ends at a time, often pairing fifth-year senior Durham Smythe with junior Alizé Mack. Smythe would act as an additional offensive lineman who could slip out for a route while Mack’s duties were more akin to a receiver’s as often as not. Smythe finished his best collegiate season with 13 catches for 234 yards and a touchdown while Mack added 19 catches for 166 yards and a score. Current senior and returning fifth-year Nic Weishar chipped in seven catches for 39 yards and two touchdowns.

With two tight ends in this class now — Tremble joins consensus four-star George Takacs (Gulf Coast H.S.; Naples, Fla.) — Long should be able to continue with such as often as he wants. In 2017 he showed no caution in deploying freshmen Brock Wright and Cole Kmet occasionally. Presumably, Tremble and Takacs could see similar workloads from the outset.

The No. 52 overall player in Georgia, Tremble also held offers from Georgia, Auburn and UCLA, among others. He is the 20th commitment in the class with the early signing period commencing Wednesday.

Last week, Weishar declared his intention to return for a fifth year.