Irish defense gets one last chance to stop Denard Robinson

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Denard Robinson has killed Notre Dame. Smashed their hearts and stomped on their souls. This is undeniable. The man called Shoelace is Enemy No. 1 in South Bend this weekend. He’s put to sleep more echoes and silenced more thunder than any opponent in the modern era of Irish football.

The Wolverines enter South Bend attempting to win their fourth straight over the Irish. It’s Michigan’s longest winning streak against Notre Dame since 1908, making Robinson literally the villain of the century in a rivalry that might be described as one filled with mutual admiration, but really one built on hatred, jealousy, and a mutual dislike between Midwestern neighbors. This might not be the Hatfields and McCoys, but for two schools build on traditional pomp and circumstance, it’s not that far off.

As Notre Dame and Michigan prepare to play for the 40th time, only Robinson stands in the way of the Irish’s best start in a decade, and an inside track to a BCS bowl that hasn’t been in the Irish’s crosshairs since 2006. Yet to get by Michigan, they’ll need to slow down Robinson, something Notre Dame hasn’t come close to doing since he took over as the Wolverine’s starting quarterback.

There’s no way to understate Robinson’s impact on the Wolverines. He is their engine. And while his (not quite) six-foot, 197-pound frame won’t intimidate, his 600 horse-power, V12 has blown away Notre Dame the past two seasons, putting up statistics that defy logic.

In 2010, Robinson put up 502 yards of offense himself in the Wolverines’ 28-24 victory, including the game-winning touchdown run with 27 seconds left. He accounted for 94.4% of the Michigan offense, with the next leading rusher chipping in 17 yards on seven carries. If 2010 was painful for Irish fans, 2011 was pure evil. Playing the role of Verbal Kint for three quarters (even with a 43 yard touchdown pass in the second quarter), Robinson turned into Keyser Soze in the games final fifteen minutes, storming Michigan back with 28 fourth quarter points. Robinson threw for 338 yards on just 11 completions, a back-breaking 30.7 yards a catch. Sure he only ran for a modest 108 yards, but the rest of the team ran for six yards on ten carries. Robinson’s domination is put into perspective when you consider he accounted for 98.7% of the Wolverines offense.

Matt Hinton, over at his Sunday Morning QB blog, wrote about Robinson’s uncanny ability to play at his best in one of college football’s biggest rivalries.

Denard Robinson against Notre Dame is the ur-Denard from which all other versions of Denard follow and against whom they are all compared. With the possible exception of the Denard who played a nearly perfect game in the process of snapping a seven-year losing streak against Ohio State last November, the others almost always come up short. Denard against Notre Dame is the original formula. The idol to which thousands of No. 16 jerseys pay homage every weekend, hoping for a mere glimpse of what they got in South Bend in 2010, and under the newly installed lights in Michigan Stadium in 2011 – if not necessarily the best version of Denard, as they saw in the former case, then at least the version who abruptly forgot everything he’d ever been coached in the latter and proceeded to turn the fourth quarter into his own personal PlayStation at the Irish’s expense. No player in college football in the last decade has inflicted as much emotional damage on a single rival.

That’s essentially a matter of fact: It can be proven statistically, in two of the most prolific box scores in either school’s history. It can be proven narratively, in two late, improbable comebacks in the dying seconds, the details of which produce the kind of copy that practically writes itself. It can probably be proven financially, in terms of jersey and ticket sales and the record sums in the swear jars in Catholic kitchens. Since his second start at Notre Dame in 2010, that’s the Denard fans have paid to see, and opposing coaches have desperately hoped they don’t.

It’s also the Denard that Notre Dame’s defense is convinced it can beat. They were given a blueprint by Alabama, who executed a plan that turned Robinson into a mere mortal. Do the Irish have the defense that the Crimson Tide does? Certainly not. But with Kapron Lewis-Moore, Louis Nix, and Stephon Tuitt, they have a front three that should dominate the line of scrimmage. With edge rushers Prince Shembo and Ishaq Williams, they’ve got athletes that can crash off the edge and suffocate the pocket. And with Manti Te’o in the middle, they have a warrior that has one last enemy to cross off his list.

Much will be made about the inexperience of the back-end of the Notre Dame defense. It will face its stiffest test when Robinson scrambles and creates time, looking much like the running threat but capable (and eager) to throw deep and force somebody to make a play. Last year, those plays were made by Wolverines. But this game shouldn’t come down to defensive backs KeiVarae Russell and Matthias Farley.

Regardless of their preseason ranking, Michigan won’t have the better football team on Saturday night. They are struggling on both the offensive and defensive line, working in freshmen at linebacker, and looking for an identity. But as long as they have Robinson, they have a chance.

But after two superhuman efforts by Robinson, Notre Dame’s defense needs to put an end to Michigan’s dominance. Powered by a home crowd desperate to make an impact after watching the Big House will the Wolverines back from the dead, the scene is already set.

Now it’s up to the Irish to stop Robinson before he completes his very own superhero trilogy.

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.