Five things we’ve learned: Notre Dame 13, Michigan 6

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You never expected it to be easy. If Notre Dame was going to finally beat Michigan after three years of heart-stopping defeats, you didn’t think the Wolverines were going to lay down and go quietly into the night, did you?

That’s why in spite of six turnovers — four interceptions and a fumble by Denard Robinson — Michigan kept coming after the Irish, picking themselves off the ground like a villain you can’t kill in an action movie. But Notre Dame’s defense stood tall, pushing back the Wolverines’ attack until the Irish offense did just enough, and the No. 11 Fighting Irish escaped Notre Dame Stadium with a hard fought victory over No. 18 Michigan 13-6.

“I thought both football teams played awfully hard,” Michigan head coach Brady Hoke said after the game. “I think one played better when it came to execution and taking care of the football.”

Better was a relative term on Saturday night, as Notre Dame’s offense did the defense no favor. Everett Golson threw an interception deep in Notre Dame territory on his first snap of the evening. The Irish only managed 14 first downs on 239 yards of total offense. The running game the Irish hoped to rely on was shut down, running for just 94 yards on 31 carries.

But a win is a win, especially over Michigan. On another Saturday where two teams in the top ten lost (future Irish opponent Oklahoma being one of them) and LSU hung on for an ugly 12-10 victory over an Auburn team that was taken to overtime last week by Louisiana-Monroe, Notre Dame doesn’t need to compete in college football’s beauty pageant. They’ll be happy winning and moving on to a well deserved bye week.

After holding both Michigan and Michigan State without touchdowns for the first time since 1909, let’s find out what else we learned in No. 11 Notre Dame’s victory over Denard Robinson and No. 18 Michigan.

***

After letting Denard Robinson beat Notre Dame single-handedly for two straight years, the Irish defense shut down the heart of the Wolverines.

Denard Robinson has played football games that will be remembered forever in Michigan lore. Saturday night was not one of them.

After propelling Michigan to dramatic victories the Irish the past two seasons, the Irish absolutely shut down Michigan’s Heisman Trophy candidate, forcing five turnovers from Robinson as the Irish defense shut down the Michigan offense.

“Defensively, what can I say,” head coach Brian Kelly said after the game. “Six turnovers. Limited who we felt is one of the most dynamic offensive players in the country to no touchdowns. Just an incredible performance by our defense.”

After giving up almost 1,000 yards of offense to Robinson the past two seasons, Notre Dame shut down the quarterback, holding him to 13 of 24 passing for just 138 with four interceptions. On the ground, the Irish limited Robinson to just one run of 20 yards, and he needed 26 carries to gain 90 yards, a pedestrian 3.5 yards a carry. In a match-up many thought favored Michigan, the Irish defense absolutely killed the Wolverines, at one point intercepting five straight Michigan passes, and the inexperienced Notre Dame secondary stood strong.

“I think the key to stopping such a dynamic player like denard is everybody has to get to him,” Manti Te’o said after the game. “Everybody has to get to the ball. You have to really emphasize eleven guys to the ball and I think our coaches have done a great job in stressing the importance of everybody getting the ball.”

The ball was certainly up for grabs Saturday night and the Irish capitalized. Notre Dame held Robinson to the lowest passer rating of his career as a starter, all while holding him below 100 yards rushing. While nobody is ready to put the Irish defense in the same class as Alabama’s, the numbers are worth comparing.

Robinson vs. Alabama
11 of 26 for 200 yards. 1 TD, 2 INT (104.2 QB Rating). 10 rushes for 27 yards, 1 TD.

Robinson vs. Notre Dame
13 of 24 for 138. 0 TD, 4 INT (69.1 QB Rating). 26 rushes for 90 yards, 0 TD, 1 fumble.

After crumbling at the end of two straight losses to Michigan, Robinson was unable to do anything against the Irish, and it was a crushing blow to the senior quarterback that’s had so much success against Notre Dame.

“I’m disappointed in myself,” Robinson said. “The 22 years I’ve been living, this is the most disappointed I’ve been in myself.”

***

Notre Dame’s secondary is proving that you’d rather have a lack of experience than a lack of talent.

Saturday night was the night Notre Dame’s green secondary was going to get exposed. A running back (KeiVarae Russell) and wide receiver (Bennett Jackson) were starting at cornerback. A safety (Matthias Farley) that redshirted last year as a wide receiver was filling in for one of the defense’s best players. And anchoring the unit was a guy (Zeke Motta) many thought should turn into a linebacker. On paper, this was a disaster waiting to happen. In reality? Well, it might be the most talented secondary Notre Dame’s had in quite some time.

“I think after tonight, we all feel that we’ve got some young guys back there that can play at a high level,” Kelly said after the game. “I think our coaches have done a great job of getting the back end of our defense to the point where there’s a lot of confidence.”

Notre Dame went into the season with a secondary that many believed needed to stay healthy just to play serviceable football. But that didn’t happen. Tee Shepard, who many expected to battle for a starting job, didn’t make it to spring ball in South Bend. Austin Collinsworth, Lo Wood and Jamoris Slaughter are all lost for the season. Yet Kerry Cooks and Bob Elliott have turned a talented but untested  group of players into a confident group, encapsulated by freshman Nicky Baratti, a high school quarterback learning defense on the fly, stepping in front of a halfback pass and making a huge interception in the end zone.

For the third straight week, the Irish secondary has held a Big Ten opponent under 200 yards passing. Notre Dame’s seven interceptions is one less than the Irish had all last season with first round draft pick Harrison Smith roaming centerfield and returning starters Gary Gray and Robert Blanton at cornerback.

The young group certainly needs to keep learning and get better. But this game should put an end to the belief that there’s no talent in the back-end of the Irish defense.

***

While Everett Golson remains Notre Dame’s starting quarterback, it’s time for the youngster to grow up in a hurry.

After impressing on the big stage with a calm and collected performance against Michigan State, Everett Golson took a huge step backwards on Saturday night, failing to recover from the interception he threw on his first passing attempt. The future of the Irish is still very much in Golson’s hands, but it’s hard to fault Kelly for pulling the young quarterback and relieving him with junior Tommy Rees.

Golson’s stat line was a scary one: Just 3 of 8 passing for 30 yards with two interceptions. Golson’s second pick got him pulled, after the sophomore rolled right on second and goal and threw a jump ball into the end zone when throwing it away was the play the Irish coaching staff drilled into the quarterbacks’ heads all offseason. From there, Kelly kept the offense in Rees’ hands, and the junior completed 8 of 11 throws for 115 yards while running for the team’s only touchdown.

“I think we saw that the defense is such that we want to make sure that we limit turnovers,” Kelly said. “Early on we turned the ball over and that’s ultimately why we made the change at quarterback.”

Golson watched the games final 38 minutes on the sideline, a fate that has many wondering if the young quarterback will suffer a crisis of confidence. Kelly isn’t one of them.

“I don’t really believe it’s a matter of confidence as much as he just has to settle down,” Kelly said of Golson. “He was not as comfortable as I would have liked after playing the Michigan State game where he was in an incredible environment. He needs to settle down a bit and he’s going to be just fine.”

Kelly quickly named Golson his starter for Miami but didn’t take away the option to play Rees if he feels like the offense needs him.

“I think we’re fairly comfortable if we need Tommy to come in and handle some of the offense for us, if we feel like it’s necessary, we will,” Kelly said. “He’s a great asset to have if you need him to close out a game, and we’ll continue to go that route. We’d like to continue to develop Everett so we don’t have to do that, but we’re still going to try to win football games anyway possible.”

Winning games cures a lot of ills, and it’s also the key to keeping a potential thorny quarterbacking situation contained.

***

Notre Dame’s relentless front seven took Michigan out of its game plan early.

It didn’t take long for Al Borges to throw the kitchen sink at Notre Dame. Setting up a trick play from the first snap, the Wolverines relied on gimmicks from the start, hoping to catch Notre Dame’s defense out of position. It earned an early pass interference call against Danny Spond when wide receiver Devin Gardner tried to complete a throw-back pass, but it bit the Wolverines later, with Michigan relying on running back Vincent Smith to throw a halfback pass after a 12 play drive marched Michigan down to the Irish ten yard line.

Michigan’s first two trips into the Irish red zone netted zero points, thanks to the ferocious play of Notre Dame’s defensive front and Michigan’s unwillingness to go toe-to-toe in the red zone. After Golson’s early pick set up Michigan 1st and Goal at the Irish 10, the Wolverines proceeded to go backwards. First the Irish stuffed Fitzgerald Toussaint for a loss of two. Then it wasa  Prince Shembo sack of Robinson for a loss of three more. On 3rd and 15, it was Stephon Tuitt that made another big play, dropping Robinson for a 10 yard loss. First and Goal was now a 43-yard field goal attempt that Brendan Gibbons pushed wide.

With three more sacks tonight, the Irish now have 14 sacks on the year, averaging 3.5 a game through their first four. That rate would have been good for second nationally in 2011 and has the Irish more than half way past their total of 25 last season. (It’s also a rate that’s likely to improve, considering Navy, Purdue, Michigan State and Michigan were four of the stingier teams in the country when it comes to sacks — giving up an average of just 1.48 a game last year.)

More importantly, the Irish front seven is powering this football team as it grows. With an offense seeking an identity and a secondary learning on the fly, the physical front of the defense is powering this team to historic levels. The Irish haven’t won a football game scoring less points since 1990. They haven’t allowed six points or less to top-20 opponents in consecutive weeks since 1943. That’s a total of 36 points the Irish have given up in the first third of the season. That’s better than any Lou Holtz defense, and the best since 1975.

Many laughed when Bob Diaco openly stated that his goal was to have the best defense in America. The Irish might not be there yet, but they’re on pace to have one of the best defenses Notre Dame has fielded in over 20 years.

***

It might just be time to throw Manti Te’o’s name into the Heisman Trophy race.

It’s been 15 years since Charles Woodson was the only defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy. But it might be time to give Manti Te’o serious consideration for college football’s most prestigious award. Notre Dame’s star middle linebacker filled up the stat sheet once again, making eight tackles, one tackle-for-loss, and intercepting Denard Robinson twice on Saturday night. In a stadium where thousands of fans wore Hawaiian leis in support of Te’o after a horrible week of personal hardship, the senior linebacker from Hawaii followed up a dominant performance against Michigan State with another one against the Wolverines.

“He’s the guy in there,” Kelly said of his senior captain. “I mean, it all evolves around him, his personality, his strength. He’s a special guy. Take advantage of him when you’ve got him now, because I’ve never been around a kid like that.”

After turning down the opportunity to head to the NFL after his junior season, Te’o has returned with a vengeance, cleaning up an all-around game that was already considered to be one of the strongest in college football. Always known as a strong sideline to sideline player, Te’o fought the one knock on his game of not forcing turnovers, having never recovered a fumble nor intercepted a pass. Through four games, he’s got three interceptions and two fumble recoveries.

But perhaps more important than anything he’s done on the field, Te’o has taken over at the undeniable face of the Fighting Irish. After a decade filled with mostly offensive stars, the Irish take their cues and play to the likeness of their Hawaiian leader. His quiet strength and forceful will powering Notre Dame to their best start in a decade.

With thousands of fans chanting his name after the Irish’s victory, Te’o has also worked his way into a more hallowed status: Irish legend.

“Man, I said it before. Four years ago when I decided to come here, I didn’t know why,” Te’o said. “It’s starting to unveil itself why, why I felt that I was told to come here. I can’t thank my team enough. I can’t thank the students and just the fan base around the world, Notre Dame and non-Notre Dame fans. They’ve just been great. It’s very humbling for me and my family.”

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No.6 Equanimeous St. Brown, receiver

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-5, 204 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Junior with two years of eligibility remaining including the 2017 season.
Depth chart: St. Brown will start as the field receiver, otherwise known as the X. Even as he may move around from the field to the boundary, St. Brown will be a threat for nearly every offensive snap.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star recruit, St. Brown held offers from 10 of the Pac-12 programs with Oregon and Oregon State the outliers, as well as from LSU, Miami and Vanderbilt, among others. The Under Armour All-American waited until National Signing Day to commit to the Irish. Rivals.com listed him as the No. 15 receiver in the class of 2015, the No. 23 prospect in California and the No. 144 player in the country.

CAREER TO DATE
After a ho-hum, limited-action, injury-shortened freshman season, St. Brown broke out last year, to say the least. St. Brown led Notre Dame in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns, establishing himself as then-quarterback DeShone Kizer’s most-dangerous as well as most-consistent target.

2015: Seven games, one reception for eight yards before a shoulder injury ended his debut campaign. St. Brown blocked a punt against USC.
2016: 12 games, 12 starts, 58 receptions for 961 yards and nine touchdowns. Highlighting his season, St. Brown took four catches for 182 yards and two touchdowns against Syracuse, including a 79-yard score on the first play from scrimmage. He also logged 116 receiving yards against Duke.

QUOTES
When a sophomore comes about two average-length catches short of a 60-reception, 1,000-yard and 10-touchdown season, not much needs to be worried about the following spring. Instead, Irish coach Brian Kelly noted the improvements in the receiver corps around its standout, though St. Brown is obviously working to stay ahead of the pack, as well.

“I see better balance,” Kelly said in late March. “We have some guys that will come up to the level [St. Brown] was at least year to give the quarterback and the offense a little more balance than we had last year. [St. Brown] will be a better player. He’s working on some of the weaknesses that he has, which limits him in certain areas, and he’s diligently working on those.

“You’re going to see a better supporting cast across the board, which will give us much more balance. More importantly, it’s going to give us much more consistency from an offensive standpoint.”

WHAT KEITH ARNOLD PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
The drop-off from a veteran like Chris Brown to a receiver with one career catch is sizable. But from a physical skills perspective, St. Brown can do everything needed to be a standout, he just needs to grow up in a hurry.

“Predicting a breakout sophomore season like the ones Golden Tate or Will Fuller had isn’t fair. But with a strong running game and Torii Hunter across from him, St. Brown will have plenty of opportunities to make big plays, he just needs to seize those chances.

“Can St. Brown put himself on course to be the next great Irish receiver? The hype has slowed, but there’s no reason the answer should be no.

“This camp has been all about young receivers finding consistency. While [current-sophomore] Kevin Stepherson seems to have taken most of the excitement, I think St. Brown will be the best of the bunch — at least in 2016.

“But let’s keep expectations in check. I’ll set the bar somewhere between Torii Hunter’s 2015 and Chris Brown’s junior season, with St Brown catching somewhere around 30 balls if he stays healthy and holds onto his starting job.”

2017 OUTLOOK
Suffice it to say, St. Brown exceeded any and all expectations in 2016, beginning with his tumbling touchdown against Texas. In a way, those successes make it likely St. Brown falls short of expectations in 2017. If he does appear to take a step back, whether that is shown in statistics or not, it could be partly due to the added depth Kelly referred to.

Notre Dame has more options at receiver this year, losing only Hunter form last year’s top-five receivers, and only him and [Purdue transfer] Corey Holmes among those with double-digit catches. Meanwhile, junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush will have an ascending junior Miles Boykin to target at the boundary position and returning, to much hype, junior tight end Alizé Mack drawing attention, as well.

Defenses will not be able to key on St. Brown this season, but Wimbush will not be doing so, either. Overall, that behooves the team, even if it lessens St. Brown’s chances of gaining 39 more yards than last season to reach a four-digit total.

DOWN THE ROAD
Do not be surprised if St. Brown declares for the NFL after this, his junior, season. This is a player with an intellect capable enough to speak three languages fluently (German, French and he dabbles in a little English). He will presumably be close to graduation by the end of 2018’s spring semester. A strong season with a few notable highlights could solidify a strong draft status.

That said, do not be surprised if St. Brown returns to Notre Dame for another year. If he does, that may be a positive indicator for the Irish for a few years beyond 2018. St. Brown’s youngest brother, Amon-Ra St. Brown, is the No. 1 receiver and No. 4 player overall in the class of 2018, per rivals.com, and is considering a list of scholarship offers even more impressive than his oldest brother’s was. Name a prominent college football program and Amon-Ra has heard from its coaching staff, including Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State, Miami, Oklahoma and Oregon (though still no note of Oregon State).

If the consensus five-star chooses Notre Dame over USC and Stanford, perhaps Equanimeous St. Brown will not be able to resist spending a season lining up alongside his brother. However, it should be noted, the middle St. Brown brother, Osiris, will be a freshman receiver at Stanford this season.


2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
No. 95: Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 92)
No. 94: Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 95)
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92: Jonathon MacCollister; defensive end (originally theorized as No. 46)
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end
No. 88: Javon McKinley, receiver
No. 87: Michael Young, receiver (originally theorized as No. 84)
No. 86: Alizé Mack, tight end
No. 85: Tyler Newsome, punter
No. 84: Cole Kmet, tight end (originally theorized as No. 90)
No. 83: Chase Claypool, receiver
No. 82: Nic Weishar, tight end
No. 81: Miles Boykin, receiver
No. 80: Durham Smythe, tight end
No. 78: Tommy Kraemer, right tackle
No. 77: Brandon Tiassum, defensive tackle
No. 76: Dillan Gibbons, offensive lineman (originally theorized as No. 65)
No. 75: Josh Lugg, offensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 73)
No. 75: Daniel Cage, defensive tackle
No. 74: Liam Eichenberg, right tackle
No. 72: Robert Hainsey, offensive tackle
No. 71: Alex Bars, offensive lineman
No. 70: Hunter Bivin, offensive lineman
No. 69: Aaron Banks, offensive lineman
No. 68: Mike McGlinchey, left tackle
No. 67: Jimmy Byrne, offensive lineman
No. 58: Elijah Taylor, defensive tackle
No. 57: Trevor Ruhland, offensive lineman
No. 56: Quenton Nelson, left guard
No. 55: Jonathan Bonner, defensive lineman
No. 54: John Shannon, long snapper
No. 53: Sam Mustipher, center
No. 53: Khalid Kareem, defensive lineman
No. 48: Greer Martini, inside linebacker
No. 47: Kofi Wardlow, defensive end
No. 45: Jonathan Jones, inside linebacker
No. 44: Jamir Jones, linebacker/defensive lineman
No. 42: Julian Okwara, defensive end
No. 41: Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 94)
No. 40: Drew White, linebacker
No. 39: Jonathan Doerer, kicker (originally theorized as No. 52)
No. 38: Deon McIntosh, running back/receiver
No. 35: David Adams, linebacker
No. 34: Tony Jones, Jr., running back
No. 33: Josh Adams, running back
No. 32: D.J. Morgan, safety
No. 30: Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, rover
No. 29: Kevin Stepherson, receiver
No. 28: Nicco Fertitta, safety
No. 27: Julian Love, cornerback
No. 26: Ashton White, safety
No. 25: Jafar Armstrong, receiver (originally theorized as No. 87)
No. 24: Nick Coleman, safety
No. 23: Drue Tranquill, rover
No. 22: Asmar Bilal, rover
No. 21: Jalen Elliott, safety
No. 20: Shaun Crawford, cornerback
No. 19: Justin Yoon, kicker
No. 18: Troy Pride, cornerback
No. 17: Isaiah Robertson, safety
No. 16: Cameron Smith, receiver
No. 15: C.J. Holmes, running back
No. 14: Devin Studstill, safety
No. 13: Avery Davis, quarterback
No. 13: Jordan Genmark Heath, safety
No. 12: Ian Book, quarterback
No. 12: Alohi Gilman, safety
No. 11: Freddy Canteen, receiver
No. 10: Chris Finke, receiver
No. 9: Daelin Hayes, defensive end
No. 8: Donte Vaughn, cornerback
No. 7: Brandon Wimbush, quarterback
No. 7: Nick Watkins, cornerback

TRANSFERS
No. 66: Tristen Hoge, offensive lineman, transfers to BYU
No. 50: Parker Boudreaux, offensive lineman
No. 30: Josh Barajas, linebacker, to transfer to Illinois State

INJURIES
No. 13: Tyler Luatua, tight end, career ended by medical hardship

LB Shayne Simon’s commitment could solve rover questions of the future

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With its second commitment in three days, Notre Dame moved a notable step closer to filling its class of 2018. Consensus four-star outside linebacker Shayne Simon (St. Peter’s Prep; Jersey City, N.J.) chose the Irish over Michigan in a Tuesday afternoon announcement.

“The way they carry themselves and how they go about things at Notre Dame is something I really enjoy,” Simon told rivals.com. “Their reputation for being such a great academic institution was also very intriguing to me.”

A U.S. Army All-American, rivals.com rates Simon the No. 9 outside linebacker in the class, the No. 4 prospect in New Jersey and the No. 138 overall recruit in the country. At 6-foot-2, 210 pounds and with developing, though already viable, coverage skills, Simon could project as Notre Dame’s next entry at rover, the preferred wrinkle to Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme.

Currently, senior Drue Tranquill mans the position, but by the time Simon arrives on campus, Tranquill will be in his final year of eligibility, leaving only current-junior Asmar Bilal and freshman Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah ahead of Simon. Whereas Owusu-Koramoah is a safety moving up to rover, Simon could fill a role similar to Bilal, focusing on ground-dominant opponents while Owusu-Koramoah sees more action against pass-happy foes.

Whether at rover or not, Notre Dame looks to be thin at linebacker in the coming years. Once current senior captains Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini depart, only junior Te’von Coney and sophomore Jonathan Jones would remain from last year’s depth chart, with sophomore Jamir Jones expected to slowly transition to the defensive line and freshmen David Adams and Drew White joining the program this summer.

The class of 2018 already had two linebackers in the class — Simon joins rivals.com four-star Matthew Bauer (Cathedral Prep School; Erie, Pa.) and consensus three-star Ovie Oghoufo (Harrison High School; Farmington Hills, Mich.). Combined with Bauer, rivals.com’s No. 7 inside linebacker and No. 129 overall prospect, Simon could form a longtime mid-level partnership on Notre Dame’s defense.

Simon’s commitment brings the Irish class to 14, after running back Jahmir Smith joined those ranks Sunday evening. Simon knows two of the earliest commitments in the class very well: He is teammates and classmates with the defensive linemen twins Jayson and Justin Ademilola.

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 7 Nick Watkins, cornerback

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-1, 203 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Senior with two years of eligibility remaining including the 2017 season.
Depth chart: Partly due to his size, partly due to his seniority and partly due to his overall skill, Watkins is the likely starter at the boundary cornerback position this fall. Sophomore Donte Vaughn backs up Watkins, but it is more likely to be junior Shaun Crawford as the third cornerback on the field, though he is expected to focus on nickel back.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star prospect, Watkins could have gone to about any school he wanted, receiving offers from Alabama, Florida State and Ohio State, just to name a few. His recruiting rankings may not have been as high as those offers would indicate since he did not take part in much of the camp circuit. Rivals.com rated the Under Armour All-American the No. 15 cornerback in the class of 2014, the No. 22 recruit in Texas and the No. 186 overall player in the country.

CAREER TO DATE
Originally, Watkins struggled to see much playing time because the Irish could rely on KeiVarae Russell and Cole Luke to man the position. When injuries decimated Notre Dame’s depth, Watkins got his first chance at genuine playing time against the dynamic Ohio State offense in the Fiesta Bowl following the 2015 season. He rose to the challenge, making three tackles and breaking up one pass against an offense filled with pro prospects.

2014: 11 games almost entirely on special teams, no other statistics.
2015: 12 games, one start (Ohio State), contributed both on special teams and as a defensive reserve, eight tackles.
2016: A broken arm suffered in spring practice did not heal in time to make playing Watkins a worthwhile maneuver last season, thus preserving him a year of eligibility.

QUOTE(S)
A year lost to injury is never a positive thing, but Irish coach Brian Kelly pointed to some hidden perks to Watkins spending 2016 on the sidelines.

“Nick is playing with a lot of confidence,” Kelly said in late March. “He’s long. He’s very coachable. He’s a great kid and [I] really like the way he’s competing out there. The season off obviously was in a lot of ways disappointing, but I think he benefited greatly from that year to see it, to learn. He’s had a really terrific offseason in the weight room and you can see his transition out of his break, breaking on the ball, playing physical at the line of scrimmage. Nice to have him back. He really gives us a presence out there that we’re starting to feel.”

That presence is part of why the cornerbacks are now more often described as boundary and field positions, rather than left and right or strong side and weak side.

“What I think [defensive coordinator] Mike [Elko] does really well … is we all have strengths and weaknesses,” Kelly said. “He has a great eye of saying let’s take Nick’s strengths and let’s put him in a position where we can really utilize his strengths. Maybe we’re not a right and left corner team — maybe we’re a short field, wide field. Let’s apply him in that fashion.

“Nick’s long. He’s a little bit of a physical player and let’s go to those strengths. He’s shown some of those attributes early on.”

WHAT KEITH ARNOLD PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
Of all the injuries we tracked this offseason, Watkins’ broken arm seemed the least on the radar, though has a chance to be the most impactful. That Notre Dame’s medical staff is treating it aggressively says something about the player they think they have in Watkins — who Kelly said would be allowed to fight for a starting job once he’s physically able.

“I’m no doctor — but that won’t stop me from evaluating Watkins’ progress. And for the most part, I don’t think it’s the best formula for success jumping into the mix with no training camp and limited time to get in shape at the most demanding position on Notre Dame’s roster.

“While losing Watkins is a blow — especially with the length of these suspensions unknown — any chance to take a medical redshirt could be huge for Notre Dame’s depth, getting Watkins a chance to redo his junior season, capable of stepping in after Cole Luke departs.”

2017 OUTLOOK
In theory, a broken arm should not have lingering effects 18 months later. With that in mind, Watkins should have a strong hold on playing time this season. His performance against Ohio State may have been only one game, but it was such a promising showing there is a distinct temptation to forgo any sample size disclaimers.

Watkins’ physicality can be applied on the boundary, where the sideline limits a receiver’s escape options. The question will be how long it takes Watkins to get back up to game speed, both mentally and physically. The latter half of that query may come down to instinct. As for his mental readjustment, Watkins may be the biggest beneficiary of the particular tendencies of the first few Irish opponents. Temple, Georgia and Michigan State all lean heavily on their run games, giving Watkins a few weeks to adjust to his first consistent collegiate playing time.

DOWN THE ROAD
Losing Watkins in 2016, along with a number of other defensive backs, undoubtedly played a role in the disappointing season. No one would say having him around in 2018 will be worth that trade, but it is a nice perk.

Notre Dame’s cornerback depth will be a genuine asset the next two seasons. Having Watkins around for the second half of that will play a crucial part in stabilizing the position amid recent recruiting misses.


2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
No. 95: Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 92)
No. 94: Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 95)
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92: Jonathon MacCollister; defensive end (originally theorized as No. 46)
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end
No. 88: Javon McKinley, receiver
No. 87: Michael Young, receiver (originally theorized as No. 84)
No. 86: Alizé Mack, tight end
No. 85: Tyler Newsome, punter
No. 84: Cole Kmet, tight end (originally theorized as No. 90)
No. 83: Chase Claypool, receiver
No. 82: Nic Weishar, tight end
No. 81: Miles Boykin, receiver
No. 80: Durham Smythe, tight end
No. 78: Tommy Kraemer, right tackle
No. 77: Brandon Tiassum, defensive tackle
No. 76: Dillan Gibbons, offensive lineman (originally theorized as No. 65)
No. 75: Josh Lugg, offensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 73)
No. 75: Daniel Cage, defensive tackle
No. 74: Liam Eichenberg, right tackle
No. 72: Robert Hainsey, offensive tackle
No. 71: Alex Bars, offensive lineman
No. 70: Hunter Bivin, offensive lineman
No. 69: Aaron Banks, offensive lineman
No. 68: Mike McGlinchey, left tackle
No. 67: Jimmy Byrne, offensive lineman
No. 58: Elijah Taylor, defensive tackle
No. 57: Trevor Ruhland, offensive lineman
No. 56: Quenton Nelson, left guard
No. 55: Jonathan Bonner, defensive lineman
No. 54: John Shannon, long snapper
No. 53: Sam Mustipher, center
No. 53: Khalid Kareem, defensive lineman
No. 48: Greer Martini, inside linebacker
No. 47: Kofi Wardlow, defensive end
No. 45: Jonathan Jones, inside linebacker
No. 44: Jamir Jones, linebacker/defensive lineman
No. 42: Julian Okwara, defensive end
No. 41: Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 94)
No. 40: Drew White, linebacker
No. 39: Jonathan Doerer, kicker (originally theorized as No. 52)
No. 38: Deon McIntosh, running back/receiver
No. 35: David Adams, linebacker
No. 34: Tony Jones, Jr., running back
No. 33: Josh Adams, running back
No. 32: D.J. Morgan, safety
No. 30: Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, rover
No. 29: Kevin Stepherson, receiver
No. 28: Nicco Fertitta, safety
No. 27: Julian Love, cornerback
No. 26: Ashton White, safety
No. 25: Jafar Armstrong, receiver (originally theorized as No. 87)
No. 24: Nick Coleman, safety
No. 23: Drue Tranquill, rover
No. 22: Asmar Bilal, rover
No. 21: Jalen Elliott, safety
No. 20: Shaun Crawford, cornerback
No. 19: Justin Yoon, kicker
No. 18: Troy Pride, cornerback
No. 17: Isaiah Robertson, safety
No. 16: Cameron Smith, receiver
No. 15: C.J. Holmes, running back
No. 14: Devin Studstill, safety
No. 13: Avery Davis, quarterback
No. 13: Jordan Genmark Heath, safety
No. 12: Ian Book, quarterback
No. 12: Alohi Gilman, safety
No. 11: Freddy Canteen, receiver
No. 10: Chris Finke, receiver
No. 9: Daelin Hayes, defensive end
No. 8: Donte Vaughn, cornerback
No. 7: Brandon Wimbush, quarterback

TRANSFERS
No. 66: Tristen Hoge, offensive lineman, transfers to BYU
No. 50: Parker Boudreaux, offensive lineman
No. 30: Josh Barajas, linebacker, to transfer to Illinois State

INJURIES
No. 13: Tyler Luatua, tight end, career ended by medical hardship

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 7 Brandon Wimbush, quarterback

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-1 ½, 226 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Junior with three years of eligibility remaining including the 2017 season.
Depth chart: Wimbush will start at quarterback against Temple in 39 days. If needed, sophomore Ian Book will back up Wimbush, though obviously the Irish very much hope Book is not needed for more than an occasional snap this fall.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star recruit, Wimbush originally committed to Penn State. When he chose Notre Dame, he did so to the dismay of a litany of other programs, including Alabama, Ohio State and Stanford. Rivals.com rated the 2014 New Jersey Gatorade Player of the Year and Under Armour All-American the No. 4 dual-threat quarterback in his class, the No. 2 prospect in New Jersey and the No. 60 overall in the country. Wimbush was also named a Max Preps first-team All-American, if those earlier honors were not enough.

CAREER TO DATE
Wimbush reaches his junior year with three years of eligibility remaining in a bit of unorthodox fashion, seeing action his freshman season while intentionally preserving a year of eligibility in 2016. The broken ankle suffered by Malik Zaire in 2015’s second week forced Wimbush to ready for action as DeShone Kizer’s backup. In order to get him some snaps before a competitive need arose, Irish coach Brian Kelly inserted Wimbush two weeks later during a rout of Massachusetts. He got a similar opportunity in a November victory over Pittsburgh.

With both Zaire and Kizer healthy in 2016, Notre Dame could keep Wimbush on the sidelines and return him to the originally-intended timeline.

2015: Two games, 3-of-5 passing for 17 yards, seven rushes for 96 yards, including a 58-yard touchdown run against UMass.
2016: Preserved a year of eligibility.

QUOTES
Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long both sang Wimbush’s praises and spoke of his needed improvements the day before this spring’s Blue-Gold Game.

“Brandon can make all the throws,” Long said. “The biggest thing is his footwork, getting that corrected, getting him more confident with that.

“There’s not a throw he can’t make. His velocity, the way it comes out of his hands is tremendous. He throws a really nice deep ball. He’s doing a lot better job, just his presence in the pocket, understanding when he needs to evade and doing a nice job throwing on the run. Still a lot to go, but once he gets his footwork down and cleans it up, the sky is the limit for him.”

Long also indicated Wimbush grew as a leader throughout the spring, but is not yet counted on in that capacity, partly because he does not need to be.

“The best thing about Brandon is he’s never too high and never too low,” Long said. “That’s what you want with your quarterbacks.

“We have enough leaders who are proven, have been there in the heat of battle. He just needs to go out there and operate the offense. I don’t want to have any more added pressure on his shoulders. If he does that, we’re all going to be happy. As time goes, the leadership can grow, but be a great follower right now.”

WHAT KEITH ARNOLD PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
To date, this portion of each 99-to-2 entry has been pulled from the “Crystal Ball” piece of Keith’s series. In this instance, “Future Potential” is the more pertinent bit, though the Crystal Ball was entirely accurate.

When it comes to upside, you can make the argument that Wimbush has the best of any quarterback on campus. And the fact that a sophomore quarterback is on board with using a redshirt season as a sophomore also points to a maturity you really have to like in a quarterback.

“That said, the depth chart will eventually force Wimbush to step in and skip the part of the learning curve that includes a young player making first-time mistakes. Because assuming that Kizer or Zaire will be on campus next season, Wimbush will have two seasons to run the offense, likely a fourth-year junior when the fog clears.

“That’s plenty of time to establish himself. But it’ll require the lion’s share of his developments to take place on Monday to Friday, not Saturdays.”

2017 OUTLOOK
This isn’t complicated. As Wimbush goes, so will go Notre Dame’s offense. To a large extent, as the Irish offense goes, so will go the season. A quick application of the transitive property indicates as Wimbush goes, so will go Notre Dame’s season as a whole.

That could be a lot to put on an unproven and inexperienced starter. Wimbush should be the exception to that rule. He displayed his athleticism in his first collegiate action with that 58-yard touchdown scamper. His arm has dazzled in practices for two years now such that it seems it might be unanimous he had the strongest arm on the team last season.

Will Wimbush make some mistakes this season? Undoubtedly. But the same could be said of any experienced veteran, as well.

As far as projecting any statistics, let’s defer to Phil Steele’s computers, both because they have a proven track record and because speculating the output of an unknown commodity such as Wimbush sounds like the job for an automated program. They project the Irish offense will average 268.0 passing yards per game. That would top every year of Kelly’s time at Notre Dame aside from 2014’s 285 passing yards per game.

If Wimbush reaches that mark while limiting turnovers — and that is not even factoring in his legs’ inevitable impact on the game — then the Irish should have little difficulty making the scoreboard work in 2017.

DOWN THE ROAD
Barring injury, a la Zaire, Wimbush will start until he heads to the NFL. That could conceivably happen as soon as after this season or as far off in the distant future as after the 2019 campaign. Wimbush’s acceptance of spending his sophomore season on the sideline leads one to think he is in no rush to get to the next level, though any starting quarterback at Notre Dame undoubtedly has that ambition in due time.

The most-likely scenario seems to be Wimbush spends four seasons with the Irish before taking his chance among the professionals. That theory would leave Book with two seasons of eligibility, freshman Avery Davis with a likely three and class of 2018 commit Phil Jurkovec a hypothetical four seasons to make his mark.


2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
No. 95: Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 92)
No. 94: Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 95)
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92: Jonathon MacCollister; defensive end (originally theorized as No. 46)
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end
No. 88: Javon McKinley, receiver
No. 87: Michael Young, receiver (originally theorized as No. 84)
No. 86: Alizé Mack, tight end
No. 85: Tyler Newsome, punter
No. 84: Cole Kmet, tight end (originally theorized as No. 90)
No. 83: Chase Claypool, receiver
No. 82: Nic Weishar, tight end
No. 81: Miles Boykin, receiver
No. 80: Durham Smythe, tight end
No. 78: Tommy Kraemer, right tackle
No. 77: Brandon Tiassum, defensive tackle
No. 76: Dillan Gibbons, offensive lineman (originally theorized as No. 65)
No. 75: Josh Lugg, offensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 73)
No. 75: Daniel Cage, defensive tackle
No. 74: Liam Eichenberg, right tackle
No. 72: Robert Hainsey, offensive tackle
No. 71: Alex Bars, offensive lineman
No. 70: Hunter Bivin, offensive lineman
No. 69: Aaron Banks, offensive lineman
No. 68: Mike McGlinchey, left tackle
No. 67: Jimmy Byrne, offensive lineman
No. 58: Elijah Taylor, defensive tackle
No. 57: Trevor Ruhland, offensive lineman
No. 56: Quenton Nelson, left guard
No. 55: Jonathan Bonner, defensive lineman
No. 54: John Shannon, long snapper
No. 53: Sam Mustipher, center
No. 53: Khalid Kareem, defensive lineman
No. 48: Greer Martini, inside linebacker
No. 47: Kofi Wardlow, defensive end
No. 45: Jonathan Jones, inside linebacker
No. 44: Jamir Jones, linebacker/defensive lineman
No. 42: Julian Okwara, defensive end
No. 41: Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 94)
No. 40: Drew White, linebacker
No. 39: Jonathan Doerer, kicker (originally theorized as No. 52)
No. 38: Deon McIntosh, running back/receiver
No. 35: David Adams, linebacker
No. 34: Tony Jones, Jr., running back
No. 33: Josh Adams, running back
No. 32: D.J. Morgan, safety
No. 30: Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, rover
No. 29: Kevin Stepherson, receiver
No. 28: Nicco Fertitta, safety
No. 27: Julian Love, cornerback
No. 26: Ashton White, safety
No. 25: Jafar Armstrong, receiver (originally theorized as No. 87)
No. 24: Nick Coleman, safety
No. 23: Drue Tranquill, rover
No. 22: Asmar Bilal, rover
No. 21: Jalen Elliott, safety
No. 20: Shaun Crawford, cornerback
No. 19: Justin Yoon, kicker
No. 18: Troy Pride, cornerback
No. 17: Isaiah Robertson, safety
No. 16: Cameron Smith, receiver
No. 15: C.J. Holmes, running back
No. 14: Devin Studstill, safety
No. 13: Avery Davis, quarterback
No. 13: Jordan Genmark Heath, safety
No. 12: Ian Book, quarterback
No. 12: Alohi Gilman, safety
No. 11: Freddy Canteen, receiver
No. 10: Chris Finke, receiver
No. 9: Daelin Hayes, defensive end
No. 8: Donte Vaughn, cornerback

TRANSFERS
No. 66: Tristen Hoge, offensive lineman, transfers to BYU
No. 50: Parker Boudreaux, offensive lineman
No. 30: Josh Barajas, linebacker, to transfer to Illinois State

INJURIES
No. 13: Tyler Luatua, tight end, career ended by medical hardship