It’s been an interesting 48 hours covering Notre Dame football. While rumors swirled about the Irish quarterbacking position, Brian Kelly put them to rest with his declarative statement that Everett Golson was — and would remain — his starting quarterback this evening in Soldier Field. But that hasn’t slowed any of the rumblings down.
With an extra week to prepare, and Miami’s suspect defense a perfect opponent to get healthy against, the Notre Dame offense — whoever the quarterback is — needs to get back on track, struggling for three consecutive Saturdays against Big Ten opponents Purdue, Michigan State, and Michigan.
As we get ready for game time, here are a few final questions I’ve been thinking about.
Who will actually start at quarterback?
While most of the quarterbacking debate was put to rest by Kelly on Thursday evening, I was told by two sources close to the situation late on Friday night that they still expected Tommy Rees to start on Saturday evening.
Those rumors were refuted by Notre Dame’s sports information department, but until the Irish take the field tonight, I’m not sure what to expect.
Can the Irish get production out of the quarterback position?
Regardless of who’s starting, Notre Dame needs to get some productivity out of the position. Nothing will open up the running game better than a quarterback that can take some shots down the field and challenge the Hurricanes vertically, and both Golson and Rees have that ability.
New quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin had an extra week to game plan for a Miami defense that’s very young and still prone to big mistakes. With All-American Tyler Eifert only catching one ball the past two weeks — his worst production since he was backing up Kyle Rudolph — it’s time for the Irish to figure out a way to get the ball into No. 80’s hands, the most dangerous offensive weapon the Irish have.
Will Notre Dame’s front seven be able to dominate the line of scrimmage?
It’s a big test for Notre Dame’s stout defensive front, with running backs Duke Johnson and Mike James both big play threats.
More importantly, it’ll be up to the Irish pass rush to work its way through Miami’s youthful offensive line. There isn’t a fourth year player at the line of scrimmage for the Canes, and if the Irish can control the line of scrimmage and get after the quarterback with a four and five man rush, then it’ll be a long evening for quarterback Stephen Morris.
Can the Irish secondary limit the big plays?
It’s another good test for Notre Dame’s young secondary. Morris isn’t Denard Robinson running the football, but he’s got the ability to extend plays and has a really big arm that challenges defenses down the field.
Morris still struggles with his accuracy, but he’s averaging almost 330 yards a game passing, and that yardage is coming in big chunks. With freshman KeiVarae Russell still learning on the job, Matthias Farley making his second start in place of Jamoris Slaughter, and Zeke Motta holding the group together, it’s another great test for a group that’s done a very nice job through four games.
Is Cierre Wood going to take control of the running game?
After sitting out the season’s first two games and struggling to find his way over the past few weeks, it’s finally time for senior Cierre Wood to take control of the running game. Wood has the best blend of speed, power, and vision in the Irish backfield, and while Theo Riddick has impressed, this is Wood’s game to dominate.
The Hurricanes are giving up 225 yards a game, giving up a healthy 4.49 yards per carry. With an extra week for Harry Hiestand‘s offensive line to work through some early kinks, it’s time for Notre Dame to dominate the line of scrimmage and break loose in the running game.
Can the Irish take care of business and play up to their ranking?
Being ranked in the top ten is one thing. But playing consistent football against quality opponents for a long stretch of time is the next step in the evolutionary chain for Notre Dame football. Brian Kelly has continued to preach consistency and attention to detail for this team. But can the Irish take care of business in a unique environment against another good team?
The Hurricanes are 4-1, but a program still building. With a mature defense and an offense ready to break through, this is a game Notre Dame should win with authority if they want to stake a claim that they’re one of the country’s premiere teams.
UPDATE — Alex Flanagan confirms my reporting (both above and on Twitter), that Rees will start after Golson violated a team rule.
Former Notre Dame defensive lineman, Kona Schwenke, dies at 25
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.
Kona was an extremely caring young man who always thought of his family, friends and teammates before himself. He had such a welcoming personality to everyone. My heart truly aches for his family. https://t.co/yvAhpBAk1e
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.
The beauty about memories is the people that helped make those memories. The beauty about life… https://t.co/J7JhyORDHq
It may have just been an intrasquad scrimmage in April, but the Blue-Gold Game included the most-consistent performance seen by the public in rising-senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s career at Notre Dame. Looking through 2017’s game-by-game stats, no other showing comes very close to Saturday’s 19-of-33 passing for 341 yards and two touchdowns with one interception.
His 57.6 percent completion rate was outdone only once, when he completed 70 percent of his passes, 14-of-20, for 173 yards and one touchdown at Michigan State. This weekend’s accuracy could have ended up a few points higher, too, if Wimbush had been allowed to scramble on broken plays, rather than try to force a pass into tight coverage.
Yes, it may have just been the conclusion to spring practices, but Wimbush proved he physically can put together an accurate day with more than his coaches and teammates watching.
“Obviously, I wasn’t too accurate last year,” Wimbush said. “I missed some balls that should have been completed. It’s the fundamentals and my footwork, emphasizing urgency with my footwork that will help me.”
The minutiae of fundamentals and footwork manifest themselves by throwing behind receivers on drag routes, making Equanimeous St. Brown reach behind himself to pull in a five-yard throw intended to turn into 10 or 15 yards. They result in hitting Alizé Mack’s shoes in the flat against Miami (OH) on a first-and-10 in the red zone. The simple change in arm angle turns simple pick-ups into lost downs and torpedoes any hopes of a tolerable completion percentage and efficient drives down the field.
Throughout the latter half of 2017, Irish head coach Brian Kelly acknowledged those mechanical mistakes, but put off rectifying them until the offseason, lest a week’s game planning be lost to rushed returns to basics. With an offseason working on those building blocks, Wimbush showed Saturday he can make those throws, finding Mack, Cole Kmet, Chris Finke and even Jafar Armstrong either crossing just past the line of scrimmage or in the flat. His completion percentage reflected it, and the offense moved down the field.
“Consistency in his mechanics was probably the biggest thing,” Kelly said. “His (arm) drop put him in a lot of compromising situations in terms of throwing the football, and so I think that was cleaned up. Started with his attention to those things, and being very coachable.
“Then repetition, doing it consistently, play in and play out. We’re not there yet, but we made a huge jump forward.”
This may all read as if through rose-colored lenses — and it needs to be again acknowledged this was in front of a generously-announced crowd of 31,729, far from the Stadium’s capacity of 80,795 — but the numbers are unprecedented in Wimbush’s tenure. He gained 10.33 yards per attempt. The closest he managed last season was 9.33 yards per attempt against Wake Forest, when he completed only 50 percent of his passes. Even last year’s Blue-Gold Game saw only 9.47 yards per Wimbush passing attempt, although it did include a 68.75 percent completion rate.
Then things changed in the season. Wimbush’s muscle memory vanished. He had it once. He may have it again.
“It was [committed to muscle memory] coming out of high school and going through a couple years of college,” Wimbush said. “Then, sometimes you just lose sight of what got you to where you are, and I think that happened to me last year. I went back to the details and the fundamentals and got it right.”
None of this means a thing if Wimbush returns to aiming at Mack’s shins against Michigan on Sept. 1, but it is now clear he should be able to avoid that habit. Another four months of this trend-line, and perhaps some of this spring Saturday’s stats could become figures seen on a fall weekend.
Of course, Wimbush had help. Two of his passes went to rising-junior receiver Chase Claypool for 25 yards, part of Claypool’s six total receptions for 151 yards and two touchdowns.
For a rising-senior with only 12 catches for 253 yards last season, Miles Boykin is rather established as Notre Dame’s top receiving option. One could be forgiven for assuming Claypool would have had those honors after catching 29 passes for 402 yards last season. Instead, he spent much of the spring working with the second set of Irish receivers, while Boykin, rising-sophomore Michael Young and rising-senior Chris Finke took the starting reps.
That did not sit well with Claypool.
“I was starting with the 2s there, and I kind of wanted to show that’s not my position,” he said. “… I think my potential is limitless. I like to think of it that way, that I’ll never peak.”
If Claypool’s potential has a limitation, it is due to his emotions, something Kelly has spent the spring harping on. When Claypool makes a first-down grab, his focus should be on the rest of the drive, not celebrating moving the chains. Likewise, after a dropped pass, he needs to ready himself for the next down, not dwell on the missed opportunity.
“He wasn’t one of our cool, calm and collected guys last year, but he’s really worked hard on that and the way he’s practiced has allowed him to be much more focused,” Kelly said. “… Since he’s found where that optimal zone is for him to be when he plays, he’s been so much more consistent.
“If he continues to trend this way, we’ve got another big, rangy, physical wide receiver that we can put on the field.”
Remove Claypool’s afternoon against Wake Forest to start November, in which he caught nine passes for 180 yards and a touchdown, and the then-sophomore never topped 60 yards or four receptions last season. As physically gifted as he very clearly is, inconsistent was just as apt an adjective when discussing the Canadian product.
Finding that “optimal zone” against the Wolverines will be a challenge, but it is one Claypool knows is ahead of him.
“I think I can do that every time,” he said. “I told [rising-junior quarterback Ian] Book and Wimbush, the only way they’ll stop me — with all confidence, I don’t want to be cocky — is if they [pass interfere with] me. … It kind of showed I can make plays, but I have to still keep working until I can give myself the opportunity.”
How many times can “Aloha, Alohi” be used before it gets old? Oh wait, it already is? Fine. So be it. Anyway, welcome Alohi Gilman as a starting safety.
The rising-junior transfer from Navy totaled only six tackles and did not break up any passes, but he also did not appear to blow any coverages or outright miss any tackles. (He can thank rising-junior cornerback Troy Pride for cleaning up a takedown of Finke which Gilman was on the verge of mishandling.)
When Wimbush connected with Young off a play-action fake early on, Gilman made the instinctual play to swat the exposed ball out of Young’s hands and then recovered the fumble. That nose for the ball has been missing among Notre Dame’s safeties in recent years.
“If you look at every time [Gilman is] near the football, there is high contact with him,” Kelly said. “That’s what we’re looking for at that position: High contact, plays the ball well in the air, a very smart football player.
“He’s what we thought he would be. He started a little slow in the spring. I think he’s really picked it up to the point where he’s making things happen back at that safety position.”
Unless incoming freshman Derrik Allen makes an immediate impression or early-enrolled freshman Houston Griffith shows great development over the summer, Gilman and rising-junior Jalen Elliott will likely man the Irish backline against Michigan. It is no coincidence they created a turnover apiece Saturday.
Notre Dame will need that new indoor practice facility when it is finished next summer.
Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game was one of only two practices the Irish held outdoors this spring, out of a possible 15. Such are the joys of a northwestern Indiana winter. The ceilings at the Loftus Sports Complex are too low to genuinely work on the kicking game, and it showed with fifth-year punter Tyler Newsome averaging only 40.5 yards per punt and rising-senior kicker Justin Yoon missing two of five field goals.
The new indoor facility is intended to have higher ceilings, allowing those specialists more offseason work.
Kelly was not concerned in the least by the kicking performances, and considering the veterans at his disposal currently, his calm makes sense. Nonetheless, the new practice facility is needed, even if it is another whole spring away from being completed.
Not much else needs to be said about Ajavon’s recruitment. Until further notice, safety play will remain a concern for the Irish, so pulling in a talent like Ajavon’s is vital. He is the fifth commitment in the Notre Dame class of 2019, following in the Friday footsteps of consensus four-star offensive tackle John Olmstead.
Wimbush’s mechanics, Notre Dame’s receivers shine in Blue-Gold Game
NOTRE DAME, Ind. — The 64-yard touchdown pass to Miles Boykin in the Blue-Gold Game will be memorable, and with good reason, but Brandon Wimbush’s shorter completions — such as a 12-yard gain to Alizé Mack, a 10-yard reception by Chris Finke and a seven-yarder to Cole Kmet — hint at even more promise for Notre Dame in 2018.
A year ago, the rising-senior quarterback missed those underneath crossing routes, hitting the checkdowns in the shoelaces, if at all. During Saturday’s conclusion to the spring practices, Wimbush finished 19-of-33 for 341 passing yards and two touchdowns, leading the Irish offense to a 47-44 victory over the defense.
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly and his staff have maintained the party line of an open quarterback competition this spring between Wimbush and rising-junior Ian Book, but Kelly acknowledged the writing is on the wall after this spring.
“It’s pretty clear that Brandon went out and got a chance to go with the first group and Ian played with the second group,” Kelly said. “That’s not etched in stone, but that’s the way they have been trending.
“I don’t think there was anything today that changed that, but we know Ian Book can win for us.”
By no means did Book play poorly in the intrasquad exhibition, but Wimbush’s marked improvement in his accuracy and mechanics essentially ended any competition talk for the summer. Book threw for 292 yards on 17-of-30 passing with one touchdown, an 85-yard touchdown pass to rising-junior receiver Chase Claypool to open Saturday’s scoring in which Claypool dismissed a tackle attempt from rising-senior cornerback Shaun Crawford with nary a concern, in part because Crawfrod’s ball-hawk instincts kicked in and he went for a strip as much as for a tackle.
Claypool led the receivers with six catches for 151 yards and two scores, while rising-senior Miles Boykin added three catches for 132 yards and the aforementioned touchdown.
“We weren’t an explosive passing game last year,” Kelly said. “Miles changes that complexion. He’s very difficult to defend, and if you do, you have to roll a coverage up on him. You’re going to take a safety and borrow a safety. We think that’s going to give us the kind of running game that will be extremely effective, as well.”
PLAY OF THE GAME Already embedded above, Boykin’s shedding of fifth-year cornerback Nick Watkins to pull in Wimbush’s pass, while maintaining enough balance to get to the end zone, showcases much of what could make Boykin a true all-around threat in 2018. He showed his leaping ability and overall athleticism in the Citrus Bowl dramatics/heroics. He also has the speed to get a step on a quality cornerback like Watkins, giving Wimbush the opening to launch toward.
While praising Wimbush’s short-game Saturday is pertinent and accurate, ignoring his ludicrous arm strength would be a mistake. From his own 27-yard line, Wimbush did not take a step into the throw, basically heaving it from his back foot, and still sent it 56 yards through the air on target to Boykin at the opposite 17-yard line.
RUNNER-UP PLAY OF THE GAME The folly of an intrasquad scrimmage is every success comes as another teammate’s failure. Boykin’s and Claypool’s touchdowns did not result from blown coverages. In each instance, the cornerback had close coverage, but the receiver simply made an outstanding play.
Rising-senior cornerback Shaun Crawford may have gotten turned around a bit finding Book’s throw, but once Claypool came down with it, he simply broke Crawford’s tackle and headed toward the end zone.
“[Crawford] played, honestly, really good defense,” Claypool said. “He was right there with me. He never gives up on the play, which is what I love to see from the defensive guys. … No other defensive back really offers his hidden ability and his coverage ability with his speed.”
PLAYER OF THE GAME In the days to come, more time will be spent looking at rising-sophomore Avery Davis’ public debut as a receiver/running back hybrid who happens to spend some time at quarterback. In fact, pondering those possibilities will undoubtedly be a recurring theme of the summer. His performance Saturday guaranteed as much.
Davis took 11 carries for 30 yards with a long rush of 11, adding two catches for 24 yards and completing two passes, on two attempts, for 26 more yards. He may have never found the end zone, but his fingerprints were all over the game, including a five-yard reception in the flat from Wimbush, another example of the starting quarterback properly diagnosing and hitting the easy throw, taking the yards where they are available.
“Avery is kind of a multi-dimensional guy,” Kelly said. “He can do a little bit of everything for us. [Davis and rising-sophomore Jafar Armstrong] give us more versatility than just having the two backs and the freshmen at that position. What we saw from them in the spring kind of showed itself today. Both of them are going to be productive.”
Armstrong, another running back/receiver hybrid, took five carries for 48 yards including a 25-yard touchdown, and had one catch for 21 yards.
Between the two of them, Notre Dame opens up a much larger inventory of possibilities within its playbook, and creates opportunities to rest the backfield mainstays.
STAT OF THE GAME Rising-junior safety Jalen Elliott recorded an interception in the spring finale for the second April in a row. Between the two interceptions, no Irish safety managed such a takeaway. On top of that, Elliot missed another interception earlier, letting one bounce right off his hands. For that matter, so did Watkins.
In a game with 65 pass attempts, some are going to find defensive backs’ hands. Throughout 2017, the Notre Dame safeties tested that hypothesis, seemingly averse to attacking the ball in the air. By pulling in one interception and breaking up a pass, as well, Elliott offered a glimmer of hope that trend may change. Those two pass breakups would have been nearly half of the five managed by all Irish safeties in 13 games last season.
OVERLOOKED POINT OF THE GAME Rising-senior running back Dexter Williams is known for his speed. His playmaking ability is why he sees the field despite deficiencies as a pass blocker and receiver. When he breaks away, he is not supposed to be caught.
Unless the defender chasing him from across the field is also a track star, at which point, rising-junior cornerback Troy Pride had little difficulty at all.
QUOTE OF THE GAME Last spring, Wimbush played well enough, but not much better than that. He threw for 303 yards on 22-of-32 passing, finding the end zone only on foot. Kelly remembered it well.
“Last spring, I told him I went home, I didn’t feel so good about the way you played,” Kelly said. “I think I’m going to go home feeling a whole lot better today.”
UNRLEATED TO THE ACTUAL GAME … Even a cynic has to acknowledge the genuine happiness displayed by fifth-year left guard Alex Bars about being named the fourth Notre Dame captain early Saturday morning after a team vote Friday.
“I was just elated,” he said. “I was so happy. Highest honor I’ve ever received.”
Bars did not bother to tell his family about being named captain, instead focusing on the exhibition at hand and letting the natures of modern technology inform them in good time.
SCORING SUMMARY No, let’s not detail how the defense scored 44 exhibition points, even if one of them came from a supposed sack by rising-sophomore tackle Darnell Ewell. Instead, let’s be rational and simply note the offensive tallies:
Book to Claypool, 85-yard touchdown. Justin Yoon extra point good.
Yoon 28-yard field goal.
Yoon 40-yard field goal.
Jonathan Doerer 20-yard field goal.
Armstrong 25-yard touchdown run. Doerer extra point good.
Wimbush to Boykin, 64-yard touchdown. Yoon extra point good.
Dexter Williams one-yard touchdown run. Yoon extra point good.
Wimbush to Claypool, six-yard touchdown. Yoon extra point good.
Yoon 46-yard field goal.
Blue-Gold Game Primer: Who, what, when, where and why
WHO? Notre Dame’s offense (Blue) against its defense (Gold).
WHAT? Spring games are often misconstrued as actual games. They are, in all of reality, the 15th and final practice of spring. Thus, the time on the field cannot exceed two hours, and the second half will consist of only two 12-minute quarters with a running clock.
WHEN? 12:30 p.m. ET, and this should, again, have a strict two-hour time limit, so do not arrive late if genuinely wanting to watch.
WHERE? Notre Dame Stadium, hosting its first Blue-Gold Game without construction afoot since the Campus Crossroads project began following the 2014 season.
NBCSN will broadcast the game, which will also be available at NBCSports.com and on the NBC Sports app.
WHY? A cynic might wonder why the 15th practice is opened to tens of thousands of fans and held in Notre Dame Stadium at all. The obvious reasoning is two-fold. Giving the public a look at the team and any possible progress does not endanger the fall’s game plans as some might fear. Instead, it engenders good will and creates a buzz around the football program during a slow period, rather than stretch from January to August with nothing but silence and a few recruits signing National Letters of Intent.
Secondly, and more importantly, those tens of thousands of pairs of eyeballs offer another litmus test for each of the players, especially the young and inexperienced. There is no reason to think rising-junior left tackle Liam Eichenberg might struggle with that kind of pressure, but there is equally little reason to think he will thrive in it. By no means will today’s atmosphere be comparable to Sept. 1’s, but it is closer to that than a normal practice would be.
MEANINGLESS STAT: Actually, all Blue-Gold Game stats are meaningless. Last year, Ian Book threw for 271 yards on 18-of-25 passing, adding a touchdown with no interceptions. Meanwhile, defensive end Daelin Hayes reached the quarterback three times.
During the actual 2017 season, Book threw for 456 yards on 46-of-75 passing, matching four touchdowns with four interceptions. Hayes notched three sacks in 13 games.
The point is to remind all not to focus too much on today’s stats, but instead notice schemes, orders of appearance and designed alignments.
BY HOW MUCH? In a game with offensive scoring as usual and defensive scoring hinging on touchdowns (six points), forced turnovers (three points), three-and-outs (three points), an overall stop (two points) and tackles for loss (one point), the edge may actually fall on the defense’s side, and not only because it returns nine starters, compared to the offense’s six.
Consider, even when the offense scores a touchdown, the odds are the defense logged at least one tackle for loss on the drive, making the touchdown drive a net-6 for the offense. Meanwhile, whenever the defense forces a stop, it gets those two points plus another likely tackle for loss. Every two such possessions match each offensive touchdown. Three-and-outs and forced turnovers should quickly create a margin of victory.
And yes, that was approximately 125 words too many spent on handicapping this intrasquad scrimmage.
SOME PREDICTIONS: Book will star. Notre Dame’s safeties will make two interceptions, leading to a summer of unearned hype. Rising-senior receiver Chris Finke will score a touchdown.
AND IF YOU WERE CURIOUS … The Shirt will be green this year, as was announced Friday evening.