And in that corner… The Stanford Cardinal

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The Irish are well into their preparation for David Shaw’s Stanford team. As Brian Kelly and his coaching staff lay out the challenges in front of the team this week, they’ll be able to get a true measure of where this football team is from a physical perspective. The past two seasons, Stanford has plain old out-toughed the Irish, dominating the line of scrimmage and doing to Notre Dame what Brian Kelly wants to do to his opponents.

There’s no understating the loss of Andrew Luck to Stanford’s offense. The first pick in the NFL Draft had a bigger impact on Stanford’s program than any other player in history, leading the Cardinal to 23 wins over his final two seasons and back to back AP top seven finishes. Without Luck, the Cardinal offense has gone from 8th in the country to 83rd, as Josh Nunes has taken over at quarterback and the Cardinal needed to rebuild the offensive line after a pair of All-American offensive linemen departed.

That doesn’t mean this team has gotten soft.The Cardinal took down USC at home, quickly dashing the Trojan’s national title hopes. They also quickly rebounded from their loss to Washington, picking themselves off the mat to rally and beat Arizona in overtime.

The Cardinal come to South Bend ranked No. 17 in the country. Getting us up to speed on the team is the Stanford Daily’s George Chen. He’s the sports desk editor and football beat writer covering the Cardinal, so he’s got a great look at life on the Farm, and life after Andrew Luck.

George was good enough to answer some questions for us on the state of the Cardinal. Hope you enjoy.

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It’s been an interesting early run for Stanford. A near escape against San Jose State, a dominant upset of USC, the disappointing loss to Washington, and the overtime shootout against Arizona. Just who exactly is this team?

One of the big reasons why Saturday’s game is important for Stanford is because it serves as the perfect midseason test. Stanford had a shaky season opener against San Jose State, but the two games that have stood out the most is its upset over then-No. 2 USC and its loss to Washington on the road. Those two games showed a complete spectrum of the Cardinal’s performance so far this season, from its very best to its very worst. Coach Shaw and the players understand that Notre Dame is a huge test for them as the Cardinal hopes to establish itself as a steady team on the road. It’s difficult to say who this team is exactly right now, but this weekend will provide some good insight into whether Stanford belongs in the top-15 or not.

There is a lot of talent on the defensive side of the ball for the Cardinal. They’ve also given Notre Dame trouble the past two seasons, winning both games against Brian Kelly’s squad by two touchdowns or more. After giving up almost half-a-century to the Wildcats, what do you expect to see this weekend? 

I expect it to be a close, low-scoring game. The Cardinal defense gave up a ton of yards and points against Arizona last weekend, but it’s never matched up well against well-executed spread offenses (see Oregon). The players couldn’t be more happy going back to the smash-mouth, physical defense that they excel in. This game is going to be a defensive struggle.

Josh Nunes played what looked like his best game on paper last weekend. How has life after Luck been? Has Nunes done enough to lock down the starting job or will Brett Nottingham have a say in this?

Josh Nunes is without a doubt Stanford’s quarterback. Even after the Washington game, which was by far Nunes’ worst performance, Shaw made it clear that Nunes would not lose his job. I think people haven’t given him enough credit. No, he’s not Andrew Luck, but he’s coming into his own–a quarterback who can put his team in the position to win the game. Against USC, running back Stepfan Taylor was the hero, but Nunes also made some big-time throws and scrambles that kept the scoring drives alive. And obviously against Arizona, he came up clutch again when he marched the Cardinal down the field late in the fourth quarter for two touchdown-scoring drives. And there’s something to be said about Nunes’ poise. He has that all-important ability to flush the bad plays out of his mind. That’s rare to find in rookie quarterbacks.

For many, the jury was still out on David Shaw because he inherited a very good team from Jim Harbaugh and a once-in-a-generation quarterback in Andrew Luck. How do you evaluate the work Shaw and his coaching staff have done this year?

I think Shaw and the rest of the coaching staff have done an excellent job so far. Shaw received some criticism early in the season for his conservative play calling. I also think he’s done a great job of rotating guys in on the offensive line and defense so that the players can stay fresh as the game progresses. One of the more underrated aspects of his abilities is the recruiting success that Stanford has had. Sure, coach Harbaugh laid the ground, but Shaw and the current coaching staff deserves most of the credit for reeling in the best recruiting class in school history last year.

Obviously, Notre Dame’s defense has been very solid through five games. That’s also the strength of this Stanford team. How do you see Saturday playing out? What do the Cardinal have to do to leave South Bend victorious? 

The Cardinal needs to play at its very best if it wants to leave South Bend with a 5-1 record. Stanford can’t afford to have any turnovers on offense. For the most part, Nunes has done a solid job so far this season with protecting the ball and he’ll need to be extra careful against a stingy Notre Dame defense this Saturday. The Cardinal defense also needs to clamp down like it did against USC and prevent Everett Golson from making big plays with his feet. There’s a good reason why the Fighting Irish are the No. 7 team in the nation, but I foresee the Cardinal rising to the occasion and wining by a field goal.

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.