Pregame Six Pack: Staring down Stanford

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The Stanford Cardinal have quite a feather in their cap. Entering the season, they’re the only team in college football history to defeat Notre Dame and USC in three consecutive seasons. David Shaw’s squad has already extended their streak against the Trojans. They’ll look to do the same against the Irish, running their record winning streak against Notre Dame to four straight.

Ranked 17th in the country, there’s plenty to like about Stanford. Namely, a physical defense that’s beaten up teams at the line of scrimmage. After whipping Notre Dame up front the last two seasons, don’t think Irish head coach Brian Kelly isn’t excited to see how his team measures up this season. When asked Thursday afternoon whether he likes his team’s toughness, and their ability to get down and dirty in a game like this, Kelly was unequivocal.

“I do,” Kelly said. “I think we’ll be able to go in there and play the kind of game we want to play. We’ve exhibited the kind of signs that would lead me to believe that we can play that kind of football.”

We’ll be in South Bend for the game this weekend, where ESPN has already camped out with their College GameDay set, their first visit to Notre Dame since the 2005 Notre Dame-USC game. It’s just another datapoint that the Irish are well on their way back from the dead, dusting themselves off after plenty of dirt was kicked on top of them the past few years.

With a 3:30 p.m. ET kickoff set for NBC — and a special NFL Films’ produced behind the scenes look at the Irish called Onward Notre Dame: South Bend to Soldier Field — let’s empty out the folder with another pregame six pack. As usual, here are six tidbits, fun facts, leftovers, or miscellaneous musings to get you ready for Saturday’s game between the No. 7 Fighting Irish and the No. 17 Stanford Cardinal.

***

The Irish have reason to be confident that the defense will win the battle at the line of scrimmage.

Notre Dame’s offensive line will need to play its very best football to establish a running game against the Cardinal. But there’s reason to believe that the Irish defensive front should control the line of scrimmage against the Cardinal’s rebuilt offensive line. Gone are All-Americans David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin, taken in the first and second round of the NFL Draft respectively.  The Cardinal have reshuffled the line, carrying over just two starters that played the same position last year, with center Sam Schwartzstein and right tackle Cameron Fleming back. But Stanford has kicked guard David Yankey outside from left guard to left tackle, and have two other veterans starting. The Cardinal also play some talented youngsters, many of whom were on the Irish recruiting radar. Notre Dame fans will get their first looks at Joshua Garnett, Kyle Murphy, and Andrus Peat. All three had early Irish offers and both Peat and Garnett gave the Irish an official visit.

The Cardinal have only given up five sacks this season, but they’ve struggled to kickstart the running game. After running for 210 yards a game at a 5.29 yards per carry clip, the Cardinal are down almost a yard a carry (4.42) while being ranked 74th in the country with 155 yards a game.

A year after getting pushed around up front, Brian Kelly was asked on his radio show what the difference would be between this defensive line and the group that got pushed around last year in Palo Alto.

“Personnel. We were playing EJ, SC, and Chase Hounshell. We were a little beat up,” Kelly said. “Kapron (Lewis-Moore) didn’t play. We’re a different front,and we’re physically stronger. We’re a better football team. So let’s see how that plays out Saturday because we’re going to play really well against an ouutstanding football team, but we’re better up front.”

***

The Irish offensive line will need to improve upon their breakthrough performance against Miami with an even better game against Stanford’s front seven. 

Give credit to Notre Dame’s offensive line, who absolutely killed Miami’s will last weekend in the second half, running the ball through the Hurricanes by carrying the ball almost exclusively for the entire second half. But if Notre Dame wants to win the game this Saturday afternoon, they’ll need to step their game up against a Stanford front that’s absolutely dominated Notre Dame’s offensive line.

How bad has it been? Consider that Brian Kelly’s Irish haven’t been able to average even two yards a carry. In 2010, Jim Harbaugh’s defense stuffed the Irish running game, holding the Irish to just 44 yards on 23 carries, with Jonas Gray’s 11-yard run the lone gain over 10-yards. Dayne Crist was kept in check while the Cardinal routinely dropped seven and eight men in coverage. Last year, the Cardinal (and the horrific turf inside Stanford Stadium), held the Irish to just 57 yards on 31 carries, with the long being a 17-yard scramble by Andrew Hendrix.

Stanford’s 3-4 defense, a group built with big, physical players in a similar mold of the Irish, have kept up the same lofty performance as last season, holding opponents to just 77 yards a game and a measly 2.66 yards per carry. With young quarterback Everett Golson still learning on the job, CSNChicago’s JJ Stankevitz writes about the job the Irish offensive line does to help their young quarterback make the correct reads.

“It takes a lot off my plate, to be honest,” Golson said on Saturday. “Going back to seeing those zones and stuff like that, I guess it feels good to me to know that if I didn’t see it, they got my back.”

Every offensive line acts as a safety net for its quarterback. But having a senior-laden offensive line for a greenhorn quarterback takes on added importance, even if Golson’s learning quickly.

“Communicating, anything we can give him is going to help him and it’s going to help us and it’s going to help the whole offense,” tackle Christian Lombard said. “(Offensive line coach Harry Hiestand) always says see a little, see a lot, so if you see something say something and it’s going to trickle down to everyone.

“Our combination blocks, calling out linebackers when we got an overloaded box so he can check out of things — there’s tons of different things, I could go on and on, but he’s picking up really fast,” center Braxston Cave added. “And it’s not even us as much now having to tell him anything, and he’s making the calls on his own.”

The Irish coaching staff struggled with adjustments when the Cardinal revealed a few wrinkles that they hadn’t shown on tape. With two head-to-head match-ups and five games of tape from this season, Stanford won’t be able to reveal any completely unknown wrinkles, but that doesn’t mean the Irish won’t try to be ready for them.

“There will always be that unexpected look that you get and we’ll make those adjustments and we’ve been able to communicate them very well on the sideline,” Kelly said. “We feel like we’re better at what we’re doing at this point and that we can continue to do that, regardless of what the look is. That’s just moving forward as an offense.”

***

Theo Riddick is back and healthy for the Irish running backs. But it’s time to see a redistribution of carries at the position. 

Through five games, Theo Riddick is carrying the load running the ball, with almost twice as many touches as Cierre Wood and over half of the carries of the three main running backs. Sure, these numbers are skewed — Wood sat the season’s first two games — but with the running back position solidified, it’s time to take a hard look at how the carries get distributed moving forward.

Riddick has done everything this coaching staff has asked of him, moving to wide receiver when there was little depth at the slot position, and then back to tailback for his final season. And while his versatility makes him an important cog in the Notre Dame offense, the stats are starting to show him the least effective of the team’s three running backs.

Here’s a quick breakdown of the Irish’s running backs through five games.

Notre Dame Running Backs:
Theo Riddick: 68 carries for 263 yards. 3.9 Avg. 3 TD. Long Run: 17
Cierre Wood: 35 carries for 213 yards. 6.1 Avg. 2 TD. Long Run: 37
George Atkinson: 29 carries for 269 yards. 9.3 Avg. 3 TD. Long Run: 56
Cam McDaniel: 20 carries for 114 yards. 5.7 Avg. 1 TD. Long Run: 19

While Riddick didn’t miss a rep this week as he recovered from a minor elbow injury, Kelly talked about the challenge of getting the ball to his healthy stable of running backs.

“We’ve got three guys that we’re trying to get that balance,” Kelly said. “We struck it a little better last week, but it’s something that we’re constantly keeping an eye on and keeping those guys fresh and attacking defenses with three really good runners. We all know Cam (McDaniel) is a very good running back, but we just don’t have enough footballs for them.”

It’s tough to ignore the statistical differences that are growing by the week, especially considering the only game Riddick averaged more than five yards a carry in was against Navy, when he ran for 107 yards on 19 carries. (In the same game, Atkinson ran for 99 yards on just nine touches.)

If the Irish are going to get more production from the position, they’ll likely need to recalibrate the touches.

***

The Irish defense needs to make things miserable on quarterback Josh Nunes. 

Before Josh Nunes put together a sterling performance against Arizona last weekend, there wasn’t much positive to say about the man who took over for Andrew Luck. Nunes, a 6-foot-4, 225-pound junior from Upland, California, starting for the first time after backing up the NFL Draft’s top pick, played mediocre football through the season’s first four games, revealing a weak spot for the Cardinal offense.

Against San Jose State, Nunes completed 16 of 26 passes for just 125 yards and one touchdown. He was a little bit more prolific against Duke, completing 16 of 30 for 275 and three touchdowns with one interception. He struggled against USC while still leading the Cardinal to victory, completing less than half his 32 throws for 215 yards and two touchdowns and two interceptions. And in the Cardinal’s loss to Washington, Nunes was harassed constantly, completing just 18 of 37 throws for 170 yards and one interception.

There isn’t a bad defense in that group, with San Jose State leading that group statistically in total defense at 18th and Duke rounding it out at 52nd. But Nunes is in for his biggest challenge of the year against the Irish defense.

The Irish rank among the top-20 defenses in nine different categories: scoring defense, red zone defense, pass efficiency defense, total defense, first down defense, interceptions, turnovers forced, rush defense and sacks. After Nunes struggled away from home when the Huskies sprung the upset on Stanford, expect Notre Dame to try and make life miserable for the first-time starter.

“This game will be our biggest challenge. Notre Dame is big and physical,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “When their linebackers blitz, they hit it hard. This will be a big test for us. What helps our pass protection is our running game. Having play-action helps slow down the pass rush.”

With Ty Montgomery, one of the team’s best receivers, out for the game on Saturday, Nunes is short one valuable weapon as he tries to put together a solid road performance. If he does, the Cardinal have a chance. If he doesn’t? It’ll be a long day for the Stanford offense.

***

The spotlight will once again be on Everett Golson. Can he play better at home this time around? 

A week after playing well enough to hush any brewing quarterback controversy, Everett Golson will face the biggest test of his young career. Stanford’s defense — a group that’s confused Notre Dame quarterbacks for the past two seasons — will now take aim at the least experienced member of the Irish offense as Golson tries to lead the Irish to victory while still learning on the job.

Whether it was Dayne Crist, Tommy Rees, or Andrew Hendrix, Stanford’s defense has confused Notre Dame quarterbacks for the past two seasons. They’ve done everything from dropping eight into coverage to exotic blitz packages. Golson will need to confidently pilot the Irish offense if Notre Dame wants to exit the weekend undefeated.

Using Golson in the running game last week was the first part of making the game easier for the young starting quarterback. Now it’s up to the sophomore to continue to grow at the position, while also understanding his role as the facilitator of an offense that’ll help the team win just by not making crucial mistakes.

“We’re in the process with Everett that every day we’re building trust,” Kelly said. “We want somebody who is smiling and having fun and enjoying it, but also disciplined and getting with us in the right place and make the right choices. I guess the easiest way is we’re working hard towards meeting in the middle. That’s getting there. We’re getting there.”

Golson might have earned some confidence from the coaching staff running the two-minute drill at the end of the first half against Miami. While the drive didn’t net any points after Kyle Brindza’s field goal attempt missed wide right, Golson completed four straight passes for 48 yards as he led the Irish into field goal range.

“It was very important and we were hoping to get that opportunity,” Kelly said of Golson’s two-minute drill. “We thought he managed it very well, maybe too aggressively. We didn’t want the ball thrown to the wild field on that last throw where there was one second left on the clock, maybe if we were at a different stadium that one second is not there.  He was aggressive, but I thought he made strides in being comfortable out there and really doing the right things necessary to be effective.”

You could make the argument that Notre Dame didn’t need to break Golson’s running abilities out last week to beat Miami. But the ability to show the ability to both run the ball and move the Irish offense at a brisk pace should give Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason a few extra things to prepare for.

***

With inclement weather on its way to South Bend, this game could be an old-school, heavy-weight title bout.

The weather forecast looks rather ominous for South Bend Saturday afternoon. With thunderstorms possible and rain likely, this might turn into a rough and tumble brawl, something Brian Kelly wouldn’t half mind.

“The theme all week has been we’re going to be in for a physical, hard-nosed, four quarters of one of those good old-fashioned backyard brawls,” Kelly said Thursday evening. “It’s going to be that kind of game. We got our guys thinking about that on Monday and it kept building through the week. That’s been the theme this week for our football team.”

That attitude wasn’t because of the long-term weather forecast, but rather because of the challenges Stanford presents. And for the first time in his time at Notre Dame, this is the exact type of battle the Irish are built to play in and win.

“It’s who we want to be. It’s how we want to play the game,” Kelly said. “We’ve tried to exert that physical presence, both on the offensive line and the defensive line. It’s who we’re shaping up to be. So for us to go into a boxing match… I want to go in there and slug away. That’s the demeanor we want our football team to take shape.”

To win on Saturday, the Irish will need to be solid in all three phases of the football game. They’ll need to establish a run game after failing to do so for two years against Stanford. They’ll need to get big-chunk plays in the pass game with Everett Golson, while protecting the football at all costs. The defense will need to relentlessly pursue Josh Nunes, all while trying to shut down running back Stepfan Taylor and keeping jumbo-sized tight ends Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo in check. Special teams will also need consistency. Kyle Brindza needs to get back on track, while Ben Turk needs to finally find some consistency.

Another Saturday, another huge opportunity for Notre Dame. And with the national spotlight on South Bend, it’s time for the Irish to prove these first five games haven’t been a fluke.

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.