Tuesdays with BK: Prepping for Pitt

78 Comments

With Superstorm Sandy battering the East Coast and many of our readers under water and in bad shape, let me be one of the many voices from somewhere safe to wish you all well and hope that you’ve stayed out of harm’s way.

Not to take the devastation that has hit our country’s Eastern Seaboard and try to make a misguided sports analogy, but there’s probably one to be had with Notre Dame right now. With the Irish safely through the Oklahoma game, Notre Dame has weathered the most difficult part of their schedule. Yet those expecting things to lighten up are all too ready to fall into a trap that caught the Irish napping in 2002, broke the hearts of many in 1993, and annually trip up undefeated football teams all across the country throughout the month of November.

With the 4-4 Pitt Panthers set to visit South Bend this weekend, Notre Dame is far from out of the woods. But at 8-0 and big-time favorites on Saturday night, Brian Kelly has to remain vigilant as he prepares his team for an opponent with enough talent to beat him.

See below for the entirety of Kelly’s Tuesday press conference. As usual, I’ll give you some interesting snippets.

***

Kelly was asked about letdowns, and specifically Notre Dame’s history of following up a historically important win with a befuddling and devastating loss. His answer was a great one.

“History will have no effect on how this team plays,” Kelly said. “What will affect how this team plays is how they prepare during the week and that is what I can control and that’s what our players can control.  So our focus is on what we can control.  If we don’t prepare well and have a good week, that’s going to spill into how we play Saturday.”

As a fan, you’ve got to be happy with that answer. Outside of Mike Denbrock, that loss in 2002 might not even be a distant memory on the radar. And the ’93 defeat, a portion of this football team wasn’t alive for it.

Kelly talked about what his focus is as the Irish move farther along in this uncharted territory.

“More than anything else is that you can prepare well, but if you’re not going to play a tough brand of football mentally and physically, then you can lose every week that you play,” Kelly said. “So I go back to the two things:  One, let’s take care of what we can control; and two, let’s exhibit the habits that we’ve used all week and all year to be the guide for what happens on Saturday.”

***

If you’re looking for things that got Irish fans’ goat this offseason, it was a comment attributed to Kelly at a fundraiser dinner that got twisted into Kelly setting his season goals at eight wins. The head coach did his best to clarify that statement, making it clear that a mediocre eight-win season wasn’t his goal, but the fact that the Irish’s inability to win eight games in three straight seasons pointed to the program’s stability issues, something all but lost in the angst from some fans.

Fast forward to today and Kelly has indeed won eight games in three straight years. And we can all chuckle about this little flap. But Kelly was asked about the different paths to eight wins and how big the challenge was this year.

“It’s a climb,” Kelly said, a smile almost climbing to his face as the question emerged. “You’re developing a football program on a consistency that you want your team to have. I think it’s pretty clear that we’re developing that consistency.  But the challenges each year are different because of the different players that you have. But it’s still the same.  It’s still, you know, habits on a day‑to‑day basis.  It’s still preparation.  It’s still performing.  That hasn’t changed.  But now you have a group of players that know what you expect from them going into where we are right now. ”

***

After playing his most impressive game at Notre Dame, Kelly was asked what’s next for Everett Golson.

“The passing game still needs to improve,” Kelly said. “We had what we consider four, maybe five opportunities that we left out there in terms of throwing the ball.  So we want to see a higher passing efficiency in that respect.  And then I think you’re correct in assuming that what we need now is to put together a string of games back to back.  I think those are the two things that we’re going to ask from Everett in terms of his progress.”

He’ll have a great opportunity to display that this weekend, with another defense that might struggle to stop the Irish run game, leaving opportunities down field for Notre Dame to hit some big passes.

***

With a different offensive philosophy, Kelly has changed his tune on time of possession, acknowledging that tweak this afternoon. The Irish are now 14th in the country in the statistic where in previous years Kelly finished dead last at Cincinnati during his undefeated season.

Kelly explained the thought process and how they measure their efficiency.

“We want our time of possession to equal certain amount of plays, and we’re falling a little bit behind that matrix, if you will,” Kelly said. “So we really need to continue to possess the football, but we’ve gotta run some more plays, and that means we have to plate a little bit quicker and be able to get the amount of plays that we want.

“We’re running a lot more play personnel groupings into the game whereas last year we were set pretty much in our rotations.  So some of it’s coaching, and the other part of it is we’ve gotta run some plays that you don’t check, that you call them and haul them.  So there’s a little bit of that element, and then we’ve gotta get our quarterback not walking around out there.  He’s gotta get out there and he’s gotta move a little bit quicker.  So all those three elements coming together.”

It’s an interesting explanation from Kelly, who spends a fair amount of time signaling the play in with the Red Army (the back-up quarterbacks hand-signaling in the plays), which isn’t the fastest process. But the idea of running more plays while continuing to control the ball likely means that this staff wants to keep limiting opponents’ offensive opportunities, while also understanding that they need more production out of their offense, something that’ll come with more experience at quarterback.

***

Notre Dame adds another 2019 commitment out of Georgia

rivals.com
3 Comments

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

Associated Press
21 Comments

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

rivals.com
Leave a comment

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

und.com
7 Comments

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.