Pregame six pack: The Holy War

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When Notre Dame goes to Chestnut Hill, they’ll be playing not just to get to 10-0, but to continue a winning streak against a rival that brings out the ire of Irish fans everywhere. Even with Boston College 2-7 and in the midst of a season that’ll likely end with Frank Spaziani getting fired, you won’t see any sympathy from Notre Dame fans, and certainly won’t see Brian Kelly’s squad take things easy either.

Kelly might not be well versed — or a fan — of replaying Notre Dame football history, but it isn’t hard to understand why this game means something to both sides. The series between the two Catholic schools was fairly innocuous until 1992, when the Irish rolled the undefeated and ninth-ranked Eagles 54-7, going as far as to fake a punt in the third quarter with a 37-0 lead. Tom Coughlin and his squad didn’t take kindly to the move and the next year, the Eagles used that snub as fuel to their shocking 41-39 upset, ruining the Irish’s undefeated season just a week after they beat Florida State. The No. 8 Irish lost the year after that as well, and while Notre Dame rallied to take back the momentum of the series throughout the late 90s, from 2001-2008, Boston College reeled off six consecutive wins, a streak that included the Eagles’ shocking 14-7 win over Ty Willingham’s No. 4 ranked Irish, who donned green jerseys.

With the Irish once again No. 4 and taking on a decided underdog, the Eagles will relish their role as potential spoilers as any postseason aspirations have washed away with seven Boston College losses.

‘‘I would rather knock Notre Dame out of the national championship than go to the Toilet Bowl,’’ offensive lineman Emmett Cleary said. ‘‘They’re not Alabama, but they’re a very good team. They’re winners and they’ve pulled out a lot of close games, so we’ve got our work cut out for us, for sure.’’

As Notre Dame prepares to take on Boston College for the 22nd edition of the Holy War, here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings to get your ready for the Irish versus the Eagles.

***

If you were worried about the Irish special teams, you should worry about Spiffy Evans.

There isn’t a whole lot to get excited about for Boston College fans. But in a game where the Eagles will need to win by dominating the turnover battle and making big plays on special teams, one weapon the Irish will need to watch out for is wide receiver Spiffy Evans.

The sophomore from Hollywood, Florida hasn’t been burning up the field as a wide receiver, but he’s been one of the nation’s most explosive punt returners, averaging over 31 yards a return on the season. Evans has only had seven opportunities to field returns on the season, but he’s already broken one for a touchdown, and played a major factor in both of B.C.’s wins this year, racking up over 200 yards on five returns during the two wins.

Frank Spaziani talked about getting Evans involved in the return game.

“I think we’ve done a good job on our punt return scheme, Xs and Os, and then I think Spiffy has gotten a little more confidence and he knows where we’re going,” Spaziani said. “We’re not doing much back there, and it’s a matter of seeing an opening and taking it, and we’ve gotten a couple breaks with kicks and coverage and things like that. You put it all together, and it leads you to a 31‑yard average, which has been a big plus for us.”

Opponents haven’t started to kick away from Evans yet, but it’ll be interesting to watch how Ben Turk handles his punting duties on Saturday night.

***

Stephon Tuitt will be taking dead aim at Notre Dame’s single-season sack record.

With ten sacks through nine games, Stephon Tuitt ranks fifth in the country in taking down quarterbacks. And in his breakout sophomore season, Tuitt is also taking dead aim at the Notre Dame record books. Currently, Tuitt is tied for the third-best pass-rushing season in school history, tied with Bert Berry (1996) and Mike Gann (1984) with ten. He’s just a half sack behind Victor Abiamiri’s 2006 senior season and Justin Tuck’s impressive 2003 junior campaign, when Tuck racked up 13.5 sacks and 19 tackles-for-loss.

Making Tuitt’s season all the more impressive is the fact that he’s doing this as a true sophomore. Tuitt’s numbers for underclassmen are tops in the country, with Oregon State’s Scott Crichton (9.0) and South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney (8.5) trailing Tuitt’s sack totals. All of that done from his 3-4 defensive end position, and often times sliding inside to defensive tackle in pass rush situations.

A season after tallying just two sacks in spot duty, Kelly talked about the confidence he had in his all-everything defensive end.

“We thought that he could pick up and be a better pass rusher for us this year because we were going to give him more of those opportunities to do that,” Kelly said. “So being on the field as much as he has and the kind of player he is, he’s quote unquote an inside player, but as you know, when we go to four down, we can kick him out and he can play at the end position too.”

Against a Boston College offense that’ll depend on the passing game to move the football, Tuitt will certainly get his chances to rack up some stats Saturday night.

***

If the flu couldn’t slow Louis Nix down, don’t expect the Boston College offensive line to do it either.

A week after gutting out an impressive performance after spending two nights in the infirmary, Louis Nix is back and healthy, joking with the media and preparing to take on a hefty load up front with back-up defensive tackle Kona Schwenke battling a shoulder injury. After “going into a gun fight with a pair of scissors,” Nix is back to full strength and ready to challenge an Eagles front that’s struggling with some depth after guard Ian White questionable with an ankle injury.

The Eagles offensive front isn’t one of Spaziani’s most stout, and the mediocre B.C. running game — a horrific 122nd in the country with just 75 yards a game on 2.7 yards per carry — is in for a load with Nix fired up and back to his jovial self.

Nix even jokingly explained how he planned the Irish comeback against Pitt.

“We said, Coach, we’re going to let them go up 20-6 in the fourth. We’re going to try to come back, have the fans sweating,’” Nix joked. “Told Everett, don’t do your magic until the last five minutes. He agrees, ‘Yeah. I’m gonna get the touchdown, get the two-point conversion.’ Then I hit up Cierre, told him fumble the ball. And then he let it go. Then, at the end of the game, I hit up the Pitt kicker, ‘Just go to the right a little bit.’

“I’m just kidding. It was a close one. We’re just happy we won. We just kept fighting the whole game and that’s all that matters.”

Whether it was Nix, or “Touchdown Deal With It Jesus,” a healthy defense — with Manti Te’o also recovered from his own battle with the flu — should help the Irish shut down a one-dimensional Boston College offense.

***

While the chemistry on this Irish team is certainly a key to an undefeated start, some of that groundwork was laid last season by leaders like Jonas Gray.

There is no doubt that the unity and chemistry on this Fighting Irish squad is better than the previous teams under Brian Kelly. Whether that’s a product of entering the third year of the program or strong leaders like Manti Te’o, this team has continued to win close football games thanks to mental and physical toughness that just wasn’t exhibited enough last season.

But that’s not to say it wasn’t there. While the 2011 Irish slumped to a 8-5 record as injuries and turnovers marred the season, they were lucky to have some strong leaders that laid the groundwork for the 2012 team that’s now the surprise of college football. While you’d expect the locker room to miss veteran leaders like Harrison Smith and Michael Floyd, UND.com’s Strong and True moment featuring running back Jonas Gray gives you a good idea of the culture that’s being built under Kelly and his staff.

***

***

Gray’s postgame talk after having his knee demolished against Boston College is one of those moments that help you understand what makes sports so great. That Gray was able to support his teammates when he knew his career at Notre Dame was over — not to mention any professional aspirations — goes to show you that a team like this wasn’t just formed in one offseason, but a team that evolved over time.

Addressing the team on crutches and fighting back tears, Gray cites the same Alexander Dumas quote that Manti Te’o referenced this year, comparing life to a storm. “You will bask in the sunlight one moment, be shattered on the rocks the next. What makes you a man is what you do when the storm comes.”

After spending much of the offseason and training camp rehabilitating the knee injury suffered against the Eagles last year on Senior Day, Gray is now back to practicing with the Dolphins. It’s a moment in the sunlight that’s well deserved.

***

Another Saturday, another opportunity to improve for Everett Golson.

The lights might not be as bright as they were against Oklahoma, but Saturday night is another primetime opportunity for Everett Golson to take command of this Irish offense. A week after rallying the Irish back for victory against Pitt, Golson will have another chance to play a team that’s over-matched on paper.

This time, it’ll be up to the young quarterback to bury the opponent.

For the Irish to do that, they’ll need to play better in the red zone and get a more efficient performance out of Golson. When asked about the young quarterback’s week of practice, Kelly praised the progress Golson made staying in the pocket and making the correct throws.

“The thing we really asked him to do was to get his footwork settled within the pocket,” Kelly said. “That was probably the priority from last week’s game. Get settled in the pocket. I think you can say it all you want. They have to decide to want to do it and I thought he decided this week that he was going to work on that and he made some progress.”

Golson’s inability to settle in behind center cost him a few easy reads, including one to tight end Troy Niklas that Kelly acknowledged Thursday after practice. And with a young quarterback learning as he goes, mastering the basics and adding that to his game-breaking abilities will help catapult this offense to new places.

***

There’s a chance Notre Dame could come up smelling like Roses this year.

Thanksgiving weekend might not be the only trip the Irish take to Southern California this season. While there are plenty of permutations possible as postseason bowl implications continue to sort themselves out, there’s a growing chance that Notre Dame could find itself heading to Pasadena this year, matching the Irish up with the Grand-Daddy of them all, the Rose Bowl.

The Irish have only played in one Rose Bowl, way back in 1925, but if the Irish find themselves the odd man out in the National Championship game, a date on New Year’s Day in Pasadena might be quite the consolation prize.

“There is still so much that can happen, and of course the biggest story out there is whether we would take Notre Dame, but there is a lot to play out before it starts to become a serious conversation within our group,” Rose Bowl spokeswoman Gina Chappin said Wednesday.

The Irish playing in Pasadena will likely mean Oregon makes its way to Miami, bumping the No. 1 Pac-12 team out of its traditional spot in the Rose Bowl. And if Oregon State stumbles against Stanford and Oregon, and the Irish give USC another loss, the Irish all of a sudden look mighty attractive as an at-large option, with potentially no Pac-12 team even in the BCS top 14 .

‘‘There are so many variables that go into the conversation of the matchup. It’s not a conversation we have a lot,’’ Chappin said. ‘‘We’re at a position right now where it’s too early to focus on the what-ifs.’’

Any what-if that don’t include Notre Dame (and perhaps an undefeated Irish squad) in the national championship are obviously relegated to back-up duties. But January 1 in Pasadena certainly isn’t the worst fall back in the world.

A second four-star defensive lineman, Hunter Spears, joins the Notre Dame class of 2019

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When Notre Dame got five heralded defensive line recruits on campus together in January, it turned heads. When Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston offered public optimism about the possible 2019 commitments, it raised expectations.

Notre Dame has now secured a second of those five with the Tuesday commitment of consensus four-star defensive end Hunter Spears (Sachse High School; Texas). He joins consensus four-star defensive tackle Jacob Lacey (South Warren H.S.; Bowling Green, Ky.) as the early foundation to the recruiting class, now with four prospects pledged.

“Honestly, just talking with the guys today — Jacob Lacey, Mazi Smith, Joseph Anderson, Nana Osafo-Mensah, and myself — if Notre Came can land all of us, that would be the dream d-line class for Notre Dame,” Spears told Irish Illustrated. “I could see another pass-rusher or two, also.”

The other three names Spears mentioned all joined Lacey and him on Jan. 27 at an on-campus Junior Day. All five qualify as consensus four-stars, with Smith (East Kentwood; Kentwood, Mich.) a tackle, Anderson (Siegel; Murfreesboro, Tenn.) an end, and Osafo-Mensah (Nolan Catholic; Fort Worth, Texas) a possible end/linebacker hybrid.

From left to right: Osafo-Mensah, Anderson, Elston, Smith, Lacey and Spears. (Twitter: @JacobLacey6)

Landing all five may be ambitious, but it would also be the envy of most of the country.

Spears already held offers from the likes of Alabama and Michigan State, despite missing his junior season with a knee injury. The Irish extended a scholarship offer to him in June, prompting an unofficial visit to watch a 49-14 Notre Dame victory over USC in October. In a video released by 247Sports.com, Spears cited that experience as one of the three primary reasons he committed, along with the educational opportunity and the “overall tradition and culture.”

Spears shows quickness for a defensive lineman, but not such that he would ever be considered an outside linebacker in any form. His size makes him an ideal candidate to set the edge against the run or possibly move inside when the Irish need a quicker defensive line to handle certain opponents. His agility, though, will make him a three-down threat, both a pass-rusher and an edge-setter.

Notre Dame currently has depth at defensive end, but with only one signed in the class of 2018 (Justin Ademilola) and one remaining from the class of 2017 (Kofi Wardlow), an influx will be a priority this recruiting cycle. Spears will theoretically have one season to adjust to collegiate competition before the quartet of rising juniors Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem, Julian Okwara and Ade Ogundeji run out of eligibility. (The first three have two seasons remaining, while Ogundeji has the possibility of three more years.)

Hence, that Junior Day emphasis and Elston’s confidence on National Signing Day.

“I’ve been at Notre Dame now going on for nine years, and I haven’t had a stronger group of underclassmen that I’m recruiting than I have this year in 2019,” Elston said. “This could be the best defensive line haul we’ve ever had here.”

Expect to read that quote again and again (and possibly again) if any of the remaining three in the above photo follow Spears’ and Lacey’s lead.

RELATED READING: ‘Accelerated’ start creates bright outlook for Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting cycle

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are

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Notre Dame will open spring practice in about two weeks. As always, the proceedings will be filled with positive reviews, optimistic outlooks, and an injury or two.

A quick look at each position group should lend a better understanding to those perspectives and effects, beginning with the group lacking many questions — the running backs. The biggest reason there is relative certainty around the running backs is there are just so few of them following the winter dismissals of rising junior Deon McIntosh and rising sophomore C.J. Holmes.

Spring Roster:
Rising senior Dexter Williams (pictured above)
Rising junior Tony Jones
Early-enrolled freshman Jahmir Smith
Rising junior Mick Assaf

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman C’Bo Flemister

No one received more praise last spring practice than Tony Jones. He had a successful 2017, but compared to that hype, it could have been considered under-performing. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
At some point, either Williams or Jones will be named the Irish starter. It is quite possible that will be a distinction without much difference, as the two could certainly complement each other well in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s system, which already prefers to use multiple running backs.

Human nature, though, dictates is more likely one back receives a majority of the carries.

Biggest Question:
If Williams lines up with the No. 1 offensive unit in the Blue-Gold Game (April 21) to conclude spring practice, that will be the first genuine and tangible evidence he has improved as a pass blocker. Despite his big-play speed and seeming-ease breaking tackles, Williams’ one-dimensional game rendered him as much a liability as an asset in 2017.

Even in the Citrus Bowl victory, Williams followed up back-to-back rushes for a combined 36 yards with a blown pass protection resulting in a 13-yard sack.

“You have to be able to protect the quarterback with all positions,” Long said Feb. 7. “That dictates a whole lot if you’re going to play a lot or just be a situational guy. It’s something you have to embrace, the physicality.

“… That’s really the main thing, other than protecting the ball, that’ll keep a back off the field in our offense.”

The best ability is availability, and both an ankle injury and a balky quad limited Williams in that respect in 2017. Little blame can be cast for the natural bruises of football. Nonetheless, he will need to “embrace the physicality” if he wants to become more than a situational back.

Otherwise, Jones will be the default option. He has already shown a knack for both pass blocking and catching, making him a three-down option. Notre Dame will always prefer that rather than tip its hand to a running play every time Williams enters the game.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Obviously, Josh Adams carried the burden in the running game last season. Behind rising senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush and McIntosh, Williams was only the No. 4 rusher on the roster in yards and touchdowns, while Jones was No. 4 in carries and No. 5 in yards and scores.

Williams: 360 yards on 39 carries, a 9.2 average, with four touchdowns. Two catches for 13 yards and one score.
Jones: 232 yards on 44 carries, a 5.3 average, with three touchdowns. Six catches for 12 yards.
Notre Dame gets the letter: Jahmir Smith
Notre Dame gets the letter: C’Bo Flemister

Monday’s Leftovers: Geography, as much as academics, caps Notre Dame’s recruiting possibilites

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A year ago, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly acknowledged a practical ceiling on Irish recruiting efforts.

“Since I’ve been here, if you look at the average rankings, we’re anywhere from 5 to 15,” Kelly said on 2017’s National Signing Day, a day on which Notre Dame secured the No. 13 class in the country, per rivals.com. “We’re going to fall somewhere in that range because there’s a line there we can’t get over based upon what our distinctions are here. That line is going to keep us between 5 and 15.

“We know where we’re going to fall. We’re going to continue to recruit the right kind of kids here.”

Sure enough, the Irish once again fall into that spectrum in 2018, finishing No. 11 per rivals. Though Notre Dame has risen above that range once (No. 3 in 2013) and fallen below it once (No. 20 in 2012) during Kelly’s tenure, his overall analysis remains accurate.

The instinct has always been to cite University academic standards as the greatest hurdle to rising into the top five consistently, but another aspect should not be overlooked. In a recent mailbag, Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples pondered the factors keeping the Irish from becoming a perennial 10-win team.

“Another major reason is a lack of a local recruiting base,” Staples wrote. “No program has a stronger national reach than Notre Dame, but that still doesn’t make recruiting nationally easy. It’s much easier to have hundreds of quality prospects within driving distances.”

That dynamic is a part of why the Irish are better positioned to reap rewards from high school juniors now being able to take official visits in April, May and June. Those time periods are less hectic for most high schoolers, so a long-distance trip may fit into the calendar with a bit less stress. Obviously, only time will tell the true impact of that new change.

Looking at both this past year’s recruiting rankings and the last nine years of rankings underscores and supports Staples’ point.

Rivals considered 33 prospects to be five-star recruits in 2018. Only seven schools managed to sign multiple such players: Georgia (8), Clemson (6), USC (5), Alabama (3), Ohio State (3), Penn State (2), and Miami (2). To speak more broadly, four schools in the Deep South, two in the Ohio-Pennsylvania corridor and one in California, all talent-rich areas, especially compared to Indiana, Illinois and Michigan.

If combining the total signees of both four- and five-star rankings by rivals, Notre Dame signed 12 such prospects. Only 11 schools signed more, including six of the above seven. (Clemson equaled the Irish haul, though its even split between four- and five-star recruits stands out compared to Notre Dame’s 12 four-stars.) The additional five: Oklahoma, Texas, Florida State, Auburn and Florida. In other words, two schools tapping into Texas, two schools within Florida and one more in the Deep South.

If looking at the last nine years of recruiting, the span of Kelly’s time in South Bend, only eight programs have consistently out-recruited the Irish, all but one mentioned already. LSU finished with the No. 13 recruiting class in 2018, lowering its nine-year average placement to 8.0. The Tigers are one of five SEC teams in that group of eight, joining Florida State, Ohio State and USC.

Sense a theme?

It will always be hard enough for Notre Dame to find high-caliber players likely to succeed at a strong academic institution in the Midwest. That task is even harder knowing how far away those players typically are to start with.

Other programs face a similar challenge, and few handle it as well. Consider the 2018 recruiting classes of Stanford, Michigan and Michigan State, for familiar context.

Stanford finished with 4 four-stars in rivals’ No. 63 class. The Wolverines pulled in 7 four-stars as part of the No. 24 class, while the Spartans signed 5 four-stars in the No. 26 grouping.

The Blue-Chip Ratio
Finishing within Kelly’s range has not stopped Notre Dame from consistently having one of the most-talented rosters in the country. If abiding by rivals rankings for consistency, 45 of the 89 players currently on the Irish roster (including incoming freshmen) were four- or five-star recruits.

A commonly-cited metric of a roster’s talent is the so-called “Blue-Chip Ratio.” Essentially, a national championship caliber team will have at least 50 percent of its roster consisting of former four- or five-star prospects. Entering 2017, Notre Dame was one of only 10 such teams in the country.

As should be expected, the other nine included six programs from the Deep South, Ohio State, USC and, as an ode to Jim Harbaugh’s early recruiting successes, Michigan.

A Presidents Day Reminder
Notre Dame cannot officially claim any POTUS as an alum, but both Josiah Bartlet and James Marshall would like to argue otherwise.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Notre Dame’s pending attrition actually intended to improve the roster
NCAA denies Notre Dame’s appeal, vacating 21 wins, including 12-0 in 2012
Notre Dame is right: The NCAA’s terrible precedent matters, but vacating wins does not
‘Accelerated’ start creates bright outlook for Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting cycle
Notre Dame’s successful early signing period now begets early visit questions

OUTSIDE READING:
NCAA appeals committee upholds vacation of Notre Dame wins
A letter from the President on the NCAA Infractions Case
Irish set high expectations for Jurkovec
Elston ‘recruits’ Tillery, Bonner for one last ride
Giants release defensive end Ishaq Williams with a failed physical designation
Re-ranking the longest FBS coaching tenures from 1-to-230
Hip injury to keep Stanford QB K.J. Costello sidelined for much of spring drills

Notre Dame’s successful early signing period now begets early visit questions

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Notre Dame used the first early signing period to its advantage, but in many respects, succeeding in that initial foray was by default. The Irish already had strong relationships with the recruiting class of 2018 when the NCAA finally agreed upon setting a 72-hour window for December. No other recruiting changes went into effect in the cycle, so the only shift was getting the paperwork ready and the grades verified six weeks earlier than usual.

“When you are presented with a new rule that gives you — go ahead, sign them early — and you’ve done all that work, that’s kind of a lay-up,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said on National Signing Day, Feb. 7. “The real work now begins with the early visits.”

A bit before finally nailing down the December early signing period, the NCAA also approved official visits for high school juniors in April, May and June. Previously, a recruit could not take an official visit until September of his senior year in high school.

For a program with a national reach in recruiting — pulling in multiple prospects from both coasts in the cycle of 2018, for example — it can be difficult to get a player to visit for a home game amidst his own football season. When it is possible, it is often a rushed trip. The recruit plays a high school game Friday night, flies to South Bend, possibly via Chicago, early Saturday morning and then departs mid-day Sunday to get back home in time for the school week.

Notre Dame can now instead slate that official visit for the summer, perhaps around a camp environment or the Blue-Gold Game (April 21).

In years to come, this expedited timing could have a greater effect on recruiting than the early signing period does.

“How we handle the back end of it, the back end being when are those visits going to start, when do you start them, when do you end them,” Kelly said, “That’s really what we’re trying to figure out at this point relative to tweaking and how that’s going to work.”

Theoretically, earlier visits could lead to earlier commitments, increasing the likelihood of more signings in December than in February, further de-emphasizing the traditional National Signing Day.

Amid all those changes, though, recruits are still allowed only five official visits and only one to each school. Of course, a recruit can make multiple unofficial visits, paying for those out of his and his family’s own pocket, but Notre Dame can pay for only one. As much as getting a recruit on campus earlier in the process should bode well for any program, it becomes a double-edged sword: Is it better to get a player on campus early and make that impression before other schools have the opportunity, or is it better to showcase a primetime game against a rival?

Irish recruiting coordinator Brian Polian suggested allowing two official visits per school, although remaining at only five total, on National Signing Day.

“Why not let a young man make two official visits to one institution? Because if somebody says to us, from far distance, I want to come make a visit to your place in the spring, well, ideally you want them to see a game atmosphere, as well,” Polian said. “There’s nothing like Notre Dame Stadium and this campus on a game weekend.

“Now we’re going to have to get into some strategic decisions about when do we want young men to take visits.”

Perhaps in time the NCAA will consider that adjustment, but it will not be for the cycle of 2019.

While when a player visits may impact the recruitment, Polian does not much care about when they commit, as long as they do. Notre Dame signed five prospects on National Signing Day who had not previously committed publicly, making it appear to be a strong finish to the class. Then again, the Irish also signed 21 players in the early signing period and received a 22nd commitment less than a week afterward.

“If you’ve got a really good class and they’ve been committed for a while, who cares when they said yes?” Polian said. “It’s as though the answers that you get at the end dictate your class.”