Why I’m Thankful: Notre Dame and its magical season

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Thanksgiving Day. A time for the Macy’s parade, a day of football, too much turkey, and corny columns from writers everywhere. But in the midst of a historic season, some stories absolutely have to be written, even with family, football, and food waiting.

As the Irish gather at their coaches’ homes for holiday meals before taking off for Los Angeles tomorrow, it’s amazing to look back on the year that got us here, and the team we’ve all spent the last twelve weeks obsessing over.

So here’s why I’m thankful.

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I’m thankful that Notre Dame has proven that a team can compete for a national championship and graduate nearly all of its players. For the first time ever, the same school with the highest football player graduation rate is No. 1 in the BCS rankings. And while it’s no certainty that the Irish will win their next two football games, hopefully this shatters any illusions that winning on the field and graduating almost all your players has to be mutually exclusive.

If there’s a story that can’t be overblown more, this is certainly it. As it had been envisioned by Father Theodore Hesburgh years ago, Notre Dame always wanted to fulfill two missions: deliver a quality academic experience and compete at an elite level in football. After years of watching the SEC teams dominate the trophy case yet let a large portion of their student-athletes leave school without a degree, having Notre Dame, a flagship program in college football, remind schools it is possible to achieve greatness on the field and in the classroom is the most important lesson of any that’ll come out of college football season this year.

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I’m thankful for Brian Kelly. After watching four head coaches get chewed up and spit out by the pressure cooker that is Notre Dame, Kelly had the moxie to tune out the noise and follow his plan. Along with athletic director Jack Swarbrick, the Irish head coach tore the football team down to its studs, a gut job of a program that had been building on top of a faulty foundation for over 15 years.

There were dark times for this football team. Think back to the panic that ensued when Aaron Lynch left the football program against his family’s wishes and Louis Nix looked close to going home, too. And while even the most ardent believers saw this team’s chances go down the drain when the Irish lost what was believed to be their most important defender on the roster, Kelly was steadfast in his belief that the defensive would be just fine.

Of course, it turned out to be more than just fine, perhaps the most dominant unit the Irish have trotted out in at least a quarter century. And Kelly’s belief in himself — his double-down on what made him a great head coach to begin with — transformed this team in an offseason where questions at quarterback, the graduation of the team’s best offensive and defensive player, and the toughest preseason schedule in the country all had even the most faithful fans clutching rosary beads.

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I’m thankful for a team filled with personalities. Iconic leaders like Manti Te’o, a Hawaiian warrior that isn’t afraid to tell his teammates that he loves them, words that don’t always flow from the mouths of 21-year-olds. Veterans like Kapron Lewis-Moore, a defensive cog that may have been recruited by the previous regime, but bought into Kelly’s program after many friends and teammates felt like leftovers. For Louis Nix, a gentle soul with a wonderful sense of humor, who picked Notre Dame without knowing who his head coach would be, and has turned into one of the finest nose tackles in the country. For Tyler Eifert, Braxston Cave, and Zack Martin, three Indiana boys who may not be the most quotable, but anchor an old-school, Midwestern toughness that this team embodies.

For Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick, two best friends pushing each other to be great while fighting for carries in the backfield. For Bennett Jackson and KeiVarae Russell, who have played cornerback like time-tested veterans, not converted offensive prospects. For Everett Golson and Tommy Rees, two quarterbacks that have co-existed and pushed each other, working towards a common goal instead of fanning the flames of a potential quarterback controversy.

From Trick Shot Monday to the unmitigated joy that comes with singing the fight song after a victory, the small peeks behind the scenes of this team show a group that’s bonded into one, a trait that’s common among championship contenders. At a school where you’re never as good as its touted or as bad as its trashed, this team has kept its head down, marched to the drum of its leaders, and focused on the task at hand for eleven important Saturdays.

***

No school is perfect. And while many people bristle at the thought of Notre Dame’s singularity, there’s no reason to argue about the unique place Notre Dame holds in the world of college sports. It has withstood the recent years of punching bag status, picked itself up from the mat after timeless embarrassing losses on the game’s biggest stage, and continued to plow ahead even when its been far more fashionable to bash than revere. And now, one game from the sport’s pinnacle, a season nobody saw coming is close to being frozen in immortality.

The facts are nearly indisputable. When Notre Dame is back, the entire college football world thrives. Whether it’s top television ratings, countless hours of debate, or just echoes awakened, after almost four seasons of writing daily about a football team that felt so far from the top of the mountain, I’m thankful that I get paid to cover this football team, in truth, a group I’d probably be obsessing about anyway. Every season is a grind for writers, and after three grueling years, this one has been a breeze, and a journey I hope we all enjoyed taking together.

I’m thankful that Notre Dame’s most heralded rival stands in the way of its date with destiny. You wouldn’t want it any other way, and the entire college football world will be watching.

And I’m thankful after nearly twenty years, that the final Saturday of November finally means something.

Friday at 4: Trust The Process

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When Irish coach Brian Kelly previewed this past spring’s 15 practices, he said it eight different times. It was one of his seeming-clichés so relied upon, this scribe poked fun via everyone’s least favorite social medium.

Following the Blue-Gold Game, Kelly said it eight times again. The day before, defensive coordinator Mike Elko used the buzzword four times.

Following the spring finale, junior running back Dexter Williams said it twice. Junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush brought it up, as did sophomore quarterback Ian Book and senior safety and captain Drue Tranquill.

Process.
Process, process, process.

It was sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes, though, who phrased his sentence such that any self-respecting Sam Hinkie defender should have noticed. I own a politically-themed “I’m with Hinkie” notebook. I consider myself a Hinkie apologist, but I noted Hayes’ syntax with little more than a chuckle.

“I just think obviously with last year being the year that we had, there was definitely a yearning for change,” Hayes said. “When you have basically a reboot of the program, the guys are hungry and they don’t want to have to experience the same season as last year. Just continue to trust in that process. We’re hungry for something to cling on and buy into.”

Hayes’ version is not as succinct as the NBA lifestyle the former Philadelphia 76ers general manager figuratively died for, but it certainly gets across Hayes’ point. If still missing the message, the backs of the shirts Notre Dame is apparently wearing in summer workouts makes the statement clear.

Trust The Process.
TTP for those in the know.

For those unfamiliar with the backstory, a quick 160-character summary: The 76ers were bad. Hinkie intentionally made them worse to stockpile young talent. Three terrible years followed. The 76ers are now on the verge of being good.

Obviously there is more to the story. It involves a Cameroonian, a Croatian and an Australian. In his 13-page resignation manifesto, Hinkie cited the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Warren Buffet and Elon Musk. The 76ers looming success will come, in part, thanks to the mistakes made by those in Chicago, Indianapolis and, before long, Cleveland.

One reading of Notre Dame’s shirts could be, 2016 was the equivalent of those three years plummeting to the NBA lottery. One reading could be, the process took — will take — years, though obviously college football’s system of rebuilding greatly defers from the NBA’s. (Just take a look at the slow but steady improvement of Miami [Ohio] under the leadership of former Irish assistant Chuck Martin.)

The most logical and likely the most accurate reading of that workout attire would be to take the phrasing at face value. There is no harm in reminding the players July’s work effects November’s fourth quarters. (more…)

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 10 Chris Finke, receiver

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Listed Measurements: 5-foot-9 ½, 177 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Junior with three seasons of eligibility remaining including the 2017 season.
Depth chart: Notre Dame’s receiver corps presents a litany of options. Finke competes with junior C.J. Sanders to be the first chosen of the quick-footed, shifty grouping. With that designation, it seems most likely Finke’s time will come at the slot, or Z, position if the Irish opt for a more traditional approach than the size and physicality of sophomore Chase Claypool.
Recruiting: A former walk-on, Finke shined so much in practice he earned a scholarship before his sophomore season.

CAREER TO DATE
After earning his scholarship, Finke made an impact in the Notre Dame passing game last season, highlighted by his four catches for 53 yards and a touchdown in the finale at USC. It marked the second-consecutive game Finke found the end zone.

2016: 10 games, 10 catches for 122 yards and two touchdowns.

Nine punt returns for 70 yards. Five kick returns for 85 yards.

QUOTE(S)
Compared to the plausible and sizable starting receiver trio of juniors Equanimeous St. Brown and Miles Boykin and the aforementioned Claypool, Finke and Sanders come across as near-anomalies.

“[Sanders] and Finke would be certainly the exception to the rule of the receivers we have,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said at the end of March. “But they have a place in our offense, and they’ll be used accordingly. The offensive structure is such that we can use those guys. They have a place, they can be effective players, and they will be used accordingly.”

2017 OUTLOOK
Finke will almost certainly exceed last year’s numbers, but the question will be when and where. Notre Dame is not wanting at receiver, and that assuredness is not even factoring in the number of skilled tight ends available, as well. Finding a role in the rotation for all those capable, including Finke, will be a unique balancing act.

At first glance, Finke’s 2016 paled compared to Sanders’. The latter racked up 24 catches for 293 yards and two touchdowns, but those scores came in the season’s first two games and the vast majority of the yards came within the first month. In the final seven games, Sanders made only seven catches for a total of a mere 39 yards. Across that same timespan, Finke caught eight passes for 103 yards and two scores.

Nothing in spring indicated Finke had yielded that second-half momentum surge. With it, he should be ready to contribute at either the slot or the field receiver positions whenever Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long wants to downsize his target.

DOWN THE ROAD
Finke’s ability to work his way through Notre Dame’s receiver depth is impressive, but it may not be enough to get him four full years of action. Following the 2018 season, both he and the Irish coaches could have a decision to make. Does he want to continue his football career for one more year, knowing the NFL doesn’t often come calling for physiques the NBA would deem too small? Does Notre Dame want to devote a scholarship to a good, but not great, contributor when it will certainly have other options at receiver?

That will be a question for then, though. For now, Finke is in the rotation and will remain there in 2018, as well.


2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
No. 95: Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 92)
No. 94: Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 95)
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92: Jonathon MacCollister; defensive end (originally theorized as No. 46)
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end
No. 88: Javon McKinley, receiver
No. 87: Michael Young, receiver (originally theorized as No. 84)
No. 86: Alizé Mack, tight end
No. 85: Tyler Newsome, punter
No. 84: Cole Kmet, tight end (originally theorized as No. 90)
No. 83: Chase Claypool, receiver
No. 82: Nic Weishar, tight end
No. 81: Miles Boykin, receiver
No. 80: Durham Smythe, tight end
No. 78: Tommy Kraemer, right tackle
No. 77: Brandon Tiassum, defensive tackle
No. 76: Dillan Gibbons, offensive lineman (originally theorized as No. 65)
No. 75: Josh Lugg, offensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 73)
No. 75: Daniel Cage, defensive tackle
No. 74: Liam Eichenberg, right tackle
No. 72: Robert Hainsey, offensive tackle
No. 71: Alex Bars, offensive lineman
No. 70: Hunter Bivin, offensive lineman
No. 69: Aaron Banks, offensive lineman
No. 68: Mike McGlinchey, left tackle
No. 67: Jimmy Byrne, offensive lineman
No. 58: Elijah Taylor, defensive tackle
No. 57: Trevor Ruhland, offensive lineman
No. 56: Quenton Nelson, left guard
No. 55: Jonathan Bonner, defensive lineman
No. 54: John Shannon, long snapper
No. 53: Sam Mustipher, center
No. 53: Khalid Kareem, defensive lineman
No. 48: Greer Martini, inside linebacker
No. 47: Kofi Wardlow, defensive end
No. 45: Jonathan Jones, inside linebacker
No. 44: Jamir Jones, linebacker/defensive lineman
No. 42: Julian Okwara, defensive end
No. 41: Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 94)
No. 40: Drew White, linebacker
No. 39: Jonathan Doerer, kicker (originally theorized as No. 52)
No. 38: Deon McIntosh, running back/receiver
No. 35: David Adams, linebacker
No. 34: Tony Jones, Jr., running back
No. 33: Josh Adams, running back
No. 32: D.J. Morgan, safety
No. 30: Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, rover
No. 29: Kevin Stepherson, receiver
No. 28: Nicco Fertitta, safety
No. 27: Julian Love, cornerback
No. 26: Ashton White, safety
No. 25: Jafar Armstrong, receiver (originally theorized as No. 87)
No. 24: Nick Coleman, safety
No. 23: Drue Tranquill, rover
No. 22: Asmar Bilal, rover
No. 21: Jalen Elliott, safety
No. 19: Justin Yoon, kicker
No. 18: Troy Pride, cornerback
No. 17: Isaiah Robertson, safety
No. 16: Cameron Smith, receiver
No. 15: C.J. Holmes, running back
No. 14: Devin Studstill, safety
No. 13: Avery Davis, quarterback
No. 13: Jordan Genmark Heath, safety
No. 12: Ian Book, quarterback
No. 12: Alohi Gilman, safety
No. 11: Freddy Canteen, receiver

TRANSFERS
No. 66: Tristen Hoge, offensive lineman, transfers to BYU
No. 50: Parker Boudreaux, offensive lineman
No. 30: Josh Barajas, linebacker, to transfer to Illinois State

INJURIES
No. 13: Tyler Luatua, tight end, career ended by medical hardship

Report: Daniel Cage to miss 2017, career in question due to medical issues

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The two positions at which Notre Dame most lacks depth and experience are safety and defensive tackle. Fittingly, the morning after junior safety Ashton White announced he is leaving the Irish football team, a report indicates senior defensive tackle Daniel Cage will miss the 2017 season, as well.

Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson reported Cage intends to spend this season focusing on getting healthy before he decides if he will continue playing football at all. A concussion ended Cage’s season last year and Cage’s mother said the effects of that concussion continue to linger. Additionally, Cage underwent knee surgery this summer.

“He loves football,” Bionne Cage told Sampson. “First and foremost, his health has to be OK. If he can get that straightened out, he can continue playing.”

Cage has suffered three concussions over his Irish career, plus knee and ankle ailments. While the joint issues are obviously a concern for a 320-plus pound individual, the concussion symptoms will be the bigger impediment to Cage finishing his career.

He has appeared in 30 games over three years, making a total of 32 tackles with five tackles for loss. The senior has one year of eligibility remaining.

Without Cage, Notre Dame will need to rely on a litany of unproven commodities in the defensive line interior. Junior Jerry Tillery will lead the way, and senior Jonathan Bonner has shown the ability to hold his own, despite moving to tackle only a year ago.

After that starting duo, though, questions arise. Junior Elijah Taylor suffered a LisFranc injury during spring practice, and the recovery from that can be inherently touch-and-go. Juniors Brandon Tiassum and Micah Dew-Treadway have never appeared in a collegiate game while senior Pete Mokwuah has seen action in six games, making one total tackle.

Suffice it to say, the chance is there for freshmen Darnell Ewell, Kurt Hinish and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa to earn playing time at the outset of their careers. (more…)

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 11 Freddy Canteen, receiver

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-1, 185 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Senior graduate transfer from Michigan with two years of eligibility remaining including the 2017 season.
Depth chart: A la the depth chart speculating regarding fellow graduate transfer Cameron Smith, predicting Canteen’s standing among the receivers is difficult considering he has a short window to make an impact but has yet to practice so much as once in front of the Irish coaches. In theory, Canteen will join the ranks as a slot receiver, otherwise known as the Z, battling junior C.J. Sanders and perhaps Smith for the right to back up sophomore Chase Claypool. If Notre Dame opts for a more traditional inside route runner than the 6-foot-4 Claypool, that top backup would obviously be given first crack at that chance.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star prospect, Canteen chose Michigan over offers from Maryland and Tennessee, among others, back in 2014. The No. 47 receiver in the class, per rivals.com, and No. 9 recruit in Maryland, Canteen enrolled early in Ann Arbor.

CAREER TO DATE
Canteen’s speed got him on the field as a freshman, seeing action in 10 games. With a coaching change from Brady Hoke to Jim Harbaugh, his playing time was already decreasing in 2015 before a shoulder injury ended his season early. Last year, Canteen may or may not have been healthy enough to play, but either way he spent the season on the sidelines preserving a year of eligibility.

2014: 10 games, two starts, five receptions for 22 yards and one touchdown.
2015: Five games, one start, one reception for no gain.

QUOTE(S)
Canteen announced his transfer decision less than two weeks after 2017’s National Signing Day. Shortly after that day spent praising incoming freshmen, Irish coach Brian Kelly suggested an incoming transfer was imminent, presumably expecting the addition of Canteen. Once as much was official, Kelly was able to praise the receiver’s speed much as he heralded the high school seniors Feb. 1.

“Freddy will bring some speed and athleticism to our wide receiver group,” Kelly said in a release. “We’re excited to get him on campus with our coaching staff and players in preparation for the 2017 season. Freddy is a committed, focused and determined individual, both on and off the field, and our receivers and offense will benefit greatly from his addition.”

WHAT WE WROTE UPON THE TRANSFER ANNOUNCEMENT
Canteen will bolster depth at a position headlined by juniors Equanimeous St. Brown and C.J. Sanders. Though Canteen would not likely project in St. Brown’s place, he could possibly challenge Sanders in the slot or sophomores Kevin Stepherson and Javon McKinley out wide.

“He could also, theoretically, flip to defense where Notre Dame needs help at defensive back. At 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds, Canteen’s skill set could translate to the position without much lapse.”

2017 OUTLOOK
It remains possible Canteen spends more time with the Irish defense than the offense, but it seems unlikely. One doesn’t transfer only to switch to a less-preferred position. Rather, Canteen is likely confident his speed and precise route running can set him apart from other Notre Dame pass-catchers.

If that is the case, he should fit right into Kelly’s long-standing preference to have a deep threat available to take the top off the secondary. (Think of former Irish receiver Chris Brown’s role, even if he wasn’t frequently targeted.) Stepherson or Smith could also offer that top-end speed, but Canteen’s acceleration in the first 10 yards should set him apart.

That particular skill will also likely be seen on special teams. Special teams coordinator Brian Polian has hoped for more options on his coverage and return units. Canteen was not around the team in the spring to aid in that regard — he only graduated from Michigan in April, despite the February transfer announcement — but this fall could earn some notice by shining on Polian’s coverage units.

DOWN THE ROAD
Canteen is not the typical graduate transfer. He joins the Irish with two years of eligibility remaining. Nonetheless, handing him a scholarship is a low-risk, high-reward situation for Notre Dame. If he does not pan out, the scholarship was not going to be used in 2017 anyway, so at most one year of one scholarship is frivoled away in 2018. If he does, however, find a role in the Irish offense, suddenly a weapon was added late in the process.

Notre Dame’s receivers are a young group, both in experience and in eligibility. Any playing time Canteen finds will be hard-earned, but that was clear to all parties before he made his February decision.


2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
No. 95: Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 92)
No. 94: Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 95)
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92: Jonathon MacCollister; defensive end (originally theorized as No. 46)
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end
No. 88: Javon McKinley, receiver
No. 87: Michael Young, receiver (originally theorized as No. 84)
No. 86: Alizé Mack, tight end
No. 85: Tyler Newsome, punter
No. 84: Cole Kmet, tight end (originally theorized as No. 90)
No. 83: Chase Claypool, receiver
No. 82: Nic Weishar, tight end
No. 81: Miles Boykin, receiver
No. 80: Durham Smythe, tight end
No. 78: Tommy Kraemer, right tackle
No. 77: Brandon Tiassum, defensive tackle
No. 76: Dillan Gibbons, offensive lineman (originally theorized as No. 65)
No. 75: Josh Lugg, offensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 73)
No. 75: Daniel Cage, defensive tackle
No. 74: Liam Eichenberg, right tackle
No. 72: Robert Hainsey, offensive tackle
No. 71: Alex Bars, offensive lineman
No. 70: Hunter Bivin, offensive lineman
No. 69: Aaron Banks, offensive lineman
No. 68: Mike McGlinchey, left tackle
No. 67: Jimmy Byrne, offensive lineman
No. 58: Elijah Taylor, defensive tackle
No. 57: Trevor Ruhland, offensive lineman
No. 56: Quenton Nelson, left guard
No. 55: Jonathan Bonner, defensive lineman
No. 54: John Shannon, long snapper
No. 53: Sam Mustipher, center
No. 53: Khalid Kareem, defensive lineman
No. 48: Greer Martini, inside linebacker
No. 47: Kofi Wardlow, defensive end
No. 45: Jonathan Jones, inside linebacker
No. 44: Jamir Jones, linebacker/defensive lineman
No. 42: Julian Okwara, defensive end
No. 41: Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 94)
No. 40: Drew White, linebacker
No. 39: Jonathan Doerer, kicker (originally theorized as No. 52)
No. 38: Deon McIntosh, running back/receiver
No. 35: David Adams, linebacker
No. 34: Tony Jones, Jr., running back
No. 33: Josh Adams, running back
No. 32: D.J. Morgan, safety
No. 30: Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, rover
No. 29: Kevin Stepherson, receiver
No. 28: Nicco Fertitta, safety
No. 27: Julian Love, cornerback
No. 26: Ashton White, safety
No. 25: Jafar Armstrong, receiver (originally theorized as No. 87)
No. 24: Nick Coleman, safety
No. 23: Drue Tranquill, rover
No. 22: Asmar Bilal, rover
No. 21: Jalen Elliott, safety
No. 19: Justin Yoon, kicker
No. 18: Troy Pride, cornerback
No. 17: Isaiah Robertson, safety
No. 16: Cameron Smith, receiver
No. 15: C.J. Holmes, running back
No. 14: Devin Studstill, safety
No. 13: Avery Davis, quarterback
No. 13: Jordan Genmark Heath, safety
No. 12: Ian Book, quarterback
No. 12: Alohi Gilman, safety

TRANSFERS
No. 66: Tristen Hoge, offensive lineman, transfers to BYU
No. 50: Parker Boudreaux, offensive lineman
No. 30: Josh Barajas, linebacker, to transfer to Illinois State

INJURIES
No. 13: Tyler Luatua, tight end, career ended by medical hardship