The road to 12-0: Purdue

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The second in a series that will look back at Notre Dame’s undefeated 12-0 regular season. For more, read about the Navy game.

With Notre Dame’s impressive 50-10 victory, the Irish jumped into the polls, checking in at No. 22 as they returned home from Dublin to play Purdue. After watching Everett Golson look comfortable at quarterback, and the Irish defense look impressive shutting down Navy’s potent option attack, optimism was abound.

Back on September 7th, here’s how I described the temperature surrounding this team:

No doubt, expectations have been raised thanks to the Irish’s convincing victory over Navy. But one win is a data point. Two would make a trend. And over the past few years, the trend has never been a good one for Notre Dame.

Let’s take a closer look at the Irish’s home opener, a closer-than-you’d-like 20-17 victory over Purdue.

STATUS CHECK

A week after most Irish fans fawned over Notre Dame’s offensive line, the group was knocked back to reality against a stout Purdue front and a blitzing attack that regularly stuffed the line of scrimmage. Without Cierre Wood for a second consecutive game, Theo Riddick carried the load, but the senior only managed 53 yards on 15 carries, and the Irish ground game was held to just 1.4 yards an attempt on the afternoon. Mike Golic was routinely beat by Kawann Short. Even Zack Martin was flagged for three penalties. The Boilermakers racked up five sacks and eight tackles-for-loss as new defensive coordinator Tim Tibesar threw a lot at Everett Golson and the Irish offense.

Golson’s afternoon was also an up-and-down proposition. His passing numbers were excellent. Completing 21 of 31 passes for 289 yards and a touchdown, it was one of the most prolific games of the season for the young quarterback. But as the team lost Tyler Eifert with what looked like a concussion and Davaris Daniels with an ankle injury, Golson struggled to move the offense with the team’s second unit, and in the fourth quarter, he took a back-breaking sack before carelessly turning the ball over deep in Irish territory that led to Purdue’s game tying touchdown.

With just over two minutes left in the game and no timeouts left, Kelly took the ball away from Golson and brought in Tommy Rees, a decision that was met by a cascade of boos heard loudly across Notre Dame Stadium. With only TJ Jones and Riddick remaining from the team’s No. 1 offense, Rees took the Irish down the field, converting clutch third down conversions to John Goodman and Robby Toma, as Theo Riddick ground out a key run before Kyle Brindza kicked the game winning field goal with 27 seconds left.

No doubt, the win felt good. But it supplied a whole lot more questions than answers.

PRESSING QUESTIONS

Even before entering the interview room, Kelly tried to diffuse any quarterback controversy, telling NBC’s Alex Flanagan after the game, “There is no quarterback controversy. Everett Golson is our starter. He will start against Michigan State.”

Nonetheless, let’s bullet point some issues:

Was Kelly creating a quarterback controversy again?

Even with Kelly’s on-air proclamation, it didn’t stop the media from asking about the quarterback situation, and Kelly said that Golson had injured his hand on the series beforehand, making it difficult for him to grip the ball.

Whether you believed that or not, that Kelly turned to Rees when the game was on the line puzzled just about everyone, remarkable considering Rees hadn’t taken a rep with the full offense all camp, and had only begun getting work with the first team that Tuesday.

Was this team going to be decimated by injuries?

Overshadowed by the close score was the fact that the Irish lost a ton of personnel during the game. While Irish fans were frustrated with the outcome, Kelly was able to turn the victory into a teachable moment, a bedrock opportunity for one of his teaching philosophies.

“The story for me as the head coach is our mantra: Next Man In,” Kelly said. “We had seven guys go down today. Our key players. We had two captains go down. A leader in the secondary in Jamoris Slaughter. Our guys kept fighting. The next guy came in and battled.”

The injuries all turned out to be rather benign, but the early playing time for guys like Matthias Farley, Elijah Shumate, Nicky Baratti, and Tony Springmann was critical.

What could we expect out of the Irish offensive line?

Harry Hiestand’s group took a fairly precipitous drop when they faced a Big Ten defensive front. While Kelly talked about the schematic looks Purdue used to limit the Irish running attack, it was probably the worst game of the year for the Irish up front.

A few factors weighed into this that might have made things tougher on the offensive line. The Irish had no true game tape on Purdue’s defense, forced to look at 2008 Kansas State film to see what Tibesar’s defense would look like. They also were learning what life was like with a young quarterback, who struggled pre-snap with reads and contributed to the five sacks himself. Still, it was a tough afternoon for just about everyone involved, and after playing a very clean game in Dublin, the Irish took a step back with eight penalties.

Was this Notre Dame team mentally different than the others?

Irish captain Zack Martin provided one of the early data points that this football team was built differently than the rest. After gutting out a tough victory and battling back from some early struggles, Martin crystallized a belief that was widely held inside the locker room, but still not obvious to those of us watching.

“A few years before this, the game wouldn’t have gone down like this. We wouldn’t have won,” Martin said after the game. “The resilience of those guys when their number was called, it was a full team effort.”

That the Irish would pull this game off the way that they did, getting contributions from one of the team’s most maligned players — and also one of the team’s most well liked — showed this group to be different. And credit Kelly for playing a gigantic hunch, one that was so unpopular that boos echoed down and Irish centric websites nearly exploded with rage, but one that ultimately worked out perfectly.

WHAT DID WE LEARN?

Notre Dame 20, Purdue 17.

You could blame jet lag or the general malaise that mysteriously comes with playing at home, but the Irish’s victory over Purdue feels a bit like a microcosm of the season. It was never easy, but it was awfully fulfilling.

For Golson, you saw a young quarterback that did some dazzling things, yet also made some head scratching mistakes. For Theo Riddick, you saw a veteran that struggled to get much of anything going in the run game, but buoyed the team with 44 critical receiving yards, and a game-clinching 11 yard carry on the Irish’s game-winning drive. For Tommy Rees, you saw the beginnings of a revival that took the quarterback from reviled to respected.

On defense, the Irish found some consistency in the secondary, limiting the Boilermakers to under 200 yards passing and forcing two interceptions. Even without Jamoris Slaughter, who injured his shoulder early on a bone-crunching hit, Zeke Motta held down the fort, helping youngsters like Farley, Shumate and Brown find their spots. While Manti Te’o led the team in tackles with ten, we continued to watch Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt dominate, with the duo contributing 3.5 sacks between them.

Perhaps more impressive than anything that happened on the field, you watched Brian Kelly coach fearlessly. The decision to bring in Rees was one that could’ve easily backfired, yet Kelly played the hand he needed to, and his team responded.

After deciding to hit the reset button on the offense and hand the job to Golson, Kelly knew he would need to delicately balance a flammable quarterback situation and a locker room that was incredibly loyal to Rees. And while the head coach unequivocally stated that Golson was his starter, he created a very important niche for Rees.

“If we feel like Tommy can help us win a game or he can come in in a situation where we believe it’s the right fit, then he’ll be prepared to do so,” Kelly said. “I’ll use this baseball analogy: We would like our starters to finish the game. We want them to go all nine innings. But occasionally, you may need some help. Maybe you need long relief and maybe you need some short relief. I don’t want to take anything off the table.”

After the game, Kelly awarded Rees the game ball as the junior quarterback led the team singing the fight song. Rees responded in kind, playing the role of good soldier immediately after the game with NBC’s Flanagan.

“We’ve got to win this game,” Rees said on-air, before side-stepping a tough question from Flanagan about his role in the offense. “I try to be as positive of a role model as I can and help Everett out when I can. Everett played a great game today. He’s a great player and he’ll continue to get better.”

 

 

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.