Restocking: Linebackers

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It may seem like a lifetime ago, but Notre Dame’s defense faces a pretty extraordinary task: replacing one of college football’s most decorated defensive players ever. Four years after landing Manti Te’o, a rare player who surpasses the recruiting hype that comes along with a five-star tag, the Irish coaching staff found another elite talent at the position. And they didn’t have to fly to Hawaii to land him.

In Jaylon Smith, Notre Dame has one of the most impressive athletes in the country, and a potential elite linebacker to replace Te’o on the mantlepiece. A four-time state champion in high school, Smith’s No. 9 jersey was retired by Bishop Luers high school. It’s been given to Smith by All-American nose tackle Louis Nix, giving you an idea of just how respected a talent like Smith is, even before strapping on the pads.

Finding and landing talent at linebacker — both inside and out — was key in this recruiting cycle. Headlined by Smith, the Irish landing three productive players, yet also had a few near misses that give you an idea of how wide the net was spread. Alex Anzalone waited until enrollment day to make the decision to attend Florida, even though he was openly committed to the Irish just days earlier at the Under Armour All-American game. Danny Mattingly, a lanky outside linebacker, was committed to Notre Dame for most of the recruiting cycle until he found a better fit closer to home at Oregon. And Don Bosco Prep linebacker Al-Quadin Muhammad looked like an Irish lock until January, when he committed to Miami, with reports of academic deficiencies the only thing keeping Notre Dame and the outside linebacker apart.

Let’s take a look at the depth at linebacker, starting with a look back at the recruiting classes that built the position group.

2009
Carlo Calabrese — Likely returning for a fifth year.
Dan Fox — Likely returning for a fifth year.
Manti Te’o — Four year starter at inside linebacker. Consensus All-American.

2010
Derek Roback — Athlete who profiled as a linebacker. Transferred to Ohio to play QB. Now a TE.
Danny Spond — High school quarterback converted to linebacker. Started 2012 as Dog linebacker.
Justin Utupo — Projected by previous staff as DT. Now reserve linebacker and defensive end.
Kendall Moore — Reserve inside linebacker. Has fifth-year eligibility. Run-first defender.
Prince Shembo — Returning Cat linebacker. Started in 2011, 2012.

2011
Ben Councell — Prototype Dog linebacker. Lost starting job after Spond returned healthy.
Anthony Rabasa — High school DE, can play inside and outside for Irish linebackers.
Ishaq Williams — Elite recruit finding way as DE/OLB Cat linebacker. Key cog for 2013.
Jarrett Grace — Inside backer that’ll likely move to forefront with Te’o’s departure.

2012
Romeo Okwara — Young athlete that was too good to keep of the field as 17-yr-old freshman.

2013
Michael Deeb — Prototype inside linebacker. Physically mature, likely special teams contributor.
Doug Randolph — Has positional flexibility. Mature player, better athlete than most think.
Jaylon Smith — Needs to gain weight, but jack-of-all trades. Will see the field immediately.

Way too early spring projection

Even if the Irish signed 25 recruits, it was hard to imagine a world where Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese didn’t return for a fifth season. There just isn’t enough depth behind them to have inside linebackers learning on the fly. While Brian Kelly tagged the fifth-year duo and Jarrett Grace as the three guys battling for two jobs, expect to hear from Kendall Moore, who has the physicality to play, but needs to round out his game.

The strength of this position grouping is on the edge, and it’ll be an interesting spring to watch the outside linebacker rotation develop. The national championship game showed some of Danny Spond’s limitations, and Ben Councell has the size and strength necessary to compete. While Prince Shembo is entrenched, this is a huge offseason for Ishaq Williams, who needs to make the leap from just a guy with potential to a front-line player. And Romeo Okwara will likely serve notice that he demands some playing time as well.

Shaking up that position this summer with be Smith, who is too good of an athlete not to find the field early and often, if only as a big-play specialist. While it appears there might be too many bodies for everyone to find a spot, Bob Diaco’s defense relies on versatility, and developing a rotation can only help.

 

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