Restocking: Defensive Line

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Brian Kelly has instilled plenty of changes in the Notre Dame football program. But perhaps none is more surprising than the success this Irish coaching staff has had recruiting defensive linemen.

For the longest time, Irish coaches swung and missed trying to land key front-line defensive players, getting to the point where recruitniks started to resemble Ahab chasing the white whale, only to be driven mad at near misses on promising players like Omar Hunter, Gerald McCoy, Justin Trattou, and many others.

When Brian Kelly announced his plan to play a 3-4 defense, some expected the difficulty to land defensive linemen was a factor in choosing a system that only required three down linemen. But in reality, Kelly’s system has put a premium on finding bigger, stronger and more versatile linemen, raising the bar of the recruiting profile needed to succeed in his multiple front defense.

And succeed this staff has done. Kelly’s ability to quickly transform the two-deep depth chart along the front has been impressive. Let’s take a look back at how he’s done it:

2008
Sean Cwynar — Played as a key reserve before turning down a fifth year of eligibility.
Ethan Johnson — Saw the field immediately and spent four years as a regular.
Kapron Lewis-Moore — Redshirted, then started four years at defensive end.
Brandon Newman — Reserve player for Irish, finished eligibility at Ball State.
Hafis Williams — Reserve player for Irish, started seven games for UMass this season.

2009
Tyler Stockton — Reserve defensive lineman won’t likely see a fifth year at Notre Dame.

2010
Kona Schwenke — Late addition to recruiting class backed up Louis Nix at DT in 2012.
Louis Nix — Chose ND during coaching transition. All-American candidate in ’13.
Justin Utupo — Mostly reserve player that’s a tough fit in current ND defensive scheme.
Bruce Heggie — Late addition to class transition from DL to OL. Now reserve center.

2011
Brad Carrico — Switched from DE to OL before a foot injury ended his career.
Aaron Lynch — Freshman All-American before quitting team during spring drills.
Anthony Rabasa — Reserve linebacker with pass rush skills. Yet to break into rotation.
Tony Springmann — Redshirted in ’11 before playing key reserve minutes in ’12.
Stephon Tuitt — Exploded during sophomore season with 12 sacks from DE and DT.
Ishaq Williams — Versatile player saw time in both ’11 and ’12. Needs breakout ’13.

2012
Romeo Okwara — Saw time at outside linebacker as a 17-year-old freshman in ’12.
Sheldon Day — Had an impressive season rotating along the Irish defensive line.
Jarron Jones — Saved a year of eligibility. Expected to compete at DE.

2013
Isaac Rochell — Georgia DE had elite offers from SEC schools before choosing ND.
Eddie Vanderdoes — Heir apparent to Nix will likely contribute immediately.

Way too early spring projection

There’s no reason the Irish defensive front doesn’t take a step forward this season. Against Alabama, it was clear there was work to be done. And after a few months to get the bad taste out of their mouths, Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix and company will get back to work.

The battle to replace KLM won’t likely be won by one player, but expect Sheldon Day to step into the lineup immediately. Day’s impressive freshman season will be one to build on, and even though he lacks the prototype size, he’s disruptive enough to play both inside and out. It’ll also be interesting to see what Jarron Jones brings this spring, as he’s got the bulk and height Bob Diaco and Mike Elston like in their defensive linemen.

How the Irish used Ishaq Williams will be interesting. He isn’t likely to beat out Prince Shembo at Cat linebacker, but he’ll definitely be one of the Irish’s top front seven players, and a four man defensive front, with Tuitt sliding inside, could be a lot for opposing offenses to handle.

 

Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Claypool injured & out; Kelly on Wimbush’s mechanics & mental makeup

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Notre Dame will be without sophomore receiver Chase Claypool in its Jan. 1 Citrus Bowl matchup with No. 17 LSU. Irish coach Brian Kelly announced Saturday that Claypool will have shoulder surgery this week to repair a joint injured in practice last week. Claypool should be fully recovered before spring practices commence.

“One of those unintended injuries in a one-on-one drill where he goes up for a ball and lands on his shoulder the wrong way,” Kelly said. “… If this happens in the middle of the season, he misses five, six, seven games. On the positive side, he misses one game and he’s back full strength going into the spring.”

For stretches of the regular season, Claypool was Notre Dame’s most-consistent receiver. He finishes 2017 with 29 catches for 402 yards and two touchdowns, highlighted by his nine-catch, 180-yard, one-score performance against Wake Forest.

RELATED READING: Claypool’s drops perhaps a harbinger of Notre Dame success to come

Without Claypool, Kelly expects to move junior Equanimeous St. Brown into the field receiver role and utilize junior Miles Boykin more in St. Brown’s usual spot, the boundary receiver position. Sophomore Kevin Stepherson will certainly factor in more than Boykin in any two-receiver sets.

Fifth-year receiver Cam Smith is also back to full health after a hamstring issue hindered the end of his season.

On Wimbush, mechanics and mental makeup
Whoever the receiver(s), junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush will be the one looking for them. Wimbush struggled through most of 2017, but the final three games emphasized those difficulties. As the Irish finished the season 1-2, Wimbush completed 30-of-67 passes (44.78 percent) for 532 yards (177.33 yards per game) and five touchdowns with four interceptions.

Those struggles led Kelly to declare Wimbush his bowl game starter immediately after the season finale, a loss at Stanford. Kelly doubled down and then some on that sentiment Saturday.

“He struggled in the last couple of games throwing the football, but he has not struggled mentally at all,” Kelly said. “… His issues are mechanical issues. They’re not mental issues. He doesn’t have this weakness that is not allowing him to be the player that he can be.

“We need to fix some things in the offseason, mechanically, that will allow him to the throw the ball more consistently.”

Irish coach Brian Kelly insisted junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s struggles derive from mechanical issues, not any version of a mental block. “His traits, in terms of all the things a quarterback needs in terms of his makeup, he has those,” Kelly said. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Kelly credited Wimbush for trying to “fight” through these mechanical issues, but at times that may have led to overcompensating a la a golfer attempting to avoid a slice or a baseball batter trying to get ahead of a fastball.

Wimbush may be a junior, but this was his first year in the spotlight. That spotlight did not bring with it undue and mishandled pressure. Rather, it highlighted his deficiencies that are not as closely monitored when a third-string freshman or a scout team passer.

“We’re really talking about him being a first-time starter,” Kelly said. “Under that scrutiny, we’ve seen that there needs to be some corrections.

“Having said that, he found a way to get us to nine wins and put us in a position to get to 10.”

Avery & Alohi Ascending
Two reserves have caught Notre Dame’s attention in the earliest parts of bowl preparation, though one was drawing notice all season, as well. Through four practices, the Irish have knocked off the rust of a few weeks’ layoff and given the lower parts of the depth chart extended run. Freshman quarterback Avery Davis has stood out in those sessions.

“He’s efficient with the football, very strong runner,” Kelly said. “He’s an athlete that can impact each and every time he has the football in his hands. He’s difficult to defend.”

Sophomore safety and Navy transfer Alohi Gilman spent the season defending Wimbush, rather than Davis. Bound to the scout team when the NCAA denied his waiver for immediate eligibility, Gilman pushed the boundary as often as possible. Per Kelly, he would have started at safety for the Irish this year, no qualifiers or conditions applied.

RELATED READING: Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Backs

“He has a great combination of coverage skills at the safety position and the ability to come down and be a sure tackler,” Kelly said. “We really know what we’re going to get from him from what we’ve seen on a practice-to-practice basis.”

Syracuse at Yankee Stadium in November, the least of possible evils
Kelly initially offered the party line when asked about Notre Dame moving its mid-November matchup next year against Syracuse out east to Yankee Stadium in New York City. The remote “home” game will add theoretically-unnecessary travel and stress to an already daunting latter half of the schedule.

Kelly then acknowledged it may not be ideal, but made it clear the other options he was presented were distinctly less preferable.

Kelly said this was the only game in the home schedule with the ready ability to be moved, but knowing the Orange’s fast-paced, spread offense, he wanted to be sure the game was played outdoors. Also knowing there would be a trip out to USC just the following weekend, Kelly advocated for avoiding a late game. Indeed, the Syracuse tilt is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. ET.

“We wanted to try to make all these pieces work,” he said. “This seemed to be a good way to come about managing all those things.”

The one option clearly not on the table was not moving a home game at all.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Offensive Line

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Notre Dame’s offensive line was clearly going to be a strength entering the season. Before a single snap, two expected All-Americans were leading the way. Sure enough, senior left guard Quenton Nelson ended up a unanimous All-American while fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey secured consensus honors.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
The only question about the offensive line entering the season was who would take over at right tackle with senior Alex Bars moving inward to right guard. Counting Bars, the line returned four starters.

Presumably, sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg were the two involved in the right tackle competition. Through spring practice, Kraemer appeared to have an edge large enough to be considered the starter but not so large as to eradicate any further discussion in preseason practice.

Neither inspired an excess of confidence, such that offensive line coach Harry Hiestand would even acknowledge the possibility of Bars still being the best right tackle option on the roster. Hiestand was not considering moving Bars, though. The gap between Bars and anyone else at right guard was much greater than the discrepancy between Bars and Kramer (or Eichenberg).

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
Freshman Robert Hainsey forced his way into the right tackle competition at some point before the season. He did so to such an extent, Eichenberg was relegated to the nominal duty of backing up McGlinchey. How much work does that job not warrant? Eichenberg saw action in only five games, the streak of Irish routs running from the trip to Boston College through the thrashing of USC.

Kraemer and Hainsey shared the position all season, the latter showing adeptness in pass protection while the Kraemer’s strength came in the running game, although the two usually swapped playing time by the series, not by the situation.

Fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey’s final Irish season will be remembered as a year he established himself as the voice of the team while leading what could still be named the nation’s best offensive line. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The other 80 percent of the line held to summer’s expectations. Senior center Sam Mustipher’s season should be noted. While Nelson and McGlinchey earned the headlines and awards — and deservedly so — Mustipher quietly played nearly as well.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING
The offensive line’s dominance this season best shows itself in the running statistics. When looking at sacks allowed, Notre Dame endured only three fewer than last year (25 compared to 28), somewhat a cost of trotting out a quarterback himself so inclined to run the ball.

2016: 2,123 yards on 410 carries (sacks adjusted); 176.9 yards per game and 5.18 yards per rush.
2017: 3,462 yards on 501 carries (sacks adjusted); 288.5 yards per game and 6.91 yards per rush.

COMING QUESTIONS
It is readily and widely assumed Nelson will head to the NFL while both Mustipher and Bars will return for their final seasons of eligibility. All three would be the logical decisions.

If that all proves true, the Irish essentially return four “starters.” Both Kraemer and Hainsey saw enough action this season to be considered starters for the intent of this and nearly any offseason conversation.

Before deciding on the fifth starter, Hiestand will need to decide what position that newcomer will slot into. One of Kraemer or Hainsey could move to left tackle or left guard. (Kraemer at left guard would make some sense.) Bars could move to left guard, leaving right guard open for, again, Kraemer or Hainsey. (Again, moving Kraemer to guard seems an inevitability in the next three years.) There could be a thought to moving both Kraemer and Hainsey to the left side and finding a new right tackle. (Want to guess who would be projected at left guard in that scenario?)

The only certainty: Mustipher will start at center, presuming he returns. For kicks and giggles, it could be speculated how much preseason hype Mustipher will get as the stalwart of a seemingly-unproven line. That s-adjective belies a trick question; this will not be as unproven a unit as it may appear on the surface.

Replacing Nelson’s and McGlinchey’s chemistry, physicality and maturity will not happen, but there is reason to think the drop-off may not be debilitating. Mustipher can provide the steadying force for Bars to reinforce. Another year in a collegiate program should only further Hainsey’s immediate progress. A hypothetical move to guard will fit Kraemer’s skillset more naturally.

That leaves that pesky fifth starter spot. It could go to a number of options, but the frontrunners will be a quartet of youngsters already in the weight room.

Obviously, Eichenberg will get his chance. Freshman Dillan Gibbons earned offensive scout team player of the year honors last week, often a precursor to first-team contributions in the near future. All the way back on National Signing Day, this space saw Gibbons as “a prototypical Harry Hiestand offensive guard.”

If neither Eichenberg nor Gibbons, the focus will turn to freshmen Joshua Lugg and Aaron Banks. The latter enrolled early as a highly-touted tackle, part of why Hainsey’s fall emergence came as such a surprise. If any freshman was to contribute along the line, it was always assumed it would be Banks. Lugg, meanwhile, measures 6-foot-7 and 300 pounds. He is a tackle in the making at some point in his Notre Dame career.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING
Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Receivers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends
Where Notre Dame was & is: Running Backs
Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Backs

Friday at 4: Bowl games are fun, but little else, even for Notre Dame vs. LSU

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Bowl games are [insert positive adjective here]. Make no mistake about that. They provide players and fans an excuse to head south in December, even if that destination is El Paso, Texas, or Birmingham, Ala. Warmer temperatures are always preferable. That’s science.

For those not making a trek to Shreveport, La., or Orlando, Fla., the 39 games sprinkled throughout 17 days provide a break from primetime reruns or, in the best of times, from mid-day office minutiae. Football is preferable to “Young Sheldon” or remembering to include the new cover sheet on the TPS report. Again, empirical evidence establishes this as a fact.

And for the grinding gambler, bowl games represent one last chance to exit the college football season with a net gain, furthering the dreams of continuing similar growth annually for two decades in order to secure retirement based off a hobby. On a smaller scale, bowl pools establish a chance for bragging rights, and little is better than holiday season bragging rights. That’s a bit shy of sound logic, but it is a reality, nonetheless.

All that acknowledged, bowl games should still not be factored much into long-term views, forward-looking or retrospective. They are the most uncertain of sporting events, having little attachment to either the season prior or the season eight months away.

When else does a team not play for a month on either side of a competition? There is a reason an answer is lacking. It’s an absurd practice. (Albeit, again, a delightful one. There are five games Saturday and only one of those 10 teams is from a Power Five conference, yet this scribe intends to watch each and every one of the five.) (Is that the first sign of a problem? Maybe, maybe not.)

Notre Dame finished 2017 with a 9-3 record and two losses in its final three games. Beating No. 17 LSU in the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1 in the aforementioned Disney-based metropolis should not change the taste of that November letdown. At most, it can support an argument of the Irish simply being worn down by season’s end, but that would not change the fact of them indeed being worn down when it mattered.

When Notre Dame beat LSU in the 2014 Music City Bowl, it did not change the tenor of the season, and it did not lead to 2015’s success. Rather, the following year’s breakthroughs came from surprises shown only after injuries. (Getty Images)

Losing to the Tigers is not a greater sign of a program stuck spinning its wheels in the winter’s snow. It is not an indication of failing to win a game when it matters. Notre Dame already went 2-3 in those big games this year. In retrospect, perhaps the victory at Michigan State should raise that record to 3-3, but a big game feels like one as it occurs, and that Saturday evening in September did not hold such weight.

A big game does not come five weeks following the last consequential contest. A big game has some tangible effect on games to come. Outside of the College Football Playoff, no bowl game claims either factor. They are simply enjoyable exhibitions.

Hence, the common practice for coaches with new jobs is to move on, apparently abandoning their team before the season is technically over. It is becomingly increasingly-normal for NFL Draft prospects to sit out bowl games, be it out of precaution or preemptive recovery. They have nothing to gain, no ring, no record, yet much to lose in an injury a la former Irish linebacker Jaylon Smith in the 2015 Fiesta Bowl.

To pull from a comment shortly after Notre Dame fell to Miami, dashing any Playoff hopes, “I truly don’t get how you think wins over Navy and a pedestrian Stanford team carry more weight than a win over an Ohio St or TCU or Clemson in a major bowl game. Agree to disagree, I guess.”

A win at Stanford would have sent the Irish to a bowl game of greater note (likely the Fiesta Bowl, in the end), but that would not have been the reason it held consequence. Winning in-season, week-after-week, day-after-day becomes ingrained. A win Saturday creates momentum for a good practice on Tuesday, begetting a consistent showing Wednesday, which leads to attention to detail on Thursday. Before you know it, another weekend victory is in hand.

Concluding the season by knocking off the Cardinal would have set a standard of the revamped Irish being better than their most-similar foes.

Beating LSU will do little except provide fodder for both sides of the “Brian Kelly must go/stay” argument, an inane debate which will undoubtedly proceed unabated for an entire offseason when it should be recognized as utterly pointless absolutely no later than Jan. 9.

This memory should stick with the Irish throughout 2018’s first eight months, not whatever happens in Orlando. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Losing to LSU will not “fester over the winter,” to use another commenter’s worry. Losing to Stanford should. Getting embarrassed at Miami will.

If (when) Central Florida falls for the first time this year, how vocal will the sideways glances toward Scott Frost be, as the head coach splits his time between his new gig at Nebraska and his loyal charges in Orlando? They won’t be vocal at all. Frost delivered a 13-0 season. That is what will be remembered.

When Oregon blows past Boise State this weekend, will the Ducks take solace in thinking they could have challenged Stanford for the Pac-12 North Division if only their quarterback had stayed healthy? No, they will still look at the 7-5 season as the disappointment it was, not to mention they’ll be led by their newest head coach with Willie Taggart gone already in less than one calendar year.

When Arizona and Purdue combine for more than 65 points, will that be a sign their defenses need vast improvements in the offseason? No, the Wildcats giving up 34.1 yards per game already makes that pretty clear. The Boilermakers, contrarily, shouldn’t panic no matter the Foster Farms Bowl result. Head coach Jeff Brohm clearly has them trending in the right direction on both sides of the ball. In addition to a dynamic offense, Purdue gave up only 19.3 points per game this season.

Notre Dame very well may beat LSU. It certainly wants to. But that result will not reflect the 2017 season, and it will not be a catalyst into 2018. Let’s skip the argument of bowl victories set a foundation for success the following season. The data overwhelmingly says there is no distinct correlation to such thinking.

Rather, the Citrus Bowl will simply be a physical and entertaining game. On a day inevitably spent on the couch, likely horizontally, what more can genuinely be asked for?

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Backs

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Notre Dame’s secondary presents one position of such strength it is continually pondered if raiding that depth could salvage the near-vacuum in the other half of the Irish defensive backfield. That was true before the season, and it remains the case now.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
A bounty of cornerbacks, led by sophomore Julian Love, provided some sense of comfort in the Irish defense’s back line. A finally-healthy junior Shaun Crawford could finally contribute as a nickelback, and senior Nick Watkins, largely thanks to his length, established himself as a starter during spring practice.

That marked three bona fide starters before even acknowledging the depth provided by sophomores Donte Vaughn and Troy Pride.

Then there were the safeties. Such confidence in the depth chart did not exist in the spring or at any point of the preseason. Junior Nick Coleman secured one safety spot in the spring, while sophomores Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill failed to separate from each other in the competition to line up alongside Coleman. To be clear, that was not a credit to both showing such great abilities.

When the NCAA denied sophomore Alohi Gilman’s waiver for immediate eligibility following his transfer from Navy, Elliott became the de facto starter.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
On paper, Love’s season was essentially unparalleled. He returned two interceptions for touchdowns and nearly managed a third. Rare can a coaching staff genuinely and reasonably discuss moving a position’s best player, but Love very well may be the best Irish safety, as well. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has admitted as much as a distinct possibility.

Junior cornerback Shaun Crawford did quite a bit of everything for Notre Dame in his first healthy season. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

For now, though, Love remains at cornerback. Crawford complemented him excellently in a playmaking sense, forcing his impact upon the game even more than could have been anticipated, though it is logical to think finally seeing a season’s worth of action tired his legs by the end.

Watkins, meanwhile, put together a strong season until knee tendonitis limited him — and created an opportunity for Pride to prematurely insert himself into 2018’s conversations — in November. In the moment, Watkins seemed a weakness against Miami (OH) when RedHawks junior receiver James Gardner caught two touchdowns over Watkins. With time diminishing overreactions, Gardner’s success seems a credit to him (and his 6-foot-4 frame) more than a knock on Watkins.

For that matter, it may not have been a knock on Watkins at all. Let’s pull from the respective “Things We Learned”As much as one may want to see Watkins break each of those passes up, it could also be wondered why there was not a safety helping on the occasion. That latter position remains the biggest Irish concern, offensive or defensive.

That concern remains pressing. Coleman played alright, but did not necessarily excel. Any continuing debate between Elliott and Studstill persists yet out of lack of a strong impression. The rest of the Irish defense’s surge limited the dramatic effect of the positional need, but it cannot be denied, nonetheless.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING
Opponents passed more often against Notre Dame this season than they did a year ago. It makes sense; the Irish led more often and for much of the year, led by large margins. Thus, the averages offer a better comparison between the autumns as a rough estimate of passing efficiency.

2016: 2,357 yards allowed on 193-of-313 passing; 61.66 percent completion rate; 7.53 yards per attempt; 12.21 yards per completion.
2017: 2,562 yards allowed on 233-of-412 passing; 56.55 percent completion rate; 6.22 yards per attempt; 11.00 yards per completion.

So. Julian Love — 62 tackles; three interceptions; 17 pass breakups.
Jr. Nick Coleman — 42 tackles; three pass breakups.
So. Jalen Elliott — 38 tackles; one pass breakup.
Jr. Shaun Crawford — 32 tackles; two interceptions, five pass breakups; two fumbles recovered; one fumble forced.
Sr. Nick Watkins — 27 tackles; one interception; eight pass breakups.
So. Troy Pride — 22 tackles; one interception; two pass breakups.
So. Devin Studstill — 16 tackles.
Fr. Isaiah Robertson — Eight tackles.
So. Donte Vaughn — Six tackles.

COMING QUESTIONS
Earning a nod as defensive scout team player of the year should speak to Gilman’s potential impact in 2018. By all indications, he was the best safety on the roster in 2017 with the arguable exception of Love. Will Gilman live up to this billing?

As it pertains to Love, the coaching staff should move him to safety only if the gap between him and the otherwise starter there is greater than the gap between Love and the next man up at cornerback, presumably Pride. (In this respect, compare it to senior Alex Bars lining up at right guard this season rather than right tackle, his previous position. He was the best option at right tackle, but the drop from Bars to sophomore Tommy Kraemer and freshman Robert Hainsey was minimal. The talent discrepancy between Bars and any other right guard option would have been much more drastic.) Is it in defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s best interests to keep Love at cornerback or move the excellent defender to safety?

If it is not Love who provides a minimum of depth at safety, it could be a recruit. Consensus four-star Houston Griffith comes to mind not only due to his commitment this week, but also because he fits right into Notre Dame’s needs.

A similar thought applies to current freshman Isaiah Robertson. He saw special teams action this season. A full year readying in a college system could have him poised to contribute, be it in support of Coleman or in place of him.

OUTSIDE READING
ND Insider’s Eric Hansen put together a worthwhile read on Gilman following last week’s program awards: Full speed ahead? There’s no happy medium for Notre Dame safety Alohi Gilman

INSIDE THE IRISH READING
Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends
Where Notre Dame was & is: Running Backs