Five things we’ll learn: Spring football kicks off

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When Brian Kelly steps in front of the podium at the Guglielmino Athletic Complex Tuesday afternoon, he’ll be a man facing a drastically different set of expectations. Gone are the question marks about the coach from a sheer survival perspective. Last season’s 12-1 record, and the still-in-progress long term contract extension mean Jack Swarbrick has found his man. But with success comes a new set of goals. Yet before we get there, it’s worth taking a look back at where the football team was this time last year.

After a disappointing close to recruiting, Kelly made radical changes to his staff. Part out of necessity, but mostly to acknowledge the need to get better on offense. Some changes were jump-started by Ed Warinner and Tim Hinton’s move to Ohio State, where they joined Urban Meyer’s coaching staff. Charley Molnar took over UMass’ football program, in what seemed to some a coaching golden parachute, allowing Kelly to move his longtime confidant Chuck Martin to the offensive side of the ball.

Reconfiguring the staff wasn’t the only hurdle for a head coach that put together back-to-back 8-5 seasons. A four-quarterback competition needed to conclude with a signal-caller, however raw, that would stop turning the football over. Talk about counter-intuitive.

The blue-print that was laid in the long winter months of conditioning obviously was executed to incredible success last year, with an improbable run to the BCS Championship game. Before Kelly kicks off the 2013 season in earnest, let’s take a look at five things we’re likely to learn this spring.

***

Everett Golson will become the offensive identity of this football team.

In his first three seasons, Brian Kelly leaned on his top playmakers to power the offense. For two years, that meant pushing the football to wide receiver Michael Floyd. Last year, that meant leaning on Theo Riddick and All-American Tyler Eifert. But for the first time since taking over the Irish program, Kelly’s top offensive weapon is his quarterback. And that mean’s junior Everett Golson needs to step forward into the spotlight.

Golson’s debut season was impressive. Learning on the fly, Golson — along with some help from Tommy Rees — piloted the Irish through some rocky waters on the way to an undefeated regular season. For a young starter who many assumed was prone to turnovers, he did an impressive job holding onto the football. He also showed the type of athleticism that you can’t teach, improvising with his legs while creating plays downfield. He also showed a flair for the dramatic, with his late game heroics beating Pitt to continue the Irish’s dream season.

In 2013, Golson needs to elevate his game. The offense needs to move because of him, not in spite of him. Kelly finally has a quarterback of his molding steering the ship. Without a singular talent to push the offense through, it’s up to his quarterback to steer this team forward.

***

On the field, we’ll see what the defense looks like in life after Manti Te’o.

If there’s a gigantic hole in the Irish defense, it’s the loss of Manti Te’o. For the past four seasons, Te’o was the one constant at the epicenter of a unit that improved every season. This spring, we’ll get a look at Kelly and Bob Diaco’s plan for what the Irish defense looks like without the All-American, and what the Irish will do at both inside linebacker positions.

For the past two seasons, Diaco has used Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox as complimentary pieces next to Te’o. They’ll now be given the opportunity to play next to each other. Also added to the equation is Jarrett Grace, a promising young linebacker that’s waited his turn. Kendall Moore will also likely take this spring to force himself back onto the radar, a veteran that’s flashed big play potential but never had the chance to see consistent minutes.

Before Te’o’s breakout 2012 season, Diaco’s inside linebackers were often susceptible to the playaction pass game, caught playing downhill while quarterbacks took advantage of the soft zone behind them. Replacing a 100-tackle linebacker, who also was one of the nation’s leaders in takeaways, is no easy task. While that certainly won’t take place in fifteen practices, we’ll get a look at the staff’s early plans to move on with life after Te’o.

***

In the locker room, we’ll see what the leadership of this team looks like in life after Manti Te’o.

As important as Te’o was to the team on the field, he provided more off of it. Before we ever heard the name Lennay Kekua or Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, Te’o helped completely transform the culture of the Irish football program. The veteran linebacker provided transcendent leadership, bridging the gap between coaching staffs, while helping a roster filled with Charlie Weis players buy into Brian Kelly’s tough-love approach.

If there was a benefit to Te’o’s public humiliation, it’s that this football team sees that Te’o isn’t a deity. While his embarrassment may temporarily knock Te’o of the Irish’s Mount Rushmore, it will also allow others to feel worthy of stepping into his shoes. These past few months helped remind everyone that Manti Te’o was just a kid playing football. He’s already given teammates like Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix and Bennett Jackson a perfect person to emulate. But his story has also pushed him enough off the pedestal for his former teammates to realize Te’o was also human as well.

Can George Atkinson develop the complete skillset to compliment his home run potential?

With two seasons under his belt and a depth chart that’s wide open in front of him, George Atkinson will be given every opportunity to be the big play leader of this offense. But he’ll have to show that he’s mature enough to take on the responsibility.

As we saw last season, Brian Kelly is more interested in having a running back he can trust than one that shows glimpses of greatness. That meant Theo Riddick getting the lion’s share of carries, even if Cierre Wood was the better home run threat. That also meant limiting Atkinson to single-digit touches, even though he had the world-class speed needed to be a big-play threat every time he touched the ball.

Not many players in college football are bigger home run threats than Atkinson. Yet the growing pains Atkinson has battled through the past two seasons, which included learning the position on the fly, need to be conquered heading into his third year.

He’s got the size, speed and strength needed to be the most complete back of the Kelly era. Now he’s got to take control of the job.

***

Finding the right combination on the interior of the offensive line is one of spring’s main objectives.

Returning three starting offensive linemen is a good start. But finding a replacement for two key interior spots will be one of spring’s main objectives. Gone are Braxston Cave and Mike Golic, the former a key three year starter while the latter played productive minutes the past two seasons. In their place will be youthful replacements — and could likely trigger a few dominoes as Kelly and Harry Hiestand determine the best starting five.

After battling back from a scary heart procedure, Matt Hegarty is a capable option at center. So are Mark Harrell and Nick Martin, who both have the ability to play guard as well. With Conor Hanratty and Bruce Heggie also competing, there are a variety of scenarios that could cause a ripple effect up front for the Irish.

While Zack Martin, Chris Watt and Christian Lombard all return, where they return might be the question. Consider Martin locked in at left tackle. But Lombard has been pegged by many to be a better guard than tackle and Watt has spent time cross-training as a center. If the Irish want to spread out some of their youth, there’s a version of the offensive line that moves Watt to the middle and Lombard to guard, allowing promising youngster Ronnie Stanley (or early enrollee Steve Elmer) the opportunity to take over at right tackle.

All of this is a long way from being decided, and Hiestand will likely work with a shortened deck, with line numbers still thin until reinforcements come this summer. But finding a center that can athletically fit the system will be the next step in the offensive line’s evolution, and will be one of the keys to improving the run game.

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 88 Javon McKinley, receiver

Rivals.com
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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-2, 220 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Sophomore with three seasons of eligibility remaining including the 2017 season
Depth chart: McKinley spent this spring behind junior Miles Boykin at the W-receiver position, also known as the boundary receiver. In offensive coordinator Chip Long’s up-tempo scheme, though, receivers must learn multiple positions, so it may be more accurate to say McKinley is among a second-tier of options including the likes of juniors Chris Finke and C.J. Sanders, all behind a current starting group of Boykin, junior Equanimeous St. Brown and sophomore Chase Claypool.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star recruit and U.S. Army All-American

CAREER TO DATE
McKinley appeared in seven games last season but recorded no other statistics. A late-October broken leg cut his freshman campaign short and also kept him somewhat limited in spring practice. (Notre Dame’s official 2016 statistics list McKinley as having appeared in seven games, including the season finale against USC. Without finding footage of that game and watching every snap, it is quite possible that is a mistake and McKinley appeared in only six games. Frankly, there is no difference between six games and seven in this instance.)

QUOTE(S)
Whenever Irish coach Brian Kelly spoke of McKinley this spring, it was in reference to an injury, be that of his own and his recovery or of another receiver’s aggravation providing McKinley more chances to impress.

“He’s such a big kid, I think the red jersey should go on the guy that’s going against him,” Kelly said toward the end of spring in reference to McKinley’s non-contact designation. “He always gets the other guy hurt.

“He’s a good player. He just needs to get out there. He’s gotten behind a little bit, but he’s going to help us in the fall. He’s a good player.”

Earlier in spring practice, a hamstring issue limited St. Brown for a day or two. In his absence, McKinley indeed got out there and caught up a bit.

“It was a great opportunity for Javon in there,” Kelly said. “We think we can get him some more work as we progress.”

McKinley capitalizing on St. Brown’s absence shows the fluid nature of the receiver positions in Long’s offense. (For further explanation, see this discussion of the Irish receiver depth from early April.)

WHAT KEITH ARNOLD PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
I think McKinley’s too good to keep off the field. But I also think his freshman ceiling will be in line with the better of Brian Kelly’s young receivers, so I’m still going to put a cap on his season totals around 15-20 catches.

“If McKinley were the early enrollee, I think all of us would’ve been buzzing about him instead of Stepherson. And those 15 practices might be enough to give Stepherson the nod over McKinley, though the latter is far more game-ready from a physicality standpoint.

“Regardless, Notre Dame’s young receivers—Stepherson, McKinley and Chase Claypool—might be the most exciting incoming class at a position that I’ve seen in my time covering the Irish, so while it’s too early to say it, McKinley could be the best of the bunch.”

2017 OUTLOOK
Even without the leg injury, McKinley was going to fall far short of Keith’s optimistic projections. That is partly due to the Irish depth at receiver, including some breakout performances in 2016, and that is partly due to Keith pondering McKinley-to-Michael Floyd comparisons, at which point the scribe native to Minneapolis may have gotten distracted by Floyd’s unique skillset.

This season, that depth chart is still not going to do McKinley any favors. St. Brown, Claypool and Stepherson all showed magnificent flashes last season, and Boykin was the primary praised receiver throughout the spring.

Nonetheless, Keith’s optimism was based off McKinley’s sheer size, and it cannot be denied. It fits right alongside the likes of the presumptive starting trio, meaning McKinley should be able to fill in for either the boundary or the field receiver whenever needed. Do not look only for McKinley to match Keith’s year-ago projection of 15-20 catches, but also look for some of those to come in pivotal situations, providing first downs or breaking open stagnant drives.

DOWN THE ROAD
Projecting McKinley’s future is much like projecting his 2017, as no Irish receiver will be out of eligibility following the season, and only St. Brown looks the part of a possible NFL Draft entry following his junior year. Emphasis on possible.

That said, if McKinley can gain the coaches’ and Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s trust, the provided depth at the receiver position may be the easiest spot on the field to capitalize on it, theoretically to McKinley’s benefit.


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 (theoretically): Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle
No. 94 (theoretically): Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92 (theoretically): Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 90 (theoretically): Cole Kmet, tight end
No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 89 Brock Wright, tight end

Rivals.com
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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-4 ½, 252 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Early enrolled freshman with four seasons of eligibility remaining
Depth chart: Wright joined the deepest position on the Notre Dame roster at his first opportunity, and by doing so he inserted himself into the mix for playing time behind fifth-year senior Durham Smythe and junior Alizé Mack. Wright will have a legitimate chance to pass seniors Nic Weishar and Tyler Luatua, if he hasn’t already, for pass-catching opportunities this season. Classmate Cole Kmet will fill out the positional group this summer, but that simple delay will likely keep him on the sidelines in 2017.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star recruit, Wright was the top-ranked tight end in the country per rivals.com.

QUOTE(S)
Offensive coordinator Chip Long’s offense often calls for two tight ends, and his track record includes a predilection to include multiple tight ends in the passing game, not just the rushing game. With that in mind, Irish coach Brian Kelly forecast a possibility of Wright seeing playing time this season along with some of the upperclassmen.

“We can play four of those tight ends as receivers,” Kelly said this spring. “We think there’s great versatility. You know Durham Smythe has really made great strides. He’s been very impressive. I think Alizé and Nic Weishar and Brock Wright and all of those guys can all be on the field and you can detach them. You can’t say I’m not going to cover them when they have to the ability to impact what we’re doing.”

For his part, Long keeps in mind Wright’s youth but still sees the vast potential not far from realization.

“[He’s] figuring things out right now. He probably had his best practice the other day,” Long said the day before the Blue-Gold Game. “He’s been out of high school for four months, but he’s one of the hardest workers. …

“His potential is through the roof. He’s a great kid, great worker, been a lot of fun seeing him grow these last few weeks. His head was spinning the first part of spring ball, but I think he’s kind of settling in, going out there playing with more confidence. You can see it in the last couple practices.”

WHAT KEITH ARNOLD SAID UPON WRIGHT’S EARLY ENROLLMENT
Wright is a highly sought-after talent at tight end, a position that’ll welcome their entire depth chart back, and also Alizé [Mack], who missed last season after academic issues.”

2017 OUTLOOK
Wright’s early enrollment sets him on a fast track to playing time in 2017, even if behind both Smythe and Mack. It does not seem to be putting the cart before the horse to think Wright has already passed by Luatua and Weishar in the general offensive plan. Perhaps those two seniors could be utilized more in run-specific situations, but Wright should fit well into Long’s scheme.

This is where remembering Long’s history using tight ends is quite pertinent. Most notably, last season Memphis’ top two tight ends caught a combined 36 passes for 423 yards and five touchdowns with Long as offensive coordinator. For context, Irish tight ends last season totaled 12 catches for 159 yards and four scores.

Notre Dame’s grouping has much more talent than those statistics belie. When it comes to potency as a receiving threat, Wright may be second only to Mack. Smythe will remain ahead of the freshman due to his experience, and rightfully so, but Wright’s abilities should force him onto the field as the season progresses. Will he get into the end zone? That will be as much up to chance as anything else, but recording a few catches, perhaps even some first downs, would be a worthwhile contribution from the highly-touted tight end.

DOWN THE ROAD
If able to notch a few catches this season, Wright would give Long an idea of what he will have to work with in 2018. Smythe and Luatua will be gone next season, and it is hard to imagine Weishar earning an invitation back for a fifth year. At that point, Wright and Mack will be the top targets for Long’s two tight end system, and that is if Mack does not head to the NFL after this season.

In many respects, Wright’s nearly-assured primary role in 2018 is reason enough to expect imminent opportunities in 2017.


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 (theoretically): Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle
No. 94 (theoretically): Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92 (theoretically): Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 90 (theoretically): Cole Kmet, tight end

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 90 (theoretically) Cole Kmet, tight end

Rivals.com
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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-4, 235 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Freshman yet to enroll
Depth chart: Tight end might be the deepest position on the Notre Dame roster, and, as a result, Kmet might be further down the Irish depth chart than any other player. Fifth-year Durham Smythe leads the group, with junior Alizé Mack right behind him, if behind at all. Then come seniors Nic Weishar and Tyler Luatua, both of whom may be soon passed by early enrollee freshman Brock Wright. Then, finally, slots in Kmet, if for no other reason than the obvious fact that he has yet to hit the college weight room or learn offensive coordinator Chip Long’s playbook.
Recruiting: Not only was Kmet a consensus four-star prospect, he was a consensus top-five tight end in the country. Rivals.com, for example, rated Kmet as the No. 3 tight end in the class of 2017.

QUOTE(S)
It was difficult for Irish coach Brian Kelly to discuss Kmet without including his classmate Wright during Kelly’s National Signing Day comments. Bringing in two tight ends of their potential in one class certainly stood out as an unlikely occurrence.

“Brock Wright [is] arguably one of the best, if not the best, tight ends in the country,” Kelly said. “But you’re not going to pass up an opportunity at a young man like Cole Kmet who thoroughly impressed us when we got a chance to see him in Irish Invasion.

“We think there can’t be a better tandem at the tight end position in a signing day today. We think we’ve got two tight ends coming in to obviously a very good situation already with Durham Smythe, Alizé [Mack], Nic Weishar, Tyler Luatua. We have great depth at that tight end position, and these two guys only add to it.

“I think you start and you look at the depth at that position, it really jumps out at you.”

WHAT WE SAID WHEN KMET’S NATIONAL LETTER OF INTENT ARRIVED
Kmet completes a duo of tight ends in this class along with early enrollee Brock Wright. Fittingly, Kmet will only burnish Notre Dame’s ‘Tight End U’ reputation. He has the length and athleticism to be a threat in the aerial attack while also contributing in blocking along the edge.”

2017 OUTLOOK
A situation in which Kmet plays in 2017 is nearly beyond fathoming. An injury crisis would have to tear through the Irish tight ends in order to make playing the sixth and most-inexperienced option a necessity.

Kmet’s odds of seeing action this season were further diminished when Wright not only enrolled early but also held his own in spring practice. It is not that Wright is far-and-away better than Kmet, it is that the head start will be most noticeable in their freshman campaign. If Notre Dame opts to play a freshman tight end, it will be Wright, not Kmet.

DOWN THE ROAD
Kmet’s future shines bright. Smythe and Luatua will be gone following 2017, and it is hard to imagine Weishar earning an invitation back for a fifth year. Mack will assuredly be the top target at the position in 2018, but Long has a track record of featuring tight ends. More than one will be needed.

That could mean only Mack and Wright are consistent contributors in 2018, but a third viable option could provide the ability to keep two fresh tight ends on the field whenever wanted.

Beyond that, Mack will have 2019 eligibility, but it seems unlikely he takes it. If he plays up to his palpable potential, it is more likely Mack heads to the NFL Draft as soon as possible—and that does not rule out after this season—than it is he stays around college for five years.

Kmet will get his chance. He comes in too highly-rated not to. It will just be a matter of time and patience.


Aside from the five early enrollees, the numbers are not yet known for the Irish freshmen class. That is one of the admitted drawbacks to organizing this summer-long series numerically. But a little bit of educated guessing can garner estimates for those numbers, and those estimates can allow the series to proceed without pause.

How are those estimates crafted? The first step is to take a look at certain NCAA rules. When it comes to an “end,” the NCAA limits them to Nos. 80-99. Looking at the Irish roster, this leaves only so many likely options for Kmet, hence slotting him at No. 90.

Cole Kmet very well may not wear No. 90, but it is possible, and, frankly, it should be close.


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 (theoretically): Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle
No. 94 (theoretically): Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92 (theoretically): Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 91 Ade Ogundeji, defensive end

Rivals.com
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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-4, ½, 251 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Sophomore with four years of eligibility remaining including 2017
Depth chart: Adetokunbo Ogundeji is one of three sophomores vying for playing time on the weakside edge. Daelin Hayes leads the group, and Julian Okwara would appear to be ahead of Ogundeji both due to Okwara seeing playing time last season and having a more prominent role this spring.
Recruiting: A consensus three-star prospect, Ogundeji originally committed to Western Michigan and P.J. Fleck before his profile picked up more attention.

CAREER TO DATE
Ogundeji preserved a year of eligibility in 2017. With his slight frame, that decision made sense. When Ogundeji signed with Notre Dame, he was listed as 6-foot-5 and 216 pounds. A year later, that listing presents a perhaps more-accurate height and, more importantly, 35 added pounds.

The year on the sidelines also allowed Ogundeji’s knee plenty of healing time after he partially tore his MCL during his final season in high school. The injury did not necessitate surgery, simply time and rehab.

QUOTE(S)
Quotes on Ogundeji are few and far between. Irish coach Brian Kelly spent National Signing Day 2016 discussing bigger picture items than going through each individual recruit. This spring, his only mention of Ogundeji was in a brief summary of injuries and recoveries.

Looking back to when Ogundeji committed to Notre Dame, he offered a realistic view of his future to the South Bend Tribune’s Tyler James.

“I understand that I’m a raw person, but I think I just need to work on my upside—getting stronger and bigger,” Ogundeji said. “That’s what I’ve been working on in the offseason. I know I’m a long person, and most of the time I’m just going into the offensive line and not knowing that I can use my hands to keep them off me. I need to use my hands much better.

“One thing I know I am is a coachable person. I know my coaches will make me better.”

WHAT KEITH ARNOLD PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
This feels like a redshirt situation. With Jay Hates and Andrew Trumbetti likely sharing the snaps at weakside (and don’t forget Daelin Hayes), Ogundeji seems a long way from being ready to contribute. So while there could be a terror off the edge developing, it’ll take a few years.

“Looking back at developmental recruits at defensive end, the Irish haven’t had the best of luck. But Ogundeji has a few things going for him other than his physical traits—mainly a academic profile that lends itself to Notre Dame.

“A good gamble to take, but he’s a wait-and-see freshman. Let’s put a pin in this until spring time.”

2017 OUTLOOK
Falling behind two classmates at his own position makes it hard to expect much from Ogundeji this season aside from perhaps some special teams success. Both Hayes and Okwara excelled in spring practices, making Ogundeji’s path forward even cloudier.

While he will see the field this season, Ogundeji’s 2017 may hold more resemblance to his freshman season on the sidelines than he likes.

DOWN THE ROAD

That does not need to be a waste, though. If Ogundeji continues forward with the mature mindset represented in the above quotes upon his commitment, further development will only bode well for his future. Simply due to the nature of college football (injuries, transfers, suspensions, etc.), there is no such thing as having too many worthwhile pass rush threats. Should Ogundeji demonstrate that ability to the Notre Dame coaches, they will find him playing time in future seasons.

Some might speculate Ogundeji’s length could make him a candidate to move to linebacker, but that seems unlikely for now. His value is as a rusher, be it in specific situations in 2017 or in a larger role in 2018-2020.

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 (theoretically): Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle
No. 94 (theoretically): Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92 (theoretically): Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle