Pregame Six Pack: Blue vs. Gold

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Notre Dame’s spring practices will come to a close on Saturday with the annual Blue-Gold game. For the first time in what feels like a decade, there doesn’t seem to be a major storyline playing out in front of our eyes.

There is no quarterback controversy, with Everett Golson holding down the No. 1 job and Tommy Rees serving as the veteran backup. There is no cloud hanging over the head coach, with Brian Kelly and athletic director Jack Swarbrick putting the final touches on a contract extension. And while the Irish will need to replace an All-American on both sides of the ball, there’s confidence that the sums of the parts will do just fine filling the individual shoes of Tyler Eifert and Manti Te’o.

With the action set to be broadcast on NBC Sports Channel at 1 p.m. EST Saturday, let’s run through the pregame six pack. As usual, here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings before the offense takes on the defense.

1. With depth still not ideal, it’s going to be Offense vs. Defense on Saturday afternoon.

With some depth issues along the offensive line, Kelly decided to go with an offense vs. defense format for Saturday’s televised scrimmage. It’s the same scoring system that led to the defense beating the offense 42-31 last year, and will likely produce another high scoring affair.

For those unfamiliar with the set-up, here’s how the scoring system will be broken down.

OFFENSIVE POINTS:
6 points for a touchdown (1 point for PAT kicks, no rush allowed).
3 points for a field goal.

DEFENSIVE POINTS:
4 points for a defensive stop before offense crosses the 50.
2 points for a defensive stop after offense crosses the 50.
7 points for a turnover before the offense crosses the 50.
3 points for a turnover after the offense crosses the 50.
1 point for holding the offense to a field goal.

Last year, the offense turned the ball over six time, even with a running clock in the second half. Let’s see if they can clean things up this spring.

***

2. It’ll be a little shy of all hands on deck Saturday.

For a spring that’s been filled with its share of heavy hitting and full contact, the Irish walk into Saturday’s scrimmage with a pretty healthy roster. But Kelly walked us through the players that would be sitting out the Blue-Gold game.

Dan Fox, ILB – Shoulder
Bennett Jackson, CB – Shoulder
Nicky Baratti, S – Shoulder
Chase Hounshell, DL – Shoulder
Amir Carlisle, RB – Collarbone
Corey Robinson, WR – Elbow
Tyler Plantz, RB

Outside of Hounshell’s labrum tear, which will keep him out for the 2013 season, all injuries are expected to be healed before the start of summer camp.

***

3. Even though we won’t see Carlisle and Robinson this Saturday, it was an impressive spring for both players.

Irish fans will have to wait a few more months before getting a look at Amir Carlisle. The former USC running back, who received a waiver that granted him immediate eligibility in 2012, still sat out the season after lingering nerve damage slowed down his recovery from a broken ankle suffered on the eve of spring practice.

Carlisle suffered another injury setback this spring when he broke his collarbone during one of the team’s first padded practices, casting a doubt over whether or not he’ll ever be able to withstand the wear and tear that comes playing running back.

Kelly didn’t seem to have that concern. And Carlisle proved more than a few skeptics wrong by practicing almost immediately after surgery. He even put pads on for the team’s final workout, though will be held out of Saturday’s game.

“Amir Carlisle was in pads today, but we will not put him in a contact situation,” Kelly said. “He tried to talk himself into that, but we’re not going to let him.”

Holding Corey Robinson back from the Blue-Gold game will be a disappointment for Irish fans hoping to see for themselves the moves that turned more than a few heads this spring. Robinson, a below-the-radar recruit who many expected to need some seasoning, has looked more college-ready than anyone expected.

Kelly talked about the type of role Robinson can have next season for the Irish.

“He’ll be a role player, kind of like Chris Brown was,” Kelly said. “Chris helped us win a game against Oklahoma. That’s how you have to look at Corey Robinson. No, he’s not a finished product yet. He’s got to get stronger. But he does have a skill set. When you throw that ball near him, he comes down with it. So I think there’s a place for him in our offense, but he won’t be a featured guy.”

With an offense that struggled to produce points in the red zone last year, a six-foot-five (and growing) receiver with hands like Spiderman can’t be a bad thing.

4. We’ll see how ready the newcomers are on the Irish offensive line.

It’s a big day for the young offensive lineman on the Irish roster, with Harry Hiestand getting a nice long look at his depth chart. We already know that Zack Martin, Chris Watt and Christian Lombard are going to be in the starting lineup. What remains to be seen is who gets to next two jobs.

It appears Nick Martin and Conor Hanratty have the inside track at center and guard. But it’s a great opportunity for guys like Matt Hegarty and Mark Harrell to make a move, and young tackles Ronnie Stanley and Steve Elmer to show that they’re one of the best five, potentially pushing Lombard inside to guard.

Against one of the best defensive lines in the country, it’ll be one of the toughest assignments of the year for the offensive line. But before four new freshman make their way onto campus, it’s one last piece of game tape to show the coaching staff.

***

5. With Zeke Motta and Jamoris Slaughter gone, let’s see how the kids play at safety.

While the Irish secondary unfortunately had to say goodbye to Jamoris Slaughter far too early, this will be the first time we see the safeties without its two veterans leading. Last year, it was Motta who played traffic cop, getting the defense in alignment and holding down the fort. This year, that appears to have fallen into Matthias Farley‘s hands, with Elijah Shumate all but anointed by Kelly to be the other safety across from him earlier this week.

Just don’t tell Bob Diaco that.

The Irish’s star defensive coordinator wasn’t ready to heap praise on the talented rising sophomore, who has impressed the Irish staff, but still must have a ways to go.

“I wouldn’t say so, no,” Diaco bluntly said, when asked if Shumate was one of the spring’s stars. “Elijah we’re pleased with. He’s a very talented player. But he’s a long ways away from functioning and driving our defense. Light years away.”

That kind of tough love and honesty isn’t all that surprising from Diaco, who has always been brutally candid. But it also goes to show you how vital the safety position is in the Irish defense.

Since reloading the depth chart in recruiting, the position is now filled with players Kelly and Diaco hand picked for the system. And while it appears Farley has locked down one starting job, there will be others that see the field, with Shumate working as the No. 1 field safety by default.

With this spring a huge determining factor for the depth chart entering fall camp, keep an eye on a few guys battling to work their way into the rotation.

Austin Collinsworth is back and healthy after a lost season to injury. Eilar Hardy seems fully recovered from a serious knee injury that robbed him of some confidence and athleticism. Both have shown themselves useful this spring. Nicky Baratti will also force his way back into the conversation when he’s healthy.

Chuck Martin and the Irish offense will take some shots down the field on Saturday. With Bennett Jackson sitting, let’s see how the young secondary reacts.

***

6. In Notre Dame Stadium, natural grass is still greener… for now.

On the heels of Notre Dame and NBC’s ten-year extension, athletic director Jack Swarbrick spent some time with the media yesterday. In between ducking questions on scheduling and the announcement date of Brian Kelly’s new contract extension, Swarbrick calmed the nerves of traditionalists, when he said field turf was staying out of Notre Dame Stadium.

“I see nothing in the near term that would move us away from natural grass,” Swarbrick said. “Down the road as we contemplate the future of the facility, finding more ways to use it is important,” Swarbrick said. “Might turf be a dynamic in that? It may. But alone, it doesn’t solve the problem.”

If you enjoy reading between the lines of the always cagey Swarbrick, the sentence “contemplate the future of the facility,” might be one worth digging into. That could mean renovations, remodels, Jumbotrons, or private suites.

But until then, the improvements made by the field turf crew have been enough to stave off a change to an artificial surface.

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s tight ends, a surplus of depth, unproven talent

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Notre Dame has such tight end depth, it was somewhat surprising when the Irish pursued a second tight end in the class of 2018, but the possibilities of yet another playmaker in Tommy Tremble combined with a physical option in George Takacs forced the coaching staff’s decision.

“I always like to have that versatility each year and each signing class,” Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long said Feb. 7. “… We don’t want to pass up on a great athlete … being able to present different challenges to the defense with those kind of guys and still be very physical at the same time.”

That is a key to remember when looking at the Irish tight ends — Long sees different purposes amid the individuals in that position’s meeting room. Tremble, for example, could line up as a receiver as often as not while Takacs might fill in as Durham Smythe most recently did, serving as an additional blocker when needed and offering sure hands otherwise. In many respects, the two roles are two different positions.

Spring Roster:
— Fifth-year Nic Weishar, who Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said had shoulder surgery recently, though Kelly did not offer a timetable for return.
— Rising senior Alizé Mack.
— Rising sophomore Cole Kmet, when he is not pitching in relief for the Irish baseball team. Kmet made his second appearance of the season Thursday night. A letdown (3.0 IP, 3 ER, 3 H, 4 K), it did not go anywhere near as well as his debut did (4.0 IP, 0 ER, 1 H, 3 K).

@NDFootball

— Rising sophomore Brock Wright, who underwent a shoulder surgery of his own shortly following the regular season. A recent photo (left) from the @NDFootball Twitter account indicates Wright is partaking in at least some winter conditioning drills.
— Early-enrolled freshman Takacs.

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman Tremble.

Depth Chart Possibilities:
Long uses multiple tight ends, deploying both of those aforementioned archetypes at the same time. That tendency should be seen even more often in 2018 with more options now available. A full year in a collegiate program should have both Kmet and Wright ready for bigger roles, challenging Weishar for some of what were Smythe’s snaps in 2017.

The third tight end will see opportunities. It is essentially a second-string role. If granting the argument of two different forms of tight ends, then even the fourth tight end will get chances, as he will simply be the second-stringer in that particular role.

Kmet would seem the more likely of the rising sophomores to get a bit more time, but that only means Wright will see plenty of time in a blocking back role, just as he did in situational packages in 2017.

Biggest Question:
Kmet could find his way to a more prominent role if he offers something not yet seen from Mack: consistency not just on the field, but in all respects.

Can Mack finally translate his athleticism and potential into a consistent mismatch and productive threat? At his best, he could be the product of an offensive coordinator’s daydreams, but Mack has so rarely been at his best. That applies both on and off the field, considering his multiple drops in 2017 were followed by Kelly suspending Mack for an internal team matter for the Citrus Bowl before Notre Dame even headed down to Florida.

Another year of Mack spinning his wheels will result in a loss of playing time with the likes of Kmet and Tremble around. If Mack does not provide positive results in the spring while Kmet does, that shift could begin even before the Blue-Gold Game on April 21.

Fifth-year tight end Nic Weishar will provide Notre Dame not only with depth and experience in 2018, but also sure hands. That alone should give him a leg up on the other tight ends entering this spring. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Pertinent Reader Question:
“Every year a four- or five-star disappoints and every year a three-star or lower prospect surprises. My prediction is fall: Mack, rise: Weishar. I have been the lone man on the Weishar bandwagon for a few years now and really hope that this year he becomes the big receiving target we need.

What are your fallers and risers for this coming year?” — Mark H.

A logical argument can be made that “fallers” should not be labeled as such until after their collegiate careers conclude. There are so many factors that can limit a player for years before he breaks out. Consider rising senior receiver and former consensus four-star prospect Miles Boykin. As recently as New Year’s Eve, he may have been labeled a bust, but now he can lay claim to one of the most dramatic catches in Irish history and is a frontrunner for a starting role in 2018 with another year of eligibility remaining after that. He could end up with a stellar collegiate career by every measure.

Mack has had the opportunity to shine to date, and he has not done so, but he also might have two more seasons to go to change that reputation.

As for “risers,” Weishar makes sense and he certainly showcased his strong hands when given the chance in 2017, but his ceiling is likely not much higher than that. A couple touchdown catches, a handful of third-down conversions and a year of physical blocking would be a welcome success.

Notre Dame’s safeties, though, could stand out to fit the criteria laid out by Mark. If — and that is a two-letter word not to be overlooked — Navy transfer and rising junior Alohi Gilman and rising sophomore Jordan Genmark-Heath end up as productive starters for the season, then they will both have exceeded the expectations set out by star ratings.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Mack: 19 catches for 166 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by six receptions for 38 yards against North Carolina with rising junior quarterback Ian Book starting in place of an injured Brandon Wimbush.
Weishar: Nine catches for 52 yards and two touchdowns.
Kmet: Two catches for 14 yards; appeared in all 13 games.
Wright: Appeared in 11 games, no statistics recorded.

Notre Dame gets the letter: George Takacs
Notre Dame gets the letter: Tommy Tremble

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are
Linebackers, a proven two and then many questions

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s linebackers, a proven two and then many questions

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Any concerns about Notre Dame’s linebackers were allayed when Te’von Coney spurned the NFL to return for his senior season. That decision, and Drue Tranquill making the same move, means the Irish do not need to replace their two best playmakers at the position from last season.

Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Clark Lea does need to figure out how to fill in for the graduated Nyles Morgan and his 92 tackles, not to mention classmate Greer Martini and his 75, good for second and fourth on the team, respectively.

Spring Roster:
— Two known and welcome playmaking veterans in Coney and fifth-year Tranquill.
— More than a handful of unproven and untested possibilities in rising senior Asmar Bilal, rising juniors Jonathan Jones and Jamir Jones (no relation), and rising sophomores Drew White, David Adams and Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah.
— A trio of early-enrolled freshmen in Jack Lamb, Bo Bauer and Ovie Oghoufo.

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman Shayne Simon, a likely rover candidate.

Entering 2017, Te’von Coney was not even a starting linebacker. By the end of the season he was the leading tackler, and in 2018, he will be counted on as a defensive stalwart. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
Wherever Tranquill ends up — be it at rover or a more traditional linebacker position, with the latter seeming more likely — someone will need to earn the third starting role. Bilal is the front-runner for that duty, at either position, but he will need to show a quicker understanding of the game than he has in the past.

The rising senior has always been ready physically, but he has looked up the depth chart at the likes of Morgan, Martini, Coney and Tranquill. Opportunities were not readily available. Now that one very much is, Bilal will need to either seize it or get ready to be bypassed by the newcomers.

It would be a surprise for Lamb or Bauer to be named that third starter in their freshman season, but both could certainly land in the two-deep, as that entire second unit is up for grabs. Neither Jones showed much last season, and the linebacker recruiting emphasis of 2018 belied the coaching staffs’ opinions of the rising sophomores pretty clearly.

Presuming Bilal steps forward and secures the starting position, and some combination of Jones, Jones, Lamb and Bauer fill two of the backup roles, only Owusu-Koromoah stands out as an obvious rover substitute. In that respect, depth remains a concern at the defense’s second level, albeit less of one than in years past thanks to the influx of four touted freshmen.

Biggest Question:
Where does Tranquill line up against Michigan on Sept. 1? More to the current purpose, where does he line up in the Blue-Gold Game on April 21?

“My responsibility as linebackers coach is to put the best combination of people on the field,” Lea said Feb. 7. “I think everyone can see Drue Tranquill had a skillset, a talent base that can play multiple spots. Through the course of the winter and spring, we’ll take a look at different options.”

The duties at rover can be handled piecemeal, accounting for the tendencies of each opponent. When facing an up-tempo, aerial attack, perhaps even rising senior cornerback Shaun Crawford could be featured there. When facing a physical, ground-bound opponent, Bilal would make more sense.

Shifting around like that at the Buck linebacker spot makes far less sense. While Tranquill never necessarily had the speed to excel at safety, and two knee injuries only further limited him in that respect, he shined at rover in 2017. Concluding his collegiate career at linebacker is logical, both as it pertains to his development thus far and to his professional aspirations.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Rarely can a defense lose two of its top-four tacklers and still return more than 200 tackles from starting linebackers. Thus is the luxury provided by both Coney and Tranquill bypassing the NFL for another year.

Coney: 116 tackles, 13.0 tackles for loss including three sacks, and one forced fumble which he recovered.
Tranquill: 85 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss including 1.5 sacks, one interception, three pass breakups, three fumbles recovered and one fumble forced.
Bilal: 18 tackles with 1.5 for loss.
Jo. Jones: 10 tackles with one for loss and one pass breakup.
Ja. Jones: Four tackles.

A 2018 Statistical Thought:
Presuming linebacker health, the three starters should end up as Notre Dame’s leading tacklers once again in 2018, even with the presumed drop off from Morgan to insert Bilal or Owusu-Koromoah or Lamb or … here.

The Irish defensive line will be much improved in 2018. Once upon a time, that seemed a guarantee just because the expectations for the line entering 2017 were so low, but it instead became a strength. Developing that strength and making it the backbone of Notre Dame’s defense moving forward will serve to burgeon the linebackers’ tackle totals, both at and behind the line of scrimmage.

Notre Dame gets the letter: Jack Lamb
Notre Dame gets the letter: Bo Bauer
Notre Dame gets the letter: Shayne Simon
Notre Dame gets the letter: Ovie Oghoufo

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are

A second four-star defensive lineman, Hunter Spears, joins the Notre Dame class of 2019

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When Notre Dame got five heralded defensive line recruits on campus together in January, it turned heads. When Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston offered public optimism about the possible 2019 commitments, it raised expectations.

Notre Dame has now secured a second of those five with the Tuesday commitment of consensus four-star defensive end Hunter Spears (Sachse High School; Texas). He joins consensus four-star defensive tackle Jacob Lacey (South Warren H.S.; Bowling Green, Ky.) as the early foundation to the recruiting class, now with four prospects pledged.

“Honestly, just talking with the guys today — Jacob Lacey, Mazi Smith, Joseph Anderson, Nana Osafo-Mensah, and myself — if Notre Came can land all of us, that would be the dream d-line class for Notre Dame,” Spears told Irish Illustrated. “I could see another pass-rusher or two, also.”

The other three names Spears mentioned all joined Lacey and him on Jan. 27 at an on-campus Junior Day. All five qualify as consensus four-stars, with Smith (East Kentwood; Kentwood, Mich.) a tackle, Anderson (Siegel; Murfreesboro, Tenn.) an end, and Osafo-Mensah (Nolan Catholic; Fort Worth, Texas) a possible end/linebacker hybrid.

From left to right: Osafo-Mensah, Anderson, Elston, Smith, Lacey and Spears. (Twitter: @JacobLacey6)

Landing all five may be ambitious, but it would also be the envy of most of the country.

Spears already held offers from the likes of Alabama and Michigan State, despite missing his junior season with a knee injury. The Irish extended a scholarship offer to him in June, prompting an unofficial visit to watch a 49-14 Notre Dame victory over USC in October. In a video released by 247Sports.com, Spears cited that experience as one of the three primary reasons he committed, along with the educational opportunity and the “overall tradition and culture.”

Editor’s Note: That video has since been removed from this post due to its incessant auto-play function, but it can still be viewed here.

Spears shows quickness for a defensive lineman, but not such that he would ever be considered an outside linebacker in any form. His size makes him an ideal candidate to set the edge against the run or possibly move inside when the Irish need a quicker defensive line to handle certain opponents. His agility, though, will make him a three-down threat, both a pass-rusher and an edge-setter.

Notre Dame currently has depth at defensive end, but with only one signed in the class of 2018 (Justin Ademilola) and one remaining from the class of 2017 (Kofi Wardlow), an influx will be a priority this recruiting cycle. Spears will theoretically have one season to adjust to collegiate competition before the quartet of rising juniors Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem, Julian Okwara and Ade Ogundeji run out of eligibility. (The first three have two seasons remaining, while Ogundeji has the possibility of three more years.)

Hence, that Junior Day emphasis and Elston’s confidence on National Signing Day.

“I’ve been at Notre Dame now going on for nine years, and I haven’t had a stronger group of underclassmen that I’m recruiting than I have this year in 2019,” Elston said. “This could be the best defensive line haul we’ve ever had here.”

Expect to read that quote again and again (and possibly again) if any of the remaining three in the above photo follow Spears’ and Lacey’s lead.

RELATED READING: ‘Accelerated’ start creates bright outlook for Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting cycle

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are

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Notre Dame will open spring practice in about two weeks. As always, the proceedings will be filled with positive reviews, optimistic outlooks, and an injury or two.

A quick look at each position group should lend a better understanding to those perspectives and effects, beginning with the group lacking many questions — the running backs. The biggest reason there is relative certainty around the running backs is there are just so few of them following the winter dismissals of rising junior Deon McIntosh and rising sophomore C.J. Holmes.

Spring Roster:
Rising senior Dexter Williams (pictured above)
Rising junior Tony Jones
Early-enrolled freshman Jahmir Smith
Rising junior Mick Assaf

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman C’Bo Flemister

No one received more praise last spring practice than Tony Jones. He had a successful 2017, but compared to that hype, it could have been considered under-performing. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
At some point, either Williams or Jones will be named the Irish starter. It is quite possible that will be a distinction without much difference, as the two could certainly complement each other well in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s system, which already prefers to use multiple running backs.

Human nature, though, dictates is more likely one back receives a majority of the carries.

Biggest Question:
If Williams lines up with the No. 1 offensive unit in the Blue-Gold Game (April 21) to conclude spring practice, that will be the first genuine and tangible evidence he has improved as a pass blocker. Despite his big-play speed and seeming-ease breaking tackles, Williams’ one-dimensional game rendered him as much a liability as an asset in 2017.

Even in the Citrus Bowl victory, Williams followed up back-to-back rushes for a combined 36 yards with a blown pass protection resulting in a 13-yard sack.

“You have to be able to protect the quarterback with all positions,” Long said Feb. 7. “That dictates a whole lot if you’re going to play a lot or just be a situational guy. It’s something you have to embrace, the physicality.

“… That’s really the main thing, other than protecting the ball, that’ll keep a back off the field in our offense.”

The best ability is availability, and both an ankle injury and a balky quad limited Williams in that respect in 2017. Little blame can be cast for the natural bruises of football. Nonetheless, he will need to “embrace the physicality” if he wants to become more than a situational back.

Otherwise, Jones will be the default option. He has already shown a knack for both pass blocking and catching, making him a three-down option. Notre Dame will always prefer that rather than tip its hand to a running play every time Williams enters the game.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Obviously, Josh Adams carried the burden in the running game last season. Behind rising senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush and McIntosh, Williams was only the No. 4 rusher on the roster in yards and touchdowns, while Jones was No. 4 in carries and No. 5 in yards and scores.

Williams: 360 yards on 39 carries, a 9.2 average, with four touchdowns. Two catches for 13 yards and one score.
Jones: 232 yards on 44 carries, a 5.3 average, with three touchdowns. Six catches for 12 yards.
Notre Dame gets the letter: Jahmir Smith
Notre Dame gets the letter: C’Bo Flemister