Counting down the Irish: 20-16

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After the first five slots of our Top 25 included three talented freshmen that could play supporting roles, our next five spots are dedicated to upperclassmen that will be major contributors this season, all expected to be members of the starting lineup.

If the inclusion of Jaylon Smith, Max Redfield and Greg Bryant represented the idea of bottled promise, the inclusion of numbers 20-16 on this list have mostly all demonstrated their abilities to the coaching staff.

If you’re looking for a sign that the depth of this team is improving, these five spots are a great data-point supporting that conclusion. Last season’s 20-16 included Robby Toma, Christian Lombard, Davaris Daniels, Troy Niklas and Bennett Jackson. The combined starts for that group heading into the season? Zero. Only two members of this group haven’t started any games, and the staff has evaluated both players and expects them to be key contributors this season.

Let’s continue the rollout of our annual rankings.

2013 Irish Top 25
25. Max Redfield (S, Fr.)
24. Elijah Shumate (S, Soph.)
23. Jaylon Smith (OLB, Fr.)
22. Ishaq Williams (OLB, Jr.)
21. Greg Bryant (RB, Fr.)

RANKINGS

20. Christian Lombard (RT, Sr.) That Lombard, a year after starting the entire season at right tackle, falls a spot in this rankings from 2012 should give you an idea of how much better the personnel is getting in South Bend. Because there’s no reason to think Lombard is going to be a lesser player in 2013 than he was in his first season in the starting lineup.

Lombard’s career trajectory is right on schedule, with the one-time Army All-American redshirting his freshman season, contributing on special teams and in mop-up duty as a sophomore, before winning the right tackle job as a junior. With a fifth-year available, Lombard should end up being a three-year starter on the offensive line.

At what position remains the one interesting question. While there isn’t necessarily the depth along the line yet that the coaching staff would like, Lombard has the positional flexibility to slide inside to guard if needed. That could be because Ronnie Stanley presents himself to be one of the five best offensive linemen on the roster or because Conor Hanratty isn’t ready to start at guard. But Lombard is a solid technician who will likely be a whole lot better in his second season than his first.

Highest Ranking: 8th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (three ballots)

19. Amir Carlisle (RB, Jr.) Carlisle is the sole wildcard of this group. The USC transfer sat out last season with a nagging ankle injury, when a nerve issue extended a broken ankle from spring practice well into the regular season. (Getting Carlisle immediate eligibility was an impressive task by the Irish’s compliance department, though they couldn’t handle any medical maladies.)

Carlisle bad luck on the injury front extended to this spring, when he broke his collarbone in full-contact drills. While he returned to practice less than a week later, the very real questions about his durability were cemented.

At his best, Carlisle could be the most explosive offensive weapon the Irish have. He’s capable of being a threat in the return game, he’s dangerous as a running back or receiver, and he’s got top end speed and moves that nobody on last season’s roster can match. Of course, he’s yet to take a snap wearing an Irish uniform, so any practice All-American awards need to be transferable to the gridiron on Saturday.

Brian Kelly raised more than a few eyebrows when he said that the coaching staff had seen all that they needed from Carlisle in the spring’s first handful of practices. That might just mean they too expect Carlisle to be one of the team’s most dangerous weapons, playing both running back and slot receiver. All he has to do is prove he can stay on the field.

Highest Ranking: 9th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (two ballots).

18. Carlo Calabrese (LB, Grad.) At this point in his career, we know what Calabrese is. And that’s a productive player at inside linebacker that still sometimes struggles in space and on passing downs. But sharing time with fellow fifth-year player Dan Fox, the duo played productive football next to Manti Te’o last season, anchoring one of the toughest run defenses in the country.

Calabrese was suspended for the season opener, but proceeded to put up strong numbers, playing key roles each week while starting five games. He may occasionally get exploited as a cover man, but the 245-pound sledgehammer will only improve in his final season for the Irish.

With Te’o gone and first-year starter Jarrett Grace stepping into his place, the pressure to be productive will be heaped on all three inside linebackers. While they won’t be able to replace the interceptions that Te’o miraculously made last season, they have every chance to be as productive making tackles and playing assignment correct football.

Highest Ranking: 13th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (two ballots).

17. Jarrett Grace (LB, Jr.) That our panel voted Grace above Calabrese shows the respect afforded to the heir to Manti Te’o’s starting job. Anchoring multiple special teams units last season, Grace is now stepping into the starting lineup, all but being handed the starting job while Calabrese and Fox will continue their platoon.

That alone shows you the belief this coaching staff has in Grace. The 6-foot-3, 248-pounder is a sideline-to-sideline player that many believe is faster and more athletic than Te’o. A highly touted recruit who turned down Nick Saban to come to South Bend, Grace will now anchor a front seven filled with talent, but desperately needs production out of the first year starter.

There’s every reason to believe that Grace will deliver it, though holding him to the standard Te’o delivered last season would be unreasonable. That said, he’s already established himself as one of the team’s leaders and will likely carve out a place in Irish fans’ hearts with his energy and athleticism.

Highest Ranking: 7th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (two ballots).

16. Matthias Farley (S, Jr.) Probably one of the best surprises on a 2012 team that was filled with many. After a freshman season spent playing wide receiver on the scout team, Farley transitioned to safety in what was likely a depth chart precaution, then proceeded to play his way into the starting lineup through an excellent spring practice and fall camp.

A cerebral and physical player, Farley moved quickly ahead of fifth-year senior Dan McCarthy, seeing surprise duty as a starter against Navy at outside linebacker before proceeding to start ten more games after Jamoris Slaughter’s season-ending injury. Learning on the job, Farley avoided giving up the big play, was tough and physical down in the box, and battled through a broken hand to keep the secondary intact.

There’s every reason to believe that Farley’s game will only move forward this season. After spending spring ball implanted in the starting lineup as the boundary-side safety, Farley will likely play a role similar to Slaughter’s, a tough guy that can deliver a blow in the box, but run with receivers as well. Farley is one of the true great developmental recruits that Kelly and company pulled out of the blue, a little known three-star recruit with no national or state ranking to his name. A student of the game, his experience last season coupled with a year learning the job with Bob Elliott, should have him set for a breakout season.

Highest Ranking: 9th. Lowest Ranking: 23rd.

***

Our voting panel:

Brian Hamilton, Chicago Tribune
Pete Sampson, Irish Illustrated
JJ Stankevitz, CSN Chicago
John Vannie, ND Nation
John Walters, MediumHappy.com
Ryan Ritter, HerLoyalSons.com
4pointshooter, OneFootDown.com
Keith Arnold, Inside the Irish

Notre Dame adds another 2019 commitment out of Georgia

rivals.com
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Eight months from now, Notre Dame may be forced to sign a smaller recruiting class than usual thanks to the larger class this past recruiting cycle. If that expectation does indeed hold, this past week’s five commitments, including consensus three-star safety Kyle Hamilton’s (Marist High School; Atlanta) on Tuesday evening, will be a hefty portion of the class.

Hamilton becomes the second safety in the class, and in the week, following the Saturday pledge of rivals.com four-star Litchfield Ajavon (Episcopal H.S.; Alexandria, Va.). Hamilton’s list of finalists included Michigan, Georgia, Ohio State and Clemson, a grouping more telling than perhaps his recruiting ranking is.

Some of that expected potential may derive from Hamilton’s 6-foot-3 frame. Such length at safety would be a change for the Irish, currently without a safety taller than six-feet in the rotation. Even heralded incoming-freshman Derrik Allen, also out of Georgia, is listed at only 6-foot-1.

It is a coincidence those two Georgia recruits, one signed and one now verbally-committed, are both safeties. Add in the January commitment of rivals.com three-star cornerback K.J. Wallace (Lovett; Atlanta), and a third defensive back comes from the state, along with class of 2018 signees tight end Tommy Tremble and running back C’Bo Flemister. Five prospects from Georgia, presuming both Hamilton and Wallace do indeed sign with Notre Dame, is not a coincidence.

“My point being is that it’s such a fertile ground in recruiting, you just need to be in [Georgia], and there’s great football players in there,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said in December 2017, during the inaugural early signing period. “We’ve got so many players that we can talk about that came of there. It’s just having a presence and getting back into a very, very good recruiting area for us. We need to have a great presence there.”

No matter what state Hamilton comes from, he could find himself quickly in the mix at safety upon his arrival. Presuming health for the current safety depth chart, juniors Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill will have one year of eligibility remaining apiece upon Hamilton’s enrollment. Junior Alohi Gilman will have two, thanks to spending the 2017 season sidelined following his transfer from Navy. Early-enrolled freshman Griffith and Allen will both have three more years, presuming both play in 2018.

Thus, Hamilton and Ajavon could find themselves backing up that last duo as soon as 2020.

Blue-Gold Game Leftovers: Notre Dame’s offensive ceiling is tantalizing, though also unlikely

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Immediately following the 2017 spring game, I walked by two much smarter, savvier and more veteran Notre Dame reporters on our way to post-game interviews. Our two minutes of exchange included them riffing on various hypothetical position changes that were eventually not seen come fall, including how much better of a guard than a tackle Tommy Kraemer could be. It should be noted, the junior began lining up at guard this spring.

My contribution to the conversation hinged entirely on repeating, “That offense just isn’t ready. It’s not close to ready.”

Of course, that assessment figured the spring game struggles were against a porous Irish defense, something freshly-arrived and since-departed defensive coordinator Mike Elko had already taken tangible steps toward fixing, far quicker than expected.

That evaluation also failed to recognize the potential of a running attack led by Josh Adams. Notre Dame knew it had a stalwart running back, and did not need to see more than eight carries for 39 yards and a touchdown from the lead back.

The point stood, though. The offense was not ready then or in November.

Driving away from this past Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game, the thought bouncing around my pickup’s two-seat cab was simple: This offense is unlikely to reach its ceiling, but if it did, it would be really, absurdly high-powered.

This time, that assessment offers some deference to first-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s ability to turn nine returning starters into another strong defense, perhaps superior to last year’s.

The praise of the offense must be hedged thanks to IF after IF after IF after IF. If senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush displays those mechanics and that accuracy against opposing defenses …
If senior running back Dexter Williams (pictured above) decides it is worthwhile to play, and play well, through pain …
If junior receiver Chase Claypool maintains the necessary emotional equilibrium …
If senior tight end Alizé Mack offers a consistent performance, even if not stellar, but stable …

In those four upperclassmen alone, the Irish have unique talents whom opposing defensive coordinators should lose sleep thinking about. They will determine how high this offense’s ceiling is, while the likes of senior receiver Miles Boykin, junior running back Tony Jones and sophomore tight end Cole Kmet will set the floor, along with what looks to be yet another overpowering offensive line (with Kraemer at right guard).

Obviously, the most-promising players always set the height of a vaulted the ceiling. As they perform against Michigan, Stanford and Virginia Tech will determine how the season ends. However, to pinpoint four like this is an extreme end of the spectrum.

Exiting last year’s Blue-Gold Game, it was clear Wimbush needed to learn much more of offensive coordinator Chip Long’s scheme. Aside from that, the only possible ways to increase the offense’s potency was to teach receiver Kevin Stepherson self-discipline and figure out why Mack could not make a gameday impact. The rest was essentially known, even if the running game’s potential was overlooked after the spring exhibition.

Entering this summer, the gap between the offense’s floor and its ceiling is a vast one. To have four question marks of this magnitude speaks to the possible volatility awaiting in the fall. Logically speaking, it is most likely two of the four above IFs become realities. In that case, it will be a good offense, but not the utterly threatening one conceivable. The odds are slim all four come to fruition, but crazier things have happened, especially when discussing the rapid development of 18- to 21-year-olds.

Without Adams following two All-American offensive linemen, this rendition of the Notre Dame offense may take a step backward, but the talent is there for it to actually improve, to carry the day if/when an experienced quarterback picks apart the defense (see: the Seminoles’ Deondre Francois).

That could not be said in 2017.

OTHER QUICK TAKEAWAYS FROM THE BLUE-GOLD GAME:
Much of this will be discussed in greater length in the coming two weeks, but …
— The interior of the offensive line — fifth-year left guard Alex Bars, fifth-year center Sam Mustipher and Kraemer at right guard — is quite a physically-imposing trio. Some defensive ends may find success against first-year starter and junior left tackle Liam Eichenberg, especially early in the season, but the inside trio should at least create massive holes for the Irish running game.

— Ideally Long can deploy Mack and Kmet together, but the spring performance of the latter certainly eases the concerns about the maturation and consistency of the former.

Notre Dame may need an unexpected influx of production from senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery if the fifth-year tackle he is intended to line up alongside, Jonathan Bonner, does not recover fully from a wrist injury suffered in the beginning of 2017. (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP)

— Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly insists fifth-year defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner’s fitness will not be overly-effected by the wrist injury that kept him out of most of spring practice and all of the Blue-Gold Game.

“He’s been doing everything (in weight-lifting) but at lighter weight, and now he’s only a couple of weeks away from being full-go,” Kelly said Saturday. “He was already physically really gifted, so we don’t think that’s going to be a big curve for him, and he’ll be able to start training aggressively when we get back here in June.”

Consider this scribe skeptical. Not only is Kelly often overly-optimistic about injury effects and timetables, but to think missing six months of strength and conditioning will not be noticeable along the defensive interior is idealistic at best. Bonner’s 2017 emergence was a direct result of the arrival of strength and conditioning coordinator Matt Balis.

Without more of that work, the Irish will need to turn to sophomore Kurt Hinish for an increase in snaps, perhaps pushing toward 50 per game with Bonner offering 20-30 and senior Micah Dew-Treadway filling in the balance. Hinish appears to be up to the task, which is necessary, because classmate Darnell Ewell is not.

Notre Dame gains commitments of four-star defensive end and three-star offensive tackle

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At this rate, Notre Dame might fill its 2019 recruiting class by the time the school year ends. With a Sunday morning commitment of a consensus four-star defensive end followed by a Monday evening pledge from a consensus three-star offensive tackle, the Irish class has grown from three recruits to seven in just four days.

The No. 238 prospect in the country and No. 28 at defensive end, per rivals.com, Howard Cross III (St. Joseph High School; Montvale, N.J.) announced his commitment via Twitter shortly after leaving campus from a visit for the Blue-Gold Game, choosing the Irish over offers from Michigan, North Carolina State and Virginia Tech, among others.

“I could tell [current Notre Dame players] really loved the school,” Cross said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “It was really, really big to talk to them. When I was going to all the colleges, that was the main thing I wanted to do. I wanted to get the perspective of the players.”

Cross joins consensus four-star defensive end Hunter Spears (Sachse H.S.; Texas) as half of the four defensive linemen already in the Irish recruiting class. As always, no collegiate defensive line can be deep enough. Considering the previous two recruiting classes have yielded a total of two defensive ends — Kofi Wardlow and Justin Ademilola — opportunity should be aplenty for Cross and Spears early in their careers.

The defensive end duo will likely spend a not-insignificant portion of their collegiate career practices butting heads with Andrew Kristofic (Pine-Richland; Gibsonia, Pa.). If the high school of Pine-Richland jumps off the figurative page to Notre Dame recruitniks, that is because Kristofic has much experience protecting high school teammate and incoming Irish freshman quarterback Phil Jurkovec.

He chose Notre Dame, and new offensive line coach Jeff Quinn, rather than offers from a lengthy list including Clemson, Georgia and Ohio State.

“The combination that their school is able to provide being one of the very best schools in the entire country academically and one of the very athletically stands out,” Kristofic said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “I think they have the best combination of those two things on top of being a school that is known for being able to produce such great offensive linemen is something that no other schools really have the combination of all those.

“When you can put together all the things that they can there, it’s certainly not something you can overlook or take for granted.”

The beginning of this influx of commitments came with the Friday decision of consensus four-star offensive tackle John Olmstead (St. Joseph; Metuchen, N.J.), the only other offensive lineman in the class to this point. Of the seven recruits committed to the Irish, five are four-star talents.

Former Notre Dame defensive lineman, Kona Schwenke, dies at 25

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Former Notre Dame defensive lineman Kona Schwenke, 25, reportedly died in his sleep Sunday morning. The cause of death has not yet been confirmed.

Schwenke spent four seasons along the Irish defensive front, culminating in a 23-tackle senior season, in 2013. Attrition along the defensive line in his first two seasons forced Schwenke into playing time, costing him a likely fifth-year with much greater production. He played in 31 games total, making 30 tackles.

Part of a Hawaiian surge in Notre Dame recruiting, Schwenke joined the likes of receiver Robby Toma and linebacker Manti Te’o in coming from the island in 2009 and 2010. The first two committed during Charlie Weis’ tenure, but Schwenke made the leap at the very beginning of Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s career, one of the first recruits to commit to Kelly at Notre Dame. Since then, sophomore defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa has renewed the trend.

Schwenke graduated in 2014 with a degree in anthropology. He then signed with the practice squad of the Kansas City Chiefs, moving around four different NFL franchises chasing his dream. Earlier this month he took part in a scouting event, The Spring League, gaining some notice when he forced Heisman-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel into a fumble.

Former Irish teammates took to social media Sunday afternoon celebrating Schwenke’s life and friendship.