Pregame Six Pack: Bring on the Owls

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Thirty-three weeks. Two hundred thirty-six days. Five thousand, six hundred sixty-four hours. Three hundred thirty-nine thousand eight hundred forty minutes. Twenty million, three hundred ninety thousand, four hundred seconds. No, those aren’t alternative lyrics to the Rent soundtrack, but rather how long the Irish have had to have the awful taste of defeat in their mouths.

After twelve glorious Saturdays of singing the Fight Song and celebrating sixty minutes (and sometimes more) of victorious football, the Irish laid an egg on the sport’s biggest stage, the clock striking midnight on a season cut from a fairy tale. The proceeding weeks acted as nothing more than piling on, with just about every conceivable headline working as another rimshot for Notre Dame haters sick and tired of another Irish return to glory, with this one carrying Notre Dame all the way to the BCS Championship game.

Weird as it may seem, the Notre Dame team and its coaching staff may have had better luck putting last season in the rearview mirror than the media and football-loving public. As we run out of things to talk about during the offseason abyss, a sort of revisionist history has set in — a recreation of last season that subtly shifted the Irish’s ugly but time-honored formula of ferocious defense and protecting the football into a revolving door of Hail Marys and Divine Intervention.

Twelve victories has started to turn into seven wins, five squeakers, and a public reckoning. Never mind that Notre Dame out-rushed, out-passed, out-first downed, and fumbled the ball away three times (including once in the end zone) against a Stanford team and still beat a team many expect to see play Alabama for the title this year. That victory has become the product of a referee’s overtime blunder. Forget that Ohio State scraped by a Cal team that got its coach fired, one of Mark Dantonio’s worst Spartan squads, a four-win Indiana team that lost to Ball State, needed a furious comeback (and overtime) to beat Purdue, and had close victories over Wisconsin and Michigan. Urban Meyer’s team is a consensus top two team in the country.

But all of that is water under the bridge now, with college football’s silly season all but forgotten with kickoffs happening all across the country on this final weekend of summer. So Irish fans put down your clubs. The battle is over and the games finally count. Now Brian Kelly’s squad gets to forge a new identity as it looks to take out some long festering frustrations against a Temple team that looks overmatched on paper.

With kickoff set for 3:30 p.m. ET in South Bend, and the game broadcast (and livestream) on NBC, let’s dive into the season’s first pregame six pack.

As usual, here are six tidbits, leftovers, fun facts, and miscellaneous musings before the No. 14 Fighting Irish take on the Temple Owls.

***

How much will the Irish showcase during their season opener? 

Notre Dame enters Saturday’s game better than a four touchdown favorite. And with a visit to Ann Arbor on the books for next weekend, there’s a very real possibility that the Irish show a very vanilla look on both sides of the ball, holding out their best stuff for the Wolverines.

Still, for Notre Dame fans looking to see just what this edition of the Irish have in store for us, even the most basic game plan will supply some long overdue answers.

Consider this a short checklist of things to keep an eye on:

* How does Kelly distribute carries?
* How often does Tommy Rees throw the football?
* Who’s the next man in on the defensive line?
* What’s the rotation like at safety and linebacker?
* How does the right side of the offensive line look?

We’ve already talked about the team approach to special teams, with graduate student Nick Tausch given the first shot at the placekicking job after losing the job to both David Ruffer and Kyle Brindza. But consider Saturday a chance to face live bullets while getting a feel for the game, especially in the above areas.

***

George Atkinson may be the team’s starting running back, but Amir Carlisle is the X (or Z) factor. 

It’s been a long time since Amir Carlisle has been spotted on a football field when it matters. After starting his Notre Dame career a calendar year later than he hoped, Carlisle will finally don the Blue and Gold this Saturday.

So much has changed since Carlisle was last a difference-maker on a football field. Back in 2011, Carlisle, then a gifted freshman running back for USC, turned a Matt Barkley screen pass into a touchdown, helping the Trojan quarterback set another school record on the afternoon.

After a transfer to Notre Dame and working his way back from a broken ankle and collarbone, Carlisle could be the key towards unlocking the Irish offense, the rare player with the ability to play running back or the slot (Z receiver), something Kelly has looked for since coming to South Bend.

While it appears that George Atkinson has held onto the starting role through a spirited training camp that featured pushes from all six scholarship running backs, Carlisle’s ability to do it all will be counted on by the head coach.

“Versatility is great if you can handle it. You can say, ‘I want you to be versatile and play all these positions,’ but if you can’t handle it, then you can’t be versatile,” Kelly explained. “What makes him the player that he is is that he can handle those dual roles, and you start with the fact that he’s a very smart kid.”

There will continue to be concerns about Carlisle’s durability until he proves its not an issue, but after a long wait, it’ll be fun to see what the Irish’s new #3 can do.

***

Not that the Irish wanted to use him, but the quarterback depth chart will be without Malik Zaire. 

My how fortunes have changed for a position that was once the envy of college football. Set to enter spring practice with five scholarship quarterbacks, the Irish are down to Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix this Saturday, with freshman Malik Zaire being held out because of a bout with mono.

That’s forced Kelly to turn to Luke Massa as the team’s emergency No. 3 quarterback, with the Ohio native returning to his signal-caller roots after ditching the red jersey for the wide receiver position group early in his Irish career. Kelly’s also turned to fourth-string walk-on Will Cronin, a little known senior who came out of nowhere to help this week.

“This morning our last blood workup for Malik was that he is not going to be able to play on Saturday,” Kelly said Thursday after practice. “Luke Massa took reps this week as our third quarterback. Will Cronin, a walk-on that we brought in as part of our 105 was scout team quarterback along with Rashad Kinlaw. Both of those young men were the scout team quarterbacks this week. But Luke got a lot of reps as our No. 3 this week.”

Massa was part of a three-quarterback class that included Rees and Hendrix and was perhaps best knows as the high school teammate of blue-chip offensive lineman Matt James at St. Xavier, who tragically passed away during a Spring Break accident during his senior year of high school. While Massa has made his way into the Irish’s Saturday plans as the team’s holder this season, seeing him at quarterback would be a sight.

But perhaps an even bigger one would be Cronin working his way onto the field. The 5-foot-11 inch, 180-pound senior walk-on wasn’t on the official roster the last three seasons for the Irish, already one-upping Rudy in the “would you believe it?” category. The 2008 2A Illinois state champion quarterback was an honorable mention Academic All-State competitor at Immaculate Conception high school in Elmurst, Illinois, putting up a career day in September of 2009 when he threw for 422 yards and five touchdowns in a tough 46-38 shootout loss to the St. Edwards Green Wave.

Part of me thinks Cronin having a chance to even contribute this week as a scout team player may turn this Saturday’s game into a new career-best moment.

(Now all he has to do is find his way onto the field in garbage time…)

***

With all the offseason offensive wrinkles, will Notre Dame finally reveal The Pistol?

Brian Kelly brought former Nevada coach Chris Ault to campus this offseason, inviting the offensive innovator to Notre Dame’s coaching clinic, where Ault talked about the Pistol offense. A formation and offensive package that Ault’s largely credited with inventing, it’s a shotgun formation that features a running back lined up directly behind the quarterback.

Early in fall camp, Kelly did his best to downplay the use of the Pistol. But even in the media’s limited viewing window, it’s been clear that the formation has been a big part of the team’s practice efforts. And with George Atkinson a running back that can do some damage if he gets started running downhill, the Pistol is a great way for a spread team to infuse a few power principles to its offensive attack.

“He ran downhill very well in high school, and we felt like the pistol could fit him very well,” Kelly said of Atkinson. “Not just him, but we felt like it was something that could benefit us moving forward.”

Still, Kelly was quick to downplay any widespread change to the offense, particularly when the best quarterbacks in the formation generally have some dual-threat capabilities.

“It’s just another piece to our offense that gives us the versatility that we’re looking for,” Kelly said earlier this week. “I think week to week you may see it a little bit more than others, and some you may not see it at all.  I just think it’s another piece that helps us complement the players we have.”

***

It’s finally time to see this freshman class in action.

Last year against Navy, the Irish played 47 different players in the first quarter alone, on the way to getting 17 players their first collegiate action. With a hot and humid day on tap for South Bend on Saturday, expect to see plenty of guys seeing the field.

That includes the freshman class. A group that Brian Kelly has already singled out as one of his most competitive ever, the “IrishMob” that was such a cohesive unit as a recruiting class will now get to strut their stuff on the field for the first time.

Let’s go quickly through the class and give you a quick rundown of what to expect from each player this Saturday:

Hunter Bivin — He’s made the two-deep, but expect him to stay on the sideline this year.
Greg Bryant — One of camp’s big surprises should be revealed this weekend.
Devin Butler — With depth at corner, Butler will likely spend Saturday watching.
Michael Deeb — Expect this mauler to make an impact on special teams immediately.
Steve Elmer — You’ll see him rotate in at right tackle.
Tarean Folston — It’s up in the air if he’ll work his way into the crowded RB rotation.
William Fuller — Just outside the two-deep, he’s a talented young deep threat.
Mike Heuerman — With three veterans in front of him, it might be special teams or bust.
Torii Hunter Jr. — While there’s been progress in his leg’s recovery, a redshirt is likely.
Rashad Kinlaw — Helped out at scout team QB, his athleticism could get him on the field.
Cole Luke — Already one of the team’s best corners. Will wear #36 because of special teams.
Jacob Matuska — One of the team’s best positions isn’t its deepest. But a likely redshirt.
Mike McGlinchey — One of camp’s biggest surprises. Closer to the field than many expected.
Colin McGovern — A high school injury and depth at guard makes a redshirt an easy choice.
John Montelus — Shoulder injury and 340-pounds of bulk means a saved year of eligibility.
James Onwualu — Kelly called him one of camp’s best surprises. Will see the field.
Doug Randolph — Surgery ended his season before it began.
Max Redfield — Just outside the two-deep (for now), he’s too talented to keep off special teams.
Corey Robinson — Get ready to see this red zone match-up wreak havoc.
Isaac Rochelle — Injuries or not, Rochelle is too talented to keep off the field.
Jaylon Smith — His star turns begins Saturday.
Durham Smythe — Silky smooth tight end is a long shot to play this year.
Malik Ziare — Mono or not, he’s better off saving a year of eligibility.

***

Most Notre Dame coaches find success. But for Brian Kelly, now comes the hard part.

While they didn’t go undefeated, Bob Davie, Ty Willingham and Charlie Weis all at one point looked like they’d be the next great Notre Dame head coach. So with Brian Kelly coming off a twelve-win regular season, now comes the hard part: Doing it again.

NBC Sports’ Joe Posnanski headed to South Bend last week to investigate what makes Brian Kelly different. After talking with Dan Fox, Zack Martin, assistant coach Bob Elliott and others, Posnanski believes it’s Kelly’s innate ability to understand and connect to his team.

Take this interesting snippet from Posnanski’s excellent piece:

All of last season, while coaching at Notre Dame, Bob Elliott would administer daily self-dialysis. His kidneys were failing. He said it was more of a pain that painful. This past February, after the season, he had a kidney transplant, with his sister Betsy as the donor. He says he’s doing well.

And he says that going through that last year while coaching a great Notre Dame team taught him a lot about what makes Brian Kelly win. Elliott has been around some of the greatest coaches in college football history. His father, Bump Elliott, was coach at Michigan for 10 years and athletic director at Iowa for more than two decades. Bob himself has coached for 34 years and has worked under Bill Snyder at Kansas State, under Hayden Fry at Iowa, under Dick Crum at North Carolina. He has some connection to just about everybody in college football.

And he says that what amazes him about Kelly is how well he understands the people around him. He said that Kelly seemed to know when to check in and when to butt out. Kelly seemed to know how to revitalize Elliott in low moments without making a big deal out of it. Kelly just understood. This is what everybody keeps coming back to when they talk about Kelly — Elliott says it’s the most remarkable talent of a remarkable coach.

“Oh, he’s a great technical coach too,” Elliott says. “He’s been successful for a long time and he knows the game as well as anybody. But what makes him unique, I think, is that guys like to play for Brian. Coaches like to coach for Brian. He’s one of my favorites. He lets coaches do our jobs without micromanaging unless there is something that needs to be micromanaged. And then he does it in a respectful way. And he is very much in charge — he sets the tone for everything.

“It’s hard to build a family environment. That’s what coaches are always going for, right? You want players who play for each other and push each other and make each other better. That’s a hard thing to accomplish. Brian Kelly is as good as anybody Ive ever seen at building that environment.”

It’s worth noting that in Brian Kelly’s first 39 games at Notre Dame, he’s won 28 of them. In Lou Holtz’s first 39 games, he won 29. Extracting just one more similarity from the two: Both Kelly and Holtz averaged five losses a season in their first two years on the Irish sideline. They each won twelve games their third season.

For the record, Holtz followed up his 1988 National Championship season with a 12-1 campaign only spoiled by a late November loss to Miami. We’ll see what Kelly has in store for an encore.

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.”

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