Michigan Mailbag

11 Comments

Thanks to everybody for putting in some great questions. Sorry I couldn’t get to all of them. Let’s dispense with the nonsense and get to it.

Nudeman: I saw on another board that Bryant was off to the side by himself during some of the game last week, the implication being that he was sulking over not playing. As we know now he eventually did get in but it was garbage time and probably not what he was hoping for.

I was just about to quote Ferris Bueller when I saw somebody beat me to it on the comments. But I don’t think sulking is going to get Greg Bryant anywhere with Tony Alford and Brian Kelly, nor do I necessarily believe that it was happening.

I expect Bryant to get a few more looks on Saturday night as I think the running game is going to be a major factor. Steve Elmer didn’t get in the game after we heard all spring and fall that he was going to play. We’re just 1/13th of the way into this season, there will be plenty of time for Bryant to make his mark this season.

Andy44Teg: KA (Best Irish Blogger on the Interwebs) Who do you think has the better game: Devin Gardner or Tommy Rees??

How do I not answer that question, Andy? Obviously the answer to this question likely dictates the winner of the game. I’m not making any predictions, but I kind of think that Rees will play the better game, though Gardner has the ability to make mistakes with his arm and still be a gamebreaker, just because of his ability to keep plays alive and make plays down field.

If there’s one guy that should keep Bob Diaco up at night, it’s Gardner.

@jfoneil22: I was concerned/unimpressed with our D line play last week. Did someone get Nix a Xanax this week? Am I overreacting?

I think you are over-reacting. Louis Nix is a nose guard. He was double-team on about 2/3 of them. After spending the last nine months talking about Jadeveon Clowney, he only managed three tackles in his debut.

Nix is going to have to learn that being a preseason All-American puts a bullseye on your back. And he’ll also need to make some plays, regardless of blockers. But let’s pump the brakes for now.

upthera44: The thing I worry about this year (and specifically this week) is one of those recurring problems for Notre Dame. Do you think our guys able to play with some swagger this week? Because that’s what I think you need in these elite games: the belief that you’re better than everyone. I wouldn’t trade the class of our players. But they seem a little too nice sometimes. When interviewed about a good performance you ALWAYS hear our players say they owe it all to the team and other players, etc., talk about what a great game the other team played. Are our players a little too muzzled?

What these guys say and what they believe are two very different things. Being coached up when talking to the media isn’t an issue, though it does make for some boring interviews. I don’t think the Irish have a confidence or swagger problem. Maybe there’s a void that needs filling after Te’o was such a singular leader last season, but I think the Irish will come out on Saturday night with plenty of swagger.

@NDIrish1029: You probably watched Michigan v cent Mich video. Was Mich 59 points good or were cent Mich that bad?

CMU lost their starting quarterback and starting running back in the first half. I did watch the game and to tell you the truth, I can’t decide. CMU looked really bad, and somehow the Wolverines scored 59 while still throwing three interceptions.

chadwalters425: What would you rather fight, 100 duck-sized wolverines or one wolverine-sized duck?

Maybe you aren’t privy to my phobias, but I don’t want to fight any animals. Ever since I was attacked by two geese walking along the pond on hole 3 at the Warren Course in college, I’ve been freaked out of everything — domestic and wild — ever since.

What type of strategy do you use to fight an animal? Boxing? Wrestling?

To answer your question, I think 100 duck-sized wolverines sounds terrifying. A wolverine sized duck just sounds bloated.

mtflsmitty: Based on your observations and access, what gives with Tuitt’s performance this year? He came into camp overweight and all the tape we saw (Martin 3, Tuitt 0) suggested he had lost a step or five. Last week he seemed to being playing a strict contain technique most plays, or he was just taking plays off? What’s up?

Smitty, so far he’s on pace to have 13 sacks and have the choice of returning for his senior season or getting drafted in the first round. Tuitt plays a specific type of defensive end in Bob Diaco’s system. He’s not just crashing off the edge rushing the passer. He’ll be just fine as well.

@JMset3: Sierra Nevada Nut Brown or Sam Adams Oktoberfest. Choose wisely.

Both? I’m hardly a particular beer drinker, though have enjoyed both choices (I think).

irishhaggie: Heading into Michigan I am concerned about who our #2 QB should be in case Tommy was to be taken out (lets hope not). Do you think Andrew is a legitimate backup? I feel like we are an injury away from being an 8-4 football team. What have you heard about Malik’s development?

I have been skeptical of Hendrix’s ability to run this offense since he stepped onto campus, and his mediocre series in garbage time didn’t do much to help. Tommy Rees is probably the most irreplaceable player on this offense outside of Zack Martin. You are right on the money with your 8-4 prediction if Rees goes down, and don’t expect Malik Zaire to strap on his cape and spring into action. He’s still out with mono.

@DanFree5: As a Notre Dame fan, why should I feel good about this game?

ND’s offensive line has an advantage over Michigan’s defensive line. ND’s defensive line has an advantage over Michigan’s offensive line. But I don’t know if any Notre Dame fan ever feels good about a game with Michigan.

@ndfanwabashman: Can Notre Dame win without winning the turnover battle?

I don’t want to step all over some six pack topics, but they’d be a lot better off not turning the football over. But they can, they’ll just need to play good defense and special teams.

@jajensen23: Would be helpful if you have everyone a history lesson on Brandon renegotiating the 20-yr contract agreed to by Bill Martin?

I’ve been asked this a few times. Here’s what I wrote back in May:

@SaturdaysNick: Should ND be concerned that their points came from big plays against a less talented D rather than sustained drives?

@JohnnyFlynn33: curious why Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston didn’t play more in the opener?? I understand they are freshman but come on.

They each got a series with the No. 1 offensive line, but I’m guessing they didn’t get as many touches because the game wasn’t that out of reach.

irishdodger: Do you think the three heartbreakers from 2009-2011 have Irish fans gun-shy? I don’t see many prognosticators or fans of other teams giving the Irish much of a chance.

There’s no question ND fans are still gun shy. Maybe it’s because I’m constantly surrounded by this group, but the panic-meter of Irish fans has the acceleration of a Porsche, going 0-60 in a play or two.

I’m not quite sure I understand the line on this game either, though the underdog has covered 20 of the last 24 times.

dudeacow: This is the most important game on either team’s schedule. Winner goes to a BCS bowl, loser goes to the toilet bowl. Last two years, this has been the case. Do you agree?

Makes for a perfect headline, but ND still needs to get by six of the top 29 teams in the AP ballot. I also don’t think one loss is the end of the world for either team (particularly Michigan), but it will certainly dictate the trajectory of each program.

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

Getty Images
5 Comments

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

Associated Press
43 Comments

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

rivals.com
29 Comments

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

Getty Images
35 Comments

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