And in that corner… The Purdue Boilermakers

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It’s the first of the rivalry trophy games for Notre Dame, with Purdue and the Irish set to battle for the Shillelagh Trophy. (Not to be confused with the Jeweled Shillelagh…) With a new head coach and a new program direction in West Lafeyette, the college football world will be getting their first close look at new head coach Darrell Hazell, who comes over from Kent State after an eleven win regular season and an appearance in the GoDaddy.com Bowl.

With us to break down the match-up from Purdue’s perspective is Travis Miller from SBNation website Hammer & Rails. Travis has been kind enough to do this with me for about five seasons running, so we’ve had some great discussions in the past and he’s always done a great job breaking down Purdue.

There’s a ton to learn about a team that’s rebooted its program after saying goodbye to Danny Hope. (Including a great take on the dynamics of the Purdue-Notre Dame relationship.) Before we head to Ross-Ade Stadium this weekend and get a look at the World’s largest bass drum, let’s here what Travis has to say about the Boilermakers’ chances this weekend.

I asked, he answered. We all enjoyed and learned:

1) It’s been a rocky start to the Darrell Hazell era, but let’s not get to the on-field product just yet. After a tough run with Danny Hope, assess Hazell’s work as a program builder / salesman.

I have been a big fan of Hazell so far, at least in terms of everything off the field. He has gotten four recruits that look like excellent pieces to build around in Drue Tranquill (whom Notre Dame is after), Gelen Robinson (the brother of Michigan basketball player Glenn Robinson and son of the one-time Purdue great), David Blough (Elite 11 QB out of Texas that is suspiciously like Drew Brees), and Denzel Ward (monster offensive tackle). Hazell has also preached accountability and discipline, which were both lacking under the Hope regime.

I always felt people turned on Hope a little too quickly. His first season Purdue was 5-7, but they were legitimately a handful of plays and stupid mistakes from being 10-2. Unfortunately, those mistakes were never fixed and Purdue never grew beyond that point. It got to the point where people forgot the good of that year because the team never grew.

So far, Hazell has said and done all the right things in the buildup to the season. Unfortunately, the play on the field has been pretty bad.

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2) Now for the on-field product. It’s been pretty ugly, with Cincinnati sticking it to the Boilermakers followed up with Purdue just sliding by Indiana State. Talk me through the first two games and what you’ve seen. 

I think what is more disturbing about Cincinnati is that they blew out Purdue, then lost by 24 points to an Illinois team that has looked far worse for the past two seasons. Against the Bearcats Purdue tied it 7-7 just before halftime, then gave up a late first half drive for a TD. Cincinnati used halftime effective as a defensive stop and scored on the opening drive of the second half thanks to a huge 3rd and 9 conversion that went for 40 yards and changed the entire complexion of the game. Suddenly it was 21-7 and Purdue had had the ball for one play, a kneel down. The offense then went three-and-out, the defense got a stop, but Rob Henry threw a pick six. Effectively, in five offensive plays for Purdue they went from being tied to down three touchdowns.

Against Indiana State the offense was just awful. The Sycamores stuffed a first half 4th and 1 near midfield, then stuffed Purdue three times on first and goal from the 1 to hold for a field goal. Late in the half Purdue against got a first and goal from the one and was again stuffed three times, only ran out of time to get the field goal unit on the field.

Things are very, very bad when an FCS stuffs you seven times in a row when you need one yard. The defense looked far better, but the offense continued to be out of sync and showed nothing of the power run game we expected. I fear we are Michigan State without the benefit of having an excellent defense. Purdue’s defense can be good, but it is not good enough to save the offense being as bad as it is right now.

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3) Rob Henry is a guy that’s been in and out of the lineup for what seems like forever. What have you seen from him in the first two weeks of the season?

I think he is losing confidence because the offensive line in front of him has been pretty bad. Against Cincinnati he was running for his life all day. Against Indiana State he was better, but still not great. In John Shoop’s offense there is not a lot of room for improvisation and Henry is a more mobile quarterback. He won the job, however, straight up over two very talented freshmen that are probably better fits for a pro-style offense, so I am willing to give him some more time. If the offense continues to flounder on Saturday night you might see redshirt freshman Austin Appleby.

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4) There’s talent back on the defense with Ryan Russell, Bruce Gaston, and Ricardo Allen anchoring the unit. What kind of changes were made to the defense in the coaching transition? How stout of a challenge are the Irish in for on Saturday?

I think the defense can be a very good unit and for most of the Indiana State game it was pitching a shutout. I was pleased with the way Joe Gilliam played in the middle even though the linebackers are still a large question (and why we’re so excited for Tranquill and Robinson in next year’s class). Purdue also lost starting safety Landon Feichter to a broken leg against Indiana State, moving sophomore Anthony Brown tot hat spot.

For Purdue to have a shot the defensive line needs to be as successful as it was last year at disrupting the Irish offense. They need to be able to get into the backfield as well as contain the run because the linebackers are still suspect.

Unfortunately, with as bad as the offense has been playing and as strong as Notre Dame’s front seven is, they may have to pitch a shutout to give us a chance.

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5) Last week, we wasted a whole bunch of time talking about rivalries, scheduling priorities, and just about everything else that’s a product of college football’s realignment. As a Purdue fan, how do you view Notre Dame? How do you look at the delicate dance that Jack Swarbrick manages with ACC commitments and too many Big Ten obligations?

We view Notre Dame as our biggest football rival, quite honestly. It is always a bigger game because no matter where it is played, it is a guaranteed chance to be on national TV against a “name” team. With Indiana’s program being historically inept (Purdue leads that series 72-37-6) most Purdue fans simply expect to win vs. the Hoosiers. Against Notre Dame any victory raises eyebrows. Even Purdue’s last win, in 2007, drew attention because the Irish were in the midst of a historically bad season.

It also helps that it is an in-state rivalry that has been played every year since 1946. When you combine that with the perception of reversible jacket fans in Indiana (Indiana basketball and Notre Dame football fans) it just feels more natural. I know Notre Dame fans don’t view Purdue as much of a rival because of the historical dominance, but there is a history there of Purdue pulling of some shockers. Twice Purdue has beaten Notre Dame when they have been ranked No. 1 and once when they were No. 2.

It will be interesting to see what Morgan Burke, not Jack Swarbrick does going forward. The shift to a nine game Big Ten schedule in 2016 means that as of now, Purdue would alternate with six home games in even numbered years and 8 home games in odd numbers years because of the Notre Dame series and the alternating Big Ten schedule. Another shift, to Indiana hosting the Old Oaken Bucket games in the same years that Purdue goes to Notre Dame, could also be a factor.

Purdue is not giving up a guaranteed two home games in the non-conference season, so does it choose to keep Notre Dame and a pair of MAC-level teams or does it drop the Irish in favor of other home-and-home deals? As it looks right now, Purdue only has six home games in 2016 when it comes to South Bend (four Big Ten games, Cincinnati, and Nevada) and seven in 2017 (Five Big Ten, Notre Dame, Eastern Kentucky) with an open date. If Burke and Swarbrick can agree to switch years that teams host the series can likely go on for awhile, but who blinks and agrees to play two straight road games? Or, do they agree to a one-year (say 2016 or 2017) neutral-site game at Lucas Oil Stadium like the 1984 game at the old Hoosier Dome?

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6) On paper, this game doesn’t look kind for the Boilermakers. Yet they played the Irish tough last season and don’t seem to be that much worse on paper than last season. (Am I wrong?) What needs to change for Purdue to be victorious?

The offense has to show signs of being able to actually move the football. We expected a strong running game because of what Hazell ran at Kent State, where Dri Archer and Trayion Durham each rushed for over 1,200 yards last year. Purdue has two almost identical players in Akeem Hunt and Brandon Cottom. Cottom has been strangely missing from the offense and Hunt has been contained because the offensive line is struggling so much in front of him.

Yes, the defense gave up 42 points (really 35 because of the pick-6) at Cincinnati, but that was more the game getting out of hand than them being dominated from the start. They were much better against Indiana State, but they should have been given the competition. I think the defense can play well enough to keep Purdue in it, but the offense has to show a complete turnaround from what it has shown so far. If it continues to struggle as it has in the first two weeks (and struggling against an FCS opponent is not a good sign) Notre Dame wins easily.

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You can find more from Travis at the excellent Hammer & Rails site and from him on Twitter @HammerandRails.

Nick Watkins announces transfer from Notre Dame

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With the announcement from fifth-year cornerback Nick Watkins he will seek a graduate transfer from Notre Dame, it may seem the Irish cornerback depth is taking a massive hit. It was actually that depth that likely spurred Watkins’ decision.

The Texas native announced his decision to transfer Thursday afternoon on Twitter.

“When I decided to attend Notre Dame, my primary goal was to earn a degree from this prestigious University,” Watkins wrote, “and I’m proud to say that I’ll achieve that goal.”

Watkins started nine games in 2017 before knee tendonitis slowed him, giving now-junior Troy Pride an opening to take the lead role opposite junior Julian Love. Pride played well and has continued that progress this spring, knocking Watkins from a starting role. Furthermore, senior Shaun Crawford saw some time at cornerback this spring, rather than focusing solely on nickelback, creating even more viable competition at cornerback.

Thus, Watkins will head elsewhere after making 37 career tackles in 35 games with the Irish, including 29 tackles last season with eight pass breakups and one interception. Watkins missed all of his junior season with a broken arm. Since he will graduate before transferring, Watkins will be immediately eligible wherever he ends up.

Notre Dame will also have four more cornerbacks joining the fray this summer when incoming freshmen D.J. Brown, Noah Boykin, Joe Wilkins and Tariq Bracy arrive.

The Irish roster still sits at a projected 87 scholarships for the coming fall, two over the maximum allowed by the NCAA.

Avery Davis’ move bumps Notre Dame’s RB depth from dire to versatile

Associated Press
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It may not be what Avery Davis always imagined, but his move to running back at least gets him on the field in a Notre Dame jersey. From a practical standpoint, Davis offers more than just running back depth amid a depleted Irish backfield. His move from quarterback to running back/receiver creates a new possibility of playmaking. That concept was the primary reason the sophomore welcomes the position switch rather than dreads it.

Davis’ motivations are that pure and simple. After spending the 2017 season preserving a year of eligibility and watching quarterbacks Brandon Wimbush and Ian Book both prove more than capable, Davis could see his chances at quarterbacking for Notre Dame dwindling. The prospect of another year with a similar view was not one to which he looked forward.

“I love the quarterback position, I’ve played it my whole life,” Davis said following the Blue-Gold Game. “But that redshirt season, to be standing on the sidelines knowing you could make an impact, knowing you could make plays, that pushed me into this.

“… What I’m really trying to do is help the team however I can.”

The Irish coaching staff’s motivations are undoubtedly as pure, regarding helping the team however Davis can, but one may wonder if the move would have happened if not for the dismissal of half the running back depth chart following the Citrus Bowl victory over LSU. Regardless, Notre Dame had a need, and Davis’ natural skills can now help fill it.

“It was a mutual understanding,” Davis said. “… I knew they were serious, because I was serious, too. Week two [of spring practices] I got my chance and that’s when it started clicking.”

By the end of spring practice, Davis had pushed his way firmly into the running back rotation, with a few cameos at receiver, as well. He finished the Blue-Gold Game with 30 rushing yards on 11 carries and 24 receiving yards on two catches, to go along with 2-for-2 passing for 26 yards in the closing moments.

The presence of a viable rushing and receiving threat plays right into the hands of Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long’s preferences. The mere presence of Davis on the field will put defenses into compromising positions. At least, that will be the theory.

It will likely not be long into the season when Davis first lines up in the backfield before motioning into the slot position, thus exposing more of the defense’s blitz and coverage intentions, if not outright forcing adjustments to them. Not long after that, Davis will at some point line up wide only to take a jet sweep a la Cam Smith in 2017’s first month and Kevin Stepherson in the latter half of the year.

These are the dilemmas created by a multi-dimensional threat such as Davis appears to be. Sure, it was just the spring game, but it showed the wrinkles he can create. No one else currently among Notre Dame’s running backs or receivers offers such a variety. Sophomore receiver Michael Young may come the closest, but his frame is not designed for the beating of a running back’s workload.

Nor is Davis’ at this point, necessarily, but he knows as much.

“It’s just more of a physical toll on your body,” he said when asked of the greatest difference from the quarterback position. “You take more hits. That’s something that comes with being in the weight room.”

Atop Davis’ offseason to-do list is add more muscle across the chest and in the shoulders. Next will be to work on his routes and pass-catching skills. As far as reading the defense’s approach, quarterback prepared him for that. His focus is now slightly different, looking for gaps at the line rather than gauging coverage holes, but the underlying skills are the same.

Along with the potential poised by Davis’ position switch and the inherent disclaimers attached to any spring successes, two more aspects of the sophomore’s future should be explicitly noted. First of all, he does not let slip even the slightest misgiving about the move from football’s glamor position. Davis knew what the Irish depth chart looked like when he arrived at Notre Dame, and he knew who had already committed in the following class in consensus four-star Phil Jurkovec.

“When it comes down to it, I love playing the game,” Davis said. “Wasn’t too hard for me. It was a personal decision.

“It was a decision to come here, and I’m living with it. I’m really happy with it, to be honest.”

Secondly, this is a move the Irish coaching staff is committed to, but it retains the right to work Davis in at quarterback. Even Jurkovec’s arrival is unlikely to knock Davis from the spot of No. 3 quarterback to be deployed in emergency situations, lest Jurkovec burn a year of eligibility to offer a quarter’s worth of work.

“The conversation we had with Avery is, what do you want to do?” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “If you want to stay [at quarterback], right now it looks like it’s 1A, 1B, and you’re 3. You can stay in that position, or we think you’ve got some talents to help our offense. He wanted to do this.

“He doesn’t want to give up his ability to play quarterback down the road, but in the meantime, you need to play this year. This gives him that opportunity.”

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS/IS AT RUNNING BACK:
Without Davis and the move of sophomore Jafar Armstrong from receiver, the Irish had two upperclassmen and an early-enrolled freshman at running back this spring. Each of senior Dexter Williams (pictured above) and junior Tony Jones have shown the physical ability to be a loadbearing ballcarrier in the past, but neither has stayed healthy enough to grant peace of mind if in that role. Depth was needed.

Specifically in reference to Williams, Kelly acknowledged past restrictions due to Williams’ durability, or lack thereof.

“How long can you stay on the field?” Kelly said Saturday. “He seemed to be a guy that we couldn’t keep on the field very long. He had a really good spring. He wasn’t a guy that we had to pull out or wasn’t conditioned well enough.”

Much like Davis, Armstrong’s emergence this spring soothes some of those concerns. In the Blue-Gold Game, he finished with 48 yards on five carries along with one catch for 21 yards, showing decent quickness with a burst that will become only more decisive with more experience.

Armstrong should be more than capable of replacing Deon McIntosh as the No. 3 or 4 running back who can offer some modicum of production. In time, he could certainly become more than that.

Early-enrollee Jahmir Smith did about what one would expect from a high school senior taking part in collegiate practices, and that is meant as a compliment, but by no means did he lay the groundwork to force his way into the rotation by September.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WILL BE:
The Irish will welcome C’Bo Flemister as a sixth running back in the fall. Presuming health of the top four (Williams, Jones, Davis and Armstrong), Flemister should join Smith in spending a year in strength and conditioning, perhaps adding some special teams work. More likely, though, at least one of that initial quartet will suffer a plaguing injury, if not something worse, and the freshmen duo could be a sprained ankle away from being activated, just as C.J. Holmes was halfway through 2017.

ONE MORE NOTE, NFL DRAFT-WISE:
The NFL draft begins tonight (Thursday). Former Notre Dame running back Josh Adams will not hear his name called in the first round, but it is likely his name comes up Saturday, somewhere between late in the fourth round and the end of the sixth round.

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.