Mailbag: Purdue (and Michigan aftermath)

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Back-to-back undefeated regular seasons is dead. What’s there left to dream about?

Oh, a BCS appearance? Another run back into the Top Ten? Wins over a schedule that’ll still be one of the toughest in the country? So there’s that.

Let’s get onto the questions, which were a bit more prickly.

@Okerland: Now that Reesus fell for the first time, will he follow the stations and fall two more times?

I really like what you’re doing here. Gold star for Okerland. As for Reesus, falling two more times is pretty possible, especially considering the schedule he faces.

But I do think this team is really talented and we’re probably all a little bit too down on the boys in blue and gold, though a disheartening loss to Michigan will do that for you.

Irishlee10: Why is Kelly so hesitant to put in Greg Bryant? GAIII isn’t getting it done. We need all-around backs that can catch passes. Kelly needs to give GB some opportunities before he takes his talents back to South Beach

@dlkall01: Who do you expect to see play this weekend that we didn’t see at Michigan?

I’m going to now embark on the Greg Bryant (or other underused running backs) section of questioning. Maybe 20 percent of the questions received had some variation of “Why isn’t Greg Bryant playing?” “Won’t he get mad and transfer?” “Why won’t Brian Kelly play freshman?”

I do think Greg Bryant gets a few series this weekend, especially if the Irish offense gets on a roll. But everybody needs to pump the brakes on the uproar/worries about a freshman five-star player not seeing the field much in the first eight quarters of the season, especially on a team with a pretty talented backfield that includes a guy with a career rushing average around 7-yards a pop and a USC transfer.

For every Todd Gurley and Duke Johnson, there are plenty more guys like Lache Seastrunk, who take a few years to figure it out and still turn into the all-world talents they appear to be. Let’s not heap a bunch of focus on Bryant and his rumored (and I have heard ZERO rumors on this front) unhappiness, or you’ll just be contributing to a scenario that could turn into a self-fulfilling prophesy.

@CristIsRisen: Do you think we’ll see Wulfeck punting soon? Brindza’s a champ but handling all kicking duties has to be a killer.

I don’t think we’ll see anybody but Brindza until he proves he can’t handle the work. Brindza’s performance at Michigan was mighty impressive, and it’s not like we’re asking this guy to do heart surgery, fix a torn ACL and do Lasik surgery.

Irishaggie: Besides the x’s and o’s I noticed that the players don’t look very loose out there, especially the defense. Do you think they get caught up thinking about the “process” too much that they forget to just go out and play football?

No offense Irishaggie, but I’m having a hard time with your assumption here? Feels a lot like those Octobers watching baseball when broadcasters would fawn all over Derek Jeter, talking about how much he loved baseball and how clutch he was.

If you’ve found a coach that has done a better job of getting more out of his players over the past 5-6 years than Brian Kelly, I’d like to meet him. Prior to last Saturday, only Oregon and Alabama had done better in their last 25 games. That’s not a team that I think is too weighed down with process.

bb90grad: Could lack of results from Nix and Tuitt (besides ST’s weight gain) be from neither being named captain? I know no one tanks it on purpose, but if one were a projected All American and high draft pick and then not named, I would think one would be less inclined to assume leadership when needed, especially when someone else was anointed.

That theory feels like it’d work on an episode of Gossip Girl, but I don’t think it applies here. We tend to forget that Tuitt and Nix’s performances aren’t always seen on the stat sheet, so before we start killing these two for their performances or insinuate someone is tanking because they didn’t get a C on their jersey, you have to remember that sacks can come in bunches and the game tape has affirmed what many people know: Both these guys are really, really good.

@EnderWillSave: With the bad news coming out today about Alabama putting a blemish on the SEC, while Mack Brown and Lane Kiffin are melting down week by week, do you see ND possibly gaining more ground and influence in recruiting battles against all these schools?

I don’t see ND going head to head with Alabama and Texas all that often in recruiting, though guys like Cole Luke come to mind. As for USC, if things don’t straighten up in a hurry, it could be open season on Southern California, though Jim Mora has proven to be a guy that can pull his fair share of talent.

Bad news lasts only as long as the media cycle keeps it alive, and you could tell this week that Nick Saban wasn’t about to let that happen. Color me skeptical that the NCAA will be able to do much to take down a Crimson Tide program that’s a multi-million dollar industry.

@DBrammeier34: Will BK ever make the guys go hard for 4 quarters even against a weaker team? Regardless of score?

Did you forget about the 41-3 beat down the Irish put on Miami last season when the No. 2 offense marched down and got a late touchdown? I think Saturday night will be a good time to get some of the frustration out, if they’re at all able to do it.

@Irishfootball11: Who would win in a 3 way Hell in a cell match between @TheSubwayDomer vs @OneFootDown vs @herloyalsons? #blogwar

Wow. That’s a lot to analyze there. It feels a little unfair for Subway, who feels a lot like a one man army, though he’s certainly got a little crazy to him. Whiskey over at OFD is a guy that you could mistake for Captain America and I’ve spent some time with the crew from HLS, too.

My guess is that you’d put them in a cell and they’d just start telling jokes about Lane Kiffin.

@BobbyReed25: Seemed like our QB pressure has been a step late thus far. Speed or a timing issue? More stunts by DL?

Two words: Devin Gardner.

@Dascenzo: Hendrix time yet?

No.

Steincj36: A Tale of Two Kellys…. Chip brings his high power, fast paced Oregon O to the Eagles, and they pick it up and thrive with it in week 1. Brian’s fast paced spread offense never made it to South Bend, even though he’s been talking about it for 4 years.Where’s this offense we’ve been promised?

You’re really still waiting? I don’t think Brian Kelly ever promised that. Blame us, the writers and media guys that tried to guess what ND would look like after watching three Cincinnati games.

Kelly has been pretty consistent in what he’d do: Play with the personnel he has. Chip sure looked exciting on Monday night, but Michael Vick appeared to be gasping for air and limping like an old man. (As a Vick owner, I’m a bit worried…)

For everybody that loves the up-tempo offense, look what Doug Marrone did last weekend with his Buffalo Bills. Refused to run any time off the clock and gave Tom Brady one more chance to win the game, which he did.

idratherbeinsouthbend: Is there any buzz in inner circles that Tuitt’s weight gain has been a negative?

You mean other than on every Notre Dame message board everywhere?

Scottatnd: Why does BK go through all the trouble to recruit these great running backs when he has proven that he is a “spread out and throw it” coach?

Did you want last season? That looked like a running back friendly offense.

blackirish23: During our painfully long off-season, you mention Robinson as a potential red zone threat. What are the chances we start to see a bit more of him in those situations against Purdue?

Well, they need a few more chances in the red zone, first. But I’d guess maybe this weekend? (Not ready to make another call, but I’d like to see a short-side fade route to Robinson while Ricardo Allen mans up on the other side of the field with TJ Jones or DaVaris Daniels.

blackirish23: Also, what are your thoughts about using Hendrix similar to how Florida used Tim Tebow during the Chris Leak era, i.e. Bring him in as a run only QB at goal line situations in the pistol formation? Just a thought.

I am not one to trust Hendrix’s decision making skills down at the goal line. His one zone read attempt in the red zone ended with him handing the ball to Tarean Folston when the keeper was wide open.

ndcanuck: Given how he was picked on last week – is the “C” on Bennett Jackson’s jersey a distraction for him? Clearly some on the field leadership is called for on that side of the ball, but is Bennett the right guy to fill that role when maybe he should be working on his game?

I thought they picked on KeiVarae Russell more than Jackson, but I don’t think giving up some passes is a product of the C, but rather playing a pretty tough position. And there really isn’t that much more heaped on Jackson’s plate other than helping to decide heads or tails at away games.

Jackson is going to have a nice career playing on Sundays. Last Saturday probably wasn’t one of his best games, but he’ll help out more often than not.

It’s a long season.

Notre Dame adds another 2019 commitment out of Georgia

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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.