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Pregame Six Pack: Boiler up

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It may lack the wattage of last Saturday night’s primetime affair, but this weekend’s date with Purdue counts the same as the other eleven regular season games. With the Irish coming off a damaging defeat at the hands of Michigan that felt like a game that slipped away, Notre Dame will have a chance to rebound against Darrell Hazell’s Boilermakers that still seem to be finding their footing.

Hazell has already talked about the importance of this weekend’s game, and took to the school’s newspaper to implore the students “to get to Ross-Ade Stadium early, be loud and help us turn up the heat on the Fighting Irish.”

With No. 21 Notre Dame and Purdue set to play in primetime on Saturday night, let’s dig into the pregame six pack. As usual, here are six tidbits, leftovers, fun facts, and miscellaneous musings before the Irish and Boilermakers go to battle.

***

Brian Kelly has heard your plea to put Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston in the game. But finding carries is the hard part. 

If there was a question that overwhelmed the inbox this week, it was how Kelly and his offensive game plan could feature more of Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston. After looking mighty impressive in fall camp, Irish fans have waited to see what the freshman — especially Bryant — could do when he got his chance. Eight quarters later, this group is demanding an impact from one of the nation’s top freshman running backs.

When asked about his young backs today, Kelly explained that it wasn’t a learning curve Bryant and Folston were battling, but rather finding the snaps for a unit that’s already pushed Will Mahone into the slot rotation.

“They’re not being held back. The game itself and the way the game is played will determine how many running backs you can get in the game,” Kelly said. “I’m not just going to shuffle four or five guys in there if we’re in a game where I want to do a specific thing offensively. It really depends on how the game unfolds. I have confidence in all those guys.

“It’s not easy. I have no problem playing my freshmen running backs. We just have to find the right opportunities and when they need to be in the game.”

***

Let’s see if the Irish can get their red zone offense back on track. 

Whoever is carrying the ball for Notre Dame this weekend will likely get a few totes inside the Purdue 20-yard-line, especially after passing the ball on 12 of 13 snaps in the red zone against Michigan. That kind of balance could be a product of some unfriendly run looks, but also is something that the Irish need to challenge regardless.

Through two games, the Irish have scored touchdowns on just 42 percent of their red zone appearances, good for 102nd in the nation through eight quarters. And while Tommy Rees will need to be more accurate throwing the football, Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison made some interesting comments this week when talking about the Wolverines decided to defend the Irish offense last week.

“Our game plan was not to sell the farm a lot,” Mattison said. “We didn’t want to put our secondary in a position where a big play could get us. That secondary, I thought, did exactly what we hoped they would do as far as the game plan of keeping the ball inside and in front.

“We just have to hold them to no big plays and then when the field shrinks, now you have to hope that they do what they’re taught to do and how they’ve been practicing, and that’s what they did.”

With a shrunken field, let’s see if Kelly calls on his offensive line to make some room for the offense, doing so even against a sturdy Purdue defensive front.

***

Getting the defense back on track might be helped by playing a Purdue offense that’s really struggling. 

It’s still a surprise that Michigan’s offense was able to put up 41 points against Bob Diaco’s defense. But there may be no better slumpbuster for a unit feeling down than Purdue’s offense, which currently sits at 118th in the country. (Want to see something crazy? Take a look at Alabama’s offense, which enters week three at 123rd. Meanwhile, USC’s is 115th.)

Purdue offensive coordinator John Schoop talked about the challenges his offensive line faces this week playing against Louis Nix, Sheldon Day and Stephon Tuitt.

“We have to be as physical as we’ve ever been on the offensive line this week”, Shoop said. “We’re going against some guys that are just flat big, and we have to be as physical as we can in terms of protection and running the ball. I think we were a little more physical from week one to two, but we have to take it up exponentially this week against these guys.”

Also working against the Boilermakers is an injury to tight end Gabe Holmes, one of Purdue’s better offensive weapons. Hazell categorized Holmes’ injury as “pretty serious,” and all reports have him out for Saturday night and potentially the season. Holmes was the team’s leading receiver through two games.

***

After a tough loss, Kelly and the coaching staff did their best to pick up the slack. 

It’s been quite some time since the Irish had to rebound from a defeat. The team’s last three losses gave the team quite a bit of time to regroup, with defeats coming in two bowl games and a regular season finale.

But with a short week to get their confidence rebuilt and the team ready for another game, Kelly and his staff controlled things more this week than in the past, forcing the players to follow the beat of its leaders.

“Sometimes when you’re winning, you kind of let the players keep moving in the right direction,” Kelly said. “You’re still winning. You kind of let things go. You chalk it up to that’s the personality of this team.

“The coaches took over this week. We made sure that we did the things that we need to do. I’m sure that the players understand that that’s the way that practice has to go and they embraced that.”

It’s interesting that we’ve had all sorts of discussions about this team’s leadership and that after the loss Kelly made sure he and the coaches were providing the direction, not just the team’s three captains. Especially with a group without a transcendent leader like Manti Te’o, listening to the voices of the coaching staff should be one of the quickest ways to get mentally back on track.

***

When Purdue and Notre Dame play, there are always lots of connections on both sidelines. That’s certainly the case this weekend. 

Two in-state teams that have faced off every year since 1946 are bound to have things in common. Let’s check out a couple interesting layers to the Purdue-Notre Dame rivalry.

First let’s get to the obvious one. Running back Amir Carlisle is facing off with his father Duane, Purdue’s strength and conditioning coach. I had a chance to chat briefly with Carlisle after the Michigan game, and one of the few things that brought a smile to his face was thinking about playing against his dad. Duane, who is in his second year as Director of Sports Performance for the school as well as head strength and conditioning coach, talked about facing off with his son this weekend.

“You can think about how you’re going to feel, but I don’t know that I can actually plan for something like this,” the elder Carlisle told the Lafayette Journal Courier. “It’s a situation where Amir is playing for Notre Dame and I get an opportunity to see him.

“I’m just so thankful he’s on the field, because he’s battled through some adversity. It’s an opportunity for us to get a win as a team. I want us to win, but of course I want to see my son play well.”

Coaching against Notre Dame is one-time Irish linebacker Greg Hudson. Now the defensive coordinator under Hazell, Hudson returns to Indiana after coaching linebackers at Florida State.

“It never gets out of your system,” Hudson said of playing against his alma mater. “The (emotions) are probably a little higher, just because you’re directly in charge of that defense, and it’s also back here in Indiana. It feels like home. It’s a home game. And it has the bright lights and the big crew is coming in.”

Hudson was well known in recruiting circles probably for one of his biggest one-on-one battles against the Irish, when FSU went head-to-head for Aaron Lynch. Hudson ended up losing that battle (one that Notre Dame eventually lost just a few months later, when Lynch quit on the team.)

Lastly, key recruit Drue Tranquill will be in West Lafayette watching both teams intently. A soft commitment to Purdue, many believe it’s only a matter of time before Tranquill flips his commitment to the Irish, who see the high school safety following the path of Dan Fox and sliding down into the middle linebacker position. Tranquill will be on campus in South Bend next weekend to watch the Irish play Michigan State.

***

After turning over all three kicking jobs to Kyle Brindza, the Irish have another field position battle on their hands. 

It took exactly one week and a snap-hooked field goal attempt for Kyle Brindza to retake the field goal kicking job and become the Irish’s lone kicking specialist. While there’s time for Nick Tausch to fight his way back into the rotation and punter Alex Wulfeck has the ability to spell Brindza if needed, it’s the junior job.

Brindza talked about the increased workload and even acknowledged the need to put himself on a personal kick count, for fear he could leave his best stuff on the practice field.

“Even though my body might feel good, I’m still going to have a number count or else I might push it too much and wake up the next day and say ‘oh man, I feel horrible,’ ” Brindza told JJ Stankewitz of CSN Chicago.

If there’s one match-up you probably haven’t heard much about, it’s the battle at punter this weekend. Purdue’s Cody Webster is one of the nation’s top punters, and the Ray Guy Watch Lister carries an average of 49.9 yards a boot this year, besting everybody else in the country by more than a yard. With the Purdue offense still struggling to get the hang of their new offensive system, Webster will be a true weapon in the field position battle, a game that Brindza is still getting the hang of with his struggles directionally kicking.

Perhaps there’s one outlier that might actually flip this Purdue advantage in Notre Dame’s favor. While they haven’t been all that good in the red zone, Tommy Rees and the Irish offense have started four drives inside their own 20-yard line. They’ve scored touchdowns on three of them.

 

 

 

 

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.