Michigan State v Notre Dame

Pregame Six pack: Onward to Oklahoma

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One-third of the way into the season and the Fighting Irish still haven’t played a complete football game. After sliding by Temple, Purdue and Michigan State without their best efforts, there’s no room for mediocrity to creep into either side of the football’s efforts. To beat the 14th ranked Oklahoma Sooners, Notre Dame will need to play four quarters of very good football.

“We have to do a better job of being consistent through four quarters. We haven’t really put together those four quarters of really good football,” head coach Brian Kelly said on Thursday. “We’re going to need to do that against Oklahoma.”

Coming to town is a Sooners team that just established its offensive rhythm with quarterback Blake Bell and then took a week off. The early bye week felt a little bit like a scheduling snafu, but it did allow standout cornerback Aaron Colvin to get healthy.

What type of team the Sooners actually are is still to be determined. After beating up Louisiana-Monroe, a disappointing West Virginia team and Tulsa, Oklahoma heads to Notre Dame looking to find out if it’s got the type of team that can get Bob Stoops back to the BCS.

After downplaying the importance of this game for the past two weeks, Oklahoma offensive coordinator Jay Norvell let the cat out of the bag. “This is a special game,” Norvell told the Oklahoman. “We’d be lying if we say it’s just another game. It’s not. You don’t get to play in South Bend very often.”

Let’s walk through this week’s Pregame Six Pack. Here are six tidbits, leftovers, fun facts, and miscellaneous musings before No. 22 Notre Dame and No. 14 Oklahoma take the field.

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Getting the Sooners offense “off schedule” could be key on Saturday. 

With an impressive depth chart at both running back and receiver, and a quarterback that’s capable of doing damage both on the ground or through the air, the Sooners will be Notre Dame’s most difficult challenge of the season from a personnel perspective.

But if Bob Diaco’s defense wants to follow a script that already led them to victory once, they’ll try their best to keep Oklahoma’s offense “off schedule,” tripping up the Sooners on first down and forcing them into difficult down and distances.

As we talked about already this week, first down is a key play for just about every team. Last year, the Irish defense made some big plays, limiting the Sooners offense and also getting them off the field by only allowing 4-of-14 third down conversions.

But with a balanced Sooner attack and the No. 4 ranked offense in terms of efficiency (according to the Fremeau Efficiency Index), the Sooners know they need to do a better job of keeping themselves in favorable down and distances.

“We’ve got to do a good job of making efficient plays on first down, whether it’s running or throwing,” Norvell said. “And in this game, it’s important that you catch and you get upfield north and south and it’s not fancy. It’s just get upfield, get the yards you need, bang off pads and move on to the next play.”

***

Sheldon Day might not be the only one battling an injury.

The good news for the Irish is that defensive end Sheldon Day is back and healthy, having a solid week of practice and pronounced ready to go by Kelly on Thursday, an impressive turn time by an important cog in the Irish’s front seven.

But in a rare look behind the curtain this week, courtesy of UND.com’s Strong and True video series, we saw some of the work that went into getting Cam McDaniel ready to play after fracturing his hand midweek in practice, and linebacker Dan Fox and offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley battle through injuries.

Kelly talked about the job Stanley did to get back into the game after a painful hip injury. But news that Fox has been battling nagging injuries since fall camp might shed new light on why the fifth-year senior has been off to a particularly slow start.

It’s difficult to tell what exactly is bothering Fox, but the senior linebacker will be counted on to play some important minutes against the Sooners. He’s got the athleticism to be an asset in pass coverage underneath, where the linebackers are still a work in progress. Last year, Fox chipped in five tackles against Oklahoma, and had one very key pass break-up, which Manti Te’o ended up intercepting on a huge momentum changer.

***

Can Notre Dame contain the slot receiver? 

Last week, Irish fans watched Michigan State’s Macgarrett Kings backpedal into the end zone for an easy touchdown, beating safety Elijah Shumate so badly in man coverage that he could coast into the end zone.

Kings’s touchdown against the Irish was hardly the only damage done by a diminutive slot receiver. All season, the Irish have struggled to slow down the inside receiving threats, taking advantage of schematic changes and beating man coverage from the start of the season.

Taking a run through the four box scores the Irish have produced this year starts to show some trends emerging. And waterbug sized, lightning quick receivers have really hurt Notre Dame’s defense.

Against Temple, 5-foot-9, 175-pound Ryan Alderman had his best game of the season, leading the Owls with five catches for 65 yards against the Irish. Who can forget what Jeremy Gallon did to the Irish? The 5-8, 187-pound Wolverine had eight catches for 184 yards and three touchdowns to torch the Irish secondary. Against Purdue, it was 5-foot-9 Akeem Hunt would did most of the receiving damage, making nine catches for 72 yards and a touchdown. And Kings supplied one of the lone bright spots for the Spartans offense last Saturday.

All of that leads us to the Sooners’ Jalen Saunders. Last year, Saunders racked up an astonishing 15 catches for 181 yards against Notre Dame. After wreaking havoc underneath the Irish defense, Saunders might do something far deadlier if he’s given the chance against man coverage on Saturday.

Kelly and Bob Diaco have experimented with the Irish’s secondary personnel, shifting Cole Luke, Elijah Shumate, Devin Butler and Lo Wood in and out, trying to find the right cover man. But the Irish might be better off not trying to run with Oklahoma’s skill players, instead just throwing an umbrella over everything, using zone responsibilities to keep the play in front of them.

***

Can the Irish offense get out of the gate quickly?

Perhaps Irish fans were spoiled early. After starting the season opener with two picture perfect scoring drives, it’s been rough sledding for the Irish to start games. Against Michigan, it was two three-and-outs, two punts and two scores for the Wolverines. Against Purdue it was worse, the Boilermakers marched down the field for a touchdown on the game’s first drive before shutting down the Irish’s first four drives. It was no better against Michigan State, with the Spartans getting a punt block on the first series of the game before watching the Irish offense sputter twice more.

With a crowd ready to carry the Irish if needed, the offense and defense will need to do their jobs, putting an early Irish score on the board and getting a few defensive stops while trying to get into rhythm with the speed of the Sooners.

“We’ve always talked about starting fast. It really hasn’t been part of this group yet consistently,” Kelly said. “But what they do is they finish really well, so I’d stick around if I were you, because they know how to finish games.”

Finishing games isn’t possible if you dig yourself too big of a whole. We witnessed that in Ann Arbor. It won’t be possible against Oklahoma if the Irish aren’t ready out of the gates.

***

Will the Irish finally do their best to establish the run? 

Four games into the season and the Irish running game is still a mess. It doesn’t appear to be the offensive line’s fault, with the unit blending nicely, though succeeding mostly in pass protection. But against an Oklahoma  3-3-5 defense, can the Irish simply decide to run the ball and dictate tempo, or will they try and throw their way around bad defensive looks?

While Irish fans have screamed about trying to establish some offensive balance, the Irish head coach understands its importance, now it’s just a matter of executing better.

“I think from an offensive standpoint, we’ve got enough balance,” Kelly said. “We haven’t run the ball effectively enough throughout four quarters. There are times where we’ve been effective — we won some football games late, Purdue in particular — where we’ve been able to run the ball to finish out a game. But we’re not where we want to be in terms of running the ball effectively throughout the game, which is going to allow us to have a run-pass balance.”

Notre Dame’s running back depth chart features five backs — George Atkinson, Amir Carlisle, Cam McDaniel, Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant all listed as co-starters. The Irish haven’t been able to establish more than one of them in a game yet this year. But it might make some sense to give it a try if it keeps the Sooners off the field.

***

 For two of college football’s most storied programs, this rivalry is awfully one-sided. 

There is no more winning program in the modern era than Oklahoma. The Sooners have the most victories and best winning percentage of any program since World War II. But as two of college football’s winningest programs get set to do battle, it’s a good time to remind you that Notre Dame has just historically owned this match-up.

Notre Dame holds a 9-1 record in this series, beating the Sooners in 1952, 1953, 1957, 1961, 1962, 1966, 1968, 1999, and 2012. Outside of the Sooners’ lone victory over the Irish, a 40-0 thrashing in 1956, the Irish have won seven straight in a span of seven decades, with the Irish beating a Sooners team ranked in the top 10 seven times in the ten meetings.

Notre Dame has dashed more Sooner dreams than just about any program, including Bob Stoops last visit to South Bend, when Jarious Jackson threw for two touchdowns and ran for another as the Irish stormed back to score 20 unanswered points to win 34-30 over No. 23 Oklahoma.

That game became a defining moment in the Stoops era at Oklahoma, helping to set the tone for the Sooners return to the top of college football.

“More than anything, I remember us leading in the third quarter by 16 and looking around and seeing too many happy faces,” Stoops said on Monday. “I felt there were too many guys who thought that they had this won, really realizing that we had not really learned how to truly compete yet for four quarters.

“I remember telling the coaches in meetings the next day, ‘Listen, they hadn’t been ahead of anybody like that on the road before. They don’t know how to handle it and we’ve got to teach them how to handle it – teach them how to finish games and to win a game like that.’

“Those guys hadn’t been in that situation.”

It didn’t take long for Stoops’ team to learn from the disappointing loss. The Sooners won the national championship the next year.

***

For more on Notre Dame’s match-up with Oklahoma, check out these stories from IrishIllustrated.com

From IrishIllustrated.com

Irish look for Norman momentum
by Douglas Farmer

A year ago, a win over Oklahoma provided the Irish with much-needed momentum. They hope it can do it again Saturday in Notre Dame Stadium.

From IrishIllustrated.com

Grace could have captain potential
by Pete Sampson

Barely a week after his first start, linebacker Jarrett Grace has already been mentioned as a potential future captain. On a defense looking for leadership, that could be a major boost.

Irish A-to-Z: Grant Blankenship

Notre Dame v Syracuse
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Notre Dame’s junior defensive end has an unclear status entering his third season in the program. Suspended by Brian Kelly this spring after playing minimal snaps as a sophomore, the Texas native already had an unclear path to the field even before you consider his status as a member of the team and student at the university.

After playing in 11 games as a true freshman, Blankenship struggled to make progress after adding the mass needed to play on the strong side. With the depth chart at defensive end already in question, Blankenship is a true unknown entering 2016.

 

GRANT BLANKENSHIP
6’5″, 278
Junior, No. 92, DE

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A late-riser on the recruiting scene, Blankenship turned down an offer from Charlie Strong to stick with his commitment to Notre Dame, his favorite program as a child. An early target by former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, and he stuck with Notre Dame even after Diaco departed for UConn.

Not highly rated, Blankenship fell outside the 250 recruits on 247’s composite.

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Played in 11 games, making 12 tackles including one TFL. Didn’t play against Navy or LSU. Made three tackles against Syracuse.

Sophomore Season (2015): Appeared in three games, making one assisted tackle. Played a season-high 10 snaps against UMass.

 

WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR

Blankenship’s participation took a step backwards. He looked like a potential redshirt until he played in garbage time. Partial credit, at best. Nobody gave Rochell and Day a break.

It’s too hard to project Blankenship as a 30-snap-a-game contributor. But if he’s forced into action, the experience he got last season will come in handy. More likely, Blankenship will be part of an expanded front seven depth chart, and will make it easier to keep guys like Isaac Rochell and Sheldon Day fresh.

As a second-year player, he and Andrew Trumbetti have a chance to both make big steps forward this season. If either can help a pass rush that needs to win more from base packages, it’ll be huge for the defense. Expect new defensive line coach Keith Gilmore to get this through to Blankenship, who likely derives fuel from being overlooked, something he certainly was last season.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

We’ll know a lot more about Blankenship’s future when the Irish enroll in summer school. If he’s there, it’ll signal that there’s a road back onto the team. If not, it’ll be another washout at defensive end, a position that’s been very difficult to keep together.

At this point, barring some remarkable change to his production or the depth chart, there doesn’t look like much of a road to playing time for Blankenship, at least not with Isaac Rochell on the roster in front of him.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Very unclear.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Blankenship was a part of a different program come next fall or buried on the depth chart at Notre Dame. The one reason for optimism is the position he plays. There’s opportunity at defensive end, especially if you can rush the passer.

Blankenship hasn’t show that ability yet. Part of that came from gaining a ton of weight between his freshman and sophomore seasons. The other part of it was scheme—he was recruited by Bob Diaco to play a different type of end.

Let’s get Blankenship out of the doghouse and back onto the field before we look for optimism.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin

 

This week’s episode of Blown Coverage features me pitching John Walters on the perfect three-year solution for Notre Dame’s QB conundrum. And a bunch of other stuff. Enjoy. 

Even with talent drain, Irish can be CFB Playoff contender

LANDOVER, MD - NOVEMBER 01: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on from the sidelines during the first half against the Navy Midshipmen at FedExField on November 1, 2014 in Landover, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly’s next football team might have less talent than the group that produced seven of the first 103 picks in the NFL Draft. But it might have a better chance to make it to the College Football Playoff.

It’s a trendy thought lately. The kind of thing you do when it’s May and we’re still a long way away from any football this fall.

But there’s good reason to be bullish on the Irish. And SBNation’s Bill Connelly providing the thinking man’s rationale for the optimism last week when he unveiled his preview of the 2016 Fighting Irish.

The entire preview is very much worth your time, but here’s the synopsis:

  • Brian Kelly is an excellent coach. (Sorry complainers.)
  • Whoever wins the quarterback job is going to be really good.
  • An offensive line that’ll reload.
  • Tons of skill talent.
  • A defense trending in the right direction.
  • A good close game team.
  • A schedule that’s more conducive to winning.

Again, go read the article. (You’ll be smarter for it.) But after crunching many of the variables, here’s Connelly’s mighty optimistic conclusion:

There isn’t a sure loss on the schedule. In fact, there’s only one game in which Notre Dame has a worse than 59 percent chance of winning. But operating in close games will be critical. That means finding go-to receivers for the quarterback in times of need, continued quality from Yoon, and a defense that improves up front despite turnover and holds steady in the back despite freshmen on the two-deep.

All of the “ifs” are realistic, and while the defense still has plenty to prove, I’m not going to doubt Kelly after last year. If I had a poll vote — and thank goodness I don’t — I would seriously consider Notre Dame in the preseason top five.

With Notre Dame’s two regular-season losses coming in the final moments of road games to top-five teams, this isn’t the type of “Here Come the Irish” headline that invaded our psyche and ruined the enjoyment of seasons under Bob Davie, Ty Willingham or Charlie Weis, the later still finding his way into the schlock headlines thanks to Notre Dame’s latest tax return release.

But Brian Kelly’s consistency has turned proclamations like Connelly’s into a decidedly uninteresting one. And at the same time that we go inch-by-inch through the roster, it’s helpful to see what the Irish look like from a 30,000-foot view—a better vantage point to evaluate progress than the perch most of us inhabit.

So while all previews in May expire by the time the calendar hits August, let’s go through the bullet points (as appropriated by me, not Connelly) just to add to the discussion.

 

Brian Kelly: elite coach. (No question mark) 

Right now, that’s a fairly undeniable assertion. And for those of you who’ll haggle about the definition of elite or harken back to a two-point conversion chart or the selection of the team’s defensive coordinator, this might be the best question to ask yourself: “After Nick Saban and Urban Meyer, who else do you want running your program?”

 

The quarterback battle.

If there’s something that I find reassuring, it’s the fact that Connelly hasn’t lost the plot on this. Whoever wins the quarterback battle will play at a very high level. Or they won’t play at all.

As Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford showed last season, the Irish will coach up a quarterback and get very productive play out of them. (Unlike what happened at Ohio State last year.) And with Brandon Wimbush putting the redshirt on, Notre Dame has one of the country’s most dangerous weapons waiting in the wings.

 

The offensive line should be good again.

Remember all those data-driven pieces about minutes-played correlating to excellent offensive line play? I still believe them. But I also think the Irish will produce a very, very productive offensive line even with three new starters, thanks to two starting NFL linemen on the left side of their center and Alex Bars likely on his way, too.

 

Those skill players? They’ll be good.  

I’m bullish on the ground game. I’m high on the young talent in the secondary. And I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to a receiving corps that I think is still a little more unsorted than I’d guess this staff wants.

Torii Hunter should lead the unit. After that, I’m not sure what to expect.

The move of Alizé Jones to the “W” (boundary side) receiver gives you an idea that this staff is preparing to go forward if Corey Robinson steps away from the game because of concussions. It also might point to an offensive direction that’s more similar to 2012, a physical approach that could put more tight ends on the field and would allow the Irish to lean on a very strong running game and a quarterback who’ll be able to take deep shots down the field.

 

The Defense?

How you improve after losing headliners like Sheldon Day, Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt, Elijah Shumate and KeiVarae Russell is hard to comprehend. But I think this unit will have more versatility, as injuries and certain personnel limitations really hamstrung a unit that was maddeningly inconsistent at times.

Can they improve against the run? I think the answer starts with Jarron Jones and Jerry Tillery, two stout guys who’ll hold up in the trenches in front of Nyles Morgan. That’ll serve as the critical building block to the scheme, with pieces added and subtracted to make sure the Irish can be multiple and match-up with opponents on a weekly basis.

I’m punting on this topic (for now), while acknowledging that improvement on this side of the football is critical to success and the biggest unknown heading into the season.

 

Good play in tight games

Remember those heart-stopping finishes in the Weis era? Or that dreadful feeling you got every time a game got close and an opponent mounted a comeback?

For some, it’ll never go away. But under Brian Kelly, the Irish have been a very good close game team—even considering the two tight losses last year.

I appreciate the comparison Connelly made in his piece to a baseball team with a good bullpen. When the Irish have been at their best, they’ve been able to control the game late with solid quarterback play, a dependable running game and a defense that held up.

Justin Yoon and Tyler Newsome play an important part in this process, too. The specialist duo will help control field position and make critical kicks, with Yoon putting together a really respectable freshman season and Newsome showcasing a booming leg.

 

The Schedule

I haven’t fully dug into the intricacies of the schedule, but just at face value it’s a much less daunting climb that years past. The Irish get Michigan State and Stanford at home (and under the lights) and replace Clemson with North Carolina State. Army comes back onto the schedule and Navy loses the majority of its team, including star Keenan Reynolds.

There is no shortage of coaching pedigree that Brian Kelly will face. Mark Richt, David Cutcliffe, and some young rising talent like Justin Fuente and Clay Helton in a regular season finale in Los Angeles.

But you can only win the games you play, and you can only play the teams on your schedule. (Thanks, Yogi.) As Connelly mentioned, there’s no “sure loss” on this slate, and I think Notre Dame will be favored every time they take the field next year.

 

Jurkovec’s commitment as solid as it can get

Phil Jurkovec 247
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In a sport like college football, not much is certain. Coaching changes, recruiting battles, it is a week to week sport in nearly every sense of the word.

So when coveted 2018 quarterback Phil Jurkovec chose Notre Dame last week, many kept their enthusiasm tempered. Especially with memories of prospects like Blake Barnett fresh in their minds.

But Jurkovec seems to have his priorities aligned. And a recent comment to Matt Freeman of IrishSportsDaily.com should have Irish fans feeling very good about their young QB-in-waiting.

For as long as Notre Dame has recruited, teams have recruited against Notre Dame. And in recent years, the sales pitch has changed—not from worries of a head coach or assistants being fired, but rather the chance that they may leave for greener pastures.

In this case, you have to feel good that Jurkovec seems to understand the realities of the situation. Because even if Brian Kelly is in the NFL or Mike Sanford is running his own program, the Golden Dome will still be standing.

Of course, it doesn’t do anything to guarantee Jurkovec will be in South Bend come 2018, but it certainly points to a kid and family having done their due diligence before making such an important decision.

Irish A-to-Z: Hunter Bivin

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One of many heralded offensive line recruits to follow Harry Hiestand to South Bend, Hunter Bivin has bounced inside and out on Notre Dame’s offensive line, looking for a home. After serving as a back-up to talents like Zack Martin, Ronnie Stanley and Mike McGlinchey at tackle, Bivin might have the inside track to earn his first starting experience at right guard.

After three years of hard work—and Steve Elmer deciding to cut short his college career after three seasons—Bivin looks like a true contender for a starting role. Now he needs to continue the work he put in this spring over the summer months, holding off a group of young talent to finalize the fifth starting job on a rebuilt offensive line.

 

HUNTER BIVIN
6’5.5″, 308 lbs.
Senior, No. 70, OL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Bivin was an elite prospect. 247 ranked him as one of the top offensive linemen—and overall prospects—in the country. He was an All-State performer in Kentucky, an Under Armour All-American, and played for the USA Team.

Bivin chose Notre Dame over offers from Florida, LSU, Oklahoma, Ohio State and Michigan. He was a starter on a Kentucky state championship basketball team and also the state’s best shot putter.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2013): Did not see action.

Sophomore Season (2014): Made his Irish debut in the second half of a lopsided victory over Rice. Played in five games, including on special teams against Florida State.

Junior Season (2015): Played in five games, serving as a backup at left tackle for Ronnie Stanley. Notched a season-high 25 snaps against UMass. Played 14 snaps in a convincing season-opening win over Texas.

 

WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR

The crystal ball appeared to be working last year when it came to Bivin’s playing time.

Bivin’s got everything you’d want—on paper—when it comes to an offensive line recruit. That said, it’s time for those qualities to translate to the field, something we haven’t seen yet.

It’s not necessarily fair to call Bivin an underachiever, especially when you want to have the type of depth Notre Dame has developed up front. It’s also worth noting that the two positions the Irish have worked Bivin have required some difficult playing time battles: Matt Hegarty just moved to Oregon and was inserted as the team’s starting center after he couldn’t beat out Nick Martin. And Ronnie Stanley will follow Zack Martin into the first round of the NFL Draft.

So let’s hold our breath a little bit longer.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

It’s clear that Bivin has some ability, with the staff entrusting a second-string tackle job to the Kentucky native the past two seasons. But it’s also clear that he’s not the caliber of tackle prospect that Alex Bars is, with Bivin making the slide inside, hopefully solidifying the starting lineup with the team’s five best offensive linemen.

Right now—especially after Colin McGovern struggled through injuries this spring—Bivin has a grasp on that job. But after another summer competing with Tristen Hoge and incoming freshman Tommy Kraemer, that might not be as clear.

Hiestand and Brian Kelly both prefer playing veterans—especially along the offensive line. We’ve seen guys like Mike Golic, Christian Lombard and Matt Hegarty keep talented young players on the sideline as trusted veterans. Bivin likely can do the same as a senior with a fifth-year available, though he’ll need to be the best player for the job.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I have Bivin penciled in at right guard for the start against Texas. Whether he stays in the lineup will likely be dictated by how quickly this offensive line gels. Remember, it wasn’t too long ago that Kelly and Hiestand reshuffled their starting lineup, 2014’s offensive line swapped out mid-season after a disappointing start to the year. That’s a real scenario that could take place if this line doesn’t come together.

Being the fifth-best starter on an offensive line that features guys like Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson is no shame, especially when we’ve seen and heard such good things about first-time projected starters like Bars and Sam Mustipher. Bivin is a big body—he’s got prototype tackle size—and that’ll make the transition inside easier.

But I’m still waiting to see how he does as a mauler. There’s not much room for finesse at right guard, especially with the Irish wanting to establish a ground game early and often in 2016.

If Bivin brings that type of aggressiveness to the job and takes to guard over the summer, he’s a potential two-year starter. If not, he goes back to being a sixth man, capable of backing up essentially every spot on the offensive line.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal