Pregame Six Pack: More similar than different

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As Notre Dame and USC get set to do battle for the 85th time in the greatest intersectional rivalry in college football, it’s time to acknowledge that both programs see a lot more of themselves in the other one than they care to admit. For the Trojans, that means swallowing their pride and starting over, something Pat Haden did after Lane Kiffin lost seven of his last eleven games and watched his team drive away without him after giving up 62 points. (They can certainly look to Notre Dame for advice on that, the Irish have done it four times in the last 12 years.)

For the Irish, that means acknowledging their envy of the past decade of dominance that Pete Carroll created, a head coach with the type of charisma and strategic intellect that Irish fans have yearned for since they let Lou Holtz walk. Brian Kelly may just be that man, even if he doesn’t get the media cooing like Carroll did with his care-free attitude and surfer vibe.

After breaking an eight-game losing streak, Brian Kelly is hoping to build one of his own, winning against the Trojans for the second straight year, and his third time in four attempts. And while another monster recruiting weekend and home night game have the distractions at an all-time high, Kelly stated very simply the priority of his football team.

“The atmosphere, the game, the people around will take care of the environment,” Kelly said when asked about the circus surrounding the game. “Just win the damn game.  Win the game.  That’s what you need to do.”

In a game where nearly two dozen players chose between playing football in South Los Angeles or South Bend, we’re having a special edition of the Pregame Six Pack. Instead of leftovers, tidbits and miscellaneous musings, we’re looking at six players who very easily could have been playing for the other team.

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NELSON AGHOLOR: 

USC’s sophomore sensation was one of the Notre Dame coaching staff’s most coveted recruits. While Tony Alford spent months building a relationship with the Tampa native, and the Irish rolled out the red carpet for an official visit in October, Agholor ultimately decided to go west and join the Kiffins, where both Lane and Monte played equal roles in landing the five-star athlete.

Kelly talked about how much he liked the way Agholor played the game earlier this week.

“We love the fact that he could go all day. He’s one of those guys that just runs all day, plays fast every snap,” Kelly said. “That’s the kind of player he was.  That’s what we saw.  A guy that plays every single play.  He was a very good defensive player too in high school. So that’s the kind of player, that tenacious, every play, and elite speed and size.  So just a complete player from that standpoint.”

Agholor is coming off a career day, catching seven balls for 161 yards and a touchdown against Arizona. He’ll likely carry much of the load against the Irish as well.

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TROY NIKLAS: 

An Orange County native, Niklas could’ve joined a large handful of Southern California natives that find it too tough to turn down a USC offer. But the 6-foot-7, 270-pound tight end will instead play against the Trojans, battling against a team that could’ve used another big body on either side of the football.

Niklas talked a little bit about the decision making process with IrishSportsDaily.com.

“In the end, it was between Notre Dame and USC,” Niklas told ISD. “They were both up there, but in the end it was a clear decision on where I was going.

“It was one of those ‘forks in the road’ that you encounter in life.”

Ultimately a late recruiting visit the weekend before Signing Day was enough to get Niklas to pick the Irish, a moment celebrated by the Irish coaching staff live during the UND.com Signing Day show, and a revealing look into how this program evaluated Niklas.

Expect a big Saturday from the Irish’s tight ends, where Ben Koyack has finally joined Niklas as a weapon.

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MICHAEL HUTCHINGS: 

With Jarrett Grace hurt and the Irish likely depending on former walk-on Joe Schmidt to take major snaps, the Irish almost pulling Hutchings out of California and into the Midwest would’ve been huge for Bob Diaco’s troops.

Hutchings has already worked his way into the two-deep at inside linebacker, a position with a lot of talent at Southern Cal. He talked about the pull that was close to bringing him to South Bend, and also the fellow recruit that would’ve teamed with him to make one of the elite linebacking groups in the country.

“Jaylon has been in my ear a lot about Notre Dame,” Hutchings told Rivals.com back during his recruitment. “He just tells me that if I go there, the two of us won’t have to worry about playing the same position since we’re both being recruited at different linebacker spots. Notre Dame will need linebacker help after this year, and the two of us will be playing right next to each other.”

It turns out the Irish needed that help sooner than later. Missing on Hutchings hurt especially bad with the last minute defection of Alex Anzalone, who has played in four games for Florida, notching just one tackle.

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GEORGE ATKINSON III: 

If the Irish are going to get the type of offensive balance they want, they’ll have to get a nice Saturday night out of George Atkinson. The California native had an offer in play for Southern Cal, but ultimately decided to head to South Bend, where he could play with his brother Josh.

Atkinson has seen some big moments in the rivalry, his kickoff return in ’11 ignited the crowd and helped jumpstart the Irish after they had fallen behind 17-0. That was something the Trojans’ coaching staff pitched to Atkinson when he was offered a scholarship back in August 2010.

“They want to get the ball in my hands, so that’s good,” Atkinson told USCFootball.com back during his recruitment. “They didn’t really say where they were recruiting at specifically. I said I’d like to play offense, so I think they see me as a wide out.”

Many expected Atkinson to play wideout at Notre Dame as well, but the switch to the backfield looks like the correct role for the big back with speed. He’ll reaffirm that choice with a strong second half of the season that should get started Saturday night.

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HAYES PULLARD

The Trojans leading tackler was once one of West Coast recruiting wiz and now Nevada head coach Brian Polian’s key recruiting targets. The Irish got Pullard onto campus for an official visit during the Irish’s overtime win over Jake Locker and the Washington Huskies, but couldn’t close the deal.

The Parade All-American made a difference quickly at USC, averaging almost 90 tackles a season in his first three seasons. Charlie Weis wasn’t quite sure what they saw in Pullard, hoping he could play either linebacker or running back.

“It doesn’t matter to me,” Pullard told Irish Illustrated’s (AND live-blog contributor) Steve Hare. “They said they’d decide when I get there.”

Ultimately the Irish never got that opportunity, and instead have watched him rack up ridiculous numbers, making 13 tackles last year against Notre Dame and eight in 2011.

***

AMIR CARLISLE

Nobody can say they’ve seen both sides of this rivalry like Amir Carlisle, who chose USC narrowly over Notre Dame during the recruiting process, played one season under Lane Kiffin, then transferred to Notre Dame. After sitting out the last opportunity to play the Trojans with a broken ankle, Carlisle admitted that this was a different game than most he’ll play.

“I’m not gonna lie, yeah, there’s an excitement for me personally to be able to face my former team,” Carlisle told reporters on Wednesday. “I’m going to approach this game like any other game, but there’s a little extra there.”

Finding a job for Carlisle, who has slipped out of the primary game plan these past couple weeks, could be important. After struggling against Purdue and coughing up a late game fumble, Carlisle’s struggled to get much of anything going, something he’d desperately like to change against USC.

The Irish would embrace it as well, with many believing that Carlisle is the team’s answer at slot receiver.

Carlisle stays in touch with some Trojans from Irish Illustrated on Vimeo.

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.