And in that corner… The Air Force Falcons

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It’s been a tough go of it for Troy Calhoun and Air Force. After an unprecedented run of success the wheels finally have come off this season, with Air Force entering Saturday’s game against Notre Dame a hard luck 1-6.

It’s been a mixed bag of mostly bad for Air Force, a toxic mix of injuries, lack of depth, a tough schedule and some really heartbreaking losses. One of those came last week against San Diego State, when the Aztecs scored a touchdown in the game’s final 100 seconds to complete a fourth quarter rally. The Falcons managed to lose to Nevada in a similar manner, with former Irish assistant Brian Polian’s squad finally taking the lead with under two minutes to go as well.

Covering it all for the Colorado Springs Gazette has been Brent Briggeman. Brent was kind enough to get some really thoughtful answers to my questions, helping to get all of us prepared for Saturday afternoon’s game at the Air Force Academy.

Enjoy.

1. This Air Force team has already lost as many regular season games as they did last year. What gives? Difficult schedule? Tough luck? 14 graduated starters?

As you would probably expect, it’s been a combination of all of these things. Injuries and a suspension have decimated the team at the quarterback position, but the more serious problems have come on the defensive side. Speedy quarterbacks from Utah State and Wyoming were able to pick apart the inexperienced secondary by running into open spaces if the defensive backs stayed in coverage or hitting open receivers if the d-backs broke coverage to step forward in run support.

In between those games was a trip to Boise State, where the Broncos took all the underneath routes that Air Force was giving them by playing off the line of scrimmage and then the Broncos used their superior athletes to provide yards after the catch. Those three games put a cloud over everything and have clearly damaged the confidence of the defense and it has subsequently folded down the stretch in the past three games in allowing second-half leads to slip away. Luck hasn’t helped, as typically sure-handed receivers have dropped passes at key times and injuries have particularly hurt and already thin defensive line. Still, change two plays and the team is 3-4 despite all its woes, which isn’t all that bad for a service academy in a down year.

2. We’ll get to the prolific rushing offense in a second, but what exactly is going on at the quarterback position? Four quarterbacks have gotten opportunities to win the job. Where do things stand heading into the weekend?

Two quarterbacks battled for the job in spring with the fleet-footed Kale Pearson winning the job over Jaleel Awini, a strong-armed replica of Duante Culpepper. Pearson was then lost for the season in the first half of the opener and Awini committed an unspecified violation that dropped him from good standing as a cadet and left him unable to represent the academy in intercollegiate athletics. That left it to third-stringer Karson Roberts, a sophomore who ran for 160 yards at Nevada in his first start but has struggled since then. Roberts left the most recent game with a first-quarter concussion and freshman Nate Romine — who watched the opener from the stands — was thrust into action. Romine seems to have a more diversified skill set, but he’s new to the triple-option and just two months removed from basic training. Roberts returned to practice on Monday and figures to stay in the starting role, but any hint of a return of his symptoms would put Romine back under center.

3. The defense on the other hand has given up over 37 points a game, good for 112th in the country. They’ve coughed up a couple late leads, too. There is young, but inexperienced talent on this defense. Are they up for the challenge or a Tommy Rees led passing attack or an Andrew Hendrix ground-and-pound game?

Air Force’s players are just happy that their choices consist of a passer OR a runner and not a combination of the two, as dual-threat types have shredded this defense. Rees and a passing game could open the door for big plays either in the form of sacks or interceptions, and the Falcons will clearly need some big plays. A Hendrix-led offense would be more likely to take care of the ball and force Air Force to go toe-to-toe and win a traditional scrum. Notre Dame would have to like the odds if that were the case.

4. The ground game seems like a constant. What kind of challenge will they be for a Notre Dame defense that is finally hitting its stride.

If Karson Roberts plays, Notre Dame will have to defend the traditional triple option. The first option is speedy, large fullback Broam Hart, who has shown he can have impact with the ball in his hands. Roberts would be the second option, and he’s shown a slippery ability to find a few more yards than most plays seem to present for him. The tailbacks, Jon Lee and Anthony LaCoste, both have breakaway speed. The whole of the attack is greater than the sum of its parts when it’s working because the speed at which it is executed is faster than most teams can simulate in practice.

5. Troy Calhoun has done a great job at Air Force, but the Falcons do seem to be on a downward trend. He’s seven years into his tenure in Colorado Springs. Where does Calhoun stand right now?

Calhoun remains as secure as any coach in the nation after taking the team to six consecutive bowl games – an almost unheard of feat at a service academy that plays in a competitive conference – and there’s a strong chance that even with a loss on Saturday the Falcons could close on a four-game winning streak because of the layout of the schedule and cruise in with four or five wins in a down season. That’s not going to set off any alarms. However, there’s certainly some unrest with the defensive schemes after the past few seasons. If change isn’t seen in that regard in a hurry, there may be a strong call for new personnel on his staff. Part of the issues with the program stem from some thin numbers in the upper classes that have resulted from some players who either couldn’t make it at the academy or decided it wasn’t for them. There’s always going to be some attrition, but those classes seem to have been decimated more than most and the lack of veterans has been a major hindrance for the team – even if the talent of the younger guys does provide hope for the future.

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You can read more of Brent’s stuff at the Colorado Springs Gazette. You can also follow him on Twitter @BrentBriggeman.

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.