Pregame Six Pack: Primetime at Pitt

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During a season filled with high-wire acts and last-second escapes, Notre Dame’s 29-26 victory over Pitt might have been the capper, with the Irish miraculously winning the game in triple overtime after trailing 20-6 in the fourth quarter.

They did so even with Everett Golson throwing a killer interception in the Pitt end zone, trailing by eight with under four minutes to go. They won even after Cierre Wood fumbled going into the end zone in double-overtime, surviving when a 33-yard field goal sailed wide right (with an assist from a high snap).

Saturday night’s game might not have the same dramatic set-up, but Notre Dame will face a similarly desperate team that wants badly to beat the Irish after losing three straight close games to Notre Dame. While Paul Chryst’s team has been inconsistent on both sides of the football, for 60 minutes on Saturday night, they’ll have the chance to turn their season around in front of a national audience.

“They don’t seem to like Notre Dame very much, and they want to beat Notre Dame,” Brian Kelly said earlier this week. “I think it’s one of those games where you know you’re going to go in and it’s going to be a fight.”

Let’s jump into the pregame six pack. As usual, here are six tidbits, fun facts, leftovers or miscellaneous musings before Notre Dame and Pittsburgh do battle on Saturday night in primetime.

***

Matched up against the interior of Notre Dame’s offensive line, defensive tackle Aaron Donald will be Public Enemy No. 1 in the trenches for the Irish. 

He may lack the size of an elite defensive tackle, but Pitt’s Aaron Donald has been a terror this season, leading the country with 19.5 TFLs, averaging roughly 2.5 a game. Matched up on the interior of the Irish offensive line, freshman Steve Elmer and first-year starter Nick Martin have their toughest challenge of the season, especially with Chris Watt far from full strength with a PCL tear.

While Watt isn’t 100 percent, Pete Sampson of Irish Illustrated reported on the Irish Illustrated Insider podcast that Watt told him he was 100 percent going to play, and it’s likely because of the importance of keeping Donald out of the backfield.

Aaron Donald has been a one‑man wrecking crew,” Kelly said this week. “We know about him from last year.  Big, physical defensive line, and he will be somebody that we will have to game plan and find a way to slow down.  He’s in the backfield, very active.  I think for him, you know, you have a powerful guy, but he’s also extremely quick at the point of attack.”

Last year, Donald racked up seven tackles in Pitt’s near upset. Interestingly enough, after the overtime victory, Kelly talked a little bit about spreading the defense out to try and neutralize Donald. A week after playing a base with mostly two-tight ends, we’ll see how the Irish try and attack the Pitt defense.

***

With Ben Councell out for the season with an ACL tear, it’s Jaylon Smith or bust at outside linebacker. 

Heading into the season, most wondered how talented freshman Jaylon Smith would find his way onto the field. Now we’re wondering how he’s ever going to find his way off of it. Brian Kelly confirmed the bad news most assumed this week when he disclosed Ben Councell tore his ACL. That removes the returning two-deep depth chart at the Dog outside linebacker position with Danny Spond retired after his battle with migraine headaches.

We already know Smith is no ordinary freshman. But what’s really helped him grow throughout this season isn’t just his superior athleticism, but rather his ability to mental grasp one of the hardest positions on the Irish defense.

“I would say that each and every week he builds on his knowledge base,” Kelly explained. “That doesn’t necessarily happen in all the players that I’ve coached in my years.  Sometimes it takes a year to kinda digest everything and then come back that next year and you really see kind of a rise in your play.

“But with this young man, things happen to him, and they stick. He learns from mistakes that are made, and applies them the next week. He’s an extraordinary player in the sense that an accelerated learning curve for somebody that experiences it for the first time and very rarely does it come back to hit him again.”

That’s high praise from a head coach that doesn’t spend much time fawning over his players. And it also gives you an idea of the pressure that’ll be put on Smith during these last three games, with no true back-up at the position any more.

***

With the Irish beginning their ACC scheduling pact next season, expect plenty more of Pitt… and the expansion of a below-the-radar rivalry. 

Pitt tight end J.P. Holtz expanded on Brian Kelly’s quote about the Panthers not liking Notre Dame this week, with the young tight end carrying over some collateral anger from last year’s overtime defeat.

“Personally, I don’t like Notre Dame at all,” Holtz said said. “It’s just going to make me go harder. I just think they’re really cocky and their coaches are really cocky. I just don’t like that. They’re just different people there.” 

Holtz might have been the only player to voice the opinion, but it’s safe to say the feeling is likely shared. It’s also likely a product of some really close games over the past five seasons, with two decided in triple-overtime.

There’s been just 20 points separating these two teams over the past five years, with Notre Dame winning the last three games by a total of 11 points.

***

It’s been a long time, but Notre Dame might just finally have their starting defensive line together. 

With little depth left along the front of the Irish defensive line, Mike Elston might finally have his starting three ready to go after not being able to have the group together at full strength for just about any game this season.

Stephon Tuitt came out of the gates slowly, an offseason hernia surgery the culprit. Defensive end Sheldon Day has battled a high ankle sprain for the better part of the season. And Louis Nix sat out the past two weeks against Air Force and Navy, a balky knee and other ailments keeping him off the field.

Kelly updated Nix’s status, feeling confident that Big Lou will be ready for action and the final three regular season games of the season.

“He had a full week of practice, moved around well, Kelly said. “He was in the training room all week. Thursdays are our 48-hour meetings with the staff, which is where we get our pretty definitive idea of if our guys are gonna be full strength and everybody feels like he’s gonna be good to go.”

A week after Day hobbled off after aggravating his ankle injury with a cut block, the Irish hope he’ll be able to answer the bell as well, needing as many good reps out of the starting three as they can get before sliding down the depth chart.

Looking for a stat that best puts the health struggles the Irish have had up front into context? During the last six games, Tuitt, Nix and Day have played together just 13 snaps. They’ve given up just 21 yards and had two sacks.

(Hat-tip to Irish Illustrated for that one.)

***

Expect the Irish to challenge Pitt with the deep ball early and often. 

After spending much of his career throwing accurately and underneath, Tommy Rees and the Irish offense have taken shots down the field from the season opener. And after a rough patch in the middle of the season, Rees has rebounded and played very sound football from the Arizona State game on.

After completing 11 passes of 32 yards or more last season with a rocket-armed Everett Golson at the helm, Rees has already completed an astounding 14 passes of more than 32 yards. Rees’ success hasn’t just come with the deep ball, he’s also been more efficient taking chunks of 20-yards or more.

In his 34 starts entering the season, Rees had completed 59 throws that went for 20+ yards. In nine games this year he’s completed 37. In those 34 starts, he had only completed 20 passes of over 30 yards. This season he’s completed 15.

Even with two interceptions last week against Navy, Rees has put up an impressive 22-8 touchdown/interception ratio. Numbers that have been a good surprise in a season that’s had so many tough breaks.

***

We’ll see if Brian Kelly thinks Tarean Folston’s big game against Navy was more running back or opponent. 

While some looked at Tarean Folston’s 140-yards against Navy as his “Star is born” moment, the reality of the situation is that Cam McDaniel and George Atkinson also ran for over seven yards per carry.

There’s no doubting that Folston added a spark to the Irish ground game and a dimension that we haven’t yet seen, but on second inspection there deserves to be a bit of skepticism that comes with putting up stats against a service academy defense.

All that being said, we’ll see how impressed Brian Kelly was by Folston’s performance by the touches he gives the freshman Saturday night in front of a national audience. We’ve seen big games from fellow freshmen Corey Robinson and Will Fuller already this season, but they’ve gone back to non-factors just as quickly. That shouldn’t be the case with Folston, though we’ll see how heavy an allocation he takes in a running back rotation that looks to be down to Folston, Atkinson and McDaniel.

Probably the most surprising thing about Folston’s emergence last week were the crunch time carries. Then again, McDaniel, Atkinson and Carlisle have all coughed up footballs at inopportune times.

The Panthers only have one defensive lineman on their two-deep that weighs more than 300 pounds. They don’t have a single linebacker that weighs over 230. So the power advantage up front leans Irish. Let’s see how comfortable Kelly is putting the game on Folston’s shoulders.

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s tight ends, a surplus of depth, unproven talent

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Notre Dame has such tight end depth, it was somewhat surprising when the Irish pursued a second tight end in the class of 2018, but the possibilities of yet another playmaker in Tommy Tremble combined with a physical option in George Takacs forced the coaching staff’s decision.

“I always like to have that versatility each year and each signing class,” Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long said Feb. 7. “… We don’t want to pass up on a great athlete … being able to present different challenges to the defense with those kind of guys and still be very physical at the same time.”

That is a key to remember when looking at the Irish tight ends — Long sees different purposes amid the individuals in that position’s meeting room. Tremble, for example, could line up as a receiver as often as not while Takacs might fill in as Durham Smythe most recently did, serving as an additional blocker when needed and offering sure hands otherwise. In many respects, the two roles are two different positions.

Spring Roster:
— Fifth-year Nic Weishar, who Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said had shoulder surgery recently, though Kelly did not offer a timetable for return.
— Rising senior Alizé Mack.
— Rising sophomore Cole Kmet, when he is not pitching in relief for the Irish baseball team. Kmet made his second appearance of the season Thursday night. A letdown (3.0 IP, 3 ER, 3 H, 4 K), it did not go anywhere near as well as his debut did (4.0 IP, 0 ER, 1 H, 3 K).

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— Rising sophomore Brock Wright, who underwent a shoulder surgery of his own shortly following the regular season. A recent photo (left) from the @NDFootball Twitter account indicates Wright is partaking in at least some winter conditioning drills.
— Early-enrolled freshman Takacs.

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman Tremble.

Depth Chart Possibilities:
Long uses multiple tight ends, deploying both of those aforementioned archetypes at the same time. That tendency should be seen even more often in 2018 with more options now available. A full year in a collegiate program should have both Kmet and Wright ready for bigger roles, challenging Weishar for some of what were Smythe’s snaps in 2017.

The third tight end will see opportunities. It is essentially a second-string role. If granting the argument of two different forms of tight ends, then even the fourth tight end will get chances, as he will simply be the second-stringer in that particular role.

Kmet would seem the more likely of the rising sophomores to get a bit more time, but that only means Wright will see plenty of time in a blocking back role, just as he did in situational packages in 2017.

Biggest Question:
Kmet could find his way to a more prominent role if he offers something not yet seen from Mack: consistency not just on the field, but in all respects.

Can Mack finally translate his athleticism and potential into a consistent mismatch and productive threat? At his best, he could be the product of an offensive coordinator’s daydreams, but Mack has so rarely been at his best. That applies both on and off the field, considering his multiple drops in 2017 were followed by Kelly suspending Mack for an internal team matter for the Citrus Bowl before Notre Dame even headed down to Florida.

Another year of Mack spinning his wheels will result in a loss of playing time with the likes of Kmet and Tremble around. If Mack does not provide positive results in the spring while Kmet does, that shift could begin even before the Blue-Gold Game on April 21.

Fifth-year tight end Nic Weishar will provide Notre Dame not only with depth and experience in 2018, but also sure hands. That alone should give him a leg up on the other tight ends entering this spring. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Pertinent Reader Question:
“Every year a four- or five-star disappoints and every year a three-star or lower prospect surprises. My prediction is fall: Mack, rise: Weishar. I have been the lone man on the Weishar bandwagon for a few years now and really hope that this year he becomes the big receiving target we need.

What are your fallers and risers for this coming year?” — Mark H.

A logical argument can be made that “fallers” should not be labeled as such until after their collegiate careers conclude. There are so many factors that can limit a player for years before he breaks out. Consider rising senior receiver and former consensus four-star prospect Miles Boykin. As recently as New Year’s Eve, he may have been labeled a bust, but now he can lay claim to one of the most dramatic catches in Irish history and is a frontrunner for a starting role in 2018 with another year of eligibility remaining after that. He could end up with a stellar collegiate career by every measure.

Mack has had the opportunity to shine to date, and he has not done so, but he also might have two more seasons to go to change that reputation.

As for “risers,” Weishar makes sense and he certainly showcased his strong hands when given the chance in 2017, but his ceiling is likely not much higher than that. A couple touchdown catches, a handful of third-down conversions and a year of physical blocking would be a welcome success.

Notre Dame’s safeties, though, could stand out to fit the criteria laid out by Mark. If — and that is a two-letter word not to be overlooked — Navy transfer and rising junior Alohi Gilman and rising sophomore Jordan Genmark-Heath end up as productive starters for the season, then they will both have exceeded the expectations set out by star ratings.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Mack: 19 catches for 166 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by six receptions for 38 yards against North Carolina with rising junior quarterback Ian Book starting in place of an injured Brandon Wimbush.
Weishar: Nine catches for 52 yards and two touchdowns.
Kmet: Two catches for 14 yards; appeared in all 13 games.
Wright: Appeared in 11 games, no statistics recorded.

Notre Dame gets the letter: George Takacs
Notre Dame gets the letter: Tommy Tremble

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are
Linebackers, a proven two and then many questions

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s linebackers, a proven two and then many questions

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Any concerns about Notre Dame’s linebackers were allayed when Te’von Coney spurned the NFL to return for his senior season. That decision, and Drue Tranquill making the same move, means the Irish do not need to replace their two best playmakers at the position from last season.

Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Clark Lea does need to figure out how to fill in for the graduated Nyles Morgan and his 92 tackles, not to mention classmate Greer Martini and his 75, good for second and fourth on the team, respectively.

Spring Roster:
— Two known and welcome playmaking veterans in Coney and fifth-year Tranquill.
— More than a handful of unproven and untested possibilities in rising senior Asmar Bilal, rising juniors Jonathan Jones and Jamir Jones (no relation), and rising sophomores Drew White, David Adams and Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah.
— A trio of early-enrolled freshmen in Jack Lamb, Bo Bauer and Ovie Oghoufo.

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman Shayne Simon, a likely rover candidate.

Entering 2017, Te’von Coney was not even a starting linebacker. By the end of the season he was the leading tackler, and in 2018, he will be counted on as a defensive stalwart. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
Wherever Tranquill ends up — be it at rover or a more traditional linebacker position, with the latter seeming more likely — someone will need to earn the third starting role. Bilal is the front-runner for that duty, at either position, but he will need to show a quicker understanding of the game than he has in the past.

The rising senior has always been ready physically, but he has looked up the depth chart at the likes of Morgan, Martini, Coney and Tranquill. Opportunities were not readily available. Now that one very much is, Bilal will need to either seize it or get ready to be bypassed by the newcomers.

It would be a surprise for Lamb or Bauer to be named that third starter in their freshman season, but both could certainly land in the two-deep, as that entire second unit is up for grabs. Neither Jones showed much last season, and the linebacker recruiting emphasis of 2018 belied the coaching staffs’ opinions of the rising sophomores pretty clearly.

Presuming Bilal steps forward and secures the starting position, and some combination of Jones, Jones, Lamb and Bauer fill two of the backup roles, only Owusu-Koromoah stands out as an obvious rover substitute. In that respect, depth remains a concern at the defense’s second level, albeit less of one than in years past thanks to the influx of four touted freshmen.

Biggest Question:
Where does Tranquill line up against Michigan on Sept. 1? More to the current purpose, where does he line up in the Blue-Gold Game on April 21?

“My responsibility as linebackers coach is to put the best combination of people on the field,” Lea said Feb. 7. “I think everyone can see Drue Tranquill had a skillset, a talent base that can play multiple spots. Through the course of the winter and spring, we’ll take a look at different options.”

The duties at rover can be handled piecemeal, accounting for the tendencies of each opponent. When facing an up-tempo, aerial attack, perhaps even rising senior cornerback Shaun Crawford could be featured there. When facing a physical, ground-bound opponent, Bilal would make more sense.

Shifting around like that at the Buck linebacker spot makes far less sense. While Tranquill never necessarily had the speed to excel at safety, and two knee injuries only further limited him in that respect, he shined at rover in 2017. Concluding his collegiate career at linebacker is logical, both as it pertains to his development thus far and to his professional aspirations.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Rarely can a defense lose two of its top-four tacklers and still return more than 200 tackles from starting linebackers. Thus is the luxury provided by both Coney and Tranquill bypassing the NFL for another year.

Coney: 116 tackles, 13.0 tackles for loss including three sacks, and one forced fumble which he recovered.
Tranquill: 85 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss including 1.5 sacks, one interception, three pass breakups, three fumbles recovered and one fumble forced.
Bilal: 18 tackles with 1.5 for loss.
Jo. Jones: 10 tackles with one for loss and one pass breakup.
Ja. Jones: Four tackles.

A 2018 Statistical Thought:
Presuming linebacker health, the three starters should end up as Notre Dame’s leading tacklers once again in 2018, even with the presumed drop off from Morgan to insert Bilal or Owusu-Koromoah or Lamb or … here.

The Irish defensive line will be much improved in 2018. Once upon a time, that seemed a guarantee just because the expectations for the line entering 2017 were so low, but it instead became a strength. Developing that strength and making it the backbone of Notre Dame’s defense moving forward will serve to burgeon the linebackers’ tackle totals, both at and behind the line of scrimmage.

Notre Dame gets the letter: Jack Lamb
Notre Dame gets the letter: Bo Bauer
Notre Dame gets the letter: Shayne Simon
Notre Dame gets the letter: Ovie Oghoufo

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are

A second four-star defensive lineman, Hunter Spears, joins the Notre Dame class of 2019

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When Notre Dame got five heralded defensive line recruits on campus together in January, it turned heads. When Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston offered public optimism about the possible 2019 commitments, it raised expectations.

Notre Dame has now secured a second of those five with the Tuesday commitment of consensus four-star defensive end Hunter Spears (Sachse High School; Texas). He joins consensus four-star defensive tackle Jacob Lacey (South Warren H.S.; Bowling Green, Ky.) as the early foundation to the recruiting class, now with four prospects pledged.

“Honestly, just talking with the guys today — Jacob Lacey, Mazi Smith, Joseph Anderson, Nana Osafo-Mensah, and myself — if Notre Came can land all of us, that would be the dream d-line class for Notre Dame,” Spears told Irish Illustrated. “I could see another pass-rusher or two, also.”

The other three names Spears mentioned all joined Lacey and him on Jan. 27 at an on-campus Junior Day. All five qualify as consensus four-stars, with Smith (East Kentwood; Kentwood, Mich.) a tackle, Anderson (Siegel; Murfreesboro, Tenn.) an end, and Osafo-Mensah (Nolan Catholic; Fort Worth, Texas) a possible end/linebacker hybrid.

From left to right: Osafo-Mensah, Anderson, Elston, Smith, Lacey and Spears. (Twitter: @JacobLacey6)

Landing all five may be ambitious, but it would also be the envy of most of the country.

Spears already held offers from the likes of Alabama and Michigan State, despite missing his junior season with a knee injury. The Irish extended a scholarship offer to him in June, prompting an unofficial visit to watch a 49-14 Notre Dame victory over USC in October. In a video released by 247Sports.com, Spears cited that experience as one of the three primary reasons he committed, along with the educational opportunity and the “overall tradition and culture.”

Spears shows quickness for a defensive lineman, but not such that he would ever be considered an outside linebacker in any form. His size makes him an ideal candidate to set the edge against the run or possibly move inside when the Irish need a quicker defensive line to handle certain opponents. His agility, though, will make him a three-down threat, both a pass-rusher and an edge-setter.

Notre Dame currently has depth at defensive end, but with only one signed in the class of 2018 (Justin Ademilola) and one remaining from the class of 2017 (Kofi Wardlow), an influx will be a priority this recruiting cycle. Spears will theoretically have one season to adjust to collegiate competition before the quartet of rising juniors Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem, Julian Okwara and Ade Ogundeji run out of eligibility. (The first three have two seasons remaining, while Ogundeji has the possibility of three more years.)

Hence, that Junior Day emphasis and Elston’s confidence on National Signing Day.

“I’ve been at Notre Dame now going on for nine years, and I haven’t had a stronger group of underclassmen that I’m recruiting than I have this year in 2019,” Elston said. “This could be the best defensive line haul we’ve ever had here.”

Expect to read that quote again and again (and possibly again) if any of the remaining three in the above photo follow Spears’ and Lacey’s lead.

RELATED READING: ‘Accelerated’ start creates bright outlook for Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting cycle

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are

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Notre Dame will open spring practice in about two weeks. As always, the proceedings will be filled with positive reviews, optimistic outlooks, and an injury or two.

A quick look at each position group should lend a better understanding to those perspectives and effects, beginning with the group lacking many questions — the running backs. The biggest reason there is relative certainty around the running backs is there are just so few of them following the winter dismissals of rising junior Deon McIntosh and rising sophomore C.J. Holmes.

Spring Roster:
Rising senior Dexter Williams (pictured above)
Rising junior Tony Jones
Early-enrolled freshman Jahmir Smith
Rising junior Mick Assaf

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman C’Bo Flemister

No one received more praise last spring practice than Tony Jones. He had a successful 2017, but compared to that hype, it could have been considered under-performing. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
At some point, either Williams or Jones will be named the Irish starter. It is quite possible that will be a distinction without much difference, as the two could certainly complement each other well in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s system, which already prefers to use multiple running backs.

Human nature, though, dictates is more likely one back receives a majority of the carries.

Biggest Question:
If Williams lines up with the No. 1 offensive unit in the Blue-Gold Game (April 21) to conclude spring practice, that will be the first genuine and tangible evidence he has improved as a pass blocker. Despite his big-play speed and seeming-ease breaking tackles, Williams’ one-dimensional game rendered him as much a liability as an asset in 2017.

Even in the Citrus Bowl victory, Williams followed up back-to-back rushes for a combined 36 yards with a blown pass protection resulting in a 13-yard sack.

“You have to be able to protect the quarterback with all positions,” Long said Feb. 7. “That dictates a whole lot if you’re going to play a lot or just be a situational guy. It’s something you have to embrace, the physicality.

“… That’s really the main thing, other than protecting the ball, that’ll keep a back off the field in our offense.”

The best ability is availability, and both an ankle injury and a balky quad limited Williams in that respect in 2017. Little blame can be cast for the natural bruises of football. Nonetheless, he will need to “embrace the physicality” if he wants to become more than a situational back.

Otherwise, Jones will be the default option. He has already shown a knack for both pass blocking and catching, making him a three-down option. Notre Dame will always prefer that rather than tip its hand to a running play every time Williams enters the game.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Obviously, Josh Adams carried the burden in the running game last season. Behind rising senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush and McIntosh, Williams was only the No. 4 rusher on the roster in yards and touchdowns, while Jones was No. 4 in carries and No. 5 in yards and scores.

Williams: 360 yards on 39 carries, a 9.2 average, with four touchdowns. Two catches for 13 yards and one score.
Jones: 232 yards on 44 carries, a 5.3 average, with three touchdowns. Six catches for 12 yards.
Notre Dame gets the letter: Jahmir Smith
Notre Dame gets the letter: C’Bo Flemister