Pregame Six Pack: Send off at Stanford

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The regular season comes to a close on Saturday, with No. 25 Notre Dame visiting No. 8 Stanford. The Irish will have a chance to beat four ranked opponents on the season, though pulling off a victory in Palo Alto will be the biggest win on a season that certainly had its ups and downs.

While we may hear plenty of talk about revenge for Stanford after last season’s 20-13 overtime defeat, Cardinal head coach David Shaw talked about the missed opportunities more than any controversies.

“In the end, the opportunities that were there for us to make, we didn’t make, the opportunities for Notre Dame to make, they made,” Shaw said. “And besides that last play of the game, that was the real difference in the game.”

Of course, it wasn’t a perfect game for the Irish, either. Everett Golson turned the ball over three times on fumbles (matching this season’s total), with one turning into Stanford’s only touchdown. But after Golson went out of the game after a nasty helmet-to-helmet hit, Tommy Rees rallied the Irish, completing all four passing attempts, including the game winner in overtime.

There will be no margin for error for the Irish this weekend, with two starters missing from the offensive line and Louis Nix watching from the sideline. But that’s why they play the game.

Let’s get to this weekend’s pregame six pack. As usual, here are six tidbits, fun facts, leftovers or miscellaneous musings before Saturday evening’s Notre Dame-Stanford game.

***

Never considered a tough place to play, heading to The Farm is no walk in the park anymore. 

If the Irish are going to knock off Stanford, they’ll be doing it in one of the toughest places to win in college football. The Cardinal have lost twice this season, but not on their home turf, with Stanford’s 15-game home winning streak the second longest in college football, one game behind South Carolina.

Since the Irish beat the Cardinal in Stanford Stadium as two mediocre three-win teams battled in 2007, Stanford has won 36 of 39 home games since then. Those wins aren’t just coming against cupcakes either.

Stanford is 12-1 at home against ranked opponents, including 4-1 against teams in the top ten. Their last home loss to a ranked team came against No. 6 Oregon in 2011.

***

After pitching a shutout against some pretty impressive competition, fifth-year left tackle Zack Martin has one more tough assignment this weekend. 

When Martin takes the field against Stanford, he’ll become the all-time leader for most career starts at Notre Dame, a record that won’t likely be beat any time soon. But for as impressive as Martin’s iron man streak is, his play this season has been just as good.

In this week’s game notes, the Notre Dame sports information department points out some of the very impressive talent the Irish have faced this year. Kyle Van Noy (BYU), Aaron Donald (Pitt), Shilique Calhoun (MSU), Leonard Williams (USC) and Frank Clark (Michigan) have combined for 77 TFLs and 31 sacks this season. Matched up against Martin, they’ve had just three TFLs and zero sacks.

Saturday, Stanford outside linebacker Trent Murphy brings another sizable challenge to the table, the nation’s leading quarterback sacker with 13. Last year, Murphy was dominant. While he might not be matched up with Martin all game, keeping Murphy in check with be key for the Irish.

Just how tough is Murphy? Well, he might just come from a long line of giants. His 52-year-old dad can still rep 225 pounds 25 times on the bench press. He wrestled a 400-pound steer calf for fun in high school. The fifth-year veterans will be ones to watch on Saturday.

***

One season after giving up the sport for professional baseball, the Irish will have to slow down running back Tyler Gaffney. 

Stuck behind Stephan Taylor for the past few seasons, Tyler Gaffney started for three seasons as an outfield for Stanford’s nationally-ranked baseball program. Drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 24th round, Gaffney said goodbye to his senior season of football, leaving the program for the minor leagues, where he put together an impressive 2012 season, hitting .297, with a .483 OBP in low-A State College.

But Gaffney came back to the football program, taking an unique redshirt season before putting his baseball career on hold as he returned in the spring to compete for the starting running back job.

“I weighed out my options down to the smallest details,” Gaffney told SI.com. “Getting your degree, being part of this team, being able to play football, is outweighing staying on the baseball team. It pretty much opens up three options rather than just one.”

Those options have only gotten more impressive, as Gaffney has been dominant this season, running for 1,296 yards and 16 touchdowns while going over 100 yards seven times this season, including a Herculean effort against Oregon, where he carried the ball 45 times.

Matched up against a really thin Irish defensive front, Gaffney will likely be the weapon of choice for David Shaw, and it’ll be up to the Irish front seven to limit the Doak Walker Award semifinalist.

***

After saying goodbye to some elite tight end talent, the Irish duo of Troy Niklas and Ben Koyack have turned in impressive seasons. 

For two programs that have produced a ton of good tight end talent lately, that Troy Niklas and Ben Koyack have turned into the most productive duo in college football certainly is a positive development this season for Notre Dame. 

After wondering how Notre Dame was going to replace All-American and Mackey Award winner Tyler Eifert, the Irish have shown exactly how. Take a look at the numbers over the past two seasons through 11 games:

Tyler Eifert: 40 catches for 555 yards (13.9 avg.) and 4 TDs
Troy Niklas/Ben Koyack
: 35 catches for 556 yards (15.9 avg.) and 8 TDs

Not since 1958, when Monty Stickles, Gary Meyers, Dick Royer and Bob Wetoska caught 10 touchdowns have the Irish tight ends scored more touchdowns than this season. With Niklas, Koyack and potentially Alex Welch returning next season, there’s plenty to look forward to at the position.

***

With another season finale in California, Notre Dame’s commitment to the West coast is critical. 

With scheduling dynamics forever changed because of Notre Dame’s commitment to five ACC games moving forward, two sets of games the Irish aren’t interested in losing are the series with USC and Stanford.

The Irish have committed to finishing their season in California, alternating years between USC and Stanford, a nice Thanksgiving trip away from South Bend. But it’s also a great way to continue building a roster that depends on California talent. The Irish played three games against the Pac-12 this year, the most since 2009.

Eleven members of the Irish, including seven scholarship players, are California natives. And finishing the season on the West Coast allows the Irish coaching staff to recruit the state before heading back, giving Mike Denbrock a chance to drop in on prospects like Tyler Luatua.

With Stanford, USC and UCLA all playing good football, it’s tough mining a state that’s one of the most talent-rich in the country. But it’s a commitment the Irish staff have made and continue to cash in on, with 2015 quarterback Blake Barnett the latest.

***

Injuries on defense have forced the depth chart to improve. 

Entering the season finale, 17 different players have started a game for the Irish. While injuries have decimated the team, they’ve also forced a lot of different people to see action. Let’s take a look at the 24 different players on the Irish roster to make at least 10 tackles this season (with that number potentially growing on Saturday).

Carlo Calabrese – 76
Dan Fox – 75
Jaylon Smith – 56
Bennett Jackson – 56
KeiVarae Russell – 47
Stephon Tuitt – 42
Matthias Farley – 41
Jarrett Grace – 41
Prince Shembo – 40
Austin Collinsworth – 28
Sheldon Day 27
Louis Nix – 27
Eilar Hardy – 25
Elijah Shumate – 23
Kona Schwenke – 20
Ben Councell – 15
Cole Luke – 15
Joe Schmidt – 14
Kendall Moore – 14
Jarron Jones – 14
Ishaq Williams – 13
Romeo Okwara – 13
Isaac Rochell – 10
Max Redfield – 10

Notre Dame hasn’t reached that milestone in over 50 years, when 29 different tacklers made 10 stops or more in 1962. These numbers are a product of some serious damage done to the two-deep depth chart, with 11 different players that opened the year in the two-deep having missed at least two games. (Those numbers don’t count guys like Danny Spond, Tony Springmann or Chase Hounshell, either.)

A stat like this is a big reason the Irish might not pull out a victory on Saturday evening, especially if the Stanford ground game finds its rhythm. But this season’s bad luck could be helpful in the future, with next year’s defense building experience early.

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.