Pregame Six Pack: Bowling in the Big Apple

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Notre Dame finishes its 126th season on Saturday, going for a ninth win as they take on Rutgers in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. It’s the end of a season that many will remember for opportunities missed, though there was plenty of good to go along with the frustrating four losses.

With the Irish set to play a 6-6 Scarlet Knights team in balmy New York, let’s walk through our last pregame six pack before the offseason begins. As always, here are six tidbits, leftovers, fun facts, and miscellaneous musings before Notre Dame and Rutgers do battle.

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1. For Kerry Cooks and Mike Denbrock, it’s not just an average Saturday. 

With Bob Diaco and Chuck Martin now in charge of the UConn and Miami programs, Kerry Cooks and Mike Denbrock get their first shots to coordinate the offense and defense. While losing both coordinators this time of year isn’t exactly normal, it’s something that programs playing in bowl games sometimes face.

Both coaches have carried leadership roles on the staff previous to this interim assignment. Cooks was named co-defensive coordinator before the 2012 season while Denbrock received the title of passing game coordinator. They both talked about what Saturday will be like earlier this week.

“I look at it more as an opportunity to step into a role that needed filling so our football team could come here and have success against Rutgers. That’s really all it is for me right now,” Denbrock told Irish Illustrated. “We haven’t talked about the stuff that I know is out there. We’ve concentrated on just trying to prepare these guys the best we can and fill that void as best I can so the kids can feel a sense of normalcy about the way we’re doing things and can play their best.”

Cooks was just as philosophical, though you get the feeling he’d embrace the job if it was made permanent.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity,” Cooks told Irish Illustrated. “At least moving forward, whatever happens after this game, I can always say I was the defensive coordinator for Notre Dame, and I can always point back and say, ‘There it is for the Rutgers game.'”

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2. It should be bombs away for Tommy Rees and the Notre Dame receiving corps. 

After starting his second game in Yankee Stadium, Tommy Rees will play his final college game on Saturday at the same place. And with the weather forecast looking perfect and Rutgers secondary historically bad, Rees could go out in a blaze of glory.

The Scarlet Knights fired defensive coordinator Dave Cohen just a day after the regular season ended. Interim coordinator Joe Rossi, who coordinated the Maine defense for three years, is now tasked with trying to fix a unit that’s 122nd in the country against the pass.

Rossi talked about the challenge of trying to make big changes in just nine practices.

“It’s hard. You really can’t do too much,” Rossi told the Star-Ledger. “At the end of the day, if you spend too much time changing things, you’re not going to get good at those things. So we’ve really looked at ways we can get a little better here and there.

“It’s been a challenge. But I think we’ve done a good job with it.”

Rees has been a strong downfield passer this season, ranking 14th in the country in touchdown passes and 30th in the nation in yards per attempt.  Expect the ball to go vertical early and often Saturday afternoon.

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3. O Captain! My Captain! Part One: TJ Jones. 

This is it for TJ Jones, a four-year starter at wide receiver for the Irish. Jones’ final season has been his best, a productive, explosive year for a guy that grew into a No. 1 wide receiver after playing a complementary role for three seasons.

Forgotten in the loss to Stanford was Jones going over the 1,000 yard receiving mark. He’s also four catches from moving to second on the school’s all-time list, a surprising achievement that illustrates the impressive run Jones has had since arriving as an early enrollee freshman at the same time as Brian Kelly and company.

Jones has also done a good job as a punt returner this season. He’s averaging 8.7 yards a return, more than doubling the team’s productivity from last season. He’s also become a big play threat, averaging 16 yards a catch this year. If Jones gains over 130 yards on Saturday, he’ll move into the top five in Irish history for receiving yards.

While the lifetime achievements have been nice, Jones’ time at Notre Dame will be defined more by the man he has become. He’s been candid and open about that all year, discussing it after the Irish’s victory over BYU, an emotional Senior Day that also welcomed his late father Andre’s teammates back to campus to celebrate the 1988 national championship.

Earlier this week, Jones talked about the transformation he’s gone through since his father’s sudden passing in 2011.

“I believe I grew into the man that I am today at a very young age,” Jones told the Journal Gazette. “I matured quicker. I became the man of my house, and it taught me how to be a leader for my family. It allowed me to think bigger picture.”

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4. O Captain! My Captain! Part Two: Bennett Jackson. 

It’s a homecoming of sorts for Bennett Jackson, with the New Jersey native playing this Saturday in front of more family and friends than he can count. For some, Jackson’s senior season was a bit of a disappointment, with the veteran cornerback not necessarily flashing the type of playmaking ability that he started to display in his first season as a starter.

Yet Jackson looks to have once again gutted his way through an injury-riddled season, with a balky shoulder that barely held up last year looking to once again be the culprit. While Jackson’s career in South Bend will end, he’ll need to get to work before the NFL Scouting Combine and Notre Dame’s Pro Day, where he can show off his track speed and prototype size for scouts.

“I know I’m nowhere close to my full potential,” Jackson told MyCentralJersey.com. “I talk about it with my coaches all the time. I’m an unfinished product. I have raw talent, but I haven’t gotten all those reps that everyone else has gotten. I’m confident in myself and I think I’m going to grow each year.”

Notre Dame’s defensive leader leaves South Bend with his head held high, doing a lot of good during his four years with the Irish. Those contributions continue to be of great importance to Jackson, who has stayed close with friends, family and coaches throughout his time in college.

“You should never forget where you came from,” Jackson told his hometown paper. “I don’t look at myself as someone who’s bigger or better than anyone else. I think of myself as some small town Hazlet kid that just had an opportunity to play at Notre Dame and made the most of it.”

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5. O Captain! My Captain! Part Three: Zack Martin. 

Perhaps the hardest player to say goodbye to is Zack Martin. Notre Dame’s four-time offensive lineman of the year is probably one of college football’s most underrated players, something very hard to accomplish while wearing Notre Dame’s blue and gold.

For the 52nd time, Martin will start for the Irish, a record that won’t likely be eclipsed any time soon, unless college football significantly expands its schedule. While fellow starters Chris Watt, brother Nick Martin, and Christian Lombard won’t be joining him, Martin will hold tight a unit now featuring four first-year starters in Conor Hanratty, Matt Hegarty, Steve Elmer and Ronnie Stanley.

Martin is just the 18th two-time captain in Notre Dame history. He’s as close to a mistake-free football player as the Irish have on their roster, and the margin isn’t even close. He may not be the biggest or the strongest or the most impressive athletically, but Martin does just about everything you could ask from a college left tackle.

We’ll spend a ton of time this offseason talking about what the Irish offensive line will look like without Martin. But before we do that, let’s watch Martin shut down an opposing defensive end one last time.

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6. For one final Saturday, it’ll be Ws and Ls and Xs and Os. But after that, let the games begin. 

Consider this fair warning: For one more Saturday, we’ll have football to talk about. After that, all bets are off.

At this time last year, Notre Dame football felt in a pretty good place. The Irish were set to play for a national championship. Brian Kelly was the national coach of the year. Every assistant on staff was returning. Manti Te’o was the most decorated player in college football.

But it was all downhill once the BCS Championship game kicked off. Alabama pummeled the Irish in the first half, coasting to an easy victory. Kelly shocked Irish fans and the football world by going off the radar as he considered jumping to the NFL. Manti Te’o was defrocked, a catfishing story taking away the gloss that came with all those postseason awards. Eddie Vanderdoes tried to transfer out of South Bend before ever arriving. And Everett Golson’s academic suspension killed the Irish’s BCS hopes before they began.

It’s highly doubtful the Irish could have a calendar year as rocky as the one they just went through. But if you think it’s going to be a quiet nine months before Notre Dame kicks it off again, you’re nuts.

Monday will bring a handful of open NFL jobs. Mack Brown’s replacement at Texas still hasn’t been named. Recruits haven’t jumped in or out, with Signing Day still over a month away. And as Jerian Grant proved, the academic gauntlet at Notre Dame is something to always keep an eye on.

So let’s enjoy the ride Saturday afternoon. And then buckle up and expect the unexpected.

 

 

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).

@NDFootball

— 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