Post-Spring Update: Northwestern

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As we continue our meander through Notre Dame’s 2014 opponents, we arrive on the much-anticipated game with Northwestern. No, this won’t be a candidate to host College GameDay, but for ND grads and the city of Chicago, this will be a game that’ll likely determine bragging rights on the North Side.

(At the very least, it’ll make for a fun tailgater and a lot of charter buses heading back for a nightcap.)

Last year was the first slip up for Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald. The former All-American linebacker who essentially put the Wildcats back on the map as a player, Fitzgerald took over the program after the sudden death of Randy Walker. Learning on the job, Fitzgerald built on Walker’s momentum and brought the program to a consistency it had never before seen.

Wildcats fans are hoping to return to that more-than-average place, maybe even getting back to the 10-win plateau that saw the 2012 season capped off with a victory over Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl.

Getting us up to speed on all things Northwestern is Jay Sharman, the editor of Lake the Posts, a long-running Northwestern football blog. Jay was nice enough to answer questions not just about the Wildcats on the field, but the relationship between two schools and football programs off of it.

 

Can you help us figure out what went wrong for the Wildcats in 2013? After a 10-win 2012 and a Gator Bowl win over Mississippi State, Northwestern lost seven straight, finishing the year 5-7. Was it a matter of injuries or bad breaks? Regression to the mean?

This is the stuff that makes off-seasons so damn long. It’s not like I brood over this question regularly (ahem, ahem…every day), but since you asked anything that comes after this sentence is an excuse. At least that’s the take those of us that believe NU has arrived to the place where any year that isn’t a bowl game is a disaster. Are we more the 10-win 2012 program or the middle of the pack B1G team that our B1G record under Fitz would suggest? Great question.

It’s hard to believe that at one point we were 4-0, #16 in the country and on the game-winning drive against Ohio State (after leading most of the game) in primetime when Kain Colter fumbled a 4th down snap (he still got the first down, but the refs didn’t see it that way). The emotions surrounding that biggest game in Evanston since 2000 took the air out of the balloon and the season. Honestly, it was a combination of bad luck, injuries and poor coaching in clutch time all rolled up in to one tidy ball of a hot mess.

Keep in mind NU lost on a Hail Mary to Nebraska (no one deeper than the deepest?), in OT at Iowa after being in the red zone in the final minute with the score tied and then the world’s zaniest FG by Michigan to send us to an OT loss. We’d like to think at least two of those three were once in a generation kinda plays (and over the past 20 years we’ve had our fair share).

Injuries were a big part, but so was the lack of depth. NU’s offensive line was pretty miserable, but we also lost All-American heart-and-soul PR/RB Venric Mark, along with a host of linemen and somehow inherited Iowa’s AIHRBG (angy Iowa-hating RB God) as one after the next we started to learn what “sixth” on depth chart meant. Throw in some really conservative defense in key stretches with the lead and you have the recipe for the most disappointing season since 2001.

 

Did the frustration from last season carry over to spring?

Let’s hope not! The injuries sure did. NU’s spring roster resembled the cliched M*A*S*H unit and we struggled at time to even go full 11-on-11 due to injuries. Fitz has been overly cautious in the off-season and is working like crazy to limit injuries and ensure we’re at full throttle for 2014. The attitude was a good one – one with a chip on the shoulder, which all got overshadowed by what i’m guessing is…

 

It’s hard to talk football when the Wildcats football team took official steps towards unionization. This could probably be an entire discussion, but help me out here: Does a group of student-athletes at one of the finest academic institutions in American not understand the value of a full scholarship? Is this still moving forward?
…there it is – you’re next question. This is months and months of posts, vicious alumni debates and a topic that nearly had fans going at one another this off-season. NU fans (as well as ND fans) are no stranger to the front page and business section of the NYTimes and WSJ, but we’re not used to getting football headlines there. In March.

It’s impossible for me to be objective on this question as I’ve stated my opinion numerous times that unionizing football at NU isn’t the solution. However, it is really hard to argue that Kain Colter and CAPA didn’t win this battle. From a strategic standpoint, they had a Rose Bowl-level win. By forcing the NCAA and other private school institutions to address the issues that most all of us would agree on (medical coverage post college for injuries suffered while playing, concussion protocols, etc…) and not even touching the compensation argument, they were able to create seismic change in the legislative waters and had school ADs and presidents scurrying to really genuinely address some key issues. That being said, the way Kain went about it was less than something Jim Phillips, Fitz and many of the teammates feel good about.

What’s the reaction been like among alums, Northwestern supporters and former players?

It’s been ugly. Go ahead and scan the comments section on LTP in February, March and April. NU fans can’t go anywhere in the country without this topic immediately coming up in conversation. Former players are divided strongly on the issue, alumni are more anti-union in general and students,well, it’s tough to gauge exactly. Every one is fatigued by the issue but many felt hurt by the way things went down. NU prides itself on family atmosphere and transparency and this process didn’t exactly play out that way. Fitz and Phillips publicly lauded Kain for taking a leadership position and supported him and then he promptly bad-mouthed the school saying they made it nearly impossible for him to pursue a medical degree. This topic is one that I have personally received numerous emails from former players-turned-doctors who are incensed at that notion. Bottom-line it’s been a rough, rough off-season and the boom coming over is all of that media coverage and distraction for the current team this fall. It’s naive to think it won’t be a factor.

 

Back to the football field, from a distance it looks like part of the problems last year were at quarterback. With Cain Kolter gone (though hardly out of the spotlight), is the quarterback job Trevor Siemian’s? Is one-time Notre Dame target and former blue-chipper Matt Alviti challenging for playing time?

There is no doubt this is Trevor Siemian’s job. Siemian is a very good passer and while no Kain Colter or Dan Persa, he is more mobile than one may think. Make no mistake about it, Siemian will be throwing downfield a lot for many reasons. We’ve got a bevy of veteran receivers and well, he can throw. Siemian suffered a foot injury that none of us knew he had which hampered him severely through the meat of the schedule. Throw in the constant platoon system (Kain thrived in this) and you had a guy searching for his rhythm last year. I expect a huge year out of Siemian in 2014.

The fan base has been lauding Matt Alviti as the next Dan Persa since the day he committed (and yes, thanks for throwing in the fact we beat out ND for his services). After redshirting last season there was a lot of fan speculation that we’d retain the two QB system and platoon Alviti similarly to Colter. Not happening. NU is returning to its more traditional spread offense and while he will likely see some action, I expect it to be limited. By most reports he had a very up and down spring and junior Zack Oliver is very much in the hunt for the back-up role.

 

Former five-star recruit Kyle Prater is now playing for the Wildcats. Are there other receiving weapons that can help this offense make big plays in the passing game?

Kyle played last season and has been disappointing on the field in general. It’s not everyday NU gets a five-star USC transfer, let alone a guy who just looks like a Sunday player on the field as he towers over most. Prater is likely fourth or fifth on this year’s WR threat list. Christian Jones led the way in 2013 with 54 catches and 668 rec yards and made many dazzling catches along the way. Tony “no relation” Jones was the second most productive ‘Cat receiver with 55 rec and 634 yards yet his junior year seemed to be a bit understated. Expect Cameron Dickerson to make a big jump in 2014 (11 rec, 125 yards) and we’re banking that Phil Steele knows what he’s doing by slating Kyle Prater on the All Big Ten second team. There is a slew of younger talent on the team pushing these veterans and our Superback (think hybrid TE) Dan Vitale is one of the best in the B1G and always a threat as the release valve. He’s a fan favorite and a bulldozer (34 rec, 382 yards) and first team All YAC. The wildcard on this team is transfer Miles Shuler who is Venric Mark-like in speed. He transferred from Rutgers last year.

NU has weapons at receiver and most fans are hoping we continue where we left off with the aerial antics from the season finale against Illinois (yes, we know it was Illinois).

 

The running game looks like it should rebound as well. What do you expect out of Venric Mark and the uber-experienced offensive line?

I read that NU’s offensive line is 19th in FBS in returning total career starts. To me, the O-line and our D-line are the season make-or-breaks. Venric is our energizer. He’s been dinged up quite a bit, but man is he explosive. People forget he earned first team All-American honors in 2012 as a punt returner, not at RB, where he put up 1,300+ yards. As you’ll see, he is simply incredible. He’s tiny, but turns sliver creases in to gaping holes and BOOM he’s gone. NU is solid at RB with the likes of Treyvon Green and Stephen Buckley, both of whom impressed last year before injuries saddled them. Fans are super excited about incoming freshman and Illinois Player of the Year, Justin Jackson, who will likely redshirt unless we get the injury bug again.

 

For a team that did a decent job getting after the quarterback, a 101st-ranked pass defense doesn’t make a lot of sense. What improvements have been made in the secondary? There seems to be talent back there, led by Ibraheim Campbell.
The secondary is our best unit, hands-down. It may very well be the best secondary since the 1995 Rose Bowl team. Ibraheim Campbell will be playing safety at the next level and he’s just a lock down kind of player. Traveon Henry, like Campbell has been playing since his freshman year and creates a helluva force in the middle of the secondary. At CB we’ve got lots of depth and very good competition. Matt Harris filled in at CB last year admirably (yes, more season-ending injuries) for Daniel Jones while the key guy to watch might be the other CB Nick VanHoose who had a sophomore slump in my opinion. Fitz and fans are pretty huge on incoming freshman Parrker Westphal, a four-star CB and a head-to-head recruiting “W” over Michigan. Westphal is the first ‘Cat to enroll early as a freshman in Fitz’s tenure which shows you how unique he is. I expect him to compete from day one.

As good as the secondary is, that many questions surround the D-line, particularly the interior. With the likes of Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraksa’s Ameer Abudallah all in our division you can bet the gameplan is going to be to test the interior of our line early and often.

 

Let’s talk Pat Fitzgerald. Last season was one of the first blemishes on his resume. How do you view Fitzgerald? As one of the best young coaches in the game? Or as a guy that’s done a very good job winning cupcake non-conference games and getting to eight victories?

Fitz is viewed as the ultimate brand ambassador for NU. He does everything the right way, the players relate to him and he’s no-nonsense in terms of running a program. He’s become an excellent recruiter, but the knock on his coaching is late game philosophy and decision making. The rap is we go in to ultra-conservative mode with a lead (lost all three 4th quarter leads in 2012 when we only lost 3 games) and 2013 compounded that (see: Ohio State, Nebraska, Michigan).

After years of winning an uncanny amount of close games, we can’t seem to win the marquee games when we have the lead. It’s fair to knock his sub .500 B1G record, but it may not be fair to call the non-conference wins cupcakes. NU plays as many power conference teams as anyone, and while it may not be Alabama, Florida State and Oregon, just check out the schedule. Vanderbilt from the SEC, Syracuse was a regular, BC. Candidly the teams we’ve scheduled have dipped since we scheduled them (read: Cal), but future schedules have Stanford annually, Duke and other like-minded academic schools including this two-game series. Considering NU is going to a 9-game conference schedule, I believe most NU fans would happily trade schedules with Notre Dame.

 

More than a few ND fans think the latter, pointing out that he’s never lost less than three conference games, and routinely collects wins against programs like Maine, South Dakota and Western Illinois. Do you think that’s fair criticism, or Irish fans annoyed at the stability in Evanston?

I think it is fair – to a point. NU hasn’t competed for the B1G championship with the exception of 2012 when we laid three eggs in the 4th quarter. Consider the fact that NU lost late leads to Nebraska and Michigan two years in a row, Ohio State, Penn State and you know why we’ll be nervous as hell if we have the lead against you. When you consider that we were beating both Nebraska and Michigan last year with 0:00 on the board – and lost both games, you start to get a sense of the inability to close the “name games” frustration. It’s become an epidemic.

Lastly, can we get a state of the union on Northwestern football? You mentioned that the Wildcats’ upset of the Irish almost 20-years ago kicked off this modern era, but where do things stand today?

Things are remarkably better, but those of us that know the pre-1995 reputation are a sensitive bunch. The first five years of the Fitz regime, we were better than Stanford and they blew past us as a program. We felt we were pretty much the equivalent of Sparty until last year. Going to bowl games and winning them is now the minimum expectation for a good season.

Fitz is in year eight and the bar continues to rise. Should he not get to seven games this season the noise will get very loud from disgruntled fans. Again, it is perhaps misguided based on all of the challenges and obstacles that make NU unique, but there is no excuse for this team to not take that next step and go 6-2 or 7-1 in the West Division very soon. i think most fans are hoping the uber-loyal coach would finally make a change with Mick McCall and should the offense struggle again this year I think he’ll have to. Things were good up until early October 2013 and now many fans are asking whether 2012 was a blip or the aberration.

The program is still the only Big Ten school that doesn’t average 40k a game. But some have called the program healthier than Notre Dame’s. Are things still on an upward trajectory?

From a marketing standpoint it’s arrow way up. Indeed, NU is averaging just under 40 k per game, but that will change this year with a home slate that is pretty darn juicy. NU’s private school status, 8K students, dispersed alumni base and ridiculous competition with the Chicago marketplace all make this a challenge for the tradition-deprived school. However, NU began investing in marketing big time about four years ago and have set back to back season ticket sales records.

The fans get frustrated by Sea of Red invasions (sound familiar?) but we’re 11th out of 12 (soon to be 11th out of 14) in terms of actual Chicago alumni base in the B1G. It’s hard to get mad that opposing fans get tickets the second they go on sale as we’d all do it if we lived in the marketplace. I think BC is one of the best analogous situations and I’d love to have their 40K-size stadium. Even if it meant leaving money on the table. NU regularly has 30K+ of the fans and Ryan Field is next up in terms of a major overhaul after NU completes its downright ridiculous $225 million lakeside practice facility which is set to break ground imminently (or so we’re told).

Should NU go 8-4-ish this year and win a bowl game, the momentum will be pretty good moving forward. Fitz’s most recent recruiting classes are at the Top 20 level in terms of quality and you can see the talent uptick. We still simply lack the depth of the big dogs and must rely on staying healthy to compete.

***

For more on Northwestern football, check out Lake the Posts or give them a follow on Twitter @LakethePosts.

Wimbush’s mechanics, Notre Dame’s receivers shine in Blue-Gold Game

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NOTRE DAME, Ind. — The 64-yard touchdown pass to Miles Boykin in the Blue-Gold Game will be memorable, and with good reason, but Brandon Wimbush’s shorter completions — such as a 12-yard gain to Alizé Mack, a 10-yard reception by Chris Finke and a seven-yarder to Cole Kmet — hint at even more promise for Notre Dame in 2018.

A year ago, the rising-senior quarterback missed those underneath crossing routes, hitting the checkdowns in the shoelaces, if at all. During Saturday’s conclusion to the spring practices, Wimbush finished 19-of-33 for 341 passing yards and two touchdowns, leading the Irish offense to a 47-44 victory over the defense.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly and his staff have maintained the party line of an open quarterback competition this spring between Wimbush and rising-junior Ian Book, but Kelly acknowledged the writing is on the wall after this spring.

“It’s pretty clear that Brandon went out and got a chance to go with the first group and Ian played with the second group,” Kelly said. “That’s not etched in stone, but that’s the way they have been trending.

“I don’t think there was anything today that changed that, but we know Ian Book can win for us.”

By no means did Book play poorly in the intrasquad exhibition, but Wimbush’s marked improvement in his accuracy and mechanics essentially ended any competition talk for the summer. Book threw for 292 yards on 17-of-30 passing with one touchdown, an 85-yard touchdown pass to rising-junior receiver Chase Claypool to open Saturday’s scoring in which Claypool dismissed a tackle attempt from rising-senior cornerback Shaun Crawford with nary a concern, in part because Crawfrod’s ball-hawk instincts kicked in and he went for a strip as much as for a tackle.

Claypool led the receivers with six catches for 151 yards and two scores, while rising-senior Miles Boykin added three catches for 132 yards and the aforementioned touchdown.

“We weren’t an explosive passing game last year,” Kelly said. “Miles changes that complexion. He’s very difficult to defend, and if you do, you have to roll a coverage up on him. You’re going to take a safety and borrow a safety. We think that’s going to give us the kind of running game that will be extremely effective, as well.”

PLAY OF THE GAME
Already embedded above, Boykin’s shedding of fifth-year cornerback Nick Watkins to pull in Wimbush’s pass, while maintaining enough balance to get to the end zone, showcases much of what could make Boykin a true all-around threat in 2018. He showed his leaping ability and overall athleticism in the Citrus Bowl dramatics/heroics. He also has the speed to get a step on a quality cornerback like Watkins, giving Wimbush the opening to launch toward.

While praising Wimbush’s short-game Saturday is pertinent and accurate, ignoring his ludicrous arm strength would be a mistake. From his own 27-yard line, Wimbush did not take a step into the throw, basically heaving it from his back foot, and still sent it 56 yards through the air on target to Boykin at the opposite 17-yard line.

RUNNER-UP PLAY OF THE GAME
The folly of an intrasquad scrimmage is every success comes as another teammate’s failure. Boykin’s and Claypool’s touchdowns did not result from blown coverages. In each instance, the cornerback had close coverage, but the receiver simply made an outstanding play.

Rising-senior cornerback Shaun Crawford may have gotten turned around a bit finding Book’s throw, but once Claypool came down with it, he simply broke Crawford’s tackle and headed toward the end zone.

“[Crawford] played, honestly, really good defense,” Claypool said. “He was right there with me. He never gives up on the play, which is what I love to see from the defensive guys. … No other defensive back really offers his hidden ability and his coverage ability with his speed.”

PLAYER OF THE GAME
In the days to come, more time will be spent looking at rising-sophomore Avery Davis’ public debut as a receiver/running back hybrid who happens to spend some time at quarterback. In fact, pondering those possibilities will undoubtedly be a recurring theme of the summer. His performance Saturday guaranteed as much.

Davis took 11 carries for 30 yards with a long rush of 11, adding two catches for 24 yards and completing two passes, on two attempts, for 26 more yards. He may have never found the end zone, but his fingerprints were all over the game, including a five-yard reception in the flat from Wimbush, another example of the starting quarterback properly diagnosing and hitting the easy throw, taking the yards where they are available.

“Avery is kind of a multi-dimensional guy,” Kelly said. “He can do a little bit of everything for us. [Davis and rising-sophomore Jafar Armstrong] give us more versatility than just having the two backs and the freshmen at that position. What we saw from them in the spring kind of showed itself today. Both of them are going to be productive.”

Armstrong, another running back/receiver hybrid, took five carries for 48 yards including a 25-yard touchdown, and had one catch for 21 yards.

Between the two of them, Notre Dame opens up a much larger inventory of possibilities within its playbook, and creates opportunities to rest the backfield mainstays.

STAT OF THE GAME
Rising-junior safety Jalen Elliott recorded an interception in the spring finale for the second April in a row. Between the two interceptions, no Irish safety managed such a takeaway. On top of that, Elliot missed another interception earlier, letting one bounce right off his hands. For that matter, so did Watkins.

In a game with 65 pass attempts, some are going to find defensive backs’ hands. Throughout 2017, the Notre Dame safeties tested that hypothesis, seemingly averse to attacking the ball in the air. By pulling in one interception and breaking up a pass, as well, Elliott offered a glimmer of hope that trend may change. Those two pass breakups would have been nearly half of the five managed by all Irish safeties in 13 games last season.

OVERLOOKED POINT OF THE GAME
Rising-senior running back Dexter Williams is known for his speed. His playmaking ability is why he sees the field despite deficiencies as a pass blocker and receiver. When he breaks away, he is not supposed to be caught.

Unless the defender chasing him from across the field is also a track star, at which point, rising-junior cornerback Troy Pride had little difficulty at all.

QUOTE OF THE GAME
Last spring, Wimbush played well enough, but not much better than that. He threw for 303 yards on 22-of-32 passing, finding the end zone only on foot. Kelly remembered it well.

“Last spring, I told him I went home, I didn’t feel so good about the way you played,” Kelly said. “I think I’m going to go home feeling a whole lot better today.”

UNRLEATED TO THE ACTUAL GAME …
Even a cynic has to acknowledge the genuine happiness displayed by fifth-year left guard Alex Bars about being named the fourth Notre Dame captain early Saturday morning after a team vote Friday.

“I was just elated,” he said. “I was so happy. Highest honor I’ve ever received.”

Bars did not bother to tell his family about being named captain, instead focusing on the exhibition at hand and letting the natures of modern technology inform them in good time.

SCORING SUMMARY
No, let’s not detail how the defense scored 44 exhibition points, even if one of them came from a supposed sack by rising-sophomore tackle Darnell Ewell. Instead, let’s be rational and simply note the offensive tallies:

Book to Claypool, 85-yard touchdown. Justin Yoon extra point good.
Yoon 28-yard field goal.
Yoon 40-yard field goal.
Jonathan Doerer 20-yard field goal.
Armstrong 25-yard touchdown run. Doerer extra point good.
Wimbush to Boykin, 64-yard touchdown. Yoon extra point good.
Dexter Williams one-yard touchdown run. Yoon extra point good.
Wimbush to Claypool, six-yard touchdown. Yoon extra point good.
Yoon 46-yard field goal.

Blue-Gold Game Primer: Who, what, when, where and why

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WHO? Notre Dame’s offense (Blue) against its defense (Gold).

WHAT? Spring games are often misconstrued as actual games. They are, in all of reality, the 15th and final practice of spring. Thus, the time on the field cannot exceed two hours, and the second half will consist of only two 12-minute quarters with a running clock.

WHEN? 12:30 p.m. ET, and this should, again, have a strict two-hour time limit, so do not arrive late if genuinely wanting to watch.

WHERE? Notre Dame Stadium, hosting its first Blue-Gold Game without construction afoot since the Campus Crossroads project began following the 2014 season.

NBCSN will broadcast the game, which will also be available at NBCSports.com and on the NBC Sports app.

WHY? A cynic might wonder why the 15th practice is opened to tens of thousands of fans and held in Notre Dame Stadium at all. The obvious reasoning is two-fold. Giving the public a look at the team and any possible progress does not endanger the fall’s game plans as some might fear. Instead, it engenders good will and creates a buzz around the football program during a slow period, rather than stretch from January to August with nothing but silence and a few recruits signing National Letters of Intent.

Secondly, and more importantly, those tens of thousands of pairs of eyeballs offer another litmus test for each of the players, especially the young and inexperienced. There is no reason to think rising-junior left tackle Liam Eichenberg might struggle with that kind of pressure, but there is equally little reason to think he will thrive in it. By no means will today’s atmosphere be comparable to Sept. 1’s, but it is closer to that than a normal practice would be.

MEANINGLESS STAT: Actually, all Blue-Gold Game stats are meaningless. Last year, Ian Book threw for 271 yards on 18-of-25 passing, adding a touchdown with no interceptions. Meanwhile, defensive end Daelin Hayes reached the quarterback three times.

During the actual 2017 season, Book threw for 456 yards on 46-of-75 passing, matching four touchdowns with four interceptions. Hayes notched three sacks in 13 games.

The point is to remind all not to focus too much on today’s stats, but instead notice schemes, orders of appearance and designed alignments.

BY HOW MUCH? In a game with offensive scoring as usual and defensive scoring hinging on touchdowns (six points), forced turnovers (three points), three-and-outs (three points), an overall stop (two points) and tackles for loss (one point), the edge may actually fall on the defense’s side, and not only because it returns nine starters, compared to the offense’s six.

Consider, even when the offense scores a touchdown, the odds are the defense logged at least one tackle for loss on the drive, making the touchdown drive a net-6 for the offense. Meanwhile, whenever the defense forces a stop, it gets those two points plus another likely tackle for loss. Every two such possessions match each offensive touchdown. Three-and-outs and forced turnovers should quickly create a margin of victory.

And yes, that was approximately 125 words too many spent on handicapping this intrasquad scrimmage.

SOME PREDICTIONS: Book will star. Notre Dame’s safeties will make two interceptions, leading to a summer of unearned hype. Rising-senior receiver Chris Finke will score a touchdown.

AND IF YOU WERE CURIOUS … The Shirt will be green this year, as was announced Friday evening.

THIS WEEK’S INSIDE THE IRSH READING:
Wimbush’s accuracy, finally five offensive linemen & Jay Hayes’ destination
As linebacker depth questions persist, Notre Dame turns to a safety
Notre Dame announces two-game series with Alabama
Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s running game and depth lead Blue-Gold Game questions
Four-star OL John Olmstead chooses Notre Dame over Michigan

THIS WEEK’S OUTSIDE READING:
Football announces Blue-Gold Game format
How improvement in the Irish secondary will look
Brock Wright on track
It’s not just coaches that make big bucks
2018 NFL Draft narrative busters
Dear NFL: Go ahead and get rid of the kickoff

Four-star OL John Olmstead chooses Notre Dame over Michigan

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With the addition of a consensus four-star offensive lineman, Notre Dame gained its fourth commitment in the class of 2019 on Friday afternoon. John Olmstead (St. Joseph High School; Metuchen, N.J.) becomes the first offensive lineman to join the class.

He cited the tradition of the Irish program as a key factor to his decision.

Considered the No. 10 tackle prospect in the country per rivals.com — also the No. 1 player in New Jersey and No. 63 recruit in the country — Olmstead is the third consensus four-star in the class, all trench factors. He held a lengthy offer sheet, including the likes of LSU, Florida and Oklahoma, but Olmstead had narrowed his final choices to the Irish, Michigan, Mississippi, Minnesota and Rutgers.

When Olmstead arrives at Notre Dame, he will have some time to wait before an opportunity is readily-available at tackle. Rising-sophomore Robert Hainsey and rising-junior Liam Eichenberg are positioned to start at right and left tackle, respectively, this season. Each has three years of eligibility remaining, meaning Olmstead would likely spend at least his first two seasons in strictly a reserve role.

The Irish signed four offensive linemen in the class of 2018, but all were a bit less-heralded than the usual recruit Notre Dame hauls in at the position. New offensive line coach Jeff Quinn played a vital role in gaining the National Signing Day pledge of rivals.com three star tackle Jarrett Patterson, whose pass protection skills mark him as a high-ceiling contributor in years to come.

Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s running game and depth lead Blue-Gold Game questions

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For every strong performance in tomorrow’s conclusion to Notre Dame’s spring practices, a misstep or mistake will inherently match. If rising-senior running back Dexter Williams breaks loose for a 40-yard touchdown run, a critic might note the lack of speed in the Irish secondary. Should the Notre Dame defensive line wreak havoc in the backfield all afternoon, it may be due to a shoddy offensive line rather than a stellar defensive front. Interceptions will be considered equal parts a quarterback’s failing and a defensive back’s playmaking.

A year ago, defensive end Daelin Hayes recorded multiple “sacks” in the Blue-Gold Game. Whether or not he actually tackled a quarterback, the pressures indicated to the public’s eye that the right side of the Irish offensive line would be a 2017 weakness. Instead, they should have sparked no offensive line worry, only taken as a precursor to Hayes’ three real-world sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss in the fall. The right side of the line, manned by the tag-team of Tommy Kraemer and Robert Hainsey, was actually a strength, part of the country’s best offensive line.

Such are the flaws to over-analyzing an intrasquad scrimmage.

With those disclaimers in mind, the things to learn in the Blue-Gold Game hinge more on scheme, order of appearance and type of usage. Throughout the spring, the Irish offense has focused on the passing game. Yes, the running game drove the Notre Dame offense throughout 2017, but it is now without two All-American offensive linemen and a record-setting running back. At some point, the ground game needs to be proven all over again, and that point is supposedly Saturday.

“As it relates to our offense against our defense, we’ve thrown the ball much more than we’ve run it because of those things that we’ve wanted to grow in,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said over the weekend. “The spring game, we’ll get a better sense because we’ll run the ball a whole lot more and we’ll be who we have been.”

Rising-senior Dexter Williams is Notre Dame’s presumptive starter at running back, but finally showing an eagerness to engage in pass blocking could cement that status. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

That sense will begin with Williams and rising-junior Tony Jones (pictured at top). Williams appears to have the starting position within his grasp, but picking up a few pass blocks against the likes of Hayes would solidify that pecking order. Aside from that, perhaps the greatest thing to learn regarding Williams and Jones is, can they get through a competitive environment without injury?

Of course, limiting their carries will not only help that cause, but also reveal what kind of running back depth Notre Dame has. After the two injury-plagued upperclassmen, all the Irish can claim is an early-enrolled freshman, a receiver-turned-hybrid and a quarterback-turned-running back/receiver.

The Irish desperately need at least one of, preferably two of, Jahmir Smith, Jafar Armstrong and Avery Davis, respectively, to step forward.

The offensive line has set itself. With four returning starters and a long-touted tackle-of-the-future in rising-junior Liam Eichenberg along the front, the blocking is not the concern in the running game. Williams’ speed and Jones’ versatility offer promising potential when healthy. But this is football, both will not be healthy throughout the fall. Other carries need to be handled ably by at least a portion of that trio.

Though he may be the youngest, Smith may be the best option, simply because Armstrong’s and Davis’ responsibilities vary so greatly as they bounce between running back and receiver and, in Davis’ case, quarterback.

How will offensive coordinator Chip Long deploy Armstrong and Davis? Will they spend more time in the backfield or at slot receiver?

The addition of the two pass-catching backs increases the likelihood of Long using his favorite alignment, one with two running backs, at least one of which is a veritable route-runner and pass-catcher. Williams has never proven himself to fit that description, though Long noted Williams has improved his pass-catching as of last week. When Jones was injured last year, Long could no longer deploy the two-back set that quickly puts opposing defenses in unavoidable binds.

“That was a big part of our offense in spring ball, fall camp, then the backs got knocked out and hobbled,” Long said. “We couldn’t use that part of our offense. It hurt us.”

Should Jones twist an ankle again in September, Armstrong and/or Davis should keep that option available for Long’s play calls.

“Just having the ability with more depth back there, those type of guys, instead of just being Tony, now you have Avery, possibly Jafar,” Long said. “Injuries can’t take us out of that personnel.”

When he was healthy, Jones would often motion out of the backfield in those alignments. Although he finished the year with only six catches for 12 yards, the mere threat of his receiving abilities altered defensive approaches.

At other points, Jones was a bulldozer of a blocker, taking on multiple defenders to help spring either quarterback Brandon Wimbush or now-NFL-bound Josh Adams for a longer gain. Jones is likely to remain the best at this varied skillset, but having depth in the role is a luxury critical to Long’s preferred offensive scheme.

Most starting positions are settled, especially with the offensive line now set. Safety is not. Who will start at safety? Who will be the second-unit?

Rising-junior Jalen Elliott’s tackling miscues of the past have not yet prevented him from sitting atop Notre Dame’s depth chart at safety, though new challengers have joined the mix this spring in Alohi Gilman and Houston Griffith. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Even the candidates at safety have ebbed and flowed this spring. Rising-sophomore Jordan Genmark-Heath now appears to be headed toward a future at linebacker and rising-senior Nick Coleman has dabbled at nickelback while early-enrollee Houston Griffith moved from cornerback to safety to become another considered option.

At this point, rising-juniors Jalen Elliott and Alohi Gilman appear to be the likely starters, with Griffith offering a possibility of that changing as he learns the position over the summer. Defensive coordinator Clark Lea has certainly left the door open for just such a development, or even the emergence of incoming-freshman Derrik Allen.

“The depth back there has yet to really take shape and we’re not in a hurry to dictate who is the 1 and who is the 2,” Lea said Tuesday. “… Those guys have a lot on their plate, it takes some time. They need some time to be able to execute those responsibilities at a high level. We’re getting to that point, I don’t think we’re all the way there yet.”

Learning who the starting duo is, and who fills in the second unit — be it still Genmark-Heath or Coleman, or rising-junior Devin Studstill or rising-senior Nicco Fertitta — the concerns of tackling from the position or attacking the ball in the air will be naturally included. Elliott’s physical gifts have long been evident, but he has lacked in both those areas. If he trots out with the starting defense but does not exhibit improvement in both categories, that will be portend another year of poor play along the defense’s back line, no matter what Lea may say publicly.

“I do think we’re not doing as much to adjust for the need for time to let them come along,” he said. “I think we’re allowed to get back into what is the base of the package, which is exciting.”

Notre Dame had a strong defense in 2017. Aside from the precarious positions offensive turnovers put the defense in at Miami and Stanford, it rarely buckled. Realizing the defense played that well while only occasionally getting into its most basic package because the safety play was so dismal is a sobering conclusion. It is also a tantalizing thought of what could come in 2018 with nine returning starters and improved safety play.

Lastly, who be the fourth Irish captain? When Kelly named fifth-year center Sam Mustipher, fifth-year punter Tyler Newsome and fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill captains early in spring practice, he said a fourth would be voted upon by the team as spring came to its close.

At that point, the most-likely candidates, all rising seniors or fifth-year graduates, seemed to be defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, linebacker Te’von Coney, left guard Alex Bars, quarterback Brandon Wimbush, tight end Nic Weishar or cornerback Nick Watkins. Rising-junior cornerback Julian Love’s talent alone made him an outside contender.

As spring practice has progressed, reading between the lines might reduce that pool to three front-runners of Tillery, Coney and Bars. The first two of those three have had disciplinary issues during their time at Notre Dame, oftentimes an exclusionary factor in this conversation. To hear offensive line coach Jeff Quinn on the issue, the fourth captain should be Bars.

“Anytime your big guys run the program, I think you always have a better chance of succeeding,” Quinn said Thursday.

Two more quick-hitters:
— How will Coney fare in pass coverage?
Coney may not play that much this weekend. He does not need to prove anything in the 15th spring practice, while his backups need every rep they can get. When Coney is on the field though, watching him in coverage against any of the Irish tight ends could be revelatory. Lea has put the onus on himself for Coney’s past coverage woes.

“Coverage is a product of teaching,” Lea said. “Coverage deficiency can be a product of teaching deficiency. … Some guys do it naturally and some guys don’t, they have other things they have strength with. … As a unit, we’ve put a focus here on the end of spring practice in playing better in coverage and as a result, we’re seeing that play out in skeleton and team periods.”

— Will the receivers flash any speed?
When it comes to the positioning and usage of unique talents, the mismatches created by Armstrong and Davis may be the most predictive, but Notre Dame lost much of its outside speed with the departures of Equanimeous St. Brown (to the NFL) and Kevin Stepherson (to repeated disciplinary issues). The defensive headaches caused by those two-back sets are best taken advantage of when a receiver can also take the top off a defense. Rising-sophomore Michael Young and rising-senior Chris Finke are both quick and shifty, but neither has shown truly top-end speed to this point. Despite his 6-foot-4, 227-pound, frame, rising-senior Miles Boykin has apparently improved his burst quite a bit this offseason. Fifth-year Freddy Canteen landed on the Irish roster last offseason largely due to his natural speed, before injury cut short his first season with the Irish.

Can any of them single-handedly alter a defense’s coverage, or will Notre Dame need to turn to incoming freshmen for that threat?