Post-Spring Update: Louisville

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Goodbye, Charlie Strong and Teddy Bridgewater. Welcome back, Bobby Petrino.

As we continue our tour through Notre Dame’s 2014 schedule, one of the more intriguing games on the slate is Louisville. Now a member of the ACC, the Irish will welcome the Cardinals to South Bend in a game that’ll likely pit two Top 25 teams against each other.

For as much as things are changing for the Cardinals, the constant of good football should remain. And in Petrino, athletic director Tom Jurich brought back the man that essentially put the program on the map in the early-2000s before flying too close to the sun and crashing back down to earth.

While the turmoil of walking away from an NFL franchise midseason and being kicked to the curb at Arkansas after a motorcycle crash revealed some marital (and professional) improprieties, Petrino never forgot how to coach. So after a year of image rehabilitation at Western Kentucky, Petrino jumped at the chance to come home again, returning to Louisville for a second tour of duty.

Helping us get caught up on the state of the Cardinals is Mark Ennis. Mark writes for SB Nation, their Louisville affiliate Card Chronicle, and co-hosts The 2 Man Game on ESPN 680 in Louisville.

Some good stuff here. Hope you enjoy.

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It’s hard to get past the opening question without asking one about Bobby Petrino. After quite a bizarre career detour, on that smashed his reputation to smithereens, Petrino is back at the place that gave him his first head coaching opportunity.

Are there conflicting feelings about this? Has enough water gone under the bridge? Was he the only candidate that could truly replace Charlie Strong?

Among the entire Louisville fan base there is definitely a spectrum of responses to the hiring of Bobby Petrino. On one end, there are the complete diehards that have what amounts to implicit faith in anything athletic director Tom Jurich does and vividly remember the Bobby Petrino years from before. Those people are banking on basically a repeat of his performance from 2003-2006 and don’t give his exit from Louisville, his exit from Atlanta, and his demise at Arkansas, a second thought.

On the other end, there are people who believe that the four years of Charlie Strong where they won at least a share of the Big East twice, won a Sugar Bowl, and wound up in the ACC, elevated the program to a level where they didn’t need to make a risky hire (from a public relations perspective). Those people hoped that the job opening would provide an opportunity to hire an unquestionable candidate to show that the job has legitimacy.

Most people are somewhere in the middle.

I don’t think Petrino was the only guy that could replace Charlie Strong, but I do believe he was one of the better choices if the concern was a coach being able to walk into a locker room with football credibility. There’s no doubting that Charlie Strong was a father figure to many of the players on this team and he was a very big presence in the locker room. I think Jurich’s thinking was there was simply no way to bring in another person to replace that. So, instead, he opted for someone that could walk into a room full of guys and tell them that whatever they think about him as a man, his track record shows they’re going to be exciting and win big. Jurich seems to have gotten the calculation right because there’s been little personnel turnover and the player reception of Petrino has overall been quite positive.

 

Teddy Bridgewater was one of the elite quarterbacks in college football. Will Gardner threw eight passes last year, but lit up the spring game. What do you expect from Bridgewater’s successor?

I expect Gardner to have a great year. He’s tall, mobile enough, has a very strong arm, and has taken on the leadership responsibilities that go with being a starting quarterback quite well. Petrino has noted several times this summer how encouraged he is by Gardner’s offseason work and the example being set. A good deal of the Gardner optimism is a reflection on Petrino’s track record as well. If he could get Casey Dick to throw for 2,500 yards in the SEC, he’ll do fine with Gardner.

 

A lot of the offensive success should be predicated on the impressive personnel that’s returning, including four starters up front. Can you walk Notre Dame fans through the stocked skill players that Petrino will have at his disposal?

The other reason to be optimistic about Gardner is that, like you mentioned in the questioned, he’s inheriting a load of offensive weapons. Three offensive line starters have started virtually every game for three straight years. They never settled on the right side of the offensive line last year and that problem persisted into spring. If they find answers there in fall camp, the offense should be quite productive.

In the backfield, Louisville returns Dominique Brown (1,417, 12 touchdowns in his career) and Michael Dyer. Coming out of spring ball, Petrino raved about Brown and said he would likely get the lion’s share of the carries in fall, but people who watched the spring game couldn’t help but notice that Michael Dyer looked quicker and healthier than he did at any time last season. Early enrollee L.J. Scott also got first team reps in the spring game and word is Petrino thinks he could be special down the road. If you look at Petrino’s history at both Louisville and Arkansas, he has always platooned his running backs and I think you’ll see all three get plenty of carries.

Wide receiver is easily the strength of this team and by year’s end I think you’ll see people talk about Louisville as having one of the best receiving groups in the country. It’s certainly one of the best Petrino’s had to work with in his time in college football. DeVante Parker could play his way into being a first round draft pick after catching 12 touchdowns in 12 games last year. Sophomore James Quick only caught six passes as a true-freshman, but the former blue-chip recruit showed in the spring that he’s taking to Petrino’s offense quite well (and he’ll probably benefit a great deal from defenses having to focus on Parker so much). Also emerging in spring was senior tight end Gerald Christian. Not a tremendous run blocker, Christian is a very good receiver and has excellent speed for a tight end. Overall, Louisville returns seven of its leading nine receivers from 2012.

 

If this team has taken a hit, it’s the depth on the defensive side of the ball. Petrino spent a reported $1 million a year to get Todd Grantham. But with just four starters returning, what do they have to work with?

There’s a lot of potential but some very big questions that didn’t appear to have obvious answers as spring ball ended. Louisville will consistently be a three man defensive line team under Todd Grantham, so that will mitigate some of the losses up front. There are a number of really talented, young linebackers in Keith Brown, James Burgess, Stacy Thomas, Lorenzo Mauldin (moving from a rush defensive position to strictly being an outside linebacker in a 3-4), Keith Kelsey, and James Hearns. Up front, the staff is very excited about defensive end Sheldon Rankins.

In the secondary, Louisville has a really solid pair of starting cornerbacks in Charles Gaines and Terell Floyd. It has virtually no answers at safety where multi-year starters Clavin Pryor and Hakeem Smith are gone. The coaching staff was so concerned about the safety position, they added three additional junior college signees after signing day in hopes of at least having some depth at both safety spots.

 

It feels like Charlie Strong raised the bar at Louisville to place that it just hasn’t been. What are the expectations awaiting Petrino, and do you see the move to the ACC helping or hurting to achieve those goals?

The move to the ACC is a two-edged sword, really. It’s great for the exposure, and in little things. You don’t always realize all the ways being in the AAC made Louisville invisible last year. From the outright dismissal of good performances to things like your games just not being mentioned on ESPN’s College Gameday or on SportsCenter. You’d like to think that with the move to the ACC, Louisville will at least be more visible and if somewhat successful, will benefit from that visibility.

On the other hand, Louisville has never been in a conference, much less a division, with teams like Florida State and Clemson. Those are traditional powers that recruit at completely different levels than anyone Louisville has played on a regular basis. So it will really be a challenge for Louisville to be able to get over those humps and compete for conference titles going forward. Louisville has rarely been in a position, in the past 15 to 20 years, where a conference title would probably be out of the question going into the season no matter how good the team might be.

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Thanks to Mark for taking the time to get us up to speed. Give him a follow on Twitter @MarkEnnis.

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.