Five things we learned: Notre Dame 48, Rice 17

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The last stormy, humid season opener at Notre Dame Stadium found an infamous place in the Irish history books. Saturday afternoon’s 48-17 drubbing of Rice will be remembered in a much better light.

That’s because the return of Everett Golson took a page out of a Marvel movie’s script. After missing 600 days of football, Golson put on his cape and did his best to make up for lost time, playing a near perfect game as he put up five touchdowns in a breakthrough offensive performance for Notre Dame.

By foot, Golson kept the Owls at bay, scrambling to keep plays alive while single-handedly solving the team’s red zone woes with three rushing touchdowns. Those rushing totals have only been matched by Jarious Jackson and some guy named Hornung, whose stiff-arming trophy sits proudly on display in the football office.

By air Golson was even more impressive, rarely missing a throw as his 14 completions covered 295 yards. Five different Irish receivers caught passes of 25 yards or more, with Golson averaging a hearty 21 yards a completion.

Playing on a new FieldTurf track that favors teams built for speed, the Irish offense paced the attack while Brian VanGorder’s young defense held its own. With an easy victory in the books, let’s look at the five things we learned in the Irish’s 48-17 win over Rice.

 

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After two weeks of nothing but distractions, Brian Kelly’s young Irish team took care of business. 

When head coach Brian Kelly named Everett Golson his starting quarterback 17 days ago, he thought he was eliminating the last big storyline of fall camp. Little did he know, but just 48 hours later the Irish football program would be under seige, with four (and now five) players wrapped up in an academic investigation that had some people wondering if the Golden Dome was burning.

The loss of three front-line starters was a blow, with DaVaris Daniels, KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams all expected to play critical roles on the field. But Saturday afternoon the Irish showed no signs of blinking, following their head coach’s mantra of “Next Man In” and taking care of business.

“I was really proud of them today,” Kelly said. “I said before we get into talking about the win, I just want to tell you that I’m proud of the way you’ve handled yourself. And that means a lot moving forward. When your locker room has got that kind of resolve, good things are going to happen to you.”

If the academic mess was mostly self-inflicted, the other obstacles faced this preseason haven’t been. Prostate cancer surgery kept offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock from attending the start of training camp. Graduate assistant (and former Irish captain) Kyle McCarthy is also undergoing chemotherapy while still trying to work with the team.

Add in a knee injury to captain and starting safety Austin Collinsworth suffered on Thursday and you’ve got two chaotic weeks that the Irish not just survived, but won in convincing style.

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Brian Kelly is a pretty good head coach when he’s got Everett Golson at quarterback. 

It’s worth pointing out: With Everett Golson playing, Brian Kelly is 12-1. Without him, Kelly’s 26-14. That’s the difference between getting a statue and hiring a realtor.

With Golson, the Irish offense became the aggressive, downfield, big play attack that Kelly had quietly been advertising since the offseason. And all credit goes to the quarterback who put aside the distraction of returning to the big stage and simply played excellent football.

Golson barely missed a ball if you take away his throw aways and a few drops, one from C.J. Prosise that cost him an even gaudier stat line. But that’s the magic of what Golson does for the Irish offense, a dual-threat runner with a preference to pass.

Put Rice head coach David Bailiff down as a believer.

“Golson’s just an amazing, amazing quarterback,” Bailiff said after the game. “He was a dynamic player a year ago… He’s taken that year off and you can tell he’s matured. You can tell he’s studied the game.”

Of course, doing it against Rice is a lot different than doing it against Michigan, who comes to South Bend next weekend. But on a rainy Saturday, Brian Kelly showed how efficient his offense is when he’s got Everett Golson behind center.

 

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After a year of getting beaten up, Notre Dame’s special teams were special. 

What a difference a year makes. Last year, you couldn’t have blamed the coaching staff from removing any mention of the word special when dealing with Scott Booker’s special teams unit. On Saturday, the Irish return game looked impressive, with both Cody Riggs and Greg Bryant breaking big returns in the punt game and Amir Carlisle breaking a 36-yard kickoff return.

The Irish racked up 80 yards on five punt returns. Last year, the Irish managed just 106 yards all season — surprisingly the best cumulative total of the Kelly era to date.

While Kyle Brindza missed his first field goal attempt and caught a funky hop on his first kickoff that bounced started Rice on the 35, the rest of the rebuilt unit was rock solid, including James Onwualu stuffing Rice’s fake punt attempt short.

The highlight of the afternoon had to be the punt returns by Riggs and Bryant, with three nice returns flipping the field and starting the Irish off with great field position. After a season of getting killed in the “Hidden Yards” ledger, Kelly had perhaps the best special teams day of his career in South Bend.

 

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Notre Dame’s ground game looks like the engine to drive the offense. 

Kelly and offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock found the perfect mix for the running game, and all three backs played great football, even with limited attempts. Cam McDaniel, Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant all averaged at least five yards a carry, with Bryant leading the way with 71 yards and his first career touchdown.

The Irish’s 281 rushing yards were their most since the 2012 Shamrock Series victory over Miami. Their 42 rushing attempts showed a willingness to commit to a balanced offense, as the ground game powered the Irish to the finish.

“We don’t have an exact science,” Kelly said for splitting carries. “I wish I could be that smart. But we are really trying to figure out how to get them the carries that they all deserve, and also keep them in the flow of the game.”

With Conor Hanratty getting the surprise start over Matt Hegarty at left guard, the Irish offensive line put a new twist on what Harry Hiestand’s troops would look like up front in life after Zack Martin and Chris Watt. And while Nick Martin got called for two snap infractions (Kelly put those on Golson, not Martin), it was a strong performance by the running game.

 

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For one Saturday, the kids on defense were all right.

Sure, there were breakdowns. Elijah Shumate and Nicky Baratti might turn red during Sunday’s tape session after seeing their coverage mistakes turn into six points. But the Irish’s rebuilt defense played well on Saturday, holding Rice to 367 total yards, and holding up surprisingly well against the run.

Powered by a ground game that led Conference USA last season, Rice ran 41 times on Saturday, but only managed to gain 141 yards with Romeo Okwara, Andrew Trumbetti, Isaac Rochell playing well while Jarron Jones and Sheldon Day excelled in the trenches.

“I just really thought that we were going to be able to hold up very well, and Joe Schmidt with Jaylon (Smith) were outstanding,” Kelly said. You’ve got those six guys, if they can hold up against the run, we’re going to be in pretty good shape, and I thought that was going to be the case and it ended up being it today.”

 

Perhaps even better, the Irish broke in a ton of young players. One look at the participation chart forced even the most die-hard fans to occasionally check the roster.

Freshman Drue Tranquill played major minutes. So did Daniel Cage up front. Greer Martini played significant snaps. Andrew Trumbetti and Grant Blankenship found their way onto the stat sheet.

Also playing their first minutes were Nyles Morgan and Nick Watkins, while seldom-used veterans like Justin Utupo and Anthony Rabasa saw action.

With little tape to study, Bailiff sounded impressed by the work of VanGorder’s new unit.

“They did a good job of changing their fronts from a four down to three down,” Bailiff siad. “I think it led to some problems just for us identifying what they were doing.

“I thought they did a good job and didn’t make a lot of mistakes today. Tackled well in space. They tackled a lot better than we hoped they would.”

Two breakdowns in the secondary cost the Irish 14 points. Ultimately it didn’t matter on Saturday. But come next weekend when Michigan is in town, the Irish will need to play much cleaner on the back end.

 

 

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.