Spring Solutions: Defensive Line

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In a showdown with the defending national champions, most neutral party observers were shocked when Notre Dame’s defensive front dominated Florida State’s veteran offensive line.

So were most Irish fans.

With Jarron Jones breaking loose and Sheldon Day causing problems, the Irish’s two interior defensive tackles showcased their abilities. Patched together by players young and old, Brian VanGorder and Mike Elston managed to get productivity out of the defensive end spot as well.

But as the season continued and injuries hit, the critical lack of depth showed itself as Notre Dame’s front fell apart. Behind Day and Jones was little experience. An already inexperienced defensive end spot looked more and more lost as reserves playing reserves turned the final product into a group held together by string and glue.

The depth chart returns largely unchanged, with reinforcements (perhaps young and old) on their way. With new defensive line coach Keith Gilmore infusing a new voice into the meeting room, let’s take a look at the defensive line before spring practice starts next week.

 

DEFENSIVE LINE DEPTH CHART

DE: Andrew Trumbetti, Soph.
DT: Jarron Jones, Sr.*
DT: Sheldon Day, Sr.
DE: Isaac Rochell, Jr.
DE: Romeo Okwara
DE: Grant Blankenship, Soph.
DT: Daniel Cage, Soph.
DT: Jon Bonner, Soph.*
DT: Jay Hayes, Soph.
DT: Jacob Matuska, Jr.*
DE: Jhonny Williams, Soph.*
DT: Peter Mokwuah, Soph.*
DT: Jerry Tillery, Fr.
DT: Micah Dew-Treadway, Fr.

*Denotes fifth-year available

This group could also still add Ishaq Williams, who needs to do some academic work before reapplying to the university for summer school. Technically, it could also include Anthony Rabasa and Chase Hounshell as well, though it’s assumed that both will be moving on after graduation, either to another program or to life after football.

 

SPRING OBJECTIVES

Andrew Trumbetti: After a solid debut season, Trumbetti needs to take the type of step forward we saw from Isaac Rochell last year. Likely, that’ll come in the weight room. But ideally, it’ll come from a speed, quickness and pass rush ability as well.

Notre Dame is desperate for a pass rusher. They’ll add Jhonny Williams and Jon Bonner into the mix this spring with Bo Wallace coming in this summer. Most think that’s not enough, but after being thrown into the mix early, Trumbetti establishing himself this spring would be key towards this defensive line stepping forward on generating heat on the quarterback.

Jarron Jones: There are still screws in Jones’ foot, meaning any on-field work this spring isn’t happening. And after this coaching staff already worked through a similar injury a few years back with Braxston Cave, it’ll be key for Jones to keep his strength and conditioning up to par while he continues his recovery.

While he’s got a fifth-year of eligibility remaining, a big senior season could set up Jones for the option to head to the NFL. But he’ll need to do his best in rehab and fitness if he’s going to hit the ground running heading into next season. We saw an offseason surgery derail Stephon Tuitt’s junior season. Let’s see if the Irish training staff learns their lesson as they deal with Jones.

Sheldon Day: After making the smart move to stay in school, Day needs to prove he can stay healthy. He’s got the confidence of his coaches. And now he’ll be working with Gilmore, who has a track record of producing NFL defensive linemen.

Day led the team in “almost” plays last year, a stat less valuable than Monopoly money. Getting through spring and supplying leadership for a young position group should be what’s most important for the veteran captain, who will likely find comfort as a more vocal leader heading into his final season.

Isaac Rochell: If you’re looking for a defensive lineman to feel good about, Rochell is your guy. Early comments from Brian Kelly last year gave us a hint that Rochell was ready to take on a bigger role. And after losing Ishaq Williams in August and Tuitt to the draft, Rochell played as well as you could have hoped coming off a mostly anonymous freshman season.

It’s hard to learn much from a Vine video, but Rochell out-quicked Sheldon Day in an agility drill. He’ll likely come into spring inching closer to 300 pounds. Big, strong, fast and agile isn’t a bad skillset. Getting more comfortable as a versatile piece on the defensive line, Rochell could be a great candidate for a next-level season.

Romeo Okwara: This is it for Okwara at Notre Dame, with a redshirt season never possible after depth problems forced him onto the field. But as Okwara enters his second season at defensive end, finding more comfort at the position will be key.

You could win a lot of money by knowing that Okwara quietly led the team in sacks last season with 4.0. That says more about Notre Dame’s struggles generating pressure on the quarterback than maybe anything Okwara may have done, but it’s a nice place to start from.

Grant Blankenship: That the big-bodied freshman stepped onto campus and played spoke to the lack of depth up front. But it also should be a credit to Blankenship’s preparations.

With a few more months in the weight room, it’ll be interesting to see what Blankenship weighs on the updated spring roster. There’s plenty of room to grow, which will only help the Texan’s versatility up front.

It’s hard to have a firm grasp on what Blankenship’s best skill is. With the length that made him an early target of Bob Diaco’s for his 3-4 system, we’ll see how Keith Gilmore plans to use another nice piece of young talent.

Daniel Cage: After being on Notre Dame’s recruiting radar for just weeks, Cage stepped in at defensive tackle and played a key role in short yardage situations, a stout player at the point of attack.

Battling through late-season injuries, spring will serve as a progress report for Cage, who will be counted on to take plenty of snaps without Jones in the mix. At his best, Cage can be the type of run-stuffer that would’ve fit in just fine in a 3-4 scheme, capable of doing more in VanGorder’s system.

But starting from scratch with a new defensive line coach, Cage will be asked to prove it this spring, likely part of the next wave of young players who need to take a big step forward if the front four is going to be considered a strength.

Jon Bonner: After jumping out early last training camp, Bonner started his career as a 269-pound outside linebacker, a position listing that may have been a pipe dream, but still is quite telling about the youngster’s athleticism.

Bonner never saw the field, keeping the redshirt on as depth issues surfaced. But capable of fighting his way into the mix this spring, it’ll be curious how Bonner looks knowing that the field is only as far away as he allows it to be.

Likely a candidate to be Day’s understudy at tackle, Bonner may also have the ability to add some pass rush to the mix.

Jay Hayes: After being thrown into the mix after injuries took hold, Hayes suffered a hard-luck injury against USC, rallying to return for the bowl game, but not an ideal development considering the thought that went into burning a year of eligibility.

But that decision was ultimately a compliment to Hayes’ ability, with the assumption that he’ll be around for five seasons one Kelly and company weren’t willing to make. That means Hayes will enter spring not just as a redshirt expecting his first taste, but rather as a veteran looking to prove something.

Keep an eye on the New York native.

Jacob Matuska: Thrown into the fire when injuries piled up, Matuska struggled with his own health and it showed late in November. A big body expected to battle in the trenches, he wasn’t able to do that successfully late in the year, with a stinger limiting him in the season’s final games.

We’ll see this spring if Matuska is an emergency depth player or a guy who can do more than that. You can’t teach nearly 6-foot-5 and 290-pounds, but that doesn’t help if you get blown off the ball. After learning what it takes to make an impact, Matuska will decide whether or not he’s a contender for a spot in the rotation.

Jhonny Williams: He looked like a bean pole when he committed to the Irish. Around a year later, Williams is hardly the former basketball and track athlete that committed to the Irish late in the process. He also could be an answer for some of the Irish’s pass rush woes.

Expect some growing pains for Williams, part of the reason he didn’t see the field last year. But he’s also capable of making an impact off the edge, making Williams’ progress worth watching.

A new voice in his ear can’t hurt with Gilmore ready to get something out of Williams. So add him to a list of intriguing redshirts ready to help.

Pete Mokwuah: One of two late defensive tackle targets by Brian VanGorder and Brian Kelly, Mokwuah committed to the Irish sight unscene, turning his back on Rutgers to join the Irish roster.

Listed at 325 pounds on the fall roster, we’ll see where Mokwuah measures in this spring. That’s a big body to work with, and one that’ll likely be transformed after nine months with Paul Longo.

Jerry Tillery: Count me among the believers in Tillery. He’s an elite athlete, and even though he’ll be learning how to grow into his frame, he’s expected to help up front, part of the reason why the transition from offensive lineman to defense appealed to the Irish coaching staff.

For as mature as Tillery is, there’s still likely an acclimatization process taking place right now. But with winter ending and spring football nearly here, Tillery will have this week’s spring break as a battery recharge before establishing his spot in the depth chart.

Micah Dew-Treadway: It’s hard to expect anything from Dew-Treadway this spring, especially after seeing where he was at the Semper Fidelis All-American game in January.

But Dew-Treadway is on campus to get a jumpstart on his career in South Bend, and the number of stars next to your recruiting ranking are all wiped out to zero regardless of who you are once you’re on campus.

He’s big enough and has intriguing game tape. We’ll see how he deals with Keith Gilmore, and likely spends these 15 practices learning the game on his way to a redshirt season.

 

 

 

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

Monday’s Leftovers: Geography, as much as academics, caps Notre Dame’s recruiting possibilites

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A year ago, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly acknowledged a practical ceiling on Irish recruiting efforts.

“Since I’ve been here, if you look at the average rankings, we’re anywhere from 5 to 15,” Kelly said on 2017’s National Signing Day, a day on which Notre Dame secured the No. 13 class in the country, per rivals.com. “We’re going to fall somewhere in that range because there’s a line there we can’t get over based upon what our distinctions are here. That line is going to keep us between 5 and 15.

“We know where we’re going to fall. We’re going to continue to recruit the right kind of kids here.”

Sure enough, the Irish once again fall into that spectrum in 2018, finishing No. 11 per rivals. Though Notre Dame has risen above that range once (No. 3 in 2013) and fallen below it once (No. 20 in 2012) during Kelly’s tenure, his overall analysis remains accurate.

The instinct has always been to cite University academic standards as the greatest hurdle to rising into the top five consistently, but another aspect should not be overlooked. In a recent mailbag, Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples pondered the factors keeping the Irish from becoming a perennial 10-win team.

“Another major reason is a lack of a local recruiting base,” Staples wrote. “No program has a stronger national reach than Notre Dame, but that still doesn’t make recruiting nationally easy. It’s much easier to have hundreds of quality prospects within driving distances.”

That dynamic is a part of why the Irish are better positioned to reap rewards from high school juniors now being able to take official visits in April, May and June. Those time periods are less hectic for most high schoolers, so a long-distance trip may fit into the calendar with a bit less stress. Obviously, only time will tell the true impact of that new change.

Looking at both this past year’s recruiting rankings and the last nine years of rankings underscores and supports Staples’ point.

Rivals considered 33 prospects to be five-star recruits in 2018. Only seven schools managed to sign multiple such players: Georgia (8), Clemson (6), USC (5), Alabama (3), Ohio State (3), Penn State (2), and Miami (2). To speak more broadly, four schools in the Deep South, two in the Ohio-Pennsylvania corridor and one in California, all talent-rich areas, especially compared to Indiana, Illinois and Michigan.

If combining the total signees of both four- and five-star rankings by rivals, Notre Dame signed 12 such prospects. Only 11 schools signed more, including six of the above seven. (Clemson equaled the Irish haul, though its even split between four- and five-star recruits stands out compared to Notre Dame’s 12 four-stars.) The additional five: Oklahoma, Texas, Florida State, Auburn and Florida. In other words, two schools tapping into Texas, two schools within Florida and one more in the Deep South.

If looking at the last nine years of recruiting, the span of Kelly’s time in South Bend, only eight programs have consistently out-recruited the Irish, all but one mentioned already. LSU finished with the No. 13 recruiting class in 2018, lowering its nine-year average placement to 8.0. The Tigers are one of five SEC teams in that group of eight, joining Florida State, Ohio State and USC.

Sense a theme?

It will always be hard enough for Notre Dame to find high-caliber players likely to succeed at a strong academic institution in the Midwest. That task is even harder knowing how far away those players typically are to start with.

Other programs face a similar challenge, and few handle it as well. Consider the 2018 recruiting classes of Stanford, Michigan and Michigan State, for familiar context.

Stanford finished with 4 four-stars in rivals’ No. 63 class. The Wolverines pulled in 7 four-stars as part of the No. 24 class, while the Spartans signed 5 four-stars in the No. 26 grouping.

The Blue-Chip Ratio
Finishing within Kelly’s range has not stopped Notre Dame from consistently having one of the most-talented rosters in the country. If abiding by rivals rankings for consistency, 45 of the 89 players currently on the Irish roster (including incoming freshmen) were four- or five-star recruits.

A commonly-cited metric of a roster’s talent is the so-called “Blue-Chip Ratio.” Essentially, a national championship caliber team will have at least 50 percent of its roster consisting of former four- or five-star prospects. Entering 2017, Notre Dame was one of only 10 such teams in the country.

As should be expected, the other nine included six programs from the Deep South, Ohio State, USC and, as an ode to Jim Harbaugh’s early recruiting successes, Michigan.

A Presidents Day Reminder
Notre Dame cannot officially claim any POTUS as an alum, but both Josiah Bartlet and James Marshall would like to argue otherwise.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Notre Dame’s pending attrition actually intended to improve the roster
NCAA denies Notre Dame’s appeal, vacating 21 wins, including 12-0 in 2012
Notre Dame is right: The NCAA’s terrible precedent matters, but vacating wins does not
‘Accelerated’ start creates bright outlook for Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting cycle
Notre Dame’s successful early signing period now begets early visit questions

OUTSIDE READING:
NCAA appeals committee upholds vacation of Notre Dame wins
A letter from the President on the NCAA Infractions Case
Irish set high expectations for Jurkovec
Elston ‘recruits’ Tillery, Bonner for one last ride
Giants release defensive end Ishaq Williams with a failed physical designation
Re-ranking the longest FBS coaching tenures from 1-to-230
Hip injury to keep Stanford QB K.J. Costello sidelined for much of spring drills

Notre Dame’s successful early signing period now begets early visit questions

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Notre Dame used the first early signing period to its advantage, but in many respects, succeeding in that initial foray was by default. The Irish already had strong relationships with the recruiting class of 2018 when the NCAA finally agreed upon setting a 72-hour window for December. No other recruiting changes went into effect in the cycle, so the only shift was getting the paperwork ready and the grades verified six weeks earlier than usual.

“When you are presented with a new rule that gives you — go ahead, sign them early — and you’ve done all that work, that’s kind of a lay-up,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said on National Signing Day, Feb. 7. “The real work now begins with the early visits.”

A bit before finally nailing down the December early signing period, the NCAA also approved official visits for high school juniors in April, May and June. Previously, a recruit could not take an official visit until September of his senior year in high school.

For a program with a national reach in recruiting — pulling in multiple prospects from both coasts in the cycle of 2018, for example — it can be difficult to get a player to visit for a home game amidst his own football season. When it is possible, it is often a rushed trip. The recruit plays a high school game Friday night, flies to South Bend, possibly via Chicago, early Saturday morning and then departs mid-day Sunday to get back home in time for the school week.

Notre Dame can now instead slate that official visit for the summer, perhaps around a camp environment or the Blue-Gold Game (April 21).

In years to come, this expedited timing could have a greater effect on recruiting than the early signing period does.

“How we handle the back end of it, the back end being when are those visits going to start, when do you start them, when do you end them,” Kelly said, “That’s really what we’re trying to figure out at this point relative to tweaking and how that’s going to work.”

Theoretically, earlier visits could lead to earlier commitments, increasing the likelihood of more signings in December than in February, further de-emphasizing the traditional National Signing Day.

Amid all those changes, though, recruits are still allowed only five official visits and only one to each school. Of course, a recruit can make multiple unofficial visits, paying for those out of his and his family’s own pocket, but Notre Dame can pay for only one. As much as getting a recruit on campus earlier in the process should bode well for any program, it becomes a double-edged sword: Is it better to get a player on campus early and make that impression before other schools have the opportunity, or is it better to showcase a primetime game against a rival?

Irish recruiting coordinator Brian Polian suggested allowing two official visits per school, although remaining at only five total, on National Signing Day.

“Why not let a young man make two official visits to one institution? Because if somebody says to us, from far distance, I want to come make a visit to your place in the spring, well, ideally you want them to see a game atmosphere, as well,” Polian said. “There’s nothing like Notre Dame Stadium and this campus on a game weekend.

“Now we’re going to have to get into some strategic decisions about when do we want young men to take visits.”

Perhaps in time the NCAA will consider that adjustment, but it will not be for the cycle of 2019.

While when a player visits may impact the recruitment, Polian does not much care about when they commit, as long as they do. Notre Dame signed five prospects on National Signing Day who had not previously committed publicly, making it appear to be a strong finish to the class. Then again, the Irish also signed 21 players in the early signing period and received a 22nd commitment less than a week afterward.

“If you’ve got a really good class and they’ve been committed for a while, who cares when they said yes?” Polian said. “It’s as though the answers that you get at the end dictate your class.”

‘Accelerated’ start creates bright outlook for Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting cycle

rivals.com
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Thanks to signing 21 prospects during December’s early signing period, Notre Dame’s coaching staff began looking ahead to the 2019 recruiting cycle sooner than it usually would. The Irish needed to focus on only a handful of remaining 2018 possibilities, thus taking the time usually spent checking in on verbal commits and devoting it toward the needs of the future.

“[The early signing period] really allows us to accelerate and reach out into ’19, ’20 and beyond,” head coach Brian Kelly said in December. “You always feel in recruiting that you’re a click behind. You’re always trying to get ahead of it. This is the first time you truly feel like you’re about to get ahead of it.”

When Kelly or another coach says something to the effect of being ahead of schedule, they mean in terms of evaluating, communicating and beginning the year-long wooing more than they mean securing verbal commitments. Nonetheless, Notre Dame already has three pledges in the class of 2019.

Consensus four-star quarterback Cade McNamara (Demonte Ranch High School; Reno, Nev.) made it the second-consecutive cycle in which a highly-touted quarterback was the first Irish commitment, following Phil Jurkovec’s lead. Consensus four-star defensive tackle Jacob Lacey (South Warren H.S.; Bowling Green, Ky.), pictured above, committed shortly after McNamara, both in July, and rivals.com three-star cornerback K.J. Wallace (Lovett; Atlanta) made it a trio in late January.

Moving forward, the class’s success or failure may largely be determined by the defensive line commitments joining Lacey, or lack thereof. It is already the driving emphasis, part of that head start provided by the early signing period, and the preliminary responses have Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston optimistic.

“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 on Feb. 7. “This could be the best defensive line haul we’ve ever had here.

“A lot of it is because I’ve been able to put ’18 to bed and get moving on the ’19s, go visit in their schools all throughout January.”

The Irish hosted about 20 juniors for a day in late January, and among them were five of the reasons Elston is so bullish on the defensive line possibilities, including the committed Lacey.

Twitter: @JacobLacey6

Pictured, from left to right: Consensus four-star defensive end/outside linebacker Nana Osafo-Mensah (Nolan Catholic; Forth Worth, Texas); consensus four-star defensive end Joseph Anderson (Siegel; Murfreesboro, Tenn.); Elston; consensus four-star defensive tackle Mazi Smith (East Kentwood; Kentwood, Mich.); Lacey; and consensus four-star defensive end Hunter Spears (Sachse; Texas).

Obviously, it is early in the cycle, any relative success or failure in the 2018 season could prove to be influential, and the number of other variables is innumerable, but getting such a group on campus a full year before they need to put pen to figurative paper is a big step for any recruiting process.

Notre Dame will also need to focus on finding more running back talent. Pulling in two this class only replaces what was lost in the dismissals of current sophomore Deon McIntosh and current freshman C.J. Holmes. It does not create depth for the future, and with rising senior Dexter Williams entering his final season of eligibility, the Irish will need to find that depth immediately following 2018.

Similarly, one of the 2019 recruits will almost certainly be a punter, with Tyler Newsome entering his fifth and final year with Notre Dame.

Williams will be one of six rising seniors entering their final years of eligibility. Add them to Newsome and the eight other fifth-years on the roster, and that makes for an immediate 15 spots to fill in the class of 2019.

Obviously, 15 recruits would be a small class. The subsequent question is usually, “How many players will Notre Dame be able to sign in 2019?” That is not the question to ask. The question to ask is, “How many players will leave Notre Dame before August of 2019?”

The Irish roster, as it stands now, would have 89 players this fall, four more than the NCAA maximum. Presume the four who depart before this coming August are not rising seniors. (Any such player would be better served to wait a year, get his degree and transfer as a graduate with immediate eligibility.)

After the 2018 season, eight then-seniors would have one more year of eligibility available, but it is unlikely more than three or four are asked to return for a fifth year. In rough order of likelihood: quarterback Brandon Wimbush, cornerback Shaun Crawford, receiver Miles Boykin, offensive lineman Trevor Ruhland, tight end Alizé Mack, linebacker Asmar Bilal, receiver Chris Finke, defensive tackle Micah Dew-Treadway. If only three of those are asked to return, now 20 spots have theoretically opened up for the recruiting class of 2019.

If rising junior Julian Love puts together a third stellar season, he will have an NFL decision to make. His departure would immediately raise the operating figure to 21.

That becomes the floor for the size of the next recruiting class. Next offseason’s natural, and perhaps presumed, attrition can raise that total. Another year of 27 recruits is unlikely, but 24 or 25 would create what could be by then a familiar numbers crunch.