Offseason Q&A: UMass

3 Comments

After a difficult three-game stretch to start Notre Dame’s season, the Irish will welcome UMass to South Bend, a game that was originally intended to match up former Irish offensive coordinator Charley Molnar with his previous employer.

But Molnar was replaced after two rocky years—the programs’ first after moving up to the FBS level—bringing Mark Whipple back into the fold. And while the improvement was certainly incremental, their three wins were one more than Molnar managed over two seasons.

Sandwiched in the middle of seven difficult games on consecutive weeks, UMass looks like the easiest matchup of the season. But with a veteran quarterback who may be the MAC’s best, the Minutemen are improving, adding at least a bit of intrigue into a game that lacks it on paper.

To get us up to speed on the UMass program, we bring in Matt Vautour, who covers UMass Sports for the Daily Hampshire Gazette. Matt was nice enough to answer some questions on the state of the UMass program, what went wrong with Molnar, and what we can expect when the Minutemen roll in from Amherst.

Here we go.

 

The UMass-ND game was originally set to have the Irish play against their former offensive coordinator, Charley Molnar. That won’t happen, with Molnar replaced after two seasons and as many victories. You covered Molnar’s time atop the UMass program. Can you give us an idea of what exactly went so wrong?

At the beginning, Molnar’s combination of enthusiasm and extreme confidence made him instantly popular with UMass fans, who wanted to believe his lofty promises. But once the games started things went downhill fast. On the field his spread scheme seemed ill-matched with his personnel. His play-calling and clock management were questionable.

Off the field Molnar alienated alumni, fans and eventually his own players, who resented Molnar’s unwillingness to take any of the blame for the team’s struggles. A video that went public of coach-organized boxing and wrestling matches between team members drew scorn from the school’s upper administration as well. Because UMass was in its first years as Bowl Subdivision team, he might have survived a combined 2-22 record. But by the end Molnar didn’t really have anyone in his camp.

 

The Minutemen made a modest, but impressive jump in 2014 under the leadership of veteran coach Mark Whipple, who had a very good first tour of duty as the UMass head coach at the FCS level from 1998-2003. How did Whipple steady the ship? And what should Irish fans expect from his team?

A: Whipple’s previous success combined with the fact that he wasn’t Molnar made him instantly popular again. His pro style offense seemed to better fit his roster and the entire organization of the program certainly seemed more in order. Mostly his players embraced him and played hard for him. Molnar recruited some good players and Whipple did a good job of getting better play from them. With most of the roster back, there’s optimism at UMass that this should be the best team since the FBS upgrade.

 

It looks like the UMass offense is powered by the passing game. How capable of a signal caller is Blake Frohnapfel? He’s a first-team All-MAC selection by Phil Steele, giving us a clue that he’s legit. In his second season utilizing the graduate transfer rule, what’s the ceiling for the UMass QB? Does he have a pro future?

UMass has to thank the football gods every day that Frohnapfel was available because he greatly accelerated the Minutemen’s improvement. He was a leader from his first day and is the face of the program.

He’s a smart quarterback and pretty accurate. His value was especially apparent in the last two games of the season. With Frohnapfel out with a broken leg, the UMass offense sputtered in two lopsided losses. Playing in a pro style offense for a former NFL quarterback coach will help Frohnapfel’s chances, but he’s far from a lock. He’ll need a big year and to be more accurate on longer throws.

 

Every college football fan loves some good, old-fashioned offensive MACtion. With Frohnapfel, wide receiver Tajae Sharpe and TE Rodney Mills all on Steele’s preseason first team, and a veteran returning offensive line, is it safe to say that the Minutemen’s offense is going to challenge the Irish?

For UMass to have a chance, it will have to finish drives and score enough to hang in. It will need better production from an inconsistent running game to help take the pressure of Frohnapfel and the passing attack. Notre Dame figures to be the best team the Minutemen have faced under Whipple.

 

Jovan Santos-Knox looks like a tackling machine. But it also looks like UMass could struggle to stop people, especially in the air. Notre Dame’s offense doesn’t lack for talented personnel. Is this the mismatch to watch?

To have any chance in South Bend, UMass needs its defense to play better than it did last year. The Minutemen need Santos-Knox to make fewer tackles because they’ve gotten off the field quicker.

 

Notre Dame rarely plays a MAC opponent, and most Irish fans are categorizing this game in the cupcake / purchased victory mold. Is that a dangerous stance? A few big victories (Colorado, Vandy) slipped through the Minutemen’s fingers last season. Still in their infancy, what’s the best-case scenario not just for a September Saturday in Notre Dame Stadium, but for the UMass season?

After two years of not being competitive at all, UMass’ downfall in 2014 was an inability to finish. The Minutemen could have beaten Colorado and should have beaten Vanderbilt. UMass had fourth quarter leads against Bowling Green, Miami (Ohio) and were tied with Toledo with under six minutes left.

Most of the roster is back on both sides of the ball. If they can close out games, they’ll have a very realistic shot at one of the MAC’s five bowl spots. Hanging with Notre Dame is another story however. UMass was overmatched against both Boston College and Penn State last year and the Irish figure to be better than both of them. The Minutemen will be hoping a lot of breaks go their way and Notre Dame comes out sluggish and overconfident.

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 10 Chris Finke, receiver

Getty Images
2 Comments

Listed Measurements: 5-foot-9 ½, 177 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Junior with three seasons of eligibility remaining including the 2017 season.
Depth chart: Notre Dame’s receiver corps presents a litany of options. Finke competes with junior C.J. Sanders to be the first chosen of the quick-footed, shifty grouping. With that designation, it seems most likely Finke’s time will come at the slot, or Z, position if the Irish opt for a more traditional approach than the size and physicality of sophomore Chase Claypool.
Recruiting: A former walk-on, Finke shined so much in practice he earned a scholarship before his sophomore season.

CAREER TO DATE
After earning his scholarship, Finke made an impact in the Notre Dame passing game last season, highlighted by his four catches for 53 yards and a touchdown in the finale at USC. It marked the second-consecutive game Finke found the end zone.

2016: 10 games, 10 catches for 122 yards and two touchdowns.

Nine punt returns for 70 yards. Five kick returns for 85 yards.

QUOTE(S)
Compared to the plausible and sizable starting receiver trio of juniors Equanimeous St. Brown and Miles Boykin and the aforementioned Claypool, Finke and Sanders come across as near-anomalies.

“[Sanders] and Finke would be certainly the exception to the rule of the receivers we have,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said at the end of March. “But they have a place in our offense, and they’ll be used accordingly. The offensive structure is such that we can use those guys. They have a place, they can be effective players, and they will be used accordingly.”

2017 OUTLOOK
Finke will almost certainly exceed last year’s numbers, but the question will be when and where. Notre Dame is not wanting at receiver, and that assuredness is not even factoring in the number of skilled tight ends available, as well. Finding a role in the rotation for all those capable, including Finke, will be a unique balancing act.

At first glance, Finke’s 2016 paled compared to Sanders’. The latter racked up 24 catches for 293 yards and two touchdowns, but those scores came in the season’s first two games and the vast majority of the yards came within the first month. In the final seven games, Sanders made only seven catches for a total of a mere 39 yards. Across that same timespan, Finke caught eight passes for 103 yards and two scores.

Nothing in spring indicated Finke had yielded that second-half momentum surge. With it, he should be ready to contribute at either the slot or the field receiver positions whenever Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long wants to downsize his target.

DOWN THE ROAD
Finke’s ability to work his way through Notre Dame’s receiver depth is impressive, but it may not be enough to get him four full years of action. Following the 2018 season, both he and the Irish coaches could have a decision to make. Does he want to continue his football career for one more year, knowing the NFL doesn’t often come calling for physiques the NBA would deem too small? Does Notre Dame want to devote a scholarship to a good, but not great, contributor when it will certainly have other options at receiver?

That will be a question for then, though. For now, Finke is in the rotation and will remain there in 2018, as well.


2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
No. 95: Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 92)
No. 94: Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 95)
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92: Jonathon MacCollister; defensive end (originally theorized as No. 46)
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end
No. 88: Javon McKinley, receiver
No. 87: Michael Young, receiver (originally theorized as No. 84)
No. 86: Alizé Mack, tight end
No. 85: Tyler Newsome, punter
No. 84: Cole Kmet, tight end (originally theorized as No. 90)
No. 83: Chase Claypool, receiver
No. 82: Nic Weishar, tight end
No. 81: Miles Boykin, receiver
No. 80: Durham Smythe, tight end
No. 78: Tommy Kraemer, right tackle
No. 77: Brandon Tiassum, defensive tackle
No. 76: Dillan Gibbons, offensive lineman (originally theorized as No. 65)
No. 75: Josh Lugg, offensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 73)
No. 75: Daniel Cage, defensive tackle
No. 74: Liam Eichenberg, right tackle
No. 72: Robert Hainsey, offensive tackle
No. 71: Alex Bars, offensive lineman
No. 70: Hunter Bivin, offensive lineman
No. 69: Aaron Banks, offensive lineman
No. 68: Mike McGlinchey, left tackle
No. 67: Jimmy Byrne, offensive lineman
No. 58: Elijah Taylor, defensive tackle
No. 57: Trevor Ruhland, offensive lineman
No. 56: Quenton Nelson, left guard
No. 55: Jonathan Bonner, defensive lineman
No. 54: John Shannon, long snapper
No. 53: Sam Mustipher, center
No. 53: Khalid Kareem, defensive lineman
No. 48: Greer Martini, inside linebacker
No. 47: Kofi Wardlow, defensive end
No. 45: Jonathan Jones, inside linebacker
No. 44: Jamir Jones, linebacker/defensive lineman
No. 42: Julian Okwara, defensive end
No. 41: Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 94)
No. 40: Drew White, linebacker
No. 39: Jonathan Doerer, kicker (originally theorized as No. 52)
No. 38: Deon McIntosh, running back/receiver
No. 35: David Adams, linebacker
No. 34: Tony Jones, Jr., running back
No. 33: Josh Adams, running back
No. 32: D.J. Morgan, safety
No. 30: Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, rover
No. 29: Kevin Stepherson, receiver
No. 28: Nicco Fertitta, safety
No. 27: Julian Love, cornerback
No. 26: Ashton White, safety
No. 25: Jafar Armstrong, receiver (originally theorized as No. 87)
No. 24: Nick Coleman, safety
No. 23: Drue Tranquill, rover
No. 22: Asmar Bilal, rover
No. 21: Jalen Elliott, safety
No. 19: Justin Yoon, kicker
No. 18: Troy Pride, cornerback
No. 17: Isaiah Robertson, safety
No. 16: Cameron Smith, receiver
No. 15: C.J. Holmes, running back
No. 14: Devin Studstill, safety
No. 13: Avery Davis, quarterback
No. 13: Jordan Genmark Heath, safety
No. 12: Ian Book, quarterback
No. 12: Alohi Gilman, safety
No. 11: Freddy Canteen, receiver

TRANSFERS
No. 66: Tristen Hoge, offensive lineman, transfers to BYU
No. 50: Parker Boudreaux, offensive lineman
No. 30: Josh Barajas, linebacker, to transfer to Illinois State

INJURIES
No. 13: Tyler Luatua, tight end, career ended by medical hardship

Report: Daniel Cage to miss 2017, career in question due to medical issues

Getty Images
30 Comments

The two positions at which Notre Dame most lacks depth and experience are safety and defensive tackle. Fittingly, the morning after junior safety Ashton White announced he is leaving the Irish football team, a report indicates senior defensive tackle Daniel Cage will miss the 2017 season, as well.

Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson reported Cage intends to spend this season focusing on getting healthy before he decides if he will continue playing football at all. A concussion ended Cage’s season last year and Cage’s mother said the effects of that concussion continue to linger. Additionally, Cage underwent knee surgery this summer.

“He loves football,” Bionne Cage told Sampson. “First and foremost, his health has to be OK. If he can get that straightened out, he can continue playing.”

Cage has suffered three concussions over his Irish career, plus knee and ankle ailments. While the joint issues are obviously a concern for a 320-plus pound individual, the concussion symptoms will be the bigger impediment to Cage finishing his career.

He has appeared in 30 games over three years, making a total of 32 tackles with five tackles for loss. The senior has one year of eligibility remaining.

Without Cage, Notre Dame will need to rely on a litany of unproven commodities in the defensive line interior. Junior Jerry Tillery will lead the way, and senior Jonathan Bonner has shown the ability to hold his own, despite moving to tackle only a year ago.

After that starting duo, though, questions arise. Junior Elijah Taylor suffered a LisFranc injury during spring practice, and the recovery from that can be inherently touch-and-go. Juniors Brandon Tiassum and Micah Dew-Treadway have never appeared in a collegiate game while senior Pete Mokwuah has seen action in six games, making one total tackle.

Suffice it to say, the chance is there for freshmen Darnell Ewell, Kurt Hinish and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa to earn playing time at the outset of their careers. (more…)

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 11 Freddy Canteen, receiver

Getty Images
2 Comments

Listed Measurements: 6-foot-1, 185 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Senior graduate transfer from Michigan with two years of eligibility remaining including the 2017 season.
Depth chart: A la the depth chart speculating regarding fellow graduate transfer Cameron Smith, predicting Canteen’s standing among the receivers is difficult considering he has a short window to make an impact but has yet to practice so much as once in front of the Irish coaches. In theory, Canteen will join the ranks as a slot receiver, otherwise known as the Z, battling junior C.J. Sanders and perhaps Smith for the right to back up sophomore Chase Claypool. If Notre Dame opts for a more traditional inside route runner than the 6-foot-4 Claypool, that top backup would obviously be given first crack at that chance.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star prospect, Canteen chose Michigan over offers from Maryland and Tennessee, among others, back in 2014. The No. 47 receiver in the class, per rivals.com, and No. 9 recruit in Maryland, Canteen enrolled early in Ann Arbor.

CAREER TO DATE
Canteen’s speed got him on the field as a freshman, seeing action in 10 games. With a coaching change from Brady Hoke to Jim Harbaugh, his playing time was already decreasing in 2015 before a shoulder injury ended his season early. Last year, Canteen may or may not have been healthy enough to play, but either way he spent the season on the sidelines preserving a year of eligibility.

2014: 10 games, two starts, five receptions for 22 yards and one touchdown.
2015: Five games, one start, one reception for no gain.

QUOTE(S)
Canteen announced his transfer decision less than two weeks after 2017’s National Signing Day. Shortly after that day spent praising incoming freshmen, Irish coach Brian Kelly suggested an incoming transfer was imminent, presumably expecting the addition of Canteen. Once as much was official, Kelly was able to praise the receiver’s speed much as he heralded the high school seniors Feb. 1.

“Freddy will bring some speed and athleticism to our wide receiver group,” Kelly said in a release. “We’re excited to get him on campus with our coaching staff and players in preparation for the 2017 season. Freddy is a committed, focused and determined individual, both on and off the field, and our receivers and offense will benefit greatly from his addition.”

WHAT WE WROTE UPON THE TRANSFER ANNOUNCEMENT
Canteen will bolster depth at a position headlined by juniors Equanimeous St. Brown and C.J. Sanders. Though Canteen would not likely project in St. Brown’s place, he could possibly challenge Sanders in the slot or sophomores Kevin Stepherson and Javon McKinley out wide.

“He could also, theoretically, flip to defense where Notre Dame needs help at defensive back. At 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds, Canteen’s skill set could translate to the position without much lapse.”

2017 OUTLOOK
It remains possible Canteen spends more time with the Irish defense than the offense, but it seems unlikely. One doesn’t transfer only to switch to a less-preferred position. Rather, Canteen is likely confident his speed and precise route running can set him apart from other Notre Dame pass-catchers.

If that is the case, he should fit right into Kelly’s long-standing preference to have a deep threat available to take the top off the secondary. (Think of former Irish receiver Chris Brown’s role, even if he wasn’t frequently targeted.) Stepherson or Smith could also offer that top-end speed, but Canteen’s acceleration in the first 10 yards should set him apart.

That particular skill will also likely be seen on special teams. Special teams coordinator Brian Polian has hoped for more options on his coverage and return units. Canteen was not around the team in the spring to aid in that regard — he only graduated from Michigan in April, despite the February transfer announcement — but this fall could earn some notice by shining on Polian’s coverage units.

DOWN THE ROAD
Canteen is not the typical graduate transfer. He joins the Irish with two years of eligibility remaining. Nonetheless, handing him a scholarship is a low-risk, high-reward situation for Notre Dame. If he does not pan out, the scholarship was not going to be used in 2017 anyway, so at most one year of one scholarship is frivoled away in 2018. If he does, however, find a role in the Irish offense, suddenly a weapon was added late in the process.

Notre Dame’s receivers are a young group, both in experience and in eligibility. Any playing time Canteen finds will be hard-earned, but that was clear to all parties before he made his February decision.


2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
No. 95: Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 92)
No. 94: Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 95)
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92: Jonathon MacCollister; defensive end (originally theorized as No. 46)
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end
No. 88: Javon McKinley, receiver
No. 87: Michael Young, receiver (originally theorized as No. 84)
No. 86: Alizé Mack, tight end
No. 85: Tyler Newsome, punter
No. 84: Cole Kmet, tight end (originally theorized as No. 90)
No. 83: Chase Claypool, receiver
No. 82: Nic Weishar, tight end
No. 81: Miles Boykin, receiver
No. 80: Durham Smythe, tight end
No. 78: Tommy Kraemer, right tackle
No. 77: Brandon Tiassum, defensive tackle
No. 76: Dillan Gibbons, offensive lineman (originally theorized as No. 65)
No. 75: Josh Lugg, offensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 73)
No. 75: Daniel Cage, defensive tackle
No. 74: Liam Eichenberg, right tackle
No. 72: Robert Hainsey, offensive tackle
No. 71: Alex Bars, offensive lineman
No. 70: Hunter Bivin, offensive lineman
No. 69: Aaron Banks, offensive lineman
No. 68: Mike McGlinchey, left tackle
No. 67: Jimmy Byrne, offensive lineman
No. 58: Elijah Taylor, defensive tackle
No. 57: Trevor Ruhland, offensive lineman
No. 56: Quenton Nelson, left guard
No. 55: Jonathan Bonner, defensive lineman
No. 54: John Shannon, long snapper
No. 53: Sam Mustipher, center
No. 53: Khalid Kareem, defensive lineman
No. 48: Greer Martini, inside linebacker
No. 47: Kofi Wardlow, defensive end
No. 45: Jonathan Jones, inside linebacker
No. 44: Jamir Jones, linebacker/defensive lineman
No. 42: Julian Okwara, defensive end
No. 41: Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 94)
No. 40: Drew White, linebacker
No. 39: Jonathan Doerer, kicker (originally theorized as No. 52)
No. 38: Deon McIntosh, running back/receiver
No. 35: David Adams, linebacker
No. 34: Tony Jones, Jr., running back
No. 33: Josh Adams, running back
No. 32: D.J. Morgan, safety
No. 30: Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, rover
No. 29: Kevin Stepherson, receiver
No. 28: Nicco Fertitta, safety
No. 27: Julian Love, cornerback
No. 26: Ashton White, safety
No. 25: Jafar Armstrong, receiver (originally theorized as No. 87)
No. 24: Nick Coleman, safety
No. 23: Drue Tranquill, rover
No. 22: Asmar Bilal, rover
No. 21: Jalen Elliott, safety
No. 19: Justin Yoon, kicker
No. 18: Troy Pride, cornerback
No. 17: Isaiah Robertson, safety
No. 16: Cameron Smith, receiver
No. 15: C.J. Holmes, running back
No. 14: Devin Studstill, safety
No. 13: Avery Davis, quarterback
No. 13: Jordan Genmark Heath, safety
No. 12: Ian Book, quarterback
No. 12: Alohi Gilman, safety

TRANSFERS
No. 66: Tristen Hoge, offensive lineman, transfers to BYU
No. 50: Parker Boudreaux, offensive lineman
No. 30: Josh Barajas, linebacker, to transfer to Illinois State

INJURIES
No. 13: Tyler Luatua, tight end, career ended by medical hardship

Junior safety Ashton White leaves Notre Dame football, remains at University

7 Comments

Junior safety Ashton White announced he is leaving the Notre Dame football team via a Twitter post Wednesday evening. White will finish the year at the University with the intention of graduating in the spring in order to qualify as a graduate transfer for the 2018 season.

“I would first like to thank [Irish] Coach [Brian] Kelly for the opportunity to play the game I love at such a wonderful institution such as Notre Dame,” White wrote. “However, I will not be with the team this fall as I focus on some ambitious academic goals of mine.”

If White does indeed graduate and transfer to an FBS-level program in the spring, he would have two years of eligibility remaining. Because he preserved a year of eligibility already in 2015, the former cornerback does not actually save a year of playing time by not playing this season. That said, if he sees little playing time on the horizon and intends to transfer, doing so as a graduate student would make the most sense. Spending the time he would be using on football instead on his studies very well could behoove that process.

White’s departure leaves the Irish with even less depth on the defensive back-line, but he was not likely to play much this season even with that being the case. Junior cornerback-turned-safety Nick Coleman joins sophomores Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill firmly ahead of White on the depth chart. Junior Nicco Fertitta has consistently seen more playing time than White each of the last two seasons, and freshman Jordan Genmark Heath could have quickly moved up the depth chart, as well.

That does not even mention senior Drue Tranquill, who could conceivably move back to safety from rover if injuries necessitated it, or sophomore cornerback Julian Love, who Kelly has indicated was already being considered for some safety duty in passing-specific situations.

Notre Dame will prefer to keep Tranquill at rover, to only bring in Fertitta in short-yardage scenarios and to ease Genmark Heath into the program, but altering those plans all may have been options before White saw much playing time.

“[I] can’t wait to watch & support my former teammates and best friends chase that ring they’ve worked so hard for!” White closed. “Thank you ND Nation.. [sic] it’s been an awesome couple years!”

White finishes his Irish career with two tackles in six games. He played in the first five games last year before seeing time in only one of the final seven. (more…)