The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. UMass

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After Notre Dame’s 62-27 win, Brian Kelly said the Irish will follow their standard 24-hour rule and celebrate their victory. But here’s guessing they cut the celebration short a few hours, knowing there was significant work to be done before heading to South Carolina for their biggest game of the year thus far.

But before we turn our full attention to next weekend in Death Valley, let’s close the book on the weekend that was. Here’s your good, bad and ugly from the Irish’s 35-point win.

 

THE GOOD

The Ground Game. Notre Dame ran for 457 yards on Saturday. That’s the first time over 400 since the 1996 season. It’s the fifth-straight game the Irish have gone over 200 yards, the first time that’s happened since 2000. So it’s safe to say that the offensive line, C.J. Prosise and the rest of the Irish ground gainers have it going pretty good right now.

The mismatch up front was obvious from the start, maybe even before the start considering Colorado gashed UMass in a season-opening win. And it’s tough to say much more succinctly than UMass head coach Mark Whipple said after the game.

“We just couldn’t handle their offensive line. Their offensive line just manhandled us,” Whipple said.

Prosise got the 15 carries that I thought he should get. Josh Adams was fed the ball and he responded with a 70-yarder for a touchdown and his first 100-yard afternoon. Dexter Williams looked good and even both quarterbacks were effective running the ball.

A few years ago, the Irish couldn’t find a back who could break a 20-yard run. Now, Notre Dame has a backfield of home run hitters (including a back-up quarterback!), none more impressive than Prosise, who had two more touchdown runs of 15+ yards. He’s already at 600 yards for the season, and could’ve probably been two-thirds of the way to 1,000 had Kelly kept giving him the football.

A dominant performance when we were expecting one. That’s what good football teams do.

 

The Special Teams. Tyler Newsome set a Notre Dame record with an average of 52.4 yards per punt. C.J. Sanders returned a punt for a touchdown, the first since Golden Tate did it in 2009. Jarrett Grace and Greer Martini sniffed out a fake punt and everything but an extra point off the upright was pretty much perfect.

Freshman Nicco Fertitta also ripped loose a football on a kickoff, though UMass jumped on the fumble. (Worth noting: Montgomery VanGorder came in to hold late in the game, likely as a backup, but also possibly because DeShone Kizer’s got plenty on his plate.)

The Irish flipped the field and took over the game when Newsome’s punt was pinned inside the one-yard-line. That Kelly put his trust in the special teams and not the offensive line was telling and another good strategic move by the Irish head coach.

 

Big Plays for the offense. Notre Dame scored four different touchdowns of 35 yards or more. That makes nine touchdowns this season over 35-yards or longer, a nice reminder that this team is filled with guys who can take the ball the distance whenever they get a shot at it.

Five different players had a run of a dozen yards or more. Four different receivers caught a pass 15 yards or longer. If the Irish can find ways to make plays in space against Clemson next week, it’ll be hard to slow Notre Dame down.

 

The Kids. So many young players got on the field on Saturday. And just as many of them looked good doing it. After sticking mostly with the two deep in the first three games, Notre Dame cleared the benches on Saturday afternoon.

Brandon Wimbush made a terrific debut. He showed elite arm strength and game-breaking athleticism, breaking the longest QB run since Andrew Hendrix nearly took it to the house against Air Force.

Wimbush is clearly still learning. His decision to not run the ball, freestyle on the fly and throw deep to Equanimeous St. Brown, was sandlot football. It was completely illegal (the Irish had multiple offensive linemen down field blocking, aka doing their job). But it also revealed both players’ ability, something we’ll likely see in the years to come.

Notre Dame’s No. 2 offensive line got work, with Hunter Bivin giving Ronnie Stanley a break after he was rolled up right after half and Alex Bars getting in on the right side. Sam Mustipher put a snap past Wimbush, but otherwise he was unnoticed—another good thing.

Defensively, it was great to see young players everywhere. Greer Martini led the Irish in tackles. Nyles Morgan managed to make seven, playing only in garbage time. Linebacker Te’von Coney played some key snaps (he was on the field in goal line) and we got a look at Nick Watkins and Nick Coleman as well.

It was a next generation game for the Irish and that group looked very good.

 

Quick Hits: 

Chris Brown made his second touchdown catch of the season. That’s a career high. That’s a surprising stat to me, and Brown’s emergence at the No. 2 receiver is a pleasant surprise, matching up to the dominance he’s routinely displayed in practice.

Nice to see Sheldon Day earn another sack. Day made a big play to kill what was left of UMass’s momentum. Another surprise? Day’s two sacks is now tied with his career high in a season, when he was a freshman in 2012.

That preseason knee injury to Corey Robinson? Weird, it wasn’t a season-ender. Kelly said Sunday that Robinson received a cortisone shot and will be back at practice on Tuesday.

Worth noting: Max Redfield may be listed as the starter, but Matthias Farley played a lot of first team reps at safety. And not surprising, it was a tipped ball that Farley got his hands on that led to Cole Luke‘s first interception of the season, just the first of the year for the Irish.

(It was good seeing Redfield out there in the second half earning his keep with some of the backups. He needs to take the reps, especially against an offense that throws the football.)

It’s getting normal to see C.J. Prosise break really long touchdown runs. But that 56-yarder was a thing of beauty.

The Defense played great in the third quarter, and really not as terribly as maybe we all thought. (We’ll still get to them later in the bad section…)

Last tip of the cap: Mark Whipple. He’s a cagey football coach and his postgame comments were tremendous.

 

THE BAD

Big plays hurting the defense. For the second time this season, a trick play baffled the Irish defense. And almost shockingly, UMass broke a touchdown run right up the gut, a game-changing score from the Minutemen.

It’s hard to feel 100-percent warm and fuzzy about the state of the defense after watching the weekend performance. Coverage was good, but hardly great. Cole Luke had an interception, but he was also beat for a big gain. KeiVarae Russell continues to look good, but he’s still clutching and grabbing too much.

Here’s how Kelly described the secondary’s play after four games.

“I think there’s times where we’re competing and challenging throws, and then there’s some times that we’re not,” Kelly said. “I think that if you’re asking Coach VanGorder and Coach Lyght, I think what we’re looking for is consistency and competing for the ball. Some of it is technique where we’re losing at the line of scrimmage in some instances, and then some of it is just not being as aggressive as we’d like to be to the ball. So at times, we are getting those two things. We just need to get it more consistently.”

Clemson will test Luke and Russell, and even more critically, the safeties. And if the Irish get through the Tigers, watching USC’s receiving corps take Cody Kessler dump offs and turn them into gigantic plays, Notre Dame’s athleticism on the edge will need to be mirrored by excellent technique.

Moving on to the run-fits, that Notre Dame gave up yardage on the ground and at one point was being outgained by the Minutemen as they averaged 9.0 yards per play—that was cause for concern, grumblings that echoed across all of cyberspace for a time.

But here’s another look at the UMass offensive performance, removing the three game-changing negative plays Notre Dame allowed (trick-play pass, long run and flipped field interception by Kizer):

3-1 PUNT
6-14 PUNT
4-5 PUNT
3-5 PUNT
5-34 PUNT
4-7 INT

UMass gained 139 yards and had two double-digit play drives in their final two possessions against the Irish subs. So while cleaning up the big play is critical, it wasn’t as if the defense was sliced and diced.

 

THE UGLY

Staying empty. Young kids running around everywhere. Two dodged bullets (Ronnie Stanley, Corey Robinson) in the injury department. All in all, a fun Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s tight ends, a surplus of depth, unproven talent

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Notre Dame has such tight end depth, it was somewhat surprising when the Irish pursued a second tight end in the class of 2018, but the possibilities of yet another playmaker in Tommy Tremble combined with a physical option in George Takacs forced the coaching staff’s decision.

“I always like to have that versatility each year and each signing class,” Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long said Feb. 7. “… We don’t want to pass up on a great athlete … being able to present different challenges to the defense with those kind of guys and still be very physical at the same time.”

That is a key to remember when looking at the Irish tight ends — Long sees different purposes amid the individuals in that position’s meeting room. Tremble, for example, could line up as a receiver as often as not while Takacs might fill in as Durham Smythe most recently did, serving as an additional blocker when needed and offering sure hands otherwise. In many respects, the two roles are two different positions.

Spring Roster:
— Fifth-year Nic Weishar, who Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said had shoulder surgery recently, though Kelly did not offer a timetable for return.
— Rising senior Alizé Mack.
— Rising sophomore Cole Kmet, when he is not pitching in relief for the Irish baseball team. Kmet made his second appearance of the season Thursday night. A letdown (3.0 IP, 3 ER, 3 H, 4 K), it did not go anywhere near as well as his debut did (4.0 IP, 0 ER, 1 H, 3 K).

@NDFootball

— Rising sophomore Brock Wright, who underwent a shoulder surgery of his own shortly following the regular season. A recent photo (left) from the @NDFootball Twitter account indicates Wright is partaking in at least some winter conditioning drills.
— Early-enrolled freshman Takacs.

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman Tremble.

Depth Chart Possibilities:
Long uses multiple tight ends, deploying both of those aforementioned archetypes at the same time. That tendency should be seen even more often in 2018 with more options now available. A full year in a collegiate program should have both Kmet and Wright ready for bigger roles, challenging Weishar for some of what were Smythe’s snaps in 2017.

The third tight end will see opportunities. It is essentially a second-string role. If granting the argument of two different forms of tight ends, then even the fourth tight end will get chances, as he will simply be the second-stringer in that particular role.

Kmet would seem the more likely of the rising sophomores to get a bit more time, but that only means Wright will see plenty of time in a blocking back role, just as he did in situational packages in 2017.

Biggest Question:
Kmet could find his way to a more prominent role if he offers something not yet seen from Mack: consistency not just on the field, but in all respects.

Can Mack finally translate his athleticism and potential into a consistent mismatch and productive threat? At his best, he could be the product of an offensive coordinator’s daydreams, but Mack has so rarely been at his best. That applies both on and off the field, considering his multiple drops in 2017 were followed by Kelly suspending Mack for an internal team matter for the Citrus Bowl before Notre Dame even headed down to Florida.

Another year of Mack spinning his wheels will result in a loss of playing time with the likes of Kmet and Tremble around. If Mack does not provide positive results in the spring while Kmet does, that shift could begin even before the Blue-Gold Game on April 21.

Fifth-year tight end Nic Weishar will provide Notre Dame not only with depth and experience in 2018, but also sure hands. That alone should give him a leg up on the other tight ends entering this spring. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Pertinent Reader Question:
“Every year a four- or five-star disappoints and every year a three-star or lower prospect surprises. My prediction is fall: Mack, rise: Weishar. I have been the lone man on the Weishar bandwagon for a few years now and really hope that this year he becomes the big receiving target we need.

What are your fallers and risers for this coming year?” — Mark H.

A logical argument can be made that “fallers” should not be labeled as such until after their collegiate careers conclude. There are so many factors that can limit a player for years before he breaks out. Consider rising senior receiver and former consensus four-star prospect Miles Boykin. As recently as New Year’s Eve, he may have been labeled a bust, but now he can lay claim to one of the most dramatic catches in Irish history and is a frontrunner for a starting role in 2018 with another year of eligibility remaining after that. He could end up with a stellar collegiate career by every measure.

Mack has had the opportunity to shine to date, and he has not done so, but he also might have two more seasons to go to change that reputation.

As for “risers,” Weishar makes sense and he certainly showcased his strong hands when given the chance in 2017, but his ceiling is likely not much higher than that. A couple touchdown catches, a handful of third-down conversions and a year of physical blocking would be a welcome success.

Notre Dame’s safeties, though, could stand out to fit the criteria laid out by Mark. If — and that is a two-letter word not to be overlooked — Navy transfer and rising junior Alohi Gilman and rising sophomore Jordan Genmark-Heath end up as productive starters for the season, then they will both have exceeded the expectations set out by star ratings.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Mack: 19 catches for 166 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by six receptions for 38 yards against North Carolina with rising junior quarterback Ian Book starting in place of an injured Brandon Wimbush.
Weishar: Nine catches for 52 yards and two touchdowns.
Kmet: Two catches for 14 yards; appeared in all 13 games.
Wright: Appeared in 11 games, no statistics recorded.

Notre Dame gets the letter: George Takacs
Notre Dame gets the letter: Tommy Tremble

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are
Linebackers, a proven two and then many questions

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s linebackers, a proven two and then many questions

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Any concerns about Notre Dame’s linebackers were allayed when Te’von Coney spurned the NFL to return for his senior season. That decision, and Drue Tranquill making the same move, means the Irish do not need to replace their two best playmakers at the position from last season.

Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Clark Lea does need to figure out how to fill in for the graduated Nyles Morgan and his 92 tackles, not to mention classmate Greer Martini and his 75, good for second and fourth on the team, respectively.

Spring Roster:
— Two known and welcome playmaking veterans in Coney and fifth-year Tranquill.
— More than a handful of unproven and untested possibilities in rising senior Asmar Bilal, rising juniors Jonathan Jones and Jamir Jones (no relation), and rising sophomores Drew White, David Adams and Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah.
— A trio of early-enrolled freshmen in Jack Lamb, Bo Bauer and Ovie Oghoufo.

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman Shayne Simon, a likely rover candidate.

Entering 2017, Te’von Coney was not even a starting linebacker. By the end of the season he was the leading tackler, and in 2018, he will be counted on as a defensive stalwart. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
Wherever Tranquill ends up — be it at rover or a more traditional linebacker position, with the latter seeming more likely — someone will need to earn the third starting role. Bilal is the front-runner for that duty, at either position, but he will need to show a quicker understanding of the game than he has in the past.

The rising senior has always been ready physically, but he has looked up the depth chart at the likes of Morgan, Martini, Coney and Tranquill. Opportunities were not readily available. Now that one very much is, Bilal will need to either seize it or get ready to be bypassed by the newcomers.

It would be a surprise for Lamb or Bauer to be named that third starter in their freshman season, but both could certainly land in the two-deep, as that entire second unit is up for grabs. Neither Jones showed much last season, and the linebacker recruiting emphasis of 2018 belied the coaching staffs’ opinions of the rising sophomores pretty clearly.

Presuming Bilal steps forward and secures the starting position, and some combination of Jones, Jones, Lamb and Bauer fill two of the backup roles, only Owusu-Koromoah stands out as an obvious rover substitute. In that respect, depth remains a concern at the defense’s second level, albeit less of one than in years past thanks to the influx of four touted freshmen.

Biggest Question:
Where does Tranquill line up against Michigan on Sept. 1? More to the current purpose, where does he line up in the Blue-Gold Game on April 21?

“My responsibility as linebackers coach is to put the best combination of people on the field,” Lea said Feb. 7. “I think everyone can see Drue Tranquill had a skillset, a talent base that can play multiple spots. Through the course of the winter and spring, we’ll take a look at different options.”

The duties at rover can be handled piecemeal, accounting for the tendencies of each opponent. When facing an up-tempo, aerial attack, perhaps even rising senior cornerback Shaun Crawford could be featured there. When facing a physical, ground-bound opponent, Bilal would make more sense.

Shifting around like that at the Buck linebacker spot makes far less sense. While Tranquill never necessarily had the speed to excel at safety, and two knee injuries only further limited him in that respect, he shined at rover in 2017. Concluding his collegiate career at linebacker is logical, both as it pertains to his development thus far and to his professional aspirations.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Rarely can a defense lose two of its top-four tacklers and still return more than 200 tackles from starting linebackers. Thus is the luxury provided by both Coney and Tranquill bypassing the NFL for another year.

Coney: 116 tackles, 13.0 tackles for loss including three sacks, and one forced fumble which he recovered.
Tranquill: 85 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss including 1.5 sacks, one interception, three pass breakups, three fumbles recovered and one fumble forced.
Bilal: 18 tackles with 1.5 for loss.
Jo. Jones: 10 tackles with one for loss and one pass breakup.
Ja. Jones: Four tackles.

A 2018 Statistical Thought:
Presuming linebacker health, the three starters should end up as Notre Dame’s leading tacklers once again in 2018, even with the presumed drop off from Morgan to insert Bilal or Owusu-Koromoah or Lamb or … here.

The Irish defensive line will be much improved in 2018. Once upon a time, that seemed a guarantee just because the expectations for the line entering 2017 were so low, but it instead became a strength. Developing that strength and making it the backbone of Notre Dame’s defense moving forward will serve to burgeon the linebackers’ tackle totals, both at and behind the line of scrimmage.

Notre Dame gets the letter: Jack Lamb
Notre Dame gets the letter: Bo Bauer
Notre Dame gets the letter: Shayne Simon
Notre Dame gets the letter: Ovie Oghoufo

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are

A second four-star defensive lineman, Hunter Spears, joins the Notre Dame class of 2019

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When Notre Dame got five heralded defensive line recruits on campus together in January, it turned heads. When Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston offered public optimism about the possible 2019 commitments, it raised expectations.

Notre Dame has now secured a second of those five with the Tuesday commitment of consensus four-star defensive end Hunter Spears (Sachse High School; Texas). He joins consensus four-star defensive tackle Jacob Lacey (South Warren H.S.; Bowling Green, Ky.) as the early foundation to the recruiting class, now with four prospects pledged.

“Honestly, just talking with the guys today — Jacob Lacey, Mazi Smith, Joseph Anderson, Nana Osafo-Mensah, and myself — if Notre Came can land all of us, that would be the dream d-line class for Notre Dame,” Spears told Irish Illustrated. “I could see another pass-rusher or two, also.”

The other three names Spears mentioned all joined Lacey and him on Jan. 27 at an on-campus Junior Day. All five qualify as consensus four-stars, with Smith (East Kentwood; Kentwood, Mich.) a tackle, Anderson (Siegel; Murfreesboro, Tenn.) an end, and Osafo-Mensah (Nolan Catholic; Fort Worth, Texas) a possible end/linebacker hybrid.

From left to right: Osafo-Mensah, Anderson, Elston, Smith, Lacey and Spears. (Twitter: @JacobLacey6)

Landing all five may be ambitious, but it would also be the envy of most of the country.

Spears already held offers from the likes of Alabama and Michigan State, despite missing his junior season with a knee injury. The Irish extended a scholarship offer to him in June, prompting an unofficial visit to watch a 49-14 Notre Dame victory over USC in October. In a video released by 247Sports.com, Spears cited that experience as one of the three primary reasons he committed, along with the educational opportunity and the “overall tradition and culture.”

Editor’s Note: That video has since been removed from this post due to its incessant auto-play function, but it can still be viewed here.

Spears shows quickness for a defensive lineman, but not such that he would ever be considered an outside linebacker in any form. His size makes him an ideal candidate to set the edge against the run or possibly move inside when the Irish need a quicker defensive line to handle certain opponents. His agility, though, will make him a three-down threat, both a pass-rusher and an edge-setter.

Notre Dame currently has depth at defensive end, but with only one signed in the class of 2018 (Justin Ademilola) and one remaining from the class of 2017 (Kofi Wardlow), an influx will be a priority this recruiting cycle. Spears will theoretically have one season to adjust to collegiate competition before the quartet of rising juniors Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem, Julian Okwara and Ade Ogundeji run out of eligibility. (The first three have two seasons remaining, while Ogundeji has the possibility of three more years.)

Hence, that Junior Day emphasis and Elston’s confidence on National Signing Day.

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

Expect to read that quote again and again (and possibly again) if any of the remaining three in the above photo follow Spears’ and Lacey’s lead.

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

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