Pregame Six Pack: On to November (almost)

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Trick or Treat. As Notre Dame prepares to take on undefeated Temple in a game that might be the biggest in the home team’s history, Halloween night could be good old fashioned fun… or a house of horrors.

Coming back from a much-needed weekend off, the Irish now need to show they’re capable of being the program that turned November into a month of dominance, not the team that burst at the seams in 2015.

While the calendar doesn’t turn until postgame, head coach Brian Kelly expressed the sentiment correctly.

“I think for us, it will be October is for pretenders and November will be for contenders,” Kelly said on Tuesday. “And we’ll show ourselves in that regard because of our schedule in November.”

That begins with Temple. The American Conference leader, the Owls are unexpectedly among the nation’s undefeated team—courtesy of Matt Rhule and a tremendous defense.

With the Irish unexpectedly playing in the week’s highest-profile matchup on the college football slate, let’s get on to the Pregame Six Pack.

 

After growing comfortable in the starting job, DeShone Kizer has set the bar high. Very high.

It didn’t take long to understand that DeShone Kizer wasn’t your average backup quarterback. Nor did it take long for the sophomore to find the same comfort level and maturity he displays off the field between the lines.

Back to campus rested and ready for the final five-game stretch, Kizer talked about the elevated goals he has for the season—making it clear he wants to play like the best quarterback in the country.

“I think that my biggest adjustment that I’ve evaluated for myself is having a mindset, of not only being a good quarterback, but to take it to greatness,” Kizer explained Wednesday. “I need to be able to prepare to be the best quarterback in the nation every week.

“I was in the position the first half of the year where I was a replacement. I was a guy who was able to manage a game and accomplish a mission in that sense. Now I want to take it into the second half of the year and be the best quarterback in the nation every time I step on the field. Because I know that after evaluating the first half, that I have the ability to.”

That type of confidence shouldn’t come as a surprise. And while Kelly joked after being told about Kizer’s comments on Thursday evening that he half-expected Kizer to go third-person with comments like that, he also said the quarterback is backing up those words with his focus and play in practice.

“I thought his communication and his presence today with our offense was like a fifth-year senior,” Kelly said Thursday. “He is a very confident player right now.”

 

With Alex Bars lost for the season, the offensive line has needed to mix and match. 

When you look back at all the injuries Notre Dame suffered this season, the broken ankle Alex Bars suffered against USC wasn’t necessarily the most impactful. But it has certainly forced the Irish to make some significant moves along the offensive line.

Bars may have been playing behind Quenton Nelson at guard, but he was likely Notre Dame’s third tackle, even if he wasn’t listed on the depth chart. And while Nelson’s through the woods after missing a full game with a high ankle sprain and gutting out the majority of the USC battle after Bars went down, there are still dominoes falling as Harry Hiestand reshuffles the Irish depth behind the starting five.

Junior Colin McGovern appears to be the next man in. He’ll cross-train not just at guard, but work outside as Mike McGlinchey’s backup. (Hunter Bivin is Ronnie Stanley’s backup.) And while John Montelus is listed as the backup to Steve Elmer, backup center Sam Mustipher also took reps at guard during practice this week, giving some flexibility if McGovern’s number is called on the outside.

Kelly explained the entire adjusted operation on Thursday.

“McGovern has to play inside and out. Bivin will be at tackle. McGovern will play a little bit of guard and a little bit of tackle if we need him to go in on the right side. Sam Mustipher is playing a little bit of guard as well. We have cross-trained him at the backup center position and the guard position. We are really working with three guys and two guys at the guard position with McGovern and Mustipher.”

With Mustipher working away from center, true freshman Tristen Hoge worked as the No. 2 behind Nick Martin. While it wouldn’t make any sense to burn a redshirt this late in the game, Hoge is traveling with Notre Dame to Temple, a nice perk after a good week of practice. (Even better? Working with the two-deep before the battle to replace Nick Martin begins this spring.)

All spring, Notre Dame’s coaches talked up the Irish depth along the offensive line. We might have to see it go into action, no easy task against a veteran and disruptive front seven for Temple.

 

The Showtime experiment? An early success, according to Jack Swarbrick. 

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick sat down and talked with Irish Illustrated’s Tim Prister about “A Season With Notre Dame,” Showtime’s much-discussed docuseries chronicling the Irish’s 2015 season. And while the entire interview is very much worth the read, it’s fairly easy to say that the university views it as a huge success.

Namely, because Swarbrick feels like the open-door policy to Notre Dame’s football program can serve to take on the skeptics who feel like college athletics’ amateurism model is broken and beyond repair.

Here’s Swarbrick, when asked about the early response to the show:

“It’s been really positive. Very, very positive, and it goes to the reservations I had. The decision to do it for me was about principally one thing, and that was in the national debate that’s going on about college athletics, the level of cynicism that has emerged in this debate and the one-sidedness of it from my perspective, I thought it was really important to have a voice in that discussion through this show. To be able to say, ‘You can be as much of a cynic as you want, but these are real students having this experience at our university.’

“I was very motivated to create for people – not just Notre Dame fans – but people across the country to see this. Every day is another story about something college sports is doing wrong, and I sort of viewed this as almost an obligation we had to tell the other side of the story.”

While Kelly has had his share of fun during press conferences or media appearances talking about the additional layer of scrutiny that comes with a video crew following his every move, it’s interesting to point out that the Showtime opportunity came via the head coach himself, approached through talent agency CAA, where Kelly is a client.

That’s another datapoint that leads you to believe that Kelly is a guy who is fast finding his comfort at Notre Dame, not secretly maneuvering for one of the man open jobs that round him up among the usual suspects of candidates.

 

Notre Dame’s defense has been “boom or bust.” But Brian Kelly still believes the Irish have a solid four quarters ahead of them. 

As we try to decode just what type of defense Notre Dame has, it’s easy to point to the maddening lapses… as well as the dominant spurts of play. The good? Notre Dame ranks 15th in the country in forcing three-and-outs. The bad? Well, they’re usually either getting off the field immediately or giving up a touchdown.

Brian Fremeau of Football Outsiders has come up with a intriguing new stat by looking at Boom or Bust rates for offensive and defensive performances. Specifically, what percentage of drives end up in touchdowns or three-and-outs. Notre Dame is in Fremeau’s Top 15 “Boom or Bust” defenses—not exactly a badge of honor. The Irish are one of just two programs with a winning record against FBS opponents (NC State is the other) among those 15.

When asked about the defensive performance of the team and what he expects to see in the coming weeks, Kelly sounded like Brian VanGorder’s group was trending up.

“I just think they have not put the four quarters together they are capable of,” Kelly said. “I think that’s going to happen. I really do. I’m not just wishing. When we’re playing together and not making some of the correctable mistakes, we can play really good football.”

 

This might be the biggest game in Temple history. But Matt Rhule and his players are doing their best to treat it like any other Saturday. 

Buses will leave campus at 4:45 a.m. Saturday morning, shipping Temple students to ESPN’s set at Independence Hall. And an NFL town has taken a decided turn this week, subbing Owls in for Eagles (especially with Chip Kelly’s struggles).

Most of Temple’s veteran roster experienced the 2013 visit to Notre Dame. And while they certainly expect something far rowdier on Saturday night, they’re trying their best to treat this like any other game.

“We don’t pretend it’s not here,” Rhule told reporters earlier this week. “We don’t pretend GameDay’s not coming. We don’t pretend that we’re not playing Notre Dame. All those things are great, but they don’t help us play better. All we can do is control how we play. That’s the message.”

That message has been heard by a veteran roster that features 10 returning starters on defense, and only one underclassman in either the offensive or defensive starting lineup. And while the Irish have been the biggest game on every opponent’s schedule thus far in 2015, Rhule feels like his team won’t let the moment impact the way the Owls play.

“I’m not concerned that the moment will be too big,” Rhule said. “Are we good enough to hang with Notre Dame? That’s the concern.”

 

Max Redfield or Matthias Farley? Kelly’s not saying. But both need to play better football. 

Notre Dame’s safety play has been less than satisfactory this season. Derailed early by a thumb injury to Max Redfield and season-ending losses of Shaun Crawford and Drue Tranquill, Elijah Shumate has provided some stability at strong safety, but Kelly has all but acknowledged that the defensive staff is trying its best to get an elevated level of play from Matthias Farley and Redfield.

“Honestly, what I want and what we have are two different things,” Kelly said Tuesday, when asked about the position. “Both those kids are committed to being the best players that they can be and we are coaching them every single day… We’re working hard with them every day.”

Redfield earned the start against Navy and was replaced early by Farley. Farley earned the start against USC and was replaced by Redfield. So going against Temple, Kelly was open that both would play and contribute. But he wasn’t ready to say you was starting.

“We just feel like I think both of those guys are going to give us what we need at the position and it’s going to be one where both of them are going to have to help us win.”

 

 

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.