Five things we learned: Notre Dame 28, Wake Forest 7

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For Notre Dame’s 2015 team, there will be victories that are remembered. And then there will be wins like Notre Dame’s 28-7 victory over Wake Forest.

On Senior Day, an emotional Irish team took the field after 27 seniors hugged mom and dad and came to grips with the fact that this might be the last time they play football in Notre Dame Stadium. Then they went out and won an ugly, never-in-doubt football game against a Demon Deacon team that dominated the time of possession, but couldn’t manage to get in the end zone more than once.

Notre Dame moved to 9-1 on the season, a victory that can’t be called dominant but certainly was never in question. So while talk of “style points” weren’t necessarily answered, Notre Dame managed to hand Wake Forest their second-most lopsided loss of the season—giving up points only after a Deacs drive was kept alive on a phantom roughing the snapper call.

With Romeo Okwara and Jaylon Smith leading the defense and freshman Josh Adams supplying the biggest play of the game—a 98-yard touchdown run that’s the longest in the history of Notre Dame Stadium—the Irish will  celebrate Senior Day in style.

Let’s find out what we learned.

 

Wake Forest kept the ball from Notre Dame’s offense and controlled the clock. But they still lost by three scores. 

Notre Dame’s high-powered offense suffered through a power outage on Saturday. The Irish managed just 282 yards of total offense, a number that looks even less potent when you take away Adams’ 98-yard touchdown run.

But Brian VanGorder’s defense stepped up when it mattered most, holding down the fort and even supplying a score of their own to help the cause.

No, the big plays didn’t disappear. Wake Forest made a few in the passing game and had success on the ground as well. But in the red zone the Irish defense held strong, holding the Demon Deacons to just one score on four attempts, turning the game on its head with a critical 4th-and-goal stop that turned into a game-changing score just two plays later.

Dave Clawson’s gameplan worked to perfection, keeping the ball out of Notre Dame’s hands and holding them to a season-low 49 plays. But Wake Forest could get points out of their possessions, and staying clean in the turnover column helped turn a white-knuckle offensive performance into a comfortable victory.

 

Romeo Okwara is emerging as the pass rusher Notre Dame desperately needs. 

Romeo Okwara’s recent run has given Notre Dame an unexpected edge rusher. The senior added three sacks to his season total, jumping to nine on the year as he disrupted Wake Forest’s passing attack almost single-handedly. That’s the type of season-long production Notre Dame fans could only hope for, and Okwara has done it with three games still to play.

With Daniel Cage unable to go on Saturday, the Irish defense shifted Isaac Rochell inside to play tackle and mixed and matched the best they could. That forced Okwara to play more snaps, with Andrew Trumbetti opposite Okwara along with seldom-used reserves Doug Randolph and Grant Blankenship.

The rushing defense seemed to suffer—we saw Trumbetti crash hard and miss his assignment on a big zone-read gainer, with other run fits slightly off. But the pass rush never slowed, Okwara picking up the slack with a hat trick a week after notching two sacks. (He nearly had his hands on a fourth sack, but committed a facemask penalty that was mistakenly called on sophomore Jonathan Bonner.)

Okwara seems to be turning into the football player many expected when he hit campus as a 17-year old freshman, all raw tools and still figuring out the game. While roster deficiencies at defensive end and outside linebacker made it impossible for Okwara to redshirt, Brian VanGorder is getting the type of play he desperately needs in this scheme, taking some pressure off Sheldon Day as well.

“It’s one of those things where he came onto campus as a 17-year-old that just really was a raw player,” Kelly said. “He’s grown in a very short period of time this year into the kind of football player that I think has a huge growth potential in front of him. We’re just seeing that maturation process kind of come together.”

 

He’s still a freshman, but Josh Adams is another big play weapon for Notre Dame. 

Backed up next to their goal line and needing a DeShone Kizer sneak just for breathing room, Josh Adams broke the game open. The true freshman burst off the right side, high-stepped out of a tackle and unleashed a stiff arm Earl Campbell would’ve been proud off, setting a stadium record and essentially winning the game as he pushed the Irish lead to three scores before halftime.

What was amazing about Adams’ 98-yard run was  that it could’ve easily been 140 yards—he was running away from everybody, his blockers included, as the freshman showed the type of top-end speed that has the Irish coaching staff believing they have their next great game-breaker at the position.

Both Adams and Prosise have broken 90+ yard touchdown runs this season. While the senior sat out for precautionary measures, Adams ran for 141 yards on 17 carries, his long run buoying a yardage total that didn’t tell the story of how tough the sledding was inside the tackles.

Setting aside the struggles Notre Dame’s offensive line had, it’s worth marveling at how different the Irish backfield looks. Not just from what was expected this year—Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant, with Prosise getting a chance to contribute—but compared to the personnel that was here when Brian Kelly showed up.

In 2010, Cierre Wood broke a 39-yard run against Western Michigan. It was Notre Dame’s longest run since Robert Hughes went 46-yards in 2007. Since then, the Irish have made incremental progress.

Jonas Gray supplied a big play in his 79-yard score against Pitt in 2011, and George Atkinson had home run potential. But the biggest difference between this backfield and any in the last decade is the pure potential to go the distance on every touch.

Prosise has showed that by making big play after big play. Adams helped keep that going, his 141 yards keeping him at an astonishing 7.8 yards per carry.

 

James Onwualu may have suffered a significant knee injury. How Greer Martini and the Irish defense fill that hole remains to be seen. 

Junior linebacker James Onwualu suffered a significant knee injury early in the game, with an MRI coming tomorrow to determine the severity of it. The third starter in a linebacking corps that usually only mentions Joe Schmidt and Jaylon Smith, Onwualu is still a key cog to the defense, especially with a nickel grouping still figuring itself out.

Filling in capably was Greer Martini. Martini made four tackles and also filled Onwualu’s role stretched out to the hashmark, forced to play in a cover scheme that doesn’t necessarily play to the 245-pounder’s skillset.

While Boston College is a perfect game to play with a jumbo-sized SAM linebacker, Onwualu serves as a Swiss-Army backer, capable in coverage and getting better each week in the trenches. He had an early TFL in his only stop before he knee bent backwards with what Kelly deemed a potential MCL injury.

Notre Dame’s had decent injury luck of late, though the defense looked and played differently without Cage in the middle. We saw how little the margin for error is up front with Cage out. The secondary is already a high-wire act. So digging into the linebacker depth chart this week for answers is the next thing to figure out.

 

 

Seniors leave Notre Dame Stadium a much more dangerous place to play. 

Let’s tip our cap to the seniors. A class not many had high expectations for ended 2015 6-0 in Notre Dame Stadium, the 21st win for the group that matches the record set by the class of 1990 and 1991. (I’m not sure if you were following the Irish back then, but those teams were pretty good.)

That’s probably the best measurement of what this class did. And it was certainly something Brian Kelly appreciated, taking over a program that had become a pretty easy place for opponents to win.

“It’s always great to get a win for your seniors in their last home game,” Kelly said after the game. “They certainly have left a great legacy here at Notre Dame, with 21 wins… no senior class has ever won more games at home.”

The years before Sheldon Day and company got to South Bend, the Irish struggled at home. In 2011, they loss a mind-melting opener to USF. They also laid an egg against USC in their first night game in decades. The 2010 team lost to Michigan, Stanford and Tulsa at home. Charlie Weis faired no better. His final 2009 season saw him lose to USC, Navy and UConn at home. In 2008, they lost to Pitt and a nightmarish game to Syracuse.

But Kelly’s 2012 team went unbeaten at home. In 2013, only No. 14 Oklahoma beat the Irish. Northwestern and Louisville sullied the last month of the 2014 season, but this group rallied to defend their turf, finishing they home record with just three losses and two undefeated seasons in South Bend.

Night games. FieldTurf. Piped-in music. Kelly made it clear he thought all would help the Irish win more. And thanks to this 2015 class, he’s been proven correct.

 

Four-star OL John Olmstead chooses Notre Dame over Michigan

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With the addition of a consensus four-star offensive lineman, Notre Dame gained its fourth commitment in the class of 2019 on Friday afternoon. John Olmstead (St. Joseph High School; Metuchen, N.J.) becomes the first offensive lineman to join the class.

He cited the tradition of the Irish program as a key factor to his decision.

Considered the No. 10 tackle prospect in the country per rivals.com — also the No. 1 player in New Jersey and No. 63 recruit in the country — Olmstead is the third consensus four-star in the class, all trench factors. He held a lengthy offer sheet, including the likes of LSU, Florida and Oklahoma, but Olmstead had narrowed his final choices to the Irish, Michigan, Mississippi, Minnesota and Rutgers.

When Olmstead arrives at Notre Dame, he will have some time to wait before an opportunity is readily-available at tackle. Rising-sophomore Robert Hainsey and rising-junior Liam Eichenberg are positioned to start at right and left tackle, respectively, this season. Each has three years of eligibility remaining, meaning Olmstead would likely spend at least his first two seasons in strictly a reserve role.

The Irish signed four offensive linemen in the class of 2018, but all were a bit less-heralded than the usual recruit Notre Dame hauls in at the position. New offensive line coach Jeff Quinn played a vital role in gaining the National Signing Day pledge of rivals.com three star tackle Jarrett Patterson, whose pass protection skills mark him as a high-ceiling contributor in years to come.

Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s running game and depth lead Blue-Gold Game questions

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For every strong performance in tomorrow’s conclusion to Notre Dame’s spring practices, a misstep or mistake will inherently match. If rising-senior running back Dexter Williams breaks loose for a 40-yard touchdown run, a critic might note the lack of speed in the Irish secondary. Should the Notre Dame defensive line wreak havoc in the backfield all afternoon, it may be due to a shoddy offensive line rather than a stellar defensive front. Interceptions will be considered equal parts a quarterback’s failing and a defensive back’s playmaking.

A year ago, defensive end Daelin Hayes recorded multiple “sacks” in the Blue-Gold Game. Whether or not he actually tackled a quarterback, the pressures indicated to the public’s eye that the right side of the Irish offensive line would be a 2017 weakness. Instead, they should have sparked no offensive line worry, only taken as a precursor to Hayes’ three real-world sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss in the fall. The right side of the line, manned by the tag-team of Tommy Kraemer and Robert Hainsey, was actually a strength, part of the country’s best offensive line.

Such are the flaws to over-analyzing an intrasquad scrimmage.

With those disclaimers in mind, the things to learn in the Blue-Gold Game hinge more on scheme, order of appearance and type of usage. Throughout the spring, the Irish offense has focused on the passing game. Yes, the running game drove the Notre Dame offense throughout 2017, but it is now without two All-American offensive linemen and a record-setting running back. At some point, the ground game needs to be proven all over again, and that point is supposedly Saturday.

“As it relates to our offense against our defense, we’ve thrown the ball much more than we’ve run it because of those things that we’ve wanted to grow in,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said over the weekend. “The spring game, we’ll get a better sense because we’ll run the ball a whole lot more and we’ll be who we have been.”

Rising-senior Dexter Williams is Notre Dame’s presumptive starter at running back, but finally showing an eagerness to engage in pass blocking could cement that status. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

That sense will begin with Williams and rising-junior Tony Jones (pictured at top). Williams appears to have the starting position within his grasp, but picking up a few pass blocks against the likes of Hayes would solidify that pecking order. Aside from that, perhaps the greatest thing to learn regarding Williams and Jones is, can they get through a competitive environment without injury?

Of course, limiting their carries will not only help that cause, but also reveal what kind of running back depth Notre Dame has. After the two injury-plagued upperclassmen, all the Irish can claim is an early-enrolled freshman, a receiver-turned-hybrid and a quarterback-turned-running back/receiver.

The Irish desperately need at least one of, preferably two of, Jahmir Smith, Jafar Armstrong and Avery Davis, respectively, to step forward.

The offensive line has set itself. With four returning starters and a long-touted tackle-of-the-future in rising-junior Liam Eichenberg along the front, the blocking is not the concern in the running game. Williams’ speed and Jones’ versatility offer promising potential when healthy. But this is football, both will not be healthy throughout the fall. Other carries need to be handled ably by at least a portion of that trio.

Though he may be the youngest, Smith may be the best option, simply because Armstrong’s and Davis’ responsibilities vary so greatly as they bounce between running back and receiver and, in Davis’ case, quarterback.

How will offensive coordinator Chip Long deploy Armstrong and Davis? Will they spend more time in the backfield or at slot receiver?

The addition of the two pass-catching backs increases the likelihood of Long using his favorite alignment, one with two running backs, at least one of which is a veritable route-runner and pass-catcher. Williams has never proven himself to fit that description, though Long noted Williams has improved his pass-catching as of last week. When Jones was injured last year, Long could no longer deploy the two-back set that quickly puts opposing defenses in unavoidable binds.

“That was a big part of our offense in spring ball, fall camp, then the backs got knocked out and hobbled,” Long said. “We couldn’t use that part of our offense. It hurt us.”

Should Jones twist an ankle again in September, Armstrong and/or Davis should keep that option available for Long’s play calls.

“Just having the ability with more depth back there, those type of guys, instead of just being Tony, now you have Avery, possibly Jafar,” Long said. “Injuries can’t take us out of that personnel.”

When he was healthy, Jones would often motion out of the backfield in those alignments. Although he finished the year with only six catches for 12 yards, the mere threat of his receiving abilities altered defensive approaches.

At other points, Jones was a bulldozer of a blocker, taking on multiple defenders to help spring either quarterback Brandon Wimbush or now-NFL-bound Josh Adams for a longer gain. Jones is likely to remain the best at this varied skillset, but having depth in the role is a luxury critical to Long’s preferred offensive scheme.

Most starting positions are settled, especially with the offensive line now set. Safety is not. Who will start at safety? Who will be the second-unit?

Rising-junior Jalen Elliott’s tackling miscues of the past have not yet prevented him from sitting atop Notre Dame’s depth chart at safety, though new challengers have joined the mix this spring in Alohi Gilman and Houston Griffith. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Even the candidates at safety have ebbed and flowed this spring. Rising-sophomore Jordan Genmark-Heath now appears to be headed toward a future at linebacker and rising-senior Nick Coleman has dabbled at nickelback while early-enrollee Houston Griffith moved from cornerback to safety to become another considered option.

At this point, rising-juniors Jalen Elliott and Alohi Gilman appear to be the likely starters, with Griffith offering a possibility of that changing as he learns the position over the summer. Defensive coordinator Clark Lea has certainly left the door open for just such a development, or even the emergence of incoming-freshman Derrik Allen.

“The depth back there has yet to really take shape and we’re not in a hurry to dictate who is the 1 and who is the 2,” Lea said Tuesday. “… Those guys have a lot on their plate, it takes some time. They need some time to be able to execute those responsibilities at a high level. We’re getting to that point, I don’t think we’re all the way there yet.”

Learning who the starting duo is, and who fills in the second unit — be it still Genmark-Heath or Coleman, or rising-junior Devin Studstill or rising-senior Nicco Fertitta — the concerns of tackling from the position or attacking the ball in the air will be naturally included. Elliott’s physical gifts have long been evident, but he has lacked in both those areas. If he trots out with the starting defense but does not exhibit improvement in both categories, that will be portend another year of poor play along the defense’s back line, no matter what Lea may say publicly.

“I do think we’re not doing as much to adjust for the need for time to let them come along,” he said. “I think we’re allowed to get back into what is the base of the package, which is exciting.”

Notre Dame had a strong defense in 2017. Aside from the precarious positions offensive turnovers put the defense in at Miami and Stanford, it rarely buckled. Realizing the defense played that well while only occasionally getting into its most basic package because the safety play was so dismal is a sobering conclusion. It is also a tantalizing thought of what could come in 2018 with nine returning starters and improved safety play.

Lastly, who be the fourth Irish captain? When Kelly named fifth-year center Sam Mustipher, fifth-year punter Tyler Newsome and fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill captains early in spring practice, he said a fourth would be voted upon by the team as spring came to its close.

At that point, the most-likely candidates, all rising seniors or fifth-year graduates, seemed to be defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, linebacker Te’von Coney, left guard Alex Bars, quarterback Brandon Wimbush, tight end Nic Weishar or cornerback Nick Watkins. Rising-junior cornerback Julian Love’s talent alone made him an outside contender.

As spring practice has progressed, reading between the lines might reduce that pool to three front-runners of Tillery, Coney and Bars. The first two of those three have had disciplinary issues during their time at Notre Dame, oftentimes an exclusionary factor in this conversation. To hear offensive line coach Jeff Quinn on the issue, the fourth captain should be Bars.

“Anytime your big guys run the program, I think you always have a better chance of succeeding,” Quinn said Thursday.

Two more quick-hitters:
— How will Coney fare in pass coverage?
Coney may not play that much this weekend. He does not need to prove anything in the 15th spring practice, while his backups need every rep they can get. When Coney is on the field though, watching him in coverage against any of the Irish tight ends could be revelatory. Lea has put the onus on himself for Coney’s past coverage woes.

“Coverage is a product of teaching,” Lea said. “Coverage deficiency can be a product of teaching deficiency. … Some guys do it naturally and some guys don’t, they have other things they have strength with. … As a unit, we’ve put a focus here on the end of spring practice in playing better in coverage and as a result, we’re seeing that play out in skeleton and team periods.”

— Will the receivers flash any speed?
When it comes to the positioning and usage of unique talents, the mismatches created by Armstrong and Davis may be the most predictive, but Notre Dame lost much of its outside speed with the departures of Equanimeous St. Brown (to the NFL) and Kevin Stepherson (to repeated disciplinary issues). The defensive headaches caused by those two-back sets are best taken advantage of when a receiver can also take the top off a defense. Rising-sophomore Michael Young and rising-senior Chris Finke are both quick and shifty, but neither has shown truly top-end speed to this point. Despite his 6-foot-4, 227-pound, frame, rising-senior Miles Boykin has apparently improved his burst quite a bit this offseason. Fifth-year Freddy Canteen landed on the Irish roster last offseason largely due to his natural speed, before injury cut short his first season with the Irish.

Can any of them single-handedly alter a defense’s coverage, or will Notre Dame need to turn to incoming freshmen for that threat?

Notre Dame announces two-game series with Alabama

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A decade from now, Notre Dame and Alabama will meet in the regular season for the first time since 1987, a 37-6 victory for the Irish. Notre Dame announced a home-and-home series with the Crimson Tide for 2028 and 2029. Both contests will open their respective seasons.

Notre Dame Stadium will host the first leg of the series Sept. 2, 2028. The Irish will then travel to Tuscaloosa for the first time in program history Sept. 1, 2029.

Of course, Notre Dame and Alabama most-recently met in the BCS National Championship Game in Miami to conclude the 2012 season. It remains hard for Irish fans to forget how that game went.

Considering Tide head coach Nick Saban is currently 66 years old and Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly is entering his ninth season with the Irish, neither is likely to be at the helm in 2028.

Instead of acknowledging who will not be holding a clipboard for the two-game tilt, it can be worth pondering who will be, albeit with a tongue planted firmly in one’s cheek.

And who will be playing? This scribe’s nephew is in first grade. He will be a freshman in college in 2029, presuming he continues to get the grades to gain admission for a post-secondary education.

On a more serious note, adding Alabama to the schedule continues a deliberate effort by Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick to get more SEC contests on the schedule in years to come. The Irish will face Vanderbilt in 2018, Georgia in 2019, Arkansas in 2020 and 2025, and Texas A&M in 2024 and 2025. Notre Dame also hosted Georgia in 2017.

This plan is a part of Swarbrick’s hopes of having data points against four of the Power Five conferences each year, with the SEC and the Big 12 the conferences needing a bit more foresight and extra effort in order to get on the schedule. The Irish already face five ACC teams per year, two Pac-12 programs in Stanford and USC each season and have Big Ten matchups scheduled through at least 2028 already. No Big 12 games are currently scheduled, though Notre Dame recently concluded home-and-home series with both Oklahoma and Texas.

As linebacker depth questions persist, Notre Dame turns to a safety

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Go back a month in this space and of the biggest questions entering Notre Dame’s spring practices, a defensive reserve merited mentioning. “Another early-enrolled freshman could be the answer to the question of, who will be the fourth linebacker?”

It looks less and less likely the Irish will rely on a freshman to provide the entirety of depth at linebacker. For that matter, Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea does not expect to need one backup to learn multiple positions a la Te’von Coney at the beginning of last season.

(In the above photo, Coney, No. 4, is featured, as the defense will do this season. In the background, Asmar Bilal, No. 22, can be seen as a factor in the play, a defensive hope in 2018.)

Between Coney, Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini, Lea had three capable linebackers to fill the two interior positions in 2017. By cross-training Coney at both Mike and Buck, the Irish did not need to lean on any other substitute.

“In some ways, that’s unfair at times because the Mike and Buck, though conceptually tied together, they’re different,” Lea said Tuesday. “Different body types, different people. We’d rather not do that. We’d rather not go three-for-two. We’d rather go two-for-two and make it like a hockey line (substitution). That would be the way it would work best. I’m not sure how that’s going to shape up right now.”

Throughout spring, the presumption was rising-senior Asmar Bilal would both start at rover and provide injury-protection depth along the interior, with fifth-year Drue Tranquill starting at Buck and remaining a break-in-case-of-emergency option at rover, his 2017 position. Such a scenario still needed a fourth linebacker to offer some snaps of rest for the starters. Either one of the three early-enrolled freshmen would need to grasp that task or rising-junior Jonathan Jones would claim it.

“They know they’re competing for a chance to play,” Lea said. “Where [Jones] might have fallen into a lull mid-spring, I think here in the last few days he’s come out here and really changed his game.”

Joining Jones this week, rising-sophomore Jordan Genmark-Heath moved up a level from the safeties to try his hand at linebacker. Per Lea, the move mirrors Bilal’s cross-training on the interior — Notre Dame would rather know what it has available long before it is needed.

“We don’t move a guy unless we identify things that he brings to the table that allow him to be successful,” Lea said. “It’s not just throwing paint at the wall. We’ve seen him play in a manner that we know he can handle the Buck position. I would argue he’s looked very natural there.

“… You know what he can do for you at safety, too, so we’re not closing our eyes to that possibility. You have a short window here where you have a chance to get a look at somebody who makes you more athletic at the second level.”

The mixing and matching of the Irish linebacker reserves will continue for at least the rest of this week, and almost certainly into preseason practices. Unlike the beginning of spring practice, however, it does not hinge on only one name, and the early-enrollees are not seen as the saving graces.

Instead Jones may back up Coney, Genmark-Heath support Tranquill and either rising-sophomore Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah or classmate Isaiah Robertson provide depth behind Bilal.

“You always want the ability through the course of the season to have your best three on the field,” Lea said. “You always want to have an idea of what that three look like if injury happens or if a young player comes along and how you can shift and shape the pieces to ensure that you’re at your competitive best.”