Pregame Six Pack: Here comes the Green Monster

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Fenway Park’s iconic Green Monster has transformed, the left field wall now an ode to the Fighting Irish and Notre Dame. Sound crazy? That’s the least of it.

Saturday night’s Shamrock Series game against Boston College will be different. (From TV viewers, here’s your most recent reminder—the broadcast is up the dial at NBCSN, not on NBC Sports.)

Playing in their hometown, the Eagles will be visitors. They’ll also be dressing at home—loading onto buses after prepping for the game across town in the comfort of their own facilities, a much easier logistical move than trying to jam a football team into the already cramped visitor’s locker room underneath the baseball stadium.

On paper, the Eagles are heavy underdogs, with Notre Dame a more than a two-touchdown favorite. But as we’ve seen in this series time and time again, weird things happen. So with the Frank Leahy Trophy on the line, the Irish get a chance to go for their 10th victory of the season.

Let’s get to the pregame six pack.

 

Without Daniel Cage, how will the Irish defensive line look?

On the stat sheet, sophomore nose guard Daniel Cage’s impact has been minimal. In nine games, Cage has made 17 total tackles, chipping in three tackles for loss. But for the second straight game, Cage will be held out as he deals with a concussion. And as we saw last week, his departure triggers quite a change for the defensive line.

Starting defensive end Isaac Rochell slid inside to tackle, pairing him with Sheldon Day, who still bounced inside and out. That forced sophomore Andrew Trumbetti into the lineup opposite Romeo Okwara. While Trumbetti made one of the biggest plays of the game with his interception for a touchdown, he also was more than a little bit loose on some run fits.

Notre Dame’s rushing defense struggled at times against Wake Forest, a surprise considering the Demon Deacons relative youth along the offensive line. Against Boston College’s anemic offense, the Eagles will take anything they can get—especially on the ground, head coach Steve Addazio’s preferred method of transportation.

Getting Cage healthy is critical, especially with a game against Stanford looming. So is getting the light to go back on for Jerry Tillery, the freshman seemingly stuck in neutral after a strong start to the season.

Last week we saw rare appearances from Jon Bonner and Grant Blankenship. They’ll likely get another chance to compete. But the Irish are at their best with Rochell lined up across from Okwara on the outside and Tillery and Cage sharing time next to Day.

Cage’s progress for next week is worth monitoring. So is how the Irish play this weekend without their starting nose guard.

 

C.J. Prosise is back in the lineup. Now finding ways to make him productive is the next step. 

Notre Dame’s running game has one of their toughest matchups this season on Saturday night. With Boston College leading the nation in rush defense, it’s foolish to think the Irish want to go toe-to-toe with the Eagles’ front seven.

For as good as the Irish offensive line has played this season, they haven’t been great triggering a north and south rushing attack. The heat will be on guards Quenton Nelson and Steve Elmer and center Nick Martin. They’ll be facing off against a disruptive duo in defensive tackles Connor Wujciak and Truman Gutapfel.

The struggles on the ground aren’t just on the interior of the offensive line. They’re also a product of the learning curve both C.J. Prosise and Josh Adams have faced, each seeing life as a college football running back for the first time.

While we’ll likely see DeShone Kizer throwing the football early and often, Notre Dame won’t abandon the ground game completely. But as the Irish try to manufacture a rush offense, expect to see Notre Dame attack the Eagles on the edges.

We’ve seen Prosise be productive running stretch plays or outside zones. He’s also been a weapon lined up in the slot, taking jet sweeps around the edge. The Irish have to feel good about their matchups at offensive tackle with Ronnie Stanley and Mike McGlinchey. But if they can’t get good support from tight ends Chase Hounshell and Tyler Luatua blocking, it’ll be tough sledding outside as well as in the trenches.

 

The logistics of substitutions are going to be a challenge for both teams. 

We will see the “peculiarities” of Fenway Park from the onset of Saturday night’s game. Mainly, the fact that both Notre Dame and Boston College will be sharing a sideline.

In many ways it’ll look like the Hockey East showdowns between the Irish and the Eagles on Saturday night, with the long change playing a significant part in substitutions, especially down by the opposite goal line. Depending on the direction, there’s a chance each team will have to send substitutes on a significant run—hitting the field from the opposite side of the 50-yard line as they enter the game in goal line situations. That’s been an area of concern for Brian Kelly this week.

“We had to work a lot on the logistics of getting personnel in and out from the sidelines, which is a little more in-depth than you might think, trying to get your group down there,” Kelly said on Thursday.

The biggest difference is bringing personnel in around the goal lines. Both Kelly and Boston College coach Steve Addazio have already been on conference calls with the officiating crew this week, confirming the ground rules for the evening. And that’s set up a new set of circumstances that’ll sometimes have players sprinting off the field inside the 5-yard line, and then running around the opposing team’s bench, with each team controlling 40 yards between the 5-yard line and the 45.

“We can leave from the 4-yard line to the back of the end zone and then go behind their team bench,” Kelly explained. “We can never go and leave the field from the 5- to the 45. But we can leave from the 4- to the end line and then go back around.”

Confused? Let’s hope the Irish aren’t. Because after seeing Notre Dame struggle with personnel changes on the fly last season against no-huddle attacks, getting the right guys on the field in scoring situations is critical.

 

If the Irish get ahead, it could be another big day for Romeo Okwara. 

Romeo Okwara ranks eighth in the country in sacks with nine. No, that’s not a typo. Okwara’s late surge—five sacks in the past two weeks—has catapulted him into the national picture when it comes to rushing the passer, a sentence nobody expected to read this year (and I certainly didn’t think I’d type).

But Okwara’s great play is coming at the perfect time. And if Boston College’s horrific offense gets forced to play catch up, Okwara could be feasting on walk-on quarterback John Fadule early and often.

The Eagles offensive line has struggled (to be kind). Drilling down a bit farther, ProFootballFocus’s grading system has BC’s five starting offensive linemen as the offense’s five lowest-graded players. Among them are starting tackles Dave Bowen and Aaron Monteiro, who Okwara will spend the evening lining up against.

It’s not ridiculous to think that Okwara could put together another double-digit sack output, especially if the Irish offense scores some early points. That could allow the senior to make an unlikely run at the Notre Dame record books, with Stephon Tuitt (12) and Justin Tuck (13.5) within reach with three games to go.

 

Will Steve Addazio and Don Brown put Boston College’s secondary in one-on-one matchups with Will Fuller? (They shouldn’t.)

When trying to come up with a game plan to contain Notre Dame’s running game and wide receiver Will Fuller, Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi essentially threw up his hands during his postgame press conference.

“We changed it up a little bit,” Narduzzi said after the game. “But he’s a good football player, what are you going to do?”

What you can do is commit multiple defensive backs to containing Fuller, something Wake Forest did as they limited Notre Dame’s All-American candidate to just three catches. But in Boston College’s downhill, stacked-box scheme, the Eagles rely on their secondary to hold their ground, doing so in man coverage with not a lot of help.

That’s likely a recipe for disaster, especially with injuries wreaking havoc on the Boston College secondary.

The Eagles might be finding themselves in a quandary not dissimilar to the one Pitt had. While Boston College’s personnel in the front seven is far superior to Pitt’s, providing help to the back end could erode the rush defense’s superiority, a key piece of the puzzle for the Eagles.

Notre Dame’s big-play ability needs to emerge. The Irish have already scored 11 touchdowns of 50+ yards this season, believed to be a school record.

While the Eagles are the nation’s best statistical defense, big plays have still found a way to derail them. Early in their 24-8 loss to North Carolina State, the Wolfpack hit on a 83-yard touchdown pass. Clemson’s Artavis Scott scored on a 51-yarder on a day that the Tigers racked up 532 yards and 420 through the air.

Fuller already has 12 touchdown catches on the season, needing three more to match his shared school record. He could make some very good progress towards that Saturday night if the Eagles leave him on an island.

 

Saturday night is all about DeShone Kizer’s ability to manage the game and the offense. 

No player faces a bigger test that sophomore quarterback DeShone Kizer. With the gameplan likely hoisted onto his shoulders, Kizer will have to be smart with the football, cognizant of the Eagles’ ability to wrack up tackles for loss, and efficient with his opportunities.

Kizer has passed just about every test he’s faced this year. The Eagles defense is another great one, especially a week before heading to Stanford. Schematically, both teams share similarities. Kizer’s success on Saturday will be predicated on his ability to stay aggressive when opportunities present themselves, while also understanding that sometimes the best play he can make is avoiding the negative one.

The downfield passing game should allow Kizer to take some shots. The screen game could also be a big part of the puzzle, especially as the Irish try to loosen up the Eagles front seven. But all of it demands smart play from the quarterback.

Kizer’s shown himself to be a quick study this season. With the nation’s top defense across from him, we’ll see how he stacks up.

 

 

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.”