Notre Dame football: What’s wrong with the defense?

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The play has been dissected for nearly a week. Just 15 seconds and roughly 25 yards separated Notre Dame from an eleventh victory, a game that the playoff committee very well could have viewed as one of the most impressive road victory of the college football season.

But as Kevin Hogan dropped back from his own 43-yard line, it looks as easy as pitch and catch. He stood well-protected, a perfect pocket formed with just three Irish defenders rushing the passer, Notre Dame’s leading sacker didn’t chase after Hogan, but rather shadowed him—a 265-pound defensive end doing a linebackers job.

On time and on rhythm, the veteran quarterback hit his target in stride, a receiver breaking inside of a defensive back that was all but flat-footed to a vacancy of green grass so large that it would’ve cost millions in the Palo Alto neighborhood surrounding Stanford Stadium.

Few plays have the ability to crystalize a season. But Hogan to Devon Cajuste did just that—exploiting a defense that’s woeful inconsistency kept Notre Dame from having an opportunity to play for a national championship.

The natural reaction is to assign blame. Plenty of angry pitchforks surround defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, the architect of a creaky house. Finishing up his second season in South Bend, the former NFL defensive coordinator hasn’t been able to elevate the play of a group that may very well be decimated by injury, but is still among the most talented we’ve seen over the last decade in South Bend.

But multiple factors go into the struggles of a defense that suffers from a multiple personality disorder. So let’s check into a Holiday Inn Express, throw on our lab coat, and do our best to diagnose the problems that have plagued the 2015 Irish defense.

 

WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?

On paper, Notre Dame’s 2015 defense doesn’t look like the flaming mess some are calling it. The Irish are giving up 22 points a game, a respectable 36th in the nation. They’re a middle of the pack unit stopping the run, perhaps explainable when you consider the two option teams on the schedule. They’re a Top 30 unit against the pass, likely buoyed by the same two opponents. The top line reveals a defense that’s roughly Top 40—not great, not horrible.

But it doesn’t take much of a deep dive to identify some of the critical problems. The Irish gave up big plays by the bushel. They were the ultimate boom-or-bust unit, one of the better teams at forcing three-and-outs, but also susceptible to giving up long touchdown drives. Over the last two seasons, Notre Dame has given up 53 touchdown drives of 70-yards or more, a staggering statistic dug out by Tim Prister at Irish Illustrated. Or approximately 52 more than they did in 2012.

The red zone was a similar horror show. Under Diaco, Notre Dame rarely gave up long touchdown drives and always seemed to stiffen near the goal line. The opposite has been true the past two seasons. This year, Notre Dame forced just three field goals in 34 red zone opportunities. That helps explain why the Irish are No. 21 when it comes to scoring percentage, but a staggering 103rd when it comes to giving up touchdowns.

The Irish won 10 football games this season, an important piece of the equation to remember as many kick dirt on a team that has a chance to win 11 games for just the second time since 1993. They’ll be doing it against one of the toughest schedules in the country and with a team that’s started 37 different players and lost two games against Top 10 competition by a combined four points.

But as Brian Kelly moves this program forward, it’s clear that while the offense has found a way to evolve and continue to produce even as injuries mount, the defense hasn’t. And that needs to change.

 

THE COORDINATOR

The struggles of this unit likely rest at the feet of VanGorder. Brought in to help Notre Dame take the next evolutionary step as a defense after Bob Diaco took over the UConn football program, VanGorder was billed as a teacher and developer of talent when Brian Kelly introduced him in January of 2014.

“The first thing I wanted in this position is a great teacher. I think first and foremost when you’re talking about the ability to bring together our defensive players, you need the ability to communicate and to teach, and Brian is one of the very best teachers, if not the best teacher, that I’ve ever been around, and I go way back with Brian,” Kelly said.

“I think the second thing that stands out is he understands player development, and so anyone that I want to be around on a day to day basis has to understand the important principles of player development in bringing them along and really understanding how important it is to get those traits out of our players. They’re not ready made. The players that we bring here to Notre Dame, we have to develop them, and not just on the football field, but off the field as well. Brian understands that.”

Through that lens, it’s hard to call the last two seasons successes. While VanGorder brought with him schemes and personnel groupings honed in the NFL, he hasn’t been able to get his team to fully comprehend the advanced calculus his schematics require. Even if VanGorder is the teacher that Kelly described, time constraints at the college level—not to mention the academic workloads Notre Dame student-athletes carry—have likely made it impossible for a complete understanding of what’s being asked. Twenty hours a week doesn’t give you the time to teach a system that requires NFL professionals to commit their livelihood to owning a system.

Kelly also praised VanGorder’s ability to develop players. That’s been a mixed bag. If you’re going to harp on certain players failing to live up to expectations, you need to acknowledge the ascent we’ve seen from others.

Sheldon Day and Romeo Okwara have both excelled under VanGorder. Jaylon Smith’s game has become more dynamic when not confined by Diaco’s difficult Dog linebacker requirements. Struggles with current safeties Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate have been consistent whether Diaco or VanGorder was coaching them and cornerbacks are more likely to be beat when you’re asking them to lock into man coverage as opposed to playing a Cover 2 zone.

VanGorder has shown himself capable of correcting issues. We saw that over the offseason when the Irish solved their issues against hurry-up attacks and implemented a system that allowed Notre Dame to successfully defend the triple-option run by Georgia Tech and Navy.

This offseason, the chalkboard has two very large objectives that need cleaning up: Big play prevention and red zone struggles. And those issues require a great deal more introspection than the challenges exposed by Larry Fedora or Ken Niumatalolo.

 

THE PERSONNEL

While there is plenty of talent on Notre Dame’s defense, personnel limitations can’t be discounted. That Devon Cajuste found his way between an undersized, in-the-box middle linebacker and defensive back who would’ve been the third choice for the role had the secondary been moderately healthy deserves mention. In a perfect world, neither Joe Schmidt nor Matthias Farley are on the field in end of game situations. A week earlier, Farley might not have been, and had Drue Tranquill not torn his ACL, Schmidt might not have been, either.

Notre Dame’s defensive personnel is still a work in progress. Trapped in that awkward phase between Bob Diaco’s physical 3-4 personnel and VanGorder’s scheme that sacrifices size for athleticism, the Irish were doomed by roster deficiencies that only became over-exposed once injuries hit.

Utilizing College Football Focus’s player evaluation tools, it’s simple to see that while Notre Dame’s offensive personnel can be viewed among the elite of college football, there’s still a long way to go for the defense. That’s clear when you look at the uniform grading system that CFF/PFF uses to breakdown every snap of ever game played in college football.

Only Sheldon Day and Jaylon Smith were elite players. Both played like stars this season. Day ranks as the No. 1 4-3 defensive tackle in the country in terms of overall grading. Smith grades out as the No. 3 OLB in a 4-3 system in the country. But from there, the defensive struggles show clearly, especially when you look at defenders with negative grades that were forced to play significant snaps.

Of the top six teams in the current College Football Playoff rankings, Clemson, Alabama, Oklahoma, Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State have a total of five players who have played 300 snaps with a negative CFF rating. Notre Dame has six.

You’d suspect some of the names on that list—Joe Schmidt, Elijah Shumate, true freshman defensive tackle Jerry Tillery. Others you would not—seniors Matthias Farley and KeiVarae Russell. Game-specific deficiencies CFF picked up make sense from 30,000 feet. Max Redfield’s struggles as a run defender have been often discussed, same with Schmidt and Shumate’s difficulties in coverage.

Many thought Jarron Jones’ preseason injury was the biggest loss of the season. But the Irish defense might have been undone by the injuries to Shaun Crawford and safety Drue Tranquill.

Notre Dame’s ability to be multiple was lost when those two defenders went down. So much of what VanGorder wanted to do against the pass was lost when Crawford couldn’t play nickelback. Same for Tranquill’s injury, robbing the Irish not just of a perfect hybrid player who could excel on third down, but also taking away the ability of the defense to play Smith in the middle of the field on passing downs—essentially limiting his impact as a coverman and interior blitzer. Schmidt came within steps of a half-dozen sacks as he blitzed up the A-gap. Smith’s explosiveness would’ve likely turned many of those into big plays.

VanGorder has changed the way Notre Dame has recruited the defensive side of the ball. Gone are some of the hard-and-firm prototypes that Diaco demanded when looking for players. Those changes have built the Irish roster for the future.

But in addition to the injuries, roster attrition hasn’t allowed reinforcements to hit the field, players like Kolin Hill, Jhonny Williams and Bo Wallace gone before having a chance to impact the team in situational jobs. That’s forced some legacy personnel into jobs that were tailored for a different type of football player.

 

MOVING FORWARD

Notre Dame’s success this season has elevated expectations for the future. But to play up to them, VanGorder and Kelly will need to recalibrate how they approach defending opponents.

Moving forward without Schmidt as the nerve center is one thing. The reality that Jaylon Smith is likely joining Sheldon Day in the NFL Draft is another, with significant personnel hits likely to be taken. Yet the Irish are well-equipped with the athleticism needed to fill those holes, even if we might not see another linebacker like Smith wearing a Notre Dame jersey for many years to come.

But without a simplified scheme, personnel advancements will only do so much. Elite athletes become ordinary very quickly if they don’t fully grasp their jobs. And a scheme that forces 11 players to defend without a safety net is a flaw in the foundation of the system.

One man missing a tackle can’t result in a 30-yard gain, like we saw so many times this season. Exotic schemes that force a linebacker to sprint into coverage for the sake of surprise does little when an opponent’s counter-punch exposes your own vulnerabilities.

Kelly and VanGorder know these things, of course. And as the coaching staff spends the offseason analyzing their strengths and weaknesses, there’s a very high likelihood that Kelly still comes out with the same answer he gave a few weeks back when asked why his defense was giving up long touchdown drives and big plays.

“I still think it’s personnel-driven. You’re still looking at who you’re putting on the field,” Kelly said. “I think Brian has brought the kind of pressure and aggressive defensive play that we’re looking for in a transition. We’re still evolving defensively. We’re still working to build our defense. We’re not there yet, clearly… We’re going to get better as we continue to recruit and develop our defense.”

The future of the program depends on it.

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 85 Tyler Newsome, punter

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-2 ½, 207 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Senior with two seasons of eligibility remaining including the 2017 season
Depth chart: While Notre Dame did unexpectedly add kicker Jonathan Doerer to its incoming freshmen class, his specialty is kickoffs. Newsome remains essentially unchallenged at the punter position.
Recruiting: Punters are not often heralded as recruits, but rivals.com did bestow a three-star ranking on Newsome, the No. 6 kicker/punter in his class.

CAREER TO DATE
With former Irish kicker/punter Kyle Brindza handling all the leg-swinging duties in 2014, Newsome preserved a year of eligibility before taking over as punter his sophomore season. With more than 100 boots to his name at this point, Newsome has been an example of consistency.

2015: 55 punts at an average of 44.5 yards per punt with a long of 62 yards. Notre Dame averaged a field position swing of 38.1 yards per punt.
2016: 54 punts at an average of 43.5 yards per punt with a long of 71 yards. Notre Dame averaged a field position swing of 35.3 yards per punt.

Newsome also handled the kickoff duties in 2015, but that was removed from his to-do list last season and should not return to Newsome’s plate this season, especially now with Doerer entering the picture.

2015: 84 kickoffs at an average of 61.6 yards per kick with 21 touchbacks and five sent out of bounds.

WHAT KEITH ARNOLD PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“If 2015 was about exceeding expectations, 2016 will be about performing with the bar raised. Newsome’s rookie season was a good one. But there’s room for improvements.

“Expect new special teams analyst Marty Biagi to take Newsome under his wing. The former college punter will likely spend some time refining Newsome’s craft, looking to add hang time to his punts and kicks, and making sure there are more booming moon shots than side-footed shanks.

“Notre Dame doesn’t want to have a celebrated punter – and they won’t as long as the offense performs. But the combo of Newsome and Yoon has the chance to be one of the better special teams batteries in America.”

2017 OUTLOOK
Keith’s final point rings true. Notre Dame does not necessarily want Newsome to excel. If he is getting enough work to truly stand out, that simply means the Irish offense has turned stalling into a routine occurrence.

Whether he gets frequent use or not, Newsome has proven to be a consistent performer, largely immune to the pressure so often found to figuratively cripple college kickers and punters. Expect that steadfastness to continue this season.

DOWN THE ROAD
Unless Doerer begins punting in practices, in addition to his possible kickoff duties, Newsome should take comfort in the fact that the Irish coaching staff did not pursue a punter in the class of 2017. If nothing else, that indicates they expect him back in 2018, and they appear to be comfortable with that. Newsome is low maintenance, and that should not be undervalued.

Could he catch Notre Dame off guard and leave early? When is the last time a kicker or punter not named Aguayo declared for the NFL before his eligibility expired? (No, really, go ahead and do the research. Much appreciated.) If a non-football opportunity presents itself such that Newsome considers leaving for it, one would think that opportunity would still be around a semester later on. He isn’t a linebacker worried about his long-term health, so there should be less motivation to cut short his college football experience.


2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
No. 95 (theoretically): Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle
No. 94 (theoretically): Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92 (theoretically): Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 90 (theoretically): Cole Kmet, tight end
No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end
No. 88: Javon McKinley, receiver
No. 87 (theoretically): Jafar Armstrong, receiver
No. 86: Alizé Mack, tight end

Friday at 4: A holiday with reason to be remembered

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This weekend marks the unofficial start of summer, and it has its mainstays. Some weekends will hinge around the parade up Main Street. At some point, everyone comes across a hot dog or hamburger during the long weekend. A beer or pop inevitably accompanies that grilled good.

Gathering college friends may even add a whiffle ball and bat to the grocery list.

Between innings, during one of those many social breaks, take a moment to remind yourself why Monday is a federal holiday, why it is a long weekend.

It isn’t just because the weather has finally turned as desired and now white pants are socially acceptable.

It is — as we all know but do not always take the time to recognize — because it is Memorial Day, a chance to remember all those people who died while serving the United States’ armed forces.

That obviously includes some former Irish football players, but they are merely a representation of the larger item.

Rather than continue on for who-knows-how-long with this point, let’s take this opportunity to deliver some Notre Dame-related tidbits. As it pertains to Memorial Day as a whole, either you already grasp the importance of taking a pause and understanding the significance of so many lost in service, or you don’t. This space is not going to be the piece that changes the latter’s view.

Looking through some of the internet’s depths, it appears at least 19 former Irish football players are among those who should be remembered Monday, including 17 from World War II, most notably 1942 captain George Murphy. In 2004, ESPN published a worthwhile story on a football game Murphy helped organize among Marines in the southwest Pacific.

Those 19 are among the approximate 500 alumni who died in World War II, the Korea War and the Vietnam War. The Clarke Memorial Fountain — more commonly known as “Stonehenge,” directly west of the campus library, more commonly known as “Touchdown Jesus” — commemorates alums lost in each of those three wars, as well as those alums lost in times of peace.

Of course, it should be noted many other World War II veterans — and simply by logic, many other World War II casualties — passed through Notre Dame. The naval training established on campus is the impetus to the Navy football series continuing to this day. In addition to the usual students, about 12,000 officers trained at Notre Dame in those days.

Campus features two other prominent acknowledgements of this country’s conflicts. The statue of Rev. Corby in front of Corby Hall depicts him delivering a blessing and absolution to troops during the Battle of Gettysburg. It is a copy of a statue standing where Corby stood back in 1863.

Perhaps most famously, an entrance to the Basilica of the Sacred Heart bears the etching of “God, Country, Notre Dame.” Partly since he titled his autobiography with those four words, many tie them to Rev. Ted Hesburgh. “God, Country, Notre Dame,” in fact, predates Hesburgh’s arrival to campus. The Basilica’s eastern entrance was constructed in 1924 as a World War I memorial. During World War II, 20 years later, the accompanying statues of St. Joan of Arc and St. Michael the Archangel were added above the well-known phrase.

Lastly, it has become something of a Notre Dame tradition to bemoan the selection for commencement speaker each spring. Forgotten amid the misguided vitriol and inaccurate historical claims is a recognition of one of the first University commencement speakers. Nowadays, he, too, would certainly draw some magnitude of controversy.

During the Civil War, Gen. William T. Sherman — yes, he of Sherman’s March — moved his family to South Bend. His children attended Notre Dame, and Sherman delivered the 1865 commencement address. That ceremony took place June 21, in short order after Sherman accepted the surrender of Confederate armies in the Deep South in April of 1865.

Sherman urged the graduates to “perform bravely the battle of life.”

Perhaps that is the message to remember this weekend. Perform bravely the battle of life. At least 19 Irish football players did, as well as more than 500 Notre Dame alums, and so many more, of which each of us assuredly knows of one personally.


It is the Soldier, not the minister
Who as given us freedom of religion.
It is the Soldier, not the reporter
Who has given us freedom of the press.
It is the Solier, not the poet
Who has given us freedom of speech.
It is the Soldier, not the campus organizer
Who has given us freedom to protest.
It is the Soldier, not the lawyer
Who has given us the right to a fair trial.
It is the Soldier, not the politician
Who has given us the right to vote.
It is the Soldier who salutes the flag,
Who serves beneath the flag,
And whose coffin is draped by the flag,
Who allows the protester to burn the flag.

Charles Michael Province, U.S. Army

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 86 Alize Mack, tight end

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-4 ½, 245 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Junior with three seasons of eligibility remaining including the 2017 season
Depth chart: The artist formerly known as Alizé Jones, now Alizé Mack, co-headlines a talented tight end corps along with fifth-year senior Durham Smythe. Due to Smythe’s edge in experience—and therefore further coaching trust in his reliability and blocking acumen—he may start the season ahead of Mack, but Mack will have plenty of opportunities to change that in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s two tight end-dependent system.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star recruit and U.S. Army All-American, Mack originally committed to UCLA before opting for Notre Dame.

CAREER TO DATE
Mack saw action in all 13 games of his freshman season, making enough impressions to set future expectations high. His most notable statistic from that season may be his average of 14.6 yards per catch.

Mack spent last season on the sidelines, though he was allowed to participate in practice, due to academic issues.

2015: 13 catches for 190 yards

QUOTE(S)
Mack’s return and subsequent progress was an oft-discussed topic this spring. His freshman season showed glimpses of his athleticism and playmaking ability. Irish coach Brian Kelly made it a point to acknowledge Mack’s development as a blocker since he was last seen in a competitive environment.

“You can’t cover him, he just has that kind of talent,” Kelly said in March. “The one thing that stands out to me in the few days [of spring] is he’s committed himself to being a blocker and playing physical. If he continues to do that, we’re going to find ourselves with a lot of tight ends on the field.”

Long echoed those sentiments the day before the Blue-Gold Game.

“He’s a perfect fit, that’s why I recruited him like crazy when I was at Arizona State,” Long said. “He’s a prototypical [tight end], a guy who can run, who can catch.

“The biggest thing about Alizé is he’s taking great pride in his blocking ability right now, his presence of being an end-line guy, his protection and overall physicality. When you think like that, you’re going to become a better receiver.”

If Mack earns that trust as a blocker, then Kelly and Long can play him in any situation, only furthering the mismatches presented.

“I don’t know how you’re going to defend him,” Kelly said the week of the spring finale. “There’s not a safety or a linebacker—if you start spreading him out, maybe a corner can get a hand in there and deflect the ball, and maybe he doesn’t run the route quite the way a receiver would—but he’s going to be very difficult to defend.”

WHAT KEITH ARNOLD PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
Jones could turn into Notre Dame’s No. 2 receiver in 2016 if he takes this opportunity and runs with it. That could mean a huge uptick in numbers, with 40 to 50 catches not out of the realm of possibility.

“While size and match-up issues haven’t necessarily turned Irish receivers into targets, Jones could also pick up some of the slack in the red zone, knowing that the Irish offense desperately needs to improve their efficiency in the scoring zones, especially without quick-strike scorers like Will Fuller and C.J. Prosise. Matching Chris Brown’s four touchdown catches seems like a logical next step for Jones.

“In many ways, Jones is one of several unknown quantities that’ll help determine whether or not the Irish are a playoff contender or just a team with some nice young talent. While much of his productivity will likely be determined by the team’s offensive identity and philosophy, he’s another key piece to an offensive puzzle that doesn’t have a lot of experience but has plenty going for it.”

2017 OUTLOOK
Obviously Keith’s projections for Mack were skewed both by the ineligibility and by the name change. That does not mean they would have been wrong.

Notre Dame’s second-leading receiver last season, Torii Hunter, Jr., caught 38 passes for 521 yards and three touchdowns in only nine games. It does not take much of an imagination to see Mack producing at a similar pace—though in a very different role than the 6-foot, 195-pound Hunter—over a full season, perhaps something along the lines of 55 catches for 750 yards and four scores.

That would rival, but not exceed, junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown’s output from a year ago (58 catches, 961 yards, nine touchdowns). St. Brown’s dynamism from all positions on the field makes it unlikely Mack outpaces him for top receiver honors, but the two can aid each other by forcing secondaries to split their focus.

More than St. Brown receiving an appropriately high number of targets, the biggest hurdle between Mack and impressive statistics will indeed be his blocking and overall attitude. The Irish have other options at tight end (see below: No.  89, Brock Wright) to contribute to Long’s preference for two tight ends. If Mack does not earn the playing time in all aspects of the game, he will not receive it.

DOWN THE ROAD
The excitement around Mack this spring may have exceeded realistic expectations. In that regard, Mack is set up for perceived failure in 2017. If he matched the above theoretical stat line, some would lament the fact that he scored only four times.

Taking a longer view of his potential, a stat line like that would make Mack seriously consider the NFL after this season, if only because of that buzzword of potential. Some team might draft him on the second day simply to have the opportunity to find out what he becomes. It is more likely Mack comes back for another year, with Smythe gone, but, frankly, it seems unlikely to think he will use the final season of eligibility lost to academics last year.


2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
No. 95 (theoretically): Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle
No. 94 (theoretically): Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92 (theoretically): Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 90 (theoretically): Cole Kmet, tight end
No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end
No. 88: Javon McKinley, receiver
No. 87 (theoretically): Jafar Armstrong, receiver

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 87 (theoretically) Jafar Armstrong, receiver

Rivals.com
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Listed Measurements: 6-foot, 170 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Freshman with four years of eligibility remaining
Depth chart: Armstrong joins a crowded receiver corps headlined by juniors Equanimeous St. Brown and Miles Boykin and sophomore Chase Claypool. If the Irish are shallow at any of the three positions, it is behind Boykin and sophomore Javon McKinley at the W-receiver position, otherwise known as the boundary receiver. Armstrong could fill in those ranks, or his speed could be utilized at the X position, the field receiver, a la last year’s usage of now-sophomore Kevin Stepherson. In offensive coordinator Chip Long’s up-tempo scheme, it is likely Armstrong is asked to learn both positions.
Recruiting: A rivals.com three-star recruit, Armstrong was committed to his home-state Missouri before a visit to Notre Dame the weekend before National Signing Day. Shortly after leaving South Bend, the No. 3 recruit in Missouri de-committed and did not hold the suspense long, announcing his Irish intentions the same night.

QUOTE(S)
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly specifically mentioned Armstrong’s speed in connection with the X-position on National Signing Day.

“We played a lot of young players on the offensive side of the ball, in particular at the wide receiver position [in 2016],” Kelly said. “Jafar Armstrong out of Bishop Miege High School is somebody that now adds some size and speed to that position that makes it very intriguing for us. We think Jafar is somebody that could possibly be that X-receiver that gives you that deep threat, a guy that can really push the field vertically for us. He was a nice addition to this class.”

Kelly also clarified why Armstrong was such a late addition to the class. Without mentioning former Irish commit Jordan Pouncey by name, Kelly indicated the effect Pouncey’s de-committment in Deceomber had on the recruiting process.

“When we were looking at the receiver position, [Armstrong] was on our radar from day one,” Kelly said. “We just weren’t going to take [three receivers]. When we had somebody de-commit, he was the first guy we went after. We could have gone either way on that. Jafar was somebody that we wanted from the very beginning. We just from a numbers game weren’t going to be able to take [three]. That was an easy one for us to get back into.”

The consensus three-star Pouncey eventually signed with Texas.

WHAT WE SAID WHEN ARMSTRONG’S NATIONAL LETTER OF INTENT ARRIVED
Armstrong flipped to Notre Dame over the weekend, ending a commitment to Missouri. His large frame and strong hands should provide new receivers coach Del Alexander a solid foundation with which to work.”

2017 OUTLOOK
This fall, Alexander will have 10 receivers at his disposal (11 if counting sophomore receiver-turned-running back Deon McIntosh), not to mention the couple of tight ends (namely, junior Alizé Mack and early-enrolled freshman Brock Wright) who could line up in the receiver position in specific situations. It is hard to envision all of those players seeing worthwhile snaps in the Irish offense.

With that in mind, a season preserving eligibility appears to be Armstrong’s most likely path. He and fellow incoming freshman Michael Young are obviously the most inexperienced of the grouping.

For that matter, few—if any—of the 10 receiver options come across as placeholders. Each one brings a tangible skillset to the field. Thus, there are no candidates prime for Armstrong to move ahead of in his first few months on campus.

Unless it is decided Armstrong is needed on special teams—a distinct possibility given how special teams coordinator Brian Polian lamented his lack of options this spring—a season learning the offense is his most likely outcome for 2017.

DOWN THE ROAD
Armstrong’s speed makes for tantalizing long-term projections. St. Brown may head to the NFL after this season, but even if he doesn’t, 2018 will be his last at Notre Dame (barring unfortunate injury). Kelly’s first instinct was to project Armstrong for that, the X, position.

It is not outlandish to expect Armstrong to present a playmaking target on the wide side of the field for the latter half of his career. Even if rarely leading to a connection, the mere threat of a receiver blazing past a secondary forces a defense to adjust its coverage. Armstrong could present such a concern, much as former Irish receiver Chris Brown did throughout his career. Brown affected games much more than his career statistics may indicate (104 catches for 1,410 yards and six touchdowns in 51 career games with 31 starts).

That is not to say Armstrong will not put up numbers in coming years. It is just to say those will not be the only metrics of his success or failure.


Aside from the five early enrollees, the numbers are not yet known for the Irish freshmen class. That is one of the admitted drawbacks to organizing this summer-long series numerically. But a little bit of educated guessing can garner estimates for those numbers, and those estimates can allow the series to proceed without pause.

How are those estimates crafted? The first step is to take a look at certain NCAA rules. When it comes to an “end,” the NCAA limits them to Nos. 80-99. Looking at the Irish roster, this leaves only so many likely options for Armstrong, hence slotting him at No.87.

Jafar Armstrong very well may not wear No. 87, but it is possible, and, frankly, it should be close.


2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
No. 95 (theoretically): Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle
No. 94 (theoretically): Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92 (theoretically): Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 90 (theoretically): Cole Kmet, tight end
No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end
No. 88: Javon McKinley, receiver