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Pregame Six Pack: More than a consolation prize

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Notre Dame’s Fiesta Bowl matchup might not advance the Irish to their ultimate goal. But it will provide college football’s grandest day with a premier matchup between two of the sport’s proudest programs.

So while Alabama, Clemson, Michigan State and Oklahoma wage battle with a haphazard workday and New Year’s Eve revelers, the Irish and the Buckeyes will kick of January 1 with the most intriguing bowl matchup of college football’s postseason.

Notre Dame’s 127th team didn’t reach their ultimate goal. But they will have the opportunity to be remembered among the school’s best teams, an eleventh win—against Urban Meyer and Ohio State, no less—up for grabs on Friday morning in Glendale, Arizona. That’s more than a consolation prize.

The storylines are numerous. The rosters stocked with NFL talent. So before Brian Kelly leads the Irish into a battle against Meyer’s Buckeye juggernaut, let’s enjoy our final pregame six pack before we ring in 2016 with the Fiesta Bowl.

 

After a nightmarish second half of the season, Brian Kelly thinks he sees the C.J. Prosise of old. 

Senior running back C.J. Prosise’s first season at running back was a phenomenal one. Notre Dame’s winner of the Next Man In Award ran for 1,032 yards and averaged 6.6 yards, a big-play threat and home run hitter from Day One as he stepped into the starting role after Tarean Folston injured his knee three carries into the year.

Yet Prosise’s big season was short-circuited as his hit count grew. He was neutralized against Temple before injuring his shoulder and suffering a concussion against Pittsburgh, then held out against Wake Forest. Just a handful of carries into his return against Boston College, Prosise suffered a high-ankle sprain, keeping him out of contact until arriving in Arizona.

If the Irish are going to find a way to cut into the nation’s No. 2 scoring defense, they need Prosise at full strength. And for the first time in a long time, it looked like Prosise had the explosiveness back that turned him into one of the nation’s most dangerous big-play running backs.

“I’d like to get a lot out of him, a lot of big plays in particular,” Kelly said Wednesday. “He looked pretty good yesterday. I think yesterday was his first day that he really showed, I think, the best way to put it is, ‘That looked like C.J.’ That was the first time yesterday when we saw him cut and look explosive.”

 

After 13 months, Jarron Jones returns to one of the toughest assignments in college football: Slowing down Ezekiel Elliott

Not even a car crash with a suspended drivers license could slow down the Big Ten’s top offensive weapon. Now we’ll see if Notre Dame’s inconsistent defense can do it.

The Irish have one thing going for them that the Columbus P.D. doesn’t. That’s the return of Jarron Jones, the 6-foot-5, 330-pound run-stuffer who should help the middle of the Irish defense hold up against Ohio State’s veteran and outstanding offensive line.

How many snaps Notre Dame gets out of Jones will be interesting. Kelly has sounded optimistic. Brian VanGorder less so, pegging Jones’ contributions in the 10 play range. With sophomore Daniel Cage battling an ankle sprain and Jones getting on the field for the first time since he suffered a major foot injury, the Irish senior is one very large X factor.

“I think for him the biggest thing is gaining back the confidence,” Isaac Rochell told Irish Illustrated’s Tim O’Malley. “After not playing for two years, your ego is kind of down, you doubt yourself, but after he gets into the swing of things, gets into the game, makes some tackles, he’ll start to get his mojo back and feel a little bit better about his game.”

The Irish certainly hope so, especially as they take on a running game that requires an answer for not just Elliott, but quarterback J.T. Barrett.

 

There’s going to be a bullseye on cornerback Nick Watkins. At least Brian Kelly thinks so.

With KeiVarae Russell’s leg still healing and Devin Butler breaking his foot during practice this week, the next man in at cornerback is Nick Watkins. That pushes the seldom-used sophomore into a difficult situation, making his first start against one of the nation’s most talented teams.

Kelly expects Watkins to get tested early and often.

“He’s going to get picked on. I sure would pick on him if I was them,” Kelly said.

But Watkins isn’t your ordinary third-stringer. The Dallas native was one of Notre Dame’s highest-rated recruits, a talented coverman out of a high school powerhouse. Physically, his skills have always looked the part, though he struggled to put the mental together with the physical.

After a strong bowl season of practices, Notre Dame’s head coach is confident that Watkins can do the challenging job Brian VanGorder asks his cornerbacks to do.

“I think he’ll hold up. He’s a kid that will compete,” Kelly. He’s got a lot of pride. He’s got some innate athletic ability to go out there and compete with some good players.”

That Kelly is showing confidence in Watkins is interesting considering he wasn’t earlier in the season. After looking like he had pulled ahead of Butler during spring practice, Watkins ceded backup duties to the veteran Butler, behind him all season, including the start against Stanford and what would’ve been the Fiesta Bowl until the injury.

Sometimes it takes an opportunity for the lightbulb to go on. And after hearing Watkins talk this week, maybe that’ll be the silver lining of another difficult injury situation the Irish will have to overcome.

“You can’t give up when things don’t go your way. When the chips are down, it’s how you respond,” Watkins said on Wednesday. “That’s still what I’m learning. To respond and be a great player for this team.”

 

When it comes to Notre Dame and Ohio State, there’s a lot of familiarity. 

This is just the sixth all-time meeting between two school separated by just 250 miles. But that doesn’t mean the connections don’t run deep.

Notre Dame has 12 players from the state of Ohio. Freshman C.J. Sanders‘ father played for the Buckeyes, while Jaylon Smith’s brother played for Urban Meyer in Columbus. Countless players on the Buckeyes count a Notre Dame scholarship offer and vice versa. Taylor Decker was an Irish commit before a late-game flip.

You might have heard that Urban Meyer coached at Notre Dame, working for Lou Holtz and Bob Davie before his first head coaching opportunity at Bowling Green. Meyer has filled his staff with coaches with Notre Dame ties, including Tim Hinton and Ed Warinner from Kelly’s first Notre Dame staff. Tony Alford left last offseason to go to Columbus as well, named assistant head coach in addition to his running back duties. Meyer’s longtime strength coach Mickey Marotti was the head of ND’s strength program from 1998-2005.

Expect pregame warmup to be filled with some friendly hugs and handshakes before the festivities begin.

 

Nobody wants to talk about the NFL Draft yet. But the eyes of the NFL will be on the Fiesta Bowl Friday morning. 

Credit Ronnie Stanley for getting it out of the way. Notre Dame’s left tackle confirmed the news he all but announced when he decided to come back for 2015—he’ll be entering the 2016 NFL Draft. Yet outside of Stanley, the rest of the game’s draft-eligible stars aren’t saying much.

Will Fuller isn’t talking about his NFL Advisory grade. Neither is Prosise. Ezekiel Elliott has made it known the Fiesta Bowl will be his final collegiate game, but Joey Bosa and Jaylon Smith, two of the draft’s elite prospects, are keeping their plans to themselves until after the game.

How much talent will be on the field? Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller has 15 of college football’s Top 100 players on these two teams alone.

Here’s the group:

No. 2: Jaylon Smith
No. 3: Joey Bosa
No. 5: Ronnie Stanley
No. 13: Ezekiel Elliott
No. 22: Michael Thomas
No. 33: Eli Apple
No. 37: Joshua Perry
No. 41: Taylor Decker
No. 47: Vonn Bell
No. 50: Adolphus Washington
No. 57: C.J. Prosise
No. 66: Braxton Miller
No. 67: Tyvis Powell
No. 73: Sheldon Day
No. 88: KeiVarae Russell

“There’s going to be a lot of guys playing football on Sundays,” Meyer said on Wednesday.

 

Like they’ve been asked all season, Notre Dame’s offense needs to win the game for the Irish. 

If the Irish are going to win the Fiesta Bowl, the offense is going to need to carry the day. That means better efficiency in the red zone from DeShone Kizer. That means a running game that takes what it wants from an undermanned Ohio State defensive front. And it means another big-time performance from Will Fuller.

The Irish are one of the best big-play offenses in the country. And even Ohio State’s biggest defensive star, defensive end Joey Bosa, knows the Buckeyes need to bring their best to the field on Friday to win the game.

“You look at them, it’s like looking at yourself in the mirror,” Bosa said on Monday. “Athletes everywhere. Big, athletic offensive line. Quarterback that can run with the ball. Really talented receivers. There’s weapons everywhere. It’s going to be a challenge.”

For the Irish, the challenge will be cashing in their scoring opportunities. Having tight end Durham Smythe should help. So will C.J. Prosise, though expect Josh Adams to get the short-yardage opportunities.

Ultimately, this game will come down to Kizer. Much has been made this week about not receiving a scholarship offer from the hometown Buckeyes as they passed by him on their extended recruiting list at quarterback. But more will be made of a victory over a Buckeyes defense that’ll challenge Kizer with man coverage opportunities and an aggressive scheme.

Kizer has had a month to prepare for this defense. He’s drilled in the red zone, a place where his efficiency has struggled. Now he’ll have a final chance to prove no moment is too big for him.

Even the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State.

 

 

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.