Five things we learned: Ohio State 44, Notre Dame 28

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Brian Kelly hoped this game would be different. Different from the last time Notre Dame was on a big postseason stage.

But seven minutes into the Fiesta Bowl, it looked like the Irish had suffered another first-round knockout. Ohio State’s offense was running through the Irish. Notre Dame’s defensive star Jaylon Smith was carted to the locker room with a major knee injury. And for a moment it looked like Ohio State would do to the Irish what Alabama did at the end of the 2012 season.

Yet the Irish battled back. And while a score of 44-28 certainly didn’t achieve what Notre Dame set out to do, the Irish offense managed to keep things interesting even if the defense had no answer for Ezekiel Elliott, J.T. Barrett and the rest of the Ohio State offense.

Undermanned, overpowered and out-dueled, Notre Dame lost the Fiesta Bowl. They were beat in the trenches on both sides of the football, even with the Buckeyes short some frontline players, including Joey Bosa, who was ejected late in the first quarter. But the Irish never quit, even as the bodycount piled up on a roster already ravaged by season-ending injuries.

Another season is in the books, the Buckeyes hanging a third-loss on the Irish in the Fiesta Bowl. Let’s find out what we learned during Ohio State’s dominant 44-28 win over Notre Dame.

 

Jaylon Smith’s knee injury is a heartbreaking start to 2016. 

When Jaylon Smith’s leg bent unnaturally after a shove from Ohio State tackle Taylor Decker, Notre Dame’s most impressive football player saw his season end in nightmarish fashion. The Butkus Award-winner was carted off the field with what Kelly called “a significant knee injury,” putting his football career and skyward trajectory into a holding pattern.

On the field, the loss of Smith all but ended any hopes the Irish defense had for slowing down Ohio State’s offense. Notre Dame’s star linebacker is the rare athlete who can stuff the run while also covering receivers, and after true freshman Te’von Coney went down in Smith’s place, we saw Jarrett Grace struggle as he was forced to play Will linebacker next to Joe Schmidt.

Smith’s injury was more than just a fatal blow to the Irish defense. It also clouds a future that looked destined for an early first-round pick in the upcoming NFL Draft. That still could be the case—medical advancements have turned even ACL surgery into something fairly routine. But Smith’s status, whether as one of the country’s best returning college football players if he chooses to come back to South Bend or as one of the draft’s bluechip talents, is on hold until more is learned about his injury and his timeline for recovery.

Smith deserved a better end to an incredible All-American season.

 

Decimated by injuries, suspensions and scheme, it should be back to the drawing board for Notre Dame’s defense.

Notre Dame’s defense appeared to be dead on arrival at University of Phoenix Stadium. Brian VanGorder’s defensive personnel was decimated, a toxic combination of injuries, embarrassing suspensions and ill-fitting scheme.

Putting aside the much-discussed schematic problems, injuries continued to wreak havoc. We already talked about the crippling loss of Smith and his understudy Coney. But a game-week injury to Sheldon Day was revealed in the hours leading up to kickoff. Kelly said in his postgame comments that he thought Day broke his foot on Wednesday. Add to that was an illness that forced the senior to take an IV before the game.

Sophomore nose guard Daniel Cage badly sprained his ankle earlier in bowl prep, limiting his abilities to contribute in the trenches. Throw in Devin Butler’s broken foot suffered after the Irish arrived in Arizona and the natural grass at Scottsdale Community College may as well have been a minefield.

Now to the self-inflicted wounds:

Max Redfield may not have helped the Irish beat Ohio State. But a veteran starter sent home for rule violations is inexcusable. Likewise, Jerry Tillery may not have faired much better in the trenches against Ezekiel Elliott and company, but Tillery was a rare healthy body for an Irish defense that badly needed him. That type of immaturity wasn’t expected from a young player who had been carrying himself like a veteran.

Players will get healthy. Suspensions will inevitably be served. But for Notre Dame to challenge for a national championship, the defense has to get better.

That starts at the top. Brian Kelly tapped Brian VanGorder to replace Bob Diaco. He promised that VanGorder would bring an exotic, NFL scheme with him to South Bend. We’ve seen the complexities of an NFL defense. Yet all too often, we’ve seen the challenges of young football players trying to absorb those nuances.

Diaco turned this defense into one of college football’s most fundamentally sound and impressive units. VanGorder’s scheme has done the opposite, creating a group capable of dominance at times and self-destruction at others.

No coordinator could’ve dug the Irish out of the shorthanded hole they were in on Friday afternoon. But Kelly and VanGorder need to take a long look at the way they do things. Because asking college athletes to absorb game-specific, NFL schemes on top of a challenging academic course load isn’t working.

 

Even without Joey Bosa and Adolphus Washington, Ohio State’s defense won the battle in the trenches.

Notre Dame’s offensive line struggled with Ohio State’s front seven. That might have been the true surprise of the Fiesta Bowl, especially considering the loss of Washington, senior defensive tackle Tommy Schutt and the early-game ejection of Joey Bosa.

Notre Dame’s running game was held to just 121 yards, with C.J. Prosise pulled early after struggling with his balky ankle. That left Josh Adams to do the dirty work against one of the nation’s stingiest defenses. While the rookie broke Darius Walker’s freshman rushing record, he was held mostly in check with just 14 carries for 78 yards, a large chunk of that coming late.

Ohio State’s pass rush also troubled Notre Dame. DeShone Kizer was sacked four times, pressured constantly by an athletic group of Buckeye pass rusher that took dead aim at the young Irish quarterback. Linebacker Darron Lee had two sacks, including one that forced a fumble. Former Notre Dame lacrosse commit Sam Hubbard had another. The pressure wore on Kizer, who hardly looked comfortable in the pocket, missing some easy throws, mostly the result of the chaos surrounding him and its impact on his fundamentals.

 

Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin have played their final games for Notre Dame. Returning in 2016 are starters Steve Elmer, Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson, with Alex Bars likely sliding in at left tackle. There are bright days ahead for Harry Hiestand’s offensive line. But the Fiesta Bowl wasn’t one of them.

 

In a game filled with future NFL stars, Will Fuller still managed to make the game’s biggest play. 

What a fitting end to Will Fuller’s season. The junior receiver, who has yet to make an official decision on whether or not to enter the upcoming NFL Draft, sprinted past Ohio State’s defense for an 81-yard touchdown, his 14th of the season and his 10th score of at least 30 yards on the season.

Fuller’s ability to make big plays continues to be unmatched. That’s his third 70-plus yard touchdown catch from Kizer, matching deep scores against USC and Stanford. It’s his 29th touchdown of the past two seasons, the best number in college football.

For Brian Kelly, bringing back Fuller might be the most important job of the next month for a coaching staff that’s still trying to finalize its 2016 recruiting class. The Philadelphia native made a public statement earlier in the season that he’d return for his senior season though has backed away from that stance, deciding to make a final decision after the season. Fuller didn’t reveal his NFL advisory board evaluation, though inconsistency with his hands and a lack of elite size could push him into a second or third round pick.

Notre Dame’s staff found the right recipe to bring back Ronnie Stanley and Sheldon Day, with both seniors helping their draft stock in 2015. Manti Te’o did the same en route to the most decorated defensive season of any player in college football.

But Kelly might want to tell Fuller about how he helped Michael Floyd use his final season in South Bend to boost his draft stock. Floyd worked to become a more complete receiver and turned into the 13th overall pick after a record-setting senior year. Expect Kelly, Jack Swarbrick and receivers coach Mike Denbrock to make their case very soon, with the deadline for a decision coming in mid-January.

But if this is it for Fuller in an Irish uniform, that blur of blue you saw streaking down the sideline towards the end zone is a fitting finish.

 

While they finished short of their objective, there’s no way to call this season a failure. 

Notre Dame came up short three times this season. But after dealing with a head-shaking amount of injuries and adversity this season, Brian Kelly didn’t find it hard to praise his football team.

“Couldn’t be more proud of the football team. An honor to coach them, honor to be around them,” Kelly said postgame. “The way they competed this year, regardless of the circumstances, they just kept playing.”

With losses to undefeated Clemson, two-loss Stanford and one-loss Ohio State, Notre Dame certainly has the most impressive three-loss resume in the country. And for years to come we’ll likely play the “what if” game when it comes to wondering about what a full strength Irish team could’ve done had it had a chance to go through the 2015 season even moderately healthy.

That type of wondering won’t help the Irish move forward. So even if Team 127’s legacy isn’t one of a national champion, the foundation built by this football team is certainly significant.

Veteran leaders like Sheldon Day and Joe Schmidt have left their mark. And the injuries suffered created opportunities that’ll pay off in the years to come. We saw it during the Fiesta Bowl loss, with cornerback Nick Watkins competing with a talented group of Buckeye receivers and Josh Adams continuing his evolution from unknown freshman to record-setting back, replacing a converted wide receiver who managed to run for over 1,000 yards as well.

There are obvious areas to improve, with the team’s defensive identity certainly being first on the list. But any wonder if a tough Fiesta Bowl loss would derail the program’s momentum moving into 2016 was erased when Kelly talked openly about where he sees his program as it moves forward into his seventh season.

“We’re going to keep banging at the door. Keep playing Ohio State, keep playing Florida State, keep playing Alabama, keep playing these teams in these kinds of venues, in these kinds of games. We don’t want to be playing directional teams with no profile to them,” Kelly said.

“We’ve made significant progress since where we were in 2012. We’ll get there. Hopefully we won’t have as many injuries. We’ll get back here again. We’ll win them. I had a similar process in my career earlier when I was in Division II. Took us about six years to win a playoff game. Then we won three national championships.

“I’m not saying we’re ready to win three national championships. But stay the course, keep doing what we’re doing, keep recruiting, keep bringing in great guys like this, and we’ll get there.”

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.