Last Look: Front Seven

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With Jaylon Smith and Sheldon Day playing at All-American levels, Notre Dame’s front seven featured two of the most dynamic playmakers in college football. Smith’s junior campaign may have ended in heartbreak, but he made 114 tackles, easily pacing the team. Day’s senior season finally unlocked the potential we’d heard about for three years, with the veteran leading the team with 15.5 TFLs, making it through all 13 games healthy.

Four pieces of the front seven were essentially every-down players: Smith, Day, Joe Schmidt and Isaac Rochell. Per PFF College, Schmidt led the defense in snaps played at 873. Rochell led the defensive line with 816 snaps, while Smith finished with 801 and Day had 786.

Senior Romeo Okwara led the team in sacks, finishing with 12.5 TFLs about eight official sacks. It was the type of breakout senior that the Irish desperately needed from a pass rusher.

Some of the defense’s inconsistencies are also revealed in these statistics. From a productivity standpoint, Schmidt’s 78 tackles may be second on the team, but he graded out as Notre Dame’s worst regular in PFF’s rating system. Some of that may be on Schmidt’s physical limitations. Some of it is on the defensive tackles playing in front of him.

Without Jarron Jones, Notre Dame was forced to play Daniel Cage and true freshman Jerry Tillery. While that duo’s future looks bright, Tillery made just 12 total tackles while Cage was slightly more productive with 18 stops. Compare that with the 40 tackles and 7.5 TFLs Jones had in his first season starting and you start to see some of the effects of losing a 330-pound run-stuffer who also protects your middle linebacker.

Notre Dame’s front seven will be rebuilt this offseason. While Rochell returns, the Irish will need to replace their Smith, Schmidt, Okwara, Day and Jarrett Grace. Before we turn our focus to the future, let’s hand out some year-end rankings.

Front Seven

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MVP: Jaylon Smith. Smith’s elite skill-set makes this feel like a no-brainer, but Sheldon Day’s value to this front seven made this a much harder decision than you may have thought. But Notre Dame’s latest Butkus winner did so much for this defense, especially in a linebacking corps that so heavily relied on him.

Without Smith, Notre Dame’s linebackers would’ve been beyond ordinary. While most of the focus this offseason will be on his recovery from knee surgery, Smith’s ability to drop and cover, read and react and — maybe most importantly — cover for mistakes with speed and athleticism, allowed him to erase plays. That will be missed.

 

Co-MVP: Sheldon Day. These are my awards, so I get to make one up for the season Day had. For years we’ve heard Aaron Donald referenced as a comp for Day. Finally in 2015, Day made that reference not seem laughable.

No, he won’t likely become one of the NFL’s most dominant interior players. But Day’s senior season has him popping up in the first round of some mock drafts, a credit to the dominance Day displayed this season—not always evident in the stat line he put up.

How good was Day? Consider PFF College’s grading system. Day doubled Smith’s overall grade, earning a +59.0 to Smith’s +29.4. Day ranked as PFF’s No. 1 defensive tackle this season, while Smith finished as the No. 5 OLB.

Paired with two young players with next to no experience, Day still managed to dictate terms in the trenches. While we can only wonder what this group would’ve done with Jones by his side, it was a special season.

 

Biggest Disappointment: Nyles Morgan’s disappearance. Joe Schmidt’s value to this defense was made clear anytime reporters asked Brian Kelly or Brian VanGorder why Morgan couldn’t get on the field. But even if Schmidt’s acumen and ability to direct the unit will forever go under-appreciated by fans, you can’t help but wonder what a sophomore season spent playing special teams did to Morgan’s development schedule.

Let’s be clear: Morgan’s freshman season—or even his ceiling as a linebacker—aren’t based on anything we’ve seen with our eyes. But you still would’ve liked to find some snaps where Morgan could’ve contributed situationally. That he didn’t doesn’t necessarily reflect poorly on player or coach solely. But it puts the onus on the rising junior to have a big spring practice, hopefully stepping into both the middle linebacker job and a leadership role.

 

 

Brightest Future: Jerry Tillery. Notre Dame’s freshman defensive tackle ended the season on a sour note, suspended for a rules violation in Scottsdale that forced Notre Dame’s only healthy defensive tackle to watch the Fiesta Bowl from the sidelines. But Tillery’s going to be a key piece of the defensive puzzle in 2016, asked to fill the role of his travel roommate and (try to) replace Day’s production.

A starting front-four of Tillery and Jones on the inside surrounded by Rochell and Trumbetti should be able to hold up in the trenches. Now it’s time for Tillery to take the sting of missing the bowl game and carry that into spring football, where he’ll no longer be an overachieving freshman and will be asked to take the type of leap Stephon Tuitt did in his second season.

 

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 90 (theoretically) Cole Kmet, tight end

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-4, 235 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Freshman yet to enroll
Depth chart: Tight end might be the deepest position on the Notre Dame roster, and, as a result, Kmet might be further down the Irish depth chart than any other player. Fifth-year Durham Smythe leads the group, with junior Alizé Mack right behind him, if behind at all. Then come seniors Nic Weishar and Tyler Luatua, both of whom may be soon passed by early enrollee freshman Brock Wright. Then, finally, slots in Kmet, if for no other reason than the obvious fact that he has yet to hit the college weight room or learn offensive coordinator Chip Long’s playbook.
Recruiting: Not only was Kmet a consensus four-star prospect, he was a consensus top-five tight end in the country. Rivals.com, for example, rated Kmet as the No. 3 tight end in the class of 2017.

QUOTE(S)
It was difficult for Irish coach Brian Kelly to discuss Kmet without including his classmate Wright during Kelly’s National Signing Day comments. Bringing in two tight ends of their potential in one class certainly stood out as an unlikely occurrence.

“Brock Wright [is] arguably one of the best, if not the best, tight ends in the country,” Kelly said. “But you’re not going to pass up an opportunity at a young man like Cole Kmet who thoroughly impressed us when we got a chance to see him in Irish Invasion.

“We think there can’t be a better tandem at the tight end position in a signing day today. We think we’ve got two tight ends coming in to obviously a very good situation already with Durham Smythe, Alizé [Mack], Nic Weishar, Tyler Luatua. We have great depth at that tight end position, and these two guys only add to it.

“I think you start and you look at the depth at that position, it really jumps out at you.”

WHAT WE SAID WHEN KMET’S NATIONAL LETTER OF INTENT ARRIVED
Kmet completes a duo of tight ends in this class along with early enrollee Brock Wright. Fittingly, Kmet will only burnish Notre Dame’s ‘Tight End U’ reputation. He has the length and athleticism to be a threat in the aerial attack while also contributing in blocking along the edge.”

2017 OUTLOOK
A situation in which Kmet plays in 2017 is nearly beyond fathoming. An injury crisis would have to tear through the Irish tight ends in order to make playing the sixth and most-inexperienced option a necessity.

Kmet’s odds of seeing action this season were further diminished when Wright not only enrolled early but also held his own in spring practice. It is not that Wright is far-and-away better than Kmet, it is that the head start will be most noticeable in their freshman campaign. If Notre Dame opts to play a freshman tight end, it will be Wright, not Kmet.

DOWN THE ROAD
Kmet’s future shines bright. Smythe and Luatua will be gone following 2017, and it is hard to imagine Weishar earning an invitation back for a fifth year. Mack will assuredly be the top target at the position in 2018, but Long has a track record of featuring tight ends. More than one will be needed.

That could mean only Mack and Wright are consistent contributors in 2018, but a third viable option could provide the ability to keep two fresh tight ends on the field whenever wanted.

Beyond that, Mack will have 2019 eligibility, but it seems unlikely he takes it. If he plays up to his palpable potential, it is more likely Mack heads to the NFL Draft as soon as possible—and that does not rule out after this season—than it is he stays around college for five years.

Kmet will get his chance. He comes in too highly-rated not to. It will just be a matter of time and patience.


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 Kmet, hence slotting him at No. 90.

Cole Kmet very well may not wear No. 90, 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

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 91 Ade Ogundeji, defensive end

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-4, ½, 251 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Sophomore with four years of eligibility remaining including 2017
Depth chart: Adetokunbo Ogundeji is one of three sophomores vying for playing time on the weakside edge. Daelin Hayes leads the group, and Julian Okwara would appear to be ahead of Ogundeji both due to Okwara seeing playing time last season and having a more prominent role this spring.
Recruiting: A consensus three-star prospect, Ogundeji originally committed to Western Michigan and P.J. Fleck before his profile picked up more attention.

CAREER TO DATE
Ogundeji preserved a year of eligibility in 2017. With his slight frame, that decision made sense. When Ogundeji signed with Notre Dame, he was listed as 6-foot-5 and 216 pounds. A year later, that listing presents a perhaps more-accurate height and, more importantly, 35 added pounds.

The year on the sidelines also allowed Ogundeji’s knee plenty of healing time after he partially tore his MCL during his final season in high school. The injury did not necessitate surgery, simply time and rehab.

QUOTE(S)
Quotes on Ogundeji are few and far between. Irish coach Brian Kelly spent National Signing Day 2016 discussing bigger picture items than going through each individual recruit. This spring, his only mention of Ogundeji was in a brief summary of injuries and recoveries.

Looking back to when Ogundeji committed to Notre Dame, he offered a realistic view of his future to the South Bend Tribune’s Tyler James.

“I understand that I’m a raw person, but I think I just need to work on my upside—getting stronger and bigger,” Ogundeji said. “That’s what I’ve been working on in the offseason. I know I’m a long person, and most of the time I’m just going into the offensive line and not knowing that I can use my hands to keep them off me. I need to use my hands much better.

“One thing I know I am is a coachable person. I know my coaches will make me better.”

WHAT KEITH ARNOLD PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
This feels like a redshirt situation. With Jay Hates and Andrew Trumbetti likely sharing the snaps at weakside (and don’t forget Daelin Hayes), Ogundeji seems a long way from being ready to contribute. So while there could be a terror off the edge developing, it’ll take a few years.

“Looking back at developmental recruits at defensive end, the Irish haven’t had the best of luck. But Ogundeji has a few things going for him other than his physical traits—mainly a academic profile that lends itself to Notre Dame.

“A good gamble to take, but he’s a wait-and-see freshman. Let’s put a pin in this until spring time.”

2017 OUTLOOK
Falling behind two classmates at his own position makes it hard to expect much from Ogundeji this season aside from perhaps some special teams success. Both Hayes and Okwara excelled in spring practices, making Ogundeji’s path forward even cloudier.

While he will see the field this season, Ogundeji’s 2017 may hold more resemblance to his freshman season on the sidelines than he likes.

DOWN THE ROAD

That does not need to be a waste, though. If Ogundeji continues forward with the mature mindset represented in the above quotes upon his commitment, further development will only bode well for his future. Simply due to the nature of college football (injuries, transfers, suspensions, etc.), there is no such thing as having too many worthwhile pass rush threats. Should Ogundeji demonstrate that ability to the Notre Dame coaches, they will find him playing time in future seasons.

Some might speculate Ogundeji’s length could make him a candidate to move to linebacker, but that seems unlikely for now. His value is as a rusher, be it in specific situations in 2017 or in a larger role in 2018-2020.

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

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 92 (theoretically) Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle

UND.com
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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-4, 250 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Freshman yet to enroll
Depth chart: Tagovailoa-Amosa will start at the bottom of a tackle grouping that may or may not present him the chance to move upward. (More on that later.) He will be competing with the likes of senior Pete Mokwuah and juniors Micah Dew-Treadway and, if healthy, Elijah Taylor for the chance to back up senior Jonathan Bonner.
Recruiting: Rivals.com rated Tagovailoa-Amosa as a three-star prospect, but the other recruiting services split between three stars and four stars for the Hawaiian. His recruitment was quick and late, but that was partly Tagovailoa-Amosa’s personal choice. With Hawaii high school playoffs being later than most followed by state-specific all-star games, Tagovailoa-Amosa could not take at least some of his official visits until after the season.

The Irish coaches had to wait until the morning of National Signing Day to learn if they had landed the interior project.

QUOTE(S)
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly spoke highly of Tagoailoa-Amosa’s potential in his comments on National Signing Day. Taking those remarks at face value, Kelly may have portended a year of preserving eligibility for the incoming freshman.

“When you talk about D-linemen that are really emerging, Myron Tag-Amosa—I’m not going to give you the whole name because I will butcher it. I’ll save that as I get to know him a little better—Myron jumped off the screen with his first-step quickness,” Kelly said. “For a big guy, we really think he’s got a huge upside. We think he’s starting to scratch the surface in terms of where he can be.

“He has some length to him, pass-rush ability, inside guy. Not necessarily strictly an edge guy. He’s got some versatility. We like the fact that he’s a younger player that’s going to get better and develop.”

WHAT WE SAID WHEN TAGOVAILOA-AMOSA’S NATIONAL LETTER OF INTENT ARRIVED
Tagovailoa-Amosa continues a line of Hawaiian recruits landing in South Bend, following Manti Te’o and Kona Schwenke, both of whom excelled at Notre Dame … An excellent athlete, Tagovailoa-Amosa will be asked to fill the middle of the defensive line, but he could likely hold his own on the edge if needed in certain situations.”

2017 OUTLOOK
Tagovailoa-Amosa’s autumn will be determined by two things: His actual current weight and the progression of the three players ahead of him in the aforementioned depth chart.

Recruiting services listed Tagovailoa-Amosa at about 270 pounds his senior year, while Notre Dame touted him as 250 in its National Signing Day coverage. Typically, recruiting listings are very prone to player embellishment, unless recorded at a particular and recent camp. On the other hand, 250 pounds seems awfully light for a player Kelly considers an “inside guy.” Perhaps it explains his first-step quicknes.

If he is more toward the 270 mark, if not more after some time spent in a college weight program, then Tagovailoa-Amosa very well may be ready to give Notre Dame some worthwhile snaps in his freshman season. However, if that 250 mark is somewhat accurate, the season may be best spent on the sideline getting ready for the physicality of college football.

Between Mokwuah, Dew-Treadway and Taylor, the Irish do not have a reliable backup for Bonner. If one of those three emerges—remember Taylor suffered a LisFranc fracture in spring ball but is expected to be healthy by the end of the summer—then the need for Tagovailoa-Amosa to play in 2017 decreases drastically. If none of those three separates from the pack, though, Tagovailoa-Amosa could prove himself worthy of consideration with a strong fall camp, even if that would be in only a small sample size.

DOWN THE ROAD
The odds are Tagovailoa-Amosa spends 2017 on the sidelines. Those fictitious betting odds were heavily influenced by Kelly using buzz words such as “huge upside,” “starting to scratch the surface,” “younger player,” and “develop.”

Not to fall into the easy trap of comparing a Hawaiian to a Hawaiian, but consider former Irish defensive lineman Kona Schwenke. He appeared in a smattering of games in his first two seasons (by now, it is rather universally regarded as an unnecessary shame he lost a year of eligibility by playing in the final five games of his freshman season, 2010) and only recorded five tackles in 11 games his junior year.

Then, Schwenke recorded 23 tackles and was an all-around defensive presence his senior year. In that one season, he went from a complete non-contributor to a fringe NFL prospect.

Such a progression from Tagovailoa-Amosa while following a five-year schedule would be quite promising, and Notre Dame’s roster should present that type of opportunity following this season. Up to four defensive tackles could depart following 2017, leaving few bodies and even fewer proven commodities on the front line. (Senior Daniel Cage will be out of eligibility. It is unlikely Mokwuah is offered a fifth year and questionable for Bonner. Junior Jerry Tillery is considered a possible NFL Draft prospect after this season.)

As for this space, when will it be acceptable to refer to Tagovailoa-Amosa as simply “MTA”? That 13-character decrease into a ready-made nickname would be greatly appreciated.


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.

After all, the real purpose is to take a look at each player. The order, quite frankly, doesn’t matter. It is nothing more than a gimmick, be it done alphabetically, numerically or by the magic number crafted by adding the single integers of each player’s birthday. (For example, Derek Jeter’s June 26 birthday would equal 0 + 6 + 2 + 6 = 14.)

How are those estimates crafted? The first step is to take a look at certain NCAA rules. That is less helpful on defense than it is on offense. The NCAA places no stipulations on defensive integers. That is how Notre Dame ends up with one defensive end named Hayes wearing No. 93 (senior, Jay) and one defensive end named Hayes wearing No. 9 (sophomore, Daelin). Yet, only so many numbers are available. The Irish are likely to avoid any unnecessary doublings so as to lessen the chances of somehow ending up with two players wearing the same number defending, hmmm, a field goal, by chance. Obviously, such a noticeable infraction would inevitably draw a flag.

For this exercise, at least, the estimates are garnered under that presumption.

Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa is probably not going to wear No. 92, but it is possible. It certainly seems more likely than No. 25 or No. 84, both of which are unclaimed on the Notre Dame roster. Only time will tell. For today, let’s just go with No. 92.


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

Friday at 4: Information for future reference — 2017 bowl schedule

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I don’t remember much from the AP Physics course I took senior year of high school. Actually, that’s not true. I remember plenty.

I remember slipping a jokester in the front row an old, defunct cell phone so I could call his actual phone to disrupt class and only the broken phone would be confiscated.
I remember removing the supports from a stool so the next person who sat on it would quickly, but gradually, sink to the floor.
I remember creating “excused” absences such that I missed more classes than I attended in the second semester of the year.

Clearly, the teacher did not have much of an impact on me. I do remember one somewhat-academic lesson from him, though. Delivered a decade ago, it is even truer today.

All his tests were painfully thorough. They were also all open-notebook. His thinking: “It is not the person who knows the most information that is smartest. It is the person that knows where and how to find the most information.”

He was and is right. Being able to rattle off a listing of statistics to win bar trivia is one thing, but other than that, finding information is just as valuable a skill nowadays as knowing it in the first place.

As the summer stretches out, some of these posts will seem out of place. Exhibit A: Today’s look at bowl schedules. “Douglas, it’s the middle of May. Notre Dame was 4-8 last season. Why in the world would we care about the dates of bowl games?”

Today, you probably don’t. But it gives me an excuse to ramble right now, and come mid-October, it gives you a resource to check without too much trouble. You’ll head to Google and quickly type in site:irish.nbcsports.com “bowl schedule” “Friday at 4” and this very entry will jump to the top of the search listings. With a quick look at the ACC standings, you will know a 4-3 Notre Dame is on pace for the Pinstripe Bowl, perhaps the Sun Bowl. You can make tentative, yet practical, travel plans accordingly.

This approach gives these postings a practical purpose, lest they quickly devolve into rambling philosophical waxings. Admittedly, there are 79 days until one might expect spring practice to start. Some inane musings very well may be inevitable.


To today’s actual purpose: The Football Bowl Association announced times for nearly all the coming winter’s 40 bowl games. Thanks to its affiliation with the ACC, Notre Dame can step in for an ACC team nearly anywhere in the ACC slate of arrangements. This presents the Irish far more preferable options—for that matter, options at all—than were sometimes available before the partial ACC membership. Most memorably, Notre Dame’s known options heading into the 2013 season boiled down to making a BCS game or hoping the Big 12 did not produce enough bowl-eligible teams so the Irish could fill its slot in the Pinstripe Bowl. That is, indeed, how that season played out.

The pertinent 2017 bowl games, in order of selection choice with a few notes, and their dates/times/locations:

College Football Playoff: Obviously, if an ACC team makes the Playoff, this list begins there. The Rose and Sugar Bowls host semifinals this year, both Jan. 1, at 5 p.m. and 8:45 p.m. ET, respectively. Moving forward, know all times listed are Eastern. (more…)