AP

Spring stock report: Defense

4 Comments

With tidbits coming out of Saturday’s open-to-the-media scrimmage, the state of the Irish roster is slowly coming into focus with just two practices left before the annual Blue-Gold game. While a two-hour workout will likely lead us on as many wild goose chases as it does clear up questions, that’s what spring is all about—matching up what eyes see and ears hear, all while knowing it could all go up in smoke by the time the pads go back on in August.

Regardless, the reports are mostly favorable after watching the Irish scrimmage in Loftus over the weekend. And our stock report focuses on a few key contributors, most moving from the sideline to the starting lineup.

 

STOCK UP

Nyles Morgan. That Morgan looked like a dominant, dynamic presence in the middle of the Irish defense might be the biggest story of the spring. It certainly is a story Brian Kelly didn’t think was being discussed enough.

“There’s not been a lot of talk about Nyles Morgan, which is kind of interesting,” Kelly said over the weekend. “Here’s a guy who didn’t play much last year and stepped into the middle linebacker role. There’s always a lot of talk about Coach VanGorder’s system and it’s so complicated and you’ve got to communicate, and no one’s really talked about Nyles and it’s because he’s been that good this spring.”

Catching up via social media, you’d be hard-pressed to find a report that didn’t rave about Morgan’s performance on Saturday. Pair that with his media availability last week—Morgan looked and sounded like a guy not short on confidence—and it’s looking like life after Joe Schmidt and Jaylon Smith won’t be all that bad, especially once Greer Martini returns from injury.

Productivity sounded like the name of Morgan’s game on Saturday. Here’s a quick tidbit on Morgan from Bryan Driskell’s practice report at BlueandGold.com:

Junior linebacker Nyles Morgan was arguably the team’s most impressive performer during practice. There is no doubt he was the top performer on defense. Morgan was dominant during the inside run drills by quickly diagnosing the play, beating blockers to the point of attack and arriving at the ball carrier at or behind the line of scrimmage. Morgan spent the entire practice around the football.

His instincts against the run were impressive, as was his ability to diagnose between run and pass during team periods. On a sprint out during the final team period, quarterback DeShone Kizer was rolling to his right and Morgan read the play perfectly, flew through his gap and blew up running back Justin Brent, who was the secondary contain blocker. Morgan also blew up quarterback Malik Zaire on a speed option play in which he made a decisive read and used his top-notch speed to quickly arrive into the backfield.

Morgan was very good in coverage. He quickly reads crosses and takes good angles to the ball. He had good depth on his zone drops and played the ball well. The only time he got beat was by sophomore tight end Alize Jones on a red zone corner route, but Kizer missed long.

That should be music to the ears of Irish fans, and a huge piece of the 2016 defensive puzzle moving forward.

 

Drue Tranquill. Notre Dame’s bionic man could turn into a Swiss Army Knife next season. Tranquill will be set loose next season, all over the field if reports are a glimpse into the future.

Tranquill’s versatility might overshadow the fact that he’s played his way into an every-down role as a starting safety. But there sounds to be some comfort growing in coverage for Tranquill (not necessarily his strong suit thus far) and an expanded knowledge base can’t hurt as the Irish put him all over the field trying to exploit mismatches.

Still mid-recovery from his second ACL injury in as many seasons, Tranquill needs to keep his speed up, especially if he’s going to be asked to cover receivers in space. But a tackling machine on a defense that definitely needs his consistency, it’s been a great spring for the rising junior.

 

Shaun Crawford. Another ACL recovery that looks to be making great progress, Crawford might be playing his way into a starting cornerback job in addition to serving as the team’s nickel back.

The loss of Nick Watkins to a broken arm opened up reps for Crawford at cornerback across from Cole Luke and he seems like the quickest fit for the job. But that might take him away from the all-important nickel job, an inside-cover slot that allows Crawford to use his surprising physicality and his nose for the football.

It won’t take long for comparisons to Antoine Winfield or perhaps, more currently, the honey badger Tyron Mathieu. But the fact that Crawford’s even out on the field right now making up ground should be good enough.

“I’ve exceeded expectations I had for myself by just being able to play in the (Blue-Gold) game,” Crawford told Irish Illustrated’s Tim Prister. “I think I’ve only missed one game my entire time playing football, so it was really hard missing an entire season, even missing practice.”

 

Isaac Rochell. Approaching his second season with defensive line coach Keith Gilmore, Rochell could take a big step forward in 2016, an awards-level caliber player who could wreak havoc from the big defensive end position.

It shouldn’t necessarily be a surprise. Rochell was the defense’s third-ranked player, according to PFF College. But until he steps up his pass rush game, he’ll be a somewhat one-dimensional end, especially on a defense crying out for someone to get to the quarterback.

That improvement was evident, per multiple reports from practice. The physical skills are there—Rochell was spotted out-quicking Sheldon Day during some of UND.com’s practice reports last offseason. But adding some versatility to his pass rush game would be a huge addition to the defense, and a credit to Gilmore.

 

STOCK DOWN

Nick Watkins. After being the beneficiary of some late-season injuries in 2015, it’s Watkins who now has to work from behind entering the upcoming season. A broken arm that should be healed in six weeks cost him the second half of spring practice, a difficult blow dealt to a talented cornerback who looked to have a leg up in the race for KeiVarae Russell’s open job.

Summer workouts—run by a strength staff that now has former Kelly lieutenant (and Buffalo head coach) Jeff Quinn on it—will be critical in Watkins development. The Irish need a cornerback who can hold up in man coverage. Watkins seems like the best option, especially if it allows Crawford to freestyle and serve as the team’s primary nickel back.

 

Jerry Tillery. This might be a harsh assessment, but the days of being a precocious freshman are over. Tillery is coming off a debut season where he spent the final game watching after an off-field rule violation, and needs to add some urgency to a career most have high hopes for.

With great size and ridiculous athleticism, Tillery still looks the part of an All-World defensive lineman. But any comparisons to Stephon Tuitt will be blown away if Tillery doesn’t make a huge leap in 2016. Remember, Tuitt went from a mostly anonymous freshman (who also missed a game because of a rule violation) to an All-American sophomore who challenged for Notre Dame’s sack record.

Fair or not, that’s the bar set for Tillery—especially with Sheldon Day gone and Tillery slotted for the three-technique. It’s not impossible. But that big move hasn’t happened this spring.

 

NEED MORE INFORMATION

Jarron Jones. Another defensive lineman who is absolutely critical to the defensive structure, Jones has had an up-and-down spring practice as he continues his recovery from a knee injury that kept him off the field for all but 14 plays against Ohio State.

While the Irish only need him healthy come the first Sunday of September, Kelly talked about the challenges Jones has faced this spring. He also knows what kind of player he has once the bright lights go one.

That hesitancy is understandable. But a full-strength and fully-motivated Jones is an impact defender. Pair him with a top-of-his game Tillery and the interior of the Irish defense could be one of the more dynamic in the country.

 

Max Redfield. Don’t kick dirt on Redfield just yet. Nor should you read too much into the ascent of early-enrollee freshman Devin Studstill. A freshman making a big move during spring drills is one thing. A true freshman being trusted on the back-end of the defense during game situations is another.

Redfield has all the tools needed to be a productive college football player. He was done no favors by playing in a bowl game as a true freshman. But he’s entering his third season under Brian VanGorder. That means the mental lapses that have plagued his game need to be eliminated.

We’ll see if the timeshare this spring was a motivational tactic or a kickstart of the eventual transition to the Studstill era come August. Until then, I expect Redfield’s final season in South Bend to be a surprising positive.

 

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s linebackers, a proven two and then many questions

Associated Press
Leave a comment

Any concerns about Notre Dame’s linebackers were allayed when Te’von Coney spurned the NFL to return for his senior season. That decision, and Drue Tranquill making the same move, means the Irish do not need to replace their two best playmakers at the position from last season.

Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Clark Lea does need to figure out how to fill in for the graduated Nyles Morgan and his 92 tackles, not to mention classmate Greer Martini and his 75, good for second and fourth on the team, respectively.

Spring Roster:
— Two known and welcome playmaking veterans in Coney and fifth-year Tranquill.
— More than a handful of unproven and untested possibilities in rising senior Asmar Bilal, rising juniors Jonathan Jones and Jamir Jones (no relation), and rising sophomores Drew White, David Adams and Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah.
— A trio of early-enrolled freshmen in Jack Lamb, Bo Bauer and Ovie Oghoufo.

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman Shayne Simon, a likely rover candidate.

Entering 2017, Te’von Coney was not even a starting linebacker. By the end of the season he was the leading tackler, and in 2018, he will be counted on as a defensive stalwart. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
Wherever Tranquill ends up — be it at rover or a more traditional linebacker position, with the latter seeming more likely — someone will need to earn the third starting role. Bilal is the front-runner for that duty, at either position, but he will need to show a quicker understanding of the game than he has in the past.

The rising senior has always been ready physically, but he has looked up the depth chart at the likes of Morgan, Martini, Coney and Tranquill. Opportunities were not readily available. Now that one very much is, Bilal will need to either seize it or get ready to be bypassed by the newcomers.

It would be a surprise for Lamb or Bauer to be named that third starter in their freshman season, but both could certainly land in the two-deep, as that entire second unit is up for grabs. Neither Jones showed much last season, and the linebacker recruiting emphasis of 2018 belied the coaching staffs’ opinions of the rising sophomores pretty clearly.

Presuming Bilal steps forward and secures the starting position, and some combination of Jones, Jones, Lamb and Bauer fill two of the backup roles, only Owusu-Koromoah stands out as an obvious rover substitute. In that respect, depth remains a concern at the defense’s second level, albeit less of one than in years past thanks to the influx of four touted freshmen.

Biggest Question:
Where does Tranquill line up against Michigan on Sept. 1? More to the current purpose, where does he line up in the Blue-Gold Game on April 21?

“My responsibility as linebackers coach is to put the best combination of people on the field,” Lea said Feb. 7. “I think everyone can see Drue Tranquill had a skillset, a talent base that can play multiple spots. Through the course of the winter and spring, we’ll take a look at different options.”

The duties at rover can be handled piecemeal, accounting for the tendencies of each opponent. When facing an up-tempo, aerial attack, perhaps even rising senior cornerback Shaun Crawford could be featured there. When facing a physical, ground-bound opponent, Bilal would make more sense.

Shifting around like that at the Buck linebacker spot makes far less sense. While Tranquill never necessarily had the speed to excel at safety, and two knee injuries only further limited him in that respect, he shined at rover in 2017. Concluding his collegiate career at linebacker is logical, both as it pertains to his development thus far and to his professional aspirations.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Rarely can a defense lose two of its top-four tacklers and still return more than 200 tackles from starting linebackers. Thus is the luxury provided by both Coney and Tranquill bypassing the NFL for another year.

Coney: 116 tackles, 13.0 tackles for loss including three sacks, and one forced fumble which he recovered.
Tranquill: 85 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss including 1.5 sacks, one interception, three pass breakups, three fumbles recovered and one fumble forced.
Bilal: 18 tackles with 1.5 for loss.
Jo. Jones: 10 tackles with one for loss and one pass breakup.
Ja. Jones: Four tackles.

A 2018 Statistical Thought:
Presuming linebacker health, the three starters should end up as Notre Dame’s leading tacklers once again in 2018, even with the presumed drop off from Morgan to insert Bilal or Owusu-Koromoah or Lamb or … here.

The Irish defensive line will be much improved in 2018. Once upon a time, that seemed a guarantee just because the expectations for the line entering 2017 were so low, but it instead became a strength. Developing that strength and making it the backbone of Notre Dame’s defense moving forward will serve to burgeon the linebackers’ tackle totals, both at and behind the line of scrimmage.

Notre Dame gets the letter: Jack Lamb
Notre Dame gets the letter: Bo Bauer
Notre Dame gets the letter: Shayne Simon
Notre Dame gets the letter: Ovie Oghoufo

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are

A second four-star defensive lineman, Hunter Spears, joins the Notre Dame class of 2019

rivals.com
26 Comments

When Notre Dame got five heralded defensive line recruits on campus together in January, it turned heads. When Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston offered public optimism about the possible 2019 commitments, it raised expectations.

Notre Dame has now secured a second of those five with the Tuesday commitment of consensus four-star defensive end Hunter Spears (Sachse High School; Texas). He joins consensus four-star defensive tackle Jacob Lacey (South Warren H.S.; Bowling Green, Ky.) as the early foundation to the recruiting class, now with four prospects pledged.

“Honestly, just talking with the guys today — Jacob Lacey, Mazi Smith, Joseph Anderson, Nana Osafo-Mensah, and myself — if Notre Came can land all of us, that would be the dream d-line class for Notre Dame,” Spears told Irish Illustrated. “I could see another pass-rusher or two, also.”

The other three names Spears mentioned all joined Lacey and him on Jan. 27 at an on-campus Junior Day. All five qualify as consensus four-stars, with Smith (East Kentwood; Kentwood, Mich.) a tackle, Anderson (Siegel; Murfreesboro, Tenn.) an end, and Osafo-Mensah (Nolan Catholic; Fort Worth, Texas) a possible end/linebacker hybrid.

From left to right: Osafo-Mensah, Anderson, Elston, Smith, Lacey and Spears. (Twitter: @JacobLacey6)

Landing all five may be ambitious, but it would also be the envy of most of the country.

Spears already held offers from the likes of Alabama and Michigan State, despite missing his junior season with a knee injury. The Irish extended a scholarship offer to him in June, prompting an unofficial visit to watch a 49-14 Notre Dame victory over USC in October. In a video released by 247Sports.com, Spears cited that experience as one of the three primary reasons he committed, along with the educational opportunity and the “overall tradition and culture.”

Spears shows quickness for a defensive lineman, but not such that he would ever be considered an outside linebacker in any form. His size makes him an ideal candidate to set the edge against the run or possibly move inside when the Irish need a quicker defensive line to handle certain opponents. His agility, though, will make him a three-down threat, both a pass-rusher and an edge-setter.

Notre Dame currently has depth at defensive end, but with only one signed in the class of 2018 (Justin Ademilola) and one remaining from the class of 2017 (Kofi Wardlow), an influx will be a priority this recruiting cycle. Spears will theoretically have one season to adjust to collegiate competition before the quartet of rising juniors Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem, Julian Okwara and Ade Ogundeji run out of eligibility. (The first three have two seasons remaining, while Ogundeji has the possibility of three more years.)

Hence, that Junior Day emphasis and Elston’s confidence on National Signing Day.

“I’ve been at Notre Dame now going on for nine years, and I haven’t had a stronger group of underclassmen that I’m recruiting than I have this year in 2019,” Elston said. “This could be the best defensive line haul we’ve ever had here.”

Expect to read that quote again and again (and possibly again) if any of the remaining three in the above photo follow Spears’ and Lacey’s lead.

RELATED READING: ‘Accelerated’ start creates bright outlook for Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting cycle

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are

Getty Images
34 Comments

Notre Dame will open spring practice in about two weeks. As always, the proceedings will be filled with positive reviews, optimistic outlooks, and an injury or two.

A quick look at each position group should lend a better understanding to those perspectives and effects, beginning with the group lacking many questions — the running backs. The biggest reason there is relative certainty around the running backs is there are just so few of them following the winter dismissals of rising junior Deon McIntosh and rising sophomore C.J. Holmes.

Spring Roster:
Rising senior Dexter Williams (pictured above)
Rising junior Tony Jones
Early-enrolled freshman Jahmir Smith
Rising junior Mick Assaf

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman C’Bo Flemister

No one received more praise last spring practice than Tony Jones. He had a successful 2017, but compared to that hype, it could have been considered under-performing. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
At some point, either Williams or Jones will be named the Irish starter. It is quite possible that will be a distinction without much difference, as the two could certainly complement each other well in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s system, which already prefers to use multiple running backs.

Human nature, though, dictates is more likely one back receives a majority of the carries.

Biggest Question:
If Williams lines up with the No. 1 offensive unit in the Blue-Gold Game (April 21) to conclude spring practice, that will be the first genuine and tangible evidence he has improved as a pass blocker. Despite his big-play speed and seeming-ease breaking tackles, Williams’ one-dimensional game rendered him as much a liability as an asset in 2017.

Even in the Citrus Bowl victory, Williams followed up back-to-back rushes for a combined 36 yards with a blown pass protection resulting in a 13-yard sack.

“You have to be able to protect the quarterback with all positions,” Long said Feb. 7. “That dictates a whole lot if you’re going to play a lot or just be a situational guy. It’s something you have to embrace, the physicality.

“… That’s really the main thing, other than protecting the ball, that’ll keep a back off the field in our offense.”

The best ability is availability, and both an ankle injury and a balky quad limited Williams in that respect in 2017. Little blame can be cast for the natural bruises of football. Nonetheless, he will need to “embrace the physicality” if he wants to become more than a situational back.

Otherwise, Jones will be the default option. He has already shown a knack for both pass blocking and catching, making him a three-down option. Notre Dame will always prefer that rather than tip its hand to a running play every time Williams enters the game.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Obviously, Josh Adams carried the burden in the running game last season. Behind rising senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush and McIntosh, Williams was only the No. 4 rusher on the roster in yards and touchdowns, while Jones was No. 4 in carries and No. 5 in yards and scores.

Williams: 360 yards on 39 carries, a 9.2 average, with four touchdowns. Two catches for 13 yards and one score.
Jones: 232 yards on 44 carries, a 5.3 average, with three touchdowns. Six catches for 12 yards.
Notre Dame gets the letter: Jahmir Smith
Notre Dame gets the letter: C’Bo Flemister

Monday’s Leftovers: Geography, as much as academics, caps Notre Dame’s recruiting possibilites

Associated Press
43 Comments

A year ago, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly acknowledged a practical ceiling on Irish recruiting efforts.

“Since I’ve been here, if you look at the average rankings, we’re anywhere from 5 to 15,” Kelly said on 2017’s National Signing Day, a day on which Notre Dame secured the No. 13 class in the country, per rivals.com. “We’re going to fall somewhere in that range because there’s a line there we can’t get over based upon what our distinctions are here. That line is going to keep us between 5 and 15.

“We know where we’re going to fall. We’re going to continue to recruit the right kind of kids here.”

Sure enough, the Irish once again fall into that spectrum in 2018, finishing No. 11 per rivals. Though Notre Dame has risen above that range once (No. 3 in 2013) and fallen below it once (No. 20 in 2012) during Kelly’s tenure, his overall analysis remains accurate.

The instinct has always been to cite University academic standards as the greatest hurdle to rising into the top five consistently, but another aspect should not be overlooked. In a recent mailbag, Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples pondered the factors keeping the Irish from becoming a perennial 10-win team.

“Another major reason is a lack of a local recruiting base,” Staples wrote. “No program has a stronger national reach than Notre Dame, but that still doesn’t make recruiting nationally easy. It’s much easier to have hundreds of quality prospects within driving distances.”

That dynamic is a part of why the Irish are better positioned to reap rewards from high school juniors now being able to take official visits in April, May and June. Those time periods are less hectic for most high schoolers, so a long-distance trip may fit into the calendar with a bit less stress. Obviously, only time will tell the true impact of that new change.

Looking at both this past year’s recruiting rankings and the last nine years of rankings underscores and supports Staples’ point.

Rivals considered 33 prospects to be five-star recruits in 2018. Only seven schools managed to sign multiple such players: Georgia (8), Clemson (6), USC (5), Alabama (3), Ohio State (3), Penn State (2), and Miami (2). To speak more broadly, four schools in the Deep South, two in the Ohio-Pennsylvania corridor and one in California, all talent-rich areas, especially compared to Indiana, Illinois and Michigan.

If combining the total signees of both four- and five-star rankings by rivals, Notre Dame signed 12 such prospects. Only 11 schools signed more, including six of the above seven. (Clemson equaled the Irish haul, though its even split between four- and five-star recruits stands out compared to Notre Dame’s 12 four-stars.) The additional five: Oklahoma, Texas, Florida State, Auburn and Florida. In other words, two schools tapping into Texas, two schools within Florida and one more in the Deep South.

If looking at the last nine years of recruiting, the span of Kelly’s time in South Bend, only eight programs have consistently out-recruited the Irish, all but one mentioned already. LSU finished with the No. 13 recruiting class in 2018, lowering its nine-year average placement to 8.0. The Tigers are one of five SEC teams in that group of eight, joining Florida State, Ohio State and USC.

Sense a theme?

It will always be hard enough for Notre Dame to find high-caliber players likely to succeed at a strong academic institution in the Midwest. That task is even harder knowing how far away those players typically are to start with.

Other programs face a similar challenge, and few handle it as well. Consider the 2018 recruiting classes of Stanford, Michigan and Michigan State, for familiar context.

Stanford finished with 4 four-stars in rivals’ No. 63 class. The Wolverines pulled in 7 four-stars as part of the No. 24 class, while the Spartans signed 5 four-stars in the No. 26 grouping.

The Blue-Chip Ratio
Finishing within Kelly’s range has not stopped Notre Dame from consistently having one of the most-talented rosters in the country. If abiding by rivals rankings for consistency, 45 of the 89 players currently on the Irish roster (including incoming freshmen) were four- or five-star recruits.

A commonly-cited metric of a roster’s talent is the so-called “Blue-Chip Ratio.” Essentially, a national championship caliber team will have at least 50 percent of its roster consisting of former four- or five-star prospects. Entering 2017, Notre Dame was one of only 10 such teams in the country.

As should be expected, the other nine included six programs from the Deep South, Ohio State, USC and, as an ode to Jim Harbaugh’s early recruiting successes, Michigan.

A Presidents Day Reminder
Notre Dame cannot officially claim any POTUS as an alum, but both Josiah Bartlet and James Marshall would like to argue otherwise.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Notre Dame’s pending attrition actually intended to improve the roster
NCAA denies Notre Dame’s appeal, vacating 21 wins, including 12-0 in 2012
Notre Dame is right: The NCAA’s terrible precedent matters, but vacating wins does not
‘Accelerated’ start creates bright outlook for Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting cycle
Notre Dame’s successful early signing period now begets early visit questions

OUTSIDE READING:
NCAA appeals committee upholds vacation of Notre Dame wins
A letter from the President on the NCAA Infractions Case
Irish set high expectations for Jurkovec
Elston ‘recruits’ Tillery, Bonner for one last ride
Giants release defensive end Ishaq Williams with a failed physical designation
Re-ranking the longest FBS coaching tenures from 1-to-230
Hip injury to keep Stanford QB K.J. Costello sidelined for much of spring drills