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Pregame Six Pack: Green Irish roster prepares for Blue-Gold game

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For the 87th time, Notre Dame will play the Blue-Gold game. And for Irish fans tuning in for the first time this spring, they’ll likely need a new program.

As Brian Kelly’s seventh team in South Bend takes shape, it’ll look drastically different from the core of the previous two teams. Gone are standouts like Jaylon Smith, Will Fuller, Sheldon Day, Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin. Captain Joe Schmidt no longer stands in the middle of the defense.

Offensively, the Irish are expected to retain their firepower, but they’ll do so without their leading rusher and three leading receivers. They’ll also need to replace three starters along the offensive line, the Irish without a Martin on the offensive line for the first time since Kelly took over.

For the second time in as many springs, the Blue-Gold game will give a national audience a look at one of the country’s most compelling quarterback battle. Only this time one quarterback isn’t likely to flee town.

With a picture perfect weather forecast and a good crowd expected, a new generation of Irish football players will step into the spotlight, their turn to build on the legacy of the group before them. With a senior class that set a record for winning games in Notre Dame Stadium, the bar has been raised.

Brian Kelly will be wired for sound. Friend of the program Jac Collinsworth will be holding it down on the sidelines in place of Kathryn Tappen who is on NHL duty. So let’s crack open a pregame six pack that ends in the perfect fashion: A 100-percent guaranteed Irish victory, televised live on NBCSN on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. ET.

 

Kizer versus Zaire will be the closest thing we see to a quarterback showdown. Blink and you might miss it. 

Brian Kelly raised some eyebrows when he confirmed that both quarterbacks would be live during the Blue-Gold game. (For how long? That’s the big question.) But as Kelly, offensive coordinator Mike Sanford and associate head coach Mike Denbrock try to get a better grasp on who’ll pilot the offense next fall, seeing both Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer in a natural environment is a necessary evil.

Both Zaire and Kizer will be aiming to impress on Saturday, each trying to make a final lasting impression before the long offseason months. For Zaire, he’ll once again remind people he’s a “lights-on” kind of quarterback, the type of player who elevates his play once he gets off the practice field and into a game situation. For Kizer, Saturday will be about dictating terms as a quarterback, showcasing the assets that made him one of the most impressive redshirt freshmen in the nation.

Kelly talked about having Zaire and Kizer both captain a team, pitting them against each other. He also talked about making both live—understanding that the zone read game will be a critical component of the offense. But don’t expect that to last.

Brandon Wimbush will eat up some of the snaps. So will fellow backups Montgomery VanGorder and walk-on Nolan Henry. The real goal is getting both Kizer and Zaire out of spring healthy, knowing that any final decision on playing time will be decided in the fall.

In the meantime, cherish our only great look at the battle all spring, because the next time you’ll see them is in August.

 

Will Jerry Tillery and Jarron Jones finally step forward in the last practice of spring? 

Brian VanGorder declared both defensive tackle jobs available heading into fall camp. And while just about everybody who follows the Irish have fifth-year senior Jarron Jones penciled in alongside sophomore Jerry Tillery, when VanGorder talks you’d be wise to listen.

While neither Tillery nor Jones were around yesterday to hear the third-year defensive coordinators comments, you can guess the message has been sent.

“If we started tomorrow, I am not sure who the starters would be,” VanGorder said. “I have an idea, but it’s going to be competitive going into training camp. No one has established themselves as a starter at the defensive tackle position. We will keep it competitive and see if we can grow and develop some young players.”

While we’ll get to see some of the young talent VanGorder referenced on the ascending defensive line, with Pete Mokwuah, Jonathan Bonner, Micah Dew-Treadway, Jay Hayes, Khalid Kareem, Elijah Taylor and Brandon Tiassum a strong core who could pick up some of the slack.

But these jobs needed to be seized by both Jones and Tillery, two mountainous men who could both wreak havoc against opposing offenses. Let’s see if the live action brings out the best in them.

 

For Folston, Crawford and Tranquill, getting onto the field for the Blue-Gold Game is gravy. 

That Tarean Folston, Shaun Crawford and Drue Tranquill have all rebounded and reasserted their position on the depth chart is impressive. Because in year’s past, they’d likely have spent 15 practices rehabilitating their knees and sitting in the cold tub.

The Irish’s trio of bad luck, season-ruining knees have all had ahead-of-schedule recoveries. Folston has reasserted himself at the top of the running back depth chart. Crawford has played his way into the conversation to start opposite Cole Luke when he’s not anchored into the all important job working in the slot. And Tranquill—two ACL tears in two seasons—is ready to go from the cold tub to the starting strong safety job.

How this trio is used on Saturday is anybody’s guess. But it’s already been a successful spring for three key contributors who worked hard to make it back to spring ball ahead of schedule.

 

With the depth chart open in front of him, Saturday could be a preview of Torii Hunter’s 2016 coming out party. 

After entering Notre Dame recovering from a horrific leg injury suffered at the Army All-American All-Star game, wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr.‘s career got off to a slow start. But after a redshirt and two years working his way into the rotation, don’t be shocked if Hunter tries making up for lost time on Saturday.

Expected to become Notre Dame’s next No. 1 receiver with Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle all gone, Hunter may have punched his own ticket to a monster statistical season. That’s what should happen when you run a 4.42 40-yard dash and have the ability to play anywhere on the field (even defense—Hunter was the staff’s choice to cross-train as a defensive back when the Irish went searching for a nickel back.)

Finally at the top of the food chain and also tasked with teaching a young group of talent with Corey Robinson still out with lingering concussion symptoms, don’t be surprised if Hunter decides leading by example is the best course of action, getting vertical on Saturday and running by every defensive back at least once.

Hunter’s a below-the-radar player who is primed for a breakthrough in 2016. Coming off of a 28-catch, 363-yard season, not too many people will see it coming.

So maybe Kelly is happy to let him stay off the grid, leaving spring to some impressive youth and Hunter to announce his presence once he arrives in Austin on Labor Day Weekend.

 

The kids are going to be all right. 

Keep an eye out for some of the quick studies earning a lot of kudos from the coaching staff. Early enrollee freshmen Devin Studstill (No. 13) and Kevin Stepherson (No. 29) may have numbers that look like they should belong to walk-ons, but both have been dynamic this spring. Studstill is challenging Max Redfield for playing time at free safety. Stepherson has already found his way into the two-deep, a three-star receiver who already looks the part of an ankle-breaking playmaker.

After preserving a year of eligibility last season, linebackers Asmar Bilal and Josh Barajas will get more playing time than they can handle on Saturday. Both Indiana natives have had to learn through the firehouse as Mike Elston’s had just four healthy scholarship linebackers during spring ball. Both could take that momentum onto the field next spring, with Bilal in the conversation for the starting Will linebacker job.

While a new load of reinforcements will be on campus in June, a few defensive backs who spent 2015 watching now have a chance to charge into battle. We already talked about Crawford. But Ashton White also looks like a physical corner who has crossover abilities at safety. Redshirt freshman Miles Boykin could be another matchup problem as a receiver, the beneficiary of Corey Robinson’s missed practice time at the boundary wide receiver.

We’ve seen glimpses from emerging contributors like Equanimeous St. Brown, Dexter Williams, Alizé Jones (likely to spend some time with Boykin at W receiver), while Tristen Hoge fights for time at guard. All have essentially taken this spring as a chance to fight for a significant in the rotation.

Expect one (or more) of these names to have a big Saturday.

 

Take it from Junior Jabbie. Not all spring game performances are created equal. 

A clutch touchdown catch from Justin Brent and Corey Holmes sharing the team lead with three catches. Jhonny Williams and Grant Blankenship notching sacks. Max Redfield running an interception back for a touchdown. None of those occurrences in last year’s Blue-Gold game were signs of big things to come in 2015.

Of course, the flip-side is also true. Before he shattered most first-year quarterback records in South Bend, DeShone Kizer was getting outplayed by Montgomery VanGorder, hitting rock bottom with a 1-of-5 performance for three total yards, taking a safety and sack in a game where he wasn’t even full contact.

Spring games reveal themselves in different ways. Junior Jabbie will go down in Irish lore for a spring game performance that netted him an MVP trophy. He was never heard from again. John Owens was unblockable in the 2000 Blue-Gold game, notching three sacks. That was triple his career total. Chris Olsen went from MVP to quarterback transfer, a dozen years before Everett Golson pulled the same chute.

Last year, we saw clues of the team that emerged in the fall.  Notre Dame’s offensive line was a strength, C.J. Prosise‘s switch to running back looked natural. But this is also just 1/15th of spring drills—and the only ones broadcast to fans (and opposing coaches) trying to glean anything from an Irish team filled with unknowns.

I’m often reminded of comments former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco made when he discussed his first defense’s performance in his inaugural Blue-Gold game in South Bend. He was pleased with their effort, happy they executed the gameplan he delivered. Then he revealed they’ll never play that scheme again.

Happy Blue-Gold game.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.