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Five things we learned: Texas 50, Notre Dame 47

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Notre Dame’s 2016 season begins with a loss. And the explanation for it is both simple and confounding.

The Irish lost because Brian VanGorder’s defense was no match for a Texas offense trotting out a freshman starter and a new system. They lost because they gave up three opportunities for DeShone Kizer to drive the Irish for touchdowns—something he did six times.

They lost because another offseason installing a defensive system somehow once again forgot some universal truths that every armchair quarterback in America knows all too well.

There will be positive takeaways. Young players stepping forward, like Equanimeous St. Brown and Shaun Crawford. A resiliency that didn’t leave town with the senior class from 2015, a 17-point deficit erased as the Irish fought to get the game to overtime.

But ultimately, seven seasons into his tenure in South Bend, Brian Kelly knows the score.

“There’s no moral victories,” Kelly said postgame. “Losing is losing”

Let’s find out the five things we learned.

 

Three seasons into Brian VanGorder’s tenure as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator, his unit is the same as it ever was. 

Notre Dame’s last three big games—Stanford, Ohio State and now Texas—are a stark reminder that the Irish defense isn’t fit for primetime. Not when Tyrone Swoopes and D'Onta Foreman are pinballing through would-be tacklers. Not when Shane Buechele is getting started writing his Texas-sized legend, beating Irish defensive backs over the top. And especially not when a group of intelligent student-athletes seem to always find the banana peel to slip on in the game’s critical moments.

VanGorder’s unit—young for certain, after having to replace its well-established nucleus—was learning on the job Saturday. But failing is failing, and Kelly’s warnings to anybody that would listen about the pace of Texas’s offense seemed to be ignored by the 11 guys caught flat-footed to open the football game.

The Irish gave up 517 yards and 50 points to the Texas offense. They let Buechele throw for 280 yards on just 16 completions. They gave up big plays over the top, chain-movers in the trenches and allowed seven scores on seven red zone appearances.

More maddening, they looked lost when everybody in the stadium seemed to know what was coming but them. They failed again and again in the red zone. And with the game on the line and the Irish needing to make a stand, it was hard enough to get the right personnel on the field, let alone make a big play.

Those days of the simple-yet-consistent unit that bent but didn’t break under Bob Diaco? Gone faster than Jon Tenuta dialing up another blitz call on 3rd-and-long.

Credit certainly goes to a Texas team with intriguing and emerging talent at skill positions, not to mention three bulldozers in Swoopes, Foreman and Chris Warren. But game one of 2016 reminds many that the highest paid assistant coach in Notre Dame history isn’t getting his job done.

 

Brian Kelly wouldn’t say it after the game. But DeShone Kizer needs to be Notre Dame’s starting quarterback. 

It’s hardly a bold statement.

Not after Kizer propped the Irish offense on his shoulders and carried them back into the football game. Completing 15 of 24 passes for 215 yards and five touchdowns, while running for 77 more yards and another score, Kizer’s six scores will find their way into the record books as one of the best losing performances in school history.

But you can’t help but wonder what he’d have done with three more series—especially when Charlie Strong admitted postgame that his game plan for Zaire was to crowd the box and dare the lefty to beat him with his arm.

Zaire didn’t—and couldn’t, only throwing five times while harassed by the swarming Longhorns defense on all three of his series. And while Kelly wouldn’t make any declaration about where the offense would go moving quickly towards the home opener against Nevada, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where Kizer doesn’t lead the offense moving forward.

Pinning this loss on the quarterback shuffle isn’t fair. Not when it was the defense giving up six yards a play and seven scores in seven red zone appearances. And Zaire can still play a role in this offense–just one that looks much more like what Tyrone Swoopes was doing, not as a co-leading man.

The worst-case scenario at quarterback just hit the Irish like the punch to the jaw the Longhorns delivered—Kelly’s quarterback battle took a loss to find his starter.

 

Without Torii Hunter, Notre Dame’s wide receiving corps is lost. 

Notre Dame’s offense was irreparably harmed when senior receiver Torii Hunter took a vicious hit in the end zone, a shot to the head that by any definition of college football’s targeting rule should have resulted in a first down and ejection.

Brian Kelly was incredulous postgame, unable to understand how Texas safety DeShon Elliott’s hit to Hunter’s head didn’t draw a flag—or further review by the Big 12 officiating crew in charge of the replay booth. But perhaps more disappointing than the loss of Hunter for the rest of the game as he went to the locker room to be evaluated for a concussion was the state of Notre Dame’s receiving corps without their senior captain.

The Irish looked lost without Hunter on the field. Other than the perfect strike Kizer floated to Josh Adams in the corner of the end zone, the veteran quarterback completed just one other throw downfield for the rest of the game, connecting with CJ Sanders on a chain-moving third-down conversion for six yards.

Never was Kizer’s discomfort with his receivers more apparent than on his chance to win the game in regulation. With the game tied and the Irish offense given over three minutes to march down the field, Kizer took a sack when no receiver turned to look as an outside blitz came. Then, with communication difficult to the outside of the formation, Kelly chose to run on 3rd-and-12, keeping the ball on the ground and away from his inexperienced receivers in a crunch-time moment.

Learning on the job was always expected. But without Hunter as a foundation, the Irish receivers looked lost.

 

Newcomers Equanimeous St. Brown and Shaun Crawford made big-time debuts. 

Sophomore Equanimous St. Brown isn’t going to be Will Fuller. But he did a pretty good impression on Sunday night, catching two touchdowns among his five grabs for 75 yards.

The lanky target, who flew under the radar this spring and preseason as other options emerged, quickly established himself as Notre Dame’s big play receiver. His nifty footwork converted a nicely thrown fade from Kizer on the game’s opening drive. His acrobatic hand plant made for another highlight-worthy touchdown grab. Two scores in his first start are a promising debut to a receiver who only managed one catch all last season.

Crawford’s debut was just as impactful. While he was on the wrong end of a deep pass in the first half, the sophomore’s first game after sitting out all of last season after an August ACL injury was everything you could’ve advertised.

Crawford’s first career interception turned the momentum of the game, setting up the Irish with a short field and easy touchdown. His two-point conversion return on a blocked extra point was the exact type of play we’d only heard of Crawford making—the right guy in the right place at the right time.

It’s tough to take too much comfort after a gutting loss like the one the Irish just experienced, but two young standouts expected to play big roles on this team seem poised for big seasons.

 

One loss does not make a season. But fixing what ails this team is Job No. 1 for Brian Kelly and his staff. 

Notre Dame’s goals for the season are still intact. Especially on a wild weekend that saw major shakeups in the Pac-12, Big 12 and SEC. So while no team should need a wake-up call after one week, perhaps it was necessary for Brian Kelly’s young team.

In case you needed a reminder, there’s going to be some heavy lifting this season. That’s what happens when you return just seven starters, replacing multiple All-Americans on both sides of the ball and are admittedly still searching for your offensive and defensive identity heading into the season.

There’s plenty of good to take away from Sunday night—though you might have to look harder at the defensive side of the ball to find it. But it’s going to take some hard coaching to make sure this group doesn’t lose control, as eight penalties, including a personal foul on middle linebacker Nyles Morgan, made quite evident.

There’s plenty of time to question tactics—the choice of playing a mostly three-down front still has me scratching my head. But coaching is done presnap. It’s up to the players to make tackles and cover receivers, or pick up blitzers and convert tough first downs.

On a Sunday night that’ll be remembered for a long time in Austin, the first sellout crowd since the 2013 season got what they paid for.

And unfortunately, Notre Dame leaves footing the bill.

 

 

Avery Davis’ move bumps Notre Dame’s RB depth from dire to versatile

Associated Press
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It may not be what Avery Davis always imagined, but his move to running back at least gets him on the field in a Notre Dame jersey. From a practical standpoint, Davis offers more than just running back depth amid a depleted Irish backfield. His move from quarterback to running back/receiver creates a new possibility of playmaking. That concept was the primary reason the sophomore welcomes the position switch rather than dreads it.

Davis’ motivations are that pure and simple. After spending the 2017 season preserving a year of eligibility and watching quarterbacks Brandon Wimbush and Ian Book both prove more than capable, Davis could see his chances at quarterbacking for Notre Dame dwindling. The prospect of another year with a similar view was not one to which he looked forward.

“I love the quarterback position, I’ve played it my whole life,” Davis said following the Blue-Gold Game. “But that redshirt season, to be standing on the sidelines knowing you could make an impact, knowing you could make plays, that pushed me into this.

“… What I’m really trying to do is help the team however I can.”

The Irish coaching staff’s motivations are undoubtedly as pure, regarding helping the team however Davis can, but one may wonder if the move would have happened if not for the dismissal of half the running back depth chart following the Citrus Bowl victory over LSU. Regardless, Notre Dame had a need, and Davis’ natural skills can now help fill it.

“It was a mutual understanding,” Davis said. “… I knew they were serious, because I was serious, too. Week two [of spring practices] I got my chance and that’s when it started clicking.”

By the end of spring practice, Davis had pushed his way firmly into the running back rotation, with a few cameos at receiver, as well. He finished the Blue-Gold Game with 30 rushing yards on 11 carries and 24 receiving yards on two catches, to go along with 2-for-2 passing for 26 yards in the closing moments.

The presence of a viable rushing and receiving threat plays right into the hands of Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long’s preferences. The mere presence of Davis on the field will put defenses into compromising positions. At least, that will be the theory.

It will likely not be long into the season when Davis first lines up in the backfield before motioning into the slot position, thus exposing more of the defense’s blitz and coverage intentions, if not outright forcing adjustments to them. Not long after that, Davis will at some point line up wide only to take a jet sweep a la Cam Smith in 2017’s first month and Kevin Stepherson in the latter half of the year.

These are the dilemmas created by a multi-dimensional threat such as Davis appears to be. Sure, it was just the spring game, but it showed the wrinkles he can create. No one else currently among Notre Dame’s running backs or receivers offers such a variety. Sophomore receiver Michael Young may come the closest, but his frame is not designed for the beating of a running back’s workload.

Nor is Davis’ at this point, necessarily, but he knows as much.

“It’s just more of a physical toll on your body,” he said when asked of the greatest difference from the quarterback position. “You take more hits. That’s something that comes with being in the weight room.”

Atop Davis’ offseason to-do list is add more muscle across the chest and in the shoulders. Next will be to work on his routes and pass-catching skills. As far as reading the defense’s approach, quarterback prepared him for that. His focus is now slightly different, looking for gaps at the line rather than gauging coverage holes, but the underlying skills are the same.

Along with the potential poised by Davis’ position switch and the inherent disclaimers attached to any spring successes, two more aspects of the sophomore’s future should be explicitly noted. First of all, he does not let slip even the slightest misgiving about the move from football’s glamor position. Davis knew what the Irish depth chart looked like when he arrived at Notre Dame, and he knew who had already committed in the following class in consensus four-star Phil Jurkovec.

“When it comes down to it, I love playing the game,” Davis said. “Wasn’t too hard for me. It was a personal decision.

“It was a decision to come here, and I’m living with it. I’m really happy with it, to be honest.”

Secondly, this is a move the Irish coaching staff is committed to, but it retains the right to work Davis in at quarterback. Even Jurkovec’s arrival is unlikely to knock Davis from the spot of No. 3 quarterback to be deployed in emergency situations, lest Jurkovec burn a year of eligibility to offer a quarter’s worth of work.

“The conversation we had with Avery is, what do you want to do?” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “If you want to stay [at quarterback], right now it looks like it’s 1A, 1B, and you’re 3. You can stay in that position, or we think you’ve got some talents to help our offense. He wanted to do this.

“He doesn’t want to give up his ability to play quarterback down the road, but in the meantime, you need to play this year. This gives him that opportunity.”

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS/IS AT RUNNING BACK:
Without Davis and the move of sophomore Jafar Armstrong from receiver, the Irish had two upperclassmen and an early-enrolled freshman at running back this spring. Each of senior Dexter Williams (pictured above) and junior Tony Jones have shown the physical ability to be a loadbearing ballcarrier in the past, but neither has stayed healthy enough to grant peace of mind if in that role. Depth was needed.

Specifically in reference to Williams, Kelly acknowledged past restrictions due to Williams’ durability, or lack thereof.

“How long can you stay on the field?” Kelly said Saturday. “He seemed to be a guy that we couldn’t keep on the field very long. He had a really good spring. He wasn’t a guy that we had to pull out or wasn’t conditioned well enough.”

Much like Davis, Armstrong’s emergence this spring soothes some of those concerns. In the Blue-Gold Game, he finished with 48 yards on five carries along with one catch for 21 yards, showing decent quickness with a burst that will become only more decisive with more experience.

Armstrong should be more than capable of replacing Deon McIntosh as the No. 3 or 4 running back who can offer some modicum of production. In time, he could certainly become more than that.

Early-enrollee Jahmir Smith did about what one would expect from a high school senior taking part in collegiate practices, and that is meant as a compliment, but by no means did he lay the groundwork to force his way into the rotation by September.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WILL BE:
The Irish will welcome C’Bo Flemister as a sixth running back in the fall. Presuming health of the top four (Williams, Jones, Davis and Armstrong), Flemister should join Smith in spending a year in strength and conditioning, perhaps adding some special teams work. More likely, though, at least one of that initial quartet will suffer a plaguing injury, if not something worse, and the freshmen duo could be a sprained ankle away from being activated, just as C.J. Holmes was halfway through 2017.

ONE MORE NOTE, NFL DRAFT-WISE:
The NFL draft begins tonight (Thursday). Former Notre Dame running back Josh Adams will not hear his name called in the first round, but it is likely his name comes up Saturday, somewhere between late in the fourth round and the end of the sixth round.

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.