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And in that corner… The Duke Blue Devils

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Notre Dame needs to turn the page. Desperate to get a win on Saturday and even their record at 2-2, a struggling Duke team might be just the answer.

Yet David Cutcliffe’s program is far from the doormat it once was. And even with a slow start to the 2015 season, the veteran head coach has won at least eight games in each of the last three seasons, including a Pinstripe Bowl win last year against Indiana.

But with the season seemingly derailed this August when returning starting quarterback Thomas Sirk suffered a torn achilles, Cutcliffe had to adapt. And to get us up to speed on that reboot is Amrith Ramkumar.

Ramukmar is a senior at Duke from Norman, Oklahoma. He’s the editor-in-chief emeritus on the school’s newspaper, The Chronicle, and now serves as the sports editor when he’s not studying political science.

Amrith went deep to get us up to speed on Saturday afternoon’s game.

 

 

Did the trajectory of this season change when Thomas Sirk went down in late August? How have David Cutcliffe and offensive coordinator Zac Roper adapted with Daniel Jones at the helm?

This is a difficult question to answer because no one really knows how healthy Sirk was before the season-ending injury—he was still recovering from the February Achilles tear when he suffered a partial tear that knocked him out of the season in August. With that said, all indications were that Sirk was recovering well and would have been available around this time of the season, so I would say the August injury still did change the trajectory of the season.

Not only was Sirk Duke’s leading passer and rusher last season, he was also the team’s undisputed leader and gave the offense an identity as a power-running team—something it has largely lacked through three games. With Jones at the helm, Duke is running its quarterback much less, which has made life easier for opposing defenses. Sirk averaged 4.9 yards per carry last year on a combination of both designed runs and heady scrambles when the pocket broke down, an element of the offense the Blue Devils could desperately use this year with a shaky offensive line.

Although it seems like Jones might be a better pure passer than Sirk, he does not have the offensive line or weapons on the outside to consistently make defenses pay for crowding the line of scrimmage. The result has been that Duke is forced to rely almost solely on its short passing game to move the football, and too often turnovers and penalties are making that strategy backfire.

 

After an early-season win in the opener, the Blue Devils have followed that with two tough losses, the first to Wake Forest and last Saturday to Northwestern. For Notre Dame fans who have been too busy wallowing in misery after their own team’s 1-2 start, can you quickly diagnose any of the major issues that have led to two somewhat surprising losses?

Cutcliffe said it best after the Northwestern game—Duke has been consistently inconsistent in every aspect of the game. Offensively, the Blue Devil offensive line has struggled to open holes for two of Duke’s most talented players in running backs Jela Duncan and Shaun Wilson, which is putting too much pressure on Jones to carry the load with his arm. The Blue Devils have been one of the most disciplined teams in the nation the past four years, but so far in 2016 are beating themselves with 10 turnovers through three games and more than seven penalties per contest.

Duke’s defense has had several bright spots, shutting Wake Forest down early in that game then eventually slowing down Northwestern’s running game. But when the offense starts floundering, the defense is easily worn down, and in the second half of both games the Blue Devils gave up several explosive plays that decided the game.

The major issues extend to the kicking game as well. The Blue Devils had two four-time All-ACC kickers in kicker Ross Martin and punter Will Monday graduate last spring, and their replacements have again taken away a critical part of the team’s identity. True freshman kicker A.J. Reed has missed three field goals inside 40 yards and redshirt freshman punter Austin Parker has also looked uncomfortable, dropping a perfect snap against Northwestern to set up the Wildcats’ go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter.

All of that uncertainty in all three phases has compounded, and the result is that Duke has just 27 points in its last 10 quarters.

 

Defensively, Jim Knowles unit has held up thus far — though it struggled to stop the run against Wake Forest and then gave up big plays through the air against Northwestern. Offensive hasn’t necessarily been the problem for DeShone Kizer and Notre Dame. How should they attack the Blue Devils’ defense?

As you mentioned, Duke’s defense has been solid in the first half this season, but once the Blue Devils get worn down, they begin to crack. Notre Dame should use Kizer’s mobility and its strength up front to force Duke to commit extra bodies near the line of scrimmage and shut down the running game. That should open up big-play opportunities through the air as the game wears on, and if Notre Dame can keep its early drives alive and make the Duke defense tire, the Fighting Irish offense should have another big game.

 

Conversely, Notre Dame’s defense has struggled from Day One, though held up against Nevada just fine. With a slow start to the season, is Duke’s offense poised to break out this Saturday? And if so, who are your candidates for a big weekend?

Duke’s offense doesn’t look like it’s poised to break out, simply because it keeps getting in its own way after crossing midfield. The Blue Devils do have talent on that side of the ball at skill positions, though, and if they can protect Jones, I would expect Duke to try to get Wilson and wideout Chris Taylor the ball in space.

Wilson is one of the Blue Devils’ fastest players and has nice hands coming out of the backfield—his 39-yard reception against Northwestern set up Duke’s only touchdown. I could see Cutcliffe and Roper coming up with some creative ways to get Wilson involved just to see if they can jump-start the offense, and the same can be said for Taylor.

Taylor is one of the few Blue Devil receivers with the speed to get behind the defense. Against Wake Forest, that resulted in one of the Blue Devil’s longest passes of the season, and against Northwestern he broke free again but Jones could not complete the pass. When protected, Jones has shown he can throw a nice deep ball, so if Notre Dame gives the redshirt freshman enough time, I could see Taylor having a breakout game with the Fighting Irish likely focusing on starters T.J. Rahming and Anthony Nash.

 

David Cutcliffe is becoming too well-recognized to retain his title as the country’s most under-appreciated head coach. But can you help explain what a good job he’s done at Duke? And while it was well before your time following the team, can you let Irish fans know what they missed out on when Cutcliffe had to leave Charlie Weis’ first coaching staff because of health issues?

The stat that I still struggle to wrap my head around is that in the eight years before Duke hired Cutcliffe, the Blue Devils won 10 football games. In places like South Bend and my hometown of Norman, Okla., 10 is considered about par for the course in a season. The fact that Duke went 10-2 in the 2013 regular season and won 48 games in Cutcliffe’s first eight years is pretty remarkable.

The Blue Devils are in a tough spot this season, but the overall talent level has increased immeasurably since he arrived. It’s becoming common for Duke fans to turn on NFL games and see former Duke players like Laken Tomlinson, Jamison Crowder and Ross Cockrell playing on Sundays. It’s no longer a shock when recruits at quarterback and running back are turning down the nation’s best programs to come to Durham, and the team’s facilities and talent level are starting to reflect that. The way Cutcliffe has prioritized bringing in the right type of players and coaches for Duke’s program has drawn comparisons to what Coach K did for the basketball team during his first 10 years, and up to this point the results have backed it up. Cutcliffe has simply transformed the football culture at the school.

As far as what Notre Dame missed out on, I have just been struck with how Cutcliffe has managed to adapt his system to different personnel so far at Duke. He is known as a quarterback guru, but actually has not had top-tier recruits to work with at that position. Yet he still got amazing production out of Sean Renfree, Anthony Boone and Sirk last year. Whether it was finding more ways to get Crowder the ball in space or using the quarterback more as a designed runner, he always seems to work out the right formula to get the job done. It has not come together yet so far this season, but I’ll be shocked if the Blue Devils don’t make major strides by the time the year is finished.

 

Notre Dame opens up as pretty heavy favorites — 17 points. What’s the perfect recipe for a Duke upset?

The recipe for Duke is simple—the Blue Devils have to run the ball to shorten the game and win the turnover battle for the first time this season. Whether it’s using Jones or backup Parker Boehme, Duncan, Wilson or even another running back, Duke has almost no chance if it lets Notre Dame tee off on Jones. If the Blue Devils can keep the Fighting Irish defense honest and avoid the mistakes that have haunted them lately, they could give themselves a chance.

Duke’s defense has come up with some big plays this year and has been much more effective rushing the passer. If it can force Kizer into some mistakes and finally capitalize on offense and special teams, the Blue Devils could keep this one close. Ultimately, I see Notre Dame’s superior talent in the trenches wearing Duke down once again, but if the Blue Devils can finally get their offensive line comfortable, they could surprise the home team.

 

Nick Watkins announces transfer from Notre Dame

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With the announcement from fifth-year cornerback Nick Watkins he will seek a graduate transfer from Notre Dame, it may seem the Irish cornerback depth is taking a massive hit. It was actually that depth that likely spurred Watkins’ decision.

The Texas native announced his decision to transfer Thursday afternoon on Twitter.

“When I decided to attend Notre Dame, my primary goal was to earn a degree from this prestigious University,” Watkins wrote, “and I’m proud to say that I’ll achieve that goal.”

Watkins started nine games in 2017 before knee tendonitis slowed him, giving now-junior Troy Pride an opening to take the lead role opposite junior Julian Love. Pride played well and has continued that progress this spring, knocking Watkins from a starting role. Furthermore, senior Shaun Crawford saw some time at cornerback this spring, rather than focusing solely on nickelback, creating even more viable competition at cornerback.

Thus, Watkins will head elsewhere after making 37 career tackles in 35 games with the Irish, including 29 tackles last season with eight pass breakups and one interception. Watkins missed all of his junior season with a broken arm. Since he will graduate before transferring, Watkins will be immediately eligible wherever he ends up.

Notre Dame will also have four more cornerbacks joining the fray this summer when incoming freshmen D.J. Brown, Noah Boykin, Joe Wilkins and Tariq Bracy arrive.

The Irish roster still sits at a projected 87 scholarships for the coming fall, two over the maximum allowed by the NCAA.

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.