Pregame Six Pack: Back to the beginning

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With the Irish heading east to New York, Notre Dame faces a true big-city conundrum—sink or swim. Because this season is on the brink. And with a defensive coordinator already out the door, there are no other anvils for Brian Kelly to pull off of his ankle.

The Irish need to win on Saturday. They need to find a way to stop a Syracuse offense that’s moving at hyper-speed, while also taking advantage of an Orange defense that’s allowed offenses to do the same.

More than anything, this team needs to find stability. Whether it’s from the enthusiasm of interim defensive coordinator Greg Hudson or from the head coach pulling the strings on a defense that is beyond in need of a rebound, Kelly has steered this program out of rocky waters before, and his athletic director has given him the clear message that he trusts he’ll do it again.

Let’s get to the Pregame Six Pack. Because at 1-3, let’s face it—we need one. Here are six solutions that the Irish could use before high noon in the Meadowlands.

 

When in doubt, play aggressive. If there was a true sign that Brian VanGorder’s time at Notre Dame was up, it was the fact that as the veteran coach tried to seek a solution, he went further and further away from the things that gave his defense a chance to be successful.

As this unit found new and painful ways to give up points, they also threw gasoline on the fire. Because as they tried to protect against the big play or the painful drive, the defense spent more time on their heels and less time attacking.

There isn’t a world where this group will stop giving up big plays. Not with the young, inexperienced players learning on the job. And not with Syracuse moving so fast that even gutting the playbook’s inventory won’t stop the Irish from getting caught in some bad looks.

So if you know that, you might as well embrace it. You might as well hope that your defense can create some chaos in addition to absorbing it.

It may sound simple, but every big play this defense can create will be one more than we’ve seen of late. And even if “live fast, die fast” isn’t exactly the most inspiring mantra for your team’s defense, this team is way better off gambling on the big defensive play this scheme was supposed to provide, knowing that if it backfires, it’ll be no different than what we’ve seen and if it succeeds it’ll get Syracuse behind the chains.

 

Get your best 11 players on then field. Kelly has talked about an idea this simple in the past, and likely pulled his hair out when he realized that the variety of sub-packages, scheme tweaks and mental computation essentially limited the personnel that VanGorder even got to put on the field.

That explains why Andrew Trumbetti played 57 snaps last week and Jay Hayes played none. That explains why Joe Schmidt led the defense in snaps last season and Nyles Morgan couldn’t get on the field.

Kelly is a coach who understands basic principles. He’s won using them, beating teams that had more with less—doing it routinely at Grand Valley, Central Michigan and Cincinnati. So think of this less as a cliche than a reminder that a little garage logic sometimes helps.

Get your best guys on the field. Because good players usually win the battle in front of them. And ultimately, you need to be able to do more than handle the mental load of VanGorder’s scheme.

 

Get a dominant game from your offense. For all the heat Kelly took last week in his “call out” of players, he had a point about DeShone Kizer‘s play. Notre Dame’s star quarterback is too good to make the kind of mistakes he made last weekend.

More over, the offense, on whole, was rather unimpressive. The ground game couldn’t dominate. The turnovers killed momentum. And the fits and starts were enough to get Kelly as aggravated as we’ve seen him in years.

Notre Dame is a double-digit favorite for a reason. Because its offense is one of the country’s best when it’s clicking, and its quarterback is an elite player when he’s on. Noon starts against mediocre programs is when an offense like this should dominate. Let’s see them do it.

 

Win in special teams. Two straight weeks the Irish have been on the wrong side of a touchdown. First, one taken away against Michigan State. Then, a return gifted to Duke that brought them back into the football game.

Hidden yards will be critical on Saturday. That means Tyler Newsome will need to get his first bad kick out of the way in warm-ups, no breakfast ball allowed on Ryder Cup Saturday. Justin Yoon will need to convert when he’s called upon. And CJ Sanders should have opportunities, it’ll be up to him to seize them.

It’s worth remembering that special teams has been a place where Kelly has tried to jump start his team before. Against Utah in 2010 it was with a punt block by Robert Blanton and a forced fumble on kickoff coverage by Kyle McCarthy. Kelly also stole a touchdown in the Tulsa game, hoping that excellent fake punt conversion would buoy a team that was still reeling from losing and the tragedy of Declan Sullivan that week.

So if the timing is right, expect Kelly to try and steal something on special teams this Saturday, especially if it can be a momentum builder.

 

Find some kind of consistency in the red zone. Want good news? Syracuse stinks in the red zone. The not so good news? So have Brian VanGorder’s defenses.

But VanGorder is out and a simplified scheme is in. And perhaps the best thing to ask for isn’t a new scheme or installation, but rather some calm before the snap, knowing an assignment for at least a few seconds before it’s time to do battle.

The Irish defense has been known to be the cure to the common red zone ills, but it’s critical to keep the Orange’s touchdown rate down at the mediocre levels where it currently exists. Getting Kizer and the Irish offense to punch in their scoring tickets for seven points and not three and you don’t need to be a math major to understand the Irish would easily win that shootout.

 

Play the game like tough gentlemen. Remember that slogan? Kelly all but co-opted it from Stanford back in the day, but it had a nice ring to it. And on Saturday, the Irish need to play like tough gentlemen—willing to win the battle in the trenches on defense and exert their will on offense.

This season that toughness got lost in the defensive ineptitude and also disappeared as Kizer found comfort in the quick throws and piloting the ground game with an extra hat in the numbers game.

But the “mental and physical toughness” that we heard BK mention a few hundred times over the last few years, that’s been missing. And after a string of losses that have this program feeling down, it’s time to return to the basic tenets Kelly tried to install those first few years.

Football is a violent game A true contact sport. It’s time for Notre Dame’s talent discrepancy to be matched by their size and strength advantage.  They need to dominate mentally and physically.

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 88 Javon McKinley, receiver

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-2, 220 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Sophomore with three seasons of eligibility remaining including the 2017 season
Depth chart: McKinley spent this spring behind junior Miles Boykin at the W-receiver position, also known as the boundary receiver. In offensive coordinator Chip Long’s up-tempo scheme, though, receivers must learn multiple positions, so it may be more accurate to say McKinley is among a second-tier of options including the likes of juniors Chris Finke and C.J. Sanders, all behind a current starting group of Boykin, junior Equanimeous St. Brown and sophomore Chase Claypool.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star recruit and U.S. Army All-American

CAREER TO DATE
McKinley appeared in seven games last season but recorded no other statistics. A late-October broken leg cut his freshman campaign short and also kept him somewhat limited in spring practice. (Notre Dame’s official 2016 statistics list McKinley as having appeared in seven games, including the season finale against USC. Without finding footage of that game and watching every snap, it is quite possible that is a mistake and McKinley appeared in only six games. Frankly, there is no difference between six games and seven in this instance.)

QUOTE(S)
Whenever Irish coach Brian Kelly spoke of McKinley this spring, it was in reference to an injury, be that of his own and his recovery or of another receiver’s aggravation providing McKinley more chances to impress.

“He’s such a big kid, I think the red jersey should go on the guy that’s going against him,” Kelly said toward the end of spring in reference to McKinley’s non-contact designation. “He always gets the other guy hurt.

“He’s a good player. He just needs to get out there. He’s gotten behind a little bit, but he’s going to help us in the fall. He’s a good player.”

Earlier in spring practice, a hamstring issue limited St. Brown for a day or two. In his absence, McKinley indeed got out there and caught up a bit.

“It was a great opportunity for Javon in there,” Kelly said. “We think we can get him some more work as we progress.”

McKinley capitalizing on St. Brown’s absence shows the fluid nature of the receiver positions in Long’s offense. (For further explanation, see this discussion of the Irish receiver depth from early April.)

WHAT KEITH ARNOLD PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
I think McKinley’s too good to keep off the field. But I also think his freshman ceiling will be in line with the better of Brian Kelly’s young receivers, so I’m still going to put a cap on his season totals around 15-20 catches.

“If McKinley were the early enrollee, I think all of us would’ve been buzzing about him instead of Stepherson. And those 15 practices might be enough to give Stepherson the nod over McKinley, though the latter is far more game-ready from a physicality standpoint.

“Regardless, Notre Dame’s young receivers—Stepherson, McKinley and Chase Claypool—might be the most exciting incoming class at a position that I’ve seen in my time covering the Irish, so while it’s too early to say it, McKinley could be the best of the bunch.”

2017 OUTLOOK
Even without the leg injury, McKinley was going to fall far short of Keith’s optimistic projections. That is partly due to the Irish depth at receiver, including some breakout performances in 2016, and that is partly due to Keith pondering McKinley-to-Michael Floyd comparisons, at which point the scribe native to Minneapolis may have gotten distracted by Floyd’s unique skillset.

This season, that depth chart is still not going to do McKinley any favors. St. Brown, Claypool and Stepherson all showed magnificent flashes last season, and Boykin was the primary praised receiver throughout the spring.

Nonetheless, Keith’s optimism was based off McKinley’s sheer size, and it cannot be denied. It fits right alongside the likes of the presumptive starting trio, meaning McKinley should be able to fill in for either the boundary or the field receiver whenever needed. Do not look only for McKinley to match Keith’s year-ago projection of 15-20 catches, but also look for some of those to come in pivotal situations, providing first downs or breaking open stagnant drives.

DOWN THE ROAD
Projecting McKinley’s future is much like projecting his 2017, as no Irish receiver will be out of eligibility following the season, and only St. Brown looks the part of a possible NFL Draft entry following his junior year. Emphasis on possible.

That said, if McKinley can gain the coaches’ and Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s trust, the provided depth at the receiver position may be the easiest spot on the field to capitalize on it, theoretically to McKinley’s benefit.


2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
No. 95 (theoretically): Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle
No. 94 (theoretically): Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92 (theoretically): Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 90 (theoretically): Cole Kmet, tight end
No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 89 Brock Wright, tight end

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-4 ½, 252 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Early enrolled freshman with four seasons of eligibility remaining
Depth chart: Wright joined the deepest position on the Notre Dame roster at his first opportunity, and by doing so he inserted himself into the mix for playing time behind fifth-year senior Durham Smythe and junior Alizé Mack. Wright will have a legitimate chance to pass seniors Nic Weishar and Tyler Luatua, if he hasn’t already, for pass-catching opportunities this season. Classmate Cole Kmet will fill out the positional group this summer, but that simple delay will likely keep him on the sidelines in 2017.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star recruit, Wright was the top-ranked tight end in the country per rivals.com.

QUOTE(S)
Offensive coordinator Chip Long’s offense often calls for two tight ends, and his track record includes a predilection to include multiple tight ends in the passing game, not just the rushing game. With that in mind, Irish coach Brian Kelly forecast a possibility of Wright seeing playing time this season along with some of the upperclassmen.

“We can play four of those tight ends as receivers,” Kelly said this spring. “We think there’s great versatility. You know Durham Smythe has really made great strides. He’s been very impressive. I think Alizé and Nic Weishar and Brock Wright and all of those guys can all be on the field and you can detach them. You can’t say I’m not going to cover them when they have to the ability to impact what we’re doing.”

For his part, Long keeps in mind Wright’s youth but still sees the vast potential not far from realization.

“[He’s] figuring things out right now. He probably had his best practice the other day,” Long said the day before the Blue-Gold Game. “He’s been out of high school for four months, but he’s one of the hardest workers. …

“His potential is through the roof. He’s a great kid, great worker, been a lot of fun seeing him grow these last few weeks. His head was spinning the first part of spring ball, but I think he’s kind of settling in, going out there playing with more confidence. You can see it in the last couple practices.”

WHAT KEITH ARNOLD SAID UPON WRIGHT’S EARLY ENROLLMENT
Wright is a highly sought-after talent at tight end, a position that’ll welcome their entire depth chart back, and also Alizé [Mack], who missed last season after academic issues.”

2017 OUTLOOK
Wright’s early enrollment sets him on a fast track to playing time in 2017, even if behind both Smythe and Mack. It does not seem to be putting the cart before the horse to think Wright has already passed by Luatua and Weishar in the general offensive plan. Perhaps those two seniors could be utilized more in run-specific situations, but Wright should fit well into Long’s scheme.

This is where remembering Long’s history using tight ends is quite pertinent. Most notably, last season Memphis’ top two tight ends caught a combined 36 passes for 423 yards and five touchdowns with Long as offensive coordinator. For context, Irish tight ends last season totaled 12 catches for 159 yards and four scores.

Notre Dame’s grouping has much more talent than those statistics belie. When it comes to potency as a receiving threat, Wright may be second only to Mack. Smythe will remain ahead of the freshman due to his experience, and rightfully so, but Wright’s abilities should force him onto the field as the season progresses. Will he get into the end zone? That will be as much up to chance as anything else, but recording a few catches, perhaps even some first downs, would be a worthwhile contribution from the highly-touted tight end.

DOWN THE ROAD
If able to notch a few catches this season, Wright would give Long an idea of what he will have to work with in 2018. Smythe and Luatua will be gone next season, and it is hard to imagine Weishar earning an invitation back for a fifth year. At that point, Wright and Mack will be the top targets for Long’s two tight end system, and that is if Mack does not head to the NFL after this season.

In many respects, Wright’s nearly-assured primary role in 2018 is reason enough to expect imminent opportunities in 2017.


2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
No. 95 (theoretically): Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle
No. 94 (theoretically): Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92 (theoretically): Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 90 (theoretically): Cole Kmet, tight end

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Aside from the five early enrollees, the numbers are not yet known for the Irish freshmen class. That is one of the admitted drawbacks to organizing this summer-long series numerically. But a little bit of educated guessing can garner estimates for those numbers, and those estimates can allow the series to proceed without pause.

How are those estimates crafted? The first step is to take a look at certain NCAA rules. When it comes to an “end,” the NCAA limits them to Nos. 80-99. Looking at the Irish roster, this leaves only so many likely options for Kmet, hence slotting him at No. 90.

Cole Kmet very well may not wear No. 90, but it is possible, and, frankly, it should be close.


2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
No. 95 (theoretically): Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle
No. 94 (theoretically): Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92 (theoretically): Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DOWN THE ROAD

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

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

2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
No. 95 (theoretically): Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle
No. 94 (theoretically): Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92 (theoretically): Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle