And in that corner… The Virginia Tech Hokies

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Notre Dame’s ACC partnership yields a new opponent this weekend, as Virginia Tech and the Irish meet for the first time. After Frank Beamer took his alma mater to unparalleled heights and a national profile on the football field, he turned the program over to Justin Fuente, and the former Memphis coach has done big things in his first year in Blacksburg.

With transfer quarterback Jerod Evans behind center, Fuente has the Hokies offense back on track. Inheriting long-time defensive coordinator Bud Foster keeps Virginia Tech’s defense among the most aggressive and stingy in the country.

To get us ready for this weekend’s game, I’m joined by Faizan Hasnany, the sports editor for the Collegiate Times, the student newspaper at Virginia Tech. Born in Pakistan and raised in Northern Virginia, Faizan is a senior studying Business Information Technology with a passion for sports analytics.

In the middle of a chaotic week and a packed course load, he took some time to get us educated on the Hokies. Hope you enjoy.
* The change from Frank Beamer to Justin Fuente appeared (from afar) to be one of the best transitions from coaching legend to new leader. Can you speak to the job Fuente has done so far, and how he’s handled taking over for the guy who essentially built the Hokies into what they are?

Justin Fuente has done an incredible job so far taking over for Frank Beamer, and has really won over the fanbase at Virginia Tech. It was definitely a very smooth tranistion for him, since Beamer left behind so much returning talent on both sides of the ball and since the Hokies did retain Bud Foster at defensive coordinator.

The one thing that sticks out to me about Fuente is that he doesn’t show a lot of emotion particularly after wins and losses. He is a firm believer in going 1-0 in each week, a statement that is echoed by him and his players numerous times in every press conference.

 

* Jerod Evans is having a big season. His two interceptions against Georgia Tech doubled his season total and he’s thrown 22 touchdown passes while being the Hokies leading rusher. There were great expectations for the JUCO transfer before he arrived. Has he exceeded them?

Surprisingly, with Jerod Evans, despite being such a highly touted JUCO recruit, nobody was truly certain until the season started that he would be Tech’s starting quarterback. Evans and redshirt-senior Brenden Motley, who filled in as the starter for Michael Brewer most of last season, split first team reps throughout the entire offseason.

That being said, Evans undoubtedly exceeded expectations, and is on his way to surpassing Tyrod Taylor’s record for most passing touchdowns in a season of 24. He has also led the Hokies in every rushing category with 608 yards on 132 attempts and six touchdowns on the ground.

 

* Hiring Fuente felt like a coup for Virginia Tech. But getting Bud Foster to stay as defensive coordinator may have been even bigger. How has that relationship been, considering some people expected Foster to be the guy who took over for Beamer when he hung them up?

Retaining Bud Foster as defensive coordinator was huge for Virginia Tech. In addition to his abilities as a defensive coordinator and recruiter, Foster has also been important by just giving the Hokies continuity and easing the transition between head coaches.

The relationship between Fuente and Foster seems great so far, with Fuente granting Foster the freedom to just keep doing what he has been all these years as the main defensive playcaller for the Hokies.

 

* Tremaine Edmunds and Woody Baron are wreaking havoc behind the line of scrimmage for the Hokies, a combined 31 TFLs and 9 sacks between them. What do they do so well that allows them to be so disruptive? What other defenders will be key in slowing down DeShone Kizer and the Irish offense?

Both Woody Baron and Tremaine Edmunds are exceptionally athletic and quick at their positions, allowing them to get in the backfield with ease. Baron is very explosive off the ball and has great hands and technique.

Another player on the defensive end who will be a key in slowing down Kizer and the Irish offense will be Tremaine’s brother, Terrell Edmunds. Terrell has 61 tackles this year along with three interceptions and six passes defended and is extremely versatile at that rover position.

 

The lopsided loss to Georgia Tech seemed to be a huge let down. Was that a product of facing a triple-option opponent—something Irish fans know well—or an inconsistent team still learning how to play under a new head coach?

The loss to Georgia Tech showed on full display something that has plagued the Hokies defense consistently in recent years. Not specifically the triple option, but just mobile quarterbacks in general that the Tech defense has struggled with.

 

* Vegas has Notre Dame slightly favored at home on Senior Day, yet the Hokies are tied for 1st in the ACC Coastal division while the Irish are fighting for postseason eligibility. In the first ever matchup between these two programs, how big of a game is this for Hokie fans, and what does VT need to do to earn their eighth win?

This is definitely a big game for the Hokies being that it is the first matchup between the two and they don’t want to drop two games in a row at this point in the season, though it is probably a bigger game for the Irish, fighting for postseason eligibility. Since it is an out of conference match-up this game won’t have any implications on Tech’s chances at winning the division. Tech will need a consistent offensive performance up front from its line. Last week they allowed five sacks and were unable to create holes consistently to get the run game going.

 

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s defensive line, a returning strength

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Notre Dame returns eight of its top nine defensive linemen. Such a year-to-year retention is nearly beyond most possibilities, so it should not be understated how much that defensive line could determine any Irish success found in 2018.

Spring Roster:
— The theoretical starters: Rising junior Daelin Hayes at drop (pass-rushing) end, rising senior Jerry Tillery at three-technique (pass-rushing) tackle, fifth-year Jonathan Bonner at nose tackle and fifth-year Jay Hayes at strong-side (edge-setting) end.
— The likely second-unit: Rising junior Julian Okwara at drop end, rising sophomore Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa at three-tech, rising sophomore Kurt Hinish at nose and rising junior Khalid Kareem at strong-side end.
— The presumed third-stringers: Rising junior Ade Ogundeji at drop end, rising senior Micah Dew-Treadway at three-tech, rising sophomore Darnell Ewell at nose and rising sophomore Kofi Wardlow at strong-side end.

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman Justin Ademilola at drop end, incoming freshman Jayson Ademilola at three-tech and incoming freshman Ja’Mion Franklin at nose tackle.

Kurt Hinish was not expected to contribute much his freshman season. The fact that he provided genuine interior depth only sets the table for further Irish success along the defensive line in 2018. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
A lot of cross-training has and will occur among the defensive linemen, so nailing any one player down to the above position is a fool’s errand. Jay Hayes will be ready to move inside against quicker and lighter opponents, just like Justin Ademilola will dabble a bit in strong-side development to keep future options available, simply as examples.

Nonetheless, the primary rotation should carry over from last year with the exception of flipping Tillery and Bonner to three-tech and nose, respectively. Entering 2017, Bonner was not a sure thing to withstand the physical duties of the nose position, hence the alignment then.

Daelin Hayes and Okwara will spell each other enough to be sure there is always a viable pass-rush threat on the field. Ogundeji could possibly further that rotation, but he did not see much action last year and would need to progress greatly to do so in 2018; that is as much a credit to Hayes and Okwara as it is a criticism of Ogundeji, if not even more of the former.

Jay Hayes will feature against run-dominant opponents and obvious running situations, while Kareem will offer a strong pass-rush from that side when needed. If another year under the tutelage of strength and conditioning coordinator Matt Balis has furthered Kareem’s physicality, perhaps he will cut into Hayes’ snaps, but their frames alone emphasize the difference between the two. Last season, both were listed at or just shy of 6-foot-4, but Hayes carried an additional 24 pounds, 290 to 266.

Tagovailoa-Amosa and Hinish will keep Tillery and Bonner fresh, presumably even more so than last year.

Biggest Question:
That brings the defensive line conversation to Ewell. He arrived on campus much more-heralded as a recruit than either Tagovailoa-Amosa or Hinish, but the latter two were more college-ready. That is not inherently an indictment of Ewell’s recruiting rankings, based more so on future potential than immediate readiness.

Will a full year of collegiate coaching, not to mention strength and conditioning, have Ewell primed to live up to his recruiting hype?

He will not usurp any of the four already established in the middle. Tillery is the best current talent among the grouping and Bonner proved to be able to hold the point of attack in 2017. Tagovailoa-Amosa’s knack for finding the backfield was an unexpected strength, and the depth provided by Hinish is part of what helped Tillery finally shine and contributed, in part, to making Bonner’s breakthrough possible.

Nonetheless, Ewell could further that rotation, only freshening the legs available at the point of attack.

Defensive line depth cannot be emphasized enough, and if Ewell shows up ready and willing this spring, Notre Dame may be more ready in the middle than it has been in, hmmm, at least a long while. (Note to self: This could be a comparison to find an answer to.)

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Tillery: 56 tackles with nine for loss, including 4.5 sacks and one forced fumble.
D. Hayes: 30 tackles with 6.5 for loss, including three sacks and two fumbles recovered.
Bonner: 30 tackles with 3.5 for loss, including two sacks.
J. Hayes: 27 tackles with 3.5 for loss, including one sack with one fumble recovered.
Kareem: 21 tackles with 5.5 for loss, including three sacks and one fumble recovered.
Okwara: 17 tackles with 4.5 for loss, including 2.5 sacks and one interception along with one fumble forced.
Tagovailoa-Amosa: 12 tackles with 1.5 for loss.
Hinish: Eight tackles with 0.5 for loss.

2017 Stats Departed:
The point in this series is to look forward, but it bears noting just how little the Irish lost from the defensive line after 2017, a season in which the unit proved preseason expectations very wrong and became quite a strength. Of the contributing defensive linemen from the fall, only two are not expected to return in 2018:

Andrew Trumbetti: 28 tackles with four for loss, including 0.5 for loss.
Brandon Tiassum: Two tackles.

Notre Dame gets the letter: Jayson and Justin Ademilola
Notre Dame gets the letter: Ja’Mion Franklin

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are
Linebackers, a proven two and then many questions
Tight ends, a surplus of depth, unproven talent

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s tight ends, a surplus of depth, unproven talent

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Notre Dame has such tight end depth, it was somewhat surprising when the Irish pursued a second tight end in the class of 2018, but the possibilities of yet another playmaker in Tommy Tremble combined with a physical option in George Takacs forced the coaching staff’s decision.

“I always like to have that versatility each year and each signing class,” Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long said Feb. 7. “… We don’t want to pass up on a great athlete … being able to present different challenges to the defense with those kind of guys and still be very physical at the same time.”

That is a key to remember when looking at the Irish tight ends — Long sees different purposes amid the individuals in that position’s meeting room. Tremble, for example, could line up as a receiver as often as not while Takacs might fill in as Durham Smythe most recently did, serving as an additional blocker when needed and offering sure hands otherwise. In many respects, the two roles are two different positions.

Spring Roster:
— Fifth-year Nic Weishar, who Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said had shoulder surgery recently, though Kelly did not offer a timetable for return.
— Rising senior Alizé Mack.
— Rising sophomore Cole Kmet, when he is not pitching in relief for the Irish baseball team. Kmet made his second appearance of the season Thursday night. A letdown (3.0 IP, 3 ER, 3 H, 4 K), it did not go anywhere near as well as his debut did (4.0 IP, 0 ER, 1 H, 3 K).

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— Rising sophomore Brock Wright, who underwent a shoulder surgery of his own shortly following the regular season. A recent photo (left) from the @NDFootball Twitter account indicates Wright is partaking in at least some winter conditioning drills.
— Early-enrolled freshman Takacs.

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman Tremble.

Depth Chart Possibilities:
Long uses multiple tight ends, deploying both of those aforementioned archetypes at the same time. That tendency should be seen even more often in 2018 with more options now available. A full year in a collegiate program should have both Kmet and Wright ready for bigger roles, challenging Weishar for some of what were Smythe’s snaps in 2017.

The third tight end will see opportunities. It is essentially a second-string role. If granting the argument of two different forms of tight ends, then even the fourth tight end will get chances, as he will simply be the second-stringer in that particular role.

Kmet would seem the more likely of the rising sophomores to get a bit more time, but that only means Wright will see plenty of time in a blocking back role, just as he did in situational packages in 2017.

Biggest Question:
Kmet could find his way to a more prominent role if he offers something not yet seen from Mack: consistency not just on the field, but in all respects.

Can Mack finally translate his athleticism and potential into a consistent mismatch and productive threat? At his best, he could be the product of an offensive coordinator’s daydreams, but Mack has so rarely been at his best. That applies both on and off the field, considering his multiple drops in 2017 were followed by Kelly suspending Mack for an internal team matter for the Citrus Bowl before Notre Dame even headed down to Florida.

Another year of Mack spinning his wheels will result in a loss of playing time with the likes of Kmet and Tremble around. If Mack does not provide positive results in the spring while Kmet does, that shift could begin even before the Blue-Gold Game on April 21.

Fifth-year tight end Nic Weishar will provide Notre Dame not only with depth and experience in 2018, but also sure hands. That alone should give him a leg up on the other tight ends entering this spring. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Pertinent Reader Question:
“Every year a four- or five-star disappoints and every year a three-star or lower prospect surprises. My prediction is fall: Mack, rise: Weishar. I have been the lone man on the Weishar bandwagon for a few years now and really hope that this year he becomes the big receiving target we need.

What are your fallers and risers for this coming year?” — Mark H.

A logical argument can be made that “fallers” should not be labeled as such until after their collegiate careers conclude. There are so many factors that can limit a player for years before he breaks out. Consider rising senior receiver and former consensus four-star prospect Miles Boykin. As recently as New Year’s Eve, he may have been labeled a bust, but now he can lay claim to one of the most dramatic catches in Irish history and is a frontrunner for a starting role in 2018 with another year of eligibility remaining after that. He could end up with a stellar collegiate career by every measure.

Mack has had the opportunity to shine to date, and he has not done so, but he also might have two more seasons to go to change that reputation.

As for “risers,” Weishar makes sense and he certainly showcased his strong hands when given the chance in 2017, but his ceiling is likely not much higher than that. A couple touchdown catches, a handful of third-down conversions and a year of physical blocking would be a welcome success.

Notre Dame’s safeties, though, could stand out to fit the criteria laid out by Mark. If — and that is a two-letter word not to be overlooked — Navy transfer and rising junior Alohi Gilman and rising sophomore Jordan Genmark-Heath end up as productive starters for the season, then they will both have exceeded the expectations set out by star ratings.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Mack: 19 catches for 166 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by six receptions for 38 yards against North Carolina with rising junior quarterback Ian Book starting in place of an injured Brandon Wimbush.
Weishar: Nine catches for 52 yards and two touchdowns.
Kmet: Two catches for 14 yards; appeared in all 13 games.
Wright: Appeared in 11 games, no statistics recorded.

Notre Dame gets the letter: George Takacs
Notre Dame gets the letter: Tommy Tremble

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are
Linebackers, a proven two and then many questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Editor’s Note: That video has since been removed from this post due to its incessant auto-play function, but it can still be viewed here.

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

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

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

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

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

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