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Kelly praises new hires, especially three new coordinators Long, Elko and Polian

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Rare is the boss who criticizes a brand new hire, if that boss exists at all. Thus, it comes as no surprise Irish coach Brian Kelly spent his Monday press conference praising his eight new hires—six assistant coaches and two strength and conditioning staffers—between acknowledgements of the program-wide missteps in 2016.

“Last year, certainly we didn’t live up to those expectations and that falls on me first and foremost,” Kelly said to the media in his first availability since the immediate aftermath of Notre Dame’s season-ending loss at USC in November. “We needed to make some significant changes, significant not just in terms of personnel, but in how we do things on a day-to-day basis, and it starts with me.”

Kelly focused on his two new coordinators, Chip Long on the offensive side and Mike Elko as his defensive counterpart. In something of a change from his preferred tendencies, Kelly intends to leave the play-calling to Long, largely so the head coach can be more involved on the defensive side of the ball, partly at his players’ behest.

“One of the first things that I did [after last season] was sit down and did exit interviews with 96 players, current players as well as players that were leaving,” he said. “I wanted to get their feedback on things that went on during the season, good and bad.

“One of the things that was pretty consistent across the board was that when I spent time on defense, our defensive personnel and players in particular really enjoyed having me part of that day-to-day schedule.”

When concerning himself with the particulars of play-calling and the minutiae of offensive gameplans, Kelly did not necessarily have the time to work with the defense. Removing some of the former burden should allow for greater emphasis on the latter task.

Knowing he wanted a play-caller as his offensive coordinator, Kelly focused on the fast-paced offenses of Long’s past. Though they were up-tempo, Kelly noted those offenses were still well-rounded.

“He was able to use the running game late in games,” Kelly said. “[Long] didn’t rely heavily on a passing game when he was forced to make up ground late in games. Utilized two tight ends, which was going to be a mode that we have to move toward with the great depth that we have at that position.”

Long’s offense maintained a greater pace partly because its communications are simpler than Notre Dame’s have been in recent years. While insisting the Irish playbook would not drastically change, Kelly did indicate the lexicon will.

“Within our offensive system, we want to run more plays. We can’t do it right now because of over a period of time, we’ve layered too much verbiage in the system to go as fast as we want across the board.”

Knowing he would work more with the defensive coordinator than he did in the past did not change Kelly’s top desire for the position. Quite simply, Kelly wants Elko to get the ball to Long.

“I was looking for something that would take the football away,” Kelly said. “Somebody that has had great success in doing so, as well as continued success as a coordinator.”

With both Elko and Long, as well as new director of football performance (otherwise known as the strength and conditioning coach) Matt Balis, Kelly praised University administration for aiding him in the hires. If nothing else, this is notable for the future, should Kelly ever want to bemoan a lack of support.

“We did our due diligence,” he said. “Got great support from [director of athletics] Jack Swarbrick, allowing us to go out and find the very best. We didn’t settle in any one of these three positions for anything but the best candidates in the country. I think that says a lot about who we have here in our administration and allowing us to go out and find the very best.”

Kelly and Swarbrick began the process of finding new coordinators immediately following the close of the 2016 season, though Kelly said they never discussed the fate of his own job.

“We didn’t discuss my job as much as we discussed a blueprint for what we needed to do to be successful … The great thing about Notre Dame is you’re not defined by what happened in the past. It’s about what you do in the future.”

At this point, Kelly’s future is staked to the success of his new hires. No wonder he praised them so extensively.

Additional Notes:

On new special teams coordinator Brian Polian:
“To have somebody with his experience, with his knowledge, with his background coaching our special teams and focusing primarily on that, without another position to pull his focus away…” Kelly said, never quite finishing that sentence but one presumes it included an implied positive ending.

“He’s also an outstanding recruiter,” Kelly said of Polian. “He’s able to recruit from coast-to-cast. We’ll feel his effects, I believe, right away, in the recruiting, and we hope to see that show itself here in the next 24 to 48 hours.

Exactly 43 hours from when Kelly’s press conference started, National Signing Day will begin, Wednesday at 7 a.m. Eastern time.

On having a former head coach on staff in Polian:
“The conversations are a little bit different sometimes. Just in recruiting, sometimes we talk about things that maybe haven’t necessarily crossed the desk of an assistant coach. Maybe fit over position skill, far-reaching effects more so than maybe immediate.”

On new quarterbacks coach, and former Irish quarterback, Tom(my) Rees:
“What I like to call him is our quarterbacks coach. For you guys that are counting, we have nine coaches, so he is officially in a graduate assistant’s role, but he is fully-empowered to coach [the quarterbacks]. He will have the room. He will coach those quarterbacks on a day-to-day basis, and I have great confidence in his ability to do so.”

Kelly later confirmed Rees will be Notre Dame’s 10th assistant coach should legislation allowing such pass in April as it is widely-presumed it will. Rees’s hiring was made with that understanding. When asked what slot he would have filled had the legislation not had such momentum, Kelly said Long would have coached the quarterbacks, and he still would have hired Polian as the special teams coordinator.

Notre Dame adds another 2019 commitment out of Georgia

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Eight months from now, Notre Dame may be forced to sign a smaller recruiting class than usual thanks to the larger class this past recruiting cycle. If that expectation does indeed hold, this past week’s five commitments, including consensus three-star safety Kyle Hamilton’s (Marist High School; Atlanta) on Tuesday evening, will be a hefty portion of the class.

Hamilton becomes the second safety in the class, and in the week, following the Saturday pledge of rivals.com four-star Litchfield Ajavon (Episcopal H.S.; Alexandria, Va.). Hamilton’s list of finalists included Michigan, Georgia, Ohio State and Clemson, a grouping more telling than perhaps his recruiting ranking is.

Some of that expected potential may derive from Hamilton’s 6-foot-3 frame. Such length at safety would be a change for the Irish, currently without a safety taller than six-feet in the rotation. Even heralded incoming-freshman Derrik Allen, also out of Georgia, is listed at only 6-foot-1.

It is a coincidence those two Georgia recruits, one signed and one now verbally-committed, are both safeties. Add in the January commitment of rivals.com three-star cornerback K.J. Wallace (Lovett; Atlanta), and a third defensive back comes from the state, along with class of 2018 signees tight end Tommy Tremble and running back C’Bo Flemister. Five prospects from Georgia, presuming both Hamilton and Wallace do indeed sign with Notre Dame, is not a coincidence.

“My point being is that it’s such a fertile ground in recruiting, you just need to be in [Georgia], and there’s great football players in there,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said in December 2017, during the inaugural early signing period. “We’ve got so many players that we can talk about that came of there. It’s just having a presence and getting back into a very, very good recruiting area for us. We need to have a great presence there.”

No matter what state Hamilton comes from, he could find himself quickly in the mix at safety upon his arrival. Presuming health for the current safety depth chart, juniors Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill will have one year of eligibility remaining apiece upon Hamilton’s enrollment. Junior Alohi Gilman will have two, thanks to spending the 2017 season sidelined following his transfer from Navy. Early-enrolled freshman Griffith and Allen will both have three more years, presuming both play in 2018.

Thus, Hamilton and Ajavon could find themselves backing up that last duo as soon as 2020.

Blue-Gold Game Leftovers: Notre Dame’s offensive ceiling is tantalizing, though also unlikely

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Immediately following the 2017 spring game, I walked by two much smarter, savvier and more veteran Notre Dame reporters on our way to post-game interviews. Our two minutes of exchange included them riffing on various hypothetical position changes that were eventually not seen come fall, including how much better of a guard than a tackle Tommy Kraemer could be. It should be noted, the junior began lining up at guard this spring.

My contribution to the conversation hinged entirely on repeating, “That offense just isn’t ready. It’s not close to ready.”

Of course, that assessment figured the spring game struggles were against a porous Irish defense, something freshly-arrived and since-departed defensive coordinator Mike Elko had already taken tangible steps toward fixing, far quicker than expected.

That evaluation also failed to recognize the potential of a running attack led by Josh Adams. Notre Dame knew it had a stalwart running back, and did not need to see more than eight carries for 39 yards and a touchdown from the lead back.

The point stood, though. The offense was not ready then or in November.

Driving away from this past Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game, the thought bouncing around my pickup’s two-seat cab was simple: This offense is unlikely to reach its ceiling, but if it did, it would be really, absurdly high-powered.

This time, that assessment offers some deference to first-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s ability to turn nine returning starters into another strong defense, perhaps superior to last year’s.

The praise of the offense must be hedged thanks to IF after IF after IF after IF. If senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush displays those mechanics and that accuracy against opposing defenses …
If senior running back Dexter Williams (pictured above) decides it is worthwhile to play, and play well, through pain …
If junior receiver Chase Claypool maintains the necessary emotional equilibrium …
If senior tight end Alizé Mack offers a consistent performance, even if not stellar, but stable …

In those four upperclassmen alone, the Irish have unique talents whom opposing defensive coordinators should lose sleep thinking about. They will determine how high this offense’s ceiling is, while the likes of senior receiver Miles Boykin, junior running back Tony Jones and sophomore tight end Cole Kmet will set the floor, along with what looks to be yet another overpowering offensive line (with Kraemer at right guard).

Obviously, the most-promising players always set the height of a vaulted the ceiling. As they perform against Michigan, Stanford and Virginia Tech will determine how the season ends. However, to pinpoint four like this is an extreme end of the spectrum.

Exiting last year’s Blue-Gold Game, it was clear Wimbush needed to learn much more of offensive coordinator Chip Long’s scheme. Aside from that, the only possible ways to increase the offense’s potency was to teach receiver Kevin Stepherson self-discipline and figure out why Mack could not make a gameday impact. The rest was essentially known, even if the running game’s potential was overlooked after the spring exhibition.

Entering this summer, the gap between the offense’s floor and its ceiling is a vast one. To have four question marks of this magnitude speaks to the possible volatility awaiting in the fall. Logically speaking, it is most likely two of the four above IFs become realities. In that case, it will be a good offense, but not the utterly threatening one conceivable. The odds are slim all four come to fruition, but crazier things have happened, especially when discussing the rapid development of 18- to 21-year-olds.

Without Adams following two All-American offensive linemen, this rendition of the Notre Dame offense may take a step backward, but the talent is there for it to actually improve, to carry the day if/when an experienced quarterback picks apart the defense (see: the Seminoles’ Deondre Francois).

That could not be said in 2017.

OTHER QUICK TAKEAWAYS FROM THE BLUE-GOLD GAME:
Much of this will be discussed in greater length in the coming two weeks, but …
— The interior of the offensive line — fifth-year left guard Alex Bars, fifth-year center Sam Mustipher and Kraemer at right guard — is quite a physically-imposing trio. Some defensive ends may find success against first-year starter and junior left tackle Liam Eichenberg, especially early in the season, but the inside trio should at least create massive holes for the Irish running game.

— Ideally Long can deploy Mack and Kmet together, but the spring performance of the latter certainly eases the concerns about the maturation and consistency of the former.

Notre Dame may need an unexpected influx of production from senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery if the fifth-year tackle he is intended to line up alongside, Jonathan Bonner, does not recover fully from a wrist injury suffered in the beginning of 2017. (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP)

— Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly insists fifth-year defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner’s fitness will not be overly-effected by the wrist injury that kept him out of most of spring practice and all of the Blue-Gold Game.

“He’s been doing everything (in weight-lifting) but at lighter weight, and now he’s only a couple of weeks away from being full-go,” Kelly said Saturday. “He was already physically really gifted, so we don’t think that’s going to be a big curve for him, and he’ll be able to start training aggressively when we get back here in June.”

Consider this scribe skeptical. Not only is Kelly often overly-optimistic about injury effects and timetables, but to think missing six months of strength and conditioning will not be noticeable along the defensive interior is idealistic at best. Bonner’s 2017 emergence was a direct result of the arrival of strength and conditioning coordinator Matt Balis.

Without more of that work, the Irish will need to turn to sophomore Kurt Hinish for an increase in snaps, perhaps pushing toward 50 per game with Bonner offering 20-30 and senior Micah Dew-Treadway filling in the balance. Hinish appears to be up to the task, which is necessary, because classmate Darnell Ewell is not.

Notre Dame gains commitments of four-star defensive end and three-star offensive tackle

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At this rate, Notre Dame might fill its 2019 recruiting class by the time the school year ends. With a Sunday morning commitment of a consensus four-star defensive end followed by a Monday evening pledge from a consensus three-star offensive tackle, the Irish class has grown from three recruits to seven in just four days.

The No. 238 prospect in the country and No. 28 at defensive end, per rivals.com, Howard Cross III (St. Joseph High School; Montvale, N.J.) announced his commitment via Twitter shortly after leaving campus from a visit for the Blue-Gold Game, choosing the Irish over offers from Michigan, North Carolina State and Virginia Tech, among others.

“I could tell [current Notre Dame players] really loved the school,” Cross said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “It was really, really big to talk to them. When I was going to all the colleges, that was the main thing I wanted to do. I wanted to get the perspective of the players.”

Cross joins consensus four-star defensive end Hunter Spears (Sachse H.S.; Texas) as half of the four defensive linemen already in the Irish recruiting class. As always, no collegiate defensive line can be deep enough. Considering the previous two recruiting classes have yielded a total of two defensive ends — Kofi Wardlow and Justin Ademilola — opportunity should be aplenty for Cross and Spears early in their careers.

The defensive end duo will likely spend a not-insignificant portion of their collegiate career practices butting heads with Andrew Kristofic (Pine-Richland; Gibsonia, Pa.). If the high school of Pine-Richland jumps off the figurative page to Notre Dame recruitniks, that is because Kristofic has much experience protecting high school teammate and incoming Irish freshman quarterback Phil Jurkovec.

He chose Notre Dame, and new offensive line coach Jeff Quinn, rather than offers from a lengthy list including Clemson, Georgia and Ohio State.

“The combination that their school is able to provide being one of the very best schools in the entire country academically and one of the very athletically stands out,” Kristofic said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “I think they have the best combination of those two things on top of being a school that is known for being able to produce such great offensive linemen is something that no other schools really have the combination of all those.

“When you can put together all the things that they can there, it’s certainly not something you can overlook or take for granted.”

The beginning of this influx of commitments came with the Friday decision of consensus four-star offensive tackle John Olmstead (St. Joseph; Metuchen, N.J.), the only other offensive lineman in the class to this point. Of the seven recruits committed to the Irish, five are four-star talents.

Former Notre Dame defensive lineman, Kona Schwenke, dies at 25

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Former Notre Dame defensive lineman Kona Schwenke, 25, reportedly died in his sleep Sunday morning. The cause of death has not yet been confirmed.

Schwenke spent four seasons along the Irish defensive front, culminating in a 23-tackle senior season, in 2013. Attrition along the defensive line in his first two seasons forced Schwenke into playing time, costing him a likely fifth-year with much greater production. He played in 31 games total, making 30 tackles.

Part of a Hawaiian surge in Notre Dame recruiting, Schwenke joined the likes of receiver Robby Toma and linebacker Manti Te’o in coming from the island in 2009 and 2010. The first two committed during Charlie Weis’ tenure, but Schwenke made the leap at the very beginning of Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s career, one of the first recruits to commit to Kelly at Notre Dame. Since then, sophomore defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa has renewed the trend.

Schwenke graduated in 2014 with a degree in anthropology. He then signed with the practice squad of the Kansas City Chiefs, moving around four different NFL franchises chasing his dream. Earlier this month he took part in a scouting event, The Spring League, gaining some notice when he forced Heisman-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel into a fumble.

Former Irish teammates took to social media Sunday afternoon celebrating Schwenke’s life and friendship.