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Where Notre Dame was & is: Wide Receivers

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Given the inexperience at quarterback and the relative low number of running backs, it seems odd to say there is more uncertainty for Notre Dame at receiver than either of those skill positions. Yet, largely due to unknowns and general inexperience, that is indeed the case. At least at quarterback, the starter is very much settled and at running back, the leader is a known commodity.

At receiver, spring yielded some theoretical clarity, but that will only be genuinely clear come Sept. 2. For those already counting, that is 123 days away.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
The Irish entered the spring expecting continued progress from rising junior Equanimeous St. Brown following his breakout sophomore campaign. After that, little was known. As a reminder, St. Brown finished 2016 with 58 catches for 961 yards and nine touchdowns, including a 79-yard score against Syracuse. Each number in the preceding sentence led Notre Dame, and by quite a margin. Former Irish receiver Torii Hunter, Jr., offered 38 catches and 521 yards, but no one else approached so much as half of St. Brown’s production.

RELATED READING: Six days until spring practice: A look at TEs & WRs

Kevin Stepherson caught 25 passes for 462 yards and five touchdowns in his freshman season, leading Notre Dame with an average of 18.5 yards per reception. In theory, his speed combined with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s arm strength could force defenses to always respect the deep ball against the Irish offense, perhaps opening up space for the likes of St. Brown or sophomore Chase Claypool and junior C.J. Sanders in the underneath and mid-range.

Furthering the questions around St. Brown’s supporting cast, new offensive coordinator Chip Long has shown a penchant for including the running backs and tight ends in the passing game. That may be beneficial for offensive versatility, but it does no favors for projecting a future aerial attack.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
The exact options and order of those options at receiver remains in flux, but no longer is there a concern over a lack of choices. Specifically, Claypool and junior Miles Boykin stepped forward this spring, presenting the possibility of a starting trio of the 6-foot-5, 204-pound St. Brown, the 6-foot-4 ½, 224-pound Claypool and the 6-foot-4, 225-pound Boykin. Such sizable targets creates more of a margin of error for the raw Wimbush.

“You tend to want to miss high more in certain situations,” Wimbush said following the Blue-Gold Game. “You have the ability to put the ball up there and not have it be a perfect throw all the time. Those guys, you saw it today, they’ll go up and make a play for you.”

The possible starting trio’s size plus athleticism also creates opportunities for Long. For one thing, if a receiver catches a pass on a crossing route and ends up on the opposite sideline during an up-tempo drive, he could possibly line up on that sideline for the next snap rather than spend wasted seconds racing back to his original starting position. In this theory, St. Brown and Boykin could readily flip positions.

RELATED READING: McKinley, Boyd show depth in Irish WR corps (includes further discussion of positional flexibility among receivers)
Better balance alongside St. Brown needed at WR

Claypool, meanwhile, would be lining up at the slot position. While some may think his size precludes him from the shiftiness usually requisite the receiver closest to the thick of the line of scrimmage, others see that size and might think of another run-blocker. That versatility is the makings of an offensive coordinator’s dreams.

“It gives you added benefits,” Long said. “That’s our job, to put them in position to make plays. We want to be able to have our base offense and then just get a bigger, faster guy who makes it even better. We’ll tinker it. We’ll find what our guys are best at and put them in position, move them around.

“Being multiple on offense, we can take care of that. We’ll find them a spot, find them their roles, and as they progress, we’ll find where to get them the ball.”

Stepherson is the most-likely backup to St. Brown if the latter ever needs to come off the field and if Stepherson emerges from much spring uncertainty both eligible and in good graces. With that acknowledgement of a cloud of questions, let’s move on rather than fuel speculation.

Junior Chris Finke also fits in well at the field receiver position headlined by St. Brown. At only 5-foot-9 ½ and 177 listed pounds, Finke may seem too much of a shift from St. Brown to fill the same position. At the field position, however, Finke’s ability to maneuver in space could be best utilized.

Meanwhile, Sanders’ pure speed slots him in behind Claypool at the, well, the slot. Of the six receivers mentioned thus far, four, including Sanders, shared a bond with Wimbush before this spring, only furthered during the 15 practices—they came to Notre Dame at the same time and thus spent much time on the scout team developing a rapport. The other two, along with sophomore Javon McKinley (likely providing depth behind Boykin, if by process of elimination than for no other reason), have set to catching up quickly in that regard.

“We were running freshman year together, so we had little bit of chemistry built there,” Wimbush said. “Obviously, the younger guys came in and have done a great job progressing themselves throughout the spring. We’ve built great chemistry.”

That chemistry may most-clearly show itself on back-shoulder throws. To make the reference clear: For a few seasons now, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has feasted on such throws with his favorite target, Jordy Nelson. The receiver begins the route as if on a go or possibly a post route. Something deep. Then, without looking back at the ball, the receiver cuts sharply toward the sideline. If done correctly, the quarterback released the ball before the receiver even cut, anticipating its desired location.

The defensive back, theoretically, doesn’t stand a chance.

“We’re going to run the ball effectively, and if you’re going to drop an extra [defender near the line of scrimmage], we’re going to get a lot of those one-on-one matchups,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “That’s one of the reads in that individual matchup.”

WHERE NOTRE DAME WILL BE:
In an up-tempo offense, six or seven receivers may seem more shallow than desired. That should be mitigated greatly by Long’s preference to include running backs and tight ends, even two tight end sets, in the passing game. Furthermore, Notre Dame will add incoming graduate student transfer Freddy Canteen and freshman Jafar Armstrong in the summer.

For that matter, two four-star receivers have already committed to the class of 2018.

RELATED READING: Michigan WR Canteen announces transfer to Notre Dame
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Where Notre Dame was & is: Offensive Line

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.