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Friday at 4: Questions answered & questions open-ended; Kelly to be less ‘forthright’

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For those tiring—or long tired—of the “Where Notre Dame was & is” sequence, today’s running backs entry should stand as welcome news. Only the quarterbacks remain, tentatively slated for Monday morning.

The concept has been purposefully simple. Remembering the top concerns and comforts of two months ago helps illustrate what may or may not have been accomplished during the spring practices. The intent has not been to be overly optimistic. Whether the series has been or not lies in the eye of the beholder, like most things in this life. As of Friday’s sunrise, it seems optimism has been the sentiment most retained.

“The ‘where Notre Dame was and is’ articles give us optimism based on comparison and not wishful thinking,” mikeyaccblog commented Friday before yours truly had even considered rising from bed. “Almost all positions have been covered, and all point to depth, talent and improvement. We would be remiss if we didn’t recognize that.”

By no means is mikey wrong. The question of the running backs coming into the spring was would there be a suitable No. 2. At this point, it seems the Irish have two such capable backs, if not actually two or three starter-quality options. The depth at receivers is, with the exception of junior Equanimeous St. Brown, unproven yet still quite tantalizing. At linebacker, Notre Dame lacks that thorough depth but its starters are quite proven and should post some notable tackle totals by the end of 2017.

Perhaps those positive aspects stick to memories because good things often do, especially when they match improving weather and coming vacation days. Thinking about a dynamic offense all summer is certainly more enjoyable than pondering a lack of defensive line assurances while turning hot dogs.

Tap the brakes, though. And this is not meant to welcome the pessimism and apocalyptic musings often seen following these articles. The topic here is not the coach, the director of athletics or the Notre Dame Board of Trustees. The topic here is measuring springtime progress and optimism.

“After a crappy season though we want to view the changes as all positive – and particularly on the defensive side I think,” DPU Man ND Fan posted. “I get that, and I agree that these seem like solid steps in the right direction. But are we deluding ourselves into thinking that this level of transition can ever be seamless and easy?”

DPU’s concern is valid. He can continue to advise other fans to at least remove their feet from the pedal on the right. He need not worry about the Irish themselves. None of Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, offensive coordinator Chip Long or defensive coordinator Mike Elko gave even a slight indication the Irish had completed a seamless and easy transition in the final days of spring practice.

“What’s important right now are the things that I talked about, and then when we get to Temple, they should have an expectation of all that coming together,” Kelly said, referring to his buzzwords of grit, attention to detail and process.

“It’s going to depend a lot on [the players], what they do in the weight room, their running, their skill development through the summer. Just keep building on what we’re doing with our offense, our fundamentals,” Long said. “In fall camp, we’ll be able to add everything else in the offense.”

“There’s not a switch that you flip that gets you to the top of the elevator,” Elko said. “You have to climb the stairs.”

The offensive line’s spring performance brought “cause for some skepticism,” as the was & is entry read. At safety, junior Nick Coleman emerged, but he still needs “to develop love for contact in order to truly fit in to the field safety position.” Not enough defensive line showed suitable promise this spring to ease concerns, yet more showed potential than had been expected. That speaks not only to the expectations entering spring but also to what they should be leading up to Sept. 2.

Spring provided answers to some questions, both for the coaches and for the fans. Only September will reveal if those answers are the right ones. Other questions remain open-ended. In those spots, where Notre Dame is bears much similarity to where it was.

KELLY TO BE LESS ‘FORTHRIGHT’
The Associated Press’s Ralph D. Russo got some one-on-one time with Kelly before the Blue-Gold Game. From that, Russo put together a profile of Kelly not all that different than others seen this offseason, though it is well-written (as is usual from Russo) and includes an intriguing baseball analogy from Kelly ending with, “I’m going to hit again. I know how to coach.”

Russo had some noteworthy quotes left over from his interview. Those touch on Kelly’s involvement with all aspects of the team, on the temperature of his chair and on his supposed NFL interest.

Kelly also responded to those who feel he blames players.

“What I will change this year is that I can’t be honest with assessments of players to the media, totally honest,” Kelly said. “Because it’s portrayed as throwing players under the bus, being disloyal to a player. They don’t know the relationship with the player. Based upon what happened last year and the fallout that occurred from other media sources, it doesn’t do the university – it doesn’t do our program – any good for me to be forthright when it comes to those kinds of assessments of our players.”

This is an unfortunate symptom of our 140-character era manifested by talking heads, a list far too long to fit this space, even if there is quite literally no character limit.

In the room, with full context, Kelly’s honesty has often yielded a better understanding of the Irish program as a whole. When those tidbits are splintered by those looking for retweets or viral relevancy, Kelly’s words become improper indictments.

The month leading up to the NFL Draft jumps to mind as an obvious example.

To those who insist Kelly called rising senior center Sam Mustipher “atrocious” following last season’s defeat to North Carolina State, note Kelly said the “lack of ability to manage the snapping of the football” was atrocious. That phrasing places blame not only on Mustipher, but also on the quarterback and the coaching staff, if not also those who allowed a game to be played in a literal hurricane. It was a needed acknowledgement of one of that day’s costly flaws. If he had not referenced it, Kelly would have been lampooned for some version of obliviousness.

Here, I’ll tap the brakes, lest I really get rolling. Bluntly enough, Kelly’s candor has at times come across as abrasive, but when heard with a level-head, it was a far more positive trait than a negative one. It will be a distinct shame if short-sighted commentaries lead Kelly to reduce those insights.

With that disappointment abridged, what should I do instead? Well, this did post at 4 p.m. ET on a Friday.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Rover
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Safeties
Where Notre Dame was & is: Cornerbacks
Where Notre Dame was & is: Offensive Line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Wide Receivers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends
Where Notre Dame was & is: Running Backs

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.