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Friday at 4: Offensive Line Depth

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I would not have this idea if the usual distraction had shown up to Wednesday night trivia this week. Alas, the opportunity to hear the front man from The Messengers was more alluring than debating what countries Reebok, Puma and Asics were founded in (United Kingdom, Germany and Japan, respectively).

So instead of making unfortunately-idle conversation about the luxurious pleasure of smoking a cigar during a long drive across Wisconsin, I had to engage in real conversation with an aforementioned friend, Corey. It’s not that I don’t enjoy talking with Corey. It’s that I do it enough already. I’ve always preferred the devil I don’t know.

Corey’s question was valid, posed only hours after the announcement of sophomore offensive lineman Parker Boudreaux’s transfer release. Combined with Monday’s news of junior offensive lineman Tristen Hoge’s transfer to BYU, Corey had reason to wonder about the Irish offensive line depth.

“But really, how often does Notre Dame actually need more than one backup offensive lineman?” he asked.

In order to hide my lack of an immediate answer, I asked him to focus on what the name was of Paul Tibbets’ mother. Tibbets flew the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in World War II. Unfortunately for me, Corey had already written down “Enola” and it was back to his offensive line query.

The short answer: Not since 2013.

The long answer: Transfers of non-starters along the offensive line are not the huge deal they are made out to be, especially in the short-term. Boudreaux was working as a third-string center. Hoge did provide depth along the three interior line positions, but he was not a starter this year and would have needed to beat out a number of competitors at left guard next year (or right guard if senior Alex Bars were to move to the left side). That list includes, but is not necessarily limited to, early-enrolled freshmen Robert Hainsey and Aaron Banks, senior Jimmy Byrne and incoming freshmen Josh Lugg and Dillan Gibbons. Hainsey, specifically, could loom large in that positional struggle in a year.

While we’re at it, let’s not forget about junior Trevor Ruhland. He is, after all, now the presumptive seventh offensive lineman behind the starters and fifth-year senior Hunter Bivin.

While answering Corey’s question, let’s grant the assumption Bivin has continued to progress. Even without the transfers of Hoge and Boudreaux, that theory needed to become reality. The question regarding depth has never been about the sixth offensive lineman. It regards the seventh.

But will that seventh be needed?

Last year, Irish offensive line coach Harry Hiestand was blessed with four 12-game starters, and it should be noted all four returned this season. Right guard Colin McGovern started eight games last year, with injuries limiting him in three of the other four and keeping him out of the Stanford game entirely. Bivin and Mark Harrell filled in for McGovern. While Bivin’s performance against Stanford and eventual No. 3 overall NFL Draft pick Solomon Thomas prompted the move to another option in Harrell, only one capable substitute was genuinely necessary.

Hiestand was even more fortunate in 2015. Four linemen started all 13 games. Left guard and now-senior Quenton Nelson started 11 with Bars filling in the other two. Again, only one additional lineman was necessary.

In 2014, a reshuffling of the line after three games led to a total of seven linemen seeing competitive snaps, but without that reshuffling, the number would have been only six. After three games, right guard Conor Hanratty went to the bench, Matt Hegarty took over at center, and the rest of line switched spots to work with that substitution (Nick Martin from center to left guard, Christian Lombard from left guard to right tackle, Scott Elmer from right tackle to right guard).

Then, in the regular season finale, Lombard went down with a career-ending back injury and now-fifth-year senior Mike McGlinchey finished the game against USC and started against Rutgers.

That brings this case study to 2013. The irony here is the 2013 unit was truly a special offensive line. It gave up only eight sacks, the second-fewest in the country. It featured four future NFL Draft picks, including two first-rounders in Zach Martin and Ronnie Stanley at the left and right tackle positions, respectively. Those two were also the only two linemen to get through the entire 13-game slate.

Lombard needed back surgery after seven games, bringing in Elmer at right guard. Before the Navy game two weeks later, future third-round draft pick Chris Watt’s knee felt too unstable to trust due to injury, giving Hanratty the start at left guard, where he would start again in the Pinstripe Bowl against Rutgers when Watt’s season was deemed finished. Future second-round draft pick Nick Martin suffered a knee injury in the regular season’s penultimate contest, leading to two starts for Hegarty.

In all, eight different offensive linemen started multiple games for Notre Dame in 2013.

If that rash of injuries were to befall the Irish in 2017, the absence of Hoge would be distinct, and the loss of Boudreaux would be noticed. Otherwise, the greatest impact of those two transfers will be the scholarships they make available to the recruiting class of 2018.

QUICK NOTE ON KNUTE ROCKNE NUMBERS
In light of Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops’ unexpected retirement this week, it was noted he is No. 14 on the list of winningest FBS coaches by percentage with a minimum of 10 seasons. Naturally, Notre Dame legend Knute Rockne remains atop the list with a record of 105-12-5 and a winning percentage of .881.

Two spots down and seemingly only three one-hundredths of a percentage point away sits Urban Meyer. That gap is far greater than one may realize … Meyer would need to win his next 50 consecutive games to simply match Rockne’s percentage. Such a streak would actually match Rockne exactly, no matter how many decimal points checked.

Not to underestimate Urban Meyer, of all people, but 50-0 seems rather unlikely.

With that, this posted at 4 p.m. on a Friday. You’re not still reading, are you?

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.