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Friday at 4: Under the radar notes on Notre Dame’s opponents


Notre Dame will face Temple in only 71 days. The Irish will begin fall practice in six weeks, give or take a day. College football kicks off in only 63 days. Frankly, the offseason is far closer to being behind us than anything else.

That is underscored by the release of Phil Steele’s 2017 preview. There are other preview publications, and certainly others of great value, but Steele’s stands alone in its numbers-driven approach which leads to an unparalleled thoroughness. That combined with his reputation and marketing acumen (as in, Steele has great timing — everyone is starved for college football conversation toward the end of June) leads to Steele’s preview getting cited the most often in college football writing, and this space will be no different.

At 352 pages, it takes more than a few days to digest all of Steele’s analysis. For now, let’s simply rattle off a smattering of quick thoughts and observations about Notre Dame’s opponents gathered after a first read-through of Steele’s profiles on each. A discussion of Irish thoughts should come down the line, hopefully in much more depth.

Why only quick thoughts and observations? If nothing else, because of a recognition of reality. Trying to summarize Phil Steele’s preview into one column is akin to explaining all of a “The Fast and the Furious” movie with only one quote. You will lose far too much in the way of nuance and insight.

  • Most will remember Temple lost its head coach, Matt Rhule, to Baylor. Few will realize the Owls are also replacing a four-year starter at quarterback.
  • Most will recognize Georgia’s vaunted rushing attack, featuring Steele’s No. 7 and No. 11 running backs in the country in Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, respectively, but few will expect the Bulldogs defense to be its backbone. In head coach Kirby Smart’s second season, Georgia returns 10 defensive starters. That is a recipe for success, and part of the reason Steele rates Georgia as his No. 10 surprise team this season. Sophomore quarterback Jacob Eason undoubtedly has a role in that, as well.
  • Boston College will continue to struggle this year, but its defense should keep the Eagles more competitive than in the last few years, led by Steele’s No. 1 outside linebacker in the country, senior Harold Landry. Outside linebacker may not be the most-accurate description, as Steele also slots Landry in at defensive end on his All-American first-team.
  • Steele largely saw last year’s struggles coming for Michigan State, though even he did not anticipate the 3-9 debacle. With three one-possession losses last year and no such wins, the Spartans were in position to be one of Steele’s “Most-Improved Teams” this season before off-field issues led to the dismissal of five key players. Now, Michigan State’s resurgence could take a bit more time, not that the on-field record is the most important part of that situation.
  • Notre Dame fans generally take more of an interest in Miami (Ohio) than outside observers may expect with former Irish offensive coordinator Chuck Martin leading the Redhawks. There are many indicators of Martin’s gradual success with the downtrodden program. Steele points out two in-depth ones. Last year, Martin’s roster had only 15 upperclassmen. Basic math tells you that means he had 70 underclassmen, and still managed a six-game winning streak to close the regular season.

Secondly, Miami has gradually increased its competitiveness within its conference. In 2013 conference play, the Redhawks were outgained by 195.4 yards per game. In 2014, 70.5 and in 2015, 34.5. Last year, they flipped the script and outgained their opponents by 13.4 yards per game.

  • North Carolina could face an uphill climb this year, having lost its starting quarterback Mitch Trubisky, starting running back Elijah Hood and top receiver and playmaking threat Ryan Switzer.
  • This entry could be as simple as one line: USC is going to be really good. Rather than delve too deeply into its roster (featuring Steele’s No. 1 quarterback, No. 3 running back and No. 2 cornerback) or debating its ceiling, how about a note specific to sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold’s performance last year, with a caveat attached?

USC averaged 34.4 points per game in its 13 games last year, including the bowl game. Darnold, then a freshman, started the final 10 of those, and the Trojans averaged 38.6 points per game. The caveat: Two of those three opening opponents were Alabama and Stanford, who held USC to six and 10 points, respectively.

Steele projects Darnold to win the Heisman Trophy and likely go No. 1 in the 2018 NFL Draft.

  • North Carolina State is trending upward this year following back-to-back 7-6 seasons, and will travel to Notre Dame following a bye week.
  • Most will remember Wake Forest lost its defensive coordinator Mike Elko to a small school in northern Indiana. Few will realize the Demon Deacons also return only five defensive starters.
  • Steele rates Miami as his No. 2 surprise team this year, even without quarterback Brad Kaaya who left some eligibility on the table in order to enter the NFL. The Hurricanes will rely on its defensive front seven, headlined by Steele’s No. 7 linebacker unit in the country. Miami also has the No. 2 special teams grouping.
  • Most will fear Navy’s arrival on the schedule due to its option-rush attack. Few will realize the Midshipmen return eight defensive starters this year and could be an unexpectedly strong team on that side of the ball, as well.
  • Most will remember Stanford lost both defensive tackle Solomon Thomas and running back/playmaker Christian McCaffrey to the NFL Draft. Few will recognize the Cardinal still return eight starters on each side of the ball, a big part of the reason Steele rates Stanford as his No. 3 surprise team and No. 14 team in his power poll, a ranking based on teams’ strengths alone, not factoring in scheduling quirks.

Now then, this scribe is late for a rehearsal dinner, and you’re late for beginning your weekend early. After all, you can count the weekends left before Notre Dame football starts on your two hands. Enjoy these carefree days while they are still around.

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 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 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.

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, 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

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.