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Friday at 4: ‘They can only get better’

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When looking at a team every day of the year, the details can distract from the bigger picture. There is an applicable phrase about a forest and trees, if memory serves.

Acknowledging that, sometimes an outsider’s perspective is helpful. While someone filling a site called “Inside the Irish” might overly focus on the defensive line depth issues exacerbated by junior tackle Elijah Taylor’s LisFranc fracture, someone looking at the broader scheme might think to ask, “How can the defensive line not improve over its performance last season?”

That is where talking through Notre Dame’s coming season with Phil Steele serves a helpful purpose. While Steele knows college football, he has 130 other teams to study in addition to the Irish. At some point, he has to separate himself from the specificities. To steer some of his focus, Steele heavily relies on formulas he has fine-tuned over more than two decades of publishing a comprehensive college football preview. This year, those computers project Notre Dame to have the No. 15 total defense in the country.

Wait, what? That can’t be right. Math is stupid.

Oh, those computers think the Irish will be the No. 9 pass defense in the country? Someone call Al Gore, the internet must be broken. Those computers certainly don’t have access to it. They must be making up numbers at random. There can be no other rational explanation.

“Look at the schedule,” Steele responded. “Temple loses a four-year starter at quarterback. Boston College does not have an overwhelming offense this year. Michigan State is going to be struggling a little bit offensively. Miami of Ohio is not an overwhelming offense this year. Wake Forest does not have an overwhelming offense.

“[Notre Dame] should be ready for the schemes of Navy. My computer actually factors in the level of the offenses they’re taking on. That’s where the computer came up, and I’m not going to argue with it.”

Well, that seems rather logical. Certainly the comments to this post will react with a similar approach.

When it comes to his own input, Steele repeatedly pointed to the change in Irish defensive coordinators, now with Mike Elko at the helm, formerly of Wake Forest.

“There’s defensive coordinators that can’t make a difference,” Steele said. “Mike Elko is a guy that is going to make a difference. When you’re looking at Notre Dame’s sack total, they’ll probably top what they’ve done the last four years. 26 has been their high the last four years. I think they’ll easily top that.”

If the Irish do not top 26 sacks, Steele still has a valid point. Last year’s dismal 14 is a distinct outlier when compared to the previous six seasons of Brian Kelly’s tenure at Notre Dame. Over that stretch, the Irish defense averaged 26.3 sacks per season, with a high of 34 in 2012.

Perhaps Elko’s Wake Forest team reaching 41 was a similar outlier. Nonetheless, the Deacons averaged 24 sacks per season in Elko’s first two seasons. Whether the Notre Dame pass rush finds the quarterback 24 times, 26 times or 30 times is beside the point. It will be notably more than 14 times.

“Up front, they can only get better,” Steele said. “ … There’s talent there. Under Elko’s direction, they’ll have an improved pass rush.”

That pass rush will benefit from more experienced linebacker play. As Steele points out, entering the 2016 season, the Irish defense returned three of its top 10 tacklers, defensive lineman Isaac Rochell (fifth), defensive back Cole Luke (ninth) and linebacker James Onwualu (10th). The top two from that list, Jaylon Smith and Joe Schmidt, had held down the second level of the defense for a long while. In 2017, the Irish return six of their top 10 tacklers (losing Onwaulu, Rochell, Luke and defensive tackle Jarron Jones).

Of those six returning, the top four are all linebackers, if willing to lump the rover position manned by senior Drue Tranquill with the linebackers.

This may all point to an improved defense, but it still does not entirely explain Steele’s computers projecting the Notre Dame pass defense as top-10 worthy. Even with concessions for the schedule, it seems lofty. Here is, again, where Steele’s distance keeps certain facts closer to his fingertips. Before last season was truly under way, the Irish lost four defensive backs: Max Redfield, Nick Watkins, Shaun Crawford and Devin Butler. At least three of those were presumptive starters.

There was no benefit to those losses then. Now, though, there just may be.

“Dealing with so much adversity in 2016 should help [the defensive backs] make a large climb up my pass defensive rankings,” Steele included.

A top-10 pass defense remains ambitious, but Steele’s analysis is based on deducible concepts, not over-emphases of each individual event.

To anyone who would belittle today’s approach gauging the coming season off the previous season, what would you prefer? Until events actually happen, evaluations must be based on previous occurrences. Only future performance matters, but they are still measured by past precedents.

For what it’s worth, Steele rates Notre Dame as his No. 1 most-improved team in 2017, finishing with nine wins, only an underdog against USC, at Miami and at Stanford. To get to those nine wins, Steele admits he has put a lot of faith in junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush to lead what could be a dynamic offense.

Why not discuss the offense in this space today as well? One part pacing — there are still nine more weeks until the season. One part acknowledgement of the coming holiday weekend — how many will read these thousand words, let alone twice that, before firing up the grill? One part laziness — it’s 4 p.m. on a Friday in the summer. There are, quite frankly, better things to do, some of them including similarly-styled recipes. Perhaps one part glass, one part ice, one part …

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s defensive line, a returning strength

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Notre Dame returns eight of its top nine defensive linemen. Such a year-to-year retention is nearly beyond most possibilities, so it should not be understated how much that defensive line could determine any Irish success found in 2018.

Spring Roster:
— The theoretical starters: Rising junior Daelin Hayes at drop (pass-rushing) end, rising senior Jerry Tillery at three-technique (pass-rushing) tackle, fifth-year Jonathan Bonner at nose tackle and fifth-year Jay Hayes at strong-side (edge-setting) end.
— The likely second-unit: Rising junior Julian Okwara at drop end, rising sophomore Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa at three-tech, rising sophomore Kurt Hinish at nose and rising junior Khalid Kareem at strong-side end.
— The presumed third-stringers: Rising junior Ade Ogundeji at drop end, rising senior Micah Dew-Treadway at three-tech, rising sophomore Darnell Ewell at nose and rising sophomore Kofi Wardlow at strong-side end.

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman Justin Ademilola at drop end, incoming freshman Jayson Ademilola at three-tech and incoming freshman Ja’Mion Franklin at nose tackle.

Kurt Hinish was not expected to contribute much his freshman season. The fact that he provided genuine interior depth only sets the table for further Irish success along the defensive line in 2018. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
A lot of cross-training has and will occur among the defensive linemen, so nailing any one player down to the above position is a fool’s errand. Jay Hayes will be ready to move inside against quicker and lighter opponents, just like Justin Ademilola will dabble a bit in strong-side development to keep future options available, simply as examples.

Nonetheless, the primary rotation should carry over from last year with the exception of flipping Tillery and Bonner to three-tech and nose, respectively. Entering 2017, Bonner was not a sure thing to withstand the physical duties of the nose position, hence the alignment then.

Daelin Hayes and Okwara will spell each other enough to be sure there is always a viable pass-rush threat on the field. Ogundeji could possibly further that rotation, but he did not see much action last year and would need to progress greatly to do so in 2018; that is as much a credit to Hayes and Okwara as it is a criticism of Ogundeji, if not even more of the former.

Jay Hayes will feature against run-dominant opponents and obvious running situations, while Kareem will offer a strong pass-rush from that side when needed. If another year under the tutelage of strength and conditioning coordinator Matt Balis has furthered Kareem’s physicality, perhaps he will cut into Hayes’ snaps, but their frames alone emphasize the difference between the two. Last season, both were listed at or just shy of 6-foot-4, but Hayes carried an additional 24 pounds, 290 to 266.

Tagovailoa-Amosa and Hinish will keep Tillery and Bonner fresh, presumably even more so than last year.

Biggest Question:
That brings the defensive line conversation to Ewell. He arrived on campus much more-heralded as a recruit than either Tagovailoa-Amosa or Hinish, but the latter two were more college-ready. That is not inherently an indictment of Ewell’s recruiting rankings, based more so on future potential than immediate readiness.

Will a full year of collegiate coaching, not to mention strength and conditioning, have Ewell primed to live up to his recruiting hype?

He will not usurp any of the four already established in the middle. Tillery is the best current talent among the grouping and Bonner proved to be able to hold the point of attack in 2017. Tagovailoa-Amosa’s knack for finding the backfield was an unexpected strength, and the depth provided by Hinish is part of what helped Tillery finally shine and contributed, in part, to making Bonner’s breakthrough possible.

Nonetheless, Ewell could further that rotation, only freshening the legs available at the point of attack.

Defensive line depth cannot be emphasized enough, and if Ewell shows up ready and willing this spring, Notre Dame may be more ready in the middle than it has been in, hmmm, at least a long while. (Note to self: This could be a comparison to find an answer to.)

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Tillery: 56 tackles with nine for loss, including 4.5 sacks and one forced fumble.
D. Hayes: 30 tackles with 6.5 for loss, including three sacks and two fumbles recovered.
Bonner: 30 tackles with 3.5 for loss, including two sacks.
J. Hayes: 27 tackles with 3.5 for loss, including one sack with one fumble recovered.
Kareem: 21 tackles with 5.5 for loss, including three sacks and one fumble recovered.
Okwara: 17 tackles with 4.5 for loss, including 2.5 sacks and one interception along with one fumble forced.
Tagovailoa-Amosa: 12 tackles with 1.5 for loss.
Hinish: Eight tackles with 0.5 for loss.

2017 Stats Departed:
The point in this series is to look forward, but it bears noting just how little the Irish lost from the defensive line after 2017, a season in which the unit proved preseason expectations very wrong and became quite a strength. Of the contributing defensive linemen from the fall, only two are not expected to return in 2018:

Andrew Trumbetti: 28 tackles with four for loss, including 0.5 for loss.
Brandon Tiassum: Two tackles.

Notre Dame gets the letter: Jayson and Justin Ademilola
Notre Dame gets the letter: Ja’Mion Franklin

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are
Linebackers, a proven two and then many questions
Tight ends, a surplus of depth, unproven talent

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s tight ends, a surplus of depth, unproven talent

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Notre Dame has such tight end depth, it was somewhat surprising when the Irish pursued a second tight end in the class of 2018, but the possibilities of yet another playmaker in Tommy Tremble combined with a physical option in George Takacs forced the coaching staff’s decision.

“I always like to have that versatility each year and each signing class,” Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long said Feb. 7. “… We don’t want to pass up on a great athlete … being able to present different challenges to the defense with those kind of guys and still be very physical at the same time.”

That is a key to remember when looking at the Irish tight ends — Long sees different purposes amid the individuals in that position’s meeting room. Tremble, for example, could line up as a receiver as often as not while Takacs might fill in as Durham Smythe most recently did, serving as an additional blocker when needed and offering sure hands otherwise. In many respects, the two roles are two different positions.

Spring Roster:
— Fifth-year Nic Weishar, who Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said had shoulder surgery recently, though Kelly did not offer a timetable for return.
— Rising senior Alizé Mack.
— Rising sophomore Cole Kmet, when he is not pitching in relief for the Irish baseball team. Kmet made his second appearance of the season Thursday night. A letdown (3.0 IP, 3 ER, 3 H, 4 K), it did not go anywhere near as well as his debut did (4.0 IP, 0 ER, 1 H, 3 K).

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— Rising sophomore Brock Wright, who underwent a shoulder surgery of his own shortly following the regular season. A recent photo (left) from the @NDFootball Twitter account indicates Wright is partaking in at least some winter conditioning drills.
— Early-enrolled freshman Takacs.

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman Tremble.

Depth Chart Possibilities:
Long uses multiple tight ends, deploying both of those aforementioned archetypes at the same time. That tendency should be seen even more often in 2018 with more options now available. A full year in a collegiate program should have both Kmet and Wright ready for bigger roles, challenging Weishar for some of what were Smythe’s snaps in 2017.

The third tight end will see opportunities. It is essentially a second-string role. If granting the argument of two different forms of tight ends, then even the fourth tight end will get chances, as he will simply be the second-stringer in that particular role.

Kmet would seem the more likely of the rising sophomores to get a bit more time, but that only means Wright will see plenty of time in a blocking back role, just as he did in situational packages in 2017.

Biggest Question:
Kmet could find his way to a more prominent role if he offers something not yet seen from Mack: consistency not just on the field, but in all respects.

Can Mack finally translate his athleticism and potential into a consistent mismatch and productive threat? At his best, he could be the product of an offensive coordinator’s daydreams, but Mack has so rarely been at his best. That applies both on and off the field, considering his multiple drops in 2017 were followed by Kelly suspending Mack for an internal team matter for the Citrus Bowl before Notre Dame even headed down to Florida.

Another year of Mack spinning his wheels will result in a loss of playing time with the likes of Kmet and Tremble around. If Mack does not provide positive results in the spring while Kmet does, that shift could begin even before the Blue-Gold Game on April 21.

Fifth-year tight end Nic Weishar will provide Notre Dame not only with depth and experience in 2018, but also sure hands. That alone should give him a leg up on the other tight ends entering this spring. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Pertinent Reader Question:
“Every year a four- or five-star disappoints and every year a three-star or lower prospect surprises. My prediction is fall: Mack, rise: Weishar. I have been the lone man on the Weishar bandwagon for a few years now and really hope that this year he becomes the big receiving target we need.

What are your fallers and risers for this coming year?” — Mark H.

A logical argument can be made that “fallers” should not be labeled as such until after their collegiate careers conclude. There are so many factors that can limit a player for years before he breaks out. Consider rising senior receiver and former consensus four-star prospect Miles Boykin. As recently as New Year’s Eve, he may have been labeled a bust, but now he can lay claim to one of the most dramatic catches in Irish history and is a frontrunner for a starting role in 2018 with another year of eligibility remaining after that. He could end up with a stellar collegiate career by every measure.

Mack has had the opportunity to shine to date, and he has not done so, but he also might have two more seasons to go to change that reputation.

As for “risers,” Weishar makes sense and he certainly showcased his strong hands when given the chance in 2017, but his ceiling is likely not much higher than that. A couple touchdown catches, a handful of third-down conversions and a year of physical blocking would be a welcome success.

Notre Dame’s safeties, though, could stand out to fit the criteria laid out by Mark. If — and that is a two-letter word not to be overlooked — Navy transfer and rising junior Alohi Gilman and rising sophomore Jordan Genmark-Heath end up as productive starters for the season, then they will both have exceeded the expectations set out by star ratings.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Mack: 19 catches for 166 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by six receptions for 38 yards against North Carolina with rising junior quarterback Ian Book starting in place of an injured Brandon Wimbush.
Weishar: Nine catches for 52 yards and two touchdowns.
Kmet: Two catches for 14 yards; appeared in all 13 games.
Wright: Appeared in 11 games, no statistics recorded.

Notre Dame gets the letter: George Takacs
Notre Dame gets the letter: Tommy Tremble

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are
Linebackers, a proven two and then many questions

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s linebackers, a proven two and then many questions

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Any concerns about Notre Dame’s linebackers were allayed when Te’von Coney spurned the NFL to return for his senior season. That decision, and Drue Tranquill making the same move, means the Irish do not need to replace their two best playmakers at the position from last season.

Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Clark Lea does need to figure out how to fill in for the graduated Nyles Morgan and his 92 tackles, not to mention classmate Greer Martini and his 75, good for second and fourth on the team, respectively.

Spring Roster:
— Two known and welcome playmaking veterans in Coney and fifth-year Tranquill.
— More than a handful of unproven and untested possibilities in rising senior Asmar Bilal, rising juniors Jonathan Jones and Jamir Jones (no relation), and rising sophomores Drew White, David Adams and Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah.
— A trio of early-enrolled freshmen in Jack Lamb, Bo Bauer and Ovie Oghoufo.

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman Shayne Simon, a likely rover candidate.

Entering 2017, Te’von Coney was not even a starting linebacker. By the end of the season he was the leading tackler, and in 2018, he will be counted on as a defensive stalwart. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
Wherever Tranquill ends up — be it at rover or a more traditional linebacker position, with the latter seeming more likely — someone will need to earn the third starting role. Bilal is the front-runner for that duty, at either position, but he will need to show a quicker understanding of the game than he has in the past.

The rising senior has always been ready physically, but he has looked up the depth chart at the likes of Morgan, Martini, Coney and Tranquill. Opportunities were not readily available. Now that one very much is, Bilal will need to either seize it or get ready to be bypassed by the newcomers.

It would be a surprise for Lamb or Bauer to be named that third starter in their freshman season, but both could certainly land in the two-deep, as that entire second unit is up for grabs. Neither Jones showed much last season, and the linebacker recruiting emphasis of 2018 belied the coaching staffs’ opinions of the rising sophomores pretty clearly.

Presuming Bilal steps forward and secures the starting position, and some combination of Jones, Jones, Lamb and Bauer fill two of the backup roles, only Owusu-Koromoah stands out as an obvious rover substitute. In that respect, depth remains a concern at the defense’s second level, albeit less of one than in years past thanks to the influx of four touted freshmen.

Biggest Question:
Where does Tranquill line up against Michigan on Sept. 1? More to the current purpose, where does he line up in the Blue-Gold Game on April 21?

“My responsibility as linebackers coach is to put the best combination of people on the field,” Lea said Feb. 7. “I think everyone can see Drue Tranquill had a skillset, a talent base that can play multiple spots. Through the course of the winter and spring, we’ll take a look at different options.”

The duties at rover can be handled piecemeal, accounting for the tendencies of each opponent. When facing an up-tempo, aerial attack, perhaps even rising senior cornerback Shaun Crawford could be featured there. When facing a physical, ground-bound opponent, Bilal would make more sense.

Shifting around like that at the Buck linebacker spot makes far less sense. While Tranquill never necessarily had the speed to excel at safety, and two knee injuries only further limited him in that respect, he shined at rover in 2017. Concluding his collegiate career at linebacker is logical, both as it pertains to his development thus far and to his professional aspirations.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Rarely can a defense lose two of its top-four tacklers and still return more than 200 tackles from starting linebackers. Thus is the luxury provided by both Coney and Tranquill bypassing the NFL for another year.

Coney: 116 tackles, 13.0 tackles for loss including three sacks, and one forced fumble which he recovered.
Tranquill: 85 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss including 1.5 sacks, one interception, three pass breakups, three fumbles recovered and one fumble forced.
Bilal: 18 tackles with 1.5 for loss.
Jo. Jones: 10 tackles with one for loss and one pass breakup.
Ja. Jones: Four tackles.

A 2018 Statistical Thought:
Presuming linebacker health, the three starters should end up as Notre Dame’s leading tacklers once again in 2018, even with the presumed drop off from Morgan to insert Bilal or Owusu-Koromoah or Lamb or … here.

The Irish defensive line will be much improved in 2018. Once upon a time, that seemed a guarantee just because the expectations for the line entering 2017 were so low, but it instead became a strength. Developing that strength and making it the backbone of Notre Dame’s defense moving forward will serve to burgeon the linebackers’ tackle totals, both at and behind the line of scrimmage.

Notre Dame gets the letter: Jack Lamb
Notre Dame gets the letter: Bo Bauer
Notre Dame gets the letter: Shayne Simon
Notre Dame gets the letter: Ovie Oghoufo

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are

A second four-star defensive lineman, Hunter Spears, joins the Notre Dame class of 2019

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When Notre Dame got five heralded defensive line recruits on campus together in January, it turned heads. When Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston offered public optimism about the possible 2019 commitments, it raised expectations.

Notre Dame has now secured a second of those five with the Tuesday commitment of consensus four-star defensive end Hunter Spears (Sachse High School; Texas). He joins consensus four-star defensive tackle Jacob Lacey (South Warren H.S.; Bowling Green, Ky.) as the early foundation to the recruiting class, now with four prospects pledged.

“Honestly, just talking with the guys today — Jacob Lacey, Mazi Smith, Joseph Anderson, Nana Osafo-Mensah, and myself — if Notre Came can land all of us, that would be the dream d-line class for Notre Dame,” Spears told Irish Illustrated. “I could see another pass-rusher or two, also.”

The other three names Spears mentioned all joined Lacey and him on Jan. 27 at an on-campus Junior Day. All five qualify as consensus four-stars, with Smith (East Kentwood; Kentwood, Mich.) a tackle, Anderson (Siegel; Murfreesboro, Tenn.) an end, and Osafo-Mensah (Nolan Catholic; Fort Worth, Texas) a possible end/linebacker hybrid.

From left to right: Osafo-Mensah, Anderson, Elston, Smith, Lacey and Spears. (Twitter: @JacobLacey6)

Landing all five may be ambitious, but it would also be the envy of most of the country.

Spears already held offers from the likes of Alabama and Michigan State, despite missing his junior season with a knee injury. The Irish extended a scholarship offer to him in June, prompting an unofficial visit to watch a 49-14 Notre Dame victory over USC in October. In a video released by 247Sports.com, Spears cited that experience as one of the three primary reasons he committed, along with the educational opportunity and the “overall tradition and culture.”

Editor’s Note: That video has since been removed from this post due to its incessant auto-play function, but it can still be viewed here.

Spears shows quickness for a defensive lineman, but not such that he would ever be considered an outside linebacker in any form. His size makes him an ideal candidate to set the edge against the run or possibly move inside when the Irish need a quicker defensive line to handle certain opponents. His agility, though, will make him a three-down threat, both a pass-rusher and an edge-setter.

Notre Dame currently has depth at defensive end, but with only one signed in the class of 2018 (Justin Ademilola) and one remaining from the class of 2017 (Kofi Wardlow), an influx will be a priority this recruiting cycle. Spears will theoretically have one season to adjust to collegiate competition before the quartet of rising juniors Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem, Julian Okwara and Ade Ogundeji run out of eligibility. (The first three have two seasons remaining, while Ogundeji has the possibility of three more years.)

Hence, that Junior Day emphasis and Elston’s confidence on National Signing Day.

“I’ve been at Notre Dame now going on for nine years, and I haven’t had a stronger group of underclassmen that I’m recruiting than I have this year in 2019,” Elston said. “This could be the best defensive line haul we’ve ever had here.”

Expect to read that quote again and again (and possibly again) if any of the remaining three in the above photo follow Spears’ and Lacey’s lead.

RELATED READING: ‘Accelerated’ start creates bright outlook for Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting cycle