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Notre Dame’s Opponents: Georgia

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Notre Dame’s season will get an early litmus test when the Irish host Georgia. Undoubtedly, plenty of commenters here will rush to say Notre Dame does not stand a chance against the Bulldogs’ rushing attack, and while that ground game does warrant a heap of respect, implying Georgia will cruise through South Bend on Sept. 9 is too simple of a summary.

2016 REVIEW
The Bulldogs went 8-5 last year, including 4-4 in the SEC. In nearly every respect, it was a disappointing debut season for head coach Kirby Smart given the expectations for what was supposedly a team ready to break through. Even that .500 conference record paints a prettier picture than the reality, as Georgia was outscored by 25 points in conference play.

The Bulldogs started 3-0, but that record was built on a house of cards. They needed to come from behind in the second half to win each of those games, including squeezing by Football Championship Subdivision-team Nicholls State 26-24.

Ole Miss handed Georgia its first loss in the form of a 45-14 walloping, leading 31-0 at halftime. There would be no second-half rally, to say the least. The defeat started a five-game stretch in which the Bulldogs fell four times, including a 17-16 loss at home against Vanderbilt. No matter how well Derek Mason may be doing with a slow Commodores rebuild, that was a bad look for Smart.

Few teams could have two prospective NFL starting running backs and a highly-touted quarterback, yet manage only 24.5 points per game.

WHAT GEORGIA LOST

Former Georgia receiver Isaiah McKenzie (Getty Images)

Remember discussing Temple and its three NFL Draft picks? That was three times as many as Georgia managed last season, that lone honoree being receiver Isaiah McKenzie in the fifth round. He totaled 633 yards and seven touchdowns last year, as well as a punt return for a touchdown.

More notably, the Bulldogs saw 60 percent of their offensive line graduate, and the remaining 40 percent does not make up one side of the line to create a reliable half of the field. (Think of Notre Dame’s offensive line and its trust in its left side with fifth-year senior left tackle Mike McGlinchey and senior left guard Quenton Nelson.)

Rather, Georgia is looking to replace both its offensive tackles as well as its center.

WHAT GEORGIA GAINED
Speaking of replacing offensive linemen, Georgia’s top 2017 recruit could fit the bill. Isaiah Wilson, all 6-foot-7 and 350 pounds of him, has reportedly seen some first-team action in preseason practice. He was the centerpiece of the No. 3 recruiting class in the country, per rivals.com. That rating was boosted by sheer numbers: Of the Bulldogs’ 26 signees, two were five-stars and 14 ranked as four-stars. Yes, that 26 figure exceeds the NCAA maximum, but that mandate kicks in only upon enrollment.

Receiver Mark Webb was among those four-stars and could quickly find himself playing time amid a deep but unproven receiver corps. (Sound familiar, Irish fans?)

HEAD COACH
Kirby Smart enters his second season away from Nick Saban’s watchful eye with one primary goal: Meet Saban in December. The former Alabama defensive coordinator will need to get past Florida to reach the SEC Championship game.

The encounter against Notre Dame could serve a genuine role in that task: Aside from last year’s loss in the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, the Sept. 9 contest will be the truest test yet of Smart’s head-coaching tenure, partly due to it being on the road as it is. Suffice it to say, Georgia rarely travels north, let alone within range of the Great Lakes’ winds. Obviously, the weather should not matter in early September, but it is not absurd to think the time in flight could alter some routines.

As will be discussed below in the “Season Outlook,” the Bulldogs will need to win on the road this season if they have hopes of reclaiming some SEC glory. Notching an away victory in the season’s second week could lay a foundation for that pursuit.

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY

Georgia running back Sony Michel (Getty Images)

The entire week leading into Georgia facing the Irish, expect to hear repeated mentions of senior running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel (pronounced like Michelle). It is hard to overstate how good each is. To have both defies typical collegiate comprehension.

Yet, the Bulldogs attack will go beyond the rushing game. Sophomore quarterback Jacob Eason has arm strength to rival Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s, and Eason will have a number of receivers to target, ones he is certainly more familiar with than he was as a freshman.

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
Georgia returns its top-five tacklers. Eh, maybe that is not as impressive as it first seems.

Georgia returns 14 of its top-15 tacklers, losing only No. 6 in that count, cornerback Maurice Smith and his 50 takedowns.

With 10 returning starters, including its entire front-seven, having now spent an additional year learning Smart’s 3-4 system, this should be a dominant defense led by linebackers Davin Bellamy and Lorezno Carter. The duo combined for 10 sacks and 30 quarterback hurries last year. No matter how generously that latter statistic is tracked, Bellamy’s 17 hurries is a number to notice.

SEASON OUTLOOK
Vegas pegs Georgia’s win total over/under at 8.5. Despite the heralded running duo and threatening defense, that number is quite well-placed. Given their struggles a year ago, putting too much faith in the Bulldogs may be a reach. In order to best that win total, they would need to not slip up in any game likely favored in (such as at Vanderbilt), as well as win at least two of five games away from home at Notre Dame, at Tennessee, at a neutral site vs. Florida, at Auburn and at Georgia Tech.

The SEC East will presumably come down to Georgia and Florida again. Speaking of the Gators, do not be surprised to see semi-frequent Florida updates in this space this fall. The Malik Zaire experiment’s intrigue increases with each update from Gainesville.

Yesterday: Temple
Tomorrow: Boston College
Thursday: Michigan State
Friday: Miami (OH)
Saturday: North Carolina
Sunday: Bye Week
Monday, the 21st: USC
Tuesday, 22nd: North Carolina State
Wednesday, 23rd: Wake Forest
Thursday, 24th: Miami (FL)
Friday, 25th: Navy
Saturday, 26th: Stanford (The same day as Stanford’s opener vs. Rice in Australia.)
Sunday, 27th: Enjoy the sun once more before the season commences in earnest.

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.