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Monday Morning Leftovers: Notre Dame amid NFL roster cuts; Good for USC & more

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You made it. Football happened. It was as glorious as you remembered, wasn’t it? I hope the wings were properly-marinated, as well.

— While college football was providing a level of drama which was greatly enjoyed but will likely be surpassed in a week, the NFL was working through a much more personal version of dramatics. The “final” round of roster cuts came this weekend, bringing each NFL team to the 53-man depth chart it will carry into the season.

Among former Irish players trying to make their first roster, defensive lineman Isaac Rochell made his way onto the Los Angeles Chargers, though his spot remains tenuous. The quotation marks a paragraph prior around final are because these rosters are obviously constantly in flux. In Los Angeles, defensive end Tenny Palepoi will return from suspension (violation of league policy on performance enhancing substances) one week into the season. When he is added to the roster, it could be at Rochell’s expense.

Drafted in the seventh round, Rochell is joined by undrafted linebacker James Onwualu on the Chargers’ roster. Undrafted cornerback Cole Luke found a spot with the Carolina Panthers.

Defensive-turned-offensive tackle Jarron Jones, also undrafted, did not make the cut with the New York Giants. Rather than spend time with their practice squad, as expected, in hopes he can bring his blocking skills to an NFL-level, Giants beat writer Dan Duggan reports Jones has signed with the Seattle Seahawks practice squad.

— Perhaps the USC vs. Western Michigan game was well beyond dramatic with three minutes remaining and the Trojans up 17. It was then, though, that the weekend’s most memorable moment occurred.

You have undoubtedly seen this by now, but reminding of it cannot hurt. After an interception returned for a touchdown USC walk-on long snapper Jake Olson fired a perfect snap for the converted extra point. Why in the world would that be memorable? Olson is blind.

Just for making that happen, perhaps Notre Dame fans should allow USC is not entirely bad.

Lost in the moment is the praise deserved by Western Michigan and, specifically, Broncos coach Tim Lester. Trojans coach Clay Helton called Lester on Thursday wanting to find a way to get Olson his moment. Lester agreed if the situation presented itself, he would tell his kick block unit to relent on the attempt, but only if the game was already at an agreed upon level of lopsided.

In exchange, USC would not rush Western Michigan’s first point after attempt. That is especially bold, ceding a point at the game’s outset.

— That touchdown, courtesy of Trojans safety Marvel Tell, made the score 49-31. Somewhere I recently read someone predict USC would exceed a projected tally of 43 points this weekend. That same person also mused Georgia should have been favored by more than two touchdowns against Appalachian State and the Boston College vs. Northern Illinois game would not provide the fireworks necessary to reach a combined total of 51 points.

Georgia beat Appalachian State by 21, and that latter game notched only 43 points.

— Injuries are part of football, but it is still always preferable not to see star quarterbacks on national title contenders lost for the year on the opening weekend. Florida State’s Deondre Francis reportedly injured a season-ending patellar tendon injury, leaving the Seminoles to turn to freshman James Blackman.

Deondre Francis (Getty Images)

Blackman, or classmate Bailey Hockman, will have only one game to get ready for some of the ACC’s best. Florida State hosts Louisiana-Monroe this weekend before Miami arrives Sept. 16 followed a week later by redemption-seeking North Carolina State.

Fortunately for the Seminoles, the three-game home stand should provide the freshmen some level of comfort.

— Allow me to be the buzzkill. Excuse me while I ruin the fun. I am here to end the party.

UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen’s fake spike-touchdown to complete a historic comeback over Texas A&M last night was unnecessary, superfluous, pointless and inconsequential. I am not referring to the touchdown itself. It delivered the Bruins a win. I am referring to the fake spike.

Josh Rosen celebrates the winning touchdown Sunday night. (Getty Images)

The clock was not ticking. The previous play, a fourth-and-six from the 20-yard line, ended with UCLA running back Soso Jamabo out of bounds, having converted the first down off a pass into the flat. When Rosen faked the spike, the A&M defenders should have ignored it.

Any Aggies falling for it is more a reflection on their game awareness and coaching than it is on Rosen’s savviness.

For that matter, was it even a catch?

— For Irish fans, Friday night in Boca Raton was a reminder of a Saturday six years ago. The Florida Atlantic debut of Lane Kiffin was elongated by three lightning delays, finally ending at 1:47 a.m. Per the Sun-Sentinel’s Matt DeFranks, there was never a conversation about halting the game prior to completion, even though Navy seemed to have the result well in hand.

On some level, that makes sense. It was a Friday night, there were no classes to get to. Kiffin and the Owls should want to play to win, that is the entire premise of the sport. It is Florida, quick rain storms are the norm.

But it was an hour past midnight with the game clock stopped. One has to wonder at what point those conversations would have begun.

— I have my one and only fantasy football draft tomorrow night. I am woefully behind on research, but I know this much: I will not be drafting any former Irish players with the possible exception of Cincinnati Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert.

It is a two-quarterback fantasy league, something I have long advocated for, but now that only puts me even further behind in preparations.

— As of this typing, no sign yet of a Notre Dame vs. Georgia spread. Possible season-ending injuries to star quarterbacks on national title contenders will often delay such projections, and such is the case with Bulldogs starter Jacob Eason. With that in mind, this is a unique chance to guess the line. Let’s go with Notre Dame by 4.5 points.

UPDATE: With the news freshman quarterback Jack Fromm will start for Georgia, the line has opened with the Irish as 6.5-point favorites this weekend.

— Top-25 polls will come out tomorrow, delayed this week by the elongated weekend. (Thanks Labor Day. That is also why this post is up a few hours later than usual. Why rush on a holiday?) There will not be a separate post tomorrow to inform anyone of the inevitable: Notre Dame will be in the top 25.

Take the initial AP poll, for example. The Irish were No. 28, if counting through the Others Receiving Votes. Nos. 22 and 23 West Virginia and Texas, respectively, both lost. No. 19 South Florida struggled, again, this time against Stony Brook.

No. 26 TCU beat up on Jackson State. No. 27 Utah enjoyed a casual evening against North Dakota. The Irish victory over Temple is far more impressive than either of those.

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.