Three sacks show much more of Notre Dame’s defense


Brandon Wimbush had just made the first real mistake of his time as Notre Dame’s starting quarterback. A very-avoidable interception gave Temple possession a mere 14 yards from the end zone. With the Irish lead only 28-10 and more than 20 minutes remaining, a quick score would have returned the season opener to competitive. When Owls senior tight end Chris Myarick was left uncovered approaching the goal line on the ensuing third down, a touchdown seemed quite likely.

Instead, Temple was forced to attempt a 36-yard field goal, missed wide left.

What changed?

Well, a lot, and it traces back much further than that third-and-five. The dramatic example simply underscores the differences between the Notre Dame defense a year ago and the version put on display in Saturday’s 49-16 victory over the Owls.

At the snap, senior rover Drue Tranquill crashed toward the line of scrimmage while junior safety Nick Coleman played the space Tranquill left. Senior linebacker Nyles Morgan kept his eyes on the quarterback. Who was supposed to cover Myarick is a question only answerable in the Irish film room. That answer was rendered moot, though, by a charging Te’von Coney.

The junior linebacker locked onto junior quarterback Logan Marchi as he rolled left, taking Marchi down for a 10-yard sack, the third of the day for Notre Dame. By all appearances, Coney prevented a simple pitch-and-catch for a touchdown.

“If he doesn’t do his job, they’re going to find that tight end,” Kelly said Tuesday. “He covers up for a mistake on a play.”

Kelly added Coney would not have made that play a year ago. Instead, he would have been distracted by senior running back David Hood moving from right to left across the line, heading for the flat. Coney would have likely followed Hood, rather than leave the offense’s safety valve to be picked up by sophomore safety Devin Studstill, as happened Saturday.

“We were covering up for [Coney’s] mistakes last year,” Kelly said. “It’s not just the physical talent. He really had that in a large degree. Where he’s taken the huge jump is in his traits. His attention to detail, his focus, he is a locked-in football player. That’s where he’s making the jump.”

Coney’s jump coincides with a defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme, one that perhaps plays to his strengths. For that matter, it may play to every linebacker’s strengths, and it just so happens the Irish have a number of talented linebackers these days.

“It’s the philosophical approach to how we teach the defensive front and the way that it is taught from the very first day that the defense is put in,” Kelly said. “We’re not a read-and-react defense. We’re going to create a new line of scrimmage.

“… The defensive line is going to play in a manner that they’re going to get off the football. Our linebackers are downhill players. You can see that with 11 tackles for loss from 10 different players.”

Especially on that third-and-five, Coney was moving downhill, ignoring the previous line of scrimmage.

Similarly, both Tranquill and senior defensive end Jay Hayes exhibited that purpose on the second play from scrimmage of the second half. Temple set up for a screen pass, but Tranquill was in the backfield so quickly, Marchi no longer had that intended option. Instead, he had Hayes bearing down on him after shedding his blocker with a quick spin move.

Hayes was not officially credited with anything more than a quarterback hurry from that play. That is, not that Hayes. He forced Marchi toward sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes (no relation), who sacked the Owl out of bounds. But it was Tranquill’s coverage and the first rusher that made the play.

Again, that play would not have been made last year. Jay Hayes simply was not capable of it. An offseason spent working with the new strength and conditioning staff as well as the trainers positioned Hayes to start and contribute from week one.

“He needed to match that strength and size with his footwork and change of direction,” Kelly said. “He committed to that in the offseason. Our strength staff did a great job. Rob Hunt and the trainers did a great job on correctives with [Hayes’] footwork and his feet in particular to get him where his change of direction now matches and meets his physicality.

“That’s always lagged behind with Jay. Now it matches who he is and that’s why he’s having the success he’s having.”

These praises of a renewed pass rush and simple aggression in Elko’s defense come without even mentioning Notre Dame’s first sack. Sophomore end Julian Okwara gets the credit for that one, but perhaps more notable: All four defensive linemen on the play were reserves with Okwara joined by freshman tackle Kurt Hinish, junior tackle Brandon Tiassum and senior end Andrew Trumbetti.

An unfinished product
By no means was the Irish defense perfect against Temple. First of all, 16 points proves that. Second of all, it was week one, perfection was unlikely. Third, Kelly has repeatedly asked for excellence, specifically not perfection.

Yet certain mistakes are correctable.

“I’d probably say tackling,” senior linebacker and captain Greer Martini said. “But as a defensive unit, you can always say you can tackle better.”

Kelly agreed.

“We have to tackle better,” he said. “There’s no question defensively. That will start within all phases of our tackling.

“I told our football team situational awareness has to get better. We had some situations where we’ve got to react quicker. … We backed up in the end zone on a throw. We have to know where we are on the field.”

Presumably, Kelly was referring to the 11-yard touchdown pass from Marchi to senior receiver Brodrick Yancy in the fourth quarter, a screen pass that conceivably should not have advanced much past the line of scrimmage.

Irish sophomore cornerback Julian Love hesitated, allowing the blocking receiver to engage without a challenge. At that point, neither Studstill nor junior rover Asmar Bilal were able to take the proper angles to prevent Yancy from scoring.

Frankly, Notre Dame was lucky to have that opportunity to stop the Owls. On the play immediately prior, Temple sophomore tight end Kenny Yeboah beat Irish sophomore safety Jalen Elliott in the end zone but could not handle Marchi’s pass.

It was week one. Those mistakes will happen.

It was also a long offseason, one that apparently instilled a better understanding of assignments, better conditioning and a straightforward defensive approach. These were all preached for eight months, but now there is finally tangible evidence of them.

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.