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And In That Corner … The Georgia Bulldogs, led by freshman QB Jake Fromm

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Notre Dame does not often play SEC teams. Georgia’s arrival this weekend will be the first regular season game against such an opponent since the Irish hosted and beat Tennessee 41-21 in 2005, outscoring the Volunteers by 20 points in the fourth quarter.

To gain a better look into an SEC title contender, welcome Marc Weiszer. Marc has covered the Bulldogs for the Athens Banner-Herald since 2003.

DF: Let’s start with the big question. From your conversations in and around Athens, are as many Georgia fans making the trek northward as has been widely reported and advertised?
MW: Sure seems that way. Georgia’s allotment of 8,000 tickets (plus another 400 for the Redcoat Band) could hardly meet demand. With the Falcons playing in Chicago Sunday and the Cubs slated to have a Friday day game (since moved to night), thousands are making it a big sports weekend.

The week has been dominated by talk of freshman Jake Fromm stepping in for sophomore Jacob Eason at quarterback due to Eason’s knee injury. To my often-faulty memory, there were some rumblings of Fromm being a factor this season even if Eason was healthy. Was that just idle offseason speculation or was there something to that possibility?
Probably somewhere in between. Coach Kirby Smart set the scene of a competition this spring with Fromm pushing Eason for the job, but that was more about the freshman showing good leadership and having off-field habits of being a film room maven that I’m sure coaches would love any quarterback to emulate. Smart acknowledged Eason was the guy in July, but Fromm gave Georgia a more than capable backup and could be turned to if Eason faltered. Or, as we saw in the first quarter of the opener against Appalachian State, if injury knocked him out of the game.

Georgia sophomore quarterback Jacob Eason’s knee sprain will keep him out of action this weekend. (AP Photo/John Amis)

Has the injury to Eason drastically altered the mood around the program? Certainly no one on the team would ever admit such, but losing your starting quarterback must dampen expectations.
There’s been no noticeable “woe is us” type response. If anything, the way Georgia’s offense was energized after Fromm came in the game — three straight touchdown drives after punting on the first series — showed he could be more than just a placeholder until Eason comes back. Eason had a pretty good freshman season — 14 touchdowns, 7 interceptions, late fourth-quarter drives to win at Missouri and Kentucky — but his 55 percent completion percentage and not quite living up to the five-star hype left many looking for more this season from Eason.

From what you have seen of Fromm in practices and in Saturday’s 31-10 victory over Appalachian State, what are his distinct strengths? What about weaknesses, aside from being a true freshman suddenly thrown into the action?
At 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds, Fromm doesn’t have the size or probably the big arm that wows like Eason, but he showed last week his quick release can be effective and the Bulldogs used tempo with success in the 31-10 win. He seems to have the respect of his teammates and he’s more fiery than Eason who was encouraged to become more vocal. It’s a small sample size so far for Fromm so we’ll learn a whole lot more about him after Saturday night on that stage. Then again, he hit three home runs in the Little League World Series as a 13-year old playing for his Warner Robins, Ga. team. (See Fromm introduce himself at 0:13 in the below video.)

Against the Mountaineers, senior running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel split the carries almost exactly evenly. Chubb finished with 96 yards on 15 rushes and Michel took 16 chances for 87 yards. Was that distribution a symptom of a blowout or has offensive coordinator Jim Chaney already found the balance between the two heralded senior running backs?
There’s never really been any issue of a competition for carries. That’s probably because due to injuries to both during their careers, they’ve each had time as being the featured back.  They’re also roommates and best friends. Chubb is more of a workhorse, a pound-it, downhill runner. Michel may be more in the Reggie Bush or LeSean McCoy mold. Georgia will try to get him in the ball in space or line him up in the slot. They certainly give Chaney a chance to keep one fresh by turning to the other without skipping a beat.

The Bulldogs lost a majority of their offensive line from a year ago. Can that give Notre Dame fans some hope of stymieing the Chubb & Michel rushing attack?
Certainly. Even with Chubb and Michel, Georgia’s ability to run the ball rests on its offensive line getting push in the trenches. That’s not something they did often enough last year.

Georgia senior running back Nick Chubb. (AP Photo/John Amis)

Georgia lost three starters — including left tackle starter Tyler Catalina who made the Redskins’ roster as an undrafted free agent — but its best lineman remains in senior Isaiah Wynn, who shifted from left guard to left tackle. True freshman Andrew Thomas (6-5, 320) from Lithonia, Ga., won the starting right tackle job. Georgia has been rotating guards and should have first-time starters this week in sophomore Solomon Kindley and junior Kendall Baker.

Few teams can claim the return of nearly their entire defenses, especially all of their front-seven. Georgia can. What holes in the Bulldogs’ defense might the Irish look to exploit?
Look to the secondary. Georgia lost Alabama graduate transfer Maurice Smith who started at the star nickelback last season. Malkom Parrish, a senior who is arguably their best cornerback, is expected to miss his second straight game with a foot injury. Senior cornerback Aaron Davis is battling a hamstring injury but may play. The Bulldogs had some transfers that thinned its depth and now rely on inexperienced players as backups. There is young talent in five-star freshman safety Richard LeCounte.

If you will allow me a catch-all here, what other notes should Notre Dame fans be aware of or what particular players should they be on the lookout for this weekend?
Some Georgia defensive players appeared to have motivation for the Irish being picked as favorites in this game — opening at 6 ½ — and talk of all the Notre Dame tradition. Senior safety Dominick Sanders talked of “punishing them from the start,” and junior defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter said the team is ‘ready to prove a point,” going up against Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson. On offense, wide receiver Riley Ridley — brother of Alabama star Calvin Ridley — is coming off a one-game suspension and is a big-play threat. So is receiver Mecole Hardman, a sophomore converted from defensive back who players raved about this preseason for his speed and playmaking potential.

How do you expect Saturday to play out? I often use spreads as evaluation metrics and was surprised to see Georgia as that 6.5-point underdog. I did not expect a freshman at quarterback to sway the line that much. Would you expect a closer game than that?
This is a hard one to pick to a certain extent. How much should we make of a strong showing against Temple after the 4-8 season last year for Notre Dame? I can see either team winning by more than two touchdowns or the game going down to the wire. Georgia’s defense is a legit top 15 nationally and has a terrific run-stopper in junior tackle Trenton Thompson, but Fromm’s first start is a wild card.

Dare I ask for a score prediction? It seems I do.
Without much conviction, I’ll say Notre Dame 28, Georgia 24. Don’t call your bookie in Vegas based on this.

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.