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Things to Learn during Georgia’s visit to Notre Dame

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Notre Dame opened the season in promising fashion last week. Then again, that was not the same Temple team as the last two years. The Irish should have kicked off the season in style. That result on its own is not necessarily a harbinger of a strong campaign to come. Just look at 2016’s home-opening 39-10 victory over Nevada. It did not exactly prove to be a predictor of a promising year.

This week’s top-25 matchup with No. 15 Georgia will provide an entirely different version of a test, one much more likely applicable to the future.

The Bulldogs were always going to play to their strengths, but that rings even truer now with a freshman making his first start at quarterback. How Notre Dame handles those particular strengths will teach the most about the 2017 rendition of the Irish.

Georgia’s defensive front-seven is its most notable asset. It will make the Notre Dame rushing game earn every yard it gains and it will force the Irish offensive line to work for every second junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush spends in the pocket.

Will the right tackle(s) be ready for that duty?
Expecting sophomore Tommy Kraemer to again rotate with freshman Robert Hainsey, both will need to be ready to face the likes of junior defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter and senior linebackers Davin Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter. Bellamy and Carter combined for 10 sacks last season, often acting as much as defensive ends as linebackers. The Kraemer/Hainsey duo will need to slow that rush if the Notre Dame offense is to hum anywhere near as well as it did last weekend.

For that matter, this may be an indicative measuring stick for that position battle moving forward. The fact that it remains a question does not bode well for Kraemer’s performance to date. No matter how well Hainsey, an early enrollee, has performed, Kraemer has had a chance to secure this starting spot for 10 months now. Not doing so definitively is his opportunity lost.

Hainsey, meanwhile, committed half the Irish penalties last week. (Committing only four total penalties is a facet of last week’s performance not praised enough, including in this space.) That may have been mere freshman nerves — especially considering neither jump was enticed by the defense in anyway — but it cannot continue if he expects to usurp Kraemer.

Does Notre Dame have a developed enough passing attack to keep Kirby Smart’s defense honest?
If it does, the Irish did not show it off last week, not that they needed to. The greatest concern about the passing game has been who will emerge as the second option behind junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown. That worry may be superfluous. Yes, establishing an additional reliable target for Wimbush makes sense, but it may not be inherently necessary.

Take the last three seasons. Notre Dame’s No. 2 receiver in any of those years never surpassed 48 catches, 597 yards or five touchdowns.

2016: St. Brown — 58 catches, 961 yards, nine touchdowns.
Torii Hunter, Jr. — 38 catches, 521 yards, three touchdowns.
2015: Will Fuller — 62 catches, 1,258 yards, 14 touchdowns.
Chris Brown — 48 catches, 597 yards, four touchdowns.
2014: Fuller —76 catches, 1,094 yards, 15 touchdowns.
Corey Robinson — 40 catches, 539 yards, five touchdowns.

The last time Irish coach Brian Kelly could genuinely turn to a second receiver was in 2013 when DaVaris Daniels caught 49 passes for 745 yards and seven touchdowns, trailing TJ Jones in all three categories. (70 catches, 1,108 yards, nine touchdowns.)

Graduate student receiver Cameron Smith may remain the most likely possibility to separate himself from the pack. Perhaps sophomore receiver Chase Claypool’s athleticism will set him apart. Maybe the time has come for junior tight end Alizé Mack to live up to the billing.

If none of those items whole-heartedly come to pass, though, it will not mean the Notre Dame aerial attack has stalled.

On the other side of the ball, Georgia will run the ball. Can the Irish tackle two of the nation’s top running backs?
Last week, Notre Dame was admittedly sloppy in tackling. That can easily be attributed to week one timing issues. Even when in a full-contact practice, senior captain and linebacker Nyles Morgan was never going to launch himself at an Irish back the same way he would at Temple junior running back Ryquell Armstead. Adjusting to that live-action pacing might take four quarters.

Notre Dame senior rover Drue Tranquill. (Getty Images)

Contrarily, it could also be a sign of a season-long struggle to come.

Specifically, will the Notre Dame linebackers be able to bring down the Bulldogs senior running back duo of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel? If either of those threats reaches the Irish safeties, the battle will already be lost, and that is not meant as a negative reflection of those safeties.

If Morgan, fellow senior captains Greer Martini and Drue Tranquill, and juniors Te’von Coney and Asmar Bilal are in fact able to contain Chubb and Michel, then Notre Dame should not have much trouble with any remaining rushing attack this season (exception: Navy and its triple-option), not even with USC junior Ronald Jones.

If, however, they struggle, then those tackling woes are likely to emerge a few more times this year, a reminder of a season ago.

Irish senior defensive end Jay Hayes may have played the best game of his career against the Owls. (Getty Images)

Can the defensive line make the linebackers jobs any easier?
This is not a week where a pass rush will be vital, though defensive coordinator Mike Elko will never complain about that luxury. This is a week were taking up space, plugging holes and occupying blockers could be crucial. If the unproven line, especially the defense tackles, can do as much, suddenly Morgan, Martini & Co. will not need to worry about a guard having an opportunity to add an un-schemed block to his week’s highlight reel.

The Irish coaches, defensive linemen and even offensive linemen have spoken out in defense of the front line, insisting it is better than it is given credit for. This week provides a prime opportunity to prove as much.

Will Justin Yoon right whatever is wrong, which in this case, is too much right?
Yoon missed two field goal attempts last week, both to the right. In a game against a top-15 opponent rather than Temple, those lost six points could prove costly.

Historically, Yoon is extremely accurate. He has earned the faith of the coaching staff to endure one rough week. Extending that grace period may start to stress coaches and fans alike.

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.