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And In That Corner … The Boston College Eagles and Steve Addazio

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It’s a tradition unlike any other. An underwhelming Boston College team troubles the Irish. Starting a quarterback with even less experience than Notre Dame’s, these Eagles may keep up that tradition this weekend. To get a better gauge on those chances, let’s consult with Michael Sullivan of Boston College’s The Heights.

DF: For introductory purposes, you are the editor-in-chief at Boston College’s independent student newspaper, The Heights, correct? I know that can be a time-intensive and seemingly-thankless gig. Kudos. How many years have you been on the football beat now?

MS: Thanks, Douglas. It definitely gets tough with a typical five-class schedule, especially at a place like BC. Prior to becoming editor-in-chief, I was sports editor for two years. This is my third full season covering Eagles football, from spring through fall, and I also take up the men’s hockey and baseball beats.

Eagles fifth-year head coach Steve Addazio. (AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)

I would like to start with a macro look. Steve Addazio is now in his fifth season as Eagles head coach. He opened with two admirable 7-6 seasons before falling to 3-9 in 2015. Last year’s return to 7-6 ended with a bowl victory, the first such win in just how long? Is there any sense Addazio needs to perform this year? At what point is 7-6 not going to be enough for Boston College?

It’s the first bowl win for BC since 2007, a 24-21 win over Michigan State in what was then the Champs Sports Bowl, with Matt Ryan at quarterback. So yeah, it’s been that long. There’s absolutely a sense right now that Addazio has to perform this year, especially with a new athletic director in Martin Jarmond. The youngest AD in the country, Jarmond comes from two high-profile programs — Michigan State and Ohio State, the latter of which where he was the No. 2 to Gene Smith. He will likely have little patience for continued failure for this program.

Whether that means bringing in a new guy at the end of the year remains to be seen — a bowl berth this season, even at 6-6, might be enough to do it. But looking critically at the Eagles’ seasons shows another trend. In 2014, BC gave away a couple of winnable games: Colorado State and Clemson each were a drop in the end zone away from wins, and a missed PAT in the Pinstripe Bowl might’ve been a 10th. In 2015, the Eagles had the No. 1 defense in the nation, but lost back-to-back games by less than three points in which kicker Colton Lichtenberg missed a combined three field goals — 9-7 to Duke and 3-0 to Wake Forest. In 2016, same story against Georgia Tech, not to mention the 4th and 19 play that kept the Yellow Jackets alive in Dublin.

Some might say this is just a play here, a play there, and failure to execute. But, as I’m sure Notre Dame fans understand, a fanbase can only tolerate so many one-possession defeats, and it could mark the difference between a good and bad coach. This is all to say, 7-6 might be good enough this year, given BC’s tough schedule. For how many years after that though? It’s likely to be few, if any.

The micro view should probably start at quarterback. Freshman Anthony Brown had a rough week against Wake Forest, only a week after a rather promising debut at Northern Illinois. He’ll get the starting nod again this week, right, even after being pulled after this third interception against the Deacons?

Oh absolutely, Brown is sure to start this week, and going forward in all likelihood.

Boston College quarterback Anthony Brown showcases his arm strength in the Eagles’ 34-10 loss to Wake Forest last weekend. (Getty Images)

In the short-term, what are Brown’s greatest strengths? Weaknesses?

He’s got the kind of arm Addazio hasn’t had since coming to Boston College. He really has a good amount of strength in that right shoulder and can air it out deep. His weaknesses aren’t abnormal to any redshirt freshman thrust into a starting role. Brown has trouble with his accuracy right now on the deep ball. But what stands out to me is when he misses, he overthrows his receivers, rather than underthrows them. Brown does a good job keeping the ball away from opponents — if you look at the picks in the Wake Forest game, two were tipped. At the same time, he’s not afraid to squeeze it in there and thread the needle when need be. All-in-all, if he can shore up the accuracy, he’s going to be the quarterback the Eagles have missed since at least Chase Rettig, but perhaps since Matt Ryan.

What about the long-term? Even when Notre Dame doesn’t play the Eagles, Irish fans are always aware of how that school out east is doing.

Long-term, Brown appears to be “The Answer” at quarterback, and Boston College projects still to be a six-win team this year. You can expect some easy wins against Connecticut or Central Michigan, and they’ll be competitive with North Carolina State, Syracuse, and Virginia — I’d expect one or two wins from them out of that trio.

Personally, I was surprised to see Wake Forest score 34 points last weekend. A look further points out seven of those came on an interception return, and another touchdown drive needed to cover only 26 yards. Perhaps I should have been more impressed with the Deacons holding the Eagles to 10 points. How did they limit Boston College so effectively?

A big reason was because of the play of the offensive line. The Eagles have lost two starters: left guard Elijah Johnson, who tore his ACL in the spring, and center Jon Baker, who tore his ACL against Northern Illinois. With the up-tempo pace Addazio was expecting to implement, he needs a stable of linemen to rotate. Now, he’s down to only five or six that can start. On Saturday, he started freshman Ben Petrula, a 300-pound tackle, at center, because left guard Sam Schmal was out and backup center Shane Leonard has been out for a month. Petrula struggled to get his feet wet, with a few bad snaps and some hard rushes by the defensive tackles that had Brown scrambling out of the pocket. Petrula will be back there on Saturday, as will Schmal, but the line really needs to hold up strong for BC for chance at a victory.

Eagles defensive end Harold Landry came just short of a sack here, but he recorded one against the Demon Deacons to go along with two more tackles for loss. (AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)

The conversation around Boston College’s defense begins with end Harold Landry. Can you explain to Notre Dame fans just what makes him so dangerous? They are already doubting the Irish offensive line’s competence in all facets. A few Landry sacks won’t do much for morale.

Irish fans might remember Matt Milano from two years ago, the outside linebacker who, along with Justin Simmons, helped force five turnovers, most of which were on fumbles/picks of Deshone Kizer, in Notre Dame’s 19-16 win over Boston College at Fenway Park. Now imagine that in a defensive end’s body. Landry played outside linebacker for years in high school, learning how to drop back effectively in pass coverage. But he’s just relentless when he’s going after the quarterback, as evidenced by his 16.5 sacks last year, most in the nation. His pop out of the crouch on the line of scrimmage is so quick and can’t be rivaled by anyone else in the country.

Aside from Landry, what can be expected from the Eagles defense?

Landry’s successor, Zach Allen, plays at his opposite position on the defensive line. He’s a dangerous, 300-pound monster constantly hungry for quarterbacks. The Eagles’ secondary is also for real, allowing fewer than 180 passing yards per game. Seniors Kamrin Moore and Isaac Yiadom are legitimate shutdown corners, Will Harris has a Landon Collins-esque feel about him in the way he tackles, and Lukas Denis is a rising star in his free safety ability. Going to the air will be a challenge for any opposing quarterback this season.

This is admittedly a cop out, but what else should Notre Dame fans be aware of this weekend? Who or what am I missing?

The Eagles are very deep at receiver/tight end for the first time in the Addazio era. Kobay White, Michael Walker, Jeff Smith, Tommy Sweeney and Charlie Callinan, just to name a few, are among the many weapons offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler can put out there for Brown to attack. They’re still working through some of the drop troubles they had last year, but they’ve done an excellent job, better than I’ve seen at Boston College, at getting open and giving Brown opportunities. For the first time in a long time, BC also appears to have foud some stability at kicker with Lichtenberg, who is 4-for-4 this year.

While we are asking the obvious questions, how do you expect this weekend to play out? The Irish are favored by 13.5. Can Boston College keep it closer than that?

That’s a good line if you ask me. When it comes down to it, it’ll be a matter of how well the defense can contain Brandon Wimbush. The Eagles haven’t had much success against two running quarterbacks in NIU’s Ryan Graham and Wake’s John Wolford, who each ran for more than 90 yards. Wimbush is by far the best runner of that group, and if BC can’t contain him and lock down time of possession, it’ll be a long afternoon. I do, however, think the offense will rebound to the levels it showed against Northern Illinois, and the passing defense will force Notre Dame to be somewhat one-dimensional. I can’t necessarily say I see an Eagles win, but I can definitely see Boston College keeping it to around 7-10 points. I’d go with a cover.

For that matter, do you have a score prediction?

24-17 Notre Dame. I think the Eagles keep it a lot closer than they did to Wake Forest, but I’m not sure if it’s enough to seal the deal. An Eagles win, in a game that’s sure to be emotional, wouldn’t floor me given Notre Dame’s own struggles, but I’ll hold it to a one-possession loss.

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.