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Things We Learned: Notre Dame lacks an aerial attack and a punt return, has a defensive future

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We learned the working definition of a modern record is anything after the start of World War II. Why is such a designation necessary? Well, the Irish modern record for rushing touchdowns in one game is 10, set against Dartmouth in 1944. The actual highest number? That is the casual 27 rushing touchdowns Notre Dame scored against American Medical in 1905.

We learned this rendition of the Irish will not fold at the first sign of adversity, last week’s defeat, or the second, Saturday’s subpar first half.

We learned it will be a long, long season in Chestnut Hill as Eagles head coach Steve Addazio has to worry more and more about his long-term employment prospects.

What else did we learn from Notre Dame’s 49-20 victory?

If the Irish passing attack is to find any consistency, junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush must first find some accuracy. (Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images)

The Irish passing game is nowhere near ready to win a game.
Throwing for only 96 yards on 27 attempts cannot be explained away on any one player’s or position’s shoulders. Neither Wake Forest nor Northern Illinois have threatening or dynamic offenses, yet they threw for 151 yards and 203 yards, respectively, against Boston College. Neither figure is astounding, but both show just how dismal the Notre Dame aerial attack was.

Wimbush was never sacked, and Eagles senior defensive end Harold Landry never truly threatened him, so perhaps the offensive line should be excused from this conversation this week.

Rather, the questions now surround both Wimbush and the receivers. He was not accurate Saturday, but even if he had been, his playmakers were not getting open.

“Our passing game will have to be better, and I think that means not necessarily just from the quarterback position,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “We’re going to have to make some catches that are contested. We’re going to have to step up and make some big plays at the receiver position and assisting our quarterback.”

Wimbush finished 11-of-24 with one interception off a deflected pass, tipped by junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown. On that route, St. Brown was open downfield and Wimbush missed his target. That said, it could be argued St. Brown could have made the play. What’s that old saying? If you can touch it, you can catch it.

Irish junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown finished with only one catch for three yards on at least eight targets. (Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images)

That trope is not entirely true, and perhaps applying it on that particular play is being overly-critical of St. Brown. That pass was a reach, but as a whole, the sentiment rings true. Supposedly the offense’s best downfield threat, St. Brown finished with one catch for three yards, a second-down screen midway through the second quarter. A quick look through the play-by-play shows at least seven more passes intended for St. Brown. Some of those tie to Wimbush throwing the ball where his guy can catch it. Some of those tie to his guy, well, catching it.

“There’s a couple catches out there that some of those guys need to make for him,” Kelly said. “There’s a little bit of inaccuracy there, where [Wimbush is] a little rushed at times, where he’s just got to settle into the game.”

As a unit, the receivers made three catches for 11 yards, sophomore Chase Claypool providing the other two for eight yards in his first career start. A receiving corps accounting for three receptions on any given night is as much a sign of poor route running, a lack of separation and a subpar performance as it is of a quarterback’s accuracy issues.

For his part, Wimbush shouldered all responsibility. To be clear, he should have, both because that is what a mature leader does and because a good amount of Saturday’s inabilities to pass trace to his performance.

“The offensive line did a [great] job again, and the receivers of getting open, and the backs,” he said. “They all did a great job. I’ve just got to understand that I’ve been playing quarterback for a very long time now, and it’s natural to me, and understand that and get these guys the ball.”

The lone bright spot in the passing game may have been junior tight end Alizé Mack. He entered Saturday with four catches for 58 yards on the season. Against Boston College, Mack was the closest thing to a safety valve available to Wimbush, catching five passes for 43 yards.

While waiting on the passing game, Notre Dame can lean on its rushing game.
Especially in the next three weeks, the Irish should be able to keep games close enough to not need to resort to a desperate two-minute offense or need to score three times in one quarter. If those games are not close, it would logically be because Notre Dame finds itself a lead as it did against the Eagles.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame offense may trend toward run, partly thanks to Wimbush

If Boston College is routinely lauded for its habit of playing the Irish tough, then next week’s matchup against Michigan State should elicit similar conversations, perhaps underscored with a touch of, “Weird things happen in Spartan Stadium.”

Turning to the running game should again help Notre Dame limit the physical opponent’s ability to dictate the game’s terms.

“Our endurance, mental and physical endurance, was just a little bit better than [Boston College’s] today,” Kelly said. “… We were able to exert ourselves today longer and come up with some big plays.”

For that to continue to be the case, it will be done by the Irish running game.

Nice to meet you, Mr. Crawford.
When recruited three years ago, junior cornerback Shaun Crawford was one of the highest-rated defensive back prospects to land at Notre Dame in recent history. Though only 5-foot-9 and 178 pounds these days, he remains one of the Irish defenders with the highest ceiling.

When healthy.

Crawford lost each of his first two seasons to injury. The second of those, a torn Achilles, could hamper an athlete’s explosiveness for a long time to come. That possibility tempered expectations of Crawford this offseason.

His performance against Boston College may warrant those expectations to again be uninhibited. Two interceptions and a recovered fumble fit the playmaking hopes the Irish coaching staff always had for Crawford, tracing back to that recruitment.

His reemergence may allow sophomore cornerback Julian Love to chip in more often at safety. Between Crawford and senior Nick Watkins, Notre Dame has two viable cornerbacks in addition to Love.

Field position is a problem. Special teams are not holding their own.
Notre Dame’s punt return unit might as well be non-existent. Junior Chris Finke returned four for all of five yards, fair catching three more. The Irish did not return any kicks.

Looking at possessions beginning off an opponent’s foot — as in, not turnovers or turnovers on downs — Boston College started its average possession at its 28.5-yard line. Notre Dame started eight yards further back than that.

That may not seem like much, but it essentially means the Eagles needed to gain one fewer first down every trip down the field toward pay dirt.

Field position matters. The Irish special teams are not helping that cause.

The defense’s future is bright.
There are nine games left in 2017. With bowl eligibility, 10 more games. Let’s skip the pipe dream of 11 more games and get to the point here.

Any discussion of 2018 is not to look past those 10 remaining games. It is simply an acknowledgement of the seasons to come. In the next of those, all of Notre Dame’s defensive line will be eligible to return with the exception of current-senior defensive end Andrew Trumbetti. These days, Trumbetti is part of a three-man rotation filling the two end spots along with sophomore Daelin Hayes and senior Jay Hayes, no relation.

Led by its youth, the Notre Dame defense limited Boston College and Eagles running back Jon Hilliman during the Irish 49-20 victory Saturday. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Sophomore Julian Okwara has cracked that rotation and, more pertinent to this conversation, will be a promising complement to the younger Hayes in 2018 and 2019. Okwara finished Saturday with three tackles, a tackle for loss, a quarterback hurry and a forced fumble. His quickness and nose for the ball will continue to make an impact these next few months. More than that, they should readily fill the void left by Trumbetti next season.

Similarly, junior linebacker Te’von Coney has exceeded expectations to this point. Unlike Okwara, Coney is doing it in a primary role, rather than in limited, supplementary spots. Entering the weekend, he trailed only senior linebacker Nyles Morgan in tackles. With 13 takedowns of Eagles, compared to Morgan’s nine, Coney now leads the Irish with 25 this season.

His role will only expand, both this year and next.

Nick Watkins announces transfer from Notre Dame

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With the announcement from fifth-year cornerback Nick Watkins he will seek a graduate transfer from Notre Dame, it may seem the Irish cornerback depth is taking a massive hit. It was actually that depth that likely spurred Watkins’ decision.

The Texas native announced his decision to transfer Thursday afternoon on Twitter.

“When I decided to attend Notre Dame, my primary goal was to earn a degree from this prestigious University,” Watkins wrote, “and I’m proud to say that I’ll achieve that goal.”

Watkins started nine games in 2017 before knee tendonitis slowed him, giving now-junior Troy Pride an opening to take the lead role opposite junior Julian Love. Pride played well and has continued that progress this spring, knocking Watkins from a starting role. Furthermore, senior Shaun Crawford saw some time at cornerback this spring, rather than focusing solely on nickelback, creating even more viable competition at cornerback.

Thus, Watkins will head elsewhere after making 37 career tackles in 35 games with the Irish, including 29 tackles last season with eight pass breakups and one interception. Watkins missed all of his junior season with a broken arm. Since he will graduate before transferring, Watkins will be immediately eligible wherever he ends up.

Notre Dame will also have four more cornerbacks joining the fray this summer when incoming freshmen D.J. Brown, Noah Boykin, Joe Wilkins and Tariq Bracy arrive.

The Irish roster still sits at a projected 87 scholarships for the coming fall, two over the maximum allowed by the NCAA.

Avery Davis’ move bumps Notre Dame’s RB depth from dire to versatile

Associated Press
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It may not be what Avery Davis always imagined, but his move to running back at least gets him on the field in a Notre Dame jersey. From a practical standpoint, Davis offers more than just running back depth amid a depleted Irish backfield. His move from quarterback to running back/receiver creates a new possibility of playmaking. That concept was the primary reason the sophomore welcomes the position switch rather than dreads it.

Davis’ motivations are that pure and simple. After spending the 2017 season preserving a year of eligibility and watching quarterbacks Brandon Wimbush and Ian Book both prove more than capable, Davis could see his chances at quarterbacking for Notre Dame dwindling. The prospect of another year with a similar view was not one to which he looked forward.

“I love the quarterback position, I’ve played it my whole life,” Davis said following the Blue-Gold Game. “But that redshirt season, to be standing on the sidelines knowing you could make an impact, knowing you could make plays, that pushed me into this.

“… What I’m really trying to do is help the team however I can.”

The Irish coaching staff’s motivations are undoubtedly as pure, regarding helping the team however Davis can, but one may wonder if the move would have happened if not for the dismissal of half the running back depth chart following the Citrus Bowl victory over LSU. Regardless, Notre Dame had a need, and Davis’ natural skills can now help fill it.

“It was a mutual understanding,” Davis said. “… I knew they were serious, because I was serious, too. Week two [of spring practices] I got my chance and that’s when it started clicking.”

By the end of spring practice, Davis had pushed his way firmly into the running back rotation, with a few cameos at receiver, as well. He finished the Blue-Gold Game with 30 rushing yards on 11 carries and 24 receiving yards on two catches, to go along with 2-for-2 passing for 26 yards in the closing moments.

The presence of a viable rushing and receiving threat plays right into the hands of Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long’s preferences. The mere presence of Davis on the field will put defenses into compromising positions. At least, that will be the theory.

It will likely not be long into the season when Davis first lines up in the backfield before motioning into the slot position, thus exposing more of the defense’s blitz and coverage intentions, if not outright forcing adjustments to them. Not long after that, Davis will at some point line up wide only to take a jet sweep a la Cam Smith in 2017’s first month and Kevin Stepherson in the latter half of the year.

These are the dilemmas created by a multi-dimensional threat such as Davis appears to be. Sure, it was just the spring game, but it showed the wrinkles he can create. No one else currently among Notre Dame’s running backs or receivers offers such a variety. Sophomore receiver Michael Young may come the closest, but his frame is not designed for the beating of a running back’s workload.

Nor is Davis’ at this point, necessarily, but he knows as much.

“It’s just more of a physical toll on your body,” he said when asked of the greatest difference from the quarterback position. “You take more hits. That’s something that comes with being in the weight room.”

Atop Davis’ offseason to-do list is add more muscle across the chest and in the shoulders. Next will be to work on his routes and pass-catching skills. As far as reading the defense’s approach, quarterback prepared him for that. His focus is now slightly different, looking for gaps at the line rather than gauging coverage holes, but the underlying skills are the same.

Along with the potential poised by Davis’ position switch and the inherent disclaimers attached to any spring successes, two more aspects of the sophomore’s future should be explicitly noted. First of all, he does not let slip even the slightest misgiving about the move from football’s glamor position. Davis knew what the Irish depth chart looked like when he arrived at Notre Dame, and he knew who had already committed in the following class in consensus four-star Phil Jurkovec.

“When it comes down to it, I love playing the game,” Davis said. “Wasn’t too hard for me. It was a personal decision.

“It was a decision to come here, and I’m living with it. I’m really happy with it, to be honest.”

Secondly, this is a move the Irish coaching staff is committed to, but it retains the right to work Davis in at quarterback. Even Jurkovec’s arrival is unlikely to knock Davis from the spot of No. 3 quarterback to be deployed in emergency situations, lest Jurkovec burn a year of eligibility to offer a quarter’s worth of work.

“The conversation we had with Avery is, what do you want to do?” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “If you want to stay [at quarterback], right now it looks like it’s 1A, 1B, and you’re 3. You can stay in that position, or we think you’ve got some talents to help our offense. He wanted to do this.

“He doesn’t want to give up his ability to play quarterback down the road, but in the meantime, you need to play this year. This gives him that opportunity.”

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS/IS AT RUNNING BACK:
Without Davis and the move of sophomore Jafar Armstrong from receiver, the Irish had two upperclassmen and an early-enrolled freshman at running back this spring. Each of senior Dexter Williams (pictured above) and junior Tony Jones have shown the physical ability to be a loadbearing ballcarrier in the past, but neither has stayed healthy enough to grant peace of mind if in that role. Depth was needed.

Specifically in reference to Williams, Kelly acknowledged past restrictions due to Williams’ durability, or lack thereof.

“How long can you stay on the field?” Kelly said Saturday. “He seemed to be a guy that we couldn’t keep on the field very long. He had a really good spring. He wasn’t a guy that we had to pull out or wasn’t conditioned well enough.”

Much like Davis, Armstrong’s emergence this spring soothes some of those concerns. In the Blue-Gold Game, he finished with 48 yards on five carries along with one catch for 21 yards, showing decent quickness with a burst that will become only more decisive with more experience.

Armstrong should be more than capable of replacing Deon McIntosh as the No. 3 or 4 running back who can offer some modicum of production. In time, he could certainly become more than that.

Early-enrollee Jahmir Smith did about what one would expect from a high school senior taking part in collegiate practices, and that is meant as a compliment, but by no means did he lay the groundwork to force his way into the rotation by September.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WILL BE:
The Irish will welcome C’Bo Flemister as a sixth running back in the fall. Presuming health of the top four (Williams, Jones, Davis and Armstrong), Flemister should join Smith in spending a year in strength and conditioning, perhaps adding some special teams work. More likely, though, at least one of that initial quartet will suffer a plaguing injury, if not something worse, and the freshmen duo could be a sprained ankle away from being activated, just as C.J. Holmes was halfway through 2017.

ONE MORE NOTE, NFL DRAFT-WISE:
The NFL draft begins tonight (Thursday). Former Notre Dame running back Josh Adams will not hear his name called in the first round, but it is likely his name comes up Saturday, somewhere between late in the fourth round and the end of the sixth round.

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.