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Notre Dame stifles North Carolina throughout 33-10 victory


Notre Dame did not quite have a bye week before its scheduled week off, but the Tar Heels presented such a little challenge, one can be forgiven for making that mistake. Even without junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush, the No. 21 Irish (5-1) never trailed in a 33-10 victory at North Carolina (1-5) on Saturday, outgaining the Tar Heels 487 yards to 265. As Wimbush spent the week on the sidelines due to a strained right foot, sophomore quarterback Ian Book got his first career start.

“All in all, to go on the road and win by 20-plus points for a third time this year, I’m really pleased with our guys in terms of their mental preparation and how they go on the road and attack this,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “It is hard to do, really hard to do, and I’m proud of them.”

Through a quarter, North Carolina played Book and Notre Dame even in one regard and only one regard: the score. The Irish had 146 total yards to the Tar Heels’ seven. Notre Dame had rushed for 57 yards, while North Carolina lost eight on the ground. Book completed eight of his 11 passes in the opening frame. One of the two teams had the ball for 11:37 of the quarter — go ahead and guess which — yet the contest remained scoreless.

Book changed that on the first play of the second quarter, connecting with fifth-year senior receiver Cam Smith from six yards for Book’s first career touchdown and Smith’s first at Notre Dame. After a quick Tar Heels three-and-out, Irish junior running back Josh Adams romped 73 yards to give the Irish enough scoring they could have stopped then. Adams finished with 118 yards on only 13 carries, again seeing only abbreviated time due to both a lopsided score and his own wear-and-tear.

Let’s give that nod to Adams’ long touchdown run. It has become something of a weekly feature. In this instance, the left side of Notre Dame’s offensive line opened up quite a hole, the workhorse shed one tackler, and it was off to the races.

On the third quarter’s third play, North Carolina quarterback Chazz Surratt dropped back from his own 21-yard line, looking for a quick route to convert a third-and-four. He thought he saw an option.

Instead, Irish sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara batted the pass into the air with his right hand, located it above his head and pulled in the interception. Since Surratt made a tackle after a five-yard return to prevent a touchdown, Okwara’s first career interception may not make every highlight reel, but the athleticism displayed deserves that showcasing. (See the 1:00 minute mark of this video.)

If the Tar Heels had simply lined up Surratt directly behind his center and plunged forward just before halftime, they could have gotten the ball to start the second half down a mere touchdown. Instead, North Carolina attempted a long pass out of the shotgun. Notre Dame sophomore safety Jalen Elliott could not track down Surratt’s overthrown pass. Tar Heels disaster seemingly averted. North Carolina coach Larry Fedora had other plans in mind.

On second down, they lined up in shotgun again. This time, they opted to try a running play. Perhaps the Tar Heels offensive line was unaware time remained on the clock, because it hardly tried to block Irish junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery or senior defensive end Jay Hayes. The two wrapped up running back Jordon Brown in the end zone with no doubt whatsoever he had returned to the goal line.

“We threw the ball down the field,” Fedora said. “We thought we could get a double move on the guy and we didn’t.

“Then what I wanted to do was get out of the half without any problems. We were going to run a basic zone play and we turned some guys loose and they hit us in the backfield.”

It may have been a terrible play call, but the North Carolina offensive line also should have blocked better. The two-point safety returned Notre Dame’s lead to two possessions.

If that did not deflate the Tar Heels entirely, Okwara taking away the ball to start the second half certainly did.

The Irish began a late first-quarter drive at their own 20-yard line. Seven plays in, they had advanced to just past midfield, facing a fourth-and-one. A drive earlier, in the exact same situation, a Book quarterback sneak did not come near gaining the needed yardage, yet  Kelly doubled down on the fourth-down attempts, going for it again.

Book completed a crossing route to Notre Dame junior tight end Alizé Mack. With the yards Mack gained after the initial catch, the 13 yards not only notched the first down but also pushed the Irish that much further into North Carolina territory.

It took another seven plays for Book to connect with Smith for the afternoon’s first score. By then the fourth-down conversion was already just a piece of a long drive. It was that call, though, that kept the drive alive.

More than reflecting an aggressive philosophy in agreement with analytics, the two early fourth-down attempts showed a lack of respect for the Tar Heels offense. Frankly speaking, that dismissiveness was warranted, considering North Carolina gained an average of 3.8 yards per play.

“The sense that I got was that we were going to be stingy defensively today and I am very confident in our offense,” Kelly said.

Rather than a player, how about a unit? How about a position group long-expected to be a debilitating weakness in 2017 but has instead become a spot of distinct strength? How about the Notre Dame defensive line?

Okwara’s interception and the Tillery/Hayes safety were but the most notable highlights. Sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes (no relation) also recorded a sack and two quarterback hurries. Tillery added two more quarterback hurries and Jay Hayes pressured Surratt once more, as well.

The Irish defensive front controlled the point of attack all afternoon. A month ago, predicting that would have elicited only laughter. Now, it is a reality and one that sets up the entire Notre Dame defense for continued success.

The Irish entered the weekend having converted all 22 of their trips into the red zone this season, 20 of those for touchdowns. Book’s pass to Smith continued that streak. A third-quarter field goal from junior kicker Justin Yoon pushed it to 24, though diluting the seven-point percentage.

Book ended the run with an interception from the 18-yard line in the third quarter. The Irish did not return to the red zone after that.

Without Wimbush’s rushing, converting in the red zone became a bit more difficult. In the season’s first five games, seven of those 20 touchdowns had been Wimbush rushes. As suitable as Book appeared in the passing game and as well as he managed the offense overall, losing that dynamic playmaking in the close quarters of the red zone was a noticeable drop-off between him and Wimbush.

Second Quarter
14:54 — Notre Dame touchdown. Cam Smith six-yard reception from Ian Book. Justin Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 7, North Carolina 0. (15 plays, 80 yards, 4:57)
12:38 — Notre Dame touchdown. Josh Adams 73-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 14, North Carolina 0. (2 plays, 73 yards, 0:17)
1:50 — North Carolina touchdown. Anthony Ratliff-Williams 25-yard reception from Chazz Surratt. Freeman Jones PAT good. Notre Dame 14, North Carolina 7. (6 plays, 47 yards, 1:49)
0:28 — Notre Dame safety. Jay Hayes with a tackle for a one-yard loss. Notre Dame 16, North Carolina 7.

Third Quarter
11:15 — Notre Dame field goal. Yoon from 29 yards. Notre Dame 19, North Carolina 7. (7 plays, 5 yards, 2:47)
6:41 — Notre Dame touchdown. Deon McIntosh 35-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 26, North Carolina 7. (2 plays, 46 yards, 0:28)

Fourth Quarter
14:11 — North Carolina field goal. Freeman from 34 yards. Notre Dame 26, North Carolina 10. (16 plays, 56 yards, 4:31)
9:05 — Notre Dame touchdown. McIntosh 24-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 33, North Carolina 10. (11 plays, 75 yards, 5:06)

A best-case scenario for Notre Dame’s spring

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At the end of nearly every fall, one can look back at the praises of spring and see misguided conclusions. Such is the nature of competing against oneself for months at a time. Last year, the greatest misread from Notre Dame’s spring actually may have been the underrating of the Irish defensive line. Its struggles to mount a pass rush spoke more to the offensive line’s dominance than it did the defensive front’s ineptness, but the latter became the view du jour.

Thus, every conclusion drawn this spring should be measured with a great deal of trepidation and a few qualifiers. Nonetheless, certain possibilities this spring would offer the most promise to Notre Dame’s 2018.

Starting with, of course, avoiding any and all injuries in the coming month of practices.

If rising senior Brandon Wimbush were to show perfect accuracy this spring, there would be the slightest chance of avoiding a quarterback controversy this summer. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Beyond that, the greatest development would be settling upon a starting quarterback without any remaining doubt. Such a decision is hard to fathom without one of the two main competitors — rising senior Brandon Wimbush and rising junior Ian Book — failing as much as the other succeeding, and that may seem contrary to the search for an ideal 15 practices. However, if that is what it takes to have no quarterback question moving forward, it would be a net positive.

This would require one of Wimbush or Book to show an “adeptness,” to borrow a word from Irish coach Brian Kelly, in both passing and running.

“What I want to know is that our quarterbacks are equally adept at running it and throwing it, and that wasn’t the case [last] year,” Kelly said before spring practices began.

Proving that beyond the shadow of a doubt would hinge on a nearly flawless month to come, which would also be the longest stretch of stellar play seen from either Wimbush or Book. It remains unlikely, but it would be the first step toward an ideal scenario.

A young emergence along the offensive line
Splitting right tackle duties last year worked in large part because the rest of the offensive front was proven and experienced. With rising sophomore Robert Hainsey likely at a new position and rising junior Tommy Kraemer taking on more duties (if not also at a new position), finding a single fifth starter would allow this new-look line a full summer to develop the chemistry last year’s already had.

That could come in the form of rising sophomore Josh Lugg or rising junior Liam Eichenberg or from another of the handful of candidates. Whomever it is, identifying him before the summer would bode well for whoever is taking the snaps.

Te’von Coney has never suffered from a lack of physical gifts at linebacker. This spring, his mental understanding of the playbook will be the greatest possible defensive development to watch for. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Coney’s command of the defense
Rising senior Te’von Coney will step into the role formerly filled by the likes of Te’o, Schmidt and Morgan. Not only will he be counted on to make the most defensive plays and break 100 tackles again, but his command and understanding of the defense will dictate how a number of other players perform, as well.

Granted, Coney will have fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill in the middle with him, and Tranquill showed a solid grasp last year, often directing traffic from the rover position, but Coney will be in the middle and efficient pre-snap adjustments this fall will be best coming from there.

Competent safety play emerges
The odds are slim Notre Dame will find two excellent safeties this offseason. Given there was not even good safety play last year, finding two stellar starters would require both rising junior Alohi Gilman to be better than advertised and some distinct development from an unexpected source.

More realistically, Gilman may be good, certainly better than options seen last year, and one of those options also takes a few strides forward this spring.

Having some viable possibilities at safety may sound like a low bar to clear, but it would be a marked improvement over the last two seasons and may be the final piece to the 2018 Irish defense.

Anything else found this spring would be icing on the cake. Even if that includes early-enrolled freshman running back Jahmir Smith flashing unexpected speed, rising senior Asmar Bilal showing a complete handling of the rover duties and/or rising sophomore receiver Michael Young not dropping a single pass throughout all of March and April. The Notre Dame coaching staff would certainly welcome each of those daydreams, but such micro performances may be a mirage this time of year.

Bigger picture changes — such as at quarterback, offensive line and the up the middle of the defense — would present a strong foundation for 2018.

Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s spring questions focus on four non-QB positions

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Notre Dame held two practices before spring break, both without pads. At the most, they set a base line, but much more should be learned in the coming month building up to the Blue-Gold Game on April 21.

Instinct, public opinion and headlines may presume the most-important thing to learn this spring focuses on the competition between rising senior Brandon Wimbush and rising junior Ian Book to be named starting quarterback. The fact of the matter, though, is that duel will almost assuredly extend well into the summer. It is thus not among the items to learn this spring.

Who will “start” at running back, however, may come into focus in the next five weeks. Whether rising senior Dexter Williams or rising junior Tony Jones gains an advantage over the other, both will receive plenty of carries in the fall.

For one thing, Josh Adams is no longer around to take 206 carries for 1,430 yards. If including the dismissals of Deon McIntosh and C.J. Holmes, 279 attempts for 1,831 yards and 14 touchdowns will need to be replaced from last season. That task begins with health, which neither Williams nor Jones had much of in 2017. Thus, the question of who takes the step forward has little previous evidence to provide an answer.

“Most people just see you on Saturday when you have your helmet on and shoulder pads, and wonder why isn’t he in the game,” Kelly said March 5 in discussing Williams. “Well, there’s four other days leading up to it, and his inability to really practice and provide the kind of work necessary to get to Saturdays put him behind a little bit.”

Kelly had similar thoughts regarding Jones, also acknowledging the first season of collegiate contact may have taken a toll on the then-sophomore.

“His strength in work volume is better than it was last year,” Kelly said. “He wasn’t healthy most of the season, as well. Stronger, he’s got a coat of armor on him. His work volume is better.

“Finally, we recognize how important he is and we have to make sure he gets the proper touches within the offense.”

Again, both Williams and Jones will have plenty of opportunities in the fall … if healthy. As much as this is a question of who gets more opportunities, perhaps it should be a wondering of who will stay healthiest, if either.

Rising senior Miles Boykin should finish this spring as a clear-cut starting receiver, a first in his career. (Photoby Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

The Irish have to replace even more at receiver.

Notre Dame’s receivers totaled 113 catches for 1,716 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2017. With all of Equanimeous St. Brown (to the NFL draft), Kevin Stepherson (repeated legal issues), Cam Smith (out of eligibility) and C.J. Sanders (outgoing transfer) gone, the Irish lost 61 receptions for 934 yards and 10 touchdowns of that productivity. To put it more aptly, that is 53.98 percent of the receivers’ receptions, 54.43 percent of their yardage and exactly two-thirds of their scores.

That is, well, a lot.

With rising junior Chase Claypool only somewhat involved this spring due to shoulder surgery, even more of a vacuum awaits filling. Claypool leads the returnees with 29 catches for 402 yards and two touchdowns.

Enter rising seniors Miles Boykin and Chris Finke and rising sophomore Michael Young. With Kelly identifying Boykin as one of roster’s quickest players in 10-yard bursts, then that trio is not only diverse in size but also a grouping of genuine speed.

Will they solidify their standing as the leaders at the position, along with Claypool, or will offensive coordinator Chip Long be desperate for the arrival of a trio of incoming freshmen this summer, not to mention early-enrolled freshman Micah Jones or finally-healthy rising junior Javon McKinley?

No production was lost at safety this offseason, but that is not inherently a good thing.

Someone will start at safety in the Blue-Gold Game. Perhaps it will be rising sophomore Jordan Genmark-Heath and fifth-year Nick Coleman. Maybe rising junior Alohi Gilman will confirm a year’s worth of reviews this spring and earn the nod, joined by returning starter and rising junior Jalen Elliott.

If Jalen Elliott ends up as a front-runner for starting duties at safety for the third straight year, Notre Dame will still need to find him a running mate. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

It will not be rising sophomore Isaiah Robertson after his move to rover. Removing him from contention is about the only piece of clarity at safety thus far, and that cloudy view may remain until late August, quite frankly.

Whoever starts at safety to close the spring will have pole position to maintain that honor when incoming freshman Derrik Allen arrives to present an additional challenge.

Of the three position groups discussed thus far, safety is truly the one with the most unknown. Early-enrolled freshman cornerback Houston Griffith could line up at safety on April 21 and it would not be all that much of a shock. It would simply mean the dismal play offered by last season’s roster had not developed into something better.

Another early-enrolled freshman could be the answer to the question of, who will be the fourth linebacker?

Rising junior Jonathan Jones is likely the backup to both fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill and rising senior Te’von Coney. If injuries were to pillage the rover possibilities, Tranquill would then move back to his former position and Jones would step into Tranquill’s place. And yes, Kelly confirmed Tranquill’s move to a more traditional linebacker role.

“You can write that down and get used to it,” Kelly said.

A number of other names could be plugged in where Jones’ appears in that paragraph. Early-enrolled freshmen Jack Lamb and Bo Bauer could both surpass Jones. Lamb and Bauer were such-heralded recruits, a jump past Jones and sophomores Drew White and David Adams could be just a confirmation of those reviews, not necessarily an indictment of the upperclassmen’s potential.

The final option, which would not be clear even if it came to be reality in the long-run, would be rising senior Asmar Bilal becoming the backup for both Tranquill and Coney despite also likely starting at rover. With similar logic to Tranquill possibly filling in for an injured rover, it could be determined relying on rising sophomore Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah or Robertson at rover with Bilal filling in at linebacker would provide the best fix of a lineup.

These are the things spring practice is intended for. A year ago, the questions hinged on new coordinators and new schemes. Even with the departure of Mike Elko to Texas A&M, the promotion of linebackers coach Clark Lea to defensive coordinator ensured consistency in scheme and message. Thus, the questions this spring hinge on a few positions, most notably these four.

Along with … How will Notre Dame’s offensive line fill the holes left by two first-round draft picks? and Who will replace Tranquill at rover with the captain now moving to linebacker?

In an effort to foster fun and competition and out of a societal need to have as many bracket groups as possible …

Inside the Irish 2018 Bracket Contest

There is nothing at stake except for bragging rights and a chance to embarrass this scribe by finishing well ahead of him. What more could one possibly need?

Monday’s Leftovers: Who should Notre Dame’s fourth captain be? And DeShone Kizer heads to the Green Bay Packers

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Last week, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly named three captains for the 2018 season. He also said he would hold a team vote for a fourth captain by the end of spring practice. That naturally leads to some speculation as to who could prevail in that balloting.

Kelly indicated “six or seven” players were in the mix after the first tally this spring, the one that made captains out of fifth-years Drue Tranquill, Sam Mustipher and Tyler Newsome. Considering which seniors stand out as productive playmakers, which fifth-years were invited back to contribute and thus create a roster crunch, and who led the offseason “SWAT” teams, a few frontrunners emerge.

The Irish have long had multiple leaders along the offensive line, and fifth-year right guard Alex Bars could join Mustipher as a team-wide captain. Similarly, fifth-year tight end Nic Weishar returned despite not yet being a vital piece of the passing game — instead, Kelly has often cited Weishar’s influence within the tight end group and the offense as a whole.

Te’von Coney (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

The returns of rising seniors Te’von Coney and Jerry Tillery, each opting to forgo the NFL draft, certainly made Notre Dame’s defense a force to be reckoned with as far as paper is concerned. Usually, when a player up the middle comes off a strong junior season and opts to return, a captainship may soon follow, but both Coney and Tillery have faced disciplinary issues during their Irish careers. Such could jeopardize a captainship from an administrative standpoint, no matter how a player vote turns out.

Rising senior cornerback Nick Watkins is leading one of those spring SWAT units. Watkins may otherwise be off the possible captain radar, but that position of leadership has been an indicative piece of data the last two years. Exhibit A: Newsome led a group each of the last two years, bringing him to a more prominent role in the locker room than a punter may usually have.

Rising senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush heads a SWAT team, as well, as a co-leader with Weishar. Naming Wimbush a captain coming out of spring would create some level of expectation of him being the starting quarterback, something Kelly does not intend to establish before August, at the earliest. Of course, Wimbush’s play, or rising junior Ian Book’s subpar play, could force that issue before then.

That makes six candidates. Rising junior cornerback Julian Love (pictured above) could be a seventh. Love has comported himself well both on and off the field in his two years as a starter, and he may not be around to be a captain as a senior.

This is nothing but idle speculation, but it is spring break and the conversation is intriguing, at the least.

Mustipher on new o-line coach Jeff Quinn
The verdict on Quinn’s promotion to fill the void left by Harry Hiestand will not be returned until November, at the earliest. Until then, the opinions of Mustipher and the rest of the offensive line are the best clues to Quinn’s interactions with the offensive line. When asked about Quinn on Tuesday, there was no chance Mustipher would offer anything but praise, but some insight can be gained by what praise Mustipher provided.

“He brings a motivational and inspirational energy to the offensive line room,” Mustipher said. “He understands the way the standard needs to be set.”

That is pretty generic to start. Mustipher then spoke of the “privilege” of being part of the interview process, along with Bars. It would seem the two made it clear to Kelly they wanted not only consistency in message and system, but also some investment in that approach.

“We understand that standard of excellence,” Mustipher said. “We wanted a guy that wanted to be here and wanted to coach, and that it meant a lot to him to be here.”

Former Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer completed 53.6 percent of his passes in his rookie season with the Cleveland Browns. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

Kizer to the Green Bay Packers
Former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer was traded to the Green Bay Packers from the Cleveland Browns on Friday for a cornerback, per the NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport. Without a doubt, getting away from the Browns will be good for Kizer, but do not presume he will ever throw many passes on the shores of Lake Michigan.

In trading oft-injured cornerback Damarious Randall, the Packers not only received Kizer, but they also moved up in both the fourth- and fifth- rounds in next month’s NFL draft. That alone may have been enough incentive to move on from a defensive back who publicly feuded with an assistant coach last season.

Securing a contract-controlled backup quarterback solidified the deal, and it is likely Kizer is never more than a backup for the Packers. Starting quarterback and future Hall of Famer Aaron Rodgers is only 34. He should have another four or five or even more years left in his career. Kizer’s contract, meanwhile, expires after the 2020 season.

If he minds his manners, learns from Rodgers and makes a few cameos in the next three seasons, then perhaps an opportunity elsewhere will await Kizer. Knowing the NFL and its preference for the newest inventory, though, this may be a step toward a career as a backup for the 2017 second-round draft pick.

Kizer finished his rookie season with 2,894 yards, 11 touchdowns and 22 interceptions on 255-of-476 passing in 15 games. He added 419 rushing yards and five touchdowns on 77 attempts with nine fumbles sprinkled in.

(Off-topic, but near to the heart: Quarterback rushing statistics do not need to be adjusted for sacks in the NFL.)

Kudos to Oklahoma
With the Sunday night reveal of the NCAA men’s basketball bracket, Oklahoma continued a rather impressive streak. The Sooners athletic department is the only one in the country that can claim AP Top-10 finishes in football and men’s basketball tournament teams in each of the last two years. For that matter, Oklahoma actually managed the double in 2015, as well.

‘Inside the Irish’ March Madness Pool
Every online community has a bracket pool. On good days, this space is an online community. Thus, applying logic, it should have a bracket pool.

Inside the Irish 2018 Bracket Contest

There is nothing at stake except for bragging rights and a chance to embarrass this scribe by finishing well ahead of him. What more could one possibly need?

For the sake of being different, the group will utilize a Fibonacci scoring sequence (2-3-5-8-13-21) with a seed-difference upset bonus throughout the Tournament.

At least with Notre Dame out of the bracket, the group’s results will not be skewed by unrealistic Irish hopes.

Speaking of Notre Dame not making it …
The Irish did not have much of a résumé, injuries or no injuries. Looking at analytical measurements, though, Notre Dame appeared to have a much better chance than Syracuse, who squeezed in as the last at-large team. The Irish were the first team left out.

The differences between the two? Well, aside from Notre Dame winning at the Carrier Dome while without their two best players? The Irish have the nation’s No. 28 offense when adjusted for efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy. The Orange have the No. 128 offense, offsetting it with the No. 11 adjusted defense.

It was indeed that difference that helped Syracuse to a 55-52 win over Clemson in its March 3 regular-season finale, a credentials-boosting victory the likes of which Notre Dame did not have.

Monday’s Leftovers: Spring begins, a 2019 QB de-commits from Notre Dame & NFL Combine results
Position changes, weight loss and quarterback questions welcome Notre Dame’s spring
Notre Dame names three captains: LB Drue Tranquill, C Sam Mustipher … and punter Tyler Newsome
With two captains gone, only natural another pops up on Notre Dame’s offensive line
Tranquill’s move to linebacker should benefit both him and Notre Dame

— What a hospital stay sparked inside new Notre Dame captain Tyler Newsome
Damonte Ranch’s Cade McNamara de-commits from Notre Dame
AG Lobo probe expands to football rape case

Tranquill’s move to linebacker should benefit both him and Notre Dame

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Drue Tranquill returned to Notre Dame for a fifth season for a few reasons. Being named a two-time captain may have been in-line with the less tangible of them, but it was not necessarily a driving motivation. The vague pieces of Tranquill’s return are the usual platitudes of college football, but when he delivers them, they include such urgency and sincerity, the rote lines come across as genuine, or at least close to it.

“There is just something special about college football, and you can’t necessarily put your finger on it until you’ve actually experienced it and played it,” Tranquill said Tuesday. “In my heart, I knew that I wanted to be a part of this thing for one more year and finish what we started.”

More practically, Tranquill’s return should also serve to enhance his NFL future. The safety-turned-rover with two ACL tears projects as a linebacker in the NFL, if he is to have a professional football career at all. To date, Tranquill has never played as a traditional linebacker. To at least some degree, that inexperience would lower his NFL draft profile.

Both Tranquill and the Irish coaching staff knew as much, so the latter made a position switch part of its pitch to Tranquill in recruiting him to return. Tranquill’s first year under linebackers coach Clark Lea’s tutelage yielded better results than most may have expected, so another season with Lea would certainly help him develop further, especially if 2018 was spent as a linebacker. Right?

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly confirmed the position move Monday, and Tranquill acknowledged it as the on-field logic to his return.

“It was coach Kelly and a general understanding that was what I was going to play in the NFL,” Tranquill said. “… I knew in mind I need development at that position, so it was a general understanding that [the Irish coaches] had gotten feedback from NFL teams, I had obviously gotten feedback from NFL teams, and we all understood this is what I needed to develop at.”

Certainly, Tranquill could take the risk of getting that development in the NFL. In that situation, football would be his only obligation, quite literally his job in every respect. The additional year of earning power could offset the reduced salary of a lower draft spot. Then again, there would be no assurance of getting drafted or landing on a 53-man roster come fall. NFL teams are not often in the business of developing projects with long-term views. Coaches and front offices need to win now.

At Notre Dame, Tranquill would be guaranteed that some of development, likely enhancing his draft prospects, although also taking on the risk of injury. Such is the dilemma many such players face every year.

“It was just a decision of do I want to go and get that development in the league, or do I want to come back and develop under coach,” Tranquill said. “I think the best decision for me was to come back and develop under coach Lea.”

There will be no switching back, both for the sake of the Irish and out of respect for Tranquill’s future. Notre Dame has a few possible replacements at rover. There are no such ready possibilities at linebacker.

“Drue’s got to play the Buck, he’s got to play it well, and we’ve got to settle it on him,” Kelly said. “That’s where his reps are going to be this spring.”

The move will create challenges for Tranquill, many of them similar to the lessons he learned in moving from safety to rover. Moving closer to the line of scrimmage and now closer to the center of the action reduces the time he can take to react. His duties become even more specific, but still depend on reads of the offense’s intentions.

An engineering major, Tranquill spends his classroom time moving task-by-task in order to accomplish the larger objective. At linebacker, that broader view will inform his task.

“It’s going to be a challenge in terms of being able to expand my vision and see those other keys,” he said. “It’s something I think is really going to benefit my game and my ability to just see the defense as a whole.”

And, it should aid his NFL dreams.

Now who at rover?
Kelly said rising senior Asmar Bilal will get first crack at rover, an easy assumption anyway. He then referred to Bilal as a “big rover.” Notre Dame lists Bilal at 6-foot-2, 225 pounds, which is actually eight pounds lighter than Tranquill on a similarly-sized frame. Perhaps big was not the most precise adjective. Rather, Bilal is even more run-focused than Tranquill. If the Irish face an offense far more reliant on the pass, to the point of using four receivers more often than one tight end, Bilal’s role may need to be minimized.

In such a situation, Kelly mentioned rising sophomores Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah and safety-turned-linebacker Isaiah Robertson as options, along with rising junior safety-turned-linebacker D.J. Morgan. Owusu-Koromoah was recruited by former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko (along with Lea) for the exact purpose of being a rover of the future. Incoming freshman Shayne Simon was sought for similar reasons.

The last option, also included by Kelly, would be to default to a nickel coverage package, turning the rover into another cornerback. Elko actually did that frequently last season, deploying rising senior Shaun Crawford, both physical and speedy, to disrupt offenses.

“There are going to be a number of guys that have the opportunity to be that next guy.”

Compare that array of varied possibilities to the lack of depth behind Tranquill and rising senior Te’von Coney at linebacker. Kelly expects Bilal to cross-train to protect against injury to either Tranquill or Coney, and after that the only name mentioned was rising junior Jonathan Jones.

“Jonathan’s got to do a great job of being a guy there that can give Te’von a blow when he needs one,” Kelly said.