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A Notre Dame Bye Week Mailbag: On bowls, momentum & passing game struggles

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This bye week mailbag starts off with a long answer. I’d apologize for that, but it would be insincere. The question was a valid one and I understand the thinking. That is why I took the time to dissuade it outright.

“One question I’ve been toying with in my head is, if we run the table, do I want us to make the playoff? I think we’d have the résumé for it, particularly given the back half of our schedule, but I’m worried the one-point loss to a potentially really good Georgia team is kind of obscuring the fact that we got Jake Fromm in his first start and honestly he played pretty poorly. I still don’t think we’re really playoff caliber.
I’d like to see us get to a winnable bowl that sets the table for next season.”
— “Marcus”

I’ve known Marcus for nine years. And no, his name isn’t Marcus. I look forward to him trying to figure out why I used that pseudonym. I’ll give only one clue: It has nothing to do with “The Matrix.” That’s a movie, and this is life we’re wasting here.

In nearly a decade, this may be the first time I have ever thought Marcus was 100 percent wrong. He has taught me much, led me toward both vice and virtue, even paid me a few compliments over the years. But here, he’s off-base. Then again, he probably was with those kind words, too.

Aside from getting ahead of yourself — it’s only natural during the bye week, and it isn’t even beyond comprehension considering fivethirtyeight.com gives Notre Dame an 11 percent chance of finishing 11-1 — and not questioning your assessment of the Georgia game, you want to make the playoff. Yes, Alabama and Clemson appear to be better than everybody else. The other two playoff entrants will likely leave with nothing but the wrong end of a rout on national television.

But what if? Sometimes it takes just one bounce.

Basketball and football are very different games, but when it comes to the performances of 18- to 22-year-olds, some things translate. If you talk to many college basketball coaches, their goal is not a national championship. Rather, they aim to make a Final Four in their career. At that point, they know one bounce could change the entire weekend.

One deflected pass could lead to a 14-point swing. Perhaps at that point, a still-proving-himself quarterback (Clemson’s Kelly Bryant) doubts himself and makes another mistake before getting his head on straight. Suddenly, a defense has more moxie than anticipated and that New Year’s Day hangover you are nursing goes out the window as you realize “What if” might have some validity.

That is not an outlandish scenario. Is it less likely than a 42-14 beatdown? Yes, much less likely, but it is not beyond feasibility.

Furthermore, bowl game wins are overrated. They do not offer as much momentum as fans like to think. The biggest perk, a few weeks of added practice time, comes in both victory and defeat.

Consider Notre Dame entering the 2009 season. The previous Christmas Eve, the Irish routed Hawaii 49-21 in the aptly-named Hawaii Bowl. Led by Jimmy Clausen (22-of-26 passing for 401 yards and five touchdowns) and Golden Tate (six catches for 177 yards and three scores), that was supposed to mark the arrival of a long-awaited offensive explosion no collegiate defense could stop. Instead, Notre Dame went 6-6 in 2009, leading to Charlie Weis’ dismissal.

Just this past bowl season, LSU beat then-No. 13 Louisville (and Heisman-winner Lamar Jackson) 29-9 in the Citrus Bowl, Tennessee finished a hectic season with a 38-24 victory over Nebraska in the Music City Bowl, and Boston College notched a postseason victory for head coach Steve Addazio, slipping past Maryland 36-30 in the Quick Lane Bowl.

LSU lost to Troy two weeks ago. Volunteers head coach Butch Davis is firmly on a hot seat after starting this season 3-2 — one of those victories came in overtime against Georgia Tech while another was by only four points at home against Massachusetts. Addazio’s job is also in jeopardy thanks to a 2-4 beginning to his fifth season with the Eagles.

For an even more distinct example of bowl games not setting a tone for the coming season, take a look at Washington State the last two years. The Cougars finished 2015 with a 20-14 victory over Miami in the Sun Bowl. It was supposed to mark the turning point in the rise of Mike Leach’s program. Instead, Washington State started last season 0-2 before winning eight straight to seemingly put those struggles in the rearview mirror. That momentum did not last long. The Cougars lost their final three last season, including a 17-12 defeat to tumult-plagued Minnesota in the Holiday Bowl.

How did that that dismal end to the season set the table for this year? Washington State is currently 6-0 and No. 8 in the AP top 25. If you put off reading this until Saturday, the Cougars are probably now 7-0 thanks to a matchup at Cal late Friday.

Bowl games make December tolerable and provide an excuse for fans to slip off to a southern clime for a few days. They inevitably produce fluke outcomes and comical conclusions. They do not provide or destroy any momentum for a season beginning nine months later.

“Do you think there is credence to the term good teams win, but great teams cover?”
@IRISH_GL

To an extent. This next sentence is not meant to say Notre Dame is a great team, because the Irish aren’t.

Great teams do what Notre Dame did against Miami (OH). This space’s first sentence after that 52-19 victory, in fact, was, “The Irish did what good teams do, they blew out their opponent.”

That does not need to be the case every time. Great teams also find a way to win in close games. The last few years, Notre Dame has lacked in both categories. Notching five lopsided victories in the season’s first half speaks to developing one of those characteristics. The one-point loss to Georgia shows the other is still lacking, though more chances to prove otherwise will undoubtedly come in the next six weeks.

As for the general concept, spreads in expected blowouts attempt to factor in one fluke, be it a turnover, a garbage time touchdown or a broken tackle leading to an unlikely score. Covering a spread of three touchdowns or more means none of those things happened, a sure sign of a focused and disciplined team.

Great teams are focused and disciplined. Thus, great teams tend to cover.

“Odds we come out in the green jerseys against USC?”
@pe11iott

You had my attention by opening with that delightful four-letter word. Considering this year is the 40th anniversary of the first time the green jerseys were used, and considering that occasion was indeed against the Trojans, let’s knock the odds down by half from 40-to-1 to 20-to-1.

“Biggest positive and negative surprise of this year’s football team?”
@PrinceLeo103

The positive is easy: the defensive line. In retrospect, the world should have listened to Irish coach Brian Kelly, to defensive coordinator Mike Elko and even to fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey. They all said Notre Dame’s defensive line was pretty good. No one, yours truly included, took them at their word.

The Irish defensive line is pretty good.

The negative is also easy: The ineffectiveness of the Irish passing game to date does not bode well for some of the challenges coming in the second half of the season. By no means was junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush expected to challenge records or the Irish receivers thought to be potential All-Americans, but a certain degree of potency was a reasonable prediction. Clearly, that has not yet been the case.

Notre Dame will need that to change if it wants to manage much offense against North Carolina State and Miami.

On that note …

“Are the problems with the passing game more of a reflection of the play calling, the QB, the receivers not getting separation or a combination of any of them? From my couch, it appears the issue is a combination of the QB and play calling. The play calling Saturday gave the QB a lot of easy reads, but in other games that has not been the case. If the QB is struggling, and we all agree he is, than why not give him easy reads and simplify things?”
codenamegee

All of the above.

(Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images)

Why not give Wimbush easier reads? It is not necessarily that simple. Wimbush is most-dangerous when the defense fears both his arm and his legs, but he has not shown much accuracy while on the move, unlike sophomore Ian Book. Thus, to set up Wimbush for success in the passing game, calling plays keeping him in the pocket makes more sense. The flipside of that is in those situations, the defensive backs and linebackers can focus more on coverage, no longer worrying as much about Wimbush breaking off on his own to gain the first down.

The Irish receivers have not made Wimbush’s job any easier. Sophomore Chase Claypool’s increased involvement in the passing game should help with that in a few ways. Not only does he provide Wimbush a big, sure-handed threat on the sideline, but he also draws a bit of the coverage away from junior Equanimeous St. Brown.

St. Brown’s slow start to the season is the most startling of all the receivers’ struggles. At some point, one has to think he will break loose, assuming he is completely healthy. At that point, it may be akin to a basketball player making a layup. Seeing the ball go through the rim gives the shooter enough confidence to make a three-pointer on the next trip down. If St. Brown can break just one six-yard slant for a 45-yard touchdown, he may start approaching defenders with the expectation of making them miss rather than simply holding onto the ball.

“I’d like to see a comparison of Wimbush to date compared to other first-year starting quarterbacks with five games under their belts. I think he will compare well, exceeding in some areas but behind in others.”
glowplugv

That selection of quarterbacks could be skewed any which way. At some point or another, every quarterback fit the description in the beginning of their careers and common sense will quickly tell which ones were successful from the outset and which ones were not. USC’s Sam Darnold and Miami (OH)’s Gus Ragland both started their careers with winning streaks in excess of five games. Their statistics reflect that.

Instead, let’s acknowledge the coincidence of Notre Dame thus far facing five first-year starting quarterbacks (the exception being Ragland), and take a look at their numbers.

Wimbush in five games: 52.3 percent completions, six touchdowns, two interceptions, 782 yards, 5.92 yards per attempt.
Temple’s Logan Marchi in six games: 53.9 percent completions, eight touchdowns, seven interceptions, 1,302 yards, 6.82 yards per attempt.
Georgia’s Jake Fromm in six games: 60.0 percent completions, 10 touchdowns, two interceptions, 836 yards, 8.80 yards per attempt.
Boston College’s Anthony Brown in six games: 53.1 percent completions, six touchdowns, seven interceptions, 909 yards, 4.73 yards per attempt.
Michigan State’s Brian Lewerke in five games: 61.3 percent completions, nine touchdowns, two interceptions, 1,057 yards, 6.82 yards per attempt.
North Carolina’s Chazz Surratt in six games: 58.8 percent completions, six touchdowns, three interceptions, 1,167 yards, 6.86 yards per attempt.

“Any predictions for players who have flown under the radar so far this year but end up with a big second half of the season? I’m not sure any of the RBs can even qualify anymore, but maybe a Boykin, Studstill or Cam Smith?”
jimharbaughcanbeunpleasant

Chase Claypool.

Let’s start with Claypool. He has 12 catches for 144 yards and one touchdown this season. Nine of those catches, 120 of those yards and that score have come in the last three games.

Then let’s go to junior receiver Miles Boykin. All four of his catches for 84 yards and a score have come in the last three games.

Lastly, let’s include junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery. He has performed excellently thus far this season, but he has also flown under the radar in doing so. Well, as much under the radar as one can while making 27 tackles with three sacks and 1.5 more tackles for loss and a forced fumble. In fact, let’s go ahead and boldly declare Tillery will record his first multi-sack game of his career in eight days against USC.

“How many carries do you see CJ Holmes getting per game the rest of the season? I realize it was garbage time against a terrible defense, but I think he showed great poise and patience running the ball.”
ripvanroo2

This is entirely dependent on running backs’ health. Notre Dame will defer to juniors Josh Adams and Dexter Williams every step of the way in the high-profile matchups to come, bringing in sophomore Tony Jones anytime a multiple-back formation is desired. But, those three will need to be healthy, and thus far, they have had four troublesome ankles among them.

If those ankles hold up, and the coming games are as competitive as expected, don’t look for Holmes to garner many carries. Do look for him to make a few tackles on special teams.

 “A few weeks ago, in response to Brian Kelly’s arguably rude response to a reporter’s question following the Georgia loss, ESPN’s Paul Finebaum went on a rant about Kelly being a bad coach, a jerk and on his way out at Notre Dame. The comments felt more like a reflection of a preexisting dislike for Kelly (or ND?) than professional commentary. Is there some backstory to Finebaum/SEC and Kelly/Notre Dame?”
cbhoov144

The sensitive among Irish fans will insist I give Finebaum too much credit here. Oh well.

Paul Finebaum knows his audience. It is that simple. He rose to prominence by catering to SEC fans. There is no reason for him to stop now. That means any non-SEC school is wrong in all regards. Notre Dame isn’t in the SEC. Thus, Kelly is always wrong in Finebaum’s eyes.

The Irish outrage is only frosting on Finebaum’s cake. In today’s debate culture, many will tune in looking to be upset. To ESPN, the tuning in is what matters.

“Does Doug Flutie have a chip on his shoulder about being rejected by Notre Dame during his recruiting? Seems like it sometimes.”
oxnardpat

Every Saturday morning, I reorder my columns in Tweetdeck to make any tweets directed to the @NDonNBC account show up on the edge of my computer screen. Five of six weekends this year, those tweets have been filled with anger at the announcers. Note: Only three Notre Dame games have been on an NBC channel thus far. Either no one tuned in to watch the Irish top North Carolina on ABC this past weekend, or everyone was okay with the commentary provided by play-by-play announcer Bob Wischusen and color analyst Brock Huard.

The point is, your dislike of Flutie fits in line with no announcer being liked by any audience, no matter the network. (Wischusen and Huard being the apparent exceptions.) Flutie very well might not be the greatest color commentator in the world, but that is not because he has any ill will toward Notre Dame. He is simply doing his job, and that job does not include flattering the Irish.

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s tight ends, a surplus of depth, unproven talent

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Notre Dame has such tight end depth, it was somewhat surprising when the Irish pursued a second tight end in the class of 2018, but the possibilities of yet another playmaker in Tommy Tremble combined with a physical option in George Takacs forced the coaching staff’s decision.

“I always like to have that versatility each year and each signing class,” Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long said Feb. 7. “… We don’t want to pass up on a great athlete … being able to present different challenges to the defense with those kind of guys and still be very physical at the same time.”

That is a key to remember when looking at the Irish tight ends — Long sees different purposes amid the individuals in that position’s meeting room. Tremble, for example, could line up as a receiver as often as not while Takacs might fill in as Durham Smythe most recently did, serving as an additional blocker when needed and offering sure hands otherwise. In many respects, the two roles are two different positions.

Spring Roster:
— Fifth-year Nic Weishar, who Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said had shoulder surgery recently, though Kelly did not offer a timetable for return.
— Rising senior Alizé Mack.
— Rising sophomore Cole Kmet, when he is not pitching in relief for the Irish baseball team. Kmet made his second appearance of the season Thursday night. A letdown (3.0 IP, 3 ER, 3 H, 4 K), it did not go anywhere near as well as his debut did (4.0 IP, 0 ER, 1 H, 3 K).

@NDFootball

— Rising sophomore Brock Wright, who underwent a shoulder surgery of his own shortly following the regular season. A recent photo (left) from the @NDFootball Twitter account indicates Wright is partaking in at least some winter conditioning drills.
— Early-enrolled freshman Takacs.

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman Tremble.

Depth Chart Possibilities:
Long uses multiple tight ends, deploying both of those aforementioned archetypes at the same time. That tendency should be seen even more often in 2018 with more options now available. A full year in a collegiate program should have both Kmet and Wright ready for bigger roles, challenging Weishar for some of what were Smythe’s snaps in 2017.

The third tight end will see opportunities. It is essentially a second-string role. If granting the argument of two different forms of tight ends, then even the fourth tight end will get chances, as he will simply be the second-stringer in that particular role.

Kmet would seem the more likely of the rising sophomores to get a bit more time, but that only means Wright will see plenty of time in a blocking back role, just as he did in situational packages in 2017.

Biggest Question:
Kmet could find his way to a more prominent role if he offers something not yet seen from Mack: consistency not just on the field, but in all respects.

Can Mack finally translate his athleticism and potential into a consistent mismatch and productive threat? At his best, he could be the product of an offensive coordinator’s daydreams, but Mack has so rarely been at his best. That applies both on and off the field, considering his multiple drops in 2017 were followed by Kelly suspending Mack for an internal team matter for the Citrus Bowl before Notre Dame even headed down to Florida.

Another year of Mack spinning his wheels will result in a loss of playing time with the likes of Kmet and Tremble around. If Mack does not provide positive results in the spring while Kmet does, that shift could begin even before the Blue-Gold Game on April 21.

Fifth-year tight end Nic Weishar will provide Notre Dame not only with depth and experience in 2018, but also sure hands. That alone should give him a leg up on the other tight ends entering this spring. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Pertinent Reader Question:
“Every year a four- or five-star disappoints and every year a three-star or lower prospect surprises. My prediction is fall: Mack, rise: Weishar. I have been the lone man on the Weishar bandwagon for a few years now and really hope that this year he becomes the big receiving target we need.

What are your fallers and risers for this coming year?” — Mark H.

A logical argument can be made that “fallers” should not be labeled as such until after their collegiate careers conclude. There are so many factors that can limit a player for years before he breaks out. Consider rising senior receiver and former consensus four-star prospect Miles Boykin. As recently as New Year’s Eve, he may have been labeled a bust, but now he can lay claim to one of the most dramatic catches in Irish history and is a frontrunner for a starting role in 2018 with another year of eligibility remaining after that. He could end up with a stellar collegiate career by every measure.

Mack has had the opportunity to shine to date, and he has not done so, but he also might have two more seasons to go to change that reputation.

As for “risers,” Weishar makes sense and he certainly showcased his strong hands when given the chance in 2017, but his ceiling is likely not much higher than that. A couple touchdown catches, a handful of third-down conversions and a year of physical blocking would be a welcome success.

Notre Dame’s safeties, though, could stand out to fit the criteria laid out by Mark. If — and that is a two-letter word not to be overlooked — Navy transfer and rising junior Alohi Gilman and rising sophomore Jordan Genmark-Heath end up as productive starters for the season, then they will both have exceeded the expectations set out by star ratings.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Mack: 19 catches for 166 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by six receptions for 38 yards against North Carolina with rising junior quarterback Ian Book starting in place of an injured Brandon Wimbush.
Weishar: Nine catches for 52 yards and two touchdowns.
Kmet: Two catches for 14 yards; appeared in all 13 games.
Wright: Appeared in 11 games, no statistics recorded.

Notre Dame gets the letter: George Takacs
Notre Dame gets the letter: Tommy Tremble

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are
Linebackers, a proven two and then many questions

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s linebackers, a proven two and then many questions

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Any concerns about Notre Dame’s linebackers were allayed when Te’von Coney spurned the NFL to return for his senior season. That decision, and Drue Tranquill making the same move, means the Irish do not need to replace their two best playmakers at the position from last season.

Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Clark Lea does need to figure out how to fill in for the graduated Nyles Morgan and his 92 tackles, not to mention classmate Greer Martini and his 75, good for second and fourth on the team, respectively.

Spring Roster:
— Two known and welcome playmaking veterans in Coney and fifth-year Tranquill.
— More than a handful of unproven and untested possibilities in rising senior Asmar Bilal, rising juniors Jonathan Jones and Jamir Jones (no relation), and rising sophomores Drew White, David Adams and Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah.
— A trio of early-enrolled freshmen in Jack Lamb, Bo Bauer and Ovie Oghoufo.

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman Shayne Simon, a likely rover candidate.

Entering 2017, Te’von Coney was not even a starting linebacker. By the end of the season he was the leading tackler, and in 2018, he will be counted on as a defensive stalwart. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
Wherever Tranquill ends up — be it at rover or a more traditional linebacker position, with the latter seeming more likely — someone will need to earn the third starting role. Bilal is the front-runner for that duty, at either position, but he will need to show a quicker understanding of the game than he has in the past.

The rising senior has always been ready physically, but he has looked up the depth chart at the likes of Morgan, Martini, Coney and Tranquill. Opportunities were not readily available. Now that one very much is, Bilal will need to either seize it or get ready to be bypassed by the newcomers.

It would be a surprise for Lamb or Bauer to be named that third starter in their freshman season, but both could certainly land in the two-deep, as that entire second unit is up for grabs. Neither Jones showed much last season, and the linebacker recruiting emphasis of 2018 belied the coaching staffs’ opinions of the rising sophomores pretty clearly.

Presuming Bilal steps forward and secures the starting position, and some combination of Jones, Jones, Lamb and Bauer fill two of the backup roles, only Owusu-Koromoah stands out as an obvious rover substitute. In that respect, depth remains a concern at the defense’s second level, albeit less of one than in years past thanks to the influx of four touted freshmen.

Biggest Question:
Where does Tranquill line up against Michigan on Sept. 1? More to the current purpose, where does he line up in the Blue-Gold Game on April 21?

“My responsibility as linebackers coach is to put the best combination of people on the field,” Lea said Feb. 7. “I think everyone can see Drue Tranquill had a skillset, a talent base that can play multiple spots. Through the course of the winter and spring, we’ll take a look at different options.”

The duties at rover can be handled piecemeal, accounting for the tendencies of each opponent. When facing an up-tempo, aerial attack, perhaps even rising senior cornerback Shaun Crawford could be featured there. When facing a physical, ground-bound opponent, Bilal would make more sense.

Shifting around like that at the Buck linebacker spot makes far less sense. While Tranquill never necessarily had the speed to excel at safety, and two knee injuries only further limited him in that respect, he shined at rover in 2017. Concluding his collegiate career at linebacker is logical, both as it pertains to his development thus far and to his professional aspirations.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Rarely can a defense lose two of its top-four tacklers and still return more than 200 tackles from starting linebackers. Thus is the luxury provided by both Coney and Tranquill bypassing the NFL for another year.

Coney: 116 tackles, 13.0 tackles for loss including three sacks, and one forced fumble which he recovered.
Tranquill: 85 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss including 1.5 sacks, one interception, three pass breakups, three fumbles recovered and one fumble forced.
Bilal: 18 tackles with 1.5 for loss.
Jo. Jones: 10 tackles with one for loss and one pass breakup.
Ja. Jones: Four tackles.

A 2018 Statistical Thought:
Presuming linebacker health, the three starters should end up as Notre Dame’s leading tacklers once again in 2018, even with the presumed drop off from Morgan to insert Bilal or Owusu-Koromoah or Lamb or … here.

The Irish defensive line will be much improved in 2018. Once upon a time, that seemed a guarantee just because the expectations for the line entering 2017 were so low, but it instead became a strength. Developing that strength and making it the backbone of Notre Dame’s defense moving forward will serve to burgeon the linebackers’ tackle totals, both at and behind the line of scrimmage.

Notre Dame gets the letter: Jack Lamb
Notre Dame gets the letter: Bo Bauer
Notre Dame gets the letter: Shayne Simon
Notre Dame gets the letter: Ovie Oghoufo

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are

A second four-star defensive lineman, Hunter Spears, joins the Notre Dame class of 2019

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When Notre Dame got five heralded defensive line recruits on campus together in January, it turned heads. When Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston offered public optimism about the possible 2019 commitments, it raised expectations.

Notre Dame has now secured a second of those five with the Tuesday commitment of consensus four-star defensive end Hunter Spears (Sachse High School; Texas). He joins consensus four-star defensive tackle Jacob Lacey (South Warren H.S.; Bowling Green, Ky.) as the early foundation to the recruiting class, now with four prospects pledged.

“Honestly, just talking with the guys today — Jacob Lacey, Mazi Smith, Joseph Anderson, Nana Osafo-Mensah, and myself — if Notre Came can land all of us, that would be the dream d-line class for Notre Dame,” Spears told Irish Illustrated. “I could see another pass-rusher or two, also.”

The other three names Spears mentioned all joined Lacey and him on Jan. 27 at an on-campus Junior Day. All five qualify as consensus four-stars, with Smith (East Kentwood; Kentwood, Mich.) a tackle, Anderson (Siegel; Murfreesboro, Tenn.) an end, and Osafo-Mensah (Nolan Catholic; Fort Worth, Texas) a possible end/linebacker hybrid.

From left to right: Osafo-Mensah, Anderson, Elston, Smith, Lacey and Spears. (Twitter: @JacobLacey6)

Landing all five may be ambitious, but it would also be the envy of most of the country.

Spears already held offers from the likes of Alabama and Michigan State, despite missing his junior season with a knee injury. The Irish extended a scholarship offer to him in June, prompting an unofficial visit to watch a 49-14 Notre Dame victory over USC in October. In a video released by 247Sports.com, Spears cited that experience as one of the three primary reasons he committed, along with the educational opportunity and the “overall tradition and culture.”

Editor’s Note: That video has since been removed from this post due to its incessant auto-play function, but it can still be viewed here.

Spears shows quickness for a defensive lineman, but not such that he would ever be considered an outside linebacker in any form. His size makes him an ideal candidate to set the edge against the run or possibly move inside when the Irish need a quicker defensive line to handle certain opponents. His agility, though, will make him a three-down threat, both a pass-rusher and an edge-setter.

Notre Dame currently has depth at defensive end, but with only one signed in the class of 2018 (Justin Ademilola) and one remaining from the class of 2017 (Kofi Wardlow), an influx will be a priority this recruiting cycle. Spears will theoretically have one season to adjust to collegiate competition before the quartet of rising juniors Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem, Julian Okwara and Ade Ogundeji run out of eligibility. (The first three have two seasons remaining, while Ogundeji has the possibility of three more years.)

Hence, that Junior Day emphasis and Elston’s confidence on National Signing Day.

“I’ve been at Notre Dame now going on for nine years, and I haven’t had a stronger group of underclassmen that I’m recruiting than I have this year in 2019,” Elston said. “This could be the best defensive line haul we’ve ever had here.”

Expect to read that quote again and again (and possibly again) if any of the remaining three in the above photo follow Spears’ and Lacey’s lead.

RELATED READING: ‘Accelerated’ start creates bright outlook for Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting cycle

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are

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Notre Dame will open spring practice in about two weeks. As always, the proceedings will be filled with positive reviews, optimistic outlooks, and an injury or two.

A quick look at each position group should lend a better understanding to those perspectives and effects, beginning with the group lacking many questions — the running backs. The biggest reason there is relative certainty around the running backs is there are just so few of them following the winter dismissals of rising junior Deon McIntosh and rising sophomore C.J. Holmes.

Spring Roster:
Rising senior Dexter Williams (pictured above)
Rising junior Tony Jones
Early-enrolled freshman Jahmir Smith
Rising junior Mick Assaf

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman C’Bo Flemister

No one received more praise last spring practice than Tony Jones. He had a successful 2017, but compared to that hype, it could have been considered under-performing. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
At some point, either Williams or Jones will be named the Irish starter. It is quite possible that will be a distinction without much difference, as the two could certainly complement each other well in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s system, which already prefers to use multiple running backs.

Human nature, though, dictates is more likely one back receives a majority of the carries.

Biggest Question:
If Williams lines up with the No. 1 offensive unit in the Blue-Gold Game (April 21) to conclude spring practice, that will be the first genuine and tangible evidence he has improved as a pass blocker. Despite his big-play speed and seeming-ease breaking tackles, Williams’ one-dimensional game rendered him as much a liability as an asset in 2017.

Even in the Citrus Bowl victory, Williams followed up back-to-back rushes for a combined 36 yards with a blown pass protection resulting in a 13-yard sack.

“You have to be able to protect the quarterback with all positions,” Long said Feb. 7. “That dictates a whole lot if you’re going to play a lot or just be a situational guy. It’s something you have to embrace, the physicality.

“… That’s really the main thing, other than protecting the ball, that’ll keep a back off the field in our offense.”

The best ability is availability, and both an ankle injury and a balky quad limited Williams in that respect in 2017. Little blame can be cast for the natural bruises of football. Nonetheless, he will need to “embrace the physicality” if he wants to become more than a situational back.

Otherwise, Jones will be the default option. He has already shown a knack for both pass blocking and catching, making him a three-down option. Notre Dame will always prefer that rather than tip its hand to a running play every time Williams enters the game.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Obviously, Josh Adams carried the burden in the running game last season. Behind rising senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush and McIntosh, Williams was only the No. 4 rusher on the roster in yards and touchdowns, while Jones was No. 4 in carries and No. 5 in yards and scores.

Williams: 360 yards on 39 carries, a 9.2 average, with four touchdowns. Two catches for 13 yards and one score.
Jones: 232 yards on 44 carries, a 5.3 average, with three touchdowns. Six catches for 12 yards.
Notre Dame gets the letter: Jahmir Smith
Notre Dame gets the letter: C’Bo Flemister