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Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s defense to be tested by USC in ways it has not yet seen

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Notre Dame’s season will not be deemed a success or a failure pending Saturday’s result against No. 11 USC, but the victory or defeat will determine the outlook moving forward. A win and suddenly the Irish are in the conversation for a spot in a playoff-eligible bowl. A loss and that goal needs a 5-0 finish to be even considered.

To be clear, a playoff-eligible bowl is not the same thing as the College Football Playoff. There are 12 spots in six games of the former, including the four playoff entrants into the CFP itself. Notre Dame can justifiably enter that more narrow discussion by winning its next two games, the latter coming against No. 16 North Carolina State just three days before the first CFP committee poll is released.

The CFP poll is the only one that matters in the long-run. But that’s getting ahead. This is about this weekend.

For now, a general consensus has the Trojans in the country’s top 12 and the Irish outside of it. Factoring in the required Group of Five entrant, the pertinent metric becomes top 11. A win over USC would establish Notre Dame as deserving of that possibility. It would also set a new ceiling for the season, pending that Oct. 28 encounter with the Wolfpack.

A loss, though, would limit the most-optimistic Irish outlook to a season with a worthwhile win or two (namely, at No. 22 Stanford to close the season) while still falling short of returning anywhere genuinely near the country’s elite.

That is the big-picture lesson to be gleaned from this weekend. This is Notre Dame’s second chance to notch a top-tier victory in 2017. Losing a one-point contest to a veritable national title contender is one thing. Losing both that and a rivalry game to the great but not-yet-refined Trojans would mark the continuation of a trend of not prevailing when it matters most. Dominating Michigan State, Boston College and North Carolina — all on the road — is a good step, but it loses much of its significance if not followed up with a more impressive victory.

To get that victory, the Irish secondary needs to hold its own against a genuine passing attack. USC throws for nearly 300 yards per game (296.43, to be exact). Believe it or not, the most-dangerous attack Notre Dame has faced this season was Temple’s, currently averaging 251.1 yards per game, followed by Miami (OH)’s 241.6. If insisting this comparison be to a Power-Five opponent, North Carolina throws for 212.7 yards per game.

Let’s defer to an even more worthwhile measure. The Trojans average 7.89 yards per pass attempt. Of those already mentioned, only the RedHawks are within shouting distance at 7.48 yards per attempt. (Temple: 6.68; North Carolina: 6.42.)

USC junior quarterback Sam Darnold has all the tools to pick apart any secondary, and his receiving corps is deep enough to stretch any secondary thin — junior receiver Deontay Burnett leads the way with 49 catches for 626 yards and six touchdowns, followed by fifth-year receiver Steven Mitchell and his 23 catches for 333 yards and two scores.

Notre Dame will need all hands on deck from its secondary, including sophomore safety Jalen Elliott’s, to slow USC’s passing attack. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

The Irish cornerbacks are a talented group and the safeties have outperformed the summer’s low expectations, but the Trojans passing attack should win that matchup outright. The determining factors will come down to two things: Can Notre Dame limit or completely deny big plays and can the Irish manage an interception or two?

If those answers are yes, then Darnold’s yards and Burnett’s touchdowns take on a mitigated effect. If not, then such would be the sign of a USC rout.

If entirely dependent on the secondary, preventing those big plays seems unlikely. The Irish pass rush could tilt those odds back toward the home team, though.

Speaking of Notre Dame’s front seven, how will junior linebacker Te’von Coney hold up in the second half when playing every or nearly every snap?

Junior linebacker Te’von Coney has played well in a part-time role, making 42 tackles, second on the Irish defense. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

To date, Coney and senior linebacker Greer Martini have split duties. At points, Coney has slipped in for senior Nyles Morgan, as well, to line up alongside Martini. But Martini suffered a knee injury in practice during the bye week.

The emphasis will now be on Coney. In order for the Irish to put pressure on Darnold, defensive coordinator Mike Elko has to trust Coney will stick to his assignments, even as fatigue sets in. When it comes to the running game, Coney cannot miss any fits if Notre Dame wants to contain Trojans running back Ronald Jones.

Remember that 52-yard scamper off a quarterback sneak by Michigan State’s Brian Lewerke? That came from Coney standing by rather than filling a gap. Such a lapse may be unaffordable in a contest as close as Saturday’s is expected to be.

If Coney doesn’t get every snap, who steps in for him? With the arguable exception of junior Asmar Bilal, no other linebacker has seen genuine playing time this season. Bilal has filled in at only rover, spelling senior Drue Tranquill.

With that in mind, and looking at how aggressively the Irish coaches have pursued linebackers in the recruiting class of 2018, the current freshmen and sophomores may not have earned much faith. It would be a surprise to see any of them thrown into the fire against USC.

That could leave the intriguing possibility of junior cornerback Shaun Crawford. Earlier this week, this space posited moving sophomore cornerback Julian Love to safety could get Crawford onto the field more often, and Crawford should get onto the field more often. Another option would be to deploy nickel defenses in more situations.

Based on his play thus far this season, more snaps for junior cornerback Shaun Crawford would be a good thing ofr Notre Dame’s defense. Crawford has made 14 tackles, including 1.5 sacks, intercepted two passes and recovered two fumbles including one he forced to prevent a touchdown. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

At 5-foot-9 and a listed 176 pounds, Crawford would seem to be undersized filling in for the 6-foot-1, 240-pound Coney. (Ronald Jones, by the way, is 6-foot, 200 pounds.) However, if Crawford can provide fresh legs and even just lay shoulder pads on Jones in the hole, that could certainly qualify as serviceable. Add in Crawford’s penchant for making plays and suddenly that outside-the-box possibility may hold merit. For that matter, those nickel packages could help against the aforementioned passing attack.

If Notre Dame can slow USC’s offense, can the Irish offense score enough against a decent defense?

While Notre Dame scored 38 points against Michigan State, one touchdown came from an interception return and another score was set up by a turnover deep in Spartans territory. If excluding those, suddenly a 24-point output against a strong defense would be concerning. Similarly, the Irish managed only 19 points against Georgia.

USC’s defense is not on the same level as either of those units, but it is better than the four teams Notre Dame has averaged 46.5 points against.

Specifically, the Trojans rush defense is about average by yards per carry, allowing 4.12, good for No. 65 in the country. (Georgia: 2.82 yards, No. 7; Michigan State: 2.93, No. 10; Temple: 4.48 yards, No. 78.) If Irish junior running back Josh Adams can find chunks of yardage against USC, it will bode well both for Saturday night and the longer run, pun somewhat intended.

Will any other wrinkles emerge from the bye week? (Read: Kevin Stepherson.)

The above Crawford proposal is the kind of development that can stem from a well-spent bye week: Identify someone having success in the first half of the season and find ways to get him more opportunities in the second half.

Another version identifies a player struggling in the first half and finds better situations for him in the second half. Sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson does not exactly meet that criteria since he spent the first four games of the year serving some version of a suspension, but he has not shown anything of note in the two games since his return. He has actually lost yardage with one catch for negative three yards.

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly acknowledged Stepherson was not quite up to game shape, but the two games of dabbling plus a bye week of re-acclimating may have gotten him there.

“What we saw was somebody that needed to get reintroduced into the game and get back up to game speed, game conditioning,” Kelly said Tuesday. “In a sense, [the bye week] was preseason for him in a lot of ways.

“He’s had a really good off-week and this week, you’ll see more of him. As we progress over the next half of the season, our expectations are to see his role increase.”

Stepherson has the speed to take the top off any secondary. Junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush has arm strength that can hardly be outrun. The math should be pretty simple, if Stepherson is indeed back up to game speed.

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).

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— 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