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Things We Learned: Maybe, just maybe …

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NOTRE DAME, Ind. — Notre Dame’s embracing of what this season could become is candid, unusual and nearly taboo. Discussing anyone beyond next weekend’s opponent — now No. 16 North Carolina State coming off a bye — is typically verboten in every regard.

Yet there was Irish coach Brian Kelly following No. 13 Notre Dame’s 49-14 victory over No. 11 USC on Saturday, not offering a rote non-answer answer when asked about the national big picture.

“We just want to be aware so we can enhance where we are, just be aware of our situation, and that means you’ve gotten here because you have really stuck to what we’ve asked you to do,” Kelly said.

That much is somewhat par-for-the-course. Focus on the mental preparation that got you here and maybe you’ll get further. Not exactly earth shattering.

“My point being, the big-picture stuff, they’re aware of it,” Kelly continued. “But they know how they got here and they like where they’re at.”

The Irish being aware of national stakes means the Irish are starting to believe maybe, just maybe, those stakes could pan out.

Maybe, just maybe, Playoff talk in 2017 is not entirely and completely outlandish.
Let’s acknowledge all those disclaimers. “Maybe.” “Just maybe.” “Not entirely.” “Not completely.” “Outlandish.”

This is where a “Dumb and Dumber” quote might often be cited: There’s a chance.

Entering the weekend, Notre Dame had six remaining games, none of them cakewalks. Four of those, in particular, stood out as coin tosses, at best.

The Irish just turned one flipping half dollar into a 49-14 drubbing that was, for all intents and purposes, over by halftime. They are a quarter of the way to the Playoff — if being sticklers, a sixth — and another quarter of that dollar looks far more likely thanks to the ol’ transitive property. Notre Dame beat USC by 35. USC beat Stanford by 18. The Cardinal’s home-field advantage should not trump that math. (35 plus 18 equals, uhhh, 53. Right? Right.)

Maybe, just maybe.

Senior center Sam Mustipher found the right word to describe the balance needed between one week at a time and something bigger could be happening.

“You have to realize it’s a privilege to be where we’re at, and to not take for granted the opportunity we have moving forward,” Mustipher said. “Understand each snap, every play, as long as we go back to basics like we’re supposed to, we’re going to be in a pretty good position.”

Being in the conversation for a College Football Playoff bid is a privilege, not a right. Stick to the fundamentals against the Wolfpack, and that privilege can be extended another week like a Wisconsin driver’s license being good for eight years at a time. Lose focus, stray from the necessities, and suddenly that license is suspended. Feel too good about making it 22 months without a speeding ticket, and that streak can quickly become an 83-in-a-70.

“If we let this [win] get too big, we’re probably not going to do too hot against North Carolina State,” fifth-year left tackle and captain Mike McGlinchey said. “We just have to keep the message and the eyes forward, and as best as we can do that, good things will happen.”

Maybe, just maybe.

In no small part thanks to junior running back Josh Adams, Notre Dame has placed itself into the College Football Playoff conversation, and deservedly so. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Notre Dame knows there is a long ways to go, but if the physical, emotional, psychological and stylistic outdoing of one of the country’s most-talented teams does not instill belief in those ambitious possibilities, what is the point of playing a team like USC every year?

None of this is to say the Irish are playoff-bound. This is to say Notre Dame showed that concept is no longer the ramblings of some blinded by wool. The Irish belong in the Playoff conversation. It is now up to them, and them alone, to stay in it.

While we’re here, let’s offer the reminder: The first College Football Playoff selection committee poll will be released Oct. 31 at 7 p.m. ET, otherwise known as the Tuesday after Notre Dame hosts North Carolina State. One of those two teams will be in the top-12 of that poll.

Mr. Stepherson, fashionably late is better than never in every regard.
When Kelly said sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson would have an increased role in the season’s second half, it may have come off as nothing but lip service. In his two games since returning from suspension, Stepherson recorded one catch for a loss of three yards. Even those wearing that aforementioned wool could not have genuinely anticipated a late-October resurgence.

Irish sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson notched his first touchdown of 2017 and sixth of his career in Notre Dame’s 49-14 victory over USC on Saturday. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

When Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long called a first-quarter end-around for Stepherson, it could have been seen as a gimmick. For all that anyone outside Long’s mind knows, perhaps it was intended as a one-off. Except it succeeded. Stepherson picked up 13 yards and a first down.

The end-around was called again on the next drive. Stepherson gained 11 yards and a first down.

This was a dynamic presented by Stepherson heretofore unseen, including his still-often-praised freshman season. Fifth-year senior Cam Smith has run a few such end-arounds already this year, so clearly this concept of utilizing receiver speed around the corner is a piece of Long’s playbook. Expect to see it again. Expect to see it with Stepherson.

Then Stepherson caught a 23-yard touchdown pass from Wimbush. The pass was thrown where it should have been, but it still necessitated an impressive snag from Stepherson.

“I knew that he was going to have an effective day,” Wimbush said. “I told him before the game, I’m coming to you a couple times here today. He did his thing and went up and got the ball for me.”

Stepherson finished with three catches for 58 yards along with the 24 rushing yards on two carries. That would be an admirable afternoon for any Irish receiver, especially in this passing-anemic season. Stepherson also returned a third-quarter kickoff for 11 yards, joining junior C.J. Sanders in the end zone as return options.

Smith did not play Saturday due to a hamstring injury. Look for an updated status on him either Sunday afternoon or Tuesday midday. Whether he is cleared to return soon or not, Stepherson may have staked his claim to Smith’s spot.

That does not mean Stepherson has supplanted sophomore receiver Chase Claypool. The latter had his chances against the Trojans — finishing with one catch for 13 yards — most notably a deep ball on the sideline on Notre Dame’s second snap from scrimmage. Wimbush just overthrew Claypool by a yard. (That one was on Wimbush. A later overthrow, intended for junior tight end Alizé Mack, probably should have been caught.)

The Irish will continue running, including against decent defenses.
Notre Dame ran 46 times against the Trojans, throwing 22 passes and taking one sack. Even if removing the fourth quarter (at the end of the third, the score was an easygoing 42-14), the Irish ran 37 times and threw on only 17 snaps.

Notre Dame will go as far as Long’s offense can run it. Finding success in the running game against USC deserves notice. The Irish had yet to find that option against a defense this good. That is partly due to not rising to the occasion against Georgia and Michigan State and partly due to not facing other strong defenses. Entering this weekend, the Trojans rush defense rated No. 65 in the country in yards per carry at 4.12 yards. The best defense Notre Dame consistently gained rushing yards against was No. 78 Temple’s.

USC does not boast a top-tier defense, but gashing it still counts as a step in the right direction. In this instance, “gashing” means running for 8.41 yards per carry.

Again, usurping any version of a “24-hour rule” and looking toward next week, the Wolfpack allow 3.04 yards per carry, good for No. 14 in the country entering the weekend. The Irish beat USC on the legs of junior running back Josh Adams and Wimbush (and Stepherson). Moving a step closer to that Maybe, just maybe will come down to that running game again next weekend.

Brandon Wimbush calls Chip Long, “Chip.”
This is completely inconsequential, but it led to a good laugh during Wimbush’s post-game media availability. Asked a question about him and Long getting to know each other’s strengths and tendencies, Wimbush started out referring to his coordinator as “Chip,” before catching himself in a public setting. The ensuing chuckles made it clear, some personal familiarity has already been established.

Nick Watkins announces transfer from Notre Dame

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notre Dame adds another 2019 commitment out of Georgia

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Eight months from now, Notre Dame may be forced to sign a smaller recruiting class than usual thanks to the larger class this past recruiting cycle. If that expectation does indeed hold, this past week’s five commitments, including consensus three-star safety Kyle Hamilton’s (Marist High School; Atlanta) on Tuesday evening, will be a hefty portion of the class.

Hamilton becomes the second safety in the class, and in the week, following the Saturday pledge of rivals.com four-star Litchfield Ajavon (Episcopal H.S.; Alexandria, Va.). Hamilton’s list of finalists included Michigan, Georgia, Ohio State and Clemson, a grouping more telling than perhaps his recruiting ranking is.

Some of that expected potential may derive from Hamilton’s 6-foot-3 frame. Such length at safety would be a change for the Irish, currently without a safety taller than six-feet in the rotation. Even heralded incoming-freshman Derrik Allen, also out of Georgia, is listed at only 6-foot-1.

It is a coincidence those two Georgia recruits, one signed and one now verbally-committed, are both safeties. Add in the January commitment of rivals.com three-star cornerback K.J. Wallace (Lovett; Atlanta), and a third defensive back comes from the state, along with class of 2018 signees tight end Tommy Tremble and running back C’Bo Flemister. Five prospects from Georgia, presuming both Hamilton and Wallace do indeed sign with Notre Dame, is not a coincidence.

“My point being is that it’s such a fertile ground in recruiting, you just need to be in [Georgia], and there’s great football players in there,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said in December 2017, during the inaugural early signing period. “We’ve got so many players that we can talk about that came of there. It’s just having a presence and getting back into a very, very good recruiting area for us. We need to have a great presence there.”

No matter what state Hamilton comes from, he could find himself quickly in the mix at safety upon his arrival. Presuming health for the current safety depth chart, juniors Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill will have one year of eligibility remaining apiece upon Hamilton’s enrollment. Junior Alohi Gilman will have two, thanks to spending the 2017 season sidelined following his transfer from Navy. Early-enrolled freshman Griffith and Allen will both have three more years, presuming both play in 2018.

Thus, Hamilton and Ajavon could find themselves backing up that last duo as soon as 2020.

Blue-Gold Game Leftovers: Notre Dame’s offensive ceiling is tantalizing, though also unlikely

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Immediately following the 2017 spring game, I walked by two much smarter, savvier and more veteran Notre Dame reporters on our way to post-game interviews. Our two minutes of exchange included them riffing on various hypothetical position changes that were eventually not seen come fall, including how much better of a guard than a tackle Tommy Kraemer could be. It should be noted, the junior began lining up at guard this spring.

My contribution to the conversation hinged entirely on repeating, “That offense just isn’t ready. It’s not close to ready.”

Of course, that assessment figured the spring game struggles were against a porous Irish defense, something freshly-arrived and since-departed defensive coordinator Mike Elko had already taken tangible steps toward fixing, far quicker than expected.

That evaluation also failed to recognize the potential of a running attack led by Josh Adams. Notre Dame knew it had a stalwart running back, and did not need to see more than eight carries for 39 yards and a touchdown from the lead back.

The point stood, though. The offense was not ready then or in November.

Driving away from this past Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game, the thought bouncing around my pickup’s two-seat cab was simple: This offense is unlikely to reach its ceiling, but if it did, it would be really, absurdly high-powered.

This time, that assessment offers some deference to first-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s ability to turn nine returning starters into another strong defense, perhaps superior to last year’s.

The praise of the offense must be hedged thanks to IF after IF after IF after IF. If senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush displays those mechanics and that accuracy against opposing defenses …
If senior running back Dexter Williams (pictured above) decides it is worthwhile to play, and play well, through pain …
If junior receiver Chase Claypool maintains the necessary emotional equilibrium …
If senior tight end Alizé Mack offers a consistent performance, even if not stellar, but stable …

In those four upperclassmen alone, the Irish have unique talents whom opposing defensive coordinators should lose sleep thinking about. They will determine how high this offense’s ceiling is, while the likes of senior receiver Miles Boykin, junior running back Tony Jones and sophomore tight end Cole Kmet will set the floor, along with what looks to be yet another overpowering offensive line (with Kraemer at right guard).

Obviously, the most-promising players always set the height of a vaulted the ceiling. As they perform against Michigan, Stanford and Virginia Tech will determine how the season ends. However, to pinpoint four like this is an extreme end of the spectrum.

Exiting last year’s Blue-Gold Game, it was clear Wimbush needed to learn much more of offensive coordinator Chip Long’s scheme. Aside from that, the only possible ways to increase the offense’s potency was to teach receiver Kevin Stepherson self-discipline and figure out why Mack could not make a gameday impact. The rest was essentially known, even if the running game’s potential was overlooked after the spring exhibition.

Entering this summer, the gap between the offense’s floor and its ceiling is a vast one. To have four question marks of this magnitude speaks to the possible volatility awaiting in the fall. Logically speaking, it is most likely two of the four above IFs become realities. In that case, it will be a good offense, but not the utterly threatening one conceivable. The odds are slim all four come to fruition, but crazier things have happened, especially when discussing the rapid development of 18- to 21-year-olds.

Without Adams following two All-American offensive linemen, this rendition of the Notre Dame offense may take a step backward, but the talent is there for it to actually improve, to carry the day if/when an experienced quarterback picks apart the defense (see: the Seminoles’ Deondre Francois).

That could not be said in 2017.

OTHER QUICK TAKEAWAYS FROM THE BLUE-GOLD GAME:
Much of this will be discussed in greater length in the coming two weeks, but …
— The interior of the offensive line — fifth-year left guard Alex Bars, fifth-year center Sam Mustipher and Kraemer at right guard — is quite a physically-imposing trio. Some defensive ends may find success against first-year starter and junior left tackle Liam Eichenberg, especially early in the season, but the inside trio should at least create massive holes for the Irish running game.

— Ideally Long can deploy Mack and Kmet together, but the spring performance of the latter certainly eases the concerns about the maturation and consistency of the former.

Notre Dame may need an unexpected influx of production from senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery if the fifth-year tackle he is intended to line up alongside, Jonathan Bonner, does not recover fully from a wrist injury suffered in the beginning of 2017. (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP)

— Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly insists fifth-year defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner’s fitness will not be overly-effected by the wrist injury that kept him out of most of spring practice and all of the Blue-Gold Game.

“He’s been doing everything (in weight-lifting) but at lighter weight, and now he’s only a couple of weeks away from being full-go,” Kelly said Saturday. “He was already physically really gifted, so we don’t think that’s going to be a big curve for him, and he’ll be able to start training aggressively when we get back here in June.”

Consider this scribe skeptical. Not only is Kelly often overly-optimistic about injury effects and timetables, but to think missing six months of strength and conditioning will not be noticeable along the defensive interior is idealistic at best. Bonner’s 2017 emergence was a direct result of the arrival of strength and conditioning coordinator Matt Balis.

Without more of that work, the Irish will need to turn to sophomore Kurt Hinish for an increase in snaps, perhaps pushing toward 50 per game with Bonner offering 20-30 and senior Micah Dew-Treadway filling in the balance. Hinish appears to be up to the task, which is necessary, because classmate Darnell Ewell is not.