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And In That Corner … The No. 14 North Carolina State Wolfpack and a vaunted run defense

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Due to some crossed signals, two sets of responses came in from North Carolina State beat reporters for this week’s rendition of a boxing analogy. They offered different styles in their answers, complementary in nature, so let’s present both. It is appropriate to have even further insights into the No. 14 Wolfpack than usual, as it may be — particularly in the eyes of this scribe — the toughest opponent remaining on Notre Dame’s schedule.

As an unnecessary reminder, the Irish host North Carolina State at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC.

For now, let’s turn to Matt Carter of The Wolfpacker and Joe Giglio of Raleigh’s The News & Observer.

DF: Hey guys. I hope you enjoyed North Carolina State’s bye week. For our purposes, it is always nice when those come right in the middle of the season. How many years have you been on the Wolfpack beat now?
MC: I started in the summer of 2004 just in time to see Mario Williams break out as an NC State defensive end and am in my 14th season.

JG: I’ve been at the paper for 20 years but only on the State beat since 2008 for basketball and 2011 for football.

Speaking of that bye week, how did NC State spend it? To my knowledge, the team isn’t too banged up at this point, so there was not an impetus on getting guys healthy, at least not more than there always is in the middle of a football season.
MC: Dave Doeren stated during his weekly Monday press conference that a lot of time was spent going back to the basics and working on fundamentals. The Wolfpack has been fortunate from an injury standpoint but it still was able to use the time to get some bumps and bruises taken care of.

JG: They got a few days off last week and spent some time on fundamentals. You’re right, for the most part they have been healthy, except in the secondary. A little extra rest doesn’t hurt, though.

Through seven games, including an active six-game winning streak, Wolfpack senior quarterback Ryan Finley has thrown for 1,968 yards and 11 touchdowns without completing a single pass to the opposition. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Let’s continue with a micro view, specifically senior quarterback Ryan Finley. The current buzz du jour around him is his complete lack of interceptions thrown, but he is certainly more than a game manager protecting the ball. His 69.4 completion percentage jumps off the page and averaging more than 280 passing yards a game is something Notre Dame’s secondary may fear. What about his game makes Finley so effective while also keeping him off the national radar?
MC: It’s a combination of factors. He graduated from Boise State in three years and is close to finishing his masters at NC State. Thus, he has a very good head on his shoulders. Secondly, he’s a smart guy who has been in this system for four years now. Wolfpack offensive coordinator Eli Drinkwitz was Finley’s offensive coordinator at Boise State and the two made the move to Raleigh together. Combining his intelligence and familiarity with the offense with an accurate touch throwing the football and a very calm and cool demeanor on and off the field, and you have a quarterback that just has not been easy to rattle this season.

JG: Finley makes quick reads and gets the ball out of his hands. He also has gotten better about taking more shots down the field. What has really helped him is the receivers making more plays on 50-50 passes.

Sticking with the offense, Irish coach Brian Kelly described senior H-back Jaylen Samuels as a “match-up nightmare.” I usually see him described as a tight end/wide receiver, but from the North Carolina State games I have seen, that hybrid description does not accurately explain his role in the offense. He has 191 yards and seven touchdowns rushing to go along with 453 yards and three touchdowns receiving, after all. How does the offense showcase, if not even rely on, Samuels?

Senior Jaylen Samuels lines up just about everywhere for North Carolina State. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)

MC: The goal is to put Samuels in advantageous matchups, and because he is so versatile it can really strain a defense. He has the ability to exploit matchups at multiple spots on the field. More times than not you will probably see Samuels in the slot, but he will also line up in the backfield, occasionally put his hand in the dirt as a traditional tight end and even take a few snaps out wide. This year it seems to me more than anything he has emerged as one of the offense’s go-to guys on third downs and in the red zone in particular.

JG: He’s basically a slot receiver they also use as a short-yardage running back. They’ve started using him more and more in the red zone at running back. He’s a little bigger than junior Nyheim Hines, which helps in short-yardage situations.

He leads the team targets (63) and catches (54). Those are mostly shorter, intermediate routes. There are some specific plays designed for him — on jet sweeps and shovel pass — but for the most part, he’s a glorified slot receiver.

In some respects, Finley and Samuels may have excelled without great notice because the Wolfpack defense gets the headlines, specifically its front seven. It hasn’t seen an offensive line like Notre Dame’s yet, though. Then again, the Irish struggled against Georgia’s defensive front, but the o-line has pretty clearly improved since the second week of the season. In something of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object, how do you see the trenches being won?
MC: My suspicion is that you will see a middle ground met. I would not suspect Notre Dame is going to rush for 300 yards against NC State. Nor do I think it’s realistic for the Wolfpack to shut down the Irish like Georgia did, which as you pointed out was back in week two.

To me, the key is which team is winning in the fourth quarter when it’s quite possible the game is on the line. NC State’s defense, at times, has been far better in the second half of games this year than the first.

JG: I expect Notre Dame’s offense to do what a lot of teams have done against State: Get rid of the ball quickly and not give senior defensive end Bradley Chubb a chance to get after the quarterback. State’s run defense is pretty stout, with B.J. Hill and Justin Jones in the middle.

A few teams have found success through the air despite that pass rush. Specifically, Marshall threw for 350 yards, Syracuse 385 and Louisville 354. The Irish passing attack has been, shall we say, lacking this season, but could that be an opportunity to exploit a Wolfpack weakness?
MC: There have been teams that have literally abandoned the run to throw the ball against NC State. Those three games are very good examples of that. Marshall’s leading rusher carried eight times. Sixteen of Syracuse’s 30 rushes were by the quarterback. Louisville took a very similar approach. That is partly a tribute to the respect of the Wolfpack rush defense, but also the fact that teams know they can throw the football effectively against NC State if given time.

The Wolfpack has faced a lot of offenses using max protection to block the front to exploit matchups against the secondary. The question is will a fully healthy secondary make a difference in the second half of the year. By the end of the South Carolina game through week five against Syracuse, NC State was down two starters and a top reserve. The two starters have since returned and were rotating snaps the last three games while easing back in.

JG: The shots will be there. State’s a bend-don’t-break defense. Marshall receiver Tyre Brady had a big game by getting into man routes with corner Johnathan Alston, a converted receiver. I would expect Notre Dame to try to take some shots down the field with junior Equanimeous St. Brown.

Switching to a macro view, entering the season some considered North Carolina State an ACC dark horse, but with the defending national champion in the conference, not very many had that outlook. What were, and what are, the realistic expectations closer to the program? You certainly know more than those viewing from 35,000 feet.
MC: There was not much doubt that this was Dave Doeren’s best team at NC State, and it fit a lot of the criteria of a team that should have a really good season. It returned a ton of experience from a squad that went 2-4 in games decided by seven points or less (including a win against Notre Dame which had similar struggles in close games). If you ask those around the program, NC State felt, with justification, it should have won all four of those games it lost.

So it was a competitive team returning all the key players. But the expectations were also tampered for two reasons. One, the perception around NC State athletics, especially with its basketball team, is it historically underachieves when it should be good. Secondly, the schedule was going to be difficult, especially since the ACC’s Atlantic is considered far superior to the Coastal.

Perhaps fortunately for NC State, a couple of those Atlantic heavyweights — Clemson and Louisville — are struggling.

JG: The Wolfpack has won at least 10 games only once in school history. That’s it. Most people here thought this team could win 10 games. The playoff talk was always kind of looked at like a lark with Clemson, Florida State and Louisville being the main obstacles.

Those expectations may have changed after wins over Florida State and Louisville. The nature of college football now devalues those wins a bit, but whether or not that is valid — and it is likely somewhere in between — those wins gave the Wolfpack season quite a bit of momentum from afar. How has that been felt around the program?
MC: If anything, it got NC State over that hump. Last year, NC State dropped an interception that probably would have sealed a 20-17 win over Florida State at home and opened the door for the ‘Noles to win it on a late touchdown, 24-20. The team needed a success to point to as proof its direction and approach were the right way. It got those wins under challenging setups.

As you noted, both FSU and Louisville may not have been what they were expected to be, but Florida State essentially had three weeks to prepare for NC State due to Hurricane Irma altering its schedule, and Louisville had played a couple of cupcakes leading into NC State while the Wolfpack had to play Syracuse the previous Saturday before playing the Cards on a short week.

JG: Yeah, those three teams have dominated the Atlantic Division and Dave Doeren had been 0-11 against those three teams going into this season. Any win over the group would have been considered a bonus. To possibly sweep those three? I don’t think anyone reasonably predicted that would be possible.

What have I missed? I didn’t intentionally leave out junior running back Nyheim Hines. I suppose I just see Finley’s arm as a bigger threat to the Irish defense. Is that foolish of me?

North Carolina State junior running back Nyheim Hines has rushed for 648 yards and six touchdowns this season with an average of 5.6 yards per carry. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

MC: Hines is one of the country’s leaders in all-purpose yards and has gotten some midseason All-American mention. Entering the bye he led all ACC running backs in rushing yards and was on pace for more than 1,000 yards. He singlehandedly kept NC State in the game during the first half against Pittsburgh when the Wolfpack looked like it was sleepwalking a little following that win over Louisville. In the second half, NC State asserted itself and outscored the Panthers 21-3.

The most underrated aspect of NC State this season, to me, is the offensive line. In four ACC games, Finley has not been sacked yet. Pitt did not even register a quarterback hurry in the last game. Both senior right guard Tony Adams and junior right tackle Will Richardson could be All-ACC candidates.

On the flipside, NC State’s special teams was sure to be a focal point in the bye because both placekicking and kick coverage have been a sore spot.

JG: Hines is a home-run hitter. He can be quiet at times and then he’ll pop one. The difference in the Louisville game was the receivers and the plays they were able to make down field.

I was shocked to see Notre Dame favored by more than a touchdown. How do you see Saturday afternoon going?
MC: It’s hard to ignore how impressive Notre Dame looked against USC. Dominating any opponent from a Power Five conference in that fashion is the sign of a really, really good football team. I get the feeling this is a game of two teams headed for special seasons on a collision course with each other. Typically in those types of settings, I might prefer the home squad.

I do think it will be a close, competitive game that could be decided by a late touchdown.

JG: I’ve got N.C. State winning 20-18. A play on Notre Dame’s loss to Georgia and 18 being double its point total in the previous two games against N.C. State (six in 2002 and three last year).

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s defensive line, a returning strength

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Notre Dame returns eight of its top nine defensive linemen. Such a year-to-year retention is nearly beyond most possibilities, so it should not be understated how much that defensive line could determine any Irish success found in 2018.

Spring Roster:
— The theoretical starters: Rising junior Daelin Hayes at drop (pass-rushing) end, rising senior Jerry Tillery at three-technique (pass-rushing) tackle, fifth-year Jonathan Bonner at nose tackle and fifth-year Jay Hayes at strong-side (edge-setting) end.
— The likely second-unit: Rising junior Julian Okwara at drop end, rising sophomore Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa at three-tech, rising sophomore Kurt Hinish at nose and rising junior Khalid Kareem at strong-side end.
— The presumed third-stringers: Rising junior Ade Ogundeji at drop end, rising senior Micah Dew-Treadway at three-tech, rising sophomore Darnell Ewell at nose and rising sophomore Kofi Wardlow at strong-side end.

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman Justin Ademilola at drop end, incoming freshman Jayson Ademilola at three-tech and incoming freshman Ja’Mion Franklin at nose tackle.

Kurt Hinish was not expected to contribute much his freshman season. The fact that he provided genuine interior depth only sets the table for further Irish success along the defensive line in 2018. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
A lot of cross-training has and will occur among the defensive linemen, so nailing any one player down to the above position is a fool’s errand. Jay Hayes will be ready to move inside against quicker and lighter opponents, just like Justin Ademilola will dabble a bit in strong-side development to keep future options available, simply as examples.

Nonetheless, the primary rotation should carry over from last year with the exception of flipping Tillery and Bonner to three-tech and nose, respectively. Entering 2017, Bonner was not a sure thing to withstand the physical duties of the nose position, hence the alignment then.

Daelin Hayes and Okwara will spell each other enough to be sure there is always a viable pass-rush threat on the field. Ogundeji could possibly further that rotation, but he did not see much action last year and would need to progress greatly to do so in 2018; that is as much a credit to Hayes and Okwara as it is a criticism of Ogundeji, if not even more of the former.

Jay Hayes will feature against run-dominant opponents and obvious running situations, while Kareem will offer a strong pass-rush from that side when needed. If another year under the tutelage of strength and conditioning coordinator Matt Balis has furthered Kareem’s physicality, perhaps he will cut into Hayes’ snaps, but their frames alone emphasize the difference between the two. Last season, both were listed at or just shy of 6-foot-4, but Hayes carried an additional 24 pounds, 290 to 266.

Tagovailoa-Amosa and Hinish will keep Tillery and Bonner fresh, presumably even more so than last year.

Biggest Question:
That brings the defensive line conversation to Ewell. He arrived on campus much more-heralded as a recruit than either Tagovailoa-Amosa or Hinish, but the latter two were more college-ready. That is not inherently an indictment of Ewell’s recruiting rankings, based more so on future potential than immediate readiness.

Will a full year of collegiate coaching, not to mention strength and conditioning, have Ewell primed to live up to his recruiting hype?

He will not usurp any of the four already established in the middle. Tillery is the best current talent among the grouping and Bonner proved to be able to hold the point of attack in 2017. Tagovailoa-Amosa’s knack for finding the backfield was an unexpected strength, and the depth provided by Hinish is part of what helped Tillery finally shine and contributed, in part, to making Bonner’s breakthrough possible.

Nonetheless, Ewell could further that rotation, only freshening the legs available at the point of attack.

Defensive line depth cannot be emphasized enough, and if Ewell shows up ready and willing this spring, Notre Dame may be more ready in the middle than it has been in, hmmm, at least a long while. (Note to self: This could be a comparison to find an answer to.)

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Tillery: 56 tackles with nine for loss, including 4.5 sacks and one forced fumble.
D. Hayes: 30 tackles with 6.5 for loss, including three sacks and two fumbles recovered.
Bonner: 30 tackles with 3.5 for loss, including two sacks.
J. Hayes: 27 tackles with 3.5 for loss, including one sack with one fumble recovered.
Kareem: 21 tackles with 5.5 for loss, including three sacks and one fumble recovered.
Okwara: 17 tackles with 4.5 for loss, including 2.5 sacks and one interception along with one fumble forced.
Tagovailoa-Amosa: 12 tackles with 1.5 for loss.
Hinish: Eight tackles with 0.5 for loss.

2017 Stats Departed:
The point in this series is to look forward, but it bears noting just how little the Irish lost from the defensive line after 2017, a season in which the unit proved preseason expectations very wrong and became quite a strength. Of the contributing defensive linemen from the fall, only two are not expected to return in 2018:

Andrew Trumbetti: 28 tackles with four for loss, including 0.5 for loss.
Brandon Tiassum: Two tackles.

Notre Dame gets the letter: Jayson and Justin Ademilola
Notre Dame gets the letter: Ja’Mion Franklin

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

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