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Notre Dame’s Opponents: Six still hold conference title hopes

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How Notre Dame’s complete slate of opponents fares each week is becoming less and less important. A few of them remain pertinent to any discussions regarding worthwhile wins, but at least half the schedule is merely conversational filler at this point. If some of those entries become briefer with time, that is the reasoning.

Just how many times can it be said North Carolina is having a terrible season, anyway? And is that a harsh reflection on the word terrible?

As a whole, Irish foes fared well last weekend, finishing 6-2 when not including Notre Dame’s defeat of North Carolina State. This coming weekend does not bode to conclude as well, with only three favored of nine playing (again, not including this week’s Irish guest, Wake Forest). Four of those underdogs, though, could notch season-altering wins and further bolster any Notre Dame claim to a schedule so strong it warrants inclusion in the College Football Playoff despite its blemished record.

Temple (3-5): The Owls return from their bye all-but needing a win to keep bowl hopes alive. Undefeated No. 15 Central Florida awaits Temple on Nov. 18. If presuming that is a loss waiting to happen, the Owls need to win all their other games, including Thursday against Navy (8 p.m. ET, ESPN). As eight-point underdogs, though, that seems somewhat unlikely. A combined points total over/under of 55 equals a 31-23 conclusion.

Florida’s defense had absolutely no answer for Georgia senior running back Sony Michel. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

Georgia (8-0): Some of these entries are getting shorter because the teams are plain bad. The summaries of the Bulldogs’ victories get repetitive because they are brutally-familiar at this point. Georgia beat Florida 42-7 on Saturday, jumping out to a 42-0 lead thanks to two forced turnovers and 137 yards and two touchdowns from senior running back Sony Michel. He needed all of six carries to inflict that damage.

The Bulldogs cruised so easily backup Gators quarterback and former Notre Dame starter Malik Zaire attempted one pass fewer than Georgia starter Jake Fromm did. Fromm finished 4-of-7 for 101 yards with a touchdown and an interception. The Bulldogs did not need him much. Zaire finished 3-of-6 for 36 yards in the blowout.

Now Georgia readies for one of its toughest challenges of the season in South Carolina (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS). Despite the Gamecocks presenting a stiffer test than Florida may have, the Bulldogs are favored by a whopping 24.5 points in a game with a low over/under of 46. A 35-10 finish may be accurate, but the game itself will hardly be that competitive.

Boston College (5-4): Who are these Eagles and what did they do with the bumbling Boston College seen earlier this season? To extend their winning streak to three, the Eagles routed Florida State 35-3 on Friday. Freshman running back AJ Dillon led the way with 33 carries for 149 yards and a touchdown, part of a ground effort that gained 241 yards on 55 attempts, holding the ball for 35:15.

Not to be outdone, the Boston College defense forced three turnovers.

Eagles head coach Steve Addazio can enjoy this victory for a bit with Boston College on bye this weekend.

Michigan State (6-2): Spartan hopes of reaching the College Football Playoff fell by the wayside thanks to a triple-overtime 39-31 loss at Northwestern. Michigan State sophomore quarterback Brian Lewerke did all he could to keep the Spartans in the game, throwing for 445 yards and a touchdown on 39-of-57 passing, but his offense managed only 95 rushing yards and turned over the ball three times.

Michigan State’s hopes of winning the Big Ten remain intact, though. That path commences at noon ET on Saturday (FOX) against Penn State. The Spartans are 7.5-point underdogs with an over/under of 49. If they could find a way to turn the tables of a 28-21 conclusion, they would still control their own chances at winning the conference.

Miami (OH) (3-5): The RedHawks come off their bye week hoping junior quarterback Gus Ragland is healthy enough to lead an upset of Ohio tonight (8 p.m. ET, ESPN 2). That’s right folks, we have reached the time of year when there is football on national television each and every night of the week. It will not last long, so enjoy the luxuries provided by MACtion while they last.

Miami is a 9.5-point underdog with an over/under of 55.5, hinting at a 32-23 final score.

North Carolina (1-8): The Tar Heels actually had a chance against Miami (FL) on Saturday, but they could not convert two early scoring opportunities to their maximum potential, instead settling for field goals to take a 6-0 lead. The Hurricanes then responded to take a 17-6 lead and that was about that en route to a 24-19 Miami victory. The score wasn’t even that close, with a late touchdown diminishing North Carolina’s deficit.

Here is the good news for the Tar Heels: They will not lose this week. They have it off.

Trojans junior quarterback Sam Darnold can keep USC’s conference title hopes alive with a victory over Arizona and emerging Heisman-hopeful quarterback Khalil Tate this weekend. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)

USC (7-2): In a year in which the Rose Bowl will not necessarily host the traditional Big 10 champion vs. Pac-12 champion matchup, Notre Dame is still watching those two conferences intently. Much like Michigan State’s, the Trojans kept their conference hopes alive by topping Arizona State 48-17. Junior running back Ronald Jones ran for 216 yards and two touchdowns on only 18 carries while junior quarterback Sam Darnold threw for 266 yards and three touchdowns on 19-of-35 passing. Their performances were all part of a 607-yard offensive explosion.

USC will all-but settle the conference’s South division this weekend against Arizona (10:45 p.m. ET, ESPN). In a contest between last year’s midseason sensation (Darnold) and this year’s, Wildcats sophomore quarterback Khalil Tate, the elder is favored by seven points with an outlandish, if it wasn’t in a #Pac12AfterDark situation, over/under of 73. A 40-33 contest could last well into Sunday morning. It will obviously last even longer if even more points are scored, which seems quite possible.

North Carolina State (6-2): The Wolfpack can still win the ACC after falling to Notre Dame 35-14 this weekend. That decision will take a large step in one direction or the other against Clemson on Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC). As a touchdown-underdog with an over/under of 51, North Carolina State surely wants to flip the tables on a 29-22 outcome.

Wake Forest sophomore receiver Greg Dortch will miss the rest of the season due to injury, an announcement made only days after Dortch repeatedly torched Louisville’s defense to spark the Deacons to a 42-32 victory Saturday. (Photo by Mike Comer/Getty Images)

Wake Forest (5-3): The Demon Deacons arrive in South Bend high from a 42-32 victory over Louisville. Depending on your view of the perceived success or failure of the Cardinals’ season, that win may not mean much, but no matter how it is viewed, Wake Forest beat one of the ACC’s recent powers, something it had not done since a 6-3 win in double overtime against Virginia Tech in 2014.

Senior quarterback John Wolford leaned on sophomore receiver Greg Dortch to keep pace with Louisville. Dortch finished with 167 yards and four touchdowns on 10 catches while Wolford threw for 461 yards and five scores on 28-of-34 passing, an average of 13.56 yards per attempt.

Dortch has since been ruled out for the season, a crucial loss for the Deacons as they head to Notre Dame as 13.5-point underdogs with a current over/under of 57. (3:30 p.m. ET, NBC.) If anything, a 35-21 final would make Wake Forest the first Irish opponent to break 20 points this season. That seems unlikely.

Miami (FL) (7-0): The Hurricanes did not need another nail-biting finish, but they still got off to a slow start in slipping past North Carolina 24-19.

Miami will essentially play for its conference division title against Virginia Tech (8 p.m. ET, ABC). It should be a close one, which may play into the Hurricanes’ favor. They certainly are not fazed by a competitive fourth quarter, even if 2.5-point underdogs with an over/under of 50. A 27-24 conclusion would be worth watching before flipping over to USC and Arizona, even if the Hokies knock Miami from the ranks of the undefeated.

Navy (5-2): The Midshipmen exit their bye with a short week, heading to Temple on Thursday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN). Favored by eight, Navy should come out ahead in a 31-23 evening.

Stanford (6-2): Without junior running back Bryce Love (ankle), the Cardinal baaaaaaarely managed to get past Oregon State on Thursday, scoring a touchdown with 20 seconds left to win 15-14. The score came only thanks to a Beavers fumble to set up a short field.

Stanford will risk a five-game winning streak at Washington State as two-point underdogs (3:30 p.m. ET, FOX). A 55-point over/under creates a theoretical final of 28-27 in the Cougars favor.

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

Associated Press
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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.