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And In That Corner … The Wake Forest Demon Deacons and a very familiar defense

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In the offseason, Wake Forest visiting Notre Dame seemed nothing but a ho-hum November afternoon. Now the game has taken on unexpected importance, with the Irish risking Playoff-contention each and every week. Yet, the Demon Deacons remain largely an unknown in these parts.

To help educate, “Inside the Irish” turned to Conor O’Neill of the Winstom-Salem Journal.

DF: Conor, I appreciate you taking the time to educate some Notre Dame fans. Wake Forest’s season somewhat reminds me of Boston College’s, even though the Deacons cruised past the Eagles 34-10 in week two. Wake Frest notched some wins against a few non-descript opponents before enduring close losses both against Florida State (26-19) and at Clemson (28-14). Then the Deacons finally broke through last week, notching a 42-32 win over Louisville. Was there some version of frustration building around the program before topping the Cardinals?

CO: There was some frustration for Wake Forest in the aftermath of the Florida State and Georgia Tech losses because the Deacons felt like they were positioned to win those games, only to have brief lapses cost them marquee wins. Playing from ahead for the entirety of the Louisville game was a huge step in the right direction and a confidence-booster for them.

How much momentum does that win give Wake Forest? I could envision it being a lot, but I could also understand if it was hardly any, just because Notre Dame awaits so quickly to possibly stem any growing confidence.

Along the same lines, getting a win against Louisville lifts Wake Forest’s confidence level. They are still one of the three teams that has been atop the Atlantic Division in the past three seasons, along with Clemson and Florida State, and the Deacons, along with N.C. State, Syracuse and BC, have to beat those teams to overthrow the established hierarchy of the division. Taking a 5-3 record to South Bend is a much better position than 4-4, and even a possible loss means taking a 5-4 record to Syracuse next weekend, as opposed to a possible 4-5 record after a 4-0 start.

If you’ll allow a quick tangent to chime in on an ongoing debate … You have taken better looks at Florida State and Louisville then anyone around here has. Are their struggles this season more a sign of the ACC’s top-to-bottom strength or are they simply bad teams?

I’ll say this: If you put Florida State’s defense, or maybe even just safety Derwin James, cornerback Tarvarus McFadden and tackle Derrick Nnadi, on Louisville, they might have one loss. FSU’s defense is the most talented unit I’ve seen outside of Clemson’s defense this season. They’re just missing their quarterback and most of their offensive line. Louisville’s defense is terrible and Lamar Jackson’s surrounding cast is OK, but Jackson is good enough to beat teams by himself. I think the ACC really is a deep league — not as strong at the top as the past couple of years, but just as deep, if not deeper.

John Wolford leads the Deacons offense, finally getting protection for the first time in his career. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

Thanks for that. Back to the matter at hand. Senior quarterback John Wolford leads Wake Forest and he does so quite efficiently, completing 65.7 percent of his passes and throwing 15 touchdowns compared to only two interceptions. What makes him so, well, so effective?

Wolford really hasn’t improved much from year-to-year, it’s just that for the first time in his career he has protection and receivers who can get open. He was sacked 103 times in his first three seasons — he’s been sacked 13 times this year, and that number might get dropped to 12 because of a technical issue from last week’s game. Wolford has always had a strong arm, he’s tough as nails and is fiercely competitive. Now he’s reaping the rewards of a developing program.

If discussing the Deacons passing game, here is where we probably pour some out for sophomore receiver Greg Dortch. For those who don’t know, Dortch led Wake Forest with 53 catches for 722 yards and nine touchdowns before suffering a season-ending injury this week. Before we get to the ramifications of that, do you care to describe his Saturday against Louisville? Most around here undoubtedly missed it, but I get the sense it still deserves some appreciation and recognition.

Notre Dame should count its blessings it will not need to attempt to check Wake Forest sophomore receiver Greg Dortch. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

Greg Dortch was a huge part of Wolford’s success and Saturday was obviously his best game of a stellar season. They got him the ball in space on screens and he’s got the shiftiness to make moves in small windows. He did that and also burned a safety in one-on-one coverage for his third touchdown. He had a fifth touchdown, a 30-yarder on a screen in which he bounced off two Louisville tacklers without hitting the ground, negated because he fumbled through the end zone reaching for the pylon.

Now without Dortch, what viable options can Wolford turn to? How much will losing the 5-foot-9 speedster diminish the Deacons’ passing attack?

Wake Forest turns to Tabari Hines, who has started in the slot for the past two seasons and was the starter for the first two games this year. He had a minor shoulder injury which allowed Dortch more plays in the second and third games of the season, and Dortch capitalized. Now it’s a matter of whether Hines can step back into that role. It’ll also be a measure of senior tight end Cam Serigne entering the passing attack more often. He was able to be used as a blocker more often because of Dortch’s emergence, so he’ll likely be used more as a receiver — as was the case in his freshman and sophomore seasons.

Let’s turn to the defense. Obviously, Notre Dame hired away defensive coordinator Mike Elko. He has been a fundamental and foundational part of the Irish turnaround this season. Is there any feeling at Wake Forest of playing to beat him this weekend? Perhaps it isn’t revenge or even payback, but some less drastic version of those sentiments?

There are not hard feelings for Mike Elko here, at least none that I can tell. He was given a great opportunity and has seemingly seized it from the start. Clawson said he and Elko have texted good luck, good game-type sentiments pretty much every week this season (but that that would stop this week).

How much of Elko’s defensive designs remain there? Did Jay Sawvel, formerly of Minnesota, change most of the concepts?

Sawvel hasn’t changed much, it’s still a 4-2-5 with a “rover” position that’s a hybrid safety-linebacker. The difference is that Elko is more of a tactician, in kind of the same light we see offensive coordinators, whereas Sawvel is more of a hands-on coach. Sawvel works directly with the cornerbacks, and sophomore corners Amari Henderson and Essang Bassey have both taken large strides after coming into the season as really the only question marks of the defense.

Senior defensive end Duke Ejiofor leads Wake Forest’s defense with 6.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss this season. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

Sawvel’s defense has given up 183.8 rushing yards per game. Are there legitimate hopes of shutting down Notre Dame’s rather impressive running game?

I wouldn’t use the term “shut down” for what Wake Forest hopes to do against Notre Dame’s rushing attack, but at least slow down. That average is a bit misleading, as the Deacons’ run defense has largely been feast-or-famine. They lead the country with 9.3 tackles for loss per game, but have also been susceptible to giving up big runs. Oftentimes, that happens when their linebackers and safeties fail to fill holes.

Sticking with the coaches, this is head coach Dave Clawson’s fourth season at Wake Forest. He followed two 3-9 campaigns with a 7-6 finish last year. At 5-3 now, the Deacons have at least two more eminently-winnable games remaining to get bowl eligible. What is Clawson’s long-term view? He should still be at Wake Forest in 2018, right?

Barring something crazy like five straight wins to end the season, Clawson certainly should be at Wake Forest next year. He’s maintained he’s building a program and he enjoys coaching and being around the type of players Wake Forest recruits, and he repeatedly praises his working relationship with athletics director Ron Wellman. Wake Forest only starts seven seniors this season, so while some of those are key players (Wolford, Ejiofor, Serigne, both linebackers), next season lines up as one that could see the Deacons make a jump into the eight- or nine-win category.

Personally, I expected the Irish to be favored by much more than two touchdowns, but the spread opened at only 13, and I have seen it thus far rise to 13.5. Perhaps I am putting too much value on beating two top-15 opponents by a combined 56 points in two weeks. Including a possible score prediction, what do you expect to unfold come Saturday?

I think Wake Forest stood a much better chance in this game until the 36 hours after the Louisville win, in which we learned Dortch would be out for the season and safety Jessie Bates III (team-best 64 tackles) and starting running back Cade Carney wouldn’t play this weekend. Those are three players tough to replace. I think Notre Dame wins 30-10.

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