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CFP Contenders & Notre Dame’s Opponents: Oklahoma & Wisconsin loom

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For all the talk about 13 data points this time of year, only a few games on each schedule matter. The College Football Playoff selection committee focuses on those when putting together each week’s poll, the most-recent having been released Tuesday night with Notre Dame still at No. 3.

The Irish opened their season by beating Temple; No. 5 Oklahoma began with a 56-7 victory over UTEP. Neither much matters anymore. Notre Dame beat Miami (Ohio) 52-17; No. 4 Clemson hosts the Citadel in two weeks. The eyes naturally move past both games when looking at the schedules. The Irish outran Boston College 49-20; No. 6 TCU rolled past Kansas 43-0. Frankly, the Horned Frogs’ conference opponent remains one of the country’s weakest teams no matter affiliation.

Rather than dissect the various birds’ weekends, a look at the Sooners, the Tigers and TCU makes more sense. Thus, in order of pertinence, import and meaning, the weekly look at opponents pivots from the teams scheduled to the teams who may yet be scheduled for January. In November, that context becomes the more important determining factor, rather than the all-inclusive content of September and October.

Clemson (8-1): In not moving the Tigers past the Irish this week, the committee may have made it impossible to do so moving forward. Clemson’s résumé received a greater boost this weekend, beating now-No. 23 North Carolina State 38-31, despite not leading until the second half and needing a last-minute interception to seal the road victory. Close as it was, the win means more than Notre Dame’s 48-37 topping of Wake Forest.

Yet, the Tigers remain a step back. Even if the best Irish opponents fall apart, diminishing the value of those wins, they may already be worth enough to keep Notre Dame staked ahead of Clemson. The biggest boost the Tigers can get from their past would be No. 10 Auburn beating the top-two teams a total of three times. The Irish would welcome that unlikely scenario, as it would greatly diminish two claims to top spots, even if that meant Clemson jumped to No. 1.

The Tigers still host Florida State (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) and the Citadel, have a trip to face South Carolina and meet a yet-to-be-determined foe in the ACC title game. That schedule will not elevate Clemson more than will Notre Dame’s remaining games, including a trip to that likely ACC title game challenger, No. 7 Miami.

Oklahoma (8-1): The Sooners, however, could still jump both the Irish and the Tigers. A 62-52 win over now-No. 15 Oklahoma State was not enough to push Oklahoma into the top-four, but three more games against top-25 opponents, including two against No. 8 TCU, could do it. Neither Notre Dame nor Clemson face as many remaining challenges.

This is not saying the Sooners’ overall résumé is better than either of the two ahead of it. This is saying if the committee already sees it as close, there is enough yet to come to move it ahead in those eyes. Those opinions are, after all, the only ones that matter.

That slate begins this weekend vs. TCU (8 p.m. ET, FOX) with Oklahoma favored by a touchdown. A combined point total over/under of 62.5 posits the Sooners as 34-28 victors and more pressure on the committee to consider moving Oklahoma and Heisman-frontrunner quarterback Baker Mayfield into the Playoff field.

TCU (8-1): Frankly, the next entry on this list is more pertinent, but having the Horned Frogs follow their upcoming opponent makes organizational sense.

TCU has little-to-no chance of jumping Notre Dame. This past weekend’s 24-7 victory against Texas didn’t much help the cause. Sure, the Horned Frogs still have up-to-two top-10 games remaining, but the Irish have one themselves. If TCU wins both this weekend and in the Big 12 title game down the line, that will not likely be enough to make up for a lackluster schedule thus far.

Oklahoma differentiated itself from the rest of the Big 12 with its win at Ohio State in September.

But what about undefeated Wisconsin at No. 8? The 9-0 Badgers could finish 13-0 with only one win of value. Even with Iowa vaulting itself into the top-25 this week thanks to a blowout of the Buckeyes, Wisconsin beating the No. 20 Hawkeyes on Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC) will not impress much. And yes, presume that will happen. The Badgers are favored by 12 with an over/under of 46, a theoretical 29-17 final.

It is hard to fault Jonathan Taylor and Wisconsin for winning all their games in a major conference. (Getty Images)

The question Notre Dame must wonder: Will an undefeated Power Five conference champion really not make the Playoff? If both Oklahoma and Wisconsin win out, this answer will matter a great deal.

This space does not know this answer, but it will also not fault a team for winning every game on its schedule.

The question may not matter, but it is the question at hand.

Because no one else in the Big Ten can make a claim. Ohio State fell to No. 13 after the Hawkeyes raced to a 55-24 victory. Quarterback J.T. Barrett dashed his Heisman hopes with four interceptions. Meanwhile, Penn State dropped to No. 14 thanks to a 27-24 loss at Michigan State, boosting the Spartans to No. 12. This did the Irish two favors: It removed a CFP contender from the conversation and it made September’s win at Michigan State that much more impressive.

Then comes the SEC: No. 1 Georgia, No. 2 Alabama and the aforementioned No. 10 Auburn: If Georgia (9-0) and Alabama (9-0) keep winning until they meet in the SEC title game, presume both are in, no matter what Wisconsin worries may exist for others. Both face tests this weekend, though.

The Bulldogs are favored by 2.5 at Auburn, a 25-22 possibility on the horizon (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS). The Tide, meanwhile, heads to No. 16 Mississippi State expecting to cruise to a two-touchdown triumph (7 p.m. ET, ESPN).

If either is upset, that alone will not end Playoff plans, but it would create for a lot more hypotheticals to be bantered about. Let’s cross that bridge if/when we get to it.

For thoroughness’ sake, No. 9 Washington (8-1): The Huskies need some sort of chaos ahead of them to expect a bid. For now, a 38-3 win vs. Oregon didn’t hurt, and neither would a 28-22 notch Friday night at Stanford (10:30 p.m. ET, FS1). Then again, Pac-12 road teams have fared terribly on Friday nights this season.


That covers Georgia, Michigan State and Miami — oh, right, Miami came in at No. 7 in the new poll thanks to its 28-10 victory over now-No. 17 Virginia Tech — and there was a mention of North Carolina State (now heading to Boston College for a 12 p.m. ET kickoff on either ESPN2 or ABC depending on your region) and Stanford (fell out of the poll thanks to a 24-21 defeat to now-No. 19 Washington State). That leaves one more of Notre Dame’s impactful opponents to be mentioned.

USC limited Khalil Tate to only 161 rushing yards and three total touchdowns. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)

USC (8-2) rose to No. 11 in the poll, making the Trojans the second-ranked two-loss team, behind Auburn. A 49-35 win vs. Arizona might not have been expected to provide such a jump in the standings, but the committee clearly respects what the Wildcats have done since inserting sensation Khalil Tate at quarterback. USC, just like Georgia, Michigan State and Miami, still controls its own path to its conference title game. That path should not struggle with this weekend’s obstacle, a trip to Colorado (4 p.m. ET, FOX). Favored by nearly two touchdowns with an over/under of 63.5 would make for a 38-25 Trojan victory.

As for the rest of the Irish schedule:

Temple (4-5): The Owls won 34-26 against Navy on Thursday, and now head to Cincinnati for a Friday-night matchup (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2). Favored by 2.5 with an over/under of 47.5 creates a 25-22 distraction while you ready for a night on the town.

Boston College (5-4): The Eagles come off a bye with the aforementioned date with the Wolfpack as only three-point underdogs. There could be value there, now that North Carolina State’s ACC hopes were dashed by Clemson. Perhaps the Wolfpack will struggle and fall on the wrong side of a 28-25 result.

Miami (OH) (4-6): The RedHawks beat Akron 24-14 on Tuesday night, now readying for a meeting with Eastern Michigan next Wednesday. MACtion, it is the opiate of the midweek miserable.

North Carolina (1-8): The Tar Heels head to Pittsburgh on Thursday (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) having had nearly two weeks to prepare in hopes of overcoming a 9.5-point spread in the Panthers favor. A 29-22 score is not a normal football score, and expecting North Carolina to keep it that close might be unreasonable.

Wake Forest (5-4): Can the Deacons secure bowl eligibility at Syracuse? The 3 p.m. ET kickoff, not nationally-televised, has no favorite, only an over/under of 63. A 32-31 nail-biter never hurt anyone.

Navy (5-3): After that loss to Temple, Navy seeks bowl eligibility vs. SMU (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network), despite being 4.5-point underdogs. SMU has snuck up on the general public this year, and just may do that to the Midshipmen, as well.

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