Things To Learn: On Notre Dame injuries, crowd noise and close games

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No. 3 Notre Dame will have its star pair of juniors in the backfield Saturday night at No. 7 Miami, and both are apparently healthy. Irish coach Brian Kelly expressed little concern for quarterback Brandon Wimbush or running back Josh Adams on Thursday.

Wimbush showed “no ill effects” from the massive hit his left hand took just before halftime in last week’s 48-37 victory over Wake Forest. Kelly said the swelling is down and Wimbush may wear a padded glove on his non-throwing hand to protect it.

That is all well and good, but if Wimbush’s hand is at all a hindrance, ball security could become an issue, especially going against a Hurricanes defense that has forced 12 fumbles in eight games, recovering seven of them. Obviously, limiting Wimbush to the pocket to avoid such concerns would neuter the Notre Dame rushing attack of its most problem-causing threat.

Wimbush’s option to run at any point forces the greatest defensive adjustments and plays a key role in Adams’ success. The latter being healthy and well-rested plays a key role, as well. After last weekend, that is now something to keep an eye on.

“I definitely learned from last week, which is a great thing about football,” the Heisman-hopeful said Wednesday. “You’re constantly learning and have to do better, so taking care of my body a little bit more and feeling good.”

Kelly said junior running back Dexter Williams is not 100 percent recovered from the quad contusion which hampered him last week on what would usually have been a breakaway touchdown, adding, “He can still definitely help us.”

Junior tight end Alizé Mack has been cleared from a concussion. Fifth-year receiver Cam Smith, however, will be out as he continues to work through a hamstring strain that necessitated a platelet-replacement procedure Wednesday.

Lastly, senior cornerback Nick Watkins will be “managing” knee tendonitis. If sophomore Troy Pride sees an abundance of playing time, presume that to be the reason.

Miami is flying high, as are its fans. Will Notre Dame struggle in a genuine road atmosphere?

Some may scoff at this as a possible factor Saturday night (8 p.m. ET, ABC), but with a first-year starter and a few other young starters in the mix, particularly both options at right tackle, the Hurricanes fans will have their opportunity to make an impact.

Yet another interception from Irish sophomore cornerback Julian Love could do wonders for mitigating Miami’s home crowd Saturday night. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

“There will be some nerves and they’ll have to settle into the game,” Kelly said. “They’ve been really good at, once they get into the game, they’ve settled in nicely.

“But there will be moments early on that they have to settle into it.”

The Irish avoided this particular challenge at Michigan State by getting out to a two-possession lead — partly thanks to the momentum-sealing interception returned for a touchdown by sophomore cornerback Julian Love — within the first five minutes of the game. Otherwise, that could have established a data point for this particular query. It also helped that the Spartans were not yet respected as a 2017 contender as they are now, having risen to No. 12 in the College Football Playoff selection committee rankings. That crowd had not yet bought in on its season.

Miami’s has, deservedly so.

On the flipside of the ball, was last week’s defensive performance really just due to distractions and malaise? Or did Notre Dame have something more concerning afoot?

The Hurricanes average 31.5 points and 461 yards per game. It is safe to expect them to find offensive success at some point Saturday night. Two recent Irish foes present similar profiles.

USC averages 35.2 points and 492.4 yards per game.
Wake Forest averages 31.9 points and 445 yards per game.

The former fell short of those averages at Notre Dame, scoring only 14 points and gaining 336 yards. The latter exceeded those averages at Notre Dame to the tune of 38 points and 587 yards. It is hard to believe only two weeks separated those performances.

Kelly continues to point to something of a defensive indifference allowing for the Demon Deacons to run wild in the game’s final third, and he continues to insist it is no longer an issue.

“They practiced the way that they had practiced leading up to last week,” he said. “Every week they had created a new line of scrimmage. Last week they did not create a new line of scrimmage in practice.”

Apparently defensive coordinator Mike Elko made it very clear what led to Saturday’s issues. Kelly said Elko found six plays from practice Wake Forest ran successfully in the game. In each of them, the lack of execution was foreseen in a lack of execution at practice.

Wake Forest hardly struggled against the Irish defense in last week’s second half. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

“It was easy to go back to how we prepared,” Kelly said. “He was great at showing our players that it’s in their preparation and they’ve prepared very well defensively this week.”

Perhaps, the lackluster performance a week ago will actually serve to aid the Irish this weekend.

“Whenever you have a bad performance, you always come back with a chip on your shoulder,” senior linebacker and captain Drue Tranquill said. “A lot of the guys after the game were ready to put the patch back on and go right back out there because we felt we let one go.”

To feel like you let one get away and still get a win is quite the treat on its own. To take that feeling and then channel it into a better showing a week later on the road against a top-10 opponent would make every point Wake Forest scored a worthwhile allowance to Notre Dame.

Can the Irish win a close game?

Let’s just present a series of facts.

— Notre Dame has not had to turn to Wimbush to lead a game-winning, last-minute drive in two months. That is not a bad thing. No coach in the world will begrudge blowing out each and every opponent.
— When Wimbush did get his chance against Georgia in the season’s second week, his first attempt sputtered and his second was cut short by an unblocked defensive end. He has never had a genuine chance to show the poise, command of the playbook and quick-thinking needed to win a collegiate game in its last minute.
— The last time the Irish prevailed in a one-possession game was also Miami’s last defeat, Oct. 29, 2016. Notre Dame won 30-27.
— Since then, the Irish have gone 0-3 in one-possession games.
— Before that victory, one has to trace back to Nov. 21, 2015, for such a win, 19-16 vs. Boston College at Fenway Park. Since then, Notre Dame has gone 1-7 in one-possession games.
— The last time the Irish beat a ranked foe in a tight game was Oct. 31, 2015, a 24-20 victory at No. 21 Temple, undefeated at 7-0 heading into that game including a win over Penn State.
— Miami has won four games by one-possession this season. Considering the Hurricanes remain undefeated, they have indeed not lost such a contest.

Miami and senior quarterback Malik Rosier have shown the ability to win tight football games. Notre Dame and Wimbush have not, though in no small part because they have simply not needed to.

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.

Notre Dame gains commitments of four-star defensive end and three-star offensive tackle

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At this rate, Notre Dame might fill its 2019 recruiting class by the time the school year ends. With a Sunday morning commitment of a consensus four-star defensive end followed by a Monday evening pledge from a consensus three-star offensive tackle, the Irish class has grown from three recruits to seven in just four days.

The No. 238 prospect in the country and No. 28 at defensive end, per rivals.com, Howard Cross III (St. Joseph High School; Montvale, N.J.) announced his commitment via Twitter shortly after leaving campus from a visit for the Blue-Gold Game, choosing the Irish over offers from Michigan, North Carolina State and Virginia Tech, among others.

“I could tell [current Notre Dame players] really loved the school,” Cross said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “It was really, really big to talk to them. When I was going to all the colleges, that was the main thing I wanted to do. I wanted to get the perspective of the players.”

Cross joins consensus four-star defensive end Hunter Spears (Sachse H.S.; Texas) as half of the four defensive linemen already in the Irish recruiting class. As always, no collegiate defensive line can be deep enough. Considering the previous two recruiting classes have yielded a total of two defensive ends — Kofi Wardlow and Justin Ademilola — opportunity should be aplenty for Cross and Spears early in their careers.

The defensive end duo will likely spend a not-insignificant portion of their collegiate career practices butting heads with Andrew Kristofic (Pine-Richland; Gibsonia, Pa.). If the high school of Pine-Richland jumps off the figurative page to Notre Dame recruitniks, that is because Kristofic has much experience protecting high school teammate and incoming Irish freshman quarterback Phil Jurkovec.

He chose Notre Dame, and new offensive line coach Jeff Quinn, rather than offers from a lengthy list including Clemson, Georgia and Ohio State.

“The combination that their school is able to provide being one of the very best schools in the entire country academically and one of the very athletically stands out,” Kristofic said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “I think they have the best combination of those two things on top of being a school that is known for being able to produce such great offensive linemen is something that no other schools really have the combination of all those.

“When you can put together all the things that they can there, it’s certainly not something you can overlook or take for granted.”

The beginning of this influx of commitments came with the Friday decision of consensus four-star offensive tackle John Olmstead (St. Joseph; Metuchen, N.J.), the only other offensive lineman in the class to this point. Of the seven recruits committed to the Irish, five are four-star talents.

Former Notre Dame defensive lineman, Kona Schwenke, dies at 25

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Former Notre Dame defensive lineman Kona Schwenke, 25, reportedly died in his sleep Sunday morning. The cause of death has not yet been confirmed.

Schwenke spent four seasons along the Irish defensive front, culminating in a 23-tackle senior season, in 2013. Attrition along the defensive line in his first two seasons forced Schwenke into playing time, costing him a likely fifth-year with much greater production. He played in 31 games total, making 30 tackles.

Part of a Hawaiian surge in Notre Dame recruiting, Schwenke joined the likes of receiver Robby Toma and linebacker Manti Te’o in coming from the island in 2009 and 2010. The first two committed during Charlie Weis’ tenure, but Schwenke made the leap at the very beginning of Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s career, one of the first recruits to commit to Kelly at Notre Dame. Since then, sophomore defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa has renewed the trend.

Schwenke graduated in 2014 with a degree in anthropology. He then signed with the practice squad of the Kansas City Chiefs, moving around four different NFL franchises chasing his dream. Earlier this month he took part in a scouting event, The Spring League, gaining some notice when he forced Heisman-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel into a fumble.

Former Irish teammates took to social media Sunday afternoon celebrating Schwenke’s life and friendship.