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Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams

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Herein represents the transition from the positional situations with clear futures to the ones with cloudy forecasts. Half of Notre Dame’s special teams, both in positions and in broad task, fared well this season. The other half can best be described as lackluster.

Naturally, the former half — the kickers and punter and their subsequent coverage units — were set entering the season and continue to be that way. The returners and their blockers, however, left an abundance of opportunities unfulfilled and room for future improvement.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
The Irish kicking games have been known commodities for some time now. Junior placekicker Justin Yoon, when healthy, has been reliable throughout his career, now the field goal percentage leader in Notre Dame history. Senior punter Tyler Newsome has been consistent, if nothing else.

Freshman Jonathan Doerer was recruited with the specific intention of handling kickoff duties to reduce Yoon’s workload, but preseason practice wore him out a bit, leading Irish coach Brian Kelly to say before the season even started Yoon would have to begin the year kicking off. Kelly expressed anticipation that would not be the case all season.

Juniors C.J. Sanders and Chris Finke were set to handle kickoff and punt returns, respectively, with another year to grow into those roles. At least, in theory.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
Yoon and Newsome were about as was expected, and both will be back in 2018. Doerer’s beginning at Boston College was shaky, but by season’s end, he was kicking off without a hitch.

Sanders spent 2017 as an operating definition of “Horseshoes, hand grenades and drive-in movies.” Every time he came close to breaking loose on a kickoff, he would be one blocker or one shredded tackle away from actually doing so. Close may be good for a few extra yards, but it does not result in the explosive plays Notre Dame counts on Sanders to provide.

This leap over the Stanford punter was only a part of Notre Dame junior Chris Finke’s best punt return of the season,  going 41 yards to the Cardinal 19-yard line. Alas, the Irish offense wasted away the golden opportunity. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Finke, meanwhile, got close a total of once all season, in the season’s finale. A week earlier showcased his greatest mistake of the season, quite literally handing the ball to Navy. Aside from that gaffe, Finke’s brazenness was largely harmless, though also lacking effect aside from contributing stress to any Irish fan’s heart.

In both Sanders’ and Finke’s defense, their blocking units hardly held their own. Sanders made the most of the lanes available, but it may as well have been league night at the local alley, and rare was the moment Finke had more than two yards of green grass or turf in front of him upon gathering a punt.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING
Yoon entered the year 28-of-34 on field goals in his career, good for 82.4 percent. If willing to exclude his opening weekend jitters and their resulting 0-of-2 performance, he went 12-of-14 in the other 11 games, 85.7 percent, including 2-of-2 to keep the Irish in it at Stanford.

Yoon also sent 15-of-51 kickoffs to the end zone for touchbacks, or 29.4 percent. Doerer managed only 25 percent, 7-of-28, but that includes his sloppy debut, going 0-of-3 with one sent out of bounds at Boston College. He was significantly better at home than on the road, launching 6-of-18 kickoffs for touchbacks at Notre Dame Stadium while managing only 1-of-10 on the road. Perhaps this is not a dynamic of the game where the atmosphere is expected to have an effect, but with a freshman, it seems plausible.

Sanders returned 28 kicks for 633 yards, a 22.61 average. Just five of those 28 went for more than 30 yards, highlighted by a 52-yarder against Wake Forest. Removing that handful drops Sanders’ average to a dismal 19.26 yards per return.

Finke returned 24 punts for 156 yards, an average of 6.50 yards, with a 41-yard long at Stanford. He managed just one other return for more than 20 yards, a 23-yarder at North Carolina. Removing those two moments of spark brings Finke’s average down to a paltry 4.18 yards per punt return.

COMING QUESTIONS
With Newsome, Yoon and Doerer all expected back next year, the kicking game holds no questions.

The return aspect of special teams coordinator Brian Polian’s job, however, needs work. Per Kelly during the week of the season finale, the result could have been worse.

“It’s probably fair to say that we’ve been fair to middling,” Kelly said. “We haven’t been bad, and we haven’t been great.

“Sometimes to be great, you’ve got to have one great game breaker. You’ve got to have somebody that changes the game, and I don’t know that we have that guy right now.”

One can be excused for wondering what Sanders thought when he heard that line and if it played a role in him being loose with the ball, desperately trying to make something happen, the following weekend.

That aside, the question stands out: If the Irish do not have “one great game breaker” right now, who is it going to be moving forward? None of the freshmen who preserved years of eligibility jump to mind as distinct possibilities. Freshman receiver Michael Young never got a shot at it, and he does have a certain degree of the wanted speed/shiftiness combination.

Junior running back Dexter Williams may seem like a fix to the kick and punt return woes, but his skill set fits better exactly where it is, at least when Williams is healthy. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Some will immediately jump to yell for junior running back Dexter Williams. That would be misguided. Williams’ gift comes in acceleration more than raw speed, though he does have a healthy serving of the latter. On a kickoff return, it is raw speed that changes things. On a punt, it is shiftiness.

Others will stump for sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. Missing the first month of the 2017 season likely removed him as an option this season, but future thought may be needed, although asking your best playmaker and leading receiver to take on a dozen extra chances each week may become taxing.

Not to be too speculative, but some of this sounds like the job for a young playmaker looking to make an imprint before even getting a chance on offense. Theoretically, it could be someone with top-end speed, even track-type speed. Perhaps a receiver once committed to Notre Dame who is now back on the open recruiting market …

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Backs

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Notre Dame’s secondary presents one position of such strength it is continually pondered if raiding that depth could salvage the near-vacuum in the other half of the Irish defensive backfield. That was true before the season, and it remains the case now.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
A bounty of cornerbacks, led by sophomore Julian Love, provided some sense of comfort in the Irish defense’s back line. A finally-healthy junior Shaun Crawford could finally contribute as a nickelback, and senior Nick Watkins, largely thanks to his length, established himself as a starter during spring practice.

That marked three bona fide starters before even acknowledging the depth provided by sophomores Donte Vaughn and Troy Pride.

Then there were the safeties. Such confidence in the depth chart did not exist in the spring or at any point of the preseason. Junior Nick Coleman secured one safety spot in the spring, while sophomores Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill failed to separate from each other in the competition to line up alongside Coleman. To be clear, that was not a credit to both showing such great abilities.

When the NCAA denied sophomore Alohi Gilman’s waiver for immediate eligibility following his transfer from Navy, Elliott became the de facto starter.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
On paper, Love’s season was essentially unparalleled. He returned two interceptions for touchdowns and nearly managed a third. Rare can a coaching staff genuinely and reasonably discuss moving a position’s best player, but Love very well may be the best Irish safety, as well. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has admitted as much as a distinct possibility.

Junior cornerback Shaun Crawford did quite a bit of everything for Notre Dame in his first healthy season. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

For now, though, Love remains at cornerback. Crawford complemented him excellently in a playmaking sense, forcing his impact upon the game even more than could have been anticipated, though it is logical to think finally seeing a season’s worth of action tired his legs by the end.

Watkins, meanwhile, put together a strong season until knee tendonitis limited him — and created an opportunity for Pride to prematurely insert himself into 2018’s conversations — in November. In the moment, Watkins seemed a weakness against Miami (OH) when RedHawks junior receiver James Gardner caught two touchdowns over Watkins. With time diminishing overreactions, Gardner’s success seems a credit to him (and his 6-foot-4 frame) more than a knock on Watkins.

For that matter, it may not have been a knock on Watkins at all. Let’s pull from the respective “Things We Learned”As much as one may want to see Watkins break each of those passes up, it could also be wondered why there was not a safety helping on the occasion. That latter position remains the biggest Irish concern, offensive or defensive.

That concern remains pressing. Coleman played alright, but did not necessarily excel. Any continuing debate between Elliott and Studstill persists yet out of lack of a strong impression. The rest of the Irish defense’s surge limited the dramatic effect of the positional need, but it cannot be denied, nonetheless.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING
Opponents passed more often against Notre Dame this season than they did a year ago. It makes sense; the Irish led more often and for much of the year, led by large margins. Thus, the averages offer a better comparison between the autumns as a rough estimate of passing efficiency.

2016: 2,357 yards allowed on 193-of-313 passing; 61.66 percent completion rate; 7.53 yards per attempt; 12.21 yards per completion.
2017: 2,562 yards allowed on 233-of-412 passing; 56.55 percent completion rate; 6.22 yards per attempt; 11.00 yards per completion.

So. Julian Love — 62 tackles; three interceptions; 17 pass breakups.
Jr. Nick Coleman — 42 tackles; three pass breakups.
So. Jalen Elliott — 38 tackles; one pass breakup.
Jr. Shaun Crawford — 32 tackles; two interceptions, five pass breakups; two fumbles recovered; one fumble forced.
Sr. Nick Watkins — 27 tackles; one interception; eight pass breakups.
So. Troy Pride — 22 tackles; one interception; two pass breakups.
So. Devin Studstill — 16 tackles.
Fr. Isaiah Robertson — Eight tackles.
So. Donte Vaughn — Six tackles.

COMING QUESTIONS
Earning a nod as defensive scout team player of the year should speak to Gilman’s potential impact in 2018. By all indications, he was the best safety on the roster in 2017 with the arguable exception of Love. Will Gilman live up to this billing?

As it pertains to Love, the coaching staff should move him to safety only if the gap between him and the otherwise starter there is greater than the gap between Love and the next man up at cornerback, presumably Pride. (In this respect, compare it to senior Alex Bars lining up at right guard this season rather than right tackle, his previous position. He was the best option at right tackle, but the drop from Bars to sophomore Tommy Kraemer and freshman Robert Hainsey was minimal. The talent discrepancy between Bars and any other right guard option would have been much more drastic.) Is it in defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s best interests to keep Love at cornerback or move the excellent defender to safety?

If it is not Love who provides a minimum of depth at safety, it could be a recruit. Consensus four-star Houston Griffith comes to mind not only due to his commitment this week, but also because he fits right into Notre Dame’s needs.

A similar thought applies to current freshman Isaiah Robertson. He saw special teams action this season. A full year readying in a college system could have him poised to contribute, be it in support of Coleman or in place of him.

OUTSIDE READING
ND Insider’s Eric Hansen put together a worthwhile read on Gilman following last week’s program awards: Full speed ahead? There’s no happy medium for Notre Dame safety Alohi Gilman

INSIDE THE IRISH READING
Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends
Where Notre Dame was & is: Running Backs

Notre Dame beats Michigan for three-star TE Tommy Tremble

rivals.com
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One of Notre Dame’s deepest positions got even stronger with the Thursday morning commitment of rivals.com three-star tight end Tommy Tremble (Wesleyan High School; Norcross, Ga.). The No. 18 tight end in the class, per rivals.com, Tremble’s decision essentially came down to the Irish or Michigan.

A Wednesday night visit from Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, offensive coordinator Chip Long and running backs coach Autry Denson may have played a part in tipping the scales, though Tremble told Blue & Gold Illustrated he had been leaning toward the Irish since his official visit in October.

“There’s not many tight ends in the country that can do the kind of things that I can do,” Tremble said, then referencing Long’s view of the position in his system. “[Long] said with that in this type of offensive scheme it could be explosive.

“I’m going to be the hardest working at the entire college at anything. At everything too, not just football. I’m just going to make it work.”

In his first season at Notre Dame, Long showed his predilection for using multiple tight ends at a time, often pairing fifth-year senior Durham Smythe with junior Alizé Mack. Smythe would act as an additional offensive lineman who could slip out for a route while Mack’s duties were more akin to a receiver’s as often as not. Smythe finished his best collegiate season with 13 catches for 234 yards and a touchdown while Mack added 19 catches for 166 yards and a score. Current senior and returning fifth-year Nic Weishar chipped in seven catches for 39 yards and two touchdowns.

With two tight ends in this class now — Tremble joins consensus four-star George Takacs (Gulf Coast H.S.; Naples, Fla.) — Long should be able to continue with such as often as he wants. In 2017 he showed no caution in deploying freshmen Brock Wright and Cole Kmet occasionally. Presumably, Tremble and Takacs could see similar workloads from the outset.

The No. 52 overall player in Georgia, Tremble also held offers from Georgia, Auburn and UCLA, among others. He is the 20th commitment in the class with the early signing period commencing Wednesday.

Last week, Weishar declared his intention to return for a fifth year.

Notre Dame lands four-star former FSU commit, Houston Griffith, at safety

rivals.com
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If its defensive backfield was a concern this recruiting cycle, Notre Dame is putting together a strong finish to the class of 2018 to eradicate those worries. Consensus four-star Houston Griffith (IMG Academy; Bradenton, Fla.) became the second defensive back to commit to the Irish this week with his Tuesday evening declaration and the fifth of Notre Dame’s 19 (and counting) expected signees.

Griffith immediately becomes the most highly-rated commit in the Irish class. Rivals.com considers him the No. 3 safety in the class, the No. 9 player in Florida and the No. 35 overall prospect in the country. He had long been a Notre Dame target but initially committed to Florida State, partly due to the Irish struggles a year ago.

After Notre Dame showed much improvement this season — more specifically, its defensive shift — Griffith reopened his recruitment in late November.

“The changes that [Irish coach Brian Kelly] made really helped,” Griffith told Blue & Gold Illustrated. “The guys I know up there tell me it’s a different program, it’s a different team up there. Last season was a learning year and this year shows that they are starting to get all the pieces.”

Griffith has certainly bought in on the direction trending from 2016 to 2017.

“I feel like the next few years all the pieces are there to compete for a national championship.”

In addition to the Seminoles, Griffith held scholarship offers from the vast majority of college football’s powers, including Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State and USC.

He presents as a safety and seems to have been targeted as one, but he could also see early time at cornerback. In theory, a freshman may have a better chance of grasping that latter position. Then again, Notre Dame has a few established playmakers at cornerback; it very much does not have that luxury at safety.

At either position, Griffith and his fellow defensive back commits should shore up a position grouping that the Irish essentially whiffed on in 2017, when only two safeties were signed (Isaiah Robertson and Jordan Genmark-Heath) with no cornerbacks in the mix. Griffith is the third safety in the class of 2018, joining consensus four-star Derrik Allen (Lassiter H.S.; Marietta, Ga.) and consensus three-star Paul Moala (Penn; Mishawaka, Ind.).

All three, as well as the two cornerback commits and the other 14 prospects, are intended to sign with Notre Dame during this year’s early signing period, Dec. 20-22.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Running Backs

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Notre Dame’s running game stood little chance of exceeding expectations this season, considering how ambitious they were to start. This space’s preseason predictions, intended as a conservative and realistic harbinger of the months then-ahead, projected junior running back Josh Adams to gain 1,174 to 1,274 rushing yards this season. That upper limit would have placed Adams fourth in Irish program history, just ahead of his position coach’s 1,268 yards gained in 1997.

With a game to go, Adams stands only 51 yards of breaking Vagas Ferguson’s single-season record of 1,437 rushing yards, set back in 1979.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
In addition to the anticipation regarding Adams’ third season as a contributor, the Notre Dame backfield had depth entering the season. Junior Dexter Williams could provide a speed threat while sophomore Tony Jones built on springtime buzz as a do-everything option, often described as the best receiver of the group.

Early-enrolled freshman C.J. Holmes’ shoulder injury in spring practice seemingly sidelined him for the season, opening the door for sophomore Deon McIntosh to move from receiver to the backfield as a rest-granting fourth-stringer.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
As good as the season was for the Irish on the ground, it will be marked by “What if” thoughts as much as anything else. What if Adams had not worn down as the season progressed? What if Williams had been healthy for more than a week or two in the season’s first two months?

Even with his figurative crawl to the season’s conclusion, Adams surpassed all preseason projections and expectations. It still must be noted he gained only 195 yards on 54 carries in the final three regular season games, a 3.61 average.

Williams, meanwhile, was limited throughout the year. At the beginning, specifically against Georgia, that appeared to be by coaching decisions, but for most of the season, ankle and quad ailments robbed the speedster of his primary quality.

Absolutely no one expected sophomore Deon McIntosh to be the second-leading rusher among Notre Dame’s running backs in 2017. Credit to McIntosh, though, for making the most of an opportunity granted by others’ injuries.(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Jones, when healthy, provided a schematic shift as much as any statistical production. Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long clearly preferred Jones to be half of any two-back formation, due to Jones’ overall aptness.

McIntosh capitalized on every chance granted him, providing fourth-quarter rest to those limping from sprained ankles whenever the Irish had a worthwhile lead.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING
Some of a statistical influx in rushing production should be credited to junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush, but the ground game as a whole was more successful in 2017 than it was a year ago no matter how the numbers are dissected.

2016: 2,123 yards on 410 carries (sacks adjusted); 176.9 yards per game and 5.18 yards per rush.
2017: 3,462 yards on 501 carries (sacks adjusted); 288.5 yards per game and 6.91 yards per rush.

— Jr. Josh Adams: 1,386 yards on 191 carries; nine touchdowns; 7.3 yards per rush; 10 catches for 82 yards.
— So. Deon McIntosh: 368 yards on 65 carries; five touchdowns; 5.7 yards per rush; three catches for eight yards.
— Jr. Dexter Williams: 324 yards on 37 carries; four touchdowns; 8.8 yards per rush; two catches for 13 yards.
— So. Tony Jones: 232 yards on 43 carries; three touchdowns; 5.4 yards per rush; four catches for 13 yards.
— Fr. C.J. Holmes: 32 yards on eight carries; 4.0 yards per rush.

COMING QUESTIONS
Will Adams stay for his senior year and further his assault on the Notre Dame record books or will he head to the NFL Draft with a year of collegiate eligibility remaining? He very much should take the latter option. Running backs’ careers are not long due to the very nature of the position. For the second year in a row, that wear and tear proved itself on Adams. There is little chance he could put together an even better season in 2018.

Thus, this is his chance to go in the Draft’s first couple rounds. By every reasoning, Adams should take this opportunity.

When utilized, junior running back Dexter Williams has proven to be a viable threat for Notre Dame. He has not always been incorporated into the game plan, though, partly due to classmate Josh Adams’ rampant success. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

At that point, will Long be able to incorporate Williams into the two-back set? Those multiple running back formations were some of the most productive looks for the Irish offense, and they almost entirely came with Jones joining Adams. Between pass-catching and pass-blocking, Williams lagged behind those two significantly. For the threats presented in a two-back alignment to be real, though, he will need to broaden his skillset appropriately.

If Williams doesn’t, could a healthy Holmes plug into the system? As much praise as McIntosh received, and earned, this season, he will never be the answer in the Notre Dame backfield. Holmes may be.

With Wimbush again the presumed starter in 2018, the ground game will be featured for another fall. The offensive line is (almost certainly) losing two first-round Draft picks, but it has enough experience to hold its own moving forward. Which back emerges as the workhorse if Adams turns pro could be the biggest offensive question all spring and summer. Williams may present the most big-play potential, but Jones has already shown greater consistency overall.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends