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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

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.