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Friday at 4: What a defensive difference two weeks makes

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The college football offseason is approximately 33 weeks long, from the national championship game to Labor Day Weekend. Obviously, for 127 teams each year, that stretch is at least one week longer.

It is vital to remember how interminably it lasts when overreacting to each and every personnel development. Consider just two weeks ago, the sky seemed to be falling in on Notre Dame’s defense. Coordinator Mike Elko had left for the same position at Texas A&M. The odds were, at least, 50/50 he would take linebackers coach Clark Lea with him. Junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery had not yet declared for the NFL draft, but the coaching change made both departures appear more likely.

The news cycle moved so quickly, this weekly spot published 12 hours early so as not to risk a development usurping the intended premise.

Now, that defense returns 10 starters and stability in coaching. Its reserves show such promise, those 10 will not all start against Michigan on Sept. 1. The only position group with depth concerns is also the one bringing in four highly-touted linebackers as freshmen.

What a difference two weeks makes.

That “Friday at 4 a.m.” included quick mention of the concern regarding Coney and Tillery.

“Like Tillery, [Coney] is considering heading to the NFL. If he does so specifically because of Elko’s exit, that may be the costliest result of this coaching carousel for the Irish.”

Just a week ago, it was possible, even likely, only defensive end Jay Hayes (93) would return from this trio, but defensive tackles Jonathan Bonner (left) and Jerry Tillery (99) burgeoned the Irish interior depth by returning for one more season at Notre Dame. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

It is unlikely Coney and Tillery both returned only because head coach Brian Kelly promoted Lea to defensive coordinator and retained Mike Elston as defensive line coach. What matters is they did. It is also unlikely any of those factors were the deciding aspect for senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner opting to reverse course and enjoy a fifth year at Notre Dame. What matters is Bonner did.

With those luxuries, Lea will have eight players who started all 13 games this season to steer his way as a first-time coordinator. He will also have current senior cornerback Nick Watkins and sophomore Troy Pride, who combined for 13 starts as Pride filled in for an injured Watkins in the final month, and Coney, who technically started only seven games, though he split time with graduating senior Greer Martini all season.

That makes 10 veritable returning starters. If nothing else, sophomore safety Alohi Gilman will force his way into that mix now that he’s eligible following his transfer from Navy.

Compare those 10 to the recent past. Heading into 2017, the Irish returned two 12-game starters, Nyles Morgan and Drue Tranquill. Seven total returning defenders had started at least seven games in the dismal 2016 season.

Speaking of that 4-8 debacle, Notre Dame started that year with even less experience. Cornerback Cole Luke had started 13 games in the Fiesta Bowl-concluding 2015 campaign; defensive end Isaac Rochell claimed 12. After them, linebacker James Onwualu had started nine games and defensive tackle Daniel Cage had notched seven. That was it for playing time worth acknowledging.

Starts are somewhat arbitrary, though, as perhaps best illustrated by Coney technically having only seven to his name despite finishing as the defense’s leading tackler this season.

How vital were his, Tillery’s and Bonner’s return to Lea’s future? With the three of them, 10 of the leading 12 tacklers will be back in 2018. Looking backward once more, the Irish returned four of their eight leading tacklers entering the season opener against Temple. Want the quickest summary of the 2016 failure? Realize Notre Dame had only one of its top-five tacklers from the College Football Playoff contender the year before, and two of the top 10. NFL dreams, suspensions and injuries left that defense with neither experience nor production.

To anyone wondering if these statistics diminish a secondary’s impact — considering most defensive backs do not rack up tackle totals — the trends all apply there, as well. The Irish return six defensive backs who saw genuine playing time this season, plus Gilman. The safety play was inarguably disappointing, but that position will presumably not get worse. For thoroughness’ sake: Only two defensive backs had seen notable playing time heading into 2017, and only Cole Luke could claim such entering 2016.

Barring a rash of injuries or suspensions, this defense will be better in 2018. It returns too many pieces to propose otherwise, and experience this broad benefits all involved.

The easily-tracked indicators for coming success hardly even factor in the likes of freshman defensive tackle Kurt Hinish and his development. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

That can be said before even expecting increased contributions from current freshmen defensive tackles Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish, without pinning hopes to the quartet of incoming linebackers, including three who enrolled early, and without projecting further development from sophomore defensive ends Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara.

Two weeks ago, this defense faced the prospect of learning a new scheme with only two of its top-six tacklers returning. It may have needed to claim the secondary as its most-experienced position group, the only position group ever lampooned in 2017. Resetting despite a strong defensive season highlighted by back-to-back weeks of stymying top-flight offenses in mid-October was a disappointing prospect, to put it mildly.

Now, this defense has a chance to enjoy growth in consistency and excel at every level. Performances like those seen against USC and North Carolina State could conceivably become the norm.

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.

Things We Learned: Wimbush’s and Claypool’s proven potential raises Notre Dame’s ceiling

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It may have just been an intrasquad scrimmage in April, but the Blue-Gold Game included the most-consistent performance seen by the public in rising-senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s career at Notre Dame. Looking through 2017’s game-by-game stats, no other showing comes very close to Saturday’s 19-of-33 passing for 341 yards and two touchdowns with one interception.

His 57.6 percent completion rate was outdone only once, when he completed 70 percent of his passes, 14-of-20, for 173 yards and one touchdown at Michigan State. This weekend’s accuracy could have ended up a few points higher, too, if Wimbush had been allowed to scramble on broken plays, rather than try to force a pass into tight coverage.

Yes, it may have just been the conclusion to spring practices, but Wimbush proved he physically can put together an accurate day with more than his coaches and teammates watching.

“Obviously, I wasn’t too accurate last year,” Wimbush said. “I missed some balls that should have been completed. It’s the fundamentals and my footwork, emphasizing urgency with my footwork that will help me.”

The minutiae of fundamentals and footwork manifest themselves by throwing behind receivers on drag routes, making Equanimeous St. Brown reach behind himself to pull in a five-yard throw intended to turn into 10 or 15 yards. They result in hitting Alizé Mack’s shoes in the flat against Miami (OH) on a first-and-10 in the red zone. The simple change in arm angle turns simple pick-ups into lost downs and torpedoes any hopes of a tolerable completion percentage and efficient drives down the field.

Throughout the latter half of 2017, Irish head coach Brian Kelly acknowledged those mechanical mistakes, but put off rectifying them until the offseason, lest a week’s game planning be lost to rushed returns to basics. With an offseason working on those building blocks, Wimbush showed Saturday he can make those throws, finding Mack, Cole Kmet, Chris Finke and even Jafar Armstrong either crossing just past the line of scrimmage or in the flat. His completion percentage reflected it, and the offense moved down the field.

“Consistency in his mechanics was probably the biggest thing,” Kelly said. “His (arm) drop put him in a lot of compromising situations in terms of throwing the football, and so I think that was cleaned up. Started with his attention to those things, and being very coachable.

“Then repetition, doing it consistently, play in and play out. We’re not there yet, but we made a huge jump forward.”

Ian Book finished the Blue-Gold Game 17-of-30 for 292 yards and a touchdown, trailing Brandon Wimbush in all categories and likely solidifying the quarterback competition in Wimbush’s favor. (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP)

This may all read as if through rose-colored lenses — and it needs to be again acknowledged this was in front of a generously-announced crowd of 31,729, far from the Stadium’s capacity of 80,795 — but the numbers are unprecedented in Wimbush’s tenure. He gained 10.33 yards per attempt. The closest he managed last season was 9.33 yards per attempt against Wake Forest, when he completed only 50 percent of his passes. Even last year’s Blue-Gold Game saw only 9.47 yards per Wimbush passing attempt, although it did include a 68.75 percent completion rate.

Then things changed in the season. Wimbush’s muscle memory vanished. He had it once. He may have it again.

“It was [committed to muscle memory] coming out of high school and going through a couple years of college,” Wimbush said. “Then, sometimes you just lose sight of what got you to where you are, and I think that happened to me last year. I went back to the details and the fundamentals and got it right.”

None of this means a thing if Wimbush returns to aiming at Mack’s shins against Michigan on Sept. 1, but it is now clear he should be able to avoid that habit. Another four months of this trend-line, and perhaps some of this spring Saturday’s stats could become figures seen on a fall weekend.

Of course, Wimbush had help. Two of his passes went to rising-junior receiver Chase Claypool for 25 yards, part of Claypool’s six total receptions for 151 yards and two touchdowns.

For a rising-senior with only 12 catches for 253 yards last season, Miles Boykin is rather established as Notre Dame’s top receiving option. One could be forgiven for assuming Claypool would have had those honors after catching 29 passes for 402 yards last season. Instead, he spent much of the spring working with the second set of Irish receivers, while Boykin, rising-sophomore Michael Young and rising-senior Chris Finke took the starting reps.

That did not sit well with Claypool.

“I was starting with the 2s there, and I kind of wanted to show that’s not my position,” he said. “… I think my potential is limitless. I like to think of it that way, that I’ll never peak.”

If Claypool’s potential has a limitation, it is due to his emotions, something Kelly has spent the spring harping on. When Claypool makes a first-down grab, his focus should be on the rest of the drive, not celebrating moving the chains. Likewise, after a dropped pass, he needs to ready himself for the next down, not dwell on the missed opportunity.

“He wasn’t one of our cool, calm and collected guys last year, but he’s really worked hard on that and the way he’s practiced has allowed him to be much more focused,” Kelly said. “… Since he’s found where that optimal zone is for him to be when he plays, he’s been so much more consistent.

“If he continues to trend this way, we’ve got another big, rangy, physical wide receiver that we can put on the field.”

Remove Claypool’s afternoon against Wake Forest to start November, in which he caught nine passes for 180 yards and a touchdown, and the then-sophomore never topped 60 yards or four receptions last season. As physically gifted as he very clearly is, inconsistent was just as apt an adjective when discussing the Canadian product.

Finding that “optimal zone” against the Wolverines will be a challenge, but it is one Claypool knows is ahead of him.

“I think I can do that every time,” he said. “I told [rising-junior quarterback Ian] Book and Wimbush, the only way they’ll stop me — with all confidence, I don’t want to be cocky — is if they [pass interfere with] me. … It kind of showed I can make plays, but I have to still keep working until I can give myself the opportunity.”

How many times can “Aloha, Alohi” be used before it gets old? Oh wait, it already is? Fine. So be it. Anyway, welcome Alohi Gilman as a starting safety.

The rising-junior transfer from Navy totaled only six tackles and did not break up any passes, but he also did not appear to blow any coverages or outright miss any tackles. (He can thank rising-junior cornerback Troy Pride for cleaning up a takedown of Finke which Gilman was on the verge of mishandling.)

Alohi Gilman, left, made a heads-up strip of rising-sophomore receiver Michael Young to further cement Gilman’s status as a starting safety for the Irish defense. (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP)

When Wimbush connected with Young off a play-action fake early on, Gilman made the instinctual play to swat the exposed ball out of Young’s hands and then recovered the fumble. That nose for the ball has been missing among Notre Dame’s safeties in recent years.

“If you look at every time [Gilman is] near the football, there is high contact with him,” Kelly said. “That’s what we’re looking for at that position: High contact, plays the ball well in the air, a very smart football player.

“He’s what we thought he would be. He started a little slow in the spring. I think he’s really picked it up to the point where he’s making things happen back at that safety position.”

Unless incoming freshman Derrik Allen makes an immediate impression or early-enrolled freshman Houston Griffith shows great development over the summer, Gilman and rising-junior Jalen Elliott will likely man the Irish backline against Michigan. It is no coincidence they created a turnover apiece Saturday.

Notre Dame will need that new indoor practice facility when it is finished next summer.

Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game was one of only two practices the Irish held outdoors this spring, out of a possible 15. Such are the joys of a northwestern Indiana winter. The ceilings at the Loftus Sports Complex are too low to genuinely work on the kicking game, and it showed with fifth-year punter Tyler Newsome averaging only 40.5 yards per punt and rising-senior kicker Justin Yoon missing two of five field goals.

The new indoor facility is intended to have higher ceilings, allowing those specialists more offseason work.

Kelly was not concerned in the least by the kicking performances, and considering the veterans at his disposal currently, his calm makes sense. Nonetheless, the new practice facility is needed, even if it is another whole spring away from being completed.

Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting received another boost with the commitment of rivals.com four-star safety Litchfield Ajavon (Episcopal High School; Alexandria, Va.).

Not much else needs to be said about Ajavon’s recruitment. Until further notice, safety play will remain a concern for the Irish, so pulling in a talent like Ajavon’s is vital. He is the fifth commitment in the Notre Dame class of 2019, following in the Friday footsteps of consensus four-star offensive tackle John Olmstead.