Cole Kmet

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Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s offense filled with questions for the Citrus Bowl

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Bowl games are similar to preseason practice finales. Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game can offer insights into the playmakers likely to define a season to come or unveil aspects of a new scheme previously unknown. If the Irish are fully engaged in the Citrus Bowl on Monday vs. No. 17 LSU (1 p.m. ET; ABC), then much can be learned from the occasion. The 2018 depth chart can gain some order at a position or two. Pending personnel losses will be seen in an evaluator manner, rather than merely with a reactionary response. Overall composure may be measured.

If, however, the afternoon in Orlando is treated like the mere exhibition it largely is, then it becomes an exercise in entertainment otherwise lacking effect.

Without Kevin Stepherson, who can Notre Dame turn to as a deep-threat playmaker?

The sophomore receiver will not be in Florida this weekend, and it is exceedingly unlikely he is in South Bend in the fall. Thus, this lesson can shed light toward the Irish future at receiver.

Exclude from these results any production from fifth-year receiver Cam Smith, finally healthy from a hamstring issue. He will not be in the mix in 2018.

Instead, any noticeable impact from current freshman Michael Young would warrant attention.

“He’s had his best practices,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said Wednesday following the first Irish practice in the Florida heat. “He’s shown a confidence level, consistency level, that maybe escaped him at times during the year, which is pretty typical of some of the younger players.

“You can kind of see him settling into a more comfortable position right now, too. We’re going to have to count on him to make some plays for us.”

An emergence from Young would establish him as only the pole position holder. Signed commit and consensus four-star receiver Braden Lenzy (Tigard High School; Portland, Ore.) has the speed to immediately force his way into this conversation during the summer.

Whoever emerges from that mix, it will obviously be in a complementary role to junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown. Even when Stepherson was hitting on all cylinders, the opposing defenses’ primary focus remained on St. Brown — he has shown a higher probability of taking over a game thus far in their respective careers. Against LSU, Kelly expects St. Brown to see time at multiple receiver positions, partly due to sophomore Chase Claypool also being sidelined thanks to shoulder surgery.

“For us, more than anything else, it’s going to be keeping the ball out on the perimeter, winning some of those matchups and then when we get a chance we’ll move some of those guys around,” Kelly said. “[St. Brown] is going to move all over the place. He’s going to be a guy that we’re going to have to lean on heavily.”

Relying on St. Brown on Monday with any success would be a positive notion for a 2018 sans Stepherson, presuming St. Brown returns for his senior season.

With junior Alizé Mack suspended due to a violation of team rules, Notre Dame may rely on senior tight end Nic Weishar more than usual in the Citrus Bowl on Monday. He has announced his intentions to return for a fifth year, so the bowl showcase could be a prelude to his 2018. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Without Alizé Mack, who can Notre Dame turn to as an aerial threat at tight end, if anyone?

There is little-to-no indication the junior tight end will not be with the Irish when they take the field against Michigan to open the 2018 season, but it is a possibility worthy of acknowledgement. If Mack is elsewhere then, offensive coordinator Chip Long will need to deploy someone else as the detached tight end intended to force matchup difficulties for the defense.

Current senior Nic Weishar presents as a better fit for the role attached to the line, presently manned by fifth-year senior Durham Smythe. From there, Smythe has showcased both his sure hands and his strength as a blocker this season. Even their physical profiles are similar. Notre Dame lists Smythe as 6-foot-5.5 and 257 pounds with Weishar at 6-foot-4.75 and 243 pounds.

If that is where Weishar eventually excels, then the detached focus turns to the freshman duo of Brock Wright and Cole Kmet. The former has seen action this season as a blocker but will miss the bowl game due to his own shoulder injury, while Kmet has two catches for 14 yards. Kelly indicated the latter could be in the mix this week.

“The tight ends are going to be important for us,” Kelly said. “Durham Smythe, Cole Kmet, Nic Weishar, all three tight ends will be involved.”

Junior running back Josh Adams had a stellar season. If only he had been healthy for more of it … (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

What could a healthy Josh Adams have done all season?

This should be the junior running back’s last game with the Irish, and it certainly will be his last behind an offensive line this superior to its typical competition. The month off has allowed Adams to finally return to 100 percent health. Whether it was just his ankles or other issues in addition, it cannot be denied Adams lost much of his explosiveness by season’s end.

“He looks really good,” Kelly said. “He’s got his speed back, he looks healthy. He’s running very effectively. I expect him to play really well in this game. I think the time off for him really helped him.”

Adams will need that speed, that health and that efficiency to manage a good day against the Tigers. They rank No. 21 in overall rushing defense and No. 39 in yards per carry at 3.80. For context, Michigan State allowed 3.38 yards per carry this season (No. 13) and Georgia gave up 3.47 yards per attempt (No. 20).

If Adams runs through LSU, it will elicit wonderings of “What could have been” if only his ankles had not been landed on so many times in October. It will also bode well for the next back to run behind what will still be a strong offensive line in 2018, most likely sophomore Tony Jones.

With that in mind, monitoring the distribution of opportunities between Jones and junior Dexter Williams will also shed light on what could come down the road for the two when healthy.

When removing ready-made excuses, how do the Irish fare against a top-20 team?

Kelly cited the crowd’s impact for the disastrous start at Miami in November. Anyone in attendance understood his point. The second half stumble two weeks later at Stanford was a sign of mental and physical fatigue at the end of a stretch of six weeks featuring four ranked opponents, an underrated Wake Forest and the always-wearisome Navy. Logically, at least, the argument made sense.

Camping World Stadium will hardly be abuzz come Monday, and Notre Dame will have had more than five weeks off since its most-recent game, not to mention time away from schoolwork.

“Like anything else, we needed some time,” Kelly said. “Our football team needed to get their step back, some energy back to them. Obviously this is a long break, but I thought we prepared well.”

With those outside factors removed, LSU will offer an excellent gauge of how the Irish genuinely stack up against a top-20 opponent. That is, if Notre Dame focuses on the bowl game. Amid trips to Universal Studios, a spending spree at Best Buy and assuredly plenty of seafood, the game itself may not be at the top of the list of priorities all week. Such is the difficult nature of bowl games in the first place.

Notre Dame announces Alizé Mack suspension

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Notre Dame junior tight end Alizé Mack joins the list of those who will miss the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1 against No. 17 LSU. Irish coach Brian Kelly announced a bowl game suspension for Mack on Thursday.

Mack missed the 2016 season due to an academic suspension, hence Kelly’s specific clarification. Furthermore, by declaring Mack’s issue arises from an internal issue, Kelly separated this matter from that around sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson and freshman running back C.J. Holmes. The latter duo has been suspended indefinitely after an arrest for shoplifting on Friday.

Mack finishes the season with 19 catches for 166 yards and a touchdown, missing the victory over Wake Forest due to a concussion and seeing less than a handful of snaps in the finale at Stanford.

Overall, the season qualifies as a disappointment for the supposed matchup nightmare. Many of the lackluster stats of Notre Dame’s receivers can be in part attributed to junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s inaccuracy and inconsistency, but Mack exacerbated that cause by repeatedly dropping passes and rarely creating the expected separation.

With him not in Orlando, Fla., the Irish will have only three tight ends available. Wednesday reports ruled out freshman Brock Wright due to shoulder surgery.

Either senior Nic Weishar — already planning on returning for a fifth year in 2018 — or freshman Cole Kmet will be looked to step into Mack’s role alongside fifth-year senior Durham Smythe. Weishar caught seven passes for 39 yards and two touchdowns in the regular season while Kmet added two catches for 12 yards.

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Notre Dame beats Michigan for three-star TE Tommy Tremble

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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.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends

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When Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly first introduced his new coaching staff way back in January, he singled out offensive coordinator Chip Long’s penchant for finding ways to use tight ends in his play calling.

“[He] utilized two tight ends, which was going to be a mode that we have to move toward with the great depth that we have at that position,” Kelly said Jan. 30.

Technically speaking, that was even before the Irish signed two more tight ends on National Signing Day that same week, bringing the roster’s total to six before Tyler Luatau’s career ended with a medical hardship during the summer.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
With Durham Smythe’s return for a fifth year, Long had at least one tight end he could trust. Senior Nic Weishar presented a security blanket if need be and junior Alizé Mack brought great hype upon his return from a season lost to academic issues. Having those three around allowed for the two freshmen, Cole Kmet and Brock Wright, to progress as the young luxuries they are.

Fifth-year tight end Durham Smythe saved his best year for his last year at Notre Dame. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
Long did use two tight ends with frequency. Smythe usually lined up attached to the line while Mack would be detached as more of a receiving threat. Occasionally, one or the other would line up in the backfield as an H-back, creating a run-pass wrinkle for the defense to diagnose at the snap.

Smythe blossomed in the role, putting together a quality final season both in blocking and in receiving. To a degree, his success serves as a lament exposed. He presumably could have offered just as much in 2016 if the offense had not essentially forgotten about the position.

Weishar also enjoyed a few moments of shine, enough so to give thought to a role — one in the mold of what Smythe fit this season — in 2018.

Mack, meanwhile, formed the mold of frustration, tantalizingly so. Long tried to include him in the offense, going Mack’s direction more than any other name thus far herein, but Mack never grasped the opportunity, that often times being a literal description of the mishaps.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING
The receiving stats are a bit misleading. With Mack not yet ready for a pivotal role, none of the active trio were going to join the line of recent Irish tight ends with outstanding aerial productions. Rather, Smythe contributed to the Notre Dame ground attack alongside the likes of senior left guard Quenton Nelson and fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey. For that matter, Mack handled his share of blocking, as well — one area his frustrations may have worked in Irish favor.

Fifth-year Durham Smythe: 13 catches for 234 yards and one touchdown.
Jr. Alizé Mack: 19 catches for 166 yards and one touchdown in 10 games.
Sr. Nic Weishar: Seven catches for 39 yards and two touchdowns.
Fr. Cole Kmet: Two catches for 14 yards.
Fr. Brock Wright: No statistics, but saw action in 11 games, primarily as a blocker, sometimes in a fullback role.

Before figuring out the tight end’s role in Notre Dame’s offense next year, the Irish need to determine if current senior Nic Weishar will return for a fifth year. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

COMING QUESTIONS
Before this fall, looking at the 2018 tight ends and genuinely wondering what will come of Weishar would have seemed absurd. Indeed, such is now the case. Will Notre Dame extend Weishar a fifth-year invite? If so, will he take it, or will he look to serve as a graduate transfer somewhere else he would not need to compete with the likes of Mack, Wright and Kmet for catches?

Weishar showed reliability in the red zone, specifically, this season, and could serve as a locker room and position group leader. The odds are the Irish coaching staff hopes he returns, counting on natural attrition to figure out a scholarship crunch later on.

Ideally, Mack will not be part of that annual tradition like he was two years ago. Instead, he can provide the answer to the wondering of was his disappointing fall largely a result of rust, immaturity/youth or, well, what?

Mack has the physical talent. Combining the speed of a receiver with the size of a tight end can be a game-changing luxury, if that talent shows up ready to play. Perhaps Mack did this year and was just unlucky. A 12-game sample size could obscure that. Two seasons of it, though, would point to a larger issue.

How much more of Wright and Kmet will Long find use for? At least one will be necessary, and that is presuming both do not pass or at least pressure Weishar for playing time — and even that assumes Weishar returns. Long’s two tight end thoughts make a third tight end a necessity, always one injury away from significant playing time.

Kmet saw more chances in passing situations this season while Wright was an erstwhile blocker out of the backfield. Though both arrived at Notre Dame highly-heralded, neither had a chance to make a notable imprint, but there was good reason for that. There were three talented veterans ahead of them on the depth chart. At least one of those will be gone next season, and a full offseason in a collegiate weight room should ready the young duo even more so.

There is an offensive philosophy quandary here. On any given play, Long can fill five skill positions. Assuming a running back is involved in nearly all of those, he is down to four. If continuing with a multiple-tight end emphasis, that leaves only two spots for receivers. While the receivers may not have been an impressive grouping this season, Long could want to see three of those — namely, junior Equanimeous St. Brown and sophomores Kevin Stepherson and Chase Claypool — as often as not.

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

Notre Dame among the dozen looking at the Playoff, though, it is still October

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With Notre Dame’s inevitable interest in the release of the first College Football Playoff selection committee poll tonight, conversation focuses on that and much else can be forgotten.

Quickly on that forgotten note, Irish coach Brian Kelly said all injuries, with one exception, from this weekend should be non-issues by the time Notre Dame takes the field against Wake Forest (3:30 p.m. ET, NBC). Junior tight end Alizé Mack’s availability will hinge on his progress in the concussion protocol. He will attempt a cardio workout today (Tuesday), usually a significant barometer in that process.

If Mack is unavailable against the Deacons, Kelly insisted the Irish offense will hardly miss a beat.

“[Freshman] Cole Kmet is ready to go. He’s chomping at the bit,” Kelly said Tuesday. “… [Senior] Nic Weishar’s role will activate, and [fifth-year] Durham Smythe is playing his best football of his career.

“… We feel good about what the next options are for us.”

As for the poll, released at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN, Kelly would not take the bait as to how high he thought Notre Dame should be ranked.

“It’s hard for me to judge the other teams,” he said. “I know Georgia is a really good team, and I know Notre Dame. So I’d have Georgia one, Notre Dame two, and then there’s no other teams.”

Wherever the Irish land, Kelly’s focus remains the same and he expects as much from his team. Carrying forward a theme from this past weekend, Notre Dame is not concerned with its record, only its performance.

“Winning is not even something that we think about,” Kelly said. “I’ve got to tell you, I’m honestly giving you the truth in this answer.

“We just want to dominate this weekend. If we do that, we’d like three more chances. Then, at the end of the year, if they say that that’s one of the four best teams, that will be fine. We’re just looking to dominate this weekend.”

The Irish can focus on the dominating. That will not stop the poll from coming out tonight. Kelly’s mention of three more games after Wake Forest reinforces a valid point, though. Tonight’s poll is not the destination. Whether Notre Dame lands at Kelly’s No. 2, a more realistic No. 3 or a surprising but somewhat understandable No. 5, no one is awarded a Playoff spot because of the Halloween rankings.

Thus, any discussion of the poll and the contenders should include looks forward to what awaits each of those teams. At this point in the season, it makes more sense to break down the remaining contenders by conference to set the table for coming attrition. There is a discussion to be had about where the 7-1 Irish belong among 7-1 and defending national champion Clemson, 7-1 Oklahoma and 7-1 Ohio State. Those four teams will presumably make up Nos. 3-6 tonight.

Spending too much time on that discussion at this point misses two facts: It is highly unlikely all four finish the season with only one loss, reducing some of the consternation, and only the selection committee’s opinion actually matters.

For example, that latter reason is why Kelly no longer votes in the USA Today Coaches Poll.

“The committee, to me, made my vote obsolete in the sense that they could do such a better job of evaluating truly the top teams in the country,” he said. “I could get a cursory view of it and a look at it, but I couldn’t do the kind of job that the committee can do from 1 to 25.”

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the 12 remaining national title contenders, broken apart by overlapping futures more than claims to date.

The Undefeated and Unquestioned, otherwise known as the SEC.
Neither Alabama nor Georgia has lost. Only the latter has faced a genuine test, its 20-19 victory at Notre Dame.

The order of these two does not matter. If one falls before the SEC title game — both still have to play Auburn — the blemished will fall from its perch. If both arrive to their 13th game with identical 12-0 records, the SEC champion will be guaranteed a Playoff entry. The competiveness of that game, not tonight’s ordering, will likely determine the other’s bowl destination.

The ACC 3: Miami, Virginia Tech and Clemson.
Miami earns top billing here simply because it remains undefeated. That will be tested this weekend against the Hokies and next weekend with Notre Dame visiting. If the Hurricanes win both of those and proceed to claim the ACC, they’ll make the Playoff. There is no need to complicate that.

Virginia Tech’s hopes would hinge on running the table — which includes a trip to Georgia Tech next weekend — and exacting revenge on Clemson in the ACC title game. If the Tigers do not make the ACC championship, the Hokies’ hopes probably dwindle, as well, unless national chaos reigns. This is college football, after all. Anarchy is always just a Saturday away.

Clemson’s loss at Syracuse is but a blip on the radar when compared to dominating wins at Louisville and at Virginia Tech, a victory over Auburn and a trip to North Carolina State this weekend. (And remember, starting quarterback Kelly Bryant missed much of that Orange defeat.) If the Tigers run the table, it is hard to imagine the selection committee would deny the reigning champions a chance to defend that title.

The Mess of the Big 12: Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and TCU.
Oklahoma has the only non-conference win of note among this trio, traveling to Ohio State and emerging with a 31-16 victory on Sept. 9. The Sooners’ loss to Iowa State looks better now that the Cyclones also knocked off TCU. Iowa State will get its chance at Oklahoma State on Nov. 11.

The Cyclones’ rise complicates the entire conference’s hopes. If Oklahoma can run the table, beginning at Oklahoma State this weekend, and perhaps get revenge on Iowa State in the Big 12 title game, a valid claim to a playoff spot would emerge. If not, with all other aspects of these résumés being equal due to the conference’s round-robin format, it is difficult to envision any one of the three pulling away enough to challenge Clemson or a Big Ten champion for a Playoff spot.

The Big Ten Dichotomy: Ohio State and Wisconsin.
Ohio State has a résumé and a loss. Wisconsin has neither. That’s why college football developed conference championship games, though. Where the Badgers land remains a superfluous note until they do or do not finish the season 13-0. A loss, any loss, will knock them from these conversations entirely.

The Buckeyes can now claim a win against Penn State to counterbalance their loss to Oklahoma, but other than that their claims are thin. A combination of a conference title and the eye test may be enough to give Ohio State a boost with just a bit of national aid.

The Pac One: Washington.
The Huskies likely need national chaos. Their non-conference schedule featured wins at Rutgers, vs. Montana and vs. Fresno State. That will not separate a 7-1 Washington from the other one-loss teams in the country. Winning the Pac-12 will not, either, as it appears to be a conference filled with good but no great teams.

Oh, and Notre Dame: Victories over three six-win teams set the Irish apart, and they will have the chance to grow that total to at least five, with both Miami (FL) and Stanford already holding such records. Obviously, as time passes, the metric will rise, but Notre Dame’s overall schedule will pass nearly any test put to it.

For context: Alabama’s only victory over a six-win opponent is Colorado State. Georgia has beaten both the Irish and Mississippi State, and Clemson claims two in Auburn and Virginia Tech.

A Voting Note
Some mention of the committee’s voting procedure should be included here. If Notre Dame lands at No. 3 tonight, that mechanism may deserve some of the credit. The Irish appear to be a pretty clear-cut top-four team at this point. Clemson, Oklahoma and Ohio State stack up well with each other — and, to an extent, with Notre Dame. One of them has to land at No. 6. As the committee votes, the odds are the Irish receive a combination of No. 3 and No. 4 votes. Those other three, meanwhile, will have ranges from No. 3 to No. 6.

That alone could elevate Notre Dame above them this week. As that trio becomes a duo and then possibly just one, all due to the nature of college football, the Irish hold on a Rose Bowl spot will become more tenuous.

It is this same thinking that makes it somewhat unlikely any of the Big 12’s hopes crack the top-four this week. Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and TCU will siphon support from each other, lowering their Halloween ceilings.

Let’s remember that holiday-turned-adjective. It is still October. All of this matters only so much.

A Prediction
Alabama, Georgia, Notre Dame and Clemson. That is who it should be, in this scribe’s opinion, too. For that matter, may the college football universe be only so lucky as to have the season end with that exact order. The dueling rematches in the semifinals would be storylines to make December fly by.