Cole Kmet

Getty Images

Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends

16 Comments

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

Getty Images
20 Comments

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.

Kelly on Notre Dame’s WRs and TEs, namely on Claypool and Kmet

Getty Images
44 Comments

Let’s not call it a guarantee. Let’s call it, intentional foreshadowing.

Irish coach Brian Kelly made it clear he expects to see some new contributors at receiver this weekend when Notre Dame visits Boston College. (Again, kickoff has been moved to 3:30 p.m. ET on ESPN.)

“From a coaching standpoint, the first move is to settle into where these guys can best help us,” Kelly said Thursday. “Then I think everything flows from there. That’s the best I can give you on that. I think after this weekend, that question will clear itself up a little bit better.”

Through two games, the Irish have struggled to find a second target behind junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown. For that matter, they have also yet to break St. Brown loose as desired, finding him for only six catches and 96 yards thus far.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame looks for St. Brown to step up AND a No. 2 option, not OR

Fifth-year senior and Arizona State transfer Cam Smith leads the Irish with seven receptions and his 54 yards is second to St. Brown’s total among the receivers. (Junior running back Josh Adams has more yards, 60, on six receptions and junior tight end Alizé Mack does, as well, with 58 on four catches.)

“We can’t take reps away from [St. Brown], and Cam’s played a lot on the outside,” Kelly said, setting up the difficult decision he and offensive coordinator Chip Long must make about where to insert the next option.

With those two out wide, the natural move is to find a piece at slot, most likely junior Chris Finke, who, coincidentally, is expected to get his first start this week. If simply looking for the next most-dangerous playmaker, that may be sophomore Chase Claypool, the only other name mentioned specifically by Kelly.

“We have to settle on where are we going to play certain guys?” he said. “We’re kind of in a flux. Where does Claypool fit? Here’s a young receiver that just needs some seasoning, some time. Is he an inside guy? An outside guy?

“… Quite frankly, we’ve made a decision and I don’t want to tell you what it’s going to be because I think that would compromise us a little bit.”

The only further clue Kelly offered indicated Claypool may be joined by freshman Michael Young. Whether that is the case or not, Kelly insisted it will be apparent after the tilt versus the Eagles.

“After this weekend, everybody is going to have a clear view as to the guys that need to be out on the field more and what our direction is going to be,” he said. “We still need the depth. We still need the guys we have. Guys are going to get banged up and we’re going to call on what I think will be outstanding depth at our wide receiver position.

“We really do have to start to feature some guys that might not have all that experience but have a higher ceiling.”

Finke has caught three passes for 36 yards this season, Claypool has one 16-yard reception and Young only a four-yarder.

Junior tight end Alizé Mack has yet to be the vertical threat Notre Dame expected he would be entering the season. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

A similar decision at tight end
Notre Dame has a similar quandary at tight end. A number of possible talents compete for limited playing time, and with Mack seeming to struggle to date, should one of the younger threats get a bigger chance?

“They’ve all graded out very well in terms of blocking and catching the football,” Kelly said. “We want to be a little more consistent, certainly with a couple drops here and there.”

Namely, freshmen Brock Wright and Cole Kmet both appear to be nowhere near considering preserving a year of eligibility. Can one of their roles be increased?

“You’re going to continue to see at least three and then a specialist with Brock [as a fullback],” Kelly said. “Cole is the kind of guy who has great athletic ability but we don’t want to duplicate that because then we’re pulling away from someone that has similar traits.”

A possible kickoff change
Before the season, Notre Dame expected freshman Jonathan Doerer to handle kickoff duties, allowing junior Justin Yoon to focus on placekicking. Just before the season opener, Kelly announced Yoon would handle both for the immediate future to allow Doerer to regain some freshness, having hit something of a freshman wall. That immediate future may be coming to a close soon.

“I’m going to sit down with [special teams coordinator Brian Polian] when we get into Boston and we’ll make that decision,” Kelly said. “Here’s what I can tell you, [Doerer] had a really good week.”

What We Learned: Notre Dame is Long’s offense, freshmen impact and more

AP
41 Comments

NOTRE DAME, Ind. — We learned Notre Dame Stadium now holds 77,622 people. We learned Irish coach Brian Kelly still prefers to receive the opening kickoff. We learned Saturdays in September are best spent in the sun watching football.

Wait, we already knew that one.

What else did we learn?

This is Chip Long’s offense.
Notre Dame had three rushers gain more than 100 yards and four take at least half a dozen carries, with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush included in both categories. Long relying on the running game could be read as playing to one’s strengths, but it is also in-line with his career elsewhere to date.

Of those rushers, sophomore Tony Jones was the initial backup to junior Josh Adams. Jones took his six rushes for only 19 yards, but he was never taken down in the backfield and did score on a seven-yard touchdown. In his first collegiate action, that qualifies as acceptable.

Junior Dexter Williams excelled when he began to see runs behind Adams. Finishing with 124 yards on only six carries — even if removing his long of 66 yards, Williams averaged 11.6 yards per carry — Williams insured he will have plenty of chances moving forward.

Equally as telling that this is Long’s show, the Irish had the ball for only 26:11 in a game they entirely dominated. Long simply saw no reason to attack Temple slowly when doing so quickly would create more opportunities to continue, well, attacking. All indications are he called the plays throughout, including Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly’s comments after the 49-16 victory Saturday.

“My conversation with [Long] is pretty constant during the drive,” Kelly said. “I don’t want it to be over-chatter. He’s got to get in the flow and he’s got to be calling the game.

“I’m just keeping him on track relative to fourth down calls, whether we’re in this particular area of the field. He’s got a fourth down in his pocket, so call accordingly on second and third down.”

Notre Dame has more tight ends than realized.
Okay, not literally. A reading of the roster and the ability to count up one hand’s worth of fingers tells anyone the Irish have five tight ends. Yet, the four most-discussed contributed little-to-nothing Saturday.

Graduate student senior Durham Smythe entered the concussion protocol Saturday, and it is conceivable that keeps him out for a week. (That is not to say it will. Updates should come in due time.) Much-hyped junior Alizé Mack managed only two catches for 17 yards. Freshmen Brock Wright and Cole Kmet were offensive non-factors.

Nonetheless, a tight end still impacted Notre Dame’s offense definitively. Senior Nic Weishar pulled in three passes for 20 yards and a touchdown catch in very tight quarters.

“He’s had the best year that anybody can have in terms of his physical commitment to the position itself,” Kelly said. “He does not have the DNA of Alizé and [Weishar] will tell you that, he looks like a dad compared to those four stallions.

(more…)

Kraemer set as Notre Dame’s right tackle; only St. Brown clear at receiver

Getty Images
18 Comments

With only 23 days remaining until the Irish season-opener against Temple, some clarity about Notre Dame’s starters should start to be expected. Following their first practice back on campus after spending the initial week at Culver Academies in Culver, Ind., Irish coach Brian Kelly revealed some of that clearer picture Wednesday.

The biggest offensive question comes at right tackle, and Kelly said sophomore Tommy Kraemer has established himself as the starter there over classmate Liam Eichenberg, who will move to left tackle to back up fifth-year senior Mike McGlinchey. Kelly and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand have the ability to move Eichenberg like that thanks to the emergence of freshman Robert Hainsey, an early enrollee this spring. Hainsey will back up Kraemer.

“Robert becomes kind of our guy that if we need to get in the game, he’s got a really good pass set,” Kelly said. “He’s got some strength and is a really good pass setter for us.

“Tommy, right now, is the guy that goes with the first group, and [nine] practices in, he’s still a work in progress, but he’s making progress for us.”

If Kraemer were to suffer a season-ending injury, it is still conceivable Eichenberg would take over the position, having spent all spring and some of preseason practice working at right tackle, but Hainsey at least allows the offensive line to have a full second-unit in practice.

Kelly also said junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown will start as the W, or boundary, receiver. Kelly has previously admitted the W and X, or field, positions will be largely interchangeable so as to expedite the up-tempo scheme preferred by offensive coordinator Chip Long.

Aside from St. Brown, the pecking order among the receivers remains in flux.

“Everything else is pretty fluid,” Kelly said. “We’re trying to mix and match and we’ve got a lot of really solid players. We’re just trying to take advantage of what they can do and their skill set and where they can best help our football team.”

Acknowledging the large number of possible options there, Kelly then got to the tight ends, where freshman Cole Kmet has apparently inserted himself into the conversation of possible contributors.

(Lack of) Injury Update
To date, and perhaps Notre Dame fans should find some wood to introduce their knuckles to, the Irish have remained largely injury-free in these practices. Junior tight end Alizé Mack suffered a mild hamstring injury, but was an active participant in Wednesday’s practice. Freshman safety Jordan Genmark-Heath has also battled a slight hamstring injury but was cleared for practice.

Senior safety Nick Coleman partook in all of the team repetitions as he works his way back from an ankle injury, while sophomore cornerback Donte Vaughn missed Wednesday’s drills after spraining his neck Tuesday when he missed a pad during a tackling drill. Kelly was unconcerned.

“He’s fine, but those are the kind of injuries you get in camp. That’s as severe as it’s gotten.”

Assuming Vaughn’s health moving forward, there is some levity to be found in a defender suffering an injury during a tackling drill lacking any offensive counterparts.