Durham Smythe

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Friday at 4: Four offensive positions to watch in Notre Dame’s spring game

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There are two common ways of looking at the annual spring game.
It is the last action involving Notre Dame football readily available for public consumption until Sept. 2, 133 days away.
Or it is an exercise rife with contradiction exacerbated by hype, yielding little-to-no reliable intelligence.
Like much of life, the most accurate assessment falls somewhere between those two views.

If junior running back Dexter Williams breaks off two 50-yard-plus touchdown runs, does that mean he will have multiple big plays in 2017? Not at all. It does mean he will likely have more opportunities for them, though. Just like in spring’s previous 14 practices, the Irish coaches will take what they see and apply it moving forward.

The past—and as of Saturday evening, the Blue-Gold Game will qualify as the past—does not dictate the future, but it can influence one’s approach to it.

Aside from Williams (see the second item below for more on him and the running backs), what other players/positions could influence their future roles the most with their performance to close spring?

BIG PASSING TARGETS: Alizé Jones and Co.
In this instance, big is meant literally. Notre Dame has an embarrassment of riches of tall, long, physical tight ends and receivers. Junior Alizé Jones earns specific mention here due to his inaction last season. Irish fans and coaches alike have a better idea of sophomore receiver Chase Claypool and junior receiver Miles Boykin. They have 2016 film to look at.

Jones, however, sat out the season due to academic issues. His on-field performance largely remains a question mark, but if he combines this spring’s praise with his 6-foot-4 ½ frame holding 245 listed pounds, that could turn into an exclamation point.

“He’s a perfect fit,” new Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long said Friday. “That’s why I recruited him like crazy when I was at Arizona State. He’s a prototypical [tight end], a guy who can run, who can catch.

“The biggest thing about Alizé is he’s taking great pride in his blocking ability right now, his presence of being an end-line guy, his protection and his overall physicality. When you think like that, you’re going to become a better receiver.” (more…)

Four defensive positions to watch in Notre Dame spring game

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Entering spring, question marks riddled Notre Dame’s defense. What is a rover? Who will play on the defensive line? Do the Irish have enough big bodies to fill the defensive line? What about athletes at safety?

Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game (12:30 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Network on the NBC Sports App) will provide fans a glimpse at some of those possible answers.

What four defensive players/positions should fans be most focused on? Let’s start with that much-discussed, about-to-finally-be-seen rover position, a focal point in new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme.

ROVER: Drue Tranquill and Asmar Bilal
The lessons learned here this weekend should be applied more to the position than to the individual players. Senior Drue Tranquill and junior Asmar Bilal will both contribute at the safety-linebacker hybrid position, though it increasingly sounds like it is more linebacker than safety.

Theoretically, the rover provides the defense additional flexibility when compared to a traditional linebacker. Tranquill, for example, is plenty well-built at 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, but he still provides better coverage abilities than a third linebacker such as junior Te’von Coney might. Bilal, at 6-foot-2 and 229 pounds, offers a bit better coverage option than a Coney or sophomore linebacker Jonathan Jones would, and much better run-stopping tendencies than a safety such as sophomore Devin Studstill’s. At least, that is the theory.

In practice, what will the rover’s primary assignments be? Admittedly, this may change on a week-to-week basis depending on an opponent’s strengths, but Notre Dame’s offense should present many looks and opportunities for Tranquill and Bilal to showcase the position’s unique nature. When the Irish offense trots out three receivers and a tight end like graduate student Durham Smythe, the rover will need to either cover Smythe, sophomore “slot” receiver Chase Claypool or account for the possibility of a running back coming out of the backfield. One way or another, the rover will be tested.

In that hypothetical, it is more likely one of the senior linebackers—captains Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini—covers the running back, leaving the unenviable option of Claypool or Smythe (or any one of Notre Dame’s other tight end options) for the rover.

RELATED READING: Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover position, others likely to follow

For the sake of sample size, hopefully the Irish coaching staff puts one of the two in blue and the other in white, rather than symbolically designating them as 1A and 1B by keeping both in white. That roster alignment—usually seen as an “OR” on the depth chart in the fall—may be more accurate, but it would be more worthwhile to see a full set of snaps from each. Especially considering how Kelly has touted Bilal as the likely option against run-based teams, perhaps placing him on the second-unit defense this weekend could present a worthwhile experience, facing a solid backup offensive line blocking for either junior Dexter Williams or sophomore Tony Jones.

DEFENSIVE END DAELIN HAYES
Yes, the sophomore gets his own entry on this list looking at four positions. He has, after all, seemingly secured a starting position as the rush-side/weakside defensive end. Throughout the spring, only praise has followed Hayes’ name when mentioned by Kelly or any other coach, but they also caution with discussion of his need to understand more fundamentals. (more…)

6 Days Until Spring Practice: A Look at TEs & WRs

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This space briefly discussed Notre Dame’s receivers only a week ago, thus this piece on those catching passes will spend more proportional time on the tight ends. In fact, let’s lead with them.

Why? Because there are more of them on the Irish roster than some seem to realize. The reader who suggested this week’s operating order of positional group analysis is a knowledgeable fan, but the bounty had evaded him, for one.

“I wondered why tight end didn’t get its own spot in that list,” he said after reading the end of Wednesday’s look at offensive linemen. “I just assumed you would pair them with wide receivers…

“I figured there’s also fewer bodies at tight end than anywhere else, really.”

False.

Notre Dame’s roster currently includes three quarterbacks (with freshman Avery Davis arriving in the fall) and four running backs. There are five tight ends, not to mention the No. 3 tight end in the class of 2017 arriving alongside Davis in August.

According to Irish coach Brian Kelly, new offensive coordinator Chip Long will need those reserves.

“[Long] utilizes 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 when introducing his new assistants. “…I wanted the offense to look a specific way. Chip gives me, clearly, something that I saw that will resemble what I see through his offense. It’s going to be the inclusion of the backs and the tight ends in the passing game.”

Notre Dame’s current set of tight ends are not used to being included much in the passing game. The returning quartet of graduate student Durham Smythe, seniors Nic Weishar and Tyler Luatua, and junior Alizé Mack have combined for a career total of 32 catches for 403 yards and six touchdowns. For comparison’s sake, Long’s two tight ends at Memphis totaled 36 catches for 423 yards and five touchdowns last season alone. (Joey Magnifico provided nine of those catches for 85 yards and two touchdowns. This is worth mentioning only because his last name is Magnifico.)

As the primary source of those Irish stats, Smythe presumably has the edge in the chase for a starting position. Last season the 6-foot-4.5, 245-pounder caught nine passes for 112 yards and four touchdowns, while Weishar added three catches for 47 yards.

Mack—née Jones—sat out 2016 amid eligibility issues after catching 13 passes for 190 yards in 2015. If in coaches’ good graces, he should immediately establish himself as a possible complement to Smythe, if not even supplant his elder. Notre Dame lists Mack at 6-4.5, 240 pounds, so both he and Smythe present notable targets for junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush.

Early enrollee Brock Wright—rivals.com’s No. 1 tight end in the class—joins Luatua in rounding out this plethora of goods for Long to incorporate. Having both the spring and the summer to learn Long’s system and embrace a college weight room may give Wright a chance to contribute in 2017.

His classmate, Cole Kmet, however will most likely find himself on the sidelines all of 2017. That is no dismissal of Kmet’s talent. Rather, it is one of the luxuries of having five tight ends to work with all spring.


Though Michigan transfer receiver Freddy Canteen officially committed to Notre Dame on Wednesday, he will not arrive on campus until June. In the meantime, the only sure thing about the Irish receiving corps is junior Equanimeous St. Brown will lead the way.

Junior C.J. Sanders may present the most-obvious partner to tandem with St. Brown, but in last season’s final seven games, Sanders totaled seven catches for 39 yards, compared to opening 2016 with 17 receptions for 254 yards and two touchdowns in its first five games. That drop-off creates an opening for the likes of junior Chris Finke or sophomore Chase Claypool to crack the starting lineup, perhaps alongside sophomore Kevin Stepherson (25 catches, 462 yards, five touchdowns).

The uncertainty also begets opportunities to junior Miles Boykin and sophomores Javon McKinley and Deon McIntosh.

Come fall, Canteen will join the fray alongside freshmen Michael Young and Jalen Armstrong.


With only six days remaining before spring practice commences, the offensive line was featured Wednesday, and the remaining five position groups will follow in the below order.

Wednesday: Offensive Linemen
Today: Tight Ends & Receivers
Friday: Running Backs
Saturday: Quarterbacks
Sunday: Defensive Backs
Monday: Linebackers
Tuesday: Defensive Linemen
Wednesday, March 8: Spring practice begins

Notre Dame returns 15 starters in 2017; How many do its opponents?

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In six months—180 days, to be even more precise—college football will return. Sure, spring practice might be only eight days away in South Bend, but those sessions will have no tangible effect on the national championship chase.

On Aug. 25, Stanford will face Rice in Sydney. According to AP Style, one does not need to notate Australia there, but some thoroughness can’t hurt, right? For that matter, South Florida will take on San Jose State, and Hawai’i will travel all the way to Foxboro, Mass. to take on Massachusetts.

Six months ago—well, again, 180 days to be exact—No. 19 Louisville introduced America to quarterback Lamar Jackson in a 70-14 rout of Charlotte, kicking off the 2016 season with an eight-touchdown performance from the eventual Heisman winner. No. 9 Tennessee topped Appalachian State 20-13 in overtime, setting the stage for a Volunteers season full of dramatics.

A week after the Cardinal go down under to face the Owls, Notre Dame will open its season against Temple with 15 returning starters, eight on offense and seven on defense, pending any spring or summer departures or injuries. According to Phil Steele, 24 teams return more experience.

Offense: Offensive linemen Mike McGlinchey (12 starts in 2016), Quenton Nelson (12), Sam Mustipher (12) and Alex Bars (12); tight end Durham Smythe (12); receiver Equanimeous St. Brown (12); running back Josh Adams (nine) and C.J. Sanders (seven)
Defense: Safeties Drue Tranquill (12) and Devin Studstill (nine); cornerback Julian Love (eight); linebackers Nyles Morgan (12) and Te’von Coney (nine); and defensive linemen Jerry Tillery (11) and Andrew Trumbetti (seven)

How does this Irish listing compare to Notre Dame’s opponents? Right about middle of the pack. (If a quarterback is not specifically mentioned, the team does not return a starter at that position.)

Sept. 2 — v. Temple, returns 10 starters; six on offense and four on defense
Sept. 9 — v. Georgia, returns 17 starters; seven on offense, including quarterback Jacob Eason, and 10 on defense
Sept. 16 — at Boston College, returns 15 starters; eight on offense and seven on defense
Sept. 23 — at Michigan State, returns nine starters; four on offense and five on defense
Sept. 30 — v. Miami (Ohio), returns 16 starters; eight on offense, including quarterback Gus Ragland, and eight on defense
Oct. 7 — at North Carolina, returns 12 starters; five on offense and seven on defense
Oct. 21 — v. USC, returns 12 starters; five on offense, including quarterback and Heisman-threat Sam Darnold, and seven on defense
Oct. 28 — v. North Carolina State, returns 17 starters; nine on offense, including quarterback Ryan Finley, and eight on defense
Nov. 4 — v. Wake Forest, returns 15 starters; nine on offense, including quarterback John Wolford, and six on defense
Nov. 11 — at Miami (Fla.), returns 15 starters; seven on offense and eight on defense
Nov. 18 — v. Navy, returns 13 starters; five on offense and eight on defense
Nov. 25 — at Stanford, returns 16 starters; eight on offense, including quarterback Ryan Burns, and eight on defense

Naturally, the number of returning starters is cyclical, and some might argue teams with lackluster records one season should not want to return many starters the next. Then again, those players started over others for a presumed reason in the first place

Acknowledging that cycle, it seems innate to take a look at how many starters Notre Dame might return in 2018. By no means is the intent here to look past 2017. Rather, consider this something of a scholarship chart cliff notes. As always, this does not factor in the inevitable injuries, transfers and departures otherwise inherent to the coming six months.

Of the above eight offensive returnees, McGlinchey and Smythe will both be out of eligibility following 2017, and Nelson will nearly-certainly depart for the first round of the NFL Draft. The other five, though, could all be back in blue-and-gold. One would think quarterback Brandon Wimbush—2017’s assumed starter—will return, as would whoever the third receiver is in 2017, considering there is no senior at the position aside from graduate transfer Freddy Canteen who has two years of eligibility remaining anyways. If a tight end such as freshman early enrollee Brock Wright or junior Alizé Mack were to usurp Smythe, then the Irish may have eight returning offensive starters again in 2018.

Of the above seven defensive returnees, only Morgan and Trumbetti will finish their eligibility this season. If Tranquill does indeed end up manning the rover position in new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme, that will open a starting spot for another safety. Whoever that is, he will have eligibility remaining, as will whatever cornerback lines up opposite Love. The defensive line remains a quandary, but it is distinctly possible Notre Dame returns eight defensive starters, as well, in 2018.

Fortunately, spring practice begins March 8, and some light can begin to shine on those questions regarding the defensive line and the overall defensive alignment. In addition to garnering excitement for 2017, they can also shed some insights into the seasons to come.

Oh, and in case you are curious, Stanford will fly 7,434 miles to get to Sydney while Hawai’i will travel a mere 5,083 to get to Gillette Stadium.

2018: 6 commits & counting, but how high

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Let’s put 2017 recruiting in the rearview mirror.  It is over and done with. In four years, hindsight will tell us if this Notre Dame class was better or worse than its No. 13 rivals.com ranking. Perhaps that slot will be proven exactly accurate, but only because three-star receiver Michael Young vastly exceeds his ranking, making up for a four-star’s disappointment or early departure.

Let’s move on to 2018. There are, after all, only 363 days until National Signing Day.

Irish coach Brian Kelly has already received six commitments in the class of 2018, led by consensus four-stars quarterback Phil Jurkovec (Pine-Richland High School; Gibsonia, Pa.) and linebacker Matthew Bauer (Cathedral Prep; Erie, Pa.).

A numbers crunch may limit how many peers join Jurkovec, Bauer and their four quick-to-commit comrades. Working backward from the current roster of 84 scholarships (pending a possible graduate transfer, but that would not affect this exercise as he would presumably exhaust his eligibility in 2017), only nine Notre Dame players will play their fourth year of college football this fall:
Fifth-year tight end Durham Smythe
Fifth-year offensive lineman Mike McGlinchey
Fifth-year offensive lineman Hunter Bivin
Senior quarterback Montgomery VanGorder
Senior tight end Tyler Luatua
Senior defensive lineman Andrew Trumbetti
Senior defensive lineman Daniel Cage
Senior linebacker Nyles Morgan
Senior linebacker Greer Martiniti

Additionally, senior offensive lineman Quenton Nelson will, injury-notwithstanding, be projected as a high NFL Draft pick. While the Irish coaching staff would certainly jump at the chance to bring Nelson back for a fifth year, one should not expect him to.

That math gets the 2018 Notre Dame roster to 11 open scholarships.

Senior offensive lineman Jimmy Byrne has yet to see the field for the Irish, so do not expect him to receive an invite to spend a fifth year with the team. Senior defensive lineman Pete Mokwuah saw action in only four games last season, making one total tackle. His odds seem low, as well. Senior tight end Nic Weishar may provide depth at the position, but Notre Dame just signed two of the top-three tight end recruits in the country. Even if both Brock Wright and Cole Kmet do not see the field this year, youth should make its demands by 2018. Weishar will likely miss out on a fifth year as a result.

That makes 14 open scholarships.

Acknowledging the realities of college football, it is unrealistic to expect the fifth-year returns of all seven of offensive linemen Alex Bars and Sam Mustipher, defensive linemen Jay Hayes and Jonathan Bonner, defensive backs Drue Tranquill and Nick Watkins and punter Tyler Newsome. Yet, all seven could bring either on-field production or needed roster depth. Rather than speculate who does not join Notre Dame in 2018, let’s simply give a head nod to the possibility some do not. For that matter, injuries, academics and transfers annually open up space on the Irish roster. Suddenly that 14 may approach a more traditional 20 without any extra effort.

2018’s Points of Emphasis
Naturally, after not signing any cornerbacks in the 2017 class, Notre Dame will need to make up for that in 2018. Aside from that, Irish coach Brian Kelly indicated his staff will focus on playmakers more than anything else.

“The corner position will be a point of emphasis for us,” he said last Wednesday. “Elite speed on offense will be a primary goal for us. Guys that can change the game on one possession. I think we’ll see that.

“We’ve got very good size. We’ve got guys that can run. We want a couple of home run hitters. We don’t care if they’re Darren Sproles’s size. We’re going to come off the board in terms of profile. We want some guys that can change the game on offense with elite speed.”

This focus on speed makes sense when considering Notre Dame signed four offensive linemen and two tight ends in 2017, meaning the 2018 roster is already stocked with 11 linemen and three tight ends. Adding a couple lineman and a tight end to bolster reserves would make sense, but neither position needs to be a driving concern.

“On the defensive side of the ball, we continue to move toward the needs that [new Irish defensive coordinator] Mike [Elko] needs defensively relative to the positions,” Kelly said. “Continue to develop the back end of the defense, especially at the cornerback position.”

Currently, Notre Dame has two linebackers in each class, and scout.com four-star linebacker Ovie Oghoufo (Harrison; Farmington, Mich.) joins Bauer to make the class of 2018 fit that trend. With Elko’s “Rover” position, though, adding another linebacker or two to the class should come as no surprise.

The other three commits in Notre Dame’s class of 2018:
Consensus four-star defensive lineman Jayson Ademilola (St. Peters Prep; Jersey City, N.J.)
Consensus three-star defensive lineman Justin Ademilola (St. Peters Prep; Jersey City, N.J.)
Consensus four-star running back Markese Stepp (Cathedral; Indianapolis)

Yes, the Ademilola defensive linemen are twins.