Tyler Luatua

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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

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.

CB Elijah Hicks commits to Notre Dame

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Just hours after one member of Notre Dame’s 2017 class stepped away, another took his place. Southern California defensive back Elijah Hicks committed to the Irish. The four-star prospect, an all-purpose defender who can play safety, cornerback and contribute in special teams, pulled the trigger just days after taking his official visit to South Bend.

He made the news official via Twitter and recorded a commitment video with Irish 247’s Tom Loy. And even as Notre Dame’s season continues in the wrong direction, Hicks bought in to the message being sold by the Irish coaching staff, picking Notre Dame over programs like UCLA, USC, Michigan and Washington.

A year after stocking up the secondary—Hicks gives the Irish a nice piece to pair with Paulson Adebo and all-purpose athlete Isaiah Robertson. And as we watch Troy Pride, Julian Love, Donte Vaughn and Devin Studstill might a quick impact on the back end, Hicks compares favorably to that quartet, another prospect with elite offers who will come into South Bend ready to fight for a spot in the two-deep.

Hicks told Irish247.com why he pulled the trigger now:

“I chose Notre Dame because on my official visit I felt comfortable and it felt like home,” said Hicks. “One of my favorite quotes about Notre Dame is, ‘Other teams play college football, Notre Dame is college football.’ Coach Lyght, I feel like he could give me the tools that’s necessary to make it to the NFL and have a long career. Also, they have a rich tradition and great academic support.”

Hicks plays for La Mirada High School, the same program that produced reserve Irish tight end Tyler Luatua. He returns Notre Dame’s 2017 class to 18, a Top 10 group by any evaluation.

***

Five things we learned: North Carolina State 10, Notre Dame 3

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Mother Nature won.

Technically, the box score will read North Carolina State out-lasted Notre Dame 10-3. But with Hurricane Matthew twirling its way through the Southeast, the Irish and the Wolfpack were the latest and greatest example that sometimes—national television viewing window be damned—an act of god is no place for a football game.

But that didn’t stop the action on Saturday afternoon. And in the end, NC State made one less storm-infested mistake than the Irish, coming up with the game’s biggest play when Pharaoh McKever pushed his way through Tyler Luatua and Nic Weishar, blocking Tyler Newsome’s fourth-quarter punt as Dexter Wright scooped it up from the slop and took it in for the game’s deciding score.

Let’s find out what we learned.

 

Throwing a football in a hurricane is not advisable. 

DeShone Kizer has, and will continue to have, many wonderful weekends throwing the football. This was not one of them.

Kizer completed just nine of his 26 throws, a red zone interception to freshman safety Jarius Morehead one of the few that didn’t end up splashing to the ground. The elements were just too much for Kizer—and at times, his receivers—to overcome, dropped passes and wobbly misses less the exception than the rule.

All of that makes you wonder why Notre Dame’s coaching staff—a group with roughly 50 years of play-calling or coordinating experience—would continue to throw the football. Postgame, head coach Brian Kelly wasn’t willing to second guess the decision to air the ball out, though he did acknowledged the game plan.

“I feel like we let them down,” Kelly said of the staff’s plan for his water-logged team.

Getting behind the sticks didn’t help. First-down success was few and far between, a few runs short-circuited by Sam Mustipher snaps, missed blocks and blitzing defenders. But after building just a little bit of success on the offense’s final drive with the game on the line, Notre Dame’s offense went down with a dropped pass, dropped pass, Kizer scramble and tackle, and the final, fateful, 4th-and-8 blown shotgun snap.

That’s a game plan for the recycling bin.

 

The special teams nightmares continue. 

For the fourth-straight game, Notre Dame’s special teams have been responsible for an opponent scoring a touchdown. And this Saturday, that proved fatal.

“We give up a flipping blocked punt for a touchdown,” Kelly said. “That’s the difference in this one.”

Perhaps the most startling thing about the punt block was that it seemed almost accidental. An individual effort, not a designed block, was the difference in the game, with McKever powering through Luatua and Weishar before throwing his arm up and getting a hand on Newsome’s punt.

But that’s been life for Scott Booker’s unit. Even if NC State’s special teams battery had far more problems in the elements than Notre Dame’s, the Irish managed to lose on a punt that started with a perfect snap and didn’t feature an opposing team that came after the kick.

 

The Irish offensive line lost the battle in the trenches. 

Brian Kelly did his best to ignore the offensive line’s struggles last week, talking about the 40-point average and the 500-yards a game. Well, on a Saturday where the battle was in the trenches, Notre Dame’s front five got whipped.

DeShone Kizer was under duress all afternoon. The Wolfpack sacked Kizer five times, Bradley Chubb getting three of them, and totaled eight TFLs on the afternoon. They held the Irish to just 59 yards rushing on 38 official attempts. And stat after stat points to the dismal offensive performance—just 113 total yards, 1 of 15 on third downs, 0 for 2 in the red zone—all start up front.

Sam Mustipher had a horrific day snapping the football, whiffing on a wet ball that led to a turnover, air-mailing Kizer a few times with high snaps and eventually ending the game with a premature roller that sunk the Irish’s final offensive play.

A group that features high-end talent, but features four of five starters in different jobs than the ones they had in 2015, clearly lost the battle on Saturday.

 

The offense wasted a great defensive performance. 

If we’re looking for building blocks, it’s the performance of the defense. While the Wolfpack had some success running the football, for the most part the Irish defense stiffened when they needed to, Notre Dame losing a football game without surrendering an offensive touchdown.

Of course, give an assist to the weather. And give another to the field conditions. But also tip your hat to the effort the young Irish defense gave, especially a front seven that held its own.

Jerry Tillery had nine tackles, including a TFL. Te’von Coney and Asmar Bilal paired for a dozen more stops. Devin Studstill was active and a secondary that started freshmen Donte Vaughn, Julian Love and Studstill didn’t give up any big plays down the field.

With Stanford coming to town and looking to challenge the Irish defense in the trenches, there’s at least confidence and a performance to build from. And if that’s the silver lining, expect it to be used to turn this team around for another big challenge in a hurry.

 

With a fourth loss before mid-October, the goal needs to be finding a way to a bowl game.

Brian Kelly’s young team needs a pat on the back, not a kick in the tail. Because this weekend is on the coaching, not the players. And Kelly acknowledged that after the game.

“Kids were in great spirits, great energy. I feel terrible that we let them down,” Kelly said.

Kelly talked about the decision to be in rugby punt, not a standard three-man wall, as one of the major differences. But outside of that one decisive play, it was Dave Doeren that made the adjustments first, not Kelly and his staff.

It was the Wolfpack who went to the wildcat and had success in the running game. It was NC State that had the Irish on the ropes for most of the afternoon. And it was Eli Drinkwitz who found some creative ways to engineer yards when the Irish continued to try and call failed zone-read runs and hitch routes like it was an everyday Saturday out there, not a category two hurricane.

Say what you want about the decision to be play through the eye of the storm as stadium lights swayed, rain torrentially fell, and field conditions became more and more unplayable, but it was the same for both teams. And with multiple scoring opportunities going up in smoke as fumbles and turnovers piled up, a young football team needed a coaching staff to devise a game plan that could find a way to mitigate Mother Nature, if only just a little.

But they didn’t. And now the Irish return home as a 2-4 football team. They stare down Stanford and Christian McCaffrey next. And after a much-needed week off they take on Navy, Army, Virginia Tech and USC, all football games that the Irish could just as easily lose as win.

Notre Dame needs four wins over the final six games to get this program back on track. They need the postseason momentum and the late-season practice that could help jump start spring drills.

Kelly pulled that rabbit from the hat in his first season when he rallied the troops from a 1-3 start. Staring at 2-4, he has an even bigger hole to dig out from.

The odds of doing it look long from this vantage point. But find a way to get to six wins and you very well could find something to celebrate this season.

Irish A-to-Z: Brandon Wimbush

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Notre Dame’s quarterback of tomorrow is Brandon Wimbush. Until then, the key to the 2016 season is making sure tomorrow doesn’t come over the next dozen Saturdays this fall.

Eventually, the Irish staff will hand the keys of the offense off to Wimbush. But after starting his eligibility clock too quickly last year when he moved into the No. 2 role after Malik Zaire went down, Wimbush will now attempt to redshirt as a sophomore, buying some time until the two quarterbacks on campus can hand things over to a signal-caller who might be even more talented.

 

BRANDON WIMBUSH
6’1″, 225 lbs.
Sophomore, No. 7, QB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

An Under Armour All-American, a Top 100 recruit and a first-team MaxPreps All-American, Wimbush was the crown jewel of the Penn State recruiting class until he flipped to Notre Dame.

He had offers from Alabama, LSU, Ohio State, Stanford and many others. He was the Tri-State Player of the Year, the Gatorade State Player of the Year and a state champion in New Jersey.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2015): Played in two games, connecting on three of his five passes for 17 total yards. Also ran seven times for 96 yards, including a 58-yard touchdown run.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Zaire got injured and Wimbush was thrown into the mix. And wouldn’t you know — an offensive package that focused on his elite running skills was deployed.

(I’m done patting myself on the back now.)

In a perfect world, Wimbush stays on the sideline this season, saving a year of eligibility while remaining incredibly involved in the process. While some wondered how long it’d take Wimbush to overtake DeShone Kizer in the depth chart, the reality of the situation is that Kizer’s accuracy and advanced knowledge base make way more sense as a No. 2 than a promising freshman.

Of course, one injury to Malik Zaire could change all of that. And if Kizer slides into the starting lineup, you’ve got to think that Wimbush will be activated as well. It’d be logical for him to immediately get an offensive package, something that utilizes his speed and (after a healthy dose of the running game) would also allow him to throw over the top of a defense.

Brian Kelly’s preference is to always keep a redshirt on a freshman quarterback. He acknowledged that in the past and while he hasn’t specifically laid out his plans for Wimbush, it makes sense here, too. With Zaire on track to be the Irish quarterback for the next three seasons, the battle for the next quarterback job should be a very interesting one, especially with Kizer showing well this camp and 2017 quarterback Hunter Johnson still in the crosshairs.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

When it comes to upside, you can make the argument that Wimbush has the best of any quarterback on campus. And the fact that the sophomore quarterback is on board with using a redshirt season as a sophomore also points to a maturity you really have to like in a quarterback.

That said, the depth chart will eventually force Wimbush to step in and skip the part of the learning curve that includes a young player making first-time mistakes. Because assuming that Kizer or Zaire will be on campus next season, Wimbush will have two seasons to run the offense, likely a fourth-year junior when the fog clears.

That’s plenty of time to establish himself. But it’ll require the lion’s share of his development to take place on Monday to Friday, not Saturdays.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Unless something goes really wrong, I think Wimbush’s redshirt will be preserved at all costs. Of course, an injury to Kizer or Zaire will make that an uncomfortable situation—and we’ll see if this staff is willing to bet on true freshman Ian Book, or if they’ll call on Montgomery VanGorder to step into the mix.

Sooner or later, the quarterback position will go as we think. (Or at least this year, be shared between the people we think.) If it doesn’t and Wimbush is called into action, don’t expect the offense to take too much of a step backwards.
2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston
Mark Harrell
Daelin Hayes
Jay Hayes
Tristen Hoge
Corey Holmes
Torii Hunter Jr.
Alizé Jones
Jamir Jones
Jarron Jones
Jonathan Jones
Tony Jones Jr.
Khalid Kareem
DeShone Kizer
Julian Love
Tyler Luatua
Cole Luke
Greer Martini
Jacob Matuska
Mike McGlinchey
Colin McGovern
Deon McIntosh
Javon McKinley
Pete Mokwuah
John Montelus
D.J. Morgan
Nyles Morgan
Sam Mustipher
Quenton Nelson
Tyler Newsome
Adetokunbo Ogundeji
Julian Okwara
James Onwualu
Spencer Perry
Troy Pride Jr.
Max Redfield
Isaac Rochell
Trevor Ruhland
CJ Sanders
Avery Sebastian
John Shannon
Durham Smythe
Equanimeous St. Brown
Kevin Stepherson
Devin Studstill
Elijah Taylor
Brandon Tiassum
Jerry Tillery
Drue Tranquill
Andrew Trumbetti
Donte Vaughn
Nick Watkins
Nic Weishar
Ashton White
Dexter Williams