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Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers

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This may seem an odd Notre Dame position group to include second in this series, when clarity should be abundant. That’s the thing — the uncertainty about the future of the linebacker corps is so prevalent it borders on certainty. It is very clear, moving forward there will be a lot of questions in the defense’s second unit, with up to three senior starters and captains leaving. Those questions are obvious, themselves. This is not going to be an instance of one or the other. Rather, it will be a “Who?” aimed at the entire positional meeting room.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
Seniors and captains Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini gave defensive coordinator Mike Elko two established starters in the middle of his first Irish defense. It is a good position to be in when senior Drue Tranquill is the biggest question mark of a group.

Tranquill hardly was a doubt entering 2017, but his fit in the new role of rover was an unknown, albeit a promising unknown. To pull from his summary in the summer’s “Counting Down the Irish” series as the No. 7 entry, “Tranquill will now find himself in the middle of the defense. Already a vocal leader as a captain, this will give him a chance to also lead in action.”

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
Morgan and Martini lived up to expectations, at least as much as they could while playing through injuries for much of the season. A shoulder issue plagued Morgan while a torn meniscus cost Martini the USC game.

Including this one of Heisman Trophy-finalist Bryce Love, Irish junior linebacker Te’von Coney made 99 tackles this season to lead the Notre Dame defense. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

In his place that mid-October day and alongside both the senior captains throughout the year, junior Te’von Coney more than stepped forward. When looking to 2018, Coney’s emergence this year could set up for a star turn next fall.

Throughout much of the season, Coney and Tranquill were the best two linebackers on the field for Notre Dame. This was always expected to be a strong unit, and neither of its presumed leaders disappointed, which just goes to show how much Coney and Tranquill progressed in one season under Elko.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING
The entire first paragraph of this section from last week’s defensive line entry is still applicable here: In 2016, Notre Dame allowed 182.4 rushing yards per game (No. 72 in the country), 378.8 total yards per game (No. 42) and 39.0 percent of third downs to be converted (No. 60). This season, the Irish have given up 153.2 rushing yards per game (No. 48), 366.7 total yards per game (No. 44) and successful third downs only 33.5 percent of the time (No. 28). Clearly, each metric improved in Elko’s first season with the Irish.

Clearly, senior captain and former safety Drue Tranquill put together the most-complete of the linebackers’ stat lines. (Getty Images)

Jr. Te’von Coney: 99 tackles; 13.0 tackles for loss; 3.0 sacks; one fumble forced; one fumble recovered.
Sr. Nyles Morgan: 83 tackles; 6.5 TFLs; 1.0 sacks; one fumble forced.
Sr. Drue Tranquill: 74; 8.5; 1.5; one interception; three fumbles recovered; one fumble forced.
Sr. Greer Martini: 70; 3.0; 0; one interception; two fumbles forced.
Jr. Asmar Bilal: 16; 1.5; 0.
So. Jonathan Jones: 9; 1.0; 0.
So. Jamir Jones: 3; 0.0; 0.

COMING QUESTIONS
The first item to be settled is Tranquill’s decision between heading to the NFL Draft or returning for a fifth year. He will have an engineering degree and two surgically-repaired knees. Taking a shot at a professional career as soon as possible would be a decision no one could argue with.

However, Elko and Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly would jump at the chance to welcome back Tranquill. He excelled in the rover position this year, not needing to worry about getting burned by speedy receivers running deep and instead focusing on running downhill and attacking the football.

Regardless of Tranquill’s choice, his heir apparent is not exactly, well, apparent. If needed in 2018, Bilal would seem the most logical candidate, but freshman Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah was recruited with this exact assignment in mind. If he is not ready by September, then Elko and Kelly will hope Tranquill is around to man the position until Owusu-Koromoah is raring to go in 2019.

Beyond the rover, one most wonder who lines up alongside Coney. To be clear, Coney will start, he will presumably once again lead the Irish in tackles, and he will be the binding force of the front-seven. His 2017 arrival was that impressive.

Kelly’s coaching staff has been sure to pursue linebackers in the class of 2018, now with four commitments, including three consensus four-stars. It may be a position where depth is a noted asset, but this would be the most linebackers signed in one class since the 2014 class of … Martini, Morgan, Nile Sykes and Kolin Hill. Sykes did not reach his freshman year and Hill transferred to Texas Tech after his first season. Recruited as a defensive back, Tranquill was also in that class. (Perhaps an added wrinkle to adding to the position in the class, it has been one of quick attrition in the recent past. In 2015, Notre Dame signed four linebackers — Bo Wallace never enrolled and Josh Barajas transferred this past summer, leaving only Coney and Bilal.)

The grouping of Jack Lamb, Shayne Simon, Matthew Bauer and Ovie Oghoufo could speak to some doubt of the current freshmen linebackers, Drew White and David Adams. If so, then the Coney’s compatriot query becomes even more convoluted. Could one of the current high school seniors make that jump from the outset? Such seems unlikely.

At that point, turn toward Jonathan Jones, at least for a short-term fix. Or, just to really throw a wrench into these ponderings, perhaps Bilal steps in at a traditional linebacker position and Owusu-Koromoah is counted on in place of or backing up Tranquill at the rover.

This lack of both depth and experience is reminiscent of the state of the Irish defensive line just a few months ago. Expecting such a reclamation again might be asking a bit much of Elko.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line

Monday’s Leftovers: Brian Kelly on Notre Dame in the Citrus Bowl, facing LSU, & the early signing period

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The second half of Notre Dame’s schedule finished the season with a 51-22 overall record and featured four ranked opponents, not to mention an under-the-radar Wake Forest team and Navy’s triple-option attack. For six consecutive weeks, the Irish had another distinct challenge awaiting them every Saturday.

Thus, the month-plus off between last week’s loss at Stanford and the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1 against No. 17 LSU is a welcome reprieve for No. 14 Notre Dame.

“We probably got a little tired at the end with the six weeks in a row of really tough, quality competition,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Sunday. “It was a long year for our football team, starting back in January.”

Kelly then clarified he was not referring to a physical exhaustion. The diminished November should not be tied to a new strength and conditioning regimen. Rather, Notre Dame tired in a less tangible manner.

“There were no questions about where we were physically as a football team,” Kelly said. “Emotionally and mentally, we had a long year.

“I remember addressing the team the Monday of the Stanford week with so much on the line — a 10th win and a New Year’s Six [bowl game] — and it looked like they were in biology class. They were staring at me like, really? There was no juice, there was no excitement. They were tired mentally.”

As he has for much of the year, Kelly put the onus on himself. While recruiting over the last week, he said he spent much of the travel downtime pondering how to lighten that load and pace better in 2018.

Some of the weariness was indeed physical. Kelly acknowledged junior running back Josh Adams will “benefit greatly” from the layoff before facing an opposing defense again.

The Irish will fit in 15 practices preparing for the bowl game, beginning this weekend before sending the team home for three full days at Christmas. Notre Dame will then reconvene in Orlando, Fla, on Dec. 26. Allowing the team time at home for the holiday is arguably the greatest perk of landing in the New Year’s Day game rather than the Camping World Bowl on Dec. 28.

“It’s great that we can get some work in here, then get a break for our players during Christmas so they can spend Christmas home with the family and then meet back up at the bowl site,” Kelly said. “Playing on New Year’s Day is really good for our football team.”

Some things in this world never change, such as LSU having high-end talent. Luckily [for Notre Dame] some things do, and Leonard Fournette (No. 7) is no longer the Tigers’ leading rusher. Instead, start learning the name Derrius Guice. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
— Of course, facing the No. 17 team in the country is a stiff yet welcome challenge. While this is hardly the same version of LSU that the Irish faced in the 2014 Music City Bowl (a 31-28 Notre Dame victory), Kelly sees one key aspect of the Tigers program that has not changed.

“There’s a lot of similarities in terms of the body types that they bring to the table, but the schemes are a little bit different,” Kelly said, then noting offensive coordinator Matt Canada and defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, both widely-respected in the coaching ranks. “What Dave does on defense is different, and then certainly what Matt does, he has kind of opened up the offense a little bit.

“More schematically, they are a little bit different, but the kind of athlete LSU is attracting, still great players on both sides of the ball.”

Senior captain and linebacker Drue Tranquill echoed Kelly’s comments regarding mental fatigue, citing last season’s 4-8 debacle as having a tangible effect in its own way.

“Any way you dice it up, it was a long season,” Tranquill said. “Having not gone to a bowl the season before, you start your preparation for the next season earlier, and we got after it in winter conditioning and spring ball and fall camp and into this season.”

To hear Tranquill describe “knowing the stakes of each game” in the second half of the season, one might wonder if a loss in mid-October may have allowed Notre Dame to play looser in November. Obviously, that is nothing but ponderings unless there really are infinite universes with each and every possible permutation of existence occurring within one of them.

Notre Dame senior linebacker and captain Drue Tranquill will have a decision to make regarding returning for a fifth year or heading to the NFL Draft. (Getty Images)

— Kelly declined to name which players requested feedback from the NFL regarding their draft status, but Tranquill said he was among the group. The feedback usually comes in shortly before the bowl game.

“What I can get better on, what they perceive as my strengths or weaknesses,” Tranquill said he hopes to learn. “… I don’t know that [it] necessarily will [affect his decision]. Obviously it’s feedback and you’ll take all the feedback you can get.”

To anyone skeptical of Tranquill’s chances in the Draft, there may be a point, but it should be remembered this is a player who has suffered two major knee injuries in his career. If he has a chance at an NFL career, he should not put it off for a year, especially not when he will already have an engineering degree in hand.

— A change to bowl preparations this year, the Irish coaching staff has to focus on recruiting even more in December than ever before thanks to the first early signing period, held Dec. 20-22. Notre Dame’s coaches have always spent the week immediate after the season making in-home visits. That may be more of an emphasis over the next three weeks, as well. That should, theoretically, allow for a more proactive January.

“It’s busier now,” Kelly said. “What it will do is it will allow us to focus on [current high school juniors] a little bit more in January than we’ve had in the past.

“We expect, if our players are committed, they’ll sign in December. If they’re not committed, they won’t … which frees up that time I’m normally on the road in January chasing these guys down for a February signing to really focus on [next year’s class], then the remaining spots that we have left.”

— Kelly indicated if one of the 18 current Irish commits were to not sign in December, he would see it as a sign the player needs more wooing.

Long-time commitment and consensus four-star running back Markese Stepp (Cathedral High School; Indianapolis) came to that decision even earlier, announcing he was reopening his recruitment over the weekend.

Notre Dame still has consensus three-star running back Jahmir Smith (Lee County H.S.; Sanford, N.C.) in the class, not to mention a well-stocked depth chart already on campus.

— This is perhaps a thought to be explored further following the season, taking into consideration where teams land in the final AP or Coaches’ polls, but with LSU becoming the seventh currently-ranked opponent on Notre Dame’s schedule, it seems safe to presume it has been some time since the slate featured so many, including three currently in the top 10.

Monday Morning Leftovers: Notre Dame amid NFL roster cuts; Good for USC & more

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You made it. Football happened. It was as glorious as you remembered, wasn’t it? I hope the wings were properly-marinated, as well.

— While college football was providing a level of drama which was greatly enjoyed but will likely be surpassed in a week, the NFL was working through a much more personal version of dramatics. The “final” round of roster cuts came this weekend, bringing each NFL team to the 53-man depth chart it will carry into the season.

Among former Irish players trying to make their first roster, defensive lineman Isaac Rochell made his way onto the Los Angeles Chargers, though his spot remains tenuous. The quotation marks a paragraph prior around final are because these rosters are obviously constantly in flux. In Los Angeles, defensive end Tenny Palepoi will return from suspension (violation of league policy on performance enhancing substances) one week into the season. When he is added to the roster, it could be at Rochell’s expense.

Drafted in the seventh round, Rochell is joined by undrafted linebacker James Onwualu on the Chargers’ roster. Undrafted cornerback Cole Luke found a spot with the Carolina Panthers.

Defensive-turned-offensive tackle Jarron Jones, also undrafted, did not make the cut with the New York Giants. Rather than spend time with their practice squad, as expected, in hopes he can bring his blocking skills to an NFL-level, Giants beat writer Dan Duggan reports Jones has signed with the Seattle Seahawks practice squad.

— Perhaps the USC vs. Western Michigan game was well beyond dramatic with three minutes remaining and the Trojans up 17. It was then, though, that the weekend’s most memorable moment occurred.

You have undoubtedly seen this by now, but reminding of it cannot hurt. After an interception returned for a touchdown USC walk-on long snapper Jake Olson fired a perfect snap for the converted extra point. Why in the world would that be memorable? Olson is blind.

Just for making that happen, perhaps Notre Dame fans should allow USC is not entirely bad.

Lost in the moment is the praise deserved by Western Michigan and, specifically, Broncos coach Tim Lester. Trojans coach Clay Helton called Lester on Thursday wanting to find a way to get Olson his moment. Lester agreed if the situation presented itself, he would tell his kick block unit to relent on the attempt, but only if the game was already at an agreed upon level of lopsided.

In exchange, USC would not rush Western Michigan’s first point after attempt. That is especially bold, ceding a point at the game’s outset.

— That touchdown, courtesy of Trojans safety Marvel Tell, made the score 49-31. Somewhere I recently read someone predict USC would exceed a projected tally of 43 points this weekend. That same person also mused Georgia should have been favored by more than two touchdowns against Appalachian State and the Boston College vs. Northern Illinois game would not provide the fireworks necessary to reach a combined total of 51 points.

Georgia beat Appalachian State by 21, and that latter game notched only 43 points.

— Injuries are part of football, but it is still always preferable not to see star quarterbacks on national title contenders lost for the year on the opening weekend. Florida State’s Deondre Francis reportedly injured a season-ending patellar tendon injury, leaving the Seminoles to turn to freshman James Blackman.

Deondre Francis (Getty Images)

Blackman, or classmate Bailey Hockman, will have only one game to get ready for some of the ACC’s best. Florida State hosts Louisiana-Monroe this weekend before Miami arrives Sept. 16 followed a week later by redemption-seeking North Carolina State.

Fortunately for the Seminoles, the three-game home stand should provide the freshmen some level of comfort.

— Allow me to be the buzzkill. Excuse me while I ruin the fun. I am here to end the party.

UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen’s fake spike-touchdown to complete a historic comeback over Texas A&M last night was unnecessary, superfluous, pointless and inconsequential. I am not referring to the touchdown itself. It delivered the Bruins a win. I am referring to the fake spike.

Josh Rosen celebrates the winning touchdown Sunday night. (Getty Images)

The clock was not ticking. The previous play, a fourth-and-six from the 20-yard line, ended with UCLA running back Soso Jamabo out of bounds, having converted the first down off a pass into the flat. When Rosen faked the spike, the A&M defenders should have ignored it.

Any Aggies falling for it is more a reflection on their game awareness and coaching than it is on Rosen’s savviness.

For that matter, was it even a catch?

— For Irish fans, Friday night in Boca Raton was a reminder of a Saturday six years ago. The Florida Atlantic debut of Lane Kiffin was elongated by three lightning delays, finally ending at 1:47 a.m. Per the Sun-Sentinel’s Matt DeFranks, there was never a conversation about halting the game prior to completion, even though Navy seemed to have the result well in hand.

On some level, that makes sense. It was a Friday night, there were no classes to get to. Kiffin and the Owls should want to play to win, that is the entire premise of the sport. It is Florida, quick rain storms are the norm.

But it was an hour past midnight with the game clock stopped. One has to wonder at what point those conversations would have begun.

— I have my one and only fantasy football draft tomorrow night. I am woefully behind on research, but I know this much: I will not be drafting any former Irish players with the possible exception of Cincinnati Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert.

It is a two-quarterback fantasy league, something I have long advocated for, but now that only puts me even further behind in preparations.

— As of this typing, no sign yet of a Notre Dame vs. Georgia spread. Possible season-ending injuries to star quarterbacks on national title contenders will often delay such projections, and such is the case with Bulldogs starter Jacob Eason. With that in mind, this is a unique chance to guess the line. Let’s go with Notre Dame by 4.5 points.

UPDATE: With the news freshman quarterback Jack Fromm will start for Georgia, the line has opened with the Irish as 6.5-point favorites this weekend.

— Top-25 polls will come out tomorrow, delayed this week by the elongated weekend. (Thanks Labor Day. That is also why this post is up a few hours later than usual. Why rush on a holiday?) There will not be a separate post tomorrow to inform anyone of the inevitable: Notre Dame will be in the top 25.

Take the initial AP poll, for example. The Irish were No. 28, if counting through the Others Receiving Votes. Nos. 22 and 23 West Virginia and Texas, respectively, both lost. No. 19 South Florida struggled, again, this time against Stony Brook.

No. 26 TCU beat up on Jackson State. No. 27 Utah enjoyed a casual evening against North Dakota. The Irish victory over Temple is far more impressive than either of those.

Rochell drafted in 7th round; three other former Notre Dame players sign

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All the unnecessary draft conversation may have centered on DeShone Kizer, but the quarterback was not the only former Notre Dame player watching this weekend’s NFL Draft with rapt attention. Aside from Kizer, only Isaac Rochell heard his name called. The San Diego Chargers picked the defensive lineman in the seventh round Saturday with the 225th overall pick.

Rochell finished his Irish career with appearance in 49 of 51 possible games and 167 tackles, including 22 for loss and 4.5 sacks. In 2016, he recorded 55 tackles, good for sixth on the team, with seven for loss.

By the end of the evening, three more former Notre Dame starters had signed on with NFL teams as undrafted free agents. It should be noted, many argue the route available for undrafted free agents is preferable to that of late-round picks. An undrafted free agent can choose which of a handful of situations is preferable to him for whatever reason. A late-round pick does not have that luxury, but still makes a comparable salary.

Linebacker James Onwualu opted to join Rochell with the Chargers. Defensive lineman Jarron Jones signed with the New York Giants. Cornerback Cole Luke latched on with the Carolina Panthers.

Onwualu began his Irish career as a receiver before moving to linebacker before his sophomore season. He finished his career with 143 tackles, including 75 in 2016 with 11.5 for loss and three sacks. His 75 tackles finished behind only now-rising senior linebackers Nyles Morgan’s 94 and Drue Tranquill’s 79.

Battling injuries throughout his Notre Dame career, Jones made 105 tackles with 45 in 2016. His 11 tackles for loss were outdone only by the aforementioned Onwualu total.

Luke made 152 tackles in his Irish career, including 48 last season, and eight interceptions.

Three more players from past years’ Irish rosters could yet find an NFL home—long snapper Scott Daly, defensive lineman-turned-tight end Chase Hounshell and running back Tarean Folston. If any or all do not sign, they can still join teams for rookie mini-camps in hopes of making a positive impression.

RELATED READING: Browns pick former Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer 20th in second round

Browns pick former Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer 20th in second round

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After months of pointless chatter and a night spent waiting, DeShone Kizer’s NFL Draft experience ended Friday night when the Cleveland Browns drafted the former Notre Dame quarterback with the 20th pick in the second round, the No. 52 overall selection.

Originally from Toledo, Ohio, Kizer will have the opportunity to earn the starting job for the franchise less than two hours from his hometown. The Browns trotted out five different quarterbacks in 2016, only two of which remain with the team. Rookie Cody Kessler played in nine games, throwing for 1,380 yards and six touchdowns with only one interception while fellow rookie Kevin Hogan threw for 104 yards and two interceptions in four games.

The Browns have since added Brock Osweiler in a trade with the Houston Texans, though that trade was largely-viewed as a cash-for-picks swap, with the Browns “paying” for picks by taking on Osweiler’s contract in which he is owed $47 million over the next three seasons, including $16 million this season.

A year ago, the No. 52 pick (linebacker Deion Jones to the Atlanta Falcons) received a four-year, $4.546 million contract with a $1.506 million signing bonus.

Hall of fame running back and Browns legend Jim Brown announced the selection of Kizer at the draft festivities.

Speculation a year ago pegged Kizer as an early first-round pick. As the draft approached, projections of his slot varied widely, many including a second-round status. Despite first-round theatrics leading to three quarterbacks going in the first 12 picks Thursday night, Kizer had to wait another day before learning where he will start his NFL career. (more…)