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Friday at 4: Football, the common thread of a community

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The lanyard reads “Forever Irish.” Lunch included waffles, pizza and doughnuts. The headache currently hampers attempts to form complete sentences.

That’s right, it’s reunion weekend at Notre Dame. From now until students return in mid-August, this weekend will be the most-crowded on campus of the summer, filled with graduates from 2012, 2007, 2002 and so on.

The catchphrase on the nametags and t-shirts is rather over the top. Forever Irish. But let’s skip past criticizing an obvious marketing campaign and instead jump to the redeeming value of reunion weekend. More than that, the redeeming value of an ever-expanding football program as quite literally evidenced by Notre Dame Stadium itself.

A reunion weekend isn’t my typical cup of tea. Maybe that is a symptom of my general disdain for small talk and past acquaintances acting like great friends. Or perhaps it is hereditary. I am the first of my family to attend a college reunion of any interval.

Within the first 24 hours, I was asked about the football team’s 2017 prospects five times. I, in turn, did my best not to ask how five years at Deloitte or Credit Suisse have been.

My initial aggravation to the gridiron query struck me as self-righteous, so I paused for a drink and pondered why it was so often asked. Certainly, it is part laziness, the easiest form of small talk. As a cynic, that is all I heard to start. But the question, like reunion weekend as a whole, is more than the apparent chatter. It is the thread of a community.

Take that carbohydrate-filled lunch, for example. Andrea asked the question, and I immediately replied, “You don’t really care.” She sharply corrected me. Andrea doesn’t see many of her Notre Dame classmates frequently anymore. That’s what happens when you live in a small New England town. But come fall Saturdays, she finds her way to a game watch. Those are obviously more appealing when the games are entertaining. A win elicits texts back-and-forth with those old college friends.

Andrea may not personally care if the Irish go 11-1 or 8-4, but she knows the boost a good season provides her friendships. A successful fall turns Andrea from an East Coast hermit into a social butterfly keeping up with past connections.

Notre Dame’s reunion festivities create an excuse for all those friends to gather for a summer weekend. The location is rather beside the point.

In an era of bowling alone, of posting 10-second segments of a small concert to social media to prove attendance, of #hashtags, genuine connection is less and less common. Every one of us knows this.

Andrea came to reunion seeing a chance to engage, not a chance to revisit campus. She goes to the game watches more for the potential interactions than the actual football. But it is the football that presents that window.

As this posts, Trevor will inevitably set down a brown paper bag, turn to me and ask if I think Notre Dame will beat USC in October. I won’t want to answer. Whether I say yes or no, I will be told I am wrong.

But I’ll do my best to answer. Trevor hasn’t seen me in a few years, and he knows we will spend a few hours at the same table tonight. We used to get along quite well. Working our way back to that dynamic might need some conversations not entirely about the drinks in our hands. If predicting autumn outcomes has to be that avenue, so be it.

I will not, however, set down my brown paper bag. This headache isn’t going to go away on its own and a Friday afternoon is no time to allow it to linger.

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 78 Tommy Kraemer, right tackle

Rivals.com
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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-5 ½, 313 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Sophomore with four years of eligibility remaining including 2017
Depth chart: Kraemer and classmate Liam Eichenberg engaged in a back-and-forth competition at the right tackle spot throughout spring practice. Kraemer appears to have an edge for the starting honor, albeit a slight edge.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star recruit, rivals.com listed Kraemer as the No. 4 tackle in the country and the top recruit in Ohio, where he was named Gatorade Player of the Year. The Under Armour All-American spurned Big Ten offers from Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin to commit to Irish offensive line coach Harry Hiestand early in a recruitment devoid of drama.

CAREER TO DATE
Kraemer preserved a year of eligibility in 2016. So, instead, here is the highlight video Notre Dame propagated upon Kraemer’s signing in February of 2016.

QUOTE(S)
As Kraemer and Eichenberg alternated practices with the first unit, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly spent much of spring comparing and contrasting the two. When Eichenberg’s requisite 99-to-2 post comes Monday, many of these same quotes will be repeated. Simply put, when it comes to pertinent bits about either of the young linemen, progress was measured as much in its relation to the other as it was in overall growth.

“Those two are the guys we have mapped out at right tackle and they’re going to battle,” Kelly said in March. “… They’re going to keep battling and splitting the action out there.”

Kelly was asked multiple times throughout the two months of spring practices if senior Alex Bars was an option at right tackle. Kelly insisted Bars would remain at right guard, even though he spent 2016 at the position in question, and one of the sophomores would need to step forward as the outside protector.

“I think it’s firmly established at the right guard position,” Kelly said. “Alex Bars is going to be the right guard. I don’t see that there’s going to be any real change there. He was a starter for us last year.

“It’s the right tackle position that continues to be a competitive situation with Kraemer and Eichenberg still working and splitting reps there. Each one of them is a little different. Kraemer at times a little bit more physical. Liam a little bit longer, maybe. Longer translates itself into pass [protection]. Both of them still are on that learning curve but both of them are really good players.”

WHAT KEITH ARNOLD PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
If Notre Dame can redshirt Kraemer, they’d be wise to do so. That’d mean they survived at tackle with Mike McGlinchey and Alex Bars, and also found a starter at right guard from a collection of talent that range from young (Tristen Hoge) to old (Hunter Bivin).

“But Kraemer may be too good not to redshirt. If that’s the case, he’ll likely start out on the inside while backing up both tackle spots, knowing that the depth chart on the outside is shakier than it should be after the early departure of Ronnie Stanley.

“The value of a redshirt (Martin, Stanley, McGlinchey, Nelson) shouldn’t be lost. Especially if someone else can ascend and play good football at right guard. But Kraemer is a building block for the future. The timing is still just TBD.”

2017 OUTLOOK
Kraemer’s slight lead over Eichenberg for the starting right tackle position has some uneasy. The Irish coaches would have undoubtedly preferred to see one of the two — or, certainly ideally, both — emerge as a bona fide seal on the outside. Instead, both delivered an up-and-down spring, leaving the eventual starter open to ready second-guessing.

Kraemer will likely start against Temple (in 92 days, if you’re counting). He will need to earn that gig all over again in fall practice (tentatively, about 65 days away).

From there, if Kraemer can deliver 99 percent of the time, it will be a good sign. That one blown play a game will upset Notre Dame fans, but such the plight of an offensive lineman. Kraemer’s workload will not be too steep as the Irish will likely favor running to the left side of the line behind stalwarts fifth-year senior left tackle Mike McGlinchey and senior left guard Quenton Nelson, both potential NFL Draft first-rounders come the spring of 2018.

That could give Kraemer a chance to ease into the season. At some point, however, offensive coordinator Chip Long, Hiestand and Kelly will need to know they can rely on their right tackle.

DOWN THE ROAD
However Kraemer’s 2017 pans out, his future at Notre Dame is bright. Hiestand’s track record with top-tier talent is too impressive to assume anything but gradual and thorough development from Kraemer. The spring of his freshman season is understandably early in that process.

Hiestand’s success has been so great, it makes comparing any current offensive linemen to their predecessors an exercise in futility. The likes of Ronnie Stanley and Zack Martin were seemingly so unique, asking anyone to match their production is unfair. If understanding that realistic nature of expectations, Kraemer should continue Hiestand’s roll in due time.

He will have plenty of opportunity moving forward, beginning in 2018 when the Irish will be without McGlinchey, Nelson and fifth-year senior Hunter Bivin, the utility knife providing support across Hiestand’s line.


2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
No. 95 (theoretically): Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle
No. 94 (theoretically): Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92 (theoretically): Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 90 (theoretically): Cole Kmet, tight end
No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end
No. 88: Javon McKinley, receiver
No. 87 (theoretically): Jafar Armstrong, receiver
No. 86: Alizé Mack, tight end
No. 85: Tyler Newsome, punter
No. 84 (theoretically): Michael Young, receiver
No. 83: Chase Claypool, receiver
No. 82: Nic Weishar, tight end
No. 81: Miles Boykin, receiver
No. 80 Durham Smythe, tight end

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 80 Durham Smythe, tight end

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-5 ½, 256 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Fifth-year senior with only eligibility in 2017 remaining
Depth chart: Smythe will start at tight end, though junior Alizé Mack could impinge on some of Smythe’s targets in the passing game.
Recruiting: A three-star recruit, per rivals.com, Smythe flipped his commitment from his home state Texas to Notre Dame shortly before National Signing Day 2013. Smythe also considered Stanford and had offers from Michigan and Florida, among others.

CAREER TO DATE
Last year was Smythe’s chance to emerge after preserving a year of eligibility in 2013, watching Ben Koyack man the tight end position in 2014 and suffering injuries in 2015. Instead, the Notre Dame offense seemed to deemphasize the tight end in the passing game, leading to questions if Smythe would return for a fifth and final season.

2014: One catch for seven yards
2015: Three catches for 18 yards and one touchdown
2016: Nine catches for 112 yards and four touchdowns

QUOTE(S)
As much as Smythe was not relied on in 2016, he was a consistent red zone presence and entered this spring as something of a known commodity, certainly so when compared to the other promising talents at tight end. Thus, whenever Irish coach Brian Kelly mentioned Smythe, it was as the leader of the unit as a whole, more than anything else.

“We can play four of those tight ends as receivers,” Kelly said in March. “We think there’s great versatility. We know Durham Smythe has really made great strides. He’s been very impressive.”

Those strides may be late in Smythe’s college career, but Kelly noticed them enough to mention such twice.

“Durham Smythe is in the best condition physically that he’s ever been, mentally and physically,” Kelly said. “With him, Alizé [Mack] and [senior] Nic Weishar, you’ve got a great combination.”

WHAT KEITH ARNOLD PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
I’m sticking with similar projections to 2015 for Smythe, who may be asked to help out more in the running game, but is a rare veteran pass catcher on an offense counting on experience to keep things productive. That’ll likely mean more targets for Smythe as there are plenty of opportunities to go around. Even if he shares the load, it’ll lead to his breakout season, even if it’s a year later than expected.

“If Smythe gets to 25 catches and scores a few times, it’ll be a nice year — with a fifth-year all but guaranteed. And if the Irish ground game continues to roll, it’ll be because Smythe did a great job as a versatile tight end, perhaps the most traditional of talents Scott Booker has had at the position since he took over.”

2017 OUTLOOK
It does not take much of a logical leap to figure part of the reason Smythe prolonged his Notre Dame career was new offensive coordinator Chip Long’s tendency to feature the tight end, even two tight ends, in the passing game. Smythe may not reach the 25 catches envisioned by Keith, and that will partly be because Mack will likely receive a touch more attention from junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush, but Smythe should still outdo last season’s production.

If anything should be carried forward from Smythe’s 2016, it is the four scores on only nine catches. Mack can present the mismatch challenge for defenses leading to chunks of yardage. Smythe can then help finish off drives by using his long and tall frame to secure successes in the red zone.

A year ago, that previous paragraph may have screamed blind optimism. Given Long’s history with tight ends and the Irish bounty at the position, it seems a bit more practical at this point.

DOWN THE ROAD
Smythe’s size means he will likely carry his football prospects as far as they can go. A strong 2017 could elicit some NFL feelers come spring and perhaps, given strong drill testing, a late-round draft flier.


2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
No. 95 (theoretically): Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle
No. 94 (theoretically): Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92 (theoretically): Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 90 (theoretically): Cole Kmet, tight end
No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end
No. 88: Javon McKinley, receiver
No. 87 (theoretically): Jafar Armstrong, receiver
No. 86: Alizé Mack, tight end
No. 85: Tyler Newsome, punter
No. 84 (theoretically): Michael Young, receiver
No. 83: Chase Claypool, receiver
No. 82: Nic Weishar, tight end
No. 81: Miles Boykin, receiver

Notre Dame LB Josh Barajas to transfer to Illinois State

@RedbirdFB
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Death, taxes and summer transfers. Perhaps it does not have the same ring to it, but the annual rite of Notre Dame losing a player to transfer between school years is just as consistent as those two other, more imposing deadlines.

Rising junior linebacker Josh Barajas will transfer to Illinois State, a Football Championship Series (FCS) school. By transferring down to the FCS level, Barajas will not need to sit out a year and will have three seasons of eligibility.

While losing a piece of linebacker depth may be less than ideal, Barajas’ departure does bring the Irish roster to the NCAA maximum 85 scholarships.

“We knew a lot about Josh coming out of high school, having played at Andrean High School with [Illinois State junior tight end] Tylor Petkovch,” Redbirds coach Brock Spack said. “He was a very good player coming out of high school and landed at Notre Dame, but felt he needed a new start. We felt he would be a great fit for our system and give us a lot of flexibility at the linebacker position as a possible pass rusher. He can really play in space outside, but he is athletic enough to play inside or outside for us.”

In the spirit of the time of year and the ongoing 99-to-2 series, let’s take a look at Barajas — who was No. 30 — through that prism.

Listed Measurements: 6-foot-2, 239 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Junior with three seasons of eligibility remaining including the 2017 season
Depth Chart: Barajas faced an uphill climb at Notre Dame as an inside linebacker. For this season, seniors Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini have vice grips on the starting spots, and Barajas had fallen behind others attempting to back up the senior stalwarts, including classmate Te’von Coney.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star recruit, rivals.com rated the U.S. Army All-American as the No. 13 linebacker in the class of 2015 and the No. 2 player in the state of Indiana.

CAREER TO DATE
Barajas preserved a year of eligibility in 2015 before appearing in nine games last season. He recorded no other statistics.

QUOTE(S)
The only mention of Barajas this spring came when he missed a few practices toward the end of March due to illness.

“He got ill and had been out for three days, so he took a step back,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “The good part of it is we’re teaching fundamentals, so it’s going back to the fundamentals with Josh.

“He’s a great kid, we love him, and he got sick, he got ill.”

WHAT KEITH ARNOLD PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
Just reading between the lines and looking at the depth chart makes projecting Barajas’ 2016 difficult. At a shade under 6’2″, he’s less of a candidate to play as an edge rusher, and position coach Mike Elston said this spring that the current plan is for Barajas to work at middle linebacker behind Nyles Morgan.

Barajas spent some time early in spring sharing reps at Sam linebacker, working behind James Onwualu. But with Greer Martini back this fall, those are two very good players he’ll have to beat out, an unlikely scenario even if Barajas looks like a new man. The Will linebacker spot also looks like a job that Te’von Coney and Asmar Bilal will share, with Martini also capable of playing there if needed.

Can Barajas make an impact this season? Sure. But he’ll have to make even bigger strides this summer and fall than he did in his impressive spring.”


2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
No. 95 (theoretically): Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle
No. 94 (theoretically): Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92 (theoretically): Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 90 (theoretically): Cole Kmet, tight end
No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end
No. 88: Javon McKinley, receiver
No. 87 (theoretically): Jafar Armstrong, receiver
No. 86: Alizé Mack, tight end
No. 85: Tyler Newsome, punter
No. 84 (theoretically): Michael Young, receiver
No. 83: Chase Claypool, receiver
No. 82: Nic Weishar, tight end
No. 81: Miles Boykin, receiver

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 81 Miles Boykin, receiver

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-4, 225 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Junior with three seasons of eligibility remaining including the 2017 season
Depth chart: Following spring practice, Boykin appears to lead the charge for the starting position at the W, or boundary, receiver position. Sophomore Javon McKinley provides motivation for Boykin to stay on top of his game on the outside, with incoming freshman Jafar Armstrong likely to take practice reps there, as well.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star recruit, Boykin chose Notre Dame over a number of prestigious offers, including Ohio State, Michigan and Oregon.

CAREER TO DATE
Boykin preserved a year of eligibility in 2015 before catching six passes last season for 81 yards and a touchdown. He saw action in all 12 games, with the score coming against Virginia Tech.

QUOTE(S)
Boykin’s springtime emergence may have caught the Irish coaches a bit by surprise. If nothing else, his steady development in the weight room and on the practice field gives Notre Dame the option of moving junior Equanimeous St. Brown to the X, or field, position, giving the dynamic breakout star from a year ago even more space to work with.

“[Boykin is] tracking the ball very well and catching it consistently,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said in March. “Last year it was about consistency for him. He’s starting to show the consistency that will allow him — he’s very sneaky. He eats up a lot of ground with those long strides. Before you know it, he’s running past people.”

A week later, Kelly trotted out that buzzword of consistency a few more times in relation to Boykin, praising the receiver’s fit into new offensive coordinator Chip Long’s offense and particular preferred routes.

“Miles is starting to build some ‘bank,’ if you will, as it relates to consistency,” Kelly said. “I’m using the word ‘bank,’ he’s putting a lot in the bank of trust. That we can trust he’s going to give us the kind of performance that’s going to lend itself toward playing time.

“He’s been very consistent as a ball-catcher. He’s been very consistent in terms of assignments. His traits have been very evident in terms of attention to detail. His focus has been great. His attitude, he’s been gritty.

“He gets a lot of those back-shoulder throws where he has to go up and get it, and he lands, physically, he gets beat up a little bit. I see him in there getting treatment and he comes back out and makes good decisions.”

WHAT KEITH ARNOLD PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
I’ve got Boykin pegged for the 10 to 15 catch range, with outliers on either side being possible. The optimist in me sees the depth chart and his physical traits. The pessimist in me sees the other guys who have been given shots in front of him and the challenge of leaping someone like [now-junior tight end Alizé Mack] or [former Irish receiver Corey] Robinson if he’s healthy and playing.

“Ultimately, someone is going to step in and be a surprise at the position next year. We’ve assumed Torii Hunter, Jr., will be the leading man. Kevin Stepherson was the freshman spring sensation. And [Mack] feels like the answer if Robinson isn’t going to be able to play after a series of concussions.

“It’s easy to be a fan of Boykin if you watched him as a high schooler and saw his recruiting profile. Now it’ll be up to him to fight for a role at a position that’s one of the most unsettled on the roster.”

2017 OUTLOOK
Boykin’s rise to the top of the depth chart this spring was always a possibility, if not necessarily a likely one following the 2016 season. As Keith pointed out, Boykin’s pedigree kept this result in play despite his minimal role. The question now is, will he maintain this consistency and thus create more opportunities for himself?

If he does, 20-plus catches and a couple touchdowns seems entirely reasonable. If St. Brown and Mack are the top-two targets in the 2017 offense, Boykin will likely be competing with sophomore slot receiver Chase Claypool to be the third. The difference between third and fourth is not all that much. A year ago Stepherson pulled in 25 catches for 462 yards and five scores while now-junior C.J. Sanders caught 24 passes for 293 yards and two touchdowns. The two drew similar attention in the system — Stepherson was simply more of a down-field threat.

If Boykin returns to the ways of his past, McKinley certainly has all the tools to take his spot in the lineup, or St. Brown could move back to the boundary position, presenting more of an opportunity in the field for Stepherson.

Such back-and-forth among the receivers needs to be remembered. In Long’s up-tempo system, Boykin is expected to know the duties at all three positions so as to minimize the time spent racing back-and-forth across the field to reach proper alignment. For that matter, St. Brown is expected to, as well. If Boykin stumbles, there will be options to fill in for him.

DOWN THE ROAD
Boykin’s size alone makes him a piece of intrigue in Long’s offense. Whether 2017 is the season that leads to production or not, Boykin will have chances each offseason to make it happen. His ceiling may not be as high as St. Brown’s after last season’s outburst, but Boykin should fit well as a complement to his classmate.

It is not inconceivable St. Brown could excel again this year and then head to the NFL. If that were to occur, it would probably be partly due to Boykin preventing teams from focusing all their coverage energies on St. Brown. In this scenario, Boykin would have a chance to headline in 2018.

If St. Brown is still around in 2018, that should simply lead to a strong one-two punch among the receiving corps, even if it reduces Boykins’ claim to top-dog status.


2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
No. 95 (theoretically): Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle
No. 94 (theoretically): Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92 (theoretically): Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 90 (theoretically): Cole Kmet, tight end
No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end
No. 88: Javon McKinley, receiver
No. 87 (theoretically): Jafar Armstrong, receiver
No. 86: Alizé Mack, tight end
No. 85: Tyler Newsome, punter
No. 84 (theoretically): Michael Young, receiver
No. 83: Chase Claypool, receiver
No. 82: Nic Weishar, tight end