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Improved conditioning apparent along Notre Dame’s lines; Smith emerges as second receiver

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Irish coach Brian Kelly met with the media Saturday after Notre Dame’s 11th preseason practice. He discussed pertinent topics tying both to the on-field progress of the team three weeks before the season-opener against Temple and to some off-field items. A summary of the latter will come later today, but in an attempt to keep these notebooks quick and organized, this includes only Kelly’s thoughts relative to football-specific items.

On conditioning, specifically among the linemen
Technically speaking, the weight room should probably fall among the off-field bits, but its effects are most-noticeable on the field. Kelly is seeing the most improvement in fitness along the offensive and defensive lines.

One might think senior right guard Alex Bars would be juggling quite a bit this preseason, adjusting to the move inside from right tackle. To hear Kelly tell it, that would be quite an inaccurate presumption.

“Alex Bars arguably has had as good a camp as anybody that we have,” Kelly said. “… In terms of transforming his body in the offseason, losing 10-12 pounds and gaining explosiveness, he has really put himself in position to be an elite player. He moves well. He’s smart. He has multi-position ability.”

To that thought of multiple positions, Kelly mentioned not only the obvious of guard and tackle, but also center, indicating it remains possible, if not likely, Bars would be the first choice for a long-term replacement of senior center Sam Mustipher should one be necessary. Junior Trevor Ruhland has been backing up Mustipher in practices.

“If you ask [offensive line coach] Harry Hiestand, Ruhland has graded out really well which was important for us for a backup center,” Kelly said.

Both Bars and Ruhland are only contingency plans at center, though. Mustipher is not only an established starter, but an improved one. The Irish spent much of Saturday’s practice scrimmaging, running upward of 70 plays, per Kelly. He did not necessarily expect the team to keep up full effort through all 70-plus plays, considering some players may not yet have converted overall fitness into game-shape.

“I told the team, ‘We’re not ready to play today, we’ve got three weeks left,’” Kelly said. “‘But if we’re looking at some things we did really well today, we played 76 plays and we did not have one guy that I felt was not physically-conditioned to keep going today. There was not a drop-off from play No. 1 to play No. 76 with the conditioning element.’

“And Sam was one of those guys at times, you worried a little bit about him in terms of conditioning. There’s no worry about him with that at all.”

An improved conditioning and weight-training program has helped directly across the ball from Mustipher, too. While Kelly recognized he sounded a bit like a scratched record with his constant and specifically-focused praises, he still doubled down on them when making note of senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner, though some of Bonner’s improvements also come from the additional time spent at tackle after playing defensive end earlier in his career.

“He’s just so much more agile, moves so much better,” Kelly said. “[Bonner was] a bit mechanical last year in a sense that he wasn’t as comfortable with the position. He’s so much more comfortable with the position that he’s playing.

“Again, I keep reverting back to this, but correctiveness in his weight training has allowed him to be much [more] athletic in his movements.”

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Kelly’s strongest accolades for offseason improvements under the direction of strength coordinator Matt Balis were reserved for senior defensive end Jay Hayes. Improved physical and mental conditioning may have Hayes ready to contribute, essentially for the first time in his career. To refresh any memories, Hayes burned a year of eligibility late in his freshman season to provide Notre Dame with some defensive line depth amid injuries, making two tackles in three games, before then sitting out his entire sophomore year. Last season, Hayes made 10 tackles in 10 games.

“When you look at it, he’s had to wait for this opportunity,” Kelly said. “He’s had some ups and downs along the way. You just have to be gritty. [Hayes] came in, heralded as a recruit and some things didn’t go his way. He’s had to fight through it.

“He’s a great testament to some of our younger players about hanging in there. He’s in a great place right now.”

On finding a No. 2 receiver

Earlier in the week, Kelly acknowledged how far ahead of the pack junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown is. Behind him, receivers 2-11 seemed to be only a day away from jumping to the top or falling to the bottom. From that mix, fifth-year senior and Arizona State graduate transfer Cam Smith has established himself as the next option after St. Brown. Smith’s institutional knowledge of offensive coordinator Chip Long’s playbook certainly helped his cause, having been coached by Long for three seasons with the Sun Devils.

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“If [St. Brown] has a ticket on the train, [Smith] is getting close to punching his [ticket],” Kelly said, referring to the metaphor he employed previously. “We’re looking for that now. We’re looking for the consistency. He’s been consistent. That’s really what has started to separate him from the other receivers. Every day you’re getting the same from him.”

When healthy, Smith was known as a deep threat at Arizona State, relying on his natural speed to take the top off a secondary. That was the role Kelly admitted he initially envisioned for the transfer. Smith has offered more than that.

“He’s a little different than what I thought. … He’s got strong hands. Physically, as you have seen his physique, he’s very strong,” Kelly said, adding the GPS tracking of Smith during practice shows he maintains his top-end speed at the end of a day, even after logging some of the highest mileage on the team.

His rise to No. 2 receiver positions Smith for the field position, though both he and St. Brown will likely see action at both the field and the boundary in order to expedite any up-tempo aspirations.

Kelly said the rest of the receiving corps continues to move around on the field, looking to find the best fits among a talented yet developing group.

On three kickers
The Irish will likely rely on three different specialists in the kicking game this season, as foreshadowed as far back as National Signing Day. Freshman Jonathan Doerer will take over kickoff duties from junior Justin Yoon, allowing Yoon to focus on placekicking while senior punter Tyler Newsome sticks to, well, punting.

“We don’t want to put any dual responsibility on anybody at this point,” Kelly said. “We want them to take the specialty of that particular position and … be consistent at that one.

“If there’s anyone that kicks at another position, it will be because they mastered one and somebody hasn’t mastered their own.”

Friday at 4: Human nature and opponents’ momentum

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Speculating about past seasons is a fruitless exercise, but it can be used to underscore valid points moving forward.

This week, Irish coach Brian Kelly looked back to the beginning of 2016, noting the difference in team-wide demeanors between that group and the current roster.

“I knew [last year] that we needed to get off to a good start,” Kelly said. “We needed confidence, and that’s not the case with this group. They just need to go play.”

Kelly’s point is a valid one and one implicit with human nature. When things go bad, we start to expect more things to follow suit. After Notre Dame lost in double overtime to Texas, it endured two more one-possession losses in the next three games. Suddenly, the Irish were three bounces away from being 4-0 heading into a two-week stretch of North Carolina State and Stanford. The shortcomings built upon themselves from there.

Looking at this season, Notre Dame’s schedule opens in a much more favorable manner. The second week does feature a stout challenge in Georgia, but aside from that, the first six weeks should see the Irish as distinct favorites. Even against the Bulldogs, Notre Dame will be favored, though by only three or four points. Such an opening stretch could change the dynamics leading into the USC tilt Oct. 21.

“If this team opens up 6-0 like I think they will, they’ll be playing with a lot more confidence level as the season goes on,” ESPN analyst Phil Steele said earlier this summer. “They’ll go on the field expecting to win.”

If granting this overall premise, it should apply to any opponents, as well. Some unexpected teams could face the Irish already flying high, believing in each and every aspect of their games, ready to continue that roll. Some high-profile foes might meet Notre Dame already expecting mistakes.

Let’s take a look at the 12 opponents’ schedules to try to spot who could be trending upward or otherwise when they take on the Irish.

Temple: Notre Dame is the Owls’ opener, so there is obviously no previous indicator applicable here. Instead, let’s note Temple will have nine days to prepare for hosting Houston on Sept. 30 immediately after playing this year’s top-projected American Athletic team, South Florida.

Georgia: The Bulldogs open the season against Appalachian State (Sept. 2, 6:15 p.m. ET). The Mountaineers did take Tennessee to overtime to open last season, so they will not be intimidated by facing an SEC team, but Georgia should be just fine, even if Appalachian State offers a scare for a few quarters. (more…)

Notre Dame lands second WR in class of 2018

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Notre Dame picked up the commitment of consensus four-star receiver Kevin Austin on Friday as the summer recruiting rush nears its end. Austin (North Broward High School; Coconut Creek, Fla.) chose the Irish over finalists Duke, Miami and Tennessee, with Clemson, Michigan, Oregon and many others also expressing interest in him.

At 6-foot-3 and 185 pounds, rivals.com rates Austin the No. 28 receiver in the class of 2018, the No. 141 prospect in the country and the No. 32 player in Florida.

Notre Dame currently has a plethora of receivers but its depth chart remains in flux, especially in the two classes ahead of Austin. First off, junior Equanimeous St. Brown may have the viable option of heading to the NFL after the season, and fifth-year senior graduate transfer (from Arizona State) Cameron Smith will be out of eligibility after this season. Those two departures would and will open up plenty of opportunity.

Of the current sophomores, only Chase Claypool has established himself. Kevin Stepherson remains a baffling question mark, and Javon McKinley has yet to get much of an opportunity. Freshmen Jafar Armstrong and Michael Young only got to campus this summer, but either would need to overcome a deep roster to find extensive playing time this fall.

Thus, when Austin arrives, a chance may be waiting for him or mid-February commit Micah Jones (Warren Township H.S.; Gurnee, Ill.), a rivals.com four-star.

Including both Austin and Jones, the Irish class of 2018 is up to 16 commitments, six now coming this summer. Theoretically, players often like to make a commitment before their high school senior seasons start. It allows them to focus on their own schedule without the added stress and possible travel of recruiting.

More than that — especially considering how many recruits still take their official visits because they recognize the value of a free trip to a high-profile sporting event — with each recruit committing somewhere, it pushes a domino effect forward. With Austin’s commitment, other receivers around the country now see one fewer school targeting the position. Other Notre Dame targets see one fewer spot available in South Bend.

In the remaining handful of openings, the Irish coaching staff will presumably target the troubling void of cornerbacks in this class and the current freshman class, as well as look for at least one more offensive lineman and one more defensive lineman each.

Naturally, as is the case with all 16 commitments, National Signing Day is still a long ways off.

Counting Down the Irish: The Top Five

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This top-five should show where Notre Dame’s strength will be this season: the running game. More specifically, the running game to the left side of the line.

It probably did not take this polling to reveal as much considering the Irish offensive line features two sure-fire first-round NFL Draft picks on the left side, but it is worth noting how the two will be viewed this year. They finished a point apart at the top of these rankings. Brace yourselves for a few months’ worth of wondering if fifth-year senior Mike McGlinchey legally changed his name to “McGlinchey and Nelson.”

Unlike Nos. 6-10, these five have proven themselves on the field. Also unlike Thursday’s five, all five of these players could be gone come 2018. Three will have eligibility remaining, but it is nearly certain the top vote-getter heads to the NFL with a season of collegiate time left on the table while either or both of the skill position players could showcase themselves this year to the point it would be foolish not to head to the pros.

All in all, Notre Dame has a consensus top-five this year. To that end, this annual ranking served its purpose of highlighting the roster’s top-end. Consider this one last nod of appreciation to the dozen panelists for taking the time to partake.

25: Donte Vaughn, sophomore cornerback, 30 points
24: Justin Yoon, junior kicker, 34
23: Te’von Coney, junior linebacker, 50
22: Durham Smythe, fifth-year senior tight end, 50
21: C.J. Sanders, junior receiver and returner, 52
20: Jay Hayes, senior defensive end, 58
19: Kevin Stepherson, sophomore receiver, 78
18: Chase Claypool, sophomore receiver, 91
17: Alex Bars, senior right guard, 92
16: Nick Watkins, senior cornerback, 106
15: Dexter Williams, junior running back, 109
14: Sam Mustipher, senior center, 116
13: Greer Martini, senior linebacker, 129
12: Julian Love, sophomore cornerback, 159
11: Jerry Tillery, junior defensive tackle, 162
10: Shaun Crawford, junior cornerback, 165
9: Daelin Hayes, sophomore defensive end, 191
8: Alizé Mack, junior tight end, 194
7: Drue Tranquill, senior rover, 200
6: Brandon Wimbush, junior quarterback, 231

5: Equanimeous St. Brown, junior receiver, 257 points

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High ranking: No. 1
Low ranking: No. 9
Twelve votes total; unanimous.

To give an idea how stark St. Brown’s breakout sophomore season was, realize a year ago he finished No. 25 in this ranking. This year, even when one ballot mistakenly left him off entirely (later corrected), St. Brown still finished No. 5.

Some Irish fans may read the above reference to St. Brown playing himself into position to enter the NFL Draft and panic. That would be a mistake. It should be read as a positive sign. For St. Brown to genuinely consider that leap this spring, he will need to excel in the fall.

With junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush now the starter, St. Brown will have plenty of opportunities to star even further. It is not that St. Brown did not mesh with DeShone Kizer. Rather, it is that St. Brown has worked with Wimbush for three years, including their freshman season when neither was seeing much action.

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4: Josh Adams, junior running back, 259
High ranking: No. 1
Low ranking: No. 7
Twelve votes total; unanimous.

Unlike St. Brown, Adams’ rise in this ranking is only from No. 8 a year ago. His ceiling may be capped by the talent in Notre Dame’s running back stable. The flipside of that luxury is Adams should still be fresh come November this year. That could be an intimidating concept for opponents considering Adams averaged 7.42 yards per carry last November, closing the season with back-to-back 100-yard games, including 180 yards on only 17 carries against USC.

Adams at his peak may be the Irish at their best this season. But he cannot do it on his own, as illustrated by the top-two finishers yet to come. His impact is easily measured in yards, yards per carry and touchdowns. Nonetheless, their contributions will lead to his production.

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3: Nyles Morgan, senior linebacker, 269
High ranking: No. 2, by two separate voters
Low ranking: No. 6
Twelve votes total; unanimous.

Of the top six, only Morgan did not receive a No. 1 vote. Those all went to offensive players. Maybe that is a symptom of college football as a whole. More likely, that is a symptom of the Notre Dame defense struggling so immensely a year ago.

If the defense reverses that trend this year, it will be under the Irish captain’s direction. Frankly, Morgan may not match last year’s 94 tackles, not with senior rover Drue Tranquill in position to build on his 79 and senior linebacker Greer Martini expected to see more time this season alongside Morgan. He also may not match his four sacks, not with an added emphasis on defensive ends chasing down the passer, led by senior Jay Hayes and sophomore Daelin Hayes (no relation), not to mention Tranquill again.

Thus, view Morgan’s impact on a macro scale. Limiting opponents to three touchdowns per game would be an undeniable triumph, and it would have everything to do with Morgan, no matter how many tackles he tallies and where they are on the field. (Why three touchdowns per game? The low mark of Brian Kelly’s tenure at Notre Dame is obviously 2012’s 12.8 points per game. Since then, the Irish defense’s highpoint came in 2013, holding opponents to 22.4 points per game. That is, three touchdowns and a field goal some weekends, a missed field goal other weekends.)

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2: Mike McGlinchey, fifth-year senior left tackle, 284
High ranking: No. 1, by three separate voters
Low ranking: No. 5
Twelve votes total; unanimous.

Partly out of laziness, partly out of a desire to break in the habit mentioned up top, there is a distinct desire to lump McGlinchey’s entry in with the next one. They are separated by one point, about the equivalent of how much space will be between them on the field.

Fans may flinch at this ranking, citing McGlinchey’s penchant for pre-snap penalties a year ago. They have a point, but that is also the peril of judging any offensive lineman off the times his name is mentioned by an announcer. The other thing to keep in mind is how much praise has been heaped on McGlinchey this offseason. Rarely does a likely first-round draft pick return to college and receive credit for drastic improvements. That has been the case with McGlinchey to date, though obviously seeing it against Temple on Sept. 2 will mean more.

As has been the case with each of the captains, McGlinchey’s impact will extend beyond his thankless duties as a left tackle. Media members, including some of these panelists, noted McGlinchey addressing the Irish following the opening session of preseason practice. For a player who has typically led by example, the outspoken moment was notably out of character.

What has not been out of character is another Notre Dame left tackle excelling. Simply as a thought experiment, it is curious to wonder where the starting left tackle, whomever that may be, will finish in this polling in 2018.

1: Quenton Nelson, senior left guard, 285
High ranking: No. 1, by six separate voters
Low ranking: No. 7
Twelve votes total; unanimous.

What else needs to be said? The left guard plays physical and sound football. He has shown expertise in both passing and running situations. Not only did six panelists place Nelson atop their ballots, but three more slotted him second.

On the inside of the line, Nelson will also assist Wimbush and senior center Sam Mustipher in diagnosing certain defensive looks. As another captain, he will stand next to McGlinchey — figuratively or literally — whenever the team needs to be addressed.

This top slot should not be a surprise. Gauging a left guard’s contribution may be more subjective than looking at a linebacker’s tackle totals or a running back’s average yards per carry, but it is every bit as vital, if not more so. Not every play will reach the defense’s second-level and not every offensive alignment will include a running back on the field. Meanwhile, every offensive snap will give a defender a chance to blow past Nelson and reach the quarterback.

Don’t expect that defender to succeed much in 2017.

The 2017 Counting Down the Irish panelists
Michael Bryan, 18 Stripes
Bryan Driskell, Blue & Gold Illustrated
Matt Freeman, Irish Sports Daily
Tyler James, South Bend Tribune
Mike Monaco, Notre Dame Broadcaster/Reporter
Ben Padanilam, The Observer
LaMond Pope, Chicago Tribune
Ryan Ritter, Her Loyal Sons
Pete Sampson, Irish Illustrated
Evan Sharpley, Irish 247
John Vannie, ND Nation
Joshua Vowles, One Foot Down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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